Rob Pursey’s (Heavenly, Swansea Sound, The Catenary Wires, Skep Wax Records) Top 10 Christmas Tree Baubles:
I’m sorry, this is probably the most sentimental top 10 list you’ve ever read. But I have just entered that melancholy phase when, looking at our Christmas Tree, I realise it has to come down soon – and then I’ll have to confront the rest of the winter without any twinkly distractions.
Christmas is a big deal in this house. It’s got nothing to do with religion: we are all atheists and so were our parents. It’s more like an accumulation of memories of all the other times you and your family did exactly the same things, every year: parents stopping work, kids getting presents, everyone playing old board games, eating special things. The winter is transformed, briefly, into something wonderful because of the people around you. And because of the baubles and twinkly lights.
So, my first bauble was a gift from Alexandra, who is the very skilful knitter and craftswoman and partner of John, head honcho of WIAIWYA Records. It’s a felt rendition of the first record by The Catenary Wires.
Bauble Two is a strange little stretchy man. He doesn’t dangle like the other baubles do, he grips the branch of the tree like a cartoon soldier. I don’t know why he entered the canon of baubles. One of the kids put him up on the tree a few years ago, he made us laugh, and now he comes out every year.
Bauble Three is the newest one. It was a present from Bob Collins, who plays guitar with us in Swansea Sound. It’s an image of Priestfield Stadium, where Gillingham FC play. We went there (with Bob) a couple of days ago and saw Gillingham lose 2-0 to Crawley. It was a horrible experience, but we will be back there very soon. And the Priestfield bauble will be back on the tree next year.
Bauble Four was made many years ago by our older daughter Dora. She made a lot of items in pottery class when she was a little kid. I have a goblet, a candlestick holder, a vase and many other chunky, colourful items. This bauble is quite fragile and I worry about it surviving through all future Christmases.
The fifth bauble is this tiny stocking which clearly belonged to Ivy (our younger daughter). I don’t know where it came from – maybe it was part of an advent calendar, or was attached to something bigger – but it is now an essential tree item.
I like this sixth bauble a lot. It is the most substantial decoration on the tree as it includes the entire text of the first book of Paradise Lost by John Milton, which is my favourite poem. I am not sure that Milton, a fairly austere Protestant, would have approved of this frivolous and decorative use of his major work. But he might also be pleased that his poetry is honoured, four hundred years after it was written.
Bauble Seven. Some years ago, I can’t remember when, the kids were given a set of toy germs. This one is eColi, and he has become a regular fixture. There were five or six other germs, including halitosis and the common cold, but eColi is the one who got hung on the tree.
This little robin started life as a cake decoration, but got upgraded to the tree a few years ago. He has efficient claws and so he can perch on the branch, just like a real robin. Except he is only about an inch long. He is bauble number eight.
Sorry, not a great picture, but the fairy is right at the top and I couldn’t get close enough without knocking the whole thing over. She is the oldest bauble – she sat on top of the Christmas Tree when I was a little kid. She is a bit lopsided, but she is hanging on.
Ok, Bauble Ten takes us back to music, and it’s another one by Alexandra, with Le Jardin de Heavenly-style butterflies on a little felt square. (I have no idea why people accused our old band of being twee.)
By the time anyone reads this the baubles will be heading back into their box, and winter will have resumed. I hope you have a happy new year.
When Pam Berry and I started chickfactor zine in 1992, you can be damn sure we were listening to both Heavenly and thePooh Sticks. We interviewed Heavenly for CF2 (Amelia Fletcher is on the cover with Bridget Cross from Unrest), but we never got to interview Hue Pooh, though we do remember a memorable show at Maxwell’s in 1992 or 1993. During pandemic lockdown times, Rob Pursey wrote some songs that were too punky for the Catenary Wires, so he and Amelia thought of Hue for a collaboration. So Swansea Sound was born—featuring Hue, Amelia, Rob (Skep Wax Records, The Catenary Wires), Bob Collins (the Dentists, the Treasures of Mexico), and Ian Button (who plays in too many bands to list)—and they’re about to release a fab new album, Twentieth Century (out Sept. 8), and go on tour (see dates down below). They need no introduction to you, reader, but we figured it would be fun to have Hue and Amelia interview each other after all this time! This is their conversation. Swansea Sound artwork by Catrin Saran James and Jon Safari.
Hue: What was the first song / record you can remember hearing, Amelia?
Amelia: I have no idea, but I do remember the first time I took a real interest. My parents had the Sgt. Pepper album and the sleeve had all the lyrics on it. I remember diligently learning all the words. I think I was 7. I more or less still know them all. How about you? And when did you first decide you wanted to make music yourself? Hue: Mine is Beatles as well. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Though it wasn’t a single in the U.K. so I reckon I’m remembering the version by Marmalade which was a No 1.
Although that was ’68 and I would’ve been three so whether or not this is a half-remembered memory or accurate I’m not quite sure.
I was in a band of sorts when I was 8 but I’m not sure if what we were doing was music. I played a pink glitter guitar which is impressive considering I can’t play guitar in the 21st century. We didn’t have a name though I have retrospectively named us the Swansea Bay City Rollers.
Can you remember what was the first song you wrote and were you already in a band? Amelia: The first song I wrote was called “Tissue Smiles”. I have no idea why! It had pretty terrible words, but a decent tune.
It was for my first band, which was called Splatter Babies. We were in sixth-form and practised in our drummer’s parents’ front room. Adam Franklin (latterly in Swervedriver) was the guitarist, and wrote most of the songs. At that point, I presume he thought it would be good to have a girl singer. Being in a band with me for a year obviously changed his mind! Hue: Ah splendid. I think I’ve seen a picture of you in Splatter Babies but not heard anything. We could / should cover ‘Tissue smiles’ if we get to that difficult third album with Swansea Sound!
Amelia: How did the idea for The Pooh Sticks come about, and what was the first Pooh Sticks song? Hue: The idea of the Pooh Sticks initially was just very much an idea. I came up with the name and the concept of forming ‘the ultimate ‘wimpy’ band’. I was stuck on Temple Meads train station in Bristol overnight with Steve from Fierce Records as we’d missed the last train to Swansea after a Primal Scream gig (jingle jangle version).
We then wrote ‘On Tape’ together with me coming up with the punchline and some other lyrics. Steve did the rest and we literally recorded it line by line as it was written. That was quickly followed by ‘Indie pop ain’t noise pollution‘ and ‘I know someone who knows someone who knows Alan McGee quite well‘.
Was Splatter Babies your only band before Talulah Gosh? How did TG get together and how quickly did the first songs and shows come about? Was the first gig in Oxford? Amelia: That was the only band before Talulah Gosh. (Other than “The Peedles”, the Beatles covers band I attempted to create with a couple of school friends when I was 7!) Hue: Ah so you were in a band at the same time as me doing the Swansea Bay City Rollers. The Peedles? I would buy a T shirt if you make one. Amelia: Not sure how big a market there would be for that one! Talulah Gosh came together remarkably quickly. The guitarist and drummer part was easy – I asked my boyfriend Pete and my brother Mathew. I met Elizabeth at a gig in November ’85 and invited her to join the band on the basis of her wearing a Pastels badge We then found Rob to play bass – he was auditioned not on the basis of his playing but the records he had on his wall!
And we played our first gig by March ’86. Just four months after meeting Elizabeth. We had already written some of our most well-known songs by the time of that show!
Hue: So Rob did play live and was in the very first incarnation of Talulah Gosh? Before he left to join an Italian prog rock band for a tour of Sweden?
Amelia: Yep, I think Rob left TG on the basis that we were all a little annoying to be with at that point. He relented later! (I think). Why on earth did you think of asking me to join The Pooh Sticks? Hue: A few reasons I guess.
We had been offered a Peel Session and felt that Steve Fierce singing parts a bit out of his comfort zone couldn’t last. We could see you found it hard to say no to an indie band when they came calling, so we thought it was worth a 5p coin in the local phone box. You did reply ‘aren’t you the band that take the piss out of indie’! We actually liked many of the C86 era bands, particularly the melodic ones as we were pop fans ostensibly. I had seen you play in Port Talbot in Dec ’87 I think, which was near the end of TG. The session was maybe the April of ’88 so we figured you had some spare hours. You were a good sport. But I can’t imagine either of us thought we’d be still singing / shouting at each other 35 years on.
The Gosh seemed to attract a whole bunch of press. Some gushing, some less pleasant. What’s the most memorable for you? Good and bad? Amelia: I think the most extreme press we got was actually in TG. On the plus side, we managed to get a whole page on page 3 of NME when we’d barely started. A rave from the Legend!, headlined “Do you remember fun? Talulah Gosh do!” Hue: Yes, I remember that article by Jerry Legend I think. Amelia: On the negative side, our very last press interview was also in NME but this time with Steven Wells. It was a big piece but he was totally horrible about us! He also referred to us as Aryan, which was pretty insensitive given I’m half-Jewish and huge numbers of my grandparents’ relatives died in the holocaust. The allegation seemed to be purely based on us having short bleached hair! Hue: I know Steven Wells isn’t about any more to defend himself but he was a showboating writer and that doesn’t read well now at all does it? I met him a few years later as he made a video for a band I was managing. He found out I was from the Pooh Sticks and I got the distinct impression he didn’t like us. The video he made was totally rubbish by the way. Amelia: We also got 1 out of 10 in NME for the second Heavenly album from guest reviewers Shampoo. But to be honest we were quite amused by that. Hue: Ha! Shampoo supported the Pooh Sticks once at the Garage in Highbury as they signed their mega record deal. This was around the time that every band who supported the Pooh Sticks seemed to be become very successful overnight like Pulp, the Cranberries, David Gray, etc!
Amelia: The Pooh Sticks had a good run. But I know you were actually up for trying to be famous (in a way that Heavenly never really had been). Were you ever pushed by your record label to do anything you were uncomfortable with? And how do you think you would have handled REAL fame? Hue: I’m not sure that I was trying to be famous at all, it’s just that I didn’t have anything better to do when a major label came calling. I was working as a tennis coach at the time which I kinda enjoyed, but the chance of doing music full-time for a while seemed to make sense.
I did think signing to a major at that time would be the beginning of the end unless we sold records which we obviously didn’t, but we felt the songs we had needed more time in the studio and that this was the only way to do that. That possibly wasn’t true.
The label wanted us on the road playing lots of shows though. Up until that point we’d only ever played a handful of shows, so that became a bit of a slog pretty quickly. I’d had enough by the time we did a (successful) tour of Japan and decided I didn’t want to be in the Pooh Sticks anymore. I did return to be on Optimistic Fool (our last LP) as long as I didn’t have to tour. I had started to manage a band and work as an A&R at that point so was a busy bod.
Real fame wasn’t going to visit us, but I think it looks like hard work. I’ve got a few friends who became ‘famous’ like Catatonia, Super Furries or even the actor Rhys Ifans and it looks like hard work to me! Amelia: Yep, I agree. Fame does looks like hard work. Stressful too! Fortunately, we got even less close than The Pooh Sticks!
Hue: You’ve never really stopped making music whereas I’ve had plenty of time away from it. Which parts do you enjoy the most? Writing? Recording? Touring? Doing fanzine interviews?! Amelia: Fanzine interviews of course! Especially for Chickfactor, obviously!
But actually I probably like playing shows the most, although maybe because we’ve never done so many that they feel like a slog! For me, it isn’t necessarily the touring so much (although that can be good fun too) but the actually performing on stage. I’d like to say I just really like singing but it is probably just that I am an attention sponge!
I always enjoyed playing with The Pooh Sticks too—even if I quite often messed things up! Like that gig when I clean forgot I was supposed to be writing across your chest in lipstick and you were just standing there waiting with your torso exposed. Sorry again about that! I’m useless at rock antics!! Hue: You often mention the lipstick on torso thing as if I was hanging around for ten mins! I remember it all going smoothly and there’s photographic evidence to prove it happened. I think what you wrote on me was ‘Hearthrob’! We were playing with Ween in New York and in the pic we were packing a massive stack of Marshall amps. The one and only time that happened I think. Amelia: ‘Hearthrob!’ That’s funny. I bet I spent at least some of the time onstage wondering if there should be one or two “t”s in Hearthrob. That’s how rock n roll I ever was! Hue: I certainly wouldn’t get my top off onstage this days. Though there’d be plenty more space to scrawl on!
What is your favourite song from the many you’ve written and which do you think is the best if it’s not the same one? Amelia: Hmm. I think “P.U.N.K. Girl” is probably the best—mainly because it strikes a nerve but is not like anything else! But I think my favourite song might be “Memorabilia” by Tender Trap.
Partly because it was based on a silly song I invented to sing the kids when they were babies (I sang it while doing baby yoga on them to get rid of their wind!). Partly because it ended up being about memories of my brother. And partly because it’s just a good song.
So Iet’s move forward to Swansea Sound. I have very vivid memories of sending you that first song in Lockdown (“Angry Girl”), and then trying to figure out how to mix in the vocal you recorded in your kitchen on your phone! I’m still amazed at how well that worked!
But did you think at that stage that it would more than a couple of silly songs? When did you realise it could be something bigger? Hue: You had mentioned for a little while that Rob had a song that he thought was Pooh Sticky. I’d had some friends previously send me songs but it never went anywhere or felt right. At one point I think I even talked with Liz from The School about writing some songs, but when “Angry Girl” landed it was a good time in the sense that is was in the early days of the first lockdown so I had plenty of time.
It was an odd time as I was, if not exactly shielding, very much living solo, as I have quite bad asthma and have been hospitalised a few times with attacks. So I was living rurally in a village at the time, like you do, not knowing how it was all going to pan out.
I didn’t really think “Angry Girl” sounded like it would suit me necessarily, but I could hear it probably wasn’t a Catenary Wires song! Took me a while to figure out how to listen to the track on one phone and then sing/shout into my other one. I tried a couple of rooms in the house but ended up on my knees in the kitchen.
I listened back and it sounded horrible! I sent it not knowing how you could knock it into shape, but when you did ping it back I was amazed. It sounded so fully formed.
I guess I wasn’t sure what would happen next but I think Rob then sent ‘Corporate Indie Band’ and we immediately thought we should put it out even if it was low key and very limited.
I only realised it could be something bigger when Gideon Coe played it with much enthusiasm and Rob kept writing new songs almost to order. Then the first show we did at the Preston festival worked surprisingly well.
‘Live at the Rum Puncheon’ is a pretty remarkable LP considering how it was recorded. It also set things nicely for a follow up to sound like a step up simply by the fact we were actually in the same room together this time.
Amelia: Is there a plan for world domination, and if so, what’s the next step? Hue: World domination? We’ll keep socking it the squares and straights across as many continents as we can in the short to medium term. Really looking forward to playing the U.K. shows plus in Europe and obviously going back to Japan and then hopefully the States. I just hope my dodgy hip holds out! You’ve made/edited a few of the videos for Swansea Sound which has impressed me. Is music your only form of creativity or do you/would you write or paint? Amelia: I’ve enjoyed making the videos. Rob and I tend to come up with the ideas and then I edit them. We did the last few Catenary Wires ones too, and a recent new video for “C Is the Heavenly Option” by Heavenly.
I think video-making is the kind of art form that suits me as it requires lots of patience and technical ability and then just a good creative idea or two. I’d love to be good at proper art or writing but I’m honestly useless at both! It is constantly galling to me. But I’m also constantly impressed by people who are good at either!
What are you most excited about for the coming year? Here’s mine. Getting to play in the US and Japan again! How about you? Hue: Yes I’m very much looking forward to going back to Japan. I’ve been twice before once with the Pooh Sticks in ’93 which was so great I left the band for a while as I thought it would all be downhill from there. I did return for another LP but never played live again until reforming in 2010. I also went in ’96 with a band I was managing which was a very intense trip. We’d been to New Orleans and then LA for shows on the way so it’s only the time I’ve kinda circumnavigated the world.
The bass player didn’t sleep for four days and had an ‘episode’ at Tokyo airport with some armed guards so we had to miss the flight bless him. He wasn’t in a good way and insisted on being on a flight where he could smoke which wasn’t easy in ’96. We finally got a flight with chain smoke-loving Air France and he returned to Wales in a fug of fags and free champagne.
I’m also excited about hopefully just being alive for another year as I’ve lost two friends suddenly in the last week.
The lovely Michel Van de Woude who you obviously knew as well as the guitarist on three of the Pooh Sticks albums. Michel indeed did play hot licks and was in our line up at Reading festival when we were the best of all indie bands. I will miss him. Amelia: Yes, that was really sad news. Hue: Also my mate Tim passed very suddenly this week and was only 53. He was a gig buddy but also came to our shows. Very sad about that.
That puts everything into (a Spinal Tap) perspective.
So let’s indiepop (or rock) til we drop and enjoy what we have. Amelia: Cheers to that! CF
Swansea Sound dates Sept. 8: Twentieth Century Listening Party
Sept. 9: LIVE album launch at Rough Trade East
Sept. 14: Manchester, The Talleyrand
Sept. 15: Cardiff, Moon Club
Sept. 16: Carmarthen, Cwrw
Sept. 17: Bristol, Rough Trade (FREE)
Sept. 27: BBC6Music Riley/Coe studio session.
Sept. 29: St Leonards, The Piper
Sept. 30: Paris, Popfest
Oct. 13: Leeds, Wharf Chambers
Oct. 14: Newcastle-On-Tyne, Cumberland Arms
Oct. 27: Brighton/Hove, The Brunswick
Oct. 28: London, The Water Rats
In honor of the forthcoming Heavenly reissues (Skep Wax will rerelease all the Heavenly LPs on vinyl soon: Heavenly vs Satan is available on pre-order now; Le Jardin de Heavenly will follow next April and the other two will come along at six month intervals)—in addition to the John Peel Sessions on Precious Recordings and the announcement of the band’s forthcoming gigs at Bush Hall in London in May 2023—we asked the band to think back to 30 years ago and tell us about their impressions of the U.S. in the olden days! The very first issue of chickfactor was handed out at a Heavenly / Lois gig in Sept. 1992; I reviewed their second album in SPIN around the same time, and we interviewed them in chickfactor zine (Amelia is on the cover of issue 2).
ROB PURSEY Going to America was overwhelming, partly because we were going to meet loads of people for the first time—people whose records we’d heard, but from a distance of 3500 miles. Two of the encounters I remember most vividly from that first Heavenly trip are Phoebe Summersquash (Small Factory) and Jeffrey Underhill (Honeybunch). Phoebe is one of the select band of people known as ‘girl drummers’. She was the most diminutive person in the band, she wore glasses and she smiled all the time, even while she beating the hell out of a drumkit. I loved that combination of effortless glee and thunderous noise. She was the living antidote to those theatrical drummers (and guitarists) who pretend to be working out in the gym, or summoning Satan, as if that was crucial to making a great sound.
Jeffrey Underhill, we met, I think, in Rhode Island. I don’t really remember the gig very well, but I was a big fan of Honeybunch. Their song ‘Mine Your Own Business’ was in my head all the time, and it still provides the soundtrack for my memories of our first trip to the US. Anyway, what I remember about Jeffrey was the fact that he showed up in a back alley in a really great old blue/green semi-beater of a car. I am a bit of a nut about old cars, and liked this one a lot. Me and Jeffrey didn’t talk much, I imagine we were both somewhat shy, but I do remember sitting on the bonnet thinking ‘this is the best car, and it belongs to the person who played the best song’.
The encounters with all these new people came to a head at the Chickfactor Party, where there was a whole community was assembling. I didn’t really know anyone there, of course, but I somehow felt like I could get to know and like all of them. We were a long way from the UK, but we felt at home. Part of the reason for this was that women were running the Chickfactor show, and these were wry, witty women. There was a lot of intellect behind Chickfactor, and a definite attitude, but there was a lot of humour too. The humour was a sign of confidence—there was nothing apologetic about it. That’s what being in Heavenly felt like. The women in our band were obviously in charge, but they wore it lightly. So New York, or at least this little indie corner of New York, felt more amenable to our band than a lot of places back in the UK. It was a good feeling.
CATHY ROGERS I’m not sure any of my memories are really separable. The synapses which connect Heavenly to America all sit in a viscous bath of coffee and the new kind of cool of the straight edge punks and the smell of wet trees driving through Oregon and Massachusetts and the swooning delight of being in the same venn diagram overlap as the really rioting riot grrrls and gigs not being gigs any more but shows and the sheer heat of new experiences and new loves. America just felt so great. It was like finding a version of us that was just so sure of itself. So certain. Walk around the town like you own it…everyone, all the time.
Compared with that overpowering sense of it all, specific memories feel a bit humble. The drive down from Olympia to play a show with a band who turned out to be Tiger Trap, Calvin saying, classic understatement, ‘I guess you might kinda like this band.’ Meeting them to play a show together in this kind of basement garage, them all wearing roller skates, us being powerless to resist charms on that level. For some reason, having a conversation with a bunch of people about our favourite foods and everyone out-doing each other for eccentricity, then Molly from Bratmobile saying ‘I just want to eat rice’ and that becoming one of those weird things that I think of literally every time I cook rice. The novelty, playing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, of being fed really well before a show. Laughing over-hearing an old guy in the audience, saying – after a whole raft of indie bands – about Lois, ‘Finally someone who can actually sing’. Meeting Ted and Jodi for the first time and being so jealous that Pete was somehow already friends with them, then seeing Jodi’s band (with another girl with a rad American name like Brooklyn or Maddison, I’m pretty sure the band was called The Runways) and thinking these were the most sensational people I’d ever met. Being interviewed for this magazine called Chickfactor and hearing of another wait what cool girls are somehow allowed to be mainstream now magazine called Sassy and realising that culture was an actual thing and the world changes and feeling that we lived in some small backwater but we were so lucky because we were here, for now.
AMELIA FLETCHER – On our first US tour, Pete and I being dropped off by Small Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, in the middle of the night. We were near the place we were all staying with my parents, and figured we’d call a taxi to get us home. But it turned out that the place we stopped at had been robbed the week before, and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by police cars. We were freaked out. It felt like an episode of Starsky and Hutch. Then, when asked where we were heading, we realised we couldn’t remember the address. Not at all suspicious! In the end, though, the police believed the daft English people and gave us a lift home in the police car.
– Meeting Claudia Gonson from Magnetic Fields at Chet’s Last Call in Boston. She asked if I had time to come and record a song for her and Stephin Merritt’s side project, the 6ths, the next day. I said why not. I had heard ‘100,000 Fireflies’ on the ‘One Last Kiss’ compilation and liked it a lot. I remember I sang ‘Hall of Mirrors’ in an especially breathy way, and Stephin commented that I came complete with my own reverb!
– Playing at the Fantagraphics Comics Warehouse in Seattle with Beat Happening and another band who I just remember as being very smelly! It was a great space, and I was excited because I was a big fan of ‘Love and Rockets’. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl both came, which seemed pretty thrilling too. We were easily thrilled!
– Arriving in Olympia at the start of a West Coast tour, meeting Bratmobile and Bikini Kill and discovering Riot Grrrl. There was a visceral buzz around the whole place, and we quickly got very excited about it too. We had always been a feminist band, but in a quiet sort of way. We didn’t really feel part of the UK feminist movement at the time. It was fighting for stuff that was no doubt important but didn’t seem relevant to our concerns. So it was thrilling and empowering to find people discussing the issues that really had affected us. And to discover a whole set of new bands who had found a way of being outspoken and angry but also huge fun. It had a big impact on us, musically and personally.
PETER MOMTCHILOFF I have opened the drawer in which I left my old memories of Heavenly in the USA. There is a lot there, but I can’t fit it together into any kind of story. My colleagues’ reminiscences do what I seem not to be able to. As a kind of coda, I do remember that we were brought down to earth by our first gig back in England after a West Coast tour, feeling rather pleased with ourselves. It was in a pub in Gillingham, to about five men and a dog. I don’t think they even turned the pub TV off while we played.
The most exciting thing for me in 2021 was that Amelia and I started a record label (SkepWax). We first talked about it 30 years ago, so it’s had quite a long gestation.
I guess lockdown is to blame. Prior to this we’d never had enough spare time, and suddenly we had loads of it. We only released our own records to start with, partly because we couldn’t face the idea of messing up other people’s. But it’s gone pretty well, so in 2022 we will be ‘expanding our roster’.
Anyway, I thought I’d share my ten best things about starting a label.
The local post office. Despite the Tories’ best efforts, there are still elements of the state’s architecture that still function. The postal service is one of them. Things arrive on time. You don’t worry about your item being chucked around. The couple who run our local post office are really friendly. Occasionally other customers can get irked – it probably is annoying trying to collect your pension if the person in front is mailing fifty cassette singles to various parts of the world. But the British like queueing, and even more than that they like grumbling about the people in front of them in the queue, so this isn’t such a massive problem.
Having a song played on the radio. This was always the most exciting thing about being in a band, but it’s doubly exciting now, especially as DJs tend to be quite good about naming the record label.
Seeing your record in a shop. Again, this was always exciting but now it’s even better. There’s the thing that you have made, waiting patiently in the rack for someone to fall in love with it.
Getting to know the community of writers, bloggers, online DJs. Just under the radar of the mainstream, there are hundreds of people keeping the independent music scene alive by sharing their enthusiasm. There’s some really good writing out there too. It’s a good gang to be part of.
Getting to know people who run cool record stores. Those places were the conduit to a better world when I was a teenager (in my case, Revolver Records in Bristol) and I’m probably still a bit starstruck when I go into them. Now that we are adults and have records to sell, it’s like getting permission to go behind the scenes at the theatre. You’ve been in the audience for years, wondering who’s doing the lighting, putting the props on stage, directing the actors – and now you are backstage chatting with those people. They are immensely knowledgeable and generally very supportive.
Rubber stamps. We’ve got a ‘Skep Wax’ rubber stamp that gets applied to the envelopes for the records we mail out personally. It’s the most analogue object in the world and creates a pleasingly imperfect image every time.
Co-releasing with other indie labels. There is a very strong sense of solidarity amongst people who are working really hard to do something good without any expectation of making a lot of money.
Being local and global at the same time. Everything we do happens on the dining table, or in the spare room (with occasional trips up the road to the post office). And then, a few months later, people in Brazil, Indonesia and America get to hear the results.
Choosing which medium to release on. There are so many options – cassette, CD, vinyl, download, streaming. You don’t have to do all of them. You can choose the one that’s best for the release in question. If you want to do a 3” CD, you can. If you want to do a one-sided 7” single with a 50-page book, you can.
‘Expanding our roster…’ The fact that other bands are prepared to trust us with their art is a good feeling, if a little nerve-wracking. But it does mean that 2022 won’t be boring.
Skep Wax will soon announce Under the Bridge, a compilation album that will be very exciting for anyone who liked Sarah Records.
if you’re here, chances are you adore music by talulah gosh, heavenly, marine research and tender trap. the odds are good, then, that you already like the catenary wires, featuring indiepop royals amelia fletcher and rob pursey. they’ve just released a new album, til the morning, on tapete records and are heading out on tour just now. we caught up with them about their band, their kids, and their lives in kent these days. interview by gail o
chickfactor: what did you set out to sound like with the catenary wires?
amelia:initially we were aiming to sound really minimal. we had moved to the countryside and didn’t know anyone, so we started out as just the two of us playing at home, late at night, with our daughter’s small acoustic guitar. on the first album (red red skies), we wanted to retain that homespun melancholic intimacy, so we kept the instrumentation very simple. this had the upside that we worked really hard on the songwriting and the lyrics, but we ended up feeling that the songs were almost forced to do too much because the instrumentation wasn’t doing enough. we decided to see if we could find a way to achieve the same intimacy, while creating something more musically interesting too.
rob:we wanted it to sound full and rich, but we didn’t want it to sound like any of our previous bands (with a standard rhythm section and standard instruments driving everything). so we recorded the guitar and singing first, knowing that this might be enough, then added the other instruments—and then, if we felt we needed any, we added drums. so, the whole thing was recorded upside down, really. the ‘drums’ were often a piece of wood dropped on the floor, or a metal agricultural trailer being hit. we wrote the songs and recorded them in a fairly remote, rural place, and we wanted the record to sound like that.
cf: tell us a bit more about the new album.
amelia: we are really pleased with how it has worked out. it is made up of twelve songs which are pretty varied but have lots of common thematic threads, both lyrically and musically. we recorded the album with andy lewis. we met him when he was playing with the indie band spearmint, but we were impressed by his far wider set of music references, such as having produced judy dyble (fairport convention), having played bass with paul weller and DJ-ing 60s soul records. he was also happy to work with us to record it at home. his theory is that wherever you can plug in a kettle, you can make an album. so we decided to test that out. I think my favourite song is “dream town,” partly because I don’t think it quite sounds like anything else, partly because I find it moving, and partly because it feels very real to me. more prosaically, it is also one of the most jointly written of the songs, in that we both wrote parts of the tune and both wrote parts of the lyrics. a lot of the songs are co-written to some extent, but we rarely hit that degree of balance.
rob: the building where we recorded the music is not soundproofed, so you can occasionally hear birds tweeting in the background, and other rustic noises too. the songs are not exactly idyllic though, so hopefully these gentle rural sounds feel poignant rather than whimsical. we are always a bit paranoid about turning into folk musicians, I don’t know why, but here we are, recording gentle songs in lovely countryside with the birds tweeting away in the background. we discussed this issue with andy, and have made sure that the birds have reverb on them, so they aren’t too ‘pastoral’.
cf: has becoming parents influenced the music that you’re making?
rob: I’m sure it has, in many ways. sometimes very literally. for example, the lyrics to “hollywood” are a reaction to our daughters’ love of US TV shows, US YouTubers, the ongoing dream of fame and celebrity in L.A. because of my old job (running a TV drama company), I saw the process up close and I am very aware of the gap between the dream and reality. I think the harvey weinstein scandal was breaking at the time too. in the last bit of the song, my voice is his voice, and the voice of many other male directors and producers, telling the young actress to give a performance that is disingenuous and potentially exploitative.
on top of that, we get to hear a lot of the music they like. quite a lot of it is about falling in love, how great it is to kiss someone etc.—just like pop music has always been. so we redressed the balance by doing songs about divorce, falling out of love, adultery etc.
we are also influenced by living with our mothers. amelia’s mum passed away last autumn—she had parkinson’s disease so took quite a lot of looking after. my mum is with us still, and is very fit and well. but both of them lost their husbands and had to face life on their own again. they both experienced the ultimate, un-wished for divorce. and I think that influenced a few of our songs.
amelia: having to be at home to look after my mum also influenced our decision to record the album at home. at the time, we thought we might be making a compromise in not using a proper studio, but actually working at home allowed us more flexibility to try things and gave the whole album a better sense of place, as per rob’s comments about the birds, above. we used local musicians too, including a fluegelhorn player and trombonist from the village, who usually play in military bands but really enjoyed having to turn their hand to indie! we have ended up filming our videos very locally too and editing them ourselves at home. it just seems in keeping.
cf: are your daughters recording and playing shows these days? do tell. rob: dora’s band (wait what) seem to have stopped. they’ve all been doing their GCSE exams, so maybe that’s why. they are more sensible than we are. dora’s still playing the guitar though, and I reckon she will find herself in another band. I hope so. I think it just depends on meeting the right people to be in a band with. ivy is also playing a lot of music, and is a very good singer. she sings ‘properly’. earlier this evening she was doing a rendition of “back to black” by amy winehouse. that’s who she sounds like. how terrifying!
cf: what’s happening in kent these days? are there any good musicians or bands coming from the region?
amelia: a strange thing happened when we met our producer, andy lewis. it turned out that he already knew the tiny village in kent where we live—which no one has usually ever heard of—because he had just finished recording an album here with fay hallam. it turned out that she was a neighbour who lived about 6 doors away from us. we in fact already knew about her music but were totally unaware of her proximity! she is a really great hammond player and singer and she ended up both playing on the album and becoming a member of the live band.
rob: in a pub down the road, on the second tuesday of every month, the local folk singers gather and take it in turns to sing their trad songs. I really like it, and maybe when I am 75 I will see if they let me join in.
cf: what’s in the fridge? what’s in the picnic basket?
rob: in the fridge, there is a lot of daal and cauliflower curry, cos we made far too much of it yesterday. there is a pot of crab apple jelly that my dad made. there are bottles of beer. and there are parsnips. not sure what to do about them.
amelia: there is nothing in the picnic basket. but at least there isa picnic basket. which means one day there might even be a picnic! you never know.
cf: what records do you play more than anything?
amelia:we get force-fed a lot of car seat headrest, brockhampton and billie eilish by the girls, all of which are really pretty good. if we are allowed to play anything ourselves, I usually find myself heading for the delgados (older) and girl ray (newer). rob is a bit obsessed with sleaford mods. we also keep on listening to some of the great duettists, such as nancy and lee, serge gainsbourg and brigitte bardot, johnny cash and june carter, just to see how they go about making duets work. we still feel we have a lot to learn on that front.
cf: is there any news about your previous bands (reissues, etc.)?
rob: I don’t think so. personally, I like leaving those things as they are. you can hear most of it online if you want to, and I think it’s a bit odd when bands start behaving like their own archivists. we did just discover a cache of old T-shirts—talulah gosh, heavenly etc. I took pictures of amelia wearing them (the history of our bands in T-shirt form, see more on our instagram: @thecatenarywires) and we put them online. actually, sorry, there was one shirt that was an XL, so I had to wear that one. anyway, it was much-liked by the indie fraternity, so that probably goes to show that there is an appetite for the old stuff. I also found the old U-Matic video of ‘I fell in love last night’, the first heavenly single. I’ll get it digitised at some point and stick it online so people can watch it again, if they like.
amelia:well damaged goods did reissue all the talulah gosh stuff recently, so we do let these things happen sometimes. I’d personally quite like to do a ‘greatest hits’ that covers all our bands. but we’d probably end up having such big arguments about what actually were the ‘greatest hits’ that it may not be worth it!
cf: what’s a good story about john jervis you can tell us?
rob: john’s girlfriend, alexandra, is an amazing knitter and maker of clothes, and john is now mostly dressed in things that she makes. he looks very stylish, these days.
cf: who is your favorite london band these days?
rob: I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t really know. I spend too much time in kentish pubs listening to octogenarian folk singers and have lost touch with the capital, and its young people.
cf: what are the catenary wires up to this summer?
rob: we are playing at indietracks! we will spend a lot of time with the kids, once school breaks up. we are going on holiday with them, to jamaica. we don’t normally do that sort of holiday, but I help out with a charity that’s based over there, so that’s our pretext. we are also going to visit athens, georgia, and new york, and will be playing a couple of catenary wires shows—just as a duo. most of our gigs these days are as a five-piece (with andy lewis on bass, fay hallam on keyboard and ian button on drums), but we like going back to the duo format occasionally.
amelia:we are really just on holiday in america too, but we thought we would slip in as many shows as the kids would accept, which ended up being just two. they are semi-tolerant of, but not at all impressed by, our indie antics. CF