Thursday, 28 February 2008

A Night in Hoxton

Of course, having been an A&R man for a million years in the 90s, I know a fair amount of folk who still do it. And I went out with two of them last Wednesday for a Vietnamese meal in Kingsland Rd - no, not the predictable Viet Hoa - the much better Song Que at bit further along - check out the soft shell crab, it's crunchy, it's chewy, like a fishy Double Decker, you just don't know where you are!

As we ate, we discussed the ludicrous Guy Hands anti-A&R rant, which I won't go into here, suffice to ask: Is he the new Gerald Ratner? Someone asked me to write something about it for the Guardian so you can read my thoughts here if you like. We also talked about Kill Your Friends, which one of us had read, one of us was reading (me - I finished it later that night) and one of us wasn't looking at on principle. I'll get to it later but in case you're wondering I'm happy to eat my words - it's very readable. Damn.

After eating we wandered down Kingsland road to Hoxton Square to get to the screamingly fashionable Hoxton Bar & Grill. I don't think they do actually grill anything there apart from people trying to get in who don't look like Noel Fielding, but there is a bar and we walked past it, making for the entrance at the back. Then we realised that we were walking past a queue, not just any old bored line of people looking at their watches, no, this queue made loud noises, everyone knew everyone else - it was a queue almost entirely built from A&R people. We found someone half way down it to talk to - I hate doing that, it's like driving in the bus lane and nipping in front of someone who's been queuing up properly for hours. Still, it did mean we got in quicker despite everyone behind us muttering obscenities.

The band we were there to see are called White Lies who are four 19 year-olds from Acton. They used to be a band called Fear Of Flying, who I remember quite liking when I was at V2. They used to sound a bit like The Teardrop Explodes, an exuberant bass player and chunky chords backing a .. well, actually that's where it fell down: the singer, whose voice had all the back-of-throat Julian Cope mannerisms but without any of the character. Also they looked a bit rubbish. Mind you, at the time they had just done their GSCEs and had armies of spots marching all over their faces.

What has happened to their stock in the meantime is little short of amazing. OK, so the acne is gone, they have new management, partially new musical direction and new trousers, but FOF attracted a handful of A&R people who sniffed and left. White Lies on the other hand is wall to wall A&R - and not just scouts, but serious, swaggering executives. In the first 10 minutes as we stood waiting for the band to come on, I saw the A&R men who look after Snow Patrol, Kate Nash, Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Lilly Allen, Kylie Minogue, Babyshambles, Hot Chip and Corine Bailey Rae, plus managing directors and chairmen from Sony and Universal, not to mention cool labels like Nude, Fantastic Plastic and of course Moshi Moshi whose gig it was. Actually the headline act was Semifinalists, who I used to look after at V2 and on whose album I spent some considerable time working last year - did they tell me they were over in the UK doing shows? No, they did not. Artists, eh? Can't live with them...

Anyway, eventually, after what seemed like days, during which time the venue managed to cram in most of London and some of Japan, the lights go down and the band take the stage. They look great, it has to be said. Basically it's FOF without the puppy fat and all wearing black. There is also some serious hair going on - angular, foppish and sleek. They kick off with a song that goes on for days. In a parallel universe they are still playing it. It is stoppy-starty with long passages of single plucked guitar note over Peter Hookish slabs of bass. It's pretty good. The rhythm section are undeniably excellent, the drummer is not only a great player but looks - as my mate standing next to me, who signed Blur said - like Alex James. He's the star of the band. Which is the problem really. The singer hasn't really moved on from FOF that much. He still has the same Julian Cope meets Tony Hadley voice plus he never opens his eyes when he sings, never makes contact with the audience.

After the eighth minute of the first song, my mind begins to wander. I start playing Count The A&R Men which passes the time until song 2, which is much better. Well, much shorter anyway. They have obviously been listening to the Killers but also some of the things which the Killers were inspired by like Psychedelic Furs and The Cars - in fact as we leave later, I spot Ed Bueller the man who produced Suede and spent some time being in The Psychedelic Furs.

We're on our way to another bar where there is an aftershow for a fashion launch. It's like an episode of Nathan Barley tonight. Earlier in the evening, I'd bumped into my lovely friend Nicky, who has gone from sleepy-eyed, shy 20-something to running a very successful fashion PR company. She is hosting a Nudie Jeans launch in conjunction with Amnesty International in a bar along from where we had dinner. Through the windows, I can see inside the brightly-lit room, it's full of insanely young and fashionable types all jooshing around. I see my reflection in its flat cap and stripey scarf and long for a cup of tea and a book. "We're having an aftershow round the corner in The Macbeth," says Nicky, "You've got to come, the Cribs are playing - with Johnny Marr! The Horrors are DJing, there's a free bar ..."
"Great!" I hate the Cribs and The Horrors are unspeakably bad but Nicky is brilliant and well, free drinks, what could possibly go wrong?

Sure enough, that's where we end up. The Macbeth - or The Scottish Pub as I'm sure superstitious locals call it - is a refreshingly ungentrified East London boozer, Dirk or Squiggly or whatever his name is from The Horrors turns out to be a really good DJ and booze drinks are courtesy of those fashionable people at Nudie. It's an evening of lovely serendipity as well: I need a sleeve designer for my Scottish Band (no, I'm not superstitious about them, I just don't want to name them in the blog - I'm sure you'll work who they are eventually!) and I bump into Rob who I had been thinking of contacting but didn't have his number. Retts, who took pictures of my girl band is there taking pics of famous people for Nudie, I tell her the bloke who designed the stuffed animals in the Lightspeed Champion video is there but she doesn't seem impressed. My great friend Bakul is there too - she, Retts and Nicky all used to live together in her flat in Camden in the mid-90s, which became the unofficial aftershow destination. If she's not playing hostess, Bakul never misses a party. Most of London thinks her surname is Plus One.

I end up chatting with Laurence from Domino who I haven't seen in years (not since his label became massively successful) and he's still lovely. We realise we first met almost 20 years as I remind him of our Statten Island Ferry trip with Steve Lamacq during the New Music Seminar in 1991. "1990!" he corrects me. Bimey. It turns out he saw my Scottish band supporting Franz Ferdinand last year and thinks they're good. Funny, I realise for the first time what it feels like for band managers to hear that an A&R man 'quite likes' their act. Fortunately, having 'quite liked' hundreds of bands when I did A&R, I know that this is nothing to get overly excited about, it's a meaningless statement. But hey, Laurence likes the band! Hold the front page! Hang out the bunting! More champagne!

Eventually the surf wave music played by Faris Rotter (yes, that's his name, how could I forget?) gets too loud and the Cribs - with our without Marr - still haven't taken the small stage at the end of the bar so the three of us decide to leave. I give Matthew a big hug (an A&R bearhug as we call it) and then Michael offers me a lift to the tube station.
"What did you think of White Lies?" he asks, putting on the demo.
From my passenger seat, I tell him I thought the voice wasn't something I could imagine many people getting excited about. But you know what, who knows? I've just listened to the Myspace tracks and I'm warming to them. A&R's easy when you're not in the driving seat. That's why everyone thinks they can do it. Michael drops me off at Kings Cross and drives off home, mulling over whether he should put in an offer.


  1. ahhh the wonderful life of you important people!
    I think i get the same from reading your blog as other people get from reading the gossip magazines. haha

  2. Hey Ben,

    Julian Stockton here, hope yer well.

    Having read The Guardian blog I have something terrible funny to tell you about me and Terra Firma.

    I'm still on the same e-mail address.


  3. You're right about many things, Mister Wardle, but no way is Song Que better.

    I call it The Scottish Pub too after being thrown out by an 'exuberant' bouncer. From a gig headlined by a band on my label no less (called Napoleon IIIrd if you're interested in a band who's voice you can get excited about).

    Happy days.

  4. Many thanks for the exciting blog posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you are a brilliant writer. I actually added your blog to my favorites and will look forward for more updates. Great Job, Keep it up.. :)