Interview: Space (part 1)
Published on November 29th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Two weeks ago, Rocksucker posted excitedly about the news that Scouse odd-poppers Space have reunited for a December 22nd gig at their hometown’s O2 Arena, tickets for which can be bought from here. Having been a fan of this delightfully divisive band ever since their classic breakthrough hit “Female of the Species” first confounded our nation’s airwaves in 1996, this intrepid reporter was keen to find out more about the particulars of this comeback and was granted a private audience with the band at Shenanigans in Liverpool city centre, just around the corner from where they recorded the early demos that saw Gut Records take a chance on them in the first place.
As Gut decisions go, it proved a fruitful one: creepily covered debut album Spiders spawned three more UK top 20 singles (“Me and You Versus the World”, “Neighbourhood” and “Dark Clouds”) and eventually went platinum. What’s more, it wrested this impressionable little mind away from workmanlike Britpop and dodgy Europop, and onto musical pursuits of more colourful, exotic, eclectic and downright funky varieties.
Their unabashed playfulness may have bugged the hell out of ‘serious’ music fans, but the mischievous cartoon universe they conjured not only meant the world to me, but also opened up another. It was a unique combination, one that somehow managed to flaunt each constituent flair in roughly equal measures: the unhinged croonerisms of singer/songwriter/bassist Tommy Scott, the edgy rock and roll of singer/songwriter/guitarist Jamie Murphy, the electronic textures and soundscapes of songwriter/keyboardist/sampling guru Franny Griffiths, and the compelling hip hop swagger of drummer Andy Parle.
However, the following year’s stressful worldwide touring schedule almost put paid to Space just as they’d got going: Tommy lost his voice and was informed it might never return (spookily, it returned on a date predicted by Liverpudlian psychic Billy Roberts), Jamie suffered a nervous breakdown which landed him in rehab and counselling, Franny developed a stomach ulcer, and Andy left the band soon after having struggled to come to terms with the limelight which, despite his passion for the band, he had never sought.
Andy’s subsequent withdrawal left the band disappointingly shorn of groove, but 1998 follow-up Tin Planet revelled in a whole new chapter of delights: namely sophisticated song-craft, luxurious arrangements and an alchemist’s way with wringing pop gold out of whichever styles and settings took their fleeing fancies. Riding high off the back of UK top 10 hits “Avenging Angels” and Cerys Matthews duet “The Ballad of Tom Jones”, Tin Planet peaked at number 3 and silenced the doubters who saw the band’s frivolities as evidence against their longevity. A long career of inspired, subversive hit-making beckoned. It was not to be.
2000 album Love You More Than Football had all the ingredients of a resounding triumph: the broad appeal of its title, Space’s recent history of success; and, most pertinently, solid gold pop songs presented as a series of hazily tropical, typically eccentric mini-daydreams. The band now distance themselves from this ultimately unreleased marvel – read on for more about that professionally devastating fiasco – but Rocksucker respectfully disagrees with their impression of it as merely a distastefully commercialised concession to record company pressure.
Jamie was the next to make way, leaving Tommy and Franny as the only remaining original members, alongside bassist Dave ‘Yorkie’ Palmer and drummer Leon Caffrey. Lining up thusly, Space attempted a comeback with 2004’s ingeniously twisted Suburban Rock ‘n’ Roll but, backed by a practically non-existent promotion campaign, it passed largely unnoticed. The world’s loss as well as the band’s: take a listen to “20 Million Miles from Earth”, for example, and try telling me that it couldn’t have struck as much of a collective chord as “Female of the Species” did…
Postscript: Tommy went on to form The Drellas, latterly Tommy Scott and The Red Scare. Jamie and Franny played together in Dust. Tragically, Andy died in 2009 after collapsing in the street, something which of course was discussed when I spoke to Jamie just a few months later.
Postscript to that postscript: convening for the first time in a while at Andy’s funeral, the seeds were sown for a comeback which, judging by the band’s enthusiastic chatter, has its sights set on well beyond the forthcoming Christmas gig. A brand new studio album – to be titled Attack of the Mutant 50ft Kebab, if they weren’t pulling my leg – is in the works, with plenty of touring lined up for 2012 and beyond. And this time, they’ll be ready for it. It was Rocksucker’s absolute honour to sit down for a drink or three with the surviving original members of Space – as well as new drummer Allan Jones, who has been brought in from the Red Scare alongside Phil Hartley on bass and Ryan Clarke on vintage keys – for what turned out to be a fascinating account of the highs and lows of life in a band, let alone one so unique. To spice things up, we shall intersperse the transcript with a selection of b-sides and rarities…
What was the catalyst for this reunion?
Tommy: Basically, is started when we met at Andy’s funeral. We hadn’t seen each other for ages so it sort of broke the ice between us. We hadn’t fallen out or anything like that, we just decided to do our own things, didn’t really want to be in a band together any more. After we met up again at Andy’s funeral, we started going to each other’s gigs. Then I started doing this solo thing [Tommy Scott and The Red Scare] and I started sneaking a few Space songs into my sets. I fell out of love with them and never wanted to play any Space songs again but I started getting to love them again like that. I was playing five Space songs and I started to feel guilty about it.
Tommy: The ones people want to hear, like “Female of the Species” and “Neighbourhood”. But I started to feel that it wasn’t right to play them without the others, that I was playing the songs while they were in a crap band!(Much mirth and feigned outrage ensues)
Tommy: It’s funny, we met right here. I asked Mark [Cowley, manager] to get hold of them. I didn’t want to get hold of them myself because I didn’t know what it was going to be like.
Jamie: ‘Cause he’s too big for his f***ing boots.
Tommy: Yeah, it’s my ego, of course. I am the galactico of this band! But no, we met in a pub around here. They kept calling off the meeting ’cause they actually thought it was because we had some big tax bill! They didn’t realise it was to get the band back together.
Jamie: I was convinced, man. Franny kept phoning me up saying, “We’ve got to go,” and I kept saying, “I’m not going. He hasn’t got me number. Mark hasn’t got me number. Don’t give anyone me number. And don’t tell him where I live!”
Franny: I just said, “The only way we’re going to know is if Tommy’s going.” I said to Mark, “Is Tommy going to the meeting?” He said, “Eeeerrrm…” I said, “There’s no ‘eeeerrrms'; if Tommy’s at the meeting then it’s hopefully not going to be a tax bill.” He said Tommy would be there, so I said, “Okay, then we’ll go.”
Jamie: The funny thing is, when we got there, we never actually spoke about what we were there for for the first hour. It was just general chitchat and then, all of a sudden, Tommy does that ‘serious’ face and says (slamming hands down on table), “Right, let’s get down to business.” I looked at Franny and went, “F***in’ hell, man, this sounds expensive.” I thought me house was gonna be repossessed!
Allan: While this was going on, me, Ryan and Phil were sat in here saying, “Should we go down or should we stay here? What if it’s kicking off?” (Laughs)
Tommy: I couldn’t get Leon back in the band because we already had a drummer, and Leon had left us because he was supposed to be moving to Australia. So I felt bad about that but Allan, Phil and Ryan were in my band and I couldn’t…
Jamie: No, we haven’t just got Allan in the band ’cause we couldn’t get Leon; Allan suits the band more the way we are now. We’re a different band now to what we were back in the ’90s, we don’t use all the backing tracks. And it’s great to have Phil on bass because you don’t have to tell him what to play, he just does it. He just knows.
Franny: To be honest, when he mentioned not doing backing tracks, it was dead weird for me because I’m used to the electronic side and all that shit. The studio round the corner is where we recorded the demos that clinched a deal for us in the beginning, and what I’ve found is – and I don’t know whether the others will agree with me – and Jamie will disagree with me just to be a c*** – I’ve found that our sound now is like when we first did those demos. It’s not totally polished, it has a little cool thing about it, and I feel it’s a bit special that we’re back rehearsing in that room now. It just feels like the right place to be doing it.
Jamie: It fucking stinks to high heaven, though.
Tommy: One of the bands that practices there often has this little Jack Russell that comes and shits in our room.
Jamie: It shits right next to Allan’s drums!
Allan: It shits on me drums.
That’s critics for you. Now, the sound you had on Spiders always seemed like one that would be hard to recreate live…
Jamie: It goes before Spiders, doesn’t it?
Tommy: The thing is, we’ve got two keyboard players both doing different stuff now.
Franny: Trying to do, for instance, “Female of the Species” was nigh on impossible for me because there’s an orchestra going on and everything, but with the two of us there we can try and recreate it as best as we can.
Jamie: D’you know what Jonny, I think the best this band’s ever sounded was before we recorded Spiders, when we were down in the basement at Yorkie’s house.
Do any of the Spiders-era b-sides come from that era?
Jamie: Yeah, they were all from there.
Tommy: The actual single version of “Female of the Species” came from there too.
Jamie: When it came to recording the album, we had a big, hotshot producer in, but I think we sounded better before then. Remember when we were first down in the basement and Franny brought that keyboard in? The Roland DJ-70.
Tommy: Yeah that’s true but we wouldn’t have made it if we hadn’t got a producer in. We’d still be in that basement!
Jamie: No, of course. But I think a lot changed when he brought that keyboard in. That’s when we had all the samples and all that.
Tommy: I despised that from the start. I’ve never liked the idea of not being able to play what’s on the record. We had to use backing tracks live at the time because it would have sounded like a pile of crap but now we don’t need it: it’s bigger, it’s harder…
Jamie: We’re going back to our roots.
Tommy: It sounds like what the album should have been like.
Jamie: That’s right, that.
Allan: I wasn’t a massive Space fan back in the day. All me mates were like, “Listen to these, they’re brilliant,” but I just wasn’t into it ’cause I was into other stuff. But, from listening to the singles and then going onto YouTube and watching them live, it’s a totally different experience. Live, they’re fucking brilliant.
Franny, now you’ve got another keyboardist on board, do you deal more with the electronica/techno sort of stuff or the actual playing? I would guess the techno side but of course you used to do both.
Franny: Yeah, I guess so. I thought me and Ryan would step on each other’s toes a bit but it’s worked out brilliant. We don’t even have to speak to each other about it because we know what our positions are in the band. As it goes on, I’d like to see it blend a bit more, instead of him just taking care of all the old vintage keyboards, maybe incorporating other stuff.
Tommy: He’s the geek of the band: wears a fez and glasses, likes vintage keyboards, know what I mean?
Franny: It’s great because I manage all the modern stuff and, if we do need that old-style sound, then he can take care of it. I’ve always tried to use really modern keyboards, but my challenge is to make it sound old. I hate buying old stuff because then it’s old there and then; I love getting inside them, fucking about with them and making sounds. I love that challenge. For Ryan, it’s vintage so it’s there for him straight away. But at the end of the day, the two of us work together and I think it works well.
Jamie: It’s a lot more complicated than accommodating two guitarists!
Listening back to Tin Planet, the composition of its songs seems to be different to anything else you did; lots of sophisticated jazz chords on acoustic guitar and the like. Is that how they started life, as acoustic chord progressions?
Tommy: Yeah, some of them did. To tell you the truth, like, I think I went a little bit up me own arse on that album…
Jamie: There was a lot of record company influence as well though.
Tommy: Yeah, we were getting pressured non-stop on that album: “you’ve got to write another ‘Female’!” But you can’t; that was just a one-off. So I was trying to write more commercial…
Franny: That’s part of it but- and maybe you didn’t realise it yourself – for me the most obvious influence was the fact that you came off bass guitar. The first album’s all about grooves: it’s got more of a dance vibe to it and the bass is grooving all the time. On the second album, there’s no groove in it: it’s more (mimics a plodding two-note bassline), more about songs.
Tommy: That’s because Yorkie was playing bass on it,
Franny: I was waiting for you to say that! That’s the biggest difference for me.
The grooves were a big part of what attracted me to your music in the first place, and Andy’s rhythms were integral to that. When I spoke to Jamie last time, he described Andy’s recording technique to me but I’m still not sure I understand.
Franny: I used to record Andy on my sampler before we went into the studio, on one mic. “Female of the Species” is the case in point. The record company got hold of it when it had these big, mad drums on it, and I just played this little one-mic drum loop to them that Andy had done. I remember Andy saying, “It’s better, la,” and all we did was put a little delay on it and then put it through this big reverb at the studio. The record company came back and said, “We want that.” Then on “Influenza”, “Rejects”…all of that was just Andy’s drums through one mic, with a bit of tweaking in the studio and stuff. That’s what I love about the sound; it doesn’t sound lo-fi – and I hate that term – but it works. That’s what I was saying before about the demos and practising over there [at the studio]: everything sounds like the way it used to be, before the record company got hold of it. Which is cool.
Tommy: You can dance to all the songs as well. There’s a lot of ska and rock and roll influence in the new album. That’s why I’m made up these [Allan, Phil and Ryan] came in, ’cause we had that and a bit of a punk-y influence, and with Franny and Jamie coming in we’ve got that Space side back to it as well.
Jamie: It’s more like Spiders, this album.
Suburban Rock ‘n’ Roll went back to that sound in a way, with all the samples and whatnot.
Jamie: Suburban Rock ‘n’ Roll is the best Space album. (This is quite a claim, as Jamie wasn’t part of the band by that point.)
Love You More Than Football should have been huge though. How did Gut manage to mess that one up?
Tommy: I wanted to do it with Edwyn Collins so we recorded it with him, and they were dead against it just because it was my idea. They wanted to use the latest, hippest producer and all that. They kept on playing it and saying, “No, we don’t like Edwyn Collins.” I had to fight for him to do it. The head of the record company came down all the way from London to listen to the album. He walked in, sat down – our manager was upstairs at the time – we played him some songs, then he got up and said, “That’s cool. I’m going to go speak to your manager.” I thought, “What the fuck’s going on?” so I went after him and said, “Eh, fuckin’ bollocks, get back in here. You don’t need to see the manager.” I kicked off then and nearly started a fight with him, the head of the company. He’s going, “Go on, hit me then!” and stuff like that. I just lost it ’cause he had no respect. Once you’ve dissed a man like that, there’s no going back.
Franny: That’s basically what happened, but there’d been a big build-up to that point. We built our own studio and that took a while to get done, then we decided to record the album there, and we wanted our own man to do it so we got Edwyn in. But they brought in Andy Hughes, who used to be in The Orb, but Andy was too techno-y. I remember listening back to the stuff we did with him and I didn’t like it at all. Edwyn was the cooler side of it. So that year we had two producers in and, in the end, Jeggsy [Jeremy Wheatley], who worked on the first two albums, came along and sort of rescued it for us, but by that time we’d upset the record company and they weren’t making a big deal of us like they were. They had Tom Jones on board for them now, and they’d never have had Tom Jones on board if it weren’t for us writing that fucking song [“The Ballad of Tom Jones”]. We walked into their offices in London and, where there used to be a big cover of Spiders on the wall, now it was Tom Jones. We all walked in and just went, “What the fuck?”
Tommy: Don’t get me wrong, we wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for them [Gut Records], but they didn’t even want us to tour. Mark had to go in and fight to get tour money so we could tour. They just wanted to make us into a little pop band or something like that, and we just rebelled against it non-stop.
I remember reading at least one interview with you where you said they wanted to turn you into The Beautiful South.
Tommy: Right, that’s the way it was. They wanted us to go a bit more middle-of-the-road and all that. Gut had only ever really had one-album bands; we were the first band of theirs that actually did two albums, and both successful albums. They used all the money from one of our albums to do the Tom Jones thing. There was no money left for us. And another thing: we were the first band of theirs that didn’t owe the record company any money. We were in the black. But, with the third album, they needed to record it, then record something else, and we ended up in debt with them. So that’s what bollocksed it up as well, like.
Jamie: The fella [head of Gut] was being a prick, though.
Tommy: To be honest, I fucked up a little bit as well because I insisted on “Diary of a Wimp” being the first single, when it shouldn’t have been.
Jamie: You’re messing, aren’t ya? That was a great song!
Franny: For me, the songs off Love You More Than Football were much better before we went in the studio. We’d done them in our studio and they sounded amazing, exactly how we wanted, but then you go into another studio and for some reason they feel it’s necessary to try and put their mark on it. Now, we never had a producer for that album, we only had an engineer, but the engineer felt that there being no producer gave him a bit of license. He’d go back into the studio after being there all day and change the song around, then play it back when the record company were there and they’d go, “Oh, that’s great!” while we’d be going, “You slimy bastard!” And you couldn’t argue with him because they liked it.
Tommy: We went to Shanghai with the Liverpool youth team, as kind of ambassadors for Liverpool. We played songs from Love You More Than Football acoustically in nightclubs over there and it went down reasonably well.
Franny: (Presumably referring to the final question of this parallel, football-based interview) You haven’t asked us what our worst Space song is yet!
Go on, then!
Jamie: [Yorkie’s song from Love You More Than Football] “Supersonic Jetplane”!
I like it, although it does sound like a standard sort of two-chord song that the rest of you guys got hold of and coloured in/produced/arranged until it was something quite bit different.
Franny: That’s exactly what it is. It’s Space-by-numbers, that song, and that’s what I didn’t like about it. It’s got every cliché about Space in that song. Everything: harps, big string arrangements, brass. If you had to write a book on how to write a Space song…
Tommy: I love it now, but I used to hate “Dark Clouds” because it was just pure cheese, like Kajagoogoo or something. Now it’s one of me favourite songs.
Jamie: I know it sounds insane but it reminds me of Inspiral Carpets, that bit at the beginning (mimics said riff) with the organ and all that.
Tommy: Most times when I’ve been in the chippy or something and a massive skinhead comes in, they always say that’s their favourite song! Also, someone reminded me that, when we played the Hillsborough concert at Anfield, the sun actually came out when we played that song. So it must be a good song!
It’s got a great video too…
Franny: For me, the video – and I was saying this the other day – there was a time in Space where everything was just perfect. You’d have your ups and downs, know what I mean, but when we did the video for that, I’ve never seen Andy Parle laugh so much in all me life. He was probably laughing at Jamie, like, ’cause he was losing his hair by then and he had to jump up and down on a trampoline!(All laugh)
Allan: We were watching that video not long ago and Tommy says, “Ah, look at Jamie’s hair on this when he jumps!”
Jamie: It stayed up whenever I bounced down again! Fucking hell.
I remember seeing you play “The Ballad of Tom Jones” live on TFI Friday, and Chris Evans announcing as he introduced you that Jamie had just become a father.
Jamie: Yeah, we were just about to go on and Chris Evans went, “Woah, stop, stop, stop! I’d just like to announce that Jamie’s wife’s just given birth to his daughter!” We went into the first chord of it but all I could think about was that. To find out your daughter’s just been born just as you’re about to go into the first chord of a song live on TV…madness.
Tommy: That’s one we can’t play now, unless Cerys comes and does it with us.
Franny: My mate got married to that song in Las Vegas. And, as they were getting married, they both sang it to each other. They know every single word and they can both sing as well.
(I proffer my own impersonation of the song, but Tommy declares my Cerys impression to sound more like Gonzo from The Muppets Show. He’s got a point.)
Going back to your original sound, I can’t imagine that we’ll see the likes of it again anytime soon. It was equal parts each of you: Tommy’s cartoon crooner thing, Jamie’s rock and roll, Franny’s techno/house and Andy’s hip hop. A real melting pot.
Tommy: It’s like that now but with ska and rockabilly influences as well, and pure sci-fi again. It’s pure dance-y but not in a hip hop way, in a groove way.
Allan: When we played live at places around town with The Red Scare, before Franny and Jamie came, you just can’t help moving to it.
Franny: Yeah, it’s got a good groove on it. It’s interesting. To be honest, it’s got a vibe to it where you wonder how the new fans are going to take to it. Because the old fans, they seem to like everything, no matter what you throw at them.
Tommy: We [The Red Scare] played at Chester Rocks and the Matthew Street Festival, and everyone was dancing, old and young, to every song.
Franny: It’ll be interesting to take on the road. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
Franny, have you ever thought about putting together a whole album’s worth of electronic stuff? “Fran in Japan” is still one of the most epic things I’ve ever heard, electronic or otherwise…
Franny: The record company wanted me to do it all the time but I felt it wasn’t the right thing to do. I was happy with what I was doing because it was giving me the scope to do weird stuff…
Tommy: I can’t stand techno music. I’ve never liked it.
Franny: …and, what with all the b-sides as well, it would have done me head in. I’d be sitting in the hotel on me own writing b-sides while these were out doing interviews. That kept me happy. I’m not really into pure techno; I love dance music but it wasn’t pure techno.
Tommy: I loved it when you’d do the b-sides and they’d be all weird and spooky.
Franny: Yeah, it was more like electronic stuff. Someone just labelled it one day, “Franny likes techno”, because it was easy. But it wasn’t about that, it was more about ’80s electronic stuff, proper old-school stuff.
(I hadn’t noticed at the time but, at this point, someone says “cheese pie”. I couldn’t tell you why.)