A reality check and a brave new sound from Sheffield’s newly-crowned king of space rock
There’s something deeply reassuring about a Guinness drinking, Malboro smoking, quiff sporting middle-aged teddy boy with a thick Yorkshire accent finding much warranted commercial success amidst the mire of mediocrity that the album chart now represents.
As we write this, his new album, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, is number three in the album charts. Richard Hawley has gatecrashed Keane and Scouting For Girls’ top ten album chart party. The fizzy pop got binned and Guinness is on the house. And much like his rich, dark, depthy-flavoured tipple of choice his new record is likely to have an enduring resonance. Hawley’s seventh album is a masterpiece.
To say Hawley’s songwriting style has changed is a falsity; there is still that reassuring sincerity, and the themes deployed on Standing At The Sky’s Edge certainly bear resemblance to previous work. The mournful lament is there (Seek It), the love song, a staple of Hawley’s previous solo output, makes its presence felt on opener She Brings The Sunlight, and the habitual reference to Sheffield is immediately visible in the album title (Sky Edge being a slightly rougher area of Sheffield blessed with a wonderful view of the city).
The trick Hawley manages to pull off with such glorious aplomb is to project these themes via a musical style far removed from the crooning rockabilly and one-man guitar act we’d become accustomed to on previous album efforts. The fare on the new record is an aggressive, dark form of psychedelic space-rock that takes these overarching themes and applies them solely to the individual. Yet the underlying anger and musical grandiosity on the album is what drives the whole vehicle forward. There is a sense of foreboding derived from a number of themes, not least the untimely death of best-friend and guitarist in Jarvis Cocker’s band Tim McCall, but also the pondering of mortality in the wake of such politically troubling and turbulent times. Hawley is going deeper than ever before, and it’s compelling.
The electric guitars are cranked up to tremulous levels on Down In The Woods and Leave Your Body Behind You, the scenes of Hawley’s most immersive thoughts. Who would have predicted something as placid as long strolls with the dog could have inspired such kaleidoscopic music? Instead of alienating the audience with effect laden psychedelia, the themes on the record tether it with the human sincerity we’ve come to take for granted from Hawley.
Determinedly set in his ways, the trademark sunglasses, leather jacket and reassuring working class earnestness are still there, precisely the variables that made us fall in love with him in the first place, but the former Pulp and Longpigs man has a new found fire in his belly born from dissatisfaction. The troubadour never allows the new colour in his guitar playing and gnarled teeth to get the better of him and tip the sound over the edge; this is Hawley as potent as you could imagine. Crack’s interview with him over a cigarette and an early morning coffee was a wake-up call of the most invigorating proportions.
What has prompted the change of direction on the new record and what, if anything, has re-ignited your love for the electric guitar?
The passion for the guitar has never died, y’know. The method in which I used to deploy it was a lot subtler. It wasn’t really deliberate, but when I went solo, I was very conscious that a lot of guitarists that go solo make really bad records. I’ve written songs since I was a kid, so it was important the change to going solo was focused squarely on the song, and in doing that I suppose I revealed I’d got a half decent voice, and it would have been so silly to bury it under a load of guitar. But for this album, the songs and ideas I was coming up with warranted a heavy stance, if you like. To me it was very direct and if you throttled that it would stop being direct. It seemed the solution was the thing I have in my hand every day. And it wasn’t my dick, it was my guitar.
It’s a really interesting juxtaposition of the raw themes you sing about and a huge astral rock sound.
The subject matter of the song is elemental, but it still contains a certain aspect of the domestic as well. There are more cosmic themes in there, but that comes from pondering mortality rather than wondering what’s at the other end of the galaxy. This is a very personal and immediate to ones self kind of thought. If you are lucky enough to get to a certain age, people start shuffling off the mortal coil and you’d have to have the emotional range of a rhinoceros’s arse to not ponder these things.
It’s nice that you’ve done it this way instead of writing a series of emotional, mournful laments. It’s very refreshing to attack it in this grandiose way.
The thing is, we’re alive! That’s the dichotomy. All we’ve got is now. That’s the weird irony of it all; if you are in any way a thinking, sensitive or pensive person, so much of your life is spent pondering those thing and then before you know it, your number’s up pal! I thought I’d try a different approach, rather than crying with my tongue up my arse. I thought, ‘let’s ‘ave it!’
It’s really nice to see you’ve retained Sheffield as the consistent inspiration. The themes on the album are as personal and close to home as they have ever been.
The basic music is always about sense of place. If you think about a lot of blues, folk and old country music, a lot of it is about place. Even little folk songs that use space rock are often very much of the personal and even domestic. It implies quite massive things. I am but a man and a human, but if you write about what you know and what you know to be absolutely fucking true from colloquial or personal experience, I’m pretty certain a lot of human beings will be feeling the same thing. Our needs as human beings haven’t changed all that much since we crawled into caves. We need food, water and shelter. Love and art are the beautiful luxuries you see in life.
You write almost unapologetically about the finery of the working class, and it’s great to see working class romance explored in this stratospheric way. The title of the album, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, refers to a working class area of Sheffield, right?
Cheers, I’m glad it works. Sky Edge is one of the first places that was ever inhabited. There was an iron-age fort there and the Romans settled there. I always like to have something to do with Sheffield and it is a nod to the city. Someone said recently that it’s Richard Hawley’s psycho-geography of his hometown, and I sort of thought that was an interesting way to look at it. I thought it was more of a metaphor of where we are as a country and I suspect a planet. I can only write about it from the perspective of someone from Sheffield, but I think there will be many people who relate. I literally think we are stood at the edge right now, politically and socially, and if we don’t reverse certain negative thinking we will never be able to reverse it. The definition of civilisation or being civil is that we care for our sick and elderly and give them a dignified end to their life, or we help them recover, but at the same time we cherish and nourish our kids and give them hope and a decent education. These bastards in power now really are quite frightening in that they aren’t idiots, they’re very clever people. Thatcher was a wannabe toff. This lot actually are the toffs. They are trying to reverse 200 years of history from 1815 when the Enclosures Act came into force (legislation that enclosed open fields and common land in the country. This removed previously existing rights of local people to carry out activities in these areas). When you see an arial view of Britain you just see carved out fields. It wasn’t like that once. All the lords and ladies took that land and carved it up and rented it to farmers so it went back to a feudal system, which had ended in the 1600s. In that period of time it used to be called ‘common land’. If anywhere near you is called something ‘common’, it’s called that for a reason, it means it’s common land to the common man. That’s just one part of it though. What kick-started the record was when I walking the dog in and around Sheffield as it’s got amazing green space. I’ve got a collie and I’ve walked miles with him. It stops him from becoming a fat bastard. I’ve re-engaged massively with the green spaces in and around Sheffield. I don’t know another city like it, really. The woodland I was walking around is like, 5,000 years old. It’s ancient and the first thing the Government wanted to do was to sell off all the woodland areas in a piece of legislation that was going to privatise the woodland areas of this country. I was just fucking outraged, because what that implies is that me and you have no access whatsoever to any recreational spaces. It didn’t even belong to them in the first place. You can’t sell what doesn’t belong to you.
Isn’t Nick Clegg the MP for Sheffield and Hallam?
Yeah, he is. When these cunts got in there was a riot in our polling station, because it’s really polarised where I live. It’s old Labour here, really really old. Like, Jurassic Labour, like me. The other half are kind of aspiring people. I don’t know where their fucking heads are. Anyway there was a massive fucking riot because they tried to close a polling station and loads of left-wing voters that turned up really late, as in the last half an hour, went mental because they tried to close the polling station.
As time goes on Sheffield seems to be undergoing a change in terms of how it looks and new businesses coming to the area.
Take the Thornbridge Brewery. There are pubs closing down all over Britain every day and I love me’ pubs. When I’m away I don’t think of Beefeaters and Buckingham Palace, I think of the fucking boozers. But this Thornbridge Brewery has saved loads of awesome oldies – y’know, these awesome spit and sawdust wood structure pubs – from going to the knacker’s yard. They are massively successful, but at the same time you get loads of other good businesses that are struggling. It’s a strange time. Where I’m from and where my grandparents are from, parts of them are like no-go areas now. Parts of Sheffield like Pitsmoor and Fir Park are quite sketchy to go out at night, yet you get these other parts of the city that are really nice.
There is obviously a lot of anger and frustration on the new record, is this subconsciously your most political album to date?
Maybe. It’s politics with a little ‘p’ though, because I’m not as eloquent as someone like Billy Bragg who has political argument in his songs. My songs are more about reaction and how it affects the individual. It’s definitely a colloquial response, but political writing is probably for someone else, though I have done it before. Tonight The Streets Are Ours was definitely a response to politicians patting themselves on the back after creating the ASBO. I just wanted to stove the fucking TV in. I just thought, ‘you fucking cowards. You’ve never had the balls to look at the root causes of what makes someone behave like that.’ It takes years for someone to be that dysfunctional. I get angry now and again over things like that and I just rear up and write songs.
We were in London a few weeks ago to watch Pulp at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Teenage Cancer Trust’s series of gigs. For a Pulp fan it couldn’t get more glorious than that. It must have been great to back on stage with the old gang again?
It was lovely because that might be the last time we’re all together again. There was that bit in the concert where Jarv got everyone to shine little lights at the beginning of This Is Hardcore. Steve (Mackey, Pulp bassist) and me were stood together in a line and the hairs on the back of our necks just stood up. There’s a real connection there. It’s almost like electricity, you can really feel it. It’s connecting with people on a level that’s actually quite hard to do. It’s great going onstage with Jarv and the guys. When you’re with a front man like Jarv, it’s like going onstage with a nuclear bomb, y’know what I mean? The irony of it is that the band is probably at the height of their powers at the moment.
It’s often the way when a band retires and people have the opportunity to sit on their material that you don’t realise what you’ve got til it’s gone.
Absolutely. When we decided to stop for a bit, I don’t think any of us realised how long it was going to be. I remember they released that Greatest Hits thing, which I personally thought was a really bad mistake, and the whole thing just stiffed. It’s not a rose-tinted glasses kind of thing though, things take time to mature and there are certain things that are evergreen and will always be great, and a lot of the Pulp stuff is so culturally and lyrically astute and on the money it won’t ever change really.
Obviously with a date at Brixton Academy, an album high in the charts, and a full UK tour, this must be an exciting time for you as an artist. Seven albums down and playing your biggest gig yet?
It’s right good, but let’s count our chickens when they hatch pal, know what I mean? I just hope some people show up. I’ll be a bit bored if it’s just us.
One of the Crack team, Lucie, is the founding member of the Longpigs group on Facebook. She wanted you to know it still gets a solid amount of attention.
I don’t do it, all that. I went on this forum we set up a couple of years ago, but it does me head in. The internet is a repository for all the human race is, good or bad, but I can’t hack the head-swiveling, eye-revolving nutters on there, they do my head in to the point that all the good folks that are sincere, good and nice are lost. You are just reading vicious things. It’s some fat bloke in his pants that’s done a media studies degree in Swansea who is just bored. He’s being vicious for the sake of it and I don’t really want to connect with people like that man. I want to connect with people that are on a bit more of a higher plain.
Finally, what cigarettes do you smoke, what do you drink, and what hair product do you use?
Malboro Lights – student fags, but I’ve been smoking them for years. I used to smoke Embassy, but then I went France and everyone was smoking them. I drink Guinness, and Black And White for my hair.
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Standing At The Sky’s Edge is out now on Mute Records
Words: Thomas Frost