Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Wider Reading | Cypress Grove, the Gun Club and mixtape foreplay

Cypress Grove, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and two acoustic guitars

This week’s mixtape, which will go up either tomorrow or Friday, is a pretty special one – it’s been put together by a chap called Cypress Grove, personally responsible for one of the most interesting takes on the ol’ mixtape/compilation/coversrecord/etc. blueprint I’ve ever come across. Silkworms obviously had a responsibility to therefore get the man to give us his interpretation of the Music As Reading mixtape project. And get it we did.

By way of an introduction to Grove’s comp pedigree – while you’re, y’know, waiting for the actual tracks – here’s a wee article/interview I did for the New Statesman a few months back (bastards never printed it) profiling both him and We Are Only Riders, his to my mind groundbreaking album. I’ve pasted it in whole, as it was, don’t currently have time to check it for any now-broken links or now-outdated comments so apologies if there are any of those, such is life.




As is so often the case, a compelling candidate for the (yes, pointless) title of best record of 2010 was released in the first few weeks of the year. We Are Only Riders: the Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project came out mid-January. You may well not have noticed: it was generally rewarded with unhelpful 150-odd word reviews in the forgotten corners of the broadsheets (such as this one) and an eager but rather quiet online response from blogs, zines and musicians (i.e. the people what actually know their shit) – see the comprehensive list of comments slash quotations on the record’s myspace page.

A great shame for at least three reasons: firstly, it is a magnificent piece of work. Jeffrey Lee Pierce was the principal creative force behind, arguably, the coolest band of all time, The Gun Club, the altcountry-inventing punk pioneers adored by the likes of Deborah Harry and Jack White (“why are these songs not taught in schools?” the latter once asked an interviewer) – a tragic figure whose alcohol-induced demise, a year or so shy of his fortieth birthday, occurred in the wake of his bassist-lover’s decision to elope with his drummer. An elegant tribute to JLP’s cut-short life and work appeared, in fact, in the New Statesman way back in 1999 – “Pierce and his various line-ups played like men looking to spit in death’s eye,” observed Richard Cook.

We Are Only Riders is, ostensibly, a tribute record – to Pierce, breathing new and eclectic life into a scattering of hitherto unreleased tracks discovered, in his attic, by one Cypress Grove, a friend and collaborator, on a scratchy, barely-audible tape the two men recorded together in the early 1990s. Over a three year period, Grove invited an intimidating assortment of friends and admirers of Pierce to re-arrange and re-record these songs and others. The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project ended up utilising the talents of Nick Cave, Harry, Mark Lanegan, Barry Adamson and the Raveonettes to name but a few. A humdinger of a tribute record then. All the more so for the riskier contributions it features, from lesser known (in these here parts, anyway) artists – hickabilly hero Johnny Dowd, say, or the criminally underrated Lydia Lunch – which in various cases overshadow the big names’ efforts.

Second, it represents an extraordinary labour of love. The album took Grove a full three years to put together. Speaking to him, I got some idea of why that is, via an anecdote detailing his attempts to get Jack White involved:

‘I diligently pursued Jack White right from the beginning. I first tried through his management. That was going nowhere. Then I got a couple of leads – people who knew someone who knew him at one time. Again, nothing came of it. I was convinced that if he got to hear about the project that he would want to do it, and the only way that was ever going to happen was to speak to him personally. So when he was in London with The Dead Weather in June, I thought this is the best chance I will ever get – I will know where he is at specific times. I knew he was playing a live BBC session at Maida Vale, so I went and hung out there for hours. I eventually asked the doorman what time the band were coming out (pretending to be their driver!) and he said they left ages ago through the back door!

‘A few days later he was playing The Forum in Kentish Town, so I handwrote a letter (being aware of his distaste for anything digital) and headed off. I strolled round the back and as luck would have it the support band were just unloading their gear. So through a mixture of timing, luck and guile I managed to walk past the bouncers on the stage door and into the venue. There were about 20 other people in there I guess, and I was aware of being found out at any moment, so I watched the soundcheck as nonchalantly as possible. I rushed to the front and pitched him on the project in about 30 seconds. He looked initially dubious till I told him Kid Congo Powers was involved – then I had his attention. He was really into the whole concept of the project and seemed keen to do it. But Kid went to see him a few weeks later at his Washington DC show, and he said he would have to pass as his other commitments were too great and he simply didn’t have the time.’

It took, apparently, nine months to find a free day to get Nick Cave into the studio. Debbie Harry, the best part of a year.

Thirdly, and most importantly, though, the record also hinges on an intriguing innovation – with implications, I think, for the future of the cover version, the mythical ‘lost song’, the compilation record and musical ‘conservation’ as a whole. Recognising that recreating the songs as Pierce intended them would be an impossible, and apocryphal, task, Grove decided to organise recordings of three utterly different versions (by three utterly different artists) of each of the tracks on his original tape, so as to recreate something of JLP’s widescreen creative vision that would have, certainly, been lost on a single track – and make these the spine of the record. In short, nine of the sixteen tracks that make up We Are Only Riders are, in fact, only three tracks. Here’s how Grove himself explained it to me:

‘I am told that the multiple versions idea is quite a bold concept, and that a lot of people didn’t think it was going to work. I am pretty sure that it has never been done before, but I am willing to be corrected. For me it is the central concept, the core of the album, and the only intelligent way to deal with the material that I had at my disposal, in order to be satisfied that Jeffrey would be proud of what we were doing.

‘We were trying to achieve an approximation of how Jeffrey might have finally realised the songs himself, had he lived to do so. I have a friend who restores paintings, and he was given a portrait of someone’s great great grandfather in a military uniform to restore. It was in really bad condition and parts of the painting were missing. So in order to restore the painting to how it once was, he had to research military uniforms of the time, and use contextual cues from the rest of the painting. The end result may not have been entirely as the painter had originally intended, but it was a sympathetic restoration, and he brought his best mind to the work. I approached the Jeffrey tapes that I found in much the same way. We have only vague notions of how Jeffrey might have finally completed these songs, so here are three artists’ opinions on that. They all knew or admired Jeffrey, and the answer is probably close to an amalgam of all three versions.’

We Are Only Riders is an audacious, respectful, imaginative record that has the potential to change, for good, people’s ideas about what they are entitled to do with music which doesn’t actually belong to them. It deserves as big an audience of serious listeners as possible.

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