The telling adventures of Saint Etienne – the Sarah Cracknell interview

Despite there never being more than a seven-year gap between Saint Etienne LPs over their 31-year existence, when I think about this London-rooted outfit – built predominantly around Sarah Cracknell and co-founders Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs – the years 1990 to 1995 spring to mind first, treading my own path to their soundtrack.

I always admired where they were at culturally, sonically and visually, and when I hear ‘Only Love Can Break your Heart’, the Moira Lambert-fronted Neil Young cover that launched them, I’m transported back to the summer of Italia ’90, a timeframe in which I introduced my beloved to Cornwall and worked as far afield as the Isle of Wight to earn enough for world travels, while remaining ensconced on the London and South-East music scene.

By the time they re-issued ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ off the back of debut LP, Foxbase Alpha, my backpacking adventures were done but the wanderlust remained, saving up for my next trip, a holiday in Tolon, Greece, serving as a stopgap amid sorting office work-shifts and weekend UK trips visits, with plenty more live engagements but my music fanzine by then replaced by another engineered around frequent home and away Woking FC terrace engagements.

When ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ – still my favourite ever Saint Etienne moment – and the So Tough LP landed in early ’93, I was into my last year in Surrey, still squeezing in social and unsocial hours alongside a Royal Mail day-job but planning ahead to a North West move, Sarah’s festive duet with Tim Booth on ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’ playing as I carried the next alphabetical third of my record collection into my better half’s Victorian terrace home as she realised I might actually be moving in after four and half years of 500-mile round-trips.

And as the Saints went Europop with ‘He’s on the Phone’ just after my 28th birthday, I’d not long since ditched a fairly miserable stop-gap building society job for uni, setting off into journalism, book and TV manuscripts to one side for a while, a new phase underway.

So when I learned that new Saint Etienne LP, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You – out now via Heavenly Recordings – is all about optimism, youth and the late ‘90s, it took me a while to get my head into that space, recalling where I was then … and Saint Etienne themselves, by then having vaulted the Heavenly Recordings stable gate for Creation, ‘Sylvie’, ‘The Bad Photographer’ and Good Humor signalling a welcome gear change into a less dance-pop era, more akin to The Cardigans, perhaps. But I wasn’t listening so hard at the time, more’s the pity, probably wrapped up in a world of morning and weekly newspaper deadlines, match reporting and occasional Aegean and Mediterranean holidays.

What’s more, by the time of their ambient and trip-hop statement, Sound of Water, in the summer of 2000, I had a five-month-old daughter and life had changed again. And truth be told, it’s only in recent times I’ve caught up with and appreciated both of those records.

Those were the band’s fourth and fifth studio long players, with the new record their 10th, accompanied by a film of the same name directed by acclaimed photographer/film-maker Alasdair McLellan, who also provides stills photography.

Locations in the film – Avebury, Portmeirion, Doncaster, Grangemouth and London – help evoke that era through a fog of memory, the sonic and visual results described as ‘beautiful, hypnotic and all-enveloping’, Alasdair seeing his starting point for the project as ‘an interpretation of my memories from the time I first started to listen to Saint Etienne’s music’. As he put it, ‘At that time, I was a bored teenager in a village near Doncaster, South Yorkshire; a place where very little happened. I now look back at that time as something quite idyllic – even the boredom seems idyllic – and a big part of its soundtrack was Saint Etienne’.

The film premiered last week, kicking off a BFI The Films of Saint Etienne weekend of screenings and Q&As on London’s Southbank, its tie-in LP already inspiring Daniel Avery, Jane Weaver and Vince Clarke remixes, with Saint Etienne also set to tour in November. All of which gave me the excuse to seek out Sarah Cracknell to tackle the band’s past, present and future.

I started by telling her I’d played a lot of the LP that week, first in the background, slowly taking it in more and more, increasingly impressed, having that morning also had a first look at its trailer – additionally intrigued by Alasdair’s film.

“I know. Isn’t he brilliant! He’s been amazing. He interpreted the music so well.”

What came first – Alasdair’s vision, the songs, or a bit of both? Did he work on what you sent him?

“First of all, we had another album we’d been making in a tiny studio, with a lovely man called Shawn Lee {who co-produced the band’s last LP, 2017’s Home Counties} in Finsbury Park. It was nearly finished, but then restrictions happened. But also, Bob and Pete started messing around, taking old records and ‘smushing’ them up … for want of a better word!

“Alasdair at first was going to work on the other album, but then heard some of the new songs, and around then our manager said, ‘This is great, you should do an album of this,’ especially now we could do things a bit more remotely. So Alasdair got into it, and started working on it. He’s been all over the country, and it’s amazing what he’s done, especially during lockdown. We sent him songs bit by bit, and then he got the full album, and they work so well as a pair.”

Was Sarah looking forward to the BFI film season and the reaction? Or is it all a bit strange after so long away from the public glare?

“Well, there’s always that feeling, when you put an album or film out. You just don’t know. The people who’ve heard the album and seen the film are all quite close to us, so maybe they’re just saying they like it! They’re opinions we trust, but we just don’t know until it’s out there.

“I was looking forward to the premiere and screenings until they told me I had to be part of the Q&A. Ha! That’s the bit I’m most concerned about!”

Strange, isn’t it, after so long. A few artists I’ve spoken to have never felt more nervous about getting out there again. We want to be, but it’s easy to build it up in your mind that it’s going to be difficult. You can be on a roll, then it stops, and you end up over-thinking it all. Strange times.

“It is, and there’s also, ‘If I start doing this, are they going to stop me again?’. I hope not though.”

The new LP lands 30 years after the release of debut LP, Foxbase Alpha, the latest addition constructed largely from samples and sounds drawn from the years 1997-2001, a period topped and tailed by Labour’s election victory and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Was the optimism of that era a lost golden age, or a period of naïvety, delusion and folly? Well, Bob, Pete and Sarah contest that the collective folk memory of any period differs from the reality, and tell us I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is an album about memory, how it works, how it tricks you and creates a dream-like state. It also taps into the way we think of our youth, a sense of place, and where we come from, the new record made remotely in collaboration with film/TV composer Gus Bousfield, who contributed to two songs and co-produced with Pete Wiggs.

While Pete’s in Hove on the East Sussex coast these days, and Bob’s in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Sarah has been in Oxfordshire a long time now, having bought a house there around 20 years ago, transforming it slowly from the initial ‘wreck’ she says it was. So it seems that the period the LP focuses on also marked the end of her London days.

“Yeah, absolutely. I was living in and around West London. It was nothing like this! In fact, my youngest is now in sixth form and wondering what he’s going to do next, and says he might go to uni or college, but he’s only going to London!”

I’m six months younger than Sarah (she wears it far better, of course) and like her, I guess, first got to regularly see live music and obsess about it from the early ‘80s, yet also – like Saint Etienne – regularly harked back to ‘60s influences. And what I still struggle to grasp is that today the ‘90s are as far away as that era was to us back then.

“You’re making me feel very old now! I know though, and that fascination with that period – especially with my son for the ‘90s – is really the same as us looking back at the ‘60s. It’s just one of those things, isn’t it.”

When we were growing up, we did have all that ’50s nostalgia – from American Graffiti to Grease and Happy Days – but now it’s like, ‘The ‘90s? That was only yesterday, wasn’t it?’.

“I know! Ha!”

But in the same way the ‘60s was about far more than The Beatles and the Stones to me, the ‘90s was about far more than all those nostalgia documentaries suggest. It wasn’t all just about Blur or Oasis chart battles, or The Spice Girls stealing their thunder. And Saint Etienne were a key part of all that.

What’s more, if their latest release is an album about optimism, youth and the late ‘90s, we all need a bit of that optimism right now, don’t we?

“Precisely. For the last 18 months to two years, there’s not been a lot of optimism, and there was around then … although slightly misguided optimism perhaps. It’s about exploring that, and how you can remember things not quite as they were – a bit blurry, through gauze. You don’t remember the intricacies. You just have a feeling about it.”

I get what you say about that period – topped and tailed by Labour’s election victory and the Twin Towers attack – being the end of an era, but it’s easy for us to blank that out now as we hurtle towards new calamities in a period defined by that disastrous Brexit vote, the pandemic, and so on.

I tend to think of the 2012 Olympics as the end of the era now, as loosely defined in Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s celebration of all that was good about the UK in the preceding years at the opening ceremony – not least the NHS and Welfare State. But maybe you’re right too.

“I know what you mean about that whole 2012 Olympics – I’ve never felt so uplifted. I was watching it with the whole of my husband’s family in Italy. It was amazing and made me feel really positive. A good point.”

Am I right in thinking Saint Etienne were there when they were levelling the land ahead of the construction of the Olympic Stadium?

“Yeah, we were filming in the Lea Valley. I was only there a couple of days, but Pete was there the whole time, I think. I don’t know if this is public knowledge, but they started filming, and then it was announced. So it was a good job they’d started documenting that site, before it completely and utterly changed.”

Idly flicking through Wikipedia, I see you’re down, genre-wise, as an exponent of house, alternative dance, synthpop, indie pop and alternative rock. And that’s just you, not the band. But I guess it’s good that people still struggle to put definitive labels on you.

“Yeah, I’m very proud! I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting. That’s great that I’m not to be pigeon-holed!”

Does it surprise you that this is somehow the 10th Saint Etienne LP, 30-plus years having passed? Because despite what I said before, it seems an age since I first heard ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and delved deeper.

“It does … and then it seems like yesterday! I was talking to Bob yesterday – we were doing an interview together on Zoom – and because the guy was asking specifically about Foxbase Alpha, at that point – and I think all three of us would agree – we were amazed we’d even made an album, let alone consider making another one … let alone this many!

“I think before an album’s out, we don’t really know if we’re going to make another one, ever, to be honest.”

I suppose that keeps you on your toes.

“Yeah, and I think that’s probably got a lot to do with us not having been on a major label … or at least always through an indie. We’ve never been locked into five albums or something ridiculous like that!”

How aware were you of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ when it came out? Did you hear that before you were involved?

“Yes, I did. I was a big fan of the record, and the reason I ended up meeting Bob and Pete was through … I grew up in Windsor, and was good friends with a lot of people there, and can’t remember who it was who first played that to me, it may have been my friend, Jonny Male, but Bob was going out with a girl from Windsor who I knew, called Celina …”

Was that Celina Nash, who’s on the debut LP’s cover?

“That’s right, and I heard the record and really liked it, and Bob and Pete were looking for someone to sing ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’. That was it, really. That’s all they were looking for. What they wanted was a different singer for different records, so she put them in touch with me.”

Like Erasure, the original premise for Vince Clarke was to have different vocalists. Which is possibly the first time anyone’s compared you to Andy Bell, another singer who came in to do a job and stuck around, to great effect.

“Ha! Yeah. My theory is that touring would become a logistical nightmare – you’d need one bus for all the singers, and another for the rest!”

It’ll be 30 years and six days between the release of Foxbase Alpha and the new record. And seeing as you mentioned ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’, Bob sees that as the first song him and Pete wrote with lyrics, and reckons – according to a piece he wrote for Robin Turner’s book celebrating Heavenly Recordings 30th anniversary, …Believe in Miracles, they ‘got very lucky in the studio’. Was that a special moment, hearing that track back in the studio for the first time?

“Yeah, absolutely. It was amazing. I was surprised, and I think they were! Like you say, they hadn’t really written anything before. But I think that was a confidence thing – they just didn’t know they could write, but once they started they were on a roll.”

You say of the new record, “It’s the first sample-driven album we’ve made since So Tough and it’s been a really refreshing experience, such fun! It’s both dreamy and atmospheric, late summer sounds.” Is there a sense for you that So Tough was the first proper album, in that you received writing credits for ‘Avenue’ and ‘You’re in a Bad Way’? Or did you already feel properly part of it?

“I think I already felt part of it. Bob and Pete had known each other since they were tiny, and they had a lot of in-jokes. It took a while, but I never felt they were laughing at me … at least I don’t think they were! They would just be sniggering about something in a corner.

“I felt very comfortable with them, and think with Foxbase Alpha, because of the Mercury Music Prize nomination, blah blah blah, I already felt quite a part of the band. But I know what you mean – with So Tough, that’s when I started to put my ideas across. And I’d been writing songs since I was about 15 … in my band.”

She sounds almost apologetic at the end there, but I’m not letting it slip by. Was that with her Windsor outfit, The Worried Parachutes? 

“Oh God! How did you find that out?”

Sorry, I did warn you I’d been delving online.

“Hilarious!”

Tell me more about that band.

“Err … kind of electronic pop, lots of keyboards, three girls originally, all from Windsor. We sort of folded, then the bass player and I went off and did our own thing for quite a few years. His name’s Mick Bund. We had two bands together. I stopped doing that around ’87 and went to drama school in ’88 for a year, thinking I’d be an actress. I always had an interest in that. I came out and did a few fringe productions, then met Bob and Pete.”

It was clearly meant to be. So were songs like ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ new, or something you’d had a while?

“No, that was new.”

Although I’ve been in Lancashire since early 1994, my roots are in Guildford, moving north between the recording and release of the third Saint Etienne LP, Tiger Bay

“Oh really. Home Counties as well, then!”

Definitely, and Windsor’s Community Arts Centre and The Old Trout were fairly regular venues for me from ’88.

“Oh, I played there a couple of times!”

I thought you might have, with London and the South East my patch in the days I wrote a fanzine, going up to town, seeing bands all over …

“Yeah, didn’t we all!”

Exactly, and the subject of Windsor-born Andrew Weatherall – three years Sarah’s senior – has come up a few times lately in interviews, Brix Smith talking of his inspirational words and Dot Allison about the compilation tapes he put her way, introducing her to new sounds. How was it with Saint Etienne and Andrew?

“Well, I knew Andrew from Windsor, but he got involved before I joined, with ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. I didn’t know that then, but that was via Jeff {Barrett, the Heavenly Recordings head honcho), who put Bob and Pete Andrew’s way. But I knew Andy from when I was about 15. He was an incredibly influential person, such an inspiration, so funny, and really warm. He was just lovely, and it’s terribly sad …”

We’ve all got stories of people we’ve lost this last year or so, but he was one of the more high-profile departures.

“Oh God, yeah, and he was so loved. I went to the funeral and there were so many people there … and a lot of tears.”

Going back to your Windsor days, did you know instinctively where you wanted to be and what you wanted to do? I’m guessing acting was just part of the bigger picture – performing and doing something creative.

“Well, yeah, I knew from when I was really small that I wanted to be on a stage, doing something creative. My Dad was in the film industry and I’d go on set and on location, and just loved everything about that and any kind of creative process. I was writing poems and doing drama exams at school,  singing … It was always something I wanted to do.”

Sarah’s father, Derek Cracknell – who died a few months before Foxbase Alpha’s release, and to whom her 1997 debut solo LP, Lipslide, was dedicated – had a distinguished film career, more than 50 assistant director credits ranging from the Boulting Brothers’ Heavens Above to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Bond movies Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, through to 1989’s Batman. He also took that iconic photograph of six-year-old Sarah used on the cover of So Tough.

As for the new record, the guitar line underpinning ‘I Remember It Well’ reminds me of ‘Dreaming’ by Blondie. In fact, you could argue that track is more ‘Dreaming’ than ‘Dreaming’.

“Ha! I suppose it is, isn’t it!”

Similarly, ‘Fonteyn’ has a bit of ‘Love is in the Air’ about its main hook. I guess what I’m saying that while Saint Etienne from the start were very much about the future and possibilities, you always had a foot in pop’s past too.

“Yeah, we love things from the past, absolutely, but like to turn things into something we feel is looking to the future. Exactly what you just said, really! And the thing about using samples again is that it’s such good fun, making something new out of something old.”

I suppose the concept of music being married with something visual, filmic and the world of multi-media has always been there, not least with your film soundtrack contributions, on Finisterre in 2002 with its accompanying DVD, and the Royal Festival Hall artists-in-residence project.

“Yeah … it’s not a surprise, is it!”

Tell me about the beguiling yet rather mysterious ‘Penlop’, not least as it’s maybe the track we hear you most on (and is my favourite number on the new LP). Is there a story here about travel and Bhutan, perhaps?

“Erm … I’m avoiding talking about that kind of thing, and our lyrics. There’s a lot of stuff, vocally, on the album that’s pretty abstract, and it’s meant to be part of the music. There’s no lyrical narrative. The narrative really comes from the film. When they’re paired together, the music just goes with it.”

So the ear, and in this case the eye too, is the beholder perhaps.

“Exactly! We don’t want to spoil it. It’s like when you imagine lyrics from other songs. Often, when you hear what it really is, you’re quite disappointed – the version in your mind was a lot better.”

That took us briefly to The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’, and how I was initially disappointed discovering Hugh Cornwell wasn’t in fact laid down with his ‘mancherums’ – which I presumed were some kind of exotic, potent Far Eastern cigarette – but that, ‘with my mind she runs’.

“I always thought it was something Asian, like a guru … a kind of ‘Sexy Sadie’!”

Ah, whom of course ‘laid it down for all to see’ … and ‘broke the rules’. Maybe Sarah’s interpretation wasn’t so far from mine after all.

Saint Etienne have clearly come a long way from Foxbase Alpha, so to speak, the band that told us ‘London Belongs to Me’ back in September ’91 having put their latest record together remotely, in Bradford, Hove and Oxford. And you can’t say that about many LPs, surely.

“Exactly! And it worked really well, thanks again to my useful youngest teen, who’s really good at ProTools and all that sort of thing. He recorded it and was my vocal engineer! To be honest, without him I’d have had to learn how to do these things.”

Incidentally, you probably know this, but Sarah has two sons with husband Martin Kelly, Saint Etienne’s manager and Jeff Barrett’s former label partner, who also co-founded the legendary Heavenly Social club and was with fellow Heavenly act, East Village. But I’ll let her carry on …

“We’ve done so many Zooms that we feel we’ve seen each other a lot, but I said to Bob yesterday, ‘When did I actually see you in the flesh the last time?’. At least 18 months ago. I’ve at least seen Pete – he came here one day.”

I was interviewing someone recently who told me he was so relieved ours was a phone call rather than a Zoom – it meant he didn’t have to worry about what he was wearing and that he might occasionally be staring off into space.

“Yeah, I know! And where I am, there’s broad daylight straight in my face. It’s really brutal!”

And would you be tempted to follow that remote formula again, or will it be about sharing rooms next time?

“I think we’d like to share rooms, to be honest. We often start sending ideas across, then we’ll all make up tunes, scribble some words, then we’ll go in a studio, start pulling it together.”

Well, long may it continue. This LP’s getting under my skin, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film too.

“Oh good. I think you’ll love that. It really adds to it. It’s a good combi.”

I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is out now via Heavenly Recordings (HVNLP196) in digital, vinyl, CD, CD-DVD and boxset formats, with details here. Rough Trade also made it their September album of the month, offering an exclusive sky-blue vinyl edition with three-track remix CD involving mixes by Daniel Avery, Jane Weaver and Vince Clarke. There’s also a Heavenly edition with free flexidisc (linked via their Bandcamp shop here), and a ‘super deluxe’ limited-edition boxset with signed prints, film poster, DVD, exclusive 10” vinyl and 12” album.

The film of the same namepremiered on London’s BFI Southbank HQ in early September, with the trailer here, part of the Films Of Saint Etienne season, screenings accompanied by Q&As with the band and their collaborators, also including This Is Tomorrow, Asunder, Finisterre, How We Used to Live, Lawrence of Belgravia, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and Saint Etienne: Shorts Programme.

Saint Etienne tour dates: Glasgow St Luke’s, November 18th; Sunderland (venue to be confirmed), November 19th; London’s Alexandra Palace Theatre, November 20th; Bristol Trinity, November 23rd; Birmingham Institute, November 24th; Saltaire Victoria Hall, November 25th; Liverpool Grand Central Hall, November 26th; and Hove Old Market, November 27th, with tickets available here

For all the latest, keep in touch via the official Saint Etienne website and via Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with more links available via Spotify and YouTube.

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2-4-6-8 motorway networking with Pip Blom

Waterfront Quartet: L to R – Darek Mercks, Pip Blom, Tender Blom and Gini Cameron, set for a UK return

It was a ‘sunny-ish’ day in Amsterdam (her word, not mine) when I caught up with Pip Blom, lead singer and guitarist of the group of the same name, soon to release their second LP. And let’s face it, chatting to Pip and hearing her band play would make most days sunny.

‘Trouble in Paradise’, the last track on Welcome Break, out early next month, had just faded away, and after a few pre-release listens I was of the firm opinion that this record takes over where their splendid debut, Boat, left off two summers ago.

I’d also just had my first viewing of the impressive promo video for ‘You Don’t Want This’, the second single from the LP. Will Pip and her bandmates – her brother, guitarist Tender Blom, bass player Darek Mercks and drummer Gini Cameron – wear those matching, eye-catching red outfits on their forthcoming run of National Lottery-backed Revive Live UK tour dates, I asked, tongue pretty much in cheek.

“I don’t think so! I do really like it in the video, but … I like to be able to dress (in) whatever I feel like. It’s very restricted, although it does look very cool, I agree.”

You don’t really want to feel you’re wearing a band uniform, I guess.

“Exactly.”

Some bands seem to like a uniform.

“Yeah, they do. Quite a lot of bands. But I don’t think it’s something for us.”

Actually, that vivid red reminds me of a past LP cover. Maybe the White Stripes or The Hives. Perhaps even Devo.

“I think a couple of people are reminded of the White Stripes, so it’s probably that.”

How about the rather lurid eye shadow from the video for previous single, ‘Keep it Together’? Might the four of you be sporting that on stage?

“Ha! Both of those decisions – the bright red and bright eye shadows – were made by the directors of the videos. And I really like those vibrant colours. It works really well.”

Well, top marks to Sara Elzinga for the latest promo, plus Danny and Isabelle Griffioen for the earlier one.

“Yeah, we’re very happy with it. Until now, we haven’t really done a lot of videos we’re in. We’re either busy or uncomfortable with the whole idea. But this was a very good experience, and we’re very happy that we’ve got two cool videos now!”

‘God, you feel like you’re outnumbered, and you’re wasting so much time;

They think you are successful, ‘cause you never leave the house.’

‘You Don’t Want This’ also serves as a perfect opening track for the new LP, not least its lines about a perceived lack of confidence, wasting time, and being stuck at home. Something so many of us will empathise with after this difficult last 18 months or so. For us and perhaps the band too, so long off the road.

“The funny thing was that I wrote all these songs before Covid happened. So it’s not really with that in mind, but that’s one of the reasons I don’t usually explain all the lyrics. If you listen to it, and think, ‘Ah, this is something we all had these last 18 months’, I find that so special – that people can own songs in their own way.

“I really like hearing what the lyrics mean to different people. And not everything is about me either. Half of it is, half of it isn’t. I like keeping it in the middle – what is and what isn’t!”

‘Keep It Together’ also works as something of an anthem in these uncertain times. Was positivity a challenge at times for you – as for so many of us – as things unfolded?

“Definitely, and it’s still a challenge, because in the Netherlands we’re still not allowed to play regular gigs. They’re still seated. I think the biggest challenge has been looking forward to something, then it being cancelled again. That’s happened six, seven, eight times.

“That’s something I hadn’t really experienced, anything like it. But we did manage to turn it around, with a lot more time to work on the album, get videos done, all that kind of stuff. That would have been very hard if we had to play at the same time. So I’ve tried to look at it in a more positive way, but …”

It’s about making the best of a bad situation really.

“Yeah.”

I’m guessing you’ve at least had the advantage of being able to home-record.

“Definitely, especially for the beginning of the songs. I write all the demos at home, send them to the rest of the band, then everyone (works on) their parts. But we did record the album in the UK this time. That was very nice and felt quite special, because none of us had been outside the Netherlands in quite a while.”

Self-produced and mixed by Caesar Edmunds (PJ Harvey, St Vincent, Queens of the Stone Age), the new LP was recorded at Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, Kent, more of which later. But first, with the band about to head over for the first of two sets of UK shows, I let on to Pip how I saw a remark recently from the lead singer of an established band I love, before their first gig back, talking about having nerves like never before. This was someone outwardly confident, but – like with so many of us – there’s bound to be that genuine concern, ‘Will I still be able to do this, after so long?’.

I get the impression you’re not so much a ‘frontperson’ – despite the band name, this seems to be very much a band enterprise. But has that still crossed your mind?

“I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen when we play. I’m not sure that I’m going to be very nervous, but I do feel there’s going to be a lot of adrenaline – just the feeling of people being there. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope I won’t get too nervous, but we’ll see.”

I hope not, and when I discussed something similar with your Heavenly Recordings labelmate, Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, she was of the opinion that hopefully audiences will be on the side of the performers and help them over the line, knowing full well all they’ve been through to get back to this point.

“Yeah, fair enough!”

Pip Blom’s own break from live action followed an extensive touring schedule which included a successful opening set on Glastonbury Festival’s John Peel stage not long after the release of 2019’s Boatthe lauded four-piece then soaking up their inspirations and cosying down – in Pip and guitarist Tender Blom’s case at their parents’ house, over three months writing 20 new songs, 16 of which then became demos to structure and flesh out in the studio. 
 
With plans slightly complicated by the Covid-19 crisis, the band then headed our way, decamping to Big Jelly and after a fortnight of quarantine setting to work recording over three weeks with engineer Al Harle, the resultant Welcome Break’s title inspired by the ubiquitous services dotted along the UK motorway and A-road network.

And judging by my first few listens of the new record, it’s difficult to detect any awkward two-year gap. Maybe that’s partly down to many of the songs having already been written, but it’s a record full of brilliant hooks, riffs and 90 degree turns, with plenty of pared-back introspection too, yet also big assertive, life-affirming moments.

“Nice! That’s awesome to hear!”

And after Boat, it seems that you’ve landed, so to speak, albeit with the transport theme continuing, this time celebrating the hospitality of a 60-plus year-old institution of sorts, one of which just happens to be around five miles from my house, at Charnock Richard services on the M6. Is there a photoshoot planned when you’re back over with us?

“We should, definitely! One hundred per cent. I’m really looking forward to going back, and miss all those places that we don’t have in the Netherlands. They’ve been a really big part of our lives the last three years before the corona(virus) happened. I can’t wait to go back, and hang out and eat, like, dirty food!”

I should point out there – before the litigation professionals jump in – that those are two different things Pip’s looking forward to. And isn’t that funny, I suggest, that something a lot of us tend to think as a mundane pastime or just a necessity as part of getting from A to B is now viewed by the likes of Pip with some form of nostalgic fervour.

“Yeah!”

Last time we spoke, you told me you wanted launch parties for Boat on a floating vessel, but it was too difficult to work out, and too expensive. How about a service station happening this time?

“Mmm … there’s not going to be anything very, very special, I think, but we should do something special. And we are going to be playing the Electric Ballroom, which for us is very special – it’s such a big venue. And on the release day, I think we’re going to be playing Rough Trade in London. We did that last time, and that was lots of fun. But next time we should get a proper party.”

I’m guessing you’re looking forward to these forthcoming dates, and then – not so far off, albeit in the dead of winter – plenty more. Seeing you at Band on the Wall in Manchester was a definite 2019 highlight for me, or of any year. This time I hope to get along to The Ferret in Preston (now rearranged to November, with details at the foot of this feature/interview), then hopefully Manchester’s Academy 3 in February. And might there be a radio date with BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley, a great supporter down the years, while you’re in the North West?

“We are definitely looking into it. We’ll just have to see, with the schedule, how it’s going to work. It’s on top of our list, for sure.”

Looking at those dates, the September tour ends at Ramsgate Music Hall on September 30th. If the UK’s become your second home, you could argue that Ramsgate is your base here, having recorded the LP there too. You obviously felt at home enough last time to return.

“Big Jelly Studios is such a cool place. It’s big, but there’s also a very homely feeling. That’s one of the reasons we really enjoyed coming back. We also played the Music Hall before, and that was really fun. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s such a calm and friendly town, and at the same time very pretty as well. We had so many good memories there, and always love to go back.”

Well, seeing as that’s where I spent my very first family holiday – in the summer of 1968 when I was barely seventh months old – my own nostalgia tells me I agree with you. That said, it’s a place I’m pretty sure I’ve not managed to get back to since my youth. I’m clearly overdue a visit.

I also enjoyed the band’s latest live video, featuring another great new song, ‘It Should Have Been Fun’. And it seems odd to say it when this four-piece have only been on the scene a few years, but it’s classic Pip Blom. That slow-build, then that joyous chorus and glorious surge of guitar, with Pip and Tender on form, Gini driving them on, Darek locking in. What’s not to love?

“Ha! I completely agree with what you’re saying. When we were mixing the record, lots of the choruses are a bit louder and there’s that extra push, I guess. At one point I was thinking, ‘Are we doing this too often?’. But I think for now, it’s really nice and it works, and we all like playing that live – it gives you that extra push to go that extra mile!”

Your overlapping vocals with Tender always impress me too. There’s something about that sibling blend that works so well. I often use the example of Tim and Neil Finn, but there are plenty more examples out there. There’s something intuitive, I guess.

“I personally really like it too. It’s funny though, because Caesar Edmunds, who mixed the record, at one point said it was so difficult as our voice tones are quite similar. He had trouble getting our vocals on the same level, then still hearing the difference. I said, ‘Maybe it’s because we’re brother and sister, and he said, ‘Dudes – that must be it!’.” 

While we’re at it, ‘Faces’ is another track I’m loving … not as if there’s a duff track n this record. It ebbs to and fro’, like waves lapping in. It shows your development as a band, although I think it’s always been there to some extent.

“Ah, that’s great! I think with some of the tracks we tried to experiment a bit more. I think because we played so any shows in 2019 that we managed to get a bit more into the details, like certain drum patterns. And I think ‘Faces’ especially is one of those where the drums change quite a lot. And I’m really glad we got to do that.”

Then we hear your more grungy side on the splendid ‘I Know I’m Not Easy to Like’. But you ain’t fooling no one, you know. It’s that old ‘you won’t like me when I’m angry’ vibe. I kind of reckon we would though.

“Ha! It’s funny, because it’s very hard for me to get really angry, and I try to get proper angry, singing. It’s still a work in progress!”

Getting back to the Amsterdam lockdowns and recording at home, were you in just a family bubble, or were Gini and Darek in the house too?

“No, we were in a family bubble, and they were in their own. We only got together when the songs were already kind of finished, when everyone started adjusting their parts, the four of us together, I think in May or June.”

Finally, last time we spoke – in May 2019, with a link here – I suggested on publishing that you were being ‘secret squirrel’ with me, being cryptic about as yet unannounced surprises. Then I learned you were opening the John Peel stage at that year’s Glastonbury. How was that experience for you?

“It was so much fun! That was definitely one of the best weeks in our lives. We got to go for the whole week as well. And the gig was so much fun. Definitely a never forget thing … and we hope to return to Glastonbury, if possible, again. It was a dream, everything we expected and more. And that is quite unusual. Usually, if you’re really looking forward to something, it can disappoint. You hoped it was going to be fun and then it was just alright. But this was so much fun – it was awesome!”  

More to the point, what are you holding back on me this time? Any big surprises up the sleeves?

“Not really. It’s still all very up in the air with booking things. Everything we’ve got planned is announced at the moment. And hopefully in a couple of weeks or maybe a couple of months, when there’s a bit more clarity in terms of travelling and all that kind of stuff, there will be lots of festival offers coming in. But we have to see.

“And of course, we’re doing lots of our own shows. We’ve got quite a lot planned, and that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Welcome Break is out on Friday, October 8th via Heavenly Recordings, and can be pre-ordered here. Additionally, the band are set for an eight-date UK headline tour in February 2022, having previously been confirmed as part of a National Lottery-funded Revive Live tour this September, the earlier dates part of an initiative through the Music Venue Trust, a UK charity supporting grassroots venues during this challenging period.

Fortunately, due to the work done by the Trust, including its Save Our Venues campaign, most avoided closure, the focus now shifting to reviving the grassroots live music scene, hence the Revive Live campaign, the National Lottery underwriting £1m touring and production costs for more than 300 live performances to help venues open and get artists back on the road.

As well as tours by established and up-and-coming artists – including Seasick Steve, Ren Harvieu, Wolf Alice and The Vaccines – household names such as Sir Tom Jones, Sam Fender, Frank Turner, Mahalia, James Arthur, Fontaines DC, and Rag’n’Bone Man are playing special one-off shows in grassroots venues. For more details of Revive Live dates, head here.

Stop Press: Unfortunately, due to sickness (not Covid 19), Pip Blom are no longer able to play their planned September shows in Sunderland, Glasgow, Barrow-In-Furness, Preston, and Stoke. But they have managed to reschedule all bar the Glasgow show, adding, “We really hope that you can join us, but if not refunds will be available at point of purchase”.

Pip Blom’s (Rearranged) Revive Live tour dates, September/November 2021: Sunderland Independent, September 11th – postponed (see November listings); Glasgow TRNSMT Festival, September 12th – appearance cancelled; Barrow-in-Furness Underground Music Society, September 13th – postponed (see November listings); Preston The Ferret, September 14th – postponed (see November listings); Stoke Sugarmill, September 16th – postponed (see November listings); York Crescent, September 17th – sold out; Ipswich Smokehouse, September 18th – sold out;  Newport Le Pub, September 19th – sold out; Reading Face Bar, September 20th; Leicester Firebug, September 23rd – sold out; Southampton The Loft, September 24th; Gloucester Dick Whittington, September 27th; Norwich Waterfront Studio, September 28th; Cambridge Portland Arms, September 29th – sold out; Ramsgate Music Hall, September 30th – sold out; Stoke Sugarmill, November 12th; Barrow-in-Furness Underground Music Society, November 13th; Sunderland Independent, November 15th; Preston The Ferret, November 16th.

Pip Blom’s UK headline tour dates, February 2022: Glasgow St Luke’s, 7th; Newcastle Cluny, 8th; Manchester Academy 3, 9th; Dublin Academy 2, 11th; Nottingham Rescue Rooms, 12th; Bristol Trinity Centre, 14th; Brighton Concorde 2, 15th; London, Camden Electric Ballroom, 16th.

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Hand Built by Isolated Human – back in touch with Newton Faulkner

Newton Faulkner is extremely proud of his seventh LP in 14 years, a hands-on project like no other he’s previously crafted.

Recorded in his East London studio, Newton ventures into new territory in what he sees as the beginning of the next phase in his career as a recording and live artist, pushing himself to the max, declaring, ‘I’m not very precious anymore’, describing the new 17-track Interference (Of Light) ‘a bit chunkier … definitely way heavier, much less acoustic … simpler, but tasteful’.

The result – arriving 14 years after debut LP Hand Built By Robots topped the UK charts, the first of four top-10s, two of which reached No.1 – is the impressive product of a rollercoaster year of lockdowns, uncertainty and high emotion that certainly tested his resolve. But he was up to the challenge, truly getting stuck in. Adamant that it should always be ‘about the songs’, Newton has delivered something ‘grizzly, soulful, and a step further’, the Surrey born and bred ‘guitarist and writer who sang’ now feeling his voice has ‘caught up with the stuff I was doing on guitar’.

And as I put it to him, he’s sculpted a pretty perfect pop album, far from formulaic, yet full of great hooks and touches.

“Oh, thank you very much! Yeah, I’m really happy with this one. I’ve just never had this much time, and time is such a huge part of making an album. I’ve always kind of made excuses for the lack of time I have, but going back to classical music and how even some of these massively iconic bits of music considered the height of music itself were written for events so had to be done on time. So it’s not a new thing, having to make music to a schedule, but having quite so much free rein as I did with this meant I got to explore ideas that never would have survived otherwise.”

Is this what kept him busy over the lockdown periods?

“I didn’t do anything in the first lockdown. I went in the studio, sat and stared out of the window – I was confused, and scared. I didn’t really feel like playing guitar. I wanted to understand what was going on.”

It’s odd looking back on that now. Perhaps we’re not ready to dwell on it all again yet, but I was talking to another interviewee this morning who said more or less the same – how frightening it was.

“Yeah, there were massive ups and downs, creatively and in terms of how you were feeling about life in general and yourself. Sometimes I was very focused and incredibly hard-working, working hours and hours and hours, other times I’d go in and …oh no. Everyone creatively seems to have been in the same boat.”

Did you have a few jotted ideas, or was it a case of working afresh on this?

“I dug myself a trap when I was promoting (2019’s) The Very Best Of – I went around telling everyone in all the interviews I did that the next thing I did would sound really different. But I completed a curve or thought process and that had come to a natural conclusion, then after that it was a different kind of time period. When you told a lot of people that, you really have to pull something out of the bag! One of the reasons I told anyone that would listen is because I really wanted to force myself to have to get out of my comfort zone and go down different paths, make different noises … and it really worked.

“‘Sinking Sand’ was the first track I came back to out of everything I’d done before but hadn’t released. It was one of my favourite things to play at soundchecks. It was something I always came back to and really liked, but at that point I didn’t think it would fit with any of the other stuff I was doing, or if people would get it or think it was an OK thing for me to do. But I never played it to people and it wasn’t coming from anywhere else other than me. It was just like, ‘I am this kind of artist and I have to stay on this route for this amount of time’. But as soon as I took all those constraints off and did whatever felt right … I think that’s one of the reasons the album is as diverse as it is – it covers a huge amount of ground … sometimes in the same song!”

You’ve pre-empted me. There’s lots of impressive, often surprising tosses and turns en route. In fact, LP opener ‘Sinking Sand’ holds traces of Marc Bolan and T-Rex, plus early David Essex studio craft.

“Ah, nice – I’ll go with both of those! Yeah, I wanted it not to have any rules. That’s one of the reasons within the first two tracks I wanted it to kind of throw you off balance a bit, especially the intro to ‘Cage’, made at six o’clock one morning using a bunch of weird electronic toys, coming out of the heavy, slow rock vibe of ‘Sinking Sand’ into that little eight-bit old school computer game noise thing, then coming out into a bigger soul song, again with a different vibe to things I’d done before.”

On my hastily-scribbled notes as I listened, I suggested that as well as your playing, what sounds all the richer down the years is that big ol’ soulful voice, not least on ‘Cage’, and it’s something that’s arguably gained maturity down the years. It’s got more living in it now, perhaps.

“Yeah, I’m still digging deep into my voice, finding new things, especially this album, where I really pushed it. I was talking to a vocal coach and played them ‘Back from the Dead’. She was sitting behind a piano, it came in, she pressed a couple of keys and they kept going up, with her looking at me, really confused, asking, ‘What are you doing up there?’. ‘I don’t know. It just felt right!’ But it’s stupidly high, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about that further down the line!”

I was just getting on to ‘Back from the Dead’, where there’s also the mark of ‘Sledgehammer’-era Peter Gabriel. Maybe that’s what you found inside you.

“Yeah, I did go a bit Peter Gabriel. It’s that kind of tone I do have access to. I think a lot of the experimenting with my voice came out of doing some tracks for a film, which was really well timed, for a film called Terminal, completely different to my usual challenges, trying to work out what I  sound like. With this, I felt it doesn’t have to sound like me at all. It could sound like anything – let’s just do whatever feels right for the visuals, and I had so much fun, doing David Bowie impressions, going all over the place, making a completely different vocal character – a bit Elvis, and the guy from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, that kind of tone, with a bit of Nick Cave as well. It was real fun experimenting with it.”

That Peter Gabriel feel also comes through on ‘Riding High’, but there are also hints of the poppier Paul Simon and a bit of Paul McCartney’s more recent solo work, the latter another artist who reaches notes allowing him to go someplace else.

“Well, I’m definitely a massive fan of all that as well. I’m definitely enjoying these references!”

As for next song, ‘Four Leaf Clover’, we kind of have The Feeling on a collision course with Lenny Kravitz and The Stereophonics, with a nice bit of blues guitar. I’d also like to think there’s some Finn Brothers influence, thinking of ‘Luckiest Man Alive’. And this track should be all over the radio, surely, hot on the tail of first single, ‘World Away’?

“Yeah, we’re doing digital releases, and ‘Four Leaf Clover’ came out digitally, while ‘World Away’ has had quite a bit of Radio 2 play, so that’s working out well.”

There are a fair few 21st century pop moments that should appeal to mainstream radio stations. That’s not so much playing it safe as knowing you need those hooks among the other stuff for airplay. And you wear it well. But I prefer it when you’re not having to seek out crossover potential, and this is pretty much an organic set of songs.

“Yeah, there’s a degree to which I’m willing to play the game. Ha! Not all the time. I occupy this strange little corner of the music industry and I’m just out here on my own, which I do love. It’s amazing that I’m not really part of anything. Every time something else has appeared around me, I’ve just shuffled off to one side, like, ‘You guys, keep that. I’m gonna hang out over here now!’

“I’ve stayed out of any kind of group that would accept me! I feel I’ve carved my own space, and it feels very safe. I feel I can push boundaries and experiment, and the next tour is going to be very experimental in terms of it not being like anything I’ve really done before. Because I’ve played so many things on the album, I want to bring that into the live show and experiment with the instrumentation side in a way I’ve never really been able to do live before.”

Am I right in thinking most of what I hear on this album is you?

“Yes, because I didn’t have access to any other human beings, ending up doing way more than I’ve ever done before, really dipping in, because of the lack of time constraints. I was asking, ‘When does this need finishing?’ and hearing, ‘It doesn’t, we’re not even sure why you’re working. The world’s closed. Chill out!’

“I ended up spending hours and hours playing drums and three weeks just playing bass. I wanted to get deeper into other instruments, the same way I’ve got deep into guitar – that deep exploration of trying to find out exactly how you want it to sound and fit with everything else.  In the same circumstances before it would have been, ‘How long have I got? Three days. OK, let’s get a drummer in, do loads of tracks.’ And he’ll be able to do it because I know how he thinks and he’ll get what I’m telling him.

“Whereas with this, it was a case of, ‘I’ve got the time, I’ve got the kit. I can do this, let’s just take the time and learn how to do it, which was fascinating. I hit more problems as I got further into it, so I thought, ‘OK, I can play the part now, that’s great, the next challenge is I don’t really know how to record drums, so let’s start learning to do that! Ha! Once I had a load of mics on different things, it’s like, ‘I need to mix the drums so they sound alright, and have absolutely no idea how to do that …”

Were there lots of phone calls and emails to friends in the business?

“There were lots of YouTube tutorials! And I was going to bed reading manuals. I’ve got this gear and don’t know how to use it, so let’s put time into understanding how this actually works. I learned so much that’ll become part of everything I do, moving forward.”

If we could sum up where you’re at now, 15 or so years in, I’m thinking this is the beginning of the next chapter, perhaps.

“That’s definitely how it feels to me. This is how I wanted it to feel and I was terrified it wouldn’t … but it worked! For me this album feels like the start of a new path, which has different textures and different tonality to it.”

With reference to your first two LP titles, this could really have been Hand Built by Isolated Human.

“Yeah! Hand Built by Isolation! It does feel like the beginning of something else, especially live with this set-up. I’m working with a lot of tech companies, talking to a company called Head Rush that came to me a long time ago, brought me this looper board, and I was like, ‘This is amazing, but it’s literally the polar opposite of what I’m doing’. I was massively multi-tasking, doing these incredibly polyrhythmic complicated things that no one understood, I realised after a few years doing it. Then, I went back to Head Rush, said, ‘Is this still on offer? I think with this next record I want to explore all the stuff I’ve got in the studio – I want to play drums and want to play bass, but can’t do that in multi-tasking formats. So the looping thing makes more sense and becomes more interesting to me when you add in all the other instruments.”

I’m thinking of Jeff Lynne’s promo video for ‘Mercy, Mercy’, playing all the instruments in his band. That’ll be you on the road soon, won’t it?

“It’s edging in that direction. One thing I never want it to do is get in the way of the song. I’m trying to make space for the song. That happened with things I’ve done before where someone’s filmed it and I’ve watched it back. It’s too complicated and too cerebral to actually get across the emotion.

“That’s what music is about – communicating ideas, but I’m not communicating ideas, I’m performing live maths! With this I want to be able to do something, get it going then just sing and let the singing have its own space, because I’ve brought in too many other things around it.

“The stuff I’m doing with Head Rush – and I’m talking to Roland and Boss about all kinds of stuff – makes for quite an interesting relationship. There were a couple of things where I said, ‘Could it do this?’ and he was like, ‘No, but there’s a big update coming in this month, do you want us to put something in for you?’. ‘What, you can change the way everything works?’ ‘Well, yeah.’

“This was a completely new realm of developing sounds, working with equipment that suddenly seemed very fixed in the past but has become malleable and fluid in a way I’ve never had access to before. So that’s really interesting.”

Back to the new LP, and for someone only born in 1985, you seem to have pulled in a real ‘70s feel in places.

“Oh, definitely!”

‘Killing Time’ hints at Snow Patrol, but goes a bit off the scale into epic prog towards the end, as if you’ve kidnapped Rick Wakeman, dragged him into your studio and made him play for you.

“Dan Smith played on that, the guitarist in The Noisettes. An old friend now. He’s awesome. We had a couple of really good days.”

It sounds like you’re having fun. You’ve let yourself go, Newton … in a good way.

“Yeah, there’s that very layered kind of cyclical thing and whole choir section at the end that fully came out of nowhere. I opened the track up again, after working on it for months previously, saw this track that said ‘glock’, and wondered, ‘I can’t hear any glock.’ I listened again, and it was recorded with gain too low on the way in.

“I cranked it up, it was just there, and I felt it sounded quite nice, but you still couldn’t pick it out. So I felt, ‘Maybe it needs a couple of voices, just to give it something – in a slightly lower register so it’s not just top-end ping, to just bolster it. So I did a couple of vocals, felt it sounded quite interesting.

“Then, after God knows how long, I decided to try and make the choir from ‘Mr Blue Sky’ – that’s the kind of tone I wanted. I went through doing impressions of random people to try and get this multi-textural thing, and the very high stuff I wanted to sound like an old lady opera singer! And getting loads of dramatically different sounding voices working together is sometimes what you need!”

We need to chill somewhat after that, ‘Here Tonight’ doing the trick nicely, perfect for a sun-setting festival moment, Newton’s folk roots still clearly there. But then we’re off again with ‘Better Way’, another number with a rousing finish. And while it’s starts in very 21st century fashion, it soon enters more filmic territory, the phrase ‘coming around again’ reminding me of Carly Simon, again fitting that ‘70s remit. Was that reference intentional?

“No, that wasn’t intentional, but I can totally hear it!”

If ‘World Away’, perhaps the most commercial moment here, is about being away far too long from home, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there – being careful what you wish for.

“Ha! I know what you mean. And ‘Together’ is kind of about the same thing – being reunited with the people you love after being away, which again became really poignant after everyone got separated for such a long time, kind of morphing in meaning.”

I get that. While ‘World Away’ and ‘Together’ touch on thoughts of home while abroad, something of an alien concept to most of us these past 18 months or so, the premise of ‘feeling as close as it’s possible to feel to someone, while also being as far away as possible whilst still being on the same planet’ no doubt chimes with many of us.

After ‘World Away’, we have another bluesy pop rocker, ‘I Can Pretend’ – like a pumped-up feelgood take on Stereophonics’ ‘Dakota’ – and then the ‘80s does ‘60s soulful interpretation that is ‘Leave Me Lonely’, bringing Steve Winwood to mind in the verse and the afore-mentioned McCartney in a more raucous chorus.

Talking of Winwood, that other track mentioned, the super-catchy ‘Together’, wouldn’t have been out of place on Back in the High Life. And this is definitely a pop section, but with enough Faulkner-esque quirky touches to set it apart from standard chart fare, ‘The Sun is Coming Up’ a case in point, heading towards ELO territory in places. And as I put it to Newton, he’s something of a chameleon, the way he uses his voice, not least with all those influences I hear.

“I do like experimenting with it, and kind of pushing different things. Also, I’m still trying to work out the best ways of using it and find new things in the studio. And when you’re on the road, it’s different again, asking, ‘How do I get that again, every night?’”

‘Rest of Me’ also shines, again in a radio-friendly way, and I wonder if Newton’s been lost in time. He’d have been massive if he’d broken through around the year he was born. And yet I’m sticking with a notion that I prefer it when he takes a more leftfield profile, like on the seemingly-effortless yet right side of ragged ‘Ache for You’, doing his own thing.   

The after-hours laid-back reflection of ‘It’s Getting Late’ also fits that premise, more ethereal and all the more cultured, the soundtrack of a road movie yet to be shot, perhaps, his voice plaintive and subtly expressive.

And then we’re away on another pensive, atmospheric moment, title track of sorts, ‘Interference (F@&k, I Think It’s Love)’, where I suggest to Newton there’s almost – and on reflection it’s on the previous track too – a little Gerry Rafferty amidst his bluesy guitar.

“A bit Gerry Rafferty, a bit Chris Isaak. And definitely Gerry Rafferty in terms of the vocal delivery.”

You hold yourself back on both tracks, and sometimes that can be all the more powerful.

“Ah, I love it as an ending. Soon as we came up with that, I was like, ‘This is the last track – this is how it should all end! We’ve been all over the place, now it’s time to stick your arm out of the window, cruise down the highway and head towards the sunset!”

Funny you should say that. When I finished playing the LP the first time, I went back and played that last number again.

“Did you? Interesting! I’m particularly pleased with that, in terms of a vibe, it’s so contained and full. And my son noticed I was working on it. When I was doing the track-listing, he was doing his maths homework, and said, ‘Daddy, you do know there’s a naughty word on your screen, right?’ I was like, ‘Is there? Where?’ He was, ‘There! There’s an f-word!’ I said sorry about that. He said, ‘Why is it there?’ ‘Ah, it’s a song.’ ‘Have you got a song with the f-word in it?’ ‘Yeah, but I’m a grown-up, so I’m allowed to do that.’ ‘How many times?’ ‘Oh, every chorus.’ He looked more impressed by that than anything else I’ve ever done!”

That’s Newton’s 10-year-old, home-schooled during the recording process and featuring on ‘Back from the Dead’, counting Dad in.

“He asked, while doing his homework, not really taking it all in, ‘Why aren’t you singing anything?’. I said, ‘Because I don’t come in until bar 32,’ so he said, ‘Can you point to it?’. When we got close, he shouted out, ‘One, two, three, go!’ And it was that take I ended up using as the main vocal, as it had an energy to it. I left him on there really quiet, thinking someone will ask me to take it out at some point, then got the first mix back, and it had been cranked right up, being asked, ‘I love this – what is it?’”

In fact, Newton reckons ‘everyone that was there ended up doing loads of stuff’, including his fiancée, who added vocals.

“It was little bits and bobs but made a massive difference, and being able to work was huge! Where people had to go into studios, they weren’t open and you weren’t allowed into them. On ‘Better Way, I spent just four months on that one track. Mildly unhealthy, bordering on obsessive, but it was still amazing to be able to do it!”

It certainly comes over as beautifully crafted, even if he has given himself a headache from here, trying to replicate the album’s feel on the road. But it’s a positive dilremma for an artist based in London from around the time of his first LP success, yet retaining his links to Surrey, having been born in Reigate and studied at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) in my hometown, Guildford, where he recently played a memorable socially-distanced show at Holy Trinity Church.

“That was a beautiful gig. Amazing. I always come back to Guildford for gigs. I want to do more guitar things and was talking to people about that, building more structure around that. I’ve got so many ideas and things to play for at the moment.”

The ACM does seem to have had an impact down the years. As previously discussed on this website, it was close to the long-gone off-licence above which Jet Black masterminded the operation of The Stranglers in the mid-’70s, and these days Hugh Cornwell‘s live trio involves two lecturers from the academy.

“I was incredibly lucky at the ACM when I was there. I had some of the best players in the world just randomly wandering around the corridors there.”

Time is against me by then, and I finish by bringing up that dreaded question of genre really. When I first interviewed him, five and a half years ago, on the release of fifth LP, Human Love, some still had Newton down for crossover folk-rock. He’s certainly not that now. I’m not even sure he was then.

“I never know what to say when people ask. I just say, ‘I do guitar stuff and make mouth noise’! I try and make it sound very simple. I just like experimenting, and I always liked experimenting, so it’s just finding new, interesting ways.

“There’s some new guitars coming out with me, like this guitar called Frank which had a massive influence on this record, the guitar I play on ‘It’s Getting Late’, a very weird electric guitar built by a guy that builds acoustics. So much fun. That’ll be out on the road a lot.”

For the previous WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Newton Faulkner, from March 2016. head here.

Interference (Of Light) is out now on vinyl and CD and is also available digitally, via Battenberg Records, each format featuring different tracklists. Streaming sites get a 17-track album with no interludes; the CD has 17 tracks plus interludes for a smoother flow; and the vinyl will be 11 tracks curated to work on one disc ‘with the best possible flow from one side to the other and the best possible sound’. For details head here or to Newton’s website, where you can also find details of his forthcoming tour dates. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Newton’s autumn tour dates open at Chester Live Rooms (Fri 24 September); Castleton Peak Cavern (Sat 25 September); Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sun 26 September); Bury St Edmunds Apex (Thu 30 September); Tenby De Valence Pavilion (Fri 1 October); and Swansea Patti Pavilion (Sat 2 October). Then comes the Interference (Of Light) tour at Glasgow Galvanizers SWG 3 (Mon 11 October); Edinburgh Liquid Room (Tue 12 October); Newcastle University (Sat 16 October); Hull Asylum (Mon 18 October); Sheffield Leadmill (Tue 19 October); Manchester Ritz (Wed 20 October); Liverpool Academy (Fri 22 October); Cardiff Tramshed (Sat 23 October); Birmingham Institute (Mon 25 October); London Shepherds Bush Empire (Tue 26 October); Norwich UEA (Thu 28 October); Oxford Academy (Fri 29 October); Bristol Anson Rooms (Sat 30 October); Torquay Foundry (Sun 31 October); and Dublin Academy (Tue 2 November).

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Jim Bob’s wake-up call, 2021 style – back in touch with the self-styled Poundland Bono

In 2019’s Jim Bob from Carter – In the Shadow of my Former Self, Jim Bob Morrison wrote, ‘I still haven’t written a new song since 2013. But now that I’ve nearly finished writing this, perhaps the songs will come flooding out of me’.

And so it proved, I suggested to a treasured singer-songwriter, musician and author who mischievously describes himself on Twitter as a ’10-time Grammy Award winner’ from ‘lower London’, and elsewhere as the ‘Poundland Bono’.

“Yeah, I don’t know what happened there. It’s like a tap or something, isn’t it!”

During the year the Covid-19 pandemic struck the Western world, Jim Bob found himself with a No.26 hit with rightly-acclaimed album Pop Up, his first top-40 LP in two decades of solo recordings. And now he’s back with another winner, Who Do We Hate Today, a ‘silver-tongued snapshot of modern life in Britain’ recorded mid-pandemic in South London with his band, The Hoodrats, our man again proving he has the ability to connect … big time.

What’s more, in its first week of release – after the splendid ‘The Summer of No Touching’, ‘Song for the Unsung’ and ‘The Earth Bleeds Out’ lit the way as singles – the new record also cracked the top-40 (in at No.34, pop-pickers). And maybe it will rise from there. It certainly deserves to.

With Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – co-formed with fellow ex-Jamie Wednesday bandmate Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter – Jim managed 14 top-40 singles, four top-10 albums (including a No.1, more of which later), sold more than a million records, toured the world, and headlined Glastonbury Festival. Then, in 2007, a decade after initially splitting, they reformed for a series of huge, sold-out shows.

And outside Carter USM, my interviewee has also had a distinguished career, including songwriting for Ian Dury and a 2006 Barbican production of Dick Whittington & His Cat, 2010’s Edinburgh Fringe debut in Ward and White musical, Gutted, A Revenger’s Musical, and his acclaimed autobiographies, 2004’s Goodnight Jim Bob – On the Road with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and the aforementioned 2019sequel, both published by Cherry Red Books.

He’s also – writing as Jim Bob and JB Morrison – published several novels, translated into eight languages, leading to a seven-year break from writing or recording new music until he sprang ‘Pop Up’ upon us. And now this, me having words with Jim after the release of the new LP’s second single, ‘Song for the Unsung (You’re So Modest You’ll Never Think This Song is About You)’, his ‘fanfare for the everyday heroes too modest to blow their own trumpet’ and ‘musical celebration of the selfless and kind’, giving his subjects ‘a round of applause and a big fat medal of appreciation’ with ‘a banging of metaphorical saucepans on the doorstep’.

“The world is so dark we’d be lost without you

This comes from the heart, it’s so long overdue.”

It’s a corking feelgood track, just when we needed it, and Jim reckons if ‘Song for the Unsung’ – ‘the most ITV single I’ve ever released’ – were a television show, it would be presented by Davina McCall. It should certainly be all over the radio, I suggested.

“Erm, I’m fairly confident in saying that’s not going to happen. Radio don’t seem to be fans of playing anything I bring out. I don’t know why that is.”

I’d have thought at least the likes of BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq would be great supporters.

“Yeah, Steve’s always been good to me … and I always think it’s him playing them rather than it being down to the decisions of others.”

When it’s down to a playlist panel, perhaps?

“Yeah, it’s perhaps that I just don’t fit in – too old to be young, yet not quite cool enough to fit in with other people from my era.”

But it certainly has commercial possibilities. In fact, the spoken bits remind me of Eric Idle in The Life of Brian, suggesting we ‘cheer up, give a whistle’.

“Yes! I’ll take that! I know what you mean. When I was recording that, I just sort of did that bit, not really thinking about it. It was almost like I’d put on the voice of an actor doing a cockney!”

In a sense – and it’s always been there – there’s a touch of a punk rock Oliver! about your work. You’ve always been a storyteller with added menace.

“Yeah, I like to think so.”

For the video of ’Song for the Unsung’, fans were asked to send photos and stories of their own unsung heroes – friends and family, nurses, teachers, postmen, lollipop folk, whoever they wanted to celebrate. And the response took Jim aback, inundated with pictures and moving stories of courage, human kindness and friendship. Many were pandemic-related, but some were simply people wanting to give loved ones a pat on the back just for being there, the one picked out of a hat to be illustrated for the single by Mark Reynolds (also responsible for the LP’s sleeve design and that of Pop Up) being Val Bleasdale, nominated by her disabled, chronically-ill son, Thom for raising tens of thousands for animal charities and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, as well as looking after him.

Is this Jim seeking out positives after a testing few years where we’ve faced Brexit, right-wing Government, a pandemic, and all that? It’s certainly never been more defined as to which side of the debate we’re on. Is that the idea of Who Do We Hate Today, speaking up for the unsung out there?

“Yeah, ’Song for the Unsung’ was the last song I wrote for the album, when I realised all the others kind of painted a fairly pessimistic picture. I literally did think, let’s say something a bit positive for a change. I think most people in this country just want to get on with their lives. They don’t necessarily have strong opinions, yet that’s what we constantly tend to hear – strong opinions – just because they’re the loudest.”

Because – like me – you spend a bit of time on divisive social media platforms like Twitter, perhaps you tend to see the best and worst of people there.

“Yes, and because I’m almost masochistic about the things I look at on there, I find myself telling someone else about it. Maybe I’ll say something about Laurence Fox, and they’ll say, ‘Who’s Laurence Fox?’. Then you realise it’s not necessarily troubling the majority of people at all.”

Very true. I guess we give these people oxygen, the likes of Nigel Farage (as I’ve just done there, admittedly). Meanwhile, from the moment he launches into ‘The Earth Bleeds Out’, we’re in no doubt this is that fella from Carter USM, this time railing about global warming, setting the scene perfectly in classic in-your-face style on something of a post-apocalyptic LP, yet with acres of thought, Jim initially inspired as the world briefly stopped last Spring.

“Imagine a world without airports or cars

I was literally counting and thanking my stars

For a moment or two there was hope in the flu

As the Earth bleeds out”

This is no 13-track rant though, and soon we get back-to-back classic Jim portraits of everyday life, his first subject that girl we all know who punches well below her weight, with so many gems of lines on ‘Shona is Dating a Drunk, Woman Hating Neanderthal Man’, pitched somewhere between Cinerama and The Kinks for these ears. Glorious.

“Shona is joined at the hip to an arse

Who’s a dick when he drinks

She’s eager to please while he never agrees

With what Shona thinks

She’s science and facts and he’s pro-antivax

Because opposites attract”

Then we’re on to ‘#prayfortony’ and Jim’s portrait of an all too familiar ‘loaded gun’ of a character who ‘hates Black History Month’ and ‘did Movember once (you lucky, lucky ladies)’.

“One day there’ll be a statue in his hometown

Tall enough to climb upon and pull down

So you can stamp his face into the cold ground”

There’s almost a sense of Mick Jones about it, I suggest, not least because of a Mott the Hoople feel beneath Jim’s vocal.

“Well, it must have seeped in – I’ve listened to him enough! The songs Mick sang with The Clash were maybe a bit sweeter, and we are from the same …. area.”

You were trying not to say ‘manor’ there, weren’t you?

“I was. Ha!”

But despite the retro feel, I guess you can’t get more 21st century than a song title with a hashtag.

“Terrible, really, isn’t it! About five years ago, that would have been the most pretentious thing, but I think everybody knows what a hashtag is now.”

You can get away with post-ironic now.

“Yes … everything I do is post-ironic!”

Carrying on the Mick Jones theme, ‘Where’s the Backdoor, Steve?’ is almost Big Audio Dynamite territory. Another great song. Who’s sharing the vocals with you there?

“It’s Chris T-T (Thorpe-Tracey) and Jen (Macro), who plays guitar on the album. Jen features quite a bit. Wherever you hear a female voice, that’s Jen, and that kind of changed things for me, the way I record songs, knowing it doesn’t have to be a bloke singing.”

Again, there are so many cracking lines, my interviewee summing up how so many of us have felt since the Brexit vote and the horrors that have followed. This is truly ‘in a nutshell’ verse.

“Is there a way out of this?

Maybe there’s a reset somewhere

A system override,

A switch along the side or underneath

Where d’you put the reset, Steve?”

And they keep on coming, ‘Karen (Is Thinking of Changing Her Name)’ another highpoint, Jim’s protagonist rightly keen to disassociate herself from the characteristics her name might imply in modern parlance. It carries a kind of ‘60s (is it just chance that I heard ‘You Only Live Twice’ in there after a couple of listens?) meets Pulp feel, the title reminding me of The Go-Betweens’ debut B-side, and how far that definition of a Karen has slipped from sexy librarian down the years. And musically it has more of a Wire feel, I suggested. Is that a band that grabbed Jim down the years?

“Massively so. I haven’t bought much of their more recent stuff … well, late ‘80s onwards, but definitely the first three albums. Pink Flag is probably … I’ve got around 10 albums I’ve played since 1977 or whatever, that I still play constantly, and Pink Flag is one of them. Wire were a band I saw in ’78, the support band for XTC. I’d never heard of them, and it completely blew my mind – at the time, to me, they sounded like nothing else.”

That was at the Lyceum, apparently, in February that year, the bill – completed by The Secret – a musicians’ musicians heaven. Was that Strand venue a regular haunt?

“Yeah, I saw a 2 Tone gig there too – The Specials, Madness, The Selecter. There was lots of fighting … not me, obviously! Before that, I used to go to Capital Radio’s Best Disco in Town. I think it was every Friday, when I was 16 or so. It would always be the same – it was always depressing! When I was that age, I was constantly trying to find a girlfriend. And I never did find a girlfriend at the Best Disco in Town! They always finished with ‘Three Times a Lady’, then ‘Hi-Ho Silver Lining’ … which meant ‘Get out!’, I think.”

I only got to the Lyceum three times, but they were all corkers: REM in February ’85 on the Reckoning tour; Ramones three months earlier; and first The Undertones, their last indoor gig in late May ’83, 11 days before seeing Feargal Sharkey with them one more time at Crystal Palace FC, supporting Peter Gabriel. Given the chance now, maybe I’d have hung around for the headliner out of curiosity, having bought the ticket with Saturday job earnings, but we left mid-Thompson Twins, being told by gate staff we wouldn’t be allowed back in, us adamantly responding that we had no intention of returning.

“It’s funny, those decisions you make when you’re young and angry!”

Then we’re on to the LP’s true epic, ‘A Random Act’, perhaps the most Carter-like song on the record, Jim at his most prosaic in Lionel Bart-esquestorytelling vibe, tackling the most 21st century of topics, in a song as much about the dangers of public reactions without the full facts as a grim rolling TV news story unfolds, in these all too common days of terrorist incidents.

“It’s an act with no obvious reason or rhyme

But on the socials we’ve already made up our minds”

He always did this with Carter USM, of course. What’s changed though, three decades down the road, is that Jim doesn’t spit out the words with such venom. It’s all more measured and reflective.

“I guess that’s age, obviously, and on a purely technical note I can’t sing as high as I used to. If I listen to those old Carter songs where I’m really screaming … I could never do that now. But I know what you mean, years ago for ‘A Random Act’ I’d have probably started measured, but then …”

All got a tad cacophonous?

“Yeah … I wouldn’t say I hold back now, but, as you say, measured.”

It’s certainly perfectly pitched, not least when the story evolves, becoming far more about everyday heroes doing their bit on the scene, something of a pre-cursor to the song that soon follows, the afore-mentioned ’Song for the Unsung’. Carrying on my line of questioning though, perhaps Jim’s more at ease with himself these days, hence his less shouty rants.

“I suppose so. Quite comfortable.”

He’s not quite ready for slippers yet though, as heard on ‘Men’, which carries lots of punk fury and Graham Coxon fire, if only as a way of saying, ‘Look at us dicks, eh. Blimey. Sorry, girls’.

“Go-getting, goose-steppin’

Home -wrecking, bed-wetting

Men, pathological liars

If men are from Mars,

Maybe they should go back there,

Use some of that hot air for fuel.”

More to the point, it’s observational and Ray Davies-like, someone he’s clearly admired down the years, another writer who shone a light on an England he knew so well – half-hating, half-loving.

“Definitely, and I’ve not long ago recorded a cover of ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, coming out as a free thing related to the album. And The Kinks were always there.”

Was that 1968 LP of the same name the one that resonated most with you?

“I think so. I liked all the hits, but those songs were almost ahead of their time in their lyrical detail. It shouldn’t really have been in pop songs.”

Seeing as he mentioned the bonus disc, titled Who Do We Love Today, I should tell you that also includes Jim Bob takes on ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ (Fun Boy Three), ‘Tulse Hill Night’/’Shot By Both Sides’ (999/Magazine), ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear’ (Blondie), ‘Get on Board’ (The Double Deckers), ‘How Can I Exist’ (The Frank & Walters), and the only cover I’d heard at time of going to press, an amazing if not jarring (at least when seen with its promo video tie-in footage featuring the worst excesses of the dreaded Brits abroad crowd) interpretation of ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Terry Jacks’ 1974 hit version a key part of the soundtrack to my childhood, and a song that grew darker and darker the better I understood its subject matter. And Jim nails that uneasy feeling. Not for the faint-hearted. Westlife, it ain’t.

And before you have a go, thinking I failed to pick up on something there, of course I’m intrigued by the other tracks, not least the Double Deckers TV show title song. But I’m jumping ahead, having not even got on to ‘The Summer of No Touching’, which conveys so well that Blitz spirit we briefly experienced – against all odds – when this pandemic reached our shores, despite what might have been happening behind it all, that hope from adversity soon chipped away at.

“It was like Christmas for conspiracy theorists

The in hat milliners and snake oil careerists

Me, I got my facts from whatever David Icke says

And from old rock stars from the 1990s.”

By the way, it’s good to hear another scathing namecheck for David Icke three decades beyond ‘After the Watershed’, in the same way ‘The Summer of No Touching’ ends with the poignant line, ‘And me? I’m still here waiting outside Tesco’s, self-medicating with my Domestos’, all these years after 101 Damnations first set the world alight (and as an accelerant, the leading brand of bleach that ‘kills all known germs dead’ would surely do the job).

All too soon, ‘Evan Knows the Sirens’ takes us neatly through to another classic Carter USM-like moment, LP closer ‘The Loneliest Elephant in the World’ perhaps this era’s ‘The Impossible Dream’, Jim’s words, delivery and music craft as poignant as ever, not least after these last 18 months or so.

“And I’ll remember your face

Until my dying days

I’ll remember how you brought joy

To this lonely boy

And how much I loved you”

Space and a determination to not repeat myself means I won’t go all out on Jim’s spiky pop past this time, but seeing as I’ve brought up a few key moments from yesteryear, I mention that it’s now 30 years since him and Les were arguably at the peak of their powers, at least regarding record sales and sold-out venues. In fact, they were second (behind REM both times) in the Best Band category in the NME readers’ polls in both 1991 and 1992. Going back to this point in ’91 – with help from Goodnight Jim Bob’s gig-list –they were between the releases of 30 Something and 1992: The Love Album, not long back from US dates with EMF then a trip to Japan, with a slight gap before a Mean Fiddler warm-up for their triumphant Reading Festival appearance, second on the bill to James but winning the day. As he put it in Goodnight Jim Bob, ‘Jon Beast spoke to God, and God had a word with the Sun and got it to set behind the crowd at exactly the right moment during ‘GI Blues’. Winston Churchill, who was stood at the back, in between the signing tent and the crepe stall, said it was ‘our finest hour’.’

That was followed by more European and UK dates. In fact, I got to see them that autumn at Guildford Civic Hall, noting in my diary how many under-18s were in, feeling old on the cusp of my 24th birthday. And while I was slightly worse for wear back home after Sunday lunch celebrations to that end three days later, I chanced upon the band playing ‘After the Watershed’ at the Smash Hits Pollwinners’ Party, broadcast live on BBC1 from London’s Docklands in late afternoon/early evening. You probably remember that car-crash TV, and the footage is out there, Fruitbat taking Philip Schofield down following the host’s latest sarcastic remark in reaction to a tired and emotional Les trashing the set after the sound was faded early, his tackle on the children’s presenter somewhat fitting (so to speak) as the second Rugby World Cup semi-final had taken place that afternoon, the full incident and story behind it neatly retold in Goodnight Jim Bob.

Soon after there was a memorable night at Kilburn National Club, the duo supported by Mega City 4, their front-man Wiz having featured in my Captains Log fanzine. This time the age gap wasn’t so obvious, but I noted how the dancing went all the way back to the mixing desk, and there were several choruses of ‘Schofield is a wanker’ for BBC Radio 1’s microphones in relation to the incident 13 days earlier, the band going on to play Brixton Academy two nights later, in a landmark year for the band that ended with further US dates and two pre-Christmas Athens gigs.

Incidentally, when I got to see them again one Wednesday night in mid-May the following year at Preston Guild Hall, just before flying from Manchester for a week’s holiday in Zante, 1992: The Love Album had gone straight in at No.1 three days earlier (the pair finding out backstage at Carlisle Sands Centre, seen by Jim as an ‘anti-climax’ compared to previous euphoria at impressive chart placings for 101 Damnations and 30 Something), the band among the Glastonbury headliners a month later (another moment that didn’t quite work out as well as it should have, in Jim’s eyes). Was Jim doing a lot of writing for that third LP this time three decades ago?

“Yeah, although I can’t remember when we wrote those songs exactly. But around then, we were writing most of the time if we weren’t doing gigs. We did tour a lot, but as soon as we stopped, we were writing again, and often revisiting songs we’d scrapped or failed to do anything with. There’s a few things on that album that existed before in a different sort of way.”

You clearly had momentum.

“Yeah, and I think that’s always been crucial to me. The only reason I wrote and recorded this album was because of the one before it. There was a small snowball effect!”

You wrote in your latter-years autobiography, ‘Anniversaries come and go. Opportunities missed’, and I feel duty-bound to ask when the next Carter comeback gig is. Or have you put all that behind you?

“Erm … yeah, it’s definitely behind us. Apart from anything else, Les is completely disinterested in it. We do get asked a lot. The problem with the offers as time goes on is that they get more tempting though, because they’re for more money. So we never just say no. The last time we considered it, a few years ago now, we had to think it through, for what’s involved. It’s often to do two gigs, which could take six months of work to find people to work on the show, get together, re-learn all the songs …”

I’m guessing in the circumstances it’s easier just to go for a pint with your old bandmate.

“Yeah, absolutely, and we definitely get on better when we’re not in a band together.”

Besides, current form suggests you have no need to delve back into the past right now.

“Yeah, we always said we didn’t want to do it purely for money. We had to be enjoying it. And at this moment in time I don’t think we’d be as good as we used to be. And luckily, we’re making enough money off t-shirts to get through a year!”

And when’s the next Jim Bob or JB Morrison book title landing?

“I started a couple of things but lost that mojo in the same way as I did with the songs. And I think the last novel disappointed me in how it did. I’ve never been one of those, ‘If I make one person happy …’ people. I need a modicum of success. I don’t mean a bestseller, but I think it deserved a bit more.

“It’s the same as music – it can be frustrating. This album’s going to do okay, I’m sure, and people will love it, but it’s frustrating when you put a lot of work into making videos and putting out singles when it doesn’t make that much difference. I don’t want to be bitter about it like Status Quo or Cliff Richard though, constantly complaining about not being played on the radio. It can be frustrating though, when people just ignore you!” 

Oscar Wilde’s line, ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ springs to mind there. But there have been plenty of ticket sales for the forthcoming tour last time I checked.

“Yeah, I think four of them have sold out. But from the moment tickets went on sale, it was almost two years before they would happen, as it turned out, which is insane. And it’s created this knock-on effect of postponed gigs. If you want to do a medium or large-sized venue tour now, they’re all booked up until 2023 or so!”

And how about you, personally – are you getting out and about again?

“I wasn’t a big ‘out and about’ type anyway, but I’m pretty much back to how I was before all this. There was a point – without going on about vaccines – where I’d had two jabs and thought at some point I’m going to have to face all this – surely, it’s safer now. But I’m not a hugger!”

I get that, in fact I’m still trying to keep myself to myself, at least until I know my daughters have had their second jabs and are deemed safer (that’s now happened, I’m pleased to say).

“Yeah, I think you have to make up your own rules and look after the people that are close to you. If the Government say you don’t have to wear a mask from Tuesday, that doesn’t mean it’s any less or any more dangerous than it was on Monday.”

And how was that first lockdown for you? Was that in South London?

“Yeah, me and my partner in the house, and that first lockdown – the one I covered in the song ‘The Summer of No Touching’ – was so unusual. For me I found it terrifying. It felt like the film, Contagion. I just presumed we were all going to die. I was convinced about that.

“I stayed in and did all the things we were told to do. Then I remember going out for a walk, with there not being anyone around, and how strange that was – no aeroplanes, no cars, thinking maybe this is a good thing in the long run. But then it turned out it wasn’t!

“That first year will probably be looked back on as more or less a Second World War/Blitz thing, whereas the period after that was just a massive pain in the arse, and people started taking sides. It became another Brexit.”

Well, hopefully we’re moving forward now, and all being well we’ll see Jim Bob and the Hoodrats on the road again in November, performing songs from both new LPs – pandemic restrictions having ruled out his Pop Up album tour – plus other solo and Carter classics. And I hope I can get along to Gorilla, Manchester, in mid-November.

“Yeah, come along and say hello … if it’s allowed!”

Sounds good to me, although I won’t try and hug him, and will avoid politician-like elbow greetings.

For a link to Jim Bob’s May 2019 WriteWyattUK feature/interview, head here.

Who Do We Hate Today comes in an array of Mark Reynolds-designed individual formats: gatefold vinyl with a 2022 Jim Bob calendar; CD with Jim Bob beermats; and even a limited-edition cassette. For more detail, head here.

Jim Bob’s November 2021 tour dates: Cambridge J2 (4th); Hebden Bridge Trades Club (sold out) (5th); Leeds Brudenell Social Club​​ (sold out) (6th); Newcastle Cluny​​ (sold out) (11th); Edinburgh Summerhall​​ (12th); Manchester Gorilla (13th); Shiiine On Minehead (sold out) (14th); Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms (18th); Birmingham O2 Institute (19th); London Brixton Electric (20th).​ For ticket details and all the latest from Jim Bob, head here.

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Preston Pop Fest 2021 – The Continental, Preston

They came from as far afield as Germany and Spain, Brighton, Glasgow, London, the Midlands, South Wales and South Yorkshire. Even Cleveland, Ohio. And you can only imagine how many Covid tests that involved.

To paraphrase Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer Ray in Field of Dreams, Rico built it, and they came. And while there was no guest spot from ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, there was plenty to devour and savour over three days of happening indie pop, raucous garage rock and more at the inaugural Preston Pop Fest.

I planned to write a few feature/interviews to plug it all when it was announced five months ago, but the festival sold out in a matter of days and I got no further than an introductory piece with the afore-mentioned Rico la Rocca, of Tuff Life Boogie promotions, and The Bluebells’ main songwriter and guitarist Robert Hodgens, aka Bobby Bluebell. Even then, I think it’s fair to say none of us were sure it would all get the go-ahead. But it did, and proved a triumph.

It must have been a logistical nightmare, and also a question of space. The Continental is ideal in that the ambience is on tap, so to speak, with lots of separate areas – in the garden and around this South Meadow Lane pub – to seek out between the snug bar and main function room, these days rechristened The Boatyard. But when you’re talking about up to 16 acts a day and God knows how many musicians (and that’s not me discounting any ‘non-musicians’ involved, I should add) arriving at different times, with precious few places to tune up, turn in and drop out … well, let’s just say that the soundchecks were far from private affairs. And one of my abiding memories of the weekend was regularly seeing the Conti’s events promoter Rob Talbot looking for Rico, potential crises having to be averted, from malfunctioning bass drum pedals to non-showing acts who are on next.

“Don’t suppose you’ve seen Rico?”

“I think he went that way … but that was two minutes ago.”

I think it’s fair to say crosses were ticked left, further left, and centre throughout though, Preston Pop Fest 2021 living up to and perhaps blowing out of the water all expectations. Cards on the table first though – of nearly 40 acts, I only managed to see eight. I live fairly local, but could only get into town each evening. But eight acts is still one more than I caught over the entirety of 2020, that year we’d all rather airbrush from our lives. And one thing I learned from my initial late-’80s Glastonbury sortees was that stumbling from one stage to another with too much of a fixed plan for three long days kind of kills off the notion of the true festival experience.

Ideally, I’d have added at least another dozen names to my ‘seen’ list, only some of which were on my pencilled-in version in March. I certainly missed a fair few I hoped to catch, but this was the first weekend I’d caught eight quality outfits in one weekend since the Fleadh in London in June 1992, and on North West soil since Heaton Park’s Martin Hannett tribute, Cities in the Park, in August 1991. Somehow that’ll be 30 years ago now. And while those stats possibly put me to shame for some of the hardier souls, the reason I mention it is because that at least illustrates the magnitude of the task pulled off in making this all somehow happen, in the most trying of circumstances.

I didn’t even manage to get into the snug until Sunday night, but the late evening closing set there more than made up for it, Michael & the Angelos in on the breeze (not as if there was much of that in there, the windows closed to avert complaints from the neighbours) from Nixon County, via Liverpool, to share some songs with us, introduced by former Cornershop, Formula One and Common Cold drummer David Chambers, the audience including close friend and Bunnymen legend Will Sergeant. And so this punter took himself briefly out of his Sunday evening comfort zone for a little psychedelic grunge, courtesy of the cartoon-equivalent of a band also known as The Kool Aiders, linked back to John Peel favourites The Mel-o-Tones and The Walking Seeds, their Stooges-like glorious racket (with all due respect and all power to their cartoonish elbows) impressive, if not rather jarring after the soothing sounds of The Orchids in the more spacious and certainly more airy surroundings of the Boatyard. But they certainly made the most of their setting, frontman Bob and his four amigos facing each other, the standing percussion player their hardcore beating heart.

Of course, the star-struck pop kid in me wanted to hang around to make small talk with Will, remind him how I’d interviewed him a few years back and try and say something non-trite, non-fawning yet respectful. But although we were less than the recent 2m-yardstick distance from each other, I bottled it and scarpered, drowning myself instead in the consolation of a glorious finale back in the Boatyard that had all the makings of a feelgood movie climax.

With regard to The Bluebells, I arrived back a tad too late to understand why Ken McCluskey was wearing a boiler-suit (was it an early Clash-like statement of intent?) and private jokes were passing between audience and band about Star Wars creator George Lucas, but the force of good was definitely with us, and I can think of no more deserving act for that weekend’s closing spot. This was totally the right call for a celebration of indie pop and the community feel of this loose-fitting smorgasbord of genres.

Sunday’s headliners – these masters of crossover indie (am I the only one who hears a little Bay City Rollers pop craft in there now? ) featuring Campbell Owens, Mick Slaven and Doug MacIntyre as well as Bobby and the McCluskey brothers these days – soon delved into ‘Forever More’, ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ and the glorious ‘I’m Falling’, the latter reminding me of heady mid-‘80s days when Sisters got regular spins on this perennial teenager’s turntable. Ken’s voice and those of his bandmates remain as strong as ever. And that’s not often the case three decades on. On the day we lost another master of the close harmony, Don Everly – to whom so many generations of singers owe so much – it seemed rather apt.

I want to add that they did ‘Wishful Thinking (Will She Always Be Waiting)’ too, but I was playing that in the car and sometimes get confused over what I’ve actually heard when I’ve not used my notebook. They certainly did ‘South Atlantic Way’ though, as poignant now as then, the next flag-waving foreign war never seemingly far off. And there was the wondrous ‘Cath’, the first Bluebells song I truly loved, leading me up the garden path from the moment John Peel’s rhythm buddy David ‘Kid’ Jensen played it on wunnerful Radio 1.

And they still had the big hit to come, ‘Young at Heart’ – 27 years after its reissue topped the UK charts – followed by a lovely take on Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw the Light’, before a stonking late-‘60s encore of The Velvet Underground’s ‘What Goes On’ and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’. Class set, class act.

That perfect Boatyard finale neatly complemented the previous set by fellow countrymen The Orchids, who stole my heart on their previous Conti visit and did not disappoint this time, the stand-outs among a warm summer evening set including treasured indie pop numbers – and at their best they gave older brothers Collins and Frame a run for their money – like ‘Something for the Longing’, first album opener ‘It’s Only Obvious’, the inspirational ‘Peaches’ (it’s ‘dreaming, baby’ line also apt, with Don Everly in mind), and ‘Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled’. Sumptuous choruses and enough to get yourself high, feed your soul, and set yourself free.

Between Dad’s Taxi duties, dog-walking, domestic duties and a Preston commute, I was only ever likely to manage short stints to keep tabs on proceedings, but even though I had to run out of the building mid-encore during the opening night’s finale to pick up my daughters, 45 minutes away, I at least got to see two great acts that night, starting with the one-man band that was Wales-reared, Dorset-based Young Marble Giants legend Stuart Moxham, and WriteWyattUK faves Close Lobsters, the latter for the first time since a 1989 Students’ Union headline at Surrey Uni in my hometown (having caught them and been blown away both times supporting The Wedding Present before).

My first night highlights included Stuart’s solo interpretation of ‘N.I.T.A.’, from the highly-influential Colossal Youth, four decades on, our distinguished guest casting aside his guitar for keyboard and backing tracks action – and then Close Lobsters’ ‘Let’s Make Some Plans’, ‘Just Too Bloody Stupid’ and a restarted ‘What is There To Smile About’ … after lead singer Andrew Burnett initially chose a different key in a convoluted attempt to convince us they hadn’t played that particular dancefloor smash in several years. And yes, all these years on from Foxheads Stalk This Land and Headache Rhetoric, they’ve still got it, as most recent long-playing product Post Neo Anti proved. I just hope the moment they finished their ‘Going to Heaven to See if it Rains’ encore and I hot-tailed it off, they didn’t tune up once more then crash into ‘Never Seen Before’ and ‘Kneetrembler’. If they did, just keep it to yourself, right?

Incidentally, that evening I found myself in conversation with both Sunday debut act uhr (I missed their storming and less than cosy Sunday snug set, dad and lad John and Jack Harkins joined by the afore-mentioned David Chambers, his set with Baboon ruled out by a bandmate testing positive), but I’ve since seen footage and been suitably impressed enough to vow to catch them soon as I can) and two members of John Peel favourites Yeah Yeah Noh, the latter looking suitably impressed – as good as packing their bags for a trip to Spain next year – when I mentioned on seeing one of the Spaniards in the works wearing a Madrid Pop Fest t-shirt that the two festivals were official partners. Pretty sure that wasn’t the case, but I gather that promises were made between promoters. Watch this space. And at a time when Lancashire is making a collective bid for European City of Culture, it’s fair to say Rico is leading the way, the groundwork done for what could become a staple in the region’s indie gig calendar.

Saturday provided a cracking bill too, your scribe ensuring he was at least in time for East Midlands ‘unpop’ legends Yeah Yeah Noh, before a perfect blistering finale from angular angle-grinding Essex wonders The Wolfhounds. Two very different approaches to ‘pop’, both alright in my book. Again, I missed out on much more, 14 Iced Bears’ Robert Sekula (I can’t believe it’s now 35 years since ‘Inside’, their debut single in the attractive paper bag sleeve, a regular on my C90 compilations around then, taped off Peel, not least when I only had two minutes of cassette left) just finishing his snug set as I arrived, while I missed The Jazz Butcher – soon heading to The Ferret for an evening set, Pat Fish appearing as one-half of a ‘guerilla guitar two-piece’ – and Creation wonders Jasmine Minks, and was called out the following night for missing WriteWyattUK regulars Vukovar (memorably described on Rico’s Best Left in the 1980s Toy Box fanzine notes as ‘originally starting out as a Throbbing Gristle-inspired boy band from the Wigan/St Helens axis of evil’), who were good enough to hand me a copy of The Great Immurement all the same.

I also felt guilty for missing The Great Leap Forward for a second time at the venue, despite being impressed by their latest single, and time was against me for catching either of the late night tales sessions from Nicholas Blincoe (also on the bill with Meatmouth) and Graham Duff.

Yeah Yeah Noh gave themselves not so much a mountain as a down to climb, to use their own vernacular, getting John Peel Festive 50 chartbuster ‘Bias Binding’ out of the way early doors (you could argue there was more movement on the floor for their soundcheck, truth be told – the band mock-admonishing those dancing far too early in the proceedings), but they held our interest throughout, with plenty of wry smiles on the way to tour de force ending ‘Blood Soup’. Still cutting it (the heavenly lawn of greatness, that is).

Like The Housemartins’ ‘Happy Hour’ somehow courted the very people it poked fun at, I feel it’d be wrong to suggest Essex anti-legends The Wolfhounds‘ ‘Middle Aged Freak’ proved to be the anthem of the weekend rather than ‘Young at Heart’, but it kind of was. Reduced to a two-piece on their last visit in late 2016 without Pete Wilkins and Richard Golding – but still immense – I was hooked by the full turnout this time from the moment I was lost in the mesmerising ‘Across the River of Death’, their splendid last two LPs – Untied Kingdom and Electric Music – prominent, earlier numbers like ‘Blown Away’ and ‘Skyscrapers’ finishing the job nicely.

While I missed solo sets from both lead singer David Callahan and Andy Golding – in his guise as Dragon Welding –the following afternoon, I made it back in time for Jetstream Pony, another highlight, partly making up for the fact that as I walked towards the Boatyard, Swansea Sound (a fivepiece including Amelia and Rob from the Catenary Wires and Hue Williams from the Pooh Sticks) were heading towards the beer garden gate with their gear. On the previous two nights, we were at least half an hour behind schedule, but not this time unfortunately, the world and its live-in lover soon telling me how good they were on their live debut. And that after a pleasing moment seeing a young lad on the window outside the snug thrilling to the rock’n’roll blast of another Scottish border-raider that went down a storm, James King & the Lone Wolves, of whom Iain McNeill apparently said, ”I’m pretty sure anyone in Glasgow could have listened to it by opening a windae”. Praise, indeed.

But Jetstream Pony soothed me, bringing US West Coast ‘60s sensibilities from the UK’s South Coast, five and a half decades later, their transatlantic vibe aided by London-based Californian lead singer/occasional Davy Jones tambourine shaker Beth Arzy, also known for Aberdeen and The Luxembourg Signal, and NYC-born, Brighton-based bass player Kerry Boettcher. It was also the first time I’d seen Shaun Charman – these days on guitar/backing vocals – playing since he was behind the drum kit with The Wedding Present in 1987, a check through my archives confirming the last time was the night the hurricane blew through the South-East that October, Gedge, Solowka, Gregory and Charman having set the University of London Union alight that night. A long spell in Brighton outfit The Pop Guns followed, and on this occasion that band’s drummer was in ‘on loan’ (their German drummer unable to travel).

And here was a band that as much as anyone summed up the communal vibe. Not only did they charm us on stage, but they were there supporting others from the dancefloor, as can be said of many more on the bill, not least Amelia Fletcher, throwing plenty of shapes to The Bluebells, picked out by the mirrorball like the heroine of her recent Catenary Wires single. And perhaps that was the secret of success for Preston Pop Fest 2021 – that ‘all in it together’ vibe.

I should add that I’ve only scratched the surface here. I heard good things about Glasgow’s Sumshapes and US Highball (was Scotland empty last weekend?) and Sheffield’s immaculately-attired Potpourri (the latter priding themselves on their ‘space age bachelorette pad music with a glacial cool that belies their warm hearts’, according to Rico’s zine). I at least told myself I can see further WriteWyattUK faves Ginnel and One Sided Horse around town in the coming months. But everyone who took part deserves a mention and a badge of honour, and you’ll find online plenty more interpretations of winning sets by The Bad Daddies, Barry, Campbell L Sangster, Cowgirl, Normal Service, The Room in the Wood, Spread Eagle, Stephen Hartley, The Strange, Surfing Pointers, The Train Set, and Thee Windom Earles. Is that everyone? Hopefully. Let’s hope a fair few of these acts re-book for the next Preston Pop Fest though. And it will happen.

With thanks to Lee Grimshaw, Erika Gyökér and Chris Quinn for the photos coped here, and of course Rico and Rob for their hospitality over the three days.

And for details of the next hip happenings, Rico’s in-house four-legged host and Preston Pop Fest 2021 cover star Coco la Rocca apparently asks you to consider attending these further Tuff Life Boogie events: Celebrating Steve Barker’s On The Wire on Sunday, September 19th, Hardcore Halloween: The Stupids, Hellbastard, Deviated Instinct, Intense Degree on Saturday, October 30th, and Garage Peel : The Primevals, The Wolfhounds, Inca Babies, The Total Rejection on Saturday, November 20th.

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From George Abbot and Godalming College to the Marquee and the Whisky a Go Go – in conversation with Howard Smith

Howard Smith was just back from a family holiday in Suffolk when I called, setting up his children with a Disney classic before chatting about his own golden era.

In his case that involved a comparatively short but incident-packed period with The Vapors, recording two great LPs and half a dozen memorable singles, helping create a new wave legacy still talked about and revered four decades after it came to a premature end.

While his bandmates triumphantly returned in 2016, going on to make another acclaimed album and play many more memorable shows, Howard’s no longer involved. But he had input in a brand new four-disc Cherry Red Records boxset from the band’s commercial heyday, and remains rightly proud of his contribution.

Howard went on to a rewarding career with the Performing Rights Society (PRS), since then running a record shop in his and The Vapors’ hometown, Guildford, standing for the Labour Party in his Surrey constituency, and promoting folk and Americana gigs on his patch. But it’s that late ‘70s/early ‘80s period that people seem to remain most intrigued about.

The two LPs he featured on slowly slipped out of circulation, reaching increasingly large asking prices on the market. But last week’s release of the 76-track Waiting for the Weekend 4CD compilation – featuring the New Clear Days and Magnets albums, plus various live and studio recordings – may help offset that. Was it a proud moment, receiving his copy of that impressive clamshell boxset?

“Of course! And I’m so glad they’ve done something. The CDs have been unavailable for some time, achieving crazy prices on eBay and places like that. So it’s great that people can buy both albums plus a bunch of other stuff now, all for only £25.

“The only problem could be that they’re only pressing around 2,000 copies, maybe enough to saturate the market, but in a while, they’re not going to be available again. I’m hoping they can keep them in print somehow.”

Since our conversation, that’s been addressed, Cherry Red arranging another run, in view of the demand experienced.

I had – tongue-in-cheek, I should add – joked to Howard about the boxset, wondering if we really needed to hear another half-dozen versions of ‘Turning Japanese’. For here’s a band that for all their success still go down in some quarters as ‘one-hit wonders’, having reached No.3 in the UK in early 1980 with that single and never quite breaching that top 40 again, that memorable 45 also reaching No.1 in Australia, and also selling well in Canada, New Zealand and the USA.

“I know! We’re following in the footsteps of Bob Dylan and some of his multi-disc boxsets, where you might get 30 versions of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or something!”

Suffice to say, there was so much more to the band, and there are many great tracks to savour on the compilation, the two long players among this writer’s favourites, the boxset also featuring live recordings from December ‘79 at London’s Rainbow Theatre, various singles, B-sides, alternative, rough and demo mixes, including three previously-unreleased tracks, an early interview with frontman David Fenton, and a 24-page booklet with extensive notes and lots of rare photos.

I reckon all that’s missing is the four-track BBC Radio 1 session recorded for legendary DJ John Peel in July ’79. In fact, Cherry Red missed a trick there. That could have made it eight takes on ‘Turning Japanese’ and 80 tracks in all.

To casual observers, it seemed a meteoric rise, the band spotted by The Jam bassist Bruce Foxton playing a Surrey pub gig, leading to John Weller co-managing them and taking them on tour with his son Paul’s band, the Woking outfit then at the height of their powers.

But there was far more to it, continuing global interest in the band eventually leading to a reunion 35 years on – albeit without Howard – and successful dates on both sides of the Atlantic, with third LP, Together, released to rave reviews last year.

Let’s go back to the start though, or at least the second coming, lead singer, main songwriter and newly-qualified solicitor David Fenton having overseen a fruitful regeneration of the band he formed in ’77 after one member headed off to uni and the other two originals also exited.

As David put it, ‘Three Guildford bands split up in 1978 – The Vapors, The Ellery Bops and The Absolute, and I chose the cream of the crop for The Vapors, Mk. II’. So, in came guitarist Ed Bazalgette from the Ellery Bops, then drumming bandmate Howard and bass-playing namesake (no relation) Steve Smith from The Absolute. And they were soon properly on their way.

I asked Howard first if hearing those mixes, not least the rough ones, brought it all back, putting him back in the moment all these years on.

“To be honest, I haven’t played this yet! I haven’t had a chance. But I’m looking forward to it. I must have all this stuff on cassette tape, from back in the day, but I’m looking forward to it.”

I’d caught Howard on the hop, so soon after his holiday. Was it, I asked, largely a happy experience, working in the studio?

“Absolutely. I really enjoyed it, although you have to bear in mind that as a drummer you spend a lot of time setting the studio up, you do the drum tracks then sit around waiting for everyone else to do their stuff. It’s not all high velocity enjoyment, although it’s interesting to hear how things are put together.

“I was thinking about this the other day, the amount of recording studios in London we used in the space of two and a half years or something was incredible. I probably couldn’t recall how many and list them all out now, but pretty much every studio apart from Abbey Road – unfortunately – like RAK and so on.”

I was talking about RAK recently with Kim Wilde, another artist who recently received Cherry Red boxset status, who started her recording career there and has returned since, saying it’s basically unchanged. How about Sarm West, then called Basing Street Studios?

“I remember watching Bryan Ferry playing snooker or pool in there. Then there was Townhouse in Goldhawk Road, and The Roundhouse. It’s quite nice that we used all these studios. It certainly kept it different.”

Were you aware of the history involved at those hallowed studios back then?

“To a certain extent. As much as you can be when you’re 19 or something. When I left school, the careers officer asked what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to work in music, and he kind of pressed me into writing a letter to all the recording studios in London. This was in the days when people would bother to write and reply, places like Wessex Studios, saying, ‘I’m really sorry we haven’t got any vacancies at the moment, but we’ll keep your letter on file’. I’ve still got around a dozen of those letters.”

Wasn’t it at Wessex where the Sex Pistols recorded Never Mind the Bollocks?

“I think it was. If only they’d have given me a job – I could’ve been the tape op on something like that!”  

Howard was at George Abbot School, a fairly large comprehensive, one that – a few years later – often gave my smaller Guildford secondary school a pasting at football. No disrespect to my careers officer, but I can’t recall such input with what I wanted to do, although perhaps I just wasn’t so focused on where I might be headed.

Talking of recordings, I told Howard how struck I was by the more punky and raw nature of the band on a couple of New Clear Days era alternative versions. And as I missed out first time – I was barely 13 when the band broke up, only catching Steve Smith’s post-Vapors outfit Shoot! Dispute, never seeing the band until they reformed 35 years later – listening to the more rough and ready demos, I get something of the urgency of the early gigs. That also applies to rough mixes of Magnets-era songs like ‘Live at the Marquee’. The producers of each LP – Vic Coppersmith-Heaven on the debut, Dave Tickle on the follow-up – had very different approaches, so it’s interesting to hear how those songs sounded early on.

“Absolutely. I suppose to a certain extent, New Clear Days was songs we’d been playing a year or so before we went into the studio, whereas Magnets was put together in rehearsals and probably hadn’t had a lot of live outings before we recorded them. That was probably the biggest difference between albums. I guess that’s the nature of first and second albums for pretty much every band.”

Living in Guildford at the time probably gave me even less chance of catching them – their home returns pretty much sold out before this young teen could get a ticket. Not as if they were rare visitors.

“Yeah, we were a band who more or less played every other night after we formed. We’d play anywhere, fix up our own gigs, do benefits for the NUJ at Surrey University or Barbed Wire fanzine up at the Wooden Bridge, constantly playing there or The Royal. We had a guy called Deke – Dave Cavanagh, who I still bump into from time to time in Guildford – who had a Transit van, and his brother had a PA system, so we’d get gigs in Chatham, Ipswich or somewhere, pile into the back of this old blue Transit. Although we never quite achieved the efficiency of 10,000 hours playing together like The Beatles, we were constantly playing.”

Your Hamburg apprenticeships just happened to have been spent on the edge of town in Stoughton.

“They were! Ha! Some similarities probably, with the squaddies up there as well!”

When Dave brought those songs in, were they pretty much fully formed, or were they band constructs?

“Well, have you seen the setlist for the first gig I played, at Godalming College? You’ll see from that. Ed joined and did some gigs, then Steve and I joined, and we had a week or two to get ready for the first gig. My father ran the launderette in Stoke Road, with two flats above, one of which Ed and I twisted his arm into renting, the other one empty. Dad wasn’t money-minded at all, renting them out was too much hassle. So we persuaded him to let us use the other flat as rehearsal space. That may have been some attraction for Dave saying, ‘Let’s get Howard in the band’! Having a drummer with free rehearsal space …

“Dave was working at the fruit and veg shop in Market Street, and got loads of packaging which we plastered the walls with to sound-proof. But we literally had two weeks to the first gig with me and Steve, and I still remember my drums set-up in the living room of this flat, us all crowded in there with amps and stuff, trying to learn every single song. And that (Godalming College) setlist is basically all the songs we had to learn, songs we inherited from the previous incarnation of the band.

“After that … well, Dave was writing songs regularly, so we were working out those ourselves, with some input into their creation. And of those originals, some songs were dropped. With some of them I’m not sure any of us can actually remember how they go now.”

While I didn’t get to see the band first time around, my brother – seven and a half years older – did several times, while my youngest sister – five and a half years older and not at all into punk and new wave like her brothers – was in her first year at Godalming College and dropped by for that gig. And Howard sent me the setlist after our conversation, adding, ‘I think the only song that hadn’t been performed by the old Vapors was ‘Working for the Weekend’. All the others carried over.’

Of 15 tracks played that day, over two sets, six ended on the first album and four more as B-sides, with one more on the boxset in demo form, ‘Move’, and another kicking off the December ’79 Rainbow live set, ‘Caroline’, although it was named ‘Caroline Coon’ then, namechecking the music journalist and one-time Clash manager. But what became of ‘Down to Zero’, ‘Terminal’ and ‘Corporate Love’?

“I think they were just dropped and forgotten. Dave was literally writing a new song a week at that stage. Maybe he felt that now he had a band behind him that could really do something. He brought ‘Spring Collection’ and ‘Johnny’s in Love Again’ to one rehearsal, two new songs in one day. The weaker songs just got left behind.”

As for Howard and Steve’s lunchtime college debut with the band …

“I don’t really know what we were doing there, to be honest! Someone obviously had a connection or friend there and said we could play in their hall one lunchtime. We just rocked up, set the gear up on stage, and played. It’s mad, really. I can’t imagine that we sold any tickets!”

There are some great photos with the notes in the boxset, including one of the band posing with a Morris Minor.

“That belonged to a guy called Billy Gunner, who sort of became part of the road crew and drove us around. Also, John Weller got us – I think off a mate of a mate – this massive bright yellow Ford Granada estate. We had that for a few months after we signed. John was kind of a wheeler-dealer and probably had a mate who sold him that.”

That puts me in mind of the ‘Working for the Weekend’ video, the four of you in boiler suits, servicing cars for a living. Were any of you proficient in that respect?

“Not at all! I couldn’t drive at that stage. Ed passed his test, and I can’t recall ever seeing Dave drive. We didn’t have a clue. That’s how you went sometimes as boys at school – you were either into cars or music.”

Did you ever see The Vapors, Mk.I?

“Yeah, we never played the same bill, but places like The Wooden Bridge and The Royal were having gigs all the time, and we’d go along to any gigs that were happening, so I saw them a couple of times. I can’t remember if I saw them with Ed, or if it was pre-Ed, but I remember them at The Wooden Bridge at least once.

“This is the thing, when (Howard Smith’s 21st century replacement) Michael Bowes joined the band, he could listen to CDs. When I joined, I had no clue what those songs were. It wasn’t like playing ’Route 66’ and just a case of the tempo and all the rest of it. I’d play along, songs like ‘Turning Japanese’, and they’d say, ‘No, stop here and do a hi-hat thing,’ and I’d say, ‘Ah, okay’!”

It amazes me now that the first version of The Vapors practised at my home village hall in Shalford, where I’d go to Christmas fairs and social functions, my family close friends with the woman doing the bookings. And this in a small village where The Stranglers happened to practise in the scout hut at the end of my road.

“Funny, isn’t it. I don’t know if it was just particular to that time. Pre-Vapors, me and Ed were doing the same thing, playing these village halls – there probably isn’t a village hall, club or youth centre we hadn’t played at least once!”

Was that with the Ellery Bops?

“That’s right, and we were 16. I don’t know how we had the front to do it, to be honest!”

Do you recall what covers you were doing back then?

“Ah, my memory … erm, we did things like Chuck Berry, ‘Stepping Stone’ by The Monkees, R&B covered by other so-called punk bands …”

Howard’s bandmate and namesake (no relation) Steve Smith told me that seeing The Clash at Guildford Civic Hall on 1977’s ‘White Riot’ tour – the year Howard left school – was his year zero. The next day he jettisoned everything, cut his hair, and started again. How about Howard?

“Yeah, me and Ed went to that (gig) and were already buying Clash singles, and that was the first date of the tour. I remember standing there, thinking, ‘This is incredible!’. Me and Ed in our first phase of the Ellery Bops had really long hippie-like hair.

“Hard to believe it now, but Ed had this incredible mane of long, luxurious hair! I tried to grow my hair so it was the longest at George Abbot, but Ed beat me, hands down – it was already half-way down his back! Before The Clash gig we’d already cut our hair fairly short, but after that started doing our version of ‘Police and Thieves’, stuff like that.”

Do you recall seeing Dave there the night the Ellery Bops played The Royal and he felt he’d found at least a guitarist for Mk. II of his band? He must have been a pretty noticeable character.

“He was, but no – the thing about those gigs was that you could sell them out. They’d be absolutely rammed. It’s the difference between pubs then and pubs now, generally.

“I remember I had a date with a girl from Larch Avenue at what is now The Keep, probably courtesy of my friendship with Ed, and she said, ‘I’ll meet you at The Two Brewers’. I was probably 15 or 16. I remember getting there, plucking up the courage to meet her, then you had to push your way in, with the chance of pushing someone out at the other end! I just didn’t have the courage in the end. I just walked away!

“Our version of The Vapors would sell out The Wooden Bridge, and for a local band that were playing their own material on a midweek night, that was pretty something.”

Were you happy playing the pub circuit, or were you ambitious to take that next big step?

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I was quite happy to burn all my bridges at school. I left before I finished my A-levels. Ed was much more conscientious. He finished his and was thinking about going to college. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want anything to do with that. I just wanted to be in a band.

“I left school to get a job in a supermarket or something like that for a few months, just to get some money coming in. We rented the flat off my Dad, I carried on working, doing retail jobs, and the Ellery Bops carried on in various incarnations. I can’t remember, but Ed said I decided to break up the band, because we just weren’t getting anywhere. But soon after, Ed had that opportunity to join The Vapors when their guitarist got chucked out, and I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’. Then, suddenly they needed a bass player and a drummer …”

While Dave worked for a fruit and veg shop and Steve was in the loading bay at Debenhams, where were you?

“We were keeping Guildford retail going, weren’t we! I had a short stint at Woolworth’s in the High Street, in the electrical department, and back then if you had a job for four or five months and paid your tax, when you left you’d get all that back, so you could go a couple of months without having to work, doing your band stuff.

“Then there was a Halfords-like shop in the upper High Street called Drivers Warehouse. I quite liked working there, the only guy in the shop, opening up in the morning, selling stuff, cashing up, then going home, carrying on there until I quit on joining The Vapors.”

Fast forward a bit, and do you recall much about the night Bruce Foxton spotted you at the Three Lions – aka Scratchers – in nearby Farncombe, deciding here was a band going places?

“I can’t remember that either! I’m not even sure if that was an earlier version of the band or our band. You’d have to check with one of the others.”

Were you a Jam fan?

“Not massively, not as much as I was a fan of The Clash or the Buzzcocks, bands like that, but a girlfriend got me a copy of All Mod Cons for my birthday, asking Ed, ‘What can I give Howard?’. I’d been buying their singles before then. I think I’d also seen them at Guildford Civic. They were one of a dozen bands I really liked. When it came to us joining them on the Setting Sons tour though, seeing them play, there was probably not a better band I’ve ever seen. It was really stunning.”

How about those big London dates, like those at the Marquee, the Nashville, and the Rainbow? Do you see them as the high points now?

“I suppose so, although I’ve never really thought about which gigs I enjoyed the most. They were all so different. Apples and oranges really. We did some really early gigs at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. We had a residency there, and there were literally just a few people there. We’d go up in the van, get stuck in traffic on West End Lane, but it really progressed from there.

“I guess the most exciting ones were when we initially did the Marquee and started selling out there. That was pretty special, this landmark venue. After that, there was the Setting Sons tour, that was a real challenge. Before that it would be a gig every few nights in front of a hundred or something. Then suddenly we’re 19 years old and the support band for The Jam, two and a half-thousand seaters night after night after night.

“We’d never experienced anything like that before. I was getting blisters on my hands. It was pretty intense. And I think there’s always pressure on a drummer. The others could play a few chords, stop playing for a minute and no one would notice, but a drummer can’t stop playing! If the drummer stops, everyone has to stop!”

Interesting you say that. Before this boxset arrived, I was familiar with cult B-side and regular 100mph show-stopper ‘Here Comes the Judge’, recorded at the Rainbow. But here we get the full set, and I’d have been knackered in your place after playing opening song, ‘Caroline’.

“That’s one of the reasons I wasn’t interested in any reunion. I was a kid then. No disrespect to the new line-up, but it’s a lot slower now. You just can’t maintain that pace. The difference between the pace then and now … I do sometimes wonder – maybe it was me! I was just going full pelt. Sometimes, Dave would look at me, as if to say, ‘Come on, let’s get this going faster’, and I’d be like, ‘Come on, let’s go!’. It was really hell for leather!”

When the opportunity arose to get the band back together, was it just a case of it not being the right time for you?

“Yeah, that’s right. I was running the record shop in Guildford, had been there since 2009, my son Stanley was on his way, and the lease was up. It was making some money and I really enjoyed it – a great way to be involved in music – and I initially said yes to a new lease, but then chatted to (wife) Debbie about it and the prospect of working six days a week there, being unable to take time off.

“I’d just got it extended to the end of 2015. Then, pretty much the same time, I got a text message, I think, from Dave’s wife about a reunion, and thought, ‘No, I don’t think so’. A whole exchange of emails followed. I think Ed felt the same way then had a change of heart, but I just couldn’t commit to it.

“It was a similar story at an earlier stage. I didn’t want to do it that time. That was in the ’90s. We had a meeting at The Railway, funnily enough where The Moonlight Club was in West Hampstead, where I was living at the time. That was when the Captain Mod guys licensed our songs and either them or someone connected to them asked if we wanted to do a live album. And I decided no.” 

I detect from our conversation that while Howard doesn’t regret his decision then or the next time, he perhaps felt guilty about that first knock-back ruling out a reunion for the others, not least Steve, who was definitely up for it. And while Howard was closest to Ed – their friendship the longest-running – he has great respect and affection for David and Steve too.

“There’s so much to say about Steve. Above all else, he’s an incredibly talented musician. He used to book bands at the Wooden Bridge, way back, he’s a sound engineer, he can play drums and piano as well as bass and guitar. We were incredibly lucky to have him in the band.” 

I butt in before he can get on to the frontman, telling him it took me longer to come round to where they were going with Magnets, but howI love that too these days, even if its darker approach took a while to hook me, having loved the more new wave thrill of New Clear Days so much. But hearing that bassline from Steve and Howard locking in on ‘Johnny’s in Love (Again)’ on the boxset’s demo version, Ed adding his guitar over the top, there’s further proof that they were an amazing band. It wasn’t just about David’s great songwriting.  

“Yeah, I think to an extent you can say we were to a certain extent limited in our skills then. But when we played together, we were all on the same page and all knew what we were aiming for and could achieve it. I’m not a technical drummer in any sense, but I can understand the dynamics of a song and accentuating the bits that need it. Then, Steve’s an amazing bass player, Ed was the perfect guitarist for the band, and nothing needs to be said about Dave’s songwriting.”

I realise you’ve not seen Dave’s son Dan play (guitar) with the band, but he’s great too, and (drummer) Michael Bowes is a perfect fit. He certainly has that proficiency and amazing energy.

“The only time I’ve seen them was at the Always the Sun festival in Guildford, run by the Boileroom people. We had tickets for that. Not the best circumstances – it was chucking it down with rain – but yeah, the good thing about Michael is that he’s brought that energy to the band, which is key to the sound and the songs.”

What happened after the band? Were you soon involved in your Performing Rights Society role?

“Yeah, a journalist came along from Record Mirror, Daniela Soave, who followed us for a few gigs on a tour and made ‘Turning Japanese’ single of the week. I thought she was lovely, we started chatting, and within a few months I moved up to London, and we shared a bedsit in Hampstead.

“Then after the last gig we played, in San Francisco, I came back early, Ed followed a couple of days later, and was my best man when we married, the fourth of July ‘81. The band broke up within a few months of that last tour, I did a few jobs and was working with my brother-in-law in London, then applied for a job at the PRS in October 1982, starting on pretty much the lowest rung of the ladder, working through to senior management.”

Howard stayed with the PRS around 20 years, at that stage deciding to sell his flat in London, moving back to Guildford and opening his shop, by that time seeing Debbie, remarrying in 2011, son Stanley following in 2015 and daughter Audrey in 2017. Was his PRS role the beginning of his interest in socialist politics, or was that always important to him?

“It’s always been there. My Dad wasn’t big on politics but very much on the left, politically, and for so long I felt ‘these guys are terrible’, then thought, ‘But what am I doing to help?’, deciding to get involved.”

Consequently, six years ago he joined his constituency Labour Party, ‘a small group of really lovely people struggling to get the Labour vote increased in Guildford’. He’s since stood at borough, county and constituency elections, at the 2017 General Election polling the highest number of votes for the party in Guildford since the year The Vapors broke out of their hometown, 1979, his current role as ‘part of the team supporting most recent candidate Anne Rouse’.

Howard’s love of music still shines through, these days through promotion of live concerts locally, despite recent events ruling out any shows for the past 18 months, planning ahead for prestigious shows in his hometown next year. And his highlights on that front included a memorable night in late October 2015 when he put on The Unthanks at Guildford’s Holy Trinity Church.

“That was the day my son was born! While the gig was being set up at the church, I was at the Royal Surrey (County Hospital) with Debbie, and Stanley arrived at around two o’clock, so I managed to get along at six. Thankfully I got a couple of mates in, texting them from the coffee shop asking if they could get down, get the keys, get to Sainsburys for some food for the rider, sort things out. There was an announcement from the stage that night, saying, ‘We were a bit short on the rider, but we’re going to have to forgive our promoter, his wife’s just had a baby,’ then a big round of applause.”

Now, four decades after his Vapors stint – a fairly short period but one in which they achieved so much, not least a top-three hit, some great singles, two brilliant albums, a No.1 in Australia, tours there and America, and many memorable UK shows, including that support stint with The Jam – is he proud of it all, looking back? With a little more luck, it could have been much more, not least commercially, but for the likes of me, they achieved so much.

“Yeah, there’s talk about Top of the Pops being off air at a key stage, us missing out on another hit and all that, but it doesn’t matter. We had this perfect short career, pop stars for a couple of years, then off to do other things.

“I think Dave was upset with the way the record company treated us, him in particular. We had a bit of a journey -we signed to United Artists, that became Liberty United, got bought by EMI, our stuff transferred to Manchester Square, a lot of staff let go there. It was all a bit disjointed and bad timing. I think Dave phoned Ed, said, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving’, Ed phoned me, and I just thought, ‘Oh well, things haven’t been perfect for a while’. But I’m really proud of it, we made some great music, and it’s amazing how this thing we did for two and a half years or so when we were 19 up to 21 can follow you around for the rest of your life.

“I think my biggest achievement was with the PRS. In a lot of ways that’s what I’m most proud of. But really, no one’s so interested in that or even being a Labour Party candidate for Guildford. The thing most people are interested in was that I was on Top of the Pops doing ‘Turning Japanese’. And something happens every week where it’s included on a TV programme or something …”

Usually including footage of you casually strolling across the floor to grab a dropped drumstick.

“Yes! Ha! There’s always something! And it’s really lovely.”

For so many musicians I speak to, recording a single and a session for John Peel would have been enough. And Top of the Pops was so iconic for any of us who grew up in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Then there were all those live shows.

“Yeah, totally, including two gigs we did one night at the Whisky a Go-Go, Los Angeles. We were there, ‘Thinking, ‘Fuck! This is amazing. The Doors used to play here! This is one of the most amazing venues!’. Actually, it was a bit of a shithole, but … I remember doing the soundcheck and this guy saying we need to be on at 7.30 and 9.30. And we were like, ‘What?’.

“He told us we had two shows. You’re kidding! We play like 500 miles an hour! But at the end of the second show, Clem Burke and Kim Fowley came in the dressing room and said, ‘Hi guys, good gig!’. Just 18 months earlier I was in my bedroom with the first Blondie album, playing along to Clem Burke’s drumming, then here I am, him coming backstage to see us! There were so many little things like that, and I wouldn’t have missed all that for the world.”

The Vapors boxset quickly sold out. However, Cherry Red are arranging a re-press, with details here. Meanwhile, the band return to the road soon for a rescheduled set of dates, supported by The 79ers, comprising The Chords’ Brett ‘Buddy’ Ascott and Kip Herring, Simon Stebbing (The Purple Hearts) and Ian Jones (Long Tall Shorty). For details, try here.

For this website’s feature/interview with David Fenton from last summer, head here. For another from October 2019, head here, and for another marking the band’s return from September 2016, head here. There are also Vapors-related WriteWyattUK feature/interviews elsewhere with Ed Bazalgette (November 2016) and Steve Smith (May 2018).

And to keep up to date with what Howard Smith has lined up, concert-wise, as part of his People Music promotions, follow this link.

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Coming to the boil – talking Hot Milk with Han Mee

What Happens: Jim Shaw and Han Mee, co-founders of Manchester four-piece Hot Milk, ready to rock

It would be easy to surmise that power punk four-piece Hot Milk are on a high right now, main stage appearances at Leeds and Reading Festivals later this month being followed by the release of second EP, ‘I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead’, and a first UK headline tour next month.

Their 2019 debut EP, ‘Are You Feeling Alive?’, landed amid a whirlwind year that also saw them tour with Foo Fighters, Deaf Havana and You Me at Six, and play some of the biggest festival stages. Some going for a band that only formed in 2018.

And following mid-June’s pilot Download Festival, the Manchester-based outfit get another chance to air new material when they return to Leeds Festival and Reading Festivals later this month, this time playing the main stage, before those headline shows – including a Manchester Academy 2 homecoming on September 10th.

But after such a testing last year and a half, while eager to get back out there again now, vocal and guitar duo and co-founders Han Mee and Jim Shaw – who met working behind the scenes on their adopted city’s music scene, both yearning for a shot of their own at the big time – are holding back on expectations right now.

Han was making her way back from her family home in Longton, near Preston – “I was born at Sharoe Green, in the shadow of Deepdale,” she told me – to her city centre flat in Manchester when I called her, on the day the title track from the new EP was released as a single.

Now in her mid-20s, her roots in the industry were as a promoter, putting on gigs for ‘all the bands who came to town’, working with various venues. But while Manchester’s been home for some time, she told me her adopted base took on a different feel during the lockdown, becoming ‘an empty city’.

“The summer of the first lockdown was just weird, sunny days with nobody about … apocalyptic. Hard to believe that was the reality. Hopefully it won’t go back to that.”

While she said it’s good to be on the verge of getting out and playing again, Han’s not building her hopes up yet.

“At first, we were hoping it’d be over by the end of the year. Nearly two years later … I’ve learned not to get too excited – I don’t think I could take the fall.”

We talked some more about how it’s been for this generation coming through, missing out on defining moments in pubs, clubs and in venues.

“Yeah, that’s what makes you who you are. That’s where you learn and meet people. Think of all the people who will never be born now because two people have never met. There’s been a massive change in people’s futures, and I feel sorry for people who are 18, just going to uni. Imagine the first year of uni without being able to experience and live it. At least I got that.

“And we toured as a band for 11 months before we had to go into lockdown.”

Han and Jim quit steady jobs to put their energies into the music industry, Han plying in bands initially in Preston and her co-founding bandmate in York, the pair meeting in Manchester when they moved there, ‘signed off the back of four songs, essentially’.

But their year and a half gap between EPs was put down to a lack of opportunities to push a new record amid the pandemic, having to be reliant on social media alone – as hands-on as they are in that respect.

“Some people write songs because they like being in a studio, I write because I like being on stage. At the moment, I don’t really feel like I’m in a band. We’re in the studio, but not getting that other side of it – the reason we wanted to be in a band in the first place.

“The live set is so irreplaceable. We sold out all our first headline shows on the day first time, but they never happened, so we ended up merging them together into one 1,000-capacity show in September.”

Looking at Hot Milk’s videos and live clips, they clearly have fun on stage and making those promo films. I have to ask though – albeit tongue in cheek – was that a choreographed slip by Han on stage I caught on footage of their Download festival appearance?

“Ha! No! Course not. I came out, giving it the big dick … but the universe was saying, ‘Don’t get too cocky!’. I had these new boots on, with no grip, and it was raining, soaking wet. But you know what … screw it!

“Of course, that would happen to me! Classic me, to be honest. I’ve not got a bee in my bonnet about it though. It’s mad that we even stand on two legs anyway! I’m gonna fall over some point, it just happens to have been the first gig out of the gate after 18 months or so, and I’m on my arse!”

There’s a neat blend between Han and Jim’s voices, I suggest. Was that a natural thing?

“I guess it kind of happened, really. We’ve known each other years, then wrote a song together when we were drunk one night, and felt, ‘That didn’t sound that bad, did it, shall we do it again?’

“We were together three years before the band happened, and the band kept us together, our reason we’re as close together as we are. When you’re in a band with someone you’re in a relationship and write music with, you’ve got to be able to be unfiltered, and being together as long as we were and going through all the stuff we’d gone through together made that a lot easier.”

Based in Manchester’s Northern quarter at the time, they still hang out there most nights – ‘making up for lost time’ – although Jim is now further out in Eccles. And how did bandmates Harry Deller (drums) and Tom Paton (bass) get involved?

“Tom was in a band with James. If we were going to do this live, among other people, it had to be with people we cared about, having been surrounded by people we didn’t really like for quite a while. Tom was a mutual friend, and we knew he was good.

“With Harry, we needed a drummer who was good and nice, and couldn’t find one, but Tom was like, ‘I know this guy, but he’s a bit weird.’ We met him, and he was weird, but beautifully weird, and we were like, ‘Sick! Let’s have him!”

Are you good at rehearsing? I get the impression it might end up being a bit full-on judging by your stage show.

“Well, we’re doing that for the next two days. We tend to do it in big blocks after practising on our own. We’ve got Reading and Leeds in four weeks, so need to rehearse two weeks straight before. It needs to be perfect …”

Give or take the odd slip on stage.

“Yeah … we won’t do that again … or maybe I’ll make it my thing, start doing that.”

Where do those rehearsals take place?

“Ancoats in Manchester … basically a crack den, the worst place ever … but it’s ours, the cheapest we can afford at the moment, we can walk there and keep our gear there. A bit of a headquarters.”

Halfway through my next question, with Han back at hers now, she’s in fits of laughter, telling me her ‘little corona cat’ won’t get out of the bag it’s been transported in, despite the bag being turned upside down.

She’s soon composed again though, and I mention how there’s plenty to write about right now, from dealing with mental health issues to questioning those in charge in this post-Brexit administration at a time of deep divisions all over. But, I say, I get the impression that at least the younger generation are waking up to the reality.

“Well, you say there’s lots to write about, but there was added pressure lately, feeling you have to write. We kind of ran out of a bit of gusto towards the end of the pandemic. That’s why we’ve just been to Brighton for a week.”

The first EP’s title track, ‘Are You Feeling Alive?’, was about the pair’s determination to refuse to settle for second best in life, that sense of not letting life slip through their fingers at the core of Hot Milk’s punk-indebted ethos. And having taken a leap of faith to grasp their platform, they’re not about to let it go to waste.

Similarly, the new EP’s title track, ‘I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead’, produced by Jim, is another call to arms, full of huge hooks and catchy choruses, encouraging ‘everyone, everywhere, to follow their dreams’.

Their lyrics are very personal in places, the band bottling the anxieties and frustrations of everyday lives. ‘Woozy’ tackles depression, ‘Good Life’ takes on societal corruption and distribution of wealth, and elsewhere they address the pursuit of happiness in a modern world. Yet for all their expressions of angst, I suspect an underlying optimism, all about inspiring positivity, with community and shared values important to their band ethos.

“I’m kind of optimistic, but naturally a pessimist. My mum’s nodding at me! I’ll say I’m a realist. I’ve seen the worst of people the last five years or so, generally jaded about humans. We’re innately selfish to a degree. But then I see kids coming through that have such liberal minds and are so optimistic about the future, and think, ‘I used to be like that!’. That does give you a bit of faith. They’re not jaded like I am.”

She goes further in the press release for the new EP, adding, “These songs are honest. I have nothing to hide. Everyone’s on antidepressants these days. It’s the world we live in, it makes people sad. Capitalism. Is it broken? One hundred per cent. I’m angry that we’re sold a world that actually doesn’t make your inner peace happy. Humans need love and community and a lot of the time, there is no love and the community has dissolved.

“We’re angry, both politically and existentially in terms of the system we now live in. But also, we’re angry at the fact that we’re sad quite a lot. But we’re trying to not just sit there and take it. We’re trying to fix it, by building a family through this band.

“You can’t take things with you, but you can make the best memories. That’s the most important thing in life. Your currency is your memory. What you can take with you is something that absolutely makes the blood pump round your veins and gives you goosebumps. That’s what this band is to us. It’s our passion. That’s what this EP is about.”

Band Substance: Han Mee with her Hot Male company, and closer than ever to a full live return right now

Live, Hot Milk aim to create an ‘aggressively space safe’ where fans are empowered to be themselves, ‘authentically and unapologetically’. It needs to be about the music too of course, and Hot Milk love their rousing choruses, my favourite on the new EP perhaps ‘I Think I Hate Myself’. But what comes first, the words or riffs and hooks?

“It’s different every time. That one … me and James were drinking a bottle of wine, watching David Attenborough. We hang out all the time. He’s my favourite person in the world. We’ll sit there with a guitar, mulling over the pandemic and why we exist, and what’s the point if we’re not doing what we want to do, and how we’ve got no money. And I hate myself like that.

“So that came pretty naturally – just acoustic guitar and vocals. But sometimes it’ll be a synth-line first, and I constantly have notes and lyrics on my phone.”

Is there an album just around the corner?

“I think there’s another EP first. I think the idea of an album right now … we need to know where we’re at, after all this time.”

No one really likes labels, but power punk, emo-pop? What’s the description you tend to go for?

“Oh God, labels! I don’t know. We’ve called it power pop before, but we’re such a varied band, with so many influences. We kind of just write what comes out. This EP is so varied. We like to take it any direction we want. And as we get older, our tastes will change, and I don’t want people to think we’ve just changed genres.”

What do you reckon you took from those live shows with the likes of the Foo Fighters?

“Well, the Foos for me … they are at the top of their game, legends …”

I hear that coming through in a few of your songs, not least that energy.

“Ah, that’s good! And once you’ve toured with a band like that it’s hard not to absorb their way of doing things. And those guys have been so, so nice to us. They didn’t have to be nice to a couple of people from Manchester. It’s a bit random. But we’ve just confirmed a few more dates with them for next year.”

Soon there’s Leeds (August 27) and Reading (August 29), this time playing the main stage, then that headline UK tour in September. Pandemics aside, is this you living the dream here?

“Hopefully … though like I say, I don’t want to get too carried away. I’m scared of that being taken away.

“There’s other life pressures going on as well. But as long as those are solved before, it will be more enjoyable. It’s not nice knowing we can do all this but then come back and still be on the dole. Being in a band is bloody expensive. We’ve still got bills to pay.”

In this day and age, without the record company advances I used to hear about, I guess you’ve got to truly love this struggle to be able to do it full-time.

“Exactly. On paper, this is insane really! Trying to justify this to your Mum and Dad is constantly an uphill struggle.”

Have there been plenty of jobs along the way?

“Definitely, especially the last year or so, lots of freelance bits, trying to stay creative and doing arty bits. For me, if I had to go back and get a proper job … I was offered one in PR a bit ago, but I think that would take all my energy away from what I actually want.

“You end up getting in this cycle of doing something else, and before you know it you’ve got too used to that. If I take the focus off the band and go down another road, I’d put all my energy into that.

“But me and James are still very much in control of this band and work on it every single day. We’ve got a label involved and whatever, but they don’t really have much say in what we do.

“That’s why we signed with the label we did – to keep that creative control. In terms of our history, working locally in the scene, we know what’s what. And hopefully we can get back on it soon. We’re wishing the days away at the moment.”

Hot Milk’s five-track ‘I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead’ EP, out on September 10th via Music for Nations, includes exclusive merchandise, CDs and limited edition heavyweight purple opaque vinyl pressings. For pre-order release options, head to https://store.hotmilk.co.uk/. And to keep in touch with the band, you can check them out via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Exploring patterns and connections, riding the Fir Wave – back in touch with Hannah Peel

Inner Light: Hannah Peel is coming to terms with her Mercury Prize nomination. Photo: Peter Marley

Mercury Prize shortlist nominee Hannah Peel was taking a brief rest from scoring when I called her. And I don’t mean she was watching the cricket from the pavilion at Old Trafford, notebook in hand. Had the phone rung off the hook for this gifted composer, string arranger and singer-songwriter that week, in light of her first Mercury Prize shortlist nomination?

“I’ve been managing it pretty well … but obviously it was totally unexpected. I was already really flat out anyway, so I’ve had to set a rule of only talking in the morning or late at night, so I get the day to do stuff. But yeah, it’s all good. It’s amazing, I’m not complaining at all!”

Was the nomination for Fir Wave, her re-interpretation of the original music of 1972 KPM 1000 series: Electrosonic – the Music of Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop, really out of the blue, or – be honest – is it something you think about every year, wondering if this will be the time?

“I’ve always dreamed of having a record Mercury-nominated. Anybody who releases records that have an aspiring feel to it … I think every record I’ve ever worked on has probably been submitted. But you kind of get used to, ‘Ach, no, I’m not on a big label, I don’t have a lot of press money and I can’t push a lot of things’, which is ultimately what happens – it gets attention, gets listened to, and that’s what influences the judges as well.

“The fact that it’s a little self-release and they’ve listened and taken note is just amazing. I’m so thankful.”

Richly deserved, of course, not just for this LP but everything this Northern Ireland-born, South Yorkshire-raised, former Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts (LIPA) student, now based in Donegal in the north west of the Irish Republic, has done up until now.

Hannah released her debut album a decade ago, following 2011’s The Broken Wave – her stock soon rising – with several more solo works and collaborations, including the two great LPs with The Magnetic North – also featuring Erland Cooper and Simon Tong – that led me to her work.

Then there were her live and studio outings with electronica pioneer John Foxx‘s band, with Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay’s LUMP project, plus OMD, Nitin Sawhney, and of course Paul Weller, arranging and conducting the latter’s strings and orchestral arrangements on his last four records, and notably heard and seen on his Live at the Royal Festival Hall album/DVD.

You can add several other rising stars featured on these pages in recent times to Hannah’s collaborative CV, plus her acclaimed theatre, dance and film scores, including the soundtrack music for BBC 2 documentary Lee Miller: Life on the Frontline, Game of Thrones documentary The Last Watch, and Channel 5 drama The Deceived.

That said, it must be odd, knowing so many other artists – not least those she works with – who haven’t got nominations this time or before. I’m sure it’s not about competition though. I suggest, Hannah’s realm not so much about competitiveness, unless it concerns her fellow artists and peers inspiring each other on to ever greater heights.

“Yeah, but I would say this year above most recent years, it’s the most alternative (Mercury Prize) list, and I think that’s the strength in that they’ve released a list of records that need album sales. When you’ve had Ed Sheeran or Florence and the Machine nominated, okay, they’ve deserved it because they were great records, but they didn’t need to boost album sales.

“They already had that attention. The fact they chose smaller produced records, and also that a third are instrumental and it’s very much female/male balanced and wide-ranging, it’s really impressive and puts hope back into the Mercurys. I think a lot of people had given up, thinking it was an award unable to find new music, which was the whole point … or it always felt that was the point of them.”

There are some amazing quotes on her website from critics regarding Fir Wave, all pretty much spot-on. And it’s an album I’ve been playing a lot lately, and one I reckon sits comfortably with so many great 2021 releases.

What’s more, I tell her, barely a week goes by when I’ll interview someone who’s just worked with her and has lovely things to say about her and her work. More know about the Weller link, but in recent times I’ve also talked about her with Dot Allison, Andy Crofts, Erland Cooper, William Doyle, and LUMP’s Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay. In fact, I seem to have a Hannah Peel question lined up every week.

“Ha! That’s so funny!”

If nothing else, I reckon I could be your unpaid press agent.

“Ah, thanks, Malc!”

The only problem is that I’m wondering now if I’ll ever get to hear a third long player by The Magnetic North, its artists being kept so busy.

“Yeah, we’ve all kind of gone on our own trajectory! But I kind of always imagined that the third record might be one that was done in years to come, in hindsight of what we’ve all been through. I mean, we definitely have a third record there. It’s just that it’s never been finished and completed and fully satisfied with everybody.”

I recall Erland (Cooper) and Simon (Tong) visited you in Ireland to sketch out ideas for that album a while ago (as was the case with previous Magnetic North LPs – the first taking creative inspiration from Erland’s Orkney roots, the second from Simon’s Skelmersdale years, this next one from Hannah’s Irish links).

“Yes, they came over to Donegal and to Northern Ireland and we met up with Bill Drummond, who played a bit on it. It was an amazing trip … but then … life took over!”

So what are these scores you’re working on right now?

“I’m working on a dance show, I’m working on a film, and I’m working on a TV show, all at the same time. Lots of scoring work, including my first feature film and a wonderful eight-part series for Sky.”

So many of your projects have made a wider impression of late. There are also presenting spots for BBC Radio 3 and occasional opportunities to stand in on BBC 6 Music. I was going to ask if you’re getting out and about again, post-lockdowns, but maybe you’ve just not got the time, instead locked into a room composing and what have you.

“Ha! Yeah, totally! I am grabbing time away though. I went to Oxford and worked with Philip Selway (Radiohead) on some of his new music the weekend before last. It was so lovely to be in a studio and with people, and he’s the nicest man I’ve ever met. He’s brilliant, I loved working with him – he treated us to an evening punting on an Oxford river, then we went for food. It felt like I was on holiday, which I don’t get that often!”

Last time we spoke, home was still East London. Have you properly relocated across the Irish Sea now?

“I moved to Northern Ireland around the end of the Mary Casio era. I bought a house here, and was half and half travelling, then the lockdown hit, so I’ve been here mostly.”

Seems like you were in the right place at the right time, as it turned out, pandemic-wise.

“Yeah, I’m so glad I did. Being by the sea and not in a flat in Hackney was definitely beneficial for my mind and mental health, for sure.”

Is there a social life over there between studio sessions?

“Definitely. My parents have a caravan in Donegal we’ve been going to for the last 30-odd years, and now it’s summer and you can travel into the south of Ireland, I’ve been able to go there. But I do see my little trips to London, working there, as little holidays too!”

Are there live dates coming, or was that never in the offing for this record?

Fir Wave was never meant to be played live, but I will be performing at the Mercurys. My God – even saying that makes me shudder! I’ll be putting something together for that, but that’s it for that record.

“I do have a record out with the Paraorchestra in Spring next year though, an incredible disabled/non-disabled integrated orchestra, phenomenal, based in Bristol, where we’re doing a show on October 1st. Tickets went on sale last Friday. It’s a pretty small, socially-distanced show, but it will be really beautiful.”

Back to Fir Wave, and although Hannah only turned 16 eight weeks after Delia Derbyshire died at the age of 64 in 2001, these two icons of electronica seem to be at one. When did my interviewee first chance upon Delia’s sonic world and the wonders of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop?

“Like a lot of people I didn’t know of her at all growing up, and never heard her name. It wasn’t until I started working with John Foxx, which would have been 2011, that I started to hear about people and noticed certain artists and composers, especially in the electronic world.

“That’s when I first heard about the Radiophonic Workshop. I think at the time they were setting up a new Radiophonic Workshop. I never saw that transpire, but it highlighted everything, as did the sharing of her archives – the finding of them and all that.”

Am I right in thinking most of that work remained unpublished and largely unfound until that point?

“Yeah, it’s that kind of Lee Miller vibe – until she died, when they found everything in the attic (the US photographer and photojournalist, born in 1907, did little to promote her work, her son discovering and preserving 60,000 or so photographs, negatives, journals, letters and documents after her death in1977). And I do wonder how many stories there are like that, that we’ve never heard of. I think that’s generally what people did – putting them away, thinking nobody’s ever going to notice this … and sadly those are the women.”

I guess it was a similar tale with fellow pioneering composer and electronic musician Daphne Oram (1925/2003), another largely unsung influence on your work.

“Totally. And the CD version of the album we’re bringing out on August 6th includes an interview with Delia (Derbyshire) from 2000, first done as a 7-inch for Electronic Sound this year, an interview that’d never been heard before I got the chance to edit and underscore, and put on the record. And that was really amazing – hearing her voice coming through the ghostly effects.”

At a time when – thanks to the sterling efforts of NHS staff and scientists responsible for successful vaccine programmes – we’re hopefully closer to turning a corner on this pandemic, we seem to be stumbling towards another issue coming back at us with a vengeance – climate change, where something needs to be done, and fast – there’s an important ecological theme to this record too, Hannah looking to make ‘connections and new patterns that mirror the Earth’s ecological cycles through music’.

As she put it, “I’m drawn to the patterns around us and the cycles in life that will keep on evolving and transforming forever. Fir Wave is defined by its continuous environmental changes and there are so many connections to those patterns echoed in electronic music – it’s always an organic discovery of old and new.

“This was originally a record written for KPM. It wasn’t intended to come out as an album – it was written as production music – but I was given permission to use this 1972 record, so took that, sampled it, put that into the music.

“I guess it was because of lockdown and everything that happened that it was allowed, and I had time to look at it and decide this could make a really good record, got it mixed again and reproduced a couple of the tracks.

“The original record was very much of its era. It would have been used as background in scientific labs, and that whole period really echoes that industrial period of the ‘70s. So when I was looking at the titles, thinking what I wanted to put into a record – something for right now – it was really important to use that ecological side, so it felt like a record for the present day.

“It might be retrospective in its sound palette, but its essence is very much about what we are aware of – our cycles in life, the delicacy of the carbon cycle, music and connecting those waveforms with the patterns in nature.”

Well, it’s been amazing watching your career so far, and I look forward to the next interview where someone else tells me they’ve just worked with you, and what an amazing experience that proved.

“Ha! Thank you. Yeah … and I’m definitely a music lover!”

Well, that was never in doubt. And with that I let Hannah finished her lunchbreak and get back to her next impending half-dozen deadlines.

To link to WriteWyattUK‘s November 2016 feature/interview with Hannah Peel, head here, and for our September 2017 catch-up with Hannah, head here. For a full list of Mercury Prize 2021 shortlist nominations, try here. And for more about Fir Wave, Hannah Peel’s back catalogue and forthcoming projects, head to her website.

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Celebrating the return of live music, non-restricted style

Martin Stephenson / The Hellfire Preachers – Preston, The Continental

The Amber List/Ivan Campo/Resonate – Preston, The Continental

My Twitter feed last weekend was dominated by those having their first taste of live music for Lorde knows how long. As was the case with me, enjoying my first return to The Continental, Preston, in my adopted Lancashire, 16 months / 73 weeks / 510 nights after the last, in what also proved to be my first live show in 494 nights – the longest break between gigs since catching Blank Expression on my live debut 41 years earlier at Wonersh Memorial Hall in rural Surrey.

Only two more gigs followed that last Conti visit – on Leap Day 2020 to see The Amber List, West on Colfax, and Cornelius Crane – before the shutters came down, first for I Am Kloot’s John Bramwell at The Venue, Penwortham, then King Creosote at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, reprising and soundtracking the award-winning From Scotland With Love album/film.

Talking of cross-border visitors, first up – for the venue’s first non-socially-distanced live music night since that March shutdown – was North West Scotland-based, County Durham singer-songwriter and Daintees frontman Martin Stephenson, on a night when The Boatyard’s air conditioning kept us cool on a hot summer evening on the Ribble Delta (as opposed to the Delta/Johnson variant). In fact, it was the first time I felt a chill in a couple of weeks or so, thankfully not multiplying in Travolta-esque fashion.

All a tad bizarre during this mask/no mask/alarming rise limbo period we find ourselves in, but this double-jabbed punter’s lateral flow-test came up negative, so there we all were, on what turned out to be a full house. And The Hellfire Preachers set proceedings off in style, this tight three-piece Lancy folk combo – and BBC Radio Merseyside veterans – priding themselves on their ‘old timey bluegrass’ and ‘Gothic Americana’, Dave Gardner (vocals/guitar), Matt Wells (mandolin/banjo and such-like), and relative young ‘un Charlie Wells (double bass) on it from the opening song, the highlight for me a brooding, atmospheric number on which Matt took a bow (so to speak) to his banjo, the sinister lighting making him look every bit the villain in a stylish ‘60s spy film.  

The main attraction needed no band behind him. Martin Stephenson can do things to his guitar that few could pull off. I get the impression The Daintees could have been as big as label-mates Prefab Sprout, but the big time didn’t sit right with a frontman who seemed to emerge in the wrong era, one not so geared up for singular acts who get by on the loyal support of the kind of committed fanbase he has now. Always a free spirit though, fair play to him for never conforming to lofty music industry expectations.

He was in his element here, having fun from the off. At least I think he was. Was that nervous energy built on fear rather than some cock-eyed notion of confidence? Whatever it was, when he first appeared I thought a sartorially-challenged guitar tech was tweaking the sound before Martin stepped up. But no, he was already up there, the following half-inaudible introduction and back-story before the first song going on longer than the number itself. In fact, that casual Half Song Half Tale presentation carried on for much of the evening, the songs often split by asides from the main man, breaking off at will to offer punchlines or share observations with the audience, his grin and giggles plain for all to see and hear.

Those who’d seen him far more seemed occasionally wearied by this approach, an air of ‘just play the bloody song’ apparent in places. But God bless him, he’s a one-off, and long may he confound and amaze in equal measure. Along the way, he joshed with the support band – lurking ominously in the shadows – and laughed at a member of the bar staff crouching low to avoid getting in the way while collecting glasses, dubbing him Toulouse-Lautrec.

He wasn’t strictly on his own, his other half – fellow recording artiste Anna Lavigne (check out her Angels in Sandshoes when you get a chance – stepping out of the audience a couple of times for duets, his pride in her as apparent as her awkwardness hanging around behind him while he told us loving anecdotes from her past.

And while for me a loud couple at the bar talking through the set – surely they’d had 16 months to talk, why decide now to have a full-on catch-up? – spoiled poignant moments, that’s not Martin’s fault. This was as much a victory for him as the promoters and staff who ensured a winning return to live music on our patch. And while I earlier picked up on the main guest’s casual t-shirt, shorts and socks ‘Brit on a beach’ combo, as he pointed out, up until recently he’s only performed online, where he was able to just wander off to the fridge afterwards. So in that respect we should be thankful he was wearing any shorts at all. Besides, we got the wonders of ‘Coleen’ and ‘Rain’ from the first Daintees LP, with ‘Salutation Road’ also among the night’s highlights, his playing and vocal range still beyond question. Cheers Martin, that was a blast.

While it was all tables and banter from the bar on Friday night, it was a proper half-and-half job the following night – another warm one – for The Amber List’s The Ache of Being debut LP launch in the same room, and I’d venture to say there were a few more in to mark the occasion.

First up, again setting the scene perfectly, were young guitar duo Ike and Harry, aka Resonate, a couple of covers complementing a finely-crafted set, the vocals and bridgework impressive. I expect to hear more from them soon … in fact, Harry guested on a couple of numbers with the headliners later, so I guess I already have.

They were followed by Ivan Campo, the San Sebastian centre-back who prompted the name of the main support in turn inspiring one punter to heckle ‘Bolton Wanderers’ at one stage. On this occasion they were (like the Trotters in recent seasons, you could argue) one down before we knew it, playing as a duo, and at first sight I expected singer and guitarist Adam Shaw to sound like John Otway. He looked the part, even if his bandmate was as far removed from Wild Willy Barratt as could possibly be. But Adam delivers a far less frenetic delivery, his voice reminiscent of a more chilled Alex Turner, and together with sticksman Ben Atha was a revelation, the latter all about percussion, sweet harmonies and whistling … and hats off to anyone who can pull all that off live.

In short, here’s a cultured outfit – and veterans of Spanish live TV, no doubt – who could add something to any bill, their brand of intelligent indie folk (or folk-infused pop, as they put it) capable of ensuring many a festival could be complemented by their presence.

Then came the headliners to complete a top night’s entertainment and ensure a cracking return for the Conti, post-Covid restrictions (at least for now). Admittedly, I’d had a head start, listening to The Ache of Being on repeat these last few weeks, but one of my 2021 LP highlights was given a great live outing on this occasion. It seemed to take a while for this accomplished four-piece – Mick Shepherd (vocals/guitar/bass), Tim Kelly (guitar/bass/vocals), Tony Cornwell (lead guitar), Simon Dewhurst (drums) – to truly settle, a shame when the record pulls off so emphatically, having produced a flawless side one and not far off perfect second side too. But they’d shifted up the gears in time for track three, ‘Appointments’, and there was no let-up from there. What’s more, you could tell by looking around that those who may have needed convincing grew more and more convinced as the set unfolded.

The seamless switch to and fro’ Mick and Tim on lead vocals – and this from a band with a penchant for passing the bass around too – adds another winning element, and all four pitch in with complementary harmonies, with Tony’s guitar antics also to be admired, while Simon holds it all together from the rear. A proper collaborative band, with plenty of joined-up thinking and delivery, the added guitar from super-sub Harry supplying a welcome extra layer.

All that was missing was an invitation from the stage to turn over before ‘Wrong Side of the Truth’ saw us away again. And while the spirit of Mick’s late-‘80s breakthrough band lingers within (as confirmed by Big Red Bus’ label boss, Action Records’ Gordon Gibson, on the night), here’s a band that clearly wear their influences on their sleeves, and on this occasion the spirit of early REM and perhaps Gene and The La’s shone through. But they get that extra dimension when Tim steps forward, taking them into more ‘60s-infused psychedelic territory, the back-screen house graphics adding to that feel. Furthermore, this punter at least is also reminded in places of Dublin’s The Stars of Heaven and South-East trio The Deep Season, among others.

In short, quality will always out, and many of the highlights on the album were given a good account here. While time was against them to get through the LP in full, there was still a chance for further crowd favourite, ‘Cold Callers’ from the first EP as an encore, and although I’m unsure how many CDs were shifted on the night, they won over many new fans … and rightly so.

All in all, this was just two nights, but on that evidence alone, it’s fair to say we’re back up and running. It was good to see a few regulars after so long away, and praise too for all those at this venue and countless others around the UK who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes this last year and a half to make sure it could happen when the opportunity finally arose. And I reckon we’re indebted to all those who ensured there are still places out there willing to take a chance on quality live music … against all odds. And as The Amber List’s closing number on The Ache of Being puts it, “I see the sun begins to rise; let it shine on, a new day is calling.”

For the most recent WriteWyattUK feature/interview with The Amber List, head here, and for our recent feature/interview with Martin Stephenson, head here.

To keep up to date with The Amber List, find out where you can catch them live and snap up their first album, head here. You can also keep tabs on Ivan Campo here, Resonate here, and The Hellfire Preachers here. And for all the latest from Martin Stephenson, including details of new LP, Howdy Honcho, try here.

Meanwhile, check out what’s coming next at The Continental here, and – wherever you are – make sure you support your local venues. They need you right now more than ever, I reckon.

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You came, you saw, you conquered – the Kim Wilde interview

Four decades after her breakthrough hits, Kim Wilde’s stellar pop career is being celebrated through the release of a comprehensive new hits collection, available in special collectors’ five-CD and double-DVD boxset as well as double-CD format.

The Cherry Pop boxset includes additional singles, B-sides and an eclectic selection of remixes, several making their CD debut, plus a deluxe booklet with lyrics and a DVD collection featuring close to 50 tracks. And the two-CD edition features radio edits of many of Kim’s classic hits, including ‘Kids In America’, ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ and ‘You Came’, as well as a couple of new tracks, her recent duet with fellow early ‘80s pop survivor Boy George, ‘Shine On’, among them.

And after 20 UK top-40 singles and seven top-40 LPs, with more than 30 million records sales amassed globally for the most charted British female solo act of the ’80s, a Brit Award winner (in BPI-branded days) and two-time Smash Hits most fanciable female … well, those stats are none too shabby, are they, Kim?

“Erm … yeah, it’s pretty … I appreciate it all a lot more now. Those numbers I didn’t truly appreciate until recent years, and when I look at this latest Greatest Hits and see what we’ve achieved, there’s some great stuff in there I haven’t heard for years. And the fact that Cherry Red took so much time getting all the licences sorted …

“And this in my 60th year. That’s pretty overwhelming. I haven’t actually sat down and listened to it, but only because I haven’t got a copy myself yet!”

That’s been remedied since we spoke. In fact, only yesterday I spotted a pic of her proudly thumbing through. These days of course, we don’t just know her as a pop icon, but also an author, gardener, DJ, TV presenter … and proud mum. And how about that amazing career? Does Chiswick-born Kim still get those ‘pinch me’ moments where she’s doing something and it suddenly hits her – how a couple of head-turning top-five hits with her first two singles as a 20-year-old in 1981 led to so much more?

“It’s strange, ‘cos over the years there were so many times when we thought, ‘Maybe this is the last time we’re gonna do this,’ especially if an album didn’t do well. And there were many albums that didn’t do so well. So yeah, there were many moments on the rollercoaster of my career when I thought we’d reached the end of the ride … only for it to go back up again and for something else to come along.

“It took a lot of getting used to … emotionally. It took a lot of disappointments and lot s of sucking it up, overcoming all that, and then getting used to more success again. It really has chewed around with my emotions.”

Now, eight months after reaching the big six-oh, Kim, whose family moved from their London roots to Hertfordshire – where she’s still based – when she was nine, is finally getting the career anthology treatment. Of all those hits, I asked, is there one in particular she feels deserved much more? Or did the public pretty much get it right in her case?

“I think they absolutely did. To have a career over four decades and still get played on national radio … like we did in 2018 with our Here Come the Aliens album, and ‘Pop Don’t Stop’ and ‘Kandy Krush’. That was just amazing. I think I enjoyed the success of that just as much as I did with our very first album and ‘Kids in America’. I remember going across a field and having (BBC) Radio 2 on my iPhone, playing it while I walked the dog and hearing ‘Pop Don’t Stop’ come on the Breakfast Show. And it made me feel fantastic. These were different times. Back in 1981 there was one day when ‘Kids in America’ sold 60,000 copies, and that don’t happen anymore! But the thrill of hearing your record on national radio, that’s still a great feeling.”

I was looking at that piece you did, talking about the ‘Kids in America’ promo, seeing your reaction to the images on the screen – that’s something in itself, gauging your reaction to you all those years ago. You’ve probably heard a thousand stories from fans, telling you what that and other songs meant to them. Mine’s just another, a 13-year-old watching Top of the Pops in Mum and Dad’s council house in a little village outside Guildford, Surrey, where four older siblings gave me a wide grounding encompassing various tastes and genres, but big brother’s influence ensured I was already into punk and new wave. Yet this was something new and fresh … and remains so. A lot of songs from that era sound dated, but somehow that Minimoog sound on your early hits still stands the test of time for me.

“Oh, it really has! It’s a magnificent record, and (brother/bandmate) Ricky’s talent at that time was so precocious. He was only 18 or 19 years old but he was listening to Ultravox and Gary Numan, the Skids, the Sex Pistols, Kraftwerk, and The Stranglers – all of those great bands. And we were brought up with rock’n’roll. And somehow all of it came together. There’s even a bit of Abba in there, y’know.”

Funny you should say that. It’s very much of its time but still fresh. In fact, it’s almost like you’re backed by The Attractions, and I know Elvis Costello tipped his hat to classic pop, specifically Abba a few times, as heard on ‘Oliver’s Army’, with its ‘Dancing Queen’ motif. So maybe it all makes more sense in retrospect.

“It does, yeah. I mean, pop music was influenced by Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’, and I’m a huge Elvis Costello fan. I had all his albums in my collection, and still have. I used to love the diversity and loved it when he moved into country music and introduced me to all the country artists I’d never heard before, like George Jones. And I fell in love with that music. Yeah, he was a really important inspiration for me personally and for Ricky, and I really enjoyed that amazing book he wrote, that tome.”

As a young lad with NHS specs at the time of those early Attractions hits, part of me shied away from professing an appreciation of Costello too soon, but he very quickly snared me with all those great songs. How could I not be swayed? As for you, you certainly held this boy’s interest. And that’s before we even get on to Brian Grant’s shower scene in the ‘Chequered Love’ shower scene. What’s more, those songs hold their power today, like all the great singles of those classic chart years. And again, that makes sense, coming from a family who understood pop down the years.

But I did say that some sounds – synths in particular – date quickly, and dare I say it – fast-forwarding to late 1986 – there’s some big ‘of its time’ synth on your version of Holland/Dozier/Holland ’60s soul classic ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, for example, that definitely places it in that particular timeframe. However, the energy you put into your vocal sees you through. I’m not a fan of covers for covers’ sake, but you added something to the original, and subsequently carried that off.

“Yeah, we made it our own, and we had an amazing message from Lamont Dozier, which I keep on my desk. I’m just having a look at it now. It was sent on the second of June 1987, and he said he loved this exciting version of the song and thanked us for making him look good again. He said it had been No.1 three times (in the US) – I guess it was Diana Ross (and The Supremes) then Vanilla Fudge – and that (third time) was a moment that changed the course of my career.”

“I think the diversity and the build-up of the singles that came out, first with ‘Hey Mister Heartache’ and then ‘You Came’, which I felt was one of the finest crafted pop songs in my career. Then there was ’Never Trust a Stranger’, one of my all-time favourites, and we finished it off with some ballads, ‘Love in a Natural Way’ and ‘Four Letter Word’, which was a huge hit. So it’s one of those complete albums. I think it showed everyone who thought of Kim Wilde as a singles artist … they realised I was actually crafting albums … and if that’s what they were into, that’s what they would get.”

Talking of career highlights, you said in Marcel Rijs’ newly-published, Kim Wilde – Pop Don’t Stop: A Biography, that 1988’s ‘You Came’ video was another big favourite, as ‘it captures a moment in my career when everything was just perfect’. That was around the time you were supporting Michael Jackson on his Bad tour. What was it about that whole Close album era that resonated with you?

On a personal note, I should add that when I first thumbed through my better half’s record collection when we first got to know each other in 1989, Close was there … and still is.

“Nice!”

I should also reveal that alongside my features and interviews I’m a music book editor, with one of my more recent assignments editing and revising Marcel Rijs’ book. Were you pleased with the outcome?

“Yeah, and there’s been amazing feedback, and fantastic reviews! I really wasn’t expecting that … simply because it was completely free of gossip. I thought these days people expect a bit of that … but there was none of it! It was just packed full of information and facts, and I helped edit it myself …”

Yes, you got there before me!

“Yeah … and I enjoyed that. I wouldn’t have had the time if it wasn’t for the pandemic and being at home. The timing was perfect, and I spent some time on each chapter. There were some things I didn’t feel needed to be out there, so I’m glad Marcel gave me a first look-in, and I’m really pleased to have my story told without any … what’s the word?”

Salaciousness?

“Yes, salacious gossip!”

I gather from speaking to This Day in Music Books leading light Neil Cossar that 1,200 of 1,500 copies have already flown off the shelf. And that’s clearly a big shelf.

“Yeah!”

That also says something about the love the fans have for you and all involved at Wilde HQ.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah! I’ve got a hardcore following … and bless them, they would have all got that book! And I’m really glad it’s Marcel’s book – it’s not mine, it’s his in its entirety. He owns it, he remunerates from it, and it’s all his. And I really love that. He’s a great fan and a great worker of my website, and I knew he would tell the story brilliantly. There was only one person who could good it, and he did it perfectly.”

Not least when you consider English is not his first language, Marcel having first chanced upon Kim at the age of nine, an older brother and sister having introduced him to Dutch show Toppop, where he caught ‘Kids in America’, soon falling in love with ‘each and every song’, buying all her singles and albums, ultimately creating a website about her in 1998, a personal passion becoming so much more, leading to a friendship with his music hero and her father.

That love Marcel has for Kim and her work is clearly replicated by so many diehard fans. And what’s always come over is the lack of pretence from the artist herself. As the daughter of UK rock’n’roll legend Marty Wilde and The Vernon Girls’ Joyce Baker, and the sister of gifted player and songwriter Ricky, who seems to have been wary – at least initially – of taking his own place in the limelight, it seems that family’s always been extremely important to the story. Time and again people talk about the Wilde bunch’s down to earth qualities. Maybe, I suggested, Dad – Marty Wilde, now 82, who clocked up six top-10s and 11 top-40 singles between 1958/61 and has gone on to secure the rare feat of eight consecutive decades of official chart success as a performer and a songwriter saw all those egos and big star trappings around him in his early days and was determined to shield his own children from the worst excesses.

“Yeah … well, bless my Dad and bless my Mum. That’s how they were. We lived in a lovely house in the countryside and we went to the village school, we hung out with the locals, and Dad played a bit of golf and spent most of his time at home playing great albums. He had the most amazing record collection, he would get down his guitar or get us to listen to Tchaikovsky or sit down to listen to Elvis Presley or Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel,or Ladies of the Canyon by Joni Mitchell, or Tapestry by Carole King, or Dusty in Memphis. I mean, it just went on and on.

“It was an amazing collection and we were just inspired, y’know. Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys, and obviously all The Beatles’ albums, then all their solo albums, like Imagine and Ram, and so it goes on … endlessly, and we were fed this solid diet of pop – and I call it pop because that’s the umbrella word for all of it.”

Meanwhile, the Wilde family is very much a family firm, although not in a ‘horses’ heads on pillows’ sense, as far as I can tell. And now the next generation’s stepped up, younger sister Roxanne having bridged the gap, age-wise, and these days Ricky’s daughter Scarlett is firmly established in the band. You clearly get on as a family unit.

“Yep – absolutely, and I worked on Dad’s lockdown album, Running Together, recording with him and making videos with him, ending up as his video director because there was no one else! And that was fun.

“We still talk about pop music, and I had dinner with them last week, and we’re still talking about what’s great and what’s not great. He’s still a huge fan, talking about very contemporary artists, and he knows more about a lot of them than I do. He says, ‘You know that girl – Olivia Rodrigo?’. We still have those contemporary conversations.”

It’s been very hard this past year and a half for all of us. How do you think your folks have coped?

“Well, right at the beginning of it all, Dad ended up being rushed to hospital. The NHS were brilliant though, and the paramedics came and saved his life. He’s been back and forwards from there a little, but he’s also been doing gigs. And each time he’s bounced back stronger than before – his will to live and his will to get out there and gig as strong as ever. So yeah, their lust for life is undiminished.”  

Was the last live gig for you the one guesting with Roxanne at your Dad’s LP launch show in Chard, Somerset, last October?

“That probably was the last one. I don’t even remember – it was such a long time ago!”

It’s been odd, hasn’t it. On one hand we’ve written off this last year or so as not happening, but at the same time it definitely did … and seemed to last around five years.

“Yes, and we’ve now got some gigs lined up for the end of the month and from August through to October, a few here and there, including a couple of festivals. I think they’re going to go ahead, and Dad’s got a few he’s thinking of doing. And I guess it will be a bit like riding a bike, and I really should start singing again, but … well, I’m sure it will be fine.”

Also a published author and a DJ – for digital station Magic Radio – There’s also the gardening career, Kim’s first pregnancy seeing an old interest resurface and a place taken up at college in North London to learn about horticulture, aiming to create a garden for her children. Then she was asked by Channel 4 to act as a designer for Better Gardens, leading to two series of Garden Invaders for the BBC.

By 2001 she’d co-created a Best Show Garden award-winner for the Tatton Flower Show, four years later winning a Gold award for a courtyard garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, going on to design and create numerous gardens through her TV roles, commissioned by individuals and organisations. But dare I ask how good her own garden looks today? Is it a case of putting heart and soul into her professional commissions while letting her own slip? Or is it in good nick?

“Mine is looking amazing! I did realise pretty quickly when the pandemic began that this wasn’t going to go away very quickly. I had a sinking feeling that we were in this for the long haul, so I thought, if I’m going to be stuck at home, I’m gonna make home count, and sorted out all my rubbish in my office, all my photographs and memorabilia, all the stuff next door, got rid of a load, then went straight into the garden and started growing vegetables, weeding the whole place … and it’s never looked more beautiful.”     

There have been many personal milestones along the way, including – when Kim turned 30 – a 16th century barn conversion project at the home she’d bought in the Hertfordshire countryside, a big step for her towards setting up on her own, away from the safety blanket of the family. Then five years later came a successful audition for what turned out to be an 11-month stage adaptation of Pete Townshend’s rock musical Tommy, fresh from Broadway, at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End, playing Mrs Walker. And it was there that she just happened to meet the love of her life, Hal Fowler, the pair soon marrying and starting their own family.

And now she’s reached that next big birthday, has that changed anything? Are there fresh career goals, burning ambitions, and things she still feels the need to get ticked off her bucket-list?

“Well, I’m extremely ambitious about this particular album and going out and touring it next year, the Greatest Hits tour, celebrating 40 fantastic years. How blessed I’ve been, especially to be able to get to work throughout that time, working with my brother, even today. So yeah, to be able to get up, sing that song and see the looks on people’s faces … it’s such a privilege and such an amazing experience.”

For the first three years, Kim was signed to record producer and hit-maker Mickie Most’s RAK Records label, and it’s 40 years this summer since her debut self-titled LP landed. When did she last return to RAK Studios in St John’s Wood, and does she have clear memories of those first visits?

“Oh yeah, and it hasn’t changed at all there. Everything’s the same – the décor, the paintings on the wall, a signed picture of Elvis Costello – ’Never work with you again’, it says! Even a poster of The Most Brothers (Mickie’s brief late-50s act with Alex Murray/Wharton) with Marty Wilde. And I recorded the whole of my Christmas album there (2013’s Wilde Winter Songbook), so I spent a lot of time there again, and it was very moving a lot of the time. A lump would often come in my throat, wandering through the halls and talking to people there – because even the staff are the same.”

Talking of precious memories, how about that BPI/Brit Award win as Best British Female Solo Artist in 1983 at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel, getting to meet the likes of Paul and Linda McCartney, while holding hands under the table with your brother for courage? Is that still pretty clear to you?

“Oh, it really is. And I realised how lucky I was to be sitting only a few feet away from Paul and Linda. Weirdly, one of my lockdown albums – again, walking the dog through the fields – has been Ram, newly reissued after 50 years. I just love that album so much and particularly love Linda McCartney. She was the reason I went and had my hair cut into a mullet style. She was a massive style icon who influenced me, and I love all the backing vocals and her voice. I remember at the time she got a lot of flak – they were really mean to her, mostly her but Yoko too, for splitting The Beatles up. But she made that amazing album with PauI, and I think it stands today as one of his finest.”

And finally, your son and daughter are now in their early 20s, if I’ve got my maths right. Are they following in your footsteps, or Hal’s, or both of you?

“Rose is 21 and she’s soon to study psychology at university, and Harry’s 23, a singer-songwriter and an amazing musician – a great guitarist and piano player – in the process of putting an album together and launching his career as we come out of the pandemic.”

So the next generation is coming through.

“Yep, they are!”

Excellent, and long may the pop not stop, so to speak.

For more on how to order a copy of Kim Wilde’s Pop Don’t Stop: Greatest Hits – 5CD/2DVD deluxe expanded collectors’ and double-CD editions – and Pop Don’t Stop: A Biography, plus details of live dates, including her summer 2021 dates and those lined up for 2022, head here.

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