TUNE Paul Vickers and The Leg - Straggler on the Run
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A Potted Guide to The Greengrocer.
(Or: The Curious Tale of Paul Vickers and The Leg).
Starring: Paul Vickers, Pete Harvey, Dan Mutch, King Creosote.
Apologies: Alun Thomas (in moustachioed absentia), Louis XIV of France (deceased).
Quizzed and chronicled herein by: The Cast of Dynasty.
“During the 1600s, Louis XIV, King of France, took great interest in impressing diners at his royal table with exciting new plant foods, and was the first in his country to introduce eggplant – that is to say, aubergine – into his garden. Eggplant did not enrapture the King's guests at first. Indeed, the fruit was often discouraged, and burdened with the following description: 'fruits as large as pears, but with bad qualities'. Prevailing folklore counselled that ingesting the eggplant invoked fever, psychosis and sexual deviance, and the bell(end)-shaped object also transpired to contain vertiginous quantities of nicotine. And so it was that, by the 17th century, the aubergine had become renowned as 'The Mad Apple'”. (Source: Mrs Fubbs' Vegetarian's Almanac, 2014)
Perhaps you have espied the glistening aubergine that bedecks the rear of the new long-player from Paul Vickers and The Leg. It is stuffed with a bomb and has carrots for dynamite which, as we will glean anon, is a visual metaphor for life. Said album is entitled The Greengrocer, it's the wired-unpop deviants' third album together, and it is a mind-melding skiffle-punk opus whose chamber-jazz, folk-rock 'n' roll and gonzo, banjo-fuelled chorales are guaranteed to invoke perversion, hallucinations and fits of the vapours.
Or, as Paul Vickers himself would have it: “One chorus on The Greengrocer is so musically ludicrous that when I first heard it, I lost consciousness.” Well, quite.
The Greengrocer's organic, orphic (other)world is mapped out on the album's sepia-pencilled front cover, as charted by Vickers, ere of Dawn of the Replicants: observe the psychotropic alpine vibe; the rudimentary magickal chaos; the kamikaze bridges and anvils; the weeping, sloganeering clouds; the teetering seven floors of pleasure. And yes, that is a frog pissing a rainbow.
Scrutinise the record's back cover, and 'neath the aforesaid, explosive “Mad Apple”, you will note some playing card insignia, heralding the royal seal of King Creosote's Alter Ego Trading Company (think of it, if you will, as The Fence Collective's phantom limb). And lo, King Creosote, Paul Vickers and The Leg have been loosely embroiled for myriad years: Pete Harvey is an integral player on KC's From Scotland With Love (they also collaborated on Song, By Toad's 2009 Cold Seeds album); The Leg's drum-miscreant, Alun Thomas, is also Withered Hand's debonair sticksman; KC admired Dan Mutch from behind when he played at a Withered Hand gig a few years back – and KC stocked Dawn of the Replicants records in his St Andrews fence shop in the 1990s.
There are parallels, too, betwixt the grassroots art-mayhem conjured by The Fence Collective in Fife, and by Dawn of the Replicants from their Galashiels HQ: in addition to making twisted, Peel-endorsed, rock 'n' roll records, Vickers et al ran a fanzine (Sun Zoom Spark) and a local lifestyle magazine that specialised in knitting, ceramics, neighbourhood UFO reports (Borders X-Files!) and Syphilis investigations.
Latterly, Vickers has turned his hand to stand-up comedy (see: surrealist beefcake Mr Twonkey), while his ongoing rampant musical charms provoked one typically amorous fan to recently describe him thus: “Susan Boyle with a cock”.
But we have an album to discuss.
Let us repair to rural Perthshire.
You join us huddled on orange bean-bags, surrounded by fermenting apples, in Pete Harvey's agrarian pop Shangri-la, known and loved as Pumpkinfield Studios.
King Creosote: Pete Harvey made a spectacularly bad job – which in my mind is a spectacularly good job – of selling me this record. It was like, 'I'll let you hear it, but it won't be your thing'. He had all these caveats. And I was like, 'Okay, I've heard The Leg, and I remember Dawn of the Replicants, because we sold their stuff in the fence shop way back when, and that was madder than a box of frogs...'
So I thought, 'Well, this could be an almighty clash of weird'. But when I played it, there was a real skiffle element that was pretty surprising – it's got a harder-edged Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra thing going on. I didn't see that coming. And for the album to be so tuneful as well. I was like, 'This is great – what's Pete on about?' But then of course, if he'd said, 'You're going to love this record', I'd have been instantly suspicious. So it was a spectacular bit of selling; of anti-marketing. I'm all for that.
Paul Vickers [The Leg: lyrics, vocals]: What did Pete actually say? Was he like, 'Listen to this, it's a load of shit?'
KC: Yeah, I was like, 'I suppose I better trawl through this thing...' [Laughs] And then – wow.
PV: This album's a bit like going on holiday. 'Polynesian Snuff' is a peak because you're in the mountains there, and then the last one, [Benny Hill honky tonk orgy] 'Straggler On The Run', is like a knees-up-in-the-ski-lodge kind of thing. Also, it sounds like I'm being a total wanker when I say this, because it's the sort of thing that Sting would say, but I wrote some of the lyrics when I was on holiday in Tuscany. [Hilarity]
What's the significance of the dynamite-packed “Mad Apple” on the artwork, other than the literal greengrocer / vegetable reading?
PV: What came first, the aubergine or the bomb? Well, I suppose there's a weird bit of a concept on The Greengrocer, because I seemed to be writing about food quite a lot – there's a lot of that going on in the record. I think it's about getting older, actually. You go through different stages, don't you? There was a point, when I was younger, that I felt more insect. More insect-y. Whereas now, I'm starting to feel more like, you know. A cabbage.
You're biodegrading as we speak?
PV: Exactly. And it also reminds me that on Dan's CV, if he has any blank spaces, he always puts that he worked at The Laughing Cabbage. It's an imaginary place. That sounds like a good place to work. So yeah, The Greengrocer feels a bit like a shop, and you can buy stuff there, and it's good hardy stuff. But it feeds into the idea of the mundaneness of work and having to work again, after a long life of fannying around. Because that's quite a shock, and I think that's sort of affected me, so I'm obsessed with the idea. I think our second album, Itchy Grumble [SL, 2010] was partly about that as well – 'Just get down the hole and work', you know? Get down the mine. Of course, it's still all going on in your head, all the creative stuff, but you're confined to a shop, or a place. You have to sell vegetables. You can't just have fun.
That's life in a nutshell. Well, in an aubergine.
Your albums are fairly – well, wayward. How do you all write, and rein in ideas?
PV: We did the first couple of Paul Vickers and The Leg albums quite close together, in quite an intensive period, and for me that was pretty nerve-wracking – after so many years working with the Replicants, to sort of suddenly work with a completely different band – but it was really exciting. I'd say that Tropical Favourites  is probably one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had making a record actually, because it was totally fresh and good to work with new people.
Dan Mutch [The Leg: guitar, vocals]: And we had quite a lot of fun making demos.
PV: Yeah, I'd go round to Dan's house, and we'd go up to the top room – that sounds really sinister – it was the smallest room in the house. Then he'd play me something and say, 'Well, what have you got?' Next minute I was plugged in, and I had to deliver. As part of Dan's writing process, he produces what could be described as … mood boards. [Laughter]
You know, you have a bit of banjo, or a shrill distorted sound of a loop – they're always very exotic sounds – and then I'll freestyle some lyrical thing over that. Then that'll get chopped up because there are some bits that'll work and some bits that'll be left hanging there to infinity. Then we'll practice it as a band, and Pete'll come in with his armoury. That's how we work.
DM: Well, that was the process for Tropical Favourites, but for Itchy Grumble ... that was a very different process. For that one, we just booked some gigs without having any songs.
DM: We were literally at the sound-check without any songs, suddenly going, 'Maybe this wasn't such a good idea ...' But it actually turned out quite well. What did we do? Well, we just sort of improvised.
PV: God, it was painful. I think it was painful for our audience as well. And that was a shame in a way, because at that point we were doing well in Edinburgh, our home town – we sort of had a local following. I'd never had that before. The Replicants were from Galashiels, but we only played in Galashiels once, and even that was an absolute disaster. I ended up sleeping in a bin.
So it was nice with The Leg, to feel that we were doing really well in Edinburgh, as an Edinburgh band. And then we sort of committed self-destruct by writing our next album on-stage. It's an amazing album, but I remember being at that sound-check at [Edinburgh's] Cabaret Voltaire, and thinking, 'Oh my God, this is absolutely awful'. Really awful. It felt like I was singing over completely random noise. Which I was.
Pete Harvey [The Leg: cello, piano]: By about the fourth gig it was fine.
PV: Yeah, by then it had started to come together. Itchy Grumble had more of a painful birth, but looking back on it, I'm really proud of it. There was a story to it, it was a concept album, because at the end of the process of Tropical Favourites, Dan said, 'I'll do another album with you, but it has to be something that excites me.' And I'd been thinking about a concept album because that was something I'd never done before. I ended up writing a book about it [Itchy Grumble and Collected Miniatures, 2013] which fills in all the gaps in the story, and remarkably it turned out quite well. People actually bought it.
So then we started working on a new record – The Greengrocer – which in a way is the follow-up to Tropical Favourites, in that it's not so much of a concept album. Tropical Favourites was recorded with a lot of fun – it's an exciting record, but it'd be fair to say it's a bit rough round the edges – whereas The Greengrocer is like Tropical Favourites deluxe. It's fine-tuned a bit more, that's how I see it. But it took a while.
DM: The writing process was different for The Greengrocer. We just sat in a room and played acoustic guitar, I guess it's based around that.
PV: There were a couple of chopped up mood boards – like 'Straggler On The Run', that was a short mood board and then we just looped it. We wrote most of the songs on The Greengrocer in the top room in Dan's flat – a different top room, it's always the top room.
There was an incident as well. When Dan proposed the chorus for 'The Greengrocer' – for the song itself – the chorus so musically ludicrous to me that I physically lost consciousness. I just couldn't cope with it. It was too much. It was a really floaty thing, and it did need something to me, I can't explain what it was, but at the time it was really hard to take. Of course, it's the best bit in it, I realise that now – it's like a Django Reinhardt skiffle-y thing, into Iron Maiden. I wasn't expecting that. I slept for about six hours when I heard it. And when I woke up, I realised it was amazing.
'Polynesian Snuff', is an epic, phantasmogoric monologue – where do you start with a trip like that?
PV: Again, there was a mood board involved with 'Polynesian Snuff', that was the central thing. Dan had started experimenting with loop pedals – it was a bit like Wounded Knee, but it has a Jaws feel too. And then in the practice we started playing Balkan music – you know A Hawk and a Hacksaw? Well, we wanted to do something a bit like that. Basically, we stole ideas from other people. We had this little song called 'Crackpots', and we put it at the centre of 'Polynesian Snuff' – I can't remember exactly how or when that happened, but it seemed the right thing to do, even though it has been the subject of much controversy.
KC: This must be an Art School thing, because that's exactly what Gordon [Anderson, aka KC's brother The Lone Pigeon] does. I wonder if it's to do with collage? I've noticed artists can be very wasteful in a way – like, Gordon doesn't think twice about having oodles and oodles of bits just lying doing nothing, whereas I'm like, 'I can't waste that'. And that idea of taking something and chucking it in where you least expect it, I think that's a very Art School approach too.
PV: Yeah, there seems to be that kind of aspect to the record, because it's there with 'Polynesian Snuff' going into 'Crackpots', and on 'The Greengrocer', there's this sudden change to skiffle. I like it when you have an unexpected change on a record – I've always liked Mother Upduff by Can for that. I really love how a story evolves and the music goes with it. And I like doing spoken word. I did some of that on Tropical Favourites, with 'Powerful Soup'. I had stuff like that when we were doing Dawn of the Replicants too, but the A&R people always, said, 'Do less of the Hans Christian Andersen stuff, we're not as into that.' You know, all politely. They liked the dirty rock 'n' roll stuff, so we went more into that area.
What brought you together with The Leg, Paul, after your time in Dawn of the Replicants?
PV: I think it was Ed Pybus, at SL Records (ballboy, Withered Hand) who first got me together with The Leg. It was his kind of idea in some respects, although various things were whispered into my ear in nightclubs – you know ...
What like, 'Hey Paul, you're really handsome'?
PV: It was more like, 'Hey, we could maybe do something with you, you weird bastard'. But yeah, Ed suggested I do a solo album and work with different musicians, because the Dawn of the Replicants thing had been going for 10 years, and it had weathered several storms – of having certain success, and not being as successful – and it was getting hard to keep going. The first people Ed suggested for this solo album were The Leg, and we worked on a couple of songs, and that went well. So we just thought, 'Well let's just do the whole album like this'. It made sense at that point.
The tale of Paul Vickers, and The Leg, and King Creosote, goes back to very early fence, and there's a resonance between KC's DIY derring-do in Fife and Dawn of the Replicants' antics in the Borders...
PV: Yeah, we tried to do as much as we could from Galashiels, which I suppose is similar to The Fence Collective: you know, 'Let's take on the world from where we are'. That said, I don't ever want to go back to there.
Do you remember when you all first met?
KC: Pete and I met when we did the Cold Seeds album – I'd heard about him before through Withered Hand and a few folk, they all said, 'You should work with him'. And I think I first saw Dan doing something at the Art College, was that a Withered Hand night too maybe?
DM: I think I remember the one you mean actually, yeah, I think I played four songs.
KC: Did you sit with your back to the audience throughout?
DM: I think so, yeah. Probably.
KC: That was the one.
How do you know when you've finished a Paul Vickers and The Leg album? (Discounting the one you hadn't written before you launched it, of course...)
PV: I don't know if an album's ever finished. We sat on this record for quite a while and then added a few extra bits, they were subtle, but they were in there. We added quite a bit. Extra vocals.
DM: That's one thing for me – I wish we'd done more backing vocals on it.
KC: I always think it's quite good to have something your band aspires to play, and then betters, though. That's the point of playing live, in many ways.
PV: Withered Hand must be experiencing that just now, because he's got this set of songs that almost belong to the audience – they just sing every single line. It's almost like they've passed over. They belong to the audience as much as they do to him.
Is that connection something you'd aspire you? Did that ever drive you?
PV: I can't remember what drove me when I was younger – whether I wanted to be famous, or make money, or whatever – but you get to a point when you're over that. I'm 40 now, and I feel – I'm sick. [Laughs] I'm an artist. I'm not doing this for money or whatever any more.
But I'm still doing it. It's just part of who I am. And it's still good and exciting. My mindset nowadays is, 'Well, at least I'm getting out and about a bit...'
[Vickers eyeballs the cider press outside; pulls on his overcoat; heads for work]
The Greengrocer is an unhinged rock 'n' roll emporium, abundant with mad apples and tulips; with cobwebs and mouldering riddles and carrot seeds. You can clock in any time you like, but you can never leave.