Since the dissolution of Hefner in 2002, front man and chief songwriter Darren Hayman has gone on to enjoy a prolific career as a solo artist, and a frequent collaborator, and has lent a hand to the pump in a variety of music producer/video director/label guises.
Currently part-way through a residency at Dalston’s legendary Vortex which sees him play monthly themed shows, Hayman also has a new limited edition EP, Blue Songs, out.
In the third of our This Music Made Me series, and ahead of the next Vortex show devoted to his January Songs project, here Brentwood, Essex-born Hayman recounts the albums by others that have most influenced him and his music over time, in his own words…
I’ve been asked to write about favourite records before but on this occasion I tried to focus on the records that truly shaped the way I make music. These aren’t my favourite records but the records that made me think most about what I’m doing with music. Albums that made me stop and think.
I hear these records in the songs I write every day.
I hope I’m not giving too much away.
The first band I chose to follow was Duran Duran because they were the biggest. The second band I followed was the Thompson Twins.
I didn’t understand how music was made, but I could tell that the Thompson Twins weren’t playing their instruments live on TV. The programmed, synthesised sound bore no relation with the timpani drums and double basses they mimed on stage with. Tom Bailey held an electric guitar but you never heard it.
It wasn’t a deceit; it was bold, theatrical playfulness. A band had never seemed so creative and inventive to me before. They didn’t sound like anything else at the time and they still don’t. Their sound was an odd, rythmic, pulse with big cartoony, irreverent lyrics. They made no sense.
I used to buy albums on cassette and the Thompson Twins records came on double length tapes with an alternate remixed version of the album. I realise now that their sound and approach owed much to dub reggae and remix culture. They constantly revised and tinkered with their songs. They introduced me to the idea of a recording being ‘A’ version of a song, not ‘THE’ version of a song.
As a teenager they were the weirdest pop music I find.
I bought my first guitar the day after seeing Billy Bragg. He was a singer from my county and inspired me to sing in my own accent like it was a religion.
I don’t sound like Billy Bragg however and I’m lucky in that people rarely compare my singing style to other vocalists.
I think I sound like Iris DeMent. At least, I used to try to. You have to put aside the difference the Atlantic Ocean makes to our accents but I am deeply influenced by her clear, strong, resonate style.
When I first started singing in bands it seemed pointless to sing words that people didn’t hear or understand. I didn’t neccesarily think my words were that great but it seemed important that once written they should be heard.
I started singing in a similar register to Iris. A key that was a little too high for me. I wanted my voice to sit above the mush of the guitars in bad PA systems. It’s the same reason my early guitar style just uses the bottom two strings.
I was trying to find more space in the music, make the components more separate.
Evan Parker has changed the way I listen to and approach music. I never thought I would love Jazz, much less the world of free improvisational music. Some might challenge the definition of this as music. I might have as well, once.
I can’t explain this music and that’s why I like it. The fact that it confuses me makes me feel wonderful. I love not knowing why I love something. I don’t see anyway how I can really bring this type of music into what I do but I will try.
Evan has a monthly residency at the Vortex Jazz Club. I loved the approach to shows there. It is something completely removed from the rock approach. Sets are longer, often in two halves. The gig is as much an experiment or exploration as a recording session. Once this might have seen selfish or egotistical to me. Now it seems like the most generous music I can think of.
I’ve tried to emulate just a little bit of this approach in my own residency at the Vortex. Once a month I play a themed sense but try and pull out something new. Something I’ve never done before. Playing with different musicians. Making something up on the evening. Come along.
I don’t really follow the Mountain Goats anymore, even though I know they are as great as they have ever been. I caught them at the End of the Road festival a few years back and my wife caught me crying. I have probably missed their last five albums.
People who tell you how they were into a band first, before everyone else, are arseholes. With the Mountain Goats I am that arsehole. I saw John Darnielle alongside five or six others in empty London venues around 96/97. I travelled to Holland to see him. He probably thought I was a freak and should be avoided. He was right.
I stole so much from the Mountain Goats. When they finally broke bigger than Hefner had ever been I was certain my cover had been blown. Maybe it is a bit stupid to go off a band because they are successful, but it’s also natural to love secrets and discoveries. You need to keep some music and memories special. My Mountain Goats are still selling their own merch from a rucksack.
Them Geezers Over There – Overrated EP
From the small to the microscopic, If you Google ‘Them Geezers Over There’ pretty much the only online mention of them is the last time I talked about them. When you’re growing up in a small provincial town it’s hard to underestimate the influence local bands have on you. For a while they were all I had. I had Top of the Pops, The NME and local bands.
The appallingly named Them Geezers Over There were a punk/new wave band from neighboring Chelmsford. They had this peculiar angular singer, called Jonna, who had this nasal Hitchcock/Hegley thing going on. He played naïve chords that I still can’t quite work out. He had a tiny amp. A tiny little amplifier! It spat out fizz and squawk.
He sang about coffee and gigs and beards. In an alternate universe we are all talking about them.
See I should be saying something cooler here. This is the Scottish stadium band that reinvented themselves as Irish folkies, the Mumford And Sons of their day. I wish I could say that my introduction to folk was the Copper family or Ewan MacColl but it wasn’t, it was the Waterboys.
Despite the sepia cover photograph of beards and mandolins the record isn’t actually as rustic as memory suggests. The reputation of the album rests on two songs for me; A Bang On The Ear and Fisherman’s Blues itself. It was a record that sounded like people sitting in a circle in a room. I don’t know if they were but they sounded like they were.
My music has never strayed far from violins and strung instruments. I’ve tried to marry it to my urban subject matter. It fits in my mind. It’s a type of folk music. I don’t mind calling it that.
I like every album by the Velvet Underground but I sometimes tire of the focus being on the vitriol and scrape of the first two albums. The importance of those records is obvious but the lasting appeal of this band to me is Lou’s way of subverting those simple R and B chords. He is so endlessly inventive with so few tools. So often I come to another G, D, A change and think, I can’t possibly find something interesting in that again can I? And then I think Lou always did.
This is the first album I heard by Lou Reed. I couldn’t believe it was outtakes. The second I heard was Transformer, which featured some of these songs in grand orchestrated versions. Then, at the time, he released New York. It seemed incredible that this was the same guy on all three records.
Then I heard Mistrial, the worst record ever by a human. I wouldn’t rest until I’d figured this man out. I never did.
When John first joined Hefner he was interested in this strange strumming technique I used. It was based upon the VU chug but I put this strange stress on the off-beat. You can really hear it on a song like Hello Kitten. I’ve always been doing that, in programming or arranging. Pushing that emphasis to the opposite side of the beat.
I’m unsure of where that influence came from because, apart from some Madness and Specials, I wasn’t listening to anything ska or reggae based. Now I’m a huge Jamaican music fan, from dub through to ska. Reggae does seem to be this strange divider to some people, in a similar way that Jazz is to many. I spoke to a musician recently who just shook his head: “I don’t get it. I can’t get it.”
Similarly some guitarists that are way more skilled than me find it near impossible to put that stress on the other side of the beat. It’s worth noting that Reggae isn’t the only music to stress this beat. Bluegrass and some country does it too.
I decided to simply choose the reggae album I play the most. I’ve bought this record four times and twice more as presents. It’s a blanket. It’s a Sunday morning. I could live forever with this one album alone.
Liz Phair has a career that perplexes me. The change in style from her first to her third record is staggering. I love the brittle, sparse, bone-dry production. I love her rudimentary guitar and the clattering drums.
I could never understand the fuss made over PJ Harvey when Liz’s gutter mouth made Polly sound like Hello Kitty.
And above all I love how she sings unashamedly about fucking and how she enjoys it. It wasn’t about shock or contrariness. It was like she couldn’t think of anything else to sing about.
There isn’t anything else to sing about.
In a career as small as mine, the fact of John Peel being a supporter looms large. I don’t mind, and I am forever grateful. His help means this is my job.
Hefner were playing a small acoustic session at his house. John said, “Your songs remind me of the Incredible String band.” He played You Get Brighter on air to make the point. I couldn’t see his point but brought the record so I could try to. I came back to the record every now and then and played it a lot when John died. I still didn’t see the connection but I liked that John saw one. It seemed like such a cool thing to be influenced by it that I almost tried to be. I wanted that connection to be stronger.
Incredible String Band songs are awkward, unlikely creatures. They don’t run to greet you. They hide under rocks. They don’t dress to impress.
So in terms of being a grower this, as well as the other first four ISB records, have been the slowest growth I’ve known.
I’m still trying to be more like them.
I’m always drawn to the unfashionable. I see that word only as a compliment.
There’s a photo of Randy Newman with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Lou Reed. Lou, Tom and Bob are lounging, about, sitting legs part, and pretending to look half interested. Randy is standing, back straight, crisp white shirt and sharp ironed slacks.
He looks astounded to be invited to the event but also simultaneously unfazed. ‘Yes, I really do, do the same job as you guys.’
Randy makes it ok to be a geek. He makes it easier to try and make rock not dumb and macho. He allows you to group songs together thematically and explore what pop lyrics can be.
He’s just the smartest. I’m a fucking dumb-arse. Randy is super smart. I want to be a fifth as smart as him.
Darren Hayman’s Occupation in London series of gigs is running at the Vortex in Dalston, with the January Songs shows taking place on 16 and 17 January 2014, and the Two Nights Of Love Songs shows continuing the series on 13 and 14 February. Tickets and further information can be found here.
The EP Blue House is out now; buy it from Hayman’s website.