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CHRIS HELME:‘DOING IT HIMSELF’  INTERVIEW BY NIGEL CARTNER

 
It’s not very often that you get to interview figures whose music influenced a time of adolescent youth, where searching for some sort of meaning came in the form of lyrics and music. Still does to some extent but when hormones are involved the tendency is to latch on with raven claws to guides that speak through words in music. Chris Helme’s tenure with ‘The Seahorses’ was one of many bands that created that magic, if even for one album, yet that album still holds true to memory. With John Squire taking the lead in guitar, Helme was the soft, soothing, touching rock voice that fronted the band. His input was apparent in a few songs, none more so than ‘Blinded by the Sun’ and ‘Hello’, a slow, emotional ballad that had me listening over and over again when times hit hard with regards to the naivety of teenage emotions.

Fifteen years or so later and I’d like to think times have changed, but when it comes to Chris Helme’s voice and words, one cannot help but latch on again to a style that sparks passion that never seems to leave you no matter how old you get, just helping you see in a different light at a different point in life. So, with new album, ‘The Rookery’ released at the start of April, the chance to watch and meet a man who evoked understanding years earlier was one to jump at. Taking his music in the direction he yearned for, Helme is more than satisfied with how the album has turned out and appears happy, relaxed and proud of his achievements, past and present. With his album launch taking place at Salford Sacred Trinity Church in association with ‘House of Cards’, we found out more about the album, what the craziest thing that happened was when he travelled through France in his youth, and what it is that keeps him focussed and motivated.

NIGE: New album ‘Rookery’ is out. Can you tell us a little bit about the songs and the making of?

CHRIS: The making of was the fun bit. I’ve been going on about recording an album for ages, but I was touring all the time. Every time I came back home I’d chip away at ideas then leave them to spend time with family before going on tour again. It got to the point where I had enough songs for an album and went to a place called ‘The Rookery’, which is a big country house in The Dales. I realised that I liked about 25% of the album but not the rest as it didn’t really fit in with what we were doing in the house because we were there for 24 hours a day and very comfortable, and some of the songs were far too frantic for that so we started again from scratch. It was good because Sam Forrest from ‘Nine Black Alps’ was producing it and brought loads of gear around for recording rather than going into a studio, so it was all kind of homemade/DIY type thing really. We were there for eleven days and came out with 15/16 songs and there’s 11 on the album. I’m amazed about how it happened because it could’ve gone completely tits up.

NIGE: How does it differ to the album, ‘Ashes’ or previous work?

CHRIS: I think the ‘Ashes’ album wasn’t really an album. I’d not been gigging for years and people were asking me for a CD so I sat in someone’s studio and recorded it in about as long as it was to play really. It’s hardly an album, only me playing on my own really. It’s completely different (to ‘The Rookery) in that we’ve got strings and all sorts of strange, crazy noises going on. People from ‘The Yards’ like John Hargreaves writing the string arrangements and Chris Farrell playing his crazy stuff adds a lot to it and gets good results. We’ve got Gethin playing drums whose a York lad, he’s really good, just dead mellow, doesn’t play anything more than he should do, and Stuart, our drunken bass player who played in ‘The Seahorses’. We had double bass on it as well so it was all pretty mellow. Quite a lot of people played different things with Hayley Hutchinson on backing vocals and we did a bit of writing together so it was all quite a nice, everyone comfy with each other and getting on with it. I think studios are so sterile where you know the clocks ticking and people in there have set ideas on what they want to do whereas we just made it up as we went along really. I’ve always wanted to do an album like that but I was frightened that it might sound shit, but it doesn’t, I really don’t mind listening to it. When I get a bit despondent about stuff I put the album on and it reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing and I don’t think I’ve ever been part of anything like that.

NIGE: Is there a concept to the album?

CHRIS: Weirdly there is a thread through it in the lyrics. I suppose if you experience stuff and write things then it all comes out. It’s not a concept album by any means but there is more of a story, accidentally from the way that I did it with one song after the other because it just seemed to sound right, but when you actually listen to it there is a thread of a story going on.

NIGE: How have you changed musically, in writing lyrics and in inspiration since the early days of your career?

CHRIS: I suppose as I got older I don’t tend to write about things that I moan about. I’ve grown some nuts and a bit of a spine so if there is anything fucking me off I’ll tell people, rather than write a snide little song about it. I used to do that a lot but not anymore. You write about what’s important I suppose, without it being too obvious either. I used to tell people what certain songs are about but I don’t need to and don’t want to anymore. If Van Morrison told me what ‘Into the Mystic’ was about, I wouldn’t want him to crush all my ideas, although I don’t want to compare myself to him because he’s God.

NIGE: Do you still run Little Num Num Music?

CHRIS: It’s my mate Andy who runs it. I used to do a night called ‘The Num Num Club’, which was acoustic night on the first Saturday of the month. It was great because we’d get loads of people in, all singer/song writers and bands with people coming over from Canada and stuff which was amazing. But, because I was touring a lot Andy took it over. We don’t really have the live night anymore because I’m too busy and he’s just had a kid. A lot of people want us to resurrect it, but as a label it still exists. We’re actually merging a bit with ‘Desert Mine Music’ which is Sam Forrest’s label because Sam engineered and recorded everything on Num Num anyway so it makes sense to put it all under one banner. I’m more than happy for him to takeover that side of it, and he’s a lot more pro-active than I am.

NIGE: Do you get asked for advice by up and coming bands?

CHRIS: Yep. What do you say? I was really lucky to be plucked off the streets. I didn’t do fucking anything, all I did was sing and write a few songs that pricked someone’s ears up who told me John Squire was getting a new band together, which I knew about because Stuart had already joined. The way that I got into it was dropped in the middle of something already set up. That was in the mid 90s and now we’re in the 21st Century and music’s changed a hell of a lot since then. It’s not bad though, as in you can record a lot cheaper. I mean the idea of me going to a cottage recording an album with stuff I’ve bought off the internet is like, “What do you mean you’re not spending £90,000 in some LA studio?” I think the advice is to learn a lot of skills like the old social networking and all that crap, and know what you want in your sound. You can be paying people to do the sound and it’s almost as if they’ve bought your opinion off you so you can’t tell them what you wanted because they know best. You learn all the time but if you listen to a lot of music you know how things are supposed to sound. Learning on how to get that is just a case of trial and error and fannying around so people should just have a bit more confidence in what they’re doing rather than giving it to the hands of other people. You have to take control yourself and it’s a lot cheaper to do that these days.

NIGE: Your early life seemed a bit mad like busking through France. What was that like?

CHRIS: Amazing. I’ve got more memories of that than touring for three years with ‘The Seahorses’. It was about 3 or 4 months. I often think about it because it was one of the happiest and mental times I’ve had. We almost killed each other because it was like Big Brother house in a five seater van really and everyone at each other’s throats. The drummer brought his girlfriend along and we were told that we couldn’t bring any of our girlfriends along and we thought that was fine, but then she came along and things went a bit awry after that. Saying that, I’d do it all again, it was mint. I had the best time of my life.

NIGE: There must be some stories to tell, what was the craziest thing that happened?

CHRIS: We kidnapped someone....... but she was willing!

NIGE: Hahahahahahaha

CHRIS: She was from England working as a nanny for this rich French family. She’d seen us play in the bar on a previous night. Anyway she was out on her one night off that she got every year or something, telling us about how awful this family was and that she just needed to get home. We were going to be going home about a week or so later so she told us where she was staying and it was like this midnight commando raid. My mate Jamie knocked on her window having drawn a plan of the house and everything, it was fucking crazy. She snuck out of the window, got in the van and off we went back to England. Yeah, that was a bit crazy.

NIGE: That’s brilliant, I didn’t expect that at all.

CHRIS: She was willing so she wasn’t really kidnapped but they had no idea where she was and neither did her mum because she forgot to ring her so obviously they thought she’d just disappeared.

NIGE: I know you must’ve been asked the question several times, but many of us know the story that you were discovered by John Squire’s technician busking in York. How did it feel when he approached you and asked you to be in the band?

CHRIS: Well he just came to a gig, and I was drunk thinking I’d cooked my goose completely but I wasn’t that bothered really. He came to another gig and I thought he was there to see someone else but he wasn’t, just there to have another look at me. When I think back it was a bit XFactor really, he was Simon Cowell and I was this quivering little shit on stage trying to please everyone. I’d given up by that point so just did what I wanted to do and he seemed to like that and asked me if I wanted to be in the band. I remember being really nervous and paranoid aswell because I just wasn’t sure as I knew that at any moment he could just change his mind like that and it could come crashing down because it’d happened to a few people, and I didn’t want to be that person.

NIGE: When was the moment it hit you regards the culture shock when you joined The Seahorses compared to what you’d been doing previously?

CHRIS: Well we were rehearsing for quite a while in The Lake District and that seemed fine, and then we went to Knebworth to watch John play with ‘Oasis’ and that was fine, we had a laugh because we weren’t allowed to tell anyone that we were in John’s new band. We went to America and recorded and even that was fine, but when we got back we did a gig and it was fucking mental and we started being on TV and radio and that’s when it started changing for me. People’s expectations aswell! Everyone expected the third coming of ‘Stone Roses’ but it was nothing like that. I naively thought that people would give us a break but some people didn’t. Most saw it for what it was, a band just having a laugh really playing loud guitar music. It was weird, I don’t know if I was fully happy with it with all the “you should be more like this” and “be a bit more like that” from everyone. On one hand you’ve got people telling you that what you’re doing is perfect and on the other people telling you that you should be doing this, that and the other so you just end up closing off to everything. One thing I’ve learnt now though is I know who to ignore and who to listen too.

NIGE: What happened towards the end?

I think towards the end we didn’t seem to see eye to eye on a lot of things because he wanted to go down one route musically and I wanted to go down another which were two completely different tangents. It’s a shame because he’s mint and he’s an amazing guitarist and song writer and I learnt so much from him. I’m glad he’s back in ‘Stone Roses’ because that’s where he belongs! I don’t think it’s fair that everything he’s done since the ‘Stone Roses’, he’s always been judged on the ‘Stone Roses’, but then if you’re in a seminal band like that then what the fuck else is going to happen. It’s like if you leave the ‘Rolling Stones’ what’s going to happen? It’s never going to be as good. ‘Stone Roses’ had some magic going on and hopefully they still do so good luck to him.

NIGE: Is there anything you miss from those days?

CHRIS: No. I did it, I’m proud of it and it was good fun. I don’t miss any of it really but I’d do it all again without changing anything. I appreciate that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I didn’t do that. God knows what I’d be working in now if I hadn’t.

NIGE: Serial Kidnapper?

CHRIS: Yeah set up a kidnapping business in France, who knows?

NIGE: Do you think you work better as a solo artist or in a band?

CHRIS: I work better when I’m with other people because I can play off them. There’s only so much I can do. I’d probably get bored with myself otherwise. There’s far more magic going on in the world than in my head. Other people’s influence makes my songs sound better, I can’t argue with that.

NIGE: How difficult is it for people like you who are primarily known for previous ventures to remain in the industry?

CHRIS: It depends why you’re doing it. If you’re doing it to get back to where you were before then that’s just silly. I don’t mind getting to wherever I’m going to be on its own merit. I don’t like using ‘The Seahorses’ thing as a crutch. It does open doors, probably closes doors in some areas too. I think it is hard. If I didn’t mention what I’d done in the past then I’d be struggling. I’m 40 years old for fuck’s sake, I write really mellow music, and it’s not going to get on the radio. You’ve really got to work at it and chip away at stuff and it’s really hard to find the time to do it. At the time when I was learning to play music I was on the dole so it was fine, but now you need rich parents really, like Tory rock n roll, how awful.

NIGE: So, having started out busking through France, playing in a few bands, reaching The Seahorses heights, playing solo, what is it throughout your career that has always had that pull within music, the thing that makes you continue?

CHRIS: Applause is nice, I like that and doing something that I can do when I want to do it. I know people who turn up in jobs everyday and fucking hate it but never do anything to change it, because the schools they’ve been to and places they’ve worked in have instilled this sense of inadequacy upon them all, so they don’t ever change or leave so they’ll feel like slaves before they’ve even started. I know loads of people like that, the worlds geared up for it, training people to be fucking drones, trying to knock any sort of will out of you very early on. You either become an artist or a politician I suppose. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I used to be a graphic designer but used to get really frustrated by the fact it didn’t jump about and move, whereas music is alive in my head. I know that sounds really pretentious but it is. I think I’m getting better at it too, so it’d be stupid to stop. Why stop when I’m actually figuring out that I’m not too bad at it these days.

To read the album review/album launch show click here.

www.chrishelme.co.uk

Interview by Nigel Cartner - photos by Matt Johnson