INTERVIEW: Alan Bonner – “you kind of feel like you’re getting a bit naked”

Ray A-J April 29, 2018

Alan Bonner reminisces about his time with Amy Winehouse, explains how playing live is like getting naked, and reminds us what true music is, in an interview with Ray A-J.

DON’T you just love Summer? The bright rays of sunlight, kissing your skin till it’s golden. The gorgeous beach that just comes alive with fields of people, all blissfully beaming with smiles firmly planted on their faces. And the best thing of all? A lazy summer afternoon.

Now, It may not be Summer exactly, but it certainly feels just as beautiful on this great afternoon. As I step outside of my door, I see swarms of people buzz about the beach, lively and cheerful. It’s just past six, and everyone is unwinding after their busy weeks at work. The sea is unwinding too, lax and slow, welcoming in a gentle breeze that drifts past the skin in a brief hello; it’s the perfect balance of warmth and optimism. The perfect weather, the perfect time, for an adventure.

So off we go on ours.

Down by the seafront we walk, and further down towards the horizon. With each step, new faces are introduced and the bright sunlight reflects off  them as their smiles widen. It’s so bright, it hurts my eyes just to look up and the passionately pink sky – the blanket of candyfloss all soft and wispy. Hmm, with all of this heat, I’m feeling a little thirsty. Maybe we should go get a drink. Oh, I know, let’s go to a café.

“I’d love to be able to cut through people’s bullsh*t.”

We follow the road round and round for a while. The sun is calling, and we have to answer. We can’t just go to any cafe – we have to find the perfect one. Not this one. Not this one. Nope. Next. Ah, hang on. Here we are, we’ve found our destination. I can hear music coming from inside. It sounds so… Beautiful. Quick let’s go in before we miss anything.

A man is slumped over his trusty keyboard, eyes shut as the music flows from the keys through his hands and out of his mouth. Soul perfectly entwined with each note he plays, the man seems to spill over with the music into the crowd, flooding the quaint room with his compelling lyricism. His name? Alan Bonner – heart warming musician, former Bimm alumni and Brighton local.

A river of melodies ripples from the keys, and in the midst of the water rides a strong voice of power and pain. The melodies curl up to form a cooling wave that slowly descends upon the long, narrow room, to calm the various faces that stare up into the eyes of its commander. Every word, every lingering chord is absorbed into the very walls of this place. And we’re in the middle of it all. Looking around, I can see the camaraderie I had heard of that seems to exist in Brighton. Dripping from the walls, drawing, photographs and art from local artists. Rippling from each person in the audience, applause of great gratitude and support. The solidarity is almost moving.

Oh. Cramp. My legs are tired from all that walking, let’s just sit down for a minute. Pull up a chair and we’ll let ourselves fall into the waterfall of sound.

“Thanks for coming and listening to my sad songs,” Alan jokes to us, before playing his shy piano tunes. “we shot the video to this one on Brighton beach, and In the scene I had to lie on the floor and play dead. But maybe I was a little too convincing, because litter pickers started to come round, and they actually thought I was really dead,” he laughs, and the song known as Augustine follows on from the sound.

A few songs later and the whole room is singing along to the nah nah nahs of Talia – a song Alan tells us that started off as a poem he wrote for his friend’s birthday once, when he was “Twenty one  and just left college. I was skint and wanted to get her something, so I wrote her a poem on the back of a cigarette packet as a sort of present. It was only ever meant for her, and was never meant to be shared with the world, but then I put music to it and it became Talia.”

Thank goodness he did share it, because it’s since been “played on Six music twice. At around four in the morning though so nobody hears it. Three years worth of my music, but this is the only one they’ll use; they won’t touch my other stuff. Believe me, I’ve tried,” he jokes with us. And with that, the song draws to an end. Alan thanks the crowd in his shy manner, he seems truly grateful for us being there, and many commend him for his talents as he gets up and walks over to the bar.

“If you want to walk down the street in Brighton in a Bustier with a flower-pot on your head, you can, no-one bats an eyelid.”

We’re at a short interval now, and while I can I want to grab Alan for a chat about his performance. So hang on a second and save my seat for me.

Sitting beside Alan outside the café, it hits me. The warm air from earlier has cooled drastically, and now we’re literally shivering in our little chairs. Today was the wrong day to forget your jacket. Typical English weather. Can’t make its mind up.

Poor Alan in his Hawaiian shirt and jeans is freezing, but he’s kind enough to suffer in the cold as we chat.

“It kind of felt like they’re sat on my lap a bit,” he jokes when I ask him about the intimate little show he just played. “You kind of feel like you’re getting a bit naked. You can see people’s reactions more. I always prefer if I play like clubs or theatres, where the stage lights are on so you can’t see people. I can pretend that I’m on my own, so I don’t feel so nervous. It’s nice to play intimate places sometimes as well.”

Despite being a veteran live performer, playing shows across Berlin, London and Brighton, Alan is still a shy musician – unaware of his talents and forever humble. It’s a rare look for a performer; these powerful musicians that take to the stage like a super hero, with polished performances, are often so reluctant to show the chink in their armour, and expose their vulnerability underneath it. But it’s refreshing to see the dichotomy brought to the audience in Alan’s performances, because in a show “Sometimes you f*ck up a lot, and it’s ok to bring the audience in to that. It makes you human. Like back there in the show, I forgot the words to Talia. I just started playing and went blank. But I just went ‘oh’ and started it again.”

With that said though, not every gig can be salvaged so quickly. And one in particular was “a disaster” for him. His keyboard was possessed. No, seriously, it was possessed. “I had a gig once where I was playing in the middle of a market in London, and for some reason there was like a ghost on my piano. The keyboard kept cutting out, and then I ended up just having to do most of it a cappella. It was a disaster.” Yet another example of Alan’s raw honesty. He has a giggle at how embarrassing the gig felt, but explains that there is a balance. “I played in a little jazz club called Blue Note, in Dresden, and it was packed. It was like this really smokey 1920’s speak-easy -“  We’re suddenly interrupted by a couple of audience members from earlier. They’re friends of Alan, and they congratulate him on his performance with beaming smiles. He’s well liked around here.

“It had a great vibe and everyone was really friendly,” he continues after he agrees to see them later, “The audience’s over there are a little more enthusiastic. I think English audiences can be a bit spoilt, we get so much live music everywhere that we don’t really appreciate it that much. It was very free there. I was able to, you know, work part-time and perform three times a week. You just have more time to concentrate on your music.”

“Getting a headline by slagging people off, I don’t like that.”

Both before and after his time in Brighton, Alan spent some time in London – a place known for its thriving art scene, but for Alan, “London’s a tough city to survive in. It’s a very hard to be an artist there.” He explains that there is a lot of fierce competition there, and with expensive rents, it’s difficult to focus on music properly.

But London wasn’t all bad. It’s where he met a certain incredible singer. “I used to work in Camden,” he explains. “My boss’ friend was Amy Winehouse, and I used to hang out with her a lot back then. There was a period in time where she was around, and at that time I was really young and had only recorded a couple of rubbish demos, and i hadn’t really got my shit together, you know. And l look back and I wish I’d had an opportunity to have sung with her. There were nights where we just sat and we were singing around the house, she was playing guitar. If I had been serious about music then… I had an opportunity in my hands there that I didn’t take. I would have love to have sung with her.”

But after London, he moved to Berlin. While he was traveling around Berlin, he was immediately captivated by the atmosphere. “There’s a lot of really great street music in Berlin, a lot of really great buskers. Some of them will blow your mind, and they’re just playing for spare change. It’s actually quite intimidating.” Alan is very much inspired by the uncelebrated performers around Berlin, London and Brighton. “I really think that there are gems. There’s so much here that never even gets to be heard by the general public. That’s why people need to go to these clubs and see them, and support live music,” he explains.

“music used to be about art, and now it’s about commerce.”

It’s a shame that we don’t get to experience half of the music that’s out there in the world. But what we do get to hear, these popular songs in the charts, seem to be the same renditions of awful basic verse-chorus spiel. And why?

“It’s all about money now, it’s not about art anymore. Shows like the X factor and all that stuff, it takes real balls to put yourself through that, but I think the way the industry has all gone towards that stuff is a complete nightmare. I hate those shows, I don’t hate the people on them, but I hate the beast. Where’s the art in all of that; it’s glorified karaoke. They take these people who are all really original and cool and different, and they change them. They give them some awful backing track, and make them sing someone else’s songs. They just mould them into these sort of robots.” Alan jokes that he sounds like some old dinosaur that’s just moaning, but he makes some erudite points. “Music used to be about art, and now it’s about commerce,” he says, and maybe he’s right. But he does have faith in the live music that finds its way around the local cities. And he greatly enthuses about the atmosphere in each.

“Brighton’s a really special city,”

Brighton in particular remains a great love of Alan’s. “Brighton’s a really special city. It’s got so much in terms of the art, music and queer scene here. It’s so celebratory of the arts and of people expressing themselves, you know.

If you want to walk down the street in Brighton in a… Bustier.” He laughs. “With a flower-pot on your head, you can, and no-one bats an eyelid. That’s what I love about this place.”

Haha, wait what, a bustier?  “I don’t know where I got that from,” he laughs. So now we know what you do on your weekends. “Haha, I don’t think I’ve got the figure for that.”

In a way, Brighton is actually where his career began. Alan was once a student of Brighton’s own music university, BIMM, and this is where he created his first record. “I would never have thought about making a record, had I have not gone to BIMM.”

Since his BIMM days, Alan’s music has grown immensely; “I’ve travelled, I’ve had my heart-broken a million times. My songs are deeper now,” he explains. And the inspiration behind each song he creates has only grown too. “My music’s quite personal. I’ve lived them, without wanting to sound like a w*nker. Those things that I sing about happened to me.  So people who like it feel that they can then talk to me afterwards, and they start telling me their life story. And I love that. And they’re kind of getting quite deep with you, and sometimes that stuff ends up in a song here and there. It’s kind of a sense of therapy in a way.”

But people he’s met aren’t the only ones that inspire his music. “70s music, Stevie Nicks, Elton John, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos,” are all part of Alan’s musical history. He even had a Britpop phase at one point, citing Blur and Oasis as main players in his teenage playlists, but his love of Oasis has fizzled slightly since. It turns out, he too is over the hate that the Gallagher brothers are churning out in interviews. “You know what I don’t like about them: every time I see an interview with them, they are slagging somebody off. I don’t like that. It just makes you look cheap, you know. Getting a headline by slagging people off, I don’t like that.” He’s on to something there; it does get dull to keep reading the same headlines from the duo again and again. If only someone could end the cycle.

Brrrr. Sitting outside the little café, it’s getting colder and colder. The wind is blowing a harsh wave across my face, and we’re both still shivering wildly. Alan takes a look through the window at the show that’s still going on inside. He’s friends with the performers, and doesn’t want to miss too much of their songs. His love and support of the local performers is so prevalent in every glance into the window. Luckily I just have a couple of quick questions burning a whole in my pocket.

We discuss his favourite musicians, and who he’d like to collaborate with. Names like Nick Cave, Cindy Lauper, and Sufjan Stevens crop up. “I would love to do a record with him [Sufjan], I mean, he’s cute as well so that always helps,” he jokes. But then we get down to the tough questions.

“so, if you were a superhero, what would your name be?” I ask, (a pretty hard-hitting question, I know). He ponders for a second, before he gets to his answer. “Um…Super Gay!” Haha, I can picture the outfit now. But what about his superpower? “I’d like to be able to fly, or read people’s minds.” But surely you wouldn’t want to know what people are thinking when you’re playing at a gig? “Oh no! Not at a gig, haha. Ok, I’d like the power to read people’s minds, anywhere but a gig though. Haha. Or… know, I’d love to be able to cut through people’s bullsh*t. Haha,” he jokes. That would be a handy power. And my last question before we shake hands, and Alan kindly offers me any help if I think of any more questions later, and I go back into café to collect you so we can brave the brisk breeze of this windy afternoon, and write an ending to our summer day adventure: “What’s would be your superhero catchphrase?” And Alan’s answer is the best I’ve heard so far. “oh f*ck….actually, yeah that, that will be my catchphrase: oh f*ck.”

Haha, a great catchphrase, for a great and authentic performer. And Alan will be returning to both Brighton (on July 8 at the Brunswick) and the Blue Note club in Dresden (September 21) for his upcoming shows, so if you like good old-fashioned piano music and heart breaking lyricism, be sure to look him up.

By Ray A-J