Some people are gluttons for punishment.
Whilst a great number of us have been making the most of this free time, the world still turns in our absence, and musicians still have work to present. Tim Burgess is one such soul, and while his Twitter Listening Parties are taking up most of his time (more on those later, inevitably), his fifth solo album I Love The New Sky is released at the end of the month too.
It’s ostensibly a follow-up to 2018’s As I Was Now, but the two records couldn’t be more different. For one thing, their gestations had completely different lifespans; Burgess sat on the previous album for the best part of a decade, whereas the new one was recorded in just a year. “As I Was Now only took about five days and I released it unmixed,” Burgess tells Live4ever in an exclusive interview. “And some of it was unfinished, but I just felt it was a really nice release. It was a good story and a nice archival release for Record Store Day.”
Tim is talking to us after a couple of false starts; “I was going to speak with Live4ever at South By Southwest. That was the first thing that disappeared. It’s amazing though, we would have been talking about completely different things.”
The new album is his most eclectic album to-date, taking in avant-jazz, music hall and even woozy house music, and while his recent work has been more collaborative in the songwriting sense (2012’s Oh No I Love You was written with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner; in 2016 he co-created Same Language, Different Worlds with Peter Gordon), on I Love The New Sky, Burgess wrote all the songs and then took them to various peers to gauge opinions:
“I wrote the album by myself but in no way could I have made it myself. The collaboration aspect with this album came in the studio with Nik Void (Factory Floor), Daniel O’Sullivan (Grumbling Fur) and Thighpaulsandra. Not all necessarily at the same time. They’re people and friends who all understand the aesthetic that I was looking for. It was a sort of Canterbury, 70’s kind of sound mixed with New York vibe, some very LA Sunset Boulevard. Some dreaming songs and some self-referential songs: Timothy, Only Took A Year, I Got This…very personal songs, and they helped me furnish the songs that I brought in.”
Burgess’ preparation allowed ideas to flourish in the studio, for example on disco-Floydian The Warhol Me, which Burgess says, ‘started off as a guttural punk idea’, before, ‘Nik Void added this incredible modular synth that took it into New York territory’. Elsewhere, Sweet Old Sorry Me has an intentionally mid-1970s vibe (‘I was thinking Steely Dan and Boston Rag in particular, I wanted an aspect of great studio musicianship in the album too’), while I Got This was a tricky nut to crack, but eventually made the album to level it out at twelve tracks, as he explains: “We spent a long time getting the sounds right. I wasn’t sure but it was the last song, and the more it grew the more I really thought, without sounding corny, that I’d got this. It was twelve tracks and I didn’t want any to not be on the album.”
At surface level, Timothy (the song) is the most obviously self-referential, but don’t be fooled. Burgess is coy about the song’s theme, its ‘decoys’, but whether or not the song is autobiographical is ultimately immaterial, although The Charlatans’ frontman concedes that it represents him: “The thing that I really love about that song is that it’s low-key. You might not notice it straight off, but it’s there and it is catchy but not in your face. That kind of reminds me of me really! I’m catchy, but not in your face.”
One thing is obvious when talking to Tim Burgess: that a love of and belief in music informs everything he says. This passion has been welcome during the lockdown. As you probably know, Tim is the man of the hour thanks to his Twitter Listening Parties – a distraction from the general despair of what’s happening in the world right now, but also a chance to revel in our shared physical situations.
From its beginnings on day one of lockdown (Some Friendly by the day job), there’s now talk of getting real rock royalty involved; “Mick Jagger liked somebody else’s tweet,” Tim says. “He responded and said he had been getting involved and watching social media.” Even if the Glitter Twin doesn’t grace us with his presence, there are plenty more parties to come – a now-lengthy list including Kevin Rowlands, The Specials, UNKLE, Joy Division and Nadine Shah among countless others.
“We’ve got all of May and the first two weeks in June booked up, there’s also still plenty to come. Every day I’m trying to book three or four people in the middle of doing everything else as well. Today’s been about Rufus Wainwright and Ian Astbury, so my head’s in that at the moment. You have to offer everybody a couple of dates. I know people are quite quiet, but you have to offer everyone a couple of dates, then you don’t hear back from them for a couple of days. You’ve got to keep everything pending.”
It quickly became apparent that such an ever-evolving idea was beyond the capabilities of one man. “We adjusted pretty well at the beginning. Within three days I had four people working on it; one person on the scheduling with me and then two guys doing the website, on a rewind in real time (all parties are available via this website). I’d never met them before and they don’t know each other either, so it’s just from the pure love of seeing what I was doing. There’s now four of us involved.”
With the organic nature of the venture, and the modes of communication open and instant, middle men are broadly cut out. Very much in line with the principle of the venture, people are either invited or encouraged to participate. “There’s times when I feel like I have to ask somebody even if I don’t think they’ll do it, but I have to let them know that I’m asking because I’d hate to think they weren’t being asked,” Tim explains. “There’s all these emotions involved in it.” Nor would anyone be refused entry: “I’m open to all genres. It’s really an open door for everybody, but the main thing is that they really want to do it and that they can put on a good performance, if that’s the right word. I’m just making it up as I go along! There’s certain people that I really wanted to get involved, people who I consider a little bit mysterious who make incredible music, like Julia Holter and Ariel Pink. I really wanted Quelle Chris to do Everything’s Fine, a Chicago hip-hop record that I really love. There’s a dialogue but nothing confirmed. Duran Duran came in the other day, someone suggested that with the idea that I may not be interested but of course I am.”
It’s been so successful that it could readjust music promotion altogether. Other listening parties have popped up – in the process re-creating what will surely be the only thing missed from the festival experience in 2020: schedule clashes – and sooner or later the industry is going to take the idea for themselves. Burgess isn’t worried: “There is that, but it has to retain…I’ve had so many people telling me how it could be done via Zoom, or it could be done on Facetime Live or stuff like that. I’ve had to tell everybody, ‘I love your idea, but it’s not the idea that I’m doing’. It’s far more simplistic, far more about the record and far more about doing it without cameras on you.”
“They can use that idea and do it their way if that’s what they feel like doing. Dave Rowntree chose Parklife; Bonehead chose Definitely Maybe. When it becomes people wanting to do their new album, which is out in three weeks, ‘Have you got space in seven days to preview it?’, that’s when another level of complication comes into it. I get asked about that all the time, and if ends up going that way it has to be a slow process or else people are going to think it’s horrendous. It would just ruin it.”
The Tim’s Twitter Listening Party website doesn’t just act as a calendar. The site is regularly updated with links to independent record stores in an attempt to encourage participants to support them, as well as a list of recommended music reading curated by Dave Haslam and Pete Paphides, among others. Seemingly every time you visit there’s a new page, and it’s fast becoming a barometer of how people are engaging. “The music industry can adapt and things are happening, but with all the streaming things, I’m feeling bad about my fellow musicians that are only getting paid tiny, tiny fractions of an amount even though they’re raising so much,” Burgess tells Live4ever.
By ‘the streaming things’, Burgess is referring to the disparity of remuneration from the major streaming services between performer and labels. With live music off the agenda for the foreseeable future, and the cancellation of Reading & Leeds acting as the final nail in the coffin for the 2020 festival season, performers are more reliant than ever on other sources of revenue. Tim Burgess brought the plight to a wider audience and is conscious of how things may play out without action: “It went from musicians not really making money from records because of streaming, so it’s all about live and merch. I don’t think anybody really feels like they need a t-shirt with some tour dates on the back at this moment in time, so merch has fallen off a cliff. The focus is going to go on streaming sites because no-one can play live.”
Either Burgess was keeping things under his hat, or perhaps this was demonstrable evidence of how quickly things can develop in the Twitter Listening Party world, but a few days after our conversation he announced a festival (featuring John Grant, KT Tunstall, Pins, The Shins and Boy George) in conjunction with the Broken Record campaign. As easy as it is to become blinded by the numbers involved, via the breakdown of streaming payments Burgess, as he so often does, makes the facts easily digestible: “All I think is that there’s about 130 million Spotify users who pay about a tenner a month. It’s an incredible amount of money. Somebody on Twitter said something along the lines of, ‘For all the work I’ve been doing, they’d like to buy me a cup of coffee’. It would take a million plays on Spotify for the price of one coffee.”
Western societies may now be finally taking their first tentative steps into a post-COVID world, but the future is still very uncertain for the music industry, and that looks set to be the case for a considerable amount of time. What started as a fun idea is blossoming into a movement. Burgess is, perhaps inadvertently, harnessing the passion of music lovers into something positive as we confront these troubling times head on:
“I am conscious of the future of music, bands not being able to be sustainable. There’s only a few that can play Brixton Academy, but that’s only just about sustainable when you get to that level. Below that, bands can only be part-time and that’s not good for the future of music. It has to be a bit fairer.”
Wise words from music’s new patron saint.