Adrian Cooper has been unwell

Old reviews that are no longer available online, or from sites that no longer exist. The pen is dead, long live the camera.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Playwrights

There are bands that you always associate with the summer. Maybe it’s because their songs recall memories of warm, sunny days in the park, the feeling that the longer days bring with them endless possibilities and new hopes, or just because they sound great in the open air.

The Playwrights are all these things. Their debut album, ‘Good Beneath The Radar’, crept out with the onset of summer last year and proved to be one of the best albums of the year. Sonically, it’s a beguiling and effervescent mix of the Auteurs, Sea & Cake and the first side of David Bowie’s “Low”. If we can take time out to turn a hackneyed music journalist cliché on its head for once, the Playwrights sound like Syd Barrett on no drugs. Despite an edginess to the music that brings to mind the type of US underground bands in which Southern records specialise, there’s a peculiarly English sound to the Playwrights.

“The Englishness is something I’m really proud of,” says Playwrights guitarist Ben Shillabeer. “Hopefully we’re reflecting who we are and where we come from – in a natural way, in the tradition of bands like Crescent, Movietone, Hood and, more recently, Seachange. I’d like to think it’s got an integrity and isn’t a contrived Carry On, 'ooh how’s your Favver’ Englishness that some bands adopt.”

Far from sounding like another bunch of mockney chancers, the Playwrights approach to their music harks back to days where invention was more important than imitation and you are always more than just the sum of your influences. “I went to art school, and this background certainly informs my songwriting. It’s that sketchbook approach where if something resonates for you, you write it down or take a photo of it or cut it out and stick it in and use it for yourself. Stuff from books, films, photos, novels, newspapers, phrases heard on the television or radio; day to day experiences, things I’m exposed to and feel an affinity for get written down and turn up in a song.”

“Got a case of the dreads,
I’m a potential island here.
Screaming into a dead mic,
Just chewing the scenery.
Farmed out to private practice,
Firing a pistol into a blank wall.
Let’s look at the husks of our dreams,
Snapshots taken from too close a knowledge.
There’s something missing from this screen,
You lose control by degrees.”

(‘We Are The Stuffed Men’)

Lyrically, the Playwrights portray not so much of a sense of ostracism, of having been forced out from the crowd, but of a willingly chosen estrangement. Do you think that this reflects your outlook or attitude? Do you see yourself as an outsider?

“I’ve always felt on the fringes of stuff, somewhat detached and never fully involved – not comfortable with the really ‘straight’ people but not at ease with the really ‘out there’ people either,” explains Ben. “It’s a cynicism I guess; a self-consciousness that I carry with me in social situations. There's that Samuel Beckett quote: "he had an abiding sense of melancholy that sustained him through brief periods of joy.’ – I guess that sums me up. But the lyrics aren’t just from my own insecurities. It’s everyday stuff like how we interact at work, in our homes, in relationships, with our surroundings, with technology. It’s that feeling that when you’re talking with someone you’re having totally different conversations – symptoms of the modern age.”

“But I think collectively as a band we’re outsiders too, due to our sound. People can’t pigeonhole us. We get compared to a lot of ‘80s bands but I can’t really hear it myself, although I can see why people might lump us in with recent bands like Interpol or Franz Ferdinand. We definitely haven’t styled ourselves to be like anything, and some people aren’t quite sure how to take us. But I think we’re a fucking good rock band (albeit an art-rock band), without having any of that contrived rock ‘n’ roll, ‘five boys who are gonna change the world’ bollocks about us.”

Before the Playwrights, Ben played guitar for Bristol jazz-punk behemoths Soe'za, whose line-up also included Playwrights singer Aaron Dewey on cornet. Both Ben and Aaron have toured with John Parish and appear on his 2002 album, 'How Animals Move'. With so many other musical projects going on already, what motivated you to form the Playwrights?

“The band was formed when I asked Aaron to help work on some new songs of mine back in 2001. I’ve always written and recorded songs on a 4-track, ever since I first started playing guitar; but I’d never found the right outlet for them. My first band was just with college mates and we never did anything significant. Then I moved to Bristol and joined Soe'za, where I contributed parts and ideas but very rarely entire songs. And I’ve done a few projects here and there but never totally been happy with the outcome.”

“I found myself with this collection of songs taken from a box of tapes that I wanted to develop. Aaron and I share similar ideas and I knew his voice and musicality could enhance my songs in ways I could never achieve on my own and we could do ‘something bigger, something better’ with them. So we started out as a duo, playing practically everything ourselves. Now we’re a five piece, with Maff (Rigby, drums), Nathan (Edmunds, guitar) and Andrew (Smith, bass) all inputting ideas. I guess the motivation comes from the enjoyment of making some challenging music, with many ideas and sounds and influences whilst working in a pop framework. We’re trying to be the best we can be, making pop music that hopefully has a bit of depth to it and we’re having fun whilst doing it.”

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