Mark Kermode on bringing musical memoir How Does It Feel? to Belfast
Top film critic Mark Kermode's new memoir How Does It Feel? details his lifelong passion for music. David Roy spoke to him about the book in advance of his two events at QFT Belfast this weekend
MARK Kermode's book, How Does It Feel? is a 'must listen' bit of literature – and yes, you read that correctly.
The audiobook edition of the new memoir from the Barnet-born esteemed film critic and self-confessed skiffle devotee finds Mark recounting his "life of musical misadventures" in a tangibly enthusiastic and passionate manner.
"Oh great, I like the audiobook – in a way it's sort of my ideal version as it was kind of written to be conversational," explains Kermode (55) when we call to discuss his upcoming How Does It Feel? event at QFT Belfast on Sunday.
In the book, the co-host of BBC Radio 5's Kermode & Mayo's Film Review recalls forming his first kitchen implement-bashing skiffle outfit with younger brother, Johnny, and the two years he spent hand-crafting a guitar inspired by the idiosyncratic axes of Dave Hill from glam stormers Slade, his early musical heroes whose 1975 single How Does it Feel gives the memoir its title.
This bespoke instrument, which was eventually stolen in the mid-1980s ("I still have a feeling it will turn up," Kermode tells me), launched him into a succession of short-lived beat combos including The Spark Plugs (also featuring school chum David Baddiel), Border Incident, Russians Eat Bambi, 5th Incident, Hop(e)less and BRAG!.
"It's a thing that I've always done," says Mark of his perhaps lesser known musical pursuits. "I was in bands before I was a film critic: I was always in bands when I was at school and I've always had a very kind of 'can-do' attitude towards playing music.
"I think I was 13 when I started building that guitar – and once you've built a musical instrument, you kind of realise that it's not magic. It's just a thing, it's a table with strings.
"I've always believed that you shouldn't be afraid of not being musically proficient. Very few people can be brilliant musicians, but most people can be adequate – and I've been adequate at a lot of different instruments.
"I've also been lucky enough to surround myself with people who were very good. My main contribution to most of the bands I've been in is just being the guy who says 'let's get up and do a gig now'."
He adds: "It's actually worked out surprisingly well."
Indeed, as readers/listeners will discover, Kermode's figure-it-out-on-the-fly approach has found him recording an album at the hallowed Sun Studios in Memphis with his current outfit, Americana-fuelled skiffling rockabillyists The Dodge Brothers (sensibly, the first thing they do is remove a large photo of Bono from the studio wall), playing at Glastonbury and performing at London's Royal Festival Hall with the BBC Concert Orchestra while on the verge of a nerves-induced heart attack.
"That scared the living daylights out of me," Mark admits of his attempt to wrangle the theme from Midnight Cowboy out of a recently purchased chromatic harmonica live on Radio 3, the palm sweat-inducing recollections of which form the opening to the book.
"It was absolutely terrifying – and, funnily enough, it was the one moment at which I thought 'I've really over-stretched this, I'm going to fall flat on my face and it's going to be awful!'
"I was convinced it was going to be a career-ending moment."
Kermode's early musical exploits really gathered steam in the late 80s once he discovered that his shovel-esque hands were ideally suited to hammering away at a double bass.
His superlative street skiffle combo The Railtown Bottlers became live favourites who ended up on children's TV schooling Timmy Mallett in the ways of pre-rock and roll, were declared 1991's International Street Entertainers of The Year and became the house band on brilliantly anarchic BBC Saturday night chat show Danny Baker After All in 1993.
Indeed, it's Mark's lifelong love of skiffle which prompted him to pen the new book, which has been a long time in the making.
"I wanted to write it in 2008," he says of the memoir, which actually started out as a piece on skiffle for the Observer.
"I was really enjoying it and I thought, 'I'd really like to write this as a book,' just because I thought it was a good story.
"But every publisher I went to and said 'I'd like to write a book about being in bands', they'd say 'that's great: you're a film critic, can you write a book about film criticism?'
"So I said, 'yeah, OK – but then can I do the book about bands?' So then I did the book about film criticism [2010's It's Only a Movie] and it went quite well: they went, 'that's great, can you do another book about film criticism?' [2015's excellent Hatchet Job].
"Finally, I was meant to be writing a book about pop music and movies. I just started writing the chapter about building an electric guitar and I said 'I'm sorry, I have to get this out of my system before I can do anything else'.
"I really, really liked writing it, and so I'm very glad you like it because it's very personal – it's the most personal thing I've written and it's also the most fun thing I've written. I just had nothing but fun writing it."
On the subject of having fun, How Does It Feel?'s publication has already afforded its author with a golden opportunity to revisit his musical past live on stage with The Railtown Bottlers at a recent book event at Home in Manchester.
"It was wonderful," Kermode confirms. "Being in a band with people is like being in a family with them: you never forget it. The Bottlers formed in the late 80s and went through to the mid-90s, but we've always stayed in touch.
"Every now and then at significant birthdays or anniversaries we kind of turn up at each other's parties and play a little bit – but we hadn't played properly live in a really long time.
"When we first formed in 1988 and were playing on the streets I'd always be spinning the bass around and Olly the sax player would run up the side of it.
"I said 'guys, we need to do all that again' and they went 'er, we're all in our 50s now!' But we did it – and there are now pictures all over the internet of Olly right up the side of the bass playing the clarinet!"
So, will Mark and co ever be getting the band back together again, perhaps for an extensive tour of Britain and Ireland?
"We all said we'd only do it as a one off," he confesses,"but by the time we finished the gig we were saying 'we must do this again!'
"So watch this space."
While we await that news, there's always the ongoing activities of The Dodge Brothers to enjoy: the band have just released their new LP, Drive Train, and will be back in Belfast for a pair of shows at The Black Box on January 12.
Getting back to this weekend, Mark will also be bring Cork film-maker Nora Twomey's Oscar-nominated animation The Breadwinner to QFT for the annual Mark Kermode's Film Night at the Cinemagic Festival tomorrow evening (which is now sold out).
"Nora Twomey is going to be there as well," he tells me. "That film deals with really difficult grown-up subject matter but does it in a way which is accessible [to children] because it's animated. I'm a huge animation fan and I think that film is absolutely brilliant."
:: Tickets for the How Does It Feel? event via Queensfilmtheatre.com, Dodge Brothers tickets via Blackboxbelfast.com. How Does It Feel? is out now, published by Orion.