The Clerkenwell Kid
All you other Tuesday Welds are just imitating
‘I immersed myself in four months of monastic study in the mountains of Spain.
I didn’t find enlightenment, so I came down again’ — Stephen Coates
“My work is filtered against the background of Clerkenwell, the old neighbourhood where I live,” says Coates of one of his greatest sources of musical inspiration. “The city is an ancient and living thing that has cycles much like our own. I feel like I’m living in a process rather than a place. We are embedded in the past even as we send tentacles poking into the future. That’s what my music represents and what I tried to communicate with my early EPs and my first LP, At the House of the Clerkenwell Kid. I really love 1940s British jazz and the ’60s jazz chanteuse movement. I wanted to sample that sound and cook it up with some electronic minimalism to give it a new flavour.”
Translating his abiding love of visual art, film and literature into musical form, Stephen Coates paired his talents with those of writer and long-time friend Glen Duncan to create a unique audio soundscape to accompany live readings of one of Duncan’s novels, I, Lucifer. As fate would have it, what was to be a one-night-only piece of multimedia performance art grew in popularity and scope to comprise The Real Tuesday Weld’s second full-length release. Released to great public and critical acclaim in 2002, I, Lucifer the album featured the runaway hit “Bathtime in Clerkenwell,” a nonsensical and nostalgic romp that appears on several film soundtracks and was even used during an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. Being thrust into the international spotlight has been an interesting experience for Coates whose biography reads like something from a Somerset Maugham novel. Walking the razor’s edge between life and art, he continues to pursue enlightenment through entertainment by tuning his personal listening device to a higher frequency.
“I have to confess that I practiced Buddhism for quite a long time.” Coates confides. “I left the Royal College of Art and immersed myself in four months of monastic study at a monastery in the mountains of Spain. I didn’t find enlightenment, so I came down again. Actually, my new album, The London Book of the Dead, is modelled after the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is a guide to help the soul move between lives and intermediate states of being. I understand that Americans like big portions, so there are 16 tracks that follow a chronological path — childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenthood, death and rebirth all over again. There’s wonder and optimism, but it’s balanced with cynicism at the same time. I felt it was appropriate because upon my return to London I experienced birth and death firsthand. I unexpectedly became a father and my own father died a week later. It put me into a real psychic spin, an unhappy whirlwind that had me pinned between birth and death.”
Tapping into his innermost thoughts during this difficult time, Coates utilized his mental discipline and love of art to channel his emotions through a musical conduit. He studied Jung and Hillman, and apparently had a shamanistic vision while camping in Wales, where actress Tuesday Weld and jazz legend Al Bowlly (who died in 1941) instructed him to become a musician. A genuine “go with the flow” attitude emerged as he began to form auspicious friendships and connections with random artists, musicians and authors who entered his circle of influence. As with his alarmingly successful experiment with Duncan in 2004, each of these seemingly random meetings became a catalyst for yet another series of projects and connections.
“I went into a strange place and began to study dreams,” he explains. “I started to take them seriously. I had no big plan; I was just making choices based on instinct. I still had fears, but I was in such an intense state that it didn’t matter. I’ve been very fortunate. I’m not sure what else I would do if this music thing hadn’t worked out.”
by Christine Leonard
Originally published October 18, 2007 in FastForward Magazine.