On Paul Rafferty’s 30th birthday, the name of an imaginary band appeared in his head. Nine years down the line and the band are finally ready to play. Stuart Miles O’Hara picks up the phone to the ex-Hot Club de Paris bassist to look deeper into the psychological complexion of Doomshakalaka.
DOOMSHAKALAKA’s been a long time coming. It’s been so-far-unheard by pretty much anyone except ex-Hot Club de Paris bassist Paul Rafferty. It started on his 30th birthday with a band name and not much else. But some nine years later he’s got an album of tuneful, nostalgic songs that share their vintage palette with Television, Pavement and Bradford Cox’s oeuvres.
It’s an intriguing backstory, and there’s certainly plenty of intrigue as to how this mysterious photo album of songs went from empty to fully filled over the years. And it’s only within Rafferty’s head where we’ll find out, so it’s necessary to head straight for the coalface and catch up with Rafferty the old-fashioned, lockdown way – over the phone.
The phone rings and Rafferty answers. I’d like to keep this from getting too zeitgeist-y, but… perhaps it’s just the dearth of gigs lately (lockdown’s getting to me, maaann), but my first impression of the album is that it has a very ‘live’ feel.
“I’m pleased you said that, because it was actually painstakingly pieced together over a series of years.”
Rafferty takes his time to answer my questions. They’re pretty woolly, but even still, he’s clearly a thoughtful guy who tests and refines what he has to say as he says it. That certainly bears out the album’s long gestation.
“I’ve actually started the record from scratch three times which was, you know, kind of tiring. But at the end of the day I was just making a record for my own amusement, so I got it into my head that if I was going to make it, I might as well make it the exact thing I wanted to make.”
That live ambience seems to me to be a mixture of distinct instruments alongside a voice which is always a little distorted, which I suppose approximates how your ears sound in a gig. I’m curious about that obscuring of the vocal. Is it an aesthetic you wanted across the whole album as its sole producer? [Rafferty has worked as a producer and engineer for a number of years, co-producing Hot Club De Paris’ later work along with Bad Meds, and more recently working with garage rockers Ohmns — Ed).
“Absolutely. One of the reasons I wanted to make this album, or decided to record it myself was because, while I’ve had a lot of good experiences recording in studios, a lot of the time I tend to come out with a result that I’m really unhappy with. With something as personal as a vocal it’s difficult to tell a producer how you feel your voice should sound or how these things should carry.
“There’s something quite difficult about being a producer and a lyricist, specifically because you’re trying to do very technical things while also trying to retain the essential meaning to a lyric. That sort of thing takes time, I guess. With regard to the distortion, I think it lends quite a specific nostalgia to the delivery, but you don’t want to overdo it. It’s also there cos I kind of absolutely hate the sound of my own voice. I’m trying to disguise it as much as possible while still conveying the central meaning of the song. That is my main motivating factor, the disappointment in things not being better. I guess you could call it perfectionism, or a very unhealthy obsession, fuelled mainly by disappointment in my own abilities, ha!”
To be fair, I don’t think it’s just you. I reckon there’s no singer I’ve ever come across, whether in pop, or jazz, or opera, who doesn’t need a drink before listening back to their own voice.
“Oh my god, well that’s good to hear!”
The impression I’m getting of your creative process is that cliché associated with painting, the idea that there’s a brushstroke at which point you’ve gone one too far past the finished painting. On that slightly more visual topic, is there a story behind the cover art? With those primary colours and the handmade, collage-y feel, it looks like the album could have been released in the late 50s, on Blue Note or Prestige perhaps.
“Yeh, I’ve always had a very keen interest in conceptual art, and there’s a painting by Barnett Newman which came out in the mid-60s called Who’s Afraid Of Red Yellow And Blue III. It was considered to be a really confrontational painting at the time. He was one of the early abstract expressionists and this painting was essentially just a vast expanse of red oil paint. When it got shown in this gallery in Amsterdam people just responded so negatively to it, people were passing out in front of it. It just had the capacity to inspire strong emotions in people.
“Someone came into the gallery and attacked it with a Stanley knife, slashed it, I think it was three times, and the painting had to be restored, it took years and years with these top-flight restorers. When it came be put back on display, loads of painting conservators from across Europe attended because they wanted to see how on earth you would do a painting like that. It was then discovered that this painting, rather than being restored properly, was just sewn back up and somebody repainted the vast expanse of red basically with gloss paint and a roller. Then the painting had to be sent to a different restorer to get all the paint removed. So it gathered this intense baggage of angst and trauma from just having existed.
“I was thinking about that painting loads with regard to the question, ‘What’s the meaning of spending your time?’ I essentially spent my 30s working on this record and I just felt that the painting had a resonance with that process. You are just gathering these experiences and this baggage and this stuff and when you present it, it’s a very different result across time. For the artwork, I made a replica of Barnett Newman’s painting and just cut it to pieces, rearranged it, and tried to make these different collages with it. The underlying message is you can always celebrate the baggage or the trauma you’ve experienced in something you’re making or something out there.”
(album artwork designed by Paul Rafferty)
It’s not often we associate a single painting with more than one individual artist, and yet throughout history artists have used assistants. Does that duff restorer, and all those people involved in the snafu, have a claim to that artwork now?
“Absolutely yeh, they’re contributors for sure. It’s the sum of its turbulent history.”
Coming back to the album, has that been a one-man operation?
“No, my friend Tom English played drums on the record, but he was pretty much the only collaborator, and from early on. I’d write something to clicks, and I might rehearse with him sometimes, just the drums and basslines, then try and get takes based on these solid pieces of music. Then I would load up the track with the guitar parts and stuff, only to find that the arrangement was wrong!”
The songs are very melodically dense. There seems to be so much sheer tune going on in a short space of time given most of them are under the three-minute mark. They sound …distilled.
“I’m actually writing a second Doomshakalaka record right now and that’s something I’m trying to avoid: that distillation, where every moment is honed and chiselled away at. A lot of the music I like is bands who’ve been together for years and just the sound of them playing together is enough to serve the song. I would like to be able to work in that way but with this record I didn’t have a band. I didn’t have the production chops or technical ability to get everyone in the same room, be in charge of mic’ing, be in charge of the session, getting out of everyone what I wanted out of them, so I just had to make it myself. But with that came a very long-winded honing process.”
One Last Saturday Night stands out from the rest of the album by having a lengthy introduction, so there’s almost the entire length of one of the album’s shorter songs until your voice is heard. It reminded me of the first song off Disintegration by The Cure, where about two and a half minutes go by before Robert Smith sings. It really drums it up.
“Yeh, I’ve realised that’s commercial suicide. I don’t know if people listen for that long. I wanted something that sounded like a whole road trip movie, condensed. It’s still the length of a regular pop song, but it’s paced like a movie arc in fast forward.”
Funny you should say that. Listening to the album, and particularly the lyrical themes focusing on the minutiae of youth, I get a feeling that, on the scale of the album and the scale of the song, there’s often a whole life on show, but the focal point is very small. You’re aware of what comes before and after that moment, but it’s just periphery. You get that in The Curse (about “how letting go can be the same as embracing the things you’ve been resisting your whole life”) and James Asleep (“remembering a sad time that in turn reminds you of a happy one”), but particularly in the video for One Last Saturday Night, which is just this one long, wonderful single take.
“It came about because of lockdown, and I recently had surgery, so it’s difficult to do anything. But the label was quite keen for me to be in front of the project and at least feature in stuff, cos I’m not on the cover of the record. It was quite important we do something quite natural that didn’t flout any rules. I thought ‘We’ve got a Gaelic football pitch five minutes from mine, what happens if we try one idea and how do you make that look cool with an iPhone?’ That was pretty much where it came from, I do like how much the song ended up being quite resonant with the idea of lockdown.”
As it stands, though, it’s quite a subtle piece of lockdown memorabilia. Given that every Tom, Dick and Harry is going come out of this with a think-piece, coronavirus is just the set dressing for that video, not the subject matter.
“Yeh, I think this is going to cast a long and arduous shadow for what creativity looks like over the next two to three years, but I feel for me it’s not really that different. There are more people in my house but there’s a lot of solitude in my life anyway. I’m working on music alone usually, so it’s just business as usual for me. People are relying less on me professionally, so it feels like a holiday and stuff.”
You mentioned before that there’s a been a long, slow accumulation of events behind this album. Songs like Skinhead Suit and The Lost Homework Of Isabella Perez both have their basis in real-life people and events, the kind that rarely come along or that we’re not often in the right place at the right time to observe. They feel fictional, but as if putting them in a piece of writing might expose you to accusations of contriving them. But they do appear sometimes.
“Skinhead Suit was just a romanticised idea of the art teacher I had when I was a kid. The …Isabella Perez thing was a piece of someone’s homework I found on the floor in Chicago. It was strange homework too, someone’s physics but she seemed as though she really knew her stuff. I’ve still got it in a box somewhere.”
Do you keep your eyes peeled for bits of life, then, to mine them for songs?
“No, never. I think that half the battle is just being able to lean out for ideas, just by being open to the possibility of being inspired by something, it just becomes its own inspiration. I don’t necessarily engage with life as a data gathering exercise to make songs out of whatever I encounter but I’m just so entertained by whatever it is – be it finding a tiny piece of graffiti on some railings or walking my dog, spending a couple of hours walking around neighbourhoods on google earth, I think you have to… I don’t understand why you wouldn’t live your life leaning out for ideas.”
By leaning out for ideas from his own life, Paul Rafferty finds ways of touching other people’s. It doesn’t hurt that he can really write a tune as well. The album’s a writhing can of earworms: This Is War (And I’m So Bored) has been soundtracking my – socially distanced, thank you – running for the last week or so, and I don’t take my phone with me. It’s just remained, there .But profundity’s always a slow burner, and the longer you listen, the truer these songs will seem. And, if you were wondering, it doesn’t sound anything like his old band’s records. Doomshakalaka’s been a long time coming.
Doomshakalaka is released on 5th June via Moshi Moshi Records