published: 13 /
Former Hefner member Jack Hayter speaks to Ben Howarth about his new album which was inspired by a year spent living in the suburb of Abbey Wood, which soon to change with the arrival of a new train line, is on the borders of outer London and Kent.
When Pennyblackmusic last spoke to Jack Hayter in 2012, he ended the conversation by suggesting that if he ever made another full-length album that he’d want it to be built around a single cohesive theme.
At the time, he was half way through a year-long series of monthly singles, ‘The Sisters of St Anthony’. He had plenty of songs but didn’t feel they would have worked as a single album-long set.
Now, some six years later, comes that album – twelve songs recorded in and written about Abbey Wood. Long derided as ‘scabby wood’, this borough is generally dismissed as somewhere you go through on the train to get to somewhere else, too far from the City to qualify as London, but too close to be considered the countryside. It is now an area waiting for the arrival of Crossrail, which will bring with it London commuters and new build housing. The album is a plea to go and visit the woods before they change for good.
Jack lived at 50 Abbey Wood Road (an abandoned children’s home) in 2014, taking advantage of a scheme that allowed people to occupy condemned buildings for a nominal fee to prevent them being occupied by squatters before their demolition. These songs were recorded during the year he lived there.
Hayter’s music has always been an eccentric mix of folk storytelling, lo-fi indie and electronica. Hayter is very much an ‘indie’ figure (he was a member of John Peel faves Hefner). But ‘Abbey Wood’ dials up the folk influences. This would be a welcome addition at the more outré end of the Radio 2 folk spectrum, and would appeal to fans of Lau, the Gloaming and Sam Lee. You might also be reminded of John Martyn’s ability to combine dark subject matter with lilting, hummable folk or perhaps of Jackie Leven’s unflinching commitment to writing about the parts of society other songwriters miss.
It’s clear the surroundings and the unique subject matter have rubbed off on him. What’s more, his (ahem) ‘unique’ voice – always a barrier to a mass audience in the past – suits these songs. ‘Abbey Wood’ has already been branded an “unmitigated triumph" by Folk Radio UK and was chosen by Neon Filler as their favourite album of the first half of 2018.
A few months after ‘Abbey Wood’ was released, I met Jack in my local micropub to discuss the album. We didn’t even get time to talk about Jack’s many other musical activities – he plays with Ralegh Long,Papernut Cambridge and even plays in FXU2, a four-piece designed to pay tribute to the early pirate-radio days of Kiss FM (Jack was a keen listener while working in a warehouse in the early 1980s).
Instead, I began by asking when the idea to write an album of songs about Abbey Wood came to him.
JH: It coincided with a big change in my life. I moved from Lewisham over to the Plumstead/Abbey Wood area.
To be blunt, old story, but it was a big domestic upheaval and I think it came out of that. I’m quite a lazy songwriter, I don’t write songs all the time - my periods of songwriting only tend to happen when they coincide with big events.
Some of the songs do go back before that time, but they were all recorded in the period I lived in the Abbey Wood area.
For a long time, I didn’t think it worked as an album. I thought the songs were a bit disparate. It took about a year before I decided in fact that the songs do hang together.
PB: Because it has been a long time since you’ve released music in a traditional ‘album’ format – not since your first one, ‘Practical Wireless’ in 2002.
JH: That’s right. Obviously, there was an EP (‘Sucky Tart’) and the ‘Sisters of St Anthony’ series in between. But, yeah, in terms of a bit of plastic you can hold – twelve songs in a row, ordered and re-ordered and de-ordered, deliberated upon, this is the first one in a long while. Quite nerve-wracking.
I care about whether it works as a sequence of songs more than I should, probably. Because at the end of the day, people tend to listen to things online and shuffle songs about anyway. But there is still that thing about sequencing a set of songs, it is quite an art, and one that I don’t think I have quite got my head around.
Back in the day, there were always rules – like, the first track on side two was always a single. So, I guess that equates to track six. That’s the one that should really jump out and grab you.
I bet it’s not the case on mine (laughs). I can tell you… I’ve got a copy in my bag… Oh, ‘Crossness Pumping Station’, that does fit a bit. It’s different to all the others. That is a song I am quite proud of writing, because it takes the idea of distilling the essence of a human being from a whole bunch of nothing. It came out of a long walk I had to a pumping station just down the road.
PB: Some of the album is not set in the Abbey Wood area, but most of it is. Was it a conscious decision from the beginning to write about the local area?
JH: The original plan was for a set of songs all set in the local area. But what I found that I had songs that I recorded at that time that also fitted the general sound of the album. So I included them. ‘The Arandora Star’ is not about the area, but it is a story someone told me when I lived here.
So, they are not all songs about Abbey Wood – and I did have some songs that were that I rejected in the end – but they are all songs that are about Abbey Wood, or stories I was told when I was living there or songs that I recorded there. I don’t know what the balance is, but I wanted to evoke the place and the feel of it.
I mean, where else, apart from in this area of London, could you find an abandoned golf course. Who abandons a golf course?
I missed out a huge amount as well. There’s the whole Thamesmead estate, which I didn’t cover. I teach just up the road from that estate, and the area around the school is surrounded by West African music. I never really mentioned that area and the stories that come out of it. Although if you listen to grime and drill music, so much of it is from that area. And that’s a kind of folk music, the stories are gritty and exaggerated a bit, but they’re the kind of stories I hear from the girls at school.
PB: Whereas your album is more about the woods than the estates?
JH: Yes, it’s definitely about Abbey Wood, rather than Thamesmead. I don’t really know why that was, as I know the Thamesmead estate very well. But I didn’t feel, maybe, that I was qualified as a middle-aged white man to write songs about gang culture in Thamesmead. And, as I said, that’s kind of been covered. Anyone who wants to find out about the area in the years to come will have plenty of music to listen to. So, I don’t feel too bad about it, but it’s a bit of a regret.
And now I am living in Gravesend, so maybe the next album should be about that, which wouldn’t be difficult to do, because that’s another place like Abbey Wood with so much history and so many stories.
PB: So this was an attempt to make a record of what the area was like when you lived there. Because it is an area that is about to change a lot, isn’t it?
JH: Yes, in two ways. It’s an area that is about to change because of the arrival of Crossrail, which will link it to London and gentrification and lots of new builds. But secondly, it’s an area that always been on the cusp. It was the border between London and Kent, which met at the roundabout at the bottom of Knee Hill. At one point, I remember reading that the licensing laws were different, so at half past ten everyone used to leave the pub in the Kent side and cross the road to the London side, where there was another thirty minutes until last orders.
I don’t tend to write songs about my own self or my own moods, I like them to be story songs. I want them to evoke a time, a place and have different voices. So, yes, it corresponded with a time of upheaval in my life, but they aren’t songs about me. Well, maybe one is vaguely about my situation, I won’t say which one it is.
Whatever I try and do, I usually try and do it in a voice that isn’t mine. I am trying to articulate what somebody else is thinking.
Or the final song, ‘The Stranger Fair’, which some people seem to think is a tribute to Richard Thompson. It’s not – it’s a story from a man I met in the pub who had a fling with Yvonne Stag, the Wall of Death motorcycle rider. So, it is me singing, but it isn’t my voice. I don’t thimk the labyrinth of my own emotions would make for as good an album!
PB: It feels like a nostalgic and even a sentimental album…
JH: Yeah, it is like that. I talked to a lot of elderly people while I was writing the songs. A lot of them were evacuees who moved to Abbey Wood from central London, and they had a lot of nostalgia for what the area had been. And also, the Woolwich Arsenal and the local co-op movement had its birthplace there.
And I was, at the time, living in an abandoned children’s home – and I spoke to people who remembered when it was a children’s home and even one person who had lived there as a child, who couldn’t believe I was living there. I had to insist I did. It was a bit rough though. It took me back to my squatting days in the 1980s.
PB: So how did you come to live there?
PB: I had separated from my partner, and I looked at London rent prices and I thought that there had to be something easier. And it coincided with a whole load of local authority properties being vacated, either for renovation or for demolition – because they didn’t fit new rules on the number of bathrooms and stairwells and so on.
And so, you could take it on for a temporary period – basically a poacher turned gamekeeper scenario where I was there to make sure nobody else moved in while it was officially unoccupied. Parts of it had been a drug den, I think, and weren’t very nice. But I was happy there – all that space!
PB: Five bathrooms, wasn’t it?
JH: Yes, it might even have been six. And a huge area where I set up my recording equipment.
PB: And you did all the recording there?
JH: Yes. It’s very rare for me to set foot in a proper studio. I have done occasionally when I’ve been doing session work for friends. If I did, it would only be for the space, not to use the equipment. Because you can do so much now on a laptop. A couple of decent mikes and you are aware.
PB: I think if you compare the home recordings being released now to a lot of studio-recorded music from the 1980s and early 1990s, where the band would have been on a budget and a tight deadline, the modern home recordings usually sound a lot better.
JH: The worst is demos that have been recorded in a professional studio. They always sound awful.
But it is easy for me, but then I don’t have any particular aspirations about how I want it to sound. If I wanted to make proper rock music or cinematic music, you’d have to have a studio. I mean I couldn’t have got an orchestra into the abandoned children’s home.
And I have so many friends who have their own home recording set-up that it was easy just to send them a file and ask them to add some drums or some trumpet. I didn’t even have to get people round.
There are also various found sounds on there…
PB: There’s a choir at one point…
JH: Yesh, I just stood outside the church on the street and recorded them. I’d only been there a couple of days and I heard this unearthly noise coming from the church. It reminded me of being in Portugal, because they do have some very strange cadences in Portuguese hymns. This reminded me of that – quite a strange tune. It may be a well-known hymn, but I don’t think it is. So, there are a few things like that.
But mostly it’s improvised and making do with what’s there. If you don’t have a drum set, you can make do with a filing cabinet. And a biscuit tin makes a very good snare drum.
The people who played on it were mostly my friends Olly Cherer (who was part of Jack’s first band, Spongefinger – PB) and Riz Maslen, who is a great producer and was in the Future Sound of London. Ian Button plays drums as well and Suzanne Rhatigan sings on two tracks. She’s been a fixture on my records for some time. I think I should probably pay her, but no money ever changes hands, and I have done pedal steel on her records, so I suppose we are even. Did I have any members of Hefner on this one? (Pauses) I don’t think I did (He’s right – PB).
I tend to work on a naked track and then work on those parts, re-cycling bits and looping them. It does sound like a folk album, but it’s actually an electronic album – there’s a lot of experiments with the recording technology. My favourite trick is to re-sample a song back into itself.
But I was trying to make something that sounded like it could have been recorded at home by anybody...(Laughs) not a particularly hard challenge I set myself, there, really.
I still like the lo-fi thing. All my life I’ve been fiddling with mikes and finding short-cuts and I still like to work that way. If you wanted to chase the charts, I suppose you would need to really put the effort in. But if you just want to tell a story and get an idea across, which is all I want to do, this works.
In fact, sometimes the backing is completely incidental. There is one song, ‘The Arandora Star’ which I have started doing completely acapella when I perform live. I now wish I had done that on the album, because it has worked really well, even with my voice.
And, now I am doing the songs live, they all work with just an acoustic guitar, in fact. Even the Bendigo song, which really did start with the electronic loop and I built it from there, I am now playing it with just an acoustic guitar and it still works. I suppose that proves it’s the story, really, that matters.
PB: Your background and the people you tend to play with, in Papernut Cambridge for example, are all for the most part from the indie scene and would be thought of in that way. But this album reminds me more of some of the ‘modern folk’ music, which seems to be quite a different world and doesn’t seem to cross over with indie that much.
JH: I know what you mean...it wasn’t intentional. That’s why I um’d and ah’d over this album for quite a while. I am so used to doing things that don’t really fit the mould and then all of a sudden there is that genre and that worried me that I wasn’t really doing anything new. But eventually I decided that it was good enough to release.
I mean when the ‘Practical Wireless’ album came out, I got some really quite nasty reviews..."Jack Hayter must never be let near a microphone again", that kind of thing. But, it was definitely different. There was one track that the label wanted to take off the album, because they thought it was too strange sounding. A few years later, that kind of electronic sound I used became quite common. But, I think this album has a bit more in common with what other people are doing than my earlier records had.
My earliest experiences of playing music were folk music. West Devon, where I grew up, was a real backwater, back in the 1970s, and then came along various arts organisations and one of them decided to put on a production of ‘Sir Gawain and The Green Knight’. That was 1972 so I would have been 12 or 13. I think I got paid a fiver and I had to wear my dad’s dinner jacket. But I found myself playing the fiddle with a bunch of really good folk musicians. So I was learning the violin at school. That was the usual stuff, but I was then actually being paid to play with a pretty good band. I later rebelled completely and got into punk and had to pretend I know nothing about folk music. But I do have an awareness of folk music that I try to forget about, but it’s always there.
So, you do hear those echoes from traditional music, and that’s the easy part for me. It’s what comes naturally.
PB: I found myself thinking that these are songs and stories that could have been traditional folk songs, but from an area that, for whatever reason, nobody has written songs about before.
JH: It’s a folk rock album, isn’t it? I hated being labelled as a folk singer-songwriter, for so long. I really hated it. I really didn’t want to be labelled and put in that folk box. But now it doesn’t bother me so much.
Olly Cherer who plays on it is similar in a way. His musical background is almost big beat and techno. I come from the indie world. But we both actually grew up playing folk music. We both suddenly realised a few years that we are now doing what we were brought up to do and have finally come round to it. Maybe we’re just getting old... there comes a point where you don’t feel the need to rebel.
It’s probably got the best reviews I have had, so much so that I worried about it being too staid – “Have I been too predictable?”, you know. But I think now it’s been out a little while that the good reviews do come from people who have listened to it and understood what I wanted to do.
PB: You mentioned Ian Button and of course, this album is now being released on the Gare Du Nord label, which he is one of the founders of. How did that come about?
JH: It’s still a collective – mostly with people who are in or have been in Papernut Cambridge. The centre of the label is still Ian and Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long. It’s then a case of artists taking responsibility for their own records, but with the Gare Du Nord collective as a vehicle for it.
Audio Antihero, who I released my EP and did the single series with, were a much more traditional label, in that Jamie who ran it was actually paying for the records to get made. He’s in America now. I think he might have a few more releases that he wants to do, but he always says that this is the last one and that’s it. But he was so good at it, and I don’t think he realises what a hole he left when he moved out of the UK. Everyone misses him. You always got a straight answer from him and he worked with distributors and knows how all the online distribution networks work.
I mean, when I was in Spongefinger (Jack’s band before he joined Hefner in 1999 – PB), all you had to do is make up a box of records and then you took them down to Cargo distribution and they put them in the shops. And then six months later they’d phone you and ask you to pick up the ones that they haven’t sold.
At the moment, it feels like I have had too many copies of ‘Abbey Wood’ printed up, but I know that eventually I’ll realise I have hardly any copies left. I only have three copies of ‘Practical Wireless’ left now. I took the last few off Absolutely Kosher, the American label who released that. I think they landfilled the rest and I wish I’d bought the lot.
I still prefer there to be product. Even though I know that CD and DVD is a transitional technology. MP3 might be the same eventually. What I might do next is find a way of putting the ‘Sisters of St Anthony’ series out as a vinyl record. It would have to be a double. Because that was a monthly series of singles, it was done in a hurry. It was quite a tall order sometimes when I was working as well. So the production values aren’t quite as high – so I think I would want to go back to the original files and remix them.
PB: Thank you.