The Last Werewolf by The Real Tuesday Weld is rapidly becoming my favourite album of the year, with their “You’re Gonna Live” the best song released this year and “Tear Us Apart” not far behind. I first became aware of the songwriting genius of Mr. Stephen Coates ten years ago when I was running the Archenemy Record Company back in Boston, MA and was in the habit of trading our catalogue with those of cool British indie labels. I received a nice package from Tracy Lee Jackson of Dreamy Records containing The Valentine EP, when they were simply known as Tuesday Weld. In December 2003, having moved to London, I caught them live at Bush Hall as part of Strange Fruit and Chickfactor’s Holiday Bash. Captivated as a lone clarinet wailed at the entrance doors, commencing a slow-burning procession of this dark clad and coolly mysterious group through the venue and eventually to the stage. Their set had all the elements that make pop interesting and meaningful, with damn good songs too.
Back in London in 2005, I saw them at ULU and was so impressed, especially with the lovely “Someday”, I bought I, Lucifer and tour companion cd Les Aperitifs Et Les Digestifs (both essential pop listening) and began seeing them as often as I could. Soon after the ULU gig they provided the live soundtrack for Hans Richter’s 1947 surrealist masterpiece Dreams That Money Can Buy at the National Film Theatre. Over the closing moments of the film came one of the most romantic songs I’ve ever heard, the utterly gorgeous “Dreaming Of You”. And over the years, Mr. Coates has contributed more than his fair share of timeless classics to the pop canon – “The Ugly & The Beautiful”, “Over The Hillsides”, “On Lavender Hill”, and “It’s A Wonderful Life” to name but a few more. Besides this, he’s involved in a variety of other projects – scoring film soundtracks and composing songs for musical theatre, producing and remixing other artists, writing a very interesting blog, making time for limited edition holiday and other releases through Antique Beat, and Real Tuesday Weld gigs always tend to be special events, not just your ordinary pop performances, held in unique venues and complete with excellent accompanying films. Which is what you want from a pop group. So with such impressive output coupled with the fact that live I’ve often seen him pacing the stage, chatting furiously to himself, decked out in dark bottle goggles, I was a bit intimidated about meeting up with Mr. Coates to discuss the new record. But I needn’t have worried, he was very friendly and charming, and I found our conversation at the bar of the Royal Festival Hall very interesting indeed.
What I particularly love about Glen Duncan’s writing is how he evokes just how wonderful it is to be human, the true wonder of every little experience that we often lose sight of, especially over time. I remember in I, Lucifer when he’s come back to life and he’s eating an ice cream and goes on about how amazing it is, just the taste and everything. That’s what struck me most about I, Lucifer. I haven’t read all of The Last Werewolf though I’ve attended a couple of the readings and he seems very much to present that wonderfulness of being alive –
SC: Yeah, I think particularly with, in a way more so with this book – well, I shouldn’t speak for Glen – but I think his starting point was “Okay, take the situation, imagine there really could be a werewolf, right, in this world, what would it actually be like?” That’s his starting point, rather than from the kind of typical horror genre where it’s “Okay, there’s werewolves and they sort of race around doing things”, it’s “what would it feel like?” That’s his thing and in the book that’s the stuff that’s the most affecting, I think, his descriptions of what it’s actually like, you know, you were a werewolf and had to eat somebody once a month, what would that mean? That’s what’s really interesting about it. I’m not particularly a fan of horror, and neither is he, so I don’t think that was the point. I think the point for him was what would it feel like, not to write a horror book. The same with Lucifer, if you are the devil, in Clerkenwell, in London, in 2003, what’s it like?
So how were the two experiences of making a Glen Duncan-inspired album similar and how did they differ?
SC: It’s interesting because when we did I, Lucifer, which came out of a conversation in a pub – you know like an idea in a pub, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a soundtrack to a novel?” – nobody had done that, not that we were aware of anyway. So we did it, and for me it was an interesting framework. I’m better at writing when I’ve got a narrative going on. So we did it and then it had all these kind of unforeseen effects and then roll on five or six years, we honestly thought that once we’d done this that lots of people would start doing it but nobody seems to have…really noticed at all. So Glen suggested doing it again and of the books that he’s written since I, Lucifer, this was the first one that I thought it would be possible to do that because it’s got a narrative in terms of the relationships that I could write songs about. So I think in some ways they were quite similar, though with The Last Werewolf it was more immediate. I think with I, Lucifer, there was a longer gap between reading it and the record coming out. In a way they were quite parallel, me putting myself into somebody else’s world and then writing songs from that perspective, which is what I prefer to do anyway now. I’ve got nothing to say about my own life so… (said with a warm, wry smile)
I didn’t realize that he had suggested it for The Last Werewolf. Did you already have songs in mind that you were writing and then you went in that direction for the album?
SC: Yeah, I did. There were quite a few songs that I was working on at the time towards a new record, which I set aside…to work on this. And I focused more on the music that would work with this idea, for sure.
Did any magically converge?
SC: They did! Of course, that’s the way of things, isn’t it? This sort of synchronicity. I think “I Always Kill The Things I Love”, funnily enough, was floating around in my mind anyway, so it was a very nice match. In a way, that’s the song I feel on the record which is most of the book, in a funny way, it most sums up his situation. But also in many other ways it’s a traditional jazz torch song. In fact, it got used in L.A. Noire [the video game] with a different singer.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that later. So what other authors do you like? What are your favourite books?
SC: Oh gosh, okay well, I don’t read fiction at all.
SC: No. Apart from Glen, I don’t read any fiction whatsoever. I mean, I used to devour fiction as a child and then I lost the habit of it, I’m sad to say. I kind of think it will return. I sort of lost the appetite for it and so I nearly entirely read history, psychology, and then things about archaeology and the city and things like that. It’s not cause there’s no amazing books out there cause there’s loads of amazing books, I just haven’t got the ability at the moment.
On your blog you talk about eccentrics and occultists of London’s past, I was wondering who your favourites were.
SC: Of London’s past? Oh right, well I think the guy I’ve become most interested in of late is – well, William Blake was a big influence on me for quite a long time, still is of course, you know if you live in this part of town – but Austin Osman Spare is the guy I’ve been most influenced by of late. And he’s born in Clerkenwell, but actually his patch was Kennington. He’s very much in a way a sort of reincarnation of Blake, I think he may have even seen himself as a reincarnation of Blake. And he led a very parallel life in a way to Blake, apart from the fact that he wasn’t married, he led a very similar life – early promise, disappeared into obscurity, supported by a number of devoted friends, mystic, invented his own language, invented his own religion. Phil Baker’s written a biography of him which is very good. Just came out this year on the Strange Attractor Press, it’s really good, fascinating. He’s definitely one of what I suppose Peter Ackroyd calls “Cockney visionaries”. Kind of London-based psychedelic journeymen. So I think at the moment Spare, definitely. Blake. Peter Ackroyd I would put on my tree as well. I mean I don’t know the guy but he’s up there, I think he’s a visionary himself.
I hadn’t heard of him until I read your blog the other day. He sounds very interesting; I admire his work ethic.
SC (excited with admiration): Oh god, it’s absolutely terrifying. I noticed the other day, he’s put this massive book out, it’s the first of a six-part history of England and I open the paper yesterday and there’s a review of another book by him, he slipped another one out! I think he must be like Willy Wonka with a load of Oompa-Loompas or something which are doing the work for him, which he doesn’t let on about. I came to see him talk here [Royal Festival Hall] and he’s a real grumpy bastard and she eventually got around to asking, “Okay, what’s the secret? How do you do it?” Which is what we all wanna know, right? And he said, “I’ve got nothing else to do.” (we both laugh heartily) You know, “Next question!”
Considering the subject matter of The Last Werewolf, do you find any of these figures popping up in your work, directly or indirectly?
SC: You mean like Austin Spare? I sort of see it, it’s on my tree, I feel like I’ve got a tree with…like the Buddhists have these trees, don’t they, with the gurus in them, I feel a bit like that. You’ve got Jung and Aubrey Beardsley, the people I relate to in a way, sort of in my tree. Do they pop up in songs? [genuinely wondering] Subliminally in some way, yeah, I hope so. I’d like to think so. I’d like to be part of that tradition. I’m much more interested in being part of that tradition than being part of an indie-rock tradition. (we both laugh)
Your music often calls back to the pop and jazz of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, and at other times has a modern electronic sound to it, though when you’re at your best, and this is quite often, there’s a timeless quality to your songs.
SC: Thank you.
What inspires you to write besides having a book to provide a soundtrack for?
SC: Well, my motto is ‘A film in every song’. Actually, film is the thing, I spend a lot of time watching films and I think of songs as little films really. So the ideal song for me would be you could make…it would like a treatment for a film. That would be a perfect song for me, that there’s enough in it that you could explode it out into a whole movie. So that’s what I’m aiming for. I’m not claiming that I do that but that’s what I would aim for. That’s why the visual stuff that we’ve done has been so important as well, and I like the idea of you can write something but a filmmaker or an artist makes something and it has this kind of extra life, a little world which people can peek into. That’s what I’m trying to do. If I had the budget I wouldn’t make an album, I’d just make a DVD, really. I see it as making films. I haven’t got the budget, I’m afraid, to do it.
So what are you favourite films and what draws you to them?
SC: Some of my favourite films…Angel Heart. I love the score, the darkness and style. My Dinner With Andre, pins down perfectly the dilemma over whether the universe is meaningful or meaningless. F For Fake is Orson Welles’ forgotten masterpiece, very stylish, completely unique and beguiling. Brazil and Delicatessen, both are the future imagined in the past, prophetic, funny, poignant, romantic, disturbing. The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – a haunting insight into romantic discovery and sadness, memory and identity. And Synechdoche New York is another ignored masterpiece. For me, the most ambitious, provoking and moving movie since Citizen Kane.
I hadn’t had this prepared but speaking of films and songs, “Dreaming Of You” I think is just such a wonderful, beautiful song.
SC: Thank you so much.
The first time I heard it was when you did the live soundtrack [to Dreams That Money Can Buy]. How did that come about?
SC: The song came out of that film. It’s a film about dreaming, and we rescored the film and it’s an art film and it’s a weird art film. And that last sequence, I think it’s the director’s own piece [the film is a collaboration between six major surrealists – A.S.], it feels like a consciousness breaking down, to me, so I wanted to write a song, kind of a love song but inside that world of dreams, and that mysterious… I think in the film the guy’s actually dying at the end, that’s what it’s about, so I was trying to capture that fading consciousness thing… well, not fading, in a way expanding outwards, that’s what it feels like. But also it’s a pretty heavy film that and it’s pretty weird (laughs), our music’s quite weird and I thought it’d be quite a nice thing to end on a tune. Everybody’s been “AAARRR” all the way through and it’s like “AHHH”, a lullaby at the end (laughs).
So who are your favourite musical artists?
SC: Right, uh, that’s interesting. Well, we talked about one of them already, Mikael Tariverdiev, Gainsbourg of course. The thing about Gainsbourg I really like is that he did everything from those incredibly beautiful songs he wrote for Juliette Gréco through to those really stupid, kind of lollipop-type throwaway stuff, with all the Chopin-influenced things and I’m not that keen on the Freggae, the French reggae stuff, that’s kind of pushing it a bit, but I love that big sweep. Cause when people say they really like Gainsbourg, I’m always thinking, ‘Well, which bit?’ Cause he did so much stuff. I like the Catholicism of his work. And Max Richter, on the minimalist front. And then the traditional, like Cole Porter, Gershwin, those American songwriters. I don’t know what I’ve been listening to lately. I listen to that stuff all the time so it’s what I listen to. What new bands or new things…ummmmm….not a lot (we both laugh).
SC: I’m just trying to think at the moment…gosh…Minotaur Shock, I like him, really good, electronica. I like Gonzales, piano album especially. I’m signed to this French label now, Crammed, and they’ve got a lot of really wonderful stuff. Lonely Drifter Karen. Some of the more European stuff actually, European contemporaries. But I don’t really know what’s going on and I just try and avoid it, generally. There’s so much stuff, isn’t there, it’s best to avoid it I think (we laugh).
I’ve often said that there’s something about a really great pop song that’s akin to the feeling you have after you’ve first kissed someone you really fancy. What do you think is inherent in all great pop music?
SC: (thinks) Hmm. Good question. I suppose that’s an interesting analogy about the kiss, isn’t it…I mean a great pop song, it allows you to feel something which you want to feel but maybe don’t find that easy to feel. That’s for me…you don’t find it easy to feel because maybe you’re not in love at the moment or maybe you’re out of love or because it’s some emotion or some dimension of the imagination which you’re just not familiar with and you hear a song and it kind of opens something up. That’s for me what it is. So it can be a very joyful thing but I think a lot of my favourite pop songs are quite tragic. A song I really like, which I heard the other day for the first time in ages, is “This Is The Day” by The The. Do you know that song?
Oh yeah, it’s lovely.
SC: It’s a beautiful song, it’s a pop song, isn’t it? It’s got that beautiful accordion stuff but actually it’s a really tragic, sad song. It’s a song of regret, isn’t it?
They’ve been up all night, wondering what’s going on –
SC: (laughs) They’ve been up all night, yeah…wondering what the fuck’s going on. And of course I suppose in a way, you’ve had those moments, haven’t you, and then somebody writes a song and they kinda nail it, right? And you kind of know…well, a lot of it’s to do with the tune as well. Accordions always help.
SC: I got asked for a magazine last year to give four tips for indie bands how to make your songs more interesting. I don’t know why they’re asking me, but anyway…One of the things I said always makes a good pop song – 3/4. Write a song in 3/4. Lots of my favourite songs are in 3/4. Indie bands always write songs in 4/4.
Yeah, you’d never hear –
SC: – one in 3/4. Why’s that? Loads of songs used to be in 3/4, The Beatles wrote loads of songs in 3/4. There’s loads of 60’s songs in 3/4 – Velvet Underground, well, 6/8. If it’s in 3/4, that’s a good start.
What are your plans to tour for the new album promo? I really liked the Rough Trade in-store, I thought that was a really interesting show. [The in-store alternated between Glen Duncan reading passages from The Last Werewolf backed by Stephen providing musical accompaniment and Stephen and Geraldine McEwan (vocals & violin) performing Real Tuesday Weld songs]
SC: Well Glen and I did that around America already this summer. We’re doing it on Saturday [October 29th, Hallowe’en show at Westminster Reference Library- the whole gig was excellent, first time I’ve seen the full band play songs from the new record – A.S.] before the show, same thing, as a shortened version of it. And we’ll probably do a couple of European things, but that will be it with Glen. And then we’re hoping to be touring in Europe in the spring. The record is coming out in France in January. It’s out in Germany now, so we’re hoping to be in Europe, we’ve got a few more dates in London before the end of the year and then America and Europe in the spring, that’s the plan.
Any other projects going on that you’d like to talk about?
SC: Sure. Well we’re gonna be touring and then I wrote the songs for L.A. Noire and they were sung by a woman called Claudia Brücken who’s from an 80’s band called Propaganda. So I’m writing some songs for her, she’s now gonna do a mini-album in that style. I’m writing at the moment and I’m mainly doing remixes for the rest of this year for my publishers in the States. And then in between touring, I’m quite keen to get on with a new record. So that’s gonna be my next thing really. But it depends on what happens work-wise, I’ve been doing film scores for the last couple of years. I’m waiting for the work button to be pressed on a film which I’m attached to so…just business as usual, Aug, I mean you know, just keeping going, poised on the brink of international obscurity [another warm, wry smile]
(Laughs) What about the musical theatre project?
SC: With Marcella [Puppini], the Paul Raymond musical, yeah, we’re actually in the writing period for that at the moment. I think that hopefully it will be done by spring. That’s been an ongoing thing, we’ve probably done about 7 songs for that now.
And my standard last question – say you’ve stolen a space shuttle and are flying it directly into the sun, for whatever reason, what would the soundtrack be?
SC: Woah… (half sings) ‘Into the heart of the sun’. (thinks for a while as off in the distance a door to the concert hall opens and strains of Bartók’s “The Wooden Prince”, entirely appropriate, crash out) Hmmm… I think the song that I would pick, if it was just a song, would probably be “Opportunity For Two” by Van Dyke Parks. Because it gets me right…it’s very jolly, kind of like a showtune, and it’s got this descending chord sequence which I really like but also it’s got this kind of giddy thing and I think whatever’s gonna happen, you’d feel optimistic with that song playing. And it’s a great pop song.