sun 14/08/2022

Luke Haines, The Hoxton Pony | reviews, news & interviews

Luke Haines, The Hoxton Pony

Luke Haines, The Hoxton Pony

Britpop's fellow traveller continues along his idiosyncratic path

Luke Haines holds a small cassette player to the microphone, switches it on and the sounds of birds are heard. It’s “Me and the Birds”, one of his new Outsider Music songs. His old Britpop-era band The Auteurs were guitar pop. His next outfit, Baader Meinhof, were edgier, noisier. After that, Black Box Recorder were artier. But this is beyond any of that. He sings of drinking cocktails in the lounge of a Travelodge with the birds he’s heard outside his window. The Suede reunion wasn’t like this.

Although The Auteurs cropped up just before Britpop, Haines was more arch than the aiming-high Blur and quickly distanced himself and the band from any trends that the music press might have fancied lumping them in with. Suede – also just pre-Britpop – were similarly uncategorisable, as were Pulp once they’d reached the public consciousness. Haines’s experiences of the Nineties are detailed hilariously in his book Bad Vibes, which – along with ex-Sleeper front person Louise Weiner’s terrific Different For Girls – is an essential, eye-opening account of the era.

His misanthropy is doled out even-handedly: band members, other bands and himself are on the receiving end. The Auteurs wobbled on and in 1996 he invented Baader Meinhof, a parallel outfit. Then The Auteurs split. Then he formed Black Box Recorder. Since then there’s been a bleed, a constant overlap between everything he's done. He’s recorded solo, reformed Black Box Recorder for intermittent shows and composed the soundtrack for the film adaptation of Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry.

Throughout, he’s revelled in Seventies pop, cast his eye across various forms of social divide and celebrated individuality. Although usually tempered by drollness, he’s a professional miserabilist, part The Fall's Mark E Smith and part The Kinks's Ray Davies.

Allergic to anything predictable, his most recent wheeze was Outsider Music. Last September he issued 50 CDs, each capturing a separate run through of material drawn from a group of new songs. His website said that the "instruments played (sometimes simultaneously) include acoustic guitar, Japanese toy drum machine, bird whistle, TDK C90 cassette tape and squeaky nun dog toy". If you fancied hearing the results, each CD cost £75. That’s 50 times £75 for Haines. The run sold out.

As it cost a bargain £11 to get in, what was advertised as the sole live outing for Outsider Music was going to be most folks' first experience of these songs. It was probably too much to expect that Haines had undergone a Skip Spence or Syd Barrett-type meltdown in 2010, leading to him write the fractured, other-worldly and incoherent music that’s truly that of an outsider. The medium of expression and the subject material of the songs were the outsider elements.

hainesThey had to be. Besuited and perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar, it didn’t look as though there was much beyond “Me and the Birds” that marked this out as what’s thought of as outsider music. No Wesley Willis-style songs about hamburgers, no Jandek-type wonkery. Haines played his acoustic guitar and sang songs. One of which – “Alan Vega Says” – sported a drum machine. His portrait was painted and raffled off after the show, which was a nice touch. But in the end, this was a singer-songwriter singing songs.

The Outsider Music songs are a rum lot. “Angel of the North” takes a pop at sculptor Anthony Gormley for the statue of the title not being big enough. Haines just doesn’t seem to like Gormley. “Enoch Powell” is a measured reflection on getting older and becoming more right wing. The words Enoch Powell had some of the audience laughing uproariously, as though they were a punchline. But there was no joke. With the atmosphere of David Bowie's “Kooks”, “The Art Superheroes” felt like a classic in waiting. “Alan Vega Says” – complete with the drum machine – was a pretty funny account/analysis of a friend of Haines’s (pictured above) encounter with the Suicide front man in New York’s Chelsea Hotel.

Haines described tonight as Outsider Music Volume 51, but he followed the new songs with a bunch of older, familiar material: "Baader Meinhof", "Unsolved Child Murder", "Showgirl" and "Lenny Valentino". The new sat well with the old, raising the inevitable question. In the early Nineties, he was a great hope – yet here he is in a Shoreditch basement. Suede are playing stadia. Pulp are back. Isn’t being a self-described contrarian a bit comfortable – chances look as if they are being taken, but it’s safe playing this small crowd. Haines isn’t taking the big chance, taking the big stages. The new songs cry out for and deserve full arrangements. A band too. So c’mon Luke, make the leap.

Watch the plasticine Luke Haines in the Outsider Music animation

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