Phil Odgers was working with bandmate Paul Simmonds over the bank holiday weekend, the pair back on track after a difficult year following the devastating loss of The Men They Couldn’t Hang co-frontman Stefan Cush to a heart attack in February 2021.
Phil, best known to fans as Swill, and Paul had an Easter ‘songwriting get-together’, my interviewee telling me they were working on tracks for the band’s next album, the band deciding late last year that carrying on was the right thing to do.
Before we spoke, I re-immersed myself in Phil’s latest solo LP, Ghosts of Rock’n’Roll, a cracking record that deserves all the critical praise garnered upon it so far … and more.
And I was reminded through an online interview with Phil from six months ago (by Dave Jennings for Louder Than War, linked below) marking that release, that while he remains busy with his solo venture, the band were honouring prior bookings, in what turned out a cathartic experience for fans and group alike.
“Yeah, obviously with Cush, it was a total shock, and right in the middle of lockdown. The gigs we ended up doing at the end of last year and beginning of this year had been moved around so many times – postponed, rescheduled, and rescheduled again and again – and we never thought in our wildest imaginations that Cush wouldn’t be here to do them.
“We had to think about what we were going to do, and thought we’d honour the commitments we had, doing those gigs as a way of … well, for a lot of people there, it was their first time out at a gig in two years, so people hadn’t even had a chance to get together, and this was a chance for everyone to do that.
“We always talk a lot anyway, but if we could talk about things over the mic. and people could talk to us at the bar or wherever … and certainly by the second or third gig it was quite clear to us that the right thing to do would be to continue.”
It’s always been a loyal fanbase, and Phil mentioned how it’s expanded, 38 years beyond the release of ‘The Green Fields of France’, their debut single on Elvis Costello’s Imp Records, and the first of their three John Peel sessions.
“With those people that come to see us, not only have a lot of those grown up with the band, there from the beginning, but there are also people coming who are bringing the next generation, and their children aren’t children anymore.
“So many times, I hear stories now of younger people who got into us because their parents would listen in the car. They kind of had no choice. In those days, you didn’t have Bluetooth, and kids couldn’t overtake car stereos with their phones. Ha!”
I guess those rearranged dates gave you all a chance to properly grieve for Cush.
“Totally. And, especially with the first few gigs, there would be times when pretty much all of us at one point or another during the gig would be extremely emotional. Also, I’m the one who’s got a microphone in front of me, and there were bits where you had to just compose yourself and bring yourself together. There’s no point you just standing there, blubbing!”
I still struggle to comprehend Cush is no longer with us, let alone the band. But I’m pleased I got to see them all again in Preston in late 2018 (with my review here). And the Cock-a-Hoop LP was a great one for him to go out on, not least the songs he contributed, including the wondrous ‘Salutations’ and ‘Pone’.
And Cush and Swill were always a great double act as frontmen, forever covering for each other.
“I think I said, last time we spoke, that for Cush and myself, because we’d done it for so long, it was almost a case of knowing what the other was thinking, being able to step in immediately if the other one … I think sometimes I knew before Cush if he was going to make a mistake or get distracted, and vice versa, after such a long time working together like that, singing together, sharing all those experiences.
“Also, there’s the sound, with those two vocals, so what we did there and what we plan on doing going forward is that everyone’s singing, so I’m pretty much singing everything, with one or two songs where others are, but we’re all singing the choruses.
“And it’s surprising. Ricky (McGuire), the bass player, had never sung anything with the band, so we were quite shocked what a nice voice he’s got!”
Clearly, it’s been a cathartic experience, and I also gather you’re all helping out with a biography of the band, no doubt giving further opportunities to reflect.
“Yeah, in the sense of the cathartic thing, absolutely it has. It’s impossible not to. We’ve been trying not to write an album that dwells on Covid, because everybody went through that. The thing for us was Cush, and there’s one song that’s completely about him, and his memory is in those songs. It’s not a case of getting it out of your system, but …”
It can’t be forced. Those reflections may take a long time to emerge. As you’ve said yourself, you were such a huge part of each other’s lives.
“Yeah, and what makes it different about the Covid aspect is that we’ve all been through deaths in our lives. I lost my father, and lost my mum when I was young, but this happened during a time where you couldn’t go to funerals, and I really understand that word closure now. With Cush’s burial, we had to drive four hours to South Wales, have the funeral then drive back again. You couldn’t go to anyone’s house or get-together. But it was very important to sort of see him put in the ground and bring it home to you that it was real.
“Also, genuinely, I’ve felt his presence on stage at gigs. We all have, we’ve all felt that, and we bring his guitar with us now, have that on stage.”
The book is being compiled by Aaron Chapman, a Canadian writer previously known for publications about Vancouver’s former gangster and club scene, his work mostly Canada-centric. But he’s a long-time fan.
“Yes, to the extent that he couldn’t come into our gig when we played Toronto the first time because he was too young to get in. But he’d followed the band from a distance, and we’ve got to know him. We’ve been talking about it for a couple of years, and now it’s started, using Facebook as a platform to get stories. And we do interviews with him every now and then … telling our different versions of the same events!”
I guess it helps that he’s not too close to the band’s inner circle, therefore – in theory – able to get a clearer perspective on it all.
“Yeah, and if any one of us was to write our own book you’d just get that one point of view. Also, he’s connecting with people we’ve worked with in the past, other musicians, venue owners, DJs, producers, fans, and so on, so there’ll be all these different stories, some of them we won’t even know about … and hopefully they won’t be too awful. Ha!”
Incidentally, Phil also revealed that he’s working on a second songbook – or ‘more than just a songbook’, as he put it.
“Everybody thought during lockdown they’d have this extra time. I don’t know where the time went!”
True. I think I just started more writing projects … mostly unfinished.
“That’s what I did! I started a lot of projects and talked about a lot of projects with other people!”
Despite all the sadness and difficulties, the pandemic proved a relatively creative period for Phil, off the road and out of the studio, a full household at his West London family home ultimately leading to him demolishing a ‘damp old shed full of junk in the backyard’ and building a recording room – ‘my space’, as he put it – where his weekend session with Paul took place.
“What I hope is that I can go in there, shut the door, and most importantly, I’ve got a mic set up, so when I get that idea in the middle of the night, I can go in there with a guitar … and hopefully it will sound all right the next day!”
I guess – like many more of us – you’ve lost a few of those ideas down the years, those that might come to you on a dog-walk, for instance, struggling to keep them in your head until you get home and write it all down or sing into a device.
“Definitely, sometimes I’ve jotted down song ideas on my phone, put it on loop and walked around with one earphone in to get ideas. Other times I’ll get an idea and I’ll have to stop, get my phone out and hum it into my phone for when I get home. I don’t know what the dog thinks about it! He doesn’t mind when he wants to stop, sniff around and all that, but when it’s me, it’s a different story!”
That’s Monty he’s talking about, the first few minutes of our conversation taken up by updates on our respective rescue dogs, in his case ‘a total mongrel who a lot of people think is a Patterdale Terrier’.
“That’s what he looks like, but he’s from Romania. We tried Battersea Dogs’ home for a long time, but we have two cats and it’s not that easy – some of those dogs have particular issues where they’ll need a more experienced owner. So we have Monty, our Romanian refugee.”
Phil and his family live in the borough of Ealing, with ‘lots of green space’ nearby, but also plenty of ‘wild foxes and rabbits, and that sets him off!’. And yet he’s less than seven miles from Shepherd’s Bush, where he first met Cush in the early ‘80s and The Men They Couldn’t Hang took shape.
Back on the subject of Ghosts of Rock’n’Roll, there’s been a pleasing reaction.
“It’s been amazing. And I’m still getting good feedback. I was surprised how well it went down, and the folk chart position. I got a message saying it looked like it was going to chart, and could I send them a bio and a video if I had one. And then it went in at No.5, and I just couldn’t believe it went that high. And with the vinyl …”
Those ongoing delays at pressing plants have become a major issue, leading to disruption regarding dates when vinyl LPs were expected to be released. But finally it seems it’s set to happen in Phil’s case, in time for Record Store Day on June 18th, that version including a couple of tracks not on the CD.
One of many tracks from the album that jumped out at me straight away was his duet with The Long Ryders’ Sid Griffin on Phil Ochs cover, ‘Flower Lady’. Had Swill and Sid known each other a while?
“Yeah, first I think it was us doing the same festivals in mainland Europe, then – especially both living in London – we’d bump into each other at venues like the Mean Fiddler. And I’m a big fan, listening to The Long Ryders but also The Coal Porters, and all that.
“With Phil Ochs, I’d been compared to him over the years, time to time, in my style and some of my songwriting approach, kind of got curious about him, started listening properly, bought a biography about him and got quite obsessed, extremely interested in his life. I’m surprised they haven’t done a film about him. You know, the fact that he was always there, and had people like Bob Dylan looking up to him. He never quite got the recognition he deserved, and had a very troubled life. I got very interested in the idea of doing one of his songs, and decided on ‘Flower Lady’.”
A great choice, and you blend so well with Sid on that version.
“Yeah, and it was so good for Sid to come in, do his stuff, in that short gap during lockdown where you could get together again. And the album was recorded in four or five days. Sid was amazing. He then put bits of harmonica on other stuff, and we just had a laugh. He’s a real gent, the epitome of the American gent, so well-mannered.”
Among the other tracks I love is ‘Early Morning Rain’, which for me has a Jimmy Webb feel.
“I had a couple of Gordon Lightfoot albums, and he wrote that. He’s one of those artists where you get an album, and you know there’ll be three brilliant tracks on there. Like Stan Rogers, if you know him, the guy who wrote ‘Barrett’s Privateers’. But I heard ‘Early Morning Rain’, thought, ‘What a great song!’, and decided to do it. Billy Bragg did a version, not long ago, and when I found out I wavered, but then thought, ‘No, I really want to do this’.”
You’ve definitely made it your own, although there is that Jimmy Webb writing for Glen Campbell thing going on for me. But I suppose that’s not 100 times removed from where you’re at.
“No, and I often find little Glenn Campbell influences coming in, in lyrical ideas or the way of singing a line or playing a bit of a song. I am a fan.”
Thinking forward to your upcoming live shows supporting previous WriteWyattUK interviewee Ian Prowse, do you go back a long way?
“It’s pretty recent, another of those where I’m really surprised we didn’t cross each other or work together before. We did a gig in London a couple of weeks ago, were chatting away in the dressing room, and have lots of people we know in common, and had been on the same label at one point. Often when you go to a new label, they give you a ton of their other artists’ stuff, but I never had any Pele or Amsterdam or Ian Prowse records until recently. And I’d never seen him live.”
Was it his support slots with Elvis Costello that turned you on to his music?
“No, we were both doing online lockdown sessions and had a core of people tuning into mine and his, like a cross-pollination, getting comments from both sides. And he did a version of ‘The Green Fields of France’. Fans on my page were saying I should check out Ian’s page, and his fans the same thing, so we got chatting online, I sent him a copy of my album, and he liked that.
“He was still working on his at the time. The first time we met was playing together in London. I’m also doing one in Liverpool, but get a feeling there will be other things. Our influences are the same … and we’re politically aligned.”
What’s more, (ahem) the day after the Liverpool show (Saturday, May 7th, with details here), Phil’s doing a Sunday session, broadcast live on stage in Nottingham, at a venue called Foreman’s Bar.
That recent London show included Phil and Ian joining forces on a cover of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. And seeing as Phil’s worked in the past with, for example, Eliza Carthy and more recently Sid Griffin, maybe there’s a duets LP coming someday, I suggested.
“I would think about doing something like that. That’s in the back of my mind. I’d like to do some more stuff with other people.”
But in the meantime, he’s busy with Paul again.
“Yeah, we spent Saturday working on seven songs or so. We’ve already been in the studio as a full band and recorded one new song for the album, and we’re going again at the end of May, planning to go in several times over the next few months, record one track with a full band for the album, and then we’ll do three tracks that would be the equivalent of B-sides, if you like, a bit more basic.
“Also, Tom (Spencer, lead guitar) came round and listened … and then we got quite drunk. Ha!”
As for Cush, after all those years I guess he’s never far from your thoughts.
“Oh, yeah, and as life gets more closer to ‘normal’, you’re constantly reminded of places you’ve been and things you’ve done.
“Because this book idea was coming up, and The Men They Couldn’t Hang were planning a new album and we were talking about an acoustic album, we had a Zoom get-together, the first we’d had … and it was four days after that when I got the call. We just couldn’t believe it.
“Again, because of lockdown it was as if someone was in Australia had gone. If that had been the case before, we’d have just gone out and got together, gone round and seen everyone … but you just couldn’t do it.”
It was a friendship and working relationship lasting almost 40 years, for a band of brothers who met ‘Right Time, Right Place, Right Song’.
“We met in this mental kind of flat we lived at in Shepherd’s Bush, round about the time that The Young Ones was on the telly. That was very much like where we lived! He was a friend of some people living next door, we all got on really well and just decided …
“I was reading an article this morning about bands on the dole and so on, how that was a real kind of inspiration. The article was almost saying if you weren’t a band on the dole, you weren’t really a band! We were all on the dole but didn’t have a band, but found busking a good way to supplement our dole money.”
Was Cush already roadie-ing for The Pogues then?
“Sort of. It all happened so quickly. I don’t know if he was doing it when we first met, but that whole thing exploded so quickly that by the time we were busking he’d been doing gigs with The Pogues, and within the space of just a couple of months or so we went to do our first gig, then we were doing gigs with Elvis Costello, being signed by him. It was all incredibly fast, with no major record company interest. It happened so quickly that it was its own little scene.”
For this website’s previous Phil Odgers feature/interview, from 2018, head here. For details of Phil’s Ghosts of Rock’n’Roll, other solo releases and merchandise go to https://philodgers.bandcamp.com/. For all the latest on The Men They Couldn’t Hang, their back catalogue and future dates, head to https://www.tmtch.co.uk/. And for Dave Jennings’ piece with Swill from last October, head here.