Colorama’s seventh album Chaos Wonderland was recorded at producer Shawn Lee’s ‘Shop’ Studio in London early 2018, in between frontman Carwyn Ellis’ stints touring around the world as keyboardist with the Pretenders, playing alongside Edwyn Collins and releasing last year’s wonderful Welsh-Brazilian hybrid Rio 18 album Joia!
Chaos Wonderland is an exploration and reaction to lots of records Carwyn loves, and anyone familiar with his back catalogue knows the range and depth of that passion. On this record we hear – and feel – that warm affection and bond to songs of drama, romance, psychedelia, soul.
Lockdown was a massive bummer to most, but gifted Carwyn the window of opportunity to bring out not only the ‘Ti‘ EP to raise money to pay for PPE for Welsh health workers, but also ‘Chaos Wonderland‘ at long last. The album title itself he came up with two years ago, pre-COVID, but it feels scarily prophetic. There are parallels between then and now.
‘Travelling around the world and coming home and looking at Brexit Britain but also Brexit wales and I couldn’t get my head around but it’s still a beautiful place and beautiful people. Making the record was balancing what was going on in my environment at the time late 2017, early ’18 and people’s stories. They’re not really about me. It’s about folks lives in a world very unpredictable and strange and depressing if you think about it too much!’
Carwyn and Shawn hit it off working on Saint Etienne’s 2017 single ‘Dive’, and the pair worked on Joia! The men, both multi instrumentalists, found pretty early on that they complement each other musically, having similar tastes.
‘I went to his place (studio) and looking around me realised he has all the things I’ve fantasised about getting on ebay, all the weird little bells and whistles that are a secret weapon for recording. He also happens to have an effect on me winding it back in a regressive sense to a four year old. I would often pick friends who had the best toys,’ laughs Carwyn.
‘I am able to talk to him about the instruments and how they work as devices within a song and a mix. Nothing is off limits and everything is at arm’s reach . The walls are lined with instruments, guitar basses, and permutations of those, synths, drum machines, drums, vibraphone all sorts.’
It sounds like Shawn’s studio is like a musical dressing up box?
‘You know what, I like going into songs as Mr Benn. Spend a day on each song, each day we’d go in and dress up and be who we wanted to be to make the song then afterward we’d put the costume away. And go and get some dinner.’
The respectable suited and booted Mr Benn from kids’ telly in the very early 1970s, bowler hat atop his head, who takes a trip in more ways than one in the changing room of his local fancy dress shop and enjoys adventures in magical lands.
It seems a good idea to ask Carwyn to talk us through Chaos Wonderland, along any Mr Benn costume changes.
‘That’s a proper big psychedelic song. So it’s maybe I get to be (Roy Phillips) from The Peddlers, on the Suite London album. He’s a brilliant organ player they played interesting clubs in London in 60s, a lot of the great and the good would go and see them. Him, crossed maybe The Small Faces. Shawn got to be Earl Palmer or John Bonham on drums.
Thrown together making a psychedelic melange, an imaginary cross between London and west coast in late 60s.’
‘It’s a weird one. You’ve seen the film Badlands, it’s like that, a doomed couple go and rob a card game or crack den and basically robbed the wrong people. They’re on the road, a dusty road, getting way from the bad guys they’ve crossed in Vegas or whatever. This is a musical accompaniment to that. Mostly a tune by Neil Diamond and little bit of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. There’s sitar bits in there, so it’s a dusty road in a far flung part of the world, exotica throw in for good measure.’
‘Me & She’
‘A little bit of The Turtles mixed with Nilsson mixed with De La Soul. With a little bit of English psychedelica rearing its head. I like old school English Victoriana in pop music.
Not sure what Mr Benn would be wearing for Me & She…a mix of west coast pop and east coast Daisy Age pop. Hippy clothes with Addidas sneakers.’
‘I wanted to get some sort of space sound, I can’t remember who suggested it, Pierre (Duplan the engineer) went on YouTube and got the sound of the moon, a NASA clip from outer space. So in background is abstract sound which we were led to believe is the sound of the moon (laughs) so we threw that in there to add some sort of cosmic ambience.
I can’t remember what sci-fi film I saw as a kid but I think it was a character in a sci-fi thing, a 3 headed alien Three degrees basically, their heads on one body. The Three Degrees were amazing close harmony singers anyway. Trying to aim for something along those lines, might be Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers one of those daft early 80s things.
Black Hole is a simplistic analogy of somebody who sucks then energy out of other people, either in a relationship or generally. It’s a female entity this particular one, but it’s not sex specific at all, those people exist all around us. A lot can disappear inside these black holes. Use your imagination.’
‘It’s not musically inspired as such but thematically and scope of it. I worked on a record with Tracyanne and Danny, a beautiful record. They recorded in at Edwyn Collins’ studio, I played bass and other bits. There was an element of kitchen sink drama I like in their songs. Being on that record inspired me to do a song in that world.
The song itself is a young couple waiting for the bus in the countryside, bickering in the rain. Crosville was the name of the bus company in North Wales as kid growing up. Before you were 16 you couldn’t drive so at the mercy of the bus whether they would turn up or not. Crosville were our lifeline in our village. It often happened you’d be in the rain with a hedge for shelter. It’s a couple bickering and one’s saying to the other, shall we hitch and the other saying no we shouldn’t. But they’re getting soaked.
There, Mr Benn has gone back to the late 80s so wearing baggy jeans baggy t shirt but no jacket. Maybe a Slazenger mac.’
‘I’m trying to be a singer-songwritery troubador a la Van Morrison or Bob Dylan.
Made a little song of my own about somebody being laid up, not well, convalescing, and people are visiting but the person they wanted to see hasn’t visited. Everybody’s been except you. You’re great, you haven’t been to see me, I miss you. I’ve seen it with different friends who’ve been laid up. That’s if you can. In the last couple of months you can’t. That’s problematic. Unless you’re a Tory. You can go test your eyes wherever you want. For the rest of us it’s been a tricky time.
At this point Mr Benn is in a smock, in a hospital bed. He’s on the mend.’
‘The lyrics on their own may well come across as nonsense because I came up with a piece of music and I was trying to get lyrics for it and I was looking around the room and I had a postcard on the wall of Meirion Ginsberg’s painting Violin Practice.
It’s a picture of young lass in a pink dress with a real scowl on her face, it has a Latin American feel to it. A basket full of fruit under arm, hair tied back in braids and ribbons in her hair, she’s in her Sunday best, she’s got flip flops on her feet. Next to her is her sister in a white dress and there’s a big rooster in front of them, mountain behind them. The meaning I’m getting from it is that she’s really annoyed at her sister playing the same tune over and over again.
So Mr Benn’s outfit is possibly a pink dress though that’s not my cup of tea, more poncho, observing the scene. I don’t think I’d really be interested in being a little girl in the picture. A poncho and sombrero.
Musically it’s a composition of the arrangements, the instrumentation and little things I cheekily learned from about ten different Rolling Stones songs.’
‘I like having a ballad in each record, ‘cause why not.
I used to be a big fan of Sam Peckinpah films when I wasn’t old enough to know better, they’re terribly misogynistic. But there’s something about Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, he captures ambience really well in film atmosphere as does Sergio Leone so I’m referring to westerns of both directors. (Ennio) Morricone’s not that far away, the little harpsichord is totally inspired by the maestro. I love the sound of a nylon string guitar, that Spanish- Mexican sound being played next to camp fire you hear it in westerns, and it’s night time.
A romantic tune, that feeling of being in a forest somewhere with a loved one with a guitar singing a song by a fire!’
‘Please Tell Me’
‘It’s a souly sort of torch song. There was a couple of singers I was listening to a lot when I was doing it, very dramatic arrangement and songs. Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison, with both each song is a proper technicolour production, the way the drama builds, the tentative intro then gradually outline a context or back story, the tension mounts then it comes the climax then it ends pretty quickly afterwards. I wanted to do something like that.
The more I make records the more I want to keep trying to do new things. Also listen to new artists, finding new artists, wanting to pay homage or emulate or whatever. If it gets inside you you want to express it in some way.
Those singers are quite operatic, big vocal ranges but totally uncompromising in their delivery, there’s a real Americanism in that of raw unbridled emotions, there’s a power to American singers. It exists in Britain but not so many. It’s pure unbridled pathos. And with Pitney it’s a nervous energy, they’re quite geeky guys but bearing their souls, there’s a nakedness, they’re not perfect so it’s vulnerable too.
Please tell me is about the classic justifiable paranoia, when a guy knows something is going on with his beloved. The other party is carrying on and he wants her to tell me, tell me what’s going on. Even if it tears us apart. I can’t bear this not knowing.
I think Mr Benn’s the wounded party, the house is empty maybe he’s dressed in early 70s Memphis gear and he’s terribly sad.’
‘The classic dancefloor clearer!
I don’t think she’d mind me saying, but Chrissie Hynde put the idea in my head. She has all sorts of turns of phrases. One day we were in an airport queue talking about family, I was saying you must be so looking forward to getting home and seeing the family. We all travel a lot. She said “how are they going to miss me if I never go away.” I thought it was a great line and thought it must be from something. I looked around because I didn’t want to write a song on someone else’s idea but there didn’t seem to be.
It hit me straight away when she said it. That’s an amazing line, it was the seed to continue in a different vein, I wanted to do something along the lines of the vocal of the soul groups I like from 70s, The Dramatics or The Stylistics or The Persuasions, they’ve all got fantastic names too, unashamedly sentimental. And also sing in falsetto, because you often have a guy with high voice in those bands.
In this he’s dressed in his normal Mr Benn clothes. This is the end of the record and the end of the programme and Mr Benn is wearing his normal clothes and he’s walking out of the exit of the airport and his family are waiting for him and haven’t seen him for ages and they all run out and give him a nice big hug.
Well done, Mr Benn. He’s had ten adventures and earned a rest and the family have missed him and it’s a happy ending because there aren’t enough of those at the moment.’
Choas Wonderland is released digitally on 31st July, and vinyl/CD on 28 August through Banana and Louie Records.
Carwyn has compiled a Chaos Wonderland Inspiration Playlist together specially for God Is In The TV, an hour of songs which inspired the record. Enjoy!
Colorama (photo credit: Maki Kita)