Adam Franklin and Robin Proper-Sheppard get in the ring (Luna Kafé, 9/01/01, by Carsten Wohlfeld)
In the meantime, you can get up to date with what's been happening in Adam's and Robin's world. Luna Kafé met them as the two came to Cologne, Germany earlier last year, to talk about their new albums with Toshack Highway and The May Queens, the Flower Shop label (which Robin owns), music, band names and friendship.
- I was very surprised when I got The May Queens' and Toshack Highway's albums. Judging from the first track alone, it sounds as if Adam was the man behind the May Queens and Robin did the Toshack Highway album, even though it's actually the other way round!
Adam: I know! We were discussing this yesterday. It's quite good that these two albums come out at the same time and will be promoted at the same time, because they sounds so different. But we both feel that we can listen to these new things easier than things in the past. When you finish recording something and get the finished CD of it, that's often the point where you switch off and think of the next thing. This time, it's a little different.
- So what's the main difference been Swervedriver and Toshack Highway the way you look at it?
Adam: The main difference sound wise is that a lot of the songs were actually composed on the keyboard, which is something I'd never done before. If you actually heard some of my demos for Swervedriver songs they generally in some way initially sound a lot more like Toshack Highway, because they are bedroomy sort of demos. It's just when they get harnessed to the Swervedriver machine, they become something totally different. This album just stayed at a calm and surreal level.
- Adam, you also had some disastrous experiences with (major) record labels over the last five years or so. And now you're on Robin's label Flower Shop, which interestingly enough, released a limited edition Swervedriver single some six years ago. Is that how you guys first met?
Adam: I think we actually met in a pub called the Camden Falcon. I think you [pointing at Robin] were drunk actually and you were like: 'Heeeeey, aren't you the guy from Swervedriver?' and I replied: 'Then you must be in the God Machine' or something.
Robin: I remember our friendship was sealed when... well, there was this 60s pop band from San Diego called The Morlocks and they had a track called Last Train To Satansville and we [The God Machine] covered it, but we couldn't use the original title for some stupid reason, so we changed the name of it and just called it Train and I was telling Adam the title of the song and then, a few weeks later, when we were rehearsing at the same place, I see written down on a cassette - Last Train To Satansville! I go: 'Hmmmmmmm...' So basically we did the song and changed the name and Adam used the name and recorded a different song. Then I thought: 'Ok, we are on something here.' That must have been in 1993.
Adam: I guess there was a whole little scene going on at the time in Camden with Silverfish and all these bands...
Robin(laughs, making fun of Adam and Swervedriver): That ole shoegazer scene...
Adam (returning the "favour"): ...and that old neo-goth scene...(laughs)
- So what took you so long then, Adam, to finally make an album on Flower Shop?
Adam (smiling): Well, the money was terrible. No really, it was fun doing that single all those years ago, like a one-off thing, but we never talked about doing another record until I did the Sophia stuff [Adam joined Robin's "main" band for their 1999 tour]. But even the Toshack Highway album was originally going to be released by Zero Hour and they kinda funded half of the album and then went bust. So Charlie, my manager Andy and me kind of thought: 'Who can we ask to put this out and somebody thought, well maybe Robin would be into doing it and as it happens he was. It's really cool now, because Robin's a mate of mine and it's just a different way of doing things after all the bad luck we'd had in the past.
Robin: The irony of it all is, he's been on major labels for all of this time, but this is actually the first European press trip he's done as well. It's such a small level, but it's really important. When you're involved in a big system like a major label, the simplest things just seem so difficult. It was the same for The God Machine. But at this level, we can just talk about it. If Adam or his manager Andy have an idea, it's just a phone call and you book a ticket and you're there! For example, the Sophia records on Flower Shop sold more than The God Machine did on Polygram! In some ways it can actually be better to be on a small label.
- I know you're into limited edition things as well. Is that mainly because of financial reasons? I guess the new album by The May Queens is a 5,000 copies only release?
Robin: It was set at 5,000 because it's just a side project and I wanted to have fun and express a different side of myself musically, but if I was to keep manufacturing records, there would be pressure to try to force it to build and build and build.
- Silly last question: I know the name Toshack Highway combines the name of two football players from Liverpool FC, John Toshack and Steve Heighway [sic!]. But where does The May Queens come from?
Robin: When we were on tour in Germany in the winter of 1998, our van broke down in Schweinfurt and we were sitting in the van in the snow and we were playing Led Zeppelin IV and Stairway To Heaven came on. I was kinda listening to the words and there is a line that goes 'it's just a spring clean for the May Queen'. And I thought: 'That was THE worst line in rock'n'roll history'. But at the same time I thought: 'The May Queens? What a brilliant name for a band!'
Robin Proper-Sheppard/Flower Shop Label (www.pennyblackmusic.com, Dec. 2001, by John Clarkson)
First established in early 1994, the London based independent label Flower Shop Recordings has grown over the course of the last nearly eight years from being a low key 7" limited edition bedroom label into a small self-financing independent record company with an expanding international reputation. Well regarded and respected, particulary on the continent in Europe, where it also has an office in Brussels, "the Flower Shop", while still putting out the occasional consecutive vinyl release, concentrates primarily now on the CD market, and has since 1996 released fourteen albums and EPs in this latter format.
2001 has been its busiest year to date, and it has put out four new albums. These include London eight piece "jazz noir" act's debut record 'Tales from the Forest' (FLOWCD 014) and New York gothic rock duo Elysian Fields' first British release 'Queen of the Meadow' (FLOWCD 012) . It has also released 'The Trouble with Rhonda Harris' (FLOWCD 013) , the second album of Danish art rock experimentalists, Rhonda Harris, and 'De Nachten' (FLOWCD 011), the third CD by Sophia, which is the American owner of the Flower Shop, Robin Proper-Sheppard's own group.
Proper-Sheppard, who is 33, was born and brought up in San Diego and began singing and playing the guitar in his first band, Society Line, with two slightly older friends, bassist Jimmy Fernandez and drummer and pianist Ron Austin, while he was still at High School. The group, a discordant rock trio and an early forefather of the nu-metal movement, moved to London and changed its name to the God Machine in 1988. After releasing an EP on Eve, an independent label, it signed to Fiction, an offshoot of Polydor, whose best known act is the Cure. The God Machine toured the UK with My Bloody Valentine and recorded two critically well-received albums, 'Scenes from the Second Storey' (1993) and the posthumously-released 'Last Laugh in the Place of Dying' (1995). It, however, broke up abruptly when Fernandez, who was aged 28, died suddenly and tragically in May 1994, the victim of a brain tumour, shortly after completing the sessions on 'Last Laugh in the Place of Dying'.
"I started putting out records by other bands even before Jimmy passed away" Proper-Sheppard reflects, talking to Pennyblackmusic about the early years of the Flower Shop. "I did an Elevate 7", and then a Rosa Mota 7", and then a Ligament 7". It was a reaction, not so much as to the God Machine, but to the whole major label atmosphere and to what I was having to deal with at Polygram. It was a way for me to get back to punk rock, which is what I have always basically believed in. The Flower Shop has never stylistically been a punk label, but my whole attitude was definitely punk rock."
Devastated by Fernandez's death, Proper-Sheppard remained in London, but spent much of the remainder of 1994 and 1995 suffering from depression, and , having sold his share of the God Machine equipment, away from music.
By early 1996, slowly beginning to recuperate, he revitalised the Flower Shop label, and after putting out various other 7" singles by Swervedriver, Slack Dog Ensemble and 18th Dye, released the label's first CD, an Elevate album 'Bronzee'(FLOW CD 001), which was also given a LP release . Proper-Sheppard followed this with a further Elevate EP 'The Architect' (FLOWCD 002) and a Ligament album 'Kind Deeds' (FLOWCD 003), both of which again came out consecutively on CD and vinyl.
After over a year in which he did not write any new material, Proper-Sheppard began performing songs again as well under the moniker ofSophia. While remaining essentially a solo project, he drafted in for live and recording purposes various members of Elevate and Ligament, and the band released its debut album 'Fixed Water' (FLOW CD 004) in November of that year. Described by one critic at the time as a "lovingly crafted and heartfelt tribute to absent friends", 'Fixed Water' was, like much of the material on the Flower Shop roster at the time, an understandably bleak and introspective offering. Far removed from the brazen metallics of the God Machine, it owed a debt to country and drew Proper-Sheppard comparisions with Sparklehorse, Smog, Palace and Mazzy Star.
Sophia's follow-up album 'The Infinite Circle' (FLOWCD 008), which came out in 1998, was an equally stark affair. From being able to write songs again, and from releasing his own music and that of others on his own terms and without the pressure of a major record label, Proper-Sheppard was, however, able to draw cold comfort.
"There are pluses and minuses to being on a major record label" he says. "Nowadays we have this whole metal and nu-metal scene or whatever you want to call it, and it's become quite popular, but when we were doing it we were quite a bit more intense even back then than some of those bands. We had a great fan base, and we had people that were really dedicated to what we were doing, but it was by no means commercial. Even before Jimmy died, we were starting to feel the pressure from Fiction. They let me produce the first two albums, but we were starting to feel an undercurrent though to start taming ourselves down a bit. If you have own label, however, there isn't anyone to tell you what to do. You can do things at your own pace and in your own style."
"It can be difficult as well" he adds. " I constantly live in a state of flux, but I really like having the Flower Shop and like being independent of other people's decisions. That doesn't mean that I wouldn't sign to anyone again, but for me right now and the bands I work with it just offers us more freedom. That is very important to me."
When looking for new acts to add to his label, Proper-Sheppard tends to build upon relationships that he has already cultivated in the music business. In Ligament’s case , he saw the now defunct London group in concert one night, and then spontaneously brought them into a recording studio to record their debut Flower Shop 7" single, 'Thank You for My Pumping Heart', the next day. Neil Henderson, Copenhagen's vocalist and songwriter, and Kirsa Wilkenschildt, its vibraphonist and pianist, both, however, used to live in the same building as Proper-Sheppard, and are old friends. One-time band managers for the Danish record label Cloudland, they used also to work with 18th Dye. Rhonda Harris's frontman Nikolaj Norlund is meanwhile a cousin of Wilkenschildt, and other members of the Danish group are former members of Speaker Bite Me and again 18th Dye. The Elysian Fields' manager is also another long-term friend.
"I am a rocker at heart, and I love rock music" Proper-Sheppard explains, describing his policy for releasing records. "On the other hand though I really like what Copenhagen and Elysian Fields and Rhonda Harris are all doing."
"It has to do with their mentality though as well as their music. It's all got to tie together too. There have been times when there have been bands whose music I have really liked, and who I have even manufactured records by, but then at the last minute I have realised that the personalities were not working. I have then refused to put albums out, not in way that we have had a big fight and I have said 'No, I'm not doing it'. It's been more a case of me saying 'I don't feel 100% comfortable about this, so I would prefer not to put this record out.' I usually go through gut feeling really."
Much of the present Flower Shop catalogue veers again towards melancholia. The songs on Copenhagen's evocative and powerful 'Tales of the Forest' tell of poverty, betrayal, loss of innocence and death, while singer Jennifer Charles's jazz-orientated vocals on the Elysian Fields' haunting and ethereal 'Queen of the Meadow' are similarly mournful and sorrowful. The eclectic 'The Trouble with Rhonda Harris' is slightly quirkier, but it still has a dark undercurrent , with Nikolaj Norlund's impressive, brooding vocals being reminiscent, as one critic has described it, of "a young, hungover Leonard Cohen".
Of all the four new albums, it is ironically Sophia's 'De Nachten' which offers the most cause for optimism. A live album, it was recorded over two nights in January at a Dutch and Belgium music festival in Amsterdam and Antwerp, and is dedicated to Hope, Proper-Sheppard's four year old daughter, whose birthday fell on one of the evenings, and for whom Proper-Sheppard towards the end of the album rouses the audience to sing an enthusiastic version of 'Happy Birthday'.
Fuller in sound than either 'Fixed Water' or 'The Infinite Circle', it is orchestral in tone and features, alongside Proper-Sheppard, the talents of another nine musicians, including a pianist and a four piece string section. There are radical new interpretations of three old songs, a cover of John Lennon's 'Jealous Guy' and four new songs, each of which, while acknowledging the pains of the past, also look more hopefully towards the future. One song, the opening 'The Sea', has Proper-Sheppard finding almost baptismal redemption by running away with his lover to the sea, while another 'Ship in the Sand' has him waking up alone some time after a relationship has messily ended, but feeling still blessed to be alive and knowing that he will now survive.
"It's true that my songs are more hopeful now" Proper-Sheppard ruminates. "I can look back on the God Machine now, and see that the songs I wrote then were about all me trying to find my place in the world. They sound quite naive now, but at the time they were about what I was living with and asked the kind of questions that I was asking myself on a day to day basis. Sophia then started, and Jimmy had died. The things in my personal life had become very confused and complicated, and the songs on those first two albums were again about what I was having to deal with on a daily basis."
"I don't really feel that I have any new direction now" he continues. "I am probably more confused than I have ever been, simply because I am getting older. I don't feel though that I have to analyse things quite so intently now . On the other hand though I don't know what lies ahead either. I am writing about all of that, but my writing isn't drenched so much in sadness any more. The songs are instead about me realising that 'This is my life. I have accepted it the way it is, but I can also build on it and go from here with it.' "
Proper-Sheppard is now working on a fourth and as-yet-untitled Sophia album, which will be studio recorded and which he hopes to release in April next year. His original plan was to re-record the new songs that appeared on 'De Nachten' on to it, but satisfied with them as they are and feeling that they are already the "definitive" versions, he has decided instead to concentrate entirely on unreleased material. He has written over forty five songs, and is now in the process of whittling them down to decide which ones he will record for the new CD.
"'De Nachten' was really intended as a way for me just to let people know what I was doing until I could record some new studio material" he says. "But it summed up so much of a part of my life and it has become such an important record to me that it has now shifted the focus of the next Sophia record. I, therefore, keep throwing out songs. It's not because I don't like them or because they're not good enough. It's just now I want all my records to have a similar sense of focus and purpose."
As well as the Sophia record, Proper-Sheppard also fronts a side project, the May Queens, which features many of the same personnel as his regular band, but has a rockier sound and, incorporating elements of the Pixies, Sonic Youth and also Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin, released a limited edition eponymous debut album (FLOW CD 009) last year. He hopes to put out a follow-up album next year.
Sophia have recently concluded playing a set of British dates in support to Mogwai. Copenhagen will also be playing a series of European city shows in December, and Elysian Fields and Rhonda Harris will both be also touring Britain early next year.
"I am really fortunate to be making music and to be doing something which I continue to enjoy more and more" Proper-Sheppard concludes. "When I was on Fiction and Polygram, we had money coming in and everything was much simpler. It is a lot more stressful running your own business, but I am so much happier now though . When I look at everything around me, I know that I have created it, and that is really satisfying. "
Life at the Flower Shop will continue to be busy. From bad times to good times, and surviving personal tragedy, Robert Proper-Sheppard has come far, and has moved from success to sucess . Hopefully he and the Flower Shop Recordings label will both long continue to flourish.