The pressure put on bands to represent the voice of the people – be it a specific generation, class or political inclination – is a curious one.
Few other creative types have such responsibility placed upon their shoulders, largely due to the unique passion and life-changing effect that only music can have. But spare a thought for those handling the pressure. Such is the absolute world that we now live in, to walk that tightrope is a thankless task.
“If you’re talking about politics it gives you a reason to be shut down,” ponders The Blinders’ Charlie McGough when talking to Live4ever at South By Southwest 2019. “If you’re just a band talking about your Friday night, what is there to criticise? If you then do or say something that might be politically incorrect, or make money from those reasons, then that’s a reason to disqualify anything of the band.”
Expecting sympathy for a trio of young men (Thomas Heywood, guitar and vocals; McGough on bass and Matt Neale on drums) who are living not only their dream but countess other peoples’ too may be optimistic, but some empathy should be applied. It’s not an original observation, but musicians earn a pittance of what they once did and yet because of social media are scrutinised more than ever: At the tail end of 2018 one of the band’s songs, the mighty Brave New World, was used on an advert for leading betting organisation William Hill.
Barbs were slung in their direction, of ‘selling out’ or being insincere. It did seem curious, an usual misstep in what had otherwise been a faultlessly principled journey. Debut album Columbia was met with acclaim, stocked to the gills with parallels of western culture viewed through a dystopian prism or righteous fury. To fall so quickly and controversially into the trap of capitalism seemed beneath them.
‘That nearly split up the band actually,” Heywood explains.
‘This was an argument we discussed for a very long time. We knew we would get flak for it, there was no question about that. The way we got around it was to preach to the converted. We saw Cabbage go on Soccer AM. That’s on Sky, everything that they talk against. Yet they wore the Justice For The 96 shirts. It’s something that nearly broke up the band and is one of those…The idea was to put the song out there to as many people as possible, and that was the only thing that could justify that. If it is justifiable.”
“We live in a capitalist society don’t we? That’s the nature of it,” McGough continues. “We sell t-shirts, we make profits on t-shirts but then you’ve got to make a profit to survive. The advert thing, it goes to pay off a debt with the record label that needs paying off.”
Context and compromise are key. In an ideal world, The Blinders wouldn’t have been in a position which could be perceived as selling out. Rock stars, like the rest of us, have to make ends meet. But the alternative would be for the band to cease functioning. Too heavy a price to pay for all of us. Not least for the band themselves, three childhood friends who have been playing music for as long as they can remember. It’s the familiar but heart-warming tale that Heywood regales us with; “We were all into similar music and we were the only ones that really played instruments. We went to secondary school together and we magnetised naturally through playing instruments, and the love and passion we shared for mutual bands.”
The trio are now based in Manchester but hail originally from Doncaster, a collection of villages in Yorkshire that, it’s probably fair to say, are not particularly renowned for rock heritage. The musical DNA of Doncaster is more based around an older tradition, explains Heywood. “My father was a brass band musician and so was my mother, so they were musicians in their own right, but they never forced me to go down the brass route! That’s the kind of thing that was in Doncaster. It’s in the blood, if you like.”
An aptitude for music is a start, but harnessing the sound takes time. Long hours are required in the practice room, but whilst in that grind it’s hard to see past the next rehearsal. Eventually, a leap of faith is required. The Blinders were lucky enough to have a helping hand.‘The bar where we used to play in Doncaster, we played there for our second or third gig I think it was,” McGough explains. ‘The guys who ran the bar stopped and watched us, and we’re now good friends with them. That felt like a good moment because it got us other shows. That was a catalyst at that early stage. They were the cool guys in town and to have their approval…”
All the band are in their twenties, but they are fast learners. The price of being in a larger, more culturally astute environment is that the competition is of a higher standard. This is especially true with a city like Manchester. From the Buzzcocks to Everything Everything, the Cottonopolis has always had a relevant stake in alternative music, ergo it would be easy to drown in the creativity. “You have to actively do something to stand out from the crowd,” argues Heywood. “We very quickly realised that we did have something to say. Whether or not we knew how we wanted to say it was a different matter. I think we’re still finding that out.”
For those that haven’t had the pleasure of entering their ‘alternate world informed by reality’, it’s a wonderfully immersive place, not only because of the political allegories which are rife throughout but because of the imagery surrounding courtyards, kingdoms and older hierarchical societies managing to find the perfect balance between whimsy and social commentary. “That’s exactly what we wanted to put across”, Heywood informs us.
“We can’t think of a better way to enjoy our music. We’re not here to say something or change people’s minds on matters. Unfortunately, we’re the type of band to write as a mirror rather than give any answers to anything. We just write what we see and hold a mirror up to society. It’s there if you want to see it but it doesn’t have to be. Just tap your foot if you like.”
So on to the future. It’s an old cliché that bands have twenty years to write their debut and a year to write their sophomore. Is a return trip to Columbia a possibility, or are we sailing for alternative shores? We’ll have to wait to find out.
“We’re always working on new material. We’ve really sunk our teeth into writing and creating music now we’ve been in the studio. We’ve seen what we have at our fingertips and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t push the boundaries. We’ve got about a dozen songs written over the last six months, give or take. We want to write double that by the summer.”
“We have sort of realised that we want to create as opposed to perform. So we’re focusing on a lot of new material and ways to try and take whatever we’ve got going on as far as we can as fast as we can. We have no intention of dabbling around the same sound – because we’ve been given the platform to do whatever we want, basically, we’re going to do that. That’s just how it feels with the future.”
Frustratingly cryptic but understandable. The Blinders have worked very hard so far, with attention paid to all elements of their output, be it the theatricality of their live shows (Heywood doubles as Johnny Dream onstage) to the over-riding themes mentioned on their album. Art should not be rushed, especially principled art. However, demonstrating you have some form of social conscience arms your critics, as the furore over the William Hill advert proved. The issue clearly still rankles with the band, if only because they resent being confronted with the dilemma in the first place. McGough elaborates:
“Although that sits uncomfortably with you, what do you do? What is the answer? Arctic Monkeys might get criticised for not saying enough, but that’s OK because they’re making money so they don’t have a voice, basically. Then Bono stands in front of 90,000 people and makes however much from the Zoo TV tour but then gets criticised. So where is the balance?”
“They all do it. Bruce Springsteen is outspoken and one of the richest men in the country. U2 are invalidated because they don’t pay their tax in Ireland. That’s fair enough; criticise a band for letting their music be on a betting advert. Choose to listen to that band or not then. But you’ve got to understand that money has to be made somewhere. I don’t know whether that’s a valid point or not.”
The issue has clearly strengthened the band’s resolve and made them arguably even stronger and closer. This is a band who thrive on conversation and debate. “I think in this day and age it’s a very private world we live in, as well as very open. I don’t think we’ll ever get people coming and discussing open politics. But if, as a consequence of listening to our music or coming to one of our shows, that triggers something in their minds…” Heywood makes no bones about their stance, whatever Joe Public thinks.
“We have no intention of shoving this down people’s throats. It’s just what we’re writing about and what feels natural to us. If people get behind it then they get behind it.”
“Isn’t that what all music is, really?”
By Live4ever - Posted on 16 May 2019 at 8:16am