US broadcaster David Brinkley is quoted as saying, ‘A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her’. And Neil Sheasby knows a fair bit about all that.
For all the accolades and attention coming the way of the band he co-founded with namesake Neil Jones a dozen or so years ago, he insists they’ve had plenty of false starts, trials and tribulations en route.
Right now though, Stone Foundation are on the crest of a wave, their fourth album Street Rituals making the top-30 (and debuting at No.2 in the indie version), with a little help from interest generated by the latest big name to help spread the word about a soulful combo who pride themselves on an ability to offer us ‘the sound of Memphis, via the Midlands’.
Following their recent flirtation with commercial success, I pass on congratulations to Mr Sheasby, who is currently enjoying the plaudits, the wider world finally catching on. In fact rumour has it that Ed Sheeran was a nervous wreck waiting for that following week’s chart to be revealed.
“Ha! I’m not sure about that! I’m not quite sure what our expectations were, but we’re not doing a great deal different to what we’ve always done, although Paul’s name’s brought a lot more attention to it. Ultimately I think we’ve made a good record, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see it gain some acknowledgement and respect.”
The ‘Paul’ he’s name-dropping there is former Jam and Style Council frontman Paul Weller, a major solo star for a quarter of a century now. And I throw my hat in the ring, admitting to Neil I’ve been among those catching up with the back-catalogue since hearing Your Balloon is Rising a couple of months ago, also featuring Weller.
The two Neils mention a ‘decade of trial, error and frequent returns to the drawing board before finding the right direction’. But listening back through the catalogue, they were never far off, were they?
“I don’t think so, no. We’ve always stuck to what we’ve believed in and what we wanted to do. There’s a certain path and vision, and no bandwagon. What afforded us the opportunity this time was not just working with Paul but having the luxury of doing it at his place.
“We’ve always recorded very hand-to-mouth at our own rehearsal space, and that’s always been good, working within our boundaries and means, but this has taken us to a new level really. Songwriting-wise, I’m really proud of the last couple of albums and it’s nice we’re finally getting people drawn to what we’re doing.”
Impressed by Stone Foundation’s previous endeavours, word has it that Weller personally contacted the two Neils in early 2016 to propose working together, having heard that previous year’s LP A Life Unlimited, initially concentrating on one specific demo. But having enjoyed the process so much, the resulting 10 compositions on Street Rituals all have musical input from The Modfather, with two – The Limit of a Man and The Colour Of … – carrying Jones/Sheasby/Weller credits.
In fact, he pretty much joined the band for those recording sessions at Black Barn studio in Ripley, Surrey, playing guitar, piano and adding vocals to several songs as well as overseeing production.
As the man himself put it, “These are dark, dark times so I was glad to hear a positive voice and vibrations in the words and a joy in the music…what a pleasure and a privilege it was to work with these fellas. It’s their best songwriting to date, and I just hope people get to hear it. There are some great tunes and I like the message on the record. I like the social comment. You have so little of that these days.”
So – I put it to Neil S on the phone the day before they set off for two dates in Germany, their latest 10-date UK tour set to follow – what did Stone Foundation learn from the experience of having their hero at the controls and around and about the studio?
“It’s the first time me and Neil have ever had an outside producer, other than us and our in-house engineer Andy Codling spearheading everything before. And as me and Neil write together it’s lovely to have a different pair of ears and eyes on the project.
“A lot of the time the tracks we recorded came together very quickly and what you’re hearing a lot of it is probably two or three takes. The five of us played together and we added horns and strings after. Sometimes Neil and I look at each other, thinking, ‘Was that right? Maybe we should do it again, fix this bit or that bit’. But with Paul it was like, ‘If it sounds good, it probably is, you’ve probably got it there’.
“I think what we learned was to trust our instincts a little more, and it was akin to the old soul records we like. We had a couple of days a week with a session booked and we’d record the first batch of four tunes then go down again and do another two days, more or less live. So he brought that feel to the project.”
Were you nervous? Weller’s a big name. Or did he quickly put you at ease?
“He did actually. The first thing he did was volunteer to carry the gear in with us and made us a cup of tea. I think if you let yourself freak out too much you’ll intimidate yourself. We’re massive fans, me especially.
“He’s the reason I started a band. I was a Jam fan then subsequently a Style Council fan, never missing a tour. I’ve come from that fan perspective and his music’s always been in my life. But you have to leave that at the door. Immediately what we got from Paul was that you could tell it wasn’t a token gesture.
“It wasn’t about adding backing vocals to one of his tracks. It was a real collaboration. And there was a genuine sense and genuine excitement about the prospect of working with and playing with a live band. We didn’t know where we were going. He’d sent a rough demo to finish and we’d sent one back, recorded at our place, which he loved and said, ‘What else have you got? Shall we set a date and see what we can do?’
“So we prepared, got a few songs in the can and went down, played what we both knew, then said we’ve also got this. It all just clicked together. It was a real union. He said, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ at which point we had about four songs and didn’t know where we stood. We said we possibly had an EP there, to which he said, ‘Why don’t you go back, write a few more, we’ll do the process again and I think you’ve got an album’. And he’s been involved all the way, more or less joining the band!”
I get the impression from my own past interviews with the likes of From the Jam duo Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings that Paul’s very involved in what goes down at his studio when the mood takes him, and you obviously made a big impression on him.
“He is, and we’re very much of the same mindset. He’ll try anything. It may not work out but you’re only losing time. He’s very adventurous and his musical landscape’s very much that way. Whatever serves the song best. And it all happened very naturally.”
Of course, you’re not the first outfit with Midlands roots to get a helping hand from Weller. I’m thinking of a certain group from … erm, Moseley Shoals …
“Ocean Colour Scene? Yeah, I used to know those boys fairly well, and met Steve (Cradock, Weller’s long-time guitar-playing bandmate) for the first time in 20 years at a Royal Albert Hall gig we played the other week”.
I was going to ask about that – was that the date in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust?
“That’s right. It was nice to see him again and I’ve a lot of respect for him.”
The first three Stone Foundation albums were released on Turning Point. When and why did the switch come about to 100% Records?
“Turning Point was just a thing we made up. It wasn’t a real record label. It was our own imprint and we got distribution for it. It was just a monicker to put our records out with. Now with 100% it’s a blessing to have a label that takes the heavy lifting off me and Neil, having looked after all that for so long.”
Well, to paraphrase the sentiment of the recent single, you have to take into consideration The Limit of a Man.
“You do. Correct!”
And how does that Jones/Sheasby/Weller credit on the records look to you?
“It’s the new Stock Aitken Waterman, mate! It’s incredible. I started out as a 14-year-old in youth clubs playing Jam covers, and I’m 50 this year. So what a journey!”
At this point we realise Neil is just 11 days older than me, having first suspected we must be around the same age when I saw an online piece he’d written for hmv.com, not least considering how Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels and The Jam’s Sound Affects were major inspirations on him finding his path.
“That’s right, and that must put it in perspective for you too. What would it feel like if you’d made a record with Paul Weller? And that’s exactly how I feel.”
Just one last question about Paul, whose interest in your latest album suggests a more laid-back album coming up from him. Is that the case? Is Long Long Road a good indication of what’s coming our way? I know you’ve already heard A Kind Revolution.
“It’s great and I think it’s the best piece of work he’s done in many a year. It’s going to delight a lot of his long-standing fans. It’s one of those albums, a piece of work from start to finish. No filler. A proper record. You’ve a lot to look forward to there.”
Of course, Weller’s not the only big name on this album. Were you excited at the prospect of legendary soul singer William Bell, who lends his voice to Strange People, being involved?
“Of course! Absolutely!”
You’re a big Stax fan, I understand.
“I am, and that was down to interviews with The Jam really. They talked a lot about soul records and Tamla Motown, Stax, Northern Soul, and Curtis Mayfield. A whole lot opens up to you from that. I had this Stax compilation album, The Guys with Soul, and William Bell’s I Forgot to Be your Lover was one I played over and over. I was no more than 13 years old then, so to go from that to having him sing on one of your records …
“And just by chance. We were supporting him at Islington Chapel last July, and told him we had this track maybe he’d be interested in listening to, because we could hear his voice on it. And he said yes. That’s a testament to what we’re doing. It’s all about the music. If we’re not writing the songs we’re not going to be reaching these people. It was the same with Bettye LaVette. And to have people of that calibre involved … they’re legends!”
I was coming on to Bettye, who features on Season of Change. Her musical CV is something to marvel at, going right back to associations with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King and a young Otis Redding.
In short, Street Rituals superbly showcases an outfit continuing to develop a unique style of soul, their subtle horn and string arrangements adding swathes of colour and light to their strongest songs to date. What’s more, the lyrics seem ripe for the times, reflecting issues of uncertainty and division, yet with a prevailing sense of hope and optimism for the future, in the tradition of so many classic soul artists they admire, not least Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Isley Brothers.
One prime example is new single Back in the Game, which reminds me of The Impressions. Then there’s a Staple Singers feel elsewhere, and so on. Even if I didn’t know Mr Sheasby’s route into all this I could clearly see an appreciation of classic ‘60s and ‘70s soul.
“Yes, The Isley Brothers too, and Marvin (Gaye). We listen to a lot of that, and the social commentary side was important to us. There’s so much happening there, and we wanted to hold a mirror up to that. There’s so much to say, it would be throwaway to just write simple love songs. And those records – the Curtis Mayfield records, the Isley Brothers, the William Bell records, are steeped in all that. These are troubled times and while we want to reflect on that, we also want to offer a bit of open optimism.”
Well, we could do with as positive message right now, the way this country and the rest of the world seems to be heading.
“I think we do, mate. Yeah.”
You’ve had influential fans from the early days, be it The Specials, The Proclaimers, Dr Robert and The Blow Monkeys and so on. Then I was listening to A Life Unlimited, thinking there’s a real Graham Parker feel to the vocals on a track there, The Night Teller, only realising why later.
“Ah, he’s great. A lovely fella. I met him at a book launch. I’m a fan and we got chatting, got on really well, swapped numbers, with no real idea we’d work together. Then we started working on A Life Unlimited, this song The Night Teller cropped up, we had a discussion, saying maybe we should send it to him, see what he thinks. He dug it and decided to do it. And he was everything we wanted him to be. Brilliant.”
Now you have four albums under your belt, do you think this latest one is the closest you’ve come to where you envisage yourself? Or is this just you at a particular point in your career?
“This is probably a more rounded record, with 10 tracks that really hang together from start to finish. That’s what I’m particularly pleased with, and lyrically as well as musically the album holds together better than anything we’ve done previously. Saying that, I was really very proud of the last record and we still play a lot of those songs live as they hold up so well. But this is more cohesive than anything else we’ve done.
“But when Weller’s knocking at your door and ringing you up, you’ve got to up your game, haven’t you? He inspired us.”
While Neil S is from Atherstone and Neil J from nearby Tamworth, they first met in the late ‘90s on the London gig circuit, playing in different bands on the same bill at the Laurel Tree in Camden, Sheasby’s band Mandrake Roots (‘You’ll not find them on the internet – there’s nothing there!’) supported by Jones’ more indie outfit Walrus Gumboot (cool name, by the way).
“We were both in bands we were coming to the end of. I was getting disgruntled, looking for pastures new, and so was Neil. When I left my previous band the first thing I wanted to do was find a singer. And although we only lived a stone’s throw away from each other, his band just happened to have supported us in London.
“I went to check him out again and decided this is it, I should really work with this fella. approaching him about doing something. That’s how it began, but it took ages, some four or five years to find the right line-up. We knew we wanted this big sound but it took us ages to find the right players. It was trial and error, but all the time we were bonding, playing records to each other and writing songs.”
He was into hip-hop then, wasn’t he?
“He was, and first time I went around his house I discovered he was the only other bloke I knew who had the Third Bass album. I was impressed with that. Records and shoes impress me most … and he passed both tests!”
Stone Foundation UK tour dates: April 27th – Bristol, The Fleece; April 28th – Manchester, The Ruby Lounge; April 29th – Norwich, Arts Centre; May 5th – Coventry, The Empire; May 6th – Brighton, Concorde Club 2; May 12th – Leeds, The Wardrobe; May 13th – London, Islington Assembly Hall; May 18th – Newcastle, The Cluny; May 19th – Edinburgh, Voodoo Rooms; May 20th – Glasgow, Admiral Bar.