After a successful few years revisiting a classic song catalogue while spreading the word about 2012 LP Sweet Refrains across Europe and the UK, The South are ready for a three-week autumn tour and are keen to talk about a brand new album.
What’s more, a band formed from the remnants of The Beautiful South remain resolute that they’re not just here to play those old ‘solid bronze’ hits all the way.
The outfit Paul Heaton formed after dissolving The Housemartins made 10 studio albums and had more than 20 UK top-40 hit singles between 1989 and 2007, selling 15 million LPs. In fact, their first greatest hits album, 1994’s Carry On Up The Charts, was one of this nation’s fastest-selling LPs, staying seven weeks at the summit and 18 weeks in the top 10.
But while Heaton and co-writer Dave Rotheray went their own way 13 years later, co-vocalists Dave Hemingway – on board since the start – and Alison Wheeler – who replaced Jacqui Abbott in 2003 – eventually returned with drummer Dave Stead as The New Beautiful South, their band also including Damon Butcher and Gaz Birtles (keyboards and brass since the very beginning).
In time they became The South, and while Stead then moved on, there’s clearly still a lot of love for this nine-piece outfit, not least judging by sales for a 20-date schedule between the middle of this month and late November, as I put to Alison.
“Yeah, and we’re really looking forward to getting out and about. Last year, we were busy but it was very weekend-orientated, so we never really got a chance to hang out. This time we’re really looking forward to getting on that tour bus, three weeks on the road, having a real laugh, meeting friendly faces and new ones too.
“When the weekend dates came up last year, as a Mum of two, I thought, ‘Brilliant! I get to look after the kids in the week then get away and play at being a pop star at the weekend. But there’s a groundhog day element when you get back on that train on a Thursday or Friday, and some of the boys especially found it quite taxing after a while.
“Saying that, you get a really good atmosphere at weekends. People are ready to kick off the shoes, have a laugh. The way we’re doing it this time is much more of a bonding experience though.”
Is this Alison making up for lost time? I get the idea The Beautiful South party ended too soon for her, after just four years with the original band.
“Yeah, it really was. I had the rug pulled from under my feet. You work so hard all that time to get somewhere, finally the door opens, then they close it again.”
I’m sure you could understand it though, not least for Paul Heaton after all those years.
“Exactly, he wanted to do something different and didn’t think it fair to keep everyone waiting, so made a clean break. But it was still the honeymoon period for me. No matter what they threw at me, I was ready. I then went into limbo for a couple of years. But thankfully the original drummer (Dave Stead) had decided that was enough – this was what he enjoyed doing. So we went ahead and reformed.”
Was Jacqui Abbott, on board from 1994 until 2000, a hard act to follow when Alison joined in 2003?
“Well, I followed the band anyway, so I was aware she was a very big singer, as was Briana (Corrigan, 1988/92) before her. They all brought their own ingredients to the band. The hits people still want to hear are the ones Jackie was singing, so it was nerve-racking to sing them. But it’s testimony to those songs that they’ve stood the test of time and people are willing to listen to me.
“I also think I’ve put my own spin on them now, and people who see us don’t really differentiate over who sang which.”
On stage, there seems to be a somewhat psychic relationship between Alison and Dave Hemingway, who comes over as something of a reluctant front-man live. They complement each other.
“It’s surprising how shy he is, particularly before going on stage.”
“I’m deadly keen to get another album out. It’s been way too long! We’re playing new stuff on this tour and that’s exciting, and hopefully we’ll get something together – whether it’s an EP or an album – at the beginning of next year.
“We’re trying to target Europe as well, play more festivals, let people know we’re out there. You still come across people surprised to hear we’re still going. It just shows the mechanics of being heard can be a slow process. We’re also getting new fans on board through festivals – young and old alike – that’s really sweet.”
So is The South a full-time job? Alison is after all also playing with The Topers, and has recorded children’s songs and dance tracks.
“The Topers is an old university band of mine. We were all friends. They’re all highly professional in their own careers, so we’re doing it purely for fun now. It gets me out of my comfort zone, not least as I play bass and sing, something I’ve never done on stage – like rubbing your head and tapping your foot at the same time for me!
“I write children’s music as well, and that’s purely a passion. Having children, your goalposts move. Life seems to be purely for the fun of it as there’s no financial reward for it. I wish it was more full-time. There’s never enough work for me. The boys are knocking on – yet I’m the youngest and still have the energy!”
That seems to be the way of things. The days when musicians would concentrate on one band and have multi-album deals seem to be long gone. You have to diversify to survive.
“Yeah, long gone. I used to work at record companies before I joined The Beautiful South and the whole industry has changed. I really feel, having had kids, I’m enjoying the journey now, and I’m really fortunate to be in a band like this where I get to perform and enjoy it. To try and start again I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be, trying to work out which avenues to go down. Auditions via NME and Melody Maker don’t appear to exist anymore.”
That’s true. So what would have been the advert that made you sit up and take notice back then?
“I knocked on as many doors as I could when I started. In fact, when we reformed the original members said they didn’t want to take anyone on board who didn’t already have a connection with another member of the band.
“That was really important. There was already chemistry and history. So I put forward a guitarist I was in a band with when I first came to London, and the reason I joined them was through an ad in the NME. That was Phil (Barton), who co-wrote Sweet Refrains, and is an established part of the band now.
“We’ve been together in a band for years, so it was really nice to give something back to a guy trying all his life in music, finally finding an avenue to perform and write rather than just play small bars in London, which was what we did for years.”
And judging by the songs he wrote for Sweet Refrains, he very quickly proved his worth.
“Yeah, and he’s got a lot of material to spill still, I’m sure!”
Outside the band, 44-year-old Alison has a daughter about to turn 11, and an eight-year-old son. Do they come and see her perform?
“They were a bit unsure about me going on tour, but two years ago came to a Rewind festival in Henley, a real fairytale setting in front of 30,000 people, all singing Rotterdam at me. I was fortunate enough to find them in the crowd, my daughter on my husband’s shoulders. And afterwards she told me, ‘I get it. I understand why you do it.
“Now they send me off with a blessing when I leave the house, knowing full well I’m lucky enough to do something I enjoy. Not many people are that fortunate. I went to university and I was 30 before any doors opened.”
There must have been part of you at Henley that day hoping the crowd behaved and sang the radio version of Don’t Marry Her.
“Ooh, she knows! And I’ve explained that I sing the right words but the rest of them might not! That’s one of the joys of those songs, and you get so much from watching people sing or shake their head at me!”
Talking of family (and children, arguably), Alison is part of a nine-piece band with a big crew these days. I’m guessing there aren’t so many women involved. How does she cope?
“When I first joined The Beautiful South, it was a real education. These guys had been in music all their adult lives. There was something quite interesting, and liberating to see four grown adults acting like children – in a good way. They hadn’t been stamped on or downtrodden like the day-to-day rigmarole of earning your keep.
“It took me a while to wind down from a full-time job, trying to get on in music. I was very serious but eventually learned life isn’t so serious. You’ve got to enjoy yourself, which was their whole approach to life.”
Did you have to become an honorary bloke on the road?
“Definitely! When you start on a tour everyone’s really polite, everything’s in its place, but three weeks on it’s like a cesspit. But what are you going to do with a chemical loo and 13 men?”
I was lucky enough to see a very early Beautiful South gig in 1989, at which point Alison was still studying A-levels. Did she ever get along to see the band before joining?
“The first time I saw them was at a V Festival. I remember Jackie wearing a heavy-knit jumper, singing Rotterdam. But when I got the job I realised I had four of their albums – they were just one of those bands. I didn’t realise I’d accumulated so many of their songs over the years. They were a British mainstay, and like everyone else I was a fan of the hits who bought the albums along the way.
“Actually, I think that worked to my benefit. If I’d been an uber-fan I might not have managed to gel with the band. They wanted me to meet everyone and make sure we all got on, especially after Jackie and Briana had left, making sure the one female in the band was comfortable. And I was fortunate enough to have just the right balance of appreciation.”
As she mentions Briana again, I get on to the band’s original co-singer’s duet with Dave Hemingway on A Little Time, which brought them their sole No.1 single and will forever remind me of my own circumstances in late 1990 before embarking on a nine-month world trip. And I put it to Alison that she’s part of a band for whom so much of their music served as a soundtrack for relationships. In short, she must see a lot of dreamy-eyed moments in audiences during those songs. Do fans tend to relate a few tales to her?
“They do, and those songs speak to so many people – Paul’s take on the relationships of a man and woman or any other relationship. And I remember when A Little Time came out. It was one of the first real groundbreaking music videos, winning so many awards. It’s a brilliant song … although I do feel like I’m on helium when I’m singing it!
“Briana has such a high voice. And I have to make sure I don’t spend every evening in the pub with the boys, or I’ll end up singing like Barry White!”
Are there songs you have to grit your teeth and try and get through after so many live renditions over the years?
“It’s not so much that. It’s just the keys really. Jacqui and Briana were chalk and cheese on the scales. I’m at the other end of the spectrum. But I enjoy Rotterdam (or Anywhere), Don’t Marry Her and Perfect 10 and the moments where it all makes sense why you’re doing it, people in the audience glowing with enjoyment. It’s just magical.”
Have you a favourite single or album track that was maybe overlooked, not least from those last three Beautiful South albums, which didn’t see the wider adulation of the earlier ones?
“I thought Superbi was a really great album, and one of the songs I don’t sing, The Mediterranean (from 2000’s Painting it Red) evokes such emotion. I love listening to that. Unfortunately I didn’t get to be that person who sang Don’t Marry Her or Rotterdam (both from 1996’s Blue is the Colour), one of those questions that gets thrown at me every day! But again it’s testimony to the songs that people still enjoy hearing them.”
What were your university covers band, Melt City, like?
“Ha! Well, two of the guys from The Topers were in Melt City. That changed my past really. I was at Cambridge studying Japanese on a four-year course, but joined in year one and it was so much fun and awoke something in me I’d kind of buried. I’d gone down the academic route and forgotten about performing. It made me realise that if you enjoy doing something … The prospect of going to Japan for a year made me panic.
“But Cambridge was a different world and it was about the people you messed with, from all walks of life, and although we never got paid we got to sing at some amazing events, on the roster with bands like The Pasadenas, Sunscreem and D:Ream. All great experience. It really gave me a taste for giving it a go. I then changed course so I could do more with a band, told my parents, and when they stopped shouting at me …”
Alison did compete her studies though.
“Yes, I did Japanese and Law, and even sang in Japanese, doing a few tracks still floating out there somewhere, but then they gave a me a contract and that’s when I pulled it apart!”
I believe when you got to London you were in a band called Junk, later renamed Treehouse, with lots of gigs around Camden and Islington.
“Junk was with Phil (Barton), and we then changed our name to Treehouse for legal reasons. I was described as ‘Billie Holiday meets Scary Spice’! Phil wrote some very strong heavy rock songs back then, and maybe my voice changed the tone of them.”
There was a little more success with her next band, all-girl combo Virginia, who made a few BBC radio appearances, made an album, and even scored some US Billboard chart hits.
“Yes, I was the youngest, but we were hardly girls! More like Crosby Stills and Nash. We’re still friends, and the producer (Ian Shaw, founder of Warm Fuzz Records) now lives in Key West and has the catalogue, and keeps promising he’ll revisit the second album as a fun project, finish it off.
“Through all that I got to meet Nick Heyward. I had mad hair then – purple, blue, green, orange, and no one would employ me. I was wearing a wig instead, equally embarrassing. But Nick said to me there was an agency recruiting for record companies and I felt that would be spot-on – seeing the other side of the business. Temping meant I could do auditions. I went along and that led to me meeting a woman who introduced me to a (gospel) choir, Citizen K, and that in turn led me to meet Dave Hemingway. So it’s all serendipity really, and all worked out.”
Did she click with ‘Hammy’ straight away?
“Well, he’s a shy character, so it’s hard for that to happen. He keeps himself to himself. But he’s lovely, like a brother to me, exceptionally funny and dry, and very clever. I also tried to keep up with him on the drinking regime too, but I wouldn’t recommend that!”
Does she still get called ‘Lady Wheeler’ by her fiercely working-class band, mocking her Trinity College, Cambridge days?
“Yeah, they always call me ‘Mi’ lady’! But I’m from the Black Country, so I wouldn’t call myself posh!”
Is it just that you’re not remotely from Hull?
“Do you know what – Hull’s more of a fashionable accent than the Black Country! Mum and Dad are from Birmingham, but then moved out to a small town.”
Dave’s based in Crewe these days, while Alison’s in London, and the whole band seems fairly scattered.
“Yeah, we’re kind of split all over, and Damon, our keyboard player, now lives in Ireland. So again, going on tour for three weeks works for him. But through the power of the internet you can almost record separately then patch everything together.”
Finally, I worry about Dave Hemingway. Winter approaches, and as far as I know he’s not taken his coat off on stage for years. To paraphrase my old Mum, will he feel the benefit when the next cold snap arrives?
“Oh my God! Sometimes you wouldn’t believe the state he’s in when he gets off stage. He’s literally collapsing, and we’re there with cold towels as he’s over-heated. He’s going to have to think about more modern fibres that whittle away the sweat!”
To revisit this website’s interview with Dave Hemingway, from April 2014, head here.
Tickets for The South at Blackpool Viva (Friday, October 21) are available from the venue box office on 01253 297297 or via this link. For more about the band and the rest of their tour dates, visit The South’s official website. You can also keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter links or go to their YouTube channel.