Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences

Bill Cummings 20/09/2008

In part two of our extensive interview with Paul Hawkins we drill down into some of the inspiration behind some of his songs, find out his views on the Iraq war, and ask him just why does he sometimes take to the stage in his Pyjamas?

I think many people will identify with the pain of unrequited fleeting feelings expressed on the call and return tune I Fell in Love with a Moment in Time, were you trying to make the personal, universal too?

Yeah, I think in a way that's what I'm always trying to do in songs. I very much see songwriting as an attempt to communicate emotions and experiences and obviously what I'm looking to do is communicate them in a way that other people can listen to the song and think 'yeah, I feel that too'. I do think there's something incredibly beautiful and amazing, and incredibly mind-blowingly frustrating too, about the kind of moments that song alludes to - it's a very pure emotion that gives you a fantastic rush, but 'cos obviously it's entirely based in fantasy with no concept of reality of what that person would be like if you actually spoke to them, it's one that's always gonna disappoint you in the end...

The album takes in apocalyptic disco, wonky punk and even bastardised folky stomps. What influenced these shifts in musical styles, and what records were you listening to during the recording process?

I think probably what helps quite a bit is that the band listen to quite radically different things so in a way different instruments are probably influenced by completely different bands! Also, due to the way the band was still forming during much of the album process, the songs are recorded in a few different ways with different personnel. A lot of the songs recorded in the early stages were just me and Ian playing all the instruments with help from our then guitarist Ben; then a few songs were recorded live with the band and then a bit later a few more were done by the band after Lunch had taken over from Ben on guitar and one or two were predominantly based on demos I recorded at home in my bedroom. So I think that probably had a huge effect on the different styles.

It's important not to understate Ian's influence on our sound either. He certainly has as big an influence on how it ends up sounding than I do. I think having such a good producer gives you a hell of a lot of creative freedom to try things 'cos you know he can make them work so I think just knowing what he's capable of and always wanting to push want the limits of what we can all do wherever possible are probably why it sounds the way it does.

It's very helpful to be in an environment where we're playing gigs with some really interesting bands too. Particularly playing gigs with a band like David Cronenberg's Wife - you see them pushing what they're doing musically and lyrically and you very much feel driven to do the same, not in a nasty competitive way, just in a sense that it keeps you challenged and stimulated and stops you resting on your laurels. Recently we were remixed by both Will Vaughan of a band called Horsebox and by Tim Ten Yen, who's this brilliant pop songwriter and performer, and both of them did really interesting things to our songs and that made me think a lot about how we can take the sound further too.

I lose myself in songs, avoid reality/I don't act upon my feelings like I oughta do - sounds to me like an exploration of music as therapy, juxtaposed by the frustration of not being able to express yourself in real life, would that be fair interpretation?

Very much so. It depresses me how true-to-life that song is in how massive the gulf is between how open I tend to be in lyric-writing and how closed I tend to be in terms of actually telling any particular girl I like how I feel about them, which is quite frustrating (certainly for me and quite possibly for them too). I think there's another level to the song too in that I do sometimes wonder to what extent I'm actually attempting to have emotional experiences in order to generate more songs, which is a slightly disturbing concept, and in a way the song is also me asking myself whether on some level I deliberately engineer rejection (or more accurately the frustration of seeing some girl I've never said a word to about how I feel who unsurprisingly starts going out with some other guy who actually shows an interest in her instead) in order to keep myself going creatively. I hope I don't but I'm not convinced…

Who is Sarah Vincent?

The character herself is fictional. Despite it being a fairly long detailed story, it suddenly came perfectly-formed into my head and it was just a case of me sitting down and writing down the lyrics over the period of a couple of hours. As I recall, at the time I wrote it I'd just found out a girl I liked wasn't interested in me and I was fascinated (and somewhat disturbed) to realise that I'd suddenly become far more willing to believe rumours I'd heard about her in the past than I had been whilst I hoped I was in with a chance.

I'm sure it's one of those quite dark but natural human reactions but it fleshed itself out into this story of this guy who does the same thing but with much higher stakes and sells out his only friend and the person he loves purely because of his damaged ego from her rejection coupled with him hearing the wrong rumours at the wrong time. I think it's quite an interesting, if dark, subject matter for a song.

Obviously the song itself was influenced by Nick Cave-esque murder ballads and I deliberately tried to keep a few facts in - just like the character in the song was born just north of Bristol in a mining village (or at least what would have been a mining village in the period the song's set) called Coalpit Heath. It's now this quiet suburban village and I quite liked the idea of setting this kind of epic murder ballad in what to me at least is this quiet uneventful place where I grew up.

Linked to the question about fiction and truth in your songs, A Gentlemen in Crutches approaches harrowing subject matter from a personal point of view (an old man driven to a suicide attempt to gain hospital admission). Was this based on any stories or did you just create this character from a mishmash of imagination and autobiography as you described? Also were you attempting to approach difficult matters in an interesting way?

Occasionally I write songs just because certain lyrics come to me and then I start to build songs around them. I think with 'Gentleman on Crutches' I had the I threw myself down the stairs this morning/I was getting bored and wanted some attention from the nurses lyric and then started building a song around what that could possibly mean, obviously ending with the story of the song.

As far as I'm aware it's not actually influenced by any news stories I ever heard but I think it was based around some ideas I had around institutionalisation. I read this fascinating thing when I was studying psychology at A-Level which has always stuck with me, which was this psychologist (whose name I've forgotten) who researched institutionalisation by faking schizophrenia and getting admitted to a mental hospital. He planned to stay a month and see what effect it had on him but in the end had to leave after 10 days 'cos he was scared at how comfortable and reliant he was getting in the place. I spent a lot of time in hospital as a child and there are times when I just feel it'd be nice to go into this environment where basically everyone takes care of you and nobody has any expectations of you and it interested me how that'd represent itself in this old guy who had very little else to live for.

I think if I'm honest the idea of growing old on my own is a fear of mine on some level. Despite the apparent desperation in some of my songs I actually rather like being single but I do worry occasionally about what if I'm single forever and how depressing it'd be to be old, friendless and alone so I think the song was close to me in that sense.

The Battle Is Over is about a traumatised soldier returning home, what was the inspiration behind the lyric? What are you feelings on the folly of the Iraq war? And why did you bring Diana De Carabarrus' backing vocals on board it making it an almost Pogues-esque conversation between man and wife? Did the song start off that way or did it evolve into what it became? Was it a conscious attempt to add a different dimension to the song?

The inspiration behind the lyric was basically that I had this I went and fought a war for you/I never ever asked you to" line in my head and again I was basically thinking about what it meant and what kind of song I'd base around it, ending up with the story of The Battle Is Over. It was always planned as a duet - the main interest for me in the song was the impact the war had on the guy's relationship when he's back home. You get a few songs (such as Belle & Sebastian's I Fought in a War which is one of my favourite of their songs) which deal with the guy away and missing the girl but I was interested in what happens when the guy comes home and how does it affect his relationship, especially when (as in the case of the Iraq War which is obviously very current both now and when I wrote it) a lot of people don't think the guy should be fighting in the first place.

I'd actually been thinking about writing a duet (essentially because of my love of Fairytale of New York) for a while but this was the first time I found the right subject for it. Dianna de Cabarrus of the band Candythief sings on the song (Sarah didn't join the band until later), but I'd tentatively asked two or three people to do it and then lost my nerve and finally I thought I had to make a decision and she has a great and very unique voice and brought a lot to the song.

In terms of my feelings on the Iraq War, it's a mess frankly and a mess which nobody really comes out of with much credit. I was opposed to it from the start. I didn't think the reasons given were convincing, I didn't like the way Bush and Blair had this 'We're doing this and you can agree or we'll just do it without you' attitude which alienated a lot of people and I just didn't feel there was enough of a plan of what to do once Hussein was removed. At the same time it did frustrate me the way that, when I went to anti-war meetings, everyone seemed to find it necessary to play down or ignore how bad the Iraqi people were treated under Hussein (particularly when you see that bit in Fahrenheit 9/11 where Michael Moore tries to present pre-invasion Iraq as this pleasant peaceful place which it may have been on the surface but clearly wasn't really the case if you opposed Saddam Hussein in any way). I do think it undermines any argument if you just pretend the counter-argument doesn't exist, rather than acknowledging it and saying 'He is a terrible guy but this invasion's a pretty flawed plan nonetheless…'

Obviously now it's utterly horrific what's going on there but I do worry when I see people demanding an immediate troop pull-out. Ultimately even if it's the wrong decision to carry out a heart transplant on someone it's an even worse one to take the heart out and then sew the person up without putting a new heart in. After what we've done we have a real responsibility to the Iraqi people to ensure they can have a free and fair society and it'd be the worse betrayal possible if, after years of the West not acting during bloodshed by Saddam, after 5 years of people killed in the fight to remove Saddam Hussein, we then walked away and left the various extremist factions there to blow each other up until one wins and sets up their own dictatorship. That'd just be wrong on every level and I do feel that, though I wish the war had never started, we have to stay there until the Iraqi people have a country where they're safe from violence and persecution.

What's your favourite lyric on your new album and why?

It depends what mood I'm in. I'm very proud of the overall lyrics for Sarah Vincent 'cos obviously it's a very long narrative song and I'm pleased I managed to keep the song together and I think with the lyrics of the Evil Thoughts and really caught the mood I was in at that time I wrote it really well. In terms of picking one line it's much harder and I'm not sure if I've got a specific favourite. A friend of mine tells me he really likes the line I couldn't accept myself, couldn't let go of my past. I wanted her to accept me on my behalf and I can certainly see where he's coming from. In terms of quite subtle lines I was pretty happy with the it hurts to hope line in Don't be Afraid of Love, just 'cos it sounds quite counter-intuitive but I think there's a real element of truth to it in many cases…

I've heard that you sometimes take to the stage in pyjamas, fashion statement or just getting prepared for bed?

It's a visually unusual costume that's cheap 'cos it involves clothes I own! What I like about it is that the sight of someone in pyjamas and a dressing gown feels like an intrusion and something you're not supposed to see as people tend to only wear them on their own in private so it'd immediately sets up a certain atmosphere. Plus I've always loved the image in the Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy of Arthur Dent travelling the universe in his dressing gown so it's kind of an homage to that.

And what's your favourite song to play live?

Probably You Can't Make Somebody Love You., which was a single but isn't on the album 'cos we've never quite captured it right on record. It's the one where I get to go in full strutting rock star mode so it's always fun for me! Of the songs on the album it's definitely Gentleman on Crutches at the moment but I tend to change my mind quite frequently, and tend to go off playing songs if we do them in too many consecutive gigs…

Future plans?

I always tend to have a ridiculous number of things on the boil. The week after the album launch I plan to meet up with Ian and Lunch to record a new album of songs which'll hopefully be released under a slightly different name. They'll be quite understated, personal and intimate songs very different to the album (Eels and Elliott Smith are probably my two touchstones 'tho part of the fun is things never turn out quite how I expect).

Shortly after that we're gonna record some new tracks for a new Awkward Silences EP. We've got some quite intense and extreme new songs I'm looking forward to getting down on record and seeing what we have, particualrly 'cos I want to start planning the next full Awkward Silences album as soon as possible and I want to know where we can go next.

We're also planning a split mutual covers EP with a Belgian band called Sukilove so we ought to get cracking on that soon.

I've also been writing some songs with a guy called Ben Tucker from a band called Albino and we'll hopefully be doing some more on that soon and doing a few gigs.

I've then got a couple of all-dayer gigs I'm promoting in London in October and December. Then there's also a book I've been working on plus one other musical project I've started planning and am going to try and find the right people to work with on it soon so it's quite a busy and exciting time.

Paul Hawkins & Thee Akward Silences release their debut album We are not other People' through Jezus Factory recordings this week.