So, how was the main tour?
Good, yeah. I mean, tonight’s day two of the solo leg so I’m still changing gear but prior to now the tour’s been amazing. The vibe was to do venues that weren’t Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol and obvious cities. It’s been good to play in different places.
You last came to Bangor two years ago…
Yeah, the last time I came here I played in a guy called Ian’s kitchen in halls so I really wanted to come back up here, partly because it’s been so long but also to do a proper show at a proper venue. No offensive to Ian, by the way.
You were interviewed by Seren then, did you even briefly entertain the possibility that you’d play Main Stage at Reading, sell-out Wembley Arena and perform at the Olympics opening ceremony?
Ha, no I don’t really do that. For me there’s a really big difference between daydreaming and having realistic expectations. The realistic expectations for my career have always been to continue being quite modest; I’m not sure I ever expected to do all this for more than a couple of years. Obviously things are different now – I’ve done lots of bonkers stuff which I’m very grateful for – but I think it’s very healthy to just go about my life under the impression that the whole spell’s going to wear off at some point because if you didn’t, not only could you probably make some bad decisions but mainly because it constantly leaves you surprised at how things are going.
With that in mind, what was your initial reaction to Danny Boyle asking you to play at the Olympics opening ceremony?
Odd. I mean, good, but it was just a really strange thing; I was asked to go in for a meeting with him and I’m a fan of his films but I was having a piss before we met and it suddenly occurred to me that I had no real idea what he looked like. So I got out my phone and googled Danny Boyle and realised that he was stood next to me, saying ‘good morning’ and I was like, ‘fuck’. But yeah, he’s a really nice guy, a real sweetheart, and he’s a proper fan; he’s not sort of just aware of the singles. He knows my B-sides, too, which was great to know but disarming at the same time.
According to your website, this is your 1305th gig. Can you pick out a particularly memorable one?
Yeah, I couldn’t pick one. The obvious ones are Main Stage at Reading or Leeds because I used to go there when I was a kid so that was a big one for me. Urm, the Wembley show was a big deal but then, without wanting to sound too cheesy, I remember doing a show in Connecticut a few years ago and it was just one of those gigs where I didn’t know what to expect (playing solo) and it was a 300 capacity venue. 400 people showed up and some ended up sitting on the stage at my feet just to make room for everyone, sweat was pouring off the walls, everyone was singing the words to every song and it was just amazing.
But I’m lucky enough to say that I get shows like that quite regularly and they always remind me… (why you do what you do?)Yeah, and I think my point is essentially that I don’t automatically associate size with quality. I mean obviously Wembley was amazing but so are the smaller gigs.
So I take it you don’t find it difficult to get yourself motivated for a comparatively tiny gig like this?
No, no. I think – I’m just trying to remember what I know about mathematical theory – if you actually totalled up the number of venues I’ve played and their sizes, I’ve done way more shows to less than 100 people than I have to any other demographic. So, in a way you could say a show like this is more accurate when defining the gigs I’ve played. Perhaps not recently but it’s not so long ago that I was playing in front of an old man and two dogs.
I still consider myself unfeasibly lucky to do my hobby for a living, one that involves playing music and travelling, so I don’t struggle to get motivated, no.
Do you think that’s why you’ve travelled so much, because you feel so at ease wherever you play?
Yeah sure, could you be any jammier? I feel grateful for what I have and the least I can is therefore go out and enjoy my job.
Specifically then, the final song of your album ‘England Keep My Bones’ is ‘Glory Hallelujah’. Is there any pertinence surrounding its positioning at the end of the album and were you apprehensive about releasing a song like that?
No, I mean to be honest with you, the reason why it ended up being the last song on the record was because all the other albums I’ve done finish with a downbeat song and I wanted to finish with an upbeat song and so I wanted to kick the habit of always finishing with a depressing tune. I just thought it would be cool to do something different.
But that’s a song, I’m really proud of it, and I spent ages trying to get the nuances of it right and I hope it comes across that I’m not trying to needlessly offend or piss anybody off. I wanted it to sound and feel like a hymn; the last time I was in church was for a funeral and they played hymns. I sung because part of the act is that it’s communal and respectful to the surroundings you’re in. So, given that the audience at my shows are self-selecting – I don’t make anyone come to my gigs – I feel quite strongly about not apologising for that song. It’s just like, if you’re religious and you don’t agree with it I totally respect that.
In fact, I had a wonderful email from somebody the other day saying that whenever I play it at shows they stand there and don’t sing along as their own quiet declaration of faith and I thought that was just beautiful.
It must be so heartwarming to receive an email like that.
Yeah because that was exactly the sort of spirit I wanted people to take it in. I’m really not on a mission to change anybody’s mind about anything.
The song ‘I am Disappeared’ includes the lines: ‘I sleep with my passport/One eye on the door/So I can always run/I can get up, shower in half an hour/I’d be gone’. Do you think that relates to any harbouring discomfort you feel with travelling or do you feel decidedly comfortable with not having any real centre?
I feel comfortable, yeah. Almost in a way I think that line is more about being scared of getting stuck. I mean that’s certainly a feeling I’ve had many times in my life when I’ve been less itinerant than I am now.
But I guess that song is more a kind of, conversation’s not quite the right word because boy was she pissed but it was supposed to be an open letter. (She’s not called Amy, by the way.)
I don’t want to suggest that I think everyone should be an itinerant because obviously everybody should be what the fuck they want. But one of the things I find frustrating is when I know people who feel stuck and the tools to unstick themselves are completely within their grasp. The only thing that stops them is the will and the decision to stand up one day and just say, ‘d’you know what, fuck this, I’m getting on the train.’ It’s actually easier than a lot of people think it is.
So do you ever think there’ll be a day when you settle?
Yeah, you know, never say never. I mean, if you told me I was going to be doing this ten years ago I would’ve been slightly confused. And so, who knows. Maybe one day I’ll lay down roots; I can picture a lovely hunteresque kind of village with me on a ranch somewhere shooting at journalists coming up my road.
And, argh, my biggest regret about living on the road is that I can’t have dogs. I love dogs. But with what I do, playing different countries all the time, I can’t have one and that really saddens me and one day I think I’ll probably be an old man with ten dogs.
Better than an old woman with lots of cats…
Ha, yeah. Well, there’s a university essay for you. Is that sexism right there? Ha, not that I’m getting involved in that.
So I was at Reading in 2010 and 2011 and on both occasions you accompanied both ‘Photosynthesis’ and ‘I Still Believe’with real crowd participation. How great does it feel when you see everyone communally come together to interact with your singing and sit down at the end of ‘Photosynthesis’?
Yeah it’s great. In some ways it’s great because it’s a very physical manifestation of some of the things I’m trying to explain on the stage; the idea that music just isn’t that interesting if it’s just a monologue and not a dialogue. Plus, even though it’s a symbolic thing, my job’s to be entertainer so it’s that, too.
There’s a funny story about that sitting down business, incidentally, because it started at Area 4 festival in Germany. We were playing and obviously there was a band on immediately after us and a whole bunch of people, at that point in ‘Photosynthesis’, started sitting on the ground. And I genuinely thought they were fans of the next band staging a protest and that we were dying on the stage.It really bummed me out because I thought the set had been going quite well and then there were all these people sat on the floor and I was just like ‘ahh fuck’. But then they all jumped up again, ‘shit, okay, wow’, and yeah, since then I’ve just encouraged people to do that.So do you feel like you’re good at gaging crowd reactions?
Erm, I like to think so. I mean I’ve done a lot of gigs as you mentioned earlier. Again, I sort of feel this is my trade – on some level it’s an art, the songwriting – but it’s also a skill, all that stuff of working the crowd, and it’s one that I’ve had a lot of practice at and I think I’m reasonably good at it. I certainly spend a lot of time thinking about it and try to get better at.
You’ve played gigs like Cambridge Folk Festival, the Lock-Up Stage at Reading and Leeds, two very different venues and atmospheres. Do you feel content on one more than the other?
Well at the risk of sounding like I’m trying to dodge the question, I’m proud of the fact I can do both. I mean one year we did both Cambridge and Download and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person to have done that.
I’ve toured with proper folk singers but equally with metal bands you know, and again, I’m proud of playing music that’s broad and inclusive.
To actually answer your question, if you put a gun to my head, I’d choose the Lock-Up Stage because at the end of the day, much as I enjoy being part of the acoustic world, I never want to be ones of those people that pretend to ‘go back to their roots.’ My roots are Black Flag, Minor Threat and The Descendants.
Okay, so without putting words in your mouth you’d say punk defines your music more than folk and acoustic?
Yeah, I’d say that punk’s been a much more important thing to me historically in my life. Punk’s definitely the formative element of my life that defines my outlook and things like that.
With that in mind, if your career does have an end, do you think that you’ll reach a stage where you can decide which one is definitively more influential to you?
Well hopefully I won’t have to finish my music days. Of course everyone wants to be Neil Young but you never know. I mean, to me it’s something I occasionally wonder about; I sort of feel like there’s this hypothetical point that you go past after which you can definitely still make a living as a musician. If you want to, perhaps a slightly more crucial part of the question, I do wonder whether I’ll get to the stage where I can decide that.
Previous albums have been very sentimental towards England. How would you describe your feelings about England?
Well, that’s both a very complicated and simple question. It’s not complicated in the sense that as I get older I feel pretty defined by the cultural context I grew up in, whether I like it or not. A lot of that recognition about my identity comes from doing solo tours outside the UK. You stand on the stage and you’re the only English person in the room and you realise you’re English; that’s not a positive or a negative, I’m not a nationalist or indeed a patriot; the idea of being better than someone because of where you’re from is patently absurd. But at the same time there is such a thing as an English culture and it definitely defines my outlook on the world and I’m interested in that.
I should say that the next record that I’m going to release is decidedly not about England. Hopefully it still sounds English because sounding like where you’re from is a case of honesty – Springsteen sounds like he’s from New Jersey – but it’s not a subject matter I feel I need to address in my music anymore. I think the last album hopefully put that one to bed.
So do you think that any departure from albums that are Anglocentric has been distorted by touring in different countries?
Well, yeah, I don’t know. I certainly think it was spurred on by overseas touring and almost in a way I think the thing about that is because I did a lot of touring on my own. I mean, a part of that – without wanting to get too self psychoanalytical – is looking for a sense of identity, just trying to remember who I am and where I’m from.
Like I did a lot of tours where I’d just pitch up at the airport with somebody’s phone number and a van would pull up with a bunch of punk kids from Florida and it’d be like, ‘hello, let’s go tour for three months.’
Finally, who’s the best act you’ve seen live?
Ahh, dear. Picking one’s tough, can I do a top three? So in no particular order Bruce Springsteen – I’ve seen him a number of times and he’s remarkably good at what he does, though I have to say this thing of playing increasingly time consuming shows is kind of grinding my gears a little bit, cos it’s like ‘man, just play for two and a half hours, you know, why does it have to be four?’
Err, second would be Godspeed You! Black Emperor, sort of post-rock band who I had a deep obsession with. They’ve played some of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
I dunno. Actually, here’s one. I’m gonna pick a band called Knuckledust (a London based hardcore band). I saw them in 1998 and it was one of my first bona-fide holy fuck punk shows, just bodies flying everywhere, massive circle pits, that sort of thing.
So would you say bands like Knuckledust influence your outlook on music more than Bob Dylan, Springsteen et al?
Err historically yeah in the sense that I didn’t really start listening to stuff like Dylan till my mid-20s and I didn’t grow up in a household that musically inclined to that way. The first music I fell in love with was metal and then I got into punk.
I certainly think that the whole ethos of that scene, just kind of ideas about being proactive and being self-reliant, as well as not wanting there to be a divide between the people that play and the people that listen, are the things that are really important to me.
It’s funny actually, a book was published recently by Ian Glasper called ‘Armed with Anger’ about UK punk in the 90s and I read it because that was my adolescence and it reminded me how much of how I think about music and how it should be comes from that time of my life and that idea that bands should absolutely be on a level with the people, no aloofness or separation.