Guillemots begin a national tour at the Gigbeth festival in Birmingham next month. Frontman Fyfe Dangerfield talks to Terry Grimley.
Some people might think fronting a band that’s been nominated for the Mercury Prize and a Brit Award was a definition of fame, but for others Fyfe Dangerfield clearly isn’t famous enough.
When the Birmingham-born Guillemots singer took the stage for the tribute concert to German chanteuse Nico, curated by her former Velvet Underground colleague John Cale two weeks ago at the Royal Festival Hall, he was greeted by shouts of “Who are you?” from some members of the audience.
According to the Guardian’s reviewer, these “impertinent” heckles preceded an “extraordinarily lovely space-folk version” of Nico’s My Only Child.
Dangerfield, who was working at the RFH as a steward not so long ago, describes the weirdness of waiting in the wings with his fellow performer and former idol James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers, a crucial influence on his teenage years.
“I said I was feeling nervous, and he said ‘You’ve got a strong voice – they want to hear you’. And I thought: 10 years ago I was reading books about you and now here I am chatting with you on stage.”
There was something even weirder, in the lead-up to the concert.
“I got a phone call from John Cale at two in the morning from Los Angeles. We’d been recommended to him and we did some demos, including an instrumental version of My Heart is Empty, and sent them off. Then suddenly I got a text saying can we have a number, because John would like to speak to you, and a few minutes later the phone rang and this voice came on [in doleful Welsh accent]: ‘Fyfe? John. Loving the MP3s...’”
There wasn’t a full Guillemots turn-out for the Royal Festival Hall. With guitarist MC Lord Magrao and bass player Aristazabal Hawkes unavailable, the band’s former saxophonist Alex Ward stepped in on guitar to make up a trio with Fyfe and drummer Greig Stewart.
Since a busy summer festival season was rounded-off with a trio of stadium gigs supporting REM in August, the band has been enjoying some down-time.
“We’ve had proper time off for the first time since the band started. I literally have dustbin liners full of demos from the last 10 years and I’ve started going through them and labelling them. It feels really nice – I’ve been completely rediscovering things I did from six years ago. I feel I’m getting my life back.”
One reason for reviewing the back catalogue is that Fyfe is planning a solo record as well as looking forward to a third Guillemots album, but he doesn’t want to say much about this: “I’d rather it just kind of landed unannounced,” he explains.
What will determine which of his songs end up on which record?
“That’s hard to say, but I think it will just become apparent. I didn’t feel like I’d written much this year, but about a month ago I put together everything I could find and there were 30 or 40 songs or half-songs. In terms of doing my own album I’ve got at least half a record of songs I’ve written this year.”
Following some disappointing reviews for their second album, Red, in the spring, Guillemots are taking their time before starting work on a third.
“I think we could have done with a bit more time between our first two albums, and that influenced the way Red sounded. Even though it’s quite poppy there’s a sense of being hemmed in
“Looking back I wasn’t particularly happy last year. It had good moments but I spent a lot of it feeling quite frustrated. Before the band started everything had been quite slow, and suddenly I had this mad year making Red and writing In Wait [for the CBSO] and looking for somewhere to live. It’s only since this summer that it’s been quite normal, where I’ve had something to do on Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning and that’s it.
“So we’re not really going to rush ourselves. I think last time there was quite a lot of pressure, but no-one, including our manager and record company, seems keen that we rush something out. Part of me really wants the record to come out next year, but part of me thinks it probably won’t be until the year after that.”
Actually, Dangerfield points out that the response to Red, accused by some of being a sell-out to American R&B and by others of being a re-run of 80s power pop, was not entirely negative.
“I think maybe with reviews of Red you needed to look right across the field. We had to get some quotes together about it and suddenly we had around 10 really amazing reviews from different reviewers.
“None of us are that thick-skinned and it definitely affected us quite badly. We never felt for a moment that Red would be compared to 80s stuff – we were just trying make a pop album. But looking back at the two albums I feel we did what we said we wanted to do, in that they’re like two sides of the same coin. When we play them live, the songs sit together well. Both are very produced, and there are similarities, whereas I think the next one will be more of a departure.”
G uillemots have already dropped hints that it is likely to have a more live, spontaneous feel.
“We definitely know we want to do something live. We’re going to spend lots of time playing and rehearsing so we know how to play the songs, and then just record it. But I’m sure it won’t be as cut and dried as that.”
On November 7 Guillemots return to action by headlining the Gigbeth festival at the Custard Factory, with a performance in which they will be improvising soundtracks to short films in the first half and playing a regular set in the second.
It’s a collaboration with Future Shorts, who also set up the screening of David Lynch’s Eraserhead which Guillemots accompanied at the Latitude Festival this summer.
Gigbeth, where Dangerfield is also taking part in a live interview with Janice Long as part of the festival’s conference the day before, launches a 16-date UK tour which includes some unusual small venues.
“It ranges from a cave in Cornwall to a club in Sheffield,” says Fyfe. “There are some fairly regular venues, but we just couldn’t face another tour where we were in the Manchester-Oxford-Birmingham Academies. It’s hard because – typical us – we’re doing a set where half fits better in a club and half fits better in a theatre.
“When we did Eraserhead we had to decide whether to completely mute it, but it ended up so they just faded it up when there was dialogue.
“ With these short films a lot of them will be silent. It’s a really good way of doing improvisation in front of an audience.”
Something which could have been preoccupying Dangerfield during this tour is a commission for Ex Cathedra – the fifth piece by him to be performed by the Birmingham-based chamber choir – which intriguingly will combine Jewish and Arabic musicians. It was originally planned for early next year, but has now been put on the back burner.
So after this early autumn pause, it seems almost like a new start for Guillemots.
“It’s good – it feels like the end of the first phase of the band.” says Fyfe.
“I just feel really lucky to be in a position where I’m making a living out of music and playing in a band with people I love playing with.
“We’re in a position where we can keep doing this and making the music we want to make.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done, but I still don’t feel I’ve written anything that comes close to what I want to do.”
* Guillemots play Gigbeth on November 7. For details visit www.gigbeth.com.