Paul Vickers is all tied up in the video for Chieftain of Paradise, the first single taken from Jump, the fourth album by Paul Vickers and The Leg. In the video, Vickers is tethered to a ship’s mast by his band-mates, who thrust assorted pop cultural totems in his face to illustrate the song’s lyrics, in which both Elvis Presley and artist William Turner make an appearance.
At other points, Vickers and co play chess in the spirit of the album cover painting that references Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal by way of characters from Jump. Despite the song’s apparent sing-a-long levity, Vickers is making a serious statement about the state of art and commerce in difficult times.
“The idea of the song is that you can never predict which way things are going to go as far as the zeitgeist is concerned,” says Vickers on the eve of Jump’s launch at an intimate show tomorrow night in an Edinburgh church. “The idea of being the chieftain of paradise is of someone who suffers for their art, but who gets there in the end.”
Even the most commercially successful artists, the song suggests, can be rooted in oddball ideas that go on to infiltrate the mainstream, where such ideas are eventually taken for granted.
“At the beginning of rock and pop,” Vickers observes, “when you look at what was put out, it didn’t really make sense. Elvis put out records about a pair of shoes and a party in a prison. Who would have thought they’d turn out to be gold-dust? But I suppose in the 50s people couldn’t afford shoes, and making a record about a party in a prison was probably quite subversive for that time.”
Vickers and Co’s crunchy fantasias, post-punk show-tunes and wild live shows have been expanding enlightened minds since forming out of Edinburgh’s grassroots music scenes over a decade ago. Jump is the band’s fourth album, continuing Vickers’ alliance with The Leg, still a band in its own right led by mercurial song-writer Dan Mutch, and featuring classically trained cellist Pete Harvey and infinitely inventive drummer Alun Scurlock. This followed Vickers’ peripatetic tenure fronting Dawn of the Replicants over five albums and much critical acclaim.
With Vickers moonlighting with a surreal comedy career as Mr Twonkey, Paul Vickers and The Leg’s previous collections, Tropical Favourites, Itchy Grumble, and The Greengrocer, showcased a ribald stew of Beefheartian clatter and absurdist narratives tempered by a quasi-music-hall bounce. As its title suggests, however, Jump sees Vickers and co taking a zig-zagging leap forward.
“There are more songs drawn from personal experience,” says Vickers, “which you wouldn’t believe from listening to it, but it’s there in ones like Do your Best. There’s an attempt to make things a bit more melodic, and there are loads of hooks in there, which no-one ever picks up on. I think certain ones come from the Twonkey shows, and I suppose you’ve got Hopelessadocus, but I think I’ve changed a bit as well in the way I sing and present things. I’m less sheepish now. Some people think my voice is horrible, but listening to old Replicants stuff, it sounds like evil Coldplay, whereas now I think I’ve become a little bit more Shirley Bassey.”
The changes have clearly bolstered the band’s vision and drive.
“I think we’ve worked harder on this record than any of the others,” says Vickers. “Tropical Favourites kind of fell together, and we had a good time making it. Itchy Grumble was more intense. That was our Trout Mask Replica. Then, for The Greengrocer, the process was really drawn out, both making it and releasing it. To me, The Greengrocer was a hybrid between Itchy Grumble and Tropical Favourites, whereas Jump, it’s not completely new territory, but if I had to choose three albums I’ve made in my lifetime, I think it would be in there. I think it’s a great record. It’s more coherent, and quite muscular, but there’s a lot more tenderness in there as well.”
Released on Edinburgh cottage industry label, Tenement Records, Jump marks the arrival of an expanded line-up, with Vickers, Mutch, Harvey and Scurlock joined by guitarist James Metcalfe and bass player John Mackie. Metcalfe’s pedigree has seen him play with the sorely under-rated Pineapple Chunks, while he currently plays with Zed Penguin and Tardigrades, which also features Mutch and Scurlock. Metcalfe is also the artist behind Jump’s cover painting. Mackie was an original member of Khaya, the John Peel approved band led by Mutch.
“Both John and James have brought new layers to the sound,” says Vickers. “John’s bass works naturally with Dan’s guitar, and he takes the heat off Pete. James adds an almost My Bloody Valentine edge to things, but he knows when to leave space.”
For all Vickers’ clubland intimations, songs on Jump such as Chicken Church, Sherbert and Chilli and The Blackburn Giant remain fantastical products of a fertile and singular imagination.
“When Dan’s being cruel he calls me a psychedelic Tory,” says Vickers. “I’m not a Tory, but I kinda know what he means. There’s a slight element of Rupert the Bear coming through, and there’s nothing I can do about that. I must have been damaged as a child.”
Vickers is joking, but, like those immortalised in Chieftain of Paradise, he’s serious about his art, however misunderstood it may be sometimes.
“I get annoyed when reviews keep saying the record is so mental,” he says. “You read that and you think it’s going to be torture, but it’s not. You could argue that Little Turtle Wars sounds a bit like Black Sabbath, but we’re not trying to be obtuse. We want to be entertaining, but I always think we have to be unique, and that’s sometimes a difficult road to go down, because that’s not necessarily what people want.”
Paul Vickers and The Leg launch Jump tomorrow with a live show at St Vincent’s Chapel, Edinburgh at 7pm, with support from Dominic Waxing Lyrical and Cowboy Builder. Jump is released tomorrow on Tenement Records.
The Herald, December 5th 2019