“I’m still going…alive and kicking, just about. I’m 37 years old now man” Dublin born Davey MacManus, the songwriter and former firebrand vocalist of The Crimea talks about how he is, but what most people will want to know is where he has been for all this time? “So, I got sick and tired about talking about myself and how great I am (laughs) I’m supposed to be in Africa now; I’m supposed to be in South Sudan, but I agreed to stay to release this album. As soon as I’ve finished that I am going to Africa and I’m not fucking coming back; I’ve got no love for this country man.”
So after six years since their last release, the free download album The Witching Hour, the good news is The Crimea are back with their third 22-track double album, Square Moon; it’s their finest (and perhaps final) statement. A gloriously sprawling kaleidoscopic opus that wondrously spins through the globe from tropical islands, across continents and to the desert trawling through the tragedy of the past to find out what really matters; to look at the world with bright new eyes once again. A bristling soundtrack of tropical percussion, dreamlike soundscapes, woozy whirring instrumentals, laced with feminine backings and backlit by world sounds from the oriental tones of ‘Jellyfish’, the Calypso of ‘You Never Smile For The Camera’, to the joyously bittersweet Parisian pop, found on ‘Mid Air Collisions’.
Davey’s thoughts are consumed mainly upon how his life has now shifted from one stuck on the touring and writing albums treadmill for a major label to a less egotistical and more altruistic life, caring for others: “I needed a change. So I went and became a nurse and I went to work in Africa in two periods of four months each. Working with HIV patients in a shanty town with no running water or toilet, I spent the last three months staying in this slum in South Africa. I was the only white person out of three hundred thousand black people..Louis Theroux came to film one of his ‘Most dangerous places in the Planet’ (in Diepsloot) and he just stayed in his Jeep with his crew, I was there living it!”
“I always wanted to go over there and do some proper work, Western bands don’t tend to tour over there. I’ve managed to get my nursing degree it was three and a half years of hell. I enjoyed the practice but I didn’t enjoy the studying, I’d lost a lot of brain cells along the way with the band I mean I did it and I got a first. But I want to start an orphanage over there I want to be a nurse I don’t want to be a musician any more….” It’s this stark revelation of how Davey’s ambition shifted in the intervening years since 1998 when he was spearheading the urgent sound of The Crockets, that surprises but also enlightens. Davey’s day to day concerns are more about surviving and helping others and thus the music industry seems to be the furthest thing from his mind at the moment and little wonder when he tells you about the brutality he’s witnessed on the continent.
“One was in Eastern Kenya; it was some hardcore shit where they kill a thief for stealing a mobile phone.” Davey recounts, “I wrote a book about Africa and raised over £10,000 and spent the money on instruments I bought, like fourteen drums and thirteen guitars, enough for the kids to have a drumming circle. I bought a snooker table and I bought like ten skateboards to teach the kids to skateboard; there was about ten little black kids and me it was like a proper gang, the only problem was there was no proper surface roads and I used to jump over as many boards as I could and lie down on the ground. You can see the photos on a photo album on Facebook called ‘death of a teddy bear’; it’s like a photo diary.”
It turns out that Square Moon has in fact been in the works for years, years spent in the wilderness it was conceived at a time before he’d left the country to work, and as a way to tide over the time he was studying his nursing degree: “This album is an amazing album ” Davey claims boldly, “I spent two and half years locked in a room on my own writing, it took two and a half years it was the first album that I ever made without having a label trying to tell me what to do or try to influence my sound or lyrics or whole character. It’s the first record I’ve made that I feel fully happy with.” Davy goes onto point out, “We were on V2 and then Warner brothers in America, we did the free album the Witching Hour which I guess you could say was our first release as a free band….”
The bittersweet sounds of The Crimea captured the imagination of many back in the mid ’00s with their debut album Tragedy Rocks. During this time, signed as they were to the major label Warners, the band were feted by everyone, from John Peel for their under rated single ‘Baby Boom’, to the America market when their track ‘Loop Loop’ featured in a television advert for Trident gum. They even had a brush with the top forty with perhaps their best known single, the twisted swaying-fairytale-pop of ‘Lottery Winners On Acid’. But with the major label deals and plaudits came a pressure, one that stifled some of the Crimea’s work: “From the age of 18 up to 34 I was under pressure to write hits the whole time” Davey recalls, “So you go and make a series of demos and the label is like ‘where’s the hits, where’s the hits?’. I had the same pressure with The Crockets, all the pressure was to write hits. You write a load of songs the record company picks two that they think will be a single and you do that twenty times and you end up with twenty songs that end up on an album. This time I didn’t write under the pressure”.
“Freedom, I guess you can say, that’s it’s like searching for the truth; it’s quite a romantic album, maybe I’m a romantic person. It’s looking at the world from a grown up perspective.” Davey notes glowingly when talking about the album’s self exploratory revelations, present on the mammoth track list: “I was just a kid a lot of the time in the past and I guess I turned into a man.” It shows, Square Moon is replete with joyous, life affirming moments that open your eyes to the wonder of the world – like the soundtrack to an epic Japanese anime film that’s yet to be written – on songs like the glorious ‘clinging onto’ hope of ‘Petals Open When Reached By Sunlight’, to the effortless tip-toeing percussive pitter-patters that frame the swooning love letter opener ‘Last Plane Out Of Saigon’, that then flies off into the sunset with the trademark spiky streams of ‘The Only Living Boy And Girl’, and then switches from lilting lullaby to widescreen scorched polemic, decrying all the trappings of modern life, but clinging to love. ‘Jellyfish’ is a stunning moment, dappling xylophones and tumbling tribal drums forage through the forest, the power of the unspoken, telepathic communication of living things.
The delectable power-pop of ‘Mid Air Collisions’, the toe tapping, almost Broadway-nursery rhyme sway of ‘Millionaire’ and the angelic ‘Judas Loves You’ can all be counted as notable highlights. When viewed in it’s glorious whole Square Moon is The Crimea’s most complete statement yet. Davey and the band sounding at home in their own skins, shorn of the pressure of compromise. “It was kind of the album I always wanted to make and I got to be as artistic as I wanted to; there’s no singles on the album.” Davey enthuses, “The influences are kind of the Dark Side of the Moon with the ‘Square Moon’ it’s like a double album vinyl. One side is meant to be dark and the other side is meant to be light. It’s just kind of saying love is real but it’s fucking horrible and the world is a scary horrible place and when you spell love backwards it’s evil. There’s one song ‘The only living boy and girl’ that we think could be a single, you know but that’s it.”
“It’s 22 tracks, it’s a proper double album, it’s massive, we produced it ourselves.” Davey beams. “Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol paid for the album and then the mixing. I don’t know him very well; he just supported us financially as a friend. So it just meant that we could get the album mixed professionally. We used Snow Patrol’s producer and then got it mixed so it sounded hardcore. If we didn’t get a label we would have put it out for free. No, I just wanted to fulfil my potential and I feel I have.”
When pressed on his own highlights from the new double album, Davey is quick to volunteer them: “I really like the first song on the album ‘Petals Open’ – it’s my favourite. It’s just about hope, so it’s like the idea is there’s just like a flower growing at the very bottom of the mid-Atlantic when the sun light gets to the very bottom of the ocean and the petals open and that’s the idea. I’m proud of the whole record, it’s unique; you couldn’t say it sounds like anybody else. I like having an evil lyric said in a beautiful way. I just want it to be so fucking truthful that nobody can doubt that you’ve really lived the experience you’ve talked about that you’ve really been to fucking dark places in order to talk about it. I’ve experienced a difficult life…”
Some bands like to prove how much they ‘mean it’ in a contrived way – earnest solo acts and four chords and the truth – but for The Crimea time and experience have stripped away any kind of pretence. The Crimea are doing things on their own terms and it sounds like they want to share themselves again. “We’ve got our hearts on our sleeves and we’ll live and die for it and people can make their own minds and I’m fiercely proud of it, I really am. I’m kind of proud of not being concerned any more (laughs). I just know in my own heart I’m proud of it! “
Perhaps because it’s not the most important thing in Davey’s life any more, music is now 100% about expression and art rather than anything else: “With all this African stuff in my life now music pales into insignificance,. Out there I was playing music every fucking night around the campfire, around the kids in the ghetto, playing without a microphone and being a real story teller. I really enjoyed that really projecting your voice.”
Davey has always had a unique lilting Irish tinged vocals that pierces holes in darkness – similar to vocalists like Conor Oberst or Eliott Smith. It’s one that’s racked with both the pain of the past and in awe of nature and love; wrestled with life’s problems yet coming out on top; a voice that’s grown up; a voice rippling with imagination, regret and wonder all at once. “You can hear the weight of experience in it now it sounds like it’s been across the desert or something”, Davey talks about how his voice has matured from one that used to grapple with every racked note to one that sounds at times effortless and piercing. It’s with this he tackles each of his couplets; rife with brutal honesty, throbbing heart and constantly surprising surreal vivid creative imagery, like trawling through your past subconsciousness – every waking moment of your life – and piecing it all together, waking up and letting reality rush back in. It’s this ability to come at each lyric, juxtaposed by these uplifting widescreen soundscapes that makes it unique: “I spend days and days and days, every single line is a battle until I can get something. It’s an obsession of mine. “
Prime examples of this method can be found on the already mentioned, delightfully romanticised, ‘Millionaire’: “You’re always gonna be there/ the space invader in my hula hoop head/ I’m always gonna be your Milky Bar Kid/Your Desert Island Disc.” It’s this kind of lyrical dexterity that is part of the endless charm of the Crimea’s sound, encompassing both light and shade, delving deep and tumbling through metaphors, bright shiny witty imagery and tragedy; rifling through cultural touchstones as broad as Mr Miagi, Polanski, The Kray Twins, The Dead Poets Society and well…the Man From Del Monte, to try and find a sideways way of expressing truths: “It’s one little slight advantage we have over other musicians. I stay awake for days and days and days and I completely lose my mind in order to get to a special place with no body else has ever thought of. It’s all kind of one big thing. Every song has to work and every song has to be a story and the lyrics have to be insanely powerful. ” Album centre piece ‘Lovers Of The Disappeared‘ is but one example, a rites of passage from youth to experience, joyously leafing through and questioning the history of man whilst ultimately realising that you can do anything as long as the one clasping onto your hand is at your side: “Just can’t imagine tomorrow/on the sunny side of sorrow/where were the architects of our destruction….?”
Not feeling the need to approach labels to release Square Moon, The Crimea were quite prepared to release it for free again, but fine independent imprint Alcopop records agreed to help them put it out: “We’ve always done alright and survived but commercially I don’t know. A lot of my friends who are famous rich musicians aren’t very happy,. It’s just nice to make a record where you don’t feel threatened and make something I feel proud of. ” Davey says sounding genuinely at peace, “I feel like I can die happy now. I feel like I’ve closed a chapter and you know I’m going to Africa and I’m not coming back and I’m gonna have coffee kids, Nescafe I think they call them, that’s my distant dream anyway. I’ve practically got a whole fucking village over there! It’s so much easier to worry about other people than to worry about yourself!” Davy concedes, “In Africa I can work a 16 hour day without even thinking or worrying. There’ s so much fucking devastation and pain and in my work over there I can really help people. Whereas over here they’re so fucking spoilt they don’t even know how to say please and thank you when they’re serving you a coffee, whereas over there the my whole life has fucking changed.”
“I spent all summer working with this ten year old girl from her own father who she shared a bed with made her pregnant and gave her HIV. I spent all summer working with her for three and a half months. First of all there was no fucking orphanage – the nearest one was like three miles down the road. They used to beat this kid and burn her legs with plastic. I spent all summer trying to get her into care and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I just thought ‘fucking hell’ I am going over to Africa and set up a orphanage it’s gonna be an orphanage with a recording studio and a skate park! “ He wrtote two books about each of his summers spent in Africa (one entitled ‘Fear of Sky’) that document his time there in a blog. Davey is planning to go back to Sudan to work in a field hospital made of tents,. But don’t fear that this is the last you’ve heard of him yet – his life may have changed but music will still play a part in his life; it just maybe not in the traditional confines of a band any more – he has more altruistic intentions: “Man, I’ve got the most amazing songs. I’ll never stop writing. My life has changed now; it’s not about me any more,. My whole life is about making money for these kids and this is what I want to do.”
The Crimea release ‘Square Moon’, a double album on 12″, on the 29th of July.
The Crimea play the following shows this Summer: