Laish’s new album Obituaries is released on 25th March. It’s another terrific collection of songs, with all the usual wit and pathos we’ve come to expect from one of Brighton’s finest songwriters.
Laish head honcho Daniel Green met up with our own Brighton Music Blog resident songwriter from the Hiawatha Telephone Company to talk about the story of Laish, the new album and the art of songwriting.
HTC: So where did it all begin? Have you always written songs?
DG: I remember writing songs from pretty much the minute I learnt to play a few chords. I used to write songs with my brother (comedian Matt Green), he’d tend to write the lyrics and I’d write the chords.
HTC: Were they funny songs?
DG: No they weren’t, they were teenage angst songs about vague mythical women. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really remember writing songs, they kind of happen when you’re not really there and then you find a box full of papers and ask yourself how did you do that.
I remember finding a box of songs and lyrics I’d written when i was about 14 or 15 so I have been doing it for that long but I don’t really remember them and I couldn’t play any of those songs now.
HTC: So when did you start performing?
DG: Pretty early. I was at a school where there was a music teacher who was enthusiastic and encouraging to anyone who would pick up an instrument, and I was playing drums and electric guitar so he said you’ve got to form a band and I remember singing some covers, at the age of 15, and singing a Manic Street Preachers song at a school assembly.
But there was quite a gap between that sort of thing and Laish. I went to university at 18 and stopped performing music pretty much. I had a guitar and a 4-track recorder with me, so I occasionally made a few hideous demos but nothing very serious and music wasn’t an ambition at that point and I got more into drama and the usual university shenanigans. Music didn’t seem like something serious that I could do. I didn’t have any friends who had done that.
Then after university I went to India for a year. Just before that I’d been to the Green Man Festival. Bonnie Prince Billy was headlining. And I just remember picking up a guitar and trying to remember songs around the camp fire. It was when the festival was still small and the bands used to hang out around the campfires and sing songs and it was all very jolly and I just remember a few people listening to my songs and saying “You’re quite good at this, you should probably do this some more” and up to that point I had never really thought of it as something I could do. So, it all started at the Green Man Festival.
And then I went to India, travelled around for ages. and bought a cheap guitar and got quite excited out there, just playing simple stuff. I don’t think a single India song has re-surfaced in Laish, it was all drivel (laughs).
HTC: It wasn’t going to be the Beatles’ White Album?
DG: No. Then I came home and started a band in Newcastle and we played a few gigs but I decided to move to Brighton and Laish was born there.
HTC: Was it just you initially?
DG: I just decided to make a name for better or worse, and I still can’t decide if Laish is a hideous name or a good name (Ed note: ‘Laish’ is a Hebrew word meaning the tribe of Dan), but I remember putting an advert in Edgeworld Records looking for band members and about 4 years after I put that advert up I was still getting phone calls from people asking if I was still looking. Did no-one else put an advert up in there?
HTC: And then it closed down. (Edgeworld)
DG: Yes. So I decided I was going to start recording music under this name Laish and I guess I thought it was like the Bonnie Prince Billys and the Smogs of this world who have this name but it’s not really about being a band or solo and you might see them as either but there’s always going to be a core songwriter there and that was what I was going with. And funnily enough that’s exactly what happened.
HTC: So when did you move to Brighton?
DG: I think I moved to Brighton in summer 2007.
The initial band was a guy called Bob, a girl called Fiona and Jess – who now plays in Fear of Men.
HTC: Another good Brighton band. I’ve been listening to their album of early singles and extras, and like it a lot.
DG: Well Jess was part of the foundation of Laish. But that kind of fell apart. The band who made the first album was Cathy Cardin singing, her voice is on the first album a lot, and Ben Gregory on bass, Mike Miles on drums and Jo Burke on violin. And that was a fairly stable line up until it also kind of fell apart and I started again from scratch.
There was an interlude when I found Jen Rouse. We had a tour coming up and Cathy couldn’t do it so I thought we’d get someone else in. I think we found her through Gumtree. Jen’s great, still a really good friend – I went to her wedding – but at that particular time she’d only just moved to Brighton, we went on a tour and it was all very stressful with big gigs and headlining, shit like that. It was very intense and then suddenly it wasn’t. And the band went pfft again. Ben was off on tours with other bands and doing some tour managing. Mike was off with his other band and Jo was on tour with the Medieval Babes in America for months. I was literally left without a band anymore, they had all just buggered off.
So I started doing a few solo gigs and then gradually Emma from Sons of Noel and Adrian decided to join, and we asked Martha and then Patrick was living with Dan the drummer and that all happened within about two weeks of me thinking Laish was finished. Suddenly it’s not!
HTC: But it’s a funny kind of band, because everyone in the band does other things. Most bands, the members are in the band and that’s all they do.
DG: That seems to be a Brighton thing, there’s something in the air, people can’t bear to just do one thing.
HTC: You drum with the Sons of Noel and Adrian, Patrick’s in the Sons and Emma as well, and Emma does her solo stuff and plays with Mariners Children. It must be a logistical nightmare?
DG: And now Martha lives in Berlin. Dan (the drummer) is the only sensible one who just plays in Laish.
HTC: I thought your last UK tour was very economical, where you had Emma and Martha as your support acts.
DG: Yes, we’re going to do that again. Martha and Emma always go down well because Laish are on the cusp of folk and they probably fit more into the folk side of things so it’s a nice kind of crossover to have at a gig. It just gets progressively louder as the evening goes on. If you come to one of those gigs it’s like you get to meet the girls first, one at a time, and then there’s the full band.
.HTC: It’s kind of like an introduction. And it’s a nice contrast, with your slightly northern, masculine element and then the two girls. It makes for an interesting combination.
DG: I guess I’ve always liked that combination of male and female voices. It’s basically Leonard Cohen, that’s what it comes down to. He’s the archetypal model for that sort thing. I don’t think he was an influence when I set out making music but as I’ve listened to him more I can see he’s obviously a big influence in terms of the sounds we create.
The fact that Emma and Martha were in the band meant we could suddenly experiment with that. It wasn’t like we wanted a band with two girl singers, it just happened.
HTC: And they definitely add something to the presence on stage because they’re very comical…
DG: Yeah, they upstage me the whole time!
HTC: …but the songs are good enough so that doesn’t matter! And although you’ve got more rocky of late, your songwriting still has lots of soft sides. It’s not folk but it’s not ‘rock’ either.
DG: No it definitely isn’t. I think I’m veering towards being a bit noisier. But I find I’m always caught between the idea of writing a song for the stage and writing a song for an album and I never know which one i’m trying to do at any given moment. Often I’ll write a song sitting in a room by myself and I’ll pick out some nice finger-picking and it’ll be a quiet folk song, but then I bring it to the band and it becomes a massive rock song and so maybe it’s nice for the recorded version to be different. It’s a trick used by many bands – when you go and see them live, they turn it up. I’m interested in that, but it’s not really rock music is it?
HTC: No, but it’s not folk music either.
DG: I think Martha’s violin gives it that feel, but it’s not folky. I just read a review today that started by saying we’re known as ‘indie folk’ like it’s some hideous brand…
HTC: Mumfords all the way…
DG: But then they described us as baroque rock, and I thought that’s not really what we are, and they said we sounded a bit like The Miserable Rich, another great band from Brighton, but I just don’t see it. I guess the fact that there are strings and there are songs…
HTC: There was a phase a few years ago, when there was like you, the Mariners children, the Sons, Shoreline – all these bands with similar sounds and sharing players and it was almost like there was this one sound…
DG: The Willkommen sound…
HTC: …whereas now it’s pretty diverged…
DG: I guess everyone got lumped together with the Willkommen Collective thing. I’m sure it’s been useful to us in terms of generally spreading the word, and on a social level and it got me a band, although we could have done that without the label, we didn’t need to give it a collective name to be friends or to play together, but I don’t know what it means now. We’re all still here, still making great music but it has definitely changed. The label doesn’t exist anymore, but we still put on gigs, and we all make music. We still like each other (laughs)
HTC: So it gives you a resource, and if nothing else a good mailing list. I wanted to come back to the masculine-feminine thing though because the sound is one thing, but it’s also there lyrically. I’ve always loved the humour in Laish songs, the tongue-in-cheekness, and an immense positivity which is really different from the charicature of an indie band ‘look, the world is terrible and we’re really depressed’ but Laish isn’t like that.
DG: I often find myself at gigs thinking all my lyrics are a bit miserable and depressing. Like “I don’t know what to do with myself, maybe I should just give up and go try something else…”
HTC: But that’s a perfect example. Because the traditional thing is “I just don’t know what to do with myself” full stop, a bit morose, whereas yours is humorous, “maybe i should go and try something else” whilst performing in a band on stage! It encourages a wry smile, but you don’t feel that?
DG: Not for that particular song. Obviously there are joke lines in some of my songs and I guess inspired by the Leonard Cohens or Bill Callahans of this world, that kind of deadpan straightfaced humour in song, where you have to think about it and realise that he’s taking the piss. I guess it’s a bit like that when I sing “I’m a serious man” and you can kind of feel like everyone’s thinking ‘no you’re bloody not’.
HTC: There’s a lot of Laish songs like that. One that I really love is the last song on the first album, ‘A happy accident’, about being born due to a hole in a condom. Where did that come from?
DG: That was written at a point when quite a few of my friends started having babies and I wasn’t really up for the idea at the time and I just remember thinking about one particular couple, well I didn’t really think it but the idea came into my head, that you wouldn’t put it past her [to make a hole in a condom], you know what I mean?
And then I took that idea and wrote it from the perspective of this child that had grown up because of a mother’s deceit and a slightly wet father that doesn’t really know what’s going on but just goes along with it.
HTC: It’s a brilliant song. And when it’s sung it always sounds like it’s completely about you and so personal because…
DG: I know and I feel really bad about that, because my parents come and see me play and the fist line is so brutal about my father, a father. Sorry dad, but it’s not really about you! I mean I’m sure my father is a troubled man, but not in that way. Just as troubled as anyone else is.
HTC: It’s interesting that when you put ‘a father’ and ‘a mother’ in a song everyone will immediately think it has to be personal. I have a song like that (‘Child is father to the man’). It’s such an intimate relationship, it’s like ‘Why would you write about something that intimate about somebody else’s father and mother?’
DG: I don’t know. The ‘I’ in a song is always open to suggestion. That’s a whole other conversation about the autobiographical element in song, but to me it’s completely irrelevant, it doesn’t really matter.
Or even the lyrics alone, it’s the whole package not just the words, but what’s going on with the music as well.
HTC: It’s the difference between autobiographical and literal. Every song comes up through the songwriter’s experiences somehow, but it doesn’t mean it’s all accurate and true. The song ‘Obituaries’ is kind of interesting from that perspective…
DG: How do you take it?
HTC: Well, I used to love reading obituaries because it was like a whole life story in a couple of paragraphs, and they were usually really interesting because to have an obituary written you’d think the person would have to have had something interesting about them otherwise why bother. It was that idea of capturing a story in this tiny space, a bit like a song….
DG: That’s my answer!
HTC: …but it’s obviously an important song for you. Not only are there two versions of it on the album but you named the album Obituaries.
DG: I already regret that – I’m worried that people will think it too miserable – but everything you’ve just said is relevant, I like the idea of songs as obituaries. I mean everything is contained in them, but nothing is contained in them. You can tell a story but you condense a lot into it.
HTC: I used to introduce my own song Richard and Liz sometimes as having ‘the whole of life in it’ which it kind of does, as it references love and death and gangsters and movie stars, but it’s that idea of having all of life in that little contained space. But why two versions and then name the album after that song?
DG: I don’t know. I guess I like the idea of the live version and the recorded version, it seemed like one of those songs it was interesting to rework. We’d done it before to other songs but then not always recorded the alternate version, and the original idea was to begin and end with it but that didn’t really feel like it was working and also once we’d recorded the slow verison it didn’t really fit anywhere on the album so we thought either we cut it, or we stick it on at the beginning, and then I thought that would be quite nice as it gives you a sort of dark brooding introduction that draws you in, and then boom – hit single – track two! (laughs)
I guess with all of these decisions there’s never really a master plan, it’s just a case of trying to put all the pieces together in a shape that makes sense and that makes a sort of narrative out of different songs that are in reality about different things. There’s a thread I suppose, I mean a lot of the songs are about death and a lot of them about sex and it’s about trying to reconcile the two, so yeah… (laughs again)
HTC: Have you read Georges Bataille?
DG: No. Sex and death? It’s the oldest trick in the book isn’t it?
HTC: We should talk more about the album. It seemed quite a long time in gestation because i remember you talking about it being ready a while ago.
DG: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve been doing this for five or six years now, from start to finish, and I guess the more I do it the more I can see that being a musician is a very seasonal thing, like there’s a time for writing and recording, and there’s a time for going out and playing gigs and the season for touring is February to May-ish, festivals in the summer, September to November for another bit of touring and then anytime inbetween is kind of dead time where its either too cold or too sunny and so you have to work around those constraints. And then there’s always going to be distractions, there’s always going to be life that gets in the way but the music’s always ticking over, I’m always thinking about the next thing.
I’m already thinking about the next album although we haven’t started recording it yet, I haven’t really decided which songs although there’s lots of new songs kicking around. It just takes a bit of time and I have to do it in whatever time becomes available and then it kind of happens and you just know when it’s ready. It takes as long as it takes. It wasn’t like there was something that delayed us, it just took as long as it takes.
I’m always amazed by bands that can knock out an album a year, or even more. You think ‘well done, great’ but it takes me about two years to do an album. And because it feels like we’re more of a band now, rather than the Daniel Green show, we spend more time on the arrangements and then everyone else’s time becomes important too, and they might be off doing other things, like Emma’s playing with the Mariners and Martha’s in Berlin so it’s tricky. After this interview, I’m going down to the studio to meet Dan and we’ll work on some new stuff, just me and Dan, guitar and drums. Normally there’s all of us, but when there’s only the two of us I’d rather get together and play than sit around at home.
You think you take two years to do an album but how much time is there really available? One session a week when you’re working? How much can you do in that? You might rehearse one song, but then you won’t nail it in one go, so one song can take three months before you’re even ready to record it. It’s a lot of work.
HTC: The new album’s a lot richer sonically compared to the first one. The recording’s a lot richer. The first album sounded more folky whereas the new one sounds more produced. How did that come about?
DG: The found sounds were always something I liked to do when I was recording, you know if I had a bit of space in a song I’d stick a microphone out of the window and see what happens. Get some sounds of some birds or some rustling paper or whatever. There is still that on the first album but it was still me coming to grips with how to record stuff, where I was learning but not fast enough. With this one I knew a lot more but the difference in sound is a lot to do with Mike Steer who mixed it. He really knows his stuff and he really spent a lot of time on it.
Basically, the album was recorded at home but then handed over to Mike to make it sound good. As I was recording it I was mixing it but as I was mixing it I realised how incapable I am at mixing because, well… you go – the guitar sounds good, to my ears, the drum sounds good, to my ears, and the violin sounds good and everything sounds good but then I’d put it all together and it sounded like shit and I don’t understand why.
Luckily I met Mike at a gig where he was doing the sound and he said if I ever needed anything doing… and so I said ‘Yes, I need an album mixing right NOW. Will you do it?’
So I gave him a track and he mixed it and I sent it back because I absolutely hated what he’d done with it and I was going to ditch him when something in me said that even though I hated it I could tell that what he’d done showed he really knew what he was doing, he just hadn’t done it in a way that I liked. It was a taster but I didn’t really like the direction he went in, but when I got him on the right track then he was away. It meant it came out more pop than it would have done because I’m just not capable of that. Not that poppy I suppose, just a bit more accessible.
HTC: The first track I heard that made me aware of that difference was the Obituaries single released last year because it sounded so different. Partly that was the new band I suppose, but also the arrangement, the way the song was constructed, different…
DG: I do think that song is a bit of an anomaly for us though, I don’t really think there are many other songs that sort of sit with that song. It’s a bit of an oddball in a way.
HTC: It felt to me more like a statement of intent. That Laish weren’t going to be in that old folksy mould anymore.
DG: I just wanted to make some noise. Like when the drums kick in, what you hear is white noise and that’s what I wanted to be there. I didn’t want it to be like a folk band playing a bit louder.
HTC: Are you going further in that direction with the new stuff? Is there going to be more change?
DG: There’s definitely going to be more change. The constant pull between writing delicate folk songs and pop music. I’m not quite sure where we’re going but everything’s changing and I’m not yet sure what direction I want to take it in. The only thing I’m certain about is that I want to make music that’s suitable for a bigger stage.
I think it’s clear Daniel Green and Laish are set to play on bigger stages.
The new album ‘Obituaries’ is available on March 25th. It can be ordered via their bandcamp site and should be available in all good music stores.
There will be plenty of opportunities to see Laish in the Brighton area before they head out on their next national tour. First of all Danny is playing a solo set at the next Source New Music Night at the Dome studio theatre on 28th March. There’s a small in-store to accompany the album release at Union Music Store in Lewes on April 13th (3pm), and solo support slots for Danny and Emma at the Six Toes gig at the Prince Albert in Brighton on April 14th.
You can catch the full 5-piece band at their headlining show at the Prince Albert on Friday April 19th which kicks off their tour.
They also play Meadowlands Festival on 26th May and the End of the Road festival at the end of August.
So go forth. Enjoy the Laish.