Comet Gain Still Believes In The Dream:
The Music Will Save You
The fit is so perfect that if it weren’t true, he’d probably have to invent the tale. David Feck, leader of outsider culture-obsessed (“Jack Nance Hair,” anyone?) indie heroes Comet Gain, scratches out a living managing a shop that sells magazines and movie memorabilia in London’s Soho district. He extricates himself from a difficult customer on a rainy Saturday evening and steals a few moments in the upstairs office to discuss the music that consumes the rest of his waking hours.
Our first order of business is to confirm identities. The man most commonly known as David Feck (reportedly born David Bower) has also been credited as David Christian. “Feck was more the damaged, eager, young part of me,” he sighs. “I’m a bit out of breath now. Christian’s the slightly more mature fellow.” That more mature fellow has just spearheaded Howl of the Lonely Crowd, Comet Gain’s first proper album in six years and one that offers perhaps the most complete picture of the band’s varied facets – the jangly melodies, snarling punk, introspective ballads, even hints of the Northern soul that set Comet Gain apart from its noisier peers in their early ’90s infancy (the band briefly cross-pollinated with Bikini Kill for 2002’s wondrous Realistes). With few if any signs of additional polish or middle-age complacency, Howl also marks the first time the band has enlisted a producer – Edwyn Collins, the onetime Orange Juice frontman who remains a UK pop icon. “I’d met him briefly before a few gigs, but he was probably too drunk to remember me,” Christian laughs, adding that the connection came primarily via friend Alasdair MacLean of the Clientele. “He had these ideas like ‘no, no, that middle eight should be the chorus.’ And I’ve never taken that kind of input before, but he’s one of the very few people where I’d think, ‘well, yeah, Edwyn knows…’ We had booked the time in his home studio for just before Edwyn began working on his own album, so we had to go finish it somewhere else, mainly because I had to write more songs. Our original plan was to do the more upbeat rock ‘n’ roll stuff on the first side and make side two more sad and quiet,” he adds, still thinking in terms of vinyl like a true believer, “but I couldn’t help but write a few more noisy songs.”
Collins’ involvement is all the more intriguing thanks to Comet Gain’s irresistible single “You Can Hide Your Love Forever,” a clear homage to Orange Juice’s debut You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, written before the two had formally met. With Edwyn now in the fold, Christian couldn’t resist inverting that line yet again, proclaiming “you can’t hide your hate forever” on album opener “Clang of the Concrete Swans.” Christian isn’t overly concerned that everyone absorbs these admittedly obscure references. “I understand that we’re purely an underground cult band, that we’ll probably appeal to people who also like other underground cult things – books, films. So this is kind of our secret language we’re throwing out there. When you find something like that it makes you happy – ‘ah, I get that.’ [The line] was kind of an instant thing at the time, we’re not deliberately trying to be arch or anything.” Howl‘s coy references don’t end there – “Yoona Baines” is a nod to the Fall’s original keyboardist, set to a manic, circular guitar riff straight from the Mark E. Smith songbook. But a man so schooled in his punk history surely realized he was spelling her name incorrectly. “I didn’t want anyone to take it that I was being disparaging to Una Baines. I took some facts I knew about her and built a fiction around it,” he says of the song.
The extended gap between proper Comet Gain LPs was more a matter of circumstance than semi-retirement. For a couple of those years Christian and Comet Gain keyboardist/longtime girlfriend Anne-Laure Guillain relocated to France to be closer to her family. “There was no deliberate enforced exile, but it did make it tougher for us to get together,” he says. The wheels never ground to a halt, however – Comet Gain simply shifted its focus to the 7″ single, an art form dear to Christian’s heart and one at which he excels. A treasure trove of non-LP tracks, drawn mostly from this period, are compiled on 2009’s Broken Record Prayers, which remarkably holds together as an album as well as anything in the band’s catalog. “That was poor Woodie’s undertaking,” he says, referring to drummer Woodie Taylor. “He did some of the recordings so we had a head start gathering the tracks from a variety of labels. I can’t remember ever listening to it all at once – for me it gets a bit messy at the end, but we decided to put everything on there. We have a thing of doing singles that aren’t on albums, and I always feel the b-side is an important statement. And I understand not everyone cares about vinyl, so this gives people another chance to hear them.” The aesthetic recalls the heady early days of Belle and Sebastian but I’m more often reminded of the spirit of the Mekons, a merry band of friends who are going to be making music regardless and if you’d like to join the party, you’re more than welcome. “Being in a band is kind of a gang mentality, an all for one, one for all kind of thing,” Christian agrees, while expressing bemusement at the Mekons reference, not the first time he’s heard it. “I really need to check out more of them. I have one Mekons record, a single – it’s great. It’s definitely the spirit rather than the product.”
For a band with such a meandering trail, the stability of Comet Gain’s now seven-strong lineup (after a complete changeover in personnel following their second album) has been impressive. “We now have a third guitar player – an old friend of mine,” Christian reports of Ben Phillipson. “He’s played on the records before, but now he’s officially a part of the band. There’s not much room on the stage these days. Most nights at least one person doesn’t show up but we figure the more we have, the more likely it is that enough will turn up to make it sound all right.” Still, aside from a few Northeast dates to support Broken Record Prayers a proper US tour remains elusive. “Hopefully next year – I’d really like to get to the West Coast. But everyone in the band has jobs – except [guitarist] Jon Slade, whose job is being Jon Slade – so it’s difficult to find a couple of weeks that everyone can do. And we’re only playing the States if we’re all coming.” All for one, one for all.
Christian has taken on a second project, an ongoing cross-continental endeavor called Cinema Red and Blue pairing a smattering of past and present Gainers with Brooklynites from bands like Crystal Stilts and the Ladybug Transistor. “It’s kind of an every year thing – we have fun, eat cake, and see what happens. If it were up to me it would be all cover versions, but I get the feeling I’m expected to write some songs,” he laughs. “I don’t want the bands to sound too similar, even though they sort of do, by accident,” with Christian’s everyman voice providing an inescapable common thread. “Although there is one song that’s about being in Comet Gain (‘Ballad of a Vision Pure’), which I must have written as a Comet Gain song at some point, but thought it would make more sense coming from another band.” According to Christian this song, with lines like “We’re trying hard to sound like the Swell Maps,” is fairly factual. “We did then – they seemed like the easiest band to emulate. If you can’t play an instrument, just make a noise.” And tellingly, Christian’s blend of courtly demeanor and debauchery is reminiscent of late Swell Maps frontman Nikki Sudden.
Christian’s capabilities have certainly grown since then, even if they were never as raw as he declares. Still, for a man who claims to be “not a very prolific songwriter,” fronting two bands seems a daunting obligation to take on. “What I’ll do sometime is force the issue by saying ‘this is the recording date we booked,'” he admits. “Then the week before, I start writing. I usually have an idea of what kind of songs I want, then I’ll just listen to records for about two weeks really passionately, find a few obscure ’60s pop records I can rip off,” having already sketched out his lyrics of sensitive souls on the fringe. One defining Comet Gain trait is a healthy share of female vocal leads, from the sassy Rachel Evans. “I’ll lie and tell Rachel I wrote things specifically for her, but it’s usually a case of ‘I can’t sing this’ or there’s something in the lyric that I think makes more sense coming from a female perspective.”
Christian’s always been good for a few indelible pop hooks, and on this outing the sturdiest ones come on “An Arcade from the Warm Rain That Falls,” with its stabbing violin line that reinforces the Mekons similarity. On it, Christian rattles off the name of several UK parks, playing to the perception of Comet Gain as a quintessentially British band. But in the middle of the list he works in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park – perhaps a sign of greater outreach? “It’s too late in the day to worry about whether this will improve anything or not,” he shrugs. “I don’t mean that in a defeatist way. I just don’t want to feel like I’m doing this for any other reason than what’s in my heart. It’s musical psycho-geography, giving the song life even though it’s fiction by putting in features that are close to you.”
Near the end of The Howl of the Lonely Crowd, the ebullient, Farfisa-driven “Thee Ecstatic Library” revolves around the repeated line “The music will save you…” that plays like a band credo. “That song is very much meant from the heart, and is for all those that agree. Everyone in the band, we’re sort of fellow travelers – we’re all obsessed with music and the effect it’s had on our personal lives. It tends to be our main topic of conversation. Rehearsal usually turns into a night at the pub. I feel that way as strongly as I did ten, or twenty, years ago.” Yet Christian doesn’t deny that time’s had its impact. “You do lose a certain… you have no choice, some things in you get submerged – some of those are good things and some were more erratic. We’re all older and have slightly more responsibility. We all have expensive London rents to pay – but I think we all still wear the same clothes. I keep getting told I need to buy some new jackets. But there’s so much sentiment in every fucked up seam of my old brown corduroy jacket from every old show that I can’t. It would be like getting rid of a part of my life.”
And after several years of relative silence, Christian is clearly recharged. There’s a Cinema Red and Blue EP already in the can, with plans to record a second full-length in January. As for Comet Gain, they’re toying with the notion of “a pop mini-album, like they used to do on Creation with bands like the Jasmine Minks and Biff Bang Pow. At least that’s the idea now – it could turn into some kind of psychedelic triple album.”
The music will save you.
Photo by Pavla Kopecna.