Beautiful South founder member Dave Hemingway is back, his new outfit, Sunbirds, set to release debut album Cool To Be Kind at the end of October, via independent label Nectar Records.
Since stepping back from the live scene with spin-off outfit The South in late 2016, Dave – aka Hammy, who turns 60 next month – has been busy with guitarist/songwriter and ex-bandmate Phil Barton, the pair joining forces with vocalist/violinist Laura Wilcockson and ‘session drummer to the stars’ Marc Parnell, signalling a fresh direction, as is apparent from preview spins of their debut release.
Produced by Teo Miller, the band see Cool To Be Kind as ‘open-hearted and painfully honest’, and I’d concur, getting the impression that the former Housemartins drummer – having taken over from old classmate Hugh Whitaker in the ‘fourth best band in Hull’ in 1987, quitting a job as a purchase ledger clerk for a car dealership, having received a tip-off from former Newpolitans bandmate Dave Rotheray, who would join his namesake in his next band – who stepped up to the mic. and has remained out front ever since, has found his mojo again, with the help of his fellow Sunbirds.
Cool To Be Kind is the result of a few transitional years for both Dave and Phil, the new songs covering contemporary themes as well as age-old matters of the heart and soul, ‘all viewed through the bottom of a recently drained pint glass’. As Phil put it, ‘There’s no exact science here. We’re just enjoying ourselves and expressing whatever we want, whether it’s about love, greed, social isolation or Gary Lineker’s crisp adverts’.
In a bid to at least suggest professionalism, I always prepare questions ahead of interviews, even though the order I get through them really depends on how that conversation’s going. And in this case, it was soon apparent that my last question should actually be my first.
My loose plan was to talk through a few subjects then go song by song through Cool To Be Kind. But seeing as East Riding-born and raised Dave has been Cheshire-based for around a decade, I instead asked about the significance of the final track, the contemplative but somewhat raw ‘Stars Still Shine’.
I’d just played the album for a fourth time, that song one of around half a dozen really resonating, its honest, cut to the chase approach – delivered in the manner of Del Amitri’s Justin Currie for these ears – seemingly indicative of where Hammy was in his life right now.
“I ran away from my life, found a place where I can hide;
I may live here, but I don’t wanna die here; anywhere is better, better than this place;
Stars still shine here, so I’ll bide my time here; but anywhere is better than this place.”
Was this a pretty much autobiographical glimpse into his 2020 world?
“I must admit of all the tracks that’s the one that resonates the most with me. I’ve been through a bit in that respect. That’s the one that represents me the way I am at the moment. It is raw, and I’d much rather one of the more cheery songs on the album be the one I felt more in tune with, but for now, unfortunately, that’s the one.”
I should really have started in more positive territory, seeing as the LP starts with the more upbeat ‘Meet Me on the Northside’. It’s another winner. Is that your love letter to those Hull roots?
“That’s exactly right, an homage to the Hull I grew up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s when the fishing industry was mighty but very cruel at the same time, its trawlermen going through hell at the time.”
Is that something Dave – the son of a lorry driver and local club comic and a well-known Hull barmaid – appreciates more now, away from his home city for a long time?
“Absolutely. I went back and we did a video for that song, back to Hessle Road, where I grew up and used to live. It was very poignant really. It’s changed a lot through the years, but a lot of the same things are still there. Hopefully some things will never change. My old house has been knocked down, but a lot of the same spots are still there that I mention in the song.”
Hammy’s home was on Subway Street, the main road in and out of the fish dock, now given over to industrial units, leading from Hessle Road down the half-mile to the Humber estuary. In a way, is this his take on Paul Weller’s Stanley Road?
“In that sense, yeah, and I’m quite pleased we’ve made a song paying tribute to Hull as it was. It’s a great city now, but it’s gone off at a different tangent. When I was growing up it was different type of Hull, but very strong in its own way.”
Hammy initially lived in Leeds when he left his home city, before his Crewe move. And six years ago when I first chatted to him there (with that interview here), it was fairly early days for the post-Paul Heaton incarnation of The Beautiful South. A lot of water’s flown down the Humber and various other water sources since, I suggested, including the River Weaver and Shropshire Union Canal in his case. Did he just feel the time was right to move on when he left?
“Yeah, I think the main subject of discussion that we didn’t agree with was that I wanted the band to move on, do new songs and be a band in its own right as opposed to playing Beautiful South songs.
“I totally understand why people want to hear those songs, but for me it became too much of a tribute band, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if we’d tried both things – new songs as well.
“They didn’t agree with me on that, so I decided to step out for a while, wait for the right band to come along and the right people to work with. And now, these are our own songs and people will know we won’t be playing any previous ones.”
While The South carry on regardless, so to speak, I guess this is a similar break with the past to the time I first saw you live, when The Housemartins first re-emerged as The Beautiful South in 1989 (as recounted in our .
“Yeah, it’s a proper break, with a new band and new songs. It makes it tough of course and I fully understand people come to gigs – when hopefully there are gigs again – and want to hear songs they know, but I’m hoping we can get the new songs out there soon enough so people can come and have a listen and hopefully then enjoy the new stuff.”
“Yeah, and they’re still going strong, of course …”
I was impressed with 2012’s Sweet Refrains LP, some great songs on there suggesting you were becoming a band in your own right, two of the best written by Phil. When you said you were waiting for the right band to come along, had you realised a key member of that band was already in your midst?
“I’d always appreciated Phil’s songs, and feel a lot of the songs on this album could well have been on a South album, if more people had wanted to go that way. But the door was pretty much stamped shut on that, so with that in mind I felt okay, we’ll take these songs to other people.”
At this point I asked Hammy to tell me more about his and Phil’s bandmates: Laura, whose CV suggests a classical, orchestral and folk background; and Marc, who was mixing with mainstream music royalty from an early age.
“Laura played in a band, Steel Threads, that supported The South. That’s how we met, and she used to do a lot of busking with her violin, around Mansfield and Chesterfield way.
“And Marc … I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember, but his dad was Jack Parnell, who led his own orchestra back in the 60s.”
I am indeed, Jack having directed the pit orchestra for Sunday Night at the Palladium, and after being voted best drummer in the Melody Maker poll for seven years in succession in the ‘40s and ‘50s, going on to compose many television themes, including The Golden Shot and Family Fortunes.
He was also a regular judge on ATV talent show New Faces and musical director for The Benny Hill Show and The Muppet Show (although we really know that was Nigel, right?).
What’s more, in the ‘70s, Jack co-founded The Best of British Jazz with the likes of Kenny Baker, and in the ‘90s – by then based in East Anglia – was with the Mike Capocci Trio and led the London Big Band, including some of Britain’s leading jazz musicians.
Incidentally, Marc’s brothers and sisters include Ric Parnell, who played drummer Mick Shrimpton in This is Spinal Tap. But that’s clearly another story.
“He (Marc) tells us all these stories of meeting people like Buddy Rich, all those people his Dad used to knock around with. Yes, he tells a few interesting stories.
“At the moment, there’s just the four of us, but we’re looking to play live …”
Am I right in thinking you always found that hard – the touring and live performances?
“I must admit, it’s not my favourite thing to do in music. I love recording, producing, making songs, and that. I’ll make no bones about it. It is nerve-racking for me. But I realise it has to be done, so let’s make it the best we can when we do come around to doing gigs.
“And hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later, although the way things are going, it’s not looking great.”
I guess this period of enforced show postponements at least gives you a chance to get the songs out there and raise your profile that way.
“Yeah, that’s one good thing. The album’s not officially out until the end of October, but before we hope to get two or three songs out there, and when it comes to gigs, we’ll be looking to get a bass player and keyboard player on board.”
Geographically, it can’t be so easy. I know there are plenty of examples of bands with members fairly far-flung these days, such as Teenage Fanclub and The Wedding Present, but …
“Well, at least we’re all in the same country! That’s something.”
And in your case, it’s you in Cheshire, Laura in South Yorkshire, Phil and Marc in North London?
“That’s it, and when it comes to rehearsing, we’ll go down to London, as Phil’s got a little set-up where we can rehearse. That’s for the future, but now we just need to get the songs out there.”
Song-wise, is it mainly co-writes between yourself and Phil?
“He’s been writing with a few people actually, and there are a couple of songs purely down to him. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but he’s been the mainstay for the songs, involved on all but one, I think. He’s the one we revolve around in terms of writing.”
And how did it go with Teo Miller (responsible for Daisy Chainsaw’s splendid ‘Love Your Money’ and subsequent work with The Pretenders, Placebo and Robert Plant)? He’s captured something, for sure.
“I think he’s done a really good job. I’m very happy with it. We were working under very difficult circumstances, with it all self-financed. We don’t have a record company, just a distribution deal. So it was all very pressurised. It’s not like it used to be, back in the day, with videos, big budgets, stuff like that. It was hard, but good.”
I say this time and again, but bands like yours are doing it now for all the right reasons – because you love the creative process of being musicians and writing songs. It’s not about chart positions and the trappings of wealth.
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the main aspects I like about all this is coming out with new songs, recording them, putting them out there and seeing what people think.
“If I’m honest, I’m not expecting the hits The Beautiful South had. That would be unrealistic. We’re not a young band. Having said that, I think we can still deliver good songs.”
On the strength of this album, I totally agree. We talked about the first and last tracks, and now I’ll look between, starting with ‘Hatred Lies in the Ruins of Love’, for me somewhere between Danny Wilson type radio chirpiness and the darker lyrics of your old band.
“It is one of those where if you didn’t hear the lyrics, you’d think it was a jolly song. But it’s not at all – it’s pretty heartbreaking. And that’s something I’ve been involved with in the past – devastating lyrics.”
I guess something’s rubbed off over the years. I could say the same about ‘Longcuts’, another great Hammy and Laura duet, kind of The Beautiful South meets Dr Hook. A must for the radio waves, I’d say. In fact, people might assume that’s a Heaton composition, with its wordplay, hook and songcraft.
“High praise indeed. We all know Paul’s a brilliant songwriter, so I’ll settle for that. It wasn’t a Heaton song, by the way!”
I guess you knew this question would come, but there have been words back and forth between Paul and you, most through the press. Have you spoken to him of late or anyone from those days?
“No, and I don’t give word back and forth. I just keep my own counsel. I don’t do that sort of thing.”
There are some South-esque songs in there, but also several departures from that tried and tested formula. ‘Holiday Monday’ seems to be a song of many parts, part-Monkees, part-Mamas and Papas, part-Tom Petty. A bit US West Coast, perhaps.
“Yeah, it is, but again those lyrics are more council estate, ha! There’s a bit of new wave in there as well. That’s one of my faves on the album and might make a single at one point. Who knows.”
For me, ‘Gene Kelly’ would certainly make for a great single, its ‘let tomorrow look after itself’ sunshine on a rainy day philosophy putting Spring in your step and gettinmg better with every listen.
“Yeah, it’s basic, but it’s fun. And that’s a fun song melodiously and lyrically – a happy lyric and a happy tune.”
You must have woken up in a good mood that day. Meanwhile, ‘The Black Sea’ is darker but somewhat epic. I couldn’t have seen that on the setlist at a South show.
“That again, for me, is a song about depression, and how that can drag you under. Mental health is mentioned a lot in various forms at the moment, in sport and other walks of life.”
Is that something that resonates deeply with yourself?
“Me personally? I’ve definitely had my moments. I can totally relate to it. And my son’s currently working in mental health, which I’m really chuffed about, doing something worthwhile. Yes, I’ve had episodes in that department. it’s not something that’s alien to me.”
Then there’s out and out four-minute pop like ‘When I’m Gone’. Those harmonies, that melody … You‘ve sung memorable duets in the past with Briana Corrigan, Jacqui Abbott and Alison Wheeler, and here again with Laura. It sounds great.
“Yeah, I think Laura’s not very confident about her vocals as she should be. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with very talented female singers. She’s different to them, but that doesn’t mean she’s anything less. We sound good together, and that’s a different avenue to go down. I keep telling her she should have that confidence.”
We used to say something similar about you.
“Ha. Well, I’m still not that confident! I’m good at giving advice … just not taking it.”
This may be a bit close to the bone, but I’d see you in that big overcoat on stage, however warm the conditions, and think there’s a guy trying to hide.
“That’s totally right. That’s exactly what I was doing. I can’t do that anymore. Nah, I’ll be more apparent this time. No big jackets, hats, or anything like that. I think it’s time to man up at last … maybe!”
Sticking with ‘When I’m Gone’, Phil goes to town with his guitar on that track.
“Yeah, Phil’s a really good guitarist, and now and again there’s certainly room to rock out. If you want to have a bit of a guitar hero moment – why not!”
‘Please Yourself’ seems to show your ‘70s roots and arguably carries traces of Nick Lowe – and maybe there’s a nod to Basher in the album title, its title close to his second-biggest solo hit – meets Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon. I can imagine that coming from a transistor radio back on a long-forgotten sunny, summer’s day.
“Yeah, it is a bit like that, going back to your schooldays, and perhaps not worrying what people think you should do, maybe just trust yourself a bit more.”
Has it taken you a long time to come around to that way of thinking – building that confidence?
“Well, yeah. Sometimes you want to please people, don’t you, rather than make them mad at you. But ultimately, you’ve got to look after yourself, as long as you’re not hurting anyone or doing anything bad.”
That seems to be a big issue with you. Surely it would be an easier option to keep on out there on that kind of Lost ’90s circuit in a way, playing the old hits and that alone.
“That was The South, basically. I could have continued with that, and be talking about all that with you now, but I just feel I’ve done enough of that.
“If I was going to get my energy and my mojo back, I had to do something where new songs were involved, take a different approach, working with different people and freshening things up.
“Hopefully I can now continue to do that. After this album, once we’ve finally got this one out there and can play it in front of people.”
Going full circle, back to that final track, ‘Stars Still Shine’, I was going to mention how that and track 10, ‘Big Moneymaker’, are among those with more of a country feel, albeit in the latter case more alt-country in the manner of Emmylou Harris or maybe Alison Krauss with Robert Plant.
“It has got that sort of feel to it. But again, the lyrics are more appropriate for these times. As a band we’ve got so many tastes in music, and that comes across in different songs on this album.
“But we’re always going to have aspects of past incarnations of bands we’ve been in, as it’s still my vocals and these are still songs that tend towards pop.”
And that’s something to celebrate, in the manner of the chorus of ‘Gene Kelly’, where Hammy tells us:
“I don’t mind, I really don’t mind; let it rain, let it rain on this godforsaken town;
I don’t mind, I really don’t mind; tonight for one night only, I’m Gene Kelly dancing in the rain.”
For details of how to pre-order the Sunbirds’ debut album, Cool To Be Kind, head to the band’s website at https://sunbirds.co.uk/store/. You can also keep in touch on social media via https://www.facebook.com/sunbirds.co.uk/ https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/sunbirdsband/ and https://twitter.com/SunbirdsMusic