I was in my parents’ attic on a Sunday in June 2017. They’d bought me a Roland cube amp (the ones you see at the feet of almost every busker) for my 30th birthday and I decided it was time to have a mess with it. I put loads of delay on the vocals, which made me sound cooler and more indie than I am. I tuned the high e string of my guitar down to a D and the simple chords I began lazily strumming had Neil Young vibes. The only other thing I remember doing up there was figuring out how to play a tune I had fallen completely in love with. It was Bobby by Alex G, from the album Rocket, released that same year. Bobby is a beautiful piece of writing and a great track. There are no other songs like it on the album, which is so eclectic it’s hard work, to be honest. Bobby has a gorgeous arrangement of acoustic guitar, banjo and violin that might sound Irish if it wasn’t undeniably American. A couple of years later it would be the first song I sang with my girlfriend Katie Nicholas, when we were still just friends. During our first practice there was a moment where we made eye contact, freaked out, and stared off in opposite directions. Alex G's line, “I lost my way, I made my mess, I’d clean it for you,” was one I already adored, but soon I found myself scribbling it in a valentine’s card for Katie and it all felt meant to be. Any way, ages before all that, I’m up in the attic and I could feel that I was stumbling into a song. As is the go-to method, I hollered some melodic nonsense for a while, then I searched for some lyrical scribbles in my notes. A lot of them seemed to be about alcoholism. It was summer time, so for better or (definitely) for worse, I was drinking a lot, and pondering my entrenched role in our long-out-of-hand drinking culture. I don’t regret any of it at now, of course. I was a big fan of starting early on Saturday afternoons and getting nicely leathered on an empty stomach. I remember telling my mate Richie in La’Go that I was “in a really good place with the bevvies,” as though it was some beautiful relationship to be nurtured. Years later at Katie's brilliant 'Wordsmith' event, I was asked a question about my line in Outlaw, “You lost your twenties somewhere out drinking.” I replied that the the line wasn’t just about me, because in fact I didn’t know a single lad I’d grown up with that didn’t get smashed a great deal throughout his teens and twenties. Perhaps no big deal had we waited until we were 18, but who are we kidding? I first got drunk on New Year’s Eve 1999 at the age of 12. Among school friends I was made to believe that I was already late to the piss-up party. I had to get cracking over that Christmas break, because everyone else in year 8 would be, apparently. I pinched about three “stubby” bottles of lager from the fridge and acted like an absolute lunatic, performing Oasis songs for the family with no shirt on. To this day I still go by “the Kronenbourg Kid” when my Uncle Paul is around. Now I was 30 and that was eighteen years ago. I’d been getting drunk almost as long as I’d been writing songs.
It was Sunday so I was hungover, and maybe because I was back in the birthing room of nearly all my tunes so far, I wound up writing You and Me, Brother. I think I owe some of the song’s inspiration to a Louis CK bit I love, where he fantasises about giving up all his responsibilities to become, in his words, “an old drunk.” Family (whispering, crying): He’s destroying himself. Louis (grinning, drunk): Shut up! It’s typically dark of Louis, and I’m aware that alcoholism is no automatic laughing matter. What's funny is his twisted respect for a person who’s downed tools, and I could relate to that. I too was in a place of coveting the liberation, dare I say the honesty of the fella who sits alone in Wetherspoon’s pubs all day. I would watch them through the window from the bus stop at Clayton Square. Slow sips, slow everything. No rush, no future. Occasionally sauntering outside to puff a contemplative cigarette. Studying the street like Clint Eastwood, cynical and hard. Masters of their universe. My finding romance in it all wasn’t helped by my reading Bukowski, who is the absolute last writer you should read if you’re drinking too much and wondering how to feel about it.
“…and when the morning came
we were sick but not ill,
poor but not deluded,
and we stretched in our beds and rose
in the late afternoons
Sometimes I can keep lyrical notes for a years knowing that I’ll get them in somewhere, someday. The idea of committing to the drink “full-time” is one example of that, and (as it was for Louis) it became something of a comforting joke with myself while I was struggled through tough moments, such as getting out of bed and going to work. I wondered if I’d even be playing the open mic circuit all week if it wasn’t for the incentive of my 3-pint-minimum. I wondered if I was a musician who likes a drink, or a piss-head who dabbled at music.
The character I’m addressing in the song is clearly self-pitying and selfish and I want to shake him, but then I figured the only difference between him and me is that he has wound up with more responsibility, specifically the greatest of responsibilities in that he's a parent. “Can’t let your little girl become the one who’s gonna patch you up.” Ultimately it just became a song about empathy. Letting someone know that you understand their reckless side, you’ve got one too. I was leaving the bitching and writing-off of this person to those caught up in the damage. They had their reasons, I did not.
As the months turned colder I began rehearsing with Andrew Horseman, (guitar) Will Howell (drums) and Harry Williams (bass), with a view to getting them all into the recording studio with me. It was the first time I’d jammed with a band in almost ten years, and I felt a welcome surge of confidence in the handful of songs I brought to the table. We were playing two or three times a week and it felt amazing to be in a gang again. I feel like playing with those guys was a crucial step out of square one and onto a musical journey that continues today. I’m still on and off the horse at times, but we're on our way nonetheless.
I particularly love the middle 8 of You and Me Brother, which features my favourite kind of melodic and subtle guitar sounds, played excellently by Andy.
“Forget drowning out, it only grows your blues You’ve been up and down, maybe it’s time to choose. It ain’t too late Boss, another dawn is due. What if today was the day that whistle blows on you? Full time. Full time. You and Me Brother.” I liked that I was able to bring the phrase “full time” back in but with different meaning, and also I’m just a sucker for any kind of sport metaphor. It’s also worth noting that Bob Dylan has a lot of whistles blowing in his songs, and I was obsessed at the time with the 1975 live bootleg version of Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You, in which he wonderfully screams “I can hear that lonesome whistle blowin’” several times.
You and Me Brother was recorded in January 2018 at Parr St and produced by Tony Draper. My Mum came in and sang some very nice backing vocals for us.
Listening back to my own vocals, I can so clearly detect my own hesitancy and fear. This makes sense to me, and not just because recording your vocals can induce unwelcome tension.
At the time of the sessions, the place I worked in had shut down and I was out of a day job. It stayed that way for three months, and for a while I was completely lost. Not knowing what else to do (or not being able to face it), I had thrown myself into music and running. I jogged 4.5 miles most mornings, and that helped to cut my nightly drinking right down. Instead of dragging myself to every open mic night, I took more time at my desk to write, burn candles, colour in mandalas, and get into Leonard Cohen. It was freezing outside but my creative fire was well and truly burning. During that same January, I sat down at the piano and took a big songwriting leap in composing Outlaw.
Playlist: "You and Me Brother: Song index" Link: https://spoti.fi/3q43oM8
Tracklist: 1. Neil Young - Dreamin' Man 2. Alex G - Bobby 3. Alex G - Sportstar 4. Richmond Fontaine - I Got off the Bus 5. Wilco - I Am Trying to Break Your Heart 6. Katie Nicholas - Cabin Fever 7. Charles Bukowski - The Secret of my Endurance - with introduction 8. Bob Dylan - Tonight I’ll Be Staying here with You - Live at Montreal Forum, Montreal, Quebec - December 1975 9. Leonard Cohen - Sisters of Mercy 10. Thom Morecroft - The Beast