Airship Island Discs: The Soundtrack to Dan Richards’ The Beechwood Airship Interviews

On 30th July Dan Richards’s The Beechwood Airship Interviews became the final book to be published by our sister imprint The Friday Project. A journey into the headspaces and workplaces of some of Britain’s most unique artists, The Observer called it ‘a wonderful jigsaw puzzle of a book’. Appropriately enough (considering this month’s blog theme is Festival), it’s absolutely brimming with musicians, artists, actors and comedians, including the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, Stewart Lee, Jenny Saville and Vaughn Oliver. It also features a titanic and tantalising Discography, a list which collects all the music Dan listened to or had recommended to him during the writing of the book. Here, Dan picks the 17 tracks on that list that matter to him most.

1

‘All books have a beginning and my book, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, began with the rather impulsive decision to build a 6 metre airship from beechwood and suspend it in the union bar of my art school. An act of opposition to what I saw as the institution’s lack of interest and support for art, the airship was crafted to celebrate and champion art for art’s sake and started me on a journey to meet and interview some of Britain’s most extraordinary artists, craftsmen and technicians in the spaces and environments in which they worked.

I listened to a lot of music whilst writing The Beechwood Airship Interviews. The actual amount was only brought home to me when I decided to include a discography at the back of the book alongside the more usual bibliography. ‘All the music listed was listened to whilst writing this book.’ I wrote by way of introduction. ‘Some of it was on heavy rotation whilst building the beechwood airship, some of it is cited in chapter footnotes, and some of it was mentioned or recommended by interviewees. I recommend it all to your ears.’

Having gone back through my notes, record boxes, iTunes folders and scattered CDs I wrote a list of albums. Over 200 albums. And they’re just the ones I remember! Quite ridiculous. All the more so because that feels like a conservative estimate with much left out — although, in my defense, I have been working on the book for seven years. The soundtrack around the book has been as varied and eclectic as the cast of interviewees, the spaces, locations, and work discussed inside it.

Now, having accepted the challenge of picking one tune per chapter, I face the prospect of boiling down the sprawling discography to 17 key tracks: my Airship Island Discs.

2

INTRODUCTION / LIMINAL SPACE

The first thing to say is that Led Zeppelin played a large part in the project and so, as is only proper, get mentioned fairly early on in the book. When the beechwood airship was newly completed and ceremoniously winched into the eaves of the art school, it was to the drum thunder fanfare of ‘When The Levee Breaks’. However the music which most stands out from this time is by Klaus Nomi, who’s debut album I listened to every Sunday morning with my friend Virginie — a French artist currently living in Brazil — because that was the music she liked best; lying side by side on the floorboards of the SU bar: papering the airship, strung out on psychotropic varnish fumes.

‘The Cold Song’, Klaus Nomi (Klaus Nomi, RCA, 1981)

1. BILL DRUMMOND

Bit of quandary here because Bill’s chapter deals which his 17 choir project which takes as its starting point the idea that all recorded music has run its course and should be done away with, destroyed for our own good, and replaced with a new music forged afresh from first principals … which may make my choice of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ seem a bit bizarre. But it’s not! It makes perfect sense because, in spite of everything, despite himself perhaps, Bill LOVES Lady Gaga; loves her complete ease and ownership of pop. She has compromised nothing, he told me, she has created a whole universe and now straddles it, unsurpassed.

Sat on the flat roof at the back of his house where he writes, he told me, that for a few weeks in 2009 he and fellow ex-KLFer Jimmy Cauty were in total agreement that the only thing which would tempt them back to pop music would be to work with Lady Gaga.

Who knows, it might yet happen!

‘Bad Romance’, Lady Gaga (Interscope 2008)

2. RICHARD LAWRENCE

I’m not not sure Richard Lawrence cares much about music one way or the other. He’s a profoundly pragmatic, practical man and his letterpresses make a lot of noise when they’re in full flight so, at a push, I imagine he sometimes has Radio 4 on in his workshop but it’s usually drowned out by his Heidelbergs. The first time I heard such a press run, the noise it made took me back to childhood animations from the top-left-hand corner of Wales: ‘Pish ti’coo; Pish ti’coo; Pish ti’coo; Pish ti’coo …’

Ivor the Engine reincarnated as a press and, indeed, all Richard’s presses are substantial, orchestral locomotive-like apparatuses with an amazing polyphonic music all their own.

‘Ivor the Engine’, The Vernon Elliott Ensemble (Trunk, 2007)

3. STANLEY DONWOOD

Stanley is best known for his work with Radiohead. Since 1994 he’s produced all their artwork in collaboration with Thom Yorke, each record cover different. He’s actively seeking to avoid a recognisable style, he told me:

‘I wouldn’t want to do the same thing twice anyway. I think that would be boring. I’ve always wanted to work in a way where you couldn’t tell it was the same person doing it. I had a fantastic compliment with In Rainbows when someone said, “Oh, did you do that?” Which was great!’

Stanley had a record player set up in one corner of his studio and often when I’d go to interview him for the book he’d play well-thumbed punk and post-punk records – Bauhaus, Throbbing Gristle, Magazine, The Sex Pistols, and PIL. He’s moved studio since, but that first space was a den, stuffed with collected ephemera; scary bears, paintings, test prints and clippings on the wall, an old piano, ivy growing through the window frames … it always seemed extremely cold. ‘All studios are cold.’ he explained at our first meeting. ‘It’s the law.’

‘Shot By Both Sides’ Magazine (Virgin, 1978)

4. JENNY SAVILLE

When I met Jenny Saville in her Oxford atelier we stood surrounded by gigantic versions of her painting Stare which had recently fronted an album by the band Manic Street Preachers. We spoke about her collaborations with them over the years as well as the music she listens to whilst working:

‘The artists I like always combine and move the nature of the medium they work in — be it paint, music or whatever. Radiohead are so good, they have such a great musical craft that they can push it. The people I like understand the nature of the material they work in and the nature of life; it’s the combination of putting those things together, melding and mixing, pulling it all in, that I respond to.’

Since my interview with Jenny the space where she worked has been demolished and redeveloped as student accommodation but I can still visualise her there, working on her paintings beneath the high skylights, the floor spattered with paint and scattered with images torn from magazines and medical textbooks, In Rainbows on the stereo.

‘Nude’, Radiohead (Self-Released, 2007)

5. DAVID NASH

I remember driving over the Migneint moors en route to Blaenau Ffestiniog, with my friend Kev, listening to a mixtape I’d made for the journey. I was returning to see David and take photographs of him at work for the book — driving from Norfolk on the night of the Summer Solstice so the sky was never wholly dark.

I spent £50 on petrol at Thetford and nervously watched the fuel gauge for the rest of the trip, having little money. Funny how a soundtrack sharpens recollection; I recall Magazine near Northampton, ‘Archives of Pain’ as we passed beneath multi-story junctions in Birmingham, ‘Never Stop (Discotheque)’ by Echo & The Bunnymen spitting from the car’s tinny speakers as we wound our way across Snowdonia, the perfect pop of ‘Needle In A Haystack’ by The Velvelettes playing as we crossed the Migneint moors in the ever cusping dawn.

When we reached the Blaenau outskirts we found a lay-by and crawled into sleeping bags in the boot. It was 3 a.m. and already very light outside – we’d made it in under five hours.

‘Needle In A Haystack’ The Velvelettes (Motown, 1964)

6. MANIC STREET PREACHERS

The Manics’ Faster Studios are housed in an industrial quarter of Cardiff near the Brains brewery and the docks; their kirk, a unit in a square of two-storey brick workshops set around a courtyard. The place had a worn feel, the edges taken off; a site of graft and gravel.

I spoke to Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield in their ‘studio bunker’ – a recording and rehearsal room with a beast of a mixing desk next door.

From their earlier days, the band’s sights have always been set beyond Blackwood, Cardiff, Wales, even Europe, off any extant map towards legend – promising to sell 16 million copies of their debut album Generation Terrorists and then split up in an early interview, espousing a worldview that brooked no distinction between high and low culture; unswerving in their desire to exist apart at the heart of the charts and public consciousness – slash and burn polemics married to indelible, grappling-iron melodies.

There’s a quote by Antonio Gaudí which the Manics deployed on the sleeve of ‘A Design for Life’, which crystallises many of the ideas behind the band’s drive, evolution and sense of quest:

‘The creation continues incessantly through the media of man. But man does not create … he discovers. Those who look to the laws of nature for support for their new works collaborate with the creator. Copiers do not collaborate. Because of this, originality consists in returning to the origin.’

‘Revol’ Manic Street Preachers (Colombia, 1994)

7. DAME JUDI DENCH

Let’s say, having just come offstage at Glastonbury with your band …

‘Me? Is this me?’ asked Judi. ‘Well I wouldn’t do that because I don’t like that kind of music but, yes, okay.’ (Giggles)

The applause is so much that you’re compelled to return and perform an encore. What song are you going to encore with?

‘I wouldn’t be doing it in the first place! (Laughing) I would no more go to Glastonbury than I would fly to the moon! Sorry about that … there you are. No, I can’t do that. Can’t be at Glastonbury … but, at the same time, I love the Beatles; I loved the Beatles and there are many things now that I like but not many that I love.’

Transportive music.

‘Jazz! That’s classic music, you know? Brilliant. When I was in New York I used to go and see Kid Ory, Count Basie — I was wooed by Jerry Mulligan — Miles Davis, I loved that.’

 ‘Corner Pocket’, The Count Basie Orchestra (Verve, 1957)

8. CALLY CALLOMON

Cally is an artist, collector and custodian. He spends a certain amount of time within the music industry but only in order to earn enough money to ride, restore and research his vast collections of vintage bicycles.

Having started out as a musician, he went on to work in A&R and was Creative Director at Island Records throughout the 1990s, working with Tricky, U2, and PJ Harvey among many others, so he’s steeped in music and his soundtrack is vast. He manages the estate of Nick Drake with great empathy and humanity, as if he were a living musician. I think of Nick Drake’s music and his timeless duende whenever I think of Cally working on his bicycles on his Suffolk estate.

‘River Man’ — Nick Drake — Five Leaves Left, Island Records, 1969

9. SHERYL GARRATT

I caught a fast train down to Deal to see Sheryl because of a magazine interview she did with Björk in which Björk rarely featured. Sheryl spent most of her stay in Reykjavík wandering round talking to tangentially connected Icelanders, building a pointillist picture of Björk in her absence. (I thought it was brilliant, obviously, although the commissioning magazine weren’t initially enamoured, apparently …)

I remember our morning in Deal very fondly. Shingly and quiet. A clear cold morning, the winter sea a frosted sweep, rapt anglers sat on the concrete pier.

Boots crunch. Collars up. Dragon breath.

Sheryl was very encouraging, explaining her process and telling me stories from her time as a journalist and editor. The week before we met, she’d interviewed The Pet Shop Boys about a ballet they were working on at Sadler’s Wells:

‘I love the Pet Shop Boys and I’ve interviewed them many, many times and I thought “Oh, that’ll be interesting” so I did it and it was, but then I was offered the chance to go and watch the choreographer work and it turned out to be the most magical day! Watching this man create something out of nothing with two dancers; and it started off really clumsy, mechanical and emotionless but by the end of the three hours I sat there they’d got this beautiful, emotional, flowing piece and to watch that be created, that’s the best job in the world; and it was completely unexpected.’

‘Being Boring’, The Pet Shop Boys (Parlaphone, 1990)

10. VAUGHAN OLIVER

Best known for creating artwork for record label 4AD, Vaughan’s unique, distinctive design is noted for its expressive use of type, emotive photography and creative collaboration.

We discussed the music of bands from the 4AD stable: Pixies, Colourbox, Red House Painters, Cocteau Twins, and This Mortal Coil.

The plan chests in his Epsom home are filled with graphic design treasure — luxuriant riches and resource.

‘I always used to describe the colours as “electric”, he told me. ‘I suppose if you were to go to an audiophile and talk about the warmth of vinyl it would be the same; it’s just a quality that you can’t read on a graph, you feel it. There’s something there, this extra dimension and if you’re talking about food you’re talking about that Japanese thing they discovered – you’ve got the five taste senses and then you’ve got “Umami”, this other element of taste that’s always been there but only the Japanese have a word for.’

‘Song To The Siren’, This Mortal Coil (4AD, 1984)

11. JANE BOWN

Interviewing Jane Bown was a huge treat and honour. At the very beginning of the project, when I sketched a list of preeminent people I’d love to talk to about their lives and creative practice, Jane’s name was there.

The fact she agreed to see me, that we got on so well, and this famously reticent lady spoke so wonderfully and at such length about her amazing career will always be very special to me.

‘I’ve never been good with words,’ she warned me, the first time we met. ‘I’ve always been speechless.’

But she opened up and talked about her decades at The Observer, for whom she’d worked since 1949 — taking famous portraits of Samuel Beckett, John Betjeman and Queen Elizabeth II — and revealed how she really liked Björk:

‘Oh, she’s lovely! Zany. She’s mad as a hatter. A great character. I got to know her well; always dressed like a Christmas tree fairy.’

‘Unison’, Björk (One Little Indian, 2001)

12. STEVE GULLICK

A few years ago I went to Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London with my friend Roz to see Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and The Cairo Gang play. We both ended up backstage after the gig, drinking beer in a bar with the band while the venue below was being cleared.

The photographer Steve Gullick was there, wearing a suit. It was the second time we’d met since I’d interviewed him the week before for the book. He looked very smart and I told him so.

Björk was also there, sitting in the corner. Small Björk.

I asked Steve if he’d reintroduced himself – having taken her picture in the nineties. He said no.

Later I spoke to her briefly on the foyer stairs.

I addressed her as ‘Ms. Björk’ and rambled about how it was good she was fighting the multinationals threatening Iceland’s environment – when I should clearly have been asking her to be in my book.

She was polite but clearly befuddled by me. It was late and I was tipsy but, you know, in for a penny … so I stumped back up to find Will Oldham and tell him how much I’d enjoyed his set and he seemed genuinely pleased by my enthusiasm but the important thing, the apex of the night, was when we spoke about Steve, how he’s the only person Will likes to take his picture. ‘He’s my guy,’ Will said, with genuine warmth. ‘He’s my guy.’

‘Troublesome Houses’ Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & The Cairo Gang (Drag City, 2010)

13. STEWART LEE

I met Stewart Lee at Paddington Station to talk about his stand-up comedy and writing, and his mission to push stand-up as close to a pure performance art as he can.

‘There’s something enjoyably puritanical about a lot of the people you’ve spoken to,’ he told me at one point. ‘I mean, a lot of sculptors are essentially refining the same objects over and over again … I’m thinking about Derek Bailey because I’ve just been on the radio talking about him this morning; I can’t really tell the difference between something he made in 1963 and 2003. On one of the last albums he’d lost the use of his right hand but I can’t even really tell that, you know? It so is what it is, but it’s also got that feeling of Carl Andre’s bricks that are just sort of there:

‘There it is.’

‘Oh, they’re some bricks aren’t they … is it supposed to look like something?’

‘No. It’s just those.’

‘Oh … could it be a logo for a bank or something?’

‘No.’

‘Would it look nice in my house?’

‘No. It’s not an ornament. It’s a sculpture. It isn’t for anything else.’

‘Again, is it a great sculpture or a bad sculpture? I don’t know, but it is a sculpture. It’s not a piece of statuary or an ornament or something that might have made a better painting!’

‘What It Is’, Derek Bailey / Jamaaladeen Tucuma / Calvin Weston ‎(Tzadik, 2000)

(Failing that, Mere Pseud Mag. Ed by The Fall off Hex Enduction Hour, Kamera, 1982)

14. THE BUTCHER OF COMMON SENSE

The Butcher of Common Sense is an ongoing collaborative experiment by Norwich-based band The Neutrinos and visual artist Sal Pittman. In 2009 they handpicked five other artists (a writer, a film-maker, a sound recordist and two musicians) to join them in Berlin for an intensive ten-day residency in a defunct East German radio station, Funkhaus Nalepestrassse. The idea was to become immersed in the surroundings and create an album which would take its inspiration from this extraordinary space and from the atmosphere and history of Berlin. Several years in the making, the result is The Butcher of Common Sense: An album. An artbook. A performance. An exhibition.

When I began writing about them, I’d never been to Berlin. The Berlin of my imagination was a collage of Christopher Isherwood, David Bowie, Fritz Lang and John Le Carré; Cabaret, The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin … a muddled mishmash of Bauhaus, World Wars, ruins, checkpoints, the Cold War, faded decadence, art-squats, hipsters, the Neues Museum staircase … and I knew that the trouble is, unless you go, unless you explore and see for yourself, Berlin dissolves into cultural cliché and broad-brush cultural reference points; you have to delve deeper to find a Berlin a Berliner would recognise – the Berlin beneath the greatest hits and tourist surface grease … but, for all their subsequent psycho-geographic art endeavour, the Butchers were once that way too; it was that Berlin that attracted them to go in the first place, particularly the dystopian baroque Berlin evoked by Bowie’s album Low. So that’s what I’m going to pick here for them.

‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’, David Bowie (RCA, 1977)

15. ROBERT MACFARLANE

Robert LOVES the Pixies. Did you know that? No, I didn’t either until recently but it turns out he’s a massive fan. In the years since we first met — the snowy day I rocked up several hours late to interview him in his Emmanuel College rooms with a tape recorder that didn’t work — I’ve got to know him quite well. We once spent several nights in a Dorset hedge and then wrote a short book about it with Stanley Donwood, named Holloway, which unexpectedly turned into the go-to bestselling book about Dorset hedges this century! Bonkers.

Anyway, yes, he loves the Pixies and ‘Dig For Fire’ is his favourite jam.

At the moment he’s collecting songs about all things underground for his next book, Underland, and ‘Dig For Fire’ was the first tune on the list … I know another book!? He’s only just published Landmarks!

Where does he find the time and the energy?

No idea. But I do know it makes the rest of us look awfully lackadaisical and I wish he’d stop it.

‘Dig For Fire’, Pixies (4AD, 1990)

EPILOGUE

A tune to represent what was going on whilst I was writing the book, that’s a challenge. So much has happened! Should it be something intrinsic to the writing, a piece of music I discovered along the way or a stalwart song which remained with me throughout? If I were to pick a constant record it could be a tune from Can’s Ege Bamyasi, ‘I’m So Green’ perhaps… something from Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk? Or a track from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ 2013 LP Push The Sky Away which I had on repeat whilst writing the book into shape; Stephen Malkmus has put out some great records in the past few years… My friend Lucy Johnston, who took a lot of the book’s photographs, adores Ride and Wild Beasts… and I remember listening to a lot of Al Green and Nina Nastasia at the beginning of art school — and didn’t Neil Young release his wonderful Archive recordings in the middle of it all?

No, one song, Airship Island Discs — the disc I’d be happy to play repeatedly aboard my Zeppelin. I’ve got it down to three:

Few songs are more exciting as ‘The Night’ by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Even less are as visceral and great as ‘Hot Cake’ by The Fall when it gets into its stride and I long to fly an airship around blasting The Fall to the mesmerised masses below but, in the end, if I can only choose one track I’ll go for the perfect pop of ‘The Boy with the Thorn in His Side’ by The Smiths. Brilliant, joyful, barbed, unique, the band at their peak. They sound like nobody else.

I’ll take that.’

‘The Boy with the Thorn in His Side’, The Smiths (Rough Trade, 1986)

Words by Dan Richards.

The Beechwood Airship Interviews is out now.

Subscribe to the 4th Estate podcast here.

To find out more about our books, events and competitions, click here to sign up to our newsletter.

Comments are closed.