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Heroes & Friends
SHATTERING THE GLASS – THE RED PROPELLERS

Richard Treece in Sweden (photo: Frida Jorup)

Back in the summer our good pal, poet, writer, musician & all-round hipster Jeff Cloves (who wrote the Ginger poem you can read elsewhere on this site) raved to me about a band he knows based in his adopted home town of Stroud, Glos, the Red Propellers and put me in touch with the group’s leader and singer, James Dick.

James sent me some of the band’s releases and I was bowled over by the freshness and excitement of their music so much so that we are putting on a gig with them in London on 11th November (read more here ****).
The Propellers feed off the goodness of the great mid 70s New York Art Rock scene and are big fans of the (early) Talking Heads, the Pattis Smith Band, Richard Hell nd the Voidoids, Modern Lovers, Television, Heartbreakers and of course the Velvets – their music would have been perfectly at home at Max’s Kansas City or CBGBs back in the day. But what knocks me out is that they sound wholly contemporary and are one of the best guitar rock bands I’ve heard in absolute ages. Talk about edge and memorable tunes!

The quartet have two EPs out on their own imprint longblackcoat, part of John Beecher’s Rollercoaster Records: Images and Reprieve and an exceptionally cool rocking 45 7” imminent of two of their best tunes, ‘Sandi Say’s/’Johnny, Johnny’ out in October

We caught up with James who was happy to tell us all about the Propellers

         • Can you tell me a bit about how you came to end up in Stroud – you’re from Atlanta, GA originally aren’t you?

     I am. I was with Alexandra, my long-time partner and mother of my children, at a dance performance in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta. We overheard two young guys speaking with English accents and went up to them at intermission. They were from Stroud. We started hanging out together and remained friends when we all moved back to England, us to London, where Alex is from, and the two of them back to Stroud. One weekend they invited us out from London to Stroud. A house was available through some of their friends. We took a chance on it and have been in Stroud now nearly thirty years. A town brimming with poets, artists and musicians. A supportive place to get projects like the red propellers off the ground.

         • You mentioned being a street performer?

     I had been part of a theatre group Bread & Puppet Theatre in the state of Vermont. They used giant puppets and stilts. I became quite adept at the stilts and developed a stilt dancing act that I travelled the world with for about five years. One of my favourite photographs is from Camden Town dancing to Patti Smith's Radio Ethiopia at the lock. Fronting the red propellers is pretty much an extension of those performing years. I learned a lot about improvisation.

         • I presume you’ve been writing poetry and lyrics for years – can you tell me a something about what got you started and the writers you like?

I only started writing at the inception of the red propellers five years ago. We needed lyrics for a song and it went from there. I am a long time Bob Dylan fan and the usual associated poets and lyricists. Vic Chesnutt from Athens , Georgia has been a big influence, especially in reflection on being from the American south and using southern vowel intonation when rhyming.

         • The Red Propellers have a bit of history haven’t they – can you tell me a bit about how the band started – you mentioned you wrote songs with a mate in Devon?

     I had been drumming and singing in a band in Stroud and went to visit my friend in Devon David Anslow, who is the urban artist TRXTR. The Tesco riots were happening in Bristol and a mutual friend's son had been arrested. We wrote a song about it. I sang and played drums. David played guitar. A friend of his played bass. We made it into a film and posted it online. When I got back to Stroud I had been kicked out of the band. Over the next year David and I continued writing songs. He encouraged me to give up the drums and just to concentrate on my voice and lyric writing. Eventually we ended up with a collection of songs and brought in the Nash brothers from Bristol, Lee on bass and James on drums. That was five years ago. Presently, James and myself are the only original members. The name the red propellers comes from David and his wife Sarah's art gallery, The Red Propeller Gallery. We were originally going to be the house band playing at openings and the like but were deemed too loud and dark.

         • What’s the line-up of the current band?

     Harry Parkin on bass. James Nash on drums. David 'Mac' McEvoy on guitar. Myself, James Dick on vocals.

         • We’ve talked at length about the band’s influences – there’s a lot of Velvets, Television, Heartbreakers, early Modern Lovers in there but as a singer you’re especially keen on Patti Smith and Jim Morrison of the Doors aren’t you?

     I am. I would add Alan Vega from Suicide. Their influence on me is possibly more apparent live. I use my hands for expression a lot like Patti and hug the microphone a lot like Jim. I usually scream at least once like Alan during a set. The bands you mention though are more inspirations to David, the current guitar player, and myself. We were both fortunate to see most of them early on and they made a lasting impression. Especially, The Patti Smith Group for me. James is a metal fan and plays with a double kick pedal and Harry cites Les Claypool's bass playing in Primus as an inspiration. Somehow it all seems to come together.

         • You mentioned John Coltrane was an influence – on the way you write songs or the way you sing or both?

     John Coltrane when Eric Dolphy was in his band and Albert Ayler even more so. I think more in how the structure of the songs are created through improvisation than a direct influence on the vocal. The others would probably disagree not being fans of discordant jazz to the extent that I am.

        • Can you tell me something about the short film 'Shatter the Glass' done for Pussy Riot - I see it has played a number of UK film festivals?
See the film here: (damnable-iron.com/red_propellers_shatter_the_glass.html)

     I wrote 'shatter the glass' going to Devon one weekend. I kept pulling into motorway services all the way down writing the words on to scraps of paper so I wouldn't forget them. It was pretty much finished by the time I arrived at my destination. As well as documenting the trials and tribulations of Pussy Riot and Vladimir Putin, the song is an attempt at juxtaposing the joyous celebration of the London 2012 Olympic Games with the darkness of the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow, both of which were occurring simultaneously. We recorded it and then about six months later a friend took me to a music venue being built in an old convent outside of Stroud. As soon as I walked in, I knew I wanted to make a film of 'shatter the glass' there. The resemblance of the venue to the cathedral in which Pussy Riot was busted was uncanny. It all came together quite quickly and with very little negotiation we were able to use the venue free of charge for an afternoon. It was our first collaboration with film maker Alasdair Olgilvie. He has continued to film all of our videos. Alasdair filmed the band playing the song live and then edited in footage of Pussy Riot to create a narrative. Through his production company Damnable-Iron Productions the film has done the rounds of Short Film Festivals all over the UK. We had an email from Nadya Tolokno of Pussy Riot thanking us, which was quite special. We continue to play the song in every live set, thus we forget the fragility of freedom of expression and speech.

         • How did the deal with Rollercoaster Records happen? You have your own sub-label don’t you, Long Black Coat?

     John Beecher of Rollercoaster Records was one of the first people I met when moving to Stroud. I used to buy rockabilly cassettes from him. We have been close friends for the last ten years or so. We got to know each other better when I had a bi-weekly radio show and he used to give me a song to play every show. Usually some obscure gem. I have also worked at the shop. There would be no red propeller product if not for John's generosity and support. We created longblackcoat Records together as a subsidiary of Rollercoaster Records solely for the red propellers.

         • Tell me about the 10” which I think was the first RPs’ release and then this year there’s been the CD which includes new songs and the tracks from the vinyl?

     The first release was actually a twelve song cd with a bonus single. Everything was recorded on Garageband except for the drums and bass which were recorded live in the studio. It was then all mixed and mastered in the studio. We have been really fortunate to have access to DB Studios in Stroud and to work with a wizard of an engineer Andrew Butler. There were so many guitars on the first songs it took us a year to figure out how to strip them back and play them live. The images 10" vinyl and the new no reprieve cd were recorded live in the studio with Mac adding a second guitar afterwards. The nine songs with three or four from the first release comprise our current live set.

         • I’m really excited about this 7” 45 you are about to release, ‘Sandi Says’/’Johnny Johnny’ – can you tell us about that?

     Thanks for being excited. We are too. Both songs are from the no reprieve cd. They just seemed the most radio friendly of the nine songs and possibly our favourite mixes. Also both are really fun to play, especially Sandi says with the stops. It should be with us any day now.

         • What plans have you got for the future?

     We are really looking forward to coming to London and playing for you. We are always working on new songs and hope to have at least one ready for London. Once we have the 7" single to hand we will be promoting it with a new film and gigs in Bristol, where we have our largest following.

Nigel Cross
October 2017

Photo credit: Alasdair Ogilvie