Arco : Arco's Life in Art
The world of music is full of stereotypes, one of which says that in order to be a real artist you have to struggle
miserably. The only alternative, apparently, is “selling out” which is a privilege principally of 18-24 year olds with
no musical ability whatsoever. Mercifully, stereotypes are just that – and despite the abundance of starving poets and
surgically enhanced pop queens, there are still other options. Meandering purposefully along this road less travelled
are arco – the epitome of a band in full control of its faculties.
Signed to the small, West London label Dreamy Records, arco recently released their first full-length CD, Coming to Terms (Sept. 2000), a haunting, whisper-soft wander through the often-bleak emotional landscape of twenty-first century life.
In a fascinating interview, which began via email in Philadelphia, and ended up in a pub on Whitehall, arco demonstrate that it is still possible to elude the obvious, and to love music without qualification. Composed of identical twin brothers Chris and Nick Healey, and their long-time mate, Dave Milligan, arco is perhaps in the truest sense of the word independent. Chris, Nick and Dave have carved a niche for themselves in that tenuous space between the 9-to-5 workaday world and the realm of the dreamer, and there is something strangely compelling in both their music, and their story.
Chris, and Nick grew up in Lincolnshire, along with eleven older siblings. Recalling his earliest musical endeavours Chris says, “One of my sisters taught me to play ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ when I was seven. I'm not sure I had any say in it.” Later musical adventures for the brothers included playing in “ our village's bunch of mates' dodgy bands in our teens. Charmingly naive, I think you'd have to say. If you were feeling charitable.”
Maybe he’s being modest, but there is little of either vanity or shyness about the band's singer/songwriter. Nursing a glass of red wine, Chris’s permanent expression is one of knowing good-humour. Interestingly, it is somehow perfectly obvious that he is the elder brother, though Nick arrived in the world only three minutes later. It is something in the way they interact, and in their personalities. Nick has a mischievous streak, while Chris tends to indulge in sarcasm.
Responding to the suggestion that arco’s beautifully downbeat songs might be a tad on the depressing side Chris shrugs gently, “we don’t have mosh pits, just a corner down front where people can go to slit their wrists."
Dave chuckles, and offers his own take on arco’s sound “I was about 5… leaning against the side of my big brother's roaring Marshall stack and thinking "I want a piece of this!" Kind of ironic that I'm now in the World's Quietest Band ™”
Continuing their semi-bantering discussion of the arco sound, Chris argues that depression isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite for appreciating lyrics like “When everyone agrees with you / you know you’re wrong / when everyone embraces you / you don’t belong” (from “grey” on Coming to Terms). “I think,” he says, “you have to be thoughtful, and willing to look difficult things in the eye. And also be ready to write with as much honesty as possible. But that doesn't mean you have to be depressed. I'm happier for having written the songs, though I wouldn't want to live in them full time if you know what I mean. I reckon Dave thinks I'm a bit sad mind.”
“Not at all,” Dave defends himself, “you just have more time to think than most people. Well, me, anyway.” Which is perhaps understandable, as Dave is the family man of the group – married with a young son and daughter. The ever-changing tangent of the conversation quickly switches to what absorbs most of Chris’s spare time – cricket.
“Sorry. I know, no apology's enough,” he says, insincerely.
Nick and Dave both gleefully complain that no songs get written during cricket season, and that the band forget about playing gigs! But then, arco are admittedly not too keen on gigging. For the first time Chris manages to evoke some real artistic snobbery, remarking that “I'm not wild about playing live really – it's too nerve-wracking, and it makes me feel a bit cheap somehow.”
Chris’s attitude towards publicity in general, and playing live in particular seems to irk Nick ever so slightly. “I keep trying to tell him that publicity isn’t a bad thing,” he says, with an air of long-suffering, “but when we do play gigs they sit down.”
“It’s more comfortable,” Dave defends. He is somewhere in middle on the issue – he says playing live can be good, in the right circumstances: “The album launch at the New End Theatre was easily our most satisfying gig. It was just the right atmosphere for arco, and has persuaded us to play small theatres from now on if we can.”
Chris chips in again, “Yeah, someone described it as being more a recital than a gig. And I should mention Terrastock III, which went about as well as a gig can. There was a lovely story from that, where Dave saw a barman and a guy buying a pint just freeze mid-exchange as we started one of our really quiet ones, the transaction only happening the moment the song finished. So that was a nice experience too.”
It is obvious nonetheless, that what they love best is making music for themselves – on their own terms. Chris can’t even pick a favourite track from Coming to Terms, “You can't when they're that personal to you. Be like choosing a favourite toe or something.
”This leads to the suggestion that perhaps this sort of solipsistic musicianship is just as greedy – in a spiritual sense – as the worst mass-marketed teenybopper pop is in the commercial sense. After all, if you don’t care what your audience thinks, aren’t you destroying an essential creative interaction? As the songwriter, and musical guardian of the band, Chris ponders this sadly. “There’s a difference… it’s not that we don’t care what people think – we do, we’re just not willing to change,” … to sell more records, seems to be the unspoken ending of the sentence. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense, and the melancholy arco of Coming to Terms and the three “sarky buggers” who make up the band come into clear relief. For a second of silence it feels as though the secrets of life and art have all been revealed. Then Dave gets up to get another round of drinks, and arco skips lightly along to the next topic.
Whatever tendencies Chris has towards over-seriousness are checked and complemented by Nick’s laid-back sense of fun. When asked what they like least about pop culture Chris response is typically thoughtful, “that it's market driven. Culture needs protecting from markets.” Dave adds that, “it gets in the way of music.” Nick’s response? “Billie.” In addition to that, he notes that his hobbies are, “designing mad inventions and patenting them. And drinking and taking drugs [because] someone has to.” Several pints later we are chatting about America, “Next time you go to San Francisco,” he suggests, “try the E there, it’s really good.” Responsible elder brother Chris just smiles and shakes his head.
Surely, one would think, the two siblings must occasionally drive each other crazy. But are there ever any proper Gallagher-brother style altercations in the studio? “Not really - there was that knife fight over cover art,” Chris deadpans, “But we're fine now... we do whine a bit now and again, but it's almost in code – I don't think I could get really angry with Nick.”
“They have, but only with me,” Dave says wryly.
Time is flying by, and Dave, who has taken off from work at the BBC to come and chat remarks that he ought to be getting back. “It’s Graham’s birthday” Nick says, “and they’re just over the road, you have to come and have a drink with him first.”
Chris explains Graham: “He's a friend and he's releasing his album with Tracy [Jackson, head of Dreamy Records] … We just played two gigs as the guy's backing band, so we're obviously big fans.”
“Dreamy Records is one big happy family…” Dave grins, and agrees to go for another drink.
Only moments later a significant portion of Dreamy Records is decamped in the corner of another non-descript London pub, and Nick is having an animated discussion about bottled beers with label chief Tracy Jackson. Two things are immediately noticeable about Tracy – her American accent, and her extremely youthful appearance. The all-male group of friends pretty well monopolize her attention, but she does find time to explain that she is a transplanted Californian.
“I was running a record store for a while [in my teens]” she says, “I just got bored, so I moved to London.” Just like that? “Well, I had to get married,” she laughs. “We all flew to Vegas… it was fun.” Now, nine years after her spontaneous decision to move 6,000 miles from home, she is happily sans husband, and is the perfect picture of a stylish young entrepreneur.
But more than that, she is a vital part of the formula that makes arco what they are. The same fearlessness that prompted her to just pack her bags and take off for a new continent finds its reflection in the fearlessness of arco’s musical vision. It is a special brand of courage, which hangs around the Dreamy crew like an aura, the audacity to do what they love without apology to either society or the bottom line. They may not look very rock ‘n roll, and their sound won’t shatter windows any time soon, but they epitomize the very truest sort of artistic passion – and it is impossible not to love them for it.