I first heard a few tracks from Bill Fever when I was helping out with the Lights and Lines album-writing competition last April, and I was immediately struck by his clear vocals and trippy liquid synth lines. The EP that resulted from that competition, III Weights, is now available and more than delivers on the promise of the tracks I heard in the workshopping phase of the project. The lead single from the EP, “I Could Be King,” has a bouncy beat reminiscent of New Order and MGMT, a languid vocal delivery that calls to mind Phoenix, and guitars that call to mind the Cure.
The credits on your EP list you as performing vocals, guitar, and bass, but I don’t see a credit for synthesizers. Are you playing synths as well? Or am I actually hearing guitars through some wild effects pedals?
Good spot! I’ll update the Bandcamp info straight away! The synths are me too, I have been known to put guitars through some silly pedals, but there are a bunch of synths on this EP. Like my first two EPs, all instruments are played by me except the drums – all my EPs feature the amazing drummer Joe Montague – he’s so great to work with, a lovely guy and I’m always over the moon when he puts the drums down for me and this time I also had Laurence Wilkins play the trumpets on the EPs closing track ‘What About The Kids?’ which I really loved.
One thing that strikes me about “I Could Be King” is the timing, with Charles III ascending to the throne in the wake of Elizabeth II’s passing. In that context, references to the “jumbled mess of fears and doubts” can read like a fairly sympathetic nod to the more human elements of a figure who is often depicted as stiff and out of touch. Or have I just been watching the latest season of The Crown for too long?
The timing struck me too! When I wrote this back in May, before the Queen’s death, I wasn’t really thinking too much about the monarchy. When I write songs I’ll sometimes give them a working title when they first appear, a word or two that spring to mind to either act as something to differentiate ideas or act as springboard for song lyric writing. For this song it was ‘King.’
The month of May coincides with Mental Health Awareness week in the UK and I decided to write songs about things that have affected me or people close to me. ‘I Could Be King’ is about the feeling of imposter syndrome and the ups and downs of confidence issues, about feeling worthy, anxieties… the song itself I wanted to have ups and downs – the chorus is an optimistic ‘I believe it now, it could be me…’ the verses are the doubts creeping in and the end of the song was intended to be a spiral starting off positive, crashing down into worries and doubts again.
My feelings towards the monarchy are summed up with a little dig in the lyrics: ‘A real one wouldn’t feel this way.’ I didn’t at the time of writing imagine a real King would have the same feelings of self doubt. I get the impression our new King feels entitled, worthy and I had naively imagined that there might have been a conversation about the future of the monarchy once the Queen did pass away. But it was just business as usual, no messing, here’s our new stiff and out of touch King to rule over us. I personally don’t feel as though we should have a royal family anymore and I really don’t like the concept of flag waving, empire, ruling over people – it just all feels wrong. So back to your point on timing, I had intended to release the EP earlier, but when the Queen died I just thought it’d be best to push the release back a bit. Despite my thoughts on the monarchy, this song wasn’t really about them and thought it might be read as either insensitive, too soon etc. here we are anyway!
Your latest EP is called III Weights. It’s your third musical outing, but I suspect there’s more to that with respect to including “three.” Can you talk a little bit about the title?
My first two EPs were very political in their content and I was keen to write something more personal addressing different subject matters. The ‘iii’ Roman numerals – I’m using the ‘I’ as first-person pronoun to refer to me, me, me as I write about more personal things. ‘Weights’ was a key idea/recurring theme that kept coming to me as I wrote the lyrics back in May – looking at mental health being a weight, or burden that we all have to carry. Different people carry different weights at different times in their lives. Sometimes we don’t feel the weight at all, at other times the weight can be so much we can struggle to function. I use the idea of ‘weight’ balanced with the homophone ‘wait’. Thinking about the need to allow time and be patient with ourselves and others as we deal with these weights.
A couple of months have passed since you entered III Weights into the Lights and Lines Album Writing Competition. How has the project evolved in that time?
The finished EP isn’t wildly different from where I left it towards the end of May. I wanted to leave it with the ‘I did this within the space of a month’ spirit of the Album Writing Club. I lost my voice towards the end of the month due to illness so I re-recorded the verses to a song called ‘Tetramino’ and tweaked the structure a little on that one to have a more impact upfront. At the point of entering my handiwork in to the Lights & Lines Album Writing Club I wasn’t particularly happy with where I’d got to with the mixes at that stage. I had to down tools early on the mixing in May as one of my wife’s best friends tragically died. It was really weird going from intensely working on something for a few weeks to ditching it completely because bigger life events happen. I had a weird feeling about the EP for a while but after a couple of months I got back into it, spent more time on a few overdubs, finished the mixing and this time got someone else to master it for me. My first two EPs I mastered myself, but wanted to try and see what difference getting someone else involved would make and also to give it the final push over the finish line. I can be guilty of the endless tweak when it comes to mixing and mastering! I used a guy called Philip Marsden and I’m really pleased with the end result.
Along similar lines, what was the experience of participating in that competition like? What did you get out of it, and would you recommend it to others if Mike Five decides to do another one next year? And to that point, would you participate again?
It was a bit intense, but I really enjoyed the experience. I’d never done anything like it before and I was really keen to push myself and see what I could do within a month. I found myself getting into a weird, hugely prolific mindset, with it becoming quite hard to focus (something I struggle with) as ideas for songs and EP concepts kept coming. If I had the time I probably would have made another couple of EPs! For example, in my local area at the start of May, I went on a march to protest about the council’s decision to destroy local woodland and wild flower meadows to make way for storage warehouses. I found myself going on a deep dive on the history of the local area, writing lyrics about a peasants revolt, landowners helping themselves to the common land – a whole concept album of political folk protest songs that had to be sidelined! I kept having to tell myself to focus on a theme or an idea, pick the strongest 4-5 songs and manage time efficiently through the month. As I work and have two small children, I didn’t have the leisure to experiment or dawdle, with only a couple of hours an evening I had to reign things in and be a bit more disciplined than usual. I really would encourage other artists to try it for themselves, there’s really nothing like a deadline to help get shit done!
I certainly think I’d like to take some time off work (easier said than done!) and try and recapture the songwriting mindset I found myself in during the competition and if it’s on again next time I’ll definitely be involved in one way or another. I think next time I might either offer my musical services out to others with collaborations or perhaps try a new musical outlet / sound under a different name. It all depends on the progress of the next Bill Fever chapter.
A little while back, you posted on Twitter that you were feeling grumpy in response to all of the hoopla following Spotify’s “2022 Wrapped” blitz and the related “Instafest” meme that was all the rage for about a minute. Care to elaborate? And feel free to rant!
I was mostly feeling grumpy for other reasons. I was ill at the time and thought I might miss out on seeing First Aid Kit live in Cambridge and didn’t quite have the energy to wade in in the Spotify debate, but well, *rolls up sleeves* since you’ve asked…
Fuck Spotify, man. They’re bastards. It’s a classic case of a huge company exploiting people – in this case musicians. Aside from the simple point that they don’t pay artists enough, it was a couple of political things in quick succession that really turned me against them – Spotify taking the side of Joe Rogan over Neil Young, and then finding out about Daniel Ek’s shady investments into warfare. Fuck that for a game of soldiers. I hate the concept of treating music as ‘content’ that artists are just expected to churn out to feed Spotify’s algorithms and profits. I don’t like that about streaming in general, treating music as something throw away disposable, intangible. People can just pay £10 a month for all the music ever made. I can see why we do it, £10 for everything – it’s a pretty good deal as a consumer. But how much of that goes to the artists you love? That deal, I imagine, is all many music lovers spend on music – a subscription that largely goes to Spotify shareholders and the bigger record companies.
I personally still buy physical music CDs, I’ve started going to live shows again, I buy merch when I can afford to, because I both like these things and know it’s important if I want these artists to keep making the music I love. But I understand that times are hard for many people financially at the moment, so expecting everyone to support music the old fashioned way maybe isn’t realistic or fair. That’s why I think it’s so important that there needs to be a push to get the streaming companies to be more fair in their payments. Tom Gray (ex Gomez musician now chair of the Ivors and other music biz things) has been doing a great job of highlighting the problem and campaigning for change with the #BrokenRecord campaign, but how much awareness of the problem there is with the wider music fan, I don’t know.
For a start, streaming companies need to cough up more money to artists, but also I think it’s only fair that the shares of money should go directly to the artists you’ve actually listened to. If I listen to nothing but Richard Dawson all month, my money is again, most likely largely going to the big record labels and Spotify shareholders rather than to Richard Dawson.
So many artists that should be able to, can’t afford to do music full time – streaming should be helping support artists bolster their income when things like touring are hard. It seems like everything is a struggle for artists nowadays and I just feel as though musicians are being fucked over so much, from all different angles, with vultures everywhere trying to profit off of a group of people who more than likely don’t have a lot of cash. Pay to play. Pay to playlist. Pay for review. Pay for consideration. Venue cuts on merch. Profiting off musicians ambitions and aspirations. That’s what Spotify and streaming do, profit wildly off the back of musicians talents.
I’m obviously a massive hypocrite: I use Apple Music for convenience (I’ve just switched over from Tidal), because as much as I dislike streaming, it’s well… convenient, but as I said, I do try and buy physical when I can. And yes my music is on Spotify – I feel like an emerging artist needs to have their music in every possible outlet for fear of missing on any potential fans, who might only use Spotify.
Just to bring the last two threads together, what are people like Mike Five doing right when it comes to independent music, as opposed to what streaming services like Spotify are doing?
Mike is bloody great. What a dude. One of the good guys and he’s doing loads right! It’s clear to see his passion for supporting new and independent artists – obviously he’s championing a bunch of talented musicians on his Lights & Lines label, supporting grass roots music, trying to nurture and create a community around his label too. You can tell he cares and his heart is in the right place, not about making maximum profits. Doing everything for the love of music. That really came across from when I first stumbled across the New Music Saturday podcast he does with another awesome dude – Dr Bones. That in itself is a big commitment, a weekly epic podcast supporting new music is just really amazing. I think that’s what it’s all about – supporting the underground, giving a voice to independent artists, encouraging those voices and talents. I really admire and respect that, especially in an industry where I feel like there’s so many people out there to try and shaft musicians.
In that context, what keeps you going as an artist?
I think it’s just who I am. I am a musician. I will continue to create, play and make music regardless of who listens and how many people listen. It’s what I have to do and what makes me, me. If I’m not playing or writing, it affects my mental health – so again, it’s just something I have to do. I know certainly last year, working on my first EP helped me feel like I was taking control when feeling otherwise powerless in the world. Music can act as a powerful outlet for me to express things and I just want to share that with people. If people who discover it enjoy it and connect along the way that’s always a bonus!
Can you recommend any other underground artists who are doing something similar to what you’re doing?
I’m not sure about similar sounding, but there are few acts with a similar political message. Amongst The Pigeons – Mr D Parsons’ album Silence Will Be Assumed As Acceptance came out a similar time as my first EP – Daniel’s very political and produces brilliant electronic music, really great. Gozer Goodspeed is a talented modern blues musician – his last single was all about not being silent, letting no one stand in your way. Kiffie is a highly prolific (which is an understatement) solo artist, putting out a message of positivity, but is also often making important political statements with his music. For example he’s got a charity single out at the moment raising funds for a homeless charity.
What’s on the horizon for you?
In 2023 I will be continuing to work on a debut album and live shows. I wanted to experiment with my sound across my first 3 EPs, explore what I can do as an artist, what I wanted to say. I want my first album to channel the best of what I did in these EPs and push harder for the absolute best I can do. Alongside that, I’m hunting for local musicians to help me play gigs and aim for festivals. No luck yet on that front yet – the search continues!