Matt Nelson is on his way home from work to Burnley, having moved back to the North-West around a dozen years ago.
Milltown Brothers’ chief singer-songwriter is a family man these days, a dad-of-three who runs a visual effects film production company based at Media City, Salford.
But now and again he’s asked about his indie pop past, and it’s then that he reminds people his band have never really been too far away.
In fact, the original five-piece – Matt, older brother Simon Nelson (guitar), James Fraser (bass), Barney Williams (organ/piano) and Nian Brindle (drums) – are set to release a new album, Long Road.
And after a couple of listens, I can already report that here’s a band who still have plenty to offer, the resultant 11-track opus showing Matt’s songwriting in a whole new positive light.
A review of Long Road will follow on here soon, but first, let’s recap on what’s gone before and the band’s on and off stage past and present.
After the band’s initial flirting with success, a spell in film production – including time at Granada Studios – led to Matt setting up his own studio concern, Space Digital, now supplying various VFX graphics, animation and international film production services, including work on Dr Who.
Was that parallel career always in the background while he was enjoying chart success in the early ‘90s?
“I actually fell into it. A fan of the band was working in film production in London and I was at a loose end when the band finished, working on these strange TV commercials.”
Did his promo video work with the Milltown Brothers, not least on sole top-40 hit Which Way Should I Jump? and near-misses Here I Stand and Apple Green, pave the way for all that?
“Yeah, we did quite a few, and it’s worked out pretty well, one thing leading to another.”
I should interject and suggest the Milltown Brothers deserved more from the single-buying public than five top-60 singles and one top-30 album, Slinky.
Maybe their second platter, Valve, didn’t quite match the first, and the scene seemed to have moved on and away.
But it could have been so different. And it appears that 1991’s Here I Stand – later the theme tune for BBC comedy drama Preston Front, set in fictional Lancashire town Roker Bridge – might have fared better but for some rum goings-on in the music industry at the time.
“That was another kick for us. Here I Stand was No.22 in the charts in mid-week and expected to go top-10, but somebody at A&M was putting dodgy sales through and we lost our position.
“If that had gone top-10 it could have been a different picture.”
Matt has 13 and 10-year-old sons and a four-year-old daughter these days, and says a lot of his recent songwriting is inspired by his family, as you’ll learn when Long Road sees the light of day.
Hopefully, that new album should see them properly recognised again soon. But even if commercial success doesn’t follow, I get the impression it won’t deter Matt and the rest of the band.
“We hadn’t done anything on the writing front for quite a while, and I wasn’t really missing it, I must admit.
“Then I started writing at home over a period of around two years, eventually playing those songs to a couple of band members.
“So far it’s been a nice experience, with no big decisions to make and no real pressure. And there’s no pretence anymore.
“We’re not young budding guys out to forge a career. It’s not about that. It’s about being together doing songs we really enjoy playing.
“We went to Spain to record a lot of the songs, with James living out there at the time, and a week away with your friends is not so bad. It’s taken about a year so far, and we’re enjoying it.”
It’s good to see they haven’t been forgotten in indie circles, and on Saturday, May 23, the band play the Gigantic all-dayer at Manchester Academy, starting the show on the Academy 2 stage with a greatest hits set, at an event involving many feted independent bands, with Echo and the Bunnymen headlining.
“The Bunnymen are one of my favourite bands. To be playing on the same bill as them is great.”
And will there be a few dates ahead to promote the new album this summer and beyond?
“We’d like to at least play around four or five dates and see how it goes, with help from a little promotion by Nian, who was previously involved with promoting The Heartbreaks.
“The record’s set to come out on Ditto Music, online, and we’ll see if there’s interest, with a view to do some more gigs.”
Going back to breakthrough 1991 album Slinky, Matt wrote most of the songs with his brother. Is that not still the case?
“Uniquely on this one, I’ve written them all, and it was quite a cathartic experience. There are always little nuances within the band about how things have been done in the past.
“James has also been very influential in all this, and he felt I should write the songs. But everyone’s played the parts they want to play, and I think my songs are stronger lyrically than in the past.
“We also wanted an album you could properly listen to. In the past we went bigger on the live shows. It was about filling that sound and looking to make it more exciting.
“Everything was more full-on in many ways. This time we want something a little more mellow, a little more acoustic, less over-driven by guitars.”
Don’t get the wrong impression from that, mind. My early listens to Long Road confirm this is no mere acoustic vehicle, with an array of styles on there, not least a West Coast and almost indie country feel, perhaps taking on their earlier nod to The Byrds.
And it appears that the band have already been giving their local fan-base a glimpse of the Milltown Brothers 2015-style.
“We did a gig a couple of weeks ago at Burnley Football Club, and enjoyed that. It was surprising how good the club was to us.
“But then I’ve got quite a bit of history there, including interviews with Granada Reports and the NME out on the pitch and so on. But it’s nice they remember that.”
Glossing right over the fact that his beloved Clarets are on their way back to the Championship, I see that Matt recently appealed via social media for video footage from that appearance at Turf Moor to go along with the camera angles covered by the band’s long-time associate Andy Devanney. Did they get a good response?
“We have, quite a lot, and we’re working on that with Stephen Rigg, a friend of ours and a local film-maker, cutting it all together.”
Let’s go a bit further back now, and recall the Milltown Brothers’ rise, which seemed to start with their Coming from the Mill EP in 1989.
Well, not quite. Matt reminded me of the build-up to their NME single of the week accolade.
“It was our sixth gig, playing the Bull and Gate, by the Town and Country Club in North London.
“We were first on, at around six, with nobody in then apart from three other people and Steve Lamacq, who came up and asked if we had a tape.
“He then wrote a really great review – the luck you just don’t get. Within a couple of months we had a publishing deal then went to Strawberry Studios for our Coming From The Mill EP.
“We put out two or three independent singles, and Which Way Should I Jump? opened the door to major offers and it went on from there really.”
I’m guessing you hadn’t been playing long at that point.
“It was all very quick. Our first gig was at Manchester University’s halls of residence, with us at Manchester Poly at the time.
“Then we started playing The Boardwalk and those various little gigs in London.”
But not back on your own patch in East Lancashire?
“No, there were no real venues, other than The Mechanics in Burnley, and we didn’t play there in the early days.
“I think that was quite good for us in many ways though. It’s hard to get noticed just playing on a local scene. Like it or not, there are more chances in the big cities.”
And this time around, how far can you take it all?
“The big goal would be to try and get invited to play a couple of big festivals, but it’s a great thing to be asked to do the Gigantic show too.”
I can see that, and there’s a real festival feel to a couple of the new songs, one which would fit nicely into a greatest hits set out there in the open air.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Instead, let’s get back to the Manchester Academy, a venue that has played large in the life of the band.
“We played some great gigs there. I remember Oasis supporting us at the Academy 2. We also supported The La’s there, and loved that.”
Funny you should say that, as I was listening back to Slinky this week for the first time in ages, and it struck how much of a La’s vibe there was on a few of those songs, not least Here I Stand.
“We were a little in awe of The La’s, I have to say. It was great to be able to play with them. I don’t think we were trying to be like them though.
“We were well into The Byrds, REM and all that kind of American indie scene, and all that kind of poppy, jingly-jangly guitar.
“I liked that whole late-80s indie scene, and we toured quite a bit around that Manchester scene then Dingwall’s and that kind of place in London. That was all kind of new and exciting to us at the time.”
Was there a particular band you saw that made you sit up and take notice, thinking, ‘I can do this’?
“When I was growing up, I was very into The Waterboys, then it was REM, then The House of Love.”
For those who know the band’s native Lancashire, I’ll remind us that Matt and Simon hail from Colne, with Barney from nearby Padiham, while Nian and James are from the north of the county in Lancaster, having met the Nelson boys at Lancaster Grammar School.
I didn’t get the feeling there was a grammar school and poly background to the band first time around though. The common perception was more of a cool spin on a more industrial setting.
So, did he ever regret that band name? Only it proved a good excuse for lazy journalists, revelling in Northern clichés, referring to clogs and cloth caps, dark satanic mills and whippets.
“In hindsight, we were a bit naïve, but we’d barely turned 18 and 19 and just didn’t know what we were entering into really.
“A name we thought was quite clever at that age wasn’t really by the time we’d reached 21. It probably wasn’t the coolest decision.”
It did, however, help give them an identity though, and as I mentioned earlier, all the original band members remain, albeit with a few breaks between albums.
There’s a bit of symmetry there, incidentally, with the first two albums followed after an 11-year gap by 2004’s Rubberband, and a similar-sized delay following before the forthcoming fourth album.
I must admit I knew Slinky far better than anything else until this new album. that debut LP getting a fair few plays in my den back in the early ’90s, all part of a rich diet of jangly guitar bands and that earlier wave of post-Postcard bands.
From The Blue Aeroplanes to The Bodines and later to Bob, from The Chesterfields to The June Brides. Happy days.
And where did the Milltown Brothers fit in? Listening back to Roses, the lead track on the first Milltown Brothers EP, it was on the more commercial side I’d say.
What’s more, by the time of the A&M deal, the band seemed a little more stylised, with a bit more of that Inspiral Carpets, Stone Roses, Charlatans and whole ‘Madchester’ sound.
“I think that’s fair. We could have gone very folky or could have gone a bit more jingly-jangly. At the time everything was dominated by that whole Manchester scene.
“We had to play the game really. It wasn’t a million miles from what we were doing anyway. It’s not like we introduced things because of all that. We had Barney playing organ since the start.
“But yeah, we styled our haircuts and wore baggy trousers. Actually, my kids can barely watch the videos now.”
I must admit, that ‘pony tail and flares’ line from Here I Stand jumps out at me now. A great song though. Did you feel a proper part of any scene?
“I don’t think we did. We didn’t really know the in-people in Manchester. We weren’t privy to that circle, if there even was one.
“Burnley seemed a long way from Manchester when we talked about any scene.
“We probably felt closer to The La’s and the Liverpool scene, more about songwriting than just being a cool thing.”
Ever have moments when you looked at bands and thought, ‘We were better than them’, even if those bands got better over the years.
“Well, Blur and us were neck and neck for six months or so. I remember an NME front-cover story saying, ‘this band are clever’, suggesting we weren’t.
“They’d ridden it out, that Manchester scene replaced by the American grunge scene and a period when all that music was seen as dead, before the Brit Pop thing.
“By then we’d had enough after a few knocks and kicks. It was all getting a bit messy and it was time to bow out.
“I think if you can outstay all that you’ve got something extra about you, something which possibly we didn’t have.”
Was part of that down to a lack of support from A&M?
“That didn’t help. We had a really good offer from Atlantic Records, who had been chasing us for a while, and were talking about seven years and building us up.
“But we were pushed into a deal by our management to sign for A&M, who were a lot more about ‘now’.
“There are no guarantees, but after that first album we went to America and that didn’t go quite as well as they’d hoped. After that we never really had quite the same backing.”
Does it rile you that people (like me) don’t tend to talk so much about the later albums, and may only have known about Slinky?
“At the time we thought we should have got a few more breaks, and it was all over very quickly after four years to get there.
“It was a great journey, but we could have done with at least another year of enjoying the good times.
“It was good for us to get out when we did though. It allowed us to get on and do other things. Sometimes it’s all a little one-dimensional. There’s a bit more to life than all that.
“Listening back to (second album) Valve, I don’t think we were very good at that point. We were standing up for what we thought was good, but the production was really odd on it.”
So was Barney, whose departure from the band at that point proved to be the catalyst for you splitting, ahead of you on thinking that?
“Well, we decided to continue, but we all knew it was kind of dying. Then we got dropped, then Nian got a job.
“When it’s going well, it’s great, but if you find yourself in your mid-20s on your own in London and everyone else is getting on with their lives, it can be a bit scary.”
It doesn’t seem fair for me to thrown in my sixpen’orth in some respects. I can’t say I even recall much about Valve other than the singles, Turn Off and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, their Bob Dylan cover given a little Byrds treatment.
My life had moved on by then, and it’s somewhat ironic that when I left the London and South-East gig scene to resettle in the North-West, I moved further away from ownership of the Milltown Brothers.
Consequently, family commitments of my own meant Rubberband totally passed me by too. But on the strength of Long Road, I’ll definitely put that right now.
So is that why there’s the big gap between the albums – did you all have your own lives to live again after that?
“I think that’s it, although we all kept in touch.”
And was there ever any money in being in the band?
“Erm … no, not really. We got a £100,000 advance from A&M when we signed, but 20% of that goes to management, then there were five of us drawing a wage off for two years.
“The royalties were never great. You certainly didn’t come away with anything.
“But it all gives you a lot of life experiences and it gets a lot out of your system at an early age.”
Tickets for Manchester Academy’s Gigantic all-dayer (1.30pm-11.30pm) are £29 in advance from the Oxford Road venue’s box office on 0161 832 1111 or via http://www.manchesteracademy.net.
For details of the new Milltown Brothers LP and their forthcoming dates, head to their facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MilltownBrothers
Hi Malcolm, what a great article and interview, thanks very much for writing and publishing it. I’m a huge fan of the band and would highly recommend Rubberband – I’d even go so far as to say it’s arguably the band’s very best album. I’m excited about the new album and hopefully a few gigs to follow. Dan
Cheers for the kind words, Dan. I welcome your recommendation too. And yes, I’m pretty sure you’ll love the new LP.
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