Louis Barabbas – where to begin? He’s a musician, a writer, a record label boss… and a lover of peanuts! He’s also now the creator of Jocasta, a musical tragedy loosely based on the myth of Oedipus, which features our own Tom Robinson, as well as Tom Hingley (Inspiral Carpets), Bridie Jackson, Jami Reid-Quarrell, and many more, and which received support from the Arts Council.
It’s already been reviewed by Flo, but here’s a Q&A he did with me for Alternative Friday, so read on to find out more about the musical, his label, as well as stolen cheese, selective muting devices, and an acting challenge for Maxine Peake!
~ Tell us more about the musical, and why is Jocasta the lead character, rather than her son Oedipus?
The more I work on this project the more I think the real question should be why was it ever all about the son? I guess it’s just the ancient Greek equivalent of everyday sexism. Obviously in the last century the story was hijacked by Freud and the narrative has never truly recovered (culturally speaking) but, focusing on character trajectory alone, there’s such an emotional journey there – losing a child is tragedy enough but then all the stuff that comes after… nightmare upon nightmare. You could comfortably ditch all the monsters and prophesies and just focus on the heartache.
My version is not just about that though, there’s a lot about media bias and spin politics and how people in various positions of power and vulnerability cope with the pressures associated with both.
~ Was the idea to do this more recent, or have you always had the ambition to create a musical?
I’ve been interested in this story for a long time, ever since I was at school. It is the most perfect example of classical tragedy – wherein the seeds of destruction are sewn in full view of the audience but hidden from the protagonists – it is certainly not for the faint-hearted! I’ve wanted to write a musical my entire adult life but have never had much interest in the throwaway MGM matinee variety, I like art to have a sense of threat. That’s not to say they can’t be fun (look at Cabaret set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany and the rise of anti-semitism, yet nonetheless very catchy). I wanted to really push myself because I knew that getting people interested would be difficult, so at the very least I’d come out of the process a better songwriter, if still a largely niche one.
~ How did you sell a musical about dirty politics to the Arts Council?!
Since beginning the writing process in 2014, global politics (and indeed local politics) has become more and more bewildering. By the time I submitted my Arts Council application everyone was so steeped in the slime of Brexit and Trump that a musical like this probably looked distinctly pedestrian. My main pitch to them was that currently the biggest leaps in musical theatre are being made by the USA (e.g. Hamilton and The Book Of Mormon) whilst the London West End is dominated by Jukebox musicals, old standards, and revivals. Mine isn’t stylistically as radical as Hamilton (there is arguably a direct thread between me and, say, Lionel Bart) it does, however, contain a lot of stuff that musicals are not renowned for whilst, hopefully, not sacrificing the essential hummability. I realise I’m confining my argument to the mainstream here but that’s the nature of such funding proposals with limited word counts. There are hundreds of amazing independent musicals being workshopped all over the country as we speak, every single one eager to tell the world that not all musicals have to be like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. I just hope to be one of those that gets listened to!
~ Given the impressive number of people involved in the project, how long has it taken to get to this point?
The hardest bit was starting. I spent literally YEARS almost starting. My band took a break in 2014 after a pretty exhausting European tour, and I decided that was the time to get on with it, but still it was pretty slow going. Nothing I wrote in the first three months made it into the final version. The first song that survived was a simple lullaby in C major – it would become the young Jocasta’s first number. I wrote that in January 2015. I’d originally attempted writing her later stuff first and working backwards but in the end it was her hopeful young self that dictated how the character and music would develop. After that it all happened relatively quickly and my big problem was writing too much.
The narrative spans about thirty years and I wanted the characters to be more than just caricatures, so there’s a lot to squeeze in; then I just thought “what the hell, let it be long, let it be an epic”. So there are thirty songs in the final thing (and I did cut a fair few!). The last one was written in November 2016 and the script finished on Christmas Day (well a workable version of the script – it still needs a lot of polishing). So if you don’t count all the procrastination, self-doubt and failed attempts, the whole thing took about two years to write (though during that time I was also writing for Bedlam Six, Dutch trio Snowapple, and a Lowry commission, so it wasn’t full-time by any means). Once we got into the studio it took about three solid months from pre-production to final master.
~ Will there be a stage version? If yes, where are you at with it?
I hope so. There are a few directors interested. I don’t want to produce it myself because I think it’s important for new work to get manhandled by others rather than fussed over and pandered to by their authors, but I’d happily help out doing onsite rewrites or making tea for the stage crew. What I’d really like to see is a serialised version on television. I know that probably sounds ludicrously ambitious for someone whose only prior TV job was writing music for a cheese advert, but I really believe it’s about time the musical found a home in that medium. I know there’s already stuff like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend but there seems to be this unwritten rule that states TV musicals have to be tongue-in-cheek affairs constantly winking conspiratorially at the audience. I don’t see any reason why a serious violent tragedy full of songs about sex and politics can’t find an audience on some forward-thinking platform like Netflix. We’ll see.
~ What’s the background to Debt Records?
Well, back then (2008/9) everything looked like it was going to change, the internet felt like the wild west, everyone staking their claims, little labels were springing up all over the place. The supposed democratisation of creativity has since been revealed to be something of a fairytale but I still believe in the value of narrative – that was what Debt was always supposed to be, a way of giving artists a bit of a story. Some of the most interesting moments in the history of popular music have been when artists cross over, so we figured we’d set up a label-shaped organisation wherein the focus was collaboration. At its most banal it adds a few lines to everybody’s press release, but if we do our job well then something really special happens and it all starts to feel a bit more zeitgeisty. We haven’t done half the things I’d have liked to have done but I think we still punch above our weight. The most rewarding thing is being so close to other people’s creativity, it’s really inspiring and I feel very privileged to be allowed such proximity to other artists’ work.
~ ‘Louis Barabbas & the Bedlam Six’ came to the end of the road in 2016, but why, and what were the highlights of 10 years with the band?
Every band starts with a bunch of foolish notions about success and notoriety, and then you spend the rest of your time together trying to adjust your expectations/beliefs to fit the actual facts. Towards the end it was getting harder and harder to ignore how the music industry is nowhere near as big and important as everyone seems to think it is, that when you tell someone you’re in a band they no longer go “wow, how cool”, but rather wince and immediately assume you’re about to ask them to contribute to some kickstarter campaign. I wouldn’t mind feeling that cheap if it paid a bit better. After a while you realise there’s only so much time you can spend pursuing fun for its own sake. But it was a brilliant way to spend our 20s (and early 30s) and I have no regrets, we travelled all over the place and met amazing people and had a generally brilliant time. But these things can’t last forever and we didn’t want to start repeating ourselves. We were all ready for a change.
As for the highlights, it’s a difficult one to answer, one of the best things about being in a band is that unique feeling of togetherness that comes from a bunch of very different people sharing a single moment. But in terms of specifics it’s never the stuff you think. One time we played to 10,000 people in Nuremberg and there were girls screaming in the front row like we were The Beatles, it felt like a textbook “made it” snapshot, but actually it left me rather cold. I always preferred playing smaller gigs, where you can make contact with everyone in the crowd. The best times are when you connect, that’s what music is really good at. I think my favourite memory is a gig we did in Switzerland where we played encore after encore and then just had to stop because of the curfew so we all just went outside into the public square and did an acoustic set of old folk songs (the venue staff even brought out candles), then we sat up all night with the gig promoter eating chocolate cake and drinking whisky. The biggest shame was we had quite a luxurious hotel booked for us that night and none of us used it.
~ If you were invited to curate a festival stage, what five bands/artists would you invite to perform?
Hmm, most of my favourites lean towards the deceased and the independent. How about Ennio Morricone conducting excerpts from his film soundtracks, John Otway, The Blockheads, Frog, and The Decemberists. You said no Debt acts but can I have my stage compered by Alabaster dePlume? [only if he likes chocolate cake & whisky? Ed]
~ Who are your musical Guilty Pleasures? Don’t panic, no one will read this bit!
Well, the fact that I’ve admitted to liking musical theatre probably demonstrates I don’t feel guilty about any of my musical pleasures. I even have the Evita soundtrack in the car (despite loathing Andrew Lloyd Webber). Besides that, if we’re talking weird tastes, I really like film and TV music, particularly naff science fiction themes like Dudley Simpson’s Blake’s Seven (performed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and, of course, the original Dr Who theme by Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer. Also I can’t resist dancing to Deeelite’s Groove Is In The Heart, which is pure fluff. But I’m struggling to feel guilty about any of that.
~ What’s the most interesting fact about you, and what’s the least interesting?
I don’t think I’m the best judge of either. I’ve stolen cheese from Supergrass backstage. Is that interesting? I almost always have a packet of peanuts in my pocket. Is that not interesting?
~ If you could invent anything, what would it be?
If I could invent anything it would be a selective muting device that would filter out other people’s boring conversations. I’d make sure you could adjust the filter to various specifications though. Sometimes I really like listening in on other people’s chatter but when it’s just phatic communion of the “nice weather” variety (or that peculiarly British pastime of comparing illnesses) and I’m trying to read something or sharpen a particular thought then I’d dearly love a button that just switched all that off for a bit. I guess it’s the real world equivalent of the signal to noise ratio. Right now there’s a lot of noise.
~ Which actor would you choose to play you in a film about your musical life to date?
Maxine Peake. She’s very versatile and very formidable and I’d really like to be both of those things. Or maybe it could be an animated film voiced by Tom Baker. As you can see, I’ve no great interest in authenticity.