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+ review of Ill Gotten Gains



PopMatters:

You grew up in Kentish Town (in North London). What was your childhood like? To what extent do you think influences from your childhood impact your work now?



Michael J. Sheehy:

I had a fairly normal upbringing for where I grew up. I wouldn’t say we were poor but we had to struggle a bit. I went to a pretty lousy Catholic comprehensive [school] and I left with hardly any qualifications. Like a lot of families, we fought like cat and dog but we were very close. The only music that was played in our house was Elvis, country, ‘50s r&b and rock’n'roll , and whatever was on the radio. I hated country as a kid but I grew to love it eventually. Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Dolly Parton and Pasty Cline were always on the record player. In many ways my childhood has had a profound effect on my work. I wasn’t a very happy child, not because of any event or bad thing that happened, that was just the way I was. I was a bit of a loner; I still am I guess.



PM:

Could you talk about your other major musical influences growing up?



MJS:

Later on, things like Bolan, Bowie, Iggy Pop . . . I adored glam rock. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, then I discovered Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Tom Waits and Nick Cave. I think the three people who have influenced me most over the past three years are Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone. The album that really blew me away by Dylan is Time Out of Mind; it’s so beautiful and simple.



PM:

You were raised a Catholic, in an Irish family; in what ways do you think that informs your songwriting?



MJS:

My songs have been described as confessional so perhaps that’s something I’ve carried with me from years of confession and penance. Catholicism, or indeed any religion that requires one to meet almost unattainable moral standards, ultimately leads to disillusionment often after you’ve been through the obligatory guilt and shame. I took it all very seriously up until the age of 21 and even though I no longer attend church or follow a particular moral code, I cannot deny Catholicism has had an indelible effect on me. I’m fascinated by the whole idea of salvation through suffering, I’m really drawn to that stuff. As for the Irish stuff, sadly or not as the case may be, I subscribe to all those stereotypes of hard-drinking, fighting, womanising, blarney-stone-kissing fuck-ups. Though I haven’t always seen eye to eye with my father, I have to confess he’s my fucking hero; as a young man he talked the talk and walked the walk.



PM:

I noticed that you played a benefit for Independent Catholic News this summer. Can you tell me a little bit about that organisation and why you support it?



MJS:

This show was more a favour for a friend, and perversely I saw it as an opportunity to play in front of a few Catholics who had abandoned me years ago—to be honest it was more of a mutual abandonment. I don’t know a great deal about the organisation other than that it’s a website focusing on news that may concern Catholics, and it’s run by a very nice lady.



PM:

Before forming the Dream City Film Club in the mid-‘90s, you performed as a solo artist around North London. What material were you playing back then?



MJS:

I was playing some of the early Dream City Film Club stuff such as “Porno Paradiso”, “Night of Nights”, “Vague”, “The Curse”—and “Love Me” from Sweet Blue Gene dates back to that time. Other than that I was probably playing a lot of crap best forgotten.



PM:

Between 1995 and 1999, you were with DCFC. What made you move on? Were you at all dissatisfied with the direction the band was taking?



MJS:

The biggest factor was probably the ease with which Sweet Blue Gene was recorded. The last thing we recorded as a group was the Stranger Blues mini album. It was a pretty difficult time writing and recording that thing. Our relationships with each other were falling apart. Although we’d been together for four years and managed to record a fairly impressive body of work, we never really felt appreciated—very little radio or press, touring to very small, generally apathetic audiences = low self-esteem. It was difficult for the band to sustain itself financially and creatively. We felt like we were pulverising the void, very few people gave a fuck about us. Personally, I think Stranger Blues was a fine swan song, in fact I would recommend it as a starting point for anyone curious about DCFC; start there and work your way back.



PM:

I understand that much of your first solo album, Sweet Blue Gene, had been written while Dream City Film Club were still together. How is it that you didn’t record that material with them?



MJS:

I offered the material to them, albeit half-heartedly, but they weren’t interested at all. They were more interested in writing songs from scratch through jamming etc., but I’d say that’s pretty impossible if you hate each other’s guts.



PM:

You’ve said that the lyrics for many of the songs on your first solo record were perhaps too personal for DCFC. What did you mean by that? How do you think they differed from the kind of things you’d been writing for the band?



MJS:

A lot of the DCFC songs, lyrically at least, seemed like vague overviews. I found it difficult to be the “mouthpiece” for three other people and I feel that inhibited me as a songwriter. The songs on Sweet Blue Gene were probably the most honest and free-flowing songs I’d ever written at that point.



PM:

On Sweet Blue Gene and, again, on the new album, Ill Gotten Gains, there’s a considerable influence from American music of the ‘50s/early ‘60s (not just a cover of “Mystery Train”, but a more general bluesy feel, and often you use reverb in a way that recalls ‘50s/early ‘60s rock’n'roll). As somebody roughly the same age as you and also raised in Britain, I wanted to ask, do you think that’s unusual for someone of your generation making music in the UK?



MJS:

I guess it is unusual. Most people of my age are either trying to recreate late-‘60s/early-‘70s Rock or are pioneering ahead with dance music or electronica. Personally, I like to mess around with technology; it’s fun. I’m not one to get too puritanical about using only vintage studio equipment; I like the marriage between old and new. That’s kind of what we were trying to do with “Mystery Train”, to drag it screaming and kicking into the 21st century.



PM:

On your first album, on “The Licensing Song”, you incorporate elements of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and it seems there’s a hymnal quality to a number of your songs. On Ill Gotten Gains, I think that’s still there to a degree (I’m thinking particularly of “Let It Be Love This Time”—although you do mention your dick in that one!—and “No One Recognised Him”). Where do you think hymnal side of your work comes from?



MJS:

The hymnal side of my stuff comes from singing in church. Our parish priest, an Irish fella who had the most amazing tenor voice you ever heard. His voice inspired me quite a bit. He could make the most boring, mundane hymn sound amazing. I learned a lot about harmony at church. A lot of half-remembered tunes and harmonies I learned at church creep into my songs, I have to admit it.



PM:

A couple of interviews I’ve read seem to focus on your lyrics. Do you think that when you’re recording as a solo artist, people tend to assume that the words are more autobiographical and personal and more important to you than they might be when you’re working with a band?



MJS:

I think that’s partly true.



PM:

So…are the lyrics in your solo work more autobiographical? (In a recent interview you said that “last year was a bit of a lost weekend, and some of the songs came out of that…”.) Or are you creating a character?



MJS:

It’s a bit of both really. Many of the songs are straight from my own life and others are characters I’ve created, and some songs are a mixture of fact and fiction. I have to be able to somehow relate to the characters I create. I think I’d have to be a pretty fucked-up guy if my lyrics were completely autobiographical.



PM:

You’ve commented that a “sense of human failure informs a lot of my songwriting”. Why do you think that’s a focus of your work?



MJS:

Well what is the point of writing about a successful man who has achieved everything? I mean, good for him but he’s not good song fodder. I’m drawn to romantic losers and in many respects I feel like a romantic loser. In reality, I think we can all relate on some level to that sense of human failure; we let people down every day of our lives, and in turn we are let down by others. I suppose the older we get, the more accustomed we are to these day-to-day disappointments, so much so that we just accept that’s the way it is. Maybe that is why so many people want to listen to phoney music and watch phoney movies, to escape the grim reality. Shit, I guess I sound terribly pessimistic and miserable, sorry. I know good shit happens in the world sometimes, I just don’t write about it!



PM:

Your songs often tend to be rather dark or simply melancholic and yet the misery never becomes monotonous, absurd, or self-indulgent. I tend to think that has something to do with the kind of music to which you set your lyrics and something to do with humour. Can you talk about that?



MJS:

I agree the musical settings and humour help a lot. I love to slip some wry, black humour into the songs. I know it goes way over some people’s heads, so I’m always pleased when somebody gets it. Musically, I sometimes think it’s better to gradually suck people into a song; okay, you may be singing some doomy lyrics but that’s no reason to always emphasise it musically.



PM:

I was reading a blurb for a show you were going to do recently in London that mentioned you might read a short story during your set (“The Country Wedding Incident”). Aside from your songs, do you much writing? How do you see it as different from songwriting?



MJS:

I write short stories, but I’ve never let anybody read them, nor have I performed them. I like to see it as more of a hobby, something I do away from everything else and, most importantly, something that no one can judge. It’s just fun, a nice distraction for me.



PM:

One of my favourites on the latest album is the song about the boxer, “No One Recognised Him”. That’s a beautiful, sad song. What is it about that narrative that attracts you?



MJS:

Again it’s that loser thing. I’m very much drawn to the troubled geniuses of sport, those that only use a fraction of their talent consistently, or all of their talent rarely.



PM:

So who’s going to win the Rahman/Lewis re-match?



MJS:

Lewis approached the last fight very badly. He didn’t respect his opponent at all, he didn’t train properly and he got tagged. Personally, I’ve always thought Lewis to be overrated; he’s got a glass jaw and he can be a little bit clumsy at times. Still, I think if Lewis puts his mind to it, he can beat Rahman. The sad thing about boxing, especially the heavyweight division, is the corruption. You look at how many different governing bodies there are and it’s easy to see why the quality has suffered. Personally, I think an outside regulator would help, but you know these people are gangsters.



PM:

You covered a Virgin Prunes number on your first solo album (“Sweet Home Under White Cloud”), and this time you rework the Junior Parker/Sam Phillips number “Mystery Train”. How do you select material to cover?



MJS:

Both these covers came about by accident. I was trying to write something new but realised I was subconsciously ripping off songs I’d heard before, so I just thought fuck it, I might as well try and record them anyway.



PM:

On Ill Gotten Gains, you’ve reworked the old DCFC song “Love Insane”. Were you not happy with the way it originally sounded, or is there some sense in which that song stays with you that makes you want to re-do it?



MJS:

“Love Insane” existed before DCFC was formed. I never felt we really did it justice and also we just flung it out as a b-side. I’ve always had a soft spot for that song and thought it deserved a better version.



PM:

There’s a huge range of styles/sounds on both your solo albums—from the sparse and hymnal to the noisy, almost industrial to the more traditional country, blues and gospel-influenced numbers. To me, that kind of diversity makes both albums rich and satisfying—but do you ever feel pressured to narrow down to a style that can be “pigeonholed” more easily?



MJS:

At times I do feel like doing something a little more straightforward but not for any critical or commercial reasons, more out of a desire to be a little more direct.



PM:

Was there anything in particular you wanted to do differently on your latest record?



MJS:

I produced Sweet Blue Gene myself and as a result it sounded pretty raw. With Ill Gotten Gains I was aiming for a richer sound. I was trying to arrange the songs a little more.



PM:

You worked with some of the same musicians on Ill Gotten Gains as on the previous record. Are you looking to have a stable band or would you prefer to be able to experiment?



MJS:

I love working with different people and I’m lucky to have many great musicians I can call on. It’s important for me to be able to experiment and work with different people



PM:

You’re often compared to artists like Tindersticks (for whom you opened in Brussels earlier this year) and Nick Cave. Do you like those comparisons? What is it that you think that people hear in your work that brings those two to mind?



MJS:

I guess it’s the melancholy, dark humour and realism. Also I think musically we’re all coming from an American angle: country, blues, soul etc. I’m a fan of both these artists so to be compared to them is a real honour, though I believe I have a while to go before I can be considered up there with them.



PM:

What music are you listening to at the moment?



MJS:

I’m listening to Will Oldham’s stuff a lot; the Ease Down the Road album is sublime. Patti Smith’s Horses, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman album, Mark Lanegan’s Field Songs, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Missy Elliot.



PM:

I realise that air travel isn’t exactly an attractive proposition right now, but can we expect to see you playing in the US any time soon?



MJS:

I really couldn’t say, and it’s not because of the air travel thing either. I’m not sure that many are aware of me over there and I can’t find a US booking agent.



PM:

What do you plan to do next? I’d heard that you were thinking of doing a covers album.



MJS:

I’m gonna do that covers album someday. I would probably only record songs by unknown, unsigned or obscure artists. I’ve just finished writing the follow-up to Ill Gotten Gains and I hope to start recording next month or January.

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