Darren Hayman is an Essex-born lead singer, songwriter and guitarist. SoundsXP first loved him as frontman of indie legends Hefner, where he also became a favourite of the late John Peel. Darren released four studio albums with Hefner (plus a compilation and a live album). Since then he has remained a prolific source of musical gems, producing material with the French, as a solo artist, fronting his backing band The Secondary Modern and as a member of a bluegrass outfit.
Our recent review of Darren’s excellent forthcoming album with the Secondary Modern, Essex Arms, led to a brief discussion with him via the comments section about the songs on it. Following this he kindly agreed to do an interview about his feelings about the county, its working class community and freewheeling down Noak Hill...
SXP: The cover of ‘Essex Arms’ is very evocative. I showed it to my wife, who isn’t from Essex but has visited many times. Straightaway she said, “Yep, that’s the Essex I know”. Where was the picture taken, and what made you choose it for the cover?
Darren: I can’t be exactly sure where it was taken, towards the north of Essex maybe one of the neighbouring towns to Clacton. My wife and I enjoy walking in Essex and I’ve had my Polaroid camera with me collecting images for this project. A lot of them can be seen on my flickr page. This was always one of the stronger contenders for the cover. I pulled away from it a little because it was coastal and I covered the coast quite a bit on ‘Great British Holidays’.
The picture is aesthetically pleasing in its strong geometric lines etc. but the image also has duality. A place designed for sunshine in the rain. The album is, partly about an unloved place, and this is an unloved place. The record company hated it and wanted it changed.
It also could be the shelter in the song ‘Winter Makes You Want Me More.’
SXP: This is your second album that makes reference to people and places from Essex, after Pram Town. Did they come from the same source, or were they conceived separately?
Darren: Well, this goes back further in fact to ‘Local Information’ and the ‘Secondary Modern’ album. My songs have been gradually moving out from the city to the suburbs and now onto the countryside.
Pram Town was originally conceived to be about my home town ‘Brentwood’ and adolescence. It was changed to Harlow so I could indulge my interest in Post-war austerity and became a sort of a ‘Sliding Doors’ narrative imagining myself if things had turned out differently and I had stayed in my home town.
Essex Arms was initially supposed to be a concept piece about memory although that idea died at some point. The idea was to portray a countryside that, I think, is rarely portrayed. A lawless, unpretty place although I was endeavouring to show a sympathetic view of people very rarely sympathized with. It is essentially a love story.
SXP: “Broken down cars, England flags, ‘Ruins Field’, barbed wire fences, the A127 and the Halfway House.” The sleeve notes and snippets in so many songs make specific reference to places and images that, I guess, capture something about the Essex you know. Yet in our exchange on SoundsXP you explained that Essex Arms is an album of “love and loss and mostly a car crash”. If Essex doesn’t really matter, why reference so many people, places, roads, pubs in Essex in the album?
Darren: I didn’t say ‘Essex didn’t matter’. I’m absolutely certain I didn’t.
Location and setting are very important to me. A valid criticism of me would be that essentially I write the same song over and over. I am trying to capture a certain sense of ennui or displacement in my songs, but location is one way to make me think of different contexts for that song and to move the subject along.
Essex is very important to this album, because that is where I imagined the people to be. I imagined my family and the people I grew up with and I tried my best to make them seem real so that listeners might empathise with them.
Writing about places and people I know, and, to an extent the person I used to be for a while, was a way for me to explore the idea of ‘love and loss.’
Essex is very vital to the record as a location. The album isn’t any attempt to make a treatise on the county or the working class.
SXP: There’s a picture in the sleeve notes of a gate with the words “Rayleigh will Fuck up Southend, signed Joe Gibbons”. This must have captured your imagination in some way as you also reference it in ‘ Two Tree Island ’. What was it about this image?
Darren: It says so much. It’s so futile and takes regionalism to such a ridiculous, tiny scale. I also love the fact it’s on a stile in a fairly, idyllic setting. I was looking for these countryside incongruities both visually and in the songs. Drugs in the cornfields, dogfights in the forest, sex in cars in country lanes etc, etc. These things do happen.
But once again I feel the need to make it clear although that this was a narrative conceit of mine, I was trying my hardest to serve the characters well and not patronise them.
SXP: Billy Bragg once suggested the A13 was built so that lads from Barking could drive up and down to Southend in order to “wear shorts, blow whistles and have fights.” He said it with a twinkle in his eye, but do you think it’s possible to write a song that celebrates, for example, lads from Rayleigh in their Vauxhall Novas heading off to Southend for a night of clubbing and fighting?
Darren: It’s possible of course but I don’t think it’s anything that me or Billy would try to do.
A song that simply celebrates the ‘clubbing and fighting’ would be like a musical version of the film ‘Essex Boys’ and would be of little interest to you or me.
However, a song about an Essex lad who goes out clubbing and fighting but one night sees a girl who reminds him of his first sweetheart and then he goes home and wets himself in his sleep for the first time since he was seven, is a perfectly legitimate idea for a song.
A lad likes to beat up people on Southend Seafront every Saturday night but always cooks Sunday lunch for his nan the day after would also be an ok idea.
I guess a song that simply ‘celebrates’ anything is going to be pretty one dimensional, but I don’t see any type of person as a taboo that can’t be written about.
SXP: Would you agree that once a place is referenced in a song, then the listener can’t help but make a connection between that place and the sentiments in the song, however fleetingly? Richard Hawley, for example, sometimes drops in references to Sheffield even if the song isn’t about that location per se. In my mind this links that place with the events in the song - for people who know little about Essex beyond ‘Essex Girls’ jokes and Terry Venables, I’m sure, after hearing Essex Arms, they’ll want to know what it would be like to “‘push a boat out to Two Tree Island” (‘Two Tree Island’) or to go “freewheeling down Noak Hill” (‘Super Kings’). Is there anything in this?
Darren: Yes. I am trying to romanticise something that is rarely romanticised. If I was doing something similar to what Springsteen did to me with New Jersey or Billy Joel did with New York then I’d be pleased. With that intention I am also giving a little wink, an in joke if you like, for people who know Noak Hill and the Hadleigh Marsh.
SXP: And if there is, do you think it places an obligation upon the songwriter to be ‘responsible’ in how they represent a place?
Darren: I guess this question implies that you may think I have been ‘irresponsible’ or maybe I’m being oversensitive.
I try and be aware of tropes and stereotypes associated with the subject. I try not to say anything obvious or gauche. As far as I know there are no derogatory statements or lines on ‘Pram Town’ and ‘Essex Arms’ but I also know that the very title ‘Pram Town’ has been misunderstood as being some kind of ‘chav’ insult (for the record ‘Pram Town’ was a term used to describe the amount of young families flocking to Harlow in the 1950s. seen as a sign of prosperity).
We should also be aware of the other working class cliché; the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, the noblemen at the coalface. The characters in works like ‘Brassed Off’, ‘The Pitman Painters’ or anything by Jimmy McGovern paint just as skewed a vision of the proletariat as say the thick, ugly characters of David Peace, ‘Essex Boys’ or ‘Green Street.’ Both stereotypes are ultimately limiting.
‘Fish Tank’ by Andrea Arnold, or the characters found in books by Simon Crump or Nicola Barker are the work that I would aspire to. Wonderfully detailed portraits of seemingly real worlds without any obvious agenda.
I feel a responsibility to the characters to give them some sense of truth and that extends to the place as well, but I don’t feel an obligation to make any defence or justification for a place or a group of people.
In case you were interested about my class credentials I am of course middle class but possibly the first of my family to become so. Of the nine cousins of my generation I am the only one who had the opportunity to get a degree and it’s a crappy 2:2 at that.
SXP: In my humble opinion, ‘Dagenham Ford’ is a genuine masterpiece.
“And the sparks that flew, no longer do / And the assembly line has died / And when the factory closed we went back home / And for all our sins West Ham sometimes win / And close your eyes, it won’t hurt none”
The song poetically connects Dagenham’s working class community with the noble pursuit of work at a particular point in time, and place, and context – this is social commentary of the highest calibre. What made you write it?
Darren: I wrote it, strangely enough, in the North of England, on holiday with my wife. My wife has a family greatly affected by the decline of the coal industry and my family was affected by the closure of Dagenham Fords. (Three of my cousins worked there). We were talking about how some industrial disputes have been leant a certain romanticism.
A car is a symbol of freedom to the teenager in the satellite towns; I also had a car crash later on in the album and the illicit car sex at the beginning. It all seemed to tie up quite nicely with a closure of a car factory ripping the heart out of Essex. It did seem to be a song that the album needed. In the same way that ‘Pram Town’ needed the song ‘High Rise Towers’.
SXP: Are there more songs to be written like this do you think? About the chemical refineries of Canvey Island for example, or the people who work on the longest pier in the world at Southend?
Darren: I appreciate that you like the song and I ‘think’ I understand a little what you want the album to be. An album of songs like this would, for me, perhaps be a little hectoring. Political songs or songs of social commentary are hard for me to write. They still have to have a personal element in them to work. They have to be…small in some way. I love Billy Bragg and I bought my first guitar the day after first seeing him, but I find a lot of his political songs awkward and brutish. I’ll take Saturday Boy over Great Leap Forwards any day of the week.
Springsteen is much more my bag, where the political is seen through character and situation.
I would love someone else to write about the refineries of Canvey Island or the pier at Southend though.
(Nicola Barker who I mentioned earlier has a whole novel set on Canvey Island).
SXP: You mentioned that the next album might be about the Essex Witch trials of 1645. Were you pulling my leg? If not, can you say a little more?
Darren: No I wasn’t joking but it is proving an absolute bitch to write. A lot of my writing revolves around brand names, slang, a lot of Thames estuary vernacular. I thought that to write something in a historical setting would relieve me of my crutches and shortcuts.
The Essex Witch Trials are a truly horrific episode and the country at large was in turmoil (English Civil War). It’s fascinating and I like trying to push myself but it could all fall flat.
I have been reading up, researching and writing for about 2 years and so far have 6 songs and I may chuck 3 out. Don’t hold your breath.
Of course it won’t really be about Witches. If Pram Town was about displacement and Essex Arms was about loss then the (untitled) 1645 album will most likely be about fear.
SXP: Finally, on my next pilgrimage to Essex I must visit the Essex Arms of the inside front cover of the sleeve notes, if it hasn’t been knocked down yet. Where is it?
Darren: Brentwood, by the station. It was one of my first pubs. I haven’t been inside for fifteen years. I can’t promise it’s good but it does do live music.
SXP: Many thanks Darren.
Essex Arms will be released by FortunaPOP! and Acuarela Records on CD, vinyl and download on 04 October 2010