Stop … Start – celebrating the further return of BOB with Richard Blackborow

They say good things come to those who wait, but 28 years is pushing it, surely.

At the end of September, late ‘80s/early ‘90s indie force and WriteWyattUK favourites BOB are finally releasing You Can Stop That For A Start, their long-playing follow-up to 1991’s Leave the Straight Life Behind.

The … erm … old new album, initially written and recorded in 1992, is accompanied by a selection of demo recordings from 1988/1994 on a 28-track release issued by Optic Nerve Recordings, arguably capturing the band at their peak.

Available in various formats, the songs were recently mixed by Simon Armstrong (vocals, guitar) and Richard Blackborow (vocals, guitar, keyboard), packaged in artwork conceived by the band, accompanied by period images and new sleeve notes.

Why the mega-delay? Well, in short, BOB were victims of the demise of Rough Trade’s distribution arm back in the day, limiting sales of their first LP and forcing them to tour for an extended period to recoup costs.

Disillusionment followed with the business side of the music industry, and despite having produced a large body of unreleased work, they disbanded early in 1995, with BritPop at its peak.

But by the time Richard moved away from the band’s old North London manor in 2002 for a fresh start in the West Country, he was determined to at least properly archive hundreds of demos the band recorded in their decade together, and one thing led to another.

Plastered Cast: Simon, Dean, Richard and recent arrival Stephen, Paris ’90, on the lead-up to the debut BOB album

The first fruits of that were seen in February 2014, cracking first LP, Leave the Straight Life Behind, re-released by indie label 3 Loop Music in a 2CD expanded edition featuring the remastered album plus a bonus CD of extra tracks – among them BBC sessions, three for legendary broadcaster John Peel.

Then in 2015 came follow-up collection The Singles and EPs, released by 3 Loop Music as a 2CD compilation of remastered tracks, featuring their Swag Sack collection and further Sombrero and House of Teeth releases.

On the back of those and renewed interest, they put on a week-long farewell tour last November, starting at Birmingham’s The Flapper then Hull’s New Adelphi before I caught them across the Pennines from my Lancashire base at Leeds’ Wharf Chambers (with my review here), then fittingly to Stowmarket’s John Peel Centre for Creative Arts before a London send-off at the 100 Club and a finale overseas at Hamburg’s Astra Stube.

Those dates featured a 21st century version of the outfit – Simon, Richard and fellow long-server (and previous WriteWyattUK interviewee) Dean Leggett (drums) joined by Arthur Tapp (bass), the band also releasing a limited-edition 30th anniversary 7” of indie hit, ‘Convenience’ on Optic Nerve, reaching No.18 on the UK vinyl chart this time. And now comes this follow-up LP.

You Can Stop That For A Start was initially recorded over five days, ‘as the hectic touring schedule that had kept us financially viable began to tail off’. As they put it, “What funds we could glean from occasional publishing deals were spent on studio time, in the hope of creating work that would eventually attract more substantial financial investment. As this never materialised, the songs have largely remained unheard since. But the hundreds of hours of stage time our many tours had given us by that point left us in peak form, and this clearly comes across on the recordings.

“Discovering more recently the multi-track tapes were beginning to deteriorate, we arranged for them to be baked and transferred to the digital realm, allowing for a slow process of giving the songs the final mix that studio time never allowed for, taking care to remain faithful to the original intention but leaving them sounding better than ever.”

To celebrate the release, I tracked down Richard to his clifftop base near Sennen in the Far West of Cornwall, home to him, his partner and their two young children. My love for that part of the world set us off talking about his surrounds and nearby St Ives, where my family’s links go back more than a century, inevitable talk of the pandemic, lockdowns and staycations following, not least bang in the middle of holiday season.

Heads Above: Richard, Stephen, Dean and Simon reflect on what’s about to happen next in 1993, with the end nigh.

“I’m slightly overwhelmed by the amount of people who arrived recently. We were expecting torrents, and it didn’t actually kick in at first, but after that the floodgates have totally opened. In St Ives you’d think nothing had happened – they’re 10 abreast on the tiny cobbled streets, no one wearing masks, all jostling each other. It’s slightly horrifying. I’m staying well away.”

Richard works at the Belgrave art gallery in the resort, a modern/contemporary art specialist, the initial lockdown allowing him and partner Sarah an unexpected bonus of plenty of time with their children, Flora and Felix.

“They’re only two and six, but it’s amazing how much they’ve blossomed, being in each other’s company all this time, rather than one being at school and the other with a child-minder. My two-year-old’s language has improved massively. There have been fortunate upsides. We know how lucky we are to live where we do, and more or less spent the first six weeks of lockdown on the beach.”

I know that area well, and I’m jealous. Idyllic … on a good day.

“It’s extreme. You wouldn’t want to be here when there’s horizontal rain piling in off the Atlantic. It can be pretty hideous, but it’s so extreme I don’t mind, especially after London, when it was grey, unremittingly dull, and life was more of a grind.”

Of his move west, Richard told me, “I was about 35 and had been thinking about getting out of London. After the band finished I went to university, deciding my brain needed to be energised, doing a degree in philosophy. I was doing a job in a pub and deli to pay my way through college. I stayed on at the deli, working with really nice people and having the chance to eat good food and fine wine.

“That was in Highbury, serving people like Boris Johnson, a regular customer. If I knew then what I know now … But there was also Paul Whitehouse and many more, and it was a nice spot. I did that for a while, but was just earning to pay rent. Then I met a girl down here to do a painting course. I came to visit, and didn’t leave really. And while that relationship didn’t last, the relationship with Cornwall did.”

I clearly missed a bit of that, Richard rightly bitter that one of his ex-regular customers would end up shafting the country, big time.

He’s not the first member of BOB to have that relationship with Cornwall, London-based bandmate Dean originally from around Redruth.

“I didn’t really discover Cornwall until I met Dean. A couple of years before, I had a girlfriend from Devon, and her favourite beach was down here, Porthcurno, quite close to where I am now. I had a two-week holiday with her, came down in a Morris Minor, then met Dean, and was down a couple of times with him. That sowed the seed, and when I was thinking of leaving London, it was always going to be Bristol if I was to stay in a city, or Cornwall.”

While Richard met his beloved, Sarah, in Cornwall, they both hail from Enfield, attending the same school – four years apart – the pair in a band for around six months before they realised. Meanwhile, Richard met BOB co-founder Simon Armstrong at that same school.

“There were six houses in our school year, those houses split into groups of three, so I only really saw him around the corridors, but we had a field centre for day-trips in Wales and though I don’t think we talked, we kind of acknowledged each other. When I passed him in a corridor we saluted each other, partly because he had the nickname, Sergeant. It was only as we approached fifth form that I heard he was a guitar player, playing with a friend.

“I also had a friend I was making music with, and by the end of the fifth form we’d made a demo with this friend, playing it on a tape player in the sixth-form common room, quite proud of it. We sent a message to Simon and his mate to come and listen, they liked it, and we got together to form a four-piece band for those sixth-form years, playing the school, church halls and parties, around half a dozen to eight gigs.”

That first outfit were Monday After All, which he acknowledges ‘wasn’t the best name in the world’. After sixth form, all bar Simon applied for university, deferring places for a year, ‘spending that year to try and ‘make it’. We didn’t, but played venues like the Rock Garden and the Sir George Robey. That was in 1984.’

That takes me back to my own visits to the Robey, Finsbury Park, in 1985/86, for That Petrol Emotion in their early days. And Richard told me he was there too for fellow Peel favourites like cult London-Irish outfit Microdisney and Birmingham’s Terry & Gerry, with BOB by then honing their own line-up.

“It became clear that me and Simon were clearly much more into it than the other two, and come the end of that year those two got their college places and went. Simon wrote most of the material at the time, and I was the drummer in the original school band, but always interested in writing songs, singing from the drum stool, a la Philip Collins … but I wasn’t very good at either!

“Towards the end of that year, I said, ‘I’ve written some songs, but they’re a bit flowery. I was primarily, aesthetically informed by punk rock, but had an older brother who was much more into a more muso scene, my songs kind of complicated in a Microdisney and Prefab Sprout kind of way, while Simon’s were more direct – more Billy Bragg, I guess.

“I suggested we got together to write songs, thinking his simplicity with words and my chords might make an interesting combination.”

You’ve always tended towards that perfect blend – either with you backing on his songs or vice versa, the harmonies sounding very natural. Was that there from the start?

“We were very lucky my brother had a little eight-track studio in his attic in Banwell, a village around 10 miles outside Bristol. A rural cottage, much more than I could have afforded. He had a good job. Simon wrote songs, I wrote songs, then we went down together to see what would happen, coming away from that first few days with seven or eight songs recorded together, the spark immediately ignited.

“I added keyboard to his songs, he added harmonies to mine, and vice versa, a proper collaboration, chucking in the odd line or idea, the seed totally sown in that period from around 1985 onwards.”

It was 1988 before I caught up with BOB, with two shows five months apart at Windsor’s Community Arts Centre, initially impressed by hearing them on John Peel’s influential BBC Radio 1 show. By then, Dean Leggett had joined, previously with Jim Bob Morrison and Les Carter in pre-Carter USM outfit Jamie Wednesday.

“I poached him from The Siddeleys. A very smart move – we had a perfectly adequate drummer, but when I met Dean socially, we just clicked, and felt he’d be really good for the band.”

The Siddeleys? There’s a Peel favourite I’d forgotten about. I reckon I saw them somewhere, but my gig-list doesn’t confirm that. Anyway, by the time I saw BOB again in March ‘89, also in Windsor but this time at splendid River Thames venue The Old Trout, I was … erm, hooked.

So, is Richard a believer in fate? I mean, becoming mates with Simon after that earlier saluting malarkey, then the initial Banwell link with the West Country and later passion for Cornwall, getting to know Dean and in time heading about as far west as you could, give or take America. It was meant to happen, wasn’t it?

“That’s right, it seems that way. And we set this precedent of – every time we had a bunch of songs – we’d go down to Banwell and record them. That’s what we did right until the last year of the band. That’s why I had this archive of 250-plus recordings – around 200 definitely, around 150 unique songs, covers or things we did twice, sometimes just a drum machine demo with me and Simon, then again with the band. But the extent to which we (initially) collaborated on songs peaked in around 1985. After that, it was entirely separate songs. But we always collaborated at the demo stage.”

It seems pertinent he earlier mentioned his Highbury days, seeing as that’s where I interviewed BOB for my Captains Log fanzine on May 1989, for a fifth edition that never quite reached the presses … despite carrying interviews with BOB, The Beautiful South (an exclusive when it happened) and The Chesterfields, among others. The gig in question was at The Garage, Highbury Corner, then known as the T&C2, supports that night including Hugh Whitaker’s post-Housemartins outfit, The Penny Candles.

Discussion followed around other BOB gigs I experienced, recalling how good I felt they were by the time of December 1989’s Old Trout, return, my favourite show, 30 years give or less a fortnight before their 100 Club UK farewell, including a stonking version of The Beatles’ ‘Rain’.

“We really enjoyed playing that. Personally, I don’t think we nailed it on the record, but did a good version live. But when we were rehearsing for that last tour, it didn’t even cross our minds to do that … although a few people afterwards said we should have.”

Myself included. There was one more BOB gig for me between December ’89 and November ’19, at Reading’s After Dark Club in July ‘91, by which time Jem Morris had left and Stephen ‘Harry’ Hersom, previously with Andy Strickland’s post-Loft outfit The Caretaker Race, had taken over on bass.

“Was that quite a small venue? And really hot?”

Sounds about right. It was a bit rough, and you came on well after midnight (the gory details are in my previous Dean Leggett interview).

“If it’s the same one, I remember a set of scales in the changing room. I weighed myself, then we went on, and I’ve never sweated so much in my life. I got back off and I’d lost about half a stone! That’s my only memory of Reading.”

Funnily enough, I recall Wharf Chambers being a hot night too, although it was late November. Must just be that small venue feel. What’s more, it’s something we’re unlikely to experience for some time in any COVID-19 world. You were out there at the right time.

“You’re right. We sneaked in, really. And thanks, I appreciate your support over the years!”

I enjoyed the ’88 appearances, but it was in 1989 I really felt you hit a new level. You were so good. Maybe I just didn’t get it before …

“No, I think that’s probably about right. We did enough touring in 1989 to become tight as players, but I’ve a few bits of live footage, recently unearthed, and I’m struck by how surly I am! I think I was just jaded by that point.”

Funny you should say that. I wrote in my Leeds review that the difference between you in late 2019 and back in late 1989, was, ‘Where I seem to recall back then they were more about indie cool and occasional surliness on stage, the passage of time has swept aside any perceived pretence’.

“Yeah – you’re absolutely right. We didn’t start like that. We were very friendly and chatty on stage. I think by 1991 we’d stopped being nice, after the album came out. At least I stopped being nice! Touring became less fun, more of a grind. Because of the Rough Trade thing, we were basically forced to tour. We did a UK tour, we did Europe, a tour of Germany, and would normally have stopped at that point, but came back again, did another UK tour then went back to Europe, which was stupid. But we had to do it – we had to earn money to pay back the money borrowed to do the record. That’s what killed the band really. In hindsight, we weren’t doing it for the right reasons.”

That said, I really must unearth the 1989 interview that never made it out there. There’s plenty of humour there … and precious little surliness.

“Yeah, the humour just became darker, from years of grinding it out in the Transit van. It’s just that we wanted to take that next step to better venues and being taken a bit more seriously. But we just got stuck on this plateau, going around the same venues. “

If that had happened, and you’d become huge, I’d have wished you well but would have made sure I let people know I was at the earlier gigs and you were much better then.

“Ha. Sure. That’s allowed!”

Two listens into the ‘lost’ (or ‘refound’) LP, I get the impression this was anything but a band running out of ideas or coming to the end of their time together. You were on top form. I feel aggrieved on your behalf. It’s sad, in a sense, that this never saw the light of day, initially. It deserved so much more.

“Yeah, I agree. We felt a bit like that when we heard it again. It was recorded around the autumn of 1992, a year after the first album. We didn’t have a deal, but had a publishing company interested in working with us, who gave us a small amount of money to go and record what we thought were possible singles, then knock out demos.

“Those recordings were just left on the shelf. For years I wanted to put the BOB archives in order. When I first moved here in 2002 I vowed to set up a studio and mix it all, not for any other reason than to get it all out of my system, put it to bed so I could move on, musically. So if I got run over by a bus, people would know what we did. But that never quite happened, and I had to find a job, never quite getting around to doing it.”

I think he means arranging an archive there, rather than being hit by a bus> Same applies, mind.

“A few years passed before I realised the tapes we recorded on, stored in a barn in Cornwall, were deteriorating fast. I told the rest of the band I needed to do this now, we got some money between us to do that, turning them to digital (format) three or four years ago.

“Then, when Flora was around three, with a little more time, I started mixing the material, Simon and I between us doing a solid year of mixing. Over that year we probably did 100 songs. Then Felix was born, I stopped again for another year or two, and then last year we had another push, managed around 50 more songs.

“We had two over-riding principles – that we were going to listen to everything before we decided what to release, and also that we wouldn’t change anything and wouldn’t be tempted to overdub or replace anything.”

The Beatles lasted around a decade, as you did too, but I reckon on the strength of this album, there were at least a couple more great records to follow, possibly more.

“Yeah, we didn’t realise at the time, but back then we’d reached the end of our tether with it all and stopped. Then BritPop happened, something at the time neither me nor Simon liked. It instinctively annoyed me. it was too laddish. I was more interested in the trip-hop thing going on around then. Retrospectively, I reckon if we’d stuck it out a little longer, we’d have been in a prime position to be part of that.”

Again, I kind of felt aggrieved on your part that you didn’t make it, while others who came through at venues like The Old Trout soon after became mega-successful.

“Well, anyway, we didn’t, and it’s kind of okay – it doesn’t bother any of us. We all went off and did other things. And it’s been nice – coming back to it now. In a way, it’s better to come back to it, when it doesn’t matter anymore.

“And having done around 150 of our eight-track demos, we started to realise now was the time to start putting things out if we were going to do it. I realised then what we hadn’t done was mix the stuff we recorded in those two studios at the time, so mixed those last year, and immediately thought that batch of songs would potentially have been an album.

“Of those, ’Say You’re Alone’, ‘Telepathy’ and ‘Queen of Sheba’ were the ones we recorded in the studio in Bristol as potential singles. The rest were recorded in Harlow, basically live, halfway through a tour, and we did the whole lot in two days, recording all the backing tracks live then overdubbing the vocals.

“We then walked away with a cassette, a rough mix done in around an hour. That’s what they would have hawked around if that had happened. But now we’ve taken a bit more time about it, spending probably half a day on each mix rather than doing them all in two hours.”

A good point to get on to the album, starting with opening track, ‘Telepathy’, which starts with the lines, ‘They say that deprivation is good for the soul; Well, I’m keeping an open mind, I’m keeping my mouth shut.’ Looking up a dictionary definition of deprivation, I got ‘an act or instance of withholding or taking something away from someone or something’. That’s quite apt considering the major delay in hearing this record, isn’t it?

“Ha! Pretty much, yeah. I hadn’t thought of that, but it had the right vibe, that song.”

Definitely, and it carries that vibe you had the last couple of times I saw you live before the split. I could say something similar about track two, ‘Say You’re Alone’, a track so much about where I was at in 1992, musically. And ‘Now’, which carries the air of later Monkees or a ‘60s US West Coast feel.

“Definitely. Simon and I almost saturated ourselves in ‘60s British pop and West Coast American pop. If the name began with B – The Beatles, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys … – we were total nutters for it.”

Jumping ahead to final track, ‘Don’t Kid’, there’s a similar feel there – it’s a thing of beauty, and I hear something of where Damian O’Neill was at in places on his recent solo album. And funnily enough, seeing as you mentioned Microdisney earlier, Sean O’Hagan plays on that LP. So maybe there’s something in that.

“Well, Simon was a big High Llamas fan as well, around that time.”

That song goes somewhere else in the last couple of minutes, more Peter Green type late-‘60s blues territory maybe.

“It does, doesn’t it! There was always that about Simon. In all the demo sessions we did in Banwell, we generally did seven or eight each time, and you could guarantee four or five would be pretty solid, right in the BOB ballpark – three-minute songs with harmonies and stuff – while one would be a cover, sometimes just to get warmed up, and the others would tend to be quite unorthodox.

“We’d push ourselves to do something different, with some real esoteric numbers, like ‘Sink’ (on The Singles and EPs double-CD set) and ‘The Belly’ (on Leave the Straight Life Behind). They weren’t standard BOB songs. There were also songs like ‘Bloodline’ that we did at Banwell and for a Peel session, which weren’t very BOB, but we did just to ring the changes, maybe.”

I embraced all that, and on ‘That’s What Tomorrow Brings’, seeing as you mentioned a ‘60s obsession, there’s some nice Beatles-like bass, but also a Pixies feel perhaps.

“Well, all those things were going in, definitely.”

It’s difficult to get into the mindset of what was current when you recorded these songs, but this was a record ahead of the curve. ‘Round’ could pass for an Oasis song, two years before Definitely Maybe. There’s also Wedding Present-like Seamonsters-era bass there.

“Simon certainly liked the pre-grunge US feel of J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. at the time, and Teenage Fanclub.”

Speaking of which. ‘Plastic’ for me is perhaps where I hoped Haircut 100 might have headed next, with Simon’s voice Nick Heyward-esque but the band playing with Teenage Fanclub-like urgency.

“I think he’d quite like that as a reference!”

Then there’s that huge heavy riff thundering through ‘Sundown’. I may have upset Dean when I told him it’s a good job I’d been growing my hair over the lockdown when I first heard that headbanger. He seemed offended, telling me, ‘If Liam Gallagher put that track out today, people would say he was a genius. A very clever idea by Simon – one riff, six minutes’. Another BOB curveball?

“It is. It’s great. I don’t know where that came from. He tended to play me a song, I’d listen then chuck in what I thought might add to it, and vice versa. But when he first played me that … Christ, okay! Let’s do it.”

Time was against me now, so I didn’t go into the rest of the songs, but suggested ‘Queen of Sheba’ was another great indie pop song. Too good for the charts, but the band kind of got there anyway, 38 years later. And in a sense, it’s more early BOB than late.

“I agree, and I think ’So You’re Alone’ has a bit of that as well. When we were thinking about what might make a single – and we were never really great judges – there would always be those sort of songs. And ‘Telepathy’ is not a million miles from ‘Convenience’ in terms of length, brightness, all that.”

When we spoke, i hadn’t had chance to hear the second CD, but told Richard I kind of hoped there’d be a version of ‘Another Crow’ on the main album, as on the remastered, expanded first album package. Not least as they alluded to that track with the farewell tour publicity.

“We did. Yeah, and it was actually called ‘Tour Song’ at first. We did a version with just me, Simon and a drum machine, then did it again with the band. We chose some of our favourites to go on the companion CD this time, but there’s a lot more in the archive, and my feeling is that there’s one more double-CD set to come. Then that will be it.

“What we realised when we went back was that there was very little to be embarrassed about. Almost everything could be heard, having lost that self-consciousness about it. And if it doesn’t happen on a record, when I finally get my act together, I’ll make a website and people can listen to all that there.”

I’m guessing when it comes to writing credits, like Lennon-McCartney it’s broadly a case of working out who’s singing the song as to who wrote it.

Studio Tan: BOB in 1992. But they’ had to wait another 28 years before the second album got its rightful release.

“That’s basically it. We used to say whoever played tambourine on it wrote it, but actually whoever sung it, wrote it!”

So what’s next? Were those definitely farewell live dates last year? Or is this more of a Sinatra thing, with another final tour to follow?

“I don’t think so. That was it. I slightly regret making the announcement, not least as I fell arse over tit on the first night …”

You were struggling with your back at Leeds, for sure.

“My God, I was in agony. The show in London was amazing – it was choc-a and a lovely crowd. You couldn’t have asked for more. But I was dosed up to the max on huge painkillers and diazepam. I was flying. From that point of view, I’d like the chance to do it again. I was fluffy in the head. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the 10 days it could have been. I was in a stupid amount of pain, and people flew from America to see that gig.”

As it is, within a few months, the UK would be in lockdown. If you’d planned it all for this year, you’d have missed out.

“That’s true. Yeah, it was great, London was a real high, and we should leave it at that. However, John Hartley is writing a book about the band, and we had weekly Zoom chats with him during lockdown. That was fun, and he came down to the rehearsal rooms when we were preparing for the tour last year. So when that book comes out, we may get together, do a launch, and that might allow us to do something acoustic, a few songs in the context of a Q&A perhaps … if we could sneak that in without breaking the rules!”

Last Time: BOB ’91. Richard Blackborow sits it out with his bandmates in the year of Leave the Straight Life Behind.

‘You Can Stop That For A Start’ by BOB is available to pre-order as a vinyl LP, download or double-CD via this link, with the release date set for September 29th on the Optic Nerve label. And to keep in touch with the band via social media, you can follow these Facebook and Twitter links, follow Richard’s BOB account on Instagram, and head to the BOB/House of Teeth web link.

 

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Northside rendezvous: Dave Hemingway, post-Housemartins, Beautiful South and The South, introduces the Sunbirds

Garage Land: Marc Parnell, Dave Hemingway, Phil Barton, Laura Wilcockson, aka Sunbirds, new to the world in 2020

Beautiful South founder member Dave Hemingway is back, his new outfit, Sunbirds, set to release debut album Cool To Be Kind at the end of October, via independent label Nectar Records.

Since stepping back from the live scene with spin-off outfit The South in late 2016, Dave – aka Hammy, who turns 60 next month – has been busy with guitarist/songwriter and ex-bandmate Phil Barton, the pair joining forces with vocalist/violinist Laura Wilcockson and ‘session drummer to the stars’ Marc Parnell, signalling a fresh direction, as is apparent from preview spins of their debut release.

Produced by Teo Miller, the band see Cool To Be Kind as ‘open-hearted and painfully honest’, and I’d concur, getting the impression that the former Housemartins drummer – having taken over from old classmate Hugh Whitaker in the ‘fourth best band in Hull’ in 1987, quitting a job as a purchase ledger clerk for a car dealership, having received a tip-off from former Newpolitans bandmate Dave Rotheray, who would join his namesake in his next band  – who stepped up to the mic. and has remained out front ever since, has found his mojo again, with the help of his fellow Sunbirds.

Cool To Be Kind is the result of a few transitional years for both Dave and Phil, the new songs covering contemporary themes as well as age-old matters of the heart and soul, ‘all viewed through the bottom of a recently drained pint glass’. As Phil put it, ‘There’s no exact science here. We’re just enjoying ourselves and expressing whatever we want, whether it’s about love, greed, social isolation or Gary Lineker’s crisp adverts’.

In a bid to at least suggest professionalism, I always prepare questions ahead of interviews, even though the order I get through them really depends on how that conversation’s going. And in this case, it was soon apparent that my last question should actually be my first.

My loose plan was to talk through a few subjects then go song by song through Cool To Be Kind. But seeing as East Riding-born and raised Dave has been Cheshire-based for around a decade, I instead asked about the significance of the final track, the contemplative but somewhat raw ‘Stars Still Shine’.

I’d just played the album for a fourth time, that song one of around half a dozen really resonating, its honest, cut to the chase approach – delivered in the manner of Del Amitri’s Justin Currie for these ears – seemingly indicative of where Hammy was in his life right now.

“I ran away from my life, found a place where I can hide;

I may live here, but I don’t wanna die here; anywhere is better, better than this place;

Stars still shine here, so I’ll bide my time here; but anywhere is better than this place.”

Mojo Returned: The debut album from Dave Hemingway and Phil Barton's new project Sunbirds is set to land in late October

Mojo Returned: The debut LP from Dave Hemingway and Phil Barton’s Sunbirds is set to land in late October

Was this a pretty much autobiographical glimpse into his 2020 world?

“I must admit of all the tracks that’s the one that resonates the most with me. I’ve been through a bit in that respect. That’s the one that represents me the way I am at the moment. It is raw, and I’d much rather one of the more cheery songs on the album be the one I felt more in tune with, but for now, unfortunately, that’s the one.”

I should really have started in more positive territory, seeing as the LP starts with the more upbeat ‘Meet Me on the Northside’. It’s another winner. Is that your love letter to those Hull roots?

“That’s exactly right, an homage to the Hull I grew up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s when the fishing industry was mighty but very cruel at the same time, its trawlermen going through hell at the time.”

Is that something Dave – the son of a lorry driver and local club comic and a well-known Hull barmaid – appreciates more now, away from his home city for a long time?

“Absolutely. I went back and we did a video for that song, back to Hessle Road, where I grew up and used to live. It was very poignant really. It’s changed a lot through the years, but a lot of the same things are still there. Hopefully some things will never change. My old house has been knocked down, but a lot of the same spots are still there that I mention in the song.”

Hammy’s home was on Subway Street, the main road in and out of the fish dock, now given over to industrial units, leading from Hessle Road down the half-mile to the Humber estuary. In a way, is this his take on Paul Weller’s Stanley Road?

“In that sense, yeah, and I’m quite pleased we’ve made a song paying tribute to Hull as it was. It’s a great city now, but it’s gone off at a different tangent. When I was growing up it was different type of Hull, but very strong in its own way.”

First Footing: The Housemartins’ second LP, from 1987, which also marked Dave Hemingway’s recording debut

Hammy initially lived in Leeds when he left his home city, before his Crewe move. And six years ago when I first chatted to him there (with that interview here), it was fairly early days for the post-Paul Heaton incarnation of The Beautiful South. A lot of water’s flown down the Humber and various other water sources since, I suggested, including the River Weaver and Shropshire Union Canal in his case. Did he just feel the time was right to move on when he left?

“Yeah, I think the main subject of discussion that we didn’t agree with was that I wanted the band to move on, do new songs and be a band in its own right as opposed to playing Beautiful South songs.

“I totally understand why people want to hear those songs, but for me it became too much of a tribute band, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if we’d tried both things – new songs as well.

“They didn’t agree with me on that, so I decided to step out for a while, wait for the right band to come along and the right people to work with. And now, these are our own songs and people will know we won’t be playing any previous ones.”

While The South carry on regardless, so to speak, I guess this is a similar break with the past to the time I first saw you live, when The Housemartins first re-emerged as The Beautiful South in 1989 (as recounted in our .

“Yeah, it’s a proper break, with a new band and new songs. It makes it tough of course and I fully understand people come to gigs – when hopefully there are gigs again – and want to hear songs they know, but I’m hoping we can get the new songs out there soon enough so people can come and have  a listen and hopefully then enjoy the new stuff.”

I get that. The South are a great live band (as per this 2014 review) – I love Alison Wheeler‘s voice, Gaz Birtles‘ horn section, and ….

“Yeah, and they’re still going strong, of course …”

I was impressed with 2012’s Sweet Refrains LP, some great songs on there suggesting you were becoming a band in your own right, two of the best written by Phil. When you said you were waiting for the right band to come along, had you realised a key member of that band was already in your midst?

Fresh Start: The first album from The Beautiful South signalled a new direction in 1989

Fresh Start: The first album from The Beautiful South signalled a new direction for Heaton and co. in 1989

“I’d always appreciated Phil’s songs, and feel a lot of the songs on this album could well have been on a South album, if more people had wanted to go that way. But the door was pretty much stamped shut on that, so with that in mind I felt okay, we’ll take these songs to other people.”

At this point I asked Hammy to tell me more about his and Phil’s bandmates: Laura, whose CV suggests a classical, orchestral and folk background; and Marc, who was mixing with mainstream music royalty from an early age.

“Laura played in a band, Steel Threads, that supported The South. That’s how we met, and she used to do a lot of busking with her violin, around Mansfield and Chesterfield way.

“And Marc … I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember, but his dad was Jack Parnell, who led his own orchestra back in the 60s.”

I am indeed, Jack having directed the pit orchestra for Sunday Night at the Palladium, and after being voted best drummer in the Melody Maker poll for seven years in succession in the ‘40s and ‘50s, going on to compose many television themes, including The Golden Shot and Family Fortunes.

He was also a regular judge on ATV talent show New Faces and musical director for The Benny Hill Show and The Muppet Show (although we really know that was Nigel, right?).

What’s more,  in the ‘70s, Jack co-founded The Best of British Jazz with the likes of Kenny Baker, and in the ‘90s – by then based in East Anglia – was with the Mike Capocci Trio and led the London Big Band, including some of Britain’s leading jazz musicians.

Incidentally, Marc’s brothers and sisters include Ric Parnell, who played drummer Mick Shrimpton in This is Spinal Tap.  But that’s clearly another story.

“He (Marc) tells us all these stories of meeting people like Buddy Rich, all those people his Dad used to knock around with. Yes, he tells a few interesting stories.

“At the moment, there’s just the four of us, but we’re looking to play live …”

Career Re-Boot: 2012’s Sweet Refrains marked the recording debut of post-Paul Heaton outfit The South

Am I right in thinking you always found that hard – the touring and live performances?

“I must admit, it’s not my favourite thing to do in music. I love recording, producing, making songs, and that. I’ll make no bones about it. It is nerve-racking for me. But I realise it has to be done, so let’s make it the best we can when we do come around to doing gigs.

“And hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later, although the way things are going, it’s not looking great.”

I guess this period of enforced show postponements at least gives you a chance to get the songs out there and raise your profile that way.

“Yeah, that’s one good thing. The album’s not officially out until the end of October, but before we hope to get two or three songs out there, and when it comes to gigs, we’ll be looking to get a bass player and keyboard player on board.”

Geographically, it can’t be so easy. I know there are plenty of examples of bands with members fairly far-flung these days, such as Teenage Fanclub and The Wedding Present, but …

“Well, at least we’re all in the same country! That’s something.”

And in your case, it’s you in Cheshire, Laura in South Yorkshire, Phil and Marc in North London?

“That’s it, and when it comes to rehearsing, we’ll go down to London, as Phil’s got a little set-up where we can rehearse. That’s for the future, but now we just need to get the songs out there.”

The Mainstay: Dave Hemingway’s main co-writer Phil Barton – “He’s the one we revolve around in terms of writing.”

Song-wise, is it mainly co-writes between yourself and Phil?

“He’s been writing with a few people actually, and there are a couple of songs purely down to him. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but he’s been the mainstay for the songs, involved on all but one, I think. He’s the one we revolve around in terms of writing.”

And how did it go with Teo Miller (responsible for Daisy Chainsaw’s splendid ‘Love Your Money’ and subsequent work with The Pretenders, Placebo and Robert Plant)? He’s captured something, for sure.

“I think he’s done a really good job. I’m very happy with it. We were working under very difficult circumstances, with it all self-financed. We don’t have a record company, just a distribution deal. So it was all very pressurised. It’s not like it used to be, back in the day, with videos, big budgets, stuff like that. It was hard, but good.”

I say this time and again, but bands like yours are doing it now for all the right reasons – because you love the creative process of being musicians and writing songs. It’s not about chart positions and the trappings of wealth.

“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one of the main aspects I like about all this is coming out with new songs, recording them, putting them out there and seeing what people think.

“If I’m honest, I’m not expecting the hits The Beautiful South had. That would be unrealistic. We’re not a young band. Having said that, I think we can still deliver good songs.”

On the strength of this album, I totally agree. We talked about the first and last tracks, and now I’ll look between, starting with ‘Hatred Lies in the Ruins of Love’, for me somewhere between Danny Wilson type radio chirpiness and the darker lyrics of your old band.

“It is one of those where if you didn’t hear the lyrics, you’d think it was a jolly song. But it’s not at all – it’s pretty heartbreaking. And that’s something I’ve been involved with in the past – devastating lyrics.”

Different Avenue: Laura Wilcockson, vocal and violin duties – “I keep telling her she should have that confidence.”

I guess something’s rubbed off over the years. I could say the same about ‘Longcuts’, another great Hammy and Laura duet, kind of The Beautiful South meets Dr Hook. A must for the radio waves, I’d say. In fact, people might assume that’s a Heaton composition, with its wordplay, hook and songcraft.

“High praise indeed. We all know Paul’s a brilliant songwriter, so I’ll settle for that. It wasn’t a Heaton song, by the way!”

I guess you knew this question would come, but there have been words back and forth between Paul and you, most through the press. Have you spoken to him of late or anyone from those days?

“No, and I don’t give word back and forth. I just keep my own counsel. I don’t do that sort of thing.”

There are some South-esque songs in there, but also several departures from that tried and tested formula. ‘Holiday Monday’ seems to be a song of many parts, part-Monkees, part-Mamas and Papas, part-Tom Petty. A bit US West Coast, perhaps.

“Yeah, it is, but again those lyrics are more council estate, ha! There’s a bit of new wave in there as well. That’s one of my faves on the album and might make a single at one point. Who knows.”

For me, ‘Gene Kelly’ would certainly make for a great single, its ‘let tomorrow look after itself’  sunshine on a rainy day philosophy putting Spring in your step and gettinmg better with every listen.

“Yeah, it’s basic, but it’s fun. And that’s a fun song melodiously and lyrically – a happy lyric and a happy tune.”

New Start: Dave Hemingway – “No big jackets, hats, or anything like that. I think it’s time to man up at last … maybe!”

You must have woken up in a good mood that day. Meanwhile, ‘The Black Sea’ is darker but somewhat epic. I couldn’t have seen that on the setlist at a South show.

“That again, for me, is a song about depression, and how that can drag you under. Mental health is mentioned a lot in various forms at the moment, in sport and other walks of life.”

Is that something that resonates deeply with yourself?

“Me personally? I’ve definitely had my moments. I can totally relate to it. And my son’s currently working in mental health, which I’m really chuffed about, doing something worthwhile. Yes, I’ve had episodes in that department. it’s not something that’s alien to me.”

Then there’s out and out four-minute pop like ‘When I’m Gone’. Those harmonies, that melody … You‘ve sung memorable duets in the past with Briana Corrigan, Jacqui Abbott and Alison Wheeler, and here again with Laura. It sounds great.

“Yeah, I think Laura’s not very confident about her vocals as she should be. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with very talented female singers. She’s different to them, but that doesn’t mean she’s anything less. We sound good together, and that’s a different avenue to go down. I keep telling her she should have that confidence.”

We used to say something similar about you.

“Ha. Well, I’m still not that confident! I’m good at giving advice … just not taking it.”

Beat Master: Marc Parnell “tells us stories of meeting people like Buddy Rich … his Dad used to knock around with.”

This may be a bit close to the bone, but I’d see you in that big overcoat on stage, however warm the conditions, and think there’s a guy trying to hide.

“That’s totally right. That’s exactly what I was doing. I can’t do that anymore. Nah, I’ll be more apparent this time. No big jackets, hats, or anything like that. I think it’s time to man up at last … maybe!”

Sticking with ‘When I’m Gone’, Phil goes to town with his guitar on that track.

“Yeah, Phil’s a really good guitarist, and now and again there’s certainly room to rock out. If you want to have a bit of a guitar hero moment – why not!”

‘Please Yourself’ seems to show your ‘70s roots and arguably carries traces of Nick Lowe – and maybe there’s a nod to Basher in the album title, its title close to his second-biggest solo hit – meets Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon. I can imagine that coming from a transistor radio back on a long-forgotten sunny, summer’s day.

“Yeah, it is a bit like that, going back to your schooldays, and perhaps not worrying what people think you should do, maybe just trust yourself a bit more.”

Has it taken you a long time to come around to that way of thinking – building that confidence?

“Well, yeah. Sometimes you want to please people, don’t you, rather than make them mad at you. But ultimately, you’ve got to look after yourself, as long as you’re not hurting anyone or doing anything bad.”

Southern Comfort: The original line-up of The South, with Gaz Birtles, Dave Hemingway and Alison Wheeler out front

That seems to be a big issue with you. Surely it would be an easier option to keep on out there on that kind of Lost ’90s circuit in a way, playing the old hits and that alone.

“That was The South, basically. I could have continued with that, and be talking about all that with you now, but I just feel I’ve done enough of that.

“If I was going to get my energy and my mojo back, I had to do something where new songs were involved, take a different approach, working with different people and freshening things up.

“Hopefully I can now continue to do that. After this album, once we’ve finally got this one out there and can play it in front of people.”

Going full circle, back to that final track, ‘Stars Still Shine’, I was going to mention how that and track 10, ‘Big Moneymaker’, are among those with more of a country feel, albeit in the latter case more alt-country in the manner of Emmylou Harris or maybe Alison Krauss with Robert Plant.

“It has got that sort of feel to it. But again, the lyrics are more appropriate for these times. As a band we’ve got so many tastes in music, and that comes across in different songs on this album.

“But we’re always going to have aspects of past incarnations of bands we’ve been in, as it’s still my vocals and these are still songs that tend towards pop.”

And that’s something to celebrate, in the manner of the chorus of ‘Gene Kelly’, where Hammy tells us:

“I don’t mind, I really don’t mind; let it rain, let it rain on this godforsaken town;

I don’t mind, I really don’t mind; tonight for one night only, I’m Gene Kelly dancing in the rain.”

Lining Up: Sunbirds – Marc Parnell, Laura Wilcockson, Dave Hemingway, Phil Barton, set to release their debut LP

For details of how to pre-order the Sunbirds’ debut album, Cool To Be Kind, head to the band’s website at https://sunbirds.co.uk/store/. You can also keep in touch on social media via https://www.facebook.com/sunbirds.co.uk/ https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/sunbirdsband/ and https://twitter.com/SunbirdsMusic

 

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Furs come, Furs serve – celebrating Made of Rain and 40-plus years of beautiful chaos with The Psychedelic Furs’ Tim Butler

Still Believe: The Psychedelic Furs, 2020 style, eager to tour their first LP in three decades (Photo: Mathew Reeves)

Almost three decades after their previous release, The Psychedelic Furs are back on the shelves, it would seem, latest LP Made of Rain’s release date initially put back three months by the global pandemic. But what’s three months after 29 years? Besides, the best things in life are worth waiting for, right?

There was definitely a sense of frustration at not being able to share their latest set of songs until now when I got back in touch with Furs bass player and co-founder Tim Butler. But I guess a lot’s happened since we last spoke in September 2019 (with a link to that feature/interview here), ahead of this highly-influential post-punk outfit’s most recent tour of the country that made them, let alone since that 1991 studio release, World Outside, a rather splendid long player that – as with its cracking 1989 predecessor Book Of Days – was by their own admission too much of a gear change for the wider audience to comprehend – the band eager to distance themselves further from the synth-heavy commercial outfit they briefly became, accordingly losing too much of the fickle part of their audience and the support of the corporate suits behind their label.

While London was their home patch when the band formed in the late ’70s, with much of their early story based around the capital, Tim’s been in America since they reached their commercial peak in 1983, these days long settled in Liberty, Kentucky, with partner Robyn and his step-children, his brother Richard, the Furs’ vocalist and main songwriter, 800 miles across country in New York.

When I called Tim, now 61 (although you’d bever know it from his demeanour over the phone or from the photos the band have shared with us), I’d heard just four tracks from Made of Rain, their new Cooking Vinyl release. But it was a winner on the strength of those songs alone, the band sounding as fresh today as back in the early ‘80s, and still seeking out new territory rather than trying to rewrite the hit singles that made them: like 1981’s ’Pretty in Pink’, which partly inspired John Hughes’ movie of the same name five years later; 1982’s ‘Love My Way’, which featured in 2017 Oscar-winning film Call Me By Your Name; and 1984’s ‘The Ghost in You’, which recently featured in US TV sci-fi success, Stranger Things.

Since then, I’ve got to know the full 12 songs on offer fairly well, and can confirm that my initial presumptions were right. It’s a cracking listen and worthy of their name, proof that if you have the dedication, determination, youthful vigour and creative flair, you can produce a great record this far into your career.

That said, despite the fact that they continue to plough new territory, one of those songs, the single ‘Don’t Believe’, could only be the Furs, even before Richard’s distinctive husky voice comes in. If you haven’t already, you can track down the new LP after you’ve read this, and the band remain hopeful they’ll be back with us soon-ish, with live dates lined up, pushed back to next year, opening at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall (April 27th, with a special, intimate Q&A for Banquet Records at St John’s Church in  Kingston upon Thames the previous day, with special resonance for Richard and Tim Butler, born in nearby Teddington) and including visits to my patch at Liverpool Academy (May 2nd) and Manchester Academy 2 (May 3rd).

The new LP was produced by the band with St Louis, Missouri-based Richard Fortus, who worked with namesake Richard Butler in his between-Furs spells band Love Spit Love from 1992 until they reconvened in 2000, becoming part of the live band for the next two years before joining Guns N’ Roses. Meanwhile, mixing duties were handled by Tim Palmer (David Bowie, U2, Robert Plant), and the result is a joy, in that grand style to which we’ve become accustomed.

They’ve also shared a new video, for ‘Come All Ye Faithful’ – of which Richard said, “It’s a bit about looking for redemption in faith and riches, questioning if either are of any true value and whether redemption is ultimately necessary at all” – the fourth song to be released from Made Of Rain, after ‘No-One’, ‘Don’t Believe’ and ‘You’ll Be Mine’, their first official music video in nearly 30 years, shot in black and white and directed by Imogen Harrison.

A bit of background first to get some of you up to speed, the Furs releasing their first seven studio albums between 1980 and 1991, their spirited eponymous debut – 40 years old in March, yet still so fresh – followed by Talk Talk Talk (1981), Forever Now (1982), Mirror Moves (1984), Midnight To Midnight (1987), and the afore-mentioned, frankly over-looked Book Of Days (1989) and World Outside (1991).

And while this is the first LP since those days, there have been plenty of several live outings over the last two decades, more recently completing a North American tour in 2019 and playing acclaimed shows at The Hollywood Bowl, All Points East, Hyde Park, Benicàssim and a celebrated run of UK shows, including headlining the prestigious Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall at Robert Smith of The Cure’s request.

Shortly after I last spoke to Tim, there was a sold-out tour of the UK and Europe, supported by recent WriteWyattUK interviewee Wendy James, culminating in a triumphant show at the Roundhouse in Camden, London. And the last few years have seen the band’s legend growing, with more than 150 million streams of their songs worldwide.

Their influence since arriving on the post-punk landscape four decades ago has certainly resonated with a lot of acts that followed, from The Strokes and The Killers to REM, and Foo Fighters. And even Bob Dylan has sung their praises. As Richard put it, I don’t often recognise it in their music, (but) it’s gratifying of course, as it is that there’s still an interested and enthusiastic audience for us. That’s an honour.”

In addition to Richard and Tim, the current six-piece line-up features Mars Williams on saxophone (1983/89, and since 2005), Rich Good on guitar (since 2009), Amanda Kramer on keyboards (since 2002), and Paul Garisto on drums (1986/88, and since 2009). And it was clear within a minute or so of getting through to Tim that he felt frustrated by the fact that they were having to wait to share the new songs around their old stomping ground, clearly getting COVID-19 lockdown stir-crazy in Liberty.

“It’s getting very, very boring. We’re going crazy here. I want to go out and play, especially as the album’s coming out. It’s frustrating.”

Is that just you and your good lady?

“And my stepson and daughter.”

Ah, a bit of family bonding then?

“Yeah … like it or not!”

Six Appeal: The Psychedelic Furs, back into the light once the pandemic is behind us all (Photo: Mathew Reeves)

Seeing as Richard lives across the States from you, surely you should be used to long-distance communication by now.

“Oh yeah, and my other brother used to live in San Francisco, so we’re spread out.”

I hadn’t realised he’d followed your lead and moved to America.

“Yeah, after a few years. He got a job at Apple Computers in the Silicon Valley … a real job!”

Whereas you’ve managed to avoid one of those so far, of course.

“Ha! So far so good!”

I’m loving the new songs. And while there’s a very different feel between ‘Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘No One’, ‘You’ll be Mine’ and ‘Don’t Believe’, the latter I have to say is classic Furs from the opening bars, even before Richard’s voice comes in.

“Err, yeah, I think so. Some of it’s more classic, but I think the sound of the whole thing was influenced over the long hiatus we had by the music around us, so of course it’s going to seep into what you write, and I think it’s very current but still very much Furs.”

I agree, and those first four releases from the LP suggest that wide range. Are those tracks fairly indicative of the LP as a whole?

“Yeah, I think everyone will be very pleasantly surprised and we’re very, very happy with it. It’s a typical Furs album in that it goes from all-out rockers to ballads and back again. That keeps you interested. If an album’s all ‘balls to the wall’ or all laidback, you tend to lose interest. But hopefully this will keep people interested from beginning to end.”

I have to ask, was ‘Cigarette’ considered for this LP? I was watching your 2001 unplugged version recently, and love that. Seems odd to say this seeing as they came after you, but there’s something of an REM quality there. It’s as much Michael Stipe as it your brother.

“Yeah, that (song) was never seriously considered, never brought up. Not to say it won’t – maybe down the line a bit, but we came up with so many new songs in the six or seven months leading up to when we recorded. We did record ‘Wrong Train’, but a very different version to when we’d do it live. It had an overhaul.”

When the LP’s finally out, it will be six months after you premiered the first single from it. Was there frustration at having to wait so long to share it with us, or was it a case of, ‘what’s another few months to wait after all these years?’

“Ha! It was very frustrating, because we were so happy and excited to get it out and be able to tour with new material. So when the whole pandemic came down we were chomping at the bit to get out there and play to people. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. You can live in a studio, but until you get out and play the songs face to face with your audience, you can’t really gauge the success or failure of a song or album.”

Where did you record the LP, and when was that?

“We recorded it in two 12-day sessions in St Louis. One was late last year after our tour with James, then in January this year, and I think it took Tim Palmer three or four weeks to mix it. And once we had the songs, it all came together really quickly.”

Richard Fortus was with the band at the controls, I see. And he’s from St Louis, isn’t he?

“Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons we went there. He’s worked at that studio we used, Sawhorse Studios, a nice cosy set-up, with no pressure, and of course, Richard’s an old friend of the band, right back to when his band, Pale Divine, supported us on our last tour for the World Outside album in 1992. And being a fan of our work, he could give us pointers on what he thought were the highpoints of the Furs and which areas to sort of steer away from.”

It’s obviously a good working relationship judging by what I’ve heard so far.

“Yes, very relaxed, without all those days getting to know the producer and figuring all that out. We were pretty much sympatico from when we walked into the studio.”

This March just gone marked the 40th anniversary of the eponymous debut album. Does that seem possible? I was listening to that today in celebration of speaking to you, and hooked again from the moment that keyboard and picked guitar gives way to Tim’s driving bass and Vince Ely’s propelling drums on opening six-minute epic, ‘India’, the ball well and truly rolling for The Psychedelic Furs’ career in music by the time we’ve fired through to ‘Sister Europe’ and ‘Imitation of Christ’. It’s weathered well, I’d say. It still sounds great.

“Well, that’s the thing, maybe with the exception of one album in the ‘80s which is definitely stuck in that decade …”

Mmm … might that be Midnight to Midnight, per chance, I wondered, aloud … But he chose to ignore that and carry on.

“If it was released today it wouldn’t be looked on as old-fashioned sounding … But it does seems crazy that it was 40 years ago. Time flies! I’d have never thought when I was recording that, that 40 years later I’d still be making my living from being a musician. You don’t when you first form a band. The most you could hope for is to get a couple of gigs a week or a month, so to survive 40 years in this business is a feat in itself.”

Do you think back on the making that first album – largely with Steve Lillywhite at Mickie Most’s RAK Studios – as an enjoyable experience?

“Yeah, I remember we recorded that in a really short time too. Steve (Lillywhite) had been to see us live a couple of times and just wanted us to get the essence of a live show. We went in there and everybody set up in the studio, did two or three takes, and of course we’d been playing those songs for so many shows that we were pretty tight. It came together really quickly. And I think it still does have that freshness.”

Oh, it does, definitely. It seems an album of two parts within, including the debut single, the tremendous ‘We Love You’ – made with Howard Thompson at Basing Street Studios – and further more overtly punk-influenced tracks like the hypnotic ‘Pulse’ and the closing ‘Flowers’, in a Bowie meets John Lydon style, but also giving us clues to the band you became, tracks like ‘Sister Europe’ and ‘Imitation of Christ’ telling us loud and clear where you might be headed and that you were here to stay.

“Err, yeah, I think originally when we got together none of us could really play very well, so we’d all pile in if someone came up with a chord sequence, trying to make ourselves heard and stick out in a sort of ‘look at me’ way. It became that wall of melody, or ‘beautiful chaos’ as someone dubbed it.

“But with later songs like ‘Imitation of Christ’ and ‘Sister Europe’ I think Steve gave us more direction and took us more away from the punk area. With ‘Sister Europe’, Richard used to sing it with more of an attitude and some aggression. But Steve said, ‘Why don’t you imagine it’s late at night and tone it down a little bit – not croon it, but sing it more laidback’. And he did, and it gained a lot.”

Absolutely, and you hear that difference in Richard’s voice between those tracks, let alone the rest of you in the band.

“Yeah, I think he (Richard) realised he had more of a range in the vocal areas than he initially thought. And over the years that got better and better and better. I think he’s one of the best, most distinctive vocalists of the last 40 years.”

Agreed, and the new songs suggest you’re still on the money now. But I’ll ask that question about whether you imagined you’d still be doing this – 40 years after that first single – a different way. I think this new LP proves you were moving in the right direction after all back in ’89 and beyond, not content to just live by those big hits. But when you made World Outside in 1991, was there a feeling it might be your last record, the Furs story looking like it might be over after barely a decade? Might you have blown it at that point by collectively walking away from the band?

“Erm, I think we screwed around with the audience so much going from the really commercial Midnight to Midnight, clawing our way back to that original sound and maybe gain our original audience back with Book of Days. And we were pretty anti- promoting it, which didn’t help. So, by the time World Outside came out people thought we’d dropped off the face of the earth. That was us shooting ourselves in the foot. After that I think we were tired of being the Psychedelic Furs, doing ‘album, tour, album, tour …’ So, we took a break … a long break! But we came back revitalised and didn’t realise how much we’d enjoy playing those songs now.”

Does it surprise you in a sense that the first spell of the band lasted 15 years, while this incarnation now has 20 years behind it … and that you’re as fresh now as you’ve ever been?

“Lots of times, people say about the ‘original Furs’. But the original Furs were only together for two albums, whereas this version … I think Rich Good has only been with us since 2008, but he’s been with us longer than the original Furs were going! It’s strange.”

The live band is so important to what you’re about, and you’ve played some iconic venues down the years, in London alone from close to your old patch in Camden at the Electric Ballroom and Music Machine back in the day to the Roundhouse last October, and from the Royal Festival Hall not so long ago to the Royal Albert Hall next April, all being well. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?

“I know. That’s amazing. I always remember growing up, watching Cream’s farewell concert from the Royal Albert Hall, thinking, ‘Wow! Look at the size of that place! Those guys are huge!’ Little did I know that so many years later I’d be playing that very same place. And who knows, someone might take their kid along to this show and they might be as knocked out by us as I was watching that Cream show.”

What do you think your parents – the brothers lost their father around a dozen years ago, and their mother recently – might have made of the Butler brothers playing such iconic venues?

“My mother died about two months ago, and it’s sad because last year – she was 92 – she was planning to travel down with a friend of hers from Cumbria, where she retired to, and when we postponed it and rescheduled she was thinking about coming down to the one next year. But she unfortunately passed away.

“From the early days they were really proud of us though. Of course, in the early days there was talk of us getting proper jobs, and how we couldn’t rely on this music, but Richard and I have stuck at it, while Simon dropped out and went to university. He was in the original band and co-wrote ‘Imitation of Christ’ and ‘India’. Yeah, they were always proud of us. When they had friends over they would bring out their scrapbook.”

Quite right too. And soon after our interview I got to hear the new LP in full for the first time, not just those initial four released tracks shining out but several others too, opening number ‘The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll’ doing what ‘India’ did by way of introduction four decades earlier, and plenty more highlights following.

I say this from a place of love, but at times I feel Richard’s vocals are a little too clean on a couple of tracks, his rough edges seemingly held back, as if the band are still chasing that crossover pop market. I wouldn’t begrudge them more hits, of course, but he sounds better where he’s allowed to use a wider range on songs like ‘Wrong Train’. He gets away with it though with those sublime cords, big songs like ‘This’ll Never Be Like Voice’ working well, and the band never over-cooking it. There’s an ’80s vibe here and there maybe, but it’s always about more than mere nostalgia, any criticism just a side-note to the band, the songcraft definitely there across these 12 tracks.

My highlight of highlights? Maybe it’s the closing section on side one’s slow-burning finale ‘Ash Wednesday’, a track that’s grand in that classic Furs style but also summons up the spirit of Talk Talk or perhaps even The Blue Nile in their ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ era (perhaps it’s just a precipitation thing). And the harmonies are sublime between Richard and …. well, I’m not sure who. Perhaps it’s Amanda. The credits don’t tell us. Either way, that vocal blend takes the song to another level, as is the case on The Smiths-like ‘Hide the Medicine’, a song that gets better with every play, both of those tracks no doubt given extra power in a live setting.

What’s more, the tracks I heard first were still holding their staying power a fair few listens down the line, losing none of their original edge, with ‘No-One’ a great example of that. I’d say ‘You’ll Be Mine’ even carries a new age folk edge – with Richard’s voice up to the task, of course – coupled with that epic Furs feel.

There’s something else I couldn’t quite place at first, thinking of a few bands that made their name in the ’90s and beyond that you hear on closing two numbers, ‘Turn Your Back On Me’ and ‘Stars’, like Embrace, Keane and Elbow at their best. But maybe I wasn’t quite looking back far enough, for on the penultimate track there’s also a Peter Gabriel quality, and on the latter the verse suggests Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme, while there’s even a (whisper it) Genesis-like prog feel, Paul Garisto invoking something of a Phil Collins vibe on those tubs before Rich Good’s beautifully-weighted guitar histrionics take over. There, I said it.

In short, as a full-on listening experience, it’s not what you’d always expect. Far from it. And fair play to them for such deviation and experimentation. It’s sweet in places, brooding in others, atmospheric throughout, and all in all well worth the long wait. Let’s just hope it gets the attention that was somehow not afforded Book of Days and World Outside, way back then.

And finally, Tim, you told me last time that Forever Now was your favourite album. There was barely two and a half years between the debut, Talk Talk Talk, and then that. Will the release of this LP inspire more of the same – might we have two more albums turned around fairly quick on the back of this one?

“Yeah … we’re definitely not going to take another 30 years! Ha! We’re already writing and kicking around ideas. We’ve got the fever for recording again!”

Rain Over: The Psychedelic Furs, heading back to the UK in 2021, COVID-19 virus willing (Photo: Matthew Reeves)

Made Of Rain is available on CD, double-gatefold vinyl and in digital format via Cooking Vinyl, with further exclusive formats and autographed options available via the band’s Official Store.

Full 2021 UK dates (with Jah Wobble & The Invaders of the Heart supporting in London and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls on all the other dates): April 27th – London Royal Albert Hall, April 28th – Nottingham  Rock City, April 29th – Bristol O2 Academy, May 1st – Glasgow Barrowland, May 2nd – Liverpool Academy, May 3rd – Manchester Academy 2, May 5th – Cambridge Junction. for more details head to the band ‘s website . you can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 

 

 

 

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Film and Faction Romance – in conversation with Virginia Heath and Grant Keir

On Location: Mark Dorris sets up a car mount grip with Virginia Heath on the set of Lift Share in the Outer Hebrides

Four months ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Scottish singer/songwriter Kenny Anderson and his band, collectively King Creosote, live-score 2014’s celebrated archive film From Scotland With Love, by New Zealand-born director/screenwriter Virginia Heath.

That Bridgewater Hall show in Manchester proved to be not only the last night of a major tour reprising the group’s role soundtracking an award-winning BAFTA Scotland nominated feature-length documentary, but also my last live show for 19 weeks and counting, the UK-wide lockdown swiftly following.

As it turned out, social distancing of sorts was in place, only around a third of the audience showing up at a time of mixed messages from on high, the film’s universal themes of love, loss, resistance, migration, work and play down the years all the more poignant in the circumstances.

It was a night when I found myself so involved in the moving images unfolding on the big screen that occasionally I’d glance down and remember that there was a band performing, and a cracking one too, much of the credit for that going to Virginia and her editing team for a project originally commissioned by the BBC and Creative Scotland to mark Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Now it seems apt to look at that from another angle, tracking and tracing Virginia and the film’s producer Grant Keir down to their Edinburgh office, asking two-thirds of the creators of the Faction North film and TV production company how their lockdown’s panned out, not least at a time when UK-wide restrictions have ruled out so much work in the film industry.

Virginia and Grant established the firm in 1998 alongside London-based producer Peter Day, the trio still going strong two decades on, writing, directing and producing drama, documentary, TV and cross-platform production for the international and UK domestic markets.

And while my interviewees play it down that they’re an item, it’s worth noting that their daughter Stella has followed their lead, co-writing last year’s film short Lift Share – funded by Creative Scotland, BFI and Scottish Film Talent Network, starring Ana Ularu and Mark Rowley, with its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and last year’s best drama short award-winner at Copenhagen Film Festival – with her mother, having graduated from the National Film and Television School last year and already with film editing awards under her belt.

Interior Shot: Producer Grant Keir on the Outer Hebridean film set of Lift Share with co-leading actor Mark Rowley

Virginia and Grant engineered a coffee break to talk to me, at first explaining to me how the company seems to be based both in Edinburgh and Sheffield, Faction North’s first base and where Virginia is a professor of film at Hallam University, a research professor for the art, design and media research centre who also teaches on the MA filmmaking course, and Grant mentoring and teaching producing, pitching and business skills.

While Virginia’s originally from Havelock North on New Zealand’s North Island, Grant grew up in Essex but hails from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with Scottish heritage. In fact, I kind of assumed he was Scottish at first. Maybe it’s the name. Actually, I mistakenly first referred to him online as Keir Grant, which at least appeals to his socialist leanings. In fact, when I mentioned this again when we spoke, he said, “I’ll take that. I’m happy with that!”.

They were based in Sheffield when they helped set up their company, living near Endcliffe Park, which was in the news last year following a BBC campaign supporting octogenarian Tony Foulds’ lifelong efforts to honour the crew of USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress, Mi Amigo after witnessing the plane crash there as a young lad in 1944.

Home for Virginia and Grant is now north of the border though. But how long have they known each other? The first shared credit I see is for 1997’s Songs from the Golden City documentary, following the story of The Manhattan Brothers, jazz superstars who earned millions for the South African recording company, but never saw a penny in royalties during the dark days of apartheid. Did Virginia and Grant know each other before?

Grant: “Yeah, we’re married actually, but professionally don’t make a song and dance about that. We like to have our own independent existence.”

Many of their films carry strong political and social messages, and in 2009 Virginia – whose impressive CV for drama and documentary films also includes a 2002 Berlin International Film Festival award for best short, Relativity – was commissioned by the UK Human Trafficking Centre to create a film to highlight the issue, interviewing exploited girls and women, and frontline agency workers, going on to make the film My Dangerous Loverboy. A related website and social media channels later increased engagement, the overall project winning a cross-media award from the National Board of Canada and seeing her nominated for a Royal Television Society award, the film extensively used in schools and youth centres, and with frontline agency workers across the UK.

Before that, Virginia directed a number of films for Bandung Productions, who had an international art slot for Channel 4, including three episodes of the Rear Window documentary series (1992/93), Britain’s fourth terrestrial TV channel providing her with her UK television breakthrough. In fact, that channel took a lot of chances in their early years. Is that kind of opportunity still out there?

Summer Still: Jamie Sives and Ana Ularu in Anca Damian’s A Very Unsettled Summer (2013), produced by Grant Keir

Grant, also credited for producing ‘A Very Unsettled Summer’ with award-winning writer/director Anca Damian, and a former Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival board member, said: “It’s a very different beast these days.”

Virginia: “That was extraordinary. Those were very different times, of course. I think it went out on Tuesday evenings at nine, and always got good reviews in the broadsheets, Radio Times, and so on.”

Grant: “The tabloids also liked to cover the Rear Window series, because there were often programmes about black people and black culture, and the Daily Mail and Daily Express used to love ranting and raving about them!”

Virginia: “But we also had a really loyal following and good solid audience that tuned in every week. Of course though, audience viewing habits just aren’t like that anymore.

I suppose there’s a real proliferation of product through additional channels these days, so fewer people see the same alternative shows and documentaries.

Grant: “That’s true, but I think television is still a really important benchmark, sets standards and sets viewing figures too. Talk to any of the social influencers, people marking their careers on Twitter and TikTok and all that – if you offer any of them a slot on television, they’ll bite your hand off. It still sets a kind of social, political media agenda. That for me is what’s so disturbing about all the major channels in the UK evacuating the schedules of serious documentary content. We wouldn’t get to make those films Virginia made back in the day for Bandung and Rear Window. You couldn’t make them now.”

Faction Debut: Songs from the Golden City in 1997 was the first film for the Faction North company

Faction Debut: Songs from the Golden City in 1997 was the first of many film projects for the Faction North company

In a sense it was easier then, with just three channels in my early years then four from the ‘80s.

Grant: “That’s another world now. But the real problem with the proliferation of channels and massive variety of options for people to view things in my opinion – and I don’t mind people watching whatever they want, as long as it’s legal – is that broadcasters then go chasing these fragmented small audiences in the hope they can deliver the ‘eyeballs’ to the advertisers and secure the biggest audiences possible. That’s why you see the rise of factual entertainment, which is blocking out serious documentary filmmaking which actually has something to say. And I mean, what really does Love Island Australia really tell us about anything? That’s my question.”

Virginia: “The Bandung arts slot was incredible. For example, I made a film about a Turkish painter after the Berlin Wall came down, a really interesting time to look at that from an insider’s and outsider’s point of view. This guy’s studio overlooked the wall and his paintings included images from East Germany in them. They were about questions of identity and immigrant populations. A fascinating guy and a fascinating subject. And that was enough. When we contacted him, he couldn’t believe someone from England had seen his work and wanted to make a film about him.

“I also made a film about the first Black South African oil painter, an exile in Paris, and it was a really interesting way of looking at South Africa through an extraordinary painter. Tariq Ali was the commissioning editor and it was almost like he, with his huge cultural and political knowledge, scanned the horizon and picked really fascinating subjects to shine a light on.”

Ever consider follow-up documentaries with those subjects? They would make for similarly fascinating viewing.

Virginia: “Well, you’d never get the funding to do that now.”

Grant: “Gerard Sekoto, that first Black African portrait painter and fine artist, back in the days of apartheid just couldn’t have been an artist. It just wasn’t allowed at a professional level. He’s now dead, unfortunately (he died in Paris in 1993, aged 79), but maybe we could find out about the Turkish subject of the Berlin Wall documentary.

Production Role: Grant Keir – Essex and Tyneside roots, Scottish heritage

“But you’d have to put the usual jigsaw of finance together to make a film. That’s what I do as a producer. That is a long and difficult dance, and increasingly difficult. Even though there’s public money around – and funds like the BFI and Screen Scotland have money – they all have very particular editorial requirements. Match-aligning all the different bits of money around what they need and what they’re looking for is really difficult. You’ve got to have a lot of perseverance.

“Actually, you need enough financial stability to be able to do that long haul to put all the money together. This is where people like us – we’ve been around and at this for more than 30 years – have a network and understand how these things can be done, but if you’re starting out now as a young filmmaker, I think it’s impossible.

“One of the biggest revelations for me in my career was when I realised – I’d be at all these different film festivals and markets and see people putting films together and talking about how they’d done it, and sat there and couldn’t work out how they’d survived for five years while they did all the development. Then I heard a couple of people talking in a bar and realised they were independently wealthy people. They had trust funds behind them or just came from rich families. That’s what allowed them to survive. What that means is that people making films are coming from very particular social strata.”

True enough. I see enough of that in writing and journalism. In most cases, it seems that the writer in the household is not the main wage earner. And you need money behind you to pursue those writing dreams.

Grant: “And of course, it has real impact in the sense that in so many news outlets now the journalists are not journalists, they’re simply rewriting corporate communications rather than journalistic, interrogative, questioning writing.”

So how’s lockdown been for you two? There’s been a lot of talk about theatres being unable to open and people who think that’s not really a problem because they can watch Netflix instead, not joining up the dots and realising where those actors and creatives involved come from, how those films and productions are written and made in the first place, and the importance of the individuals behind the film and television industry.

Grant: “People very rarely understand where the film comes from, which is also why people seem to think it’s okay to steal content and watch things on illegal sites. They will understand if you walk into a shop and steal a t-shirt – that’s theft – but if you watch a film on an illegal website they’ll just think that’s being clever.”

Virginia: “Stealing music as well. Anything that’s reducable to zeroes and ones ….”

Faction North do have new features in advanced development right now though. I saw mention of a couple of psychological thriller feature films you have in advanced development,  and talk of a drama series.

My Direction: Virginia Heath, a long way from Havelock North, New Zealand

Virginia: “At the moment I’m working on a feature documentary. That’s in development and we were due to go back to film in New York in May. We’re not sure when we’re going to be able to go back now, but you can do quite a lot online, and I have researchers I’m working with in the States, so we’re carrying on, pushing forward. The feature films take a lot of time and strategising to get from scripts to screen, and there are still things we’re working on, but again because of the COVID-19 situation we have to rethink.”

Grant: “In the business you’d call those small independent feature films – in the two to five million pound or dollar bracket. The difficulty with them – and this is relatively recent with the rise of Netflix, Amazon, and all that – is that they tie up casts on these long-running drama series, so for an independent film like the ones we make, you have to have a cast to get the film finance – well-known actors. But they get tied up on these series, so it’s really difficult to get the cast to commit. And if you can’t get the cast to commit, you can’t close the finance and can’t make the films.

“Some people have talked about how ironically the COVID-19 thing has disrupted production so much that there might now be opportunities for smaller films, as actors won’t want to be tied up for months on end on something that might not actually go into production, or could be scuppered at any point. So there might be a market for limited appearances – from five to 10 weeks on a film rather than eight months. But we’re yet to see if that’s true.”

It’s been around four years since Virginia’s had the chance to return to her native New Zealand, when From Scotland with Love was part of the New Zealand Film Festival, with successful screenings up and down the country.

Virginia: “It’s almost like having a mini-release of the film around the country and was fantastically successful, with such a big ex-Scottish population, or people of Scottish heritage, there who were very enthusiastic about the film. As a result, we had an idea of doing a From New Zealand With Love, but maybe the first involved a fortunate coalescing of material, having access to some amazing archive, all concentrated in one place. That really helped us put the film together. It was a relatively simple process of accessing the material. But what we’ve realised is that in other places it’s not so simple, and sometimes the archives don’t even own the material they have.”

From Scotland with Love provided my introduction to your work, and it’s a film I’ve re-watched several times. In fact, I recently stumbled across some of the archive material within, seeing the wonderful 1948 Edinburgh-based documentary Waverley Steps again.

Virginia: “That was a gold mine, finding that film. It’s not the greatest film ever, but it’s quite beautifully shot, and I really wanted this theme of love and various love stories and liaisons running through our film.”

Since then I’ve also caught up with last year’s Three Chords and the Truth and loved that too. It’s hard to explain the pull of this short film, but it certainly works. In short, Virginia and her team follow several inspirational home-based manufacturers and fellow enthusiasts extolling the joy of cigar box guitars, these three-stringed instruments lovingly crafted from recycled and upcycled materials by true craftsmen with a twin love of great music, leading to unique (an over-used word, but in this case spot on) designs. The history of the cigar box instrument was borne out of the blues and out of necessity in an era when for many this was the only way to get hold of a guitar. But while its genesis was US-led, this is very much about men in sheds in modern, post-industrial Britain taking that legacy forward.

Cigar Man: John Farr, aka Hollowbelly, gives us Three Chords and the Truth for the short film of the same name

I guess a great documentary – like any great film – needs central characters you believe in and care about, and you get that from Three Chords and the Truth’s Nig Richards, Chickenbone John, Robyn Greig-Brown, Hollowbelly and Dennis Duffy, their stories and inspirational approaches drawing me into the story. And there’s something of the punk DIY ethos that resonates too, their cottage industry, anti-corporate, pro-recycling approach inspirational, the finished products providing an evocative sound that musicians and audiences alike will appreciate.

Virginia: “I basically got to that story through my colleague at Sheffield Hallam, Paul Atkinson, who’s part of the same research centre. He’d written an article, Hairy Guys in Sheds, and was telling me about it in the pub one day, and I thought that would be a really nice subject for a film. That kind of DIY ethos and anti-corporate spirit, making instruments from found materials. I just found it really inspiring.”

My own poor DIY skills suggest any efforts I made would be pathetic, but the sheer passion of those involved really brought the subject alive. And there wasn’t just one stand-out talker – the way those involved talk about the subject help tell the story so well. In fact, that documentary led to a follow-up, Faction North commissioned by the BBC to make a half-hour version, renamed Cigar Box Blues – The Makers of a Revolution, including extra material and footage from a guitar-making workshop.

Virginia: “One of my female colleagues from the university came along to that and managed to produce a great little guitar in a day. There was also a young boy there with his Mum, and Chickenbone John is an extraordinary teacher and just inspired people to make things.

Another film Grant was involved with, at least on the fringes of, also appealed to this music lover, not least considering my ‘70s introduction to pop and rock in the glam years, receiving an associate production credit for Liam Firmager’s splendid 2019 Suzi Q documentary from Screen Australia and Film Victoria, telling the amazing story of Suzi Quatro, its narrative supplemented by revealing interviews with Suzi and her family, plus the likes of Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Alice Cooper, Debbie Harry, Henry Winkler, Joan Jett, K.T. Tunstall, Mike Chapman, Tim Rice, and WriteWyattUK interviewees Don Powell (Slade), Andy Scott (Sweet) and Wendy James (Transvision Vamp).

Grant: “I’m credited as an associate producer on that film as I was trying to raise money for the film in the UK in the early stages. I was very graciously given that credit by the producers. In the end the film was sold to Sky Television and released in cinemas in the UK on a limited release, and Suzi very generously gave us time and supported that with personal appearances and Q&As.

“She’s amazing, and an extraordinary artist. She’s been in the industry for many, many decades, yet didn’t crash and burn, didn’t drink it all away, maintaining a privacy about her life but also remaining available for her fans. And as some of the artists in the film say, young women going into the music industry now should study Suzi Quatro, because she shows you how you can have a long career and not become a casualty and not be exploited.

“Not everyone loves her music, and you can argue about how innovative or not she was, but she was one of the first women to lead a rock band. That in itself is really interesting. The other interesting thing from a British perspective is that she was a star in the UK at a time when she wasn’t a star in America.

“I think people forget the rock industry in America arguably never really had a glam phase. We had Bowie, we had T-Rex, we had Slade, we had Sweet, all big bands in the UK, Europe and sometimes Japan, and they all tried to go to America and make it. But I would argue that America was resistant to a more feminine or more fluid gender image, other than Bowie – the one artist who did actually have a career in America. But what they wanted in America was not ‘Star Man’ and David putting his arm around Mick Ronson. They wanted ‘Let’s Dance’. And even though Bowie was big there, how many people actually understood the depth of his work? The thing with Suzi was that she did eventually have a career in America – not as a rock star though, but a television star on Happy Days.”

There’s plenty of Suzi’s determination and spirit in Virginia too, as I’m sure must be the case for every female director that’s broken through in what until now has been very much a male-led industry. And as she puts it herself, her work is all about investigating ‘questions of female sexuality, identity, empowerment of marginalised voices, and the conflict between different cultural perceptions’.

I ran out of time to find out more about her Kiwi roots this time, but know she studied film at London’s St Martin’s School of Art in the mid-‘80s, albeit a decade too late for the Sex Pistols’ debut gig there and three years before Jarvis Cocker studied Fine Art and Film (although perhaps she met the girl from Greece who had a thirst for knowledge, studied sculpture and wanted to sleep with common people – I’ll have to ask her next time).

But there was just about time to ask both Virginia and Grant what films they saw that inspired them to do what they do.

Virginia: “That’s a really hard question. I fell in love with cinema when I was a kid, because my father absolutely loved cinema. He’d take us to see whatever film that was going at the Saturday pictures in the small town where I grew up. We saw war films, love stories, we saw God knows what.”

It sounds like a Cinema Paradiso type upbringing.

Virginia: “I would say one of the films that always sticks in my mind and made me absolutely love cinema was (Bernardo) Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista), an extraordinary combination of being quite political but with this really powerful, slightly leftfield love story – that combination of politics and love and sex is the kind of film I really admire. I love all sorts of cinema, but I think that film for me really sums up what cinema can do.

“It’s an Italian film, subtitled, and it’s never going to be a huge mainstream film, but it’s a real example of a film that can look at politics and look at our lives in a really profound way, but it’s also extremely sensual and entertaining, and the acting, the cinematography and the production design all kind of work together to create an absolutely immersive, extraordinary experience. I was probably in my late teens when I first saw that.”

Grant: “The film I would reference that made me want to be a producer was Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers, just in the media again recently as Ennio Morricone did the soundtrack. Everyone remembers him for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and rightly so, but for me that film is a perfect combination of cinema as political consciousness, history telling and inspiring people to fight for their rights.

“And I think that’s what cinema is there for – to reflect the world back at us but also inspire us to make a better world.”

For more about the work of Faction North, head to the company’s website via this link, and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Ferry Share: Virginia Heath, centre, with Mark Rowley and Ularu off to the Outer Hebrides to film the Lift Share short

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The rise and rise of Fontaines D.C. – in conversation with Conor Deegan III

Dune Pride: Fontaines D.C. From left – Conor Deegan III, Conor Curley, Grian Chatten, Tom Coll, Carlos O’Connell

Technical issues ensured I was 10 minutes late getting hold of Fontaines D.C. bass player Conor Deegan III, aka Deego. But if he was rattled by that – with another appointment lined up 20 minutes later across Dublin City, the band base that provides their initial suffix, so to speak – he wasn’t letting on.

Then again, there is that key line on the title track of their new LP, A Hero’s Death, telling us, ‘Never let a clock tell you what you got time for; It only goes around, goes around, goes around’.

However, there’s an air of professionalism about this band, also featuring Grian Chatten (vocals), Carlos O’Connell (guitar), Conor Curley (guitar), and Tom Coll (drums). Hard living maybe, but friendly with it, and definitely focused. I saw it when they played a short set at Preston’s Blitz nightclub when mighty debut album Dogrel came out last summer – going on to earn a Mercury Prize nomination and BBC 6 Music’s Album of the Year status – and it’s still very much part of their make-up.

A bit of background first, with Grian born this side of the Irish Sea (just … in Barrow-in-Furness) but growing up in a Dublin seaside town, while Deego and Tom hail from Castlebar in County Mayo (Deego’s been known to wear Mayo GAA tops during live performances), fellow Conor is from County Monaghan, and Carlos grew up in Madrid. But they met in Dublin, attending the British & Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), bonding over a love of poetry, their name taken from Al Martino’s singer/movie star character Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, Vito Corleone’s godson; the Dublin City initials added to differentiate from an LA outfit.

Self-releasing their first single in May 2017, ‘Liberty Belle’, in tribute to the Liberties, the Dublin neighbourhood where band members lived, that acclaimed debut LP – like this one, on Partisan Records –  followed within two years, its title in homage to doggerel, a form of working-class Irish poetry that’s eased itself into the English language over time since the 17th century.

With introductory excuses behind me, I asked Deego how he and his bandmates – who were set to perform at the 50th anniversary of Glastonbury Festival, perhaps the highest profile casualty of so many this summer – had fared during the lockdown.

“It was actually really nice, weirdly enough. Me and Carlos went to Mayo in the west of Ireland, quarantined there with some friends in a cottage by the sea.”

Those who saw the band’s cracking promo video for new LP title track ‘A Hero’s Death’ on the BBC’s Later with Jools will be familiar with that location, its lyrics described by Grian as ‘a list of rules for the self’. Funnily enough, I was going to ask Deego whose dresser that was behind him in their socially-distanced promo film.

“That was our friend’s Granny’s house, while she was living with their parents.”

And where did frontman Grian record his part? Where’s that headland?

“That was in rural Dublin. He’s from a seaside town in Dublin, so it was probably there.”

Such a great way to announce a return, this scribe hooked from the first listen, its repeated ‘Life ain’t always empty’ mantra over an ever-building, stunning track mesmerising. And while I’d only had a couple of plays of the new record – out on July 31st, its title inspired by the line, ‘Everybody’s looking for a hero’s death’ in The Hostage by Irish playwright Brendan Behan, and the album art featuring the statue of mythological Irish warrior Cuchulainn that stands in Dublin as a commemoration of the Easter Rising – when I spoke to Deego, I could already tell it was a grower, very different but equally sharp, not so immediate as Dogrel.

That said, three of the first tracks to resonate were apparently among the oldest – the title track plus ‘I Was Not Born – its Wedding Present-like guitar (around the time of Bizarro, and perhaps ‘Bewitched’ in particular for these ears) towards the end jumping out at me – and the similarly-urgent ‘Televised Mind’. In fact, all three remain just as powerful a few more lsitens down the line.

“Yeah, ‘A Hero’s Death’ was written when we listened back to Dogrel first, so that was probably written in October 2018, with ‘I Was Not Born’ around the same time, and ‘Televised Mind’ maybe a little later.”

Yet there’s even a different feel from those tracks to those on the first record, and that to me suggests constant evolution. They wouldn’t necessarily have fitted in any earlier.

“Yeah, maybe. I think we just kind of had sounds we wanted to explore and mess around with, certain songs like ‘Living in America’.”

Now there’s a case in point, one suggesting that earlier experimentation I hinted at. It could almost be The Jesus and Mary Chain in places. Anyway, carry on, Deego.

“But then, like you say, there are certain songs which are a development of what we were doing on the first album, like ‘A Lucid Dream’. I think that’s kind of like ‘Too Real’ in a way.”

I’m loving the LP more and more with every listen, from opening track, ‘I Don’t Belong’ right through to reflective closing number, ‘No’,  the introductory number coming with its own neat promo video, directed by Deego. And there’s much to wallow in throughout the record, tracks like ‘I Don’t Belong’ carrying the air of the early feel of WriteWyattUK favourites The Wolfhounds. And there are those surprising moments, like on the reflective ‘Oh Such a Spring’, all seemingly some way away from the live tour de force we heard last time around.

Fontaines Five: Conor Deegan III, Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Grian Chatten, Tom Coll (Photos: Richard Dumas)

In fact, I can’t better the part of the official press release with the album suggesting Grian – and the band in turn – is ‘sounding like someone riddled with angst yet resolved to protect their own freedom at all costs’ on the opening track. It adds, ‘If not a retreat, it almost sounds like a defensive rebuke of ‘Big’ — Fontaines’ last album opener, the one that rushed out the gates hungry to consume the whole world while proclaiming ‘My childhood was small; But I’m gonna be big!’. The fact that Fontaines D.C.’s new album A Hero’s Death begins with ‘I Don’t Belong’ is hard to take as anything but a pointed inversion, the music moodier and the lyrics more searching. Though the tone is noticeably different, the introduction is no less intentional: This is not the same Fontaines D.C.’ And as Carlos adds, “When we wrote this album it was a reaction to the success of Dogrel. We started to feel very detached from who we were when we wrote Dogrel.”

It’s now 15 months since my first live sighting of Fontaines D.C., arranged through Preston’s premier independent record shop and occasional label Action Records. And there was definitely something there that made me think this band were going places. I’m not always right, but there was real presence on stage, and true chemistry between them all. They knew their way around each other and had clearly gelled well together. They made it seem effortless yet raw.

“Yeah, we actually worked our arses off rehearsing in the summer of 2018 when we were set to go in to record the album, having never done that before. We were really nervous, and we couldn’t believe we’d managed to fool them into giving us a record deal, that kind of mentality. But we also knew, ‘Now we must do the work’, thinking, ‘Oh shit! We need to record these songs’. So we got them really tight. I learned so many things about songs, like the chord progressions that were going on, bar counts, all these sort of things.”

Last year, apparently they toured 50 locations throughout Ireland, Europe, and North America, including dates with Shame and Idles. They also played nine sets at SXSW in Houston, Texas over five days, selling out venues.

I recall coming up after the show at Blitz with my youngest daughter to get the LP signed, I told Deego, just one of many in that awkward situation where you’re trying too hard to say something interesting. And it can’t be easy, being sat there making small talk back.

“It’s actually something you don’t ever get used to. To do it right you need to be present, otherwise you’re kind of there with glazed eyes – some kind of dickhead, not respecting the fact that people have come to see you and want to talk to you. You have to engage with all those people in a genuine way, knackering as that is.”

They were nothing less than courteous though, to a man, yet looked so tired. And that was only the beginning of that UK leg of a first headline tour.

“Yeah, we were coming off the back of two to three years’ solid drinking in Dublin as well, so we were kind of weakened from the get-go.”

I think that’s what he said, although I initially googled ‘Gecko’ to see if it was a Dublin beer. I did find a Honduran craft beer, so maybe he was namechecking that. Perhaps the manufacturers could send me a case so I could so some further research.

On a similar subject, Grian felt the band found themselves growing not only distant from one another, but distant from themselves, saying, “We experienced full journeys where we didn’t speak to each other. It wasn’t because we didn’t love each other anymore. Our souls were kicking back against walls that were closing in. We had no space for ourselves. Our souls had nowhere to live, nowhere to lie.”

Has this lockdown, I asked Deego, given the band an unexpected chance to reflect on a mad couple of years, and put things in perspective?

“Yeah, sure. I think we’ve all got a lot more appreciation for our jobs. And they’re good jobs, y’know. It’s easy to get swept up in the stress of it and not see the bigger picture.”

With all the praise for the first album from fans and critics alike, it would have been easy to be swept up by the hype. It must be difficult to ensure you’re not affected. But I guess this enforced break has helped. Besides, many bands in that situation have gone on to disappear up their own backsides.

“Yeah, I think the way we were all raised means I don’t think any of us are super-capable of getting massive egos. But there’s still hope – we could still turn into dickheads!”

How would you compare this LP to Dogrel, which I guess was your take on that vital first album, like The Clash or The Jam’s In the City or The Undertones maybe (incidentally, Undertones Mk.II frontman Paul McLoone, a presenter on Dublin’s Today FM, has long since championed the band)? That first record featured an immediate set of songs you’d lived with a little longer, and was perhaps more of you in a raw sense. Whereas this one seems more experimental or crafted.

“Yeah, we’ve come a long way, and touring makes you a little more introverted in a way. We were listening to a lot of mellow songs, kind of de-stressing in the van, and that kind of impacted on our style of writing.”

There’s mention in your press release of ‘60s influences like The Beach Boys, Suicide, Leonard Cohen and Lee Hazlewood coming through, and that comes over in particular on the penultimate song, the delightfully-dreamy ‘Sunny’, not least with its Brian Wilson qualities, a lovely bit of wonky and twangy guitar, some gorgeous harmonies, and subtle strings.

“That was actually the song we were going to try and build the album around, try and go in that direction. But we also wanted to write authentically and genuinely, and the other songs we ended up writing sounded nothing like that, so …”

A few artists have inevitably seen their records put back these past few months, and that can lead to frustration if you’re enthused about new material you’ve written since. Was that the case with you? Was this a good time for songwriting for the band?

“Yeah, definitely. We’re in writing again now, in the rehearsal room, seeing what comes out.”

And were there songs held back from this latest LP?

“There were tracks we cut off the album, but I think we were just trimming the fat. We did the same with Dogrel.”

You clearly work well with Dan Carey, who produced both this LP and your debut at his studio in Streatham, south London.

“Oh yeah, he’s a great dude. He’s a really great producer.”

By this stage, it sounds like Deego is setting a house alarm and is starting to walk across town, the sound of traffic cutting in here and there. I’m nearly done though.

When you went into the studio, were the songs pretty much fully formed? Or was it work in progress?

“For the first album the songs were more or less fully formed, but for the second we’d recorded in LA already and had got a little confused over the identity. They kind of needed re-orientating. They were essentially the same but just needed a new haircut … or like a scarf or something.”

Speaking of which, have you still got the bleached hair we see in the afore-mentioned band promo version of ‘A Hero’s Death’?

“I do actually. The roots are coming out a little bit, but I might re-dye it.”

It’s a good look. And in conclusion, this new record doesn’t suggest you’re a band out to try and give us Dogrel Pt. II, as great an album as that was, compromising your own development for the sake of a couple of hit records.

“No, I don’t think so … unless we wrote a double album or something like that.”

Well, there’s something to look forward to. Maybe a Dublin Calling, seeing as I mentioned The Clash earlier. And now you seem to be getting closer to touring again, are you looking forward to that?

“Yeah, very much so. It’ll be good to be back out on the road.”

There are some big venues this time too.

“There are. We played Brixton Academy last time, so I think that kind of warmed us up for all of them apart from the Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace, South London). That’ll be a massive show.”

It’s all happened so fast for them, or at least that’s how it seems to me. I wrote after your Blitz show in Preston, ‘They’ve a hard slog ahead if they’re to carry on unaffected by all the hype, but they’re up to that judging by the recorded product and relentless itinerary so far. And whether this is the start of something ‘Big’ or just a brief aligning of the stars is irrelevant.’ Now I can see – just from a couple of listens to the new record – they’ve well and truly moved beyond that stage. They’re definitely here to stay.

When you set out on this journey at music college in Dublin, did you have a clear vision of where you should be headed, and if so, have those expectations and goals changed by the year?

“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I think our expectations have become more specific, because we’ve got a clear image of how the music industry works and how our path has gone on, but when we were young we were very ambitious and always had this idea of being a massive band. That’s just the way you dream. You don’t dream of playing in small rooms, do you?”

True … although I’ll always prefer those more intimate settings.

“Oh, I do love playing those places. Don’t get me wrong. But when you’re young and starry-eyed … you dream big.”

Even if your childhoods were small. Well, as long as you stay out of the stadia, I’m happy with that … selfish as that may seem.

“Ah … is that too far? How big is a stadium?”

That’s a good question … I guess I’m talking tens of thousands, capacity-wise. Getting on for U2 type fame. I’d still rather see you do a week of dates at a smaller venue.

“Ah … well, you better avoid the Ally Pally then.”

I guess I could make an exception for such an iconic venue. And I couldn’t be more pleased for you, really. I’m just glad it’s going so well for you.

“Ah, cheers – thanks a lot!”

Liberties Takers: Fontaines D.C. are hoping to be back over in the UK come next May, all being well, COVID-19-wise.

After a scheduled appearance at France’s Levitation Festival in October, four dates in Australia in December, and – moving into 2021 – 18 European dates between La Riviera in Madrid on March 10th and L’Olympia in Paris on April 1st, Fontaines D.C.’s next 15 UK dates start with two shows at Manchester Academy on May 7th and 8th and finish at London’s Alexandra Palace on May 27th. For full details (including more about how to pre-order the new LP) head over to fontainesdc.com. You can also find tour tickets via metropolismusic.com, seetickets.com and ticketmaster.co.uk.

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Broadcasting On the Wire after all these years – in conversation with Steve Barker

It’s been 42 years since St Annes-based East Lancs lad Steve Barker made his broadcasting debut on Radio Blackburn, his contributions to the RPM magazine show leading to him helping usher in the 1980s with follow-up, Spin Off, and in turn a show that has remained on air ever since, On the Wire.

But the coronavirus lockdown saw Steve and his team – chiefly Clitheroe-based UCLan lecturer Jim ‘Jimbo’ Ingham, producing and engineering, and on-air sidekick Michael ‘Fenny’ Fenton – exit BBC local radio schedules for the first time in 36 years, their initial spell working remotely curtailed and leading to a notable gap on the station timetable and turntables.

Not as if Steve stopped or has any intention of stopping, the septuagenarian having entered the realms of internet broadcasting via MixCloud instead. But with his departure from BBC Radio Lancashire came a listeners’ backlash that has already led to more than 1,000 names on a petition against its removal, the station itself insisting the show has been ‘rested’ rather than axed.

His BBC online listing suggests Steve’s legendary freeform show involves ‘the latest leftfield releases in electronica, ambient and dub/reggae’, promoting underground and new music every weekend as Saturday turns to Sunday. But don’t try categorising exactly what it is he does, that remit having altered somewhat over the years, even during each show maybe, its main presenter never keen on lazy labelling and putting names on boxes. And perhaps that’s a major part of the success of what for some time has been recognised as ‘the longest running continuous alternative music show on UK radio’.

I write this knowing that many readers here will know most of the story already, but the man behind the mic. was among the first to interview The Smiths and Depeche Mode, and in the late ‘80s played various crossover dance tracks before anyone else. He also helped stage a memorable free gig at Clitheroe Castle by The Fall in 1985, with Mark E. Smith having already guested on the show, as was the case with reggae artist turned producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. And the reputation of each hardly suggests a presenter not willing to take risks on air. Yet there was rarely an easy relationship with BBC management, the show threatened by cuts long before this latest move, previously saved with the help of fiercely loyal listeners across Lancashire and worldwide.

After the initial mid-March Government lockdown, two On the Wire programmes were made remotely via the BBC before Blackburn-based Radio Lancashire switched to an ‘almost skeletal structure’, as Steve put it, the show continuing via MixCloud while restructuring talks went on behind the scenes at the corporation to undergo cost cutting moves nationwide, the axe seemingly ever closer. Then, after brief discussions between Steve and station managing editor John Clayton and what the presenter described as ‘unanswered’ emails to higher up the BBC corporate tree, he felt he had no option to but to make public the resultant decision.

Steve wrote, “The BBC announced that, as ‘part of its future plans’, the basic structure for local radio would remain as it is now and all late broadcasting would be shared across the local network, those slots would eventually be competed. For On the Wire this inevitably means the end of its relationship with the BBC.

“For me personally and the team, no BBC representative has taken the trouble to formally inform us that On the Wire is not required, discuss any possible future for the programme or even thanked us for running the show without break since 1984….. or even said anything at all, save the local manager telling me by a quick phone call I would not be getting another contract and he was really sorry …”

Broadcast Innovator: Steve Barker, a key part of the BBC local radio network for more than 40 years … and counting

In a further statement to Lancashire county councillors, he added, “On The Wire features a vast array of different music and has a reputation not just at county level but also regionally, nationally and internationally. From the comments made on a petition launched last week it is clear that the programme is revered and respected by listeners everywhere, as well as by journalists and the music industry. Total signatories now exceed 1,000 protesting the cultural deficit that would occur with the loss of On the Wire.

“Last week Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, said, ‘We’re not going to move away from specialist music on BBC local radio’. But this is the first time the subject has even been mentioned, probably in response to growing public dissatisfaction at the lack of consultation.”

Steve further appealed to those councillors to show support via social media, signing the petition, and writing to John Clayton and also BBC head of local radio, Chris Burns.

In response to those emails, John Clayton directed those contacting him to a national statement including the premise that the BBC ‘has to make savings to address the financial challenges the organisation faces’. He added, ‘We have set out proposals to transform what we do across the country, including on local radio, but remain fully committed to providing local content, including community and specialist music programming, and are talking to our stations about what their schedules could look like.’

On a more specific note, he wrote, “I fully appreciate your concerns for On The Wire and I am very much aware of the programme’s history, its reputation and its standing within the world of music. It has been a fixture in our schedules for considerably longer than my 20-year tenure as editor and, prior to March, I assumed that would remain the case for some time to come. Now, although Steve and the team continue to make a weekly edition which is shared via Mixcloud, it has been rested from the BBC Radio Lancashire schedule … along with a number of our other specialist programmes … because of the pandemic. The emergency schedule was put in place to help us significantly reduce the number of people using our buildings in order to minimise the risk of spreading the virus. It is also designed to make it easier for stations in our network to opt in and out of the output from sister stations, should they find that they are unable to sustain all programmes because of absence through illness or the need for colleagues to shield or self-isolate.

“It is now proposed that the emergency schedule will become a permanent arrangement as BBC England looks to play its part in achieving the huge savings required. If the plan is implemented there will be an England-wide Late Show each night between  10pm and 1am which means that we will no longer be able to broadcast On The Wire at midnight on Saturday, the timeslot it has occupied for many, many years. The challenge is to work out if and how the programme can still be accommodated within our reduced schedule. It’s important to bear in mind here that there are a number of community and specialist programmes, all of which are loved and respected by their devoted followings, which would also require a new home in our schedule. There’s also a further question about the affordability of sustaining a schedule rich in this type of programming when we are likely to be expected to get by with a smaller budget. Although individual programmes may not necessarily appear terribly expensive, the cumulative effect of handful of these programmes can have significant impact on our tiny share of the licence fee.

“Clearly there is work to be done but, as things stand, On The Wire remains ‘rested’ but not ‘axed’. It is true that Steve’s contract has been ended for the time being but that was simply a matter of practicality and he has been treated in exactly the same way as countless other freelance presenters across the BBC who have seen their programmes taken off the air because of our response to the pandemic. It is unfortunate but I am sure that most licence fee payers would question the wisdom of a corporation continuing to pay people when they are not making their programmes, especially when that corporation is facing such a huge financial challenge.

“I appreciate that this will not fully allay your concerns about the future of On the Wire, but I hope that it reassures you that the so-called axe has not fallen yet and that we will continue to look for practical solutions. It’s early days as the decision about the schedule was only announced a weeks or so ago and there has been a lot to take in and assess, with staff understandably concerned about the large number of job losses across English Regions.   And in the end, should we not be able to make On The Wire part of our post-virus schedule, I can assure you that we will certainly mark Steve’s significant contribution to the BBC in general, and BBC Radio Lancashire in particular, in appropriate fashion. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that just yet.”

Treble Rebel: David Rodigan, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Steve Barker, ever ready to share their love of good music

Reflecting on his previous statement, I felt Steve carried a sense of inevitability about the BBC decision when I called him, although you could tell he was also hurt.

“I think I’ve been reasonable, really. Our view – me, Jimmy and Fenny – is that the BBC has left us. But I’ve clearly got a few issues. I don’t think any employer, of whatever ilk, should treat somebody who’s worked for them for 42 years in the way I’ve been treated … cursorily.

“I think it’s rude and I think it’s disrespectful, and in many ways just incredible. I know there’s lots of other things going on, but the BBC’s no different to anyone else. We all like to be dealt with in a clear and respectful way. And it’s clear if you look at the petition that people see On the Wire as something that the BBC should be proud of.”

Friend of this website Rico la Rocca – behind several John Peel tribute nights in Lancashire in recent years in his Tuff Life Boogie promoter’s guise – and an avid listener to On the Wire over the decades, sees the show as ‘a genuine local landmark, with a global reach, that should not be removed from the airwaves’.

He added, “Even though On the Wire has not been broadcast by Radio Lancashire during the lockdown, Steve has continued to post weekly two-hour shows of new music on Mixcloud. I can’t think of many BBC 6 Music or Radio 1 DJs who would bother to do that if they got taken off.

“I’ve listened on and off for 35 years and I’m still feeling guilty I didn’t manage to organise an On the Wire tribute show when I was doing gigs, alongside the John Peel ones I did. Steve’s cultural importance is on a par with Peel’s. I suggest everyone signs the petition and considers writing to BBC management to let them know what we think about these proposals.”

And that seems to sum up the feelings of many listeners, I put to Steve.

“Exactly. We do what we do, we do it from Lancashire, and we’re proud of being from Lancashire, we always have been, and we’re all from Lancashire, but we play music from around the world. We play music that excite sus and we think people will enjoy, and that seems to be a pretty clear intent.”

Turning Tables: Esteemed producer Adrian Sherwood and presenter Steve Barker, in action on the record decks.

The new online version is little different from the BBC operation, although Steve now records from home on the Fylde coast, albeit still with technical assistance from Jimbo and contributions from Fenny. In fact, Steve told me Jimbo’s only his third engineer, both predecessors still involved to an extent, the second now Glasgow-based but running the show’s Facebook group.

Looking at On the Wire’s website and Facebook page, it’s clear there’s a lot of love out there for the show from a proper community of listeners from across Lancashire and far away, as has always been. John Peel was a fan, and so too is BBC 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie, who started listening after a tip-off from a student while teaching in Skelmersdale in the ’80s, telling Steve Urquhart in the splendid Greetings Music Lover audio documentary – celebrating 40 years of his namesake Steve Barker on air, also featuring rare archive material and including interviews with On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood, the legendary Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and veteran reggae DJ David Rodigan – “People would drive from other parts of the country, park their cars up on remote hillsides in Dobcross and Blackburn, so they could get within the signal.”

What’s more, while Steve refers to himself and colleagues as ‘old guys like us’, he clearly still has a passion for what he does, in the same way Peelie did, with a continuing inspirational desire to seek out new sounds.

“That’s the other thing. There’s so much good new music, and a lot of what we play isn’t played elsewhere on the BBC. And last time we were saved in the early ‘90s, John helped a lot and the BBC board said we were a ‘unique product’.”

Steve’s been based in St Annes for the last 30 years, and while he doesn’t tend to return to his Brierfield roots in the east of his home county, he’s been known to get back to Burnley FC’s Turf Moor ‘now and again’, priding himself on being one of the few Clarets fans at what was originally Radio Blackburn, adding that his two On the Wire colleagues are both Rovers fans.

He had a season ticket when Burnley won the league title in the 1959/60 season, although he reckons even then he’d pass people on the way to the ground wearing Manchester United colours. Yet perhaps in music as in football, he’s always been more about championing underdogs, I suggested.

“We were always a big music family, and would always have it on, usually pop in the ‘50s, then Radio Luxembourg. But I got subverted at school by an older boy, when I was in my early teens, converting us to Ray Charles and James Brown. Then I got into country-blues, before the British blues bloom, becoming this horrible, snotty, superior muso!”

Steve was at Nelson Grammar School then, in time heading for the capital to study for a diploma in journalism at Regent Street Poly in 1967. Was there a career plan by then?

“I wanted to do journalism, but unfortunately was a victim of the time. People were rebelling and dropping out, doing the alternative thing, but a lot had comfortable middle-class backgrounds to lean on. Whereas I was just a working-class lad from Lancashire. I didn’t want to do house journalism, but it was a fantastic place. Pink Floyd were there at the same time, doing architecture.”

Foreign Travels: Steve Barker during time out from Radio Lancashire, at Shelter in Shanghai. But the show went on

That year, 1967 saw the arrival of BBC Radio 1 (and myself, I might add), but Steve didn’t stick around to give kindred spirit Peelie, newly arrived from pirate station Radio London, a run for his money, instead moving on to Keele University. His CV was already shaping up though, Steve one of the first to interview Jimi Hendrix, something he did twice, in London then Manchester (although he told me the original cassette was thrown out many years ago). There was also an interview with Yoko Ono around the same time he spoke to Hendrix, and David Bowie was once a neighbour, borrowing one of his records.

“I lived in Beckenham for a bit, and he used to come ‘round to see a mate. I had a copy of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes on quarter-inch … which he borrowed. He was a nice enough chap. It was around the time of ‘Space Oddity’. He needed prompting to return it though. Ha!”

Steve initially returned to the North West to work in Liverpool, for the DHSS, where he met wife Jan, moving back down to London in 1975, living for a couple of years in Notting Hill. He added, ‘the rest is history, with four kids and 10 grandchildren for me and Jan’.

There’s Scout too, his nine-year-old Dalmatian, following in the paw-steps of Herbie (named after Herbie Hancock) and Jammy the Jack Russell (after Prince Jammy). Everywhere a music link, it seems. When Steve’s not recording or preparing shows, he’s writing a reggae/dub column and reviews for The Wire magazine. And while in Lancashire for much of his broadcasting career, he still has plenty of tales of adventures in London.

“I’d only been there a week and got a call from a mate, who said his mate had a band and did I want to see them. So we went round to this pub at Red Lion Square in Holborn, and he introduced me to his mate, who was Malcolm McLaren … and we saw his band, the Sex Pistols, in their second gig, supporting pub rock band, Roogalator.”

History in the making, that show at the Central School of Art on November 7th, 1975, just a day after the Pistols’ St Martin’s School of Art debut. And when he moved back down to London, was there already a personal fascination – for a presenter whose first song played on the radio was by The Abyssinians – for reggae, dub, and all that?

“I’d say it was an interest and awareness, but it wasn’t a fascination and involvement. It was a fantastic place to be though. You walked along Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road and the reggae was just there, pumping out. It was brilliant. I started buying a few reggae albums. Just open at the time was the Rough Trade shop, with Geoff Travis, and I’d pop up the road to Honest Jon’s. All these people I’ve known a long time.”

The Smith: The Fall’s Mark E Smith in action at Clitheroe Castle in 1985, during a live  show broadcast by On the Wire

Living in the neighbourhood, were you on hand as Joe Strummer and bandmate Paul Simonon made a nuisance of themselves on Notting Hill Carnival day in ’76, the inspiration for The Clash’s debut single ‘White Riot’?

“Ha! Yeah … it wasn’t me! Of course, we did interview The Clash, in 1980 on the ‘Bankrobber’ tour, ending up with a bit of a fight in the toilets in the dressing room with The Notsensibles. They interviewed The Clash, and I interviewed Mikey Dread.”

It was RPM in 1978 that provided Steve’s foot in the door, broadcasting-wise, while Spin Off in 1980 truly saw  things come together, the station rebranded Radio Lancashire the following year. Then in September 1984 the initial three-hour On the Wire started going out on Sunday afternoons. Did that slot suit him?

“In a way. For the show it was fantastic. At the time there was no internet, shops weren’t open, you’d go out on Saturday night, have a good time, then have a bit of a lie-in. There was bugger all else to do. You could just chill out and listen to On the Wire. We had a fantastic listenership across the North West, and ever since we’ve been like this anachronism on the BBC.”

The time slot switched around, including a Thursday night before moves towards the current weekend midnight slot. And there was that brief foray into concert promotion, The Fall playing Clitheroe Castle in 1985, carrying near-legendary status now (as mentioned in my recent interview with fellow On the Wire fan and friend of Mark E. Smith, Ajay Saggar). Did it all go swimmingly from Steve’s point of view, I asked, mischievously.

“Funny, isn’t it, we put that on and said we were doing it but didn’t really know what was going to happen. We knew we could broadcast it though. Those old school BBC technicians were fantastic, they could do anything. But we didn’t think two and a half thousand people would turn up … and that there’d be one policeman! Ha! In fact, the production editor of Q magazine sent me a fantastic, unpublished photo this week of Mark E Smith on stage there, which I hadn’t seen before.

“We also put on The Mel-o-tones at the same venue about a month or two later, with maybe around 400 people there … but there were loads of police. Ha! Then there was Manchester’s Ritz Ballroom for a Christmas party in ‘88, around 1,800 in. That was fantastic – 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald …”

Incidentally, the day before I spoke to Steve, I saw a 1989 Top of the Pops rerun featuring 808 State, when ‘Pacific State’ charted. And On the Wire were also champions of those bands, again providing some of their earliest radio airplay.

Double Trouble: ‘Jimbo’ Ingham and Steve Barker at work on another Saturday night on air at BBC Radio Lancashire.

Mind you, when I put that about Clitheroe Castle to Rico la Rocca, who missed The Fall as it was the day before one of his O-levels but attended the Mel-o-tones show, he doubted Steve’s optimistic 400 attendance figure for the second show, reckoning it was ‘more like 50 or 60 tops’. He added, “We had to go before the end of the set because the last bus from Clitheroe on a Sunday was something ridiculous like a quarter to five. But the Mel-o-tones were a great Liverpool band on Probe Plus that Steve used to play a lot. They were three blokes in their early 20s and Martin Dempsey, the guitarist from The Yachts, who was the sort of experienced older head ‘pop’ influence. They did a couple of EPs and then the lads dumped Martin and did their own thing as The Walking Seeds. Bob Parker, bass player in the Mel-o-tones and guitarist from the Walking Seeds manages the Probe record shop in Liverpool.”

As I understand it, the last BBC Lancashire show in mid-March was the 1,850th edition of On the Wire, but I’d stress again here that on the whole I found Steve diplomatic about the situation during our chat, affable as anyone who knows him will tell you. Hurt about a lack of communication from the top regarding the show’s axe, but at the same time philosophical about it all.

I get the feeling – as with Governmental motives of late – that times of crises always bring kneejerk, quick-fix reactions that often do more harm than good. In this case, maybe On the Wire was seen as easy pickings for the chop by bigwigs far higher up the corporate tree than those involved with the show at county level like John Clayton, looking for more obvious examples of shows that might not necessarily fit in with an accepted premise of what works with a perceived station ethos.

Yet no balance sheet will tell you the true value of this broadcasting enigma and proud oddity. And it seems that those behind the decision – be it temporary or not – again over-looked the strength of feeling out there among the show’s long-term fans. I’m not looking for alternative scapegoats, but when you compare the amount of new music put our way by Steve and his team compared to what Steve Wright’s given us these last four decades on national radio …

On a more positive note, Steve and co. and their army of listeners have successfully fought previous battles over the years and come out victorious. And maybe they will again. In fact, Steve tells a lovely tale about a fresh young buck who joined Radio Lancashire in the early ‘90s and his behind the scenes war with Steve, including illuminating detail of what he initially perceived Steve to be playing in his ‘graveyard’ slot. And while Steve actually appreciates a bit of Dire Straits, that’s not quite what he was offering.

So where are we at now? Well, Steve and his team intend to keep putting out shows ‘every week at Saturday midnight with no changes to our modus operandi other than we could run over time a bit’. And therefore they continue, On the Wire.

I hope Deadbait blogger Matthew Jones, who started the petition supporting the show,  doesn’t mind me finishing this feature with his own conclusion about the show and what it means to him and many more listeners. For the full piece, I’ll direct you here, but I feel this closing paragraph about On the Wire says so much.

“It’s a piece of solid gold, an oasis of new, strange and unusual wonders, a trove of hitherto undiscovered treasures from the past, a kaleidoscopic window on so many worlds. It’s two hours of headspace and it goes from strength to strength. Gently evolving, always moving yet always in the same place. It’s just some people playing records, but so much more at the same time. It weaves a world of magic, takes you somewhere and shows you things you didn’t already know. If that’s not what the BBC licence fee is for, then I don’t know what is.”

Studio Tan: Steve Barker, flat cap firmly in place, broadcasts to the world via Lancashire, but no longer from Blackburn

For more information about On the Wire and the petition to push for its reinstatement on BBC local radio – which you can find via this link you can head to the On the Wire website, where you’ll also find various archive shows and can listen to Steve Urquhart’s 2018 Greetings Music Lover audio documentary. And to personally voice your opinion, the BBC is open to feedback via BBC Radio Lancashire managing editor john.clayton@bbc.co.uk, copying in head of BBC local radio, chris.burns@bbc.co.uk

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Somehow still finding his way home and away – the Jon Anderson interview

Family Portrait: Jon Anderson, the prog rock legend caught on canvas by his eldest daughter, Deborah Anderson

More than 50 years after his debut recordings with Yes, Lancashire-born US citizen and legendary vocalist and songwriter Jon Anderson remains enthused about his music, eager to spread the word about his 15th solo album.

The prog rock icon is about to see the wider release of 1000 Hands, which took 28 years to complete and is out digitally on July 31st, with a CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl LP issue following a fortnight later via Blue Élan Records.

The title refers to the numerous guest musicians involved with the record, including Jethro Tull legend and namesake Ian Anderson; Jon’s fellow Yes alumni Steve Howe, Alan White, and the late Chris Squire; more recent sidekick Jean-Luc Ponty (Mothers of Invention); plus Billy Cobham and Chick Corea (Miles Davis), Steve Morse (Deep Purple), and Belgium’s Zap Mama.

Heavy touring commitments with his live version of Yes and other side-projects led to workaholic Jon, now 75, putting his latest solo opus on the back-burner for longer than he ever envisaged. But as he put it, “I would listen to the tapes from time to time and think, ‘This could have been a great album. One day I’ll finish it’.”

With that in mind, he finally set up at producer Michael Franklin’s Solar Studios in Orlando, Florida, laying down backing vocals to his original lead tracks, his host calling in an array of rock and jazz luminaries to fill out the songs, also including Rick Derringer, Jonathan Cain, and the Tower of Power Horns. And as Jon added, “Michael acted like something of a casting director, bringing so many great players. It was really exciting to hear the record open up and become what I had always envisioned.”

It’s fair to say this artist has one of the most recognisable voices in the business, the lead vocalist and creative force behind the band with which he made his name – a major creative influence behind ground-breaking early ‘70s Yes LPs such as Fragile, Close to the Edge, and more besides – featuring on the first nine albums before walking away in 1980, a spell which included crossover hits in 1977 with ‘Wonderous Stories’ and ‘Going For the One’ (from the album of the same name). But he returned in ’83 to a reconfigured group, resulting in multi-million-seller, 90125, including ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, written with Trevor Rabin.

Then there was his success with Greek composer Vangelis, including UK top-10s with ‘I Hear You Now’ (1979) and ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ (1981), and since then embarking on projects with Japanese recording artist, composer, producer and arranger  Kitaro, prog-rock guitarist/producer Roine Stolt, and the afore-mentioned jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

There are also his solo LPs, starting with 1976’s acclaimed milestone Olias of Sunhillow – performing all the music, playing every instrument, writing a storyline, singing all the vocals – and heading through to 2009 and Survival & Other Stories, the last with just his name on before this new addition. Meanwhile, time in recent years has been swallowed up through work with former bandmates Bill Bruford, Howe and Wakeman, then later Rabin and Wakeman again, with this affable East Lancashire lad inducted with Yes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

I caught father of three Jon – also a grandad these days – at home in central California earlier this week, happy to be hiding away from the coronavirus, ‘up in the hills’ near the village of Arroyo Grande, describing first where he was and what he was up to.

“It’s really magnificent to be here … under strange circumstances. Me and my wife, we love each other like crazy and we’re just happy to be safe. I don’t go out, because I’m asthmatic, so have to be careful, but all is good and I’ve just been working steadily for three months on a project which I’m very excited about.”

I’m guessing you have people looking after you from afar, and a local network supporting you during this pandemic.

“Just one guy who works at the local Trader Joe’s, an old friend who called up and said, ‘What do you need? I’ll bring it every week.’ Perfect.”

In the meantime, I’m guessing you’re keeping in touch with your family and close friends.

“All the time, on a constant level, as usual.”

I’ve had a few spins of the digital version of 1,000 Hands, and I’m really enjoying it. And as I understand it, there was a limited release last year.

“Yeah, the record companies weren’t very interested. Even Atlantic Records turned me down. But we went on tour last year with the band, which originates from Orlando, musicians who went there to work at Disneyland and Universal and all these parks, and they’re so damn good, so I got together with them. The studio where we finished the album is in Orlando, run by Michael Franklin, so I was able to go over there and meet with eight wonderful, lovely people who were quite brilliant. We toured twice last year and were supposed to be on tour now. But of course no one is touring.”

Double Act: Jean-Luc Ponty joins Jon Anderson on this LP, as  on 2015’s Better Late Than Never (Photo: Cathy Miller)

Well, the album deserves to be heard. It’s been a long time coming, but for me it seems to continue perfectly the Jon Anderson story and musical journey as we know it.

“True, and as you know the crazy story is that about two-thirds of the album was recorded in Big Bear, a mountain area south-east of Los Angeles, and I had the best time in my life at that moment with some musicians I knew. I then took a couple of tracks down to Alan (White) and Chris (Squire), who were living and working in LA. They added energy on the album, and I always though it should be called ‘Uzlot’, a North country way of saying, ‘Come on, us lot, let’s play football!’.”

Mention of the contributors will have got the excitement factor up for Yes fans, and not just with Chris and Alan involved, but also Steve Howe.

“Yeah, it was like getting the old band back together, but in little bits. Steve came up at the very end. We split the song ‘Now’ into two parts, and for the second part, ‘Now and Again’, I just felt it needed some guitar. So I called up Steve, to see how he was, asked him, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that then – alright!’.

Incidentally, it only struck me after another listen to the new LP that there could be a link between that opening track and its accompanying album finale with ‘Then’ from second Yes LP, Time and a Word, from 1970 (and blimey, that’ll be 50 years old this year). Not least the correlation between the earlier track’s,

‘And in a time that’s closer, life will be even bolder then;                                                       Love is the only answer, hate is the root of cancer then.’

Compare that to the opening of ‘Now and Again’, as Jon sings,

“Now, knowing that now is the only centre to be, to feel, to see;
That somehow now brings you to home, brings you to eternity – you are, you see.                To know that now love is your heart, love is truly all you need.”

Honest Jon: Yes legend Jon Anderson, ready to share 1,000 Hands with the wider world (Photo: Deborah Anderson)

Just a thought. In fact, the new LP finale continues with,

‘Never forget that we are friends; Never forget here I am singing as you play;         Memories sing in this lifetime, memories never forgotten.’

There may be more links, ones far greater aficianados than me will spot. And we all love a bit of harmony, in more ways than one, right? There have been words between Jon and Steve in recent years, so it’s nice to think maybe enough water has flowed under the bridge for you to be back on better terms.

“Oh yeah … I mean, even the Beatles argued.”

I’d say maybe that’s part of what made them so special.

“Yeah, and necessity is the mother of invention. Everybody wants to put a lot of energy into a project, and because originally we were the Yes band, we were from different parts of England and all had our different attitudes to life, different energies, and everything. But I think it was that moment in time where I was very vocal about what I could hear and came up with ideas and helped everybody try different things.

“For instance, why would we try to do the song, ‘America’? But Peter Banks was in the band and he started playing the movie score (West Side Story) as a solo, and I felt that was perfect. Everybody put energy into everything we did. The Beatles went from love songs like ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’ through to, all of a sudden, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road, expanding like wildfire. And that’s what Yes did, expanding into a musical zone that was very rare – it was kind of unique, actually.”

Incidentally, ‘America’ will be better remembered in prog-like circles for Keith Emerson’s version with The Nice, which clearly seemed to be an influence on the early Yes, who covered ‘Something’s Coming’ around the time of their self-titled debut album in 1969. And talking of the early days, does Jon remember much about that fateful first meeting in late ’67 when bar owner Jack Barrie introduced him to Chris Squire at La Chasse (where Jon worked behind the bar) at 100, Wardour Street, Soho? And bear in mind that I also said to him at this point that I didn’t want him to feel old, but I was born that October, so reckon his first co-write, ‘Sweetness’ (written with Chris Squire and his former bandmate Clive Bayley) is around the same age as me.

“Oh boy, oh boy! Well, it was a very magical moment. I’d been looking for a band to sing with, and tried a band managed by someone who managed Amen Corner, who were pretty famous at the time. They were aiming to create another band like them, and I went along to East London for an audition, where there was this big guy with a cigar – a typical manager – with a band in the room. They were really good. He asked what I wanted to sing and I asked him what the band knew. They suggested ‘Midnight Hour’, I said, ‘Why not?’, and then we did ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’. He then said, ’OK, can you come back next week? You’re in the top two. Come back next Tuesday, when the real manager’s here, and he’ll do an image test’. I said, ‘No! I’m a singer, not an image. You can get lost!’

“It was about believing in myself. I had a lot of musical ideas and once we’d started rehearsing, it was like magic for me. I hardly slept. I was so excited. We had a band that could play anything, but I suggested Bill Bruford, a jazz style drummer, quite remarkable in those early days. In fact, the early BBC tapes are damn good.”

When you and Chris got Yes together, were you properly focused on where you might be headed from the start?

“Well, there was a band in London called Family, from Birmingham. They were damn good, and I just wanted to be as good as them. And a band called Heads, Hands & Feet, with Tony Colton in that band (and also legendary guitarist Albert Lee and Chas Hodges, the latter later joining forces with Dave Peacock as mockney legends Chas & Dave). Then at clubs like The Marquee you’d get The Who come in, and Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Emerson’s The Nice were playing there. They’d come up to La Chasse and come to the bar, and I wouldn’t say anything to them because I was so very shy. But these famous people made me think I was in the right place, at least. I just had to work hard.”

As it was, Yes had their own Marquee residency by 1969, and the following year Jack Barrie took over ownership at No.90, Wardour Street, five doors down from La Chasse (he was previously an assistant manager to John Gee, with a great history of the venue here).

I only realised while putting a few questions together, it was five years ago this Saturday just gone that we lost Chris Squire. I’m guessing he’s always in your thoughts.

“All the time, and I think more so. He came to visit me on his passing. I was in Maui (Hawaii) and had this incredible dream about him, that he was passing away. I didn’t know, although I knew he wasn’t very well. Someone called and told me Chris died last night, and I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I saw him in my dream looking up at the sky, the light shining, these little tears coming down his lovely face. My wife said, ‘He loved you so much, Jon.’”

I guess that bond between thew two of you was nearly 50 years in the making.

“Yeah, and like real brothers, we didn’t get on all the time, but we were brothers, no matter what happened. I’ve mentioned it many times, but when Star Wars came out, I’d check into hotels as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he would check in as Darth Vader!”

It’s now five years since I first spoke to your old pal Rick Wakeman (with a link to that feature/interview here) and four years since I spoke with Alan White at home in Newcastle, Washington (with a link to our feature/interview here). While Rick’s happy where he is in East anglia between live engagements, Alan certainly seems settled where he is, stateside, as you are in California. It’s been more than a decade since you became an American citizen. Do you feel American?

“Very. I always feel that America’s got so much to sort out, it’s like the crazy child of the world.”

And led by a crazy child at present.

“Well, we’ve got this orange man in charge, and he’s an idiot. He’s a little baby that tells lies.”

I don’t see you as a figure who willingly speaks out publicly on politics much, but with all that’s gone on, and the hate speech the likes of Trump continue to come out with, keeping quiet’s not an option right now. You have to speak out sometimes, right?

“Well, In the Vietnam War I was very clear that it was the most stupid thing in the world, as reflected in Apocalypse Now. And America’s a mess, but it’s now ready to change. Barack Obama was so good as a leader, then the pendulum swung the other way and we have the orange man.”

Hopefully not for much longer though.

“No, he’s out of here! And he’ll lose all his money, you watch!”

I hope you’re right. And where does your beloved, Jane, hail from in the States?

“She was born in Alexandria (Virginia), near the capital, Washington (DC). I was in LA and she was living in Santa Barbara, working for (actor turned film director) Ron Howard, involved in music for films, running part of the firm, and knew so much about all that. An amazing woman in my life. I’m very blessed.”

And is it now 23 years married for you two?

“Yeah, but when people ask how long, I say ‘1,000 years’. It feels longer!”

You mentioned Maui before. Wasn’t that where you were wed?

“Yeah, an amazing event on many levels. It was wonderful, and Alan (White) was my best man.”

So I gather. I think my invite got lost in the post, but we’ll gloss over that.

“Ha!”

As you’re talking to someone settled for the last quarter-century in Lancashire from my native Surrey, I should ask if you keep in touch with your Accrington roots. Have you still got family and friends in the area?

“Yeah, my brother’s there, and his kids. We keep in touch, once a month maybe. And when I come over, they all come to the gigs. It’s funny, when you come from a small town, I remember some of the people from there and keep in touch with David Lloyd …”

Ah, the legendary Lancashire and England cricket all-rounder turned commentator, also known as Bumble, two school years younger than Jon and brought up a few streets away.

“Yeah, he lived around the corner from me and was my arch-enemy. We played football on the car park at Accrington Stanley’s Peel Park ground. He’d bring his team and we’d have battles galore, football and cricket. He’s a good old friend, and I was in touch with him about three months ago. It’s great to talk to him. Someone sent a video of him walking around Accrington, going to the football, in his flat cap …”

I saw that. A great watch. Bumble has a real passion for Stanley, something I appreciate as a fan of non-league Woking FC, having seen them play at the Crown Ground many times, and reporting on Bamber Bridge and Chorley fixtures there too in the past. Clearly though, I don’t go back as far as Peel Park (the old ground where Jon was a mascot, ball-boy and trialist, now a public park, Stanley playing their last matches there in 1962, with the old club dissolved in ’66, a new one emerging at the current ground in ’68).

“Well, the ground is still there, would you believe.”

Next time I’m passing I should make a pilgrimage in your honour … and Bumble’s. And while David Lloyd’s accent is distinctive to cricket fans, I’ll add here that Jon these days has something of an American/East Lancs hybrid accent. You hear those Lancastrian tones in his music here and there though, all these years on, something I also get listening to Neil Arthur and recordings with Blancmange. And I’m all for that. He clearly hasn’t lost it.

“Yeah … especially when I’m watching Man United. I get so angry! And I found out recently that (Paul) Pogba gets paid (around) $300,000 a week, so I give him hell!”

Do you still look out for Stanley results?

“Oh year! My brother’s son gives me all the information now and again.”

A Lancashire lad maybe, but I understand your Dad had Glaswegian roots and your Mum had Irish and French links. Were you aware as a boy of that background being different to many of your neighbours? Did that make you feel like you were destined to travel and be something other than an East Lancashire factory worker or something of that ilk?

“It’s funny, I wrote a song last week about how I would run everywhere. I don’t know why, but maybe from five or six, and then I started working on a farm when I was nine, about two miles away, and I’d make some money for the family, because my Dad was very ill. Someone asked the other day the first concert I ever saw, and I said it was my Dad on stage in 1946. I was in a stroller, my Mum serving pies and cake …”

I lost Jon at that point, my mobile phone safety buffer used up (we tried via Skype earlier, but he couldn’t hear me, leading me to call back another way), so I retried from my landline. God knows how much that will have cost … but he’s worth it, of course. Anyway, aiming to carry on where we left off, I tred again, and he finally answered with the line, ‘You have to put another penny in the gas meter’. He wasn’t so far off, I guess. So where was this farm you mentioned, Jon?

“In a place called Huncoats, top of Burnley Road there. Me and my brother would deliver milk all over that side of Accrington, near where we lived (Jon was on Norfolk Street). And we sang all the time, I remember singing Everly Brothers songs in the mid-‘50s. Actually, I just watched Blackpool playing Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup on YouTube – the Matthews final.”

Ah, 1953 and all that. Matthews, Mortensen, Lofthouse … And speaking of those formative years, how good were Little John’s Skiffle Group, your early band? Ever make any recordings?

“I hope not! Ha! We used to do Lonnie Donegan songs.”

A quick rendition followed of Lonnie’s third single, ‘Lost John’ B-side ‘Stewball’ from 1956. But the line quality deteriorated when I switched phones, and I don’t think I’ll be able to upload it and pass it off as a great Jon Anderson lost skiffle tape and make my fortune.  That said, we’ve been mesmerised by Jon’s vocals from the very start, I reckon. On a similar front, was there a voice he heard and thought, ‘That could be me – that’s my career from here!’?

“At that time, it was the Everly Brothers with my brother, and I’d sing a lot of commercial romantic songs in the mid-‘50s, and then Buddy Holly. And of course Elvis Presley – my brother bought the vinyl Elvis Presley album, and a little Dansette record player. So I heard all those incredible songs. So my brother wanted to be Elvis and I wanted to be Roy Orbison, and I’d sing his songs.”

All great influences, and it wasn’t until he mentioned Amen Corner that it struck me that Jon and Andy Fairweather-Low shared similar styles in places.

“Yeah, I think we all copied Americans in the ‘50s, and you tended to give that delivery in your voice, copying those recordings.”

Of all your recordings over the years, is there one particular LP you’re most proud of? I’m guessing this latest record would be in with a shout.

“I always say the same thing – it will be the next one!”

Ah, so will there be a 1,000 Hands Chapter 2?

“Yeah, we’ve been working on half a dozen or so songs already, and more follow every week. I’ve an idea for one large piece that could work, but it takes time to sort that out. But now this album’s out, we’ll be able to release part two next summer maybe.”

And do the contributors on the album include any of the next generation of Andersons (as I know they’ve all been involved in music to at least some extent, including vocal duties on various Yes projects, all three from his first marriage to Jennifer), I ask … to initial silence. Actually, at this stage, Jon was distracted after someone arrived at the door with some wine. Nice work if you can get it. I repeat my question.

“No, Deborah’s sang on albums I did before, but now concentrates on incredible documentaries, covering such powerful subjects. My youngest daughter, Jade, is the best singer, but now has three boys. God bless her, she gave us some grandchildren, and we just love them, of course. We see them every Friday, and they’re beautiful. And my son Damion’s in London and, like me, he loves to create music of all different kinds. God bless him, he’s a very beautiful man, he really is.”

Of all the collaborations down the years, from Yes to Jon and Vangelis, Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, Anderson/Stolt (with Roine Stolt), the Anderson Ponty Band (with Jean-Luc Ponty) and the Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman version of Yes, which turned out to be the most fun, in the studio and on the road?

“I think probably ABWH was a fun experience, but …”

Do you think that’s because you all felt you had nothing to prove by that stage?

“Oh God, no, there’s always a lot to prove. But every collaboration, like when I went out with Trevor (Rabin) and Rick (Wakeman) a couple of years ago, that was really damn good. And with Jean-Luc Ponty it was amazing. He’s from Brittany, and my great-great-grandparents were too, so we felt connected. And when I look back to the tours in the ‘70s we were out on tour so much, and the fact that we could make Fragile and Close to the Edge in one year was something.”

Well, that was some going, I’d say.

“Absolutely.”

And are you still discovering new music? What’s floating the Anderson boat right now? My friend Phil, a big fan since day one (he’s a little older than me, he won’t mind me saying) wondered if you’ve heard Big, Big Train, fairly new and much lauded  prog rockers on the block.

“Yep, and also, my favourite guy is Jacob Collier. He is going to be, to me, the best thing that’s happened in music in my life. He’s amazing. He’s conquered a lot, can do incredible orchestrations, and has a good knowledge of music and light-hearted soul, and he’s touching millions of people now. He’s amazing.”

And finally, when the gates are open again post-COVID-19, any chance of live dates with the new material?

“Yeah, I’m doing videos at the moment from a live show on the tour – around 10 days in – and it turned out to be a pretty good recording. Everyone plays so great. We’re also recording ourselves at home, recording some of the songs from 1,000 Hands. And it sounded really good.”

Live Presence: Jon Anderson in action, and he hopes to be on the road again sometime soon (Photo: Tami Freed)

For more information about Jon, his back-catalogue, and 1,000 Hands, out digitally on July 31st, then on CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl album on August 14th via Blue Élan Records, head to https://www.jonanderson.com

 

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Pele to Amsterdam and beyond – telling The Story of Ian Prowse

Mersey Tales: Ian Prowse, kept busy during lockdown, and ready to get out there again this autumn, COVID-19 willing.

Three months after a successful tour with Elvis Costello prematurely curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, Ian Prowse remains on a high, interest in his music, past and present, refusing to tail off, aided by his entertaining Friday night online shows.

This Ellesmere Port-raised singer/songwriter and Amsterdam frontman remains a cult figure with music fans and musicians alike, getting on for three decades after his debut recordings with breakthrough outfit Pele.

Songs such as 2005 John Peel favourite ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’ only served to underline his abilities as a songwriter, and 2019 LP Here I Lie suggests he remains on a creative high. And it was the latter that inspired the afore-mentioned Declan McManus to personally invite Ian to be his main support on a Just Trust 13-date UK tour, albeit one ended three shows early due to the coronavirus.

But he’s remained busy during the lockdown, his series of weekend internet shows helping plug new 18-track best of collection, The Story of Ian Prowse, a perfect way in for those yet to catch up on the back-catalogue of an artist who tells us, ‘I hit the opening A minor chord of ‘Funeral Pyre’ by The Jam at my very first gig in 1982. There began my musical journey. I’ve been hitting every chord through hundreds of shows with the same passion ever since.’

Tranmere Rovers fan Ian wasn’t long off a trip to his local post office when I called, mailing out merchandise to those who’ve been discovering or rediscovering a love of all things Prowsey. And there are a fair few.

“About three weeks ago we made a special ‘I got through lockdown with Prowsey’ t-shirt, and my catchphrase when we go live is ‘What are you drinking?’, because they all let it hang out on a Friday night. So I’m packing those t-shirts … I’m a cottage industry. It’s been a busy one lately.”

That seems apt. Wasn’t there that line about Pele, your first band, selling more t-shirts than records?

“Yeah!”

That early t-shirt was certainly iconic.

“The old four primary colours thing? That was my only foray into design, that t-shirt. I’ve never done it since and never will again. But I’ll claim that. It was half a joke really (selling more t-shirts than records), because we never had massive hits in the UK, but you’d see our t-shirts everywhere.”

That must have been something you’ve dwelled on in the past, and with this new collection we get a fresh chance to compare and contrast between your work with Pele, Amsterdam and under your own banner, seeing the progression. And I get the feeling Pele could have been the biggest of those formats, hit-wise. That blend of more chirpy folk-pop should have been blasting out of radios in the ‘80s. But it never quite happened on the bigger stage.

“Erm … you say that, but my most popular song – when you look at viewing figures on YouTube and that – by far is ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’. That outstrips all the Pele songs. So while I had a major record deal, being on Polydor, for that first Pele album, I don’t necessarily think that was the best chance of having the massive hits.

“And the over-arching thing is that I view it as all the same thing. The first vehicle I drove for my songwriting was Pele, the next one was Amsterdam, and nowadays it’s just my name. I wrote all the songs then and now. I consider it to be just the same thing with a different coat of paint.”

You’ve always had a loyal following, but I was wondering if more people are listening now. Do you find factors like your friendship with Elvis Costello make a big difference? And if so, do you end up thinking, ‘Where have they been?’.

“Yeah, indeed … good shout. Over the past three months I’ve had so many people getting in touch or writing online, sending me emails, telling me, ‘I can’t believe I missed you, ‘cos it’s just my kind of music’. I’ve had to develop a new saying to cope with the influx, telling them, ‘Welcome aboard the good ship Prowsey. You’re very welcome!’ It doesn’t matter that you’re 30 years late. You’re here now!’

Taking that analogy further, in view of the choppy waters we’ve sailed through these last few months, you said in a video message on your website at the beginning of 2020, ‘it’s going to be our most exciting year yet’. Who knew, eh?

“I didn’t! The Elvis Costello tour was curtailed the night we played Hammersmith Odeon, and that was great to play there – a dream come true. Amazing. The other three got postponed, but the following Friday night I decided to do a one-off, play online, wondering like many others how I was even going to be able to pay the rent at that point. Real stuff. It was just one gig to say the Costello tour’s finished and the acoustic tour we have booked has been completely dropped and everything else in the diary has gone, but tonight I’m going to sing you the songs from the story of Ian Prowse. Let’s just have a night out.’

Denim Days: Ian Prowse, back to the wall amid coronavirus concerns, but enjoying his Friday evening online shows

“And the feedback was so phenomenally positive and community-minded. Everyone enjoyed themselves, interacting with each other. So it became … it wasn’t about me, it was about us. It was more about, ‘We’re all going to hang out together and Prowsey’s going to sing us some songs’. And that’s just been sustained, really – there have now been 14 shows.”

The acoustic tour has been rearranged, with shows set for September onwards, ‘all small rooms with just me on my own to a hundred people, and I think most were sold out – we’ve got London and Chester, Weston-Super-Mare and Stourbridge … all over the country’. Are they gonna take place?

“I’ve spoken to a lot of the venues and they’re all kind of saying the same thing – it looks like in two weeks the pubs are going to open, so that gives us two months before we do the gigs. So I’m hoping they do happen.”

A discussion followed about new capacities, and the worry that if only limited numbers are allowed, venues will struggle to pay acts.

“We’ll see what happens. I’ve also got shows in October and November, so I’m really hoping by that time it’ll all ease off. Let’s face it, when the pubs re-open, with a couple of drinks inside them, they won’t give a fuck about one metre or two metres’ distance!”

Ian’s also hoping he gets to finish the Costello tour, but didn’t know details at time of going to press.

“We were having the time of our lives! I’ve been doing this for 30 years and rarely have I … I was going down a storm and then getting to watch one of the greatest artists of all time do his set, getting stuck in. And he’s mates as well, so I got to hang around with him. And all we talk about is politics, football and music!”

Remind me how that friendship came about and how he was turned on to your music.

“There was an album that came out on EMI in 2001, Mersey Boys and Liverpool Girls, and we had a track each on there. The old Liverpool Poly, John Moores University hosted a gig to promote it, and Elvis did two songs. I got to meet him, I was thrilled, having had all his records from when I was a kid, and he told me he’d watch a couple of my songs but had to go and see his mam, so wouldn’t be there when I finished.

“I said that’d be great, but near the end of the set, because he’s such a familiar person to look at, I could see he was still at the side of the stage, and when we came off and went into the dressing room, he told me, ‘I couldn’t leave! It was fantastic! I was rocking!’ We’ve been mates ever since, and that was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve been in his band on the telly (BBC’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross), his support band, including playing The Paradiso, where he told me, ‘Let’s have Amsterdam in Amsterdam!’, and then there’s a song we did together to mark Liverpool’s 2008 capital of culture status, covering The Searchers’ ‘Don’t Throw Your love Away’ (included on the new compilation). We hadn’t done anything musically for about 10 years, but I sent him the latest album last year and he told me he felt it was as good as anything I’d ever done. And I guess that led to us doing the tour.”

I could easily dwell on past songs with both Pele and Amsterdam, but more recent numbers like ‘I Did it For Love’ (2014), ‘Something’s Changed’, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ (all 2019) show you’re still on top of your game, as is also the case with the only new track on this compilation, ‘Only the Love’.

“Well, on Friday night’s lockdown show I did a freeform thought piece on what it was like for me to have to sit out Britpop, because I was having arguments with the record company at that point. And while the portal for young bands was as wide open as it had ever been to get through, I was frustratedly outside it, and missed out. But someone pointed out that if we had been there, we’d have been tainted as a Britpop band, so it was a lucky escape. If I was known for that era, I’d have to go out and trot out all the songs from then. And the greatest pleasure for me doing this has been the reaction we’ve had to the new music, ‘The Ballad of North John Street’ and ‘Here I Lie’ entering into the realms of people’s favourites. That’s immensely satisfying. So many acts have that burst of creative songwriting early on and don’t manage to do it again, so to be able to sustain that and continue to release strong songs is important to me. I got that from Bruce Springsteen – there are always fantastic songs on his albums. That’s a real buzz for me.”

At this point I tell him how, listening afresh, on at least one track I saw him as a missing link between The La’s and John Bramwell, which would fit into the timescale in which Amsterdam broke through and took him forward.

“Okay, yeah … well, I know both of them. They’re both insane, I might point out. Ha!”

An off-the-record discussion followed about touring and getting to know the immensely-talented John Bramwell and The La’s’ Lee Mavers over the years, before we navigated back to safer waters and Pele, me telling him I felt the early recordings were in places somewhere between Joe Jackson and the Faith Brothers.

“Well, the idea for Pele was for a more sort of poppy version of The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. I’d been in bands a few years, at school, trying to get somewhere. We kept hitting the post and not quite scoring. That band split up, but when I heard all that Celtic soul music they were making, it struck a massive chord. My songwriting came into focus then. That was my blueprint for what we did with Pele.”

There are certainly pop-folk elements in there.

“Yes, although at no point did it veer off into folk-rock, and it was nothing like the crusty bands like The Levellers either. There’s almost like a Mod sensibility in there. I’m a soul boy as well.”

I see that, and the fact that Christy Moore’s taken a shine to your music counts for something along the lines of acceptance on that front too.

“Well, what an honour! I’ve got to know him a lot, and he’s really funny, a beautiful fella, and if you go and see him out in Ireland, out in the sticks, the whole town comes to watch him. I saw him in Thurles, where 8,000 people live, with 4,000 of them at the gig. He’s bigger than the Pope and U2! He’s fearless too, and one of the greatest protest folk singers on this side of the world, for sure. And in the ‘80s, to be sticking up for the Republican movement was putting your life in your hands. I’ve got immense respect for him. And when he decided to do my song, and we became friends …

“He told me a fan of my music had given him a CD and told him to have a listen on the road. I think it was a compilation of mine and other music. They were going to the ferry at Holyhead and played it about five times, and he decided, ‘I’m doing that’. He sent an unsolicited email to the band, and it turned out it was the Christy Moore. And being good friends with Damien Dempsey, my Celtic soul brother from another mother, he views Christy as the Irish musical god. And in terms of Christy’s position in the pantheon of documenting Irishness, past, present and future … it’s just lovely to be mentioned in those circles.”

On the subject of ‘Does This Train Stop on Merseyside?’, I have to mention John Peel’s love for the song. I always think of The Undertones sat at home listening the first time he played ‘Teenage Kicks’. Was there a similar story with you?

“It’s funny really, as we didn’t have a deal and were trying to get Amsterdam off the ground after Pele imploded. We’d been doing that for a couple of years and not really got going. Also, my long-term girlfriend was in the band, but she’d buggered off and left me for some fella. So I’m sat in my local boozer, crying into my ale, not functioning, and someone came in the pub around half ten at night, and said, ‘I’ve just been listening to you on the radio’. I just went, ‘I haven’t even got anything out’. He explained it was something about a train, and John Peel had played it and was choked, crying when he said who it was.

“There was no playback then, but the day after someone told me Peel got my track from a guy called Phil Hayes, who ran The Picket here in Liverpool. He gave him two CDs with 40 local songs on them, and Peel just played ours then had this extreme emotional reaction live on air.

“I just thought, at this really low ebb another door had opened. He played it again, and the exact same thing happened – he was choked, and said that even when he played it at home, Sheila, his wife, had to come and give him a cuddle. We spoke on the phone, and were on for about three-quarters of an hour. He asked me to come in and do a session when he got back from Peru. And of course, tragically he never did.

“But the world operates in strange ways. Within a year we had a record deal, I was back in the business, we had another album out, and I haven’t looked back since.”

We also spoke about another related project, under wraps at present, talking about a line in the song inspired by Bill Drummond, ‘Now there’s a leyline runs down Mathew Street, it’s giving energy to all it meets’.

“That was his (Drummond’s) concept, this idea that Eric’s was at the centre of this energy. I went to see him when he was stood on this manhole on his 60th birthday in the middle of Mathew Street, where all these leylines meet, for 24 hours. He said when the 24 hours was up he was going to walk away and never come back. I knew he was there, gave him a copy of the song and told him Christy Moore had done a version. He then wrote a blog piece about how he felt it very emotional and giving a speech last year in Liverpool he said how people have written their best songs by the time they’re 25, the one person bucking that trend Ian Prowse. I think I was 39 or something. And that sort of thing is the biggest possible honour you can get.

“I’ve often wondered how I’ve managed to keep the quality high, and I think it’s probably because I’ve under-achieved in terms of global recognition or having massive hits. I’ve always been striving. I’m competitive and have that mentality, and I’m always trying to prove myself, and it’s kept the standard high. And now I’m thinking, when I’m dead and gone and they’re making a boxset, I don’t want any shit CDs on it … like The Clash and Cut the Crap. I want them all to be good. So now it’s the legacy keeping the standard high.”

There have been occasional hits. How did ‘Megalomania’ end up topping the charts in South Africa?

“Ha! It’s bizarre really. I was really green. We signed to a major label and someone said, ‘Right, we’ve got to see your agent’. I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and then we had to see a press officer. I said, ‘Isn’t that the record company?’ I didn’t know any of these things. Then someone said we’ve got to go and see the publisher. ‘What’s that?’ All of a sudden, I’ve signed this deal for £30,000, and I also didn’t realise that when you’re on a major label they release your records all over the world, and it’s up to the local promotional offices as to how much they put into it.

“A friend of mine, John Higginson, had recently emigrated to South Africa with his family, and phoned up drunk, around 1992, with that massive delay on our call, so we couldn’t really get a conversation going. I couldn’t understand him, but he told me he’d been listening to the national top-40 and I was No.1. I just said, ‘Fucking hell – that must be strong ale you’re on, John’. But that night we were on tour, supporting Kirsty McColl in Leicester. I told our manager what my mate had said, he phoned Polydor, and when we finished our soundcheck, he confirmed it. They were asking about doing interviews and going out there playing, but there was still a cultural boycott and the Musicians’ Union pointed out that I’d be breaking that. And I was never going to be Rod Stewart, Queen, Elton John, or Paul Simon for that matter. I just said, ‘I ain’t going’.”

Seeing as you mentioned Kirsty McColl, when was it that you were touring with The Pogues?

“I think that was late ’92, and Shane (McGowan) was there but he wasn’t getting up on stage with them. I think Spider was standing in. But it was great. They were at full pelt, the places were packed out, and it gave us an advantage as we could steal some of their thunder. We were socking it to them and went down a storm everywhere we played.”

You mentioned on your website a while ago, when Amsterdam’s 2008 album Arm in Arm was re-released, that it was maybe your favourite of your LPs. Why that one?

“I think it’s because Arm in Arm is sort of my closest record to Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love in that a lot of the songs are about a broken relationship, pertaining to the same relationship and the same girl. So there’s a theme, the songs are strong, and they hang together. Whenever I listen to it, I think that’s a really good bit of work. And the cover’s from Asbury Park (New Jersey), so I always love it for that as well. It completes my Springsteen obsession!”

At the same time, it seems that Janice Long was getting quite obsessed with the song, ‘Home’, from that LP. The crib notes for this compilation suggest she played it for 20 straight shows.

“Yeah, Janice really loved that song! And Bruce and his music has weaved right through my life these past 35 years. My daughter’s called Rosalita, and I met him in New York 18 months ago. You wouldn’t know it from my music – I don’t think it sounds anything like Bruce Springsteen, musically. But the spirit of it is coming from the same place.”

Finally, was it a big moment playing to a sell-out crowd not far from your patch at Liverpool Olympia, supporting Elvis Costello, whose parents were both from Merseyside?

“It was just a mad rush of energy. Our Rosie, aged eight and a half now, had come along to see me live for the first time as well, and Elvis let her try on his gold jacket in the dressing room before. He asked if she’d liked to try it on, and she was like, ‘Yeah!’. It was a beautiful night. It was the first night, we were all nervous, and it was rammed, but we did a really good gig and he took the roof off.  It was extremely memorable.”

Acoustic Tourist: Waiting for the doors to re-open at UK venues, so he can bring us The Story of Ian Prowse soon.

The Story of Ian Prowse is out now via Kitchen Disco Records. For full details, back-catalogue information, Ian’s rescheduled live acoustic dates, merchandise information and more, visit www.amsterdam-music.com. You can also follow Ian via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. 

 

 

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Totally wired for the Soundation experience – talking Bhajan Bhoy with Ajay Saggar

Holland-based musical maverick Ajay Saggar may have been locked down in recent weeks with partner Yoke and their 20-year-old son Arun, a University of Amsterdam student. But don’t think for one moment he’s been twiddling his thumbs since his last overseas tour in the winter.

We last swapped messages in late January when he was driving around the UK and Europe with musical partner Merinde Verbeek as Deutsche Ashram, supporting cult US indie act Giant Drag, in what he now looks back on as an ‘increasingly surreal time … the virus creeping up on us’.

That now feels like a world away though, and he was busy in his Soundation studio when we spoke this week, just ‘a couple of minutes’ cycle ride away’ from his home in Krommenie, north Holland, working on a University Challenged album project with Amsterdam-based Kohhei Matsuda (Bo Ningen) and King Champion Sounds bandmate Oli Heffernan, a few live dates together followed by the trio recording 10 tracks, three of which were premiered last week on The Watt From Pedro, a US radio show hosted by Mike Watt (of Minutemen, Firehose, and The Stooges fame). Ajay hopes to have the rest finished within a week, promising ‘an absolutely stonkingly-good record’ and suggesting a ‘certain label from Preston’ might be interested in putting it out.

Maybe he meant the Concrète label, of which he’s a fan, but he was wearing an Action Records T-shirt, so I suspect Preston record shop/label founder Gordon Gibson will be getting a call. And Ajay’s also been working on a new King Champion Sounds LP and produced and mixed an Ivan the Tolerable album in June, set for release in August, the latter featuring the aforementioned Oli Heffernan and Mike Watt.

As this was a video interview, he also gave me a virtual tour of his studio, built within another unit and including several great posters from live shows he’s been involved with over the years, where either he played with the main act, supported them, or carried out sound engineering duties.

Those artists include Kraftwerk, Cat Power, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, Mogwai, and The Fall, this former Lancaster University student based in Manchester while playing with cult Preston indie act Dandelion Adventure, a band that recorded a session for BBC broadcasting legend John Peel in the late ‘80s.

In fact, two days after we spoke, he was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first Peel session being aired. Recorded at Maida Vale in mid-May ‘90, it was a defining moment for this self-proclaimed thrashadelic outfit, Kenya-born Ajay on ‘bass and yodelling’ in a band fronted by further friend of this website Marcus Parnell.

Listening back this week – and what a joy it is to hear John Peel talking between tracks, in this case slightly distracted by Italia ’90 and the antics of the ‘whingeing’ Diego Maradona – that session certainly stands the test of time, and led to dates with My Bloody Valentine. And that from an outfit already touring with Action Records labelmates The Boo Radleys and with their Puppy Shrine mini-LP and ‘Jinxs Truck’ six-track 12” already out.

You can read more about Dandelion Adventure in this September 2016 feature, with contributions from both Marcus and Ajay, the latter going on to join members of The Inca Babies to form Hound God, playing ‘metal percussion’, describing the band in our first interview as ‘Pussy Galore meets Einsturzende Neubaten meets The Birthday Party’. And that’s some meeting.

But at the end of 1991 he upped sticks for the Netherlands, ‘wanting a new challenge’, and he’s remained there ever since … give or take the odd European, UK or North American tour, having also  travelled the world as a sound engineer for several bands before starting work at the Paradiso in Amsterdam around a decade ago, in a production management role these days, serving as a contact between visiting bands and the venue’s 300 or so staff.

His time in the Netherlands included a spell living with underground outfit The Ex and playing with Holland-based band Donkey, leading to his second Peel session, in April 1995, by which time he’d learned a few studio skills of his own, ‘driven by necessity’, telling me he was unable to afford studio engineers so did it himself. From there he was asked to help out Glasgow outfit Bis with their sound, and ‘before I knew it I was stood in a tent in front of 40,000 people, thrown in at the deep end’, never looking back, working with fellow Glaswegians Mogwai, Atlanta’s Cat Power, Massachusetts’ Dinosaur Jr., Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Iceland’s Múm, Dublin’s My Bloody Valentine, and many more.

These days, he’s certainly no less inspired about his music and various projects, also recently working back alongside Dandelion Adventure bandmate Marcus in The Common Cold. And right now Ajay, who spent his first 11 years in East Africa before his family – of Indian descent – settled in Yorkshire, is celebrating the release of his first truly solo project under the name Bhajan Bhoy, with debut LP Bless Bless self-recorded, self-mixed and self-produced at Soundation Studio, mastered by Helmut Erler in Berlin and manufactured in his adopted Netherlands in Haarlem. Is this something he’s worked on over the lockdown?

“It was something that came into my head about a year ago, and I’d already had this idea of doing something solo. It was something I felt I had to do myself as I was very particular about where I wanted to go with it.  Then a chance came to do a show at OCCII in Amsterdam and I got in touch with the promoter to put me on as a support act. That went really well and after that I opened for J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) in a bigger venue in town. That was a really cool show and thereafter I decided to turn those songs into proper tracks in my studio and put out a record.

“That summer I was busy with a Deutsche Ashram album, and had also been working with King Champion Sounds, but by October I dived into this and was in this studio every single day.”

So did you lock yourself down before the lockdown?

“Well, I had to go to work, but in the evenings I’d just lock myself away there, and when I could be here I’d stay all day, doing that for two or three months, recording and mixing it all here, then got it mastered in Berlin. It was all done and dusted by December, and I kept listening to back to it, and every time I listened, I’d fall into a trance, thinking it was so, so good, totally hypnotised by the music. And at the same time hearing new stuff within it. Usually, when I finish an album, I can’t listen back to it, having been so involved with the whole project. But this time, I’d go on a 10K run, put it on my headphones, and think, ‘Damn! This is really good’.

Bhoy Wonder: Ajay proudly displays a copy of Bless Bless, the debut LP from Bhajan Bhoy (Photo: Gideon Smit)

Subsequently, he sent it to a few labels he trusted and felt would get it, and in one case a US label were very interested but had too much on, as was the case with Mogwai and their own label. So …

“In the end I was like, ‘Bugger it, I’m gonna do it myself!”

I guess you’ve been moving that way anyway, and the Deutsche Ashram project is not far off a solo project, but for Merinde’s wondrous contributions.

“Yeah, I pretty much do everything apart from the singing, so that process sat quite well with me. Even though it involved an enormous amount of work. And I knew where I wanted to go and how to achieve it. And I’ve got all the tools here, around me.”

Ajay’s studio is within premises which have served as a rehearsal space for his various projects for at least a quarter of a century. And as he tells me that, I mention the timber I see above his head and he tells me how he produced an album for a carpenter who regularly dropped by, in exchange for him building his new studio.

“There’s a whole group of us who rehearse here. We did it all up ourselves. When we lost our other space here to a timber yard, I was working at home, but that wasn’t working, so I went to the foreman of this whole industrial estate, told him what we needed, ad he allowed us this space within.”

The latest Bhajan Bhoy track doing the rounds is not on the album, recorded since and given away for free via Bandcamp, uploaded on the day of the LP’s release. It’s a tribute to Maryland-born cult musician Robbie Basho, who died at just 45 in 1986 in California, acclaimed for his finger-picking guitar technique, influenced heavily by sarod playing and studies with Indian virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan.

“I only recorded that three weeks ago. I’ve been a huge fan of his for years, but had never seen any live footage, but found online two songs he did on this US arts programme. Then Stuart (Braithwaite) from Mogwai told me a film was made a couple of years ago, I tracked it down, watched it one Saturday night, and was blown away by his life story.

Dandelion Days: A 1989 shot of Ajay during Manchester-based Dandelion Adventure days (Photo: Richard Davis)

“I’d started on a new track but couldn’t get that out of my head. That took me into a totally different mindset. I scrapped that, started afresh and made this track, which evolved in a really beautiful, organic way. And for me it’s reflection on his life, the beauty of his music and what he gave to the world. He had mental and physical issues, and that’s reflected in the track, or how I saw it.”

When not at home or in his studio these days, chances are that Ajay’s commuting 20 minutes into Amsterdam by train, cycling to the station and then from his destination to The Paradiso. At present, there are still restrictions on the venue, a room holding 1,500 now having to cater for a maximum of 30, sticking to numbered seats, grabbing a drink on the way in, and so on.

“The last couple of Sundays we’ve done shows for the public, with a band playing on the dancefloor and the audience on the balcony looking down.”

Ajay also managed to get five live performances of his own over the last week, starting with an afternoon radio session in Gouda followed that evening by a performance in a Rotterdam café/bar ‘run by a total music-head’.

“He could only get 11 people in there. It was really nice though, with everyone around me as I played in a corner in this beautiful little bar.”

I see there were also three back-to-back sell-outs at OCCII in Amsterdam.

“Oh, totally!”

And those Saturday shows were followed by a Sunday early evening show at a thrift store very close to his own patch in Wormerweer. And can he see a time where he’s back playing in the UK, touring this LP?

“I really want to, and really want people to hear this record. It’s uplifting, and interestingly, at these shows I’ve done everyone comes specifically for the music, not just for the craic, a chit-chat, to get drunk then go home. Attention is really focused on what you’re doing and what you’re giving them. At the end of my set, after a long fade-out, one of the last notes played … I never look at the audience. I’ve got my head and my hair down, full focused …”

Bar None: Ajay Sagar lets loose with his electric guitar in his first Bhajan Bhoy Bless Bless live engagement, playing Koffie & Ambacht in Rotterdam (Photo: Hoi Hoi)

Still shoegazing after all these years?

“Yeah, but the times I’ve looked up at the end of the set, I’ve seen people in the audience with their eyes closed, on a different planet. It’s been amazing. I also have a film running behind me, which I’ve made from old archive and footage, which really goes with the music. And a lot of people are really complimentary about the visual aspect of the show as well.”

He’s been down that road before, and I saw a fantastic show at The Continental in Preston in 2017 where King Champion Sounds played with cult 1929 Ukrainian film Man with a Movie Camera playing behind them.

A social media post from the day of his OCCII return further underlined his enthusiasm for the Bhajan Bhoy project and a feeling of optimism at restrictions being lifted to allow small-scale shows to happen again in Holland. He wrote, “The main thing I think people gained from these shows was hope. A chance to look beyond the restrictions that have been enforced on everyone and a glimmer of hope that we are very, very slowly turning the tide and can maybe see a way out of the darkness. Playing these shows was really special.’

He added, ‘As an artist you feel under extra pressure, but it’s also a great source of energy to know people are with you on your musical journey, which in turn helps you raise your game. There’s a sense of freedom in the room as people leave their lives behind for an hour or so and sink into the music, and musicians feel fully open to express themselves to an audience who give their entire attention to the music. Live music gives energy to all and judging by the conversations I had with audience members after the shows, these gigs were very much appreciated. I’ve never played gigs under these kind of restrictions, but we made it work collectively. Kudos to the people who work at the venues / radio station for taking on the challenge to bring the music to the people. I’m planning on doing as many shows as are possible in the coming weeks and months, hopefully seeing more smiling faces. Onwards and upwards!’

At this point we talk about what he calls his ‘arsenal’ of musical instruments in the studio, not just his guitars but organs and much more, some bought in India, others in Japan, and another virtual tour follows, stopping for a while to show me the original Fall keyboard, dating back to around 1981/82, when Marc Riley was still with them, a story following from Ajay’s days rehearsing with Hound God at The Boardwalk in Manchester.

“You’d have A Certain Ratio in the room opposite, then Happy Mondays, and Oasis came later, and The Fall had their own room at the end. But when they left, they chucked out a bunch of stuff, and when we finished rehearsing one night, I was like, ‘What!’ and immediately grabbed that. Steve Hanley’s bass cabinet was there too. Also … can you see those drumsticks?”

He’s off again now, taking his screen with him, showing me a set of sticks.

“They were Karl Burns’, from when The Fall played Clitheroe Castle, organised by Steve Barker for On the Wire (BBC Radio Lancashire).”

That was in mid-June ’85. In fact, while transcribing my notes a day after our chat, I realised it was 35 years ago to the very day. Spooky.

“It was this legendary show, and I’d hitched down from Lancaster with a friend. I was at university there. We met up with loads of other Fall-heads from Manchester and all over. There were around 3,000 people there, and what seemed like two policemen on duty. It was amazing. I was up at the front, and after the gig – courage on my side – as they were playing on a bandstand, I made a dash behind to this little marquee they set up instead of a dressing room. And the first person I saw was Karl, chugging on a tin of lager. I asked him for a drumstick as a souvenir, telling him how much I loved the band. He was just laughing, saying ‘Ah, no, they’re quite expensive.’ But when I left, I just jumped on the stage, grabbed those drumsticks and ran off!

“The thing was that Mark (E. Smith) had his hands on the wallet, and every week they’d have to go around his house or flat, and if they wanted new gear, apparently he was super-tight. So I don’t think he’d have been too willing to give away too many drumsticks!”

Funnily enough, an online discussion about that Clitheroe Castle show revealed it was David Chambers’ first Fall gig, the original drummer for General Havoc and Cornershop, later with Formula One and The Wandering Step, also featuring with Ajay and Marcus in The Common Cold.

Back to Bhajan Bhoy though, and I see Ajay’s been out and about on his bike hand-delivering copies of Bless Bless around Amsterdam these last few weeks. And among the early owners of the vinyl on this side of the North Sea were … well, did I spot a photo of your parents proudly clutching a copy?

“Yeah!”

They’re not still waiting for that day when you might get a proper job, are they?”

“They’re just happy that I have got a job, and while it’s music-related they know I’ve got a routine, there’s income coming in and a roof over our heads. We had to go the long way around to get there in the end, having dropped everything after university in Lancaster, having been in Manchester and on the dole, watching The Membranes and playing with Dandelion Adventure. There was no sign of any future, but I knew what I wanted.”

Live Presence: Ajay’s head down, no nonsense kosmiche guitar psych kicks in (Photo: Matthew Stewart Hunter)

It was a little early at time of going to press for a full-blown review from me of Bless Bless, but I’ve loved what I’ve heard so far, and there’s been lots of traction, not least with songs being played by Gideon Coe, a great supporter of Ajay’s recent projects, on his BBC 6 Music evening radio show.

And in lieu of that review, I’ll take on board the official description of a ‘wondrous and beautiful album filled with kosmische guitar psych magick / sonic raga trips / melodic mantras / esoteric electronica that thrill and elevate the listener to a higher sonic plain. The music reaches out to the stars in the same vein if Popol Vuh jammed with John Fahey, Terry Riley, and Robin Guthrie, to produce a beautiful soundscape in which the listener can sink into and float downstream.’

Along the way, Ajay collaborates with Prana Crafter (‘the musical mystic that is William Sol’) on ‘Strung Out’ and Holly Habstritt Gaal on ‘Cascade’, and the afore-mentioned Steve Barker classes it as  ‘the best thing that Ajay has released’, while J. Mascis calls it a ‘killer album’. And I won’t argue with that assessment.

There’s more to come too, and shortly after we spoke, he gave me an update, adding, “I’m playing in someone’s allotment this Sunday, for the solstice – a beautiful place, big garden, tiny house. She’s inviting friends, and I’m gonna play at 9pm for them in the open air. Then there’s an in-store record shop event in Haarlem the week after, with more gigs in July.”

Before I let him go, I mentioned to Ajay a Kraftwerk at the Paradiso poster from 2015 I spotted behind him as we were speaking, Van Gogh looking at me, no doubt thinking I’d make a good subject for a portrait.

“All the posters I have here are all for shows I’ve been involved with. I did eight shows of theirs (Kraftwerk) in a row in the Paradiso. I was doing the production on that and we had to strip everything for them as part of the deal. I went to see their show in Paris and talked to them about what they wanted. We took out the PA, all the stage and all the lights, and they brought everything. We were working three days and three nights getting their stuff up and running. Their main man told me they’d played there before, and I said I know, I’d heard the bootleg – brilliant. He said they’d just recorded Trans-Europe Express (1977), played the songs from that album here, recorded it, then went back to their studio, listened back and tweaked the album mix, based on that.”

And with that, he’s twisting the camera around again, showing me more.

“Then there’s Dinosaur Jr – I was involved with them and toured with them for the first couple of years, and this was from when they reformed and came back again … in 2005. Wow, 15 years ago now. I was behind that, as I was working with J. (Mascis) and Lou (Barlow). There’s also The Fall and Country on the Click, released on Action Records (2003). Mark (ex-bandmate Marcus Parnell) did the artwork for that.

“Mogwai – I toured with them, and this show was at The Fillmore in San Francisco, where I was totally blown away that I was there in the same venue as loads of my favourite bands. That night I drove the volume up so high that … there was this hippie curtain behind me and at the end of the show the in-house guy lifted it and the wall had collapsed there, from the sound pressure. So I was running around with bits of the Fillmore, giving it out to people, telling them it was a bit of history!

“Cat Power – I organised their very first European tour; and Múm – I worked with for many years; Animal collective – another band I worked with for many years, and they released a live double album last year, which were all my recordings; and Sebadoh – that was a US tour with The Bent Moustache, my band at the time.”

I should add that there’s also a big poster of a line-up of his beloved Amsterdam football team, Ajax, and another for Steve Barker’s On the Wire show, his Lancashire links clearly never forgotten, our Man with a Movie Camera having come full circle now … in more ways than one.

Soundation Stage: Ajay Saggar in his studio in the Netherlands, ready for sonic adventure (Photo: José Pietens)

Bhajan Bhoy’s Bless Bless LP, on the splendidly-titled Wormer Bros. Records, is out now, with details via this Bandcamp link. You can also keep in touch via the Bhajan Bhoy Facebook page. 

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Exploring the story of Optic Nerve Recordings – in conversation with Ian Allcock

Ordering a few classic and soon-to-be classic indie records in recent times, I was surprised to find an emerging label I was getting to know through an impressive catalogue happened to be operating from just up the road in Preston, Lancashire.

There’s Action Records of course, the much-loved edge of the city centre shop and occasional record label, and there’s electronic/experimental specialist Concrète. But how did Northampton lad Ian Allcock, who runs Optic Nerve Recordings, end up in the same locality?

“I moved from London to Cumbria, and from there to here. Yeah, it’s surprising who’s on your doorstep! There’s also A Recordings (Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sleaford Mods, Tim Burgess) in Blackpool.”

Was there a personal link to Preston before you moved here?

“Not at all. My ex-business partner, who now runs Brian Jonestown Massacre’s label, and me were working in Northampton in the early ‘90s on The Enid and their back-catalogue, then some indie stuff. We were doing that part-time then went full-time, moving to London, getting into import and export … but it was getting too expensive in London.

“I always wanted to live by the seaside, but Brighton was too expensive, so I decided to head for the countryside, heading up to Cumbria, stopping there a long time. That didn’t quite work out, and my business partner moved back to London while I stopped on. I realised I had all the contacts and knew there was a market for vinyl, so looked into licensing. I didn’t have any distribution and no profile but planned around half a dozen albums … although I over-estimated the size of that market, importing from the United States, and got it wrong at first. Fortunately that vinyl market grew.”

That was in 2012, although Ian’s roots in the business stretched back nearly two decades, and by 1997 he’d issued his first Optic Nerve release, Acrylic, a solo LP from John Ellis, at the time playing guitar for The Stranglers (he was with them from 1990/2000).

“In my naivety, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ but when the album turned up there were no guitars on it – it was music accompanying an art exhibition in Germany. It didn’t sell, but John was a lovely bloke. He said he didn’t feel he fitted in with anything else I was working on, suggesting, ‘What about ‘Optic Nerve’?’ and came up with a logo, the one we still have.

Nerve Centre: Ian Allcock, proudly wearing his Pooh Sticks T-shirt, and bucking the trend of economic downturn

“When we started up again in 2012, I didn’t want to go back to any of the other labels I did and cause confusion (with an established catalogue), instead deciding to use Optic Nerve again.”

That early licensing catalogue included not only The Enid but also records by the likes of New York’s Ned Hayden’s Action Swingers, featuring among others Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, and even a dance outlet … for a short while.

“There was this dance thing that became a Happy House anthem, around 1992, but we bailed out of that because we didn’t know what we were talking about! Even though the single we put out totally sold out.”

When Optic Nerve restarted, Ian carried on where John Ellis left off, Acrylic’s OPT 4.00 catalogue number built upon for the first release of the rebirth, John Peel favourites Cud’s treasured Leggy Mambo album re-released with cat. no. OPT 4.001.

A fair few releases that followed have allowed me to relive my late-‘80s/early-‘90s indie past, records by the likes of BOB, The House of Love, Pete Astor‘s pre-Weather Prophets outfit The Loft, McCarthy, The Pale Fountains, The Primitives, The Wedding Present and The Wolfhounds causing me to go back and re-evaluate, and new recordings by, for example, One Eyed Wayne (featuring BOB’s Dean Leggett) and (again) The Wolfhounds suggesting this was about far more than nostalgia.

There’s a forged link to another of Preston’s leading lights too, Action Records owner and fellow record label founder Gordon Gibson.

“I like going in and talking to Gordon. I can talk to him about Magna Carta and he’ll know what I’m on about. I like a lot of late ‘60s /early ‘70s music, sunshine psychedelia like The Millennium and Sagittarius.”

On a similar note, the kind of market he moved into regarding sometimes fairly obscure indie acts is hardly an obvious choice for a financially successful business plan. Yet many of those into that scene from the ‘80s onwards have gone on to professional careers and are now going back to buy product reminding them of their younger days. Does that ring true with Ian’s knowledge of his market?

“Erm … when I started, the website asked the age of people visiting, but now we don’t. I didn’t want that. I know what my market is … but it’s around 35 to 50.”

I’d argue even slightly higher in some cases, for example for his Girls at Our Best reissue. I have their 1981 LP, Pleasure, on a 1994 Vinyl Japan pressing, and know it’s since been released by Cherry Red (2009). But Optic Nerve put out a version in 2014 and now plan to repackage again. So how does that work?

“Yeah, we’re going to repress that, as it’s sold out. Every deal is different, and it’s not easy. You can’t just license what you want. It’s not like picking apples off a tree. A lot of stuff we want to do, we can’t, and sometimes a lot of the people want to do the same things.

“That Girls at our Best album is one of my favourite-ever albums, so the chance to license that was great. We pressed it up and when it came to a Pleasure bag, I got carried away – doing my own, a bigger, better Pleasure bag, involving three or four posters, postcards, stickers, the original press release and press photo. There was too much! But it sold out, it was a great release, and it looks lovely.

“Cherry Red own that, and I do a lot of business with them, and have a lot of contacts who help me if I’m struggling to find people. They’ve helped me a lot. It also needs the artists’ approval, and we got that from Girls at our Best, and while that license later expired, we’re now going to repress it and get a new one, as there’s still demand.”

The label’s Optic Sevens catalogue has also sold well, two series of classic indie singles released in limited editions proving a success.

“Yeah, it was a total gamble, just a hunch. Not everything I release sells out. In some cases, I have hundreds sitting on the shelf. We lose money on that, and with albums it’s very expensive to do, especially how I do them. And what I make on pre-sales just increases the advance to the artists and studio costs, not pressing costs. It takes a long time for the money to come back in.

“I was in a situation where I couldn’t afford to put anything out, sitting around until I’ve enough money to release something else, then sitting around another few months before I can release the next thing. That’s not really what I want to do. My goal is to do this full-time. I was just thinking of what I could do that didn’t involve as much financial outlay and got a quicker return. I looked into finding singles that were in demand, expensive to get. For me, music should be accessible at a decent price. I’m also of the age – and I know younger people who totally disagree – where I feel that if you only own it on digital release, you don’t own it!”.

It’s nice to see someone seemingly bucking the trend of economic downturn, at a time when we’ve lost so many music venues and are likely to lose more (and a few businesses) following the pandemic restrictions, Brexit, and so on.

“Well, The Wedding Present single went in at No.2 in the vinyl singles chart this week, but let’s just say I haven’t been able to build a swimming pool.”

Point taken. He does his groundwork though, keen to learn more as he goes along. By way of example, in his preparation to see the best way to market his Optic Sevens series – after a lukewarm reception within the industry, wanting to work out the best way to go about it – he contacted a company marketing e-books.

“I asked a few questions, they were really helpful, and a lot of what they told me gave me the confidence to go forward.  What I’m trying to do is build up, so I can put a couple of albums out every month. But I haven’t got a bottomless pit of money. It’s very tight financially.

“I don’t want to get a loan or end up beholden to the bank. But the idea of the 7” series is to get to a point where we can put those two albums out a month. At the moment we’re nowhere near, although we’ll continue with this series as long as we can license the right products.”

Is it just you running the operation?

“It’s just me. I’m sure there are a lot of other labels who employ staff, but this year I’ve had seven albums out and the plan is to later this year do another (7”) series, one a week for 12 weeks. I’m just working out the logistics of that.”

Do you think your neighbours realise what you’re up to?

“There are enough pallets in my garden … and with the amount of trucks that arrive … they probably do! But it’s about trying to keep the cost down. I’ve got storage and everything, but it’s that fine line. I think I can do two albums a month and two singles series a year if I set my stall out correctly, but I can’t do any more than that without employing staff. And premises would eat up a lot of money.

“I also do all the artwork myself, having realised it would cost me a lot of money to get an artist involved. So I felt I better learn to do it myself. Artists like BOB will do their own, but others just give me all the files and I’ll assemble it, as with The Wee Cherubs and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. That can be very time-consuming.

“I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’m not short of stuff I can put out, but I’m always looking, and I’m frightened that the day’s going to come.”

When I asked how he got into all those indie bands but also those late ’60 underground outfits, Ian blamed his Northamptonshire upbringing.

“I don’t know what my parents were doing. We had Oklahoma, Carousel, The Tijuana Sounds of Brass and The Sandpipers, but also all this other stuff, from sunshine psychedelia to The Beach Boys. I then had my brother, older than me, buying some punk stuff, and I liked that.

“Then I heard ‘Better Scream’ by Wah! Heat. You know where there’s that one single that makes you think, ‘Oh wow! There must be more music like this out there.’ Then you go and find it. That was my gateway really, to indie like Girls at our Best, the Young Marble Giants, and the Postcard stuff. I was spending ridiculous amounts on 7” singles then albums, probably all my wages when I left school in 1979 and started work.”

Discussion followed about bands he saw on his old patch, such as The Cigarettes (another band he’s reissued on Optic Nerve), The Dead Kennedys, The Fall, and The Psychedelic Furs at The Paddock (‘on the A45 on the outskirts of town. I think it’s a Berni Inn or something now’), and New Order and Killing Joke in the early ‘80s at The Roadmender’s, where he tells me he DJ’d in the late ‘80s.

Ian’s first career was as an apprentice carpenter and joiner, ‘but I was rubbish at that and didn’t like it much’. So ‘16 enjoyable years’ followed with camera manufacturer Kodak, ‘something that taught me a lot about colour and film’. That said, even in recent times there have been part-time jobs to keep a roof over his head, including work as a hotel night manager. So does this label primarily remain a labour of love?

“I wouldn’t say that! These singles all come with a poster, and I fold them all. That’s 12,000 posters, folded three times each. There’s no love there!”

I see that argument, but still have this romantic notion, thinking back to The Undertones and other Good Vibrations label artists helping fold their early singles at Terri Hooley’s Belfast record shop of the same name in the late ‘70s. But Ian’s not to be convinced.

“There’s no romance!”

And what’s next for Optic Nerve Recordings? Apparently, next month there’s a reissue of McCarthy’s The Enraged Will Inherit the Earth, licensed from Cherry Red, with a tie-in single licensed direct from the band; then some newly re-found tracks from The Wee Cherubs follow in September; and a long-awaited new release from BOB later that month, something I’m definitely keen to hear and Ian is proud to be associated with.

“When you think that the original recordings for that were done in 1992 … they were ahead of the curve. I love listening to that album. It’s absolutely great and at the same time quite sad because they were ahead of the game there – ahead of the Britpop thing. There’s one track, six minutes long, ‘Sundown’, and it’s like Oasis … but before Oasis.”

He hasn’t finished yet, enthusiastically talking me through more upcoming releases.

“From October, assuming we get the licenses, we’re going to do another 12 singles in 12 weeks (a third series). Then in January we have an Apple Boutique album, done directly with Phil King, which was going to be put out on an Australian label; a Tess Parks re-press, having already sold 2,500 copies of that; and a repress of a sold-out Cigarettes album.

“There’s Girls at our Best too, and hopefully next year a couple of Momus albums. I’ve also been talking to David Callahan about a new pressing of The Wolfhounds’ Bright and Guilty and a Moonshake album. And I’m hoping The Vaselines are going to go into the top five next week, maybe even No.1, having sold out everywhere.”

A double-check before publication saw the Scottish outfit made it to No.14 with a reissue of 1987’s ‘Son of a Gun’. A respectable outcome, I’d say. What’s more, Ian told me there were plans to go back to around 1979/82 for a future (Optic Sevens) series, back to the days of Pete Wylie’s Wah! Heat and the single that sparked his love of indie, albeit ‘purely for romantic reasons’.

He was still going strong at that stage, but I had a deadline looming as he continued to mention various other options Optic Nerve are working on, from those he’d love to put out but would struggle to get licensed, through to those he’d love to get out but it would make no sense to publicise and give the game away at this point … some which would certainly tantalise indie fans and be sure to sell fast. Watch this space. More to the point, keep an eye out for Optic Nerve Recordings.

For more information about Optic Nerve Recordings and its catalogue of current and planned releases, head to their website. You can also follow the label via Facebook and Twitter. 

 

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