Interview with Young Gun Silver Fox (Shawn Lee and Andy Platts)
After their critically acclaimed milestones ‘West End Coast’ and ‘AM Waves’, Shawn Lee and Andy Platts, better known as Young Gun Silver Fox, return this February with their long-awaited new album ‘Canyons’. In the third chapter of this British-American success story, which began five years ago, the talented musicians, singers, songwriters, arrangers and producers take their listeners on another journey into the world of soulful West Coast, AOR, soft rock and boogie. ‘Canyons’ is a consequent further development of the distinctive YGSF sound and convinces with excellent songwriting and musicianship, wonderful harmony vocals, incisivebrass sections and a superb production. Reason enough to talk with ‘Young Gun’ and ‘Silver Fox’ about the new album, their band anniversary, sources of inspiration, kids and further plans.
* The name of your third album, ‘Canyons’, immediately makes you think of mythical places like the famous Laurel Canyon, where folk musicians, psychedelic rockers, singer-songwriters and country rockers like Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Eagles invented the West Coast Sound in the late 60s and early 70s. Is the name of the album a bow to the origins of the Californian Sound?
SL- Me and Andy had talked about having a punchy one word album title like ‘Rumours’ or ‘Aja’. However, this was a tricky endeavour! It wasn’t until we decided on the front cover image by my buddy Steve Haney, that it pushed us into this world. Me and Andy arrived at Canyons eventually through many small messages back and forth on WhatsApp. I feel like we nailed a really strong iconic album title which fits our vibe yet expands it even more.
AP- Yes, I'd felt strongly at having a 'less is more' album title like ‘Gaucho’ or ‘Aja’ etc. but it's hard looking for the right word to capture so much. 'Canyons' to me is a perfect title for this record but also reflects the two of us as a creative unit. 'Canyons' give you an idea of the scale of space and room in which Shawn and myself feel that we have to create. It feels limitless, vast, and with many directions available to us and with so much to explore beyond each horizon.
* Your new album impresses with even more sophisticated songs and complex arrangements without losing sight of the catchiness. How do you see your further development compared to ‘West End Coast’ and ‘AM Waves’?
SL- I decided that I wanted to feature more horns on this album. Nichol Thomson did some really tip top horn arrangements on Canyons. I do feel like YGSF is feeling really good now and Andy and myself are really deep inside of our collective pockets so it just keeps getting better in a really organic and natural way.
AP- The best music, and indeed songwriting, reflects the writer's world and/or the world at large. It's the best and most revealing mirror and the most interesting lens at my disposal. To that end, I always want the songwriting to be as strong as possible and evolve and mature with each record. And as ever, the stronger the song, the more it affords you the opportunity to be more creative with the production.
* The songs on ‘Canyons’ have a certain 80s touch in many places, starting with the single ‘Kids’, which reminds a bit of the sound of Fleetwood Mac's ‘Tango in the Night’. The song ‘Baby Girl’ makes you think of Prince. And there are many more examples. Did the 80's inspire you more this time?
SL- I agree that there is a touch more of an early 80’s influence on this record. Bobby Caldwell resonates thru me on a few songs but it certainly isn’t a literal thing by any means. Early 80’s R&B is a helluva of thing ya know. It just felt like a natural progression.
AP- I'm not sure that it was a contrived thing but maybe one or two tracks started to point us in more of that 80's informed direction. What it does give you is another set of writing tools and musical dialects with which to paint and create. The backing vocals in KIDS are a prime example of that. I love 'Tango In The Night' and that record definitely influenced that song, as did Prefab Sprout. But I feel like the nuts and bolts of the song writing are still very much me.
* With the opening-track and current single ‘Kids’ you already set the easy-going mood of the album. Andy, how did the song come about?
AP- Sometimes I like to set myself challenges in writing and in this song, like in MOJO RISING or TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT, I was looking for the chord sequence to always be modulating and doing something interesting without ever resolving, to maintain a certain kind of tension. On top of a solid groove this gives you a chance to play with it in a linear AND cyclical way. The music came first, then the melody, then the lyric. Once I had the KIDS hook, I knew I had the song. Being a father of a two year old gave me lot to draw on about always growing up and celebrating your inner child, but also letting kids and ultimately adults just be themselves.
*Shawn, for ‘Kids’ you have just released a funny video with a lot of 70's charm. Tell us a little bit about the shooting. Who had the idea?
SL- The KIDS video was done by a guy named George Moore. The whole thing was his concept. The vid came out really great and it was really fast and fun. Imani and Brooklyn, the two kids in it, were absolutely brilliant too. George will also be doing our next video so look out for that!
*Andy, on ‘Canyons’ your are searching for the ‘Dream Woman’, touching down in Tokyo caught in a ‘Long Distance Love Affair’, being on the winning side in a ‘Private Paradise’ and getting deep and soulful in ‘Things We Left Unsaid’. What were your sources of inspiration for the new album?
AP- Lyrically this album was actually conceived as a concept album following the beginning, middle and end of a relationship. We rearranged the final track order so that it doesn't flow in a linear way. But this is how I conceived it (below). It takes fictional and autobiographical turns of course, but there is a thread there which I used to make sure the writing had a progression and never repeated itself. Hopefully though there is enough in the writing for people to find resonances and meanings for themselves. ALL THIS LOVE could be a straight break-up song for example.
Couple meet - DREAM WOMAN Fall in love - WHO NEEDS WORDS Move to city - DANNY JAMAICA Youth / Party/excess - JUST FOR KICKS Working to survive - LONG DISTANCE LOVE AFFAIR New parents - BABY GIRL Family life / growing up - KIDS Move to the country - PRIVATE PARADISE Regrets felt late in life - THINGS WE LEFT UNSAID Life after losing a loved one - ALL THIS LOVE
*Cue ‘Baby Girl’: Andy, you became a father two years ago. What influence did your fatherhood have on your creative work?
AP- It makes you think about life before and after kids, about who you were and who you have become and where you are going. The ultimate stock-take I guess....and these kinds of ruminations inevitably find a place in one's work.
*You're both fathers. How has the new album been received by your kids?
SL- My kids really like YGSF. My youngest daughter Seela adores LENNY from ‘AM Waves’. They have only heard ‘Canyons’ once but they like the song KIDS and its video a lot. Seela is even in it with my wife Kiren and our puppy Carla!
AP- Frankie loves music and loves dancing. Anytime I put a vinyl on, she goes nuts. She especially loves KIDS and has developed some specific moves in association with it! (Think Michael J Fox in Teen Wolf, with the Wolfdance).
*After ‘Lenny’ on ‘AM Waves’ we have to deal with a new character this time: ‘Danny Jamaica’. The song inevitably brings to mind the theme of a lost 70s TV series. Shawn, how did that song come up?
SL- Danny J started off as one of my instrumentals. I had finally got my hands on a really rare instrument called a Hohner Guitaret. It is a pretty unusual piece of kit to say the least. I picked it up and the first thing I played was a really syncopated melody. I thought it was interesting so I recorded it and then went back to working on whatever track I was already doing at the time. I came back to it a day later and wrote and recorded the music based around that initial Guitaret motif. Andy eventually wrote the lyric later about his old weed dealer in Liverpool! Danny Jamaica a real OG!
*Hand on heart, what are your favourite songs on the album?
SL- My favourites change often Thomas, but I really love the song THINGS WE LEFT UNSAID. It’s got that deep cut album vibe to it and Andy’s vocals are just so ace. I love it!
AP- Agreed, it changes a lot. THINGS WE LEFT UNSAID is a real favourite but also ALL THIS LOVE. The latter being another example of me constantly trying to fuse the worlds of black oriented soul music with the craft and structure of predominantly white classic pop and rock. In this case I was aiming for a love child called Todd Wonder!
*Let's talk about the production. All YGSF albums impress not only with great songs and joy of playing, but also with a rich sound. Were all songs recorded in Shawn's studio? Or did you also use Andy's new studio for some recordings of ‘Canyons’? Please tell us a little bit about the recording process.
SL- The album has been done in the same manner as the previous two. I record all my stuff at my studio in London and Andy does his vocals and other bits at his place. Except this time he had built a new studio from the ground up. He sends me his tracks and I mix them at my studio with my engineer Pierre Duplan. We are a well-oiled machine! Team work makes the dream work!
AP- If it ain't broke!...Yeah Shawn either sends me finished records with no lyrics/ vocal melody /vocals on which to write and record the song, or I create a song and recording and he decides what needs replacing or adding to to bring it in line with the YGSF sound. I'm always conscious of how my backing vocals are working in each track, either adding to or scaling it back to ensure you don't get smothered by backing vocals during playback!
*Andy, last but not least, the numerous vintage synthesizers you play on ‘Canyons’ - like the Korg DW 8000 and the Juno 6 - give you that nice 80s feeling. What inspires you about the sound of old synthesisers?
AP- Shawn has about 1000 more synths than me! I own 5 or 6 but what I do have, I use a lot and try to use them to their fullest. Analogue synths are wonderful tactile machines which never fail to inspire. They are excellent at adding depth and texture to a recording, at leading the music (pre chorus lick in KIDS) or at sitting way under the music on a subliminal level (rhythmic chorus part in KIDS). They can sound futuristic, they can sound human, sound warm or sound ice cold. There's nothing a synth like a Juno 6 can't do to be honest. I'm def looking at getting a Moog grandmother or a model D re-issue at some point though!
*‘More horns!’ could be one motto of Canyons. After the ‘Seaweed Horns’ had already played sporadically on ‘AM Waves’ under the direction of the renowned trombonist Nichol Thomson, they can be heard on almost every song on the new album. Did you get the taste?
SL- I have always loved horns. Nichol totally worships Jerry Hey and the Seawind horns and is a real aficionado of West Coast music. I really wanted him to do his thing on Canyons and boy did he ever!
AP- Horns are so hard to get right but if you have great arrangements and great players, you're nearly there. We are so blessed to know people like Nichol Thomson, Tom Walsh, Andy Ross and Dom Glover, who are absolute monsters and at the very top of their game.
*Especially on ‘Dream Woman’, the horns make you think directly of Jerry Hey. What a great arrangement! Did you get goose bumps during the recording, Shawn?
SL- ‘Dream Woman’ was a collaboration between me, Nichol and Andy and it brings that heavy Faces vibe of Earth Wind & Fire to the fore. The horns are totally off the charts on this track - HEAVY AF!
*Let's talk about the artwork for Canyons. The artist Steve Haney created this collage, which not only takes up the theme of canyons, but also pays homage to a number of great albums in music history. How did the collaboration come about?
SL- Steve Haney is a musician friend of mine from San Diego. He is a great percussionist and has a wicked band called Jungle Fire. He has recently started doing these incredible hand cut collages. I suggested to Andy that we get him on board to do the sleeves and posters and it’s worked out really great.
AP- Steve really has an eye for combining colour and texture and his sleeve design was perfect for Canyons. Typography is so important and people like Paula Scher have influenced me a lot to make sure that it's exactly right. It took us a lot of searching around to get the typography right. In the end we had to combine two fonts and tweak them further to get something which felt familiar but new.
*You two have been respected musicians, songwriters and producers for many years. Does that make the work between you easier or is it often a long process until you both can agree on the song selection for an album for example?
SL- The only obstacle that me and Andy have in terms of working together, is our busy schedules! It is always an intense pressured deadline to deliver a YGSF album ha, ha, ha!!!!
AP- We're generally on the same page when it comes to key decisions and creative avenues. Neither of us is looking to force agendas or egos on each other, this is a project which is a sanctuary from any of that. We both know that the ball is safe in the other's hands. It's about trust ultimately and we have that in spades.
*Your love for the West Coast sound of the 70s and 80s, the harmonies and the great productions of this era can be heard in your music from the beginning. But after three albums you have long since found your own distinctive YGSF sound. What do you think characterizes this sound?
SL- Thank you Thomas, that means a lot. First and foremost for me is Andy’s top notch songwriting and sublime vocals. His backing vocals are totally incredible! I’m not down playing my contribution and trying to be overly modest here mind you either but Andy brings the mojo. Having said that, we elevate each other in every way and it’s a wonderful partnership to say the least.
AP- Shawn's modesty needs curbing sometimes! The overall vision, the sound, the authenticity in what you hear in the record making of this very American genre all comes from Shawn, and without it it would be a much much lesser prospect. Overall I honestly think that we are constantly trying to equal and push what the other is doing and from my own side I am simply trying to write the best lyrics, melodies and songs that I can. In the singing department I am always learning. I was never a born singer so I feel like I am always at singing-college in that respect!
*Shawn, you once said about your work: "What you see is what you get”. Is authenticity one of the keys to YGSF's success?
SL- Being Authentic is something I really value. I believe it’s really an important thing to be. As Andy said in the lyric of LOVE GUARANTEE: ‘No Fugazi’!
AP- The moment you start creating what you think others want you to create, it's over. Dead in the water. You have to do what it is you want to do, for yourself, and take a chance.
*When listening to your music, sooner or later the term "timelessness" comes to mind, because a typical YGSF song could have been released in both 1979 and 2020. Is this timeless freshness of the songs an important goal of yours?
SL- Classic and timeless equals fresh in my book. We are a modern group making quality pop records in a day in age where modern pop is mediocre mindless pap.
AP- I learned songwriting from the masters and they're all part of that great tapestry of music created from the 1930's to the 1980's in various guises. I only want to make music that sounds timeless, that is universal, music that you can remember and that will be remembered. The Beatles will always be my desert island disc band, they're very much a huge cornerstone of my musical DNA.
*You called yourselves ‘Young Gun’ and ‘Silver Fox’ for a reason. While Shawn witnessed the heyday of West Coast music in his youth in the 70s and early 80s, Andy is more of a late-born. Do you recognize this different perspective on your source of inspiration when you work together?
SL- I gotta be honest, I don’t feel a generation or cultural gap with Andy. Music really does cut across many a boundary. We are on the same page and there is no need to explain anything to each other.
AP- I always feel like I was born in the wrong time and would loved to have been writing songs in the 60s and 70s. But no, in YGSF I don't feel a generational gap with Shawn and I think that you probably already know that, otherwise it just wouldn't work. What I do love about the age gap though is that Shawn has been exposed to more music than me by virtue of being older and so I am always being turned onto new (old) stuff that I'm not familiar with. In this way, Shawn is a total nerdy music guru. The best kind!
*Young Gun Silver Fox was born as a studio project. With ‘Canyons’ you now release your third album and celebrate your fifth anniversary. Would you have thought back then in 2015 that YGSF would be so long-lasting?
SL- YGSF has taken on a life of its own and it’s growing in a really lovely way. The music and the live band and team means a lot to me personally and I am really excited about what the future holds. There is a lot more to accomplish so bring it on...
AP- We didn't know if anyone would be interested in signing ‘West End Coast’, let alone having the success we achieved so far so it really is a blessing and a wonderful way to reap some of what we have sowed in our lives through hard work, drive and passion for music. Ultimately we just enjoy being purveyors of our craft but nevertheless, long may this warmth and appetite for YGSF continue!
*What significance does YGSF have for you today?
SL- YGSF has connected in a way I can’t even explain. It warms my heart that people really love our music and they give it back to us. It’s a rarified thing man.
AP- YGSF is vindication for me that staying true to what you do and not bending to the will of industry is so very important for music, for progress, for evolution and self-identity. YGSF is rejuvenating in so many ways.
*Like the previous YGSF albums, ‘Canyons’ is released again by Légère Recordings from Hamburg. It seems to be a very fruitful collaboration. Also many of Shawn's solo albums and the last Mamas Gun album have been released there. How did you get together with label owner Helmut Heuer back then?
SL- Helmut is one of the good guys! Nicest record label man out there. It’s been a really great relationship and he has been such a great supporter of all our music. Danke, Mr. Mellow!
AP- Helmut is a rare species among label owners. A true music fan, with golden ears and a canny knack for signing the good stuff.
*Andy, besides 'Canyons' you are also working on a new Mamas Gun album, so 2020 will be another busy year for you. When can we expect the album?
AP- We're working on it. Watch this space...!
*Shawn, you're also working on a lot of projects. You have just finished your tour for your solo album ‘Shawn Lee Rides Again’, you are recording again with Jonathan Jeremiah and producing the new Saint Etienne album. What else can we expect from you in 2020?
SL- There also will be a collaborative album with the wonderful Estonian musician Misha Panfilov which will be released on Funk Night Records out of Detroit. It is like some funky psychedelic Exotica! There will also be a 7” release of a new version of my song ‘Kiss The Sky’ with me singing on it. That will be released on Ubiquity on a 7” too. I have also produced one song on Izo Fitzroy’s album which is coming out soon.
*Andy, Young Gun Silver Fox are on a big tour in the Netherlands in March. Can we expect more concerts in Europe in the course of the year? Especially in France and Germany?
AP- You go where you're wanted and the Netherlands is a big market for us, having been welcomed with open arms from the very start. We love the country, its people and the way music is regarded. In saying that, we will be playing in Indonesia, Germany, France and the USA this year. We're always looking to play to as many people as possible.
*Speaking of the Netherlands. You found a loyal audience in Holland early on. Already ‘West End Coast’ made it to number 13 in the Dutch charts, last year you sold out the famous Paradiso in Amsterdam again. Why do you think you are celebrating such great success there?
SL- Holland has been amazing for us. I think the huge difference here has been radio airplay. If the general public hear your songs on the radio it sells tickets and puts bums on seats! You know what I mean?
AP- Holland has great taste independence and the infra-structure of the live music scene has been well developed with many venues at all levels and a good balance of national and international touring circuits. There's definitely a soulful/Americana loving side to the Dutch which I think has helped us to click there.
*One last question: Can you imagine that YGSF will still exist in five years and then we will talk about your fifth or sixth album? Will the journey continue?
SL- Young Gun Silver Fox music will exist far beyond my time on this earth. We are already talking about making album 4 so we are by no means done as of yet! YGSF is a safe musical harbour and brings so much pleasure to so many of us.
AP- We are but cavemen scratching on the walls. Hopefully our musical contributions will be remembered long after we are gone but in the meantime we will continue to follow the muse and keep making music that we love and that we hope others will too. Thanks Thomas :-)
Andy and Shawn, thank you very much for the interview!