A Very Personal Affair

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A few of my mates owe a lot to this summer. Not Big Dave, who sadly didn’t get to use even one of the eighteen johnnies he bought from Balham pound shop in hope of dirty festival buggery. Not Ben Grounds neither, although he does owe a lot to Geoffrey Green for being kind enough to offer taking him back to his tent half way through Arctic Monkey’s headline Friday night set, due to him being so far gone he couldn’t stand. Ben did offer Geoff £10 ‘taxi fare’ though, so I wouldn’t feel too bad for him. Not my little brother Nath neither, who enjoyed a weekend of debauched mayhem in the sweltering Spanish heat of Benicassim town, courtesy of a free ticket from moi. No it’s two of my oldest mates, Adam Purnell and Martin Clarke, who owe a lot to this summer.

Wind back this time last year, and Adam was setting up a Facebook page for a musical project of sorts, Foreign Affairs, which he was working on with his brother Lawrence at the end of the third year of his music degree. Fast forward to the here and now, and that duo have become a fully fledged band, having played 30 shows this summer, 7 of which were festivals, 1 of which was the biggest festival in the world: Glastonbury.

Back again to last year, I didn’t give them much hope. The pessimist in me thought nobody would get anywhere with a name like Foreign bloody Affairs. Sure, it wasn’t as bad as previous band names I’ve conjured in the past. There was the self indulgent phase of my first year at uni with the shower of shit that was The Upper Echelons. There was also my coming into puberty, discovering black nail varnish phase many years previous, with the unforgivable Sadamun Gomorrah –  No, in hinesight theirs isn’t the worse name in the history of music, I bet the Arctic Monkey’s had their detractors too when they first named themselves. However FA though are certainly no Rago Bell though (in a name sense anyway) who were pretty much un-rivalled as the best band of Wellsway school years 2000-2005. Anyway, moving on. Adam lived in Brussels for a bit, sampling local delights like Kwak and over zealous bouncers armed with tazers in his second year of uni – hence the inspiration.

After setting up this Facebook page, he uploaded a couple of demos: Sticks & Stones and Days, which went down fairly well, but the clunky platform that is Facebook pages made it pretty difficult to connect with what the lads were up to.

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They took a few moody shots of them looking whistfully into the future on Kelston roundtop (rural, sure) to go on the EP. Adam (below, right) also started to wear lots of hats…

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…maybe to remind people that he was in a band. Only musicians can really pull off this sort of head attire. This is all I really remember from the early Foreign Affairs days. There was one gig at the Bookshop in Bedminster – not to be confused with an actual bookshop, I’ll add, but not to be confused with a music venue either – it was little more than a restaurant with a small stage. I think Adam regretted inviting me in the end. About 15 of us, all from our year at school turned up. The barmen greeted us with ‘no stag do’s please lads‘ as we walked through the door. They probably played a decent set – none of us would’ve remembered.

And then it was all a bit quiet up until Christmas, and then this happened…

They roped in the help of an old mate, Mr Matt Fez who did a great job setting the church up and directing the video. Until now, we’d only heard them play their own songs. I think the thing I was most impressed with was the total confidence in which they took on such an iconic, and almost unchangeable song, daring to change it and make it their own. Gone was the playful and cheeky counterpoint between Kirsty and Shane, a careful balance between angelic and shambolic. Now it was replaced with a completely confident voice played against a melody played on strings rather than through lungs, backed by a booming bass drum and a tambourine. As soon as the lads covered Fairytale of New York, the offers started pouring in. Kind of. They featured on Bristol radio on Christmas Eve morning (meaning Adam was late for St Sleeves day) and were approached by Paloma Faith’s manager. So far, so good.

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It was clear from that cover, that the addition of the bass drum was welcome. So far it was just two brothers as an acoustic duo. It was clear they needed a band to take things further. Lawrence’s mate Isaac was drafted in on drums, and they drafted in a lass called Serena to add a bit of strings and lady lungs to the set up. They also called upon the expertise of Martin Clarke on bass, one of my oldest and dearest pals, and former lead guitarist to my rhythm offering in our teenage band Rago Bell. Clarke is actually a bloody good Bassist. I know this from A-level music, and the bassline exercises Mr Page used to assign us – his were always the best.

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It’s also worth noting at this point that Wellsway School’s class of 2005-2007 A level music only featured three people – they were me, Clarkey and Adam. Hannah Ingram was on about doing it on the sixth form open day, but she bottled it. I think we helped collectively age Mr Page, Miss Dennis and Miss Valentine by a decade. We were a triumvirate of disappointment. Well not quite, more like a duo of disappointment: me and Clarkey never lived up to our potential. Aside from him excelling at basslines, Clarke was often vexed by Mrs Valentine’s lessons on the history of the baroque period. I was a bit of a last minute merchant too, still putting the finishing touches to my reggae-jazz-african fusion piece about 20 minutes before it had to go off in the post to the exam board. Clarkey at one point tried to turn the conventions of education upside down by taking the reigns from Miss Dennis and teaching one of our popular music lessons himself. This particular lesson was on The Beatles’ Day in the Life. Hardly surprising then, if you know the lad. The less said about Adam the better though. Anyone who can play the Nokia ringtone as a classical guitar piece is always gonna be the golden boy of the class.

So given our history, I was intrigued to how the following months would pan out. Here are my three favourite moments of the summer that followed…

The Opener

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Back in April, Adam rang me to let me know they’d be playing their first London gig at the Old Queens Head in a few weeks time, and whether he could crash at mine the night before. That weekend turned out to be the JMBW (Josh Moore’s Big Weekend) 5th annual invitational, so friends old and new from all corners of the world (well, only Bristol and London really) came along to show their support. I was really intrigued to see how they’d perform as a fully fledged band, whether it would translate effectively from their previous experience as an acoustic duo.

A few weeks previous, Adam played me a demo they’d been working on. It was a bit rockier, apparently, but I couldn’t really tell at the time. Up until now, everything the lads had done had been a bit vanilla for my taste. I was yearning for a bit more edge. They opened this set, as well as every other gig I’ve been to since, with the Opener…

The above acoustic version, recorded on a bleary eyed morning after their Glasto set (more on that to come) doesn’t nearly do the song justice.

‘meet me in your finest clothes tonight, don’t worry my dear just be on time, 
we’ll go back we’ll forget life, just do me one thing girl be looking fine’

Lawrence, for his age, is very well aware of his appeal to the fairer sex. He’s confident and arrognat in equal measure – they’ve arrived, and they’ve done so in style. I turn around to all the London lot – ‘they’re my mates’ – which is met with ‘they’re quite good actually!‘ Glowing praise indeed. Their first London gig was a success –  it might not have had the same impact as Hendrix descending on the Scotch of St James club in London on September 24th 1966 – but it was the start of something. The band minus Adam packed up the van and drove back to dear old Bristol, while me Ad and my little brother stayed up till the early hours drinking gin on a sofa in Putney. Rock & Roll at it’s finest, there.

Pretty Girl

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So the London set was a little warm up for Glasto if you like, although they did some gigs in between. The anticipation in the week leading up was too much to bear. Clarkey text me Wednesday morning of Glasto week saying he’d been up since 6am. It may aswell have been Christmas. Actually, Glastonbury is better than Christmas, it’s the new Christmas. Nothing else matters. As if I wasn’t excited enough at the prospect of Arctic Monkey’s and the Rolling Stones playing consecutive headline slots, the lads were due to kick off proceedings for the weekend with a slot at the Avalon Cafe stage on the Thursday. We all arrived and camped in various areas of Worthy Farm, and met up that night at the top of the Stone Circle, where the sun was setting. Adam had a bunch of flyers in his hand, so I duly offered my services, and galavanted off around the stone circle with Clarkey with the aim of handing out flyers and speaking to as many people as possible, in order to persuade a few more people to get down to the Avalon cafe the following day. Me, being the confident salesman cum media expert I am, (take with a pinch of salt, please) bowled over to one group – ‘Hey guys, how’s it going alright, how’s it going, what are your plans tomorrow, do you fancy seeing a great upcoming new local band?’ – It was more of a magaluf strip club promoter than savvy music pr jobby. ‘That was really awkward mate,’ said Clarke. Everyone’s a critic, christ. Although not in earshot, Adam could see us out the corner of his eye. Well, he could see Clarkey giving me an appraisal, and not a very good one at that.

‘I think it might be better if me and Clarkey get this done on our own, mate’

In the most diplomatic way, I was just sacked by my mates, on the first day of Glasto. Fantastic. They walk off as the sun sets, and I’m left to find my way back to whoever I’d trekked up there with, on my own, in the dark. That was a low.

So next day, despite my newfound resentment to my former employers, I thought I’d be the bigger man, let bygones be bygones, and I dragged all of my lot over to the Avalon cafe a good half hour before their set. It was like a who’s who of Keynsham in there. By the time they went on, there was easily 2-300 people in there – and by this point, probably the largest crowd they’d ever played to so far.

The anticipation was palpable. We were right at the front, and I was already four tinnies of Brooklyn deep. They opened with the Opener, and the crowd was theirs form the off. It was nice to see so many familiar faces from home, but also loads of new faces, people chilling out in the Avalon cafe and people wandering by, enticed and drawn by the buzz coming from inside the tent – or just escaping the ominous looking clouds which were soon to drench Worthy Farm. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, stood at the front of the crowd watching two of my best pals on stage at Glastonbury, the biggest festival in the world. Me and Clarkey used to joke that we wouldn’t cut our Glasto bands off from previous years until we played the pyramid stage. I since had them cut off by a nurse in St Thomas Asquinas hospital after slicing my hand open during a drunken altercation with a window in China Town – that story requires it’s own post. Moving on. It wasn’t quite the pyramid stage, but an amazing experience nonetheless, given that Foreign Affairs were only known as a musical venture to a small handful of people. About 4 songs in, Clarke breaks the silence in the room with a walking bassline – the intro to Pretty Girl sounds as if it could just as easily go into You’re the One that I Want from Grease – Isaac comes in soon after with a a shuffling drumbeat, and then the vocals – ‘Sunday morning sun siesta, oooooh, my coffee cup’s fill to the brim’

This is their strongest, and most catchy tune for me, and one they could easily end the set with. Above is the E.P version, but they played this with a lot more angst and tenacity at Glasto. Out of everything I’ve seen and heard from the lads so far, this is their defining moment. Pretty Girl (with your hair in a bow) at Glasto – can’t get much better than that. Fans new and old singing along. All of the excitement of that set got to me that day. Shortly after, the heaven’s opened (something I hadn’t prepared for when setting off in flip flops at the start of the day) I vaguely remember stopping by a brown tipi with Big Dav and Ben Grounds, bouncing away to some random reggae cum dub cum house tunes, when my world started to spin. I had to make an early exit and count myself out – back to the tent I went, for a quick TC (tactical chunder) and a power nap. I woke up to Clarkey, Dav and Adam in my tent (apparently it was raining) – I thought it was Friday. It wasn’t, Foreign Affairs had only finished their set an hour ago. It was going to be a long weekend.

You Said to Me

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Glasto came and went. The lads, after their defining Thursday set, had to get up early doors to trek over the farm to Michael Eavis’ house, and record a few live numbers for Worthy FM. I didn’t catch it (we were on said farm, so there wasn’t a radio in sight, sadly) but by all accounts, the presenter made life difficult for Lawrence. When he was doing his best PR job for the band, directing listeners to their Facebook and Twitter pages, he was told that he was making a rookie error. ‘It’s not in the spirit of Glasto’ bla bla. Now the festival is well and truly over, it might be worth following them on Facebook and Twitter if you don’t already.

A week after the most famous festival on earth, we had the pleasure of catching the lads again, this time at the U.K’s largest non-ticketed music festival. That’s right, it was Keynsham Music Festival, which technically runs from July 1st – 7th, but in reality only really exists on the 7th, the Sunday. They had the midday opening slot of the main stage – me and Clarkey had this slot nearly a decade previously, on the neighbouring Time Out Stage with the previously mentioned Rago Bell. It’s a tough slot – lunchtime gigs are always the worst – it was certainly a more sedate affair than the one a week previous. It was one for the family, if you like. Kiddies danced next to their pushchairs, and grandparents listened eagerly. It’s easy to forget, with all the drunken, debauched, youthful exuberance that was rife at Glasto, the people who couldn’t be there – the parents, grandparents and extended family that have so far supported the lads on their musical journey. Indeed, this was one for them.

Adam said to me a few days beforehand, that he was still on a high from Glasto. He wanted every gig to be like that. I tried to bring him back down to earth – that’s why it is one the most special and unique places on the globe – because it can’t be replicated every week. This is just the start now, really. Whilst the crowd werent necessarily as veracious as last week, the lads didnt disappoint. Same set list as the last few weeks – kicking off with The Opener, bringing in Pretty Girl early on. Half way through the set, they apply a tried and tested live music tactic of doing a couple of slow uns, bringing the mood down a bit. All about balance you see, a set.

You Said to Me is their slow un. It’s their ultimate slow song (see above video of the track recorded in the snow a few months ago) It always requires a token introduction from either Adam or Lawrence, as it has a back story – a very personal back story. The lads’ mum was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and this song is directly about that time in their life, and how it affected them. The lyrics are painfully, and heart wrenchingly acute:

‘You’re eyes were red, you’re hair was thin, it’s growing back, so you’re gleaming again, You’re made of rock, you’re set in stone, you didn’t move when they bruised you to the bone’

I’d been so mix in the drunken, frenzied appreciation of these lads that I hadn’t properly listened to this song, nor appreciated it’s meaning. Lawrence delivers lyrics about pretty girls swooning after him with ease, but he also connects with real emotion in a way too mature for his mere 19 years. Val Purnell, Ad and Lawrence’s mam, was given the all clear last year, and was in the crowd listening to this moment in the set surrounded by the rest of their family, wiping away tears of complex emotion, I can imagine – pride, joy, relief. I had a lump in my throat too, thinking back to the days where Val would be pleading with me in her kitchen to look after Adam shortly before I was due to take him away to Majorca for our first boozy lads holiday. The fact that Val is here at all watching her boys, is such an amazing feat.

Three different sets, three very different tunes – they’re the moments that defined them for me over the past 6 months. Other people will have other memories, and different favourites I’m sure. Cutting Ropes is another favourite, with a playful interplay with Lawrence and Serena, with some expert stand in harp accompaniment from Clarke in the link. They throw a classy cover of Pumped Up Kicks near the end of the set, which keeps the crowd going, and they tend to end things with Piece of Work – it’s a song so good, that you think you’ve heard it before – you might have to be fair. Written by Will Kimbrough, a singer-songwriter from Nashville who Adam met when on his travels to the deep south a few years ago, it’s a fairly unknown song in the U.K – the lads got in touch with Will directly to see if he’d mind them covering it, putting their own personality on it and playing it live. He was more than amenable, encouraged by the enthusiasm of a young band 3000 miles away.

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They went on to play a few more gigs since, namely Wilderfest, Frome & Harbourside festivals. They also hit the studio to put the finishing touches to their next EP, and summer drew to a close. Having graduated from the university of life, Clarkey’s now moved over to ze Netherlands to study international law, meaning that FA will have to recruit a new member to the fold.

This is definitely just the beginning for the lads…

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