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Quiet Loner - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 7 / 10 / 2012

Quiet Loner - Interview


Quiet Loner is the project of much acclaimed Manchester-based singer-songwriter, Matt Hill. Ben Howarth talks to him about his politically angry third album 'Greedy Magicians', which was recorded live in a church in Salford

Matt Hill is a 42 year old singer-songwriter, who has been performing as Quiet Loner for the past decade. He released his first album, ‘Secret Ruler of the World’ in 2004, to some acclaim. Americana UK magazine made it their album of the year, while we at Pennyblackmusic called it “charming and frequently delightful”. There was then a six year wait before his second album, ‘Spectrology’, which ploughed a similar furrow of heartbroken balladry, sung in a country style. Though anyone who knows Matt well will know he has strong political views, until now they had only been occasionally glimpsed in his music. His third album, ‘Greedy Magicians’ changes that, offering a collection of contemporary protest songs. He was partly inspired by the approach of his label-mates, Last Harbour, and their desire never to make the same sort of album twice. But, those who enjoyed ‘Spectrology’ will be pleased to hear that the rich melodies and warm arrangements remain, while – despite the bleak subject matter – the songs are more uplifting than any he has recorded before. There is a twist, though. The album – though comprised of eleven new songs and sequenced as if a conventional album – was recorded live in front of a paying audience, at Salford’s Sacred Trinity Church. I spoke to Matt by phone two months before the album was due to be released, from his home in the Peak District. He was busy finalising the album’s artwork – each sleeve was to be hand printed, using 19th century techniques and planning for a short tour in November. PB: Your new album, “Greedy Magicians” – released on November 19th – is unusual, a collection of previously unrecorded protest songs, recorded as a live album. So the obvious first question is what gave you the idea to record these songs in front of a live audience? MH: To be honest, for me, I think the most important thing is the immediacy and energy that you get from doing the live performance. Because these songs are less reflective than my other material – they are a bit more angry and a bit more of-the-moment, I thought that a live setting might be better. I also thought that some of the songs – or rather some of the references in the songs – might date. For example, one of the songs mentions the Hadron Collider. They are all topical songs, and I was worried that if I made a studio album those references would quickly sound out of place. By making a live album, you are fixing it to a particular moment in time. So that was the motivation. PB: Your last album was recorded live, in the studio, but obviously without an audience. I don’t know if it was all first takes, but the performance that happened on the day is the performance you hear on the recording. So it seems like recording in front of an audience was an extension of that. MH: Yes, that’s true. I think that I got a really good response to that album. That was one of the things I liked about it, and also that other people seemed to like, that it was the sound of us playing in the room. It wasn’t quite first-take, but we didn’t go past third or fourth take I don’t think, so the performances were as they were played in the studio. But, of course, in the studio you have much more control over the sound and it is a bit more precise. PB: You said before the recording started that you were intending to approach it as a recording session, rather than as a gig. So did that mean that if someone had fluffed a bass line, you would have recorded the song again? Or did you have a rule that you were going to play the song and that is what the album would sound like? MH: We did agree that we would play a song through to the end, and we set a rule that no-one in the band was allowed to stop a song, even if we personally made mistakes. The only person who was allowed to stop a song before the end was Sam Lench, who was producing it. And he didn’t stop any of the performances. I requested that we, however, did a couple again and Mike Doward, the bass player, asked that we do another one again. So, there were I think three songs that got repeated, although when we put the album together we ended up using the first take anyway. PB: I like the way the album is mixed. You get a kind-of hush as the songs are played – it doesn’t sound like a studio recording, but at the same time there aren’t people cheering mid way through the track. Did you instruct the audience on how they should behave? MH: There were instructions. It was really strange, in a way. It was somewhere between a gig and an ordinary recording. We didn’t want to ignore the audience and make it tedious for them. So I did have one eye on them all the time and trying to make sure it was an entertaining evening. But, at the same time, the focus was the recording. We gave everyone who came a programme as they went in, and that had instructions. We did request that people turned their phones off, and that if people wanted to get up and go to the loo to do that as quietly as possible. It was important not to have noise coming in from outside the church. The audience were brilliant. They were really respectful. We asked them to be completely silent during the songs and they were. I know there were a lot of people suppressing coughs and trying very hard to be silent. We said that at the end of each song, if they wanted to applaud, they could. At that point, I still hadn’t decided whether I wanted applause on the album or not. But when we heard it back, and heard how great that applause sounded, I decided that we would keep the applause and not hide the fact that the album was recorded in front of a live audience. PB: It adds that different dynamic to the album. I don’t know much about the church, whether it was used for recordings regularly. How did you come to record there? MH: It is used for concerts. I actually did my album launch for my last album in that church, and I’d never played a gig like it before. So when it came to doing this album, I just thought ‘you know, I’ve got to do it there’. The guy who runs the church, the Rev. Andy Salmon, really wants the building to be used by the community. He opens it up for all kinds of events – they don’t have to be religious events. They even have a goth night, believe it or not. Little Red Rabbit, the label that puts out the record, also put on nights there. PB: How did you decide who would be in the band that played with on the night? MHL Well, having decided that I wanted to do it live, I knew that I wanted to work with Sam Lench. He is a great engineer, and a great musician as well actually. He did the sound when I last played in the church, and he made it sound so beautiful that I knew I wanted to work with him again. So once I’d decided that I wanted to work with Sam, it seemed natural to then want to record with the rest of his band. He’s in a band called Samson and Delilah, who are fabulous. So I ended up working with three of the people from that band, and then James Youngjohns from Last Harbour, and Matt who produced and played on ‘Spectrology’. I tried to get Alan Cook as well, who had played on my first two records, but unfortunately he was playing in a different church on the same night. He was at the Union, playing in a project called My Darling Clementine with Michael Western King. PB: I know that the plan was for the people who came to the concert to be sent the album before the release date. MH: We’re going to release the album in November, and the audience will get their copies in mid-October. We have completely finished the album, but we haven’t completed all the artwork yet. We wanted to make it special for the people that came. We did a lot of things on the night to try and make the occasion special. For example, one of my friends is an artist, and she put together a ‘protest march of cakes’. So we had all these cupcakes, and all the cakes had a different banner on them, and all the audience got one. We also did badges. We had a hundred different badges, all with the name of an inspiring person on them. So we tried to have it that from the minute people came into the church. It didn’t feel like they were coming to a gig, but to something quite different. PB: Sounds like it was a really good night, I wish I had been there! But luckily, the rest of us still have the album. Changing the subject slightly, I read quite an old interview you did, around the time of the release of your first album, where the interviewer said that you were known to be left wing and interested in politics. They asked why you hadn’t written any political songs and you said then that you weren’t sure that it would work. What changed your mind? What made you think it was time to do political songs? MH: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I’d always been really wary of it, and I’m still a bit wary of it. I find myself being really apologetic for having made such a political record. But I’m fighting that, because I think it’s really important that you stand by your beliefs. But the thing that changed it was that I had played a few of these songs when I was gigging, and had got a really good response to them. People told me that they thought I should do more of these types of songs. But I’d always been really wary of mixing them in with other types of songs on an album, because I thought they might not work if they were on a different record. So I thought that I had so many of them that I would bung them all together and see what happens. So then I had eight songs, and I decided that I would write some extra songs specifically for this record. PB: There were songs consciously written when you were trying to write political material, and songs written earlier. That’s interesting, because it’s actually quite a broad album – it seems first like it’s an ‘angry, anti-Coalition’ album, but it’s not really. There’s a lot more to it than that. I was listening to it again today, and it struck me that it’s not actually until the fourth track where contemporary politics is tackled directly. MH: Some of those songs have been around since the Labour Government. There was a song on my last album that was vaguely political, about surveillance and CCTV cameras. So some of those songs – ‘Days of Surveillance’ and ‘Kneel and Comply’ – have been around for some time, while a song like ‘The Captain’s Diseased’ is written directly about David Cameron. There were a couple of songs that I wrote in order to tie up the album. I wrote the song ‘We Will Not Forget’ – a big list song that pumps out all these references to things from the past that inspire me – specifically for this record. I had demoed the songs beforehand, and felt that there was something missing. I felt the album needed a song that could bring all the different themes on the album together. Likewise, the last song, ‘Don’t Despair’, isn’t really a political song, but I wanted a song that ended it on a more positive note, saying not to give up. PB: I wrote my review of this album several weeks ago now, and I think that having listened to it more, I may have changed my mind about it slightly. Even though it’s political, not many of the songs sound just angry. It doesn’t feel like you are ranting… MH: No, I hope not, I am a little bit here-and-there, but it’s hopefully more measured. I wanted to follow on from the other two records that I’ve made, which are both very confessional and personal. The theme that pulls them together is candid honesty. So I wanted this album to be honest and personal. That’s the kind of music I like – I like country music and I like songwriters who sing from the heart. So I wanted that on this album too. Some of the songs are personal and a bit more reflective. But it is all political, often with a small ‘p’. It’s about how this stuff affects our lives. PB: Did you look actively for new material to write about, or were these topics that you already felt strongly about? MH: I don’t do any deliberate research. These are all songs that are about issues that are personal to me. For example, there is a song that is about disability. I have worked with disabled people and their families for years, so it is something that I feel really strongly about. Likewise there is a song on there that references the First World War, which is based around some stuff that happened in my own family, as my great-grandfather fought in the battle of the Somme. Then there is a song about Oswald Mosley and the rise of fascism. That is a really big issue in the area that I grew up, around Nottingham and Derbyshire. The far right now have a real stronghold in that area. PB: Do you think – I know that this was a very deliberate attempt to do a political album – but do you think that there are more songs like that which you would want to write? Or do you feel that, for the next album you do, you would want to go back to the kinds of songs you wrote for ‘Spectrology’. MH: I don’t want to ghettoise myself. Doing this album has given me a lot of strength and self belief that I can do something like this. I suppose like a lot of songwriters I am often wracked with self doubt. I think that I would like the next record not to be self conscious - that I would write whatever is on my mind, and I would be able to pull that together. PB: Do you have material that is left over, where you felt it wouldn’t fit on this album, having decided to concentrate on a particular type of songwriting? Or would the next album be written from scratch. MH: No, I have lots of material. I always have lots of songs ready. When it comes to putting the next album together, I will pick and choose. There will be elements of some songs on ‘Greedy Magicians’ that might actually be as much as ten years old. That was the same on ‘Spectrology’. Some of those songs were brand new, but others were songs that were knocking about years ago. I guess when it comes to doing the next record, it depends what kind of approach I take – whether I have other musicians on it, where it is recorded. Once I know that, I can decide which songs would suit that best. PB: I also wanted to ask about how you first started writing music, and the how the Quiet Loner project developed. MH: Well, I have been writing songs on a serious basis for a long time, since I was a teenager. But they never really came to anything – I was in lots of bands and I wrote songs. But I didn’t really pursue it seriously until about twelve years ago, when I first moved to Manchester. In 1999 and 2000 I started to perform solo. Having been away from music for most of my twenties, I then came back to it. Originally, I performed under my own name, but then when I did my first album, I adopted this Quiet Loner name. That album came out in 2004, and then there was a big gap until my next album, ‘Spectrology’, in 2010. But throughout that time, I continued to write and perform. PB: So what were the reasons for the long gap between the first and second album? MH: Well, there were a range of reasons. I did actually make a second record after ‘Secret Ruler of the World’. In 2005, I went into the studio and recorded an album. I didn’t release it – I should put it out one day because it is really good. The guys I did it with worked so hard on it, and then it never saw the light of day. I feel really bad. But it didn’t feel like the right kind of follow up and I didn’t put it out. Then I had some health problems, and some other issues that held me back. I thought at one point that I would probably never make another record. But then, something changed, and along came ‘Spectrology’. PB: So how did you find the label. Little Red Rabbit, which released ‘Spectrology’ and is also going to release ‘Greedy Magicians’. Did you already know they would release ‘Spectrology’ when you recorded it? MH: I’d known David Armes, who puts the label together, and the band Last Harbour for a long time. They are from Manchester, where I lived when I first started performing as Quiet Loner, and they are really good friends of mine. I didn’t begin the album thinking I would put it out on Little Red Rabbit, but then when it was done, I got in touch with David. I love the music they release, and I also love the aesthetics, the way that they make each release look beautiful. So it seemed natural as I know them to talk to them about it, and they were interested. I’d like to carry on working with them for as long as I can, but I will never assume that they will want to. They will take it on a project-by-project basis. What I like about Last Harbour is that they approach each album very differently, and they always a very clear process in mind. They don’t just go into a studio and make a record – they think ‘how are we going to do this one?’ Each album is different, and recorded in a new way. So, at the moment, I am thinking about that for my next record. I’ve done a live album, so now I’m wondering what I can do next in order to make it interesting. PB: Are you actively planning what you do next, or are you more just enjoying the fact that you have one album finished and ready to be released. MH: I definitely have half a mind to the next one. At the moment, its’ just a case of trying to work out what the songs are, then who I want to work with and what approach I want to take. But who knows how long that might be? It could be next year, or it could take another three years. The other thing is that – for someone at my level, which is not very high in the overall food chain of musicians – it costs money to do this. What I do is self financed. I hope to break even or perhaps even make a bit of money from my recordings, but I can’t just throw myself into a recording studio. I do have to think a bit about how it is going to be paid for. PB: I saw did that you did a three way tour with two other songwriters – playing on each other’s songs – earlier this year. Do you plan to do any further live dates when the new album comes out? MH: I have some dates planned for the end of November. I haven’t quite finalised all of them yet, but I plan to do about a week’s worth of shows. Then, I hope to do a longer stint next year, probably in April. I think in April, we will pull a single of Greedy Magicians, with a video of the recording, just to give the album a second push. PB: Would you tour on your own, or will there be a band backing you? MH: I would love to have a band. I do like playing solo, and I think it suits my songs. But when I made this album, it felt so great to have other people up there. I’d love to be able to take it on tour and do a bit more with it. I’d also like to do something with the concept of politics with a small ‘p’, and maybe do something collaboratively with other writers. I’d love to do something with Tony Walsh, who is a poet and an amazing writer (he compared the recording of ‘Greedy Magicians’). He has talked about us maybe doing some gigs together. I did a show a few years ago called ‘Quiet Loner Under Surveillance’. I did a powerpoint presentation as part of it, and I did some of the songs that are on the ‘Greedy Magicians’ album. I then talked about my life being under constant surveillance and how that made me feel, and I sang songs and showed pictures that I have taken. I suppose it was a little bit like doing stand-up comedy. PB: I was just thinking that actually, that it sounds a bit like something you might take to the Edinburgh Festival. MH: I did do it at a couple of festivals actually. I’d love to do something like that again, and maybe in collaboration with someone else. But, we’ll see what the reaction is… I’m a bit scared about the reaction to this album, actually. It’s nice to hear you say that you’d enjoyed it. I haven’t really had any reactions apart from people who were involved in it. I did a show recently, a few weeks ago, and a guy came up afterwards and said, “I really enjoyed your set, but don’t share your politics.” He was really nice about it, but I just thought then that the risk of being overtly political is that you alienate people in your audience. PB: I was thinking about that when I wrote my review of your album – how even though we are living through what I think will come to seen as a fairly remarkable phase in political history, very few musicians have written songs about it. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why that may be? MH: That’s an interesting question. I think that’s how it seems to me as well, but then I think that I’m a 42 year old man, maybe I don’t know what’s really going on out there. Maybe there are loads of young artists writing great political songs, but I’m not hearing them, because they are doing music I’m not tuned into. But, certainly, you don’t hear it in the mainstream. When I was young, there were loads of songs – from the Jam, the Specials, and Elvis Costello – that were in the charts. They didn’t say they were political songs, but they were songs about political issues, and they were just treated as normal songs, in the charts. They were great songs. I don’t know why this has changed. Maybe creative, angry, political people just aren’t drawn to songwriting anymore? Maybe they do other things, like computer programming or something like that. You look at things like Anonymous, and the computer hackers. That seems to me very much in the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, and what the sixties were all about. But instead of guitars, they have laptops. PB: There are songwriters who I really admire, and who I know have strong political views, but who wouldn’t write songs that reflect those views at all. I’m like you in that I can’t think of many people who write political material, and maybe it is because they are uncomfortable with dividing their audience like that. But, I think your album puts the case for the other side of this argument, where songs are about putting an opinion over, but not shouting a dogmatic opinion that brooks no opposition. MH: I think there is a difference between trying to get people to sympathise and relate to what the songs are about, and just getting up and saying “This is how it is… .“ If you do that, you’re not connecting with people, you are just pronouncing at them. But, I’ve just suddenly remembered that I was actually part of a compilation this year, called ‘We’re All In This Together’, and it was curated by Michael Western King. It has got 32 artists on there, all politically themed songs. It’s got some good people there, so there are clearly people out there with opinions. PB: The other thing that seems to be different from your previous albums is that there is less of a country sound, and the influences seem to be more from English folk. MH: I think that is just how my music has evolved. Country remains one of the main things that I listen so, but I think the involvement of musicians from Samson and Delilah, who are very much an English folk band, has influenced that. Also, the songs – in terms of their chord structures – are much more like pop songs that country songs. PB: Just a final question to wrap up the interview, do you have any major ambitions or long term goals that you would like to achieve in the future? MH: I do have lots of ideas, I love performing and I love getting out and playing live. I wish I could do it more and do it enough that I could earn more from it. I think if I did one, it would be possibly to play in slightly bigger places, probably as a support for other acts. When I say bigger, I mean maybe playing to 150 or 200 people, because at the moment I play to normally between 20 and 50 people. It would be nice to up that a little. I played at the Americana 10 festival last year, which had people like Richmond Fontaine and Mark Eitzel on the bill. It was just a much bigger stage and a much bigger crowd, and it was fantastic. I loved the energy of it. I’m not sure I’d ever be able to get there on my own, but I could imagine getting a lucky break and getting a good support slot. Other than that, as I mentioned, I like the idea of collaborating with people and also doing a show where I add in other things, like doing some kind of a stand-up element. Those would be things that keep my interest and push myself in a new direction. PB: That seems like a nice note on which to finish the interview. Thank you!

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Greedy Magicians (2012)
Fiery and acerbic third album from Quiet Loner, the project of Manchester-based musician Quiet Loner, which, recorded live in a Salford church, reflects with anger, humour and sadness on the present political state of Britain
Secret Ruler Of The World (2004)

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