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Hey Negrita - The IndieLondon interview

Hey Negrita

Interview by Rob Carnevale

AS HEY Negrita prepare to release their new album, Burn The Whole Place Down, IndieLondon had time to catch up with lead singer and all-round entertainer Felix Bechtolsheimer about some of the songs that comprise the new LP and the many inspirations behind it.

He also talks candidly about his five-year addiction to heroin, the experience of recording their debut album You Can Kick, and which tracks are never far from his iPod at the moment…

Q. How life-changing has your time with hey Negrita been? The experience really seems to have put your career back on track and opened up a wealth of terrific experiences…
Felix Bechtolsheimer: Hey Negrita is my life. I started writing the songs for the first album whilst I was in a treatment facility in South Florida, trying to kick a five-year addiction to heroin. I wrote a lot of songs in those days. It was the best and most constructive way for me to process what I had been through, almost like a kind of therapy. The idea of putting a band together when I came back to London gave me something to work towards. In my opinion, this is as life-changing as it gets.

Q. Care to share any anecdotes about your meeting with one of Ray Charles’ backing singers way back in 2000? That sounds special…
Felix Bechtolsheimer: Jeff was a wonderful guy: a big, black teddy bear from Brooklyn who had the most beautifully comforting voice. He had come to the same rehab in order to deal with his long-term crack problem. Jeff was married and had two kids and his wife had given him one last chance to get his shit together. We used to jam with my roommate, a six-foot cowboy junky who had worked with Gram Parsons and Little Feat. Jeff left Delray Beach after successfully completing a whole year without booze or drugs. Sadly, he relapsed the weekend he got back to Brooklyn.

Q. What was touring with the Beach Boys like?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: It was a huge honour to be invited to open for the Beach Boys in Germany but we only did the one show and, to be honest, they’re not what they used to be.

Q. How much were you buoyed by the success of previous album, You Can Kick!
Felix Bechtolsheimer: You Can Kick was a strange beast. We recorded the album after only three rehearsals with a brand new line-up and a new producer. We were really pleased with the result but we always felt that the whole process had been a little rushed. This gave the album an incredible energy but there are things we wish we’d taken a bit more time over. The album really helped us move up a few rungs on the ladder, especially on the festival circuit. We played every major festival last year, including Glastonbury, Latitude, Cambridge folk, End Of The Road, SXSW, Bestival etc, etc. It’s a slow build with this band but things are definitely moving in the right direction.

Q. How much fun was it laying down the tracks that make up Burn The Whole Place Down?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: It was great to record exactly how we would play at a gig. We just sat in a circle and played the songs through a couple of times. No headphones or overdubs or other nonsense. Apart from tired hands and croaky voices, we were all very happy with what we’d achieved when we left the studio.

Q6. The jamming session recalls memories of the MTV Unplugged sessions? Was that something you had in mind while recording?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: I don’t think there are many songwriters around today who don’t look at their material and ask themselves how the songs would translate into an MTV Unplugged type of performance. In my humble opinion, that show was possibly the coolest thing MTV ever did. If a song works when you’ve taken away all the bullshit then you know you’re doing OK. As we’re really into our British and American roots music it seemed like a logical progression to try the songs in this format.

Q. Do all the tracks you put down feature on the LP… or are there more demos awaiting discovery?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: There was a new song that sounded pretty cool but, being a hugely superstitious man, my grandfather would have killed me if I had presented him with a 13rack album. On top of that we all felt the song needed some more work. It’s a track called Trouble which I wrote for my friend Chuck, who died whilst travelling in Thailand. It will definitely be on the next album.

Q. Former single One Mississippi is an absolute standout. Can you talk about the inspiration behind it?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: I wrote One Mississippi several years ago whilst on a boat off the coast of Greenland, in the Polar Circle (sounds ridiculous but it’s absolutely true). There was a huge storm pounding the ship and my sister and my ex-girlfriend were trying to get on land to catch a flight back to the UK. At the time we had been negotiating a with a large record company for several months and I was getting really frustrated and sick of the whole thing. The chorus reflects the frustration of not getting where you think you ought to be.

Q. Likewise, album opener and title track Burn The Whole Place Down… Can you give us an insight into the inspiration behind it?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: At the end of our UK tour in October last year I jumped off the tour bus and headed straight to my local. As I walked through the door I saw a new barmaid I hadn’t seen before. Before I said one word to her, I announced to all my friends that this was the girl I was going to marry. They thought I was nuts but I think they’re coming round to the idea now. I wrote the song for her whilst trying to woo her.

Q. The mouth organ on Rope has a very cinematic, Ennio Morricone quality (in my opinion). Was that a deliberate reference? It’s another of our favourite tracks…
Felix Bechtolsheimer: I love Ennio Morricone. For me this was always meant to be a very visual song but it wasn’t until Matt’s guitar and Bliss’ harmonica part came into being that the song started to deliver on its initial promise. Pauli’s bass and Neil’s drum pattern really prop the whole thing up and push it along. Rope is vaguely based on a true story of a black guy in Alabama who was falsely accused of raping a white woman. After he was hanged it turned out that him and the girl had been lovers and when she got pregnant by another man she falsely accused him of raping her in order to cover up her cheating ways. It’s pretty dramatic stuff, so it required a very cinematic approach.

Q. Can you talk about the inspiration behind Devil In My Shoes?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: This was one of the first songs I wrote when I came back to London after my year of treatment in Florida. I was off the drugs, back on the booze and wrapped up in a beautiful blonde girl who was eight years younger than me. The song is about trying to shut up, hold on and fit in with the rest of the world which, needless to say, isn’t easy when you’ve spent the past five years off your head on smack, crack, whisky and methadone.

Q. How is your popularity in America compared to your support in England? Do you miss being in one country when you’re in the other?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: The Americans have always accepted us quicker than the British have. I guess at this level they’re more into music and less into hype. There’s no smoke and mirrors to what we do and I think they like that. In Britain people often compare us to American bands, whereas the Americans think we sound like a cross between The Pogues and The Rolling Stones. That said, we have been enjoying rapidly growing support here in the UK, especially on the festival circuit.

Q. What are your favourite things about America and England?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: The Americans make the best breakfast in the world and their girls ‘really dig that English accent’, but England is our home and we love it.

Q. You’re known for your raucous live performances… what do you like most about performing live?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: Watching Captain Bliss spazz out on the harmonica and listening to Matt tear my songs a new one are both pretty special experiences. We all have very different personalities but, when we’re on stage together, we gel like Piglet and Pooh on a family picnic.

Q. What’s your all-time favourite concert memory from a gig you’ve played?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: There are so many so it’s hard to choose. We just love getting up there and doing our thing. That said, SXSW last year was pretty amazing, as was last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. Our acoustic gig in Nashville earlier this year wasn’t half bad either.

Q. How do you view the Internet? Help or hindrance when it comes to music – we notice you’ve put out a viral game to support the release of the LP?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: It’s yet another thing you have to tune in to. If you use it to your advantage it can be a great tool but the web is such a vast beast that it’s quite easy to get a little lost out there. It all helps if you’re willing to do the work but it does mean you have to be much more selective with where you aim your spuzz gun.

Q. Can you talk to us about the three animated videos that support the LP? Who came up with the idea and how much fun were they to be involved with?
Felix Bechtolsheimer: The idea to do some animated zombie videos actually came from the animators at Pew 36, who asked us if they could do some videos for us. The first two clips have done extremely well for us, both closing in on 150,000 views on Daily Motion and the third video is coming out in a couple of weeks time. It was a lot of fun working with the animators and our producer, Richie, and I really enjoyed recording all the sound effects.

Q. Finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod player at the moment?
Dublin Blues by Guy Clark
My favourite song by one of my heroes. I met the man when we were filming We Dreamed America. It was one of the only times in my life that I was truly star struck.

Wagon Wheel’ by Old Crow Medicine Show
This band converted legions of young people to this type of music and they are, in my opinion, the best live band in the world.

Skinny Love by Bon Iver
This is the most beautifully haunting love song I have heard in years. Just goes to show that musical simplicity and raw emotions still deal the heaviest blows.

Sweet Virginia by The Rolling Stones
If Exile On Main St. was released today it would sit proudly on top of the Americana Chart. Amazing what a bunch of Brits recording in the south of France can come up with.

Via Chicago by Wilco
I heard the opening line of this song and I knew I had to own their entire back catalogue: “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me.”

The Booze & The Drugs by The Broken Family Band
Steve Adams is a lyrical genius. These guys are one of the best British bands of the genre. A perfect mix of tongue-in-cheek humour and brutal honesty.

Woke Up This Morning by Alabama 3
A killer tune best known for gracing the opening credits of The Sopranos TV show. These Brixton renegades taught me a thing or two about how to survive on the road.

Easy To Slip by Little Feat
A beautifully lush ’70s blues rocker by what might well be the Rolling Stones’ twisted American cousins. The kind of song that makes you want to hit the road and start over.

Another Girl Another Planet by The Only Ones
This is one of my favourite songs of all time. I met Peter Perrett at a Moto service station outside Bath last year and I had to tell him how much I loved that track.

Gouge Away by the Pixies
This song is what I listen to when I need to pick myself up off the floor and start again.

Hey Negrita’s Burn The Whole Place Down is released on October 5, 2009. Read our review