Understanding The Ache of Being – keeping the borders open with The Amber List

I wouldn’t recommend it in every interview situation, but seeing as this Surrey ex-pat was outnumbered three to one on this occasion by a Lancashire outfit priding itself on its ‘indie, folky alternative stuff’, I went on the attack (being the best form of defence perhaps) for my first question.

You do realise, I put to them, that I hold you responsible for live music being in a coma right now? The Amber List topped the bill at two of my most recent of 450-plus shows in 40 years, and I’ve not got to see any more these past 15 months.

Mick: “Ha! Blame The Amber List! Actually, someone asked on Twitter the other day if this was the first ever band named after a covid restriction.”

To which they replied, for the record, ‘Thanks for asking, we’ve been around a lot longer than Covid restrictions (plus you don’t have to isolate for two weeks after coming to one of our gigs)’.

That’s Mick Shepherd (vocals, guitar, bass) talking, joined on this occasion by Tim Kelly (guitar, vocals, bass) and Simon Dewhurst (drums, percussion, vocals). Alas, there was no Tony Cornwell (guitars, bass, atmospheres, vocals, racket) this time. I’ve yet to receive his note of absence.

In fact, The Amber List story goes back to Spring 2017. But I guess they’re getting plenty of social media traffic lately on account of the Government’s red, amber and green watchlist rules for entering England, amid ongoing pandemic restrictions.

Simon: “Yeah, but our Google search is not doing so well at the minute. We used to be the first on everything, and now …”

It’s been two years since the release of their debut physical release, five-track EP ‘The Ever Present Elephant’. Before that, there were several others via digital platforms. And now there’s an LP on its way, The Ache of Being … and after several listens (my advance copy has had lots of traction at mine and in my car so far, and is already among my favourite LPs of the year) I can confirm it’s definitely been worth the wait.

That said, with the Johnson/delta variant (you decide) still causing concern regionally and nationwide, it’s not cast in stone that the band’s July 24th official album launch event in Preston will happen.

Mick: “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. We’re just pleased it can still go ahead as things stand. When we’ve been able to, we’ve been getting together acoustically, and the last couple of weeks or so we’ve been able to get back in the studio and plug the guitars in, which has been great.

“We tried rehearsing this way (via online video conferencing), but it just didn’t work. We then started sending each other bits of track backwards and forwards, but we’re better in a room together. That’s one thing we’ve learned. Technology’s great, but that first rehearsal again together as a band, we thought, ‘God, we’ve missed this!’.

They originally planned on a vinyl release, but as they chiefly rely on selling those recordings at live shows, they decided on a CD instead, its sleeve artwork designed by Nick Rhodes (Arctic Monkeys, Elbow, Fleet Foxes, The National, Queens of the Stone Age, The Flaming Lips).

The Ache of Being is a cracking album with several standout tracks, the subject matter ranging from global issues to those closer to home, from the murder of Jo Cox to fracking and mental fragility and vulnerability. And their determination to seek out different sound textures and ‘find the right instrumentation for each piece, exploring harmonies and rhythms’ along the way pays dividends.

But what’s not changed is how they chiefly sound, a technically adept four-piece ‘high on melodies and harmonies against a backdrop of driving guitars and rhythms’, suggesting shades of so many bands I love – from early REM and The Stars of Heaven to The Deep Season, Gene, The La’s and Shack, with some corking fretwork en route, reminiscent in places of, for instance, The Blue Aeroplanes and West coast outfits (that’s California rather than Lancashire) like The Byrds and The Long Ryders, recorded, as was the previous EP, at producer John Kettle’s TMP Studios in Pemberton, Wigan.

Mick: “John’s really beginning to get an understanding of our sound and everything, and is hugely experienced and great to be around in the studio. He doesn’t sit back and agree everything’s great. He’ll tell us when it’s not! He’s really been instrumental in the production side of this.”

That followed initial recording sessions with Matt Pennington at Yaeger Studios in Chorley, where The Amber List currently rehearse, having been based on Aqueduct Street, Preston, when I first interviewed Mick in 2019.

Mick: “Matt’s really good to work with as well. They’ve got a good set-up there. Our first rehearsal space was a more dilapidated building in Chorley, not a million miles from where we are now. But we did a gig at Yaeger for Chorley Live, met Sophie (Yaeger) and Matt there and hit it off, starting rehearsing and recording there for the ‘Dreams and Ideas’ single (released January 2020).”

Simon: “They approached us after the gig, said they really liked what we did, having had lots of cover bands on otherwise, telling us they were building this studio and did we want to come in and record. And it was a win-win for both of us.”   

I know something of Mick’s background from our last interview, in August 2019 (linked here), including his formative days with John Peel session band Big Red Bus (also covered on this website by an interview with Costa Rica-based Dave Spence in September 2015, linked here), who put out releases through Preston’s Action Records label. But who or what are Longhatpins?

Tim: “Yeah, that’s me – a solo project.”

With such a long name I expected more members.

Tim: “That’s just a rumour. All identities are mine.”

Mick: “Tim is the Long, the Hat and the Pins!”

You two had known each other a long time, I gather.

Tim: “Our parents lived very close in Penwortham, and we got to know each other through local bands really, in that post-punk era.

Mick: “It was a burgeoning scene them days in Penwortham – it seemed everyone was in a band. We must have all gone to a Velvet Underground gig or something … probably a youth club gig!”

How did Simon get involved?

Simon: “Well, bizarrely … I was in Big Red Bus with Mick, back in the day. I was the reserve goalie! The second drummer. My loveable cousin, Scrub (Roland Jones) was the original drummer but had some commitment thing going on and knew I was drumming with bands in Preston, so (asked) would I like to move into (or get on to, more likely) Big Red Bus? I knew Mick – he was teaching at the college where I was a student. A young teacher, I should add! I was involved for a couple of years.”

Mick: “Simon had a baptism of fire with Big Red Bus. He joined and the first thing we did was go to France, wasn’t it?”

Simon: “No, the first gig – in 1991 – was supporting The Saw Doctors at the Town and Country Club (Kentish Town, North London, rebranded The Forum soon after) over two sold-out nights, with a 2,500 capacity … after four days of rehearsals!”

Ah, there was a band with a committed following of homesick, ex-pat Irish fans. I recall the first time I saw them at the Fleadh in North London in June ’92, wondering if my mate and I were the only ones who didn’t know every line of every song.

Simon: “I also played the same venue about 15 years after in a band from London. Can’t remember who we supported now.”

Who was that band?

Simon: “Well, we got signed through one of these weird pre-production contracts, around the same time as Coldplay and Turin Brakes. All that was happening. It was good, but we never really made it out of the studio. We did two albums’ worth of material, and none of it saw the light of day. We got passed from one production company to another. We went to Island Records, they sold us to Atlantic … then it all fell apart. It was a horrible rock’n’roll story, very depressing at the time.”

You seem to have amassed a few similar ‘almost made it’ between you. Big Red Bus certainly had brushes with fame, stuck in the wings while bands they appeared on the same bills together – most notably The Stone Roses and The Boo Radleys (also signed to Action Records) – found fame. A case of always the bridesmaid …

Mick: “There was The Real People too. They were great. And The Saw Doctors were also a great bunch – good to hang around with. Anyway, after Simon’s first nights supporting them, we were off to Norway!”

Simon: “It was good fun. I was straight into it. I don’t know why Scrub decided not to go at the time. They were just riding the waves at that point.”

Tim: “And then, nearly 30 years later, history repeated itself!”

Simon: “Yeah, he phoned me up while I was at work, said, ‘Do you remember this conversation we had about 20 or so years ago, about me thinking of leaving a band? I’m thinking of doing it again’. It was exactly the same!”

Has this band provided you all with a new Iggy-like lust for life, or Tim Hardin-esque reason to believe? It certainly seems like you’re fired up, judging by this LP. And even on songs where it seems one of you wrote the song initially, I get the feeling you’re all very much involved – they’re true group compositions. You seem a proper band in that sense.

Tim: “Yeah, there’s very few that don’t become band collaborations.”

Mick: “Yeah, they definitely go through the mangle. Tim’s absolutely right. One of us will come up with an idea, and it then gets The Amber List treatment. And I’m really pleased you say it sounds like a proper band – that’s exactly what we want.”

Tim: “Better than a fake band!”

Mick: “And we’re doing it for the love of the music. There’s no pretence. We’ve been around long enough to get past all the fads and fashions in music. It’s beyond all that. It’s about creating something that’s lasting … and good.”

Simon: “I think the beauty is that we’ve all dabbled and been there before. We’re a bit more ‘eyes open’. When I joined, we sat down and discussed our aims and what we were trying to do with this. And we all came with the same viewpoint. We weren’t looking to get signed or become the biggest band in the world. It was always about the music and the songs, communicating that.”

At the same time, I get the impression that perceived lack of big-time ambition doesn’t mean for one minute you’d ever be happy just playing the pub circuit. I could never see you just doing covers.

Tim: “Oddly, that’s what people seem to want though. They want the familiar … or the appearance of the familiar. I remember an early pub gig in Chorley, a guy in front screaming, ‘Play something we know!’”

You’re not averse to the odd cover, mind. I remember a cracking take on Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘Seven Seas’ when I saw you at The Venue in Penwortham at Christmas 2019.

Mick: “Yeah, we did a Buzzcocks cover too, as Pete Shelley had just died – our little tribute, and did a radio session in the Lakes where they asked us to do a cover, and we did ‘Seven Seas’.”

Yet you made both of those sound like your own songs.

Mick: “And to be honest, we’re not short of songs. I think we’ve at least another album tucked away already. We’re prolific, and because we all write and bring ideas down to work on, it’s been a joy to get back together working, realising how important it is to us. 

“Also though, there’s a frustration there. We’ve an album to promote, which is great, but at the same time we want to get back in the recording studio, work on the next one.”

I get that. Has it been more about individual songs than group collaborations this time for that reason?

Tim: “It’s had to be, hasn’t it, with practises really sporadic, having to use the time we had to practise songs off the album rather than work on new material. But that’s fair enough – it’s all on the back-burner, waiting.”

Simon: “It’s all waiting in the wings for when we can get back in, play live again, get collaborating again. Someone asked today, about being in a band, do I write the songs. I said, ‘I’m in a band with three fantastic songwriters. I contribute – I don’t write the songs. Having four fantastic songwriters in a band is not going to happen – three’s plenty!” 

It may have worked well for you, as things stand, the LP launch happening barely a few days after the (delayed) proposed easing of social restrictions.

Mick: “It has worked out well for us. We’re looking forward to playing to people who know us, but it could also be an opportunity for those who just want to get out and see live music.”

Maybe even that fella in Chorley who wanted you to ‘play something we know’ will show up.

Mick: “And we’ll say, ‘What – off the EP?’” 

Initially, we were told, with regard to The Amber List, ‘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’. Is that still the case? Or have you moved on from there?

Tim: “Well … the scores have!”

Simon: “I was just going to say, the age has gone up!”

So you’re now out-performing England’s cricket team?

Tim: “Oh, aye!”

Mick: “Joking aside, the songs are about society and what’s happening out there, and if you like your folk – which me and Tim certainly do – a lot of those artists write about the here and now, and that for us is what The Ache of Being is all about. There are songs on there about Jo Cox, fracking and other things that have affected us all in recent times.”  

Tim: “And interestingly, we were actually post-Brexit, pre-Brexit, weren’t we?”

Mick: “Yes! We could change that to ‘post-lockdown urban folk indie blues’ now!”

With all the uncertainty at present, there are only a few dates in the diary at present, the LP launch set to be followed by a show at The Doghouse Music Bar in Ramsbottom (Friday, July 30th). There’s also a return to The Venue in Penwortham lined up in September, with plans for a few acoustic dates too, the band eager to get going again.

Mick: “We’re delighted at the prospect of getting back out there, playing again. And even just rehearsing again is a delight, getting together in a room and making some noise!”

The Amber List’s The Ache of Being LP launch show – pandemic surges dependent – takes place at The Boatyard venue at The Continental, Preston, Lancashire, on Saturday July 24th (doors 8pm), with tickets available via here. And for more details about the band, their physical and digital releases, and other live shows, head here and check out the band’s Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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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