Friday, June 26, 2009

FOTL - Travels With Myself and Another

Travels With Myself and Another is precisely the kind of honed, aggressive offering that you would expect from Future of the Left. And yet it has, for them, a different quality: it's commercial. Don't get me wrong the band haven't overnight turned into Bono & Co. Ooooh no. With Falkous's rottweiler delivery and lyrics as cryptic as ever they remain firmly in the cult camp. It's just that, well, there are some damn fine pop moments lurking here too.

I don't know what Eritrea's national anthem is but they should consider changing it to Arming Eritrea. They would win all future conflicts. It's certainly a great way to kick-off an album, the song proceeding as it does from the interrogatory to a quite glorious sonic crescendo.

Many of FOTL's songs seem to be concerned with violence but trying to decipher Andy Falkous's lyrics is a fruitless exercise. Much better to just enjoy his phraseology: "turn around, face our deepest fears/re-imagine God as a mental illness" on The Hope that House Built, for instance. I love the sinister theatricality of this song - it has a show tune feel but, don't worry, Les Miserables it most definitely ain't!

Land of my Formers is perfect. Listening to it is like being shot in the head with one of those bullets that explode on impact. Apparently it's about ex-girlfriends.

You Need Satan More Than he Needs You doesn't quite live up to its title but demonstrates better than any other track here FOTL's dark comedic quality. Ah, the mundane drawbacks of practising Satanism in the modern world: "clean up, fetch the goat/if he's sober he can travel in the boot."

You'll find more sardonic humour in Stand by Your Manatee which reveals Emma's common shame: that her mother and father used plastic forks. Falkous's vocal here is both mischievous and teasing. It's worth noting just how versatile his voice is throughout this recording.

Talking of variety, last track, Lapsed Catholics begins in pleasing acoustic fashion with a curious discussion on cinema and Rupert Murdoch, before a buzz guitar rips in and cuts the whole thing to shreds. And it feels so right. Not so much an ending as a complete rout.

Don't be fooled by its brevity (33 minutes) Travels With Myself and Another is a considerable piece of work which stands up to repeated plays. Kelson Mathias and Jack Egglestone deserve more than just a mention in despatches - they form the rhythmic glue which holds this magnificent sonic edifice together.

Travels With Myself and Another is out now on 4AD records. Near faultless - you really should buy it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Alastair Reynolds Interview 2003

Great to read that Welsh sci-fi writer, Alastair Reynolds, has just signed a £1million publishing deal with Orion. Here's an (edited) interview I did with him back in 2003 when he was still working for the European Space Agency in Holland:

I read somewhere that your first taste of literary success was at a school Eisteddfod - tell us about that.

Going back a bit now, so the details are a bit fuzzy. There was a writing competition, I think, with a small cash prize. You had to produce a piece of work based around a quote by - I think - Saunders Lewis. The story I wrote won the prize, and was then picked up to appear in a regional schools magazine called Beginnings, of which I have one copy. I heard back from one of my teachers that an academic had read it and compared it to Bradbury, so I went away and read a lot of Bradbury novels.

Has the Welsh landscape in any way permeated, either consciously or unconsciously, your writing?

Definitely: I mean, I'm pretty sure it's permeated my writing consciously, so it's very likely to have permeated it unconsciously as well. It's the industrial landscapes that have left the biggest mark: Barry Docks, near where I was born, was a rusting labyrinth of disused railway lines, cranes and mysterious buildings. Not to mention the rusting hulks of hundreds of dead steam engines. Port Talbot steelworks, too, left a big impression. Whenever my parents would drive back from Swansea in the evening, we'd pass this fantastic night-time metropolis of chimneys and furnaces, stretching as far as the eye could see.

You have a PhD in Astronomy, how did you develop an interest in that particular subject?

It was always there, from the time when I was small. I suppose the thing that really pushed me into thinking about doing it as a job was seeing Carl Sagan's Cosmos series on television when I was in my early teens. But I was also reading a lot of popular science books, and rebelling a little against the advice I was getting from teachers, which was to concentrate on the arts side of things.

You work as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency. I imagine a hive of white-coated, bespectacled boffins pointing heavenwards, planning a brave new tomorrow. Is your job as futuristic and sexy as it sounds?

A lot of the stuff that happens here is futuristic and cool, no getting away from it. There are some amazingly clever and dedicated people working for the Agency. My own job is pretty similar in outline to a lot of other people's: I come in and sit at my desk and do stuff on my computer. Now and then I can get bogged down in details and it doesn't seem so much fun, but I just have to remind myself that - say - the data I'm struggling to interpret is from a quasar millions of light years away, or bizarre binary system like something dreamt up by a space artist on crack.

Would you give up the day job if writing science-fiction became lucrative enough?

I am giving up the day job, as it happens. It's not so much because the writing has become more lucrative, or because I don't enjoy my work (I do, as I hope is obvious from the above) but because I've come to the conclusion that I can't do both things at once. It was seriously hard work writing the last three novels during my spare time, and I decided I'd had enough. I was using all my leave time for writing, for instance, which left no time for holidays.

Your own novels are written on a grand scale, with an epic range of characters and ideas. To what extent is each book pre-planned; and what is the organising principle behind the ongoing series?

I'm not really one of life's great planners, to be honest. I can't put together an Ikea kitchen stool without stopping halfway through and having a re-think. Each of the books has grown from a vague seed of an idea by an organic process during the writing itself. You need some kind of plan to get from chapter to chapter, but I'm not one for outlines and schematics. All I knew when writing the last couple of books was that the Inhibitor threat would be contained, since I'd written a story set after the Inhibitor wars. The same story also made reference to the Nestbuilders, which is why they show up in Absolution Gap.

How difficult is it to balance the science with the need to make the reader turn the page?

I do try hard to find the right balance, although I don't always succeed. The way I write, generally (this isn't true of all the stories I have written) is to flesh out the story and characters first, and then start loading the science into it, when and where it seems appropriate. Whenever I've done it the other way around - taking some scientific conceit and trying to construct a story around it - I've found it much harder, and much less satisfying in the long run. There isn't actually that much foreground science in the books, truth to tell. There's a bit of brane theory in Absolution Gap, but only a few pages out of a 600 page book. I think people pick up on the fact that the background conditions are quite rigorous - no faster than light travel, no artficial gravity, etc - so the books have a sort of hard SF vibe about them, even if the foreground story is fairly traditional intrigue and adventure.

Revelation Space has gothic elements, Chasm City is a crime thriller, Redemption Ark has aspects of horror and Absolution Gap is pure apocalypse fiction. Why such a strong fascination with the dark side of life?

I suppose I've always liked horror, especially gothic horror, and I've always had a soft spot for Noir. It's just a reflection of what I read and watch, really.

With such a wide cast of characters how do you set about individualizing each voice?

It's one of my weaknesses, I think. Some people felt that the characters in Revelation Space were not particularly well differentiated, and I've worked hard since then to put more of my energies into drawing character. Individualising the voice is one approach, but it needs to be done with an incredibly light touch. If I'm having trouble visualising a character, I try and think of an actor portraying them, and then hold that actor in mind whenever they're on the page. Dialogue is a big problem for me: I'm constantly stripping it down, rebuilding it, shuffling it around, until I lose all sense of the rhythm of natural speech. Dialogue, I've noticed, is one of the few things I get more or less right in first draft. It always gets stuffier and less natural with each rewrite, as I've proved to myself by comparing drafts.

It is in such human concerns as revenge, deceit, suffering, sin and redemption that the reader is drawn into your world. Do you agree that this human element is essential in anchoring what might otherwise be pure escapist fantasy and adventure?

Totally. I'm drawn to these themes through my love of crime writing, but in a sense they're just the universal themes of good writing. I'm certainly not interested in reading morally simplistic tales with pure heroes and pure villains.

In your latest book Absolution Gap there are references to genetic engineering, refugees and a charismatic cult. How much do contemporary issues filter into your work?

I don't think they could fail to filter into my work, even though I've an instinctive aversion to fiction based around "issues". Genetic engineering might be the hot topic of the day, of course, but we've had refugees and charismatic cults for thousands of years.

Have you noticed any development in your writing skills between Revelation Space and Absolution Gap? Is the craft of novel writing getting any easier?

Certain things get easier, but in the process you realise there are technical challenges you hadn't even contemplated before, and you're totally crap at them. I've felt the same way since I was about 8. The day I don't feel there's something important I'm crap at is the day it won't be interesting to me. There's no danger of that happening anytime soon, though.

What is your writing routine? Do you have a strict regime or do you lounge around in a smoking jacket waiting for the muse to inspire you?

I do have quite a strict regime, but only because I'm an inherently lazy shite. At the moment most of my writing is done in the evenings, after work. I try and get to the computer by eight, and then knock off around ten. If I've done around a thousand words in that session, I'm a happy bunny. In practise, it can be anywhere between zero and two thousand words. It can feel like a chore, but I know from experience that if I'm prevented from writing for any length of time, I really, really miss it. I'm not one for waiting for the muse - if I'm stuck on one bit of a book, I'll work on another part, or fiddle around with a short story instead. Basically, the muse is an unreliable bastard who never shows up when you need him, so you're best not trusting in him.

You're a music fan. What do you think about Welsh pop - do you listen to any of it?

I'm a diehard fan of the Manics, actually. I heard Motorcycle Emptiness on the car radio during a driving lesson and I was never the same again. I really like all their stuff, even Gold Against the Soul, which everyone else seemed to hate. Here's my Manics anecdote: I was waiting to pay for a record in Cardiff's Virgin records, when I noticed that James Dean Bradfield was standing in the queue next to me. Anyway, the girl behind the counter turns to her mate and says: "You'll never guess who I just saw in the St David's Centre: that Nicky Wire out of the Manics!" It doesn't get any more thrilling than that, does it?

Indeed not.

©Anthony Brockway 2003

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Only another 402 to go. A quick snap taken at the Vexations performance staged at the National Museum of Wales on Saturday. I sat through about about two hours worth and found it rather soothing. With the aid of a cushion and some nibbles I reckon I could have done the whole 18 hours, no problem. That, though, would have meant risking temporary insanity. When Peter Evans attempted to play all 840 repetitions solo, in Sydney in 1970, he had to be removed from the stage on repetition 575. He'd started seeing monsters coming out of the walls. All I saw were a few water lillies.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Isabel Ice Interview 2005

Another interview rescued from my now-defunct Wolf Man Knew My Father website. This time with lovely Welsh porn star, Isabel Ice:

Isabel, can you tell us a bit about your background and where you are from?

I come from the Vale of Glamorgan where I went to a good Catholic school until I was 16. After that I moved to Cardiff and went to college there, and in a natural progression I moved to London to go to university. I have a lovely family who at present don't know the mischief I'm up to. I have no doubt they'll be horrified, but I know they'll still love me. I had a very normal upbringing, although my mum and dad have always thought I was crazy!

How did you first get into the adult entertainment industry?

A scout in London just asked me if I'd be interested in doing porn movies in LA, and I was up for a bit of a challenge. I'd just moved back from Spain, where I was living for some time, and the cold London weather just wasn't doing it for me so I thought a holiday to LA sounded like just the ticket. A month after being asked I was on the plane and arriving at my agent's office, LADirectModels.

Why did you choose the name 'Isabel Ice'?

Because I didn't want to be too serious and call myself something really predictable and 'sexy' sounding, so I thought it was just a funny name. I'm so un-icy that it doesn't really suit me at all. Hehe.

Does being a porn star interfere with personal relationships?

Yes, it does interfere with relationships but I find that's more my problem than a problem with guys. I just don't have the time to invest in a relationship because of work, and so I often find I neglect men. Not intentionally. It's not nice to put work first all of the time, regardless of the industry that you're a part of, so I tend not to have a boyfriend as I don't want to mess them around. But you never know... Mr. Right may be just around the corner - maybe my priorities would shift if I was genuinely in love.

What kind of preparations do you have to make before shooting a sex scene?

I always try and focus and keep calm - I suffer from pre-shoot nerves really badly. Luckily I perform well under pressure. I find that because a lot of my scenes are very wild, people have huge expectations of me when I walk on set, and I always think: 'What if today I just can't do a great scene?' I hate doing a bad job. I'm incredibly proud of what I do, and I take my job as a performer very seriously even though I don't take myself seriously. You have to be professional. Also before scenes you have to make sure that everything is clean. Some girls like to stretch their ass before they start anal, but I like to feel the pain. Haha.

Is the sex enjoyable when you shoot a scene or does the presence of camera and crew inhibit the pleasure?

It's not like real life sex. The focus is on making great porn which is the buzz for me. The sex is just a part of a bigger picture. For example, I would never do double anal in my 'private' life, but that doesn't mean I don't like to do it for porn. I find porn is almost like a forum, where you can try the maddest sexual acts and there's no repercussions. You can say what you want, do what you want, and when it's over everyone goes home. No small talk, no worrying if the guy thinks you're a slut because you are, and you're a great slut! The camera crew being there doesn't bother me at all, but sometimes the guys struggle when there's a lot of people in the room. Sex in private and sex in porn are two incomparable entities.

What's the most difficult scene you've ever had to shoot?

I don't know. None of the sex acts are difficult for me. When I get bored is when I start to find things difficult. Like if the guy has a soft cock it really starts to grind on your patience after a while. Instead of there being a method behind the madness it becomes all stopping and starting, and more stopping and starting. The same can be said of shoots with companies who like to have a lot of cuts. I just want mad sex. A 30 minute scene in my book should take 30 minutes to film. I also find having my photo taken very difficult. I hate posing. I'm a porn star not a glamour model! Haha.

Which of your films was the most fun to make?

Anything with my favorite companies/guys/girls are always great to make. I always have fun when I work with Steve Holmes, Manuel Ferrara, Mr Pete, any of the Platinum X Pictures, or Red Light District boys. We're friends off set as well. While I'm in LA I go bowling every night with those lot. We even have our own bowling balls and shoes. Not very rock'n'roll - the crazy life of porners revolves around our nightly fix of sushi and bowling!!! Hehe.

What are the main differences between American and British porn from your point of view?

The major differences are the time it takes to shoot movies. In America it's literally in and out for gonzo porn most of the time. Unlike the UK where things are a little less organized. The second huge difference is the talent pool. All of the best men head straight to LA. The better the male performer is, the easier the scene is.

Is it possible to make a decent living from acting in porn?

It is very easy to make money from the industry but you only have a limited shelf life so you have to be smart. Finish school, have a stand-by career because it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming you'll be making that kind of money forever.

Away from the sex industry what are your main interests?

I love salsa dancing, cooking, socializing. I love going to the movies and, although I only go whilst in LA, I suppose bowling would have to come under one of my interests. I also love photography, art, and I collect expensive sex toys.

What's your favourite book, movie (non-porno) and record?

Book is The Damage Done by Warren Fellows (a true life story of a guy in a Thai prison for an unthinkable amount of time... I cried many times during this book). Film is a hard one... I love Pedro Almodóvar, he's so twisted but believable. So I'll say La Mala Educación but that's just one of many of his films that I love. Record. Hmmm, there's just so many to think of... at the moment I'm really liking Franz Ferdinand but I'm into all sorts of music. I think if I had to name just one I'd say... Parliment/Funkadelic's One Nation.

What's your idea of the perfect man?

Ohh... hard! I don't have a 'perfect man'. Although I tend to go for darker people. Not on purpose but when I think about who I fancy they all seem to be olive-skinned or dark haired. Personality wise, I like people who are funny but dark at the same time. I like to get a little sick sometimes. And of course, the typical: kind, nice etc.

Who would you like to star with in your fantasy Welsh porn film?

I'd like to be involved in a mini-gangbang with members of the Super Furry Animals.

What are your long-term ambitions in porn - and beyond that?

To just keep making porn to the best of my ability. To keep having fun with it and who knows where that'll lead. Beyond that I would like a family and a job that I really enjoy and, of course, I want to travel more.

Finally Isabel, what advice would you give to any young Welsh women thinking of going into the industry?

Think very carefully before you go rushing in looking to make a quick buck. Sum up what the pros and cons are and whether the sacrifices you make are going to be worth it. You will experience prejudice, and it will restrict certain things you will be able to do in the future. Think about the relationships you have and if they can withstand an issue like porn. If you still think that it's the right option for you get a good agent, don't do anything you don't want to, and good luck. Wales needs to be more on the map, and if the only way I can do it is through porn, so be it!!!

©Anthony Brockway 2005

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Chasing Dean by Tom Anderson

Dean, in case you were wondering, was a hurricane - a monster of nature that, in 2007, threatened the eastern Seaboard of the USA. Tom Anderson (the author) and Marc Rhys are a couple of surfers from Porthcawl, Wales, who set out to track Dean's turbulent progress and ride the Grade A waves that it sent ashore.

In pursuit of the hurricane the intrepid duo cruise the east coast in a clapped out Ford Escort Estate, obsessively studying meteorological bulletins. Something as seemingly mundane as the weather is impressively transformed by Anderson into a source of compelling interest. I never realised that the formation of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic could be quite so spellbinding.

Sensitive to the karmic potential of nature a visit is, early, paid to New Orleans to survey the apocalyptic damage visited upon that city by hurricane Katrina. In fact the "precarious relationship between pleasure and the earth's wrath" is never far from the author's mind as he wrestles with the moral ambiguity of their chosen adventure. Is it right, he ponders, to gain hedonistic pleasure from a phenomenon that can wipe out entire cities?

The relationship between the two surfers develops nicely during the course of their journey, undergoing subtle changes as they get into various scrapes. Their contrasting personalities aids this process. Marc is rational, scientific and a natural sceptic; Tom is intuitive and much more laid back. Marc's keener sense of his Welshness makes for some comic moments as he struggles to come to terms with your average American's total ignorance of Wales.

Chasing Dean's narrative drive, much like surfing itself, builds slowly, before reaching a glorious crescendo. As a travel book it is Kerouacian in spirit - it has a beat sensibility. This is, after all, as much a road trip as a surfing expedition. The downbeat romance of life on the road: meeting new characters, and experiencing new places, is adroitly captured. As is the flipside - that perpetual restlessness that forces the traveller to always move on.

No specialist knowledge is required here – you don’t have to be a surfer to enjoy this book. Anderson’s enthusiasm for his subject carries the reader along in its wake, and by the end of their odyssey you will know exactly what to do should you ever encounter mung while looking for the perfect tube.

*Chasing Dean by Tom Anderson is published by Summersdale and is on sale now. It's a great summer read.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Vexations at the National Museum of Wales

The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, is to stage a rare full-length performance of Erik Satie's Vexations. Pseuds, like myself, are already creaming themselves at the prospect. Vexations, in case you are unfamiliar with the work, is a short keyboard piece which is repeated 840 times. The performance lasts about 18 hours.

The composition, famously, had its first public airing at the Pocket Theatre, New York, in 1963. This now-legendary gig featured a pre-Velvet Underground John Cale as one of its 12 participating pianists. The event itself was organised by avant-garde muso (and big Satie fan) John Cage.

Amazingly, in 1969, Vexations was performed in north Wales, at Bangor. This rather strange show took place in the shop window of Crane's Music store in the town. It was completed in 21 hours by 10 music students under the guidance of Professor Reginald Brindle Smith. Such a notable cultural event ought to be etched into the Welsh national consciousness but, true to form, it is all but forgotten.

Cardiff's Vexations will help to rectify this by celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Bangor gig. It will also celebrate John Cale's appointment to represent Wales at the Venice Biennale. Those brave souls who wish to witness the entire 18 hour marathon need to get up at the crack of dawn and perhaps snort some amphetamine beforehand. It will begin at 7am and it's scheduled to end at midnight. The rest of us can leisurely dip in and out of the performance throughout the day and attend one of the free lectures. I'll see you there.

*Satie's Vexations will be performed at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, on Saturday, 20th June (7am - midnight). Entry is free.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Stilletoes - ADHDreams

The UK version of punk was all but over a year after its 1976 inception. True, it lingered on in various snarly guises but by the early '80s it had been comprehensively co-opted by the mainstream. The rallying cry of 'Punk's not Dead' began to sound increasingly hollow and when your teachers started turning up at school sporting vaguely punk hairdos you knew that it really was time to move on.

So what to make of ADHDreams, the debut release from north Wales punk band The Stilletoes? The packaging wears its aesthetic influences on its sleeve (literally). We're treated to lurid pinks; Jamie Reid-style lettering; even that hoary old punk cliche, a safety pin. And it's not done in a playful Po-Mo kind of a way either (a la Helen Love) but appears to be quite sincere. Gulp. So it was with some trepidation, and fearing the absolute worst, that I pushed my CD machine's PLAY button.

My anxiety turned out to be entirely misplaced. ADHDreams is choc-full of great tunes and is fuelled by enough energy to light up even the darkest corners of your heart. The first-person lyrics focus, mostly, on broken down relationships and the often negative influences of drink and drugs. Not that this is a puritanical record - The Stilletoes sound like they had a shit load of fun putting it together. Producer, ex-Gorky John Lawrence, has done a great job in capturing the band's youthful zest and anarchic spirit.

Highlights include the supercharged and charmingly shambolic Hypocrite! Hyper Shit! which actually does sound as though it was spawned in 1976. Ditto Teimla y Cyffro. The feminist Cuntrol makes your average Lily Allen record resemble the banal musings of a privately educated posh girl - which she is. It's rare these days for bands to sing about the zeitgeist so Recession This!, which hails the credit crunch, is a welcome surprise. As singer/songwriter Efa Thomas puts it: I'm so glad we're all fucking poor/Bad news! Bad news! Gimmie some more. The stand-out track on the CD is I Need to Roam - a glorious hymn to freedom. Whilst Nazis Cymraeg sounds like a hand grenade being lobbed through a church window. This song has already caused a kerfuffle in the Welsh-language world with its accusations of racism. Whatever the rights or wrongs of Ms Thomas's views it's an absolute corker of a tune.

So yes, ADHDreams is as anachronistic as a Shakin Stevens record, but its visceral energy, lyrical honesty, and fuck-you-attitude far outweigh any negatives. And being so ridiculously young (the drummer is just 14!) the band can hardly be accused of indulging in punk nostalgia. ADHDreams is out now on Ankst Records. It cost me a tenner - I consider that money well spent.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Margaret Phillips

Here's a nice autographed photo of one of my favourite (but neglected) Welsh actresses, Margaret Phillips of Cwmgwrach. In the background you can just about see the American theatre in which she was appearing. The play being staged was Dial M for Murder. This dates the picture at circa 1952/53.