Cult music heroes: artists on their unsung idols

Who inspires Faris Badwan, New Order and Jake Bugg? From a north London rapper to a Turkish protest singer, these are the musicians who influence the stars

Faris Badwan of the Horrors on Todd Rundgren

I first discovered Todd Rundgren through his band the Nazz and their best song, the searing psych anthem Forget All About It. The harmonies are brilliant and the song helped move psych-garage out of the 60s towards glam. He then produced the record that moved glam towards punk: the first New York Dolls LP – he often seemed to be skirting the edges of scenes. I always find it strange reading about him in the NY punk books and seeing him appear in anecdotes about Lou Reed or Iggy Pop at Max's Kansas City because you can't really pin him to any one place – he's similar to Brian Eno, and also like Eno he embraced technology, mobile recording and online subscription long before many of his contemporaries.

He experimented with drugs in a similar way, more interested in what could be created under their influence rather than the drugs themselves, almost as if he was calibrating his body to do something it wasn't designed for. The first time I saw what Todd looked like I was confused – part spaniel, part English dentistry, more typically alpha male than Bowie, and just as alien in his own way. Financially ruinous career moves are always to be applauded – he attempted to invent his own touring quadraphonic sound system in the late 70s, and followed his most commercial record Something/Anything? with a sharp left turn into prog. He's always had total conviction with everything he's done, and that's probably what defines a cult hero for me.

Tinchy Stryder on Little Simz

She's from north London, a rapper, singer and actor. She's different from everyone else, and she's got a good story to tell. She went to the same youth club as Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke. You can really relate to the way she explains herself. The thing that grabs me is her skills on the mic. They call her the Princess of Rap, which I like because they used to call me the Prince of Grime.

Stephen Morris of New Order on Peter Hammill

I discovered him in 1973. I was smoking a lot of pot, hanging around in darkened rooms, listening to music. One day I heard his album Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night. I knew a bit about Van der Graaf Generator [Hammill's band], and that was it. It fitted in with what I was feeling – a bit out of my head, a bit depressed. I immediately wanted to collect his records – he has that effect on a lot of people. They're fervent about him. I had posters of him, badges, his book of poems. I think it's what he sings about: it's very raw. John Lydon was a fan – Hammill was one of the few from the prog era that the punks liked, maybe because he seemed genuine, from the heart. At times it's almost painful to listen to. I played Ian [Curtis] The Future Now and he really liked it. I shook his hand once. I was completely out of my head at a gig of his in Manchester in 1976. He looked nervous when I grabbed hold of him. My eyes were like saucers.

Anna Calvi on Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins

Her voice is amazing, the way she's able to express everything she needs to, without any lyrics. Cocteau Twins were so pure, the melodies so strong, and I learned a lot from listening to her. She's not the kind of singer where you can hear other influences, and she's very versatile – she's like the Jimi Hendrix of singers, the way she can manipulate her voice and create so many sounds with it. She didn't seem to be someone looking for fame, which is maybe why she chose to disappear.

Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip on Alex Chilton

I like his Box Tops era – they were a fantastic pop/soul group – and Big Star, of course, but I probably love his solo records the most. The difference between the three Big Star records is massive. By the third, it sounds as though things were falling apart. A track such as Big Black Car has the druggy, slowed-down feel of early Spiritualized. It leads nicely on to the early solo albums such as Like Flies On Sherbet, which is my favourite. It's like Eno doing the Sun Sessions – when I first heard it, I couldn't believe my ears. He's done some strange things – he'd apparently urinate off the stage, and he sang Riding Through the Reich to the tune of Jingle Bells. Somehow, the unpleasantness draws you in. He seemed to be driven by strange desires, but there was a sweet side to him. I met him briefly once, but I didn't really want to meet my hero, who I knew could be a bit of a sour character. I didn't know what to say to this guy who means so much to me.

Jerry Dammers on Sun Ra

My band the Spatial AKA Orchestra was formed partly in tribute to Sun Ra. He's a genuine cult leader because he had his band living with him. There was nothing sinister about it – he was a love-and-peace kind of guy. He is to American jazz what Lee Perry is to reggae: a genius on the edge of madness, with a willingness to explore in an extreme way. He had this concept of space-age jazz back in the 40s and he was the first to use electronic keyboards. Gradually, through to the 70s, it got more and more way-out. He announced that his band the Astro-Infinity Arkestra were from Saturn. The 20-minute title track on the Atlantis album is the ultimate freak-out. You don't know whether to laugh, because it's a bit scary as well. But he didn't just do atonal, squeaky stuff; he also did funky stuff, African stuff, and then he'd play Over the Rainbow. He went beyond the western scales on the piano – he said "tones not notes" – but he wasn't an avant-garde cliche. He did a few hundred albums and he also produced other artists and was a top-of-the-range pianist. He was a hodgepodge of different cultures and religions, of Egyptology and numerology. As Sun Ra said: "The possible has already been done."

Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra (and Reggae Ensemble) will appear on 18 July at the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London.

Emily Kokal of Warpaint on Sibylle Baier

She's from Germany, a model and actor who, between 1970 and 1973, recorded a collection of songs on her home reel-to-reel, just her playing her guitar. She had quite a low voice, not the same timbre as Nico but that kind of range. She appeared in the Wim Wenders film Alice in the Cities, then moved to America to raise a family. About 30 years later, her son found her music and made a bunch of mix CDs and gave them out to friends and family. He also gave one to J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr and he gave it to a label who put the album out. It's called Colour Green and it's just her and her guitar. The music came from such a pure place; she wasn't pursuing a career. She's just a mum. But the music has the classic feel of a Nico or Nick Drake – somebody alone in a room with just their guitar, telling their stories. It's hauntingly beautiful.

Jake Bugg on Robert Johnson

Not a lot of people of my generation know about Robert Johnson. I got into him when I was 14 – I heard about him selling his soul at the crossroads. I don't think there's any truth in it, but it's still a great, chilling story. He was 27 when he died – the first of the "27 Club". No one knows for sure, but they reckon he was poisoned by a jealous husband. Others say he died barking at the moon on all fours. His music is so haunting. It sends shivers up your spine. And the words – Hellhound on My Trail has all these references to "me and the devil walking side by side", and it really adds to the appeal. He was an incredible musician. Eric Clapton said: "To play like he did and write songs like he did is a lifetime's work for any musician." Orthodox, but with so much soul. I actually went down to that crossroads. There isn't much to see there apart from a 7-Eleven. Still, I might go travelling there and get inspired.

Paul Smith from Maxïmo Park on Prefab Sprout

I didn't know whether to choose Prefab Sprout because they included Wendy Smith's angelic backing vocals, or just Paddy McAloon because of his solo album I Trawl the Megahertz, which is as important in my love of his cult presence as anything the band did. It's the whole thing, really – even the name Prefab Sprout lends itself to cult heroism. They were one of many pop bands with swishy fringes that used to be on the telly, but they were from Langley Park, County Durham – I grew up in Middlesbrough. I moved to Newcastle when I went to university and that brings them even closer to my heart. As I grew older I went deeper into the back catalogue, and albums such as Swoon. Their sophistication and chord changes make them the north-east Steely Dan. They didn't look conventionally cool but the sleeve of Steve McQueen shows a grip on iconography, even if it's awkward. There's an outlandishness that runs through his entire catalogue. Look at Swoon: the music is florid, with all those chord changes, and the lyrics are nuts. Paddy once replied, when asked who his rivals were: Michael Jackson and Prince.

Róisín Murphy on Richard H Kirk

Sheffield has a history of avant-garde electronic pop music with groups such as Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA. Richard has recorded under countless aliases, such as Frightgod and Dr Xavier. When I came to Sheffield in the early 90s, he was still seen as a godfather figure – there was a reverence around him and a proliferation of his ideologies. Cabaret Voltaire's Yashar, from 1983, was a phenomenal record; Clonck by Sweet Exorcist was mind-blowing. Play it in a club and the whole building shakes. Richard even had a dub project, Sandoz. His Number of Magic is absolutely beautiful. When you look at his output, it makes you feel lazy.

Boris Blank of Yello on Daniel Miller

His music was a key event in my life. Warm Leatherette and TVOD by the Normal, which was just him, were the two electronic-industrial-techno songs that lit the initial spark for me to buy a synthesiser: Yello formed at Christmas 1978. Later on he had the Silicon Teens "group" and founded the Mute label, helping so many people find their way in electronic music. I did a DJ set in Berlin recently and I started with Warm Leatherette. It still sounds perfect, modern. It was as revolutionary for electronic musicians as punk. I can't wait for the day when I can shake his hand.

Luke Haines on Robert Calvert of Hawkwind

I used to think Hawkwind made weak hippy music. Then, 10 years ago, I realised they were a hard-arse biker band. Calvert was their frontman from about 1970-79. He initially wanted to be a fighter pilot – he joined the air force and was obsessed with the war. He left – or was removed – and became an underground poet, working for Frendz magazine. He then drifted towards Hawkwind. The first big song he wrote for them was Silver Machine. Lemmy turned it into a biker anthem, but really it's about Calvert cycling around Margate on his pushbike. A lot of his stuff was really funny. He was bipolar. He carried weapons around and was doomed, thought to be too crazy even for Hawkwind, so they left him in Paris and he was sectioned. He died at 43 of a heart attack. For someone with such huge psychiatric issues, he was incredibly prolific. He stands for an age of rock'n'roll escapism when you were free to do what you liked.

John Hiatt on Jessie Mae Hemphill

She was from north Mississippi. She played the tambourine with her foot and played guitar and sang – it's the most ancient sound of the blues. She had a great voice and pretty much stayed on one chord. She reminds me a lot of Mississippi John Hurt, the same delivery – sweet, but it's got teeth. I could listen to her all day long. It's as old as time, a deep groove that comes from somewhere else. It's not earthly.

Tim Booth of James on Mary Margaret O'Hara

She's really only done one album, Miss America. Then a friend of hers was directing a movie [2000's Apartment Hunting] and he coerced her into being in it and giving some tracks away for it. There are only five but they're as good as anything I've ever heard. She's apparently written hundreds of songs that have never seen the light of day because the recording of Miss America was so traumatic. She's incredible live, but so delicate. I've seen her run from the stage when someone shouted out: "I love you, Mary!" It's not that she's mysterious, just fragile. Morrissey said she was the greatest performer he'd seen since Patti Smith. She's got a track called Rain where she makes these strange dolphin noises. My wife has requested that it be played at her funeral.

Fiona Burgess of Woman's Hour on Scritti Politti

I like the way Green Gartside reinvented himself, from post-punk DIY stuff to slick pop-soul. He makes pop music, but uses it to be subversive. You can be absorbed by the pop slickness, but it's only when you look into it that you realise there's another level. In The Boom Boom Bap, he sings really quietly the entire track listing of the first Run DMC album. People could say it's pretentious, but I think it's playful. I think his early-80s pop songs, the ones he made after his transition from scratchy punk, had an influence on American R&B. He even moved out to New York for a while. He was so sick of that rough indie sound he had to move away from it, literally. He comes across more as a hermit/academic than a pop star, and I like that he dares to encourage an intellectual approach. He's inspired me to not be afraid to question pop music.

Johnny Borrell on Patrick Costello

I'd always wanted to learn how to frail. So I got this banjo and started trying to figure it out. Patrick Costello is a fantastic banjo player, and everything he's ever done he's given away for free. He's a folk musician in the purest sense of the world. It's a long way from the model of the artist who goes into a recording studio and makes music for a record company to sell – he plays very small festivals on the folk scene. I was in a band that did very well, but the reason I always wanted to be a musician was the idea of the chain, passing it on, and that's what Patrick understands. In rock'n'roll, people might do coke together but they won't jam together. I always found that quite strange. He's a very inspirational figure.

Gary Numan on John Foxx

I love John Foxx. Ultravox beat me to the idea of using guitar-bass-drums with a layer of synths on top, and the way he did it was so much more advanced than me. He was a most enigmatic frontman, with an extraordinary, alien presence, and the most unusual voice. When I met him I was really starstruck. I was No 1 at the time but I felt really awkward around him. Over the years I've got to know him better and he's just a really cool, intelligent man, with fantastic charisma. He has this larger-than-life, stranger-than-normal vibe. People used to say David Bowie must be my hero, and I'd say: "Oh no, it's John Foxx."

Angus Andrew of Liars on Fad Gadget

He was a pioneer of electronic/early industrial new wave music who would use tape machines and work out of his home, and he was the first guy signed to Mute. He was also a super-crazy performer, somewhere between Iggy and Bowie. He would cover his body with tar and injure himself – he had torn ligaments from stage diving, he'd cut his head open using it to play a drum machine and he got black eyes from microphone-to-face shenanigans. But without Frank Tovey, there would be no Depeche Mode or Human League.

Matty Healy of the 1975 on Donny Hathaway

The term "cult hero" is imbued with a sense of obscurity, but to me Donny Hathaway is the king: the king of passion and soul. Stevie Wonder loved him – he's the hero's hero. His album Live at the Bitter End is the best live album of all time. I was brought up on soul music by my dad and he used to say the only thing that mattered was the conviction in somebody's voice, and there's nobody I believe more than Donny Hathaway. I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know is the greatest soul ballad of all time. He was plagued with mental illness, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had a volatile relationship with his wife over whether he would take his medication. One day, he finished a recording session, went back to his hotel in New York, and jumped out the window. He was 33. It's an incredible story tinged with sadness. I'm amazed nobody's made a movie about him.

Albert Hammond Jr on R Stevie Moore

I like R Stevie Moore's songs, but also that he's the master of the do-it-yourself. The first album of his that I got was Glad Music with the sleeve homage to A Hard Day's Night. It's amazing, with a Guided by Voices vibe. When I was recording the Vaccines, they covered one of his songs and ended up meeting him. They told him how they got into him and he was like: "No way, I love the Strokes! Give him my email!" So I told him how much of an influence he's been and he was very excited. I'd love to work with him. He's like the Velvet Underground in that he makes you want to go and create something unique yourself.

Catherine Pierce of the Pierces on Adam Green

He's like Leonard Cohen on acid. His songs are like streams of consciousness, but they're actually really well put together. He's beyond eccentric. He has no boundaries when it comes to what he wants to say or do. He made a film on his iPhone [the Wrong Ferrari], which was utterly bizarre, then one day he starts making these massive papier-mache sculptures. He even did a show at the Hole gallery called Hot Chicks. I have no idea what it was about. But that's what's so exciting about him. You can be talking to him and you'll be like: "Are you pulling my leg?" No one can keep that up 24/7, so it's got to be genuine.

Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards on Selda Bağcan

She's a Turkish singer, guitarist and producer whom I discovered through our tour manager DJ Fitz. She played at Antony Hegarty's Meltdown. In Turkey she's extremely famous, although most of the recordings I have are from the 70s. She's got a stunning voice – it's like a mother crying across a field of wheat, cutting through for miles and miles, saying there's an emergency, come right home. Her lyrics are political – you can tell from the way she's singing that the song's not about: "Oh, my baby left me and I'm sad." It's righteous and powerful.


Interviews by Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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