In memory of Inga Maria – the Keeley Moss interview

Retracing Steps: Keeley Moss, on the trail of German tourist Inga Maria Hauser at Preston railway station

It’s fair to say that prolific Dublin singer-songwriter and blogger Keeley Moss is loving the amount of international airplay she’s getting right now, not least on national radio in Britain and in her Irish homeland, and on influential online stations in America.

While that’s in no small part down to her sheer will-power, determination and charm, her growing reputation for songcraft cannot be overlooked, her Brave Warrior EP (out digitally for now, with a physical release planned for autumn) lead track ‘The Glitter and the Glue’ described as a ‘blistering buffet of psychedelic rock, post-punk and the more frantic end of the dreampop spectrum’. 

What’s more, for Keeley, the latest signing to Dimple Discs – the London label founded by Undertones guitarist Damian O’Neill – the subject matter is unique, all four songs on that EP and the LP set to follow next year all concerning the harrowing unsolved murder of Inga Maria Hauser, a German tourist who went missing in Northern Ireland in 1988, aged just 18.

And alongside her music, for the past five years my interviewee has published a blog with a devoted global following, The Keeley Chronicles, documenting the many facets of a mystifying, sad case, while determined to correct falsely published details of the teenage victim’s life and piece together what really happened in her final days.

Working in close quarters with Northern Irish police, senior politicians and legal representatives in concerted efforts to advance and resolve a notorious case, Keeley remains determined to keep Inga Maria’s memory alive. And as she put it, “Inga is the subject of everything I write. From the moment I first read about her, her cause became a burning obsession. Since that day I haven’t written a song about anyone or anything else. I consider myself a concept artist, and my purpose is to give Inga a voice.”

Performing and recording under her first name, that side of the story commenced last October, debut single ‘Last Words’ topping Dublin’s Newstalk FM airplay chart and playlisted by RTE Radio 1 and 8Radio, going on to attract radio support in multiple countries and ending up in various end of year best of polls. What’s more, this eloquent frontwoman was also the subject of full-page articles in the Belfast Telegraph and Derry Post newspapers, unheard of for an indie artist after a first release.

And that interest has continued with her latest release, as was plain on checking her online updates and catching the vocalist and guitarist at home in Dublin, first mentioning ongoing airplay on BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq show, this rising star getting good traction on both sides of the Irish Sea.

“Ah yeah – traction is not in short supply!”

I get the impression you’re a great one for all things social media.

“That’s right, I’m a Gemini and a very communicative person, so social media is tailor-made for a kind of motormouth like myself! With most musicians – and I’ve spent my life studying musicians, bands and various aspects of music and the music business – one common feature I’ve noted has been their taciturnity, their reluctance to interviews, generally. But I love interviews! And they’re getting longer and longer. That’s advance warning!”

A discussion followed about the bane of my interviewing life – transcription. But I’d already sussed this was likely to be another epic conversation requiring lots of time to get the words on the screen. And it turns out it’s a problem for Keeley too, having spent most of her time spent ‘on the other side of the microphone’, not least working on a book about Inga Maria’s Hauser’s case.  

But first, how did she you end up on the radar of Damian O’Neill’s recently-established London label?

“Well … prior to the pandemic, a previous band had broken up and I had a whole new batch of songs and this very distinct vision of what I wanted to do, sonically and in terms of the concept behind the subject matter. I set about trying to find collaborators, found my producer, Alan Maguire, gradually found my bandmates, and by January 2020 had the nascent line-up in place.

“We rehearsed up until March, played the first of six gigs booked, then … boom! The pandemic struck, and four days after our first gig, Ireland was plunged into lockdown. And we’ve had the most severe lockdown in all of Europe. I’d prepared the video for the first single, ‘Last Words’, had the song ready to go, but didn’t feel I could release it when I couldn’t play live. So I paused for six months, waiting for the pandemic to lapse.

“Of course, it has never stopped wreaking havoc though, and I eventually decided I was just going to go for it, releasing this material without any recourse as to playing live. That was quite daunting, having never been in that position before. I released that in October 2020, really unsure of the response I’d receive. It’s a very unusual song, everything about it unprecedented. But the response was instantaneous at radio level in Ireland, and it received four solid months of airplay.

“During that time, I was running an entire press campaign from my basement flat, effectively acting as my own record company, radio plugging and designing videos, writing the songs, the only band member in the studio. I found myself flat out working seven days a week, 18 hours a day.

“Then in February the time came to release follow-up single, ‘The Glitter and the Glue’, and the same happened – loads of airplay and a really positive reaction, including airplay overseas, even though I didn’t have time to service those stations.

“I’m rather foolish in that I insist on writing emails to each person from scratch – no cutting and pasting. A nice, honourable thing to do that people appreciate, but made me even more wrecked. By springtime, I really needed help, but was so busy working that I was a bit myopic, losing sight while lasering in on a goal. Fortunately, help was at hand, my efforts alerting Dimple Discs, (Damian’s namesake and label co-founder) Brian O’Neill making contact on a very natural level, a lovely way for a bond to be built. We had rapport on a mutual music-lover level long before anything else came into the fray.

“I hadn’t sent the material I was working on for two years to any label, and when Brian and Dimple Discs made a formal approach at the end of April, I knew in my heart this was the only label I wanted to sign to, because of the calibre of artists they work with and the fact that the people involved are steeped in music industry experience but more importantly for me steeped in real indie values. I knew this was going to be the right home for me. It was very natural, very organic. They contacted me, but it was something that came about as the result of me hurtling about the internet in a sort of Wile E. Coyote fashion.”

While ‘The Glitter and the Glue’ has got most of the recent airplay, it’s interesting you mention ‘Last Words’, which I hadn’t realised was the first single. I think I like that the most of the four songs on the EP, clawed in by those subtle hooks. There’s a bit of a Blondie feel there, and some Johnny Marr-like guitar, but there’s nothing formulaic about it. Similarly, ‘Never Here, Always There’ also impresses. I could hear Neil Arthur tackling that with Blancmange in more recent years.

Is it right that these tracks were put together at Darklands Audio, where fellow Dublin outfit Fontaines DC started out recording the songs that would end up on their debut LP?

“Actually, these songs were recorded at Alan Maguire’s studio, but I’ve been recording a second EP at Darklands Audio. Actually, I’m currently recording simultaneously two sets of recordings at different studios – working on two albums of material at one and an EP at the other!”

Keeley was Dublin born and bred, telling me, “I’ve lived here pretty much all my life, all over Dublin – I’ve had a very nomadic lifestyle, but within the city. I’ve moved 28 times!”. And yet, I put it to her, she seems far too young for that eclectic taste she has in all things indie and beyond. How’s that?

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have any guiding hand in terms of a figure that would point the way to the good stuff. I was really adrift until a chance encounter at a thing called the Gaeltacht, like a summer camp for learning the Irish language. I could speak no more of the language after leaving than when I arrived but ended up having one of the two most significant experiences of my life – through a boy a good bit older than me, I discovered The Smiths.

“That was my year zero. From that starting point I set upon devouring everything in relation to them musically and in terms of books, with one specific book really influential – Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance. Through reading that I learned about many bands, like Joy Division – who I’d never heard of – and through them, New Order. It was a wonderful way for the entire history of independent music to unfold before my eyes and ears.

“Suddenly, I was let loose in this sonic supermarket where I could roam the aisles and purloin all manner of wondrous sounds. From there, a lot of it came from mainlining books – I’ve always been obsessed with music, with bands, and the music industry. And around the time I started to get into music I had that real enthusiasm, probably more so than any musician I’ve ever known. For others, more or less, their interest begins and ends with the music. For me it runs deeper.

“I was probably the only 14-year-old who would be rivetted reading about Richard Boon, Geoff Travis and Alan McGee! I was really interested in the culture behind the labels and the bands I loved. And there was something I was attracted to in the outsider bands and awkward, difficult artists – people like New Order as they were under the tutelage of Rob Gretton, The Smiths, the Sex Pistols …”

And on your side of the Irish Sea, Microdisney.

“Absolutely, Microdisney are my favourite Irish band of all time. I was a huge fan from the moment I bought a compilation album, Big Sleeping House, taking a punt on a band of whom I hadn’t heard any of their music. I saw it in a record shop, thought, ‘I’m having that!’, bought it, brought it home and fell in love with it. I think what really appealed was the fact that here were songwriters in Sean (O’Hagan) and Cathal (Coughlan) who dared to write outside the realm of conventional, mainstream topics and subject matter. And that’s something very much so with Morrissey and Marr, and something I believe I’ve continued in my own songwriting.

“For example, if you look at ‘Last Words’, for a debut single it’s a real mission statement. There’s a psychedelic fuzz guitar break in the middle and a Smithsian arpeggio towards the end, and it’s a really odd kind of krautrockesque kind of lurching, grooving motoric rhythm. Then there’s the lyrics, which … when I sat down to write these songs, all I had on my mind was one person, the same person and the same theme and the same topic I’ve had on my mind every day and every night for the last five years. That is Inga Maria Hauser.”

At this point we got on to Inga’s link with my adopted Lancashire patch, where it turns out Keeley has visited as part of her research.

“I’ve visited Preston twice as part of my mission to retrace Inga’s steps, and spent time at the train station, specifically because it was where Inga began the last day of her life in Preston train station, catching a connecting train to take her to Inverness in the early hours of April 6th, 1988.

“Ever since coming upon Inga’s case back in 2016 I became totally fascinated by the circumstances of the case and my two key interests in life had always been music and true crime, ever since I was a child. And I felt so moved and inspired by Inga and her story, I felt such an urge to get involved and try and do all I could.

“The case had been dormant for a number of years prior to commencing the writing of The Keeley Chronicles, and I wasn’t in any way deterred by that. I thought this is the most important thing I’ve ever read about, so just give it gusto and approach it with pride and passion, and after researching Inga’s case, I published part one of the blog, which to my amazement went viral on the first day in 2016.

“To me it was a logical step to want to bring Inga and her story into my sonic field and start to write about her. It was all I was thinking about, so it was all I wanted to write about. To pool and fuse the fields of music and true crime together, something I believe has never been done before. No one has made an album about a murder victim, certainly never composed an entire body of work in honour of and about a murder victim and a murder case. But that’s what I’m determined to do, that’s what I’m doing, and that’s what I’m going to do.”  

Will any of the tracks on this EP also feature on the LP?

“That’s a really good question. The thing is, I write so many songs. I don’t know how, because I have no time, but I’m incredibly prolific. The EP I’ve recorded at Darklands involves four stand-alone tracks, then there’s two albums of material I’ve recorded at Alan’s studio, again stand-alone, and there’s the Brave Warrior EP. So to assemble a cohesive album out of this and omit so many songs is going to be incredibly difficult. Some difficult decisions are going to have to be made.

“Record companies are always keen to include songs that are effectively the bedrock of an artist’s popularity, so it would make sense to include songs from Brave Warrior. However, the sheer amount of songs I have and the quality of the unreleased material I’m working on makes it very difficult.

“I very much have a storyline and an arc I’m trying to work towards, so the songs that convey the story in as linear a fashion as possible are probably going to be the ones. But it’s a question of how to assemble it … a happy headache to have. It reminds me in the football world when managers talk about an embarrassment of riches!”

What was it that made you sit up and take notice when you heard Inga’s heart-breaking story?

“In one sense I’ve spent the last five years trying to get to the bottom of that – my own obsession, passion and devotion for this cause. There are a number of reasons I can point to. At the time I was drawn to this case, I was in an emotional space in my life where I had no faith in giving my heart to anyone in the outside world in terms of the romantic realm or at a loving level. So I think I had that drive and desire in an underlying way that I could try to devote to a cause. And something about Inga and her case just screamed at me from the moment I read about her.

“It’s such a singular case and unique situation, the only incident of a sexually-motivated murder of a tourist in Northern Ireland ever. It was the first case of its kind, and there’s not been any other – fortunately – sexually-motivated murder of a tourist in Northern Ireland since.

“I was struck by that and the fact that Northern Ireland at that time was in the grip of a vicious conflict that had raged for 20 years and acted as a deterrent to any would-be holidaymaker or tourist that would consider visiting, yet Inga had the bravery and some might say defiant courage to actually travel on her own to this war-torn region at the age of 18, when she’d never been away from home without her parents before. I found that incredibly brave and incredibly valiant.

“And the fact that she sailed there. To me, that’s an almost romantic element – here’s someone, almost a discoverer or explorer, daring to dream. So there was something about the idealism I identified in Inga that really moved me and appealed to me and that I identified with as a very singular, determined person.

“And the time that it happened – there’s something about that time I find fascinating. Reading about Inga’s story and singing about her and immersing myself in it, particularly that last week of her life when she was travelling all over the UK. It almost felt like it belonged to a world that is gone, this fenced-off space getting ever more distant the further we move into the future. There’s just something on an emotional level I find bittersweetly beautiful and heartrending. The past is getting more and more distant, and the moment inga had during that last week of her life, the happiest of her life. I’m absolutely fascinated by and determined to try and preserve and reclaim as many of those moments from the dustbin of history as possible.

“That’s why over the last five years I’ve tried to track down – and have succeeded – all sorts of people. For example, one person I managed to track down after many months – I wanted to speak to someone with an intimate knowledge of the Scottish railway network so I could establish and map Inga’s exact journey to the minute – was the man who actually programmed the train schedules on the day Inga was in Scotland, on April 6th 1988.”

Inga Maria packed a lot into her UK visit, making her way from the family home in Munich to sail over from the Hook of Holland to Harwich on the last day of March 1988, making her way to London on Good Friday, April 1st, sight-seeing in the capital before moving on to Oxford that Bank Holiday Monday, leaving the following day, stopping at Cambridge and Liverpool before reaching Preston and taking the sleeper to Inverness, arriving in time for breakfast. Further stops followed in Glasgow then Ayr for a connection to Stranraer, catching a 7pm ferry to Northern Ireland, docking at Larne at 9.40pm.

I totally relate to her busy timetable, this post office worker and fanzine writer that week embarking on his own debut overseas experience (give or take a school trip to Boulogne), joining the band I ‘mismanaged’ on holiday in the Algarve, Portugal. According to my diary, the night Inga Maria – a school year older – sailed to England, I made my live bow of sorts, singing backing vocals on covers of Violent Femmes’ ‘Sweet Misery Blues’ and The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ at Harry’s Bar, Albufeira, lots of free drinks coming our way from the clientele, a resident Scots singer only too happy to let us play during his breaks.

We left Faro late the next morning and were back in Guildford by 3pm, reaching my village local a tad too late that evening to catch two friends’ farewell drinks before they left for Sydney and a working holiday as jackaroos on an Aussie outback ranch, my own world travels still two and a half years and lots of saving ahead.

Saturday night involved Milford’s Red Lion, my band supporting the Piccadilly Mudmen, missing out on Brighton bands Blow Up and 14 Iced Bears at Aldershot’s Buzz Club. And a heavy weekend continued at the Brit in Guildford on Sunday night, then suffering Aldershot’s ‘appalling’ Monday afternoon 1-0 Division Three home defeat to Southend United before an Easter family do at home, my Nan and Aunt and lots of siblings visiting, bailing out early eve to see ‘50s rock’n’rollers The Hog Valley Stompers at Pew’s Wine Bar on another memorable night.

Inevitable ‘back to work blues’ followed on Tuesday, but I was focused on our Wednesday night gig at The Star in Guildford, where The Stranglers made their live debut 14 years earlier, a sell-out crowd of 99 raising £135 for charity on the second night that week I passed the milkman on his rounds as I sneaked back home in the early hours.

By then, I desperately needed – and got – a night in ahead of the next punishing weekend, that Saturday involving the Grand National (won by Rhyme’n’Reason), FA Cup semi-finals (Wimbledon beating Luton at White Hart Lane, Liverpool beating Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough) and a top night at Hampton Court’s Jolly Boatman, the bass pumping as I peered through the sweet-smelling fug at quality Handsworth reggae outfit Israel Movements. And in my case – a third of the way through the 67 gigs I reckon I saw that year – I had nothing but hangovers and depleted bank balances to worry about, stacking up life memories, as opposed to the hell Inga Maria encountered across the water, 475 miles away, as Keeley explained.

“Immediately on docking, Inga disappeared, among the most mystifying aspects of the case. Larne ferry terminal is a very small place, somewhere I’ve visited many times in the course of my research and has the same design and layout as it had in 1988, having opened in 1985. There are only two ways in and out – and only one for foot passengers disembarking – out of the front door or towards the railway station at the harbour, which is within the ferry building.  

“It’s not as if she had to go for a lengthy walk or cross the town. She was there, within this building, and the walk from where the foot passengers alight is less than one minute. It’s approximately 40 seconds from there to the train. Now, there was a train due, Inga had a valid rail ticket – her InterRail pass – and she loved to travel by train, and was planning to get the train to Belfast, then on to Dublin.

“Now, the police are adamant that Inga never made it as far as the railway platform, so she has to have gone out of the front door. But no witnesses saw Inga getting off the ferry, no witnesses have ever been able to place her in Larne, and there are no reports of the vehicle that has to have transported Inga. She has to have left the ferry as a foot passenger and boarded some vehicle to have left Larne in order to make it to Ballypatrick Forest, one hour’s drive away, a very distant and remote place in the exact opposite direction to where she intended to travel.

“So there are lots of strange features about this in terms of why Inga took a lift when she had no reason to do so, and why she ended up so far in the opposite direction from that to which she had intended to travel.

“On a purely personal level, I find it incredibly sad and tragic and harrowing that this beautiful, artistic, vibrant young woman – just setting off on her journey through life – would find herself upon arriving in what was the land of her dreams and the country she most wanted to visit according to her Mum and Inga’s own diary entries, that within an hour of arrival she would end up murdered, and murdered in such a way that displayed all the callousness of her killers, subjected to such an horrendous ordeal and such a degree of overkill, then left out in the elements, completely uncared for, unattended  to, not covered up in any way whatsoever, left with a broken neck and a brain haemorrhage, all her belongings strewn around her in such a deviously disrespectful, horrendous manner. It’s the saddest and the scariest story I’ve ever known.”

How old would you have been then?

“I wasn’t conscious of anything in terms of the world and of life, I was just a babe in arms. But when I look back at the past, I’m always trying to gain more of an insight into how things were back then, and I’m fascinated by that time, maybe because I didn’t live through it and wasn’t able to see the world through adult eyes.”

I get that. I’m the same with 1967 and the world I arrived in, discussion following about all the great records that landed that year and my own fascination and interest with that era. Is there a day-job running alongside all this research, writing and composing for Keeley?

“Well, what I do is make music and write on behalf of Inga in terms of the Chronicles. That’s what I do. I’ve had all sorts of jobs in the past – I’ve worked in libraries and bookstores and record shops, done all sorts of things. But these are the two things I’m solidly …”

All-consuming passions?

“Yes! Absolutely.”

With such a great response to her debut recordings, there are also live shows at post-pandemic restrictions planning stages, notably a first Dublin headline gig on October 13th in the main room in Whelan’s, with the support act label-mate Dragon Welding, the well-received side-project of Wolfhounds guitarist Andy Golding, and WriteWyattUK interviewee Eileen Gogan as DJ on the night.

Keeley’s band are also booked to play Dublin Quays Festival in August and are set to make their UK bow on December 9th at The Lexington, Islington, North London, on a Dimple Discs showcase bill, something she’s also looking forward to. There’s the hope of regional shows elsewhere in the UK too.

“The live set is a very emotional and immersive experience, with all the songs about Inga, trying to conjure up an effect. And to play those songs in places like Preston, Inverness and Stranraer would give an extra resonance, definitely.” 

By that point, time was against us both, Keeley telling me, “I could talk the legs off a horse, so thank you for rolling with my verbal voyage!”.

I added that hopefully something will come of all her efforts though, someone out there with that tiny piece of information or background detail needed to finally bring justice and closure for Inga Maria Hauser and her family.

“I’m so glad you said that. Back in 2018, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had a targeted campaign, and part of their strategy was to target Scotland. Inga had encounters there that have not been learned about to the extent that would be helpful. There are people out there, perhaps unbeknown to themselves, who had encounters with Inga on her travels through England and Scotland who have not ever come forward.

“It would be of huge significance to the investigation were those people to come forward. I’m aware this is very much a needle in a haystack, but Inga’s case has taken so many twists and turns over the last three decades, and anything is possible. There is always the potential for a Eureka moment, involving people who genuinely encountered her in England and Scotland. It would be wonderful if through all the publicity generated, one of those people were willing or could come forward and approach the PSNI.

“Also, there were 422 people on board the Galloway Princess the night Inga arrived in Larne, and only two people claim to have seen her, those witness reports verified. So we have a situation where we have a strikingly beautiful, very distinctive-looking young woman on her own, wandering around a ferry, and it’s a fact that inga was walking around – as the witnesses reported – yet no one else has claimed to have seen her. All very strange, and questions still need to be asked.”

For more about the Inga Maria Hauser case, check out The Keeley Chronicles website. And to check out and purchase Keeley’s debut EP, Brave Warrior, head here, ‘The Glitter and The Glue’ available for immediate download with all orders.

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Examining Heart-Shaped Scars – the Dot Allison interview

Long Exposure: Dot Allison is back, 30 years after One Dove fledged, with the LP, Heart-Shaped Scars

‘I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this,’ as the opening line of mesmeric debut One Dove single ‘Fallen’ – first released 30 years ago – had it, but I revisited Morning Dove White before a final read-through of this interview, tripping head-first back into an early ‘90s world, that much-delayed LP out around the time I finally moved my record collection north (involving several trips between Surrey and Lancashire), committing to a new chapter with my better half.

After several punishing years living the life around London and the South-East, catching more than 250 lives shows plus countless club and pub nights out and a few festivals that previous decade while sneaking more and more vinyl back to the family council house, the time came to move on, never truly settled after a year of world travels, most weekends spent away, up and down the home nations and wider Europe.

As Sam Cooke put it 30 years earlier and Otis Redding regularly minded me on my turntable, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. And the same could be said for the scene around then. It’s difficult to get a real grasp on where I was musically now, but the landscape was changing, so many acts I loved attempting ‘of the moment’ remixes, delving into new directions, the house scene opening all that up.

Trippy follow-up ‘Transient Truth’ and the wondrous ‘White Love’ – as if Kate Bush was guesting with Johnny Marr and Barney Sumner’s Electronic – followed, One Dove soon grazing the UK top-30 with ‘Breakdown’, ‘Why Don’t You Take Me’ and their sole LP, Morning Dove White. Things by then had shifted immeasurably, the influence of acid house alumnus DJ/remixer Andrew Weatherall and co. apparent all over. Soon, Bristol acts Massive Attack and Portishead were getting regular spins on my deck, and of the new music around I zig-zagged between guitar bands and more dance-infused elements, Manchester’s scene evolving and adapted, the more experimental Moonshake and John Peel favourites Stereolab on one side, dance scenesters One Dove and St Etienne on the other, all surfing this new wave their own sweet way.

And yet … by the year 2000 I had my own family and had taken my eye off the ball. I had other commitments and missed out on various developments, not least One Dove vocalist Dot Allison’s solo career, the previous year’s Afterglow and much of what followed passing me by until recently. It’s clearly time to catch up now though. Better late than never, eh. And what better way back in than her latest long-playing offering.

Thankfully, others were paying attention. And as it turns out, Dot continues to strive to ‘keep the listener on a journey – and myself too.’ From ethereal house roots to Afterglow’s broad church of trip-hop, Tim Buckley-esque ballads and chilled psychedelia and the electro-inspired synth-pop of We Are Science (2002), then the baroque Exaltation of Larks (2007) and roots drama of Room 7½ (2009), including guest appearances by Pete Doherty and Paul Weller, she’s forever evolved, working with an extraordinary roll-call of talent en route.

But then she took time out to raise a family, until now, returning with arguably her most realised, illuminating and personal album yet, lead single/opening track ‘Long Exposure’ indicative of its fragile beauty. Tender and raw in equal measure, Heart-Shaped Scars is a project she wanted ‘to be comforting like a familiar in-utero heartbeat, a pure kind of album that musically imbues a return to nature’.

The club mix days are seemingly behind her, but the same haunting qualities that made us sit up and take notice first time around come through loud and clear. And I can’t help but feel a lineage with the journey of fellow folktronica converts, Goldfrapp.

I won’t go through song by song, but I’ll mention the album’s climax, first examining the journey from ‘White Love’, way back then, to ‘One Love’ on this latest LP, owning all the intoxification of that can’t-believe-it-wasn’t-a-hit classic, supplemented by a steady build and subtle strings, as if ‘Dear Prudence’ had been re-imagined for an intimate folk gathering, its textures layered with heart-felt harmonies.

Perhaps the closest we get to Dot’s past is on penultimate number ‘Love Died in our Arms’. It’s all too easy to use the word haunting when talking about this record, but it is. A James Bond theme that never was, I’d loved to have known what Andrew Weatherall would have done with it, given the chance. Actually, I’d like to think he’d have just raised his hands, saying nothing need be added. And from there, we’re away in the manner in which we arrived, on ‘Goodbye’. The empty space between verse and chorus, if I can call it that, is stunning. And when she comes in with ‘Somewhere in the heart of the day, there’s an answer …’, I’m gone. You feel cleansed by the end. It’s easy to imagine this as a huge number, pumped out in a Whitney does Dolly style. But in Dot’s hands it’s all the more powerful for its understated beauty.

‘Until then, I wish you love; goodbye.’

In short, be prepared to be sent, hooked ever deeper on every spin. I’ve fallen in love with a fair few records in this intoxicating year, and this is among the very best of them. Did this gorgeous set of songs – framed by sparse, intoxicating dream-folk – take long to come together?

“The actual recording and pulling it together probably took about two years, but there are ideas and concepts in there that are quite ancient that never left me or I never found a place to put them.

“‘The Church of Snow’ was a poem I wrote in 2003 which has changed a bit (now the basis of ‘Ghost Orchid’), then ‘Forever’s Not Much Time’, I came up with that title but it didn’t end up on any of my songs, and ‘Heart-Shaped Scars’ was the title of a song about 2015, and it’s actually been a few songs but I never found the right home for that title. And while it’s become the album title, there is a song called that which didn’t make it on to the album!”   

That seems to be something artists often do – coming up with an LP title that later inspires a song of the same name. Although in this case it seems it came before and after.

“Yes, the song title came first, while the ultimate song didn’t even make it on! It’s just a journey of ideas though – you can’t predict where they’re going to end up sometimes.”

Is this your most personal LP to date?

“I think all my albums are as personal as I can make them at the time. It probably is, but only because I’ve written it at this point, if you know what I mean.”

In a nod to her more folky side, a few of the songs were written on ukulele, including ‘Long Exposure’, those tracks composed ‘purely by ear, constructing my own chord clusters’. Was that a lockdown skill for Dot?

“Well, I’ve looked at it before, thinking perhaps I really ought to be playing it. But because I play piano and a bit of guitar, I normally go here first, but I did make a conscious decision to sit down after home-schooling my kids with a cup of tea and play that ukulele!

“It forced a certain type of discipline. I’m quite good at being a bit butterfly-ish – having plans, then they change. So it’s quite nice to have that enforced structure. And those songs were the first I wrote on it, and I thought, Oh, my God, I should have been writing on this ages ago! And these were quite musical compositions – there’s something quite freeing in the melody. Playing something so tiny as well – it becomes more part of you. I’ve a Martin 12-string and it’s like playing … well, a lot of these things are designed for guys. One of those guitars, I can barely get my arm around it. There’s something quite nice about the uke though.”

Has this pandemic-driven last year and a quarter given you a chance to concentrate on writing and recording, or is that something of a luxury with a young family around? Would you have been out on the road, given the opportunity?

“No, I wouldn’t have. I still couldn’t go on tour and leave my kids. I wouldn’t want to. They come first, and I fit my music around being a mum – not the other way around. I’m totally attached to people I love. I don’t go anywhere. That’s it – I’m in! To me, those bonds are the most important things in life.”

Dot, married to film music composer Christian Henson, with children aged nine and 10 and ‘an amazing stepdaughter’, 13, loves her life in her home city of Edinburgh, where the LP was recorded, but gets away when she can to the Hebrides, a love going back to childhood holidays and friendship with folk musician Sarah Campbell – also featured on the new record – and involving occasional house parties and live jams.

“We go up there a few times a year. We’ve some very old friendships and contacts there, and a cottage to escape to from time to time.”

Fiona Cruickshank was important to this record too, co-producing with Dot at Castlesound Studios. Have they known each other a while?

“We’ve known each other a few years. I knew through the grapevine Fi was brilliant at what she does and met her a few times and knew she was lovely as well. Then purely by chance she was working with Paul Weller and recording his strings with Hannah Peel, and I’d written a song with Paul many years ago. He mentioned to me, ‘That’s funny, your name came up,’ which was mad!

“Fiona was just coming through the ranks, and she’s absolutely brilliant. There’s a real elegance and something sort of pristine but not select – she gets that really real sound. I kept banging on about depth of field to her, and she totally got it! I don’t want sausage-meat mix, you know what I mean?’ I really want you to feel like you could skim a stone across, with real depth of field, and sculpting the image of the sound so it’s 3D. You know what I mean?”

I think I do, but more importantly Fiona did. And as you mentioned Hannah Peel – who added string arrangements to four songs, courtesy of a Scottish folk quintet – what with her solo work, soundtrack commissions and duties with Paul Weller, and a similar heavy workload for Orkney singer-songwriter and composer and fellow WriteWyattUK regular Erland Cooper, I’m wondering if we’ll ever hear a third album from their side-project with Simon Tong, The Magnetic North. Their diaries must be pretty rammed at present.

“Yeah, and she’s winning awards with scores. She’s just brilliant, isn’t she. And again, really lovely to work with. I sent her the bare bones of the uke tracks. A few of the songs are quite sparse anyway once they’re finished – quite intimate tracks – but I sent them to her, and she sent a lovely message back about how she liked them.”

There are collaborations too with singer-songwriters Amy Bowman on ‘The Haunted’ and Zoe Bestel on ‘Can You Hear Nature Sing?’. Then there’s the afore-mentioned Sarah Campbell. Is it just coincidence that I’ve mentioned five female talents working with you on this record?

“Well, it is … and it isn’t! I was conscious of the fact that coming out of the ‘90s there just weren’t as many women working in this sphere. And I think it’s so important to have role models as a woman. This is almost an all-lady album, but it’s not, and there’s no political statement about that – it was more about seeing how it would sound like for a change.

“I was wondering if this would even be notable. But it is! How many of those records are all guys, yet no one would ever comment on that? Even so, this has the phenomenal Stuart Hamilton on it. He’s absolutely brilliant. But this was just me wanting to write with friends, and they just happen to be ladies. But it’s quite nice to balance that out a bit, having worked with lots of guys, to get a different vibe to things I’ve done before.”

Field recordings of birdsong, rivers and the ambience of the Hebrides also feature, while friends there share ideas, ‘passing instruments between us all, amongst friends and the island community’. Is that somewhere Dot’s been visiting a long while?

“Yeah, my childhood holidays from a very young age were up on the west coast of Scotland. Our family would go up to Mallaig and up to Ullapool, and Skye, Gairloch, Gruinard Bay and all that. Then, when I was in my teens, my friend Sarah had a cottage up on the island – her family had a cottage on the island where we’ve now got one. From 12 onwards, we’d go there, camping and staying with her, so that island’s part of my history, I suppose.”

It’s also where she first sang ‘Long Exposure’ in public, at a folk house-concert, me asking if the feel of the BBC’s Transatlantic Sessions shows is something of a reality for Dot when she’s there – attending those house parties, informal live jams, and so on.

“It is, I guess, mainly through Sarah – her whole family are very plugged into that scene, with sisters who are professional musicians, and her kids in that scene. And because she’s my childhood friend, I’m in that scene a bit too, part of the network. And what’s lovely about being on the island is the lack of TVs! We don’t have a TV, Sarah doesn’t have a TV, and people get together for music night quite regularly. When we’re up, there’s usually one happening somewhere, maybe on the tip of the island or somewhere. Everyone brings an instrument and it’s so spontaneous and life-affirming! I’ve always got a stupid smile, people connecting through something that’s maybe a wee bit more … internal? There’s something really nice about it.”

I’d not given this much thought before, but your fellow countryman, Mike Scott, also from Edinburgh, found his way back to more traditional folk on a commercal scale with The Waterboys on the west coast of Ireland rather than closer to home.

“Yeah, there’s a wee bit of that in my DNA, yet at the same time I’ve come out of the dance scene and have that sort of eclectic taste. I’m not on the trad scene at all, and I’ve not really got into that more pop side, like The Waterboys or whatever. They’re not in my record collection, but if it’s part of your country’s musical culture, it’s gonna be in there a bit.”

Among the many influences noted – including Karen Dalton, Gene Clark, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Nick Drake, and Brian Wilson – the afore-mentioned Andrew Weatherall, who died last February, proved pivotal, career-wise, producing One Dove from the first single in 1991, the resultant Morning Dove White LP truly launching Dot’s career (the similarly-influential Stephen Hague also involved).

As she put it, Andrew ‘championed, signed and mentored’ her, adding, ‘I hear his influence throughout all of my albums’. As it turned out, another good friend, revered singer Denise Johnson, best known for her work with Primal Scream and several Manchester acts – from A Certain Ratio and The Charlatans to Johnny Marr and New Order – who also worked with the influential remixer and producer, died the same year, both gone far too soon at the age of 56. Did Dot remain in touch over the years?

“To a degree. Everyone moved on with their own lives, but we were friends and colleagues, we did the One Dove album, and I’d see Andrew around, go to his (club) nights in East London, then when I recorded We Are Science, Andrew let me go into the room where he worked, allowed me to work with Keith Tenniswood for a few weeks. I’d see him every day then, which was really nice – in the lounge bit, this hive of activity. We’d have a cup of tea and a giggle while we were having lunch, then I’d be back in with Keith. So I felt like I’d touched base with him again in the ’00s.

“And I thanked him many, many times for the compilations he made me in the ‘90s. He probably gave me five or six cassettes, suggesting, ‘You should listen to this!’. Then in the ‘00s down at the Rotters Golf Club (Studios) he made me some CDs as well, putting songs on he thought I would like, and I’d always tell him I’d really, really appreciated that.

“Then in 2019 he was up in Edinburgh at Neu! Reekie! (a spoken-word, music and experimental film shindig) with Denise, so I met them both that year. I’d had a poem published in a book that Denise had too, and was backstage with Andy, Nina (Walsh) and Denise, with Denise and me chatting about our poems.

“Andrew was asking if I was making music, and I said, ‘Funnily enough, I am! I’ll send you something … and thank you again for those cassettes!’. But within a few months he was gone … and Denise, and I cannot get my head around that. Absolutely shocking, and devastating.”

And because of when it happened, in both cases, we were unable to properly mark those events publicly.   

“That’s right. There was going to be a memorial and that, but obviously that just couldn’t be.”

Talking to Brix Smith recently, there’s another artist who cites Andrew as a major inspiration in what she’s doing.

“Yeah, it was all that scene – she had her shop, Start, just around the corner from Rotters Golf Club, and I think Andrew’s wife worked with Brix.”

Well, Brix felt Andrew was one of the main reasons she had the confidence to get back out there as a musical artist again, through his encouragement and appreciation of her work with The Fall.

“Yes, and I actually saw The Fall in the ’80s, playing the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh in 1988. I went to see Michael Clark when I was 15 at the ballet and went to see him again with The Fall on the I Am Kurious Oranj tour. So yeah, I saw Brix sitting on a burger bun once! Ha! And I’ve a friend who played acid violin for The Fall as well.” 

Expect more on those stories when a Brix-curated appreciation of The Fall lands on bookshop shelves later this year, more about which you can learn via this website. Moving on, though, does Dot remain in touch with Ian Carmichael and Jim McKinven from One Dove?

“No, not really. There was a bit of acrimony. I personally haven’t fallen out with anyone, but I’m just backing away …”

Were you an Altered Images fan before you worked with Jim?

“Yes, I was, although that’s not why we worked together.”

There have been so many ’pinch me’ moments in your career, not least working with Scott Walker, Paul Weller, Kevin Shields, Massive Attack, and so on. Ever find yourself in a position where you’re wondering, ‘I’m living the life here!’?

“Definitely, I’ve always felt very … I guess gratitude. I appreciate the things that have happened. It’s been a privilege. And I wrote two songs with Hal David …”

That was someone else I was set to mention.

“Yeah, when I got that call, I was … ‘what the …!’. So there are those moments. And what’s not known is that Paul Weller asked me to write a song with him. He said, ‘I’m with Bobby Gillespie, he says you’re good, do you fancy writing a song together? He’s given me your number’. I was like, ‘What! Is this a wind-up?’. Then Pete Doherty also asked me to write with him. I did ask to write with Hal David though.”

On Heart-Shaped Scars, Dot talks about ‘love, loss and a universal longing for union that seems to go with the human condition’, telling us, ‘To me, music is a sort of tonic or an antidote to a kind of longing, for a while at least’. Will she try to catch us out with her next record, or does she feel she’s found her true path now?  

“I will remain … what’s the word … it’ll be an evolution again of some description, I reckon. I’ve got plans! Ha!”

To pre-order Dot Allison’s Heart-Shaped Scars, out on July 30th on SA Recordings, head here. And for details of Dot’s work and back-catalogue, check out her website.

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Understanding The Ache of Being – keeping the borders open with The Amber List

I wouldn’t recommend it in every interview situation, but seeing as this Surrey ex-pat was outnumbered three to one on this occasion by a Lancashire outfit priding itself on its ‘indie, folky alternative stuff’, I went on the attack (being the best form of defence perhaps) for my first question.

You do realise, I put to them, that I hold you responsible for live music being in a coma right now? The Amber List topped the bill at two of my most recent of 450-plus shows in 40 years, and I’ve not got to see any more these past 15 months.

Mick: “Ha! Blame The Amber List! Actually, someone asked on Twitter the other day if this was the first ever band named after a covid restriction.”

To which they replied, for the record, ‘Thanks for asking, we’ve been around a lot longer than Covid restrictions (plus you don’t have to isolate for two weeks after coming to one of our gigs)’.

That’s Mick Shepherd (vocals, guitar, bass) talking, joined on this occasion by Tim Kelly (guitar, vocals, bass) and Simon Dewhurst (drums, percussion, vocals). Alas, there was no Tony Cornwell (guitars, bass, atmospheres, vocals, racket) this time. I’ve yet to receive his note of absence.

In fact, The Amber List story goes back to Spring 2017. But I guess they’re getting plenty of social media traffic lately on account of the Government’s red, amber and green watchlist rules for entering England, amid ongoing pandemic restrictions.

Simon: “Yeah, but our Google search is not doing so well at the minute. We used to be the first on everything, and now …”

It’s been two years since the release of their debut physical release, five-track EP ‘The Ever Present Elephant’. Before that, there were several others via digital platforms. And now there’s an LP on its way, The Ache of Being … and after several listens (my advance copy has had lots of traction at mine and in my car so far, and is already among my favourite LPs of the year) I can confirm it’s definitely been worth the wait.

That said, with the Johnson/delta variant (you decide) still causing concern regionally and nationwide, it’s not cast in stone that the band’s July 24th official album launch event in Preston will happen.

Mick: “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. We’re just pleased it can still go ahead as things stand. When we’ve been able to, we’ve been getting together acoustically, and the last couple of weeks or so we’ve been able to get back in the studio and plug the guitars in, which has been great.

“We tried rehearsing this way (via online video conferencing), but it just didn’t work. We then started sending each other bits of track backwards and forwards, but we’re better in a room together. That’s one thing we’ve learned. Technology’s great, but that first rehearsal again together as a band, we thought, ‘God, we’ve missed this!’.

They originally planned on a vinyl release, but as they chiefly rely on selling those recordings at live shows, they decided on a CD instead, its sleeve artwork designed by Nick Rhodes (Arctic Monkeys, Elbow, Fleet Foxes, The National, Queens of the Stone Age, The Flaming Lips).

The Ache of Being is a cracking album with several standout tracks, the subject matter ranging from global issues to those closer to home, from the murder of Jo Cox to fracking and mental fragility and vulnerability. And their determination to seek out different sound textures and ‘find the right instrumentation for each piece, exploring harmonies and rhythms’ along the way pays dividends.

But what’s not changed is how they chiefly sound, a technically adept four-piece ‘high on melodies and harmonies against a backdrop of driving guitars and rhythms’, suggesting shades of so many bands I love – from early REM and The Stars of Heaven to The Deep Season, Gene, The La’s and Shack, with some corking fretwork en route, reminiscent in places of, for instance, The Blue Aeroplanes and West coast outfits (that’s California rather than Lancashire) like The Byrds and The Long Ryders, recorded, as was the previous EP, at producer John Kettle’s TMP Studios in Pemberton, Wigan.

Mick: “John’s really beginning to get an understanding of our sound and everything, and is hugely experienced and great to be around in the studio. He doesn’t sit back and agree everything’s great. He’ll tell us when it’s not! He’s really been instrumental in the production side of this.”

That followed initial recording sessions with Matt Pennington at Yaeger Studios in Chorley, where The Amber List currently rehearse, having been based on Aqueduct Street, Preston, when I first interviewed Mick in 2019.

Mick: “Matt’s really good to work with as well. They’ve got a good set-up there. Our first rehearsal space was a more dilapidated building in Chorley, not a million miles from where we are now. But we did a gig at Yaeger for Chorley Live, met Sophie (Yaeger) and Matt there and hit it off, starting rehearsing and recording there for the ‘Dreams and Ideas’ single (released January 2020).”

Simon: “They approached us after the gig, said they really liked what we did, having had lots of cover bands on otherwise, telling us they were building this studio and did we want to come in and record. And it was a win-win for both of us.”   

I know something of Mick’s background from our last interview, in August 2019 (linked here), including his formative days with John Peel session band Big Red Bus (also covered on this website by an interview with Costa Rica-based Dave Spence in September 2015, linked here), who put out releases through Preston’s Action Records label. But who or what are Longhatpins?

Tim: “Yeah, that’s me – a solo project.”

With such a long name I expected more members.

Tim: “That’s just a rumour. All identities are mine.”

Mick: “Tim is the Long, the Hat and the Pins!”

You two had known each other a long time, I gather.

Tim: “Our parents lived very close in Penwortham, and we got to know each other through local bands really, in that post-punk era.

Mick: “It was a burgeoning scene them days in Penwortham – it seemed everyone was in a band. We must have all gone to a Velvet Underground gig or something … probably a youth club gig!”

How did Simon get involved?

Simon: “Well, bizarrely … I was in Big Red Bus with Mick, back in the day. I was the reserve goalie! The second drummer. My loveable cousin, Scrub (Roland Jones) was the original drummer but had some commitment thing going on and knew I was drumming with bands in Preston, so (asked) would I like to move into (or get on to, more likely) Big Red Bus? I knew Mick – he was teaching at the college where I was a student. A young teacher, I should add! I was involved for a couple of years.”

Mick: “Simon had a baptism of fire with Big Red Bus. He joined and the first thing we did was go to France, wasn’t it?”

Simon: “No, the first gig – in 1991 – was supporting The Saw Doctors at the Town and Country Club (Kentish Town, North London, rebranded The Forum soon after) over two sold-out nights, with a 2,500 capacity … after four days of rehearsals!”

Ah, there was a band with a committed following of homesick, ex-pat Irish fans. I recall the first time I saw them at the Fleadh in North London in June ’92, wondering if my mate and I were the only ones who didn’t know every line of every song.

Simon: “I also played the same venue about 15 years after in a band from London. Can’t remember who we supported now.”

Who was that band?

Simon: “Well, we got signed through one of these weird pre-production contracts, around the same time as Coldplay and Turin Brakes. All that was happening. It was good, but we never really made it out of the studio. We did two albums’ worth of material, and none of it saw the light of day. We got passed from one production company to another. We went to Island Records, they sold us to Atlantic … then it all fell apart. It was a horrible rock’n’roll story, very depressing at the time.”

You seem to have amassed a few similar ‘almost made it’ between you. Big Red Bus certainly had brushes with fame, stuck in the wings while bands they appeared on the same bills together – most notably The Stone Roses and The Boo Radleys (also signed to Action Records) – found fame. A case of always the bridesmaid …

Mick: “There was The Real People too. They were great. And The Saw Doctors were also a great bunch – good to hang around with. Anyway, after Simon’s first nights supporting them, we were off to Norway!”

Simon: “It was good fun. I was straight into it. I don’t know why Scrub decided not to go at the time. They were just riding the waves at that point.”

Tim: “And then, nearly 30 years later, history repeated itself!”

Simon: “Yeah, he phoned me up while I was at work, said, ‘Do you remember this conversation we had about 20 or so years ago, about me thinking of leaving a band? I’m thinking of doing it again’. It was exactly the same!”

Has this band provided you all with a new Iggy-like lust for life, or Tim Hardin-esque reason to believe? It certainly seems like you’re fired up, judging by this LP. And even on songs where it seems one of you wrote the song initially, I get the feeling you’re all very much involved – they’re true group compositions. You seem a proper band in that sense.

Tim: “Yeah, there’s very few that don’t become band collaborations.”

Mick: “Yeah, they definitely go through the mangle. Tim’s absolutely right. One of us will come up with an idea, and it then gets The Amber List treatment. And I’m really pleased you say it sounds like a proper band – that’s exactly what we want.”

Tim: “Better than a fake band!”

Mick: “And we’re doing it for the love of the music. There’s no pretence. We’ve been around long enough to get past all the fads and fashions in music. It’s beyond all that. It’s about creating something that’s lasting … and good.”

Simon: “I think the beauty is that we’ve all dabbled and been there before. We’re a bit more ‘eyes open’. When I joined, we sat down and discussed our aims and what we were trying to do with this. And we all came with the same viewpoint. We weren’t looking to get signed or become the biggest band in the world. It was always about the music and the songs, communicating that.”

At the same time, I get the impression that perceived lack of big-time ambition doesn’t mean for one minute you’d ever be happy just playing the pub circuit. I could never see you just doing covers.

Tim: “Oddly, that’s what people seem to want though. They want the familiar … or the appearance of the familiar. I remember an early pub gig in Chorley, a guy in front screaming, ‘Play something we know!’”

You’re not averse to the odd cover, mind. I remember a cracking take on Echo & the Bunnymen’s ‘Seven Seas’ when I saw you at The Venue in Penwortham at Christmas 2019.

Mick: “Yeah, we did a Buzzcocks cover too, as Pete Shelley had just died – our little tribute, and did a radio session in the Lakes where they asked us to do a cover, and we did ‘Seven Seas’.”

Yet you made both of those sound like your own songs.

Mick: “And to be honest, we’re not short of songs. I think we’ve at least another album tucked away already. We’re prolific, and because we all write and bring ideas down to work on, it’s been a joy to get back together working, realising how important it is to us. 

“Also though, there’s a frustration there. We’ve an album to promote, which is great, but at the same time we want to get back in the recording studio, work on the next one.”

I get that. Has it been more about individual songs than group collaborations this time for that reason?

Tim: “It’s had to be, hasn’t it, with practises really sporadic, having to use the time we had to practise songs off the album rather than work on new material. But that’s fair enough – it’s all on the back-burner, waiting.”

Simon: “It’s all waiting in the wings for when we can get back in, play live again, get collaborating again. Someone asked today, about being in a band, do I write the songs. I said, ‘I’m in a band with three fantastic songwriters. I contribute – I don’t write the songs. Having four fantastic songwriters in a band is not going to happen – three’s plenty!” 

It may have worked well for you, as things stand, the LP launch happening barely a few days after the (delayed) proposed easing of social restrictions.

Mick: “It has worked out well for us. We’re looking forward to playing to people who know us, but it could also be an opportunity for those who just want to get out and see live music.”

Maybe even that fella in Chorley who wanted you to ‘play something we know’ will show up.

Mick: “And we’ll say, ‘What – off the EP?’” 

Initially, we were told, with regard to The Amber List, ‘file under post-Brexit urban folk indie blues, brought to you from the melting pot of the North West with an average age above most England cricket scores’. Is that still the case? Or have you moved on from there?

Tim: “Well … the scores have!”

Simon: “I was just going to say, the age has gone up!”

So you’re now out-performing England’s cricket team?

Tim: “Oh, aye!”

Mick: “Joking aside, the songs are about society and what’s happening out there, and if you like your folk – which me and Tim certainly do – a lot of those artists write about the here and now, and that for us is what The Ache of Being is all about. There are songs on there about Jo Cox, fracking and other things that have affected us all in recent times.”  

Tim: “And interestingly, we were actually post-Brexit, pre-Brexit, weren’t we?”

Mick: “Yes! We could change that to ‘post-lockdown urban folk indie blues’ now!”

With all the uncertainty at present, there are only a few dates in the diary at present, the LP launch set to be followed by a show at The Doghouse Music Bar in Ramsbottom (Friday, July 30th). There’s also a return to The Venue in Penwortham lined up in September, with plans for a few acoustic dates too, the band eager to get going again.

Mick: “We’re delighted at the prospect of getting back out there, playing again. And even just rehearsing again is a delight, getting together in a room and making some noise!”

The Amber List’s The Ache of Being LP launch show – pandemic surges dependent – takes place at The Boatyard venue at The Continental, Preston, Lancashire, on Saturday July 24th (doors 8pm), with tickets available via here. And for more details about the band, their physical and digital releases, and other live shows, head here and check out the band’s Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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On the frontline, embracing the future – putting the world to rights with John Robb

Waiting Room: Pete Byrchmore, Rob Haynes, John Robb and Nick Brown in the wings for their next date

Music writer, Louder Than War founder, Membranes/Goldblade bass player/vocalist and eco campaigner John Robb was on his bike when I called, dismounting to answer his phone, the two of us quickly getting on to the Government postponing its so-called ‘Freedom Day’, pushed back for an estimated month.

Born in Fleetwood and growing up in Anchorsholme – four miles from Blackpool Tower – John left for Manchester almost four decades ago, but retains a love for his old stomping ground. And as a lad who thrilled to the platform-booted thump of glam rock long before being seduced by punk rock, that’s an apt description.

Speaking to so many artists involved in and around the music business and its fringes these last 18 months, it’s fair to say the arrival of COVID 19 on these shores has affected and impacted upon us all in various ways. Appalling losses and physical and mental health impacts aside, for many music acts it’s also meant postponement upon postponement of pencilled-in live dates. But that’s not quite been the case for post-punk survivors The Membranes, out of action since an early February 2020 live outing in Thessaloniki, Greece.

“It’s difficult, isn’t it. I know everyone wants to do it, but it’s about doing it a way that works properly. Everybody seems to have views on it, but most people don’t really know what they’re talking about, do they!”

True. It seems to me that there are considerably more expert virologists out there than I ever realised, judging by all those detailed posts on social media in recent months.

“Yes, and as for the real ones, everyone seems to think they’re really miserable … but they’re not there to entertain us. They’re scientists, not showbiz people.”

Have you had to re-arrange any live shows or events so far? Or were you purposefully sat back waiting for when the time was right and it’s deemed safer to return to the road?

“Yeah, there have been a lot of festivals shifting, and some have been moved back a year. We did have a 20-date tour lined up. But everything’s more or less kicked into next year, apart from a few club dates, hopefully, for the autumn, and a few festivals from autumn onwards. We still don’t know 100 per cent though.

“There were a few festivals organised recently in Spain and Holland, and that seemed to work, but now there’s this variant, way more infectious but not seeming to put so many people in hospital … yet. Trouble is, we don’t really know for three weeks the long-term effects.

“It looks like two jabs will hold the line, but would you want to be the person who says, ‘OK, fuck all that, I’m going to open up my venue tomorrow!’, then four weeks later everybody’s really ill and it’s your fault?

“The buck doesn’t seem to stop with anybody either. It doesn’t stop with anyone on Twitter, that’s for sure. Ha! Remember all the 5G stuff at the beginning? When even those people realised that was a load of bollocks, they didn’t say, ‘Sorry, I made a mistake there’, they just moved on to another thing. But that’s very ‘now’, having that absolute certainty about stuff you know nothing about.”

When I called John, my daughters had just received their first vaccines, the optimist in me liking to think we were all a little closer to finally being able to fight this deadly virus off.

“Yeah, with everyone over 18 able to get a jab now, that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it. God bless the NHS!”

Indeed, and rather that than anyone else riding on their coat-tails with regard to claiming that success.

“Yes, anyone else who’d like to take the credit … yet deflects all the blame for letting this latest variant into the country, even though they managed to win an election by promising to shut down the borders … which they then left wide open – closing the borders to Pakistan and Bangladesh but -while they’re trying to do a trade deal with India – leaving that one wide open.”

In the midst of all that, have you managed – with the distraction of your website interests and various other projects on the go – to get a few rehearsals in with The Membranes?

“No! I’ve not seen them since our last gig in Greece, about a week before the first lockdown. We knew it was coming. Others were saying, ‘It’s not going to happen’, but I do have the advantage of being good friends with Chris Whitty, because my brother’s a virologist, so I got the inside track.

“Even in 2019 we could see this coming. I don’t know why, but I was looking up online about three in the morning what’s going on, seeing early headlines about a strange disease in Wuhan. Even someone like me – a bit of a fact obsessive – I’d never heard of Wuhan. It looked like the SARS thing again, and hopefully it could be contained, but … you could see it was coming.

“When Andy Gill from Gang of Four died in February 2020, he’d just been on tour in China. Even then I was wondering if he’d caught it. You could also see the arrogance of the West – ‘Nothing’s going to affect us’ – living in this bubble, especially in the Trump-Johnson era. We’re super-beings and all that, yet we got flattened by a tiny strand of RNA, the smallest lifeform you could possibly call life. Ha!”

John, who turned 60 two months ago, formed the first line-up of The Membranes at 16 while at Blackpool Sixth Form College in 1977. But understandably they’ve been a little quiet of late, and it’s been two years since the release of rightly-lauded Membranes double album, What Nature Gives … Nature Takes Away. That said, it’s a record I still play fairly regularly, I tell him.

“Thanks! It’s hard when you don’t fit in anywhere! We don’t even fit into the underground. Ha! We sound too ambitious!” 

Do you talk fairly regularly with your bandmates? Dare I ask if you’ve all embraced video conferencing calls?

“I’ve done some songs with Pete (Byrchmore, guitar). We send bits and bobs backwards and forwards. I’ve done projects with other people too, but … I’m in an older band, I’m quite techy but some of the band don’t even have mobile phones with anything other than a phone on it.

“It’s only Pete who knows how to work GarageBand. But I find that (program) kind of changes the way you write. Is the only way to create music for a load of people to stand in a room and play full blast at each other until you all sort of half-agree the best way to do it? Why not write the way a composer would? You hear it in your head and keep adding layers.

“The whole thing really freed me up – I got on with loads of other stuff. If you’re creative, you don’t stop being creative. It takes you into other places. If you’re touring a lot, you tend to spend most of the time looking for vans and van drivers. It’s so mundane. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s illusions, but it’s not like you heard it was with Led Zeppelin!  

“And I’ve got this other thing I launched last week, the Green Britain Academy, helping support the creation of 700,000 new UK jobs by 2030, creating apprenticeships. Because hopefully this last year has been a wake-up call, and this is about being optimistic for the future.

“I wrote a book, Manifesto with Dale Vince (Green Britain Academy co-founder/Ecotricity green energy pioneer and the owner of Gloucestershire’s League Two outfit Forest Green Rovers FC). He’s a really interesting guy, we get on well, and we’ve come up with this idea of green populism. Lots of people sneer at populism, but shouldn’t all these ideas be for everybody? It shouldn’t just be about right-wing demagogues. Why don’t we put the good ideas out there?

“The idea is to train people up to help drive all this, creating jobs, not least in places like Stoke-on-Trent, where the industries have gone. Rather than being trapped in the past, we go into a different future. People like Boris Johnson, with the best education in the world, haven’t a clue what they’re doing. But a kid selling drugs on a council estate in Hull probably has one of the greatest business minds in Britain – running a business empire with a mobile phone when you can be shopped for doing it. So why can’t we get that kid not just working but running a business instead? And if you can create apprenticeships that can get people jobs that are useful for the 21st century … that’s the thinking behind it.”

I admire John’s enthusiasm and optimism for a better future, citing back at him the example of how such great advances as the creation of the NHS and Welfare State came out of the rock bottom we found ourselves in during and in the aftermath of the Second World War. That was a period where it was proved that a ground zero approach can often help people sweep the old malaise away and start again on a positive footing. And that took us on to my interviewee talking about his father, one of those keen to replace Winston Churchill from office once the ‘39/’45 war was over, leading to a Labour Party landslide and a new way of tackling life.

“My Dad was in the RAF in the War, and apparently when Churchill came on the radio, he’d switch him off. Yet that’s not quite the story you get on the news these days.”

John’s father was UK-based during the war, training pilots – including Polish and Czech fliers – when he was barely 20, as well as ‘flying alongside V2s, clipping them with his wings to knock them off balance, so they’d crash before they reached the cities’.

“He took down 12, but he didn’t tell us any of that. I found out via the internet. He flew in three different squadrons. He was also in Iceland for a while, training pilots. John’s father was from Poplar in the East End of London, moving to Blackpool to work at ICI. But you could never tell by his accent he was from the East End. Probably the RAF changed that!”

There’s the beauty of a chat with John. One moment we’re on Brexit Britain and the coronavirus pandemic, the next we’re talking green politics, and before you know it, we’re on to V2s. But a little like those heroic RAF fighters, I need to nudge him now and again, albeit in this case to get us back on track rather than knock him off it. And soon we were talking about a recent Record Store Day re-release of The Membranes’ 1988 LP, Kiss Ass … Godhead!, the LP that included his love letter to his Fylde coast roots, ‘Tatty Seaside Town’. Is it right that was Steve Albini’s first studio engineering role outside Big Black?

“It was, other than Urge Overkill, him having shared a flat with the guy from that band. But even before, in 1985 Albini came to the UK on holiday and was trying to get hold of me, wanting me to release the first Big Black record. He was a massive Membranes fan, and always said we were an influence. Not as if anyone believed us – they thought we sounded like them. But just look at the dates on the backs of the records – we sounded like that before he even made a record!

“But of course, coming from Blackpool, it’d be, ‘How could you possibly stumble on anything original when you come from a candy floss town?’. Section 25 had the same problem. They were an amazing band. Their first album was equal to Joy Division, but because they were from Blackpool and Joy Division were from Manchester … there’s no contest! Ian Curtis loved Section 25 though. He was up at their house every week. Again, that’s history though – whoever tells the story …”

At that point, we segued off to talk about The Fall, but you’ll have to wait to see that when my latest book project goes to publication. I’ll carry on instead on the subject of The Membranes again, and the prospect of the band working on new songs.

“Yeah, I don’t think that ever goes away, does it. If you were never in a band ever again, you’d still think of tunes, and pick up a guitar. I wrote three things last night. Whether you ever use them or not … If we get back to rehearsing, we could be recording them in a month or so, but we still don’t know what’s going to happen. Even those festivals in the autumn, you think, ‘Will that happen?’.

“I’ve been to a few socially-distanced gigs, but we can’t sell merch at them because of the interaction. I went to see Squid recently (at Manchester’s Stoller Hall), and they were fantastic. It was in a lecture theatre, everyone five feet apart, but still felt great. And they played it like it was the most intense gig ever. It didn’t affect the way they performed, and it transported you into another place, which is what live music should always do. Unfortunately though, you couldn’t properly go and say hello to people at the end, because we’re in this pandemic situation.”

Not being rude, but last time I saw The Membranes, at The Continental in Preston, you were inviting the audience to move forward a bit as it wasn’t as full as it should have been. Perhaps you had too many shows too close to each other around then, punters picking and choosing which to attend. It just made it all the more special though from a fan’s perspective – all the more intimate as a live experience.

“Well, wasn’t that the joke, when they said gigs will all be socially distanced? Most bands I know were saying, ‘That’s actually more people than normal’. Ha! I don’t think anybody gets 500-plus at a gig unless they’ve had a hit record.”

Then again, those are the kind of shows we remember more than any others – for instance, when a band are on their way up and you’ve caught them at a small venue.

“Yeah, but it’s not like that was the plan. And if you’re making music that doesn’t really fit in anywhere, or you’re not part of a scene, people will have to come and find you. It’s difficult to get to that next level – finding that crossover point without ruining your music. There are so many bands that exist in that very small space. But you can just about get by from one record to the next.”

That said, and I say this time and again to interviewees, the fact that you’re not chasing hits suggests you’re playing now because you want to play and because you love it. You’re not about stardom.

“Well, that would be pointless now. The top-30 is a completely different kind of music … which is how it should be. It shouldn’t be full of 60-year-olds playing guitars! A lot of people of my age will say, ‘The charts are terrible nowadays, I don’t understand them’. But we’re not meant to understand them! Music moves on. Only the album charts tend to have a few more oldies in there.

“That’s the model for most bands – if you’ve had a few hits, you can keep that going. It’s a fairly comfortable existence. Not many people buy your new record, but it keeps you happy, because you’re still creating. Some of those probably only sell as many albums as us, but their hits from 40 years ago or whatever will sell gigs out … which is great. Maybe they’ve got somebody else to hire the van. Ha!”

True, and then you get a band like The Nightingales, probably bigger now than they’ve ever been after Stewart Lee’s recent film project with Robert Lloyd. Surely that provides added hope for you all.

“Yes, they’ve probably got to that level now where all the gigs they’re playing, they can just about sell them out. But how do you get to the next bit? It’s still the same venues.”

The date on your list I’m hoping definitely happens is at the Deaf Institute, Manchester in November, when you have a support band who really impressed last time I saw them – Girls in Synthesis, who played a stonking show at The Ferret in Preston in late 2018. Despite there being less than 100 there that night, they played a blinder, proving so intense. Live footage I’ve seen elsewhere suggests that was no one-off, either.

“They’re a brilliant band, aren’t they! A great sound, and a great intensity to what they’re doing. I’ve seen them a few times. That’ll be a really good night. I think we’ve got maybe four proper gigs up to Christmas, with the rest all festivals, although those are more likely to go ahead. But that situation could all change again in a few weeks. It’s not a very good position at the moment – Manchester’s overtaken Bolton now.

“But when the weather’s alright, you can sit outside. It looks like it’ll be grotty again next week. But you can just get the winter coats back out! I actually have one now. I didn’t want to stay in all winter – I’d rather sit in the park, shivering in a couple of winter coats making phone calls, until I can’t bear it anymore and have to go back in again! Manchester’s been in lockdown or tier three for so long, but when you speak to people they say, ‘Why don’t you just go into a café?’ Because they’re shut, aren’t they! Not like in London! Ha!”

He’s off again, that signature laugh very much in evidence, as anyone who knows John will appreicate. Has there been anything he’s ended up doing these past 18 months, work-wise, that he wouldn’t have even contemplated before, or appreciated as much as he has? Us creatives tend to think outside the box more, but I’ve found that – for example – many who tend to commute for an hour each way to and from work each day are finally questioning why they would do that.

“That side didn’t really affect me. I’ve always worked from home or from cafes. It’s just doing all the other stuff outside music, and that’s really started taking off – like writing books. I wrote a novel, which hasn’t been published yet, and I wrote a book about the history of goth music, which is in edit at the moment, and I’ve an agent now and he’s trying to get my autobiography and memoirs. I’m writing that at the moment to get it to a publisher. And there are a couple of film projects I’m talking to people about. There’s load of stuff going on. I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been this last 18 months. The band was – in a weird way – a distraction from everything else I could possibly do.”

A true innovator, ‘born in the ‘60s, forged in the ‘70s, on the frontline since the ‘90s, embracing the future in the 21st century’, John dipped his toes into music writing on the Fylde coast in Blackpool with his Rox fanzine, which went on to be nationally distributed. He carried on to ZigZag magazine in the early ‘80s, soon regularly contributing to music papers Sounds and Melody Maker – where this scribe started to recognise the nameand for the last decade has fronted independent online rock and pop culture magazine/blog Louder Than War, also a nationally-distributed magazine since 2016.

Regularly spotted on the small screen, he also contributes copy for several national broadsheets, websites and magazines. And then there are his books, including a biography of The Stone Roses translated into several different languages; Death to Trad Rock, an account of the 1980s UK DIY underground; and The North Will Rise Again – Manchester Music City 1976/96, an oral history of Manchester music.

How has Louder Than War been affected by the pandemic? Do you have paid staff?

“Well, everybody volunteers. We don’t make any money. But we’ve subscriptions now, so maybe we’re able to get a bit of money to pay the staff. I don’t want to get paid, but if we do, I want them to get paid first, and me last. This was a site built around live reviews, and right now of course there are hardly any live gigs! But there’s been a lot of great music coming out. This has been one of the greatest years for music, ever. Some of the things that have been No.1, it’s been insane, like Mogwai (As the Love Continues going straight in at the top in early March). It’s been an interesting period.”

There’s also a new publication with my interviewee himself as its prime focus, Iman Kakai-Lazell’s splendid John Robb: Confessions art book described as a ‘collection of works that push the boundaries of what we consider as a book’, the North Lancashire-based artist behind it looking to ‘create a voyage of deconstruction and reconstruction of photos, lyrics and nostalgia’, adding her unique interpretation along the way, to great effect.

While far from a wordy memoir (of sorts), it somehow manages to deliver an intimate portrait of its subject, leading us from John’s family roots and defining childhood through to today’s more  philosophical post-punk rocker giving us plenty of insight en route into what makes him tick and generally where he’s at.

Aristotle’s ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’ assertion springs to mind, the JR portrayed somewhat obsessed by science and nature from the start, gathering information from an early age, as reflected in the fella we know today. Here’s a bright kid happy in his own company (‘I still felt like that when I was a punk’), soon feeling more of an outsider, lost in wonder ‘looking at ants and worms and blades of grass or the clouds tumbling across the sky, lost in endless thought … (and) … the spell of concentration’.

The successful 1969 Apollo 11 programme provided an early pivotal moment, told with period humour as he reveals, ‘I’m not sure what was more amazing – the moon landing or the TV being on after 11 o’clock’. And overall it’s a revealing graphic tale of sorts about a boy living by the sea (where ’suburbia suddenly stopped’), reading in secrecy until 4am, glimpses of home life occasionally thrown in, not least his relationship with his folks (characterised notably by a mother and grandmother’s enduring love, a father’s high-bar expectations for his children, and his grandfather’s mesmeric storytelling, with added nuggets drawn from John’s later forays into family history).

Then there are rites of passage such as first love and playground conflict, and a picture that emerges of his values through the interviewees and heroes he cites, from pioneering UK astronomer Patrick Moore to US particle physicist Joe Incandela (‘He unravelled the universe in 30 minutes’), via Mick Jones, Poly Styrene, ‘High Priestess of Punk’ Jordan, and Wilko Johnson.

Along the way, we see first dabblings in writing through Rox, John’s head-first leap into glam then punk, talk of his prototype elastic band-driven cigar-box guitar – his grandfather teaching him first chords on banjo – and an ongoing love for live music, individual takes on fashion, and his ‘biggest achievement to date – being vegan for the animals’. And in a further revelatory moment, he tells us, ‘All art and music is an attempt to escape the grinding of real life, surely!”.  

When we spoke, I’d yet to see Confessions, but he was buzzing about it, telling me it had already sold around two-thirds of its print run and talking about its creator … before one more trademark JR tangent.

“It’s from a brilliant artist based up in Arnside. She’s done a book about The Chameleons’ Mark Burgess too. She’s a photographer with this great collage style. I went up there the other week to sign 500 books – sat in this garden for a really nice couple of days.

“If you follow the promenade all the way round from Blackpool, pass Morecambe and head around the corner there … it’s very Lancashire, although not anymore. But I still follow the proper old boundaries of Lancashire, including Barrow and Ulverston. If it’s Morecambe Bay, it’s Lancashire! And it’s super-nice there.”

It is indeed, somewhere I’ve visited on and off over the last 30-plus years, before and since my move up north. But that’s another story, and with that I let this unpaid North West Tourist Board publicist get back on his bike and cycle off to his next engagement, this post-punk (louder than) warlord still with more energy and passion than most people half or even a third of his age. And long may that continue.

For a link to the last WriteWyattUK feature/interview with John Robb, from June 2019, head here. And for the first, from December 2016, head here.

For details of music releases from The Membranes, live dates – including that Deaf Institute date with Girls in Synthesis set for Saturday, November 20th – and merchandise, including signed copies of John’s books, head to You can also check out Louder Than War here.

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Life after lockdowns – talking The Lovely Eggs with Holly Ross

Eggy Pop: The Lovely Eggs’ David Blackwell and Holly Ross, dealing with whatever life throws at them

Just as The Lovely Eggs were set to release landmark sixth album, I Am Moron, in early 2020, came national realisation that we were headed for a pandemic.

The Lancaster-based psychedelic punk duo – Holly Ross (voice/guitar) and David Blackwell (drums) – ploughed on all the same, the LP coming out to critical acclaim, declared ‘album of the day’ by BBC 6 Music, ‘album of the month’ by Classic Rock, ‘a triumph’ by The Sunday Times, ‘much cleverer than it would have you believe’ by The Telegraph, ‘an act of fine calibration of noise and sweetness’ by Q, and ‘packed with observations of modern culture and the utter madness of the current world’ by the Sunday Mirror

While they quickly topped the indie chart, plans to tour the record far and wide were well and truly scuppered. At first, those shows were rescheduled for two months later, but Holly was soon forced to cross those dates out and come up with more, that schedule changing five more times after that, most recently last week.

All these months on, they’re yet to play I Am Moron live. But every cloud and all that, the band having made a new fan along the way in Iggy Pop, regularly playing The Lovely Eggs on his BBC 6 Music show. And now the band are releasing a collaboration with the Godfather of Punk, their new single, ‘I, Moron’.

Released on July 9th via their Egg Records label, I’d venture to say that until you’ve heard Iggy say the word ‘moron’ over and over on top of the track, you haven’t lived. And he’s clearly on the same wavelength. In fact, as Holly put it, “He just got it. We are all morons. In a world of moronic things. In a world of moronic ideas. You are moron. I am moron. We are moron.”

As I told Holly when she picked up the phone, I’ve been thrilling to the sound of the new single since first hearing an advance copy, and – let’s face it – you can’t beat a bit of Iggy and the Eggs in your ears. Incidentally though, where exactly had I got through to her that morning?

“Well, we’re in our secret studio at the moment, up to no good as usual.”

Is this because of ongoing problems I’ve read about regarding the pair’s established Lancaster Musicians’ Co-Operative premises in her home city?

“Yeah, we’re part of the Music Co-Op and usually practise there, but unfortunately the council has been extremely slow in doing repairs to the building, which they promised us three years ago.”

Last time we spoke – in early 2018 (with a link here) – you were already talking about that. Are you no further advanced?

“Yeah, it’s a bit insane really, and we’re still trying to get that through, and still haven’t got a long-term lease on the building, which again they promised us. So basically, we had to move out as the building is so grotty. We shut down during Covid, and couldn’t reopen again because it’s in such a bad state.

“But me and David started digging and we’ve got our own secret bunker now, which we operate from. That’s our HQ, where we hatch all our evil plans.”

Is it located somewhere deep beneath the River Lune?

“I couldn’t possibly tell you … or I’d have to kill you, I’m afraid. But it’s a mad psychedelic place … just as we like it.”

Last time we spoke, you were talking about your own ‘alternative reality’. I imagine that’s served you well, the way things have gone ever since.

“It kind of has, but I think you need something to brush up against – you need normal life to be going on to create your own alternative to normal life. And if normal life isn’t going on, it is a bit weird. It’s a bit weird for us, and I think everyone’s kind of realised how much they need other people.

“We were going on about moving to Mars, shit like that, and how we don’t give a shit about anyone – ‘Let’s just move off this planet, it’s absolutely fucked!’. But actually, this is a bit mad, not being able to see people. And we don’t like it.”

If you’re familiar with the past works of The Lovely Eggs – and let’s face it, you ought to be by now – there’s no way you could have read that last sentence without hearing Holly’s delivery. In fact, it was the fantastic ‘Don’t Look at Me (I Don’t Like It)’, with John Shuttleworth guesting on the promo video, that first made me sit up and take notice. And somehow it’s been a decade since that came out now.

Anyway, I get what you mean, Holly. There you both are in Lancaster, your ‘Twin Peaks of Northern England’, always having craved the chance to at least share your experiences with the like-minded in pubs, clubs and music venues. But that’s can’t quite happen on the scale we’ve become accustomed to … yet. Has this past year put a strain on you in ways you might not have expected it would?

“Well, I think one of the important things at the core of The Lovely Eggs’ ethos is just riding with whatever shit is thrown at you. And we’re quite used to surfing that wave. Whatever it’s been in the past – whether our van’s broken down and we can’t make a gig, we’re stranded or whatever happens, good or bad – we just ride that wave. That’s what we choose to do.

“We haven’t been able to gig for over a year, and at first it was pretty shocking when we had to cancel our tour. We never cancel gigs – if we say we’ll do it, we will. We’ll not let you down. But once we got used to the idea it’s not going to happen, we realised we just had to go with it, and that’s what we’ve done.

“We’ve just been up to no good doing other stuff these last 12 months … like making a single with Iggy Pop. Stuff like that.”

There’s a smile on her face as she adds that, I can tell. But we’ll get on to that pinch-me collaboration in a bit. First, I gather a fair bit of lockdown time was also spent making ‘claymation’ models, leading to the splendid DIY promo video for LP opener, ‘Long Stem Carnations’ (inspired by the space programme aiming to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars, drawing parallels between that mission and the band’s own isolation and what they call ‘a funeral march for society’s outcasts and freaks … an existential voyage in cosmic form’). 

“Well, I think it’s always good in hindsight to say that was great, but at the time … It’s hard, because we’re doing everything ourselves. So to embark on making a stop-frame animation video which in our heads is gonna look like Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’ video, but the actual end-result is a very twisted, warped, tongue-in-cheek version of that … But it’s always good fun. It’s the process, innit!”

Well, some people made a big deal about learning how to make banana bread during lockdowns, so I think you win hands down there, making claymation promo videos instead.

“Yeah, we didn’t do anything as banal as that! We just kind of got our head into art and making stuff. And for The Lovely Eggs, it’s never just purely the music anyway. We always take great pride in getting the art right. All our album covers are thought out, and it represents how we want it to look.  It’s the same with music videos and our merchandise – t-shirts and everything – is all thought out from an art perspective. So it’s great for us to be able to concentrate on that side of the band.”

Casey Raymond comes into that, the new single the latest to include his artwork – featuring a three-headed Iggy/Eggy beast, with an initial pressing of 1,000 yellow vinyl 7”s.

“That’s it, yeah. He’s our little mate. He’s our collaborator and partner-in-crime.”

Do you tend to think, ‘That’s it – he’s nailed it; that’s what we were thinking of!’?

“He never disappoints us. It’s never exactly what we’ve got in our heads, but it’s never exactly what he’s got in his head either! That’s the beauty and magic of the creative process – it is what it is. But we’re definitely on the same wavelength as him. And it’s great working with like-minded people.”

Holly and David have their young son to think about as well. Did this last 18 months involve a little home schooling between recording sessions and juggling everything else?

“Yeah, we had to do the whole home-schooling thing. But you just have to get on with it. Again, we’re quite flexible, quite adaptable. That’s how we’ve evolved as a band. We’ve had to be. Two piss-head partygoers, literally driven by punk rock touring, seeing the world and meeting new people, then having a baby? You’ve got to be extremely flexible – adaptable to any situation.

“That’s what happened with us in lockdown, and that’s what’s happened with us in home-schooling. It can be frustrating when you think. ‘We should be filming a music video today,’ but you can’t, because you’ve got to teach maths. You just suck it up and get on with it.”

As for their collaboration with stalwart punk rock idol and esteemed latter-day broadcaster Iggy Pop, when the single comes out, it should be heading straight to No.1 … at least in an ideal world. And for me it’s a song that seems to sum up the spirit of Kraftwerk, Devo, Can, and The Stooges, all in barely three minutes. You must be doing something right.

“Oh, great! All great bands that we love, so that’s nice to hear.”

As for the B-side …. and that’s the term I’ll use …

“Well, it’s true! It is a B-side. It’s on the B-side of our record. We actually release records outside of Record Store Day!”

Quite right too. And you’ve always been about vinyl, haven’t you?

“We have!”

Well, I was inspired to go back to Iggy’s seminal 1977 LP The Idiot after hearing their take on ‘Dum Dum Boys’, from an album I understand David had on cassette, one of the first records he got really into and then, in recent periods of lockdown restrictions and the like, again struck a chord, ‘kind of missing the old days and the old gang we used to hang out with’.

Regarding their version, if a track was ever ripe for a dancefloor hit mashed up with Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’, there it is. It’s just a shame the clubs aren’t open yet.

“I know, but they’re going to be soon, yeah?”

Speaking of the passage of time, I bet it seems a lifetime ago that this LP came out, let alone the previous one.

“It does! And we don’t quite feel ready to move on yet with the whole creative process. We’re kind of ready-ish to write and record a new album, in September, but feel this one’s not over until we’ve played it live. That’s why I was on a mission yesterday to re-book a whole tour – for the seventh time – in less than 24 hours.”

Am I right in thinking the sold-out Gorilla show in Manchester on July 23rd, set to be the ninth date of the tour, will now be the first, following the four-week Government delay to their so-called ‘Freedom Day’ plans?

“It will be, yeah! We were just unlucky we were the wrong side of that date.”

But first, we have the new single. Remind me how it all came about with Iggy. He’s been playing The Lovely Eggs for some time, hasn’t he?

“Yeah, quite a while, which we’re still astounded by, and very much thrilled by. He’s a big hero of ours and of everyone for what he represents with his punk rock, couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude, and the fact he’s still doing it in his 70s. He’s just inspirational.

“So yeah, for him to agree to work with us … we’re very grounded and very normal, we live up in Lancaster still … you know, it just feels a bit surreal to work with someone who has this rock star stature. But to collaborate with him is great.”

I was going to say – and you’ve just used the word – ‘surreal’ seems to pop up a lot in Lovely Eggs interviews, including our last one. But Iggy’s support of the band and ultimate collaboration must have provided a real shock factor moment.

“Yeah. You kind of struggle to think of other people or weird things that could happen or top it. I’m struggling to think of a scenario that would. Having said that, we’re always up for weird situations and will always throw ourselves at the mercy of odd things, weird stuff and surreal situations. So it’s not over for us yet – we’re totally willing to do more surreal, odd stuff with people. It is pretty mind-blowing though!”

These last few years, watching news programme, I keep hearing ‘unprecedented’ being used. But ‘surreal’ remains the right term for your world. And hopefully surrealism will help pull us through.

“Yeah, it’s really important to us, surrealism, because the world is so … it’s almost that the real normal world is madder, more odd, more ridiculous than ours could ever be!

“If you take that seriously or follow that, that’s quite frightening. So we prefer to live in our own mad world, where things are a bit odd and weird, because we find that the real world is far more weird!”

You mentioned new songs set to be recorded in September. While you were making claymation promo videos, the prolific Paul Weller probably wrote another three albums. I’m guessing you’ve got new songs and riffs ready to go though.

“Well no, we haven’t! Paul Weller probably has the luxury of not having to look after his kids or home-school his kids, doesn’t have to make his own music videos, and doesn’t have to do his own tour booking. Not that I’m complaining about any of that – we love that element of independence we’ve got.

“What we’ve done though is block time off in September to start thinking about a new album writing process. But at the moment, in The Lovely Eggs’ world, it’s very chaotic, very much about fighting fires. We booked a UK summer tour yesterday, we’ve got the new single to concentrate on, and we’ve been sending out hundreds of t-shirts from our website.

“Basically, we can only concentrate on the matter in hand! We will be writing new songs, but that won’t be until autumn. We’ll carry on fighting fires!”

Do you think Dave Fridmann will be involved next time (the last two LPs recorded by The Lovely Eggs in Lancaster but mixed by Dave at Tarbox Road Studios, New York)?

“Oh yeah, I think he’s a kind of friend for life now.”

Well, if it works, why change?

“Yeah, and we really enjoy working with him.”

Meanwhile, the LP’s ‘You Can Go Now’ seems to be your latest anthem – one of several great singalongs the band have created, almost a ‘Reasons to No Longer Be Miserable’. Is there anyone or anything since the release you’d like to add to that list, after so long cooped up inside the Eggbox?

“I always leave that to the Eggheads out there. I feel like we laid it down and we’ll pass the baton over to them to do that now. But sure, there’s stuff all the time that crops up.”

And what’s The Lovely Eggs’ recipe for surviving the pandemic and moving into new territory?

“Ooh, gosh! Surviving the pandemic? I think just creating your own world, trying to be as happy and content in that world as you can be. And don’t look outside to what other people are doing, just try and be thankful for what you’ve got and what you can do.”

The Lovely Eggs are set to play live – pandemic surges dependent – in the late summer and again from spring, starting with a sell-out at Gorilla, Manchester (Fri, July 23), then newly-rearranged shows at The Brudenell, Leeds (Sat, July 24); the O2 Academy, Sheffield (Thu, July 29); The Garage, London (sold out, Fri, July 30), and SWX, Bristol (venue upgrade, original tickets valid, Sat, July 31).

Further rearranged shows follow in August at The Bullingdon, Oxford (Sun 1); The Joiners, Southampton (venue change, original tickets valid, sold out, Mon 2); Concorde 2, Brighton (venue change, original tickets valid, Tue 3); Metronome, Nottingham (Wed 4); and District, Liverpool (venue change, original tickets valid, Thu 5).

Then, in 2022, there’s: Thu Apr 7 Castle and Falcon, Birmingham (sold out); Fri Apr 8, Heaven, London; Mon Apr 11 Junction 2, Cambridge; Sat Apr 16, The Brudenell, Leeds (sold out); Thu May 26 The Cluny, Newcastle; Fri May 27 Stereo, Glasgow; Sat May 28 The Mash House, Edinburgh (sold out); Sun May 29 The Crescent, York; Mon May 30 Sub Rooms, Stroud; Tue May 31 Clwb Ivor Bach, Cardiff; Wed Jun 1 Face Bar, Reading; Fri Jun 3 02 Ritz, Manchester.

For more details you can find the band online via their website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.

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Life with the spiritual businessman – talking The Daintees and much more with Martin Stephenson

Guitar Man: Martin Stephenson in live action, and he’s all set to return to the live scene as soon as he can

While Martin Stephenson formed the first line-up of The Daintees as a young teen, busking by the age of 15 and plying his trade with guitar in hand for various bands in the North East over those formative years, he was a worldly-wise 25 by the time Newcastle-upon-Tyne independent label Kitchenware Records released acclaimed debut LP Boat to Bolivia in 1986.

Learning his trade as he went, developing his playing technique from a Spanish guitar book then doing the same to master jazz, blues, country, skiffle and reggae styles, Martin was soon marked out for his songcraft, voice and writing too. Signed to Kitchenware around the same time as Prefab Sprout and Hurrah!, with early Daintees tours supporting Aztec Camera, The Bluebells, John Martyn, and backing Roy Buchanan, critical acclaim followed that first long player, similar positive reviews ensuing for 1988’s Gladsome, Humour and Blue, the live shows always going down well, the band sharing bills with Hothouse Flowers and Janis Ian too.

By 1990 there was also the much-lauded Salutation Road, and then 1992’s The Boy’s Heart. And yet, Martin’s anti-material thinking sat uncomfortably with the mainstream record industry, soon shunning the populist route, ploughing a far more humble, low-key furrow, and happily so.

In time, sales dipped, but the acclaim continued, Martin gradually moving towards a mail-order cottage industry existence, continuing to record solo and as part of a group, remaining a draw on the live circuit, albeit more at home on ‘the B-roads of music, free from the shackles of expectation’.

In 2018, his profile increased again through appearing alongside Billy Connolly in a two-part biographical documentary about the Glaswegian actor/comic/musician. And over the years, Martin’s work increasingly drew on folk and traditional roots music, his live shows continuing to impress, characterised by entertaining tales between songs from a master guitarist, singer-songwriter and storyteller out to provide ‘folk and Americana with a dash of Northern flair’.

The Daintees returned to the studio in 2008 for the first time in 16 years, the resulting Western Eagle receiving glowing reviews, leading to subsequent albums California Star (2012), Haunted Highway (2015), Bayswater Road (2017) and Chi Chi And The Jaguar (2019), running alongside various solo and collaborative albums for the main-man.

Then there were the re-recorded, re-imagined 30th anniversary releases of classic early period Daintees albums, and new LP Howdy Honcho, Martin having long since relocated to the Scottish Highlands, where I tracked him down.

“I’m just working away, helping other people complete their projects. It’s nice just doing somebody else’s stuff.”

I can’t imagine you getting emotionally involved when you’re working on someone else’s record.

Monochrome Set: Martin laying down his songcraft at The Sage, Gateshead. Photo: Juan Fitzgerald

“Funny really, I still think like a table tennis player, where the first thing we were taught was to coach each other and encourage. When I went into the music business it was very competitive. It was quite shocking actually.”

I’m forever talking to people who broke through around the same era as you, at a time when there was big money record company backing and artists were forced to compete with each other, chasing chart positions and record sales.

“Absolutely, and I never felt comfortable with all that. Music was always the spiritual thing to me. You’ll find different coaches have a better perception of that. Industry is industry, and I’ve always had a fascination with factory workers. My mam was a factory girl, my Dad also worked in that environment, and I do enjoy producing things. But when it costs friendships I don’t think it’s worth it.”

When you mentioned your parents, was that back in County Durham?

“Yeah, my mum worked at a little electrical factory – she was one of those girls sitting on the production line. She had these wire-cutters and when I started maintaining my guitar, I got them off her and carried them for years.

“My Dad started down the pit and was an ambulance driver for a while, then got a job at Dunlop in the ‘70s. They had quite a community, including a little club with a bit of entertainment. I retired at table tennis at 15, but came out of retirement to play for Dunlop for a year. I was the skinny kid with the Adidas top and long hair up against 30-somethings.”

Could you have taken table tennis further as a career?

“I don’t think I could. I met my coach when I was 11 and he was 27, and his skill was working with rough kids – underprivileged or over-privileged, he had a real talent for bringing people together, giving them confidence. He was a great teacher, but I’d go over on a Sunday afternoon and we’d be listening to Santana and The Doors – this was around 1971 – and he was an amazing guy, like George Harrison but with a table tennis bat! But he taught me the beauty of losing.

“Even at that age it was like a Buddhist programme about the futility of competitiveness. It was almost like someone taking a detonator out of you, taking away the anger. I think he was a bit of an angel, that guy. I didn’t realise I’d been on a programme, so when I went into the music industry at 19 or 20, it was my second subject. I was a really open kind of person from another planet – it was an alien place for me.”

Home for Martin is Invergordon these days, in Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands.

“I came up here in the ‘90s, but I played Findhorn in 1988 – the hippie commune. I took my old tour manager with me – he was a Birmingham mafia, Hells Angels type, and it was the only time I saw him terrified! It’s a bit like The Prisoner. You know hippies, man, they’ve got long hair, but they break all the rules for themselves. There’s this military base next door – Kinloss Barracks – so it’s like Yin and Yang. But you meet some of the most spiritual people you’ll ever meet in the military, and vice versa in the commune.

“My Dad’s family were Scottish. When I was about 11, he said, ‘I’m going away for the weekend, I want you to come with us,’ and we went to Lennoxtown, quite a rough area. We had these two uncles who ran a pub but were teetotal. They were Celtic fans, and the day I got there they were burning a St Mirren scarf in the fire! They were mad, but they were quite big music fans. They had a piano, and I didn’t even know my Dad played piano until then – he became another person when he got up there. I was fascinated about Scotland. I always wanted to go there if we went on holiday.

“I also did this thing, ‘stepping into the loincloth’. I realised I was cocooned in the industry and the people around me – like my manager – the things other people wanted I realised I had to disconnect completely, spiritually. This was about giving everything away, probably inspired by my heroes being people like Peter Green – I was born to fail! – and Jonathan Richman.

“I had to let go of everything and disconnect from this cocoon of people around us. I mean, My VAT bills were thirty grand a year when I was 21! So I stepped into the loincloth, said, ‘Right, who’s with me?’ And it’s like having mumps or chickenpox – they give you a wide berth and the earth opens up! I had my wilderness years, trying to reconnect, carrying and stringing my own guitar, playing to five people, trying to make sense of why I’m here, starting right from the beginning, this time without the machine.”

I worked out the first time I saw Martin play live was at Glastonbury Festival in 1989.

“Ah, I’ve got fond memories of being with the Hothouse Flowers there. They were lovely people and I’d been in America for three months just before, working with them, travelling all over in a bus.”

I always had a soft spot for them, remembering them at Glastonbury that year and also seeing them play Sydney in February 1991 during my round the world backpacking travels. I also loved Liam O’Maonlai’s ALT side-project with Andy White and Tim Finn.

“Liam is such a lovely human being, and they were all very giving. They were in the industry, but they weren’t like that. And Liam’s attitude towards women … he never abused his position. He could have been an arsehole, but he wasn’t!”

You’ve probably met a few of those in your time.

“Oh, they were out there, you know. But I liked them lads. They didn’t have that agenda thing going on. You just want people to be genuine, don’t you.”

The next time I saw Martin live was at the Fleadh in Finsbury Park, North London, in 1992, part-way down the bill, with The Pogues – featuring Joe Strummer – headlining.

“Ah yeah, we liked going on first! That suited us, going on at seven then buggering off. Being on last is the worst part of the night!”

Martin’s own roots were in Washington, now classed as Tyne and Wear, but County Durham when he was born there, the ancestral home of the family of US founding father George Washington and the town where Bryan Ferry hailed from. Does Martin enjoy getting back to the North East?

“Oh, aye! You see, I was brought up in Brady Square, this tiny … oh, you’d have to be from there to understand. There was Old Washington and New Washington, where I lived. My Granda lived in Old Washington. The village was in the centre, and when I walked to school, where the Smithy Café was, I’d pass George Washington’s house on the right side, and Dame Margaret’s Hall, and on the left side I’d pass the Washington pit.

“Up until the lockdown I was doing a gig in the garden at Washington Old Hall, and we’d have around 200 people coming along, bringing a chair and sitting in the garden. Really lovely, seeing people I haven’t seen since I was seven or eight years old.

“There was a guy who’d chase me when I was a kid. Same age as me but massive – Lenny Ingram. About two years ago I wrote this little story about him. When I was about six or seven, I was on a swing on this field in front of my grandparents’ house, the houses circling this field, and in the middle was a park. But because I was at my Gran’s, I was out of my zone, about four miles from home. I didn’t know the kids. They were all Protestant, I was Catholic. Sometimes I’d be there when I was off school, but you had to watch your back.

“I was on the swing and happened to turn around when I heard this heavy breathing – Richie Beresford shooting across the grass trying to catch me. This big psychopath. I managed to get away, like deer on the Serengeti keeping an eye out for the lions. But one day I heard this noise, realised it was the Ingrams, and it was too late.

“They circled me, but I had the swing going really high, so they couldn’t stop me. I thought I’d keep the momentum going. Lenny was saying, ‘Are you out?’ – meaning I’ll have you out, I’ll fight you – but he had a speech impediment, so I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand, mate’. He was getting angrier and angrier, this kid who was about 5 foot 11 when he was eight years old. So I wasn’t gonna stop!

“I jumped at the height of the swing, landed and just belted for my Nana’s, about 150 yards away, with the Ingrams – these brothers, Alan and Tosh – chasing us. I got under the hole under the fence where the dog used to get under, scraped all my back and ran past my Granda, standing on the step with his pipe, saying, ‘What’s going on here?’. I said, ‘The Ingrams are after me!’. So he chased them.

“I told this story, and it happened that Lenny was sleeping on the couch – he’d come home from work and was sprawled out, his wife sitting next to him with a laptop reading this story I wrote. She turned round, gave him a whack! He woke up, saying, ‘What’s going on?’ She said, ‘Ya big bully, ya!’.

“Anyway, last time I played Washington Old Hall, he was in the audience, in the front row. I said, ‘Oh Lenny, sorry about that!’. And his wife was sat next to him and whacked him one! We became friends later on in life, but at that time you had to keep away from him!”

Have you still got family in that area?

“My daughters live in Tynemouth, and my sister’s moved down to Darlington. Both my Mum and Dad have passed. You lose touch with people, but Facebook’s great – kids I was in football teams with, I’m suddenly in touch with, where they might have moved to Durham or out of the village. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Have your daughters followed you into music, or did you put them off for life?

“I would have if I could, like! My youngest daughter is really musical, but she loves drama, she’s really into Spanish, has learned to speak it, and wants to go to Spain. But my older daughter, another lovely kid, is more leftfield indie. Last thing she wanted to hear when she was growing up was my records … which is a good thing!

“But she got into bluegrass, and next thing I know she’s doing Doc Watson rags and playing the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Deep River Blues’, and the Carter Family. We’ve got so much in common, yet we don’t really play together. She’s just done an album sleeve for us. She’s a good artist. They’re lovely people and as long as they’re happy I wouldn’t want them to go through what I went through.”

Your biography suggests ‘an eclectic range of musical styles from pop and folk through to bluegrass and punk’. That range has always been part of the story, as illustrated by the BBC Radio 1 session you did for Andy Kershaw in June ’86, 35 years and a few days ago …

“Bloody hell – ha!”

I listened back to that set before speaking to Martin, and it seemed to sum him up well. Here was a fella whose debut album’s title track was a reggae number, yet that session truly showcased the broad range of material – starting with the Mickey Dolenz-like ‘Louis’ …

“Ah, I used to write these songs for my friends. The Daintees was born out of … the first members were really Anthony Dunn, who was 18 probably, and his sister Claire, the singer, who was about 10 and the dominant in the band! She’d tell me my songs were shite and I’d need to brush my act up a bit, y’know. She’d say, ‘Nice titles, shame about the songs’ – at 10 years old! I used to really listen to her – she was so straight. She’s a grandmother now. She did backing vocals on ‘Coleen’ (from Boat to Bolivia) when she was a little older.”

Howdy Honcho: The new Martin Stephenson LP features artwork from his daughter, Phoebe Stephenson

Then there’s the Paul Simon-esque ‘Roll on Summertime’, while ‘Crocodile Cryer’ – the opening track on his debut album – has that ‘80s white soul feel, like someone paying their dues to Van Morrison …

“Oh well, I always would. I’m 59 now and I’m still paying them. He’s a beautiful talent.”

True. He’s been talking some rubbish this past year, mind. But musically, you can’t fault him.

“Well, he’s a grumpy old git, isn’t he! There’s a lot of Alf Garnett in him. But some of the things that man’s done … I love his limitations and his vulnerabilities as well. He just goes for it. Some of those vocals he did, like ‘Crazy Love’ – fantastic!”  

And then there’s my personal favourite, the penultimate track on Boat to Bolivia, ‘Rain’. We could be talking about the son of Lee Hazlewood there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nancy Sinatra came in to sing a verse or two.

“Ha! It sounds mad, but I was a new wave guitarist by the time I was 15, and then I was in a couple of great bands. There was one, Strange Relations, where the singer was 21, into The Monochrome Set. He was cool, he was bisexual, and he developed his own photographs. I was his little sidekick guitarist, into the early Cure and anything really, but I had a great musical education and was into Captain Beefheart by the time I was 11.

“But when punk came along, I did what Joe Strummer did – I denounced the whole fucking lot and rebirthed, pretending I’d never listened to Steve Hillage. Ha!”

Were you watching North East punk bands like Penetration around then?

“Oh, I love Pauline (Murray), and she’s a good friend of mine. And Rob (Blamire). They’re very sweet people and they’ve done so much for others.”

They have a studio just down from the Byker Wall, haven’t they?

“That’s right – Polestar! I was there with Lenny Kaye when I brought him up to Newcastle to do my album in 1991. I’d first seen him in 1978, when I was 17. I went with a 14-year-old, Stephen Corrigan, and at the end of the night Lenny was on stage with guitar hanging down, Patty pretending she was taking heroin, Lenny throwing all these plectrums out, my mate going right down into the mosh-pit to get this plectrum for us. I still thank him to this day for this triangular Lenny Kaye plectrum I put in this little wooden box at home.

“Years later, when I was about 20, we’d stay at the Columbia Hotel in London, and there’s Lenny having his breakfast, me salivating, frightened to speak to him. I went home for a few days then came back, and he was still there! I brought his plectrum back, he was coming out one morning near Hyde Park – Lancastergate – and had these red flares on, still this New York cool, skinny kind of Tom Petty guy. I plucked the courage up, said, ‘Excuse me’. He had an early Walkman, pulled the headphones off, said, ‘Yeah, can I help you?’. I said, ‘Are you Lenny?’. ‘Yeah, man’. I said, ‘Lenny, I’ve got your plectrum!’. He just looked at me, thinking I was some fucking stalker!

“I never saw him for ages, but I was in Liverpool when we were doing the Boat to Bolivia album, and our producer, Gil Norton said, ‘We’re gonna have some dinner with James tonight’. They were working with Lenny, and we all sat in a curry house, a bit shy with each other, and Lenny kept looking across the table, thinking, ‘I’ve seen that kid before’. If he knew it was the kid who’s given him the plectrum, he’d have thought, ‘I’m getting outta here!’. But I plucked the courage up to ask him to produce my last album for the majors, The Boy’s Heart.”

That LP is the most recent The Daintees have re-recorded as part of a 30th anniversary of their first four albums project. Around that period, I told Martin, I saw the band – among their contemporaries – somewhere between The Bible, Deacon Blue and Prefab Sprout, but all these years on I realise now that The Bible’s Boo Hewerdine‘s career path has possibly been the closest to Martin’s, even if Boo is more about complementing his modest earnings through writing for others, notably Chris Difford and Eddi Reader.

“Yes, but I would say I trust the soul of that man more than the others. He’s a nicer lad for me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to do a couple of gigs with Boo. He has a beautiful introverted energy, and that shows how great introverts can be as performers. You don’t have to be song or dance people. It’s all internalised, like the difference between the Queen and Princess Margaret … who would have been the worst fucking Queen ever!”

Not sure if Boo’s ever been compared to HRH the Queen, but he’s a bit of a gentle giant, and like Martin a great singer/songwriter, something they both always had in their armoury.

“We did (BBC) Sight and Sound in Concert together, recorded in London somewhere. A lovely hall somewhere, with a mobile recording unit. I remember thinking The Bible were a great band. They had this lovely vibe. They weren’t like anybody, and showcased the good, modest side of British music, without the competitiveness. I like that about Boo.”

Do you remain in touch with anyone from your Kitchenware days?

“Do you know what’s really funny? On Kitchenware, the council house bands were The Daintees and Hurrah!, and the middle class or aspiring middle-class bands were the Sprouts and The Kane Gang. All funny and eccentric, not bad people, but I was always quite close and became very close to Paul Handyside, the Hurrah! guitarist, in our 30s, helping each other a lot.

“Also his co-writer, (David) Taffy Hughes, was like the Will Sergeant of Hurrah!, into psychedelia and all that. I remember meeting Taffy when I’d moved to Scotland and was back down seeing my kids, and there’s Taffy walking along with a pram and this baby. He said, ‘Meet Rupert’. I said, ‘Cool’. Then, 17 years later, I’m doing this gig in Hartlepool and there’s this young bluegrass band on. I said to my friend, ‘That kid has got it – you can’t learn that’. He was charming but humble and funny. Like Edwyn (Collins, presumably) when he was young. And it turned out it was Rupert!

“Then, another four years later, my daughter’s in this psychedelic band, El Cid, a brilliant band, like the 13th Floor Elevators. Young kids will put together something fantastic, and old goats like me will try and manage them, but they’ll just go and do something else, with you saying, ‘You can’t – you’ve got the best band in the world!’. They were together about a year, I helped them with some LCR recordings, but then the singer buggered off. But Rupert was in the band with Phoebe, I took them on tour, and they played the City Hall, Newcastle, and to Liverpool to play that famous venue The Beatles played.”

Ah, The Cavern, which I see is on your next tour.

“Aye! And recently our guitarist Gary, a full-time teacher, said there’s three dates he can’t do, can we find someone to cover. So I phoned Rupert. He’s been brought up on Kitchenware, he’ll know all the songs. And it’s really nice that our younger generation are also musicians.”

On a similar note, listening back to Salutation Road this week, I hear so much more than I would have first time around, not least ‘In the Heat of the Night’, somewhere between Fairport Convention and someone more contemporary like Seth Lakeman, not least with the fiddle. Do you tend to get younger acts telling you how important you were to them?

“Every now and again. There’s a young kid who moved up here, Nicky Murray, who came up here when he was 17. He’d been in all the gangs in Glasgow, then became this phenomenal Thai boxer. I picked him up at the station, took him to this big mansion where there’s a guy called Chippy from a band called The Gurus, legendary up here. When I picked him up, he had a bandana on, and I’m like, ‘Oh, fucking hell, it’s Kris Kristofferson!’.

“He’s now 24 and after a really hard beginning he got through college, studied cello, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter … and not just a songwriter – more of a pollinator. He learns other people’s things as well, including all the songs of his elders up here. He can play ‘Rain’ better than I can. He’s different, you know. If anyone will carry your name on, it’s him. He remembers his elders where most kids his age are still up their own arseholes. They haven’t got that expanded consciousness. I’ve met one or two like that – you could have dropped them off at Laurel Canyon at the height of all that and they’d have fitted straight in.”

On a similar line, we mentioned Kitchenware, and there were several labels after that before you set up your own, Barbaraville Records. Is there a remit there of what you really want to do?

“Yeah, when I rebooted … One of my oldest friends lives next door, Jimmy – in fact, I can hear him tinkering with his car right now! – tour-managed Billy Bragg at one point, taking people around the Highlands. He’s retired now, and I’ve spent most of my musical life here now, and I’ve this little cottage – my rent’s £210 a month and I live really simply. It’s a kind of a studio in that I’ve a Mac computer and more technology than The Beatles had to make Sgt Pepper. I’ve a few decent mics.

“But I’ve been doing this a long time and what I really enjoy is finding artists who haven’t been supported. They haven’t had coaching, someone to say, ‘Hey, try this!’. There’s a local lad, Davy Cowan, who’s had to play a lot of harsh gigs to survive. He’s had to up the keys and push it. Before the lockdown I said, ‘You’re gonna have to stop doing these pub gigs. It’s killing you, man. You’ve got more class.’ I’ve produced a bit of music for him and you can see he needed that support, someone to tell him he’s special. I love doing things like that.”

Another of Barbaraville’s artists is Martin’s partner, Anna Lavigne, her Angels in Sandshoes well worth checking out. Think Marianne Faithfull with folk undertones creating a soundscape for a European road movie, the blend with Martin’s voice on several tracks a major draw, an array of musical styles explored. Originally from Sheffield, Anna was spotted with a drama group at The Crucible, ending up through a management company linked to Griff Rhys Jones performing with The Young Ones’ Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Nigel Planer, and the likes of Rowland Rivron and Tilda Swinton, in the early ‘80s Comic Strip days in London, before embarking on a very different path, touring internationally as a dancer with the revered Lindsay Kemp – a mentor to David Bowie and Kate Bush – after a successful audition in Barcelona, coming off the road when her sons were born and working as a voice artist and tour manager.

“Anna’s got this quality. She’s just got this attitude. When she works with you, you feel so supported. I love working with her. She doesn’t think she’s too good for anything. She’ll get the pizzas, next thing she’ll be the leading lady. She’s so cool, does my t-shirts, drives the car, doesn’t think she’s too good for anybody. And the people she knows is unbelievable.

“We bumped into each other five years ago by chance at a funeral. She was with her ex-husband, also a dancer for Lindsay. I was walking around the church playing songs at my friend’s mum’s funeral. I started singing to them, and at the end of the service we sat on a table together and talked and talked. We just connected. About three months later I went to Lossiemouth to play a gig and there she was, and straight away I couldn’t work this mic stand and she was over, fixing it!

“She thought she was done with relationships. So did I. We ended up friends and just slipped into being a couple. I also noticed she wrote lyrics and poetry. I’d get her to proof-read anything I was doing, and one day turned one of her poems into a song, ‘Paris in the Rain’, which she wrote for us when we were there.”

Bringing the story right up to date, Martin has recently released LP Howdy Honcho as a pre-order.

“I was looking for a title and decided to use my daughter Phoebe’s pieces of art, featuring this really shifty fiddler with a cowboy hat. It’s a hand-carved etching, beautiful. I thought, ‘Ah, yeah, that’s Howdy Honcho!”

That follows Pink Tank, a re-recording of 2004’s Airdrie.

“I was walking along the beach with Anna, saw a little plastic grey tank on a mound, washed up. I said I’m gonna paint that pink, call it Pink Tank, and it’s gonna be Airdrie re-recorded. Anything that’s good about me creatively comes from the collective consciousness. There’s no ownership in that perception. That’s where my high perception is. My master puppeteer is plumbed into that. It’s the puppet you’ve got to watch. That’s why I meditate and sometimes reflect before I make moves.”

Anna, along with Angie McLaughlin, provides backing vocals on new LP, Howdy Honcho, also featuring long-time associates Anth and Gaz Dunn, Chris Mordey, drummer Charlie Smith, and harmonica man Spider McKenzie, the latter with a song named in his honour. And for someone based so long in the Scottish Highlands, those North-East tones are as strong as ever, I suggested.

“Ah, great!”

In fact, ‘Witches Ride’ would have made – with alternative lyrics – a perfect Likely Lads theme tune. If Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were to write a ‘where’s Terry Collier now’ one-off with James Bolam, maybe Whatever Happened to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, they need look no further.

“Ha! That’s funny. It’s actually about a supernatural experience at Tomar in Portugal.”

When I spoke to Martin, his first date back on the road was set for mid-July in Sheffield, a sell-out at the Dorothy Pax. That has since been moved back to late September though, and I recommend double-checking dates va the link at the foot of this feature following the Government decision regarding on-going pandemic restrictions.

There were 21 dates on the list I saw, including Leaf and The Cavern in Liverpool; The Half Moon, Putney and The 100 Club in London; and two nights not far off Martin’s old patch at the Old Cinema Launderette, Durham. And my excuse for getting in touch was his scheduled visit to The Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on July 23rd, at time of going to press still happening.

“Ah, I love Preston. I used to do The Adelphi.”

Those shows go up to November 20th at the Sage, Gateshead, and I also see Martin’s down for Butlin’s Skegness and the Great British Folk Festival, alongside the likes of Kate Rusby, Lindisfarne, Steve Harley and Judie Tzuke.

“I think we do three gigs, then we go for our Ventolin inhalers, have a week off and do another three!”

You strike me as a fella who’d be lost without the joy of performing live. Has this last 18 months proved a major trial?

“It’s funny really. I’ve got used to it. My last gig was in March – almost a year and a half ago. It was weird at first, and I wasn’t going to do an online gig, but the spirit was so good, and the nice thing was, we started lighting a candle for everybody who was really struggling. We’ve got that working for others vibe, and once you step into that, you don’t wanna go back into being selfish. And through being that way somehow we’ve been blessed.

“I’ve been publicly funded for years now. I stepped into poverty to escape the trappings of short-sighted wank. Through doing that you start seeing the real thing. I feel I’ve learned to be a spiritual businessman. I’m the worst businessman – I give stuff away – but it comes back because of that.

“For Salutation Road the budget was £150,000 in 1990, mixed in LA, recorded in all the top studios, with Pete Anderson twenty grand before he got out of bed! We were all on 60 quid a week, and I’m thinking, ‘Who’s paying for this?’. I did one more album, modest compared to that, where the budget was 20 grand, Lenny Kaye got a Harley Davidson out of it but deserved it, a great man who did a great job, a decent hard-working person, us still on £60.

“I got out of the industry after that. I felt I was done. That was 1992. I didn’t think I’d make any more records but was probably addicted to the creative cycle, like an elephant goes on a journey feeding around the circumference of the wood. I kept manifesting one way or another through addictive behaviour and made this album, The Incredible Shrinking Band, where the budget was £9. I recorded it live, even took a phone call on the recording, then sold one copy at £10 so I made a pound!

“I looked at that, thought about Salutation Road … ‘I get this now. I have to make things really small’. So when I re-recorded the album … I’ve two types of budget; one where I’m really careful and mix at home, but sometimes I like to give people work so go in the studio, but the players are so sharp we’re in and out before the ink dries on the bill. I say to the engineer how much would they charge. If they say £250 a track, I’m putting the guitar in the case by the time he says ‘track’. ‘Right, we’ll just take the masters, thanks!’.

“There’s a really good engineer, Mark Lough in Stirling, I gave him Salutation Road, spent about£1,200 recording it in a really good studio. The recording bill was about £700, I paid the musicians the rest, gave it to Mark to mix and master, paid him £500. I’m not flush, but he deserved it. That’s a big budget album for me, as opposed to £150,000 in 1990. I put it out as a pre-order, sold 300 on vinyl and 300 CDs. That was it.

“I could proudly sit in front of Alan Sugar with that, or have coffee with Bob Dylan and say, ‘It makes sense, Bob!’. I don’t wanna sell any more. I’m done putting them in the envelopes by then. I’m a factory girl by nature but need a holiday before I do another. To me, that’s good practise. And now I realise The Daintees’ biggest power was good will – that was the currency we were carrying in the ‘80s on our little ship, and that’s why we didn’t fit in. We weren’t Prefab Sprout or The Kane Gang. We were more like a spiritual council house band. We shouldn’t have been there in the ‘80s.”

Going back to the first LP’s title track, and that line, ‘You can’t catch a boat to Bolivia …’, did anyone ever try to prove you wrong, sending a postcard about their trip across Lake Titicaca?

“Oh, everybody! Back in the day, students would get you in a corner, say, ‘Hey, I studied this, and …’.

I often wondered if the likes of Aswad or Gregory Isaacs had covered that and had a hit, whether you’d have been made for life, financially.

“Yeah, that’s the real deal! That’s why I say to audiences, ‘Do you really want me to sing this song?’ and they’ll say, ‘Why not?’. I say, ‘Well, I sound like Julian Clary on a good day’. But that’s the beauty of a different perception. It’s not about being the best, it’s about love.”

While I’m there with flippant questions, I should ask how many hats there are in your wardrobe.

“I tell you what, I’ve got three or four trilby-like hats and a couple of caps, but I used to get them nicked – students would nick my bloody hats all the time. First thing I did in the morning when I was leaving town was find another in Oxfam. I remember taking Janis Ian to Oxfam in Liverpool. She was doing a soundcheck and I spotted Oxfam on the corner. It was around quarter to five and I was leaving. I heard this voice at the Royal Court. She said, ‘Where you going?’ over the microphone. The guy doing the sound looked really upset. I said, ‘Oxfam, around the corner. I’ll not be bothering with the soundcheck’. She said, ‘Wait for me!’. She put her guitar down, skipped down the side, and went to Oxfam. I said, ‘You’re a multi-millionaire, what are you doing here?’. She said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with hunting!’.

Martin has a big birthday coming in late July, his 60th. Will that change anything for him?

“Nah, it’s just a number. I feel sad there’s people leaving the earth, but there’s people coming in, and we’re lucky if we’ve got this far. You just gotta try and be healthy, respect the gift we’re given.

“I’m thankful to be 60. It’s been a canny journey. I’ve always loved older people and had loads of respect for my elders … and now I’m one of them! When you get to this age, I thought I’d have a white beard, be like Confucius, giving all my advice. But I still fucking know nothing!”

Martin Stephenson is set to play a solo show – pandemic restrictions dependent – at The Continental, Preston, on Friday, July 23rd. For more details of Martin’s solo and Daintees dates, Barbaraville Records’ releases and merchandise, head here.

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Animal instincts – entering the world of LUMP with Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay

It was a creative project borne out of a chance meeting five years ago at a bowling alley inside The O2 in South-East London, while Laura Marling was supporting Neil Young on a UK arena tour.

Two days later, Laura started work on tracks created by Tunng co-founder Mike Lindsay in Ben Edwards’ studio in North East Cornwall (aka Benge, Neil Arthur’s long-time collaborator and Fader co-pilot), on what became the debut self-titled LUMP album, finally seeing the light of day in early June 2018.

Now, three years on, the second instalment, Animal, is on its way (due to land at the end of next month), Brit Award winner and Grammy-nominated Laura plus singer/songwriter and Mercury Prize-winning producer Mike planning to get back on the road to promote it in late summer.

As with the first LP, Laura arrived in the studio – this time Mike’s own in Margate, Kent – without having heard any of his music, hoping that would help bring the resultant lyrics immediacy and spontaneity. And having studied in recent times between music projects for a Masters in psychoanalysis, she drew heavily on course texts.

She explained, “I was taking the train down and prepped by putting a glossary of words in the back of my notebook. Ordinary words that are used differently within psychoanalysis, like ‘object’ and ‘master’; I felt I needed something to base the lyrics off. I like the idea that psychoanalysis attempts to investigate the routes of desire.”

There were other sources too: half-memories, family stories, strange dreams; things Laura had read, or been told or imagined.

“LUMP is the repository for so many things I’ve had in my mind and just don’t fit anywhere in that way. They don’t have to totally make narrative sense, but weirdly end up making narrative sense in some way.”

It was trickier second time around. Both artists felt a pressure to create an album as instinctive and magical as the first. And having moved to the coast, Mike was also inspired to start writing music inspired by the sea.

At the same time, Laura was working on rightly acclaimed, Mercury Prize and Grammy Award-nominated Song For Our Daughter, but found working on LUMP material liberating and distinct, explaining how it became about ‘escaping a persona that has become a burden to me in some way – like putting on a superhero costume’, at times feeling as if she might be ‘edging Laura Marling off a cliff as much as I can and putting LUMP in the centre’.

Of the splendid title track – the first number aired in public from the new record – ‘Animal’ (with the video here) was originally a word Laura thrown into a lyric simply to meet a rhythm. But it seemed to capture the mood of the work, and of the band as a whole.

“There’s a little of a theme of hedonism on the album, of desires running wild. Also, it fed into the idea we had from the start of thinking of LUMP as a kind of representation of instincts, and the world turned upside down.”

Mike added, “We created LUMP as a sort of persona and an idea and a creature. Through LUMP we find our inner animal, and through that animal we travel into a parallel universe.”

Laura, who grew up near Reading, is based in North London these days, but was at a friend’s house in Sussex when we spoke via the delights of Zoom. Meanwhile, Mike, originally from ‘somewhere between Southampton and Winchester’, was in his home studio in Margate, joining the conversation flanked in by banks of recording paraphernalia, or his ‘Nerve Centre’, as I suggested.

“That’s right. That’s what we call it!”

Were my two interviewees pretty quick to latch on to the brave new lockdown-like world existence of Zoom calls, sending files down the interweb super-highway, and all that?

Mike: “Well, actually, we had this done just before the first lockdown, so we weren’t sending any files down the line. We had a couple of video chats … but just for fun really. We had the record done just before, so we’ve been sat on it for a while.”

I imagine with your separate career paths, scheduling anything could be a pain. Is it like when you’re buying a house and there’s lots of you in a chain trying to work out convenient dates that suit you?

Laura: “It was. Originally it was. There was a whole plan to do my album and then LUMP, then of course the pandemic happened, and it all went out of the window. It was all just chaos.”

Seeing your surroundings there, Mike, are you a musical instrument hoarder? Are you the sort who has obscure stuff lying around just in case it’s needed for a two-second excerpt on some record or other?

“I’ve a few oddities knocking around. You can’t see them all here. But I do have a sitar, there is a saz, a dulcimer, a steel harp, and gurglers …”

Did he really say ‘gurglers’ there? I think so. I only picked up on that later. I’m sure he’ll put me right if that’s not the case. How about Laura?

“I’ve got a couple, but most of my weird musical purchases have been passed on to Mike. I bought a Moog Grandmother, which I couldn’t work out how to use and gave it to Mike … and what was that keyboard I gave you?”

“Erm, it’s the …”

“The OP-1!”

Sounds very Star Wars.

Mike: “It looks very Star Wars, yeah.”

When you first got together, was there a clear game plan, or was it more a case of ‘Where shall we go next?’ instead? Was it ‘send her some files, see what she can do’, or the other way around?

Mike: “Ha! ’Send her some files’! No, it wasn’t like that at all. We just had one day of experimenting. I had a piece of music and didn’t know if we could work together or not, Laura came up with some magic, and it seemed to take on a world of its own. That was the first song on the first record (‘Late to the Flight’).

“From there, we decided to try another day, that worked, then we tried a few days, and we had this collection of music that all seemed to take its own adventure on when I tied them together. It was very organic in that sense, and very ‘in the moment’ when we were together.”

The sonic results and that explanation suggest it worked from day one. Was it also a release of sorts for both of you? I’m not suggesting you felt the need to depart from what you were doing with your own careers. It’s not like you both worked in call centres or soulless banking jobs, but … did you see it as a departure from what you were doing elsewhere?

Laura: “Yeah, definitely, it’s a great relief in that sense, completely different to what I do, certainly. A different way of working … and also working with someone else is great.”

Mike: “Yeah, it was very exciting for me, and I was quite nervous about working with Laura first of all. I’d been a fan for a long time …”

Did she come with a reputation?

“Well, I didn’t have any expectations, and I wasn’t aware of any reputations, but I was excited about working with her musically, and I didn’t want to make a mess of it, you know. I was pretty surprised that I didn’t, and that we managed to do more. But honestly, I was just happy that we managed to make some music together that we both enjoy, because it was a secret – we didn’t tell anybody, no management or anything!

“That was what was special about it first time around, and it was the same this time around. We decided between ourselves just to try and make some more music again, and that’s always nice when it comes back to the roots of musicianship and how people started making music, before you signed any record deals or had any kind of notoriety. It was just about the want and the desire to produce and make and write and share music with each other. That’s real, you know.”

It’s good to hear you say that. Of the musicians I speak to, irrespective of how much success they’ve had, most seem to be enjoying it more these days, as they’re not chasing hits, record deals and world fame so much now. They tend to do it for the love of it. Otherwise, what’s the point? And I reckon I can hear in your records that you’re doing it for the love of it rather than chasing commercial success.

Laura: “Yeah.”

Mike: “Yeah … wouldn’t mind a couple of hits though!”

Laura: “Ha! Yes, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s what makes LUMP such an enjoyable process. And I think from the feedback from the last album – people who really loved it, really loved it … but it was a very small amount of people. That’s a great thing in some respects, but it would be nice if someone put it on an advert. I wouldn’t be against that.”

Mike: “Yeah, McDonald’s or …”

Laura: “McDonald’s, tobacco factories, whatever!”

Word has it that you were also keen to maintain the ‘half-cute, half dark and creepy’ feel running through both the sound of that debut LP and the name LUMP itself. Have you a clearer idea of what this is all about a few years on, or is it still a voyage of discovery and that’s the way you want it to carry on?

Laura: “I feel like it’s clearer, or the process is clearer. We did pretty much try to replicate almost exactly the same way we made the first album. The sort of ‘other’ or ‘third band member’, almost, is still a useful way of thinking about the project as a whole. Neither of us, individually, but a combination of us both.”

You gave yourself a challenge, building on the acclaim of that first LP, or did that added pressure help you rise to the challenge of going at it again, attaining that same level or striving for something even better?

Mike: “Well, I think actually with this second record we were perhaps referencing some of the live experiences we had from the first record. We only did a couple of handfuls of shows, but they were really fun, and we took what we achieved on the first record – which was quite a central experience on the album – but kind of gave it a big kind of ‘thump’ on the live version. And I think that kind of trickled into a way of writing.

“Perhaps we were more aware that we were going to take it to the stage this time, and we didn’t have that thought the first time. There’s an element of that creeping in, and I suppose there was one big tune, ‘Curse of the Contemporary’, on the first record, and we felt it would be nice to have another … although I’m not sure we achieved that.

“It’s actually quite a different record in as much as it’s still the same process. You can’t try and emulate something you’ve already done – that doesn’t really work. And we’ve got new things now!”

Were there influences you both brought to the process and initial band meetings this time? Was it a case of throwing down a Bowie LP or an obscure film soundtrack on the table, saying, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”

Mike: “Well, when we’re together it’s definitely a case of ‘see where it goes’, because … I don’t know … Laura’s influences are probably non-musical and perhaps other literary references, or within her studies.

“And mine … yeah, there were things like the (Brian) Eno and Jon Hassel ‘80s records’ sound textures, and especially – as you mention Bowie – I bought this Harmoniser, the (Eventide) H949, which is knocking around over there, and was used on the Low record by Eno and (Tony) Visconti, and I think on that Hassel record where all those organic kind of drums are sort of liquified through this Harmoniser.

“I want it to take that vintage and late ‘70s flavour. I was born in the late ‘70s, so there are those sort of references, but there are new bands I’ve been listening to as well, like the Meridian Brothers from Colombia, stuff like that – that sort of electronic wonk …”

‘Electronic wonk’! I like that.

“Ha! But – for me, anyway – I’m not sitting there listening to records, thinking, ‘I’ll make something like that’. I’m more just turning on the toys, and I guess subliminally trying to channel those things I’ve listened to in the past.”

I’m led to believe (research doesn’t cost much, you know) the H949 is the heir apparent of the H910, the ‘pitch-shifter’ defining the sound of Bowie’s 1977 LP, Low, of which producer Tony Visconti apparently claimed, ‘It fucks with the fabric of time’. And it’s also seen by Mike as ‘the new sound of LUMP’.

As for Mike’s take on the overall sound of this album, he says it’s ‘quite woody and windy, human, animalistic sounds but very organic, mixed with these crispy, crunchy, slightly John Carpenter, slightly computer game, slightly through-the-portal-into-another-world, slightly Suzanne Ciani 70s’ synthetic sounds’. So there you have it. And what of Laura’s part in all that?

“Musically, I’m a very small factor in this outfit. Ha! I was just drawing – lyrically – on psychoanalysis, which is what I was studying. That was the starting point. Not really a theme, more a starting point.”

What can either of you do with LUMP that you can’t elsewhere. Have you found approaches through this side-project that made you think, ‘Why haven’t I tried this before?’.

Laura: “Well, I’m playing bass in the live show!”

Mike: “I was going to say with LUMP that we can do anything we want – the ‘three’ of us – and that in itself is unique to any other project. There are no sorts of boundaries, no one to answer to particularly. That’s why it’s liberating. No rules!”

I was putting finishing touches ahead of talking to you on an interview with The Catenary Wires’ Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, and on their new LP there’s a cracking single, ’Mirrorball’, about a couple finding love at an ‘80s-themed disco. What would need to be played to get you two out on the dancefloor?

Mike: “Ha ha! Erm …”

Laura: “To dance?”


Laura: “Almost nothing would get me on the floor!”

Mike: “Erm … yeah, interesting! I don’t know if I’d go down the disco route, but stick me on a bit of ‘Satellite of Love’ by Lou Reed and I’ll be there … doing some moves.”

Is that right, Laura, that you turn up in the studio not knowing what Mike’s been up to, sonically?

“Yeah, that’s how … I mean, Mike does a lot more work behind the scenes than I do. I just turn up for six days and then wait to hear the results!”

Well, it works well, so whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. And might you catch us out next time with a pared-down folk album or something of that ilk, or will you save that for the day-jobs? It seems that neither of you have been happy to sit back and settle for where you’ve been before – you both keep pushing into new territory.

Mike: “I’d say there are some LUMP III ideas floating around, and they’re currently very different from both II and I. But I wouldn’t say that we’ll make a folk record. I think we’ve both got that covered in other areas!”

Do you think the upcoming live shows will be a good breeding ground for you to come up with new songs? Or are you not about writing on the road?

Laura: “Well, we don’t write on the road at all.”

Some people thrive on that.

Laura: “For my personal stuff I only write on the road, but LUMP is almost completely studio-based.”

Mike: “But the live shows definitely played a part in creating ideas for this record, so they might. And whatever happens in the future in terms of live shows, I’m sure something will come out of it that will end up informing something later.”

Well, thanks for your time, and for another essential listen for this summer … and there will be a proper summer this time, I reckon.

Mike: “Yes, it’s on its way, and it’s here today, actually! Nice one.”

Laura: “’Bye!”

Animal LP art and other images by Steph Wilson and stills from the promo video for the wondrous second single, ‘Climb Every Wall’ (linked here), by Tamsin Topolski.

LUMP release their new album, Animal, on Friday, July 30th via Chrysalis/Partisan Records, with pre-order details and information about the cracking second single, ‘Climb Every Wall’, out now, at Laura and Mike’s short late summer tour follows, opening at Gorilla, Manchester (August 31st), before dates at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds (September 2nd); Trinity, Bristol (September 3rd); Patterns, Brighton (September 5th); and Scala, London (September 6th). To keep in touch with the world of LUMP you can also follow them via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Songs Sung Blue – Back in touch with Wolf Alice

Bus Stop: Wolf Alice, all set for a punishing post-lockdown Blue Weekend (Photo: Jordan Hemingway)

It seems like it’s taken an age to come around, but the new Wolf Alice LP, Blue Weekend, finally lands today (June 4th), with the band set to return to the road for a full UK and Irish tour next January, for their first headline shows since 2018.

And I’d say the new record’s every bit as committed and strong as powerhouse lead single ‘The Last Man on Earth’, as further pre-releases ‘No Hard Feelings’ and ‘Smile’ suggested – and day of release addition ‘How Can I Make it OK?’ – as the band unleash a worthy follow-up to memorable debut LP My Love is Cool and Mercury Prize winner Visions of a Life.

You probably know the history, but Wolf Alice started out a decade ago as a duo, Ellie Rowsell (vocals, guitar) and Joff Oddie (guitar, vocals) soon joined by Theo Ellis (bass) and Joel Amey (drums, vocals). And they soon hit the ground running, 2015’s My Love Is Cool soaring to No.2 on the UK album charts and 2017 sophomore album Visions of a Life reaching that same position, bagging that Mercury Prize win (and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance).

In a career that’s also seen support slots for Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and Liam Gallagher, and with the band the subject of a film by revered director Michael Winterbottom, they played 187 shows on their headlining Visions of a Life world tour, including an Alexandra Palace sell-out, two more at Brixton Academy, and a key Pyramid Stage set at Glastonbury.

With all that in mind, it was no surprise that creating LP number three was a daunting task, all that success and subsequent time on the road – with many intercontinental flights, hotels and long bus journeys en route – taking its toll. But they’ve pulled it off somehow, decamping to Somerset to reconfigure just who they were, far away from festival stages, tour buses, awards shows and fans, cementing their friendship and setting to work on fledgling demos in a converted church.

Those demos evolved into Blue Weekend, produced by Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Bjork, Brian Eno, Florence and The Machine), who helped the band refine their sound somewhat. And it’s an album with Ellie’s laid-bare storytelling at its core, this dynamic four-piece embracing boldness and vulnerability in equal measure.

My interview came by way of internet beast, Zoom, back in early April (their management insisting we held back until now), this Luddite relieved after a few pre-interview tweaks in the technical department from his eldest daughter on seeing Epsom-born, Dorking-schooled, Hastings-based Joel (‘My days in East London are over. I had a good time when I was there though.’) pop up on my screen … and doubly so when London-based Ellie joined the feed a couple of minutes later.

The previous time I spoke to Ellie was in the autumn of 2017 (with a link here), when Visions of a Life was about to land and emulate the success of their debut album. And things have moved on hugely again since then, I suggested.

Joel: “Just a bit, yeah.”

But my first Wolf Alice interview was in late June 2015, when I traded words with bandmate Joff Oddie, en route for Glastonbury Festival. In fact, that was the day before the band’s memorable Park stage triumph, one year after they made a mighty impact on the John Peel stage.

At the time, they were at the top of the midweek UK charts with My Love is Cool, before a late flurry of sales for Florence and the Machine took Ms Welch and co. back to the top of the pile. Did that take my interviewees back, knowing where they were in that moment?

Taxi for Alice: Joel rides up front with bandmates (from left) Theo, Ellie and Joff (Photo: Jordan Hemingway).

Ellie: “Yeah!”

Joel: “I know where I was! I had to think about this the other day, as we’ve just announced that we’re doing the Glastonbury stream, and I was asked about my festival memories. There’s millions, but I vividly remember being in our soundman’s people carrier, with Ells and Theo, eating ice cream, him driving all the way. Very unglamorous but very Wolf Alice glamour – eating ice cream and thinking, ‘We’re No.1!’ All very strange.”

I recall Joff saying at the time how strange it all was, while admitting he couldn’t stop himself searching ‘Wolf Alice’ on the internet. I’m guessing you’re both over that sort of thing now, right?

Ellie: “Yeah, ha!”

Joel: “No comment!”

That was a landmark year for Wolf Alice, but you could argue that if Dave Grohl hadn’t broken his leg shortly before (Foo Fighters having to pull out of their Friday night top-of-the-bill slot accordingly, replaced by Florence and the Machine), you might have reached No.1 first time around.

Joel: “That was the rumour.”

Ellie: “Was that our first one?”

Joel: “Yeah, I just remember spending the whole weekend with people backstage saying, ‘Yeah, we always knew you were going to happen – cool!’. Then on Sunday we were No.2, and they weren’t talking to me anymore!”

Fame, fame, fatal fame; it can play hideous tricks on the brain, as some Manc once wrote.

“Actually, Markus Dravs, who we made the new record with, produced that Florence record, and we had a little funny chat about that.”

I’m not sure how much of it is down to Markus, but this new LP is a ‘big record’, if you know what I mean. I was only a couple of listens in when I spoke to Joel and Ellie, but I told them I felt there was much of the spirit of lead single, ‘The Last Man on Earth’ on there. It’s a grand-sounding monster all-round. It seems to be their big pop statement, in a way.

Joel: “Yeah … I mean … yeah! I think it’s probably … actually, I’m going to stop myself saying anything else …I was going to say something weird.”

You’re very welcome to, as far as I’m concerned.

Festival Frolics: Wolf Alice at the 2021 Glastonbury Festival, live streamed on one night only in late May

Joel: “No, I just feel like … the people I’ve shown it to that have listened to our previous records and I know really appreciate where we’ve come from and why we make those kind of musical decisions … well, there’s a directness and an emotion to this record which seems to hit people and make them connect straight away. 

“It’s less about ‘listen to this drum-fill’ … it’s lyrics and melody, and Blue Weekend just kind of has that from start to finish … I’m really proud of it.”

Quite right too. I’m not suggesting you ever lost your way, but I get the impression this was about rediscovering your friendships for each other, with a unified vibe across this record. If this was your set to be your difficult third album, you’ve somehow cracked it. It’s a proper band record and fits the vibe of what’s been a testing year for us all.

Joel: “Yeah, it was a strange time to make a record, and I don’t think there’s many people I could have got through the process with if it wasn’t with Ellie, Joff and Theo. You’re lucky to be with your best mates at a time like that, and lucky to be able to spend time making a record.”

And where was this converted church where you recorded the new album?

Ellie: “Somewhere in Somerset … just somewhere we found on Airbnb, near Glastonbury.”

Joel: “Mary owned the Airbnb, and it was made up of reclaimed pieces of the Cutty Sark, after it burned down.”

Talking of Glastonbury, this year’s version (I know, it’s already happened – I refer you to my earlier frustration at having to wait so long to publish this interview) is going to be a completely different festival experience for you, but still offers a huge opportunity. And I get the impression from the way you play together as a band that’s it going to be intimate … somehow.

Ellie: “Yeah, I don’t really know what to expect, but because the line-up is so reduced, I feel unbelievably flattered to be asked to do it.

“And yeah, it’s going to be intimate because it’s just going to be ourselves in front of our crew and probably just a few people there, but then it’s live-streamed globally, so anyone who’s anywhere can watch it if they have £20 or whatever… so that feels even more scary in a way. It’s a really unique experience that I’m just thrilled to be a part of.”

Seeing you play ‘The Last Man on Earth’ live at the Alexandra Palace Theatre for Later With … Jools Holland, I get the impression this could be a massive moment for you. And that’s a huge single, make no mistake. It carries elements of everything from ‘70s James Bond themes to The Beatles and even Slade’s ‘How Does It Feel?’

Live Presence: Ellie Rowsell giving it her all at Worthy Farm with Wolf Alice for 2021’s Glastonbury Festival

Ellie: “Ah, thank you … I think! Ha.”

Joel: “I love Slade. I’m almost more happy that you said Slade than The Beatles. That’s cool.”

We’ve already mentioned Florence and the Machine stopping the debut album reach No.1 in the UK, and then Visions of a Life was kept off the top by Shania Twain. So who’s going to deny you this time?

Elie: “Oh, I don’t know. Someone will come back from the grave or something, knowing our luck.”

Joel: “Yeah, let’s say The Beatles and Slade. The Beatles are back, they’re all alive again, and they’re No.1.”

Were most of the songs on this album ready to record before the pandemic arrived?

Ellie: “We’d written everything, and I think that would have been the hardest bit to do during lockdown, so we were very lucky that we got that bit out of the way. Then we had to finish it all, and again were very lucky we were already in the studio … and that it was a residential studio.

“The thing that made it very hard was that there were no distractions. We got a bit too fully immersed in the whole experience, to a point where we couldn’t really see the wood from the trees, eventually having to stop and take a break … (mutters) rather than go mad. Ha!

“It was hard, but I was just so grateful to have that to focus on, because I really don’t know what … people kept asking, ‘What did you do during the lockdown?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing’, and they’d say, ‘What, you didn’t learn how to make banana bread?’”

Focus wasn’t a problem, I guess.

Ellie: “No … we made an album, and my head was so …”

Joel: “Yeah, innit!”

Ellie: “I literally didn’t have an ounce left.”

Joel: “I’m so glad to hear you say that, because of this guilt that I haven’t written another record during lockdown.”

Ellie: “Yeah, or that I haven’t started my own business … or learned another language.”

Joel: “Yeah, innit! Or bought Bitcoin at the right time!”

Of course, Paul Weller’s probably made about four more albums during the last year.

“Yeah, he probably has. And an NFT, and everything else.”

That flummoxed me, and even after I’d looked it up online, I still don’t truly get what the hell that is. Something to do with cryptocurrency, apparently. But maybe you already know that. In fact, maybe I just misheard Joel. Perhaps he was off for his tea soon, eager to get through a day of gruelling interviews that will sit around gathering dust for a couple of months (sorry, complaining again).

Anyway, what have you two missed most this last year that you might not have realised would be an issue back in March 2020?

Joel: “Pubs.”

Ellie: “Shows. Post-show parties. Ha! Dancing.”

Joel: “I’m trying to remember what we did after the release of ‘Yuk Foo’, because once the album process starts, we’ll be in the basement of an HMV waiting to go upstairs … so this is different, but it’s very much like that for me at the moment. People are like, ‘The sun’s out!’ But I’m also watching the telly a lot.”

According to Joff in my first Wolf Alice interview, Joel had a bit of a reputation back then as chief instigator of the Wolf Alice after-show party. Not as if he owned up to that. But this Glastonbury Festival may well prove a challenge in that respect, I suggested, guessing it wouldn’t be so easy to slip backstage to see friends and catch other bands on the bill.

Joel: “Not for me, Malcolm. I know exactly what I’m going to do! No, I don’t really. Actually, Alana from Haim texted me yesterday. We don’t know how it’s going to work, but it will be so nice to watch the music, and hopefully if we’re doing it the same day as other people …

“Their last record has blown me away, so I’ll just be happy to watch Haim … and then go off to a caravan somewhere. That’ll be nice.”

And I guess you’re itching to get back out on the road again.

Ellie: “Of course, yeah!”

It’s been a long time, after all.

Joel: “Yep, but … January … there’s a few tickets left! Where are you based?”

Not far from Preston, Lancashire. And my youngest has already snapped up tickets with friends for Manchester Apollo.

Joel: “Ah, that’s cool. I remember playing Preston … 53 Degrees, after a particularly heavy night beforehand with Superfood … when we lost Ryan for a bit.”

That’ll be Ryan Malcolm of Dirty Hit label-mates Superfood, a Birmingham outfit who played their ‘last show for a while’ at La Scala in London two years ago.

Perhaps I should have asked a bit more about that big night out in May 2014. I saw nine shows at 53 Degrees that year but somehow missed that occasion. But Ellie and Joel had more interviews lined up, and my time was ebbing away. Reckon someone can fill me in on all that now, mind. Pray tell, pop kids.

Blue Weekend is out tomorrow, June 4th, via Dirty Hit Records, and available on all digital platforms, plus vinyl, CD and cassette.

UK & Ireland tour, January 2022: Wed 5 Glasgow Barrowland (extra date), Fri 7 Glasgow Barrowland (sold out), Sat 8 Glasgow Barrowland (sold out), Sun 9 Newcastle City Hall (sold out), Mon 10 Norwich UEA (sold out), Wed 12 Manchester Apollo (sold out), Thu 13 Manchester Apollo (extra date), Fri 14 Sheffield Academy (sold out), Sat 15 Liverpool University (sold out), Tue 18 London Apollo (sold out), Wed 19 London Apollo (extra date), Sat 22 Southampton Guildhall (sold out), Sun 23 Bexhill On Sea De La Warr Pavilion (sold out), Mon 24 Dublin Olympia Theatre (sold out), Tue 25 Dublin Olympia Theatre (sold out), Thu 27 Birmingham Academy (sold out), Fri 28 Plymouth Pavilions, Sun 30 Bristol Academy (sold out), Mon 31 Bristol Academy (sold out). 

The cinematic premiere of a short film celebrating Blue Weekendan album-length feature exploring the camaraderie, nights out and relationships that form the backbone of the LP, directed by Jordan Hemingway (Gucci, Raf Simons, Comme Des Garcons, and promo videos for ‘The Last Man on Earth’, ‘Smile’ and ‘No Hard Feelings’ – takes place at Picturehouse Central, Soho, London on Thursday, June 10th, with screenings at 6.30pm and 8.45pm, the band performing a special acoustic set before each. You can watch the film trailer here

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Over the Birling Gap with The Catenary Wires – the Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey interview

Clifftop Pop: The Catenary Wires’ Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher at Birling Gap. Photo: Beryl Pursey

It was meant to be. The day we spoke, May 24, opening with me listening to Tallulah by The Go-Betweens, that 1987 taste of striped sunlight including a namecheck for that date on the evocative ‘Bye Bye Pride’.

And 1987 also happened to be the year I saw Amelia Fletcher’s breakthrough band Talulah Gosh support The Wedding Present at the University of London Union. Does she remember much about that mid-May night?

“I remember it being quite good. I think they gave us Smarties in the dressing room, to make us feel really cute.”

“Bit patronising!”

“I know!”

That second voice belongs to Rob Pursey, Amelia’s partner, fleetingly part of Talulah Gosh and going on to feature alongside her in Heavenly, Marine Research – all three recording sessions for legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel – plus Tender Trap, as well as more recent additions to the music CV like Sportique. Not as if Rob stuck around too long with the former outfit.

“I left Talulah Gosh after the first three gigs. All the Smarties stuff never really happened for me. I went back to Bristol, Chris (Scott) taking over on bass. I was on the first demo but not any records. You’d never know I was there.

“Back in Bristol I played in The Five Year Plan, a band I started when I was really young. We didn’t really get very far. We did a single and got on to Peel once. I think the idea was we would do more, but it didn’t work out. I went back to live in Oxford … then Heavenly started.”

At this point, Amelia interjects.

“Although there is now a Five Year Plan album coming out. They finally pooled all their songs, however many years later.”

“Yeah, the songs were really good. I’ve listened again recently. But they never got properly recorded. We had no money, and messed things up. Tim (Rippington, later with Bristol lo-fi pop outfit Beatnik Filmstars), the singer, is now capable of recording stuff and started putting it all together. I’ve been playing the basslines.”

In fact, there’s an interview with Dave Squire about The Five Year Plan and predecessors The Inane, linked here. Did the ‘not making it big’ aspect sharpen Rob’s resolve to try again, seeing the comparative success Talulah Gosh managed after he left, thinking perhaps he should have stuck at it?

Wires Guys: The Catenary Wires shape up at their local disco under the mirrorball. Clockwise from the top left – Amelia Fletcher, Andy Lewis, Fay Hallam, Rob Pursey, Ian Button. Photo collage: Ed Mazzucco.

“No, being in Talulah Gosh was a bit of a nightmare, really … but being in Heavenly was really good fun. Talulah Gosh was all a bit helium-filled, going from nothing to being too much, quite quickly.”

It’s odd when you’re doing a Zoom interview with two people. I look to the right of my screen – Rob’s left – and get the feeling Amelia might want to add her own explanation of a band all too easily dismissed by music journalists back then as ‘twee’.

“I don’t know if you saw the piece in Mojo that’s just come out. They wanted to do one of those ‘hello and goodbye’ things. I had to check out the dates of when I met Liz (Elizabeth Price), and when the first and last gigs were, and the time between meeting Liz, inviting her to being in a band and our first gig was around three and a half months. And that gig got loads of people watching us and got us on to page three of NME. It was remarkably quick, the whole thing somewhat insane.”

Talulah Gosh formed in 1986 when Amelia (vocals, guitar, principal songwriter) and Liz (vocals), both wearing Pastels badges, met at a club in Oxford, the original line-up also including Amelia’s younger brother Mathew Fletcher (drums), Peter Momtchiloff (lead guitar), and Rob (then Chris).

And it was near full circle for me catching Amelia and Rob – ‘still in love with making pop songs with complex messages’ – at The Continental, Preston, 30 years later, supporting The Wedding Present again in 2017 in their current guise as The Catenary Wires.

I wrote at the time, ‘Rob sat down and played guitar, Amelia sang and added apologetic ukulele, and they sang about their love, Margate Pier, and much more. There was a brief mention of past times and My Favourite Dress too, although Amelia was just remarking on what she was wearing’.

For many of us who rode that second half of the ‘80s indie wave, Amelia is perhaps better known for her distinctive vocals with The Wedding Present, not least on seminal debut LP, George Best, another 1987 landmark.

She also guested for Hefner, and toured with and was guest vocalist for South Wales indie darlings The Pooh Sticks (more of whom later), while also contributing to tracks for The 6ths, The Hit Parade, and Bristol’s The Brilliant Corners, as well as playing keyboards for Sportique.

But it’s The Catenary Wires I’m really here to talk about here. I was a little late to the party, but have caught up since, and on the morning of our interview returned to their first two LPs before a sneak preview of the new one. And there’s definitely evolution there, I suggested to them. The songcraft was always apparent, but what was rather sparse on album one has moved up to a rather full-blown affair by the third, complete with some wonderful multi-harmonies.

These days, Amelia and Rob are joined by Paul Weller’s former bass player Andy Lewis, also an acclaimed producer; keyboard player Fay Hallam, who made her name in Makin’ Time, a solo artist and revered Hammond organ player; and drummer Ian Button (Thrashing Doves, Death in Vegas), who also features – with Andy – in Pete Astor’s band.

While their sound is arguably far richer on this new record, what hasn’t left Amelia and Rob is their grasp of the art of songwriting, even if this is very much a band record as opposed to a two-piece affair like their debut record six years ago.

Rob: “Yeah, I think we were lucky with the people we’ve ended up working with. When you saw us, it was just the two of us …”

And that worked too, I should add.

Rob: “I think we got away with it in the bigger places. In Preston, it felt a bit intimidating because we were quite quiet, although people, remarkably, did seem to shut up and listen mostly.”

That’s rather typical of today’s Wedding Present audience, I’d say, as also seen with the warmth afforded fellow support acts such as fellow WriteWyattUK interviewee Vinny Peculiar. Anyway, carry on, Rob.

“I think we were a bit non-committed about whether we were a band or not, but then Andy (Lewis), who plays bass and produced the second and third albums, liked it. He’s an amazing bassist, Ian (Button) is an incredible drummer who lives down the road, and Fay (Hallam), who we knew of through Makin’ Time … turns out was an incredibly near neighbour. Andy produced her record, and she also ended up in the band, so we ended up with this incredible set of people – all much better musicians than us!”

Funnily enough, the interview I did last week, which I should really have put up online today until I was distracted by your new LP and putting some questions together …

Amelia: “Sorry!”

… was with Andy Strickland, centred around a new Cherry Red compilation featuring The Loft. So you could argue that I’ve gone from one branch of indie pop royalty to another …

Amelia: “Well, Andy and Ian these days also play with Pete Astor.”

I was going to say that, as Pete mentioned when we spoke last year, when you were both doing linked online lockdown gigs in lieu of the real thing, your plans to tour together scuppered by pandemic restrictions. In fact, I’d lost sight of Andy Lewis’ moves since his days with Paul Weller. Who got Andy and Ian on board first – you or Pete?

Rob: “I think probably us, as a producer. He saw us play as a duo in Paris. He was with Spearmint, who we did dates with on and off. Talking to him, we thought, ‘This guy, we could work with him’. He said he’d turn up at our place, plug in and do it.

“That’s how we met, and there was a really strange coincidence. Asking for directions, we told him he’d have never heard of this tiny village where we live, Rolvenden Layne. We said it’s near Tenterden, Kent. Turned out he’d been there, as Fay lived 300 yards away. And we never knew. Wish we had, but we’ve since became mates and she’s joined the band, so it did seem like fate, meeting our neighbour through Andy!”

Iconic, Ironic: Amelia Fletcher atop Birling Gap, on East Sussex’s chalky cliffs, waiting for the band to show

Rob was studying English at Oxford when he met Amelia, helping put together Talulah Gosh towards the end of his degree course.

“I ran out of grant money, so ended up going back. But I didn’t know what to do with my life, so ended up going back to Oxford to do a PhD. While Heavenly was going on, I was supposedly writing an English literature thesis.”

Amelia: “I came from a little village near Oxford and went to school there, but by the time I met Rob, I was also at university. When I was a first year, he was a third year, and when I finished, we started Heavenly. I was like, ‘How do we keep this going without getting a job and ruining it all?’ So I did a PhD as well, so we could do music.”

All these years on, there are obviously day jobs to support your music. It doesn’t pay the mortgage, right?

Amelia: “Certainly not.”

Rob: “I worked in TV for a long time, running a production company. While we were doing Marine Research and Tender Trap, I was making TV drama. But maybe because we’ve only ever done it for the love of it, that’s perhaps why we’ve never stopped. There’s never any contractual obligation to write a song.

“Having said that, I take it more seriously now than pretty much since I was in The Five Year Plan in Bristol. When you’ve that passion … I’m really into it now, maybe because I’m writing songs, which I never used to.”

That shows in the finished product, and doing it for the love of it rather than chasing contracts, chart places, riches and world success is something I hear so much these days from my interviewees, irrespective of varying degrees of past success in the business, most of them now doing it on their own terms for all the right reasons.

Rob: “It is purely for the fun of it. When we started The Catenary Wires, we felt we’d moved to the middle of nowhere. There was no scene, we just had a little acoustic guitar lying around, and were idly playing tunes by the fireside to keep ourselves company. Then things started to happen again.

“This time around – maybe because I gave up my job a couple of years ago so had more time to concentrate on writing songs – we thought we’d start a label as well, something we always wanted to do and that we talked about when we first met. And doing a label is exciting because of the range – digitally or on vinyl, there’s so much scope for getting music out there.”

Furthermore, it seems that one band has never been enough for either of you.

Mind the Gap: Rob Pursey, of the Kent & East Sussex Home Guard, on a recce from Walmington-on-Sea

Rob: “I think lockdown’s a bit to blame for that. There was another idea that was hanging around. I’d written a song clearly too punky for The Catenary Wires, and ages ago when Amelia was singing with The Pooh Sticks, I wondered if Hue (Williams, their vocalist) would like to do it. Years passed and I never did anything about it, but he was clearly as bored as we were when I sent it to him during lockdown! He sang it into his phone in a cupboard in his house in Wales, then we put it all together, and Swansea Sound was born.”

Which brings me on to the second focus of my interview. I’ve only heard two Swansea Sound tracks so far, but love ‘Indies of the World’ and ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’, I tell them.

Amelia: “Well, there’s now a whole album made!”

Rob: “That’s going to come out in November maybe.”

You seem to be vying with yourself to knock each band off the top of the charts.

Rob: “Knock ourselves out of the bottom of the charts, more like! Yeah, it feels very different. With The Catenary Wires, the songwriting’s very much the two of us, while with Swansea Sound they’re all my songs, and Amy’s been very kind to let me record them.”

Amelia: “And I quite like it because it seems I can add as many backing vocals as I like. Rob never says no, whereas in The Catenary Wires it’s, ‘Nah, that one’s not really any good’. Here, it’s anything goes!”

I should add that Amelia didn’t mention her own career path outside music, but she read economics at Oxford, going on to complete a D. Phil, various high-profile roles following, including that of chief economist and director of mergers at the Office of Fair Trading and a professorship at the University of East Anglia, Amelia awarded an OBE in 2014 and a CBE in 2020.

Then there’s Rob’s small screen work, including the MD’s position at Touchpaper Television, the executive producer of BBC drama series Being Human also writing and producing Coming Up, Single-Handed and The Vice, his script editing roles including those for The Bill, Inspector Morse, Sharpe, Kavanagh QC, and Goodnight, Mister Tom.

So now you know. But they were unlikely to tell me all that. And this from a couple who started out in a band that also included a 2012 Turner Prize winner (Elizabeth Price) and senior commissioning editor for Oxford University Press (Peter Momtchiloff).

Anyway, over the scope of three Catenary Wires albums, it’s not obvious where you went from a duo to a five-piece, even though this latest LP is so much richer and multifaceted. The one in the middle, Til the Morning, suggests you were always heading this way, and I wonder if this is what you were planning all along.

Amelia: “It’s just how we felt at the time of each record. I don’t think there was a grand plan. It’s interesting that you were talking about that Preston gig, as we talked to David Gedge (The Wedding Present frontman) there. He’d seen us for the first time, not knowing what to expect. It was Rico (La Rocca, Preston-based Tuff Life Boogie promoter) that booked us. But he was really taken with it.

“We said, ‘We’re really not sure what to do with this. We feel it needs more than just the two of us.’ He said it would be really good with more, but don’t ruin it by just going all-out rock – don’t just get a standard drummer and bassist, that will lose what’s precious about it. That was really good advice and we kept that in mind while building up the band. Even Ian, a really good, proper drummer – also in Swansea Sound – plays differently, very gently. He plays a suitcase, because it made less noise!”

Rob: “When we started out as the two of us, that was a good discipline. When there’s just guitar, the words and tunes have to be really good. And we still do that. Nearly all the songs on the new album we can still do as a duo – they pass that test, even if some have got a little elongated, because there was room for more. It’s easy when you practise and you’ve two-thirds of a song to say, ‘What shall we do in that bit? I’ll turn my guitar pedal on, go really loud for a bit, then go back to where we were’. I’m bored of all that. Noise is great, but …”

It’s interesting they mention David Gedge in that respect. For me, his side-project, Cinerama, was a band that seemed to get more guitar-driven with every LP, beyond their original more orchestrated, filmic roots, until it was pretty clear he’d more or less reconvened The Wedding Present in spirit. And I say that as someone who loves both bands.

Also, on at least a couple of your tracks this time, I suggested to my interviewees, that mix of great songcraft, melodic pop and darker moments puts The Catenary Wires somewhere between Belle and Sebastian, Cinerama and The Divine Comedy … which at least alphabetically I suppose they are.

Rob: “I can’t really argue with that. I hope it’s not self-conscious in a bad way, but that’s one thing I learned when we were recording the second album with Andy. He’s a really smart guy, a very good producer and also very articulate. When the songs weren’t quite finished, I’d say, ‘This one’s about this,’ and a lot of the songs are about England in one way or another. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could articulate what we’re saying about aspects of English people or English lives – without resorting to pastiche – but echoing some of those styles that would have been listened to by the people in the songs’.

“So we have something like ‘Canterbury Lanes’, about idealistic people who were part of the Canterbury scene of the early ‘70s and what went wrong for them … We live quite near, I got quite curious about it, and for the first time in my life I listened to Caravan, having already listened to Robert Wyatt a lot …”

No relation, by the way, although that was my Dad’s name.

“Ah, I love Robert Wyatt, but came to him via the ‘Shipbuilding’ route.”

Like many from our generation and beyond, perhaps.

“Yeah, it’s not really my kind of music, but I was really intrigued by the almost naive idealism that was there a long time before punk. Canterbury now is such a music-free city, so it’s amazing to think in a town once at the heart of a really interesting scene, there’s barely any gigs anymore. That’s quite sad.

“I suppose what I’m saying is we try to be more ambitious, making the lyrics and music fuse with each other rather than just be the background for each other.”

Regarding the lyrical aspect, there’s some spot-on imagery on this LP, not least the symbolic emphasis on Birling Gap, this crumbling, iconic English location on the South Coast used as a metaphor for our post-Brexit existence under a right-wing Government amid plenty of flag-waving nonsense. That’s my spin, anyway. In their words, ‘where steep chalk cliffs resist the rough seas of the English Channel’ and ‘where iconic images of England are created and re-created … A landscape beloved of patriots – the sturdy white cliffs standing proud and strong against the waves. It’s also a place where people, despondent and doomed, have thrown themselves off the cliffs.  It’s where The Cure shot the ‘Just Like Heaven’video. It’s where romantic lovers go for passionate storm-tossed assignations’.  

Rob: “There’s a song called ‘Three-Wheeled Car’ about a Brexit-supporting couple who’ve gone to look at the cliff and the sea to celebrate the splendid isolation of being English, but then (plot-spoiler) the car goes over the edge of the cliff, so it’s like a suicide pact.

“There’s also the irony that the reason those cliffs stay so white and are getting whiter is because the erosion is getting worse. The chalk gets cleaned every time a lump falls off and there’s a fresh face of chalk. The whiter and more English the cliffs become, the greater climate change is.”

Amelia: “Actually, when you were asking your question, I thought you were saying ‘crumbly and ironic, like you are!’”

Amid the pandemic and its dire consequences this past year and a half, there have been plenty of online lockdown engagements for The Catenary Wires, suggesting a continuing love of  performing, as seen in recent cracking filmed takes on Ramones’ ‘She’s the One’, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, The Mamas & The Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’, and Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s ‘Lady Bird’. Any chance of them following Pete Astor’s You Made Me lead and releasing a covers LP?

Rob: “Maybe. I don’t know. The only reason that Velvet Underground song happened was that we’ve friends in North Kent, part of that Medway scene, having a virtual lock-in. It felt like being part of that gang really. We don’t have much musically in common, but it was nice being in a pub with them, and to be in the pub you’ve got to do a cover on the theme Kevin (Younger) – who runs it – dictates.

Amelia: “We have to come up with a song nobody else thought of.”

Rob: “‘Pale Blue Eyes’, for example, was because it was body parts!”

In a sense there was no huge surprise when you tackled ‘Lady Bird’. As early as Red Red Skies’ ‘The Records We Never Play’, you’ve sounded like a UK take on Nancy and Lee. So perhaps that influence was always there, fitting well with the way your voices blend.

Rob: “In a way that’s because I can only sing low. When we started, we were listening to a few things, and there aren’t that many good duets around. We also listened to ‘Jackson’ (covered by Nancy and Lee, but also Johnny Cash and June Carter). The way they do it can be really witty and quite moving. And Nancy and Lee are what we’d probably aspire to.”

In fact, as they put it, perhaps this is what ‘Nancy and Lee would have sounded like if they were still around, watching California become the home of digital giants and the scene of terrifying forest fires’.

You mentioned recently how in the early days it was all too easy for music writers to use terms like ‘twee’ to describe your past ventures, lazily dismissing so much, stressing that those ‘apparently sweet and fizzy’ songs ‘were always smarter and darker than they seemed, while the band were radically independent, and an influential part of the movement that became riot grrrl’. With that in mind, I wondered if The Catenary Wires’ debut LP, with its more stark, dark delivery, was a reaction to that – redressing the balance. As you say, ‘Indie pop comes of age’. There’s certainly a harder edge that wasn’t so obvious before.

Amelia: “I think that’s right. I also think with the first Catenary Wires album, lots of people who liked our earlier bands didn’t like it that much. I think the songwriting wasn’t that different – the aesthetic in terms of songwriting. It was so much sadder and introverted and contemplative (though), so lots of people who liked Heavenly-type songs were thinking, ‘What are they doing?’.

“That was quite useful in us letting people know we’re setting out our stall, doing something quite different. I think the new album’s more poppy, so in a way it’s more of a reversion, but it’s progress – quite different to what we were doing earlier.”

Rob: “I suppose it’s more political.”

Amelia: “Yeah, that’s true.”

Rob: “Because I write a lot of the songs, and in Heavenly …”

Amelia: “He staged a takeover, basically … Heavenly was my dictatorship. It’s all gone a bit democratic now!”

Rob: “And in the case of Swansea Sound, revenge is sweet! But what I liked about Heavenly’s songs was that they were really true about what it was like to be 20-something. When Amy wrote a song about date-rape and that. The romantic side was always undercut by a sense of what the truth might be like, and the risks of male/female relationships …

“But on this new record … we are the age we are, so I thought it should be as true about the experience of middle age as we were about being younger.”

As they would have it, ‘The tunes are vehicles for startlingly honest adult concerns: the fractured relationships, anxieties, passions and politics of people who live on an island that’s turning in on itself.’  

You’ve family of your own too. That must add extra perspective.

Rob: “Yeah, we’ve two kids, and also when we moved to the countryside we needed somewhere big enough to house my Mum and Amelia’s mum, so I suppose we’re quite typical of middle-age people, all under one roof. Amy’s mum passed away a few years ago, but we wanted to write about that, because I thought nobody writes about that. This is an attempt to express what it’s like when somebody’s in the waiting room really. She was quite ill for a long time, then there was a period where she was still with us but barely, so that little bleep in ‘Liminal’ is really the life support bleep.

“It’s an attempt to write songs that hopefully young people like as well but people our age will go, ‘Ah yeah, I get that.”

On a similar front, with regard to Matthew (their former bandmate and Amelia’s brother, who took his own life in 1996), I see you’ve recently shared some precious memories on social media. You lost him so young. Do certain songs put you back in the moment, and through your music are you keeping those memories with you?

Amelia: “That’s a really interesting question. It was funny doing that Ramones song, because I got his jacket (a leather jacket with a hand-painted Ramones band logo) out and wore it for the video. I’d never done that before. I wasn’t even sure it wasn’t going to fall apart!”

Is that right that he created sleeve art for Heavenly?

Amelia: “He did, and we’ve been going through those in lockdown, partly because we did a Heavenly singles album, going through all the boxes. There are so many pictures of him and we found all the sleeve art, with his writing on it – instructions for the printers.”

Rob: “When he died, Heavenly went off a cliff. We dealt with it but also hadn’t in a way, because we hadn’t listened to those songs and hadn’t looked at those pictures. We carried on doing music in a tentative way, and over the course of the past year through putting that singles album out and people seeming to like it, it made us look and listen to all that again. That was really nice … although obviously sad.

“Funnily enough, doing Swansea Sound, I think about him more. I think he would have liked that.”

Amelia: “He would have really liked that!”

Rob: “Because it’s noisy, and I loved playing with him because playing bass with his drums was really good fun – like running down a hill not being quite sure if you’re going to fall over before you reach the bottom! And there’s a bit of that spirit around now.”

Amelia: “It is interesting, that use of songwriting to get to deal with things. I think with Matthew, because it was so long ago, I would say with The Catenery Wires I don’t think we’ve written any songs about Matthew. But with Marine Research and Tender Trap, there were quite a lot of songs about him, and it was part of the grieving process. It really did help us think it all through.”

Rob: “Also, we were really young when he died, so you’re not really equipped … nobody’s really equipped to deal with the death of somebody that young. But when you’re older, you’re closer to death anyway, and also we had Amelia’s mum with us …”

And we also understand more about responsibility now, maybe, compared to teenage years.

Rob: “I do often think about what he would think about a song, or how he’d really like our kids, but never met them. So, you’re aware of a gap. And when we’re playing live, I’ll think about him – that’s where we had the most fun.”

As for the new record, there’s a ‘60s road movie feel in places, and you do those big songs justice through the full band treatment. It’s complex and epic in places, but never loses sight of the importance of the melodies. And from opening song, the stirring, sweeping ‘Face on the Rail Line’ – with a video link here, described as ‘a love song set in the now, but shot through with the anxiety and paranoia that we all feel, living at a time when we are constantly in contact, but rarely communicate the truth’ – the harmonies come at you, putting me in mind of Graham Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’ from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on. And perhaps teaching your children well is all we can do, with regard to what’s going on politically, environmentally and so on, extolling the virtues of the best things about this country.

Rob: “Yeah, living down here, you meet quite a lot of people who would have voted leave. And they’re nice people – I don’t think they’re idiots. They had their reasons, although some might regret it now. I also had lots of friends who were ardent remainers, and they were tone deaf – with no capability of hearing the voice of people who disagreed with them, falling into that trap of becoming complacent and patronising. And they haven’t come to terms with it all.”

Marine Research: With Rob, Amelia and Peter Momtchiloff joined by Cathy Rogers and John Stanley

You can probably count me among them. I certainly prefer a social media bubble around me, being surrounded by people who tend to think similarly, perhaps in denial about how this selfish, deceptive elite in charge ‘took control’.

Rob: “Yeah, we all do, but I was going to say if ‘Three-Wheeled Car’ is about a leave couple who basically signed a suicide pact – but at least it’s a British suicide pact! – ‘Alpine’ is about two middle-class people who like going on holiday together in Europe, remainers considering themselves sophisticated but get (spoiler alert, part two) trapped in ice, frozen in their own complacency. So I suppose I was trying to be equally ungenerous to both sides!”

‘Alpine’ is another great example of all that’s good about this 10-track long player. Beneath the layers of Andy Lewis’ spot-on production there’s that neat blend of conversational-style vocals again. It’s almost a Bond theme, but it’s part-John Barry, part-Burt Bacharach, dreamy yet somehow majestic too. And yet, at the same time, I could hear The Wedding Present cover this one.

I didn’t say that to them at the time though. Besides, Amelia had her own spin on it all.

“When you said, ‘extolling the virtues of the best things about this country’, I did think this album’s more of a depressing portrait of our country!”

True, but we can be patriots without the flag-waving, right? Maybe those of us who complain and march against all this do it because we love this country and don’t want it going to seed.

Rob: “Yeah, and I completely love it … and the thing about Birling Gap – it’s the most incredibly beautiful place.”

Meanwhile, your indie spirit lives on, as seen in starting your own label and making your own videos. Was there a link there to your previous day-job, Rob?

“Yeah, the reason I ended up in TV was because of Heavenly. For our first single, someone had to make a video – the new thing – and I said I’d do it. And when it got on the telly, I felt, ‘Wow, this is exciting’. That’s why I ended up thinking I’d try and get a job doing that. I tried to make videos for other bands, but couldn’t do it though – when you’re stuck in an editing suite with somebody else’s song for two days, unless you really like it, it drives you round the bend.”

This album depicts England, not just in its lyrics, but also in its music, the band having ‘listened to the songs and stories England has comforted itself with over the decades, and re-imagined them’, Rob and Amelia taking on ‘the personae of duetting couples from different moments in pop history’.

Take for example the afore-mentioned ‘Canterbury Lanes’, starring a pair of folk-rock musicians, ‘old now and worn down, but still aspiring to put their band back together, hoping to rekindle the idealistic flames of the 1970s’, their arrangement ‘hinting at the acoustic guitars and harmonies of those long-lost Canterbury Scene bands’. 

There’s definitely a ‘60s feel and pure singalong pop on ‘Always on my Mind’, its protagonists ‘rediscovering long-lost love almost by surprise, conjured up by an old photo in a pile of memorabilia’. That said, it’s as current as it is retro, caught somewhere between Sandie Shaw and Stereolab, with Andy adding Beatlesque bass. In short, it should be blaring out of transistor radios all summer … if we all still had one.

‘Be Jason to my Kylie’. ‘Sure, if you’ll be Wah! Heat to my Wylie’;

‘Yeah, I’m happy too. I wish we’d come here sooner’;

‘Yes, me too. But we were far too young then, far too cool’.’

And then there’s the wondrous ‘Mirror Ball’, delivered like the best moments of Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, made for radio; an unattached middle-aged couple finding unexpected love at a retro ‘80s disco (‘Lost in the maelstrom of commercial synth-pop, they find that, for the first time in their lives, those hackneyed expressions of love and desire actually do make emotional sense’).

While that ‘80s feel is there, there was something else in that song I struggled to place until it came to me … ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’ by Kent-born former Humble Pie and The Herd guitarist/singer-songwriter Peter Frampton. And I get the impression I’m not the first to mention that, right?

Rob: “I think it might have been Andy who mentioned that. Yeah, there’s an echo of it in there.”

Amelia: “But it wasn’t intended when we wrote it … as far as I know!”

If nothing else, you’ve dragged that melody kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Rob: “All I can say is I’m really pleased you’ve mentioned that and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. That makes me feel like we’ve achieved something. Those are not twee things!”

Amelia: “Rob was brought up in a little village called Frampton Cotterell, and of course there’s (big-selling mid-’70s Peter Frampton live LP) Frampton Comes Alive! Although perhaps Frampton Cotterell never actually came alive!”

Rob: “One of the biggest jokes for us for years was saying to each other, in this really boring village, ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’.”

Incidentally, Frampton Cotterell was not only namechecked by Rob’s Five Year Plan prototype The Inane’s The Only Fun in Frampton Cotterell download, but also Monty Python’s ‘North Minehead By-Election’ back in the day, starring John Cleese as rather familiar-looking National Bocialist candidate Adolph Hilter. But that’s clearly another story.

There’s plenty of quality throughout Birling Gap, not least on closing songs, ‘Like the Rain’ and ‘The Overview Effect’, the latter another with a Cinerama feel, blending timeless 60s pop sensibilities, described as ‘anxious love songs, set in a fragile world’. And while only a few listens in, I can tell this long player will remain on my playlist for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, there’s also the chance to catch Swansea Sound live when, all being well, they play the Preston Pop festival in August.

Rob: “Brilliant, yeah. I really hope that happens. That should be good fun.”

Tuff Life Boogie always come up with amazing bills, usually Peel-related.

Rob: “It looks fantastic. Fingers crossed it works out. Although it will be weird – that’ll be the first time Swansea Sound have actually met each other in person.”

Amelia: “We will have practised beforehand, but so far Ian and Hue have never met each other, despite being in the same band.”

How did you come up with that name, anyway? Surely it should be a half-and-half thing – part-South Walian, part-Kentish.

Rob: “It was Hue’s idea, and we thought it was good. I thought it was going to be a joke band rather than a proper one, so wanted to call it Tribute to The Pooh Sticks. I’m glad we didn’t – it wouldn’t have been fair on Steve (Gregory), whose band it was.

“Swansea Sound was a radio station, on September 1st last year taken over by this hideous corporate franchise, becoming Greatest Hits Radio. So it was really pleasing for us that the name and the logo were vacated as a result. But it obviously means something different to people in South Wales. And the next single we’re putting out is ‘Swansea Sound’, a sort of lament.”

There must be something about that approach. Wasn’t the single ‘Talulah Gosh’ (which featured in John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 1987) the fourth your first band released, Amelia? You do seem a little slow with your introductions.

Amelia: “That’s true! And the other thing about Swansea Sound having been a radio station is that on our page on Facebook, we quite often get emails from people wanting to announce local Swansea news!”

Maybe it’s time for a rebrand. Perhaps you could become Swansea Layne. It’s at least worthy of a rather psychedelic B-side.

Rob: “Ooh, I’ll tell Hue that.”

Behind You: Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher at Birling Gap, East Sussex, 2021. Photo: Beryl Pursey

Birling Gap is released on Skep Wax Records on Friday, June 18th, distributed internationally by Cargo. In the US, it will be on Shelflife Records, distributed by MVD. The album is available for pre-order now via good record stores and The LP is also set to feature on Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Party at 8pm on Monday, June 21st.

For the latest from The Catenary Wires, check out their websiteTwitter and Facebook pages, and head to And for the latest from Swansea Sound, head to

Furthermore, Bizarro Promotions has organised a short tour by The Catenary Wires, Pete Astor (The Loft/Weather Prophets) and European Sun (another Rob Pursey band project) for September, calling at: Friday 3rd – The Thunderbolt, Bristol; Saturday 4th – Amersham Arms, New Cross, London; Friday 10th – The Oast, Rainham; Saturday 11th – The Piper, St Leonards-on-Sea (tickets to be arranged); Sunday 12th (afternoon) – The Albert, Brighton; Friday 24th – Fusion Arts Centre, Oxford; Saturday 25th – The Tin Music & Arts, Coventry (without no European Sun).

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Room at the top – The Loft and beyond with Andy Strickland

Three and a half decades after they dramatically broke up, mid-song, on a London stage on the final night of a nationwide tour, The Loft continue to inspire, with interest in this influential four-piece seemingly perpetual and having just led to a new retrospective compilation.

Compiled and coordinated by the band, Ghost Trains & Country Lanes expands on previous collections featuring this cult mid-‘80s indie outfit, adding reunion recordings, a 2015 radio session, and several live recordings from Alan McGee’s seminal London venue The Living Room in 1984.

But as Danny Kelly, who goes way back with the band, ponders in his sleeve-notes for the new Cherry Red 30-track retrospective, ‘How can a band that, at its peak, released just two singles, be on to its third compilation album?’. He’s got a point, hasn’t he?

“Yeah, who’d have thought!”

That’s The Loft’s lead guitarist Andy Strickland, speaking to me from his home on the east coast of the Isle of Wight. You must be quite surprised, I venture, by the attention afforded this short-lived outfit over the years.

“I suppose surprised, but also really chuffed. Even between the catalogue of compilations … I’ve got mates down here who listen to a lot of (BBC) 6 Music, always winding me up, saying, ‘Bloody hell – I can’t get away from you! They were playing The Loft again last night!’. And because Gideon Coe and Marc Riley still play us, it seems to never go away.”

Quite right too.

“Yeah, and it’s interesting how it still sounds good. ‘Up the Hill and Down the Slope’ sounds magnificent on the radio, and we’ve definitely entered that legacy list. If someone puts together a best of indie from the mid-’80s, that’s got to be on it. And Cherry Red do a good job keeping us out there.

“It does get quite bizarre. Last year a guy put together a film about Scottish indie and wanted a video clip of us playing the Living Room (the London club run by Alan McGee, their only regular gig at the start). The obvious question was, ‘Do you know we’re not Scottish?’. But it turns out that’s the only footage anyone got of Alan’s venue.

“There was a very strange one a couple of years ago, an American TV series called Red Oaks, set in a (New Jersey) college town in the ‘80s. They had a student party and were playing ‘Why Does the Rain’. Our version, but I think sped up. I tracked it down. Something’s not right – it seems someone decided they needed to get to that chorus faster! And these things keep popping up all the time.”

The Loft were among the first crop of Creation Records bands, and arguably considered the most likely to break through, mega-success for Rough Trade’s The Smiths seeing guitar-based independent pop in vogue. And as Alan McGee’s Creation label turned heads, this London-based quartet offered a fresh, cool take on revered outfits like Lou Reed, Television, The Only Ones and The Modern Lovers.

Bar Four: The Loft sup up in the BBC club bar in September 2015 after their 6 Music Gideon Coe session

However, after just two great singles, ‘Why Does the Rain’ and ‘Up the Hill and Down the Slope’ –which the band also got to perform live on BBC 2’s The Oxford Road Show – they were gone, half-way through performing the latter at Hammersmith Palais, supporting The Colourfield, members going on to form new bands The Weather Prophets, The Caretaker Race, and The Wishing Stones.

They left behind just seven studio tracks, a December ’84 BBC Radio 1 Janice Long session, and a track from a Creation LP documenting the scene’s roots in McGee’s club. But their legend endured, eventually prompting an early 2000s reunion, Andy joined by fellow originals Pete Astor (vocals, guitar, principal songwriter), Bill Prince (bass), and Dave Morgan (drums), putting on several well-received live shows, releasing a new single, and later a Gideon Coe session for BBC 6 Music.

And still those songs receive plenty of airplay, The Loft’s reputation as founding fathers of a new breed of mid-‘80s indie pop continuing, often cited as influential, the new compilation seen by Cherry Red see as the definite tribute, including 17 unreleased tracks over two compact discs.

Andy was planning a trip to Sherborne, Dorset when I called, ready to meet his bandmates in The Chesterfields for the first time since the first 2020 lockdown, his first proper trip away in 15 months, give or take a halfway meet-up and pint outside a pub on a cold day in Guildford with his London-based youngest son. Not as if he’s complaining, not long ago returning across the Solent, where this ‘island boy’ was born and bred. As he put it, ‘There are worse places to be locked down’.

Mention of Guildford led to a brief discussion about my hometown, Andy recalling occasional trips as a teenager to the Civic Hall to catch live music.

“One I remember best was when we piled into a mate’s car – I think we were all in the sixth form – and drove up to see Penetration. We got there while they were soundchecking – the back door was open – and wandered in, stood against the wall watching. At the end of the soundcheck, bass player Rob Blamire came over and started chatting. When he realised we’d come up from the Isle of Wight, he was amazed, inviting us to the pub, buying us all a pint.

“Funnily enough, I was listening to Moving Targets yesterday in the car. I just love Pauline Murray’s voice. And of course, us teenage boys were all slightly in love with her!”

Meanwhile, my brother and a few mates occasionally headed the other way, down the A3 to see bands play Portsmouth.

“That was our main call for gigs. Nobody played the Isle of Wight. We saw everyone there, early punk gigs like The Clash and The Undertones at the Locarno, The Cure at the Poly or Art College quite early on, Buzzcocks, Ramones, and Ian Dury at the Guildhall, and before that, Thin Lizzy and Be Bop Deluxe.”

Getting back to Ghost Trains & Country Lanes, I’m often impressed by Cherry Red’s sleeve-notes, and there’s something else here – a brilliant timeline of The Loft, suggesting someone made great diary notes at the time.

“Yeah, I’ve a battered old briefcase containing loads of bits of paper, set-lists, receipts, posters, up in my studio room. Pete and I talked about what we could put in the booklet, to make it different from the last compilation apart from the extra tracks. We wanted photos that hadn’t been used before, and when I looked into what we were doing in 1984/85, this massive document emerged, which needed rather a lot of editing. I sent it round to the guys, everyone going, ‘Blimey, I remember that!’”

Well, I’m impressed.

“We thought people of our generation would like sitting there reading it while listening to the CDs. I love that sort of thing. I’ve been having a Beatles solo blast lately, loving going through those booklets.”

Tell me more about Alan McGee and his Living Room venue, which I understand started at The Adams Arms in June ’83.

“We saw an advert for it, and were at that time called The Living Room, so that was complete coincidence. There is disagreement among us about whether we changed our name because Alan suggested we ought to as it was too confusing. My memory is that Alan said we could play, but we’d have to change our name. Pete’s memory is that Alan wasn’t bothered but we just decided we should do it. He probably didn’t care.

“I also remember being in our little squatty practise house when one of Bill’s sisters’ friends said, ‘You’re obviously going up in the world, why don’t you call yourself The Loft?’. I think we went to the first or second night of the Living Room, and we’d go every time it was on. There wasn’t anywhere else like that.”

Have you made contact in recent years with original drummer, Andy Nott (who went on holiday to ‘Asia’ in May ’83 and was never seen again)?

“No, Andy disappeared, and nobody’s ever heard from him. People I know who knew him before I did have never heard from him either. He was a fascinating bloke, but wasn’t as good a drummer as Dave Morgan.”

It was clearly meant to be.

“Yeah, and one of the things I love about being part of The Loft is there’s only ever been four of us. A nice little club to be part of.”

Andy played in bands on the Isle of Wight before moving to the capital to study at the Polytechnic of Central London, rebranded the University of Westminster in the early ‘90s. And that’s where he met Bill Prince.

“When I went to London in 1980, I was staying in a hall of residence in Bolsover Street, off Oxford Street, turned up on Sunday afternoon – day one – and the very first person I saw was Bill, walking up the stairs carrying a bass guitar. We quickly fell in, became good mates and thought it would be nice to do something and try to find others to play with.”

“We lived in the same house for a few years while at college and a bit after, and always kept in touch. Since The Loft have been back in touch, we’ve had an annual tradition where we at least meet up once a year before Christmas, going out for an Italian meal and having a few drinks. The only thing we don’t talk about is The Loft … which is typical Loft, to be honest! Most people would reminisce, plan and plot for the future. Not us. We seem to cover everything else except that.”

Andy studied media studies at the Poly.

“Now it’s seen as like the antichrist, a bit of a belittled subject, but then … well, the people on my course included Danny Kelly, who went on to became a very well-known journalist and broadcaster, Bill ended up running GQ, we had people who got jobs at the Beeb, and people who went into Fleet Street. At that time, it was a mix of journalism, TV and video stuff. Quite a few got decent jobs.

“And because we were just around the corner from Broadcasting House, we had the likes of John Peel come and talk to us a few times. One of the strands on the course was radio and radio editing. I remember Peel – first time he came in – saying, ‘I’m not here today to talk about The Fall sessions. If you want to talk about The Fall, we’ll go to the pub after. Leave it till then.’ Of course, we made sure we went to the pub after, and he talked about The Fall.

“We really liked The Fall, and a few months after The Loft split, doing a piece on The Fall for Record Mirror, I was on their tour bus going to Rotterdam. At one point, Mark said, ‘’Ere, you were in that band The Loft, weren’t you? We loved that ‘Why Does the Rain’. Why did you split up?’ I told him, and he said, ‘We were going to invite you to come on tour with us’. We’d have given our right arms to go on tour with The Fall in 1985, so that was a real kick in the guts. When I told Pete that 10 years later, he was pretty gutted as well.

“I’ve a mate down here, when we were teenagers he started buying all the punk and new wave stuff, and had all the singles. It was at his house that we first heard the first Buzzcocks album. He had all the early Fall stuff. We’d have parties round his where we’d be leaping about to ‘Fiery Jack’ and all that. Good times!

“And when I was at Record Mirror, we went to see the team do the ballet thing with Mark. I think that was at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. In the bar after, Mark came out and asked what we thought … which you should never ask! We said we liked the music, and he said, ‘The trouble with you Londoners, I expect you go to the ballet every night!’ Erm, not exactly, Mark.”

Pete’s near-neighbour in Crouch End, Dave Morgan, was an important addition, his drumming making you the finished article. And not only for his playing, but also through knowing Alan McGee, I gather.

“Dave was playing The Communication Club, I think, before the Living Room, in the band 12 Cubic Feet, and knew Alan. I think Pete did most of the chatting with Alan though. He said, ‘I think Alan’s offered us a gig’. Me and Bill said, ‘What do you mean, you think he’s offered us a gig?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t quite understand everything he was saying’. We had to go back and ask!”

The first Loft appearance at the Living Room came in early December 1983, supporting The TV Personalities, the band quickly becoming support regulars, despite a fire regulations breach seeing the club night switch venues.

All these years on, Alan remains an infectious character, doesn’t he – fired up and inspirational.

“He is. His energy and enthusiasm and the bullshit he was able to generate back then was phenomenal! We haven’t got a bad word to say about him. We only ever had a handshake deal, about making records. We never signed anything. But as far as we were concerned and as he was concerned, that’s still the case now.”

Have you seen the dramatised biopic based on Alan’s adventures, Creation Stories?

“I have. I enjoyed it for what it was – a sort of Carry On Creation based on Alan’s book. Delighted that we featured in the sleeves montage. I thought some of the casting was hilarious – namely the Joe Foster character and the fat Noel. I wasn’t expecting it to be a document – that’s what Danny O’Connor’s Upside Down did so brilliantly.”

How about Middlesex Poly student Pete joining? Was it a meeting of minds or just something that sparked, realising you’d work well together?

“Bill and I went to this pub gig in Islington (the Pied Bull at The Angel), because we thought my old island drummer mate Razzle (Nick Dingley, who died in late 1984, aged just 24, after a car crash in California during Hanoi Rocks’ first US tour). Turned out he wasn’t, but Pete’s band, News of Birds, were supporting a band. We thought he definitely had something about him, looked good, and we liked that Lou Reed-like voice.

“We got chatting after, asked if he’d be interested in joining us. He said he was busy with college and wasn’t that bothered, but a couple of weeks later rang to say he would come round – his intention was to tell us he was too busy to do anything. But we started playing, then he played a couple of songs and we joined in. He got a bit hooked and realised we worked quite well together.

“That was it really. We gave ourselves a year to rehearse and see what happened. We would have been in our final year. We took it incredibly seriously, Pete had so many songs, and we worked a lot on arrangements. He’d come along each week with something. He’d start playing and we’d watch what he was doing.

“It’s kind of the same now on rare occasions we get together to rehearse. Pete will start playing, and off we go. It’s a really good fit – you can be in loads of bands and don’t quite have that synchronicity. Those four people who are in The Loft, something about it just works.”

Was that originally at the squat in Tufnell Park, North London?

“We were rehearsing there for a while. My mate Russell had a squat with a practise room in it. We started when we were still at college, using that every Sunday. Then when we left college, Bill and I moved into a tiny house in Leyton, East London, and had the front room to rehearse there. We had drums there too. The neighbours didn’t seem to care.”

At 16 I started to get up to London more regularly, seeing Eleven – featuring The Undertones’ Mickey Bradley and Damian O’Neill – at The Marquee, and REM and Ramones at The Lyceum, and by the following summer was catching early shows by That Petrol Emotion all over town, at the same sort of venues … but sadly missed out on The Loft.

“We played a gig not long before we were on The Oxford Road Show at the Ambulance Station on the Old Kent Road (March 2nd, 1985), a sort of squat, and I remember Damian (O’Neill) came up to me – I was really excited because I loved The Undertones – and said, ‘I hear you guys have been asked to do a TV thing. Good luck with that – I hope it goes well!’.

“There were very few places bands like us could play at that time. When I moved to London, I’d read the back of the Melody Maker and think, ‘There’s hundreds of these gigs – this will be great!’ But actually, most were still sewn up by little agents and promoters. When we started playing the Living Room it was really the only place we could get a gig. We didn’t know anybody else.”

This new compilation includes live recordings from early June ’84 at The Roebuck, Tottenham Court Road, where The Living Room moved next, the band supporting Microdisney, with Glasgow outfit The Jesus and Mary Chain bottom of the bill.

“We played there a few times. The Living Room was there for a few months in a first-floor room, on a corner about halfway down that road between Euston and Oxford Street. Don’t know what it’s called now, but it’s still a pub.

“I’m not sure it was actually the first time the Mary Chain played London, but it was their first proper – in very sort of inverted commas! – gig in London. I think they did something the night before. They were on first and after we did a soundcheck, these strange looking characters were standing around. We went back downstairs to get a pint. Danny Kelly was with us. He said, ‘Come and have a look at this’. It was just screaming feedback. I thought, ‘This is just going to wreck my ears. I can’t stay in this room’. I disappeared, but think Pete And Danny stayed.”

Even when they were headlining shortly after, the sets were famously short.

“Yeah, they weren’t on very long that night. I think they may have done 10 minutes.”

But no doubt they left an impression.

“Yeah. What a racket!”

Do you remember much about Microdisney that night?

“We played with them a few times. I love Microdisney and got on well with Sean (O’Hagan). We’d lend each other amps and gear sometimes. That combination of gruff, almost punk vocals and the music … we really loved playing with them. They did Pebble Mill once, at the time presented by Tom O’Connor, the comedian. He introduced them, saying, ‘Now it’s time for some great mates of mine, Microdisney!’. I was thinking, ‘You ain’t got a clue who they are!’.

Talking of support bands going on to bigger things, fast forward to late summer ’88 and a cracking Steve Lamacq live review in the NME of your follow-up band, The Caretaker Race being outshone one night at The Falcon in London by The Sundays, on their way to major success. Does this highlight a rather unlucky element for bands you featured with? And did Steve’s review present a fair reflection of that night?

“Oh definitely. Harriet (Wheeler) had such a fantastic voice, and the way they played live and on that first album … they were very sympathetic and quite sparse. It was really all about the voice. They completely blew us off that night. Absolutely.

“In terms of the Mary Chain, that was the only time we played with them. I wouldn’t say they blew us off that night. There were probably only about five to 10 people who actually saw them. But I do think if they hadn’t exploded like they did and taken up all Alan’s time, he might have – although he wasn’t managing us, nobody was managing The Loft – had a word with Pete and said, ‘You guys need to get over this little hiccup – don’t split the band up, stick with it’. But he was so busy with the fact that the Mary Chain had gone crazy. He didn’t really have time for anything else.”

So many bands who fell through the cracks around then. But maybe they’re the ones I love most. Underdog spirit, I suppose.

“Yeah, there is something rather glorious about having your five or 10 minutes, then disappearing.”

It also goes with the John Peel factor – I wonder how many musicians I’ve interviewed who said all they really wanted initially was to record a Peel session and make a couple of singles.

“Yeah, I went up to London because I wanted to get into a proper band. Then I wanted to make a single, then we had an 18-month period where it went a bit bonkers. But that ticked a lot of boxes. The only one that was a real shame – and we’ve all put our hand up and said we really wish we’d held it together long enough – was not making an album in 1985. It would have been a great one.”

I’m reticent to mention this, but I love The Weather Prophets’ Mayflower, but I’d understand totally if that’s an album you can’t bring yourself to listen to in the circumstances. Were you a little bitter about that?

“I was a bit. I was angry as it was a missed opportunity. We did so much work to get to that point. It just seemed a massive waste … I think Pete accepts that now. Also, I was a bit miffed they kept re-releasing ‘Why Does the Rain’, thinking, ‘That’s a bloody Loft song!’”

On to The Caretaker Race, the four-piece formed in 1986 by Andy, with a couple of singles on their Roustabout Records label before a deal with the Foundation label that led to three more 45s and the splendid Stephen Street-produced Hangover Square LP in 1990. Unfortunately, it was all over within a year though.

The Wikipedia entry, I point out ot Andy, picks up on the influence of The Go-Betweens. I hear that too, not least on the wondrous ‘Fire in the Hold’ and rather acerbic ‘Borrow My Car’, but The Loft’s Richard Hell cover, ‘Time’, on the new compilation, suggests that influence was there long before.

“We did love The Go-Betweens. Interestingly, until about five years ago, I’d never heard Richard Hell’s version of ‘Time’. Pete, one day in a rehearsal, played what he thought were the chords – in those days, you couldn’t just go on the internet to find out – and played it like it was a Pete Astor song. We then played around with it. We weren’t interested in copying it, as such.

“Then, during our tour with The Colourfield, we played Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, a Kitchenware/Creation Records night, and Robert (Forster) and Grant (McLennan) were there. A couple of weeks before, Bill bumped into them and they said, ‘We really love the sound of your new single, particularly the guitar sound on ‘Time’. What did you do to get it?’ And Bill said, ‘I dunno’. But that night they came to the gig, and as we started to play ‘Time’, I could see Robert – as he’s so tall – coming from the back, working his way slowly through the crowd. Just as we got to the guitar solo, he was standing right in front of me. I was so put off, I completely cocked the solo up!”

I recently interviewed Tim Keegan from Departure Lounge, who got to play with them and became friends. And it does seem that Robert occasionally asks for chords on songs he likes.

“Ah, that’s interesting! Bill and I went to see them when they first came over – just a three-piece – and played the Rock Garden, when the first album came out on Rough Trade. And it was brilliant. I remember thinking that’s amazing for three people, and the songs were really good. Yeah, we were always big fans. I did a gig with Pete at The Lexington (Islington), supporting Robert (November 2017). That was fun. There’s a clip of us online playing ‘Walker’.”

Ever get back the guitar you lost at your first gig, late November ’82 at the London Musicians’ Collective in Camden, presumed stolen?

“No, but about three or four years ago I bought a replica. It wasn’t anything particularly special, but it meant a lot to me – an Ibanez Deluxe ‘59er, black, like a Les Paul copy, one they called the ‘Lawsuit’ guitar as Ibanez got sued. They were too much like Les Pauls.

“I always say it got stolen at the first gig, but Pete says, ‘I think you were so pissed you left it on the pavement while we were stacking the van, and we drove off’. My Mum bought that guitar for my 18th birthday, so I was absolutely gutted. But I saw one on eBay and bought it for about £250, quite a bargain.”

The world and his wife have probably asked about that fateful last night of The Colourfield tour, when you split up on stage. Maybe instead I’ll ask about the opening night of that tour – The Loft supporting Terry Hall’s band for £100 a night – at Cornwall Coliseum, St Austell, on May 9th, 1985. That must have been a pinch-me moment, playing such a big auditorium.

“I just remember thinking, ‘This place is huge! What are we doing here? Backstage on the walls they had big black and white pictures of Status Quo and that. We were thinking, ‘We’ve stepped up a bit here!’. It was just the four of us. We didn’t have a manager, roadie or sound-man. We were on our own, driving ourselves around.”

Is that right you were fined four cans of beer for the temerity of playing an encore?

“Yeah, that was an interesting night. We’d only ever played the Living Room and a couple of colleges in London, like Thames Poly. That was the extent of our gigging. We’d never stood on a stage as big as that. We didn’t really know what to do. But we went down really well, got a really good reception. We went off after 25 minutes or whatever, they were clapping, and we thought, ‘Well, we’ll go back and do another one’.

“We went back on, played something else, and when we came off, Pete Hadfield, The Colourfield’s manager, was standing there. I don’t know if he was winding us up, but he said, ‘Who told you that you could do an encore?’. We said, ‘Well, nobody told us, but …’. He said, ‘Well, you don’t do that unless you’re told you can’. He came into our little dressing room, where we had eight small cans of Heineken – that was our rider. He picked up four, said, ‘That’ll teach you a lesson’.

“The other thing about that gig was that Bill’s parents ran a little cinema in Teignmouth, Devon, on the seafront, and we stayed with them the night before. When we got up in the morning, his Dad said, ‘I’ve got to run a new film through, check everything’s alright. If you want, you can have breakfast in the cinema and see the film’. So, there’s the four of us with tea and toast, in this lovely old cinema watching Raiders of the Lost Ark at eight in the morning, bleary-eyed.”

I suggested I wouldn’t ask, but any further thoughts all these years on regarding that last dramatic night of the tour?

“We’ve talked about it between ourselves and sort of cleared the air, as it were. When we got back together for the first compilation (2005), Pete very much put his hand up and said he behaved badly and really regretted it, and I think we’ve come to a consensus now. What we didn’t do is really talk to each other about what we were thinking and what was bothering us. We didn’t communicate.

“As Pete said, it’s the great English male disease. We didn’t talk to each other about things that were bothering us, and they just built up and blew up. If we could have sat down a month before and said, ‘I feel I’m not getting credit for this’, or, ‘You keep making decisions about that’ … If we’d had a manager, I think they’d have said, ‘You need to go sit in a room, shout at each other for an hour, get it out of your system, then think about the opportunity you’ve got here and just get on with it.”

I see it so many times with bands. To the outsider, it seems petty, and a little sad. It’s good that in your case you seem to have bridged that gap.

“Yeah, we hadn’t spoken to each other in 20 years. No contact at all. It was really good to get past that, but also really sad that we wasted all that time when we didn’t have anything to do with each other. We’re all very different people, we’ve all grown up a lot in different ways, and we’re now doing different things. But when we get together, we’re still that really close four and it’s really good.”

Did you finish your studies? Was that stint at Record Mirror your first job beyond that?

“Yeah, it was. Bill got his feet under the table at Sounds, having done work experience on a glossy pop magazine called Noise. That must have been the same publisher. Then he went from freelance work at Sounds, when we were still in this grotty little house in Leyton, and got sent to New York to interview the Ramones! I remember thinking, ‘This sounds fun. I go to gigs and play music and can write a bit – I think I’ll have a go at this. Really, I was just trying to copy Bill!

Record Mirror were looking for someone. We went to a gig – might even have been The Go-Betweens, with Richard Jobson’s band The Armoury Show down in Victoria. I wrote a review, sent it to them, they rang and asked if I wanted to do a couple more. That’s how I got in. That would have been ’84, I think. I never went on the staff. That way – playing with bands – I could take off any time I needed. I stayed as a freelance for them until it closed in ’90 or ’91.”

From there, Andy switched to writing for football magazines for nearly a decade, then for Danny Kelly’s Football365 website for the 1998 World Cup, then dot music, running that editorially for a couple of years before it was sold ‘in the great boom’ to Yahoo Music. Around a year later, while based in Walthamstow, he started editing a local council magazine, then started in a similar capacity in communications for the NHS in Romford while living in Hackney … finally moving back to the Isle of Wight a year ago. And he feels he made the right move.

“Yeah, compared to the thought of having to spend this last year in that flat in Hackney, surrounded by families. Down here, we’re right on the coast. I can see the sea from here and can walk along the beach. It’s been pretty quiet. I’ve been doing lots of cycling, and writing for The Chesterfields, which kind of brings us up to date.”

Is this mostly a Zoom relationship with Chesterfields co-founder Simon Barber?

“It is a bit! We’re trying to write an album. The original plan was to have recorded one by now, get it out this year. That’s been scuppered, but Simon’s written around 10 songs, him, Helen (Stickland – different spelling, different name – on guitar) and Rob Parry (drums) able to get together, and Helen’s got access to a big barn for rehearsing. They’ve been videoing, sending on to me, and I’ve been writing parts for those songs, sending them back on WhatsApp.

“I’ve written half a dozen songs I think would suit a Chesterfields record, and they’re rehearsing them. This will be our first coming together, going through it all, with a studio booked in June to demo for the album. After that we’ll see where we’re at and what we want to do.

“It’s a lovely part of the world too, especially this time of year – it’s all so green. So that’ll be fun and interesting – we kind of know what we’re doing but haven’t actually been in the same room to do it!”

At the Continental in Preston in February 2017, I felt it was work in progress. But you seemed further along the right track at Night and Day Cafe in Manchester in September 2019, their set including a Strickland-led storming version of The Caretaker Race’s ‘Anywhere But Home’.

“Definitely. I think when you saw us at the Conti, Simon was still a bit reticent about whether he should be doing it or not. They started as Design play The Chesterfields. I said, ‘I think you should decide whether you’re going to do it or not, and don’t apologise for it.”

It’s a difficult situation (Chesterfields frontman Davey Goldsworthy killed in a hit and run accident in Ocford in 2003). Did you get to know Davey?

“A bit. I played with them a few times after The Loft. They got me in for a few gigs one summer when we played Glastonbury and stuff.”

Was that on the back of the wonderful Kettle LP?

“Yes, I knew them pretty well, and Simon and Davey put us on down in that part of the world. We played a gig with them supporting us. In fact, Davey ended up with Pete’s Telecaster. They did a swap. And what an absolute tragedy to lose him.”

Finally, when’s the next Loft happening? Because, let’s face it, you’ll need something on that fourth compilation when it comes out.

“Ha! Well, funnily enough, Pete’s said there won’t be a fourth compilation! And he’s probably right. We do still have three really good live gigs that have never emerged though, including Hammersmith Palais – obviously a bittersweet thing, but it might interest somebody one day.

“If we’d all been in London when this one came out, we’d have got together, done something to mark it. We started talking about something a little different, a bit special, but clearly that’s not going to happen. Pete’s now into his solo stuff in the next few months. In fact, I’m playing with him in July in Dalston at The Victoria. As for The Loft, I don’t know really, but watch this space!”

Ghost Trains & Country Lanes – Studio, Stage and Sessions 1984-2015, by The Loft, is available via Cherry Red in double-CD format, priced £11.99. For more details head to

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