Into the mythic with the Trembling Bells – the Alex Neilson interview

Wild Wood: Trembling Bells

Wild Wood: Trembling Bells

Alex Neilson was near the Scottish border when I reached him, between live dates in Tyneside and Edinburgh with the Alasdair Roberts Trio.

Caledonian folk artist Alasdair’s combo – completed by Stevie Jones on bass and keys – were back on the road after a show at Newcastle’s Cumberland Arms, the fifth date of a Spring tour set to reach Glasgow’s Glad Cafe tonight (March 2nd) before an English return, reaching Preston, Lancashire in time for the climax of the Vernal Equinox Festival this Sunday (March 5th).

And it just so happens that as well as his percussive duties for Alasdair, Alex will perform two sets at The Continental in Preston with his own ensemble, revered experimental psych-folk outfit Trembling Bells, who headline the finale of an ambitious event pulling together divergent strands of underground music.

Alex is not only the drummer but also the main songwriter of a Glasgow-based outfit he formed in 2008 and which quickly carved out a reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting and exploratory groups, critical acclaim the following year for debut LP, Carbeth, setting  the tone.

His five-piece is currently completed by fellow founders Lavinia Blackwall (keyboard, guitar, vocals) and Simon Shaw (bass), plus later arrivals Mike Hastings (guitar) and Alasdair Mitchell (keyboards, guitar). And while Lavinia’s fine voice characterises the group’s folk appeal, all five members contribute vocals.

Their first three albums were released on London-based Honest Jon’s Records, Carbeth followed by 2010’s Abandoned Love (with production and mixing input from Stevie Jackson of cult Scottish indie outfit Belle & Sebastian) and 2011’s The Constant Pageant.

They’ve always worn their influences on their sleeves, not least late ‘60s psychedelia and the spirit of the British folk revival, yet somehow Trembling Bells continue to ride a blurred line between all the genres that spring to mind on listening to their records.

For instance, fourth album The Sovereign Self, their first for Coventry-based Tin Angel Records, had more of a prog rock feel, and was followed by last summer’s companion piece, the seven-track mini-album Wide Majestic Aire. And it turns out that a band described by radio presenter/author Stuart Maconie as ‘wild and romantic, witty and heartbreaking’, with ‘both the charm of folk music and the power of rock’, are currently working on a new album, set for release later this year.

tar057Besides, being on the road doesn’t slow the songwriting, as I found out first-hand from Alex. Unfortunately the reception on his phone as he headed ever further North was pretty poor, so there were a couple of nuggets I missed altogether and others I struggled to get down, but I think we more or less got there. So, his track record – so to speak – suggests he does a lot of scribbling while touring. Is he a pad and pencil man when it comes to lyrics and melodies?

“I used to do that much more. The first album was pretty much written like that. And I find the travelling very stimulating. There’s a lot of down-time as well, but I enjoy the company a lot.”

When Trembling Bells released Wide Majestic Aire, Alex recorded an accompanying short commentary, explaining the inspiration and theme behind each track. That seems fairly unusual in itself, I put to him, not least as he seems to bare his soul in those songs. Many seem so personal, and lots of writers prefer to leave such matters to individual interpretation.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t tend to be quite so candid, although a lot of the songs have very specific origins and compass points. It was more an exercise in doing something different for the label. But I’m quite happy to talk about those songs.”

The description accompanying those recordings suggests a ‘bringing together of the mythic and the domestic‘, what Alex sees as an ‘ongoing motivation in the music of the Trembling Bells’. And the imagery of the last LP’s title track is as good a place as any to start, a joyous song up there with past sweeping numbers such as Goathland on the third album, another embracing Alex’s Yorkshire roots.

In fact, Wide Majestic Aire is among the songs Alex is most proud of, this romantic ballad – sung by Lavinia – seeing the compass of the band’s music swing back in the direction of folk after the prog and acid rock of The Sovereign Self. Yet it’s also in some way archetypal Trembling Bells territory, evoking the landscapes of Yorkshire and Oxford – Alex spent a fair bit of time in the ‘city of dreaming spires’ with a past love – and invoking the likes of Larkin, Blake, Lorca, Nash, and Turner. What’s more, it’s suggested ‘such a sweet and melodic song could function as a gateway drug to the rest of the band’s music, which is to be welcomed as there is much to explore in their rich back- catalogue’.

The Aire passes through Alex’s home city of Leeds, and was his ‘sanctuary’ while growing up on a council estate in Bramley (where The Wedding Present and Cinerama creator David Gedge was also born, albeit 22 years earlier). The river was five minutes away, and as a teenager he listened to The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and The Incredible String Band while walking his dogs along the banks on his ‘bible-like Walkman’, an experience that ‘moulded’ him and sent him on his destined path.

“I was always struck by a quote from Albert Camus on the Scott Walker 4 LP, making this entreaty about all art being a desire to recreate the conditions in which your heart is open to some idea or other. And that rings true, being nostalgic towards a time in your life when you’re more receptive to universal ideas in music and culture, trying to recreate that general feeling.”

400-2That Camus quote is that ‘a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened’. And there are elements of that creative thinking in the work of Trembling Bells and other projects Alex has played a part in over the years. So did he see music as a means of escape from a perceived drudgery of daily life?

“A little. Instead of going to school, I’d be looking to play the drums all the time, trading on my imagination and enthusiasm for music to be happy in life. I guess it was a sanctuary and a refuge from the day-to-day reality of being a teenager in a fairly small, downtrodden town. This was my alternative reality.”

Was there music in the family?

“Not particularly, although my older brother was one of my biggest influences. He’s an artist and was interested in experimental cinema, underground comics and music in particular.”

Was that how a fella only born in 1982 got turned on to underground performers like Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band?

“Exactly, yeah. Actually, I hated that music and pounded on the bathroom door when he was playing Trout Mask Replica, thinking he’d completely lost the plot. But then I grew to love it, and it kind of ruined other types of music for me. There’s no real going back to bands like Pavement from there.”

Was it a similar story with further influence The Incredible String Band?

“That was more a personal discovery. I spent a lot of time at Leeds Library, borrowing CDs, particularly things that looked weird, copying them on to cassette and putting them on my Walkman.”

a0031090942_10He certainly seems to have absorbed those influences without any snobbery about genres and what was cool or not. Folk music was something I tended to steer clear of until acts like The Pogues, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Van Morrison, Christy Moore, The Waterboys, Nick Drake and Billy Bragg saw me re-evaluate Ewan McColl, Peggy Seager, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and so on, realising it didn’t have to be about cable jumpers, beards and singing with your finger in your ear after all. But that wasn’t the case for Alex.

“There were a few revelatory moments for me, and generally by accident at libraries or through trawling charity shops buying records. I loved to try different things from what I already had. I guess I was a bit of a loner as well.”

Hearing Liege and Lief also helped me change my mind about homegrown folk, and – inevitably perhaps – Trembling Bells often get compared to Fairport Convention, although perhaps that’s just because of Lavinia’s great voice, bringing to mind Sandy Denny.

”Yeah, but I never really got to grips with them. I was always more interested in the singers on things like The Voice of the People compilations and those singing a cappella folk songs. Having an interest in rock and jazz too, I was always trying to cross-pollinate between, so inevitably those Fairport Convention comparisons would come up. And automatically people use Sandy Denny as a benchmark, whether it’s appropriate or not.”

Alex initially crossed the border to Scotland for university studies in English and art history in Glasgow, but after a year dropped out and concentrated on music, settling at Carbeth, 10 miles outside the city, where Alex and his band have now spent around a decade in an off-the-grid hutting community, finding it inspirational and nurturing, the creative wellspring from which much of their work flows.

Not only did their debut album take its name, but their latest mini-album contains a song, Swallows Of Carbeth, which book-ends Willows Of Carbeth from that first record. And each has at its heart the two most significant lost loves of Alex’s life – Willows a musician, Swallows a painter. It’s all part of that overall effect blending personal history and sense of place. And a few years after that initial move, he certainly seems to be among kindred, creatively-talented spirits in Carbeth.

In Alex’s commentary on further Wide Majestic Aire track I Love Bute, he mentions how Lavinia came up with the outro and how it’s quite a rarity that he lets someone loosen his ‘tyrannical grip’ on the band. Is he having a laugh?

“I think I was being kind of facetious. I like to at least give the others the illusion of democracy! Ha ha!”

a1696687464_16So is he one of these writers who tends to have it all mapped out in his head how a song will sound before it’s recorded?

“Well, I think I’m learning to trust the others more when they come up with parts or twists into other unexpected directions. I don’t cross the t’s and dash the i’s as much as I did. And they’re all such strong, creative individuals.”

Does he see himself more as a bandleader in that respect?

“Yeah, kind of. It’s also about gaining experience from playing with a lot of talented musicians … like Alasdair Roberts.”

In past interviews, Alex talked of expanding sonic possibilities through self-learning and exploration and experimentation. And one of his band descriptions cites how ‘Trembling Bells seek to reanimate the psychic landscapes of Great Britain and relocate them to some vague, mythic land where basic human crises are encountered and conquered’. With that thinking, I suggest that the world of prog rock was never far away, as explored on 2015’s The Sovereign Self.

“Yeah, I think that’s just the inevitable sound of us all playing together. It’s not something that generally fits my palette, but I think we end up sounding like that because of our collective interests.”

Before Trembling Bells, Alex played with various other bands, as he continues to do. Is that all part of his music apprenticeship?

“I think so. I learn a lot from experiences, working with people whose music I love and I’m lucky enough to play with, and that definitely helps increase my musical vocabulary.”

a1614822323_16Those past projects included Directing Hand, also with Lavinia and Simon. Did hearing Lavinia sing help him realise where he might be heading?

“I always saw her as a talented singer, although I probably as a little bit too proper in her approach. I was into the idea of being more experimental, paring down the more technical, standardised ways of playing. But we came incredibly close friends and developed a mutual understanding.”

Across the band there certainly seems to be a fusion of ideas and influences, and that works really well.

“Yeah, exactly. I think those influences strengthen the overall picture rather than dilute it. And it’s always good for me to be shocked out of my comfort zone, have my prejudices overturned. That’s the most rewarding path.”

I mentioned before how Trembling Bells walk a tightrope between folk, traditional rock and indie, and if it wasn’t for them being picked up on by presenters like BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley and Stuart Maconie, guesting at events like All Tomorrow’s Parties (2010, an event curated by cult indie outfit Belle & Sebastian) and the Green Man Festival (in 2009 and now again this summer), I might not have come across them so easily.

Talking of Belle and Sebastian, how did that link come about?

“I was a massive fan of their music growing up, and through moving to Glasgow and being interested in their work. I found them incredibly generous and they kind of took us under their wing, always happy to help us out with studio time and so on.”

And then there’s the support of another major influence, Trembling Bells collaborating since 2011 with 74-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band, who just happens to be appearing with them in one of their sets at Preston this weekend.

“Yeah, we were involved in an Incredible String Band tribute concert, as a house band of sorts, and just to be mentioned in the same breath as these people is great. These are the co-ordinates of our music. It’s pretty much down to these people, and we’ve continued to work with Mike, which has been a real pleasure.”

Aire Apparent: Trembling Bells head back to the woodland

Aire Apparent: Trembling Bells head back to the woodland

The Vernal Equinox Festival runs at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, Lancashire, PR1 8JP, from Friday, March 3rd to Sunday, March 5th, with the line-up including:

Friday 3rd (6.30pm-12pm, on two stages) – Mugstar, Gnod, Clones, King Champion Sounds soundtrack ‘Man With a Movie Camera’, Pill Fangs, Vukovar, The Common Cold, The Condor Moments, UCLAN Music play Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ plus more; Saturday 4th (6pm-11.30pm) – Galley Beggar, Crumbling Ghost, Newts, One Sided Horse, Sweeney Astray; Sunday 5th (4.30pm-11pm) – Trembling Bells (two sets, one with Mike Heron), Alasdair Roberts Trio, Tricca McNiff, Dodson & Fogg, Howie Reeve.

For more act info, head here. And for tickets try wegottickets, seetickets, The Continental (01772 499 425) or Action Records (01772 884 772). 

To keep up to date with Trembling Bells, head to their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter. For more on Alasdair Roberts, try his site and follow him via Twitter.



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This one’s from the hip – the Lloyd Cole interview

Look Right: Lloyd Cole, all set for his latest European tour, including a 17-date UK leg

Look Right: Lloyd Cole, all set for his latest European tour, including a 17-date UK leg

I first tried to get hold of Lloyd Cole while he was on tour Down Under, enjoying a little respite from a harsh North American winter with shows in Australia and New Zealand. It was all a bit hectic out on the road though, and I think he did my phone bill the power of good by postponing our interview until he got back to Massachusetts, by which point he was home with ‘about a foot of snow’ outside his window.

Usually I prefer a face-to-face or voice-to-voice grilling, but it made more sense this time to opt for an exchange of emails. And while there was a little extra work in him answering ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS, the Buxton-born 56-year-old insisted he was ‘not shouting’. Besides, even if he never released another album after his late-’84 debut with The Commotions, Rattlesnakes, I’d have felt indebted to this master singer-songwriter and let that pass. 

There were bound to be answers here that would usually prompt a change of direction in my questioning if done in person or by phone, but hopefully it works. I’ll say a big thank you to Lloyd here for helping in the first place, not least while enjoying a little ‘down time’ before setting out on the next leg of his ‘Never Ending Tour’, involving shows in Scandinavia, mainland Europe and the UK. And this tour has certainly been full of incident so far (not least losing his voice in New Zealand, no great proposition for a performer whose current live show alternates between solo slots and accompaniment from just his son, Will). “It’s all been a bit strained and hectic. Never a dull moment” is how he put it. That said, he was certainly looking forward to his European return, and at time of going to press more than half of his 17 UK dates are sold out.

So here goes – a little Mister Mal content, from the hip, courtesy of Lloyd Cole.

This can’t be a bad way to see the world, Lloyd. Are you still seeking out new venues, towns and cities around the world?

“It’s always nice to visit somewhere new, if I get invited. I’ve never been to Notteroy in Norway before, never performed in Lowestoft, or Preston for that matter. And I’m still hoping to get some shows east of the old Iron Curtain, and in Hong Kong and China, before I’m retired.”

I make it 28 years since you left the UK to settle in the United States. Will you ever return?

“Not sure. I don’t want to die over here. I sometimes fantasise about being a codger in East Lothian or Whitby.”

After all this time, what do you miss most about England and Scotland?

“Well, they can’t import Bovril anymore, and Bovril with a dash of sherry is maybe the best winter drink and definitely the best on the golf course … if it isn’t a flask of whisky mac. And jokes – we don’t get many over here.”

Well, your adopted countrymen seem to have elected one as President, but we’ll come on to that later. So, this Spring tour concentrates on reprising the first dozen or so years of your career. But why now? Are you a little easier with concentrating on a ‘retrospective’ set today than a few years ago?

“Because of the box-sets. In fact, I just spent half an hour signing a few, so they’ll be ready for shipping in March.”

He’s talking about Lloyd Cole in New York: Collected Recordings 1988-1996 there, set for release on March 17th, a deluxe limited-edition box-set featuring his four solo LPs on the Polydor and Fontana labels, plus Smile If You Want To, an unreleased fifth album, and a selection of Demos ’89-’94, his home and studio recordings.

lloyd-cole-in-new-york-box-set-cover-artEven with just the shorter period you’re concentrating on in the live show, it can’t be so easy deciding on a definitive set-list. So many great songs. Does it depend how you feel on the night as to what gets an airing?

“Not all work with one or two guitars, the two formats we have. Some work much better than others and there are maybe 12 songs which if I don’t play them, a few people will be disappointed. So with all that it wasn’t too difficult to figure out a set. The difficulty now is finding ways to make it seem spontaneous when we’ve been playing it for so long. I don’t want to change it for the worse just to keep us amused.”

That format he mentions involves a set of Lloyd solo, followed by one with him joined by his son, not least reprising those first dozen or so years as a performer, his tour press release suggesting he’s ‘playing and presenting rock songs from his past career remodeled as simple folk songs’. Yet I’m guessing most of those songs started with an acoustic guitar anyway.

“No. I don’t think I had an acoustic guitar until Easy Pieces (1985).”

Did you always have the confidence to chat away between songs, or has that come with age?

“I was never silent, but I am more comfortable with the idea of the show these days. Back when we started I thought of it as more of a recital rather than a performance.”

Have you kept count of the gigs over the years? And if so, how many do you think you’ve played now, in both band or stripped-down format?

“No. If I’d had the same agent over here as I have had in the rest of the world the whole time we might be able to figure it out. But, very quickly, on average every other year 50 shows … so more than 800.”

Family Favourites: Will and Lloyd Cole live in Adelaide (Photo copyright: CDR Imagery /

Family Favourites: Will and Lloyd Cole live in Adelaide (Photo copyright: CDR Imagery /

The Commotions’ days were only five years of around 35 as a performer and songwriter, yet touched so many of us. I know artists tend to say their last LP was their best, but if anyone out there has missed any since those early solo years, which would you recommend they start with?

Music in a Foreign Language and Standards.”

At this point, I take a more ‘local’ line, having been intrigued for some time about this Derbyshire lad (with a strong Scottish identity from his Commotions period) and his Lancashire links. My better half was at Runshaw College in Leyland from ’81 to ’83, and when we first met (six years after she left) one of the first things she told me about where she lived was that ‘Lloyd Cole went to my sixth-form college’. So when was he there, and did he associate that with some good times?

“Good memories, yes. That was 1977/78 and I remember the day Never Mind the Bollocks came out. Two of us played hooky to get to the record shop first thing to buy it on the day of release. We both paraded our copies around college. Trevor Morris, however, ripped his up and then taped it back together first. That was how we met, and he pretty much taught me to play guitar.

“Our band – Vile Bodies -threatened to perform several times, but never did. We rehearsed in the front room of the Chorley two-up two-down I stayed in, gratis, courtesy of the lady who ran a funeral home across the street. She was a member at the golf club my parents worked at (Shaw Hill in Whittle-le-Woods) and when they moved to Glasgow, I needed somewhere to stay to finish my A-levels.”

Who else were you listening to then?

“All the good punk bands, plus Talking Heads, Television, and towards the end R’n’B – mostly Stax compilations I bought from the cheapo bin in Chorley. That’s when I first heard Isaac Hayes. Then there was Chic and Funkadelic.”

As you mentioned Shaw Hill Golf Club there, I’ll briefly touch on your sporting love. In 2007 you polled 11th in a magazine listing of musician golfers, with a handicap of 5.3. How about now? Are you still holding court over the likes of Justin Timberlake, Smokey Robinson and Alice Cooper?

“I think I was tied with Alice Cooper then. But I’m apparently dead to them now, as I’m not on the new list.”

Those early songs famously included many literary references. ‘Baby, you’re too well read’, as you put in on No Blue Skies. Are you still a big reader, and what’s the last great book you read?

lloyd_cole_-_dont_get_weird_on_me_babe_-_front“I’m not sure ‘big’ would be the right word, but I’m always reading something. Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography on audio, narrated by him, is pretty good. I’m up to Born to Run at the moment. And the last great book I read was probably Pale Fire (1962, by Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov), which I hadn’t read when I name-checked it in Music in a Foreign Language.”

What was the last great album you bought or heard, or band that you were inspired by seeing live?

“The last great band I saw was The Walkmen, live. That was a while ago. The last great album was probably Robyn (the fourth album from the Swedish recording artist of the same name, released in 2005). I need to catch up with what’s been released the last few years that isn’t experimental electronic.”

Lloyd’s big break in music followed something of a divining moment in his education, having switched from a year studying law at University College, London, to the University of Glasgow, where he studied philosophy and English and happened to meet the future members of The Commotions. Has he ever consider fate played a part in him changing course, so to speak, and heading north of the border?

“Luck, certainly.”

And on a similar life-changing front, how did you get to meet your beloved, Beth? And how long was it before you decided to head stateside?

“Not until I was over here. She was the room-mate of a friend I visited DC to see, to surprise Billy Bragg at his show.”

The days of major record company backing seem to have long since gone. You appeared to have the best of that world before Polygram were taken over. But at least you had a head-start in moving towards the current prevalent business model of smaller labels and crowd-funding schemes. Is that how you see it now?

“I suppose so. I’m not particularly happy about it. But I’ve survived, sort of …”

lloyd_cole_and_the_commotions_rattlesnakesDoes that more independent approach make getting the recordings out there all the more satisfying?

“It’s no different.”

As you’re concentrating on your ‘up to the mid-’90s’ period at present, I wondered if it took that spell between Love Story in 1995 and Plastic Wood in 2001 to assess where you were at and get back on track. Or did that spark never really leave you?

“That spell wasn’t as long, in terms of my life, as it was publicly. We recorded the 1996 album which was never released, and much of The Negatives. I just couldn’t get them released.”

You’ve always had a strong fan-base though. That must have been gratifying at times if you were starting to wonder if anyone was properly listening out there.

“Of course. Without them I’m nothing … literally.”

Do you record most of your material at home these days? And are you good at writing on the road? Do you carry a notebook wherever you head?

“No, no, and yes! I used to write well on the road. I don’t seem to finish songs anymore, unless I buckle down and work for a few weeks. Deadlines are good for that.”

You returned to America from the previous leg of the tour to find a new president (of sorts) in charge. Frightening times, both sides of the Atlantic, it seems. Anything you can add that hasn’t already been said?

“I posted Heaven 17’s We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thing on Facebook at the time. I thought people might introduce their kids to it. And someone responded with Amateur Hour by Sparks, which was even better.”

And finally, when this tour’s been put to bed, when can we expect a brand new Lloyd Cole album?

“In a year or so, I hope”.

Look Left: Lloyd Cole (Photo copyright: Kim Frank)

Look Left: Lloyd Cole (Photo copyright: Kim Frank)

Lloyd Cole in New York, released on March 17th, features all four solo albums released on the Polydor and Fontana labels between 1988 and 1996 – Lloyd Cole (1990), Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991), Bad Vibes (1993), and Love Story (1995) – plus Smile If You Want To, an unreleased fifth album (including one previously unreleased track) and Demos ’89-’94, 20 recordings from home and studio made public for this release. For more details follow this link. And for all the latest from Lloyd, go to his website, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter

Lloyd’s 17-date UK tour starts with sell-outs at Worthing St Paul’s (March 20th), Exeter Phoenix (21st) and Leamington Spa The Assembly (22nd), continuing at Birmingham Town Hall (24th, 0121 780 3333), Lowestoft The Aquarium (26th, 01502 573 533), Sheffield City Hall Ballroom (27th, 01142 789 789), Wakefield Unity Works (29th, 01924 831 114) and Southport The Atkinson (30th, 01704 533 333).

Then there are sell-outs at Sale Waterside (31st) and Pocklington Arts Centre (April 1st) before he reaches Preston Guild Hall (3rd, 01772 804 444, as above) and a sell-out at Bury The Met (4th), before seven Scottish dates start at Inverness Eden Court (6th, 01463 234 234), Aberdeen The Lemon Tree (7th, 01224 641 122) and Dundee The Gardyne Theatre (8th, 01382 434 940). Lloyd then finishes with further sell-outs at Greenock The Albany (9th) and three full houses at Glasgow’s Oran Mor (11th-13th).

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The Wedding Present / Andy Ruddy – Guildford, Boileroom

The Venue: Guildford music and community arts space the Boileroom

The Venue: Guildford music and community arts space the Boileroom

Many of the bands I love have graced my hometown in the past, yet for some reason it never quite happened with The Wedding Present.

First time I went to see them was down the A246 in Fetcham in 1986, but they were double-booked and had already scarpered, and from there the closest they came to my old patch was for numerous visits to Reading, London and the South Coast.

That didn’t really bother me. Those venues – with the exception of the rather-lacking University of London Union – were better than Guildford could offer at the time anyway, and the Civic Hall wouldn’t have felt right. But three years ago they visited another old haunt, Aldershot’s West End Centre, and now at last were booked to play just a couple of streets away from Al, a fellow TWP gig regular back in the day and my landlord for the night.

With tickets disappearing as fast as David Gedge’s feverish fretwork, fair play to the team responsible at music and community arts venue the Boileroom, for what proved not only to be a sell-out but a top night all round. As someone based 240 miles away in Lancashire since the year the Weddoes released Watusi (1994), I was slightly aghast at the ale prices, but nonetheless impressed at the transformation of this Stokefields local I previously knew as the Elm Tree.

The venue’s managers – on board since 2006 – clearly have a love of and affinity with good music, and are also responsible for nearby Stoke Park’s Always the Sun festival (which runs from September 8/10 this year), where the last bill included Guildford-associated luminary Hugh Cornwell, who not only inspired the outdoor event’s name but has also played the Boileroom.

As one of just a handful of UK dates before a North American tour then various George Best 30th anniversary shows back home, we were treated to a rich mix of material from down the years on Wednesday night. From The Wedding Present’s point of view, it was certainly a love crowd,  and Gedge and co. rose to the occasion, the lead singer’s trademark banter with the assembled as warm and engaging as ever, while the audience were not only mad for the bigger hits.

Solo Spot: Andy Ruddy

Solo Spot: Andy Ruddy

I wasn’t sure how it would work when I stepped inside. There were only around a dozen of us there by half seven, including support act Andy Ruddy and a certain fella of whom John Peel proclaimed, ‘has written some of the best love songs of the rock’n’roll era’, with ‘the boy Gedge’ stood behind the merchandise stall at that point, maybe wondering what he’d let himself in for.

Yet the venue steadily filled during a laid-back acoustic opening from Andy Ruddy, originally from Bradford, this likeable singer-songwriting talent not long out of the studio after recording his second album. In fact, he apologised for not being quite so in love with some of his songs, having heard nothing but them for the last couple of weeks.

He was similarly downbeat about his first album, suggesting he was unlikely to ever celebrate that with a 30th anniversary tour. So when he announced after one song, ‘Jesus, I sounded melancholy there’, Al and I expressed our confusion, wondering if there was a time when he hadn’t been in that state of mind.

That said, I get the impression that’s just his West Yorkshire ‘not up himself’ manner, and we kind of warmed to his less showy demeanour while reckoning he’s secretly proud of his material. He should be anyway, judging by songs like my personal highlight, All You Needed. Hopefully we’ll hear more of him soon.

Pretty soon, we had a 1972 recording of Philip Larkin reading the environmentally-aware poem that inspired the name of the most recent TWP album, Going, Going …, with the Boileroom buzzing by now and the main act set to fill every inch of this packed venue with a wealth of sonic delights.

While there were six cuts from the latest album, old favourites You Should Always Keep in Touch With Your Friends and What Did Your Last Servant Die Of? were first, leading to early word-count conundrums for this scribe while tackling his Surrey Advertiser version of events.

New Horizons: The Going Going ... cover shot (Photo: Jessica McMillan)

New Horizons: The Going Going … cover shot (Photo: Jessica McMillan)

Gedge was certainly soon at ease in his new environment, jovially complaining about the mistuning of his guitar for the opening song, before a rare live performance of 1991 b-side Mothers by cult New Zealand outfit The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience.

There had been two personnel changes since my last TWP outing at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club two and a half years ago, Danielle Wadey moving from occasional keyboards to bass and Marcus Kain now giving it some on guitar. Actually, I should imagine Danielle and drummer Charlie Layton were also going for it, but a pillar obscured my view, so I was concentrating on the new German addition and the bandleader, with plenty of on-stage chemistry between them.

Three great Going Going … cuts followed, the bass-driven Bells and handclap-punctuated Two Bridges followed by the wondrous Rachel, ‘the best pop song you’ll hear this year’, its writer rightly suggested.

We took a heavy trip on Take Fountain’s Interstate 5 before Gedge reflected on the 12 videos made in single-heavy 1992, saying he was proud of all those promos apart from next selection Love Slave, no doubt leading to a post-gig viewing frenzy on YouTube as we reminded ourselves why. Thankfully the song remains far more appealing.

Next, I was transported back to a bedroom two miles away in Shalford in 1987 on Anyone Can Make a Mistake. Don’t get any ideas though – it was my folks’ house, and I’m alluding to my first vinyl plays of REC 006/12 and LEEDS1. Bizarro’s What Have I Said Now? was next, keeping the nostalgia topped up, prompting a shout from the back of ‘Take Me’, the singer asking if that was a song request or a proposition. Either way, it never happened.

At that stage we had the latest instalment of the TWP Facts live feature, Danielle sharing her new-found knowledge of Guildford, in the record books for the first recorded game of cricket in the 16th century. And that fascinating nugget of local knowledge led to two more fine cuts from the latest LP, Fifty-Six’s Orange Juice-like instrumental climax followed by Bear, all the more gorgeous for the bass player’s close harmonies with Gedge.

mi0000144326We returned to those ’92 super-hits for other-worldly crowd-rouser Flying Saucer, before mention of the summer’s planned George Best 30th anniversary tour led to the band tackling the mighty Everyone Thinks He looks Daft, inspiring feverish audience reaction, as was the case for the chart-worrier that followed, 1989’s Kennedy, bringing the biggest roar of the night.

There was a lot of love too for Seamonsters’ openers Dalliance and Dare, no less sharp for the passing of – yikes – 25 years, Gedge and Kain gloriously rampant on guitar.

And then – after a wrap-up conversation from Gedge in which he did the obligatory explanation of not playing encores, thanked everyone for coming and courteously enquired if we’d all had a great night – they wrapped up with the epic Santa Monica, even fitting in a few lines of a non-seasonal No Christmas in there. Awesome all round.

As the main man voiced at one stage, “I can’t believe we haven’t played here before,” to which one punter suggested they came back the following night. And while the Brighton-based frontman admitted it wasn’t a bad idea, he did add a non-committal, ‘We might not be here, but …’ Long may The Wedding Present story continue though, and here’s hoping my old manor won’t have to wait another 30 years until the next visit.

For a wealth of past writewyattuk TWP features and reviews, try these links:

David Gedge interview (September 2014)

The Wedding Present at Hebden Bridge Trades Club (July 2014)

Going Going… review (September 2016)

Valentina review/appreciation of the band (July 2012)

To find out all the latest on The Wedding Present and forthcoming dates, try the band’s Scopitones website and keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

Boileroom Buddies: The Wedding Present, 2017 - David Gedge looks over (from the left) Marcus Kain, Charlie Layton and Danielle Wadey.

Boileroom Buddies: The Wedding Present, 2017. Clockwise from top – David Gedge, Danielle Wadey, Charlie Layton, Marcus Kain.

For more details on Andy Ruddy, his live itinerary, and how to get hold of his recordings, try his site or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter

Finally, to see what’s happening at the Boileroom in the near future, and find out more about the Always the Sun festival. try their website here, and follow them via Facebook and Twitter

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The Orchids / The Chesterfields / The Suncharms – Preston, The Continental

Continental Class: The Orchids in action in Preston (Photo: Julie Wright)

Continental Class: The Orchids in action in Preston (Photo: Julie Wright)

In these uncertain times, I’m all for reaffirmations that things ain’t so bad after all, and three treasured indie bands put plenty of smiles on faces at a Lancashire riverside pub venue on Friday night, serving up a feast of neat lyrics, winning melodies, singalong choruses and chiming guitars.

The early 1990s’ so-called ‘shoegaze’ scene rarely resonated with me. I saw Ride, Lush, and a few others, but felt little of that rush of DIY post-punk indie from a ‘what shall we do now?’ era on the alternative scene. Yet while Tuff Life Boogie’s evening openers were lumped in with all that, they seem to transcend those roots.

The Suncharms certainly hit the ground running at The Conti, a power-blasting Wash Away putting me in mind of Bobby Gillespie fronting The Wedding Present. And they barely drew breath from there, next offering Spaceship again including a Gedge-esque six-string climax.

There was at least one new song and suggestions of more to come soon, this Sheffield five-piece’s re-emergence attracting a sizeable following, most crossing the Pennines to see their heroes’ first live outing since ‘93. And thankfully there was no evidence of the pudding bowl hairdo sported by frontman Marcus Palmer on their new retrospective CD cover. In fact, they’re all wearing well and scrubbed up alreet on the neet.

As well as the Weddoes – apparently David Gedge once suggested their previous name The Eunuchs wasn’t the greatest – at times there were Teenage Fanclub touches from guitarists Matt Neale and John Malone, while Marcus shook his tambourine to a beat dictated by a formidable drum and bass engine-room stoked by Chris Ridley and Richard Farnell respectively.

And for me they were at their best on Magic Carpet, Marcus stepping up a gear, the band then seeing themselves out in style with the epic She Feels and One I See.

Charming Men: Steel City visitors The Suncharms get things rolling (Photo: Julie Wright)

Charming Men: Steel City visitors The Suncharms get things rolling (Photo: Julie Wright)

Next were The Chesterfields, my eagerly-awaited first live sighting of this Wessex outfit in close to 30 years. And while there were early nerves, that inspired added warmth from the audience. They hadn’t had the greatest journey North, and didn’t quite do gorgeous opener Shame About the Rain credit, yet started to find their feet on fellow Kettle cut Oh Mr Wilson and Crocodile Tears’ Lunchtime for the Wild Youth.

They found top gear in time for 1986’s Sweet Revenge, bass player Simon Barber and co-singer/guitarist Helen Stickland’s harmonies working well, confidence continuing to build on later single Blame. Meanwhile, Girl on a Boat proved emotional, co-founder Simon a little choked explaining how their debut b-side was the first written with the late Davey Goldsworthy.

By then the band dynamic was apparent too, and while clearly missing Davey’s stagecraft they work together as a unit, lead guitarist Andy Strickland – also on board for a short spell in ’87 – proving a key addition. And it was the latter calling the crowd closer – much of the Yorkshire contingent having momentarily retreated to the bar – for This is Pop, a fine song borrowed from Simon, Hel and drummer Rob Parry’s other band, Design.

A new arrangement of Let It Go did Simon’s brother Mark Barber’s song justice, while Andy shone on a golden oldie from The Caretaker Race, the late ‘80s outfit he formed after leaving Pete Astor in The Loft (so to speak). But while Anywhere But Home is also pushing 30 – hints of Bobby Freeman’s Ramones-covered Do You Wanna Dance arguably taking it back even further – it proved as fresh as a blooming orchid, you could say.

There were no brass effects, yet Hel and Simon supplied a few ‘ba-ba-bahs’ on the bright and breezy Goodbye Goodbye, before the timely arrival of Last Train to Yeovil, no doubt confusing any loco-spotters supping a pint at this hostelry in the shadows of the West Coast Main Line’s bridge over the River Ribble.

They were on a high now, and I’d have happily heard at least another half-dozen tunes. And it’s worth nothing that Helen’s smile was as big as Simon’s sense of relief that it had gone pretty well after all. Time had run away though and it was pretty clear which songs they’d finish on, suggesting we Ask Johnny Dee where they were staying that night (they weren’t so sure at that point) before the glorious Completely and Utterly rounded things off nicely.

Wessex Wonders: The Chesterfields, wondering where they're staying that night (Photo: Julie Wright)

Wessex Wonders: The Chesterfields, wondering where they’re staying that night (Photo: Julie Wright)

Talking of smiles, frontman James Hackett wore a grin as big as his Caledonian city throughout The Orchids’ set. That went for the entire band actually, guitarists John Scally and Keith Sharp flanking inside-forwards James and Ronnie Borland (bass) in a four-up-front formation, the latter pair’s … erm, distinguished hair suggesting something of a Father Ted convention.

It’s something of a crime that may have perplexed DCI Jim Taggart that they aren’t better known, but there’s still time to catch up on a band up there with the finest Scottish ’80s and ’90s exports, at times reminiscent of Aztec Camera, Belle and Sebastian, The Go-Betweens (Scottish by association), Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Orange Juice and the afore-mentioned TFc, and arguably an influence on later arrivals Camera Obscura and King Creosote.

Tuff Life Boogie’s second Glaswegian guests in four weeks – after Rose McDowall’s band – looked the most relaxed of Friday’s acts, afloat on the adoration afforded them, James’  seemingly-effortless yet quietly powerful vocals and banks of glorious guitars proving a real pick-me-up.

They started with 1994’s Obsession No.1 before She’s My Girl and the super-catchy Something’s Going On illustrated their quality output since 2004’s return in a ‘best of’ set spanning 15 years of great tunes. There was many a singalong en route too, not least on ‘89’s It’s Only Obvious, while the more recent Another Saturday Night and Hey! Sometimes kept the vibe alive.

The band showed their earlier edge on 1989 single What Will We Do Next before the more reflective Welcome to My Curious Heart from their Sarah Records swansong Striving for the Lazy Perfection, while Peaches proved a perfect theme tune on the night, the softly-lilting studio cut becoming an inspirational anthem live, the crowd more than willing to, ‘Get yourself high, feed your soul, set yourself free!’

We were clearly in the realms of classics now, 1990’s Something for the Longing and Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled nothing short of wondrous, that ‘make me happy, make me smile’ line truly evocative, The Sadness of Sex (Part One) and Caveman further highlighting the band’s writing range.

Stage Presence: Glasgow cult heroes The Orchids went down a storm at The Conti (Photo: Julie Wright)

Stage Presence: Glasgow cult heroes The Orchids went down a storm at The Conti (Photo: Julie Wright)

Negotiations followed as to how long an encore they could manage, the rest of the band stepping aside as James gave us an acoustic guitar-fuelled Blue Light from Lyceum, before pondering, ‘If my mother could see me now’. There was just time for unrehearsed early b-side Apologies too, re-started after a little on-the-job training for John, with James telling us, ‘If Adele can do it, so can I’. And that was the last hurrah on a night of gorgeous hooks and all-round good vibrations, all three groups staking a claim to The Chesterfields’ saviour status, breaking our hearts with those electric guitars in their hearts.

Many thanks to Julie Wright for the live photographs, with these and more also featured on the Last Day Deaf webzine (also featuring interviews with all three bands), with a link here.

For the latest from The Orchids, check out their Facebook group page via this link. To keep up to date with The Suncharms and see where to get hold of their CD, try here. And for all the news from The Chesterfields try them via Facebook and also check out Design (including details of their debut CD, Black Marker Red Marker) through this link

Finally, just in case you missed it, this site also recently featured an in-depth interview with Simon Barber of The Chesterfields and Design, linked here.

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Four-eyed handsome men – introducing Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars


Truck'n'Roll: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars (Photo: Dave Brown)

Truck’n’Roll: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars (Photo: Dave Brown)

I wouldn’t expect the fervour of a 1950s audience when Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars make their latest return to Chorley Little Theatre this weekend. For the sake of the team at this Lancashire venue you’d hope those days of ripped-out seats and near-riots are in the past. But there will be genuine rock’n’roll spirit, and plenty of dancing in the aisles.

As I’m always at pains to point out, I tend to steer clear of covers bands on these pages, but this likeable outfit are far more than that anyway. And as I put it to Slim Spectacular, this four-piece outfit’s drummer (his real name, Jose, gives a hint of his Portuguese roots, but it’s also a great rock’n’roll name in itself, I reckon), it’s more complicated, isn’t it?

“I guess. We do covers, but change arrangements to make them sound more ‘50s. It’s pretty much a mix of old and new, with around 10 originals and as many we’ve taken into that style – more modern songs from the likes of Daft Punk.”

That latter cover mentioned is Get Lucky, while the band also have their ‘nine-minute medley of lots of songs in the key of A’, not only a bit of Elvis Presley but also CeeLo Green, Prince and Meghan Trainor, rockabilly style. They’re a mighty live act too, judging by video clips like those filmed at The Ferret in Preston a while ago, doing a storming cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ Shakin’ All Over.

“We do enjoy those extended pieces … holding those notes.”

In my old neck of the woods in darkest Surrey, there was a band I saw regularly who did the finest Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent covers, a fella called Spike heading up the Hog Valley Stompers and (prior to that) Inspector Tuppence and the Sexy Firemen, the latter supplying a few tracks to a winning 1987 vinyl rock’n’roll revival compilation called The James Deans of the Dole Queue – a Rockabilly Revolution. The fact that Spike used a vintage microphone added to that ’50s feel. And there’s something about those songs being played live that works so well.

“We much prefer playing live. We try and get in to record, but sometimes listen back and it never sound so good, never quite capturing that moment.”

Spectacular Sound: Doug and co. take a break (Photo: Dave Brown)

Spectacular Sound: Doug and co. take a break (Photo: Dave Brown)

That’s how it is with Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars, taking inspiration from rock’n’roll’s pioneers, recreating and reinventing that unique sound, while emulating the greats – from Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Eddie Cochran to Duane Eddy, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. Mind you, I was impressed by the recording of their own composition, Full-Time Rockin’ Man, on a recent live album.

“Ah, great. When we recorded that album, we multi-tracked but didn’t over-dub. We tried to do it in a 50s style, all in a big circle, pressing record and seeing what came out, track-by-track.”

That particular song name-checks a ‘part-time shelf stacker, full-time rockin’ man’. Is that autobiographical of Tarleton-based lead singer/guitarist Stu (aka Doug)?

“Yeah, Stu worked for Booth’s in Hesketh Bank. That was the first song he brought to us. We were just the seeds of a band then. We all knew each other from bands over the years, but all the planets aligned – we were all without a band at the same time, all in the pub at the same time.”

That hostelry was the Dog Inn, Whittle-le-Woods, where they used the back room to practise. Surely that sounds more Phoenix Nights than The Sky at Night though, not least considering the proximity of local luminary Dave Spikey.

“Dave’s been to see us a few times actually. I don’t know if I can say he’s a fan, but we played once or twice at the Royal Oak, close to the Dog. Anyway, Stu told us he had this idea for a rockabilly song and came with these lyrics, and the Dog Inn was our haunt at the time.”

They started out as an acoustic combo, ‘almost like a skiffle band’, Chorley-based Jose using brushes instead of drumsticks. The switch to electric came later. Of Stu and Jose’s bandmates, there’s also double bass player Chris (DB), also from Chorley, and lead guitarist Malcolm (Chet) from not-so-far-off Penwortham.

“We’re all Northern lads, as it were.”

Guitar Man: Doug Perkins, in live action (Photo: Dave Brown)

Guitar Man: Doug Perkins, in live action (Photo: Dave Brown)

While Stu was singing about shelf-stacking at Booth’s on that early track, he’s moved on since, and is away with his job with Evan’s Cycles a lot these days, hence Jose stepping into the breach to talk to me. In fact, Jose’s a music technology teacher at Winstanley College in Wigan. So are the band any closer to becoming a full-time operation?

“I don’t think so. It’s always been a hobby, but we like to be out there at least once a week. It was a lot more than that, but got a bit much with all our work commitments. This way we keep it fresh.”

Now and again a contemporary artist takes on a few rock’n’roll classics, Paul McCartney’s cracking 1999 album Run Devil Run springing to mind. But Richard Hawley’s the only contemporary star of note I can think of who gets away with the slicked-back hair and rock’n’roll demeanour.

“Stu’s a big fan of Richard Hawley. And it’ll never go away. Even The Arctic Monkeys have taken on a bit of a ’50s style in one or two songs, like Baby I’m Yours.”

The band don’t seem quite old enough to have seen all the 80s rockabilly revival bands. So why did they seek out rock’n’roll?

“Stu was already into that style of music. We’d played in folk or rock bands. But as a music teacher I was really interested in recording processes, how they made those records before having the technology we have today, and how we could make that sound. I think it was songs like Elvis Presley’s Mystery Train, early Johnny Cash, hearing Eddie Cochran and that rawness. It’s almost punk.”

Those same influences were heard in early Beatles recordings too, of course.

“Exactly, and the Rolling Stones and all those early ‘60s bands playing what was coming over from America.”

Drum Major: Jose (Slim) gives it some stick with the Spectaculars (Photo: Rachael Foster)

Drum Major: Jose (Slim) gives it some stick with the Spectaculars (Photo: Rachael Foster)

Talking of recording techniques, one such visionary was Buddy Holly, which brings me on to another of the band’s unique selling points – they all just happen to wear glasses. Hence the band name. For while theirs is a truly rock’n’roll monicker, there’s a neat story as to how they settled on that.

“The original name was going to be The Spectacles, but we decided we needed something more ‘50s, and for some reason looked up who was the CEO of Specsavers, learning about Doug and Mary Perkins. And we felt we couldn’t get a more rock’n’roll name than Doug Perkins.”

In fact, Doug has become a big fan, the band having played the high street optician chain’s annual party at his Guernsey HQ before now, even writing the track Love is Blind to mark the occasion. And talking of high profile backing, BBC radio presenter Mark Radcliffe said on his Radio 2 folk show, ‘if you saw that name outside a pub, you’d probably go in, wouldn’t you’.

He has a point, and I get the impression that if those punters did walk in, they’d soon be won over, as proved to be the case when the band triumphed in the People’s Choice award at the Rock the House 2014 national competition and the previous year’s Band Royale competition at the Fox and Goose in Southport.

I mention the Doug Perkins story and its link to the Channel Islands, but there’s another back-story doing the rounds, taking the tale back to the mountainous city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the now nearly-forgotten Indian Gap Trail, where apparently a young cow-poke named Billy Joe Perkins met a young woman of Cherokee descent named Salali. They married and in mid-July 1934 gave birth to a son they named Douglas.

If you head over to their website you can learn a bit more about that version of the origins of the band. A fine tale it is too, although it’s slightly spoiled when you read that their current hometown is ‘Preston, Lancashire’. Or does that add to the mystique? I’ll let you decide. Anyway, what can we expect at Chorley Little Theatre this weekend? I’m guessing you attract an audience of all ages.

“Definitely, and it’s a gig that often pulls those who might not come to see us in a pub. If you book a standing venue, perhaps no one will come, but this way lots will book but then come up at the end and say, ‘I wish there were no seats, then I’d get up and dance’.”

That said, you are set to play The Continental in Preston in early May too.

Sweet Harmonies: DB and Chet add voice to the Spectaculars' cause (Photo: Rachael Foster)

Sweet Harmonies: DB and Doug add voice to the Spectaculars’ cause (Photo: Rachael Foster)

“Yes, and there’s a bigger music following there. We don’t tend to play so many gigs in Preston, so that should be pretty well attended. That’s a really good venue for music, where people will take a punt on a band rather than just appealing to the locals.”

Danny and the Juniors suggested almost 50 years ago that rock’n’roll is here to stay, and you seem to be the living embodiment of that statement. What say, Jose?

“Oh, I think so. We just want to keep those sounds alive. Most of us are in our 30s, with Stu the youngest, but I think the older folk who remember it all first time around appreciate it. They tell us it’s nice we’re keeping it going, and that it’s better to hear these songs played than all that Kings of Leon and what-have you.”

And let’s face it, there are still a few old rock’n’rollers doing the rounds in Lancashire.

“Yeah, we get the Preston Rock’n’Roll Club popping down every so often, and Swingaroo Vintage Dancehall have us once a year. That’s always a cracking gig, with all that ‘50s dancing.”

Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars play Chorley Little Theatre, Dole Lane, Chorley, Lancashire, on Saturday, February 18 (7.30pm), with tickets £6 on the door, or via Malcolm’s Musicland in the town or the band’s website via this link. There’s also a Facebook link here.

They then return on Friday, May 5 (8pm) at The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, supported by Djangopop, with tickets £6 again, on sale from Eventbrite or in person from the venue and via 01772 499425. There’s a Facebook page for that show too, via this link.

Rockin' Men: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars giving it their all, rockabilly style (Photo: Dave Brown)

Rockin’ Men: Doug Perkins and the Spectaculars giving it their all, rockabilly style (Photo: Dave Brown)

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Sofa, so good – talking about The Chesterfields with Simon Barber

Brooklyn Beat: The Chesterfields, live at the NYC Popfest, 2016 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Brooklyn Beat: The Chesterfields, live at the NYC Popfest, 2016 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

With his monthly magazine deadline approaching, Simon Barber could probably do without a long chat with me about The Chesterfields.

The 58-year-old – born the day after Paul Weller in the same Surrey town – is these days at the helm of monthly West Country arts magazine Evolver, established in 2001 and soon set to celebrate its 100th issue. He’s something of a one-man band there, save for a little office support and a couple of business partners. Yet I guess he always had entrepreneurial and creative edge, having co-fronted bands since the mid-‘80s, running labels and designing records.

The Chesterfields certainly had plenty of DIY indie spirit, an initial spell with Martin Whitehead’s Bristol label The Subway Organisation leading to them setting up their own operation, Household. Simon was heavily involved in all that, and while part of his artistic approach was later utilised in his day-job, he never walked away from music. In fact, it was through his band Design that he dipped a toe into indie’s heritage circuit. And what started out as a few Chesterfields covers proved to be a first move towards his most recent outings under the old band name.

In the second half of the 1980s, The Chesterfields were at the heart of a West Country live scene that drew in plenty of outside interest, along with The Blue Aeroplanes and the Brilliant Corners. It will be 30 years this Spring since this band of ‘Yeovil yokels’ (copyright pretty much every lazy ‘80s music journo) presented their delightful debut LP, Kettle. That’s as good a reason as any for Simon and co. to get back on the road again, and next weekend they’re playing two shows in the North West of England – Friday, February 17th at the Continental, Preston, and the following evening at Gulliver’s, Manchester.

It’s a complicated affair though, co-frontman Davey Goldsworthy having been gone for more than a decade now, the victim of a hit-and-run incident in Oxford. So these days The Chesterfields comprise founder member Simon (bass, vocals), later addition Andy Strickland (guitar, best known for The Loft and The Caretaker Race) and Design bandmates Helen Stickland (guitar, vocals) and Rob Parry (drums).

I should point something else out early on, as it gets a bit confusing. So, Simon, it’s not everyone who has a Stickland and a Strickland in the band, is it?

“No, that is confusing, and I did see an online conversation where someone asked if they were married, someone answering, ‘Yeah, they definitely are’! In fact, Rob and I were thinking we should chance our surnames, with further variations on that.”

Now we’ve cleared that up, let’s get back to that first Chesterfields album, which certainly made a statement – visually and sonically. Rumour has it that they felt that with a name like that, they’d get free prime-time plugs on Coronation Street each time Rita asked Mavis to ’put kettle on’ in The Kabin, and that pretty much summed up the band’s sense of humour. I loved that album then, and still think it stands up to inspection. It was naïve, but perfect pop. Does Simon agree?

“Definitely, and I wouldn’t change anything about it, because of that.”

Iconic Sleeve: The Chesterfields' debut album, from 1987

Iconic Sleeve: The Chesterfields’ debut album, from 1987

I wasn’t sure about that pop-art style pink on similarly garish yellow cover though. In fact, in an interview I did with the band 18 months after its release, I suggested I loathed it. Yet, as I’m at pains to tell Simon, I love it now, and feel proud I still have that album on vinyl.

“A lot of people loved it, but I can only recall two people who said they hated it – one was Martin Whitehead, partly because of the cost. We insisted on that pink, and it had to be specially mixed. Also, Stephen (McRobbie) from The Pastels. He felt it ridiculous that a band could release an album called Kettle and put a big kettle on the sleeve, whereas we always felt that was hilarious.”

The same goes for 1988’s long-playing follow-up Crocodile Tears, taking that colourful theme further with an electric blue portrait of the band on garish salmon pink background. There was a poster of the design inside too, and it adorned my bedroom wall for a while (later folded back inside the sleeve and forgotten until last week, actually). And both albums and several other single sleeves were credited to The Terrible Hildas, one half of whom just happened to be Simon.

The Chesterfields always rang true to me, and like most of the other bands that really resonated, they seemed down to earth and I could see myself up on stage with them. What’s more, while they achieved a modicum of UK, European and Japanese indie success, they always remained true to their West Country roots, something a London-based music press couldn’t quite fathom, yet an attitude that endeared them to me.

I last interviewed Simon – along with his brother, past bandmate Mark Barber – before a cracking Chesterfields gig at Surrey University in early 1989. Work pressures at the time meant it was part of an ill-fated issue of Captains Log fanzine that never hit the streets, but I will get that online very soon. Suffice to say though, that was an odd time for the band, the Barber brothers out front, lead singer Davey Goldsworthy having already quit. They made one single with that line-up, and while remaining a presence on the live circuit, the writing was on the wall.

“I think Fool is a Man had just come out and Davey left earlier that year, so Mark and I were in a phase of co-fronting. Rob Ellis – who went on to play drums for PJ Harvey and is now working with Marianne Faithfull – was on that single and the last European tour with Davey, but had also left, so we had Richard Chant on drums. That would have been one of his first gigs.

“There was also Jamie (Anderson) on guitar, who drove down separately for that gig from Sherborne, while we took Rich. And those two hadn’t met until they went on stage together. It was great, as it happened though.”

You seemed at the time determined to carry on, despite Davey’s departure.

“We were certainly determined that me and Mark would carry on, although in the end that didn’t work creatively. That was more of a shame for me. I thought co-fronting with my brother was the way my life was going. But we write in completely different ways. I tend to bring a bassline and melody line and the rest of the band do what they want, whereas Mark tends to know how everything should sound – from the bassline to the drums. In the end it just didn’t work for us. Mark needed to be doing his own thing where he could be in complete control. I think I was much more disappointed about that than he was.”

Barber Brothers: Mark and Simon Barber, co-fronting the band at Surrey University in early 1989 (Photo: Paul Sherwood)

Barber Brothers: Mark and Simon co-fronting at Surrey University in early ’89 (Photo: Paul Sherwood)

These days Mark is Bristol-based, doing occasional shows as Pop Parker, including a few past releases on Vinyl Japan. He also toured North America with PJ Harvey a few years ago, played bass with Davey Woodward in The Experimental Pop Band, and now runs a greetings card business.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, to the first incarnation of the band in 1984, with Simon, co-singer/guitarist Davey Goldsworthy and drummer Dominic Manns.

“I knew Dom because I went out with his sister for a while. He was 13 and I heard him drumming on things in his bedroom, using chopsticks and sandwich boxes. I remembered that when Davey and I were looking for a drummer, and he started taking lessons at Yeovil College with John Parish, who was known on that scene and had some success with Thieves Like Us. John was the go-to guy who knew what he was doing!

“Davey and I were part of the Yeovil punk scene and played in various bands. I was in The Act, releasing a single that John Peel played, and Davey was in The Bikini Mutants with Debbie Gooch, who went on to My Bloody Valentine. But both bands split, people tending to do that thing of moving to London, thinking that was the way to succeed. In the end all those people ended up being consumed by London while we ended up being the band that succeeded, staying exactly where we were.”

You weren’t tempted to go to Bristol?

“No, Davey was working as a printer in Yeovil, and I was a nurse in a mental hospital. We vaguely knew each other from the scene, and I went round his flat one afternoon with a bag of 7” records. We played each other stuff and realised we loved a lot of the same stuff.

“At that time we particularly loved the Sandie Shaw record with The Smiths, and that’s why to start off neither of us thought we were going to be the singer. We thought we’d put together a band and find a girl singer, and for a while that was Sarah Featherstone, now a fabulously wealthy architect but at that point having a dalliance with local herberts!

“We realised soon Davey needed to be singing, but that afternoon were just playing The Fall and Orange Juice songs. Both of us had early Postcard stuff and both loved The Go-Betweens. I hadn’t heard Man o’ Sand before, while I got him into stuff too. Before all that The Beatles were my thing, while I loved The Smiths and Davey loved The Fall.”

I can hear that Andy Rourke sound in your bass-playing at the time.

“I never considered myself a bassist, so was always playing tunes all the way through, like on Two Girls and a Treehouse. I still don’t play properly, but really don’t want to know how, because maybe the creativity stops then.”

Four Play: The Chesterfields in 1986. From the left - Simon, Davey, Dom, Brendan (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Four Play: The Chesterfields in 1986. From the left – Simon, Davey, Dom, Brendan (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Davey and Simon were also inspired by emerging indie outfit The June Brides, who were on the bill the night they got their big break, thanks to Bristol fanzine writer Martin Whitehead, then in the process of starting The Subway Organisation.

“Martin was doing his fanzine, The Underground, and putting on gigs. Davey and I went to see The June Brides there, which proved a turning point, another band we loved. There was The Loft too, the start of my friendship with Andy Strickland. We also both support the same football team, which helped!”

That’s Portsmouth, by the way, Simon having lived there as a teenager after moving from my Surrey patch, while Andy is from the Isle of Wight. But that’s another story.

“We’d never played outside Yeovil, but a friend of ours was running a fanzine called Screed in the area and putting gigs on, bringing Bogshed and others down. He was asked by the Big Twang Club and Especially Yellow fanzine, run by Johnny Dee in Brighton, to organise a gig in a pub in the middle of nowhere.”

That was The Railway Inn, Templecombe, Somerset (more recently renamed The Royal Wessex and The Templars Retreat, if you’re contemplating a Chesterfields heritage tour), with two coachloads of indie kids from Brighton taken on a ‘magical mystery tour’ one Saturday.

“They didn’t have a clue where they were going, but visited Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas Giant, then arrived for this gig featuring The June Brides, The Shop Assistants and us. Nobody had heard of us, but Johnny Dee (later immortalised in a Chesterfields song) and Martin were there, and I think Phill Jupitus was in the bar doing his Porky the Poet thing. We had the whole Brighton scene in this pub plus all our mates. It was a fantastic night, and we were great. Davey was really on form, everyone loved him and us, and Martin pretty much signed us to Subway straight away.”

At that point, Martin had already released a Shop Assistants single which John Peel broke, and pretty soon had The Soup Dragons on board, followed by The Chesterfields. So was it Subway as in Subway Sect? You did cover a Vic Godard song on Kettle after all.

“When we did that we were more or less covering Orange Juice’s version, only hearing the original after we’d worked out our own. I’ve met Vic since though. Design supported The Bitter Springs in London and he’s mates with them so gets up and sings with them.”

On Location: The Chesterfields in 1988. From the left - Davey, Dom, Simon, Mark, Bradford Abbas (Photo: The Chesterfields)

On Location: The Chesterfields, ’88: Davey, Dom, Simon, Mark, Bradford Abbas (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Has Simon still got a copy of that flexi disc featuring The Chesterfields’ Nose out of Joint and The Shop Assistants’ Home Again?

“Yeah, I’ve got everything. I’m pretty good at archiving recordings, and also music press and fanzines.”

As well as Davey, Brendan Holden plays guitar on Kettle, but soon made way for Rodney Allen, another former Captains Log interviewee, recently mentioned in my interview with The Blue Aeroplanes’ Gerard Langley (linked here), having joined that Bristol outfit not long after leaving The Chesterfields.

“By the time Kettle came out Brendan had left, and we’d got to know Rodney. He was a fan, knew all the songs, and fitted right in, although he had his own career. Sometimes we’d play somewhere and he’d go on first. Then Andy came in, and played probably our biggest gig, at Glastonbury Festival.”

That’s another story, which I’ll go into more detail on another time. But, in short, a smashed windscreen on the Friday night of the ’87 event meant myself and two other festival-goers spent a frustrating evening waiting for a replacement in Castle Cary, so we missed their set. I was however around the following afternoon when Rodney played on the main stage. In fact, it turns out Simon’s still in touch with Rodney, still based very close to the festival site in Pilton.

“I always loved his song, Saturday the If, my favourite song, not just of his, but of anyone. He knew that and asked me to get up and sing it at this packed-out gig, one of my personal highlights, his whole family stood in front of me, gazing up. Magical! I love that song so much.”

I’m with him on that. That was the song that really summed up Glastonbury ’87 for me, and it might even have been the first time that weekend the sun came out and started to dry out the mud. We had a bit of a moment like that when we played there. It was a bit miserable until we did Ask Johnny Dee, looking at each other, thinking, ‘What? Has that really happened?’ There was a similar thing when I saw the Go-Betweens. It was very muddy and I think I’d just watched a terrible band on the main stage, when they came on and the sun came out. Fantastic.”

Post Kettle: The Chesterfields in 1987. From the left - Rodney, Simon, Dom, Davey (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Post Kettle: The Chesterfields in 1987. From the left – Rodney, Simon, Dom, Davey (Photo: The Chesterfields)

By the time they’d played Glastonbury ’87, The Chesterfields had released their Guitar in Your Bath EP and Completely and Utterly single (both ’86) then Kettle, early singles compilation Westward Ho! soon following. And within a year, on their label, there was also Crocodile Tears, another LP that stood the test of time. So what inspired them to break away from Subway?

“We had a good relationship with Revolver Distribution in Bristol and Lloyd there suggested we should set up our own label. For a while we put another band from Yeovil, The Beat Hotel, on there too. They were great but unfortunately split up at their peak, going off in a different direction.

“We wanted to do another album for Subway, but Martin wasn’t ready. I think he wanted to wait – maybe rightly – until we had another album’s worth of material. We were writing, but we were on that treadmill – we had management and wanted something out there.

“In retrospect there was a lot we did that we should have slowed down. We had an agency and were saying yes to everything. If we’d taken a pause at some stage, perhaps Davey wouldn’t have left when he did. We could have taken a short break, got our breath back.”

Did you feel you’d learned enough from your Subway experience to steer yourself towards forming your own label?

“Well, it was me running Household, basically, and I loved the idea of it, establishing an aesthetic and a look, and there were things I felt Martin could have done better at Subway. But he was doing it in that naive way, in the same way that Creation were.”

And I suppose 27 singles and 15 albums without a proper business plan is some going. You can’t knock Subway’s indie spirit. As for Household, I bought the next Chesterfields’ singles and second album and even The Beat Hotel’s Hey Audacious 12”. But it seems that was the last of nine label releases.

“Yeah, The Beat Hotel and The Chesterfields collapsed around the same time, and it just felt like there were new things happening, like a band called The Becketts and PJ Harvey, and my post-Chesterfields band were definitely influenced by American bands. On our last European tour with Davey we were in our agent’s cellar when he played Gigantic by The Pixies and Freak Scene by Dinosaur Jr. Davey and I looked at each other and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, the world’s changed a little’, us wanting to do something more like that.”

15241210_1780734865512134_5898739236828637141_nThat said, he remains quietly proud of much of that Crocodile Tears LP. Quite rightly too.

“I played it all the way through for the first time in years recently, and really enjoyed it. There are things I’m not so sure about and I really don’t like the front cover. A lot of it was really rushed and some of the songs didn’t achieve what some of them went on to be. We made a few wrong decisions, and I feel we should have used a slightly different recording of Lunchtime for the Wild Youth.

“That was the song John Peel played from that album, but it wasn’t a single. Half of the band wanted one song for a single while the other half and the manager wanted Blame.  I felt Let It Go – my brother’s song – should have been a single, but we should have made more of Lunchtime, not least because of the reaction it got live and from Peelie, who played it several times.”

There was an impressive contribution from Simon’s brother on that album (Mark having taken over from Andy Strickland), not least on compositions such as Alison Wait and Let It Go.

“I loved Alison Wait, but hated playing it. We were playing what Mark wanted us to play. But we do Let It Go as part of our current set. Besides, Mark’s seen us do it, and approves.”

If anything, Crocodile Tears at least took them away from being lumped in with a scene of so-called ‘twee indie pop’. On their Wikipedia write-up, it mentions how ‘hardcore fans’ tended to refer to them as ‘The Chesterf!elds’ with an exclamation mark in there. That made me laugh. I didn’t really imagine them having hardcore fans.

“I really don’t know where that came from!”

Radio 1 night-time DJ Janice Long was a great supporter of the band in the early days, and through her and Peelie that’s no doubt how I picked up on them. But that misleading description ‘twee’ got used a lot in the music press. Did they prefer ‘Bristol jangly pop’, as the Japanese market later suggested?

“I think Crocodile Tears separated us from that whole scene, also that Sarah Records scene. Lots of great things came out of that, but we were old punk rockers, having loved the energy of Orange Juice and all that, which I felt followed on from bands like Buzzcocks.”

Industrial Past: Brendan, Simon, Dom, Davey - Gas House Hill, Sherborne, 1986 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

Industrial Past: Brendan, Simon, Dom, Davey – Gas House Hill, Sherborne, 1986 (Photo: The Chesterfields)

I agree, and when I saw them at a packed Coalhole in Covent Garden in early June ’87, I was surprised by the touristy, trendy indie audience. That wasn’t how I imagined it all when I listened to the records.

“Yeah, we certainly didn’t have twee indie attitude, and never felt like we fitted in. One regret we had was that we had a manager early on who did a deal with Time Out to allow them to come and photograph us in anoraks for a feature. Davey and I were against it, but the others said we should. There’s a photograph somewhere of us in these anoraks, and we just look stupid. But maybe that attracted the audience that bought the records, so you can’t really be too dismissive.”

They certainly had a big Japanese following, ultimately leading to the band re-grouping – with Davey back in the fold – for 1994 album Flood, and more live dates, including some in the Far East.

“Japan loved The Chesterfields’ aesthetic, the guitars, and sleeve designs. They bought into all that. We’ve still got fans out there and there’s a possibility we might be able to go over there again. I’d also like to take Design there. That’s one of the problems of being involved in a band doing new things but also doing the heritage thing. But it did get both bands to the NYC Popfest last year!”

Confession time now. At the beginning of ’94 I moved to Lancashire, a lot was happening in my life, and I was concentrating on a football fanzine rather than writing about music, so was more likely to write about Yeovil Town FC than a Chesterfields’ re-emergence. Accordingly, it took me until buying the 2005 Cherry Red best of (Electric Guitars in their Hearts) retrospective to hear the splendid Down by the Wishing Pool single and the LP that followed.

Yet, as I put it to Simon, Flood is a bit of a strange animal for me, although there are some great tracks there and a promise of what might have come next.

“Maybe, but it was three people coming back together – Davey, me and Mark, with songs half-written with other bands we were in at the time. We loved doing that album, and did it with Head, who’s doing PJ Harvey’s stuff now. The process was brilliant, Davey was back on form, and we did it because Vinyl Japan asked us to do it. They paid for it and we agreed to do it if we could go and play Japan, playing over there with the TV Personalities.

“I’m not unhappy with that album. I love a couple of Davey’s songs and his lyrics. There are a couple of tracks I’m not so sure about, and we’re not doing anything from it this time, although some think we really should.“

There are a few lovely Teenage Fanclub type guitar moments there too, although arguably too low in the mix for me.

“Oh yeah – that’s Davey!”

There was also the Open to Persuasion single at the end of that year, but nothing more. So how come?

“We came back and did a couple of gigs but there wasn’t really that much interest, so just went back to the bands we were with before. But it was great fun and I suppose that’s what I’m still doing now. If The Chesterfields are asked to do things, and we can afford to, we do it, and it’s really good fun. I’ve seen clips of bands that have reformed from that time and felt they shouldn’t have. That was my big fear. But I’m told that’s not the case with us.”

While that Cherry Red compilation helped re-ignite interest, it came barely a year after Davey’s tragic death, a father of two lads gone far too early. Was Simon still in touch with him?

“Yeah, we saw each other regularly. He moved to Brighton for a while, then Oxford, and was in New York for a while. He actually phoned the week before he was killed. We had a really nice conversation, touching in retrospect on our relationship and things like that. That was very weird, having that conversation just before. In fact, the same thing happened with another friend the following year.

“Davey was always the person – whatever I was doing – whose opinion meant more to me for any music I was working on than anyone else. Then suddenly that person was gone. That was hard. I still think lyrically he was one of the best. Anything I write now I measure against that, imagining sharing it with Davey, asking what he thinks, just as it was.”

The Subway Organisation 1986-1989 CD sleevenotes mention ‘Davey’s sharp, observant and smart lyrics set The Chesterfields apart from the soundalikes’. Is that fair comment?

“Yeah. I agree with that.”

City Slickers: The Chesterfields, New York City, 2016 - Helen, Andy, Rob, Simon (Photo: The Chesterfields)

City Slickers: The Chesterfields, New York City, 2016 – Helen, Andy, Rob, Simon (Photo: Rowan Taylor)

A dozen years later we have that new line-up though, borne out of the 2014 retrospective celebrations of the legendary NME C86 tape, as Design, augmented by Andy Strickland, played a set of Chesterfields songs at the 92 Club in London. They continued to play a few of those ‘heritage songs’ live, finally going out under the old band name with Andy again last year at Exeter’s Cavern Club and The 100 Club in London.

And it’s fair to say Simon’s still on something of a high about last summer’s appearances with both The Chesterfields and Design at the NYC Popfest, playing The Knitting Factory, Brooklyn, putting it up there with that breakthrough Templecombe showcase and 1987’s Glastonbury (also involving Andy Strickland).

“Just to be up there singing Davey’s songs and my songs, with friends, in a place I never thought I’d go to with the band, with the audience seeming to know all the songs. All the other bands were lovely too, and the whole experience was just fantastic.

“I still think about playing Glastonbury too, our biggest gig. There have been so many highs, including playing Tokyo and recording for Janice Long. She was a huge fan and her support was so important.  Peelie didn’t play us quite so much, but told our manager he would if Janice hadn’t already taken us. He said, ‘You don’t need my help’. It would have been lovely to do a Peel session but we were very proud to record for Janice. Our sessions were released on vinyl too, and that was her personal choice.”

Furthermore, it seems that Simon’s very happy for Helen to share the limelight out front, and their voices work well together, not dissimilar from that juxtaposition with Davey’s voice.

“Yeah, I found my other perfect side-kick in Helen, after Davey, with whom I had that sweet’n’sour Lennon-McCartney thing. I don’t have to be a front-man, even when they’re my songs and I’m singing lead.”

15232068_1780781692174118_8088713971218767367_nThe Chesterfields play The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, Lancashire, on Friday, February 17th, on a Tuff Life Boogie bill topped by Glasgow five-piece The Orchids and also including Sheffield’s The Suncharms’ first show in almost 25 years. Tickets are £8 (advance) or £10 (door) from WeGot Tickets, SEE Tickets, Skiddle, the venue (01772 499425) or Action Records (01772 884772). For more details follow this link.

And on Saturday, February 18th the band top the bill at Gulliver’s, Oldham Street, Manchester, supported by Karen (Brilliant Corners frontman Davey Woodward’s band) and Matinee Records’ Charlie Big Time. Tickets are £7 or £9 on the door, available from the venue or this link.



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Strictly for Dance Lovers – in conversation with Brendan Cole

Strictly Glamour: Brendan Cole, out on the floor, in good company, and heading to a town near you

Strictly Glamour: Brendan Cole, out on the floor, in good company, and heading to a town near you

Brendan Cole made his British television debut 21 years ago, and has been a Strictly Come Dancing draw since the Saturday night prime-time BBC One show’s 2004 debut.

But forget the small screen for a moment. Right now he’s treading the boards – or at least bounding and gliding across them – in theatres across the UK, promising a spectacular production this month and next with his All Night Long show, featuring eight world-class dancers, a 14-piece band and a feast of lighting, special effects and choreography.

The 40-year-old New Zealander and his cast – including the show’s new leading lady Faye Huddleston – are aiming to dazzle 45 audiences up until an April 2nd finale at the Mayflower in Southampton. And as the headliner himself puts it, this is no ‘sit back and watch’ production.

They started out at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre and earlier this week reached The Palace, Manchester, with future dates including a few more on my Lancashire patch – at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall (Thursday, February 9th), Preston Guild Hall (Saturday, February 18th) and Blackpool Opera House (Thursday, March 23rd). And that must all take a fair bit of stamina, as this two left-footed scribe mentioned to Latin American dance expert Brendan when we spoke ahead of his final tour rehearsals.

“It’s pretty full on and intense. There are five matinees too. It’s not a quiet show.”

He promises a production chock-full of high energy routines. So how did his month of rehearsals go?

“It’s really hard to train for and get fit for. And you burst on to the stage. It doesn’t start with a nice casual waltz. It’s full on from start to finish. There’s no preparing for that. You could do as many hours in the gym as you want, if you had time, but you get fit on the stage, and need to look like you’re fit from that first night. But two or three days in you find that you are match fit, because you’ve done it, your body knows what it feels like and you’ve managed to conserve energy at certain points.”

098How involved was Brendan in organising and choreographing the show, deciding who’s on the bill, and so on?

“Every aspect of the show has my fingerprint on it. It’s not someone else’s show, like some of the others out there. It’s very much mine from start to finish – from concept and costumes to lighting and casting. I don’t have a director coming in and telling me what to do.

“Having said that, it’s very much a creative process, with my cast very much involved in putting the show together. And I want them involved. I want them to feel it and be excited by it. Their input inspires me, and my input inspires them. I make most of the decisions, but it’s very much driven by a team effort. My musical director and my wife sit down and we discuss the songs, but we make sure we’ve got a diverse number of songs. It’s collective, and that’s what makes the show work.”

It seems to be a big undertaking, with rumours of a fleet of trucks heading between towns and cities. Does Brendan enjoy the travel aspect?

“I absolutely love it. I love the camaraderie. We have 22 people on the road, and don’t tell my wife but I love being on tour! It’s exciting. We’re a good bunch. I’ve been working with these musicians now for seven years on the road and know them very well. We all get on really well and have some great nights out after shows.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard being away from family, but to get two months on the road with friends – new and old – is exciting. We’re on a coach, we travel around, we go out, and we unwind after the adrenaline of that two-hour show. You need a good two hours after a show to unwind, so we go for a glass of wine or a beer and sit around talking and laughing about the mishaps that happen on stage. We’re just talking nonsense all the time. It’s great!”

It turns out that this is Brendan’s ninth UK tour. Could he ever have dreamed of all this as an 18-year-old about to leave New Zealand for the UK?

“No, it’s quite something when you look back.”

bc-all-night-longHe’s clearly worked hard for his success, but does he think he fell on his feet, so to speak?

“In some ways, but I believe in hard work and I’m very much a hard worker. And when you’ve got that work ethic and you’re determined to follow your dreams and push, hard work creates opportunities. People who don’t work hard very seldom get the opportunities.

“Take Strictly for example. I worked so hard in my early days as a dancer to try and be the best I could and get myself in a position to be a world champion. That’s what I wanted to be. That dream didn’t come to fruition because Strictly came along, but they wouldn’t have taken me on if I hadn’t had the base in the first place.

“It was a big gamble but I chose to take that, where others didn’t. And when the opportunity for my first tour came along I was petrified that it wouldn’t be well received or a flop, but I believe in myself, I believe in the product and that’s how I’ve worked my whole life.”

Born in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, Brendan started dancing at the age of six, yet between leaving school at 17 and heading to England a year later, he was a builder and roofer. Could there ever have been a career in the construction business?

“That’s interesting, actually. I love building, creating, knocking something together. I was always pulling a nail out of my garage wall, getting two bits of wood and sticking them together, or making a go-kart, pulling wheels off old prams.

“So going into roofing and the building profession straight from school – I left at 16, knowing I probably wasn’t going to follow an academic career – all I really wanted to do was get out there and look after myself. I didn’t want to have to ask Mum for $8 a week for my scooter petrol money. I wanted to earn my way up. I was always driven in that respect.

“I probably would have gone on to be a builder, have a building firm, run my own business. Instead I decided to try the dancing dream. That sounds weird, but I played lots of sport and was into everything. But the dancing was consistent. I never stopped, and obviously had a talent for it.”

035Were there dancers in the family?

“Not so much, but Mum was very musical and rhythmical, and we were a very musical family. Pretty much everyone can sing, save my brother! It’s something I didn’t realise until my Grandad’s funeral. It was like a choir in there, pretty much pitch-perfect. Dad was pretty rhythmical as well.”

I seem to recall from my youth that the original BBC Come Dancing series (1950-1998) was a rather starchy affair, far removed from what we have beamed into our living rooms on a Saturday night these days. So what made Brendan think ballroom dancing was the career for him? Was Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 Australian film success Strictly Ballroom an influence?

“When I first saw that film I was around 15, yet a few years later was working on the New Zealand version of Strictly, called Dancing with the Stars, with Paul Mercurio, one of the stars of that film. At first, I didn’t really like that film, as it was taking the mickey out of something I really loved doing. However, in my humble opinion I’d say it’s one of the most brilliant movies made. I love the story, and looking at it now from a very different perspective, I appreciate it as a brilliant piece of theatre in many ways.

Come Dancing was a bit dated, but it was of its time and one of Britain’s longest-running television series, which is amazing. It certainly had a following, and we’ve taken that on. And even since Strictly started, it’s two very different shows. Look back at the original, it’s very dated, but there’s a real innocence about it that is lovely. But television improves and increases and grows, and production becomes more, and people expect more.”

Brendan’s certainly seen his fair share of stunning celebrity partners during 14 series of Strictly Come Dancing. On the debut series there was newsreader and presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, the pair going on to win the show. And from there, his screen partners have included actresses Sarah Manners, Claire King and Sunetra Sarker, TV presenters Fiona Phillips, Lisa Snowdon and Kirsty Gallacher, model Kelly Brook, businesswoman (and former Rolling Stone wife) Jo Wood, Olympic cycling legend Victoria Pendleton, and singers Michelle Williams, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, 2016 writewyattuk interviewee Lulu (with a link to that feature here) and most recent screen partner Anastacia.

Come to think of it, I recall Len Goodman talking a while ago about how lads of his generation thought dancing was a rather ‘cissy’ career (his word, not mine), but that he soon proved them wrong, not least on account of all the glamorous women he met through his dancing. Was it a similar story with Brendan?

“I guess so. I got a lot of stick growing up for being a dancer. But at the same time that stick is part of what I am and what I do today and part of what drives me. I like the stick and like people giving me a hard time. It fuels my drive to be better and stick two fingers up. It certainly is quite a glamorous thing we do now.

“I’ve had my fair share of really lovely women to dance with, and I’m sure a lot of people watching think, ‘Crikey, I wouldn’t mind having a dance with her!’ I’m very lucky, and it’s an incredible thing to be a part of.”

Top Marks: Bruno Tonioli, Arlene Philips, Len Goodman and Craig Revel Horwood give their verdict on the writewyattuk interview with Brendan Cole (Photo copyright: BBC)

Top Marks: Bruno Tonioli, Arlene Philips, Len Goodman and Craig Revel Horwood give their verdict on the writewyattuk interview with Brendan Cole (Photo copyright: BBC)

Is that right that on arrival in England he studied pasodoble, ballroom, ballet and the robot in Manchester?

“That’s a bit of Wikipedia fiction – I don’t even know how that’s on there. I did a paid gig for the dance school mentioned once, but … that really upsets me.”

So where did he head when he initially got off that plane?

“South London was the place for dancing, and I went to a place in Norbury called Semley Ballroom. I watched from the sidelines, waited to get a partner, then that was that.”

I understand his late father was from a Glaswegian family. Did Brendan have family roots over here?

“None, just a one-way ticket and a thousand pounds in my pocket. Very strange to look back on. I wouldn’t do the same now. I’m older and wiser!”

It seems that Brendan was only passing through, taking time out during a European competition. Either way though, he was hooked and soon returned, landing at Heathrow one April morning in 1995. He was soon sharing digs with other struggling dancers, his money spent on lessons, taking jobs where he could find them to finance his dream.

Around then he met Danish-born dancer Camilla Dallerup, the pair – soon a couple – going on to travel the world, learning their craft and entering competitions. They became contestants on the BBC’s long-running show Come Dancing as amateurs from 1996, and from 2002-04 as professionals, by which time they were engaged.

Band Substance: Brendan Cole's tour band , caught on camera

Band Substance: Brendan Cole’s tour band , caught on camera

While that relationship ended in time, he was soon well and truly settled in England, and married model Zoe Hobbs in 2010, with their daughter Aurelia born on Christmas Day, 2012, the family settling in Aylesbury. I’m guessing he’ll miss Zoe and Aurelia over the next couple of months. Are there gaps in the schedule to get back to Buckinghamshire?

“Yes. I tend to schedule in a little time for family, so I’ve got time at home as well. Things are really cool. Never a dull moment, but it’s fun.”

Has having a family of his own changed Brendan’s outlook on life?

“Definitely. Everything is about family rather than all the other things you get up to on any given day. It definitely changes your thought process. Everything revolves around your child and wife. I love that and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

All these years on, what does he miss most about New Zealand?

“I haven’t been back in about six years, for my father’s funeral. But you miss family and there’s a freshness in the air that’s quite spectacular, a certain light you won’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s a beautiful place. It’s nice to go back as a tourist as well. You get to visit some amazing places.”

It’s certainly a lovely part of the world, not least his home city of Christchurch, where this scribe briefly stayed in both 1991 and 1999. How close were Brendan’s family and friends to the earthquake zone last year?

“Very close. It affected a lot of my friends. It’s not nice, and earthquakes continue unfortunately. Luckily, I haven’t lost anyone, but hundreds died in the first earthquake (the 2011 earthquake killed 185 people). It’s tragic and also happening elsewhere. Look at Italy recently.”

vis_6791Talking of home visits, from 2005 to 2009 Brendan was a judge on New Zealand’s version of the Strictly show, Dancing with the Stars, where there were said to be a few on-air differences of opinion with fellow judge Craig Revel Horwood. Wasn’t that just Craig playing his role of pantomime villain? Only I get the impression they might sneak out for a pint after shows.

“We certainly do. Quite often we’ll be arguing one night and then down the waterfront the next day enjoying a nice glass of something cold. It’s quite amusing, we’re good friends, and we have a good relationship. But on air, I can’t stand him – ha!”

From appearing in 2006 on ITV’s Love Island and judging and teaching roles on Britain’s Next Top Model to 2007’s BBC show Just the Two of Us, partnering Beverley Knight, there have been many TV appearances. He also represented the United Kingdom with Camilla Dallerup at the first Eurovision Dance Contest in 2007, and was a guest team captain on the What Do Kids Know show in 2010. What’s the most ridiculous role he’s been offered?

“No idea. I’ve been offered some crazy stuff, turned a couple of things down and accepted a few that were crazy, but it’s the way it is. It’s nice that people want you involved.”

Meanwhile, he’s appeared in every series of Strictly, often clashing with the judges over scoring and comments on his performances, on occasion deliberately breaking the show’s rules, not least through incorporating illegal lifts into his choreography. But this so-called ‘bad boy of Strictly’ is one of only two professional dancers to have completed every run of the show, along with Anton du Beke, who I gather is set to be the father of twins this Spring. Are Strictly‘s stalwart movers and shakers in touch between series?

“Yes, he’s one of my very good friends, and I’m so excited for him and Hannah (Summers). It’s an amazing thing.”

I mentioned Len before. Will Brendan miss the veteran Strictly judge now he’s left the show?

“I will. The show will be very different without him. It’s a shame he had to go, but change happens and he will be very much missed.”

030Back in the winter of 2004, Brendan had his first acting experience, featuring in UK feature film Everything To Dance. Is that something he’d like to return to someday?

“Yeah. I’m not an actor by any means, but it’s definitely part of what we do as artists and there’s an element of acting involved. Once Strictly comes to an end for me – whenever that may be – it’s definitely something I’ll look to become more involved.”

Meanwhile, it’s been a while since he was on Strictly’s winning team – 13 years to be precise. Is there still a keen sense of competition among the professionals?

“There is, but you’ve got to realise your limitations. You can only do so much with your partner. Not everyone can win it. You’ve just got to give your best, put your best foot forward, and hopefully it works. If you’ve got someone who can win it, great, if not, never mind.”

Brendan Cole’s All Night Long visits Preston Guild Hall on Saturday, February 18, with tickets starting at £23. For ticket enquiries, e-mail or call the box office on 01772 80 44 44.

And for details of all the other shows on the All Night Long tour, head to Brendan Cole’s own website via this link.

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