Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences

Bill Cummings 16/09/2008

Bored of music that doesn't even attempt to challenge you? Fed up with the predictable? Pissed off with syrupy ballads and more of the same indie pop play lists that begin to merge into one homogenised background of office music hell?

Then offbeat London troupe Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences' new record We are not Other People, out this week, could be for you. Andrew, the head of his label Jezus Factory, calls Paul Hawkins' music both 'beautiful and ugly' and that sums it up. Rubbing your face in the dirty realities of real life, detailing the desperation of society's forgotten people. Paul's vocals are awkward at first, almost difficult to listen to, always teetering on the edge of being out of tune, almost berating, frustrated and perplexed before inevitably carolling you into his lyrical world of oddballs, traumatised soldiers, love struck alcoholics drinking themselves to death, and an old man driven to suicide attempts. Each character is sprinkled with elements of self-doubting autobiography as Paul struggles with his own feelings, his writer's block, his own thoughts. This is pop music with a tune, that makes you think at the same time.

Standout tracks include the frustrated stream of consciousness of Music is my enemy that brings to mind the off kilter post punk of The Fall, then there's the squelchy apocalyptic disco opener Unexpected error, the unrequited pop stomp of I fell In Love With A Moment In Time, and a boy/girl duet between returning soldier and wife- The Battle Is Over that's more deeply rooted in reality than its musical cousin The Pogues and Kirsty McColl's Fairytale of New York. Murder ballad I had a friend in Sarah Vincent even touches towards the narrative prowess of Nick Cave. While the raucousness of The Evil Thoughts nods towards the gin swilling gypsy dancehall of Gogol Bordello.

Sure, the fragments of these influences are imprinted like scorch marks on the underbelly of this record. But the sum of its parts is unique, heralding a cavalcade of twisted English pop tunes that are spew out of the underground and into the dingy disco halls. In a pop world desperately short of eccentrics right now, Paul Hawkins & his Awkward Silences are simply a revelation.

We caught up with Paul Hawkins, for an exclusive in-depth interview, in the first part we talk to Paul about his musical history, ask him how he gathered the members of the Awkward silences, and find out just how did he develop that unique singing style. Finally we find out whether he thinks there's a lack of thought provoking pop being produced at the moment.

I have to apologise. The first thing I received from you musically was one of your solo albums a few years ago. I think the whole package (press release) including you spread eagle on the back cover (with a tea towel covering your nether regions!) made me think it was some kind of 'post-modern' joke. Listening back, I think it I get it now. Anyway, can you tell me a little bit about your solo work?

Don't worry at all about your response to that first solo album - I think, given the way I presented it, it's fairly understandable someone could have seen it as a post-modern joke. I think a lot of it came down to a lack of confidence at the time - I was pretty new to what I was doing and, given I'm clearly not 'singing' in a conventional sense, and the kind of stories I was telling in the lyrics, I sort of worried people wouldn't take it very seriously. So I pre-empted them by appearing not to take it seriously myself. It's difficult in a way - no-one really likes seeing a band that takes themselves completely seriously and doesn't see the funny side in what they do. But at the same time I don't think my approach at the time was the best approach either. I suppose you have to balance how to be clear - you're taking the music seriously without taking yourself seriously as a person. Now it frustrates me a bit when I see other acts presenting themselves as rubbish or a joke. It sort of feels like you're dismissing yourself before you've started.

Going back to how the solo stuff came about, the first thing I should say is that I was 22.

When I started, I had barely played in public. It was something I always wanted to do but, bar the very rare performance when I was at university, I was always scared to take the step to actually do it. I'd write all these songs and play them to myself over and over in my room, then start making up fictitious band names and albums (even planning what the singles and b-sides would be!) but I'd never actually go and play in public. It all changed after I moved to London after my degree. For the first year I was doing an MA and had a social circle related to that but then, when it ended in the summer of 2004, the bottom fell out a bit. After the MA finished everyone on my degree went their separate ways and I moved out of my halls into a flat with my only non-uni friend in London (who, by then, pretty much comprised my entire social circle). Within 5 days of me moving in he'd got into a serious relationship so I got quite socially isolated. Meanwhile my degree (which was in writing for film and TV) clearly wasn't going to lead to a job anytime soon and I was doing temp jobs to stay afloat. Quite quickly I went from being fairly sociable and having a plan in life to being a socially isolated recluse who didn't know where the fuck he was going, or even if he'd have a job to pay the rent by the end of the following week.

In the end I started going out to open mics to play simply because I needed to do something to get out the house and try and meet people. I tended to play the songs with the more humorous lyrics because they tended to get the better audience reaction. My own isolation and sense of frustration led me to write some of the darker and stranger of the early songs (
I Like It When You Call Me Doctor for example). Basically I spent nine months playing open mics and struggling for gigs and then fell in with the UK antifolk scene because, whereas most acoustic venues wanted something a bit more conventional, it was a place where outsider singer-songwriters could get gigs.

It's worth mentioning: I'd never intended to be a solo act. It was always something I was doing out of necessity and my plan was always to form a band sooner or later.

How did you gather the Awkward silences as a band then? And when did you start to shift musically? Was it informed by your live performances?

The story of how I came to form Thee Awkward Silences probably starts round about Christmas 2005. I'd been gigging properly for about six months and I got a message on Myspace from a guy called Ian Button. He'd heard about me after a friend of his saw a description of my music on some gig listings, checked it out and recommended it to him. Several months earlier I'd put an advert up on my Myspace page saying I was looking for string musicians.

In his email he said he could put strings on my recordings and we had this email exchange where he put strings on four songs.

Somehow or other I then talked him into producing an album for me (which was later self-released in 2006 and called The Misdiagnosis of Paul Hawkins). During that time we moved away from just strings to putting guitars, bass and drums and things like that on too and it started to sound like a much fuller band.

Your PH&TAS singing style is very different, almost confrontational, but underpinned by a certain humour, how did you develop this?

Live, I was still an acoustic solo act at that time, although I had got that confrontational vocal style you mention later (it developed through playing open mics and gigs where no-one was really listening to any of the acts and I wanted to develop my voice in a way where it was literally impossible to hold a conversation while I was on stage!). I'd been getting more confident vocally and, whilst I knew I'd never be Scott Walker, I realised there was a certain quality to my voice that at least set it apart a bit from other singers and I tried to use that to my advantage.

Anyway, we'd been talking about doing a one-off gig with this full band sound and formed an initial line-up. Ian (who'd previously played as a guitarist for Death in Vegas, amongst other bands) wanted to play the drums so we got a bassist, a guitarist and a keyboardist (the latter being Tom Mayne, lead singer of the excellent band David Cronenberg's Wife, and, bar me and Ian, the only member of the initial line-up who still plays with us on occasions). Essentially we borrowed people from other bands on the basis we could then see how a full band worked.

The first gig was fairly successful and then all of us, bar the bassist due to time commitments, did a few gigs as an Awkward Silences MK 1 between June and November 2006, at which point the first guitarist left. At that point my then flatmate, a singer-songwriter called Ben Anstis who plays guitar of part of We Are Not Other People, joined on guitar and Alex, our current bassist and a guy Ian knew, joined too. Ben was always really in the band to help us out 'cos we didn't have a guitarist and, when he left to concentrate on his own band (The Other Dances), our current guitarist Lunch joined. Over Summer 2007 we got our keyboardist Kate and then late last year, when Tom was finding it harder to get to gigs 'cos of his DCW stuff, we got a second keyboardist Niall and our backing vocalist Sarah and that's pretty much our current line-up at the moment.

I could claim various reasons for why I like the words Awkward Silences but the truth of the matter is it was just one of those phrases where as soon as I thought of it it just felt like the right name for the band. I think I've always had a fascination with communication and people failing to communicate what they want to communicate and, as a result of that, I think I find awkward silences interesting in that their just the point where communication breaks down entirely...

Your songs are full of oddball characters but with human personalities, the lyrics are almost literary in that respect. Are you influenced by any particular writers? Lyricists? What proportion of these characters are rooted in truth and fiction?

With regard to influences, there's certainly a lot of writing and lyricists I admire but, at the same time, it's pretty rare I'm consciously influenced by anyone else when I write songs. I mean, obviously things I've heard other people say which I like will impact on me but generally when I'm lyric writing I just focus on the story I'm trying to tell and the character whose perspective I'm writing from and just try to let them speak, if that makes sense. Probably part of it comes from the fact I used to (and occasionally still do) try and write film scripts as well as songs so I tend to think in terms of storytelling. I think a big thing too is that my parents liked West End musicals so I tended to be used to thinking about narratives and story-telling in songs from quite an early age so, when I grew up and got into more of the kind of thing I'm doing now, I still approach lyrics in that kind of way.

Certainly I think it'd be hard to write about the kind of characters I write about and get the human aspect across (rather than just the 'oddball' bit) if I didn't on some level relate to those characters and feel I could understand the emotional process they're going through. I think the most important thing to me is to try and make the songs 'emotionally true' rather than literally true. In a way I actually think it's much easier to be honest and open about yourself when writing in the form of a character too - you can admit to flaws and feelings you might try to hide if it was obviously about you. What I tend to find when I look back over my lyrics is there'll be bits in songs which are written from my perspective where I add bits of fiction in if I think it communicates what I want to say better whereas on the other hand there'll be the odd line in the more fictional songs which is very much true and very much autobiographical but in a context where no-one would ever spot it...

You talk about wanting to create twisted pop, do you think that there's a lack of thought-provoking pop at the moment?

I'm not sure I'd exactly say there's a lack of pop that makes you think but I do think there's a lack of pop (and music in general) that surprises you or confounds your expectations. I mean there's obviously a lot of good bands around if you know where to look for them but it seems very rare you listen to or watch a band and they do or sing something you really didn't see coming. And most of the time when I'm watching bands or listening to albums I might enjoy it but I frequently feel like I'm seeing or listening to something I've seen or heard so many times before I can almost predict how the whole thing's going to pan out, musically and lyrically. And it's such a great (and rare) feeling when you're surprised by something. And I suppose that's what I really want to give other people.

Paul Hawkins And Thee Awkward Silences 'Evil Thoughts'

In part two of our extensive interview with Paul Hawkins we drill down into some of the inspirations behind 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?