Outside status, inside track – celebrating the continuing rise of Stone Foundation, with Neil Sheasby

For a fourth straight album release, Stone Foundation managed to score a top-40 hit last weekend, despite no major label backing, this eight-piece Midlands-based soul band entering the UK charts at No.27 with Outside Looking In, following similar success for the previous three long players they made at good friend and creative collaborator Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Surrey.

But while they again joined the big league, on the back of similar commercial as well as critical kudos with Street Rituals (2017, No.25), Everybody, Anyone (2018, No.30) and Is Love Enough? (2020, No.39), don’t go thinking it’s a case of ‘more of the same’. In fact, every time they move on somewhat, a fresh and creative approach to their craft keeping them up where they belong.

This, their 10th studio album (released as with those most recent LPs on 100 Percent Records), continues their rich vein of form. But it’s been hard graft all the way, co-founders Neil Jones (guitar, vocals) and Neil Sheasby (bass) at the heart of the band for 24 years now, chopping and changing as they go, building on – as their band name suggests – that solid base, for an ever-growing and incredibly loyal fanbase.

And Stone Foundation remain very much a band, this soulful collective priding itself on its collaborative spirit and inclusive approach, Outside Looking In remaining true to their manifesto.

Once again, the afore-mentioned Paul Weller was on hand for key vocal and instrumental touches, this LP also featuring a guest lead vocal from legendary disco diva Melba Moore (on ‘Now That You Want Me Back’, also a single) as well as equally important contributions from Sulene Fleming, Laville, Sheree Dubois and Graziella Affinita.

What’s more, they remain determined not to sit back on past successes, as some of the fresh approaches on this latest record suggest. As Sheas put it (I’ll call him that in print to avoid confusion with namesake bandmate, Jonesy), “When creating music, the goal is always to recreate the sound you’re imagining in your head. Sometimes it’s achievable, sometimes you fall short. With this record I believe it’s the closest we’ve come to realising what we set out to achieve.

“It was important to push ourselves, and not get caught up in a musical cul-de-sac of complacency. It had to sound fresh and a leap forward into uncharted territory. I think the songs reflect that.”

That they do, for what Jonesy reckons is ‘one of our most optimistic and uplifting records to date’, their frontman adding, “We’ve all experienced so many negative things over the past few years and it was really important for us whilst writing this record to not dwell on the past but instead look forward to the future and all the amazing possibilities that lie ahead for everyone.

“Musically and lyrically, it feels completely fresh and exciting, like a brand-new chapter in our ever-evolving story.”

The result? Another big step forward for an octet continuing to graft and make their own luck, and these days receiving more national airplay via the likes of BBC 6 Music and BBC Radio 2, as well as rave reviews from a range of publications, and plenty of love on the road from that fanbase. Incidentally, not long before I knocked this feature live, I read the latest of Sheas’ wonderful ‘Bass Notes’ on social media, and he wrote, ‘It feels a bit Duran Duran saying ‘fanbase’. I prefer ‘following’, although that makes us sound like a cult – which isn’t that far off the mark, I suppose’.

And yet, as the new LP title suggests, while now firmly established, establishment they are not, their underdog spirit remaining intact, as became clear from my latest chat with Sheas, first joking that I was surprised he even answered the phone to me, on the back of this latest chart success.

“Ah mate, none of that nonsense!”

I was lucky to catch him, Sheas with domestic duties while a couple of bandmates attended an in-store album launch show on the south coast, at Pie and Vinyl in Southsea, Jonesy and Dave Boraston (trumpet) stepping up, part of a week of in-store performances in association with record shops, another example of their work ethic behind the scenes, in keeping with that accountability to their supporters but also a way to help bolsters sales during the week of release, all registering towards those final chart positions.

And while they can clearly mix and match with regards to membership these days, if they need to, I’m still in awe, I told Sheas, at how all eight of them managed to fit on a comparatively tiny stage when I saw them live on my old patch at Boileroom in Guildford last autumn (with my review here), another stonking night for this great live act, which as well as the two Neils and Dave Boraston also involves Phil Ford on drums, Ian Arnold on keyboards, Rob Newton on percussion, Steve Trigg, also on trumpet, and Anthony Gaylard, saxophone.

“They are great fun, these events, but I couldn’t make this one. I had to take my lad to the airport for his holiday … and I play football on a Monday night.”

As for that chart success – the band also in at No.3 in the indie album chart and No.4 in the vinyl chart – how does it feel (as Noddy Holder and Jim Lea would put it)?

“The thing is, we’re not too hung up on chart positions. It’s a lovely thing, because you’re up against not just the download things like Adele, Elton John, Queen, or whatever, but … well, look at the companies, you’ve got Universal, Warner’s, Sony … and here we are, pretty much hand-to-mouth on a lovely little indie label. So it seems like a little victory.”

He knows this all the better from past days working in and managing record shops in the Midlands, albeit with that ‘80s and ‘90s world very different to how the music industry is now.

“It’s weird now, how the chart’s set up. Then, it was just new releases. But then they changed it to reflect what people were listening to, including downloads … so it could be Dark Side of the Moon in at No.10. But in the physical, new chart, if you look at new releases, we were actually No.6, if you take away everything released ages ago. It’s a real result for us and for the people that follow us. They’re part of it. It’s them that’s done it. We just put the records out!

“I thought this might be the difficult album, actually, because we changed tact a little bit, purposely, wanting to challenge ourselves, not knowing whether people would be on board with it … but it’s been received incredibly well.”

Quite right too, and I’ve enjoyed all their more recent albums, particularly since that Weller-backed era (and let’s face it, that’s when I became aware of them). And every time they’ve done something different, taking themselves into new, far from safe territory, somehow pulling it off.

“I think we have to. If we’re just resting on our laurels and it’s a case of, ‘Let’s just make another record with Paul Weller,’ we’d be doing ourselves a disservice. We have to challenge ourselves.”

Seeing the band were in the top 10 halfway through that first week, I did wonder if Ed Sheeran would release a couple of LPs a day later and they’d be down a few places. There was also the sad news about Taylor Hawkins, suggesting Foo Fighters would go on to bag all the top spots. But Stone Foundation were still in that top 30 a few days later. And what might have helped was an online message from Weller himself, saying he’d taken advantage of a special £4.99 digital download price for the record. In fact, he told them, in inimitable style,  ‘Good luck with the album, comrades. I’ve just had £4.99 worth. Fiver for an album? Fuck me, amazing! Anyway, I’ll be blasting it on our tour bus’.

As for Stone Foundation, their next full tour is set for autumn, with details being announced fairly soon, but there are opportunities to see them before, with a mini-tour about to get going, plus festival and outdoor dates lined up this summer.

But now, a bit more about the new LP, track by track with Sheas, starting with opening number, ‘Soon You’ll Return’. As a band, they’ve made a point of saying they’re all about looking forward rather than dwelling on the shit-show of the last few years – from politics to pandemic – but I get the feeling this opener provides a bridge, covering that move away from everything negative that’s happened in recent years. Am I anywhere on the money?

“No. Haha! It was written pre-pandemic, actually. But yeah, it was a song that was developing, and it soon became apparent that it fitted that sentiment. What I should make clear is that the first two songs, and really the bulk of this record, came out of a project me and Neil were asked to do, to go to America to write and produce an album for other voices.

“It was going to be at Al Green’s studio. We were due to go in April 2020, right when it all kicked off. So that was curtailed. It was looking like it may get rescheduled, then it became obvious this was going to be more than just a couple of months of unpleasantness and travelling restrictions, and it all got scrapped.

“So we had these songs. ‘Soon You’ll Return’ was one, (second track) ‘Turning Up the Hurt’ was another. We worked them up in a demo form with Phil and Ian, went back to the demos and thought, ‘These songs are decent. This could actually be our next record. Let’s go back, look at the arrangements and get back into these, even though the intention was going into this American session with Boo Mitchell, which would have been tremendous, but …”

Was that where Al Green recorded his classic Hi Records albums with the late great Willie Mitchell?

“Yes, Boo Mitchell is his son, and still runs it, in Memphis. Unfortunately, that project was scrapped. I don’t know if that will happen again or not, that moment’s passed. But we then had these tunes and it became apparent to us that those first two songs should almost be one, linked almost together at the start.

“While ‘Outside Looking In’ is not connected to them, there’s only six chords between those three songs. Very Ramones-esque! And we thought, ‘This really fits, this really works’. At first, we thought, ‘Maybe this needs a bridge’. But it doesn’t, because of the dynamic of the arrangement.”

Very true. And I hate to use the word smooth, so instead I’ll say it’s a soulful way into the record, and from my first listen I felt there was something of a Marvin Gaye feel, circa What’s Going On? Accordingly, I thought that’s where it’s going as an album. But as it turned out, you go elsewhere before finally coming back for ‘Somewhere a Voice’, the last track, which also has that opening vibe.

“Well, there you go. That was from the same sessions. But we just had it in our heads that it should start with a BV, so we knew we were going to ask Laville, Graziella and Sheree to do that at Paul’s gaff. We had them in for a day or so. We felt we should have that kind of haunted start with the voices. But when they actually did it, we were like, ‘Fucking hell, this is it! This is definitely it!’. And with ‘Somewhere a Voice’, funnily enough, when we set up the first day in Black Barn, and were soundchecking the tunes, we just warmed up, trying to get the sound for that song, played it, went back into the control room to listen, and went, ‘Fuck me, that’s the take! That’s it!’ So the first thing we played became the last track on the album!”

Earlier, I was going to put tongue firmly in cheek and mention your ‘overnight success’, knowing full well it’s taken almost a quarter of a century to get where you are. And its clear that you have this chemistry these days where you can do those kind of one-take tracks. Because you know what you want and how to go about doing it, having been together so long. Seamless moments borne out of some kind of intuition.

“I think that’s a credit to the band as well. Me and Neil, over the course of nearly 25 years, we’ve changed bands quite often because, you know, people have not quite been at the races for where we want to go next. But thankfully, we’ve found a line-up, as used for Street Rituals, so that’s been … five years? And it’s just worked. I’ve played with Phil for years, since we were kids. But the horn section as well, they just get it – they get the arrangements and where we’re going with all this. They just get it – bang on – where we want to move with it. So that’s a big part of it as well.”

So much of it threads together, from Ian’s keyboard touches to that solid bass and drums rhythm partnership with Phil. But there’s also a subtlety coming through now, not least with Jonesy’s voice, often underplayed here, and all the more powerful for that.

“I agree. He’s not in a rush to impress. It’s not OTT. I was really pleased with the way it all came out. It’s one album where the sound in your head that me and him have … We’re quite intuitive, in tune with each other, and get ideas, but to get that out and make it sound exactly like what you were trying to do is a difficult process. I was really pleased when we finished this record, sat back and listened, and said, ‘Do you know what – I think we’ve got this!’.

“Take (title track) ‘Outside Looking In’. People say it sounds like Talking Heads, and it does …

Well, that saves me mentioning that again!

“Thanks! But we set out to get a NYC vibe, like James Chance, thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make something a bit edgy like that’. You know, new wave, but funky. So it was more that than Talking Heads. But it come out that way and we thought that was quite ambitious, even though it’s fairly simple – again, just a two-chord progression. But it’s the way you play it, the way you execute it, playing these mad things in the studio!”

That includes that amazing breakdown towards the back end, which reminds me a little of your studio landlord, Mr Weller, when he’s in more experimental jazz-soul territory.

“Maybe. I hadn’t thought of that.”

While I’m handing out the plaudits, I was really impressed last time I caught your brass lads live. There are hints of Graham Parker’s The Rumour for me … a band I regret not seeing in their prime. And your trio come over so well on this LP,  again with touches of ‘less is more’ subtlety, like the sax on the opening song, and the mute trumpet on ‘Movin’ On’.

“Yeah, it works nice that, doesn’t it, that trade-off between the two of them. Again, that’s credit to them and their understanding of what we need. And it’s not just us and the brass section, you know. With the Graham Parker comparison, it’s a bit like that. It’s very much a band really, like The Rumour were.”

Onto ‘Now That You Want Me Back’. How did the link with Melba Moore come about? In this country, most people just know her for 1976 hit ‘This Is it’, while others will know of her from the Northern Soul scene. What made you think she’d be right for this?

“We always like to have at least one collaboration, because we like the idea of it, and that was the tune. When we finished it, we thought maybe this is the one to get a female voice on, a soul diva thing. I was more interested in her ‘80s records really. And she popped up on our Instagram timeline. We watched this footage of her singing, and she’s got this incredible voice still. She looks great as well, and a friend of ours knew her manager … who turned out to be her partner. So, as always, we just pitched in, and it was put to her that this English modern soul band had a song they’d put forward with consideration for Melba’s vocal. And when she heard it, she said, ‘I’m bowled over by it. This is great, it’s gonna work!’.

“Actually, when we first sent it to Melba, she said it was far too low for her register, so we had to take it up a few notches, having to re-record the guitar and keyboard parts. She was good enough to do the video as well, and it just worked.”

It sure does. Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but there was something else there that I was reminded of … and then I got it – a more soulful take on Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’, not least your bassline threading its way through.

“Really? Ah, okay. That’s a bit weird, but yeah. I love the sound of that record. I play it now and again. It’s one of the best sounding records, I reckon. And the bass on that is amazing.”

Perhaps it’s subconsciously written into your DNA somewhere.

“Maybe. An interesting comparison!”

‘I Need Your Love’ keeps that groove going, and then there’s another single, ‘Echoes of Joy’, where you’re almost into piano driven Balaeric beats, at least a Blow Monkeys take on that. That stemmed from me messing about in lockdown. My kids were about, and my middle son, Lowell, who’s into his music and was studying, he’d been in his room for days on end and I said, ‘Come on, let’s go for a walk, you’ve been ages playing your Xbox’, and he said, ‘I’m actually working out this (Apple) Logic program, recording. Do you want to hear something?’. He played me it, and I was like, ‘Fuck!’.

“We started messing around, recorded a few bits, just for fun, and that was one of the things I had the idea of, this ‘Echoes of Joy’ beat, this chorus going ‘round me head! I said, ‘Let me put this down!’ and we had a bit of a sample of piano, and he did the beat … as you’ll see on the credits for a few of the songs. And it started with that track.

“Neil then came up with the bridge, and it took on a life of its own. We demoed it up at our studio, then took it to the (Black) Barn. It’s just trial and error really.”

Back to ‘Movin’ On’, and there’s a Curtis Mayfield feel for me, and there’s a great example of Neil’s vocal being more understated, and how I really like that.

“Do you know, he did that vocal, we played it back in the Barn, put the big speakers up, and I turned to him and said, ‘Y’know what, mate, I think that’s your best vocal! I thought if Terry Callier was still alive, I think that would have been a perfect song for him. But I love Neil’s vocal.”

Then you move on again, with a Superbad ‘70s soul feel to Stylin’.

“Yeah, we had the riff first, then coloured it all in. I did the verse, Neil the chorus. A perfect example of how Neil and I work. I’ll say, I’ve got this bit, I’ve got the verse, he’ll say, ‘Okay, this will fit this’. And off he goes. We’ve always got melodies, and thankfully they glue together.”

Sulene Fleming features with a guest vocal. She’s been part of the set-up for a while now.

“Yeah, Neil met her through the Monk’s Road project (led by Dr Robert, of Blow Monkeys fame). She come on board to do some stuff with Is Love Enough? Wejust kept on, and it works. With that, we thought, ‘This is kind of like a Betty Davis thing. And who do we know who can pull that trick off? Okay, Sulene! On the deluxe version of the CD, there’s a hidden track, ‘Stylin’, Pt.2’, he really moves away on that one. That was fun to record.”

‘Feel the Colours’ is another departure. For me, there’s a ‘Digging Your Scene’ vibe. It’s a great pop song. It should be the next single.

“I think that’s the double-tracked sax. We went to record ‘Back to My Roots’ as a one-off a good while back, and on that session we recorded ‘Feel the Colours’, totally different. Initially it was a kind of ballad with piano. Paul played piano on it. But when we got home, we thought no, this isn’t right. Sounds a bit pedestrian. But we liked the song, thought let’s not discard it. That could have easily got chucked out of the sessions, but then we thought, ‘What if we do like a slow ‘Young Americans’ thing and double-track the sax? And it worked.”

That sax conjures up an ‘80s video played all over MTV, but there’s far more to it than that commercial appeal. Actually, it’s almost anthemic, perhaps more than anything else you’ve done. It’s potentially your biggest hit so far.

“You think? That’s Weller’s favourite, apparently, he texted to say ‘Feel the Colours’ is my favourite at the minute. So there you go. Maybe you should do the video then!” There’s a challenge. And then we have ‘Heaven Knows Why’. There’s a mid-‘80s feel to me, and I could hear that bursting out of a radio on a hot summer’s day. On that, you have Laville and Sheree Dubois guesting.

“Yeah, that was another destined for the US sessions they called back, we thought let’s look at this again … and I’m glad we did.”

And then ‘Reach Up Higher’, which leads to your ‘Somewhere a Voice’ finale, something else coming to mind there, shades of Anita Baker’s ‘Sweet Love’, again mid-‘80s.

“Oh right, yeah. I was probably listening a little to Dennis Edwards, that bassline kind of hints at that. Again, Neil came up with the hook and chorus, me and Lowell played around with it, getting that Soul II Soul feel. We took it to the band, and Phil said, ‘I think it should be like a Washington Go-go kind of beat, so that’s what that turned into. I added the verses, Neil the choruses, and Neil the other bit that to me sounded a bit like Minnie Ripperton.

“When we finished it, we thought it needed someone else to sing it. It was a bit high for Neil’s register. That’s why we brought the girls (Sheree Dubois and Graziella Affinito) and Laville in. Graziella works a lot with Laville, so he introduced us. And they were great.”

Well, congratulations all round, not just on the chart placing, but on another great record. It’s fair to say you’ve moved successfully on again, clearly not looking to play it safe and give us more of the same.

“Yeah, thank you, mate. It feels that way. It feels like it’s a step in a different direction. And we’ve started the next one already!”

And is your Birmingham O2 Academy finale rounding off your April mini-tour being treated as a celebration close to home ground?

“It’s always nice to play locally, and get a few local faces. And Arthur Tapp is a good promoter. He’s been promoting us since we started, including our previous bands. He’s been promoting gigs I’ve been involved with for 30 years, so definitely the 24 years of Stone Foundation.

“But we enjoy them all, Malc. We really do. We just enjoy playing.”

For this website’s 2017 feature/interview with Neil Sheasby, head here. For our 2020 feature/interview with Neil Jones, try here. Outside Looking In is available digitally and on a range of physical CD and vinyl formats. Meanwhile, the band’s mini-tour starts tonight at Newcastle Hoochie Coochie (Friday 8th), followed by Leicester Musician (Sunday 10th), Darlington Forum (Friday 15th), Stoke Sugarmill (Saturday 16th), Porthtowan Mount Pleasant Eco Park (Friday 22nd), and Birmingham O2 Academy (Friday 29th). For ticket details and all the latest from the band, check out their website here.

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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