It’s been a big year for Cast, these Liverpudlian indie veterans currently working on a brand new album and midway through a happening UK tour.
Those dates culminate in December 5’s sell-out All Change 20th anniversary show alongside the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in their home city. And four weeks before that – on November 6 – the Merseyside quartet are as good as guaranteed a full house when they resume their live shows at Preston’s 53 Degrees.
Cast originally formed in 1992, John Power having quit his bass and backing vocals duties with Liverpool legends The La’s for a fresh start, the new band taking its name from the last word of Looking Glass, the last track of that outfit’s acclaimed 1990 debut album.
These days Cast incorporate John, fellow guitarist Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson, drummer Keith O’Neill (both on board since 1993) and Jay Lewis, their most recent addition formerly with John’s solo band and a reformed La’s line-up, recently replacing bassist Peter Wilkinson, who formed the band with the mainman all those years ago.
And it’s now been three years since the band reunited with producer John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead, The Fall) for Troubled Times, their first studio album in more than a decade.
At a time when so many acts are conducting anniversary tours, John Power is spoiled for choice, it being 25 years since the influential eponymous La’s album was released, along with the successfully-reissued There She Goes.
But this tour is all about Cast, showcasing their new songs – as they put finishing touches to their sixth studio album – and celebrating 20 years since their debut LP, which included top-20 hits Finetime, Alright, Sandstorm and Walkaway.
Hence that special collaboration at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. And while that date is now sold out, a new show has been announced at the same venue on February 27.
So, I ask John one evening as he prepares for a live show at The Warehouse in Falkirk, is he looking forward to his band’s dates with that Liverpool venue’s ‘house band’?
“The score’s being written now and we’re going to rehearse with them in a couple of weeks. Hopefully it’s going to be an ocean of sound. We’re looking forward to it.”
And there’s a PledgeMusic campaign for the new album, I believe.
“Yes, we were one of the very first pioneers of PledgeMusic with our first comeback album, Troubled Times, when it was just getting up and running, and it’s now something most bands are involved with and I like the idea with this album too.
“It’s a way of connecting with your fans and the way a lot of things are financed these days, the industry not being as gung-ho or as supportive of bands in their development, at whatever level or whatever stage of their career.
“It’s a good way for people who are into the band or who are discovering the band to go. And it’s a way for the fans to feel more of a part of it. Things have changed … and rightfully so. Change is always afoot.”
All Change, you might say. But as proud as John is of the phenomenal sales of that first double-platinum Cast album – Polydor’s biggest-selling debut LP – he must have felt his more recent solo recordings deserved similar success.
For the record, John’s first solo album, Happening for Love, was released in 2003, with Willow She Weeps following three years later then Stormbreaker in early 2008, the latter two in more acoustic folk territory. And for these ears all three were winners. In fact, I put it to John that singles like Jumping Bean should surely have been top-10 hits, every bit a surefire hit as what came before.
“Well, there was a lot of interest, but there was more of a grass-roots approach, and I never had that same level of backing, so a lot of people didn’t realise stuff was out there. That was me kind of finding my feet again. And sometimes you need to take something down to take it back up, so people can fall back in love with it.
“I agree with you to some extent though. Jelly Bean was from an album that no one even f*****g knows about! I think for the style of music it was trying to capture I don’t think anything touched it. But that’s all led back to Cast.”
It certainly has, John’s 2010 solo Cast Acoustic Show tour pre-empting a reformation later that year, Troubled Times following. And the story continues to this day.
“We’re now getting out and about and playing gigs, and have been selling out on the night for pretty much the whole of this tour. That’s a really good sign. We’re not just playing the main musical strongholds either. We’re playing all over the place, and places we haven’t really been for a long time or not at all.
“That shows us that out there’s a lot of affection for the band. And the audience needed to know we’re out there and doing it, and we need to know they’re there. This year has already been creative and positive. The band has spent a lot of time together and we’re coming up with an album we never thought we were going to this time last year.”
Going back to the early days with The La’s, it was only through reading up on your biography, reminding myself of some of that back-story ….
“You don’t wanna believe that shite, y’know!”
JP laughs, but I soldier on, although our conversation is sometimes lost amid background noise in his Scottish dressing room, with at least one more caller trying to get through on the line. He’s in fine form though, and comes over friendly, having already apologised for missing our earlier slot.
Anyway, I realised he’s only six weeks older than me, and that really put it all in perspective, helping me piece together key times in his career against my own experiences.
I’d just taken my A-levels when The La’s recruited 18-year-old John in July, 1986, after he met the band’s original guitarist Mike Badger on a course for unemployed musicians. So while I was spending my time between dead-end jobs and gigs in London and the South-East – and playing bass badly in a mate’s garage – John was doing it for real with a truly happening band.
Similarly, by the summer of 1991, shortly after I returned from my world travels, John was working towards his next venture, frustrated at the rate of progress for Lee Mavers’ band, as illustrated in a feature I cut out of the NME that August, by David Quantick, who was on the road with The La’s during a US tour.
I put it to John that – judging by that feature – there seemed to be an element of self-loathing of the songs within the band at that stage – the band members seemingly not too proud of that revered first album. I also picked up from that article how he was already writing a lot of songs.
“Yeah, we were doing Follow Me Down and Alright in the set at that time, and I was probably writing Fine Time and Sandstorm, or versions of that.”
Following increased tension with Lee, John left The La’s that December, forming Cast the following year.
“I wasn’t intending to actually leave The La’s, it’s just that things came apart. We’d been playing the same set a long time and it was just time for me to bite the bullet, grab the bull by the horns and follow my own path really.”
That’s a lot of cliches in one sentence, but I keep quiet. Besides, we’re up against time and the band’s soundcheck awaits.
“A lot of people thought that was maybe the wrong thing to do. The La’s were such an iconic band – and still are. But I think you’ve got to follow your own path at times, and have the confidence to do that. I had yet to form my own arrowhead, deciding to veer off from something that was established on the promise of that something I could establish – something new.”
It proved to be a sound choice, that first Cast album among my favourites from that whole BritPop era, the second and third having some mighty fine moments too.
A certain Noel Gallagher described watching Cast live as like a ‘religious experience’, and prestigious supports with Elvis Costello and Oasis helped break them, the band signing with Polydor in late 1994.
You could argue that the second album – also made with John Leckie – wasn’t as strong as the first, and while they seemed to up their game and reinvent themselves for the Gil Norton produced third LP Magic Hour, I must admit the fourth, 2002’s Beetroot, passed me by. I was busy changing nappies for one thing.
Either way, soon part one of the Cast story was over. So what had changed?
“Erm … I’d probably been working very hard … we’d all been partying and working very hard, and I wanted to do something different – and that was Beetroot. The songs on that are still very strong, I think, but maybe it could have been more of a solo project, sound-wise. I was getting into loops and just wanting to try something new.
“Also, times had changed, and I got sick of myself really, and sick of everything else. Like all things it comes to a point … I wasn’t in a good place deep down, but didn’t quite know that.”
John released the Leckie-produced Happening for Love solo LP a year later, although he later said, ‘I was still writing Cast-like tracks, but without the verve I had when I believed in it.’
“It wasn’t about confidence. It was just about being arsed, being turned off really! You’ve got to feel it got to want to do it, and got to feel it’s relevant. I didn’t want to parody Cast, in the same way that I didn’t want to parody The La’s when I formed Cast. I didn’t really do much for a while.
“Then I did Happening For Love. It’s neither here nor there really. There are some good songs on it, but I still hadn’t found a new identity. Going back to The La’s was something that was good though.”
The La’s reformed in 2005 for a series of headline and festival appearances in the UK, Ireland and Japan. But with no sign of new material, John soon returned to his solo career.
“It was just great, because I loved The La’s as much as I loved my own stuff. It was where I started, and all of a sudden I could enjoy being in a band that I loved, playing music I loved, with a kind of lineage I understood.
“It recharged me again in a way. It was a case of going round, completing the circle. That got me back into the rootsy stuff, and that was great – back to folk and back to rock’n’roll.”
Those next two solo albums followed, and live shows with The John Power Band, backed by Jay Lewis and Steve Pilgrim, the latter replaced by Oli Hughes after he joined Paul Weller’s band.
“From there, I made my peace with Cast and started writing again … and here we are now – enjoying ourselves!
I’ve been going back to my Cast albums again recently, and All Change in particular still sounds fresh, not least its ‘60s vibe and definable Liverpool sound. There are elements of early Merseybeat bands right through to Shack and The Coral, as well as The Byrds, The Who, and harmonies suggesting The Hollies or Crosby, Stills and Nash behind those guitars. Was that a conscious move or just part of his musical DNA?
“I don’t know really. I was just doing what was natural to me. Perhaps that was just me interpreting the music that had inspired me, sub-consciously. I suppose the dynamics of The Who were there, but apart from that I wasn’t trying to be anyone, and wasn’t working on harmonies to be like anyone.
“Those were just the ones I had! That’s just what came with the band, and were working naturally, y’know! When I look back on them now, they were quite complex.
“Now, I don’t know if I can force myself into that, and don’t do as many harmonies. But at the time, there were lots of Saturn rings around things.”
“Well hopefully you’ll feel the same about the new album. It’s different. It’s not any parody. It’s more mature in its own place. It certainly feels like a band that’s been and done a few things. And we’re not trying to ape our own shadow.”
There’s proof of that in the only new track released so far, the sublime Baby Blue Eyes – which sounds like vintage Cast, but totally current and – I’ll say it again – fresh with it.
With founder member Peter Wilkinson (originally with Shack) having moved on last year, it’s now John, Liam and Keith, plus Jay. Does Paul Ellison join them on keyboards for these live shows?
“No, although we saw Paul in Brighton when we played the Komedia the first night (October 1). But we’re just a four-piece and it makes for a good energy.
“You’ve gotta all want to be on the stage together, and that’s what’s happening now. Unfortunately, Pete had to go and do his thing and sort himself out, but in a weird way it was like a weight off all our shoulders … including Pete’s.”
Jay’s been with your solo band as well, hasn’t he?
“Yes, and he was in The La’s in 2005, so I have a big history with him and he’s bedding in very well with the other members, forming his own relationship. There’s a good feeling at the moment, and it’s a good place to be.”
At this point, John – already 15 minutes behind on his interviews – has to get away. But I don’t feel short-changed. In fact, I find out an hour or so later it could have been far worse, the band posting a video of them backstage at Falkirk – Skin leading an impromptu guitar and percussion jam session in the changing room, the camera panning around a little dressing room and finding JP, with hands cupped to his ear and mobile phone, struggling to hear.
Eight successful Scottish shows followed, then another in Stockton-on-Tees, and now they’ll soon be off again, that Preston appearance the first of 10 more English dates in November before the first hometown orchestral collaboration. And what more can I say? Fine Time guaranteed.