The Arts Desk: 10 Questions For The Duckworth Lewis Method
More tall tales and ripping yarns from cricket-loving Irish duo: Adam Sweeting talks to Messrs Walsh and Hannon.
It's four years almost to the day since The Duckworth Lewis Method released their first album, a whimsical batch of songs about the myths and mysteries of cricket. It earned them a kind of nichey notoriety among cricket fans and was an eccentric treat for devotees of the duo behind the project, The Divine Comedy's mastermind Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh of Dublin-based pop band Pugwash.
Their debut was released to coincide with 2009's Ashes series against the Australians. This summer the Australians are back, and so are The Duckworth Lewis Method - named, as you will doubtless already know, after the arcane mathematical formulation used to recalculate the target score required in a weather-affected limited overs match - with their second album, Sticky Wickets. Like the first disc, this one mixes laughs and in-jokes with some philosophical thoughts about the game and its history, but this time does it with greater assurance and some beautifully assured musical touches. "Judd's Paradox", for instance, exquisitely frames Stephen Fry's reading of a poem by Hannon about how cricket mirrors, or used to mirror, the social structure of Imperial Britain, while the soothing pop groove of "Out in the Middle" pitilessly points out that all the image-mongering in the world counts for nought if you can't cope with the pressure when you go out to bat. "The Laughing Cavaliers" is a drinking song for amateur cricketers.
Hannon, the fragile-looking and ever-ironic son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, and the boisterous, barrel-shaped Walsh make a splendid pair, like a music-hall turn from the Hackney Empire, circa 1897. They digress, talk over each other, spout nonsense and spin yarns that vanish up cul-de-sacs. Tales from a long room indeed.
ADAM SWEETING: Did the first Duckworth Lewis album change your lives? Did you meet lots of fascinating cricket people?
NEIL HANNON: Well no, you only meet people when you're actually promoting a record.
After that it's just back to normal really. The one good thing that came out of it for me personally was that I got to play a bit of cricket. The Theatrical Cavaliers is a bunch of actors from Dublin and they thought maybe a musician or two would be good. We got the Cavaliers to be in our video and we got them to sing one of the songs on the album - we wrote them a kind of a beer song.
THOMAS WALSH: We did meet [former England and Surrey batsman] Mark Butcher the other day. He's a very good musician. He's a big George Harrison fan, he was playing loads of his songs. He played "Beware of Darkness" and "Badge" by Cream, which George wrote with Eric Clapton. You don't really associate that with cricketers because we've met a few in the past where they've actually said, "We don't even know what music is."
NH: The ones that are into music wear it like, "I am so much better than my comrades because I actually know something about music."
TW: It's always something dodgy, like they always pick a band they think is still cool. Graeme Swann [England spin bowler] saying, "I'm a big fan of Mansun" - you go, "Well, they're all right but they're not around any more and they haven't released an album in 12 years."
NH: Mike Atherton famously said, "I don't like music." I admire that.
TW: It was in 2009 in the Long Room at Lord's. Tim Rice was beside him for the whole dinner and we were sitting across and Atherton came over to say hello. He goes, "Erm, I've seen your record... I don't like music." He was kind of saying, "Don't talk about it, I don't know anything about it, I'm just being honest from the get-go." It was good to be sitting beside Frank Skinner that night because we talked about Roy Wood all night - he's a big fan.
NH: That dinner was a very strange night. Later on in the evening when Graeme Swann was trying to show me how to put my fingers round the ball to make it spin, a Times journalist comes over and says, "Michael Jackson's just died." And all the Times journos decamped back to the office in the middle of the night. It really helped it stick in your mind, where you were at the time.
TW: We shot 12 places down the chart, because we were 28 in the midweeks.
NH: It was the week of our album release and we were so close to having a really good chart entry, and then Michael Jackson bloody died!
TW: We went in at 40. Jacko got 12 albums in in like two days or something. Even in death, y'know...
You have a knack for picking up on these cricket insider terms like "chin music" [a phrase used by England batsmen to describe West Indian bouncers whistling past their heads].
TW: I had this silly bit of instrumental music and it wasn't doing anything until we collaborated, which is when it all happens. I was lying in bed one morning thinking, "how did we not think of chin music before because it's probably the only thing cricket has that has music somewhere in the title?" I'd written this little piece of music on an old 1960s Harmony guitar, a tenor guitar with only four strings on it, and it worked out great. Neil added some stuff. That track is basically the demo, I think, with a few flourishes.
NH: We started all the songs on ProTools in my studio, and then we just sort of elaborated upon the sessions and gradually took bits out and put bits back in again. The studio is a room above a chiropractor's on a main road with a big open window, really a very bad studio location. It's very near a fire station and you get an awful lot of sirens going up and down the road, so you'd be doing a vocal track and go, "OK, we'll finish this later." On several occasions the siren would come on and I'd think, "oh, that sounds great in the song, all we need to do is record it" So for days I'd have a microphone hung out of the window... and then they wouldn't come.
TW: Nick Seymour from Crowded House plays all the bass on the album, and Neil Finn is on "Sticky Wickets" - he sings the main lead on the last chorus. He did that from backstage in the Sydney Opera House. He just sang into this machine he has; he said, "I'll do six of each," and then he sent them to me as MP3s. It was great. I'm such a fan.
And Daniel Radcliffe appears on "Third Man"?
NH: Yes, I just went to see him in The Cripple of Inishmaan. It appears he's a Divine Comedy fan - very odd. I can't understand it! Apparently it's mostly his dad's fault, who used to play our music all the way through his childhood. Little did we know that Harry Potter was being hugely influenced by my work.
Of course we made him say some odd lines about Vienna; it all makes perfect sense in the context of the song. And we slipped in the Third Man theme - how clever is that? Third man fielding position, Third Man film, hmm! When Graham Greene wrote the novel he probably just took the idea from cricket in the first place.
What is "Judd's Paradox"?
NH: It's quite obscure. There's a scene in the film Another Country where Rupert Everett and I think Colin Firth are walking round the side of a cricket pitch, sort of meditating upon the paradox that they love this game so much and yet it's obviously a metaphor for imperialist society, a sort of pyramid of the aristocracy and the proletariat toiling in the fields. I thought it was kind of funny. The strange thing was I wrote those lyrics 15 years ago, and I just found 'em in a notebook one day and realised they'd work for Duckworth Lewis.
TW: The great thing about this collaboration is things like that, because Neil kept that for a reason. He's always bringing up some beauties from the past. I had a piece of melody that I wrote in the studio last year. I don't have a piano at home and I can play very plinky-plonk, like Les Dawson. Of course I can't remember what I'm doing but I got my drummer to film it so I could remember the notes.
NH: He showed me the film and I worked out the notes from that.
TW: And it just fit so well over this track - it was great. Then Neil was singing the lyrics and it wasn't quite working, and then he spoke them one day and we were going "Stephen Fry!" because he said so many nice things about the first album. It was just a dream - it was one of those things like when Jeff Lynne sat down with George Harrison and said, "Who would you like in your band?" "Oh Bob Dylan, and I'd love Roy Orbison", and they got the Traveling Wilburys. We were like - we'd love Stephen Fry on this but we'll never get him. I forgot we both know Phill Jupitus very well and he's very close to Stephen. Phill was brilliant, he got us to the inner circle without all the other crap and Stephen said yes straight away.
NH: We did it in a voiceover studio in London and the previous thing overran and I felt like I was going to be sick, because I was so nervous. Trying to get someone you've idolised for so long to do a piece of your own writing is very nerve-racking. The annoying thing is that so many people have heard it and they go, "Who's that?" It's bloody Stephen Fry!
TW: We played the track to this whole group of musicians and friends in the studio, and Dave Gregory from XTC goes, "You know who would be great to do that? Stephen Fry." I just looked at Dave and said, "Who the fuck do you think it is?"
Do you have a lot of Ashes-related events coming up?
TW: We do, yeah. We've got this Lord's gig to launch the album which is sold out now, which is a great honour. We launched the last album at the Oval, so we might make five albums and just do the five main Test cricket grounds. We launch at Lord's then go up to Nottingham to do a little acoustic gig in the afternoon before the first day of the First Test. Then we do the Nottingham Playhouse that night.
NH: They're only hour-long shows as part of A Word in Your Ear; it's the sort of remnants of The Word magazine with Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. It'll be a general musical, crickety experience.
What do you think umpires will make of your new song "The Umpire"? It sounds like a suicide note.
NH: I have no idea. It's a melancholy little number. I started that one off, I just had the chorus lyric - "Who would aspire to be an umpire and who would be a referee?" I was envisaging also football and various other sports where the person in the middle really takes a lot of shit these days. I didn't know how to write the verses but Tom said, "Let's just do a little Kinks-esque Reggie Perrin day in the life kind of thing", and it worked very well.
TW: I was thinking of Ray Davies as well with tracks like "Shangri-La", how he'd give you an image in your mind. I was thinking Monty Python too - Michael Palin in that scene where everything happens around him but he just walks every morning to the newsagents. He walks out of his house and Graham Chapman gets harpooned by a Zulu, and there's a woman with her breasts out in the shop serving him and he just doesn't notice, and he gets on the bus and there's people getting shot and everything, so I was thinking of that kind of imagery and then it just wrote itself really.
NH: The basic thrust of it is sort of being left behind by modernity and sport being a computer game these days. "Well, we can do that at home," you know. The problem is that it's a double-edged sword. We used to rant and rage about bad umpiring decisions, and yet with the technology now you realise how good these people are and how most of their decisions are the right ones. The umpiring is almost as big an art form as the cricket itself. Why don't they do in football what they do in cricket and have ex-players as referees? They'd have so much more respect from the players on the pitch (the umpire has a lot on his mind, pictured at side).
TW: Because ex-players are dying to get fat when they finish playing football! They don't want to stay healthy. Razor Ruddock, he was big as a player so the minute he finished it was like "whoaaa! Let's go!", drinkin' and pies. There's a few that obviously keep fit as well, but I think it's a case of so much pressure they just want to get out again.
But umpires may think of themselves as cutting-edge modern professionals these days?
NH: Maybe they do. It's just a song! [laughter] I do like that we've got a song on the record that various people have said it sort of brought a tear to my eye. You don't expect that from a cricket album, do you?
Do you read cricket literature?
NH: Um, not really. I know I should. The few cricket biographies I've tried to read haven't been very good. I probably just haven't chosen right. I got about a third of the way through Geoff Boycott's autobiography and I thought, "I can't take any more of this!" He's so up himself. I tell you what's good is The Nightwatchman [the Wisden Cricket Quarterly]. I notice Tom Holland, one of my favourite writers, writes cricket stuff and I had no idea. I just read his history books, like Rubicon - I love those. So I'm dying to be suddenly best friends with Tom Holland. But the more I think about where we get Duckworth Lewis ideas from, we're a bit like those Pixar chaps who when they finally got their deal to become a proper company and make movies, they had one seminal dinner where they came up with the ideas for the first four massive Pixar movies. There was Toy Story, Wall-E, Cars and the other one that I can't think of right now. We did that. One night we got really drunk and we just brainstormed about cricket and what ideas and song titles you could come up with. That's when we thought of the Duckworth Lewis Method.
TW: We haven't made £6.8bn from our first two albums though.
NH: No, but a lot of the germs of the ideas on the second album were from those initial outpourings. That's often when you have the best ideas.
TW: Yeah. "Out in the Middle" was an idea from the first album. It was always to me about Kevin Pietersen in my head. Not specifically about him, but there was a time in his career when he clearly had everything, because he was doing all the endorsements and he looked great and had a beautiful family life and all this, but he was going out to the crease and he was falling apart. There was something very sad about that because that's his general day-to-day profession, but that's how difficult cricket can be in the head. So obviously what would reflect that would be Gerry Rafferty meets Steely Dan, which we did, and then a jazzy middle bit.
NH: [ruefully] Hopefully we are greater than the sum of our influences.
Are there any other sports you could do? Motor racing for instance?
TW: We weren't going to do an album about motor racing, but maybe we should rethink this. If we did motor racing, we could do Monaco. For God's sake, Neil, come on. We might be on to something! The Havolines. That's the name of a motor oil, isn't it? The Havolines - that's what we're doing for the next album. Well, George Harrison wrote "Faster" for Jackie Stewart.
NH: We'll just call ourselves The Spas. I'm Spa, he's Francorchamps.
TW: And there'll be a prog album called The Ring of Nürburg.
NH: I have walked the Nürburgring, because we played the Rock am Ring festival there one year and I thought, "this is fucking brilliant! I can walk round the entire track." I've always been a big F1 fan. It's like walking round a runway because it's so wide, and it's about 14 miles long as well. I was about halfway round and I was thinking, "I don't like motor racing any more." Ah! memories. But I think cricket is the only sort of true well of beautiful imagery.
Is cricket following other sports and becoming too commercial?
NH: Well, some aspects of it are a little vulgar, shall we say, but I think it seems to retain its core values in a way that some other sports don't.
TW: It's a bit weird at half past eight in the evening in Canterbury with a bit of drizzle coming down and there are 25 people at the cricket ground and then a guy comes onto the field to the strains of "Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé. It doesn't quite work.
NH: That's why we wrote "Boom Boom Afridi". You can make a chant out of it, and we desperately want to tune into a Test match in Islamabad or somewhere where they're all chanting this song. It's going to happen one day.
TW: In America, the Baseball Tonight programme on ESPN uses "The Sweet Spot" off our last album.
NH: It's so ironic that the first sync we got was for bloody baseball. We thought very carefully about whether we should be endorsing this evil sport, and then we said yes we should.
Sticky Wickets is released on 1 July.
The Arts Desk - Adam Sweeting