LeftLion: The Duckworth Lewis Method
Scott Oliver from LeftLion talks to Messrs Walsh and Hannon about all things Sticky Wickets.
Their Ivor Novello-nominated eponymous album was described as "the first Irish concept album about cricket" and now they're back with the follow-up, Sticky Wickets.
You want a psychedelic pop band named after an algorithm devised by cricket-loving mathematicians who desired a fairer way to adjust innings totals in rain affected matches, you say? Well, look no further than The Duckworth Lewis Method, aka Thomas Walsh of Pugwash and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy...
How did a band devoted solely to cricket-themed pop songs come about? Did your eyes meet over a batting collapse on the big screen in a pub?
Thomas: Being from Dublin, it was a case of being in the pub. We did a lot of the initial spadework over a few drinks, back in about 2008, and it was just fun to come up with some terms for some psychedelic songs or some silly pop songs, and Neil wrote them all down, ‘cos Neil always carries round little note pads, which is very helpful. And I think it was the next week, or maybe even the next day, when we thought ‘this idea isn’t so bad’ – it might have legs. Or it might have overs…
Neil: Yeah, we’d known each other for about six or so years and, on and off, had tried to write songs together because we admired each other’s music, but we’d never really gotten anything that had…something about it. We both knew of our mutual love of cricket and we thought–
Thomas: …This hasn’t been done before.
Neil: Exactly. So we gave it a go and it turned out to be kinda fun.
It’s fair to say the song subjects on the first album were eclectic (that is, if you exclude everything from the world that isn’t cricket, which many fans do), both musically and lyrically. The cricket subjects and song styles are equally diverse on Sticky Wickets, it seems…
Well, a leopard can’t change its spots. It’s maybe a little more disparate in that it changes tack abruptly on this album, sometimes, from one genre to the next. I think, largely, the lyrical thrust is similar in that we kind of take terminology from the game, or sort of leftfield ideas, and just sort of elaborate upon them, usually in stupid directions
Thomas: Some of the links are tenuous. Like on the first album we had ‘Sweet Spot’, which had sexual connotations. And ‘Sticky Wickets’ itself has some great references to cricket but it’s also a pretty sexual song.
Neil: It’s sexy. You can’t get away from it.
Thomas: Cricket – it turns us on.
The cover for the Sticky Wickets is pretty sexual, of course, a streaker leaping the stumps, but for the first album it was evocative of Terry Gilliam’s Python work, but also the classic Victorian illustrations. Does that give the band an inescapably nostalgic feel? Is modern cricket – Twenty20 – rubbish?
Neil: Oh no, there’s room for everything. We do love the kind of handlebar moustaches and strange attire of nineteenth century cricket, you know.
Thomas: It’s still pretty Terry Gilliam on the back and I love all that kind of stuff, but I think you make a good point because the first album was a lot more pastoral, a lot more sweet, and it was almost as if it did have a concept to it. Obviously this one is a cricket album, too, so they are conceptual. But we started the first one with a sound and ended it with a sound, and we started it with ‘The Coin Toss’ and finished with ‘The End of the Over’ so there was much more of a conceptual ideal to the first album, and the artwork, the Victoriana lends itself to all that. We were coming in on a spaceship, though, so that was bringing the newer element to it, but this is a very rock and roll cover, you know. Michelangelo leaping the stumps.
Neil: And it’s such a wonderful rock and roll pose, really, which fits perfectly with the feel of the record. We’d done an album as, kind of, village cricket match, so we didn’t want to repeat that. So, we just wrote a bunch of really cool songs and put a stupid rock-and-roll cover on the front.
So no Difficult Second Album Syndrome…?
It was remarkably easy, actually, ‘cos we do love writing together and we didn’t have any moments where we thought, ‘this isn’t gonna happen’.
Thomas: Only one song didn’t make the final cut but we wanted it to be twelve songs anyway. The thirteenth song didn’t quite have the spark of the other tracks. We don’t really do a helluva lot of extra songs and then just pick. We get ten or twelve strong songs and then we just do them. It’s not good to be giving a lot of your time to something that’s not going to make it.
Funnily enough, that was the next question. I was wondering whether you had a batch of unused songs that didn’t make the cut but will turn up on a B-sides and demos LP at some stage – title: Extras.
I’m very proud of the demos we made. Some of them have different arrangements, different beats, different lyrics – but they’re so beautifully recorded. Neil engineered all the demo sessions. We got a real buzz out of it. I think a demos album is very possible in some way, shape or form.
Neil: I’m not sure that it is, because they all sound so much alike what they ended up as!
Thomas: No, but with me being a big XTC fan – they ended up releasing demo albums of their albums near the end of their career. They were very similar but there was still something warm and lovely about them. But I guess if we’re going to do another one, we’ll just do another one.
In the PR photos from the first album, I take it you’re supposed to be ‘the Doctor’, WG Grace, but who’s Neil for tese shots [top]?
Neil: I am random Boer War soldier.
Thomas: I’m WGGGGG Grace.
Neil: I’ll tell you who I am: I’m probably Winston Churchill in his younger days. Young Winston.
Thomas: We shall fight them on the creases.
Musical influences – you mentioned XTC there. Any others? Which current acts float your boat?
Neil: We don’t like modern things.
Thomas: I love modern things but mainly modern things that sound like old things.
Neil: I like St Vincent [Of Polyphonic Spree - Ed.]. She’s mental.
Thomas: We like our modern stuff but also like our classic music of the past.
Neil: This is where we differ. I have been singing ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk for the last two weeks and Thomas keeps telling me to shut up.
I got some Beck from listening to it, some classic Beatles, some REM, Ben Folds, Bowie…
Thomas: Cool. The Beck would probably be ‘Line and Length’.
Neil: I don’t know – we are all the sum of our parts. And you try your best not to think about where these influences are coming from in case you accidentally plagiarise someone, you know. And you just try and mix up all your influences into a nice big, fresh pot of loveliness.
You had a fair few cameos on last album (Phill Jupitus, Alex Armstrong, Matt Berry). This one has cricket commentators David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd and Henry Blofeld of TMS as well as Stephen Fry and Daniel Ratcliffe. Did you try and rope in any of music’s many cricket aficionados – Mick Jagger, Lilly Allen, Roots Manuva, and suchlike?
Thomas: Yeah, we got really close to getting Mick Jagger for this one.
Neil: Mmm, he almost said yes. In fact, he said: ‘No’.
Thomas: It was through a friend who knows Mick. She made an ‘in’ to his PA person, and he was asked. But obviously he was on a world tour and everything – oh no, they’re back – but he must have thought he’d have to go to a studio and everything, like he did in the seventies…
Neil: No, no. He probably thought: ‘I’ve got about sixty offers for various things. I’m not going to do any of those, at all’.
Thomas: I personally would have thought that he thought he’d have to do a hell of a lot more than just say “sticky wickets”.
Neil: I don’t think there was any thought of ‘I’ll have to do…’ – he just didn’t want to. I almost admire that more that he said no, because we’d got so lucky already on so many people saying yes, it had to stop somewhere.
The first album came out in the lead-up to the 2009 Ashes. This one is out in the lead-up to the 2013 Ashes. Call me Columbo, but I’m spotting a pattern. Are you now committed to releasing an album every four years, particularly if England keep winning and you become a sort of lucky charm?
It’s actually more accidental than it appears.
Thomas: I’ll tell you how it’s accidental. In the interim, since the last album, I gave up drinking, trying to get myself together, and recorded an album that charted in Ireland and came out in England and was nominated for a couple of awards. And Neil has done two operas, a play; he’s written a song for Kylie Minogue in a top movie; and he did an album in between all that. So, you can’t possibly plan all that and then know it’s four years later, really. It just fell into place. With the Ashes every two years you’re gonna hit it more often than not, you know.
Do either of you play the game?
Neil: I try. I occasionally turn out for my Taverners side, the Cavaliers. They’re all actors in Dublin. I’m very, very poor.
Have you ever been to Trent Bridge or watched a day’s play there?
Thomas: I haven’t been to Trent Bridge but I’m excited about going there because it’s one of the old, traditional grounds where there was always a Test back in the seventies and eighties when I watched for the first time. The Rose Bowl and places like that are beautiful but they don’t have the same kind of history or mystique. So I’m looking forward to going there for the first day of the Ashes.
There’s been some talk recently of Ireland pushing for Test status. What does it make you feel seeing the likes of Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin in English colours and should Ireland be granted Test status.
Well, cricket needs a few more test nations. I’ve no problem with that, and I think they could withstand it. If you can get Italy into the Six Nations then why not Ireland as a Test-playing country? You know, it’s funny but Morgan could probably be a super-super-superstar with Ireland but at the moment he’s just a T20 or bit of a one-day player for England.
A fantasy cricket scenario – who would you have on commentary for the perfect hour of cricket watching on TV?
Neil: My personal preference would be for the two people we’ve got on the album, David Lloyd and Henry Blofeld. Certainly, as contemporaries go they’re the most entertaining.
Thomas: I just want Richie Benaud. Geoffrey Boycott is very entertaining also. John Arlott. But Benaud for me is the voice of cricket.
What about a fantasy live experience: where’s the venue, who’s playing, and who are you watching it with?
For me, it’s England v Australia at the Oval. I love everything about the Oval. I love the vibe of it. I love the way planes land continuously every twenty, thirty seconds.
Neil: What’s the ground in Cape Town… Newlands. The views from there are just stunning. So, yeah, maybe South Africa versus England there, ‘cos they’re such a good side, the South Africans.
Thomas: I’d say Bob Willis.
Neil: Freddie Flintoff. Good fun.
Do you have a favourite cricket book, or writer?
Tom Holland. He writes very well on cricket, as well as history.
Thomas: I have a few funny cricket books – cricket anecdote books – but I’m not really down with the literary end of it.
Neil: I’ve tried to read a few biographies and I find them pretty hard work to be honest, because I like reading really, really good books and they’re generally not very well written.
Thomas: If David Steele wrote a book I’d read it, because he was hilarious.
What about your ideal gig for D/L Method – where would that be?
Neil: I think we’d love to do a gig in Pakistan or India, for the sheer weight of numbers. But they don’t know who we are, so that’s a fantasy.
Thomas: I’d like to do a gig for Javed Miandad.
Has he heard your tune, ‘Meeting Mr Miandad’?
Neil: I don’t know.
Thomas: We had some people over from ESPN-Star a while back. They were going to run a piece on us. They were big fans of us. But nothing really came of it. But we’ve got a lot of fans from there who’ve got to know the song over the last couple of years from YouTube. So I’m sure he’s probably been played it or they’ve done YouTube on the video.
Neil: We’ll wait to see how ‘Boom Boom Afridi’ goes down.
Last one: has cricket ever made you cry?
Neil: Oh yeah. Watching a few of those balls-in-the-crotch incidents. That makes you cry.
Thomas: I think 2005, watching the game when Warne was in toward the end (Edgbaston), and it went down to the wire, when Harmison got the wicket and Vaughan jumped on Freddie Flintoff. That was a tear of joy moment. And when Flintoff shook hands there with Brett Lee. That was great.
The Duckworth Lewis Method play Nottingham Playhouse on Wednesday July 9, the eve of the Ashes Series. Tickets: £16.
Sticky Wickets is released by Divine Comedy Records on July 1.
LeftLion - Scott Oliver