Pitchforkmedia.comThe Boy Least Likely To Fans of Buffy
Thursday 22 December 2005, by Webmaster
On The Best Party Ever, the debut by English duo The Boy Least Likely To, composer/multi-instrumentalist Pete Hobbs, 27, and lyricist/singer Jof Owen sketch a Crayola pop storybook that pairs naiveté with a paralyzing neurosis, straight out of Ernest Becker yet fuzzily familiar.
Blissful-sounding "I’m Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon to Your Star" mentions a "country disco band," but that touches on just a fraction of TBLLT’s home-knitted style. Add late-’60s surfer psychedelia, the understated ’80s pop of the Sarah and Postcard labels, and a lil’ bit of soul.
As much as I instantly loved the music, I knew nothing about the artists behind it. I recently exchanged e-mails with Owen about his influences, childhood’s innate sadness, and the limitations of rock ’n’ roll. Turns out he and the aptly named Hobbs have as broad a record collection— and as uniquely affecting a worldview— as their songs would suggest.
Pitchfork: First off, the basics. Where did you grow up?
Jof Owen: We both grew up in a little village called Wendover in Buckinghamshire. In England, in the middle of the countryside, about 40 miles north of London. It’s kind of quiet and quaint. And it’s very beautiful, surrounded on all sides by the Chiltern hills. It’s nice to wake up and open your window onto the fields and the hills. It doesn’t have any useful shops though. It’s all antique shops and cake decoration shops. One of the restaurants in the village only serves chocolate. And there’s not much to do there. Especially when you’re young.
Pitchfork: How long have you known each other? How did the Boy Least Likely To come together?
Jof: We met when we were still at school and started writing songs together then. Then we went to college and were in bands together, but nothing ever came of them. We didn’t start writing songs for The Boy Least Likely To until a few years ago. Before then I’d always written the lyrics and other people had sung. I think the first songs we wrote for it must’ve been "Paper Cuts" and "Hugging My Grudge". And we recorded them quite simply on an eight-track machine in the back bedroom. Just messing about with sounds and instruments we hadn’t really used before and that Pete couldn’t always play properly.
I think the sound of the records came from not really knowing what we were doing, and even though we’ve probably got better at using the equipment now, we still record in the same way. Just trying different ideas and instruments out until we stumble into something that sounds good, or just makes us laugh. We didn’t want to waste our time sending demos out to labels, so we got a distribution deal, set up Too Young to Die, and released "Paper Cuts" as a 7". The label and the band just grew from that.
Pitchfork: A lot of people suspect the band name is a play on "The Girl Least Likely To" by Morrissey. Did you go through a Morrissey phase?
Jof: The name was just a phrase that I thought suited us. No one really expected us to be anything. Especially me. I hadn’t heard the Morrissey song until someone sent me a copy of the CD single, because it wasn’t one of the B-sides from that period that made it onto the Bona Drag compilation. But it wasn’t taken from that. I don’t really mind it as a reference point though. I was always a big fan of the Smiths growing up, and I still am. Especially of the first album. There are other bands from that time that probably mean more to me now, like the Go-Betweens and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, but definitely when I was 12 years old the Smiths meant the world to me.
Pitchfork: What else inspired you while you were growing up?
Jof: It’s something that I was quite conscious of when we were writing and recording the Boy Least Likely To songs. Getting back to those records that were important to me when I was growing up, when I first became obsessed with pop music. I think that was something that Morrissey always did, too. Referencing his teenage influences lyrically and musically. Often the music that you listen to when you’re young, when you first get into music, is the music that comes most naturally to you when you’re doing your own stuff. I was into a lot of different things when I was growing up.
The first record I ever got was a Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins album of gunfighter ballads when I was about seven. I loved that. I always thought I’d grow up to be a cowboy, but I guess there isn’t much call for cowboys in the middle of the English countryside. Maybe when I go to America, I can become a cowboy out there. Like Bernie Taupin did.
When I was a bit older I got into to all the C86 bands, like Talulah Gosh and the Pooh Sticks and the Vaselines, and all the 53rd and 3rd stuff. And I kind of just moved my way backwards and forwards from there. Back to Orange Juice and Aztec Camera and Altered Images. And then I got into the bands that influenced those bands. Like the Beach Boys and Gram Parsons, and all the sixties girl singers like Sandie Shaw and Nancy Sinatra. Lee Hazlewood is one of my favorite songwriters, especially the two Nancy and Lee albums. And then I listened to other stuff like Saint Etienne and Belle & Sebastian and all the Sarah Records bands.
And Dexy’s were always a big influence. And Kenickie. I think they’re really underrated. When we started writing the Boy Least Likely To album I wanted it to have the same feel as the second Kenickie album. A mixture of upbeat and sad. It seemed to make the sad moments even more poignant when it was thrown into the middle of quite an overtly pop album like that.
Pitchfork: How did you come up with the idea for the Boy Least Likely To’s sound?
Jof: We put everything we’d ever loved into one album. If it fit with the rest of the sounds and ideas on the recording then we kept it in. We tried a disco beat behind banjos and fiddles and it seemed to work. A lot of the instruments we used were instruments you play when you’re a child, like glockenspiels and recorders and all the percussion, cuz they seemed to fit with the lyrics about growing up and lost innocence. And they seemed to give it a simple happy feel touched with a nostalgia for something gone. The more traditional instruments, like harmonicas and banjos, were there cuz we wanted there to be an English folk or American country side to the album. But we didn’t put that much thought into it. We just messed about and tried different instruments and sounds.
Pitchfork: How do you reproduce those varied sounds on stage?
Jof: The few shows we’ve done have been really good, [but] we try not to play live too often. I always wanted it to be more about the records and everything that goes with that. Like music videos and the artwork. I’ve always liked bands that concentrated more on that side of things. I don’t always need to see a band live if I like them. I just want to wear a badge with their name on [it]. I like pop music as product. So when we do play live I want it to be special. Plus there are seven of us in the live band so it’s not always easy to get everyone together in the same place at the same time.
Pitchfork: Is your record starting to take off in England?
Jof: The record has sold really well over here. More than I ever expected. The whole reaction to it has taken me a bit by surprise. It’s still quite an underground thing at the moment, but little by little it seems to be breaking through to the surface.
Unfortunately, there’s no official U.S. release date yet, but we’re sorting that out at the moment so hopefully it should be out there late summer, early autumn. Fingers crossed.
Pitchfork: Tell me about your record label, Too Young to Die. Are you putting out music by any other artists?
Jof: The label is ours, we set it up to put out the "Paper Cuts" single and it grew from there. We’re still the only artists to have released anything on it at present. But there should be a solo single by Sweet Amanda Applewood out by the end of the year. She’s the recorder player for the Boy Least Likely To.
Pitchfork: What is warm Panda Cola?
Jof: Warm Panda Cola is a cheap version of Coca-Cola that you can buy over here. It comes in little plastic 25cl bottles and has a picture of a panda on it. It’s also available in blueberry flavor and raspberry flavor and cherryade. It’s not usually drunk by adults.
Pitchfork: There are a lot of allusions to a fear of dying on this album, even bringing up "embolisms." What’s behind all that?
Jof: I guess the happier I am the more scared I am of growing old, and of dying. When I’m happy and when things are going well I don’t want anything to change and I guess that’s when I become more aware of my own mortality, and of time ticking on. The "from little air bubbles little embolisms grow" line from "The Battle of the Boy Least Likely To" wasn’t specifically about dying; it was more about the nature of relationships. The way that often the things that bring people together break people apart with time. The little things that give a relationship its life are just as active in its death.
I think the other references to dying on the album come from that childhood fear of change in a world that you’re not completely comfortable in yet, like the fear that most children have of their parents dying and being left on their own. There’s a lot of childhood imagery in there, but I’m not particularly nostalgic. I know I was probably happier then, but I don’t have any idealized view of childhood. I don’t remember being blissfully innocent. I think I was always aware of the cruel world to some extent. A lot of a child’s life is filled with as much sadness and discomfort as an adult’s life.
Pitchfork: Where does romance fit into all of that? There are a couple of love-type songs, albeit from your usual self-deprecating viewpoint, such as "Paper Cuts".
Jof: Well, writing the album kind of fell into two halves. Most of it was written when I was happy in a relationship, and the rest of it was written after that relationship had fallen apart. I guess it’s kind of obvious which songs are which.
Pitchfork: What’s "Fur Soft as Fur" about?
Jof: The lyrics are often about growing up, about the onset of adulthood and adult responsibilities. About things not turning out the way you expected them to, and learning to live with that disappointment and compromise. I suppose that’s what "Fur Soft as Fur" is about— realizing that dreams don’t always come true the way you wanted them to, and that it can be quite easy to just get swept along in life without really paying attention to what made you happy in the first place. I suppose it’s just a reminder to remember your dreams, and not to just keep plodding along, taking life at a tortoise pace. Actually, it was originally called "The Tortoise Song", and that’s where the images of "smiling at the leaves" and "chewing butter beans" come in.
Pitchfork: A fellow named Tim does all the artwork. Where did his idea for the children’s-book style come from?
Jof: Tim is just an artist we know, who does these sorts of drawings very quickly over and over again until he draws one that makes us laugh or feel sorry for it. The idea for the artwork just gradually developed from the first single cover with the boy and the balloon and he drew more characters from there. My favorite character is the Big Nose from the cover of the "Be Gentle With Me" single. Hopefully we’re going to do a full comic book one day.
Pitchfork: What were your favorite children’s books growing up?
Jof: My favorite children’s book was How the Whale Became and Other Stories by Ted Hughes. I think I actually got confused between the stories in it and the Bible. I love how the tortoise became and how the donkey became. And recently I’ve just read Alessandro Boffa’s book You’re an Animal, Viskovitz, which I really enjoyed and kind of seemed like an adult fiction companion to the Ted Hughes book. And I loved the Winnie the Pooh books, too. I always liked Eeyore best. The image of him down by the stream, staring sadly back at his own reflection, muttering "pathetic." Too sad. And I remember reading the Oscar Wilde short stories, like "The Happy Prince" and "The Nightingale and the Rose".
I’d never heard of Calvin & Hobbes until I’d written the song "My Tiger My Heart", and then people kept asking me if it was influenced by the [comic strip]. I’m a big fan now.
Pitchfork: Because The Best Party Ever isn’t out in the U.S. yet, I imagine a lot of your fans here first heard your music on mp3.
Jof: I don’t mind people sharing our songs between friends, or getting them free if they can’t get hold of the album. And downloading doesn’t really worry me; I just think bands have to make more effort with their artwork and the products themselves to make people want to own the physical [record].
Pitchfork: I often hear your name mentioned alongside the Pipettes. Any other new UK bands people should check out?
Jof: [The Pipettes] are friends of ours and we’re big fans of theirs. They sound like a cross between Bananarama and Huggy Bear. They’ve got three girl singers upfront in matching Strawberry Switchblade polka-dot dresses doing shambolic synchronized dance routines and Shangri-Las call-and-response vocals. They’re fantastic. We’ve played a couple of shows with Monster Bobby, the guitarist from the Pipettes in his solo guise. He’s fantastic. Reminds me of the Magnetic Fields. I like the Go! Team album a lot, too.
Pitchfork: One of you wrote on your blog recently that you listen to pop music because you’re "not particularly angsty. But often sad. And sometimes happy." Could you elaborate on that? Why are you drawn to music on the poppier side of the spectrum?
Jof: I just think the natural limitations of "rock" music, because it’s just bass-drums-guitar and very male, doesn’t allow for that much experimentation musically or lyrically. Experimentation in rock music always seems to be quite unimaginative compared with pop music. And pop songs can convey sadness in a way that rock music doesn’t seem to be able to. Rock songs never convey sadness or happiness very well. Whereas rock music does emotions like anger and angst better than pop music usually.
But pop music definitely seems to be able to express sadness and happiness and other more simple feelings more easily. Maybe it’s because sadness is quite childlike. And pop music allows room for more childlike emotions. But the overtly adult or adolescent and masculine nature of rock music doesn’t. So I guess that’s why I’m drawn to pop music or country music. Because the emotions I feel are more often simple and childlike.
Pitchfork: I also noticed that you’re a big "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fan. I never got into it, but my sister swears by the show. I could see a song like "Monsters" or "I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes" fitting into that show’s vibe. What grabs you about it?
Jof: I’m a complete geek about "Buffy". I just love the metaphors, the subtexts, the self-deprecating humor, and the intertextuality. And the idea of a slightly insecure, confused teenage girl with a funny-shaped nose as a superhero. It gives me hope. And it’s beautifully written. Generally I try not to watch too much TV, though. But I like "Freaks and Geeks" a lot. And I’m going through a big "Curb Your Enthusiasm" phase at the moment.
Pitchfork: Anything else that you’d like to discuss?
Jof: Um, well I’ve spoken about Ted Hughes, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Winnie the Pooh, and the Pipettes. So no, I think everything important has been covered.
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