Dream on – catching up on The Orchids with John Scally

It’s always a pleasure to discover a band you previously knew little about, but instantly chimes with you. And that was the case for me in early 2017 when I chanced upon The Orchids live for the first time.

When these cherished purveyors of sophisticated Caledonian indie pop played The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, I knew the name and a bit about the Sarah Records label they once recorded for, and had it in mind that legendary BBC Radio 1 broadcaster John Peel was a keen supporter (from the moment he aired their first single in 1988, in fact). But that was as far as it went.

I turned up chiefly to see the reformed Chesterf!elds that night, but was smitten by the headliners too (the review is here), and I’ve been catching up ever since … albeit three decades late. And thankfully they continue to make great music and put in occasional live appearances, this Glaswegian outfit about to deliver a seventh studio LP, Dreaming Kind.

I heard a couple of tracks from the new record when they returned to the Conti a year ago for the Preston Pop Fest three-dayer, where it was clear that here was a band about far more than churning out old indie cult classics, near-hits and should-have-been-hits.

And it turns out that Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, playing the same event that weekend with both The Catenary Wires and Swansea Sound, were similarly impressed … to the extent that they decided there and then they’d like to release the next Orchids LP on their Skep Wax label.

As Rob put it, “The first gig we went to after lockdown was the Preston Pop Fest. It was an emotional occasion. Many bands were playing for the first time in two years. The Orchids were really special that night. We were surprised to hear so many new songs, and such great new songs too – really powerful.”

Amelia and Rob were also with Sarah back in the day, as key components of Heavenly, and dwelling on The Orchids’ past, the label insisted, ‘Their songs were as emotionally pure as anything else on Sarah Records, but they were always a step ahead of their peers in terms of song arrangements and musical ambition. With a casual, unpretentious air they made writing perfect pop songs seem easy, almost accidental, several great releases following.’

They weren’t alone in seeing and hearing that, The Orchids having soon secured a passionate following – ‘people knew a good thing when they heard it and they hugged it close.’ A loyal fan base it is too, judging by the numbers still catching them where they can. And now it’s hoped more folk will be let in on the secret. Besides, after a couple of listens, I’m already convinced about the quality of Dreaming Kind, the promise of advance single ‘This Boy is a Mess’ and opening track ‘Didn’t We Love You?’ duly met.

The Orchids’ line-up these days comprises originals James Hackett (lyrics, vocals, acoustic guitar, melodica), John Scally (lead guitar/keyboards) and Chris Quinn (drums, percussion, his older brother Paul also adding percussive touches on the new LP), plus Ronnie Borland (bass, keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), who joined briefly in ’93 and has remained involved since they reformed a decade later, as is the case with Keith Sharp (rhythm guitar).

Listening back now, I know I should have fallen for this South-West Glasgow combo from the start. But by the time they were on my radar, I’d started to drift away from the world of jangly indie pop. That went for my perception of much of Sarah Records’ output, perhaps to some extent scared off by the withering attitude of some of the established music press. My loss.

Now I hear 1989’s ‘It’s Only Obvious’, 1990’s ‘Something for the Longing’ and 1991’s ‘Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled’ and ‘Peaches’, I know how far up my proverbial street they all are. I also hear Go-Betweens traces on tracks like ‘Tiny Words’, ‘What Will We Do Next?’, ‘Magic in Here’, and the gorgeous, Velvets-like ‘Welcome to my Curious Heart’. Move along, nothing not to love there. As for later pearls like 2007’s Another Saturday Night’ and 2014’s ‘Something’s Going On’, how did I miss those first time around?

The afore-mentioned John Scally is a social worker by day, working for a mental health charity, around 30 years in his line of work behind him. Were The Orchids ever a full-time career option?

“Erm … way back when we were younger, students and that. But then we would just take time off work, and never actually reached a point that we were full-time. Myself, Chris and James always had jobs … since we were kids. We never had the luxury of being full-time. They never made us an offer!”

Were Chris, James and yourself ‘the Penilee three’ who put the band together?

“Yes, we grew up together, lived in the same street, went to the same school, going all the way through to secondary school, and at 14 and 15 – getting into music – it kind of transcended from there.”

What was floating your boat back then, musically?

“Obviously, there was Postcard Records, stuff like that. But I’d always been a huge Beatles fan, and from 13 or 14 was into early Simple Minds, back to things like ‘Empires and Dance’. James was into things like Steel Pulse, Chris was into New Order, Joy Division … a whole load of things.”

That eclectic taste makes sense, judging by the wide canvas of influences colouring your output. And you seem a cultured bunch.

“Again, we were really lucky, because in the early ‘80s the Barrowlands had reopened in Glasgow, and there would be something every week to go and see, like Aztec Camera, Echo and the Bunnymen … and at that time the Splash One happening in Glasgow.”

For the uninitiated, the latter was a short-lived indie scene at 46 West George Street from 1985/86, homegrown acts such as Primal Scream, BMX Bandits, The Pastels, The Shop Assistants and Jasmine Minks joined by feted cross-border visitors such as Sonic Youth, Wire, and The Loft.

John’s not ventured so far from his roots, these days based down the coast in Prestwick, a 40-minute drive away ‘on a good day’ (and closer by train) from the city. And he tells me, ‘Life on the Ayrshire coast is good. It’s quite cosmopolitan, it’s got a high street about two miles long, and 10 pubs. It meets the criteria!”

Are you a social bunch as a band? Do you meet outside rehearsals, recording and live shows?

“Oh aye. Not as much as we used to, but when we have rehearsals, we have a pub we meet up in, going for a pint before.”

I’m only a few listens in, but the new LP is already resonating. I’m guessing you’re pleased with the results.

“We are! It’s been a long haul. It always takes time to get an Orchids album together these days. We started with very good intentions of having it finished for some point in 2020, but then Covid happened.”

Our interview fell on the first anniversary of the band’s return to The Continental for the Preston Pop Fest, and there were a few songs then which were new to me.

“I think we played two new songs. We played ‘Didn’t We Love You?’ that night.” 

When I first caught you at the Conti in 2017, I was there first and foremost for The Chesterf!elds. You were a name to me, but I missed out on the Sarah Records bands as a live phenomenon. But your following that night certainly seemed to know all the words, helping you through.

“It’s a funny thing, a musical journey – if you discover things at a different time in your life and they bring you joy and excitement … that’s just life. There’s lots of stuff you discover at an older age and think, ‘How did I not discover that years ago?’

Similarly, it took me a while to realise producer Ian Carmichael (keyboards, rhythm programming, and arguably the band’s sixth member) has proved integral to your story, knowing him chiefly through his collaboration with Dot Allison in One Dove.

“Yes, and again, it’s one of these things. Ian always offers his service, and we can’t really knock him back, because we don’t really pay him much! Ha!”

What does he add to the band through his studio craft?

“Well, the songs on the album are ours, but we give Ian credits because he’s involved in some arrangements and so on. And if he was to send us a bill for the amount of hours spent on this album …”

… You’d be working until you’re 75 to pay him back, yeah?

“It would be a hefty bill! But I guess this makes it an equal partnership. If we end up with a No.1 hit that makes a couple of thousand pounds, he’ll get some money!”

Let’s hope so. I’ve written so many times down the years that this or that track should have been a chart-topper in a perfect world, but clearly have little idea of crossover potential. What I find refreshing though is how many bands from the ‘80s and ‘90s back out there now are doing it for all the right reasons, concentrating on a love of playing live, recording and hanging out rather than chasing contracts and hits. And that often shows – as is clearly the case with The Orchids – in the quality of the songcraft.

“As I say, we all have jobs, so a lot of the time we fund the band. Don’t get me wrong, we still get money coming in, but if we play gigs, we have to subsidise it. And we love to go in luxury these days. We don’t like driving!”

You’re not still using that cool VW bus then, all piling in and heading for the seafront like you did on the ‘Another Saturday Night’ promo video?

“Ah, It’s one of those things. I’d love to get back in the campervan, but you can’t go anywhere, it seems, without finding a bus lane or triggering a congestion charge.”

I think a few of us have fallen foul of that in strange cities before now. Talking of your past, I also see long-time associate Pauline Hynds Bari (vocals) is on this record too. Another key link to the band’s rich history?

“She is, and when we need a backing vocalist, Pauline’s always there, the first we go to. But she’s out on Barra, about five hours away by boat, so it’s not easy to get hold of her at times! She’s been there for maybe 20 years.”

This will be your seventh studio album and your first since 2014. That doesn’t sound too long ago in my head, but I guess it is between releases.

“It is, and a lot’s happened between the years. In late 2015 I took really ill, ending up in hospital, needing heart surgery. I had a bacterial disease, a really rare thing that attacked my heart valves. That put me out of the game for the whole of 2016.”

In fact, that February 2017 date in Preston was their first outside Scotland since that forced break. Is John back in good health now?

“I’m fine, it was one of those things. I just have to be really careful with medication, things like that.”

As it was, his band were seemingly among the few Preston Pop Fest attendees who avoided catching Covid that weekend. But he tells me he finally succumbed after seeing Simple Minds at Glasgow Hydro (in the company of a 15-year-old nephew who had recently discovered the South Side big-hitters) in April.

Like Jim Kerr, Charlie Burchill and co. before them (in 1979 and 1982), The Orchids recorded two sessions for John Peel’s highly influential BBC Radio 1 show in 1990 and 1994, the legendary broadcaster first playing them in 1988, helping them on their way.

“Oh, straight away he was giving Sarah Records airplay, and kept that up. And those two sessions with him are about to be re-released on vinyl by Precious Records. They might come out before the end of the year, depending how fast the record plants are all working.”

Both sessions were recorded at Maida Vale. I realise he rarely got down to his sessions, but did you ever meet Peelie?

“No, but Dale Griffin was the producer/engineer, so that was pretty good. I was into Mott the Hoople and told him ‘Roll Away the Stone’ was one of my favourite songs when I was about eight.”

How did that Sarah Records link-up come about, not least with them being Bristol-based?

“We had a friend, Karen, involved in Glasgow fanzines, and she corresponded with Matt (Haynes) and Clare (Wadd). She sent off one of our demos – she didn’t tell us until after – and told us, ‘They want to do a flexi single and they’d like to put this song on it.’ That’s when it kind of snowballed.”

Were they a good label to be with?

“They were great. Matt and Clare are great people, so straight down the middle, very flexible with what you wanted to do, and it fitted in with everything we wanted to do. We were just happy somebody wanted to put out our records, everything a 50/50 equal share.”

Now it seems to have come full circle, former Sarah labelmates Rob and Amelia stepping up through the Kent-based Skep Wax label. I’m guessing you knew each other from their Heavenly days, so to speak.

“Yeah, and in recent years we saw Rob and Amelia when we played the Madrid Pop Fest, and we’d often see them at gigs. It was maybe just prior to Preston, corresponding. They were writing new songs and looking for places to book, Rob said he was going to start a label, and we mentioned that we were trying to get an album finished.

“He said they might be interested, keep us in mind. When it all came together, it fitted perfectly and just seemed the right thing to do. We were keen to try to talk to other labels, but Rob and Amelia seemed to have an idea of what they wanted to do and how they were going to do it, and we thought that sounded easier. And The Orchids always go for the easy option we’re quite lazy when it comes to those things!

“And I have to say, so far Rob and Amelia have generated so much interest for the label. We were saying the other day, after they sent an up-to-date press update about how many people wanted an interview and had showed interest in the album, we’d not had that in years! It was like, ‘Another interview?’

“It’s brilliant, and the (Skep Wax) compilation (Under the Bridge, with The Orchids one of 14 acts featured) has done really well. It’s just about sold out, and they’ve sold all the CDs, far as I know.”

There are live dates lined up, I see, including an album launch at 229 in London. Is there a Scottish launch date as well?

“Yeah, we’re hoping to have a Glasgow gig the week before. We’re just waiting for that to be confirmed.”

If the Barrowland Ballroom will have you?

“Oh aye! That’d probably be the last gig The Orchids would ever do, I think! But nah, it’s never beckoned. And we’ve never been asked for a support slot. I don’t know what we’ve done wrong!”

Well, they don’t know what they’re missing. I was looking at the excellent Toppermost website’s Orchids tribute, where Rob Morgan writes in a neat appreciation of the band (linked here) how you’d ‘quietly released some of the best pop music of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.’ There’s definitely something in that.

“Ah, it’s just one of those things. We were just a bunch of guys who were really happy to be offered gigs, and in the early ‘90s we were really happy to be invited to play Switzerland and Germany, all expenses paid trips. And that will do for us.

“We never really courted major record deals or anything like that. At one point there was maybe talk that Chrysalis Records and Go! Discs or something like that were interested. But again, we didn’t really show any ambition. And hey, this is part of life.”

You certainly have loyal support. That struck me the first time I saw you. There you were, 190 miles from home, and it was like a Glaswegian takeover, the crowd more or less an extension of the band.

“At Preston? I have to say, we were really overwhelmed by that, our first gig in a number of years, and we had no idea what The Continental would be like. I think it’s one of the best venues I’ve ever played. And Rico is an amazing guy, a lovely man.”

That’s Rico la Rocca, aka promoter Tuff Life Boogie, who put together 2022’s Preston Pop Fest, seemingly against all odds in Covid times, yet somehow pulling it off.

They’ve not long since rocked the happening Glas-Goes-Pop indie festival too, And I guess it’s easy to play the geographical card, as so much I hear in The Orchids reminds me of so much I admire about so many bands from their patch and thereabouts, from Aztec Camera to The Go-Betweens and so on, the latter adopted Scots, of course …

“Yep, The Go-Betweens are a big part of The Orchids. We love their albums and saw them numerous times in Glasgow.”

Then there’s Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Orange Juice, and Teenage Fanclub in more recent years, and even next generation bands like Camera Obscura.

“Yeah, all bands that are in the mix.”

And while on that first time I saw you it was more of a ‘best of’ set, we now see how strong the new songs are as well, as hinted at in last year’s return, that trademark mix of melodic and sometimes lilting and dance-edged songcraft truly evident. What also grabs me is the never-OTT delivery – the guitars, rhythm section and James’ vocals, always subtly effective, working so well. I’m sure it’s not the case, but it seems that you’re hardly breaking sweat at times.

“Erm … I don’t know about that. It depends how many beers we’ve had!”

All the same, the quality of the songs shines through, and you seem at ease with it all.

“I think it’s one of these things, because we all have busy family and work lives, it’s not like we rehearse every week. But for the gigs coming in October we’ll probably start to rehearse in the next few weeks, and we make the best use of the time we have.

“We just need to focus on what we need to do and how we do it. I guess we have a formula, and it works for us, but we do try and throw things in the mix, and see what works, because we like to be different. I’m a big Van Morrison fan and some of his albums are very much the same, but for The Orchids we’ve always tried to make the next song a bit different.”

That breadth of style is incorporated on this new LP. And what was the thinking behind the title, Dreaming Kind? Is there an overriding manifesto or theme?

“I think it’s about everything that’s happened in the last couple of years in terms of Covid and mental health and people’s wellbeing, and the title is in one of the lyrics of the songs (‘What Have We Got To Do?’).

“We spent ages debating album titles. In The Orchids, we probably spend more time on album titles than we do writing songs … going back and forth! Dreaming Kind was in the mix and kind of stuck, and we decided to go with that.”

Well, again, it fits perfectly. And will there be a North-West England date this time?

“We would love to. We don’t like driving anywhere, but can get a train, so Preston’s perfect. We have tried to get promoters in Manchester interested, but it just doesn’t seem to work. But we’re always looking for options. It’s just getting to places. We’re going to London in October, but how we’ll get there, I don’t know, given the train situation.

“One fan asked, ‘Why do you always play gigs abroad?’ Well, because they make us offers. And it’s always nicer to be going to Barcelona than it is to go to Bradford.”

For pre-order detail about Dreaming Kind, available via the Skep Wax label (Skepwax007) in LP, CD and digital formats on September 2nd (CD, digital) and October 14th (LP), distributed through Cargo (EU/ROW) and Redeye (US), and the band’s upcoming live dates, head to their website. You can also keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter pages.

And for more about the Skep Wax Records label, check out their Bandcamp page and follow them via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

The original Orchids band photographs used above were ‘borrowed’ from the splendid Sarah Records official website, which can be found 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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