words: Andy Buchan
pics: Kevin Petch
They play the blues, they’re quite skinny, they’re THE BLUESKINS.
Andy Buchan talks to them on the eve of the release of their debut album.
Everything, and I mean everything, seems to be closed in Gawthorpe. None of the pubs are open; the streets are all lonely with the blizzarding snow creating an eerie post apocalyptic atmosphere. The Darby And Joan, the infamous village hall where literally dozens of A & R men descended upon last year to hear thunderous, murderously soulful blues, is full of pensioners, feebly raising their hands to murmur “House.” Even the commonly accepted highlight of the year, the World Coal Carrying Championship, is taking place on April 1st, surely someone’s idea of an ironic joke. Can this really be the home to the Blueskins, saviours of soulful, intelligent and full on hillbilly scuzz rock?
“After we’ve done all the drugs and the rest of the debauched antics, then we’ll get on and do our greatest hits,” says Maff, tongue heavily in cheek. “Yeah, if I had 24 hours to live, I’d probably get pissed and take every drug in the world,” states the enthusiastic Ritchie. Ryan, the pivotal force behind the band, the sleepy eyed pothead persona failing to diminish his effervescent ambition, quietly but confidently confides, “Me, I think I would just play the blues to myself, nice and soulful.”
Therein lies the dichotomous and intriguing beauty of The Blueskins, who formed only two years ago and have been playing their instruments for just four. Combining the vigour and boundless enthusiasm of youth with the surety of musical knowledge and passion, they are a quietly ambitious band, eager to make their mark on Britain’s musical landscape.
The band are; Maff - intelligently perceptive, on bass, Paul - quiet but resolutely passionate, on drums, Ritchie - an aspiring Richard Ashcroft, on guitar and Ryan - ex-boxer and dynamic force of the band on vocals and guitar.
Maff and Ryan originally founded the blues based band, and have been friends since primary school. Paul met the likely lads at college whilst local boy Ritchie was recruited straight from school. Ranging from 18 to 23 years old, the band all agree there is little to do in Gawthorpe apart from drink and smoke, surely a unifying factor in their decision to rebel against the prevalent mundanity and create music from another era. This band, however, plans to travel the world with its music. Ambitions don’t come much grander.
Recently signed to Domino Records, home to Fourtet and the inimitable Smog no less, The Blueskins have been making steady headway into the musical jungle. Three singles have been released to date, prompting a diverse but uniformly passionate fanbase, whilst the band release their debut album, ‘Word of Mouth’, on April 26th to an expectant clamour. Live, they have already completed headline tours with the 22-20’s and The Cribs (both part of the upcoming NME Brit Pack tour) and notably played on Shed Seven’s long overdue farewell tour. More recently, the band have been hand picked by “the living legend himself John Squire” to open at his 2000-capacity gigs in London. Things are most definitely looking up.
“We’re enjoying where we’re going at the moment. It’s just nice to be recognised for what you’re doing. We take it all in our stride really.”
Does what the press say affect you at all?
“It’s alright getting put in the NME and other magazines cos loads of people buy it. What they say doesn’t really affect us though. Like the other week, NME had an article about Pink and Avril Lavigne, I’m not really arsed about what they have to say,” intones Ryan. Maff, displaying a level headed approach to the industry, simply states, “It’s more of a fashion magazine these days. Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping isn’t it?”
Having variously been described in the media as “The White Stripes with a bassist,” “The missing link between The Coral and Supergrass,” and intriguingly as “skiffly unpleasantness”, the band are resolved to steer away from the press hyperbole and blaze their own path.
“As long as we can do our own thing, we’re not arsed about being jockeyed by the NME, do you know what I mean?” states Ryan matter of factly. “It would be nice to be like the Beach Boys, with all the harmonies and stuff. That kind of style.” This enthusiasm is reigned in somewhat by Maff. “We don’t want to be like anyone, we just want to be ourselves. We’ve always got ideas coming. Our second album is gonna be a lot tighter than this one, we know what we’re doing now, we know what an album should be and how to put it together.”
Lofty ambitions and statements for such a young band. The band have also turned down serious amounts of cash and coverage from Rizla. They were eager for the band to fully endorse their Blue Skins; replete with emblazoned T-shirts and logos. However, the band decided to ignore the lure of the money, insisting that the corporate involvement would merely taint their purposes. This certainty of mind, this assuredness can perhaps be attributed to their youth, unsullied by the pressures associated with the increasingly competitive music world. However, deep down they have a genuine and burning desire to learn and improve, seeking out music new and old to illustrate their burgeoning ideas. Locked away in the hills of Snowdonia recording their debut album, the boys were paragons of virtue.
“We just jammed all day in the big live theatre in the middle of the studios for two weeks. Town were like a mile away so we didn’t get up to much,” says Ritchie believably. “Me and Ryan did go for a 20 mile walk into the country,” says Paul. Was that Trainspotting style then, with bottles of vodka hanging by your side? Any rock and roll debauchery? “Nah man, just took a couple of spliffs with us. The place was brilliant, it had beautiful panoramic view of all the mountains.” Well-behaved is clearly the new rock and roll.
“Richard Formby [of Spaceman 3 fame] was a real gentleman, a real pleasure to work with. It was quite an education, but he still kept the album live sounding which is important to us” says Maff. Nodding his head vigorously, Ryan agrees. “He introduced us to new stuff, he definitely influenced the way we work, introducing us to the space echoes and copy cat machines. We’ve been learning loads from him.”
Drawing from influences as diverse as Blind Willy Johnson, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley to The Beatles, Joy Division and early and unarguably prime era Oasis, the album is a relatively diverse take on straight-laced blues. Ranging from classic three-minute rompalongs, with handclaps and some of the tightest drumming this side of Animal, to Beach Boys harmonies colliding with Morphine’s bass assaults, the album sounds at once fresh and instantly recognisable. There are several stand out tracks, notably ‘Girl’, likely to be the next single according to Steve the Manager, ‘Love Boat’, with its swirling and filtered guitar pyrotechnics and the live favourite, ‘Magpie Blues’. Omnipresent are the gloriously rasping vocals, evoking Jim Morrison at his tortured-howl best.
Despite having such a strong debut behind them, they maintain that the live arena is their undoubted forte. Ryan cites their tour with the local boys The Cribs and 10,000 Things as their live peak.
“There was a great camaraderie between us all. Some bands keep themselves to themselves but we were able to go out and get drunk afterwards.” Nodding his head in agreement, Ryan states that “when we play live, it’s all collective really. We all put ideas into it, ideas just come when were jamming. It were great when we played to over 2000 people in London and Manchester. We didn’t like London though, it’s too big and grey. It must be the biggest lonely place in the country.”
This willingness to go against popular convention, against the industry standard, clearly sets them apart from other more generic bands. Their readiness to tour alone this summer displays their strong self-belief, unwilling to hang onto the coat tails of a more respected but less talented headliner. Closer to home, their views have been side-tracked by a REAL music debate.
“Pop Idol is good in the sense that it’s showing young people that there is an alternative. It’s good to see the shit stuff on the TV as kids can actively rebel against it all. Kids are just like, you’re showing me all this shit and they are making a conscious decision to rebel against it.” Further reinforcing Ryan’s point, Maff adds, “Shit TV has probably helped the resurgence of bands. Guitar sales are at their highest point for the last 20 years. We’re definitely proud to be a part of that.”
This burning desire to educate others in music, and also themselves, gives the band some rather strong and at times outspoken opinions.
“I’d stick The Darkness into Room 101. Nobody knows if they’re a novelty band or whether they’re for real. It really worries me, do you know worra mean? They’re not a proper band.” Joining in on Ryan’s short diatribe, Maffs adds, “I’d be worried if I were them. What are they gonna do when the novelty wears off?” The band then become extremely animated by the mere mention of the Scissor Sisters. “They’ve completely ruined a great song,” complains Maff. “They’ve removed the meaning of the song. It has no meaning or purpose, with a really naff house beat behind it. It just sounds cheap and shit to me.”
Finally, Zane Lowe makes it onto the topic of conversation, with the band having toured with MTV 2’s Gonzo late last year.
“He’s a bit of a bell innhe,” says Ryan. More eruditely, but no less cuttingly, Maff announces after a few seconds thought, “Zane Lowe is the Tim Westwood of Indie.” Smiling to himself, and clearly on a role, he denounces the new Radio 1 DJ, calling him the “Will Self of the Indie world.” Quite.
Articulate, impassioned, ebullient and constantly driven by the pursuit of musical manna, the band display a real common touch, with all eight feet firmly on the ground. Their passion is grounded in their musically inclined youth and upbringing, with Maff bizarrely inspired by his daily walk to primary school.
“An older lad, who used to walk me to school first got me into music. He was a massive James Brown and Jimi Hendrix fan and he would have me doing backing vocals on Sex Machine. He would make me sing “Get on up, ah get on up” on the way in. That were my first taste of real music.” Ritchie, possibly displaying a hidden passion for burgers and barbiturates adds, “I just want to be Elvis.”
Paul meanwhile was cajoled from an early age by his older brother, getting dragged down to local gigs. Ryan, hands behind his head and with real passion in his voice, simply announces,
“I just got obsessed with soul, I listened to Bob Marley and gospel singers. That’s when I first started to play the guitar. When I heard music like that, I just wanted to know what it was that had just taken over the room, you know. It sent shivers down my spine.”
This simplicity, this unwavering belief in their abilities, this insatiable desire to play life-affirming music underpins the Blueskins throughout. From the Royston Vasey-esque location of Gawthorpe to the wilds of Wales, the band revel in shattering the harmonious tranquility with thumping, soulful and above else heartfelt blues tinged rock and roll. Word of mouth will certainly be enough for them.