INTERVIEW: St James Infirmary | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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I make no claims for career / I really just do this for a lark / But I’ll have made it I know / When I make the cover of NARC.”
– The Cover Of N
ARC. by St James Infirmary

When people talk about bedroom/backroom artists, it generally tends to be about electronic or dance producers knocking out the latest dancefloor banger on a battered Amiga. But St James Infirmary have been producing almost absurd amounts of mind-blowingly diverse, often beautifully crafted music from their Ashington home studio for a long time and the world – or at least the underground music fan part of it – is finally paying attention.

Gary Lang first started using the name back in 1985 and it’s always been the primary outlet for his music – solo or as a band. “There’s been a constant flow of stuff throughout the years but it’s only recently that I’ve really started sharing the stuff with a broader audience.”

Until recently, Lang released a remarkable run of almost monthly CDRs – the Almanac series – mailed to friends and supporters and covering a huge range of styles. Lang is a masterful ‘copyist’, mimicking or paying homage to everything from indie pop to sixties hippy cult drones but also creating very singular music (for example his ‘blackened country’ collaboration with Cath Tyler as Blackdamp). “I make no bones about being a rip-off merchant in the way I do music. If I have one skill, it’s the ability to listen to other people’s music or sound and analyse how it’s been made and try my best to reproduce it. It’s not always perfect so that gives it a smear of originality at times, and lyrically I do have a tendency to songs about Northern life, often in a humorous way without going full Half Man Half Biscuit. Ideally, I would be sitting in a cubicle in the Brill Building in the sixties and the boss comes in and says ‘12 surfing songs by tomorrow’ and I could do that.”

Lang views his work as craft rather than art, although if you’ve heard songs like Living Beneath The Blue Star (a lush and heartfelt account of growing up in a mining town) you’d take issue with that. “I really have a problem with the idea of ‘authentic’. I’ve never been one to pour out my emotion in art and I see myself as a craftsman, if a shoddy one, rather than an ‘artist’. If people get an emotional reaction out of the work other than laughter, that’s a plus.”

I wondered if the constant stylistic shifts are a barrier to people understanding what SJI are about. “At the moment on Facebook my friends are all about the ‘pop’ songs,” Lang explains, “while on Twitter it’s the more ‘experimental’ side that folks go for. I do worry when I’m selling stuff that some people might expect nice tunes and be disappointed by 50 minutes of a combi-boiler wheezing away so I tend to advertise the releases as POP and NOTPOP. I have an extremely eclectic taste in sound but realise that a lot of people don’t go to my extremes!”

Since a release through Preston’s excellent Concrète Tapes in 2017, SJI has gained a following that has spread from the Almanac faithful deep into the cassette underground. “I’ve consciously been sending submissions out to small labels in what’s been dubbed the No Audience Underground because I thought they might like it, and using Bandcamp more to self-release. Seems to be working.”

I really have a problem with the idea of ‘authentic’. I’ve never been one to pour out my emotion in art and I see myself as a craftsman, if a shoddy one, rather than an ‘artist’

This month, Lang is releasing the April CD through Wormhole World, a largely lockdown-produced album that sees him indulge his more electronic side with heavy nods – both via the cover and the upbeat songs/eerie instrumentals sides approach – to Bowie’s Low. He already has the next few releases planned although he doesn’t want to flood the market (”a horrible term”).

Much like MES and The Fall, SJI is ultimately Lang (who also inhabits the characters of Skip Doncaster, Mario’s Recording Services and the like to cover production, artwork and the rest) but he has a faithful pool of collaborators to call on: for example, Lang wanted last month’s Awesome Northumbrian Pop For The Age of Anxiety album “to be like a collection of old punk/new wave singles all lined up on the spindle and I knew that Ryan Siddall could help me get that feel as he has it in his own work…It really does just come out of what I’m fannying about with at the time. If there’s folks around I’ll get them involved or if there’s a particular feel I’m looking for I’ll ask them to help me.”

Live too, you might get Lang doing a serious singer-songwriter set (or a less serious set in a stupid hat) or on occasion a full band. “When we play as a band, luckily I’ve got a core of good friends, (namely Mark Oliver, Tony Bennett, Tony Davison, Andrea Woodyer and Simon Foster) who trust me enough to take risks that other musicians might not take.” That said, Lang doesn’t gig much. “I only really play when someone asks me to and then, after agreeing, spend the time before feeling like a sheep knocking on the abattoir door.”

He’s quite open about his anxiety – relating to playing live, the worth of his creativity and more – but nonetheless feels guilty if a day passes without making something (he’s an artist as well as musician). I wondered if that guilt was a spur to action or a curse? “Despite having Catholic parents I’m burdened by that working-class Protestant Work Ethic where you need to produce things to be of worth. Being totally unable to relax tends to be a spur as well!”

April is released by Wormhole World this month. Awesome Northumbrian Pop For The Age of Anxiety is out now. Both albums and much much more can be found on Bandcamp

Smokeybarkid · the cover of NARC -st james infirmary

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