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Black Sedan - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 10 / 5 / 2018

Black Sedan - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to author, publisher and broadcaster Mark Hodkinson about his musical project Black Sedan’s debut album, ‘Adventure Lit Their Star’, which features forty other contributors, including Charlie Chaplin, and took over two years to record.

Baptised in homage to a long-closed Rochdale record shop, Black Sedan is the new musical project of author, publisher and broadcaster, Mark Hodkinson. Hodkinson is the author of the 2009 rock novel ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’, music biographies on Marianne Faithfull, Queen and the Wedding Present, and various personal memoirs on football. He has played in indie bands in his native Lancashire for over thirty-five years and since he was sixteen, including Black Sedan’s precursor Black September. Black Sedan’s fifteen-track debut album ‘Adventure Lit Their Star’ was over two years in the making, and Hodkinson has involved in it a cast of forty ‘musicians’, ‘co-writers or sampled’ and ‘co-conspirators’. It opens with ‘Love on Love’ which extracts samples from Charlie Chaplin’s lengthy state-of-the nation address in the 1940 film, ‘The Great Dictator’ and bounces it up against a Nada Surf riff. Absolutely compelling, and impossible to pigeonhole into a category, ‘Adventure Lit Their Star’, which has been released on Hodkinson’s own label Pomona Sounds, is a sublime mix of folk, electronica, indie and alternative rock and pop, and fuses together acoustic and electric guitars, synths, strings and flutes with music, film, television and radio samples. There are five vocalists on it, including folk singer Kellie White, who has worked with Thea Gilmore, Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson, and John Matthews, the front man with Manchester-based psychedelic pop band The High. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Mark Hodkinson about ‘Adventure Lit Their Star’. PB: Black Sedan mutated out of another group Black September which released two albums in 2000 and 2004. Where does Black September end and Black Sedan begin? MH: In truth, it’s pretty much the same thing, which is me! In hindsight, calling the project Black September, with all its political overtones, was daft. I’ve always loved the Hawkwind song, ‘Hassan I Sahba’, with its refrain of ‘Black September’, and I think that was in my head when I chose the name. PB: Black Sedan takes its name from a record shop in your native Rochdale when you were growing up. You often got close to the door but you never went in. Did you choose that name for the album because it features the sort of music you imagine that you might have heard in there? MH: No, I just liked the name and how it is redolent of my past. I suppose I viewed the shop as a gateway to somewhere special and magical, away from dreary Rochdale. Maybe I didn’t need to actually go in – just knowing it was there with all its music and colour and that smell of patchouli oil and dope was enough. And, of course, I assumed anyone into music was cool and one day I might be allowed to join the gang. I later went through that door, metaphorically at least, and I’m never coming back! PB: It is certainly a very eclectic album, fusing together different genres and moods often in the same song. It shouldn’t work but it does. How do you think you achieved that? Did you spend a lot of time on the sequencing of the record? MH: I always spend absolutely ages on whatever I do, trying to get it right. And I mean, hours and hours, days and days. I used to be very sensitive and lacked confidence so I’d listen to lots of people and I’d nearly always be left with something I half-liked, at best. I’m now very single-minded but this means I’m constantly ‘testing’ the music, thinking it through a million ways to ensure it’s interesting and melodic and all those other things you’d want for it. I’m aware when I’ve done mediocre stuff in the past, or worse, but absolutely everything about this album is perfect, to me, which is all you can ever hope, for any piece of work. PB: You describe yourself as ‘The Captain’ in the credits. What did that role actually involve? It also lists in the credits the ‘musicians’, the ‘co-writers or sampled’ and ‘co-conspirators’ involved. The roles of the ‘musicians’ and the ‘co-writers or sampled’ are self-explanatory. What did being a ‘co-conspirator’ involve? MH: It’s ironic, the Captain thing. By nature, I’m the least likely Captain ever but a few years ago I realised everyone thinks that of themselves and life is about not apologising all the time or feeling you’re an imposter, so you might as well embrace whatever role you want. So, I became the Captain and, surprisingly, it feels all right! I wish I’d have known sooner because I’ve been too many years a foot-soldier. As ‘Captain’ I’d come up with, say, the basic chord structure of a song or an idea of the samples to glue together, and then I’d build on it with others, choosing the bits I liked or didn’t. The ‘co-conspirators’ are the musicians who cared enough and gave me what they could, without any obligations. They trusted me completely to do as I wanted with their playing and, through that, I gained so much self-confidence. I’m not naturally a great musician. I can play most instruments to a certain level but I need others to do the real virtuoso stuff or whatever they’re good at and I’m not. PB: The album opens with ‘Love on Love’ which features samples from Charlie Chaplin’s infamous speech in the film, ‘The Great Dictator’. It was a rare speaking role for Chaplin and in fact was his first sound film. It seems that Chaplin’s speech is perhaps more pertinent in these desperate times - Trump, Brexit, Syria, North Korea, an uncaring and weak Tory government at home – than it has been at any point in the 75 plus years since that film first came out in 1940. Was that why you decided to set it to music? MH: Hearing it for the first time, about 10 years ago, had a profound effect on me, too much so. I felt called to do something with it, spread the message – not in quasi-religious way but from within myself. I became obsessed with making it work as both a spoken manifesto and a song tied to a traditional pop structure, and for it not to feel ‘novelty’. Before it was released, I tried to get lots and lots of managers, labels, pluggers involved and I was amazed that very few of them made the same emotional connection as I had. They almost all, to a man and woman, showed it complete indifference. I still believe that, if they heard it, the public would prove the ‘taste-makers’ wrong and find so much solace, resolve and joy (of life) within it. It’s what the world needs right now, as you say. PB: You originally wanted to set it to Bowie’s ‘Be My Wife’ but his management wanted a huge portion of the publishing, so you settled on Nada Surf’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’ instead. How easy or difficult was it getting permission and finding who to ask to use the other music and vocal samples on the album? MH: Most people, at the level I’m working, are flattered to be asked, so long as you’re fair with the royalty splits. I’ve known Matthew of Nada Surf for a while, so getting his permission was easy enough. I was naive expecting Bowie’s people to be thinking about 50/50. They practically wanted it all. One or two bits of dialogue are reproductions from films – basically an actor-pal re-enacting a scene. He’s done a great job. Some drum loops I’ve used have been changed so much, been slowed down, fed through synths etc, that I’m sure they’re unrecognisable to whoever first originated them. The only time I was refused was a track called ‘The Big Picture ‘by a Scandinavian band, Host. I used the original as a basis for a song of mine called ‘Thinking (of the Time We Had)’. I thought I’d done a great job, adding all kind of sweet noises and a great vocal from John Matthews, but they refused me permission to release it. My fault – I should have asked first before I got carried away with myself. PB: ‘Americans in England’ also uses a long sample in which an elderly man looks back on his World War II experiences. In contrast to Chaplin he reflects on it with some nostalgia and sees it as a “great experience.” What was the appeal to you of that sample and why did you want to set that it to music? Where was it taken from? MH: The sample is from a documentary I made for BBC Radio 4 about JD Salinger’s time spent in England during World War 2. The old chap (98!) was a friend of Salinger’s reminiscing about their time together. The music on that one is a mishmash of all sorts including some brilliant violin by Aidan O’Rourke of the band, Lau. I thought the downbeat vocal delivery worked well against all that synth bubbling and insistent drumming. The bit in the middle is Robert Calvert – one of my all-time heroes – doing the spoken bit from the Hawklords’ track, ‘Psi Power’. He’s talking about Zener cards, which are used to measure extrasensory perception. I love that kind of out-there, esoteric stuff. PB: ‘The Girlfriend Self-Help Group’ is a spoken word piece about a girl who is forced by his actions into realising that her boyfriend is selfish, needy, self-obsessed and childish. What inspired that? Was it originally written as a short story? Who provides the vocals on that? MH: Good spot – it is a short story, sort of. It was based on some of my writing merged with the lyrics and theme of the Red House Painters track,’ Medicine Bottle’. I absolutely love their album featuring that song, ‘Down Colorful Hill’. It reminds me of David Sylvian’s work where the silence and the space-between is a bizarre kind of melody in itself. I tried to bring some of that to ‘The Girlfriend Self-Help Group’ Originally it was 13 minutes long but, in the end, I chopped it right down because I felt it would have been too much of a focus across the album. The vocal is by Hazel Hodkinson. Same surname as me but, amazingly, unrelated. I’ve known her many years – she sang with some great folky outfits in the 1980s. I gave her the lines and she read them brilliantly, on the first take. She went to drama school, so I should have expected as much. PB: You hate doing gigs and the line-up for Black Sedan is far too large to bring to a stage. How do you hope to promote the album without doing gigs? MH: I’m happy if the album sells a few hundred copies, either by word-of-mouth or a few reviews. 'Love on Love' has had plenty of airplay on BBC6 Music, so that should help. I long ago gave up on any kind of fame. I’m more than happy making a record every few years, contributing to other people’s stuff etc. I’ve just been asked to produce a promising female vocalist, so that’s a pleasant diversion. PB: You are publishing a new novel ‘That Summer Feeling’ in August. You wrote one of the great books about rock with ‘The Last Mad Surge of Youth’. What is the new novel about? MH: Ta, for the compliment. I’m still immensely proud of the book, all these years on. Superficially, That Summer Feeling is a coming-of-age campus novel but, me being me, it’s also about families, relationships, illness, broken dreams, hopes, friendship, the whole lot of it. PB: Thank you.

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Black Sedan - Interview

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