In the 1980s, several independent bands based around Lancashire played a part in an emerging regional scene that ultimately brought wider success for a few North West acts.
Of course, not every act involved would end up on the front cover of the NME or shipping records around the world. Many more had to make do with what Mick Shepherd called ‘a faint brush with the potential that something was going to happen’.
And Mick knows a bit about that from his time with Big Red Bus, who were signed to the Preston-based Action Records label, with their 1989 debut LP followed by a couple of 12” singles in the early ‘90s and more recently a 2017 CD compilation on a German label, love for the band clearly still far reaching.
But if there’s any sense of frustration that Big Red Bus ultimately stalled while contemporaries like The Boo Radleys and The Stone Roses enjoyed major success, Mick hides it well. In fact, he’s more than happy as things are, enjoying a new lease of love playing and making music with latest band, The Amber List. And why not, judging by the material shared so far via videos, digital releases and debut five-track EP, ‘The Ever Present Elephant’, launched in late July at Manchester’s Night & Day Café.
Mick was flying to Luxembourg to see one of his sons the morning I called, marking his 57th birthday in style, a barbecue and party lined up. A former fine art student who spent several years ‘trying to make a living out of painting’, he works for an educational charity these days. But much as he loves that, he tells me ‘music has always been a welcome distraction to the daily grind’, even if he finds it ‘more of a cottage industry again’ today.
“We’re all, I guess you’d say, seasoned musicians, having played in numerous bands. We’ve all had a faint brush with the potential that something was going to happen, kind of getting giddy on that. But now I think we’re all very realistic, doing it because we enjoy it.
“I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it and how much it meant to me. I started writing solo stuff again and did an album about three years ago, and when we got The Amber List together, I’d forgotten the joy of playing in a band and getting out gigging.”
Mick (vocals, guitar, bass) is joined in The Amber List by Tim Kelly (guitar, vocals, bass), Tony Cornwell (guitars, bass, atmospheres, vocals, racket) and Simon Dewhurst (drums, percussion, vocals). And how do we categorise them? Apparently, you can ‘file under post-Brexit urban folk indie blues, brought to you from the melting pot of the North West with an average age above most England cricket scores’.
Incorporating ‘60’s folk-tinged ballads through to full-on indie pop, key influences include This is the Kit, Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, XTC and Wire, and their fans include Nottinghamshire-based poet Paul Cookson, originally from Preston, who runs a Pies, Peas and Performers band night in Retford where Mick supported The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls as a solo artist.
The Amber List inspired Paul to write, ‘Perfectly pitched, deftly mixed and immediately accessible, their songs feel like old friends you haven’t seen for ages, or best friends you haven’t yet met. Familiar and warm, but different and alive. High on melody and hooks and low on volume for volume’s sake. Understated and all the more powerful for that.”
Nicely put. Do they all bring songs in?
“We do. We’re all writers and probably have the healthiest vein of writers any of us ever had (in any band). We’re bouncing ideas off each other. I’ve been in bands where you sort of scrape away for new ideas, but we’re absolutely bogged down with songs.
“It’s a case of what we should record, what we should work on next. There’s no shortage of ideas. We’ve done this EP, which we’re pretty pleased of, and the idea now is to record an album for release next year. We’ve released four or five online recordings before, but felt it nice to have something physical, and people at gigs will spend a fiver on a CD if they see a band they like.”
As well as at live shows, you can find a copy of the EP at Action Records in Preston, where Mick’s recording journey started 30 years ago.
“We’re also using the CD to help find more gigs, and that’s really healthy, with two or three a month.”
For a four-piece that only started out in March 2017, they’ve proved busy so far, with plenty of collective spirit and marks of quality across all five songs on the EP, recorded with folk-rock outfit Merry Hell guitarist John Kettle at the TMP studio, Pemberton, Wigan.
“John was great around this recording, suggesting things. You go in with a fixed idea, and sometimes people in a studio are quite passive, allow you to do your own thing. But John was quite vociferous – ‘try this, try that’. It was nice to have that input.
“The first thing we did was ’Cold Callers’, acoustically. John said he liked that, and the relationship grew from there. He had Neil (McCartney) from Merry Hell play fiddle on (final track) ‘First Steps’, and we ended up playing a gig with them at the Old Courts in their hometown. They did two nights, sold out, and we did the electric one before another gig in Morecambe the next night, a benefit for the Lancaster Music Co-Op.”
The band are set to return to Pemberton to work with John again in September. A couple of better-aired tracks such as ‘Pink and Orange Sky’, ‘What in the World’ and ‘Guiding Star’ don’t appear on this EP. Are they holding them back for the album?
“We’re discussing that, but because of all the newer material we might leave those as online downloads.”
‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ was the song that truly grabbed me first on the EP, carrying a sense of post-La’s ‘80s/’90s sunshine indie pop for these ears, reminding me of many a melodic jangly indie outfit.
“That’s been said before, and that’s nice. I guess we’re a product of what we listen to, consciously or not. The La’s have come up a few times, and I’ve no problem with that comparison at all. Someone mentioned Gene, and Olympian is one of my favourite albums, one I play to this day. It’s hard to find something we’d all agree on as an influence though – we all listen to different things. I know with ‘Hiding Place’ I was obsessed with Big Star at the time, liking that two-guitar approach.”
Well, if it worked for Teenage Fanclub …
“Exactly! Another big favourite of mine, personally!”
Talking of post-Brexit blues, I guess the world needs more ‘bah, bah, bah, bah’ singalongs right now.
“Yeah. You can’t go wrong with that, can you. I remember an interview with Julian Cope years ago, taking about The Teardrop Explodes, how he’d hear trumpet sounds in his head, but couldn’t afford trumpets so made the noises instead.”
Incidentally, I hear The Teardrop Explodes too, plus fellow Liverpool scene outfit The Icicle Works. Not as if it’s all about that for Mick, who the previous weekend played an acoustic set at Cambridge Folk Festival. How did that come about?
“I was going anyway, and somebody posted that there would be an open stage, like an open mic. event, so I went to see the organisers and ended up playing a 15-minute set. That was great, with the sound brilliant. I really enjoyed the experience. And what a festival.”
They would have known him from previous Penwortham Live sets, I suggested.
“Ha! That’s it, yeah!”
Remind me about your Big Red Bus days (where Mick’s bandmates included 2015 WriteWyattUK interviewee Dave Spence and local luminary Roland ‘Scrub’ Jones, who also featured with The Amber List).
“That was my kind of formative years. I said about these brushes with something that might have been, and that was the closest for me. We did this Stone Roses support at Birmingham’s Irish Centre. We were supposed to be playing Edwards No.8 there, but the week before they had their NME splashed paint front cover and pulled the gig. Can’t remember why – it was the wrong mixing desk or something. I think they knew they were going to get that cover.
“But about a month later we got to support them at the Irish Centre, which was fantastic, and supported them at the Guild Hall in Preston (in the foyer). Great times. They were very much on the cusp of things and something was about to happen in the North West. We didn’t cash in on it in anyway. Perhaps we should have. When we’d go abroad, people would say where are you from, you’d say, ‘Preston, near Manchester’, and they’d say, ‘Ooh, Manchester!’
“When it all finished, you were left with a sense of frustration at what might have happened, but when you get to our age you just enjoy doing it for the sheer love of the music.”
Action Records also thankfully took a chance on putting out records by The Boo Radleys and Dandelion Adventure during that era.
“Yeah, and we played together with the Boos and Dandelion Adventure, who were good mates – we still speak to Mark (Parnell) a lot, and keep in touch with Ajay (Saggar) online.
“Actually, one of my more bizarre memories involved some filming with Paul Crone for Granada Reports, interviewing us at Action, when it was just a tiny shop before they had the corner plot.
“They took us to the bus museum at Leyland and had us on these old double-deckers, jumping around and miming to one of the tracks on the album. I’m not even sure if they put it out, even though there were a couple of days’ filming.”
Mick’s from Penwortham but now based in St Annes, with Tim – formerly with Longhatpins – in Parbold, and Tony and Simon in the Preston and Longton area, the band’s rehearsal space an old mill on Aqueduct Street, Preston. So how did they get together?
“I’d known Tim since we were kids and we put songs on SoundCloud, independent of each other, although maybe not having spoken for 25 years. Out of the blue, Tim messaged me, asking, ‘Do you want to get together?’ We did so, doing acoustic shows as Works Unit Only, and then Tony and Simon got involved. It grew from that really.”
And I gather the band pass the bass around, as the line-up description suggests.
“Yeah, we do. Ha!”
But not your drummer, Simon. Can he not play bass?
“Ha! He’s just bought some gadget for his drums with a pad that can trigger different sounds, so we’re experimenting with that at the moment.
“All four of us sing as well, which gives us a lot more opportunities with harmonies and arrangements. And the bass thing? I don’t know. It just evolved really. We take it in turns.”
The Amber List’s next dates include appearances at The Bobbin, Lancaster (Saturday, August 17th); the Guild Ale House, Lancaster Road, Preston (Sunday, September 1st), Blackpool’s Winter Gardens for the FamFest festival of food, arts and music (Sunday, September 22nd); London Road Inn, Buxton (Friday, September 27th); with a return to the Vinyl Tap, Adelphi Street, Preston, pencilled in for October. And you can keep in touch with The Amber list via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.