Bow To Your Audience: a musician’s take on how power is changing in the UK

22467428_10155931856263487_6523157191103245876_oFirst published on The Alternative UK July 27, 2017

As a working musician, at the end of every gig I play, I bow to my audience. I do this because on stage I am in a position of power. I have the loudest voice in the room and these people have respected me enough to offer their attention, support and vocal appreciation. For that, I bow to them – a bow of debt and gratitude.  Those with power should always bow to those without. It’s only by the willing assent of the people that such power is maintained.

In recent years, spurred on by social media, alternative voices questioning received wisdoms and old school power structures, voices that once sat in the political wilderness, are growing in strength. Whether it be standing against the ideology of Austerity, the collapse of the traditional Labour vote in Scotland and subsequent embrace of the SNP, the dominance of Jeremy Corbyn in England or the explosion of new political movements like Momentum, Occupy and The Alternative UK… It all points to a perceptual evolution in how our society views entrenched authority.

The time is approaching to discuss in a wider public sphere, how our ideas of respect and deference are the reverse of what they should be. It’s a simple truth that Rousseau argued for over 250 years ago – “No man has any natural authority over his fellow men.”  And yet humans tend to accept power and truth based on what the rest of society accepts, whether that is the legitimacy of an unelected monarch, or ingrained political/cultural concepts such as austerity or neo-liberal capitalism.

Collective mainstream media silence at the appearance of the hitherto non-existent Magic Money Tree to pay for Buckingham Palace repairs and a Tory/DUP coalition, still speaks volumes about how far we have to go in our relationships with established power. But one look at a younger generation at the forefront of embracing political change – alongside broader cultural memes in gender fluidity and sexual diversity – gives an indication of the threat to established orders.

(And this in turn explains a growing reactionary sentiment from defenders of ‘traditional’ values- Islamic State, Alt Right, Trumpist masculinity and UKIP xenophobia being among the most visible avatars.)

The unexpected UK electoral support for Jeremy Corbyn, a noted republican socialist, is the biggest sign yet that something is afoot.  Success for Corbyn, a man so firmly outside the establishment that he has refused to bow to the mainstream media, a pacifist refusing to bow on national television to the baying hordes of nuclear fanatics demanding he incinerate millions – even if it costs him the top job – demonstrates that unquestioned, mainstream ideologies are coming under scrutiny across the board.

The cracks in the façade of social deference to established power were clear to see as far back as the Scottish independence referendum. The “Yes” vote, campaigning on social justice issues brought worried Westminster politicians north of the border making any promise they could think of to allay a potential separatist victory.

The public’s growing disquiet with Austerity is yet another step in challenging all the other assumed ‘truths’ that those in power insist upon. Similarly the Brexit vote, though misguided, was in many voters minds a chance to reject the ideals of ‘the elite.’ Yet blindly lashing out at those who would lord over us prevents any deeper analysis of our own culpability in perpetuating the way things are.

We should turn our attention to the myriad subtle ways that power structures seek to create deference. Can we stop bowing in our television viewing figures to the privileged children of millionaires on shows like Made In Chelsea, our fascination, our longing for their lives, an act of capitulation and encouragement to those who would have us forever bow to power and wealth?

Systemic cultural change is required – and is possible. It’s what authority fears the most. To bow to anyone or anything because they have “assumed” power, or because social convention or tradition expects it is at best absurd and at worst, an abdication of your own agency in this world.

Maybe the new truth we have to learn, when we finally understand that all is up for rigorous analysis and possible rejection, is this: Bow to no individual or institution. Not to politicians or presidents or priests, not to royalty or gods or millionaires or generals. All these individuals should instead be bowing to you, their audience, the people that allow them to sustain those positions.

This is the great truth that has been covered up, lost in the deification of authority, money and inherited privilege.  Once you begin to question the absurdity of these old-fashioned ideas you will realise one simple truth – We must not bow to the powerful. They must bow to us.


Are we betraying David Bowie’s Legacy?

First published on https://puremoth.com/2016/01/17/are-we-betraying-david-bowies-legacy/

Like many artists working in the record industry I’m on an independent label having had the obligatory major label experience. I’ve seen both sides of the industry at work and am aware of the failings and strengths of each. With this in mind I would like to suggest that if the music world is to celebrate David Bowie’s life then we must address our collective responsibility to the betrayal of his cultural legacy.

Although Bowie was assuredly embraced and cultivated by the very mainstream culture he set out to subvert, he never allowed it to misdirect him (Never Let Me Down notwithstanding.) Like all innovators from the underground, commercial success gave him the opportunity to bring transgressive ideas into the mainstream. In part, thanks to him, bisexuality, ambient music, gender fluidity, dyed hair and much of the avant-garde now decorates the walls of our daily lives.

It’s very easy for a small time indie artist like myself, with nothing much to lose, preaching to the mainstream. I’m hardly the greatest musical innovator. And if you’ve busted your ass to get to the point where you can make a fantastic living through music, you’re probably not going to want to disrupt that.

But how many globally successful artists are out there pursuing truly subversive ideas? I’m talking about the kind of ideas that make parents nervous. Kanye perhaps comes close in terms of musical experimentation but for all his creativity he is still mired in the misogynistic wordplay and materialistic concerns of much hip hop. Lady Gaga dabbles in the same areas as Bowie once did, but she offers nothing new.

On the other side of the tracks, the work of an artist as confrontational and radical as Canadian musician Peaches could, if you connect with it, make profound changes in the way you see the world. But she’s hardly likely to be on drivetime Radio 1 or Saturday Night Takeaway.

The truth is modern commercial artists would struggle to act equivalently. Today rock’n’roll is a sleeker business. There’s a formula even for ‘indie’ bands. If you’re on a major label, hell if you’re on a large independent the situation is the same. Your stylist offers you new clothes, which, being a skint artist, you happily accept. Marketing takes off the rough edges on your press release and singles are re-edited according to radio station ‘feedback’. You can of course say no to all these things. Just don’t expect the label to give you further support should the song fail to chart. The clincher is that you are asked to do these things by pleasant, genuine people who love and believe in your music. These are people to whom Bowie probably means the world. They are doing their best to set you up in the marketplace as they understand it, while at the same time re-enforcing the strictures and conservative nature of that very same market. Any fitting tribute from Bowie’s heirs must recognise this issue and begin to find ways to address it.

Make no mistake, David Bowie was interested in and genuinely cultivated mainstream success – but on his own terms, pursuing his own culturally diversifying agenda. He was lucky enough to figure his career out at a time when the corporations were still unsure how to handle rock’n’roll, before the formulas and the marketing men got a grasp on its appeal and ‘alternative’ fashions became corporatised product. To be David Bowie now would require an artist to stand outside and beyond what the man himself brought to the table. One look at X Factor or American Idol will show you that elements of performance art and gender fluidity are now very much part of the mainstream.

Conversely, for smaller, less overtly commercial acts, the door to the mainstream media is now closed. It is enough these days to play the underground circuit and hope for the occasional television or advert synch to help pay the bills.

Where do we go from here? How does rock’n’roll disengage with the establishment to the extent that it retains the ability to reach millions, yet pursue a subversive agenda? Can commercially successful music be any more than sonic wallpaper for a lifestyle choice?

Bowie’s death is a wake-up call to both mainstream artists, independents and those straddling both worlds. The greatest tribute we can pay him is to keep searching for new, dangerous ideas that inspire young people. Great pop music should corrupt the kids and encourage them to reject the ideals of their parent’s generation in search of a better world. As artists, we need to look at our work and our priorities because right now we are failing his legacy by letting the ‘way things are’ in the music industry absorb the life blood out of the great threat rock’n’roll and David Bowie once offered to established culture.

Eight billion tribes of one

First published on https://puremoth.com/2016/06/21/eight-billion-tribes-of-one/

The great European author and semiotician Umberto Eco once posited the idea that the Erasmus project, so beloved of students wishing to spend a free year at another university in the EU, should be extended to all professions. Far from being confined to the elitism of higher education, it should be offered to all society – from shop assistants to refuse collectors. Concepts of cultural and ethnic differences would be eroded as young men and women from different backgrounds met, fell in love and had children beyond their own countries and ethnic groups, thus creating a sense of Europeanism that might eventually supersede state-based nationalism.

There are roughly 196 identifiable nations across our globe and tens of thousands of different ethnic groups within these nations. By 2025 the UN estimates the global population will surpass eight billion. We sit on the cusp of a new world where nations, reacting against economic downturn and aggressive nationalism, decide either to accept open borders and the influx of other cultures or close themselves off.

What if Eco’s prospective Erasmus idea could instead become a global rather than just a European project? If people from around the world were free to go anywhere, the old argument goes that they would gravitate towards the moneyed western hemisphere.

A recent study by the American Economic Association suggests that a world without national borders preventing immigration would be a world that would see a doubling of global GDP. It would also, according to the Centre for Global Development be the greatest possible tool for fighting poverty.

These liberal compassions that dream up a ‘perfect world’ where everyone has enough money are tempered by our innate sense of cultural identity and perceived threats to it. Without borders protecting ‘our’ economic security, without the proliferation of our own ethnic group as the dominant force in our land, what will become of ‘us’? Compassion gives way to self-preservation.

It is time, as Eco implied, to let go of these old affiliations and search for a way of seeing ourselves and the wider world that is not mired in the tribal structures of the past. We have strong evidence that open borders are healthy for the world economy. Let’s not forget that war between nations becomes harder when there is less of a sense of nationalism for soldiers to feel passionate about.

Our civilisation is founded on rational, evidential scientific thought. It is about time that we applied that to our sense of identity. All that you hold to be dear and true in this world is nothing but the flotsam and jetsam of history washed up on the shore of the present. Cultures and tribes have come and gone throughout recorded history. Yours, the one you identify with, the one that in some circumstances you might fight and die for, is no different. It is chance and circumstance that you were born in a certain country, to a certain family, in a certain political or religious ideology.

If we can begin to dismantle our rigid ideas of ‘self’ and ‘us’ then we might begin to see a world where barriers collapse and a relativist multiculturalism spreads into the heart of the precious institutions we hold so dear and the economic fortunes of the majority of people on this planet improve.

The naysayers would claim that in such a world we would lose our individuality and all become the same – a reactionary argument that is a wilful failure of analysis. Evolution works by mixing and matching different gene pools to create endless new variants. Culture is no different. We are all mongrels in this regard. There is no purity. A world of free movement and the inevitable inter-marriage it brings would not be a world where we morph into a nameless mass but rather a world where we are all even more unique, where we become the sum of a million different influences, none more important and more truthful than the other. That’s the world I want to see. Let’s have an end to a thousand nominal tribes closing their borders and pointing guns at one another. As the human population of this planet soars to almost incomprehensible numbers, we can become instead eight billion tribes of one, marching only to the celebration of our shared and accepted differences.

Frank Sinatra, Future Islands and Status Quo: a musical history of the SNP and Scottish Labour

Originally printed in New Statesman 01/05/15


Just noise?

These days you’d be hard-pressed to find any credible indie rock kids willing to admit they’re Status Quo fans. There are no breakbeats, hip hop samples or underground indie kudos here. It’s just the old guard cranking out the same old hits of yesteryear, pushing nostalgia tours on their ever-diminishing audience.

A once mighty commercial force, Scottish Labour, according to all the polls, are now passé. As far as the electorate is concerned, they have become the Status Quo, minus the ponytails and denim shirts (although perhaps Jim Murphy and Co are missing a trick there.)

How did these formerly psychedelic rebel rockers turn into yesterday’s news? They took their ear from the underground, hooked up with commercial producers to smooth out their sound, and now all they can do is tell the kids that the new music sucks.

Scottish Labour has failed to realise that in the current climate, trying to rubbish SNP policy on austerity or threatening the electorate with another Tory government is the equivalent of Frank Sinatra describing that new-fangled rock’n’roll music as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has ever been my displeasure to hear”. Frank, the kids just don’t care.

A vote for the SNP has become nothing less than a rejection of the current political establishment – a repudiation of the two-party system that only offers voters a choice between Status Quo and… well, Status Quo. That’s not a particularly enticing DJ set, unless you like all your songs sounding the same.

Sturgeon and her nationalists are smart enough to side with the anti-austerity vibe and sing that song in the hope it brings them closer to their dream of independence. Surprising no one but establishment politicians, they have become the first viable mainstream voice of protest to have risen in the United Kingdom since the beginning of the Occupy movement.

While their stance on austerity is far removed from that of Occupy, the political reaction to their slight economic deviance loudly echoes the times we live in. To even question the prevailing austerity wisdom amounts to an act of rebellion so severe it generates horror from both Labour and the Tories.

This time, however, the rebels may have a political mandate that has completely blindsided the prevailing powers. As far as Cameron, Miliband et al are concerned, the anti-austerity tide has found a way to successfully infiltrate the system at the highest level.

You can see why the entire political class and media are doing their best to undermine the democratic validity of an SNP surge in the House of Commons. “Call that music?” they shout at the kids in the street. “That’s just noise! You can’t even play your instruments properly.”

Right now, anyone with a care in their hearts and a stake in shaking up the mainstream about the future of these islands should enjoy clicking on that metaphorical YouTube link to the latest viral music sensation. It’s Future Islands on the Letterman Show, the singer beating his chest, belting out something primal and entrancing. It’s the sound of a pissed off populace. It’s rage at having the democratic voice of the people limited to a binary choice of Tory and Labour.

You could have heard this new song in all the villages and cities of the UK anytime over the last seven years if you were willing to listen. But when you go for that middle ground vote like the big boys of politics always do, you tend to lose touch with real life and your instinct for what really matters.

The SNP’s day at number one will come and go. All great political love affairs eventually sour. That’s understood. But right now, Status Quo is wondering why it’s not cool anymore. It’s because it is incapable of even countenancing the kind of songs the Scottish electorate wants to hear. Right now the freaks and outsiders have stolen their fanbase and there’s not much Labour can do except crank out the old hits and remember a time when its songs used to mean something.

Kev Sherry is lead singer of Scottish indie band Attic Lights. He tweets @KevSherry1

Why I changed from a ‘No’ to a ‘Yes.’

I despise nationalism. I despise patriotism. I hate bagpipes, I hate kilts and tartan and I hate the cringe inducing shouts of “wha’s like us” in bars across the nation at closing time on drunken Saturday nights. I love the other countries we share this little island with. I am not what you could ever call a patriot or a nationalist and I would call myself European long before I’d ever call myself Scottish. I believe in cultural and ethnic integration. I believe in a world where nationalities blur into one another rather than divide on tribal lines. I have been, until fairly recently, a staunch ‘No’ voter. However, all things considered, I now feel I am left with no choice but to vote Yes in the forthcoming referendum.

There are economists on both sides of the argument saying wildly different things. I’m not an economist, and neither are the majority of people who seem to have decided to believe one side of the economic argument because it suits their inherent prejudices (as I did until recently.) This is not a decision the lay person can make based on just economics. It has to be about more than that.

We have the unique opportunity to build something better than the status quo – a status quo that is destroying the fabric of our society, that more than ever in living memory, supports the rich and powerful at the expense of the weak and the poor (regardless, I think it is fair to say, of whatever Westminster party is in power.) To ignore the possibility of changing this, to not at least consider taking that risk of independence, is at best shameful and at worst a disgrace to future generations.

How does anything happen in human history? How do we make the great leaps forward? We take risks. We place our hope in new, heretical ideas. If Albert Einstein had accepted the status quo of physics we could be living in a vastly different world. The same goes for Jesus Christ and Mohammed and Socrates and Galileo. New ideas that are heretical to the established order are fundamental to human progress.

I am not interested in Alex Salmond as a man or the SNP as a party. I don’t care about keeping the pound and I accept that, should the country vote Yes, Scotland might initially struggle economically – as any country would while trying to find its feet. That is not the point. This is bigger than you and me. This is about the future.

This is about more than you and your own wallet and your own ideas of culture and history. This is about more than whether you will have enough money to take the family to Mallorca next summer or to buy a new flatscreen TV. It’s about more than the “shared traditions” you were brought up to believe in.

It is about refusing to accept the pernicious lie that, “we are all in this together.” It’s about making the decision to redefine that phrase. In an independent Scotland, the wealthy and the powerful who comprise the British establishment will no longer get to define what “we” “this” and “together” mean anymore.

I have no idea if an independent Scotland can do all that I want it to, but I have to take that risk. The only other option is the status quo with its interchangeable political parties and neoliberal selfishness – an oligarchy in all but name. As a nation that consistently votes to the left, we can be sure that the policies of the main UK parties will not hold as much sway in Scotland as they do now.

Independence offers us a chance to make a change, to take a leap of faith, to show our brothers and sisters in England and the world beyond that there is a better way of living and treating people.

I urge you not to play it safe and I urge you to think about more than your own pockets. I urge you to see something better in the people around you. I urge you to vote Yes.

Summer music festivals: On the road with Attic Lights, part four

Colin squares up to a bass amp during soundcheck
Colin squares up to a bass amp during soundcheck

The day of our show at the Benicassim festival in Spain and I found myself alone in the dressing room a couple of hours before we went onstage.

There was a knock on the door and two guys introduced themselves and came in. They were in charge of filming the performance and I had to fill out consent forms for them. As they were leaving, Tim and Jim arrived back in the dressing room and I ‘went improv’ and claimed they were A&R guys for Sony and I’d just been offered a solo album deal with them.

Luckily the two guys played along with my charade, even managing not to laugh. They were brilliant. (Thanks guys. You can always rely on the complicity of random strangers to help wind up your mates.) Amazingly I managed to keep this pretence up for quite some time. Well, for a few minutes until one of the guys came back because I’d filled out the wrong form. Busted!

Perhaps me deciding to wear my jacket on stage in the searing heat was a step too far? But I do like my current “Dandy Highwayman” stage gear. I was willing to risk possible heatstroke just so I could look like a foppish Elizabethan criminal. And, of course, carry on the metaphorical baton that Adam Ant has unknowingly passed to me. Next up, I think, should be the stripey facepaint.

The gig was a truly brilliant experience. Great fun and a tremendously enthusiastic crowd. I love seeing people singing along and dancing as you perform. It makes the band play better. It’s like a loop of self-generating energy passing back and forth between performer and audience, building in intensity until everyone is completely hyper and the love is flowing from both directions. Those are the gigs you always remember. General consensus is that we played one of our best ever shows. Attic Lights heart Benicassim. Now and forever.

I even improvised two new shuffly onstage dance manoeuvres that the rest of the band have dubbed, “Magic Hands” and “The Sherry Shake.” We are hoping the “Sherry Shake” will catch on and soon be seen on dance floors around the world. It’s The Time Warp for a new generation. (Actually, it’s probably nearer the hokey cokey if I’m being honest.)

Hanni El Khatib, the act who came on directly after us, looked genuinely worried at the state of me when I came off stage. “You wore THAT jacket in THIS heat? Dude?” I was on the verge of fainting by that point and they kindly handed me some water. They were a bunch of big friendly Californians who were buzzing on a major high having just learned they’d been booked to play one of the biggest chat shows in the US (which I can’t tell you the name of because they’ve not done it yet but I’m sure you could make an educated guess). Great band, great guys. Everyone is so polite and smiley in the backstage zone.

Liam Gallagher is a lovely man. Colin can attest to this having stood chatting to him outside the gents toilets. The slanting gradient of the ground where they were standing was, peculiarly, the subject of their five-minute conversation. Not what you’d expect really. It looks like he’s got a thing for geology. (He’s also really, really tall. Liam… not Colin.)

Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie looked really nervous before his set – which surprised me considering he has probably played more gigs in his life than I’ve had hot dinners.

However, on stage he was completely different. I was standing side of stage during their set and it was truly phenomenal. When hardened roadies, stagehands, soundmen and lighting guys are all standing watching the show with looks of amazement on their faces, you know you’re watching a band at the peak of their powers.

Primal Scream were, without doubt, my highlight of the festival (aside from Scots indie warblers Attic Lights obviously).

The Spanish like to party hard. The final bus to the Artist hotel left the festival at 7am – just as the backstage party was winding down. Not that I was there. The combination of heat and my Dandy Highwayman suit had used up all of my energy and I got the 2.30am bus back to the hotel.

I realised it was time to go when I too, began noticing Liam Gallagher’s slanting ground outside the toilets. Except I was standing at different toilets. And I’m sure the ground wasn’t slanted the last time I’d been there. “Taxi for Sherry!”

It was time to say goodbye to Benicassim – one of the truly great festivals in Europe. Adios amigos. Until next time.

Original STV article http://entertainment.stv.tv/music/233622-summer-music-festivals-on-the-road-with-attic-lights-part-four/

Summer music festivals: On the road with Attic Lights, part three

Kev attempts to recreate the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind
Kev attempts to recreate the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind

A good few years ago, at the very beginning of our career, before we ever released an album, I did an interview with a magazine and they asked me to name my favourite city. Being a wee guy from Glasgow who had hardly ever been anywhere, I said the first thing that came to mind.

Call it pretentious if you will but it just came out. Like Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, dreaming up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. “I couldn’t help it. It just popped in there.”

In a moment of pretentiousness I declared that my favourite city was Barcelona. This has come back to haunt me. This has become my own personal Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I’d never even been to Barcelona before. If you follow these blogs then you are no doubt aware that my having said this to a reporter means that my bandmates have taken great joy in casting this up to me as one of the many ridiculous public statements I am prone to make.

As our plane begins it’s descent to Barcelona airport, this is brought up a number of times, amidst much laughter at my expense.

We arrive at our hotel near Benicassim after a long, hot sticky drive from Barcelona. In the foyer are the band Hurts. I’m a big Depeche Mode fan so it’s kinda cool to meet the modern day heirs to that throne.

They are lovely people. Unfortunately, we’re all so tired after travelling that we don’t make their show. They’re so polite and friendly that I feel really bad about it. But, in the interests of self-preservation I plan to save myself for our own show then enjoy Primal Scream and the Arctic Monkeys.

We sound check at 1pm then I’ve got five hours to kill. I want to go surfing but I’ll need to find a place to hire a board. Then I remember the last time I was surfing in Spain. At this point I should state that I am a total novice when it comes to riding waves.

Last time, I just about managed to cling on to my board and ride a particularly calm wave in to shore. As I climbed up out of the sea, before me stood this beautiful Spanish surfer girl (straight out of a Beach Boys song.)

In an attempt at macho poise I sucked in my stomach and tried my best to look cool. I stood there looking at her. She stood there looking at me. She raised her arm towards me and shouted. “Mira! Mira!”

For a minute the ego went in to overdrive and I thought I “Oh. Maybe she’s an Attic Lights fan. She recognises me!” Then repressed memories of third year Spanish lessons kicked in and I remembered. “Mira.” Verb… Look? Look! Look out!

She was pointing behind me. I turned around at the precise moment a wave smashed in to me at face height and I ended up tumbling through seaweed and saltwater. I struggled to my feet and tried to recover my dignity but Hot Spanish Surfer Girl was long gone.

It would be amazing to find at least half an hour today to get out on the waves and really do my best to embarrass myself again. It’s what I’m good at.

The realisation that we are opening the main stage is both pleasing and scary. I think we all assumed we would be on one of the smaller indie stages somewhere middle of the bill.

We are the opening act on the main stage at 7pm, which is ever so slightly nerve-wracking. It’s a real honour to be the opening act. It’s our job to go out there, connect with the audience and set the festival on fire. Big stage. Lots of space. Our faces magnified to epic proportions on the big screens. People being able to see right up my nose. (Note to self – blow nose before going on stage.)

Holy cow! I’m going to be inflated to a massive size. Don’t you see? This is the moment foretold in my interview. This is the moment I actually become THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN! A giant version of me!

Unlicensed Nuclear Accelerators become guitars and Attic Lights save the world from the threat of inter-dimensional invasion by a Sumerian God! Okay, I’m getting carried away. I’ll settle for a good gig and a happy crowd.

Original stv article http://entertainment.stv.tv/music/233426-summer-music-festivals-on-the-road-with-attic-lights-part-three/