Well, That Was A Year: Xtra Mile's 2017
How and what we did during 2017 plus artist year highlights and hopes for their 2018
- 3 January 2018 -
Written and edited by Brad Barrett (Twitter @artbaretta or on www.bradbarrett.co.uk) with contributions from Frank Turner, Will Varley, Skinny Lister, The Lion & the Wolf, Brand New Friend and Valerie Gritsch.
Some years are an all-out assault and the last few months of 2016 felt that way. Releasing nine albums, plus an EP or two, and around 20 bands on tour all between September and December 2016 – after and during some of the most unexpected political changes in recent US and UK history – was exhausting. It’s not something we’re likely to repeat again; we prefer to give ourselves and you lot a runup and some warniing first.
So that’s what 2017 has felt like – a steady build with some milestones to stick a flag into along the way. Once we're really in 2018, we’ll be flying and that gives us life. 2017 also felt like we were batting away our doubts and our pessimism in the face of wild world events. If you take a look at our highlights, they’re all optimistic and uplifting. There are returns, there’s some tying up of loose ends and there are new sliproads onto potentially bigger highways. It's ramping up ahead of 2018, which will be a fucking fireworks factory spewing new albums, debut records, sequels to mammoth events and bigger, better tours. There will be new directions and surprises along the way which is as invigorating as any festive rest. There will be new stories and tales that hopefully help to better lives and enthrall fresh listeners. We are constant.
If you’re one for resolutions, consider making one of them this: please, if you feel so inclined, introduce someone you think might like one of our artists to someone new. We’re sure we have someone for anyone and all it takes is the right artist and song to grab someone. And they’ll thank you for it. Our favourite people have often introduced us to our new favourite artists. In return, we’ll do our best to continue to provide you with the best new music we can, for all sorts of ears and brainwaves.
Here’s to 2017 – a strange year which saw us all battle through some tumultuous times but ultimately come out with a handful of gems while scouring the seabed. The way is clearing though, and this time we’re ready to charge headlong recruiting you all to make our triumphs even greater.
Also, before the new year, we asked a few of our artists (and ourselves) what the absolute highlights of 2017 was for them, and also what they were hoping 2018 might bring. We've thrown those in throughout the piece so read on for some positive insight and optimistic clairvoyence!
Returning heroes – Ben Marwood and Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.
Two of our absolute favourite people fought their way back into 2017. For the record, we adored Sam Duckworth’s reinvention as Recreations. He spent 2016 releasing all-new music and playing shows under the moniker after recovering from some serious health issues. With a debut album and two studio EPs of material, Sam had already started to seduce new hearts and minds. But then, the political landscape changed and as he said goodbye to his debut album The Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager as Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly., ten years after its release, something was sparked. He wasn’t ready to bury his younger pseudonym just yet.
In January 2017, Sam released a collection of scaled-back songs, almost all solo with acoustic and electric guitars. Kingdoms was a reset, a way of bridging a difficult decision, of escaping the pinfall when he just wasn’t done. It wasn’t until June that the surprise return of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. was brought to actual life with a return AA-side single (a double A-side, for those too young to remember, refers to a single with two lead tracks both on the same 7” vinyl rather than an A-side and a B-side), ‘Optimist’ and ‘National Health’. While Sam railed against the savage incompetence and disregard around the Grenfell disaster that took place in the summer, as well as encouraging donations and help for those now without homes, he was also crafting the next chapter in Get Cape’s history.
Come November, another AA-side single sprung fully-formed from a brand new album. ‘Adults’ and ‘Always’ (links to Spotify) give two distinct layers of Get Cape’s current sound, with the latter being the Shy FX-produced dance-soaked cousin to the acoustic-led ‘Adults’. Not content with just a couple of tracks, he also revealed live and studio versions of two more songs: ‘Just A Phase’ and ‘DNA’ (links to Spotify). The first Get Cape album in four years Young Adult is out 19 January 2018 and you can preorder it now. Also, do yourself a massive favour and listen to Sam’s Chronicles series on Spotify. Not only does the man himself understand the engrossing charm of the pirate radio station show in his production and influences, but it’s an excellent insight into his history and story as a songwriter, as Get Cape, and a great way of catching up if you’re relatively new to his music. Here’s the first episode and you can keep an eye out by following him here.
Ben Marwood had also dealt with some health problems throughout most of 2015. This meant that any new recorded music had to be put aside during his rehabilitation. The concern, as with anything that needs protracted periods of recovery, is that you may never get to do what you love again. But he was not meant to be held down. After playing his first shows in 2016, Ben was finally able to release his third album Get Found in March 2017. Though it had been four years since Back Down, he’d already had an incredible ‘homecoming’ triumph at 2000trees festival the previous summer. He’d been received after a year away like a prophet, but with more drunken singalongs from the crowd.
Get Found marked the first set of new material in all that time, and it harked back to the rawer feel of fan favourite Outside, There’s A Curse. The middle section of ‘Nights’, ‘I’m Awake It’s Boring’ and ‘Bones’ (links to Spotify) is as delightful a spine as you’ll ever hear on record, but he followed that up with a lovely borrowed ditty (‘Baby You’re A Mess’) and two gleaming highlights from his entire output (‘Bury Me in the Pantheon’ and ‘The Devil Makes Work For Jazz Hands’). He set out on his first UK tour in a while with buddy Non Canon, and returned to the road with Nick Parker in Germany as well as playing a festive show in his hometown Reading in December. He also released the demo version of brand new live favourite ‘Safe Mode’ (as well as printing up some lovely t-shirts with references to the song).
Ben’s already amassing a heap of new songs and is eager to release some of the material he’s written. We’ll have to see what 2018 brings, but in the meantime, let’s just celebrate the return of one of our most lovable favourites with such a subtly impressive return album.
New signings – Seán McGowan and Brand New Friend
New year, new bands. A year doesn’t go by unless XMR signs someone new (seriously, if we were to neglect this, the year would just never end - it’s like a Cabin in the Woods-esque bargain with the world and it keeps us on our toes dunnit). This year, we brought on board two newbies.
The first is Seán McGowan who also released a new EP Graft & Grief. Frankly, it’s been a while since we had someone who regales us with twenty-something vision. Jamie T was the last one to do it in such a fashion, but even then he didn’t quite stir in the social commentary as well. Seán does, absolutely, and Billy Bragg clearly recognises this. As the archetypal modern socially-aware singer-songwriter, him taking Seán on tour with him in the latter part of 2017 was both a symbolic and practical gesture: this one is someone to watch. And then there’s the EP itself which is five tracks bookended with some spoken word poetry. Unexpected depth, tight musicianship, flickbook wordplay and some unrelenting melodies screw themselves into your mind as the EP cycles through once, and then again, and then again as you realise this is the sort of record the repeat function was designed for. It’s so much more than a taster for a full-length, it is a solid work by itself. An album though, that promises to be a highlight for 2018.
Brand New Friend were announced as signees in November after an exclusive reveal on BBC Radio Ulster’s Across the Line. Fronted by siblings Taylor and Lauren Johnson, the Northern Irish four-piece are strung together with their hyperactive and chiming guitar, irresistible keyboard melodies, and their timeless male-female harmonies. Pop songs which uppercut the air, addictions you can satisfy with simplicity, and a secret weapon in Lauren’s fantastic way around poignancy (listen to ‘Goodbye, I Love You’ (links to Spotify) from their previous EP and I defy you to not get chills). Check out latest single ‘Hate It When You Have To Go’ for real-life proof too. We’re very excited to hear what a full-length debut will do with all these combustible elements. And it’s exhilarating to be excited about something so new.
Celebrating 20 years of Chris T-T
Blending sadness with joy seemed to be the optimal way to make it through 2017 and just as we were celebrating 20 years of Chris T-T’s truly wonderful songwriting, so we resigned to commiserate his retirement announcement. May saw the release, finally, of a Chris T-T ‘Best of’ which is an amazing way to signal the end of anything: a career, a year, a party, any and all of those. A 2CD collection chosen by Chris, the first disc was what his greatest hits would be if he were that sort of songwriter and this were that sort of world, and the second disc are Chris’s favourites from rare releases and unheard versions in his archives. If you wandered into his neck of the woods and got immediately lost, this would be your roadmap, compass, and lamplight. It would give you all of your marching songs.
And it would be just like our Chris to turn a sad occasion into a party - especially his final two gigs taking place on consecutive nights, each with a completely different feel. The first was a completely solo show where he seemingly leapt from song to song with abandon, forgetting any onstage banter and feeling the warmth of the familiar audience (mostly sat down, relaxed), shouting out songs and laughing along with him for the penultimate time. The final gig at The Lexington boasted two sets: the first was solo with some guest spots, and the second was a full-band setlist. He gave us as many songs as he could manage from across his career. From the vocalised horns of ‘Ownership’ to the churning build of ‘Cull’, the devastating Siberian winter of ‘Tunguska’ to the flamethrower drone of ‘Where Were You?’, and the crowd-pleasing profanity of ‘When The Huntsman Comes A-Marchin’’ to the final, closing four-song singalong of ‘Giraffes#1’, ‘The English Earth’, ‘Drink Beer’ and ‘Dreaming of Injured Popstars’. Everything in between was beautiful too, and we couldn’t have wished for a better send-off to these songs that, if things were right and correct, would be deeply imbeded in the psyche of this country. Give it another 20 years, perhaps.
I've compiled a largely complete playlist of the two gigs, only missing the AA Milne songs Chris performed. Here's the songs he played at Courtyard Theatre (2 Dec 2017) and The Lexington (both sets - 3 Dec 2017).
Lost Evenings (night four especially!)
If we’re talking of live celebrations, then Lost Evenings was an absolute triumph of the format. Perhaps a bit of a risk and an experiment to see how a four-day festival at Camden’s Roundhouse headlined by Frank Turner would work, it surpassed the headiest expectations as we got days and evenings brimming with unforgettable live music. Highlights were myriad, and there’s no doubting that the immense hard work of rehearsing over 80 songs, putting together a diverse and pleasing bill of supports and a selection of music industry panels and workshops was a titanic effort and deserving of praise. That’s without mentioning Last Minutes, the satellite shows and extra events taking place around Camden before the evenings began.
It also gave an opportunity for Xtra Mile to showcase its acts on the final night, with Will Varley and Skinny Lister stepping up as main stage supports and Ducking Punches, Ben Marwood and Non Canon filling the side-stages. With Rob Lynch, Sam Duckworth, Chris T-T, and Beans on Toast performing over the weekend too, it was a huge family reunion, with everyone who had been around for the ride mostly able to attend and enjoy at least one of the nights. As a way to bring everyone together, we couldn’t imagine a better time to be had by all. At least until next year’s sequel….
We also took the time to grab each of the artists playing and recorded some live Xtra Mile Outside Broadcast Truck (XMROB1) sessions for the latest installment in the Xtra Mile High Club compilation series. Mixed in with live recordings from each night of Frank’s main stage performances, Xtra Mile High Club Vol. 9: Live at the Roundhouse is your very own souvenir from May 2017, whether you were there or not. Get it for £3.49 or save it for listening on Spotify (or both!).
Get Better: A Film About Frank Turner
Ben Morse spent a year filming Frank Turner with the hope of capturing 12 months on the road with a musician about to ascend to the next stage of his career. What happened instead were copious delays, bouts of misery, resurgence of bad habits and a lot of soul-searching. As Positive Songs For Negative People was crafted, recorded and its release delayed in 2015, leaving Frank unable to tour or progress, Ben captured an honest account of how someone can be derailed by life changes and decisions out of their control. The resulting documentary, Get Better – A Film About Frank Turner, was premiered at a cinema in Leicester Square, London and streamed to cinemas UK-wide in 2016 before a short tour of US cinemas. 2017 saw the release of the film on DVD and streaming services, finally reaching the largest audience possible. And it’s a film that fans should see, to understand the pressures and the intensity of dedication to his career that Frank has. Non-fans should see it as a film that composes a story of sorrow and redemption in honest framing and confessional telling. It’s also got a great score by Matt Nasir of the Sleeping Souls. There are several ways of owning it including on DVD, as a bundle from our shop and also as part of the Songbook vinyl deluxe edition box set.
Counterfeit and Lost Evenings win live music awards
It’s always heartening when those that win awards truly deserve them. We were fairly confident that Lost Evenings would be a surefire win the Golden Welly Award for Best Independent Festival at the Association of Independent Music (AIM) awards 2017. However, the Best Live Act could’ve gone to any of the nominees, regardless of our strong feelings about the matter. So it was a scintillating victory for Counterfeit. who blazed across 2017, tearing through Europe and the UK, punching holes in the festival circuit and generally reminding those who saw them that they are riff-toting venue-stealers, completely capturing audiences with their fierce live sets. Drawing from their blazing debut album Together We Are Stronger, released back in March to great reviews and rapturous fan appraisal, Counterfeit. had all the tools in 2017 to succeed in the competitive live arena. Gathering their forces via songs like ‘As Yet Untitled’, ‘Addiction’, ‘For The Thrill Of It’ and ‘Enough’ (links to Spotify), their hefty showcases left the judges at the AIM awards panel in no doubt who the best live act of 2017 was.
Xtra Mile's first Reeperbahn Festival showcase
It’s always good to have a first to talk about each year. In this case, this was Xtra Mile’s first showcase at the renowned Hamburg music festival Reeperbahn. A mix of industry and public audiences, Reeperbahn is a wild city festival spread across a bundle of venues in the anarchic port area. Set the task of wowing this mixture of people trekking across town to experience as much live music as possible in a handful of nights, we chose a trio of our best acts: Skinny Lister, Will Varley and Beans on Toast. They all played to a receptive crowd of Germans and other European music fans, leading to a riotous night.
As a way of sampling the label in one evening, there aren’t many better ways than turning up to a Reeperbahn venue and seeing three excellent examples comprising solo-folk and rock music. Certainly, it will have raised XMR’s profile in Germany – a country that knows its indie and rock genre – which can only mean more touring for our German fans. Keep repping us in your country and our bands can make the case for visiting more! In return, we will continue trying to put together XMR family bills that you can talk about to your friends!
Double Trouble tour
In what’s becoming an almost annual occurrence, old pals Skinny Lister and Beans on Toast got together to tour in autumn and winter, both in Europe and in the UK. The Double Trouble tour was a co-headline venture in their home country and took in some of the biggest venues both acts have headlined so far. With both bands drawing from their latest releases – Skinny Lister having released a new 2CD deluxe edition of The Devil, The Heart & The Fight and Beans on Toast clutching his ninth album in nine years, Cushty – as well as their vast back catalogues, their shows were reeling, swinging, flurried dancing and singing. If you get another chance to catch them at the same time, you’re going to have a great time. Plus Cushty is as engrossing a Beans on Toast album as there’s ever been with barroom piano, spun-out treatises on brainwashing technology and simple modern love stories being just some of its highlights. And the second disc of Skinny Lister’s reissue gifted us three great new tracks (‘Thing Like That’, ‘Boy Ashore’ and their second festive tune ‘Christmas Calls’) as well as freezing some searing live snapshots in carbonite for all to hear forever.
Great pop songs
Some releases make a lot of noise, while others sit back and surprise you with their contagious sounds. Both The RPMs and Trapper Schoepp did a great job of releasing shorter records which were spattered with irrationally catchy hooks. The RPMs gave the world their second EP with four-tracks of their refined, but spikier pop on Agents of Change. That it turned out to be their final set of songs quite like those after releasing the synth-pop assault of ‘Your Ghost’ (links to Spotify) seems astute on their part as they’d already perfected that sound. What’s the point of doing more of the same if you’ve excelled at it? It’d be too easy to repeat themselves.
Trapper Schoepp meanwhile had the daunting task of following his grand, underrated and powerful album from 2016, Rangers & Valentines. Instead of going bigger, he narrowed his focus onto a single concept. With seven songs based on the renowned Bay Beach Amusement Park, including Elvis’s favourite ride The Zippin’ Pippin, this mini-album allowed Trapper’s brass-bolstered Americana to tumble, roll, fly and swoop with his insatiable appetite for pop melodies and steeping his songs in nostalgia without condemning them to any particular era - a timeless quality which will extend to his next set of songs.
What’s to come
Perhaps the most thrilling part of any year is teasing you with what’s next. We were lucky enough to have plenty to tempt you with ahead of 2018. Get Cape’s forthcoming new album we’ve already mentioned, but we also gave you a couple of tracks by Ducking Punches from their next album Alamort, and your first listens to gorgeous songs taken from Will Varley’s highly-anticipated follow up to Kingsdown Sundown.
As these are absolutely going to be among each artists’ best, it’s really lovely to see the reactions on social media and anticipate the eager listening on release day. For me, trying to choose between the live acoustic version or full-band studio version (links to Spotify) of ‘Sobriety’ by Ducking Punches has been a delightful dilemma, while the Shy FX-produced ‘Always’ by Get Cape has been affixed to my inner-ear jukebox since hearing it back in November. The shocking explosion of synth-pop from The RPMs since augmenting their lineup and refining their formula with ‘Your Ghost’ certainly peaked my interest too. Will Varley’s next album, which I’ve been able to listen to, is a monolith laying shadow upon most of his peers, and ‘All Those Stars’ (links to Spotify) is a disarming introduction leaving just enough to your imagination while bringing you a hazy, campfire warmth that hints at the bonfire of melodies on Spirit of Minnie.
Of course some of these might appear on our inevitable 2018 roundup, but that’s fine and you’ll understand (and hopefully agree) that duplication is warranted with such quality to come.
Well, what were your Xtra Mile 2017 highlights? As always, you can tell us at our Twitter @Xtra_Mile or Facebook. Perhaps tag us in an Instagram post (@xtramilerecordings) about your favourite 2017 moments. We're cool with that. And what are you most looking forward to in 2018? Tell us and we'll be happy to enthuse along with you.