Melody's for Pussies
Touring with Faithless in Sweden. First published in Muzik Magazine. Not mentioned is the 'being medicined by Maxi Jazz' anecdote. Will relate story for cash.
Sister Bliss, DJ and one third of the public face of Faithless, will go to her grave defending her band, of that there is no doubt.
“People do like music with lyrics,” she explodes. “To me, Basement Jaxx and the Chemical Brothers are limited precisely because they don’t have any lyrical content. Some of the best albums ever made, they stay with you forever just because of the lyrics. We think they’re important and that’s why we have them.”
It may look a bit on the stroppy side, but her royal Blissness isn’t really that ticked off. Like, the pin stays in the hand grenade. All she’s doing is answering a particularly virulent review of the band’s latest – and third – album, Outrospective. And because she’s 50 per cent of the Faithless public face, and because she’s as sharp and a tough operator as you’re ever likely to meet, she does it with a certain passion.
Who can blame her? Amongst other things the review compares them unfavourably to Basement Jaxx and The Chemical Brothers and goes on to accuse them of playing – ouch – ‘Top Shop trance’ and ‘Ikea soul’. We’ll get back to that later, but just for a moment, consider the irony of the Ikea soul remark.
See, we’re in Sweden.
Sweden is a nice enough place, if you like trees. But its problem is that it’s wasted on the Swedes. As a rule, the Swedes aren’t a bad-looking bunch of people, but they really should lighten up. And if this seems like xenophobia for the sake of it, consider those – yes – Ikea adverts of two years ago. If memory serves, their tagline was, “Stop Being So English”, the inference being that we Brits needed to hunker down and get relaxed with the ultra-laidback likes of the Ikea-snaffling Swedes.
Well, pah. Physician heal thyself, because the Swedes are not only more anal than your average Brit, but they could also give the Germans a run for their money – and that’s saying something. They are inflexible and bureaucratic. Worse, they seem to hate English people.
Thus, In Sweden, we hear that a lot of things – most of the things we seem to want to do, in fact – are against ‘the rools’. As in: “You can’t park there. It is against the rools”, “I cannot let you through, it is against the rools,” and “You cannot wear your jacket. It is against the rools.” Yes, in Sweden’s clubs (OK, the one we go to at least) the simple act of wearing a jacket is so against ‘the rools’ that the club deploys several staff with the eyes of zealots to relieve a bemused Faithless crew of theirs as they enter. “You can have it back,” says one. Gee, thanks.
The club is Daily’s in Stockholm, and the reason Faithless have invaded is because Sister Bliss is playing a DJ set there.
Sister Bliss is a sister in name only. To the band she’s much more of a mother figure – it’s why she gets so angry when they come in for criticism – and if your ma was DJing at one of Stockholm’s premier nightspots wouldn’t you go and watch? Of course, so they’re all there – rapper Maxi Jazz, bassist Aubrey Nunn, vocalist Zoe Johnston (yes, she of Bent and Swollen fame), and a whole load of other people: some English, whose job it is to take care of Faithless. Some Swedish, whose job it is to play host and do so very well, thankfully not sharing their countrymen’s enthusiasm for the rools.
Daily’s is a classy joint, providing you’re Peter Stringfellow. And certainly the sailor’s caps and casino look right at home with the house banging away almost politely in the background. The kind of house we once called ‘handbag house’.
Still, if the club belongs in the Seventies and should rightly feature Joan Collins strolling around, the crowd are enthusiastic enough, and yes, there’s a certain initial lifelessness about the place, but it’s soon banished when Faithless decamp to the DJ booth and Bliss plays.
She plays a stormer, the kind of set you’d recognise if you bought her Ministry Headliners set. Melodic house with attitude. The kind of set in which Faithless’ own We Come 1 feels right at home, Maxi Jazz nodding appreciatively as one of his best-ever lyrics booms from of the sound system: “I’m the left eye, you’re the right/Would it not be madness to fight?”
“It improved halfway through,” says Bliss afterwards, understating an effect that saw the already excitable podium foxes going mental, and one wheelchair-bound clubber doing all but staging a miracle cure. Sweden may like the rools, but it likes Sister Bliss even more, it seems. And with that, Faithless have left the building and early to bed – big day in the morning, got a three-hour drive from Stockholm to a festival they’re playing the next day. They get their coats – literally – and go.
If Faithless are narked by the Swede’s assiduous application of the rools wherever they go, they don’t let it show. They’re old warhorses after all: been there, done that, signed the t-shirt. As a bunch of people, they’re remarkably chilled, testament to too long spent honing their awe-inspiring live sound through some truly punishing periods of constant touring.
This whirlwind Sweden visit finds them at the entry-point of the latest round of leg-work, all to promote Outrospective, the corking new album. You’ll notice that Faithless’ third core member, the enigmatic Rollo, is not present. That’s because he’s enigmatic. Not only does he not join the band on tour, but he’s rarely photographed and hardly ever speaks to the press. He also produced most of little sister Dido’s album, which has sold 38 billion copies in Bournemouth alone. If you were him, would you sit on a bus talking to the likes of us? Not likely.
It’s therefore left to Maxi Jazz and Sister Bliss to field the questions, and speaking to them together, you are immediately introduced to the fire and water effect of Faithless. On the one hand you’ve got Maxi Jazz, the band’s lyricist and rapper. Also a buddhist and racing enthusiast, Maxi is one of the most genuinely sorted people you could hope to meet. Thus, the kind of criticism that call Faithless Top Shop trance, well, if it doesn’t go over his head it certainly gets absorbed into some other, more serene place. Sister Bliss, on the other hand...
“Basement Jaxx make pop records,” she spits. “Just because they put on a few nights that people couldn’t get into they suddenly achieve that hype and notoriety that Faithless – who don’t put on a club night but stagger around at other people’s – don’t get. We’re still born out of club culture and hip hop culture.”
If you’ve joined us late, we’re answering critics here. And we’re asking: is it possible that Faithless are perceived as not being underground enough?
“Underground? How fucking underground do you want?” before going on to list just how underground Faithless are, which is pretty fucking underground.
A trance-based snobbery, perhaps?
“Trance? I fucking hate trance. Faithless do not make a generic fucking Gouryella trance sound. We like round sound waves, not stupid piercing, crude ones. I think the music of Faithless has a lovely melodius sound to it, and if you want to bracket it, then it’s house, it’s not fucking trance.”
So what is it then?
“I think” says Maxi Jazz, emerging from the inner reaches of his own calm, “That there are a lot of people who don’t want to think about what’s going on. They just want to take their pills and listen to dance music. And I think people resent the emotional effort they have to put in to listen to a Faithless album.”
Just don’t make the mistake of accusing Sister Bliss of either A. not being underground, or B. being trance. Just don’t.
You’re not best advised to question their agenda either. Faithless will swear blind that their’s is simply to “make meaningful music”, but the apparent conflicts at the heart of Faithless have always provided the key to their appeal.
You have Rollo, the UK dance old boy and studio whizz who can’t play instruments and in the studio asks Sister Bliss things like, “make it sound like a sad, rainy day. You have Maxi Jazz, who once sang with Soul II Soul and was signed to Acid Jazz, and you have Sister Bliss the old-skool fiery house head who laughingly claims, “melody’s for pussies” as she bemoans the fact that no matter how hard she tries, she cannot make discordant music.
Together they frame Maxi’s deeply personal lyrics with melodius, stadium house, and the effect can be devastating. It can also be bewildering, which is why they occasionally have to answer their critics.
“We had a photoshoot in Holloway once,” says Maxi. “This kid comes up to me, and says, ”You’re Faithless,” and I’m, “Yeah.” And this kids says, “Wow man, you’re deep.” There’s this little kid who I’m not supposed to have anything in common with, yet he recognises something in the band. He recognises what we’re trying to do. That’s cool, man. That’s what we’re about.”
Outrospective sees a new Faithless in a number of ways. Not only has Zoe Johnston lent smoky vocals to the album and joined the band as a touring member, but it also marks a sea-change in the band’s outlook.
“It’s kind of a political album,” says Maxi Jazz. “by default. Most of what I’m concerned with is the advancement of individual spirit, people getting to a point where they recognise their own strengths. And if that happens on a appreciable level, then naturally it has a political dimension, because if you’re a stronger person than you were before then it’s less likely you’ll take some of the bullshit that you have been taking before.
“So, it’s not setting out to be a political record, but if it does what I want it to do then eventually it will have a political dimension.”
Its cover image – a rioting youth – is also Faithless’ most arresting image yet.
“Everything we’ve ever done has been like that boy on the front cover,” says Maxi, “We’ve had to go out and fight for it and batter down established prejudices about dance music.”
“It’s ambiguous,” adds Bliss. “When you first look at it, it’s as if the guy’s dancing. There is an us and them subtext to it. And there’s an air of melancholy to it as well. It’s a dancing man yet it’s not a dancing man. It describes us.”
But forget all this talk of underground, overground, agendas, political dimensions, trance vs house and whether or not melody’s for pussies – it’s all a smokescreen. It’s just stuff we put there to give the band something to talk about before they go on stage and show us what they’re really made of. And if there’s one thing Faithless are made of, it’s tunes.
They get the opportunity to show off their tunes at the Hultsfred festival, where Limp Bizkit are probably the main attraction, and though Faithless aren’t the only concession to dance, they’re certainly the highest profile.
Arriving at the site, it quickly becomes clear that is not like the kind of festival we hold in Blighty, where we enjoy sitting around and chewing the fat in the sunshine accompanied by some cool tunes and a fatty-boombatty or two. No, this is a festival for people who like to drink. Not the odd ‘socially and in moderation’ kind of booze, either. But real, dedicated ‘so I can’t stand up or even speak’ drinking. Hultsfred, therefore, instead of being a musical oasis, is more like a three-day Oasis concert. Everywhere you look, Swedes have thrown off the rools with abandoned and are either drinking with a savage determination, staggering around, or bellowing incoherent things at one another. Not that the atmosphere’s especially threatening or anything, it’s just – well, for want of a better word, it’s just a bit ‘metal’
Faithless have their work cut out, then. Especially since they’re not on until the early hours, peak time for incoherent bellows and drunken staggers.
They do the biz, though. And how. As we’ve said, they’re old warhorses and happily admit that the more difficult the crowd the more fired up they get. So, the big old favourites like Salva Mea and Insomnia sound awesome, and the new material tears the place up, especially an invigorated Tarantula and We Come 1.
Maxi Jazz – suddenly dapper in a suit – is clearly the coolest man ever to walk across the face of the planet; Sister Bliss is a Siouxsie Sioux for the 21st Century’; Aubrey Nunn a bass God, and Zoe Johnston the shrewdest addition to a band since Primal Scream hired Andy Weatherall. In two tics they have a crowd that not long ago worshipped at the shrine of Fred Durst eating from the palm of their hand, and they do it not because they’re cool or underground or political or whatever, but because they have great tunes. It’s really that simple.
Melody’s for pussies, indeed.