The Blue Aeroplanes pride themselves on fusing elements of rock, folk, poetry, punk, dance and art, and were acknowledged as favourites of the likes of Radiohead and REM back in the day.
Their lead singer also lectures on songwriting, his past students including George Ezra; former bandmates having gone on to play with everyone from Busted, Goldfrapp and fellow Bristol outfit Massive Attack to Placebo, Primal Scream and Suede; several of their LPs becoming alternative UK and US hits, while 1990’s Swagger was an Independent on Sunday, Sunday Times and The Times album of the year.
Yet this Avon art-rock collective has been known to combine its more accessible pop moments with what they deem ‘serious weirdness’, and consequently rarely leave the subterranean shadows. What’s more, an outfit previously invited to play the Hay-On-Wye Literary Festival were once rejected by BBC 2’s The Late Show for being ‘too arty’, and never got a session for legendary DJ John Peel, apparently for being ‘too rock’n’roll’.
Talking of contradictions, they share multi-instrumentalist Ian Kearey – a regular for the first two years, and an auxiliary member ever since – with folk legends the Oyster Band, while remaining the only group banned from The Rainbow Lounge, Lemmy’s favourite hangout. And from that you’ll see – along with many more of the items filed under ‘trivia’ on their official website – just how much of a conundrum the Aeroplanes are.
Consequently, I won’t be holding out too much hope that international fame will follow the release of their new studio album, Welcome, Stranger! But that’s the world’s loss, not us in the know. And for the record (so to speak) it’s a mighty fine waxing – the first great LP of 2017 in my opinion, as you’ll see from the review that follows on this site.
More to the point, I’ll be hoping to see them live for the first time in more than 25 years when they return to the road next week, their tour starting at Liverpool’s 02 Academy (Wednesday, January 11th) and Manchester’s Ruby Lounge (Thursday, January 12th), 11 more dates following before a finale at Exeter’s Phoenix Arts Centre (Sunday, January 29th).
These days, founding brothers Gerard (poet/singer) and John Langley (drums) plus Wojtek Dmochowski (dancer) are joined by Gerard Starkie (guitar, on board since 2006), Chris Sharp (bass, on board since 2008) and more recent additions Bec Jevons and Mike Youe (both guitar). And apparently it’s their longest-lasting line-up yet, 35 years after emerging from the ashes of Bristolian post-punk combo Art Objects.
Frontman Gerard was heading up to Salford for a live BBC Radio 6 Music session for Marc Riley when I caught him on his phone, that three-track recording followed by a sell-out Christmas show at 450-capacity Bristol venue The Fleece, which just happens to be owned by bandmate Chris Sharp. And that led me to ask Gerard how that would compare to their debut at the nearby King Street Art Gallery 35 years earlier.
“Wow, you remember that?”
Not quite, unfortunately. It was five more years before I learned about the wonders of The Blue Aeroplanes.
“Well, that was the first thing we ever did. I knew the guy who ran it, and it seemed a nice sort of place to play. They started a new music week, with around five bands every night, which was pretty cool.”
What was the difference between Art Objects and the revered band that followed?
“That band was quite slick, but fell apart as a couple of people were in another band at the time, more pop. The Aeroplanes were a lot looser, and it didn’t matter if someone couldn’t make it – we could always got someone else.”
There have been 48 band members, overall, so I guess that suggests a far looser set-up.
“Yeah, that sounds more impressive than it really is though. Usually, a line-up lasts a couple of years, but with people around that as well. Some of those listed only lasted a couple of gigs or played on a couple of tracks. But they’re all important and they’re all on the back of the t-shirt as well.”
My first Blue Aeroplanes live sighting came in June 1987 at Glastonbury Festival, the band proving a feast for the senses on stage two. I wrote in issue two of my Captains Log fanzine about a ‘frantic seven-piece including a scratch DJ welding the gaps between songs, a guitarist bounding across the stage Wilko Johnson-style (and wearing a dress), a totally wired non-stop dancer, and a vocalist who halfway through the set starts reading poetry among the frenzied goings on’. I think I was already aware of the band (they’d featured on revamped BBC music show Whistle Test) but can’t recall if I’d already shelled out on their (second) album Tolerance, which was later joined in my vinyl collection by gatefold double-album Friendloverplane.
I witnessed more of the same at Aldershot’s West End Centre and Portsmouth’s Hornpipe Arts Centre in October and November 1988, and for that Portsmouth show, my diary reminds me that The Mighty Lemon Drops’ Marcus Williams featured on bass, while soon after Dave Newton – also of the Droppies – filled in on guitar, two of many BA cameos and loans over the years.
“Well, we did a tour of America with them and then they were around for a year or so after a couple of people left, before we formed a more regular line-up. I saw them recently at South by South West (SXSW), with Dave – based over there now – coming to one of the gigs. It was really nice to see him again.”
My diary entry suggests Marcus was only in at Portsmouth because regular bass player Andy McCreeth had punctured a lung.
“Ah, that was when he first appeared, but then he joined for a bit. He was also playing with Julian Cope. That’s why he wore the leather trousers – Julian’s uniform at the time!”
As the Louder Than War website recently put it, this is a band that ‘still sound remarkably fresh’ rather than one that ‘should have given up yonks ago – amazingly enough, they sound like a band still on the verge of a major breakthrough’. That sounds about right to me, on the eve of the release of the new LP, which has been available via Pledge Music as a pre-order. Is this their first experience of crowd-funding?
“We’re not really doing the crowd-funding thing. We’ve already paid for the album, although we might do a campaign next year. This is just another way of putting out an album.”
I was going to say it’s good to have them back, but I’m not really sure they ever went away. There have been gaps in the history though. Were there side-projects when the band weren’t together?
“No, we don’t disappear. We just hole up in Bristol for a bit, doing other things, like running The Fleece. I also lecture in songwriting, three days a week, at a music college in Bristol. It’s part of a chain, with other colleges in Manchester, Brighton, London and Dublin, towards a BA honours degree.”
Gerard’s head of songwriting role at BIMM (British & Irish Modern Music Institute) Bristol suggests to me a vision of him walking into lecture theatres in trademark shades, reading W.H. Auden, as he did back in the day.
“I’d like to, but it’s mainly about songwriting rather than anything too poetic, although I cover a bit of that. It’s pretty high level.”
Well, let’s just hope George Ezra takes a leaf from the notebook of this performance poet turned agit-pop singer. And on that front, did he see himself as a poet first and foremost? Or was that just a clever way to try and hide in front of an audience?
“I’d probably say about two-thirds of what I write is written first as poems, but I know I’m going to put them to music so I’m already looking for lines I can repeat, maybe use as a chorus. Sometimes I’ll also fit them to a piece of music, so it sort of evolves into something else, like poem-songs. But some are written purely as poems and could be around quite a while until I find the right piece of music.”
Of those 48 Blue Aeroplanes over 35 years, there’s still a core nucleus, and between Gerard, brother John and Wojtek, I make it 91 years’ service. That’s not far behind Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi for Status Quo.
“Yeah … but there’s no upper limit these days, really. And I always felt people like BB King would go on forever.”
These days, they’ve even got two Gerards (with Mr Starkie too). Even the mighty Teenage Fanclub only have one.
“I know, I think it’s a bit unfair on everyone else. We’re just lucky.”
The current line-up also includes Chris Sharp (bass) and guitarists Mike and Bec Jevons. Were they key to this album too?
“Yes, it started as us jamming with Bec and Mike at The Fleece one weekend, and we wrote half to two-thirds of the album in three or four weeks.”
“Yeah, we actually recorded 16 tracks, putting 10 on the album. It had been five or six years since the last one so I had loads I’d written. We’re certainly not short of material.”
On the subject of past band members, one I wanted to ask about was Rodney Allen, who I saw live for the first time the same weekend as the Aeroplanes in ’87, playing a solo set on the main stage at Glastonbury. He memorably featured for the band from 1988 through to 1998, again for three years from 2002, and was a past interviewee of mine in my Captains Log days.
In a review of The Blue Aeroplanes at Aldershot’s West End Centre in October ’88, I mentioned how on final encore Bury Your Love Like Treasure, Rodney – the main support that night – joined them and provided ‘a perfect vocal combination with Gerard’. What’s more, I treasure that year’s Circle Line 12″ by Rod, which carries as its main image a photo of the artist sat on a guitar-case reading my fanzine. So what’s he up to these days?
“Rodney’s just had his second kid. He’s very happy and still plays, mainly doing covers. In fact, he’s in a Slade tribute band.”
Splendid. Now there’s a tribute band I’d like to see. Actually, Rodney’s a prime example of the BA recruitment policy – going from support act to full-time member. I was also recently reminded of catching the band twice in London in 1991, at Camden Underworld in the summer supported by The Katydids, then at The Mean Fiddler in December with Railroad Earth, each featuring future BA contributors – namely Susie Hug and Tim Keegan. Furthermore, Gerard’s brother John Langley and Mike Youe currently also play with ex-Aeroplane Rita Lynch’s band. So is it a bit of an apprenticeship scheme, giving artists a chance to reach a new audience?
“Yeah, people join for their own reason, and I never mind them having their own things going on. Bec has her band, IDestroy, who play quite a lot. I like that feeling of being part of something larger.”
And what about Wojtek? Is your groove-master still pulling out leads while dancing in your general area, so to speak?
“Not so much my area, because I’d just kick him. But he does tend to entwine leads, as he always did. Actually, he’s travelling up from London for this Marc Riley session, so we will have a dancer on the radio.”
Essential, I’d say. Every happening band should have one. In fact, Wojtek arrived late for that radio session, having Marc Riley in stitches as he burst into the studio during the final bars of opener Dead Tree! Dead Tree!, yet still managing to throw himself across the floor on his knees.
While the band’s biggest-sellers were Swagger, Beatsongs and Life Model in the first half of the ’90s, there have been so many more great songs across the albums. Does that lead to a bit of head-scratching for Gerard and co. when it comes to set-lists?
“Actually, yeah. We’ve a few we tend to always do, but tend to concentrate on the new material, and will be playing pretty much all the new album on the January dates. But we’ll also do older ones we haven’t played for ages, including What It Is off Swagger. There’s a lot to choose from, and when people join the band they often tell me, ‘I really like that one’, so we do that too.”
Is Bristol still the centre of Gerard’s world?
“Well, it’s where I live! I suppose that’s the same thing. It’s a creative kind of place.”
It’s got a proud history as far as music goes.
“Yes, it’s slightly isolated in a way, it’s on its own, and things are quite important in Bristol that are not known anywhere else.”
Away from all this, are you a family man? Is there a Junior Aeroplanes Collective waiting in the wings?
“No, that’s for other people, I think … that kind of distraction!”
As I’m writing this first for a North West publication, have you any specific memories of venues in this region?
“Well, when we were doing a lot of touring, it all got a bit blurry.”
Ah, the old ‘If it‘s Tuesday, it must be Brentford Red Lion’ syndrome?
“Yeah, I was never very good at that in interviews, trying to remember the last time I played Phoenix or somewhere. I’d always look at Rod. He’d get out a notebook and say, ‘Yeah, that gig where there was the big fire escape,’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, that one!’ I remember playing The Boardwalk in Manchester though, where an early Inspiral Carpets supported us quite a lot. Noel Gallagher must have been roadie-ing for them at the time.”
I described that Portsmouth gig in ’88 in my diary as ‘a great night – an orgy of broken strings and fluffed lines’. Does that sound pretty much par for the course during that era?
“Yeah, that’s pretty much right. When we started out, we got out of Bristol as much as we could, but would often be third on the bill, playing without a soundcheck. So we thought we’d just run around a lot and make plenty of noise. You couldn’t hear yourself anyway. That’s kind of how all that started. Then there was having lots of guitarists on the last song. The most we had was 16 on Breaking in My Heart!”
For the official verdict on Welcome, Stranger! head back to this site very soon. And to catch up with the recent Marc Riley session for BBC 6 Music, try here before mid-January 2017 (subject to international restrictions).
Also, watch out over the next few weeks for an interview here with another band for whom Rodney Allen previously featured – The Chesterfields. We’ve got it all going on, you know.