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In the Post #154: The Payroll Union guitarist Tom Baxendale introduces new solo album with lead track ‘All My Nightmares’

By on Thursday, 7th July 2016 at 12:00 pm

If you’re a regular TGTF reader, you might recall that we featured Sheffield-based alt-rock band The Payroll Union last summer, when they released their captivating second album ‘Paris of America’. With that project now complete, The Payroll Union’s Pete David recently contacted TGTF about a new project being undertaken by the band’s independent record label Backwater Collective. Having already released three albums, two for The Payroll Union itself, the label is now preparing to release its fourth LP, in the form of a new solo record from Payroll Union guitarist Tom Baxendale titled ‘In the City a Short Time Ago’.

Talking of his own solo work, Baxendale describes himself as “a prolific songwriter who takes elements of country, folk, new wave, rockabilly, pop . . . you name it, to create a distinctive sound of his own.” Certainly, his work with the Payroll Union would have provided a unique experience, both in terms of musical arrangement and songwriting, but Baxendale has taken a more mainstream tack for his album’s first single ‘All My Nightmares’. The song’s story line deals with a broken romance from the point of view of a protagonist who just can’t quite tear himself away. Musically, it has a rather surprising and unapologetically catchy, lo-fi, retro Seventies’ sort of sound.

According to the press release for ‘In the City a Short Time Ago’, the new album is “packed with narrative tales that reveal an unsettling unconscious desire, with murderous pacts, love trysts, familial conflict, and, at the heart of it, a deepening sense of loss in love.” We can’t speak to all that just yet, but we can definitely hear the seeds of it in ‘All My Nightmares’. We’ll look forward to the full album release in September to find out whether or not Baxendale harvests his new song’s full potential.


Tom Baxendale’s new solo album ‘In the City a Short Time Ago’ is due out in September via Backwater Collective.



Interview: Pete David of The Payroll Union (Part 2)

By on Thursday, 16th July 2015 at 11:00 am

Did you miss part 1 of this interview? Don’t fret! Catch up here.

Based on historical source material from the project’s extensive research, the songs on The Payroll Union’s ‘Paris of America’ are an exquisite expression of the social and political upheaval in mid-19th century Philadelphia. In writing them, frontman and songwriter Pete David has balanced historical accuracy with artistic licence, incorporating both precise detail and cleverly imagined empathy with the characters he attempts to portray. “I wanted [the songs] to represent those events and those characters successfully, in a lyrical way,” he says.

“Basically, I’m trying to write characters, I’m trying to write stories. And although I want to have some kind of integrity to what I write, in the lyrics, it’s not necessarily about accuracy. It’s about, telling a story, painting a picture, you know, creating something very visual for the listener. But you know, if a historian dissected the lyrics, I mean it’s like dissecting poetry, you can’t really get into it and on a kind of accuracy level. They’re lyrics, they’re not an academic essay.”

Payroll Union Paris cover lg

The album’s lead single ‘The Mission Field’ is based on the historical account of Protestant minister Benjamin Sewell of his time with Philadelphia’s Bedford Street Mission in the 1850s. “Bedford Street was an area of a lot African-Americans, a lot of Irish, generally poor, generally quite diseased. A place with a lot of bars, as you might expect, a lot of taverns, and prostitution was rife and what have you.” David inhabits Sewell’s character very effectively on the recording of the song, his vocal delivery vividly conveying Sewell’s violent distaste for the people around him.

Talking of Sewell, David displays a unique understanding of his subject. “He’s just incredibly judgmental and unpleasant about the people. He hates the Catholics, and he talks about them like they’re animals, you know. And there’s this kind of correlation that runs through the literature of the time, where people are talked about as savages, you know the savagery of the American Indians, and there’s the savagery of the poor. Both of which are abhorrent things to correlate.”

David took a similar approach to writing and singing album opener ‘The Ballad of George Shiffler’, in which a Nativist mob makes a martyr of one of its own men who was killed in an anti-immigration riot. In writing the narrative song lyrics, David says, “I sort of took the place of one of these men who were exacting revenge for George Shiffler’s death. I think that is always more interesting, in a way, to try and explain the perspective of the person you don’t have any sympathy with.”

While the song’s turbulent subject matter might be easily relatable to his listeners in terms of current political events, David says that he stays away from writing songs with a deliberate political intent. “I just think it can end up clumsy. You’ve got to tread carefully I think, with trying to make a political point in a song. Very few people can do that well, and I don’t think I would be able to do it very well. That’s why I just try and write stories. But obviously I have sympathies with certain characters that are going to betray my political persuasion.”

One of the album’s less politically-charged tracks is ‘Winter of ‘41’, which David describes as “probably my favourite song on the album, actually, and probably, lyrically, I think, the one I’m most proud of.” It’s an imagined narrative, based on one line from a letter written by James Fenimore Cooper to his wife during his visit to Philadelphia in 1841. Inspired by the words “Philadelphia is struck by a paralysis”, David has here installed Cooper as his narrator in describing the atmosphere of that long, bitter winter. “In January 1841, the Second Bank of the United States closed its doors in Philadelphia. There was already a depression going on at the time and the city in particular was really hit by that. At the same time, this incredibly bitter winter is going on, where it basically lasts from October to about May. I just thought it was such a great opportunity to use that kind of wintery imagery to explain the economic depression that was going on.

Paris of America by The Payroll Union

“And that story developed from this kind of frozen city, and there’s that point at the end of the second verse where the river starts to thaw and the ice breaks up and the poor are picking up the driftwood to keep the fires going. And when you get to the end of the song, it’s kind of this point where, as the sun comes out, so does the disease and so does the violence. It’s almost like it breaks everything open, and that kind of feeds into this popular theory of what’s called miasma, where disease and disorder would kind of fester in the rotting matter, you know, and kind of taint the air. At the end I really just wanted white noise, I just wanted it to be absolutely terrifying. And Tom put down so many guitars on that track, just a sense of chaos at the end.”

‘Paris of America’ ends with a final hidden track called ‘The 6th’, which is a postscript to the album proper, written from the vantage point of a regiment of black soldiers who had volunteered to fight for their freedom in the Civil War. The song looks ahead to the war while also taking a somewhat ironic look back at the social and political events immediately preceding it. David talked at length about how the song fit into the context of the other tracks on the album. “I wanted to have this very linear narrative that [would] start in, say 1838, and end in 1863. But it just doesn’t work like that, you know. If I was going to do that, I would have had to write every single song understanding the ebb and flow of an album and the sequencing of an album right from the start, and match sequentially each event to the ebb and flow of the album. I mean, it just wasn’t realistic. But what I’m really pleased about is the last song, because that is almost this point of bitter redemption where all this stuff has happened.

“Philadelphia was a horrible place to be if you were black. They had these ties to the Southern economy, and they were a point of trade with the South, and there were a lot of people from the South living in Philadelphia. And although there was a very small black middle class, it was generally pretty unpleasant. And I was really careful, I was trying to be careful, not just because I’m trying to put myself in their shoes, but also because you can’t end it on this note of redemption. It’s not a moment of redemption, it’s a brief moment of relief in a way. That’s why there’s that line ‘You’ll never know this bitter pride’. That’s kind of, in a way, talking to myself, saying, you know, how can I even attempt to do this? But also, there’s a real bitterness to it as well. I mean, they’re going along and there are these crowds cheering them. It would have been pelting them with rocks before, you know. And then they get to this point where they rest for a while and they’re being served by whites. It’s just really strange. So, I was glad we were able to end the album on that.”

Though ‘Paris of America’ is barely complete, David is already thinking ahead to future projects. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he spoke of a few possibilities, and I must admit that his enthusiasm was contagious. “I want to start writing again, because it’s been too long really, I’ve been taken up with other things. So I’m going to start writing properly, hopefully in September. I have so many different ideas, but it’s which one to choose, really. I think we want to do something a bit more experimental, musically, and play around with some different sounds.

“I have one idea certainly to do a whole album about New York in 1836, which is basically a series of characters that I want to write about, but I haven’t yet, or maybe just touched on, and they all just sort of pass each other in some way, on one day in 1836. There are a lot of interesting stories that happened [in the context of] the rise of the penny press, this very cheap form of news, and you’ve got this, well this is a few years earlier, but I’ve wanted to write about a very small religious cult, which has got this weird kind of sexual angle to it, and there’s just a few stories that are around that time that I want to bring together in some way. Definitely bending the truth. And then, I guess, I actually want to do something that is just a bit more, absurd, maybe, and lyrically playful that has nothing to do with history whatsoever.”

Whatever he decides, the next Payroll Union project is sure to be another fascinating narrative study. David’s songwriting style has evolved alongside his thematic interests, and the band have kept pace, musically, with the demands of their subject matter. They have carved for themselves a unique niche within the Sheffield music scene as well as within the genre of folk-rock, and one with many facets yet to be explored.

Many thanks to Pete David for this extensive and enlightening chat. I look forward to hearing more from him and The Payroll Union in the future.


Interview: Pete David of The Payroll Union (Part 1)

By on Wednesday, 15th July 2015 at 11:00 am

When I first listened to ‘Paris of America’, the new album from Sheffield-based Americana band The Payroll Union, last month, I realised almost at once that in agreeing to write a review of the album, I had taken on a daunting task. This was always going to be a bit more complicated than an ordinary indie folk album, with its thematic material based in American history, specfically the violent “riot era” of Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. But ‘Paris of America’ was challenging in terms of its musical expression as well, experimenting with structures and instrumentation that go beyond the straightforward confines of typical Americana or folk music. As I stated in my review, I found the songs on the album to be both emotionally evocative and intellectually fascinating, and I was happy to have the opportunity to discuss them in more detail last week with The Payroll Union’s songwriter and lead singer, Pete David.

Currently comprised of five members after the addition of a new keyboard player, The Payroll Union came together as a band about six years ago, according to David’s account. “I had a couple of bands here and there,” he says, “but mainly I was doing solo stuff. And it was in 2009, so 6 years ago, well a bit before that actually, I was playing with a banjo player, and we were just doing little acoustic gigs here and there. And then in 2009, my friend who’s a drummer, Ben, came to one of our shows and said ‘I really like what you’re doing, do you want any drums on that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great’. And he brought his friend along, Paul, who played bass. So 2009 was when we started, and we were very much a country, Americana band, playing a few covers, a few standards, and a few of my songs. My songwriting was very country-influenced around the time.”

In fact, David remembers the country-folk influence on his songwriting going back a bit further. “I grew up listening to my dad’s records and my brother’s records, so within that was kind of the obvious ones, Neil Young and Dylan, and as I got older I started listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, and then kind of in my early 20s I suppose, I listened to those Ryan Adams records that came out, ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Gold’. There were always little hints of country within some of the stuff I was listening to when I was growing up. But then I got really into it in the early noughties, listening to a lot of alt-country stuff, Hamilton Family, Wilco, and people like that.”

Once the band was formed, David says their shared love of the style led them to dig deeper into its history. “We got into listening to a lot of old American music, because we just saw it as this whole, you know, 80 years of music to explore. So we listened to a lot of bluegrass stuff from the ’30s and worked our way through, and just discovered a lot of great American country music. And so it just came out in the songwriting. We wanted to write country songs, and we wrote in a very narrative way.

“We were inspired by that type of songwriting, or certainly I was, because I had kind of got to a point where although I was still writing what you might call confessional songs, I kind of got a bit bored of it, and we were sick of just going over the same ground. So there were a few things that inspired me from that point to look at it in a narrative way. And obviously there’s a whole history of narrative songwriting. So it’s kind of developed from there.”

One of the central themes in David’s songwriting up to this point has been his interest in 19th century American history. “I’ve always had a bit of a fascination, when I was growing up I was interested in American culture generally, but certainly post-war 20th century history. That was kind of sparked by, basically the Kennedy assassination. When (the film) ‘JFK’ came out, I was 13, and I got into all the conspiracy theories, and reading books about it and was fascinated by it, so I got really interested in the ’60s and Nixon and all that kind of stuff. But it was probably, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago, when I read a one-volume history of America and I got stuck on 19th century America or particularly the antebellum period, that just kind of struck me in a significant way.

“I got interested in the Revolutionary War stuff, but I was more interested in the tension that ran up to the Civil War. The country was kind of finding itself, you know, becoming industrialised and figuring itself out politically and socially. That was just a fascinating thing for me, so ever since I’ve been interested in 19th century America and haven’t really strayed far from that. I wrote a song not that long ago called ‘Chappaquiddick’ which is about the Chappaquiddick incident with Ted Kennedy (in the late 1960s), so every now and again I kind of stray, but generally I’m interested in 19th century America.”

I had imagined that David’s interest in Americana style music and his interest in American history were related, but the songs on ‘Paris of America’ are clearly written in an early 21st century postmodern folk style rather than in a musical style that might have been heard in mid-19th century America. Layers of guitars and percussion generate the overarching dramatic tension of the songs, and while they aren’t authentic to the time period, they do create the desired effect. “We wanted to do something very dark and unpleasant, that’s just kind of the way we were going musically. You know, it was great fun for Tom in the studio, our guitar player, we just let him loose on it really. He was probably the most active on the album in a lot of ways because he’s just playing with loads of different things and putting loads of guitars on there.”

When I asked David about the connection, or lack thereof, between the album’s more modern musical style and his thematic material, he was emphatic. “That’s just coincidental, me being interested in American history, they’re not related. I mean people do ask me, [if I’m] trying to re-create, you know, old 19th century folk melodies. No, I think that would be the worst thing to do. I’m obviously retelling an old story, but I want it to resonate now.”

That contemporary resonance is one of the main goals of The Payroll Union’s album, ‘Paris of America’, but also of the larger collaborative project ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’, of which the album was a part. David related the band’s connection with the project, which was funded through the Arts Enterprise at the University of Sheffield: “I became friends with a lecturer at Sheffield (Dr. Andrew Heath) just before we released our first album. [He had] heard from a friend that this band were playing songs that were inspired by 19th century American history. He was interested in what that was all about, and he came down to the gig, and we got chatting and got on really well. And he said, ‘you know there’s this fund we can apply for, where we can maybe get some money to do something, would you maybe be interested in doing something together?” And obviously I said ‘yeah, that’d be great’. And we met a few times and chatted about what we could do.”

At the time, David had already been thinking of writing an album focused on a specific place and time period. “[I was] very focused on that because the previous album was kind of flitting around, you know, across different times. I was actually really interested in doing something on, like more of a religious thing, because I had touched on the Second Great Awakening, [and] the writers of charismatic evangelism in the Twenties. So I was interested in Rochester, in New York, that was the place where a particular preacher called Charles Grandison Finney was very successful, and it was one of those boomtowns on the Erie Canal, and I just thought it would be a great thing to do.”

But the ‘Faith and Fear’ project’s research was based in Philadelphia, and after some discussion with Heath, David was convinced that he could write something equally immersive about that city’s so-called “riot era” of the 1830s and ’40s. He describes the project as “very experimental” in terms of its scope. “We thought ‘let’s just work with lots of different people and see how we can look at history in a different way’, through music, but also through film and through illustrators, and there were lots of other strands that didn’t really work out. We wanted to do so much, but we just couldn’t do everything.” The ambitious project is still “in an ongoing way” according to David, who along with Heath gives a fuller explanation in the following video clip from the ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’ Web site.


Pete David’s chat with Carrie continues on TGTF this same time tomorrow.


Album Review: The Payroll Union – Paris of America

By on Tuesday, 30th June 2015 at 12:00 pm

Payroll Union - Paris of America coverAn Americana band from Sheffield? Can that be a genuine thing? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes. With the release of their second full-length album, The Payroll Union have established themselves as serious contenders in the indie folk genre as well as honing a more specific proficiency in analyzing U.S. history by using a style of music that is typically associated with America. The band’s first two EPs, ‘Underfed and Underpaid’ and ‘Your Obedient Servant’, both released in 2011, established the foundational exploration of American history that continues to inform their work, including 2013 debut LP ‘The Mule and The Elephant’ and their new album ‘Paris of America’.

The album’s title refers to the city of Philadelphia, nicknamed the “Athens of America” for its cultural and political atmosphere in the time period immediately following the American Revolution.  Philadelphia’s history took a violent turn in the so-called ‘riot era’ of the 1830s and 1840s, when eruptions of hostility and aggression fed by racial, social and economic upheaval agitated the city in what might be considered aftershocks of the revolution in France some 50 years earlier. The Payroll Union’s academic and artistic endeavours in the making of ‘Paris of America’ were supported by the Arts Enterprise project at the University of Sheffield, which led the band’s lead singer and songwriter Pete David to collaborate with filmmakers, illustrators, other musicians and most notably historian Dr. Andrew Heath, on a project titled ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’.

Thematically, the songs on ‘Paris of America’ take an alternative and character-specific approach to illustrating the anguish and turmoil of the time period, telling deeply emotional stories with careful and fascinating attention to detail. Musically, there is a strong and unsettling sense of dramatic tension throughout the album. Anxiously persistent bass and percussion rhythms buttress piercing electric guitar riffs and the deep, menacing baritone of David’s vocals, which are particularly effective in the recurrent moments of fire and brimstone imagery.

The album’s opening track ‘The Ballad of George Shiffler’ takes on the passionate perspective of Nativist militants vowing revenge for the killing of one of their young members in an anti-Catholic riot.  The final verse is a broad call to arms, “do not remain in mourning long, the fighting does not cease / we’ll pull down every headstone, whether commodore or priest / so sing this song for years to come, George Shiffler is his name / a gentleman, American, who fought the papists’ claim”, while the chorus, “we light the sky” is an anthemic rallying cry.

While most of the tracks on ‘Paris of America’ are forcefully immediate in their passion and fervor, ‘Winter of ‘41’ is, by necessity, a bit more introspective, though no less dramatic than the others, as it details author James Fennimore Cooper’s account of an unusually long and bitterly cold winter that brought Philadelphia to a standstill. The song’s slow 8-minute evolution starts with a delicate, ethereal keyboard melody under through-composed verses that seem somehow appropriate to the poetry of the time period: “The winter of ’41, it lasted oh so long, it lasted through the spring / we almost weakened in the frost, frozen in our fear, paralysed by loss”.

First single ‘The Mission Field’ is the jaded narrative of a Protestant minister, who points out the sin and depravity of the people he is tasked to save. The turbulent percussion tumbles through his multifaceted examination of how civil unrest has affected the city of Philadelphia, exposing personal flaws to daylight and judgment before descending into a chaotic milieu of background vocals.


After exploring the growing divide between Philadelphia’s social classes in ‘Wo Unto Sodom’ and ‘Blood or Bread’, the album looks ahead in history to an even greater period of unrest, the American Civil War. Its final track is a resigned and melancholy piano ballad called ‘The 6th’, which refers to a regiment of black soldiers who volunteered to join the fight for their freedom.

As you have probably already deduced, ‘Paris of America’ isn’t an album designed for casual Sunday afternoon listening. Though the songs fully elucidate the context of historical drama and tension all on their own, their sophisticated level of detail will likely inspire, or indeed require, a bit of background research for listeners who are unfamiliar. The Payroll Union have with this album proved a remarkably high level of dedication to both the intellectual and emotional aspects of their craft with character portrayals that are both historically accurate and, at the heart of it all, profoundly human.


The Payroll Union’s second album ‘Paris of America’ is out now via Backwater Collective.


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