Cool to be Kind – talking Sunbirds and The South with Phil Barton

When The Beautiful South split in 2007 after a highly successful two-decade run, it seemed that the end of the party had come too soon for co-founder Dave Hemingway.

Hammy, as he’s known, was there from the outset, joining forces with fellow Housemartins singer (and genius songwriter) Paul Heaton. But when the latter went his own way, he was keen to keep going.

As a result, along came The South, Hammy joined by latter-day Beautiful South co-singer Alison Wheeler and long-serving bandmates Gaz Birtles (sax), Damon Butcher (keyboards), Dave Stead (drums) and Tony Robinson (trumpet), putting together a formidable nine-piece act that soon became regulars on the live circuit, their set built around The Beautiful South’s hit-strewn 18-year recording career.

Then, in 2012, an LP landed, Sweet Refrains, one suggesting this outfit were moving in a new direction, guitarist Phil Barton co-writing seven of the tracks while holding down a full-time job in the NHS. As it was though, despite plenty of (rightful) acclaim for that record, The South continued to concentrate on their live profile, and at the end of 2016 a seemingly frustrated Hammy departed (Alison and Gaz now the sole originals remaining), in time announcing a new project, Sunbirds, which also happened to feature the afore-mentioned Phil, the pair joined by Laura Wilcockson (violin, vocals) and Marc Parnell (drums).

Initially a studio concern, the Sunbirds’ debut LP landed late in 2020, Cool to be Kind proving to be a finely-crafted record which seemed to follow on from Sweet Refrains. And public and critical response to that LP has clearly seen their confidence increase, recently expanding to a six-piece, Jerry Jobson and Chris Offen joining on bass and guitar/keyboards respectively, the band currently working on a new record as well as setting up live dates.

All good reasons to track down Phil to his base in Upminster, East London, not least as he’s been behind so many great songs for both outfits over that last decade, and continues to feature for each band. And I started by asking if he’s still managing to fit in working in IT for the NHS.

“No, I managed to escape. I had three tunnels on the go.”

He left to ‘give the music a go’ full time. And so far, so good. What’s more, from my most recent interview with bandmate Hammy (from August 2020, with a link here), I understand the far-flung Sunbirds (Phil, Marc and Chris are London-based, but Jerry’s on the south coast, Laura’s in Nottinghamshire, and Hammy’s now in Yorkshire) rehearse at his when they can.

“I’ve a little studio at home. It’s always been a condition with my wife to get at least one room, wherever we live. (Phil laughs) On this occasion, it’s the garage. I soundproofed it out. I’ve had various jobs along the way and as a sound engineer for a while, I learned all about that. It’s a nice little set-up, I can record drums, and it sounds quite good actually.”

Are you a bit of a multi-instrumentalist?

“Not really. Just guitar, but the production side always interested me.”

All bar one track on debut Sunbirds LP, Cool to be Kind, has his name on it, and on 2012’s Sweet Refrains, it’s the same for seven of 12 songs there.

“I’ve been writing songs all my life. It’s just a confidence thing – a few things happened in my 20s which meant I wasn’t really able to go down the path I wanted, ending up having to go into the real world. But writing songs is something I’ve always done … and I need to do it, otherwise I could go a bit potty.”

It came up in my October 2016 interview with Alison Wheeler (linked here) from The South, and prior to that The Beautiful South, that you had worked together before you joined.

“Yeah, I originally auditioned Ali. (Phil laughs) We were in a band called Junk, originally on the coat-tails of grunge but with a British twist to it, this sort of quite grimy, grungy music with very sort of twee, cutesy girl singing on it. And it worked quite well, basically going around the toilets of Camden.”

Was that always your patch (Camden, rather than its toilets)?

“I was born in South London, or the suburbs thereof … in Petts Wood, and went to school in Bromley, I went to the same school as David Bowie. I was watching this Bowie documentary, and he nailed Bromley completely brilliantly, as he did with most things, the idea that if a town was going to produce somebody like Bowie it would probably be Bromley, because it’s so painfully kind of straight.”

Wasn’t that also the territory for Chislehurst born and bred Susan Ballion, aka Siouxsie Sioux?

“That’s right, as part of the Bromley Contingent. Slightly older than me, of course, that lot. But there’s definitely something in the water, and always a bit of a subculture going on in these sort of places. We had the Bromley Musicians’ Collective, which put on local bands at the labour clubs and the HG Wells Centre … another famous name from those parts. That was a really good scene, a room people could use, turn up, bring your own bottle, putting bands on every week. I had a little band called Derek Nimmo’s Blues Band, a kind of mickey-take of all the blues bands around at the time.”

Had you learned guitar early?

“Oh yeah, I was self-taught from 16 or 17.”

Which acts inspired you? Are we talking the punk years?

“No, but I had an older brother – three years older – so I got to hear all the cool stuff. I’d hear about the Sex Pistols and everything like that going on. I remember sitting in a car with my brother and his mates. Somebody mentioned the Sex Pistols and his dad said, ‘We don’t talk about that sort of thing, if you don’t mind,’ quite upset that the children were talking about them. I remember thinking, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ (Phil laughs) Through him, I’d hear stuff I would probably never have heard otherwise, not just punk but Black Sabbath and whatever you want coming out of his room.”

I thought the latter was Status Quo.

“Well, I did quite like them at school, I’m not afraid to admit. I saw their original line-up in about 1981, one of the first gigs I went to, and there was around three days trying to get your head round just how good that was afterwards. You know how it is when you’re young, you start to see bands and feel, ‘This is it!’

Seeing as you called the first Sunbirds LP Cool to be Kind, I’m guessing there’s at least a nod to Nick Lowe too, from the other side of London, namely Walton-on-Thames.

“Definitely. That was an intentional doff of the cap. I mean, he’s fantastic, isn’t he? He’s one of my heroes, songwriting-wise. And it’s also a comment as to how things are in society at the moment.”

Regarding your friendship with Dave Hemingway, did you ever catch The Housemartins live?

“I didn’t. I was more into rock as a lad, and in my day it was very tribal in music, not like it is now where anything goes. You had to pick a gang then stick with it. It was in the very early ‘80s for me, when all the New Romantics was starting to fill the charts. And that didn’t do anything for me.

“Looking back now, they’re great songs, but when you’re a teenager, it’s a hell of a lot more tribal. And the gang I chose was rock. I was into rock in a big way, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple … I was getting into guitar, so liked good guitar players, tracing that back to Jimi Hendrix.”

Listening back to Cool to be Kind this morning, hearing ‘The Black Sea’, I felt there was a nod to Hendrix there.

“Yeah. good spot!”

That’s a good example of the depth of your songwriting on this LP. And for me, ‘The Black Sea’ is the first curveball, reminding me of a band I love called The Deep Season, a North Hampshire offshoot of indie cult heroes Jim Jiminee. Maybe it’s the chord structures and how it meanders into areas you might not expect. It seems to be about depression, and some might say it is depressing, but works on more than one level.

“I don’t find it depressing at all. I mean, The Smiths were fairly popular. (Phil laughs) And Pink Floyd weren’t exactly song and dance men, were they. You tend to be at your most emotional, honest and raw when the emotions are the other way around … when you’re sad rather than when you’re happy. It only stands to reason that the best music comes out of that.”

But then there’s ‘When I’m Gone’, arguably far more radio friendly, quality shining through again. However, Phil’s still tackling ‘The Black Sea’.

“I don’t want to get too political, but after the financial crisis, or whatever you want to call it … they took all the money out of public services. I had a very humble, simple job in the NHS, and won’t bore people with what I did but I was out troubleshooting around the hospital, fixing computers, and it went from being quite a good little job where you feel you’re doing – without being too self-righteous – something quite nice, helping people, even though you’re not really into the job, it’s just to pay the bills. I thought, if I’m gonna do this, it’s probably the best way I can use the skills I got. But then they stripped out a lot of the people on the ground floor.

“That’s what happens in companies, they don’t sack those at the top on the huge money, they strip out all the assets on the floor who don’t really have a say in it. So you end up with this top-heavy organisation, with too many chiefs. My workload went absolutely crazy, and I was doing The South at the time, so all my time off I wasn’t taking on holiday, I was going on tour. I was burning the candle at both ends for quite a few years, absolutely no chance of keeping up with my workload. On top of that, I had bosses cracking the whip, saying I wasn’t working hard enough. I was working as hard as I could, and it reached a point where I started getting panic attacks, things not going well. That’s what ‘The Black Sea’ was originally about.

“Rather than about depression, per se, it’s about having a panic attack and everything going on in my life at that time. It’s meant to sound discombobulating, and there’s a reason for that. And people who’ve experienced that … I’ve had a couple of people say, ‘Mate, ‘The Black Sea’, I love that.’ And I’ve had others say, ‘That’s a bit depressing, isn’t it?’ Well, that’s because you haven’t been there, mate!”

The way Hammy takes ownership of those songs suggests – even though there aren’t many songs with Barton/Hemingway credits – you work well together. It seems that he left The South because he wanted it to be about new material as well as old hits. And maybe that wasn’t the game plan beyond 2012’s Sweet Refrains. But arguably you’ve carried that on under a different set-up, Cool to be Kind in effect proving to be the follow-up LP.

“In a way, yes. But because we’re not tied down with this … Damon Butcher described the name, The South, as the ‘golden millstone’. A very good way of putting it, because it gives you an audience, which I’m very lucky to get, but at the same time you’ve put this label on it … and we couldn’t do ‘The Black Sea’ in The South. That’s not going to happen. The same goes for ‘When I’m Gone’. To me, those are much more personal, confessional songs.

“‘When I’m Gone’, I wrote for my daughter. I’d been wanting to write a song for her for years and years, yet it always came out as cheesy old nonsense. But one day, I just sat down and it came out. It’s lovely when you get songs like that. I put the phone on record, sang it, listened back, said, ‘That’s not bad.’ I felt I had to tweak the lyrics here and there, but it must have been something brewing a long time that finally came out. It’s not necessarily a love song, it’s a song to kind of reassure my daughter that, yes, it’s gonna be okay.”

I spoke with Hammy about final track, ‘Stars Still Shine’, another song he took ownership of, feeling it was written as much for him, yet it’s another credited solely to ‘Barton’.

“Well, I’ve got to know Hammy well, being on tour and everything, and you end up spending a lot of time together. And our life experiences have been extremely similar. And there really is a bond there that isn’t just a kind of professional collaboration. It’s deeper than that. When I send him a load of songs, I don’t give him any clues as to who wrote them. I like to get a genuine reaction, without it being sort of prejudiced. I send him stuff I’ve done and that means a lot to me, and might send something that’s quite pretty that I co-wrote, more written to order for what we’re doing. That sounds terribly cynical, but there’s a real art in that as well. And the ones he picks out are always the ones he has a connection with. There’s a wavelength thing going on.”

Have you also got a good voice on you? We don’t hear it much.

“I do a bit of backing vocals. But I’m not a singer. I can’t pretend I am.”

I don’t suppose that matters if you’ve got Alison, Hammy, Laura …

“Exactly. What’s the point! If it’s alright for Roger Daltrey to sing Pete Townshend’s songs, Lee Brilleaux for Wilko Johnson … If they can put the song across better than you can, it’s a no-brainer. And with Hammy, you’ve not just got a good singer, you’ve got a vibe. When he sang ‘The Black Sea’ in the studio, he did it in one take and we were blown away. He said, ‘Shall I do another one?’ I said, ‘Hang on,’ had a chat with Teo Miller, the producer, and he said, ‘We better get him to do another one, but that was brilliant!’

Hammy sings about his Hull roots on opening song ‘Meet You on the Northside’. Where’s your own Hessle Road? Where do you think about when it comes to channelling roots, like Paul Weller did with Stanley Road and his Woking youth.

“Well, that’s pure Dave. He came up with those places in Hull. And (we wrote that with) a guy called Kenny Grant, a lyricist and singer-songwriter, a Glaswegian living in Dublin I met through a mutual friend. He’s a virtual friend – I’ve never actually met him, we write over the internet. Jerry, who’s now the bass player in Sunbirds, put us in touch.

“After Sweet Refrains, I thought there was going to be a second South album, and the guy I was mostly writing with – Ronnie Westrip – decided he didn’t want to do it anymore, for whatever reason. So I was looking for someone else. On that LP, I wrote the music and worked with lyricists, maybe honing some of those lyrics. I felt with The South there was no point me singing about my life. I put an ad out on Gumtree back then, got hundreds of replies.”

That seems to be the way with a few songwriters these days, Boo Hewerdine springing to mind, writing with various well-known and not so well-known artists, from Chris Difford to Simon Wells, to use examples of recent interviewees of mine.

“It does, yeah … and doing it this way, you can dip into it when you’ve got time, rather than sitting in a room together, on the spot. Sometimes you need time for these things to ferment. But Kenny sent me some songs, and ‘Beautiful People’, for example, is mainly a Kenny song. I changed some of the arrangements , bits and pieces, but the original demo came from him on piano, singing it. It’s a great song and suited what The South were doing down to the ground – a great little pop song with a bit of social commentary.”

What also strikes me is that although you’re clearly a co-writer as well, the songs that really grabbed me – perhaps as with Hammy – are those with just your name on them, perhaps those most likely to involve you baring your soul.

“I suppose. Kenny was giving me really great lyrics though, so it’s silly to not do something with those. On ‘Holiday Monday’, he gave me the words and I put the music to it, and he’s got that sense of humour …”

Which is important if you’re channelling the spirit of PD Heaton, I guess, a few songs on Sweet Refrains almost written in his image.

“Well, you have to doff your cap to what’s gone on before. We can’t start bringing out drum and bass records! The way I saw The South, the songwriting, was as another sprig of The Beautiful South tree. And if you listen to what Dave Rotheray does on his own – he’s a genius songwriter, writing all those amazing songs – you know you’re going to get something sounding a bit like The Beautiful South.

“We weren’t trying to copy anybody, what we wanted to do was lend our own personalities. Take Damon, who was sort of like a fifth Beatle in a way, doing a hell of a lot on those records, but never officially a member of the band. A lot of that stuff is Damon – when you listen back, there’s so much of him on those records. And on Sweet Refrains I would demo songs with an acoustic guitar, give it to him, say ‘there you go’ and he would do what he does – just go off somewhere completely different. He’s amazing, the most musical person I’ve ever met. He’s incredible.”

He co-wrote ‘Insert Answer Here’ on the Sunbirds LP, I see.

“That’s right. He sent me over that lyric one day. I liked it, and it reminded me a bit of Ian Dury.”

What’s not to like there.

“That’s right, and I live in Upminster. I’ve always loved him, and feel this affinity with Ian here. I drive past the house where he grew up most days.”

I was also going to mention ‘Please Yourself’ as a highlight, and ‘Long Cuts’. Both jump out at me. And with the latter and ‘Big Moneymaker’, like ‘Stars Still Shine’, I hear shades of Americana. Is that another side of you?

“It’s a music I’ve only recently come to. I grew up predominantly into rock, because that’s the way the world was, but as you get older you start to embrace all these other things fashion meant you weren’t allowed to like. And country music was one. I’ve been through blues, funk, jazz, everything but country really. I love all styles of music, yet country always passed me by.

“But then you go to the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young … For me, it was a band called Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams’ first band, hearing the Strangers Almanack album (1997). For what I was going through at the time … I just couldn’t stop playing it. It really spoke to me.

“I think what they were trying to do at the time was mould Ryan Adams into being a country version of Kurt Cobain. He made this really polished album with Scott Litt, surrounding himself with all these great Nashville session players, and this really earthy young upstart kid from Jacksonville was writing songs straight from the heart, not censoring anything he wanted to say in the songs, a bit of punk attitude in there somewhere. Even though it was country, it was raw … and he sang it like it was.”

That could be Steve Earle for me, my own portal to that world.

“Yes, Steve Earle’s great, but I think he’s a bit more country than Ryan Adams. Keith Richards is a fan too. I don’t know if it was a deliberate label ploy to get this punky young kid from the South to be the face of the alt country movement, but he didn’t really want to be, understandably, like Kurt Cobain, so deliberately sabotaged it, went off and started making records by himself, doing what he wanted to do, rather than having some sort of corporate machinery.

“I was into a band called The Posies, out of Seattle, and Ryan Adams seemed to blend The Posies for me with this fantastic sound of country music pedal steel guitars, this very raw-edged music that didn’t use obvious chord sequences, a bit like the Foo Fighters’ first album when the influence of Nirvana was still in the music. It’s like a cross between Nirvana, The Beach Boys and Johnny Cash, I guess, maybe Emmylou Harris and the more traditional Nashville sound too … But I’m waffling on. I do apologise.”

Not a problem. Good to know the influences. And back to the Sunbirds, Marc and Laura are clearly a good fit, and now you’ve expanded, so to speak.

“That’s right. The band is now a six-piece, with Jerry on bass and Chris on guitar, keyboards and backing vocals. I originally knew Chris from school. I always knew he was good then. He was one of those guys who was streets ahead of everybody else. He’s a great guitar player and a multi-instrumentalist who also sings and plays keyboards in Sunbirds as well as guitar, and he can do a fairly good pedal steel guitar impression on guitar … when finding a pedal steel player for your band – unless you’re Emmylou Harris – is not going to happen. There’s not that many.”

Yes, although I see the legendary BJ Cole contributed to Sweet Refrains. Meanwhile, it seems like you’re looking at more live performances for the Sunbirds now.

“That’s where we’re at the moment. We just want to gig as much as we can, although it’s proving quite hard finding gigs.”

I got the impression the hardest part was enticing Hammy back to live performances.

“Yeah, when this project started, after he left The South, he got in touch and said, ‘Have you got any songs?’ When I said yeah, he said, ‘Send them over,’ then said, ‘Do you want to do an album?’ I asked, ‘Is this a recording thing?’ and he said, ‘I think it would just be an album.’ But fair enough – just to get to work with Dave and still be friends … and it already looked like The South weren’t particularly interested in a second album. And it’s gone so well, and the reaction we’ve had suggests we ought to go out and play these songs to people.”

Are you happy to remain in two bands, as long as you can fit both in?

“Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s worked out pretty well. I’m not doing anything other than music. And hopefully, the South will continue, because I think it’s a great band, and they’re a great bunch”.

And is there another album around the corner?

“Yeah, we’re writing at the moment. We’ve three or four new songs in the set, they’re going down really well, and I’m very pleased with how that’s going.”

Cool To Be Kind, on Nectar Records, is available via the Sunbirds’ website and various digital platforms, the band next in live action at the Smile Bar & Venue, Huddersfield (Saturday, 3 September), the British Country Music Festival, Blackpool (Sunday, September 4), and The Brook, Southampton (Thursday, 22 September). You can also follow Sunbirds via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  

Meanwhile, The South – Alison Wheeler, Gaz Birtles (also the subject of a WriteWyattUK feature/interview, in March 2018, linked here), and Phil Barton joined by Steve Nutter (bass), Dave Anderson (drums), Karl Brown (percussion), Gareth John (trumpet), Su Robinson (sax) and Andy Price (keyboards) – are back on the road next month, playing Glasgow St Luke’s (Thursday, 1st September), Glenrothes Rothes Hall (Friday 2nd September), Mansfield Palace Theatre (Wednesday, 7th September), Oswaldtwistle Civic Arts Centre (Thursday 8th September), Louth Riverhead Theatre (Friday 9th September), Yarm Princess Alexandra Theatre (Saturday 1st October), Newark Palace Theatre (Sunday 2nd October), Hertford Corn Exchange (Friday 7th October), and Rugby Benn Hall (Friday 14th October). For tickets, try here, and check out their website from there. You can also keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.  

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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