On a chill, wintry afternoon, Keith M Thomson and Marijana Hajdarhodzic of The Penny Black Remedy, meet me in the illustrious Groucho Club, in Soho, central London. Over coffee, they discuss their obsession with making death funny and how Imelda May might just be their new biggest fan.
TPBR recently released its third album, Maintaining Dignity In Awkward Situations. As the title suggests, this is not your run-of-the-mill pop record. It’s a quirky, clever and unusual affair – marrying wit with darkness, joyous singalongs with blatant self-depreciation and taking the whole lot on a honeymoon rollercoaster of a ride, set to leave you dancing, laughing and nodding sagely, in equal measure.
It’s a struggle to describe what TPBR actually sounds like if you haven’t experienced the explosively enthusiastic full-band shows. Genre-wise they might classify themselves as folk-roots music with a punk essence, but their rowdy, audience-participatory gigs take their catchy, enchanting recorded repertoire to an entirely different level.
The new album was produced by Boz Boorer, founding member of rockabilly band The Polecats and a seasoned writer and producer, who has worked with acts including Morrissey and Adam Ant.
“We were introduced to him through our mutual friend, Gavin, at a Christmas party,” begins Keith, in typically down-to-earth manner. “There was an instant rapport. We went out to Portugal to his studio and recorded some of it there and some of it in Dubrovnik, in Croatia, where we spend a lot of time. It was a complete joy!”
Marijana laughingly chips in that working with such an experienced and talented musician gave Keith a kick up the proverbial to be as good as he possibly could be.
Maintaining Dignity In Awkward Situations follows TPBR’s non-judgmentally titled No One’s Fault But Your Own, from 2009, and the reassuringly named Inhale, Exhale…OK Now You Can Panic!, from 2013. It takes about four years for each album to be born, due to the many and varied pressures and practicalities of being in a band – from the ‘herding cats’ problem of getting musicians together to financial challenges. But two years ago, something changed for Keith.
“I was writing a lot and not really singing enough. I was getting a backlog of songs that were all in my head and it was driving me a little bit crazy,” he says. “So I learned how to record and we started a very modest studio of our own, called Baba Luna Studios. In that two-year period, I have recorded a solo album [It’s Not A Matter of Space, released in late 2016], and I’ve got a follow up to the solo album coming out this Spring, and a follow up to that one, planned for Spring 2019. The next Penny Black album is also written.”
Phew! But does this prolific period mean any changes in direction thematically?
Keith raises his eyebrows and says no, the themes will be very familiar to fans: “stress, doom, catastrophe, ‘miserablism’ and death, essentially”. He smiles and breaks out in a big chuckle. Mixing humour with dark subject matter is a noticeable trademark to TPBR songs.
“I do like the dichotomy of the darkness and the light-naturedness of them,” says Keith. He cites Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave as grimly humorous songwriters he enjoys, before cutting straight to the heart of the matter. “I’m obsessed with death and the only way to deal with that is to try to laugh at it. When I say death, primarily my own.” He and Marijana laugh knowingly, before she adds: “I think you always deal with your own obsessive nature by talking about it in a humorous way – so it just translates into writing.”
One of the defining features of their live shows is the singalong aspect, which gets the crowd feverishly fired up. However, rather than being standard drinking calls, it’s more likely to be a chant about how nice it is if you stop complaining. I wonder whether Keith has any examples of enjoying unusual singalongs by other bands?
“I was given an REM ticket in 2005,” he reminisces. “I would never think about going to a stadium gig to see REM. I was taken by surprise – there was a moment they played Man On The Moon and it’s not a stadium singalong song. I looked around at everyone singing and just started crying. That’s as far back as I remember feeling that moment of a really inclusive thing with not an obvious song. Queen did it with Radio Gaga and We Are The Champions, which I grew up with, but in terms of not obvious ones, probably that REM moment was significant.”
Marijana adds: “I don’t feel that the songs were written in order to be a singalong, maybe because Keith writes around song titles, they have to be quite strong and defined, so maybe they’re quite hooky already by definition. Part of our show is an honest wish to bring people in as much as possible. Loads of these songs became singalongs completely spontaneously.”
The first time I saw The Penny Black Remedy they were playing at the iconic 12 Bar, which became a second home for the band. The venue is now closed, a victim to redevelopment, and is a big loss to the central London music scene. Keith recalls how it played a major role in the band’s story.
“I played acoustic solo gigs there – that was where I learned how to communicate with an audience. I was doing those midnight, graveyard slots with some very drunk people. There could be six people in a room, completely pissed out of their heads and you need to make this whole thing mean something. In terms of the band, we were blessed to know the promoter, Andy Lowe, and the owners. We became really good friends and they loved what we were doing. They really allowed us to develop by giving us gigs when we wanted. We were given carte blanche to develop, which is unusual, especially in a central London venue!”
“It’s becoming more and more unusual with venues that size closing down,” says Marijana. “It’s going to become harder and harder for any bands to have the luxury that we had, having a small enough place to do that. Because you can’t just go from your bedroom to 500,000 capacity venues.”
Keith agrees. “I’m not sure it would have been possible for us to get to where we are at this point, three albums down the line, if we were only playing once a month in different kind of venues across London. Also, there was something special in that place, it was kind of transitory in terms of who was there. You would be playing to a roomful of very different people, being central London, cheap to get in, cheap beer and friendly faces when you arrive. There was just some magic in that and we were lucky enough to be there. I think London suffers without it. It saddens me a lot that it’s not there.”
So with the next new album (after the current new album) (keep up!) already written, what can they reveal about it?
“We’re really excited about it,” enthuses Keith. “Basia, who played violin on Maintaining Dignity, and Jeremy, who played acoustic guitar and sang on it, are going to be on it again. A couple of guys in Croatia, Alan and Ante, are going to be guest musicians on it. I’ve already designed the cover art. We’ve already started playing a couple of the songs live in our acoustic set and they’ve been getting really great feedback straight away.”
When I ask what they would like people to take away from their shows, they both chime in with the idea of unity. “People from different cultures, backgrounds coming together, having a nice time, a singsong,” says Keith. “We’re a very huggy band, so we hug most of the audience by the end of the night. You try to make something unique happen. Unity, warmth and joy. Because there’s a lot of scary shit and darkness in the world and we try and make people smile…even though the songs are about death and destruction.”
Lastly, I ask about Imelda May being at their album launch at The Islington, in north London.
“Yeah, that was amazing,” beams Keith. “She said she didn’t want the gig to end and left with a copy of all our albums! That was a lovely surprise.”
With multiple records in the pipeline, including an acoustic mini-album in the Autumn and the next full band record in 2019/20, plus lots of touring planned, they’ll be plenty of opportunities for TPBR‘s star to climb and to be recognised by ever more new fans – famous or not. In the meantime, they continue to stay grounded and amused by the world around them. “Did you see Alexi Sayle over there!?” whispers Keith, with a grin, as we retreat from the exclusive den. They wave goodbye and, much like with their live shows, I’m left with a distinctly upbeat feeling about the world. This is one remedy with no bad side-effects.
Check out The Penny Black Remedy for yourself at the following events in 2018:
11 May – The Old Firehouse, Exeter
12 May – Dart Music Festival, Dartmouth
8 June – The Old Firehouse, Exeter
9 June – The Albion Tin Man Festival, Liskeard
12, 14, 15 and 16 August – Broadstairs Folk Week, Broadstairs
18 August – Chicken Stock Festival, Stockbury, Sittingbourne
24 August – Small World Summer Festival
Further info at www.thepennyblackremedy.com.
Interview & Portraits by Imelda Michalczyk in Interview with The Penny Black Remedy April 2018.