Hi Neil. It’s great to meet you. Can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
I’m a writer. It’s taken me a while to be comfortable saying that. Because I’m not from an academic background. My dad was a carpenter and I spent my formative years being led to believe that “the arts” were created by posh people, for posh people. I knew I had something to say, though. And so, after having been overlooked yet again, in favour of the tremendously talented, doe-eyed Derek Allen for the lead role in the school drama, I decided that, unless I wanted to be “chorus” for the remainder of my life, it was time to take things into my own hands. As a parting “gift” to my school, I produced, wrote and directed the inaugural end of year School Revue, a chaotic sketch show, interspersed with bands and Spike Milligan poetry renditions.
I left that all-boys grammar school, a hellish hotbed of bullying, conformity and privilege, with 6 average O Levels, to join a Youth Training Scheme in Print and Design (having turned down a potentially lucrative, but ultimately soul destroying, banking career). But that Print and Design Training Scheme was good to me, exposing me to a previously unknown world of words and images and allowing me to quickly learn a balance between creativity and commercial viability. But, as ungrateful as it seems now, it was never overtly creative. Expressive. Risky. At school, I remember my English teacher complaining that my stories were too long and that he didn’t have time to read them. Having pointed out, with typical teenage cockiness that it was his job, he reminded me, as others often did, that I’d never amount to anything. But I’ve always found the need to prove doubters wrong a powerful motivation.
I joined poetry groups. And naively welded words together, as a form of primitive catharsis. Short poems, laden with unconscious subtext, created to accommodate my own limited attention span. But these poetry groups so often consisted of the spurned and disenfranchised of the world. Society’s sensitive rejects, confined to the sad, back rooms of usually celebratory places. So I wrote a screenplay. About a man in his late 20s, who leaves a mundane and unfulfilling life, to go travelling. It was rubbish. But I finished it. And then I wrote another. A time travel love story. About a widower who travels back in time to change his wife’s fate, so that she lives. But while he’s there, he falls for someone else. It wasn’t as rubbish as the first one, but, having received polite letters (and they were letters back then), I decided to put my aspirations on hold.
Years later, after wearing a hole in where I was from, it was time to move on. To the medium-sized smoke of Cardiff. Five months, in a city where I knew next to no one, living in the attic room of a shared house, in a sweltering room, with nothing but the sobs of the duped pensioner in the room below to remind me I wasn’t alone. Motivation enough to get out and start throwing myself into the posh life. Seeing posh art, created by posh people, for posh people. And posh theatre, written by posh people, for posh people. And nobody stared. Or looked at me like I didn’t belong. And before I knew it, I was talking to people. About art. And theatre. And they weren’t posh at all. Most of them, anyway.
One night, at the Sherman Theatre, I saw Script Slam. Five plays, by previously un-produced writers. Directed by and featuring proper professionals.
And I thought, I could do this. Seven People, seven monologues delivered by seven people with undisclosed secrets, and my first ever play, not only won the Script Slam heats, it also won the Grand Final. And soon, there I was, on stage, receiving a prize in front of my parents for writing and I thought, this is it…
Ten years later, with a London-based agent, two Guardian reviews, and countless performances of my work in Wales, London and throughout the UK, this still isn’t it. Writing the play is just the start. Then comes the re-writing, the rejections and the resolve to start all over again. But, like an addiction, you just can’t stop doing it. Because you know, that the highs of simply completing a new work are nothing compared to the incapacitating elation created by that elusive moment of acceptance.
Since making my first short film, BETWEEN, last year, I’ve discovered new ways of telling stories for the screen (big and small), too. Having had a meeting with a TV production company about my play RABBIT, I’m currently working on a treatment with a view to developing it into a six-part comedy drama. I’m also in the process of applying for development funding for my first feature. Like I said, it’s an addiction. You just can’t stop doing it. And every compelling addiction story has a killer soundtrack…
This chat is specifically about music and the role it has played in your personal and professional life. Firstly to start off what are you currently listening to?
Music’s always been there. My mum and dad were jivers, rockers and rollers, lucky enough to hear Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis the first time round. They saw The Beatles in Gloucester in the 60s, in a building which is now a slowly fermenting, beer-sticky Wetherspoons. At every opportunity, they’d jive, perfectly sychronised, at smoke-fogged dinner dances, then play the tunes from the night before, whilst peeling carrots to add to the other overcooked ingredients for Sunday lunch. And, slowly, every one of those anti-establishment lyrics and rhythms started to sink in. So, at the age of ten, I fell for punk. A lamb, in parent-approved, respectable gingham check, demanding 3 minutes of anarchy from the DJ at the family disco at Croyde Bay Caravan Park, so I could pogo, solo, starting with The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, in 1978. And, though there have been giant deviations in my musical mores, there’s always been something about the energy and attitude of punk-influenced music that energises me and makes me smile.
So, at the moment, I’m listening to Idles, Slaves and Rolo Tomassi. Quick-fix anger hits, to subconsciously energise scenes. Then there’s a bit of Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, to help me reflect and introspect. And, though it’s not technically music, there’s the looped sound of the sea, coming in, and going out again, my substitute for the uninspiring sound of silence.
We are interviewing a range of people about their own musical inspiration, can you list 5 records/albums which have a personal resonance to you and why?
Narrowing it down to five is practically impossible. Like asking me to pick my top five artists. Or insects. But rules are rules, right? And, in spite of my urge to rebel against this seemingly arbitrary figure, here goes.
To help me prepare to write this article, I’ve been listening a lot to Desert Island Discs. They get to choose 8 songs. Single songs. I get 5 whole albums. As someone struggled to say once, would that it were so simple. Should I pick based on my short attention span, which would mean that I’d just choose a record by each of my “new favourite bands” for the last 5 years? Or do I consider those who might be reading this, and allow myself to be influenced by my barely latent artistic insecurities? Choosing obscure Krautrock, soundtracks from the Golden Age of Mexican Film Musicals, niche Austrian yodellers and ironic 90s pop, to offer some contrast and help portray a self-conscious sense of fun? Because I’m, like, an artist, but I literally don’t take myself too seriously.
This all seemed so much easier when I agreed to it…
OK. In no particular order, there’s Number 1 Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia by The Dandy Warhols.
I’m in Melbourne in a record shop, stopped in my travelling tracks, hearing it for the first time.I’m lying in a bath, in my tragic “bachelor” pad, on a midsummer’s night, windows open, staring at a bruised sky, dreading Friday’s “big night out”.
I’m at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, having cycled to the gig, the neon-bright colours from the stained glass window behind the stage fragmented by tears of joy, hearing it live and feeling so elated that, in that moment, nothing else mattered. This album has everything. It’s massive. It’s the soundscape of a parallel earth. A dream-like, soft-focus earth, with its ponds of pristine pop, scattered amongst its rolling hills of hypnotic rock, all floating on a sea of fuzzy psychedelia. And there’s chickens. And trumpets. It’s the friend I go to when I need reassurance about aeroplane turbulence or that the thing I’m writing is worth finishing.
2. Then there’s U2’s The Joshua Tree.
I know every word. I can hum every guitar solo. There’s a song for breaking up, fucking up and getting back up. I had that mullet. And I bought into Bono’s pain, until I was old enough to know better. But their extended performance of Bad (from The Unforgettable Fire), and Bono’s one to one with a bewildered audience member (and Wham fan) at Live Aid, will always stay with me. It’s all at once indulgent, exploitative, calculated, poetic, dramatic and beautiful.
U2 were my first serious band. The soundtrack to my later teenage years and the variety of experiences that came with them. I remember one of my first jobs, as an apprentice in a screen printing company, hunched over a lightbox, white vest, mullet and earphones playing the opening jangles of Where the Streets Have No Name (on my original Sony Walkman), goose-bumped and feeling that everything was going to be alright.
And then, much later, in the aftermath of the break up of a long relationship, wallowing in With or Without You. And, deep down, still believing the same.
3. There was a time, when the anticipation surrounding the launch of a new release was so great that you could queue outside HMV at midnight to buy the album in the first minute of its release. I’ve done this once in my life. Having pre-warned my neighbour, I returned home with my still warm, shiny, cellophane-wrapped Fat of the Land by Prodigy.
I’m in my early 30s, purple velvet suit, black silk shirt and Musketeer hair, losing it to Firestarter on the dancefloor. In my head, I’m alone. I am a wide-eyed Keith Flint, emerging from his tunnel, unpredictable and scary as hell.
Minutes later, I’m manhandled into a disabled toilet by two bouncers, insistent on performing a full body search for illicit substances. I mean, dancing with such manic intensity, in such heavy and impractical material, on a sweltering dancefloor, could only possibly be the behaviour of a drug-addled lunatic, couldn’t it?
I’ve never taken drugs (“Alcohol’s not a drug, it’s a drink”), but whatever happens to me when I hear certain tracks on this album, must produce similar chemicals. At the time, Firestarter and Breathe almost seemed to possess me. Something empathy-inducing, car-crash compelling, in that combination of primal beats and Keith Flint’s pained pantomime-punk yelps. I remember being out with friends at Clwb. Bored. So I left in search of a new adventure. Just across Womanby Street, at The Moon Club, the pied-piper bass of Diesel Power pulled me closer. Having convinced the bouncers that I was just here for that song, I soon merged into the heaving mass, all sweat and elbows, eyes closed, smiling and lost. Thanks Keith Flint. Rest in Peace.
4. Over the last ten years, there has been less and less music that has compelled me to learn every line. Maybe that’s more to do with how we consume music now. Attention spans increasingly suited to ready-meal playlists of popular hits, without the time or patience to lose ourselves in something more challenging.
And then, along came John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts. It’s an album of absolute, awkward honesty, overtly biographical and overflowing with painful poetry. Playwrights have to create characters to hide their flaws in, but this is a balls-out confessional. A “forgive me father” you can dance to. And where does this fit into my ongoing, never a dull moment (but sometimes I wish there was) life?
Well, this particular weekend should have been a triumphant one for me. A new play, premiered at a major London venue, with a transfer to a prestigious arts-themed festival. But everything was about to fall apart and descend into one of the worst weekends of my life. Traversing the country, emotional and feeling utterly alone, I arrived at the festival, hoping to shake off the sense of overwhelming helplessness, only to find myself feeling further excluded at a time when I craved connection. Solitary and mentally and physically shattered, music was again on hand to prop me up, wrap its arms around me and send me on my way, with a sense of hope. And this time, it was John Grant who persuaded me that all was not yet lost.
From Queen of Denmark’s “I had it up to my hairline, which keeps receding like my self confidence”, to You Don’t Have To’s “you don’t deserve to have somebody think about you”, I was comforted by empathy before having everything put into perspective by the monumental Glacier, “don’t you become paralysed with fear, when things seem particularly rough…”
5. Seriously, this isn’t fair. Five albums isn’t enough. I feel that, not that they’ll ever read this, I need to use this opportunity to say thanks for the company and inspiration to all of the following, before I mention my final choice (which, as I write this, I’m still not sure of):
Carrie – Fear of Sound
The Teardrop Explodes – Wilder
Bauhaus – Burning From the Inside
Babybird – Ugly Beautiful/There’s Something Going On
The Walkmen – Lisbon/Pussy Cats
Lou Reed and John Cale – Songs For Drella
The Vaccines – What Did You Expect from The Vaccines
Jerry Lee Lewis – Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis
Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
Tom Waits – Mule Variations
EMF – Schubert Dip
Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
Bright Eyes – Cassadaga/I’m Wide Awake, it’s Morning
Rufus Wainwright – Want One/Want Two
Slaves – Are You Satisfied?
Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking/Ritual De Lo Habitual
Oasis – Definitely Maybe
Radiohead – The Bends
Dogs – Turn Against This Land
Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die and Love will Bury It
Die Antwoord – Donker Mag/Ten$ion
Rammstein – Mutter
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell
Pantera – A Vulgar Display of Power
Frank – Music and Song From the Film
The Mission Soundtrack – Ennio Morricone
O.K. my 5th and final album (I realise that my approach might suggest a sense of over-inflated self importance, but this is music and it means a lot to me, so be kind!) is…
Rufus Wainwright – Want One/Want Two
This could just have easily been Tom Waits or Nick Cave or Babybird or Jane’s Addiction and I know, I know, this is technically two albums, creating a Top 6, but they were repackaged as a double album in 2005, so no rules broken. And what are rules, anyway, really?
Years before the drive-through ease of Spotify, Later with Jools Holland was my trusted introducer to “new” music. In May 2004, Rufus Wainwright performed Vibrate and, like the beneficiary of a free first crack rock, I was hooked. An incredibly beautiful song, saturated with longing and a barely dignified desperation to be loved, delivered in a voice that wavered between absolute self-assurance and disarming vulnerability. In my mid teens, I was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe. I convinced myself that she might have survived, if she’d had a friend who hadn’t harboured some sinister ulterior motive. Though I was barely equipped at the time to deal with my own issues, I imagined going back in time and unconditionally offering her my smooth, skinny shoulder to cry on.
And now, here I was, in the waistcoat and cravat wardrobe of my mid 30s, listening to Vibrate and reminded of my noble teenage fantasies.I sought out his entire back catalogue, in typically obsessive fashion. I lapped up his earlier stuff, but the theatrical emotional rollercoaster of Want One and Two was breathtaking. From the triumphant optimism of Oh What a World, to the infectiously rousing Beautiful Child, from the unrequited love of The Art Teacher to the grand, sing-a-long heartbreak of 14th Street, these albums reminded me that songs didn’t have to be inspired by rage to make me feel something.
And live, he’s even better. Whether backed by an orchestra or alone at a piano, these are songs to sing along to, about the collective human experiences of life, love and loss. All this, and he’s proper laugh-out-loud funny, too.
There’s also something inspiring about how he seems to have forgone what could potentially have been straightforward commercial success, to pursue his operatic aspirations. Maybe I see a parallel, however truly incomparable, with my shirking of a lucrative graphic design career, in favour of the dogged pursuit of my own creative writing dreams.If I ever meet him, I’ll be torn between the fake bravado of asking him to collaborate on a show and the awe-inspired verbal paralysis of unworthiness.
So, that’s my Top 5. Ask me tomorrow and it might be an entirely different one.
Just to put you on the spot could you choose one track from the five listed above and tell us why you have chosen this?
Why couldn’t this have been an article about my favourite, most inspiring cheeses? Which would have proved considerably less traumatic.
Ideally, I’d like to say none of the above. So I could choose Angela Surf City by The Walkmen or Perfume Genius’s Queen or Nick Cave’s People Ain’t No Good or Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Maps or Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right or Idles’ Danny Nedelko. But, far be it from me to, yet again, turn momentary article-based hellraiser…
The song being chosen…
As my favourite…
From the albums above…
Solid by the Dandy Warhols. There are so many incredible songs on Thirteen Tales, but the nonchalant, stoner-swagger of this song, conjures images of walking through sunset-lit, excitingly dangerous streets, without a care in the world.
“I feel cool as shit, cause I’ve got no thoughts keeping me down.” While I wait for writing success (and hope that I recognise it when it arrives) and/or untold riches, that’ll be the straightforward, spiritual mantra that I awkwardly (but resolutely) aspire to. Music will always be my empathetic friend, ready to tell me what I need to hear at exactly the right moment. It’s there to laugh with, to cry with and to dance with. It’s being inconsolable at gigs, snubbed by your idols (that’s you, Karen O, but not you, Henry Rollins), comforted after break-ups, reflective at funerals, losing it on dance floors and pushed to do one more press-up, cycle one more lap, write one more scene….