Gigwise, February 2009
They call it the toilet circuit. From Southampton Joiners to Glasgow King Tuts, these intimate and legendary venues are the bedrock of British music, daring any band with a couple of chords and a swagger of self-belief to pass through its musical sewer system. The gigging equivalent of the marine training camp in Full Metal Jacket, if your band has done its dues at the likes of Leicester Princess Charlotte and Newport TJ’s they’ll be fully prepared for all the perils of the music industry: the onslaught of a jaded music journalist or even an inappropriate support slot with the Feeling.
Of course, few make the grade, but of the bands that do always be suspicious when you hear their fond memories of “those slender times that made us the band we are”; chances are they’re saying it while chugging away at a bottle of Moët and whiling away the hours before stage-time in a dressing room the size of Coventry Cathedral.
Full marks then to urban perennials the Rakes, who having finished recording their third album Klang (released on 23 March) in Berlin have dived gleefully head-first back in to the cavernous cellars and Public House back-rooms of the UK and are seemingly revelling in the experience.
“Oh yeah, it’s certainly an experience being back” remarks Alan Donohoe, the Rakes debonair singer, as he casts his eyes around the walls of Cardiff Barfly’s tiny dressing room. “Have you seen the graffiti in here? It’s amazing.” He points to the back of the dressing room door, where a previous bored guitarist or drummer has taken the toilet circuit analogy one step further and scrawled in large black marker three words: Dirty Shitty Things. “It’s everywhere in here. Maybe it’s a specific Cardiff Barfly thing that you have to leave toilet humour versions of band names on the walls? Nine Inch Stains is especially good. The only thing is we’re having trouble thinking of one for us. Maybe we’re so un-risky we can’t think of any toilet humour nicknames for our band? We’re not that clever.”
Amusingly, Alan says those last few words while still holding the Salman Rushdie hardback he’s been reading. Still, just to ensure there’s no danger of such inane toilet humour being a benchmark for musical success, guitarist Matt Swinnerton settles the matter. “Actually I shouldn’t worry. It’s obviously not a band’s privilege to come up with your own toilet humour nickname – it probably has to be bestowed on you by others.”
Later on in a Cardiff drinking hole Alan and Matt mull over their short return to such intimate places – the Rakes will play much larger venues in April – and getting back within spitting distance of their fans. “There’s a great energy from being eyeball to eyeball with everyone, not knowing if there’s going to be a stage invasion or not,” enthuses Alan. “Other than that, yeah, it’s been quite nice to play places we haven’t been much before, like Derby and Darlington.”
Have the Rakes noticed any changes at the venues this time round? “Well, we have hoummos in our dressing room now,” confirms an obviously-pleased Matt. “It’s a luxury in a way – when we first started it would have been some warm beer and a packet of crisps.”
Of course the real reason for the tour is not just a nostalgia trip down memory-gig lane but to gear up for the full tour in April (ending at Koko in London on 29 April) in support of Klang, the Rakes’ third album, and their first recorded outside the UK, specifically in Berlin. Far more urgent and severe than previous outing Ten New Messages, Klang sees the Rakes return to the angular immediacy of their first album, Capture/Release. Somewhat inspired by Bowie’s own relocation to Berlin in the mid 70s the Rakes have upped the jagged swagger of their sound, taking in nods to Iggy Pop and Public Image along the way, all delivered against Alan’s measured and sharp, social observations.
The Rakes have always been drawn to the history and culture of Germany (take the lyrics for Strasbourg for instance: “Eins, zwei, drei, vier / Ideas can change the government / But they never listen to our arguments / On TV our friends smashed cement / And pulled down the bastards’ monuments”), was there really going to be anywhere else they were going to decamp to?
“We’ve always hung out in Berlin when we’ve passed through, hanging out in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg,” says Alan. “There’s just something special about Berlin, especially in the eastern part where we were recording. Everything seems so dimly lit, like the whole city is in a film noir.”
Like Bowie and Iggy in the seventies, Klang feels like it soaked up the ambience of its birthplace, particularly first single, 1989, which perfectly captures the sights, sounds and smells of east Berlin (“Spent the night in Friedrichshain / Where the bars were full in the summertime / Punks were hanging out in the park / Whilst someone practiced electric guitar”).
Recorded in a colossal studio compound called the Funkhaus (the German ‘funk’ translates as ‘radio’) with Les Savy Fav producer Chris Zane, Klang is definitely the Rakes most adventurous album yet, although it’s still very much grounded in their familiar and potent blend of new-wave. Alan agrees. “We wanted to get a bit more experimental and not rely on verse-chorus-verse for the album. So the studio was perfect for that. It has this very long history associated with the GDR, the East German Government, and Erich Honecker, and was used by the GDR to broadcast propaganda. It’s a very imposing place with all these countless rooms and corridors, and yeah, it really allowed us to do what we wanted.”
In light of some of the (unfair) criticism it received, the Rakes last album could have been titled Ten Mixed Messages. With Klang, the Rakes have succeeded in pinning down the promise of Capture/Release – the jostling, angular infection of Rakes’ classics like 22 Grand Job and Strasbourg is very much evident on That’s the Reason and Shackleton in particular – and have emerged from their Berlin experience as imposing as the studio monolith they left behind; leaner, more determined, yet still with that unique and absorbing, affable attribute that sets them apart from so many guitar bands destined to fill the toilet circuit for years to come.
Footnote: On 22 October 2009 the Rakes announced that the band would split with immediate effect, posting a statement on their website: “The Rakes have always been very adamant and proud of the fact that we give 100% to every gig we’ve ever played. If we can’t give it everything then we won’t do it. That was the rule we set ourselves from day one.”
Klang went on to receive some of the best reviews of the the Rakes’ career, including 4 stars in the Guardian and it still remains one of my favourite records this year. Whilst never a band to strike the world on fire, I’m going to miss the itchy, tearing 3 minute songs, stories about mundane life and escapism and Alan Donahue’s loveable, irreverent wit.
Farewell the Rakes. Good luck with the 22 grand job. It’s alright x