Micko and the Mellotronics Find Insight with Art-Punk

Artist: Micko and the Mellotronics
Album: 1/2 dove – 1/2 pigeon
Website: Landline Records

11-minute Read

Featured image artwork and album cover artwork: Twinkle Troughton.

British musician Micko Westmoreland has made an eclectic living in the entertainment industry.  He portrayed glam star Jack Fairy in Todd Haynes’s 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, but primarily, he’s been a musician for over 20 years, recording under the moniker The Bowling Green on Trent Reznor’s old label Nothing Records and as himself with albums like Wax and Wayne and 2015’s Yours Etc Abc.

Meanwhile, Jon Klein’s musical career began with the post-punk/new wave band Europeans, and got a boost when he co-founded the pioneer goth band Specimen.  He was a major figure in London’s first goth nightclub, The Batcave, which brought the goth scene to southern England in the early 1980s.  He also remains the longest-running guitarist for Siouxsie and the Banshees, with whom he played for eight years.

The pair crossed paths a few years ago at a club, which led to forming the band Micko and the Mellotronics alongside drummer Nick Mackay and bassist Vicky Carroll.  Landline Records will release the Mellotronics’ debut album, ½ dove – ½ pigeon, on November 27 on vinyl and digital.

Westmoreland and Klein provided an exclusive interview to sound|coma about their history together, from meeting at a gig to their plans the rest of the year.  For this first part of the article, we discussed the sounds and themes of the album itself as well as how The Mellotronics are surviving 2020.  The second half will be published next week and looks back on Westmoreland’s and Klein’s early friendship and writing process.

—A Brexiteer Walks into a Gay Bar

½ dove – ½ pigeon is an aggressive rock record of 10 unified but wide-ranging songs inspired by everyone from Buzzcocks to The Strokes, aiming to find meaning from the past in order to ease the pursuit of happiness in the present.  Topics include school bullies who wrecked Westmoreland’s first psychedelic shirt, the corrupt former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos and more.

A feeling of retrospection pervades much of the album, but it never comes across as glib as “If we forget the past, we’re condemned to repeat it,” nor does it fall prey to nostalgia.  The focus is always on “why?” rather than “remember when?”  Can we make a better present and future by coming to terms with – or letting go of – the past?

Overall, the production they settled on is a punchy, raw post-punk and indie sound with the occasional bit of classic garage rock.  Westmoreland and Klein told me that much of it came from Klein’s influences, which included “heavy rock and punk, Nile Rodgers, Prince [and] African highlife players.”  It also fit with the indie sound Klein had been pursuing with Siouxsie and the Banshees as well as bands like Wire.  “Add to that the Bowie players like Fripp or Ronson or Bellew, The Breeders, some of the American bands, The Strokes, or an octave thing like the B-52s – generally those indie kinds of colors,” he said, his raspy London accent permeating his storytelling.

As is evident throughout the record, Westmoreland and Klein both prefer guitars to samplers and keyboards.  They used several Fender guitars – Telecasters, Stratocasters and Jazzmasters – as well as a Yamaha and an ESP.  Near the end of the recording process, they also used Rickenbacker and Gretsch guitars.  Klein also expressed his affinity for Humbucker pickups and techniques like palm muting while both men praised drummer Nick Mackay for having Keith Moon-like levels of commitment and heart in his playing.

Micko and the Mellotronics (L to R: Vicky Carroll, Jon Klein, Nick Mackay, Micko Westmoreland)

Maybe the most obvious example of that is on lead single “The Finger,” which opens with a drumbeat reminiscent of “Lust for Life” and a groovy bassline performed by special guest Horace Panter (The Specials). During live performances, bassist Vicky Carroll thumps out the low end with precision and care. Meanwhile, Westmoreland sings in character as someone who can’t be bothered with the world around him.  “Don’t point the finger at me / I’m not responsible for misery / I’m just a man in the street / I read my paper down the pub / It won’t burst my bubble / I really don’t think it should.”  He has said that the inspiration of the song is a hyperbolic version of a barfly who he used to see always hanging around the same pub whenever Westmoreland got off the bus – the type who always looks mildly dissatisfied.

“It was really well served in the video, made by our friend Ashley Jones, who we work with a lot,” Westmoreland said.  “We sort of drew out the center of the song and illustrated it through the video in that we thought ‘Well let’s get like a Brexiteer, kind of estate agent type, and put him in an environment that really challenges him,’ which was going to a gay bar and being served by a drag queen.  But the thing is, you do get to like him by the end of it – it’s not condemning.  Even though he has an opinion which may be abhorrent to you, it’s not a life sentence.  People can change; we’re all capable of many different emotions.” 

“The Finger” stars Paul Putner from Little Britain as the Brexiteer, who goes from feeling awkward in the pub to enjoying his beer, chuckling at himself for grabbing the bottle instead of the drinking glass and eventually removing his suit jacket and busting some moves alone in a dance club – presumably in the back half of the pub itself.  Part of Westmoreland’s storied career has involved attracting other famous figures to work with him.  Kevin Eldon (Hot Fuzz, It’s Kevin) appeared in the video for “Schmescos” from Westmoreland’s previous album Yours Etc Abc.  Susy Kane (The I.T. Crowd) stars in the “Noisy Neighbours” video as a woman annoyed yet obsessed by the ruckus coming from other apartments in the building.

—Fear, Tragedy and Greed

Musically speaking, several big names join the album in addition to Jon Klein and Horace Panter.  Terry Edwards (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave) plays horns on “The Fear” – his collaboration with Westmoreland dates back to The Bowling Green – while the late Monty Python and The Rutles star Neil Innes performs on the track “You Killed My Father.”  Westmoreland has played annually for several years with Innes and Rat Scabies (The Damned) in a charity band called The Spammed, which led to Innes’s involvement on “You Killed My Father.”

“It was very, very inspired by Neil Innes, who died at the back end of last year,” Westmoreland told me.  “Neil was very dear to me and I loved his songs; to be honest, [‘You Killed My Father’] was a sort of homage to Neil.  It’s not hard to spot the chord sequence that opens the track; it’s not a million miles from some of Neil’s kind of Rutles classics.  The idea for me was to talk about something that’s maybe kind of quite tragic and address it in a way where it becomes almost like a sincere cartoon.”

The Spammed (L to R: Neil Innes, Kevin Eldon, Horace Panter, Micko Westmoreland, Rat Scabies)

Westmoreland added that when addressing something quite painful, instead of doing so in an intense way, he wished to step aside and see it in a “serious cartoon way” with “slightly playful qualities in the imagery and lyrics.”  It’s tragedy as caricature – approached sincerely but in a comfortable and non-threatening way.

While “You Killed My Father” teaches us to cope with tragedy from the cartoon approach, “The Fear” aims to remove negative connotations from the unknown.  The song is akin to classic pre-reggae ska, with a strong backbeat like The Specials’ “Ghost Town” crossed with The Clash’s “Bankrobber” by way of a black-and-white horror film.  Westmoreland gleefully sings “Feel the fear and go with it / Feel the fear and flow with it / Live each day as if it were your last.”  Klein referenced Lou Reed’s Transformer as an inspiration for the track.

“It fits with the identity of the record but it’s definitely got its own sound,” Westmoreland said.  “I think we got a good balance without being too corny with it – it’s not got a trapdoor sound effect in there but you could almost kind of imagine that it might have?  It’s very Grimm’s Fairy Tales told in a psychological way.  The paradox is that it’s about letting go of fear.  I was looking to both affirm the positive and compound the idea that unknowns are negative.”

Former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos is the subject of new single “Imelda,” which is written like a love letter from a faraway partner.  Westmoreland said he wrote it because she would go to any lengths to realize her desires, which were almost unbelievable.  She was once on a private jet leaving Rome and realized she’d forgotten to buy cheese while in the country, so she had them turn the plane around.

“I mean it’s nuts,” he said, a shocked but jovial tone in his voice.  “You’d have thought someone would have stood up to her and said ‘We’ll get it sent on.’”

His bewilderment at her motivations fueled the song, most concretely the lyric “What is it that you wanted to achieve?”

“Obviously you want things – you want money, you want possessions and all the rest of it – but really what sits beneath that?  Because nothing is ever gonna satisfy you – nothing.  So it looks into this notion of satisfaction and happiness and what we value as contributors to a happy life, and for most people it’s keeping up with the Joneses.”

—Boris Johnson Doesn’t Pogo

At the same time, the record avoids any overt political statements tied to recent memory, though it’s not for lack of material.  Like the United States, the last few years in England have been fraught with turbulence: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which seems like ancient history, exploded in April 2018; the controversial politician Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister in July 2019.  Even the decision to leave the European Union, popularly known as “Brexit,” only gained steam in spring 2016.

“I think I’m always a little bit wary about putting things that become such an obvious timestamp on pieces of art,” Klein said.

Micko and the Mellotronics Live (photo: Keiko Yamazaki)

“Bit more philosophical, really,” Westmoreland said.  “It becomes too on-the-nose.  As a musician you want to make stuff that doesn’t date; you want to create something that will still sound good in 20 years or, y’know, when you’re gone, and that has a degree of longevity to it.  That’s why I think subject matter is something that’s quite malleable, and even though a particular song can speak of – or be a zeitgeist – in relation to culture, I think that you do have to have a quite philosophical attitude towards that.”

The Mellotronics have also managed to avoid too much of a COVID-based headache throughout the year.  “We were just beginning to wrap things up when lockdown kicked in, so it allowed me and Jon primarily to just focus on finishing the record – what needed to be done on the mixes and getting the thing mastered,” Westmoreland said.  “Lockdown and doing all the admin for the record, finding good people to promote it, putting the record into production and doing all those practical things have been taking place during that time.”

“The first six months of lockdown haven’t hurt us,” Klein added.  “But right now is obviously the trickier part because it would’ve been right about now that we’d have been out there playing.”

Speaking with them, they clearly miss playing live in front of an audience.  Neither musician seemed particularly interested in doing streaming shows with The Mellotronics, citing that a concert viewed on a screen and heard over speakers pales in comparison to the in-person experience.  Meanwhile, both glowed at the thought of performing again.

“We did have some gigs scheduled for December that we were really looking forward to particularly,” Klein said.

“It’s gonna be great to get back onstage again, man; it’s gonna be so great when that finally happens,” Westmoreland said.  “You forget just the fun of playing.  When we play it’s a non-competitive team sport; everyone’s a winner at the end of it.”

Their affinity for live performance comes as no surprise.  Westmoreland and Klein met, after all, at a gig.  The years they spent leading up to the album release are detailed in the conclusion of sound|coma’s two-part feature on Micko and the Mellotronics.

1/2 dove – 1/2 pigeon can be pre-ordered through Rough Trade.

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