Keiron Phelan salutes Tim Ten Yen, the all-singing, all-dancing ‘Salaryman’ and hero of the world’s unlikeliest cool genre: karaoke pop.
The last time I saw a performer swimming as deliberately against the tide as Tim Ten Yen was circa 1980, when I witnessed a performance by one Ziggy Heroe (a Yorkshire David Bowie ‘interpreter’, later immortalised in Harland Miller’s novel Slow Down, Arthur, Stick to Thirty). Admittedly Tim has it easier than poor Ziggy did — no accompanying cries of “fook off, puff-house” from psychopathic beer monsters, for a start. Nevertheless, watching a fish-out-of-water Tim, sandwiched between landfill Indie acts at Camden’s sweaty Dublin Castle, in his office-boy suit and unfashionable hair cut and armed only with his karaoke box, an an animatronic ‘Sinister’ cat (yes, that’s correct) and a big heart, I couldn’t help but think: Brave!
My first sighting of said Yen was at Notting Hill Arts Club, specifically one of Galia Durant’s gloriously eccentric Craft Nights, whose predominantly young, art-school audience (albeit a little bit Peaches around the edges) happily fiddling with glue and tinsel, created a more promising vibe for Tim. Yet even at a club renowned for idiosyncratic performances T.T.Y. proved most singular.
Slightly redolent, perhaps, of Martin Freeman’s character from The Office, the be-suited Tim sat on a chair far too low for him, propping a miniscule keyboard on tightly clenched knees. A palpable, “is this serious?” air pervaded the audience. But it was a set-up. Tim’s karaoke box kicked in and we were immediately in stonking, Travelogue-period Human League territory; Tim mercilessly jabbing out the melody to ‘Move With The Wildpalms’ on his keyboard. Then something weird happened. He threw one arm up, straight in the air, like a nine-year old schoolchild desperate to answer teacher’s question. He simply held it there and within seconds half the audience had mimicked the gesture. Not a single arm dropped until Tim dropped his. One minute into the set: audience converted.
His debut album Everything Beautiful Reminds Me Of You has perhaps unsurprisingly, received some extremely puzzled reviews. You see, Tim
belongs in an upside down world where none of the music that is currently regarded as meaningful or ‘important’ has any real purchase at all. On one level, songs such as ‘M.O.R.’, ‘Girl Number One’, and the entirely adorable ‘When The Song Applies To You’ are simply enjoyable, emotional confections of lounge-style pop, brandishing killer hooks and choruses. But there is also both surrealism (“I have an enemy/ A sea anemone, that won’t stop looming/ Even if I tell it to,” goes ‘Sea Anemone’) and an undercurrent of vaguely Kafkaesque anxiety to Tim’s lyrical world (“They called me in the lobby/ Took me to the tower/ Sat me down, told me I was lucky/ No one ever leaves, I should be pleased/ Here’s a suit, put it on/ It was me, all along, that they wanted, yes they wanted” from ‘Girl Number One’).
His romantic yearnings contrast with (and are perhaps necessitated by) the shadow of an oppressively prosaic, corporate world, creating a very modern sense of everydav tension. On stage, this mixture is brought dramatically alive by his incredibly bravura show of dancing. Apparently fuelled by pure nervous excitement, it incorporates much early ’80s retro hand movement and general jerkiness, reminiscent in effect (if not style) of the ‘nerd’s cool dance’ sequence from the film Napoleon Dynamite. The girls seemed to like it—at least the ones with me did — when not busily making little ‘craft gifts’ and press-ganging me into presenting them to ‘Tim the Star’ at the end of the evening. What a way to make an introduction.
While there is a suggestion of performance art in what Tim does and some of the trappings would appear to shade it towards irony – the overriding feel is one of genuine, even joyous, enthusiasm and sincerity. The balanced artfulness presents an edge but, fundamentally, it’s just incredibly good fun. All this and the Sinister Cat too. . .
A man who spurns a band in favour of an onstage stuffed cat. Like I said: Brave!
KEIRON PHELAN TALKS TO TIM TEN YEN
How much of Tim Ten is a constructed persona, how much is the ‘real’ you?
It’s complicated! There is a big difference between Tim onstage and off. For me, song writing is 99.99% of what I do. ‘Performer Tim’ is a lunar mountain filling the frame of a camera (stick with me…), then pull back the zoom to reveal the vast moon that is ‘songwriting Tim’. Some might say it’s a barren moon with no life, but everyone knows that beneath the surface of every moon lies a magical world of underground cities and towns that are safely hidden away. Including our own up there! I remember my first and only Glastonbury, then Tom Jones was the ‘Mystery Guest’. I was gutted to find out it wasn’t Nirvana or suchlike, but sulkily went to see what all the fuss was about. The atmosphere was something out of a dream – I felt elated for his whole set, and didn’t even really know any of the songs. It was mind-blowing! With hindsight, it was an absolutely pivotal moment for me; the power of music to just make people feel fantastic.
Why choose karaoke pop? Is it a defining part of what you do, or could you see yourself fronting a band?
It’s the most honest description of my music, and I want to be upfront. I think it fits, and sounds good, hopefully! Maybe I want to lower people’s expectations. Karaoke carries a kind of ‘fake’ connotation that means I’m not seen as a threat in any shape or form to the ‘big boys’. Then hopefully I give them a bit of a run for their money! I’d love to have a band like Elvis Presley had in the 1970s, with a great, over-the-top drummer and stuff. But that costs money. It’s all or nthing for me, I think: karaoke or 20 piece band.
Your dancing seems important. Do you practice in front of the mirror, or do you just ‘go for it’ onstage?
I just go for it, though over time I’ve kept the better moves! It probably sounds stupid, but I’m really proud of the songs; I get very terrified before I go onstage, so that all merges into a very public release of nervous euphoria!
Musically and visually you reference certain aspects of the ’80s. What draws you to that period?
I’m not necessarily drawn to the ’80s, but I think because my voice is quite low, I sit in the same range as a lot of ’80s vocalists. That seemed to be the era where that range was OK! For years I wanted to sing high – I wanted to be Art Garfunkel, and wrote songs around that kind of pitch – but I just sounded bloody terrible! Then I heard The The’s Dusk album and had a slight epiphany. I still took a while to completely accept that I’ve only got a range of about an octave, and low down but Matt Johnson saved me from a life of trying – and failing – to sing like Sting.
Does the Sinister Cat regard himself as a ‘babe magnet’?
Nothing so crude, but he’s aware of the DEEP magnetic attraction girls automatically feel for him…
On casual inspection what you do looks slightly ironic while the songs seem completely sincere? Which way round is it?
All of it is sincere – I believe 100% in what I’m doing. Make of that what you will!