David Lance Callahan

David Lance Callahan

An urban folk master

interview by Stefano Santoni

David Lance Callahan is an extraordinary character and musician. He has founded The Wolfhounds in the mid-80s which were part of the iconic C86 compilation. In the 90s David was (along with Margaret Fiedler) the leader of Moonshake which, along with other bands from the Too Pure label, contributed with energetic imagination to creating a kaleidoscopic post-rock scene in Britain. After having successfully reformed the Wolfhounds a few years ago, the pandemic led David to rework many of the songs he had prepared and to release, after more than 30 years of activity, his first, awesome solo album: "English Primitive I". With a mixture of happiness and emotion I had the chance to have a very pleasant exclusive chat with David that touched many topics: from the C86 scene to the British post-rock of the 90s, from the changes in his way of understanding the sound to his stylistic references, passing through the genesis of the new album and various future projects. Here's what he told us.

Wolfhounds are one of the few bands on the famous C86 cassette that are still active. What was the scene like at the time and what do you think now of the legacy of the C86 scene? Basically, they were different bands anyway and the Wolfhounds were never a jingle-jangle pop band.
Well, we did have a few jangly songs briefly! But there wasn’t really a ‘C86 scene’ until the cassette came out. We never really liked the song we chose for the cassette, as it was a throwaway old song and we never expected it to get the attention it ultimately got. Some of the bands – Primal Scream, The Bodines – were wise enough to put their best song on the tape. Other – including us – were a bit dumb and wasted the opportunity. So, the scene – until the tape, it was largely a loose connection between bands and fanzines around the UK that were all radically different, but who would help each other with gig organisation, recording and publicity on an ad hoc and shoestring basis. Then it became a genre and lost anything that was interesting about it. We liked post-punk (everything from Throbbing Gristle to Postcard Records), 60s garage, 70s reggae, early hip-hop, American post-hardcore, 60s/70s weird folk (Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, John Martyn, et al) and even Impulse-era jazz. These fed into our minimal musical competence and hopefully gave us some individuality. My tastes haven’t changed much if I’m honest.

Is the splitting of The Wolfhounds in early 1990 linked to the lack of press and radio promotion or to your gradual falling in love with samples and a different approach? Or maybe both.

No – we got plenty of press but no success (that should be our slogan!). We really had no money at all by the end and were emotionally and creatively exhausted. We had been offered potential deals with Creation (UK) and Homestead (US) but were stuck in a contract with Midnight Music and could not take the opportunities. That was very disappointing. But I had fallen in love with sampling technology and thought, rightly, that I could use it in a way that no one else was doing. I had met Margaret Fiedler by then, as she had answered a Melody Maker ad to join the Wolfhounds, but we ended abruptly, and she agreed with my ideas about sampling. The wolfhounds at the time would never have acceded to overt sampling, so I moved on. Fortunately, Dick Green and Alan McGee at Creation had enough faith in me to let me develop over the next year and put the first Moonshake record out.

I loved and still love that British scene of the 90s called post-rock and mainly linked to the Too Pure label. Moonshake, Pram, Long Fin Killie, Laika and even Stereolab created a universe of enormous creativity without limits or boundaries. A scene that has always reminded me of the post-punk energy and crossover between genres of groups like Stilts, Pop Group or Rip Rig Panic. What was the spark that led you to create a band so different from the Wolfhounds and what was it like, at the time, to live in this scene that, thirty years later, is still incredibly modern and up to date? Despite the stylistic differences, did you have any contact between bands? And did you maintain a friendly relationship with Laika, born from a rib of Moonshake?
That scene – and most of the bands did know and play together a lot – was incredibly exciting to be a part. Not only was everyone making innovatory music, but we also had enough interest from the music industry to fund most of our ambitions. Ideal for any musician! Many of us were, indeed, very influence by the post-punk era and modelled ourselves on some of those ideas. As I’d told Mags to leave Moonshake, mostly due to problems resulting from our lack of communication, we didn’t talk for many years, though we’re on friendly terms now.

Why did you decide to end the Moonshake experience and what happened from the end of Moonshake to the Wolfhounds reunion? I won't hide the fact that listening to you in "The Spectacular Nowhere" by Manyfingers was a wonderful and unexpected surprise.
I was once again in a state of emotional and creative exhaustion at the end of Moonshake, with added creative block and depression. I didn’t make much music for a couple of years (though I had an occasional multi-media project called The $urp!u$ for a while which didn’t really take off). I also had young children and needed a more reliable income for a while. However, interest in my previous work strangely and unexpectedly continued and Bob Stanley (St Etienne) asked if the Wolfhounds would play at the ICA in 2006 and we really enjoyed. I never stopped writing songs and pieces of music and it seemed logical to use them with the line-up. Then people seemed to want to reissue our back catalogue and even put out our new records. Chris Cole (Manyfingers, Movietone) was a long-time fan and asked if I’d sing my own lyrics on his LP, and the results were excellent, I think. Kind of a step forward from Moonshake. My words are much closer to what I’ve always wanted to write but strangely seem to have come full circle to the diary extract on the back of "Cut The Cake", the first Wolfhounds record.

You have always expressed your social and political beliefs in your lyrics without filters. What do you think of the current British politics, between Brexit and the handling of the pandemic? The idea I have from afar is that of a somewhat confused people struggling to come to terms with leaving the EU.
I find the current state of the UK (and world) deeply worrying. We seem to be returning to the 19th century social order of incredibly rich people doing what the hell they want and a complete lack of freedom for anyone who works for a living. Added to this is a lack of a free press (it being controlled by its owners who are in favour of the new social order). Italy innovated this situation with Berlusconi, but we’ve taken it a lot further! Rich opportunists manipulated the public to achieve Brexit which will almost certainly not help anyone else – the opposite, in fact. But we must respect a democratic vote, otherwise we’ll plunge further into authoritarianism. On top of this, in 2017 and 2019 we rejected the chance we had of a green revolution which would likely have dealt well with our climatic and economic problems, when we can’t afford to delay our global responses to these problems.

Recently, some artists such as Neil Young or Joni Mitchell have spoken out against Spotify, taking their cue from a podcast that published fake news and removing their music from their catalogue. But many have also previously complained that the streaming giant pays artists very low, if not ridiculous, royalties. What do you think about this problem and streaming music in general? It's clear that for our generation it's a different way of listening to music, but nowadays we have to deal with the younger generation, and I'm afraid, today's young people hardly go into a record shop...
I always like to have a finished physical product after I’ve done with recording something, because it feels like I’ve created something real. And it’s only right that people should pay for that. Streaming is far from ideal, but the amount of money involved barely matters to me as I never get very much anyway. I’ve got no idea what to do about that. But I do think internet platforms are publishers and are responsible for false or dangerous information that they give out. They should be held to account. 

Let's start talking about your first solo work. English Primitive I was highly anticipated and turned out to be even better than I thought. Maybe that's one of the few good sides of the pandemic? In other words, during the lockdown you finally had the time to put your hands on material you've probably had for some time?
Yes, this first album and the next area mix of songs I’ve been working on for a long time and others that were written very recently during the pandemic. They work together well, though. I’m self-employed but don’t get enough work to intrude too much on the creative process, so I’ve ben able to write and record these two LPs and have enough other material for two more that I haven’t started yet. Recording with the others was a problem for much of the time, though, for obvious reasons.

Is there a concept on which the album is focused? I found different suggestions in the lyrics, from feeling insecure at the beginning of a relationship to the soldier returning after the war. What do you mean by "English primitive"? Is it something that refers to the situation in the UK? Maybe the fact that the British government has started to contract out parts of the NHS and the Welfare State to private companies?
I have a jaundiced but optimistic worldview which is what binds the songs all together. English Primitive is phrase that just sounded good in my head, but it seemed to suit my ‘non-musician’ way of composing and playing (though I’ve picked up some guitar skills over time – but I still can’t play anyone else’s songs, even now). It also fits the lowest common denominator states of English culture and politics as we bottom out post-colonially. I’m very proud to have been born into a time where we have the welfare state, which I think is th greatest achievement of mankind, especially regarding the benefit to an entire society rather than just rich people.

What is there of Wolfhound and Moonshake in your way of composing for a solo album?
With the Wolfhounds, I (and sometimes Andy Golding) tend to send finished songs to the others and allow them to make up their own parts. We then chisel away at them in rehearsal or trying them out at gigs. Moonshine was a much more regimented way of composition, as many of the songs were electronically sequenced and had to have members play along with them. I still use samples, but I’ve rejected that inflexible ay of playing. Solo – I tend to make up songs on a uniquely tuned electric guitar, record them and then get drummers and other musicians to fit parts to that, or I play samples by hand over the top.

Who are the musicians playing with you on the album? I remember Daren Garatt in Pram and he was also in one of The Fall's many line-ups but I don't know the others. I can say though that I love Katherine Mountain Whitaker's voice.
Daren I’ve known since he was in Pram (who I loved), and then in The Nightingales. He’s always been an underrated drummer and has an amazing feel for a song’s inner rhythmic workings, as well as being a great improviser and quick worker. Katherine was in a band I saw a few times called Evans The Death, and has always had a voice that towered way above her peers. When I first asked her to sing on one of my songs it was very satisfying to hear how well our voices blended. I’ve given her a song to sing on her own on the next record and she’s done an astonishing job on it. Terry Edwards plays wind instruments on some of the songs and I’ve known him since I was 15 and was one of the mascots the local punks allowed to hang out with them. He’s always been a great player and was on Eva Luna. I can’t remember how I met Alison Cotton, but it was probably somewhere in the London nightlife demimonde. Her solo LPs are fantastic, as is her band the Left Outsides. She kind of does a dark, haunted semi-folk music that suited some of my songs very well. The Iskra Strings had done some work with the Leaf Library that I liked, and I just asked them directly, and the same goes for Dan Fordham who did the ace string arrangements.

Considering that we just talked about it, I think it's great that you're giving visibility to lesser-known artists like Katherine Whitaker and Alison Cotton from underground bands like Evans The Death or The Left Outsides. Which are your current favourite artists, and which are the artists that inspired you to become a musician?
I’m just a fan and like to work with people who I admire and who I think will add something good to what I do. Most famous people wouldn’t be seen dead with me, even the ones I know, so I’m always discovering new talent. However, they give me as much visibility as I give them, and that’s not why I do it. I just want to collaborate on my solo material because there are instruments I can’t play, and I can only sing in a male voice. There’s always good music around, old and new. Currently, I’m listening to Ben Lamar Gay, Benefits, This Is The Kit, The Lou Reed RCA demos, Stick In The Wheel, Lankum and Oumou Sangaré. That’s just today, though.

As you may have gathered from my review, I liked "English Primitive I" very much. Where do you get your inspiration for your lyrics, and above all, what inspired the writing of "One Rainy September", maybe my favourite track.
Inspiration, as always, comes from my mind wandering during ‘down time’. I’m always thinking “what if ...?”. Everything I think about makes its way in somehow, though not always in an obvious way. And it always ends up in some way being an overarching political criticism and/or falling into the idea that the past is always with us and we’re always repeating past mistakes in new ways but surviving just about anyway. There’s always an element of magical realism, I guess, as I’m constantly torn between the mystical and the empirical. "One Rainy September" is a dialogue between an absent army father and his daughter and the misunderstandings that arise between them due to being wrapped up in themselves and not taking time to understand each other. It’s a very sad song but perhaps it applies to many parents in other ways, too. Having said that, it just came out like that, and I only thought about it afterwards.

In the disc there are some tracks with a long duration, 7 or 8 minutes. It was either planned and deliberate or the songs just sounded so good that there was no reason to cut them short.
The latter. Each song is as long or short as it needs to be. I have that freedom, at least.

I found the mix of folk, psychedelia and oriental suggestions fantastic, but always with the roots firmly planted in garage and classic songwriting, with tracks of different lengths and different atmospheres. Will "Volume II" be released soon? Will it consist of the same ingredients?
I listen to everything. My only criterion is ‘artistic rigour’, so I enjoy commercially successful music as well as the avant grade. I’ve always views rock and pop (even its indie subspecies) as a continuation of folk music, and still don’t understand the separate genres too well. I also don’t understand copyright law much, as music evolves by stealing and copying, and then fucking it up because you just can’t help it. "Vol II" is noisier and more pysch than "Vol I", but still has a similar eclectic range of inputs. And I still listen to 60s garage and classic songwriters, particularly when sung by 50s torch singers.

I'm curious how the album artwork came about. It's a very striking image. I love medieval stained glass and I was wondering if Pinkie Maclure created it from your suggestions, or if you thought it suited the atmosphere of the record.   
I’ve known Pinkie since about 1990 and have always admired her singing (she’s in Pumajaw with her partner John Wills, who was in Loop). I find her stained glass work breathtaking and it seems to suit my work so well – as you say, it looks like it was specially commissioned but it really wasn’t. She’s getting an international reputation as an ‘outsider artist’ but her work is so much better than most ‘trained’ artists.

What are your future plans as a solo artist and with the Wolfhounds?
Well, those are my future plans – "English Primitive II" is finished and in manufacturing and will be very different and very much the same. I have enough songs written for at least two more LPs and I’ll soon try to demo and record them. I’ll be touring for the first time in years in the UK from October. Europe and the USA (and other parts of the globe) are a problem now – for every British musician, really. I’m also writing a novel and another bird book, but those are, as ever, long-term projects.



Discografia

English Primitive I  (Tiny Global, 2021)

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Video
 Born Of The Welfare State Was I
(da Official Video, 2021)
 Live Session
(live at The Victoria Dalston, 2021)
 One Rainy September
(da English Primitive I, 2021 )
David Lance Callahan su OndaRock
Recensioni

DAVID LANCE CALLAHAN

English Primitive I

(2021 - Tiny Global Productions)
L'esordio da solista dell'ex-leader dei Moonshake è un lavoro complesso tra folk, post-punk e ..