You can’t measure a band’s success on chart positions alone, but three decades ago The Wonder Stuff were still on the crest of a mighty wave that had been building since the release of their 1988 debut LP, The Eight-Legged Groove Machine.
Four more top-20 albums followed before they called it a day in 1994 – 1989’s Hup (No.5) followed by their biggest, 1991’s Never Loved Elvis (No.3), with 1993’s Construction for the Modern Idiot (No.4) and footnote compilation If The Beatles Had Read Hunter…The Singles (No.8)also making the top 10.
As for those singles, Never Loved Elvis’ lead 45, ‘The Size of a Cow’ reached No.5 after five earlier top-40s, and six months later the band reached the chart summit in the company of comedian Vic Reeves, covering Tommy Roe’s late ‘60s hit ‘Dizzy’, at a time when it seemed neither Vic and sidekick Bob Mortimer nor the Stuffies could do any wrong, in arguably the last great wave of crossover homegrown indie rock before the world went Brit Pop.
It was 30 years ago, give or take a few months, that the ‘Welcome to the Cheap Seats’ EP also cracked the UK top-10, something the ‘On the Ropes’ EP the following autumn similarly achieved. For a while, this Midlands outfit took on the hit singles’ spirit of local-ish lads Slade for a while, not least at their commercial peak in ‘91 with Never Loved Elvis, recentlyreleased in multiple formats, this million-plus seller newly re-issued on vinyl by Universal Music as part of HMV’s centenary celebrations.
Due to the pandemic, The Wonder Stuff, formed in 1986 and going on to sell millions of albums worldwide before their initial break-up eight years later, then reconvening in 2000, have been unable to tour since a sell-out 2019 outing for the Better Being Lucky LP.
However, this month, their current 12-legged groove machine is out on the road again, performing Never Loved Elvis in its entirety before a second set of other hits, classics, and rarities from an extensive 36-year catalogue.
Alongside frontman Miles Hunt on guitar and vocals these days is the only other original member on board, guitarist Malcolm Treece, plus long-standing fiddle player Erica Nockalls, fellow guitarist Mark Gemini-Thwaite (The Mission, Tricky, Theatre of Hate), Tim Sewell on bass (Eat), and Pete Howard on drums (The Clash).
Miles was staying over at a friend’s house when I called. He’s based in Shropshire but was on the border with the Black Country when we spoke, his band rehearsing in Stourbridge, the town where The Wonder Stuff’s story came together. Does he get nostalgic, back on old ground?
“Not at all. I pull up at the studio and go into a windowless room for about 10 hours, then I get back in my van, and I don’t see it at all.”
Speaking to the likes of Slade drumming legend Don Powell, we’ll mention places like Bilston, and he’ll get a little dewy-eyed. But he does live in Denmark, so there’s a bit of distance there, in time and location.
“Yeah, I did live in London for about 17 years, but always stayed in contact with my friends from back home. I’ve never really lived far away for any significant amount of time, and I’m not from Stourbridge. I think there was one or two members that were from there. I’ve no real attachments to the place.”
Last time we spoke, six years ago (with a link to that feature/interview here), you had a different line-up, with Dan Donnelly, Mike McCarthy and Tony Arthy involved. What changed to entice Malc Treese’s return?
“Ah, let me think … much as I liked Dan, Mike and Tony, musically they weren’t really up to the job. I was asking a little too much of them, to be honest. That came to a head, I needed to move forward, needed a guitarist, and Malc and I hadn’t seen each other seven or eight years at that point, so I put in a call. I’d already asked Pete Howard to come and play drums. I’ve known Pete for years.”
From your post-Wonder Stuff days in Vent 414 in the mid- to late-90s?
“Even before that. He was in a band called Eat, that I really loved. And Malc had been playing in in a new line-up of Eat. I asked Pete if he wanted to play the drums in The Wonder Stuff, and he said a lovely thing. He was very good friends with Martin Gilks, and said, ‘It’d be an honour to play Martin’s beats,’ which I thought was a very sweet thing to say.”
I’ll throw in a little background there. Martin died aged 41 in 2006 after a motorbike accident in London, having been part of the original line-up alongside Miles, Malc, and Rob ‘The Bass Thing’ Jones, the latter having left after the Hup LP in late ’89. Rob, aka Bob, died in 1993, aged just 29. But I’ll let Miles carry on now.
“Then I said, ‘You see way more of Malc than I do. Fancy asking if he wants to talk to me?’. Haha! And he just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t have to ask that. Malc loves you, just give him a ring. So I did, and he was happy to hear from me, said it’d be lovely to see you, we were asking about each other’s families and all that, then I said, ‘Would you be interested in taking up your rightful position as Wonder Stuff lead guitarist again?’.
“He was a bit surprised at that, and said, ‘That, I’d have to think about,’ so he didn’t jump straight back in. But within a couple of months he said, ‘Let’s get together, have a chat’.
“Then we needed a new bass player, so why not ask Tim? Him and Pete have been playing together since they were in their teens. And it all came together really well, then of course, I’d written a bunch of songs with Mark Gemini-Thwaite, remotely. He was in California, this is all pre-pandemic. I was in Shropshire and we were just writing together for no particular purpose, then I felt these songs would really shape up nice to be a new Wonder Stuff album, of which I’d written a handful of songs for already.
“So I said, ‘Do you mind? Would you like to record these and stick them on a Wonder Stuff album?’, and he said, ‘I’d love that’. So we did the Better Being Lucky album, then it just seemed to fit in that Mark should play on these tracks in the live arena, so that’s how we’ve ended up being a six-piece.”
Mark’s got a fair pedigree as well. In fact, you’ve all been around the boards a bit, haven’t you?
“Haha! Yep, and it’s great in rehearsals now – everyone’s so great with their chosen instrument, and if anyone’s throwing ideas around in the room … We’ve been rehearsing Never Loved Elvis songs that I haven’t looked at – the original recordings – in years, and I’m spotting these like little string arrangements at the end. Like on ‘Welcome to the Cheap Seats’, an extra melody at the very end of the song. So I’m like, ‘Mark, could you play that?’. And he just went with it, and that’s never been in the song as a live arrangement – only on the record.
“So it’s really great, and those guys all ask each other things like, ‘Could you do this?’, and, ‘I spotted this on the record and …’. God, we’ve always been sort of cheating our way through the live versions, so it’s nice to have all these extra things going in.”
It was only when I was looking back at the Never Loved Elvis sleeve notes that I was reminded that not only did Kirsty MacColl contribute, but also James Taylor, of James Taylor Quartet and The Prisoners fame.
“Yeah, James had come in on Hup, actually. He plays on ‘Don’t Let Me Down Gently’ – and it’s quite a prominent part, the organ part.”
When was the last time you sat down and listened all the way through Never Loved Elvis?
“Last week! Just because of rehearsals. I was getting asked questions in emails by various members, like, ‘Do you want me to look at this bit?’ or ‘What are we going to do here?’. So I thought I better have a listen!”
Well, it’s a pretty good album, too. Definitely worth a listen.
“Ha! I don’t really know it that well … I know how to play every song, but can’t remember every little bit of recorded trickery and parts and arrangements, y’know. So yeah, I listened last week, quite loud, with a bottle of wine and my headphones on, and really enjoyed it.
“A lot of the songs, like ‘Caught in My Shadow’, ‘The Size of a Cow’ and ‘Mission Drive’ will be in the set quite regularly. But I haven’t played songs like ’38 Line Poem’, ‘Inertia’ and ‘Grotesque’ for exactly 10 years, when we did the 20th anniversary shows.”
I recall you headlining Cities in the Park, the Summer ’91 Martin Hannett tribute in Heaton Park, Manchester, and you were really firing, on a peak as a band. Any particular memories of that?
“I’ve a very specific memory of that gig. I was probably firing because I had to see the Rock Doc that morning. We’d been gigging in the States, and I’d spent my last night – two nights before Cities in the Park – on a friend’s balcony in Hollywood, California. I’d been sitting out there in shorts ‘til quite late at night, and didn’t realise I was getting bitten by loads of bugs.
“When I got up at six o’clock the next morning to get on the plane, I’d got all these bites all over my legs. When I got on the plane, my legs really swelled up, and by the time I got to Manchester, the night before the show, I could barely walk and was feeling quite feverish. So they got the Rock Doc to me, and he gave me all manner of jabs in my backside, so I was basically speeding my head off through whatever he’d given me.
“So I’m sat with all this cream on my leg in my hotel room in Manchester on the afternoon, with loads of interviews to do. Most were on the hotel phone, but one was face to face with Mark Radcliffe, the first time that we met. And every time I’ve seen Mark since, he always brings it up, saying, ‘The first time we met, you were sitting on your bed in your underpants’!”
“No, I’ve a memory of John Cooper Clarke being backstage. I also think Nico was with him. And I remember the Buzzcocks being around, but because I wasn’t feeling well, I spent as much time as I could in the hotel. Somebody came and got me, shoved me on stage, and soon as I came offstage, I was taken back to the hotel. But that was the first time I saw Cooper Clarke in the flesh, as it were, although I’d seen him plenty of times on stage. I was like, wow, that guy’s fucking famous in my book!”
Indeed, and there you were with lots of iconic Manchester bands, yet still headlined. You’ve got to have plenty of belief to get out there in those circumstances.
“Ah, we had plenty of self-confidence back then. It’s all gone now! I used it all up in my younger days!”
The next time I saw you was at Preston Guild Hall on the Idiot Manoeuvres tour, and I suppose by then it was towards the end of that amazing run, late March ‘94.
“OK, I guess that was the Construction days.”
Yes, touring that album. You were still firing, but maybe behind the scenes, it wasn’t so great.
“Yeah, about halfway through the tour … Gloucester Guiildhall, I think … I had a conversation. I knew I’d had enough. I knew I didn’t want to do anything after that tour. So I called a little band meeting on the afternoon in Gloucester, and the mood in the band had been horrible all the way through that tour to that point. And I just said, ‘Look, this just doesn’t work anymore. I think when this tour is finished, I’m going to knock it on the head’.
“And everyone was like, ‘That sounds about right’. So we did the rest of the tour, all of us knowing that was it and we were going to keep that to ourselves. And actually, we really enjoyed the rest of the tour, because the pressure was off. It was really nice.
“Looking back on it now, it may have been an error. I think a year away from each other would have been a better idea.”
Actually, that Preston show was five days later (the Gloucester show actually at the Leisure Centre), which might explain how I felt it was business as usual regarding positive live presence.
Then again, you’d had a great run, albeit rather intense at times.
“Well, eight years really, being in each other’s pockets. And I don’t care what walk of life you’re in – whether it’s friends you went to university with or you got your first job with, friends you first signed on the dole with, whatever … Almost every day for eight years, and we were a strange bunch to be thrown together.
“Malc and I would have been always good mates. But Bob Jones and I didn’t really gel. I loved him, I thought he was great, but I wasn’t his kind of person. I was a bit uptight. Well, I was very uptight! He just liked a good laugh and a beer, whereas I over-thought everything. There was kind of two camps really – him and Martin (Gilks) really got on well, and me and Malc got on well. But by the time we’re at’ 94, I’m not really getting on with anyone, Bob had gone, a bass player had come in with zero personality, a multi-instrumentalist fiddle player who wasn’t really from our world. That didn’t help either, although his musicianship was second to none.”
Miles wasn’t the first pop star in the family. His dad’s brother, Bill Hunt, featured on the first Electric Light Orchestra and as a keyboard and French horn player was integral to Roy Wood’s post-Move and ELO outfit Wizzard. How’s Uncle Bill? I see he recently turned 75.
“Did he? Haha!?”
I believe so.
“Okay, well, I have seen him recently. He’s great. I can’t remember why we all got together, but I think Mum and Dad thought it was time we started seeing people, after the pandemic.”
That was certainly a period that made you re-think and revalue your friendships, inspiring us all to make the most of those links.
“Yeah, exactly, and he’s always got some little musical thing going on. He’s brilliant, Bill. A great musician as well.”
An inspiration in your formative days, no doubt. Someone who properly made it from your patch.
“That’s it, y’know. When we were little kids, like most little kids in the early ‘70s watching Top of the Pops, our uncle was on it quite regularly. And that just felt completely normal to me and my brother, having never known our uncle not to be on there … not as if I thought about it until years later, but yeah, of course, that would have had an effect.
“Although my goal was never to be on Top of the Pops. My goal was to be in a band and earn a living at music, just like my uncle had.
You mentioned your parents. Your dad was a union man. Was that key in your approach to your more outspoken side? I don’t know why I’m being careful with my words, mind, you did after all put in an advert in a bid to form your first band where you called yourself a ‘big-mouth drummer’.
“Haha! Yeah, he was a trades unionist … and before that, he was a drummer. His politics definitely had an effect on me. I think of myself as a socialist, and songs like ‘Give Give Give Me More More More’ and ‘It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby’ were all tongue-in-cheek digs at the type of people obsessed with wealth. And the fact that he was a musician. When I was a very young teenager, he was teaching me how to play the drums.
“It was funny when I asked Malc Treese if I could have a bash at singing in his new band. My only worry was, ‘What if I don’t like the drummer? I wasn’t a particularly good drummer, but drums is where my ears go to. But then I got to hear Martin Gilks for the first time and thought, ‘Well, there’s no fucking problem here!’. That guy was amazing!”
After mega-success with The Wonder Stuff, first time round, there was the afore-mentioned Vent 414. In retrospect, were you (ahem) caught in your own shadow there? Was it all too soon, or was that just a welcome release from all that preceded it, something fresh to move on to?
“Yeah, it was so much looser than The Wonder Stuff. On that last tour as a six-piece, there was a keyboard player as well, and some songs we were playing with computers as backing tracks. It was just such a production, and playing those big venues like the G-Mex, we’d be having production meetings about stage sets and lighting effects, to which, really, I couldn’t have given a flying fuck about!
“It’s funny, me and my friend were flicking through the Jubilee thing and he’s saying, ‘the lighting is amazing’, as that’s an area of work he’s in, and, ‘those drones are impressive’. I’m like, ‘You know what, I don’t even notice them’. I’ve never been to a gig and gone, ‘Wow, the lights are good!’. I don’t notice them. I’m usually just listening to the drummer, y’know.”
And with you, it seems the song is king.
“Yeah, the song, and the musicianship. There’s kind of a golden rule that you don’t use yellow lights, because it just looks like you’re covered in piss, and you don’t use green lights, because it just makes you look like a baddie from a pantomime. But we were at an Iggy Pop gig and my mate said he was using a yellow light. And I said, ‘How have you even noticed? I’m looking at Iggy Pop!’”
Back on Vent 414, we mentioned Pete Howard earlier. Did he ever talk about days with The Clash back then?
“No, quite the opposite. Only in recent years is he more agreeable to talk about it. He didn’t like it when we went out to tour Germany, Holland, and Belgium. He’d recoil if we turned up at gigs and they would talk about ‘Ex-Wonder Stuff singer, MTV presenter, ex-Senseless Things, and ex-Clash. He’d be like, ‘I don’t want to talk about that’. And his reasoning was quite sound, like, ‘Look, I was in the worst version of The Clash’. That was the way he looked at it at the time. ‘I was in the version of The Clash where Joe Strummer sacked Mick Jones’.”
True enough. I seem to recall his first gig was Mick’s last, the Us Festival in California.
“Yeah, but he looks back at it more fondly now. And on that Joe Strummer 001 compilation, there was some … y’see, Pete didn’t play on Cut the Crap. He played some of those songs live, but that’s just programming on the record.”
Indeed, and the original demos sound a step up for sure.
“It’s really good to hear, isn’t it. So he’s allowed to have a bit of pride about it now. It might just be that he’s more relaxed about it.
“And to get rid of all that, to bring it back down to just three people with instruments and very loose arrangements (in Vent 414) … we certainly weren’t stuck to computer backing tracks. That was a great freedom, and then just to put it in 300-capacity clubs rather than 8,000-capacity rooms was really refreshing for me. I loved it. And it was only that Morgan got itchy feet, wanting to go and do something else, that it didn’t last as long as I would have liked it to.”
And because you mentioned Morgan Nicholls, who broke through with Senseless Things and later got to play for Muse, Gorillaz, Lily Allen, and The Streets, going back one step again, there seemed to be quite a kinship between The Wonder Stuff and the other bands you toured with and partied with, not least Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Senseless Things, and Mega City 4. Not as if you weren’t competitive, of course.
“Yeah, I think we all helped each other out. There were bands around the year before – and no disrespect to these bands – like Then Jericho, very much influenced by the early ‘80s, with synthesisers, obviously heading towards stadiums, y’know – that’s what they wanted to do. Then we came in and everything seemed to change. Certainly, looking at the three music papers at the time, that those bands sort of got pushed aside and the focus came on these scruffy oiks you just mentioned, and we certainly didn’t look like we had our eye on the big prize and seemed to be quite happy just making a row in The Marquee.
“So things did change drastically. I guess those bands were always there, but it was once we were all given a bit of attention, then we were all on the same gigging circuit. The Poppies (Pop Will East Itself) were ahead of us, and basically said, ‘Do you want some support gigs?’. Then we were ahead of the Neds, commercially, and we could offer something to them. And that’s nice to hear you mention Mega City 4, us doing gigs with them and Senseless Things. I think we drove each other, because we’d be cynically watching each other all the time, even if they had a better t-shirt printing company, so, ‘Their t-shirts are better than ours, we better step up to their level!’.
“And with our generation of bands, once we were at Astoria level, our record company would have probably thought we should have sold our support slots, which was very much the way things worked for you. They were called buy-on tours. For someone like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin to get on a 30-day tour with a band like us, that would have cost their record label like fifty grand, if you were dealing with the old bunch of bands – Then Jericho, Diesel Park West, those kinds of band. But we thought that was fucking outrageous, principally because Big Country had given us our first tour for free. Then I think three months after that, we got a Zodiac Mindwarp tour for free as well. In our mind, it was like, ‘You can’t charge support bands to get on!’. In the early ‘80s that’s how it worked, but we threw that rule book away because it just didn’t seem fair.”
I suppose in a sense you were also brought up on stories of Mott the Hoople, Slade, and later The Clash, The Jam, and so on. Huge bands, but they never saw themselves above their fans. They had the grandeur, but they weren’t up themselves. There was very little conceit.
“That’s right, yeah.”
And as I mentioned Slade, there was real pride in them coming from not far off your patch, wasn’t there?
“Yeah, exactly. I was too young really, so don’t remember ever talking to Uncle Bill about him knowing Slade or anything, but it was pretty obvious to us that they did. And because we lived in an area of Birmingham, just south of the Black Country when we were growing up, we knew Slade just lived up the road. That was really exciting. And they were omnipresent back then, weren’t they? They were on the radio and on Top of the Pops all the time.
“So yeah, there was a bit of pride in that and like you just said, they weren’t up themselves. So I suppose the path was being laid for me. They were normal guys. Okay, there’s obviously something wrong with Dave Hill in the clothes he wears, ha! But they seemed like normal guys, we’d all seen the movie, Flame, and they could all act but came across so naturally, and it was like, well, they’ve done it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in our way, does there …”
And you’ve done a fair few covers in the past drawing on those geographical roots, from The Move’s ‘Blackberry Way’ and Slade’s ‘Coz I Luv You’ to Dexy’s ‘There There, My Dear’ and The Beat’s ‘Save it for Later’. Even Duran Duran’s ‘Planet Earth’.
“Yeah, that was a conversation that me and Fuzz were having in the pub, y’know.”
That’s Fuzz Townshend, The Wonder Stuff’s drummer from 2010 to 2014, who also featured for Ranking Roger’s General Public, Pop Will Eat Itself, and Bentley Rhythm Ace, and these days with The Beat.
“There was a practical reason behind doing that. I’d started writing songs for Oh No It’s … The Wonder Stuff (2012), and because we’re constantly looking at trying to keep a tight budget when we make records, and Fuzz ended up living really near where I live, out in the sticks, he said, ‘Between the two of us we can record this album ourselves, we can produce it. I know how to mic. a drum kit up, I’ve various amounts of digital equipment, and you’ve got blah, blah, blah … why don’t we do it ourselves?’.
“Then it was like, ‘Okay, this looks like it’s do-able’, the conversation quickly moving on – just a pub conversation – to what were the best songs to come out of the Midlands. I think I went right in there with ‘Blackberry Way’, a list getting written down on a napkin or something, and I said, ‘You know what, why don’t we try and record a version of ‘Blackberry Way’ and use that as a test to see if we can make a record with the equipment we’ve got, without bringing in producers or going into actual studios?’.
“We were really pleased with that, then it was like, ‘Well, why don’t we record all those songs on that list?’. So that was really good fun, but really just a practice run for recording the Oh No album.”
And you’ve remained prolific down the years, from band to solo albums and collaborations with bandmate Erica, who’s also clearly integral to the more recent incarnations of The Wonder Stuff. Do you remain pretty much driven, with plenty of reasons to get out of bed most mornings?
“Yeah, I just finished a solo album that’s gonna come out sometime late in the summer, did some writing with MGT (Mark Gemini-Thwaite) and with Luke Johnson, the son of my first manager, Les. I’ve got Billy Duffy playing on it, Laura Kidd, Morgan (Nicholls). There’s a very Vent 414 sounding track on there that me, Morgan and Pete do together. So that’s out later in the year, called Things Can Change.
“And yeah, Erica joined in … what, 2005 … so she’s been in the band 17 years, which is a lot longer than the original. Ha!”
Yes, more than twice as long!
“It is! And we couldn’t do what we do without Erica. She’s absolutely part of it.”
Well, I hope to get along to one of these forthcoming shows. As I understand it, you’ll be doing Never Loved Elvis in its entirety, then another set which is a bit of a mix down the years, yeah?
“Yes, we’ll do Never Loved Elvis, take a 20-minute break, then come back to do another hour 15 … yeah!”
The Wonder Stuff’s June tour, which started with visits to Cardiff’s Tramshed, Leeds’ O2 Academy, and Bristol’s O2 Academy, continues tonight at Nottingham’s Rock City (11th), before calling at Manchester’s O2 Ritz (15th), Liverpool’s O2 Academy (16th), Holmfirth’s Picturedrome (17th), Glasgow O2 Academy (18th), London, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (23rd), and Birmingham O2 Academy (24th). For more details, check out: Never Loved Elvis on Spotify, The Wonder Stuff Official Site, The Wonder Stuff Facebook, and The Wonder Stuff Instagram.