How to be the least terrible singer-songwriter:
Ben Marwood and Non Canon on touring, self-doubt and rubbish singer-songwriters
- 05/04/17 -
On Friday 7 April 2017, Ben Marwood releases his long-awaited third album Get Found after 2013's Back Down. As so often happens with musicians, he'll be on tour to promote the release. From Thursday 6 April, he and labelmate Non Canon (Barry Dolan AKA Oxygen Thief), along with support from Helen Chambers, take off on a ten-date UK tour. Check out dates and buy tickets. You can also buy Get Found and Non Canon's self-titled album.
We caught up with both Ben and Barry before the tour to get them to interview each other about this music lark they've found themselves in.
XMR: While this isn't the first time you've toured or played together, have you done a co-headline tour before?
Ben Marwood: We must have done. I think the first time was you (as Oxygen Thief), me and Jim Lockey co-headlining.
Non Canon: Yeah that was when we'd argue who went on first. “I want to go on first”, “No I want to go on first!”
BM: That was a great tour. We've done other tours but this will be our first peoper tour for years and years and years.
NC: There's some where we did two dates here and there...
BM: Yeaaah but you know my workload, two dates is a tour for me. We're going on tour! To Portsmouth. And London.
XMR: You're both at pretty different stages of your musical careers. How do you think that's going to change things for you on this tour?
BM: Well, there's this young whipper-snapper around called 'The Non Canon'. He's just released his first album. You know what these young people are like when they release their first album, they're all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. So I'm going to spend the ten days just bringing him down, making sure he doesn't get too excited about this brave new world he's stepping into.
Really, it's gong to be quite strange. It's been really nice to see Non Canon shows – not that I don't enjoy Oxygen Thief shows because I really, really do – but it was really strange the first time I saw Barry sitting down on the stage, hair down. That's been how you can tell the difference. That and the songs are different. It was kind of surreal but I'm getting used to it so I'm looking forward to seeing it ten dates in a row. And then I'll be like “Oxygen who?”. He's gonna have to do a comeback tour.
I meant to ask you Barry, you're used to kinda stomping around and these days you're sitting down. Have you needed to go to the gym to burn off the calories you've not been burning up during OT live shows?
NC: I have but I think that's more that I've had a lot of cake over the last six months and there needs to be something to counter that.
It's really interesting to perform in a different way though. Normally, it's me being loud, abrasive and as energetic as possible. Whereas now "it's here are the songs, here are the words, listen to them". It's an entirely different experience really. I've definitely had to go and have a stand in a corner and breathe after the first couple of sets I did, and occasionally still do now, just because I'm sitting there playing and thinking about the songs a lot more whereas in heavy bands it's a bit more trying to fit all the words into the spaces. These are more personal too. Though all of my songs have been true and personal, I tried to hide things a lot more with the loud stuff, whereas I've tried to be as direct and personal as possible with this, I think.
XMR: It's notable in the crowd participation at the end of your set.
NC: Yeah. Also, when I start the set, I just start playing really quietly and don't say "hello, I'm playing now". I just start until enough people have started paying attention. Rather than telling people the words and asking them to join in, I just sing the words over and over at people until they join in and see where it goes from there. Most of the time it goes well.
BM: It is harder to sing along to quieter things. When you do your crowd participation bit and I'm in the crowd, I'm like "I don't want to sing too loud or I'll disturb other people".
NC: That's a bit of a learning curve in different rooms that you play in. It's more about joining in than being a spectacle or something.
BM: There's a really nice vibe around your Non Canon set. Everyone asks me what it's like and I tell them "it's great, come along!".
NC: People are looking forward to seeing you again Ben!
BM: They damn well better! I almost faked my own death to get their attention.
NC: It was very nice of you to delay your third album to give me a chance to write a third one too.
BM: I didn't want to get too far ahead! But yeah, It's going to be very exciting to get to these places that I haven't been to in so long. I'm looking forward to seeing people looking three years older. I just have to work out how to play all these songs again now. I'm still nervous Barry so you're gong to have to look after me on this tour. If you see me trying to down some whiskey, you'll know I've gone too far.
XMR: Ben, how do you prepare for such a tour? And also do you know what the set is going to be or do you not think about that?
BM: I don't have an idea. I had toyed with writing a 'choose your own adventure' book, so the crowd gets to decide which way we go but we've only got ten days and I haven't even started on that yet. It'll be interesting to see what songs they are going to want to hear, I guess. But in terms of preparing for the tour it's just going to be about behaving myself and making sure I eat. That sounds really stupid but I've done quite a lot of press around this album and found myself talking about my illness a lot and things I've learned. One of the things I've learned is that I need to remember to eat and sleep, which as a human being is something I should've got to grips with a long time ago. I've been recounting the story on the phone to strangers for weeks and weeks and I've just thought "I'm such a garbage human - what have I been doing with my life?" They're just like “what do you mean you didn't eat?”!
NC: I remember us buying burgers in Cheltenham one time and you were just eating the sesame seed crust on top. We're in different places when it comes to touring this time. That Jim Lockey split EP tour was just 11 days of drinking with some gigs.
BM: That was incredible. But I never want to do that again. I still think it'll be really fun but fun without dying. That's another motto that I've got.
NC: Are you gonna play quite a few new album ones or see what happens?
BM: I really wanted the album out in March so people had an extra week with it because I don't want to spend the time playing songs to a room of people who've never heard them before. I've done that for years!
NC: It will be out on the Friday, so everyone's going to listen to it all day on Friday.
BM: Maybe I should start off with one new song in the Thursday set, then two on the Friday (release day), and by Manchester I'll be playing ten songs from the new album. Who knows? I will play it by ear and maybe ask people what they want to hear. And actually listen to them.
XMR: Do you find it easy to read a room having played so many gigs?
BM: I used to always open with 'Question Marks' and I always used to be able to tell where the room was from that. Now I don't always open with that and that means I find it much harder to read the room. That song is such a good gauge of how many people you've got yelling, how many people are loking at the floor, and so on. It's something that comes with time and experience and Barry is very good at winning over a crowd. If I find the room too hard to read, I tend to just play Black Sabbath covers three octaves down until everyone leaves the room. If you've got a crowd that isn't as enthusiastic as you'd like it to be I'm not sure I'm any good at turning it around myself. What do they want? What's wrong with them? Why aren't you having any fun?
NC: Sometimes you have gigs where it's hard to see people due to the lights and you can't tell if anyone enjoyed it and you have this feeling where you think it's been terrible. And then a bunch of people come up and buy records and tell you they enjoyed it. In terms of setlist, I only have one album and will play most of the songs off it so I don't really have much leeway with throwing in other stuff but in terms of chatting and that sort of interaction, sometimes people are into having a bit of a conversation or perhaps they're more likely to stand and stare at you expecting you to make music at them.
XMR: Is that unnerving?
NC: Its a weird one really. I always think that being a musician is a weird mixture of supreme egomania and this crushing lack of confidence and self-esteem.
BM: (laughing) I was about to say the exact same thing. That's exactly what it is.
NC: I feel strongly enough that I think there should be rooms full of people coming to listen to me but at the same time I hope they like it and they probably won't. It's a mad position to put yourself in. You can find people who are enjoying themselves in the room and sort of direct things to them and if there are people vociferously hating it, you can play with them a bit or tell them to go away. With OT I have the power of volume and can make horrible noise at them, but this is entirely opposite. They have to listen or it's kind of ruined. I don't know if I have an answer, it's just a weird thing to do.
BM: I would really like all my gigs to be packed out rooms but the more people I get in the room, the more nervous I am for being responsible for their entertainment. So it's good to have a packed house who are 100% keen that I don't have to do any work on, they sing all the songs for me and we can go home happy. You do get the thing where the more people you have in the room, the more people generate excitement by themselves and the more others get excited. It does increase exponentially the more people you get in. But you always run the risk where you have to be responsible for people's excitement, and that's my greatest fear. Because all I want to do is play them the songs they're already happy about hearing and then get the hell out of there before any riots break out. It's the most extroverted thing an introvert can do. Although I'm mostly by myself on stage all the time, it's still a group activity, and probably the only group activity I look forward to, including sex.
NC: Having constant bills each night, I've found that to be the best thing. When I first started, I'd just play anywhere, at any time, at any venue, sometimes with bands, sometimes with acoustic people, and not knowing what happens until you get there and it's a bit bewildering. When playing with the same people every day, it's quite comforting. Because we've got a package tour this time, it's an event in itself. People should be coming for the whole night with all three of us. Helen's amazing.
BM: She's so good at being a human. I don't think I've spent an extended period of time with both Helena and Barry together so that's going to be interesting. Helen has expressed a desire to get into the world of podcasts. She's going to come back with a sense of humour that's completely broken.
NC: We're just gonna put them on in the car aren't we?
BM: We'll start driving so she can't get out of the door and then put on what we like. We'll definitely start with Hello From the Magic Tavern. I think you can really gauge who someone is on that. Forty minutes of crude jokes and inane references to pop culture to the setting of shape-shifting badgers, wizards and trapped humans...you can really find out a lot about people's sense of humour by what they laugh at on that programme. There's the Adam Buxton podcast too.
NC: The Richard Herring one.
BM: Barry introduced me to the Beef and Dairy Network Podcast.
NC: Do you listen to the Comedian's Comedian, about how they write and perform? I really enjoy listening to it because it's similar to musicians but because they're not talking about music it doesn't mess with my head. And unless I'm completely mad, I'm not going to go into stand up
BM: I did have a dream once that I accepted a gig at Donald Trump's inauguration, but as a stand up comedian and I'd written a setlist of jokes like it was a music setlist, so I listed all my jokes. The entirety of the dream was finding out how I could get out of doing it. I decided I wasn't going to do any political jokes. It was quite a good dream.
Barry, do you think you'll ever do other solo projects spinning out in different directions and then you could put each one on hold and split yourself one by one like cells dividing? So, you've gone from one project to two. Four projects is next. What do you do from there?
NC: I don't know. I never thought I'd do *this* so it's really hard to say I probably won't do anything else. But then I might because you don't know what's going to happen do you. This has taken me by surprise a bit.
BM: How did you get to this point? I was thinking about this the other day: did you write a bunch of slow songs and go “I can't put these into the OT set” or did you have six or seven slow ones and you had to write more to fill up an album or did 11/12 songs just fall out of your head?
NC: I was just playing quiet, nice things just to see what came out for no reason really. And then I tried to write an album. And then I took these weird little phone notes for things called Capo 1, Capo 2, Drop D into an album's worth of songs. I try and follow the complete opposite rules I have for Oxygen Thief stuff.
BM: Yeah because aren't the rules for OT you aren't allowed to do verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle 8-chorus? You have to go first chorus-impressive breakdown-bit of shouting...
NC: It was more like I haven't often liked the self-referential song thing and I feel like it takes really good...like Tim Kasher did it a lot with Cursive and The Good Life and he did it perfectly and then I was like “well that's done now.” and so I never did that. So this became a bit more self-referential. Stuff like singing in a lower register, having my hair down and sitting down, playing no riffs...
BM: It must be pretty weird getting up on stage and not playing any riffs.
NC: Well it's complicated in how it's so simple. All of these songs have the same five or six chords in different orders and on different frets as opposed to being in weird time signatures that I don't properly understand and my band later informs me about. It's about going against my normal instincts. I quite liked what came out so I wanted to see if anyone else did, and it was surprising that anyone did. I gave my wife the demos and she said it was really good. And then I sent them to you, and Chris (T-T) and a couple of other people saying "feel free to tell me it's terrible" and I don't think anyone did. And then I sent it to Xtra Mile and said "I've done this, do you want to put it out? If not, no worries." And they said yeah.
BM: It was like a happy accident.
NC: But not like Happy Accidents.
BM: Yes, there's already Happy Accidents.
NC: It was more that I wanted to do something in the entirely opposite direction from what I usually do in an exercise of melancholy fun.
BM: Has your OT band, who are both lovely people, tried to muscle in on Non Canon yet? Will you take them on the road but make them play really gently? They're both really talented. Could you not teach one of them the cello and the other the flute? You could take them on the road like a light entertainment band.
NC: I really want to do it as a full production thing at some point. But I don't know if that would be like a touring thing or whether we just put on a gig in London in a nice room and have Chris T-T come and play his piano bit. That's how the album is structured, imagined in my head is how you might see people performing it. You'd have people in tuxedos coming on, doing their bit then taking a bow and walking off.
XMR: It's certainly not the same thing going against your instincts, Ben, but what's it like coming to a third album? Everyone talks about the tricky second album but what's the third album like?
BM: Well I think my situation was slightly different. This is my...I don't even know how to describe this record. The illness record? I think I learned a lot of lessons from the second album and I took those lessons, like spending too much money, and ignored them this time around, but I've changed my expectations. The big test is this tour coming up. I'm quite nervous about it. The actual album itself though, I took it back to the first album, the way I recorded that which was almost all at home. I still ended up in a big studio for the loud stuff but it was much more about starting slowly, finding out what I could do and learning all the time. Different production techniques too, I played around with those. It was good just to be able to do it in my room without having to watch a clock. If you're paying for your time, you're always watching the clock and you don't feel like you have the freedom to try new things all the time. I did most of the second album in the studio which was costing me quite a bit of money so I didn't try very much whereas the first one is just so special to me. To see if this album is any good, I put the rest of my stuff on shuffle the other day and of all the songs I really enjoyed and that really surprised me were off the first album. Like "how did I even think to do that?". I think the answer was I just threw a load of shit at the wall to see what stuck. There was a bit more of that this time round, like "let's try a vibraslap on that".
XMR: Do you think, both of you, that having creative space to breathe is really important, even just to get stuff done?
NC: I think so. Because I was writing just to see how it came out without any kind of expectation that anyone would hear it or that I'd play it live or anything, there was no pressure. I don't know whether Ben had that, because you had no time pressure putting this together as such...?
BM: Yeah maybe. I was just happy to get it done. I'd written most of this album by the middle of 2014. I think I'd done two songs after the middle of 2014. So a lot of the creative stuff I'd already got out of the way so it was just about how to arrange it. Having no pressure on how to arrange it was really nice. We actually went and did three or four rehearsals with the band on the record. I'd never done rehearsals before recording. We'd just turn up on the day and I'd say "right play this!". And then I'd edit it later and wonder why we didn't just rehearse. Also production-wise, I usually sit on the shoulder of whoever's mixing it and say "stop that, why are you doing that, take the vocoder off". Whereas this time, the guy who mixed it, Neil who plays in Barry's OT band, works at Old Blacksmiths in Portsmouth, and he wouldn't let me anywhere near it. It was good to let him have his freedom. Apparently they know what they're doing! I didn't know that. I thought I was the only one who knew what he was doing.
NC: I probably learnt from doing the band stuff with OT. I go there knowing what I'm playing and they go in with what they want to do and it's only on rare occasions when I say "please don't do that".
BM: This is not a samba breakdown!
NC: I left the Red Hot Chili Peppers fandom back in sixth form where it belongs, can you guys not do that.
BM: (In a remarkably accurate pastiche of Anthony Keidis' vocal style) Skippedy doo dab dibbidut dab.
NC: I actually did a similar thing to you Ben where I recorded most of (the self-titled debut album) at home. I recorded the guitar at home so that I could really get that as right as I can get it, then drums and cello and lead vocals in the studio. And then different people did other bits in their homes, working to my templates but playing it like a real musician would, rather than someone with a cello bit on Garageband. Letting people do the thing they know what they're doing is quite freeing, to trust them. I did think about recording it at Old Blacksmiths but I wanted it to be a different experience rather than hanging around with my bandmates and pissing about. I wanted a sad, kind-of quiet album recorded with someone I don't know all that well.
BM: It does sound totally different. I don't know if you've noticed Barry.
NC: I've had people come up and tell me that it sounds like me.
BM: That's true. You are still singing in your voice.
NC: It's a more spoken register. I don't go very high on the whole thing, it's quite low. If I get a cold during a tour, I won't panic as much now!
It's interesting doing something entirely different, especially with my lack of exposure to that world of music. I came from just a heavy music background. Apart from Tim Kasher and Jonah Matranga, I didn't listen to any nice music at all until I met you, Jim (Lockey) and Frank (Turner). Basically OT was going to destroy singer-songwriters from the inside.
BM: And then you found out there were people already destroying singer-songwriters from the inside. It was us. Come along, join the party!
NC: I think I thought it was only David Gray and James Blunt and I didn't have any experiences in that world from people with interesting words or cool picking-guitar things you do where you should be listening to your guitar playing. For you guitar's not just a background thing.
BM: I know exactly what you mean. Up until the age of 17 or 18, I thought singer-songwriters just sucked. I was not interested. If someone was a singer songwriter on their own, I had no time for them at all. The only reason that changed was because I heard something by Badly Drawn Boy – it was probably something like 'One Pearl' from his album Hour of the Bewilderbeast – and I went and bought it and realised when I saw the video that it was just one guy. And I thought "wait a minute, but this is good!” Then I thought maybe the problem isn't them, the problem is me. Maybe it's both of us. So I thought maybe you can be a singer-songwriter without being terrible. The journey since then has basically been me going "right, how do I be a singer-songwriter without being terrible." That's pretty much my mission statement.
NC: “How can I be the least terrible?”
BM: That should go on a t-shirt or a gravestone. Do you think there will be another Non Canon album sometime?
NC: Yeah, maybe. I don't see why not. Originally I thought I'd finish Non Canon and I'll go back to OT because no one will care. It was about getting it out of my system and I didn't know what it would be like to play live. But I think probably (there's more to come). I like playing gigs and I like writing and recording. It's just a case of doing it. I also want to do another OT one. Ben, when you write stuff do you have much of a plan going into the next album or do you just write loads of songs?
BM: I just try and write mostly. For Get Found, there was one song from that suite of songs which I wrote which didn't make it onto the album because it wasn't good enough. So I will take that leftover and put it in the next album session and see if it's good enough by the time I come to recording the next one. See, that sounds like what you end up with is that the songs you write next time will be so bad that a song that wasn't good enough to end up on album three will go on album four. But actually one of the songs on this one, 'Bones', that was a song from album two and sounded not good and I just put it on the shelf for a couple of years, moved the capo up a fret and when it came to recording it a few years later it sounded ok. So I'm hoping all the songs building up into a giant snowball from album to album will one day become a MEGA album that I'll know how to play full of really old songs.
I've written eight or nine new songs lately that I don't know what to do with so I guess we'll see how they go. I think I'll probably make another album but I don't know when or how or why. We'll have to wait and see how this tour goes.
NC: Are you quite a regular writer?
BM: If the Formula One is really boring, yes. I noodle in front of the TV so if the season is tedious, you don't have to pay too much attention to the races and you accidentally write songs every Sunday.
NC: I need to get into a boring sport to up my songwriting rate.
BM: Yeah get into cricket or bowls or something. No offence to people who like bowls or cricket. Do somethig that takes your mind off things. Play guitar, noodle in front of Celebrity Pointless. It'll be fun.
NC: I might not be able to get the answers though.
BM: You could write down all the answers from Celebrity Pointless and construct them into lyrics, just like At the Drive-In did with their Relationship of Command album. Hopefully, eventually these new songs will take some sort of shape. The frustrating thing is that I'm about to go on tour for my new album and all the songs are three years old roughly and there's something in the back of my head going "go on, play a brand new one". Like "hi, this will be out in three years!".
Ben Marwood, Non Canon and Helen Chambers tour from 6–16 April 2017. Check for dates and tickets on our gigs page here.