Gary Stringer was at home in Somerset earlier this week, making last-minute preparations ahead of Reef’s latest UK and Irish tour, which commences tonight (February 25th) at The Hub in Plymouth.
The 42-year-old vocalist is joined by Jack Bessant (bass), Jesse Wood (lead guitar) and Dominic Greensmith (drums) in the band, who formed in London in 1993 and went on to release four studio albums in their first coming, the best-known being 1996’s million-selling No.1 Glow.
Reef, whose current tour takes them all the way through to a Glasgow ABC finale in mid-April, initially disbanded in 2003 but were back again within seven years, their first reunion tour quickly selling out and giving them the belief to keep going.
Playing their biggest hit, Place your Hands, on the resurrected Channel 4 show TFI Friday last year sparked further interest, the same single also inspiring a feature with Carrie Grant on BBC 1’s The One Show last October, part of a busy week that also included a two-night stint in Cornwall, captured for posterity on forthcoming LP Live at St Ives. And that album is set for release on March 11th along with a new single, the band’s cover of Clara Ward’s 1951 inspirational gospel hymn How I Got Over.
Born in the West Midlands, dad-of-five Gary – whose children are aged three to 16 – moved to Somerset when he was around five, settling in Glastonbury. He left home at 16 to go ‘chasing around after being in a rock band’, but for all his travels, he’s only around 10 miles from his old patch now.
“I was probably around 13 or 14 when I started singing. I had a group of friends around my age in Glastonbury who I hung out with and one day I remember going round to this house opposite The Riflemans Arms, and there was a drum kit and an amp set up. We were into rock music and metal but never really talked about having a band. But I just started hollering over these guys making a racket – and that’s it, I was hooked!”
When Gary says ‘hollering’, he sells himself short bearing in mind his distinctively-bluesy, soulful, powerful voice. Living on the doorstep of a world-famous multi-arts event proved handy too, having played Glastonbury Festival three times with Reef and twice with his bandmate and long-time buddy Jack as Stringer Bessant, as well as featuring at the legendary Pilton Party pre-event warm-up.
Talk of all that took us on to discussing several West Country acts, although I surprised myself by not mentioning The Wurzels, instead enlightening Gary regarding former Pilton lad Rodney Allen, the indie singer-songwriter I championed in my fanzine days who went on to join rightly-revered Bristol collective The Blue Aeroplanes.
Meanwhile, for his part Gary brought up his teenage days pogoing along down the front to Somerset-based Cajun/electro-folk specialists K-Passa. But while this was clearly the life for him, it turns out that his initial rock’n’roll dream was not nearly as ambitious as you might expect.
“I remember driving somewhere with my Mum, telling her if I ended up being a musician I’d probably go to bed really late and get to lie-in. As a teenager I was more excited about that!”
You can hear a lot of Gary’s early influences in Reef’s recordings, not least Robert Plant and R’n’B re-interpreters like The Rolling Stones for these ears. Was that what he was listening to back then?
“It was pop first, but I was into the Stones and The Beatles from Mum and Dad’s record collection. Dad was also into The Who, then there was Carole King … all sorts. There was also Adam & the Ants and Madness, going up to Wells market and buying a Harrington.
“But the first music that really hit home was AC/DC. I loved the guitar sound on High Voltage, the first cassette I owned. Rock’n’Roll Singer became like a road map – I wanted to do all the things Bon Scott was singing about! Then I got into Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath …”
It’s funny you should mention Bon Scott, as tracks like Comfort on the first Reef album were kind of what I hoped AC/DC would have been about if they’d taken a more bluesy direction, reminiscent of songs like Ride On.
It wasn’t all about metal though, and other influences soon emerged, not least thanks to his first day-job, aged 16.
“After one term at college I was off. I remember looking out of a window, supposedly doing my homework, going downstairs, telling Mum and Dad there and then, ‘That’s it – I want to be a singer. There’s nothing else for it’.
“I started working at this newsagent’s in Street that had a record section. Reps came in with records, a good way of learning about new music. I remember Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy on 12”. It wasn’t necessarily music I was into, other than going to the odd rave, but really connected with me. I also discovered blues and soul, from Howling Wolf to Aretha Franklin, realising these guys could sing!”
As it was, Aretha did a blinding version of Reef’s new single, How I Got Over with the Southern California Community Choir back in 1972.
“Credit to our management there, who said the best thing about us was our live show, encouraging us to record these shows in St Ives, getting George Drakoulias – having recorded three of our five records – over from America.
“He flew over on Monday, on Tuesday we did a piece for The One Show and on Thursday went to Cornwall, surfing surfing Porthmeor in the morning before a sold-out show in the evening. We did the same on Friday, surfing Gwithian this time then rocking out again, George introducing us, our friend Bruno Ellingham as engineer, getting two great gigs down. We then travelled all the way up to London, and on Sunday went to State of the Ark Studios, Richmond.
“We wanted to cut this track, and George sent a few cover suggestions. A lot of our new material is guitar-driven and heavy, but he wanted to try something from a different angle. He loved our new songs but felt if we just threw out a four-minute rock song it might not get the traction beyond hardcore fans. This would be a way to let people know we’re back – a stepping stone. Of all the songs suggested, the one that really worked was How I Got Over. We listened to various versions and really enjoyed Aretha Franklin’s version, touched up the arrangement, and away we went!”
Will the live LP and new single be followed by a new studio album?
“There will be, but we haven’t started yet. Hopefully the single will prick everybody’s ears up, and includes two new tracks giving a flavour of what’s to come. We’re set to tour until the first week of April, then have a five-week gap before festival appearances and other shows, giving an opportunity to get these new songs down.”
I’ve already touched on that West Country identity playing a part in the Reef story, and will now take that even further – to Cornwall, with the debut LP recorded at Sawmill Studios on the River Fowey, the band’s 2003 finale happening at Falmouth Regatta, Gary and Jack’s Them is Me offshoot launched at Gwithian, and now that live LP recorded at St Ives Guildhall.
“Exactly right! And when I left home at 16 that’s where I went – down to Newquay, although I only lasted about four months, coming back with dysentery and my tail between my legs! But we’d started a band, actually got paid for a residency at the Bowgie, Crantock, and it gave me the idea we might not make a fortune but could at least pay the rent doing music.
“Back then we were chamber-maiding, fruit-picking, surfing, having a great time, but there were four of us in one room and the first day the drummer got a job in a hotel and came back with some Australian dude, so then there were five – it was never going to end well! But I love Cornwall, and it’s been really good to us.”
That certainly seemed to strengthen Gary’s belief that there was a life to be had in music, and pretty soon he was on the road again.
“I’d initially moved to Cornwall around 1991, and when I came back I went travelling for a while, staying in Morocco three months, surfing out there and starting to write properly. I soon had the melody and lyrics for Good Feeling, our first single. When I came back, Jack – who I’d known since I was 16 and had moved to Newquay with us, was off to London to join a music college, so I tagged along.
“That was when we decided to get a band together, and he came up with a riff for Mellow, about my experiences in Morocco, kick-starting the whole thing. We then met Dom, this Devon lad up in London – and Kenwyn was also at the college, although whether he ever turned up I’m not sure! But we got him in the band and it all clicked.
“Within six months, living together in Isleworth, Middlesex, we put a tape and photos the way of a friend’s sister going out with a guy who worked at a record company. We soon got plenty of rejection letters, from Island, U2’s management and all sorts. Funny thing was that once we got Lincoln Elias at Sony’s S2 interested, taking us to Muff Winwood, all those that had written saying they weren’t interested decided they actually were! But we had a good time with Lincoln and Muff, did a tour and they looked after us. And when we made that first single, Paul Weller heard us and invited us on his Wild Wood tour.”
That included memorable nights for Gary and the band at Manchester’s GMEX Centre, Aston Villa Leisure Centre, and two nights at the Royal Albert Hall … just down the A4 from the band’s Isleworth base.
“Paul was brilliant, coming to see us soundcheck pretty much every night. Behind the fog of smoke you could see him watching. Imagine how that made you feel, this dude you know all about, loving his songwriting and attitude, and there he is – really taking an interest in you. Makes you feel like King Kong!”
Good Feeling was the first of three top-30 singles from Replenish in 1995, followed by four more from second LP Glow, not least top-10 hits Place Your Hands and Come Back Brighter. In fact, that album – also including the anthemic Consideration, just happened to be one of the first CDs this reluctant late convert from vinyl snapped up on release in early 1997.
And while 1999’s Rides (recorded in Los Angeles) and the next year’s Getaway didn’t reach the same sales heights, it was all good grounding as far as Gary is concerned.
“Sure, you want No.1s every time and want people to hear your record and connect with them, but we’d come a long way from playing Bath Moles. We started Glow at Abbey Road, George Drakoulias flying in to cut four tracks with Richard Digby-Smith, who engineered a lot of Free songs and Island artists, including Bob Marley.
“You’re meeting these guys – watching, learning, soaking it all up. You’re not thinking at that point Replenish had gone top-10 so we now needed a No.1. I remember Good Feeling reaching No.24, the record company being a bit down and me saying, ‘You’re joking – we just made the top 30! Put that on my headstone!’ With Glow it went nuts, but I wasn’t thinking about the next career move. We’re just not that sort of band.”
Reef were back to their roots with a harder sound for a fifth album, but as it turned out, that never saw the light of day other than the few tracks that made it on to Together – The Best Of Reef in early 2003. Looking back, was it the right decision to stop later that year, re-emerging somewhat re-energised a few years later?
“Yeah, we could have stayed out touring America for two years after Glow, having already been around the world three times, Europe three times, Australia and Japan twice. But on the third run around America we had the choice of staying or working on a third record, and no one wanted to carry on touring.
“We kicked in to make Rides, holed up in LA for three months, having a great time. After that we went more pop with Getaway, working with Al Clay – a great guy and clever producer. The record company said they’d get us back to LA with George and we signed for a fifth record, doing around seven songs. But that Christmas, 2001, Dom told us he’d had enough. I remember George at the airport, saying, ‘Come back after Christmas and finish the record. But it never happened.”
So what had changed by 2010 to convince you to return?
“We sat and had a curry with our old manager, Tank (Chris Gilks), who told us he’d been contacted by Live Nation. He told us the details, we looked at each other and went, ‘Why not!’ We hadn’t done a Reef gig in six or seven years, but we were ready to go back. Even three months earlier I’d have hummed and harred about it, but at that point in my life it jut felt right. So suddenly, after all we’d done between times, we were back at the party with Reef.”
Even so, it must have been a pleasant surprise that the initial tour was a sell-out.
“You can imagine! The first hurdle was that first rehearsal, but when we got together it was obvious it was going to work. That was a relief. Then that first week of sales made us think, ‘Really? Wow! People actually give a shit!’ But when we stopped it was just on the cusp of all the digital stuff coming in, so we didn’t even have a Facebook page, and certainly didn’t know about Twitter. It had all changed.”
Since then Kenwyn has moved on to concentrate on his band, Goldray, replaced by Jesse Wood on guitar. Are you still in touch with your former guitarist?
“Yeah, I haven’t spoken to him this year, but last year we were all together, working on a publishing deal for our back-catalogue. It’s cool, and there are no bad vibes there. After the 2010 reunion we did another tour in 2013 and I decided that if we were going to continue I wanted it to be a creative experience, rather than just playing the old songs. Kenwyn didn’t mind doing the gigs, but wanted to concentrate on his new band, Goldray. But he suggested moving out and letting someone in. And bless him, he told us he’d mentor and help the new guy in.”
That ‘new guy’, Jesse, just happens to be the son of Faces and Rolling Stones legend Ron Wood, which seems to make sense for a band who like to play the same kind of gutsy r’n’b.
“We did auditions, and it was obvious Jesse was the guy. He was perfect. All of those who auditioned were good, but what was special about Jesse was (a) he sang and his style was beautiful, and (b) we even wrote a song with him during the audition. We didn’t do that with any of the others – that was rad!
“It was easy and has been ever since, like a new ball of energy. We’re all sponges, and his musical sponge is full – he’s an encyclopedia of different styles. And when he put a part down for How I Got Over, it was bang on. He sat down, played it, job done!”
As well as his playing style, Jesse – married to TV presenter Fearne Cotton – has also turned heads with his modelling work, bringing me on to the subject of the more hirsute look of Reef circa 2016 – with a fair bit of facial hair judging by the recent photographs and film footage.
“Yeah! Me and Jack are the beardiest. I can’t remember the last time Jack shaved his beard, but every now and again I shave mine off. I’ll roll over in the middle of the night and get it caught under my armpit or something. Jesse gave it a stab too, but Dom never really goes beyond stubbly!”
Reef’s Spring 2016 UK tour: 25th February – The Hub, Plymouth; 26th February – Mr Kyps, Poole; 3rd March – Electric Ballroom, London; 4th March – Factory, Barnstaple; 5th March – Academy 1, Oxford; 10th March – O2 Academy, Bristol; 11th March – O2 Institute, Birmingham; 12th March – UEA, Norwich; 16th March – Rescue Rooms, Nottingham; 17th March – O2 Academy 2, Manchester; 18th March – Fibbers, York; 19th March – Plug, Sheffield; 24th March – Lemon Grove, Exeter; 25th March – Tramshed, Cardiff; 26th March – Engine Rooms, Southampton; 27th March – The Hole In The Roof, Deal; 13th April – Cyprus Avenue, Cork; 14th April – Dublin Academy; 15th April – Belfast Limelight; 16th April – Glasgow ABC.