Over the Birling Gap with The Catenary Wires – the Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey interview

Clifftop Pop: The Catenary Wires’ Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher at Birling Gap. Photo: Beryl Pursey

It was meant to be. The day we spoke, May 24, opening with me listening to Tallulah by The Go-Betweens, that 1987 taste of striped sunlight including a namecheck for that date on the evocative ‘Bye Bye Pride’.

And 1987 also happened to be the year I saw Amelia Fletcher’s breakthrough band Talulah Gosh support The Wedding Present at the University of London Union. Does she remember much about that mid-May night?

“I remember it being quite good. I think they gave us Smarties in the dressing room, to make us feel really cute.”

“Bit patronising!”

“I know!”

That second voice belongs to Rob Pursey, Amelia’s partner, fleetingly part of Talulah Gosh and going on to feature alongside her in Heavenly, Marine Research – all three recording sessions for legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel – plus Tender Trap, as well as more recent additions to the music CV like Sportique. Not as if Rob stuck around too long with the former outfit.

“I left Talulah Gosh after the first three gigs. All the Smarties stuff never really happened for me. I went back to Bristol, Chris (Scott) taking over on bass. I was on the first demo but not any records. You’d never know I was there.

“Back in Bristol I played in The Five Year Plan, a band I started when I was really young. We didn’t really get very far. We did a single and got on to Peel once. I think the idea was we would do more, but it didn’t work out. I went back to live in Oxford … then Heavenly started.”

At this point, Amelia interjects.

“Although there is now a Five Year Plan album coming out. They finally pooled all their songs, however many years later.”

“Yeah, the songs were really good. I’ve listened again recently. But they never got properly recorded. We had no money, and messed things up. Tim (Rippington, later with Bristol lo-fi pop outfit Beatnik Filmstars), the singer, is now capable of recording stuff and started putting it all together. I’ve been playing the basslines.”

In fact, there’s an interview with Dave Squire about The Five Year Plan and predecessors The Inane, linked here. Did the ‘not making it big’ aspect sharpen Rob’s resolve to try again, seeing the comparative success Talulah Gosh managed after he left, thinking perhaps he should have stuck at it?

Wires Guys: The Catenary Wires shape up at their local disco under the mirrorball. Clockwise from the top left – Amelia Fletcher, Andy Lewis, Fay Hallam, Rob Pursey, Ian Button. Photo collage: Ed Mazzucco.

“No, being in Talulah Gosh was a bit of a nightmare, really … but being in Heavenly was really good fun. Talulah Gosh was all a bit helium-filled, going from nothing to being too much, quite quickly.”

It’s odd when you’re doing a Zoom interview with two people. I look to the right of my screen – Rob’s left – and get the feeling Amelia might want to add her own explanation of a band all too easily dismissed by music journalists back then as ‘twee’.

“I don’t know if you saw the piece in Mojo that’s just come out. They wanted to do one of those ‘hello and goodbye’ things. I had to check out the dates of when I met Liz (Elizabeth Price), and when the first and last gigs were, and the time between meeting Liz, inviting her to being in a band and our first gig was around three and a half months. And that gig got loads of people watching us and got us on to page three of NME. It was remarkably quick, the whole thing somewhat insane.”

Talulah Gosh formed in 1986 when Amelia (vocals, guitar, principal songwriter) and Liz (vocals), both wearing Pastels badges, met at a club in Oxford, the original line-up also including Amelia’s younger brother Mathew Fletcher (drums), Peter Momtchiloff (lead guitar), and Rob (then Chris).

And it was near full circle for me catching Amelia and Rob – ‘still in love with making pop songs with complex messages’ – at The Continental, Preston, 30 years later, supporting The Wedding Present again in 2017 in their current guise as The Catenary Wires.

I wrote at the time, ‘Rob sat down and played guitar, Amelia sang and added apologetic ukulele, and they sang about their love, Margate Pier, and much more. There was a brief mention of past times and My Favourite Dress too, although Amelia was just remarking on what she was wearing’.

For many of us who rode that second half of the ‘80s indie wave, Amelia is perhaps better known for her distinctive vocals with The Wedding Present, not least on seminal debut LP, George Best, another 1987 landmark.

She also guested for Hefner, and toured with and was guest vocalist for South Wales indie darlings The Pooh Sticks (more of whom later), while also contributing to tracks for The 6ths, The Hit Parade, and Bristol’s The Brilliant Corners, as well as playing keyboards for Sportique.

But it’s The Catenary Wires I’m really here to talk about here. I was a little late to the party, but have caught up since, and on the morning of our interview returned to their first two LPs before a sneak preview of the new one. And there’s definitely evolution there, I suggested to them. The songcraft was always apparent, but what was rather sparse on album one has moved up to a rather full-blown affair by the third, complete with some wonderful multi-harmonies.

These days, Amelia and Rob are joined by Paul Weller’s former bass player Andy Lewis, also an acclaimed producer; keyboard player Fay Hallam, who made her name in Makin’ Time, a solo artist and revered Hammond organ player; and drummer Ian Button (Thrashing Doves, Death in Vegas), who also features – with Andy – in Pete Astor’s band.

While their sound is arguably far richer on this new record, what hasn’t left Amelia and Rob is their grasp of the art of songwriting, even if this is very much a band record as opposed to a two-piece affair like their debut record six years ago.

Rob: “Yeah, I think we were lucky with the people we’ve ended up working with. When you saw us, it was just the two of us …”

And that worked too, I should add.

Rob: “I think we got away with it in the bigger places. In Preston, it felt a bit intimidating because we were quite quiet, although people, remarkably, did seem to shut up and listen mostly.”

That’s rather typical of today’s Wedding Present audience, I’d say, as also seen with the warmth afforded fellow support acts such as fellow WriteWyattUK interviewee Vinny Peculiar. Anyway, carry on, Rob.

“I think we were a bit non-committed about whether we were a band or not, but then Andy (Lewis), who plays bass and produced the second and third albums, liked it. He’s an amazing bassist, Ian (Button) is an incredible drummer who lives down the road, and Fay (Hallam), who we knew of through Makin’ Time … turns out was an incredibly near neighbour. Andy produced her record, and she also ended up in the band, so we ended up with this incredible set of people – all much better musicians than us!”

Funnily enough, the interview I did last week, which I should really have put up online today until I was distracted by your new LP and putting some questions together …

Amelia: “Sorry!”

… was with Andy Strickland, centred around a new Cherry Red compilation featuring The Loft. So you could argue that I’ve gone from one branch of indie pop royalty to another …

Amelia: “Well, Andy and Ian these days also play with Pete Astor.”

I was going to say that, as Pete mentioned when we spoke last year, when you were both doing linked online lockdown gigs in lieu of the real thing, your plans to tour together scuppered by pandemic restrictions. In fact, I’d lost sight of Andy Lewis’ moves since his days with Paul Weller. Who got Andy and Ian on board first – you or Pete?

Rob: “I think probably us, as a producer. He saw us play as a duo in Paris. He was with Spearmint, who we did dates with on and off. Talking to him, we thought, ‘This guy, we could work with him’. He said he’d turn up at our place, plug in and do it.

“That’s how we met, and there was a really strange coincidence. Asking for directions, we told him he’d have never heard of this tiny village where we live, Rolvenden Layne. We said it’s near Tenterden, Kent. Turned out he’d been there, as Fay lived 300 yards away. And we never knew. Wish we had, but we’ve since became mates and she’s joined the band, so it did seem like fate, meeting our neighbour through Andy!”

Iconic, Ironic: Amelia Fletcher atop Birling Gap, on East Sussex’s chalky cliffs, waiting for the band to show

Rob was studying English at Oxford when he met Amelia, helping put together Talulah Gosh towards the end of his degree course.

“I ran out of grant money, so ended up going back. But I didn’t know what to do with my life, so ended up going back to Oxford to do a PhD. While Heavenly was going on, I was supposedly writing an English literature thesis.”

Amelia: “I came from a little village near Oxford and went to school there, but by the time I met Rob, I was also at university. When I was a first year, he was a third year, and when I finished, we started Heavenly. I was like, ‘How do we keep this going without getting a job and ruining it all?’ So I did a PhD as well, so we could do music.”

All these years on, there are obviously day jobs to support your music. It doesn’t pay the mortgage, right?

Amelia: “Certainly not.”

Rob: “I worked in TV for a long time, running a production company. While we were doing Marine Research and Tender Trap, I was making TV drama. But maybe because we’ve only ever done it for the love of it, that’s perhaps why we’ve never stopped. There’s never any contractual obligation to write a song.

“Having said that, I take it more seriously now than pretty much since I was in The Five Year Plan in Bristol. When you’ve that passion … I’m really into it now, maybe because I’m writing songs, which I never used to.”

That shows in the finished product, and doing it for the love of it rather than chasing contracts, chart places, riches and world success is something I hear so much these days from my interviewees, irrespective of varying degrees of past success in the business, most of them now doing it on their own terms for all the right reasons.

Rob: “It is purely for the fun of it. When we started The Catenary Wires, we felt we’d moved to the middle of nowhere. There was no scene, we just had a little acoustic guitar lying around, and were idly playing tunes by the fireside to keep ourselves company. Then things started to happen again.

“This time around – maybe because I gave up my job a couple of years ago so had more time to concentrate on writing songs – we thought we’d start a label as well, something we always wanted to do and that we talked about when we first met. And doing a label is exciting because of the range – digitally or on vinyl, there’s so much scope for getting music out there.”

Furthermore, it seems that one band has never been enough for either of you.

Mind the Gap: Rob Pursey, of the Kent & East Sussex Home Guard, on a recce from Walmington-on-Sea

Rob: “I think lockdown’s a bit to blame for that. There was another idea that was hanging around. I’d written a song clearly too punky for The Catenary Wires, and ages ago when Amelia was singing with The Pooh Sticks, I wondered if Hue (Williams, their vocalist) would like to do it. Years passed and I never did anything about it, but he was clearly as bored as we were when I sent it to him during lockdown! He sang it into his phone in a cupboard in his house in Wales, then we put it all together, and Swansea Sound was born.”

Which brings me on to the second focus of my interview. I’ve only heard two Swansea Sound tracks so far, but love ‘Indies of the World’ and ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’, I tell them.

Amelia: “Well, there’s now a whole album made!”

Rob: “That’s going to come out in November maybe.”

You seem to be vying with yourself to knock each band off the top of the charts.

Rob: “Knock ourselves out of the bottom of the charts, more like! Yeah, it feels very different. With The Catenary Wires, the songwriting’s very much the two of us, while with Swansea Sound they’re all my songs, and Amy’s been very kind to let me record them.”

Amelia: “And I quite like it because it seems I can add as many backing vocals as I like. Rob never says no, whereas in The Catenary Wires it’s, ‘Nah, that one’s not really any good’. Here, it’s anything goes!”

I should add that Amelia didn’t mention her own career path outside music, but she read economics at Oxford, going on to complete a D. Phil, various high-profile roles following, including that of chief economist and director of mergers at the Office of Fair Trading and a professorship at the University of East Anglia, Amelia awarded an OBE in 2014 and a CBE in 2020.

Then there’s Rob’s small screen work, including the MD’s position at Touchpaper Television, the executive producer of BBC drama series Being Human also writing and producing Coming Up, Single-Handed and The Vice, his script editing roles including those for The Bill, Inspector Morse, Sharpe, Kavanagh QC, and Goodnight, Mister Tom.

So now you know. But they were unlikely to tell me all that. And this from a couple who started out in a band that also included a 2012 Turner Prize winner (Elizabeth Price) and senior commissioning editor for Oxford University Press (Peter Momtchiloff).

Anyway, over the scope of three Catenary Wires albums, it’s not obvious where you went from a duo to a five-piece, even though this latest LP is so much richer and multifaceted. The one in the middle, Til the Morning, suggests you were always heading this way, and I wonder if this is what you were planning all along.

Amelia: “It’s just how we felt at the time of each record. I don’t think there was a grand plan. It’s interesting that you were talking about that Preston gig, as we talked to David Gedge (The Wedding Present frontman) there. He’d seen us for the first time, not knowing what to expect. It was Rico (La Rocca, Preston-based Tuff Life Boogie promoter) that booked us. But he was really taken with it.

“We said, ‘We’re really not sure what to do with this. We feel it needs more than just the two of us.’ He said it would be really good with more, but don’t ruin it by just going all-out rock – don’t just get a standard drummer and bassist, that will lose what’s precious about it. That was really good advice and we kept that in mind while building up the band. Even Ian, a really good, proper drummer – also in Swansea Sound – plays differently, very gently. He plays a suitcase, because it made less noise!”

Rob: “When we started out as the two of us, that was a good discipline. When there’s just guitar, the words and tunes have to be really good. And we still do that. Nearly all the songs on the new album we can still do as a duo – they pass that test, even if some have got a little elongated, because there was room for more. It’s easy when you practise and you’ve two-thirds of a song to say, ‘What shall we do in that bit? I’ll turn my guitar pedal on, go really loud for a bit, then go back to where we were’. I’m bored of all that. Noise is great, but …”

It’s interesting they mention David Gedge in that respect. For me, his side-project, Cinerama, was a band that seemed to get more guitar-driven with every LP, beyond their original more orchestrated, filmic roots, until it was pretty clear he’d more or less reconvened The Wedding Present in spirit. And I say that as someone who loves both bands.

Also, on at least a couple of your tracks this time, I suggested to my interviewees, that mix of great songcraft, melodic pop and darker moments puts The Catenary Wires somewhere between Belle and Sebastian, Cinerama and The Divine Comedy … which at least alphabetically I suppose they are.

Rob: “I can’t really argue with that. I hope it’s not self-conscious in a bad way, but that’s one thing I learned when we were recording the second album with Andy. He’s a really smart guy, a very good producer and also very articulate. When the songs weren’t quite finished, I’d say, ‘This one’s about this,’ and a lot of the songs are about England in one way or another. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could articulate what we’re saying about aspects of English people or English lives – without resorting to pastiche – but echoing some of those styles that would have been listened to by the people in the songs’.

“So we have something like ‘Canterbury Lanes’, about idealistic people who were part of the Canterbury scene of the early ‘70s and what went wrong for them … We live quite near, I got quite curious about it, and for the first time in my life I listened to Caravan, having already listened to Robert Wyatt a lot …”

No relation, by the way, although that was my Dad’s name.

“Ah, I love Robert Wyatt, but came to him via the ‘Shipbuilding’ route.”

Like many from our generation and beyond, perhaps.

“Yeah, it’s not really my kind of music, but I was really intrigued by the almost naive idealism that was there a long time before punk. Canterbury now is such a music-free city, so it’s amazing to think in a town once at the heart of a really interesting scene, there’s barely any gigs anymore. That’s quite sad.

“I suppose what I’m saying is we try to be more ambitious, making the lyrics and music fuse with each other rather than just be the background for each other.”

Regarding the lyrical aspect, there’s some spot-on imagery on this LP, not least the symbolic emphasis on Birling Gap, this crumbling, iconic English location on the South Coast used as a metaphor for our post-Brexit existence under a right-wing Government amid plenty of flag-waving nonsense. That’s my spin, anyway. In their words, ‘where steep chalk cliffs resist the rough seas of the English Channel’ and ‘where iconic images of England are created and re-created … A landscape beloved of patriots – the sturdy white cliffs standing proud and strong against the waves. It’s also a place where people, despondent and doomed, have thrown themselves off the cliffs.  It’s where The Cure shot the ‘Just Like Heaven’video. It’s where romantic lovers go for passionate storm-tossed assignations’.  

Rob: “There’s a song called ‘Three-Wheeled Car’ about a Brexit-supporting couple who’ve gone to look at the cliff and the sea to celebrate the splendid isolation of being English, but then (plot-spoiler) the car goes over the edge of the cliff, so it’s like a suicide pact.

“There’s also the irony that the reason those cliffs stay so white and are getting whiter is because the erosion is getting worse. The chalk gets cleaned every time a lump falls off and there’s a fresh face of chalk. The whiter and more English the cliffs become, the greater climate change is.”

Amelia: “Actually, when you were asking your question, I thought you were saying ‘crumbly and ironic, like you are!’”

Amid the pandemic and its dire consequences this past year and a half, there have been plenty of online lockdown engagements for The Catenary Wires, suggesting a continuing love of  performing, as seen in recent cracking filmed takes on Ramones’ ‘She’s the One’, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, The Mamas & The Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’, and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s ‘Lady Bird’. Any chance of them following Pete Astor’s You Made Me lead and releasing a covers LP?

Rob: “Maybe. I don’t know. The only reason that Velvet Underground song happened was that we’ve friends in North Kent, part of that Medway scene, having a virtual lock-in. It felt like being part of that gang really. We don’t have much musically in common, but it was nice being in a pub with them, and to be in the pub you’ve got to do a cover on the theme Kevin (Younger) – who runs it – dictates.

Amelia: “We have to come up with a song nobody else thought of.”

Rob: “‘Pale Blue Eyes’, for example, was because it was body parts!”

In a sense there was no huge surprise when you tackled ‘Lady Bird’. As early as Red Red Skies’ ‘The Records We Never Play’, you’ve sounded like a UK take on Nancy and Lee. So perhaps that influence was always there, fitting well with the way your voices blend.

Rob: “In a way that’s because I can only sing low. When we started, we were listening to a few things, and there aren’t that many good duets around. We also listened to ‘Jackson’ (covered by Nancy and Lee, but also Johnny Cash and June Carter). The way they do it can be really witty and quite moving. And Nancy and Lee are what we’d probably aspire to.”

In fact, as they put it, perhaps this is what ‘Nancy and Lee would have sounded like if they were still around, watching California become the home of digital giants and the scene of terrifying forest fires’.

You mentioned recently how in the early days it was all too easy for music writers to use terms like ‘twee’ to describe your past ventures, lazily dismissing so much, stressing that those ‘apparently sweet and fizzy’ songs ‘were always smarter and darker than they seemed, while the band were radically independent, and an influential part of the movement that became riot grrrl’. With that in mind, I wondered if The Catenary Wires’ debut LP, with its more stark, dark delivery, was a reaction to that – redressing the balance. As you say, ‘Indie pop comes of age’. There’s certainly a harder edge that wasn’t so obvious before.

Amelia: “I think that’s right. I also think with the first Catenary Wires album, lots of people who liked our earlier bands didn’t like it that much. I think the songwriting wasn’t that different – the aesthetic in terms of songwriting. It was so much sadder and introverted and contemplative (though), so lots of people who liked Heavenly-type songs were thinking, ‘What are they doing?’.

“That was quite useful in us letting people know we’re setting out our stall, doing something quite different. I think the new album’s more poppy, so in a way it’s more of a reversion, but it’s progress – quite different to what we were doing earlier.”

Rob: “I suppose it’s more political.”

Amelia: “Yeah, that’s true.”

Rob: “Because I write a lot of the songs, and in Heavenly …”

Amelia: “He staged a takeover, basically … Heavenly was my dictatorship. It’s all gone a bit democratic now!”

Rob: “And in the case of Swansea Sound, revenge is sweet! But what I liked about Heavenly’s songs was that they were really true about what it was like to be 20-something. When Amy wrote a song about date-rape and that. The romantic side was always undercut by a sense of what the truth might be like, and the risks of male/female relationships …

“But on this new record … we are the age we are, so I thought it should be as true about the experience of middle age as we were about being younger.”

As they would have it, ‘The tunes are vehicles for startlingly honest adult concerns: the fractured relationships, anxieties, passions and politics of people who live on an island that’s turning in on itself.’  

You’ve family of your own too. That must add extra perspective.

Rob: “Yeah, we’ve two kids, and also when we moved to the countryside we needed somewhere big enough to house my Mum and Amelia’s mum, so I suppose we’re quite typical of middle-age people, all under one roof. Amy’s mum passed away a few years ago, but we wanted to write about that, because I thought nobody writes about that. This is an attempt to express what it’s like when somebody’s in the waiting room really. She was quite ill for a long time, then there was a period where she was still with us but barely, so that little bleep in ‘Liminal’ is really the life support bleep.

“It’s an attempt to write songs that hopefully young people like as well but people our age will go, ‘Ah yeah, I get that.”

On a similar front, with regard to Matthew (their former bandmate and Amelia’s brother, who took his own life in 1996), I see you’ve recently shared some precious memories on social media. You lost him so young. Do certain songs put you back in the moment, and through your music are you keeping those memories with you?

Amelia: “That’s a really interesting question. It was funny doing that Ramones song, because I got his jacket (a leather jacket with a hand-painted Ramones band logo) out and wore it for the video. I’d never done that before. I wasn’t even sure it wasn’t going to fall apart!”

Is that right that he created sleeve art for Heavenly?

Amelia: “He did, and we’ve been going through those in lockdown, partly because we did a Heavenly singles album, going through all the boxes. There are so many pictures of him and we found all the sleeve art, with his writing on it – instructions for the printers.”

Rob: “When he died, Heavenly went off a cliff. We dealt with it but also hadn’t in a way, because we hadn’t listened to those songs and hadn’t looked at those pictures. We carried on doing music in a tentative way, and over the course of the past year through putting that singles album out and people seeming to like it, it made us look and listen to all that again. That was really nice … although obviously sad.

“Funnily enough, doing Swansea Sound, I think about him more. I think he would have liked that.”

Amelia: “He would have really liked that!”

Rob: “Because it’s noisy, and I loved playing with him because playing bass with his drums was really good fun – like running down a hill not being quite sure if you’re going to fall over before you reach the bottom! And there’s a bit of that spirit around now.”

Amelia: “It is interesting, that use of songwriting to get to deal with things. I think with Matthew, because it was so long ago, I would say with The Catenery Wires I don’t think we’ve written any songs about Matthew. But with Marine Research and Tender Trap, there were quite a lot of songs about him, and it was part of the grieving process. It really did help us think it all through.”

Rob: “Also, we were really young when he died, so you’re not really equipped … nobody’s really equipped to deal with the death of somebody that young. But when you’re older, you’re closer to death anyway, and also we had Amelia’s mum with us …”

And we also understand more about responsibility now, maybe, compared to teenage years.

Rob: “I do often think about what he would think about a song, or how he’d really like our kids, but never met them. So, you’re aware of a gap. And when we’re playing live, I’ll think about him – that’s where we had the most fun.”

As for the new record, there’s a ‘60s road movie feel in places, and you do those big songs justice through the full band treatment. It’s complex and epic in places, but never loses sight of the importance of the melodies. And from opening song, the stirring, sweeping ‘Face on the Rail Line’ – with a video link here, described as ‘a love song set in the now, but shot through with the anxiety and paranoia that we all feel, living at a time when we are constantly in contact, but rarely communicate the truth’ – the harmonies come at you, putting me in mind of Graham Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’ from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on. And perhaps teaching your children well is all we can do, with regard to what’s going on politically, environmentally and so on, extolling the virtues of the best things about this country.

Rob: “Yeah, living down here, you meet quite a lot of people who would have voted leave. And they’re nice people – I don’t think they’re idiots. They had their reasons, although some might regret it now. I also had lots of friends who were ardent remainers, and they were tone deaf – with no capability of hearing the voice of people who disagreed with them, falling into that trap of becoming complacent and patronising. And they haven’t come to terms with it all.”

Marine Research: With Rob, Amelia and Peter Momtchiloff joined by Cathy Rogers and John Stanley

You can probably count me among them. I certainly prefer a social media bubble around me, being surrounded by people who tend to think similarly, perhaps in denial about how this selfish, deceptive elite in charge ‘took control’.

Rob: “Yeah, we all do, but I was going to say if ‘Three-Wheeled Car’ is about a leave couple who basically signed a suicide pact – but at least it’s a British suicide pact! – ‘Alpine’ is about two middle-class people who like going on holiday together in Europe, remainers considering themselves sophisticated but get (spoiler alert, part two) trapped in ice, frozen in their own complacency. So I suppose I was trying to be equally ungenerous to both sides!”

‘Alpine’ is another great example of all that’s good about this 10-track long player. Beneath the layers of Andy Lewis’ spot-on production there’s that neat blend of conversational-style vocals again. It’s almost a Bond theme, but it’s part-John Barry, part-Burt Bacharach, dreamy yet somehow majestic too. And yet, at the same time, I could hear The Wedding Present cover this one.

I didn’t say that to them at the time though. Besides, Amelia had her own spin on it all.

“When you said, ‘extolling the virtues of the best things about this country’, I did think this album’s more of a depressing portrait of our country!”

True, but we can be patriots without the flag-waving, right? Maybe those of us who complain and march against all this do it because we love this country and don’t want it going to seed.

Rob: “Yeah, and I completely love it … and the thing about Birling Gap – it’s the most incredibly beautiful place.”

Meanwhile, your indie spirit lives on, as seen in starting your own label and making your own videos. Was there a link there to your previous day-job, Rob?

“Yeah, the reason I ended up in TV was because of Heavenly. For our first single, someone had to make a video – the new thing – and I said I’d do it. And when it got on the telly, I felt, ‘Wow, this is exciting’. That’s why I ended up thinking I’d try and get a job doing that. I tried to make videos for other bands, but couldn’t do it though – when you’re stuck in an editing suite with somebody else’s song for two days, unless you really like it, it drives you round the bend.”

This album depicts England, not just in its lyrics, but also in its music, the band having ‘listened to the songs and stories England has comforted itself with over the decades, and re-imagined them’, Rob and Amelia taking on ‘the personae of duetting couples from different moments in pop history’.

Take for example the afore-mentioned ‘Canterbury Lanes’, starring a pair of folk-rock musicians, ‘old now and worn down, but still aspiring to put their band back together, hoping to rekindle the idealistic flames of the 1970s’, their arrangement ‘hinting at the acoustic guitars and harmonies of those long-lost Canterbury Scene bands’. 

There’s definitely a ‘60s feel and pure singalong pop on ‘Always on my Mind’, its protagonists ‘rediscovering long-lost love almost by surprise, conjured up by an old photo in a pile of memorabilia’. That said, it’s as current as it is retro, caught somewhere between Sandie Shaw and Stereolab, with Andy adding Beatlesque bass. In short, it should be blaring out of transistor radios all summer … if we all still had one.

‘Be Jason to my Kylie’. ‘Sure, if you’ll be Wah! Heat to my Wylie’;

‘Yeah, I’m happy too. I wish we’d come here sooner’;

‘Yes, me too. But we were far too young then, far too cool’.’

And then there’s the wondrous ‘Mirror Ball’, delivered like the best moments of Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, made for radio; an unattached middle-aged couple finding unexpected love at a retro ‘80s disco (‘Lost in the maelstrom of commercial synth-pop, they find that, for the first time in their lives, those hackneyed expressions of love and desire actually do make emotional sense’).

While that ‘80s feel is there, there was something else in that song I struggled to place until it came to me … ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’ by Kent-born former Humble Pie and The Herd guitarist/singer-songwriter Peter Frampton. And I get the impression I’m not the first to mention that, right?

Rob: “I think it might have been Andy who mentioned that. Yeah, there’s an echo of it in there.”

Amelia: “But it wasn’t intended when we wrote it … as far as I know!”

If nothing else, you’ve dragged that melody kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Rob: “All I can say is I’m really pleased you’ve mentioned that and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. That makes me feel like we’ve achieved something. Those are not twee things!”

Amelia: “Rob was brought up in a little village called Frampton Cotterell, and of course there’s (big-selling mid-’70s Peter Frampton live LP) Frampton Comes Alive! Although perhaps Frampton Cotterell never actually came alive!”

Rob: “One of the biggest jokes for us for years was saying to each other, in this really boring village, ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’.”

Incidentally, Frampton Cotterell was not only namechecked by Rob’s Five Year Plan prototype The Inane’s The Only Fun in Frampton Cotterell download, but also Monty Python’s ‘North Minehead By-Election’ back in the day, starring John Cleese as rather familiar-looking National Bocialist candidate Adolph Hilter. But that’s clearly another story.

There’s plenty of quality throughout Birling Gap, not least on closing songs, ‘Like the Rain’ and ‘The Overview Effect’, the latter another with a Cinerama feel, blending timeless 60s pop sensibilities, described as ‘anxious love songs, set in a fragile world’. And while only a few listens in, I can tell this long player will remain on my playlist for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, there’s also the chance to catch Swansea Sound live when, all being well, they play the Preston Pop festival in August.

Rob: “Brilliant, yeah. I really hope that happens. That should be good fun.”

Tuff Life Boogie always come up with amazing bills, usually Peel-related.

Rob: “It looks fantastic. Fingers crossed it works out. Although it will be weird – that’ll be the first time Swansea Sound have actually met each other in person.”

Amelia: “We will have practised beforehand, but so far Ian and Hue have never met each other, despite being in the same band.”

How did you come up with that name, anyway? Surely it should be a half-and-half thing – part-South Walian, part-Kentish.

Rob: “It was Hue’s idea, and we thought it was good. I thought it was going to be a joke band rather than a proper one, so wanted to call it Tribute to The Pooh Sticks. I’m glad we didn’t – it wouldn’t have been fair on Steve (Gregory), whose band it was.

“Swansea Sound was a radio station, on September 1st last year taken over by this hideous corporate franchise, becoming Greatest Hits Radio. So it was really pleasing for us that the name and the logo were vacated as a result. But it obviously means something different to people in South Wales. And the next single we’re putting out is ‘Swansea Sound’, a sort of lament.”

There must be something about that approach. Wasn’t the single ‘Talulah Gosh’ (which featured in John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 1987) the fourth your first band released, Amelia? You do seem a little slow with your introductions.

Amelia: “That’s true! And the other thing about Swansea Sound having been a radio station is that on our page on Facebook, we quite often get emails from people wanting to announce local Swansea news!”

Maybe it’s time for a rebrand. Perhaps you could become Swansea Layne. It’s at least worthy of a rather psychedelic B-side.

Rob: “Ooh, I’ll tell Hue that.”

Behind You: Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher at Birling Gap, East Sussex, 2021. Photo: Beryl Pursey

Birling Gap is released on Skep Wax Records on Friday, June 18th, distributed internationally by Cargo. In the US, it will be on Shelflife Records, distributed by MVD. The album is available for pre-order now via good record stores and https://catenarywires.bandcamp.com. The LP is also set to feature on Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Party at 8pm on Monday, June 21st.

For the latest from The Catenary Wires, check out their websiteTwitter and Facebook pages, and head to www.skepwax.com. And for the latest from Swansea Sound, head to swanseasound.bandcamp.com

Furthermore, Bizarro Promotions has organised a short tour by The Catenary Wires, Pete Astor (The Loft/Weather Prophets) and European Sun (another Rob Pursey band project) for September, calling at: Friday 3rd – The Thunderbolt, Bristol; Saturday 4th – Amersham Arms, New Cross, London; Friday 10th – The Oast, Rainham; Saturday 11th – The Piper, St Leonards-on-Sea (tickets to be arranged); Sunday 12th (afternoon) – The Albert, Brighton; Friday 24th – Fusion Arts Centre, Oxford; Saturday 25th – The Tin Music & Arts, Coventry (without no European Sun).


About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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1 Response to Over the Birling Gap with The Catenary Wires – the Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey interview

  1. Pingback: Return of The It Girl: talking Sleeper & more with Louise Wener – yesterday, today and This Time Tomorrow | writewyattuk

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