Goodbye Xtra Mile Laureate, Chris T-T

- 04/08/2017 -

Written and edited by Brad Barrett (Twitter @artbaretta or on

In times like the ones we're having, it's preferable to have a noble laureate as the voice of reason laced with a distinct tone of piss-taking; the fury pumped full of jest, the poignancy wielding a pun, the disgust flipping the bird. Chris T-T has been that absolute hero for 20 years, a seemingly-nonchalant poet who gives way more of a shit than most of us.

Perhaps so much pricks at his conscience that he has no choice but to thrust humour at it as if warding off an army of toxic darkness. And when it's called for, he can join us all in the wallowing swamp for a bit of a splash around and remind us how sadness really feels. He's an atypical rabble-rouser and that is a rarity.

And yet, this happens.

“I'm sick of being me.” – Chris T-T, on John Kennedy's Radio X show 18 May 2017.

I don't honestly think music, or indeed its creators, need to be placed within a context by writers or anyone really, despite spending a lot of my twenties doing exactly that in magazines and on the internet. But I get so much out of learning and understanding other people's perspectives on an artist. It's not only a way of rigorously testing my enthusiasm for a musician but also firms up my own arguments as to why they're so good (or bad, but I try not to waste time convincing people someone is bad these days). And I think Chris T-T, who is celebrating 20 years of being himself on stage and records while drawing it all to a close this year, should have some personal context. Here it is.

The Hoodrats with Chris graffiT-Ti

The Hoodrats with Chris graffiT-Ti

Calling time on your primary public and creative persona can't be an easy decision. Whatever the reasons, they will be dear to you. It seems that Chris T-T has decided his cache can now be jettisoned, that following new musical and other ventures involves leaving the past where it's always been. Whatever it took to reach this conclusion, I dismissed the hints. Perhaps they go all the way back to 2010's Love Is Not Rescue, before his new lease of life with The Hoodrats on The Bear in 2013. The tell-tale signs were on songs like 'Stop Listening', 'Elephant in the Room' and 'Words Fail Me' which blend struggles in the personal and the professional. They all sounded like songs wrapping up a tough time and kicking it off a cliff with slowly deflating balloons attached for a bit of a laugh. They may have said 'happy birthday' on them. As it was, Chris then found time for two more Chris T-T records, a successful Edinburgh Fringe show and consequent live album of songs based on AA Milne's words, fronting Thee Cee Cees, recording a duo album of folk covers with Gill Sandell (Walk Away, Walk Away) and playing the music for Carter USM's Jim Bob on his 2016 album Jim Bob Sings Again. Whether he was feeling need for a change then, it was soon consumed by work at a tremendous rate.

This is no surprise as Chris is unwilling to stay static. Live he seems care-free at a piano, but wants to punctuate the world when carrying a guitar in front of a mic. He'll cut from poignancy to joviality, sardonic to earnest all in the space of a couple of songs. His Best Of – a really, really great collection which you should invest in and tell all your friends about – represents the thickness and texture of his career, while also leaving out some of my favourite (and therefore best) songs. But compilations often act as the hyped-up montage you show to your friends, so that's to be expected. Chris though, he's never been one to do things as tradition or industry dictates. After CD 1 is done with the popular songs, he lets CD 2 reveal further sub-plots, twists and tone shifts. He chose what he wanted on that disc and it shows because it's odd, noisy, and poignant. It's the best 'and also there's this' disc that has been produced in recent years, and possibly in my listening experience.

I discovered Chris's music through Frank Turner. Frank has performed both 'The Huntsman Comes A-Marchin'' and 'M1 Song' live in the distant past, and these songs turned me straight to 9 Red Songs, Chris's 2005 political album, at the time his latest release. As an introduction, it's actually a bit of a misstep as up until this point, politics hadn't featured especially heavily in Chris's work and by his own admission this album kind of nailed him to that particular cross: “I’d made four psych-pop albums but from 9 Red Songs onwards I’d given the game away that I was some leftie protest nobhead, which was a poisoned chalice. Up 'til then I’d been heavily praised in glossy mags as well as music press and all that vanished overnight.”

What I found in it though was phrasing from around my way, sentences straight from the mouth of savvy friends down the pub. But these were sewn into awkward, joyous melodies. Chris has never been a singer, he's been a storyteller and his reading voice is somehow fascinating. He stretches syllables out, a wry sardonic lilt, a deadly serious breath exhaled to keep himself from screaming, or just warmly extolling the virtue of feeling raw and in love and in pain. Contradiction lived right inside the friendly neighbour charm. 

The best thing on 9 Red Songs though was putting 'Preaching to the Converted' right at the end of an album full of (considered, passionate) left-wing polemic. It was his recognition of the flaws in writing and performing left-wing protest songs to people ready to nod and agree, accompanied by earnest hand-wringing. Essentially he snuffs out any doubt that this was someone who wanted to entertain and provoke rather than yelling at us. Who learns that way anyway? I certainly don't – I just clam up, get all quiet and still and pretend to be asleep. Or dead. Still, he didn't seem worried, perhaps was even gleeful, at having put people's backs up. It was a clanging signal of self-awareness and intelligence to me, this shy awkward mid-twenties weirdo yet to have a proper girlfriend and writing about music like it was all I could do. He was shrugging and saying “What's this? This isn't good enough. Nope.” I knew what he was saying. Something emerged from there and leeched into Chris's remaining 12 years of work.

Image: Sarita Tam

Image: Sarita Tam

Since 2007, I've had the chance to write about Chris. Both as a journalist and at Xtra Mile Recordings, Chris has always been involved in highlights of my work. Whenever I've written a press release, biog or review on Chris, I start writing with an enthusiastic lilt. The first and only time a quote of mine has been put on a poster was for the Edinburgh AA Milne sets, me extolling the virtues of Chris's voice in a review of Love Is Not Rescue in Artrocker (it's this one: “Heartbreaking. Chris T–T can draw the poison and heal the wounds, simply by singing from his heart. It’s evocative, elegant and funny. How often can you say that about a record these days?”. He and Frank Turner interviewed each other in one of my favourite interviews I've been a part of. And take this bit from a press release for last year's 'Love Me I'm A Liberal' tour: 

“Xtra Mile laureate Chris T-T will see out our annus horribilis with an autumn and winter of touring 'Love Me I'm A Liberal' and supporting good friend and national treasure Jim Bob.

'Love Me I'm A Liberal' is the second single from Chris's tenth studio album 9 Green Songs. Adapted from the classic satire from US protest singer Phil Ochs, the song raises an iPad selfie to the safe-and-sound set quite happy to finger point, jeer and slacktivise for change from the internet and for the benefit of their right-on friends. 9 Green Songs refuses to toady up to expectations, from its title to its targets, its mood or even its musical genre. It's the album we deserve for the times we've come to expect at the moment we've realised we've become complacent.”

I don't know where that came from, which should always be the case when writing. I clearly had a lot of fun writing those sentences. And this is what someone of Chris's calibre inspires in someone like me: a love of my craft – whether it's actually any good or not - that I often struggle with in the day-to-day. It's taken me a few months away from this piece here to really get it into shape (I hope), and sometimes that's what it takes. There needs to be both regular, consistent work and a significant supply of fuel, and a hefty waste paper basket.

That necessary combustion has regularly come from anticipation for another Chris T-T release. It has never been obvious what would follow, each time a discovery and discovery in music is as rare as a modest naturist. For example, the largely acoustic 9 Red Songs was followed by a full-band record, heavy on near-dystopia songs like 'Where Were You?', and heartbreaking on the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings on 'A Box To Hide In'. Love Is Not Rescue eschewed the politics entirely, apart from the connotations in AA Milne's words for 'Market Square' which Chris puts music to. Chris sounded a lot sadder there than anywhere else in his career. Perhaps it was the absence of true sadness, having left it behind. But it had left its tide mark on his songs. He also sounded weirdly heartened by revelations. It is also his most underrated album. It's truly lovely and if you fail to be moved by 'Tall Woman', I'd be a little surprised. The Bear was a record ploughed through with his live band in a true collaboration, and is probably his best album for cohesion and blaring noise. 9 Green Songs packaged the weird and wonderful diversity of his sound into 10 songs.

This is a man who can write a line as poignant as “I've got your thick woollen socks on, so it feels like my feet are still touching your feet though you're gone”, spit sarcasm (“I could be wrong I could be right, well done John, marvellous insight” – 'The Bear'), draws literary-calibre poetry – “drivers faces all the same, maps of misery” ('M1 Song') – and who, with a simple musical device, makes you dwell on a line beyond its parent song's runtime ('Stop Listening'): “I used to say yes, but now there's a loooong sloooow pauuuuse........” He makes me laugh when he yells “they've got the moral compass of a dustbin lid” on 'Jesus Christ'.  He references records I adore (Frightened Rabbit's second in 'The Music Is Alive With The Sound of Ill'), he's put politics into perspective by throwing chords at it, he sings as if conversing with us, he uplifts spirits and outlooks, coaxes tears unexpectedly, and doesn't even know it. He's the very best case for telling those who create something that moves you that he has done that very thing (go on, tell him today). He's spent 20 years scraping at the hideous flowery wallpaper the middle-classes loved as we grew up and got down to the rough, intriguing crumbling walls underneath. He's done all of this with self-doubt, underachievement and a whole sack of tremendous tales to tell. He also does some great end-of-year lists, by the way.

“I'm bored of Chris T-T,” said Chris T-T when interviewing himself (yes, you should've expected this by now) on XMR Radio earlier this year. “Although I really like playing music, I don't like myself or that persona. I don't enjoy any of the peripheral stuff. I'm too well known to be doing completely new projects, but not well known enough for there to be a proper buffer. I kind of wish I'd used different identities. Each of the albums sound really properly different.”

I want to stand on a parapet (because I like to imagine I'm atop a castle) and yell: “YOU ARE WRONG, SIR”. Chris T-T, the name, defines maverick, inexpertly experimenting and then proudly showing the results of its alchemy. The name was never a mislabelling, it was a seal of quality. You weren't going to go wrong with a release by Chris T-T. He'd never let you down. And Chris, the person, is just as unlikely to do that. Except just this once, by leaving these songs behind in the live arena. But there's a handful of chances to catch these songs before they're gone. If you've got this far, I hope you're catching one of his final shows. I'll see you at the Lexington if you're there. Let's sing and dance and laugh a final time with our favourite rebellious and profane folk-rock poet. 

Ten more songs 

These songs aren't included on the Best Of but seem to lodge into tiny sections of my brain whenever they're on. My brain shivers and shoots warmth to my belly on these occasions, when it recognises something true. Listen to these truths yourself and hopefully your body will be able to tell them too.

Here's a handy Spotify playlist of these songs for you to listen to. Like some of them in a big way? There are links to the albums they're from that you can buy from Xtra Mile. Yay!

1. 'Where Were You?' 
Where to find it: Capital (2008) Buy it here

A song that I can't seem to play loud enough, so I have to yell the chorus. And when the guitars get piercing, it strikes me at the nape of the neck each and every time, and has done since its release in 2008. 

2. '4am, The Day the Earth Stood Still Part 2'
Where to find it: Capital (2008) Buy it here

I love it when songs are released in several parts (or as sequels to another) and then the second part gets released first or on a mainline release and the other one is a B-side or outtake. It feels like you've missed part of a tale and now it's become the prologue or epilogue. It's even better when, as in this case, the songs mirror each other with some little differences which mean anyone could like either part better than the other. “They've got any excuse now,” might as well be a mantra for our times. I also love it when a song ends by bursting into pulsing fuzzy guitar drone for no reason other than it's fucking cool and fun to do (unfortunately this live version below doesn't do that, but it's still LOUD and GOOD).

3. 'Hedgehog Song'
Where to find it: The 253 (2003) Buy it here

I always think of this in the same category as 'M1 Song' though it's not a capella. It's a fantasy rooted in harsh reality and naturally deals with the consequences of nature's strangling at the hands of human progress. Roads, trucks, coke cans – it's all here. #PrayForHedgehog

4. 'M1 Song' 
Where to find it:  9 Red Songs (2005) Buy it here

This seems a massive omission from the collection to me but then it was probably the first or second song I'd heard of Chris's. If this doesn't get you wishing motorways were gardens, I feel sad for you. Delivered as if the song has existed for a lot longer than any of our roads, it's probably Chris at his most moving, especially live.

5. 'A Plague On Both Your Houses'
Where to find it: 9 Red Songs (2005) Buy it here

A great example of Chris's humanitarian outlook, and a refusal to simplify war and its causes to mean one side is better than the other. 

6. 'Stop Listening' 
Where to find it: Love Is Not Rescue (2010) Buy it here

A personal favourite. It's not something everyone can pull off, but hearing Chris critique the song as it's happening around halfway through is lovely. “Today I felt like giving up, it happens more and more / I kick myself and stumble on but deep down I know the score / a decade of defeat, missed penalties, yellow cards / now I'm doing football metaphors / I fucking hate football metaphors.” If you've ever tried to fight yourself over a line or two or a melody, or some other creative detail, you'll know. A wonderful song that hints at what we know now, but actually encourages active participation in something, anything new.

7. 'The Music Is Alive With the Sound Of Ills'
Where to find it: The Bear (2013) Buy it here

I was surprised to hear Chris was disappointed with this one. I love the cut up timeline – with a kicker of a reveal at the end - the imagery throughout, and of course the excellent title. Chris also let's his voice wail at the end, which is always great to hear. Perhaps sound-wise it's overladen, but I always thought this served the warped, fractured storytelling. And then there's the immortal line: “Warren Ellis said to the radical writer Penny Red, 'if you will go with people so clearly doomed, go fuck a panda'.” What a way with words.

8. 'Jesus Christ' 
Where to find it: The Bear (2013) Buy it here

Of course a song called 'Jesus Christ' is going to get anyone's attention. It's built on anti-capitalist rhetoric, capturing the message of looking out for everyone, and Chris's view of the most maligned and misinterpreted of historical figures. But beyond all that, there's something in the collision of religious and human empathy - with a simple trumpet melody, rising chorus and marching drums - that gets me every time I play it. It's just such an honest positive rush of a song that condemns the exploitation of Christianity, and it's full of some of his best lines. “He thought he'd gave his life to set us free,” indeed.

9. 'Hallucinating'
Where to find it: 9 Green Songs (2016) Buy it here

I have no idea really what this song is about really but it's haunting and sears with a really, well, hallucinatory chorus. It's somehow quite creepy, whether the intention or not. As an added bonus, it has given a story I've tried writing twice a little boost in what I hope is the right direction. As I see it, the song seems to reject modern living because civilisation is heading for collapse. It seems quite attached to the Dark Mountain philosophy and there's something attractive in its despair. But then I have always adored music that maintains darkness within a happier context.

10. 'Cutting A Longbow'
Where to find it: 9 Green Songs (2016) Buy it here

Words and drums. This is Chris T-T at his most acerbic, relentless and vicious. It is possibly Chris at his most unforgiving of where we're at and, in some ways, shows yet another side of this persona, giving a warning, a promise, and something to fight.

11. 'Love Me, I'm A Liberal' (piano version)
Where to find it: 9 Green Songs (2016) Buy it here

I love both versions of this song but the jaunty solo piano version has the right piss-take tone, right up to and including the ad libbed 'yeah of course I got piano lessons'. This is how I want to remember Chris T-T's 20 years – in a state of confused hilarity about how silly everything can be, and rolling with it. I think when we're at our angriest and our most on point is when we're laughing. Long may that continue. I'll miss these sort of laughs, this sort of incision on Britain and its establishment, the long smoking ruin trail it's left for us and how we're mucking around and fumbling together trying to make the best of it all. 

More from Brad Barrett at Twitter @artbaretta or on