BlackBook Interview: Spacehog Frontman and Downtown Eminence Royston Langdon on His New Album & the Myths of NYC
Photo by Sophie Caby
It may not be at the bleeding edge of the international music buzz these days, but New York City has probably only been matched by London for cultural zeitgeist moments. From Miles and Coltrane in the ’50s and ’60s, to Blondie and The Ramones in the ’70s, to Madonna and the Beastie Boys in the ’80s, through to The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the early 2000s, it was perpetually where young talent would indeed be taking Sinatra’s advice and “making it here.”
The mid-’90s had a smaller, though no less thrilling moment, when a collection of dissolutely glamorous rockers tore up the stages at grungy downtown hotspots like Don Hills and Coney Island High. We won’t even get into the lifestyle choices surrounding the scene.
Photo by Marc Scrivo
One of the more notable acts to break out of it was Spacehog, whose massive hit “In the Meantime” propelled the band to gold status and a decades long career. Let by two British brothers, Antony and Royston Langdon, they were the toasts of the Downtown scene – the latter eventually marrying another regular scene presence, actress Liv Tyler (now his ex-wife), with whom he has a son. Spacehog have never officially disbanded, releasing their most recent album in 2013.
Royston also added music exec to his resume, thanks to an artist relations gig at Spotify. And now, but surely more importantly, has at long last gone “solo,” with the fittingly titled Everything’s Dandy (out May 4), under the moniker LEEDS.
The new album showcases his robust tenor on nine piano-and-acoustic-guitar-based melodramatic modern pop songs, that will fit quite nicely alongside early Bowie and Queen in your late night playlist. Debut ballad “Someone” – with a video directed by ‘Ant’ Langdon – is a plaintive ode to self-awareness; while “What Became of the People” (which BlackBook premieres here), is a delightful and propulsive mid-tempo rocker, co-written by Anthony, that reminds us of Royston’s soaring vocal range.
BlackBook caught up with the – you guessed it – native of Leeds (UK) on the eve of the album’s release for an exhilarating chat…which included the rocker (how English of him) casually quoting Tennyson.
Everything’s Dandy sounds like it could be considered your New York album; are there other New York albums that are meaningful to you?
It was all recorded, mixed and mastered here and I have lived here now longer than I’ve lived anywhere else on this planet. So in that sense, yes, I suppose it is. New York feels pretty dead these days creatively, barring a few exceptions. Far too expensive here to foster the kind of existence that allows for great art and artists to flourish – and this record has some themes around that. The lost places, lost people. The invention of a ‘dreamland’ which is impossible to see beyond. That interests me. The simulacrum of a New York reality. That seems to be a common theme throughout the record.
Gotham is still a rich subject for inspiration.
There are those meaningful records from yesteryear, the Kind of Blue and Transformer sort of thing. But these days I tend to think more of my own experiences around records that were recorded here. I worked as an assistant engineer in a recording studio of some note when I first came in 1994. The Ramones, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. all made albums there. From then on that became my experience of “New York Records,” being in and around them. Exciting. I always think of Bowie’s Let’s Dance being recorded at The Power Station (Avatar), which is incidentally where I mastered this record. More likely, Frank Sinatra…he pretty much cornered the market on the back of that sort of “New York, New York” reflection-effect style, co-opting-of-the place thing. Doesn’t do it for me. Find it trite and a bit comical. We’re both evolving, the city and I.
Photo by Marc Scrivo
The city still resonates powerfully with you?
New York’s my home and has been for some time. I live here and therefore my experience of it is unique to me as a New Yorker – though this itself is not unique. Of late, Bowie’s finale Blackstar is probably the most meaningful in terms of New York. He famously recorded at The Magic Shop on Crosby Street, which was where Spacehog made The Chinese Album. I know it well. Whilst I was working with Spotify the label brought the record in to play for us, think it was the October before it came out. Made me sign an NDA and it was referred to by it’s code name Danny. Top secret. As soon as I heard it, I knew he was off. I emailed him immediately but alas, never heard back. Now, every time I hear “Dollar Days” and specifically his line ‘If I’ll never see the English Evergreens I’m running to’ my heart breaks. Makes me cry every single time.
You’re still an Englishman at heart?
I both identify with that feeling of longing for a romanticized England, whilst imagining him in that same room, pouring his heart into the song, quite literally dying. Powerful. I miss him, we all do, I know. I have tons of these feelings in relation to New York albums, though none quite so personally poignant or emotionally charged as that one line. My friend Tom mixed Blackstar over at his room in Electric Lady Land. I got to hear it broken down, track by track, a few months back. I could go on and on. Perhaps I ought to write a book entitled My New York Albums. Point is, my relationship to my New York albums are ever evolving, like their listeners. These albums have a life force of their own, form a history just like you and me. I love that.
Its been 20 years since the heyday of Spacehog, but the band’s legacy is certainly intact. Do fans still actively engage with you?
It is? Oh boy! Sure, I love Spacehog fans. I’m sure some of them would rather hear me sing ‘In The Meantime’ in lieu of what I’m doing today. Truth is, I don’t care too much what they think. I no longer have any of the rights to my own music from that time, there’s a sort of disassociation from it when that happens. We’ve shared some incredible moments with our fans, I am eternally grateful for that. Though I’m more than happy to leave that communion, both collectively with the band and with our fans, firmly within the ancient lore of the East Village and the 1990’s.
The music biz has changed so much in the last two decades, artists have much more control but also more work to do themselves now – no major label to rely on, no alternative rock bands selling half a million albums, as Spacehog did. And as you’ve seen the business from both sides of the desk, what are your hopes and benchmarks for success in 2018?
Here’s what’s looking great. Never has there been a more fluid and transparent way for a musician to reach their fans or potential fans. Never has the technology been so readily available to record music. Never has there existed a platform – the internet – to bring artists together on so many levels, including creatively. We’re only just scratching the surface. I’m highly excited by all this and keen to carry on where we left off with Spotify. I feel truly blessed to have had the experience I’ve had, firsthand as a successful artist within the old form of the industry, as well as a deep firsthand understanding of how we’ve transcended that, way beyond our wildest dreams. It’s never been a better time to be an artist. I’m pretty sure the industry is beginning to reflect this upswing on many levels. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Tennyson. “Nothing remains the same.” Langdon.
Pick one place in NYC that you miss from the ‘old days.’
*The much revered 24-hour diner/restaurant in the Meatpacking District, that was a gathering spot for every type of late night outsider and adventure seeker in the ’80s and ’90s, and one of the most tranny hooker friendly establishments to ever serve a great steak frites. It closed, sadly yet fittingly, in 2008.