Alex Rex: ‘Authenticity is a red herring. It’s better to try something new.’

With a dark new alter ego, Trembling Bells’ Alex Neilson pushes himself into uncomfortable places for his bold and brilliant debut as a solo artist

Opposite Rimbaud and Verlaine’s Victorian love-nest in London’s King’s Cross, in a bedsit up four flights of stairs, sits a folk music veteran wearing aran and corduroy. Pictures of Norma Waterson and Shirley Collins beam from the walls. On the bedside table are the two magazines: Viz and experimental music monthly Wire. “I’ve got a mind like an open sewer,” says Alex Neilson, half-embarrassed, half-proud.

With his riot of red hair, and a talent that hops genres and drops jaws, Neilson has long been folk and psychedelic music’s go-to drummer, a modern Ginger Baker, yelping and skittering on stage. He’s toured the world with Will Oldham, collaborated with avant-garde artists Jandek and Baby Dee, and now drums for folk stalwarts Shirley Collins and Alasdair Roberts, while also being chief songwriter and vocalist for critically acclaimed folk-rock revivalists Trembling Bells.

His debut solo album Vermilion presents him as a provocative, poetic lothario with the alter ego Alex Rex. On record, rose thorns grow in Rex’s throat and he sleeps with girls for their minds as well as their bodies. In person, Neilsen is gentler, and funny, and a considerate shaper of sentences. “It felt too hubristic to release something under my own name,” he says of his recording alter ego. “And in some ways I never liked the name Alex Neilson, but don’t tell my dad.”

Born in Leeds in 1982, Neilson grew up in a council house with his dad, a builder, and his mum, a nursery nurse. “If I have any heroes, it’s them. They were unbendingly tolerant and supportive, buying me a drum kit, piling everything in the back of the car to take me to rehearsals.” He originally only took drum lessons because it meant he could skip physics class. “I’d take 15 minutes walking there, and 15 minutes back to make sure,” he says.

He “discovered pot” in his early teens and the weird records his older brother would play while burning incense in the bath. “Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground ruined normal music for me. At 14, I was straight into the darker end of psych, while my friends were into paler stuff like Grandaddy, which I just didn’t get.”

He then got into jazz and early music, and went to study English literature at Glasgow University chiefly for its music scene, before dropping out, not once but twice. There he formed experimental bands Scatter and Directing Hand after getting into folk, particularly the work of English folk singer Shirley Collins, much to the annoyance of his housemates. “I was living inside her records for months at a time, having this slow love affair … they would be banging the door, begging me to turn her off, then for me to move out.” Collins’s stark, uncompromising approach to music captivated Neilson, something he has always kept with him.

His obsession culminated in a 450-mile trip from Glasgow to Lewes to see the singer giving a talk in a pub. He’s still thrilled they’re now friends, let alone that he drummed on her comeback album, Lodestar. “She has an openness and steely determination that is a constant inspiration. And she always had a pot of soup on when we were recording.”

He’s a well-known name on today’s modern folk circuit, but Neilson has never felt he fitted in with the Radio 2 Folk awards crowd. “I’m not interested in the orthodoxy of an institution … but that world does need a clean broom. It’s very conservative, which is strange when the idea of folk goes against the very nature of conservatism. [Folk] passes through people, doesn’t it? It morphs and mutates.” He shrugs. “The concept of authenticity is a red herring, anyway. It’s better to try something new.”

 

Neilson’s solo project was driven by this desire for new challenges, he promises, rather than ego. “This was about pushing myself into uncomfortable places.” As well he did. Written during a “particularly self-destructive” period in his life in late 2015, Vermilion begins with the Gregorian chant-inspired blues of The Screaming Cathedral, with a chorus telling of “horror heaped on horror”. Please God Make Me Good (But Not Yet) features a girl sticking pins into a voodoo sex doll of him, before he has a “hit on myself”. Getting the worst bits of himself out there was therapeutic and necessary for Neilson. “I wanted songs that spilt out of themselves. The records I cherish most are asymmetrical things, full of blemishes,” he says. Continue reading

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Film Review: The Ballad Of Shirley Collins

Music taken from the recent documentary about Shirley Collins’ return to music is more than a mere soundtrack LP, says Luke Turner.

The soundtrack to The Ballad Of Shirley Collins starts with something rather shocking. Over the sound of a crackling fire the veteran folk singer is heard saying “There are some great female voices around now, but I’m not one of them. I wish I was.” Given her recent live appearances have been touching, emotional affairs, it’s rather devastating to hear Collins’ own verdict on her return after notorious decades of silence in which she avoided even singing in the shower. In this time, Collins’ place at the heart of the story of English and American folk music was neglected in favour of a male-dominated narrative, and she was only persuaded to return to song by the pestering of Current 93’s David Tibet. The story of how she rediscovered song is finely told in The Ballad Of Shirley Collins which, if you haven’t already seen it, you should track down now. You can hear the treasure that came from the rediscovery of what her voice can do in 2016’s Lodestar, an album in which Collins and her stripped-back band make songs, some centuries old, resonate with a curiously vibrant psychedelia.

 

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Horror in the Hills: When Rural Life Meets Acid-Tinged Folk Music

From Richard Dawson’s bellowed workers’ songs to Shirley Collins’ delicate folk, there’s a story told beyond ruddy-faced farmer stereotypes.

“…If things looking bleak now, they’ve always sounded psychedelic. As the acid-laced optimism of the late 60s slumped into the nuclear comedown of the early 70s, a string of artists sprung from the dark heart of rural Britain. Albums likeBasket of Light by Pentangle, The Incredible String Band’s Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, or First Utterance by Comus, hum with cosmic vibrations, and those vibrations reverberate to this very day. Listen carefully and you’ll hear them today in the newer music of acts like Bendith – a Welsh folk collab act – Richard Dawson, who roars over a detuned guitar like someone who’s just stood on an upwards-facing plug and octogenarian legend Shirley Collins…” | Read full story

From girl-powered punk to G funk: the best music films at the BFI London Film Festival

Taking place October 4-15, the LFF will be plugging into punk, Elvis, folk and the swinging 1960sEnough already about Cannes and the Venice Film Festival – turns out we’ve got our own homegrown film fest that’s just as good. What’s more, the BFI London Film Festival always has a highly decent selection of music movies and this year is no exception. Here’s the festival’s programmer Kate Taylor to take us through the best on offer this October [ . . . ]

More: From girl-powered punk to G funk: the best music films at the BFI London Film Festival – NME