Living the genre non-specific rock dream with Polly and the Billets Doux

Van Go: Polly and the Billets Doux arrive at their next destination.

Van Go: Polly and the Billets Doux arrive at their next destination.

Polly Perry, lead singer of Polly and the Billets Doux,  is on a train somewhere between Devon and Hampshire, heading back from a weekend of fossil hunting.

Yes, fossil hunting. Not very rock’n’roll? Well, there’s plenty more of that deviant behaviour to be revealed as we carry on our conversation.

But while her band’s leisure-time pursuits hardly rival those of Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones in their prime, it’s just how this South Coast outfit like it.

As I was about to find out, you’re unlikely to read about the off-stage antics of Polly and the Billets Doux in the court listings or annals of Music Babylon.

The 31-year-old singer had just left Axminster, changing at Basingstoke before a return to Winchester after a weekend with a few girlfriends on England’s Jurassic Coast.

“I’m a big fan of fossils and geology. My friends and I have been camping at Charmouth, which is really good for fossils. We had a busy time, looking at rocks.”

Any success from her expedition?

“Oh yeah, a whole bucketful! We laid them out, picked out our favourites and put the rest back. That way they get washed in the sea ready for the next people to find them.”

Very considerate, if not the stuff of legendary rock anecdotes. But then why should it be? After all, Polly heads a band that prefers to do its performing on the stage.

Polly has no idea of the exact number of dates her quartet have performed, but lets on that last May alone they did a staggering 36 gigs.

Spring Spirit: Polly and the Billets Doux get in touch with a little nature

Spring Spirit: Polly and the Billets Doux get in touch with a little nature

Then came heavy schedules in Ireland and Germany, and you can factor in regular UK dates and several festivals.

Currently, things seem a little less frenetic, although they’re part-way into a 16-date tour that started in Wellingborough and ends with Middlewich’s Folk and Boat Festival on June 20.

This Friday (May 29) they’re sure to be charming a whole new clientele at Preston’s Continental, my excuse for catching up with her, and they’re back in the Red Rose county within four months for the Fylde Folk Festival in Fleetwood (Saturday, September 5).

I’ve been listening to their second album, 2014’s Money Tree, recently, and they certainly offer a whole swathe of musical genres over 12 impressive tracks.

That’s only part of the story though, the band having first charted at No.17 on the BBC Radio 1 indie chart with their Head of Steam EP back in 2008.

That was followed a year later by often-exquisite debut album, Fiction, Half-Truths & Downright Lies.

Then there were the mighty-catchy Follow My Feet, Cry Cry and Hold Fast singles, then Money Tree last year, with the band now set to release new single, Tourniquet, and a whole lot more material coming our way soon.

I put it to Polly – carrying on our conversation with a far better mobile signal on her arrival home in Winchester after several curtailed attempts – that there seems to be a marked difference between the albums.

“Both albums have very different sounds to them. We consider the first a bit lighter, and the earlier material slightly polite, whereas we wanted the second album to sound a bit more live and kind of gritty.

“But I still feel we need to go a little heavier and edgier, as with the new single, Tourniquet, which we’re in the process of releasing.”

Live Treatment: Dan, on double bass, and Polly out front

Live Treatment: Dan, on double bass, and Polly out front

And are you working on a third album to follow that forthcoming Genepool Records release?

“Well, we haven’t booked into the studio yet, but we’re working on material for the new album.”

So is the live set they’re bringing to Preston a trawl through both albums, the singles and the newer material?

“I’d say so. We start off with some of the singles, like Cry Cry and Follow My Feet, but our songs are so diverse and in so many different kinds of style.

“That keeps it quite dynamic really, ending in full-on electric guitars and solos.”

It’s certainly difficult to categorise Polly and the Billets Doux. They seem to veer from blues to country, from folk to soul, from gospel to rock’n’roll.

If you love good guitar and fantastic vocal performances, driven by quality stand-up bass and percussion, you’ll be made up. Just don’t try and stick a label on them.

They call their style genre-defiant. I’d go for genre non-specific. And it all comes with a quintessentially English twist.

For example, straight away on Money Tree they put me in mind of early Fleetwood Mac on bluesy opener Black Crow then Norah Jones on the more whimsical, dreamy Stories of our Own, amid a variety of guitar and percussive styles.

Then there are touches of others, even including Dido in places. Am I even close?

5343d5f41bf81-polly.nl.m“That’s good! You’ve named some people I really love and a few others have stated.

“I always get Norah Jones mentioned I think because of my voice, although I don’t think our music is like hers. And I love Fleetwood Mac.”

Calico Blankets was one of the first songs to jump off the deck at me – a bit of country noir in the tradition of Emmylou Harris and co, but definitely homegrown.

“Now you say that, I can see the fit. But rather than thinking, ‘Let’s write a country song’, we just start writing and they end up what they are.

“They’re what we like doing rather than being any specific genre – as they come.”

There’s even a very French feel, one you might associate with the band’s name, on the gorgeously laid-back closing track Old Virginia.

Meanwhile, The Fallow Road is a favourite, with more of a breathy blues crossover thing going on, and the band kind of laid-back funky, all in a South Downs setting.

I could even hear Faces-era Rod Stewart having a go at it. And in the same way Rod was a big Sam Cooke fan, it appears that Polly likes her gospel music.

“Yes, I’m a big fan of gospel. I’m not religious, but love the growling passion of some of the old gospel.”

You mention that growl, and there’s a bit of that on the recordings, not least on Money Tree‘s title track. In fact, it’s best you don’t hold your pint glass too hard while they’re playing that at the Conti or any other dates on this tour.

“Yeah, I do enjoy that – and it was done in one take!”

Polly certainly has an impressive voice on her, whether via more breathy treatments or the other end of the spectrum, often under-stated but perhaps all the more powerful for that when she does let it rip.

Are they getting closer to what they’re trying to convey, or do they remain a band of split personalities?

51IthlJfhKL._SX300_“I think we’ll always remain a band with split personalities! We all love so many different kinds of music, and I like it that we bring in so many genres.

“But I feel we want to be a bit edgier, a bit heavier, take more risks, and we’re interested in bringing other sounds and rhythms in.”

Apparently, the band debuted in a smoky Winchester venue backroom in 2006. That seems to age Polly and the Billets Doux’s story slightly, making me realise how long it’s been since the UK smoking ban came in.

“Yes, that first gig was in the back room of our local venue, The Railway, and we didn’t have any amplification.

“I booked the gig before having songs, but got that together for the gig and we just belted it out in the middle of this room, having not quite sorted out pick-ups.

“But it’s a nice thing to do it all acoustic and stripped down.”

Has it been the same foursome from the start?

“Yes, we’ve never been one of those bands who get another drummer or whatever. We lived together, and the other guys were in a rock band.

“We were just jamming in the evenings … and playing badminton together.”

Oh dear, she’s off again. That doesn’t sound very rock’n’roll either, Polly.

“Well, no, but we are so rock’n’roll! It’s just that we’re big fans of visiting train museums and art galleries, rather than throwing TVs out of hotel windows.”

Very wise. I should really introduce the rest of the band there, lead vocalist Polly, just about the youngest in the band, joined by Andrew ‘Steeny’ Steen (lead guitar, vocals) Dan Everett (double bass, guitar, vocals) and Ben Perry (drums/percussion).

“We all met in Winchester. Dan came here to go to art college, Steeny came down from Ulverston to study archaeology, ending up doing English literature and excelling.

Billet Quartet: Steeny, Polly, Ben and Dan during a Songs from the Shed session in North Somerset (Photo: http://www.songsfromtheshed.com/)

Billet Quartet: Steeny, Polly, Ben and Dan during a Songs from the Shed session in North Somerset (Photo: http://www.songsfromtheshed.com/)

“Ben and I both lived in Winchester, and you’d always bump into each other in Sainsbury’s. it’s a small city and everyone in music knows each other.”

Of course, she is opening herself up to misspellings from promoters with that band name too. Are they already turning up at venues to memorable misnomers?

“Oh, always! We’ve had Polly and the Billy Dux before, but it’s usually just missing the ‘x’.”

Bear that in mind, Continental staff. So is this your first gig in Preston?

“It is. We have been in the area, and my Nana – who lives in Doncaster – was from Lancashire originally. We’ve played the Lake District too, as Steeny’s from that region.”

Did Polly’s musical genes perhaps come from the Northern side of her family?

“Yes, my Nana was a singer during the war, and was always singing. When I was growing up she used to sing sentimental 1940s songs, so I did too.

“We still do when I visit, and when we’re doing the washing-up together!”

So what can your audiences on this tour expect from  Polly and the Billets Doux?

“Some songs are three-part harmonies, finger-picking folk with double bass and acoustic guitar, bit with a few lively numbers a little more like Bo Diddley, to which people like to have a dance. We tend to start lighter and go a bit heavier.”

Bass Instinct: Polly Perry gets up close and personal with Dan's double bass

Bass Instinct: Polly Perry gets up close and personal with her double bass

I can imagine you going down well at festivals too, and that’s proved to be the case so far, not least at Glastonbury, Loopallu, The Big Chill, Secret Garden Party, Larmer Tree, Wychwood and the Cambridge Folk Festival. Has Polly any particular highlights from that summertime circuit?

“Playing Glastonbury has been quite an amazing experience, and we’ve played there three times now.

“Then there’s the Loopallu Festival in Scotland, another of my favourites, where it was absolutely pelting down with rain and we had a caravan next to Mumford and Sons’ caravan.

“Each band, when it was their turn to play, had to just run for it on to the stage. You’d just see the caravan door opening and the next band running for the stage.

“On the main stage you look across to Stornaway, and during our slot the sun was setting and it was just stunning.”

En route, there’s been plenty of love for the band on the airwaves, including a fair few plays on BBC Radio 1, 2, 4 and 6.

And the band has earned plenty of support on those stations, not least from Whispering Bob Harris, Terry Wogan, Tom Robinson and Cerys Matthews, the latter perhaps another key influence on Polly.

“We did a live session for Cerys, and I’ve always really liked her as an artist and really love her show too. She plays some great stuff, so I was proud to be on there.

”She got me to record a jingle, and it’s so weird when you have someone with such a distinctive voice talking about you and your songs. It was the same with Terry Wogan.”

And with thoughts of Sir Terry, I leave Polly to it, safely home by now – the first part of our conversation curtailed by poor carriage mobile phone reception.

At that point, she was set to enjoy a couple of days off before her next batch of live dates, and closed by telling me how much she was looking forward to ‘getting back on the allotment’.

Rock’n’roll, indeed.

Ticket details of the Polly and the Billets Doux visit to The Continental in Preston (Friday, May 29) can be found here.

For more about the band and further dates on this tour and throughout the summer, head to their facebook page here,  or follow them on Twitter here

Finally, for a few examples of the band’s past output via YouTube, try here, and for more about Songs from the Shed, try here.

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Band of brothers’ friendly fire – The Cribs interview

Wakefield Wonders: The Cribs, namely (from the left) Gary, Ross and Ryan Jarman

Wakefield Wonders: The Cribs, namely (from the left) Gary, Ross and Ryan Jarman

When it comes to loyalty, it’s an ethos built on brotherhood for indie favourites The Cribs.

While the West Yorkshire outfit complemented their sense of cool by recruiting Manchester guitar legend Johnny Marr between 2008 and 2011, the brothers Jarman remain at the heart of the band – twins Gary and Ryan plus younger sibling Ryan.

And while they continue to mix in revered company, that three-piece family dynamic still provides the band’s momentum.

The Jarman brothers were travelling up the east coast of Ireland when I caught them, between shows in Dublin and Belfast, the latest cities to show their appreciation for a band now in their 14th year performing.

Vocalist and bass player Gary, who along with Ryan (guitars and vocals) is aged 34 and four years the senior of Ross (drums), did the talking, his responses always considered but honest with it.

“Last night in Dublin was really fun, with a really enthusiastic audience. We haven’t been here for a couple of years, and there was definitely a good vibe.”

Have the band enjoyed the reaction to their sixth LP, For All My Sisters, since its March release?

“We’ve been really happy. We were so proud of the album when we made it, having gone away for around three years between records, the longest we’ve done that.

“Having switched labels, moving to Sony, we felt there was quite a lot of change around this record and worked really hard on this.

“It was nice to have the time away to do that, and in a lot of ways it felt like making our first record again.

Three's Company: Ross, Gary and Ryan get the joke

Three’s Company: Ross, Gary and Ryan get the joke

“When you first start you feel you’ve got all the time in the world to make a record. But in the past we’ve been busy the whole time, writing while we’ve been on the road, going from one record straight on to the next.

“By the time this album came out, we felt really passionate towards it, and I think most of our audience – and definitely the more old school element of the fan-base – have really embraced this record.

“In some ways it really is a return to the ideals of the earlier stuff.”

What’s the difference between working with Wichita Recordings, the indie label behind their first five albums, and now Sony Red?

“Not a massive difference. We were with Wichita from the start, but did a couple of records with Warner Brothers in America so already had the experience of working with a major label.

“We’ve been around long enough to see from the sidelines the small indie and big major set-ups, so knew what to expect.

“After establishing the band for over a decade, anyone who works with us has a pretty good idea of what to expect from us, and pretty much let us get on with what we want.

“The only time it feels odd being with a major would be if they have a pre-conceived idea of what they want to mould you into.

“With Warner Brothers in America it was slightly like that, but with Sony in the UK I think they understand what we’re about.”

In an era when it seems there is less chance of bands going down the major label path, instead working with smaller labels or going down the pledging route, you seem to get the best of both worlds – an independent ethic backed by a big company.

Sisters' Act: The release of The Cribs' For All My Sisters proved a proud moment for Gary and his brothers

Sisters’ Act: The release of The Cribs’ For All My Sisters proved a proud moment for Gary and his brothers

“We were always more suited to being on an indie label. From an idealistic point of view we really liked the idea of community and a close relationship with the label.

“At this stage we’re pretty dyed in the wool. I can understand if we’d made a completely different record and it had been overtly radio-friendly, but people now know us well enough to know what we want to do, and this record is still fundamentally a punk record.”

There are a couple of radio-friendly tracks on For All My Sisters to pull new fans in, but there’s also enough to feel you’re staying true to your ideals.

“It’s always been the same with us, throughout the years. We’ve always known which are the singles and like to write pop songs, although not in the conventional sense. We’re not trying to be part of that world.

“I consider a lot of my favourite bands to be pop bands, like Nirvana, Teenage Fan Club and Sebadoh. To me they write pop songs, even though it doesn’t fit the same classification as commercial pop.”

It’s interesting you say Teenage Fan Club. I’ve never really thought about them in respect of your music, but now you mention it, I can hear them in there too.

But the influence that comes across more than most for me on the new LP is Weezer, although perhaps that’s understandable with the LP being produced by Ric Ocasek, former frontman of US new wavers The Cars, who also worked with the LA outfit.

“A couple of people have said that, and while  we did work with Ric on this, I grew up listening to Weezer. They were accessible, and as a young teenager you need these gateway bands – where the more melodic songs turn you on to the experimental side.”

There’s an almost ‘70s pop feel to it all between the harder line, maybe attributable to Ric again. How much of that sound and feel was down to his influence?

“His influence was mainly was as a producer who we respect for what he’s done before. It makes it smoother, where everybody ends up on the same page.

Classic Car: Ric Ocasek, who produced the latest Cribs album

Classic Car: Ric Ocasek, who produced the latest Cribs album

“Between me and my brothers we produce ourselves, but it’s good to have someone there almost like an arbiter.

“Otherwise we can end up fixated on the details. Ric was good at telling us what felt good and what was a good take but also very focused on vocal performances.

“In the past I’ve been happy enough if it’s felt right. Ric didn’t care about us getting a perfect performance either, yet with the vocals he wanted me to push a lot harder to put in great performances.”

The album’s first single, Burning for No One, is a contender for a summer-long anthem for this scribe, and not just for the accompanying video, shot in the Bahamas, much as I feel there should be more stone-skimming in pop promos to my mind.

Was the fact that they chose the island of Exuma rather than Scarborough – where they recorded a track for their second LP on the beach – for the video a sign of them selling out?

“When we say it was in the Bahamas it makes it sound much grander than it was. But it was a cool experience.

“We knew there was this island inhabited by these feral pigs, but paid for some flights and took a friend along to film us.

“It was all done guerrilla style. It wasn’t like some big ‘80s production. It does seem like the classic cliché of signing for a major then going off to the Bahamas. But it wasn’t like that.”

Back in the Industrial North, how was your date in Leeds on May 2, in what must class more or less a home fixture for this Wakefield outfit?

“Leeds has almost always been like a home show, although we play Wakefield sometimes. Playing the Town Hall was like a celebratory show in grand surroundings on a really special night.”

This Sunday (May 24) The Cribs are at Liverpool Docklands’ Sound City festival, the same night as Gaz Coombes, Belle & Sebastian and Peace among others.

Is there anyone in particular on that bill that Gary wants to watch from the sidelines?

“I wanted to see Thurston Moore and also Flaming Lips, but they’re playing the day before, so I don’t know if I’ll be around.”

Sound Choice: Sonic Youth have proved a big influence on The Cribs

Sound Choice: Sonic Youth have proved a big influence on The Cribs

I take it from the past links that you’re big Sonic Youth fans.

“Definitely. They were really important to us, and we worked with Lee Ranaldo on the third record, a high watermark for us. And the song we made with him, Be Safe, has become a fan’s favourite.

“We’ve bumped into Thurston a few times, and to me he’s still a guitar hero, although that sounds a weird thing to say about such an iconoclastic anti-hero!”

The Cribs tend to be a four-piece live, with Russell Searle from fellow Wakefield band The Research helping out at present.

“We like to have someone fill in a couple of extra guitar parts and on keyboards, and that was Mike (Cummings) from the band Skaters in America, and now Russell over here.”

I’m guessing there’s still a bit of a rush down the front for crowd favourites like Hey Scenesters, Mirror Kissers and Men’s Needs.

“Well, we put out a compilation a couple of years ago, so our set-list is like a greatest hits, with certain songs people expect us to play.

“For us it’s more fun playing the new stuff, and at the moment we’re trying to find a balance. We had that fine balance in Dublin – about one-third new stuff, two-thirds hits.

“But when you’ve been touring for around 13 years, how many songs can you play? You know what works, and have a good idea what a crowd wants.”

From fellow triple-sibling bands The Beach Boys and The Bee Gees to more fiery brotherly combos like The Kinks’ Ray and Dave Davies and Oasis’ Liam and Noel Gallagher, where do the Jarman trio fit?

“We’re more like best friends really. As with most siblings, we argue a lot about petty things – but nothing major.

“With some artistic partnerships it’s usually about a clash of egos, but I like to think the three of us are pretty free of that. We’re all on the same team.

Jarman Karma: Twins Gary and Ryan and younger brother Ross are all on the same team

Jarman Karma: Twins Gary and Ryan and younger brother Ross are all on the same team

“The reason we started a band was because we had the same influences, feelings and intentions, and that’s been unwavering over the years.

“We couldn’t imagine being able to get on with anyone else. It’s best to be in a band with people you trust 100 per cent.”

So in your case it would seem that sibling dynamic has helped push you on to greater things, used in a positive way.

“Yes, totally.”

I’ve put this to a few bands before, most recently The Subways, but there’s something about that three-piece set-up that resonates, in my case not least with The Jam.

Yet The Cribs have drifted between that and a larger stage presence. So what’s the best working model?

“The three-piece is really streamlined, and that whole power trio thing has proved so effective over the years.

“For us, it means each of us feels really engaged. No one feels a marginal member. Each of us is an integral part.”

That said, it must have been something to have Johnny Marr in your ranks. What was the biggest learning experience from having the former Smiths star on board?

“The key difference is the fact that ever since he left, when we make records we still put extra guitar or keyboard on.

Honorary Brother: Johnny Marr (Photo: http://www.roland.co.uk/)

Honorary Brother: Johnny Marr (Photo: http://www.roland.co.uk/)

“Prior to Johnny, we never really did anything like that and were pretty hard-line about it. When Johnny joined we had that extra colour on the palette.

“Since he’s left we’ve still embraced that idea and been pretty liberal with using more, because we know live we’re going to have a fourth member. It’s actually quite freeing in that way.”

He’s still there in spirit by the sound of things.

“As a band of brothers it was always really defined as to who was in this band, so it was unusual to have someone from outside. We never thought that would happen, because we didn’t have any more siblings, so didn’t even think that was a possibility.

“When Johnny came along that was such an unexpected and rare opportunity. It was pretty surreal too.

“We’re still close with him and he’s still a great friend of ours, and we’ll always be inextricably linked in that way.”

Then there are the past links with several other notable artists, including Edwyn Collins, Bernard Butler and Alex Kapranos. Not a bad pedigree really, and they all brought something to The Cribs party.

“They’re all part of our history. We’re quite a closed unit. Being brothers we’re naturally less dependent on outsiders, because we’ve got each other. I remember being like that at school too.

“Anyone who became part of what we were doing was something we took a long time considering and they were all important to us in that way.”

What is certain is that after all those years on the circuit, the band’s cult status remains intact.

It may have taken them a while to carve out their own identity, rather than just being seen as another great band riding on the back of The Strokes, The Libertines and so on.

Q Tips: The Cribs on the red carpet for the Q awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London, in 2012

Q Tips: The Cribs on the red carpet for the Q awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London, in 2012

But in time they earned their spurs and wider recognition, having served their apprenticeship of sorts, accolades like the Q and NME awards in 2012 examples of that peer acceptance.

And now, 14 years after their initial Springtime Studios set-up, did Gary ever feel it could have come to all this? Did the Jarman brothers always have that strength of belief?

“We didn’t really. I think it’s one of the biggest myths and misconceptions about the band.

“We’ve always represented ourselves as being very staunch in our ethics and in some way that’s construed as being self-confident.

“But it was more that when we did end up in this position we felt a duty to try not to deviate from our original intention.

“That’s maybe read as being very sure of ourselves. In fact, it was more about trying to retain what we had in the first place.

“So no, we never expected all this. It’s been kind of crazy. When we first started we had pretty avant-garde intentions.

“We played a lot of gigs with twee kind of very indie pop type C86 bands, so we never expected to have top-10 records.

The_Cribs_Band“Our peer group were in a very different world to that we ended up occupying, so it’s all pretty surreal really.”

For tickets for Liverpool Docklands’ Sound City three-day event, head to http://www.liverpoolsoundcity.co.uk/

And to keep up to date with The Cribs, head to their website at http://www.thecribs.com/

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In from the rain again – doubling up with Inspiral Carpets and The Rainkings

Fiveways Factor: The Rainkings, with Stephen Holt in the middle

Fiveways Factor: The Rainkings, with Stephen Holt in the middle

It’s a busy life for Stephen Holt, his day job in North Manchester supplemented by roles as the singer in two acclaimed bands.

As well as Inspiral Carpets, the outfit he co-formed in 1983 and rejoined in 2011 after a 22-year absence, he’s back with the band he initially them left for, promoting The Rainkings’ new Fiveways EP.

By his own admission, Stephen’s side-project are hardly the most prolific ensemble, releasing just two singles first time around, although the Another Time (1989/94) compilation eventually followed in 2013.

Inspired by the public response to that release though, they decided to write some new songs, and the results are impressive.

Stephen and co-founder/guitarist Dave Swift – another former Inspirals member – rejoined John Rowland (drums, formerly with The Bodines), Cathy Brooks (bass, formerly with Dub Sex) and Chris Hutchison (keyboard/guitar).

Any real momentum was ruled out by Stephen’s commitments with the Inspirals that following year, but The Rainkings returned to the studio this February, and to good effect judging by that resultant EP.

That said, Stephen’s been back rehearsing with Clint Boon, Graham Lambert, Craig Gill and Martyn Walsh lately, ahead of Inspiral Carpets shows at Hebden Bridge Trades Club (Thursday, May 21), Carlisle Old Fire Station (Friday, May 22) and Manchester Academy’s Gigantic all-dayer (Saturday, May 23).

Dr Reliable: JCC patches things up with Inspiral Carpets

Dr Reliable: JCC patches things up with Inspiral Carpets

Those dates follow December’s successful tour promoting an acclaimed self-titled comeback album, which included their most recent single, Let You Down, featuring legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke.

So – before we get too confused – which band is Stephen’s musical priority at present? Which is his busman’s holiday project – the Inspirals or The Rainkings?

“The Inspirals is my full-time role, but I love playing with both bands and I’m always brought back to The Rainkings.

“I formed both bands with my mates, and Swifty’s been my best mate for years. We grew up together, he used to live around the corner from me and was in the Inspirals with us as well.

“And there’s always something that drags me back and wanting to do more with The Rainkings. It’s the spirit of the underdog too, in some way.

“I don’t think we ever really proved ourselves as a band, live or on record, so I suppose I’m still trying to show people we’re a good band and deserve a bit of credit.”

Time for a potted history again, I reckon, explaining how Stephen – who helps run a drug and alcohol support service these days – quit the Inspirals alongside Dave Swift at a stage where the band had written half of the album, Life.

That album proved to be the Inspirals’ commercial breakthrough, the single This Is How It Feels soon scoring a top-20 hit, the first of 11 making the top-40 over the next five years.

But Stephen had already moved on, having felt the band had been overtaken by outside agents and the bigger music industry, losing sight of their original indie ethos.

Whether that was the case or not remains debatable, but Tom Hingley certainly went on to prove himself in Stephen’s place out front.

While The Rainkings failed to make anything like the same impact, Stephen and Swifty could live with that … at least to an extent.

Yet now they’re back, with the first fruits of the new-look Rainkings certainly impressing this scribe.

Vocal Volley: Stephen Holt at full throttle at 53 Degrees (Photo copyright: Ian Rook,  @ianphotoboy,  www.ianrook.com)

Vocal Volley: Stephen Holt at full throttle at 53 Degrees (Photo copyright: Ian Rook, @ianphotoboy, http://www.ianrook.com)

Back to this weekend first though. So what kind of set can we expect from Inspiral Carpets at Manchester Academy (with the band on at 8.30pm, the set before headliners Echo and the Bunnymen)?

“Gigantic wanted a greatest hits set when they booked us, although we’ll do a few tracks from the new album as well.

“But it’s not a million miles away, and we’re trying to drag out a couple of surprises we’ve not played for a while.”

No guest appearance from John Cooper Clarke lined up on the night?

“I don’t think so. We’d love to have him involved and tried for the tour in December to get him to a couple of dates, but it was just co-ordinating diaries.

“Besides, I think when he’s not busy he likes to become a bit of a recluse.”

I can see that diary co-ordination could be hard work, not least as Johnny Clarke has a bit of a reputation for late arrivals, as hinted at in his wondrous contribution in the guise of Dr Reliable on Let You Down.

“I believe it was more of a kickback against how he used to be, and how he does try to get places really early and is far more reliable than he used to be.

“He’s a great character. I was really pleased with our video with him. The Spitfire video was alright but not really what we were going for, but the vibe on Let You Down was just brilliant, and having John on there made it for us.”

Fag Break: Mark E Smith, whose appearance with Inspiral Carpets on I Want You lives on in the memory

Fag Break: Mark E Smith, whose appearance with Inspiral Carpets on I Want You lives on in the memory

John’s in good company too, following in the footsteps of The Fall legend Mark E. Smith, who appeared with the band’s previous incarnation on their fourth top-20 hit, I Want You, in 1994, even joining them for a memorable Top of the Pops performance.

“Exactly! And as a band we’ve been quite lucky with the links we’ve had. And it’s not tokenistic – they fit totally.”

So, after MES and JCC, who can you go to next?

“That’s a good question. I’ve not even thought of that!”

When I spoke to Stephen about the first Inspirals album in 20 years a few months back, we talked about a Teardrop Explodes and Mighty Lemon Drops feel on certain songs.

Now, moving on to The Rainkings’ Fiveways EP, I’m leaning more towards early REM, Sugar, and a more transatlantic vibe.

“Definitely, yeah. I think you’re right, and people have also mentioned Husker Du.”

Good point. I agree.

“Then there’s the Afghan Wigs, and all those bands have been a massive influence on us. That goes for Swifty, our chief songwriter, too, and I think that comes over on the EP.”

It certainly does, and I’d venture to say there’s not an inch of fat on that five-track extended play.

Swifty clearly has the knack for a great hook, as we’re aware from the off with Low Hit, its Stone Roses-like rousing chorus taking us to a height we barely dip from over the next 17 minutes. It’s perhaps as close to the Inspirals as we get here, with a few Mighty Lemon Drops touches, its guitar drive nicely augmented by a little defining organ, so to speak.

WI61ZUvZGetting Nowhere brings that classic US indie vibe to the fore, with elements of Michael Stipe in the verse and Bob Mould in the chorus, the backing vocals taking it closer to early REM territory on another eminently-catchy song, for all its alternative verve.

Nothing’s Set In Stone has a Stipe-like stirring chorus and provides a further 100 per cent all-guns-blazing feel, its reflective piano finish at least giving us a little breathing space before we’re off again.

Then comes the wondrous In From the Rain, a Sugar-coasted power surge with more delectable hooks, duetting guitars, and Stephen’s flavoursome vocals.

There’s no issue over the band outstaying their welcome either, playing out perfectly with the lean, just the right side of mean By My Side, coming in under the three-minute mark to complete a sub-1,000 second fuel-injected audio display of quality tunesmithery.

Phew. Bring on the LP, I say.  So, Stephen, you and your fellow Rainkings have definitely not mellowed over the years, at least on the strength of Fiveways.

“You’ve got to stick to your roots – none of this picking up an acoustic guitar and trying to go all soft! We stick to what we know best and what we do best.”

That’s true, but listening back – and bear in mind I’ve only really dipped in and out of the earlier Rainkings material – I think you’ve got it together more this time than maybe you did on record in the past.

“I agree, apart from the Get Ready single we did with Ian Broudie, where we were really pleased with the songs. And if Ian’s going to produce something for you, it’s going to be brilliant!

“Working on these newer tracks with Jim (Spencer), that’s certainly the case though. I also think our songwriting has matured as well. We’ve definitely got more of the sound we’ve always been looking for.”

So is this more indicative of where you were heading all those years ago?

“Yeah, and it’s only taken us 20-odd years! We’re getting closer to how we want to sound.”

It’s difficult to decide which track I like best on the EP. It might have been Low Hit at first, but now maybe it’s In From the Rain. Has Stephen got a favourite?

Raining Champions: The Rainkings

Raining Champions: The Rainkings

“It’s changed. As a band we probably first went with Nothing’s Set in Stone, that track really got to all of us. Since then it’s probably veered between that and Low Hit.

“But the more I listen now, when In From the Rain comes on, it shines out in a different way.”

“We recorded it in a weird way, with three songs put down in November 2013, but then – because I was so busy with the Inspirals, everything put on hold before we came back together at the start of this year with Low Hit and Getting Nowhere.

“But after letting them mature and hearing them again over time, I love the sound of the earlier ones too.”

And is it in the contract or just the local psyche to write about rainfall every now and again, being a Manchester band?

Stephen laughs.

“Well, Swifty writes our songs, and he’s quite a serious, straight man, but we were looking at that, and they’re not really the most upbeat titles, are they?

“Maybe we need to get more positive, start being a bit more upbeat!”

Negative Quality: The Wedding Present's Nobody's Twisting Your Arm's cover shot

Negative Quality: The Wedding Present’s Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm’s cover shot

That got me thinking about The Wedding Present’s 1988 release Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm, featuring alongside the title track Nothing Comes Easy, Don’t Laugh and I’m Not Always So Stupid.

So while The Rainkings come close, four out of four negatives just about beats that.

I add to the fact that there’s a similar but different effect with the first Noah and the Whale LP, the chirpiest of tunes met by pretty depressing lyrics.

“I do like that kind of juxtaposition!”

Getting back on course, I’d suggest the strength of the new EP suggests there could be a Rainkings album on its way at some point.

“We’d love to. There are no plans at the moment, but we’d love to do something again later in the year.

“And although we’re not the most productive of bands in output and gigs, we might do a couple of shows later this year.

“We’ve never been able to put across live what we’ve wanted to do either, so maybe that’s the next nut-cracker – to get happy with our live sound too.

“The thing is that Swifty is such a prolific songwriter. He never stops. He’s got hundreds of songs – we could probably do 10 albums of his songs!”

Has Swifty got a side-project as well?

The-Rainkings-Another-Time-2-300x298“No, he just loves writing songs and playing guitar, and although he’s done demos on his own, he’s never released anything.

“He does the majority of the songwriting, while I just chip in now and again with lyrics on a couple of songs.

“But there’s no plan, we just bring in whatever we’ve got to rehearsals, and might go on and record.”

“Was Dave an important influence on the earlier incarnation of the Inspirals?

“He came in just before we recorded Planecrash, so he’s on the first EP, and brought in Causeway on the Trainsurfing EP, So Far on our first Peel Session, and another couple of tracks.”

Is there a day job for Dave as well?

“Yes, he’s an IT man, but since we’ve been old enough we’ve gone to gigs together and had loads of garage bands, with a drum machine and a guitar. We were in a school band as well.”

Were you surprised at the public reaction to the Another Time compilation? Had you thought you were just another forgotten band?

“I still think we’re one of those forgotten bands, although there are loads of us out there. But we’ve definitely still got something to prove to people.

“That’s why we keep coming back to it. And we’ll keep trying, as long as it takes.”

And now seems to be a good time – with lots of old ‘80s and ‘90s indie bands seemingly reforming.

“I was talking about this down at the Vinyl Revival record shop in Manchester, this great record shop in Manchester.

“The Inspirals never really went away, but have made an impact again recently, as have The Rainkings. Then there’s Black Grape, The High, The Milltown Brothers. All these bands coming back – strange times!”

Yet it seems that very few labels are taking bands on today.

Inspiral Shades: The Carpets, 2014 (Photo: Ian Rook)

Inspiral Shades: The Carpets, 2014 (Photo: Ian Rook)

“There’s not, and we were quite lucky with the Inspirals to get picked up by Cherry Red. A lot of bands are either doing their own thing – like The Rainkings – or going down the pledging route. No one’s really signed anymore at a lower level.”

Moving on to your fellow Rainkings, did you know John Rowland in his Bodines days?

“Our first London show was supporting The Bodines, then we played a few around Manchester with them.

“I was a big fan anyway and we worked alongside them and seemed to get on really well.”

I loved the album, Played, a treasured piece of vinyl for me, which I only recently rediscovered on CD.

“It’s brilliant, and tracks like Therese and Heard it All are just great pop songs. Actually, Cherry Red are trying to get them back together at the moment to get a compilation of unreleased tracks together.”

Cathy and Chris were more recent auditions to The Rainkings. Had you known them for a while?

“With Cathy it’s a similar story, having played a lot of gigs with her band, Dub Sex, in those early days.

“They were a little ahead of us, but also on the rise as we were coming through. Graham from the Inspirals and myself were massive fans, going all over watching them. Again, we supported them in London and Manchester.

“As it was, I hadn’t seen Cathy for a while, but then she came to watch the Inspirals when we played Holmfirth for the first time.

Early Days: The Rainkings, way back then

Early Days: The Rainkings, way back then

“I always thought she was a great bass player, and she’s a really nice person to have around. She wasn’t doing anything at the time, so I told her I had another band going if she ever fancied doing something. And we took it from there.

“Meanwhile, Chris was brought in by John, but he’s now moved over to China. He got an opportunity to teach out there, and took that up.

“So we’re now a four-piece, but Wimmy (Paul Williams) – a mate of mine who recorded the last two tracks on the EP – plays keyboards and helps out when we need him. And he’s another good bloke to have around.”

Did you have anything in particular in mind for what you might get out of the experience when you started recording again in late 2013?

“After Another Time, I always wanted to do some new tunes. And when we recorded those first three songs they came out so well I felt we needed to do something again.

“After waiting a year and holding on to those, I felt they were too good not to be heard.

“Rather than chasing people trying to get them released, jumping through hoops and doing it on their terms … well, I’ve seen the mistakes some of the bigger labels can make and decided I can make those mistakes myself!

“With the Inspirals, there’s always been that get-up-and-do-it work ethic – making us think that if no one else is prepared to do it, we’ll do it ourselves. It’s the old punk ethos really.

“So now – as The Rainkings – we’ve decided to have a go ourselves and be in control that way.”

Probably a good thing if you’re right about Swifty – better that than finding a huge cache of undiscovered songs round at his place when he’s in his 90s.

“Totally! He’d just sit there, playing his guitar, riding his scooter, and going to work otherwise. And this stuff should be listened to. Definitely!”

If you missed this blog’s interview with Stephen Holt back in December 2014, focusing on Inspiral Carpets’ comeback, there’s a link here.

For an idea of what a night out watching the current Inspirals line-up entails, try this review from 53 Degrees in Preston.

To find out more about The Rainkings, check out their Facebook and Twitter links.

See what else the Inspiral Carpets are up to in 2015 – including summer dates in Holmfirth and York and in November in Somerset, via their website here

And for ticket details of Manchester Academy’s Gigantic all-dayer (1.30-11.30pm, Saturday, May 23, £29 in advance) call 0161 832 1111 or head here.

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Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy – a writewyattuk review

download (2)In the year Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turns 150, we can expect a number of events set around that influential work and all it led to.

Alice is a little too Marmite for some tastes, and I totally understand if a certain film or stage adaptation or past edition of the book itself put you off for life.

But there’s no denying the impact Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s ground-breaking 1865 children’s story made, inspiring generations of children and adults, including several authors.

You can add recent writewyattuk interviewee Cathy Cassidy to all three categories, the best-selling children’s writer revisiting Carroll’s tales again and again over the years.

So when she was asked by the team at Puffin to write her own Alice-themed children’s book to help mark that big anniversary, she jumped at the chance …. or down the rabbit hole perhaps.

Despite that leap, in some respects Cathy is on solid ground with Looking Glass Girl, tackling some of the staples of her past success – issues like fitting in, bullying and peer pressure, friendship and first-love. There’s even the odd foray into cake and chocolate. All part of CC’s winning recipe for young fiction.

But here she gets to do all that in a slightly darker setting, immersing herself into that labyrinth of wrong turns Carroll carved out all those years before. Yet despite the potential pitfalls, she manages to come through the other side of the mirror (okay, that’s enough throwaway Alice imagery now).      

This is no clumsy retelling, Cathy instead crafting the story of modern-day Alice Beech as she tries to make her way through the maze of adolescence, in a book chock-full of Wonderland imagery.

Cathy’s Alice is trying to come to terms with a change in the friends she got on so well with before high school, but who then dropped her like a stone to join the popular set.

Alice Spin: Cathy Cassidy has created her own twist on Carroll's classic (Photo: Louise Llewelyn)

Alice Spin: Cathy Cassidy has created her own twist on Carroll’s classic (Photo: Louise Llewelyn)

She’s also learning to stand on her own feet – waking up to her true self rather than just blindly fitting in, despite that reluctance to stand out from the crowd, something the majority of young readers can relate to.

Ms Beech’s love of drama has helped, a passion that led to her landing the key part of her namesake in her previous school’s Wonderland stage production.

That premise shouldn’t put off those who feel Alice isn’t for them though. And similarly it shouldn’t put off those who love the book and feel this might be a watered-down or unfaithful take on it all. Because it isn’t.

As we join the tale, our protagonist is unconscious and on her way to hospital after falling down stairs in suspect circumstances during an Alice-themed sleepover at ‘queen of the school’ Savannah’s house.

What follows is something of a reconstruction of what happened that night, piecing together Alice’s memory through flashbacks and Wonderland-related dream sequences as she battles back amid bedside vigils from family, friends and possible foes.

There’s no cheap moralising, and even the less-palatable characters are believable. And while the coma gives the story a darker edge, it’s no more sinister than the original text.

It appears effortless for all the carefully-constructed content, Cathy subtly inter-weaving various characters from the original text into her narrative, suggesting similarities between them and her own creations.

In the way the original stories are surreal and somewhat unsettling, there are elements of that too, not least the part-nightmare, part-fantasy world of Alice’s dreamlike state.

Drink Me: A compelling book deserves an inviting cuppa (Photo: Cathrine Linden Sea)

Drink Me: A compelling book deserves an inviting cuppa (Photo: Cathrine Linden Sea)

As Alice looks to understand her classmates’ motives, there’s that sense of danger too, her fellow teens pushing the boundaries, not least through their modern twist on the original ‘drink me’ sequence and their secretive invite for a group of boys to this girls-only party.

Alice’s blossoming relationship with Luke is also key, the lad who played the Mad Hatter in that school play still holding a candle for her, to the dismay of one of those old friends.

And throughout the coma sequences we get echoes of Carroll’s tales, Alice – so au fait with the story – meeting the White Rabbit, the Duchess, the Lory, Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and many others who seem to hold the key to her memory.

All play a part in that potential unlocking, the White Queen’s conundrum of living backwards or forwards just one dilemma translated to Alice’s amnesia and a determination to unravel this mystery.

Meanwhile, the confusion brought on by her cerebral bleed fits perfectly with the Queen of Hearts’ ‘off with her head’ command, Alice feverishly trying to comprehend exactly what happened to her and somehow get safely home.

In the same way that you can read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There from a child’s perspective and an older reader’s point of view, you can do that here too.

Of course, I won’t need to win over Cathy Cassidy fans. They’ve read enough to happily snap up anything with her name on it. All the same, Looking Glass Girl is a winning departure for her, and it’s worth noting the author’s respect for the original texts, doing Carroll’s rich legacy justice.

cathy-shot-for-chinaLooking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy (Puffin) is available in hardback, paperback and e-book and audio formats from all good independent booksellers, online, and through various other sources, not least your local library.

For a recent in-depth interview with Cathy Cassidy on this blog, head here. And for more about the author, her past work and forthcoming book events and visits, try her website.Alice 150 Logo

Meanwhile, check back on this blog shortly for a special feature marking the 150th anniversary of the original Macmillan publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  

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Taking the Long Road home – the Milltown Brothers interview

Back Again: Milltown Brothers in Spain during the recording of the new album, Long Road, with Barney missing, presumed brewing up

Back Again: Milltown Brothers in Spain during the recording of the new album, Long Road, with Barney missing, presumed brewing up

Matt Nelson is on his way home from work to Burnley, having moved back to the North-West around a dozen years ago.

Milltown Brothers’ chief singer-songwriter is a family man these days, a dad-of-three who runs a visual effects film production company based at Media City, Salford.

But now and again he’s asked about his indie pop past, and it’s then that he reminds people his band have never really been too far away.

In fact, the original five-piece – Matt, older brother Simon Nelson (guitar), James Fraser (bass), Barney Williams (organ/piano) and Nian Brindle (drums) – are set to release a new album, Long Road.

And after a couple of listens, I can already report that here’s a band who still have plenty to offer, the resultant 11-track opus showing Matt’s songwriting in a whole new positive light.

A review of Long Road will follow on here soon, but first, let’s recap on what’s gone before and the band’s on and off stage past and present.

After the band’s initial flirting with success, a spell in film production – including time at Granada Studios – led to Matt setting up his own studio concern, Space Digital, now supplying various VFX graphics, animation and international film production services, including work on Dr Who.

Was that parallel career always in the background while he was enjoying chart success in the early ‘90s?

“I actually fell into it. A fan of the band was working in film production in London and I was at a loose end when the band finished, working on these strange TV commercials.”

Did his promo video work with the Milltown Brothers, not least on sole top-40 hit Which Way Should I Jump? and near-misses Here I Stand and Apple Green, pave the way for all that?

“Yeah, we did quite a few, and it’s worked out pretty well, one thing leading to another.”

Hit Vinyl: Milltown Brothers' 1991 debut LP, Slinky

Hit Vinyl: Milltown Brothers’ 1991 debut LP, Slinky

I should interject and suggest the Milltown Brothers deserved more from the single-buying public than five top-60 singles and one top-30 album, Slinky.

Maybe their second platter, Valve, didn’t quite match the first, and the scene seemed to have moved on and away.

But it could have been so different. And it appears that 1991’s Here I Stand – later the theme tune for BBC comedy drama Preston Front, set in fictional Lancashire town Roker Bridge – might have fared better but for some rum goings-on in the music industry at the time.

“That was another kick for us. Here I Stand was No.22 in the charts in mid-week and expected to go top-10, but somebody at A&M was putting dodgy sales through and we lost our position.

“If that had gone top-10 it could have been a different picture.”

Matt has 13 and 10-year-old sons and a four-year-old daughter these days, and says a lot of his recent songwriting is inspired by his family, as you’ll learn when Long Road sees the light of day.

Hopefully, that new album should see them properly recognised again soon. But even if commercial success doesn’t follow, I get the impression it won’t deter Matt and the rest of the band.

“We hadn’t done anything on the writing front for quite a while, and I wasn’t really missing it, I must admit.

“Then I started writing at home over a period of around two years, eventually playing those songs to a couple of band members.

“So far it’s been a nice experience, with no big decisions to make and no real pressure. And there’s no pretence anymore.

“We’re not young budding guys out to forge a career. It’s not about that. It’s about being together doing songs we really enjoy playing.

“We went to Spain to record a lot of the songs, with James living out there at the time, and a week away with your friends is not so bad. It’s taken about a year so far, and we’re enjoying it.”

It’s good to see they haven’t been forgotten in indie circles, and on Saturday, May 23, the band play the Gigantic all-dayer at Manchester Academy, starting the show on the Academy 2 stage with a greatest hits set, at an event involving many feted independent bands, with Echo and the Bunnymen headlining.

“The Bunnymen are one of my favourite bands. To be playing on the same bill as them is great.”

New Album: Milltown Brothers, 2015 style

New Album: Milltown Brothers, 2015 style

And will there be a few dates ahead to promote the new album this summer and beyond?

“We’d like to at least play around four or five dates and see how it goes, with help from a little promotion by Nian, who was previously involved with promoting The Heartbreaks.

“The record’s set to come out on Ditto Music, online, and we’ll see if there’s interest, with a view to do some more gigs.”

Going back to breakthrough 1991 album Slinky, Matt wrote most of the songs with his brother. Is that not still the case?

“Uniquely on this one, I’ve written them all, and it was quite a cathartic experience. There are always little nuances within the band about how things have been done in the past.

“James has also been very influential in all this, and he felt I should write the songs. But everyone’s played the parts they want to play, and I think my songs are stronger lyrically than in the past.

“We also wanted an album you could properly listen to. In the past we went bigger on the live shows. It was about filling that sound and looking to make it more exciting.

“Everything was more full-on in many ways. This time we want something a little more mellow, a little more acoustic, less over-driven by guitars.”

Don’t get the wrong impression from that, mind. My early listens to Long Road confirm this is no mere acoustic vehicle, with an array of styles on there, not least a West Coast and almost indie country feel, perhaps taking on their earlier nod to The Byrds.

And it appears that the band have already been giving their local fan-base a glimpse of the Milltown Brothers 2015-style.

“We did a gig a couple of weeks ago at Burnley Football Club, and enjoyed that. It was surprising how good the club was to us.

“But then I’ve got quite a bit of history there, including interviews with Granada Reports and the NME out on the pitch and so on. But it’s nice they remember that.”

Glossing right over the fact that his beloved Clarets are on their way back to the Championship, I see that Matt recently appealed via social media for video footage from that appearance at Turf Moor to go along with the camera angles covered by the band’s long-time associate Andy Devanney. Did they get a good response?

“We have, quite a lot, and we’re working on that with Stephen Rigg, a friend of ours and a local film-maker, cutting it all together.”

The Beginning: Milltown Brothers' first EP from 1989, with its LS Lowry cover.

The Beginning: Milltown Brothers’ first EP from 1989, with its LS Lowry cover.

Let’s go a bit further back now, and recall the Milltown Brothers’ rise, which seemed to start with their Coming from the Mill EP in 1989.

Well, not quite. Matt reminded me of the build-up to their NME single of the week accolade.

“It was our sixth gig, playing the Bull and Gate, by the Town and Country Club in North London.

“We were first on, at around six, with nobody in then apart from three other people and Steve Lamacq, who came up and asked if we had a tape.

“He then wrote a really great review – the luck you just don’t get. Within a couple of months we had a publishing deal then went to Strawberry Studios for our Coming From The Mill EP.

“We put out two or three independent singles, and Which Way Should I Jump? opened the door to major offers and it went on from there really.”

I’m guessing you hadn’t been playing long at that point.

“It was all very quick. Our first gig was at Manchester University’s halls of residence, with us at Manchester Poly at the time.

“Then we started playing The Boardwalk and those various little gigs in London.”

But not back on your own patch in East Lancashire?

“No, there were no real venues, other than The Mechanics in Burnley, and we didn’t play there in the early days.

“I think that was quite good for us in many ways though. It’s hard to get noticed just playing on a local scene. Like it or not, there are more chances in the big cities.”

And this time around, how far can you take it all?

“The big goal would be to try and get invited to play a couple of big festivals, but it’s a great thing to be asked to do the Gigantic show too.”

Past Days: Matt and co back in the early '90s

Past Days: Matt and co back in the early ’90s

I can see that, and there’s a real festival feel to a couple of the new songs, one which would fit nicely into a greatest hits set out there in the open air.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Instead, let’s get back to the Manchester Academy, a venue that has played large in the life of the band.

“We played some great gigs there. I remember Oasis supporting us at the Academy 2. We also supported The La’s there, and loved that.”

Funny you should say that, as I was listening back to Slinky this week for the first time in ages, and it struck how much of a La’s vibe there was on a few of those songs, not least Here I Stand.

“We were a little in awe of The La’s, I have to say. It was great to be able to play with them. I don’t think we were trying to be like them though.

“We were well into The Byrds, REM and all that kind of American indie scene, and all that kind of poppy, jingly-jangly guitar.

“I liked that whole late-80s indie scene, and we toured quite a bit around that Manchester scene then Dingwall’s and that kind of place in London. That was all kind of new and exciting to us at the time.”

Was there a particular band you saw that made you sit up and take notice, thinking, ‘I can do this’?

“When I was growing up, I was very into The Waterboys, then it was REM, then The House of Love.”

For those who know the band’s native Lancashire, I’ll remind us that Matt and Simon hail from Colne, with Barney from nearby Padiham, while Nian and James are from the north of the county in Lancaster, having met the Nelson boys at Lancaster Grammar School.

Head Spin: The first time around

Head Spin: The first time around

I didn’t get the feeling there was a grammar school and poly background to the band first time around though. The common perception was more of a cool spin on a more industrial setting.

So, did he ever regret that band name? Only it proved a good excuse for lazy journalists, revelling in Northern clichés, referring to clogs and cloth caps, dark satanic mills and whippets.

“In hindsight, we were a bit naïve, but we’d barely turned 18 and 19 and just didn’t know what we were entering into really.

“A name we thought was quite clever at that age wasn’t really by the time we’d reached 21. It probably wasn’t the coolest decision.”

It did, however, help give them an identity though, and as I mentioned earlier, all the original band members remain, albeit with a few breaks between albums.

There’s a bit of symmetry there, incidentally, with the first two albums followed after an 11-year gap by 2004’s Rubberband, and a similar-sized delay following before the forthcoming fourth album.

I must admit I knew Slinky far better than anything else until this new album. that debut LP getting a fair few plays in my den back in the early ’90s, all part of a rich diet of jangly guitar bands and that earlier wave of post-Postcard bands.

From The Blue Aeroplanes to The Bodines and later to Bob, from The Chesterfields to The June Brides. Happy days.

And where did the Milltown Brothers fit in? Listening back to Roses, the lead track on the first Milltown Brothers EP, it was on the more commercial side I’d say.

What’s more, by the time of the A&M deal, the band seemed a little more stylised, with a bit more of that Inspiral Carpets, Stone Roses, Charlatans and whole ‘Madchester’ sound.

“I think that’s fair. We could have gone very folky or could have gone a bit more jingly-jangly. At the time everything was dominated by that whole Manchester scene.

“We had to play the game really. It wasn’t a million miles from what we were doing anyway. It’s not like we introduced things because of all that. We had Barney playing organ since the start.

“But yeah, we styled our haircuts and wore baggy trousers. Actually, my kids can barely watch the videos now.”

Box Set: Which Way Should I Jump, the 1991 UK limited edition package (Pic: http://eil.com/)

Box Set: Which Way Should I Jump, the 1991 UK limited edition package (Pic: http://eil.com/)

I must admit, that ‘pony tail and flares’ line from Here I Stand jumps out at me now. A great song though. Did you feel a proper part of any scene?

“I don’t think we did. We didn’t really know the in-people in Manchester. We weren’t privy to that circle, if there even was one.

“Burnley seemed a long way from Manchester when we talked about any scene.

“We probably felt closer to The La’s and the Liverpool scene, more about songwriting than just being a cool thing.”

Ever have moments when you looked at bands and thought, ‘We were better than them’, even if those bands got better over the years.

“Well, Blur and us were neck and neck for six months or so. I remember an NME front-cover story saying, ‘this band are clever’, suggesting we weren’t.

“They’d ridden it out, that Manchester scene replaced by the American grunge scene and a period when all that music was seen as dead, before the Brit Pop thing.

“By then we’d had enough after a few knocks and kicks. It was all getting a bit messy and it was time to bow out.

“I think if you can outstay all that you’ve got something extra about you, something which possibly we didn’t have.”

Was part of that down to a lack of support from A&M?

“That didn’t help. We had a really good offer from Atlantic Records, who had been chasing us for a while, and were talking about seven years and building us up.

“But we were pushed into a deal by our management to sign for A&M, who were a lot more about ‘now’.

“There are no guarantees, but after that first album we went to America and that didn’t go quite as well as they’d hoped. After that we never really had quite the same backing.”

Second Platter: Milltown Brother's follow-up album, Valve

Second Platter: Milltown Brother’s follow-up album, Valve

Does it rile you that people (like me) don’t tend to talk so much about the later albums, and may only have known about Slinky?

“At the time we thought we should have got a few more breaks, and it was all over very quickly after four years to get there.

“It was a great journey, but we could have done with at least another year of enjoying the good times.

“It was good for us to get out when we did though. It allowed us to get on and do other things. Sometimes it’s all a little one-dimensional. There’s a bit more to life than all that.

“Listening back to (second album) Valve, I don’t think we were very good at that point. We were standing up for what we thought was good, but the production was really odd on it.”

So was Barney, whose departure from the band at that point proved to be the catalyst for you splitting, ahead of you on thinking that?

“Well, we decided to continue, but we all knew it was kind of dying. Then we got dropped, then Nian got a job.

“When it’s going well, it’s great, but if you find yourself in your mid-20s on your own in London and everyone else is getting on with their lives, it can be a bit scary.”

It doesn’t seem fair for me to thrown in my sixpen’orth in some respects. I can’t say I even recall much about Valve other than the singles, Turn Off and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, their Bob Dylan cover given a little Byrds treatment.

My life had moved on by then, and it’s somewhat ironic that when I left the London and South-East gig scene to resettle in the North-West, I moved further away from ownership of the Milltown Brothers.

Consequently, family commitments of my own meant Rubberband totally passed me by too. But on the strength of Long Road, I’ll definitely put that right now.

So is that why there’s the big gap between the albums – did you all have your own lives to live again after that?

“I think that’s it, although we all kept in touch.”

And was there ever any money in being in the band?

Last Time: The five-piece's previous offering, Rubberband

Last Time: The five-piece’s previous offering, Rubberband

“Erm … no, not really. We got a £100,000 advance from A&M when we signed, but 20% of that goes to management, then there were five of us drawing a wage off for two years.

“The royalties were never great. You certainly didn’t come away with anything.

“But it all gives you a lot of life experiences and it gets a lot out of your system at an early age.”

Tickets for Manchester Academy’s Gigantic all-dayer (1.30pm-11.30pm) are £29 in advance from the Oxford Road venue’s box office on 0161 832 1111 or via http://www.manchesteracademy.net.

For details of the new Milltown Brothers LP and their forthcoming dates, head to their facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MilltownBrothers

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Experiencing eclipses and supersonic flight – the Smoke Fairies interview

Two's Company: Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, aka Smoke Fairies

Two’s Company: Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, aka Smoke Fairies

Katherine Blamire was roaming around rural Yorkshire with fellow members of the band Smoke Fairies when I called her, enjoying a day off from a UK tour supporting Public Service Broadcasting.

To add to 13 shared dates, the band headlined at Hebden Bridge Trades Club the previous night and had some spare time before resuming the main tour in Sheffield.

But first they were seeking out revered American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath’s grave in nearby Heptonstall, after a triumphant Trades Club return.

“It’s so nice there, and feels like a home gig for us now. We’ve played there a few times, the guys that run it are proper music fans and the audience is always great.”

Two days later, I was lucky enough to catch their support role in Manchester at a packed show at The Ritz, just one of many highlights for the band in a schedule that went right through to London’s Roundhouse on May 7th, also a sell-out.

But when we first spoke, they were savouring a day without sound-checks.

“We’re trying to make the most of it. It’s an amazing day, so we thought we should go for a walk.

“The views are phenomenal. When we get out of London, we like to make the most of the fresh air.”

While based between tours in the capital, the girls at the heart of Smoke Fairies – Katherine and fellow guitarist/vocalist Jessica Davies – are from Chichester, West Sussex, having met at school in the late ‘90s.

They’ve put in a fair few air miles since, including early stints in Nashville, New Orleans and Vancouver.

I must admit I’ve only recently caught up on the Smoke Fairies catalogue, and it’s a vast one – with five studio albums and a compilation since 2007 and plenty on the CV before then.

Smoke Signals: Jessica and Katherine are making an impact on the UK indie scene

Smoke Signals: Jessica and Katherine are making an impact on the UK indie scene

I seem to recall I first heard them through sessions for Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music, and Katherine and Jessica came back to my attention again recently after providing vocals on Public Service Broadcasting’s heart-searing Valentina.

That song, on the South London outfit’s superb second album The Race for Space,  celebrated the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, the Russian cosmonaut’s story inspiring PSB mastermind J.Willgoose Esq. to call in the girls for a fresh perspective on the textile factory assembly worker and amateur skydiver turned 1963 Vostok 6 pilot.

“There were newsreels, but footage of Valentina speaking was limited and most was contrived or spoken over. The idea was to give her a proper voice, and I guess that’s what we represented.

“When you look what was happening at that time, everything was done as a statement of part of the space race.

“It was an aggressive time and part of a much bigger, darker situation. But among all that there were these intrepid individuals who strode out and made amazing achievements.

“It was really nice to give Valentina a voice. Maybe at the time she didn’t have that. She was paraded through the streets as a hero, but there was very little else. I imagine she was very practical and brave though.”

Smoke Fairies seemed an apt choice, not least in light of the girls’ antics – building a mechanical bird, carrying it to the top of a hill and releasing it – in the video to We’ve Seen Birds, the lead track on their 2014 self-titled album.

Was that an accurate reflection of their technical aptitude? And have they a penchant for creative DIY that Valentina, now 78, herself might appreciate?

“I’d like to think so, but guess I’ll never know! ! It was great to be involved in this project. Our imaginations are continually sparked by ideas of flight and space, and imagery to do with all that comes into our songs a lot.

“I feel we’re always looking outwards. We’ve never been able to stop looking to the sky really.

Flight Inspiration: Vostok 6 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova

Flight Inspiration: Vostok 6 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova

“I don’t think we’re particularly scientific, although I do read a lot of books about things like string theory, trying to understand all that.

“I’ve been reading The Elegant Universe (by Brian Greene), some Carl Sagan, and the more popular side of science – getting my tiny brain around it.”

Judging by that video, you certainly look like you know what you’re doing with a saw and a block of wood too.

“I could probably cobble together some kind of spaceship, but I’m not sure how far I’d get.”

In the meantime though, they can at least indulge in PSB’s nightly trips to the heavens.

“Yes, that’s great, and singing on the stage with them every night is an added bonus to being their support band. It really feels like we’re part of the show.”

Was Valentina more or less a finished idea when they were invited on board by Mr Willgoose?

“He already had an idea of the structure and had written out instrumental parts. We came up with the vocal lines. It felt like a proper collaboration. He gave us a bit of free rein really.”

Katherine and Jessica’s near-celestial, sometimes ethereal harmonies are something to savour. Was that all pretty instinctive, or something they‘ve had to work hard on?

“To be honest, from the very first moment we started singing together, when we were about 12, I really felt there was something special happening, and we just had to keep going.

“As we’ve grown up, I guess our voices developed together, which has emphasised the blending even more.”

That tends to happen more with music’s great siblings, from the Everly Brothers through to Neil and Tim Finn, for example. Then again, I suppose these two have been at it a long time.

Sisterly Relationship: Jessica and Katherine have a musical understanding

Sisterly Relationship: Jessica and Katherine have a musical understanding

“Yeah, but it does feel like we have a sisterly relationship, even if not a conventional one. We’re very close. It feels like a family really.”

When you’re writing together, does it tend to start with a guitar, or is it just a case of whatever’s to hand?

“For me it’s a lot of guitar, but on last year’s Smoke Fairies record we experimented a lot more, starting with different instruments, using a lot more synths and keyboard and padded chords.”

That’s the album I’ve listened to more than any other, and there are definitely a couple of curve balls, dipping between the radio-friendly tracks and the more experimental, with plenty of shining examples of the girls’ wondrous voices and inventive songcraft.

“I think it was something of a stepping stone for us. We had to go there but I think we’re ready to come back to something a bit more familiar now.

“The record we did after that, a more limited release called Wild Winter, was recorded live and to me that’s where we should be going now.

“We took on board what we learned from the previous album, and it just has this edge which I love. We spent a lot less time on it and it’s a lot more raw.”

It’s fair to say Smoke Fairies have branched out from their blues and folk roots in recent times, to a more dreamy electro sound and darker trip-hop feel, and even a little, dare I say it, pop.

At this point, Katherine was side-tracked though, telling me the rest of the band had found the gravestone they were looking for, my interviewee then describing her new surroundings in detail.

I suggested in response that it’s not such a bad life, with all this sightseeing between big nights out. Does touring prove a good source for songwriting?

Misty Version: The year 2012 might have seen the end of Smoke Fairies

Misty Version: The year 2012 might have seen the end of Smoke Fairies

“It’s the thing that keeps us interested and drives us on. When I’m not travelling, that’s when I start worrying about if we’re doing the right thing.

“When you’re out and about meeting people touched by what you’re doing, it changes the way you see what you’re doing and spurs you on.

“Without all these cyber things I don’t know how we’d know that. I hear about bands that don’t tour and can’t understand that. To me that’s part of the joy.”

Despite that, there have been moments of self-doubt en route, not least when Jessica mooted the idea of a split not long after 2012’s Blood Speaks.

Jessica later said: “We started considering what we would do if we didn’t do music, and it was just a massive void.”

Thankfully having decided giving up on the band was not an option, she wrote a musical apology to Katherine, which became Smoke Fairies’ opening track, We’ve Seen Birds.

In that past interview, Jessica added: “I just wanted to say sorry to her – sorry I scared her like that. We realised this is our life.

“We just have to see it as this wonderful thing, every gig we get to play and every record we get to make – we’re just incredibly grateful for that.”

One year on, I put all that to Katherine, and a (deep) space-related analogy follows.

“Yes, you start thinking you’re a bit deluded and wonder if there’s anyone listening while we’re just sending these signals into space – like when we sent that satellite out there with all the music on it from our planet.

Wild Winter: The second 2014 LP release by Smoke Fairies

Wild Winter: The second 2014 LP release by Smoke Fairies

“It just feels so lonely sometimes. That’s how I feel about sharing music sometimes, not knowing if it’s landing anywhere.”

What was it about that fourth studio album, earlier last year, that made them think it was finally time to use the eponymous self-title?

“To us it felt like it had been a challenge to make and almost like a complete reassessment of the point of continuing.

“We felt it was right to try and draw attention to that – as a personal landmark for us. But it wasn’t really a landmark. The questions just continue.

“You’re never going to have an answer. That’s why you keep writing. It was just one more step.”

You can spot several influences in their sound, subtle as they often are. I put to Katherine there’s even a Roxy Music feel to one Smoke Fairies track, Koto, maybe attributable to their time on the road with Bryan Ferry back in 2007 – a support slot even pre-dating their first single.

“Well, we love Roxy Music, so that’s a very good point. And once we’d been on tour with Bryan, we went straight back to his whole catalogue and got really into Roxy.”

Because of the close harmonies, bands like Crosby Stills, Nash and Young and more recent acts like Fleet Foxes also spring to mind.

“That’s kind of where it started for us, with those kinds of bands, but we’re really influenced by a lot of modern music now.

“When we’re on the tour bus, Neil (Walsh) plays us the most eclectic cacophony of crazy songs you can cobble together.

“When I come off tour I feel really inspired because I’ve heard everybody’s collections. We tend to bounce off each other a lot.

“We recommend a lot to each other. I’ve just listened to the new Alabama Shakes album , for example, and I love that. Just the way it’s recorded is incredible.”

While we’re talking influences, I mention a few more, from The Pretenders through to PJ Harvey, from Garbage to Portishead, even Kate Bush and Tori Amos through to Goldfrapp. Any of those resonate with Katherine?

5482356447_f0310d5fe5_o“Yeah, especially PJ Harvey. She’s amazing. I can’t really get enough of a few of her albums, revisiting them a lot.”

Maybe Smoke Fairies even have the potential to be more commercial than Polly Harvey, with true crossover potential.

“I think we have become more commercial, and it’s become something we desire in an artistic sense.

“I’ve started to appreciate the way pop music works and guess I’m interested in the formula behind things a lot more than I used to be.

“Even thinking in those terms when I started out was a sacrilege. I’d listen to obscure blues musicians, and while they’re playing to a formula too, I liked people like Skip James who didn’t stuck to 12-bar blues.

“I enjoyed anyone who kind of twisted it, and thought being commercial was a bit of a compromise. But it’s not. It’s an art. I realise that now.”

I had heard rumours about Katherine sat on the tour bus secretly listening to pop music.

“I’ve a few guilty pleasures which I’m not going to reveal!”

I mention one more potential influence, Wendy and Lisa, the duo that sang with Prince before branching out on their own, another band that flirted with commercial success (and also with a Neil Finn link).

Katherine admitted that the LA duo, Ms Melvoin and Ms Coleman, had missed her radar so far, but promised to get back to me on that.

Besides, by then she’d reached a new stopping point on her walk, and felt the need to share the love for the location she’d discovered, the derelict 13th-century Thomas a Becket Church.

“It’s incredible. It’s a really old empty church without a roof, with all the gravestones flattened out. It’s all really quite strange. I’m glad it’s sunny!

“It would be a great place for a gig. It’s got these big pillars that aren’t holding anything up, and a ready-built stage – I think it’s technically the altar.”

Live Poise: Jessica, left, and Katherine in action (Photo: Elliot McRae c/o https://www.facebook.com/SmokeFairies)

Live Poise: Jessica, left, and Katherine in action (Photo: Elliot McRae c/o https://www.facebook.com/SmokeFairies)

She speaks from experience too, her band putting on a small tour of English churches and halls in late 2013, one show recorded at St Pancras Old Church.

Moving back on track though, what can those who didn’t get along to the PSB tour expect if they are to catch Smoke Fairies this year?

“We’ve really developed a strong psychedelic edge to what we’re doing, with really heavy moments.

“People sometimes expect to see an acoustic duo with a more folky edge, but we’ve uncontrollably become a rock band!

“There are five of us in the band, and we make quite a lot of noise. We’ve played with the other three for a while, with Neil (Walsh) our longest-serving member.

“He’s our multi-instrumentalist. He used to play viola in our band and now just plays everything! He’s been with us right from the beginning, when it was just us and him.

“One day we asked if he could play some synth … then some guitar … I don’t think he set out with all this in mind.”

For all the perceived glamour of a musical career and earlier tours with Bryan Ferry, Richard Hawley – who called them ‘frankly the best thing I have heard in years’ – and in the US with Laura Marling, they were still sharing a house in Peckham and temping around London.

And apparently they still are – despite more and more attention with each album.

“We still have to support ourselves, working in different places. At the moment I’m working at the headquarters of a perfume company.

Kat Power: Katherine leads the live line as Jessica looks on (Photo: Melanie Smith - Mudkiss Photography www.mudkissphotography.co.uk)

Kat Power: Katherine leads the live line as Jessica looks on (Photo: Melanie Smith – Mudkiss Photography
http://www.mudkissphotography.co.uk)

“I was working with the Guinness Book of World Records before, and they were given this award for the most expensive perfume in the world to this company.

“Back then, I was in charge of the printer, so printed out lots of records. I was even going to give myself an award for the world’s best temp/musician.

“I don’t see it as a bad thing though. A lot of musicians have to do this. Things have changed a lot and in a way it keeps you balanced and connected.

“There was a time when musicians stepped out on to a stage and truly felt like something different to normal life. Now we’re straddled between two worlds.

“It’s like you put on your stage clothes and become a different person – and there’s something quite liberating about that.

“We pass through so many working environments and for me it’s always temporary and always will be, and I can’t change that.

“I’m not wired to be able to accept it, but at the same time I have to do it. When you step on a stage it gives you more fire. You think, ‘I don’t want to go back there yet’.”

That may be the case, but surely Katherine and Jessica must occasionally feel the need to tell everyone they were the first UK act to release a single on Jack White’s Third Man Records label, the White Stripes legend also playing guitar and drums on that release.

“We met him in a pub after a show he did with The Raconteurs. We were doing a record store gig down the road, so grabbed a couple of records and took them down. We were just excited fans really.”

Stud Phobic : The White Stripes' Pearly King look on Icky Thump was not a comfortable one for Katherine Blamiere

Stud Phobic : The White Stripes’ Pearly King look on Icky Thump was not a comfortable one for Katherine Blamiere

That was in 2009, so I’m guessing he’d moved on from his Icky Thump pearly king era by then.

“Thank goodness, because I’ve actually got a phobia of buttons. I wouldn’t have liked that at all.”

That sounds like a whole different story.

“Ha! Yes, that would have been a different outcome.  But that was just the start really of this crazy journey.”

There must have been many of those big moments along the way. Going further back though, was it initially awkward in that school music room when they first sang to each other?

“There wasn’t really any awkwardness. We just immediately started singing and decided we were the best thing ever!

“We were young and thought, ‘This is our ticket’. We all have big dreams, the difference is maybe ours never left us.”

All these years on, and after two albums in 2014, I should ask when the next one’s coming.

“We’re working on new material, trying to figure all that out. Writing songs feels like it comes quite easily but you get to a point where you question what you’re writing and start considering the direction a bit more.”

And after their last release, Wild Winter, will this one be a bit more of an upbeat light nights feel?

“I hope so. I think we want to take it in that direction a bit more. I feel like we’ve never really captured our live sound properly.

“I guess restraint and control have always been important elements of our music, but learning when to control and when to let loose is just as important.

Smoke-Fairies_Promo-Cover_web“Hopefully we’ll let loose a bit more on this album and hope someone’s around to capture it.”

For all the latest from the band, head to www.SmokeFairies.com

And in case you missed the writewyattuk take on Smoke Fairies’ support slot with Public Service Broadcasting at Manchester The Ritz, here’s a link.  

 

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The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce – a writewyattuk review

malc pix 040515 004Frank Cottrell Boyce has a lot to live up to when it comes to publication time, not least considering the quality of his first three children’s novels, Millions, Framed and Cosmic.

I also enjoyed the Merseyside author’s re-imaginings of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, aimed at a slightly younger audience. And The Unforgotten Coat was rightly acclaimed, although in the scheme of things more a short story.

Frank’s held a high profile since 2008’s Cosmic – like its two predecessors now set to become a film – and scripted the London 2012 Olympic Games opener for Danny Boyle, as well as a cracking 2014 episode of Dr Who (another story with a green theme), while carrying out promo work for his screenplay film adaptation of Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man and the BBC’s 500 Words competition.

But it’s his children’s writing he prioritises now, as seen with his 2015 World Book Day appearance at Preston North End FC and as hinted at last time I saw him, giving a Great Northern Creative Festival talk to budding screenwriters at the University of Central Lancashire. And on that latter occasion, he apologetically told his audience that, no offence, he’d rather have been elsewhere as he was having so much fun at home writing his next book.

No doubt we’ll hear more about that project at a later date, but right now I’ll concentrate on his most recent publication, and while I’m reticent to measure it against his first three, I will say Frank’s come up with another creative success here.

The Astounding Broccoli Boy is an often-touching, ultimately-inspirational adventure of a bullied schoolboy who discovers – in the most bizarre of circumstances – he has a superpower.

The story, illustrated by Steven Lenton, follows Brummie lad Rory Rooney, the smallest lad in his year, as he struggles to survive the unwelcome attention of school bullies and seemingly-insensitive teachers, his often well-intentioned but somewhat flawed actions misinterpreted and leading him into a spiral of negative happenings and resultant bad feedback.

Rory's Creator: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Rory’s Creator: Frank Cottrell Boyce

If having his lunch stolen and getting thrown off the bus by Grim Komissky most days isn’t enough, worse is to come after the afore-mentioned bane of his life has an allergic reaction to one of his half-inched sandwiches and is duly hospitalised.

As a result, Grim’s henchmen decide to carry out a little summary (in)justice, with Rory thrown into a river during a school trip and …. well, turning a bright shade of broccoli green. Totally green, as it turns out, leading to an air-lift to a specialist London hospital, where his room-mate happens to be … yes, Grim Komissky, of all people.

In short, Rory and Grim are seen as a threat to the public, medical staff carrying out all manner of tests but quickly concluding that the nation can’t possibly deal with these boys being at large while already dealing with the so-called Killer Kittens virus.

Meanwhile, encouraged by his Dad’s love of comic superheroes – many of whom just so happen to have been green – Rory comes to the conclusion he could have extraordinary powers, not least a ‘200% brain’ and a gift for ‘slight teleporting’. In fact, he’s astounding.

That’s enough of the plot, other than to say there’s also a feisty female, Koko Kwok, in a similar predicament, and that for all that it sounds pretty outlandish, Frank somehow makes the plot feasible and tells it with great energy.

It’s entertaining throughout, and you believe in Rory as he looks to find out the truth about his condition and get back home to his family. We also get to understand Grim better – this is no one-dimensional villain – and find out who would win in a fight between a hippo and a freezer. There might even be penguins involved.

It’s a book that should appeal to boys and girls … of all ages. The accompanying blurb suggests ages nine and over, but I’ve just read it with my youngest daughter, about to turn 13, and we certainly enjoyed it. The pacy adventure and humour within will draw in younger readers, while Frank’s turn of phrase, imaginative prose and vivid imagery appeal to young and old alike.

Furthermore, from an educational point of view there are valuable – if subtle – life lessons to be learned too, in a story told with great care and warmth amid the laughs. And from the West Midlands to London and the heroes’ journeys through the night-time capital, it’s a gripping tale, not least the finale (particularly for this acrophobic).

malc pix 040515 005There’s a nice afterword too, Frank giving us at least three great reasons why this is not just some far-fetched tale and how he knows what’s he talking about in relation to its key themes.

Like all the best children’s books, it’s chock-full of imaginative twists and turns and covers big issues for kids without being patronising. Furthermore, while on the surface just a yarn, it’s well constructed and packs a proper punch.

23358219No pressure, Frank, but I’m looking forward to your next book. In the meantime though, The Astounding Broccoli Boy gets the thumbs up from this children’s books lover.

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Macmillan Children’s Books, 2015), priced £10.99 in hardback, is available from all good independent booksellers and various other sources, not least your local library.

And for a recent in-depth interview with Frank Cottrell Boyce on this blog, head here.

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