Written by: Dave Cantrell
A few days after Christmas, 1979, I was on a plane coming home from London, a stack of singles on my lap. I had a zipgun haircut courtesy Rob at Lunatic Fringe, white vinyl Beatle boots a half-size too small, and the type of constant vibrating thrum running through my 23-year-old bloodstream as might be expected after two months in that place at that time. A miniseries of excitements and twists and adventures in creative penury backdrop that set-up but the story here is that stack of singles.
I had, of course, discovered Peel. On the edge of a bedsit bed in darkest Hounslow – when not at a show inspired by his show – I’d sit and listen those four nights a week to that little clock radio speaker blowing out my brain’s woofer. Thus did I hear “London Calling” the very first time it was broadcast, ditto The Cure’s “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” “Transmission” by Joy Division and scores of others. Thrilling as it was to hear the world debut of, say, “Eton Rifles,” it was the bands I hadn’t known before I’d landed at Heathrow that most enamored and intrigued. Whatever the reason – the startling D-I-Yness, the underdog energy – it was 45s by the likes of The Freshies, Home Service and Steve Miro that the kid in seat 14C, crossing westward over the Atlantic, lingered over the longest. Each was an artifact of accomplishment, a nugget with its own unique and shining facets. I felt the young pop archeologist mooning over his lapful of discoveries and as I sifted through them one in particular kept filtering back to the top of the pile: “Time Goes By So Slow” by The Distractions.
Built on an invincible pop hook and an equally immortal storyline – the poignant anguish of the left lover – it is the one song from that stellar selection of 45s that has, without exaggeration, replayed inside my head at least monthly, often weekly, since 1979. It was their third 7-incher, it turned out, and a couple more followed before full-length Nobody’s Perfect faithfully appeared in the summer of 1980. None of it was exactly groundbreaking, there were no grand new templates being forged, Paul Morley didn’t declare them rock’s saviors, Nick Kent and Julie Burchill didn’t get into a public slagging match over them. Basic verse-bridge-chorus stuff, really, with the odd solo thrown in like you do. The usual themes of young adult angst and wayward nights out. So why did almost everyone that heard them take them so thoroughly to heart and subsequently mourn the band’s short initial lifespan, despairing, as the years slid past, that that would be it for The Distractions?
It should come as no surprise that the question isn’t as answerable in words as it is in the music itself. As an album released in the madly rich maelstrom of 1980, Nobody’s Perfect wasn’t, umm, perfect – a handful of tracks feel a little rushed, the pressing left it sounding trebly and thin in places – and indeed it got a bit swallowed up in its time. But a couple of qualities assured that the album, and therefore the band, have not only not been forgotten but have been clung to as exemplars of a type sound that outlives the whims of trend and zeitgeist. The first is, in fact, exactly that: it’s aged well, edging into lost classic status as the decades have passed. Part of the reason for this, perhaps, is down to it never having been reissued (it had the relative misfortune of landing on the Island label, rather venerable at the time but it and many of its artists have since been sunk by the tsunami of corporate takeovers and mergers), leaving it a singular totem of a simpler musical time. Mostly, though, it’s the songs, the very character of that album – and again, by extension, the band, particularly core members Steve Perrin and Mike Finney – that ensured it would endure even as other records by supposedly more notable artists of the time, The Skids, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs to name but three, have, by comparison, fallen into a slight aesthetic disrepair. There was something cherishable about Nobody’s Perfect, it was one of those records you felt protective of. The music, in short – and here’s the second reason the record still stands – was easy to adore, and is in fact almost impossible not to. Those of us that knew it, that owned (or still own) it, could never forget it. Not a landmark album, it nonetheless held its own inside the Gang Of Four/Joy Division/Clash-sized shadows that obscured it from general view. It was that brave little glow down there that wouldn’t go out. Hopefully, in the paragraphs that follow, some clues will emerge as to what it is about this band that makes what they do so pleasingly unshakeable, and why that channel that runs from your ears to the heart of your heart is so thirsty for them, even if you don’t know it yet.
The most oft-quoted factoid about The End Of The Pier is the gap between the 1980 debut and this follow-up. As a marketing meme it has the advantage of being both winkingly amusing and utterly true. But in truth, all the basic math of that particular detail succeeds at underlining, and with some emphasis, is the remarkable extent to which …Pier feels, in almost every effortless way, like nothing so much as simply the logical next step, the album that was meant to follow no matter the year.
The gap, in effect, melts, and melts immediately. There could scarcely be a more ringingly appropriate choice to act as a thirty-two year segue than “I Don’t Have Time.” Chimed in by a strummed electric layered on a subtle bed of Nick Garside’s B-3 organ, by the time those are joined a couple measured steps later by an acoustic, by Perrin’s melody lead and then the rhythm section literally blooming into being, it’s instant pop magic in that inimitable Distractions way of creeping under your skin with a warm saline shiver. This is human music, human pop, a notion only seconded by the soulful vulnerability and defiance of Finney’s voice. It’s rather hard to quantify, that voice. There’s a kind of raspy shimmer to it and it seems to magnify every word it touches. There’s a sizable clutch of slow songs on this album, each quite beautiful in its own right, but it’s Finney’s voice that transforms that ‘slow’ into mesmerizing, the ‘beautiful’ into sublime. By the end of “I Don’t Have Time” it’s risen to a delicate roar, putting the final, clarion flourish on a song that, in the aggregate, is every bit the unabashed classic as “Time Goes By So Slow” – to which is seems a fitting and brilliant bookend – and “Lost” off last year’s Come Home EP. Smitten from the off then, who’s surprised?
Clearly not me but at the same time, the more I listen to …Pier, the more this notion of gaplessness begins to seem a tad facile, oversimplified. Sonically, structurally, in terms of hooks and craft, it is indeed the case that the only factor that argues against a seamless leap over three-plus decades is the production, almost impossibly lush with the studio and mastering possibilities of the 21st century. And again, the quality of the songwriting, the concise charm of the arrangements, well, those are nothing new and will shock exactly no one. However, spend enough time inside this record, letting the songs soak in good and deep and you’ll find ample evidence of an album well aware of its graying profile. No matter where you drop the needle, you’ll find yourself barely more than a groove or two away from a reflection, a regret, some wry observation steeped in acknowledgment that, yes, a fair passel of seasons have fallen off the calendar since last we met.
Second song “Wise,” aside from sharing its title with the one adjective that rises to the rescue as a sort of consolation prize for those of us whose primes keep passing further behind us – a built-in ‘life achievement award,’ if you will – eases in with a couple of doleful minor-key chords that in themselves have the flavor of the advancing autumn outside my window as I write this, a quiet Sunday morning amid the fallen leaves. One of two tracks here credited solely to Nick Halliwell (bit of a relief, that; would have been awkward had Perrin asked Finney to sing a song addressed to the front man of a glory-days band that includes lines like “Time has been gentle to me/ you have not fared so well”), it’s as cast in the amber glow of recollection as anything on this record and in that sense somewhat sets the mood. The tone rather glistening with resignation, the sound sumptuous, “Wise” tackles the long simmer of resentment with the gentlest of hands, imbues it with the utmost tenderness. The key to the song’s luminous melancholia may well be the deftly picked acoustic running in and out and underneath much of the track like some errant madrigal plucked from a leftover pocket of Elizabethan air, but whether it’s that or the pop chorale background vox cosseting the chorus, when Finney’s forcefully quiet croon lets slip the line “I think we’d best get back to our wives,” the effect is such you want to offer not just the singer but the song itself a warm coat and a fresh cup of tea.
This is what The Distractions do as well as anyone, rivet you with what might best be described as a vivid murmur of emotion. Nothing flagrant, never too florid, mind, but over and over again the band manages to strike that magic balance between the maudlin and the cynical (nuanced, I believe is the word). In a sense, The Distractions produce not just songs but quick, revealing snapshots strung along the spectrum of human dalliance and folly. If your heart were an eye these flashes of emotion would be burned – subtly, glancingly – on its retina. As odd as it sounds and debatable as the syntax might normally be, these are songs complex with simplicity.
It is, of course, the case that such a teasing oxymoron, spot on as it is, couldn’t stand but on the strengths of the arrangements – mature, classic, drawn from the canon – and how intuitively produced/mixed this record is, as sympathetic to the pathos at work here as, say, Tony Richardson was to that of Alan Sillitoe. There’s a humble grandeur to the sound, meticulous but in no way fussy. No matter the tempo, Nick Halliwell’s production ensures an LP that’s of a piece, encasing every track in a kind of solid liquid warmth (Oh will the paradoxes never end, you’re asking; well, no, probably not, since all the best pop records inspire them). Such is the wholeness of this record you could extract any one song as a single – and really, any one will do, …Pier is chock full of them – and, once its run was done, it would be absorbed seamlessly back into the fold as if it never left. ‘Nothing stands out’ is as true as ‘The whole thing stands out,’ surely the definition of a complete, true and proper long-playing album.
The quality of the mix – and the fidelity of the vinyl may very well make you cry – gets re-emphasized here to lead us back to the autumnal nature of the material, which wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without it. Songs as bathed in anamnesis as these require at least that level of care and embrace. We’re lucky they got it, as it allows us to luxuriate in what, by today’s standards, is that rarest of waters, basic elegant songcraft, the kind that doesn’t trumpet itself and is all the more startling for it. The tidy ten songs on here (five per side on the LP, just as God planned it) are, in a phrase, modest and sublime, and in that sense remind of the crop of canny songsmiths that dotted the landscape in the mid-80s, Jasmine Minks, June Brides (no coincidence that Phil Wilson and Co. find themselves under the Occultaton banner), Weather Prophets et al. Come to that, …Pier could be the after-the-fact masterclass in that type of pure pop suss. Example? Well, that’s the problem. Try to spotlight one and the others all tug at your sleeve with deserving, ‘No, no, listen to me!’ urgency. But here’s a go.
Ending side one of the LP, “When It Was Mine” slips into the world with a pair of sustained guitar strums, a brushed drum and a plumbing bass going straight for the bottom of your throat that might suggest heartbreak a la AMC, which is to say loneliness and ache. Finney’s vocal, of course, only reinforces that impression – full of anomie however brightly sung – but the killer here is Perrin’s five-note, reverbed guitar figure underlining the chorus, a short, rather heartbreaking jolt that recalls nothing less than the gut punch delivered by a certain Mr Reid in “Just Like Honey.” The fact that that’s almost certainly the first time ‘AMC’ and ‘JAMC’ have ever been brought together to reference the same song should give an idea of what a pearl of a song it is.
Flip the record over and whattaya know, another gloaming gem (does get to be a bit routine on this album, in truth), this one, “Too Late To Change,” built on the not unclever trope of a fading tattoo migrating on aging skin. Aside from its obvious musical merits, single-ready and all, buoyed with a Wrecking Crew level of unobtrusive excellence, it’s the words that wrap around your brain like clinging ivy. Perrin’s lyrics can sometimes tend to leap – or, rather, step gingerly – over the barriers of scansion with an acrobatic, gliding precision, scattering feints throughout the album that are at once both concise and unexpected. One’s reminded of slightly less-literary Leonard Cohen, words that flow with the impression of being effortless when their creation almost certainly was not (though I think we can safely assume the process was nowhere near as painstaking as Mr Cohen’s). More than proving the point, the opening stanza from “Too Late To Change”: The name on my arm isn’t where it once was/the skin starts to age it/starts moving because of/a process that’s slowing the/blood in my veins but/I’d go through the/ whole thing again and again” and yes note the oh-so-subtle shifts in the line breaks. It is exactly this emotive slyness – the purposeful slip of the tongue, an anxious hiccup made smooth – that, beyond the band’s basic pop penchant, has marked The Distractions out from the start and had as much to do with hooking us all in the first place as anything in their sound.
But oh my that sound. Whether it’s the tumbling skip-along of “The Summer I Met You” with June Bride Arash Torabi’s jumpy, pugnacious bass and the crashing, articulate punch of Mike Kellie’s drums (yes, that Mike Kellie, he with the Only Ones and Spooky Tooth in his CV), the racing restraint of “Boots,” the exquisite melding of elements on “I Don’t Have Time” or the mournful churn of album closer “The Last Song,” the band here is simply magnificent, tight as the devil’s own hand-rolled cheroot and twice as smooth. Not bad for a band whose two principle members live over 11,000 miles apart (Perrin’s in New Zealand these days) and who played these songs at most three times before nailing the take. The whole recording took five days and, really, why should it take more when you’re this good?
Inevitably, however, any discussion regarding what this band sounds like has to return to the quavering baritone singing at the center of it. Finney’s voice never sounds anything less than almost unspeakably natural as it limns the boundaries of fatalism, yearning, and regret, and make no mistake, there’s a fair amount of regret admitted to here. Not the sad, sorry-for-itself kind, but more resigned and accepting, the ‘Hey that’s life and take it as it lays’ kind. It’s his voice’s natural habitat. Distractions songs inhabit a place where a character and his or her motives are indistinguishable, it’s what makes them so endearing, so enduring, what makes them settle in your marrow, and it’s the uncanny mix of buoyancy and gravitas in the singer’s voice that makes this happen so convincingly. It is also, as it turns out, the ideal instrument for both the pimply longings of a post-teenage romantic and the ruminative surveys of a man in his fifty-sixth year. Sepia-toned and clear-eyed in equal measure, the voice, along with the songs and the marinated tone of this record have all merged into a wistful though vitally living document of pre-internet, pre-Instagram reminiscence.
There is, for me, a constant undercurrent, listening to this record. Yes, in some respects, time goes by so slow but, truly, it doesn’t. Those thirty-two years have, by any measure, whipped by in a blur. Certainly each of us can break down constituent parts, compile a list of specifics and a mind full of images sufficient enough to bulge a scrapbook, but as an arc of experience it’s flashed past. Not only that, our own private nostalgia is not in any sense sequential or linear. That day on the plane at the fag-end of 1979, idly, dreamily flipping through singles, is as much a part of what gets carried through my daily life as when my daughter’s next performance is, where or if my wife and I are going to buy a house, what I’m working on next for CITC or, indeed, some randomly generated memory of an event from fourteen years ago. Viewed this way, as an agglomeration, undelineated, it would all be naught but a jumble, just a shapeless mélange of living, our minds – and therefore our lives – simply some ragged game of recollection pinball were it not for the emotions with which each is imbedded. Which is one of the reasons we love, and need, records so much.
The End Of The Pier, as befits an album by a band of this vintage, succeeds via a rather aching palimpsest effect, the matured, more umber strokes painted with a hazy, opaque transparency over those less seasoned characters with the brighter, more naïve colors that first appeared on the canvas three-plus decades ago. And like the best of such records (Pete Astor’s Songbox is another), that effect gets transferred across our own lives by the very act of listening to it, it soaks into us, there’s something of a spell involved.
Without a doubt there is some aspect of irony here, an album hammering away on themes of time and remembrance being made by a band that is itself timeless, but that’s The Distractions all over again. They were, in essence, a band out of time in 1980 and remain so in 2012 and in fact there’s their epitaph should it ever be written: The Distractions, a band deliriously out of time.
On the small promotional poster for The End Of The Pier that came inside the package from Occultation, above the same album cover shot of a lonely Blackpool Pier resplendent in rainy grays and salt air, the tag line, lifted from side one earworm “Boots,” is “Who’d’ve thought that coming back would be so hard?” Quite germane, certainly, but for this writer two other lines from the album speak just as well and perhaps more succinctly to the relief and joy of having The Distractions back on my turntable: Too long in anonymity from “I Don’t Have Time” and, from “The Summer I Met You,” trying to forget you didn’t seem logical,” to which I’d have to add ‘nor possible.’
INTERVIEW w/Steve Perrin, Mike Finney & Nick Halliwell
Stereo Embers: Steve and Mike, I know the barebones, Wiki version of the Distractions origin story – formed in ’75 at college, swept up into the energy of punk – but could you flesh it out a little, including why the short-lived stab at reuning in the late 90s didn’t take and how you were able to come together this time?
Steve: To call what was happening in 1975 a band is pushing things a little. Basically Mike and I and a revolving cast of other people were making a noise in a primary school at the weekends. None of the other people stayed very long as there was no chance of getting any gigs, making any money or meeting any girls, which seem to be the main motivations of a lot of people to get involved in bands. Mike and I would not have objected to doing any of those things but were also compelled to carry on making this noise as ‘normal’ life seemed to only have the potential to drive us crazy. The good thing about punk was that it led to a number of small venues opening where untried bands could get a chance to play. Also you didn’t have to be musically competent if you were in some way ‘interesting’.
Our first gigs were played with Pip Nicholls on bass (who we met through Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks) and Tony Trappe on drums. Tony left soon after and Adrian Wright came in on guitar and brought Alex Sidebottom with him to play drums. That’s the lineup that made most of the records.
The mid 1990s thing was interesting but it was hard to get people interested. It was before the internet had become ubiquitous so it was difficult to let people know what we were doing. Then personal stuff started to get in the way. Our then bass player, Nick Garside, went to California to do some work, met a woman and never came back. Our drummer, Bernard Van Den Berg, went to South Africa to do some work, met a woman and did come back briefly but eventually decided to move to South Africa permanently. Then I moved to New Zealand (I had already met a woman so she came too).
Mike: It’s correct that Steve and I met at college, but the original drummer was the son of one of Steve’s colleagues and the other guitar was a colleague of mine. We practised in a church school hall for a while until we decided that my mate’s love of the Stones was too much for Steve and me (nor conducive to writing our own songs!) so Lawrence left and we finally got hold of a bass player through Pete Shelley, with whom we shared many a glass of bitter ale. Pete gave us Pip’s number and we practised with Steve, me, Pip and Tony, the drummer. We played our first four gigs at the Ranch Bar in Manchester, the haunt of most of that city’s ‘New Wave’ and ‘Punk’ artists and a few clubs in Liverpool as well. It soon became clear that to improve and play the kind of stuff Steve and I were writing (“Still it Doesn’t Ring” and “Valerie” were the two that stayed with us), we needed a better drummer and another guitar or keyboards. Most of our songs at that point were written walking to the beer shop, bottles or cans then taken back to Steve’s mum’s for further inspiration. We advertised in NME and Sounds ‘Free pages’ (Steve always said you get what you pay for…) and got Alec for drums and an old mate of his Adrian, who could play guitar well and some rudimentary keyboards. The practice room in the church in Wythenshaw (a large council estate in Manchester) was a bit too distant for Alec and Ade, so we started practising in a pub, first in Mossley, a town just outside Manchester, then in a pub in the centre of Manchester.
In late 1978, we got a practice room in Tony Davidson’s place (TJM), along with Joy Division, Buzzcocks and an assortment of other Manchester bands. It was there we met Brandon Leon, who supplied us with recording time for both “You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That” and “Time Goes By So Slow”.
As for the 94/95 reunion stuff, it started because we had studio time in Nick Garside’s ‘Out of the Blue’ studio in central Manchester. He was a fairly well known producer from the ‘Madchester’ scene and asked if we would record some tunes with him playing bass. This became 6 songs, three of which became the Black Velvet EP that Nick Halliwell released, one was used by Factory magazine and the other two are awaiting extra further treatment some time in the future. In 1995 we booked a session in Joe Meek’s studio in London and recorded one track on all-valve equipment (the same as used for Telstar and My Generation!). The drummer was Bernard Van Den Berg who was originally in the Secret 7 with me, but also in the 1994 Distractions. The bass player this time was Kevin Durkin, who was in the Escape Committee with Steve and originally in the Direct Hits, another TJM band. We didn’t fold, we just sort of ‘fizzled-out’.
In 2009, I saw a mention of The Distractions on the website for Granite Shore, Nick Halliwell’s band, which was very complimentary of us and I sent a ‘Thank You’ note to Nick. A few weeks later, I noticed on the same website a note from Nick asking me to get in touch. I did and Nick asked if I would like to record some more tunes. I was happy to do so, but only if Steve was involved – now in New Zealand. Nick somehow got the whole thing together and we recorded the Come Home EP in Liverpool. We all enjoyed it so much, and Nick being a really Top Guy, we started talk of an album. That was recorded in 2011 in Exeter. It seems to be doing very well and now there’s talk of another (and final) album…Love it!
SE: Steve, Nick, you’re both playing guitar throughout the record but instead of the standard roles such a set-up suggests – one’s primarily lead, one’s rhythm, maybe some switching up – the two of you seem to intertwine, overlap, etc, to the extent it sometimes seems a single guitarist overdubbed. Was that the intention or is it just a naturally occurring dynamic between the two of you?
Steve: I think it’s because we’re both songwriters who play the guitar rather than guitarists who write songs so the main thing that’s going through our heads is “what does the song need?”. The only bit of conventional lead guitar on the record is on “I Don’t Have Time” but that’s only there to reflect the lyric and what Mike’s doing with the vocal.
Nick: I don’t think either of us has ever had any interest in becoming a guitar hero, although Steve’s lead break on I Don’t Have Time suggests he’s the better qualified of the two of us. As he says, we’re both thinking about what the song needs, so on any given song you’ve generally got one of us underpinning the rhythm and the other the melody of the song rather than attempting to embellish and there’s a certain amount of switching back and forth, sometimes during the same song – 100 Times on the new album is a good example, initially I’m playing the rhythm and Steve the melody, then we swap – I didn’t even realise we’d done this until I came to try and work out what I’d done so I could play it live! Essentially, when you’ve got a vocalist as good as Mike Finney you’ve got to leave him enough room to do his stuff. Essentially the Distractions is recipe is that if the material’s strong enough you’ve just got to let Mike put it across and anything that detracts from that is an – if you’ll excuse the pun – unwanted distraction.
Steve: The relationship does seem to have evolved naturally and, organically, our sense of timing is very close but I remember liking the fact that on early Rolling Stones records you couldn’t tell which guitarist was doing what: it just sounded like one big guitar. Maybe that’s an unconscious influence, I don’t know. Certainly, when it was time to prepare for the live shows and I was listening back to the recordings I quite often couldn’t work out which part was Nick and which was me.
Nick: Not just naturally but almost tacitly – Steve and I have only ever met in recording studios and on stage. The first time, on the first morning of the Come Home EP sessions, the only discussion was about which of us would plug into which amp and having resolved that I don’t remember us ever talking about anything guitar-related again. Steve sends me demos of his songs, with him playing the guitar, so if he’s carrying the rhythm I’ll usually go for the melody and vice versa. I can’t remember us ever actually talking about any of this though… When Steve and I said goodbye, in the bar of The King’s Arms in Salford on the evening of Saturday 1st September, his parting words were “one day we must actually sit down and have a conversation…” I rather imagine this with the two of us as gnarled old men. It’ll be fairly soon then.
When I came to mix the record, I was struck by how tight the guitars were, even though Steve and I had only played together once before when we recorded the album, and the obvious thing seemed to be to use that. So neither guitar is mixed as “lead”, they’re each placed consistently in one speaker throughout the album at pretty much identical levels, I think mine’s on the left and Steve’s on the right but it might be the other way around. I did use one or two little production tricks to reinforce this but it was merely a matter of capitalising on something naturally occurring.
SE: Mike, your voice, obviously, is the central instrument of the ‘Distractions sound,’ if we may call it that. It sounds natural and unforced to me, intuitive. Was there every any training, and if not, have you had to work much at it? At what age did you realize you had a bit of a gift of a singing voice?
MIKE: I never had training and I think that usually spoils the feeling, if you know what I mean.I can’t say as I worked on it, just practising seems to improve a voice. I lstened to Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and all the Motown stuff growing up and tried to sing a bit like them. Then I realised that to have that kind of feeling was more a matter of believing what you sing rather than a technique (this was because Otis and Sam did some bad stuff in the name of trends! Listen to Sam Cooke’s Gospel recordings or Otis’s early love songs if you’re looking for an explanation of soul music). Not forgetting another two of my favourite voices, Al Bowley and especially Bing Crosby. Mix it in with a bit of Elvis and a touch of Janis Joplin and that’s what I always tried to aim for. Failed of course, but you shouldn’t stop trying because that’s what makes a unique sound.
I still don’t think I have a great singing voice, possibly because I can’t sing Sam’s “Hem of His Garment” or Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” the way I would like to sing it. But, neither can anybody else, I guess! However,I always loved to sing pop songs, hymns, anything that made you feel better. I was also a shy kid, so it was a way of expressing myself without people asking me to leave the room. That came a bit later when I’d stopped singing.
I was chatting with Nicky Tesco (of the Members) many years ago and we decided that however bad a voice was, it was talent and not just holding down wires or hitting things. Nobody in either band agreed…!
SE: Steve, your lyrics have a precision to them, a knack for nailing the emotional resonance of the song with both flow and economy, often succeeding at that cherished quality of a three-and-a-half pop song: resembling a short story (“Girl Of The Year,” for example). Do you have to wrestle them into shape or do they emerge without too much struggle? Plus, if you wouldn’t mind tackling the standard process question: Which comes first, generally, lyrics, melody or an image/character?
STEVE: During the early days of the band I, like many young men, believed that my own angst was interesting, so the lyrics tended to come first followed by the tune. The End Of The Pier was written after a period of almost 20 years, during which I had not written any songs and, initially, I had no idea what I was going to write about so with most of the stuff I started off with a musical idea, often adding lyrics which I knew to be rubbish just so I’d have a song structure to work with. I would then ditch the initial lyrics and start working on something which made more sense. Sometimes the second set of lyrics worked and sometimes they also had to be rejected and more work done.
“Girl Of The Year” was an exception, however. First I had the title (partially ‘borrowed’ from Tom Wolfe’s essay on Baby Jane Holzer) and, in the initial stage of wondering what I was going to write about, I thought I might use the landscape around me. I don’t know if you’ve even been to Wellington, New Zealand, but it looks a bit like a smaller San Francisco – hills, white wooden houses, pickup trucks – and I had the beach at the end of my road so decided to try and write something like the Beach Boys. That’s why it has “endless summer” in the first line but by the end of the line it’s gone cold and in the second line a pier has appeared and my girl’s considering jumping off it. It was then I realized that, wherever I am physically, my mental landscape is that of the North West of England and it’s pretty much inescapable for me so that’s where the writing comes from.
SE: Nick, I’m still amazed by the sound of this record (even if I do say that about every Occultation release), given the short preparation time as a band and how relatively brief the studio time was (four, five days, I think you told me?). Factory Star’s Enter Castle Perilous was recorded with similar speed but the goal there was maintaining a rawness of sound appropriate to the spirit of that record – a resounding success by any measure – and the short recording time was part of the design to capture that. Yet here, under almost the exact time limitations, the sound is rather luxuriously upholstered, round and full, which, as it happens, is exactly what this record requires. Is it simply down to the different character of the two bands or have you some magic elixir brewing behind the mixing desk?
NICK: If you’ve got strong material and the right people the best method is to book a good studio and play the songs. Factory Star were a tightly-drilled unit so Perilous was recorded in three days then mixed the following weekend, with hardly any overdubs, even the lead vocals were live. For Pier we had four days in June 2011, no rehearsals, in fact we’d never all met before. After that I set it aside for a few months, what with the Wild Swans album, financial considerations, etc. When I came back to it I felt we already had all the musical ideas we needed, so the rule was that overdubs should only bolster what was there, and I only broke it a couple of times. Lead vocals are crucial and astonishingly Mike’d done the whole album +1 outtake+3 acoustic versions in 6-7 hours at the original sessions. He came down to my place and we spent an afternoon redoing just 3-4 songs.
At that point Steve and I agreed the album didn’t need conventional mixing, where the producer zeroes the faders and spends a week listening to the kick drum. I mix as I go along anyway, so it was just a matter of getting the vocals to sit properly and everything else to gel around them. John Dent and I mastered the whole album in an afternoon. It was written, recorded, sequenced, mixed and mastered as a two-sided LP, so we didn’t front-load it with the poppier songs at the start, and we also didn’t use much compression on anything, so it does sound rather different to a lot of modern records, which are mixed so that everything leaps out at you the first time you hear it. The trouble with that is that it can get pretty tiring for the ears so you’re into diminishing returns. I’d hope this is an LP that repays repeated listening.
All in all, I’d estimate a couple of weeks or so’s actual work went into making Pier, though it was spread over 9 months. Even so, only four days of actual studio time, and that’s where the vast bulk of what you hear on the record was done. On average each song you hear is approximately the fourth time we’d ever played it. A couple of them maybe the third, and there are two where we used take 6. I don’t think we recorded more than six takes of anything.
SE: As mentioned in my review, and mentioned by many others as well, The Distractions, even during a 30+ year absence, remained warmly embedded in listeners’ hearts and minds. A number of bands back then made the one album and a handful of singles then disappeared, but very few retained the interest The Distractions did. We all have our theories as to why this is the case, what’s yours?
NICK: I’m least well-placed to answer this as a member of The Distractions but can perhaps speak as a fan and with my label hat on.
It’d be overstating the case to say there’s a huge number of people who remember the band but what’s definitely true is that those who care do so very deeply. My theory would be that the band sprang from their audience and never forgot that. In fact they wrote about and for their audience, so people identify those Distractions Mk I songs with their own lives. Steve’ll correct me if I’m wrong but the way I see it, with Pier we set out to do that again, i.e. to write about life in middle age. The other thing is that when Mike sings a lyric you believe him. Take that combination, songs about real life delivered with utter believability and that maybe goes some way towards explaining it.
STEVE: Although there are undoubtedly some women who enjoy our music the vast majority of the people you are referring to who”kept the faith” are men. The End of the Pier strikes me as quite a “male” album. There’s obviously stuff about male friendship and male-female relations but if you dig under the surface there’s quite a lot of father-son stuff (from both points of view).
If you add to that the fact that while Mike undoubtedly has a strong voice there’s an underlying vulnerability to it, perhaps what we’re doing is saying something about the male condition, or one version of it anyway, at this age and this point in history, which chimes with a certain type of man. Others, however, would be better qualified to answer this question than me.
NICK: Steve’s right, it’s a very male album but perhaps an unusual masculinity in that it looks inward and… I can’t actually think of much music, or art in general, that deals with the subject of male friendship in any real depth. As I’m sure I’ve said to you before, when I got Steve’s first batch of around 5 songs, this was the first thing that leapt out at me and so I wrote Wise in response, as I was able to kind of look in from the outside in a strange kind of way. My other song on the album, Man of the Moment was a deliberate attempt to bring Girl Of The Year into the overall pattern of the thing. As we stood, it was the only third-person narrative song and didn’t obviously tie in with the rest, but it was a very strong song which had to be used. So I tried to write something that’d set it in context and link it in with the rest. How well that succeeded isn’t up to me to say. The other lyric that’s mostly mine is Boots, although Steve wrote what we might consider the first draft of it.
The whole thing was a fascinating process and one I’m very keen to repeat. I think Steve and I are just getting into our stride now.
SE: Mike dropped a hint about one more album and ‘oh boy!’ to that. I heard Nobody’s Perfect when I was 24 years old, End Of The Pier shows up when I’m 56, so I have to ask, am I gonna have to wait until I’m 88 to hear the next one?
STEVE: I suspect that there will be one last Distractions album and while I like the idea of a deathbed confession record written when I am in my late eighties I suspect that it will happen in the next couple of years. I have a cutoff date of 2016 as Mike will be sixty then and Kellie seventy. That will probably be time to say “goodbye”.
NICK: While there’d be something symmetrically pleasing about three albums, one youthful, one middle-aged and one elderly, there are certain logistical concerns – though by the early 2040s it may well be that most recording studios cater primarily for geriatrics with walk-in drumkits, amps built into comfy armchairs, monitoring via hearing aid loops, etc. Mike, Steve and I have talked about doing another one as I hope I’m right in saying that everyone enjoyed Pier and felt a sense of achievement – I know I did. If we’re going to do it then, realistically, we probably need to get on with it.