If you name your independent record label after a firm of undertakers namechecked in an acclaimed work of 1950s British literature, then you are, says UK songwriter Vinny Peculiar, not only flagging your wares to a particular group of people with a particular cultural mindset, but also setting a trap for yourself by being recognised by fewer people as the years pass. The fictional undertaker firm, Shadrack & Duxbury, plays a central part in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel, Billy Liar. The titular character, real name William Fisher, is trapped in a fictional Yorkshire town working as a lowly clerk for Shadrack & Duxbury. He spends his time dreaming of fame and success in London, much like any teenager with an ache for something, anything, beyond the boredom and constraints of provincial life.
Vinny Peculiar, born and raised in rural Worcestershire, gets it. So does Alan Wilkes, who in the mid-1990s moved from his rural Worcestershire home to Liverpool and Manchester, quickly settling into the cultural heartbeat of those two cities. A lot of recording was completed during this time, but nothing was released. The bands he was in, Wilkes has said, were just sitting back waiting to be discovered and signed. That happened to some of his peers, he admits, but never to him. He was a latecomer to putting out solo music (in 1998, now known as Vinny Peculiar and in his early 40s, he released his debut album, Gone) and he has said that when it comes to writing songs he looks for an angle only to distort it.
The results are best viewed as an amalgam of 1960s pop blueprints, sardonic humour (he has been described, not without justification, as the "Tony Hancock of pop music"), comforting memoir, and life-affirming, self-aware nostalgia. Wilkes is, of course, a cult artist who has little chance of major commercial success, because that's just the way it is. That Billy Liar reference? "The occupation section on my Facebook page has 'Office Clerk, Shadrack & Duxbury undertakers', but, of course, some people don't know the reference at all. I get messages saying it must be awful being surrounded by all that death. Those that know the reference, however, get it and support my music, but it's a tricky thing trying to maintain a presence."
He should know. Despite knowing and working with former members of The Smiths (Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke) and Oasis (Paul Arthurs), and being held in high regard by anyone who recognises the worth of classic pop music, it seems maintaining a presence is forever a problem. Like many musicians – and not just of his generation – Wilkes' creativity and commercial paths vary widely.
“I’ve got used to the outsider status, really, and so I tend to get involved in a variety of music-related activities. For instance, this afternoon I’m doing a workshop on the ukulele for six-year-olds at their primary school. And within the mental health sector, I do workshops on creativity and confidence building. That’s fun, of course, but it’s far removed from working on my own songs, and I suppose life is a bit hand-to-mouth. That’s true of so many artists now. In Manchester, there are so many bands having to do that.” One quite well-known band, he says, sleep on each other’s sofas. “They’re absolutely skint. They spent all their money on equipment, recording and rehearsing, and when they go out on tour they lose money.” He knew Elbow before they covered themselves in commercial clover (they were each signed to the Mancunian indie label, Ugly Man Records). When he knew them, he says, “they were a group of tramps on the street . . . Seriously, the days of doing music full-time for a living are gone for many musicians.”
As Vinny Peculiar, Wilkes has released more than a dozen solo albums, the best realised of which are conceptual. Yet from 2016’s Silver Meadow: Fables from the Institution (about his experiences working in NHS mental health services) and 2018’s Return of the Native (about his return, following the end of a long-term relationship, to his native Worcestershire) to his new album, Artists Only (mostly about contemporary visual artists) he also integrates intensely personal autobiographical elements of growing up, falling in and out of love and insightful what-might-have-beens.
He says he looks at everything he does “as a work in progress and as a process” and that “elements of autobiography always come into the songs whether or not they’re themed around a specific idea. The thing about Artists Only is that I wrote quite a few songs about the artists – I view Rothko as being the visual equivalent of Sonic Youth – and I was a bit worried I was going to end up copying and pasting their lives into songs. The songs on the album, therefore, are in certain ways connected to my life as well as to theirs.” He is the kind of person, he admits, who revisits the past not necessarily with enthusiasm but with more thought than worrying about the future. “There’s a comfort in that, and in trying to make sense of it and of our place in this thing called life. That sounds quite naff, but it’s true.”
In between albums, I'm no different to anyone else – I have moments of huge self-doubt and self-questioning
Wilkes is also one of those few songwriters that can wring genuine smiles and pathos out of ordinary memories. The personalised commonplace, he says – be it from the heyday of The Kinks to the mighty if short-lived reign of Pulp – is the only thing that songwriters have left to offer. Mixed in with the tales of humdrum life is a rare honesty – although he thinks some songs fail to capture this in the way he originally wanted. “I listen back to Artists Only,” he offers, “and I know there are a couple of songs where I could have nailed the punchlines, but I just went off to the bar and couldn’t be arsed. That can happen sometimes. I try and bring in a bit of humour, though, which I feel also helps.”
Like many low-key artists, Wilkes/Peculiar is fighting what some might reasonably think is a battle of Sisyphean proportions. A bespectacled, long-haired father and grandfather in his early 60s, he is nowhere close to what money-hungry labels, streaming services or music promoters want from musicians. And yet an air of fortitude hovers over his shoulders. “I’m quietly determined,” he acknowledges, half self-consciously, half assertively. “In between albums, I’m no different to anyone else – I have moments of huge self-doubt and self-questioning. I ask myself why I invest so much time in what I do, why I spend half the night fine-tuning an idea, but I get through those moments.”
The new year sees somewhat more of the same as the old. Gigs, he says, will hopefully increase as 2022 progresses. “Venues and promoters don’t really want to take a chance on small gigs, so I’m thinking it’s best to perhaps do less but promote the hell out of them.” Self-promotion is the thorn in the side of many musicians of any age, he adds wearily.
"It seems if you don't hammer your social media hard enough that everything drifts away very quickly." He so much wants to get better at shamelessly plugging his music. "I always aim to, but I fade away quite a lot. In Manchester, not so long ago, the Musicians Union ran a course on the use of Twitter, and the guy was saying that tweeting about 12 to 15 times a day would start to make a difference." A look of innocent disbelief passes across his face.
“He was giving people ideas on what to tweet about – variations on a theme, I suppose. And then he said that if you had the money, you could buy thousands of likes and followers for not that much. It should be a more straightforward process, and I mean that in a psychological way, but it’s not. I think for musicians, there is only so much you can tell people how good the music or the album is. People just have to find it somehow. Without being the old guy here, so many people have lost all of the mystery about music we had when we were kids.”
He peers over the rim of his glasses. “There’s no intrigue these days – they just grab it.”
Artists Only, by Vinny Peculiar, is available to buy from vinnypeculiar.com. It is also available from the usual streaming services.