This article was first published on Louder Than War on 1 September 2012.
31 August 2012
With a new album of luscious, string-drenched indie folk just out Chris Helme is heading off on tour. Louder Than War caught up with the affable chap as his live dates kick off in Leicester.
Chris is talking on the phone when I finally find my way to the Soundhouse in Leicester where he is kicking off his tour that night. ‘It’s been a mad day’ he tells me as we grab a drink and seat ourselves next to the pub’s piano.
The first of three local support bands is already on the stage and Chris tilts his head to one side and nods approvingly. Then he frowns slightly and admits he’s always a bit worried about performing, especially after a strong support.
For there is a shadow that it seems Chris can never step from under. It looms large over every performance, is mentioned in every review (spoiler – this one will be no different).
He’s resigned to the inevitable tag of ‘Chris Helme from John Squires‘ band The Seahorses’, always expecting the audience to palpably need to hear the hits from that band. Does he care that it’s the label he’s stuck with, I ask him?, ”No, I don’t care. It’s all true isn’t it?”
But The Seahorses were a long time ago and there have been albums with The Yards and solo since then. It seems a shame that only the surface his back catalogue is mined during a typical gig.
He’s been asked every question about that time of his life – about what happened, about how he feels, about those relationships – a thousand times but he humours hearing a few of them again from me as he sips a pint and chats with people wanting to come and shake his hand, get a photo and tell him what his songs have meant to them.
While on a personal level the memories might not be entirely happy it appears that there is still a lot of fondness from fans for those old songs. Does he mind playing them?
“It’s part of my life’s tattered tapestry, and if it’s what people want to hear then I’m happy to play them those old chestnuts.
“I prefer my new stuff, and it’s my job to familiarise those songs with the crowd. I have to keep moving forward, even if I have to step back a bit sometimes to get there.
“In the end though I’ll do what I feel is right for the crowd and what is right for me. I won’t give them enough rope to hang me with though. Time to move on.”
This isn’t exactly what ended up getting played – but it’s a starting point
Indeed it is. New album, The Rookery, is a luscious string-drenched thing of folksy indie with more than a little melancholic Americana. It is, in fact, a stunner and those songs more than deserve to be heard live.
Although he sometimes plays with a full band tonight it’s just Chris and a guitar. This can be a tough set-up at the best of times but is an even harder sell to a boozy, retro-gazing Friday night crowd.
His self-deprecating humour is there from the start, he takes the banter with the crowd in his stride. They get those lusted after songs from way-back-when but they also get beautiful, delicate acoustic songs from his two solo albums.
Chris’ voice tonight has a gravel-edge, a sultry tone that compliments the darkness underlying most of the lyrics. It’s something he’s aware of, embraces. The songwriting becoming a necessary part of his internal balance. These ups and downs evident in the juxtaposition of soulful vocals and more upbeat yet still mellow pastoral melodies.
“We’ve all got a dark side. Modern life is rubbish etc.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly happy person. I’ve always felt like that. Low dopamine levels, maybe.
“I probably spend too much time alone when I’m touring and I sometimes have to think my way out into the sunshine.
“I was very edgy at the start of recording this The Rookery, I’d put myself under a lot of pressure so I had to level myself out and I suppose writing mellow songs helped that process.
“When my mind wanders, especially when I’m writing lyrics, things get a little dark. I tend to bury things.”
It’s obvious that playing this new material is allowing Chris to really spread his wings and fly. It catches people off guard, most of them came here for what they already knew and yet through the loveliness of the songs and the performer they have their heads turned by what is new to them.
Tonight’s version of Set in Stone has the song’s vulnerability writ large. The swaying beat and the vocal, stripped of the harmonies on the recorded version, is more desperate; melodic weeping, a hand reaching out wanting to be held.
While Pleased trips along bringing some Southern swampiness to Leicester.
The mark of a good songsmith is how they can cut through the crowd; not by inciting raucous yawping (leave that to your dumb-as-fuck balls out rock star) but by instilling silence.
If you can, by doing nothing more than playing an acoustic guitar and singing, reduce the drunken bravado of silhouettes stage front to quiet attention and appreciative applause, you can rest easy. Your songs have been delivered safely, it might not be all out adoration but it is respect and wonder at your art.
As material from The Rookery soars Chris seems to start to believe the crowd may actually be with him rather than against him, relaxes and starts to have some fun. What is it from this fresh canon that he particularly looks forward to playing live?
“I’d say each song has its moments, so it’s hard to pick only one.
“Darkest Days is always different live. We can never play that one too slow. We have to really dig deep on that one.
“Blindeye is the same in some respects. But then along comes Spindle and the Cauldron and it’s a whole new head to attach.
“We really have to relax into playing this album, which is can be achieved in many ways, as you can imagine.”
Some of the songs have to be left behind tonight as it just isn’t possible to capture the fullness of their sound without the band to back him.
With songs from The Rookery well received and appreciative nods and murmurs from the crowd Helme is happier enough to reward them. Not only with a heart-breaking version of Blinded by the Sun but with a surprise airing of The Boy in the Picture.
He spends time signing copies of his album, affably having his picture taken and shaking hands. Listening to people’s memories of his music, the other songs they love. He seems slightly taken aback they would want to speak with him.
But they do, and they tell him how much they enjoyed the set. Does it make him think of what’s next?
“I’m about to book another place to record the next one.
“I’m so busy at the moment its hard to fit things in. Maybe January 2013, if the Mayans weren’t full of shit, of course. Aren’t we all supposed to be vaporised this year?”
He packs up his case of merchandise and we head off to see what the town has to offer for the late night reveller. We talk about music, about the scene in his native York (“there’s a real sense of community. Everyone helps each other out and theres a lot of mutual respect flying around and collaborations. Like a little Laurel Canyon in the heart of Yorkshire”).
He talks passionately, enthusiastically, about music that he loves, stuff he’s listening to at the moment (“Sonny and The Sunsets, Andrew Bird, Toots and the Maytals, The Sorry Kisses, Hayley Hutchinson, Sam Forrest”) and of course whether he’s a downloader and whether it’s right music is free.
“Free downloading? Well, let’s see.
Let’s make everything free and see what happens. Free food, free housing, free energy, free guns and bullets.ÃÂ Maybe that’s what the Mayans were on about?
“For anything to have value, there needs to be a mutual exchange to continue the cycle of creation. If people just take and don’t give back, then we’ll all be fucked.”
He’s a witty and intelligent conversationalist who wants to talk about music, love, family and he’s proved himself this evening as a performer and songwriter who deserves more attention for the moody but honest, sensitive yet dark Americana infused acoustic indie he’s currently excelling at.
All words by Sarah Lay.