Indie/Indie Rock

Indie Idols: Trevor Sensor

Image by Ben Rouse

An artist often compared to the likes of Bob Dylan thanks to his use of philosophical and anecdotal lyrics, it is difficult to not be transported into the world of Trevor Sensor through his debut album – Andy Warhol’s Dream. Released in 2017, the album contains some musical masterpieces and created quite the splash among fans of label Jagjaguwar, being described as “one of the most refreshing albums I have heard in years.” Having been born and raised in the desert of midwestern America – Sterling, Illinois – surrounded by prairies, where the hardware store is the town’s greatest attraction, Sensor is an unlikely hero in the music industry, aiming to divert from traditional pop music  and the traditional indie music route, while still honouring his origins. A sentiment he displays through both his music, his videos, and his methods. High Beams, the first song on the album, for instance, describes what I would argue is a feeling of being lost, stuck in the crossroads of life, a deer in the headlights, unsure of what dream to follow, and was filmed in Sterling, showing imagery of agricultural silos and factories and a pretty desolate backdrop, save for the three backing dancers, who although being quite conventional, still manage to subvert tradition by being completely out of time and uncoordinated – an extra touch that for me, makes the video more relatable. 

Since Andy Warhol’s Dream, Sensor has gone on to release a second album, On Account of Exile, Vol. 1, in June of this year. The release has a whole range of different undertones, from slight 80s rock influences in Madison Square Garden, which arguably is even reminiscent of Take Your Mama Out by the Scissor Sisters, and ends in a jazz like cacophony, to an ABBA-esque introduction and more calm happy melodic general sound of Days Drag On, while still managing to sound cohesive, thanks to Sensor’s iconic voice and his signature cultural references, such as to the infamous Zodiac Killer, arguably the most prolific serial killer in history who has subsequently inspired the 2007 film Zodiac

My personal favourite from the On Account of Exile, Vol. 1 album is Chiron, Galactus. Released as the second single of this album, it not only tells the story of the pain of being in love and the difficulties of loyalty to religion, through its lyrics, but also in its title. Chiron, in astrology, is suggested to represent having a “spiritual wound that we must work to heal in this lifetime.” This song also has an incredibly simple but emotive and hard-hitting music video, shot in monochrome, in which we watch Trevor Sensor sing, his facial expressions dramatically highlighted by a single spot-light that really emphasises the pain of the song. The camera tilts downward to reveal that Sensor is tied to his chair and as the video progresses we see him struggle to free himself, pained, angered and exhausted he gives up, just as the music slows. This cinematic video is perfectly suited to the song, and I feel like anything more than this minimalistic accompaniment would distract and overpower the song.

Sensor has also released a new single this month: Honest Abel, Old Red Tiger. A song showcasing the artist’s intellectual lyricism by referencing American history throughout, as evidenced by the title “Honest Abel” which was a nickname given to President Abraham Lincoln as he was known as one of the more truthful politicians in history, while also providing a social commentary on the state of religious beliefs in various situations in America, such as prison’s, from both the inmates and warden’s point of view. This song is a very clear example of just how weighty and consequential Trevor Sensor’s song’s can be once truly picked apart and understood. Adn is just a small taste of what we can expect in On Account of Exile, Vol. II, which is set to be released on the 19th of November.

I recommend listening to Sensor’s music on full volume as it really shows you how incredible he would be live. He is most definitely an artist that deserves far more recognition and acclaim for his great talent. And be sure to check out The Reaper Man, Sensor’s most known song, once you’ve finished this article.

Creators Monthly Indie/Indie Rock Pop/Indie Pop Punk/Rock

Ten Years On: The Drums’ Prodigal Son, Portamento

Portamento’s album cover. Courtesy of Pitchfork

Saying that something is life changing is dramatic. However, in the case of indie-rock band The Drums, I can make this statement with absolute certainty. They shaped my music taste, influenced my songwriting, and provided the soundtrack to some of my best memories. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2010, is one of the best albums of that decade, in my humble opinion. The production, the songwriting, and all the subtle flourishes and embellishments present within those twelve songs is unbelievable, especially for a debut album. There are few other releases like it.

In 2011, the band released their second album, titled Portamento. In an Instagram post celebrating the album’s tenth anniversary, band leader Jonny Pierce mentioned how the album was considered to be a flop, a victim of the “sophomore slump.” He is not wrong in saying that. Compared to the debut album, the reviews for Portamento were noticeably lukewarm. According to Metacritic, the average score for the album was a 64. YouTube music critic TheNeedleDrop gave the album a 5/10 after praising the debut album. Fans were confused by the album, and I will not hesitate to say that I was as well. After spending so many listens absorbing the shimmering guitars, beachy harmonies, and lovesick lyrics of the first album, I did not know what to make of Portamento, and as a result, I shoved it aside.

Portamento differs from the debut album almost immediately with the song “Book of Revelation.” The production is less shiny, and the tone of the song is more sullen than even the darkest moments of the debut. Jonny is also singing in a much higher register than he did before. On the debut, his singing was safe and fit the music like a glove, whereas on this album, he is pushing the envelope. Considering how flamboyant Jonny’s live presence is, this change makes sense. It also shows that he is not afraid to take risks to get his point across. 

As the album continues, it throws more curveballs at the listener. “What You Were” and “Money” feature a much higher emphasis on synthesizers than on previous releases, with various keyboard stabs poking through the thin fabric of guitars. The latter also features some interesting vocalizations that will surprise many fans of the debut album. The dive into synths hits its peak on the song “Searching For Heaven,” which is all synthesizer and saves for some haunting vocals. 

However, ten years on, it is safe to say that Portamento has aged remarkably well, turning many of its skeptics into supporters, including me. I love many of the songs on this album. The emotion is more potent, more urgent than on the debut album. While that album dealt with love in a way that was melancholy but also tinged with sunshine. It was broken hearted but still had its composure. Portamento, meanwhile, does not hold back any punches, with its lyrics lacking the poetics of the first album but packing more of a punch, such as on the song “If He Likes It Let Him Do It.” The songs feel brutally honest, and the listener can feel whatever Jonny is feeling without any doubts. 

The music is also far more dour, but not to the detriment of the listening experience. The aforementioned “Money” was the first single off the album, and it is one of the catchiest songs The Drums have ever released. Despite its breakneck pace, each instrument is tight to the groove. The lyrics are a bit more tongue in cheek, with the chorus “I want to buy you something / But I don’t have any money” being wryly humorous and relatable.

At the end of the day, I will always adore the debut album, and it is to this day my favorite Drums release. However, I owe Portamento an apology. It is a stripped down, emotionally turbulent album, and an experience completely separate from the debut album. Once you separate Portamento from The Drums, it shines in its own light, where it belongs.

The Drums Circa 2011. From left: Connor Hanwick, Jacob Graham, Jonny Pierce

Jazz/Blues Punk/Rock

Looking Back: More News From Nowhere – Nick Cave’s Homeric Ballad to his Many Muses

Nick Cave is a literary magpie, and even in appearance he reflects that of the spry ominous bird – all pale and dressed in black. His lyricism shows more than an understanding of the written word, but a playfulness that allows him to creatively bend the rules of telling a story. To me, no song in his archive reflects this better than ‘More News From Nowhere’ (from the legendary 2008 album ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!’) which blurs the line between melody and epic poetry. 

Nick Cave takes Homer’s Odyssey and plucks out the pieces of its imagery that sparkle most for him, most notably ‘I saw Miss Polly singing with some girls, I cried – struck me to the mast’. With the character of Miss Polly as PJ Harvey and her biography by James R. Blandford being titled ‘Siren Rising’, this is perhaps the easiest lyric to decipher. The Sirens in the Odyssey being one of the more famous parts of the tale, where Odysseus commands his men to tie him to the mast of their ship and to stuff their ears with wax, in order to avoid temptation and avert a deadly fate. To read further into this metaphor would be complete speculation, but we can safely say from all evidence that the connection between Cave and Harvey still retains a lot of power and poetry to this day. 

We are told that the character of ‘Betty X’ has hair ‘like the wine-dark sea on which sailors come home’. ‘Wine-dark sea’ is an epithet used by Homer, ‘οἶνοψ πόντος’ / ‘oînops póntos’, with the literal translation meaning ‘wine-face sea’. It is used twelve times in the Odyssey, and a further five in the Iliad. This use of colour within both Homer and Cave’s writing is definitely more romantic than accurate, however, historian PG Maxwell-Stuart argued that the use of ‘wine’ could attest more to temperament than shade. In the case of Nick Cave, the journey in this song is in part about his battles with sobriety. With Homer’s use of this epithet being for when the seas were black, tempestuous, and unpredictable – we can see how this reflects in the behaviours that are known to come with addiction. The role of who ‘Betty X’ may remain unclear, but another lyric – ‘so much wind blew through her words, I went rolling down the hall’, reflects the ruler Aeolus, gifting Odysseus a westerly wind to guide him home. This reference to the return home, as well as the wine-dark sea hair being a vessel for return, leads me to believe that Betty X is in fact the raven-haired Susie Cave. She is the symbol of home for him, she is the destination after the odyssey, and he sings of her light and how her light is all her own. 

In almost every stanza, we are introduced to a new female figure who adds a different element to Nick Cave’s narrative – the only one unnamed being ‘a black girl with no clothes on’. He sings of her dancing, calls her his ‘Nubian princess’, and unveils that he ‘spent the next seven years between her legs pining for my wife’. My attempt to unpick a real-life identity for this figure, such as with Miss Polly or Betty X, was fruitless. However, my research leads me to believe that she represents something other than a person. Seven years is how long Odysseus spent on Ogygia, the island of Calypso the nymph daughter of Atlas. Throughout those seven years, Calypso seduces Odysseus, even going so far as to offer him immortality in exchange for his hand in marriage. Odysseus rejects this offer, longing for his home and wife, Penelope, but only manages to escape the island when the

Gods intervene. Modern Greek tradition likens Ogygia to be an island nearabouts Greece itself, but the geographer and traveller Strabo argued that the placement of the island is more likely to be in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, placing it below the equator. Perhaps this is why Nick Cave chose for Calypso to be represented by a black woman, since this placement of the island would dictate a dark skin tone for its inhabitants, as well as for Calypso herself. Even with describing her as Nubian, we can read in translations of the text that Homer describes Calypso as weaving upon a loom with a shuttle made from gold, and the very root of the word ‘Nubia’ translates to ‘the land of gold’ in Ancient Egyptian. Why wasn’t Cave’s Calypso granted the humanity of a name? Maybe she is a personification of heroin due to the intoxicating words he attributes to her, and leaving her unnamed reflects the dehumanisation that can be left in its wake; perhaps she is the embodiment of the revelry some can have in the wallows of depression, the sick comfort you can find in the sadness. 

‘More News from Nowhere’ references the idea of the journey, the long and arduous adventure that comes hand in hand with being alive. The song is long, slow, and repetitive. With the chorus comes the slow echoing chant of ‘More News from Nowhere’, reminiscent of a Greek chorus or sailors singing as they row upon the oars of old ships. In recitals of epic poems in Ancient Greece, music would be used to emphasise parts of the story, as well as recurring lamentations. The tune hardly veers from its path, the vocals barely stray from a specific pattern, the steady beat is a simplistic foil to the complex nature of the lyrics. The melody only shifts as Cave sings ‘and it’s getting strange in here, and it gets stranger every year’ / ‘don’t it make you feel alone, don’t it make you want to get right back home’, punctuating the absurdities and emphasising a yearning for stability before returning to the compelling monotony. Jim Sclavunos is on the drums, the anchored heartbeat akin to waves smacking against a bow, with Martyn P. Casey on bass providing a solid foundation for that triumphant earworm of a riff, played by Warren Ellis plucking upon a viola. Nick Cave himself veers away from Homer for the final verse, existentially expressing the futilities of living with ‘everything you do today, tomorrow is obsolete’, before committing one final chant of the song title ‘More News From Nowhere’, taken from the 1890 utopian socialist novel by William Morris – yet another example of Cave as that literary magpie, creating a collage with his words. In spite of it’s existentialist ending, it is a song seemingly designed to keep you moving, to get you from one place to the next. I listen to it as I walk the streets of London, as I look out of train windows, or as my plane takes off into the sky. ‘More News from Nowhere’ is a song made of pure momentum, despairing at the godlike forces beyond our control but still nonetheless pushing forward.

Creators Monthly Punk/Rock Reviews

Don’t Die in the Waiting Room of the Future

Tim Mohr’s Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall is an essential history that reveals punk’s wrath and how it contributed to the downfall of the East German dictatorship.

Throughout history, reigns of terror crushed hopes, ideas, behaviours; we’ve seen it all – intimidation and manipulation, violence. We’ve seen walls. Tall, made of concrete and strengthened with steel, with a strip of land guarded by merciless apostles of havoc by whose hands hundreds died. You would think nothing can break through it, but soundwaves don’t stop at borders. Soundwaves travel.

Mohr’s book is a compelling account of untold stories that starts with a handful of Berlin youths who heard the Sex Pistols on a military radio broadcast. Unlike British punks, who were living in a society that couldn’t guarantee them a bright economic future, East Berlin punks fought the battle of Too much future – the dictatorship had everything planned for them. Punk was a cathartic discovery, where chopped-up hair and clothes, loud singing and buzz saw guitars turned into a revolutionary philosophy of resistance.

Tim Mohr was able to closely observe this uniquely Eastern phenomenon when he moved to Berlin in the early 90s. Oblivious to the reality of the post-Wall city, he started exploring the nightlife scene, the clubs, the squats. He worked as a DJ for 6 years, a time during which he befriended many of the East German punks who were interrogated by the Stasi and imprisoned by the GDR – and ultimately helped build a fascinating, progressive DIY world.

East Berlin punks on Lenin Platz, Friedrichshain, ca. 1982

Mohr spent ten years researching Stasi files, tracking down and interviewing the punks whose stories were indispensable – teenagers who were spied on by families and friends, fired from jobs, beaten up and imprisoned, but not just because of their clothes or the lyrics they sang. It was more than that. Punk rock was a weapon against the tyranny that smashed protestors and militarized the police. It was a tough fight that had its manifesto disseminated in churches, safe havens offered to the teens by compassionate deacons. Not even jail could stop these kids. They got out, put their leather jackets back on and boy, did that hell break loose.

Burning Down the Haus is a fiery, dramatic history about the grit and spirit of a bunch of young punks who played a fundamental part in bringing down the Berlin Wall. Intensely researched, riveting and satisfying, it is a great book that passes on the legacy of grassroots oppression fighters. Maybe the lesson here is what they used to spray on walls: Don’t die in the waiting room of the future.

Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall is available in Rough Trade physical stores and online at World of Books.