Old Fire Station Blog

News, happenings and goings on from the Old Fire Station, Oxford

Artist Interview with Humphrey ‘Huck’ Astley; One of the Musico-Lyrical beings behind the sounds for ‘Alexander the Great’

Today, the magnificent Folk Operetta ‘Alexander the Great’ will come crashing and morphing and lolloping and flitting and hurtling down George Street, into the doors of the Old Fire Station, and sprawl in a shape somewhere between the 80s, the 60s, and 2023. Huck & The Xander Band will provide the live music for the show, which promises to transport the audience through a spellbinding, musically and literarilly aware rehash of Humphrey ‘Huck’ Astley’s previous band’s delve into America.

I would suggest, that, prior to reading on, you click this link, and listen to at least a track or two by the band. The sound of the songs will galvanise Huck’s words in the below interview: www.oldfirestation.org.uk/event/alexander-the-great

Also, bear in mind; my words are standing straight, and Huck’s are Italicised.

Huck has taken much of his inspiration from the Southern reaches. “Texas in particular was a real eye-opener. Most of what I’d read or seen prepared me for some kind of dustbowl, but it was incredibly green and rained most of the time. It felt more like a jungle than a desert, which had a big influence on the aural and visual palette of the work. Then, of course, there’s the prevalence of religion, or at least religious talk – one memorable moment was going into a supermarket in Utah, asking for some tobacco and being directed to the ‘sin store’ down the road.” Sin takes up a central position in many representations of the US, both those propelled from the country and in those looking at it from outside. But Huck doesn’t necessarily see his music as an homage to any particular way of life in the US.

Credit: Oliver Holmes

Credit: Oliver Holmes

The culture of the US and the US as a culture are not the same thing. I’m fascinated by the former, but worry a great deal about the latter. The best North American art (e.g. the Blues) is good because it is honest about where it comes from – warts and all. I love the Americana sound and am perfectly comfortable with that label but have no illusions about making accurate representations of the US – I’m taking the existing cultural forms and trying to subvert them, which is all I am really able to do as an outsider.

Huck is also acutely aware of “plenty” of literary influences on his music, which in turn inspire parts of the show. The obvious ones are Huckleberry Finn and Peter Pan, both of which are far darker and more subversive than you might expect – I don’t know if you’d get away with publishing Pan as a ‘children’s book’ today… The early cross-genre works of Michael Ondaatje (e.g. Coming through Slaughter, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) probably played a large part in how I approached the South as a setting (i.e. at quite an extreme angle), as well as a part in how I tried to infuse my lyrics with poetry and prose. The themes of youth, race and sexuality were informed by the works of JT LeRoy and James Baldwin, especially Another Country. Finally, an important non-fiction work was Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, whose Kathy has a lot in common with my Louise (they’re both Christian-Muslim converts from the South).

The blending of the bands’ music with theatrical conventions was a challenge for Huck and the rest of the team behind the show. It’s not been easy. Seb and I found ourselves going on quite an experimental journey – writing a script, working with a director and young actors, etc. – before coming full circle and deciding that the songs need to tell the story, and that the theatrical elements need only complement those songs. We’re still on that journey, though, and haven’t ruled out going down a more dramatic road in the future. One thing we’ve learned, ironically, is that if you’re going to make a theatre crowd sit through a rock show, there can be no dropping the ball or breaking the fourth wall – in other words, you had better be one damn tight band!

 

Credit: Oliver Holmes

Credit: Oliver Holmes

Amongst influences listed by reviewers of Huck and his various bands, Pink Floyd invariably arise. I wanted to know what his favourite Floyd album was. ‘Dark Side’? ‘Wish You Were Here?’ I’ll be controversial and say The Final Cut. It’s remarkably terse and focused considering that on the one hand they’d just made The Wall, and on the other hand they were just about to part ways with Roger Waters. People don’t talk about it as much as it deserves, which is a shame, especially now – it’s a powerful anti-Tory text. (Also, Gilmour shreds.)

On the cards in coming months are some deviations from the musical and theatrical direction of this show. We’ll be going into the studio asap to record Act 3, which will probably be out in Autumn, followed by a tour of some kind. In the meantime I’ll be trying to finish the next album, which I’m halfway through writing. It’s called The Torch and is very, very different from Alexander… Sounds to me as though this provides even more impetus to come and catch this particularly hefty snippet of audio-visual dexterity from this remarkably creative bunch.

Alexander the Great is on Thursday 12th June at 8.30pm. You can buy tickets online or on the door.

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