Today, we are speaking with James Fearnley of Los Angeles’ Cranky George. Can you give us a little background information about yourself? How did you get into music?
I’m from England – Manchester, originally. I was a boy treble at my local church and for the first couple of years at the boarding school I went to in Yorkshire until my voice broke. I took piano lessons too, but hated my teacher so much that pretended that someone had closed a window on my wrists in order to get out of a lesson. I gave up lessons, but carried on playing the piano, and in experimental groups and a couple of bands at school. I took up guitar when I was fourteen. I went to the same college in London which Pete Townshend from the Who went (though he was before my time), and, incidentally, Freddie Mercury (again, before my time). In1977 I lived in Berlin for a few months, played guitar for an African performer who basically said I was too good to play accompaniment and recommended I go back to England, since everything was happening there in any case, get myself a guitar and get myself into a band. I worked on a building site near Manchester to earn enough money for a Telecaster and then went from audition to audition in London, joining a handful of bands, ending up with Shane MacGowan – the future frontman and songwriter with the Pogues – in a group called the Nipple Erectors. We opened for The Jam a few times. The Nips didn’t last long but a year and a half after we split, Jem Finer (a friend of Shane’s who was learning banjo and who became the banjo player in the Pogues) came to visit me where I was living in Camden, with an accordion in a laundry bag. That was the beginning of the Pogues. 30 years later…..
You have just released a new single “Ne Me Quitte Pas”. What was the writing/creative and recording process for the song like? For those that are not familiar with the French language, what does the song title mean?
Yes, Cranky George is releasing Ne Me Quitte Pas as a single in conjunction with a music video on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th) which is a date on the calender the Pogues never missed. I would have to let you know that there will be a vinyl promotion running on our website (crankygeorge.com) for a month, from March 17th to April 17th. There’ll be bonus giveaways, too. I would exhort readers to check in there. It’s a fun, ever-changing site.
My writing process – not restricted to Ne Me Quitte Pas – is, well, long and drawn out and subject to my fastidiousness. Most of my material comes from life, or some difficult aspect of it – a moment here and there, or a synthesis of a moment, if that makes sense. The phrase ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, I robbed for the chorus (and I do say so in the lyrics before the first chorus) from the Belgian chanteur, Jacques Brel. Literally it means ‘Don’t leave me.’ Brel’s song is ‘a hymn to the cowardice of men’ and was written after his mistress threw him out. My ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ is about – well, pretty much the same thing I’d have to say, with a layer of regret about what’s past (passed, whatever, both). The harmonic business of the song owes a lot to ‘My Yiddishe Momme’, just thought I’d mention that, and ‘Michelle My Belle’ a bit too. I’m a magpie like that.
Recording? We set up in Brad Wood’s studio and played everything live, pretty much. We’d played together, live, lots, over the years, and the songs on Fat Lot Of Good we played similarly, until a kind of richness born of familiarity has set in, I think.
How did you meet up with the Mulroney brothers?
Talking about ‘richness born of familiarity’ setting in, I’ve known the Mulroney brothers for, I don’t know, over twenty five years now. I met both through my wife, Danielle von Zerneck, who was an actress at the time (La Bamba, among other films). She’d worked with Dermot’s wife, at the time, Catherine Keener, and with Kieran Mulroney, when he was in the acting profession. For a long while, Kieran and Dermot were neighbours of ours, one down the street, the other across a couple of blocks. We’d meet up in Dermot’s garage and play, and sing, together. Our social circle gathered on occasion for hootenannies at our house, or Dermot’s – Melissa Etheridge’s once, too (Melissa was the kind of ‘mum’, I suppose, when it came to the hootenannies – she knew loads of songs and if we faltered about what to do next, she’d come up with something and lead us all in it.) I loved playing with Dermot and Kieran – and still do. There’s an Irish connection there – in the sense that they’re of Irish ancestry and the years I’ve put into playing with the Pogues has afforded me honorary Irishness, you could say.
Cranky George is an L.A. band; how has playing and living in L.A. different from the other locations that you have resided?
I always hated the Christmas season in Los Angeles. When I lived in London, it was a matter of leaving your house and walking to the shops to buy presents. In Los Angeles, you have to have more of a plan than that, a plan bigger than I could cope with. The times I’ve driven, rudderless around this city. It’s a diffuse, sprawling place – but rich with different cultures and traditions, languages, customs, if you have the daring to access them. Obversely (if that’s the right word), it also lends itself to – a density, I suppose, in one’s friendships, if that makes sense.
I was proud to be part of The Low and Sweet Orchestra, with Dermot and Kieran (and with Circle Jerks’ and Strummer’s guitar-player, Zander Schloss, Tex and the Horseheads’ Mike Martt, with Tom Barta and Will Hughes – all Los Angeles musicians). That’s when playing music in Los Angeles, for me, became – well, rewarding, in a career sense, if you understand me, and in an artistic sense too – and in a personal sense as well. We signed to Interscope Records and made a record I’m hugely proud of, called ‘Goodbye to All That’, produced, initially, by the late David Briggs (Neil Young’s long-time producer) and, later, by Gavin MacKillop.
What does your recording set up look like (what do you use to record, what are your favorite tools)?
My recording set up is – spare, to be truthful. I’ve a closet full of instruments – a few accordions, mandolin, guitar, whistles, Telecaster copy, Cranky George’s hat-box bass drum (when they let me borrow it, even though I made the damn thing), hammered dulcimer, snare drum, piano, bodhrán – and lesser-used ones in the basement: clarinet, trumpet, chimes. I’ve an sE Electronics large condenser microphone and, by way of software, Logic Pro. It’s not much, but, if it were more, I’d probably spend too much time finding out what each thing does.
Can you give us a fun fact about your accordion?
My Hohner Tango is the same model as that played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. And another fun fact is that, once, I sweated so much into the keyboard of my Hohner Tango that all the keys stuck down to the degree that it was pointless playing it any longer. I took it to a shop called Accordionorama in New York City. The keys pivot on a rod. When the wood swells, each key grips the rod too tight. The thing to do is to remove the rod, re-bore a hole right through all the keys, and insert a new rod. To get rid of the rod, apparently, you apply the terminals of a car battery to each end of it. When you do that, the rod vaporises, and, because of the spring under each key, the keyboard explodes. I wish someone had taken a photograph of that moment (if it’s at all true, which, as I answer this question, no longer seems feasible).
Which artists are the greatest influences for you and your music? Is there a dream lineup of performers that you would like to perform with if given the chance?
Oh, there are so many! First of all, by way of influences, I’d have to say Shane MacGowan, followed, with varying degrees, of closeness by, I don’t know, ready? Granville Bantock, The Barry Sisters, Jacques Brel, Edwin Hubbell Chapin, Frédéric Chopin, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald, Oscar Hammerstein II, Los Lobos, Alan Lomax, Colin Meloy, John McCormack, Oxford Anthology of Sea Songs, Lew Pollack and Jack Yellen, Django Reinhardt, Sigmund Romberg, Juan ‘El Ciclón’ Torres, Tom Waits, Kurt Weill, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Régine Zylberberg.
As far as a dream line-up of performers, given the chance? Let me see . . . in a sense I’ve already played with my dream line-ups of performers. If you were to push me on it, I’d probably say they’re all dead.
What should listeners expect from Cranky George in the future? How can interested NeuFutur readers locate samples of the band’s music?
By now, the music video for ‘Yes!’ will have been released (this coming Valentine’s Day, the perfect timing for such a song – have a listen: you’ll understand why).
We’re planning various shows in and around Los Angeles. The festival season is almost upon us. I’d like to invite people to check in on our Facebook page for news of imminent thisses and thats. We’re a good live band – an Aladdin’s cave of instruments (pretty much any one of which, when rubbed, lets some sort of genie out).
What does the rest of 2017 hold for you?
Well, this coming May, what we’re calling the Cranky George B-Sides are being released on on iTunes. These are five songs from the vaults – songs which we recorded some time ago, when the band went by the name of Mossback George (‘Mossback’, because, in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, was the epithet given James Stewart – the character George Bailey in the film – because he never left his home town – an epithet we were content to give ourselves, since, at one time, we never seemed to leave town, though that’ll change this year, with the American continent to explore, and Europe too, eventually).
One of the B-Sides is a song, written by Kieran, called Bashful Boy for which there’ll be a music video. The video will star what has become, well, the band’s mascot which – who – goes by the name Li’l Cranky – the ventriloquist’s dummy featured on Facebook every Monday for “Cranky Mondays” when he – it – announces the winner of – well, booty: records, autographed stuff, beermats, maybe a t-shirt, a CD, that sort of thing. The cover of ‘Fat Lot of Good’ features the Ozymandian head of a clown (at Six Flags, after Katrina, actually), and we ran with the fairground idea (such imagery features quite a lot on the record), and then, up popped the little fellow with the articulatable jaw. Creepy I know, but, well, fuck it.
Later in the year, Hallowe’en the band will be releasing a stop-motion-style music video for Kieran’s song, The Bones, to be directed by Andy Keir who was intimately involved with the video for ‘Yes!’.
Thank you so much for your time. Finally, do you have any additional thoughts about life and the universe for our readers?
It’s tempting to say that the universe is ever-expanding. So may your readership.
Also, at the time of writing, George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is at the top of Amazon’s best-selling books list. There’s a reason for that. It’s everyone’s job, at the moment, to resist the reason it is on the top of that list. Read it first, of course, and then resist.