So, where did the name ‘Our Man In The Field’ come from?
Well I didn’t want it to sound terrible, and this way no one would know my actual name, or that it was me making this terrible noise (laughing). Another reason I chose something aside from my name was that I see ‘Our Man In The Field’ as an old-fashioned news correspondent. I’ve always been interested in writers like Camus, Steinbeck, and people who were writers as well as journalists. The news has completely changed now; it used to be that the reporter would go to wherever something news-worthy had happened, and often that would be a war-zone or a place of famine, somewhere we all needed to know about. Apart from the fact we all used to trust the news a lot more, I think maybe those reporters had more integrity, so there was perhaps more truth and reporting straightforward facts then there is now; less of an agenda behind whoever was paying for it.
There was something that was always interesting about the way a news reporter might be in some intense situation and keep their cool. There’s a moment when they’re handing back to the studio when they’ve interviewed someone in a scene of a terrible event or conflict, and you just see this sort of momentary change where they’re not going to be able to say what they really think or show that they’re scared, or that they don’t believe what they’ve been told by the person they’re talking to. There’s this split second where you can see it, when you’re looking out for it, and I’m interested in that – how those ‘people in the field’ are trying to tell us what’s going on but they’re bound by the impartiality and integrity that they should have. There are some reporters and people in the media that have that, and one of them is Jon Snow – I actually have a song about him, the news reporter from Channel 4 news.
A serendipitous story; I wrote this song called ‘Somethings Gotta Be Done’ which is about one of the last Israel/Palestine open conflicts, around 2013. He had been to a Palestinian hospital that had been designated as a safe-zone for wounded children. Israel was supposedly going to attack Hezbollah positions in the West-Bank, but that these positions were going to be safe, and then they attacked those places because if they said they were safe, that’s where they would send their guns. But the place they attacked was a children’s hospital, and Jon Snow is there the next day to report it, and it was a pretty horrific story.
There was a particularly unpleasant part where a little girl’s eyes had been injured by shrapnel, and Jon Snow is giving a very straight-forward report. There was a spokesperson for the Israeli military involved in the broadcast, and everything was very ‘exactly as it should be’; asking questions, getting answers, no bias reporting, but they were pretty difficult circumstances. Then Jon Snow made a film with Channel 4’s permission on Youtube basically saying ‘I wasn’t allowed to say this on Channel 4, and I wasn’t allowed to show you these images but have a look. There is no evidence whatsoever of military people here or Hezbollah here that were targeted. It is just a children’s hospital. There are countless dead people, and badly injured people, who were already here because they were very sick, and no evidence that there was a legitimate target’. It was a really moving film, and I wrote that song about that. I sent it to Jon Snow’s agent because I thought I might be able to get him to listen to it and give me a quote for PR purposes. The next day I went to Paris with some friends just for the night, and it happened to be the night of the attacks on the Bataclan.
We were caught right in the middle of that and we had to walk for about 12 hours through Paris in the night. We came quite close to the incident at the Cambodian Restaurant, but luckily we were ok. We got stopped several times by police and had to walk through a hospital which was a really horrific scene; people who had been shot, who were either dead or being treated. But we got back to our hotel, it was about 4/5 in the morning, and Jon Snow’s team were just coming in, checking in to the same hotel we were just coming back to. I found myself at the reception desk next to Jon Snow, and I thought ‘this is too coincidental for me not to say something’. So, I said, “Excuse me, Jon, my name’s Alex. You might get a song sent to you from your agent sometime in the future, and I just wanted to let you know it’s from me and it’s strange seeing you here, so I just wanted to say hello”. Then he pulled his phone out of his pocket and said, “are you ‘Our Man In The Field?”, and I said “yes”. He said, “I’ve been listening to it, it’s a great song! Thanks for sending it”. We then had a chat and a coffee and croissant while he asks what we’d been doing. We had a long chat about that night, and the music and stuff. Then he gave me his card and just said “let’s keep in touch”, so we did a little bit after that and we haven’t done anything with that song. But we did plan, at one point, to record a video with Jon Snow and a bunch of other news reporters, maybe lip-syncing or giving us some of their unused footage, that sort of thing, but Channel 4 did say legally they weren’t allowed to let Jon Snow appear in it in that format. As I haven’t released the song yet, we decided to hold on to it and potentially do something with it in the future. So that’s the Jon Snow/’Our Man In The Field’ story.
It sounds like you’re very drawn by an element of journalism. Over the years, music has acted as a different method of journalism, would you say you act as a music journalist in a way?
Well, I don’t write very many love songs, it’s usually something that’s moved me and I try to be as authentic and as honest as possible with whatever it is that has made me write a song. The first single we put out from this album was called ‘Ever so’ and it’s about the closure of the oldest fire station in London by Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, and what the impact of that had to the people who were losing their jobs. Their vocation was to be a fireman and that had been taken away from them. It was about the human experience, but it was also a comment on how we take those people for granted. I lived in London at the time, and we’d had these attacks and the fire brigade were the first people to be running towards what we already knew was a dangerous situation. If you run towards that, you wouldn’t survive it. It was only a few days after that, that it was happening as if it was ok and we had enough firefighters, or too many so we had to get rid of some. Then the terrible situation happened with Grenfell, and that’s not the only time we were probably short of firefighters but it’s the most recent and highest-profile. That was something that I wanted to write about, and try to express parts of that story that maybe hadn’t been covered by reports. We might see one side of it, but there are other elements that have affected us that we don’t necessarily see literally, but how it happened, what caused those circumstances. One thing will be that we had fewer firefighters than we had 6 years ago.
On the next album, there's a song called ‘Great White Hope’ which I wrote around the time of the Brexit vote. I played Glastonbury festival on my own, and it was great, but the night I played was also the night of the Brexit vote, and when it came in it was just terrible shock that it had happened. I wrote this song, and that phrase ‘Great White Hope’ was starting to creep in British political debate, but I’d heard it in American political debate and I’d often wondered what was meant by it. It comes from the Boxer Jack Johnson, who was the first black heavyweight champion of the world, the first guy to actually be allowed to fight a white fighter, and he won. Up to that point, it was considered that black boxers were inferior and didn’t have a chance against superior white fighters, but he won and defended his title a record number of times. Every time they put another white fighter against him, they called him ‘The Great White Hope’. So it’s quite a racially charged phrase that was being used right up to the Brexit vote, in 2016. Now, I expect that since we’re suddenly very conscious of historical phrases that it wouldn’t be appropriate to use it, but people were using it. Those sorts of things are the things I suppose I’ll always find interesting and write songs about. Those sorts of songs that I write about always come very quickly, in a short space of time. I’ve written some songs in lockdown about lockdown-type subjects, that have come very quickly. Hopefully, some of them are half decent.
Looking at ‘Thin (I Used To Be Bulletproof)’, could you give me some insight into the creative process behind this song?
Yeah, so I wrote this song and was another one that came really quickly. At the time, I didn’t 100% know what or who it was about, I just knew it was about a sense of passing time and understanding things a bit differently as you get older, observing that and how it feels. I realised after I wrote it that it was definitely about my dad and myself and how I was considering things like how he may have when he was my age. My dad died when I was 18, so I never really got a chance to speak to him when I was an adult, but now I’m the same sort of age he was when he died, and it’s interesting to think about those kinds of life choices that you make and the impact it has on how you feel about yourself when you’re a young man, compared to when you’re older. When we were arranging it, it was always pretty reliable, from a performance point-of-view, to play it on the acoustic guitar. That part that I’d written, as I originally playing it just on my own and it has quite a lot of bass and higher notes, so that’s why we kept the acoustic guitar quite prominent. When Henry in the band listened to it he came up with this amazing pedal-steel part, which perfectly fits the feeling that I’m trying to get across with the lyrics, and the type of emotions I feel when I’m singing it. It’s about being at ease with the changes that you recognise, it’s not meant to be upsetting, it’s just an observation.
We recorded this whole album in 3 blocks. We recorded it live, so we had drums, double bass, me on guitar and pedal steel, in one room with as much separation as we could get, and then would record a whole performance. It was really important for me to get the performance that I knew we could get when we play live in the recording, rather than try and do it separately then put it together because it would lose some of its magic as a performance piece. Later on, once we got that recording, Jim, the producer, added the orchestral arrangements to it, and that sound is something I really love. The cello he used is almost like a voice on its own, as is the pedal-steel. The cello has a sort of sad tone to it, but a beautiful tone.
After that creative process, is there something you are looking to channel through your music, that people should perhaps listen out for?
I guess so, with the way we record it, and the way I write it, and the way we edit it, I try and always be as authentic and as honest as possible with what we’re doing. So, I prefer to sing and play the guitar at the same time when recording if I can, because I feel like both elements individually don’t quite feel like a performance when they’re separate; I play better when I’m singing and I sing better when I’m playing the guitar, because I put my whole self into it. What seems to have luckily got through to people so far is that they are real things that I’m writing about, and I’m singing it like I mean it. We really are like a live band, it’s nice to record music but really we want that to be so people listen to it then see us live and think ‘wow this sounds like the record, but better’. There’s no autotune, even if there’s something that’s a fraction out of time, or the pitch may be slightly off at one point. Hopefully, it’s recognised that the performance is there, and we’re not nicking the guitar from another recording, and we’re prepared to accept that it might not be the most perfect performance in terms of timing, but it’s the best in terms of the feel.
Do you think that authenticity is what makes ‘Our Man In The Field’ musically unique?
Maybe. The people I admire, I know some of them definitely do something similar. So we’re following a well-trodden path. I don’t know what our niche is, and I don’t know what corner of the music industry we’ll make our way into. People compare us to other people, so it seems that we’re landing in the place where I would say there are artists I listen to or want to understand more. I hope that it comes across that it is all done- we’re kind of uncompromising with the way we make it, by rejecting that autotune process and going for the best feel that we can get.
Do you think there is something that is missing from the music scene that you look to provide, whether it’s strictly music or production process?
Maybe. It might be something to ask our fanbase, people who have been coming to our shows. We have people who make quite an effort to come to all of our shows, and I have a feeling they would say yeah, that there is something in our music that feels that way. A lot of people understand that we can’t compromise on authenticity, and so there are opportunities that come our way which we have to reject because it doesn’t fit in with the overall plan, which is to be as honest as possible. I don’t want to say anything negative about types of music that I don’t make, or I don’t understand, because I’m sure there is authenticity. I’m older so I’m not going to try and make their own music, and I know there are people within all types of music that are really successful because they are doing it from a very honest and authentic point-of-view, and are doing it because they get the reward from just doing it.
I know what you’re getting at; when people have come across our music on Instagram or Facebook, or even the radio now which is positive, people often send me messages and have said that it’s ages since they’ve found anything like this, or hardly ever hear something that makes them feel like this. I think there is a formula in the mainstream music industry that works, and it dominates the streaming services because its successful and makes money. A large part of that is because it is good, and there because of its merit, not because of record labels. But it does leave less space that maybe isn’t as accessible immediately, or as happy, and requires a different setting. There used to be a lot more commercial stations that are now dominated by perhaps 1 or 2 genres. What’s nice about ‘Thin’ particularly is that it seems to have a broader appeal than I perhaps expected, so it's been put on playlists alongside Bono and Ben Howard, and I love those artists, I listen to them. I was worried it that works, and it dominates the streaming services because it's successful and makes money. A large part of that is because it is good, and there because of its merit, not because of record labels. But it does leave less space that maybe isn’t as accessible immediately, or as happy, and requires a different setting. There used to be a lot more commercial stations that are now dominated by perhaps 1 or 2 genres. What’s nice about ‘Thin’ particularly is that it seems to have a broader appeal than I perhaps expected, so it's been put on playlists alongside Bono and Ben Howard, and I love those artists, I listen to them. I was worried it would be considered a bit too rootsy, a bit too niche.
Do you think it’s that authenticity that draws people to it and elevates its reception, or something else?
It would be great if it was that, and I guess I would have to ask people. I think my band are really good as well, so I know that I could be singing any old thing and everything else would be really well-played. Really, when we were arranging the songs and writing them, the band wrote their own parts, and we made very few changes to what their instincts were doing. Then we went off and polished them. I would listen to the music that those guys’ make, regardless if my music was in it or not, and then hopefully if I’m able to add something with my music and vocals then great.
It sounds like you bounce a lot off of the band, it’s not a solo thing.
Absolutely. We had our first proper tour at the beginning of this year, and it went really well. We found new things in the songs, and became super tight, and ended up playing our last proper gig before lockdown at the Green Note in London. It was the first time we had a queue of people, waiting to see if they could get a cancellation ticket, which was really cool. We knew we could deliver a really good performance, and it's going to take us a little bit of time to get back to that because we kind of earned that on that tour. When I started playing with a band, I was thinking ‘Crickey. I can do these songs on my own, but with a band can I relax, can I play sing it the way I want to sing it?’. By the of that, I was thinking they just support what I’m doing in such a good way where it just fits together. There wasn’t anything I was worrying about, and it gave me the confidence to do it the way I had always wanted to do it. There’s nothing like seeing a band, a bunch of people playing music they’ve created in time with stops, crescendos, all in sync. Even if the music’s crap, if they’re relaxed and enjoying it then it's mesmerising anyway.
We have this loose format to our shows where we play some numbers as a band, and then I’ll play a couple on my own, and gradually people will join in with different instruments, and then we’ll have another section as a big finish as a band. I think it’s important to have an element of theatre and something interesting on stage. I like going to gigs where people swap instruments, or something going on, on stage. So, we try to do that.
To round off, what is something you want people to come away with after listening to something of yours?
What I’d really like is that people have their own interpretations of what the songs are about and apply it to themselves. I really like that. It might not be the same thing I had in my head when I wrote it, but it’s great when people even just have a feeling that they relate to themselves. The feeling may be the same, even if the literal interpretation is different, I like to think on some level, that there is a universal energy that we tap into and everyone can relate to. It’s a reward for me as a songwriter when people tell me that.