In June 2010 I arrived in The Netherlands with the notion of finally ‘settling down’. Young, in love and still just a little wet behind the ears, my girl and I had all the typical rat race dreams: Get the jobs so we could save money. Save money so we could get the house. Get the house so we could have kids. Have kids so we could be a happy family, a regular functioning cog in this big old machine we call society. What could possibly go wrong?
It was a Saturday morning mid June 2013 when I woke up and instinctively realized it was game over. S was curled up on the far side of the bed, about as far away from me as it was possible to get without falling out. She’d gotten home late the night before, so late in fact that I hadn’t even heard her come in.
Gingerly lifting myself out of bed, I felt my heart beating a million miles a minute. Jesus, this was it wasn’t it? I shuffled off to the toilet for a pee before making my way to the kitchen where I instinctively flicked the switch on the kettle and stood there for a moment shivering. It was the steam of the boiling water in my face that eventually shook me from my coma, forcing me to the fridge. Grabbing the milk, I set the carton down on the counter, popped a teabag into my cup and began pouring the water. Adding the milk, I clutched my brew in both hands and turned to find S framed in the doorway.
Her shoulders were slumped a little and she had what on any other day I’d have considered an amusing case of bed hair. But there was absolutely nothing funny about this situation and all it took was a momentary glance at her face to know that her heart had sunk to the floor where it lay spluttering hopelessly alongside mine. “Leighton, come…” she croaked, motioning to the sofa. I followed her wordlessly, suddenly understanding that everything we’d built up together over the last eight years had eroded into a sorry state of undeniable disrepair. We’d known this for a while of course, but now, in the coldest light of the coldest day, it was about to become official. We sat there looking at each other for a few seconds before she finally spoke. “I think we should separate” she said quietly, her voice wavering, eyes puffy and red. “Right?” she implored, taking my hand when I didn’t respond. “Right” I confirmed miserably and then the floodgates opened.
I think my job might have just saved my life that summer. I seemed to exist in a state of detached numbness as I went about the daily routine of cycling to work, writing the news, heading up to the recording studio, watching interviews, editing Films & Stars. At lunchtimes I’d sit at my desk alone where I ate my sandwich, drank my coffee and stared into space thinking not a single thought.
The only times I was forced to snap out of it were for the various interviews I did across Amsterdam. Old Harbour wanted to commission a music show, which would be new territory for the company. After plenty of brainstorming, head scratching and a hundred and one drafts they finally seemed happy with a concept I drew up called Wall of Sound. It was a standard template really: Music news, album reviews, interviews with the stars and a rundown of each week’s various charts.
But unlike Hollywood where Remy had all the access he wanted in his back pocket, with the music industry we had no track record and needed to start virtually from scratch. I was told to simply carpet-bomb record companies and agencies with emails, while in the background the bosses worked on trying to establish more concrete relationships that would bring us the long-term material we’d need. My approach of badgering people turned out to be surprisingly effective! Within a month I’d managed to arrange personal time with Kaiser Chiefs, I Am Kloot and Kate Nash, which allowed us to start sneaking bits of music news into our daily videos. Sure, these guys weren’t the A-list names Old Harbour craved, but it was a platform of sorts and nice for me to get out of the office and meet everyone.
I had almost an hour with Kate Nash. We met at Bitterzoet, a cosy, pub-like concert hall with black curtains, a wooden balcony and stained glass windows. “Hi Leighton!!!” she chirped enthusiastically, “It’s so nice to meet you!” She was quite the sight in her lime-green princess dress and plastic tiara. We talked about her “unremarkable” pre-fame years eking out a living with jobs at River Island and Nando’s before exploding into the charts with her number one debut album Made of Bricks. Kate had plenty to say about the music business and not all of it was kind. “When you’re young and you’ve had success with a certain sound, especially if that sound happens to be commercial pop, people don’t want you to try anything different”.
She was referring to the dramatic change of sound on her soon-to-be-released third album Girl Talk. An altogether punkier affair than anything she’d done before, Kate’s new songs had been heavily influenced by riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. Girl Talk clearly wasn’t going to sell as well as her past albums had, but Nash didn’t seem to care and was clearly doing this for herself. Funny, sweet and with a mischievous sense of humor, it struck me that Nash was her own woman as we dashed through a number of disparate subjects including sexuality, British home cooking (she does a mean roast apparently), the English poet John Cooper Clarke and the brown suede shoes I was wearing (she liked them).
And then she had to go and get ready for her gig. Sticking around, I completely lost myself that night in her performance as she switched between new tracks like Deathproof and Fri-End? and old hits such as Mouthwash and Foundations. Even when the show was over I hung about some more doing unnecessary interviews with fans. I was just desperate not to think about what kind of atmosphere awaited me back home.
My interview with Kaiser Chiefs Ricky Wilson and Simon Rix took place at Amsterdam’s famous Melkweg venue, just off the city’s landmark Leidseplein Square. When I arrived security sent me directly into the main hall where the band was smashing their way through a raucuous sound check of Na Na Na Na Naa. It was a magical moment standing there watching them do their thing in the empty hall. I’d been a big Kaiser Chiefs fan from the beginning, their anti-romance anthem Everyday I Love You Less and Less always getting a special Leighton-style-makeover whenever I did karaoke.
Ricky and Simon were in a great mood throughout our chat. Slouching nonchalantly on the provided chairs, they breezed through our forty-five minute meeting with a steady flow of sardonic in-jokes, cackling laughter and sarcastic observations on the transient nature of the celebrity world.
We spent a fair bit of time discussing their (then) most recent album The Future Is Medieval. The record had been released under unique circumstances, with fans initially ordering exclusively through the band’s website. Presented with twenty-three streamable tracks, buyers were able to listen, ponder and construct a ten-song track listing of their choosing. It was also possible to play around with different bits of artwork, which could be edited to each fan’s personal preference. “It was an award-winning album that!” quipped Ricky, tongue firmly in cheek. “Yeah…” added Simon, eyes to the ceiling, “It’s just that none of those awards were related to music!”
On the subject of Kaiser Chief co-founder, songwriter and drummer extraordinaire Nick Hodgson, who’d left the band the previous year to set himself up as a songwriter and producer for hire, the remaining Chiefs remained steadfastly magnanimous. “You know we love Nick!” insisted Ricky, trademark grin disappearing for maybe the first time that afternoon. “He was a big loss and he knows he’ll always be welcome back!” “How’s he doing?” I asked, an awkward silence descending. “Um… he’s good,” offered Simon. “I think he’s finding the whole freelance thing more difficult than he’d expected”.
With the cameras having been turned off, we stood around chewing some more fat as Eva and Alexander packed up our equipment and the guys graciously signed all my Kaiser Chief records. “These are going straight on eBay aren’t they?” smirked Ricky.
I can’t believe that Old Harbour actually let me interview I Am Kloot singer Johnny Bramwell. “I Am Who?” asked Ap, the production floor manager. “Kloot!” I confirmed emphatically, doing my very best to sell the situation. “English rock band, cult following in The Netherlands and Germany. Their last album was nominated for the Mercury Music Award!”. Everything I told him had been the gospel truth, though of course I knew that our clients would have no interest in the band. “Sure, go,” said Ap, who just seemed happy that we were starting to gain music interview momentum.
The interview took place on a midweek evening at The Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands. Dating back to the 1920s, I found the grand old brown-brick structure quite a formidable thing that brought to mind some kind of Slytherin-esque boarding school for ne’er do wells and scallywags. Only later did I learn that it had indeed been used as a juvenile detention centre, as well as an adult prison!
This made for an odd experience as the lady behind reception led me through the hotel towards Johnny. Moving through the plush lounge with its gabled ceilings and grand piano, I was then taken through a series of sinister-looking corridors, proper One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest stuff that made me feel like I was being sent off to receive some kind of lethal injection. “Err… where are we going?” Much to my relief I was merely deposited in a wood-paneled drawing room where Johnny was sat in deep discussion with a journalist from a Dutch newspaper. He had a pint of lager set before him and appeared to be quite animated as he spoke, eyes wide, arms aloft. “Mishter Bramwell hash a few print interviewsh to do, he’ll be along shoon,” said Mrs. Reception. “You can shet up your camerash over here!”
So we got our gear in order, made sure the setting was just right and waited. And waited. And waited. What we hadn’t realized was that Johnny had a whole host of Dutch journalists lined up and we were his last appointment of the evening. All the while the beers kept coming. By the time he finally got to us Mr. Johnny Bramwell was a little pissed. And he knew it. “Shorry mate!” he said, out-Dutching the Dutch woman.
My chat with Mr. Johnny Bramwell was a dream come true. I Am Kloot’s 2001 debut album Natural History is one of my favorite records and we spent a good chunk of that night discussing it, from his affected warbling on romantic opener To You, to the darkness that exists within him that found its way onto the disturbing Twist. “I sound like a bloody choir boy on that record” he muttered, stroking his beard. Humble, self-deprecating and more than a little nostalgic, Johnny heralded his group as “the unluckiest band in the world!” With endless contractual problems over the years, a record label that went bankrupt and a record label that didn’t bother to promote their album at all, Johnny had a stark warning for me. “I don’t know much about your company mate but be careful, the Kloot curse cannot be underestimated!”
With so much bad luck and so many false starts over the years, I suggested the Mercury Music Award nod they received for their fifth LP Sky At Night must have felt fantastic. “It was…. nice” he ventured after a long pause. “We had no delusions that we’d actually win the thing, but just to be recognized was… well, humbling really. It was weird when we took our places at the Kloot table. I was looking around at Paul Weller and that Dizzee rapper bloke and I said to Pete, eh mate I’m not sure we belong here!”
At the end of the interview Johnny shook my hand, gave me a big hug (you don’t get that with Will Ferrell) and posed for a few photos with me whilst simultaneously launching into an entertaining anecdote abut Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, who Johnny described as “an absolute c***!” Even taking into account all the glitzy Hollywood interviews I did during my Amsterdam years, my face time with Johnny Bramwell still remains a treasured experience.
It was a sunny July afternoon and I was walking through Gerbrandypark with my parents. It was their first time in Amsterdam, a trip they’d booked months before my life had fallen to pieces. They had no clue what was going on, but must have sensed something was wrong as we strolled through the park together. I’d done my best not to make it obvious. I wanted to choose the right moment to tell them. I wanted to show them I was fine, that I was holding everything together. I didn’t want to fuck up their holiday. “Leighton, are you happy?” asked my Mum suddenly. Oh Jesus, I hadn’t seen that coming. I smiled at her, caught her eyes for a second and completely lost my shit right in front of them. “No, I’m not” I finally croaked, unable to say any more as the tears streamed down my face. I remember my mum hugging me and my dad standing there, his own eyes reddening.
“Leighton, we need to rewrite the Wall of Sound pilot,” said Ap excitedly. “There’s a client interested and Aston has all kinds of comments. Clear your morning schedule”. There goes my chilled day, I thought. Ah, well. I’d need to make a thousand revisions, a whole bunch of re-records with Aston no doubt micromanaging things every step of the way. While I knew I should probably get started immediately, instead I popped my headphones back on and allowed myself the luxury of finishing the song I’d been listening to. “Through my sleepless days I’ve found… that in my dreamless sleep I’m bound… to one night hear the sound of you calling” sang Johnny, strumming his acoustic guitar. “Do not stumble through tonight, have no fear of falling!”
‘Wall of Sound’ is the fifth chapter from my short story collection Notes From The Netherlands.
For my travel reports on the Dutch capital, take a look at my articles on Amsterdam.