I went to see Spearmint at the Aldershot West End Centre at the start of September, on one of the first dates of a tour to promote their debut album, 'A Week Away'. The gig itself was great. Plenty of the tracks form the new album were aired, as well as a few old favourites like 'Goldmine'. Along with their charming and entertaining stage presence, coupled with Shirley's witty between-song banter, they are a band it is easy to love. I was certainly absorbed by their set. Before all that however, I had a chance to meet the band and they were fantastic to interview and really interesting and funny people. I started with the obvious questions first...
Can I have you names and instruments please?
SHIRLEY: Shirley, guitar and singing.
DICKEN: Dicken, auxiliary guitar.
RONAN: Ronan, drums.
SI: Si, keyboards and backing vocals.
JAMES: James, bass.
How did you form?
SHIRLEY: We got together about three years ago, and to start with it was Simon, Ronan and myself and a different bass player called Martin, and we got together in Greenwich, London. Then Martin left a couple of months after we started Spearmint, so we advertised in Melody Maker and got James. We've only just acquired Dicken, this is his third gig tonight, and again we got Dicken by advertising in Melody Maker.
What's in the name?
SHIRLEY: There's no sort of glamorous story about it. When we started we went through hundreds of different names, and that was the one that seemed to most closely fit what we were trying to do, which I guess is a sort of refreshing pop name, like Orange Juice.
DICKEN: You associate it with well-designed products like good looking toothpaste and chewing gum. It's always been my favourite flavor.
How would you describe your sound?
JAMES: It's quite hard to describe really, whatever band you're in, it's hard...
SI: You don't just want to say 'pop'.
DICKEN: I would say polymorphous. It's polymorphous pop because there's very quiet ones and these are done better than most people who do quiet songs all the time and the hard rock songs are done better that most hard rock bands.
SHIRLEY: You've got to remember you're in the band now!
JAMES: You're no longer just a fan, show some humility, man! It's our band you're talking about!(laughs)
Shirley, what influences do you have as a lyricist?
SHIRLEY: It's quite autobiographical, exaggerated autobiographical. It tends to be about feelings about relationships and situations, personal things that happen to me or friends or whatever it's not sort of big political statements or a call to arms, it's things like that, and they turn into stories, I guess.
JAMES: Shirley's a very good storyteller, he'll make a story out of anything, although tonight I'm sure, now I've put the pressure on him, I bet he won't be able to come up with anything!
SHIRLEY: Generally speaking though, it's about coming to terms with yourself, and making the most of life.
What are the best and worst things of being a London band?
SHIRLEY: It's good because of the obvious stuff like a lot of the press are there, there's loads of rehearsal studios, there's record companies, there's record shops, record pluggers, musicians. I think you have the same advantages and disadvantages as just living in London. You've got a lot of extra choice and it's accessible, but the disadvantages are that you can all be living an hour away from each other, which we do, we all live in London but in four different corners. It's not necessarily that convenient, it's not like you can pop round for a cup of tea or whatever. You spend a lot of time traveling and a lot of people just pass through London, a lot of stuffs very temporary. Also I think we've done so much in London, but we haven't done much out of London, like we've never been here and we've never been to Scotland. We get a bit insular.
RONAN: The focus for reviews tends to be on gigs in London. If we play in Camden, which we have done quite a lot, we're going to get a review out of it, whereas if we're living in Newcastle or something we'd have to travel down. You tend to get very 'London-centric'.
How important is your image?
SI: It's important, yeah. We try and dress up for the occasion, I mean, this isn't what we normally wear onstage. We want to try and look well dressed, you know? In the past we've had people say 'right, we've come along to the gig but you're not making much of an effort with what you're wearing'. They want to see you wearing something that perhaps they want to wear, rather than just wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
SHIRLEY: I think the overall image of the band is, to us, extremely important. We would see that as the perception we give off, be it artwork or the look of things we do. We're probably a bit less serious about the clothes but the actual sort of image of the band is crucial to any success.
How has your day in Aldershot been so far?
JAMES: We've only been here since half past five! You think when you're about to go on tour, oh great, I'll be able to visit Aldershot, I'll be able to visit Bristol, but all you do is sit in a van, then soundcheck, wait around for the gig, do the gig and then you're off somewhere else.
DICKEN: We're going to Japan in late October. We've got seven days in Japan, only three of which we're playing gigs on, so we do have some spare time there, which I am personally looking forward to.
Tell me a bit about your experiences in Japan.
DICKEN: It's quite well known in Japan that there's a whole Anglophile scene, and certain English pop music, which is very English, almost cartoonish, goes down a storm, like Shampoo are immense in Japan.
JAMES: They just seem very excited about music, enthusiastic.
DICKEN: And they do like good pop music... good taste!
SHIRLEY: It's very refreshing and makes you feel a bit cynical and jaded.
SI: They're so sincere about it as well.
JAMES: One difference that we really noticed was that in the quiet bits of the song, if you're playing in Camden everyone's going (imitates rowdy chattering noise), whereas in Japan, it's like... silence, because they're listening to everything you do, watching everything you do and they're really paying attention.
SI: People even saying shush to the people next to them! (laughs)
SHIRLEY: So in the quiet bits this time we're going to take a crate of empty bottles and stuff to rattle to create a bit of atmosphere! (laughs)
JAMES: The atmosphere was great while we were playing, they were getting into it but between songs...
DICKEN: It's claimed in Japan that politeness is almost the national trait. There's no such thing as a Japanese swear word is there?
RONAN: There's no word for 'no' either!
Why have you decided to release your records on hitBACK, your own label?
SHIRLEY: Well, we've all been in other bands before this, and when we started Spearmint the idea was that are aim wouldn't be to get a record deal. Our aim would be to make records, so straight away, instead of doing a demo, we put out 7" single. It's good that we did, because we've got the album out now and I'm not convinced that it would if we'd been trying to get the record deal. It was definitely a good thing to do.
RONAN: I work in a rehearsal studios and so many bands I know that have got a deal have just been kept waiting around. Their material's just sat there, they recorded the album half a year ago, nothing's been released and then they've been dropped. We're so glad it hasn't happened to us and having the label gives us that option to release stuff.
JAMES: On the same token, there are a lot of bands who just wait around saying 'please, somebody sign us' and not doing anything. They're making some great music but nobody's hearing it.
SHIRLEY: And the danger is that they'll split up and they haven't got any records out, you know? If you do that, they've never existed. As long as you've got bits of plastic, with a groove on and they make a noise when you play them, then you've actually existed as a band. You've got something that's going to last. Even if it becomes an ashtray it's still going to be around! (laughs). I'm not sure about singles, but that's why the album is important, because that should still be around in five, ten years when we probably won't.
Why did you release a singles compilation last year, rather than a debut album proper?
SHIRLEY: It wasn't planned, because we meant to get on with 'A week Away' that year, which was last year, wasn't it? But then it became obvious that we weren't going to get 'A Week Away' out until this year and at the same time, in Japan things started go off better and there was a lot of demand for the early singles, especially on CD and they weren't even on CD. So in Japan they had the idea of putting a compilation together of what we'd done so far, so we decided to put it out in Britain as well to tide us over that year. We'd got people writing to us trying to get hold of 'Goldmine' and stuff and they'd all gone.
JAMES: Also, we're perfectionists and we had to get this album right. It took quite a long time as well, I think that's the other reason.
You've just released 'A Week Away'; how good is it and have you progressed since the singles compilation?
JAMES: It's certainly more of the sound of what Spearmint is now, whereas before, with the earlier singles, we struggled to get an overall sound. It really worked this time. We've been working with John, our producer, for about three years now and we've finally hit the nail on the head and come out with something we all really like.
SHIRLEY: The other thing is, the album ties up all the ends. If you've noticed, some of the singles are much more indie gut guitar than the more dancey tracks on the album. Hopefully the album pulls it all together and makes it into one thing.
How do you rate your success?
SHIRLEY: On our own terms, it's been a really successful year. The main thing was wanting to do the album and make it exist and it's fantastic that we've done that, and two: we we're all pleased with the album and it's lasted, which is quite surprising, because normally after something's out for a month we start going off it. So I think for the things that matter, we feel successful. As for commercial success, I don't think we've been particularly successful in that sense.
JAMES: We have different ideas of what we want to be, how successful we want to be. You know, there are times when we've been very focused, like this year we've all been thinking the kind of success we want to achieve is making the album. Now we've made it, I'm like, I want to play Top of the Pops, want to play at the top of the Eiffel tower, whereas Ronan might want to do a gig at the Aldershot West End Centre! (laughs)
RONAN: I do, I can't wait! I've been looking forward to this all year. I'm satisfied, I'm going to leave the band as soon as this gig's over! (laughs)
Was it nice getting the NME Single of the Week for 'Sweeping the Nation'?
SHIRLEY: Yeah, it was actually. I'm normally cynical about those things, but when I saw it I liked it, and also the thing was that what was written was all about the song, it wasn't about the band or anything, it was just about the song. It was good, I was quite chuffed.
I saw you at the Reading festival last year. How did you feel that went?
JAMES: Reading was good, it was brilliant. We put our tent up in the backstage area and we were like, this is great, we've got the backstage area. We had this massive tent. You know how tents are these days, all small and compact? Well, we had this tent that could fit like, a family of ten. It was absolutely huge. The security wouldn't let us stay in there overnight though! So there's this massive tent with this huge floral seventies pattern on probably still there now in Reading. We didn't go back and get it.
From what I can remember, you did a duet with Mira from Disco Pistol. How did that come about?
SHIRLEY: She's just a friend from doing gigs. We did gigs with Disco Pistol in Camden, inevitably, and so we just got it together through that really.
Who else in the world would you like to duet with?
SHIRLEY: We've been talking about this: Franki Valli, Debbie Harry...
JAMES: I said Rolf Harris didn't I?
SHIRLEY: I'd like to do something with Robert Gibb from the Bee Gees.
What's the best thing you've heard this year?
SHIRLEY: The Flaming Lips album.
JAMES: I really like the Madness single. It just took me back. It was like, hold on, this band have been away for fifteen years and they've come back with this. I think its great.
SI: Fountains Of Wayne, I'm quite into what they've done this year.
DICKEN: The Marine Research album, and the Angelica single 'Why Did You Let My Kitten Die?' is fantastic.
Final question, what are you going to be doing for the rest of the year?
RONAN: Promote the album, basically.
JAMES: We're going all around England, we're going to Japan, we're going to be going to Holland as well, France and a few other places.
DICKEN: We're trying to make inroads into Scandinavia, be nice to go there.
SHIRLEY: I want to go to Denmark, never been before.
JAMES: We've got a little yellow van and we're going to travel around everywhere, and we're going to attach a massive set of speakers on the top and blast the album out wherever we go!
That seemed a suitable point to finish the interview because the first support band were about to take to the stage and Spearmint had to prepare for their gig. Thanks again to the band for being so nice.
Issue 5 Contents
Issue 5 Winter 2000 © Tim Bragger