Tim Arnold released his new album When Staying Alive’s The Latest Craze this Autumn; an album written, recorded and produced in the first UK lockdown. Like everyone else, Arnold’s life changed in March when the first UK lockdown was announced. He left London with a guitar, a laptop and one microphone to go into quarantine in a new family ‘bubble’ with his partner and her children in East Sussex. Having only just met the children, the album was inspired by the beginning of a new family life under unprecedented circumstances.
Each song ripples with the conflicted experiences and consequences of lockdown, separation, isolation, tragedy, and meditations upon the yawning inequality and incompetence exposed by the pandemic. While the urgency of strummed opener ‘Nothing on Earth On’ resides with the importance of human connection, possessing echoes of Radiohead and James. The insidious groove and twitchy vocals of ‘One Percent‘ which is an exploration into the government’s Behavioural Insights Team and inspired in part by author Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’. Change of System is a haunting tribute to the 640 NHS frontline workers who died due to lack of PPE at the start of the pandemic. Its pulsing beat and spoken word remind one of U2‘s ‘Numb‘. Elsewhere Arnold offers a tribute to the power of music on the joyous escapist singalong ‘Another record that changed my life’. We caught up with Arnold to find out more about his very strange and difficult year.
Hi Tim, how are you today and what’s the weather like?
I’m in the middle of a ‘maybe’ mood and undecided about a storm brewing outside my window. Freak weather has always unnerved me. Other than that, I am grand thank you, Bill!
How has Covid 19 affected you?
The knock-on effect has been profound, Covid-19 has affected everyone, hasn’t it? It hasn’t affected me in the devastating way it has to so many. I own no property, have no business to lose, have no children and have always lived on a very small income. I don’t have a manager or a live agent so neither have I let anyone down whose livelihood depends on exploiting my work. I have a great deal of empathy for people whose entire income depends on the live music industry, but it would be spurious of me to say that I am one of those people. Like most independent musicians, I have had to earn money in a diverse range of jobs for a long time now anyway.
The way it’s impacted me is that I have an elderly mother who is not in the best health and lives in Spain. I’ve spent nine months going back and forth between the UK and Spain, in and out of hospitals, quarantining when I get home, back to Spain again, organising a new care programme for her and trying to keep up to date with what new rule has been put in place with travel every couple of weeks. Translating doctor’s letters from one language to another is tough at the best of times. When every other phrase mentions Covid-19 and stipulates a condition because of it, it’s just dizzying to deal with on your own.
I think it’s probably been the most emotionally draining experience of my life, which is the same for anyone who has a parent to take care of I would imagine. But the restructuring of rules and freedom to travel has hit me hard if I’m honest. Without making the album and connecting to friends and fans, I would have found it really hard to function this year. But I’m just about managing, and my mother is too thankfully. I really understand how hard it is for people dealing with illness in their lives now.
How do most of your songs start life? Or does it vary?
It does vary but most of my songs start life without my permission, sometimes with a melody, other times with a phrase or sometimes a mood that possesses neither words nor melodies until I try to capture the mood with a musical instrument. The only consistency to my process is that I never write songs that stand by themselves. My obsessive-compulsive disorderly passion for making music means I’m usually wondering “What album could this be a part of?” before I’ve even finished writing a song. But it will always herald the start of an album. I’ve never been good at brevity, although I am doing my best in this interview!
I read your debut album ‘Lokutara’ was written and recorded in a Thai Buddhist monastery with monks after your public recovery from addiction. How was that experience I get echoes of Leonard Cohen’s time in isolation?
Living in a Buddhist Monastery when you’ve just got clean from drugs is the greatest gift for someone who has learnt very little in their life other than creation and self-deprecation. I was 27 and faced with the harsh reality that I would never be a part of the music industry again, which was something I had been working on and towards since I was 12 so it was enough of a jolt to feel I had failed with everything I had ever worked towards.
Somehow, the monks made me feel okay about the loss though, and that’s how I’ve managed to keep making records outside of the industry ever since. I did have a relapse in 2014 (with the industry, not the drugs), but who wouldn’t when the executive producer of BBC’s The Voice asks you to be on the show? I didn’t realise it was scripted, but it prepared me for much that we have gone through this year in terms of believing a narrative that has more likely been structured based on algorithmic predictions for audience engagement.
Maybe TV is the embryonic single-dimensional AI?
I discovered Leonard Cohen’s ‘monkhood’ many years after I lived in the monastery in Thailand. I think my experience was very different and less reverent. My monastery was a ‘working’ monastery with a community of forest monks who are devoted to productive activity, so it wasn’t the popular perception of isolated Buddhist living. It was sculpture, art, sustainability, building and… music. I had no money and no income for the first six months I lived in Thamkrabok. The community built a studio for me so I could work. It really was quite miraculous. That’s how I made my first solo album. Their kindness and care was the first replacement for addiction that I experienced. It was a high that overwhelmed me on a daily basis.
Buddhism gave me so much. I am still trying to rebalance my karma by giving to others in whatever way I can. I was denied permission when I asked the abbot if I could be a monk. He said I must concentrate on my music. Since he was a proven visionary with clairvoyant talents, as well as officially adopting me as one of his ‘sons’, I trusted he was right.
Is it fair to say ‘When Staying Alive’s the Latest Craze’ is an album that documents both the benefits of isolation and human contact and the struggles and experiences of the pandemic and lockdown?
I don’t believe or disbelieve any of the varying narratives around this pandemic. I remember asking my older brother when I was a boy “Is reincarnation real or not?” and he said something that shaped my approach to life ever since. He said what was important, was that we are prepared to believe in the possibility of reincarnation. Not to discount something or become its disciple. I approached this album by believing in the possibility of everything.
So yes, it is much more about human contact and interaction than the health crisis, because contact was the one quality that had either become compounded or dissolved during the lockdown. The health crisis is unfortunately subject to the same misinformation as everything else in the modern world. I believe in the possibility of everything conspiracy theorists say as well as what they’re detractors say. Anything is possible. But I am not sure certainty is something and artist aspires to. The suggestion is that our role is to provide questions, not answers.
The benefits for me were simply discovering how everything I love about life cannot be quantified by stats and data. Which really hit me in the heart when all we were and have been doing is listening to stats and data every single day.
‘Change of System’ includes the names of NHS workers who died from Covid-19, was it the government’s incompetent response to the pandemic as well as the heroes that cared for the affected that inspired this song?
The journalist Carole Cadwalladr had said in an article that the one thing governments are meant to do is keep their citizens safe from harm and that they had failed in that. And she was talking about the UK and U.S governments. I’ve heard her speak a lot, so I can hear her tone very clearly when I read her articles. And I could hear her vulnerability and sadness in that statement, and it grew into that song.
I know musicians, actors, designers, artists, comedians and dancers who all do what they do so brilliantly, that you would magically be unable to say the word ‘incompetent’ if you were in their presence. So, what the fuck is wrong with those people working in Westminster? Perhaps earning too much money is a licence to be incompetent?
As the song says, I think people have had ‘enough’, and not just of the Tories, but of the entire system of overpaid ambitious, often over-privileged, undereducated individuals who give good quotes and call themselves politicians.
I love passionate politicians like Yanis Varoufakis who had a calling to the profession and made a heart commitment to helping society. But someone like Boris obviously only became a politician so that he could finally have sex. It’s the only way it was going to happen for him really, isn’t it?
It was and will always be a deep responsibility for me to sing the names of those fallen NHS workers. When many souls leave the world at the same time, I feel it does something to all of us whether we knew them or not. We’re all connected to each other and there are many, many hurting hearts because of that loss. Death is a part of life, but so is preparing for death. It’s so important. That basic human right was taken away from those individuals because of a government who chose to put their money into every health organisation in the country, run by their own friends when I think it’s universally understood that the NHS could have benefitted more from proper funding this year. The recent investigation by the organisation ‘The Citizens’ on Covid profiteering and nepotism is extremely worrying (https://the-citizens.com/covid-contracts-project/) I’m not sure what the change of system should be, but less cronyism and more heart for extraordinary ordinary people working in healthcare would be a good start.
‘Another Record That Changed My Life appears to be a celebration of albums and the power of music? What does music mean to you and was it fun to allow fans to express their love of albums with the video?
I love meeting new people. Many of my projects have been created around the process of collaborating with people I don’t know (especially What Love Would Want: https://timarnold.co.uk/what-love-would-want/) The first thing about making an unplanned accidental album is that I allowed myself indulgences I would never normally permit. Filling a song’s lyrics with the names of other artists and their albums? It’s a taboo in my book. I cringe when artists namecheck another artist in the song. ‘ Moves Like Jagger?’ Please don’t. But you know, I just didn’t mind because the album made itself out of me. I didn’t try to make it. It had its wicked way with me and to be frank, I feel like I was taken advantage of. But the joy that came from the virtual flash-mob video for the song was a sheer wonder. I think it’s a lovely document of how much resolve 94 people in the UK had at the start of Lockdown. ITV and BBC refused to play it, with one producer saying “The joyful nature of the song and the video goes against the narrative we’ve been instructed to broadcast Tim”.
Enragement makes engagement. Love and joy do travel slowly and rarely in mainstream media. Thank god The Beatles didn’t start their career in 2020.
I only knew some of the people who contributed to the video but many of us have become friends which was a wonderful way to keep living life through the restrictions. For all of us. I could tell just how much music meant to them as it did to me. When music sweeps into a life full of restrictions, we connect to the freedom that’s inside ourselves. Music means family to me. Music is the sound of nurture.
‘Weird now’ appears to vividly depict that time when we were all coming to terms with the new normal of lockdown how did that song come about?
I actually started ‘Weird Now’ by messing around with Fairlight CMI samples on my laptop. I was trying to find a group of sounds that were like digital glitches, disconnections and uncomfortable interruptions that would illustrate a computer’s reaction to my emotional response to a Zoom call. But I couldn’t find any, so I recorded myself and my partner (actress Kate Alderton) singing the same note at different intervals and then chopped them up randomly. It was more disturbing hearing the organic human sounds being interrupted.
That’s how the music came about, but the chorus title came word for word from a very sincere post from a friend on Facebook. She just posted the words ‘I miss people, I miss friends. It’s starting to feel weird now’. It was so disarmingly honest that as soon as I sang the words, it threw me straight into that Lou Reed ‘Perfect Day’ territory. Incredibly connecting. Which hopefully worked against the disconnecting sounds. It’s the song I most enjoy performing live from the new album.
I read ‘One Percent’ was inspired by in part by author Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ can you tell us about the concepts in the book and the song?
Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’ has been a bit of a bedside bible for me over the last 10 years. In redux, it’s really about how one person who is administered electric shock therapy always ends up disorientated and dependent on whoever is there to help them after the treatment. I’ve just described that in the context of a doctor and a patient. Naomi describes it in terms of governments, corporations and the general public. I really enjoy reading and hearing what some call conspiracy theorists (which I think is just a rude way of naming people whose ideas you don’t agree with). It’s not a conspiracy that the government have a department called the Behavioural Insights Team (or ‘The Nudge Team’ as it is known in Westminster). They are a walking talking algorithm prediction research group for Matt Hancock, Boris and anyone else who is trying to control civil unrest. It’s not a secret, they have their own website. With restrictions that demand the adjustment of our behaviour, some of us have stayed calm, some of us have become anxious, some of us have suffered from the worst national mental health record in history and some of us have committed suicide. I heard about gaslighting when I was a child. It had happened to my mother. In the song, it’s a fantasy, between us and them, but it could equally be about two people in a relationship like the two characters in the video. Whether it’s intentional or not, government policies seem to be having a powerful psychological effect on the public. Maybe that’s what we the public want? We have mostly just accepted it, after all.
Tell us about the album artwork and the concept behind it?
I imagined the album cover to illustrate how care, nurture and love carry on, even with restrictions. At the time, I didn’t know if masks were going to be short-lived or part of the new normal, but they seemed to be the symbol of restriction. I’ve had many conversations with individuals from MIT and Nokia Bell labs about the difference between an emotional response between two people smiling at each other in real life and two people smiling at each other via a screen. It’s been scientifically proven that on screen, our emotional response is nowhere near as strong and AI developers and scientists are collaborating to try to replicate those deep emotions we feel in person. That was where my head was at just before we all had to mask up and hide our expressions completely.
My friends Steve and Charlie, the two artists/models in the photo really show their love for one another regardless of the masks. To me, it’s a powerful image that shows body language overpowering the restrictions of face coverings.
Best act you have supported?
In recent years the brilliant James Walsh (Starsailor) at The Isle of Wight Festival. Back in the 90’s – Mansun, Ash and Babybird. I mostly put on my own shows though. Supporting other artists is an industry luxury that I could only dream of!
What were your favourite artists growing up?
Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Midge Ure, Sting and Pink Floyd.
Vinyl, CD, Download or stream?
Everything! But with a preference for vinyl because even though the new album is my 20th album, it’s the first album I’ve released on vinyl. And it sounds so much better on vinyl. And it’s also like theatre – vinyl has an interval.
I saw you worked with Iggy Pop and I’ve seen pictures of you in the studio with Boy George, what would be a collaboration you would like to work with in the future?
Yes, I’ve been blessed to work with some legendary rock and pop veterans who started off as childhood heroes. I suppose if I could choose, I’d love to work with some more contemporary artists. Catherine Anne Davies (The Anchoress) is an inspiration, and I love Nadine Shah and Nitin Sawney too. I love strong characters – it makes good theatre, and all my favourite collaborations are quite theatrical. I’d love to work with any of those three artists. I’ve mostly collaborated with artists who work in a different form to me though, like the dancer Lindsay Kemp, who became a sort of mentor before he passed away.
Favourite TV shows?
Upstairs Downstairs. Black Mirror. Tenko. The Day Today.
Which five records would you save if your house was on fire?
The Sensual World – Kate Bush
So – Peter Gabriel
Mothership Connection – Parliament
The Gift – Midge Ure
The Liberated Woman – Polly Perkins
How are you coping with no gigs?
Restrictions and rules have only ever meant an opportunity to be extra-creative for me. I’ve done about half a dozen socially distanced gigs this year and even though they were the hardest work to put together, they meant so much to me and the people who came. It’s fascinating how peddling music suddenly felt like dealing an illegal drug. That in itself made the events so special. Not going to other people’s gigs has been hard to cope with, and not going to the theatre has been even harder for me.
Are you always writing new songs?
I write music or/and lyrics every day. Sometimes not complete songs, but always motifs, structures or ideas that can and often develop into a complete song. Writing songs is my version of tending to children. We have adventures together.
What hopes do you have for the world in 2021?
I hope we all try harder not to think we’re right about everything, and listen more to each other and people who think differently to us. Every individual has a valid thought and feeling about the world we live in together. As I said at the start, I’m in the middle of a ‘maybe’ mood. Being ‘right’ is so 2020. I hope 2021 might usher in the age of maybe!