In winter 2021, the British seaside town of Margate was quiet, locked down. But inside the eloquently miniature Tom Thumb Theatre, musician Dan Lyons and his newly-formed band The Tenants (Dom Hall, drums, Henry Gabbott, bass and Freya Warsi, vocals) were creating with a freedom they hadn’t previously known. “Because the town was so empty it felt like we were on this little island on our own making stuff happen,” says Lyons below, “It was a bit Robinson Crusoe.”
Holed up in this former Victorian coach house, isolated from the storm outside, Lyons and his band found refuge from the Island of Despair (to rework the Robinson Crusoe analogy). Free from outside activity or distraction, Wurlitzer swirls and Mellotron rhythms conjured a world of their own making: characters formulated in dreams populate worlds recognisably our own yet distorted and twisted by the increasingly dark and troubling broadcasts transmitted from the reality of Westminister and further afield.
Recorded live in just ten days, the resulting LP, Shuttered Dreams (taken from a shutter shop name) is a luscious work of camaraderie, intimacy and uncompromising truth – at times sassy and scruffy, at others quiveringly sincere and pointed. Throughout, the listener is seated front row at the Tom Thumb as tales of adulterous lovers, disgraced politicians, daydream drives and anxiety trips enter and exit the stage – the curtain falls.
GALLERYThe Making of Shuttered Dreams – photography by Louie Mire
Alex James Taylor: Firstly, congrats. The record is great. Obviously it was a strange time when you made it during Covid. What was your mindset at that time?
Dan Lyons: It was a bizarre thing, wasn’t it? Because when that first Boris Johnson TV speech came on, it was like some sort of like Big Brother-style event. You know, it was like, eight o’clock, there’s going to be a public announcement, and it was like, you can’t leave the house, you’ve got to stay in, there’s a killer virus. And that was that. As well this virus on the loose, it was scary that it basically exposed the fact that if they want to, they can shut this place down like that. But then once I got into it, I was actually kind of grateful for the forced time. It felt like a relief, all that pressure you get from seeing other people doing brilliant things, being amazing, busy and successful, suddenly everyone was on this same plain. Whether you’re Kylie Minogue or Will Self, everyone’s on the same playing field. So it forced me to pick up the guitar and do some work. From that, I guess the songs were all written post or during lockdown. The first one was Sleeping On a Dream, which was that initial, “What the fuck is going on here?” It was that weird thing of like, you’ve got fifteen minutes outside.
AJT: And the fear someone might see you twice in the same day as it wasn’t technically allowed [laughs].
DL: Even people who live in the middle of the bloody countryside probably felt the same way because it can’t be one rule for them and one will for us, although Boris Johnson actually disproved that – he fucked that one up didn’t he.
AJT: He sure did. Listening to the record, a lot of the songs are character driven, forming these really tangible worlds. I wondered if that was almost you compensating for the lack of activity outside?
DL: Yeah I think so. Also one of the first things that happened during that time, my friend Jody Porter who plays in Fountains of Wayne, one of the first guys who died from Covid was a guy called Adam Schlesinger, who was a main songwriter for Fountains. I found myself going over his songs and the way those guys write, which are very much character studies based on fictional characters. They’re so concise and so interesting. It’s a different type of writing. It’s not like, I’m miserable, I’ve left my girlfriend, blah, blah, blah, and my heart’s broken. They’re really well-crafted stories. And I think definitely because of the fact I was inside, and dreaming a lot… there were so many songs at the beginning, there’s a whole folder of songs, and I hadn’t even realised at the beginning but they are all to do with dreams. One of them was called All I Have Is Dreams, there was Sleeping on a Dream. I looked back at the title list and all the songs, and I was like, “Shit this is all I’m talking about, dreams, because I wasn’t doing anything else.”
AJT: That’s quite reaffirming though, that when you’re not doing much, your brain still wants to, it doesn’t just shut down, it thinks of more.
DL: Absolutely. It opens up a different thing. Like Lovers Retreat.
AJT: I love that song. It reminds me of Jake Thackray.
DL: Oh really? Wicked. Yeah, the Lah di Dah. It’s quite a weird song about a couple who are both simultaneously having affairs and they both decide to go to their country house at the same time and they end up meeting their lovers and getting along [laughs].
AJT: There’s a Jake Thackray song called The Lodger where he stays at someone’s house and ends up sleeping with the daughter, the mother, the grandmother. It’s got that same kind of folksy-slash-seedy storytelling bent to it.
DL: There’s a short story by Beckett as well, called The Expelled. It’s about a guy who has been in the pub all day and he’s fucked and needs to get home or somewhere to sleep. He gets a cab, or like a Hackney cab horse-drawn cart at that point, and the coach driver takes pity on him and says, “It’s alright, you can come and stay at my place.” He gets him some food and sets him up a bed in the stable. The coach guy goes to bed and Beckett’s character ends up shagging his wife and scarpers in the morning, it’s that sort of mini soap opera.
AJT: I’d like to see if you do a music video for that track [both laugh].
DL: That would be good.
AJT: Also Freya’s vocals on that song are incredible.
DL: She shines on that one.
“the velvet curtains and we had the drums up on the stage…”
AJT: I also want to chat about Margate during lockdown. How did it feel during that time of restriction and closure, especially as a seaside town – somewhere built for fun and amusement?
DL: It felt really good. I mean, I really like Margate in the winter, when it’s bleak and empty. It is great in the summer, but it really does become a resort. The beaches are packed and especially in the heat it can be quite full on. I’ve found that the last couple of years. In a way it’s amazing, there’s an infectious energy and so much stuff happening all the time you sort of get pulled into it. But I left London to avoid that sort of energy and it’s definitely on its way back.
The thing I really noticed was that once the restrictions were lifted and things got back to normal, there were like thousands more people here. Because everyone ran out of London and, you know, “Margate is close, like, let’s get a flat there.” We were half thinking about maybe coming back to London and seeing what that was like, Freya found a two-bedroom flat in Bloomsbury 1,200 quid a month, which is now about the price of a two-bed flat here. It’s pretty interesting to see the way that it’s affected everything. But I liked it, I prefer it when it’s quiet here.
AJT: Living by the water has a special quality, in the cold months there’s an eerie-ness, especially when the water is calm – that contrast between it being soothing yet with this deep danger.
DL: Exactly – there’s definitely a dark undertone around here, too. There’s a great book called All the Devils Are Here, written by David Seabrook, who goes into detail about peculiar local myths, and odd facts about the area, things you wouldn’t necessarily find out if go if you went to the local tourist office. Like the fact that Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, had a house not far up the road in a place called North Foreland Estate, which apparently was left abandoned for years and was full of like, Nazi regalia. There’s an undertone, a sort of riptide, which I do like. The fact there’s so much glitzy new gentrification going on, but under the surface, there is this deep history of Margate being a pretty heavy, heavy place.
“The fact there’s so much glitzy new gentrification going on, but under the surface, there is this deep history of Margate being a pretty heavy, heavy place.”
AJT: And how did the Tom Thumb Theatre come into that? I didn’t actually see it last time I was in Margate, I don’t know how I missed it.
DL: You must’ve stepped over it [both laugh].
AJT: How did that location affect you all? It must be fun holing yourself up in a place, just you and the band.
DL: It was an absolute godsend. My first record had just come out and so I thought, “Well, this is a nightmare because we can’t tour, we can’t do anything.” So you start thinking ahead, “When are we going to be able to do the next one if everything’s shut down, and we don’t know how long it’s going to be?” So it was sort of a refusal to stop that made it happen. And bear in mind that at this point, I’d just got our new drummer Dom involved, and Henry, the whole band line-up kind of changed. So it was like, how do we start something completely new in a situation where nothing is supposed to be happening? So I just thought, well what do you need? I bought a few bits for my home studio like a new interface and stuff, and I was doing loads of demos for a while just on my own. But I really missed playing with other people. So I called everyone up and said, “Look, how would you feel if we could find somewhere? How would you feel about doing it?” So then came the Tom Thumb. I just thought it was a really good room, and Alex and Sarah who own the place got some funding or something from the Arts Council to support artist residencies. I emailed them and said, “Could we use the Tom Thumb for a bit and turn it into a recording studio?” And they were like, “Yeah, there’s this Art Council funding we’ve got, you can have it for a week, ten days.” And so we went about hiring a mixing desk, my dad’s got some old mics we borrowed, I bought a microphone at the beginning of things. We kind of cobbled a studio together and built all the sound panels, Freya found some old office dividers on Facebook Marketplace, we went to Wickes and bought loads of rot wall. It was literally do-it-yourself because none of the studios were open – or even if they were open, it was still 400 quid a day. We were doing everything completely DIY, so it was a godsend.
It was pretty amazing, it was February 2021, so nearly two years ago, and it was really cold, they had these crazy old heaters in there, you know those old bar heaters? It had three or four of them on either side of the wall and they were super loud, so it was a choice between being warm or playing. But it was brilliant. It was such a trip, also because the town was so empty it felt like we were on this little island on our own making stuff happen. It was a bit Robinson Crusoe.
AJT: It’s Victorian, the theatre?
DL: Yeah, it was a coachhouse funnily enough, and then I think they’ve put shows on there since the late 70s, early 80s. It’s small for a theatre – sort of 50 capacity – but it’s just perfect; the velvet curtains and we had the drums up on the stage, it was just brilliant – it was like a little clubhouse.
AJT: I’ve always been fascinated by bands or musicians finding a special location to shut themselves away and create, like Bob Dylan and Big Pink and like the Stones at Nellcôte.
DL: That’s kind of what it was. I really got into the Imagine album by John Lennon [around that time] and looking at the technology they had, you’ve got it in a laptop these days. It’s like an eight-track recording studio, a couple of compressors, a nice room, and two microphones. And the band were playing together. Same with the Stones at Nellcôte, Keith’s house in the south of France. This was an exciting thing because I’ve never done that [recorded live as a band] before.
AJT: And it’s the first album as Dan Lyons & The Tenants, how did this come about?
DL: It’s because everyone’s so good, so good at playing. It started and I was just going to do it under my own name, but I was like, that’s not fair, everyone’s putting so much work in and are so brilliant, this is the band. So it just made sense to do it as a group. Everyone’s really good together.
Dan Lyons & The Tenants new record, Shuttered Dreams, is out now.