A Bit More Little Barrie

August 12, 2012

Virgil Howe, Barrie Cadogan, Lewis Wharton: photo courtesy of Greengab PR

My piece on Little Barrie in today's Sunday Times Culture section had to be cut to fit a smaller space than originally planned. Here's the full-length version:

"It takes me a long time to do things, but I'll do them 'til they're finished," says Barrie Cadogan. The man Edwyn Collins has called "the best guitarist of his generation" is trying to explain how the minimalist funk-soul-blues-rock three-piece that bears his name, Little Barrie, have managed to survive and thrive despite what appears a fairly meagre output of three albums in 13 years.

"Sometimes, out of necessity, you have to do other things," Cadogan shrugs, nonchalantly addressing his parallel career as guitarist-by-appointment to a swathe of rock aristocracy. "It's weird, though. We had a lot of friends who were in bands, and while we were going on at our pace, it looked like they were doing so much better. But for a lot of 'em it didn't work out so good - and we're still here."

At long last, things are starting to happen for Little Barrie. Today's interview, in Cadogan's Clerkenwell local, marks the first time he, bass player Lewis Wharton and drummer Virgil Howe have been in the same room since returning from a six-week US tour. They'd been promoting the third Little Barrie LP, King of the Waves, which was released first in Japan (where Rolling Stone gave the band an eight-page feature), then in Britain last year, and came out in the States this February. Its first single, Surf Hell, became the theme for the Channel 4 comedy Sirens and is being used in a TV ad for Rimmel mascara. [Since this piece was written, Surf Hell has also seen active duty during the BBC's Olympics coverage - AB] The steps are small, but vital.

"You realise how precious it is to get given those opportunities to make the music that you want to make," Wharton says. "And you want to keep on doing it while you can, because ultimately that's what you're here for."

Yet sustaining momentum will be tricky. Cadogan often has to put Little Barrie on hiatus while he tours the globe with the likes of Morrissey or Primal Scream; the band has had to squeeze its studio sessions in to a schedule that's seen him recording with everyone from Paul Weller to the Chemical Brothers.

"I've learned so much from them," Cadogan says of his most recent 'clients', Primal Scream (he remains part of their touring set-up and has contributed to their next LP). "Just the way they work, and the way they combine their influences to make something their own. They're a brutally powerful live act, and it's great to be a part of. And they're survivors: they're still doin' it because they work really hard at it and they want to be good."

It's easy to hear why so many musicians have felt Cadogan could add to their art: while he's more than capable of filling every bar with baroque curlicues and flashy technique, his greatest asset is restraint. He only plays what's needed, leaving space inside the sound to let the songs breathe.

"I think music trips up when it sounds too complex," he says. "It's not about technical ability: some good music is played really simply. When things get too technical there's no spirit."   Crucially, it's a philosophy his bandmates share.

"Individually, we're not precious about our parts," says Howe, the son of Yes and Asia guitarist Steve. "Maybe I won't even play on the verse, then come in for the chorus. If it'll make the song better, I'll change anything."

Little Barrie's songs - vibrant, melodic, rootsy, sparse - are written according to the same less-is-more ethos. Oblique, inscrutable lyrics hint at themes and subjects rather than drawing them sharply. Explanation is scant: in the title track from King of the Waves the lyric starts as if resuming an earlier conversation. Often, the words seem like a series of clues designed to allow the careful listener to unlock a song's mysteries. It is a technique Cadogan isn't entirely able to explain.

"I'm definitely not well-read or well-educated or anything like that, and I haven't really studied how other people write songs," he says. "I don't set out to make things deliberately cryptic: you just write how you can write. If you start forcing it in another direction, it won't work - so you just try and do as much as you can with what comes naturally, I think."

Cadogan set these slowly turning wheels in motion at the end of the last century in his native Nottingham, when he wrote and recorded a single - Shrug Off Love - and put it out under that self-deprecating moniker. A friend, Wayne Fullwood, taught himself drums so that Barrie could play the shuffling, soulful, inherently blues-based songs live: Wharton, originally from Portsmouth, talked his way into the band after buying the record.

Moving to London, Cadogan got a job in a Denmark Street guitar shop to help make ends meet between infrequent releases and gigs. Johnny Marr heard him play while considering a purchase, and tapped Barrie for studio work. Primal Scream's Andrew Innes and Gillespie were also customers, sparking a friendship that led, via an afternoon strumming an acoustic guitar in Gillespie's Crouch End kitchen, to the invitation to join them on the road. 

The group also met Edwyn Collins, who shared their love of vintage analogue recording equipment, and their first LP - the 2005 collection We Are Little Barrie, filled with shimmering melodies, relaxed playing and slinky, tightly precise rhythmatics - was recorded in his Hampstead studio. A tauter, slightly colder follow-up, Stand Your Ground, resulted from a collaboration with hip hop producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura: following Fullwood's amicable departure, most of the drum parts were played by Russell Simins of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Howe joined in 2008, just as Little Barrie were about to back the actress (and former Miss France) Mareva Galanter on an album. It was an unusual entree into a decidedly idiosyncratic band. "The first couple of gigs were in ski resorts," the drummer chuckles.

Wharton light-heartedly but accurately describes the trio as "record collectors and geeks about music history," and they are all some-time DJs. The bassist is an accomplished graphic designer and has written about motorcycle racing; Howe makes electronic music under the name Sparo. The breadth of their interests keeps their sound from becoming stale.

"Rock music went wrong when it was only influenced by rock music," says Cadogan. "All those great drummers from the early rock groups - your Charlie Wattses or Mitch Mitchells or John Bonhams - they all learned from jazz, so they had more swing in their music which projected into what they did."

They may have lost any chance to become overnight sensations, but the decade-plus of groundwork means that the band's future will rest on sturdy foundations.

"Really, the plan is to try and get as self-sufficient as possible, and do as many things as we'd like to tick off the list as possible," says Wharton.

"I want to keep our options open," Cadogan smiles, caution and experience tempering his evident excitement. "I think, the way the group is now, we've got scope to do a lot of stuff as long as we don't spread ourselves too thin. We're only just seeing what we can really do with this."

[the published version is available at this link.]


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