Carl Hunter was stir crazy at the airport when I tracked him down, delayed an hour and condemned to sit around talking to me while drinking Yorkshire tea, his days of rock’n’roll excess with The Farm possibly behind him.
He was en route to Toronto for a two-day dash built around a screening at Oakville Film Festival, where he would join forces with Tim McInnerny, best known for memorable roles in Blackadder and one of the stars of Carl’s first feature film as a director, Sometimes Always Never. How does he think that job description sounds?
“Sounds pretty good, although I’ve made a number of things in the past as a director, about 30 documentaries for television, and a feature film before with Frank.”
That’s past WriteWyattUK interviewee Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the esteemed screenwriter and children’s author, who adapted their latest film from his short story, Triple Word Score, the pair previously linking up for 2007’s Grow Your Own, starring Eddie Marsan. Omid Djalili and Olivia Colman, a film that surely deserved more accolades.
“The weird thing is that it’s more topical now than when we made it. If anything, I think the BBC should show it, bearing in mind what’s going on politically. Given the current move towards the right wing – which is frightening and also incredibly wrong – it might help raise awareness, and that would be so topical.”
It’s been a while since I last saw that. I loved it, and must dig it out again (so to speak). It was very much about community and different cultures coming together, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, it was, and about understanding people really. How it doesn’t matter where you’re from in the world, there’s a lot of commonality we all share. Poor people are poor people, whether you live in Liverpool or anywhere else in the world. Pain is pain. I also worked on a Channel 4 documentary series about refugees, victims of war and torture, women broken by a brutal regime who came to Liverpool to find a better life, and safety.”
I get the impression that Liverpool has a proud history of accepting foreigners, for want of a better descriptive term.
“Yeah, as a port, so many people have come and gone from Liverpool, so it’s a city used to immigration. Some stayed, some wandered on. And through dealing with immigrants, that leads to a better and more interesting understanding of cultural issues.”
Incidentally, there was also a refugee theme threaded through the pair’s work on Frank’s 2011 children’s book, The Unforgotten Coat, involving two Mongolian brothers who end up in Merseyside. But more of that later, for my excuse to speak to Carl was his latest project with Frank, Sometimes Always Never, featuring Bill Nighy as retired Merseyside tailor Alan Mellor, a Scrabble enthusiast searching for his estranged son, with Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Alice Lowe and Alexei Sayle also cast.
The film had been out barely a week when we spoke, early screenings at Fact in Liverpool and Carl and Frank’s local picture house, Crosby’s Plaza Cinema proving a hit. In fact, Carl, originally from Bootle, let on that he lives less than three miles from where his life journey began, joking, “I didn’t move that far – I’m incredibly lazy!”
He came from an art school background, the 54-year-old not only playing bass guitar with The Farm but also designing the Merseyside outfit’s record sleeves down the years. And I mentioned early in our conversation how he has The Undertones’ ‘My Perfect Cousin’ record sleeve artwork on his Facebook profile page, something telling me instinctively that I liked the fella.
“Ha! You can tell a lot about people from when they post a picture of a record sleeve. Straight away!”
Indeed, and further to that I see you have ‘The Cost of Living’ EP sleeve art as your profile pic on your Twitter page.
“That’s right. I’m a huge fan of music. I have been since I was very young. And I’m a huge fan of record design. I did a BA and MA in graphic design at the Liverpool Art School – Liverpool Poly as it was then – and later did a five-part documentary on the history of record sleeve design for Granada (in 2000), concentrating on the North West and the impact it had on the packaging of music. I interviewed all the key people – (members of) 10cc, The Smiths, Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, right through to dance music, Badly Drawn Boy, and that era. That was an absolute joy to make.”
Interestingly, after our conversation I thumbed through a few old interviews with The Farm, coming across one in Vox in early 1991 where Carl told Martin Townsend, on the subject of Malcolm Garrett’s Buzzcocks sleeves, ‘When their next record was out it became like, ‘What’s on the sleeve?’ You were as excited about the sleeve as you were about the record. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do what he did, but the point is it’s not just about the music you make, it’s about the attitude’.
Carl made an impact through his sleeves too, the likes of Sex Pistols sleeve designer Jamie Reid singing his praises. the most memorable including the ‘Stepping Stone’ single with its (following the fashion crowd) sheep cover and the Spartacus album’s parody of a Radion detergent design, their response to ‘anti-working class’ digs from the press, suggesting they carried an anonymous, ordinary image.
And while The Farm called it a day in 1996, they were back within a decade, Carl still enjoying occasional live outings alongside his work in the film industry, while he also puts out records via The Label Recordings, running out of Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, where he’s also a senior lecturer in media, film and television, assisted in both respects by Clare Heney, calling that enterprise ‘incredibly successful’.
“Finding the right music is what makes it work. Radio has always been a great support, and we’ve managed to attract regional, national and international press for bands, and bands have gone on to sign management deals, such as Hooton Tennis Club, who put out a single with us, then signed to Heavenly Records.”
Just hearing him speak, you know he’s still very much enthused by music, all those years after breaking through with The Farm.
“Well, we formed in 1983, and we’re still going now. When I joined, the band hadn’t been going that long. And we’re soon starting a massive run of festivals.”
Did you ever see The Excitements, the band from which The Farm sprang?
“No, but I’m a huge fan. Steve (Grimes, guitar) has kept songs from those days, and found a box of photographs of them, which I’d never seen. They’re brilliant, and so are the songs. If I was Steve I’d get in the studio, record and release them. They were more punk/new wave, more like Buzzcocks. They were great.”
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of your breakthrough singles, later recaptured on the 1991 hit album, Spartacus. Does that seem possible?
“I’m always shocked when I hear that mentioned, but maybe because we remained close friends, and as a band we’ve gone on a similar journey. For instance, with Sometimes Always Never, Roy (Boulter) – our drummer – his production company (Hurricane Films) produced the film and also did the last three Terence Davies films, back to back. They have a massive international reputation. Also, Peter (Hooton, vocals) is in it, with a cameo as a grumpy ice cream man.”
I seem to recall you have a thing about ice cream vans, as regular readers of your tweets will know.
“Yeah, I’m fascinated by them, in the same way as we have phone and letter boxes … although I don’t even like ice cream! I don’t ever buy one, but I’m interested in them as kind of statements, really. There’s a documentary I want to make and I’m getting closer to doing about ice cream vans, but more of an international story.”
At this point I interject, mentioning my home village of Shalford, Surrey, and its link with The Stranglers, who played their first shows in nearby Guildford, recalling how drummer and band creator Jet Black once sent his fellow bandmates out on the streets to sell ice cream to earn their keep between gigs.
“Wow. I never knew that. Jet Black was an ice cream man! That could be a lyric from a Fall song!”
You’re right there. And I see recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Alan McGee remains a keen Farm fan, placing their 2014 acoustic appearance at his former Baptist church venue The Tabernacle in Talgarth, Wales, in his top-10 all-time gigs.
“Yeah, and I’m a big fan of his. He’s a huge music fan to this day, always helpful and supportive. In recent times, through The Tabernacle, he’s booked us a few times, and it was wild! And he’s got a great ear for a band.”
Remind me what happened in 1996. That seemed to mark the end of the first part of the band story, but by then it looked like you’d already set out on a path towards being a celebrated film-maker.
“Yeah, I think by ’95 the world had changed. There was this desire for bands like us, but then Nirvana came along and it all changed. And by the way, that’s how it should be. Then Brit Pop moved in, which we never part of. We were finished by then. But I think in any pop culture, I don’t see anything wrong in that. It’s unfortunate when you’re a victim – one minute you’ve got a pop career, the next you’ve not – but you have to accept you can’t keep doing the same thing. I come from an art background, and you need movements in the arts, otherwise nothing ever changes.”
I’m guessing you split on good terms then.
“Oh yeah, and in a way it’s quite a blessing. We went into hibernation – we never split up – because it wasn’t working anymore. But I was getting into filmmaking, working on documentaries, while Roy became a screenwriter, writing at least 500 episodes of soaps (Brookside, Hollyoaks, EastEnders, his credits also including The Bill and The Street), and then became a film producer, working on big movies, while Steve went on to write music for films and documentaries.
“Meanwhile, Ben (Leach), our keyboard player, just disappeared and ended up on tour with George Michael, Take That, Duran Duran, and … you name any band that could fill an arena! And Keith became a lecturer at LIPA, Paul McCartney’s school. So when we went into hibernation, we all pursued other things, Peter becoming a cultural spokesman and a writer, publishing books and God knows how many thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines. We all wandered into the world of media, and did so successfully for years. Then one day, Happy Mondays phoned us and said, “You don’t fancy doing a gig with us, do ya?’ We thought, ‘Oh God, we haven’t played for years! But we’ve been playing ever since. And we remain big friends of the Mondays – us of them, and them of us.”
That first gig was at Brixton Academy in 2004, and 15 years on they’re still out there, this summer’s dates including a hometown headline show at Bootle Music Festival this Sunday, July 7th (with details here or here).
At this stage, we spoke a little about the Mondays, and I mentioned an interview I had lined up with Bez, mentioning to Carl about his part in Joe Strummer’s wilderness years, prompting him to get back to Sometimes Always Never and a link to the latter.
“Bill Nighy plays a tailor by the name of Alan Mellor, with his shop called Mellor’s, the reason being Joe (real name John Mellor), in a deliberate nod to The Clash.”
I shouldn’t be surprised. Carl told Martin Townsend in ’91 that his hero was fellow bass player Paul Simonon, of whom he said he ‘just played the right notes at the right time’. And Mike Pattenden wrote in an August 1994 feature for Vox that Carl and Steve Grimes would often do a Clash number at soundchecks, becoming known as the ’77 Twins’.
Another diversion followed as we got on to our mutual love of the Undertones, a band with their own link to Frank Cottrell-Boyce via his part in Derry’s 2013 City of Culture celebrations. You also worked together on 2016 short film, A Winter’s Tale: Shakespeare Lives. How did you get to know him?
“Frank lives in Crosby and was involved with a community cinema there (The Plaza), where a friend of mine, John, volunteers – he’s the arthouse film programmer. He said we should meet, as we had very similar interests. And he was right. We got on like a house on fire. From that day to this we spend a lot of time in each other’s company and we’re working on a new film together now. It’s kind of a four-page outline at the moment … it’s very good though … and funny!”
You also worked together on The Unforgotten Coat, with Clare Heney again.
“Yeah, that was an interesting project, shooting Polaroids to try and make Bootle look like Mongolia! It’s kind of about seeing the world differently, but also in a way you want other people to see it, and it’s a wonderful story.”
There’s been a great response to Sometimes Always Never. Was it a something of a dream realised to get the likes of Bill Nighy, Alexei Sayle and Jenny Agutter involved?
“Oh, completely. In fact, when I was asked on a wish-list who I’d want to play Alan, I said Bill Nighy. He said yeah, and was wonderful to all the cast, very talented and great to work with. When you’ve got a cast as strong as that… it’s so good. And the way they can turn a line around, the depth of what they can do is breathtaking.”
There must be moments when you’re brimming with pride, having big names speak your lines and act your scenes.
“Sometimes you can kind of forget what you’re doing, and when you’re making a film it’s very intense, working on it every day for 10 months or so. It’s a marathon. And because you’re doing it all the time it becomes your life really. So I can be a little blasé about it. But not because I don’t care or I’m rude or arrogant.
“I remember a mate asking what I was up to one week, and I said, ‘I’m going up to Scotland to spend a few days with Edwyn Collins to work on the soundtrack of the film. And he went, ‘Fuck off! You’re not! Orange Juice Edwyn Collins? You’re gonna work with him?’
I was unaware of that myself until I watched the trailer and recognised his voice.
“I was asked about a composer for the film, but I never wanted a composer. I wanted a songwriter, and that was partly because I’d seen Submarine, where Alex Turner did the music. I liked that, and I’d always had this idea of working with Edwyn. I asked if he’d be interested, he said yeah, then recruited Sean Read, of The Thunderbirds, and Chay Heney, who was in a band called Sugarmen (and Station Agent). The three of them moved into Edwyn’s studio in Scotland in the depths of winter, and were properly snowed in. Yet these three musical alchemists turned out this amazing soundtrack, with two classic Edwyn songs out as a 7” double A-side single, then a 12” vinyl album following.”
I’m guessing Edwyn had seen the script.
“He had, he loved it, had ideas, and when the three of them got together in the studio it became like a supergroup. Edwyn collects vintage guitars and recording equipment, and it’s an Aladdin’s cave of vintage instruments and electronics. He gets very excited by music, and also playing. There’ll be some instrument we’ve never heard of, and we’ll follow him to his shed and he’ll get something from 1945 or 1950, some bizarre item of equipment, and say, ‘Let’s plug it in!’ It was great fun, the soundtrack’s fantastic, and it’s watching three people enjoying themselves.”
And did Kentish lad Bill Nighy easily adapt to a Merseyside accent?
“Oh yeah! He said, ‘I’m going to learn five Liverpool accents and I’ll test them on you. You tell me which is the most appropriate. I spent an afternoon with him while he tried out these five accents, and for one I just said, ‘That’s it! That’s the one to go for.’”
I love Bill’s line where Alan says, ‘I always say the only good thing about jazz is that it scores very highly in Scrabble.’ Was that one of yours?
“Actually, our guitarist said that one night, when we were gigging somewhere. A saxophonist was playing something and Steve said, ‘The only good thing about jazz is that you get 26 for it in Scrabble.’ I remember telling Frank that, and he said that’d be a brilliant line in the film, changing it slightly.”
And this project started with a short story by Frank?
“Yeah, he’d written this brilliant short story, Triple Word Score, which I read and loved. I said, ‘I wonder if it’d make a film’, and he went, ‘I’d love to make it as a film. Do you fancy having a go at it? That’s where the journey started, around nine years ago, us coming back to it now and again. There were times when it was about to be made then fell at the last hurdle, like most things. But then it happened, and now it’s on at cinemas in Australia, New Zealand, Britain …”
With thanks to Aneet Nijjar and Jon Rushton for the use of stills from Sometimes Always Never, which is on at The Dukes, Moor Lane, Lancaster, on Friday, July 5th, Saturday, July 6th (two screenings), Wednesday, July 10th, and Thursday, July 11. To book tickets, call 01524 598500 or head here. There are also screenings this weekend at the Picture House at Fact in Liverpool, Hebden Bridge Picture House, and Ilkley Cinema. Check out each venue for details.