Championing a little respect, to the sky and back – the Vince Clarke interview

Little Respect: Erasure’s Andy Bell (left) and Vince Clarke try to keep a low profile (Photo: Doron Gild)

When World Be Gone, the 17th studio album from Erasure, crashed into the UK album chart at No. 6 this month, it proved to be this established synth-pop duo’s highest new entry since 1994’s I Say I Say I Say, which went on to be their fifth straight No.1 LP in six years.

The new album was released – as with all Erasure’s recordings – on Mute, a record label synonymous with the work of keyboard maestro and band founder Vince Clarke since his first successful studio venture as chief songwriter of the fledgling Depeche Mode in 1981.

After a pivotal role with that Essex synth-pop combo on their Speak and Spell debut LP, Vince walked away on the eve of their first US tour, but quickly proved he had retained the Midas touch after forming Yazoo with Alison Moyet, two more hit albums following before another early disbandment in early ’83.

At that stage Vince envisioned a new project alongside his studio engineer, Eric Radcliffe, this time involving a variety of vocalists, the first recruit former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey, the powerfully-emotive 1983 top-five hit single Never Never following, credited to The Assembly. Later came a collaboration with Edwyn Collins’ old schoolmate Paul Quinn, previously with Bourgie Bourgie, on One Day. But this time they failed to chart, and an alternative vision was floated, a subsequent advert in Melody Maker bringing Andy Bell to his door, this 20-year-old from Peterborough – selling women’s shoes and performing in a band called The Void at the time – impressing at his audition, leading to a winning partnership that has now endured for 32 years … and counting.

In fact, Erasure have amassed 17 UK top-10 singles along the way, not least Sometimes, A Little Respect, StopDrama!, Blue Savannah, Chorus, Love To Hate You, and the Abba-esque EP that topped the charts for five weeks, 25 years ago this month. And while that chart presence inevitably fell off a little over the last two decades, this is an outfit still very much on top of its game, with their latest offering, World Be Gone, the follow-up to 2014’s The Violet Flame, seeing them in more reflective mode, tackling world issues and recent political upheavals.

Don’t get the wrong idea. These seasoned dancefloor fillers haven’t turned their back on synth-pop, and have hardly become po-faced, as highlighted by the first release from the album, the celebratory and super-catchy Love You to the Sky, just the latest fine example of Bell and Clarke’s pop craft. What’s more, the new LP artwork shows a ships’ masthead rising from stormy waters, and as Andy put it, ‘I think there’s an under-swell of opinion, and people are slowly waking up. I’m hoping people will take the album in a positive way, as optimistic rabble-rousing music’.

But on this occasion it was Vince I was speaking to, via the wonders of Skype from my place to his home in Brooklyn, New York, before he set out on Erasure’s next batch of live shows. He’s lived in the US for more than a dozen years now, including a spell in Maine. I guess it’s a good life out there, I put to him.

“Erm …. It’s alright.”

It’s hardly Basildon though.

“No, it’s not quite Basildon.”

That introductory exchange seemed to sum my interviewee up. Don’t expect hyperbole, just understated honesty. His band may carry an air of flamboyance, but that’s mostly down to an outwardly more-showy frontman, with Vince far happier in Andy’s shadow. Watch a couple of Erasure’s ‘80s and ‘90s videos and you’ll see that. And they’re still putting on great shows today, as anyone who catches their latest live outings as special guests of Robbie Williams will tell you. Not as if Vince will shout that from the rooftops.

“The touring always tends to be great in the beginning, then not so great … like with anything – the grass is always greener. I think Andy’s always more the showman and really enjoys the touring, despite all the pressure he’s under, whereas I enjoy being in the studio more, recording.”

I guess he’s someone good to hide behind on stage. That must take the spotlight off you.

“Well, if there were two Andys on stage it’d just be ridiculous, y’know. It’d be mayhem! So I’m really happy. He’s an amazing showman … and you really don’t want to see me dance.”

Silly question maybe, but are they proud of the latest batch of songs?

“Yeah, we’re really pleased. We had a lot longer to record this record than we normally get so had the chance to write more songs than we needed, and that’s a real luxury. The process went really smoothly, the songwriting seeming to come quite easy this time round. And while the last two albums were more dance-y, it was nice to do something completely different.”

And lyrically, as heard on the more mellow Be Careful What You Wish For and the title track, this is Erasure reflecting on what’s going on in the world, isn’t it?

“Well, I think with all the weird stuff going on we thought we had to say something. Having said that, I don’t want people to get the impression it’s all doom and gloom. Hopefully there are a few positive notes within the record.”

There certainly are, but 32 years after their first 45, Who Needs Love Like That, I wonder if Vince could ever have imagined he’d be in this position, a North-East London lad who made his name with a few mates from Basildon still travelling the world, having shifted huge amounts of records, and now long since established in America. Was there ever a clear dream of where this might all take him?

“I had no idea. I couldn’t have imagined two weeks in advance. Even with Erasure, when I look back I can’t believe it’s been 30-plus years we’ve been together. In the beginning all we cared about was the next week – the next gig you were playing or perhaps the next single you were writing or album you were releasing. And I’m not one to reminisce. The only time I listen to old Erasure records is while preparing for a tour.”

After those short but successful stints with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, then The Assembly project that never really got off the ground, those three decades with Andy have certainly bucked a personal trend.

“Well, yeah. The Assembly thing was meant to last a little longer than it did, but just proved impractical really. And it was at that point that the producer I was working with suggested getting someone permanent as the singer.”

Hence that Melody Maker ad.

“Exactly, yes.”

When you met him, was there an affinity straight away that made you realise ‘this is it’?

“Well, there was as far as the sound of his voice was concerned. We’d been auditioning people all weekend and when he came along his voice just shone. With regards to his personality we had no idea. It took us a while to get to know each other. But it turned out that we are pretty similar, with similar political views for one thing.

“He’s just an incredibly laid-back person and super-easy to work with. The other good thing is that he’s totally not interested in computers, while I’m not so interested in recording vocals. We have our own little corners, and it’s a match made in heaven.”

And yet, with the miles between the duo these days – with Andy dividing his time off between homes in Miami and London – I guess they spend a lot of time (as Vince and I were on this occasion) talking and swapping ideas via a computer link.

It’s interesting, I tell Vince, seeing his early career in bullet point via all the Top of the Pops repeats on BBC4 – first with Depeche Mode, then with Alison Moyet in Yazoo, then Eric and Feargal in The Assembly. And while Erasure followed, there have been lots of other collaborations for Vince over the years, from Paul Quinn to West India Company – also including Blancmange’s Stephen Luscombe – through to Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware (The Clarke and Ware Experiment), past Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore (VCMG), and even Jean Michel Jarre. Then there are the countless remixes since the late ’80s for other high-profile acts, from Happy Mondays, Betty Boo and Sparks through to The Saturdays, Blancmange, Dido, Franz Ferdinand and Goldfrapp.

“Recently I’ve been collaborating more and more. As I’ve got older I enjoy it much more. When you have your own studio in your own house it can be a bit lonesome, so there have been more collaborations and remixes for people.”

I might be giving your record company an idea here, but any chance of a compilation of some of those collaborations from over the years?

“Well, I wouldn’t put it past Mute! There’ll be someone planning something, somewhere!”

When Vince left Depeche Mode he was taking a big career chance, as he was when he walked away from Yazoo. Word was that he didn’t enjoy the public aspects of success, not least touring and interviews. Did that get easier over the years?

“Well, I keep in the background pretty much anyway, so just learn how to do that. I don’t like going to public events and reward shows. That just doesn’t interest me. And I have a pretty anonymous lifestyle here in New York.”

Basildon Boys: Depeche Mode in the early days, with Vince Clarke, right, playing a key role.

He says that, but he did collect his ‘outstanding song collection’ gong at the 2009 Ivor Novello awards ceremony, in recognition of 30 years in the industry.

“Weird. I wouldn’t say I was glad I did it, I kind of wished I hadn’t. Maybe it reaffirmed my belief that I’m not into that sh**!”

While he suggests he tends to avoid the nostalgia circuit, there was also 2008’s 25th anniversary reunion with Yazoo. So, any plans for a 35-year celebration with Alf next year?

He snorts a little at that, then adds, ‘No – no plans. We’re just thinking about the upcoming tour, the tour with Robbie (Williams) and our own 2018 tour, starting in the UK early next year. That’s as far as I’m looking ahead.”

So far this year the band have already played late-May headline dates at Glasgow’s 02 Academy, Manchester’s Albert Hall and London’s Roundhouse. And then came their seven-date UK stadium run as special guests of Robbie Williams, reaching London’s Olympic Park on Friday, June 23rd. A 22-date European leg follows with the former Take That star, starting in Dusseldorf (June 28th) and ending in Moscow (September 10th).

And then the band are set to return for that headline tour next year, starting with three dates in Dublin in late January, the UK leg including visits to Liverpool Philharmonic (February 6th) and Manchester Apollo (February 8th), culminating in a return to London’s Hammersmith Apollo (February 23rd) then seven German dates, with full details here.

Of course, a lot of those audiences will want to hear the old songs too. And yet you tell me you’re not a nostalgic.

“I think that’s true of most artists, really. In our case it’s about that search for that elusive, perfect pop song.  And I love writing with Andy. It still amazes me how we go into a room with nothing and come out maybe a couple of hours later with a song. That’s one of the huge reasons why Andy and I are still together, I think. And there are still surprises out there.”

So many hits too. That shouldn’t automatically define the success of a working relationship, but there have been so many good tunes. And I’m not sure you get your fair share or even just – sorry – a little respect for that.

“I don’t know …  we’re still looking for that perfect song. When we do that I’ll Skype you and let you know – a bit of an exclusive!”

Odd Couple: Vince Clarke with Alison Moyet in Yazoo, his second success story.

I loved the 13 albums project he talked about in The Quietus in late 2013, where the likes of the Sex Pistols and T-Rex sat alongside Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfunkel, Michael Jackson, Philip Glass, Genesis and The Eagles. With that in mind, going back, what was the biggest influence on Vince – the thrill of punk or later electronic outfits like The Human League and OMD taking on Kraftwerk’s legacy?

“I wasn’t a huge fan of punk music, personally.”

Maybe not, but surely the DIY aspect of it all and the independent approach resonated with you, judging by your work ever since.

“Yeah, but at that time I was getting into trying to improve my acoustic guitar playing. I was more of a folkie.”

You were playing violin early on, weren’t you?

“Yeah, I played violin, although thankfully there are no recordings of my performances.”

It’s not like a Sherlock Holmes thing then – it doesn’t come out when you’re looking to solve some dilemma or other?

“No. Mum sent all of us to music school on Saturdays. I took up violin, my sister did piano, my brother did flute and my other brother did trumpet, I think. I don’t know why I chose violin.”

V for violin, V for Vincent, maybe?

“Something like that. But the moment we worked out how we could bunk, we used to do that.”

Live Wires: Erasure’s summer line-up. With Andy and Vince are (left) Emma Whittle and Valerie Chalmers.

Do you tend to write with piano or with keyboard these days?

“In the past, the majority of what we recorded was written on guitar or piano. But with this record I worked out some kind of atmospheric backing tracks before joining up with Andy, writing lots so we had lots of choices. We then worked out the songs around those tracks.”

While not on the road, Vince is based in Brooklyn with wife Tracy and their 11-year-old son, Oscar, having relocated his Cabin studio and synthesizers collection from their previous home in Maine. Tracy is the co-founder of the nearby Morbid Anatomy Museum and the twin sister of New York author Tonya Hurley, who is married to Erasure manager Michael Pagnotta.

Is Oscar following in Dad’s footsteps?

“He’s a real Logic guy, the same program I use. He was having lessons for a while but got bored as the teacher wasn’t fast enough! I’ve had a piano for about 20 years, which I had moved here, and he’s been tipping those keys now. Yeah, he’s definitely got a musical sensibility. He’ll come down to the studio and tell me I’m doing it all wrong! I can’t impress him.”

Does he not realise how much of a synth-pop idol you are? If I was you, I’d probably be sat watching TV and announcing to those with me, ‘I worked with him’ and ‘I worked with her’.

“Ha! Not really. I don’t think he really knows or appreciates … I don’t think he really understands what I do. He just thinks I mess about … which is kind of what I do really! As far as he’s concerned, he has to go to school while I just stay here, fiddling with synthesisers all day.”

Whatever Oscar might think, it’s a mightily-impressive back-catalogue – from 1981’s Speak and Spell with Depeche Mode right through. And which past album would he say he’s most proud of?

“One of my favourite records is Chorus, just because it was … I don’t know … the songs kind of wrote themselves and we were being quite experimental with the keyboards and synthesisers. I just think it’s got a really nice, semi-dark feel, which I really enjoy.”

Although you may not be the kind of guy to hang out with a few showbiz mates, do you keep in touch with the likes of the two Martins (Gore and Ware), Alison Moyet, or even Feargal Sharkey?

“I don’t tend to, but when we do bump into each other, that’s the only time I do a bit of reminiscing.”

And I guess you’ve got plenty to reminisce about with Andy Bell these days anyway, after all these years.

“Oh, I’ve got some stories you wouldn’t believe!”

Intriguing. Are you willing to drop in a juicy fact or two here before we finish?

“No.”

Ah well, I tried.

Heading Off: Erasure’s Andy Bell, left, and Vince Clarke, in the driving seat and coming to a town near you (Photo: Doron Gild).

World Be Gone, written, performed and produced by Erasure and mixed by Matty Green, is available on CD, limited-edition orange vinyl, regular vinyl and cassette. For details head here. And to keep in touch with all things Erasure, including live details (not least with a lot of those early 2018 shows already sold out) check out their Facebook and Twitter links. 

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fingers Crossed for top night with Mott legend – the Ian Hunter interview

Hunter Gatherer: Ian Hunter, with trademark shades (Photo: Ross Halfin)

Ian Hunter was at home in Connecticut when I called, having a few days to himself before returning to the UK with The Rant Band for the latest run of shows to promote last year’s acclaimed Fingers Crossed album.

He’s around an hour and a half north of New York, having moved to that part of the US around 20 years ago following a spell in NYC. And although I wasn’t brave enough to ask so early in the conversation, I kind of assumed he was wearing his trademark shades.

As frontman of ‘70’s legends Mott The Hoople and a hugely influential solo artist, Ian’s rightly revered as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most compelling performers, and for 1973’s Mott and 1974’s The Hoople alone deserves major plaudits as a songwriter too. But while this Shropshire lad remains as busy now as when he started out in music in the 1950s, it seems that at the age of 78 he’s happy to be back in the sticks between engagements.

“I grew up in the country, and cities are annoying these days – too much traffic and you can’t breathe. And I don’t really have to be in town.”

Has he still got family and friends around Shropshire?

“Yeah, my oldest son lives there, and I have three grandkids there, plus my daughter’s in London.”

He was certainly looking forward to catching up with the Hunter clan and many more of us, a 14-date live run continuing at The Waterfront in Norwich on Friday, June 16th, and ending at The Playhouse, Whitley Bay, on Monday, July 3rd. Then, after three Californian dates in September, there’s a further run of seven shows in Germany, others in Switzerland and Italy, and three in Spain in October.

“I was over last year when the record came out. That went down great and we felt we wanted to come back, do some more, tied in with Europe. I love travelling round England, and on the coast. I was only ever popular straight down the middle first time. Now we’re trying to branch out sideways!”

With that in mind, I put it to him that there can’t be too many rock stars who moved to Northampton to try and reach the big time. And he laughed at that, perhaps recalling his formative days with The Apex Group and parallel outfit Hurricane Henry and The Shriekers.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never checked. I’ll have to Google that one up.”

If you don’t know that part of the story, I should point out that the future Mott the Hoople frontman’s entry into the business came after a chance encounter with two Colins – York and Broom – at a Butlin’s holiday camp, the trio winning a talent contest performing Blue Moon on acoustic guitars.  The others were part of Northampton-based The Apex Group, fronted by bass player Frank Short, Ian soon leaving home in Shrewsbury to join them on rhythm guitar, transferring apprenticeship from Sentinel/Rolls Royce to British Timken, Northampton.

Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the apex of his music career, although it took a while to hit the big time, and gets slightly confusing in the re-telling. In a nutshell (almost), that dual-spell with The Shriekers, formed by Ian in 1963, led to a further apprenticeship – a rock’n’roll one this time – in Hamburg, Beatles-style, then further twists and turns, moving to London in 1966 and joining a band called The Scenery, getting to know Mick Ronson on the Flamingo Club scene around then. What’s more, he played with various other artists, including The Young Idea, Billy Fury and David McWilliams, and in 1968 was hired by Mickie Most to play in The New Yardbirds, not to be confused with the band that became Led Zeppelin.

To make up his wages, he also worked as a journalist and staff songwriter for the firm Francis, Day & Hunter, was a road-digger for a local council, and a newspaper reporter. Then in 1969 things took a fateful turn for this 30-year-old father-of-two, answering an ad (‘singer wanted, must be image-minded and hungry’) and auditioning successfully for a band put together by Guy Stevens, featuring guitarist Mick Ralphs, organist Verden Allen, vocalist Stan Tippins (who became the road manager), bassist Overend Watts and drummer Dale Griffin. Initially known as Silence, they were renamed after a 1966 Willard Manus novel, with their self-titled debut LP recorded in a week and proving a cult success. You probably know the rest.

Actually, a later check by yours truly revealed that Des O’Connor, born in the East End and seven years Ian’s senior, also had a spell in Northampton on his way to success, after being evacuated there in the Second World War, even having a spell as a professional footballer with Northampton Town (‘Cobblers’, I hear you say). That town’s also associated with electronica pioneer Delia Derbyshire, but few others of musical note, so to speak, until Bauhaus, The Communards’ Richard Coles and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke came along. Now what a super-group that would make, eh.

So does Ian make the most these days of all those dead hours between gigs, getting to properly see the places he visits rather than just travel, set up, play and move on?

“I have to soundcheck, one thing I never stop doing, but the band get there around two in the afternoon and I won’t usually get there until five, so I miss all the grind.”

I hesitate there for a moment, struggling to shake the enduring image of Ian as a glam-rock grandad, then tell him how much I love Dandy, his tribute to David Bowie, the lead single on 2016’s Fingers Crossed. It’s a slice of instant nostalgia and a fitting way to remember the iconic, influential star who gave Mott the Hoople their proper first hit, donating All the Young Dudes to them 45 years ago next month, just when they were on the verge of parting company after three years, four albums, and precious little commercial success, scoring the first of five top-20 singles.

In answer to my enquiry, Ian tells me he didn’t stay in touch with Bowie in recent years, but together we work out the last time they met was for the Wembley Stadium tribute to Freddie Mercury, also involving Mick Ronson and Queen, 25 years ago.

“Of course, he got down on his knees and did the Lord’s Prayer on that occasion. That was fun. Queen wanted to do Dudes last, of three songs, and there was quite a tense confrontation between David and Roger Taylor. I just said, ‘Look. It doesn’t matter’ – there’s this couple of multi-millionaires looking at each other rather sharply! But David already had it in mind what he was going to do.”

What about Ghosts, the second single from Fingers Crossed, all the way from Memphis in a sense, albeit via a New Jersey recording session, inspired by the band’s visit to Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Studio in Tennessee.

“I’d been there once before, and we met the son of one of the original Jordanaires, who asked if we wanted to go around again. It’s kind of like that Disney ballroom scene where you see ghostly holograms dancing. That’s what it feels like in there. My band all picked up instruments and started playing, and I could see it was getting them like it was me. And they’re a lot younger. There was definitely something about that room.”

Ian mentioned on BBC 4’s cracking 2013 documentary, The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, the pull of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, but I’m guessing Elvis Presley – who the afore-mentioned Jordanaires backed for 16 years from 1956 – was a major influence too.

“Actually it was Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, The Platters, another great vocal band. Elvis was a bit too poppy. We were a bunch of Teds, and liked the hard stuff, y’know.”

I was thinking more of the earlier Elvis, when he was backed by Scotty Moore and Bill Black.

“Well yeah, and Jerry Lee’s piano is still there, as are the cigar stubs where they told them to stop smoking in the studio. Johnny Cash was there too, and The Prisonaires, coming off the chain gang for a day to record. Those early days were really something. There was a nice documentary about it all on the Country Music Channel recently.”

There’s rightly been plenty of praise for Fingers Crossed. Are these still Ian’s golden years, creatively, as Classic Rock suggested in their review?

“It’s quality control really. You hang about until you have the feel acceptable to yourself. I’ve had this band a long time now, they know my modus operandi. I know what will work with a band, and try and keep it as simple as possible. And either you get it or you don’t.”

This tour with The Rant Band will involve a mix of Mott and solo work, centred around Fingers Crossed. Will Ian have his famous Maltese Cross guitar with him?

“No, I sold that to a guy in Folkestone. He took the pickguard off and there was $5 in there and the address of the bloke that made it! When I turned 70, (Def Leppard frontman) Joe Elliott had two made, replicas but with an amazing sound. I used those when Mott got back together. An amazing sound, better than the Les Paul Juniors. The only problem I have with this band is that I have two guitar players already, so it gets complicated. So I use an acoustic.”

Remind me where that original Maltese Cross guitar came from. Was that one of your US purchases?

“Yeah, I was with Mick Ralphs in San Francisco. He saw it hanging on the wall, and the bloke wouldn’t take it down. He thought we were a pair of ne’er-do-wells. We told him we wanted a look and he said if I take it down you have to buy it. It was around $100. I said we’d buy it if we liked it. I don’t think there was even a truss rod. It was pretty crappy, but it looked good, which was most important! I got it for $75 and sold it for £160.”

As he was on the verge of his 78th birthday when we spoke, I asked if Ian planned to record and tour forever, health willing. He’s clearly still on top of his game.

“I’m not really good at hanging about. I love it for a while but get the urge to make a move again. That’s what I do. It’s not just as a means to make money … as long as someone turns up!”

You’ve had a few run-ins with ill health and disillusionment with the business and success you’ve had over the years. Does that get easier to cope with?

“Well yeah, and what we try to do is hover on the periphery. I hate the business. I don’t like anything to do with it. But somehow we’ve found ourselves a little niche on the side, and it works financially.”

Maltese Cross: Ian Hunter with a rather distinctive ‘six-string razor’ (Photo: Ross Halfin)

I tell him I’ve been reading a great book about The Clash, Pat Gilbert’s 2004 epic Passion is a Fashion, where he relates in detail the importance of Mott the Hoople on a certain Mick Jones, not least the ethos of not having that distance from the fans who pay to see you. They weren’t untouchables, I put to him, like some of the big bands of the time.

“Yeah, well (Tony) DeFries managed us and David Bowie and wanted us to be like them – like we were from another planet, very distant, not speaking between songs. That’s what he wanted but that’s not what he got! We didn’t feel any different from the people watching us. And if someone was a bit short of money we got them in the back door.

“That’s what happened with Joe Elliott, and Mick Jones, and a few people like that. They had no money and would maybe jump off a train before it came into a station. The least you could do was let them in.”

I ask him next who was the last band he saw who genuinely excited him in a similar way that Mott fans reckoned his band did … and a long silence follows.

“I don’t know. I really don’t get involved anymore. Not for some considerable time. I just do what I do. If someone bowled me over at a gig it was The Who at The Roundhouse, London, with Elton John opening. Normally you’ll have a discussion after a gig about what you thought, but nobody spoke after that.

“Halfway through, Pete Townshend turned around to Keith Moon and said, ‘Is it full?’ And Moony said, ‘Yeah, it’s jam-packed’, to which Pete said, ‘Is he reliable on the door?’ It took him back to the church halls! They weren’t on all the time, but when you saw them on one of those nights they were scary.”

After all the big names he’s played with over the years, is there anyone missing from that list who Ian would still like to record with?

“There’s a few. I’d have loved to have worked with Leon Russell, and nearly did at one point. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Also, I’ve never worked with Bob Dylan, although I’ve met him a few times. That’s something I would like to do if I ever get the opportunity.”

Well, we heard it here first.

Listening back this last few weeks to solo work like his 1975 hit Once Bitten Twice Shy, I suggest there’s no great leap from that to some of the punk and new wave bands I loved a couple of years later. He was a trail-blazer in that respect.

“Well, we were partly glam – we were, but we weren’t! – so when the punk thing came in, the press turned on us, but then the punks started saying, ‘No, no, no – they’re alright!’ They had to do a U-turn. They thought they were being cool, but they weren’t! I remember going to the Roxy in London with Mick, and he got chased out of there. But I was alright. They accepted me, but not poor Mick!”

I’m not sure if he meant Ralphs or Ronson there, but I’m guessing it wasn’t Jones. Taking his point on though, I suggest maybe part of that was that he didn’t lose sight of the importance of the three and four-minute single. He didn’t go down the ‘prog rock’ road. He stuck to his guns.

“Well, I just came up with original rock’n’roll – fast, medium and slow songs. Soul was about, but I wasn’t very good at that and it didn’t turn me on like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It all got fragmented, but I just stuck with the original idea from the ‘30s, the’40s and the ’50s.”

It’s more than 50 years now since he first met Mick Ronson. I’m intrigued by that Flamingo scene in London, and all the great acts there. Was London truly swinging for this Shropshire lad?

“Err … I tried a few times, like everybody else. I was always dead jealous of London chaps. They were born there, while we had to get there … and it was a fucking long way, y’know!

“I remember going to the 2i’s Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street. I saw a guy called Lance Fortune, with Brian Bennett on drums and (Brian) ‘Licorice’ Locking on bass.  They both wound up with Cliff Richard in The Shadows. I saw those guys playing and went straight back to Northampton. They were so much better than we were. I thought we didn’t stand a chance. But you go down a couple of times and eventually wind up sticking down there.”

Did your time in Hamburg help you move up a few notches?

“It taught you how to play. You’re out seven hours a night and as much as 12 or 13 at the weekend. That was fantastic.”

I get the feeling that even if that advertisement to join Mott the Hoople hadn’t gone Ian’s way he might still have made the big time. He seemed to have the inner belief that it was going to happen, determined to make it one way or another.

“Yeah, I guess so. There wasn’t any desperation. I was bright enough to know there were only two ways for someone like me – it was football or music. Premium bonds were not going to happen. I put five bob in the Post Office and got that and just thought there’s got to be a better life than this.

“I’d been in factories around eight or nine years, and it didn’t appeal. But because of that I had lyrics. A lot of kids left school and joined bands, so didn’t have those lyrics. You just kept going and kept going, like a writer with a book or anything creative. You get rejected, but it only takes a phone call.”

For all his success with Mott, it was only a five-year ride initially. Since then, his solo career’s lasted 40 years, Ian having released a 30-CD box set last year alongside Fingers Crossed. That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?

“Erm … yeah? I don’t know. I don’t look at it like that. It’s just what I love doing, y’know.”

Rock & Rant: Ian Hunter, heading to a town near you, with The Rant Band (Photo: Ross Halfin)

Ian Hunter and The Rant Band’s latest UK tour includes a visit to Preston’s Charter Theatre on Monday, June 26th, with tickets available via 01772 80 44 44 or this link. For more information and tour details check out Ian’s website here. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

To the power of 3WW – back in touch with Alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton

Orange Crush: Alt-J (namely from the left - Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green, Joe Newman) are taking Relaxer out on the road

Orange Deadcrush: Alt-J (from the left – Gus Unger-Hamilton, Thom Green, Joe Newman) are taking new LP Relaxer out on the road and to a town, city or festival near you this summer and autumn

This week saw the release of the brand new Alt-J LP, Relaxer, coming on the tail of this inventive trio’s Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello Award-winning 2012 debut An Awesome Wave and 2014’s No.1, Grammy and Brit Award-nominated This Is All Yours.

Those factors alone suggest the pressure should have been mounting for an unassuming group of friends who first met and played together while at Leeds University, Joe Newman (guitar, lead vocals), Thom Green (drums) and Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards, backing vocals) having already sold in excess of two million records, with their songs streamed more than one billion times apparently, while headlining festivals across the globe.

They also sold out London’s O2 Arena and New York’s Madison Square Garden on their last tour, and next Friday, June 16th, are set to return to the former as part of the venue’s 10th birthday celebrations. But any resultant weight of expectation seems not to have affected Gus, who remains as likeable now as he was when we last caught up three summers ago. And I started our conversation this time around by mentioning that interview in August 2014 (see link below), conducted at a time when Gus was busy explaining to the world about a line-up change following Gwil Sainsbury’s departure.

“Yes, I remember that … that and questions about Miley Cyrus – two big ones I was fielding a lot!”

I stumble a little at that response, briefly wondering if Gus was having a (rather unlikely) Benny Hill moment. He doesn’t seem the sort. But then I recalled that the US pop icon mentioned – back in the news since our chat after her starring role in Ariana Grande’s Old Trafford fund-raising tribute concert following the Manchester Arena tragedy – is a big Alt-J fan. In fact, not only is she sampled on 2014’s Hunger of the Pines, but she also shot her own video accompaniment to stunning early hit Fitzpleasure.

I didn’t press him on Miley’s love for the band though. He’s been asked that far too much. Instead, we got on to this Cambridgeshire lad’s adopted home city, seeing as he was striding through Hackney towards his flat after a day of rehearsals with his band. So, I put it to him, it seems that Relaxer is very much a London-made album.

“Exactly. And we haven’t changed our approach at all since album one. We enjoy hanging out together, doing the writing then going to Charlie’s place in Brixton or sometimes in this case to Shoreditch and getting the recording done.”

There’s obviously a good rapport with your producer, Charlie Andrew being at the helm for a third successive time.

“Yeah, all we can say is that it comes down to, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it’. We’ve never really recorded with anyone else and we’re probably 10% superstitious, worried if we record with someone else it might not work. Fundamentally we like him, we get on well and we’ve always done well when we’ve worked with him.”

Fair enough, and how many interviews have we read where artistes tell us they’ve gone down a slightly different route this time, getting back to their beginnings after departing from the formula that led to their breakthrough? It seems in this case that Alt-J are cutting out the middle man though … or middle album, maybe.

“Yep! We’ve come back without going there!”

The first single from the new LP, 3WW, was the first sign that we had a very special album coming our way, something that wouldn’t be out of place on a film soundtrack, I suggested, coming to that conclusion before seeing its accompanying promo video, ‘a story of love and loss in Mexico’, as they put it, directed by Los Angeles-based Young Replicant, who also worked with Lorde. And what made the band turn to Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell as guest vocalist?

“We got to know Ellie through her band supporting us in the past. We thought that would work well with a female role, if you think of the song as a kind of script. We discussed who we knew, and Ellie was someone of whom we immediately thought, ‘That could work’. Wolf Alice were in a studio in Shoreditch working on their second album, we sent her a text, and she came around that afternoon.”

It’s a wonderful introduction, and one the band reckoned at the time of its release ‘could be the best thing we’ve done to date’. I won’t argue with that, the use of the three very distinctive voices – Gus first, then Joe, then Ellie – perfectly setting the tone for Relaxer as a whole. As for that line, ‘I just want to love you in my own language’, perhaps we have the philosophical platform for the LP right there.

Like much of their work, there’a modern-day folk feel there too, as accentuated by Gus with his vocal part, along with an out west, sleeping beneath the stars vibe, and a laid-back tender feel that brings to mind Blur (and it was only after a few plays that I could see traces of that outfit’s Tender). Imagine Can jamming in your house, playing low so they don’t wake up the sleeping child in the next room.

As for the song’s theme, I was geographically wrong about the location, the band revealing it ‘traces the adventures of a wayward lad on England’s North-East coast’, involving a declaration of those ‘three worn words’ capitalised in the title – as in ‘I love you’. And we need those words more than ever right now, don’t we, Gus?

“Yeah, exactly … although we were not unaware of the appearance of the notion of World War Three in there too, leaving that open, and a little ambiguous.”

Moving on to the second single from the new LP, and track two, In Cold Blood, a promo video had just been released when we spoke, shot in a forest near Copenhagen by Danish film-maker and photographer Casper Balslev, featuring the legendary Iggy Pop as narrator, depicting how ‘a day in the life of a wood mouse can be unexpectedly dangerous’, as the band put it. Think of The Gruffalo, Scandi-noir style. So what was the reaction from Gus and his bandmates on first seeing Casper’s treatment of that track?

“I think it was one thing just to see the mouse doing the trick! We were promised they could teach that mouse to do anything, and we were like, ‘Really? I want to see this!’ Sometimes when you read a video treatment you just have this desire, wondering what that would look like. And we’re always interested in having videos which are not too literal an interpretation of the song’s lyric.

“In this case, while there is blood in the video, beyond that it’s very much its own thing. And this idea sounded cool! We’re all fans of the Coen brothers and that sort of thing – violent, but almost comically violent, with all these different things going on.”

Strange as the concept might seem, it certainly fits well with your music too.

“I think so. I think the songs are kind of dream-like and very much down to the imagination, so when the videos are larger than life and lurid it works well.”

It must be rather satisfying seeing what others come up with to go with your songs. What was the spec you gave Casper?

“It was more about finding cool directors who were up for pitching and seeing what they thought. We didn’t give them any kind of brief. It was purely up to them.”

Whose idea was it to get Iggy Pop involved?

“I think it was Casper’s. We were in the middle of a promo tour in America, getting odd emails in the middle of the night, waking up the next morning to find they could get Iggy. Next thing we knew, there was the video with him on it!”

And there’s so much living in that rich and resonant voice, isn’t there.

“There really is, and I’m a big fan of his BBC Radio 6 Music show. I love that. It’s amazing.”

As for the song itself, its title half-inched from the Truman Capote novel – its mighty injection of brass brings the album fully to life, while the keyboard touches by Gus – put together on a Casiotone model that cost £1.05 on eBay, apparently – add a retro feel not dissimilar to the more dancefloor-friendly material of The Feeling, of all bands. More to the point, and as we’ve perhaps come to expect from Alt-J, those first two singles are very different from each other. Are they indicative of Relaxer as a whole (I asked, before having heard the rest of the album)?

“I think so. They almost span the breadth of the album, where there’s a good balance of up-tempo and more kind of thoughtful. I do think that for this more than any of our previous albums, and all of them were very different from each other of course. And that makes it all the more exciting for us.”

And would Gus say there’s a defined thread running through Relaxer?

“I don’t think so, other than they fit and we were enjoying being together after a break, hanging out and playing our instruments together – the thing we love doing the most.”

A few weeks on, having played the album back-to-back a few times now and loving every moment, I concur with that. And here’s as good a place as anywhere to put in print my verdict, track by track, continuing with song three, the band’s innovative re-imagining of House of the Rising Sun. It’s so much more than a cover too, and has little in common with The Animals version, Alt-J instead taking this standard back to its folk roots – yes, once you can spot the folk influences, there’s no getting away from them on this album –  and coming up with something more in tune with a Noah and the Whale release – more Charlie Fink than Eric Burdon – floating on a sea of glorious classical guitar.

In contrast we see the band at their seedy best on Hit Me Like That Snare, an ‘atypically filthy psychedelic grind’ telling the X-rated story of a visit to a ‘sex hotel’, this number unlikely to get too much BBC Radio 2 airplay, I’d venture.  On first listening I felt elements of a Japanese tribute band to the Pixies, while the song goes all a bit Radiohead at times, as you might expect from big fans of Thom Yorke and co.

Talking of Pixies, Deadcrush brings to mind Monkey Gone to Heaven for me, with shades of The White Stripes peeping through and even a little Macy Gray soulfulness in places via Joe’s distinctive falsetto style. Word has it that the song started life as a jam, and tackles the band’s in-house professing of love for long-lost, less obvious sex symbols, in this case centred on Joe’s obsession for New York model turned war correspondent and photographer Lee Miller and Gus having the hots for Anne Boleyn. Naturally.

There’s another album highlight in Adeline, an alternative tale of unrequited love that I’ll return to the term ‘filmic’ for, a slow-building masterpiece, its ‘I wish you well’ line bringing to mind Dolly Parton’s superior version of I Will Always Love You. And its theme? Well, it’s the tale of a Tasmanian devil who falls in love with a woman as he watches her swim, our bathing beauty Adeline singing The Auld Triangle as she moves through the water. And when you think about it, that’s not so far removed from the more traditional folk tale of the mermaid and the lover she lures into the deep.

The penultimate song sees the band turn the screw again, this time for an emotional yet subtle hymn to suicidal tendencies, somewhat reminiscent of old school Jesus and Mary Chain, with Joe in his lower register as he talks us through his character’s Last Year, before the talented Marika Hackman pays her tribute in song at his funeral, adding something of the quality of Laura Marling to the proceedings, the latter’s Semper Femina an album Gus professes his love for, and one that should be vying for top spot with Relaxer at the end of year album award ceremonies.

And then we peak on Pleader, partly recorded at Ely Cathedral, where Gus was a chorister, and inspired by Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Is My Valley, an orchestrated, stirring song of brooding beauty that heads towards a mighty choral climax. The Welsh mining theme of the original inspiration brings Public Service Broadcasting’s soon-to-be-revealed Every Valley to mind, while the big sound concept has me harking back to further favourites The Magnetic North. And on its own strengths I can say for sure we have another contender for best ever Alt-J moment here, from what amounts to their most inspired album so far, despite that stiff back-catalogue competition, this trio carrying on where they left off in the studio in 2014.

So, Gus, that line about you being one of the most successful British bands of this millennium, with more than two million sales so far – does that add expectation? Or do you just – as I suspect – thrive on that anyway?

“I think it does add expectation, once you’ve got to that level. You become nervous about maintaining it. Ultimately though, we’ve cultivated a large fan-base of people who enjoy our expertise and eclecticness … and they get it. And that in itself gives us a freedom to do whatever we want and feel free to experiment.”

The statistics suggest the songs have had more than one billion streams. It must be difficult to get your head around something of that magnitude.

“I think it’s best not to dwell on that. It’s such a huge number, you can’t even look at it directly. You have to step back and shield your eyes! We just get on with the job in hand.”

A busy summer awaits Alt-J, on the back of their recent appearance at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull, which Gus was very much looking forward to when we spoke. A timely visit to the current UK City of Culture, I suggested.

“Indeed! My girlfriend Franny is from Hull, and we only played there once before, years ago, before we were signed.”

Next up are shows in Rouen, France (Saturday, June 10th), Kortrijk, Belgium (Sunday, June 11th), Tilburg, Netherlands (Monday, June 12th) and a sell-out in Berlin, Germany (Tuesday, June 13th), followed by that latest headline show at Greenwich’s O2 Arena, then several festival dates and the first of two North American jaunts.

With those dates in mind, has Gus been back through the catalogue to familiarise himself with the songs so far in a bid to re-learn them?

“Yes, I’ve just come from a rehearsal today, and we’ve set ourselves the homework of watching the live DVD we made on the last tour. It’s amazing how much you forget.”

Is that a bit of an exercise in ‘what went well’ in a bid to carry on the good work?

“It’s more a case of remembering who plays what where! It’s all muscle memory. Trying to consciously remember it is quite difficult. It’s not often I listen to the old albums, but when I do I really enjoy them. The other night I was cooking and put on the first album, not having heard it for a long time … and I really enjoyed it.”

Any advance on yourself, Joe and Thom for the live dates?

“No … just the three of us. We might have strings and brass for some shows, but as regards the core people on stage, it’s just us three, stripping it back to the band, seeing how that goes. And I love festival season, and it’s going to be such a fun way to start this album tour. Those summer shows are going to be sweet.”

Those appearances include a Glastonbury Festival return (Saturday, June 24th), a show in Dublin’s Trinity College Park (Tuesday, July 11th), and headline slots at the Blue Dot (Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, Sunday, July 9th) and Boardmasters (Newquay, Cornwall, Sunday, August 13th) festivals.

The band’s European commitments include further visits to Croatia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Luxembourg, Romania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Austria and France, then the first 12 US dates and that Newquay visit. And then there are trips to Hungary, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands, Russia and Sweden.

Which all goes to show that Gus, Joe and Thom are living the high life. But there’s a slightly less rock’n’roll big moment for Gus to live on in the memory banks too, having played a key role for the University of Leeds in a celebrity series of University Challenge aired at the tail end of 2016, reaching the final.

“Ah, that was great fun!”

3WW’s Company: Alt-J have just released their third long-playing masterpiece in five years.

His fellow alumni on those occasions were novelist Louise Doughty, BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed, and political cartoonist Steve Bell. So what’s been the most nerve-racking experience then – that or playing live with Alt-J?

“Erm … going down the lift from the green room for University Challenge! I was extremely nervous. You’ve no idea how you’re going to perform under the pressure of the cameras and the lights … and (Jeremy) Paxman’s steely gaze! But it was a dream come true. I grew up watching that show with my Dad, and for some reason was never given the opportunity to apply when I was at university. I must have missed the poster on the Students’ Union notice board. So finally, getting asked to do that it was like, ‘F*ck, yeah!’”

And you got a chance to confer with the likes of Steve Bell.

“Oh God, yeah! What a hero. A really amazing guy. So cool to meet him.”

Was there even more pressure when the music round came along and everyone looked to you?

“Yeah, somewhat! We were all fairly artsy, but I definitely had to prop up the team on that one. And I did okay until the final. What a great experience!”

Since our interview, Alt-J have added more dates – their five-date UK seaside tour visiting Brighton Centre (Monday, September 4th), Margate Dreamland (Tuesday, September 5th), Bournemouth Academy (Wednesday, September 6th), Weston-Super Mare Grand Pier (Friday, September 8th), and Blackpool Empress Ballroom (Saturday, September 9th), before a show at The Hippodrome, Kingston-upon-Thames (Monday, September 11th).

Those engagements are then followed by 18 more US dates, seven in Canada and another in Mexico City in the autumn, before the year is wrapped up with four appearances in Australia and two in New Zealand in December.

Innovative Offerings: Thom, Joe and Gus ponder the writewyattuk verdict on the mighty new Alt-J LP, Relaxer.

For full details of all the band’s forthcoming shows and all the latest from Alt-J, including more live details and how to get hold of the new album, head to www.altjband.com. And for a look back at the last writewyattuk feature/interview with Gus Unger-Hamilton, from August 2014, head here

 

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Still acting nonchalant with The Searchers – the John McNally interview

Stepping Up: The Searchers, 2017 style, with co-founder John McNally middle right; Spencer James, middle left; Frank Allen, front; and Scott Ottaway, rear.

John McNally was back home in Crosby when I called this week, barely five miles from his Kirkdale roots. It seems like he’s rarely there though, thanks to a punishing tour schedule for his band, The Searchers, one of the leading lights of the 1960s’ Merseybeat scene and still busy all these years on. But for all his world travels, John’s remained loyal to his beloved Liverpool.

“As a kid I came down here on my bike, play in the sandhills, later playing gigs at venues in Crosby like those at St Luke’s and the Comrades Club, and Waterloo.”

Was moving that way later a sign of having made it?

“Sort of. A lot of the lads moved to London, and I did for a while, sharing an apartment belonging to Bill Kenwright, but I missed the five-a-side with the lads and decided to go home.”

Yes, he may have reached the grand age of 75, but apparently John’s still playing football when he can, and right now he’s also three-quarters of the way through a major UK tour that started in mid-March at Redditch Palace and resumes at Basildon’s Towngate venue this Saturday, June 3rd.

John and fellow Searchers survivor Frank Allen (bass, on board since 1964), plus Spencer James (vocals, guitar, since 1986) and Scott Ottaway (drums, since 2010) reach my patch for a show at Preston’s Charter Theatre (01772 80 44 44) on General Election day next Thursday, June 8, the tour ending at Bishops Cleeve’s  Tithe Barn on Sunday, June 25th, but with plenty more summer dates already in the diary. And there’s rarely been a year to take stock since the band first burst on to the national scene in the summer of ’63 with debut hit Sweets for My Sweet.

We started by talking about John’s late-1950s skiffle roots and an early-’60s stint at the Star-Club, Hamburg, an apprenticeship familiar to those who know the story of a certain Fab Four from the same home city.

There’s a nice piece about the band in Paul Du Noyer’s excellent Liverpool: Wondrous Place. As the author puts it, ‘The Searchers are in many ways the connoisseur’s Merseyside band, and in their prime made music that sparkles like champagne’. But John’s wary of such praise for an outfit best known for saccharine early hits like Sugar and Spice and Sweets for my Sweet as well as far more influential songs like Needles and Pins and the wonderful When You Walk in the Room.

Discussing his roots in a 2008 Daily Telegraph interview with travel writer Christopher Somerville, John suggested, Liverpool music is ‘raw music, seamen’s music — I think that’s the special ingredient’. Can he enlarge on that?

“Yeah, the influx of all those American records was great for us and The Beatles. We had a great catalogue to nick from.”

John grew up near the docks, his older brother Frank, a seaman, bringing back records from US trips.

“First of all he’d bring country stuff like Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams, the next minute it was Johnny Cash, then Gene Vincent, Elvis, and Eddie Cochran … bloody hell – superb!”

It seems like you were in the right place at the right time.

“We all were, us post-wear babies! All doing our own thing, playing skiffle in the area, but unknown to us on the northside of Liverpool, bands like The Beatles were doing it in the south end. We didn’t really know that was going on until we came on the Star-Club scene. The Beatles made such a good impression there that the bosses came to Liverpool and went round the clubs. There was Derry and the Seniors, Howard Casey, The Beatles, then us, The Undertakers, Gerry and the Pacemakers … and we all had a good time!”

Talking of Derry Wilkie, there’s a rumour mentioned by Paul Du Noyer that the Iron Door Club in Temple Street, where the band frequented, got its name after the previous wooden door was ‘smashed in by axe-wielders’ chasing him one night.

“Probably! Les Attley owned the Iron Door and was our manager, so all that was going on. But we didn’t really take that much notice of Les, other than one good thing he did for us, when Brian Epstein was signing up bands and we missed out. Brian later called us the ‘band that got away’. When he came to see us we were all ‘pizzicatoed’, having been in The Grapes all night when he came to see us at The Cavern. We were on last and weren’t very good, acting the goat with a few drinks down us. We didn’t make the impression he wanted, so he passed on us.

“It was Les who pointed out that everyone was being signed up and we didn’t want to miss the boat. He asked if we wanted to make a demo at the Iron Door, organising a company to nip in with all the gear. So we did 11 tracks and he sent them all around the companies, and luckily Tony Hatch at Pye Records picked up on it. We were on our way back to the Star-Club to do another stint when he asked us to come and record Sweets for my Sweet, which we did ahead of the ferry!”

It was a fortuitous move, that June ’63 single the first of The Searchers’ three UK No.1s – along with Needles and Pins and Don’t Throw You Love Away – and 10 top-20 singles between then and the autumn of 1966.

Going further back again, who taught John his first chords on the guitar?

“That was Georgie McGee, a mate of my brother, who played the Glendower pub, where I lived on St John’s Road, our Frank having brought over a few guitars from Japan. They were rubbish, really, but Georgie showed me some chords and I got the Bert Weedon play-in-a-day book. George is gone now, but his daughter came to say hello to us in New Zealand, not long back, which was nice.”

Meanwhile, John tells me his brother Frank, now in his late 70s, is still working as a rigger. They clearly breed them robust in that family.

John had a few jobs before turning pro, working for the Blue Funnel line at the India Buildings, before ‘sea school’ in Aberdovey and Birkenhead, trips to Glasgow, London, and other ports following.

“I was working for the same company as my brother, Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel line, at the Gladstone dock, doing office work and going around the ships delivering mail. Then they sent me to Aberdovey, an outward-bound school, and the Odyssey Buildings, Birkenhead, to learn about seamanship, with my first ‘coastal’ trips before going ‘deep sea’. But before going ‘deep sea’ you took another medical, and fortunately – as it turned out – I had a lazy eye, so was ruled out. And a bit like Ringo (Starr) I also had TB and was off for another six months.

“I got a job in Bootle, but wasn’t there long because of the Star-Club, and in that time had learned guitar and improved. A lot of my friends played guitar and were far superior. I started as part of a nucleus of lads playing on a corner, but was the only one serious about starting a band, along with a fella called Tony West, who had a skiffle group in the Army, and went on to play bass with us. He was also in the motor trade so drove us all around to gigs.”

It seemed like it was all meant to happen.

“Yeah. That said, there are certain things you regret, and when we made it, all the lads changed, if you know what I mean – the normal thing with bands. Egos appear, mates become nasty and demanding, and you don’t notice until it’s too late.”

Accordingly, that initial late-’50s five-piece also involving Tony West made way for a 1960 line-up featuring McNally (rhythm guitar, vocals), Johnny Sandon (lead vocals), Mike Pender (lead guitar, vocals), Tony Jackson (bass, vocals) and Chris Curtis (drums, vocals), Sandon leaving in early ’62 and the band becoming a four-piece.

Guitar Men : The Searchers give us that trademark jangle.

On the sleevenotes of the first LP, Meet the Searchers, I put it to John, he mentions a dislike of ‘conceited people’. It seems like the cracks were already appearing.

“I think so. When we first picked songs for albums it was a combined effort, but when the powers that be – the likes of Tony Hatch and Tito Burns, our manager at that time – started telling us who was most important, you’re not a band anymore.”

Does he regret not getting to sit down with Chris – like Lennon and McCartney – and writing their own songs? The Beatles moved away from covers fairly early, while The Searchers’ major hits were all penned by others.

“Totally! There are lots of regrets. Also, our management sold us to Tito Burns for God knows how much. All the management cared about was earning money, putting us on the road, with a certain amount of hours to record singles in between. We were soon exhausted. That’s when I decided I was going home. It was ridiculous.

“We didn’t have the time to put our own stuff down apart from the odd b-side, barely spending an hour on that. The Beatles might spend weeks on one song, giving them the chance to move on. Frustration kicks in and poor old Chris was very frustrated and left, going off to Wales in the end. The pressure was unbelievable.”

Chris Curtis was a key part of the band’s live act early on, not least with his stand-up drumming style.

“He was a great showman, absolutely superb, and I hate it when people come along who I know were influenced by him in those days. I’m tempted to have a go … but it’s all in the past now.”

If there was anything positive to come out of all that, it was the work ethic that never seems to have left the band.

“Most of the other ‘60s bands are quite jealous of the work we have now. It’s easy enough to play, but it’s the driving that’s the pain. But around 15 years ago we saw the club circuit dying, all those chicken-in-a-basket venues we hated, places liked Batley Varieties, and wondered about going into civic theatres.

“We had so much catalogue material, from the albums, so took a chance to book a few shows. For the first five or six we were about £10,000 down, but then did Bedford and somewhere else and it was fantastic. Now we always do a spring tour, and it does very well.”

For me, born in ’67, it was probably the Ramones covering Needles and Pins that made me look at The Searchers again. Then I got into The Byrds and realised over time how they were also influenced by this Liverpool outfit. I can also hear their sound in everyone from Tom Petty through to later Merseyside bands like The La’s then Cast, The Coral, and The Zutons.

“Yeah, but again I ignore all those compliments. We know what the Ramones said, and The Byrds, Marshall Crenshaw, even Bruce Springsteen, who invited me to his gig at Old Trafford a couple of years ago. We were a bit embarrassed really, being asked how we made Needles and Pins and got that sound on When You Walk in the Room, by people like Steven van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, in awe!”

I think that’s part of why we like John. He doesn’t appear to have been spoiled by fame and hasn’t forgotten his working-class roots. He’s still the lad next door.

“Well, I don’t like all that sort of pontification, and also find it embarrassing when you get lots of tribute bands who actually think they’re a band these days. That’s stupid. Okay, we were basically a tribute band in the early days, but did those songs in a different way, rather than copying them.”

Going back to that very first album there’s an early example of that, The Everly Brothers’ Since you Broke my Heart, a song I feel they made their own, and my favourite track on there.

“Well, we loved the Everlys then and worked with Don and Phil quite a lot. Luckily we’ve played with most of the acts we loved, other than Buddy Holly, who I never got to see. He was at the Philharmonic on the 29th of March, 1958, a Thursday night, but I was working until seven. Mike (Pender) went, but couldn’t remember much about it.”

Talking of iconic Liverpool venues, last week I saw From The Jam at the rebuilt Cavern Club, and can vouch for the fact that there’s still a special vibe about that place. Yet while The Searchers played there too, it seems that their own live HQ of sorts was the Iron Door.

“Well, that was all built up by Merseybeat magazine as a competition between the Iron Door and the Cavern. But we played there as much as the Iron Door and all the other venues. On an all-night session, we’d pass The Beatles up and down the stairs at venues, each carrying our gear.”

Did you stay in touch?

“Not really. Last time I saw Paul (McCartney) was when the Sgt. Pepper album was given the digital treatment. He invited the lads down to Abbey Road, and we had a chat. Linda was there as well.”

You mentioned early country influences, but I understand seeing Fats Domino at the Star-Club helped change the band’s direction. Were you on the same bill?

“Yeah, Fats Domino, and also Gene Vincent, Ray Charles, the Everly Brothers, Joey Dee and the Starlighters …“

Was that the moment you decided on a more r’n’b approach?

“Yeah, but that’s what I meant about a combined effort. Tony Jackson loved John Lennon and wanted to do all the stuff he did, and sounded like Lonnie Donegan as well, while Chris was into more melodic stuff like Ruby and the Romantics, The Coasters and Dionne Warwick. Then Mike was into Buddy Holly, and then there was me and country and western. You know those Beatles sessions where Paul’s showing George what to play? There was none of that. You played what you felt. And it worked.”

We talked about that early camaraderie, but there were later splits in the ranks, most notably a rift with Mike Pender that led to mid-‘80s litigation, the band splitting into two factions playing the same songs.

“Well, that was sad. I don’t think too much about it now, but the way he went about it was very odd. If he wanted to go solo, by all means, we’d have wished him well.”

Have you spoken since?

“No, last time was at Chris’ funeral. He came over but I felt it was wrong to shake hands. What he did wasn’t nice. He still goes on about it now. I just feel, ‘Forget it! It was your decision!’ He wanted to leave, but wanted to take the name with him. I started the band, I owned the name.”

One change in personnel that went down far better with John came in the summer of 1964, London-based Frank Allen joining from Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers, replacing Tony Jackson, the two now in tow in the Searchers for 53 years.

“We’d known Frank for years, and Cliff appeared in our history quite a lot. We were sat watching them one night and one of the songs was Needles and Pins. We thought, ‘That’s unusual’. We didn’t like the arrangement, because they had a brass section, but they did that and There She Goes, again with a good sound. Cliff told us later that night Needles was a Jackie DeShannon song. We got home, got the record, then did our version.”

And I’d say that was the band’s first great single.

“Oh yeah! But the fight we had with the record company over that release was unbelievable. They didn’t see it at all. They wanted us to follow Sweets with another Drifters song. We said no and told them Needles was a great song. And then Jackie wrote When You Walk in the Room for us … which was like ‘bang!’

Ah, now you’re talking. All these years on, I still adore that single – just another love song maybe, yet one that encapsulates that thrill of getting to know that special someone. It doesn’t outstay its welcome either – we’re talking 139 seconds of uncomplicated pop perfection, complete with those trademark chiming, jangling guitars and rich harmonies. Besides, any song which uses the line, ‘Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant’, is alright by me.

And talking of those guitars, did John feel his playing had improved by then?

“I think so. I was mostly playing rhythm, but occasionally live I’d play lead. But when Mike wasn’t interested I’d end up playing everything – the rhythm and the riffs.”

There have been so many highlights over the last five and a half decades. Any particular performances stand out?

“Well, playing with the likes of the Everlys, having studied them and grown up with their records, listening to Radio Luxembourg and so on. Gene Vincent was great, but a bit of an odd person, Fats Domino was great, Ray Charles was superb, and we were rehearsing once at the Star-Club and in walks Jerry Lee Lewis, who got on the piano and played with us. Great! Those things are more important to me. You get great nights and don’t really get duff nights. That’s very rare.”

John won’t need reminding, but he’s hit the grand age of 75 now. Yet he’s still on the road, and this tour seems particularly exhausting. Has the routine had to change in recent years?

“Frank and I discussed this over the last couple of days and when we got back from Australia. We were annoyed with the promoter there as we normally go for six weeks and do 26 shows, with two days off for travelling, But when we got over there, we had 31 shows, which was ridiculous. That schedule was madness. We were absolutely shattered when we got back, so Frank and I sat down and had a chat and agreed we should maybe pick and choose better, and not take our eyes off the ball.

“When we’ve finished this tour we’ll maybe slow down a bit. The market’s there, but you can overdo it, overcook the whole thing. But we’ve just had Scotland, which was superb, as was New Brighton the other day, playing to 700 people.”

Stage Presence: The Searchers, back on the road, and coming to a town near you.

And this is your 60th year making your way as a musician?

“Yeah, and Frank and I employ six lads now, and have had our soundman Phil for 30 years and young John – actually, he’s 40-odd now – as our backline lad for 25 years.”

Clearly you and Frank get on well. Do you finish each other’s sentences now?

“Yeah, we do that on stage! The good thing is I’m up north and he’s down South between times. I like playing five-a-side and he likes the shows and the theatre – that’s his bag, that and mixing with Pete Townshend and Bruce Welch. He likes all that, while I enjoy playing football.”

So you’re still playing after all these years?

“Yeah, although I haven’t played since getting back from Australia with pneumonia. I’m just getting over that. But hopefully I’ll be playing again within 10 days or so.”

Well, there you go – John McNally, an example to us all.

Tour Masters: The Searchers, part-way through their latest major UK tour. From left – John McNally, Scott Ottaway, Frank Allen, Spencer James.

For full tour details head to The Searchers’ website via this link.

 

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ron Sexsmith / Lori Cullen – Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Six nights after a horrified world faced the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing, there was proof of live music’s healing power when Ron Sexsmith and Lori Cullen visited nearby Oxford Road.

Barely a mile and a half from the sight of that tragedy, and close enough for a pilgrimage to St Ann’s Square to pay our respects, my youngest daughter – on the eve of her 15th birthday – and I were truly entertained by an impressive all-Canadian bill.

While getting her first live taste of a singer-songwriter Dad’s played round the house and in the car longer than she’s been around, it was his second viewing, and far removed from the first at a jam-packed Adelphi pub in Preston 18 years earlier.

But as crisp and modern a venue as the RNCM is, those performances had a lot in common. However large the auditorium, it seems Ron can personalise the experience, giving it an intimate feel.

Three's Company: Lori's latest LP, with songs by Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer

Three’s Company: Lori’s latest LP, with songs by Ron Sexsmith and Kurt Swinghammer

First time around, the wider world was only just waking up to this cherubic, shy guy from St Catharines, Ontario, with a little help from his famous fan, Elvis Costello. Much water’s passed down Twelve Mile Creek and the River Irwell since, yet Ronald Eldon Sexsmith still has that special air about him, coming over every bit the polite guest, so chuffed that we’ve come to see him.

That was particularly the case in the light of Monday’s grim happenings, although Ron conceded, ‘I guess that’s what we do – we have to get on with it’.

There was certainly a two-way outpouring of love between audience and performers off Oxford Road on Sunday, in a week when we needed just that, Lori respectfully talking of her own uptown visit to see the floral tributes.

She was half-way through a short set when we arrived, having stuck around the square until the church bells rang at 7pm. It didn’t help that we burst into the wrong recital room first, the pianist below us a little shocked at our presence. But we still had time to hear enough from Lori to suggest another Ontarian gem on the way to wider acclaim.

There’s due reverence for performers from the RNCM staff, and we casually waited until she’d finished a song before being escorted in the dark to our seats, Lori some distance away but introducing herself all the same with a breezy, ‘Hi I’m Support Band!’

Like Ron, she seemed nervous, but relaid a tale of having walked into another room within the RNCM and seeing a virtuoso pianist in action, making her realise the pressure was all on him, not her. She was ‘just a folk singer’, and no one was going to grade her that night. I wonder if it was the same fella we snooked in on.

Anyway, three songs later – with fitting accompaniment from Ron’s band – she was gone too soon, but we heard enough to invest in her seventh LP, 2016’s Sexsmith Swinghammer Songs, a set of fine tunes co-written by Our Ron and fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Kurt Swinghammer.

After two coffees and two Nutella muffins – yep, this was a rather sophisticated affair – we were back in our seats for the main-man, who launched straight into new LP The Last Rider’s opener, It Won’t Last For Long then the title track of his best-selling album to date, 2011’s Long Player Late Bloomer. And as I’d hoped, the songs from the latter sounded far less polished live, while the songs from the new one carried a little more meat, Ron’s complementary four-piece (and probably complimentary – they are friendly Canadians after all) band working well with him, the arrangements kept fresh throughout.

Other Songs: Ron Sexsmith's second major label album is 20 years old, but as fresh as ever.

Other Songs: Ron Sexsmith’s second major label album is 20 years old, but as fresh as ever.

A quirky yet majestic Breakfast Ethereal saw them truly warmed up before a contemplative but rootsy choice from Other Songs, Thinking Out Loud, now 20 years old, Ron his typical laidback but soulful self.

The Idiot Boy from 1999’s Whereabouts brought to mind a certain incompetent presidential kid in a candy store across his home border, and then came the first single from the new record, Ron proudly telling us Evergreen reached No.2 in the Irish charts.

Secret Heart was as chillingly good as I’d hoped, the first hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment, followed by a gorgeously-evocative If Only Avenue from the criminally under-sold Forever Endeavour. And from the same LP, our man’s best friend, St Bernard, told of an imaginary mate who also passes for his ‘spirit animal’. And I should point out at that stage that my daughter – unaware of that song’s sentiment – told me on the way home Ron reminded her of a dog, so willing was he to please an audience continually shouting requests, as if encouraging him to do tricks. We’d love a dog in our house, but if Ron reckons he wouldn’t have the space and time to keep a St Bernard, I’m not sure we could afford to keep him either.

We got a further flavour of his more excitable nature when he turned round before the next song and caught the slideshow, telling us, ‘I drew that!’ Then we were back to The Last Rider, reminiscing about the golden age ‘when the whole world was my Radio.’

At that point, Don Kerr (drums), Jason Mercer (bass), Dave Matheson (keyboards) and Kevin Lacroix (guitar) headed off, Ron joking that the next couple of songs were ‘too complex for them’, before playing a poignant Strawberry Blonde from ’97 and the equally thought-provoking new song Man at the Gate (1913).

Lori Cullen returned, Ron raising his game vocally to match her on Autumn Light, then staying at the piano for Tomorrow in Her Eyes, his heartfelt love song to wife Colleen. At one point he lost his way and got a little stressed out, but I’m sure we love him all the more for those moments. Besides, note-perfect is over-rated.

Last Rider: Ron and band backstage at the RNCM, Manchester. Surprisingly lush, eh.

Last Rider: Ron and band backstage at the RNCM, Manchester. Surprisingly lush, eh.

He was still apologising for ‘messing up’ while introducing a timely Worried Song from his latest LP, and part-way through that the band returned and we got my all-time Sexsmith fave, Lebanon, Tennessee, two decades old now but no less fresh and stirring.

There’s Gold in Them Hills answered another request, while between Late Bloomer’s Whatever It Takes and Get In Line there was pride as Ron told us his daughter loved new track Who We Are Right Now. He also told us he’d offered it to One Direction. I prefer Ron Direction personally, but think Rumer would do that justice. Maybe his people should meet her people.

Not About To Lose from 2004’s Retriever (yep, another dog-related opus) again showed Ron at his melodic best, the main set then ending with a wonderfully-nostalgic Deepens With Time from Forever Endeavour.

He returned though, starting his Feist co-write Brandy Alexander on his own, his band then reappearing for a Hall and Oates style handclap and backing vocal session before a philosophically-upbeat Dreams are Bigger (the yang to his Worried Song’s yin?) and 2001’s delightfully-wistful Tell Me Again saw the night complete.

Our special guests took a collective bow then headed off then, Terry the Mod no doubt having already faced the bus towards the North-East. But when Ron told us he’d see us soon I like to think The Next Rider tour’s not so far off after all. And I’m already looking forward to that.

Dream Rider: Ron Sexsmith, hopefully back to these shores with his band again sometime soon

Dream Rider: Ron Sexsmith, hopefully back to these shores with his band again sometime soon

For this website’s recent feature/interview with Ron Sexsmith, head here.

Posted in Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From The Jam – The Cavern Club Live Lounge, Liverpool

The hottest night of the year so far, and I was Going Underground. Not as a safe haven from the Sounds From the Street, but to hunker down and resolutely celebrate cultural values increasingly under attack.

This was the first of two gigs I had in the week following Ariana Grande’s ill-fated North-West visit, each re-instilling hope for the future through the power of live music, the first at a club synonymous with pop’s sparkling past.

And while Paul Weller was talking about London when he wrote, ‘My heart’s in the city, where it belongs’ four decades ago, it could easily stand for Liverpool or Manchester on this day, which just so happened to mark his 59th birthday.

This first date was at a sweaty club below the streets of Liverpool rather than some corporate enormo-dome, but was every bit as much about commemorating the May 22nd, 2017 tragedy, giving a middle finger to the small-minded bigots who prey on the troubled and misguided in a bid to turn us back to the Dark Ages.

From The Jam’s acoustic show isn’t a million miles from the live wonder of their full electric show, the main difference the lack of a drummer and the fact that Russell Hastings and Bruce Foxton are perched on stools throughout.

While the original Cavern closed in early 1973 and was filled in during construction work on Merseyrail’s underground rail loop, on the evidence I saw and felt on Thursday, fair play to all those involved in this nearby rebuild, the spirit of that famous venue intact, a sense of history retained. And the artwork around us inspired me to promise a return when it isn’t quite so packed, this time with a proper camera.

Lennon Legacy: The Cavern’s support act framed on the Live Lounge big screen (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

In the aftermath of a difficult week, there were always going to be shadows, but there was a grim determination to get on with it, and it’s difficult to think of more compelling performances delivered from a seated position.

It was standing room only beyond the Live Lounge stage, with a battle to get an unencumbered view, my mate Jim feeling he was transported back to some dodgy nightspot in Blackburn in the late ‘70s, caught between a couple of canoodling couples as he was. At 6ft 4ins I can block out most distractions, but the pillar to my left meant I had to crane my neck to see what Hammond organ supremo Andy Fairclough was up to.

I say about an acoustic but electric performance, and part of that was down to a large section of the audience knowing every word. In the unlikely event that Russell might freeze and forgot his lines, his understudies were on hand.

There’s always something magical about this part of Liverpool for a music fan, and even our short walk from the car involved a few landmarks, including the Cunard Building which last summer hosted the marvellous About the Young Idea exhibition, the Eleanor Rigby sculpture, then on Mathew Street itself a chance to pose with bronze depictions of John Lennon and recent arrival Cilla Black.

As Russell put it, this was the band’s ‘second hometown’, and after descending the steps to the venue, you can’t help but be impressed by those Mount Rushmore-like Fab Four carvings.

Elsewhere, The Rolling Stones look on in an illustration in the far bar, while on stage the in-house support was more than a run-of-the-mill Lennon lookalike, adding character to his chosen covers, from The Word through to Stand By Me and all points between.

Liverpool Tourists: The blogger and his compadre outside the Cavern Club, Mathew Street

Soon, the PA blared out Circus and our special guests arrived. And while this was no sonic triumph – the sound weaving in and out and only really resonating for the last few songs – the technical team did their best, the quality of the songs and our trio’s delivery seeing us through.

The Jam spirit was there from the off, as if spurred on by an electric charge trapped within these famous walls, tonight’s in-crowd playing their part from the opening chop-chords of Saturday’s Kids and bass throb intro of When You’re Young right through.

There was certainly joy in the songcraft and the performance of Foxton, Hastings and Fairclough, and while slightly obscured I could see a look of animation every time I caught sight of the latter, facial expressions adding to that sense of urgency.

David Watts seemed apt in the surroundings, Ray Davies’ 60s vibe nailed by Bruce and his cohorts, while the poignant Liza Radley and Butterfly Collector were a real bonus, showing the strength in depth of Weller’s songwriting.

Between those b-sides, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’s introductory Underground rumble initially made hearts flutter after Monday. But here was a powerful story touching on the evils of extremism and ignorance, its message truly resonating.

There was Bruce’s signature tune Smithers-Jones of course, while if one song underlined a sense of history it was Larry Williams’ Slow Down, afforded an early-rock-n’roll feel in this setting, road-tested at The Cavern by The Beatles 15 years before Woking’s finest took it to a new audience.

Step Inside: Cilla Black, a study in bronze, outside the original Cavern Club (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

Russell asked we join the band in a minute’s silence to the victims of the Manchester Arena atrocities, suggesting 60 seconds of hush then a resounding ‘fuck off’ to its perpetrators’ philosophy. We were up for that, but talking at the bar – having not heard the message rather than being ignorant, I’d like to think – continued for most of it. Yet while it didn’t go quite to script, the point was made.

When they resumed, Strange Town seemed a perfect barn-storming choice, while English Rose neatly encapsulated fundamental values that bring us together, irrespective of creed, colour or nationality. ‘Choose love’, as Manchester poet Tony Walsh put it so evocatively the day before.

A horticultural theme continued with the poignant Carnation, another welcome surprise from a catalogue of delights following in Life From a Window before Foxton and Hastings’ Now the Time Has Come from Smash the Clock, now a year old, solid proof that this is so much more than a heritage band.

But there was always a karaoke feel, and so the massed voices accompanied on That’s Entertainment and Start, before Thick as Thieves and In the Crowd reminded us this was no obvious hits package.

And what else but Going Underground to finish, not just for our subterranean location but also an in-built reminder to make use of a forthcoming snap election, hopefully to change things for the better.

They returned for three more songs, In The City – 40 years after its incendiary release – followed by further hymn to class struggle The Eton Rifles and the ever-evocative A Town Called Malice, Weller’s early-80s vision of Anytown or Anycity UK every bit as relevant 35 years on.

And as Weller put it, and Hastings delivered on the night’s finale, ‘Time is short and life is cruel, but it’s up to us to change this town called malice’.

Heads Up: The Fab Four look on at the new Cavern Club on Mathew Street (Photo: Malcolm Wyatt)

For a link to this site’s most recent interview with Russell – Spirit of ’77 – All Around the World with Russell Hastings and From The Jam – and links to many more Jam-related features and reviews, head here.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kingdom come, beyond Del Amitri – the Justin Currie interview

Justin Time: Del Amitri frontman Justin Currie is back on the road, this time with his band The Pallbearers.

Chances are that you probably still know Justin Currie best for Del Amitri, the Scottish alternative/crossover outfit who enjoyed a dozen top-40 hits over a decade in the wake of 1990’s classic breakthrough single, Nothing Ever Happens.

But this Glaswegian singer-songwriter went it alone in 2003, by his own admission spending the next four years ‘fannying about writing, drinking and doing any weird non-rock gig’ he was invited along to before releasing his first ‘masterpiece of maudlin’, What Is Love For.

Now, a few years on, he’s promoting his fourth LP, This Is My Kingdom Now, released on his own Endless Shipwreck Records, following 2010’s The Great War and 2013’s Lower Reaches, the songs of old replaced by a tone he describes as ‘suicide in a saucy shirt’, his output rightly continuing to strike a chord, the 52-year-old about to step out for a headline tour with his backing band, The Pallbearers to promote the new record. And from the tracks I’ve heard so far, it’s another winner.

So, I ask him down the line, was recording his latest record an enjoyable experience?

“More enjoyable than the last one, which was quite tough. I started recording at home the year before last, and my idea was to do it all myself, sat at a piano. But a couple of weeks in, the offices outside decided to renovate the building, so for six months I had to down tools because of the racket.”

A tad too much percussion, eh?

“Exactly.”

The new LP’s a self-release. Does that create more work, or is it worth that for creative control alone?

“Erm … this is my fourth solo record and I don’t ever recall feeling not having creative control. It’s more work to the extent that I’m now the marketing manager though. As well as making it, I’m selling it … and I’m a terrible salesman!”

You seem quite proficient with social media though, from what I’ve seen.

”Everybody’s supposed to be, but it’s something I’d rather not do. I find the whole thing deeply vulgar! The problem with ‘direct to the audience’ internet selling is that the artistes who end up the most successful are those who are best at selling themselves, not necessarily those who make the best music.

“When I was 15, me and my band were quite good at making little leaflets and posters, pasting them up on lampposts. But at 52 I find all that incredibly dull.”

While receiving plenty of praise for his last long player, 2013’s Lower Reaches, recorded in Austen, Texas, with Mike McCarthy, this one appears to be more of a homegrown entity.

“That was the only one where we hired a producer, with me handing all the songs to Mike and letting him choose the songs and arrange them as he saw fit. This album is more back to what I did on the first and second albums, playing a lot of the instruments myself and picking and choosing them myself. I feel more in touch with this and that it’s more my record than the last one.”

The first thing we heard from the new record was the delightful Failing to See, which I tell him serves as a fine advertisement for what he might have in store for us, and should by rights be all over the radio airwaves.

“Well, for that to happen you’d have to hire someone to take your records to those stations, which I can’t afford to do anymore.”

Spaced Out: Justin Currie's new LP, This is My Kingdom Now

Spaced Out: Justin Currie’s new LP, This is My Kingdom Now, has gravitational pulling power.

Is that track pretty much indicative of what we have coming our way?

“No, but I don’t think I could choose one song that would be indicative of the rest. I don’t think one song is like the next.”

Tell me about Sydney Harbour Bridge, for example.

“Erm … it’s a bridge that goes over Sydney Harbour.”

I asked for that, didn’t I. ‘Thanks,’ I respond, deadpan, and he laughs, I like to think guiltily. I try another way. It seems from the track-listing that there are quite a few songs about travel on this album.

“Yes, a lot mention or use the sea as a metaphor. That came about after I was offered a gig at the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, coming up with a few songs that mentioned the sea or some maritime theme, a couple especially for that gig, realising I could have a thematic link. A couple didn’t quite make it, but there’s a vague theme echoing in the background.”

Incidentally, at time of going to press I’ve given Sydney Harbour Bridge a few spins, and like the new album’s title track it’s something of a brooding masterpiece. I can report good things about Crybabies and Hey Polly too, with Justin’s rich tones and inventive hooks all over this record from what I’ve heard so far. Again, as you might expect from this talented songsmith.

Anyway, on with the interview, and talking of travelling, when he’s on the road with The Pallbearers these days, does he properly take in his surroundings, rather than just turn up, set up, play, move on?

“I still really love touring, and part of the joy is it’s endlessly stimulating, looking out of a van or hotel room window on a completely different environment every day. I always assumed when we did a lot of touring in the ‘90s that it must have some kind of impact on what you wrote and how you wrote, but I don’t really do enough of that to be able to claim an impact. Nearly everything I write is written in Glasgow, where it’s the same view every day!”

Talk of his home city – according to his own press, ‘Currie lives and breathes in Glasgow, collects beer mats and makes his own cushions’ – leads to a discussion about other bands from the area, coming on to the subject of the early ‘80s Postcard Records scene, and one mutual influence in particular.

“I don’t think I would have formed a band without Orange Juice happening in Glasgow. That changed everything, and almost overnight Glasgow went from being this pub-rock backwater that no one in the music press or the record industry had any interest in, to being this place that was perceived as being incredibly cool. That was really just down to the four people in Orange Juice and Alan Horne of Postcard Records.”

And have you had a chance to get to know Edwyn Collins over the years?

“No. He quite rightly despised every other band in Glasgow, unless he took a particular shine to them, and I’m quite happy to know Del Amitri were despised by Edwyn! But I regard him as a great genius, and one of the greatest poets Scotland ever produced.”

How about the wondrous Teenage Fanclub? Ever on your radar?

“I adore them and buy all their records. They were more out of Belshill and its own special scene, which started a bit later than the postcard bands. Of course, Norman (Blake) was with a few other groups and conceptual projects before he put Teenage Fanclub together. I always thought he was a genius and was really pleased when he got together with Raymond and started making records with them. I was always worried he might just slip between the tracks.”

And what’s on Justin Currie’s turntable right now? What are you enjoying listening to?

“I’m a big fan of Sun Kil Moon, wading my way through his latest opus, which is pretty fascinating. I’m also wading my way through Kendrick Lamar’s latest records.”

Ever get fed up playing those old Del Amitri songs that part of the audience no doubt insist on hearing above all else? I mean, I love Nothing Ever Happens, but it’s a song I first heard in the depths of winter and I tend to equate that with short nights and commuter gloom. For that reason alone, I’m not sure I’d want to play it every night.

“That’s a fair question, but no, partly because there are enough of them that I can pick and choose. I don’t have to play particular songs every night. And there are songs I’ve played every night as a solo artist and with Del Amitri too. It doesn’t particularly bother me. I don’t have a massive problem with that. Maybe that’s sheer vanity.”

Three’s Company: Chris Difford, Boo Hewerdine and Justin Currie form the BBC’s Songwriters’ Circle (Photo: BBC)

I particularly enjoyed your BBC Songwriters Circle appearance in 2010. Have you worked with and kept in touch with your fellow artistes that night, Chris Difford and Boo Hewerdine?

“Yeah, kind of vaguely. We send each other acerbic texts and emails every now and then – old bald men complaining about the state of the climate!”

What comes first writing songs these days – strumming your guitar or tinkling away at the piano?

“I’d say 75 per cent are worked out at the piano, although I try and discipline myself to writing more on guitar. But with the piano it’s a lot more productive, largely because a lot more of the notes are laid out in front of you. It feels like the world’s your oyster.

“I have to add though, I cannot play either! That’s kind of an advantage as you don’t know what you’re doing. But if you hear something in your head it’s quite hard to achieve it.

“Because I was a punk most of the music I was listening to was achievable on a four-string bass, the first thing I started playing. With punk rock you never felt the need to study. Just learning those songs, playing them with one finger on one string, was enough to get you to the point where you could form a band and play gigs.”

There were four top-10 albums with Iain Harvie and co. in Del Amitri, 1989’s Waking Hours alone selling more than a million UK copies. Does that all seem a lifetime away now?

“It should be. It’s that deep philosophical question – ‘at the age of 52 are you the same person you were when you were 22?’ And you obviously aren’t. I recognise that person and identify with them really strongly, so it feels like I’m on some kind of continuum … but I’m probably not.”

You insist you’re still a member of Del Amitri, but you’ve been a solo artist for a long time now. Any regrets about going it alone?

“Loads. I never wanted Del Amitri to stop, but it became fairly obvious we’d be on a rapid downhill spiral in terms of amount of people we’d play to, so we took a break. I was writing fairly frequently, and needed an outlet for those songs. Writing and not releasing songs is pretty painful, so it became pretty obvious that was the only way to go if I was writing songs and Del Amitri weren’t active.”

How about the prospect of a Waking Hours 30th anniversary tour in 2018 then?

“I’m sure we’ll do more gigs some stage in the future. Not this year, but maybe next year or the year after. We’d like to do more. It just depends on whether the gigs themselves are worth doing.”

Live Wire: Justin Currie, out on the road with The Pallbearers right now, and again in the autumn

Justin Currie’s tour with The Pallbearers – after an opening night at Perth’s Concert Hall on Friday, May 26th – continues at Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sunday, May 28th), Pocklington Arts Centre (Monday, May 29th), Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms (Tuesday, May 30th), Liverpool’s Hangar 34 (Wednesday, May 31st, 0844 8000 410 or via this link), Cambridge Junction (Wednesday, May 31st), Islington Assembly Hall (Saturday, June 3rd) and then back north of the border at the Northern Roots Festival, Bogbain Farm, Inverness (Saturday, June 24th). 

There are also a dozen live dates this autumn, running from Friday, October 13th at Manchester Academy 3 through to Tuesday, October 31st at Colchester Arts Centre, including one on my patch at Preston Guild Hall’s Live venue on Friday, October 27th (see link). For further information, including full tour details, head to his website. You can also follow Justin via Facebook and Twitter.

Posted in Books Films, TV & Radio, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment