Issue #86 September 10th - 23rd 2004
An interview with the Metric Mile
The Stolen Day
The Essex Green (Everything is Green L.P.)
Metric Mile Interview
If, like me, you spend all day on the internet reading music reviews, pinching other people's words, stealing other people's thoughts and living other people's lives then maybe The Metric Mile are your new favourite band too.
Back in the dim murky past of, well, about 3 months ago, I wrote this in an unusual giddy rush of excitement. Since then all the words have been learnt and song titles committed to memory, sitting comfortably next to the same head full of feelings.
And when I listen to their record I like to think of Jeff and Patrick, who make up The Metric Mile, duffle coated up, browbeaten and constantly scribbling in dairies because that's just the sort of music they make. But, of course, I could be wrong and they may well be beating the streets and subways of New York wearing trousers made from bin bags fashionably ripped around the kneecaps because, tragically enough, in my tiny brain, that's what I think people do in New York.
So, tell me what the hell do I know? I thought if I could just ask a few questions then maybe I'd know something. So, one hastily scribbled email heralded some beautifully written answers amazingly similar to what your about to read next.
"We recently went through a Felt love fest," begins Patrick.
And with that, I settled down for email full of glorious twee admissions, until suddenly...
"Patrick had a Hawkwind phase recently that impressed me greatly," announces Jeff.
Erm, yes ok, well, maybe a rummage through the music that sound tracked those tricky teenage years might be more enlightening.
"I guess I cut my teeth on R.E.M., and then I tried to find everything even remotely connected to them" Jeff explains.
Jeff, who takes care of all the guitar, bass and vocals in the band, explains further:
"I checked Velvet Underground records out of the public library, and I stayed up late to watch 120 minutes on MTV. This is like 6th grade, so I was 11 or 12. I thought Jesus Jones and EMF were extremely important artists. I wanted to dress like English guys trying to dress like American skateboarders, but I don't think I was aware of skateboarding as something that people did. I loved Pavement, Sebadoh, Sonic Youth, and also My Bloody Valentine. And the Smiths, thank god for the Smiths" he adds.
"I got into music relatively late, probably 14 or 15 years old" says Patrick, who is responsible for the wondrous keyboards.
"My first informed, non-child music purchases were Bob Dylan records and I was also really into The Graduate soundtrack, which I borrowed from a friend's parents and never gave back. I used to listen to 'Scarborough Fair' and 'April Come She Will' over and over again while reading Piers Anthony novels. At some point I was introduced to Boredoms and Japanese Noise, age 15 or 16. So I went from Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel to Boredoms and Massona. About the same time, maybe a little later, I became interested in indie-pop. To this date my biggest formative pop influences are The Magnetic Fields, Rocketship, and The Cat's Miaow. Not to embarrass The Cat's Miaow, but I can't say enough about how great they are" he explains.
"What those influences say about The Metric Mile sound, I don't know" he adds.
Oh believe me Patrick, they say just about everything. So apart from your musical influences, what else defines the sound you make?
"Patrick and I have been writing songs together since we formed the Small Scores in 1998. I think that our sound as the Metric Mile has a lot to do with the fact that we have had a lot of time to develop a certain palette of things that work, and that our experience writing songs together for so long has a much stronger influence than any other bands or songwriters that we admire. Obviously, though, we're both big record collectors and the directions that we've followed have been influenced by the things that have resonated with us in our listening. I think we're probably a part of the last wave of musical obsessives who did not have the internet to find out about bands and things"
Jesus, I'd hate to think we may be the last generation to spend hours hunting high and low through record shops. To think kids growing up now could miss out on that is a little sad don't you think?
"I do think it's a little sad. I think for the small minority of us who have the patience to seek out music that isn't presented directly for consumption, there is a feeling that's lost. Part of what makes that process of seeking out worthwhile is the occasional random discovery of something that no one else knows about. From our perspective, though, we're happy to have people discover us through the internet, since we only have the means to make a small number of CDs, and without the internet it would take decades for that small number to filter out to people who might appreciate them. And we just don't have that kind of time!" says Jeff.
Of course, if I'd been thinking straight, or even at all, I'd have found a hefty clue to The Metric Mile's musical pedigree on their website. There you can download a cover version of 'Trees and Flowers' originally by Strawberry Switchblade. A song which, any indie-pop kid who had there formative musical years in the early nineties inevitably came across when tracing the lines back to the start of the eighties, Glasgow bands, the Postcard label e.t.c.
Tell me, how did you end up covering 'Trees and Flowers'?
"Patrick had a Japanese import of their album that he was always trying to get me to listen to. I was a little put off by it because of the cover, but now I realize how brilliant it is. When I started to learn more about the scene that was happening in Scotland in the early 80's, I figured that anything that Bill Drummond was involved with was worth a more careful listen. 'Trees and Flowers' is an absolutely incredible song, the way the title and the sound of her voice sound scream 'twee' while the actual lyrics are prototypically punk: 'I hate this, I hate that." We both thought it would be funny to play a song about agoraphobia at a roller-skating party, so I put together the arrangement in about an hour, and by the time we had the backing tracks recorded we were practically done, so we went ahead and finished it. So that's how that happened" explains Jeff.
"We even gave a song the working title Strawberry Switchwerk, a melding of Strawberry Switchblade and Kraftwerk. The song sounds like neither band, oh well" adds Patrick.
The bands first cd-r e.p, 'How to beat the SAT', is available on 'I Wish I Was Unpopular records, run by Alistair Fitchett. How do you get involved with Alistair? "Alistair has a great website, and he uses the word 'whilst.' That's good enough for me" declares Patrick.
"We sent the CD to Alistair because we were desperate for positive feedback, which he provided in spades. Thanks to him, we're probably better known in the UK than we are in New York" mentions Jeff.
He's right about the positive feedback, but Alistair isn't the only one. Since I really do spend all day reading reviews on the internet, instead of working, I've seen a few gleaming reviews popping up here and there.
Inevitably, the forlorn boy vocals, keyboards and chiming guitars have seen The Metric Mile draw comparisons to the Field Mice amongst others, can you see the similarities?
"I can see the Field Mice comparison. We're definitely fans. One of our past incarnations, The He Saids, covered 'Emma's House.' It was undisputedly the best He Saids song ever, except we didn't write it" says Patrick.
"The Field Mice are one of those bands that are so compelling because they never quite managed to be what they thought they were. It makes the songs that really work that much better. Bobby Wratten's vocal phrasing is so bizarre, and the way that he tries so hard to adhere to the rules of the Queen's English in his songs. I love the Field Mice. We have a 'So Said Kay' in us somewhere" adds Jeff.
I was joking earlier about New York being full of ripped bin bags but it is hard to imagine a band sounding like the Metric Mile fitting into the music scene we hear about in England. I can't say I've read or heard much about a New York indie-pop scene either.
"I'm not sure what indie-pop scene exists in New York at this point. There are definitely bands that could fit that label and are variations on the indie-pop type, Cause Co-Motion, the Pathways, Au Revoir Simone, Brasilia come to mind. I don't know whether those bands consider themselves indie-pop. I'm thinking they don't. But is it a scene? I'd have to say no" Patrick says disappointingly.
"I'm honestly excited by the music that some of our peers are making, so if a scene were to coalesce, and we were a part of it, I would be pretty happy I think. Everyone deserves to feel like they are at the centre of the universe when they're young. But there is little chance of indie-pop becoming the next sensation coming out of Brooklyn. The Carlos D's and Karen O's of the world seem to exist in some sort of parallel universe, even if they do ride the same subway trains" says Jeff.
Then he goes on to explain more.
"The reality of being a band in New York City is really unkind to bands like us. We are not natural performers, or promoters, and our music is not the kind of thing that is really filling the clubs right now. And the fact is that if people don't come to see you, clubs hesitate to invite you back, or ask you to guarantee a larger draw than the last time. We haven't really discovered a place that books bands they like with no regard for the bottom line. That said, we've had a few very successful shows, and hopefully if people keep writing about us, and listening to our songs on the website, and telling their friends about us, a greater percentage will be like that in the future."
And with the indie-pop world ready to take the Metric Mile under its limp wrists, people should keep writing. But really, heaven knows what indie-pop means to anymore to anyone, I wish I could think of different phrase.
"I don't think the term means anything to people, positive or negative. It seems like it may be an issue in Europe, but the "indie-pop" community in the U.S. is so small right now that no one can muster up enough enthusiasm for a backlash" explains Jeff.
"Yep, indie-pop doesn't have a great reputation. It doesn't engender much confidence, though I don't think that's justified. Indie-pop has been demonized and mis-characterized by some (I don't want to name names, but you know who you are) in the same way liberal has been slandered by conservatives. It's about time it was reclaimed. I think of The Metric Mile as indie-pop, but we're definitely not all mopes or smiles. We don't dwell on past romances or crush easily" says Patrick, obviously warming to the subject.
He then goes on to breathe the words of a hundred thousand soft-hearted indie boys the world over.
"Mostly, I'd rather not be touched. Basically, The Metric Mile are punk, except that we're indie-pop. I have a distinct fear of people feeling something personal when listening to our songs. You don't relate to us. You don't know us. Fuck you!" Patrick says triumphantly. So there you have it, the Metric Mile are punks with indie-pop hearts after all, I should have guessed from the start.
Songs that make you go silent
"'I've all the colours to make this day a carnival'
"One a clear day you can see forever" Paul said once upon a time, back when we had just started this Friends of the Heroes adventure that we're on and the phrase has stayed with me ever since. I'm very thankful to him for it because now I can tell you: This is why I like September. Because it often seems as made up of little else but clear days - of heartachingly beautiful moments and things that make the world make sense. And you can say I am too young, naive and excitable but I wouldn't trade that feeling of (and these are Paul's words again) "ephemeral perfection" for anything in the world. That feeling or the, perhaps equally ephemeral, conviction that follows it: that I can make it through in this crazy world after all.
How many times have you said the simplest things can be saved by their honesty? Will it ever mean the same thing? I want to think Acid House Kings were only slightly older than kids when they wrote this and that this is the reason why every word they sing is a different colour.
"To us, the Japanese cherry trees is not what they may seem, it may seem like we are dreaming"
It's not that things don't go wrong in September. Life doesn't stop being hard and lonely and I still have days that question my faith in everything, but on one of those I caught myself singing a song called "Enough reason" while walking downhill to the bus stop and I hadn't even had to try for it, and the weather matched my mood and I was thankful.
And how long can you stay in love with a song? How many times can you play the same, eight-minute-long ep? What do these obsessions mean?
"I know it sounds dumb but it is the truth
Cat's Miaow songs are little more than musical snapshots of moments and feelings but the band chose their subjects and talk about them with enough courage and tenderness to deserve the title of the most special band in the world. A celebration of the ephemeral and of the little things that make a difference or mean the world, 'Third floor fire escape view' turns something most people wouldn't even notice into a symbol of sharing your life -or a part of it- with someone and that act, in itself, says more about pop than I could ever say in a thousand words.
I could say that is is beautiful or that is perfect and still it wouldn't mean a thing until you were lying in your bed or looking out of your window and falling for it.
"The letters she wrote all day long, she never showed them to anyone. Is there someone in there who could show her how to have some fun again?"
The little things again, along with letters and friends and boxes and paper planes and a guitar Tali White's voice at its best - what more can a girl's heart want? A hit for a weekend and the week that follows it and maybe the rest of my life too. And if I say the simple things are the best and sometimes they are saved by their innovativeness and dreaminess would you know what I mean?
"Make me dream at night/ break my heart on sight/ don't you worry"
About a year ago they had, temporarily at it proved out to be, changed the bus routes to here so that it would take two buses and at least an hour at any given time to get to anywhere and you would almost definetely have to go in the wrong direction first. Everyone hated it for all the obvious reasons but I have fond memories of that time. I would sit in the stupidly shiny new bus night after night with my shiny new discman and shiny new cds as the bys slowly drove through some middle-of-nowhere fields, past shiny new busstops no one ever used and I would occasionally notice a song for the first time and fall in love.
This one's a lullaby and a carousel song too, and Traceyanne and John sing it together but more like members of a choir than like a duet and that is why I fell in love.
"Come with me, we must get out of here. Let's go to Paris. I've never been there, but it looks great."
Another one of last September's songs, because actually this is what I remember most distinctly from that time: the bus rides and the songs in the dark and the things the songs said and the things they made me feel. Somehow it is those feelings that have stayed with me through the last year that have seen me through and made it what is is.
Maybe one day I will stop being in love with Roger's voice but I hope the future will always look like Paris in this song.
"I found that photograph you used to laugh about, it doesn't look too much like me"
The absolute autumn song as Nick said. Romantic and heartbreaking and rather legendary in its own little universe too, not only does it talk about falling leaves but it also captures the mixture of loss and hope September's all about in my head.
Maybe it is because I never really got over being a schoolgirl but despite what the calendar says it is always the last days of August that feel like the end of something and September that fills my head with overwhelming visions of happiness and glittering new dreams for the future.
See, it's not just me, the Radio Dept. say it too:
"Autumn comes with these slight surprises where you life might twist and turn"
Happy new year.
The Stolen Day
It was two when we untangled our bodies and left the house. The sun hit our sleepy eyes and we both blinked and smiled at each other. I wore dark glasses and you wore a big hat. We were two spies ready to uncover the world's mysteries. Actually we were just two kids who had skived off work and didn't want to get caught.
You put on a tape as we drove. It reminded me of the olden days. Of when I was young and foolish and just 19. As the car filled with sound we talked about important things. You told me why you'd made that tape and I told you that I could never understand how people could travel and not know which direction they were headed in.
The light was golden. It shone down over the fells and the trees which were starting to turn yellow. Or maybe they weren't quite turning yellow yet. Maybe we just imagined it because autumn was your favourite time of year and you had told me you wanted to share it with me. I looked over at you and you were smiling and staring at the view even though you should have been concentrating on driving.
We stopped at a posh hotel for some food and I was worried that they wouldn't let us in. Two scruffy kids in bad disguises. As it turns out though it really wasn't so posh and no one really noticed us. I peered at you over the top of my dark glasses and conspiratorially told you that I thought that barman was obviously faking his accent. You nodded and pretended to talk into a tape recorder hidden in your watch.
We laughed and smiled and you told me bad jokes which I pretended to hate. You kept telling them though because you knew I didn't really. You knew lots of things about me and that in itself was enough to make me smile.
As we drove back home my heart swelled. I looked at you and I told you I felt like crying. "You're a girl. All girls cry and they are all scared of heights." You said. You had said it to make me laugh and it did.
I took of my dark glasses and stared out of the window no longer caring if we got caught. We'd stolen the day and lived it well.
I see them everyday. In the mornings, as I bike to work, into the heart of Osaka’s business centre, they are hauling, by hand, wooden carts filled with crushed cardboard boxes, or they are zig-zagging on rusty bikes, with a ton of aluminium cans balanced precariously on the back. Usually, they wear only trousers, and the lucky ones wear shoes. Some are still sleeping, bodies contorted and emaciated under the glare of Sony Tower and the Asia Trade Centre. Businessmen and women emerge from the subway into the heart of the metropolis. They, it seems, do not see them. But I do. I see Osaka’s homeless everyday.
The recession hit Osaka as hard, if not harder, than anywhere else in Japan. 14 years of economic slump have pushed up unemployment and bankruptcy rates, driving the poorest onto the streets. The number of homeless people has ballooned to about 25,000, according to a recent government estimate, up from almost none in the late 1980’s. Activists say the actual figure is probably several times higher. Four years ago, the nation had no national budget for homeless welfare at all. Even now, the whole of Japan has just four emergency shelters. Three-quarters of the homeless in Osaka are men age 50 to 60 -- too young to collect a pension, but too old to compete for a dwindling pool of jobs in construction and factories. Activists say what's needed is a concerted national overhaul of welfare, labour and housing policy.
The number of available jobs for casual day labourers has dropped to its lowest level in 10 years, while the number of public construction projects in Osaka Prefecture is down by 20%. Local charity groups say the decline in work has been matched by an increase in people sleeping on the streets. Doss-house lodgings in the area charge up to 2,000 yen a night (about £11) and 40% of rooms are regularly left empty as workers - with an average age of 54 – can’t afford the price.
And it’s not just the so-called lower echelons of society that have found themselves homeless. The recession has affected the entire spectrum of Japanese society. Sometimes I talk to them. I have found myself talking to engineers, project managers, even a former architect. Since I know little Japanese, they have quite comfortably spoken to me in English. These are intelligent men. And it is, overwhelmingly, absolutely, males that find themselves homeless in Japan. When the recession came, many, burdened by shame at having lost their jobs, simply went awol, left their families, their homes. One theory I have heard is that they descended in Osaka in their multitudes because of its relatively temperate climate. Whatever the reason, one thing seems clear to me; so-called ‘ordinary’ members of Japanese society would rather the problem didn’t exist, and their way of dealing with it is to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.
However, events in Osaka sometimes take an increasingly twisted turn; The Mainichi Shimbun - a local daily broadsheet - reported that Osaka's homeless were increasingly falling victim to a summer terror campaign by local youths. One 67-year-old homeless man was beaten to death by teenagers in July solely because, as one youth later admitted, "we wanted to try out a fighting game for real." Members of local charity group, the Nojukushu Network, have responded by patrolling the streets at night and had recorded countless acts of violence against homeless, ranging from air gun attacks to beatings with wooden sticks.
In purely fiscal terms, Japan is finally beginning to address the problem. This year, the national budget for homeless-related assistance is $23 million, up from almost nothing in 2000. There are also some local programs, and the national government is coming up with a policy stance, expected within the next few months. In cultural terms, and in getting people, as individuals, to recognise their fellow man, there is a long way to go. In the eyes of this gaijin (a term used to denote foreigners in Japan, but which literally- and tellingly- means ‘outsider’), there is still something dark and sinister about contemporary Japan and its attitude towards the socially disadvantaged.
The Essex Green
Picture the scene, the place Haight Ashbury, San Fransisco, the time, end of the summer, 1967. Ray Davies on a rare day off from peddling The Kinks and their specific brand of quintessentially English pop around the States strolls casually into the 'Swinging Hep Cat bar and vegetarian grill', just two blocks up Baker from Buena Vista Park. The place is heavy with (ahem) fragrant smoke. As Ray makes his way through the thick fug of west coast sentimentality, past a table of black polo neck and beret clad Kerouac throwback beatnik wannabes, towards the bar it becomes apparent that he 'ain't from round here' as they say in certain parts of the nation. His fitted Carnaby Street suit, sharp lines, slick, neat hair and subtle aftershave make him stand out like a beacon amongst the kaftan wearing, patchouli scented flower children. Nevertheless he strides forth undeterred. As his senses adjust to the atmosphere he notices the music, a semi funk pop folk rock sound coming from the small stage at the end of the bar. Fronted by soon to be legendary Arthur Lee, Love are the hottest ticket on the Frisco underground scene, and Ray Davies has just had an epiphany. Clean cut pop was no longer the thing here, it was the summer of love and it needed a soundtrack.
All over the city, and soon enough all over the nation the swirling hiatus of psychedelia was taking hold. This was something new.
Now fast forward thirty or so years and hop across the union to Brooklyn on the east coast. With the benefit of hindsight, the opportunity to absorb both of these popular cultures and the ability to merge two quite distinct, yet surprisingly similar genres into an almost unique sound we find The Essex Green. A central three piece, who all re-located from Vermont, and call on the skills of their contempories as and when required, The Essex Green are reassuringly familiar, yet refreshingly unique as they hawk their brand of semi straight laced, semi psychedelic pop.
They have been described elsewhere as delivering 'the most perfect Sunday afternoon record..', and to be honest I find that description difficult to refute. The lazy, luscious harmonies, the saccharine tinged vocals, the gentle, ebbing and flowing acoustic/electric mix which never comes close to conflict, the warm, embracing slabs of Hammond vibrato. The Essex Green seem to have taken all that is good about a handful of influences and made the perfect pop record.
Although it is easy to spot influences, it's somewhat more difficult to impart references. There is the obvious British pop Vs. United States psychedelia sparring, the definite hippy against the mod rebellion; but then there are more subtle strains of country, pop and folk. Current day comparisons may be The Concretes, who themselves have crafted a unique brand of Scando-Pop.
Opener 'Primrose' is a steady, melodic, almost hypnotic pop standard that gradually unravels into chaotic Hammond mayhem, it really sets the tone for the whole of the album. Followed closely by the Pseudo Scando-pop of 'The Playground' with neatly segues into and out of a lusciously seductive middle eight from it's regular upbeat incarnation. Infact, the fast/slow/fast/slow element is prevalent throughout the album, cropping up on a number of tracks; most notably perhaps on 'Tinker (She Heard the News)', where the psyche-mod pop strutting settles and fades only to be dragged back from the edge over and over by a thrilling guitar versus Hammond workout.
Perhaps the finest moment of the record is the title track, 'Everything is Green'. It might sound a bit soft, and indeed insulting to describe a song as 'lovely', but that is exactly what this is. It's a song for long lazy mornings spent in bed, the sun streaming through the curtains, and freshly brewed coffee slowly easing you back to life. It never reaches the punchy, heady, effervescent heights of some of the other songs contained herein, but it sways and soothes, and eases a certain kind of happiness into you. That is good, it is not bad.
'Sixties', and 'Saturday' both keep the tone what can only be described as 'mellow', soft, acoustic, country folk rock numbers that reinforce the sentiments eschewed by the title track.
'Big Green Tree' steps up the tempo once again, before the soothing 'Carballo' brings the record to a stunningly simple ending. It leaves with a satisfied feeling, rather like a nice meal, or good, but gentle sex. Lazy, soft and slow sex, whilst laid in bed, bathed in hazy sunshine, on a languorous Sunday morning.
The bottom line is however this, when I first listened through this record I made a few notes, then on second and third listenings I added to these notes. When I listened to The Essex Green today I just wrote, in big bold letters, right across all my previous notes, the legend...'Laid Back'.
And I think that sums it up perfectly.