TAS Interview: Codeine Velvet Club

by Kara Manning | 04/13/2010 | 8:00am

Codeine Velvet Club

Just over a year ago, Jon Lawler, frontman for Scottish rockers The Fratellis, and his wife's friend, the burlesque club singer Lou Hickey, casually wrote a song together, called "Vanity Kills." That sexy, swinging, irrepressibly retro track, fueled by the duo's mutual admiration for classic Phil Spector production techniques, sparked the two to form a band, Codeine Velvet Club. They eventually recorded an eponymous debut album that came out in the UK late last year and officially dropped in the States last week on Dangerbird Records.

The Alternate Side caught up with Lawler and Hickey at SXSW and although it was the morning after Codeine Velvet Club's debut U.S. appearance at the "Showcasing Scotland" gig, a kinetic, exuberant outing, the Scottish pair were nattily, impeccably dressed - Hickey even took the time to put on pearls, false eyelashes and very crimson lipstick. They were still adjusting to the Austin onslaught of endless performances, the crush of thousands of music fans and constant noise ... and while Hickey was excited to see Hole play, the soft-spoken Lawler seemed more intent on ducking the crowds jamming every venue on Sixth Street in search of a little quiet.

TAS: There's obvious admiration for Phil Spector's production and the Brill Building sound in what you do [with this album], but The Fratellis are nothing like Codeine Velvet Club. Was your desire to create Codeine Velvet Club based in a passion for that kind of [60s era] music?

Jon Lawler: It's all about how you dress it up. Because I'm not even sure how The Fratellis weren't like that. It's how you arrange it ...

Lou Hickey: Orchestrate it.

Jon: Definitely that idea of throwing in as much instrumentally in as you can. And I guess that's the Spector thing, isn't it? Because people talk about the Wall of Sound and nobody's done the Wall of Sound since then. But I've never thought of Wall of Sound as "big," I've just thought of it as getting as many different instruments playing the same thing as possible. If there are four guitar parts, then you get four guitarists in.

TAS: The arrangements for songs like "Hollywood" or "Nevada" are very lush, layered and complicated. Was a lot of thought put into each track?

Jon: It was quite natural. Like in "Nevada," the basic song had been recorded and it was quite intricate and atmospheric, but it didn't have a score yet for it and there was no orchestra for it. I think that was the last song that we scored. And Mick Cooke of Belle and Sebastian had done all of the scores for us.

TAS: Didn't he work on God Help The Girl as well?

Lou: Yeah, I think he did the scores for that as well

Jon: He'd been doing things for Belle and Sebastian and did the Phil [Spector] thing for God Help The Girl and for this. But "Nevada" was one that he hadn't been given any direction for and what he came back with was just what he decided it should be. And it's still my favorite thing to listen to on the record. Just because of that arrangement. It's so beautiful. It was magical.

TAS: The two of you met because, Lou, you knew Jon's wife from work?

Lou: I sing for a big burlesque club back in the UK. It's actually the biggest burlesque club, technically, in the world and Jon's wife [Heather works] for them as well - she's Chelsea Dagger. Heather and I are good friends and she's always been supportive of the stuff I'd done so when she knew I was looking to write with other people she put Jon and me in touch.

TAS: What's it like working in a burlesque club?

Lou: I love it! I grew up watching all of these old Hollywood movies and just wanted to be Marilyn Monroe and now I get paid to wear big dresses and sing my favorite songs. Everyone has these preconceptions of burlesque - there's lots of different styles - but I'm very much in into the classical, glamourous side of it rather than the crazy S&M tangents it goes off in.

TAS: What was the starting point of "Vanity Kills," which was the first song the two of you wrote together? Did you two talk about the styles of music you loved?

Jon: We hadn't even met! It wasn't obvious beforehand that what we did separately would work together. I'd heard a song that Lou had done called "One Man Tango" which I really loved. And I had an idea that sounded in a similar direction to that. Because you've always got little bits of music that you can't use yourself. I've always wondered when I'd get to use these little bits and pieces of music and that's when I sent [Lou] the idea of what would become "Vanity Kills."

TAS: Did you both listen to Darlene Love or The Ronettes?

Jon: Not really.

Lou: I'm still listening to the same stuff I have for years. Buddy Holly is constantly in my CD player. Peggy Lee. Nina Simone.

Jon: It's all just general. If you've got a broad love of music, most kinds of music, and you're sensitive to it, then it's there somewhere. It definitely wasn't a sort of specific thing. Because there's a few songs on the album that aren't of that time. It wasn't meant to be specific.

TAS: You did a terrific cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" during your SXSW "Showcasing Scotland" gig. What other covers have you been doing?

Jon: We have been doing a cover of "I Am The Resurrection" by Stone Roses. It's always about taking a song that you really shouldn't be covering. And we really shouldn't be covering that song! Or "Gimme Shelter" for that matter. We really shouldn't. It's that cheeky side of your head.

TAS: You've been to SXSW with The Fratellis - what has the experience been like with Codeine Velvet Club?

Jon: It's easier this time. Even though we're going to be as busy as we were with The Fratellis, the first time we came it was a bit of a head f**k. I hadn't ever experienced that many people in one place. And the second time around it was a lot more fun and this time is easier. I don't even worry about reactions from an audience. You become detached. You can be playing for thousands of people who think you're great. Or a thousand people begging for your blood. SXSW is loud and I don't do good with noise.

Lou: I tend to not have any expectations because everything can be so overwhelming. It's just amazing to be here. Back home when I was unsigned and doing my own thing, SXSW was always one of the things that bands wanted to go to and it's great to be here. But I'm not very good with crowds, so it was pretty terrifying last night walking down the street!

TAS: Do you think it's harder now for a new band to get traction?

Jon: It's harder now. I'm not sure if it's even harder now than it was two or three years ago. There's too much music in the world.

Lou: And there's also people doing gimmicky things and online campaigns. It does distract from people who are playing great music.

Jon: It can make people apathetic. Too much of anything. Like, I love lasagna, but I couldn't eat it every day (laughs). You just become really sick of lasagna.

TAS: Now you can make the decision to be hedonistic in Austin - or take care of yourself. Has there been any time you've gone on stage having gone a little overboard?

Jon: Oh god, yeah. [The Fratellis] had gone on Conan O'Brien and Max Weinberg was the house band leader. I was sort of excited to do well for Max (laughs). And then we were terrible and we didn't get the chance to redo it, even though it wasn't live. I wasn't in a very good mood. It was during the afternoon and I went off to this whatever [before our night's gig] and didn't turn up until a short time before [the show]and you can imagine what state I was in. Oh. For the encore I told the band not to come on; I was going to go on myself and play. And tried to play 'New York, New York' without knowing how to play it. I didn't realize that whoever was doing press for us at the time had arranged for loads of British press to come see us. But thankfully they were almost as bad as me because they couldn't remember if we were bad or good either. But it wasn't good. It really wasn't.

TAS: If you were to meet Max Weinberg again what would you say to him?

Jon: See I'd like to think that we weren't so bad that he'd remember us. I'm hoping that he doesn't remember at all. I'm hoping that it was mediocre. I'm thinking it was bad.

TAS: A second Codeine Velvet Club album - you're working on it? Yes, no, maybe?

Lou: (laughs) All of the above!

Jon: We will if there's a reason.

Lou: We're waiting to see what the reaction will be and if people will want to hear our music then we'll keep making it. We'll see how it goes.

Jon: We could do.

TAS: It would be a shame if this were a one-off. You're so good as a duo.

Jon: And as a band as well. I definitely have trouble thinking that we won't play these songs again. I wouldn't be that happy.

TAS: When the two of you write, do you pass lyrics back and forth?

Lou: One of us tends to write [the song] and then the other might step in and change the odd word.

Jon: We really don't tend to write together in the same space. I've never done that and I'm not sure I'd know how.

Lou: I think the two of us are used to working independently. I'd feel just too embarrassed. One of our songs, "Time," was written while Jon was touring Australia and I was back in Scotland. I definitely got the raw end of the deal.

Jon: I don't think you did! I remember being in Brisbane at the time and thinking, this is not the place to visit. If you ever get the chance not to visit Brisbane, don't visit. Sorry Brisbane.

TAS: Has been it difficult balancing The Fratellis and Codeine Velvet Club?

Jon: [The Fratellis] weren't really doing anything. I'm not sure what the plan is with that. It's just music to me. Just music I'm involved with, no matter what name you put on it. So that doesn't change my approach.

TAS: The band name of Codeine Velvet Club. Who came up with that? Drunken idea or a sober one?

Lou: A combination of both!

Jon: Toothache and tailors.

Lou: There's energy to it. People always go, 'wah?'

Jon: [Codeine] is an underrated form of relaxation.

Lou: I'm allergic to it. Me and my dad. I always thought it might be an omen, but all's been good so far.

TAS: There's a cinematic quality to your album - if you had the chance to do a soundtrack to any movie from the present or past, what would it be? Or what director would you work with?

Lou: Ooh, that's a great question.

Jon: Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. Or Sofia Coppola.

Lou: I like Tim Burton, but not unless we went a bit more freaky. [Quentin] Tarentino though. I always thought the song "Like A Full Moon" would work in "Kill Bill" or something. It has a dark edge to it.

Jon: I'd also just like to make an album of music. I could come up with music all day. I find writing songs a lot more difficult. Not just sitting down and coming up with musical ideas. I always thought it would be good to make a really exciting album of just music. I wonder what the world would make of that. Imagine if you made a soundtrack to a movie that didn't exist. And that might be something that people have said before. No words, no songs, just pieces of music. I'd like that. You could just do it I guess.

Lou: The next album in the cards for Jon!

Jon: There's lots of bits of music left over from [Codeine Velvet Club] that I'd hate never to use. There's a song that ended up on the American release that I must have wrote over five years ago that was just sitting in a drawer. "Midnight Love Song." And we recorded it not long ago but it was an old song. And I like that. If it's not of it's time at that point, it will be of it's time at some point.

Lou: I think we should do a live album.

Jon: You know, that wouldn't be a bad idea ....

Lou: I like how people say that they love the album, but then after they see us live, they go, 'wow, that's a completely different thing.'

Jon: We've been lucky with the band we've had. I thought we would just play the album and it would be quite controlled and we'd try to be clever. But it didn't take long before the rock 'n' roll tendencies came flooding back and I had to get sweaty.

TAS: Now what about the Phil Spector murder trial?

Lou: You know, that was actually a big topic of conversation while we were recording the album.

Jon: I just wasn't sure what you were meant to think about it.

Lou: Whether we were to like him anymore ...

Jon: Were we allowed to like Phil Spector's albums any more?

TAS: Was the trial going on while you were making the record?

Jon: Yeah, it was going on while I was here as well. I think the day they found him guilty I was in Vegas. I wasn't in a very good mood, anyway, just in general. But if you've read anything about him you know that even back when he was making the music that you love, he was getting more unhinged by the day, wasn't he? Because by then I was listening to the Dion albums he made in the 70s which I really loved, and you knew by that time [Spector] wasn't right. Anyone who gets his wife to drive down the street with a mannequin in the front seat of the car of him so no other man thinks she's single isn't right, is he? And he probably did shoot [Lana Clarkson]. I did wonder at the time about the argument that he had a white suit on but there was no blood on the suit. I did wonder. I've never fired a gun so I don't know. I'm not sure what happens when you point a gun.

TAS: It's funny, because your music does reflect that darker edge. You take that Spector sound, but with that darker undertow.

Jon: Lyrically. It's got some teeth.

TAS: Spector worked with the Beatles and you've said that you were deeply influenced by the Beatles. Is there a favorite song that comes to mind?

Jon: Oh, god, 'Golden Slumbers' maybe? Which is funny because it's not really a Beatles song, is it? It's a bedtime lullaby. But then you can't really have a favorite Beatles song. It's like asking, what's your favorite drink.

TAS: What is your favorite drink?

Jon: Well, there's a lot of drinks at the bar! (all laugh)

Weekdays at Noon

Ticket Giveaways from WFUV