Life with the spiritual businessman – talking The Daintees and much more with Martin Stephenson

Guitar Man: Martin Stephenson in live action, and he’s all set to return to the live scene as soon as he can

While Martin Stephenson formed the first line-up of The Daintees as a young teen, busking by the age of 15 and plying his trade with guitar in hand for various bands in the North East over those formative years, he was a worldly-wise 25 by the time Newcastle-upon-Tyne independent label Kitchenware Records released acclaimed debut LP Boat to Bolivia in 1986.

Learning his trade as he went, developing his playing technique from a Spanish guitar book then doing the same to master jazz, blues, country, skiffle and reggae styles, Martin was soon marked out for his songcraft, voice and writing too. Signed to Kitchenware around the same time as Prefab Sprout and Hurrah!, with early Daintees tours supporting Aztec Camera, The Bluebells, John Martyn, and backing Roy Buchanan, critical acclaim followed that first long player, similar positive reviews ensuing for 1988’s Gladsome, Humour and Blue, the live shows always going down well, the band sharing bills with Hothouse Flowers and Janis Ian too.

By 1990 there was also the much-lauded Salutation Road, and then 1992’s The Boy’s Heart. And yet, Martin’s anti-material thinking sat uncomfortably with the mainstream record industry, soon shunning the populist route, ploughing a far more humble, low-key furrow, and happily so.

In time, sales dipped, but the acclaim continued, Martin gradually moving towards a mail-order cottage industry existence, continuing to record solo and as part of a group, remaining a draw on the live circuit, albeit more at home on ‘the B-roads of music, free from the shackles of expectation’.

In 2018, his profile increased again through appearing alongside Billy Connolly in a two-part biographical documentary about the Glaswegian actor/comic/musician. And over the years, Martin’s work increasingly drew on folk and traditional roots music, his live shows continuing to impress, characterised by entertaining tales between songs from a master guitarist, singer-songwriter and storyteller out to provide ‘folk and Americana with a dash of Northern flair’.

The Daintees returned to the studio in 2008 for the first time in 16 years, the resulting Western Eagle receiving glowing reviews, leading to subsequent albums California Star (2012), Haunted Highway (2015), Bayswater Road (2017) and Chi Chi And The Jaguar (2019), running alongside various solo and collaborative albums for the main-man.

Then there were the re-recorded, re-imagined 30th anniversary releases of classic early period Daintees albums, and new LP Howdy Honcho, Martin having long since relocated to the Scottish Highlands, where I tracked him down.

“I’m just working away, helping other people complete their projects. It’s nice just doing somebody else’s stuff.”

I can’t imagine you getting emotionally involved when you’re working on someone else’s record.

Monochrome Set: Martin laying down his songcraft at The Sage, Gateshead. Photo: Juan Fitzgerald

“Funny really, I still think like a table tennis player, where the first thing we were taught was to coach each other and encourage. When I went into the music business it was very competitive. It was quite shocking actually.”

I’m forever talking to people who broke through around the same era as you, at a time when there was big money record company backing and artists were forced to compete with each other, chasing chart positions and record sales.

“Absolutely, and I never felt comfortable with all that. Music was always the spiritual thing to me. You’ll find different coaches have a better perception of that. Industry is industry, and I’ve always had a fascination with factory workers. My mam was a factory girl, my Dad also worked in that environment, and I do enjoy producing things. But when it costs friendships I don’t think it’s worth it.”

When you mentioned your parents, was that back in County Durham?

“Yeah, my mum worked at a little electrical factory – she was one of those girls sitting on the production line. She had these wire-cutters and when I started maintaining my guitar, I got them off her and carried them for years.

“My Dad started down the pit and was an ambulance driver for a while, then got a job at Dunlop in the ‘70s. They had quite a community, including a little club with a bit of entertainment. I retired at table tennis at 15, but came out of retirement to play for Dunlop for a year. I was the skinny kid with the Adidas top and long hair up against 30-somethings.”

Could you have taken table tennis further as a career?

“I don’t think I could. I met my coach when I was 11 and he was 27, and his skill was working with rough kids – underprivileged or over-privileged, he had a real talent for bringing people together, giving them confidence. He was a great teacher, but I’d go over on a Sunday afternoon and we’d be listening to Santana and The Doors – this was around 1971 – and he was an amazing guy, like George Harrison but with a table tennis bat! But he taught me the beauty of losing.

“Even at that age it was like a Buddhist programme about the futility of competitiveness. It was almost like someone taking a detonator out of you, taking away the anger. I think he was a bit of an angel, that guy. I didn’t realise I’d been on a programme, so when I went into the music industry at 19 or 20, it was my second subject. I was a really open kind of person from another planet – it was an alien place for me.”

Home for Martin is Invergordon these days, in Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands.

“I came up here in the ‘90s, but I played Findhorn in 1988 – the hippie commune. I took my old tour manager with me – he was a Birmingham mafia, Hells Angels type, and it was the only time I saw him terrified! It’s a bit like The Prisoner. You know hippies, man, they’ve got long hair, but they break all the rules for themselves. There’s this military base next door – Kinloss Barracks – so it’s like Yin and Yang. But you meet some of the most spiritual people you’ll ever meet in the military, and vice versa in the commune.

“My Dad’s family were Scottish. When I was about 11, he said, ‘I’m going away for the weekend, I want you to come with us,’ and we went to Lennoxtown, quite a rough area. We had these two uncles who ran a pub but were teetotal. They were Celtic fans, and the day I got there they were burning a St Mirren scarf in the fire! They were mad, but they were quite big music fans. They had a piano, and I didn’t even know my Dad played piano until then – he became another person when he got up there. I was fascinated about Scotland. I always wanted to go there if we went on holiday.

“I also did this thing, ‘stepping into the loincloth’. I realised I was cocooned in the industry and the people around me – like my manager – the things other people wanted I realised I had to disconnect completely, spiritually. This was about giving everything away, probably inspired by my heroes being people like Peter Green – I was born to fail! – and Jonathan Richman.

“I had to let go of everything and disconnect from this cocoon of people around us. I mean, My VAT bills were thirty grand a year when I was 21! So I stepped into the loincloth, said, ‘Right, who’s with me?’ And it’s like having mumps or chickenpox – they give you a wide berth and the earth opens up! I had my wilderness years, trying to reconnect, carrying and stringing my own guitar, playing to five people, trying to make sense of why I’m here, starting right from the beginning, this time without the machine.”

I worked out the first time I saw Martin play live was at Glastonbury Festival in 1989.

“Ah, I’ve got fond memories of being with the Hothouse Flowers there. They were lovely people and I’d been in America for three months just before, working with them, travelling all over in a bus.”

I always had a soft spot for them, remembering them at Glastonbury that year and also seeing them play Sydney in February 1991 during my round the world backpacking travels. I also loved Liam O’Maonlai’s ALT side-project with Andy White and Tim Finn.

“Liam is such a lovely human being, and they were all very giving. They were in the industry, but they weren’t like that. And Liam’s attitude towards women … he never abused his position. He could have been an arsehole, but he wasn’t!”

You’ve probably met a few of those in your time.

“Oh, they were out there, you know. But I liked them lads. They didn’t have that agenda thing going on. You just want people to be genuine, don’t you.”

The next time I saw Martin live was at the Fleadh in Finsbury Park, North London, in 1992, part-way down the bill, with The Pogues – featuring Joe Strummer – headlining.

“Ah yeah, we liked going on first! That suited us, going on at seven then buggering off. Being on last is the worst part of the night!”

Martin’s own roots were in Washington, now classed as Tyne and Wear, but County Durham when he was born there, the ancestral home of the family of US founding father George Washington and the town where Bryan Ferry hailed from. Does Martin enjoy getting back to the North East?

“Oh, aye! You see, I was brought up in Brady Square, this tiny … oh, you’d have to be from there to understand. There was Old Washington and New Washington, where I lived. My Granda lived in Old Washington. The village was in the centre, and when I walked to school, where the Smithy Café was, I’d pass George Washington’s house on the right side, and Dame Margaret’s Hall, and on the left side I’d pass the Washington pit.

“Up until the lockdown I was doing a gig in the garden at Washington Old Hall, and we’d have around 200 people coming along, bringing a chair and sitting in the garden. Really lovely, seeing people I haven’t seen since I was seven or eight years old.

“There was a guy who’d chase me when I was a kid. Same age as me but massive – Lenny Ingram. About two years ago I wrote this little story about him. When I was about six or seven, I was on a swing on this field in front of my grandparents’ house, the houses circling this field, and in the middle was a park. But because I was at my Gran’s, I was out of my zone, about four miles from home. I didn’t know the kids. They were all Protestant, I was Catholic. Sometimes I’d be there when I was off school, but you had to watch your back.

“I was on the swing and happened to turn around when I heard this heavy breathing – Richie Beresford shooting across the grass trying to catch me. This big psychopath. I managed to get away, like deer on the Serengeti keeping an eye out for the lions. But one day I heard this noise, realised it was the Ingrams, and it was too late.

“They circled me, but I had the swing going really high, so they couldn’t stop me. I thought I’d keep the momentum going. Lenny was saying, ‘Are you out?’ – meaning I’ll have you out, I’ll fight you – but he had a speech impediment, so I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, mate’. He was getting angrier and angrier, this kid who was about 5 foot 11 when he was eight years old. So I wasn’t gonna stop!

“I jumped at the height of the swing, landed and just belted for my Nana’s, about 150 yards away, with the Ingrams – these brothers, Alan and Tosh – chasing us. I got under the hole under the fence where the dog used to get under, scraped all my back and ran past my Granda, standing on the step with his pipe, saying, ‘What’s going on here?’. I said, ‘The Ingrams are after me!’. So he chased them.

“I told this story, and it happened that Lenny was sleeping on the couch – he’d come home from work and was sprawled out, his wife sitting next to him with a laptop reading this story I wrote. She turned round, gave him a whack! He woke up, saying, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘Ya big bully, ya!’.

“Anyway, last time I played Washington Old Hall, he was in the audience, in the front row. I said, ‘Oh Lenny, sorry about that!’. And his wife was sat next to him and whacked him one! We became friends later on in life, but at that time you had to keep away from him!”

Have you still got family in that area?

“My daughters live in Tynemouth, and my sister’s moved down to Darlington. Both my Mum and Dad have passed. You lose touch with people, but Facebook’s great – kids I was in football teams with, I’m suddenly in touch with, where they might have moved to Durham or out of the village. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Have your daughters followed you into music, or did you put them off for life?

“I would have if I could, like! My youngest daughter is really musical, but she loves drama, she’s really into Spanish, has learned to speak it, and wants to go to Spain. But my older daughter, another lovely kid, is more leftfield indie. Last thing she wanted to hear when she was growing up was my records … which is a good thing!

“But she got into bluegrass, and next thing I know she’s doing Doc Watson rags and playing the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Deep River Blues’, and the Carter Family. We’ve got so much in common, yet we don’t really play together. She’s just done an album sleeve for us. She’s a good artist. They’re lovely people and as long as they’re happy I wouldn’t want them to go through what I went through.”

Your biography suggests ‘an eclectic range of musical styles from pop and folk through to bluegrass and punk’. That range has always been part of the story, as illustrated by the BBC Radio 1 session you did for Andy Kershaw in June ’86, 35 years and a few days ago …

“Bloody hell – ha!”

I listened back to that set before speaking to Martin, and it seemed to sum him up well. Here was a fella whose debut album’s title track was a reggae number, yet that session truly showcased the broad range of material – starting with the Mickey Dolenz-like ‘Louis’ …

“Ah, I used to write these songs for my friends. The Daintees was born out of … the first members were really Anthony Dunn, who was 18 probably, and his sister Claire, the singer, who was about 10 and the dominant in the band! She’d tell me my songs were shite and I’d need to brush my act up a bit, y’know. She’d say, ‘Nice titles, shame about the songs’ – at 10 years old! I used to really listen to her – she was so straight. She’s a grandmother now. She did backing vocals on ‘Coleen’ (from Boat to Bolivia) when she was a little older.”

Howdy Honcho: The new Martin Stephenson LP features artwork from his daughter, Phoebe Stephenson

Then there’s the Paul Simon-esque ‘Roll on Summertime’, while ‘Crocodile Cryer’ – the opening track on his debut album – has that ‘80s white soul feel, like someone paying their dues to Van Morrison …

“Oh well, I always would. I’m 59 now and I’m still paying them. He’s a beautiful talent.”

True. He’s been talking some rubbish this past year, mind. But musically, you can’t fault him.

“Well, he’s a grumpy old git, isn’t he! There’s a lot of Alf Garnett in him. But some of the things that man’s done … I love his limitations and his vulnerabilities as well. He just goes for it. Some of those vocals he did, like ‘Crazy Love’ – fantastic!”  

And then there’s my personal favourite, the penultimate track on Boat to Bolivia, ‘Rain’. We could be talking about the son of Lee Hazlewood there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nancy Sinatra came in to sing a verse or two.

“Ha! It sounds mad, but I was a new wave guitarist by the time I was 15, and then I was in a couple of great bands. There was one, Strange Relations, where the singer was 21, into The Monochrome Set. He was cool, he was bisexual, and he developed his own photographs. I was his little sidekick guitarist, into the early Cure and anything really, but I had a great musical education and was into Captain Beefheart by the time I was 11.

“But when punk came along, I did what Joe Strummer did – I denounced the whole fucking lot and rebirthed, pretending I’d never listened to Steve Hillage. Ha!”

Were you watching North East punk bands like Penetration around then?

“Oh, I love Pauline (Murray), and she’s a good friend of mine. And Rob (Blamire). They’re very sweet people and they’ve done so much for others.”

They have a studio just down from the Byker Wall, haven’t they?

“That’s right – Polestar! I was there with Lenny Kaye when I brought him up to Newcastle to do my album in 1991. I’d first seen him in 1978, when I was 17. I went with a 14-year-old, Stephen Corrigan, and at the end of the night Lenny was on stage with guitar hanging down, Patty pretending she was taking heroin, Lenny throwing all these plectrums out, my mate going right down into the mosh-pit to get this plectrum for us. I still thank him to this day for this triangular Lenny Kaye plectrum I put in this little wooden box at home.

“Years later, when I was about 20, we’d stay at the Columbia Hotel in London, and there’s Lenny having his breakfast, me salivating, frightened to speak to him. I went home for a few days then came back, and he was still there! I brought his plectrum back, he was coming out one morning near Hyde Park – Lancastergate – and had these red flares on, still this New York cool, skinny kind of Tom Petty guy. I plucked the courage up, said, ‘Excuse me’. He had an early Walkman, pulled the headphones off, said, ‘Yeah, can I help you?’. I said, ‘Are you Lenny?’. ‘Yeah, man’. I said, ‘Lenny, I’ve got your plectrum!’. He just looked at me, thinking I was some fucking stalker!

“I never saw him for ages, but I was in Liverpool when we were doing the Boat to Bolivia album, and our producer, Gil Norton said, ‘We’re gonna have some dinner with James tonight’. They were working with Lenny, and we all sat in a curry house, a bit shy with each other, and Lenny kept looking across the table, thinking, ‘I’ve seen that kid before’. If he knew it was the kid who’s given him the plectrum, he’d have thought, ‘I’m getting outta here!’. But I plucked the courage up to ask him to produce my last album for the majors, The Boy’s Heart.”

That LP is the most recent The Daintees have re-recorded as part of a 30th anniversary of their first four albums project. Around that period, I told Martin, I saw the band – among their contemporaries – somewhere between The Bible, Deacon Blue and Prefab Sprout, but all these years on I realise now that The Bible’s Boo Hewerdine‘s career path has possibly been the closest to Martin’s, even if Boo is more about complementing his modest earnings through writing for others, notably Chris Difford and Eddi Reader.

“Yes, but I would say I trust the soul of that man more than the others. He’s a nicer lad for me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do a couple of gigs with Boo. He has a beautiful introverted energy, and that shows how great introverts can be as performers. You don’t have to be song or dance people. It’s all internalised, like the difference between the Queen and Princess Margaret … who would have been the worst fucking Queen ever!”

Not sure if Boo’s ever been compared to HRH the Queen, but he’s a bit of a gentle giant, and like Martin a great singer/songwriter, something they both always had in their armoury.

“We did (BBC) Sight and Sound in Concert together, recorded in London somewhere. A lovely hall somewhere, with a mobile recording unit. I remember thinking The Bible were a great band. They had this lovely vibe. They weren’t like anybody, and showcased the good, modest side of British music, without the competitiveness. I like that about Boo.”

Do you remain in touch with anyone from your Kitchenware days?

“Do you know what’s really funny? On Kitchenware, the council house bands were The Daintees and Hurrah!, and the middle class or aspiring middle-class bands were the Sprouts and The Kane Gang. All funny and eccentric, not bad people, but I was always quite close and became very close to Paul Handyside, the Hurrah! guitarist, in our 30s, helping each other a lot.

“Also his co-writer, (David) Taffy Hughes, was like the Will Sergeant of Hurrah!, into psychedelia and all that. I remember meeting Taffy when I’d moved to Scotland and was back down seeing my kids, and there’s Taffy walking along with a pram and this baby. He said, ‘Meet Rupert’. I said, ‘Cool’. Then, 17 years later, I’m doing this gig in Hartlepool and there’s this young bluegrass band on. I said to my friend, ‘That kid has got it – you can’t learn that’. He was charming but humble and funny. Like Edwyn (Collins, presumably) when he was young. And it turned out it was Rupert!

“Then, another four years later, my daughter’s in this psychedelic band, El Cid, a brilliant band, like the 13th Floor Elevators. Young kids will put together something fantastic, and old goats like me will try and manage them, but they’ll just go and do something else, with you saying, ‘You can’t – you’ve got the best band in the world!’. They were together about a year, I helped them with some LCR recordings, but then the singer buggered off. But Rupert was in the band with Phoebe, I took them on tour, and they played the City Hall, Newcastle, and to Liverpool to play that famous venue The Beatles played.”

Ah, The Cavern, which I see is on your next tour.

“Aye! And recently our guitarist Gary, a full-time teacher, said there’s three dates he can’t do, can we find someone to cover. So I phoned Rupert. He’s been brought up on Kitchenware, he’ll know all the songs. And it’s really nice that our younger generation are also musicians.”

On a similar note, listening back to Salutation Road this week, I hear so much more than I would have first time around, not least ‘In the Heat of the Night’, somewhere between Fairport Convention and someone more contemporary like Seth Lakeman, not least with the fiddle. Do you tend to get younger acts telling you how important you were to them?

“Every now and again. There’s a young kid who moved up here, Nicky Murray, who came up here when he was 17. He’d been in all the gangs in Glasgow, then became this phenomenal Thai boxer. I picked him up at the station, took him to this big mansion where there’s a guy called Chippy from a band called The Gurus, legendary up here. When I picked him up, he had a bandana on, and I’m like, ‘Oh, fucking hell, it’s Kris Kristofferson!’.

“He’s now 24 and after a really hard beginning he got through college, studied cello, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter … and not just a songwriter – more of a pollinator. He learns other people’s things as well, including all the songs of his elders up here. He can play ‘Rain’ better than I can. He’s different, you know. If anyone will carry your name on, it’s him. He remembers his elders where most kids his age are still up their own arseholes. They haven’t got that expanded consciousness. I’ve met one or two like that – you could have dropped them off at Laurel Canyon at the height of all that and they’d have fitted straight in.”

On a similar line, we mentioned Kitchenware, and there were several labels after that before you set up your own, Barbaraville Records. Is there a remit there of what you really want to do?

“Yeah, when I rebooted … One of my oldest friends lives next door, Jimmy – in fact, I can hear him tinkering with his car right now! – tour-managed Billy Bragg at one point, taking people around the Highlands. He’s retired now, and I’ve spent most of my musical life here now, and I’ve this little cottage – my rent’s £210 a month and I live really simply. It’s a kind of a studio in that I’ve a Mac computer and more technology than The Beatles had to make Sgt Pepper. I’ve a few decent mics.

“But I’ve been doing this a long time and what I really enjoy is finding artists who haven’t been supported. They haven’t had coaching, someone to say, ‘Hey, try this!’. There’s a local lad, Davy Cowan, who’s had to play a lot of harsh gigs to survive. He’s had to up the keys and push it. Before the lockdown I said, ‘You’re gonna have to stop doing these pub gigs. It’s killing you, man. You’ve got more class.’ I’ve produced a bit of music for him and you can see he needed that support, someone to tell him he’s special. I love doing things like that.”

Another of Barbaraville’s artists is Martin’s partner, Anna Lavigne, her Angels in Sandshoes well worth checking out. Think Marianne Faithfull with folk undertones creating a soundscape for a European road movie, the blend with Martin’s voice on several tracks a major draw, an array of musical styles explored. Originally from Sheffield, Anna was spotted with a drama group at The Crucible, ending up through a management company linked to Griff Rhys Jones performing with The Young Ones’ Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Nigel Planer, and the likes of Rowland Rivron and Tilda Swinton, in the early ‘80s Comic Strip days in London, before embarking on a very different path, touring internationally as a dancer with the revered Lindsay Kemp – a mentor to David Bowie and Kate Bush – after a successful audition in Barcelona, coming off the road when her sons were born and working as a voice artist and tour manager.

“Anna’s got this quality. She’s just got this attitude. When she works with you, you feel so supported. I love working with her. She doesn’t think she’s too good for anything. She’ll get the pizzas, next thing she’ll be the leading lady. She’s so cool, does my t-shirts, drives the car, doesn’t think she’s too good for anybody. And the people she knows is unbelievable.

“We bumped into each other five years ago by chance at a funeral. She was with her ex-husband, also a dancer for Lindsay. I was walking around the church playing songs at my friend’s mum’s funeral. I started singing to them, and at the end of the service we sat on a table together and talked and talked. We just connected. About three months later I went to Lossiemouth to play a gig and there she was, and straight away I couldn’t work this mic stand and she was over, fixing it!

“She thought she was done with relationships. So did I. We ended up friends and just slipped into being a couple. I also noticed she wrote lyrics and poetry. I’d get her to proof-read anything I was doing, and one day turned one of her poems into a song, ‘Paris in the Rain’, which she wrote for us when we were there.”

Bringing the story right up to date, Martin has recently released LP Howdy Honcho as a pre-order.

“I was looking for a title and decided to use my daughter Phoebe’s pieces of art, featuring this really shifty fiddler with a cowboy hat. It’s a hand-carved etching, beautiful. I thought, ‘Ah, yeah, that’s Howdy Honcho!”

That follows Pink Tank, a re-recording of 2004’s Airdrie.

“I was walking along the beach with Anna, saw a little plastic grey tank on a mound, washed up. I said I’m gonna paint that pink, call it Pink Tank, and it’s gonna be Airdrie re-recorded. Anything that’s good about me creatively comes from the collective consciousness. There’s no ownership in that perception. That’s where my high perception is. My master puppeteer is plumbed into that. It’s the puppet you’ve got to watch. That’s why I meditate and sometimes reflect before I make moves.”

Anna, along with Angie McLaughlin, provides backing vocals on new LP, Howdy Honcho, also featuring long-time associates Anth and Gaz Dunn, Chris Mordey, drummer Charlie Smith, and harmonica man Spider McKenzie, the latter with a song named in his honour. And for someone based so long in the Scottish Highlands, those North-East tones are as strong as ever, I suggested.

“Ah, great!”

In fact, ‘Witches Ride’ would have made – with alternative lyrics – a perfect Likely Lads theme tune. If Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were to write a ‘where’s Terry Collier now’ one-off with James Bolam, maybe Whatever Happened to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, they need look no further.

“Ha! That’s funny. It’s actually about a supernatural experience at Tomar in Portugal.”

When I spoke to Martin, his first date back on the road was set for mid-July in Sheffield, a sell-out at the Dorothy Pax. That has since been moved back to late September though, and I recommend double-checking dates va the link at the foot of this feature following the Government decision regarding on-going pandemic restrictions.

There were 21 dates on the list I saw, including Leaf and The Cavern in Liverpool; The Half Moon, Putney and The 100 Club in London; and two nights not far off Martin’s old patch at the Old Cinema Launderette, Durham. And my excuse for getting in touch was his scheduled visit to The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on July 23rd, at time of going to press still happening.

“Ah, I love Preston. I used to do The Adelphi.”

Those shows go up to November 20th at the Sage, Gateshead, and I also see Martin’s down for Butlin’s Skegness and the Great British Folk Festival, alongside the likes of Kate Rusby, Lindisfarne, Steve Harley and Judie Tzuke.

“I think we do three gigs, then we go for our Ventolin inhalers, have a week off and do another three!”

You strike me as a fella who’d be lost without the joy of performing live. Has this last 18 months proved a major trial?

“It’s funny really. I’ve got used to it. My last gig was in March – almost a year and a half ago. It was weird at first, and I wasn’t going to do an online gig, but the spirit was so good, and the nice thing was, we started lighting a candle for everybody who was really struggling. We’ve got that working for others vibe, and once you step into that, you don’t wanna go back into being selfish. And through being that way somehow we’ve been blessed.

“I’ve been publicly funded for years now. I stepped into poverty to escape the trappings of short-sighted wank. Through doing that you start seeing the real thing. I feel I’ve learned to be a spiritual businessman. I’m the worst businessman – I give stuff away – but it comes back because of that.

“For Salutation Road the budget was £150,000 in 1990, mixed in LA, recorded in all the top studios, with Pete Anderson twenty grand before he got out of bed! We were all on 60 quid a week, and I’m thinking, ‘Who’s paying for this?’. I did one more album, modest compared to that, where the budget was 20 grand, Lenny Kaye got a Harley Davidson out of it but deserved it, a great man who did a great job, a decent hard-working person, us still on £60.

“I got out of the industry after that. I felt I was done. That was 1992. I didn’t think I’d make any more records but was probably addicted to the creative cycle, like an elephant goes on a journey feeding around the circumference of the wood. I kept manifesting one way or another through addictive behaviour and made this album, The Incredible Shrinking Band, where the budget was £9. I recorded it live, even took a phone call on the recording, then sold one copy at £10 so I made a pound!

“I looked at that, thought about Salutation Road … ‘I get this now. I have to make things really small’. So when I re-recorded the album … I’ve two types of budget; one where I’m really careful and mix at home, but sometimes I like to give people work so go in the studio, but the players are so sharp we’re in and out before the ink dries on the bill. I say to the engineer how much would they charge. If they say £250 a track, I’m putting the guitar in the case by the time he says ‘track’. ‘Right, we’ll just take the masters, thanks!’.

“There’s a really good engineer, Mark Lough in Stirling, I gave him Salutation Road, spent about£1,200 recording it in a really good studio. The recording bill was about £700, I paid the musicians the rest, gave it to Mark to mix and master, paid him £500. I’m not flush, but he deserved it. That’s a big budget album for me, as opposed to £150,000 in 1990. I put it out as a pre-order, sold 300 on vinyl and 300 CDs. That was it.

“I could proudly sit in front of Alan Sugar with that, or have coffee with Bob Dylan and say, ‘It makes sense, Bob!’. I don’t wanna sell any more. I’m done putting them in the envelopes by then. I’m a factory girl by nature but need a holiday before I do another. To me, that’s good practise. And now I realise The Daintees’ biggest power was good will – that was the currency we were carrying in the ‘80s on our little ship, and that’s why we didn’t fit in. We weren’t Prefab Sprout or The Kane Gang. We were more like a spiritual council house band. We shouldn’t have been there in the ‘80s.”

Going back to the first LP’s title track, and that line, ‘You can’t catch a boat to Bolivia …’, did anyone ever try to prove you wrong, sending a postcard about their trip across Lake Titicaca?

“Oh, everybody! Back in the day, students would get you in a corner, say, ‘Hey, I studied this, and …’.

I often wondered if the likes of Aswad or Gregory Isaacs had covered that and had a hit, whether you’d have been made for life, financially.

“Yeah, that’s the real deal! That’s why I say to audiences, ‘Do you really want me to sing this song?’ and they’ll say, ‘Why not?’. I say, ‘Well, I sound like Julian Clary on a good day’. But that’s the beauty of a different perception. It’s not about being the best, it’s about love.”

While I’m there with flippant questions, I should ask how many hats there are in your wardrobe.

“I tell you what, I’ve got three or four trilby-like hats and a couple of caps, but I used to get them nicked – students would nick my bloody hats all the time. First thing I did in the morning when I was leaving town was find another in Oxfam. I remember taking Janis Ian to Oxfam in Liverpool. She was doing a soundcheck and I spotted Oxfam on the corner. It was around quarter to five and I was leaving. I heard this voice at the Royal Court. She said, ‘Where you going?’ over the microphone. The guy doing the sound looked really upset. I said, ‘Oxfam, around the corner. I’ll not be bothering with the soundcheck’. She said, ‘Wait for me!’. She put her guitar down, skipped down the side, and went to Oxfam. I said, ‘You’re a multi-millionaire, what are you doing here?’. She said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with hunting!’.

Martin has a big birthday coming in late July, his 60th. Will that change anything for him?

“Nah, it’s just a number. I feel sad there’s people leaving the earth, but there’s people coming in, and we’re lucky if we’ve got this far. You just gotta try and be healthy, respect the gift we’re given.

“I’m thankful to be 60. It’s been a canny journey. I’ve always loved older people and had loads of respect for my elders … and now I’m one of them! When you get to this age, I thought I’d have a white beard, be like Confucius, giving all my advice. But I still fucking know nothing!”

Martin Stephenson is set to play a solo show – pandemic restrictions dependent – at The Continental, Preston, on Friday, July 23rd. For more details of Martin’s solo and Daintees dates, Barbaraville Records’ releases and merchandise, head here.

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Animal instincts – entering the world of LUMP with Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay

It was a creative project borne out of a chance meeting five years ago at a bowling alley inside The O2 in South-East London, while Laura Marling was supporting Neil Young on a UK arena tour.

Two days later, Laura started work on tracks created by Tunng co-founder Mike Lindsay in Ben Edwards’ studio in North East Cornwall (aka Benge, Neil Arthur’s long-time collaborator and Fader co-pilot), on what became the debut self-titled LUMP album, finally seeing the light of day in early June 2018.

Now, three years on, the second instalment, Animal, is on its way (due to land at the end of next month), Brit Award winner and Grammy-nominated Laura plus singer/songwriter and Mercury Prize-winning producer Mike planning to get back on the road to promote it in late summer.

As with the first LP, Laura arrived in the studio – this time Mike’s own in Margate, Kent – without having heard any of his music, hoping that would help bring the resultant lyrics immediacy and spontaneity. And having studied in recent times between music projects for a Masters in psychoanalysis, she drew heavily on course texts.

She explained, “I was taking the train down and prepped by putting a glossary of words in the back of my notebook. Ordinary words that are used differently within psychoanalysis, like ‘object’ and ‘master’; I felt I needed something to base the lyrics off. I like the idea that psychoanalysis attempts to investigate the routes of desire.”

There were other sources too: half-memories, family stories, strange dreams; things Laura had read, or been told or imagined.

“LUMP is the repository for so many things I’ve had in my mind and just don’t fit anywhere in that way. They don’t have to totally make narrative sense, but weirdly end up making narrative sense in some way.”

It was trickier second time around. Both artists felt a pressure to create an album as instinctive and magical as the first. And having moved to the coast, Mike was also inspired to start writing music inspired by the sea.

At the same time, Laura was working on rightly acclaimed, Mercury Prize and Grammy Award-nominated Song For Our Daughter, but found working on LUMP material liberating and distinct, explaining how it became about ‘escaping a persona that has become a burden to me in some way – like putting on a superhero costume’, at times feeling as if she might be ‘edging Laura Marling off a cliff as much as I can and putting LUMP in the centre’.

Of the splendid title track – the first number aired in public from the new record – ‘Animal’ (with the video here) was originally a word Laura thrown into a lyric simply to meet a rhythm. But it seemed to capture the mood of the work, and of the band as a whole.

“There’s a little of a theme of hedonism on the album, of desires running wild. Also, it fed into the idea we had from the start of thinking of LUMP as a kind of representation of instincts, and the world turned upside down.”

Mike added, “We created LUMP as a sort of persona and an idea and a creature. Through LUMP we find our inner animal, and through that animal we travel into a parallel universe.”

Laura, who grew up near Reading, is based in North London these days, but was at a friend’s house in Sussex when we spoke via the delights of Zoom. Meanwhile, Mike, originally from ‘somewhere between Southampton and Winchester’, was in his home studio in Margate, joining the conversation flanked in by banks of recording paraphernalia, or his ‘Nerve Centre’, as I suggested.

“That’s right. That’s what we call it!”

Were my two interviewees pretty quick to latch on to the brave new lockdown-like world existence of Zoom calls, sending files down the interweb super-highway, and all that?

Mike: “Well, actually, we had this done just before the first lockdown, so we weren’t sending any files down the line. We had a couple of video chats … but just for fun really. We had the record done just before, so we’ve been sat on it for a while.”

I imagine with your separate career paths, scheduling anything could be a pain. Is it like when you’re buying a house and there’s lots of you in a chain trying to work out convenient dates that suit you?

Laura: “It was. Originally it was. There was a whole plan to do my album and then LUMP, then of course the pandemic happened, and it all went out of the window. It was all just chaos.”

Seeing your surroundings there, Mike, are you a musical instrument hoarder? Are you the sort who has obscure stuff lying around just in case it’s needed for a two-second excerpt on some record or other?

“I’ve a few oddities knocking around. You can’t see them all here. But I do have a sitar, there is a saz, a dulcimer, a steel harp, and gurglers …”

Did he really say ‘gurglers’ there? I think so. I only picked up on that later. I’m sure he’ll put me right if that’s not the case. How about Laura?

“I’ve got a couple, but most of my weird musical purchases have been passed on to Mike. I bought a Moog Grandmother, which I couldn’t work out how to use and gave it to Mike … and what was that keyboard I gave you?”

“Erm, it’s the …”

“The OP-1!”

Sounds very Star Wars.

Mike: “It looks very Star Wars, yeah.”

When you first got together, was there a clear game plan, or was it more a case of ‘Where shall we go next?’ instead? Was it ‘send her some files, see what she can do’, or the other way around?

Mike: “Ha! ’Send her some files’! No, it wasn’t like that at all. We just had one day of experimenting. I had a piece of music and didn’t know if we could work together or not, Laura came up with some magic, and it seemed to take on a world of its own. That was the first song on the first record (‘Late to the Flight’).

“From there, we decided to try another day, that worked, then we tried a few days, and we had this collection of music that all seemed to take its own adventure on when I tied them together. It was very organic in that sense, and very ‘in the moment’ when we were together.”

The sonic results and that explanation suggest it worked from day one. Was it also a release of sorts for both of you? I’m not suggesting you felt the need to depart from what you were doing with your own careers. It’s not like you both worked in call centres or soulless banking jobs, but … did you see it as a departure from what you were doing elsewhere?

Laura: “Yeah, definitely, it’s a great relief in that sense, completely different to what I do, certainly. A different way of working … and also working with someone else is great.”

Mike: “Yeah, it was very exciting for me, and I was quite nervous about working with Laura first of all. I’d been a fan for a long time …”

Did she come with a reputation?

“Well, I didn’t have any expectations, and I wasn’t aware of any reputations, but I was excited about working with her musically, and I didn’t want to make a mess of it, you know. I was pretty surprised that I didn’t, and that we managed to do more. But honestly, I was just happy that we managed to make some music together that we both enjoy, because it was a secret – we didn’t tell anybody, no management or anything!

“That was what was special about it first time around, and it was the same this time around. We decided between ourselves just to try and make some more music again, and that’s always nice when it comes back to the roots of musicianship and how people started making music, before you signed any record deals or had any kind of notoriety. It was just about the want and the desire to produce and make and write and share music with each other. That’s real, you know.”

It’s good to hear you say that. Of the musicians I speak to, irrespective of how much success they’ve had, most seem to be enjoying it more these days, as they’re not chasing hits, record deals and world fame so much now. They tend to do it for the love of it. Otherwise, what’s the point? And I reckon I can hear in your records that you’re doing it for the love of it rather than chasing commercial success.

Laura: “Yeah.”

Mike: “Yeah … wouldn’t mind a couple of hits though!”

Laura: “Ha! Yes, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s what makes LUMP such an enjoyable process. And I think from the feedback from the last album – people who really loved it, really loved it … but it was a very small amount of people. That’s a great thing in some respects, but it would be nice if someone put it on an advert. I wouldn’t be against that.”

Mike: “Yeah, McDonald’s or …”

Laura: “McDonald’s, tobacco factories, whatever!”

Word has it that you were also keen to maintain the ‘half-cute, half dark and creepy’ feel running through both the sound of that debut LP and the name LUMP itself. Have you a clearer idea of what this is all about a few years on, or is it still a voyage of discovery and that’s the way you want it to carry on?

Laura: “I feel like it’s clearer, or the process is clearer. We did pretty much try to replicate almost exactly the same way we made the first album. The sort of ‘other’ or ‘third band member’, almost, is still a useful way of thinking about the project as a whole. Neither of us, individually, but a combination of us both.”

You gave yourself a challenge, building on the acclaim of that first LP, or did that added pressure help you rise to the challenge of going at it again, attaining that same level or striving for something even better?

Mike: “Well, I think actually with this second record we were perhaps referencing some of the live experiences we had from the first record. We only did a couple of handfuls of shows, but they were really fun, and we took what we achieved on the first record – which was quite a central experience on the album – but kind of gave it a big kind of ‘thump’ on the live version. And I think that kind of trickled into a way of writing.

“Perhaps we were more aware that we were going to take it to the stage this time, and we didn’t have that thought the first time. There’s an element of that creeping in, and I suppose there was one big tune, ‘Curse of the Contemporary’, on the first record, and we felt it would be nice to have another … although I’m not sure we achieved that.

“It’s actually quite a different record in as much as it’s still the same process. You can’t try and emulate something you’ve already done – that doesn’t really work. And we’ve got new things now!”

Were there influences you both brought to the process and initial band meetings this time? Was it a case of throwing down a Bowie LP or an obscure film soundtrack on the table, saying, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”

Mike: “Well, when we’re together it’s definitely a case of ‘see where it goes’, because … I don’t know … Laura’s influences are probably non-musical and perhaps other literary references, or within her studies.

“And mine … yeah, there were things like the (Brian) Eno and Jon Hassel ‘80s records’ sound textures, and especially – as you mention Bowie – I bought this Harmoniser, the (Eventide) H949, which is knocking around over there, and was used on the Low record by Eno and (Tony) Visconti, and I think on that Hassel record where all those organic kind of drums are sort of liquified through this Harmoniser.

“I want it to take that vintage and late ‘70s flavour. I was born in the late ‘70s, so there are those sort of references, but there are new bands I’ve been listening to as well, like the Meridian Brothers from Colombia, stuff like that – that sort of electronic wonk …”

‘Electronic wonk’! I like that.

“Ha! But – for me, anyway – I’m not sitting there listening to records, thinking, ‘I’ll make something like that’. I’m more just turning on the toys, and I guess subliminally trying to channel those things I’ve listened to in the past.”

I’m led to believe (research doesn’t cost much, you know) the H949 is the heir apparent of the H910, the ‘pitch-shifter’ defining the sound of Bowie’s 1977 LP, Low, of which producer Tony Visconti apparently claimed, ‘It fucks with the fabric of time’. And it’s also seen by Mike as ‘the new sound of LUMP’.

As for Mike’s take on the overall sound of this album, he says it’s ‘quite woody and windy, human, animalistic sounds but very organic, mixed with these crispy, crunchy, slightly John Carpenter, slightly computer game, slightly through-the-portal-into-another-world, slightly Suzanne Ciani 70s’ synthetic sounds’. So there you have it. And what of Laura’s part in all that?

“Musically, I’m a very small factor in this outfit. Ha! I was just drawing – lyrically – on psychoanalysis, which is what I was studying. That was the starting point. Not really a theme, more a starting point.”

What can either of you do with LUMP that you can’t elsewhere. Have you found approaches through this side-project that made you think, ‘Why haven’t I tried this before?’.

Laura: “Well, I’m playing bass in the live show!”

Mike: “I was going to say with LUMP that we can do anything we want – the ‘three’ of us – and that in itself is unique to any other project. There are no sorts of boundaries, no one to answer to particularly. That’s why it’s liberating. No rules!”

I was putting finishing touches ahead of talking to you on an interview with The Catenary Wires’ Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, and on their new LP there’s a cracking single, ’Mirrorball’, about a couple finding love at an ‘80s-themed disco. What would need to be played to get you two out on the dancefloor?

Mike: “Ha ha! Erm …”

Laura: “To dance?”

Yep.

Laura: “Almost nothing would get me on the floor!”

Mike: “Erm … yeah, interesting! I don’t know if I’d go down the disco route, but stick me on a bit of ‘Satellite of Love’ by Lou Reed and I’ll be there … doing some moves.”

Is that right, Laura, that you turn up in the studio not knowing what Mike’s been up to, sonically?

“Yeah, that’s how … I mean, Mike does a lot more work behind the scenes than I do. I just turn up for six days and then wait to hear the results!”

Well, it works well, so whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. And might you catch us out next time with a pared-down folk album or something of that ilk, or will you save that for the day-jobs? It seems that neither of you have been happy to sit back and settle for where you’ve been before – you both keep pushing into new territory.

Mike: “I’d say there are some LUMP III ideas floating around, and they’re currently very different from both II and I. But I wouldn’t say that we’ll make a folk record. I think we’ve both got that covered in other areas!”

Do you think the upcoming live shows will be a good breeding ground for you to come up with new songs? Or are you not about writing on the road?

Laura: “Well, we don’t write on the road at all.”

Some people thrive on that.

Laura: “For my personal stuff I only write on the road, but LUMP is almost completely studio-based.”

Mike: “But the live shows definitely played a part in creating ideas for this record, so they might. And whatever happens in the future in terms of live shows, I’m sure something will come out of it that will end up informing something later.”

Well, thanks for your time, and for another essential listen for this summer … and there will be a proper summer this time, I reckon.

Mike: “Yes, it’s on its way, and it’s here today, actually! Nice one.”

Laura: “’Bye!”

Animal LP art and other images by Steph Wilson and stills from the promo video for the wondrous second single, ‘Climb Every Wall’ (linked here), by Tamsin Topolski.

LUMP release their new album, Animal, on Friday, July 30th via Chrysalis/Partisan Records, with pre-order details and information about the cracking second single, ‘Climb Every Wall’, out now, at https://www.lump.world/. Laura and Mike’s short late summer tour follows, opening at Gorilla, Manchester (August 31st), before dates at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (September 2nd); Trinity, Bristol (September 3rd); Patterns, Brighton (September 5th); and Scala, London (September 6th). To keep in touch with the world of LUMP you can also follow them via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Songs Sung Blue – Back in touch with Wolf Alice

Bus Stop: Wolf Alice, all set for a punishing post-lockdown Blue Weekend (Photo: Jordan Hemingway)

It seems like it’s taken an age to come around, but the new Wolf Alice LP, Blue Weekend, finally lands today (June 4th), with the band set to return to the road for a full UK and Irish tour next January, for their first headline shows since 2018.

And I’d say the new record’s every bit as committed and strong as powerhouse lead single ‘The Last Man on Earth’, as further pre-releases ‘No Hard Feelings’ and ‘Smile’ suggested – and day of release addition ‘How Can I Make it OK?’ – as the band unleash a worthy follow-up to memorable debut LP My Love is Cool and Mercury Prize winner Visions of a Life.

You probably know the history, but Wolf Alice started out a decade ago as a duo, Ellie Rowsell (vocals, guitar) and Joff Oddie (guitar, vocals) soon joined by Theo Ellis (bass) and Joel Amey (drums, vocals). And they soon hit the ground running, 2015’s My Love Is Cool soaring to No.2 on the UK album charts and 2017 sophomore album Visions of a Life reaching that same position, bagging that Mercury Prize win (and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance).

In a career that’s also seen support slots for Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and Liam Gallagher, and with the band the subject of a film by revered director Michael Winterbottom, they played 187 shows on their headlining Visions of a Life world tour, including an Alexandra Palace sell-out, two more at Brixton Academy, and a key Pyramid Stage set at Glastonbury.

With all that in mind, it was no surprise that creating LP number three was a daunting task, all that success and subsequent time on the road – with many intercontinental flights, hotels and long bus journeys en route – taking its toll. But they’ve pulled it off somehow, decamping to Somerset to reconfigure just who they were, far away from festival stages, tour buses, awards shows and fans, cementing their friendship and setting to work on fledgling demos in a converted church.

Those demos evolved into Blue Weekend, produced by Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Bjork, Brian Eno, Florence and The Machine), who helped the band refine their sound somewhat. And it’s an album with Ellie’s laid-bare storytelling at its core, this dynamic four-piece embracing boldness and vulnerability in equal measure.

My interview came by way of internet beast, Zoom, back in early April (their management insisting we held back until now), this Luddite relieved after a few pre-interview tweaks in the technical department from his eldest daughter on seeing Epsom-born, Dorking-schooled, Hastings-based Joel (‘My days in East London are over. I had a good time when I was there though.’) pop up on my screen … and doubly so when London-based Ellie joined the feed a couple of minutes later.

The previous time I spoke to Ellie was in the autumn of 2017 (with a link here), when Visions of a Life was about to land and emulate the success of their debut album. And things have moved on hugely again since then, I suggested.

Joel: “Just a bit, yeah.”

But my first Wolf Alice interview was in late June 2015, when I traded words with bandmate Joff Oddie, en route for Glastonbury Festival. In fact, that was the day before the band’s memorable Park stage triumph, one year after they made a mighty impact on the John Peel stage.

At the time, they were at the top of the midweek UK charts with My Love is Cool, before a late flurry of sales for Florence and the Machine took Ms Welch and co. back to the top of the pile. Did that take my interviewees back, knowing where they were in that moment?

Taxi for Alice: Joel rides up front with bandmates (from left) Theo, Ellie and Joff (Photo: Jordan Hemingway).

Ellie: “Yeah!”

Joel: “I know where I was! I had to think about this the other day, as we’ve just announced that we’re doing the Glastonbury stream, and I was asked about my festival memories. There’s millions, but I vividly remember being in our soundman’s people carrier, with Ells and Theo, eating ice cream, him driving all the way. Very unglamorous but very Wolf Alice glamour – eating ice cream and thinking, ‘We’re No.1!’ All very strange.”

I recall Joff saying at the time how strange it all was, while admitting he couldn’t stop himself searching ‘Wolf Alice’ on the internet. I’m guessing you’re both over that sort of thing now, right?

Ellie: “Yeah, ha!”

Joel: “No comment!”

That was a landmark year for Wolf Alice, but you could argue that if Dave Grohl hadn’t broken his leg shortly before (Foo Fighters having to pull out of their Friday night top-of-the-bill slot accordingly, replaced by Florence and the Machine), you might have reached No.1 first time around.

Joel: “That was the rumour.”

Ellie: “Was that our first one?”

Joel: “Yeah, I just remember spending the whole weekend with people backstage saying, ‘Yeah, we always knew you were going to happen – cool!’. Then on Sunday we were No.2, and they weren’t talking to me anymore!”

Fame, fame, fatal fame; it can play hideous tricks on the brain, as some Manc once wrote.

“Actually, Markus Dravs, who we made the new record with, produced that Florence record, and we had a little funny chat about that.”

I’m not sure how much of it is down to Markus, but this new LP is a ‘big record’, if you know what I mean. I was only a couple of listens in when I spoke to Joel and Ellie, but I told them I felt there was much of the spirit of lead single, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ on there. It’s a grand-sounding monster all-round. It seems to be their big pop statement, in a way.

Joel: “Yeah … I mean … yeah! I think it’s probably … actually, I’m going to stop myself saying anything else …I was going to say something weird.”

You’re very welcome to, as far as I’m concerned.

Festival Frolics: Wolf Alice at the 2021 Glastonbury Festival, live streamed on one night only in late May

Joel: “No, I just feel like … the people I’ve shown it to that have listened to our previous records and I know really appreciate where we’ve come from and why we make those kind of musical decisions … well, there’s a directness and an emotion to this record which seems to hit people and make them connect straight away. 

“It’s less about ‘listen to this drum-fill’ … it’s lyrics and melody, and Blue Weekend just kind of has that from start to finish … I’m really proud of it.”

Quite right too. I’m not suggesting you ever lost your way, but I get the impression this was about rediscovering your friendships for each other, with a unified vibe across this record. If this was your set to be your difficult third album, you’ve somehow cracked it. It’s a proper band record and fits the vibe of what’s been a testing year for us all.

Joel: “Yeah, it was a strange time to make a record, and I don’t think there’s many people I could have got through the process with if it wasn’t with Ellie, Joff and Theo. You’re lucky to be with your best mates at a time like that, and lucky to be able to spend time making a record.”

And where was this converted church where you recorded the new album?

Ellie: “Somewhere in Somerset … just somewhere we found on Airbnb, near Glastonbury.”

Joel: “Mary owned the Airbnb, and it was made up of reclaimed pieces of the Cutty Sark, after it burned down.”

Talking of Glastonbury, this year’s version (I know, it’s already happened – I refer you to my earlier frustration at having to wait so long to publish this interview) is going to be a completely different festival experience for you, but still offers a huge opportunity. And I get the impression from the way you play together as a band that’s it going to be intimate … somehow.

Ellie: “Yeah, I don’t really know what to expect, but because the line-up is so reduced, I feel unbelievably flattered to be asked to do it.

“And yeah, it’s going to be intimate because it’s just going to be ourselves in front of our crew and probably just a few people there, but then it’s live-streamed globally, so anyone who’s anywhere can watch it if they have £20 or whatever… so that feels even more scary in a way. It’s a really unique experience that I’m just thrilled to be a part of.”

Seeing you play ‘The Last Man on Earth’ live at the Alexandra Palace Theatre for Later With … Jools Holland, I get the impression this could be a massive moment for you. And that’s a huge single, make no mistake. It carries elements of everything from ‘70s James Bond themes to The Beatles and even Slade’s ‘How Does It Feel?’

Live Presence: Ellie Rowsell giving it her all at Worthy Farm with Wolf Alice for 2021’s Glastonbury Festival

Ellie: “Ah, thank you … I think! Ha.”

Joel: “I love Slade. I’m almost more happy that you said Slade than The Beatles. That’s cool.”

We’ve already mentioned Florence and the Machine stopping the debut album reach No.1 in the UK, and then Visions of a Life was kept off the top by Shania Twain. So who’s going to deny you this time?

Elie: “Oh, I don’t know. Someone will come back from the grave or something, knowing our luck.”

Joel: “Yeah, let’s say The Beatles and Slade. The Beatles are back, they’re all alive again, and they’re No.1.”

Were most of the songs on this album ready to record before the pandemic arrived?

Ellie: “We’d written everything, and I think that would have been the hardest bit to do during lockdown, so we were very lucky that we got that bit out of the way. Then we had to finish it all, and again were very lucky we were already in the studio … and that it was a residential studio.

“The thing that made it very hard was that there were no distractions. We got a bit too fully immersed in the whole experience, to a point where we couldn’t really see the wood from the trees, eventually having to stop and take a break … (mutters) rather than go mad. Ha!

“It was hard, but I was just so grateful to have that to focus on, because I really don’t know what … people kept asking, ‘What did you do during the lockdown?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing’, and they’d say, ‘What, you didn’t learn how to make banana bread?’”

Focus wasn’t a problem, I guess.

Ellie: “No … we made an album, and my head was so …”

Joel: “Yeah, innit!”

Ellie: “I literally didn’t have an ounce left.”

Joel: “I’m so glad to hear you say that, because of this guilt that I haven’t written another record during lockdown.”

Ellie: “Yeah, or that I haven’t started my own business … or learned another language.”

Joel: “Yeah, innit! Or bought Bitcoin at the right time!”

Of course, Paul Weller’s probably made about four more albums during the last year.

“Yeah, he probably has. And an NFT, and everything else.”

That flummoxed me, and even after I’d looked it up online, I still don’t truly get what the hell that is. Something to do with cryptocurrency, apparently. But maybe you already know that. In fact, maybe I just misheard Joel. Perhaps he was off for his tea soon, eager to get through a day of gruelling interviews that will sit around gathering dust for a couple of months (sorry, complaining again).

Anyway, what have you two missed most this last year that you might not have realised would be an issue back in March 2020?

Joel: “Pubs.”

Ellie: “Shows. Post-show parties. Ha! Dancing.”

Joel: “I’m trying to remember what we did after the release of ‘Yuk Foo’, because once the album process starts, we’ll be in the basement of an HMV waiting to go upstairs … so this is different, but it’s very much like that for me at the moment. People are like, ‘The sun’s out!’ But I’m also watching the telly a lot.”

According to Joff in my first Wolf Alice interview, Joel had a bit of a reputation back then as chief instigator of the Wolf Alice after-show party. Not as if he owned up to that. But this Glastonbury Festival may well prove a challenge in that respect, I suggested, guessing it wouldn’t be so easy to slip backstage to see friends and catch other bands on the bill.

Joel: “Not for me, Malcolm. I know exactly what I’m going to do! No, I don’t really. Actually, Alana from Haim texted me yesterday. We don’t know how it’s going to work, but it will be so nice to watch the music, and hopefully if we’re doing it the same day as other people …

“Their last record has blown me away, so I’ll just be happy to watch Haim … and then go off to a caravan somewhere. That’ll be nice.”

And I guess you’re itching to get back out on the road again.

Ellie: “Of course, yeah!”

It’s been a long time, after all.

Joel: “Yep, but … January … there’s a few tickets left! Where are you based?”

Not far from Preston, Lancashire. And my youngest has already snapped up tickets with friends for Manchester Apollo.

Joel: “Ah, that’s cool. I remember playing Preston … 53 Degrees, after a particularly heavy night beforehand with Superfood … when we lost Ryan for a bit.”

That’ll be Ryan Malcolm of Dirty Hit label-mates Superfood, a Birmingham outfit who played their ‘last show for a while’ at La Scala in London two years ago.

Perhaps I should have asked a bit more about that big night out in May 2014. I saw nine shows at 53 Degrees that year but somehow missed that occasion. But Ellie and Joel had more interviews lined up, and my time was ebbing away. Reckon someone can fill me in on all that now, mind. Pray tell, pop kids.

Blue Weekend is out tomorrow, June 4th, via Dirty Hit Records, and available on all digital platforms, plus vinyl, CD and cassette.

UK & Ireland tour, January 2022: Wed 5 Glasgow Barrowland (extra date), Fri 7 Glasgow Barrowland (sold out), Sat 8 Glasgow Barrowland (sold out), Sun 9 Newcastle City Hall (sold out), Mon 10 Norwich UEA (sold out), Wed 12 Manchester Apollo (sold out), Thu 13 Manchester Apollo (extra date), Fri 14 Sheffield Academy (sold out), Sat 15 Liverpool University (sold out), Tue 18 London Apollo (sold out), Wed 19 London Apollo (extra date), Sat 22 Southampton Guildhall (sold out), Sun 23 Bexhill On Sea De La Warr Pavilion (sold out), Mon 24 Dublin Olympia Theatre (sold out), Tue 25 Dublin Olympia Theatre (sold out), Thu 27 Birmingham Academy (sold out), Fri 28 Plymouth Pavilions, Sun 30 Bristol Academy (sold out), Mon 31 Bristol Academy (sold out). 

The cinematic premiere of a short film celebrating Blue Weekendan album-length feature exploring the camaraderie, nights out and relationships that form the backbone of the LP, directed by Jordan Hemingway (Gucci, Raf Simons, Comme Des Garcons, and promo videos for ‘The Last Man on Earth’, ‘Smile’ and ‘No Hard Feelings’ – takes place at Picturehouse Central, Soho, London on Thursday, June 10th, with screenings at 6.30pm and 8.45pm, the band performing a special acoustic set before each. You can watch the film trailer here

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Over the Birling Gap with The Catenary Wires – the Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey interview

Clifftop Pop: The Catenary Wires’ Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher at Birling Gap. Photo: Beryl Pursey

It was meant to be. The day we spoke, May 24, opening with me listening to Tallulah by The Go-Betweens, that 1987 taste of striped sunlight including a namecheck for that date on the evocative ‘Bye Bye Pride’.

And 1987 also happened to be the year I saw Amelia Fletcher’s breakthrough band Talulah Gosh support The Wedding Present at the University of London Union. Does she remember much about that mid-May night?

“I remember it being quite good. I think they gave us Smarties in the dressing room, to make us feel really cute.”

“Bit patronising!”

“I know!”

That second voice belongs to Rob Pursey, Amelia’s partner, fleetingly part of Talulah Gosh and going on to feature alongside her in Heavenly, Marine Research – all three recording sessions for legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel – plus Tender Trap, as well as more recent additions to the music CV like Sportique. Not as if Rob stuck around too long with the former outfit.

“I left Talulah Gosh after the first three gigs. All the Smarties stuff never really happened for me. I went back to Bristol, Chris (Scott) taking over on bass. I was on the first demo but not any records. You’d never know I was there.

“Back in Bristol I played in The Five Year Plan, a band I started when I was really young. We didn’t really get very far. We did a single and got on to Peel once. I think the idea was we would do more, but it didn’t work out. I went back to live in Oxford … then Heavenly started.”

At this point, Amelia interjects.

“Although there is now a Five Year Plan album coming out. They finally pooled all their songs, however many years later.”

“Yeah, the songs were really good. I’ve listened again recently. But they never got properly recorded. We had no money, and messed things up. Tim (Rippington, later with Bristol lo-fi pop outfit Beatnik Filmstars), the singer, is now capable of recording stuff and started putting it all together. I’ve been playing the basslines.”

In fact, there’s an interview with Dave Squire about The Five Year Plan and predecessors The Inane, linked here. Did the ‘not making it big’ aspect sharpen Rob’s resolve to try again, seeing the comparative success Talulah Gosh managed after he left, thinking perhaps he should have stuck at it?

Wires Guys: The Catenary Wires shape up at their local disco under the mirrorball. Clockwise from the top left – Amelia Fletcher, Andy Lewis, Fay Hallam, Rob Pursey, Ian Button. Photo collage: Ed Mazzucco.

“No, being in Talulah Gosh was a bit of a nightmare, really … but being in Heavenly was really good fun. Talulah Gosh was all a bit helium-filled, going from nothing to being too much, quite quickly.”

It’s odd when you’re doing a Zoom interview with two people. I look to the right of my screen – Rob’s left – and get the feeling Amelia might want to add her own explanation of a band all too easily dismissed by music journalists back then as ‘twee’.

“I don’t know if you saw the piece in Mojo that’s just come out. They wanted to do one of those ‘hello and goodbye’ things. I had to check out the dates of when I met Liz (Elizabeth Price), and when the first and last gigs were, and the time between meeting Liz, inviting her to being in a band and our first gig was around three and a half months. And that gig got loads of people watching us and got us on to page three of NME. It was remarkably quick, the whole thing somewhat insane.”

Talulah Gosh formed in 1986 when Amelia (vocals, guitar, principal songwriter) and Liz (vocals), both wearing Pastels badges, met at a club in Oxford, the original line-up also including Amelia’s younger brother Mathew Fletcher (drums), Peter Momtchiloff (lead guitar), and Rob (then Chris).

And it was near full circle for me catching Amelia and Rob – ‘still in love with making pop songs with complex messages’ – at The Continental, Preston, 30 years later, supporting The Wedding Present again in 2017 in their current guise as The Catenary Wires.

I wrote at the time, ‘Rob sat down and played guitar, Amelia sang and added apologetic ukulele, and they sang about their love, Margate Pier, and much more. There was a brief mention of past times and My Favourite Dress too, although Amelia was just remarking on what she was wearing’.

For many of us who rode that second half of the ‘80s indie wave, Amelia is perhaps better known for her distinctive vocals with The Wedding Present, not least on seminal debut LP, George Best, another 1987 landmark.

She also guested for Hefner, and toured with and was guest vocalist for South Wales indie darlings The Pooh Sticks (more of whom later), while also contributing to tracks for The 6ths, The Hit Parade, and Bristol’s The Brilliant Corners, as well as playing keyboards for Sportique.

But it’s The Catenary Wires I’m really here to talk about here. I was a little late to the party, but have caught up since, and on the morning of our interview returned to their first two LPs before a sneak preview of the new one. And there’s definitely evolution there, I suggested to them. The songcraft was always apparent, but what was rather sparse on album one has moved up to a rather full-blown affair by the third, complete with some wonderful multi-harmonies.

These days, Amelia and Rob are joined by Paul Weller’s former bass player Andy Lewis, also an acclaimed producer; keyboard player Fay Hallam, who made her name in Makin’ Time, a solo artist and revered Hammond organ player; and drummer Ian Button (Thrashing Doves, Death in Vegas), who also features – with Andy – in Pete Astor’s band.

While their sound is arguably far richer on this new record, what hasn’t left Amelia and Rob is their grasp of the art of songwriting, even if this is very much a band record as opposed to a two-piece affair like their debut record six years ago.

Rob: “Yeah, I think we were lucky with the people we’ve ended up working with. When you saw us, it was just the two of us …”

And that worked too, I should add.

Rob: “I think we got away with it in the bigger places. In Preston, it felt a bit intimidating because we were quite quiet, although people, remarkably, did seem to shut up and listen mostly.”

That’s rather typical of today’s Wedding Present audience, I’d say, as also seen with the warmth afforded fellow support acts such as fellow WriteWyattUK interviewee Vinny Peculiar. Anyway, carry on, Rob.

“I think we were a bit non-committed about whether we were a band or not, but then Andy (Lewis), who plays bass and produced the second and third albums, liked it. He’s an amazing bassist, Ian (Button) is an incredible drummer who lives down the road, and Fay (Hallam), who we knew of through Makin’ Time … turns out was an incredibly near neighbour. Andy produced her record, and she also ended up in the band, so we ended up with this incredible set of people – all much better musicians than us!”

Funnily enough, the interview I did last week, which I should really have put up online today until I was distracted by your new LP and putting some questions together …

Amelia: “Sorry!”

… was with Andy Strickland, centred around a new Cherry Red compilation featuring The Loft. So you could argue that I’ve gone from one branch of indie pop royalty to another …

Amelia: “Well, Andy and Ian these days also play with Pete Astor.”

I was going to say that, as Pete mentioned when we spoke last year, when you were both doing linked online lockdown gigs in lieu of the real thing, your plans to tour together scuppered by pandemic restrictions. In fact, I’d lost sight of Andy Lewis’ moves since his days with Paul Weller. Who got Andy and Ian on board first – you or Pete?

Rob: “I think probably us, as a producer. He saw us play as a duo in Paris. He was with Spearmint, who we did dates with on and off. Talking to him, we thought, ‘This guy, we could work with him’. He said he’d turn up at our place, plug in and do it.

“That’s how we met, and there was a really strange coincidence. Asking for directions, we told him he’d have never heard of this tiny village where we live, Rolvenden Layne. We said it’s near Tenterden, Kent. Turned out he’d been there, as Fay lived 300 yards away. And we never knew. Wish we had, but we’ve since became mates and she’s joined the band, so it did seem like fate, meeting our neighbour through Andy!”

Iconic, Ironic: Amelia Fletcher atop Birling Gap, on East Sussex’s chalky cliffs, waiting for the band to show

Rob was studying English at Oxford when he met Amelia, helping put together Talulah Gosh towards the end of his degree course.

“I ran out of grant money, so ended up going back. But I didn’t know what to do with my life, so ended up going back to Oxford to do a PhD. While Heavenly was going on, I was supposedly writing an English literature thesis.”

Amelia: “I came from a little village near Oxford and went to school there, but by the time I met Rob, I was also at university. When I was a first year, he was a third year, and when I finished, we started Heavenly. I was like, ‘How do we keep this going without getting a job and ruining it all?’ So I did a PhD as well, so we could do music.”

All these years on, there are obviously day jobs to support your music. It doesn’t pay the mortgage, right?

Amelia: “Certainly not.”

Rob: “I worked in TV for a long time, running a production company. While we were doing Marine Research and Tender Trap, I was making TV drama. But maybe because we’ve only ever done it for the love of it, that’s perhaps why we’ve never stopped. There’s never any contractual obligation to write a song.

“Having said that, I take it more seriously now than pretty much since I was in The Five Year Plan in Bristol. When you’ve that passion … I’m really into it now, maybe because I’m writing songs, which I never used to.”

That shows in the finished product, and doing it for the love of it rather than chasing contracts, chart places, riches and world success is something I hear so much these days from my interviewees, irrespective of varying degrees of past success in the business, most of them now doing it on their own terms for all the right reasons.

Rob: “It is purely for the fun of it. When we started The Catenary Wires, we felt we’d moved to the middle of nowhere. There was no scene, we just had a little acoustic guitar lying around, and were idly playing tunes by the fireside to keep ourselves company. Then things started to happen again.

“This time around – maybe because I gave up my job a couple of years ago so had more time to concentrate on writing songs – we thought we’d start a label as well, something we always wanted to do and that we talked about when we first met. And doing a label is exciting because of the range – digitally or on vinyl, there’s so much scope for getting music out there.”

Furthermore, it seems that one band has never been enough for either of you.

Mind the Gap: Rob Pursey, of the Kent & East Sussex Home Guard, on a recce from Walmington-on-Sea

Rob: “I think lockdown’s a bit to blame for that. There was another idea that was hanging around. I’d written a song clearly too punky for The Catenary Wires, and ages ago when Amelia was singing with The Pooh Sticks, I wondered if Hue (Williams, their vocalist) would like to do it. Years passed and I never did anything about it, but he was clearly as bored as we were when I sent it to him during lockdown! He sang it into his phone in a cupboard in his house in Wales, then we put it all together, and Swansea Sound was born.”

Which brings me on to the second focus of my interview. I’ve only heard two Swansea Sound tracks so far, but love ‘Indies of the World’ and ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’, I tell them.

Amelia: “Well, there’s now a whole album made!”

Rob: “That’s going to come out in November maybe.”

You seem to be vying with yourself to knock each band off the top of the charts.

Rob: “Knock ourselves out of the bottom of the charts, more like! Yeah, it feels very different. With The Catenary Wires, the songwriting’s very much the two of us, while with Swansea Sound they’re all my songs, and Amy’s been very kind to let me record them.”

Amelia: “And I quite like it because it seems I can add as many backing vocals as I like. Rob never says no, whereas in The Catenary Wires it’s, ‘Nah, that one’s not really any good’. Here, it’s anything goes!”

I should add that Amelia didn’t mention her own career path outside music, but she read economics at Oxford, going on to complete a D. Phil, various high-profile roles following, including that of chief economist and director of mergers at the Office of Fair Trading and a professorship at the University of East Anglia, Amelia awarded an OBE in 2014 and a CBE in 2020.

Then there’s Rob’s small screen work, including the MD’s position at Touchpaper Television, the executive producer of BBC drama series Being Human also writing and producing Coming Up, Single-Handed and The Vice, his script editing roles including those for The Bill, Inspector Morse, Sharpe, Kavanagh QC, and Goodnight, Mister Tom.

So now you know. But they were unlikely to tell me all that. And this from a couple who started out in a band that also included a 2012 Turner Prize winner (Elizabeth Price) and senior commissioning editor for Oxford University Press (Peter Momtchiloff).

Anyway, over the scope of three Catenary Wires albums, it’s not obvious where you went from a duo to a five-piece, even though this latest LP is so much richer and multifaceted. The one in the middle, Til the Morning, suggests you were always heading this way, and I wonder if this is what you were planning all along.

Amelia: “It’s just how we felt at the time of each record. I don’t think there was a grand plan. It’s interesting that you were talking about that Preston gig, as we talked to David Gedge (The Wedding Present frontman) there. He’d seen us for the first time, not knowing what to expect. It was Rico (La Rocca, Preston-based Tuff Life Boogie promoter) that booked us. But he was really taken with it.

“We said, ‘We’re really not sure what to do with this. We feel it needs more than just the two of us.’ He said it would be really good with more, but don’t ruin it by just going all-out rock – don’t just get a standard drummer and bassist, that will lose what’s precious about it. That was really good advice and we kept that in mind while building up the band. Even Ian, a really good, proper drummer – also in Swansea Sound – plays differently, very gently. He plays a suitcase, because it made less noise!”

Rob: “When we started out as the two of us, that was a good discipline. When there’s just guitar, the words and tunes have to be really good. And we still do that. Nearly all the songs on the new album we can still do as a duo – they pass that test, even if some have got a little elongated, because there was room for more. It’s easy when you practise and you’ve two-thirds of a song to say, ‘What shall we do in that bit? I’ll turn my guitar pedal on, go really loud for a bit, then go back to where we were’. I’m bored of all that. Noise is great, but …”

It’s interesting they mention David Gedge in that respect. For me, his side-project, Cinerama, was a band that seemed to get more guitar-driven with every LP, beyond their original more orchestrated, filmic roots, until it was pretty clear he’d more or less reconvened The Wedding Present in spirit. And I say that as someone who loves both bands.

Also, on at least a couple of your tracks this time, I suggested to my interviewees, that mix of great songcraft, melodic pop and darker moments puts The Catenary Wires somewhere between Belle and Sebastian, Cinerama and The Divine Comedy … which at least alphabetically I suppose they are.

Rob: “I can’t really argue with that. I hope it’s not self-conscious in a bad way, but that’s one thing I learned when we were recording the second album with Andy. He’s a really smart guy, a very good producer and also very articulate. When the songs weren’t quite finished, I’d say, ‘This one’s about this,’ and a lot of the songs are about England in one way or another. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could articulate what we’re saying about aspects of English people or English lives – without resorting to pastiche – but echoing some of those styles that would have been listened to by the people in the songs’.

“So we have something like ‘Canterbury Lanes’, about idealistic people who were part of the Canterbury scene of the early ‘70s and what went wrong for them … We live quite near, I got quite curious about it, and for the first time in my life I listened to Caravan, having already listened to Robert Wyatt a lot …”

No relation, by the way, although that was my Dad’s name.

“Ah, I love Robert Wyatt, but came to him via the ‘Shipbuilding’ route.”

Like many from our generation and beyond, perhaps.

“Yeah, it’s not really my kind of music, but I was really intrigued by the almost naive idealism that was there a long time before punk. Canterbury now is such a music-free city, so it’s amazing to think in a town once at the heart of a really interesting scene, there’s barely any gigs anymore. That’s quite sad.

“I suppose what I’m saying is we try to be more ambitious, making the lyrics and music fuse with each other rather than just be the background for each other.”

Regarding the lyrical aspect, there’s some spot-on imagery on this LP, not least the symbolic emphasis on Birling Gap, this crumbling, iconic English location on the South Coast used as a metaphor for our post-Brexit existence under a right-wing Government amid plenty of flag-waving nonsense. That’s my spin, anyway. In their words, ‘where steep chalk cliffs resist the rough seas of the English Channel’ and ‘where iconic images of England are created and re-created … A landscape beloved of patriots – the sturdy white cliffs standing proud and strong against the waves. It’s also a place where people, despondent and doomed, have thrown themselves off the cliffs.  It’s where The Cure shot the ‘Just Like Heaven’video. It’s where romantic lovers go for passionate storm-tossed assignations’.  

Rob: “There’s a song called ‘Three-Wheeled Car’ about a Brexit-supporting couple who’ve gone to look at the cliff and the sea to celebrate the splendid isolation of being English, but then (plot-spoiler) the car goes over the edge of the cliff, so it’s like a suicide pact.

“There’s also the irony that the reason those cliffs stay so white and are getting whiter is because the erosion is getting worse. The chalk gets cleaned every time a lump falls off and there’s a fresh face of chalk. The whiter and more English the cliffs become, the greater climate change is.”

Amelia: “Actually, when you were asking your question, I thought you were saying ‘crumbly and ironic, like you are!’”

Amid the pandemic and its dire consequences this past year and a half, there have been plenty of online lockdown engagements for The Catenary Wires, suggesting a continuing love of  performing, as seen in recent cracking filmed takes on Ramones’ ‘She’s the One’, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, The Mamas & The Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’, and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s ‘Lady Bird’. Any chance of them following Pete Astor’s You Made Me lead and releasing a covers LP?

Rob: “Maybe. I don’t know. The only reason that Velvet Underground song happened was that we’ve friends in North Kent, part of that Medway scene, having a virtual lock-in. It felt like being part of that gang really. We don’t have much musically in common, but it was nice being in a pub with them, and to be in the pub you’ve got to do a cover on the theme Kevin (Younger) – who runs it – dictates.

Amelia: “We have to come up with a song nobody else thought of.”

Rob: “‘Pale Blue Eyes’, for example, was because it was body parts!”

In a sense there was no huge surprise when you tackled ‘Lady Bird’. As early as Red Red Skies’ ‘The Records We Never Play’, you’ve sounded like a UK take on Nancy and Lee. So perhaps that influence was always there, fitting well with the way your voices blend.

Rob: “In a way that’s because I can only sing low. When we started, we were listening to a few things, and there aren’t that many good duets around. We also listened to ‘Jackson’ (covered by Nancy and Lee, but also Johnny Cash and June Carter). The way they do it can be really witty and quite moving. And Nancy and Lee are what we’d probably aspire to.”

In fact, as they put it, perhaps this is what ‘Nancy and Lee would have sounded like if they were still around, watching California become the home of digital giants and the scene of terrifying forest fires’.

You mentioned recently how in the early days it was all too easy for music writers to use terms like ‘twee’ to describe your past ventures, lazily dismissing so much, stressing that those ‘apparently sweet and fizzy’ songs ‘were always smarter and darker than they seemed, while the band were radically independent, and an influential part of the movement that became riot grrrl’. With that in mind, I wondered if The Catenary Wires’ debut LP, with its more stark, dark delivery, was a reaction to that – redressing the balance. As you say, ‘Indie pop comes of age’. There’s certainly a harder edge that wasn’t so obvious before.

Amelia: “I think that’s right. I also think with the first Catenary Wires album, lots of people who liked our earlier bands didn’t like it that much. I think the songwriting wasn’t that different – the aesthetic in terms of songwriting. It was so much sadder and introverted and contemplative (though), so lots of people who liked Heavenly-type songs were thinking, ‘What are they doing?’.

“That was quite useful in us letting people know we’re setting out our stall, doing something quite different. I think the new album’s more poppy, so in a way it’s more of a reversion, but it’s progress – quite different to what we were doing earlier.”

Rob: “I suppose it’s more political.”

Amelia: “Yeah, that’s true.”

Rob: “Because I write a lot of the songs, and in Heavenly …”

Amelia: “He staged a takeover, basically … Heavenly was my dictatorship. It’s all gone a bit democratic now!”

Rob: “And in the case of Swansea Sound, revenge is sweet! But what I liked about Heavenly’s songs was that they were really true about what it was like to be 20-something. When Amy wrote a song about date-rape and that. The romantic side was always undercut by a sense of what the truth might be like, and the risks of male/female relationships …

“But on this new record … we are the age we are, so I thought it should be as true about the experience of middle age as we were about being younger.”

As they would have it, ‘The tunes are vehicles for startlingly honest adult concerns: the fractured relationships, anxieties, passions and politics of people who live on an island that’s turning in on itself.’  

You’ve family of your own too. That must add extra perspective.

Rob: “Yeah, we’ve two kids, and also when we moved to the countryside we needed somewhere big enough to house my Mum and Amelia’s mum, so I suppose we’re quite typical of middle-age people, all under one roof. Amy’s mum passed away a few years ago, but we wanted to write about that, because I thought nobody writes about that. This is an attempt to express what it’s like when somebody’s in the waiting room really. She was quite ill for a long time, then there was a period where she was still with us but barely, so that little bleep in ‘Liminal’ is really the life support bleep.

“It’s an attempt to write songs that hopefully young people like as well but people our age will go, ‘Ah yeah, I get that.”

On a similar front, with regard to Matthew (their former bandmate and Amelia’s brother, who took his own life in 1996), I see you’ve recently shared some precious memories on social media. You lost him so young. Do certain songs put you back in the moment, and through your music are you keeping those memories with you?

Amelia: “That’s a really interesting question. It was funny doing that Ramones song, because I got his jacket (a leather jacket with a hand-painted Ramones band logo) out and wore it for the video. I’d never done that before. I wasn’t even sure it wasn’t going to fall apart!”

Is that right that he created sleeve art for Heavenly?

Amelia: “He did, and we’ve been going through those in lockdown, partly because we did a Heavenly singles album, going through all the boxes. There are so many pictures of him and we found all the sleeve art, with his writing on it – instructions for the printers.”

Rob: “When he died, Heavenly went off a cliff. We dealt with it but also hadn’t in a way, because we hadn’t listened to those songs and hadn’t looked at those pictures. We carried on doing music in a tentative way, and over the course of the past year through putting that singles album out and people seeming to like it, it made us look and listen to all that again. That was really nice … although obviously sad.

“Funnily enough, doing Swansea Sound, I think about him more. I think he would have liked that.”

Amelia: “He would have really liked that!”

Rob: “Because it’s noisy, and I loved playing with him because playing bass with his drums was really good fun – like running down a hill not being quite sure if you’re going to fall over before you reach the bottom! And there’s a bit of that spirit around now.”

Amelia: “It is interesting, that use of songwriting to get to deal with things. I think with Matthew, because it was so long ago, I would say with The Catenery Wires I don’t think we’ve written any songs about Matthew. But with Marine Research and Tender Trap, there were quite a lot of songs about him, and it was part of the grieving process. It really did help us think it all through.”

Rob: “Also, we were really young when he died, so you’re not really equipped … nobody’s really equipped to deal with the death of somebody that young. But when you’re older, you’re closer to death anyway, and also we had Amelia’s mum with us …”

And we also understand more about responsibility now, maybe, compared to teenage years.

Rob: “I do often think about what he would think about a song, or how he’d really like our kids, but never met them. So, you’re aware of a gap. And when we’re playing live, I’ll think about him – that’s where we had the most fun.”

As for the new record, there’s a ‘60s road movie feel in places, and you do those big songs justice through the full band treatment. It’s complex and epic in places, but never loses sight of the importance of the melodies. And from opening song, the stirring, sweeping ‘Face on the Rail Line’ – with a video link here, described as ‘a love song set in the now, but shot through with the anxiety and paranoia that we all feel, living at a time when we are constantly in contact, but rarely communicate the truth’ – the harmonies come at you, putting me in mind of Graham Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’ from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on. And perhaps teaching your children well is all we can do, with regard to what’s going on politically, environmentally and so on, extolling the virtues of the best things about this country.

Rob: “Yeah, living down here, you meet quite a lot of people who would have voted leave. And they’re nice people – I don’t think they’re idiots. They had their reasons, although some might regret it now. I also had lots of friends who were ardent remainers, and they were tone deaf – with no capability of hearing the voice of people who disagreed with them, falling into that trap of becoming complacent and patronising. And they haven’t come to terms with it all.”

Marine Research: With Rob, Amelia and Peter Momtchiloff joined by Cathy Rogers and John Stanley

You can probably count me among them. I certainly prefer a social media bubble around me, being surrounded by people who tend to think similarly, perhaps in denial about how this selfish, deceptive elite in charge ‘took control’.

Rob: “Yeah, we all do, but I was going to say if ‘Three-Wheeled Car’ is about a leave couple who basically signed a suicide pact – but at least it’s a British suicide pact! – ‘Alpine’ is about two middle-class people who like going on holiday together in Europe, remainers considering themselves sophisticated but get (spoiler alert, part two) trapped in ice, frozen in their own complacency. So I suppose I was trying to be equally ungenerous to both sides!”

‘Alpine’ is another great example of all that’s good about this 10-track long player. Beneath the layers of Andy Lewis’ spot-on production there’s that neat blend of conversational-style vocals again. It’s almost a Bond theme, but it’s part-John Barry, part-Burt Bacharach, dreamy yet somehow majestic too. And yet, at the same time, I could hear The Wedding Present cover this one.

I didn’t say that to them at the time though. Besides, Amelia had her own spin on it all.

“When you said, ‘extolling the virtues of the best things about this country’, I did think this album’s more of a depressing portrait of our country!”

True, but we can be patriots without the flag-waving, right? Maybe those of us who complain and march against all this do it because we love this country and don’t want it going to seed.

Rob: “Yeah, and I completely love it … and the thing about Birling Gap – it’s the most incredibly beautiful place.”

Meanwhile, your indie spirit lives on, as seen in starting your own label and making your own videos. Was there a link there to your previous day-job, Rob?

“Yeah, the reason I ended up in TV was because of Heavenly. For our first single, someone had to make a video – the new thing – and I said I’d do it. And when it got on the telly, I felt, ‘Wow, this is exciting’. That’s why I ended up thinking I’d try and get a job doing that. I tried to make videos for other bands, but couldn’t do it though – when you’re stuck in an editing suite with somebody else’s song for two days, unless you really like it, it drives you round the bend.”

This album depicts England, not just in its lyrics, but also in its music, the band having ‘listened to the songs and stories England has comforted itself with over the decades, and re-imagined them’, Rob and Amelia taking on ‘the personae of duetting couples from different moments in pop history’.

Take for example the afore-mentioned ‘Canterbury Lanes’, starring a pair of folk-rock musicians, ‘old now and worn down, but still aspiring to put their band back together, hoping to rekindle the idealistic flames of the 1970s’, their arrangement ‘hinting at the acoustic guitars and harmonies of those long-lost Canterbury Scene bands’. 

There’s definitely a ‘60s feel and pure singalong pop on ‘Always on my Mind’, its protagonists ‘rediscovering long-lost love almost by surprise, conjured up by an old photo in a pile of memorabilia’. That said, it’s as current as it is retro, caught somewhere between Sandie Shaw and Stereolab, with Andy adding Beatlesque bass. In short, it should be blaring out of transistor radios all summer … if we all still had one.

‘Be Jason to my Kylie’. ‘Sure, if you’ll be Wah! Heat to my Wylie’;

‘Yeah, I’m happy too. I wish we’d come here sooner’;

‘Yes, me too. But we were far too young then, far too cool’.’

And then there’s the wondrous ‘Mirror Ball’, delivered like the best moments of Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, made for radio; an unattached middle-aged couple finding unexpected love at a retro ‘80s disco (‘Lost in the maelstrom of commercial synth-pop, they find that, for the first time in their lives, those hackneyed expressions of love and desire actually do make emotional sense’).

While that ‘80s feel is there, there was something else in that song I struggled to place until it came to me … ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’ by Kent-born former Humble Pie and The Herd guitarist/singer-songwriter Peter Frampton. And I get the impression I’m not the first to mention that, right?

Rob: “I think it might have been Andy who mentioned that. Yeah, there’s an echo of it in there.”

Amelia: “But it wasn’t intended when we wrote it … as far as I know!”

If nothing else, you’ve dragged that melody kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Rob: “All I can say is I’m really pleased you’ve mentioned that and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. That makes me feel like we’ve achieved something. Those are not twee things!”

Amelia: “Rob was brought up in a little village called Frampton Cotterell, and of course there’s (big-selling mid-’70s Peter Frampton live LP) Frampton Comes Alive! Although perhaps Frampton Cotterell never actually came alive!”

Rob: “One of the biggest jokes for us for years was saying to each other, in this really boring village, ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’.”

Incidentally, Frampton Cotterell was not only namechecked by Rob’s Five Year Plan prototype The Inane’s The Only Fun in Frampton Cotterell download, but also Monty Python’s ‘North Minehead By-Election’ back in the day, starring John Cleese as rather familiar-looking National Bocialist candidate Adolph Hilter. But that’s clearly another story.

There’s plenty of quality throughout Birling Gap, not least on closing songs, ‘Like the Rain’ and ‘The Overview Effect’, the latter another with a Cinerama feel, blending timeless 60s pop sensibilities, described as ‘anxious love songs, set in a fragile world’. And while only a few listens in, I can tell this long player will remain on my playlist for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, there’s also the chance to catch Swansea Sound live when, all being well, they play the Preston Pop festival in August.

Rob: “Brilliant, yeah. I really hope that happens. That should be good fun.”

Tuff Life Boogie always come up with amazing bills, usually Peel-related.

Rob: “It looks fantastic. Fingers crossed it works out. Although it will be weird – that’ll be the first time Swansea Sound have actually met each other in person.”

Amelia: “We will have practised beforehand, but so far Ian and Hue have never met each other, despite being in the same band.”

How did you come up with that name, anyway? Surely it should be a half-and-half thing – part-South Walian, part-Kentish.

Rob: “It was Hue’s idea, and we thought it was good. I thought it was going to be a joke band rather than a proper one, so wanted to call it Tribute to The Pooh Sticks. I’m glad we didn’t – it wouldn’t have been fair on Steve (Gregory), whose band it was.

“Swansea Sound was a radio station, on September 1st last year taken over by this hideous corporate franchise, becoming Greatest Hits Radio. So it was really pleasing for us that the name and the logo were vacated as a result. But it obviously means something different to people in South Wales. And the next single we’re putting out is ‘Swansea Sound’, a sort of lament.”

There must be something about that approach. Wasn’t the single ‘Talulah Gosh’ (which featured in John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 1987) the fourth your first band released, Amelia? You do seem a little slow with your introductions.

Amelia: “That’s true! And the other thing about Swansea Sound having been a radio station is that on our page on Facebook, we quite often get emails from people wanting to announce local Swansea news!”

Maybe it’s time for a rebrand. Perhaps you could become Swansea Layne. It’s at least worthy of a rather psychedelic B-side.

Rob: “Ooh, I’ll tell Hue that.”

Behind You: Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher at Birling Gap, East Sussex, 2021. Photo: Beryl Pursey

Birling Gap is released on Skep Wax Records on Friday, June 18th, distributed internationally by Cargo. In the US, it will be on Shelflife Records, distributed by MVD. The album is available for pre-order now via good record stores and https://catenarywires.bandcamp.com. The LP is also set to feature on Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Party at 8pm on Monday, June 21st.

For the latest from The Catenary Wires, check out their websiteTwitter and Facebook pages, and head to www.skepwax.com. And for the latest from Swansea Sound, head to swanseasound.bandcamp.com

Furthermore, Bizarro Promotions has organised a short tour by The Catenary Wires, Pete Astor (The Loft/Weather Prophets) and European Sun (another Rob Pursey band project) for September, calling at: Friday 3rd – The Thunderbolt, Bristol; Saturday 4th – Amersham Arms, New Cross, London; Friday 10th – The Oast, Rainham; Saturday 11th – The Piper, St Leonards-on-Sea (tickets to be arranged); Sunday 12th (afternoon) – The Albert, Brighton; Friday 24th – Fusion Arts Centre, Oxford; Saturday 25th – The Tin Music & Arts, Coventry (without no European Sun).

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Room at the top – The Loft and beyond with Andy Strickland

Three and a half decades after they dramatically broke up, mid-song, on a London stage on the final night of a nationwide tour, The Loft continue to inspire, with interest in this influential four-piece seemingly perpetual and having just led to a new retrospective compilation.

Compiled and coordinated by the band, Ghost Trains & Country Lanes expands on previous collections featuring this cult mid-‘80s indie outfit, adding reunion recordings, a 2015 radio session, and several live recordings from Alan McGee’s seminal London venue The Living Room in 1984.

But as Danny Kelly, who goes way back with the band, ponders in his sleeve-notes for the new Cherry Red 30-track retrospective, ‘How can a band that, at its peak, released just two singles, be on to its third compilation album?’. He’s got a point, hasn’t he?

“Yeah, who’d have thought!”

That’s The Loft’s lead guitarist Andy Strickland, speaking to me from his home on the east coast of the Isle of Wight. You must be quite surprised, I venture, by the attention afforded this short-lived outfit over the years.

“I suppose surprised, but also really chuffed. Even between the catalogue of compilations … I’ve got mates down here who listen to a lot of (BBC) 6 Music, always winding me up, saying, ‘Bloody hell – I can’t get away from you! They were playing The Loft again last night!’. And because Gideon Coe and Marc Riley still play us, it seems to never go away.”

Quite right too.

“Yeah, and it’s interesting how it still sounds good. ‘Up the Hill and Down the Slope’ sounds magnificent on the radio, and we’ve definitely entered that legacy list. If someone puts together a best of indie from the mid-’80s, that’s got to be on it. And Cherry Red do a good job keeping us out there.

“It does get quite bizarre. Last year a guy put together a film about Scottish indie and wanted a video clip of us playing the Living Room (the London club run by Alan McGee, their only regular gig at the start). The obvious question was, ‘Do you know we’re not Scottish?’. But it turns out that’s the only footage anyone got of Alan’s venue.

“There was a very strange one a couple of years ago, an American TV series called Red Oaks, set in a (New Jersey) college town in the ‘80s. They had a student party and were playing ‘Why Does the Rain’. Our version, but I think sped up. I tracked it down. Something’s not right – it seems someone decided they needed to get to that chorus faster! And these things keep popping up all the time.”

The Loft were among the first crop of Creation Records bands, and arguably considered the most likely to break through, mega-success for Rough Trade’s The Smiths seeing guitar-based independent pop in vogue. And as Alan McGee’s Creation label turned heads, this London-based quartet offered a fresh, cool take on revered outfits like Lou Reed, Television, The Only Ones and The Modern Lovers.

Bar Four: The Loft sup up in the BBC club bar in September 2015 after their 6 Music Gideon Coe session

However, after just two great singles, ‘Why Does the Rain’ and ‘Up the Hill and Down the Slope’ –which the band also got to perform live on BBC 2’s The Oxford Road Show – they were gone, half-way through performing the latter at Hammersmith Palais, supporting The Colourfield, members going on to form new bands The Weather Prophets, The Caretaker Race, and The Wishing Stones.

They left behind just seven studio tracks, a December ’84 BBC Radio 1 Janice Long session, and a track from a Creation LP documenting the scene’s roots in McGee’s club. But their legend endured, eventually prompting an early 2000s reunion, Andy joined by fellow originals Pete Astor (vocals, guitar, principal songwriter), Bill Prince (bass), and Dave Morgan (drums), putting on several well-received live shows, releasing a new single, and later a Gideon Coe session for BBC 6 Music.

And still those songs receive plenty of airplay, The Loft’s reputation as founding fathers of a new breed of mid-‘80s indie pop continuing, often cited as influential, the new compilation seen by Cherry Red see as the definite tribute, including 17 unreleased tracks over two compact discs.

Andy was planning a trip to Sherborne, Dorset when I called, ready to meet his bandmates in The Chesterfields for the first time since the first 2020 lockdown, his first proper trip away in 15 months, give or take a halfway meet-up and pint outside a pub on a cold day in Guildford with his London-based youngest son. Not as if he’s complaining, not long ago returning across the Solent, where this ‘island boy’ was born and bred. As he put it, ‘There are worse places to be locked down’.

Mention of Guildford led to a brief discussion about my hometown, Andy recalling occasional trips as a teenager to the Civic Hall to catch live music.

“One I remember best was when we piled into a mate’s car – I think we were all in the sixth form – and drove up to see Penetration. We got there while they were soundchecking – the back door was open – and wandered in, stood against the wall watching. At the end of the soundcheck, bass player Rob Blamire came over and started chatting. When he realised we’d come up from the Isle of Wight, he was amazed, inviting us to the pub, buying us all a pint.

“Funnily enough, I was listening to Moving Targets yesterday in the car. I just love Pauline Murray’s voice. And of course, us teenage boys were all slightly in love with her!”

Meanwhile, my brother and a few mates occasionally headed the other way, down the A3 to see bands play Portsmouth.

“That was our main call for gigs. Nobody played the Isle of Wight. We saw everyone there, early punk gigs like The Clash and The Undertones at the Locarno, The Cure at the Poly or Art College quite early on, Buzzcocks, Ramones, and Ian Dury at the Guildhall, and before that, Thin Lizzy and Be Bop Deluxe.”

Getting back to Ghost Trains & Country Lanes, I’m often impressed by Cherry Red’s sleeve-notes, and there’s something else here – a brilliant timeline of The Loft, suggesting someone made great diary notes at the time.

“Yeah, I’ve a battered old briefcase containing loads of bits of paper, set-lists, receipts, posters, up in my studio room. Pete and I talked about what we could put in the booklet, to make it different from the last compilation apart from the extra tracks. We wanted photos that hadn’t been used before, and when I looked into what we were doing in 1984/85, this massive document emerged, which needed rather a lot of editing. I sent it round to the guys, everyone going, ‘Blimey, I remember that!’”

Well, I’m impressed.

“We thought people of our generation would like sitting there reading it while listening to the CDs. I love that sort of thing. I’ve been having a Beatles solo blast lately, loving going through those booklets.”

Tell me more about Alan McGee and his Living Room venue, which I understand started at The Adams Arms in June ’83.

“We saw an advert for it, and were at that time called The Living Room, so that was complete coincidence. There is disagreement among us about whether we changed our name because Alan suggested we ought to as it was too confusing. My memory is that Alan said we could play, but we’d have to change our name. Pete’s memory is that Alan wasn’t bothered but we just decided we should do it. He probably didn’t care.

“I also remember being in our little squatty practise house when one of Bill’s sisters’ friends said, ‘You’re obviously going up in the world, why don’t you call yourself The Loft?’. I think we went to the first or second night of the Living Room, and we’d go every time it was on. There wasn’t anywhere else like that.”

Have you made contact in recent years with original drummer, Andy Nott (who went on holiday to ‘Asia’ in May ’83 and was never seen again)?

“No, Andy disappeared, and nobody’s ever heard from him. People I know who knew him before I did have never heard from him either. He was a fascinating bloke, but wasn’t as good a drummer as Dave Morgan.”

It was clearly meant to be.

“Yeah, and one of the things I love about being part of The Loft is there’s only ever been four of us. A nice little club to be part of.”

Andy played in bands on the Isle of Wight before moving to the capital to study at the Polytechnic of Central London, rebranded the University of Westminster in the early ‘90s. And that’s where he met Bill Prince.

“When I went to London in 1980, I was staying in a hall of residence in Bolsover Street, off Oxford Street, turned up on Sunday afternoon – day one – and the very first person I saw was Bill, walking up the stairs carrying a bass guitar. We quickly fell in, became good mates and thought it would be nice to do something and try to find others to play with.”

“We lived in the same house for a few years while at college and a bit after, and always kept in touch. Since The Loft have been back in touch, we’ve had an annual tradition where we at least meet up once a year before Christmas, going out for an Italian meal and having a few drinks. The only thing we don’t talk about is The Loft … which is typical Loft, to be honest! Most people would reminisce, plan and plot for the future. Not us. We seem to cover everything else except that.”

Andy studied media studies at the Poly.

“Now it’s seen as like the antichrist, a bit of a belittled subject, but then … well, the people on my course included Danny Kelly, who went on to became a very well-known journalist and broadcaster, Bill ended up running GQ, we had people who got jobs at the Beeb, and people who went into Fleet Street. At that time, it was a mix of journalism, TV and video stuff. Quite a few got decent jobs.

“And because we were just around the corner from Broadcasting House, we had the likes of John Peel come and talk to us a few times. One of the strands on the course was radio and radio editing. I remember Peel – first time he came in – saying, ‘I’m not here today to talk about The Fall sessions. If you want to talk about The Fall, we’ll go to the pub after. Leave it till then.’ Of course, we made sure we went to the pub after, and he talked about The Fall.

“We really liked The Fall, and a few months after The Loft split, doing a piece on The Fall for Record Mirror, I was on their tour bus going to Rotterdam. At one point, Mark said, ‘’Ere, you were in that band The Loft, weren’t you? We loved that ‘Why Does the Rain’. Why did you split up?’ I told him, and he said, ‘We were going to invite you to come on tour with us’. We’d have given our right arms to go on tour with The Fall in 1985, so that was a real kick in the guts. When I told Pete that 10 years later, he was pretty gutted as well.

“I’ve a mate down here, when we were teenagers he started buying all the punk and new wave stuff, and had all the singles. It was at his house that we first heard the first Buzzcocks album. He had all the early Fall stuff. We’d have parties round his where we’d be leaping about to ‘Fiery Jack’ and all that. Good times!

“And when I was at Record Mirror, we went to see the team do the ballet thing with Mark. I think that was at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. In the bar after, Mark came out and asked what we thought … which you should never ask! We said we liked the music, and he said, ‘The trouble with you Londoners, I expect you go to the ballet every night!’ Erm, not exactly, Mark.”

Pete’s near-neighbour in Crouch End, Dave Morgan, was an important addition, his drumming making you the finished article. And not only for his playing, but also through knowing Alan McGee, I gather.

“Dave was playing The Communication Club, I think, before the Living Room, in the band 12 Cubic Feet, and knew Alan. I think Pete did most of the chatting with Alan though. He said, ‘I think Alan’s offered us a gig’. Me and Bill said, ‘What do you mean, you think he’s offered us a gig?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t quite understand everything he was saying’. We had to go back and ask!”

The first Loft appearance at the Living Room came in early December 1983, supporting The TV Personalities, the band quickly becoming support regulars, despite a fire regulations breach seeing the club night switch venues.

All these years on, Alan remains an infectious character, doesn’t he – fired up and inspirational.

“He is. His energy and enthusiasm and the bullshit he was able to generate back then was phenomenal! We haven’t got a bad word to say about him. We only ever had a handshake deal, about making records. We never signed anything. But as far as we were concerned and as he was concerned, that’s still the case now.”

Have you seen the dramatised biopic based on Alan’s adventures, Creation Stories?

“I have. I enjoyed it for what it was – a sort of Carry On Creation based on Alan’s book. Delighted that we featured in the sleeves montage. I thought some of the casting was hilarious – namely the Joe Foster character and the fat Noel. I wasn’t expecting it to be a document – that’s what Danny O’Connor’s Upside Down did so brilliantly.”

How about Middlesex Poly student Pete joining? Was it a meeting of minds or just something that sparked, realising you’d work well together?

“Bill and I went to this pub gig in Islington (the Pied Bull at The Angel), because we thought my old island drummer mate Razzle (Nick Dingley, who died in late 1984, aged just 24, after a car crash in California during Hanoi Rocks’ first US tour). Turned out he wasn’t, but Pete’s band, News of Birds, were supporting a band. We thought he definitely had something about him, looked good, and we liked that Lou Reed-like voice.

“We got chatting after, asked if he’d be interested in joining us. He said he was busy with college and wasn’t that bothered, but a couple of weeks later rang to say he would come round – his intention was to tell us he was too busy to do anything. But we started playing, then he played a couple of songs and we joined in. He got a bit hooked and realised we worked quite well together.

“That was it really. We gave ourselves a year to rehearse and see what happened. We would have been in our final year. We took it incredibly seriously, Pete had so many songs, and we worked a lot on arrangements. He’d come along each week with something. He’d start playing and we’d watch what he was doing.

“It’s kind of the same now on rare occasions we get together to rehearse. Pete will start playing, and off we go. It’s a really good fit – you can be in loads of bands and don’t quite have that synchronicity. Those four people who are in The Loft, something about it just works.”

Was that originally at the squat in Tufnell Park, North London?

“We were rehearsing there for a while. My mate Russell had a squat with a practise room in it. We started when we were still at college, using that every Sunday. Then when we left college, Bill and I moved into a tiny house in Leyton, East London, and had the front room to rehearse there. We had drums there too. The neighbours didn’t seem to care.”

At 16 I started to get up to London more regularly, seeing Eleven – featuring The Undertones’ Mickey Bradley and Damian O’Neill – at The Marquee, and REM and Ramones at The Lyceum, and by the following summer was catching early shows by That Petrol Emotion all over town, at the same sort of venues … but sadly missed out on The Loft.

“We played a gig not long before we were on The Oxford Road Show at the Ambulance Station on the Old Kent Road (March 2nd, 1985), a sort of squat, and I remember Damian (O’Neill) came up to me – I was really excited because I loved The Undertones – and said, ‘I hear you guys have been asked to do a TV thing. Good luck with that – I hope it goes well!’.

“There were very few places bands like us could play at that time. When I moved to London, I’d read the back of the Melody Maker and think, ‘There’s hundreds of these gigs – this will be great!’ But actually, most were still sewn up by little agents and promoters. When we started playing the Living Room it was really the only place we could get a gig. We didn’t know anybody else.”

This new compilation includes live recordings from early June ’84 at The Roebuck, Tottenham Court Road, where The Living Room moved next, the band supporting Microdisney, with Glasgow outfit The Jesus and Mary Chain bottom of the bill.

“We played there a few times. The Living Room was there for a few months in a first-floor room, on a corner about halfway down that road between Euston and Oxford Street. Don’t know what it’s called now, but it’s still a pub.

“I’m not sure it was actually the first time the Mary Chain played London, but it was their first proper – in very sort of inverted commas! – gig in London. I think they did something the night before. They were on first and after we did a soundcheck, these strange looking characters were standing around. We went back downstairs to get a pint. Danny Kelly was with us. He said, ‘Come and have a look at this’. It was just screaming feedback. I thought, ‘This is just going to wreck my ears. I can’t stay in this room’. I disappeared, but think Pete And Danny stayed.”

Even when they were headlining shortly after, the sets were famously short.

“Yeah, they weren’t on very long that night. I think they may have done 10 minutes.”

But no doubt they left an impression.

“Yeah. What a racket!”

Do you remember much about Microdisney that night?

“We played with them a few times. I love Microdisney and got on well with Sean (O’Hagan). We’d lend each other amps and gear sometimes. That combination of gruff, almost punk vocals and the music … we really loved playing with them. They did Pebble Mill once, at the time presented by Tom O’Connor, the comedian. He introduced them, saying, ‘Now it’s time for some great mates of mine, Microdisney!’. I was thinking, ‘You ain’t got a clue who they are!’.

Talking of support bands going on to bigger things, fast forward to late summer ’88 and a cracking Steve Lamacq live review in the NME of your follow-up band, The Caretaker Race being outshone one night at The Falcon in London by The Sundays, on their way to major success. Does this highlight a rather unlucky element for bands you featured with? And did Steve’s review present a fair reflection of that night?

“Oh definitely. Harriet (Wheeler) had such a fantastic voice, and the way they played live and on that first album … they were very sympathetic and quite sparse. It was really all about the voice. They completely blew us off that night. Absolutely.

“In terms of the Mary Chain, that was the only time we played with them. I wouldn’t say they blew us off that night. There were probably only about five to 10 people who actually saw them. But I do think if they hadn’t exploded like they did and taken up all Alan’s time, he might have – although he wasn’t managing us, nobody was managing The Loft – had a word with Pete and said, ‘You guys need to get over this little hiccup – don’t split the band up, stick with it’. But he was so busy with the fact that the Mary Chain had gone crazy. He didn’t really have time for anything else.”

So many bands who fell through the cracks around then. But maybe they’re the ones I love most. Underdog spirit, I suppose.

“Yeah, there is something rather glorious about having your five or 10 minutes, then disappearing.”

It also goes with the John Peel factor – I wonder how many musicians I’ve interviewed who said all they really wanted initially was to record a Peel session and make a couple of singles.

“Yeah, I went up to London because I wanted to get into a proper band. Then I wanted to make a single, then we had an 18-month period where it went a bit bonkers. But that ticked a lot of boxes. The only one that was a real shame – and we’ve all put our hand up and said we really wish we’d held it together long enough – was not making an album in 1985. It would have been a great one.”

I’m reticent to mention this, but I love The Weather Prophets’ Mayflower, but I’d understand totally if that’s an album you can’t bring yourself to listen to in the circumstances. Were you a little bitter about that?

“I was a bit. I was angry as it was a missed opportunity. We did so much work to get to that point. It just seemed a massive waste … I think Pete accepts that now. Also, I was a bit miffed they kept re-releasing ‘Why Does the Rain’, thinking, ‘That’s a bloody Loft song!’”

On to The Caretaker Race, the four-piece formed in 1986 by Andy, with a couple of singles on their Roustabout Records label before a deal with the Foundation label that led to three more 45s and the splendid Stephen Street-produced Hangover Square LP in 1990. Unfortunately, it was all over within a year though.

The Wikipedia entry, I point out ot Andy, picks up on the influence of The Go-Betweens. I hear that too, not least on the wondrous ‘Fire in the Hold’ and rather acerbic ‘Borrow My Car’, but The Loft’s Richard Hell cover, ‘Time’, on the new compilation, suggests that influence was there long before.

“We did love The Go-Betweens. Interestingly, until about five years ago, I’d never heard Richard Hell’s version of ‘Time’. Pete, one day in a rehearsal, played what he thought were the chords – in those days, you couldn’t just go on the internet to find out – and played it like it was a Pete Astor song. We then played around with it. We weren’t interested in copying it, as such.

“Then, during our tour with The Colourfield, we played Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, a Kitchenware/Creation Records night, and Robert (Forster) and Grant (McLennan) were there. A couple of weeks before, Bill bumped into them and they said, ‘We really love the sound of your new single, particularly the guitar sound on ‘Time’. What did you do to get it?’ And Bill said, ‘I dunno’. But that night they came to the gig, and as we started to play ‘Time’, I could see Robert – as he’s so tall – coming from the back, working his way slowly through the crowd. Just as we got to the guitar solo, he was standing right in front of me. I was so put off, I completely cocked the solo up!”

I recently interviewed Tim Keegan from Departure Lounge, who got to play with them and became friends. And it does seem that Robert occasionally asks for chords on songs he likes.

“Ah, that’s interesting! Bill and I went to see them when they first came over – just a three-piece – and played the Rock Garden, when the first album came out on Rough Trade. And it was brilliant. I remember thinking that’s amazing for three people, and the songs were really good. Yeah, we were always big fans. I did a gig with Pete at The Lexington (Islington), supporting Robert (November 2017). That was fun. There’s a clip of us online playing ‘Walker’.”

Ever get back the guitar you lost at your first gig, late November ’82 at the London Musicians’ Collective in Camden, presumed stolen?

“No, but about three or four years ago I bought a replica. It wasn’t anything particularly special, but it meant a lot to me – an Ibanez Deluxe ‘59er, black, like a Les Paul copy, one they called the ‘Lawsuit’ guitar as Ibanez got sued. They were too much like Les Pauls.

“I always say it got stolen at the first gig, but Pete says, ‘I think you were so pissed you left it on the pavement while we were stacking the van, and we drove off’. My Mum bought that guitar for my 18th birthday, so I was absolutely gutted. But I saw one on eBay and bought it for about £250, quite a bargain.”

The world and his wife have probably asked about that fateful last night of The Colourfield tour, when you split up on stage. Maybe instead I’ll ask about the opening night of that tour – The Loft supporting Terry Hall’s band for £100 a night – at Cornwall Coliseum, St Austell, on May 9th, 1985. That must have been a pinch-me moment, playing such a big auditorium.

“I just remember thinking, ‘This place is huge! What are we doing here? Backstage on the walls they had big black and white pictures of Status Quo and that. We were thinking, ‘We’ve stepped up a bit here!’. It was just the four of us. We didn’t have a manager, roadie or sound-man. We were on our own, driving ourselves around.”

Is that right you were fined four cans of beer for the temerity of playing an encore?

“Yeah, that was an interesting night. We’d only ever played the Living Room and a couple of colleges in London, like Thames Poly. That was the extent of our gigging. We’d never stood on a stage as big as that. We didn’t really know what to do. But we went down really well, got a really good reception. We went off after 25 minutes or whatever, they were clapping, and we thought, ‘Well, we’ll go back and do another one’.

“We went back on, played something else, and when we came off, Pete Hadfield, The Colourfield’s manager, was standing there. I don’t know if he was winding us up, but he said, ‘Who told you that you could do an encore?’. We said, ‘Well, nobody told us, but …’. He said, ‘Well, you don’t do that unless you’re told you can’. He came into our little dressing room, where we had eight small cans of Heineken – that was our rider. He picked up four, said, ‘That’ll teach you a lesson’.

“The other thing about that gig was that Bill’s parents ran a little cinema in Teignmouth, Devon, on the seafront, and we stayed with them the night before. When we got up in the morning, his Dad said, ‘I’ve got to run a new film through, check everything’s alright. If you want, you can have breakfast in the cinema and see the film’. So, there’s the four of us with tea and toast, in this lovely old cinema watching Raiders of the Lost Ark at eight in the morning, bleary-eyed.”

I suggested I wouldn’t ask, but any further thoughts all these years on regarding that last dramatic night of the tour?

“We’ve talked about it between ourselves and sort of cleared the air, as it were. When we got back together for the first compilation (2005), Pete very much put his hand up and said he behaved badly and really regretted it, and I think we’ve come to a consensus now. What we didn’t do is really talk to each other about what we were thinking and what was bothering us. We didn’t communicate.

“As Pete said, it’s the great English male disease. We didn’t talk to each other about things that were bothering us, and they just built up and blew up. If we could have sat down a month before and said, ‘I feel I’m not getting credit for this’, or, ‘You keep making decisions about that’ … If we’d had a manager, I think they’d have said, ‘You need to go sit in a room, shout at each other for an hour, get it out of your system, then think about the opportunity you’ve got here and just get on with it.”

I see it so many times with bands. To the outsider, it seems petty, and a little sad. It’s good that in your case you seem to have bridged that gap.

“Yeah, we hadn’t spoken to each other in 20 years. No contact at all. It was really good to get past that, but also really sad that we wasted all that time when we didn’t have anything to do with each other. We’re all very different people, we’ve all grown up a lot in different ways, and we’re now doing different things. But when we get together, we’re still that really close four and it’s really good.”

Did you finish your studies? Was that stint at Record Mirror your first job beyond that?

“Yeah, it was. Bill got his feet under the table at Sounds, having done work experience on a glossy pop magazine called Noise. That must have been the same publisher. Then he went from freelance work at Sounds, when we were still in this grotty little house in Leyton, and got sent to New York to interview the Ramones! I remember thinking, ‘This sounds fun. I go to gigs and play music and can write a bit – I think I’ll have a go at this. Really, I was just trying to copy Bill!

Record Mirror were looking for someone. We went to a gig – might even have been The Go-Betweens, with Richard Jobson’s band The Armoury Show down in Victoria. I wrote a review, sent it to them, they rang and asked if I wanted to do a couple more. That’s how I got in. That would have been ’84, I think. I never went on the staff. That way – playing with bands – I could take off any time I needed. I stayed as a freelance for them until it closed in ’90 or ’91.”

From there, Andy switched to writing for football magazines for nearly a decade, then for Danny Kelly’s Football365 website for the 1998 World Cup, then dot music, running that editorially for a couple of years before it was sold ‘in the great dot.com boom’ to Yahoo Music. Around a year later, while based in Walthamstow, he started editing a local council magazine, then started in a similar capacity in communications for the NHS in Romford while living in Hackney … finally moving back to the Isle of Wight a year ago. And he feels he made the right move.

“Yeah, compared to the thought of having to spend this last year in that flat in Hackney, surrounded by families. Down here, we’re right on the coast. I can see the sea from here and can walk along the beach. It’s been pretty quiet. I’ve been doing lots of cycling, and writing for The Chesterfields, which kind of brings us up to date.”

Is this mostly a Zoom relationship with Chesterfields co-founder Simon Barber?

“It is a bit! We’re trying to write an album. The original plan was to have recorded one by now, get it out this year. That’s been scuppered, but Simon’s written around 10 songs, him, Helen (Stickland – different spelling, different name – on guitar) and Rob Parry (drums) able to get together, and Helen’s got access to a big barn for rehearsing. They’ve been videoing, sending on to me, and I’ve been writing parts for those songs, sending them back on WhatsApp.

“I’ve written half a dozen songs I think would suit a Chesterfields record, and they’re rehearsing them. This will be our first coming together, going through it all, with a studio booked in June to demo for the album. After that we’ll see where we’re at and what we want to do.

“It’s a lovely part of the world too, especially this time of year – it’s all so green. So that’ll be fun and interesting – we kind of know what we’re doing but haven’t actually been in the same room to do it!”

At the Continental in Preston in February 2017, I felt it was work in progress. But you seemed further along the right track at Night and Day Cafe in Manchester in September 2019, their set including a Strickland-led storming version of The Caretaker Race’s ‘Anywhere But Home’.

“Definitely. I think when you saw us at the Conti, Simon was still a bit reticent about whether he should be doing it or not. They started as Design play The Chesterfields. I said, ‘I think you should decide whether you’re going to do it or not, and don’t apologise for it.”

It’s a difficult situation (Chesterfields frontman Davey Goldsworthy killed in a hit and run accident in Ocford in 2003). Did you get to know Davey?

“A bit. I played with them a few times after The Loft. They got me in for a few gigs one summer when we played Glastonbury and stuff.”

Was that on the back of the wonderful Kettle LP?

“Yes, I knew them pretty well, and Simon and Davey put us on down in that part of the world. We played a gig with them supporting us. In fact, Davey ended up with Pete’s Telecaster. They did a swap. And what an absolute tragedy to lose him.”

Finally, when’s the next Loft happening? Because, let’s face it, you’ll need something on that fourth compilation when it comes out.

“Ha! Well, funnily enough, Pete’s said there won’t be a fourth compilation! And he’s probably right. We do still have three really good live gigs that have never emerged though, including Hammersmith Palais – obviously a bittersweet thing, but it might interest somebody one day.

“If we’d all been in London when this one came out, we’d have got together, done something to mark it. We started talking about something a little different, a bit special, but clearly that’s not going to happen. Pete’s now into his solo stuff in the next few months. In fact, I’m playing with him in July in Dalston at The Victoria. As for The Loft, I don’t know really, but watch this space!”

Ghost Trains & Country Lanes – Studio, Stage and Sessions 1984-2015, by The Loft, is available via Cherry Red in double-CD format, priced £11.99. For more details head to https://www.cherryred.co.uk/

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Staying Sane with James – back in touch with Jim Glennie

“Everybody’s in their cave, facing what we can’t escape; Every time we’re through, your shit sticks to my shoe;

Tell me how you’re staying sane, haven’t hugged a human since the end of May; Quarantine with you, our world’s a private zoo.”

Here we go again – the joy of online video interviews, this time with James bass player/co-founder Jim Glennie, from my front room in Leyland, Lancashire to … well, where exactly is that grand setting?

“We’re in this bonkers huge country house near Skipton, called Broughton Hall, as you can see in the background … This isn’t my bedroom – mine’s much grander and more opulent than this. We’re slumming it this week!

“We’ve kind of gone into lockdown for two weeks. We all had PCR tests before we came in, and we’re rehearsing the album and a whole bunch of other things, including quite a lot of interviews and recording radio sessions, sending them everywhere.”

Is lead singer Tim Booth cooped up in a separate padded cell elsewhere in the house, waiting for his self-isolation to finish after flying over from the States?

“He’s finished now. He did his self-isolation. He’s alright, and we’re allowed out tomorrow for a little bit, filming for Sky Arts at Sheffield Leadmill. Other than that, it’s people coming to us. It’s all the things we’d be doing with an album coming out, but instead of us bobbing around, we’ll do it here.”

I should ask who’s in those portraits on the wall behind you.

“Ha! I wish I knew! This is the Tempest family home. They’ve been here for 32 generations over the last 450 years, so the house is full of relatives. I’ve a whole array of various faces looking at me while I’m doing this … with a huge amount of disapproval, I would imagine.”

They weren’t the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, were they?

“I don’t think so, but you never know. Actually, we’re rehearsing in the Great Hall downstairs, and I can’t believe they’re letting us do it. It’s very brave of them.”

Last time I spoke to someone from James was two years ago, chatting to Saul Davies (guitar/violin) ahead of the release of Living in Extraordinary Times, and I think it’s fair to say none of us knew where we were headed at that point.

There was a quote I had from Saul, me trying to put a positive spin on life, hoping people were starting to wake up and we were at least on the way back from the brink, and him responding, ‘I think things could get worse, but I suppose we need to try and make sure things don’t get worse.’

Well, here we are now, and it seems that the latest James LP – also featuring Andy Diagram (trumpet), Mark Hunter (keyboards), Adrian Oxaal (guitar, replacing Larry Gott), David Baynton-Power (drums) and recent addition Chloë Alper (backing vocals, percussion) – to hit the racks, All the Colours of You, their 16th studio album, sums up the year we’ve just had, not least through lyricist Tim addressing all that’s been happening across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, last time I spoke to Jim was five years ago, in May 2016 (with a link here), ahead of a relatively low-key Manchester Academy 2 LP launch for Girl at the End of the World, James playing a hall they missed out on first time around on a rather meteoric rise to fame, going straight on to much larger venues. And now it seems they’re doing something similar with this Leadmill show, albeit behind closed doors this time.

“Yeah, although we’ve played there a few times. In the very early days of James we supported Orange Juice there. I think that was one of the first gigs Tim did with us. We’ve a bit of a history with the venue.”

It seems that while you’re a Manchester band, Sheffield – a city I’ve started to get to know through my eldest daughter studying there – has always been special for you.

“I love Sheffield. My wife used to work for Sheffield City Council, in the town hall. We were living in Manchester and she was commuting from Stockport train station. And part of the writing for this album was done at Sheffield’s Yellow Arch studios, as was all the writing for the last album. We’ve ended up spending a lot of time there.”

While Tim’s California-based, home for Jim and Saul are living in the Scottish Highlands these days. But it seems that Yorkshire features prominently too.

“Yeah, it does, although Yellow Arch was kind of an accident in a way. We rented a house where we were supposed to be writing in, but when we got there it wasn’t suitable – the room wasn’t big enough for us to be in and the neighbours were closer than we thought. So we just found the nearest rehearsal space and it happened to be Yellow Arch studios.

“We went down, they had a room available, we wrote there, it was brilliant, and the people were lovely. So we felt if it’s easy, we know it and it works, keep doing it. The Highlands is also good for us – we’ve done a fair amount of writing there.”

You’ve been in Scotland a while now. I take it you’re happy up there.

“Very much so, and Saul’s about an hour and a quarter from me – a close neighbour by my standards! And Mark and Tim tend to come to us. It’s beautiful there – a lovely part of the world.”

You were ahead of the curve in that respect, I’ll venture, living in a remote area long before lockdowns and self-isolation.

“Yeah, it’s been strange being cut off from family. That’s been difficult, but we’ve been lucky because inherently it’s not been a massive amount of difference from the way we normally live our lives.

“My son and daughter – in their early 30s now – are both in Manchester and have had very different experiences. My son was isolating on his own, while my daughter was working from home with her husband, with two young kids, kind of bouncing off the walls – a family trapped in a flat in South Manchester. Very different experiences, but for us, we’ve space around us and can get out for walks …”

Lots of people have realised this last year the importance of location. You do need money to make those moves sometimes, but if it’s not about that commute any longer and you can work from home, why not choose stunning countryside, wherever it is.

“It will be interesting to see how things pan out after we come out of lockdown, see how many people choose life changes. Also, businesses may go, ‘Hang on a minute, this worked out alright – are we all piling into the office for nine o’clock?’. It’s almost a dangerous experiment that businesses have never tried in case it completely fails.

“Like it or not, they have now tried it, so why not learn from it. It seems ridiculous nowadays that for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening the country grinds to a halt while everyone tries to get to the same place. It seems mad and such a waste of time – silly and old-fashioned really in this day and age.”

We spoke about The Leadmill, and last time around, the Academy 2. You’ve become experts at playing the arenas and enormo-domes, somehow making them feel intimate. You clearly have showmen in the band who rise to that occasion, but it must be really special to play venues where you can have that eye contact too.

“Yeah, they pull different things out of you. You’re right, you’ve got to be larger than life in the big venues. You know you’re projecting a long way back, and that does make you do things a different way, put on a different show and fill that space – with those big stages you’ve got to fill. But you’re right, in those small and intimate venues where you can look out and see faces, it becomes a very different experience.

“And I’ll take either at the moment, to be honest with you – it seems such a long while since we were on a stage. We haven’t done anything since September 2019 – that was the last gig.”

I’ve always been impressed by the way James never sat back on past success, instead ploughing into new territory. I’m guessing that hasn’t changed and they’re not about to join the heritage trail and go play the Rewind festival circuit, doing ‘Sit Down’ and a couple more of the big hits. And the new album seems to prove that, and this has been going on for as many albums as I can think of. They’re still coming out with fresh, relevant material.

Who’s more woke than who? Who’s more broke than who?;

Disunited States, they want a boogaloo with you;

He’s the Ku Klux Klan (he’s the Ku Klux Klan); K-coup K-coup (K-coup K-coup);

President’s your man, he’s the Ku Klux Klan (K-coup K-coup).

Lyrically, All the Colours of You deals with some dark and difficult issues, its themes ranging from politics and race relations to climate change and the pandemic, the latter not least on ‘Recover’, covering the death of Tim Booth’s father-in-law from Covid-19. Yet that too is ultimately hopeful, its production delicate and simple and its tempo upbeat. The band explain, ‘It’s a song about honouring a loved one’s legacy and spirit. There’s a lightness to it, as though it celebrates the joy of life rather than the sadness of death’.

Also picking up on the politics Tim dealt with on Living in Extraordinary Times – Tim having witnessed first-hand life in the US through the Trump years and the divisiveness and hatred stoked by the former President – the song ‘Miss America examines the country’s tarnished image through the prism of a beauty pageant, while the album’s title track addresses the rise of white supremacy in America. As Tim put it, ‘To go from the hope of Obama to Trump was radical, and I couldn’t keep it out of the songs if I’d tried’.

In fact, the new LP impresses from the moment the lead singer tells us, ‘We’re all going to die …’ I mean, what better way to open an album in 2021, I suggest to his long-time bandmate, Jim. He laughs at this, yet I add that there’s also a hint of an epic from the opening bars. It’s spiritual, it’s uplifting, and just what the world needs now. Was he similarly impressed on the first listen back?

“Yes, very much so. I think you’re right – to some degree the album does reflect the period we’ve been through, so there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s sad. Inherently, Tim’s reflections on things and how they’ve impacted on him. But at the same time, we wanted a record that was uplifting – the last thing we wanted to do was wallow in misery and darkness. That’s the last thing anybody needs right now.

“And I think Jacknife picked up on the fact that we wanted a lightness and a humour at times, not taking ourselves too seriously and getting that mixture sometimes where bits of the lyric might be dark or quite personal but with something underneath it that’s very positive. That’s kind of a trick we do a lot – when Tim comes up with a dark lyric or we write music that’s more uplifting, he tends to use that as an excuse to get something quite dark in.”

That’s Grammy award-winning producer Jacknife Lee he’s talking about there, best known for his work with U2, REM (he produced their final two albums), Taylor Swift, Snow Patrol, and The Killers.

On the title track, Tim tackles both the Trump-based Covid year and on-going Civil Rights struggle head on, characteristically animated. And by the time he’s talking about ‘your shit sticks to my shoe’, I’m punching the air. Perhaps this is the LP I’ve wanted Coldplay to make for a long time. Maybe Chris Martin needs to get a little more angry, follow Tim’s lead.

“Tim does get impacted by the things that go on around him and impact on society around him. He can’t help but reflect that. He’s been in the States and all through last year there was a whole heap of nonsense going on. So that’s going to be part of it and part of the record – was always going to reflect that.

“It will be different next time for whatever reason. He’s gone through various stages. Look at an album like Le Petit Morts, where he’s lost a couple of people who died. There’s a bit of death on this one as well, but if it’s something that impacts on him, it gets reflected, and he’s writing some really strong, clear powerful lyrics.”

You certainly lock into all that as a band, taking those songs forward, to great effect. And you’ve known each other so long now, you must be at a stage where you finish each other’s sentences or at least know when to hold back and not rile each other up, give each other more space.

“Yeah, like all good relationships I guess it’s a matter of spending time together but also learning to be apart, and nothing greater than this album, where we physically couldn’t be together, even if we wanted to, so we had to have a relationship where we were trying to complete the record.

“Fortunately, we got all the writing done before all this kicked off, so the bit where we have to be together – the four of us in the same room – was done, so we were lucky in that respect.

“So the next thing was pushing the songs forward, which we could do remotely, either individually or in pairs, and we did it all individually this time. Then what happens ordinarily is we find a producer, get a studio and we’ll stay somewhere nearby and all be round the corner and keep going in either because we’re needed or just to see how things are going and give input. But this time we couldn’t do that – that was a ‘no can do’ this time.

“So it was really Tim’s relationship with Jacknife, because he was just down the road, that was the prime band input, then Tim would come to me and some degree to Mark and Saul as well, and go, ‘This is where we’re at, what do you think?’. It was a lesson in letting go as much as anything, to be honest, and also it helped that the songs sounded great very early on.

“We got a lot of confidence in that to go, ‘This is great!’ We’re allowing him to put his own mark on it, we’re not too precious about it, and it’s going really well. If it wasn’t going really well, it would be different – ordinarily, you’d go in and sort it out, be there all day for a few days putting something back on track. Fortunately that wasn’t needed, so it’s been a bizarre experience to a large degree, as most people’s lives have been for the last 12 months, trying to find new ways of making it work within the confines of the restrictions you’ve got in front of you.”

Along the way, band members sent contributions down the line to Jacknife, from Saul’s violin to Andy Diagram’s trumpet, the producer left to his own devices building up songs, chopping, dicing, looping and replacing as he went, a virtual collaboration that ‘pushed us into new areas and made the album more extreme,’ as Jim put it.

As the producer himself said, ‘I was trying to find out how rock‘n’roll could sound if you incorporate digital editing possibilities, time stretching, changing context and just taking one bit and looping that,’ keen to ‘make the album sound fresh’ and highlight the music’s ‘strangeness’, Jim loving the ‘little splashes of primary colour’ Jacknife introduced, Tim adding, ‘We think we’ve made a masterpiece, but we can’t be trusted’.

I see Jacknife Lee is also about to release an LP under the name Telefis with my recent interviewee, Carl Coughlan, of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions fame, and now an accomplished solo artist. That’s another project that intrigues me. Is Jacknife someone you’ve known for a long time?

“No, Tim’s moved from LA now but he was in Topanga Canyon, where Jacknife was, so when we were looking at producers, there was a good list of different people we could have worked with, but it was all going to be completely remote. It could have been anywhere really. Whether it was London or New York or wherever, we wouldn’t see them … apart from Jacknife, who lived 20 minutes from Tim, and he was available. He wanted to stay at home – he didn’t want to go to a studio because his family were there. He wanted to create his own bubble. So we arrived just at the perfect time to say, ‘Do you fancy working on the record?’ and he gave us a kind of cheeky mates’ rate because otherwise there was no way we could afford him!”

It was clearly meant to be.

“Yeah, there’s this mad story …”

It’s a good one, set in Topanga Canyon, California, late evening, early 2020, with Tim Booth driving home, his mind fizzing from his first meeting with Jacknife Lee, who happened to live two miles away and had just agreed to work on James’s new album. Two women emerged from the darkness with a dog in tow and flagged the singer down. They’d seen and heard a rattlesnake on the unlit asphalt and couldn’t get past it, back up the road, in the direction from which Tim had come. He told them to hop in and turned the car around. It transpired that his passengers were Jacknife’s wife and daughter, out for an evening stroll. Call it dumb luck or a happy accident, but it made Tim smile. “It was one of those moments. I thought, ‘OK, this is looking promising.’” he said.

And it seems serendipity was James’ friend in 2020. Or as the press release accompanying the new record puts it, ‘Serendipity and a knack of overcoming obstacles, be they rattlesnakes or a global pandemic. With momentum behind them after a run of outstanding albums, James went into the year intent on upping their game further. They signed to a new label Caroline International and a new publisher Kobalt Music. They had demos ready for a new album. But then lockdown struck and Charlie Andrew, who produced 2018’s Living in Extraordinary Times, suddenly became unavailable. It seemed as though circumstances had left James high and dry. But that’s never been their way. Their management approached Jacknife. The fit was perfect. He and Tim could work together as almost-neighbours in California with the rest of the band contributing remotely from the UK. Circumstances be damned. Tim’s inkling was right. It was a match made in heaven’.

Jim, tells me the story too, adding, ‘It’s absolutely bonkers’.

“I think he felt obliged to do the album with us after that! It’s one of those mad things where two things happened really quickly and easily. He was free and just down the road from Tim, and he liked the demos, so we felt, ‘Let’s take it, let’s do it’. Tim could actually go and meet with him, spend a bunch of time with him, and I think that was a huge positive factor in all of us connecting, as opposed to handing it over to someone you’d never met and probably never would meet. The odd Zoom call was probably as good as it was going to get.”

I was running out of time by now, my own Zoom call soon to end, but in light of the splendid ‘Beautiful Beaches’ on the new record (I know there’s a far more serious theme there regarding climate change, forest fires and all that, but …), I asked if he was a beach or a mountain guy, bearing in mind his (far) north of the border abode.  

“Yeah, I mean we’re lucky where we live. Where we are is beautiful and we’re in the middle of nowhere – you can just walk out the door and straight into the mountains. It’s been amazing and this winter we had a lot of snow but also a lot of sunshine. It’s been really cold but there were loads of days where it’s been snowing outside but blue skies and sunshine, and if you wrap up it’s beautiful, absolutely stunning and really, really quiet. It’s quiet most of the time anyway, but just because no one could visit, there was nobody up there.

“I like the sunshine and hot holidays, but I am a mountain guy, and I like the remoteness and bleakness of the Scottish landscape, and the fact I can go for a six or seven hour walk and not see another soul. There’s a remoteness to the Highlands, there’s nobody there basically, the population is incredibly small – it’s half the landmass of Scotland and there’s 300,000 people living there. It’s very sparsely populated, partly due to the Highland Clearances.

“I think that will probably change, something like this last year will probably make people think, ‘Maybe we could live there’. Property is still relatively cheap, it’s a good place to bring up a family, there are good schools, there’s no crime … I’m amazed people haven’t twigged and piled over the border, to be honest!”

Coming from a North of England city where workers traditionally looked to escape to the hills when it was factory downtime – with a resultant rich history that included 1932’s Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, and all that – was the great outdoors seen as essential to you as a youth?

“It wasn’t really. I was very much a city kid, but my mum and dad took us on two holidays in Scotland and the second was two weeks on Skye. I was 15 and just fell in love with it. I hated it the first two days – me and my brother were going to leave, thinking, ‘This is terrible! There’s nothing to do!’ But I just fell in love with it and as the two weeks developed, I was completely sold. And as an adult I just came up as much as I could. That’s why I ended up getting a house there – every holiday I’d go up to that north west corner. I love all the Highlands and most of Scotland, but that north west coast I absolutely love.

“And it’s a part of Britain most people don’t know. You get on a plane, travel here, there and everywhere for holidays, but most people you speak to about Scotland will say, ‘Oh, I’ve been to Edinburgh’ or ‘I’ve been to Glasgow’. Maybe that’s to its advantage though. It’s quiet and I love it, but it does seem a very ignored part of Britain.

“And the islands – there are so many to visit, and they’ve all got different characters and mad little things going on. They’re all very different. Like Islay with the distilleries, especially if you’re a whisky drinker.”

Which you are, I’m guessing.

“Yeah, and I love all the peaty Islay malts. Ardbeg’s my favourite, Laphroaig, Lagavulin … I think there are 11 distilleries on a small island, for crying out loud – brilliant!

“And there’s Jura, where George Orwell wrote most of Nineteen Eighty-Four and nearly got killed there. There’s a whirlpool called the Corryvreckan. He went out in a rowing boat to have a look and nearly got pulled into it. And that’s a tiny island, there’s nothing there, but they’ve also got a distillery, although there are probably around four houses.

“Some of them are quite religious, The Wee Frees (Free Church of Scotland), and everything shuts on Sunday. There are old stories of chaining up the swings in the playground so kids can’t go enjoining themselves. It’s all very puritanical. Some are hippie communes where people have bought out the island and it’s all for one and one for all. They’ve all got very different characters …”

Jim was in full flow (those streams of whisky calling, maybe) at that point, but – almost inevitably – the screen froze, then his voice was gone too, your scribe left with a list of questions I didn’t quite get on to. Ah well. There’s always next time. And in the meantime, we have All the Colours of You to savour, its songs ‘among the most arena-ready in James’ 38-year history’.

What’s more, 30 years after the re-release of ‘Sit Down’ brought their commercial big-time breakthrough, a band that have sold more than 25 million albums over a 39-year career – have very quickly sold 60,000 tickets for their forthcoming UK arena tour scheduled for November and December, those dates having sold faster than any previous James tour.

All the Colours of You is out on June 4th, available in various standard and deluxe formats. To pre-order, head to https://james.lnk.to/AllTheColoursOfYouSo.

UK tour dates, with special guests Happy Mondays: Thu, November 25 – First Direct Arena, Leeds; Fri, November 26 – Utilita Arena, Birmingham; Sun, November 28 – Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff; Tue, November 30 –SSE Hydro, Glasgow; Wed, December 1 – 3Arena, Dublin; Fri, December 3 – Manchester Arena (sold out); Sat, December 4 – SSE Wembley Arena, London.

UK festivals: Thu, June 24 – Heritage Live, Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, London; Fri, July 30 – Playground Weekender, Rouken Glen Park, Glasgow; Sat, July 31 – Deer Shed Festival, Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, North Yorkshire; Sun, August 1 – Y Not Festival – Pikehall, Derbyshire; Sat, August 21 – Beautiful Days, Escot Park, Ottery St Mary, Devon; Thu, September 2 – Highest Point Festival, Lancaster, Lancashire;  Sat, September 4 – Warrington Neighbourhood Weekender; Thu, September 9 – Scarborough Open Theatre; Fri, September 17 – Isle of Wight Festival, Seaclose Park, Newport; Sat, September 18 – Visor Fest, Benidorm, Spain.

For further festival and tour date details and tickets, head to https://wearejames.com/live/. And for the latest from James, keep in touch via their website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

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Takes Two to tangle in Tākaka – in for the long haul with Tim Allen

Adding 11 hours to UK time to set up an interview when trying to work out the best options for both parties can create headaches. But technological advances eventually meant my chat with Lancashire lad turned New Zealand resident Tim Allen proved relatively painless.

In fact, I’ve had more problematic connections talking to Yorkshire-based interviewees.

While his home nation waits for the green light to live music again, Preston born and bred singer-songwriter Tim is getting along just fine in his adopted country.

Part way through a tour to promote latest single, ‘Love is a Pill’, he’s been out on the road on and off since March Fest in Nelson, South Island, making up for an earlier brief grounding after NZ Premier Jacinda Ardern made relatively light work of the coronavirus pandemic compared to her UK counterpart.

Tim’s teamed up with Music Planet to offer all ages matinee shows on afternoons of scheduled dates where the nationwide chain has music shops – playing 11 evening shows and six matinee acoustic sets in all. It’s a fresh approach, the venues chosen as far apart as Bar 605 in Auckland, North Island, and The Dog With Two Tails in Dunedin, way down south, which I make around 1,000 miles.

“We’ve done all that, then go back to Nelson (a sell-out at The Boathouse) and Tākaka (the Mussel Inn in nearby Onekaka) to end the tour, having added a few more as it’s New Zealand Music Month. But I’m working during the week, then doing that … and it’s killing me!”

Tim works as a builder and carpenter to make ends meet. Did he head Down Under with that trade behind him?

“Yeah, I did an apprenticeship. Music doesn’t always pay the bills, so I’ve something to fall back on.”

Is the word ‘tour’ a bit grand? Let’s face it, you must be up and down the roads of North and South Island most weekends.

“Well, we’re doing a big tour – aeroplanes, all that. We got funding from the New Zealand Music Commission to help pay for flights and that, which is pretty good.”

I couldn’t have seen such levels state sponsorship and national support back in the UK if you’d stayed in Lancashire.

“No, I don’t remember anything like that!”

The route he’s taking has me feeling nostalgic about my past world travels in the early and late ’90s, right up to his big finish. But then what? Is he recording another album?

“Yeah, we’re in the process of trying to do that, around two or three songs in, writing at the moment, and we’ve signed a distribution deal in Asia. I also run my own little label, Rubber Soul Recordings, helping me access funds for recording and releasing material, including some of my Dad’s stuff, soon as the tour is finished.”

He credits his Dad, Simon Allen, for introducing him to The Beatles, so Rubber Soul Recordings sounds a perfect name. And Tim followed Simon’s path to an extent, in Dad’s case mostly playing gigs around Preston.

“Until recently he was doing gigs down at Muldoon’s and the like, with a pub band. He was also in Fat Lad’s brother, who did quite a lot of touring, and before that Moscow Philharmonics in the ‘80s, playing The Marquee and all that.”

Tim is based just outside Auckland’s city centre. Has he plenty of work around there coming his way in the day job?

“Yeah, too much! I don’t want it – I want to do music! Since Covid, it’s all gone a bit weird, but the building industry is booming, and has been for 10 years.”

The new single, produced and engineered by former bandmate Ben King, is perhaps one of his more grungy moments, with hints of INXS for these ears, something I guess will go down well.

“Hopefully. When we play it live, people love it. I just got the riff and me and the drummer wrote it together in the rehearsal room. I was thinking more Black Sabbath. That’s what went through my head. And every time we play it, people say, ‘It’s a bit like the Black Keys.”

The All Black Keys, maybe. It’s certainly a mighty riff, and I get the feeling that’s a potential opening track on the new record.

“Probably, but we don’t know yet. We’ve just finished another. I put a monthly showcase on at Bar 605 in Auckland, and it’s owned by the bass player of Six60, a massive New Zealand band.”

Recognise that name? They were all over the news after selling out 50,000-capacity Eden Park, home of the All Blacks, a major celebration for a nation that famously clamped down early and kicked coronavirus into touch.

“They made history. They also played Western Springs twice before that. They’re now the most successful New Zealand band ever, even more than Crowded House.”

Are you a fan of Te Awamutu’s Neil Finn and his band?

“Massively. Really, it’s a bit weird that I live over here now. My Dad’s a massive Neil and Tim Finn fan, and Neil’s got a studio in Auckland, Roundhead, where I’ve done a few sessions.”

Did you get to see them on their recent NZ tour (again, a nation showing off that they haven’t got Boris Johnson in charge, methinks)?

“I didn’t. It’s one of those things – you wish to see them all your life, then when they’re on your doorstep, you can’t get there!”

Incidentally, Tim also sang recently on ‘Clear To Me’ by TheAfter, alongside Eddie Rayner, who featured in NZ national treasures (and Tim and Neil Finn’s breakthrough outfit) Split Enz.

As for the new Tim Allen and the Two single, what’s the outlying message to ‘Love is a Pill? Pensive post-Covid thinking that the best remedies get us through the most severe tests, perhaps?

“Yeah, definitely!”

Talking of deep questions, who are the Two? As far as I can tell, Tim Allen and the Two is just you and your drummer, fellow English ex-pat Freddie Green, who was with The Dirty Youth from 2014 to 2018, and also tour-manged much-touted Reading outfit The Amazons..

“It’s just a name really, but we sometimes play as a three-piece. We also played the first gig in March Fest, but the name’s just a bit of a joke really.”

A bit like successful ‘80s outfit, the Thompson Twins, who had most of their success as a three-piece, with Auckland-born Alannah Currie a key member?

“Erm … someone was asking about them a while ago actually.”

I get the impression from that response that they were before his time, leading me to ask Tim how old he is. He confided that he’s 40 in a few weeks, adding ‘but don’t put that in’. Don’t worry, Tim, your secret’s safe with me. Moving on, how did he end up working with Freddie?

“He’s got quite a background. He’s from Andover but was in The Dirty Youth, from South Wales. When Marshall, the amps people, started their own label, they were the first signing, around four years ago. He was also a tour manager for The Amazons, and like me, he moved here. He worked at a music shop and I was in Hangar 18, who did a lot of touring in Asia, with their guitarist his manager.

“We met at a gig. We were a similar age, we got on, and when I needed a band for my album release – my previous band were doing their own thing – I thought I’d give him a shout, knowing he played drums.”

Was that previous band the ones with you on the ‘Low Man’ promo video?

“Actually, those were some guys I knew from the pub really!”

Well, they looked the part.

“Yeah! They’re good lads.”

I’ve only recently caught up on Tim’s back-catalogue, and deduce from what I’ve heard that he should be a lot bigger. There are some cracking singles there, from the brass-tinged radio power pop of ‘Place to Lay My Head’ and The Coral-like indie of ‘Low Man’ to a more plaintive Chris Isaak meets David Gray poignancy on ‘Ghost’ …

“Ah, everyone loves that one.”

 In short, he’s no one-trick pony. There are lots of styles in there, and he has a great voice.

“Well, I’ve been chipping away at it for a long time. I recorded that first album in Preston in 2011, but only released it in 2013 when I came over. I guess I’ve just been writing songs for a long time.”

Was the brass on that first track mentioned – from his debut LP It’s All About Time – down to producer Alan Gregson (best known for his work with Cornershop and Russell Watson) at West Orange Studios?  

“Yeah, it wasn’t the original West Orange down in Ashton. He built a studio at his house. That was fairly new then, near The Saddle pub. But Alan lives in France now.”

Did you study music in college?

“I left school, failed my GCSEs, then went to Newman College in Preston, studying music production and doing GCSE resits. But I got chucked out – l had something ridiculous like 98% attendance for music but single figures for the rest of the subjects. Then I did an apprenticeship, one day a week at Preston College, doing a joinery apprenticeship.”

Tim had formed a duo at high school with best friend Kurt Czarnota, and was writing songs by the time he was 15, their duo The Little Kings going on to release two EPs and play on the Manchester and Liverpool circuit. At one stage he became a circuit regular – not least as a solo artist – at venues like the Academy 3, Night and Day, Late Room, and the Roadhouse. Does he miss all that?

“I do, definitely. Actually, I went back to the Night and Day when I came back to England, playing a gig. And there’s nothing like all that.”

As a solo act, acoustic shows followed around London before his New Zealand move. Are his first Kiwi band Stormporter still together?

“No, we did two singles then went our separate ways, but we’re still in contact, and Tony Thorburn did the graphics for our albums, singles and posters. And he suggested Ben King.”

Ben, also with Goldenhorse and Grand Rapids, went on to produce Tim, as well as feature in his studio band alongside Pluto pair Milan Borich and Matthias Jordan.

I gather the video for ‘Ghost’ was filmed in level three lockdown in Henderson. Is that where you live?

“It’s not far off, a few minutes’ drive away, where the guy doing the video was. It was a nightmare really – I just got the album together, the publishing company wanted to do a big campaign, then fucking Covid came along!”

That was the splendid The Last Bastion of a Lad, released in June 2020. Did the lockdown ultimately help or hinder that LP’s progress?

“I think it hindered me, playing-wise, although we did manage to get a little tour in. That’s when I first started playing with Freddie though, so that helped – we sparked up a musical relationship. And it did well on the streams.”

What’s it like to be in a nation where the Prime Minister seemed to get it all right regarding reacting to the coronavirus pandemic?

“It’s brilliant. Most people love her, and I think she’s great. I met her before she was Prime Minister. She was campaigning and came into my son’s pre-school. I’ve a picture of me, my son and her.”

His son, Jackson is now eight, a ‘full-on Kiwi’, his name down to his grandma’s maiden name (don’t try and hack his bank account – that won’t work) and ‘the fact I was listening to lots of Jackson Browne at the time’.

Tim’s currently working, via Zoom, with UK-based songwriter Henry Priestman, of The Christians fame. And there’s a man with an impressive CV.

“Yeah, he wrote a lot of Christians songs and was in a band called Yachts who toured with Bowie, The Who, all sorts.”

How did that alliance come about?

“I just asked him! I sent him The Last Bastion of a Lad, and he liked it. His latest solo album did quite well here. It’s actually a Christians song he was working on just before he left, and it’s now going to be one of my songs.”

If you type in ‘Tim Allen’ on computer search engines and song services, you tend to drift between your songs and live routines from your American comedian and actor namesake. Does that work both ways, with those looking for the other Tim Allen finding you?

“I don’t know, but there’s actually a third Tim Allen out there. Recently, with my music distributed via The Orchard, part of Sony, it goes to this other guy. I’ve tried to contact YouTube, but it’s impossible. He’s got all my music on his page. So yeah, there’s a third imposter!”

I’ve got news for you, Tim – I found one more when I looked for you on Instagram (Tim’s proper links are added at the end of this feature). You might have to add a middle name.

“I should have done that right from the beginning. A bit late now!”

Is ‘Different Shore’, which opened the last LP – imagine Paolo Nutini fronting Thin Lizzy, and you’re not far off – you being a little homesick?

“I think so, but I actually wrote that in my Dad’s house at Preston. I came home for 12 weeks after splitting with my son’s mother. I had visa issues and didn’t even know if I was coming back to New Zealand or where I was basically. A long time ago now though.”

Just taking a few great songs from that LP, ‘Get Out Clause’ is more Joe Jackson but with early Paul Weller type gruffness; ‘Won’t Let You Win’ – one of three singles on the LP – has a Doves-type vibe, but perhaps more crossover and should be a hit; and ‘Searching’ is arguably your take on Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, with added sax. All of which seems to back up my earlier argument about a wide variety of influences.

“I don’t set out to write a song in a specific genre. I just write a song, see what comes out. I’ve been writing with different people, and the producers you work with bring their own stuff, so everything evolves. A bit of variety!”

Silly question maybe, but what made you swap the delights of the North West for North Island, New Zealand? You went to London and it didn’t quite work out?

“Sort of, but I was doing alright in London, although a bit stale. I was living in Camden, loved it, and was dating a Kiwi girl who wanted to go home. I weighed it up, decided to try it. That’ll be 10 years this November.”

Are you a full citizen now?

“Last week my residency came through. That’s a massive weight off my mind. Work visas are a nightmare, but I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Did it help having the building work behind you, rather than being a roving musician?

“It did, but a lot of the stuff was down to my music, going through the Music Commission and that.”

When are you returning to the UK’s different shores (pandemic resurgences willing)?

“I don’t know, to be honest. Hopefully Christmas, but I can’t do the three weeks in quarantine.”

And you don’t want them stopping you get back in after being with the ‘unclean’ here.

“Ha! Well, I am going to Raratonga for my 40th. I’m just looking at flights. They’ve just opened a travel bubble in the Cook Islands.”

Rub it in, why don’t you, Tim. You’re clearly loving it there, and living a bit of a life.

“Yeah, trying to … and keeping out of trouble.”

Is ‘Love is a Pill’ a good example of what we might get on the new LP?

“It’ll be a bit of a mixed bag, I think. The next song we’ve done with a new producer. It’ll probably be a mix of Ben King and Chris Mac, the bass player of Six60. The last one had Ben play bass – he’s also an unbelievable bass player – and we let Chris produce it, and he wants to do the next one, but he’s so busy at the moment, an in-demand producer.”

And when you’re on the road these days, it’s not just a case of being stuck in the back of a van, it would seem.

“No, we’re flying most places, although I drove one leg of the tour.”

Sure beats tackling the M6 and the M62.

“Yeah, although once you’ve been on 30 aeroplanes, it gets a bit boring.”

My heart bleeds for you … but I’m looking forward to the next record.

For more about Tim Allen and the Two, head to Tim’s Facebook page, hop over to Spotify, check out his YouTube links, follow him via Soundcloud, and Instagram, and also check out www.freddiegreenmusic.com.

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A mighty long way from home – remembering Stoned Rose with Pete Hughes

“It’s a mighty long way down the dusty trail …”

Preston Roots: Stoned Rose, way back. From left – Mick Carroll, Chris Allen, John McAuley, Pete Hughes

So wrote Ian Hunter back in 1973 in ‘All the Way From Memphis’, the band’s second top-10 single, Mott the Hoople by then firmly established, barely a year after they considered splitting.

In their case, David Bowie’s gift of ‘All the Young Dudes’ made the difference, the Brixton-born Bromley boy – on the back of success with Hunky Dory – seeing something in this formidable outfit on his first Mott live sighting in my Surrey hometown in April ’72 that others were seemingly slow to grasp.

But that dusty trail was littered with many a rock’n’roll casualty, and among them was a band by the name of Stoned Rose that supported Mott at Liverpool Stadium a year before that pivotal Guildford Civic Hall date (that story retold by Campbell Devine’s splendid 2019 Rock’n’Roll Sweepstakes authorised biography from Omnibus Press). However, don’t think for one moment the band would be bitter about any of that. One would go on to make his name – several years down the line – with Ultravox, and it turns out that this Preston-based outfit would still be remembered five decades on.

And here follows the amazing tale of the two Lancashire lads behnd that band, who paid their dues on that late ‘60s/early ‘70s music scene, playing with an array of big-name acts without breaking through, and going on to score a surprise hit 10,000 miles from home.

Then, half a century after recording their initial demo tapes, one of their early tracks was picked up again, getting a debut official release, much to the surprise of surviving co-founder Pete Hughes.

The name Stoned Rose might not mean much to you, wondering if you’ve misheard and I might be talking about a certain Manchester band who shook up the international scene in the late ‘80s. But in a sense that was, as Ian Brown suggested, ‘The Resurrection’, with the band I’m focusing on making their name at the tail-end of the ‘60s, straight out of Bamber Bridge and Ribbleton, Preston.

Their story was largely forgotten … until now, with the imminent release of a new compilation from Grapefruit, the David Wells-fronted bespoke psych/garage-era imprint of Cherry Red Records, including previously-unreleased Stoned Rose track ‘Day to Day’.

Grapefruit has built a reputation of late for career anthologies and definitive versions of rare and classic LPs from 1966-70 packaged with eye-catching artwork, rare photos, detailed liner-notes and master-tape sound quality.

And its 53-track I’m A Freak Baby 3: A Further Journey Through the British Heavy Psych and Hard Rock Underground Scene, 1968-1973 triple-CD boxset – in a clamshell box with a lavish 40-page booklet – is no exception, the third instalment of pioneering hard rock from the nascent British underground including acts synonymous with the stoner, free festival element of the counterculture, such as seminal underground stalwarts Mick Farren and The Deviants, Edgar Broughton Band, Pink Fairies, and Hawkwind.

Then there are those heard honing their sound before finding success, such as an embryonic Deep Purple, a teenage Free, first-LP Thin Lizzy, Lemmy fronting Sam Gopal, pre-fame Mott the Hoople, and old-stagers The Yardbirds’ 1968 live take on ‘Dazed And Confused’, a song Jimmy Page would take on to his next band.

You’ll also find UFO, Nazareth, Uriah Heep, Chicken Shack, Stackwaddy and Procol Harum, among others, and many acts long since attracting record collector interest, their LPs now going for huge sums. And then there are those that wouldn’t get as far as attracting record companies, with Stoned Rose among them.

There’s no denying that Pete Hughes, now 70, is made up with his band’s inclusion, but there’s added poignancy, Stoned Rose co-founder Mick ‘Caz’ Carroll having died in late 2018, aged 68.

“He’d have been buzzing about this. He would have found it unbelievable, someone picking up on something we did 50 years ago and considering it good enough to be put on a very credible album. Like me, he would have been philosophical about it – he wouldn’t have been jumping up and down, thinking, ’Wow, we’re going to be pop stars again’. But it’s nice for people to hear what we were doing in those days. It deserved to be heard at the time.

“And it’s not like it’s coming out on next-door-but-one’s record label. It’s going out all over the world. Mick was the lead singer, and his vocal on ‘Day to Day’ is fantastic. He had a fabulous voice, and back then it was more Robert Plant-like. And we carried on writing songs from there, touring the world.”

Was there a day-job outside music for father and grandfather Mick?

“When we did all the Ritzi stuff and before, we were full-time. But he had a degree in psychology, studying while in the band, going to college, then working at Runshaw College, Leyland for quite a few years, helping students, trained in counselling. He was good at that and very popular. And at his funeral there were so many people, it was unbelievable.”

Pete was out walking his dog near his home in Walton-le-Dale when I called, telling me ‘songwriting partner and musical cohort’ Mick had been a close friend ‘since we were kids’, the pair initially forming One Step Beyond in 1967, that outfit in time becoming Stoned Rose. But how did it all start?

“We met at Preston Catholic College. Somehow, we both passed our 11-plus in 1962. I was from Bamber Bridge, he was from Ribbleton. We became friends around ‘63/’64, writing songs together from a very early age. We had two things in common that we loved – music and Preston North End.”

A self-taught player, Pete – whose first major influence was The Shadows, learning their songs and buying sheet music as he sharpened his playing skills – has fond memories of the Watkins Rapier electric guitar his parents bought him not long after his 12th birthday in late 1962 from Greenwood’s music shop.

“I’d look at it in the window going to school in Winckley Square, drooling. I adored it, and Mum and Dad bought it for me that Christmas. My cousin was older and we lived together at one stage. He was into Marty Wilde, early Cliff Richard, Billy Fury. I liked all that but when I heard ‘Wonderful Land’ and ‘Apache’, it completely blew me away. Until this day it still does whenever I hear those songs, still getting that magic feeling.

Rose Revival: Pete Hughes, outside the Walton Fox in Bamber Bridge (Photo: Daevid Goral Barker)

“Mick’s first big influence was The Kinks. I’d stop over at his house when we were kids, around 1964. and we’d try to emulate them. The other big influence on me as a songwriter was Bob Dylan. I loved his songs and those abstract lyrics that created such imagery.”

Were you always aware of Mick’s voice, or did it take a while for him to gain that confidence?

“He was always a confident singer. First time we got on stage together was at a Mormon chapel on Ribbleton Lane, which was actually more like a scout hall. My uncle was a Mormon bishop and some of my family were Mormons. There was me, Mick and two girls, playing acoustic guitars, doing around four songs we’d written.”

With the addition of drummer John McAuley – these days in good stead and based in Southport, Pete tells me – they formed One Step Beyond, initial bass player Alan Smith in time replaced by Steve Woodworth, who was on board for around a year until he went to university in London, the band soon becoming Stoned Rose.

“We put an advert in Melody Maker, had answers from all over the country, and ultimately got a guy from Tottenham, Chris Allen, who after Stoned Rose split, returned to London, met Dennis Leigh and formed Tiger Lily, who after a couple of years got a deal with Island Records and became Ultravox. The rest is history.”

There were several name changes before New York Dolls-influenced glam-rockers Tiger Lily became Ultravox! and then Ultravox, by which time Dennis – originally from Chorley, Lancashire, but studying at the RCA – was known as John Foxx and Chris, who first became Chris St John, was Chris Cross. But that’s another story. Right now, I’m more intrigued how Stoned Rose tempted Chris up to Lancashire in the first place. Preston must have been a bit of a backwater for this North London lad back then.

“It would have been. But we became very good mates and I got to know his Mum and Dad, as we’d sometimes go down to Tottenham. His brother, Jeff Allen, was the drummer in Hello, who had a couple of hits, the biggest ‘New York Groove’. I always thought it amazing that two working-class kids from Turnpike Lane ended up on Top of the Pops with different groups. And I knew Tiger Lily from day one, and recall being at Chris’ house when he got to know Dennis, Billy Currie and Warren Cann.”

Is there truth in the rumour that a certain band from Manchester picked up on your band name and a decade or so after you split twisted it a little for their own?

“Ha! Cherry Red asked that, and I haven’t a clue. It’s just one of those things. It could just have been an amazing coincidence. If a band out of Southern California had come up with The Stone Roses, you’d think fair play. But when it’s a band 30 miles down the road from where we were, and the fact that we used to play in Manchester and Liverpool quite a lot …

“The guys in that band would have been to young, but I always thought maybe one of the dads, uncles or older brothers might have seen or heard of us. It was an unusual name. I suspect someone remembered it. But it’s possibly just coincidence.”

Lining Up: The first Ultravox LP, with exclamation mark, caught by Gered Mankowitz‘s iconic 1977 image

And five decades later it turns out that Stoned Rose haven’t been forgotten anyway, Pete sending three tracks recorded on a reel-to-reel demo tape to set the ball rolling for a much-belated release, telling me, “It came out quite well seeing as there was no production or studio – it was just recorded live.”

What’s more, he’s hoping there may be more good news soon, Cherry Red interested in putting out a limited-edition vinyl LP.

“We only have three songs recorded by One Step Beyond, but I’ve 11 by Stoned Rose, five with Chris Allen on bass. Whether that happens or not I don’t know, but it’s work in progress.”

Did you see your original groups as psychedelic rock bands?

“We did more psychedelic type material with One Step Beyond, for instance a song called ‘Heaven Is Pink Primroses and is Everyone’s Sunset’.”

Was that around the time Status Quo had their hit with ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’?

“Yes, in fact we played with Quo just after. Psychedermic, we’d call all that! The songs were a bit hippie. It was that era. We did around 50% our songs, 50% covers, songs like ‘Paper Sun’. We started out around the youth clubs of Preston, getting promoted into working men’s clubs, getting a bit more money. By ‘68 we were playing lots of clubs in Liverpool, doing regular gigs at the original Cavern, the Blue Angel, Litherland Town Hall, all those iconic ‘60s venues. Around 1969, the band split, morphing into the heavier Stoned Rose, performing songs we had as One Step Beyond and new material.”

Always a live draw, Stoned Rose featured in Sounds and shared bills with lots of big-name bands. Why did they split? Were they just not getting a break?

“We played all around the country – in Peterborough one night, Brighton the next, then London. We were all over, living in the van, with no money to stay in hotels. If we turned up at a gig we’d try to get someone to put us up. We played with loads of bands, doing lots of gigs with Blonde on Blonde, Quiver before they became the Sutherland Brothers, Lindisfarne, Fairport Convention.

Blues Club: A May 1970 listing for Stoned Rose at Preston club Amethyst, and all for just four bob

“But the bands that stood out to me who became well known included Canned Heat, who we did a gig with when they were over from America, playing Manchester Uni not long before Al Wilson died. And as well as Status Quo, who became massive, there was Judas Priest – who were on the same level but went on to unbelievable success – and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. And he was a wild guy!”

I’m not sure many venues would get the insurance to put him on today, what with his legendary pyro-antics.

“Possibly not. I remember he started his show on a cross, leaping off amid a load of strobe lights. He was great, a real one-off. And I still do a lot of work with another iconic guy from that era, Geno Washington, still going strong.”

More of all that shortly, but first, how about the band Pete felt stood out among all the others in those days, a legendary outfit with Herefordshire roots, sharing a bill on Saturday, April 3rd, 1971, on a night that legendary Mancunian, CP Lee’s breakthrough band also featured … and all for 65p.

“We only played with Mott the Hoople once, at Liverpool Stadium. Chris Allen was in the band then, before they made it, before ‘All the Young Dudes’ was a hit. But they were already a cult band. We did this gig with them and a bunch of other bands, including Greasy Bear, an up-and-coming band from Manchester. We went on immediately before Mott, did a good set, went down well and were buzzing, thinking we were the bee’s knees, saying to each other, ‘Let’s see if they can follow that’.

“They were in the same dressing room, getting the thigh-length boots on, all that stuff. Me and Caz went out, sat in the crowd, Mott the Hoople came on, opened up and within 30 seconds or so it was, ‘OK boys, back to the drawing board. This is how a real band does it.’

“They were absolutely brilliant, they blew us away, the best band I’d seen at that time. But one thing I will say which was in their favour – though it doesn’t necessarily make you a better band – we turned up with a 100 watt Marshall PA system, as everyone had to use their own, but they had a 1,000 watt PA. Bands play in pubs now with that wattage, but fucking hell … it was mind-blowing!”

Stoned Rose battled on, but perhaps luck had deserted them, Pete and Mick soon seeking another way to try and make it.

Big Night: Stoned Rose and Greasy Bear joined Mott the Hoople, April 1971. But there was only one winner

“When Stoned Rose split, we decided to concentrate on songwriting, without a band, to see if we could get a publishing deal rather than a record deal. We were always good songwriters – more so than being great musicians. We’d knock around with Judas Priest, and were with an agency in Birmingham run by Tony Iommi, us and Priest the main upcoming bands.

“But it was wrong place, wrong time, and one thing led to another, so eventually we decided to write something Frank Sinatra or anyone could sing. And Ritzi was more about quality pop songs, played in various styles. We weren’t rock or heavy metal.

“We recorded an acoustic demo, five songs, and hawked it around London, meeting various publishing companies, getting quite a lot of interest and going with April Music, the publishing arm of CBS. That led us to do a lot of demos at CBS’ studios just off Tottenham Court Road in London, just me and Mick with a session drummer, keyboard player and various other session players.

“And the very first song written in that genre was ‘Too Much Fandango’, the most successful song we ever did. April Music struck a deal with Warner Bros to release it, with a song called ‘Wrongly Accused’ on the B-side. That came out in the UK to fantastic reviews, but Radio 1’s playlist panel turned it down. And if you didn’t get on that at the time, you might as well forget it.

“It did get one or two plays when it came out and was starting to sell, but they didn’t have the same independent radio stations in those days. I think if it had been played on Radio 1 it would have been a hit. But there you go. It did however become a big hit in Australia in 1975, where it did get radio airplay.

“When we did that, we didn’t even have a band – it was me, Caz and these session musicians, including the violin player from the Electric Light Orchestra. There was also a Spanish version, ‘Mucho Fandango’, by an Israeli all-girl band, that proved popular in Spain, our song also making the lower end of the charts for Ritzi in Argentina.”

I should add that according to the discogs.com listing, the Spanish language version was actually called ‘Demasiado Fandango’.

In time, Ritzi would also involve Fylde-based Phil Enright, aka Phil Free, who they’d initially approached to join Stoned Rose before taking on Chris Allen. He’d turned them down and moved to Canada at the time. Which seems a bit extreme.

Ritzi’s success led to a London move, rehearsing at renowned West London studio NOMIS and living in a Kensington mews-house owned by an Australian couple, fans of the band who were only too happy for them to be there. 

“We did lots of other styles with Ritzi, not just acoustic or violin-based. We were more synthesiser-orientated as we got more into the ‘80s. In time, me and Caz were joined by Phil, drummer Pete ‘The Fong’ Long (and before that Steve Wilks), and Chris Skornia on keyboards, who later joined The Boyfriends then saw success with The Truth (as led by Nine Below Zero singer Dennis Greaves). And he was replaced by Nigel Sawyer from Swindon, a friend of XTC’s who it was rumoured they had in mind with ‘Making Plans for Nigel’.”

There are a few Ritzi numbers online, the most recent, ‘The Stroll’, just involving Pete and Mick, recording with The Lurkers’ Nigel Moore (bass) and ‘Manic Esso’ (drums), with added keyboard from Nigel Sawyer, who died in September 2019, shortly before Mick Carroll.

Stadium Rockers: Mott the Hoople, bill-toppers and also featured on the latest Cherry Red compilation

By the early ‘80s though, Pete had swapped Ritzi for a new career as an agent, booking many famous bands down the years. He now works for Rock Artist Management, having known colleague with Pete Barton since the latter’s days in the band Cavern, who were fronted by stalwart John Lennon tribute act Gary Gibson.

“When we came back from London, my girlfriend at the time said this band was playing at The Moonraker, a big Preston pub. So we went to see Cavern, with Gary Gibson the lead singer. I became their manager, having lots of connections in London. They thought of themselves as a local band, but I thought more of them. Me and Caz wrote songs for them and I got them a record deal. They brought out ‘No Reason to Cry’, a three-song EP we wrote that got Radio 1 airplay, Mike Read becoming a good friend.

“I then went to New York for the first time – I got a train from Bamber Bridge to Preston, another to Manchester Airport, got on a plane to Newark, New Jersey, got on a bus to a bus station in central Manhattan, walking out of there not knowing whether to turn left or right, not knowing a soul. But that week I met an agent, Pat George from Boston, a friend of a friend who arranged to meet me, signing a contract there and then for Cavern to do a four-week stint at the Forty Thieves club in Hamilton, Bermuda that July.

“Pete Barton had just joined Cavern – he was about 19 – and in time became a successful agent himself. Where I went with Ritzi Artist Management, Pete formed Rock Artist Management, and we always stayed close.”

The two Petes remain busy on that front, working with the likes of promoter AGMP, their current clientele including The Boomtown Rats, The Blockheads, Blow Monkeys, the afore-mentioned Geno Washington, Hawkwind, Bad Manners, Toyah Willcox, and From The Jam.

And both still play to this day, pandemics aside, with Pete H occasionally out on the road for ‘60s circuit outfit The New Mindbenders, with Chris Jopson, Clarke Taylor and Alan Davis.

“The band started out backing Wayne Fontana. But we were playing in a band called The Shout, featuring former members of Cavern, whom I managed. We put a band together, with Pete Barton on lead vocals and Graham Pollock on guitar, and I ended up on guitar. Wayne saw us play a music festival in a Blackpool holiday camp, a ‘60s week with different headliners every night. I think we were playing The Star, by the Pleasure Beach, and he turned up to watch us, offering us the gig to back him.

“I didn’t actually play with Wayne. I was with The Easybeats at the same time, but when I left them, Wayne had come away from that band. Sadly, his wife had died. But the band decided to continue and wanted me to rejoin.

Ritzi Crackers: Pete Hughes, second right, and his Ritzi pals, including co-writer Mick Carroll, second left

“That was around 1985, and then Eric Haydock joined us, a founder member of The Hollies. By then, Pete (Barton) was on drums, singing lead vocals until he left to join The Swinging Blue Jeans, so we needed a drummer and a singer, and Mick (Carroll) had the perfect voice for singing those Hollies songs. And because The Hollies had so many hits, we changed the name to the Eric Haydock Band.”

Incidentally, the two Petes have also had links down the years with Slade, and were lined up to play shows with Don Powell after his much-publicised fall-out with Dave Hill last year, before the Covid lockdown and Don’s health saw those gigs put back … at least for a while.

Looking back on those Ritzi years and everything before and after, was it as your big hit suggested, a case of ‘too much fandango, tequila and tango’ in the end? Or did you never get to live that life?

“I think we pretty much did.”

You practiced what you preached?

“We certainly tried to. And when I look back at my career … I’ve been in the music business since 1967, originally part-time, then full-time with Stoned Rose onwards – although I did a brief stint of working for about six to nine months in 1978 – I’ve managed to make a living out of music and being a musician, or being an agent, or a bit of both.”

What was that brief day job?

“I worked at Baxi’s in Bamber Bridge. I was signing on but didn’t want a job, went to the dole office and they sent me down to Baxi’s for an interview. I thought I’d be alright – they wouldn’t want to take me on. I think it was a Thursday or Friday. I showed total disinterest in what they said, then they hit me with, ‘OK, that’s fine, start at 7.30 on Monday’. What! I had to do it, or they’d have stopped my dole money. And I did quite enjoy it.”

Did that sharpen your resolve to carry on in music?

“Yes, and even when I look at my contemporaries like Chris (Allen), who made serious money – and I know a lot of people who did – I’ve no regrets.”

Did you not think, ‘That could have been me’, or were you always happy with your lot?

“I was never jealous of anyone. That’s not in my nature. I always thought, ‘Good on you!’. And Chris is a great guy. Besides, when I look back, I find it remarkable how from picking up that guitar when I was 11 or 12, if I’d never done that, my life would have been so different. I never achieved mega-fame or fortune, but I’ve always made a good living out of it. And when I look back at what I’ve done, it amazes me. I’ve been all over the world – Europe and Scandinavia, the Far East, America, Australia, all these places …”

So you did finally get Down Under, the land of your biggest hit.

“Yes, we did two tours of Australia as members of the Eric Haydock Band – myself and Mick. And we always played ‘Too Much Fandango’. The first tour was about five weeks and the second about 10 to 12 weeks – a lot of shows.

“The Hollies had that many hits that we could do an hour of those. But we did an acoustic spot, mid-show, when Eric and the drummer would go off, leaving me, Mick and Graham (Pollock) from Cavern, The Shout, and The Mindbenders, with two guitars and three-part harmonies.

“We’d do ‘King Midas in Reverse’ and another Hollies song, ‘Too Young to be Married’, a big hit in Australia, and we’d do ‘Too Much Fandango’. And the response everywhere we went when we did that was unbelievable – everybody knew it. Loads of people came up to us after the show, saying, ‘I can’t believe we’ve just met the guys from Ritzi!’

“It always went down a bomb. There were TV interviews too, and they spent more time talking about that song than The Hollies. One couple came up to me at the bar at this Twin Towns venue in Coolangatta on the Gold Coast, and said, ‘That’s always been our song, from that beautiful summer of ‘75 when we met. We were on the beach and everywhere we went ‘Too Much Fandango’ was playing. It’s always been a special song to us.’

“They were fans of The Hollies and travelled a long way to this gig, setting off in the early hours of the morning, and this fella said, ‘Before we set off from home, we actually played that song. But the last thing we expected was to meet the guys who recorded and wrote it’.

“That means more than money to me – for someone on the other side of the world to be touched like that. It’s funny to think that a song we wrote in my mum’s house in Bamber Bridge became really special to people on the other side of the world.”

With thanks to Gordon Gibson at Action Records for suggesting I got in touch with Pete Hughes; friend of this website and Deadwood Dog music maestro Daevid Goral Barker for the new image of Pete; and Matt Ingham at Cherry Red.

Ladder Days: Ritzi seek the next flight up, post-Fandango. Pete Hughes and Mick Carroll hang on in there

I’m A Freak Baby 3: A Further Journey Through the British Heavy Psych and Hard Rock Underground Scene 1968-1973 is out on June 25 via Cherry Red in triple-CD boxset format, priced £19.99, with a pre-order link at https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/im-a-freak-baby-3-a-further-journey-through-the-british-heavy-psych-and-hard-rock-underground-scene-1968-1973-3cd-box-set/. And for more about Ritzi and the acts that preceded them, try http://www.ritzi.uk/.

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Meeting Tim Keegan at Gate 2021 – the Departure Lounge interview

Lounge Wizards: Departure Lounge. From left – Chris Anderson, Tim Keegan, Jake Kyle, Lindsay Jamieson (Photo: Jim Kirby)

This time last year, it seemed as if we couldn’t move on the internet without some band or solo artist giving living room performances amid the first lockdown.

It’s amazing how soon that became part of our musical world, as was the case for videos featuring bands performing separately but collaboratively in different locations via the wonders of Zoom.

And while we’re a bit more blasé about all that now, recent highlights for me involved early viewings of ‘Australia’, the super-catchy latest single from Departure Lounge, and the band’s ‘bubble pals’ Tim Keegan and Chris Anderson hosting an intimate but lateral flow-friendly online launch event celebrating new LP, Transmeridian, their first in 19 years.

Performing ‘live and direct from a living room in the South of England’, the Worthing-based bandmates – with occasional input from Tim’s son Quincy – played a cracking set of old and new Departure Lounge numbers, selections from the latest addition to the collection equally impressive. 

The new album features all four originals – Tim, Chris, Jake Kyle and Lindsay Jamieson – and even guest performer Peter Buck on ‘Australia’, appearing remotely down the line from Portland, Oregon, the REM guitar legend a long-standing admirer of this treasured UK outfit, who disbanded in 2003 but are now very much back with us again.

Singer-songwriter Tim has recorded and performed with various bands and as a solo artist down the years, past collaborations including those with Robyn Hitchcock – an earlier version of Departure Lounge opening his sets and backing him in the mid-‘90s – and The Blue Aeroplanes.

Setting out with his ‘university band’ Railroad Earth in my hometown of Guildford, Surrey, in 1988, that combo morphed into Ringo in 1992, their sole LP, Call It Home, recorded in Boston, Massachusetts. But within two years Tim had started again, as a solo artist and working alongside a number of other musicians before forming Homer with Patrick ‘Patch’ Hannan of revered indie darlings The Sundays, Andy Metcalfe of the Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians (hence the initial link), Andrew Claridge, and future Departure lounge bass player Jake Kyle.

During that period, Homer played on Robyn Hitchcock’s Moss Elixir album and toured with him, opening shows before backing the main act. In time, they became Tim Keegan & the Homer Lounge, Tim and Jake joined by Daron ‘Drugstore’ Robinson and Lindsay Jamieson (formerly of Jim Jiminee, The Deep Season and Supermodel), their two CD EPs eventually reworked on debut Departure Lounge LP Out of Here in 1999, by which time Chris Anderson (also ex-Supermodel) was on board, the band also supporting Hitchcock’s US tour in 1999.

An Out of There EP followed, fused with the first LP for revised US album Out of There (yep, it’s confusing – the band scoring different UK and US deals, Tim seeing Out of Here as the definitive LP, adding, ‘If you have that and the UK-released EP, Out of There, that’s got all the stuff’) in 2000, followed by 2001’s instrumental LP Jetlag Dreams, recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, the first of two Bella Union releases, followed by the Kid Loco-produced Too Late To Die Young in 2002, all receiving warm critical praise.

By then, Lindsay had settled in Nashville, the others had returned home, and it was all over by 2003 … or so it seemed until September 2019, a reunion to mark 20 years since the debut LP leading to new songs being recorded on the back of those celebratory shows. And with the help of a publishing deal advance, the original quartet booked a few days in a studio, jumped in Chris’ car and headed west, to Peter Miles’ Middle Farm Studios in Devon, most of Transmeridian recorded during the first 24-hour session, as Tim explained on the sleevenotes.

“We hadn’t expected to make an album – we came to the studio with one finished song and two ideas for songs. Apart from an unrehearsed bar gig in Worthing in 2015, we hadn’t played together for 17 years, so didn’t really know what would happen. As it turned out we just picked up where we left off. The music poured out of us and it felt really good. As we listened back to what we had recorded the morning after our marathon session, we realised we had enough decent material for a whole LP.”

Co-producer Peter Miles got to work on what they’d put down, the band soon pitching in. And as Tim put it, “Transmeridian constitutes the perfect blend of all that is good about what happens when the four of us get together to make music.”

Tim sees the aptly-named Departure Lounge as a truly ‘global indie’ enterprise, travel and languages running deep with the frontman, who started teacher training a year after the recording of the new LP, and is working towards a new career as secondary school languages teacher. He already spoke French and German, and learned Spanish during the first lockdown, his response to Brexit.

“It’s kind of my protest really. Languages are in crisis in this country. They were already, but it’s got a lot worse these last four years.”

The LP titlecontinues the band’s long-haul air traffic theme, named after the defunct aviation cargo airline for which Tim’s dad was chief pilot, as he explained to me.

“He was a pilot all his life, always fond of telling us the Queen paid for him to learn to fly – he was in the RAF just after the war, then flew helicopters in the Sahara, did crop-spraying in South America, ending up joining this airline his older brother started, Transmeridian, a long-haul cargo outfit in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the pioneering age of long-haul flight, flying out of Southend then Stansted, flying all over – the Far East, Africa …”

Is this what sparked your love of languages?

“I suppose so. I was into travel before I was into music, travelling from a very early age, playing football in the back of empty cargo planes flying down to Africa with my sister, my dad flying. It was pretty exciting.”

Tim’s Dad, who died in 2015, was Kevin Keegan. And you can tell the response this usually gets, as he quickly adds, ‘the original’.

“He was quite a character, and a lot of his mates were a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, big drinkers who liked to party and have a good time. Lots of stopovers with time to kill in hotels, lots of air stewardesses and naughty stuff, I’m sure … he was a bit of a larger-than-life character, my old man.”

But for all that globetrotting down the decades, it turns out we share a little geographical lineage as well as both being born in 1967 and having mutual friends on my old doorstep. In fact, I was surprised I didn’t know him the first time his band were out and about.

Last Time: Back in the day. From the left – Lindsay Jamieson, Jake Kyle, Tim Keegan, Chris Anderson. (Photo: Tom Sheehan)

The thing is, I took my eye off the ball around then. I moved north, was short on cash and had new priorities, not least on starting a family in 2000. But there were moments when surely we rubbed shoulders or frequented the same pubs, clubs and gigs, making it all the more poignant listening back to his song catalogue now, contemplating what I missed out on first time around.

Tim was born in Welwyn Garden City and moved to Romsey in the New Forest when he was around nine, where he still considers home, but his uni studies were in Guildford, and his wife hails from my old neck of the woods. These days though, he’s on the Sussex coast, near bandmate Chris Anderson, before that nearby in Brighton, before that Paris, and before that Nashville, Tennessee, with bandmate Lindsay … which is kind of where I fit in.

I knew Lindsay from late-‘80s Jim Jiminee days, that North Hampshire outfit and the band they became, The Deep Season, a huge influence on this scribe, going back to my Captains Log fanzine days. I kept tabs on Lindsay when he joined the splendid Supermodel (also featuring Chris Anderson), catching them with Lightning Seeds and Molly Half Head at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre in early ’96, the year of their debut LP, Clumba Mar (word of advice, pop kids – careful searching for their cracking debut 7”, ‘Penis Size and Cars’).

I’m not sure when I realised he’d joined North Carolina’s Ben Folds, but I loved 2005’s Songs for Silverman and in more recent years thrilled to his inspired video project Find the Beauty and Nashville trio Elle Macho. But I somehow missed the gap between wondrous 1993 Deep Season LP, Island Monkeys, and all that, where he came into Jake and Tim’s orbit. Thankfully though, I’ve finally caught up now, and Tim filled me in on a few gaps.

“Jake and I went over in 2001 to try and keep the band going. Chris didn’t want to – he had stuff going on over here with his partner and wanted to stay in England. Again, fair enough, we weren’t 18 anymore. We were all about 30. It was just life getting in the way, really. Chris did come over for a couple of visits, and we did the Jetlag Dreams album on one of those. Then we had a residency -Jake, Linds and I – in a lovely little bar in Nashville, now quite legendary, the Slow Bar.”

Jetlag Dreams provideda brief departure, so to speak, into a soundtrack world. But perhaps we need to go back further at this point, not least explaining Tim’s further Surrey adventures.

“I was drawn back after living in London for a while and met Lindsay there. For a few years, he was in Guildford, so we hooked up again sometime in the mid-‘90s.”

I must surely have frequented the same space a few times, having followed The Deep Season – featuring Lindsay and his brother, Kevin Jamieson, plus Nick Hannan, the aforementioned Patch Hannan’s brother – around the London and South East circuit, and bumped into Lindsay in the King’s Head, Stoke Road, Guildford, a pub I still regarded as my local, despite having moved to Lancashire in late 1993.

Transglobal Expression: Departure Lounge’s Lindsay Jamieson, Jake Kyle, Tim Keegan, Chris Anderson (Photo: Jim Kirby)

“I got to know them around then. They were doing those Deep Season nights at the King’s Head. I was living very close to there.”

I did catch Railroad Earth – another transport and travel link, kids – once, supporting The Blue Aeroplanes at Harlesden’s Mean Fiddler, a week before Christmas 1991, writing in my diary, ‘Brilliant night. Two great bands.’ So tell me more.

“They started off as my university band in Guildford, then the line-up ended up being completely different, but we still had the same name. Then when we made a record, we changed the name to Ringo, sort of an evolution really. The purest version of Railroad Earth was quite a bit before that, But we made a record using the new name in 1992 in Boston – my first album.”

Confusingly, that LP included a track called ‘Railroad Earth’. But I was unaware of that, my music fanzine days – with Jim Jiminee among my interviewees, and plenty of mentions of The Blue Aeroplanes – over by then, and me not long back from my world travels.

“Well, before that album, it was just demos at the university. They had an amazing studio, and they were great demos in terms of sonic quality, although we weren’t particularly good as we’d really just started playing. The later version was quite good but not really so much the music I wanted to be doing – I was pulled by the spirit of the times, more into noisy guitars and stuff.”

They were strange days. Many great bands missed out around then, record companies seemingly looking for ‘baggy’ outfits in the wake of The Stone Roses. And then came BritPop, a lot of bands I loved missing out on that step up, despite influencing a few of those who would break through.

“I think that’s always the way. There are always bands that fall through the cracks just because of the timing, and there was a lot of that in the early ‘90s, making me think of The Pale Fountains, Shack, and all that.”

That from a performer now on the same Violette Records label as Palies and Shack frontman Michael Head’s latest band. Incidentally, my 1991 diary suggests Paul Weller played Kilburn’s National Ballroom in NW6 the night I saw Railroad Earth with The Blue Aeroplanes in NW10, the Woking wonder having stepped away from the faltering Style Council and barely nine months off releasing an eponymous LP signalling his creative rebirth.

My choice of show was no doubt determined by guitarist/co-vocalist Rodney Allen adding me to the guestlist at the Mean Fiddler. And I was never disappointed by the ‘Planes. I seem to recall Rodney couldn’t see their worth when they first courted him with a regard to getting him on board. But that juxtaposition of styles worked so well, leading to some fantastic records and live experiences.

“Yeah, that was their golden period, and set up this really interesting dynamic. When you have that in a band, like with The Go-Betweens, it’s always more interesting than with just one front man. If you have the right combination – with Lennon and McCartney the obvious ones – well … And the albums Swagger and Beat Songs, they’re up there!”

They were still coming out with great material when Tim guested on the Rough Music LP, released in January 1995, not least adding 12-string guitar on ‘Dear, Though the Night is Gone’.

“That is nice, isn’t it. But really, my involvement was brief, just standing in for Rodney really, who was unwell for a time.”

On to the new LP, and looking at the website for Peter Miles’ studio in South Devon, I knew I was on to the right one as I recognised the style of the handcrafted oak decor, guessing former Jim Jiminee and Deep Season bass player Nick Hannan was responsible.

“Well, Nick’s the reason we went to that studio. I was in touch, said we wanted to record again, and were looking for a studio in Devon, as Jake lives down there, has young kids, and we wanted to make life easier for him. And Nick said he had the perfect place, calling it ‘Blah Street Mk II’. He’d been doing loads of work for them, and said Pete Miles was brilliant.

“And he was spot on – it was perfect for us. It couldn’t have been better, on this beautiful old farm. There’s films I shot on my phone, including one where you see Nick’s split-screen VW, and while we were there he was in a workshop outside, so we got to hang out with him.”

The original Blah Street studio – near the Surrey and North Hants border, now sadly gone – was the setting for the recording and mixing of 2002’s Too Late to Die Young, produced by Kid Loco and engineered by Nick Hannan. I never got to visit that setting, but popped down a couple of times in Spring 1992 to Nick’s previous Studio Poisson base nearby, where The Deep Season made Island Monkeys.

“I did some demos there, engineered mostly by Patch, who played drums on my stuff in the mid-‘90s with Homer, between my time with Ringo and Departure Lounge.”

Was that also the first time you worked with Jake?

“I met him down in Bristol with The Blue Aeroplanes, so had my eye on him. I thought he was great and asked if he’d play on some stuff. Then I asked Linds to play drums. After Homer, I wanted to do something different, get some musicians I really liked to come and play, and Linds introduced Chris (Anderson). I wanted a piano player for a particular song I was recording in Brighton in a studio Kevin Jamieson had for a while, in a church he rented in Kemptown. That was incredible and we recorded there with Nick, who as well as a gifted woodworker and great bass player is such a talented engineer.”

As Tim discovered with his work on Too Late to Die Young. But let’s get right up to date now, and ‘Australia’, the first song I heard from the new LP. It makes for a perfect single. An all-rounder, written and recorded in the studio, I love the subtle backing vocal melodies, which seem to suggest the miles between band members. And even if I didn’t know Peter Buck was guesting on lead guitar, I’d have suggested there were shades of early REM jangly guitar and spirit there.

“Yeah, that’s why he’s on there. I had that thought immediately, listening back to it in the studio.”

How did you get him involved?

“We played together a bit over the years when I was with Robyn Hitchcock. We’re on a couple of the same records and did some gigs together in various places. We played a festival in Norway which a mutual friend curated, and I ended up playing harmonica and singing backup in his band. That was fun, a collaborative affair with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin.”

That sounds like heavy name dropping.

“Oh yeah, major name dropping! There was Mike Mills and Peter from REM, Steve Wynn from The Dream Syndicate, and Terry Edwards, who I go back a long way with through Robyn Hitchcock.”

I also love those subtle backing vocals on ‘Australia’. It’s almost as if Chris and Lindsay are thousands of miles away on that recording, in a sense true in Lindsay’s case when it came to shooting the accompanying video.

“Yeah, I like that too, and it’s amazing what a difference something can make, even if it’s low in the mix, like Lindsay’s piano in the chorus, which you don’t really hear unless you’re listening for it.”

I assumed that was Chris, and not just because Lindsay’s just drumming in the video.

“I was hoping Linds would do a shot of him on the piano, but if you listen there’s a really nice piano motif. He plays a lot of piano for us, while Chris plays bass here and there, Jake’s on drums on some of it and plays guitar on ‘Al Aire Libre’, something he made up.”

You’ve got such a talented band. You’re spoilt for choice.

“We are, and that’s what gives it breadth really – the fact that everyone plays lots of instruments … except for me really.”

What’s more, as well as Peter Buck’s guest spot, Jake’s daughter adds vocals on ‘Don’t Be Afraid’, and his family add handclaps on ‘Mr Friendly’. And while I could write plenty more about the album here, having had a fair few listens since I spoke to Tim and loving it, time is against me, so I’ll leave the review for later … probably in a best of 2021 section.

It seems to me that Departure Lounge were among the bands who realised during the last year of the pandemic that remote recording might just work in these days of advanced technology, something of a bonus when two of you are in Sussex, your bass player is in Devon, and your drummer lives across the Atlantic Ocean. And maybe that’s something that wouldn’t have been an option 20 years ago when Lindsay headed west. Did they see his move as the end of the band at the time?

“It wasn’t the end, but it was definitely the beginning of the end! I mean, fair enough – he’d met someone, they were having a baby, he got married and made a life over there. But he wanted to keep the band going, so did we, and we thought this should be possible. And it would have been if we had enough money, if we’d been successful enough.” 

It would be 2006 before Tim had family of his own, and was still eager to make it big at the time of the split, adding, “I was still very much on my ‘at any cost’ path of doing music”.

While superstardom never came their way, it’s been an amazing if disjointed adventure, the band earning plenty of acclaim en route … even if when Departure Lounge’s flight came in, I appeared to be at a different gate. Not least when you consider that their first rehearsals and recordings took place at Lindsay’s house in Guildford, a few streets from my old local, Tim revealing, “We’d get together in his lounge, put a mini-disc in the middle of the floor and just make stuff up, there on Rec(reation) Road.”

At the risk of sounding like an old bugger, it’s hard now to recall and explain to the next generation – like my children and Tim’s – how we kept tabs on what was happening then, before the days of social media updates. I soon had less money in my pocket, was seeing less gigs and had other priorities. I’d also given up on the weekly music press, making do with the monthly magazines, and was listening to less BBC Radio 1 at night. 

“I also think we would have been able to keep it going if we had the technology we have now. When we did this record we all got together in one place, but in February this year we were asked to do a session for Janice Long on BBC Radio Wales, which we did completely remotely, all four of us. We couldn’t see each other, but you’d never know, listening back, having got a mate of ours to mix it.

“That’s made us think we can do this remotely now. So while it would be lovely to do another album in Devon, maybe we’ll do that with the next one. The plan now is to do more remote stuff, see if we can make that work.”

The songs recorded for that session, some not broadcast, are included on the deluxe digital and vinyl LP editions of the new record, although Tim tells me the latter’s been held up in Europe so far, ‘and we can blame Brexit for that’.

Was Janice Long a fan first time around?

“I think so. Her producer – Adam Walton, a brilliant bloke – was. He was a DJ for the BBC in the north when I did a tour with Chris plugging one of the singles from the first album, remembered me, and got in touch when he heard this record was out.

“That’s what’s really nice – lots of people around 20 years ago who were into our music are still into it now. It may not be hundreds of thousands, but there’s enough to make a difference.”

This remote version of the group certainly fits in with the band name.

“Yes, and it fits with our vision of keeping it small but global – global indie, if you like. Although I don’t think our music is particularly niche. Someone said in a recent review our contemporaries are Coldplay, Keane and Travis. Well, some of our stuff isn’t that far from what those guys were doing, but there wasn’t room for us, and we didn’t have the timing or the budgets. But what’s nice is that we can still exist … on a lower flying level, as it were.”

You mentioned The Go-Betweens, and you covered the glorious ‘Rock’n’Roll Friend’ recently, an extra track on the new record’s deluxe package. You shared a bill a few times. Were you a fan who happened to be in the right place at the right time?

“Pretty much. It was an early Departure Lounge gig, opening for Neutral Milk Hotel. I was on the same label. In the mid-to-late ‘90s a woman said to us after a show, ‘I loved that, and work for this guy, he’s a manager …’ and basically badgered this manager, said, ‘You’ve got to take these guys on – they’re brilliant!’ That was Bob Johnson, who’s Robert (Forster)’s manager. That’s what got me into that world, and I couldn’t believe my luck – a fan since 16 Lovers Lane.”

I think that’s where I started, going backwards from there, inspired by that and the 1978-1990 compilation.

“Yeah, me too with the first Robert Forster and Grant McLennan solo records as well. Grant’s Horsebreaker Star (1994)was a big one for me, and Robert’s Danger in the Past (1990). I loved all their stuff. And when they got back together and we were supporting them, then did some solo stuff with them as well. And they were so sweet.

“I sent Robert ‘Australia’ recently, saying, ‘I thought you’d like this’. He emailed straight back, said, ‘It’s a knockout – well done!’ He wrote this very effusive email and asked if I could send him the chords – a bit of a flashback to when he asked for the chords to ‘The New You’ 20 years ago.

“He’s quite something, Robert … as was Grant. I consider myself very fortunate, as there was only a small window when they got back together again, and I didn’t see them early on, which I’m sorry about.”

Master Class: Jake Kyle looks on as Tim Keegan tries to recall the chords during 2019’s Devon departure

He expanded on this on social media recently, explaining that Departure Lounge opened for The Go-Betweens’ co-frontmen on a string of US duo dates in June 1999.

“It’s very nice to have had a small walk-on part in the Go-Betweens story, having been a devotee since hearing ‘Spring Rain’ in 1986. From 1998 we shared a manager with Robert and Grant, and Roddy Frame. We opened for them in London and on that US tour, shortly before they made The Friends of Rachel Worth. Then I supported them solo in Brussels and Paris in 2003.

“I have very fond memories of these shows with two of my songwriting heroes, who were both very supportive and became friends. We had a lot of fun and somewhere I have a tape of us making up a song with Grant in a dressing room after one of the shows. I don’t think it was anything earth-shattering, but it’s a lovely memory. I also remember Grant playing and singing me the opening lines of Richard Hawley’s first single, ‘Baby, You’re My Light’. Grant was very tuned in to other people’s stuff and interested in mine, which I took as a huge compliment.

“I went to visit them in the studio in London when they were recording Oceans Apart. Robert was overseeing the Salvation Army brass band players on ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ and Grant and I drank tea in the lounge upstairs.

“I was in my flat in Brighton playing with my four month-old son when I got the devastating news (of Grant’s death) in May 2006. He’s 15 now and does a great version of ‘Coming Up For Air’, my favourite Grant song, which I could never persuade him to play live, as he said it was too personal.”

I love the name of the LP and its emotional attachment to your Dad’s story, but weren’t you tempted to call this one, seeing as it turned up almost two decades after the last one, Too Old To Arrive Late?

“Yes, we probably could have done something clever with that. I take your point!”

And on that front, through circumstances beyond your control, you parted company in 2003 but now you’re back, and you seem determined that this is not going to be a one-off release.

“No, absolutely not! We’re back … although exactly what that means in this covid and post-covid era nobody quite knows, but we’re definitely back and we should be making music together.”

Will you be flying Lindsay back over to record with you again, soon as it’s safe?

“Yeah, I hope so. And at some point there will be live dates and more recording, so we’re looking forward to that.”

Glad to hear it. There was more I aimed to get on to, not least Tim’s past solo projects – having recorded the albums Foreign Domestic in 2007 and The Long Game in 2015 – and links with the likes of Saint Etienne. But we both had places to go, in Tim’s case ahead of a return to school … because we’ve all got to make a living somehow.

“Exactly, and that’s good fun as well, really interesting. It’s great working with kids and I love languages. It’s much more challenging than anything else I’ve done, but that’s good, and you’re never too old to start a new learning process.”

And there’s a future Departure Lounge album title, if ever I heard one.

2021 Return: Departure Lounge, hoping to record and play live again again as soon as it’s safe to do so (Photo: Anthony Oudot)

Transmeridian is out now on Violette Records, available on high-quality vinyl or as a deluxe digital download via https://violetterecords.com/artist/departure-lounge/, each package including bonus material, its 13 tracks accompanied by seven bonus tracks and ‘The Making Of Transmeridian’ 34-page pdf booklet with foreword and introduction from Tim Keegan, photographs and studio notes from the recording, and handwritten lyrics.

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And Everything Changed – the William Doyle interview

Muddy Time: The new LP’s cover image, featuring Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s 17th-century water birds scene

A decade after William Doyle’s musical rebirth as East India Youth – going on to receive a Mercury Music Prize nomination for Total Strife Forever, his debut LP in that guise – this acclaimed artist remains strong on songcraft as well as experimental soundscapes.

After four self-released ambient and instrumental albums, 2019’s Your Wilderness Revisited – with his own name on the spine by then – proved a work of enormous ambition, receiving somewhat ecstatic reviews.

And now he’s delivered Great Spans of Muddy Time, an album borne from accident but pushed forward by instinct following a disastrous hard-drive crash, its material largely saved only on cassette, ultimately forcing William to accept recordings as they were rather than go for a four-year approach to completion again.

And after ‘embracing the wonky and jagged’ to great effect, from the moment the new record kicks in I was hooked, its many highlights guaranteeing it will feature among the best of 2021 LPs come December.

Early review mentions of Berlin-era Bowie, early Eno, Robert Wyatt, Robyn Hitchcock and Syd Barrett set the scene. And for me there’s often an ‘80s feel too, even though it’s in no way retro.

En route, William writes about endless tour van trips, long walks, widescreen views, cosy pubs, and a less likely influence too, having watched long-running BBC Friday evening staple Gardener’s World ‘quite religiously during lockdown’.

“I became obsessed with Monty Don. I like his manner and there’s something about him I relate to. He once described periods of depression in his life as consisting of ‘nothing but great spans of muddy time’. When I read that, I knew it would be the title of this record.

“Something about the sludgy mulch of the album’s darker moments, and its feel of perpetual autumnal evening, seemed to fit so well. I would also be lying if I said it didn’t chime with my mental health experiences.”

‘Theme from Muddy Time’ on the LP also captures ‘an element of breaking through a barrier, either by force or with time,’ Bournemouth-born and bred William adding, ‘Things change. Time does pass. The cloud does make way to reveal the sun’.

Around 10 years after he handed a CD-R demo to The Quietus co-founder John Doran at a gig, who loved it so much he set up a label to release William’s debut EP as East India Youth, it’s been a remarkable journey so far, Great Spans of Muddy Time, recently released on Tough Love Records, launched via an exclusive livestream from Crouch End Studios in London.

Last Time: The critically-acclaimed 2019 William Doyle benchmark LP release, Your Wilderness Revisited

But don’t think for one moment that he’s all about technology, perhaps understandably following that catastrophic computer crash. In fact, he seemed relieved that our conversation was being conducted over a phoneline.

“This is a radical move in it not happening on Zoom, which seems to be the standard way of doing things now.”

Well, maybe we could just paint pictures of what we feel we look like as we go along.

“Ah, I much prefer phone calls, I have to say. It’s a lot easier to sit and look out of the window, rather than pretend to stare at someone.”

True enough. In fact, as one of my music PR contacts put it to me when we spoke about this last week, seemingly taking the Roddy Frame approach, ‘Why can’t we just send letters?’.

William was in East London when I called, but he’s North West-bound soon, moving to Manchester, as we’ll get on to. And talking of ‘up north’, I told him I was intrigued soon as he sang in opener ‘I Need to Keep You in my Life’ about ‘driving in twilight over Pennines’. Was that a memory of past travels between live shows?

“Yeah, I mean, how many times have I driven across there? I’ve been touring since I was 17, and I’m 30 now. And I think the sentiment of the song is laid out in the first line. What I like is that it’s specific to me, but will hopefully resonate with other people.”

I’m with you there. I also like ambiguity, but appreciate that specific feel too, not least on stunning lead single ’And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’ as he reveals, ‘I’m always dimming the light switch’. A contender for somehow deepest line ever, perhaps? Or am I over-analysing? It certainly brings a smile, either way.

“I’m glad. There was great debate on (BBC) 6 Music between Radcliffe and Maconie about whether one can actually dim a light switch – the on/off switch being the binary part. You can always trust them to bring a banal reading … quite rightly.

“I like it when listening to a song it somehow punctures the way you’re expecting it to go, be that with a very specific mention of the Pennines or dimming a light switch. It’s not standard lyrical fare.”

Strife Guard: William Doyle as East India Youth, on 2013’s Mercury Prize-nominated Total Strife Forever,

I’d hate to lose the mystique of it all, but was that something that just came randomly to you?

“Yeah, that song was done with a David Byrne/Brian Eno-type technique – singing nonsense over backing tracks then listening back, deciphering what the words could be, given the vowels – a good way of wrong-footing yourself rather than fall on more familiar clichés and tropes.”

Seeing as you mentioned Brian Eno, I was going to ask about his spoken-word contribution to ‘Design Guide’ on the previous album. Were you already on his radar? How did that come about?

“I’m not sure who introduced him to my stuff, but in about 2013 he came to a show in my guise as East India Youth. Obviously I was made up about – he’s a pretty big influence. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, when I did the second East India Youth record, the PR person at XL Records thought it would be a good idea for us to be in conversation with The Guardian. That was the first time I went to his studio and met him, and we stayed in touch, with lots of work and bits and pieces between us ever since, which is amazing.

“When people ask about that particular collaboration, I’d already written the words, but there was a very quick turnaround. I told him I felt he’d be a great fit – he’s a very good orator – and he emailed back, said, ‘I’m about to go away for a few weeks, but if you send it over now, I’ll do it’. He sent it back and asked if I wanted to change anything, and I was like, ‘No, that’s perfect!’ And that was it.”

Well, it’s great, and I love that you asked him to add his voice, rather than to play some obscure piece of space-age technology you know he’s got.

“Yeah, he likes being asked to do things that aren’t what he’s usually asked to do, like producing someone’s record or playing a synthesiser, something like that. He loves being asked to sing too.”

I love the way ‘And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright)’ appears to be a continuation of a song that opened on a previous side of a record. And while so ‘now’ in its delivery, it could have burst out of the radio in my formative early ‘80s teenage years. Yet it’s not necessarily retro. For these ears, that and ‘Nothing At All’ almost offer a new take on Soft Cell, without – and I mean this from a place of love – Marc Almond’s off-kilter delivery.

“Ha! Much as I’m influenced by so much from the past, classic songwriting is really dear to me. As much as I like to experiment with sound, if I can marry the two things together, that’s the best of both worlds. Nothing for me beats a good, well-crafted song or hook, but it’s nice to be a little more adventurous with the way those things are presented.

“I wouldn’t say ‘Nothing At All’ is pastiche, but it wears its influences on its sleeve, whereas with ‘And Everything Changed’, the structure’s odd. There are bits you recognise – like here’s the chorus and here’s a guitar solo – but it’s not standard.”

The guitar solo is gorgeous. Are you one to noodle away to your own songs, that giving way to the occasional happy accident?

“I guess the unifying thread of this record is that everything was done quickly, because of the way it came about, where I had to salvage all these songs off a cassette tape following a hard-drive crash. So what’s there is sort of what’s on the record now, bar a couple of things I added on top.”

You’ve forced yourself to be less precious with this record, in a sense.

“Exactly, and with the guitar solo, that’s what I played when I hit the chords, and a first take. The guitar sounds backwards, but really it’s being played forwards – I have an effect which switches things around while you play – and sometimes the sound dictates what you play rather than the other way around. So yeah, I’m not really one to try and get a perfect line – as long as the spirit and feeling is there, that’s great.”

The climax of ‘Somewhere Totally Else’ and its backwards – to use that phrase again – noodlings, could be a synth-like take on The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

“Yeah, sure. That’s one of the best pieces of music ever made, and I guess there are similarities. And maybe there’s a cassette tape feel, almost a collage-y thing.”

That said, on this occasion Ringo Starr’s mighty drum patterns have been replaced by synth loops.

“There is a drum machine on that track … but if I could play drums, I’d like to do something like that.”

Curious Orange: William Doyle as East India Youth, on the cover of 2015’s album, Culture of Volume

In fact, I’m back to thinking of a day driving across the East Lancashire-West Yorkshire border – in a land that time seems to have forgotten – heading to report on a football match, listening to Revolver. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ came on and seemed to fit perfectly with everything I was seeing – from the people I passed on the paths by the road to the majestic Pennine backdrops landscape serving as my backdrop as I drove through.

“It’s amazing when things have the power to synch up with your experiences of the world.”

Your use of instrumental interludes on this album remind me of a few things, and I see you and Blancmange’s Neil Arthur as fairly kindred spirits – another artist who seems to switch seemingly effortlessly between the occasional pop certainty and more instrumental Eno-esque moments.

“I’m going to have to take your word for that! I haven’t really delved into them, and I don’t know why, because you’re not the first person that’s made the comparison.”

In light of that admission, I felt it was my turn to confess. I’d missed out on William’s rich song catalogue until recently, despite many recommendations from those whose opinions I value and his past work with several acts I rate highly – from British Sea Power to Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper, working on a remix for the latter’s Erland and the Carnival, and collaborating with him on Murmuration more recently.

“Yes, and I made ‘Somewhere Totally Else’ from this album in Erland’s studio, not far from me in Hoxton. He has the main room and I had the middle room for six months, and that was one of the improvisations made while I was in there. I first met Erland and Hannah around 2014 … and these are all the same sort of orbit.”

A mighty orbit it is too, one well worth the cosmic plunge. And beneath the scratchy exterior and synth-based melodies of latest winning single ‘Semi-Bionic’, it’s epic pop, I’d venture, hinting at traces of Roy Orbison or Gene Pitney. Can we expect more of the same next time around?

“I think so. The next album will probably be more traditional, although I’d still like it sonically interesting. But it’ll be more song-based, although there are byways and avenues I explore with different sounds. Maybe it’ll be an amalgam of this record and the one before.

“A blend of those two approaches might be good, keeping the song aspect strong and intact. For the record I’m working on now, all the songs – unusually for me – have been written just on guitar, and I tend to get into the world of those songs, starting to play them every day, working out the idiosyncrasies.”

Was that partly a distrust of technology following your calamitous hard-drive crash?

 “Ha! Actually, those things happened in tandem with each other, working on this next album last summer and having that saved to an external hard drive, whereas these other pieces were on my main computer hard drive, the one that was corrupted.

“This record kind of happened by accident. I didn’t necessarily intend for this material to see the light of day. It took a bit of convincing from people to put it out properly. I was just going to sling it up on Bandcamp as a digital download.”

That sounds similar to Erland telling me about record company interest in his until then private Orkney project, that becoming three great albums … and all because someone influential happened to hear them and love them. So this too was never intended as a proper release?

“Well … I’m not as shy as Erland! But sometimes you have to share things for people you trust to get a good read on it. And I’m glad we’ve done it. People seem to have connected with this record in a way I wouldn’t have thought they would. It’s a challenging, strange prospect to ask casual listeners, but I think there is something to hook people in … long as they’re willing to put the time in!”

‘A Forgotten Film’ carries elements of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ and ‘I Won’t Get Fooled Again’ era, with your keyboard work, and that’s something I also hear back in the sands of time on ‘Welcome to Austerity’ in your former life with Doyle and the Fourfathers. It seems you present a fairly wide canvas. Then again, perhaps that love of great songcraft never left you.

“Yeah, it’s hard to know what to focus on. I guess that’s why I make whole start to finish records. You have to put things in an order that makes sense, and that scatter-shot nature – one track sounding completely different to the one before it – can be mitigated if it’s in the right order rather than all over the place. But I guess I’ve done a fairly wide amount of stuff in the last 10 years.”

If East India Youth was seen as your musical rebirth, you seem in places to be veering closer now to the 2010 indie pop of Doyle and the Fourfathers, coming around to where you were as a songwriter back then.

“I just want to try out doing a good song record again. But I might make a completely ambient record after. I don’t see rules there. It’s just about whatever piques my interest in the moment. When I did the first East India Youth record, I was really into dance music, and more abrasive electronic textures, wanting to explore that. I still like all that, but these last couple of years my interests have gone back into songcraft. I like the idea of keeping going in and out of all that though.”

Was this album partly put together pre-lockdown?

“Apart from one synth-line and one guitar bit I did last August, everything else was from 2019.”

So will the next one be more your covid album?

“Well, I’d written most of the songs for that already, mostly in 2019. So I think I’m going to just skip covid out of all this!”

Quite right too. Perhaps, just hold back that material, do it as a retro project in 2045.

“Yes, maybe. I know I had all the time in the world to listen to records last year, but without there being a world out there to experience – gigs to go to, and so on – I found it really hard to connect with a lot of records that came out last year. The context for listening was the same everyday … apart from maybe you’d sit in a different chair while listening. A lot of stuff I connect to while listening on the bus, music on the move. And I had that same experience with making music.

“I spent a long time not touring, between the end of the East India Youth project and Wilderness, but I just started poking my head out at the start of last year, doing a short UK tour for that with a full band. I thought we’d do festivals last summer, but then …

“It was nice to get back into a regular creative practise at home though. So I kind of want to do both now.”

Was the starting point on this LP, ‘Theme From Muddy Time’, or was that a part-way through focus?

“To be honest, everything gets titled retrospectively. That was just a piece I had, but where it landed on the record, it felt like it had a nice resolve to it, like the last scene of a film before the credits. I didn’t try to labour over the idea though.” 

Although not written specifically about covid times, the LP’s theme seems rather apt at a time when we’ve all looked to find solace in our natural surroundings amid these testing times. In your case I understand you became obsessed with Gardeners’ World, hence using that line from Monty Don as the title. And I think we can all relate to that search for something outdoorsy right now … grounding ourselves, so to speak.

“Absolutely. And there’s no better place to do that than in the garden.”

And musically, the ‘theme’ song comes together rather beautifully, like a wonky take on OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’, the bagpipe effects there replaced by rather off-kilter synth-lines.  

Meanwhile, it’s been five years since you started using your own name on the records rather than East India Youth. Was that a new-found belief in what you were doing, or was that never an issue?

“I just wanted to draw a line under the things I was doing before. I was working on some ambient records, but Wilderness was the one I wanted to put together. It felt so different from what I was doing before, but it was an idea I had rattling around for 10 years before it came out. And using my own name made me feel truer to myself. Besides, I can’t run away from this name.”

So do you see this album as part two, following Wilderness?

“No, this is totally different. Wilderness had such a big over-arching concept, including lots about my life and my upbringing, and it’s difficult to make that record over and over again. So I wanted to make sure this one was totally different. And I didn’t want to spend another four years making it.”

Is home no longer East India Docks?

“I haven’t lived there for years. I live in Hackney … but I’m about to move to Manchester. My girlfriend works for Manchester International Festival, remotely since January, but needing to be up there when the festival happens. So we’re having a change of scenery. And I’m looking forward to it, having been there a lot during my touring life and having friends there.”

William’s spent time in Brighton and York too, although he’s spent the last three years back in London. But he’s originally from Bournemouth, and his first band was based around Southampton.

It’s been more than a decade since Man Made, a lot happening in your life since. But listening to the Fourfathers, I see not only where you came from, but something that remains in your music. Songs like ‘The Governor of Giving Up’ and the afore-mentioned ‘Welcome to Austerity’ seem somewhere between The Divine Comedy, Arctic Monkeys, Cardiacs, Edwyn Collins, and Franz Ferdinand. But songs like ‘Summer Rain’ – sort of Neil Hannon does Richard Hawley – sits fairly well with what you’re doing now.

“That was like my bread and butter, that and early Scott Walker records. I tried to move as far away from that as possible at one point, but I’ve started to see the value in it, how that’s still part of my DNA.”

That’s what I meant – I can see you taking some of that back on board now.

“Yeah, I like that idea, with everything else I’ve learned in the meantime, about producing and how to make an interesting sound world out of things. Sometimes when I listen back, I’m like, ‘Wow! How did I write that?’ I feel my songwriting chops were really good then, and sometimes feel I’ve lost touch with that a little. And when you’re 17, you haven’t as much responsibility in your life, so can spend all day long writing songs, so you’re bound to become good at it.”

And it’s amazing when you think how many great songs have been made by people in their late teens, down the years. But judging by this new album, you’ve clearly still got it.

“Well, that’s good to know!”  

And apologies for catching up so late, but at least I’ve now got a great back-catalogue to savour.

“Well, I like that. As much as it’s nice that you have a big record that comes out at the time and that’s how you get to lots of people, I do like the idea that you’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs for people to get into.

“I really want to be doing this forever, and like the idea that you don’t get too hung up on whether one record is a success or failure at the time, because who knows what it might mean to someone who’d never heard of something that came out 10 years ago, who then might have a special moment with that. It’s a long game, isn’t it.”

And with that, William was away, telling me that while I’m belatedly checking out his back-catalogue, he’d recently decided to do the same with XTC. A wise move, I agreed, also reminding him to look up Blancmange while he’s at it. I look forward to an update soon.

To order Great Spans of Muddy Time, head here. And for the latest from William Doyle you can follow him via Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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