“In conversation” - TWR talks to Ben Mckelvey about new albums and life on the road, as the support act for Mike and the Mechanics. Interviews conducted by Alan Hewitt and Katherine Stratton on Tuesday 21st February 2017. Photographs by Katherine Stratton, Alan Hewitt and Stuart Barnes.
AH: I listened to the album, it’s bloody good.
BM: Thank you very much! That’s very kind.
AH: Has there been a single?
BM: Yes. So there was so look the album came out pretty much this time last year.
AH: We’ll go through all of this in a minute anyway. I’d heard something -is it on already? - on the radio and basically it registered, but distantly. So I suppose the start is, give us the backstory for you guys, you know. How did you get started in…
BM: In playing live together?
AH: Well yeah but also how did you get started with music, what’s the story, you know?
BM: Well basically, you know, I was, you know, just a singer/songwriter and kind of doing, you know, playing all the local bars and pubs and stuff like that, and Marc was in a covers band called The Deps so we kind of gigging around the same towns in the same venues and that kind of stuff, and funnily enough before we knew each other, I filled in for Marc on drums for a couple of gigs in his band but we’d never actually met. But we’d known of each other for like years. And then basically I got the call saying “do you want to do this tour with Wet Wet Wet?”…
AH: As you do!
BM: Yeah! It was really out of the blue, it was very weird. And essentially I needed to put a band together because I didn’t have a band so, and Marc I knew was a good drummer and we went and watched him play and stuff like that, and yeah I just asked him to join and we’ve been gigging ever since. So we’re about, it’s almost our anniversary mate, I think, isn’t it? It’s about that time.
MD: It is!
BM: So we’ve been playing together for about a year now.
AH: So when did you start work on the album?
BM: Well the album is just me, so basically I play all the instruments on it. So the album, I started recording that a couple of years ago. But it was kind of in bits and pieces, really, because I did a couple of songs and then me and my friend Paul went off and did some shows over in America, so we came back and did a couple more songs, then we went and did a bit more touring, so it was, there wasn’t really a set point of, kind of, oh we recorded it in July of whatever year, it was kind of quite scattered.
AH: Like fitting the pieces of a jigsaw together…
BM: It was, yeah. And also because I do all of the instruments myself, it does take a bit longer. I’ve got to kind of, you know, I go and lay down I don’t know five drum tracks, then I’ve got to listen back to them, make sure everything is in the right area, then lay down the guitars and take it away and have a listen and stuff like that. The next album that I do, I’m going to try and do it in one big chunk as much as possible. Because otherwise, it takes a long time, it takes ages.
AH: Well it’s taken Mike four or five years to get his finger out for this one.
AH: But the thing that strikes me about this album is that it’s obviously very personal. Or it seems to be. There’s a lot of, you know, there seems to be an awful lot of your life in it, so tell us a little bit about…
BM: I mean, kind of yes and no, really. There is a couple of more, of personal songs in there, but actually most of them are kind of stories, really. So like “Morning I’m Gone”, “Happy Together”, “Island”, they’re just about, you know, and that’s where the title of the album came from, is because someone said “what’s the album about?” and I said, “oh it’s about life and love in England” and that’s how I was like oh I’ll use that for the title! So there are some personal things on there, everything’s about something I’ve heard or someone else has been through. I’m a storyteller at the end of the day, I think, so but yeah “Only Here Once” is obviously quite a personal song and “Walk Away” as well. But the others are just stories of various things I’ve heard or seen.
AH: So how do you go about constructing, if you’re actually doing a song that’s based on something personal, how do you sort of start that process?
BM: Every song I write is written on an acoustic guitar. I literally sit down in front of the TV on my sofa with an acoustic guitar and if something falls out of the guitar, a song, and I like it, I keep it. I generally go on if it takes me longer than about half an hour to write it, then it’s not going to work. Because I kind of think that, you know, all the, all my favourite songs that I’ve written have happened quite quickly and you kind of really get into it, and you can remember it the next day and you’re already singing along to it and that’s, that in my mind is a sign of that you’ve got something. Any time I’ve tried to be working on it bits and pieces for more than a half hour, an hour, I’m like “I can’t be bothered with this, it’s too complicated, there’s too much effort”, it should be quite natural. I think, that’s just the way that I…
AH: It’s got to flow.
BM: Yeah, exactly! And you know if you are into it, pretty much off the bat, you know.
AH: It’s the same with me when I write a piece for the website, or whatever, if I’m struggling after about fifteen minutes, I think it’s not going to work.
BM: Scrap it and do it again!
AH: But it’s such a good, it’s not often I think, certainly in the entire history of the Mechanics, you’re only the second opening act - I hate the word support act, it sounds demeaning - you’re only the second support act where I’ve actually listened to an album by that artist and thought “this guy’s got something to say, that I want to listen to”.
BM: That’s good to hear.
AH: And that’s what’s, it’s obvious you know, okay seeing the gig last night was the first time I’d actually seen you, you’ve obviously got a good rapport with the audience, you’ll get an even better rapport in my hometown tonight.
BM: I hope so!
AH: Oh no, Scousers will let you know straight away, mate, I can tell you.
KS: I heard that yesterday, somebody in the audience said it will be much better in Liverpool, they’ll be even more into it.
AH: Well Scousers love their music, and basically the great thing about it is once, and it’s not crawling up your bum, it’s what I genuinely thought, you guys got up on that stage, you were there to entertain, that’s the difference. You know, I thought that once again it’s one of those things where sometimes when you’re an opening act you get the sort of, if you’re lucky, you get the indulgence or the tolerance of an audience that aren’t really there to see you, but I was thinking to myself “I want more” when you went off after that last song I thought to myself “hold on!”
BM: It goes quick.
AH: It was too quick! Hold on where are the rest of the songs? It was great. You know, that’s fantastic and you know, okay, we’ve got to ask the question, what’s it like working with, what are Mike and the guys like?
BM: Well, you know, I mean, we were very fortunate enough that.
AH: Well how did you get the, how do you get the calls to actually work on these? You seem to have worked with everybody in the last 12 months.
BM: Yeah, it’s interesting, really, because a couple of years ago I was getting, I was just getting fed up with it, you know, no labels or management or anything was interested and all the songs that I’ve got now that all of a sudden we’re getting phone calls for and people want to write about and all that kind of stuff, they’re the same songs I was playing in the pub for the last two or three years. Nothing’s changed. You know, I haven’t changed a word, I haven’t changed anything. But, you know, when you are unsigned or you know, you are going unnoticed it is very difficult to make some, enough noise that people take you seriously. So basically I just got kind of a bit fed up with that so I basically made my own label, so I created my own label, because no other label would sign me, and then from that label then I took on like a PR team, I took on some management, and basically kind of built a small team around me and then once, you know, I had a few people that really believed in what I was doing and then things just kind of escalated from there, really. And now we’re kind of making a good dent and a reasonable bit of noise, which has been the plan you know, for the last fourteen years, really, but it’s only just sort of, you know, but I did my homework with it, you know, I read a lot of business books, I did a lot of studying, of how to run a label, and how not to take everything personally because obviously I’m the only artist on my label, and you have to sometimes make decisions, a label’s decisions rather than an artist’s and things like that, but you know that was the only way that I could see it, see it you know competing with other people was to you know get in and compete properly. So that’s the way we went about it. I can’t remember what your original question was, did I answer it? [laughs]
MD: What are Mike and the Mechanics like?
BM: Oh yeah! That was your question, wasn’t it?
AH: Is it always just a case of you get these calls, to like, ask you will you be the opening act on a tour, is it always just down to a phone call from “The Management” or, you know…
BM: Pretty much. It’s literally, it’s kind of, it’s plain as that. I had just moved down to Brighton, where I live now, and I was sitting on the beach having a beer, I’d just moved down there, sun was going down, my phone rang and said “do you want to, are you around next February/March, do you fancy supporting Mike + The Mechanics on a 32 date UK and Ireland tour?” So, yeah. Definitely! I’ll probably be available, yeah…
AH: Am I right before that you’d just finished a tour with, was it with the Undertones?
KS: The Overtones.
BM: So I did the Overtones in the winter, and we actually we had this tour, we had it, we got offered it last summer but we couldn’t tell anyone.
AH: Right, of course, yeah.
BM: Because I don’t think they even, the actual tour was announced and then what usually happens is the tour gets announced, and then the support band gets announced a few months later, and kind of you know make the most out of kind of the PR and stuff like that so it was pretty painful having this massive tour in the bag, you know, with a band that Marc and I are genuine fans of, and we couldn’t tell anyone. You couldn’t tell friends, you couldn’t…
AH: Must be even worse you know for a start, you’re committed to something that you can’t talk about and also you can’t do anything else, I can’t suddenly decide I’m go to go on holiday for those, that month or whatever, because, I’m with the bloody Mechanics!
BM: It was even like a few of my friends went on a ski trip and they’re like “What, why can’t you come?” and I’m like “I just, I can’t, I’m busy” and they’re like “Well what are you doing? Why are you missing it?” and I’m like “I just don’t, I’m working.” You know, that’s all you can say, but then you know, once they get it, in fact they’re leaving the day we’re playing the Royal Albert Hall, so I’m like “that’s why I can’t go…” So, and they’re like “oh, fair enough…” yeah, exactly.
AH: So obviously you’re doing this tour, you’ve mentioned on stage that there’s an EP?
BM: Yes, so there’s a new EP coming out on the 31st of March. And basically I was kind of, the second album is written.
BM: But it’s not gonna be out for a while, and I wanted to make sure that something was coming out for people to have after this tour and people you know, because the album is almost a year old now. I’m not quite sure when the second album is going to be out, because we need, we’re going to have a bit of a rearrange of how we’re going to distribute all that kind of stuff and all that boring business stuff. And it was…
AH: You’ve got the fiddly bits to do, basically.
BM: Yeah and it was either a choice of doing a deluxe version of the album, which I wasn’t really that keen on because I kind of thought, you know, essentially you’re making the same record again with two extra tracks, which means anyone who’s been supportive enough at the beginning to buy an album, that’s really helped us, is then going to, you’re asking them to buy the same record again, but with two extra tracks. And I was kind of like, you know, I really hate when bands do that so I was kind of like, that’s what I was, that was my advice.
AH: So does my bank manager.
BM: Exactly, and you end up doing it if you’re a really big fan of it and I was kind of like, there’s some bands that do that at the moment and I’m like “I don’t know if I’m gonna, you know, I kind of want to buy it but…”, you know, so basically I kind of thought you know what, I’ll do two new songs, I’m going to do a really different version of a song from the album, and two live tracks. And I just thought, do you know what? Just putting out like a real like limited edition EP with tracks no one has heard on it is a lot more exciting than doing the same album.
AH: It’s justified than tagging a couple of what might be mediocre tracks, a lot of bands put, when they put reissues out, they always put don’t they, they always put the tracks, a b-side, or sometimes not even a b-side but a track that wasn’t good enough to be a b-side and you’re thinking to yourself, “why am I shelling out for this?”
BM: It kind of worked in my favour, actually, because the two brand new songs that are on the EP, if I’d written them before, would have definitely made the album. Because I think they’re great, but they’re still, they would have suited the album really well but the second album is a little bit different, so they wouldn’t have quite worked on the second album, so actually it worked quite well.
AH: It’s a nice sort of stepping stone between the two.
BM: Exactly. The EP is almost a second part of the album, it’s like the carrying on to wrap up the album nicely. We would have toured this album for a year, then the EP comes out just to kind of wrap it up and it’s called “One for the Road”, so you know it’s kind of like we’ve just done this fantastic, you know we’ve toured the album for a year now and we’ve played in almost every arena in the UK, every major theatre.
AH: You seem to have been on the road forever with…
BM: Which is what we love doing. And, you know, to wrap up that with like a limited edition EP for everyone that’s been supportive I thought was a lot cooler than just doing a deluxe version, so I try and, you know, do things like that.
AH: Well the great thing about once again the title, it’s great because it says “one for the road” that means that’s the end of that era, then the new album, different thing altogether.
BM: Exactly and the second album that’s written is, I would say, kind of a lot more, it’s a lot more positive but it’s a slightly different, it’s got a slightly different, I’ve gone a bit more back to my roots actually, so it’s a bit more kind of acoustic and a bit more, kind of a bit more like our live show, actually. But yeah but we’ll have to do another interview about that when that comes out because I don’t want to get too far into that.
AH: Don’t tempt fate!
KS: Are you on that album as well, Marc?
BM: So Marc’s going to do is some guest vocals on the album, but generally the album and the recording is kind of all me, doing all the records, it’s kind of like, it’s almost like my selling point as well, you know, it’s kind of what I try to make it a little bit different about myself to other artists they even know it’s a lot of hard work, I do like the fact that you know I’m kind of doing the drums and bass and all the rest of it.
MD: Kind of like Dave Grohl in early Foo Fighters.
BM: Yeah! Yeah, exactly.
MD: Just, you know, which is fine, you know, it sounds great.
MD: I’m happy to come along on the tours and meet my heroes.
AH: So when you’re not working with soft lad here, what do you, do you have your own band or do you work with other musicians?
MD: I’ve been in bands since I was like sixteen. Funk, did a lot of corporate stuff, I’m actually like a session musician so I kind of dabble in and out of the studio stuff. And I have a teaching business, I’m a drum tutor.
AH: It’s amazing the number of people that I know that do that. Not necessarily drum tuition, but some form of…it seems to be the way to go, it’s, but…
MD: So certainly for me drumming and stuff is like the only thing I’ll ever really enjoy doing, like that was the only thing I was really good at in school, music, I wasn’t really interested in much else so to be able to sort of teach kids and teach adults drums and it’s perfect.
BM: It seems to work quite well actually, because it’s you know.
AH: Well it’s different. You look at that set up and I thought, well done. I freely admit I am a non-musician so I’m an ignoramus when it comes to this stuff, I’ll put my hands up here, but Stuart on the other hand is not. He’s a sound engineer and a keyboard player. And I just thought what, more than anything else, when you sat down I thought what the hell is he playing, for a start? I thought I didn’t know, but when you started playing it sounded great.
MD: I’ve played that, I bought that cajon.
AH: Oh is that what it’s called?
MD: Yes, it’s called a cajon. It’s a Spanish drum, Spanish dancers used to dance to it, you know, and I didn’t even know that, when I purchased it I had no idea what I was purchasing, I only knew that in my last function band we were going down a duo road and I looked into a good cajon and that was a good one, good wood and all that. And when I bought it I had no idea that I’d be going on tours with it. I bought it for playing in pubs and stuff.
AH: It makes a fantastic sound.
BM: It’s kind of funny we were laughing the other day because, you know, a cajon usually is used in kind of live lounge kind of videos.
MD: It’s a very soft instrument.
BM: And then we were kind of like, we were watching the Mechanics sound check and Gary was playing a cajon almost how it’s supposed to be played.
MD: The Mechanics drummer.
BM: Like softly with brushes, and then Marc went “see how he’s playing the cajon?” he said yeah, “that’s how it’s supposed to be played. And then I said “see how Mike’s playing the guitar?” It’s like…
BM: And it’s kind of like you know, because we do…
MD: We’re aggressive.
BM: …we just thrash those instruments, we were like an acoustic guitar and a cajon are typically quite gentle instruments and I think when people see us walk on, they think it’s going to be quite a soft, and it’s actually we…
AH: That’s what took me by surprise.
BM: We try and, and you know when we’re when we get these kind of calls to be, our job is to warm up the crowd, we are very aware that no one is there to see us. Everyone is there to see the main band.
AH: I wouldn’t necessarily say that.
BM: There might be a few.
AH: There were a few people or certainly I overheard beforehand you know, you there were…your guys were out there.
BM: Yeah. But you know like I mean in general, you know, you get a phone call and I, we’re very aware and we take our we might kind of mess about on stage and have a bit of fun with everyone but we do take our job very seriously and we know that we are there to warm up the crowd. So we design a certain set and we kind of know exactly what we’re going to do and how we want the set to build up and up and up and up towards the end, bang! big stop and then we go and do, oh there we go! [a staff member from the venue finally turns the lights on]. Oh! Let there be light!
AH: Thanks for that!
BM: That was almost when I went “bang” as well, wasn’t it?
AH: You guys, obviously you’ve got a second album ready and I assume that you’ll be going out and doing your own shows.
BM: Well this is what we’re kind of what we’re in various talks with various people at the moment, unfortunately it’s got effort and just so annoyingly complicated at the moment, so I mean I’m just kind of like saying to everyone “look, we’ve got this massive tour with Mike + The Mechanics, 32 shows, we’re getting some festivals sorted out in the summer and then after that we haven’t really got anything planned. I’m going straight into the second album will be done and I don’t know if we’ll be touring that necessarily but…
MD: Maybe have a holiday? You deserve it, mate.
BM: I get so bored on holiday.
MD: You work so hard.
BM: But like you know we, I’d play 300 shows a year if I could. I love it, I love being on the road, I love the hotels, I love the interviews, I love times on the road, and it is taxing but there’s nowhere else I’d rather be, so I want to do as many shows as possible so I mean I think we’ll be touring, you know doing headline shows later this year in smaller venues but when that is, where we’re playing, people are sorting that out at the moment and…
AH: Well with regards to Liverpool I’ve got a suggestion for you, try and get, for two reasons: a. because it’s very very very very very famous place…
BM: Is this The Cavern?
MD: It’s the home of music.
AH: Try and get yourself a gig at The Cavern because then you also get The Cavern t-shirt and you also get your brick in the wall of fame.
AH: Yeah. Every band that plays The Cavern gets a brick in the wall of fame. And even Genesis haven’t got one of those.
BM: Oh really? I’ll be one up on them.
AH: But once again it’s been an absolute pleasure, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the album, looking for, we’ll be in our seats tonight cheering you on, it’s been fantastic. I wish you every success for the rest of the tour and obviously we will be in touch. When you’ve got anything to tell people, we’re on messenger now or whatever, let me know and I’ll do my best to shout about it, I will review the album and when the review’s done I will contact you and say “there you go”. It will be going on my website and Katherine’s website. Mine’s called “The Waiting Room” and Katherine’s is Mike Rutherford Net. Basically you get a double hit of…
BM: We’ll make sure we Tweet all of that out on Facebook etc. As long as the review’s good…We don’t post bad reviews. We’re lucky we don’t get any bad reviews yet!
AH: I don’t write bad reviews, because I always find that a bad, and I’m a published author so I’ve had my fair share of crap, and basically that normally, when somebody writes something that I consider to be a hatchet job, that says more about them than it does about anything else.
BM: I always kind of think what’s the point in writing a bad review.
AH: I don’t do hatchet jobs.
BM: To sit there and…
AH: If I didn’t enjoy something I wouldn’t say anything about it.
BM: Yeah, exactly!
AH: There’s that wonderful old saying, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. And it’s true.
BM: Yeah, you’re exactly right.
AH: I will do that and I genuinely I thought - got the album, listened to it, and the great thing is you’ve heard something that’s crafted, then you see the songs in the live context and they always take on a different life when they’re live and I thought “yeah, there’s a lot more to this” and I actually thought yeah I can’t say something good about this but it’s going to take a lot more work. I don’t just sit there listen to an album once or as most reviewers do, they listen to the first track, the fifth track and the last track, and then do their review. I listen to everything, several times, and then start typing.
BM: That’s brilliant.
AH: Up until then, it’s not worth it, but believe you me when it’s ready it will be, it will be sent to you, once again thank you very much for your time.
BM: It’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks very much guys!