"This is the poncy artist in me talking", says Sam Johnson with a wry, self-aware smile, "but there's probably about five people left in the UK with a decent stereo and the speakers set right, and a nice comfy chair, and the time to sit down and listen to something. And I hope those five get to hear it."
Rainy Kingdom, the new album from London collective Lucky Elephant (released by Sunday Best in July), deserves to be heard by many more than that theoretical five. As well as a deliciously beguiling listening experience in its own right, its relaxed, cat-asleep-on-a-warm-brick-wall languor recalling antecedents ranging from The High Llamas to Robert Wyatt as well as the band's own stated influences (Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Tom Waits, Yabby You, Ian Carr's Nucleus. Eric Satie and Les Dawson, since you ask), Rainy Kingdom acts as a companion piece to the obscure but fascinating TV documentary which inspired it.
We Was All One, made by Ken Ashton for Thames Television in 1972, depicted the dying working class culture of the Bermondsey, Old Kent Rd and Elephant & Castle areas with beautifully bittersweet pathos (it's out there on Youtube, if you want to find it), catching the moment when the traditional Cockney way of life was being dismantled, as slums were cleared, communities broken up and inhabitants sent to healthier, but more isolated tower block homes.
Lucky Elephant themselves are not immune to the currents of gentrification and social engineering which have rolled over London in recent years. Having been priced out of their original hideout underneath a patty shop on Railton Road, they moved into cheap studio space in Old Street 12 years ago (when you could still do that), only to end up nudged out again when the Olympics came to town.
Furthermore, Deptford-born and bred keyboardist Sam Johnson knows the neighbourhood in the film intimately. His band-mates, however, bring more of a distance: fellow gadget-twiddler 'Tall' Paul Burnley (no, not the Tall Paul) is from Bradford, and the line-up is completed by North Londoner Laurence Clack on drums, and vocalist Emmanuel 'Manu' Labescat, from the south-west of France. Together, on this album, they pursue the relatively-uncharted "band as social historian" role also explored, in recent years, by Public Service Broadcasting, British Sea Power and Eccentronic Research Council.
“Local history is so moth-eaten and associated with Geography field trips,” says Johnson, “so it's nice to be able to do something like this. We'd like to take this idea around Britain and Europe to other cities, and have samples and readings over the top which are relevant to that area, and show their faces and say 'These are the people whose voices you'll hear'."
The seed for the technique was sown two decades ago. “I used to love The Orb,” he recalls, “but those samples chucked in on tracks like 'Little Fluffy Clouds' didn't have anything to do with anything. It was such a simple thing, but you'd never heard spoken word over the top of something before. It's an interesting take on sampling culture. We're taking that idea but using samples that are actually about something.”
Johnson discovered Ken Ashton's documentary more-or-less by accident. “It was probably a bored internet moment, clicking around, you go down these weird alleys. And immediately, I said 'This is amazing'. We all became slightly obsessed with it. When you're writing you need a spark, and usually it's heartbreak or lost love, but we used this. It was a microcosm of so much that is going on. Not just in South East London or London or England even, but the whole of Europe.”
The band's resident Frenchman understood its significance without the need for cultural translation. “Manu linked it to the idea of the centre of Paris being cleared of 'trouble', so all the problems are shunted out to the Peripherique, as depicted in things like La Haine. And it's going to take generations to sort that out. It means you've got lovely boulevards - well done - but it's not how life is and it's not how communities are. It's a falsehood.”
As one of the elderly Cockneys in We Was All One optimistically puts it, “They say the good times have gone, but they're not. They're only altered.” Another old girl, however, says something echoes poignantly in the present day: “It must be better now, because in some way or other, from birth to death, they're looked after by the state”. If only she knew what lay around the corner. The film is equally ambivalent about the past: the death of community spirit is mourned, but the rat infestations and the lack of privacy leave the viewer with the distinct sense that the Good Old Days weren't always all that good.
“We're not lining up on a particular side,” Johnson makes clear, “because there are some unpleasant characters in that documentary. I've never felt 'pride in an area' – I usually find it quite ugly. And that idea of community is great in that era unless you're black, Irish or gay. And I remember Manu once said 'Oh putain, I love London. All these people I'll never know, and they'll never know me.'” The incongruity of the singer's sud-ouest voice describing Cockney life is used to magnificent effect: “I love hearing him sing things like 'trucks, ponies, gypsies, us' in a French accent, and people saying 'Well, HE wasn't born around here...'"
However, as the Frenchman himself explains, London wasn't the only inspiration for the lyrics on Rainy Kingdom. "I think Paris is mentioned," says Manu, "but I got most of my inspiration from Telford, where the development of this big town ended up killing all the little market villages around it (like Wellington and Oakengates). They built this big shopping mall, 'modernised' the landscape with roundabouts, and here we go, no more community, as the little villages got poor, sad, drugged up, uncultured, and deserted. People were left with roundabouts, retail parks, shopping malls and life slowly became easier when watching TV and opening closing fridges, responding to what is being presented as 'must haves' (the song 'Helen' is an example of the whole Telford landscape, wanting those shoes like that actress, catching the tradewinds). This is starting to happen in France too. Telford is a huge part of the album. It's a whole New Town culture, very consumerist, sent over from the States where the shopping mall stands in the middle of it all, surrounded by retail parks, themselves surrounded by more roundabouts and patches of property development projects. Old Kent Road is just one side of the change, Telford in the 70s is what happened next! It's when I moved to Shopshire that we started having hills and concrete in our songs."
Rainy Kingdom is the result of a long musical journey for Lucky Elephant. Like a lot of people in the Nineties, we got obsessed with computers and didn't play guitar for ages. But that got really tiring, and a fair lot of the music wasn't good enough, just drug music. That was its purpose, which is cool, a lot of my favourite music is drug music, but... it all came to a head when we were playing Cargo, one of the fellers dropped his laptop, and it was like 'Oh my god, we can't play any songs.' Then we thought 'This is absolutely ridiculous, can we honestly not get something together?' So we did this dreadful 20 minute jam, came offstage and said 'That was brilliant, that was the best thing we've done in years'. Even though it was awful. We were genuinely crap. Which is quite humbling, when you're in your late twenties. So that informed what we did next. We started from scratch, and set up this array of anything we had: guitars, harmoniums, Wurlitzers, ukuleles... we didn't touch a computer for years.”
The band's approach to songwriting also took a complete about-face. “We were starting from a lyric instead of a loop. Manu would come up with these amazing stories, and you'd feel obliged to come up with something amazing to go under it. Even the artwork on Rainy Kingdom, which began with ideas made up at an old printworks in Ironbridge and is hand-cut and stamped, reflects this return to the old school.
After making their “fun, playful, lo-fi, higgledy-piggledy” first album completely DIY, this time around they enlisted the help of a producer, Paul Butler (Michael Kiwanuka, Devendra Banhart, The Bees etc). A fresh pair of ears proved extremely useful. “We're naturally quite democratic and collaborative, and it's not one person's vision, which is a reaction to people obsessively making music on their own. But the problem with that is you end up with too many elements. Paul actually helped us strip away some of the mad noises and teach us that less is more, and show which the important part of the song is. We're not a brave band, we're not confrontational with each other, we write harmoniously, so we needed a producer to tell us what worked and what didn't work. It's like that cliché: a good book doesn't tell you everything.”
The album is preceded by the release of the track “British Working Man”, which was nearly the title track, "...but I didn't want to spend a year explaining to people that it's not a BNP record." The song is accompanied by a stop-motion animation video set in a recognisably modern London (the DLR and the London Eye are both visible, as is an Apple laptop), depicting the life and repetitive routine of an office drone (imagine a Plasticene version of Jonathan Pryce's character in Terry Gilliam's Brazil). The visual style will evoke nostalgic associations with - depending upon your generation – Trumpton/Chigley/Camberwick Green, Postman Pat or Bob The Builder, all set in an ordered society where everything turns out alright. In Lucky Elephant's world, however, there's always the unsettling suggestion that things won't turn out so well: the sight of a passenger plane passing overhead is accompanied by the sound of a WW2 bomber.
Warm and benign on the surface, but carrying a resonant, poignant, often dark tale: that's Rainy Kingdom – and Lucky Elephant - in microcosm.