The band Nizlopi may be best known for its hit single, JCB Song [YouTube video], but the duo behind the group, John Parker and Luke Concannon, are a serious musical outfit, influenced by poetry, trip hop, folk and an eclectic range of other styles. As Concannon tours his debut solo album, we caught up with him via Skype to learn more about his inner world, views on fame and belief in the Global Justice Movement.
“It was on live telly to four million people… and my heart of hearts was basically like, we’ve got to play the JCB Song till near the end and then I’ve just got to say ‘Bring our troops home from Iraq, no more blood for oil, follow your heart, fuck what people tell you you should do!”
“That’s what I wanted to do… but my dad was there, our manager, John was there, our family was there – who’d sweat blood supporting us to us get there. And I just had this fear that if I did do that, I’d somehow be betraying all the work that everyone did to support us to have a career. I’d somehow basically just have a rant, it would kill our career and my whole family and everyone would just hate me, and I’d have ruined everything.”
“So I didn’t do it… and it’s a regret I’ll have all my life for not doing what my heart was wanting to do.”
It’s around 7.30 UK time and we’re sitting in our makeshift hovel of an office talking to Luke Concannon. The solo singer, and one half of the band Nizlopi, is speaking to us from Boston about his work, life, social injustice… and how close he came to having a massive political rant on Top of the Pops.
After finding global success with the catchy – but not entirely representative – JCB Song in 2005, festival favourites Luke and bandmate John Parker went on to extensive critical acclaim before eventually splitting. Striking out on his own for the first time in 17 years, the singer had one aim… to continue making a positive impact on the world.
“The Global Justice Movement includes a broad spectrum of people, everyday people, around the world who all just care about life and the environment – and things being healthy, and thinking… and being happy.”
“I’ve done the protest stuff… and I’m just trying to do what’s most alive, most effective. For me this is writing, playing, engaging people in conversations and helping them get their own voice and their own art out into the world. I’m still trying to figure it all out really.”
It was this quest to try and work out how he could make the biggest difference that saw the fledgling solo artist set off in search of something new. For Concannon this meant following the messages of people like George Monbiot and Marshall Rosenberg… and treading the troubadour path of his hero, Rory McLeod.
“I hitchhiked from England to Palestine in 2009. I was really trying to find out what’s worth writing about, and what’s important to write about…”
“On the trip I thought I was going to be a journalistic writer, writing about oppression, but what I actually found was… being picked up on the roadside in Turkey when I was hitching, and this family saying ‘do you want to come and swim in a mountain river with us; pick hazelnuts?’ and I sang them some songs afterwards. [And they said] ‘Come back to the village, have some dinner, sing for the village… and do you want to come to a wedding? And my mother wants to knit you some socks… and after we’ll drive you across the border and negotiate a price for you at the motel’.”
It was this sense of togetherness and spirit of hospitality that constantly surprised and captivated the singer-songwriter as he made his way around Europe and the Middle East. He went looking for oppression… but found beauty, and people who wanted the same things he did, like joy, giving, and a sense of heartfelt community.
“I’m about sharing stories about what works. Stories of everyday people not in the services of wealth and power. But in the services of love and life… Life needs to interrupt you and make you write about stuff that’s really important to you.”
His first attempts at writing these types of songs took place whilst growing up in Leamington, in a “weird mix of upper class, middle class, working class,” with his long-time friend and collaborator, John Parker.
“The cool thing about England and Britain in general is it’s a country of immigrants. So Leamington [where we grew up], there’s this massive Sikh population, and when John and I were growing up we were in this Indo-Celtic fusion band.”
“There was a tabla player, a sitar player. John was playing reggae bass in a Massive Attack fashion, my dad was playing the Irish bagpipes and I was singing. And we wrote these songs that were inspired by Freak Power, U2 and Otis Redding, with Indian Celtic music and we played Indian weddings.”
It was out of this makeshift Indian wedding band that the duo Nizlopi (who’ve recently started playing together again) was formed. John Parker, who Concannon often refers to as “the talented one,” has the aura of a musician who can play just about anything. In Nizlopi he beatboxed like a drum machine and got ridiculous rhythm and beats out of a double bass, whilst Luke laid lyrics – both spoken and sung – over the top as he strummed guitar.
“People in the music industry had begun to show up around us because our gigs were getting 200 people showing up on the back of our mailing list and because we were playing all the time.”
“We were an underground act, had our own label… and somehow got corralled by the music industry into a certain route, and suddenly we’re on Richard and Judy. What the fuck is going on?”
“The whole country thought we were up there with Bob the Builder – when we were collaborating with Benjamin Zephaniah, and Tony Benn was writing us notes from the Houses of Parliament saying ‘good luck with your song England Uprise, thanks for reading my books and including my ideas in your songs.’ So it was all a bit incongruous, but it has funded my music career… so life is strange.”
Ten years on from his near disastrous appearance on Top of the Pops, and the surreal world of super-fame, Concannon seems really happy about where he’s ended up. He’s able to put his own music out in his own way, and has this infectious enthusiasm for trying to “help make life wonderful for each other.” And yes, talking about ‘helping’ and ‘making a difference’ can all sound a bit empty and New Agey… but when he says it, you can tell he genuinely means it – and is going to keep on striving.
“I guess the main thing for me is that we are free to be who we want to be… and just to do what we want to do. I think a lot of issues in the world are that we tell ourselves that we’re not worthy and we abandon our own hopes and needs and dreams. And so I feel that we should just be remembering what our dreams are, and getting on with them… bravely.”