Cool is a word that comes up a lot when you speak to Dan Gillespie Sells, frontman of The Feeling. But he only tends to use it disparagingly.
Cards on the table first. Cool or not, his band have always been hard to categorise for me, despite the fact that they rarely shy away from good old-fashioned pop and rock. They write great hooks and riffs too, so I’m not quite sure why I would hang back in professing my appreciation for this clearly-talented five-piece.
In fact, their debut LP, Twelve Stops and Home, was possibly the last new album I bought on spec, after hearing it played in full in a record store in early June 2006. I already knew two singles – Sewn (released 10 years ago this week) and Fill My Little World – but liked everything else I heard that day, and felt compelled to snap it up. It wasn’t just a ‘front-loaded’ album either – the quality kept coming. There seemed to be a surfeit of potential singles, many of which wouldn’t even be released in that respect.
I put all this to Dan down the phone a few days ago, the 37-year-old multi-instrumentalist and the band’s chief lyricist sat at home in Hackney, East London, doing a few interviews before his bandmates Richard Jones (bass), Kevin Jeremiah (guitar), Ciaran Jeremiah (keyboards) and Paul Stewart (drums) dropped in at the Dog House studio downstairs.
“Well, we ran out of time rather than running out of singles. We just wanted to get on with the next record by that stage! We had the whole record written before we signed a deal. It needed mixing, but it was all done as far as the writing and most of the recording was concerned. By the time we got to releasing the fourth single we were pretty much three years on.”
From the opening, rocky I Want You Now and more daytime radio-friendly Never Be Lonely, that debut LP veered between ‘80s pop and something a bit more ‘street’, albeit ‘70s street. The next track, Same Old Stuff, even reminded me of John Miles’ Music, while there were elements elsewhere across that LP of 10cc, Wings, Supertramp … basically, everything I shied away from but appreciated on the quiet.
What I guess I’m saying – in the nicest possible way – is I couldn’t quite get a handle on The Feeling then, and I’m not sure I can now. They transcended what I felt was alright to like. And rightly or wrongly, they remain something of a guilty pop and rock secret tucked away amid my indie and new wave, and ‘60s r’n’b and soul diet. What’s more, Dan has cited Karen Carpenter, Freddie Mercury and Neil Young as major influences – not an obvious triumvirate in musical inspiration, yet somehow fitting.
I put all this to the man himself, and he at least had the good grace to laugh when I asked if it was considered alright to love The Feeling.
“Basically, we didn’t buy into any aesthetic of cool … in sound or anything! Why limit yourelf? I’ve actually changed my mind a bit on what cool is now, but in those days I was anti-cool. I thought everyone was just faking it. Rather than being fake, growing a beard, fitting into skinny jeans, being like a Strokes soundalike, I decided I liked all this pretty music and wasn’t ashamed of it – I love all those harmonies on Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac records.”
All the same, it was genuinely surprising when The Feeling went from that first LP to follow-up Join With Us. I don’t know what I expected, but the stonking lead track and single I Thought It Was Over – like Van Halen doing hi-energy disco – threw me. Yet I loved that too.
“Well, we never wanted to be predictable! We’ve never known what we’re doing. My big influence was always Queen, and with their albums you never knew what the hell they were going to do next and where they were coming from. There was something surprising about the choices. They didn’t give a sh** and there was something I liked about that. Besides, I’m too much of a magpie, too much of a collector. I’m like an archaeologist of musical styles and want to try a bit of everything … probably to our detriment.
“Because we were all over the radio at that time, I just felt everyone would be sick of us. But the truth is that our fourth album, Boy Cried Wolf, was our most critically-accepted record since Twelve Stops and the one that probably sounds most like it. I spent so long running away from that sound, but then thought, ‘Just relax, be yourself!’
“At that point I also started writing outside the band, finding different outlets for my magpie tendencies. And writing for theatre, TV and all that helped me focus on what The Feeling was really all about.”
When I called Dan, I’d only heard the epic Wicked Heart and new single Spiralling from the new record, but have since caught up and can confirm we have another winner, one that neatly follows on from last year’s Boy Cried Wolf. And while there’s no magic formula in the make-up of the tracks, those two recordings I mention proved a great place to start, and Dan’s work on Spiralling reminds me of another accomplished songwriter/musician, New Zealand’s prime export Neil Finn. And it appears that he’s quite taken with the comparison.
“I remember playing a show with Crowded House years ago, thinking those guys know how to write hits and have so many beautiful songs. If I’m put in a bracket with someone like that I’m very happy, because it’s about songwriting for me first and foremost.
“Production and style are important, but always has to be in order to aid a song rather than take it over. If you’ve got good foundations you can go where you want, but a song’s structure can be a beautiful thing and for me it’s the ultimate challenge to write in that genre.”
That doesn’t surprise me. The Feeling may be associated with studio flair, but their songs will always work well stripped down too. That said, their latest long player showcases a proper band sound too, as you might expect from an album recorded in just a few days, largely as a live experience. That approach is most evident on tracks like Raw Deal, a cleverly-constructed colossus of a song driven by Richard’s mighty bass-line. Then there’s the Bowie-esque stomp of Non-Stop American and downright-stonking alt. dance of Alien.
But those who appreciate the band’s more delicate moments have plenty to savour too, tracks like the sparse but haunting piano-led Let It Be Gone, the beguiling Shadow Boxer and slow-build finale Sleep Tight hitting the spot every time. And there’s still that basic ethical principle belying it all.
“When I write a song the process normally involves me and a piano or guitar, and I always feel if a song wouldn’t sound particularly good at a campfire, I need to carry on working on it. That’s not to say all music has to sound good on an acoustic guitar, but I came from an Irish family who travelled around a lot as a kid, encountering a lot of storytelling and people singing songs and parties where people brought instruments and would play and sing.
“It’s all very well now we’re in the record business trying to sound modern, but the fundamental thing is to be able to sit down and play a song you’ve just written and entertain a roomful of people, even if it’s just you and your guitar.”
As I pointed out before, The Feeling aren’t easily categorised, veering between styles from track to track as far as I can tell.
“We do veer between styles, but it still sounds like a Feeling album because of the guys in the band, and always will – even if we were to try and sound different, as we often do. When we do try to veer away, we’re brought back because we’re these five musicians with an unchanged line-up who’ve always produced and engineered everything ourselves.
“I suppose the one departure we’ve made on this record is not using the piano so much. This time we’ve concentrated on guitar, Hammond organ and Wurlitzer piano rather than my Bechstein I normally write everything on. It was a case of putting the lid on the piano, pushing it into the corner of the studio and seeing what came out of the guitars.
“Also, the influences are more from those ‘90s guitar bands I loved, a sound I don’t think has been done to death. I loved these bands when I was a teenager, seeing them all play. I was lucky enough to live in London, going to the Brixton Academy and The Forum and an indie nightclub at The Dome, Tufnell Park, with my older brother, who got me into all that. That sound’s still there somewhere in my deepest, darkest corner, resonating, and I felt I hadn’t been there for a while, so decided to get the guitar out, be a bit more jangly with it!”
Can’t beat a good bit of jangliness, Dan. So what bands are we talking about here?
“I absolutely loved Blur, and Pulp and Suede. I also liked Shed 7 and girl bands like Echobelly. I loved Elastica and PJ Harvey. There’s something really cool about all that. When The Feeling started out, there was a question of whether we wanted to be a bit more indie. But the indie of 2006 was very different. For me, ‘90s indie was much more melodic and song-based, very much influenced by The Smiths. That’s where I was coming from.”
You mentioned Blur, whose fifth album was called … Blur. So what is it about bands leaving it so late to have a self-titled album?
“Well, we made that decision and only then realised that had become a bit of a tradition – not just us and Blur, but quite a lot of others too.”
I was looking into that actually, but struggled to find other examples beyond the fifth Echo & the Bunnymen album in 1987 (although one friend suggested Metallica’s Black album). Even The Beatles waited until their ninth album before going down the eponymous road.
“Well, some people discount some of those albums, like the early covers album, and reckon it’s really their fifth!”
“For us there was something about getting to our fifth album, figuring out we were being ourselves more than ever. For your first album you’re not very self-aware – you do what you do and it’s all very organic. It takes a while to get back to that, that sense of knowing who you are. I suppose the way we recorded this album, the five of us in a room, was more of an honest portrayal of who we are than anything we’ve done for years.”
This is a half-baked theory, but listening again to the fourth LP, Boy Cried Wolf, the track Rescue has a repeated section echoing Never Be Lonely from the first LP. Was that you coming full circle, setting yourself up for this self-titled album?
“A little. Boy Cried Wolf was definitely a re-emergence for us, having almost broken up at the end of the third album, which really killed us. Our relationship with a major record label was waning and we didn’t enjoy being A&R’d any more. That wasn’t the case with our first album so we couldn’t figure out why we had to be for our second and third.
“Coming to that conclusion allowed us to make that fourth album, getting back to the music we loved for the sake of it again – letting go of the pressure. That was like a reboot for us, and it feels like this album was an experiment in being more truthful to ourselves, not allowing ourselves to multi-track. We kept the over-dubs to a complete minimum other than brass and backing vocals. The rest was recorded live in a room, testing ourselves in the playing and producing.
“When you self-produce you also self-edit. When you’re multi-tracking you can be a little too pernickety at times, without that outside set of ears – making it too perfect. But then people see us live and like the rougher edges, so we wanted to capture that on record. The only way to do that without editing the hell out of it was to ensure we didn’t play on a click, making sure all the instruments spilled on to each other.
“It’s the old-fashioned way of recording! You have a band in a room and put enough microphones out there, making sure they balance nicely. That’s your album! It should be that simple sometimes. And after 10 years with The Feeling and 20 years altogether we thought we might be ready for that!”
Getting back to public perceptions of The Feeling, the fact that this five-piece started out doing session work and individual BAs in commercial music at Westminster gives me the feeling (sorry) that they had a while to ruminate on what would work and what wouldn’t. So why not just go down the time-honoured fashion of growing up in public, making mistakes en route?
“Well, I didn’t do that BA or the session work – that was the lads just getting by. I was broke throughout that 10 years before, getting only a few gigs. There’s nothing wrong with that approach though – for one thing it allowed them to get to London in the first place.”
Taking you back to your schooling (Dan met Richard Jones at the BRIT School in Croydon in 1995), not everyone can name-drop Amy Winehouse and Rachel Stevens (at Ashmole School) and The Kooks (BRIT School) as fellow alumni. How well did he know Amy?
“I didn’t actually. My friend’s brother was friends with her, but we had the same music teachers. I kept in touch with them and they talked about her. She only lived around the corner, and was first at my secondary school then at the BRIT school. But I was about two years before, when the BRIT School started out. All these young whippersnappers came up after us!”
On a personal note, Dan’s campaigning work for gay rights led to Stonewall awards in 2007 as Entertainer of the Year and in 2015 at the final ceremony as Entertainer of the Decade. How was the reaction when he first spoke out on such issues and came out (at least in public)?
“Well, I wish now I’d just enjoyed it all more and not worried about it. Perhaps it made me a little bit paranoid, all the success – having set my stall out as deliberately uncool, hating all the bullsh** and just wanting everything to be honest and open.
“What with that whole smoke and mirrors of showbusiness, when I went to that ceremony I didn’t think they’d pick me, but rather choose someone cool. When I won it, it was like, ‘Bloody hell!’ But this year they gave me another award for my campaigning work, and I was like, ‘I get it! I get it!’ It’s not just about what’s cool.
“When you get outside the music industry, especially outside trendy London and into the real world, you find most people don’t give a shit – they either like it or they don’t. I’ve learned that now, whereas before I was surrounded in this world by desperately cool-for-school human beings with only one judgement value – whether it’s cool or not.”
And now his band are back with a new LP and an intimate six-date UK run to promote it, heading from Glasgow to London, including a sell-out at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge on March 14.
“Yes! I haven’t played there in years!”
It must be nice to be able to play venues that size again rather than just concentrate on the bigger places.
“It made sense. We didn’t want the pressure of a big production show, especially with the way we made this album and recorded it in that grass roots, back-to-basics way. We decided the first, introductory tour would be more like a series of album launches, like the one we did at Oslo, this great little venue close to us in Hackney, road-testing the songs.
“That went so well that we decided we had to do the same in other cities. We’ll still end up playing the hits as well, because that’s what we do, even though there’s less pressure to do a more commercial show. We wanted something more intimate for our fans, who are really keen to hear the new album, seeing us in more of a spit and sawdust setting, seeing how we sound in a smaller room. And that’s exciting for us as well.”
For the forthcoming UK tour dates and all the latest from The Feeling, head to their official website, and keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter pages, including detail of how to get hold of the new album, out on March 4th.