Karl is the author of “Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop”, a personal exploration of the musical and social history of urban Britain, which was published in June 2019 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
How are you? How have you been?
I’ve been okay – not great, but not awful. I guess what I’ve learned is that keeping going is enough for now.
Do you think we’re over the worst at this stage?
I hesitate to say it with the rise of the new variant, but: yes. I think the way out of it will continue to resemble the worst days, just not as bad: ameliorated by vaccines, etc, but still involving social distancing, masks, and a lot of outdoor meet-ups!
What music/albums did you particularly enjoy in 2021?
In the early months of 2021, when things were quiet and everything was locked down, I started listening to classical music. Probably the spur for that was having talked to Paul Morley about his classical book late in 2020. I found a playlist of the Mozart 225 box set on Spotify and listened to that while reading the French writer Patrick Modiano’s novels in chronological order and thinking about Paris, where the majority of Modiano’s novels are set. After a couple of months of that, I got into collecting the Kinks’ records on vinyl – Face to Face is probably my favourite of what I listened to, but the Kink Kronikles compilation is an amazing selection too. The reissue of Whipping Boy’s Heartworm was a real moment of the year for a lot of people, and I was no different. I listened to it solidly for a couple of weeks, in fact probably a couple of months, and still dip into it from time to time. There was this great CD called Ambient Americana that came with Uncut magazine earlier in the year – terrific soundscapes, mostly instrumental, that frequently feature the expansive tones of pedal-steel guitar. I was already a fan of the guitarist William Tyler, who features on the compilation (and whose soundtrack to the film First Cow I also bought this year) but it sent me in the direction of the Australian musician Andrew Tuttle, whose instrumental album Alexandra is a rich evocation of the suburbs of Redland, near Brisbane, where he lives. Reminded me of some of the great Eno ambient records, especially Music For Airports, but with an idiosyncratic character of its own: joyful and tuneful.
I really loved Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over the Country Club, which is a worthy successor to the instant classic Normal Fucking Rockwell. I’ve heard Blue Banisters, but need to listen to it properly. It’s sort of a relief, especially in these deeply circular times, to hear an artist plough the same furrow repeatedly and keep finding something new and fresh. I don’t know very much about the Brooklyn-based Pakistani composer and singer Arooj Aftab, aside from the fact that her album Vulture Prince is fantastic: it’s moody, smoky, minimal and beautiful. I also loved Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime and Damon Albarn’s pretty astounding The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows.
Finally, when Stephen Sondheim died I wanted to find a trusted voice to interpret the songs for me and found it in the actor and singer Mandy Patinkin’s Mandy Patinkin Sings Sondheim. Patinkin’s probably best known to most for his long-running role in Homeland, but he’s also a musical actor who was in the original cast of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Anyway, that was, more or less, my musical year. Okay, one more thing: I recommend the wonderful Edward George’s podcast about dub music: The Strangeness of Dub, as a brilliant exploration of dub music’s antecedents and afterlives.
How do you feel about going to gigs?
I went to a couple this year, and I find them weird. I’ll probably stick to going to experimental jazz performances, where the crowds are smaller until the pandemic blows over.
The arts have had a particularly tough time right through the pandemic, in comparison to other sectors. Is it difficult to keep going?
I think in Ireland the night-time economy has borne the brunt of a lot of the government’s lockdown whims, and that’s really tough. I’m not sure what the best way to deal with it is. I think the Irish government’s attitude to antigen testing has been utterly bizarre – bringing evidence of negative tests to gigs and events should have been normalised a long time ago in Ireland, as it was in the UK, and I just don’t know why there was such resistance.
Personally speaking, I stepped back a bit from writing to think about what I was doing and whether or not I wanted to keep going with it. At the moment, I teach, I do a bit of editorial work, and I write whenever I feel like it, which is sometimes but not always.
Anything else going on with you on the writing side?
I have an eye on doing something nonfictional about cities, the past, and cycling. I’m giving it some thought, while not giving it too much thought. It’ll either happen or I’ll file it away. I’m editing for Penguin Classics now, so I’ll be working on some interesting books regardless of whether I write anything myself. At the moment I do a lot of reading and thinking, but less writing.
What are you looking forward to next year, musically?
Genuinely don’t know what’s coming next year, aside from the fact I have tickets to see Mdou Moctar. I expect there’ll be another couple of albums from Lana Del Rey. Perhaps someone will reissue The Chieftains’ The Bells of Dublin album on LP by this time next year? (I don’t think it’s ever been on vinyl unless I’m mistaken.)
Have you any plans yourself next year?
Just to keep going with what’s underway: teaching, editing, and a bit of writing. I hope to get back to Dublin more frequently than I did this year, but we’ll see…