Under the influence: Art of Flying

I’M VERY MUCH INTO the idea that the journey is every bit as important as the destination – and it’s usually more interesting. Who really knows where we’re going to end up? 

And certainty is over-rated anyway. Change is constant. We should embrace it. Dealing with the mad, random shit that life throws at us is what makes us who we are.

David Costanza, who works with Anne Speroni as Art of Flying, probably didn’t ever envisage he’d be following in the footsteps of David Bowie, Roxy Music and Bob Marley by playing in south Manchester’s most rock n roll suburb, Stretford, but that is precisely what is happening to him this month when he appears at Reel Around the Fountain, Stretford Arndale’s finest (and only) secondhand record emporium.  

David and Anne have gone from being kids playing in a college band named after a local supermarket to, 30 years later, making beautiful, dusty, slow-mo psychedelia in New Mexico as the Art of Flying. You get the impression there have been a few twists and turns along the way.

It’s strange to think that we might now be listening to the Whitefronts’ ramshackle psych-folk jams were it not for a fan letter written to the band by some young girl (“with very curly-cue handwriting,” remembers David, “very childish”), who, under the impression that the band’s name was an endorsement of the emergent US white power movement, ended her note with the cheery slogan “Free Rudolph Hess!” 

They broke up the band immediately. 

And, speaking of miserable old racists who should be in prison, given Stretford Arndale’s proximity to the street where Morrissey grew up, I’m hoping for at least one reggae rework of a Smiths classic when David performs here. Hinglan is mine and it owes I and I a living etc. 

I’m joking of course. In fact, David will be traveling with an electric guitar and a few effects and singing Art of Flying songs. 

As well as doing some recording and playing a couple of low-key gigs in Machynlleth, Wales, David will also be appearing at Open Door at Nook in Heaton Moor, Stockport on Thursday 24 October, and No Vultures in Dewsbury on Friday 25 October, supporting Tom Holliston (from No Means No) and Selina Martin, before his in-store at Reel Around the Fountain on the afternoon of Saturday 26 October. 

No sleep til Stretford indeed. 

Nigel at Reel Around the Fountain tells me that the last in-store appearance he had was Dermo from Northside’s new band launching their last album, and, while it was rammed, he sold fuck all records. Please go to David’s gig in the shop, and buy some records or some Smiths memorabilia or something – and keep Nigel in business. 

Support your local dealer, people. 

If anyone has any bright ideas for a gig in Manchester on Saturday evening, let me know. I’m not sure how far a geezer with a guitar singing sweet, gentle and reflective lullabies will fly in Manchester city centre on a Saturday evening – quite some distance, potentially – but I think I can safely say that David is game if you are.

In the meantime, here are some of the albums that had an influence on what David does and how he does it. 

“It’s difficult for me to pinpoint where I bought On the Beach by Neil Young. I’m guessing it was at a record store in Isla Vista, CA, the student town outside of UC Santa Barbara where I lived during college. I amassed most of my record collection there for two or three bucks a piece during my college days and early days of playing in a band. 

“I have a clearer memory of first hearing Neil Young’s voice and music (I thought he was a woman) on the radio: Heart of Gold was on the radio in 1972 and I was in the back of my dad’s Volvo. I just listened so intensely, because it was the radio and I was 10 years old – and I didn’t know when I would get to hear the song again.

“And I just loved the sound. 

“Early influence note #1: Linda Ronstadt’s harmony that she brings only on the last chorus. Can you really have such a beautiful part and only sing it once? Yes, apparently. To this day, I love the tension of waiting for it.

“A few years later (Google says it was 1979), I remember standing outside of a friend’s truck at 4:30 in the morning listening to Hey, Hey, My My, waiting for our swim coach to open the gate to the swimming pool. Another radio hit for Neil. 

“I remember thinking the song was kind of dumb, but being drawn to it nonetheless. I also recall Neil rhymed ‘forgotten’ with ‘Johnny Rotten’ and wondering to myself, wasn’t it the other guy who died (I couldn’t Google this back then)? And if so, wouldn’t that make the song a bit of a lie? 

“Early influence note #2: a song can be that simple. 

“In college, all the cool guys could play The Needle and the Damage Done and I wanted to play it too so I bought a guitar – a Martin D-18, which I still play – and I learned how to play it. I loved that descending bass line, and the words were much more to my liking. Neil was even writing about a friend, which I loved. 

“At that point, I hada turntable in my room and I started collecting records. I imagine I would have gone to the local record store, Morning Glory Music, and bought whatever Neil Young record looked cool and was the cheapest. It was at this point I must have bought On the Beach, one of the best cover pictures of all time.

“I would have then taken it back to my dorm, sat on my bed and dissected it from start to finish. 

“The record has a few misses. Revolution Blues and Vampire Blues – you couldn’t skip songs as easily as you can now so you just had to wait the songs out. And, unfortunately, they’re long. 

“See the Sky About to Rain, however, is so beautiful and every time I sit at the electric piano in the studio I want a song like this to come out.

“Early influence note #3: watch out for the vibrato on recordings, it can really fuck up the tempo – even if Neil did get away with it.

“And also For the Turnstiles – that banjo and those harmonies sung by a friend and the beautiful humanness of it all. 

“I wouldn’t call it a one-sided record, even if Neil does, but See the Sky About to Rain and For the Turnstiles make want to put on side B and immerse myself in its sublime fucked-upness, which is heaven to me. 

“On the Beach is drawn out and dark and still has a sense of humor.

“It has a Band sound in the background and Neil’s voice is huge and then the Band leaves the stage, so to speak, and the last two songs wind down the record and send the radio DJs to bed (and anyone else who isn’t there for a good reason) and it becomes more and more dreamlike and inscrutable and even the record player dissolves and Neil’s voice is in the room and the listener (in this case, me) is the only one let in on its secrets. 

“Early influence note #4: I want to make records that feel like this.

“In 1984, Anne and I moved to San Francisco, CA, along with a group of friends and musicians. Our band was called the Whitefronts (named after an old department store—not Y fronts—as they call underwear in England, or so I’m told).

“One day, W-Fronts drummer Todd Barker brought home two records: Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Babylon by Bus and Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen. Both double albums. Not a format I ever loved. 

“I don’t remember ever listening to the Bob Marley record (I don’t love live albums either. I can be a completist when I’m a fan of a band, but I prefer outtakes and alternate versions to ‘live’) but I do remember the feeling of listening to the Minutemen for the first time. Total infatuation! 

“Well, not total, as it would be a while before I would come to love D Boon’s voice.

“But the music. The sound. It was all so charged and alive. It really opened up my ears.

“Up to this fateful day, I had Bob Dylan’s Desire endlessly rotating on my turntable. I wanted to move right into that record. Double Nickels would, thankfully, put a stop to that and introduce me to music that was current. Made by a band that was not too out of reach. Who practiced in their garage! Who were just figuring this shit out – like I was.

“1984 was a great time to live in San Francisco, as all the great bands passed through and played for $5 on Monday nights at a club called the I-Beam. I must have seen the Minutemen play a half dozen times. And this album holds up so well as a document to those days. I still listen to it. I have it on my phone!

“Early influence note #4: it is okay to not love the vocals on the first listen. 

“I love the off-kilter arrangements, the force and beauty of joyful, skillful playing, and short songs (”Cut down the guitar solos!”) the exuberance of playing music with friends. 

“I wrote an instrumental guitar piece Song for D Boon inspired by Cohesion and put it on our 2014 album I’m Already Crying, but I never got permission to use his name. So, it’s called Song for DB

“Making cassettes is no longer a necessity for hearing your records in the van or at work. Now, cassette making is a nicety and while that’s fine, it eliminates all of the lovely mysteries contained in cassettes. 

“One amazing thing about cassette tapes – and there are many – was that, when you were copying an album to a cassette and there was some time left after album side A, the question for you was, do you just start with side B of the album? For me, never. Do you leave the rest of the side blank? Wasteful! Or do you find a few songs that you were wanting to listen to and record them out to the end of the tape?

“Of course, option C was the only option for me. This was also the choice of whoever made me a cassette of Henry the Human Fly, Richard Thompson’s first solo album, which he once claimed was the ‘worst selling album on Warner Bros’ – a noble distinction to be sure. 

“Poorly labeled, my cassette had no notes and when side A ended there was room for three songs. These songs so strange and beautiful and mysterious – even more so due to the fact that I had no idea who it was and there was no way to find out, at least for me in 1988.

“I found myself far more intrigued and interested in these three songs than the music on the rest of the cassette. The songs turned out to be Black-Eyed Dog, Hanging on a Star, and Voice from the Mountain by Nick Drake.

“I wouldn’t realize they were by Nick Drake for maybe five more years until I was playing in a band called Lords of Howling.

“Chris Culhane, LOH’s singer and songwriter (and also a huge influence of what I do) gave me two album collections: a live album by Townes van Zandt (I don’t appreciate live albums and I gave it away) and Fruit Tree, a Nick Drake box set. It was this box set that allowed me to put a name to the music I’d adored for so long.

“While the songs from my cassette were not on the record (they belong to disc 4: Time of No Reply, a collection of lost songs and outtakes), Pink Moon, Nick Drake’s third album, became my absolute favorite. Extremely short and dense and leaving no way to escape, I have been pleasantly haunted by this collection of songs for close to 30 years now.

“Pink Moon has always let the mystery remain. 

“No amount of listening has diminished it in any way. I have no favorite song, no favorite side, no reference points. 

“I just put the record on and my rational mind dissolves. The influence here is obvious. GO IN! GO IN! GO IN! 

“Even if this obsession with the internal (eternal!) meant the record went largely unnoticed in the singer’s lifetime, the album itself has eclipsed practically everything in my collection. 

“Early influence note #5: This album liberated me from the whole Dylan macho, Yang, singer-songwriter lineage, too. 

“And for that I am forever grateful.” 

More info on Art of Flying here.

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