PRESS / BIOGRAPHY / REVIEWS / INTERVIEWS
“Sexy psychedelia” NME
“Gloriously ridiculous stuff” The Wire
“Classic songwriting” Record Collector
“He performs complete wonders” The Big Issue
“War Against Sleep are the audio version of the programmes that used to scare me witless as a child” Rough Trade
Biography by Fire Records
“Duncan Fleming is a genius of a songwriter walking a razor sharp tightrope between deranged humour and classic pop music. War Against Sleep is his ongoing battle against the absurd waking dream that passes for life, in which he plunders the hidden treasures of a thousand charity shop records, writing songs that tingle the spine, move the soul and lift the spirit.
In 2003 Fire Records released the superb debut War Against Sleep album ‘Messages’, a record culled from a huge archive of songs recorded over a number of years. ‘Messages’ saw sonic ambition pushing four track tape to its limits. The incredible follow up album ‘Invitation To The Feast’ used guerrilla tactic computer recording and numerous guest musicians to further realise an epic vision, culminating in the breathtakingly poetic orchestral drama of ‘Song Of Songs’.
War Against Sleep live shows have also shown a similar expansion, growing from intimate solo piano shows to lavish band arrangements with contributions from the sonic pioneers behind Bronnt Industries Kapital and The Landslide Purist.”
“His songs are lovingly crafted. Both pretty and sardonic, they’re acid soaked sticking plasters for broken hearts.” Venue Magazine
“If songs could smoke cigarettes and gaze longingly out of the window – these would be they”Decode Magazine
“Duncan Fleming has more talent in his little finger than most bands have in their entire record collections” Silent Age Records
“Lo-octane lo-fi never sounded so hot.” Logo Magazine
“Bloody Marvellous” Tangents
“Duncan Fleming is one of the finest songwriters in the country, and a true original whose style defies any obvious comparison. His songs walk a deft lyrical tighrope; laced with bathetic and absurd images, yet with the dark humour enhancing rather than compromising their emotional impact. The result evokes a sense of tragedy and drama which moves effortlessly from the elevated to the everyday.
In 2003 Fire Records released the superb debut War Against Sleep album ‘Messages’, a record culled from a huge archive of songs recorded over a number of years. ‘Messages’ saw sonic ambition pushing four track tape to its limits, while on the incredible album ‘Invitation To The Feast’ Fleming uses computer recording and numerous guest musicians to further realise an epic vision, culminating in the breathtakingly poetic orchestral drama of ‘Song Of Songs’.
War Against Sleep live shows have also shown a similar expansion, moving from solo piano/ Minidisc self-karaoke outings to full band arrangements boasting all the imagination one would expect from musicians like Knowledge of Bugs and Max from Bronnt Industries Kapital.
Duncan Fleming curates regular ‘Silent Night’ evenings of live film soundtracking (at which Mole Harness has performed), and also displays an admirable disdain for traditional live music settings when planning War Against Sleep events: the ‘Messages’ album launch consisted of a 24 hour gig, with Fleming forced to stay awake and play 4 separate sets among many other performers, while attendees celebrating the release of the ‘Invitation…’ album are encouraged to bring along food and participate in an actual feast. In the words of an awestruck punter who once accosted me in the middle of a War Against Sleep performance, “there’s some serious talent going on here”
The long awaited War Against Sleep archive album “Messages” was released May 2004 on Fire Records – Songs of love and mystery recorded by songwriter Duncan Fleming with various Bristol musicians over the last 5 years including Jesse Morningstar, Rasha Mooz and former Strangelove frontman Patrick Duff. The sound is wider and more extreme than anything that has gone before. Complex string arrangements, orchestral percussion, theremin and french horn abound to make this an unusual and remarkable debut album…
Lo-fi is the language of War Against Sleep but as a life choice, not a smokescreen for lack of ideas, of which Fleming has no dearth. He performs complete wonders with his smouldering, sometimes creepy little songs, a Tascam Porta-7 and a host of flexible and talented friends. You’ll hear a cello, French horn, turntables, clarinet and Ebow dotted among the more common sounds. Oddly, thoughts of Bowie’s Memory Of A Free Festival drift in, flanked by the moody gruff of Tom Waits and The Tindersticks. Lyrics and attitude range from wistful to wicked as though the result of tired eyes glancing over the modern world.
At times it’s difficult to judge the precise distance between Fleming’s drawling, loungey paeans and schmaltz’s bruised knuckles but with a cry of “I long for you”, I’m convinced, for the moment at least, that it’s for real.” Rating 4/5 – Jane Oriel
The Big Issue
The songs are a heady mix of epic ballads and sleazy nightclub crooning, bolstered by a varied musical accompaniment which alternated between pared-back basics and ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ melodrama. It sounds like a glorious folly, a scenery-chewing mini-masterpiece overflowing with Fleming’s purple prose and cut price Serge Gainsbourg personality. From the John Barry sci-fi of “Evil Aliens” (“Are they evil? Yes, of course/I watched them mutilate this horse”) to the bloated love declaration of “Babylon Falls” (“Until great Babylon falls life is insane”), this is gloriously ridiculous stuff. The neurotic boy outsider revival starts here. ” Tom Ridge
None of these comparisons really do the album much justice though. It’s complex, and extremely eerie. Duncan Fleming says that ‘maybe the ground beneath our feet will sink beneath the sea bringing an end to everyone’, like some kind of demented cabaret singer in a dark, dingy jazz club. And if you’re not careful and don’t listen properly he will trick you into mistaking this for a love song. But then maybe it is a love song. Nothing is really clear – stories, myths, legends, odd noises and melodies all fuse together and floating around them is a hazy, sleazy fog. Confused? You will be, though it will be a happy kind of confusion like you’ve just discovered something but you’re not quite sure what it is yet. Immerse yourself into this music like you would a good book, listen again, discover more and let it make your imagination flow. Sleep? Never. Use this beautiful sound and join us in the War Against Sleep.Review by Nathania Hartley
“I saw this guy play live recently with a knackered old keyboard, a CD player and microphone in the corner of a pub in Kings Cross, a complete revelation. Shades of people like Nick Cave and Scott Walker in the epic sleazy intimacy of it all. Looks like his drug of choice might be Benylin. ”
Essentially Fleming is War Against Sleep. ‘Messages’ is the product of five years of collaboration with likeminded musicians in and around Bristol. In his head the ghosts of Bolan and Morrison dance hand-in-hand with Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Elton John at his most fantastical, whilst Nick Cave hands the nibbles around. However, his music never sounds like a simple collage of easily defined influences; instead it’s rich with imagination – tales of morbid obsession, narratives full of spacemen and razor-sharp humour are all complemented by music bearing an assured lo-fi swagger. Single ‘Again Love Smashes Up My Mind’ is only the tip of the controlled eccentricity at work on this album. Scratch below the surface and ‘Messages’ opens up to a bottomless melting pot of bizarre imagery. ‘Evil Aliens’ is, as its title suggests, about Evil Aliens; other tracks aren’t so straightforward, and therein lies the beauty of a record that never gives an inch without taking a mile. Overall, ‘Messages’ is difficult – persevere and it reveals its true depth; resist and accept your weaknesses. We all have them, but few have put them into song quite as well as Fleming does here. Listen in for a while but beware: the ghosts are watching.” Rating:4.5 / 5 -Michael Diver
Drowned In Sound
“This Bristol collective is essentially a vehicle for off-beat lo-fi songwriter Duncan Fleming, whose ‘The Cord’ steals the percussive opening shuffle from Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’. Not for him tales of Old Testament doom though, instead he concentrates on sardonic relationship tales, generating interest by way of his sozzled raconteur persona and the strange, early-Eighties videogame noises that fight against the treated horns and guitars that form his smoky, late-night backdrops. Occasionally, Fleming forgoes the tear-stained, rumpled-suit thing, slipping close to David Grey territory on ‘Stay Tonight’, while the murky organ which hoves into view on ‘Going Inside Out Again’ seems to have wandered in from a different album, but overall it’s perfect for standing in the rain smoking cigarettes while impersonating Jean-Paul Belmondo.” Nelson Stanley
Now, I’m not normally one for reading much of press releases, but there’s an amazing paragraph on the one for War Against Sleep’s Invitation To The Feast (Fire Records) that really made me sit up and take note. It’s the kind of Pop Art prose I sometimes think I perhaps once wrote when I was younger, but I don’t know… “The Casio-psychosis of a moral dyslexic squeezing out songs like glue to hold himself together. The act of picking cigarette ends off the floor because you like the taste of cheap lipstick. Love crafted from a night in with Teletext and Benylin.” And that’s just the first sentence.I’d have been intrigued to hear the record on reading those words alone of course, but when I discover they were penned by Gravenhurst’s Nick Talbot (and indeed Nick appears on the record alongside a gaggle of other musicians including Moloko’s Roisin Murphy – to colour in the songs of Duncan Fleming) you can maybe see why I was starting to froth at the mouth in anticipation.
Even better, that anticipation is largely rewarded with a record of twisted folkPop that bubbles with the inventiveness of Brian Wilson and Ray and Dave Davies, coupled with a dark undertow that often recalls the uneasy sound of Charles Manson’s Love And Terror Cult. Throw in a penchant for Gainsbourg / Cave melodramatics and you have a contemporary Psych record of the finest sort: the sort that takes the benchmark of great psychedelia as ‘Good Vibrations’ and The Millennium as opposed to ‘Purple Haze’ and Cream, and applies that blueprint to a new, ahem, millennium. So it’s an album shot through with references to catch the attention of us old fuckers, but that’s thankfully never studied and smug. Strange and salacious, spooked and spacious, unsettling and uptight. Or, in the words of Mr Talbot again: “Hysterical, literate, blackened by the sun.” Either way, it’s bloody marvellous.
“Invitation to the Feast”
Ronald: Smoother, less-insane Syd Barrett psychedelia, heavy on synthesizers. Brilliant lyrics, excellent songwriting. Captivating & clever.
Jimmy: Killer slow rock. Like if American Music Club was good. Or Eight Horsepower.
Gerald: Nice, soothing, melodic, funky, eclectic. Wish I could read the lyrics.
Richard: A funky, psychedelic Moody fucking Blues. Astute lyrics, totally amazing… Distortionless down-tempo BRMC.
War Against Sleep is a strange bipolar character: Stockport-born Bristol-based Duncan Fleming can write both the glorious ‘Borderline Personality’ and the hallucinatory nightmare of ‘Puppies and Kittens’. He can go from the Desmond Dekker bluebeat of ‘Damaged Woman’ to the Jacques Brel jazz of ‘Bedminster Parade’. In all, he’s a bit of a pop alchemist, turning dark thoughts into pure pop.‘Borderline Personality’ is easily a candidate for single of the year, in which pop music gets roughed up like a pussycat in a tumbledryer, sicking up some Beck cool, a T-Rex strut, Outkast funk and a little Kinks-like psychedelia. And when the horns come in, the fun starts: all the greatest bits of music stuffed into an overripe 4 minute pop tomato!
He’s only happy sometimes though. Fleming does a great line in Scott Walker tragedy, with ‘Song of Songs’ wallowing in sad strings and operatic misery while in ‘Teletext Nights’ he muses “there’s lots of things I’m going to do when I’m well”. ‘Puppies and Kittens’ perfectly captures the skewed perspective of Duncan Fleming, combining a sweet folky Sound of Music melody with the most disturbing lyrics about fever dreams of predatory wallpaper and perhaps something much worse.
In Fleming’s world, pop music is dark and bitter rather than light and fluffy, that wooziness you feel in dreams is waking life’s daily struggle and the devil comes for tea every Sunday. Creepy definitely, ridiculous maybe, but potent and unforgettable pop too.
Whilst the oddly held opinion that band founder Duncan Fleming is something of a “sexually deviant, drug-addled Satanist” is probably going a little too far, it’s easy to see how the song writer cum guitarist cum vocalist is regarded in such a way. Yet with songs that discuss Teletext, puppies, kittens and dolphins, it’s probably fair to assume that at the very least he’s some kind of bevved-up ex-florist – or perhaps hippy necromancer. And thus, with “Invitation to the Feast”, here is our second chance to see what’s up this proverbial wizard’s sleeve.
Now there’s a prospect.
“Invitation to the Feast” is a schizophrenic slab of groovy eccentricity that relentlessly trundles into – and beyond – the absurd and abnormal. Right from the opening warblings of “Changing of the Seasons” (‘The honey bee/ The ancient monkey puzzle tree’, anyone?), “Invitation to the Feast” is certainly an opportunity to gorge upon a banquet of the bizarre. Yet, just like the uncontrollable ramblings of say, Colin Macintyre of The Mull Historical Society, the oddities never outweigh the music – in fact, War Against Sleep have struck the balance almost perfectly.
“Teletext Nights” is another welcome course in this veritable cornucopia of delights, combing haunting piano melodies with brass peculiarities to create the best track on the album…
…“Invitation to the Feast” might not be everyone’s idea of dancing through sunny cornfields with their grandchildren, but this is what you’d get if you cheered the Strokes up. A jolly satanic different take on a very bloated genre. Our Rating 73/100 08 May 2005 by Adam Harrold
If you like your lo-fi to sweat classic pop pastiche, or your indie singer to croon like he’s a drunk in a tux, then you’ll get a lot out of ‘Invitation To The Feast’, the crunchily rich album from Duncan Fleming’s War Against Sleep. Despite the slight distortions of a lo-fi recording, the songs are an ambitious, groovy blend of late 60s garage, wiggly noises, piano-led balladry and the odd moment of Nick Cave-ish histrionics.
I’m never quite sure what Fleming is going on about. His vocals don’t draw one into the subject matter enough, particularly when the lyrics have a gothic floweriness of almost Joanna Newsom proportion. It ain’t no big criticism though, because the overall vibe is so satisfying. It doesn’t get much more exuberant than recent single Borderline Personality, which has funky rhodes-led chops, while Teletext Nights blends dramatics, trombone and plinky-plonk to describe a bored, lost life…
…War Against Sleep can creep up behind you and do you with a wet tea towel when you least expect it. When Fleming sings “let me kiss you with kisses on the mouth” over some claustrophobic harpsichord to open Song Of Songs and then closes that same verse with “your name’s like perfume poured out”, it’s smotheringly seductive. Overall, a fine concoction…
4.5/5 toby jarvis
Drowned In Sound
When I read about a guy who’s spent the entirety of his career as a solo performer, someone whose only live instrument tends to be a piano, I don’t really expect that the first bit of recorded music I hear out of him is a Doors-influenced bit of rock ‘n roll. Still, that’s what we get with “Borderline Personality”, the first song on the EP of the same name from Bristol’s War Against Sleep.
War Against Sleep is Duncan Fleming, and his singer-songwriter bent runs contrast to what has come to be known as the “Bristol sound”, a fancy name for the trip-hop pioneered by Massive Attack and Portishead in the mid-’90s. Even so, the dark themes of the music are consistent with those of the aforementioned bands, thus furthering Bristol’s reputation as a rather sketchy place to be at any given time, misleading as such an impression might ultimately prove to be. In the three songs on Borderline Personality, we hit on mild mania, obsession, and a little vignette about a trip into the forest as told by none other than Satan. Or, at least, someone calling himself Satan. In the end, does it really matter? Probably not.
“Borderline Personality” is the true stunner song here, with its deep, jazz organ groove and ’70s rock guitars. Honestly, there’s not much to the song to set it apart from the current crop of garage throwback bands, except for the willingness to use that organ, not to mention a trombone(!) solo during the bridge. Fleming proves that he can hack it as a rock ‘n roll god of a vocalist, invoking Iggy Pop’s sneer and a touch of Bowie’s croon to his advantage. Still, I can’t help but feel as though it’s a bit of a toss-off, especially compared to the other two tunes here.
Those tunes, then, would be “Ride Away with Me” and “Starling”. They’re both piano balladeer stuff, sorta like Elton John on an off-kilter day, though now bringing out more of the croon than the sneer. “Ride Away With Me” employs bizarre lyrics (“Little puppies meet / Around the bitch’s teat / Do you need me on my hands and knees begging?”) to convey a level of obsession that might make Lloyd Dobler seem centered. Finally, “Starling” is the aforementioned Satan song, and apart from that little lyrical twist, it’s a relatively straightforward major-key waltz that doesn’t leave all that much of an impression. It’s got a neat little ending, with some creepy Hellraiser-style noises to drive the whole Satan thing home, but it’s still not all that memorable five minutes after it’s ended.
It’s hard to tell just what War Against Sleep’s new album Invitation to the Feast will sound like, based on the scraps tossed to the faithful via the Borderline Personality EP. Will it rock out like the title track, or will it get all introspective and subtly psychotic like the other two tracks? Given the fascinating manner in which Fleming approaches both styles, it doesn’t matter–either result (or a combination of the two, even) will be worth hearing, if only for the lyrical twists on familiar styles that will undoubtedly be on display.
War Against Sleep – Live @ Porters, Bath 19 May 2005
A word of advise: If you are someone who, when paired up with any more than two halves of lager top becomes a shrieking machine, hell-bent on telling jokes louder than your average PA system, please don’t go to see a live band. Or at least work on the jokes. Little outburst aside, and it’s a bloody good gig at The Porter. Duncan Fleming is a man assured enough in himself to exert an arresting confidence in everything that comes off the stage. Hand signals are thrown to each corner of the band – sometimes they’re looking, more often they’re not but there’s no doubting who’s in charge. It’s an interesting parade of fashions – Fleming’s Classical-esque keys style and its accompanying singing nurtures Ben Folds references, though as soon as he puts on a guitar, he’s goes very Bowie all over – a few melodies come daringly close too. Kiss Me Again sees drummer donning trombone, and 2nd guitarist/keys player pick up a clarinet, and what ensues is something that in the setting of a school concert could be embarrassing, but here in an Eels like pop setting is pretty great. The song writing is testament to the time that’s been spent on it, and it’s as consistently strong as it is varied. The penultimate track tonight is a song written when he was nineteen “and for some reason it just keeps coming back”. The reason is probably that it’s a genuine timeless classic. As soon as new single Borderline Personality comes along, something goes up a notch and, probably the most well rehearsed, the video seems to materialise onstage before us. Full band vocals, loads of Supertramp Wurlitzer, a bit of earlier Soulwax, and a gurt stonking hook thrown in sees little doubt that this should, by rights at least, sell like wellies on a slightly drizzly Glastonbury Wednesday.
May 2004, a good month for reviews I note looking back at past issues and a month where we reviewed this band’s debut album ‘Messages’ – well at least I beleive this was their debut? ‘War Against Sleep’ took their name from the biography of Greek-American Philospher – George Ivanovich Gurjieff, who held some madcap idea between the values of society and the state of sleep, but this is not a philosophy lesson, so go out and find out what the **** he was on, but anyway blinding name for a band.
So on with the review, ‘War Against Sleep’ are the brain child of Stockport born Duncan Fleming, who it has to be noted started off this bedroom operation somewhere in the Bristol area, far more of a pedigree with that description, but that’s me just being a snob (No offense intended). This album features the guest musings of Roisin Murphy (Moloko), Nick Talbot (Gravenhurst) and Patrick Duff (Strangelove) and for me still does to remind of Nick Cave and Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers) – which for me was a good thing, as Flemings wailings slice through the atmosphere before my desktop.
But on the lower side of things and as ‘Messages’ continues where this play left off, although a good album, that is all I can describe ‘Invitation To The Feast’ as being. ‘Messages’ was a blinder of an affair, this second installment can have a tendancy to wallow and after a hopefull start, I found does settle into the comfy chair syndrone to readily. Which is where marking this does become somewhat of a puzzle. Do I remain safe? Just the wrong side of this, or take the album for what it is? Well ‘Teletext Nights’ made up my mind, in that they’re are some very nice arrangements on this album, so here goer… 7/10 But in closing do make ‘Messages’ your first encounter with the group.
‘Invitation to the feast’ reminds me of an obscure 60′s concept album that was recorded over 56 sleepless nights. This is one warped bastard of an album. Pop goes war against sleep with the dirty t-rex boogie of ‘star/borderline personality’, but this is a mere second wind from insomnia as Duncan Fleming and his band of minstrels continue the nightmarish pop journey on ‘Puppies and Kittens’. Those of a certain age will remember Tales of the Unexpected, and maybe Sapphire and Steel. War Against Sleep are the audio version of the programmes that used to scare me witless as a child. beware. Guests include nick gravenhurst and roisin from moloko. cd only on fire Rough Trade
War Against Sleep – Invitation To The Feast
Any band that adorns their album with pictures of Battenberg, jellies and ice cream concoctions is always going to attract attention around these quarters, and thankfully there’s some tasty treats to be found amongst War Against Sleep’s tunes too.
However, the treats are smothered in a buttery layer of weirdness that sometimes becomes too much to stomach. Whirling brass backs into tunes, reggae rhythms pop up from nowhere, Beatles-like psychedelia descends into melancholia; it all seems overwhelming on first listen.
Bear with it. Once you’ve got your head tuned in (it’s not dissimilar to waking up halfway through a Peter Greenaway film), things slowly come into focus. Not everything, but a majority of what’s on offer.
The problem is that there’s just too much on offer. Like the crammed cakes on the cover, the myriad of influences and inspirations is a little overwhelming. Brian Wilson tips up, the Flaming Lips pop round, Stereolab drop by, the Tindersticks offer some input… the list is almost endless and utterly bewildering.
The swooning swing of Dolphinland, the stripped Depeche Mode voluminous epic Song Of Songs and the gentle breeze of Changing Of The Seasons do go some way to showing that War Against Sleep are worth sticking with. Valiant as their cause is, though, a little shut-eye might just focus their ideas.
Joy: Who’s who?
Duncan: Hi, I’m Duncan. I’m the singer.
Guy: I play bass, I’m Guy.
Tom: I play drums, mainly, I’m Tom.
(the fourth member, also called Guy isn’t present)
Joy: You seem to bring a lot of yourself into the music. Do you see War Against Sleep as a tool to express yourself? Do you see it more as a band, a project, or an extension of yourself?
Duncan: The first record, ‘Messages’, which has just been released, is basically me recording stuff in my bedroom. Mostly on my own, but also with a few friends brought in, but not the live band we’ve got now. We’ve been playing live with a four piece band since the end of last year, and the new album that we’ve just finished making is recorded as a whole band.
Joy: On the War Against Sleep website there are links to Sephiroth, Kabbalah and alchemy. Are these things important to you and are you quite spiritual?
Duncan: I put it up as an information service for people who are interested in Kabbalah but it’s only tangentially connected to the band.
Joy: So are you into it yourself?
Duncan: Well, I put it up as an information service for people who might be interested.
Tom: And the orange colour as well
Joy: So, is orange your favourite colour?
Duncan: It’s not my favourite colour
Tom: It’s THE colour!
Duncan: Originally I wanted the website to look like the Samaritans, so I copied their style.
Joy: There’s also a link to a guy called Bill Heidrick. Do you feel any connections with him?
Duncan: I don’t know Bill Heidrick personally, but he had some very useful notes on using ritual magic. I thought it would be good to do a link to his website because it’s based on his own personal experience rather than just collecting facts and stuff.
Joy: Alchemy is quite symbolical, and uses a lot of imagery. Do you think symbolism is important in the songs?
Duncan: Yeah. Certainly all the War Against Sleep songs are absolutely steeped in traditional symbolism, the occult and alchemy.
Joy: There’s also a guy called Jean Dubuis, who said that to aspire to be an alchemist or a kabbalist you need to have a generous heart. Are you a generous person, and are the songs love songs or heartfelt songs?
Duncan: I think it’s a very bad mistake to identify yourself with any one human trait, like saying I’m a good person/ I’m a bad person/ I’m a nice person, because people are a mixture of everything including all the bits they want to hide, all the bad things as well.
Joy: The name, War Against Sleep, does it have anything to do with the philosophy of Gurdjieff? (Who thought we live in a waking sleep brought on by so called education and maintained by our surrounding society)
Duncan: Actually, I was very pleasantly surprised when I find out that War Against Sleep is the name of a biography that was written about Gurdjieff. Because I thought of the name when I started doing this music as I was working full time and staying up all night – it seemed like an appropriate name for that. And then I found out by it was also the name of a book, and it was a surprise to me.
Joy: Have any of you had any reoccurring dreams or supernatural experiences?
Tom: I dreamt that the Queen died last week but it was actually Ronald Regan who died.
Duncan: I had a reoccurring nightmare as a small child about being chased around a maze by three bears with swords coming out of their torsos.
Guy: I had one when I was little, it was a theme to a dream. The dreams would all be different but at the end I’d always end up walking up a hill and there’d be somebody sat on a horse.
Tom: I once thought I saw a ghost but it was actually a cloud of pepper, so still not sure if I saw a ghost or not.
Joy: You all seem to be quite involved with music in Bristol. Is there a big music scene there and is it important to you?
Duncan: It’s a very healthy, thriving music scene in Bristol, and from the outside it might appear like a clique but I‘ve never met such generous…
Guy: The other cities we’ve been to recently, they don’t seem to have had that same sort of people who love gigs, going out and listening to music most days of the week, and always having a healthy crowd of people coming to the interesting gigs.
Duncan: It’s genuinely supportive, rather than competitive, the way that the music works in Bristol. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to get together the stuff that I’ve got together without it, without being in that environment.
Guy: It’s a weird one, because a lot of people move to Bristol because they perceive the music to be a certain way, and it to be one of the few places with a healthy music scene. But when I got there I kind of thought maybe it wasn’t, but…it’s definitely good. Just recently there’s been a massive outburst of new stuff as well.
Joy: Any Bristol bands you’d like to recommend?
Duncan: Bronnt Industries Kapital, Knowledge Of Bugs, Gravenhurst which have been signed to Warp, Prick Taster.
Joy: Are there any instruments you like to use, traditional or experimental? I hear Knowledge Of Bugs (Tom) uses a Speak and Spell?
Tom: I don’t actually use them. I just sort of mess about with them and they just pile up on my shelves and I end up with loads and loads of them. They’re really fun to play with but I haven’t managed to get them at all musical really.
Joy: So you’re a bit of an inventor?
Tom: Yeah, I do make noisy little boxes and things like that, cheap microphones and whatnot.
Joy: Do you like to use the experimental sounds in War Against Sleep?
Guy: At the moment it’s quite straight up but I think the next album is gonna be a bit more twisted; it’s gonna be a bit more electric.
Duncan: It’s quite subtle the way that we’re just learning about creating atmospheres, creating emotional states by building up textures of lots of different sounds that come from extremely diverse places. It’s good that the live band we’re working with now, everyone plays quite a few instruments, and they’ve got quite an innovative approach to recording and playing. It’s pushing me a lot further as a songwriter.
Tom: It can change a lot as well, like there was a time when Guy was on holiday so we just did it going back to Duncan’s old solo set and then me and the other person called Guy doing some electronic messing over the top of it. Although with four of us in the band it does tend to be, we’ve got like a set, we play quite like a band.
Joy: How do you all get on together?
Duncan: We get on surprisingly well. I’ve worked with Guy playing bass with another band called I am The Mighty Jungulator, so we’ve toured before together. Tom and Guy are friends who’ve worked together. The chemistry is really good.
Joy: Will you all be collaborating together on the next album?
Duncan: Yeah. We’ve just recorded the second album, Invitation to the Feast, together, and we’re just starting work on the third album together as a band.
Joy: You had an old band, The Inseminators, can you tell us a bit about that and why you split?
Duncan: That was a band that I wrote songs and sang with about three years ago and we played for about a year and a half, and didn’t make a lot of recordings or play lot out of Bristol really. For me, it was a way of learning about being in a band.
Joy: So what made you start War Against Sleep?
Duncan: That band split and I was coerced into playing a festival on my own, and so I was just playing the piano. Singing and playing the piano, and I did that for about two years because I really enjoyed it. It was only really with being contacted by Fire Records that I was prompted to put a live band together again so we could bring to life the sound of some of the recordings in a live context.
Tom: The songs definitely come out quite differently from what Duncan originally recorded, like a lot of the stuff, certainly drum wise, I couldn’t play the stuff that was on his record so it was just like we twisted them into our own ways, and they’ve come out really well.
Guy: I just made sure I didn’t listen to the record, for a very long time. I only heard ‘Messages’ when it came out recently, I’ve heard some of the songs before but I made sure I didn’t listen to them while we were doing the band because we seemed to be changing them and I just get confused.
Joy: So the live experience is quite different to what’s on the record?
Guy: Having heard ‘Messages’ just the other week, yeah, definitely.
Joy: You’ve been going for quite a while, why did it take so long to make the album?
Duncan: It took about a month to make the album. It was chosen out of well over a hundred contenders. I’ve been writing songs and making recordings for about ten years, just for my own pleasure really, and just because it makes the gnawing feeling go away, and because it’s just something that I do. The album wasn’t made as an album. It’s an archive of what was thought to be the best, or most relevant out of the songs that I’d recorded, that didn’t take particularly long really…
Joy: So what did you want it to accomplish, just a collection of everything?
Duncan: Well if I had my own way it would be a ten cd box set, but it wasn’t gonna happen so we just chose an album’s worth of material.
Joy: What are your future plans?
Tom: I’ve just finished studying, so I’ve got to decide what I’m gonna do. Build things, play lots of different music, probably have to get a job pretty soon. There are lots of musicians in Bristol so lots of people who are after interesting instruments, so quite a good market there.
Duncan: I think I’m gonna make a few more records, and then get it out of my system and go and be a beekeeper.
Gigwise caught up with the Mancunian maestro that heads up War Against Sleep, Duncan Fleming, on the eve of the launch of the bands second album for Frire Records, ‘Invitation to the Feast’.
Q: So why the name? Do you suffer from insomnia?
I have the wonderful gift of wakefulness at night
Q. That sounds like you have a disregard for blessed slumber. Are dreams not inspiring?
We haven’t literally waged war on the 8 hours a night variety, although sometimes that’s been necessary. More the all pervading nihilism and passive roboticism that passes for life.
Q: You say ‘We’, but War Against Sleep existed before it was a band. Do you now feel like you are part of a band or is WAS still very much your property?
War Against Sleep has evolved into a proper band. I write songs and together we breathe life into them. The others each have individual projects, which provide a conduit for their own warped ideas.
Q: Your songs are regularly described as ‘torch’ songs. Do pigeonholes and genres bother you?
Shorthand is to be expected in listings magazines and suchlike. I was very pleased by the press response to the first album ‘Messages’; They got what I was doing. Basically I was bored with posturing guitar bands, which seemed to me about as rebellious in this day and age as wearing denim. So I took the vibe from forgotten charity-shop records and mixed in my own idea of rebellion. The result is sometimes a bit off-kilter but certainly more challenging than your latest new-wave band.
Q: Do you ever feel that as a piano playing frontman, promoters and listeners have trouble accessing your music and performance?
Not at all. It’s a refreshing change most of the time. Some aspects of the indie scene are actually very conservative and, unless you’re wearing post-rock influences on your sleeve, they need prompting with good press, etc, before they realize they’re allowed to like you.
Q: You also play guitar, but are known as a pianist. Which instrument do you use to write?
I write about two thirds of my music on piano. The rest on guitar and over sampled loops etc. You can tell the piano songs a mile off because they’ve got about 900 chord changes, whereas the guitar songs etc. tend to be much more straightforward.
Q: Some of the songs on the new album, ‘Invitation to the Feast’, feel quite paganistic in parts, would you agree?
In the words of Lord Summerisle, “A heathen, conceivably but not, I hope, an unenlightened one.”
Q: Your lyrics – especially on numbers like “Damaged Woman”, “Borderline Personality” – are clearly quite scathing about sections of modern society. Do you ever worry that your message is simply going to go straight over the heads of those it is aimed at, or could you frankly not give a toss?
Well, I guess the lyrics are pitched at people who’ll get them rather than people who won’t. In the same way that alchemical texts just sound like gobbledygook if you don’t possess their symbolic keys. I guess some of the lyrical content of ‘Invitation’ just sounds ornamental or psychedelic when in fact it’s quite deliberate.
Q: The album, like the last one, is coming out on Fire Records. How did they find out about you?
Nick Talbot of Gravenhurst thrust a CD of mine into the hand of their A&R Manager telling him I was a genius. He offered me a deal the next day. So basically Nick rules.
Q: He’s contributed to the album hasn’t he, along with Max from Bronnt Industries Kapital. Will you be returning the favour on their next releases?
Who knows what endless variations may ensue in the coming months. Although I can exclusively reveal to you that it has been my intention to infiltrate Bronnt Industries Kapital since I first saw them play in a frightening cellar a few years ago.
Q. Roísín Murphy has also contributed to the album. How did you hook up with Roísín Murphy and what’s she up to these days?
Roísín sang backing vocals on Borderline Personality and May I Harm None. She was staying with me in Bristol and we thought it would be fun to try some recording. We hadn’t done any music together since our first band ‘And Turquoise Car Crash The’ (sic) when we were fourteen. Roísín is currently promoting her very wonderful new album ‘Ruby Blue’.
Q. Do you enjoy the recording process? Where did you do it?
Recording can be an enjoyable part of the Work. I don’t enjoy working in a studio unless it’s completely on my own terms, which would require a bigger budget than we currently command. Instead we record what we can at home or in our little practice space. Between us we know what we’re doing, although we tend to employ some extremely esoteric techniques. I’ve always been totally deaf in one ear so I have no idea about stereo mixing. Bronnt Industries Kapital helped us mix the last album, which is why it sounds ‘proper’.
Q: Any plans for the summer?
We’ll be playing a few hot dates. Then I guess we’ll knuckle down on recording our 3rd album ‘Pleasure Complex’ – It’s gonna be a smash!
Comfort Comes Magazine – Interview May 2005
Fresh off the brilliant ‘Borderline Personality and the forthcoming new record. They were kind enough to answer our questions.
Where are you from?
I was brought up in Stockport, a small town in South Manchester . Marx’s Communist Manifesto was based partly on observations of the terrible working conditions there. Nowadays it’s not quite as bad but I’m glad I moved away when I did.
When did you first start making music?
Apparently I had an annoying habit of singing all my speech as a toddler. When I was 7 my Dad bought a second-hand piano. I always found it easier to pick out my own tunes than to play other people’s music. I co-founded a band called “And Turquoise Car Crash The” when I was 14. We couldn’t play so hid behind walls of feedback. I stole a drum machine from school but not the instructions so we ended up with random beats.
How is the songwriting done?
Usually it begins as an attempt to preserve an intense but nebulous state of mind that somehow seems important. I try to make a musical equivalent that will remind me and take me back to that state – even if to do so is unpleasant. Often a simple melody or a set of chords initially – whatever will evoke the memory. Lyrics sometimes arrive with ease but usually they are hard work – like completing a cryptic crossword puzzle. My lyrics often sound psychotic on their own and only work in the context of the song. Even the bitterest pill can be sweetened with humour. Nowadays I’m trying present songs in a raw state to the band so they’ve got more to work on from the outset.
Who were some of your influences?
Hearing Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart had a big impact on my music. Not so much in terms of style – more that I was inspired by their total disregard for convention and their ability to convey subtle ideas.
I have to know how did you come up with the name War Against Sleep?
I was staying up very late every night to make music and then working in the daytime. It seemed an appropriate name for what I was doing. I’ve since found out that it is the name of an excellent biography of the philosopher Gurdjieff , and also a song by an 80s goth band ‘The Cassandra Complex’.
How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you before?
It’s suppose it’s a bit like listening to your Grandparent’s record collection while a nurse in a tight uniform triggers random electrical impulses through your open cranium.
The 24hour album launch how did that turn out?
It was hilarious – I’m never doing it again though. My challenge was to remain fully conscious and to make the night run smoothly. A particular highlight was at 6am when a barman shouted in my face for a full five minutes about the volume. Also Bronnt Industries Kapital fucking the P.A. so badly there was white light coming out of the speakers.
Do you enjoy playing live or are you more of a studio person?
I love both and try to give them equal consideration. I don’t particularly like recording in studios though – I’d much rather record at home or in our own rehearsal room.
How has people’s response been to your music?
The press reviews of ‘Messages’, which is essentially just a collection of old 4-track recordings, have been fantastic. Most reviewers seem to think I’m some kind of messed up alcoholic which is only partially true. I haven’t used drink or drugs for over 12 years.
What was the first record you ever bought?
The Smurfs or The Wombles – I don’t remember which was first. When I was in school I was lucky to have older friends who introduced me to Jesus & Mary Chain, Pixies, Sonic Youth etc.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Right now I’m listening to Delia Derbyshire because it’s instrumental and won’t distract me as I answer your questions. More generally – lots of Glam Rock, Psychedelic Rock, and bands like Steppenwolf and Creedence Clearwater Revival – I’m hoping it’s just a phase.
How is your local scene anything interesting up and coming?
The scene in Bristol is very much D.I.Y. with bands organizing their own nights and helping each other out. I particularly like Gravenhurst, Bronnt Industries Kapital, Geisha and S J Esau.
How does the year look for you?
I’m trying really hard not to anticipate the future. Some people like to feel that they’re ‘going somewhere’. I’d much rather stay put and get on with it. I’d like to make another record and play lots of shows. I’d also like our 2 nd LP “Invitation To The Feast” which is released in April do well so I can scavenge more money…
Comfort Comes Magazine