London-based singer-songwriter Art Block has, in the space of a few years, released an impressive trove of tunes that run the gamut from bare and minimal to lush and cinematic. Marked by a hypnotic blend of acoustic guitars and electronic instruments, his 2020 EP, The Basement was curated by the sound archives of the British Library and featured on Amazing Radio, international podcasts and music blogs. More recently, Block’s White Horses EP appeared in two editions – one with vocals and one as a purely instrumental that highlights his intricate and moving orchestrations. Curious to learn more about the artist, I reached out with a few questions…
You have an excellent voice! How did you learn to sing?
Thank you! That’s very kind. It was a rather long process, starting from not having a clue how to record my voice properly to having lessons with a French singer, Eve, based in London but now in LA. I just let it all out, errors and all. Gradually I improved although I believe that it’s more interesting to be technically imperfect.
Along similar lines, who are some of your influences in terms of your vocal style?
Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley have been long term inspirations. But maybe there’s a bit of Tom Petty in there somewhere too. I quite like female singers like Sharon van Etten and PJ Harvey too. I guess I should mention Richard Ashcroft too.
I’m also curious about your name. “Art Block” is the perfect name for anyone engaged in creative pursuits. Is it your given name, or is it a stage name? Or is that something you’d rather leave up to your listeners’ imagination?
It’s a stage name which is pretty convenient as people like to call me Art!
You’ve recorded – and released – a lot of music over the past few years. Am I correct that your first offering appeared in 2015? And how many songs have you released since then?
Gosh, I’ve lost count but I think I had over 50 songs released! I’m planning to compile some of them in my debut album in 2023.
Do you see your music evolving over time? If so, how?
Yes, I’ve been lucky to have worked with some amazing musicians and producers. Ian Barter, Amy Winehouse’s former guitarist, really helped with developing my sound adding some retro electronic elements. Another producer, Jay Chakravorty, also incorporated some interesting cinematic type arrangements and I worked with Shuta Shinoda a top rate mixing engineer, originally from Tokyo, who has had Mercury Prize winners. Recently I’ve been co-producing stuff myself with a lot of help from William Robertson who I recorded my acoustic sessions album with in one day at Hackney Road studios! Using synths and mixing with more organic sounds has been quite cool. I had the opportunity on my latest EP to use a Moog One synth which is a very powerful and inspiring instrument.
You cover a lot of territory in your music. As I mentioned in my intro above, there’s some spare acoustic music, but there’s also the lush feel of White Horses. Somewhere in between, I suppose, you manage to sprinkle in some electronic and rock elements as well. What accounts for this variety?
I’ve sort of covered this in my answer above. I enjoy intermingling electronic and more organic elements. My aim is to create music I would like to listen to and rock is very much an influence. But I also have diverse music tastes, so Wu-Tang Clan, Kraftwerk, Sharon Van Etten, Beethoven, Depeche Mode are all in there!
Does the degree of stylistic variety in your music make it difficult to market? I’m thinking about those annoying little boxes artists need to check when they submit their songs to streaming services and music review sites. How do you describe your music, and do you ever think about genre?
That’s a great question. With “The Basement” I wanted to experiment with a more electronic sound and then interspersed it with folkier elements. I definitely found there was a wider audience once you enter the electronic music sphere. Alt-folk is a very narrow and specific genre and definitely harder to market. Then again, some people say I’m “pop” so I never know quite where I stand! I’d like to think of my stuff as in the classic indie alt-rock acoustic tradition ultimately. I think that’s how a promoter once described my live music!
You’ve worked with a wide range of musicians, producers, and engineers. What is your musical network like? How do you meet the kinds of people you work with?
Another brilliant question! I often research the producers who have worked on songs I really like. When I first contacted Ian Barter, it took a year until I had written the songs to work with him and then we did two Eps in a row! I literally just emailed him and then we chatted for a long time about music and it seemed we were on the same page. It’s important to work with producers who are encouraging and allow artists to breathe – Ian has worked with some very big names in music but he is an absolute joy to work with and treats unsigned artists in the same way as those who are signed to major labels. With Jay, again I admired his own music so I just contacted him and he was interested in working with me.
Specifically, folk guitarist Ben Walker produced your EP Borderline. What did he bring to the process?
Ben is an amazing musician to work with. I literally just recorded the acoustic guitar parts and vocals in his house in North London and he did all the rest! I was thinking about reconnecting with him at some stage. In fact, he did some guitar work on Seagulls – we didn’t use it all but there are some subtle segue elements we incorporated.
More recently, you released two version of your White Horses EP. What was behind that decision?
As you say, I like to show off the work that goes behind creating the instrumentation for the songs which I really enjoy. Raphael Bouchara’s drum work for example is superb as is Sandra Brus’s violin parts and some of William Robertson’s intricate acoustic guitar parts. I’d also love to have my music synch licensed one day – although all musicians dream of that!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a couple of more songs to complete my first album in 2023! I’m hoping it will be a fair reflection of my efforts over the years where people can chill over a longer piece of work.
As you likely know, I’m in a band called the Star Crumbles, which consists of me and my friend Brian Lambert. As you also likely know, we have an album coming out on October 7. It was supposed to come out today, but for various reasons, some of which may or may not be alluded to in the following documentary, it had to be delayed just a little bit. The album, by the way, is called The Ghost of Dancing Slow. You can hear snippets of it in the background of said documentary.
Personally, I want to thank everyone who helped out with this project. It all started when Brian came up to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell. It was a hot day, and the line to see the ol’ Bell was long, so I just showed it to him through a window in the building where they keep it. Then I showed him Independence Hall, which is conveniently located across the street from the Liberty Bell.
Amateur historian that I am, I mentioned to Brian that it was pretty perspicacious of them — whoever “they” were — to name the building Independence Hall. I mean, they could have named it anything. Carpenters’ Hall, for example. But, no. Someone, somewhere just knew that something big, something signaling independence would take place in that building, so…
Of course, Brian wasn’t having any of it, so he said something like, “What if we told the story of the Star Crumbles?”
And I said, “Like in a documentary?”
And he said, “That would be cool.”
And I said, “Like these guys should have done.”
I jerked a dismissive thumb over my shoulder to indicate Independence Hall. Why they hadn’t thought to have a camera crew on hand while they made history is beyond me. The looks on all the faces at that tragi-comic moment when the Liberty Bell cracked the first time they rang it would have been priceless! And then when they fixed it and it cracked a second time? Talk about a metaphor!
But that’s neither here nor there. What’s both here and there is me (here) and all of the amazing people who helped with this documentary (there). Also worth noting: If you’re one of them, my “here” is your “there” and vice-versa. Point being that I have a lot of people to thank!
The first person you see in the documentary is Miceal O’Donnell. Miceal (it’s pronunced ME-hall, by the way) and I were roommates in college. We were actually in a band together for a short time. The band was called Animal Boy after the Ramones album. We used to talk about making movies, and that’s what Miceal went on to do. Which explains why his scenes are shot so expertly–and how he slips so naturally into the character of a guy who has better things to do than to talk about the Star Crumbles. Plus his use of props is funny, especially the potato chips he’s eating. It really adds dimension to his character. If you get a chance, check out Miceal’s YouTube channel, especially his explication of the difference between a roof and a ceiling: https://www.youtube.com/c/cagesafe
Next you see Greg Dorchak. I love the way he says “The Star… Crumbles?” as if dredging up a long-lost memory or trying to recall an important detail from an alternate timeline where things played out differently. Getting Greg involved with the project was pure luck. His broth Frank (more on him later) recommended that I reach out to him. Turns out that Greg, like Miceal, knows what he’s doing when it comes to making a film. He’s both starred in and made a few, including Kopy Kings. He’s also the author of a book called How to Pull a Movie Out of Your Ass: Realistic expectations for the first time filmmaker with no budget to speak of.More to the point, the guy’s just hilarious. Listen, for example, to his exquisite timing when he mentions the “considerably smaller vault” where the Star Crumblles’ master tapes are allegedly stored!
The only person from the film that I’ve known longer than Miceal O’Donnell is Timothy Simmons, whom I’ve always known as “Tim” and only recently learned that he prefers “Timothy.” We’ve been friends since high school, probably 1988 or 1989, and in all that time, he never once said, “Hey, you know something? I kind of prefer Timothy.” Which says a lot about the guy. What also says a lot about the guy is that he came to my house under the pretense of playing some music together, but then I roped him into riffing on his memories of the Star Crumbles. And it was a reasonable pretense, as Tim and I have recorded a couple of albums together as Simmons and Schuster. His solo material is also pretty amazing, so check it out here: https://songwhip.com/timothysimmons
I’ve also known the aforementioned FP Dorchak for a quite a while. We became friends back when I was doing a lot more writing (and a lot less music), and I was reviewing books on my Small Press Reviews blog. I used to review a lot of books on that blog, and 99% of the time, my experience was that writers would hound me to review their books and then pretend that I didn’t exist after I’d given them what they wanted. But not Frank. He was one of the very few people who kept in touch and would drop me a line just to see how things were going. (There are some others, of course, and if you’re one of them and reading this, I know you know who you are, so thanks!) Anyway, Frank’s fiction always has a bit of a supernatural twist to it, so I knew he’d be up for the Star Crumbles project. I love that line, “Let’s see… It was the eighties… Cheap hotels…” Check out his books here: https://www.fpdorchak.com/books/
Then there’s Mike Mosley. I love that he adds some bitterness to the proceedings, and the idea that he used to be in the band (and that it was called Mosley Crumbles) is priceless. Then again, he’s really a great songwriter, so his claim that if not for him, there would be no Star Crumbles isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. Brian and I actually recorded a song of his called “Cool Down” and are including it on The Ghost of Dancing Slow. He’s recorded under a couple of names, including Junior Mozley and Jr. Moz Collective, and he’s also worked with Brian on a few tracks like “Three Hours” and “World War Me.” All good stuff!
Jeffrey Brower gives the documentary a fun narrative thread, describing his journey from being a young criminal on the lam to becoming part of the Star Crumbles management team after stumbling upon the band at what he took to be an abandoned gas station (but which turned out to be a secret biker bar). Again, I’m amazed at the imagination of his storytelling–the characters, the incidents, the weird twists, the unexpected appearance of Robbie Krieger of the Doors! Brian and I are friends with Jeffrey on Twitter, where he posts about life as a retiree with twin daughters who are tearing it up as burgeoning rock musicians. Brian actually dropped in at Jeffrey’s birthday party this summer and met some of Jeffrey’s cool guests like Tommy Stinson of the Replacements.
Another cool person I know from my college days — and actually a little before that; we were both counselors at the same day camp! — is Eileen O’Donnell. As you might have guessed, especially if you clicked on some of the links above, Eileen and Miceal are married, and Eileen is a filmmaker as well. There’s a wistfulness in the way Eileen delivers her lines, as if she’s really remember the heyday of the Star Crumbles, and I was especially impressed with the way she interpolated the history of the Violent Femmes onto the Star Crumbles. It’s the kind of behind-the-music history that only hardcore rock and roll fans know. But what really takes the cake for me is Eileen’s performance of “This Side of the Grave” about halfway through film. That’s actually a song I wrote and performed when I was making ersatz Violent Femmes music back in the 90s! Also worth noting: Eileen is an excellent sculptor. Check out her work here: https://www.instagram.com/eileenodonnell_sculptor/
I also have to say that we were incredibly fortunate to get Jeff Archuleta on board with the project. I’ve been reading Jeff’s Eclectic Music Lover blog for years now, and as the name of the blog might suggest, I’ve come to rely on it to learn about a wide range of music. The cool thing about Jeff’s blog is that he talks about music from independent artists in the same breath as music from “big” names, and it’s common for his weekly Top 30 lists to include music from bands at both ends of the spectrum — and everything in between! As far as the documentary goes, I love that we have a real music writer commenting on our music; it lends a bit of credence to our story. “Truth,” of course, is another story! Jeff’s wild tale of his one encounter with the Star Crumbles is golden!
Just as Jeff’s clips give the documentary some credence, Mikey J‘s clips give the documentary a noirish feel. Mikey J is one of a handful of indie musicians I got to know when I was helping out with the Lights and Lines Album Writing Competition, and his song “Little Dragon Girl” won him an award for best single. When we chatted back in July, he told me that the song was dedicated to his wife, Ella, and that they live in Shanghai, which (at least in part) explains how he managed to see the Star Crumbles at Harley’s bar!
One of the first bands I found when I started looking for indie music on Twitter was The La La Lettes. Their albums reminded me of a mix of Frank Zappa, the Residents, Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the Beach Boys’ Party album. Little did I realize when I first heard them that The La La Lettes were, for the most part, the work of one man, Chris Triggs, of Colwyn Bay, Wales. I love the way Chris weaves the details of his own life story into the story of the Star Crumbles — and when it all builds toward a crushing anticlimax, the look on his face is perfect. As with everyone involved in the project, Chris’s comic timing is impeccable, and I love the way he delivers the line about our “John Taylor haircuts.”
It came as no surprise to me when Øyvind Berge of Todd and Karen was the first person to respond to my request for footage. He’s seriously on top of things when it comes to music — not just in terms of promoting his own, but also in terms of sharing information with the wider indie music #Tweetcore community and curating great Spotify Playlists, like Beatleesque Brill Pop. The clips he gave me were perfect — equal parts Monty Python and This Is Spinal Tap. The line about the Morris Dancers really made me laugh, and I didn’t even know what Morris Dancers were at the time! But then I did some digging and found some footage to add to the documentary just in case anyone else was curious. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to the forthcoming Todd and Karen EP, Approximately Here for a Bit.
When I reached out to the artist formerly (and currently) known as Ziggy about being in the documentary, she had two stipulations: she would not say a word, and Laini Colman had to appear in any scenes that featured her. Which turned out to be perfect, because Ziggy is a dog, and Laini was next on my list of people to contact, as I’ve been a big fan of her music for years. We first chatted in 2017 when she released her debut album, and then again earlier this year to discuss the release of her latest album, Racka Shacka. Back when I was still on Facebook, Laini’s page — Laini’s Beach Shack — was one of the few places I could go to get a real sense of musical community, and it was all Laini’s doing. So I really love that Laini’s fondest memories of the Star Crumbles are of their tour with her band The Beach Shackers!
Finally, I was excited to have Traci Law involved with the documentary as well! If she looks familiar, maybe you’ve seen her in the web series Morbid Curiosity and Compelling Women or you caught a glimpse of her in Silver Linings Playbook. She’s one of those actresses who’s shown up everywhere, and she’s recently been branching out into voice acting. Of course, it’s her work on Morbid Curiosity and interest in the paranormal more broadly that made me think Traci would be perfect for Beyond the Music, and when I asked her to suggest that Brian and I might be vampires, she was on it! An amazing photographer, Traci is also the author of the bookEnchanted Britain.
I really feel fortunate to have so many friends who were willing to help me and Brian out with this project! It means the world to me that people I’ve known from so many parts of my life pitched in. Not only that, but I’m seriously amazed at everyone’s talent, and I love how everyone’s tales of meeting or seeing or performing with the Star Crumbles complement each other perfectly. I could go on and on about how much you all mean to me, but I’m heading out for my COVID booster, so let me leave it at this:
We’ve been working on this project for a while now. By “we,” I mean Plush Gordon. We’re calling the project an internet box because it sounds cooler than “web page with a bunch of free files you can download.” But that’s essentially what it is. And the files, if we may say so in all humility, are pretty cool.
First, there’s the music — a four-track EP titled Slow Drive Through a Strange World and handful of bonus tracks. My favorite track on the EP is called “Madrid.” It’s not about the Spanish city. It’s about a town in New Mexico. More or less.
And if you want to sing along, we’ve included illustrated lyrics. Fun fact: For some of the songs, there are more verses on the lyric sheet than in the recorded version. We can’t explain this fact. Things just worked out that way.
As if illustrated lyrics weren’t enough, we also provide some literature! Specifically, we’ve include a manifesto that spells out our artistic principles, a piece of autofiction that comes reasonably close to explaining how we recorded the EP, and a short story titled “Madrid,” which inspired the song of the same name.
Next, we have a video for the third song on the EP, “Red Door,” which blends animation and vintage stock footage to tell the story of a motorist who is struggling to find his way in the world as he slowly loses of his faculties.
And there’s the short film we shot. It’s called Milk Fudge. We filmed it over the course of five days as part of a competition, which we were fortunate enough to have won. Listen for the first song on the EP, “Silver Nissan,” playing in the background.
Finally, we have some art and the credits for the EP. We feel especially fortunate to have so many people working on the project — ten musicians and fourteen members of our studio team, all of whom make up what we lovingly think of as the Plush Gordon continuum.
It’s all free to download. You can pick and choose what you like. And we won’t even be offended if you don’t like any of it. We admit that we’re kind of an acquired taste. But if you do enjoy it — or you know someone who might enjoy it — please feel free to share the music and/or the following link with your friends: https://www.hungryhourmusic.com/slow-drive