The Chesterf!elds reveal the fine art of New Modern Homes – back in touch with Simon Barber

I do love a catchy indie pop song, and The Chesterfields have come up with the goods again on that front, ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ released last weekend by Hamburg-based label Mr Mellow’s Music.

It’s a fine tribute to the band’s much-missed co-frontman, Davey Goldsworthy, who lost his life following a hit and run accident in Oxford in 2003. More than that though – because everything the band do these days is essentially in Davey’s memory – it’s also a tribute to that rush of ‘80s indie bands that shaped the band’s world … and mine, I guess.

First time I got to the two-minute mark of the new 45, it caught me out somewhat, bass player and co-founder Simon Barber joined by guitarists Andy Strickland and Helen Stickland (yes, different spellings, not a typo) in a singalong creatively namechecking in song a whole host of happening bands from yesteryear.

What’s more, the West Country four-piece, completed by drummer Rob Parry, are set to release a fourth studio LP, 35 years after cherished debut, Kettle and 28 years after what seemed to be their last hurrah, 1994’s Flood, with the latest addition to the catalogue, New Modern Homes, due in September.

Available worldwide on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer and Tidal, and with a limited-edition 7-inch vinyl version available from selected record shops while stocks last (as the pitch goes), the new single’s accompanying video from James Harvey was filmed at Black Shed, Sherborne, Dorset, and is guaranteed to bring smile to the faces of lovers of that particular genre. It did me, anyway.

And it seems that Simon, the band’s only ever-present, is chuffed with how things are going, currently making the most of the interest coming their way, alongside his day-job running West Country arts magazine Evolver.

“It’s brilliant. It feels like a major label, and Helmut really knows what he’s doing.”

So how did he get caught up with the delightfully-named Mr Mellow’s Music?

“It’s run by Helmut Heuer, who I first came across when he was still in his teens. He organised a tour for Basinger {formed by Simon after The Chesterfields initially folded} around Europe, we turned up, and it was just this kid! And he came with us. When Basinger came to an end, I stopped doing things and didn’t hear anything more of him for years. Meanwhile, he got involved in the music industry in Germany, ending up at BMG, working on Madonna’s account, things like that.

“He wanted his own label and now runs Légere Recordings, geared to jazz, MOR, smooth … But he did a show as Mr Mellow for London’s Soho Radio for two years before the lockdown, and one of his favourite LPs as a teenager was Kettle. So that’s what it took, and now he’s set up his own pop label, with us providing the first couple of releases.

Last time we traded messages, Simon was mulling over release options, the other of note being with Lee Grimshaw’s Spinout Nuggets label.

“That would also have been a brilliant option, and Lee’s set to release our second single, a double-A-side 7-inch in August, when the album comes out or just after. And that should be a nice fit too. Lee’s good at getting things about …”

I do wonder how he fits everything in, not least as he seems to spend a lot of time between his adopted base in Cornwall, his Kentish roots, and various music events.

“I know! He came around to my flat from Cornwall, but he’s often heading towards the Medway or London. I don’t quite know how The Chesterfields fit in, but Palooka 5 are on his label, again a little outside what he’d normally do, because it’s very much a Medway garage and Mod sort of thing. And when you meet him you realise he is that man. I really like him, and the energy is incredible.

“Tim from Palooka 5 knew he was at Shiine On last year and said, ‘Go and have a look at The Chesterfields’, and he saw the last half of the set and loved it, getting in touch immediately. That was based purely on seeing us live. Then he met me here, I played him the album, and he loved it.

“Knowing what was happening with the German label, he asked if he could put out something, just wanting to be sort of involved. And I think that involvement might continue, because it seems a nice fit. It’s great being on Helmut’s label and having someone here too – both those energies are good.”

As you mentioned Helmut’s love of the debut LP, I see it’s now 35 years since that key release that rather confirmed your indie pop credentials.

“Yes, 8 June 1987.”

I hadn’t realised – or had at least forgotten – that the time I saw you at the Coal Hole in Covent Garden, London, was so close to that date (Saturday, 6 June).

“It was! And we’d sort of half-collapsed then, because Brendan [Holden, guitar} had left. So Andy Strickland came in, and Rodney Allen played with us for some gigs. When Brendan left, he felt – and he was totally wrong – ‘Simon just wants to get his brother in the band.’ That wasn’t what we were thinking, but we used Andy and Rodney for a few gigs … then Mark did join the band!

“But it was lovely that Andy did join then, because it makes this line-up – and Andy did Glastonbury Festival with us that month – authentic for me and others. And I needed that, because without Davey …”

I guess it would be ‘Simon Barber, ex-Chesterfields and band’ otherwise.

“Exactly, and the fact I’d sung ‘Ask Johnny Dee’ really helped as well.”

Simon’s younger brother, Mark, incidentally, joined the band that year and left in 1989, re-joining from 1993-94. Furthermore, Andy confirmed after this interview that he didn’t play that Coal Hole date. However, he certainly made an impact a fortnight later at Glastonbury Festival, when I somehow missed The Chesterfields – featuring Simon, Davey, Andy and drummer Dominic Manns that day – despite planning to catch them there.

“Yes, although we weren’t on the flyer that goes around, as that was one of the early ones. It doesn’t have The Soup Dragons on there either, and quite a few other bands that got booked. That second stage had twice as many as were listed, including Automatic Diamini, John Parish’s band. Such a shame … but there’s a later flyer, and we were in the programme. There’s a lovely write-up.”

Fellow Somerset outfit Automatic Diamini also included Rob Ellis, who along with John also briefly featured with The Chesterfields. Meanwhile, Polly Harvey soon joined that outfit, both John and Rob later proving instrumental in the PJ Harvey years that followed.

That was The Chesterfields’ first Glastonbury, although Simon ‘had been there the two previous years as a punter, discovering The Go-Betweens there in ‘86 – the only time I ever saw them.’ More on that influential Brisbane outfit soon, but first …

“Andy’s favourite story from then is that he didn’t have a long enough guitar lead, so couldn’t get up to the microphone to join in on something. It was too short. But these two lads came on and moved his whole crate with his amp on much further forwards. A funny moment.”

With a nod to Kettle, there’s a track on the new LP called, ‘Mr Wilson Goes to Norway’, updating that debut LP’s ‘Oh Mr Wilson’. When did that song come into your mind?

“I’ve always really loved the fact that Buddy Holly wrote a song called ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’, and just felt we needed to find out what Mr Wilson had been up to. It’s got that Housemartins/ Chesterfields type beat, and we needed something on the album like that. And that’s the one Lee {from Spinout Nuggets} picked up on, wanting to be a single, with one of Helen’s songs, ‘Year on the Turn’ on the other side, which is fantastic. And our artist friend Debbie Lee has done an amazing animation for it.”

The promo video for ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ was filmed in and around Helen’s flower farm in Sherborne, and I’m guessing you’re walking around that Dorset town in the ‘Mr Wilson Goes to Norway’ promo video I had a sneak preview of … rather than Telemark, where I’m guessing you didn’t quite get to.

“Ah, but James (Harvey, video director) did, a month after we filmed that! We weren’t going to film the walking around bit, but had a bit of time, we’d done a photo session, made the ‘Songbird’ video, then I asked, ‘Could we shoot a few little bits?’ I knew he was going to Norway a few weeks later and asked, ‘Maybe you could film us, then use some of your footage from Norway too?’ And it works so well.

“We’d already filmed on the flower farm, and he said, ‘Is there anyone else we can go?’ I said, ‘Why don’t we just walk down the town?’ There weren’t loads of people, it was a Sunday, but it was good fun!”

As for the first single, I didn’t know what to expect on my first listen, and I have to say it brought a tear to the eye. Not just because of the Davey link, but also that rollcall of indie influences, also acknowledged on the sleeve. It’s a lovely touch.

“Oh good. A lot of people are saying that, it’s brought tears to a few people’s eyes. A friend of mine, Wayne, who played in a band with Davey after The Chesterfields, saw us play it last year. I introduced it by saying, ‘This is a song about me and Dave,’ because it’s all about the excitement of getting a band together and things we were all into. And all those bands mentioned are ones Davey and I either came into contact with or loved, so it’s such a personal song for me and for people to pick up on.

“And {BBC 6 Music’s} Gideon Coe apparently loves it, and John Kennedy at XFM said it was brilliant and ‘The Chesterfields are back with a vengeance.’ And we’ve started getting played on radio stations all around the world now. Yeah, it feels good!

“There’s also a punky song Andy and I see as a classic 7-inch punk single with pink and yellow sleeve, called ‘My Bed is an Island’. He plays a solo that starts off like Captain Sensible but ends up like John McGeoch. Andy brought three songs to the album, and they’re all great. So yeah, we got lucky!”

The Go-Betweens get more than one mention on the first 45, but I was also impressed you managed to get a plug for your old label-mates The Beat Hotel too.

“Yes! And some of the bands are starting to get in touch, like The Darling Buds started following us on Instagram, while Phil Wilson (from The June Brides) got in touch, and Tim from The Razorcuts (the first band mentioned) messaged us on Facebook, saying it was really lovely.”

Since our chat, I’ve also seen a lovely message from Go-Betweens drumming legend Lindy Morrison, no doubt enough to make Simon melt in the following heatwave. Meanwhile, Simon reckons they’ve all properly memorised the words now, after a few teething problems getting to grips with it all.

“We can do it without thinking about it now, but you sort of think, ‘How did bands like REM do those list songs?’ I never would have attempted that … but actually, perhaps I needed to.”

Back on the subject of The Go-Betweens, what do you reckon you saw in them when you caught them at Glastonbury in 1986 that really appealed?

“At that time, because we started out as The Chesterfields around ’84 and ’85, we were one of those bands looking for, you know, purity in pop music again, against all the big drum sounds and all that sort of thing. We knew about Orange Juice, but … The Go-Betweens were sort of a bit awkward, but those songs you went away with in your head, which I really need.

“You see a band and think, ‘That’s great’ but if you’re not coming away with something in your head, that hasn’t done it for me. And they definitely did. It was early enough that they were playing things like ‘Lee Remick’. And once heard, never forgotten.”

The LP title, New Modern Homes, is a line from ‘Our Songbird is Gone’. Is there a theme across the record?

“Sort of. When you see the sleeve …”

I’ve seen a still of it at the end of the video.

“Well, I commissioned a friend of mine, Paul Blow, an illustrator for The Observer among other magazines, he heard the whole album and picked up on a few things. So the cover features a new modern home in Norwegian scenery, with the big man from Andy’s song, a songbird on his shoulder. And it works really beautifully.

How about that line, ‘And your little black book has arrived with the postman’ on ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’ – is there truth in that?

“I’m looking across at it now. When Davey died, his ex-girlfriend, Catherine said, ‘I think you should have this.’ I hadn’t seen it before. It’s a little black book, A6, he’s written on the side of the pages, ‘The Slits’, and what really touched me was that it has all the words from the Kettle period to all our songs – he’d written all my lyrics in there as well.

“I was always in awe of him and his words, and I think I became a better wordsmith as a result of being in the band with him. So to see that was quite a thing really.

“I wrote that song on my birthday, in lockdown, May 2020, the first time I’d walked out to meet my daughter, who lives eight miles away. We both walked four miles, she brought the kids, we had a picnic, it was a gorgeous day, and on the way out, that rhythm got into my head and the words started landing. I’d been thinking about Davey, and sang it into my phone a few times.

“When I got there my granddaughter, Lexi, nine at the time, pulled a ukulele out of her bag, and she’d been learning ‘You Are My Sunshine’, so they all sang that to me before the picnic. So if I hadn’t sung the song into my phone I think I might have lost it … with another tune in my head. And pretty much, a couple of days later, it was done.”

Was that the track everything else was built around?

“I don’t know, I felt it had something that people would pick up on, and that’s what people were telling me, but you never really know. But when John Parish heard all the demos – as I thought they were – he said, like others I played them to, ‘These aren’t demos, why don’t you just finish what you’ve got to do, I’ll come down to the studio, then come to mine and we’ll mix it.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

Next year it will be 20 years since we lost Davey. Do you recall where you were when you heard?

“I’d had a phone conversation with him out of the blue a couple of weeks before. We’d just had a catch-up. I hadn’t seen him for several months, so when I found out … My friend Head, who does our sound and PJ Harvey’s – he had a recording studio in Yeovil back in the day – phoned me, asked if I’d heard, then people started contacting me.

“Everyone thought I was the person to contact. Which was weird, because I hadn’t really been in his life for a few years, but it was me they were expecting to tell others, and get the word out.

“I had a conversation with his mother, and she asked me to help her sort out a bench in Yeovil, on a hill where his ashes are. So there was this expectation I was going to do that too, and I was totally happy to be doing all that, and then organise a gig for all his family and friends to say goodbye to him.  

“Grief can do that – you just want to be getting on with things. Davey’s mum also asked me to choose the music for his funeral, and I chose an instrumental of ours, ‘The Berlin Walk’. That was the committal music, and people did appreciate it.

“And they had walked in to ‘Pop Anarchy’, which is pure Davey, yet I thought, ‘Is this going to be right? Is it going to work?’ And then we chose ‘The Berlin Walk’ for my mother’s committal as well, because it was ‘her boys’ – my brother was mostly responsible for it – and now everyone knows I want it for mine!”

And yet, for all that, this new LP is still something of a celebration album really, isn’t it?

“Sort of, but it wouldn’t have happened without Covid. My magazine is all about things people can go to, so suddenly I had no magazine. A lot of goodwill, luckily, meant people still paid for adverts in an edition that had just come out, but I was basically just sat here reading or playing my bass guitar, and songs soon started landing. So yeah, basically Rishi Sunak paid me to write this album!”

Oh, the irony.

“But I’m so glad I had the push that got me and Davey out of Yeovil. And my brother, Mark was one of those I played this album to – the same day as John Parish – and he’s totally supportive, and on the Bristol gig on the last day of the last tour he got up and sang ‘Sweet Revenge’ with us.”

When we spoke, there were plans afoot for the Orchard Popfest in Crewkerne, Somerset, hosted by North Down Orchard and the Electric Broom Cupboard, its impressive line-up including The Chesterfields, The Monochrome Set, The June Brides, Palooka 5, Helen McCookerybook, and The Rhynes. Unfortunately, that was pulled fairly late on though, that in the wake of the band having to pull out of the Isle of Wight Festival after Covid ruled them out.

“Ah! I was more gutted for Andy then, as he lives on the island. And he was going to be DJ-ing in that tent that Saturday night. We were going down on Wednesday, rehearsing on Thursday, then heading to the site on Friday, the best day, weather-wise. So that was disappointing, but pretty soon they told us we’d be pencilled in for next year, which did soften the blow.”

Things are definitely looking up now though, with the single out, another lined up, and the new LP on its way. And the band are set to announce live dates for around the time of the LP release, starting with record shop dates in Dorchester on Friday, 23 September, and Yeovil the following day, with an evening show that same day – Saturday, 24 September – in Bridport.

There’s also a Venue 229 date in London, supported by The Leaking Machine, on Friday, 7 October, followed by shows at The Tree House, Frome on Friday, 14 October, and The Railway Inn, Winchester on Saturday, 15 October, with others yet to be confirmed, Simon adding, ‘I’m hoping we might be announcing some more for next year.’

There’s also the chance of a date next May in Hamburg through their label, another positive in what’s shaping up to be another vintage spell for The Chesterfields … definitely back with a vengeance.

For details of how to track down ‘Our Songbird Has Gone’, head here, and to keep in the touch with The Chesterfields, you can follow their Facebook and Instagram pages.

For this website’s February 2017 feature/interview with Simon Barber, head here. And for the follow-up from September 2019, head here. Meanwhile, from May 2021, Andy Strickland talks The Loft, The Caretaker Race, The Chesterfields, and much more 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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