Pagan Wanderer Lu – or Andy Regan, if you’d rather – is a solo artist from The World (currently Manchester) who, for over six years now, has been writing songs that effortlessly span indie, pop, electronica and any emotion you like as long as it’s intense. Having built a reputation over many years through supporting everyone from Good Shoes to The Maccabees, he released and realised his most prominent EP to date last year in The Independent Scrutineer (review here) which has since been re-released through Brainlove Records.
DiS caught up with him via The Internet to discuss synaesthesia, Texas (the band) and a little bit of politics.
How the blazes are you?
I’m well. I’m a little tired right now after a weekend hanging out with my showbiz pals at Brainlove Records. Napoleon IIIrd just kicked off his tour in Cardiff, it was ace. His keyboard blew up and he pulled a star down from heaven and held it in his hand at the end of the set.
So what motivated you to start all this then?
It’d be nice to have some kind of polemical answer like, “I took one look at the state of British music and knew that I and I alone was the one who could save it”. But the reality is that it’s been a fairly leisurely crawl from doing occasional acoustic gigs at university to where I am now. I’ve always written loads of songs so by the law of averages some of them were bound to be good, and once I decided I’d written some good songs I wanted people to hear them. Music’s been the single most important thing in my life since I was about 13 and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t just sit back and like to watch things – I want to join in as well. When I read a good book it makes me want to write a better one. When computer games were the most important thing in my life I used to ‘design’ new ones by drawing all the characters and levels in felt tip on bits of paper. I had one where the main character’s special power was that he could turn into a cheese sandwich. In many ways that sums up my musical philosophy, too.
A number of your songs have a definite political overtone to them: do you believe that at the moment we're seeing a case of too many protest singers, not enough protest songs?
I’m glad you’ve said it like that rather than just calling me a ‘political songwriter’. I don’t like being called that because the reality is that most political songs are just plain old rubbish. Preachy, boring, obvious, unpoetic, depressing – you get the impression that people think that’s what they’re supposed to write about to be a worthy, serious artist. People should just write about what comes naturally, then whether you’re any good at it or not will sort itself out. There’s no shame in writing beautifully about love or just writing songs which are light hearted and funny as long as you do it well.
By my calculations I think I’ve only ever written one political song - ‘Our New Hospital Sucks’ - which was supposed to be an amusing and more digestible version of George Monbiot’s Captive State. The best writing about politics isn’t found in pop music. You can’t adequately express a ‘political’ idea in three-and-a-half minutes, especially if you leave time for guitar solos. Just try having a political discussion with people whose only knowledge of the world comes from watching ITV news and you’ll see what I mean. What pop songs do best is inspire emotions in people. If you were to have a specific political agenda then the most you can hope to do with music is spark off the first bit of interest in someone. For example, someone young who’s using music as part of figuring out who they are might relate to the feelings you put into your ‘political song’ more than they actually understand what you’re talking about. Hopefully that translates into a little more activism and awareness and general decent human-beingness as they grow up. They’ll investigate further, they inform themselves by reading widely and, you hope, come to the same conclusions you did. So your song is a catalyst at best but that’s still a good thing. That’s what happened with me when I was growing up I think. Thankfully I avoided all the ‘bash you over the head’ sort of political songwriting.
Who do you feel has done a form of ‘political songwriting’ well, then?
Some people can write about politics well. Conor Oberst, Thom Yorke, Chris T-T, and Jarvis Cocker all do it, mostly because they all use humour and some degree of abstraction, and also because politics isn’t all they write about. It’s important to bring in an emotional aspect – which has a lot more to do with the musical side than the lyrical side – and something philosophical and, most importantly, positive. It’s no use writing a song that goes “Tony Blair is a dick / Englurrnd is shit / We’re all doomed / LOL” – you’ve got to offer hope and a suggestion for how things can be improved, which is no mean feat when you’ve got to make it rhyme as well. So yes, Edwin Collins was right. Political lyrics turn me off, mostly because a lot of them are just bad and state the obvious. If my main interest was politics I’d run for my local council, but it’s not. My main interest is making music – it’s just because I think about politics and philosophy, and the state of the world a lot, that it ends up going into my lyrics.
Do you think you could describe what sort of a lyricist you are, if not a political one?
Basically, as far as my own stuff goes I just write about what I think about. Some of my songs are just supposed to be funny, some of them are stories I make up, some of them are about more personal things, and lots of my songs are about death. There are more songs on my EP about death than about politics – four if you count ‘The Memorial Hall’ as one about politics. Two years ago I made a conscious decision to be less political, but it sort of crept back in, and it’s better that way. Writing a song which isn’t ostensibly political but which has politics in there somewhere is more effective as a way to write, partly because that’s what life’s like. It’s irresponsible to ignore politics these days, but it sucks that the government - which should basically be an administrative body which frees the public up to get on with living life - has been fore-grounded by such astounding levels of corruption and incompetence. Wouldn’t it be great if everything just worked and there was nothing political worth writing about?
I think people hear songs like ‘The Memorial Hall’ which is ‘about war’, or ‘Repetition 2’ which contains the word “terrorist” and automatically think, “this is a political song”, because you see politicians talking about Iraq on the news. But ‘The Memorial Hall’ is about World War II and the moral implications of the sacrifices people made then for our lives today. Do we have a responsibility to live well because people died then so we could be free? It’s not a yes or no answer, and I have a go at saying why that is in the song. If it was a political song it would say, “War is Bad, The End’. But it’s not even as simple as that. Especially if you try and answer that question re: the current war on ‘terror’ (destroy all ghost trains!).
What about ‘Repetition 2’, then?
Likewise, it isn’t ‘about terrorism’ – the idea of the two ‘Repetition’ songs was to write about depression. It includes this empathy with the suicide bomber who’s so depressed that he can’t see any reason not to blow himself up. But at the same time it condemns him and the people who manipulate him for their lack of empathy. What kind of world do we live in where some people are so desperate and unhappy that the booming voice of religion and the prospect of something better after the explosion is so tantalizing they’re willing to risk death? How do people get to that point? Answer: the three R’s: ‘Repetition, Repetition, & Repetition’! The way we learn times tables is the same way we ‘learn’ that God exists or that we should all own a car and an mp3 player. People aren’t constantly bombarded with messages to spend pleasant time in pleasant company because going for a picnic in the hills doesn’t make anyone any money. We’re taught to value things other than people, when being surrounded by people who love us and who we love is really the only thing that makes us truly happy. So I can understand why someone feels bad enough to want to kill themselves and take others with them if it means a second chance to be happy. But their conclusion is incorrect and morally wrong because it’s their own misguided focus on the sky god that makes them unfulfilled in the first place, and which empowers them to murder. That’s not a political idea, that’s a humanistic one.
Is there anything you would refuse to write a song about?
“Refuse” is an odd word, because it suggests there’s someone suggesting song ideas for me – which I wouldn’t mind, now I think about it. There are certain things I find more difficult to write about openly, and there are things I find it difficult to write about well. I’ve never written a love song that I thought was any good, though I’ve tried. If I’m writing about something that’s actually happened to me and which is about a specific person then I find it hard to make that explicit. ‘Repetition 1’ is about a person I knew who repeatedly attempted suicide but I don’t think that’s obvious from the lyrics. In some ways it’s just bad writing on my part, but in other ways it’s because it’s hard to be direct about something which is painful for me, and also which I don’t think is ‘mine’ to write about.
Until a few years the word/s singer-songwriter seemed almost like a dirty word. Why do you think this has changed to an extent?
I think previously ‘singer-songwriter’ used to conjure up images of some sensibly dressed white guy with an acoustic guitar moaning about his girlfriend through the medium of unremarkable poetry. Obviously some amazing music has been made by white guys moaning about their girlfriends, but the good/bad ratio’s quite heavily in favour of bad. It’s a pretty meaningless term in the first place. Madonna’s a singer and a songwriter, so is Björk, so is Steve Wonder, so is David Bowie, so is Avril Lavigne, so is Matt Bellamy, so is Kid Carpet… Perhaps because of people like Jeremy Warmsley, Napoleon IIIrd, Juana Molina and the like, people have seen what a solo songwriter can do. One musician on their own these days has a lot of technology available to them to the point where it’s almost Luddite to just get up and play an acoustic guitar. Why bother? Are you going to find a chord no one’s played before? In a home studio you can expand your musical language as well as your lyrics. You can be a bit more ambitious and experimental.
So you think it’s a value on the production side of things that’s changed attitudes on the whole?
People long ago stopped insisting that a pop record should be a single take of a song. Overdubs have been the norm for decades. And now you can take that into a live context as well. Pre-recorded aspects or loop-pedalling in live music is more recent. For the most part no one bats an eyelid if I get up and play along to a laptop – I’ve been called ‘karaoke’ once (obviously by someone who’s never seen Tim Ten Yen), and amusingly that was at an acoustic gig where I had the appalling nerve to play along with a drum machine for two songs. Can you imagine!? But more people are open minded to non-100-per-cent-live gigs now, so it means you can make just as much noise as a band. So people no longer see ‘singer-songwriter’ and feel they know exactly what to expect - or to be asleep halfway through the first song.
What are you listening to at the moment?
At the moment I like Sonic Youth, LCD Soundsystem, Broadcast, Daniel Johnston, Arcade Fire, Deerhoof, Battles, Low, Napoleon IIIrd, and The Fiery Furnaces. My favourite bands of all time are Pulp, Belle & Sebastian, Pavement, Aphex Twin, The Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor!
A lot of the songs on your EP have been with you for a while, so to speak. How does your viewpoint on them change over time, if at all?
The oldest song on the EP is ‘Knight -> King 4’, which is three years old, and I like it now more than I ever have. Playing it live is a highlight of the set. Sometimes I do it unamplified. The version on the EP’s amazing – it was produced by Napoleon IIIrd and that one was his favourite so he added lots of parts to it which made it better. If you were to hear my demo from three years ago you’d see the basic idea and structure hasn’t changed but that now it’s been fleshed out and it works in a way I couldn’t realise on my own. I think that song alone made me realise that, after six years of playing solo, it’s time to get other people involved as producers and other musicians. This is why I’m now forming a band and why I’ll probably be recording with Napoleon again.
‘Hospital’ is the second oldest song. I must’ve played it at every gig for three years and was getting tired of it. I was encouraged to put it on the EP because it’s a popular song but I wasn’t sure I wanted to, so the new version is more a demolition than a recording. Slightly pissy of me, perhaps? But then once I’d recorded that version I did it at one gig with Junkplanet as my backing band, playing live drums and things, and it was brilliant. So now I like it again.
But lyrically how do you feel about the songs now?
Lyrically I don’t think my feelings change. I can spend literally months with a song re-writing lyrics so I think by the time it’s finished I’ve probably thought everything I’m ever going to think about them. When I play live I don’t normally think about the meaning of the words as I sing. I don’t know if that’s unusual or not.
What's your favourite colour? I'll be needing reasons, you understand.
My favourite colour is blue. I have a strange synaesthetic relationship with musical chords in which I mentally perceive each of the basic major chords as having a colour. I quite often write a song in my head and don’t have any instruments handy, but I know what chords it will contain because of the colours I get in my head. My favourite chord is C – which I perceive as blue. This isn’t a reason though, is it? Maybe it’s because the sea is blue? I like the sea. Blue is the most abundant colour around the earth. It’s in the sky and the sea – and C is also the most basic key, just the white notes. Maybe that means I’m a populist at heart and I run with the herd?
After the re-release of your EP what do you envisage being the next achievable goal for PWL?
My plan is to do three EPs this year. All self-recorded in different basic styles: one electronic, one acoustic, one garage rock. These will probably just be self-released although a couple of labels have expressed an interest in them. I’m working on them at the moment and they’re about half finished. They’re all going to have titles beginning with the word ‘No’. So the first one – the electronic one - is going to be No! Please don’t! I’ll get you the money somehow! Then I’m going to record a new album, with Napoleon IIIrd again, later this year and that’ll probably come out in 2008, probably on Brainlove again. That’ll have a mixture of old and new songs. It might have my new band on it or it might not. I just want it to be the best possible album I can make. That’s all I ask of myself. I’d rate The Independent Scrutineer as 8/10 - if the album’s not a 10/10 then that’s not good enough. As well as that I’d just like to play lots more gigs this year. It’d be nice to do some festivals or a proper tour. That all depends on people inviting me though.
Finally, what's the best song title you've ever come up with?
‘An Easter Island Statue In My Bed’ is probably my most oblique song title. Or ‘Ten Cities Is Not A European Tour’, which I like because it basically has nothing to do with the lyrics to the song. I wrote a song years ago called ‘Jaded Wannabe Parade’ which was quite harsh. It’d probably be called ‘emo’ nowadays. Also I had one called ‘Sharleen Spiteri (Machete the Bitch)’, but that was an instrumental.
The Independent Scrutineer is out now on CD from Brainlove Records and on mp3 via iTunes, eMusic and HMV.
27 Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach - Meltdown Bank Holiday Extravaganza
2 London Brixton Windmill - Brainlove Birthday Bash
Photograph by Kirsten McTernan