Coming to terms with The Wolfhounds – the Dave Callahan interview

Hanging Out: The Wolfhounds, beyond the noose and on the loose

Hanging Out: The Wolfhounds, beyond the noose and on the loose

If one recent album sums up the state of the nation in late 2016 more than any other, I reckon it’s The Wolfhounds’ Untied Kingdom (Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture).

This treasured Greater London outfit’s latest long player, released in the autumn, is the band’s first stand-alone LP since 1990’s Attitude, and comes on the back of mighty 2014 comeback compilation Middle Aged Freaks, their first Odd Box release featuring the clutch of singles that followed their 2012 return and put out around the time of the Optic Nerve label’s reissue of their 1986 debut Unseen Ripples From A Pebble.

While some of the songs on the new album may have been kicking around front-man David Callahan’s front room or a while, I put it to him that it all seems very ‘of the now’.

“A few were written at the beginning of this year, but most have been around for the last two or three years, but with the general feeling of the surroundings of those last few years. I think you’re right though. It’s fairly sad that barely anyone but a few grime artists and maybe Sleaford Mods are in any way singing about people’s lives. Maybe Richard Dawson too, in a kind of abstract way. I mistrust artistic statements about the state of the nation, but there’s no one really addressing that. Particularly with guitars … apart from us.”

The Wolfhounds certainly cover a lot of ground on their latest offering, the canvas spread across a number of key political and social issues, the music inventive yet somewhat in line with all that came before, those de-tuned guitars reminding us who we’re dealing with here.

As the accompanying press release put it, the album incorporates ‘sample mangled dub, freak-beat protest punk and late-night unplugged lo-fi along its 50-minute plus journey’, and ‘musically and lyrically goes pretty much everywhere all other underground bands can’t or won’t go’.

I might as well carry on there, adding, ‘The album summons sometimes dystopic, sometimes frighteningly dysfunctional hallucinations of desperate working life and insecurity, while at the same time being as raw and hardcore celebratory as danceable blues. It’s as modern as any young band could hope to be, but as wise and disturbed as any alert adult has to be. It conjours up demons of the fiercest rock’n’roll along with the unfettered experimentation of singer Callahan’s past band, Moonshake, as well as even the occasional pop hook, to form an expansive whole with surprises around every spin of the turntable.’

Slightly hyperbolic, maybe, but pretty much spot on. All a long way from the chief songwriter’s day-job, you might think, writing about birds and conservation (mostly for Birdwatch magazine). But Walthamstow-based David (‘Isn’t that East 17? I ask, to which he replies, ‘Yes, but no relation’) and his band have never been easy to categorise.

r-426250-1256610883-jpegTake for instance the movement they arguably hitched a lift on the tailcoats of, having appeared on the NME’s near-legendary C86 compilation 30 years ago. Track four, Feeling So Strange Again, only sticks around for one minute 42 seconds, but their inclusion was enough to widen the scope of their support.

I’m not quite sure what I make of that song today. It’s clearly them, but that same year’s wonderful Cut the Cake and Anti-Midas Touch singles were more an accompaniment to many a fan’s cup of tea, and closer to their own considerable live presence. In fact, David reckons that debut 45 and following indie hit were about the only times they felt they properly got to grips with translating live passion to recording tape early on.

Don’t let him talk down the appeal of the first album though, the record that got me hooked on the band. It could have done with a cash injection in recording terms, but can’t be knocked for me. I’d already seen them live and was suitably impressed. But hearing that 1986 Pink Label debut platter made me realise there was a lot more about them, the melodic moments every bit as compelling as the more raucous ones.

And listening again last week made me realise I still love that LP, from wondrous opener Me right through to buzzsaw closer Handy Howard.  Yet in an interview I did with the band in early 1988 – backstage at Aldershot’s West End Centre – they were largely dismissive of it, not least David. Does he still feel that way?

“It sounds a bit better than I felt then. The recording that was more like we wanted to sound was Bright and Guilty. We already sounded like that live, but couldn’t catch it in the studio, even though we had on Cut the Cake and The Anti-Midas Touch.

“By the time the LP was done we were all floundering with the pressures of having to live up to our reputation and not having any money. Some in the band thought we had to be more poppy to make money, others said they hated that kind of music. There was a lot of tension.

“The results are patchy in my estimation. But there are three really good singles there, and a couple of other really good songs, so my toes don’t curl too much when I listen back.”

We’ll have to agree to disagree. They came on with the later albums but I honestly believe it showed their worth as proper songwriters.

“It’s nice to have done that, but I really think what we were doing musically – especially with the guitars – was not captured at all. At the time I found it extremely depressing.”

I first saw The Wolfhounds at the Hammersmith Clarendon’s Klubfoot, third on the bill to That Petrol Emotion and The Mighty Lemon Drops on Valentine’s Night ’86, shortly before their first John Peel session, and before both C86 and that first album surfaced.

o72885Later – as an 19-year-old – I wrote in the second edition of my Captains Log fanzine that ‘listening to their album you’d expect this lot to be a bunch of boys next door playing jangly pop, but with an out of place vocal’, yet ‘it all seemed to make more sense’ and ‘it’s easy to see the album doesn’t represent their live performances’. There may have been lashings of hindsight benefit there though, as by the time my review surfaced, the NME cassette and debut LP were out and they’d released two more cracking singles, Me and Cruelty. 

I had to wait until November ’87 until I saw them again, this time at the iconic 100 Club on Oxford Street. And what a top night. By then we’d had a second Peel session, and I only had four months to wait for my next fix in March ’88, the year of the Son of Nothing single, just over the Surrey/Hampshire border at Aldershot’s Buzz Club, on a night David remembers well. He had little recollection of the interview I did with the band earlier that night (one I intend to upload to this site very soon), but certainly remembered the ‘near-riot’ that ended their set prematurely.

“It’s fairly clear. It was a rather abrupt end to the evening, and in mine and a couple of other people’s cases a bit bloody.”

So what did he make of that interview, having read it for the first time 28 years on?

“It’s always an amusing time capsule. Those kind of interviews were more about the repartee between a bunch of mates who just happen to be in a band. There’s not so much chance for that to happen these days apart from in the back of a van or in a green room. We’re distributed over Essex and London, so it’s pretty hard for us all to get together.”

They next surfaced – as far as I was aware – at the tail-end of 1988 for a third Peel session, one including Happy Shopper and Son of Nothing, and within two months I caught them at Drummond’s in Euston, although I seem to recall that third-on-the-bill Lush grabbed the music press attention. The future was theirs, while The Wolfhounds’ own bumpy ride would be over within 18 months (* interestingly, just a few weeks after this Romford outfit proved their worth on vinyl again, Lush played their final show, at Manchester Academy).

So, back to Untied Kingdom, and it’s an album of many parts, yet works so well, with plenty of surprises but enough classic Wolfhounds moments to remind you who you’re listening to. And it’s intriguing from the start, a capella opener Apparition proving a major curve-ball. I get an image of an Isambard Kingdom Brunel figure there. Am I off the mark?

“That’s pretty much spot-on, really. I sang that straight into my phone about a year and a half ago, and was trying to capture the atmosphere just from that. All the backing vocals were done on my phone as well, with all the extraneous noises from me walking around Alexandra Park – birds singing and trains going past. But it has a vaguely ghostly effect.”

That sets us up nicely for Now I’m a Killer, which for these ears is pure Wolfhounds, not least because of that trademark ‘skewiff’ guitar sound.  Did I just write ‘skewiff’? That’s a word you don’t often see, but I was making notes on my second listen, and somehow came up with that. Then a cursory look at the band’s Wikipedia entry described how the band ‘began as a slightly askew indie pop rock band’. So maybe I’m not the only one who sees it that way.

a1854958397_16“I guess so. It’s kind of half way between Wilko Johnson and Winged Eel Fingerling (Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention). It has pop and rock chops but also flies off at angles all the time. But that’s what we wanted. Our early influences were things like that. We bonded over a mutual love of something between The Who and The Fire Engines.”

Then we come to track three, and in an ideal world (which it clearly isn’t judging by this past year) My Legendary Childhood would be a hit. I love the brass and backing vocals and their blend with David’s voice. Who’s responsible for those factors?

“It’s always a collaboration between you and the people who record it, in this case our house engineer, Anthony Chapman (ex Collapsed Lung), a really good engineer and producer. We record a lot at home but often with his assistance, rather than hiring a studio, with a laptop and record stuff in bedrooms, halls, and front rooms. You can hear from the results how it works so well – way better than most of those we did in expensive studios in the ’80s. Also we have Terry Edwards’ horns on there, who I’ve known since I was 15, and we collaborated when I was in Moonshake.”

Terry seems to have been making quality contributions to great records for as long as I can recall, off the top of my head from working with The Higsons in the early ’80s right through to The Everlasting Yeah last year.

“The same guy, and he plays with PJ Harvey and Gallon Drunk, and sometimes Mick Ronson and David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti.”

And who’s the female vocalist?

“There are several, but on My Imaginary Childhood it’s Elin Grimstad, who plays in Norwegian psychedelic pop band Je Suis Animal. And I’m on their album when it comes out. We also had Katherine Whitaker, who plays in Evans the Death, another really good band, and Astrud Steehouder, who plays in Paper Dollhouse, a kind of gothy/electronic/ folky band. I go out and see bands a lot and make mental notes when I see good singers!”

I won’t go into every track here, but will finish by mentioning The Stupid Poor, which fits in neatly with the idea of the album being so 2016.

Four's Company: The Wolfhounds, by David Janes

Four’s Company: The Wolfhounds, by David Janes

“That was my attempt to try and catch the neuroses of the way middle class people seem to feel about the underclass these days. Half say how terrible it is, and the other half say, ‘Don’t touch me, keep away from my car and my TV!’ This is me trying to summarise that.”

And is the album selling well?

“Record sales for everyone – no matter how small or big they are – are low.”

So it’s only ever going to be a hobby really?

“As far as putting vinyl records out. There are other ways of getting your music across, but that kind of physical entity is very much a niche interest these days. But so far it’s had the biggest advance and is the largest-selling on the label. So on that level that’s quite good.”

The LP was officially launched with a special show in Islington, with support from another band recently featured on these pages, Dutch duo Deutsche Ashram, who incidentally played the last Un-Peeled event the previous night. Any more dates being lined up?

“We’re booking more, and Cardiff and Bristol are coming in January, with a view to another that same weekend.”

As for The Membranes, Saturday’s Preston show is The Wolfhounds’ last of 2016, with David looking forward to returning to this part of Lancashire after a mid-’80s visit.

scan0014“We drove to Scotland for some dates, but one was cancelled and we ran out of money. We needed to pay for petrol and had just enough to get to Preston, where a friend was. We just about made it, kipped on the floor and had to figure out a way of getting back to London.

“We went busking in a shopping centre and booked a couple of impromptu shows in pubs, handing out fliers someone did in their office, managing to get enough people along to get us home. It took about a week, being stranded in Preston rather than Glasgow, having to use all our talents and abilities to get back.”

Is he looking forward to catching up with (my previous interviewees) The Membranes?

“Yes, and again I’ve known John since the mid-80s, when a friend booked them to play in Romford. I’m also friends with Nick Brown, the guitarist. Our paths often pass through gigs. The Membranes are another good band, and again having a bit of a renaissance.”

Are Moonshake, the band David formed after his original band went their separate ways, on indefinite hold while The Wolfhounds story continues?

“That project’s been on hold since around 1997, although there’s a whole bunch of electronic stuff – at least an LP‘s worth – I’ve been doing, something I’ll work on next year. I also have a solo LP, more acoustic, even closer to being finished. I just need to mix and add a few things.”

David was behind a petition this year in a bid to get Warner Chappell to hand over copyrights and back-date royalties for their early catalogue, citing a breach of contract. The band asked the publishing company to reinstate the songwriting credits of David Callahan and Andrew Golding from The Anti-Midas Touch and six other songs. So where are they up to with that campaign. Is the money flooding in?

“Of course not! But it was really great that it got such a nice response, and I have draft documents handing the rights back to us from Warner Chappell. It’s not much money, but it’s the principle really, and it’s 27 years’ worth, so should have paid for a holiday or something.”

wolf_frontTalking of copyright tissues, any chance of them suing Nirvana or at least getting a percentage of their royalties for that similar riff on Smells Like Teen Spirit?

“I don’t think it’s that similar. Kurt Cobain knew who we were. I met him in Seattle when we were there with Moonshake. But that’s how pop music works – it’s largely people attempting to emulate other songs and failing! We’ve done it too. You try to copy things and it comes out completely different. This whole thing about Marvin Gaye is bullshit really. I’m not sure how lawyers managed to convince a judge there.”

I was half-joking, but do you think maybe you were passed over in the past while others pushed past? The likes of Blur spring to mind.

“I did see a really early Blur gig though, as Steve Mack from That Petrol Emotion said they really sounded like The Wolfhounds. But when I went I was very insulted, actually! Actually, there was another Preston connection that night – they were supporting Dandelion Adventure, who I thought were way better.”

Do you think you could ever have been more of a commercial success – or would the financial excesses have gone to your head, the money spent on yachts and women?

“Yeah, but that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it? I do feel we were passed by a little, but probably because of our snotty, aggressive attitude. They were much more likely to snap up nice middle-class boys than people who take the piss and misbehave all the time. The Sex Pistols were let through once – they weren’t going to let anyone else through like that … although Happy Mondays managed it in the end!

“We probably would have ended up how they did … if we were still alive. We were young, and ‘caners’ to varying degrees. With money and unlimited success It would have gone horribly wrong. On the other hand, I was more than happy to figure out if that were true!”

The band’s story began in 1984 in Romford as a teenage five-piece, their geographical roots at least giving me a chance to ask David if he grew up hanging out with Five Star.

“I didn’t even know they were from Romford until later.”

Also, I read somewhere that the town’s former export John Bull Bitter – as brought up in my original interview – has recently been relaunched via Charles Wells. Should we be scared?

“That was just horrible generic bitter, wasn’t it. Anyway, everyone in London now is a ponce – they drink IPA. Every pub has its own, every railway arch has a brewery under it!”

1986-iiThere’s just David and Andy Golding left from that original line-up, both supplying guitar, vocals, samples and keyboard skills. Are they still in touch with the other originals?

“Yes, but apart from the drummer that was true anyway when we broke up. And we would have got Frank (Stebbing) involved if he didn’t live in Dubai. We’re still in touch to varying degrees, not least due to these contractual issues. There’s the occasional reunion, but we’re distributed all over the globe. Martin, who played bass, is in Chicago, with the rest of us scattered around the Southern end of this country.

“That Aldershot gig was Martin’s last, and Dave from Belfast’s first. He got the job because he was handy in the fracas afterwards! He wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. There was often a bit of trouble at shows. But that’s just what happened then. Things are much more civilised today. Actually, one of our mates who roadied for us got employed by Primal Scream and The House of Love after he took on a rugby club at York University after a show we played with the latter.”

Then there’s Pete Wilkins on drums and Richard Golding – a younger brother of Andy – on bass.

“Yes, and Richard used to roadie for us, so it was a natural progression.”

This time at Preston it will just be David and Andy though, for a special one-off acoustic set of old and new Wolfhounds songs, after Pete was ruled out at the 11th hour due to a back problem.

Having recorded three John Peel sessions for BBC Radio One with The Wolfhounds between ’86 and ’88, plus one with Moonshake in November ’92 and another with Miss Mend in June ’99 (‘a band that became the Project. I played guitar and synthesiser with them.’), did David ever get to meet the inspiration behind Saturday night’s event?

“No, he very rarely came down to sessions. Occasionally he would write you a letter though – a personal note. Mostly it was all done through John Walters and the BBC office. Your manager would get a call to be there at a certain time. I think you were allowed eight hours, with no breaks. We’d virtually play live, with a few vocal overdubs or whatever. Often we played the songs a bit too fast, particularly because of nerves or reasons you’re not allowed to publish! But they gave a fairly accurate representation of what the band was doing live at the time.”

r-850292-1196766355-jpegFast forward now to 2006, when Bob Stanley of St Etienne curated a 20th anniversary event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London to mark the release of that initial NME C86 cassette, marked by a special exhibition and two nights of live music featuring bands on the original album, plus an enlarged triple-disc reissue, CD86 – Still Doing It For Fun, with The Wolfhounds among those involved. Back under the microscope and the bacterial kaleidoscope, you could say. So what had changed for the band to return?

“We got together as a one-off, for the hell of it when it was 20 years since Cut the Cake came out, We did one show and it went quite well, but then I was off to Madagascar for seven weeks. I used my savings to buy myself on to an expedition, while working in a warehouse and doing a degree at night school.

“But the following year Bob Stanley waved the ICA at us, where we made a horrendous racket which more or less divided the entire audience! Around half walked out while the other half thought it was the best thing they’d seen for years … kind of ideal really!”

I should put it on record that the original compilation wasn’t just a collection of wishy-washy guitar bands. There were plenty of abrasive and off-kilter moments too. Did David feel that being on that compilation along with all those other emerging indie bands did his band more harm than good?

“It was a double-edged sword. Five albums after that, there are still people who think we’re still some twee, jingle-jangle pop band, which we never were really. But it also means the people interested in all that come and see us. And it’s younger people as well, so that partly gives us a new audience – a lot of people in their early 20s come along now.”

You don’t strike me as someone to dine out on the past, with regard to the anniversary circuit (he asks, without irony, just before they play the latest John Peel tribute night). Is that what My Legendary Childhood is about?

“Well, it’s looking back on those days with jaundiced specs! But we looked back in the same rose-tinted manner on the days of ’60s garage as younger people look back on the mid-‘80s with rose-tinted specs. We’re saying it was quite tough in those days, but we’re also saying it’s even tougher now, so you shouldn’t give up – still do it!”

I guess my life had moved on, so while I loved a lot of the 1989 Midnight Music albums Blown Away and Bright and Guilty, not least the singles Happy Shopper and Rent Act, I can’t recall much about the following year’s Attitude, their fourth critically-acclaimed long player and what turned out to be their last for more than 20 years. Was my ignorance on that count the general way of things, sales-wise?

“It was diminishing returns, really. We felt the better we got the less we were selling, at least in Britain. When we were touring Switzerland, Germany and France we were getting good crowds and people were buying the new records. But over here people had lost interest. I still consider that to be the case really – we were improving continually but no one was interested.

r-430924-1256611607-jpeg“In retrospect, it’s quite hard to consider how tied up the scene was with the music press. They called the shots, and if you didn’t get a prominent review you were done for. Also, John Peel wasn’t really into the later stuff so much, so we couldn’t get a session there. Our whole lifeblood of the radio and the press was cut off apart from in Europe. Over there, we’d still get sessions, reviews, publicity, interviews, so tried to tour there as much as we could.

“But we were hitting 30 and completely skint, half of the band still living with their parents, rehearsing in front rooms. Also, I’d fallen in love with the idea of sampling by then, as was used minimally on a couple of the later albums. I could see massive potential yet knew the band weren’t going to be into that.”

Hence Moonshake. The die was cast.

“Exactly, yeah.”

In more recent years, David has certainly moved on, having gone on to complete a Master of Science degree in taxonomy and biodiversity at London’s Imperial College and carving out a career in conservation. He’s also published a well-received book, A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects. And since I’ve known that, I’ve looked back on at least two of those early songs in a different light. When I hear about Cruelty‘s ‘scientist in research’ I see David in a white coat (albeit as an ethical, animal-friendly scientist, of course), while that ‘dumb advertising’ on In Transit has me thinking of the songwriter as he ‘swans around Greater London’ or ‘ducks and dives around Dartford’, probably on some exposed bit of estuary, a pair of binoculars in his hand.

“Well, it has been known!”

And seeing as David’s a father to 11-year-own twins, I felt I should ask if his children have been known to go around whistling Happy Shopper or Sandy from time to time?

“Err, no, but they have been known to inspire the odd song, but not in a namby-pamby kind of way. They have a knack of saying quite surreal things that sometimes seem quite apposite. They have barely any interest in music, although my daughter likes Little Mix and they sometimes come with me to matinees or see me perform acoustically, and normally cringe with embarrassment or say something non-committal!”

Despite that vote of non-confidence, since their return The Wolfhounds have carried on from where they left off, not just making cutting-edge recordings but in the last few years playing some happening venues and events too, such as the New York and Berlin Popfests, and the Scared To Get Happy box-set and afore-mentioned C86 reissue launch nights.

There have also been dates in Paris, Madrid and Norway, plus several John Peel tribute bills and their own headline shows, while back in March, comedian Stewart Lee invited them to play the final ATP (All Tomorrow’s Party) event in Wales, where they also went down a storm. Then came Untied Kingdom, and I get the feeling there’s plenty more where that came from in 2017. Watch this space.

Quiet Corner: The Wolfhounds love to curl up with a good book (Photo: Andrew Springham)

Quiet Corner: The Wolfhounds love to curl up with a good book (Photo: Andrew Springham)

At time of going to press, a few tickets (£12 plus booking or £14 on the door) remained for Saturday, December 3’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party (7.30pm-11.30pm), starring The Membranes, The Wolfhounds, The Folk Devils and Vukovar, with details on the Un-Peeled Facebook page, via the bands, or this WeGotTickets.com link.

And for all the latest from The Wolfhounds try them via their Bandcamp, Facebook and Twitter links.

 

 

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Tripping the dark fantastic with The Membranes – in conversation with John Robb

Bass Instinct: John Robb, in action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Bass Instinct: John Robb, in action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

It’s fair to say that the bands topping the bill at this weekend’s Un-Peeled Christmas Party at The Continental, Preston, Lancashire, are enjoying something of a renaissance.

Post-punk outfit The Membranes and C86 outsiders The Wolfhounds have both released LPs to be proud of in recent times, three decades after they first shared dressing rooms on the indie circuit. And they’ve shifted more albums in the last couple of years than for many moons, with critical acclaim heaped upon them from the more discerning music press.

More of the latter in the next feature on this site, but first I’m focusing on fellow Death to Trad Rock troubadours The Membranes, talking inner space, outer space, dark energy, dark matter and much more with the band’s bassist and front-man John Robb.

At times it seems that Blackpool born and bred John’s never off our TV screens, this human whirlwind of an author, blogger, broadcaster and journalist something of a ‘go to’ talking head when it comes to online, on screen and on air tributes to lost rock stars and all manner of conversations regarding music culture’s past, present and future.

You may even recall talk of the last of the rocking mohawks on these very pages recently, as Ajay Saggar and Marcus Parnell reminisced about their formative days with ‘80s Preston indie favourites Dandelion Adventure.

The Membranes were a major catalyst for that band, with Marcus (aka ‘Fat Mark’) leading a loyal army of fervent fans following them all over. And it seems that John’s band – back together since 2009 – still inspire that level of adulation all over. But first, a bit about those Lancashire roots.

“Preston’s always been a big part of The Membranes’ story, and always a great place to play back In the old days. In the post-punk era, Blackpool had the bands and Preston had the audience, with classic venues like The Warehouse. We had some great gigs there, with people like Mark from Much Hoole and others smashing up venues!”

I think he’s being metaphorical there, but didn’t ask, instead fast-forwarding to November 2016 and The Membranes’ recent dates with The Sisters of Mercy. How did the Leeds rockers’ crowd react to their support act?

“It was an amazing reaction. When you’re supporting you never know what you’re going to get, and may get audiences resenting the fact that this other band’s playing. But they were really open from the first song. Even those who didn’t get it were trying hard to be really positive. And all the CDs we took along sold.”

12803293_10154004849639185_1994445922401642799_nThere seem to be lots of physical record sales of late, be it for 2015’s Dark Matter/Dark Energy (Cherry Red) or more recent remix LP Inner Space Outer Space (Louder than War), with its reworks of the previous album’s initial songs masterminded by the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, the Bad Seeds, Einsturzende Neubaten, Keith Levene, Reverend And The Makers, The Pop Group, and many more.

“It’s the economics of rock’n’roll these days. Not every town and city is blessed with a shop like Action Records, with people out of the habit of buying in shops. And a lot still think they can get it off the internet for free.”

The Membranes have also toured with Killing Joke and Therapy this year, and this site’s favourite band The Undertones, with a great photo of both bands together a few weeks back, captioned ‘The nicest chaps in rock and roll with the nicest chaps in rock and roll’.

“Yeah, we got on very well, and have known them a really long time. They’re really nice people to tour with. That’s also the case for The Sisters (of Mercy), despite them having a reputation for being difficult, and the fact that Andrew Eldridge doesn’t suffer fools.”

Away from the band, I see John’s got a live date in the diary with The Smiths’ guitar legend Johnny Marr, following the publication of the Mancunian’s autobiography, with the pair in conversation at Birmingham Town Hall (Friday, December 9th, with details here). Will he be taking his bass along?

“Well, I know he’ll take his guitar along … but he’s a very high standard, isn’t he!”

Are you suggesting you’re not?

“I’m really good at my style, but I don’t practise his style. I’m in that Peter Hook school. He told me (the pair in conversation to mark the publication of Peter’s Unknown Pleasures – Inside Joy Division book four years ago) The Rolling Stones once asked him to join, making their shortlist. He thought that was amazing, but then said, ‘To be honest – I can’t learn your songs’.

“He can’t play cover versions, and that’s a very post-punk thing, I think – picking up a guitar or bass and writing music without learning how to play music, coming up with your own style. Nowadays people tend to go to college for four years and learn every song. I don’t know which way’s best really. It’s quite good to be able to pick out your own style.”

Mohawk Master: John Robb in live action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Mohawk Master: John Robb in live action with The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Incidentally, what ever became of John’s original, erm … distinctive homemade bass?

“It was stolen out of my house – a complete nightmare, around 1992. It was heart-breaking – it meant absolutely nothing to anyone else. It only ever worked for me. I’m sure they nicked it, got halfway down the street, then thought, ‘What the f*** is that?’ It looks like a stick!’ People would borrow but couldn’t play it. It was so small and a weird shape and it’s hard to get your hand around it. But these days I’d probably still use what I’ve got now – my (Fender) Precision – because it’s a heavier sound.”

The Membranes have certainly packed in a lot of work this year – not bad for a band up for a 40th anniversary next year.

“It would be if we hadn’t taken 25 years off!”

Okay, so John’s also been at the helm of fellow punk rockers Goldblade since ’95, among all his other media work and writing, but let’s not split hairs.

“It was a long weekend!”

It’s not like you were idle for all those years.

“We had to take time off to study the universe.”

You didn’t go too far though.

“No, we just went to Manchester! The thing is that we only came back because My Bloody Valentine asked us to play the ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties) Festival. That went really well, so we did this album. I just wanted to make a record I could listen to on the headphones and go, ‘F***! That sounds good!’ But then a few more said, ‘F***! That does sound good!”

14718717_10154651021854185_5936125292192229257_n“I thought it would just be me, but it’s rolled and rolled, ending up being our bestseller, doubling the sales of anything we put out before. It’s like everyone’s caught up with us. When we started people didn’t know what we were and would look baffled when we were playing. Then all these American bands turned up and we got told we were ripping them off! Err – yeah, of course – we had a crystal ball to look into the future!’

“Coming from Blackpool it makes it all the more difficult. Section 25 suffered that as well. To me their first album (1981’s Always Now) equals Joy Division’s – an amazing record. Yet in interviews there will be references to candy floss, the Tower … I’ve no problem with that, but our contemporaries like The Fall came from Manchester, Nick Cave was living in Berlin, Sonic Youth came out of New York … all cooler places. But coming from Blackpool they thought we must be taking the piss!”

So, just a few miles back up the road from his Fylde coast roots, what can we expect from John and his band this time at the ‘Conti’?

“We’ve got a whole new album ready, so will play three or four songs off that. And it’s not even recorded yet. We’re not really lumbered with hit records. If you’re The Undertones you’ve got to play Teenage Kicks, because it sells every venue out, and Lemmy always played Ace of Spades and never complained because it kept him going. But we can just play what we like – we’re not hampered by having a hit!”

Won’t there be someone out there shouting for the cult single that made No.6 in John Peel’s Festive 50 in 1984 – Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder?

“Occasionally you’ll get that, but for us it’s more about the sound and the attitude. I’ll be disappointed if people expect us just to play songs they semi-remember from 30 years ago, and just hope they will understand what we’re trying to do.

“For us it feels a lot better now. All the ideas we had in the ‘80s were way beyond our means and the songs were too difficult to play. They were so complex – almost like prog songs. Coming out of punk we only knew about two things. Now, if we want to go classical or into all these mad directions we know how to do it.”

So can we expect something of a celebration of all that dark matter, dark energy, inner space and outer space?

r-1014032-1184217392-jpeg“Yeah, we’ve always been fascinated by space, and when I met the head of the CERN project after a TEDx talk, we had a massive conversation all about the universe, and everything he told me fused with the album, which is very dark sounding. The idea of dark matter and the mystery of it poetically fascinated me, so it had to be the album title, and the songs started to feed into that.”

What will the line-up be on the night in Preston?

“A four-piece – me and Nick Brown from Blackpool, Rob (Haynes) from Manchester and Pete (Byrchmore) from Birmingham.”

And the other acts on the bill (I asked him this before a late change added Vukovar to the bill)?

“We’re not competitive – we all like each other. I love The Wolfhounds’ new album. We all kind of cheer each other on. You’re on the barricades together. We’ve never had that sense of competitiveness that you get in the bigger music scene. Maybe that’s why we all end up in cult bands!

“I only met The Folk Devils once, for about 20 seconds! We both supported The Fall at The Lyceum in London in 1984. It’ll be nice to meet them properly. They’re a great band too. It’s an amazing bill, and Rico (la Rocca, promoting the event as ‘Tuff Life Boogie’) does amazing stuff for Preston, with these really diverse bills. It’s a big town, and Gordon (Gibson) at Action Records has helped give it that reputation. But for the kind of music he’s putting on it’s an outpost, compared to Manchester.

”Similarly, we played Middlesbrough last week and on the night about 120 came and the promoter made a profit – I’ve never seen him so happy! I like playing those fringe towns and taking complex, weird music out there. And if people get to hear what we do, I think they’ll like it.”

Releasing the Flexible Membrane EP in 1980, did John ever contemplate that almost four decades later there would still be such an interest in Europe, the UK and the US for the band by the time he reached the grand old age of 55?

“When you’re young you don’t think past 25, and we were all set to burn out – living pretty fast. You’d think no one would like that kind of music by now. But – staring 60 in the eye – it’s more popular than ever, and virtually every band that came out of 1977/80 still going, apart from The Clash. It has a longevity no one expected.

“When we were 17 we loved Captain Beefheart, Howling Wolf and loads of old blues guys, and we’re a modern version of all that – old people who haven’t lost our edge really.”

51q5up2rvul-_sx305_bo1204203200_Three decades after their Death to Trad Rock EP (also the title of a John Robb book and tie-in CD on the ‘80s post-punk fanzine scene in 2009), give us a medical condition check on rock’s life expectancy right now – is it good, fair, critical, serious or dead?

“Ha! Rock music is a great musical form but at that point in time it was too suffocating. But one of the great things about rock music is that it keeps morphing into different forms.

“Some of the best things today are on the fringes of metal – when they go into drone or psychedelia, bands like Wardruna from Norway – Viking folk music played on traditional instruments. That’s where all the weird shit is! If (John) Peel was alive now he’d be playing that kind of thing.

Death to Trad Rock was just a cool title to antagonise at the time, but also a celebration. People will think they’re hip and say we’re only allowed to like certain types of music. But we got past that crap about 100 years ago!”

There certainly seems to have been a shift from the old big record company approach to a more punk DIY model, regarding ‘crowdfunding’ and so on.

“I like crowdfunding, and it works for us. We crowdfunded our remix album and we’re going to crowdfund a film about the universe too. Now, 20 years ago you’d have to go on your knees and grovel to someone asking them to give you money for a film, and they’d still say no. But we have an opportunity to make a film now, and with the technology can make something much cheaper.

“I love film, but of course I’m more into my music, and will spend every penny to make that perfect … or perfectly imperfect!”

How was it recording a BBC Radio One session for John Peel back in 1984?

“The same as for everyone really – it was a bit odd, because Dale Griffin was a bit grumpy! But I was a massive Mott the Hoople fan, so put up with it. It’s just a shame it wasn’t (Mott bass legend) Overend Watts, who I met at an after-show party on their previous tour. He was such a hero when I was 12 or 13, and I told him, ‘I’ve just got to shake your hand’ And – unbelievably – he said, ‘It’s John Robb, isn’t it? From The Membranes? I love your band!’”

“I thought, ‘How the f*** does Overend Watts know my band?’ But he liked The Monks and all that weird underground cult music. So we became good friends and have kept in touch.”

Those alternative celebrity endorsements must count for a lot, not least the love previously professed for his band by Big Black singer-songwriter and guitarist turned acclaimed sound engineer Steve Albini, and My Bloody Valentine singer-songwriter turned producer Kevin Shields.

Beyond Spike: John Robb lets rip with post-punk survivors The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

Beyond Spike: John Robb lets rip with post-punk survivors The Membranes (Photo: Phil Newall)

“There’s always things you tell people, but they think you’re making it up! But we were the first band to be recorded by Albini after Big Black. We went to his house and recorded an album in his cellar. He’d never been asked before.

“When we recorded Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder, we felt that sounded perfect but had no idea how we got it to sounds like that. But when we went to his house he showed me all his Membranes records and Rox fanzines (John’s first publication) that he bought in Rough Trade in 1985, and he said he’d been trying to find me. He wanted my label to put his early records out. I tell people that now and they say, ‘That can’t be right! It must be the other way around.”

Well, it would seem that Steve Albini at least has a more romantic notion of Blackpool’s musical worth then.

“Ha! It probably fascinates him more. It’s like with Shellac (the occasional Chicago three-piece, including Steve Albini). We played the Brudenell in Leeds last night and they were also on, and they just like playing cool venues. Instead of playing London you could probably get them to play Blackpool instead. They don’t work in a conventional way. They play weird gigs in weird towns. And I reckon Steve will have been fascinated by how we sounded like we do coming from a town that was totally different.

“As for Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine used to support us in Manchester, and Nick (Brown) played on their first release. That’s why Kevin reformed us really.”

If John had to boil down a career in The Membranes to two gigs, which would he choose?

“The choir gig we played in Estonia or Manchester. That was mind-blowing. You’d think, how does that work?’ But it does – really well! I saw this choir in Estonia – Sireen – during Tallinn Music Week and went up to them after and said, ‘We’ve got to work together!’

“I managed to get a gig with an Estonian promoter, but had never worked with a choir before, so it was a case of me singing parts to them. They then brought in Estonian folk songs, which we arranged around a piano. The only rehearsal we had was the soundcheck of the actual gig. I like to take a gamble! It could have gone badly wrong, but I felt I had nothing to lose. It’s not a career – everything’s on a tightrope!

Choral Treat: The Membranes with the BIMM choir, set to be heard again together at Manchester's Ritz in April 2017 (Photo: BIMM)

Choral Treat: The Membranes with the BIMM choir and BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley, set to be heard again together at Manchester’s Ritz in April 2017 (Photo: BIMM)

“We’re now set to play The Ritz in Manchester with a 20-piece choir next year (the British and Irish Modern Music Instititute – BIMM – choir, on Saturday, April 29th, in a show also featuring ex-Fall chanteuse Brix with her band The Extricated, Dub Sex, The Blinders, and more. For details head here). It’s a massive venue and another big risk, but tickets are going well.”

It must be a buzz to have all those voices behind his band. At this rate, are we likely to see John take over from Gareth Malone on the BBC series The Choir?

“Weirdly, that was mentioned the other day. I don’t watch telly and someone had to explain to me who he was, but … okay. We are a punk band, but punk to me is being very smart and revolutionary, taking risks and gambles with music.”

Rather than burning rare acetates of Sex Pistols singles (he says, bringing up a recent publicity stunt by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s son Joe Corre, who burned an estimated £5m worth of Pistols and punk memorabilia in protest at what he saw as punk’s 40th anniversary celebrations turning music’s revolution into a ‘museum piece’)?

“I don’t give a f*** about burning stuff. I just don’t like the way he’s talking on behalf of everyone else, saying punk is over. Try telling that to a 15-year-old kid inspired by this ancient spirit to go and do some art, being told he can’t! You can’t burn that. Joe Corre’s got £47m in his bank account because he sold underpants and knickers. It’s nothing to do with him.”

With its online empire, magazine, record company and so on, John’s sideline, Louder Than War, has certainly made a huge impact and proved it’s here to stay. The site’s 15-part manifesto alone is certainly a joy, and rather stirring too (with a link here). Do his writers have to chant those 15 points as a mantra every morning?

“That would be a great idea, like in Chairman Mao’s China – the Little Red Book, a digital version! It’s important to set parameters, but so many people write for us and what we’re really into is encouraging young writers.

“A girl from Blackpool did her first review for the site last week, on the band Lush, and their bass player started bitching about my writer and all these other old writers started criticising her syntax and grammar. But all their grammar was wrong as well. These are just old men of my age, moaning and complaining!

14907002_1154569294623731_7553018851655712774_n“The only bad thing about young people now is that they don’t tell those old people to f*** off! That’s what we did. They’ve got so much talent, but they’re scared of the old people. I see that on The X-Factor, where a 20-year-old singer’s so desperate they’ll be kow-towing to some weirdo creep like Louis Walsh. Why? Just make your own art!”

So what’s John’s advice for a new band coming through, from someone who’s been out there and at it for four decades now?

“One of my favourite words is ‘relentless’, and you don’t get in a band to avoid getting a job. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the world. Okay, it’s not like picking people off a road after they’ve been hit by a bus or working down the pits, but it’s very low-paid and you get snubbed or slagged off all the time.

“You really need an immense amount of self-belief and an incredible work ethic. All day you’re working and hustling like mad. Most musicians are quite introverted people, but the only way people are going to hear you is by you telling them you exist.

“It’s easier now with the internet, but back in the day I’d stand in a callbox in Blackpool for six hours a night, putting in washers the drummer stole from GEC in Preston, the same size as 10p pieces. For about three years all our phone calls were free. But it was f***ing freezing – just off the prom, with a howling wind coming off the sea.

“Yet that attitude and idea of standing there in a callbox all night calling one person after another, asking if they’ve got another number so I could ring the next person, was basically what you had to do.

“Also – write and keep writing, writing, writing, and keep playing, playing, playing. It’s an amazing life, unless you want a proper house in a proper kind of world – you won’t have that!”

 Finally, with the John Peel link in mind again, to mark your Un-Peeled Xmas Party appearance, let’s go back to  Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder‘s No. 6 placing in the festive 50 in 1984. There was talk of there being many similar postcodes and handwriting on the entries. What have you got to say for yourself, John?

“What happened was that my brother enthusiastically sent four postcards from Liverpool while he was at university there. I don’t think he understood the concept of how you rig a poll, so probably wrote the same thing on each, and Peel thought we’d fixed it. And because he mentioned it, it sort of stuck.

Lining Up: The Membranes in live action, with John Robb flanked by drummer Rob Haynes and guitarist Pete Byrchmore (Photo: Phil Newall)

Lining Up: The Membranes in live action, with John Robb flanked by drummer Rob Haynes and guitarist Pete Byrchmore (Photo: Phil Newall)

“But I think it was more likely that because you had a choice of songs you’d write down two you liked then put a curve-ball in for the third, and because of the title of our song, that was one you’d automatically think of. It had such an impact that year, so those who maybe voted for The Cure and New Order might have felt that was a bit mainstream so also voted for us – something off the wall.

“Ours was the ‘go to’ weird track, and got us one more radio play. And I still think it’s a great record. I’m my own worst critic, but when you get it right … I still play that record and think, ‘F***!’

“We did it in an all-night session, took it back to Mark Tilton’s house the next morning and were just rolling around on the floor, laughing, because it was so f***ing perfect! We kept playing the beginning, where the bass comes in, over and over again, thinking, ‘F***! That sounds good!”

At time of going to press, a few tickets (£12 plus booking or £14 on the door) remained for Saturday, December 3’s Un-Peeled Xmas Party (7.30pm-11.30pm), starring The Membranes, The Wolfhounds, The Folk Devils and Vukovar, with details on the Un-Peeled Facebook page, via the bands, or this WeGotTickets.com link.

Be sure to come back here for writewyattuk’s Wolfhounds feature over the next day, starring David Callahan. In the meantime, you can keep up to date with all things Membranes via their websiteFacebook and Twitter links.  

And for all the latest from Louder Than War, head to John Robb’s site here.

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A weekend to savour (pt. II) … The Undertones – Kentish Town, The Forum 

Derry's Finest: The Undertones, sound-checking at Manchester Academy earlier on the tour (Photo copyright: Kate Greaves)

Derry’s Finest: The Undertones, sound-checking at Manchester Academy earlier on the tour (Photo: Kate Greaves)

What a weekend, with Friday’s blinding set from The Vapors in Liverpool followed by a road-trip to Kent for a rare Woking FC away win, then up to the smoke for The Undertones’ 40th anniversary tour finale.

That said, let’s get the miserable stuff out of the way first, as I’m still kicking myself for not getting in earlier and working my way down the front, the snob in me not so keen on sharing this special moment with such a big (sell-out) crowd.

Yet while I might have preferred a ‘secret gig’ in The Bull and Gate next door, I certainly don’t begrudge the band the fact that all these years on they can still fill a place this size. That’s some going. And while I’d have preferred something more intimate, I had plenty of chances to pick more of a backwater during this 26-date six-month ‘jaunt’ (other than a memorable evening at Chester’s Live Rooms in June, reviewed here).

Compared to The Vapors’ 35-year hiatus (after barely four years together initially), it seems like The Undertones never really left us, despite that 16-year gap between Feargal Sharkey’s last shows out front in ’83 and the start of the Paul McLoone era in ’99. And while we were celebrating 40 years since those early Derry appearances, I was celebrating 35 since my debut (Positive Touch tour, mid-June ’81, Guildford Civic Hall).

My own key moments were mostly up the A3 in London, not least those Lyceum and Crystal Palace FC farewells in the summer of ’83, the first post-Sharkey shows outside Derry in 2000 at Harlesden’s Mean Fiddler and the Fleadh, Finsbury Park, and a later date at The Garage in Highbury. So a venue where I saw the O’Neill brothers with That Petrol Emotion in ’87 and ’88 (in its Town & Country Club era) seemed an apt choice for this tour’s finale.

My mood on arrival wasn’t helped by a late arrival, missing out on a first chance to see Cork’s Sultans of Ping FC in 24 years (Aldershot Buzz Club, October ’92). Put that down to traffic woes – it seems to have got far worse since my first regular trips ‘up town’ in the mid-80s. And then there were the bar prices – enough to make anyone from outside the capital weep. Three (not even full) plastic beakers of Old Speckled Hen for £16.50? Are you having a giraffe?

So there I was, nursing my ale, struggling to get much closer than the sound-desk to the action, surrounded by less committed punters, shall we say. But help was at hand from Derry’s finest, on a night when few acts could have successfully lifted my spirits. And I swear The Undertones can still raise the dead on their night.

Higher Ground: The view from above at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Higher Ground: The view from above at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds (Photo: Kate Greaves)

From the opening chords of Jimmy Jimmy to Jump Boys, Whizz Kids, I Gotta Getta and onwards, they were on top form, although I struggled at first, a fair few around me latching on to the bigger hits but generally nonplussed with the rest. It didn’t help that someone to my right was shouting, ‘Jimmy Jimmy, oh!!!’ after every line. But as the night wore on I successfully channelled the vibe – managing to work my way down the front, at least figuratively speaking.

And what’s not to like when you can look up and see Damian and John flanking the stage, Billy working away at the back. Paul preening in the centre, and Mickey wise-cracking by his side? Yes, there were moments when my neighbours were a little lost amid less celebrated songs like Dig Yourself Deep (‘If you don’t know this one, don’t worry, it’ll be over in one minute 52 seconds,’ said Paul) and Much Too Late. But they loved the bigger hits, so fair play. In fact, they couldn’t push that ‘record’ button on their phones fast enough at times.

On a dark and miserable winter’s night, Here Comes The Summer offered us a few rays of sunshine for the soul, while Tearproof, Hypnotised, Family Entertainment and Nine Times Out of Ten were heaven-sent. And although there should have been a bigger surge from the back for (relatively) modern classic Thrill Me and the ever-awesome Male Model, there was a genuine seismic shift for Teenage Kicks. And from there, where but True Confessions?

Pretty soon we had punk rock exclamation mark You Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It?) and Girls That Don’t Talk, before the mood shifted for the delightful Wednesday Week and fellow ‘slowie’ Julie Ocean, the pace cranked up again for She’s A Runaround, Listening In and Get Over You, the band bidding us farewell but in no way finished.

Along the way there was also the Heartbreakers’ Get Off The Phone, Billy’s Third (‘This was our drummer’s third song, he sold the first two to The Beatles,’ said Mickey), It’s Gonna Happen, The Love Parade, and When Saturday Comes, which it clearly had. And what an encore – from the tell-tale opening riff of I Know A Girl they never let up, My Perfect Cousin going down a storm before Top Twenty gave rise to the song it namechecks, T-Rex’s Sold Gold Easy Action, another special moment.

Still they weren’t done, this 10-legged jukebox of delights giving us Girls Don’t Like It before they went mad down the front for Mars Bars. I thought that was surely it. How do you top that? But a genuinely lovely moment followed, John Peel’s dulcet tones coming over the PA, introducing ‘the best record in the whole history of the world ever’, barely half an hour after its last airing.

Twice in one evening, with such a great back-catalogue to delve into? Well, if it was good enough for Peel, it was good enough for me … and definitely worked. What’s more, it was really the only way to end this mammoth tour, on a night when we had more than 30 songs to marvel at. Thanks fellas, and here’s to the 41st anniversary jaunt.

Saturday Comes: Damian, Paul, Mickey and John out front - what an attacking line-up (Photo: Kate Greaves)

Saturday Comes: Damian, Paul, Mickey and John out front – what an attacking line-up (Photo: Kate Greaves)

For a whole host of Undertones-related feature-interviews (including those with Mickey Bradley, Billy Doherty, Paul McLoone and Damian O’Neill), reviews and general ramblings on this site, type ‘Undertones’ into the search engine and see what happens. 

With thanks to lighting supremo Kate Greaves for the use of the live and soundcheck photographs from the 40th anniversary tour.  

 

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A weekend to savour (pt. I) …The Vapors – The Loft, Liverpool Arts Club

Backstage Pass: David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith and Michael Bowes at Dingwall's (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Backstage Pass: David Fenton, Ed Bazalgette, Steve Smith and Michael Bowes at Dingwall’s (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

I could say I’d been waiting 35 years for this weekend to come, but that’s being a bit melodramatic. One thing’s for sure though – I finally got to see a band I suspected I’d never catch live, and they were well worth the wait.

I’d already missed the openers in Dublin and Camden Town, and had no chance of getting to Wolverhampton the following night on this four-show return. What’s more, at eight o’clock last Friday evening the odds were still pretty much stacked against myself and a mate (back from Finland to mark the occasion) getting to this venue either. But on a treacherous November night, despite the traffic jams and foul weather encountered en route from my Lancashire base, we successfully navigated our way across Liverpool before a ‘trickling down the neck’ sleet-storm on the final leg up Seel Street.

Our late arrival ruled out support act Klammer and guest DJ Jacqui Carroll’s spot, but we were in time for the main attraction, not least thanks to a fellow attendee swapping my plastic fiver for pound coins in the nearest car park, saving me the ignominy of feeding 60 titchy fivepences into a cantankerous ticket machine.

I’d seen fellow Guildford lad Steve Smith with later John Peel sessioneers Shoot! Dispute a couple of times, but never with his breakthrough band … until now. And while we’re all a little older, there was no mistaking him nor band-mates Ed Bazalgette and Dave Fenton as they filed out to join Howard Smith’s replacement, drummer Michael Bowes.

David’s hair has turned … erm, a lighter shade, while Ed’s has … well, gone. As for Steve, he was as I perhaps imagined – like a kid brother of fellow Surrey bass guitar legend Jean-Jacques Burnel. Yet I reckon they retain the youthful looks of the fellas I’ve seen belting out Turning Japanese on all those Top of the Pops re-runs. The years have been pretty good to The Vapors, and the spirit clearly remains.

Where I was, four or five rows back (my guest for the weekend always preferred to hog stage right) I couldn’t see much of Ed, but now and again he strode forward, guitar in hand, taking in his wider audience (and a few of us were wider, it had to be said). Besides, I was in a prime position to catch the others.

Arguments aside about Howard not being around this time, Michael was a revelation, a real powerhouse, regularly off his stool to catch a cymbal or lead from the rear. He was having so much fun too, and it was contagious. In this case at least, a happy drummer makes for a happy band and happy crowd.

Lining Up: The Vapors, in live action at the Arts Club in Liverpool, November 2016 (Photo: Owen Carne)

Lining Up: The Vapors, in live action at the Arts Club in Liverpool, November 2016 (Photo: Owen Carne)

While Ed was closer, Steve’s bass was more prominent to these ears, and together with Michael’s percussive masterclass we had a perfect foundation for those six-strings and great songs. And the voices? There was talk of detuning by half a tone to reach the notes, but not once did I feel anything less than admiration for the results. What’s more, those harmonies really worked.

Cards on the table – I was always a first album man, and still love New Clear Days, while at times I struggled with Magnets. Yet this performance made me appreciate all the more the fine songs on there. If anything, the live versions were better, inspiring me to go back and listen again with fresh ears.

There’s talk of new songs when the band return next year, but this time it was all about the back-catalogue, and we were treated to all but one track off the debut LP, six off the follow-up, both sides of the debut 45, two more B’s, and a rarity. And they started with the latter, warming up nicely (while I was still drying out) on Secret Noise, before News at Ten, the first of many emotional highs for this fan, leaving me in no doubt I really was there. I wasn’t even a teenager when that LP was released (not quite), yet here they were – back again, especially for me (of course).

There were early technical issues, Dave disappearing with his guitar while the others jokingly considered carrying on without him, giving brief snatches of two b-sides I love – Wasted and Talk Talk. Maybe next time, eh.

Galleries for Guns saw them away again, and then came the first of those Magnets tracks to make an impact, Steve’s rumbling bass and Ed’s staccato guitar punctuating Johnny’s in Love Again, before an elongated Live at the Marquee, complete with instrumental duelling, each leaving us in no doubt as to the competency of this quartet. The hours rehearsing had clearly paid off.

Spring Collection is always my ‘go to’ opener, and the band were in their stride by now, fellow lead track Jimmie Jones keeping that vibe super-fresh. Meanwhile, the ever-poignant Letter from Hiro was always destined to be a highlight, and was everything I hoped for, a favourite on the deck and now in concert too.

Those neat three-part harmonies on Isolated Case led us nicely towards a sublime Sixty Second Interval, my lop-sided smile remaining for Somehow and the military might of Cold War, the strength in depth on New Clear Days all too apparent.

Behind You: Michael Bowes calls the shots at Dingwall's (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Behind You: Michael Bowes calls the shots at Dingwall’s (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

The band joked about writing about venues that would ultimately see them close, and up next was Civic Hall. Again, Ed was out of my sight for much of it, but I was pretty sure he was picking out a keyboard solo. At least he was in my head. Try telling me I’m wrong.

While many of the lyrics remain as relevant today amid the political mess of 2016, there was a suggestion that David was some kind of visionary when we reached Daylight Titans, pondering on his ability to freeze time for this special occasion.

A further indication of how good this band’s b-sides surfaced on debut flip Sunstroke, Michael keeping us on track, going where Howard took us all those years before – dictating the tempo on Trains. That call and response final verse remains sublime, and while it’s not an overly-emotional song, I got a little dewy-eyed thinking back to my own days on Guildford station waiting for the Reading-Tonbridge stopper while my old man waited to load mail across on platform eight.

I kind of feared the next song. Yes, it was the big hit, the one that tends to get all the airplay. For lesser audiences it could have been the moment when they finally let loose, recognising something they finally knew. Yet this was a cultured gathering, on the money from the start. And as it turned out, Turning Japanese was nothing short of a celebration, and I embraced it far more than for many a year.

Prisoners was next, and it struck me for the first time that it carried a ‘60s alt-surf Nuggets vibe, one complementing David’s stripy top. And then they were away with Bunkers. I’ve got no idea where we go from here, but this was all about the moment, and I was keen to drink it all in.

On returning, there was no real surprise as Ed’s guitar ushered in Waiting for the Weekend, that criminally-ignored (at least commercially) gem followed by the traditional finale, Here Comes The Judge, just as fresh today. Again, we’re talking quality fare.

They were soon away, an early start the next day ruling out my chances of sticking around. But they’ll be back next year, and what’s a few months to wait after all this time? Yes, The Vapors are back, and that’s got to be worth celebrating.

Stage Presence: Steve, David and Ed out front in Camden on date two of the Vapors' four-show Waiting for the Weekend 2016 tour (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

Stage Presence: Steve, David and Ed out front in Camden on date two of the Vapors’ four-show Waiting for the Weekend 2016 tour (Photograph courtesy of © Derek D’Souza at http://www.blinkandyoumissit.com)

For this site’s November 2016 interview with Ed Bazalgette, head here, and for September 2016’s interview with Dave Fenton, try here. Meanwhile, for all the latest on The Vapors visit their Facebook page or keep in touch via Twitter and Instagram.

With extra thanks to Derek D’Souza for the Dingwall’s photos (check out some of his brilliant work via this link), Owen Carne for the Arts Club shot, and Shaun Modern for his work behind the scenes.   

 

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All that matters is here – the Hannah Peel interview

Dreaming Head: Hannah Peel has had another amazing year

Dreaming Head: Hannah Peel has had a highly creative 2016, with much more to follow

Among the festive-themed adverts on our TV screens right now is a touching Aardman-animated tale made for the Alzheimer’s Research UK charity.

The Santa Forgot story follows a little girl, Freya, who while preparing for Christmas realises much of the magic has gone, and through her father learns how memory problems have stopped Santa’s worldwide visits, with the words spoken by Stephen Fry and music from Hannah Peel.

As self-styled ‘composer, arranger and singer’ Hannah put it, “Imagining a world where you grow up as a child and there isn’t a Santa Claus is utterly devastating. You see what’s going on with his elves, Freya going to see Santa, saying it’s going to be okay. It makes you feel there is hope and positivity, and a chance that things will be better.”

That message rings true for Hannah after her work on a dementia research project and on her second solo LP, Awake but Always Dreaming, written partly as therapy after losing her grandmother to the disease.

Research suggests clear benefits of music in relation to cognitive ability, songs that were key in our young adult years likely to provoke strong responses in the later stages of dementia. And that’s also something Hannah has learned from personal experience through her grandmother, and something she’s explored deeply.

Tonight, there’s an official launch party for her latest album, not far from her East London base at St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, curated by Kirsteen McNish of the Vine Collective. Described as ‘a meeting of minds through film, live music and poetry all based around the themes of her new album and memory’, the line-up also includes actor (and former Dr Who) Christopher Eccleston, poet/writer/filmmaker Lavinia Greenlaw, DJ We Are Wrangler, Lancashire electronica icon (and fellow East London resident) John Foxx, and director/choreographer Shelly Love.

Awake But Always Dreaming was released on the My Own Pleasure label in late September on double gatefold vinyl, digital and CD formats, and went  on to garner great reviews. It features 10 new songs, and from lead single All That Matters to a closing cover of The Blue Nile mastermind Paul Buchanan’s Cars In The Garden (with Hannah joined by Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts), it’s certainly compelling. And this from an artist who featured on another critically-acclaimed album this year, The Magnetic North’s Prospect of Skelmersdale.

What’s more, this year has also seen Hannah spearheading a Memory Tapes audio project, inviting fellow artists to make playlists of their lives, with electronica pioneers (and a close friend) John Foxx and Gary Numan among those already having followed her lead. And as she puts it, “I think of it like a time capsule, so if ever I fall into dementia, there would be a mixtape of the songs that connect for my children and grandchildren.”

Freya's Journey: A still from the Aardman Animation ad for Alzheimer's Research UK, with music from Hannah Peel

Freya’s Journey: From the Aardman advert for Alzheimer’s Research UK, with music from Hannah Peel

Is Hannah still in touch with former writewyattuk interviewee and her East London neighbour John Foxx, having previously featured in his band The Maths?

“Yeah, and he’s still got so much energy and power still, and still has that presence. He’s also doing a lot more sculpting and artwork – he’s massively into it and incredible at it.”

I feel I should go back a bit at this point, explaining how Hannah first came to public recognition with her ‘hand-punched music box’ EP Rebox, covering ‘80s bands Cocteau Twins, Soft Cell and New Order. Can she explain her on-going relationship with the music box?

“It’s a love-hate thing that started off as a bit of fun with Tainted Love. Every single note is hole-punched on paper and it’s become one of those things I adore doing but takes so long. By the end you feel you’ve wasted a whole day punching holes! But what comes out of that process is really beautiful.”

Is it her inner scientist – her geeky side – coming through?

“Definitely! I really love analogue synths, and I suppose the music box is the very basics of early computer technology. We rely on that so much, so making music without any cables – just paper and a pencil again – is really something. Even orchestrators don’t tend to use paper anymore – they do it all on a computer. So this feels like you’re touching the core again. That’s why I also use it at the end of this new record – it seems to sum up the childhood everyone goes back to.”

It was Hannah’s solo debut LP The Broken Wave that led to her first collaboration with ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong (who’s also featured with Blur, The Good The Bad And The Queen, and Gorillaz) and Erland Cooper (Erland & The Carnival, alongside Simon) on 2012’s stunning Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North.

She’s also created a series of limited edition EPs, including her version – on Rebox 2 – of John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts and Wild Beasts’ Palace. And this year has certainly been a prolific one, for as well as the second Magnetic North album there’s also been Hannah’s other live project – the artist transmogrifying as synth-based, space-age alter-ego Mary Casio, combining analogue electronics and a 33-piece colliery brass band to great effect, debuting to a sell-out Manchester audience.

Underpass Masters: The Magnetic North, on location in Skelmersdale. From the left: Hannah Peel, Simon Tong, Erland Cooper. (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Underpass Masters: The Magnetic North, on location in Skelmersdale. From the left: Hannah Peel, Simon Tong, Erland Cooper. (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

“This year has been amazing, and the Skelmersdale record was incredible to do. Doing that gave me the confidence to do this – tapping into childhood again, talking about things. With Mary, I wanted to do something that wasn’t just songs and using my voice, so had this side-project. I have this collection of keyboards and early synths, including Casio’s you can record your voice into. And just for fun sometimes I’d play people a song as a character.

“Then I got approached asking me to score for a brass band. They were playing the second half of Tubular Bells as the second half, and wanted a new composition for the first. I also discovered around then about the star constellation Cassiopeia, so thought Mary should go into space, on a journey, like my grandma and great-aunt – who never left Yorkshire but had always been a stargazer.

“So in the final years of her life Mary gets in a spaceship and goes to Cassiopeia. I wrote it with that in mind, that journey and the planets, nebulas and different stars visited along the way. It ends with a visit to the planet of past souls and a recording of my grandfather performing at Manchester Cathedral, aged 13 in 1921, one of the first recordings of a choir boy.”

Incidentally, Joyce Peel died earlier this year, aged 98, seven years after her diagnosis, and in a recent interview Hannah said she was keen to remember her now as ‘the beautiful soprano who moved to County Armagh to marry an organist, loved music and her family and sang in the choir her husband conducted’. With all that in mind, the Mary Casio project seems rather fitting. Besides, as she put it, “Scoring for brass bands has been amazing. I grew up playing in brass bands in Yorkshire, so going back to that is really magical. And since that first show at the Halle St Peter’s in May, we’ve done another in Leeds.”

Not having met Mary Casio personally, I confess to Hannah, I’m getting a picture there of Kate Rusby joining forces with ELO, a concept that rather tickles her. Is this also her Barnsley link coming to the fore?

“Yeah, although I don’t usually write about Yorkshire. As with Simon (Tong) writing about Skelmersdale, you look at certain towns you’re put in by your parents and don’t like it …”

She wanted to be back in Ireland at that point, I guess.

“Without a doubt, and my family craved to be there, but we couldn’t sell the house so spent every holiday going back on the ferry instead.”

Mirror signal: Hannah Peel, reflecting on a busy 2016

Mirror signal: Hannah Peel, reflecting on her compelling Awake But Always Dreaming album

That love continues, and while Hannah tends to do much of her writing and composing from her London studio, the new album was partly created with Magnetic North bandmate Erland at Attica Audio in County Donegal. And the fact that key parts of Hannah’s childhood were spent in the landscape of the North West Irish coast seems to inspire a sense of openness – places to roam and investigate – on the new record, before a more complex, darker, percussive thrust comes into the fray, as adult city life intrudes and inspires.

“I was born in Armagh, but so many from that area would go to the North West coast across the border for their holidays, and Donegal is a place I’ve been every year of my life. But I didn’t know there was a studio there until around two years ago. I knew the owner, Tommy McLaughlin (guitarist with the band Villagers) and was told to visit his studio, so one summer went along with Erland.

“We thought it may have been in his bedroom or attic but then turned up and it was the most amazing place – overlooking the glen and mountains, and just stunning. When you’re sat playing piano you have 10ft tall windows looking out on incredible views. It really added something – the sound of the record really came together there. You can do a lot in London, but don’t get that same sense of dreaming and escapism.”

The new album is one of two halves, mood-wise (the official description suggests it’s ‘full of vibrant, direct colour in the early stages contrasted with esoteric, dreamscape, legato movements towards the end’ – the ‘bright, raw magic and joy of personal relationships’ sitting alongside the premise of a gradual loss to dementia). but the overall message – like the new TV ad – is about hope and celebrating life, albeit with a dream-like feel, with daily life expressed and decoded.

“I often use deep meditation to comb the recesses of my mind I can’t reach during the day, and sometime the lines between reality and sleep become a little blurred. It’s an inspired feeling, the conscious awake dream becomes movement using that dreaming energy, but without passing entirely out of that waking state of consciousness. It’s like being asleep with one eye and awake with the other. You see things differently and get a real sense of the world around you and what’s important, which actually presents itself as being pretty simple.

“It’s supposed to feel like a journey into the mind but also into adulthood. There’s a constant reminder that however large the adventure or realised the ambition, to not forget about the ones who will always care, the ones standing waiting to welcome you back, the ones who will forever look after you and say simply, they love you. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters, caring and being cared for. To love and not be loved is one of the saddest thing of all.”

There’s certainly been a great response to the LP, initial critical acclaim leading to a ripple effect of appreciation.

“It’s been overwhelming – from personal stories and messages to people picking it up, writing about it and talking about it, even more so now. For me that’s really beautiful – it has a life of its own, rather than the usual music out for a month and then you don’t hear of it again.”

cs1672584-02a-bigLead single All that Matters got plenty of national radio airplay. Was that Hannah at her most commercial – going into dance-crossover territory?

“Definitely for this record, although I find I could probably do a lot more of that but have this kind of resistance in my soul that just doesn’t allow it. It seems to edge more towards a darker side! The first version of All that Matters is just piano, very melancholy and emotional, so it’s nice to touch a lot more people by doing a different production.”

It’s a lovely track in that stripped down format too, I might add, and well worth seeking out, even if I’d venture that the opening track is not an obvious snapshot of the LP it trails.

“Well, I want to take you on a journey, and that’s important for those who have been touched by dementia but also the lesser number who haven’t. I didn’t want to alienate anyone. I also wanted to discover that journey myself to help me understand it.

“Before I came to the realisation of what it was about I had many different tracks inspired by (Italo) Calvino’s Invisible Cities book – all these songs about mysterious worlds and places to go, a mix of songs like Octavia, the second half of Foreverest and Awake But Always Dreaming. But how would I put that all in an album without completely jumping around? And then I had this moment with my Grandma and realised it was actually perfect – you had to go into the brain rather than throwing that in at the beginning.”

Many of us have had those personal links to dementia through watching the suffering of loved ones – be they family or friends. Was this Hannah trying to make sense of her own close-hand experiences of dealing with dementia?

“Yes. As you very well know there’s never a day where something doesn’t happen or where something isn’t upsetting, and it makes you analyse not just them but also yourself and coping mechanisms with that. It was definitely therapy for me after she passed away.

“Also, talking to a lot of scientists helped. Although I grew up in Northern Ireland, but went to school in Barnsley, and so did Selina Wray, one of the lead research scientists at University College London, who works in Alzheimer’s research therapy. We met via Facebook through mutual friends and she ended up inviting me along to her lab to see what she did and to understand her work. She makes neurons from stem cells to analyse what happens with different cures.”

As it turned out, seeing those cells moving around in petri dishes under a microscope also put Hannah in mind of fireworks, stars and astronomy, leading to something of a creative realisation of her album’s theme (and arguably Mary Casio’s big adventure too).

“The fact that Selina’s from Barnsley also opened a door for me in understanding the science of what’s going on, helping me deal with it a lot more. It’s fascinating what they’re doing. There’s also something else via the Wellcome Collection, a programme with Government backing for artists and scientists to collaborate. It’s breaking down conceptions over what dementia is and how to handle it in an artistic way and get more people involved. I’m really happy to be part of that.

24957“Statistics suggest that one in three of us will die with dementia, and a third of us are connected to someone with dementia through family and friends. Around 850,000 people in the UK alone have it now and two in three affected will be women. It’s quite remarkable really, and it’s getting worse.”

True, and there’s a line on Conversations that seems particularly poignant – ‘When I awake, don’t recall your name, my only friend’. I think a lot of us can identify with that through loved ones suffering with dementia.

“Yes, and thinking of Still Alice (the Lisa Genova book, later adapted into the film of the same title, starring Julianne Moore), one thing I got out of that was that she says ‘I love you’ rather a lot, as was the case with my grandmother. She’d ask my Dad ‘Are you my lover?’ We make jokes about it to make it light-hearted, but it always came back to love.”

It must have been a hard album to write, emotionally, but I’m guessing it was somewhat therapeutic.

“Definitely, although it’s not an easy one to perform live. Some of them, I just don’t know how I’m going to do them. But the more hallucinogenic instrumentals are fun to do, really get into and go for it. And I don’t feel satisfied in a performance if I haven’t gone into that place myself.”

It was Hannah’s father’s job that brought her from Craigavon, Armagh, to England, a year’s contract leading to a much longer stay, initial stalling over the sale of a house then Hannah and her brother’s immersion in their schooling and a new set of friends ultimately leading to the family staying put. Was there a link with the Troubles back home at the time too?

“Not directly, although there was an element of just being out of that, trying something new. My parents never really spoke about that, and only over the last few years have I heard stories that made me think, ‘Wow’ – things at Dad’s work where you wonder how people live with all that. In Northern Ireland, you’re schooled a very different way to the South and what you’re told is very different. But with everything around the centenary of the 1916 Rising you get a different perspective as to what was going on and why there was so much hatred, and can really sympathise – even something like it being a British man responsible for ripping up the railways, leaving so many towns stranded and unable to get around in that era.

“And with Brexit, I honestly do not know what they’re going to do. I think there will be a massive rise in people wanting to leave. There’s no way people will survive going back to border patrols again.”

So where does Hannah reckon she’s best known now – Barnsley, Craigavon, Donegal, London, Orkney, Skelmersdale, or Liverpool (where she spent her university years and recently returned for a triumphant sell-out show at the Central Library)?

“I don’t think anybody knows me! I just like making music. But I think from living in Liverpool for so long and the Skelmersdale record this year, it could be around there! I think it’s wonderful we could sell out in Liverpool, a wonderful thing in a city you lived in so long. And to have a record out that touched so many people in that community … I studied there, worked there, and played in my first bands there, and have a massive love for that city and area.”

hannah-peel-rebox2I let on that I’d never previously felt an urge to visit Skem other than for covering football matches at White Moss Park then Selby Place in the past, but now have a feeling it may lead to sightings of Hannah – decked out in red poncho and distinctive headwear, of course – with Erland and Simon. Have they returned to Skelmersdale since making the album?

“We’ve been back a few times. I really love it, and for me there’s a real connection with the town I was born, Craigavon. That was also a new town, but a failed political town. There were a lot of murders and things that went on, and they never finished it, and the housing estates where they hoped everyone would be integrated were completely divided. Walking around Skem, I felt, ‘Wow! This is just like Craigavon … but without the horrible history.”

Supporting The Magnetic North on a memorable night back in October at Liverpool’s Central Library was author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who wrote some lovely things about the album and remains a champion of the band. How did they get to know each other?

“Years ago, he was doing something for Liverpool, making a film for the BBC, and I’ve followed him on Twitter. Knowing he lived just outside Liverpool and the photographers we work with (McCoy Wynne) were based in the town where he lived, I sent him the CD. I wasn’t really thinking he would write about it, just hoping he’d appreciate it. But he loved it and he’s been a massive supporter ever since.”

That recent Liverpool show was then followed by what was announced as a final Prospect of Skelmersdale date at the Polar Bear in in Hull, as that city builds up to its own spell as the UK City of Culture next year. And before you know it, it will be time for a third album from The Magnetic North. So will the next one be about Hannah’s Armagh or Barnsley roots?

“I’m still coming to a conclusion over where my home is! But I think we’ve come up with something that will encompass a lot of things. It might not be as grounded in one place. The journey has already started and we’ve done our research trips we do at the start, involving a list and a map of places to visit, the other two getting their perspective.

“I think it will come a lot quicker than the Skem album. It took a long time for Simon to realise what the last album would be about. He was very resistant about it being about the town and his life! He’s a guitarist and doesn’t say very much. It’s not in his nature to talk about himself. But I think it made him more open and enthusiastic. Simon’s been in a lot of bands and toured the world, so coming back down to earth and playing tiny venues with us must make him start to question what he’s doing!”

Skem Surfing: The Magnetic North's Simon Tong, Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper getting around Skelmersdale, (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Skem Surfing: The Magnetic North’s Simon Tong, Hannah Peel and Erland Cooper getting around Skelmersdale, (Photo copyright: McCoy Wynne)

Among the many lovely appraisals of Hannah’s work so far, came The Observer’s description of her as ‘A great singer and a latter-day Delia Derbyshire’. That’s quite an accolade, isn’t it?

“I know!”

In fact, there are plenty of mentions of Delia, of Daphne Oram and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – was that something she was aware of growing up, or did that all come later?

“Definitely a bit later. I was brought up with very traditional Irish music, song and dance. I suppose my passion for electronic music began when I started to work with John (Foxx). He was wanting someone to play violin and effects, and I’d been playing around with a few things, but I really cut my teeth with learning about synths and analogues five years ago when I started with working with him. It was then that I discovered how many wonderful people there are out there, and experimenters.”

She put her heart on your sleeve, so to speak, pretty early on with her ’80s covers, performed music box style. So this wasn’t down to what was playing in her house back then and beyond?

“There were certain things I knew about but I never would have thought more deeply about how it was created and the technicality behind it. But without doubt when I started to do the music box project and looked into the songs I heard and remembered, that opened up a whole new world, from when I was in my 20s.”

You can find this site’s feature/interview from April with Simon Tong of The Magnetic North here, and a review of the band’s Central Library sell-out show in Liverpool in October here.

4For more details of Hannah’s work and future plans, head to her website. You can also keep in touch with Ms Peel via the wonderful world of social media through her Facebook, TwitterInstagram and Soundcloud links.

And to keep up to date with the Alzheimer’s Research UK charity, head here.

 

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Back and Beyond with The Vapors – the Ed Bazalgette interview

 

Live Presence: Ed Bazalgette, left, and David Fenton, centre, face the crowd at Dingwall's in Camden (Photo: Ashley Greb Photography https://www.facebook.com/ashleygrebphotography/)

Live Presence: Ed Bazalgette, left, and Dave Fenton face the crowd at Dingwall’s (Photo: Ashley Greb Photography https://www.facebook.com/ashleygrebphotography/)

Ed Bazalgette was walking purposefully around central London one dark November afternoon when I caught him on the phone, searching for a quiet spot and a suitable cafe to conduct our interview.

He clearly knows his way around, having moved to the capital during his first brush with fame with The Vapors in the late ‘70s, settling North of the river. Yet Ed was brought up across the other side of my hometown of Guildford, Surrey, a location which had already served up punk legends The Stranglers. He was ‘out in the sticks’ in Worplesdon’ initially, but later shared a flat with his good friend Howard Smith, far handier for the room above a launderette where their band practised.

I’m still happy to argue with anyone the merits of The Vapors’ 1980 debut album New Clear Days, and there are plenty of others out there keen to stand up for follow-up LP Magnets. But I have to face the fact that they’re still mostly remembered by the wider public for top-three hit Turning Japanese, which – criminally, in my view – was the only one of their six singles to pierce the UK top-40.

The history of the band is covered pretty well elsewhere (not least via this site’s interview with David Fenton in mid-September, with a link here). So this time I’m taking a different tack, concentrating on Ed’s story and how, when it was all over, he went off to college, putting his energies into following a different creative path – starting out on a career in television.

It’s fair to say that’s been a great success too, this dad-of-two – with his sons now based in Berlin and Manchester, setting out on their own careers – regularly popping up on our screens. If you go to the imdb website, you’ll see that for yourself – a wealth of past and present Ed Bazalgette credits including directing roles on A Mother’s Son, Endeavour, The Guilty, and DCI Banks, and further back including EastEnders, Doctors, Casualty and Holby City.

More recently there was a key role in helping successfully relaunch Poldark, plus further roles in the director’s chair (if there is still such a thing) on Dr Who and its latest spin-off Class, which my 16-year-old daughter is already hooked on. Yet now it seems that this real-life Timelord is traversing between two creative worlds again – his TV work supplemented by a return to that lead guitar role with his old band, a one-off guest slot with two of his bandmates at a South London pub leading to four heralded live dates this year (with more already lined up for next year).

Having already wowed the crowds in Dublin (at the Opium Rooms) and London (at Dingwall’s in Camden), the story is set to continue at Liverpool Arts Club tomorrow (Friday, November 18th) and Wolverhampton’s Slade Rooms on Saturday (November 19th). But I start our conversation by talking telly with Ed, not least the forthcoming Dr Who Christmas Day special he’s directed – The Return of Dr Mysterio.

It’s a Steven Moffat script and Matt Lucas is involved, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor teaming up with Justin Chatwin’s comic book superhero Dr Mysterio (aka Grant) in a bid to save New York from a deadly alien threat, the pair joined on their quest by an investigative journalist played by Charity Wakefield. What more can Ed add?

Dr Mysterio: Justin Chatwin in the Ed Bazalgette-directed Dr Who Christmas Day special (Image copyright: BBC / Ray Burmiston)

Dr Mysterio: Justin Chatwin in the Ed Bazalgette-directed Dr Who Christmas Day special (BBC / Ray Burmiston)

“I can tell you it’s brilliant! It’s got a fantastic cast, including Justin, who’s in the US version of Shameless, and I reckon British audiences will remember him as Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds, and Charity, who was in Wolf Hall. Steven’s story has been described as an homage and it’s safe to say if it was a movie it would be exactly the kind of film you’d have on Christmas Day, so absolutely perfect for the time and place it will be shown. It’s a world Steven’s wanted to delve into for a long time, and he’s done it beautifully. We had a great time shooting it, we’ve just finished editing, and it’s looking fantastic.”

Good old ‘all the family’ entertainment then?

“It has that kind of resonance where it can speak to everyone on the sofa at once. And like all fantastic TV and film it will appeal to a youthful audience but is peppered full of moments that appeal to adults as well. Tonally, I think we’ve got it spot-on.”

Ed’s worked on many successful small screen productions over the years, but as far as I know Peter Capaldi is the first Doctor he’s directed outside of Holby or Letherbridge.

“Peter is fantastic to work with, and it came for me at a time and place where it was realistic to throw my hand into the ring. When I heard he was going to be the 12th doctor, I was really excited about what he would do, going back to the likes of Jon Pertwee – although I think Peter’s Doctor owes a lot to Tom Baker.”

Was Jon Pertwee Ed’s favourite Timelord, growing up?

“Certainly that era, although in the very distant recesses I remember Patrick Troughton with the Yetis and the (London) Underground. That was probably my introduction to Dr Who. And what really excites me about Dr Who, and when it’s at its best for me, is when it’s firmly grounded in our world, but other worlds start to force their way in and the cracks appear. The rifts of space and time allow things through – that juxtaposition, with other planetary beings forcing themselves in but the reality of our own world strongly established. That always works so well.”

Well, as the newly-departed Leonard Cohen put it on Anthem, ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. Meanwhile, it turns out that Ed has been ‘completely absorbed’ of late in the new creation of Dr Who‘s universe, Class, written by Patrick Ness (author of A Monster Calls, now a film), directing the first three episodes.

Class Act: The cast of Class , the new Dr Who spin-off (Photo copyright: BBC)

Class Act: The cast of Class , the new Dr Who spin-off (Photo: BBC)

Class has been very well received, and again I had a chance to do something within the Dr Who universe which went off in another direction, but remained totally accessible to that heartland audience. Also, as it’s on BBC 3, that gave us a freedom to explore the outer limits of that world, something we leapt at.”

Filmed last year but also screened in 2016 was Houdini & Doyle, a UK/North American drama series based on the friendship of Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Michael Weston and Stephen Mangan.

“It’s great to work with American writers. That was a co-production with Fox, and one of the show-runners, David Shore, ran House. And as I absolutely adored Green Wing, I’ve now worked with Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan, so I’m very lucky!”

There’s a Dr Who link there too, you may realise – regarding a certain ‘Missy’, who memorably played hospital staff liaison officer Sue White in the medical comedy.

“Yeah, exactly – Michelle Gomez!”

And of course 2015 saw the return of Poldark, Ed proud to have directed the opening four episodes of the first series, in what quickly proved – quite rightly – to be a big hit. Returning this week to the pre-series Q&A session with writer Emma Kennedy that he did with Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza), Aidan Turner (Ross) and Debbie Horsfield (who adapted Winston Graham’s books), I see he helped with casting too.

“Absolutely, I was there from the get-go, and although the offer had already gone out to Aidan, we cast Eleanor and the other principal parts, including Jack Farthing (George Warleggan), Heida Reed (Elizabeth), and the absolutely mesmeric Kyle Soller (Francis). A terrific team, and with a show like that, if you’re there to set it up and help re-establish it, it’s never going to get better than that. An amazing experience.

“Also, my mother’s from the West Country and moved back to settle on the Devon side of the Tamar about 30 years ago, so my earliest and happiest experiences of parenthood revolve around going down to Cornwall. My kids spent holidays on the beaches of the north coast, exactly the landscape where Poldark is set. On a personal level that really spoke to me. I had a strong sense of the kind of landscapes and places I wanted to explore to get into the story.”

Direct Action: Ed Bazalgette on the set of Poldark with Aidan Turner (Photo: BBC)

Direct Action: Ed Bazalgette on the set of Poldark with Aidan Turner (Photo: BBC)

He did a lot of research too, not least into 18th century tin and copper mining. Did he read Winston Graham’s books as well as Debbie Horsfield’s scripts?

“When I was reading the script I was reading the first couple of books, so had a really strong sense of what Debbie was doing in her adaptation. The other thing I got was a sense of clues as to how to dig into the emotional heart of the story.

“There’s a wonderful chapter in Ross Poldark, from Verity’s point of view, in her room looking at her possessions and furniture, painting a picture of what a desolate life it would turn out to be if she couldn’t find the right person, in terms of what life was like throughout the social strata of that time. Being a spinster to a high-borne family was not the worst fate that could befall you, but to have all that privilege around you gave you that sense that you weren’t stepping up to the mark.

“That was a fantastic insight, and as whatever I’m doing is always qualified by being tight for time, any research you can do around the story and subject is always going to open up possibilities of the light and shade of storytelling.

“On the screen the mining is a relatively small part of the story, but to help the cast really invest in their characters it was worth noting that the world of Poldark was there because of tin and copper mining. That’s why those families came to be. That’s where the wealth came from. It was that precarious, capricious nature of a wild and unruly industry amid a very wild and unruly landscape upon which people were made and broken.

“It was a fickle time. Ventures would be established but then die on their feet within a few years. Also at that time the acceleration of the industrial revolution was moving at such a pace. And all the battles Ross goes through were founded on absolute reality. Some of the foundations of modern banking can be traced back to mining in Cornwall. Families like the Warleggans started out as smelters but progressed to become moneylenders. They were at the point of the chain where the money would accumulate, giving them tremendous power and influence.

“As the Warleggans came from very humble origins in just a couple of generations, it’s about constantly craving acceptance. That’s the beautiful contradiction at the heart of that fractious relationship. Ross has it all but doesn’t want it, while George wants it all but no amount of money and finery can make up for the fact that his family are nouveau riche.”

I also choose to see a few early socialist leanings in Ross, well ahead of his time in his thinking.

TV Times: Ed Bazalgette, seemingly in pensive mode

TV Times: Ed Bazalgette, in pensive mode

“Well, Winston Graham started writing the novels towards the end of the war and was looking at a world where massive social change was not only important but also necessary and happening. I think the consciousness in the Graham family – if Andrew, his son, is anything to go by – is certainly left-leaning. Andrew was an economic advisor in the Wilson government, and a really interesting person.

“But yes, I’m always fascinated by that part of the world and find it all really compelling, not least how those grand families persisted through.”

Did Ed make some good friends filming the show?

“It was a fantastic team. In this industry you tend to do something then move on, but there are always people you love to work with and go back to work with again and again. And Poldark is something that’s going to leave a mark on your career and your life for a very long time.”

As far as I’m concerned, he should be very proud of his part in Poldark’s return. When I saw a remake was on the cards I worried it might not reach the mark. Yet I was hooked from episode one, so tricorn hats off to Ed, Debbie Horsfield, and co. for their part in delivering the goods.

But how did Ed get from being a guitarist in a post-punk band to a leading director?

“I got a place at Goldsmith’s College when The Vapors were signed, and was going to go to do film then, but turned it down. Four years later, with all that been and gone, I was still craving that experience, so went back. What I really landed on and focused on was editing. That eventually through the cours eof a few years took me to the BBC, and I was very happy working as an assistant editor with a wonderful series of editors and directors through the early ‘90s.”

Learning your craft?

“Absolutely, and it’s always been an interesting experience. And from someone being looked after very nicely to someone sat at the back of a room hanging up bits of film it was something I absolutely loved, learning the craft from the best, working on lots and lots of wonderful BBC dramas, with Middlemarch a very fine example. From there I went to being an editor and gravitated to directing, first to make a series of short films for various different strands within the BBC. I tried it and they kept asking me to do more, basically.”

One such film was for 2003’s Seven Wonders of the Industrial World series, The Sewer King, about his ancestor, Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian civil engineer responsible for building London’s sewer network, instrumental in relieving the city from cholera epidemics. And the previous year – in a similar vein – there was a film about Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the Great Britons series, made with Jeremy Clarkson.

Peter Who: The 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi (Photo copyright: BBC / Ray Burmiston)

Peter Who: The 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi, back for Christmas (BBC/Ray Burmiston)

There was also a film about J.M.W. Turner – 12 years before Mike Leigh’s own big screen production centred on the Romanticist landscape artist.

“It was fascinating watching that. Ours was commissioned by BBC Arts, for a biographical piece at a time when people were getting interested in drama documentaries. That was at the beginning of that revival of interest in mixing that different form, and I was doing that and the Seven Wonders series, making that film about the London sewers.

“We were going back to work like Peter Watkins’ The War Game and Culloden, all those fantastic cross-pollination pieces from the BBC in the ’60s, drawing on all that material. That was inflected by the brilliant social realist films coming out of the BBC at that time, including a lot of Ken Loach’s early work, like Cathy Come Home, during that period of consciousness.

“And the Turner film was the first time I did anything that could be described as drama – shooting scenes that were dotted into the rest of the film. And it was fascinating that Mike Leigh landed on the same dramatic moments of Turner’s life.”

In more general terms, can Ed switch off when he’s watching the telly, or is he sat there mentally framing shots?

“It’s very easy to get immersed in the form. You can spend your whole life striving to get better and better at it, but there’s never enough time to get as good as I’d like to be. It’s about understanding the art of storytelling. You have to discipline yourself to be immersed in a story.

“The first time you read a script you should be reading it with an eye to how it works as a story, where you’re interested and where you get bored or lose the thread. On that first read it’s important to try and resist the temptation to start directing in your head. Initially. You need to embrace it on its own terms – its strengths and weaknesses.”

So – he says, attempting a seamless link back to The Vapors – when he recorded that four-track Radio One session for John Peel in July 1979, could he have dared to dream he’d ever work again at the BBC?

“I didn’t have any sense of where life would go after the music, but – put it this way – I was sh** at maths and science, so it was going to have to be something to do with the arts!”

He’s clearly got a love of history, judging by his track record in television.

“Absolutely. I’d love to do a history degree – as well as learning about 60 languages – when it gets to a point where nobody will employ me!”

Camden Tan: From the left - Ed Bazalgette, Dave Fenton and Steve Smith at Dingwall's, Camden (Photo: Ashley Greb Photography https://www.facebook.com/ashleygrebphotography/)

Camden Tan: From the left – Ed Bazalgette, Dave Fenton, Steve Smith in live action at Dingwall’s (Photo: Ashley Greb Photography https://www.facebook.com/ashleygrebphotography/)

Was that original college place left open to him after the band went their separate ways?

“No that was all closed off. David (Fenton, lead singer/main songwriter) gave me an ultimatum, and if I accepted I was resigning from The Vapors. And that was fair enough – he’d given up a career for music and wanted to work with like-minded individuals. But eventually I went back to do film at Central London Poly.”

Going further back, does he remember David approaching him about joining the band?

“I remember that really vividly – I’d had a band, and me and Howard had watched The Vapors. The band we’d been in had split, so I put a pick-up band together.”

What were you called?

“I don’t think we even had a name. We might have informally called ourselves The Parrots. There was a teacher from my school playing saxophone, Howard playing drums, and a bloke playing bass called John, who I saw at Dingwall’s the other night! It was a right old mish-mash. We got pulled off the stage after about three songs because the landlord, Tony McManus – wrestler Mick McManus’s son – thought we were shit!”

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

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

Ah, then I’m guessing that was at The Royal in Stoughton, just outside Guildford.

“Yes, supporting another Guildford band, just doing covers. David was in the audience, saw me, and I got a call about three months later from his then bass player asking if I was interested in auditioning. By that stage I was doing nothing. So fortunately David didn’t think I was shit, and his girlfriend at the time told me he said if we were in a band together we’d make a real impact. So you have to praise that insight!”

Michael Bowes is drumming with the band for these current dates, Ed’s friend Howard having decided against a return.

“Yes, we’ll always be the best of friends, and were thick as thieves in every which way from around the age of 14. In fact, I spent an hour talking to him on the phone yesterday. I would dearly love him to do it, but he feels his involvement in that way is history, and I respect that. I understand that – I very firmly belief life’s ahead of us and we should never look back. I suppose what tipped the balance in terms of going on stage again was the extraordinary response of people on social media to our music. It leaves me speechless.”

This was all a one-off initially, David and Ed guesting with Steve Smith’s band The Shakespearos at the Half Moon in Putney. But it’s become so much more. Might this reunion be a way to prove you were far more than just ‘one-hit wonders’?

“Well, there’s a brilliant review in Mojo of the Dingwall’s gig, where the reviewer (Danny Eccleston) starts, ‘There are worse things to be than a one-hit wonder.’  I guess that’s why my narrative is that it’s important that we’re different. We formed the perfect pop capsule, in my opinion. And pop music by its very nature is ephemeral.

“For me, the best songs – like Shake Some Action by Flamin’ Groovies and The Letter by The Box Tops’ – are by people who came, left a spark, caused an explosion, burned brightly, then went away. That’s exactly what happened with The Vapors. And it was fantastic.”

Could Ed pick out just a few stand-out moments along the way?

14289867_1192536914144397_2837827237025238991_o“I’ll think of walking out on The Marquee stage when it was packed and you’ve got 600 people in there. I’ll also think of the last gig at Guildford Civic Hall, in the spring of 1981. We were pretty much washed up by then, but it was an amazing night and incredibly emotional – that was the place where I’d watched every musician I ever admired.

“Then there was The Ritz in New York … and I have to say also walking out and playing Dingwall’s last week. That was amazing!”

Any specific memories of North West dates, ahead of your Liverpool show?

“Playing Manchester Poly when Turning Japanese reached No.45 in the charts – a fantastic moment. We drove up on the day and when we heard we’d charted knew from then on it was going to go some. That night I shredded my nails playing!

“Also, the first time we supported The Jam at The Apollo in Ardwick. We did two nights there in November 1979, and there was a pea-souper of fog across Manchester. I grew up supporting United, so it was so great to be kicking off in Manchester. That was an extraordinary voyage into the unknown.

“I remember Southport Floral Hall, but we never actually played Liverpool, so I’m really looking forward to this.”

What’s more, the story goes on, with The Vapors set to play the 100 Club in Soho in April, supported by another great band I didn’t quite manage to see live first time around – The Members. Did Ed know those fellow Surrey lads (from Camberley) back in the day?

“We met (lead singer) Nicky Tesco when we played The Rainbow in ’79, and hung out with him, then bumped into JC (guitarist JC Carroll) when we played the Half Moon. Yes, that’s really exciting too, and it’s practically sold out already.”

Screen Shot: Ed Bazalgette

Screen Shot: Ed Bazalgette

Finally, is that right that Ed was on washing-up duty at the Corona cafe in Guildford to pay for his guitar back in the early days?

“Absolutely true. That was just before the band kicked off, and a very slow way to earn the money to buy a Gibson, I can tell you! Actually, it breaks my heart when I look back, we’d all change things, but I’d definitely wave a wand and get those guitars back. I paid for that for two years. It was a walnut SG special and I think it cost me around £170.”

The Vapors visit Liverpool’s Arts Club on Friday, November 18th, supported by Klammer and with DJ Jacqui Carroll. For ticket details and all the latest visit their Facebook page. You can also keep in touch via their Twitter and Instagram pages.

 

 

 

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Discovering the roots of Nine Below Zero – the Dennis Greaves interview

 

Blues Masters: Nine Below Zero in live action, with (from the left), Charlie Austen, Dennis Greaves, Ben Willis and Mark Feltham out front, and Mickey Burkey leading from the back (so to speak).

Blues Masters: Nine Below Zero in live action, with (from the left), Charlie Austen, Dennis Greaves, Ben Willis and Mark Feltham out front, and Mickey Burkey leading from the back (so to speak).

When I got through to Nine Below Zero front-man, guitarist and vocalist Dennis Greaves, he just happened to be doing a little shopping in South East London.

“I’m in Lidl in Lewisham, doing my domestics! I’ve gone out to get something for the band for the dressing room, because there are eight of us now, you know.”

Yes, Nine Below Zero have shifted away from their traditional band dynamic – doubling the personnel for new album, 13 Shades of Blue, which was released on their long-established Zed Records label on the last day of September.

The initial idea of their 22nd LP since 1980’s Live at the Marquee was to create an expansive celebration of rhythm and blues on record, in a format incorporating extra horns, keyboards and vocals. Accordingly, Dennis – who first got things rolling in 1977 with an outfit initially known as Stan’s Blues Band – put the Nine Below Zero stamp on a collection of re-interpreted rare grooves from across the soul, funk and r’n’b spectrum.

Seem familiar? Well, The Rolling Stones have done something similar, their Blue and Lonesome LP out next month, but – this time around at least – Nine Below Zero got there first. And by way of celebration, the larger format of the band are now travelling the UK – hence the pre-tour rehearsals when I called. I’m guessing they’re not getting bigger dressing rooms though.

“No, but that’s part of the fun!”

The band rehearse upstairs in a pub in East Greenwich, The Pelton Arms, where they’ve been known to play in various formats over the years. And that’s included guest slots by Squeeze guitarist/vocalist Glenn Tilbrook, a good friend of  Dennis who collaborated with Nine Below Zero on 2011’s The Cooperative and goes back with them a lot further.

“Yeah, our old mucker, who’s just come back from America. I toured with Squeeze in 1985 all over America. It was fantastic. I couldn’t believe how big they were over there. We played Nassau Coliseum (New York), which holds about 16,000, and they’re all singing Pulling Mussels (From the Shell). It was like, ‘Bloody hell! Are they that big?’ it was brilliant.”

nine-below-zero-13-shades-of-blue-artwork-hi-resNot only was 13 Shades of Blue recorded at Glenn’s 45rpm studio in Charlton, but the Squeeze legend plays sitar on That’s What Love Will Make You Do.

“He was wandering around outside and I said, ‘I need a solo here, do you fancy playing on this track?’”

Like fellow old stagers Nine Below Zero, I put it to Dennis that Squeeze seem to be in a rich vein of form right now.

“Glenn and Chris (Difford) are still writing great songs, and the thing with Squeeze, Nine Below Zero and a few of us, is that we’re all about producing new material – not being a tribute band to ourselves!”

The day we spoke was revered Nine Below Zero harmonica player/vocalist Mark Feltham’s 61st birthday. He’s a year and a half older than Dennis, so how did they meet?

“It’s a funny story! My school backed on to the Thomas a Becket pub in the Old Kent Road and I wanted to form a blues band, and someone told me about this harmonica player. I rang and told him what I was looking for, asked where he lived so we could hook up, and he said,’ Well, you won’t know it – it’s a new Peabody estate in Dulwich’. I said, ‘I live there!’ I looked out of my window and he was about 12 houses down the road. So he came to my house, we played, and instantly hit it off.”

That was nearly 40 years ago now, and while the band – quickly renamed after a Sonny Boy Williamson song – have included several players over the years, they’ve centred around a core quartet since the early ‘80s – Dennis, Mark, drummer Mickey ‘Sticks’ Burkey and bass player Brian Bethell. And while health issues have seen Brian miss out of late – with fellow bass player Ben Willis deputising – Dennis says he’ll be back for a ‘classic line-up’ tour in Sweden in April.

“He’ll be alright. We’ve wrapped him in cotton wool and he’s on the bench, ready to go. Ben is going to be doing most of the stuff for now though, and is really suited to the big band. Meanwhile, Mickey’s all over us, playing the best he’s ever played with us. He’s amazing.”

415bda_a88a7107ad754b1fb172b0224b757ddeDennis wrote recently that Mickey was ‘commanding and leading the eight-piece brilliantly’.

“He is, and it’s really quite amazing, almost like a Buddy Rich, where you’ve got to lead the band.”

It seems that the big band format gives the original band a lot of added freedom.

“Yes. This is a brand new project for me, but something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m so glad I’ve done it, but it all came about accidentally.”

Just as he’s about to explain himself, there’s a voice, and Dennis – at the check-out – parrots it.

“There you are – ‘Thank you for shopping at Lidl’ You’re welcome!”

Shopping transactions complete, he gets back to the story, although I wonder if it’s a gag at first.

“I walked into a pub, heard this track, and thought, ‘What is that?’ It turned out to be Senor Soul’s Don’t Play Your Funky Trip on Me. I thought, ‘Wow – that is amazing’. So when I got home I started a Spotify playlist.”

A rant follows about that particular online music server, Dennis telling me about his ‘love-hate relationship’ with Spotify.

“They pay me 0.002 of a penny while I pay £9.99 a month for a subscription. As a musician and songwriter I can’t stand them, but at the same time it’s like having a library to go to. Sting did a lovely piece in The Independent the other day, about people like us not getting paid by the massive corporates.

“Anyway, with the help of Johnny Chandler – head of back-catalogue at Universal, a former DJ who managed the Blow Monkeys – we started to get a playlist together. He was saying, ‘What about Little Milton and Sil Johnson?’ and mentioning real rare, under-the-radar types. It really got me excited.

“People like Buddy Guy are brilliant, but if I was 18 and wanting to listen to the blues, my album would be the one to listen to – a real eye-opener to people like Little Milton.”

ua-m_4859__17535__05072009012913-7783Like The Rolling Stones did for the blues all those years before? And Dr Feelgood beyond that?

“Absolutely. The first few Rolling Stones albums were r’n’b albums, before they even wrote a song. Fantastic. That’s gone in my business now – the chance to develop as an artist and musician. It’s changed in the last five years quicker than it did in the previous 20.”

Last time I saw Nine Below Zero live was as a four-piece, supporting Bruce Foxton’s From the Jam at the Muni in Colne in January (with a link to my review here). They then returned to East Lancashire later in the year for a headlining role at Colne’s Great British R&B Festival, in a summer that also included the eight-piece Nine Below Zero’s debut at Glastonbury. And now they’re out again as an octet, including a visit to Manchester’s Ruby Lounge next Saturday, November 19 (0161 834 1392, or via this link) – my excuse for speaking to him.

“The northern powerhouse? Lovely, eh!”

Supposedly so. It’s a nice title – whether it’s anything more than that remains to be seen.

“I was up there a while ago and it was buzzing. I did the Curry Mile, then stopped a couple of school-kids at the bus stop and asked if everyone gets on, because I saw so many different cultures. They said they sort of tolerate each other. I thought that was really cool!”

When we caught up, Dennis and the band had already put in around six dates on the tour, and their frontman was looking forward to a return to Yorkshire that weekend.

“My Grandad was born in Leeds and I’ve got fond memories of there.”

Dennis mentioned recently – ahead of a date in Aldershot, where his Dad was stationed in the Army as part of his national service –how his parents helped him get into the business. Was there plenty of music in the Greaves house?

“Yeah, that’s down to my Grandad. I was born in Tufnell Park, but in 1962 my Mum and Dad got offered ‘£10 Pom’ tickets, so we were going to Australia. But he bottled it, and funnily enough a Peabody flat in Elephant and Castle then came up.

Boston Arms: The Tufnell Park hostelry played a key part in the Greaves family's history

Boston Arms: The Tufnell Park hostelry played a key part in the Greaves family’s musical history

“My Grandad, Alf Hardy, sold newspapers outside Tufnell Park tube station, but had harmonicas, keyboards, Hammond organs, guitars, banjos. He could pick things up and play them immediately.

“My Dad would go and see Matt Munro in a real famous pub, The Boston Arms. He was a bus conductor at the time, and his accompanist was Max Bygraves’ brother. My Dad, my Grandad, my great-grandad and I have all sung in there. And my dad thought he was Al Jolson!

“I grew up in a house that really adored music, and it was always on. My Dad was a hero of mine, a London taxi driver and bus driver, and bought me my first proper guitar – a Gibson 335.

“As a parent myself, I think about that a lot. I wasn’t the brightest tool in the box, but as soon as I left school I educated myself through reading, especially by being on the road. Travelling educated me, but my Mum and Dad gave me a fantastic start in life, giving me confidence. I can’t thank them enough for that. They never told me I was rubbish or told me what I couldn’t do. I was dyslexic, short-sighted and couldn’t read or write as good as other kids. But I certainly made up for lost time.”

Even during the band’s 1984/89 hiatus, Dennis kept busy with The Truth, notching two UK top-20 singles five US r’n’b chart hits. How many gigs does he reckon he’s played since 1977?

“I wouldn’t know, but averaging 100 gigs a year over 40 years … that’s 4,000. Something like that!”

While he still spends a lot of time on the road, it must be nice to chill at home in between.

“Yeah, I live in Charlton, on the Greenwich peninsula, part of the Royal Borough of Greenwich – very posh! My wife may disagree with me, though – she might like it when I go away!”

Talking of family, I see on the album credits that his youngest lad, Sonny Greaves, featured on percussion.

“Yeah, Sonny’s out with a young lad called Aaron Keylock, playing with Wilko Johnson and Joanne Shaw Taylor, signed to Mascot Records. Yes, I’m afraid Sonny’s in the music business – much to my chagrin! My other son Jake, is a great drummer as well, but he’s a pub landlord, whereas Sonny’s got the bug!”

The Truth: The Five Live EP was a regular on this scribe's record player.

The Truth: The Five Live EP was a regular on this scribe’s record player.

There’s also a mention of Helen Greaves on backing vocals.

“That’s my wife! She was making some sandwiches and I said, ‘You’ve never sung on one of my records – come and have a sing! She’s very shy, but I think Glenn put her down in the mix, so she’s most upset!”

For the record, Sonny’s 19 while Jake’s 25, although while asking him that I apologised to Dennis for making it all seem like This is Your Life.

“Listen – this is the trouble when you’ve been around 40 years. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, loads of stories, fascinating places I’ve been to, and great people I’ve met.”

As well as Sonny, there are plenty of other younger players on the LP, including Charlie Austen (who also plays bass and sings with Lux Lisbon), who shines out in a duet with Dennis on Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), perhaps the closest Nine Below Zero get to a Jools Holland Big Band vibe on the album. Her voice works well with his, I put to him.

“Doesn’t it! Yeah, alive it’s working really nice. We’re getting a real nice blend, bringing a lovely colour to the band. And it was Glenn (Tilbrook) who mentioned that song.

“I run a blues jam down at The Pelton Arms. I adore playing, and it’s a nice way of meeting people and socialising with friends and family. Aaron Keylock started there, and this girl said she’d like to sing, choosing Stormy Monday in B-flat. We started, and the whole pub went silent and turned towards her. We all just went, ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing! Where have you been?’ So I asked what she was doing that Monday. She’s so lovely.

“Also, the trumpet player, Jazzy Jeff (Brown) was a barman at The Pelton. A lot of people who walked in found themselves on the album! With bands like The Strypes (managed by Squeeze’s Chris Difford), Aaron Keylock, Lawrence Jones – there are lots of great kids out there, and I’ve got four or five of them in our band! They’re all playing jazz and blues, and long may it continue. What we don’t want is this homogenised corporate-sounding music. It’s so nice to have players.”

The new album, 13 Shades of Blue, has received a fair amount of attention, including national radio airplay from the likes of Paul Jones on BBC Radio 2. And deservedly so. I put it to Dennis that it’s a joyous album too – his band sound really tight together, yet they seem to be having a lot of fun.

“You’ve got it! You know what you’re talking about! That is a bunch of guys going into a room playing live together and creating a really wonderful sound. No posh overdubs or multi-track-laying – just playing live, with the magic captured.”

It’s a mixed bag, in a positive sense. The horns are perfect, and from Funky Trip onwards the band are on a roll, that opener bringing to mind The Staples Singers and Sly & the Family Stone too. Yet the album has as much a London identity as a stateside one.

Blues Roots: John Mayall's 1964 Klooks Kleek live album was a big influence on Dennis Greaves

Blues Roots: John Mayall’s 1964 Klooks Kleek live album was a big influence on Dennis Greaves

“I know! And God, I love Sly and the Family Stone. I also did John Mayall’s Crawling up a Hill, from a record I had as a kid in ‘65, live at Klooks Kleek, very British-sounding r’n’b, before John Mayall got (Eric) Clapton involved. I feel I’ve captured a bit of that as well.

Incidentally, I should add there that Nine Below Zero opened for ‘Slowhand’ for 12 successive dates at the Royal Albert Hall in 1994. And on this album, it’s fair to say that Dennis’ own guitar work impresses – with traces of everyone from BB King to the Isley Brothers.

“Oh yeah! Summer Breeze! What a great song that was!”

From straight blues numbers like Watch What You Do To Me to a James Brown undercurrent on That’s What Love Will Make You Do, they mix it up too.

“True. And I think the great thing about our music is that the older you get, you mature into it, and that’s what I hate about …

He sighs there, and I tell him it sounds like he’s trying not to mention The X-Factor and all those TV talent shows.

“You read my mind! I just don’t like this modern pop culture, where your career’s over in 12 months, almost quicker than a football manager’s. You don’t get a chance to develop as an artist and travel the world, like I have. “

If Dennis and his bandmates back in ’77 had to stand up in front of Simon Cowell or some other industry mogul on some talent show, I don’t think he would have liked them.

“He’d have hated us! It’s about control, being able to control one artist and tell them what to do. Imagine a four or five-piece with as many characters – he couldn’t control that!”

That’s not a new thing though. There have always been pop svengalis with that power to make or break artists.

“Oh yeah – like Mickie Most, and before that Joe Meek, with artists like Heinz.”

Big Fan: Baz Warne in action at Cardiff on The Stranglers' March On tour (Photo: Warren Meadows)

Big Fan: Baz Warne in action at Cardiff on The Stranglers’ March On tour (Photo: Warren Meadows)

At that point we get talking about The Stranglers, one of the many bands Nine Below Zero have toured with over the years.

“Oh yeah, and their lead singer now, Baz (Warne) loves our song Don’t Point Your Finger. I walked into a Stranglers soundcheck and they played that. In fact, Baz lives in Leeds now, so should be coming along to see us up there and jam with us.

“Yes, him, JJ (Burnel), Dave (Greenfield) … they’re all lovely. And the crew are so helpful. Don’t get me wrong – don’t piss them off or be an idiot around them, but my first ever gigs were with The Kinks and The Who, and you soon learn how to conduct yourself.

“When we first turned up to support The Kinks in the early ’80s, we were told in no uncertain terms that we weren’t allowed to talk to Ray (Davies) and not to do this or that. But within two days we were in their dressing room, chatting about football, Tottenham, Arsenal, and it was lovely.

“It was the same with the Who. We reminded them of how they were when they started. It was all London boys, and we spoke the same language.”

Apparently, The Who’s interest came after Keith Moon’s replacement Kenney Jones, the Small Faces and Faces legend, saw them live and was suitably impressed. And it was 1981’s Don’t Point Your Finger album (produced by the revered Glyn Johns) that opened the door for Nine Below Zero, while the following year’s Third Degree proved to be their biggest commercial success.

Nevertheless, the band then went their separate ways, Dennis concentrating on The Truth, while Mark became a high-profile session player, most notably for Rory Gallagher initially, and Brian saw success with the Blow Monkeys. Yet by 1990 they were reunited for a 10th anniversary gig, a Town and Country Club sell-out in Kentish Town something of a landmark moment, although Mark left within two years, not returning until 2001.

That post-reunion period included high-profile supports with the likes of a solo Ray Davies, plus Brian May, the afore-mentioned Sting, a slot with Chuck Berry at the 100 Club – where The Truth recorded a five-track EP in 1984 – and appearances with Jools Holland and Paul Jones.

Talking of Pauls, I tell Dennis I spoke to Paul Young the day before (feature to follow on here) and understand his band The Q-Tips, were also on that bill with The Who around the same time.

“That’s right – it was The Ruts, The Q-Tips and Nine Below Zero. We got a third of that tour. Actually, I spoke to Paul about a month ago. One of our mutual friends died of prostate cancer, so we did a charity gig in London.”

Up Close: Dennis Greaves points the finger at an audience member (Photo: Nine Below Zero)

Up Close: Dennis Greaves points the finger at an audience member (Photo: Nine Below Zero)

Interesting he should mention that link. While they’re very different artists in certain respects – not least the amount of past commercial success – Dennis and Paul have a lot in common, and the latter not long ago released his own covers album, Good Thing, mostly tackling long-lost soul tracks.

“Yeah, great minds think alike! And The Rolling Stones – they’ve done exactly the same as us!”

Indeed – kindred spirits. Meanwhile, getting back to 13 Shades of Blue, by the time the band reach the penultimate track, Allen Toussaint’s Hercules, I reckon there’s a Marvin Gaye feel from Dennis.

“Well, I’ve been listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye. I went in some second-hand record shop and bought a load of stuff, and love his work with Tammi Terrell. I had to change Hercules a little though, as Aaron Neville’s just so unbelievable on the original. It was a tough call, so I made more of the chorus.”

And then the album finishes with Paper in my Shoe, which – despite what I said earlier – I venture is more New Orleans than New Cross really.

“Ha! The last piece of the jigsaw for the blues is a bit of cajun, isn’t it!”

Seeing as he said he didn’t come to much at school, I have to say I’m quite impressed with his French on that finale.

“Do you know what? That school French really stayed with me. I can definitely order my food. With Italian and French I understand a lot more than I can converse in it though!”

Well, you convinced me anyway.

“Ha! Yeah, we’re really dreading that’s incorrect!”

With that, Dennis reached his studio and had to go, his band no doubt hungry, wondering where he’d got to, the tour bus not far off leaving.

nbz-2016-promo-1Remaining 2016 dates (eight-piece band unless stated): November 10 – Arts Centre, Norwich (four-piece); November 11 – The Concorde, Brighton; November 18 – The Cricketers, Weston, Herts (Mark and Dennis, acoustic), November 19 -Ruby Lounge, Manchester; November 26 – Kevin Thorpe Blues Night, The Elms Hotel, Retford (four-piece); December 2 – The Electric Palace, Bridport; December 3 – The Globe, Cardiff; December 8 – The Junction, Cambridge; December 9 – Greystones, Sheffield; December 10 -The Musician, Leicester; December 17 – Ripley Blues Club, Ripley, Yorks. 

To find out full tour details and all the latest from Nine Below Zero, try their website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

For this site’s recent interview with Dennis’ good friend Glenn Tilbrook, including his own appraisal of Nine Below Zero, head hereMeanwhile, ahead of this summer’s Great British R’n’B Festival in Colne, I also had the pleasure of speaking to co-headliner and Dr Feelgood legend Wilko Johnson, with a link here to the resultant feature.

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