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Most of this blog is related in some way to the music, books and films produced by Gonzo Multimedia, but the editor has a grasshopper mind and so also writes about all sorts of cultural issues which interest him, and which he hopes will interest you as well.

Friday, 21 June 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Miss Crystal Grenade


Carol Hodge was last seen in November 2011 on stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.  She was holding the hand of the one-time Crass vocalist Steve Ignorant as they closed both Ignorant’s world tour and his career of singing songs by the one-time Kings and Queens of anarchopunk, with a massively emotional version of Bloody Revolutions.  Even watching it on YouTube brings tears to my eyes, so I can only imagine what it would have been like being in the audience, or even more on stage. Carol joined Ignorant’s world tour half-way through after the previous female vocalist had dropped out for family reasons.  And she had some pretty big shoes to fill (I suppose if I was clever enough I should make some sort of reference here to Crass’s notorious song about Chinese footbinding, but I can’t think of one).  And she filled them righteously.  

But what happened next?  

Carol has adopted the personality of Miss Crystal Grenade; an existentialist Victorian artist, singer, and freak show performer with a peculiarly deformed hand. She has an album coming out very soon on Gonzo, so I had the perfect excuse to set up an interview.

JON: So tell me about the album. I’ve heard most of it and I think it’s absolutely wonderful.  

CAROL: Thank you.  I’ll tell you the technicalities of it first then.  So three of the tracks were recorded at Southern Studios, which is in London, which is where Crass Records used to live and John Loder used to run it, and I worked with Harvey Birrell who is a very well-established sound engineer and has recorded a lot of albums that I really like. Like “Pleasure Death” by Therapy! being one of them. So yes that was just after I did the tour with Steve Ignorant.  Allison, who was from Southern, she was our manager and she heard a few tracks and she just said if you want to come down and do some recording with Harvey I was welcome to.

So yes, I did that and I think I was the last to record there which is a bit of a dubious honour. So that was a really good experience and that place is very ambient and quite an old building.  It’s basically an old terrace house that they converted into studios. It’s kind of like digital analog, it’s a massive analog desk and of course Harvey has kind of updated it suing, I think, Protools with that so it’s all like from the 1960s and going behind is like a Spaghetti Junction of leads behind the mixing desk and all the Crass original massive tapes on the shelves so it was quite exciting for me to be in that kind of location to record these three songs. So those songs were “Go Around Twice”, “You Could have Lived”, and “Nothing to Do With Me”.

And then I started working with a producer, studio record this-type guy called Nick Zart.  I actually went along and did some session singing for his music, which is great; kind of gothy, rocky-type stuff and we ended up trading sessions.  He’s recorded the rest of the tracks that are on the album and there is one we’ve yet to finish, which he has changed – it’s just a rough demo version that is on the album at the moment. I get on really well with him – his studio is in St Helens which is quite close to me in Manchester and he has a background of working in the dance industry and he was a dance producer for years and years back in the ‘90s.  He’s a nice, relaxed person to work with and we seem to be on the same wavelength, which is always a joy.  He’s one of the few people who has managed to capture a good sound out of my voice.  I’ve always been a bit reticent to use my head voice and be softer with my tone because my history comes from being in rock bands and  punk bands so it’s been quite nice – he’s helped give me the confidence to explore the softer edge to my tonal range which I think has worked quite well with the album.

JON:  I was very surprised….because I had only heard of you as a singer with punk bands. I stumbled upon your Soundcloud page and immediately ‘phoned Rob and said “Dude,  you’ve got to listen to this”.

CAROL: I was very surprised and flattered when I saw your message and your blogs – thank you for that.

JON: It’s fantastic, and I like the whole idea of your Victorian alter-ego – it fits in with all the Fortean stuff that I’m into, so … am I interviewing Carol or am I interviewing Crystal?

CAROL: Well that’s the question, isn’t it…..  The Crystal Grenade thing is a funny thing.  I realised quite early on – I mean I started singing in bands when I was about 15/16 years old – and I realised that I’m a performer and when I am on stage I kind of perform and as musicians will tell you, something kind of takes over a bit and I found that it was kind of strange that a lot of people in the audience when I spoke to them after, they couldn’t quite equate the person they were talking to with what they’d seen  on stage and so it’s a character effectively.  Crystal Grenade is the sort of Victorian character for aesthetic purposes and some of the songs like “1892 Man” which I don’t know if you would have heard yet and “Take Aim” they’re kind of almost  - “1892 Man” in particular  is almost biographical in respect of Crystal Grenade, this freak show persona. That’s the character really.  It’s a hundred years ago or a 120 years ago that’s the Crystal Grenade – it helps to have a moniker for it to make it make a bit of sense really. Not Carol Hodge, assuming a persona to write these songs … I come from a theatrical background as well, I trained to be an actor and that’s partly why it makes sense for me to do that as well.

JON: Is the album coming out as Carol Hodge or Crystal Grenade?

CAROL: It will be Crystal Grenade. That is the name of the band sort of thing I suppose – that’s the name of the act. I’m not going to pretend that’s my real name.

JON: Is it going to be an ongoing thing, Crystal Grenade, or are you going to go off on to other things … is this just a one off? The persona.  You’ve done this album as Crystal Grenade, is she going to go on to do more things?

CAROL: That’s a very good question. Yes, I would certainly consider it.  This is just the outlet for the songs I am writing at the moment. They are quite reflective, and pensive and I suppose you know they’re dark and that kind of suits. You know if I suddenly start writing songs that are in a totally different ball park and I want to use experimental instruments or whatever and change the style, then that would probably be a different project, but the piano and reflective heartfelt-type songs I think is going to be Crystal Grenade, yes.

JON: Because I have visions of Spring Heeled Jack with a glass of absinthe sitting in the audience watching you.

CAROL: Yes, perfect. That’s brilliant.

JON: And there’s a lot of opium smoke in the air.

CAROL: Yes, it wouldn’t be a clean atmosphere at all. It would very dirty and depressing; there would be a lot of drinking going on and probably a lot of drug consumption as well.  In a very nice, smoky, glass nostalgia type of way.

JON: Like one of the niceR bits of Alan Moore’s original comic book From Hell

CAROL: Oh ok, yeah, yeah.

JON: Because I hated that film because the book was so good and the film was so bloody terrible

CAROL: I haven’t seen it.  Is that the one with Ron Tillman? Ah no, of course it’s the Johnny Depp one isn’t it. I’ve not read the book but I have seen the film. It’s the one about Jack the Ripper isn’t it.

JON: Yes.

CAROL: I remember thinking this has got so much potential to be brilliant because I remember seeing all the doctors in the rounds and John Merrick appears and I thought that has the potential to be so beautiful, so sinister. You just get a quarter of him and then it’s gone. I thought it was overdrawn somehow, and it had the potential to look amazing.

JON: You really should read the comic book – it’s fantastic, because I am sure if you look hard enough you will see Crystal Grenade in some of the crowd scenes.

CAROL: That would be brilliant.  I like the idea of that – one of the key images on my album is I’ve got a set of Victorian photos of me dressed with the very cinched in corset waist, Victorian dress and holding my hand up as if I’m an exhibit.  I like the idea, maybe that’s an artist concept of the actual Victorian photos and then sort of transplant myself into them in the background or something <laugh> I like that idea.

JON:  I’m trying to work out how I can shove pictures of you into some Penny Dreadfuls that I’ve got. In my other life I published a couple of books with Spring Heeled Jack and Jack the Ripper in them a few years ago so I’ve got quite a collection of these things.

CAROL: I don’t suppose you ever wrote any articles for The Unexplained periodicals.

JON: I didn’t – that was before my time.  I know the editor

CAROL: I grew up on those.  We had whole volumes of them at home.  I just liked, from the age of 8 or 9 I just used to read them constantly so it’s exciting when I actually meet somebody who has actually heard of Spring Heeled Jack and Penny Dreadfuls and stuff like that and knows what Fortean is – great.

JON: I am very much a fan of Crass since when I was around 20 and that is from where most of my politics come.  You are doing a spoken word thing with Steve aren’t you at the moment?

CAROL: Yes, Slice of Life.  Steve’s doing a bit of raconteuring and also singing.  It’s more based on the music – I play piano, backing vocals, Pete from Wrecks plays guitar and a bit of backing vocals and then Steve sings. There are brand new songs that we’ve been writing and there is an opportunity between songs to talk about anything and everything.  He’s really excited about it and we are as well and it is like something totally new and totally fresh. We’ve got a few gigs lined up and we’re just going to see how this year goes but we are trying to work it as a stage show, and have projections and visuals as part of  it.  Steve is really into old music hall so he’s really keen to have that really stripped back acoustic feel and a little bit of Victorian edge to it as well which is great.

JON: Well that fits in with what you are doing with Crystal as well doesn’t it.

CAROL: Yeah, we are still developing it really and it’s  his thing.  I suggested about him wearing his frock coat and stuff and his hat, but I don’t know if he feels that is quite right for the project at the moment, but I might manage to convince him to go all the way.

JON: Oh you’ve got to convince him

CAROL: Make it as theatrical as possible would be my idea but yes we will see how it goes really.  It’s just great to be working with him still and helping write new songs.

JON: It must have been really something when you sang “Shaved Women” with Eve when she came and joined you on stage without you expecting it.

CAROL: Yeah, that was really fun. And yes absolutely unexpected. Because we came on before the encore and she was stood at the side of the stage at that moment because she did a version of “Darling” with Penny on drums and with Tony Barber on bass.  Did you come and see it?

JON: No I saw it on YouTube

CAROL: She absolutely loved it being on stage with all those people and she was just kind of getting her breath back at the side of the stage and I said,  ‘It’s “Shaved Women” do you want to come on and sing it?  It’s your song. Do you want to join me, or do you want to do it?’  And she said ‘No, no it’s fine, it’s yours. You do it.’  And I said ‘Ok you’re sure?’ And she said, ‘No, no that’s fine’. And then just before I came back in at the end I just felt someone tap me on the bum and I wasn’t looking and I assumed it was Steve and I slowly turned around and I realised it was her.  It was pretty amazing.

JON: I wish I had been there.  I can’t remember why I wasn’t.  I had some family thing or health thing, I can’t remember what but I watched it on YouTube and I felt it was an incredibly emotional evening.

CAROL: It was.  It really was.

JON: And there’s a couple of bits …. I started crying in a couple of bits of it

CAROL: Ahh really

JON: Oh God yeah.

CAROL:Honestly, yeah.  It was incredibly charged

JON: That bit at the end when you were holding hands with Steve and singing ‘Bloody Revolutions’ You got a few tears out of me for that bit

CAROL: It happened a few times when we played in America as well and I knew that in that song in particular you always got quite emotional and originally it’s me saying it’s alright I’m here mate, you are not on your own, and when I realised that he got so emotional I thought I am going to do it all the time now so it became a little bit of a thing. And some nights I wouldn’t do it and that last night, it was just let me know if you are going to do it, it’s fine, but let me prepare myself because it really upsets me more.  So I said I won’t do it, I won’t do it and then I did it and obviously he needed it really because that broken up at the end of that song, so …..

JON: Was the show filmed properly?

CAROL: It was yes, and we are currently arranging to release the DVD.

JON: Yay! That’s made my day.

CAROL: Everyday on Facebook I get messages…  ‘Are you doing to release the DVD?’  We don’t know exactly when, but it will be released at some point.

JON:  What about the things you are doing now…the Slice of Life?  Are you going to be recording these new songs?

CAROL: Yeah, we are trying to arrange a date at Dial House – an EP to start with, maybe six tracks or something so that will probably be happening over the summer.  We’re just waiting for Tony Barber to be free to do it.  We are going to something like a demo, we are actually recording at the end of June.  We are going down to see Steve and record his vocals.  It is like Crystal Grenade; it’s relatively easy to record and mix because there is no drums involved, so we are kind of doing it DIY to begin with and just get the songs out there for people

JON:  That is something I am looking forward to hearing

CAROL: It should be good.  It is a totally different project and I am enjoying it.

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