It’s no exaggeration to say that Alan Tyler has probably done more than just about anyone in the UK to keep the torch of americana music burning since the early ’90s. Alan and Steve Pulford of the Arlenes got some richly deserved recognition at the Americana Music Awards in January when they were awarded the new Grass Roots Award for hosting the ‘Come Down And Meet The Folks’ (CDAMTF) club that has been the undoubted beating heart of the scene for around 22 years now.
Alan is the mainstay behind CDAMTF, a Sunday afternoon session featuring country, americana, bluegrass, blues, folk and pub-rock acts, guest spots and DJs. CDAMTF has taken place at a number of different venues during its time, and it sounds like another enforced hiatus is in the offing (hopefully a brief one), seeing as the arrangement with current establishment, the Horseshoe pub in Farringdon, is set to come to an end. However, I understand that efforts are being made to secure alternative premises in time for August.
Alan Tyler is more properly regarded as the lead singer of the English country outfit, the Rockingbirds. Music critic David Quantick once said of the band that they’d written 3 of the best country songs in the last 40 years. He has also released albums with the Lost Sons Of Littlefield, the trio – the Alan Tyler Show – and as a solo artist. ‘El Tapado’ is his latest album, released in January 2018 by Hanky Panky Records based in Spain.
Written and recorded on an OP-1 programmable synthesiser, and then completed at Sean Read of the Rockingbirds’ Famous Times studio, the album represents something of a departure in terms of its sound, having been described as “post truth melancholia with electro hooks and country harmonies.” The record features Alan, Sean Read, Patrick Ralla (who has enjoyed success recently with the Hanging Stars) and Angie Gannon of the Magic Numbers.
While much has been made of the modest use of synthesiser on ‘El Tapado,’ it’s still recognisably an Alan Tyler album, and one whose well crafted songs and personal insights reward the listener with repeated listening. It’s also a record that Alan is justifiably proud of.
Mark Underwood of Americana UK caught up with Alan to discuss the album, Donald Trump and identity, among other things.
You’re signed to Hanky Panky records now, who are based in Bilbao, Spain. How that did come about?
Hanky Panky contacted me back in 2004. They were Rockingbirds fans who wanted to know if I had anything they could release. Up to then, they had just done short run re-releases of obscure classics.They had recently re-released the early ’70s solo albums by Pete Dello and Colin Hare (who together were The Honeybus) – they sent me copies – and I absolutely loved both records. So I thought – these guys know their stuff, and on their label I’ll be in company that flatters me. I had two albums in the can at that time, and they released them both (‘Alan Tyler & The Lost Sons of Littlefield ’and ‘So Far.’) ‘El Tapado’ is the fourth album of mine they’ve put out. It’s been a nice working relationship and I’ve been out to Spain to tour a number of times with different outfits which has been great. Inaki at Hanky Panky helped me translate some of the lyrics of ‘Going Back to Mexico’ into Spanish.
How do think using the new technology on ‘El Tapado’ has influenced your approach to writing and recording?
All the drums and synth parts are programmed, played and recorded by me on a little OP-1 synthesiser. Consequently, apart from giving the record a distinctly electronic sound, it kept everything simple and repetitive, which I like. The trouble with real musicians sometimes is they get bored and start mucking about; they won’t play the same thing over and over, so that has been avoided this time round. The technology enabled me to craft the arrangements on my own, and only at the end of the process did I bring it to Sean Read’s studio where we added vocals, acoustic guitars (myself with Patrick Ralla doing the fancier guitar stuff) and production embellishments from Sean.
I’ve read a number of different translations of ‘El Tapado,’ such as “the covered up” or “the hidden.” I also understand it refers to a real historical figure, a mysterious marques who arrived in New Spain in the late 17th century, claiming to be visitor general and governor of the colony, later executed for being in league with pirates. Was any of this inspiration for ‘El Tapado’ or did the album title have different origins?
I was thinking of album titles and the idea of “Dark Horse” came up; I have been described as a dark horse before. It is not a description that I feel very comfortable with as it suggests a certain secrecy, subterfuge perhaps, but my discomfiture with the description is probably because there is something in it – an uncomfortable truth. I probably am a fairly unspectacular personality who seeks to surprise and impress people by coming up with things that go beyond their expectations. When making ‘El Tapado’ I kept the project very close to my chest – as I say, I did most of the work, programming, writing, on my own – I didn’t try out any songs live or anything. I am not perhaps a great team player. I tend to prefer to work on my ideas in isolation, and then bring things to the table when they are all worked out and reveal all..
I started writing and recording the album around November 2016, as Trump was being elected. Like lots of people, I took this event very much to heart. I was devastated that such a lying, ignorant ass could be elected, that it was all in plain sight but so many people didn’t care. The song ‘Shattered’ was a response to that…
Anyway, I thought of “Dark Horse” as an album title, but that’s a bit lame, and it’s been done before, so, with our Spanish connections, I looked up the Spanish translation of it, and up popped “tapado,” and El Tapado, the historic figure you mention. So “tapado” means “hidden,” covered” etc, but it also means, in South American street slang, “dumb ass,” “dumb fuck,” which really chimed with me, because at the heart of what I think the album is about – “post truth melancholia with electro hooks and country harmonies” – is a character in revolt at a 21st century where the values of truth and meaning are becoming lost, by both the right AND the left, and who is isolated and politically homeless, who wants to kick against the pricks, to make a stand, but who also shares in the folly and delusion that he wants to challenge. So El Tapado is a man of obscure depths who works alone in semi-secret; a dark horse; possibly a spy; a dissenter; a threat; but also possibly, and more likely, quite powerless and insignificant, a bit of an idiot; a deluded fool.
The ‘superhero’ cape that you wear performing songs from ‘El Tapado’ on stage. What’s that all about?
Following on from what I’ve just said, it’s intended to be an unassuming individual who has a secret identity and takes on the world. Or a masked wrestler whose true identity is secret, and who takes part in a combat which is both dangerous and fake, and where the outcomes are not really in his power. It’s absurdist stuff. Wearing a silver cape he tries to confront the madness of the world, but only succeeds in making a spectacle of his own foolishness. More prosaically, the cape represents a new identity, the move from americana into electronica – something distinctly un-rootsy. It is also a bid to be SEEN, an attempt to cease to be invisible, to be heard – or at least noticed!
I read an interview with Sean Read some time ago in which he said, “Country doesn’t mean country, as in the sticks anymore. It’s an attitude. It’s also a form of escapism. Music can make you nostalgic for places you’ve never been or things you’ve never done.” Was that sort of attitude part of the inspiration for a song like ‘Going Back to Mexico’ on the new record – or as I think you might have suggested – is it more prosaically just a song about kids refusing to flee the nest or returning home?
It is interesting you see the song as potentially about a youngster unable to leave home. I imagined it as an older, more middle aged person, who’s run out of options. The song is about homelessness anyway. A lot of country music is about a lost home, or a lost place of origin. It’s nostalgic. About being lost in the modern world and yearning for something more rural, or more real, more human, or more meaningful. ‘Going Back To Mexico’ switches that around; it’s about people seeking a new world and new opportunities, following dreams, and then finding the reality is unrealistic and unwelcoming, and being forced back.
The songs on ‘El Tapado’ appear to be fairly personal reflections – the words ‘rueful’ and ‘reflective’ spring to mind. Was that a conscious decision on your part of just a natural evolution while you were writing?
After what I’ve said about what I think the album is about, it is quite funny and ironic that you see it as a set of rueful personal reflections. There I am thinking that ‘Shattered’ and ‘I Don’t Dream’ are cries of despair or protest at a world where meaning is falling apart, and what you hear are some fairly standard singer-songwritery numbers. That’s very El Tapado i.e. it’s Tapado’s delusion. To be fair, there are a fair few “relationship songs”, like ‘I Will’ and ‘My Heart Was Always Wrong.’ I am trying to depict people who are hanging on to what they have, and to each other, in a world which is increasingly insecure and irrational.
You’ve always had a keen interest in social history, particularly on songs like ‘Down on Deptford Creek,’ ‘Middle Saxon Town,’ ‘Essex Girl,’ and ‘Fields Beneath Our Feet,’ which all have a real sense of place. Does that come from your own sense of changes taking place around you – or is it perhaps inspired in a more literary way?
I don’t have much of an answer to that. Those are all songs about interesting places I have lived in, or in the case of ‘Essex Girl,’ been to, and formed an affinity with. Each place seems worthy of a song, so I write them. It’s fairly uncomplicated stuff. I’m not into psychogeographical literature and all that, it’s way over my head. I love WG Sebald though, ‘The Rings Of Saturn’ and ‘Austerlitz,’ but I don’t see how I could claim Sebald as an “influence”.
Do you have a general approach to the way you go about writing songs and lyrics?
Most commonly I start with a song title. If I have what I think is a good song title, then I can usually write the song.
If your songs are a mixture of autobiographical songwriting and narrative storytelling, do you find the sense of distance in the latter to be helpful, or does it perhaps make it more difficult to tap into emotionally?
My songs are not autobiographical; I deny it!
How did you feel when you were announced as the first winners of the Grassroots award back in November last year?
It was nice for me and Big Steve to get that recognition for keeping Come Down & Meet The Folks going for so long.
Going some way back, I understand you were once a philosophy student, tap dancer and bookies runner. How did you come to get into the music business?
By the beginning of the ’80s I had got bored with rock/indie/new wave music, and got into jazz, soul and classic songwriting. At that time I made money tap dancing in tube stations, until my legs, feet and ankles gave out from dancing on hard stone floors. I decided to become a student, because in those days you could get a full grant and it was a way of subsisting. I lived in North London in cheap short life housing co-ops and just decided to go somewhere local, and without much thought selected Philosophy as a degree subject which I studied at North London Polytechnic in Kentish Town. I enjoyed it – philosophy is a rewarding subject, more than I thought it would be. I wasn’t a bookies runner; as a student I worked part time on the till in a chain of independent betting shops, Hector McDonalds, which dominated the high streets of North London back then, but were later taken over by Ladbrokes. While I was doing my degree, I made a friend, an older guy, who was into country, Gram Parsons, Guy Clark etc. He was like a mentor and made me mix tapes etc. When I finished my degree, I started writing songs and formed a band. Then I moved into a big house in Camden where there was a thriving music scene at the end of the ’80s and I met Andy Hackett at the Falcon and we got the Rockingbirds properly going, and then we got a proper set together and Heavenly signed us and it all started to happen…
We all know that the business model for recorded music is incredibly challenging and the same appears increasingly the case in the live domain. Are there still reasons to be optimistic about roots and americana music as we move forward into the 21st century?
I don’t know. To be honest I feel less and less invested in the whole americana/roots thing. I think it’s for other people to take forward now.
Do you have any immediate plans for the future? Is there any more recorded music in the offing?
Before ‘El Tapado’ I did my ‘William Blake’s Songs of Innocence’ album, which I put out on Youtube. The whole set of 18 poems in their entirety set to music, in an americana/folk style. Not released on CD or anything. I am very proud of it. We may perform it live again – possibly in October:
I aim to do a similar album for Blake’s “Songs Of Experience” – I have made some progress with this, taking the OP-1 electronic approach, but I still have a long way to go to complete this. My next album will be called ‘A Peasant’s Revolt.’ I have all the song titles, but none of them are written yet. It will be completely electronic, no guitars, sung by robots.
‘El Tapado’ is available from usual outlets on the Hanky Panky record label