INTERVIEW: The Dark Flowers

Jim Kerr, Catherine AD, Dot Allison and Paul Statham tell us about their Sam Shephard-inspired collaborative LP

Last week, The Dark Flowers’ released their first full-length, Radioland. Following up last year’s ‘When Stars Fall’ EP (which you can listen to below), the record is the second release by the collaborative group, started by songwriter and producer Paul Statham back in 2009.

Inspired by Sam Shephard’s 1982 book Motel Chronicles, a collection of autobiographical fragments and scenes prefiguring his later plays and films, Statham brought together an impressive ensemble of previous collaborators with an aim to produce a set of Americana cuts. Featured in the album’s final cast are Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, long-term Statham associate Peter Murphy, London singer-songwriter Catherine AD, Dot Allison, known for her work with Massive Attack, Shelly Poole of Red Sky July, Helicopter Girl and Kate Havnevik.

Underpinned by the in/out phasing of a tuning dial, the Jim Kerr-fronted title track is dressed with the bleeps of errant transmissions lingering in the peripheries. Statham and co make good on their promise of a “dark country record”, as an organ grind reveals itself under Kerr intoning Shephard’s story of a man desperately linked to his lifeline-like radio. Elsewhere, Norwegian singer Havnevik’s vocals turn ‘Fast Forest Rain’s A Ghost Is Born-era Wilco arrangement into something altogether more ethereal, while Pete Murphy’s cut ‘Clean Break’ starts off as ambient soundscape, built on natural harmonics and layered vocals, before resolving into a graceful album centrepoint, laced with gothic chromatics. While Statham cites Brian Eno, Bruce Langhorne and Bon Iver as sonic touchstones, there are also shades, fittingly, of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas theme in the electronic swells overlaid with sharply plucked guitar and banjo.

We talked to Statham, Kerr, Catherine and Allison about the recording of the album and how Shephard’s text figures in it.

What was it about Motel Chronicles that was so captivating?

Paul Statham: Short pieces of beautiful prose that seemed to say or infer a whole different world you could tap into… the visual equivalent of my first impression of Brian Eno’s classic album Another Green World.

Were you aware of Sam Shephard before reading the book?

PS: Yes, Paris, Texas, a great film, for which Sam Shepard wrote the screen play, was also coincidentally a big influence with endless train tracks, neon-lit motels and beautiful characters.

Jim Kerr: Yes, I had read some of his writing and also seen some of the film projects that he had been involved in.

Catherine AD: I was aware of him mostly from Paris, Texas, which I adore, and I’d had an unread copy of Motel Chronicles on my bookshelf for a few years. It was probably an advantage to not be that familiar with his work as it takes it away from the idea of a musical literary adaptation, which I’d done before, and more into the realm of capturing the essence of a particular world that he creates in his writing. It’s actually quite refreshing as someone who usually writes in total isolation to have these fixed and finite parameters for a change.

Dot Allison: Only as an actor.

Do you know if he’s heard any of the album?

PS: Ah, well I tried to contact him at the start as I would have loved him to have read a bit over some accompanying music! However, he didn’t reply, which in hindsight was probably a good thing as he may well not have liked the idea of the album, however small/large the influence of his work – this may have put me off!

It’s a motley cast that you’ve assembled for the record. How did it come together?

PS: Yes they are! That makes me seven times motley, as I have worked with each artist on their respective solo work to varying degrees.

Pete Murphy and myself have been co-writing together for over 20 years from his second solo album Love Hysteria, and are still writing together now, which makes nine albums! Shelly and myself co wrote her first solo album, Hard Time For The Dreamers, and I have done two albums with Helicopter Girl. Jim Kerr I wrote with for his debut, Lostboy album and have continued ever since, while I co-wrote Dot Allison’s single ‘Close Your Eyes’ with her. I have also been friends with Kate for a long time: we wrote a track together that was featured on Grey’s Anatomy and Catherine and myself have recently been writing together. I think that’s everybody covered!

How did you decide what passages you’d use from Motel Chronicles? How did the music develop out of them?

PS: Several factors… Length of the passage being one – not too long, just enough to cause a spark – whether the descriptive element was enough to go on – I cut this down as the album progressed – and whether an unintentional theme was developing. Strangely, the album seems to tell its own story; I think I got lucky!

JK: Paul gave me music to work with, he also sent ‘pointers’ in regard to the background atmosphere that he envisaged should inform the lyric. Sometimes I would hook on to something he had sent. Most often I would just let the music wash over me and see what images it would project within me.

C AD: Paul sent me across a few passages and images with each piece of music that he wanted to influence the direction and feel of the song. I wrote the first track I contributed, ‘No Trains Stop Here’, while I was staying out in Northern California in a remote house overlooking the sea. It was a particularly apt starting point for my involvement in the project, as I’d gone on an extended three month road/writing trip to America, staying in strange old houses with pianos and random motels on long roads to somewhere and nowhere. Inadvertently I seemed to have situated myself right in the middle of Motel Chronicles.

DA: Paul sent me some quotes and asked me to read them and write something inspired by what I had read in even the most obtuse and loose way.

How do you go about interpreting someone else’s words for your own performance?

C AD: I just used the written pieces as a starting point rather than a source of translation or interpretation. The odd phrase here and there would remain intact, but more often than not I’ve just taken the mood, setting or scene into a place where my imagination takes over and moves the characters and story somewhere new. For ‘Indian Summer’ (the duet with Jim Kerr that I think might see the light of day on the next Dark Flowers release) – Jim had already done his verse when I heard the track so there was the added layer of interpreting his interpretation of the text, as well as bringing my own reading of the excerpt. I think each guest has taken quite a different approach to interpreting Shepard’s work, from what Paul has said. Some have stuck quote closely to the original, whereas I was more interested in the text as a vehicle to take me into a world that had a whole raft of new stories for me to tell.

Paul, you’ve cited Brian Eno, Bruce Langhorne and Bon Iver as influences – what did you take from them?

PS: Well, firstly Brian Eno’s Another Green World was first heard by me way back on a Californian beach at sunrise while touring and quite possibly under the "influence" of many different things. This really made the sounds on that album really take me somewhere else. I try and recreate that occasionally, but to ever diminishing returns! Also hints of electronica on Radioland that twist things around a little…

Bruce Langhorne’s instrumental soundtrack album The Hired Hand in its beautiful sparseness and selected palette of instruments was hugely inspirational, also the background wind noise, etc and repeated themes, while Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago had a real rawness in the subject matter and the lo-fi recording and inclusive ambient sounds while still in a more conventional song structure sort of glued the whole thing together.

Did the singers look to any particular influences for your performance?

JK: Thankfully I found both Paul’s music and his direction to be extremely evocative, it influenced me to come up with what I eventually came up with. Was rarely a task to be honest, it all seemed to fall together very easily. It was as though these songs were begging to be made.

C AD: There’s one bit at the end of a track called ‘To England’, which isn’t on the album but I think will also see the light of day on the next Dark Flowers EP, where I jokingly sang in ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton at the end. I guess I kept in mind the idea of a dark country record throughout the process; the idea of emotion and tone in the voice being more important that technical precision. More often than not it was a very quick take or two at Paul’s studio – no time for procrastination!

DA: Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch a little.

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