Beyond the lockdowns, Normal service resumes – in conversation with Henry Normal

It’s fair to say Henry Normal kept himself busy over the 18 months when the world seemed to stand still, a spell that for this Nottingham-born BAFTA award-winner included publication of two new poetry collections.

After more than 30 years making acclaimed TV and film, writer and producer Henry – real name Peter Carroll – has returned to his love of poetry, new live tour The Escape Plan currently doing the rounds.

Recently turned 65, Henry draws on more than 40 years of work in his live show, sharing tales, jokes and poems from his Audio and Radio Industry Awards (ARIA) nominated BBC Radio 4 series, each episode exploring a different theme, the next – A Normal Ageing – airing in early November. And then there are those 10 poetry books, the latest of which, The Beauty Within Shadow and Distance Between Clouds, were written during the COVID-19 pandemic, covering many aspects of lockdown, life and love, with plenty of that distinctive humour.

Henry’s poetry renaissance was inspired by his experiences bringing up his autistic son Johnny, something central to the live show and his latest books, the result a funny and moving collection of work on the page and the stage, about life and family.

There have also been weekly online poetry sessions via his New Poetry Society, Henry joined each week by guest poets for conversation and verse. Two poets, one hour, every week, live via Zoom, hosted by the Inspire library programme and a poetry festival he founded in his native Nottingham.

You’ll probably know most of this, but Henry received his special BAFTA for services to television in June 2017, his output including some of the nation’s best-loved programmes, co-writing and script-editing credits including, with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, The Royle Family, The Mrs Merton Show and spin-off Mrs Merton and Malcolm, and with Steve Coogan, Paul and Pauline Calf Video Diaries, Coogan’s Run, Tony Ferrino, Doctor Terrible, all three of Steve’s live tours and the film The Parole Officer.

And as co-founder/MD of Baby Cow Productions, set up with Steve in 1999, he produced and script-edited among others Gavin and Stacey, Alan Partridge, Moone Boy, Uncle, The Mighty Boosh, Nighty Night, I Believe in Miracles, Marion and Geoff, Red Dwarf, Hunderby, Camping,and Oscar-nominated film Philomena, before stepping down in 2016.

Prior to all that though, there was his performance poetry, touring with the likes of pre-fame Pulp, stand-up stars such as Linda Smith, and literary giants, including Seamus Heaney, travelling from Helsinki to New York via factories, schools, pop concerts, jazz clubs, folk clubs and festivals. And now it seems he’s returned to that world.

Is that some masochistic tendency in him, I asked, for all his success in writing, to all intents and purposes staying out of the limelight while close friends and colleagues down the years like Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne courted it, returning to the loneliness of the stage, cruising the UK in a new 90-minute live show?

“Ah, well, I like a challenge! There’s no point in just doing the easy thing all your life. I started off as a poet. You can’t make a lot of money as a poet. You can just about scrape a living, but I got bamboozled by the bright lights of comedy and television. It’s akin to my 40 years in the desert.”

You’re not just happy dusting down your BAFTA behind closed doors?

“D’you know, that wanes after a couple of days. I’ve always been in the communication business, one way and another, and the great thing about poetry is that it’s a communication of perception, and the way I view the world gets communicated to another person. The great things is, with a film you may have 200 to 300 people working on it, so it gets pulled this way and that. But with a poem, it’s essentially just me and you, it’s the purest form of communication in a rhythm sense.”

And not just one, but two new poetry collections out there. The Beauty Within Shadow (written between August 2019 and June 2020, its poetry concerned with ‘the balancing of darkness and light in our everyday lives, the search for an understanding of pain and sorrow, and the processing of other thoughts we’d usually avoid by filling our days with mindless distractions’) and follow-up The Distance Between Clouds (written between June 2020 and March 2021, ‘a collection of poetry about joy, positivity and optimism, before I die unloved and forgotten’) making it 10 poetry books in total.

“I think so, yeah. I wrote one going into the lockdown because it was a strange, new adventure. We’d done so much running around that the idea of standing still and exploring your family, ourselves, your home and your space, well, what’s happened over the last year and a half is that we’ve explored that space deeper than before, and the first book I wrote was called The Beauty Within Shadow. Because we are within the shadow of this awful pandemic, but there’s still beauty to be found.”

The first year or so of my features in that period often touched on interviewees asking, ‘what happens next?’, but now it seems to be more about reflecting back on that period. For a while we saw a collective responsibility, Spirit of the Blitz positivity, and acknowledgement of those who were truly important, from community and family to health and care workers. But then there was the ‘let the bodies pile high’ mentality, Dominic Cummings test-driving his eyesight, and so on, that belief seemingly compromised.  

“I think the trouble is we don’t know what the future is. We never know, but it seems our muscle memory has had a bit of a jolt, so even something like going to the post office, you’ve got to remember what the social norms are for that. All those little things you take for granted.

“I always say to people who come to be me about writing, write what you know, and a good illustration of that is if you think of your local café. If you’re writing about my local café, you don’t know the details, but if you write about your own, you know if it’s waitress service, if you go to the counter, whether you tip, if you order your food and pay straight away or at the end. All those sorts of things. And in a way, we’re re-learning those things. 

“And the second book, Distance Between Clouds, if you think about clouds and rainfall, you can look at the negatives, such as, ‘Oh, it’s going to rain,’ but if you look at the distance between them, you’ll think, ‘Well, I’ve got that much sunshine’. So, again, what I’m trying to do is look for the optimism, and this new world we’re building and examining, we can see whether we like the old way of doing it or whether there’s a new way.”

I guess that fits in with your weekly Zoom poetry sessions, The New Poetry Society. Is that your way of spreading the word and inspiring?

“Well, yes, it helps me keep in touch. When Zoom first became a thing, I did a few meetings, then thought, it’s alright performing like you’re on stage, but really it’s a more intimate thing. You’re in your home, everyone’s n their home. What you really need is conversation. What we’re missing is sitting down with each other, having a conversation.

“I started off getting Lemn Sissay, an old mate of mine, and he was great, and the thing is, when you start talking, I learn things about them that I didn’t know, and I’ve done 21 now, the last eight for the Manchester Libraries, and that was great. I’m a big fan of the libraries, and I’ll be coming to Darwen Library on this tour.”

Ah, Darwen Library Theatre. A great venue. I’ve seen Blancmange there a couple of times, Neil Arthur having gone to school next door, sharing some stories about his youth each night.

“I always thought Blancmange was the best name for a pop band. There’s no way you can become the big ‘I am’ with a name like Blancmange!”.

True, although Neil Arthur’s local sensibilities were already kept in check on that front. He tells a lovely tale about a woman across the road from where he grew up calling him over while he was back home, probably gloating about his new success in that there London, her deriding him in true down-to-earth Lancastrian style for his performance on Top of the Pops, picking up on that line from ‘Living on the Ceiling’, taking exception to him being ‘Up the wall, I’m up the bloody tree’, as if to say, ‘Y’daft bugger, what’re you on about?’.

“Ha! Yeah, ‘Have a word wi’ y’self!’”

Head on the block here, but poetry was something I didn’t realise I liked until a realisation that Ray Davies, Chris Difford, Pete Shelley, John O’Neill, Paul Weller, and so on wrote poetry. They just happened to call it lyrics. Then there was John Cooper Clarke, in the scheme of things not far off from fellow Salfordian Mark E. Smith.

“Exactly, and the thing is, there’s a million different flavours of poetry. No one would ever say, ‘Do you know, I don’t like music,’ and you’d never say, ‘I don’t like paintings, they’re not for me’. Yet with poetry, people will, as though they’ve seen every poet and read every poem and decided that’s not for them.

“If you think about music, the difference between classical and jazz and blues, there’s all those variations in poetry, even to the extent that … I’m a big Nick Cave fan, so within the genre of rock or pop or whatever, I could say I like that and say I like a particular artist. There are artists I don’t like in rock and pop – being from Nottingham, I was never a big fan of Paper Lace. And talking about Nick Cave, there are certain albums I like and certain albums I don’t, like Nocturne or something like that, and then of those albums, there will be certain tracks I’ll play more than others.

“But you don’t think of that in terms of poetry, saying, ‘I like some of his books, and some of his poems’. It’s always a sort of carte blanche ‘you do like poetry, or you don’t’.”

In my case, I became aware of certain First World war poets, then maybe Dylan Thomas, then there was begrudging acceptance that despite my teenage self’s Dad loving him, I had to admit I enjoyed John Betjeman’s verse, and in more recent years the likes of Luke Wright, Mike Garry, and so on. It gradually gets you.

“It does, and very often we don’t really know that much of it. Were taught a little at school, but that’s not necessarily the flavours we’re going to like throughout life. I remember when I started, thinking, ‘This poetry lark is not passionate enough’. I’m talking the early ‘70s. The First World War poets, some of them, but I hadn’t read them. I think a lot of people’s misgivings about poetry is borne out of ignorance, for want of a better word … in the same way you might say, ‘I don’t like jazz’. But there’s a million flavours of jazz.”

I gather your journey into performance poetry started alongside the likes of Pulp and emerging new wave bands.

“When I started, there were really no poetry events to go to, certainly not for the sort of poetry I was doing. Only what I’d call dry poetry events. I did some of those, but in order to reach an audience, I had to do things like prisons – a very captive audience there! – and hospitals, schools and pop concerts. I lived in Chesterfield for a while, so I’d tour with some of the Sheffield bands, as they seemed to be doing well. Pulp had released a few albums but still hadn’t made it, and we’d turn up at some gigs there’d very often be no one there, or just an ‘andful.

“There were no Nottingham bands at that time, and a lot of the Sheffield bands you won’t have heard of, because they never made it. Dig Vis Drill was one of my favourites, a sort of electronic and guitar band. I loved them to bits. There was Mr Morality, Screaming Trees, a goth band, and some Chesterfield bands like Le Bland and Criminal Sex, a punk band. I drove their van a couple of times – they were too young to hire a van …”

Perhaps too young to be in a band of that name too.

“Yes, I was never involved, apart from driving the van – I was just the getaway driver! Then there was Body Factory, a few who never quite made it. Then I came to Manchester, where there were a lot of singer-songwriters, Martin Coogan I met early on, and went on to some success with The Mock Turtles. And of course, I met his brother. But probably my favourite of the Manchester lot was someone who used to be called Johnny Dangerously, now better known as John Bramwell, or I Am Kloot. Lemn Sissay and I toured with him, must have done around 30 gigs, and those are probably my favourite gigs of all time, touring with Lemn and John.”

John was the second last live act I saw before the shutters came down with the virus, playing in the intimate surroundings of The Venue, Penwortham. A great night it was too.

“D’you know, for me he’s always got the heart of a poet, so he got on very well with us. We toured together in a little car, and he has a great sense of humour.”

In Penwortham he was giggling much of the night.

“Yes … he’s probably better as he drinks! I’ve seen him drunk on stage a few times, and he actually gets funnier the more he’s pissed off! We’d do a gig, then play pitch and putt, go-kart riding, on a beach, or something. They were more than just gigs. They were days out, really.”

We talked about your latest books trying to make sense and cope with all the strangeness and sadness around us, with the pandemic. How do you reckon you coped? Was it just you, Angela (Pell, a screenwriter, the pair publishing best-seller A Normal Family in 2018, drawing on their family experience), and your son?

“Yes, and with Johnny being autistic, to be honest I think he prefers the lockdown. It’s quieter, the sequences of our life are quite rigid, and he likes that routine. For him, less planes in the sky and less cars on the road means less noise, and there’s less people coming round, so he’s very happy.”

I see he’s an artist ‘in his own write’, as John Lennon would put it, responsible for the cover art of the latest two poetry books (and given his own month-long art exhibition in April 2018 at Phoenix Arts Centre, Brighton, Art By Johnny proving an acclaimed success and breaking attendance records).

“Very much so. He paints every day and he’s been doing Zoom classes, exploring different types of painting and forms of creativity, and he’s enjoyed those. They’ve been brilliant. We’ve coped very well, and I’m looking forward now to going out, being a social animal, meeting crowds, having a laugh. To have a laugh with a couple of hundred in a room, you can’t beat it. I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink to excess, anything like that, but the adrenaline and the way your blood surges when you’re having a laugh with a crowd is a big draw, a big high.” 

Of course, I never really believed that you’d retired.

“Ha! Well, I’ve retired from television and film, but I had to put that because people kept sending me scripts and saying, ‘Can you get this on the telly?’. I made more than 450 television programmes, so to a lot of people it’s what I’m known as. But if I made 451 programmes, nobody would know the difference. And once we’d made Philomena, a massive hit all over the world, I’d probably peaked in terms of film and TV production. I think it’s worth recognising that was quite a huge event.

“Doing Gavin and Stacey was great, but you don’t want to compete with yourself all the time, trying to top that. To actually top The Royle Family was quite a hard thing, and in a way I don’t think I ever could, so rather than carry on writing I moved into production, getting things like The Mighty Boosh off and Julia Davis’ work off was sort of investing in the next generation. And I loved helping their careers and dreams.

“But now, as I reach pensionable age … well, I say that, but they keep moving it back, don’t they …  as I keep chasing the pension, I’m thinking there are things I’d like to say, and fun to be had in doing what I’m very passionate about, and I hope what I do best. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of the Radio 4 shows …”

I was going to ask more about A Normal Ageing and The Escape Plan.

A Normal Ageing is the one I’m researching at the moment. I think it’s my 10th show. What I do is pick a subject, go on to Wikipedia, put the word ‘ageing’ or whatever it is in, read the definition and what it’s about, so I know what I’m talking about, then just read as much as I can. With ageing, there are creatures that don’t age, like jellyfish and various worms. And do you know lobsters don’t really age? But they do pee through their faces, so it’s not an ideal existence.

“Finding facts like that is very interesting, and then I talk to lots of people, get their views on the subject. It’s only a half-hour show but I try to do an hour’s worth of material then reach some sort of conclusion. And it’s worked well on all the others. And the shows I do live are very similar to the radio shows – you’ve got stories, jokes and poems as I explore these subjects. And with The Escape Plan, it’s escape through creativity. Richard Lovelace said, ‘Stone walls do not a prison make,’ and we’ve all been in lockdown but we’re all in us ‘eads, so we can escape any time we want.”

I thought there might also be a nod to your Brighton surroundings, and The Escape Club.

“Well, I do live in Brighton, although I’ve got to say my heart’s still in the north. It’s quite funny, I’m bringing up a southerner, but strangely enough, because he only speaks to me and his mum, he’s got a northern accent.”

It’s the other way with me, trying to give my girls a southern identity, having moved to Lancashire from Guildford in late ‘93.

“Oh, I see. You’re part of that movement! But I think you can safely say you’re a northerner now.”  

I’m not quite sure what to make of that, but maybe that’s acceptance from Henry, so I’ll take it on that level. With such an amazing CV as a writer and producer, and all those shows we mentioned and many more, I wondered what you loved watching, growing up.

“Well … (Sgt.) Bilko. I loved Bilko. The weird thing is, when BBC Three started, they said, ‘We need more teenagers on, as teenagers will watch teenagers,’ but I watched Bilko, and it never occurred to me he was a 50-year-old American bloke. He was just a great character.”

Do you remember early ‘80s post-punk outfit Serious Drinking? They had a great song, Countdown to Bilko, about how dull Sunday television was in those days … until The Phil Silvers Show came on later that evening.

“That’s brilliant! Yes, Bilko was my favourite television programme, and my favourite comedian, one that really inspired me, was Jack Benny. There was something beautiful about him, he was such a lovely man and always able to take the mick out of himself. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the original To Be or Not to Be, he did a great version during the war, and it’s his stillness that’s brilliant. He’s got this lovely way of milking the scene for more than it’s there for.

“And the moment I realised I wanted to be either a writer or a performer was when Jack Benny was on the Dean Martin Show. Dean Martin would pretend to be at home, and was on the phone when Jack Benny walked in, and they’re both in tuxedos.

“Now, I’m a raggedy-arse kid in Bilborough, Nottingham, about 12 years old, my Mum’s died, there’s five kids and a Dad who works at Raleigh, we’ve no money, and I’m watching these two blokes in tuxedos. But they nod at each other while he’s on the phone, Jack walks around the settee but doesn’t sit on it, he gets on the floor, starts throwing dice. This is a grown-up man. I’d never seen a grown-up having fun like this. I looked at that, and thought, ‘That’s the world I want to be in!’.”

We all had our ways of getting through the lockdowns, and for many of us part of that involved binge-watching TV shows we’d missed for some reason or other. In my case that included a late conversion to the wonders of Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, The Detectorists, and The A-Word, and returning to old favourites on the BBC iPlayer, including – for the first time since they first went out – The Royle Family. And that’s certainly stood the test of time, not least the early series. Does catching those clips take Henry back to working with Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash?

“Oh, yeah. The lovely thing is I was paid to sit in a room with funny people. Caroline beyond the television was a funny person anyway. When the bosses used to come up from London, we worked on the sixth floor at Granada, they’d have a chat with us, then when they left, Caroline would open the window and shout down to them, these big top brass, ‘Do a funny walk!’. And because she was so cheeky and charming, they would do a funny walk across the road.

“I love that she wasn’t over-awed by authority. She had that little devilment. If she didn’t feel like writing, we’d go on a Granada tour, go shopping, or go for a bite to eat. Most days we’d probably only write for a couple of hours.”

Were you the one saying, ‘Come on, we best get back’?

“Oh, I was definitely the responsible one. I’d write it all down then type it all up. Even when we were doing Mrs Merton, when we had Dave Gorman writing with us. There’d be four of us, but I’d be the one writing it down. I got paid as a script editor as well as a writer, which was quite nice. I was the only one with a computer. But it was such good fun, and nobody ever worried if you told a bad joke. You’ve got to be able to fail in creativity as well and push the boundaries. And you don’t know where the boundaries are, until you’ve crossed them.”  

There are some impressive stop-offs on this forthcoming tour, not least Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, where I last saw John Cooper Clarke, supporting Squeeze.

“And of course, Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston are from Liverpool. People often forget the mum and dad in The Royle Family are from Liverpool. And they were always in the frame for that, from day one.

“And the Liverpool poets were a big influence on my career. I’ve worked with Roger McGough {in 2018 Henry recorded an episode of Poetry Please which he curated and co-presented with Roger} and Brian Patten, and when I started Manchester Poetry Festival {now Manchester Literature Festival}, I put him on there, and when I started Nottingham Poetry Festival, I put him on there. I’m a big fan. In a way, I like to think I’m a composite of all three {I’m guessing the third referred to is Adrian Henri}. They had three distinct areas in poetry, and I like to dabble in all three. And of course, Spike Milligan was the other big influence.”

That’s someone I meant to mention, having known him from radio and telly but also from a young age for Puckoon and his war memoirs before that great body of poetry.

“Well, I read all his comedy books, then bought Small Dreams of a Scorpion, and it made me cry. He’s so funny, and yet … Back to the tour though, there’s the Sale gig, right near Wythenshawe, where The Royle Family was based, and Wigan, where Lemn’s from. In fact, he sent me a text and it just said, ‘I’ve made it, Henry – a full house at Wigan!’”

You’ve reminded me of a conversation with John Bramwell, talking about the Liverpool and Manchester scenes in music and how he didn’t really fit in either. There’s something of that with you, and The Royle Family had feet in both camps.

“Well, I’m from Nottingham originally, lived in Hull for a while, lived in Chesterfield, lived in Manchester for about 15 years. I think I’ve general northern. I’m probably Doncaster station. Somebody once billed me as ‘local boy everywhere north of Derby’.”

With not only an honorary doctorate of letters from Nottingham Trent University and another by Nottingham University, but also a beer and a bus named after you in your home city.  

“Yes, that’s very nice. That bus has been touring more than I have, of course. But I’m really looking forward to going to the north west. I’ve got such fond memories, and there have been many great poets. Going over to Preston I’m going to be thinking about Hovis Presley. Every corner, as it were, brings back good memories.”

I could have sworn you said Elvis Presley for a moment.

“Hovis Presley! He had a show called Poetic Off Licence. Unfortunately, he died too young. I did manage to film him for television. I got around 60 poets for a programme, Whine Gums, including some who’d never been filmed before, which I’m quite proud of.”

In fact, Hovis was from Bolton, but that’s not far off. As for Henry, how about that tag, ‘the Alan Bennett of poetry’, as The Scotsman put it?

“Well, I love Alan Bennett. I always remember that documentary he did, in a Harrogate hotel {Dinner at Noon, 1988}. He’s on camera talking about the hotel, goes into the bathroom, and he’s shouting at the cameraman, ‘There’s oodles of towels in here!’. He’s got such a lovely way with everyday language.”

“Anyway, I realise you’re going to have to condense this all down to 100 words. Did you know, when we started The Mrs Merton Show, we used to have about five guests? Then it went down to four, then three, then two, because we always complained you never really get a proper conversation going otherwise.”

Well, the word-count stretched to considerably more than 100 words, and I should acknowledge here my thanks to Henry, not least for not mentioning my namesake, Mrs Merton’s lad Malcolm during our conversation (particularly after suffering at school for all those ‘Course you can, Malcolm’ comments for Vicks Sinex adverts from 1972 onwards … not to be confused with a later Tunes advert where the fella asks for a ‘second class return to Dottingham, please’), having half-expected a prompt to get back to my boxroom at some stage.

The Escape Plan tour opened on Dylan Thomas’ old patch in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, on October 1st, moving on this weekend to Sale Waterside – 8th October, a Morecambe Playhouse sell-out on October 9th and The Library Theatre, Darwen – 10th October, then King’s Place, London – 27th October. Then there’s Square Chapel, Halifax – 3rd November, Barnsley Old School House – 4th November, Retford St Saviours – 13th November, plus a Collingham sell-out – 15th November, a hometown date at Metronome, Nottingham – 16th November, The Met, Bury – 17th November,, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool – 19th November, Garret Theatre, Chester (part of the Chester Literature Festival) – 20th November, The Ferret, Preston – 21st November, King’s Hall, Ilkley – 23rd November, and a sell-out at Brighton Komedia – 1st December. Henry’s live outings then resume next year at The Quay Theatre, Sudbury – 10th February, Bristol Folk House, Bristol – 12th February, The Old Courts, Wigan – 13th February, Knutsford Little Theatre – 14th February, Wylam Brewery, Newcastle – 15th February, The Leadmill, Sheffield – 16th February, Stamford Corn Exchange – 17th February, The Pound Arts, Corsham – 24th February, Plough Arts Centre, Great Torrington – 25th February, before a finale at The Acorn, Penzance – 26th February.

And for all the latest from Henry Normal, head here. You can also keep tabs via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Coming to an understanding of myself – the Liam Ó Maonlaí interview

It’s not often that world-renowned singer-songwriters – not least those from Dublin – end solo tours on the outskirts of Preston, Lancashire. But Liam Ó Maonlaí’s rarely one to take a conventional route.
Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam’s Routes Music-promoted 11-date tour opened at the Tyneside Irish Festival, and has since involved dates in Bradford and Birmingham, with Sheffield and Penistone in South Yorkshire next, then briefly across into East Lancashire for a show in Barnoldswick before darting back over the Pennines and beyond to Louth in Lincolnshire then up to Hull and York, finishing at The Carlton Club, Manchester, and The Venue, Penwortham early next week, a musical journey in an intimate setting promised at every step.
One of the more talented, charismatic, soulful performers, musician’s musician Liam’s prowess goes well beyond his Dublin roots, impressive not just for that amazing voice, but also for his mastery of piano, flute, harmonica, penny-whistle, bodhrán, and more.
And while still featuring with Hothouse Flowers – the band taking off in the mid-‘80s after U2’s Bono labelled them the ‘best unsigned band on the planet’, their biggest chart hits being 1988 debut 45 ‘Don’t Go’ and 1990 Johnny Nash cover, ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, their first three LPs all UK top-10 hits – as a solo performer, Gaelic speaker Liam also continues to wow audiences with a bit of traditional Irish folk, gospel, blues, soul, country, rock … you name it.
He feels his foundation in music came first from his mother and father, letting on, “My mother’s people were all piano players. My father could make you cry with a song.”
Soon discovering his own path, by the age of nine he found himself in different towns by virtue of the strength of his whistle and bodhrán playing and later mastery of unaccompanied singing in the traditional Irish style known as Sean Nós, explaining, “Our style of singing is about taking the pain of the people, of your neighbours and yourself, and making beauty out of it to get you through. Blues is also this. I play to soothe myself first. When I reach that feeling, that feeling travels with me of its own free will”.
But how’s it been these past 18 months or so? Did the dreaded coronavirus change the way he worked?
“Yeah, everything was cancelled. But that was alright – that’s like a clean slate. I took to walking and got into the habit of getting up on waking. I wasn’t lying in. I got up early every morning and got out of the house and found that to be a game-changer for me – something I needed.”
Therapeutic?
“Yes, to say the least!”

Has it been a productive time for you, with regards to writing or making music?
“Yeah, I co-created a bit of theatre, I recorded an album, I set the wheels in motion for a project with the National Concert Orchestra … so, busy, yes! And there was a lot of artwork as well.”
Is that you with a brush, a pencil, or both?
“Yeah, multi-media. I like to use natural pigment and acrylic. I don’t always use brushes. I might use a roller or a hard edge – sometimes that’s good for abstract work.”
Is that a private affair, or something you’re happy to share with the world?
“Well, it’s not something I feel I need to hide. But at the same time, it’s not linked to any commercial system … although I did meet a person with a space in town and she’s interested in hosting me with a visual show that I might make into a multi-media show. So I’m excited about that.”
Recently, I went back and re-watched his performance on the splendid BBC Scotland/BBC Four/RTÉ Ireland joint production, Transatlantic Sessions from 2009, with cracking star band accompanied takes on ‘Worry Not’ and ‘Work Song’. More recently, there have been internet shows from his own patch, with home these days a 15-minute Luas tram ride from Dublin, ‘pretty close, but quite green and also close to the mountains’. Has he been out and about playing a few shows recently?
“Yeah, a few, and loads of online stuff. We were supposed to play London on St Patrick’s Day in 2020, but decided we’d pull that. Your side of the water closed things down a bit later than ours, so we feasibly could have done it, and in retrospect I might have gone for it.”
I think you may have made the right call. It was a bit of a scrum around then.
“Well, it was a bit. I suppose we’ll just appreciate doing it when we do it. But it’s a funny old thing. It seems to be just another political game.”

I always had an affinity with Hothouse Flowers. And we’re not just talking the Greenhouse Effect here, even though that’s become more and more of an issue as the years are passing. Flicking back through my diaries, I was reminded that I first caught Hothouse Flowers live in June 1989 at Glastonbury Festival. A special time for me. Within three weeks I’d met my better half on a Turkish holiday, we’re still an item 32 years down the road, and those first three LPs were definitely part of our collective soundtrack..

“Oh very good! That’s always good to hear. It’s good to find your mate.”

Do you recall much about that festival, also including the likes of Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, The Bhundu Boys, Fairground Attraction, and your pals, Martin Stephenson & The Daintees.

“Yeah, and {Martin} came on tour with us subsequent to that – that year or maybe the next. There was Fela Kuti also, Van the man, The Waterboys …”

Mike Scott too was a big inspiration on Liam and his bandmates back in the day, and I next saw them while on my backpacking world travels in February 1991, Down Under at Sydney St George’s RSL Club.

“Amazing!”

Have you special memories of those days? Were you good company as a band? Martin Stephenson suggested you were in our recent interview.

“Yeah, and just having the gift of music … music did all the talking for us. It was the consummation of our friendship, really. We weren’t always the best at talking, but a good gig … there’s nothing like it, to share an experience like that. And three of us are still together … and we’re very rich for having those experiences shared.”

Do you and your fellow Flowers tend to chat on the phone, or is it a case of turning up on the doorstep these days?

“Well, the friendship is on the stage actually, we don’t see much of each other bar significant life events these days. But when we do get to see each other, we’re really glad to. And that’s the way our friendship sort of works. There’ll be the odd phone call, alright, but …”

Does the conversation carry on where it last left off?

“Yeah, and there’s always great excitement when we get together. We’ve known each other for a long, long time now.”

To the point that you’re finishing each other’s sentences?

“Err, maybe … sometimes … or sometimes just stopping them dead in their tracks!”

And while I never got to see the three of them perform together, I loved your Alt band project in the mid-1990s with your Northern Irish housemate of the time, Andy White, and upstairs neighbour Tim Finn, of Split Enz and Crowded House fame. What’s more, my love for the resultant one-off 1995 LP, Altitude remains strong.

“Oh yeah! Well, that was something I … I always have this desire to create music from the moment, and I know I had it with the Flowers. But we were so tied with the formal side of recording that songs had to be ready before we went in the studio.

“That was all well and good, but I really hungered for a chance to go into the studio with some people and let the studio capture those moments of inspiration … instead of having those moments of inspiration and then trying to remember them.

“And they were willing to give us our space, and because we had spent a summer and a winter together – Andy, Tim and myself – and really had a fantastic time, we just had a great spontaneity with writing.”

It shows. And maybe it was the lack of pressure too. It sounded organic, and you were away from the record label ‘write, record, tour, and repeat’ treadmill, perhaps.

“It was just that the inspiration was allowed to happen in the studio. There was never too much pressure, even with the Flowers. It’s just that it had to be ready. And the idea of working with two other singers was great.”

Absolutely, and the diversity in your voices added something special.

“Yeah, I love to sing, and I love voices – no matter what shape a voice has. I really do love a voice.”

Well, I was going to say, I love your voice, and Tim’s work with his Split Enz and Crowded House and that special blend he has – in particular – with his brother Neil is amazing, but I also love the way you two and Andy gel. You head somewhere else completely, and it’s all great in different measures.

“Exactly!”

As a result of all that, I put on a compilation made in honour of the year 2000 arrival of my first-born, a song called ‘The Day You Were Born’ from that album. And it remains a personal favourite.

“Ah, great. A lot of people think that was written for my son, but it was written before he came along. I was very pleased with that song. That’s one of the few songs that I just wrote myself. I just sat down with an instrument and … carved it.”

Liam’s son, Cian, from his first marriage, is now 25, while his daughter with his French partner, Marion is now 15. Is that right the eldest has followed your career path?

“Yes, he’s great. I’m really proud of him. He’s got something … he’s got a little bit of what I have, but also has something from his mother’s side. His grandfather had a very quiet but like a volcanic presence, and my son has that as well.”

Cian is part of the group, Big Love, who this year released the impressive single, ‘Lily’. And once you know that association, there’s no denying it’s Liam’s lad. Not as if he’s taking advantage of that family link.   

“It’s great to see somebody making their way … in their own way … and watching. They released a single and it really did well for them, publicly. It got a lot of exposure … and didn’t have a publicity machine behind it, apart from what they could drum up themselves. Even on the strength of that … it got a lot of interesting breaks, and they went into the studio with the (Irish) Chamber Orchestra last week. And that just came from the strength of the song.”

It seems that the next generation has well and truly arrived. Only this summer gone, my youngest got to see an intimate show at The Continental in Preston featuring Inhaler, the band – selling out left, right and centre at present – fronted by Bono’s son, Elijah Hewson. Time truly flies.

“Oh yes! Time just doesn’t stop.”

Getting back to Alt, have you been in touch with Andy and Tim in recent times?

“I was. They sent me some stuff to see if I’d be interested in adding my bit to it. I never got around to it, but they ended up making a record, which they’ve asked me to do some artwork for. So that’s on its way.”

Is there a new record coming our way from you as well?

“Well, I went to Paris last year when there was a window of opportunity. We took a ferry over, my partner and daughter and I. We went over to see her family, but I was getting a lot in inspiration while I was here and was almost reluctant to go, as I felt this was where it was happening.

“But I couldn’t resist going over and contacted a woodwind player by the name of Renaud-Gabriel Pion, who plays bass clarinet, bassoon and a lot of medieval instruments. I just said, ‘Let’s make a record’, and he said yes.

“He had a little studio set-up in a little apartment at the top of a place in the middle of Paris, and we spent five days I think just playing together. And it was one of those records where a couple of musicians come together and just play … and that’s my favourite way of working, with no pre-arranged songs or melodies.

“A couple of times I had a few riffs I might add, but other than that we just played to each other, and came up with three hours or more of music. So that still has to be edited, and deciding what kind of a shape it’s going to take. It’s quite ambient and filmic. Trance-like, but we weren’t using any loops or beats, just our own rhythm.”

It sounds like it might even be a double album in the making.

“Well, if we decided to go with that formula, there might be a different way of releasing it. We’ll see. There’s also a folk magazine, RnR, and I put one of the tracks from that on to one of their monthly CDs.”

Going back to your own beginnings, dare I ask what your first band, The Complex, were like? Was it maybe fated that you’d go one way and your bandmates Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig would take a very different path with what became My Bloody Valentine?

“Only as much as …musically, it wasn’t. We got on really well. I think they liked what I was bringing. It was just that I was about 15 and my Dad just said, ‘You’re not allowed to be in that band anymore’. I would have kept going, probably. I’m a kind of person that if I land on something, I kind of stick to it.

“With the Flowers, similarly, I might have left for all kinds of reasons, but I stuck with it for some reason. Sometimes the reasons that might trigger you to leave can be very earthly or ego-based, and sometimes you can look at the bigger picture and realise you should hang in there, for some bizarre reason.

“Somebody said one time there are no bad decisions – some might land you in awful situations but … there’s always learning. And I’ve come to the understanding that the object of the game is just to learn about yourself and how to shine in your life … and make the most of it.”

When Bono told Rolling Stone magazine about Hothouse Flowers being the best unsigned band on the planet, was it a shock to you, and did it all happen really quickly from there?

“Yeah, it was. And a lot of things happened really quickly … which wasn’t always that easy. There was a scramble for management and a ruthlessness in the business I hadn’t expected to see, and I hadn’t expected it to affect me in such a way. But again … always learning from the experience.

“When I heard, I said, ‘No way! You’re joking’. I came in from somewhere, into some building or other to meet one of the lads, and they said, ‘Have you heard, there’s a photo-shoot with Melody Maker tomorrow?’. What! Then there was that Rolling Stone magazine quote. But there it is.”

Is there frustration in a sense that the wider world stopped listening after the last Hothouse Flowers hit, despite you carrying on making great records? Or does that not fit the character of this laidback performer we know and love?

“No, it’s beautiful to feel that the whole world was hearing something you had to say or play, but I knew that once we’d pulled away from the management we had and also parted company with our record label, that we didn’t have that machine behind us. And you’re competing with everything that’s up there on every billboard.

“I’d love to come up with something that would resonate, but to a degree it would have to be of its own terms. Not my terms or anybody else’s, but the terms of the music itself. Who knows. The beauty of where I’m at now is that I can say yes to so many things.

“And from Friday on, I’m going to be extraordinarily busy until – I think – March. Kind of crazy, but you know … I’m up for it, I suppose, because it’s of my own design, for better or for worse. There’s a few curveballs in there for me too. I’m not a comfort zone person. I do believe that music has a way of getting itself through … even through the most unlikely avenues.

“And I’m going to create a piece of dance theatre with a Basque company starting in November, so that’ll be something else.”

So you have these live solo dates, then you’ll be straight into that?

“Pretty close. I’m going to Sweden as well. I’ve a gig there … and I’m going to do a tour with some Belgian musicians I’ve never met in my life! You just say yes as many times as you can and see where it leads!”

And for me it’s almost come full circle, my children now moving on to their own university and career paths … and you calling on my own adopted patch in Lancashire, a few miles up the road from me on the last night of your solo tour.

“Ah, brilliant!”

Is that right you have (Irish traditional flautist) Jacquelyn Hynes accompanying you on stage?

“She’s going to maybe join me for a tune or two. I’m not exactly sure how that’s all going to pan out yet though. That’s a complete unknown. I do about an hour and a half, but it’s different every night … as are the Flowers gigs. We never write a setlist … and I never write a setlist.”

Will there be some new Hothouse Flowers shows coming soon then?

“Oh, there will. And we’re going to be in London on St Patrick’s Day. That could be the next one.”

And if you had a chance to go back in the time machine to early 1985 and give a little sage advice to 20-year-old Liam Ó Maonlaí, busking on the streets of Dublin with schoolmate Fiachna Ó Braonáin, what would you tell yourself?

“I probably wouldn’t listen, and I really don’t know. My Dad and myself, we had a tough enough relationship. I loved him – he’s gone now – but I suppose to look at the basis of that a bit more than anything else, or just to maybe make a few more mistakes. I made loads of mistakes, but probably should have made more.”

Well, it’s been good chatting, although I have to ask … that ticking I’m hearing now and again in the background – you’re either setting up a metronome for a recording session, or in a car, making occasional left and right turns or pulling over.

“Yeah, I find I can talk better when I’m in the car. And the phone works better in the car.”

I thought as much. I could hear the indicators going now and again.

“Yeah, I was negotiating the rhythms of the road!”

As well as Jacquelyn Hynes, Liam also has a tour support band in York-based trio White Sail, with his show on the final date in Penwortham also involving John Clayton, aka Hungry Bentley, whose fourth full-band LP, Exposition, produced by Nigel Stonier (The Waterboys, Fairport Convention, Thea Gilmore) is newly out.

Remaining October UK dates: Greystones, Sheffield (Tue 5th); Cubley Hall Hotel, Penistone (Wed 6th); Music & Arts Centre, Barnoldswick (Thu 7th); The Jazz Club, Louth (Fri 8th); Wreckingball Records & Books, Hull (Sat 9th); Black Swan, York (Sun 10th, 2.30pm); The Carlton Club, Manchester (Mon 11th); The Venue, Penwortham (Tue 12th).

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Juggling life’s priorities, comedy style – the Steve Royle interview

Beanbag Bounty: Steve Royle leaps to his own conclusions ahead of our chat (Photo: Andy Hollingworth)

It’s been quite a year for Steve Royle, appearances on prime-time ITV show Britain’s Got Talent attracting a whole new audience, his entertaining performances wowing celebrity judges and TV audiences alike, ensuring a top-three finish after a public vote.

And now he’s finally back on the road for a frantic dose of wholesome family entertainment fusing stand-up, slapstick and comic routines. Or ‘a feast of entertainment for both eyes and ears of the young and old’, as his promoters put it.

Away from the acting, writing, comedy and juggling, there’s also presenting, with a Gillard Award secured for his BBC Radio Lancashire show, a performer who was part of Peter Kay’s 16-night Phoenix Nights Live charity show at Manchester Arena having down the years supported some of the UK’s most popular comics, also including former WriteWyattUK interviewee Dave Spikey and Roy Walker.

Steve’s CV includes parts in hit TV comedies Car Share, Phoenix Nights, Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere, Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the Pop Factor and Stand Up Britain, plus straight acting roles in The Things You Do for Love: I Still Believe – a key moment for him, as we’ll find out – and Magnolia.

And while the pandemic delayed his title role launch in a national tour of Naturally Insane: The Life of Dan Leno, that’s set for its West End premiere soon, after a successful Lytham Hall run. But first there’s his surely ironically-titled debut UK tour, so far involving dates in Barnsley, Middlesbrough, Barnard Castle, Leeds, Northwich, Camberley and Newcastle-upon-Tyne,as well as on his home patch at Chorley Theatre (with another show due there in late January) and Burnley Mechanics, with Blackpool Grand and Southport Comedy Festival coming soon.

As those who saw his Britain’s Got Talent appearances now know (cards on the table here – I’d never watched the show before, but made a special exception for Steve, and from what I saw of his fellow finalists, he deserved to win by a mile), entertainment runs in the family, with his partner Janet – an actor and a drama/singing tutor – and three daughters making live TV cameos with him in that final.

What’s more, I can testify after my initial morning call to the winner of the inaugural Red Rose Awards Entertainer of the Year gong that his youngest has the comedy genes too, her recorded answer-machine message including a mischievous, “I’m 11 years old, what could possibly go wrong?”.

 “Ah, she’s good, in’t she? A good secretary, that.”

Last time we spoke, I pointed out, he only had one daughter, although the arrival of the next was imminent. But now Daisy and Rosie have been joined by the pre-discussed Lucy. Time flies, eh.

“Yeah … obviously she was the accident.”

Well, I know how that feels as the youngest of five, with neat two-year gaps between the older four then a five-and-a-half year wait for me.

“Oh, that’s a ‘book him in for the snip the next day’ accident, that!”

Steve, originally from Milnrow, Rochdale, was back home later than planned that morning after chatting to the presenters on BBC Breakfast. I missed that but caught his pal Dave Spikey on the red sofa not long before, paying tribute to fellow ex-Eight Out of Ten Cats panellist Sean Lock. And that led to our brief chat about a respected, razor-sharp comedy great, lost far too young.

“He was someone you really admired as a comedian, and someone Dave knew really well.”

By all accounts, Sean was every bit as funny off stage and screen as on.

“Yeah, you tend to like acts that are very different from yourself, and he was quite surreal in some respects. I remember watching him thinking I’d love to be able to do that, make it feel as effortless as he did.”

Steve remains in touch with Dave Spikey, the pair ‘long overdue a meal out’ together. As for me, last time I saw Steve in person was in November 2013, in an interviewer’s role at Chorley Little Theatre for an Ebb & Flo bookshop event marking the publication of Becoming Johnny Vegas, alongside the much-loved St Helens comic.

“As far back as that? Wow. That was a mad night, wasn’t it? I think I left at three in the morning, and he still hadn’t finished signing all the books!”

Funny you should say that. Rumour has it there are still people queuing for the bar, waiting to have their books signed by Johnny.

“It wouldn’t surprise me! Unbelievable.”

After a couple of hours, I gave up, leaving my copy with the theatre staff, who promised they’d get it back to me the following day. And they did, Johnny obliging overnight.

“A very sensible move! I’ve spoken about that night to so many people as an example of just how lovely he is. You didn’t just get your book signed, you got a personal 10-minute experience with Johnny Vegas and a personalised book. I think I was only hanging around to get my copy signed. He said, ‘I’ll do yours last’. Bloody hell! But it was a very elaborate copy when he finally did it.”

As for my last Royle command performance, that was supporting fellow local Mr Spikey at that same venue on his Overnight Success tour in July 2003. He repeated that role on Dave’s following Living the Dream tour, but it’s the earlier one that seems more apt now, 18 years on, following Steve’s own late elevation to the limelight. I mean, it’s been blistering, I suggested, the speed of his rise to national treasure.

“Yeah! There I was on the big irony of Dave’s Overnight Success tour, and now … well, if I didn’t have this surname … instead we’ve made this the Royle Variety Performance UK tour.”

Talking of trips down Memory Lane, I recently unearthed some cuttings from my newspaper past, including a Lancashire Evening Post feature/interview with Steve from August 2005, when he’d just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe with his Slaughterhouse Live co-performers, including Martin Pemberton, a fellow Lancashire lad who worked alongside then took over Steve’s chief jester role at Camelot Theme Park.

Then there was an autumn feature for the Lancashire Design and Living glossy magazine, Steve – also a panto regular – and Janet inviting photographer Paul Simpson and I to nose around their house, the tale of which I still dine out on 16 years later.

“Ah, I still occasionally see that article! The photographer also took a picture of a shoe that had just been moved to put it out of the way, part of a tidy-up, and it got featured. Ha!”

I shall now attempt to retell my story … in as few words as possible. First, let me set the scene. As we walked in, Steve and Janet made us feel welcome, making us a cuppa, and after a lengthy chat, Paul – his next job elsewhere already lined up – got to work while we carried on chatting in the kitchen, me taking notes as he walked around, taking various shots of treasured objects and wandering from room to room.

Then, Steve invited me upstairs (don’t worry, it’s not that kind of story), and with Paul joining us, led us to his daughter’s bedroom, where there was a lovely mural on the wall, which Steve told us was painted by Martin Pemberton.

“Do you remember Martin? He was the jester who took over from me at Camelot Theme Park when I left.”

I did remember him, and we talked about Martin for a while, Steve then explaining that the caravan he previously lived in at the Charnock Richard visitor attraction (long since closed now) was then taken over by Martin, but was in a bit of a state, less and less habitable as time wore on. If you weren’t careful, he pointed out, you could put your foot right through the rusting floor and do yourself a major injury. He then added, ‘Consequently, it was condemned, and Martin had to move out. In fact, he lives here now.”

And with that, Steve reached across to a big in-built cupboard, opened the door, and there was Martin, peering out of the dark from inside, with a casual nod before he greeted us both with a deadpan, ‘Alright’, Steve then closing the cupboard door, before adding, ‘Anyway, which room next, fellas?’, walking ahead of us while we stood there, mouths agape, wondering what the hell had just happened. A few seconds later, Steve returned, cracking up, opened the cupboard door again for Martin to walk out and join us, myself and Paul in a state of shock, soon crying with laughter.  

I didn’t know Paul before that day, but he seemed to be in a bit of a mess after that, occasionally knocking over items as we continued our tour, the two of us trying to get our minds back on the job, Steve also in fits as Martin headed off to the kitchen to talk to Janet, myself and Paul now and again staring at each other, breaking into giggles.

“Ah, that’s got to go down as the best practical joke ever, that! I’d forgotten about that until you started talking about it!”

Indeed, and there I was with around 2,000 words to play with at the time, wondering how I could possibly re-tell that tale in print.

As for Martin today, I had a brief look at his online acting CV via the imdb website before picking up the phone, and it seems he remains prolific, not least as a stuntman.

“He’s done amazingly well. I saw him a couple of weeks ago and he’s done all sorts recently, including a new Tim Minchin musical film version of Matilda, and doubling as Phil Mitchell in EastEnders.”

He must have filled out then, I’m guessing.

“Ha! Because he was small, he used to do kids’ stunt doubling, but now it’s big fat bald men. Things have changed for him quite considerably!”

Are you still in touch with the rest of your Slaughterhouse (‘laughter with an ‘s’, as they put it) Live mates?

“Yeah, we have a Slaughterhouse WhatsApp group, and one day we’ll all get back out there … once we’ve decided what acts we can still do. Ha!”

One mentioned in my feature was your character, Alan Sonar.

“Yeah, a blind juggler and inventor of tabasco eyedrops!”

Indeed, described as Phoenix Nights meets Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out, although I never quite managed to see that show live.

“Well, when we reconvene and have a gig, I’ll make sure you’re the first to know about it.”

Are you still in the same house in Chorley’s ‘hill country’ (as we used to call it in print)?

“I am, and still love it here. It’s beautiful, I’m dead lucky. It’s such a lovely area.”

And now you’re back on the road. Has it been tough, this past 18 or so months? And were these dates a long time coming, rearranged, and so forth?

“I think the hardest thing was the uncertainty. When we first went into lockdown, we felt it would be maybe a couple of months, and that worried me, thinking I could probably survive until summer. Then it got beyond that.

“But that’s where Britain’s Got Talent came in. It gave me something to focus on. Otherwise, I think I’d have gone proper mad – I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself. I was lucky in that sense.”

Talking mostly to musicians, I get the impression those who missed out on live performances built up nerves over that period, with too much time to reflect and over-think maybe, performers thinking they’ll have forgotten how to do it after so long.

“There is that, but I’ve also noticed audiences are so much more forgiving, more responsive. And they’re willing you to do well. But there will come a time where I’ll think things are back to normal when I go on stage and get the miserable ones sat staring at me.”

With the hard-boiled ‘C’mon, make me laugh, lad’ folded arms approach?

“Yeah, soon as I get back to one of those gigs, I’ll know, ‘Okay, things are back to normal now, I’ve got the miseries back!”

The public voting for you in droves for Britain’s Got Talent suggests there’s definitely an audience out there for what you do. But a ‘debut UK tour’? That seems hard to get my head round. I mean, you’re no stranger to the circuit, surely.

“Ah, well you can only imagine how I feel about that then, can’t you! As a support act for so many years, finally seeing my own name up there and getting brochures sent from so many areas of the country …

“I’ve always had a bit of a following in the North West – such as the Grand Theatre in Blackpool, where I’ve done panto for so many years – but when you’re selling tickets in places like Poole and Exeter … I’ve just seen a message this morning from someone saying, ‘Just seen you on the telly this morning and we’ve booked tickets for Exeter’. Then there’s North Yorkshire, and so on. It’s suddenly put me on the national map, this ‘local celebrity’.”

It must have been a shock when you put your specs on, realising Barnard Castle was on the schedule.

“That really did make me laugh! I don’t know if my agent put that one on deliberately. Last year, people were tagging me in comments on Twitter, saying, ‘What’s Dominic Cummings doing on Britain’s Got Talent?’. If I have one regret during the pandemic, it’s not getting in touch with him sooner, taking the flak for that. If I could have bribed him for at least a quarter of a million-winning prize, we’d both be in a better place today.” 

Dare I ask if success has changed you? Will there be a few blue gags to drive shocked parents away, muttering, ‘That wasn’t what I expected’?

“I’m trying to bill it as a family show, so there won’t be anything too offensive, but I’ll continue to try and entertain all levels all the time … and throw something in for the Dads! It sounds ridiculous, but I just have to be myself on stage, be that clown I’ve always been.

“And I’ve not got too big for my boots. I’ll still chat to people after. My Dad gave me the best bit of grounding when the final came on, with John Courtenay – who won it – playing these tunes on the piano. I phoned Mum and Dad up just after the results, and Mum was full of praise and, ‘Well done, son, I’m so proud of you, Steve.’ She couldn’t believe I didn’t get anything for third. I had to explain it’s not a church raffle.

“Then it was, ‘Anyway, your Dad wants a word now …’. He came ont’ phone and his first words to me were, ‘I told you that you should have kept up those piano lessons.’ And when you’ve got a grounding like that …”

Was that the piano I saw at yours back in the day, the one belonging to your Grandpa?

“Oh yeah, it was! And it’s still there. That was my Grandpa on my Mum’s side.”

It seems to me that your daughters could be following in your footsteps, career-wise.

“It’s the youngest one who’s the very quick-witted one in the family. My eldest, still a baby when you popped around, flees the nest in September, going off to university to study at the London School of Fashion. The middle one’s into dance, so at least staying theatrical. She’s a big dancer. And the youngest is the comedian in the family. She’s always funny and does some amazing characters.”

Where does she get that from?

“I don’t know.”

Mum’s a drama teacher, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Blame the mother. Don’t blame me!”

When you said the middle one’s into dance, I thought you said she was in Gdansk. I hadn’t expected that.

“Ha! Yeah, she’s big on Polish history. And she’s off to Sunderland the week after!”

The lad’s still got it. And what’s his Camelot Theme Park alter-ego, Mad Edgar up to these days?

“Probably still in some medieval hovel somewhere. I dread to think what he’s up to. Actually, that’s how I know how long people have known me. If it’s from Britain’s Got Talent, they say, ‘Hi Steve,’ and if it’s from Camelot days, I get, ‘Hi Edgar!’. King Arthur still lives half a mile from me … and I still call him King. You never lose respect for someone like that.”

Whereas his Camelot friend Martin Pemberton made it to the big screen, his past roles including one in Cold Mountain, Steve seems happy with past small screen ‘bit-parts’, not least The Things You Do For Love: I Still  Believe, a Granada TV drama about crooner Ronnie Hilton and his affair with a dancer, as it was on that set when Steve met Janet.

As for his friendship with Peter Kay, Steve was working the nights he staged his charity comeback this summer, but remained in touch with the Bolton comic during the pandemic.

“We had some proper chats, and he was very helpful, giving me tips on Britain’s Got Talent. And it’s just brilliant seeing him back at it.”

Do you think there will ever be a return for Phoenix Nights (Steve having appeared not only in Peter’s Car Share in 2017, but also as an uncredited ‘Crap Juggler’ 20 years ago, which at least makes for a better credit than the one he got for his role as a ‘Wanking Santa’ in 2004 TV movie Christmas Lights)?

“I doubt it very, very much. It’s the dream we’d all very much love to be fulfilled, but I think he’s so busy, going on to do so well with Car Share, his tours, and other things. I don’t see it ever happening, really. I doubt it.”

Well, if all goes to pot and the stage engagements dry up, there’s always a DIY shop opening for you where you started back in Rochdale, I guess.

“Yeah, I can still cut a key. And I’m still a dab hand with a metre rule!”

You told me when I first interviewed you, you had dreams one day of owning a restaurant chain, probably one where all the dishes arrive in threes.

“Ha! Well, there’s so many TV programmes with chefs nowadays, I realise it’s a much tougher job than I thought. When you get in late from gigs, like I do, there’s three things on telly – old editions of Homes Under the Hammer, Naked Attraction – getting to watch people naked in boxes – or Gordon Ramsay visiting horror restaurants. And do you know what – that’d be my restaurant. I will certainly continue to frequent lots of restaurants and bars, but I won’t be looking to run one myself.”

How about your title role in Naturally Insane: The Life of Dan Leno – is that still set to happen, including its prestigious West End premiere? Or did the pandemic kill off that opportunity?

“We actually did the show again at Lytham Hall, and we’re about to be back in the West End, premiering that in November. And it’s something I absolutely love doing. It’s a real passion, and it’s just nice to act. It’s alright being me, but I like being someone else … even if it’s a madman in a lunatic asylum!”

It’s certainly an intriguing true story (the Lytham Hall production having also featured Janet). I recall an article about Dan Leno that made an impression on me as a teenager, not just about his legacy but also later ghostly sightings of him in the West End.

“Yeah, the Drury Lane Theatre, apparently.”

Or apparitionally, perhaps. I also recall reading a theory that perhaps Dan’s genius moved on to Stan Laurel, then Peter Sellers.

“Yes, and Roy Hudd had quite an affinity. He was doing the play with us until he sadly died last year. I think I have that affinity too. Maybe he’s put a little of himself in all of us. He was so influential. People don’t realise, because of when he was around, but he was a big influence on the likes of Charlie Chaplin and, as you say, Stan Laurel, who then went on to influence so many others. We probably have more reason than we realise to be grateful to the guy.” 

Finally, these days you’re credited as an actor, writer, comedian, juggler and award-winning radio presenter. Which description sits best with you?

“Ah … Dad! Or – having three daughters, taxi driver is probably the best description for me now. That’s what I tend to be doing most of the time now, between gigs, ferrying them around.”

You’ll no doubt be missed in that respect when you’re back on the road then. In the meantime, I’m pleased to see your own overnight success finally come to fruition, and hopefully it won’t be 15-plus years before our next catch-up.

“Yeah, try and make it shorter, will you? Don’t come and visit me in a home, saying, ‘I’m sorry it took me so long’. I don’t want to be wheeled out for our next interview!”

Steve Royle’s October dates continue this weekend, reaching Northallerton The Forum tonight (Fri 1st, 7.30pm, 01609 776 230), then Blackpool Grand Theatre (Sat 2nd, 7.30pm, 01253 290190) and Bilston Town Hall (Sun 3rd, 7.30pm). He then heads for Norwich Playhouse (Wed 6th, 7.30pm, 01603 598598), Lowestoft Marina Theatre (Sat 9th, 7.30pm, 01502 533200), Peterborough Key Theatre (Thu 14th, 7.30pm, 01733 207 239), Southport Comedy Festival (Sun 17th, 2pm), Eastbourne Royal Hippodrome (Fri 15th, 7.30pm, 01323 802020), Hayes Beck Theatre (Tue 19th, 7.30pm, 0208 561 8371), Exeter Corn Exchange (Wed 20th, 8pm, 01392 665 938), Bridgwater McMillan Theatre (Thu 21st, 7.30pm, 01278 556 677), Taunton Brewhouse (Friday 22nd, 7.30pm, 01823 283 244), London Leicester Square Theatre (Sun 24th, 7.30pm, 0207 734 2222), Llanelli Theatr Ffwrnes (Tue 26th, 7.30pm, 0345 226 3510), and Poole Lighthouse (Thu 28th, 7.45pm, 01202 280000).

And next January, you can see Steve at Kettering Lighthouse (Thu 12th January, 7.30pm, 01536 414141, ) and his Chorley Theatre return (Sat 29th January, 7.30pm, 01257 264 362). For all the latest from Steve Royle, head to his website, and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Lighting the Bright Magic lantern – back in touch with Public Service Broadcasting’s J.Willgoose, Esq.

On the eve of the release of the fourth Public Service Broadcasting studio album, a celebration of the cultural and political metropolis that is Berlin, and with the London-based outfit set to return to live action, it was time to catch back up with the band’s key sonic architect, J. Willgoose, Esq.

Bright Magic, out this Friday, September 24, is an album in three parts (Building A City / Building A Myth / Bright Magic), seen as their most ambitious undertaking yet, following in the footsteps of David Bowie, Depeche Mode and U2, recording in and inspired by the delights of the hauptstadt of the Federal Republic of Germany.

A four-piece comprising my interviewee, drumming companion Wrigglesworth, multi-instrumentalist JF Abraham and visuals guru Mr. B, they’re set to tour the new record from next month, prompting further headaches – but welcome ones – after what’s proved a stressful last two years.

As 2013’s debut LP, Inform – Educate – Entertain, used archival samples from the British Film Institute as audio-portals to the Battle Of Britain, the summit of Everest, and beyond, 2015’s follow-up, The Race For Space, used similar methods to laud the superpowers’ rivalry and heroism in orbit and on the Moon. Then in 2017, they were joined by voices such as Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield on Every Valley, a moving exploration of community and memory via the rise and fall of the British coal industry, reaching No.4 on the UK charts. And now they’ve moved on again.

While the use of electronics and surging guitar rock remain familiar, Bright Magic uses samples and the English language sparingly, in a less linear and narrative and more impressionistic portrait of a city from the ground up.

J’s Eureka moment came in late 2018 when he heard cinematographer Walter Ruttmann’s 1928 Berlin tape-artwork Wochenende, a collage of speech, field recordings and music that provides a sonic evocation of the city and is sampled on three Bright Magic tracks.

Starting to get a feel for where his title wanted to take him, ‘towards ideas of illumination and inspiration, electricity and flashes of light and colour and sound’ – all the tracks eventually colour-coded – he moved to Berlin in April 2019, and was soon found on the Leipzigerstrasse, site of the city’s first electric street lights, walking ‘up and down recording electrical currents and interference’, some of those frequency buzzes, clicks and impulses heard on in ‘Im Licht’, inspired in part by pioneering lightbulb manufacturers AEG and Siemens, my interviewee determined to ‘capture those tiny little pulses you pick up while walking through a city’.

I was a couple of listens in when we spoke, already enraptured, but asked J straight away if this was just an eloquent and creative way of a band with an ongoing mission of ‘teaching the lessons of the past through the music of the future’ to say ‘Bollocks to Brexit’.

“Erm … it’s clearly a pro-European record, I would say, just from its very existence … yeah, it’s not explicit, but at the same time I realise in the lead up to making it, if I was ever going to realise this ambition of moving there for a bit, writing and recording, I needed to do it pretty quick, because the door was closing. While it’s not impossible now, it’s certainly a lot harder than it was … for no real good reason. But there you go.

“To speak about the record though, and what it’s trying to say, it’s implied rather than explicit, having these cities where all nationalities move in and out and inspire each other and contribute to the patchwork and mosaic of creative industry in that place. Berlin in the ’20s was full of people from all over the world – exiled Russians, Americans, English, all sorts – and being able to facilitate that as a city, you see the benefits it’s reaped from that. It’s a city that nobody in the course of the last two years when I’ve told them what I’ve been doing, said, ‘I didn’t really like it there’. Every single person said, ‘I love Berlin!’. It’s so revered.”

As he puts it, the finished record is ‘ultimately not just about one city, but all centres of human interaction and community which allow the free exchange and cross-pollination of ideas’. But he managed nine months there before the lockdown arrived. Was that always the plan, or did he realise what was happening and change his schedule?

“The original plan was to stay a year, do the record and come back. But within two weeks of getting there, my wife was waving a little white stick at me, telling me she was pregnant, so that changed things. We wanted to come home for various reasons, we did in January and everything went well, but then the walls started closing in – pandemic-wise – and it swiftly became apparent that our lofty dream of all heading back as a family in early summer to live for a couple of months while I finished up was not going to happen.”

Well, hopefully you’ll be back soon.

“I hope so. I had dreams of taking photos of my daughter with the piano in the big room at Hansa, but not this time.”

He’s referring to Kreuzberg’s famed Hansa Tonstudio, where the LP was written and recorded, also used for Depeche Mode’s ‘80s triumvirate, U2’s Achtung Baby, and, crucially, David Bowie’s Heroes and Low. And as J put it, ‘It’s become an album about moving to Berlin to write an album about people who move to Berlin to write an album’.

It’s always a pleasure working out where PSB are heading next, I tell him. They’ve taken us from the darkness of the war years to scale Everest and higher still for the Space Age, then down to the valleys and pits of South Wales, shining a miner’s light on the importance of community. And this time we have another fantastic story and winning spotlight project. Did he know early on this was going to be his next album concept?

“Yeah, I’d been banging on about it to the others for ages! I think I knew that even during the writing and research for Every Valley. It was in the offing for a very long time and seemed pretty destined.

“However, it’s all very well saying, ‘I’m going to move to Berlin, write a record about Berlin’ – and our albums have more of a narrative feel to them, I suppose – but it’s not as simple as moving there, writing 10 songs about love then moving back. It’s a case of ‘what am I actually writing about, what is this nebulist concept going to distil down into, and what am I focusing on?’. And it was getting the title of the record that came before anything else, and really defined it. An odd way of doing things, but that’s what happened!”

Was that before you discovered and became inspired by Wochenende?

“Yeah, but that’s why when I finally saw the Ruttmann films and other Lichtspiels we finally focused on, it made such sense. I was thinking, ‘bright magic – imagination, inspiration and illumination’. And to then realise Berlin was this early heart of abstract animated film and these beautiful films all came out of there, was like a lightbulb moment in my head. That was a day off in Berlin in November 2018 when we were on tour there. I got back in the van the next morning proudly telling everyone, ‘I’ve got it! I know what I’m doing now!’.”

From the moment that female voice comes in and announces or demands ‘mach show’, I’m in the Star Club in Hamburg, I let on, The Beatles being bullied into another demanding live set.

“I think that’s misheard. I’m pretty sure she says, ‘mach schon’, which is ‘get ready’ … but if it does have echoes of Hamburg and The Beatles, I’m certainly not going to tell people otherwise!”

Well, perhaps they misheard, and that’s what the Star Club owner was demanding of them.

“Maybe. It would make sense. And they were worked pretty hard over there.”

This record is unmistakeably Public Service Broadcasting, but at the same time incorporating so many European cultural motifs. Were you always a lover of Kraftwerk, Einsturzende Neubaten, and so on? John Peel loved his German bands. Were you listening to all that?

“Yeah, although I wrote ‘Spitfire’ before I really dug down into proper krautrock. I’d heard the echoes of it down the generations afterwards, like the influences on New Order, Primal Scream and a David Holmes album I loved. So I got it second-hand. It was only after ’Spitfire’ came out that I went back and did the proper work. For me, it’s NEU!, it’s Harmonia, it’s Kluster, it’s Roedelius, and the stuff Eno did with Harmonia especially, which only just recently resurfaced.

“I do like Kraftwerk. Any band that plays any kind of electronic instrument obviously owes them an extraordinary debt, but in terms of the focus on krautrock for me, I think Neu are my number one.” 

‘Der Rhythmus der Maschinen’ for me is somewhere between Moby at his 2002 creative peak and the 18 LP, and Grace Jones.

“Ha! Wow!”

How did the link-up with Blixa Bargeld, veteran of The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten, who becomes the voice of Berlin’s industry on that track, come about?

“I think that’s the first time in all our collaborations it was suggested by the label rather than coming from me. Not because Blixa and Einstürzende Neubauten weren’t on my radar, but I just thought, ‘Why would he want anything to do with us?’. I didn’t have the audacity to ask him! But when someone asks if we’d thought about it and said, ‘I can put you in touch,’ it was, ‘Well, put me in touch, but he won’t be interested’. But then they came back, said he was interested, and I was saying, ‘Are you sure they’ve spoken to him? Is it just someone asking on his behalf?’. They assured me he was, and I said again, ‘Are you sure?’.

“And although I didn’t meet him in person, we spoke online then did a remote recording. It was an experience – he’s a formidable character – but did a great job with it. The voice of the machines that kind of descends half-way through, takes it somewhere else entirely. It’s great.”

Meanwhile, ‘People, Let’s Dance’, the first single – featuring vocals from Berlin-based musician EERA – set the scene brilliantly, and incorporated a guitar riff from Depeche Mode’s ‘People Are People’, the song taking its title from a chapter of Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine A City, and opening up part two of the album, the scene shifting to a three-day weekend club environment and an aspect of Berlin as a long-established free zone for pleasure, art and expression, its accompanying video featuring colourful roller-skaters against a city backdrop, directed by Chloe Hayward. A bit like ‘Gagarin’ six years earlier, I suggested, it takes a dance level entry to a wider themed record.

“Ha! Yeah, you dangle these radio-friendly things out there to hope you can trick people into listening to a relatively obscure record! But it was a fun song to write, and to write a song about Berlin club culture – even if you’re not going to make it a techno-banger, as it were – it has to be pretty up and appealing.

“That song has its own purpose and function, with echoes of that Depeche Mode track and the Hansa thread that runs through that. Even in itself it’s densely woven, full of references, little clues to other stuff. But when you put it in the context of the rest of the record, there’s so much going on in pretty much every track in terms of where it draws your ear and eye to. It’s quite dense!”  

You mention Depeche Mode, and also talk about the importance of U2’s Berlin period, but I clearly detect the influence of someone else above others who worked so memorably there, a certain David Bowie. And I’d like to think if he was still with us, he’d deflect from talk of his own ‘Let’s Dance’ from 1983 to mention yours instead.

“Ah, I don’t think he would! Again, what on earth would someone like him want to do with us? But one of the hardest things about this was being able to be lucky enough to rent a room in Hansa for the best part of a year and write there, walking past his image every day and hearing these ghosts that hang around the building, like Depeche Mode, U2, and Neubauten. All these people who’ve been there really defined the building and defined eras of music at the same time. It’s really something to have that hang over you when you enter the building every day and not take it on your shoulders to think, ‘What am I possibly hoping to contribute to this? I am not in the same bracket as them!”

Well, it obviously raised your game.

“Erm … I mean, has it? I don’t know. I hope so, but it’s not for me to judge.”

Was the LP that followed your immersion in Berlin the key to getting through lockdowns, borders closing, and all that on your return home, albeit with a new family member as well?

“No, actually for the first five or six months of lockdown last year, it was a tremendous source of stress and worry. All my equipment was in Germany. I was still renting a studio and renting an apartment in Germany, but couldn’t get there and didn’t have any equipment here to make music. That’s when I did my side-project of Late Night Final, choosing loads of synths that had been sat at the back of cupboards for ages, and guitar pedals I’d never really plugged in, bodging together bits and bobs to try and get some kind of creative juices flowing. It really helped me mentally to get that done while I was dealing with the prospect of maybe not being able to finish the record the way I hoped – either having to abandon it or record it here and run up the white flag.

“So much was in the balance then. I don’t think I really had vocalists for most of the tracks, and it just felt impossible at that point. I was a bit heartbroken and crushed by it. Then, when things started to relax, in June and July, I was booking dates in, hoping beyond hope we could all actually get out there without contracting Covid, work together in that environment, get it done, get our stuff and get home. It was really quite stressful. But the actual recording, thankfully, ended up being very enjoyable – a refreshing slice of normality in a very un-normal year.”

I can’t pretend to have been on board right from the start, but it was ‘Spitfire’ that made me go back to the first two EPs and singles, courtesy of Radcliffe and Maconie on BBC 6 Music, and I was sold. It’s now eight years since I first saw you at Preston’s 53 Degrees, and it’s been more than a decade altogether. Where’s that time gone? Has it flown for you (‘like a bird – a spitfire bird’)?

“Yeah, it has, and it hasn’t. It’s a strange thing, with many personalities and aspects to it. Now and again I’m almost transported back in time to what it was like in the beginning. It’s so exciting when things are taking off. You get taken back there at various points, and think, ‘God, that feels like a long time ago’. I listened to a demo version of ‘Spitfire’ the other day and was transported back to late 2011, thinking, ‘I’m really trying to write something good here, and it’s not working’.

“And it’s strange that this weird concept for a band has been embraced so widely and allowed us to fulfil these crazy ambitions, doing stuff with some of our heroes and going somewhere as revered as Berlin and Hansa, being able to make a record and contribute our own piece to that history. It’s a privilege.”

Along the way, you’ve also introduced me to a few acts, from Smoke Fairies to 9 Bach, and back to properly check out Camera Obscura. And this time I can add EERA for ‘People, Let’s Dance’ and ‘Gib Mir das Licht’, Nina Hoss on closing track, ‘Ich und die Stadt’, and Andreya Casablanca, of Berlin garageistes Gurr, standing in for Marlene Dietrich on ‘My Blue Heaven’, an anthem of proud self-determination. How did Andreya come up on your radar?

“For that track I wanted somebody with a bit of spike and punk to them, who’d have a bit of that attitude she seemed to have. A remarkable woman, a remarkable character, and I use the word advisedly, as I do feel a lot of the time she’s playing somebody. I wanted somebody with that edge and while I knew of Gurr I didn’t realise they were from Berlin. And while trawling the internet to find female vocalists I thought would be good for this, Gurr popped up and it turned out they weren’t working together on collaborations but Andreya was.

“We went from there, wrote most of the lyrics online together last year, sending demo files backwards and forwards, going through it line by line. It came together very slowly, and I didn’t really hear what we had until it was all recorded, when I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not bad, that!’”

That track, ‘Blue Heaven’, is perhaps my early LP favourite, another that’s trademark Public Service Broadcasting, but also initially New Order then – when you step up the guitars, as on past songs like ‘Signal 30’ – The Wedding Present, which is absolutely fine by me.

“Yeah, it’s all in there, it’s The Walkmen, it’s Jesus & Mary Chain, Here We Go Magic were a big one for that track, it’s Slowdive, Asobi Seksu … I’m just thinking of all the songs I ripped off for that one! When you’re writing music, if you’re like me, a bit of a magpie – and that’s probably one thing I do share with Bowie, always keeping an ear out for something you can take – it’s a big part of making music, taking other people’s work and incorporating it into your own.

“There is of course a line you shouldn’t cross. If we’d used that Depeche Mode riff without asking … but there are still ways of paying tribute to things without plagiarising them, and I hope it’s a line we stayed the right side of. There’s all sorts of musical nods to all sorts of people, perhaps most explicit with Low and Bowie and ‘The Visitor’.”

‘The Visitor’ was initially intended to feature a sample of Bowie reflecting on ‘how he viewed himself as this vessel for synthesizing and refracting other influences, and presenting avant-garde influences to the mainstream’, my interviewee revealing that the band ‘tried to absorb a bit of that spirit’. And that number for me is perhaps this record’s ‘The Other Side’, with a hint – when it all comes together – of Hubert Parry’s music to William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, I suggest.

“It’s become clear to me afterwards that it’s not dissimilar in some respects … or ‘Jupiter’.”

True, and with an underlying feel of Ultravox. In fact, I can see the fog on the streets on a well-known video of a certain hit single from 40 years ago.

“Yeah, it was all about conjuring an atmosphere similar to ‘Warszawa’, the song that kicks off side B {of Low}, layering up the piano and the synths. I think I just used a bit of background electrical noise to create the flanged intro that was again a sort of nod to Station to Station. Then that melody wrote itself in my head. The drums were a very late addition. They weren’t in the demo version. And we put the snare drum through ’Even Tide’, so you get that pitched down effect Visconti pioneered and everyone in the ’80s then used.”

Well, I said Ultravox because that’s probably where I heard it first.

“Yeah, and Visconti probably nicked it from somewhere else!”

Talking of that kind of feel, I’m briefly back in my church choir when the organ leads us into ‘Lichtspiel I: Opus’.

“The strange thing is it’s all one instrument, the lead of that, and it does sound like an organ when all the filters are down. The other thing that might give it the sound of the organ is that on earlier synthesisers they didn’t call it octaves, they called it feet – like an organ. And I was kind of playing those in real time, so you get these harmonic layers that pitch and shift and move on top of other stuff. When you’re playing with those sort of harmonies, it’s going to take some people back to church music, which is built around those.”

Absolutely, and that’s not something I’ve said to any other interviewee (not even Rick Wakeman).

“Ha!”

So how are you, Wrigglesworth, JF and Mr B going to manage to get all this over on the forthcoming tour?

“I’m just getting to that now. I think I was too worried it wasn’t going to happen. Now it seems it will, because of the Government’s policy of unorganised chaos, so I’m now starting to scratch my head about it. But I think we need some help on the vocals front, and we’ll probably try and enlist live vocals some way or another. When they’re as central to the songs as they are on some of this record, and even on the last one, you do need that represented on stage.”

It sounds like that might involve some visas.

“Erm … it might. It certainly involves a bigger, more complicated and more expensive show. Very few bands are in a position to be able to think about those things, because we’ve all not really worked for a year and a half. It does leave you with a lot of head-scratching moments, chiefly, ‘how do we afford this?’. But there you go.”

And dare I ask where you’re headed next? I was thinking something to do with Empire Windrush and the positive impact of immigration before, but I was wrong this time and will probably be wrong again. Perhaps you’ll just confound us with a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/middle-eight/chorus-type LP next time instead.

“Well, it is nice to be asked. It shows people are interested. To be honest though, this is the first time since we started that I don’t really know. There’s something potentially in the works for next year, but I’ve not heard a lot about it for a while, so who knows.

“Other than that, without going into too much detail, this was a really difficult record to make for all sorts of reasons. It definitely took its toll. So I should really feel quite happy to just try and recharge on some level.”

No pressure from me, by the way. I’m not saying you’re only as good as your next LP.

“Well, you know. There will be pressure at some point! And I’ll try to embrace that.”

For the April 2017 writewyattuk interview with J. Willgoose, Esq., marking the release of Every Valley, head here. For this site’s February 2015 feature/interview with J, marking the release of previous LP, The Race for Space, head here. You can also seek out writewyattuk‘s lowdown on Inform-Educate-EntertainThe Race For Space, and PSB live at 53 Degrees in 2013 and the Ritz, Manchester in 2015.

Public Service Broadcasting live dates, with tickets available here: October – Sun 24 Cardiff University Great Hall; Mon 25 Brighton Dome; Tue 26 Bristol O2 Academy; Wed 27 Exeter Great Hall; Thu 28 Southampton O2 Guildhall; Sat 30 Aylesbury Friars; Sun 31 Birmingham O2 Institute. November – Mon 1 Leeds O2 Academy; Tue 2 Llandudno Cymru Theatre; Thu 4 Manchester O2 Apollo; Fri 5 Newcastle O2 City Hall; Sat 6 Aberdeen Music Hall; Sun 7 Glasgow Barrowland; Tue 9 Nottingham Rock City; Wed 10 London Brixton O2 Academy; Thu 11 Cambridge Corn Exchange.

Bright Magic is released on Friday, September 24th via Play It Again Sam, with a pre-order link here. And you can connect with Public Service Broadcasting via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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The telling adventures of Saint Etienne – the Sarah Cracknell interview

Despite there never being more than a seven-year gap between Saint Etienne LPs over their 31-year existence, when I think about this London-rooted outfit – built predominantly around Sarah Cracknell and co-founders Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs – the years 1990 to 1995 spring to mind first, treading my own path to their soundtrack.

I always admired where they were at culturally, sonically and visually, and when I hear ‘Only Love Can Break your Heart’, the Moira Lambert-fronted Neil Young cover that launched them, I’m transported back to the summer of Italia ’90, a timeframe in which I introduced my beloved to Cornwall and worked as far afield as the Isle of Wight to earn enough for world travels, while remaining ensconced on the London and South-East music scene.

By the time they re-issued ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ off the back of debut LP, Foxbase Alpha, my backpacking adventures were done but the wanderlust remained, saving up for my next trip, a holiday in Tolon, Greece, serving as a stopgap amid sorting office work-shifts and weekend UK trips visits, with plenty more live engagements but my music fanzine by then replaced by another engineered around frequent home and away Woking FC terrace engagements.

When ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ – still my favourite ever Saint Etienne moment – and the So Tough LP landed in early ’93, I was into my last year in Surrey, still squeezing in social and unsocial hours alongside a Royal Mail day-job but planning ahead to a North West move, Sarah’s festive duet with Tim Booth on ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’ playing as I carried the next alphabetical third of my record collection into my better half’s Victorian terrace home as she realised I might actually be moving in after four and half years of 500-mile round-trips.

And as the Saints went Europop with ‘He’s on the Phone’ just after my 28th birthday, I’d not long since ditched a fairly miserable stop-gap building society job for uni, setting off into journalism, book and TV manuscripts to one side for a while, a new phase underway.

So when I learned that new Saint Etienne LP, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You – out now via Heavenly Recordings – is all about optimism, youth and the late ‘90s, it took me a while to get my head into that space, recalling where I was then … and Saint Etienne themselves, by then having vaulted the Heavenly Recordings stable gate for Creation, ‘Sylvie’, ‘The Bad Photographer’ and Good Humor signalling a welcome gear change into a less dance-pop era, more akin to The Cardigans, perhaps. But I wasn’t listening so hard at the time, more’s the pity, probably wrapped up in a world of morning and weekly newspaper deadlines, match reporting and occasional Aegean and Mediterranean holidays.

What’s more, by the time of their ambient and trip-hop statement, Sound of Water, in the summer of 2000, I had a five-month-old daughter and life had changed again. And truth be told, it’s only in recent times I’ve caught up with and appreciated both of those records.

Those were the band’s fourth and fifth studio long players, with the new record their 10th, accompanied by a film of the same name directed by acclaimed photographer/film-maker Alasdair McLellan, who also provides stills photography.

Locations in the film – Avebury, Portmeirion, Doncaster, Grangemouth and London – help evoke that era through a fog of memory, the sonic and visual results described as ‘beautiful, hypnotic and all-enveloping’, Alasdair seeing his starting point for the project as ‘an interpretation of my memories from the time I first started to listen to Saint Etienne’s music’. As he put it, ‘At that time, I was a bored teenager in a village near Doncaster, South Yorkshire; a place where very little happened. I now look back at that time as something quite idyllic – even the boredom seems idyllic – and a big part of its soundtrack was Saint Etienne’.

The film premiered last week, kicking off a BFI The Films of Saint Etienne weekend of screenings and Q&As on London’s Southbank, its tie-in LP already inspiring Daniel Avery, Jane Weaver and Vince Clarke remixes, with Saint Etienne also set to tour in November. All of which gave me the excuse to seek out Sarah Cracknell to tackle the band’s past, present and future.

I started by telling her I’d played a lot of the LP that week, first in the background, slowly taking it in more and more, increasingly impressed, having that morning also had a first look at its trailer – additionally intrigued by Alasdair’s film.

“I know. Isn’t he brilliant! He’s been amazing. He interpreted the music so well.”

What came first – Alasdair’s vision, the songs, or a bit of both? Did he work on what you sent him?

“First of all, we had another album we’d been making in a tiny studio, with a lovely man called Shawn Lee {who co-produced the band’s last LP, 2017’s Home Counties} in Finsbury Park. It was nearly finished, but then restrictions happened. But also, Bob and Pete started messing around, taking old records and ‘smushing’ them up … for want of a better word!

“Alasdair at first was going to work on the other album, but then heard some of the new songs, and around then our manager said, ‘This is great, you should do an album of this,’ especially now we could do things a bit more remotely. So Alasdair got into it, and started working on it. He’s been all over the country, and it’s amazing what he’s done, especially during lockdown. We sent him songs bit by bit, and then he got the full album, and they work so well as a pair.”

Was Sarah looking forward to the BFI film season and the reaction? Or is it all a bit strange after so long away from the public glare?

“Well, there’s always that feeling, when you put an album or film out. You just don’t know. The people who’ve heard the album and seen the film are all quite close to us, so maybe they’re just saying they like it! They’re opinions we trust, but we just don’t know until it’s out there.

“I was looking forward to the premiere and screenings until they told me I had to be part of the Q&A. Ha! That’s the bit I’m most concerned about!”

Strange, isn’t it, after so long. A few artists I’ve spoken to have never felt more nervous about getting out there again. We want to be, but it’s easy to build it up in your mind that it’s going to be difficult. You can be on a roll, then it stops, and you end up over-thinking it all. Strange times.

“It is, and there’s also, ‘If I start doing this, are they going to stop me again?’. I hope not though.”

The new LP lands 30 years after the release of debut LP, Foxbase Alpha, the latest addition constructed largely from samples and sounds drawn from the years 1997-2001, a period topped and tailed by Labour’s election victory and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.

Was the optimism of that era a lost golden age, or a period of naïvety, delusion and folly? Well, Bob, Pete and Sarah contest that the collective folk memory of any period differs from the reality, and tell us I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is an album about memory, how it works, how it tricks you and creates a dream-like state. It also taps into the way we think of our youth, a sense of place, and where we come from, the new record made remotely in collaboration with film/TV composer Gus Bousfield, who contributed to two songs and co-produced with Pete Wiggs.

While Pete’s in Hove on the East Sussex coast these days, and Bob’s in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Sarah has been in Oxfordshire a long time now, having bought a house there around 20 years ago, transforming it slowly from the initial ‘wreck’ she says it was. So it seems that the period the LP focuses on also marked the end of her London days.

“Yeah, absolutely. I was living in and around West London. It was nothing like this! In fact, my youngest is now in sixth form and wondering what he’s going to do next, and says he might go to uni or college, but he’s only going to London!”

I’m six months younger than Sarah (she wears it far better, of course) and like her, I guess, first got to regularly see live music and obsess about it from the early ‘80s, yet also – like Saint Etienne – regularly harked back to ‘60s influences. And what I still struggle to grasp is that today the ‘90s are as far away as that era was to us back then.

“You’re making me feel very old now! I know though, and that fascination with that period – especially with my son for the ‘90s – is really the same as us looking back at the ‘60s. It’s just one of those things, isn’t it.”

When we were growing up, we did have all that ’50s nostalgia – from American Graffiti to Grease and Happy Days – but now it’s like, ‘The ‘90s? That was only yesterday, wasn’t it?’.

“I know! Ha!”

But in the same way the ‘60s was about far more than The Beatles and the Stones to me, the ‘90s was about far more than all those nostalgia documentaries suggest. It wasn’t all just about Blur or Oasis chart battles, or The Spice Girls stealing their thunder. And Saint Etienne were a key part of all that.

What’s more, if their latest release is an album about optimism, youth and the late ‘90s, we all need a bit of that optimism right now, don’t we?

“Precisely. For the last 18 months to two years, there’s not been a lot of optimism, and there was around then … although slightly misguided optimism perhaps. It’s about exploring that, and how you can remember things not quite as they were – a bit blurry, through gauze. You don’t remember the intricacies. You just have a feeling about it.”

I get what you say about that period – topped and tailed by Labour’s election victory and the Twin Towers attack – being the end of an era, but it’s easy for us to blank that out now as we hurtle towards new calamities in a period defined by that disastrous Brexit vote, the pandemic, and so on.

I tend to think of the 2012 Olympics as the end of the era now, as loosely defined in Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s celebration of all that was good about the UK in the preceding years at the opening ceremony – not least the NHS and Welfare State. But maybe you’re right too.

“I know what you mean about that whole 2012 Olympics – I’ve never felt so uplifted. I was watching it with the whole of my husband’s family in Italy. It was amazing and made me feel really positive. A good point.”

Am I right in thinking Saint Etienne were there when they were levelling the land ahead of the construction of the Olympic Stadium?

“Yeah, we were filming in the Lea Valley. I was only there a couple of days, but Pete was there the whole time, I think. I don’t know if this is public knowledge, but they started filming, and then it was announced. So it was a good job they’d started documenting that site, before it completely and utterly changed.”

Idly flicking through Wikipedia, I see you’re down, genre-wise, as an exponent of house, alternative dance, synthpop, indie pop and alternative rock. And that’s just you, not the band. But I guess it’s good that people still struggle to put definitive labels on you.

“Yeah, I’m very proud! I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting. That’s great that I’m not to be pigeon-holed!”

Does it surprise you that this is somehow the 10th Saint Etienne LP, 30-plus years having passed? Because despite what I said before, it seems an age since I first heard ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and delved deeper.

“It does … and then it seems like yesterday! I was talking to Bob yesterday – we were doing an interview together on Zoom – and because the guy was asking specifically about Foxbase Alpha, at that point – and I think all three of us would agree – we were amazed we’d even made an album, let alone consider making another one … let alone this many!

“I think before an album’s out, we don’t really know if we’re going to make another one, ever, to be honest.”

I suppose that keeps you on your toes.

“Yeah, and I think that’s probably got a lot to do with us not having been on a major label … or at least always through an indie. We’ve never been locked into five albums or something ridiculous like that!”

How aware were you of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ when it came out? Did you hear that before you were involved?

“Yes, I did. I was a big fan of the record, and the reason I ended up meeting Bob and Pete was through … I grew up in Windsor, and was good friends with a lot of people there, and can’t remember who it was who first played that to me, it may have been my friend, Jonny Male, but Bob was going out with a girl from Windsor who I knew, called Celina …”

Was that Celina Nash, who’s on the debut LP’s cover?

“That’s right, and I heard the record and really liked it, and Bob and Pete were looking for someone to sing ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’. That was it, really. That’s all they were looking for. What they wanted was a different singer for different records, so she put them in touch with me.”

Like Erasure, the original premise for Vince Clarke was to have different vocalists. Which is possibly the first time anyone’s compared you to Andy Bell, another singer who came in to do a job and stuck around, to great effect.

“Ha! Yeah. My theory is that touring would become a logistical nightmare – you’d need one bus for all the singers, and another for the rest!”

It’ll be 30 years and six days between the release of Foxbase Alpha and the new record. And seeing as you mentioned ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’, Bob sees that as the first song him and Pete wrote with lyrics, and reckons – according to a piece he wrote for Robin Turner’s book celebrating Heavenly Recordings 30th anniversary, …Believe in Miracles, they ‘got very lucky in the studio’. Was that a special moment, hearing that track back in the studio for the first time?

“Yeah, absolutely. It was amazing. I was surprised, and I think they were! Like you say, they hadn’t really written anything before. But I think that was a confidence thing – they just didn’t know they could write, but once they started they were on a roll.”

You say of the new record, “It’s the first sample-driven album we’ve made since So Tough and it’s been a really refreshing experience, such fun! It’s both dreamy and atmospheric, late summer sounds.” Is there a sense for you that So Tough was the first proper album, in that you received writing credits for ‘Avenue’ and ‘You’re in a Bad Way’? Or did you already feel properly part of it?

“I think I already felt part of it. Bob and Pete had known each other since they were tiny, and they had a lot of in-jokes. It took a while, but I never felt they were laughing at me … at least I don’t think they were! They would just be sniggering about something in a corner.

“I felt very comfortable with them, and think with Foxbase Alpha, because of the Mercury Music Prize nomination, blah blah blah, I already felt quite a part of the band. But I know what you mean – with So Tough, that’s when I started to put my ideas across. And I’d been writing songs since I was about 15 … in my band.”

She sounds almost apologetic at the end there, but I’m not letting it slip by. Was that with her Windsor outfit, The Worried Parachutes? 

“Oh God! How did you find that out?”

Sorry, I did warn you I’d been delving online.

“Hilarious!”

Tell me more about that band.

“Err … kind of electronic pop, lots of keyboards, three girls originally, all from Windsor. We sort of folded, then the bass player and I went off and did our own thing for quite a few years. His name’s Mick Bund. We had two bands together. I stopped doing that around ’87 and went to drama school in ’88 for a year, thinking I’d be an actress. I always had an interest in that. I came out and did a few fringe productions, then met Bob and Pete.”

It was clearly meant to be. So were songs like ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ new, or something you’d had a while?

“No, that was new.”

Although I’ve been in Lancashire since early 1994, my roots are in Guildford, moving north between the recording and release of the third Saint Etienne LP, Tiger Bay

“Oh really. Home Counties as well, then!”

Definitely, and Windsor’s Community Arts Centre and The Old Trout were fairly regular venues for me from ’88.

“Oh, I played there a couple of times!”

I thought you might have, with London and the South East my patch in the days I wrote a fanzine, going up to town, seeing bands all over …

“Yeah, didn’t we all!”

Exactly, and the subject of Windsor-born Andrew Weatherall – three years Sarah’s senior – has come up a few times lately in interviews, Brix Smith talking of his inspirational words and Dot Allison about the compilation tapes he put her way, introducing her to new sounds. How was it with Saint Etienne and Andrew?

“Well, I knew Andrew from Windsor, but he got involved before I joined, with ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’. I didn’t know that then, but that was via Jeff {Barrett, the Heavenly Recordings head honcho), who put Bob and Pete Andrew’s way. But I knew Andy from when I was about 15. He was an incredibly influential person, such an inspiration, so funny, and really warm. He was just lovely, and it’s terribly sad …”

We’ve all got stories of people we’ve lost this last year or so, but he was one of the more high-profile departures.

“Oh God, yeah, and he was so loved. I went to the funeral and there were so many people there … and a lot of tears.”

Going back to your Windsor days, did you know instinctively where you wanted to be and what you wanted to do? I’m guessing acting was just part of the bigger picture – performing and doing something creative.

“Well, yeah, I knew from when I was really small that I wanted to be on a stage, doing something creative. My Dad was in the film industry and I’d go on set and on location, and just loved everything about that and any kind of creative process. I was writing poems and doing drama exams at school,  singing … It was always something I wanted to do.”

Sarah’s father, Derek Cracknell – who died a few months before Foxbase Alpha’s release, and to whom her 1997 debut solo LP, Lipslide, was dedicated – had a distinguished film career, more than 50 assistant director credits ranging from the Boulting Brothers’ Heavens Above to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Bond movies Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, through to 1989’s Batman. He also took that iconic photograph of six-year-old Sarah used on the cover of So Tough.

As for the new record, the guitar line underpinning ‘I Remember It Well’ reminds me of ‘Dreaming’ by Blondie. In fact, you could argue that track is more ‘Dreaming’ than ‘Dreaming’.

“Ha! I suppose it is, isn’t it!”

Similarly, ‘Fonteyn’ has a bit of ‘Love is in the Air’ about its main hook. I guess what I’m saying that while Saint Etienne from the start were very much about the future and possibilities, you always had a foot in pop’s past too.

“Yeah, we love things from the past, absolutely, but like to turn things into something we feel is looking to the future. Exactly what you just said, really! And the thing about using samples again is that it’s such good fun, making something new out of something old.”

I suppose the concept of music being married with something visual, filmic and the world of multi-media has always been there, not least with your film soundtrack contributions, on Finisterre in 2002 with its accompanying DVD, and the Royal Festival Hall artists-in-residence project.

“Yeah … it’s not a surprise, is it!”

Tell me about the beguiling yet rather mysterious ‘Penlop’, not least as it’s maybe the track we hear you most on (and is my favourite number on the new LP). Is there a story here about travel and Bhutan, perhaps?

“Erm … I’m avoiding talking about that kind of thing, and our lyrics. There’s a lot of stuff, vocally, on the album that’s pretty abstract, and it’s meant to be part of the music. There’s no lyrical narrative. The narrative really comes from the film. When they’re paired together, the music just goes with it.”

So the ear, and in this case the eye too, is the beholder perhaps.

“Exactly! We don’t want to spoil it. It’s like when you imagine lyrics from other songs. Often, when you hear what it really is, you’re quite disappointed – the version in your mind was a lot better.”

That took us briefly to The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’, and how I was initially disappointed discovering Hugh Cornwell wasn’t in fact laid down with his ‘mancherums’ – which I presumed were some kind of exotic, potent Far Eastern cigarette – but that, ‘with my mind she runs’.

“I always thought it was something Asian, like a guru … a kind of ‘Sexy Sadie’!”

Ah, whom of course ‘laid it down for all to see’ … and ‘broke the rules’. Maybe Sarah’s interpretation wasn’t so far from mine after all.

Saint Etienne have clearly come a long way from Foxbase Alpha, so to speak, the band that told us ‘London Belongs to Me’ back in September ’91 having put their latest record together remotely, in Bradford, Hove and Oxford. And you can’t say that about many LPs, surely.

“Exactly! And it worked really well, thanks again to my useful youngest teen, who’s really good at ProTools and all that sort of thing. He recorded it and was my vocal engineer! To be honest, without him I’d have had to learn how to do these things.”

Incidentally, you probably know this, but Sarah has two sons with husband Martin Kelly, Saint Etienne’s manager and Jeff Barrett’s former label partner, who also co-founded the legendary Heavenly Social club and was with fellow Heavenly act, East Village. But I’ll let her carry on …

“We’ve done so many Zooms that we feel we’ve seen each other a lot, but I said to Bob yesterday, ‘When did I actually see you in the flesh the last time?’. At least 18 months ago. I’ve at least seen Pete – he came here one day.”

I was interviewing someone recently who told me he was so relieved ours was a phone call rather than a Zoom – it meant he didn’t have to worry about what he was wearing and that he might occasionally be staring off into space.

“Yeah, I know! And where I am, there’s broad daylight straight in my face. It’s really brutal!”

And would you be tempted to follow that remote formula again, or will it be about sharing rooms next time?

“I think we’d like to share rooms, to be honest. We often start sending ideas across, then we’ll all make up tunes, scribble some words, then we’ll go in a studio, start pulling it together.”

Well, long may it continue. This LP’s getting under my skin, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film too.

“Oh good. I think you’ll love that. It really adds to it. It’s a good combi.”

I’ve Been Trying to Tell You is out now via Heavenly Recordings (HVNLP196) in digital, vinyl, CD, CD-DVD and boxset formats, with details here. Rough Trade also made it their September album of the month, offering an exclusive sky-blue vinyl edition with three-track remix CD involving mixes by Daniel Avery, Jane Weaver and Vince Clarke. There’s also a Heavenly edition with free flexidisc (linked via their Bandcamp shop here), and a ‘super deluxe’ limited-edition boxset with signed prints, film poster, DVD, exclusive 10” vinyl and 12” album.

The film of the same namepremiered on London’s BFI Southbank HQ in early September, with the trailer here, part of the Films Of Saint Etienne season, screenings accompanied by Q&As with the band and their collaborators, also including This Is Tomorrow, Asunder, Finisterre, How We Used to Live, Lawrence of Belgravia, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and Saint Etienne: Shorts Programme.

Saint Etienne tour dates: Glasgow St Luke’s, November 18th; Sunderland (venue to be confirmed), November 19th; London’s Alexandra Palace Theatre, November 20th; Bristol Trinity, November 23rd; Birmingham Institute, November 24th; Saltaire Victoria Hall, November 25th; Liverpool Grand Central Hall, November 26th; and Hove Old Market, November 27th, with tickets available here

For all the latest, keep in touch via the official Saint Etienne website and via Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with more links available via Spotify and YouTube.

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2-4-6-8 motorway networking with Pip Blom

Waterfront Quartet: L to R – Darek Mercks, Pip Blom, Tender Blom and Gini Cameron, set for a UK return

It was a ‘sunny-ish’ day in Amsterdam (her word, not mine) when I caught up with Pip Blom, lead singer and guitarist of the group of the same name, soon to release their second LP. And let’s face it, chatting to Pip and hearing her band play would make most days sunny.

‘Trouble in Paradise’, the last track on Welcome Break, out early next month, had just faded away, and after a few pre-release listens I was of the firm opinion that this record takes over where their splendid debut, Boat, left off two summers ago.

I’d also just had my first viewing of the impressive promo video for ‘You Don’t Want This’, the second single from the LP. Will Pip and her bandmates – her brother, guitarist Tender Blom, bass player Darek Mercks and drummer Gini Cameron – wear those matching, eye-catching red outfits on their forthcoming run of National Lottery-backed Revive Live UK tour dates, I asked, tongue pretty much in cheek.

“I don’t think so! I do really like it in the video, but … I like to be able to dress (in) whatever I feel like. It’s very restricted, although it does look very cool, I agree.”

You don’t really want to feel you’re wearing a band uniform, I guess.

“Exactly.”

Some bands seem to like a uniform.

“Yeah, they do. Quite a lot of bands. But I don’t think it’s something for us.”

Actually, that vivid red reminds me of a past LP cover. Maybe the White Stripes or The Hives. Perhaps even Devo.

“I think a couple of people are reminded of the White Stripes, so it’s probably that.”

How about the rather lurid eye shadow from the video for previous single, ‘Keep it Together’? Might the four of you be sporting that on stage?

“Ha! Both of those decisions – the bright red and bright eye shadows – were made by the directors of the videos. And I really like those vibrant colours. It works really well.”

Well, top marks to Sara Elzinga for the latest promo, plus Danny and Isabelle Griffioen for the earlier one.

“Yeah, we’re very happy with it. Until now, we haven’t really done a lot of videos we’re in. We’re either busy or uncomfortable with the whole idea. But this was a very good experience, and we’re very happy that we’ve got two cool videos now!”

‘God, you feel like you’re outnumbered, and you’re wasting so much time;

They think you are successful, ‘cause you never leave the house.’

‘You Don’t Want This’ also serves as a perfect opening track for the new LP, not least its lines about a perceived lack of confidence, wasting time, and being stuck at home. Something so many of us will empathise with after this difficult last 18 months or so. For us and perhaps the band too, so long off the road.

“The funny thing was that I wrote all these songs before Covid happened. So it’s not really with that in mind, but that’s one of the reasons I don’t usually explain all the lyrics. If you listen to it, and think, ‘Ah, this is something we all had these last 18 months’, I find that so special – that people can own songs in their own way.

“I really like hearing what the lyrics mean to different people. And not everything is about me either. Half of it is, half of it isn’t. I like keeping it in the middle – what is and what isn’t!”

‘Keep It Together’ also works as something of an anthem in these uncertain times. Was positivity a challenge at times for you – as for so many of us – as things unfolded?

“Definitely, and it’s still a challenge, because in the Netherlands we’re still not allowed to play regular gigs. They’re still seated. I think the biggest challenge has been looking forward to something, then it being cancelled again. That’s happened six, seven, eight times.

“That’s something I hadn’t really experienced, anything like it. But we did manage to turn it around, with a lot more time to work on the album, get videos done, all that kind of stuff. That would have been very hard if we had to play at the same time. So I’ve tried to look at it in a more positive way, but …”

It’s about making the best of a bad situation really.

“Yeah.”

I’m guessing you’ve at least had the advantage of being able to home-record.

“Definitely, especially for the beginning of the songs. I write all the demos at home, send them to the rest of the band, then everyone (works on) their parts. But we did record the album in the UK this time. That was very nice and felt quite special, because none of us had been outside the Netherlands in quite a while.”

Self-produced and mixed by Caesar Edmunds (PJ Harvey, St Vincent, Queens of the Stone Age), the new LP was recorded at Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, Kent, more of which later. But first, with the band about to head over for the first of two sets of UK shows, I let on to Pip how I saw a remark recently from the lead singer of an established band I love, before their first gig back, talking about having nerves like never before. This was someone outwardly confident, but – like with so many of us – there’s bound to be that genuine concern, ‘Will I still be able to do this, after so long?’.

I get the impression you’re not so much a ‘frontperson’ – despite the band name, this seems to be very much a band enterprise. But has that still crossed your mind?

“I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen when we play. I’m not sure that I’m going to be very nervous, but I do feel there’s going to be a lot of adrenaline – just the feeling of people being there. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I hope I won’t get too nervous, but we’ll see.”

I hope not, and when I discussed something similar with your Heavenly Recordings labelmate, Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, she was of the opinion that hopefully audiences will be on the side of the performers and help them over the line, knowing full well all they’ve been through to get back to this point.

“Yeah, fair enough!”

Pip Blom’s own break from live action followed an extensive touring schedule which included a successful opening set on Glastonbury Festival’s John Peel stage not long after the release of 2019’s Boatthe lauded four-piece then soaking up their inspirations and cosying down – in Pip and guitarist Tender Blom’s case at their parents’ house, over three months writing 20 new songs, 16 of which then became demos to structure and flesh out in the studio. 
 
With plans slightly complicated by the Covid-19 crisis, the band then headed our way, decamping to Big Jelly and after a fortnight of quarantine setting to work recording over three weeks with engineer Al Harle, the resultant Welcome Break’s title inspired by the ubiquitous services dotted along the UK motorway and A-road network.

And judging by my first few listens of the new record, it’s difficult to detect any awkward two-year gap. Maybe that’s partly down to many of the songs having already been written, but it’s a record full of brilliant hooks, riffs and 90 degree turns, with plenty of pared-back introspection too, yet also big assertive, life-affirming moments.

“Nice! That’s awesome to hear!”

And after Boat, it seems that you’ve landed, so to speak, albeit with the transport theme continuing, this time celebrating the hospitality of a 60-plus year-old institution of sorts, one of which just happens to be around five miles from my house, at Charnock Richard services on the M6. Is there a photoshoot planned when you’re back over with us?

“We should, definitely! One hundred per cent. I’m really looking forward to going back, and miss all those places that we don’t have in the Netherlands. They’ve been a really big part of our lives the last three years before the corona(virus) happened. I can’t wait to go back, and hang out and eat, like, dirty food!”

I should point out there – before the litigation professionals jump in – that those are two different things Pip’s looking forward to. And isn’t that funny, I suggest, that something a lot of us tend to think as a mundane pastime or just a necessity as part of getting from A to B is now viewed by the likes of Pip with some form of nostalgic fervour.

“Yeah!”

Last time we spoke, you told me you wanted launch parties for Boat on a floating vessel, but it was too difficult to work out, and too expensive. How about a service station happening this time?

“Mmm … there’s not going to be anything very, very special, I think, but we should do something special. And we are going to be playing the Electric Ballroom, which for us is very special – it’s such a big venue. And on the release day, I think we’re going to be playing Rough Trade in London. We did that last time, and that was lots of fun. But next time we should get a proper party.”

I’m guessing you’re looking forward to these forthcoming dates, and then – not so far off, albeit in the dead of winter – plenty more. Seeing you at Band on the Wall in Manchester was a definite 2019 highlight for me, or of any year. This time I hope to get along to The Ferret in Preston (now rearranged to November, with details at the foot of this feature/interview), then hopefully Manchester’s Academy 3 in February. And might there be a radio date with BBC 6 Music’s Marc Riley, a great supporter down the years, while you’re in the North West?

“We are definitely looking into it. We’ll just have to see, with the schedule, how it’s going to work. It’s on top of our list, for sure.”

Looking at those dates, the September tour ends at Ramsgate Music Hall on September 30th. If the UK’s become your second home, you could argue that Ramsgate is your base here, having recorded the LP there too. You obviously felt at home enough last time to return.

“Big Jelly Studios is such a cool place. It’s big, but there’s also a very homely feeling. That’s one of the reasons we really enjoyed coming back. We also played the Music Hall before, and that was really fun. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s such a calm and friendly town, and at the same time very pretty as well. We had so many good memories there, and always love to go back.”

Well, seeing as that’s where I spent my very first family holiday – in the summer of 1968 when I was barely seventh months old – my own nostalgia tells me I agree with you. That said, it’s a place I’m pretty sure I’ve not managed to get back to since my youth. I’m clearly overdue a visit.

I also enjoyed the band’s latest live video, featuring another great new song, ‘It Should Have Been Fun’. And it seems odd to say it when this four-piece have only been on the scene a few years, but it’s classic Pip Blom. That slow-build, then that joyous chorus and glorious surge of guitar, with Pip and Tender on form, Gini driving them on, Darek locking in. What’s not to love?

“Ha! I completely agree with what you’re saying. When we were mixing the record, lots of the choruses are a bit louder and there’s that extra push, I guess. At one point I was thinking, ‘Are we doing this too often?’. But I think for now, it’s really nice and it works, and we all like playing that live – it gives you that extra push to go that extra mile!”

Your overlapping vocals with Tender always impress me too. There’s something about that sibling blend that works so well. I often use the example of Tim and Neil Finn, but there are plenty more examples out there. There’s something intuitive, I guess.

“I personally really like it too. It’s funny though, because Caesar Edmunds, who mixed the record, at one point said it was so difficult as our voice tones are quite similar. He had trouble getting our vocals on the same level, then still hearing the difference. I said, ‘Maybe it’s because we’re brother and sister, and he said, ‘Dudes – that must be it!’.” 

While we’re at it, ‘Faces’ is another track I’m loving … not as if there’s a duff track n this record. It ebbs to and fro’, like waves lapping in. It shows your development as a band, although I think it’s always been there to some extent.

“Ah, that’s great! I think with some of the tracks we tried to experiment a bit more. I think because we played so any shows in 2019 that we managed to get a bit more into the details, like certain drum patterns. And I think ‘Faces’ especially is one of those where the drums change quite a lot. And I’m really glad we got to do that.”

Then we hear your more grungy side on the splendid ‘I Know I’m Not Easy to Like’. But you ain’t fooling no one, you know. It’s that old ‘you won’t like me when I’m angry’ vibe. I kind of reckon we would though.

“Ha! It’s funny, because it’s very hard for me to get really angry, and I try to get proper angry, singing. It’s still a work in progress!”

Getting back to the Amsterdam lockdowns and recording at home, were you in just a family bubble, or were Gini and Darek in the house too?

“No, we were in a family bubble, and they were in their own. We only got together when the songs were already kind of finished, when everyone started adjusting their parts, the four of us together, I think in May or June.”

Finally, last time we spoke – in May 2019, with a link here – I suggested on publishing that you were being ‘secret squirrel’ with me, being cryptic about as yet unannounced surprises. Then I learned you were opening the John Peel stage at that year’s Glastonbury. How was that experience for you?

“It was so much fun! That was definitely one of the best weeks in our lives. We got to go for the whole week as well. And the gig was so much fun. Definitely a never forget thing … and we hope to return to Glastonbury, if possible, again. It was a dream, everything we expected and more. And that is quite unusual. Usually, if you’re really looking forward to something, it can disappoint. You hoped it was going to be fun and then it was just alright. But this was so much fun – it was awesome!”  

More to the point, what are you holding back on me this time? Any big surprises up the sleeves?

“Not really. It’s still all very up in the air with booking things. Everything we’ve got planned is announced at the moment. And hopefully in a couple of weeks or maybe a couple of months, when there’s a bit more clarity in terms of travelling and all that kind of stuff, there will be lots of festival offers coming in. But we have to see.

“And of course, we’re doing lots of our own shows. We’ve got quite a lot planned, and that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Welcome Break is out on Friday, October 8th via Heavenly Recordings, and can be pre-ordered here. Additionally, the band are set for an eight-date UK headline tour in February 2022, having previously been confirmed as part of a National Lottery-funded Revive Live tour this September, the earlier dates part of an initiative through the Music Venue Trust, a UK charity supporting grassroots venues during this challenging period.

Fortunately, due to the work done by the Trust, including its Save Our Venues campaign, most avoided closure, the focus now shifting to reviving the grassroots live music scene, hence the Revive Live campaign, the National Lottery underwriting £1m touring and production costs for more than 300 live performances to help venues open and get artists back on the road.

As well as tours by established and up-and-coming artists – including Seasick Steve, Ren Harvieu, Wolf Alice and The Vaccines – household names such as Sir Tom Jones, Sam Fender, Frank Turner, Mahalia, James Arthur, Fontaines DC, and Rag’n’Bone Man are playing special one-off shows in grassroots venues. For more details of Revive Live dates, head here.

Stop Press: Unfortunately, due to sickness (not Covid 19), Pip Blom are no longer able to play their planned September shows in Sunderland, Glasgow, Barrow-In-Furness, Preston, and Stoke. But they have managed to reschedule all bar the Glasgow show, adding, “We really hope that you can join us, but if not refunds will be available at point of purchase”.

Pip Blom’s (Rearranged) Revive Live tour dates, September/November 2021: Sunderland Independent, September 11th – postponed (see November listings); Glasgow TRNSMT Festival, September 12th – appearance cancelled; Barrow-in-Furness Underground Music Society, September 13th – postponed (see November listings); Preston The Ferret, September 14th – postponed (see November listings); Stoke Sugarmill, September 16th – postponed (see November listings); York Crescent, September 17th – sold out; Ipswich Smokehouse, September 18th – sold out;  Newport Le Pub, September 19th – sold out; Reading Face Bar, September 20th; Leicester Firebug, September 23rd – sold out; Southampton The Loft, September 24th; Gloucester Dick Whittington, September 27th; Norwich Waterfront Studio, September 28th; Cambridge Portland Arms, September 29th – sold out; Ramsgate Music Hall, September 30th – sold out; Stoke Sugarmill, November 12th; Barrow-in-Furness Underground Music Society, November 13th; Sunderland Independent, November 15th; Preston The Ferret, November 16th.

Pip Blom’s UK headline tour dates, February 2022: Glasgow St Luke’s, 7th; Newcastle Cluny, 8th; Manchester Academy 3, 9th; Dublin Academy 2, 11th; Nottingham Rescue Rooms, 12th; Bristol Trinity Centre, 14th; Brighton Concorde 2, 15th; London, Camden Electric Ballroom, 16th.

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Hand Built by Isolated Human – back in touch with Newton Faulkner

Newton Faulkner is extremely proud of his seventh LP in 14 years, a hands-on project like no other he’s previously crafted.

Recorded in his East London studio, Newton ventures into new territory in what he sees as the beginning of the next phase in his career as a recording and live artist, pushing himself to the max, declaring, ‘I’m not very precious anymore’, describing the new 17-track Interference (Of Light) ‘a bit chunkier … definitely way heavier, much less acoustic … simpler, but tasteful’.

The result – arriving 14 years after debut LP Hand Built By Robots topped the UK charts, the first of four top-10s, two of which reached No.1 – is the impressive product of a rollercoaster year of lockdowns, uncertainty and high emotion that certainly tested his resolve. But he was up to the challenge, truly getting stuck in. Adamant that it should always be ‘about the songs’, Newton has delivered something ‘grizzly, soulful, and a step further’, the Surrey born and bred ‘guitarist and writer who sang’ now feeling his voice has ‘caught up with the stuff I was doing on guitar’.

And as I put it to him, he’s sculpted a pretty perfect pop album, far from formulaic, yet full of great hooks and touches.

“Oh, thank you very much! Yeah, I’m really happy with this one. I’ve just never had this much time, and time is such a huge part of making an album. I’ve always kind of made excuses for the lack of time I have, but going back to classical music and how even some of these massively iconic bits of music considered the height of music itself were written for events so had to be done on time. So it’s not a new thing, having to make music to a schedule, but having quite so much free rein as I did with this meant I got to explore ideas that never would have survived otherwise.”

Is this what kept him busy over the lockdown periods?

“I didn’t do anything in the first lockdown. I went in the studio, sat and stared out of the window – I was confused, and scared. I didn’t really feel like playing guitar. I wanted to understand what was going on.”

It’s odd looking back on that now. Perhaps we’re not ready to dwell on it all again yet, but I was talking to another interviewee this morning who said more or less the same – how frightening it was.

“Yeah, there were massive ups and downs, creatively and in terms of how you were feeling about life in general and yourself. Sometimes I was very focused and incredibly hard-working, working hours and hours and hours, other times I’d go in and …oh no. Everyone creatively seems to have been in the same boat.”

Did you have a few jotted ideas, or was it a case of working afresh on this?

“I dug myself a trap when I was promoting (2019’s) The Very Best Of – I went around telling everyone in all the interviews I did that the next thing I did would sound really different. But I completed a curve or thought process and that had come to a natural conclusion, then after that it was a different kind of time period. When you told a lot of people that, you really have to pull something out of the bag! One of the reasons I told anyone that would listen is because I really wanted to force myself to have to get out of my comfort zone and go down different paths, make different noises … and it really worked.

“‘Sinking Sand’ was the first track I came back to out of everything I’d done before but hadn’t released. It was one of my favourite things to play at soundchecks. It was something I always came back to and really liked, but at that point I didn’t think it would fit with any of the other stuff I was doing, or if people would get it or think it was an OK thing for me to do. But I never played it to people and it wasn’t coming from anywhere else other than me. It was just like, ‘I am this kind of artist and I have to stay on this route for this amount of time’. But as soon as I took all those constraints off and did whatever felt right … I think that’s one of the reasons the album is as diverse as it is – it covers a huge amount of ground … sometimes in the same song!”

You’ve pre-empted me. There’s lots of impressive, often surprising tosses and turns en route. In fact, LP opener ‘Sinking Sand’ holds traces of Marc Bolan and T-Rex, plus early David Essex studio craft.

“Ah, nice – I’ll go with both of those! Yeah, I wanted it not to have any rules. That’s one of the reasons within the first two tracks I wanted it to kind of throw you off balance a bit, especially the intro to ‘Cage’, made at six o’clock one morning using a bunch of weird electronic toys, coming out of the heavy, slow rock vibe of ‘Sinking Sand’ into that little eight-bit old school computer game noise thing, then coming out into a bigger soul song, again with a different vibe to things I’d done before.”

On my hastily-scribbled notes as I listened, I suggested that as well as your playing, what sounds all the richer down the years is that big ol’ soulful voice, not least on ‘Cage’, and it’s something that’s arguably gained maturity down the years. It’s got more living in it now, perhaps.

“Yeah, I’m still digging deep into my voice, finding new things, especially this album, where I really pushed it. I was talking to a vocal coach and played them ‘Back from the Dead’. She was sitting behind a piano, it came in, she pressed a couple of keys and they kept going up, with her looking at me, really confused, asking, ‘What are you doing up there?’. ‘I don’t know. It just felt right!’ But it’s stupidly high, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about that further down the line!”

I was just getting on to ‘Back from the Dead’, where there’s also the mark of ‘Sledgehammer’-era Peter Gabriel. Maybe that’s what you found inside you.

“Yeah, I did go a bit Peter Gabriel. It’s that kind of tone I do have access to. I think a lot of the experimenting with my voice came out of doing some tracks for a film, which was really well timed, for a film called Terminal, completely different to my usual challenges, trying to work out what I  sound like. With this, I felt it doesn’t have to sound like me at all. It could sound like anything – let’s just do whatever feels right for the visuals, and I had so much fun, doing David Bowie impressions, going all over the place, making a completely different vocal character – a bit Elvis, and the guy from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, that kind of tone, with a bit of Nick Cave as well. It was real fun experimenting with it.”

That Peter Gabriel feel also comes through on ‘Riding High’, but there are also hints of the poppier Paul Simon and a bit of Paul McCartney’s more recent solo work, the latter another artist who reaches notes allowing him to go someplace else.

“Well, I’m definitely a massive fan of all that as well. I’m definitely enjoying these references!”

As for next song, ‘Four Leaf Clover’, we kind of have The Feeling on a collision course with Lenny Kravitz and The Stereophonics, with a nice bit of blues guitar. I’d also like to think there’s some Finn Brothers influence, thinking of ‘Luckiest Man Alive’. And this track should be all over the radio, surely, hot on the tail of first single, ‘World Away’?

“Yeah, we’re doing digital releases, and ‘Four Leaf Clover’ came out digitally, while ‘World Away’ has had quite a bit of Radio 2 play, so that’s working out well.”

There are a fair few 21st century pop moments that should appeal to mainstream radio stations. That’s not so much playing it safe as knowing you need those hooks among the other stuff for airplay. And you wear it well. But I prefer it when you’re not having to seek out crossover potential, and this is pretty much an organic set of songs.

“Yeah, there’s a degree to which I’m willing to play the game. Ha! Not all the time. I occupy this strange little corner of the music industry and I’m just out here on my own, which I do love. It’s amazing that I’m not really part of anything. Every time something else has appeared around me, I’ve just shuffled off to one side, like, ‘You guys, keep that. I’m gonna hang out over here now!’

“I’ve stayed out of any kind of group that would accept me! I feel I’ve carved my own space, and it feels very safe. I feel I can push boundaries and experiment, and the next tour is going to be very experimental in terms of it not being like anything I’ve really done before. Because I’ve played so many things on the album, I want to bring that into the live show and experiment with the instrumentation side in a way I’ve never really been able to do live before.”

Am I right in thinking most of what I hear on this album is you?

“Yes, because I didn’t have access to any other human beings, ending up doing way more than I’ve ever done before, really dipping in, because of the lack of time constraints. I was asking, ‘When does this need finishing?’ and hearing, ‘It doesn’t, we’re not even sure why you’re working. The world’s closed. Chill out!’

“I ended up spending hours and hours playing drums and three weeks just playing bass. I wanted to get deeper into other instruments, the same way I’ve got deep into guitar – that deep exploration of trying to find out exactly how you want it to sound and fit with everything else.  In the same circumstances before it would have been, ‘How long have I got? Three days. OK, let’s get a drummer in, do loads of tracks.’ And he’ll be able to do it because I know how he thinks and he’ll get what I’m telling him.

“Whereas with this, it was a case of, ‘I’ve got the time, I’ve got the kit. I can do this, let’s just take the time and learn how to do it, which was fascinating. I hit more problems as I got further into it, so I thought, ‘OK, I can play the part now, that’s great, the next challenge is I don’t really know how to record drums, so let’s start learning to do that! Ha! Once I had a load of mics on different things, it’s like, ‘I need to mix the drums so they sound alright, and have absolutely no idea how to do that …”

Were there lots of phone calls and emails to friends in the business?

“There were lots of YouTube tutorials! And I was going to bed reading manuals. I’ve got this gear and don’t know how to use it, so let’s put time into understanding how this actually works. I learned so much that’ll become part of everything I do, moving forward.”

If we could sum up where you’re at now, 15 or so years in, I’m thinking this is the beginning of the next chapter, perhaps.

“That’s definitely how it feels to me. This is how I wanted it to feel and I was terrified it wouldn’t … but it worked! For me this album feels like the start of a new path, which has different textures and different tonality to it.”

With reference to your first two LP titles, this could really have been Hand Built by Isolated Human.

“Yeah! Hand Built by Isolation! It does feel like the beginning of something else, especially live with this set-up. I’m working with a lot of tech companies, talking to a company called Head Rush that came to me a long time ago, brought me this looper board, and I was like, ‘This is amazing, but it’s literally the polar opposite of what I’m doing’. I was massively multi-tasking, doing these incredibly polyrhythmic complicated things that no one understood, I realised after a few years doing it. Then, I went back to Head Rush, said, ‘Is this still on offer? I think with this next record I want to explore all the stuff I’ve got in the studio – I want to play drums and want to play bass, but can’t do that in multi-tasking formats. So the looping thing makes more sense and becomes more interesting to me when you add in all the other instruments.”

I’m thinking of Jeff Lynne’s promo video for ‘Mercy, Mercy’, playing all the instruments in his band. That’ll be you on the road soon, won’t it?

“It’s edging in that direction. One thing I never want it to do is get in the way of the song. I’m trying to make space for the song. That happened with things I’ve done before where someone’s filmed it and I’ve watched it back. It’s too complicated and too cerebral to actually get across the emotion.

“That’s what music is about – communicating ideas, but I’m not communicating ideas, I’m performing live maths! With this I want to be able to do something, get it going then just sing and let the singing have its own space, because I’ve brought in too many other things around it.

“The stuff I’m doing with Head Rush – and I’m talking to Roland and Boss about all kinds of stuff – makes for quite an interesting relationship. There were a couple of things where I said, ‘Could it do this?’ and he was like, ‘No, but there’s a big update coming in this month, do you want us to put something in for you?’. ‘What, you can change the way everything works?’ ‘Well, yeah.’

“This was a completely new realm of developing sounds, working with equipment that suddenly seemed very fixed in the past but has become malleable and fluid in a way I’ve never had access to before. So that’s really interesting.”

Back to the new LP, and for someone only born in 1985, you seem to have pulled in a real ‘70s feel in places.

“Oh, definitely!”

‘Killing Time’ hints at Snow Patrol, but goes a bit off the scale into epic prog towards the end, as if you’ve kidnapped Rick Wakeman, dragged him into your studio and made him play for you.

“Dan Smith played on that, the guitarist in The Noisettes. An old friend now. He’s awesome. We had a couple of really good days.”

It sounds like you’re having fun. You’ve let yourself go, Newton … in a good way.

“Yeah, there’s that very layered kind of cyclical thing and whole choir section at the end that fully came out of nowhere. I opened the track up again, after working on it for months previously, saw this track that said ‘glock’, and wondered, ‘I can’t hear any glock.’ I listened again, and it was recorded with gain too low on the way in.

“I cranked it up, it was just there, and I felt it sounded quite nice, but you still couldn’t pick it out. So I felt, ‘Maybe it needs a couple of voices, just to give it something – in a slightly lower register so it’s not just top-end ping, to just bolster it. So I did a couple of vocals, felt it sounded quite interesting.

“Then, after God knows how long, I decided to try and make the choir from ‘Mr Blue Sky’ – that’s the kind of tone I wanted. I went through doing impressions of random people to try and get this multi-textural thing, and the very high stuff I wanted to sound like an old lady opera singer! And getting loads of dramatically different sounding voices working together is sometimes what you need!”

We need to chill somewhat after that, ‘Here Tonight’ doing the trick nicely, perfect for a sun-setting festival moment, Newton’s folk roots still clearly there. But then we’re off again with ‘Better Way’, another number with a rousing finish. And while it’s starts in very 21st century fashion, it soon enters more filmic territory, the phrase ‘coming around again’ reminding me of Carly Simon, again fitting that ‘70s remit. Was that reference intentional?

“No, that wasn’t intentional, but I can totally hear it!”

If ‘World Away’, perhaps the most commercial moment here, is about being away far too long from home, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there – being careful what you wish for.

“Ha! I know what you mean. And ‘Together’ is kind of about the same thing – being reunited with the people you love after being away, which again became really poignant after everyone got separated for such a long time, kind of morphing in meaning.”

I get that. While ‘World Away’ and ‘Together’ touch on thoughts of home while abroad, something of an alien concept to most of us these past 18 months or so, the premise of ‘feeling as close as it’s possible to feel to someone, while also being as far away as possible whilst still being on the same planet’ no doubt chimes with many of us.

After ‘World Away’, we have another bluesy pop rocker, ‘I Can Pretend’ – like a pumped-up feelgood take on Stereophonics’ ‘Dakota’ – and then the ‘80s does ‘60s soulful interpretation that is ‘Leave Me Lonely’, bringing Steve Winwood to mind in the verse and the afore-mentioned McCartney in a more raucous chorus.

Talking of Winwood, that other track mentioned, the super-catchy ‘Together’, wouldn’t have been out of place on Back in the High Life. And this is definitely a pop section, but with enough Faulkner-esque quirky touches to set it apart from standard chart fare, ‘The Sun is Coming Up’ a case in point, heading towards ELO territory in places. And as I put it to Newton, he’s something of a chameleon, the way he uses his voice, not least with all those influences I hear.

“I do like experimenting with it, and kind of pushing different things. Also, I’m still trying to work out the best ways of using it and find new things in the studio. And when you’re on the road, it’s different again, asking, ‘How do I get that again, every night?’”

‘Rest of Me’ also shines, again in a radio-friendly way, and I wonder if Newton’s been lost in time. He’d have been massive if he’d broken through around the year he was born. And yet I’m sticking with a notion that I prefer it when he takes a more leftfield profile, like on the seemingly-effortless yet right side of ragged ‘Ache for You’, doing his own thing.   

The after-hours laid-back reflection of ‘It’s Getting Late’ also fits that premise, more ethereal and all the more cultured, the soundtrack of a road movie yet to be shot, perhaps, his voice plaintive and subtly expressive.

And then we’re away on another pensive, atmospheric moment, title track of sorts, ‘Interference (F@&k, I Think It’s Love)’, where I suggest to Newton there’s almost – and on reflection it’s on the previous track too – a little Gerry Rafferty amidst his bluesy guitar.

“A bit Gerry Rafferty, a bit Chris Isaak. And definitely Gerry Rafferty in terms of the vocal delivery.”

You hold yourself back on both tracks, and sometimes that can be all the more powerful.

“Ah, I love it as an ending. Soon as we came up with that, I was like, ‘This is the last track – this is how it should all end! We’ve been all over the place, now it’s time to stick your arm out of the window, cruise down the highway and head towards the sunset!”

Funny you should say that. When I finished playing the LP the first time, I went back and played that last number again.

“Did you? Interesting! I’m particularly pleased with that, in terms of a vibe, it’s so contained and full. And my son noticed I was working on it. When I was doing the track-listing, he was doing his maths homework, and said, ‘Daddy, you do know there’s a naughty word on your screen, right?’ I was like, ‘Is there? Where?’ He was, ‘There! There’s an f-word!’ I said sorry about that. He said, ‘Why is it there?’ ‘Ah, it’s a song.’ ‘Have you got a song with the f-word in it?’ ‘Yeah, but I’m a grown-up, so I’m allowed to do that.’ ‘How many times?’ ‘Oh, every chorus.’ He looked more impressed by that than anything else I’ve ever done!”

That’s Newton’s 10-year-old, home-schooled during the recording process and featuring on ‘Back from the Dead’, counting Dad in.

“He asked, while doing his homework, not really taking it all in, ‘Why aren’t you singing anything?’. I said, ‘Because I don’t come in until bar 32,’ so he said, ‘Can you point to it?’. When we got close, he shouted out, ‘One, two, three, go!’ And it was that take I ended up using as the main vocal, as it had an energy to it. I left him on there really quiet, thinking someone will ask me to take it out at some point, then got the first mix back, and it had been cranked right up, being asked, ‘I love this – what is it?’”

In fact, Newton reckons ‘everyone that was there ended up doing loads of stuff’, including his fiancée, who added vocals.

“It was little bits and bobs but made a massive difference, and being able to work was huge! Where people had to go into studios, they weren’t open and you weren’t allowed into them. On ‘Better Way, I spent just four months on that one track. Mildly unhealthy, bordering on obsessive, but it was still amazing to be able to do it!”

It certainly comes over as beautifully crafted, even if he has given himself a headache from here, trying to replicate the album’s feel on the road. But it’s a positive dilremma for an artist based in London from around the time of his first LP success, yet retaining his links to Surrey, having been born in Reigate and studied at the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM) in my hometown, Guildford, where he recently played a memorable socially-distanced show at Holy Trinity Church.

“That was a beautiful gig. Amazing. I always come back to Guildford for gigs. I want to do more guitar things and was talking to people about that, building more structure around that. I’ve got so many ideas and things to play for at the moment.”

The ACM does seem to have had an impact down the years. As previously discussed on this website, it was close to the long-gone off-licence above which Jet Black masterminded the operation of The Stranglers in the mid-’70s, and these days Hugh Cornwell‘s live trio involves two lecturers from the academy.

“I was incredibly lucky at the ACM when I was there. I had some of the best players in the world just randomly wandering around the corridors there.”

Time is against me by then, and I finish by bringing up that dreaded question of genre really. When I first interviewed him, five and a half years ago, on the release of fifth LP, Human Love, some still had Newton down for crossover folk-rock. He’s certainly not that now. I’m not even sure he was then.

“I never know what to say when people ask. I just say, ‘I do guitar stuff and make mouth noise’! I try and make it sound very simple. I just like experimenting, and I always liked experimenting, so it’s just finding new, interesting ways.

“There’s some new guitars coming out with me, like this guitar called Frank which had a massive influence on this record, the guitar I play on ‘It’s Getting Late’, a very weird electric guitar built by a guy that builds acoustics. So much fun. That’ll be out on the road a lot.”

For the previous WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Newton Faulkner, from March 2016. head here.

Interference (Of Light) is out now on vinyl and CD and is also available digitally, via Battenberg Records, each format featuring different tracklists. Streaming sites get a 17-track album with no interludes; the CD has 17 tracks plus interludes for a smoother flow; and the vinyl will be 11 tracks curated to work on one disc ‘with the best possible flow from one side to the other and the best possible sound’. For details head here or to Newton’s website, where you can also find details of his forthcoming tour dates. You can also keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Newton’s autumn tour dates open at Chester Live Rooms (Fri 24 September); Castleton Peak Cavern (Sat 25 September); Holmfirth Picturedrome (Sun 26 September); Bury St Edmunds Apex (Thu 30 September); Tenby De Valence Pavilion (Fri 1 October); and Swansea Patti Pavilion (Sat 2 October). Then comes the Interference (Of Light) tour at Glasgow Galvanizers SWG 3 (Mon 11 October); Edinburgh Liquid Room (Tue 12 October); Newcastle University (Sat 16 October); Hull Asylum (Mon 18 October); Sheffield Leadmill (Tue 19 October); Manchester Ritz (Wed 20 October); Liverpool Academy (Fri 22 October); Cardiff Tramshed (Sat 23 October); Birmingham Institute (Mon 25 October); London Shepherds Bush Empire (Tue 26 October); Norwich UEA (Thu 28 October); Oxford Academy (Fri 29 October); Bristol Anson Rooms (Sat 30 October); Torquay Foundry (Sun 31 October); and Dublin Academy (Tue 2 November).

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Jim Bob’s wake-up call, 2021 style – back in touch with the self-styled Poundland Bono

In 2019’s Jim Bob from Carter – In the Shadow of my Former Self, Jim Bob Morrison wrote, ‘I still haven’t written a new song since 2013. But now that I’ve nearly finished writing this, perhaps the songs will come flooding out of me’.

And so it proved, I suggested to a treasured singer-songwriter, musician and author who mischievously describes himself on Twitter as a ’10-time Grammy Award winner’ from ‘lower London’, and elsewhere as the ‘Poundland Bono’.

“Yeah, I don’t know what happened there. It’s like a tap or something, isn’t it!”

During the year the Covid-19 pandemic struck the Western world, Jim Bob found himself with a No.26 hit with rightly-acclaimed album Pop Up, his first top-40 LP in two decades of solo recordings. And now he’s back with another winner, Who Do We Hate Today, a ‘silver-tongued snapshot of modern life in Britain’ recorded mid-pandemic in South London with his band, The Hoodrats, our man again proving he has the ability to connect … big time.

What’s more, in its first week of release – after the splendid ‘The Summer of No Touching’, ‘Song for the Unsung’ and ‘The Earth Bleeds Out’ lit the way as singles – the new record also cracked the top-40 (in at No.34, pop-pickers). And maybe it will rise from there. It certainly deserves to.

With Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – co-formed with fellow ex-Jamie Wednesday bandmate Les ‘Fruitbat’ Carter – Jim managed 14 top-40 singles, four top-10 albums (including a No.1, more of which later), sold more than a million records, toured the world, and headlined Glastonbury Festival. Then, in 2007, a decade after initially splitting, they reformed for a series of huge, sold-out shows.

And outside Carter USM, my interviewee has also had a distinguished career, including songwriting for Ian Dury and a 2006 Barbican production of Dick Whittington & His Cat, 2010’s Edinburgh Fringe debut in Ward and White musical, Gutted, A Revenger’s Musical, and his acclaimed autobiographies, 2004’s Goodnight Jim Bob – On the Road with Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and the aforementioned 2019sequel, both published by Cherry Red Books.

He’s also – writing as Jim Bob and JB Morrison – published several novels, translated into eight languages, leading to a seven-year break from writing or recording new music until he sprang ‘Pop Up’ upon us. And now this, me having words with Jim after the release of the new LP’s second single, ‘Song for the Unsung (You’re So Modest You’ll Never Think This Song is About You)’, his ‘fanfare for the everyday heroes too modest to blow their own trumpet’ and ‘musical celebration of the selfless and kind’, giving his subjects ‘a round of applause and a big fat medal of appreciation’ with ‘a banging of metaphorical saucepans on the doorstep’.

“The world is so dark we’d be lost without you

This comes from the heart, it’s so long overdue.”

It’s a corking feelgood track, just when we needed it, and Jim reckons if ‘Song for the Unsung’ – ‘the most ITV single I’ve ever released’ – were a television show, it would be presented by Davina McCall. It should certainly be all over the radio, I suggested.

“Erm, I’m fairly confident in saying that’s not going to happen. Radio don’t seem to be fans of playing anything I bring out. I don’t know why that is.”

I’d have thought at least the likes of BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq would be great supporters.

“Yeah, Steve’s always been good to me … and I always think it’s him playing them rather than it being down to the decisions of others.”

When it’s down to a playlist panel, perhaps?

“Yeah, it’s perhaps that I just don’t fit in – too old to be young, yet not quite cool enough to fit in with other people from my era.”

But it certainly has commercial possibilities. In fact, the spoken bits remind me of Eric Idle in The Life of Brian, suggesting we ‘cheer up, give a whistle’.

“Yes! I’ll take that! I know what you mean. When I was recording that, I just sort of did that bit, not really thinking about it. It was almost like I’d put on the voice of an actor doing a cockney!”

In a sense – and it’s always been there – there’s a touch of a punk rock Oliver! about your work. You’ve always been a storyteller with added menace.

“Yeah, I like to think so.”

For the video of ’Song for the Unsung’, fans were asked to send photos and stories of their own unsung heroes – friends and family, nurses, teachers, postmen, lollipop folk, whoever they wanted to celebrate. And the response took Jim aback, inundated with pictures and moving stories of courage, human kindness and friendship. Many were pandemic-related, but some were simply people wanting to give loved ones a pat on the back just for being there, the one picked out of a hat to be illustrated for the single by Mark Reynolds (also responsible for the LP’s sleeve design and that of Pop Up) being Val Bleasdale, nominated by her disabled, chronically-ill son, Thom for raising tens of thousands for animal charities and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, as well as looking after him.

Is this Jim seeking out positives after a testing few years where we’ve faced Brexit, right-wing Government, a pandemic, and all that? It’s certainly never been more defined as to which side of the debate we’re on. Is that the idea of Who Do We Hate Today, speaking up for the unsung out there?

“Yeah, ’Song for the Unsung’ was the last song I wrote for the album, when I realised all the others kind of painted a fairly pessimistic picture. I literally did think, let’s say something a bit positive for a change. I think most people in this country just want to get on with their lives. They don’t necessarily have strong opinions, yet that’s what we constantly tend to hear – strong opinions – just because they’re the loudest.”

Because – like me – you spend a bit of time on divisive social media platforms like Twitter, perhaps you tend to see the best and worst of people there.

“Yes, and because I’m almost masochistic about the things I look at on there, I find myself telling someone else about it. Maybe I’ll say something about Laurence Fox, and they’ll say, ‘Who’s Laurence Fox?’. Then you realise it’s not necessarily troubling the majority of people at all.”

Very true. I guess we give these people oxygen, the likes of Nigel Farage (as I’ve just done there, admittedly). Meanwhile, from the moment he launches into ‘The Earth Bleeds Out’, we’re in no doubt this is that fella from Carter USM, this time railing about global warming, setting the scene perfectly in classic in-your-face style on something of a post-apocalyptic LP, yet with acres of thought, Jim initially inspired as the world briefly stopped last Spring.

“Imagine a world without airports or cars

I was literally counting and thanking my stars

For a moment or two there was hope in the flu

As the Earth bleeds out”

This is no 13-track rant though, and soon we get back-to-back classic Jim portraits of everyday life, his first subject that girl we all know who punches well below her weight, with so many gems of lines on ‘Shona is Dating a Drunk, Woman Hating Neanderthal Man’, pitched somewhere between Cinerama and The Kinks for these ears. Glorious.

“Shona is joined at the hip to an arse

Who’s a dick when he drinks

She’s eager to please while he never agrees

With what Shona thinks

She’s science and facts and he’s pro-antivax

Because opposites attract”

Then we’re on to ‘#prayfortony’ and Jim’s portrait of an all too familiar ‘loaded gun’ of a character who ‘hates Black History Month’ and ‘did Movember once (you lucky, lucky ladies)’.

“One day there’ll be a statue in his hometown

Tall enough to climb upon and pull down

So you can stamp his face into the cold ground”

There’s almost a sense of Mick Jones about it, I suggest, not least because of a Mott the Hoople feel beneath Jim’s vocal.

“Well, it must have seeped in – I’ve listened to him enough! The songs Mick sang with The Clash were maybe a bit sweeter, and we are from the same …. area.”

You were trying not to say ‘manor’ there, weren’t you?

“I was. Ha!”

But despite the retro feel, I guess you can’t get more 21st century than a song title with a hashtag.

“Terrible, really, isn’t it! About five years ago, that would have been the most pretentious thing, but I think everybody knows what a hashtag is now.”

You can get away with post-ironic now.

“Yes … everything I do is post-ironic!”

Carrying on the Mick Jones theme, ‘Where’s the Backdoor, Steve?’ is almost Big Audio Dynamite territory. Another great song. Who’s sharing the vocals with you there?

“It’s Chris T-T (Thorpe-Tracey) and Jen (Macro), who plays guitar on the album. Jen features quite a bit. Wherever you hear a female voice, that’s Jen, and that kind of changed things for me, the way I record songs, knowing it doesn’t have to be a bloke singing.”

Again, there are so many cracking lines, my interviewee summing up how so many of us have felt since the Brexit vote and the horrors that have followed. This is truly ‘in a nutshell’ verse.

“Is there a way out of this?

Maybe there’s a reset somewhere

A system override,

A switch along the side or underneath

Where d’you put the reset, Steve?”

And they keep on coming, ‘Karen (Is Thinking of Changing Her Name)’ another highpoint, Jim’s protagonist rightly keen to disassociate herself from the characteristics her name might imply in modern parlance. It carries a kind of ‘60s (is it just chance that I heard ‘You Only Live Twice’ in there after a couple of listens?) meets Pulp feel, the title reminding me of The Go-Betweens’ debut B-side, and how far that definition of a Karen has slipped from sexy librarian down the years. And musically it has more of a Wire feel, I suggested. Is that a band that grabbed Jim down the years?

“Massively so. I haven’t bought much of their more recent stuff … well, late ‘80s onwards, but definitely the first three albums. Pink Flag is probably … I’ve got around 10 albums I’ve played since 1977 or whatever, that I still play constantly, and Pink Flag is one of them. Wire were a band I saw in ’78, the support band for XTC. I’d never heard of them, and it completely blew my mind – at the time, to me, they sounded like nothing else.”

That was at the Lyceum, apparently, in February that year, the bill – completed by The Secret – a musicians’ musicians heaven. Was that Strand venue a regular haunt?

“Yeah, I saw a 2 Tone gig there too – The Specials, Madness, The Selecter. There was lots of fighting … not me, obviously! Before that, I used to go to Capital Radio’s Best Disco in Town. I think it was every Friday, when I was 16 or so. It would always be the same – it was always depressing! When I was that age, I was constantly trying to find a girlfriend. And I never did find a girlfriend at the Best Disco in Town! They always finished with ‘Three Times a Lady’, then ‘Hi-Ho Silver Lining’ … which meant ‘Get out!’, I think.”

I only got to the Lyceum three times, but they were all corkers: REM in February ’85 on the Reckoning tour; Ramones three months earlier; and first The Undertones, their last indoor gig in late May ’83, 11 days before seeing Feargal Sharkey with them one more time at Crystal Palace FC, supporting Peter Gabriel. Given the chance now, maybe I’d have hung around for the headliner out of curiosity, having bought the ticket with Saturday job earnings, but we left mid-Thompson Twins, being told by gate staff we wouldn’t be allowed back in, us adamantly responding that we had no intention of returning.

“It’s funny, those decisions you make when you’re young and angry!”

Then we’re on to the LP’s true epic, ‘A Random Act’, perhaps the most Carter-like song on the record, Jim at his most prosaic in Lionel Bart-esquestorytelling vibe, tackling the most 21st century of topics, in a song as much about the dangers of public reactions without the full facts as a grim rolling TV news story unfolds, in these all too common days of terrorist incidents.

“It’s an act with no obvious reason or rhyme

But on the socials we’ve already made up our minds”

He always did this with Carter USM, of course. What’s changed though, three decades down the road, is that Jim doesn’t spit out the words with such venom. It’s all more measured and reflective.

“I guess that’s age, obviously, and on a purely technical note I can’t sing as high as I used to. If I listen to those old Carter songs where I’m really screaming … I could never do that now. But I know what you mean, years ago for ‘A Random Act’ I’d have probably started measured, but then …”

All got a tad cacophonous?

“Yeah … I wouldn’t say I hold back now, but, as you say, measured.”

It’s certainly perfectly pitched, not least when the story evolves, becoming far more about everyday heroes doing their bit on the scene, something of a pre-cursor to the song that soon follows, the afore-mentioned ’Song for the Unsung’. Carrying on my line of questioning though, perhaps Jim’s more at ease with himself these days, hence his less shouty rants.

“I suppose so. Quite comfortable.”

He’s not quite ready for slippers yet though, as heard on ‘Men’, which carries lots of punk fury and Graham Coxon fire, if only as a way of saying, ‘Look at us dicks, eh. Blimey. Sorry, girls’.

“Go-getting, goose-steppin’

Home -wrecking, bed-wetting

Men, pathological liars

If men are from Mars,

Maybe they should go back there,

Use some of that hot air for fuel.”

More to the point, it’s observational and Ray Davies-like, someone he’s clearly admired down the years, another writer who shone a light on an England he knew so well – half-hating, half-loving.

“Definitely, and I’ve not long ago recorded a cover of ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, coming out as a free thing related to the album. And The Kinks were always there.”

Was that 1968 LP of the same name the one that resonated most with you?

“I think so. I liked all the hits, but those songs were almost ahead of their time in their lyrical detail. It shouldn’t really have been in pop songs.”

Seeing as he mentioned the bonus disc, titled Who Do We Love Today, I should tell you that also includes Jim Bob takes on ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ (Fun Boy Three), ‘Tulse Hill Night’/’Shot By Both Sides’ (999/Magazine), ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear’ (Blondie), ‘Get on Board’ (The Double Deckers), ‘How Can I Exist’ (The Frank & Walters), and the only cover I’d heard at time of going to press, an amazing if not jarring (at least when seen with its promo video tie-in footage featuring the worst excesses of the dreaded Brits abroad crowd) interpretation of ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Terry Jacks’ 1974 hit version a key part of the soundtrack to my childhood, and a song that grew darker and darker the better I understood its subject matter. And Jim nails that uneasy feeling. Not for the faint-hearted. Westlife, it ain’t.

And before you have a go, thinking I failed to pick up on something there, of course I’m intrigued by the other tracks, not least the Double Deckers TV show title song. But I’m jumping ahead, having not even got on to ‘The Summer of No Touching’, which conveys so well that Blitz spirit we briefly experienced – against all odds – when this pandemic reached our shores, despite what might have been happening behind it all, that hope from adversity soon chipped away at.

“It was like Christmas for conspiracy theorists

The in hat milliners and snake oil careerists

Me, I got my facts from whatever David Icke says

And from old rock stars from the 1990s.”

By the way, it’s good to hear another scathing namecheck for David Icke three decades beyond ‘After the Watershed’, in the same way ‘The Summer of No Touching’ ends with the poignant line, ‘And me? I’m still here waiting outside Tesco’s, self-medicating with my Domestos’, all these years after 101 Damnations first set the world alight (and as an accelerant, the leading brand of bleach that ‘kills all known germs dead’ would surely do the job).

All too soon, ‘Evan Knows the Sirens’ takes us neatly through to another classic Carter USM-like moment, LP closer ‘The Loneliest Elephant in the World’ perhaps this era’s ‘The Impossible Dream’, Jim’s words, delivery and music craft as poignant as ever, not least after these last 18 months or so.

“And I’ll remember your face

Until my dying days

I’ll remember how you brought joy

To this lonely boy

And how much I loved you”

Space and a determination to not repeat myself means I won’t go all out on Jim’s spiky pop past this time, but seeing as I’ve brought up a few key moments from yesteryear, I mention that it’s now 30 years since him and Les were arguably at the peak of their powers, at least regarding record sales and sold-out venues. In fact, they were second (behind REM both times) in the Best Band category in the NME readers’ polls in both 1991 and 1992. Going back to this point in ’91 – with help from Goodnight Jim Bob’s gig-list –they were between the releases of 30 Something and 1992: The Love Album, not long back from US dates with EMF then a trip to Japan, with a slight gap before a Mean Fiddler warm-up for their triumphant Reading Festival appearance, second on the bill to James but winning the day. As he put it in Goodnight Jim Bob, ‘Jon Beast spoke to God, and God had a word with the Sun and got it to set behind the crowd at exactly the right moment during ‘GI Blues’. Winston Churchill, who was stood at the back, in between the signing tent and the crepe stall, said it was ‘our finest hour’.’

That was followed by more European and UK dates. In fact, I got to see them that autumn at Guildford Civic Hall, noting in my diary how many under-18s were in, feeling old on the cusp of my 24th birthday. And while I was slightly worse for wear back home after Sunday lunch celebrations to that end three days later, I chanced upon the band playing ‘After the Watershed’ at the Smash Hits Pollwinners’ Party, broadcast live on BBC1 from London’s Docklands in late afternoon/early evening. You probably remember that car-crash TV, and the footage is out there, Fruitbat taking Philip Schofield down following the host’s latest sarcastic remark in reaction to a tired and emotional Les trashing the set after the sound was faded early, his tackle on the children’s presenter somewhat fitting (so to speak) as the second Rugby World Cup semi-final had taken place that afternoon, the full incident and story behind it neatly retold in Goodnight Jim Bob.

Soon after there was a memorable night at Kilburn National Club, the duo supported by Mega City 4, their front-man Wiz having featured in my Captains Log fanzine. This time the age gap wasn’t so obvious, but I noted how the dancing went all the way back to the mixing desk, and there were several choruses of ‘Schofield is a wanker’ for BBC Radio 1’s microphones in relation to the incident 13 days earlier, the band going on to play Brixton Academy two nights later, in a landmark year for the band that ended with further US dates and two pre-Christmas Athens gigs.

Incidentally, when I got to see them again one Wednesday night in mid-May the following year at Preston Guild Hall, just before flying from Manchester for a week’s holiday in Zante, 1992: The Love Album had gone straight in at No.1 three days earlier (the pair finding out backstage at Carlisle Sands Centre, seen by Jim as an ‘anti-climax’ compared to previous euphoria at impressive chart placings for 101 Damnations and 30 Something), the band among the Glastonbury headliners a month later (another moment that didn’t quite work out as well as it should have, in Jim’s eyes). Was Jim doing a lot of writing for that third LP this time three decades ago?

“Yeah, although I can’t remember when we wrote those songs exactly. But around then, we were writing most of the time if we weren’t doing gigs. We did tour a lot, but as soon as we stopped, we were writing again, and often revisiting songs we’d scrapped or failed to do anything with. There’s a few things on that album that existed before in a different sort of way.”

You clearly had momentum.

“Yeah, and I think that’s always been crucial to me. The only reason I wrote and recorded this album was because of the one before it. There was a small snowball effect!”

You wrote in your latter-years autobiography, ‘Anniversaries come and go. Opportunities missed’, and I feel duty-bound to ask when the next Carter comeback gig is. Or have you put all that behind you?

“Erm … yeah, it’s definitely behind us. Apart from anything else, Les is completely disinterested in it. We do get asked a lot. The problem with the offers as time goes on is that they get more tempting though, because they’re for more money. So we never just say no. The last time we considered it, a few years ago now, we had to think it through, for what’s involved. It’s often to do two gigs, which could take six months of work to find people to work on the show, get together, re-learn all the songs …”

I’m guessing in the circumstances it’s easier just to go for a pint with your old bandmate.

“Yeah, absolutely, and we definitely get on better when we’re not in a band together.”

Besides, current form suggests you have no need to delve back into the past right now.

“Yeah, we always said we didn’t want to do it purely for money. We had to be enjoying it. And at this moment in time I don’t think we’d be as good as we used to be. And luckily, we’re making enough money off t-shirts to get through a year!”

And when’s the next Jim Bob or JB Morrison book title landing?

“I started a couple of things but lost that mojo in the same way as I did with the songs. And I think the last novel disappointed me in how it did. I’ve never been one of those, ‘If I make one person happy …’ people. I need a modicum of success. I don’t mean a bestseller, but I think it deserved a bit more.

“It’s the same as music – it can be frustrating. This album’s going to do okay, I’m sure, and people will love it, but it’s frustrating when you put a lot of work into making videos and putting out singles when it doesn’t make that much difference. I don’t want to be bitter about it like Status Quo or Cliff Richard though, constantly complaining about not being played on the radio. It can be frustrating though, when people just ignore you!” 

Oscar Wilde’s line, ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ springs to mind there. But there have been plenty of ticket sales for the forthcoming tour last time I checked.

“Yeah, I think four of them have sold out. But from the moment tickets went on sale, it was almost two years before they would happen, as it turned out, which is insane. And it’s created this knock-on effect of postponed gigs. If you want to do a medium or large-sized venue tour now, they’re all booked up until 2023 or so!”

And how about you, personally – are you getting out and about again?

“I wasn’t a big ‘out and about’ type anyway, but I’m pretty much back to how I was before all this. There was a point – without going on about vaccines – where I’d had two jabs and thought at some point I’m going to have to face all this – surely, it’s safer now. But I’m not a hugger!”

I get that, in fact I’m still trying to keep myself to myself, at least until I know my daughters have had their second jabs and are deemed safer (that’s now happened, I’m pleased to say).

“Yeah, I think you have to make up your own rules and look after the people that are close to you. If the Government say you don’t have to wear a mask from Tuesday, that doesn’t mean it’s any less or any more dangerous than it was on Monday.”

And how was that first lockdown for you? Was that in South London?

“Yeah, me and my partner in the house, and that first lockdown – the one I covered in the song ‘The Summer of No Touching’ – was so unusual. For me I found it terrifying. It felt like the film, Contagion. I just presumed we were all going to die. I was convinced about that.

“I stayed in and did all the things we were told to do. Then I remember going out for a walk, with there not being anyone around, and how strange that was – no aeroplanes, no cars, thinking maybe this is a good thing in the long run. But then it turned out it wasn’t!

“That first year will probably be looked back on as more or less a Second World War/Blitz thing, whereas the period after that was just a massive pain in the arse, and people started taking sides. It became another Brexit.”

Well, hopefully we’re moving forward now, and all being well we’ll see Jim Bob and the Hoodrats on the road again in November, performing songs from both new LPs – pandemic restrictions having ruled out his Pop Up album tour – plus other solo and Carter classics. And I hope I can get along to Gorilla, Manchester, in mid-November.

“Yeah, come along and say hello … if it’s allowed!”

Sounds good to me, although I won’t try and hug him, and will avoid politician-like elbow greetings.

For a link to Jim Bob’s May 2019 WriteWyattUK feature/interview, head here.

Who Do We Hate Today comes in an array of Mark Reynolds-designed individual formats: gatefold vinyl with a 2022 Jim Bob calendar; CD with Jim Bob beermats; and even a limited-edition cassette. For more detail, head here.

Jim Bob’s November 2021 tour dates: Cambridge J2 (4th); Hebden Bridge Trades Club (sold out) (5th); Leeds Brudenell Social Club​​ (sold out) (6th); Newcastle Cluny​​ (sold out) (11th); Edinburgh Summerhall​​ (12th); Manchester Gorilla (13th); Shiiine On Minehead (sold out) (14th); Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms (18th); Birmingham O2 Institute (19th); London Brixton Electric (20th).​ For ticket details and all the latest from Jim Bob, head here.

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Preston Pop Fest 2021 – The Continental, Preston

They came from as far afield as Germany and Spain, Brighton, Glasgow, London, the Midlands, South Wales and South Yorkshire. Even Cleveland, Ohio. And you can only imagine how many Covid tests that involved.

To paraphrase Kevin Costner’s Iowa farmer Ray in Field of Dreams, Rico built it, and they came. And while there was no guest spot from ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, there was plenty to devour and savour over three days of happening indie pop, raucous garage rock and more at the inaugural Preston Pop Fest.

I planned to write a few feature/interviews to plug it all when it was announced five months ago, but the festival sold out in a matter of days and I got no further than an introductory piece with the afore-mentioned Rico la Rocca, of Tuff Life Boogie promotions, and The Bluebells’ main songwriter and guitarist Robert Hodgens, aka Bobby Bluebell. Even then, I think it’s fair to say none of us were sure it would all get the go-ahead. But it did, and proved a triumph.

It must have been a logistical nightmare, and also a question of space. The Continental is ideal in that the ambience is on tap, so to speak, with lots of separate areas – in the garden and around this South Meadow Lane pub – to seek out between the snug bar and main function room, these days rechristened The Boatyard. But when you’re talking about up to 16 acts a day and God knows how many musicians (and that’s not me discounting any ‘non-musicians’ involved, I should add) arriving at different times, with precious few places to tune up, turn in and drop out … well, let’s just say that the soundchecks were far from private affairs. And one of my abiding memories of the weekend was regularly seeing the Conti’s events promoter Rob Talbot looking for Rico, potential crises having to be averted, from malfunctioning bass drum pedals to non-showing acts who are on next.

“Don’t suppose you’ve seen Rico?”

“I think he went that way … but that was two minutes ago.”

I think it’s fair to say crosses were ticked left, further left, and centre throughout though, Preston Pop Fest 2021 living up to and perhaps blowing out of the water all expectations. Cards on the table first though – of nearly 40 acts, I only managed to see eight. I live fairly local, but could only get into town each evening. But eight acts is still one more than I caught over the entirety of 2020, that year we’d all rather airbrush from our lives. And one thing I learned from my initial late-’80s Glastonbury sortees was that stumbling from one stage to another with too much of a fixed plan for three long days kind of kills off the notion of the true festival experience.

Ideally, I’d have added at least another dozen names to my ‘seen’ list, only some of which were on my pencilled-in version in March. I certainly missed a fair few I hoped to catch, but this was the first weekend I’d caught eight quality outfits in one weekend since the Fleadh in London in June 1992, and on North West soil since Heaton Park’s Martin Hannett tribute, Cities in the Park, in August 1991. Somehow that’ll be 30 years ago now. And while those stats possibly put me to shame for some of the hardier souls, the reason I mention it is because that at least illustrates the magnitude of the task pulled off in making this all somehow happen, in the most trying of circumstances.

I didn’t even manage to get into the snug until Sunday night, but the late evening closing set there more than made up for it, Michael & the Angelos in on the breeze (not as if there was much of that in there, the windows closed to avert complaints from the neighbours) from Nixon County, via Liverpool, to share some songs with us, introduced by former Cornershop, Formula One and Common Cold drummer David Chambers, the audience including close friend and Bunnymen legend Will Sergeant. And so this punter took himself briefly out of his Sunday evening comfort zone for a little psychedelic grunge, courtesy of the cartoon-equivalent of a band also known as The Kool Aiders, linked back to John Peel favourites The Mel-o-Tones and The Walking Seeds, their Stooges-like glorious racket (with all due respect and all power to their cartoonish elbows) impressive, if not rather jarring after the soothing sounds of The Orchids in the more spacious and certainly more airy surroundings of the Boatyard. But they certainly made the most of their setting, frontman Bob and his four amigos facing each other, the standing percussion player their hardcore beating heart.

Of course, the star-struck pop kid in me wanted to hang around to make small talk with Will, remind him how I’d interviewed him a few years back and try and say something non-trite, non-fawning yet respectful. But although we were less than the recent 2m-yardstick distance from each other, I bottled it and scarpered, drowning myself instead in the consolation of a glorious finale back in the Boatyard that had all the makings of a feelgood movie climax.

With regard to The Bluebells, I arrived back a tad too late to understand why Ken McCluskey was wearing a boiler-suit (was it an early Clash-like statement of intent?) and private jokes were passing between audience and band about Star Wars creator George Lucas, but the force of good was definitely with us, and I can think of no more deserving act for that weekend’s closing spot. This was totally the right call for a celebration of indie pop and the community feel of this loose-fitting smorgasbord of genres.

Sunday’s headliners – these masters of crossover indie (am I the only one who hears a little Bay City Rollers pop craft in there now? ) featuring Campbell Owens, Mick Slaven and Doug MacIntyre as well as Bobby and the McCluskey brothers these days – soon delved into ‘Forever More’, ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ and the glorious ‘I’m Falling’, the latter reminding me of heady mid-‘80s days when Sisters got regular spins on this perennial teenager’s turntable. Ken’s voice and those of his bandmates remain as strong as ever. And that’s not often the case three decades on. On the day we lost another master of the close harmony, Don Everly – to whom so many generations of singers owe so much – it seemed rather apt.

I want to add that they did ‘Wishful Thinking (Will She Always Be Waiting)’ too, but I was playing that in the car and sometimes get confused over what I’ve actually heard when I’ve not used my notebook. They certainly did ‘South Atlantic Way’ though, as poignant now as then, the next flag-waving foreign war never seemingly far off. And there was the wondrous ‘Cath’, the first Bluebells song I truly loved, leading me up the garden path from the moment John Peel’s rhythm buddy David ‘Kid’ Jensen played it on wunnerful Radio 1.

And they still had the big hit to come, ‘Young at Heart’ – 27 years after its reissue topped the UK charts – followed by a lovely take on Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw the Light’, before a stonking late-‘60s encore of The Velvet Underground’s ‘What Goes On’ and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’. Class set, class act.

That perfect Boatyard finale neatly complemented the previous set by fellow countrymen The Orchids, who stole my heart on their previous Conti visit and did not disappoint this time, the stand-outs among a warm summer evening set including treasured indie pop numbers – and at their best they gave older brothers Collins and Frame a run for their money – like ‘Something for the Longing’, first album opener ‘It’s Only Obvious’, the inspirational ‘Peaches’ (it’s ‘dreaming, baby’ line also apt, with Don Everly in mind), and ‘Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled’. Sumptuous choruses and enough to get yourself high, feed your soul, and set yourself free.

Between Dad’s Taxi duties, dog-walking, domestic duties and a Preston commute, I was only ever likely to manage short stints to keep tabs on proceedings, but even though I had to run out of the building mid-encore during the opening night’s finale to pick up my daughters, 45 minutes away, I at least got to see two great acts that night, starting with the one-man band that was Wales-reared, Dorset-based Young Marble Giants legend Stuart Moxham, and WriteWyattUK faves Close Lobsters, the latter for the first time since a 1989 Students’ Union headline at Surrey Uni in my hometown (having caught them and been blown away both times supporting The Wedding Present before).

My first night highlights included Stuart’s solo interpretation of ‘N.I.T.A.’, from the highly-influential Colossal Youth, four decades on, our distinguished guest casting aside his guitar for keyboard and backing tracks action – and then Close Lobsters’ ‘Let’s Make Some Plans’, ‘Just Too Bloody Stupid’ and a restarted ‘What is There To Smile About’ … after lead singer Andrew Burnett initially chose a different key in a convoluted attempt to convince us they hadn’t played that particular dancefloor smash in several years. And yes, all these years on from Foxheads Stalk This Land and Headache Rhetoric, they’ve still got it, as most recent long-playing product Post Neo Anti proved. I just hope the moment they finished their ‘Going to Heaven to See if it Rains’ encore and I hot-tailed it off, they didn’t tune up once more then crash into ‘Never Seen Before’ and ‘Kneetrembler’. If they did, just keep it to yourself, right?

Incidentally, that evening I found myself in conversation with both Sunday debut act uhr (I missed their storming and less than cosy Sunday snug set, dad and lad John and Jack Harkins joined by the afore-mentioned David Chambers, his set with Baboon ruled out by a bandmate testing positive), but I’ve since seen footage and been suitably impressed enough to vow to catch them soon as I can) and two members of John Peel favourites Yeah Yeah Noh, the latter looking suitably impressed – as good as packing their bags for a trip to Spain next year – when I mentioned on seeing one of the Spaniards in the works wearing a Madrid Pop Fest t-shirt that the two festivals were official partners. Pretty sure that wasn’t the case, but I gather that promises were made between promoters. Watch this space. And at a time when Lancashire is making a collective bid for European City of Culture, it’s fair to say Rico is leading the way, the groundwork done for what could become a staple in the region’s indie gig calendar.

Saturday provided a cracking bill too, your scribe ensuring he was at least in time for East Midlands ‘unpop’ legends Yeah Yeah Noh, before a perfect blistering finale from angular angle-grinding Essex wonders The Wolfhounds. Two very different approaches to ‘pop’, both alright in my book. Again, I missed out on much more, 14 Iced Bears’ Robert Sekula (I can’t believe it’s now 35 years since ‘Inside’, their debut single in the attractive paper bag sleeve, a regular on my C90 compilations around then, taped off Peel, not least when I only had two minutes of cassette left) just finishing his snug set as I arrived, while I missed The Jazz Butcher – soon heading to The Ferret for an evening set, Pat Fish appearing as one-half of a ‘guerilla guitar two-piece’ – and Creation wonders Jasmine Minks, and was called out the following night for missing WriteWyattUK regulars Vukovar (memorably described on Rico’s Best Left in the 1980s Toy Box fanzine notes as ‘originally starting out as a Throbbing Gristle-inspired boy band from the Wigan/St Helens axis of evil’), who were good enough to hand me a copy of The Great Immurement all the same.

I also felt guilty for missing The Great Leap Forward for a second time at the venue, despite being impressed by their latest single, and time was against me for catching either of the late night tales sessions from Nicholas Blincoe (also on the bill with Meatmouth) and Graham Duff.

Yeah Yeah Noh gave themselves not so much a mountain as a down to climb, to use their own vernacular, getting John Peel Festive 50 chartbuster ‘Bias Binding’ out of the way early doors (you could argue there was more movement on the floor for their soundcheck, truth be told – the band mock-admonishing those dancing far too early in the proceedings), but they held our interest throughout, with plenty of wry smiles on the way to tour de force ending ‘Blood Soup’. Still cutting it (the heavenly lawn of greatness, that is).

Like The Housemartins’ ‘Happy Hour’ somehow courted the very people it poked fun at, I feel it’d be wrong to suggest Essex anti-legends The Wolfhounds‘ ‘Middle Aged Freak’ proved to be the anthem of the weekend rather than ‘Young at Heart’, but it kind of was. Reduced to a two-piece on their last visit in late 2016 without Pete Wilkins and Richard Golding – but still immense – I was hooked by the full turnout this time from the moment I was lost in the mesmerising ‘Across the River of Death’, their splendid last two LPs – Untied Kingdom and Electric Music – prominent, earlier numbers like ‘Blown Away’ and ‘Skyscrapers’ finishing the job nicely.

While I missed solo sets from both lead singer David Callahan and Andy Golding – in his guise as Dragon Welding –the following afternoon, I made it back in time for Jetstream Pony, another highlight, partly making up for the fact that as I walked towards the Boatyard, Swansea Sound (a fivepiece including Amelia and Rob from the Catenary Wires and Hue Williams from the Pooh Sticks) were heading towards the beer garden gate with their gear. On the previous two nights, we were at least half an hour behind schedule, but not this time unfortunately, the world and its live-in lover soon telling me how good they were on their live debut. And that after a pleasing moment seeing a young lad on the window outside the snug thrilling to the rock’n’roll blast of another Scottish border-raider that went down a storm, James King & the Lone Wolves, of whom Iain McNeill apparently said, ”I’m pretty sure anyone in Glasgow could have listened to it by opening a windae”. Praise, indeed.

But Jetstream Pony soothed me, bringing US West Coast ‘60s sensibilities from the UK’s South Coast, five and a half decades later, their transatlantic vibe aided by London-based Californian lead singer/occasional Davy Jones tambourine shaker Beth Arzy, also known for Aberdeen and The Luxembourg Signal, and NYC-born, Brighton-based bass player Kerry Boettcher. It was also the first time I’d seen Shaun Charman – these days on guitar/backing vocals – playing since he was behind the drum kit with The Wedding Present in 1987, a check through my archives confirming the last time was the night the hurricane blew through the South-East that October, Gedge, Solowka, Gregory and Charman having set the University of London Union alight that night. A long spell in Brighton outfit The Pop Guns followed, and on this occasion that band’s drummer was in ‘on loan’ (their German drummer unable to travel).

And here was a band that as much as anyone summed up the communal vibe. Not only did they charm us on stage, but they were there supporting others from the dancefloor, as can be said of many more on the bill, not least Amelia Fletcher, throwing plenty of shapes to The Bluebells, picked out by the mirrorball like the heroine of her recent Catenary Wires single. And perhaps that was the secret of success for Preston Pop Fest 2021 – that ‘all in it together’ vibe.

I should add that I’ve only scratched the surface here. I heard good things about Glasgow’s Sumshapes and US Highball (was Scotland empty last weekend?) and Sheffield’s immaculately-attired Potpourri (the latter priding themselves on their ‘space age bachelorette pad music with a glacial cool that belies their warm hearts’, according to Rico’s zine). I at least told myself I can see further WriteWyattUK faves Ginnel and One Sided Horse around town in the coming months. But everyone who took part deserves a mention and a badge of honour, and you’ll find online plenty more interpretations of winning sets by The Bad Daddies, Barry, Campbell L Sangster, Cowgirl, Normal Service, The Room in the Wood, Spread Eagle, Stephen Hartley, The Strange, Surfing Pointers, The Train Set, and Thee Windom Earles. Is that everyone? Hopefully. Let’s hope a fair few of these acts re-book for the next Preston Pop Fest though. And it will happen.

With thanks to Lee Grimshaw, Erika Gyökér and Chris Quinn for the photos coped here, and of course Rico and Rob for their hospitality over the three days.

And for details of the next hip happenings, Rico’s in-house four-legged host and Preston Pop Fest 2021 cover star Coco la Rocca apparently asks you to consider attending these further Tuff Life Boogie events: Celebrating Steve Barker’s On The Wire on Sunday, September 19th, Hardcore Halloween: The Stupids, Hellbastard, Deviated Instinct, Intense Degree on Saturday, October 30th, and Garage Peel : The Primevals, The Wolfhounds, Inca Babies, The Total Rejection on Saturday, November 20th.

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From George Abbot and Godalming College to the Marquee and the Whisky a Go Go – in conversation with Howard Smith

Howard Smith was just back from a family holiday in Suffolk when I called, setting up his children with a Disney classic before chatting about his own golden era.

In his case that involved a comparatively short but incident-packed period with The Vapors, recording two great LPs and half a dozen memorable singles, helping create a new wave legacy still talked about and revered four decades after it came to a premature end.

While his bandmates triumphantly returned in 2016, going on to make another acclaimed album and play many more memorable shows, Howard’s no longer involved. But he had input in a brand new four-disc Cherry Red Records boxset from the band’s commercial heyday, and remains rightly proud of his contribution.

Howard went on to a rewarding career with the Performing Rights Society (PRS), since then running a record shop in his and The Vapors’ hometown, Guildford, standing for the Labour Party in his Surrey constituency, and promoting folk and Americana gigs on his patch. But it’s that late ‘70s/early ‘80s period that people seem to remain most intrigued about.

The two LPs he featured on slowly slipped out of circulation, reaching increasingly large asking prices on the market. But last week’s release of the 76-track Waiting for the Weekend 4CD compilation – featuring the New Clear Days and Magnets albums, plus various live and studio recordings – may help offset that. Was it a proud moment, receiving his copy of that impressive clamshell boxset?

“Of course! And I’m so glad they’ve done something. The CDs have been unavailable for some time, achieving crazy prices on eBay and places like that. So it’s great that people can buy both albums plus a bunch of other stuff now, all for only £25.

“The only problem could be that they’re only pressing around 2,000 copies, maybe enough to saturate the market, but in a while, they’re not going to be available again. I’m hoping they can keep them in print somehow.”

Since our conversation, that’s been addressed, Cherry Red arranging another run, in view of the demand experienced.

I had – tongue-in-cheek, I should add – joked to Howard about the boxset, wondering if we really needed to hear another half-dozen versions of ‘Turning Japanese’. For here’s a band that for all their success still go down in some quarters as ‘one-hit wonders’, having reached No.3 in the UK in early 1980 with that single and never quite breaching that top 40 again, that memorable 45 also reaching No.1 in Australia, and also selling well in Canada, New Zealand and the USA.

“I know! We’re following in the footsteps of Bob Dylan and some of his multi-disc boxsets, where you might get 30 versions of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ or something!”

Suffice to say, there was so much more to the band, and there are many great tracks to savour on the compilation, the two long players among this writer’s favourites, the boxset also featuring live recordings from December ‘79 at London’s Rainbow Theatre, various singles, B-sides, alternative, rough and demo mixes, including three previously-unreleased tracks, an early interview with frontman David Fenton, and a 24-page booklet with extensive notes and lots of rare photos.

I reckon all that’s missing is the four-track BBC Radio 1 session recorded for legendary DJ John Peel in July ’79. In fact, Cherry Red missed a trick there. That could have made it eight takes on ‘Turning Japanese’ and 80 tracks in all.

To casual observers, it seemed a meteoric rise, the band spotted by The Jam bassist Bruce Foxton playing a Surrey pub gig, leading to John Weller co-managing them and taking them on tour with his son Paul’s band, the Woking outfit then at the height of their powers.

But there was far more to it, continuing global interest in the band eventually leading to a reunion 35 years on – albeit without Howard – and successful dates on both sides of the Atlantic, with third LP, Together, released to rave reviews last year.

Let’s go back to the start though, or at least the second coming, lead singer, main songwriter and newly-qualified solicitor David Fenton having overseen a fruitful regeneration of the band he formed in ’77 after one member headed off to uni and the other two originals also exited.

As David put it, ‘Three Guildford bands split up in 1978 – The Vapors, The Ellery Bops and The Absolute, and I chose the cream of the crop for The Vapors, Mk. II’. So, in came guitarist Ed Bazalgette from the Ellery Bops, then drumming bandmate Howard and bass-playing namesake (no relation) Steve Smith from The Absolute. And they were soon properly on their way.

I asked Howard first if hearing those mixes, not least the rough ones, brought it all back, putting him back in the moment all these years on.

“To be honest, I haven’t played this yet! I haven’t had a chance. But I’m looking forward to it. I must have all this stuff on cassette tape, from back in the day, but I’m looking forward to it.”

I’d caught Howard on the hop, so soon after his holiday. Was it, I asked, largely a happy experience, working in the studio?

“Absolutely. I really enjoyed it, although you have to bear in mind that as a drummer you spend a lot of time setting the studio up, you do the drum tracks then sit around waiting for everyone else to do their stuff. It’s not all high velocity enjoyment, although it’s interesting to hear how things are put together.

“I was thinking about this the other day, the amount of recording studios in London we used in the space of two and a half years or something was incredible. I probably couldn’t recall how many and list them all out now, but pretty much every studio apart from Abbey Road – unfortunately – like RAK and so on.”

I was talking about RAK recently with Kim Wilde, another artist who recently received Cherry Red boxset status, who started her recording career there and has returned since, saying it’s basically unchanged. How about Sarm West, then called Basing Street Studios?

“I remember watching Bryan Ferry playing snooker or pool in there. Then there was Townhouse in Goldhawk Road, and The Roundhouse. It’s quite nice that we used all these studios. It certainly kept it different.”

Were you aware of the history involved at those hallowed studios back then?

“To a certain extent. As much as you can be when you’re 19 or something. When I left school, the careers officer asked what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to work in music, and he kind of pressed me into writing a letter to all the recording studios in London. This was in the days when people would bother to write and reply, places like Wessex Studios, saying, ‘I’m really sorry we haven’t got any vacancies at the moment, but we’ll keep your letter on file’. I’ve still got around a dozen of those letters.”

Wasn’t it at Wessex where the Sex Pistols recorded Never Mind the Bollocks?

“I think it was. If only they’d have given me a job – I could’ve been the tape op on something like that!”  

Howard was at George Abbot School, a fairly large comprehensive, one that – a few years later – often gave my smaller Guildford secondary school a pasting at football. No disrespect to my careers officer, but I can’t recall such input with what I wanted to do, although perhaps I just wasn’t so focused on where I might be headed.

Talking of recordings, I told Howard how struck I was by the more punky and raw nature of the band on a couple of New Clear Days era alternative versions. And as I missed out first time – I was barely 13 when the band broke up, only catching Steve Smith’s post-Vapors outfit Shoot! Dispute, never seeing the band until they reformed 35 years later – listening to the more rough and ready demos, I get something of the urgency of the early gigs. That also applies to rough mixes of Magnets-era songs like ‘Live at the Marquee’. The producers of each LP – Vic Coppersmith-Heaven on the debut, Dave Tickle on the follow-up – had very different approaches, so it’s interesting to hear how those songs sounded early on.

“Absolutely. I suppose to a certain extent, New Clear Days was songs we’d been playing a year or so before we went into the studio, whereas Magnets was put together in rehearsals and probably hadn’t had a lot of live outings before we recorded them. That was probably the biggest difference between albums. I guess that’s the nature of first and second albums for pretty much every band.”

Living in Guildford at the time probably gave me even less chance of catching them – their home returns pretty much sold out before this young teen could get a ticket. Not as if they were rare visitors.

“Yeah, we were a band who more or less played every other night after we formed. We’d play anywhere, fix up our own gigs, do benefits for the NUJ at Surrey University or Barbed Wire fanzine up at the Wooden Bridge, constantly playing there or The Royal. We had a guy called Deke – Dave Cavanagh, who I still bump into from time to time in Guildford – who had a Transit van, and his brother had a PA system, so we’d get gigs in Chatham, Ipswich or somewhere, pile into the back of this old blue Transit. Although we never quite achieved the efficiency of 10,000 hours playing together like The Beatles, we were constantly playing.”

Your Hamburg apprenticeships just happened to have been spent on the edge of town in Stoughton.

“They were! Ha! Some similarities probably, with the squaddies up there as well!”

When Dave brought those songs in, were they pretty much fully formed, or were they band constructs?

“Well, have you seen the setlist for the first gig I played, at Godalming College? You’ll see from that. Ed joined and did some gigs, then Steve and I joined, and we had a week or two to get ready for the first gig. My father ran the launderette in Stoke Road, with two flats above, one of which Ed and I twisted his arm into renting, the other one empty. Dad wasn’t money-minded at all, renting them out was too much hassle. So we persuaded him to let us use the other flat as rehearsal space. That may have been some attraction for Dave saying, ‘Let’s get Howard in the band’! Having a drummer with free rehearsal space …

“Dave was working at the fruit and veg shop in Market Street, and got loads of packaging which we plastered the walls with to sound-proof. But we literally had two weeks to the first gig with me and Steve, and I still remember my drums set-up in the living room of this flat, us all crowded in there with amps and stuff, trying to learn every single song. And that (Godalming College) setlist is basically all the songs we had to learn, songs we inherited from the previous incarnation of the band.

“After that … well, Dave was writing songs regularly, so we were working out those ourselves, with some input into their creation. And of those originals, some songs were dropped. With some of them I’m not sure any of us can actually remember how they go now.”

While I didn’t get to see the band first time around, my brother – seven and a half years older – did several times, while my youngest sister – five and a half years older and not at all into punk and new wave like her brothers – was in her first year at Godalming College and dropped by for that gig. And Howard sent me the setlist after our conversation, adding, ‘I think the only song that hadn’t been performed by the old Vapors was ‘Working for the Weekend’. All the others carried over.’

Of 15 tracks played that day, over two sets, six ended on the first album and four more as B-sides, with one more on the boxset in demo form, ‘Move’, and another kicking off the December ’79 Rainbow live set, ‘Caroline’, although it was named ‘Caroline Coon’ then, namechecking the music journalist and one-time Clash manager. But what became of ‘Down to Zero’, ‘Terminal’ and ‘Corporate Love’?

“I think they were just dropped and forgotten. Dave was literally writing a new song a week at that stage. Maybe he felt that now he had a band behind him that could really do something. He brought ‘Spring Collection’ and ‘Johnny’s in Love Again’ to one rehearsal, two new songs in one day. The weaker songs just got left behind.”

As for Howard and Steve’s lunchtime college debut with the band …

“I don’t really know what we were doing there, to be honest! Someone obviously had a connection or friend there and said we could play in their hall one lunchtime. We just rocked up, set the gear up on stage, and played. It’s mad, really. I can’t imagine that we sold any tickets!”

There are some great photos with the notes in the boxset, including one of the band posing with a Morris Minor.

“That belonged to a guy called Billy Gunner, who sort of became part of the road crew and drove us around. Also, John Weller got us – I think off a mate of a mate – this massive bright yellow Ford Granada estate. We had that for a few months after we signed. John was kind of a wheeler-dealer and probably had a mate who sold him that.”

That puts me in mind of the ‘Working for the Weekend’ video, the four of you in boiler suits, servicing cars for a living. Were any of you proficient in that respect?

“Not at all! I couldn’t drive at that stage. Ed passed his test, and I can’t recall ever seeing Dave drive. We didn’t have a clue. That’s how you went sometimes as boys at school – you were either into cars or music.”

Did you ever see The Vapors, Mk.I?

“Yeah, we never played the same bill, but places like The Wooden Bridge and The Royal were having gigs all the time, and we’d go along to any gigs that were happening, so I saw them a couple of times. I can’t remember if I saw them with Ed, or if it was pre-Ed, but I remember them at The Wooden Bridge at least once.

“This is the thing, when (Howard Smith’s 21st century replacement) Michael Bowes joined the band, he could listen to CDs. When I joined, I had no clue what those songs were. It wasn’t like playing ’Route 66’ and just a case of the tempo and all the rest of it. I’d play along, songs like ‘Turning Japanese’, and they’d say, ‘No, stop here and do a hi-hat thing,’ and I’d say, ‘Ah, okay’!”

It amazes me now that the first version of The Vapors practised at my home village hall in Shalford, where I’d go to Christmas fairs and social functions, my family close friends with the woman doing the bookings. And this in a small village where The Stranglers happened to practise in the scout hut at the end of my road.

“Funny, isn’t it. I don’t know if it was just particular to that time. Pre-Vapors, me and Ed were doing the same thing, playing these village halls – there probably isn’t a village hall, club or youth centre we hadn’t played at least once!”

Was that with the Ellery Bops?

“That’s right, and we were 16. I don’t know how we had the front to do it, to be honest!”

Do you recall what covers you were doing back then?

“Ah, my memory … erm, we did things like Chuck Berry, ‘Stepping Stone’ by The Monkees, R&B covered by other so-called punk bands …”

Howard’s bandmate and namesake (no relation) Steve Smith told me that seeing The Clash at Guildford Civic Hall on 1977’s ‘White Riot’ tour – the year Howard left school – was his year zero. The next day he jettisoned everything, cut his hair, and started again. How about Howard?

“Yeah, me and Ed went to that (gig) and were already buying Clash singles, and that was the first date of the tour. I remember standing there, thinking, ‘This is incredible!’. Me and Ed in our first phase of the Ellery Bops had really long hippie-like hair.

“Hard to believe it now, but Ed had this incredible mane of long, luxurious hair! I tried to grow my hair so it was the longest at George Abbot, but Ed beat me, hands down – it was already half-way down his back! Before The Clash gig we’d already cut our hair fairly short, but after that started doing our version of ‘Police and Thieves’, stuff like that.”

Do you recall seeing Dave there the night the Ellery Bops played The Royal and he felt he’d found at least a guitarist for Mk. II of his band? He must have been a pretty noticeable character.

“He was, but no – the thing about those gigs was that you could sell them out. They’d be absolutely rammed. It’s the difference between pubs then and pubs now, generally.

“I remember I had a date with a girl from Larch Avenue at what is now The Keep, probably courtesy of my friendship with Ed, and she said, ‘I’ll meet you at The Two Brewers’. I was probably 15 or 16. I remember getting there, plucking up the courage to meet her, then you had to push your way in, with the chance of pushing someone out at the other end! I just didn’t have the courage in the end. I just walked away!

“Our version of The Vapors would sell out The Wooden Bridge, and for a local band that were playing their own material on a midweek night, that was pretty something.”

Were you happy playing the pub circuit, or were you ambitious to take that next big step?

“Oh yeah, absolutely. I was quite happy to burn all my bridges at school. I left before I finished my A-levels. Ed was much more conscientious. He finished his and was thinking about going to college. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t want anything to do with that. I just wanted to be in a band.

“I left school to get a job in a supermarket or something like that for a few months, just to get some money coming in. We rented the flat off my Dad, I carried on working, doing retail jobs, and the Ellery Bops carried on in various incarnations. I can’t remember, but Ed said I decided to break up the band, because we just weren’t getting anywhere. But soon after, Ed had that opportunity to join The Vapors when their guitarist got chucked out, and I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’. Then, suddenly they needed a bass player and a drummer …”

While Dave worked for a fruit and veg shop and Steve was in the loading bay at Debenhams, where were you?

“We were keeping Guildford retail going, weren’t we! I had a short stint at Woolworth’s in the High Street, in the electrical department, and back then if you had a job for four or five months and paid your tax, when you left you’d get all that back, so you could go a couple of months without having to work, doing your band stuff.

“Then there was a Halfords-like shop in the upper High Street called Drivers Warehouse. I quite liked working there, the only guy in the shop, opening up in the morning, selling stuff, cashing up, then going home, carrying on there until I quit on joining The Vapors.”

Fast forward a bit, and do you recall much about the night Bruce Foxton spotted you at the Three Lions – aka Scratchers – in nearby Farncombe, deciding here was a band going places?

“I can’t remember that either! I’m not even sure if that was an earlier version of the band or our band. You’d have to check with one of the others.”

Were you a Jam fan?

“Not massively, not as much as I was a fan of The Clash or the Buzzcocks, bands like that, but a girlfriend got me a copy of All Mod Cons for my birthday, asking Ed, ‘What can I give Howard?’. I’d been buying their singles before then. I think I’d also seen them at Guildford Civic. They were one of a dozen bands I really liked. When it came to us joining them on the Setting Sons tour though, seeing them play, there was probably not a better band I’ve ever seen. It was really stunning.”

How about those big London dates, like those at the Marquee, the Nashville, and the Rainbow? Do you see them as the high points now?

“I suppose so, although I’ve never really thought about which gigs I enjoyed the most. They were all so different. Apples and oranges really. We did some really early gigs at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. We had a residency there, and there were literally just a few people there. We’d go up in the van, get stuck in traffic on West End Lane, but it really progressed from there.

“I guess the most exciting ones were when we initially did the Marquee and started selling out there. That was pretty special, this landmark venue. After that, there was the Setting Sons tour, that was a real challenge. Before that it would be a gig every few nights in front of a hundred or something. Then suddenly we’re 19 years old and the support band for The Jam, two and a half-thousand seaters night after night after night.

“We’d never experienced anything like that before. I was getting blisters on my hands. It was pretty intense. And I think there’s always pressure on a drummer. The others could play a few chords, stop playing for a minute and no one would notice, but a drummer can’t stop playing! If the drummer stops, everyone has to stop!”

Interesting you say that. Before this boxset arrived, I was familiar with cult B-side and regular 100mph show-stopper ‘Here Comes the Judge’, recorded at the Rainbow. But here we get the full set, and I’d have been knackered in your place after playing opening song, ‘Caroline’.

“That’s one of the reasons I wasn’t interested in any reunion. I was a kid then. No disrespect to the new line-up, but it’s a lot slower now. You just can’t maintain that pace. The difference between the pace then and now … I do sometimes wonder – maybe it was me! I was just going full pelt. Sometimes, Dave would look at me, as if to say, ‘Come on, let’s get this going faster’, and I’d be like, ‘Come on, let’s go!’. It was really hell for leather!”

When the opportunity arose to get the band back together, was it just a case of it not being the right time for you?

“Yeah, that’s right. I was running the record shop in Guildford, had been there since 2009, my son Stanley was on his way, and the lease was up. It was making some money and I really enjoyed it – a great way to be involved in music – and I initially said yes to a new lease, but then chatted to (wife) Debbie about it and the prospect of working six days a week there, being unable to take time off.

“I’d just got it extended to the end of 2015. Then, pretty much the same time, I got a text message, I think, from Dave’s wife about a reunion, and thought, ‘No, I don’t think so’. A whole exchange of emails followed. I think Ed felt the same way then had a change of heart, but I just couldn’t commit to it.

“It was a similar story at an earlier stage. I didn’t want to do it that time. That was in the ’90s. We had a meeting at The Railway, funnily enough where The Moonlight Club was in West Hampstead, where I was living at the time. That was when the Captain Mod guys licensed our songs and either them or someone connected to them asked if we wanted to do a live album. And I decided no.” 

I detect from our conversation that while Howard doesn’t regret his decision then or the next time, he perhaps felt guilty about that first knock-back ruling out a reunion for the others, not least Steve, who was definitely up for it. And while Howard was closest to Ed – their friendship the longest-running – he has great respect and affection for David and Steve too.

“There’s so much to say about Steve. Above all else, he’s an incredibly talented musician. He used to book bands at the Wooden Bridge, way back, he’s a sound engineer, he can play drums and piano as well as bass and guitar. We were incredibly lucky to have him in the band.” 

I butt in before he can get on to the frontman, telling him it took me longer to come round to where they were going with Magnets, but howI love that too these days, even if its darker approach took a while to hook me, having loved the more new wave thrill of New Clear Days so much. But hearing that bassline from Steve and Howard locking in on ‘Johnny’s in Love (Again)’ on the boxset’s demo version, Ed adding his guitar over the top, there’s further proof that they were an amazing band. It wasn’t just about David’s great songwriting.  

“Yeah, I think to an extent you can say we were to a certain extent limited in our skills then. But when we played together, we were all on the same page and all knew what we were aiming for and could achieve it. I’m not a technical drummer in any sense, but I can understand the dynamics of a song and accentuating the bits that need it. Then, Steve’s an amazing bass player, Ed was the perfect guitarist for the band, and nothing needs to be said about Dave’s songwriting.”

I realise you’ve not seen Dave’s son Dan play (guitar) with the band, but he’s great too, and (drummer) Michael Bowes is a perfect fit. He certainly has that proficiency and amazing energy.

“The only time I’ve seen them was at the Always the Sun festival in Guildford, run by the Boileroom people. We had tickets for that. Not the best circumstances – it was chucking it down with rain – but yeah, the good thing about Michael is that he’s brought that energy to the band, which is key to the sound and the songs.”

What happened after the band? Were you soon involved in your Performing Rights Society role?

“Yeah, a journalist came along from Record Mirror, Daniela Soave, who followed us for a few gigs on a tour and made ‘Turning Japanese’ single of the week. I thought she was lovely, we started chatting, and within a few months I moved up to London, and we shared a bedsit in Hampstead.

“Then after the last gig we played, in San Francisco, I came back early, Ed followed a couple of days later, and was my best man when we married, the fourth of July ‘81. The band broke up within a few months of that last tour, I did a few jobs and was working with my brother-in-law in London, then applied for a job at the PRS in October 1982, starting on pretty much the lowest rung of the ladder, working through to senior management.”

Howard stayed with the PRS around 20 years, at that stage deciding to sell his flat in London, moving back to Guildford and opening his shop, by that time seeing Debbie, remarrying in 2011, son Stanley following in 2015 and daughter Audrey in 2017. Was his PRS role the beginning of his interest in socialist politics, or was that always important to him?

“It’s always been there. My Dad wasn’t big on politics but very much on the left, politically, and for so long I felt ‘these guys are terrible’, then thought, ‘But what am I doing to help?’, deciding to get involved.”

Consequently, six years ago he joined his constituency Labour Party, ‘a small group of really lovely people struggling to get the Labour vote increased in Guildford’. He’s since stood at borough, county and constituency elections, at the 2017 General Election polling the highest number of votes for the party in Guildford since the year The Vapors broke out of their hometown, 1979, his current role as ‘part of the team supporting most recent candidate Anne Rouse’.

Howard’s love of music still shines through, these days through promotion of live concerts locally, despite recent events ruling out any shows for the past 18 months, planning ahead for prestigious shows in his hometown next year. And his highlights on that front included a memorable night in late October 2015 when he put on The Unthanks at Guildford’s Holy Trinity Church.

“That was the day my son was born! While the gig was being set up at the church, I was at the Royal Surrey (County Hospital) with Debbie, and Stanley arrived at around two o’clock, so I managed to get along at six. Thankfully I got a couple of mates in, texting them from the coffee shop asking if they could get down, get the keys, get to Sainsburys for some food for the rider, sort things out. There was an announcement from the stage that night, saying, ‘We were a bit short on the rider, but we’re going to have to forgive our promoter, his wife’s just had a baby,’ then a big round of applause.”

Now, four decades after his Vapors stint – a fairly short period but one in which they achieved so much, not least a top-three hit, some great singles, two brilliant albums, a No.1 in Australia, tours there and America, and many memorable UK shows, including that support stint with The Jam – is he proud of it all, looking back? With a little more luck, it could have been much more, not least commercially, but for the likes of me, they achieved so much.

“Yeah, there’s talk about Top of the Pops being off air at a key stage, us missing out on another hit and all that, but it doesn’t matter. We had this perfect short career, pop stars for a couple of years, then off to do other things.

“I think Dave was upset with the way the record company treated us, him in particular. We had a bit of a journey -we signed to United Artists, that became Liberty United, got bought by EMI, our stuff transferred to Manchester Square, a lot of staff let go there. It was all a bit disjointed and bad timing. I think Dave phoned Ed, said, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving’, Ed phoned me, and I just thought, ‘Oh well, things haven’t been perfect for a while’. But I’m really proud of it, we made some great music, and it’s amazing how this thing we did for two and a half years or so when we were 19 up to 21 can follow you around for the rest of your life.

“I think my biggest achievement was with the PRS. In a lot of ways that’s what I’m most proud of. But really, no one’s so interested in that or even being a Labour Party candidate for Guildford. The thing most people are interested in was that I was on Top of the Pops doing ‘Turning Japanese’. And something happens every week where it’s included on a TV programme or something …”

Usually including footage of you casually strolling across the floor to grab a dropped drumstick.

“Yes! Ha! There’s always something! And it’s really lovely.”

For so many musicians I speak to, recording a single and a session for John Peel would have been enough. And Top of the Pops was so iconic for any of us who grew up in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Then there were all those live shows.

“Yeah, totally, including two gigs we did one night at the Whisky a Go-Go, Los Angeles. We were there, ‘Thinking, ‘Fuck! This is amazing. The Doors used to play here! This is one of the most amazing venues!’. Actually, it was a bit of a shithole, but … I remember doing the soundcheck and this guy saying we need to be on at 7.30 and 9.30. And we were like, ‘What?’.

“He told us we had two shows. You’re kidding! We play like 500 miles an hour! But at the end of the second show, Clem Burke and Kim Fowley came in the dressing room and said, ‘Hi guys, good gig!’. Just 18 months earlier I was in my bedroom with the first Blondie album, playing along to Clem Burke’s drumming, then here I am, him coming backstage to see us! There were so many little things like that, and I wouldn’t have missed all that for the world.”

The Vapors boxset quickly sold out. However, Cherry Red are arranging a re-press, with details here. Meanwhile, the band return to the road soon for a rescheduled set of dates, supported by The 79ers, comprising The Chords’ Brett ‘Buddy’ Ascott and Kip Herring, Simon Stebbing (The Purple Hearts) and Ian Jones (Long Tall Shorty). For details, try here.

For this website’s feature/interview with David Fenton from last summer, head here. For another from October 2019, head here, and for another marking the band’s return from September 2016, head here. There are also Vapors-related WriteWyattUK feature/interviews elsewhere with Ed Bazalgette (November 2016) and Steve Smith (May 2018).

And to keep up to date with what Howard Smith has lined up, concert-wise, as part of his People Music promotions, follow this link.

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