Dreams stay with you – in conversation with Mark Brzezicki

Big Country, 2016. From the left - Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki, Simon Hough, Scott Whitley (Photo: Paul Green)

Big Country, 2016. From the left – Jamie Watson, Bruce Watson, Mark Brzezicki, Simon Hough, Scott Whitley (Photo: Paul Green)

Four shows into Big Country’s latest anniversary tour, Mark Brzezicki was back home this week, between dates at Holmfirth’s Picturedrome and The Warehouse, Falkirk. And three decades after his primary band’s commercial peak, he can confirm there’s still plenty of love out there for a group continuing to go down a storm on the live circuit.

There was an earlier five-piece incarnation of the band guitarist Stuart Adamson formed after leaving influential Scottish punk and new wave outfit Skids, its members including future Runrig member and SNP MP Peter Wishart on keyboards. But despite several months rehearsing in a disused warehouse in Dunfermline and a couple of early gigs, Adamson wasn’t sure he had the right mix until the arrival of Mark on drums and Tony Butler on bass.

Soon, the line-up was honed down to Adamson, fellow guitarist Bruce Watson, Brzezicki and Butler. So, I ask Mark, how did a band with such a strong Scottish identity end up taking on a Slough-born son of a Polish immigrant and a West London bass player from a Ghanaian family?

“Well, we’re like the bumblebee – it should never be able to fly and should never really have happened, but it did. All by chance, like a cork in the ocean caught by a current, finding itself on an island you wouldn’t expect.”

Very poetic, and I could leave it there, but a more revelatory explanation follows, albeit involving a few more twists and turns … and plenty of casual name-dropping.

“It’s a long story, basically a chain of events after answering an advert in Melody Maker when I was around 18, saying ‘Phil Collins/Bill Bruford style drummer wanted’.

“I taught myself, playing covers with a band called Silver Stream, which included two blind players. They taught me a lot – guiding me, pulling me up on a lot of things, like tempos and levels and that it’s not about how I look but how I sounded.

“We were playing chart covers in the ‘70s, high volume or low volume without slowing down, all those skills, around Surrey and Middlesex, with residences around West London. We played the Target pub on the A40 – now a McDonald’s – and around Hayes, Harlington, Islington … working men’s and ex-servicemen’s clubs, all that.

“But I wanted to do something original and the reason I played drums in the first place was Phil Collins. He was instrumental in everything for me. I adored his playing. He’s the greatest player living for me. I was listening to prog rock, fusion, jazz funk, and the king of all that for me was Phil, particularly with his other band, Brand X. And my current band project, ESP, is kind of my version of Brand X to Big Country’s Genesis!”

Air Time: A promo shot of On The Air as a four-piece (Photo sourced from Mark Brzezicki's Facebook page)

Air Time: A promo shot of On The Air as a four-piece (Photo sourced from Mark Brzezicki’s Facebook page)

We’ll get on to ESP later (you probably perceived we would), but first Mark tells us about an inspirational visit to an iconic London venue, featuring Phil Collins’ side-project.

“I’d been to see a band – at random – at The Roundhouse, with a friend, and that was Brand X. That was a seminal moment – it changed my life. It floored me how good Phil was. I was only 16, but wanted to play like him, be successful in a band playing interesting music, not run of the mill.

“Then came this ad in Melody Maker, which happened to lead me to The Who’s studio at Shepperton, to audition for Pete Townshend’s brother Simon’s band, which already included Tony Butler on bass.”

Mark got the job, joining a prog rock band he felt were ‘as good as Rush’.

“It was for a fabulous prog rock band, ahead of our time, so good as musicians. We even had the Genesis road-crew come and see us at the Red Lion in Brentford. And as I was working with Simon Townshend I got to meet his brother, who was working on a solo album, Empty Glass, using a drummer called Simon Phillips, who couldn’t make it because of another session for Toto, I seem to recall.

“Pete asked me to fill in, and I ended up doing subsequent albums with him, right up to his latest. And on the way I also worked with Roger Daltrey, and still play with Simon, also working on his latest album.”

If you’re wondering where Big Country come into all this …. be patient – Mark’s on a bit of a drum roll.

“By then we were On the Air, a power-rock outfit borne out of that original five-piece prog band – featuring Simon, Tony and myself. By then Simon had discovered punk and an energy to the guitar – as his brother had – so switched from keyboards. I didn’t really embrace the punk thing too much. If I was going to play like that I wanted to be more like The Police – more of a ‘muso’, more thoughtful.

“But it was with On the Air that we supported the Skids and met Stuart Adamson. Then, when Tony and I played with Pete at a Right to Work march gig that year at Brockwell Park, we met Stuart’s (and the Skids’) manager, Ian Grant, who said the boys had made some demos but weren’t happy with the set-up, Stuart wanting a new rhythm section.

“Ian asked if I’d be interested in going along with Tony. We said we’d already met, went to the studios and were joined by representatives of Phonogram, who thrust a contract under our noses. We signed … and the rest is history.”

A string of successful albums, singles and tours followed, Mark on all bar one of eight Big Country studio albums before lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Stuart Adamson’s alcohol-related death in late 2001, aged 43.

Watson Guide: Jamie and Bruce Watson out front with Big Country (Photo: Gordon Smith)

Watson Guide: Jamie and Bruce Watson out front with Big Country (Photo: Gordon Smith)

It took a lot of soul-searching before the band decided to resume, but a 25th anniversary reunion in 2007 involving Brzezicki, Butler (as lead vocalist) and Watson led to a new LP and tour. And that was followed three years later by Mike Peters of The Alarm joining, along with Bruce’s son Jamie Watson on guitar.

Four years ago Tony Butler left, replaced initially by Simple Minds bass player Derek Forbes, and while Mike Peters departed in late 2013, Simon Hough – previously with Denny Laine’s band – soon took his place. And now, as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of their most successful LP, The Seer, the band comprises Mark (drums, vocals), fellow co-founder Bruce (guitar, vocals), Jamie (guitars, vocals), Simon (vocals) and latest addition Scott Whitley (bass).

“It’s fabulous. Every album has its challenges when you’re revisiting material. I don’t tend to play my music after it’s recorded, so it’s like opening an old chest, learning about myself. It’s more intricate than I remember. You evolve as you get older, adding more to your arsenal, but I was always ahead of my time, doing stuff no one else was.

“It’s a different story for Bruce, playing without Stuart’s input, but his son Jamie’s a great player and they’ve worked out compromise parts. Not only are they playing the parts between Bruce and Stuart but on the records there are overdubs and embellishments, adding third or fourth guitars. They work very hard on that.

“Likewise, Scott has to learn the parts of Tony, a brilliant bass player, and Simon has his own challenges – the writing was never done in the traditional way of a lot of songs in the charts. We were a unique band, lyrically and tonally.

“Stuart would have been the first to admit he was a guitarist that ended up singing. But he got very good at it, loved and cherished. Simon brings a flavour and texture that Stuart had. It’ll never be the same, but he does an amazing job.

“Coming to Big Country (from the Skids) Stuart took the spotlight and was fundamentally a guitar hero who sang, like Pete Townshend or Eric Clayton. But while we moved around on stage a lot, Simon doesn’t try to replicate that. He’s more measured, sensitive to the respect shown to Stuart – he’s not trying to be him.

“We had Mike Peters before, and he was his own man, wonderful with it. But he was more Bono-esque, climbing things, rallying everyone, more of a front-man. What Simon’s brought is the spirit of Stuart in his vocals and delivery, but he’s not climbing PA towers or whipping audiences into a frenzy!”

The Originals: Big Country in 1983. From the left - Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki (Photo copyright: Mercury/Virgin EMI Records)

The Originals: Big Country in 1983. From the left – Tony Butler, Bruce Watson, Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki (Photo copyright: Mercury/Virgin EMI Records)

What about the inevitable criticism about carrying on without Stuart?

“I’ve no time for the cynics. We’ll never get Stuart back, so it’s a case of never doing it again or just getting on with it.

“There are a few bands in that situation, like Queen, who also have the original drummer and guitarist. I know Roger Taylor and Brian May well through working for the Prince’s Trust. They face the same problem getting someone to sing for them. They had Tom Chaplin from Keane when I worked with them. He was incredible. I’ve never known such an amazing version of Queen. But the way they see it is that it doesn’t really matter who sings – the songs speak for themselves.

“It’s the two original members that matter – as with myself and Bruce Watson. And as Bruce put it, it doesn’t really matter who sings with us either – it’s just the new Dr Who. You don’t get put off it by who’s out front.

“It’s not like Marillion without Fish or The Jam without Paul Weller. We lost a member and I won’t tolerate bias against us in that respect. This is the nearest you’ll get to hearing Big Country live again and it’s a privilege to play those songs. We’re celebrating Stuart’s life by playing his songs.

“We do it for all the right reasons and always had this unwritten rule that if we were going through the motions and the spirit’s not there, we won’t do it.”

Have you got good memories of the recording of The Seer?

“Yes, we did it with Robin Millar, an awesome producer. As with the fellas in Silver Stream, he’s very restricted with his vision, but consequently has incredible hearing and an ear for musicality.

“While our previous producer Steve Lilywhite’s pedigree was with U2, XTC and so on, Robin’s was with the likes of Sade. He offered a different feel, texturally not so pounding or heavy, with ambient drum sounds. We were one of the first to do that, along with Phil Collins.

“When I revisited the album there were some beautiful songs, like Hold the Heart, and Robin steered us through with the textures, with side-sticks on the snare, something quite prevalent in Sade’s music. I played more measured on The Seer, which was far more song-driven.

“There was a lot more bravado in those days. We were young, over-excited at times, with everything powerful, loud and fast, coming out of punk. But we were lucky enough to have a five-album deal that proved a great snapshot, seeing the band grow, and you can see how it evolved from The Crossing onwards. A lot of bands these days don’t get the chance to have that career progression with a record company. It’s nice to stand back in hindsight and see that band development.”

51m9cloms7lThe Seer also involved Kate Bush, another artist Mark has got to know.

“I’m very blessed to be recognised as a good drummer, among so many others out there, but along the way I’ve met many people and been invited on many sessions and to make many records in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including work with both Midge Ure and Ultravox. And I knew Kate through being good friends with Midge. When he lived in London we had Friday fish and chip socials, and part of that set – our extended family – was Kate.”

It was a creative period for Kate, between her wonderful Hounds of Love (1985) and The Sensual World (1989) albums.

“Absolutely. She was so contemporary, very different to the time – like the female Peter Gabriel for me. Not only a fabulous individual artist, but also with this great voice, which suited Big Country. It was great working with her. She immediately got us. I just wish we did more with her. She had a very busy schedule, but at least gave us the time to sing on The Seer.”

As it turned out, The Seer became Big Country’s best-selling studio album, reaching No.2 in the UK,  with Look Away an Irish No.1 and their biggest UK single, reaching No.7.

“I never know what’s going to be a hit. I do my job, let it out to sea and hope it does something. I normally have different ideas of what should be released, but was pleased with Look Away, which was very typical Big Country but slightly different from the likes of In A Big Country, in 6/8 not 4/4. And it’s a main-stop of our live set to this day.”

All these years on, Mark remains busy on the recording scene, and in more recent times I’ve been more aware of his work Bruce Foxton, Russell Hastings, and From the Jam. In fact, listen to a song like Sense of Summer, the closing track on 2012’s Back in the Room, and you’ll hear a quintessential Jam feel underpinned by Mark’s highly-recognisable drumming footprint.

“That’s nice of you to say so. Yes, I worked on Bruce’s last two solo albums, the latter charting, the likes of Paul Weller and Wilko Johnson playing. It’s a great experience, working with Bruce and Russell, who writes great songs. I love them to bits and love Bruce’s bass playing – he’s a British icon in that respect, and I’m honoured to work with him. I did seven years with From The Jam when Big Country hadn’t quite come back, and remain in contact with the guys.”

Actually, Mark was previously involved with Bruce Foxton in a project called Casbah Club back in 2004, also featuring Simon Townshend and Bruce Watson. And the impressive Brzezicki CV also includes stints with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Pretenders, Nik Kershaw, and a reformed Thunderclap Newman, among others.

Mark also featured on The Cult’s Love in 1985, leading to a live reunion with Ian Astbury, Billy Duffy and co., celebrating that LP 25 years later. And in 1984 he worked with Anni-Frid Lyngstad, better known as Frida from Abba.

Studio Trio: Mark Brzezicki, Bruce Foxton and Russ Hastings during the recording of Back in the Room

Studio Trio: Mark Brzezicki, Bruce Foxton and Russ Hastings during the recording of Back in the Room

“I worked on her album Shine, for which Stuart Adamson wrote a track. I did artwork for the LP too, although the record company rejected that, wanting something more ‘power-‘80s’, involving fluorescent green and pink gloves!

“I drew the band – in a very personal style – in the recording studio, including Steve Lillywhite, Tony Levin, Simon Climie, and Kirsty MacColl, who sang backing vocals. Benny and Bjorn played as well, so it was amazing to play with what was pretty much Abba without Agnetha.

”Stuart wrote a song called Heart of the Country, which Pete Glenister plays on, using an Ebow, replicating his style. It was going to be one of our songs but Stuart gave it to Frida.

“Steve Lilywhite produced the album, and Phil Collins played on her previous LP, leading to me being invited over for the next on his recommendation. That was amazing in itself. I don’t try to be Phil, but we have a similar sound, and I adore his playing.”

We also got on to another band he’s featured with over a long period – ‘60s survivors Procol Harum, after I happened to mention Mark’s music hero Phil Collins and I lived in the same Surrey village – just outside Guildford – during a period in which he was juggling his solo career with work for Genesis and Brand X.

We were barely a quarter of a mile from each other … as the crow flies, albeit with me on the other side of the railway track. Phil was also a regular in the local pub – run by the parents of a good friend – and I recall tales of Eric Clapton visiting too, even known to play the spoons. And that turns out to be Mark’s cue to (majorly) out-namedrop me.

“I was with Procol Harum for 17 years, and Eric played with us when we played our regular Chiddingfold and Dunsfold shows. Me, Gary Brooker and Jeff Beck … sorry, I’m name-dropping again, and Paul McCartney once said to me, ‘Mark, never namedrop!’

“I’d do those Wintershall shows with Gary, Andy Fairweather Low, Eric Clapton on guitar, Jeff Beck guesting, and Dave Bronze on bass. And we had a fantastic time. I feel very blessed with that kind of friendship within the music business. But I do gravitate back to Big Country. That’s my band. With everyone else I’m guesting.

image004“It’s my musical home and, along with Simon Townshend’s band, the one I grew up in. It was as if I was adopted by three other people … or we all adopted each other. We became a very close unit at a key age – with Bruce Watson still a teenager then – through travelling, seeing the world, not seeing family, all that brings. They became my family and remain very special.”

Are you still in touch with Tony Butler, now he’s in the West Country?

“Yes, and I’ve just played on his new solo album, going down to visit. He’s playing fantastic and in good shape. It was lovely to see him, and very emotional to play with him after this hiatus. They’re all my musical family and friends. If I get to see them, that’s awesome. If I can play with them, even better!”

Talking of family, Mark’s brother Steve, based in the south of France, is a session musician, ‘a fabulous bass player’ as he put it. In fact, he tells me one of his original Big Country drum kits is down at his place. The brothers have also worked together, including a past tour with former Marillion frontman Fish. And I’ve since read elsewhere that Mark actually played in his formative days in a band called The Flying Brzezickis with two of his brothers. So where did the music come from in your family?

“My Dad was an opera singer. He was an engineer, but his love was opera singing, so I grew up with that. He had a beautiful voice and made a few records – 78s, vinyl – in the ’50s and ’60s. having trained in Italy.”

There’s one more project that’s kept Mark busy of late – as briefly mentioned earlier – his prog-rock outfit ESP, alongside fellow Simon Townshend stalwart Tony Lowe, with debut LP Invisible Din just delivered.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, a little more like Genesis, reflecting my own background and love of all that. I sing lead on two songs, and Tony Lowe half-produces and half-plays. It’s very ‘70s but with today’s sort of twist, a kind of Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd feel. And when Bruce Watson’s touring with the Skids next year, I’ll be out with ESP.

“The prog stations have started to play it and I’m getting a lot of interest from America, particularly drum magazines. Drummers will love it, as will all those who like good music and have an eclectic taste. It’s not outwardly commercial but there are some very catchy songs. Of the guys on the album, some were in King Crimson, and all great players. There’s also David Jackson, David Cross, Steve Gee, Phil Spalding …”

albumfront-copyIt’s clearly a labour of love for a musician whose past projects have included prog-related work with the likes of Steve Hackett and Steve Howe.

“Yeah, very special.”

Meanwhile, time marches on and there’s a big birthday due for Mark next June, his 60th. I’m guessing there are no retirement plans though.

“Yeah, I don’t feel that’s really my age, but I’m very proud of what I’ve seen and wouldn’t change anything. It’s given me that experience, and for me the greatest music for drummers has already been done, in the ‘70s – from disco to fusion to prog rock – and my head’s in that area for what inspires me still. For me it’s all a little too taught-at-school and going through the motions now.

“Music’s lost its way with a so many of the old recording studios now gone. It seems that everyone does it at home now. So many drum parts are now sampled or programmed, moved around on a screen so you lose that feel. It’s like there being too many channels on TV – it’s quantity over quality, and I’m not seeing the quality. Before, people were discovering music, playing without too much technology, grabbing the drumsticks, gritting their teeth, finding their own style, right or wrong, even holding the sticks wrong.

“Think of Keith Moon, not playing a hi-hat, very uncouth the way he played, while BJ Wilson in Procol Harum – a friend of Keith’s – never really played songs twice the same way. He’d kind of explode in different areas, each and every time.

“From John Bonham’s unique sound to Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and Stewart Copeland, one of the last of those real original styles – I love those players. But I’m not hearing that anymore. I read the magazines and check people out but it’s more about some homogenous school of drumming. I see it when we do these big shows. I’m not knocking the drumming, but they’re such a product of the machine. I’m a bit of a dinosaur with lots of drums, but the small kits today just don’t do it for me. There’s a real lack of invention, and on Jools Holland’s show every week you’ll see the same kit with a different drummer.”

Finally, it’s 15 years in December since Stuart’s passing. I’m guessing you still think of him often.

“There were different phases of our lives together on the road, but we also liked our distance, and were around 400 miles from each other. I’d probably see more of Tony while Stuart would see more of Bruce, but we were so much in each other’s pockets at times that we enjoyed our space away from each other, only in touch when it was time to get together again as a band – like going back to school.

“When Stuart moved to America it got even more protracted, having to go out there to rehearse and do demos. The point I’m making is that he had a new life by then, writing with (US country music artist) Marcus Hummon. I did end up playing and touring with them, including his last tour, but Stuart became out of sight, out of mind and it became increasingly difficult to do the daily running when there was a time difference and you’re organising flights and so on.

“I still think of him a lot though. It’s like losing a brother. I think of him at odd times – it may be a view I see or hearing a guitarist I really like or songs he was influenced by which I got to love. I’m reminded of Stuart every time I go up to Scotland and every time I play my drums and when we strike the first chord of any Big Country song.

“I’m reminded of him all the time, and I do miss him, but I feel the story of Stuart’s still there because we’re keeping the Big Country story alive. And that’s important for the cynics out there who don’t see the bigger picture.”

Rear Guard: Mark in live action with Big Country (Photo: Mark Brzezicki's Facebook page)

Rear Guard: Mark in live action with Big Country (Photo: Mark Brzezicki’s Facebook page)

To revisit this site’s feature/interview with Mark’s fellow Big Country co-founder Bruce Watson from October 2014, head here.

Big Country’s The Seer 30th anniversary tour resumes on Friday, September 30th at The Warehouse, Falkirk, carrying on through October, November and December, towards a Friday, December 30th date at PJ Molloy’s, DunfermlineFor full details and all the latest from the band visit www.bigcountry.co.uk or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to the ESP page on Facebook, and another to Mark Brzezicki‘s own page.

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Beyond the Dandelion Adventure – having words with Ajay Saggar and Marcus Parnell

Live Presence: Deutsche Ashram's Merinde Verbeek and Ajay Saggar, live at the Oedipus Brouwerij, Amsterdam, (Photo: Kasper Vogelkanz)

Live Presence: Deutsche Ashram’s Merinde Verbeek and Ajay Saggar, live at the Oedipus Brouwerij, Amsterdam, (Photo: Kasper Vogelkanz)

This story starts with The Membranes, because without that Lancashire post-punk band a singer known as Fat Mark and a lanky Asian indie kid called Ajay might never have met.

That initial meeting came sometime in the mid-‘80s amid an alternative scene of sorts around Preston, with the charismatic John Robb’s revered Blackpool outfit – by then relocated to Manchester and John Peel favourites – inspiring plenty of interest and adulation.

Fat Mark – plain Marcus Parnell these days – was a regular browser at Action Records when he latched on to The Membranes, becoming a prime mover with the Much Hooligans, a group of avid fans named on account of his village roots. Soon, he was playing gigs of his own at The Warehouse with a band called Dandelion Adventure, and in time Ajay Saggar joined him. He was was studying in Lancaster at the time, but preferred the nightlife down the M6, quickly getting to know a number of Membranes fans. And when invited to join Dandelion Adventure, this one-time drummer quickly accepted, leading to many hours of frantic self-tuition that ultimately shaped his career.

“I actually borrowed a bass from John Robb, practising madly, working on a Jean-Jacques Burnel-type sound. I went to loads of Membranes shows, making a bunch of friends from the North West. I was at Lancaster Uni in around ’84, but spent a lot of time down in Preston. I went away hoping the university scene would be buzzing, but it was rubbish, so started putting on gigs from around ’85 in Lancaster.”

Indie fans in the area may remember him putting on bands like The Age of Chance, Big Flame and Bogshed, many of those shows recorded on cassette by Ajay at the time. And music has been his calling ever since, and when I caught up with him he was in Bonn on the European leg of a tour promoting the mighty new LP from King Champion Sounds, heading through Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium back to his Dutch base, with UK dates following next Spring.

But Ajay will be back on his old patch before then, bringing his latest project, Deutsche Ashram, to The New Continental in Preston,marking the release of another new album, the gorgeous Deeper and Deeper. That appearance forms part of promoter Tuff Life Boogie’s annual indie showcase commemorating the 2004 death of John Peel, involving several acts who at one time or another recorded Radio 1 sessions for the legendary broadcaster.

That night Ajay will also be rejoining Marcus Parnell, a quarter of a century after their Dandelion Adventure ended, and Dave Chambers, who played drums for Cornershop, another band with strong Preston links, and one previously managed by Marcus, the trio billed as possible one-off project The Common Cold.

But before I got on to all that, we talked about the new King Champion Sounds offering, To Awake in that Heaven of Freedom. And judging by all the disparate music projects he’s been involved in over the years, I suggested that Ajay’s clearly not one to be typecast or advocate one kind of music over another.

“It’s never really been like that. Life’s too short. You can constantly aspire to push yourself. I try and put out at least one record a year, and it’s been two this year!”

Vinyl Viewing: Ajay Saggar with the brand new King Champion Sounds album.

Vinyl Viewing: Ajay Saggar with the brand new King Champion Sounds album.

With King Champion Sounds alone, it seems like there are a number of distinct styles at play, and in one review of the band in The Times in 2013, Stewart Lee wrote: ‘What if The Fall had garnished their rockabilly grooves with swing-era horns? What if Can played Ghanaian high-life? What if Morricone had scored spaghetti westerns in a Moroccan souk? King Champion Sounds recombine canonical influences in new contexts.’ There’s plenty of that on the new album too, which at times suggests – I put to Ajay – a band with leanings toward multiple personality disorders.

“Yeah, maybe! People mention that, but that’s not something new to me. I’ve put out so many records where it’s been like that. It’s not intentional. It’s just my love and interest in different kinds of music. And I wouldn’t put it on record if it didn’t make sense to the whole package. There’s a red line running through, and you can listen to the first track and the last and it makes complete sense. You’re taken on a journey. Kevin Shields said of one of my albums, ‘All albums should be like this, with bits of everything going on.’”

You probably already know this, but Shields is the singer and guitarist in revered Dublin band My Bloody Valentine, just one of many fans of Ajay’s work, having invited him to work as the band’s soundman before now.

I also mentioned how the new (double) album’s opening track, Mice Rats Roaches (on which Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis adds guitar), made me think of The Stranglers’ 1977 classic Down in the Sewer.

“Oh, lovely! That was the first band I fell in love with. The first single I ever bought was No More Heroes, my first album was Black and White, they were the first band I saw live, and the reason I first picked up a bass guitar was because of J-J Burnel. I caught them last year too, and they still had it.”

Meanwhile, a couple more darting runs later, the band are on to What I Mean, which suggests more of a Black Grape sound to me.

“That’s come up in loads of early reviews. The rest of the band say they can kind of see that, and I suppose I can too now.”

But then on tracks like the wondrous That *#$! Bus Again and Point Blank, I get more of the horn-laden King Champion Sounds I’ve come to expect.

“Yeah! There’s a bit of everything for everybody.”

Sound Experience: King Champion Sounds caught live (Photo: Thierry Laroche)

Sound Experience: King Champion Sounds caught live (Photo: Thierry Laroche)

I won’t go into a full-blown review here. Space is against me. But I will mention a song which appears to have a Lancashire witchcraft theme at its heart, Old Chattox Hides in Avenham Park, as maybe that’s something deep from the Preston past of Ajay coming back to the surface. One thing is for sure though, King Champion Sounds’ new album is certainly a winner (and you can find details of how to get hold of a copy via their Facebook page), not least thanks to Ajay’s contributions, which according to the credits include (deep breath required) guitar, melodica, piano, synth, harmonium, omnichord, xylophone, electronica, programming and production duties.

Time for a quick bit of background, I guess, and Ajay – born in Kenya, of Indian descent – has certainly seen the world, spending his first 11 years of his life in East Africa before resettling in England for the next 15, coming to the North West from across the Pennines in Yorkshire, but being based in Holland ever since, after an early ‘90s move from Manchester. What’s more, he’s also seen as an honorary son of Iceland given his work with several bands from that proud nation.

But before all that there was Dandelion Adventure, and listening back to an archived On the Wire interview with Steve Barker for Radio Lancashire in late ’88, it’s fair to say they were fresh, not least on the glorious Speed Trials, where you can tell another early influence on the band was The Fall. In fact, they could even be Mark E Smith’s little brothers, and as it turns out both Ajay and Marcus have got to know the man himself since, the latter even designing a couple of record sleeves for them. And they were clearly an entertaining band between tracks too.

“We were just friends, and there’s that gang mentality I suppose. At that age the world’s your oyster.”

That local radio appearance came on the strength of a demo tape that also led to a mini-album, Puppy Shrine, being released on Preston’s Action Records’ own label, with six-track 12” Jinxs Truck following the next year.

“Mark (Marcus) would hang around Action more or less every day, and was always a great ideas man. In those pre-internet days he was almost a step ahead of the game. At first it was all pretty anarchic, not least on stage, but after a while he decided we had to do it seriously – rehearsing, demoing, so on. Steve (Barker, for On the Wire) heard our tape and really liked it, and I already knew him from manning phones for his show while at university.

“And Action Records gave a leg-up to so many North West bands. Gordon (Gibson) put his hand in his own pocket and really went out of his way to help out. In a small community you need people like him to develop young bands, get them to the next level, give them a chance. And he still does that. He’s totally solid.”

The debut mini-album was also sent to and loved by John Peel, leading to a call from his producer John Walters, inviting the band to record a session at Maida Vale in May 1990, broadcast the following month.

117998358“We wrote four new songs for that and rehearsed like mad, and it proved an amazing experience. Friends like My Bloody Valentine loved it and asked us to play with them several times on the back of it.

“It was the same when we played Liverpool – these kids hanging around, really into what we were doing. And one such band was The Boo Radleys, who played with us and gave me a demo. I loved the music but advised them to get a decent drummer, which they did. I then passed on the tape to Gordon at Action. He also loved it, got in touch and put out their first album.”

Another notable name from that era was Cornershop, and Dave Chambers – Marcus and Ajay’s partner in The Common Cold – goes right back with them to Preston band General Havoc, where he was playing alongside brothers Avtar and Tjinder Singh.

“The whole Cornershop thing was during one of Mark’s Warhol/Svengali mad idea phases. He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get you and the Singh boys together with Dave for this Asian band, and call it Cornershop?’ He had this whole manifesto in his head. I told him it was crazy and would never work. They went ahead anyway, and he got the whole thing rolling.

“And by the time Brimful of Asha started taking off, I was getting them shows in Holland and Belgium. I still see Ben Ayres from the band quite often. He works for Rough Trade in London.”

Dave Chambers left Cornershop in 1995, after a few singles, two albums and a 1993 John Peel session, quitting two years before the Fatboy Slim remix of Brimful of Asha took the band to the top of the UK charts. He went on to feature in several Preston bands, including Formula One, who put out several records on Oxford’s Shifty Disco label in the late ‘90s, and The Wandering Step, who put out one of the first singles on Deltasonic, The Coral’s label, in the early noughties.

Meanwhile, post-Dandelion Adventure, Ajay initially joined two members of The Inca Babies to form the neatly-named Hound God, playing ‘metal percussion’, describing them as ‘Pussy Galore meets Einsturzende Neubaten meets The Birthday Party’. But at the end of 1991 he upped sticks for the Netherlands, ‘wanting a new challenge’.

“I travelled the world as a sound engineer for loads of bands before starting at the Paradiso in Amsterdam five years ago, including Icelandic outfit mum. They opened for Mogwai, who I was working with in Scandinavia at the time. I loved them, stayed in touch, and that was before the whole Icelandic band thing kicked off. I ended up doing the sound for many more bands through them.”

His time in the Netherlands included a spell living with underground outfit The Ex and playing with the Holland-based band Donkey, with their records released on London’s Guided Missile after Ajay put the first single out. And that led to his second Peel session, in April 1995, by which time he’d learned a few studio skills of his own.

“Yeah, although that was really driven by necessity. We were offered studios but couldn’t afford engineers so I did it myself, learning tricks of the trade. From that got asked to help out on the touring side. I got asked to help out Bis, a band from Glasgow, with their sound, and before I knew it I was stood in a tent in front of 40,000 people, thrown in at the deep end. But it worked and I never looked back, working with Mogwai, Dinosaur Jr., Godspeed You! Black Emperor, My Bloody Valentine, and so on.”

downloadThere was tour management too, but now he concentrates on his production management role at the Paradiso in Amsterdam – a contact between visiting bands and the venue’s 300-odd staff – and his various band projects.

Ajay’s no stranger to North West returns though, including UnPeeled appearances in Manchester and Preston, including shows with The Bent Moustache (in 2011, at the time of their second album) and King Champion Sounds (in 2013). And this time he’ll be dividing his stage time between The Common Cold and his Deutsche Ashram project with fellow Paradiso staff member Merinde Verbeek.

The pair’s album is out next month, and certainly impressive from my first couple of spins, not least the hugely-atmospheric Ocean Is You. They’ve already been described as ‘Cocteau Twins meet Spacemen 3 in an opium den’, although I’m not convinced it wasn’t Ajay who came up with that. I’d actually say on a track like Little Matter I was reminded of early ‘80s indie outfit Strawberry Switchblade. Either way, the album’s another winner, and Ajay’s looking forward to their New Continental appearance, one of their first in the UK.

“It’s really nice to show people in a place I used to live I’m still so involved in music. That’s my world, my life, always has been, always will be. Now I’m bringing something new and fresh over, and I’m really excited about this. Those who have heard us are really digging it. And Merinde’s a fantastic singer.”

The pair got together after a chance conversation in the venue’s café where Merinde works, Ajay impressed by her initial work on the demos he lent her, inspired to take the project on from there.

“I sent her three songs and the next morning got something back. I listened with trepidation, but was absolutely blown away – a fantastic voice and she totally got it. She said, ‘I loved it. Have you got any more?’ She went on to write all the lyrics and melodies, really fast. We went into the studio and helped develop it with her with extra harmonies and more vocals, tried loads of things, build it up, mixed it and put a lot of work in. And I love it!”

Deutsche Ashram are also set to support fellow Preston UnPeeled 2016 attendees The Wolfhounds at The Islington, Tolpuddle Street, London N1, on Saturday, October 29th, with further details of that and how to get hold of the debut album on the band’s Facebook page. But we didn’t get on to that, as Ajay needed to get away to prepare for that night’s King Champion Sounds gig, before the band moved on to Hamburg the next day.

Yet later that evening I had a brief chat with Ajay’s old friend and Dandelion Adventure compatriot, Marcus. And the artist formerly known as Fat Mark started by telling me about his days following The Membranes around the UK, ‘getting on famously with John Robb then tripping around the country following his band’.

Of Dandelion Adventure’s early shows, he added: “We played The Warehouse in ’86 – the Rumble Club – with another bass player, under the same name, then again in ’87 with a different bass player again. We were a bit raucous! We had two drummers, someone describing them as sounding like they were falling down stairs while playing.

“I think our whole ethos was if you could play you weren’t any good to us! I remember asking Geoff Bird if he could play drums, him saying ‘No’, and me saying, ‘Right, you’re in!’”

Marcus, whose CV also includes – as well as that sleeve-art for The Fall – a Peel session with The Membranes and work with The Boo Radleys, also shed light on his days managing Cornershop.

Speed Trials: Dandelion Adventure's Mark Standing, left, and Marcus 'Fat Mark' Parnell, live at the Lady Owen Arms, 1990 (Photo: Greg Neate)

Speed Trials: Dandelion Adventure’s Mark Standing, left, and Marcus Parnell, live at the Lady Owen Arms, 1990 (Photo: Greg Neate)

“I got to know so many people through Dandelion Adventure and The Membranes, and having those contacts made it a lot easier to plug a band, as was the case with Cornershop. I stayed up in Preston, but spent around two years in and out of Leicester when the band relocated there, and also at Rough Trade in Notting Hill with Gary Walker, the mastermind of Wiiija Records.

“Gary was also involved with Dandelion Adventure’s Peel session, and manages The Kills these days. and when I sent him tapes of Cornershop, he felt it was a really good idea. To be honest, they were a bit ropey then. I joked they were the worst band in the world but I’d make them the biggest! I learned very early on that rock’n’roll’s not about being the best guitar players in the world, but having the best gimmicks or the sexiest singer!”

Was there a moment when the Brimful of Asha remix took off when he regretted letting Cornershop go on without him?

“No, I was very proud that they got to No.1. It fulfilled a big circle for me.”

A spell at Domino Records followed in the late ’90s, working alongside owner Laurence Bell at the label, which later hit the jackpot with the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. But Marcus’s work with acts like Clinic, Pavement, Sebadoh and Will Oldham had paved the way for all that.

“A lot of those bands are still kicking around there, and very much the foundations of setting up such a wonderful label.”

Getting back to Dandelion Adventure, how important was Action Records’ involvement to the story?

“Gordon (Gibson) was like an older brother to me, turning me on to so many great records and bands. I was always in the shop at 16 and 17, and when we got the band together he saw us at The Warehouse and said, ‘I’ll put your record out’. That was fantastic!

Low-slung Bass: Ajay Saggar wigs out at the Lady Owen Arms with Dandelion Adventure in 1990 (Photo: Greg Neate)

Low-slung Bass: Ajay Saggar wigs out at the Lady Owen Arms in Islington with Dandelion Adventure back in 1990 (Photo: Greg Neate)

“There were lots of little highs. We played with Blur in London when they were starting out, at the Lady Owen Arms, Islington. We were headlining but they jumped the bill to play in front of us, for what Time Out called their gig of the weekend. Brilliant memories, and I still hark back to those days. We had a really good time, even though a lot of the memories are drunken ones!”

What was the band’s finest moment for you?

“Probably that Peel session, but I still really love Speed Trials. I was also really proud of the praise from the likes of J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Gibby (Butthole Surfers) and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth). Thurston called us the best English band in an interview, when the grunge thing was really kicking off with Nirvana. We’d gone by then though. Perhaps if we stuck to our guns and carried on … but everything happens for a reason. I’d probably have run things differently now, but I never look back with too much regret.”

Tuff Life Boogie’s annual UnPeeled tribute to the much missed John Peel involves 10 acts across two stages at The Continental (South Meadow lane, Preston, Lancashire, 01772 499425) on Friday, October 28th (6pm to 12am), also starring The Nightingales, The Stupids, Datblygu, John Hyatt’s Plastic Reality, Eton Crop, The Great Leap Forward, Minny Pops, Spread Eagle, and The Spiral Room. There will also be an after-party just across town at The Ferret (11pm to 3am) featuring christ and Klute. Tickets are £12.50 until the end of September and £4 for the after-party tickets from wegottickets.com, The Continental, The Ferret, or Action Records. There will also be a bonus Saturday, December 3rd show with The Membranes, The Wolfhounds and The Folk Devils. For full line-ups, band biogs and more details of both shows, follow this link.

un-peeled-16_0Meanwhile, you can expect more on UnPeeled 16 on this site in the coming weeks, hopefully including interviews with Datblygu (ahead of the lauded Welsh outfit’s first gig outside their home nation in 25 years, by all accounts), The Membranes and The Wolfhounds. 

Thanks to Rico La Rocca – Tuff Life Boogie’s main mover’n’shakermaker – for some of the background material, and Greg Neate for the Dandelion Adventure pics. Incidentally, Greg penned an Ajay Saggar feature for The Quietus in 2011, linked here.

 

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Waiting for The Vapors’ return – the Dave Fenton interview

Vapors Trial: The 2016 line-up of The Vapors, with Michael Bowes, left, joining Dave Fenton, front, Ed Bazalgette, rear, and Steve Smith, right (Photo: The Vapors).

Vapors Trial: The 2016 line-up (from left) – Michael Bowes, Dave Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith

I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you remember The Vapors. I also realise that many of you will now have the song Turning Japanese lodged in your head, and a few of you will think that was the whole story.

But while technically The Vapors were one-hit wonders, they were about so much more, not least to this perennial teenager, who still rates New Clear Days as one of the finest albums ever made.

It’s 36 years since this band from my hometown of Guildford, Surrey, had a worldwide hit with the afore-mentioned 45, and I might as well put on the record (so to speak) straight away that it was probably not about what you heard it was about. That’s been the band’s lead singer and main songwriter Dave Fenton’s take on the subject over the years anyway, although he acknowledges it didn’t do any harm anyway (the publicity about the meaning of the song, that is, rather than anything that might have affected his eyesight).

And now I’ve got that out of the way, I’ll let on for those who haven’t already heard that The Vapors are finally dipping a toe back in the water this autumn, with four national dates coming up – in Dublin, London, Liverpool, and Wolverhampton.

Not as if the musical journey ended for Dave when the band went their separate ways in 1982, with another decade elapsing before he got back to his day-job as a practising lawyer. As it turned out he was soon involved again anyway, spending 17 years as a London-based in-house solicitor for the Musicians’ Union from 1999.

Meanwhile, you may have spotted lead guitarist Ed Bazalgette’s name on TV credits over that same period, more recently directing hit BBC shows (and favourites of mine I might add) like Doctor Who and Poldark, and a documentary about his great-great-grandad Joseph Bazalgette, the 19th century civil engineer responsible for saving so many lives after major cholera epidemics through creating central London’s sewer system.

But now Dave – who has taken early retirement from his legal career – and Ed – between his on-screen assignments – are working together again, having rejoined bass player Steve Smith, who never really left the music scene. And while original drummer Howard Smith (no relation to Steve) is busy with his young family back in Guildford, there’s a worthy replacement in the experienced Michael Bowes. As I put it to Dave though, there was talk of a reunion a few years back. So why not then, and why now?

“We tried around 2001, but Ed was abroad a lot, working for the BBC, directing and editing, doing holiday programmes all over, so rehearsing was almost impossible. I was at the Musicians’ Union then, but don’t have any commitments at present, so can fit more around Ed. He’s still very busy, as is Steve, who also plays with The Shakespearos. In fact, one of the covers they do is Turning Japanese, and that’s how we ended up playing along with him recently at the Half Moon in Putney.

r-743607-1159611824-jpeg“Steve sent a text asking if we’d like to join in, for a laugh, myself and Ed saying yes. There were no rehearsals and it was the first time we’d been together on stage for 35 years, so it was a bit nerve-racking. But once we were up there it was fine.”

For me this reunion tour can’t come around quick enough, having missed out on the band first time around (I was only 14 going on 15 when they called it a day), having to make do with two studio albums and various singles instead.

“Well, you’ll get a second chance now.”

Dave’s based in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, these days, moving that side of the capital so he could get to a North London law practice a little easier. But then he ended up working for the Musicians’ Union in South London, and because his children were in school and he didn’t want to mess them about, he took on a longer commute again, continuing for 17 years. And that seems ironic for a guy who wrote a song for the first album based around commuter frustration, ending with the line, ‘Don’t let the trains getcha!’

“Well, they tried very hard … when they bothered turning up!”

Dave’s children are grown up now – the oldest 22, having finished his degree, the middle one 20, at university in Manchester, and the youngest 17, doing her A-levels. What do they make of Dad’s return to the music scene?

“They like it. I think they’re a bit chuffed they’ve got something to talk about to friends. Daniel, the middle one, even more so – he’s a really good guitarist, so when Ed can’t make it, he’s first reserve.”

The Jam bass player Bruce Foxton, who co-managed The Vapors with Paul Weller’s dad John,  recently spoke about them at a Q&A session at Liverpool’s About the Young Idea exhibition, citing ‘a great band’ with ‘great tracks’ who ‘burnt out kind of quickly’. Fair comment?

“I suppose it was. I felt a lot of pressure at the time but it was mainly down to external influences. It wasn’t arguments within the band.

“Our breakthrough hit, Turning Japanese, came out on United Artists, but between that and follow-up News at Ten, EMI bought the company out and those who signed us were made redundant. We got inherited by people who weren’t interested.

“That was the start, and there was a week when we were at No.3 and The Jam were at No.1 (with Going Underground), so it started to tell. Bruce and John realised they might be on a European tour with The Jam so couldn’t be on an American tour with us. It got too awkward, John held his hand up and said ‘Sorry, it doesn’t work anymore’. So within a few weeks of that hit we’d lost our record company and management.

nat“Actually, we went in the day News at Ten was meant to come out to talk to our A&R man – as John was away – and he didn’t even know it had been released. And that was the bloke in charge of that department.

News at Ten charted at No.44 straight off, enough to automatically get a spot on Top of the Pops. But there was a BBC strike and the show was cancelled. Next time we made it on was almost a year later with Jimmie Jones, by which time we’d lost momentum.”

I put to Dave that I’d read about a further reason News at Ten failed to properly chart – the song title was seen as an ITV brand, so the BBC were reluctant to put it on their radio playlist. But he laughs at that, adding, “That’s the first time I’ve heard that! I’m not sure who made those kind of decisions. The main problem was that Top of the Pops wasn’t on.”

I admit to Dave that while I loved their debut album, it took me longer to warm to follow-up LP, Magnets, despite some quality moments.

“It’s a bit moodier, isn’t it.”

Yet I love New Clear Days, its themes of cold war politics, militarism, fashion fads and great love songs standing up to this day. How old was Dave when he penned those lyrics?

“I was around 26. Law school takes bloody ages – I had six months at law school, two years of articles, and that on top of a degree. Having qualified, I spent a year in practise, but decided if I didn’t try my luck then, I never would. I told my parents I was going to take a year out, and we managed to get a deal within that year.”

And what was meant to be a year’s sabbatical turned out to be a lot more.

“Yeah, about 15 years. Then me and my missus decided to have a family, so I though I better get a proper job! I’d been doing all sorts, from sound engineering to playing in bands, but the only way you could make more money was being away, touring. I’d have missed out on seeing my family grow up. So, difficult as it was to decide, I went back to the law.”

As it turns out, Bruce Foxton had first seen The Vapors before they were the settled band that made the albums. In fact, word has it that was at Scratcher’s, a music pub in Farncombe (properly known as The Three Lions) now run (and rejuvenated) by a good friend of mine, whose former band – that this scribe mis-managed back in the day – did a neat cover of The Vapors’ Bunkers. But that’s beside the point. Getting back to Dave, had there been many personnel changes by then?

download-1“There had been a Vapors band for a while, but we were previously BBC3 …”

Yes, Dave was ahead of his time there, his band moniker beating the Corporation’s own channel of the same name by around a quarter of a century. Anyway, carry on, Dave.

“There had been a few line-up changes before we settled on one, and it changed between Bruce seeing us and offering us gigs. By then I might have been the only person left.”

So you didn’t know Ed, Steve and Howard before?

“No. we all lived in Guildford, but our line-up was falling apart and I was looking for people while other bands were also falling apart, cherry-picking a new line-up. I felt Ed looked good on lead guitar and had the sort of style I wanted, while Steve was actually drumming, in a band called The Absolute, but I knew he played bass and was really solid.”

You seemed to get on well, and say there was no animosity come the 1982 split.

“It was all external stuff really, and pressure I felt from having no manager – everything falling to me as the leader, taking on all sorts of roles I didn’t want.”

Was that BBC Radio 1 session at Maida Vale in July 1979 for John Peel a big moment?

“Yeah, we sent in a cassette and I got a message to call, spoke to his producer (John Walters) and got invited in for a session. And that fitted in with John Weller getting us gigs in London.”

And how did you find working with John Weller?

“He was a lovely bloke. Really nice.”

thevaporsturningjapanese-whitevinyl58919Within months the band also had a prestigious slot on The Jam’s Setting Sons tour.

“That was brilliant – our first real dabble into life on the road, going from playing to 20 people or one man and his dog in a pub to 2,000 seaters with The Jam. We each had our own minibus and every time we got to a service station had water pistol fights in the car park. They’d tape our clothes to the ceiling while we were on stage, that sort of thing, while we’d put talcum powder on the snare drum. I’ve got really happy memories of all that.”

It’s fair to say that fame followed very quickly from the moment the band had that settled line-up.

“We were talking about this at the weekend, how in 1979 everything that possibly could have gone wrong went right for us, from finding a record company and management to having a hit within a few weeks of the year. But the following year everything went horribly wrong, not least losing the people we were working with.”

I mentioned second album Magnets and its lack of success. A lot of bands had chances to bounce straight back from a difficult follow-up – The Jam’s Modern World being followed by All Mod Cons for example. But not you.

“But that was partly because I left. Everything got on top of me, and it was easier to walk away. I can’t really blame anyone else. I made us a one-hit wonder by not carrying on, really.”

Did the circumstances of that and an uneasy relationship with the label make Dave all the more determined to address such situations when he took on his Musicians’ Union role?

“No, like I said, it was more a case of finding a better way of making money than just being out there all the time. When you’ve got a young family you don’t want all that. But now my kids have grown up, I’m retired and can do what I want. Sometimes Ed will be busy and won’t be able to play, but if he can’t my son Dan can.”

Out of interest, did you already have a lot of the songs that would end up on New Clear Days when you struck that initial deal?

“Well, your first album is your entire life, while the second was rushed because you need to quickly get something else out there. But there were a few songs that didn’t make it on to the albums, some of which we might drag out when we’re playing again. But not for these first four gigs.”

Eastern Promise: Dave Fenton during the video for Turning Japanese.

Eastern Promise: Dave Fenton with a friend during the video for Turning Japanese.

Might that include those quality b-sides like Wasted and Talk Talk, both songs I love?

“It could do. Our new drummer likes Talk Talk too.”

The new drummer, Michael Bowes, certainly has an impressive musical CV, including two decades performing with artists such as Nelly Furtado, Joss Stone, Tears For Fears, Heather Small of M People, Michelle Gayle, and Laura Mvula.

“He’s a really good drummer, and I’ve worked with a few in my time. One of the best, and he’s a lovely guy. We get on really well and me, Steve and Ed feel like we’ve known him for years. It’s just fallen into place. We’ve been really lucky.”

Michael takes the place of Howard, who until recently ran a record shop in Guildford and now heads People Music Promotions, and for whom I understand the reformation has just fallen at the wrong time.

“That’s right. He has a new baby, and I think that’s the main reason he’s not doing it with us.”

Going back again, at their height, Turning Japanese even topped the charts in Australia, leading to a tour there.

“That was amazing, being paid to go over, being put up in brilliant hotels, with a handful of gigs, mainly up the East coast. Again, great memories.”

And then that same single was finally a success in America too.

“We dropped off in America on the way back. I don’t know why, but EMI weren’t going to put it out there at all, but then it started selling on import and they took notice. It was a hit in the clubs in New York and slowly went around the coast. It was almost six months later that it was big in Los Angeles. We sold lots of records but not at the same time, so it never charted. We kept going back to tour though, selling everything out first time, including two gigs at the Whisky a Go Go (West Hollywood, California) on the same day.”

That must have been amazing, playing venues more likely associated with the likes of The Byrds, The Doors and Otis Redding.

61t7ehcvoul“Well, yeah, some of our photos from that period were purely of the front of a building with our name up there. It looked so good!”

For all that the first album and News at Ten single stalled, chart-wise. I know there were mitigating circumstances, but I still can’t really believe that. I’ve found myself many times trying to get over that you weren’t just one-hit wonders, great as Turning Japanese was. So many more great songs didn’t get the wider appreciation. Have there been times when you thought, ‘Not that song again’?

“Not really. How can you moan about having that hit? It’s amazing to me that it’s still being played 35 years after. I never get fed up with that one.”

I’m pleased to hear that, but just wish there was similar success for songs like the wondrous Waiting for the Weekend.

“Well, we’re still playing it, so you never know. Maybe someone will re-release it!”

When Dave – born in Redhill and brought up in Reigate – returned to the legal profession in 1993, he was working for a firm in Guildford, and fellow pupils would occasionally spot him passing my secondary school on his way to work.

But when I was in the sixth form, Steve Smith’s next band Shoot! Dispute – a funk-driven five-piece in the style of the more quirky side of Altered Images, not least through Cathy Lomax’s distinctive vocals – were making something of an impact, and I recall seeing them live a couple of times. I still have their debut single, and remember well their two 1984 sessions for John Peel, who was also a fan. So was Dave keeping tabs on his old band-mates around then?

“I kind of lost touch around the time I moved to London.”

Were you aware of Ed’s work in television?

“I was, and since the advent of texts and mobile phones he’s been letting us know what he’s up to.”

672157But now they’re back, initially for just those four dates, although there are already bookings for next year. Any recording going on behind the scenes?

“Not yet, but we’re talking about the beginning of next year for writing and have gigs booked in April and May. We’ll announce them when we’re more sorted. We’ve also got a couple of festivals lined up. We’re taking it easy really, making time to write and think about what else we want to be doing.”

Another of my favourite bands, The Undertones, tend to just get together for a few occasional shows between careers elsewhere. Will that be your approach?

“I think so, and generally at weekends so Ed can do it.”

Going back to those early days in Guildford, The Vapors rehearsed above a laundrette, not so far from the scout hut in my home village where The Stranglers had rehearsed. Meanwhile, The Jam started a few miles away in Woking and The Members sprang out of Camberley. So what was it about Surrey’s Sound of the Suburbs that evoked such great music in the wake of punk?

“Punk was the main influence, encouraging us to have a go, proving anyone could do it. You didn’t have to be an amazing musician to get up there on stage and excite people. We were going up to The Marquee and elsewhere … trying to get gigs!”

Was there a special moment when Dave thought, ‘That’s what I want to do!’

“Yeah, it was watching a band called The Screeems. The lead singer, who called himself Helmholtz Watson, was just brilliant. I think I got far more famous than he did though!”

I can confirm that. I can find nothing of a band of that name, and the only mention of the lead singer is through him using the name of the prinicipal character in Aldous Huxley’s early 1930s futuristic novel, Brave New World. But you already knew that of course.

“That was at Bishop Otter teacher training college (in Bognor Regis) where my brother went in the mid-’70s. I also remember seeing Devo at The Marquee one night, doing Jocko Homo, thinking, ‘Good grief!’ That started my interest in them and made my stuff a bit jerkier than before.”

Direct Action: Ed Bazalgette on the set of the BBC's latest Poldark dramatisation with Ross poldark (Aidan Turner)

Direct Action: Ed Bazalgette on the set of the BBC’s latest Poldark dramatisation with Aidan Turner

And from what I can gather, Dave never stopped writing songs, even if the original band split almost 35 years ago.

“Yeah, I’ve loads of songs that only some people have heard. I had a band called the Vapor Corporation first, and did a lot of writing for that project, even though I didn’t front it. I think a lot of those songs still stand up. And that’s what the beginning of next year’s about, playing to each other what we’ve got in our pockets and writing new songs.”

Until then, is it more a case of the best of those first two albums for these four shows?

“Yes, but it’s taken a while to get this far. Ed’s been working all summer, Steve had three months touring and doing residences in Portugal. We haven’t been able to rehearse until this month. But we did five days on the trot and are doing weekends between now and the gigs. We’re getting there, but it’s taken a while to remember all the songs and how to play them.”

And has you voice changed?

“It’s dropped a bit. We’ve detuned by half a tone across the board. We’re working on the vocals right now.”

The Vapors visit Dublin’s Opium Rooms on Friday, October 14th, London’s Dingwalls (in Camden) on Friday, November 4th, Liverpool’s Arts Club on Friday, November 18th, and Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms on Saturday, November 19th. For ticket details and all the latest news from the band visit their Facebook page. You can also keep in touch via their Twitter and Instagram pages.

I’d also like to point you towards an appreciation of The Vapors from Neil Waite on the recommended Toppermost website, with a link here

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Teenage Fanclub – Here (PeMa/Merge, 2016)

TFC announce artwork[1]I’m not quite sure it was a good thing to come to this review on the back of penning my thoughts on the latest album from The Wedding Present. I love both bands, but they’ve taken radically different paths since their respective breaks.

That said, each remains relevant and vital all these years on, and while the Weddoes have just delivered a triumphant if complex 20-song opus, TFC’s own 12-track winner appears on the face of it far radio-friendly. Yet there’s real substance too.

In only their third studio outing in 14 years and the first since 2010’s acclaimed Shadows, the band again take an egalitarian approach, prime players Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley contributing four songs each on an album put together between their native Glasgow and rural Provence (and mixed in Hamburg), the band’s central trio joined again by drummer Francis Macdonald, keyboard player Dave McGowan and long-time soundman David Henderson.

While the songs for this, their 10th long player, were written many miles apart (Norman lives in Canada these days), the band clearly still understand each other well enough to know where TFC are at collectively and creatively (and somewhat telephatically). There’s a recurring feel of optimism too, perhaps a thankfulness that they’re still as relevant today as in the late ‘80s, the onset of years clearly not robbing this unit of a youthful, enthusiastic, truthful approach to the music they love.

There’s certainly no doubting over the opening two tracks that they can still write infectious crossover hits, and lead-off single I’m in Love is a blast of fresh air, TFC-style, a soundtrack for a sunny day. Norman’s lead vocal is pitched perfectly, the harmonies are sublime, and yes, I like your trajectory too, Mr Blake. What’s more, at 162 seconds it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Like the opener, this album rarely strays from themes of life and love, and while the singles market might have changed since Ain’t That Enough broke the top-20 some 19 years ago (yep, 19 years – count them), surely there’s still room for someone to show the kids of today the way.

There are, as we might expect, a few ‘60s influences across this album, and touches of the ‘70s here and there, this punter put in mind of Dave Hill’s guitar riff on Slade’s Far Far Away on Gerry’s radio-friendly Thin Air, although the song soon morphs into classic (and more likely) Byrds territory, complete with typically-joyous TFC guitar touches.

Ray’s songs often offer welcome gear changes, and he takes a more low-key, brooding approach as the baton is handed on for Hold On, with some inventive chord sequences to the fore. And while Here mostly incorporates a clean sound – bringing to mind Ron Sexsmith’s Long Player Late Bloomer in places – there’s no doubting the quality of the songs nor the musicianship, even if a few of us might appreciate a little more noise. I’d hesitate to suggest it’s polished though. There are enough nuggets to keep it the right side of ‘produced’. Maybe just ensure the speakers are turned right up.

Rock Idols: Teenage Fanclub, Here, there and everywhere.

Rock Idols: Teenage Fanclub, Here, there and everywhere.

On another Blake instant classic, The Darkest Part of the Night, the subtle strings among the chiming guitars (of freedom) work well. There are traces of the Travelling Wilburys too, but just when this track’s in danger of being too refined, those luscious guitar duels transport you.

I Have Nothing More To Say starts out more a Gerry Rafferty tribute than a Gerry Love track, with swirling pedal effects aplenty. But on repeated listens there’s much more, and I’m not just saying that as it slowly gives rise to a touch of glorious Stylophone-like distortion. It’s still more measured than a grunge approach of old, but it’s distortion all the same.

You could say Ray’s I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive takes us on something of an orbital trip around our senses (man). The band use the term ‘kraut-folk-rock’, their press release talking of ‘sonically replacing the steady beat of the German autobahn with the vast open skies of the Pacific Coast Road’. I get that, but also hear wondrous shades of late Small Faces classic The Autumn Stone and, more recently, The Everlasting Yeah’s dreamy Everything’s Beautiful before the synths lead us towards a stirring finish.

That ‘60s feel continues with a hint of Crosby, Stills and Nash amid the light guitar licks on Gerry’s soul-searching The First Sight, before the brass – bold as brass – helps ramp things up towards another rousing play-out. And the same can be said of Norman’s Live in the Moment, the writer’s more measured tones met by a flourish of trumpets that take us to the level the optimistic lyrics suggest, adding Love-esque qualities (and I’m talking Arthur Lee’s outfit there, rather than Gerry). Furthermore, check out the neat Edwyn Collins’ A Girl Like You style guitar late on.

From there, Ray’s beautifully-ethereal Steady State further conjures up images of gentle, long summer days and heat hazes, for the kind of seemingly effortless, reflective song that only the more carefree souls could nail. And if age is about feeling rather than dates on a birth certificate, here is perhaps further proof that this band remain worthy of their name after all these years.

Similarly, Gerry’s next inspired slice of rose-coloured clarity, It’s a Sign, conjures up an early ‘70s pop feel for me. I could see Pilot taking this back in time, having a sneaky hit with it. The Bay City Rollers may then try and pass it off as their own, but we’d know better.

On Ray’s lush ode to unerring friendship, With You, there’s an almost Bernard Sumner vocal (albeit more tuneful, I might add) in a melancholic, wistful take on a tried and tested TFC theme. The subtle Hammond organ works well too.

And finally, Norman’s reflective waltz Connected to Life provides an aptly-filmic closing statement, the title credits coming up and this listener sticking around right to the emotional end, particularly lapping up the relatively pared-back feedback.

Okay, so there are moments where I’d prefer the band to let rip, give us a little more of that old edge. But there’s more on Here than first meets the ear. And while TFC’s writing prowess has never been in doubt, perhaps they just don’t feel the need to shout from the rooftops about their abilities these days.

Here is a mature album, and arguably the next logical step after Man-made and Shadows for a band 27 years older than when they thrilled us with A Catholic Education. And let’s be thankful we’re still talking Teenage Fanclub rather than Midlife Crisis. It’s a triumph, and choosing where and when to rein themselves in makes the more unleashed moments all the more euphoric.

For all the latest from Teenage Fanclub, including tour dates and how to track down the new album, head to the band’s official website. And for a recent writewyattuk feature/ interview with Norman Blake, head … erm … Here.

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Going, Going … The Wedding Present (Scopitones, 2016)

New Horizons: The Going Going ... cover shot (Photo: Jessica McMillan)

New Horizons: The Going Going … cover shot (Photo: Jessica McMillan)

A new Wedding Present album after a four-and-a-half year break, and we’re into uncharted territory again. It involves some journey too – a North American East-West road-trip (and a half) from Kittery to Santa Monica via various points, initially suggesting the band’s GPS device is on the blink.

The title’s nod to Philip Larkin’s 1972 poem of the same name suggests a further underlying theme too, lamenting all we’re losing sight of at home and abroad as the years unfold. And there’s a sense of yearning across these 20 tracks, the closest we’ve come to a David Gedge concept album in three decades.

Don’t be put off by that concept notion, by the way, even if there’s another element built in – the accompanying DVD of moving photographs, with major input from David’s partner Jessica McMillan on that front. Besides, I’ll concentrate on the music here, steering away from the idea of taking someone else’s vision of what songs might be about. Sometimes I prefer a darkened room and my own slant on it all.

In the way that those who loved 1987 debut LP George Best had to get their head around 1989 follow-up Bizarro, then made an extra leap of faith to understand 1991’s more complex Seamonsters, and then had to come to grips with 1994’s Watusi (and I could say the same of the major gear shifts over the next four albums too), it’s fair to say we can still expect the unexpected from the Boy Gedge, nine studio albums in.

After just a couple of spins of this epic LP – set down and recorded between Brighton, Liverpool, Provence and Seattle – I was sold on the idea though, enjoying the thrill of not quite knowing what was coming next, Going Going … steadily growing, growing on me. And unless I’m mistaken we finally have a joint Cinerama and The Wedding Present venture here, incorporating winning elements of both projects.

While opening track Kittery offers a building block instrumental rising to an almighty sound-storm – Samuel Beer-Pierce’s swirling organ hinting at late ‘60s psychedelia – Greenland has Charles Layton’s sparse drum boom punctuate ex-Fall associate Brix Smith’s co-ordinate narration, with further over-the-water influence on Marblehead, a sort of Coen brothers meets David Lynch soundtrack built around Melanie Howard’s ethereal vocal, aided by Paul Hiraga.

That in turn gives rise to the evocative piano and strings-led Sprague, European cinema brought to mind this time, despite the ongoing American link, and maybe even a little Sigur Ros or The Magnetic North. Furthermore, there’s a realisation that we’re now 15 minutes in and for all intents and purposes we haven’t heard so much as a stretched vocal from David Lewis Gedge.

But that’s quickly rectified on Two Bridges, by which time you can almost sense the relief of TWP purists. Even then it’s not straight-forward though, a crescendo of buzzing bass, guitar and rasping percussion threatening to take us to other mighty realms. Little Silver then pins us briefly back again before the power in the electric guitars floods through, just when you think we might be on for a quiet moment, the choral accompaniment reined in.

From there we fall seamlessly into a part-cuddly, part-roaring Bear, reminding me of some of the finer Marmite moments on the wondrous Watusi, not least its glorious inter-locking harmonies. But just when we think we might be on to a hits section, gloriously-chaotic stormer Secretary reminds me of the quirky 1994 b-side cover of Marc Riley’s Jumper Clown and 1995’s off-kilter single Sucker, with Gedge almost Lydonesque, out of his comfort zone yet strapped in by Katharine Wallinger’s vocal responses and suitably supersonic guitar lines.

By now there’ll be knowing nods from loyal fans, with Birdsnest the latest fine addition to Gedge’s quality alternative songbook, and while Kill Devil Hills took me more listens to truly appreciate, it also fits. The under-stated Bells was also a slow-burner for me, but worth the wait, I reckon. Who could resist those six-string surges anyway? When this band are on their game they’re certainly incorrigible, even if we don’t always know the destination.

It’s more like Crazy Horse on the introduction of Fifty-six before David shifts gear and heads elsewhere again, careering towards a mighty riff of further ‘60s keyboard touches and Katharine’s rhythmic bass and Charles’ pounding beat. That euphoric finish might suggest we’ve already reached the album’s climax, but we’re still some distance away, unless of course Fordland (the parent song of Granadaland, he adds mischievously) indicates part one of an eight-track play-out.

Stair Out: The Wedding Present, 2016, featuring (from left) David Gedge, Samuel Beer-Pearce, Charles Layton and Katharine Wallinger (Photo: The Wedding Present).

Stair Out: The Wedding Present, 2016, featuring (from left) David Gedge, Samuel Beer-Pearce, Charles Layton and Katharine Wallinger (Photo: The Wedding Present).

Actually, Emporia seems to take us back to the choral vaults, an atmospheric outing that builds towards the afore-mentioned Neil Young backing band tackling the Spencer Davis Group’s Keep on Running before a Flying Saucer-esque departure. And then we have the magnificent Broken Bow, already among my many Weddoes’ favourites. I love the semi-acoustic version I heard on Seattle‘s K-EXP – Gedge joined by TWP alumnus and further Going Going … contributor Terry de Castro – yet the full-on electric version is all the more stunning. I’d have preferred at least another 30 seconds of guitar raunch tagged on, but this way we’re left hungry for more.

Where to from there? Well, David hems us briefly back before Lead gathers steam, augmented by a few more stirring woodwind moments, while Ten Sleep puts us back on the front-foot, its upbeat fiddle-like licks and RPM surges and falls leading us to almost expected climactic distortion.

It also leads us to the beautiful Wales, so to speak, Andrew Teilo – on a loan deal from Pobol y Cym presumably – introducing something of an arthouse cinematic wonder complemented by Steve Fisk’s mellotron and organ … and those mighty guitars of course. Cue the piano, cue the credits, cue the emotion.

Which kind of makes me realise the band who don’t do encores have ended their latest album with two spectacularly worthy ones, starting in classic DLG lovesong territory on penultimate pleaser Rachel. I’m beyond expecting a top-20 hit, but it bloody well should be.

And then, with those heart-strings tugged again, the sun sets on the US West Coast with another mighty slice of instant nostalgia, the pensive, picturesque (though again involving a surging crescendo) Santa Monica, its echoes of Octopussy making me ponder whether the band have perhaps delivered Seamonsters pt. 2, a quarter of a century on. Mind you, all the songs do sound the same anyway, don’t they?

Incidentally, just before I was about to push the button on this review, I felt I best go back and read my review of the last album, Valentina, back in 2012 (with a link here), and I spotted the line, ‘Just when you think you know where they’re going, Gedge and co. are off again, taking an unexpected fork’. No change there then. As I suggested earlier – expect the unexpected.

If this is a concept album it’s not an obvious one, despite the geographic ramblings and the Larkin around. I also can’t bring myself to accept the notion that the missing word in the title is Gone. Instead, I’ll wonder what Gedge and his band will deliver in the year 2020. And while I wonder at times if this might not have been even more a classic album with around four songs chipped off, I’m not convinced that less is more in this case.

One thing’s for sure though – if you haven’t yet heard Going Going … I’m somewhat jealous, knowing your own voyage of discovery – getting to know your way around this platter – is still ahead of you.

Four Play: Charles, David, Katharine and Samuel let the writewyattuk verdict on Going Going ... sink in (Photo: The Wedding Present)

Four Play: Charles, David, Katharine and Samuel let the writewyattuk verdict on Going Going … properly sink in (Photo: The Wedding Present)

To get hold of a copy of The Wedding Present’s Going Going … or find out where David Gedge and co. are heading this autumn, visit the band’s official Scopitones websiteYou can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for a link back to a writewyattuk interview with David Gedge from two years ago, head here

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Introducing the Islandman – the Elliott Morris interview

Steaming Ahead: Elliott Morris by Eduardo Kobra's Chalk Farm Roundhouse mural (Photo: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Steaming Ahead: Elliott Morris in a railway troubadour role, by Eduardo Kobra’s Chalk Farm Roundhouse mural (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

There’s a song on The Waterboys’ 1990 album Room to Roam that appears particularly apt in describing the career journey of inventive guitarist and singer-songwriter Elliott Morris.

In Islandman, Mike Scott cites England as his ‘spine, the backbone and the trunk’, Wales ‘two hands held apart’ and Scotland ‘my dreaming head’, and that seems to sum up the geographic and spiritual scope of Wiltshire-born, Welsh-raised, half-Scot Elliott’s own sense of belonging.

Elliott left Lincolnshire for South East London two years ago, but this talented 26-year-old doesn’t seem to hang around his Hither Green pad for long. Recently there was a Lochs, Lakes, Highlands and Islands tour north of the border, while he’s not long back from the Cambridge Folk Festival, and among other engagements still to come there’s the Looe Music Festival in Cornwall later this month.

What’s more, Elliott already has three Lake District dates booked this coming winter in Ambleside and a fair few others up and down the country in the pipeline, while I first caught him supporting Paul Carrack at Preston Guild Hall in late 2014 (with a review of that show here), on one of two tours with the former Ace, Mike + the Mechanics and Squeeze journeyman turned solo success.

Yes, I guess you could say Elliott gets around a bit. So how was his recent performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival?

“Amazing, really good, and this year totally for the craic – a bit of a family get-together, catching up with friends and seeing lots of incredible music. My friend Sam Kelly – who I met at an English Folk Dance and Song Society songwriting retreat in Aldeburgh, but played with two years earlier – was among those playing, and he’s making serious waves at the moment. I also know a lot of the guys from the Treacherous Orchestra, a few of them also involved with Duncan Chisholm, and that was phenomenal”.

Despite Caledonian links with the latter acts, I’m guessing his Cambridge appearance was somewhat removed from Elliott’s recent Scottish tour.

“The weather wasn’t too good, but it was an incredible experience. As we went up and across it was beautiful, and the time we had on Mull was the wettest I’ve ever seen it. And my Mum’s from Mull, so I’ve been over a few times. It’s pot luck – you can be up there and not see a drop of rain or you can be there and not see a mountain the entire time because of the rain. It’s the kind of place you can have three sorts of weather in a day.”

Duelling Guitars: Elliott Morris in good company by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra's street mural on the back wall of The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Duelling Guitars: Elliott Morris by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra’s street mural on the back wall of The Roundhouse (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Despite being born in Swindon – and if that’s good enough for XTC, it’s good enough for me – and spending several years based in rural Lincolnshire, Elliott doesn’t fully identify himself as English, not least after a formative spell in Carmarthenshire. But he says he feels at home in Scotland.

“I’ve an aunt, uncle and Gran in Edinburgh. I go up a lot to play and have lots of friends on the Glasgow scene. It’s nice to be off-the-grid further afield too, with no distractions. My friend Christopher Bingham (aka ‘Bing’, the comedian, film and music producer) was on tour with me and the first thing he likes to do in the morning is check the internet to see what’s happening. That’s how he connects with his audience – totally different to my approach, which involves travelling and meeting people in the flesh! He found it quite difficult for the first few days, thinking he’d been forgotten, but got used to it. And perhaps it gave him a bit of clarity.”

Bing first saw Elliott perform when the former was studying at Lincoln University, the pair soon deciding to join forces. In fact, it was mentioned on a recent ‘vlog’ how it was about time his friend made a full-length album. And now it appears that’s happening, via a Pledge Music campaign.

“Before now I’ve only ever really done EPs – snap-shots rather than a heavy body of work – as it’s quite hard to get the time and money to do an album, hence this Pledge link.”

That seems to be the way forward these days – for long-established artists as much as emerging talents. Has it proved an exciting experience for Elliott?

“So far it’s been phenomenal. And the more people use that method the more it becomes an accepted route for an artist to make an album. It also shows how things are changing. Artists have their own social media imprints and connections, as opposed to labels paying for press pushes. Effectively, you’re drumming up interest in advance, so it works like a PR campaign when otherwise you’d probably be unable to afford that.

“If I was to release an album any other way it would only really be heard by the kind of diehard fans who have their finger on the pulse. But doing this for four months ahead of the album being made means people are already talking about it, getting information about it.”

Pensive Moment: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Pensive Moment: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Elliott’s fan-base has quickly grown, and understandably. Not only is he a great percussive guitar player with a fine voice, but there’s humour between songs when you see him live, including plenty of anecdotes about life on the road.

I’m guilty of missing several support acts over the years, but I’m glad the bar prices were steep enough at the Guild Hall the night past writewyattuk interviewee Paul Carrack visited to ensure I was in my seat early. Elliott was already holding court by then, coming over as a consummate performer and down to earth with it. No more than a handful of those present knew his work, but many were soon sold on his charm and playing.

“Well, thanks, man! Thing is, as a support act I’m under no illusions. I’m there for one job only – to keep the audience’s attention and make sure everything runs to schedule. I have barely half an hour to get people on board.”

It helps that Elliott has a rather distinctive way of playing guitar – involving tapping, slapping, strumming and fretting. In fact, he describes his work as ‘slappy tappy guitary singy songy folky poppy rock’, and I’m not sure it’s worth trying to improve on that description.

“That began as a joke, but kind of stuck. I wouldn’t call the way I play a defining feature of what I do, but it’s certainly up there. I always ensure there’s a song there too!”

Other notable guitar innovators have taken similar paths, bringing major success, and Newton Faulkner – a writewyattuk interviewee six months ago – springs to mind in that category, Elliott dubbing him, ‘a great guy … really cool’.

While he’s not seen Newton’s success yet, this young troubadour has been getting regular opportunities to perfect his approach and get his name out there, his own gigs bolstered by supports with not just Paul Carrack but also Big Country, Eddi Reader, Frank Turner, Seth Lakeman, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick.

Praise for his work has come from far and wide too, BBC 6 Music presenter Tom Robinson dubbing him, ‘Extraordinary … ludicrously youthful and absurdly talented,’ while fellow revered live act turned broadcaster (and another past writewyattuk interviewee) Mike Harding said, ‘I suspect we’re going to be hearing quite a bit more of that lad in the weeks and months to come,’ and the rather distinctive BBC arts editor Will Gompertz raved, ‘Fantastic … really high quality stuff’.

Street Life: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Street Life: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Then there’s the matter of past live links with a certain Ed Sheeran.

“Yes. Ed and I used to gig-swap all the time. He’d head up to Lincoln one month, I’d go down to London the next. We shared the bill on loads of shows, the last after his first album came out, a Nando’s Festival in London. Only I was designated driver that day and am a veggie, so when I found out we got as much free beer and chicken as we wanted I was a little under-catered for! It was a fun gig though.”

But while Elliott’s won a lot of new fans along the way, on and off stage, punters have been known to apologise for listening in the first place.

“People come up after shows, and I know they mean it in the nicest of ways but it always comes across terribly and makes me laugh. They tell me, ‘I wouldn’t normally like what you do, but …’ and I think they mean both watching a support act and the type of music I play.

“I like to talk to an audience and give them reasons to come and chat after, telling them about myself. Fans of people like Paul Carrack know a fair bit about what he’s done for the past 30 years, whereas I’ve just walked on with a guitar. They’ve no idea who I am. But if I can make an impact and give them something to think about in the break …”

Elliott moved to South East London in late 2014, around the time I first saw him live.

“That was a wild, wild time. I started with Paul in early November at the London Palladium and moved to the capital a few days later, so it was the wrong way round. I was staying with my girlfriend’s dad in Camberley, Surrey, then had this defining moment. I was 25 but hadn’t lived at home for a long time – I was sofa-surfing, travel-lodging, all that.

“I had this show in Ipswich, starting the journey in Lincolnshire at my folks’ house, packing the car with all my belongings, driving down to the gig then on to London, my whole life in this vehicle!

“I thought it would phase me, moving to London, having lived in the countryside before, but I’m a mile and a bit from Blackheath and a 40-minute walk from Greenwich Park, so have all this greenery around. It doesn’t feel like I’m encased in concrete, the road I live on is quiet enough to be able to record demos there.”

Brolly Good: Paul Carrack took Elliott out on tour, to great effect

Brolly Good: Paul Carrack took Elliott out on tour, to great effect

And after the work with Paul Carrack, there’s a further Squeeze link there, with you not so far from the band’s heartland.

“Sure, and in this part of London there are lots of musicians and lots of studios, with the industry based here too.”

Elliott’s certainly played some amazing places in recent years, and I’m not talking so much about world-renowned venues as much as the off-the-beaten-track clubs and pubs, such as the Orkney Brewery.

He goes on to tell a great but very long story about why he has an affinity with that particular brewery, involving the shipment – via various hands – of a barrel of Dark Island Reserve ale from there to a friend’s shindig in Warwick, taking a somewhat circuitous route (not least including Carlisle, Newcastle and his folks’ pad in Lincolnshire).

Elliott adds, “Furthermore, the island is amazing – the history, the landscape. The same goes for the venue. They only recently started promoting it as such. But it was a sell-out, and that means the most when you travel so far from home and there are people to see you.”

Staying with the Scottish link, there was a Danny Kyle Award in 2013 from Glasgow’s Celtic Connections winter music festival. And of course it turns out that there’s a story there too.

“I signed up to play a slot and did this gig on a Tuesday while staying in Edinburgh with family for a few days. Then on the Friday we were in a bowling alley arcade when my phone rang and it was one of the organisers, who asked if I’d go back and play in the final.

“On the night it was nail-biting, up against another four acts, including fiddlers who’d been playing longer than they’d been walking. Then at the end we got on stage and they gave us all a special frame and a bottle of bubbly – so it turns out that everyone wins! I’ve since met someone else who won it another year, also not realising about the format, and my brother won it with his band a couple of years ago.”

Yes, it turns out that Elliott’s brother Bevan is also on the circuit, having just returned from a spell touring in America, but with most of his work with Newcastle-upon-Tyne alt-folk sextet Pons Aelius.

“I’m a very lucky boy having a double bass player in the family, and Bevan’s helped out behind the scenes with me. He’s the kind of guy who can put his hand to anything, not just double bass but drums and guitar, producing, and recording. He’s helped with previous EPs and will play on my album.”

As well as Elliott ‘on the stringed side’ and ‘a few friends on fiddles’, contributors on the LP also include esteemed singer-songwriter (and past writewyattuk interviewee) Lisbee Stainton, John Martyn’s fretless bass player Alan Thomson, and Paul Carrack’s son Jack on drums.

Pledge Artist: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Pledge Artist: Elliott Morris (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

“Jack and I met on the tours with his Dad, after which we got talking and realised he was based nearby in East London. We had a couple of practises and gigs and it went really well.

“I first met Lisbee at the Hop Farm Festival, having seen each other’s names on festival bills. We talked of venues we’d played, heard each other’s set and agreed to get together. Our schedules take us off in different directions, so it was only recently that we put our heads together and started writing songs. I have one of her co-writes on my album and she’ll have one of mine for a future project. Also, she’s just moved to around a mile from me.

“So I moved here not knowing any musicians nearby but now find everyone’s gravitating towards me – which is wonderful!”

Incidentally, seeing as I mentioned Alan Thomson playing with John Martyn, Elliott has been known to tell a lovely story on stage involving the latter, revered folk artist, involving a gig in Wales. I won’t go into it here, but ask him next time he’s playing – you won’t be disappointed.

Anyway, as of this week Elliott was almost half-way towards his album pledge target, with seven weeks to spare of four months’ crowd-funding, and lots more dates to help further spread the word. And once he reaches his target, 10% of any extra money raised will go to men’s mental health charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

“I’ve a couple of friends that have families that have benefited through CALM. A great charity, very important.”

His Pledge Music campaign includes not only album downloads, signed CDs, vinyl and Bing’s DVD of the latest Scottish tour, but a number of other EM-related items. And the more off-the-wall extras include an hour’s Skype guitar tuition with Elliott, offers of personal home concerts – one taker already coming forward in Lincolnshire, Elliott insisting it’s no-one he knows – and a supply of Harris tweed guitar straps.

“On my Scottish tour, I had a joke on stage about how they’re probably overrun with Harris tweed guitar straps, but believe it or not a couple of people in Orkney were really interested. Someone’s since emailed, asking if he can have one in a similar tartan to mine.

“There is a Morris (Welsh) tartan, so when my cousin got married on Jura, my Dad, brother and I had our own tartan ties, along with all the Northumberland and Scottish kilts there. That’s a bit garish and yellow though, despite a pretty cool red dragon on it, so with my Elliott dark blue and green tartan I’m bending the rules a little!”

Cornish Visit: Elliott Morris, heading for the Looe Music Festival (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Cornish Visit: Elliott Morris, heading for the Looe Music Festival (Photo copyright: Vanessa Haines Photography)

Finally, we got on to the subject of the Looe Music Festival, which runs from September 23rd to 25th, headlined by recent writewyattuk interviewee Wilko Johnson, Bryan Ferry and Fun Lovin’ Criminals, with Elliott playing on the Sunday (25th).

That took us on to him admitting – despite all his UK travels in recent years – he hadn’t realised until playing in Cornwall last year just how far the country went in that direction, not least after a rash decision when playing Truro to go and see Land’s End ‘while he was there’, having to then power back before another show over the Devon border in Plymouth. And that in turn took us on to another tale, this one involving revered Devonian folk artist Seth Lakeman, also on the bill at Looe.

“I played with him once and have met him a few times, including one Wednesday night at the Folk Awards, where we ended up in the slowest-moving lift – me, a couple of my friends, him, and Nancy Kerr. It was all a bit awkward and I found myself asking him if he’d had a good weekend.

“I suppose it was because he’s someone I find synonymous with weekend festivals. Clearly he hadn’t played that weekend though, so I ended up explaining how I’d assumed he had and he was just looking a bit bemused. However, he ended up telling me about all the chores he’d done around the house that previous weekend, in this bizarre drawn-out conversation.”

For details of Elliott Morris and his next dates, try his Facebook page. There’s also a Twitter link and his own website. And to find out and get involved with his Pledge Music album campaign, head here.

  • With thanks to Vanessa Glynn (Vanessa Haines Photography) for use of her splendid photographs of Elliott. Her website is definitely worth checking out, and she can also be found via Instagram.

 

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Fortune favours Lonely the Brave – the Mark Trotter interview

Room Mates: Lonely the Brave, back with their second album (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

Room Mates: Lonely the Brave, back with their second album (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

Two top-40 albums into their career, and with a fervent fan-base at home and overseas, Lonely the Brave are proving a major draw on the live circuit.

Their debut album, The Day’s War, peaked at No.14 in the UK charts, and there’s been a keen reaction to recent follow-up, Things Will Matter, as founder member and guitarist Mark Trotter concurs.

“We didn’t know what to expect. It’s quite different from the first album. It’s still ultimately us, but has a different feel. We’re very lucky our fans are so dedicated. Most understand we want to grow and keep pushing on, and are very supportive of that.”

There’s plenty of depth to Things Will Matter, with lots of brooding moments, an epic feel in places – as on Dust & Bones, which went straight in at No.1 on the UK vinyl singles chart  – and outright rock in others, not least Black Mire and Radar, both recorded as if in the face of a hurricane. At times the LP suggests American Mid-West landscapes rather than something borne out of Cambridgeshire. But I guess we’re talking similar countryside.

“Do you know what? It really is. My brother-in-law lives there, and when I visited I flew nine hours, got off the plane, and was wondering, ‘How did I end up in Cambridgeshire?’ It looks exactly the same … but bigger.”

Perhaps it’s something generated in the atmosphere through all those US Air Force bases.

“Absolutely. Yes, it’s all very odd.”

Poster-lonely-are-the-braveConsidering their penchant for wide open spaces, it seems apt that the band name resembles that of 1962 Western, Lonely are the Brave – the tale of a free-spirited drifter and one of life’s outsiders, determined to put right modern society’s wrongs, the hard way.

“When you say that, I guess it does, but that film had absolutely nothing to do with the name, although people assume it did. We really liked the idea of something that could be interpreted in more than one way, but it came about because we were in a situation where we had to make a real hard call that would upset some people, to get where we wanted to be. It was the only real option, but we knew it would isolate us and make it fairly tough.”

I stand by my analogy though. Besides, Kirk Douglas, who led the cast, reckons it was his finest film.

“Excellent!”

Things Will Matter certainly takes the listener on a big screen journey. How does Mark think it differs from their 2014 debut LP?

“The first album was written and recorded as a four-piece, and although with this record the foundation was previously written, it was recorded as a five-piece, and we’re very different people to the guys who wrote that first record.

“A lot has happened, individually and as a band, and all that has an effect. We’re probably not as naïve to the music industry. Things change, and that’s the point. Everything affects you as you go through this, and should have an affect on what you do musically.”

Cambridge has a proud musical history, and I’ll put in a word for a band I love, The Bible, while before that we had The Soft Boys. And from more recent times my youngest daughter would doubtless add the electronic edgy pop of Clean Bandit. But most people will think of Pink Floyd, with Syd Barrett and Dave Gilmour both local lads. Was Mark aware of that Floyd link growing up?

“Absolutely – how can you not be, as a musician growing up in Cambridge? Actually, I don’t think it’s played on as much as it should be, that proud heritage, although I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan, so I’m going to say that.

“I wouldn’t expect a statue of Dave Gilmour in the high street, but there’s been a real pick-up of late, and a good friend, Neil Jones, has been very much involved in recent Syd Barrett celebrations, which is great and certainly lends itself to the Cambridge scene.”

Brave Soldier: Mark Trotter, all the way from Cambridge (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

Brave Soldier: Mark Trotter, all the way from Cambridge (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

While most recent addition Ross Smithwick is from Bristol, the rest of Lonely the Brave still spend the majority of their time in and around their home city. Did Mark get to see a lot of bands there in his formative years?

“I had my musical education at the Corn Exchange! I lived in a village 15 miles out, but went to a music college there and played in bands in Cambridge.”

And is there a less rocky side of you that finds itself checking out the Cambridge Folk Festival too?

“I’ve actually never been – how bad is that? Bushy (Andrew Bushen, bass) has been loads, and ultimately I should have, but whenever it’s been a possibility there’s always been something else on.”

Maybe that’s a new direction for the band. By way of example, there’s a nice outro on the album’s final track, Jaws of Hell, involving just a little piano and lead singer David Jakes’ lone voice.

“Well, 100 per cent! The brooding aspect interests me a lot more than rock does! To be candid, I think sometimes we probably get misconstrued as the kind of band that gets featured in all those rock music magazines. That’s great, but it’s only one part of what we do.

“I’m obsessed with film-score music, classical, folk, and various other things, and that definitely has an effect on what we do. All those things come together to make our songs, not just one element. Yet that can be a blessing and a curse, to be honest!”

Since the album came out in late May, have you had a busy summer?

“It’s been an interesting one. We did all the major UK festivals for the last three or four years running, but this time did some smaller boutique ones, as well as mainland European shows, so it’s been busy but in a different way. It’s been quite nice actually.”

Lonely The Brave_Things Will Matter (FINAL)And now you’re doing a few dates to further promote the album and the latest EP – starting at Fort Fest in Bedford this Saturday (September 3) …

“That’s just down the road – I can drive to that one!”

Then there’s a breather before the main 15-show itinerary, running from September 30th’s visit to Plug in Sheffield and October 22nd’s appearance at the Swn Festival at the Tramshed in Cardiff.

“We’re really looking forward to getting out there again, for the first full tour to support the record. Last time we toured was just before the album came out, with just a selection of the new songs. This time the focus is on the new songs.”

That touring schedule includes Manchester’s Neighbourhood Festival, the band headlining Grosvenor Street’s The Zoo on Saturday, October 8th, part of a multi-venue event also including the likes of Circa Waves, Twin Atlantic, Kate Nash, Rae Morris and Little Comets.

Have the band got to know a few artistes from your time on the road these past few years?

“Yes, and of those you mention we toured with Twin Atlantic. They’re probably the sweetest guys we’ve met, doing all this. It’s great when you meet really nice people. And I can only think of one incident where someone hasn’t been really lovely.”

You do realise I have to ask who that was now?

“I can’t say! I can think of two, actually – one is very, very famous, the others nowhere near. Mind you, I’d never met Mumford and Sons before, but backstage at a festival last year we walked in, had a chat, and they were nice, genuine guys. So being massively successful doesn’t mean you’re going to be an arsehole!”

Coast Watch: I see Tall Ships, on the road with Lonely the Brave (Photo: Stacey Hatfield)

Coast Watch: I see Tall Ships, on the road with Lonely the Brave (Photo: Stacey Hatfield)

Lonely the Brave have up and coming Brighton-based Falmouth outfit Tall Ships on the road with them, and from what I’ve heard by them so far, they’re another band with a big sound. They should be a good fit.

“They’re a great band, and we just want to take out bands that we like, someone you can imagine wanting to watch every night. They were recommendations on the basis that Ross knows them really well, and when the name came up we all said yes, straight away.

“They’re great on record and live, and really sweet, and that’s important too. Something different, really interesting, our fans are going to want to listen to. They’ll push us as well.”

In an earlier interview, Mark – profiling the band – suggested he was the stress-head, while fellow guitarist Ross was super-chilled, singer David was the deep one, bass player Andrew ‘Bushy’ Bushen was the calm one, and Gavin ‘Mo’ Edgeley was the archetypal mad drummer. Is that about right? Anything to add?

“Erm … I guess. How long have you got? If you were going to sum it up, I guess that would be it. We all have our moments! But we’re mates and have been a long time, and that’s important when you’re living in each other’s pockets day in, day out.

“The way things are these days, you’ve got to be a businessman as well, although it’s a bit of a shame you can’t just concentrate on being a musician, focusing 100 % of your energy on writing the best songs, not thinking about the rest. But in my experience you can’t write a certain way that you think will sell better. You have to survive from it all.”

While BBC 1 DJ and early Lonely the Brave admirer Zane Lowe called the band a ‘curiosity’, adding, ‘If you’re a fan, hold onto them tightly – If you’re not, you will be,’ another review from Rock Sound said they ‘could be the biggest band on the planet,’ and the NME said, ‘The band’s name will soon be up in lights, whether they like it or not’. Basically, there’s been a lot of hyperbole written about them in the past, from record company people to the music press.

Lonely Line-up: The band are heading out on a 15-date autumn tour (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

Lonely Line-up: The band are heading out on a 15-date autumn tour (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

But I’m guessing they shy away from that big gun approach, as suggested by the fact that they remain on the books of indie label Hassle Records, taking a more DIY line.

“Yes, although we’ve got a very good group of people who look after us – it’s not just down to us. But we’re in control of what we’re writing and in charge of our own destiny. If a company is going to force what you’re doing, you’re not going to necessarily agree with that as an artist. So to be in a situation where you can say, ‘This is what we’re going to do and how we’re going to sound’ is quite liberating.

“Also, I look at some of my favourite bands, and they don’t get played on the radio but they’re massively successful. You don’t have to write singles. Take The National for example, my favourite band – I’ve never heard them on the radio, but they’re known the world over and worked bloody hard to get there.”

I mentioned David Jakes being the deep one, and get the feeling he’s not an obvious front-man, quite introverted by all accounts. Yet there’s something about performing that allows the less outward-going to somehow overcome the shyness and nerves, with a prime example in recent writewyattuk interviewee Gary Numan.

“Dave’s only ever done what Dave does, and people were confused by that initially, seeing this front-man not into jumping around and swinging a microphone around his head. That would never work for us – it’s so contrived. We’ve toured with bands who practise jump-kicks before they play. I mean, really? Come on! It’s not real. Be spontaneous about it!

“With Dave, all he wants to do is sing and give the best performance he can. And if he had to stand behind a curtain 20 foot away, I wouldn’t care.”

That would probably make me warm to a lead singer every time.

“He’ll openly admit it’s not his most comfortable place to be, but everyone expresses it differently. I get really animated on stage, but don’t really know what I’m doing half of the time! I just get so lost in the music. Dave does that, but in a different way, focusing in on himself and his performance, which in itself can be very intense.”

16576-the-days-warIn a niche-obsessed industry, I’ve heard comparisons of the band’s work with that of Bruce Springsteen, The Deftones, Pearl Jam and Biffy Clyro. In fact, there are allegations of stadium rock. Guilty as charged?

“I don’t know … I honestly don’t know. I think we’re equally at home on a big stage – and maybe more so – than some of the smaller stages. A small club gig is always fun and chaotic, and that’s great, but as a band you have to realise you can’t get up on a big stage in front of thousands and play the same – it doesn’t work. And I love playing big stages – it’s a lot of fun.”

You’re recognised as a strong live act. In fact, I understand that the fella behind the Hassle Records label – Ian ‘Wez’ Westley – was so impressed, seeing you in a London pub playing to around 20 people three years ago, that he ended up taking you on. Is that a typically-intense reaction?

“We’re a very different band to the one we were that night, but I remember that night very clearly. I remember Wez standing about 10 feet away, his arms crossed in front of him, us knowing exactly who he was, thinking, ‘Jeez, this is intense!’

“I think the majority of people who see us live end up getting it. It is intense. It’s not throwaway stuff we’re talking about. It’s all real-life experiences, Dave writing all the lyrics based on stuff he’s been through and we’ve been through and are going through. There’s nothing contrived about it.”

Of all the labels put your way, I believe you quite like the term ‘doom-pop’.

“We toured with a band called Bad Rabbits (from Boston, Massachusetts), and the drummer, Sheel,  said ‘I’ve been trying to work out what you guys are. I’m going to call you doom-pop’. I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll take that!’

“But it’s a music industry thing – you have to have a label, be put in a little niche. I hate that.”

Live Presence: Mark Trotter, out front, with David Jakes to his left (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

Live Presence: Mark Trotter, out front, with David Jakes to his left (Photo: Daniel Ackerley)

After two hit albums, do you still recognise yourself from that very first EP in 2008? And did you know where you were headed back then?

“I know where I wanted us to be, although I’m not sure if that’s where we were headed. Those are two different things! I think we’re still the same band, but with a lot more experience of life and as a band.

“When we first started writing and recording we were just four mates who loved music and all had jobs. Now this is our job and our profession, but while it’s different it’s much the same in some respects. The biggest thing for me is we have to keep progressing. If you don’t, what’s the point?”

How soon did the day-jobs go – in Mark’s case working for an asset management company – and this became a full-time profession for you all?

“Pretty quickly after we signed our deal. Things started to get really busy. It’s the same as everything though – it’s peaks and troughs. I’m not going to play the bleeding heart, but it’s difficult at this level.

“Look at the way the music industry works – you have massive pop bands making millions and everyone else struggling to survive, with not a lot in between. But I guess it’s about working smart, playing to your strengths, and for us that’s playing live and recording and keeping going as long as we possibly can.”

One more question, and it’s a far more flippant one at that, concerning the amount of facial hair in the band, at least judging by the latest publicity material. Is that still the case?

“Right now, yes, but my wife keeps hassling me to shave, so it’s probably going to be gone by this afternoon. It’s laziness more than anything else!”

13912784_10153929987763095_7519202596385471694_nLonely the Brave play The Zoo (Grosvenor Street, Manchester, 0161 273 1471) as part of the multi-venue Neighbourhood Festival on Saturday, October 8, with wristband tickets (allowing access to all venues) available via Gigs & Tours or Ticketmaster.

For more details about Lonely the Brave, recordings and dates, try their website, or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

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