Simon Fowler was walking Cooper the cockapoo down by the river at Stratford-upon-Avon when I called, a day and a half after Ocean Colour Scene headlined Lancaster’s Highest Point festival.
That Shakespearean link seemed apt, seeing as I associate festival venue Williamson Park with summer performances of the Bard’s plays. But Simon’s merry band were hardly promenading. There was no following the players between locations in the shadow of the Ashton Memorial. For a start, that PA gear would take some shifting.
“Ha! You could have a moving stage, I suppose … or play on the back of an artic like the Rolling Stones.”
Now there’s an idea. The spirit of the Fifth Avenue flatbed truck happening in New York City in 1975, transported to North Lancashire.
“It was really good though, a spectacular place, and we had some old mates there, like John (past writewyattuk interviewee John Power) from Cast. We go a long way back, and a young band called Stillia, who toured with us in Australia and New Zealand last year. The crowd was really good, and we stayed and rehearsed in Clitheroe, a town I’d never been to. Really nice.
“I’ve always quite liked playing outdoors … although, Christ, it was cold. I could barely move my fingers to play some of the chords … and I’ve only just learned them! It had been a lovely day, but we didn’t go on until half nine. But we’ll be back for Kendal Calling next, in late July, and that gives us time to learn all the words!”
Simon, aka Foxy, also previously involved with his Merrymouth side-project, lives in rural Warwickshire these days, but spent his early years in Moseley, the south Birmingham suburb referenced by Ocean Colour Scene’s best-selling album, a play on legendary US studio, Muscle Shoals, later becoming the name of the band’s recording studio. In fact, that album was the first of five top-10 LPs, also including their sole No.1 in 1997 with follow-up Marchin’ Already. They’ve also achieved 17 top-40 singles, six reaching the top-10. But these days, OCS meets are comparatively rare, bandmates living further apart.
“We practically lived together and were in the studio every day at Moseley Shoals. Now we’re scattered around the country, with Steve (Cradock, guitar) in Devon, Oscar (Harrison, drums) in Birmingham, me in Stratford, and the two other guys who play with us in Glasgow.”
I’m guessing that at least keeps it all fresh for you.
“Quite frankly, it’s a bit like riding a bicycle. As long as we get together a few hours, we’re alright. And the idea is to start writing a new album now.”
It’s been five years since their last LP, Painting. But they have a big year ahead of them in 2019, marking their 30th anniversary next October.
“It will be. Do you think we could get parole?”
And how’s the writing going for studio album No.11?
“It’s going slowly at the moment, but I suspect it’s going to speed up soon.”
You made a fair bit of your 21st anniversary, so it makes sense to make some fuss over this, right?
“I don’t think so. But that’s frightening. I remember recording that, and it’s nearly nine years ago now. Jesus Christ!”
When you meet up with the band these days, is it like a class reunion?
“Absolutely. It’s like we’ve just been with one another five minutes before.”
Was there ever a time when you were rubbing against each other up the wrong way?
“No. We’ve always been close. And in the ’90s we were working so hard and had a lot of fun. We always had a laugh. Now, we’re practically all teetotallers. We’re sort of … all grown up.”
As if to prove the point, Foxy was set to celebrate a birthday this weekend – incidentally, he was born on Paul Weller’s seventh birthday – with absolutely no indication that it might end up with a Rolls Royce being driven into a swimming pool.
“I’ve just spoken to my Mum, and I’m going ‘round Mum and Dad’s for a sandwich to mark my 53rd birthday.”
That’s in Solihull, where the Fowler family moved in 1974, when Simon was nine. It would be another 15 years before the Ocean Colour Scene story began, Foxy having initially been in a group called The Fanatics, bandmates including fellow OCS co-founders Oscar Harrison (who also featured with Echo Base) and bass player Damon Minchella (a key component of the band until 2003). That said, it took a while before the new outfit were hanging out with the likes of Oasis and Paul Weller, at the heart of the BritPop scene.
Speaking of which, they play Cool Britannia on September 2nd at Knebworth Park, 24 years after a major support date to Oasis there. Apparently, more than 2.6m people applied for tickets on that occasion, the largest demand for concert tickets in UK history, the event attracting a combined audience of more than 250,000. It must have been a bit mad looking out from the stage at all those faces, I suggest.
“It was terrifying, the only time I’ve almost frozen on stage. Chris Cradock – Steve’s Dad – was our manager then, and was holding a cine camera. I asked how it worked and he said, ‘Just push that button.’ I walked out with it, up to the crowd, they reacted, and my nerve just melted, looking at 125,000 people.”
That reminds me of my first writewyattuk interview with Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook (link here), when he told me about the day he froze on stage during one of his best-known songs, wondering if he’d left the grill on after having cheese on toast just before leaving.
“I do that all the time, making words up. Ha! Actually, next time you speak to Glenn, ask if he remembers nearly getting arrested with me and Steve in a Glasgow hotel …”
Intriguing. When was that?
“God knows how long ago. The manager banged on the door – he didn’t like the smell emanating from the room. I don’t know why. You’ve never seen Steve and me move so quickly. But I was there playing ‘Up the Junction’ with him that night.”
That was the song he mentioned. Not one you’d expect him to forget the words to.
“Well, I’ve forgotten the words to ‘The Riverboat Song’ before now, singing the second verse first, then singing that verse again, knowing I’ve made a prat of yourself and that song is now officially ruined!”
At least when it’s a big hit, you can always put the mic. out to the crowd, let them help you out.
“Yes! It is funny though, when you’re singing, a hundred thoughts sometimes go through your mind. You can still be singing the words, not knowing how you’ve done that. It’s almost like an automatic thing. It’s incredible. The best thing is to be in the moment – like a zen thing. But you’re not. You’re back there with the cheese on toast!”
I suppose it’s like querying a computer password. Type it in automatically and you’re ok, but the moment you over-think it …
“Well, I’ve never used a computer in my life. I’m probably the only person in Britain who hasn’t. And I don’t intend to.”
That’s interesting, because when One From the Modern came out in 1999, I read a review somewhere where the typeface suggested it was actually One From the Modem. I didn’t realise until I’d bought my copy that it wasn’t the OCS response to Radiohead’s OK Computer.
But I digress. Among all the band’s festival appearances this summer, I see there’s at least one indoor gig scheduled – at Brixton Academy on September 29th …
Well, I was going to ask, ‘what’s the occasion?’ But it seems that you’re not sure.
“I’ve got no idea … then again, I don’t have a computer! I just get in the van, asking, ‘Where are we going?’ Brixton Academy? Great. I haven’t played there for a long time.”
It’s 22 years since the rather marvelous Moseley Shoals broke, yet all those festival headlines and recent Australian, New Zealand and Japan dates suggest major interest remains. Not a bad way for a Brummie lad to see the world, eh?
“No, it’s not. We went business class to Australia last time. What a wonderful experience that is, compared to fucking ‘cattle class’! At our age, we should never go economy again. I know we’re from Birmingham, and we’re not snobs, but I want to be able to feel my feet when I get off the plane. It’s such a sod of a journey. You really need to be comfortable and see if you can sleep. Otherwise you arrive for a fortnight in Australia and by the time you’re coming home you’re just getting back to normal. Sounds like I’m joking, but I’m not. It’s horrendous.”
First-world problems, I suggest, but he’s not taking me up on that, and I change the subject, reminding him that he was a journalist long before I was. In fact, I was starting sixth-form when he was at the Birmingham Post, just starting to write my fanzine. How long was he there?
“I did four years. You see, my hero was John Motson. He was the reason I became a journalist. I wanted to be a football commentator and my uncle was picture editor of the Birmingham Post and Mail. His first job was in Norwich as a photographer, and ‘Motty’ was a reporter. Uncle Trevor told me how John Motson had started, so that was my plan.
“By the time I became a journalist, within a fortnight I realised I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. I didn’t like being shouted at by middle-aged, balding, short blokes … especially when they were so much better than me at their job and I had no recourse for complaint.”
Should I look out the ‘Suburban Love Songs’ EP you made with The Fanatics in ’89? Has that stood the test of time?
“Oh, goodness me … on Chapter 22? Good God! Have you got a copy? Apparently, they’re worth a bloody fortune – something like £250.”
I haven’t, I’m afraid. Did you keep a copy?
“No! I didn’t!”
Soon, The Fanatics were behind Simon, Damon and Oscar, and they were joining forces with Steve, fresh from The Boys. That said, OCS were together eight years before their first No.1. Was there a day when they felt they might have … erm, missed the train?
“I can’t remember, to be honest. The first album proved a complete damp squib and took about three years and four producers to make. It was complete nonsense. But we did get to work with Jimmy Miller … or more to the point, we got to drink with Jimmy Miller!”
Their first single, ‘Sway’, was released in September 1990, but soon their label, Phfftt Records, was swallowed up by larger company Phonogram and their eponymous LP was remixed against the band’s wishes, given more of the trending ‘Madchester’ baggy feel.
In dispute with their label, the band were soon back on the dole, still writing but with no recording outlet. Fast forward a bit to the Britpop explosion though, and it was a case of right place, right time. A lot of bands around at the time somehow missed out, despite having helped pave the way for all that, somehow not getting the kudos. But OCS kind of clicked, right?
“Yes, we did. Oasis basically kicked open the door. When we started, you almost had to justify liking bands like The Beatles. Journalists saw two ‘year zeros’ really – one in ’63 with The Beatles, the other in ’76 with the (Sex) Pistols, and the ‘76 crew looked down on the other lot. But when Oasis came along and got trendy, we’d been telling them all that for the last seven years.”
“Yeah, my background was The Beatles and the Stones and The Who, Motown, Small Faces. But I guess I also bought my infatuation with Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, added a bit later by Fairport Convention and Pentangle influences. Oscar bought the reggae stuff, while Damon had a sort of jazz thing going, and hip-hop, so it kind of all mixed together on certain tracks.”
That broad church certainly comes through. And does he recall much about that first fateful meeting with the Gallagher brothers down his Moseley local?
“I do, yeah. That was brilliant. I’d never met anyone like Liam in my life … and still haven’t. I met Noel prior to that, during a Paul Weller video shoot for ‘Hung Up’, at a hotel in Oxford.
“That poor girl from The Cranberries (the late Dolores O’Riordan, who died earlier this year, aged just 46) was there too. I asked, ‘Where are you playing in Brum?’ They told us The Jug of Ale. They were supporting Whiteout on one of those tours when they swapped over each night. Whiteout were a bunch of scallies from Greenock who we met when they supported us. We went down to see them as much as Oasis.
“I was sitting in the changing room and remember some arm came around and threw a small piece of paper at Liam, folded up. I reckon it was a note from his Mum. Liam just caught it mid-air and I thought, ‘I wanna be like you!’ Ha ha! He was so fucking cool!”
There was clearly a bond from the start with Paul Weller too.
“Oh, there was. We were proper partners in crime, and it was us who introduced Noel to ‘Commander’ Paul. Funny thing was, I think Liam was a bit resentful in a way. Suddenly, instead of wearing trainers, Noel was wearing penny loafers, so Liam starts going (he tries a Manc accent), ‘Eh, Weller fella!’ The irony of course is Pretty Green (the fashion brand founded by Liam in 2009). Ha ha!”
While bandmate Steve Cradock’s been a regular in Weller’s band for a quarter of a century now, Simon also contributed to the wondrous Wild Wood album in 1993, adding backing vocals on ‘The Weaver’, while Steve chipped in guitar on the same track. Simon also made a ‘little cameo’ on the promo video of ‘Hung Up’, although he adds, ‘I think I was flying, to be quite honest. But weren’t we all!’
Inevitably, OCS record sales fell off a bit come the millennium, even though the band have kept busy and made several more albums. Is it frustrating at times playing the festival circuit and being expected to just play the older hits?
“I don’t find it frustrating, because a concert is for the crowd. You experiment as a band and forge different sounds in the studio, but when you look at the Stones, what do the crowd want to see? They want the ones they know. That’s why they’ve gone.
“About a year ago though, we did the Moseley Shoals album in full, live, and that was one of our most successful tours since 1998. You realise how important that album was to so many people. We kind of missed that as we were working so hard. I don’t think we quite understood the significance of that record to that generation.”
Throughout our conversation, I get updates on what Simon’s eight-month-old pooch is up to by the riverside – ‘this is live … Cooper, live in print,’ he tells me – and I ask how he ended up getting named after an Australian ale.
“We were at the airport in Adelaide, in a Cooper’s Ale House, when I was told I was getting a dog, which was a real surprise. I went up to the bar to get a drink, probably in shock, and on the counter was a piece of cardboard – now at the side of my bed – which read, ‘Cooper’s – the new addition to the family.’ I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is fate!’ I then flew to New Zealand, put the telly on in the hotel, and Quadrophenia was on, and Jimmy (the main character, played by Phil Daniels) in that is actually Jimmy Cooper. So Cooper he is!”
Finally, with Russia and the 2018 World Cup in mind this summer, will Simon be back in touch with the Bunnymen, Space, and the Spice Girls for an England Reunited project, 20 years on from their collaboration for France ’98?
“Ha! No, to be honest, I don’t think we should be going. And it was an absolute farce that they got it. And where are we going after that? Qatar? What a load of nonsense. An absolute disgrace.
“But I’d love to do something with Ian (McCulloch) again though. He’s a great chap. Another partner in crime … big time. Christ almighty, we had fun!”
For full details of this year’s Kendal Calling (July 26/29), head here. And to see where else Ocean Colour Scene are playing this year, check out their website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.