Interview: The Sums
Published on February 27th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
In 1997, a young Rocksucker was introduced to the spikily melodic and downright grin-inducing pop blast of Merseyside band Smaller when two of their songs (namely “Wasted” and “Giz a Life”) were featured on the resultant album of the Hillsborough Justice Concert, a bill which also included Manic Street Preachers, The Lightning Seeds, Stereophonics, Space, The Beautiful South, Dodgy and The Bootleg Beatles. The band’s debut album Badly Badly was subsequently procured and it still sounds fantastic to this day, a sort of wryly humorous melting pot of Oasis, Half Man Half Biscuit and Primus. Intrigued? You should be.
Unbeknownst to this writer at the time, a second album had to be shelved when their record company Better went into administration, bringing about the demise of Smaller and their subsequent rebirth as The Sums. As if to push the boundaries of how much bad luck can befall one group’s recorded output, another album’s worth of recordings went missing for years until the master tapes, which had been presumed deleted, were eventually recovered by a studio engineer.
This album was belatedly issued last year as If Only…., and we hope that you don’t presuppose hyperbole on our part when we say that it is an absolute joy from start to finish, a tour de force of skewed yet heartfelt psych-pop that showcases not just the brilliantly original songwriting of front man Peter ‘Digsy’ Deary, but also his disarmingly stunning voice, which sits bolder, prouder and raspier in the mix than ever before. That he claims to have another two albums’ worth of material ready to go is cause for great excitement at Rocksucker HQ, and if there’s any justice left in the world then it should bring about a well overdue commercial breakthrough.
It would be a dereliction of journalistic duty not to mention that Digsy is indeed the very Digsy referred to by Noel Gallagher in the Oasis songs “Digsy’s Dinner” and “Be Here Now” (the latter including the line “your shit jokes remind me of Digsy’s”) – and that Noel played guitar on the Smaller single “Is” – but it would also be remiss of us not to fete the contributions to The Sums’ sound of guitarist Lee Watson, drummer Chris Campbell and bassist/backing vocalist Chris Mullin, the latter of whose musical partnership with Digsy dates back to the days of Smaller.
Rocksucker caught up with Digsy as he and his band – whose sound he marvellously describes as “country and northern meets Scouse grunge” – prepare to record their next album, which with any luck should see the light of day this summer. First, though, a taster of If Only…., and details of their not-to-be-missed 7th April show at Liverpool’s Zanzibar club…
How’s the recording going?
It’s sound. I’m just recording new songs in the bedroom at the moment, then I’ll take them to the band and we’ll get them properly arranged.
Can you tell us much about what the new album might sound like, or is it too early to say at this stage?
It’s a bit early to say I suppose, although all the songs are written. The songs on If Only…. are four or five years old; when we recorded them, we lost the master tapes and we couldn’t get them back for ages. We eventually got them back, but in the meantime I’d already written another two albums. So most of the songs written now are for the next two albums coming up. We want to get into the studio as soon as possible so we can get the new record out in the summer.
Losing master tapes must be fairly devastating…
Oh, it was just a nightmare. All that time and effort, and then it’s gone.
Where did they turn up?
They were actually in the studio; the engineer had misplaced them, and they thought they’d been taped over. It turned out they hadn’t been taped over, so we got them back eventually.
Do you know yet when the next record might be released? (Dozy Rocksucker says: evidently I hadn’t noticed that Digsy had effectively answered this just two answers back. To his credit, he didn’t bring this up.)
Well, it’s too early to say at the moment. We want to sell enough copies of If Only so we can make enough money to go back into the studio, because we don’t have a deal at the moment. It’s only a small distribution deal that we have, so all the recording has to be paid for by the band and the manager. So as soon as we get enough money, we’ll be right in there.
Is the material on If Only…. the material that would have made up the second Smaller album?
Will that ever see the light of day?
No, I don’t think it will. What happened was that we went in to record the second Smaller album, and in that time our record company went into administration. They owed the recording studio £11,000, so they were keeping hold of the masters until they got that money. Then just by luck, our producer Mark Coyle was working with another band in the same studio a year or two later, and the manager of the studio said to him that we could have the album back, so he gave it back to me all on two-inch master tapes. I know it sounds funny, but we ended up using the master tapes to record If Only…. . We loaded the songs [from the second Smaller album] onto Pro Tools, and now no-one can find that! So all we have now of that second album is a rough monitor mix. It was called A Shoulder Full of Chips.
I couldn’t help but notice on your Facebook that you’re advertising for a new keyboardist. How’s the search going?
I’ve no idea, but I was talking to Chris about it. We’re talking about doing a gig at the Water Rats in London in March, but that’s too soon. I haven’t played London in a long time, so if I am then I want to take a proper show there; that’s why I thought it would be good to get a keyboard player, to recreate some of the noises on the album and stuff like that. Chris said that someone had got in touch on Facebook saying he’d love to have a go, but let’s wait and see.
I was introduced to Smaller by the CD of the 1997 Hillsborough Justice Concert at Anfield, which included your songs “Wasted” and “Giz a Life”. Do you consider playing that show to be a career highlight?
Oh yeah, it was. It was a really good day, like. Very emotional. We ended up playing it because we were going up to London on a promotional trip to play HMV Records on Oxford Street. We were just sitting on the train and we got talking to this fella and this woman who it turned out ran the Hillsborough Disaster support group. It was them who brought up the idea of getting a concert together; our manager got in touch with them, they put me in touch with others, so it was them that really set the ball rolling for it, and that’s how we came to be on the bill.
Whose idea was it to have a child reciting incorrect sums at the end of “The Biscuit Tin”?
(Laughs) That child has just given me a granddaughter! It was just because of the chorus on it: “And the teacher said, ‘You’re all bad at sums!’” When I was at school, we wouldn’t get any confidence-building comments, we’d just get told that we were stupid; it was basically a song about that, so we had the idea of getting her to read the wrong sums out at the end. It’s a good link from Smaller into The Sums, so when we come onstage we have “The Biscuit Tin” playing through the PA.
“Scared of Missing Out”
I just found Ian McNabb’s splendid review of If Only…. …
It’s good, innit?
We spoke to him recently, as it happens. Have you heard any of his new stuff yet?
I haven’t, but I’ve just recorded with him. A mutual friend of ours is doing this charity single for Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, and he’s got me, Ian Prowse, Ian McNabb, a guy called Barry Sutton who used to be in The La’s, loads of Liverpool musicians, and I think Shaun Ryder’s doing something on the chorus. It’s got all kinds of people on it, and we started recording it a couple of weeks back.
Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming artists that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
Yeah, there’s a band who supported us at the Zanzibar called The Fallows; I thought they were really good. And there’s a band I was listening to the other day called Ratty Little Fingers. They’re pretty odd; they’ve got a tea chest bass like they used in the ‘60s, and there’s a fellow who plays a melodeon and a banjo. Really obscure! They’re like punk-folk or something, really different but really good songs, like.
Finally, if you were forced to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, but were allowed to bring the entire works of five different artists along to tide you over, whose would you choose?
Tom Waits…Sam Cooke…Super Furry Animals…
Great shout with the Super Furries. They’d make Rocksucker’s top five as well.
Oh yeah, that’s what you call a pop group. I aspire to be something like Super Furry Animals. They’re a fucking amazing band. (Getting back to the question at hand) The Beatles, obviously…and it’s got to be Marvin Gaye…no, Aretha Franklin!
Digsy, thank you.
It’s a pleasure, mate.
Digsy and Chris Mullin undergo a worrying transformation…