interview by Michael McCarthy
Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Royston Langdon hails from Leeds in the United Kingdom, but it was during 1994 in New York City that he formed the band Spacehog with his brother Antony Langdon, Jonny Cragg and Richard Steel. Later that same year, the band was signed to Sire Records. Their debut album, Resident Alien, came out on the 24th of October 1995. Then it was just a short matter of time before their single “In the Meantime” was all over radio – we’re talking about heavy rotation – and the band skyrocketed to fame, earning themselves a gold record in the process. What followed must have been one hell of a ride. Their second album, my personal favorite Spacehog record, The Chinese Album, followed in 1998. The band soon joined Oasis and The Black Crowes for the Tour of Brotherly Love. In 2001, the band released their third album, The Hogyssey and did further touring. In 2006, the Langdon brothers formed a new band called Arckid with their other brother, Christian. The band gigged around quite a bit, but never released an album, though you can find one song by them, “I’ll Stick Around,” on Spotify and it’s a real gem if you ask me. In 2011 Spacehog reunited – although they’d never officially broken up – to make a new album, which was released in 2013. Titled, As It Is on Earth, it found the band once again proving that they’d mastered the art of blending spacey Bowie and stomping T. Rex glam rock with a modern, alternative rock sound-scape. But that’s all in the past now. Today Royston is going by Leeds, a nod to where he comes from. He has just released his first album as such, a pensive record entitled Everything’s Dandy! In some ways, Leeds’ stripped-back sound couldn’t be any more different than Spacehog’s often lavish productions. Where Spacehog sought to produce catchy songs to make you move, Leeds puts fourth laid back music to make you think. That’s not to say Leeds’ songs aren’t charming. They are. Very much so. But they’d be better listened to while chilling on the roof of a tall building than while dancing in some trendy club. I hope you’ll find the deep conversation that follows intriguing. If so, you’re going to love Everything’s Dandy!
MM: You’ve stated that going by Leeds gives you “the opportunity to build something with more integrity over time.” Can you elaborate on this? I guess I’m wondering how you could have more integrity going by Leeds as opposed to your own name?
RL: Well, I think you know music is so much more than just human in a sense that it kind of transcends our being by connecting us with one another. You know, I think part of what I’m trying – or I’m keen to go connect with myself and express with others – is finding who I am, what I want, what makes me tick. Middle-age at least. I know that’s not unique. It’s unique to me. It’s my story, but it’s a human vocal. And so by using a kind of alter-ego, it helps me to kind of differentiate my own ego drive and separate that into something that can stand on its own. Look, I’ve been a musician for 20 plus years professionally, I suppose, and to some extent I’ve had my share of the spotlight in various different forms and I didn’t want that. I wanted to keep this sort of sacrosanct and new. Have at least part of my consciousness connected in that way. Obviously, I realize that to some extent that’s not wholly possible because it’s my name, but I just felt like it was important. In the hope that people will come to this with an open mind.
MM: Makes sense. So some people might find it and check it out without even knowing what your background is.
RL: Yeah. Well, that’s happened, actually, yeah. For instance, there’s a whole bunch of people who’ve heard “Someone” on Spotify and stuff. I looked on the analytics and some are young girls. I don’t think they have any idea about Spacehog or any of that stuff. They just like the song and it speaks to their teenage or young adult angst.
MM: Now that you’ve lived in New York City for 24 years, do you find that you miss Leeds more or less as the years go on? Or do you not miss it at all?
RL: I don’t miss Leeds, no. I miss the countryside. I find that beautiful. Yorkshire. Of course, there’s a nostalgia that one can often lean on. I’m grateful for that in a strange way and I reflect it in the song “What Became of the People,” which draws from the theme song of this TV show that was around when I was a kid called The Likely Lad and things like that. I’ll tell you what I do miss. I miss the sarcasm. Because it’s not as easy to get across in the U.S. I miss that. I was with a friend of mine last night, Frenchie, and I’m drawn to [sarcasm] just because it’s Northern English. I’m in L.A. right now. I fell in love with it when I made some kind of joke and he got it. But if I say that in New York people just look at me because I am weird, by the way.
MM: Who isn’t?
RL: [Laughs] Who isn’t? Yeah, exactly!
MM: Speaking of sarcasm, I was wondering if the title of your album, Everything’s Dandy!, was meant sarcastically?
RL: Well, yeah, absolutely. New York’s obviously been changing. 24 years is long enough to have some sense of [that] and it’s definitely happened, especially in the artists community. Because of the economy becoming so immense and effecting. I think it effects the local politics and the people of New York and I’ve definitely experienced that myself. The record – to some extent – was using my own personal experience, going through changes, and going through loss and, you know, [the] turbulence of life. Ups and downs. And having this metaphor of New York City, too. I think of it like a ghost wandering around in certain parts like the East Village and I draw all kinds of comparisons to myself and to these kind of memories of my own life.
MM: How long did the Leeds album take to make from when you first started writing the songs until it was all recorded?
RL: I have a strange way of writing songs where I take in a lot of stuff, all the time. So, I can get little ideas, little lines – it might just be a couple of words – but it’s an idea. And I would say it’s taken my whole life to do that on this one. But, actually, physically, kind of pulling it all together, I started in December of 2015. I found myself alone in New York on a Christmas holiday time. My son had gone off with his mum and I didn’t want to get depressed, I suppose, so I wasn’t going to milk around. I thought, I’m going to keep myself busy and I’m going to make some music. So, I just started to do what I would do as a kid, in a way, and just go pursue an idea as far as I can take it until I pass out. The thing about that, for me, is it puts one on a weird schedule that is not particularly conducive to 9 to 5 or having kids or any of that stuff. It has to be self-indulgent, you know? And, so, those couple of weeks that I had were just peaceful and New York’s so weird, just full of tourists and different people, and that is what also made me start this look at New York and this kind of dreamland that’s come out. People make comparisons to Disneyland and all that, but it felt like something else. It felt like a dream. And it felt like something everyone was holding up, too. Because there’s nothing else to replace it with. There’s no alternative to this place.
MM: Some of the songs on the album remind me of demos, but in a good way. In that stripped-back, spontaneous vibe you get from the best demos. Were you going for that at all?
RL: Yeah, yeah. That’s well perceived. And I’ve really enjoyed the technology around recording and making music, but I wanted to make a record that somebody wouldn’t make on their laptop in their bedroom. Because there’s so many gadgets on these machines that people end up – and I do – end up wandering off into a world of baggage and all that kind of stuff that goes with gadgets. Which is amazing, but it’s just not what I wanted to do. So, I got together with Bryce Goggin, who I made Resident Alien with, and we’ve worked together since before Resident Alien, and the actual recording of the songs – once I’d got the ideas and worked it out with the musicians – was recorded extremely rapidly. Also, because I’m doing this on my own, I don’t have a massive budget. But there is a saying that, you know, there’s an economy in art and I think that’s true to some extent. All of my favorite painters, you look at their work – like David Hockney – and every line has a purpose to it. They didn’t want to put anything in there that wasn’t needed. It was more OK to pull away than it was to be adding on. Then again, with a metaphor of my life, I’ve had to let go of a lot of stuff. I’ve also become quite vulnerable as a result, and that’s actually one of the great gifts of my life, and it’s paradoxical. So, I wanted that intimacy and I’m glad you heard it.
MM: Speaking of feeling vulnerable, the songs on the Leeds record seem more focused on the lyrics than the Spacehog songs. Did focusing in that way make you feel more empowered or vulnerable?
RL: Well, again, it’s a great observation. I don’t know if it quite works in that way for me. I think it works the other way around. It’s about feeling in touch with that raw vulnerability and then, again, finding the essence of a feeling, of an idea, you know what I mean? And, hopefully, managing to be extreme with that. Perhaps, with my earlier work with Spacehog, it’s a propensity toward wanting to be excellent and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to focus on being as literal as possible. And, strangely, again, by doing that, there’s a poetry of sorts that comes out of that. I love that, and that’s where I want to carry on going. I think it’s also about being older and things. It’s not like an ambivalence or lack of care. On the contrary. But it’s really personal. The only person I really want to prove anything to is myself. Because it’s me. I’m going inward rather than looking for shit outside of me.
MM: Do you find that you think about your legacy more now than before or is it the opposite?
RL: The opposite. I’m grateful for my 30s and my youth. I’m mainly just grateful [that] for some miraculous reason I survived. Literally. A lot of my friends and a lot of my peers haven’t. From that perspective, every day is a gift at this point in my life. But so far as legacy goes, I think I’ve worn some pretty cool outfits. And I’ve had some good haircuts at times. That’s it. That’s my legacy. [Both laugh]
MM: Rich Robinson from The Black Crowes appears on one of the tracks on the album. Which one is he on?
RL: We wrote a song together. He’s not performing on this. We did do some versions of that song with Rich on guitar but they were more rocky, a la The Crowes or Spacehog, and it just didn’t work, but we wrote that song together, yeah. It’s a song called “Your Day Will Come.” You can hear his vibe. It’s got more of a Southern American rock… Well, it’s not rock, but Americana. It has an open G, which he taught me how to do. I never knew how to do all that stuff. So, that was a great gift he gave me to sort it out a bit. He’s a great, great player, you know, and a great songwriter, too, actually. He really is somebody that I admire.
MM: He put out a solo album a couple of years ago that I really liked.
RL: Yeah. He’s talented. Plus, I went on tour with those guys years ago and we formed a special bond, I think. We have a lot of similar, I suppose, in some ways, vulnerabilities. We kind of found each other in that place and we ended up becoming friends.
MM: Did you write all of the other songs on the album by yourself or are any of the others co-writes?
RL: “What Became of the People,” I wrote with my elder brother Antony, who was in Spacehog.
MM: How does the writing process usually begin with you? Does it start with a lyric idea or by playing a guitar chord – how does the magic usually happen?
RL: Magic, that’s the mysterious thing. I think, for me, I get compelled by an idea. It’s like falling in love. Being attracted to someone. It’s that kind of feeling. It might be any one of the main emotions. I just try and stay focused on that and then I fumble it, really, beyond that. That’s it. It’s a difficult thing to put into words. Like what you do, a journalist and all that, I think songwriting is a direct, old law kind of thing. It’s storytelling in a way but it’s more than that. But that keys into those color emotions that we humans can all identify with. I like to hang onto that. Sometimes [there are] ones I think are better than others, obviously, and some things fall by the wayside and drop off. But, then again, it might be an idea that I pick up years later. I still feel like I’m relatively a novice at being a songwriter. It’s one of those things I think I’ll probably, gratefully, pursue to the grave. We played a little show here last night and a friend of mine took me to another musician’s studio and we were just chatting and he was saying it’s so great to make these records because one has a map of one’s own life at the time. It’s hard. I was going on about Resident Alien. When that came out in 1995, 22 or 23 years ago, 23 years before that Bowie was doing Ziggy Stardust and all that stuff. So, it’s a long time ago in that sense and a lot’s happened.
MM: How do you keep track of your ideas? Like you mentioned that you might have an idea and not end up using it until three years later. So, do you record little snippets of songs or write things down or…?
RL: Both. I have a little book I take with me everywhere. I always have. It’s one of those things I’ve always done. There’s something about, for me, the experience of looking through the pages. When something comes completely out of your mind, unless you actually go, I want to look at that thing, that doesn’t work very well for me. Keeping a book, it’s strange – something happens when you write something out, I think, in front of one’s eyes. There’s an exchange between [you and] something else. I don’t know what it is. Maybe just the paper. But there’s an exchange, for me anyway. So, I do that. And as far as musical ideas, I’ve got a computer and put down little ideas. They’re usually pretty sketchy. I’m not trying to record a record when I’m doing that. Sometimes little bits and bobs have made it on the record, but it’s just not been improved upon, you know?
MM: I know what you mean about the thing with the writing because I write novels as well as doing the journalism thing.
RL: You do? How do you do that?
MM: I write a combination of on the computer and in notebooks. If I’m a little stuck, then usually I’ll go sit outside somewhere with a notebook and I’ll just kind of write. ‘I could do this or I could do that,’ kind of thinking aloud, but I do it on the page so if I get any good ideas I’m immediately submitting them to paper and I won’t forget them.
RL: What kind of novels do you write?
MM: I’ve written a lot of different things. The ones I’ve published so far are mostly young adult novels. But I’m going to be writing more mature stuff going forward. So, it’s pretty diverse. Now, you released the new album on vinyl, which I think is pretty great. Do you have any thoughts on the vinyl comeback?
RL: Yeah. Well, it never really went away for me. Actually, I suppose it did for a little bit, but I finally got myself settled 20 years ago and my vinyl collection [has been] active. I think, as a fan of music and artists, those records also mark out art. Especially, to me as a young adolescent on the dole, those things became my friends. My Bowie records and Velvet Underground and stuff like that – back in the late ’80s and early ’90s – were like my friends. In that sense, it’s kind of grown with me in a way. I wonder what my kid… It’s cool because everything can be mixed up nowadays. You can have some meaty beat song next to Joan Baez or something, you know what I mean? Obviously, it’s a different world. In some ways, it’s just a different thing. I think records do do that. In a sense, they’re a time capsule. I think people will always want that. Plus, you can play vinyl with your fingernail. I’ve been caught in some natural and somewhat unnatural disasters in New York City. It gets a bit more primal at times. My computer’s only going to last another six hours. It brings a feeling of scarcity. But there are alternatives. And, also, for me, I made the vinyl because I’d never done it, really, and for my fans who did a crowdsourcing thing, which helped pay for the recordings. There’s only ever going to be 300 and I’ve sent out less than 200 at this point. I’ve sent out a bunch to people who support the record.
MM: On “Someone,” you sing “I don’t want to act my age anymore.” If you could go back to any period of your life and relive it, which period would you go back to and why?
RL: In utero, probably. [Both laugh]
MM: There you go. Just start everything over.
RL: Well, you know, I think that’s the most mysterious period. But it’s also the one before we come out and get slapped in the face.
MM: When you say you don’t want to act your age anymore, in what capacity do you mean it?
RL: I don’t know, man. You can take that however you mean to take it, you know? I mean, if I say something, it changes it in a way. I think people, perhaps, can identify with that. It’s a human feeling and it means lots of things for me.
MM: Whereabouts are you walking around in the “Someone” video? I’m assuming it’s New York City, but I don’t recognize the area.
RL: No, it’s not. I’m in LA. I’m in downtown LA.
MM: Are you living in LA now?
RL: No, no, I was here because, as I said, I wasn’t really planning on getting behind this record. It was something I did for fun. But people have been hearing it, and I had some time on my hands, so I thought I should see if I can get behind it. So, I came out here. I did a few radio things – they were all pretty last minute because I wasn’t supporting it much. We did the video. I wanted to get an agent so I could start playing live. And I went out to meet with some people. I’m heading back to NY in a few hours. I have to get to the airport.
MM: Who plays the sax on “Never Let Go Of Your Hand” and “Innocence”?
RL: It’s a guy called Jay Rodriguez, who’s amazing. Apparently, over the years he’s worked with many, many great artists, including Prince. He’s such an incredible musician. I was really fortunate to get to work with him. He’s based in New York. It’s not something I’ve used before but I wanted to have a solo wood wind kind of thing and some of the songs lend themselves almost to jazz. There are flutes also.
MM: Some of the songs sound like they could easily be transformed into jazz songs.
RL: Yeah, probably. That would be great. As I said, I played last night and my chops on the piano are a little bit rusty. It’s hard to have a piano in New York. Because of the noise and proximity to people and the size and stuff. But I love the piano. I love the greats. And I love jazz. Some of my favorite records are jazz. And I think jazz is a great method for using as a creative tool. You can write novels and kind of apply a jazz principle to it. And I think you can do that with any architecture and medicine.
MM: I know one of the topics you wrote about on the album is gentrification and I’ve also heard you use the word re-gentrification. Could you tell me what the difference is? Or is there one?
RL: Yeah, I think so. What I’m on about is, again, metaphors for myself, about living in the socialite world of New York. And when I got to New York those townhouses, which were obviously salubrious dwellings back in the 1860s or whatever, had kind of fallen into being used as bedsits. I call them bedsits. I don’t know if you have an equivalent here. Like little studio apartments with a little bathroom and a room. That’s how the West Village was at that time. And then myself, and aspects of my own community, I suppose, have came in and kind of re-gentrified them, took them back to how they were meant to be at first. To some extent. With a single family using it. And so that’s what re-gentrification is. Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but I think it’s interesting to view this kind of thing as humans. We’ll go backwards and forwards and then we’ll do it again. If you live long enough, you get to see it. It’s a wonder. And, again, it affected me personally, all backwards and forwards. These things sometimes line up together. But I suppose it’s looking at our society in a way. I’m concerned. I’m concerned about all kinds of things as a parent. I want to create questions because I’m not going to do it all. My kid’s growing up and those are the ones who are going to have the energy to…
MM: Fix things?
RL: Just kind of be aware, you know what I mean? If you can’t fix something, you can write a song. That’s the way I do my part, through songwriting. Perhaps shining a little light on it for me as an individual, but that reflection can perhaps do something for the community or globally. For me, as far as talent, it would be a disservice of me not to do that in that way. And I can get involved in other ways, but I think I’m fine where I am. My primary purpose will be music and art.
MM: Have you ever had to move because of gentrification happening where you lived?
RL: Yeah. Yeah.
MM: Me, too.
RL: Where do you live?
MM: Well, I was in LA for a few years in Glendale and first they opened a Starbucks in the bank across the street then Whole Foods and Cost Plus World Market came in, and the rent kept going up as these things opened, and now I could never live there because they’ve evidently built this huge luxury mall next to the old mall that was downtown.
RL: Who’s going to go to the malls? It’s the same thing. I wandered around LA and there are a lot of places that aren’t open, that have closed down shop. Obviously, on Bleecker Street there was a Marc Jacobs store that sprung up around 2000 and they’re all gone now. So, they can’t sell enough whatever it is to pay the rent. The rent goes through the roof because of, like you say, the homogenized corporations that come in and start selling coffee. Or not even selling coffee. It’s an idea. And we support it and hold it up. So, therefore, it’s not surprising that we’ve got this guy in the White House who’s using all these tactics to maintain what we can. Those guys had a director – I don’t know if he’s still involved with it – to kind of give a direction to politics. In order to fight another day, there just is no alternative to us without tearing it all down.
MM: It’s a tricky situation.
RL: It is, but we have to figure out where our alliance is. Do I have more in common with the Wall Street government or the school that teaches my kid? The community that’s built around allows that. In New York, just because I’ve been there and I’ve had a kid and he’s grown up there, it’s real. And yet there’s nobody looking at each other like, what can we do? It’s a bit like the Occupy movement. Mobilization, but there was nobody with a solution. What’s the alternative? You can’t just march because you’re pissed off. Yeah, you can march, but you’re pissed off because this is not where you want to live. And, obviously, I didn’t want to make a fucking protest record. I don’t want to listen to it. But I do want to provoke those conversations, I suppose. I think in making what I make, to some extent around myself, is not out of self-centeredness, but just about artists and metaphor. Hopefully, some people might hear it.
Special thanks to Royston for taking the time to speak with us and to Mike Cubillos for setting it up!