Shouting With... Vienna Ditto

by Kyle McCormick
Kyle McCormick
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on 10 April 2014 in Features

Another piece dug out from the deep, dark recesses of my laptop’s hard-drive. Back in the day (sometime in the winter of 2013) I spent a few weeks picking the brains of Vienna Ditto’s Nigel Firth through the super-futuristic medium of email.

Below is a slightly edited and rearranged transcript of that conversation, following a slight loss in the space-time continuum or something like that. I hope that’ll agree that it makes for some insightful and enjoyable reading, and Nigel opens up about his narrowboating lifestyle and apparent love of hallucinogenic foodstuffs.

Following the release of their EP, which this interview was meant to help promote it seems the band have played a number of shows, and perhaps some developments on those grand plans of touring and debut album (see upcoming live dates HERE). So without further delay, here’s some words by and about the *crazy* duo Vienna Ditto (intercut with some music to keep you going):

First off, how are you this evening, up to much this weekend?

Well, I've been on a bit of a mission trying to find a fellow boater who ran off with my battery charger, so had a nice wee bike-ride round the Regent's Canal, Limehouse Cut, River Lea and Hertfordshire Canal (in London's East End). Got my charger back, unfortunately was denied the [Charles] Bronson-esque vengeance I kind of envisaged, but did come across a nice little squatty, arty, boaty scene down here so going to stay and party for a bit...

What kind of boating do you do? And what's this cool, new place we should all check out? Also, music related: Where did the name Vienna Ditto come from, and who coined it?

It's a narrowboat on the Thames; that makes it sound too pretty; it's an old working boat so it's an ugly industrial narrowboat on the Thames... It needs a lot of work doing to it before it’s habitable really actually (despite having lived there for six years), it's like a floating squat in a factory. So I do naive primitive ugly industrial narrowboating, I guess.

The name was written by me but appropriated by our drummer at the time - I had two lists on my desktop, one of band names, the other a to-do list for a land invasion of Austria that I was considering. On the latter there was something like “Saltzburg - blow up munitions dump” and below it “Vienna-Ditto” which Scotty took to be a girl's name. We often get post for Vienna now.

Oh, this nice little spot... Um... Kind of the junction of The River Lea and the Hertfordshire Union Canal. Really amazing view of the Olympic Stadium...

How does that "naive primitive ugly industrial narrowboating" affect your music, if at all? Have any tracks been conceived in your humble abode?
That sounds pretty nice, did you go to any of the Olympic events last summer?
I was in London for the weekend last December (I'm from Glasgow), and it was pretty fantastic – what would you recommend all tourists do whilst in "The Big City?"
Another musical question, how do the band generally get their songs written, who's the creative mastermind?

Sorry to take so long; hectic, internet-less times!!

Ooh yeah, they're almost all conceived on it; it's really quite inspiring, especially in this season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and hallucinogenic fungi. The river, and most canals run alongside the railway lines and all that Victorian Ironwork so you pretty much have metaphors on tap right there. It's also a bastard hard way of life in the winter; you're basically in the 17th century, which is actually pretty handy for focussing on writing a song. I recently installed electric lights on board and I'm a bit worried that it's having a negative effect on my songwriting - I seem to recall that the song I'm most proud of was written when I just had candles, a woefully inadequate burner that meant I was permanently freezing, and my sole concession to the 21st or indeed 20th century was a small wind-up radio.

No Olympics for me actually; sport's for crazy people and perverts. But nonetheless it doesn't appeal to me. I'd say that a visitor to London should seek out the true flavour of the capital by Boris Biking round the Elephant and Castle roundabouts in the dark in the rain in February. Truly thrilling and a great way to pick up some fascinating local colloquialisms.

Oh we're both masterminds! And dogsbodies ;-)

That all sounds very romantic, have you ever had a boat party? And what would you say is the best place to go for lunch in lovely London?
Also, give us quick track-by-track run down of the new EP and the inspirations behind each of the tracks?

Yeah, though I'm a bit of a hermit in regards to my own home, prefer going out really. That's not a hermit is it? It's only just fit for human habitation really, so I'm always a bit embarrassed to ask people round... Have had a few parties, but owing to the narrowness it's kind of more like a drunken queue. Lunch in London? I mainly know Southeast, so Franca Manca sourdough pizza in Brixton Market, Bun Cha in Exmouth Market for tasty pho and you can bring your own booze. Actually you inevitably get it from the offie over the road, and have to go back to the offie where they open it.

OK… so we’ve got 'Ugly', a wry commentary on the early cracks in a social scene, which is kind of a Western Sahara/junk percussion/jump gospel kind of tune, influenced by Mariem Hassan, Koko Arnold, and a lot by Faust - I really like the way they mix up twisted metal sounds with electronics on some of their nineties stuff. I was aiming for the directness of Blind Willie Johnson but I don't think we got it so succinct.

'By Way of Apology' is probably my favourite of the three songs, it's a radiophonic murder ballad. I'd been reading a lot of Jorge Luis Borges at the time and was attempting to do a little twisty story that referenced itself in the same way as his do... I'd be chuffed if it's a millionth as good as him, haha. Actually I met a chap from Buenos Aires the other day, he said that Argentinian literature from that epoch is all based on the Tango and their history of 20th Century dictators. He didn't expand on that, so I just think all Argentinians are totally surreal. It's like something that Sister Rosetta Tharpe might sing but Hatty did it soft-soft and very English, like a cross between Peggy Seeger and Vashti Bunyan. I mean Peggy's American, but...

Lastly there's 'Stop' which is kind of a Motown-style number, now I think about it... You could do a little dance, and hold your hand up like a traffic cop for the 'Stop' bit in the chorus. Most of the music is from this whacky old sampler that plays records, and creates sounds that are mainly hiss, it's a very charming and slightly insane device. It's kind of psychedelic loungey I suppose, I really can't think who we might have stolen the ideas off for that one... Everyone I guess!

Following a description of those tracks, below is a stream of that EP, lovingly entitled ‘Ugly’ – which you can download for free also:

Linked into the food/drink thing: what would be your ultimate last meal? (If you were on death row and all that, you can pick three courses and a drink.)
Your descriptions paint quite a diverse background for the EP, but would you say there was one strong influence/theme running through the backbone of the music? Or is it really just an assorted jumble?
And, how would you describe the Vienna Ditto live show?

Grits and greasy greens for the main course, with a side helping of gris-gris and Fly Agaric, washed down with a Canned Heat spritzer.

Then a lysergic sorbet to clear the palate and open the third eye.

For dessert I'd have crack fudge and a lardy cake with a machine gun in it.

I initially thought that the EP was just a jumble of influences and um directions, but the more I think about it, they're all love songs to people I hate or hate songs to people I love. And I guess they're all about attempting to write songs your great-grandparents would understand but in a manner that would make them confused and quite possibly angry. They may even attack each other with umbrellas.

The live show! WELL... It's just the two of us and we boil all the layers on the records down to an unctuous stock of the essential bare necessities, made out of live drum, guitar and synth loops using outdated equipment. I have a real problem with laptops live so we use an MPC that has 128MB of memory and gets bullied by mobile phones. The word that keeps coming up in reviews is “shambolic”... Actually I think we're getting kind of slick, but people say it's exciting cos they don't know if we'll make it to the end of a song. I've got into the habit of knocking all the keyboards over with the neck of my guitar recently which is pretty clever, not so great in a ballad. We try and play two instruments at once a lot, or share them, but that means we start fighting over keyboard and getting the giggles in our saddest song.

Oh yeah, and we set off the fire alarm the other night with a smoke machine that the venue was foolish enough to let us control; everybody thought it was just part of the tune. So that should give you some idea. Hatty's pretty good though!

That sounds like a pretty engaging live show, coming to Glasgow soon?
What is your (a) best, and (b) worst experience of the band so far?
How did the band come into being?
And what would you say your biggest music inspirations/influences are (artists, albums, tracks)?
Also, what's been stuck in your head recently (if anything)?

Awww, we'd love to come up to Glasgow, where's good?

The best was doing Maida Vale as our third gig I reckon... the worst was straight afterwards, playing on the Hollyoaks Music Show, where they cobbled together the worst bits of our performance into a 20-second screech of feedback.

We came into being when I want into hospital to have an examination, a pretty intimate one if you catch my drift. Hatty's Mum was a nurse there and she prepped me for the operation, during the course of which she mentioned that her daughter, then 11, wanted guitar lessons. I actually taught her for a couple of years, and one day she sang me a song, and was superb even then. We lost touch but I bumped into Hatty in the street about seven years later and asked her to sing on some electronic country and western stuff I'd done. We actually never got round to doing much, we just got together twice and then it kind of lapsed, but her boyfriend sent off a CD to a local BBC DJ, Linda Serck, and Huw Stephens played our first ever tune, 'Long Way Down' on Radio One and then put us on at Glastonbury and gave us a Maida Vale Session. That was weird.

Ooh, Blind WIllie Johnson, Ligeti, Micachu, The August List, Kluster, The Lamppost Gullivers...

The Homesick remix of Beenie Man's ‘Not On My Team’ is pretty marvellous, as is The August List's ‘40 Rod of Lightning’!

Here a live video of the latter of those two tracks, by The August List:

My personal favourite venue would be Stereo, but King Tut's is pretty classic, both of which are intimate and great. That's like some weird fate, and pretty cool, hope the whole medical thing is good now!
So yeah, gonna try and ask you a last few questions and get off your case soon: What do you hope to achieve in the next year with Vienna Ditto? When can we expect your next "official" release, following the EP? And, what is your favourite film?

Ah brill thanks for the tips, we do want to play a few places in Scotland next year (see below).

We're hoping to embark on our first proper national tour next year, for which we are having driving lessons, heh heh... We've released a few EPs now and pretty much have our heads round that, but we're going to finally bite the bullet and release our debut long-player next year too, in the Autumn. It's quite scary, so we're going to warm up with another single in the Spring...

Favourite film? Spirited Away. But I'd love to see David Lynch collaborate with Studio Ghibli, that'd be the ultimate.

Thanks Kyle, it's been fun to rant at you!


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