It’s a busy life for Stephen Holt, his day job in North Manchester supplemented by roles as the singer in two acclaimed bands.
As well as Inspiral Carpets, the outfit he co-formed in 1983 and rejoined in 2011 after a 22-year absence, he’s back with the band he initially them left for, promoting The Rainkings’ new Fiveways EP.
By his own admission, Stephen’s side-project are hardly the most prolific ensemble, releasing just two singles first time around, although the Another Time (1989/94) compilation eventually followed in 2013.
Inspired by the public response to that release though, they decided to write some new songs, and the results are impressive.
Stephen and co-founder/guitarist Dave Swift – another former Inspirals member – rejoined John Rowland (drums, formerly with The Bodines), Cathy Brooks (bass, formerly with Dub Sex) and Chris Hutchison (keyboard/guitar).
Any real momentum was ruled out by Stephen’s commitments with the Inspirals that following year, but The Rainkings returned to the studio this February, and to good effect judging by that resultant EP.
That said, Stephen’s been back rehearsing with Clint Boon, Graham Lambert, Craig Gill and Martyn Walsh lately, ahead of Inspiral Carpets shows at Hebden Bridge Trades Club (Thursday, May 21), Carlisle Old Fire Station (Friday, May 22) and Manchester Academy’s Gigantic all-dayer (Saturday, May 23).
Those dates follow December’s successful tour promoting an acclaimed self-titled comeback album, which included their most recent single, Let You Down, featuring legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke.
So – before we get too confused – which band is Stephen’s musical priority at present? Which is his busman’s holiday project – the Inspirals or The Rainkings?
“The Inspirals is my full-time role, but I love playing with both bands and I’m always brought back to The Rainkings.
“I formed both bands with my mates, and Swifty’s been my best mate for years. We grew up together, he used to live around the corner from me and was in the Inspirals with us as well.
“And there’s always something that drags me back and wanting to do more with The Rainkings. It’s the spirit of the underdog too, in some way.
“I don’t think we ever really proved ourselves as a band, live or on record, so I suppose I’m still trying to show people we’re a good band and deserve a bit of credit.”
Time for a potted history again, I reckon, explaining how Stephen – who helps run a drug and alcohol support service these days – quit the Inspirals alongside Dave Swift at a stage where the band had written half of the album, Life.
That album proved to be the Inspirals’ commercial breakthrough, the single This Is How It Feels soon scoring a top-20 hit, the first of 11 making the top-40 over the next five years.
But Stephen had already moved on, having felt the band had been overtaken by outside agents and the bigger music industry, losing sight of their original indie ethos.
Whether that was the case or not remains debatable, but Tom Hingley certainly went on to prove himself in Stephen’s place out front.
While The Rainkings failed to make anything like the same impact, Stephen and Swifty could live with that … at least to an extent.
Yet now they’re back, with the first fruits of the new-look Rainkings certainly impressing this scribe.
Back to this weekend first though. So what kind of set can we expect from Inspiral Carpets at Manchester Academy (with the band on at 8.30pm, the set before headliners Echo and the Bunnymen)?
“Gigantic wanted a greatest hits set when they booked us, although we’ll do a few tracks from the new album as well.
“But it’s not a million miles away, and we’re trying to drag out a couple of surprises we’ve not played for a while.”
No guest appearance from John Cooper Clarke lined up on the night?
“I don’t think so. We’d love to have him involved and tried for the tour in December to get him to a couple of dates, but it was just co-ordinating diaries.
“Besides, I think when he’s not busy he likes to become a bit of a recluse.”
I can see that diary co-ordination could be hard work, not least as Johnny Clarke has a bit of a reputation for late arrivals, as hinted at in his wondrous contribution in the guise of Dr Reliable on Let You Down.
“I believe it was more of a kickback against how he used to be, and how he does try to get places really early and is far more reliable than he used to be.
“He’s a great character. I was really pleased with our video with him. The Spitfire video was alright but not really what we were going for, but the vibe on Let You Down was just brilliant, and having John on there made it for us.”
John’s in good company too, following in the footsteps of The Fall legend Mark E. Smith, who appeared with the band’s previous incarnation on their fourth top-20 hit, I Want You, in 1994, even joining them for a memorable Top of the Pops performance.
“Exactly! And as a band we’ve been quite lucky with the links we’ve had. And it’s not tokenistic – they fit totally.”
So, after MES and JCC, who can you go to next?
“That’s a good question. I’ve not even thought of that!”
When I spoke to Stephen about the first Inspirals album in 20 years a few months back, we talked about a Teardrop Explodes and Mighty Lemon Drops feel on certain songs.
Now, moving on to The Rainkings’ Fiveways EP, I’m leaning more towards early REM, Sugar, and a more transatlantic vibe.
“Definitely, yeah. I think you’re right, and people have also mentioned Husker Du.”
Good point. I agree.
“Then there’s the Afghan Wigs, and all those bands have been a massive influence on us. That goes for Swifty, our chief songwriter, too, and I think that comes over on the EP.”
It certainly does, and I’d venture to say there’s not an inch of fat on that five-track extended play.
Swifty clearly has the knack for a great hook, as we’re aware from the off with Low Hit, its Stone Roses-like rousing chorus taking us to a height we barely dip from over the next 17 minutes. It’s perhaps as close to the Inspirals as we get here, with a few Mighty Lemon Drops touches, its guitar drive nicely augmented by a little defining organ, so to speak.
Getting Nowhere brings that classic US indie vibe to the fore, with elements of Michael Stipe in the verse and Bob Mould in the chorus, the backing vocals taking it closer to early REM territory on another eminently-catchy song, for all its alternative verve.
Nothing’s Set In Stone has a Stipe-like stirring chorus and provides a further 100 per cent all-guns-blazing feel, its reflective piano finish at least giving us a little breathing space before we’re off again.
Then comes the wondrous In From the Rain, a Sugar-coasted power surge with more delectable hooks, duetting guitars, and Stephen’s flavoursome vocals.
There’s no issue over the band outstaying their welcome either, playing out perfectly with the lean, just the right side of mean By My Side, coming in under the three-minute mark to complete a sub-1,000 second fuel-injected audio display of quality tunesmithery.
Phew. Bring on the LP, I say. So, Stephen, you and your fellow Rainkings have definitely not mellowed over the years, at least on the strength of Fiveways.
“You’ve got to stick to your roots – none of this picking up an acoustic guitar and trying to go all soft! We stick to what we know best and what we do best.”
That’s true, but listening back – and bear in mind I’ve only really dipped in and out of the earlier Rainkings material – I think you’ve got it together more this time than maybe you did on record in the past.
“I agree, apart from the Get Ready single we did with Ian Broudie, where we were really pleased with the songs. And if Ian’s going to produce something for you, it’s going to be brilliant!
“Working on these newer tracks with Jim (Spencer), that’s certainly the case though. I also think our songwriting has matured as well. We’ve definitely got more of the sound we’ve always been looking for.”
So is this more indicative of where you were heading all those years ago?
“Yeah, and it’s only taken us 20-odd years! We’re getting closer to how we want to sound.”
It’s difficult to decide which track I like best on the EP. It might have been Low Hit at first, but now maybe it’s In From the Rain. Has Stephen got a favourite?
“It’s changed. As a band we probably first went with Nothing’s Set in Stone, that track really got to all of us. Since then it’s probably veered between that and Low Hit.
“But the more I listen now, when In From the Rain comes on, it shines out in a different way.”
“We recorded it in a weird way, with three songs put down in November 2013, but then – because I was so busy with the Inspirals, everything put on hold before we came back together at the start of this year with Low Hit and Getting Nowhere.
“But after letting them mature and hearing them again over time, I love the sound of the earlier ones too.”
And is it in the contract or just the local psyche to write about rainfall every now and again, being a Manchester band?
“Well, Swifty writes our songs, and he’s quite a serious, straight man, but we were looking at that, and they’re not really the most upbeat titles, are they?
“Maybe we need to get more positive, start being a bit more upbeat!”
That got me thinking about The Wedding Present’s 1988 release Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm, featuring alongside the title track Nothing Comes Easy, Don’t Laugh and I’m Not Always So Stupid.
So while The Rainkings come close, four out of four negatives just about beats that.
I add to the fact that there’s a similar but different effect with the first Noah and the Whale LP, the chirpiest of tunes met by pretty depressing lyrics.
“I do like that kind of juxtaposition!”
Getting back on course, I’d suggest the strength of the new EP suggests there could be a Rainkings album on its way at some point.
“We’d love to. There are no plans at the moment, but we’d love to do something again later in the year.
“And although we’re not the most productive of bands in output and gigs, we might do a couple of shows later this year.
“We’ve never been able to put across live what we’ve wanted to do either, so maybe that’s the next nut-cracker – to get happy with our live sound too.
“The thing is that Swifty is such a prolific songwriter. He never stops. He’s got hundreds of songs – we could probably do 10 albums of his songs!”
Has Swifty got a side-project as well?
“He does the majority of the songwriting, while I just chip in now and again with lyrics on a couple of songs.
“But there’s no plan, we just bring in whatever we’ve got to rehearsals, and might go on and record.”
“Was Dave an important influence on the earlier incarnation of the Inspirals?
“He came in just before we recorded Planecrash, so he’s on the first EP, and brought in Causeway on the Trainsurfing EP, So Far on our first Peel Session, and another couple of tracks.”
Is there a day job for Dave as well?
“Yes, he’s an IT man, but since we’ve been old enough we’ve gone to gigs together and had loads of garage bands, with a drum machine and a guitar. We were in a school band as well.”
Were you surprised at the public reaction to the Another Time compilation? Had you thought you were just another forgotten band?
“I still think we’re one of those forgotten bands, although there are loads of us out there. But we’ve definitely still got something to prove to people.
“That’s why we keep coming back to it. And we’ll keep trying, as long as it takes.”
And now seems to be a good time – with lots of old ‘80s and ‘90s indie bands seemingly reforming.
“I was talking about this down at the Vinyl Revival record shop in Manchester, this great record shop in Manchester.
“The Inspirals never really went away, but have made an impact again recently, as have The Rainkings. Then there’s Black Grape, The High, The Milltown Brothers. All these bands coming back – strange times!”
Yet it seems that very few labels are taking bands on today.
“There’s not, and we were quite lucky with the Inspirals to get picked up by Cherry Red. A lot of bands are either doing their own thing – like The Rainkings – or going down the pledging route. No one’s really signed anymore at a lower level.”
Moving on to your fellow Rainkings, did you know John Rowland in his Bodines days?
“Our first London show was supporting The Bodines, then we played a few around Manchester with them.
“I was a big fan anyway and we worked alongside them and seemed to get on really well.”
I loved the album, Played, a treasured piece of vinyl for me, which I only recently rediscovered on CD.
“It’s brilliant, and tracks like Therese and Heard it All are just great pop songs. Actually, Cherry Red are trying to get them back together at the moment to get a compilation of unreleased tracks together.”
Cathy and Chris were more recent auditions to The Rainkings. Had you known them for a while?
“With Cathy it’s a similar story, having played a lot of gigs with her band, Dub Sex, in those early days.
“They were a little ahead of us, but also on the rise as we were coming through. Graham from the Inspirals and myself were massive fans, going all over watching them. Again, we supported them in London and Manchester.
“As it was, I hadn’t seen Cathy for a while, but then she came to watch the Inspirals when we played Holmfirth for the first time.
“I always thought she was a great bass player, and she’s a really nice person to have around. She wasn’t doing anything at the time, so I told her I had another band going if she ever fancied doing something. And we took it from there.
“Meanwhile, Chris was brought in by John, but he’s now moved over to China. He got an opportunity to teach out there, and took that up.
“So we’re now a four-piece, but Wimmy (Paul Williams) – a mate of mine who recorded the last two tracks on the EP – plays keyboards and helps out when we need him. And he’s another good bloke to have around.”
Did you have anything in particular in mind for what you might get out of the experience when you started recording again in late 2013?
“After Another Time, I always wanted to do some new tunes. And when we recorded those first three songs they came out so well I felt we needed to do something again.
“After waiting a year and holding on to those, I felt they were too good not to be heard.
“Rather than chasing people trying to get them released, jumping through hoops and doing it on their terms … well, I’ve seen the mistakes some of the bigger labels can make and decided I can make those mistakes myself!
“With the Inspirals, there’s always been that get-up-and-do-it work ethic – making us think that if no one else is prepared to do it, we’ll do it ourselves. It’s the old punk ethos really.
“So now – as The Rainkings – we’ve decided to have a go ourselves and be in control that way.”
Probably a good thing if you’re right about Swifty – better that than finding a huge cache of undiscovered songs round at his place when he’s in his 90s.
“Totally! He’d just sit there, playing his guitar, riding his scooter, and going to work otherwise. And this stuff should be listened to. Definitely!”
If you missed this blog’s interview with Stephen Holt back in December 2014, focusing on Inspiral Carpets’ comeback, there’s a link here.
For an idea of what a night out watching the current Inspirals line-up entails, try this review from 53 Degrees in Preston.
See what else the Inspiral Carpets are up to in 2015 – including summer dates in Holmfirth and York and in November in Somerset, via their website here.
And for ticket details of Manchester Academy’s Gigantic all-dayer (1.30-11.30pm, Saturday, May 23, £29 in advance) call 0161 832 1111 or head here.