Or “I got bored of rock in 1988.”
Part one: in which a seemingly absurd suggestion and a clash of egos resolves that whole singer problem.
The exact wording has been lost in the mists of time, but the email said something along the lines of:
I need to get my keyboard back! Are you still working in London Bridge? I can come meet you one lunchtime or something if you are around?
It wasn’t quite rocking up to her office in a tank with a copy of Take That’s Back For Good on a loudspeaker, but it felt like a sensible plan. I was convinced that if I asked her outright to start a new band with me she would tell me to piss off, so I had developed a foolproof plan: get her out, get a couple of drinks down her and THEN try and talk her into trying to write songs together again. She replied almost immediately, and so began a series of emails back and forth trying to arrange a meet-up. Whilst this sounds simple enough, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Deb was quite flighty and haphazard back then. A couple of days, maybe even weeks later, we still hadn’t arranged anything. What to do? Fuck it, I thought. I stopped beating around the bush and composed an email asking her if she wanted to form a new band with me. I told her Paul and Ian would not be involved and that there would be no rules or restrictions. I wanted to experiment and was open to trying absolutely anything. I hit the ‘send’ button and sat back and waited.
I was angsty and couldn’t concentrate on anything else, so I went to the hot drinks dispenser in my office to get a cup of tea and kill time. By the time I got back there was still no answer. I hated waiting. Especially for stuff like this. And then finally: a new email notification. It was something work related.
I went about my usual tasks: data entry with the odd spot of web surfing to waste time until finally she replied. I was nervous, but opened it instantly. There was a bit of waffle, but the basic gist was “Yes, but I have one condition: we should both sing.”
Now this was a problem: I couldn’t sing for shit. This was going to be interesting. But I knew I absolutely needed her back. What to do? “Oh fuck it,” I thought. “I’ll try it, it’ll be rubbish and I can use the experience to demonstrate why we need to get a proper singer.” Even after the debacles of the previous year, I still held on to hope. Ridiculous really. I wasn’t up for Deborah being sole singer. I knew she could sing, but my ego wouldn’t allow for that. How many members of Sleeper can you name that aren’t Louise Wener? Or members of Blondie that aren’t Debbie Harry? You follow my drift yet? While I could name at least some male members of both, I’m a massive geek. And a smug one at that. But I was not going to be a fucking Sleeperbloke.
I replied and said “OK, but I really can’t sing.” She told me I didn’t need to be able to sing: just pick a singer you like and do an impression of them. “eg: I want to be Bjork and Julie Andrews.” All of which was all well and good, but if I was going to be a singer I wanted to be Scott fucking Walker! That really WASN’T going to happen.
We finally met up for a drink and the more Deborah talked – and the more we drank – the more up for it I was. Her reasoning was that she had seen me with my previous band and I was “obviously” a frustrated frontman. I tentatively agreed. I had always been annoyed with my frontmen for two things: 1. being boring, just standing motionless onstage looking terrified and 2. writing shit, meaningless lyrics. I had grown up listening to Heaven 17 and Prefab Sprout and then when Britpop kicked in I was all about Blur, Pulp and Suede. I liked songs that told a story. I thought I could probably perform OK and I thought I’d probably be able to write a half decent lyric. But I couldn’t bloody sing.
I wanted to try out a few things, but I didn’t know where. Doing it at home would be awful. I didn’t want my parents or brother to hear. My family tradition is that of the piss-taker. We are ruthless in our mockery. If my brother or father heard me, they would pounce and I would never sing again. I had to wait a couple of days, but eventually my chance arrived. Everyone was out apart from me. I locked myself away in my bedroom with a microphone and a minidisc player and set about recording some songs and listening back, working out what did and didn’t work and trying again, honing everything until I was reasonably happy. Not entirely happy with the sound of my voice, I set up an echo unit and some compression to try and make it sound better. It was…OK. Feeling a bit ambitious, I recorded a version of Scott Walker’s Angels Of Ashes. It wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t as bad as SOME of the demos I’d heard over the previous year. I sang a few more songs, including some Pulp and some Blur, all in a kind of attempt at a Scott Walker croon, before everyone came home and I had to hide what I had been doing.
I grabbed some clothes in a bag and headed over to Helen’s for the night, listening back to the day’s work on repeat over headphones all the way from my parents house in Erith to Helen’s house in Surbiton. By the time I got there I had built up the courage to play her some of it.
“You sound like Damon Albarn yawning,” she said.
I sounded like Damon Albarn! Damon! Fucking! Albarn! Out of Blur! I ignored the “yawning” bit: I was now UP for this. The barrier was unblocked. Buoyed and enthused, I threw myself excitedly into writing and recording with Deborah. She would come round to my room at my parents’ house and we would play each other half-finished ideas and improvise. She introduced me to new writing techniques, demonstrating the worth of stream of consciousness as a good starting point and playing word games to start generating lyrics. Things seemed to move very quickly. After a couple of sessions where we spent hours faffing around with drum beats, we decided we were getting too hung up on the detail of the sample-heavy instrumentals we were writing so started playing around with just a beat, one guitar and one keyboard. Sometimes we didn’t even bother with a beat. The restrictions helped. We wrote half a song around the sound of the talking clock on Deborah’s mobile phone on speaker mode and some self-pitying lyrics I had about being hungover on the first train home from a club. I’ve still got a recording of it somewhere. Deb excitedly shouts over the intro “When you’re in time with this you’re in time with the world!” We wrote it as a round and thought our voices sounded quite good coming in and out of each other. When I went back to work after the weekend I listened to nothing else until our next session.
I introduced Deborah to Andy Smith thinking we needed someone to trigger the samples and so on live, and we all got together in Andy’s home studio to work on some songs. We got incredibly drunk and improvised a disco-y electroclash number we called Dirty Disco that featured an ascending synth bass line and Deborah talking filth over the top. I couldn’t think of a guitar part so ended up singing a terrible falsetto part towards the end and heavy breathing in a percussive style at regular intervals. We recorded a version of Blur’s recently- released Out Of Time single and then, as the small hours approached we wrote a beautiful, countryish number called “…wires” that we instantly got very, very excited about. I played acoustic guitar, Andy played an electric piano sound on the synth, and Deborah sang beautifully over the top about brain scans and studio cabling. It was the complete opposite of the electro-punk XTMNTR-meets-Sex Pistols-meets-Chemical Brothers sound I had been merrily talking up for the last couple of years and I immediately loved it. We all did. Deb and I knew it would close our debut album. Eventually. If we ever wrote one. Or indeed ever got to record one.
I hadn’t done that much singing yet as I was uncomfortable improvising with my voice, but as Deb and I wrote more I became more open. The breakthrough came via email: I was friendly with a girl named Suzie who would proudly declare her nickname, Blow Job Suzie, given to her because, well, she was quite open about how much she enjoyed giving blow jobs. I got on with her well, but there was never any funny business between us, though she had worked her way through all bar one other of the crowd of boys I was hanging around with in Kingston. I didn’t know whether to be offended or not. Obviously I had a girlfriend, but this – allegedly – hadn’t stopped her trying with others. We had struck up an email rapport to pass the working days and when she and my former singer Andrew had gotten into an argument over email, both of them sent me a copy, one version edited, one version not. It was genius, and – unintentionally – very funny. I printed the emails and showed them to Deborah. We agreed that they HAD to be turned into a song.
Deborah came over to my parents’ house, I set up a microphone and we started work. I played a Smiths-y chord sequence in waltz-time; I had written it when I was 17, it had popped back into my head, and it just felt appropriate. Deborah picked one of Andrew’s lines from the argument and started singing: “Oh Suzie I’m serious about this. You can’t go through life stealing other people’s boyfriends” – and we were off. We worked out the melody, recorded it roughly and then sat down at my desk cutting our favourite lines into a song. We decided to add our own material, deciding we needed a story, and it became a tale of thwarted small-town lust, of the jealous lover spurned by the local – his words – tart. Deborah would play the part of Suzie, I would be Andrew and for three verses we would bicker as my parallel universe version of Andrew fought to possess Deborah’s free-spirited Suzie. We recorded it roughly with Deborah playing melodica over the outro, and listened back to it on repeat getting increasingly excited. It was a folky number and – again – sonically nowhere near the sound I had been talking up for the last two years, but we loved it. And we’d written it in no time whatsoever.
While all this was happening, Leigh Swinn had been writing songs with his friend Mark Heffernan. Inspired by Joy Division, XTC Arthur Lee’s Love, they had a name – Remodel – but no bassist or drummer. I stepped in to fill the former position, mainly because I owned a bass and thought it was worth having a back-up. We would rehearse in their flat on Mare Street in Hackney, with Leigh on acoustic and Mark and I plugged into the same little amp.
When the company I had been working for was bought by an even larger institution, I volunteered myself for redundancy, pouring the money into an Akai sampler, a drum machine, and London’s indie nightlife. I became a full-on regular at Trash, Stay Beautiful, Candybox and the various nights at the Metro on Oxford Street. Deborah would often join me and we would have various ridiculous adventures and and meet all sorts of amazing people. Or they felt amazing when I was drunk. We would go to clubs and parties and then the people we met would end up in our songs. Along the way, I split up with Helen, which meant I met even more new people and had even more to write about. Everything would be written down with the intention of using it in songs.
I started working at a university, which was fun at first – I worked with some nice people – but I was soon thoroughly bored by the actual work. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do with myself outside of being in a band. Leigh and I fell out over a girl and I quit Remodel. Deb and I carried on writing, always writing. I was getting impatient:I was itching to play live. We would improvise silly little half-songs with three chords and minimal lyrics. One of the worst was a sub-Stooges dirge called Smoking Kills that featured me thrashing some barre chords while Deborah repeated the title, starting quiet before building to a squeal. Our finest hour – and what felt like a breakthrough – came with a one-chord grind of a song that, in the absence of any better suggestions, ended up with the name I’m Terribly Sorry But I Can’t Actually Remember Your Name. It used a two-note chugging guitar sample and a pitch-shifted drum beat and was lumbered with as many guitar overdubs as my computer’s CPU could handle. Deborah and I duetted, with her verses bookending mine, as we told the story of a one night stand from male and female perspectives, complete with – oh the shame – sex noises in the Day In The Life-aping middle eight. We were convinced this would be our first single, being not exactly commercial but the perfect summary of what we wanted our band to be. We played it to some friends who were all immediately positive. We finally had a small collection of songs we were happy with. Now we just had to find some people to play them…
Acoustic demos recorded in my bedroom at my parents house before we formed the band.
Eloping With The Devil
Like Good Liars
I did find a recording of The Talking Clock, but it’s 6 minutes and 22 seconds of A and Em7 strummed in time with the talking clock while Deborah and I “la la la” over the top of it. She is in tune. I am not.