‘Strangeways… seems to be everybody in the band’s favourite album – it’s one of the very few things we all agree on nowadays’

Mike Joyce – picture by Paul Husband.

This week, Strangeways, Here We Come, the fourth and final studio album by influential ‘80s Manchester indie-rock band The Smiths – Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite group of all time – celebrates its 35th birthday.

By the time the record was released, on September 28, 1987, the band had split up, following the departure of guitarist, Johnny Marr.

Many people – the group included – view Strangeways, Here We Come as the band’s masterpiece, although, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, (whisper it) we think The Queen Is Dead, which was released the year before, deserves that accolade. But that’s for another time and place…

There’s no doubt about it, though – Strangeways, Here We Come is one of the greatest rock records of all time. The Smiths’ most ambitious and experimental album, it takes in ghostly piano-led pop (A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours), synth brass-assisted glam (I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish), eerie psychedelic atmospherics (Death of a Disco Dancer), witty black comedy set to a lilting acoustic guitar line (Girlfriend In A Coma), epic, orchestral melodrama (Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me) and macabre rockabilly (Death At One’s Elbow).

To coincide with Strangeways, Here We Come’s (unhappy) birthday, Smiths drummer, Mike Joyce, generously agreed to raffle off his silver disc of the album to raise money for Back on Track, a Manchester charity that he is a patron of.

Back on Track works with adults to help manage problematic drug/alcohol use, enable a crime-free life, improve mental health and wellbeing, or find a stable home.

To be in with a chance of winning Mike’s special copy of the classic album, enter the raffle here and make a donation.

In another kind gesture, Mike agreed to give Say It With Garage Flowers an interview, in which he shares his memories of recording Strangeways, Here We Come, talks about the brilliance of The Smiths, recalls some of his collaborations after the breakup of the band, and fills us in on his latest musical project, Love Tempo.

“Strangeways… is a great-sounding album – it’s very different from anything we had heard before, but then again I could say that about just about every Smiths album or track,” he tells us. We completely agree with him.

Q&A

So, let’s talk about Strangeways, Here We Come, which is celebrating its 35th birthday this month. It’s one of the greatest albums ever made…

Mike Joyce: Thank you.

You’re of the opinion it’s the best album The Smiths recorded – and you’re not the only member of the band to think that…

MJ: Collectively, it’s one of the very few things we all agree on nowadays [laughs]. From what I’ve heard, it seems to be everybody’s favourite. I can see why.

Why do you say that?

MJ: From a musician’s point of view and also what we’d experienced as a band prior to Strangeways…  The first album came out, expectations were high, then there was a difficult second album, and a third album where we were retaining the same threads, so we didn’t alienate all the fans we had. We had some very successful albums for a genuinely independent band and we didn’t know Strangeways… was going to be our last album. Well, I didn’t!

I think Johnny might’ve had an idea…

MJ: I don’t know – he certainly didn’t let on if that was the case.

It’s subjective – you speak to some people and they say the first album blows everything out of the water and that it’s miles better than Strangeways…but it’s like ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ ‘Orange is great, but what about blue, or purple? ‘Purple is superb – I’d forgotten about that one…’ It’s just whatever tickles your fancy.

Strangeways… is a great-sounding album – it’s very different from anything we had heard before, but then again I could say that about just about every Smiths album or track.

‘We had some very successful albums for a genuinely independent band and we didn’t know Strangeways… was going to be our last album. Well, I didn’t!’

Have you listened to Strangeways... recently?

MJ: I did listen to it not long ago, because Tim Burgess did a listening party for it. But I hadn’t listened to it in its entirety probably since the day it came out.

When I mentioned that during the listening party, people were very shocked. Do authors sit down and read their books? I don’t know…

I had a CD jukebox that held 200-300 CDs – when I was filling it up, I said to Tina [Christina – wife]: ‘Shall I put a Smiths album in it, or is that a bit tight?’ She said: ‘No – put one in.’ So, I said: ‘Which one?’ And she said, ‘Your favourite.’ So, I did. When we were playing it, Last Night I Dreamt… came on – of course it would, out of the thousands of tracks that are on there – and someone heard it.

They found it so moving that I think they were quite shocked – they didn’t really know that much about The Smiths, apart from Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, This Charming Man and How Soon Is Now. When they heard Last Night I Dreamt… they said: ‘Wow – is that you?’ I said: ‘Yes – it’s little ole me…’  It’s a big departure from anything…

I think if you listen to The Queen Is Dead, you can hear the direction The Smiths where heading in, which would eventually lead to Strangeways, like using the Emulator synth strings on the arrangement for There Is A Light…

MJ: Yeah, yeah – and on I Know It’s Over. 

But also on Strangeways… there’s rockabilly – Death At One’s Elbow – which is going back to some of The Smiths’ earlier stuff. And then there’s I Won’t Share You, which has a similar feel to Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.

Last Night I Dreamt… is my favourite song on Strangeways… and it’s one of my favourite Smiths songs. 

MJ: It’s one of mine, too.

I love the arrangement  – it’s like a pocket symphony. It reminds me of the Walker Brothers or a big ’50s orchestral ballad… 

MJ: It’s not the kind of tune you jam out –  it’s not just going with a riff and seeing what comes out of it, although we did do a bit of that. A lot of the time we ran through a lot in sound checks – we never sat down and said, ‘Right – let’s block book a rehearsal room or studio’. We just kind of jammed and blasted it out.

We had a great working relationship –  we could empathise with whatever the other guy was playing.

‘During Strangeways, Johnny was set up in the control room with an Emulator and he just started playing these incredible string and piano parts. I was taken aback –  I thought, ‘Hold on a minute –  where did he learn to do that?’

We never felt like we were struggling to get things done, further things or finish things when Johnny had come up with a riff. Sometimes, Johnny would come in the room and start playing and me and Andy [Rourke – bassist] would just start playing the drums and bass for it – that’s just what it was like. We knew what we thought was right for it, and, invariably, it was. I suppose it doesn’t happen that often for bands and songs because you’re working on a lot.

The Smiths (Left to right: Andy Rourke, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and Johnny Marr)

In terms of the Emulator, and the way that Johnny was writing at the time, I can remember during Strangeways... [in the Wool Hall studio, near Bath, Somerset ], he was set up in the control room rather than the live room and he just started playing these incredible string and piano parts. I know he’d played those on tracks before, but I was taken aback – I thought, ‘Hold on a minute – where did he learn to do that?’

Watching Johnny writing those parts and working out where they would fit… People throw around the word ‘genius’… but he did that without sitting down or rehearsing with a string section. He’d never been classically trained.

He’s also a better piano player than Morrissey is on Death of a Disco Dancer…

MJ: Well, actually I really like that piano part…

It’s atonal and it suits the song…

MJ: It’s just odd, which kind of goes with the man.

When Strangeways… was released, The Smiths had disbanded, after Johnny left the group. Were you sad that you never got the chance to promote the album or play any songs from it live?

MJ: No – I pulled my sadness back a few notches. I was slightly miffed – the finished article sounded so great – but I was more shocked about the split than not being able to play the songs live. That usurped it. I don’t think we would’ve done a Strangeways… tour – we might’ve played a couple from it.

‘I really like Morrissey’s piano part on Death of a Disco Dancer. It’s just odd, which kind of goes with the man’

Last Night I Dreamt… would’ve been tricky to play live at the time, wouldn’t it? Although Johnny has played it at some of his solo gigs in the past few years…

MJ: Oh, has he? The vocals, the bass and the drums are pretty bog standard – well, not bog standard, I’m sure Morrissey would be delighted to hear me say that – but with the string parts, it would’ve been tough, and there’s some percussion on there. I wouldn’t have thought it would’ve been that difficult to emulate.

We never rehearsed those songs [from Strangeways…]. Death of a Disco Dancer was just a take that we thought sounded great – we were just jamming with a rough framework to work from. The only time when we had an issue technically [live] was with How Soon Is Now, and that was with this bit [he sings the slide guitar part]. We tried it with a trigger, but it didn’t work – sometimes it was not sensitive enough, or it was too sensitive…

Picture by Paul Husband

So, with Strangeways.… turning 35, you’ve generously decided to raffle off your silver disc of the album to raise money for Manchester’s Back on Track charity, which you’re a patron of. How did you get involved with the organisation?

MJ: They asked me to be a patron – I had absolutely no idea what it entailed or about Back on Track, so I went to one of their open days, had a look round and listened to some of the testimonies of the people the charity had helped. It just seemed like such a wonderful place – helping people with rehabilitation from alcohol or drugs or anything that is stopping them being a part of society. It’s quite difficult for some people to come back into society, because all they’ve known are some frighteningly bad environments and they need to keep away from them.

‘The silver disc of Strangeways, Here We Come is precious to me, but I’ve got the memories of playing on the album and that’s more precious than anything’

Back on Track is a start for them and, apart from the obvious psychological and emotional battles, some of these people don’t have any qualifications – Back on Track can help with that and organise interviews for jobs that are available. To actually see and hear someone’s story when you’re sat face-to-face with them, and it sounded like it was all over for them, but, because of Back on Track it wasn’t… it was a no-brainer.

I thought that maybe I could organise some finances for Back on Track by raffling a disc. Everybody’s struggling at the moment and charities are no exception, especially post-Covid.

The [silver] disc of Strangeways… is precious to me, but I’ve got the memories of playing on the album and that’s more precious  than anything. Getting the accolade and receiving something made of glass, metal and plastic is wonderful, but I still received it – even when it’s gone and it’s raised money for the charity –  so I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’

I’m sure you’ve got a few other discs at home…

MJ: Yes, I have…

Thank God you didn’t choose to raffle off The Queen Is Dead. Timing is everything, isn’t it?

MJ: I don’t know if that would’ve been the best or the worst thing…

‘When I play with any artist, I really do have to find out about them – that’s why I’ve never done any session work. I want to know what their dreams and aspirations are, and what they hate and love’

You’d certainly have got some PR coverage out of it… Let’s talk about some of the other music you’ve been involved with after The Smiths. After they disbanded, you and Andy Rourke played with Sinead O’Connor. You’ve played with quite a few controversial singers, including John Lydon, in PIL, haven’t you?

MJ: I love it! When I play with any artist, I really do have to find out about them – that’s why I’ve never done any session work. I can’t go into an environment where it’s like, ‘Hi – this is Tony, this is Dave, this is Emma – off you go’. I don’t want to do that and I never will.

I have to understand a bit about these people – know them and feel them. I want to know what their dreams and aspirations are, and what they hate and love. I what to know everything about them because when I’m playing drums with these people, we’re having a conversation musically. I want to be able to give them what they want. We play a little bit – I know where their head’s at and what they want. By going and having a few beers with somebody, you can find out a lot about them, without asking them questions directly.

All the people that I’ve worked with are very interesting, intense and different. They’re very driven and some of them are very fragile – strong but not. They’re interesting characters and it’s fascinating, because I get to see everything – the audience, the singer, the band… I’m in a really privileged position, literally.

You played with P.P. Arnold, didn’t you?

MJ: Yeah – it was just a small kind of thing. I was working with a guy called Grant Ainsworth, who’s a fantastic keyboard player and a good mate of mine. We got in touch with her through our management at the time, but we didn’t really have the songs for her level of expertise. We did a couple of things – they were alright, they weren’t ‘chuck it in the bin’, but with her legacy, I felt someone like Mark Ronson should’ve stepped in there and done something superb with a full-on band. She was one of the Ikettes and she toured with The Rolling Stones – the stories that she had…

Have you read her book, Soul Survivor, which came out this year?

MJ: No – I didn’t even know she had one out. I’ll get hold of that. She used to talk to me about her and Jimi, who had a thing. I was like Jimi who? And she’d say, ‘Hendrix’….  and I’d say ‘Oh!’ And she’d talk about Brian being upset. And I’m like, ‘Brian? Brian Moore?’ And she’d say, ‘Brian Jones.’ It was unbelievable. She’s one of the loveliest people – inside and outside of music. That was a lovely little period of my life. We tried but we didn’t succeed, but I didn’t mind that – we didn’t have the right armoury for her, or to bring out the best in her. It was a great experience because she was such a sweetheart.

You and I have a mutual friend, singer-songwriter, Vinny Peculiar. You and Andy – and Craig Gannon, who was also in The Smiths – played with him, didn’t you? He’s such a great artist – his lyrics are wonderful.

MJ: Aren’t they just? That’s why I wanted to play with him. I heard his music and I thought ‘This is great’. I said to Andy, ‘Have a listen to this – these are good songs’. And they were – and they are. We had a good time playing with him for a few years, but I felt my time working with Vinny had come to an end – it had reached fruition. He’s a good friend – we went for a curry about a month ago. He’s a lovely guy.

The Smiths – Photo by Pete Cronin/Redferns

Why did you and Andy work so well together as a rhythm section? What was the chemistry? Didn’t Morrissey, or was it Johnny, once say you could’ve played with Elvis you were that good?

MJ: I remember that quote. I’ve not revisited it since you’ve mentioned it – it was 25 years ago and it was Johnny. He said, ‘If Elvis had had me and Andy as a rhythm section, he would’ve been a bigger star’. It was tongue-in-cheek, obviously. I love Andy – we got very tight on tour and we were rooming together. The way that I played and the way that he played worked together and so did the parts we wrote.

Andy’s quite a busy bassist –  he’s not a pedaller, he’s on the note. You can take his bassline away and it’s a song in itself. If I was a busy drummer, it would sound shit – there would be too much going on. I think that helped in the way that we played together – when I heard him playing those really busy basslines for the first time, I’d go very simple, which is what I do anyway. I like to play a rhythm rather than try and stamp my authority on the whole track – and that works. Our friendship was a massive part of it – we saw each other every single day for five years. It wasn’t just, ‘I’ll see you for rehearsals on Friday’.

Does it upset you when people say the legacy of The Smiths has been tarnished by some of the things that have happened since the band broke up?

I interviewed Johnny 20 years ago, when he’d launched The Healers, and he told me that other people – not just the band themselves  – had tarnished the legacy of The Smiths, like Warner Bros, who messed up a Best Of compilation when it came to mastering it and doing the artwork and the credits, etc.

‘If somebody doesn’t want to listen to a Smiths record for whatever reason, then don’t listen to it – it’s okay, I don’t mind’

And then there was the court case, which you brought against Morrissey and Johnny, and, in more recent times, Morrissey has upset people with some of his controversial views, so some people have decided they can’t listen to The Smiths anymore. Do we have to separate the art from the artist?

MJ: I don’t find it upsetting. We’re talking about somebody that I don’t know. Just because someone has a different view to me… With social media at the moment, I feel like there’s a lot of ‘get the pitchforks out’ if someone says something very different from what you’ve said. Of course I care, but I don’t find it upsetting. If somebody doesn’t want to listen to a Smiths record for whatever reason, then don’t listen to it – it’s okay, I don’t mind.

‘I can isolate 1982-1987 really well – that’s where my dreams were made and everything shone for me. Nobody can ever take that away. Whatever happens afterwards – people whingeing about this, or what somebody said… I’m not really that bothered’

Going back to the other thing you said about Johnny, maybe I’m not as intense as he is about those kinds of things, to be brutally honest. I could say,’Yeah – it’s a travesty and they’ve not done this or that,’ but, do you know what? As far as I’m concerned, I can isolate 1982-1987 really well – that’s where my dreams were made and everything shone for me. In terms of my musical aspirations, I’d arrived at them and nobody can ever take that away. Whatever happens afterwards – people whingeing about this, or what somebody said… I’m not really that bothered.

So, what are you up to now, musically? Any new projects? 

MJ: I do a bit of DJing – it’s a good night and I really enjoy the music.

What’s in your set?

MJ: It’s classic indie – Primal Scream, The Undertones, The Clash, Blondie. It’s the music that I like to listen to and have a dance to. It’s very simple – there are no curveballs in there. I enjoy doing that.

A few years ago, a friend of mine called Rick Hornby, whom I’ve known for 30-odd years, was living in London, doing some session work. He moved back to Cheadle Hulme [in Cheshire], which is about five or six miles away from where I live now. I’ve got a soundproof basement and I asked him if he’d fancy doing a bit of playing and he said he’d love to. So, he came down and we just played – there was no agenda. His guitar sound is superb and I was inspired by it. He was playing some really good parts, but I was more inspired by the sound – it’s a bit like the B-52’s. I’ve not heard a lot of guitarists play like that – it’s bordering on rockabilly, but a bit more modern.

‘Rick Hornby and I have started doing a bit of writing together and we’ve been to see an artist in Manchester – I can’t say who it is – but we’re going do to some recording with him in the States next year. He’s a guy from San Francisco and the band’s called Love Tempo’

We started doing a bit of writing together and we’ve been to see an artist in Manchester who he knows – I can’t say who it is – but we’re going do to some recording with him in the States next year and see what happens. He’s a guy from San Francisco and the band’s called Love Tempo. We’re going to throw it against the wall and see what sticks. I’m really excited about it. I didn’t think that I was going to do much more playing to be honest with you, because nothing had come along that made we go ‘wow’. This did.

I wasn’t that bothered if I didn’t get on a stage again, but, every time I go to a gig, I’m like, ‘God, I wish I could get up and play…’ but then that’s gone by the next day.

‘Fontaines D.C. have completely satiated my need to listen to new music. I’ve seen them live a few times over the last couple of years and each time they get better and better. They’re my new favourite group. I’ve not been as affected by seeing a band since I saw Buzzcocks when I was 14’

Do you listen to a lot of new music or go to many gigs?

MJ: I pick up bits and bobs. Until a couple of years ago, I was doing a radio show, and that dictated that I was keeping my ear to the ground and going to gigs a lot.  I listen to 6 Music and have the radio on when I’m in the car, but it’s mainly Talk Sport.

Fontaines D.C. have completely satiated my need to listen to new music. I’ve seen them live a few times over the last couple of years and each time they get better and better. They’re my new favourite group. I’ve not been as affected by seeing a band since I saw Buzzcocks when I was 14.

You played with them too, didn’t you? 

MJ: [Laughs]: Yes – I did.

Going back to The Smiths. How many times a week do people ask if you The Smiths will ever reform, do you get annoyed by it and what do you tell them?

MJ: Well, what day are we now? It’s Friday and you’re the first person this week. That’s not unusual. I don’t get asked very often, but, it’s usually in an interview situation, not when I’m putting my sourdough in my basket and it goes ‘beep beep’. I don’t get asked then.

In a working environment, like when I’m DJing, people ask me if there’s any chance of it happening. I think Johnny and Morrissey get asked a lot more than I do – probably ‘cos Johnny does a lot more interviews than I do. Andy probably gets asked the least because he doesn’t seem to be doing any live work at all.

‘If The Smiths reformed now and went and played, you wouldn’t be seeing The Smiths.  I like the idea of us not reforming. And even if they did, they might do it, but minus me! I was surprised it didn’t happen earlier’

I don’t get pissed off by it – it’s a natural question and I probably would’ve asked it of a band if I’d seen one member… Actually, I wouldn’t! Every time I see Ian Brown, I don’t ask him ‘When are the Roses getting back together?’

I think it’s because The Smiths had a relatively short career – only five years. A lot of people, like me, got into them after they’d split up – they never got the chance to see the band play live.

MJ: I think you’re right. I’ll tell you what, if The Smiths reformed now and went and played, you wouldn’t be seeing The Smiths.  I like the idea of us not reforming. And even if they did, they might do it, but minus me! I was surprised it didn’t happen earlier. There’s a reason why bands split up. They don’t say, ‘I’ll see you right I’ve got your number and I’ll check in every couple of weeks to see how you’re doing’. It never happens it’s a massive fucking breakup. It’s a divorce. People don’t ask you if you’re gonna get back with your ex-wife again! ‘It’s been 35 years, come on! You did love her…’

The idea of doing it? We’re all four very different people than we were when we were rehearsing in Crazy Face. It’s a lifetime that’s gone by.

The Smiths – photo by Stephen Wright

I think there’s a quote that Morrissey said: ‘Why would I go on stage with people that I don’t even know?’ Well, that’s exactly how I feel. I don’t know Morrissey and Johnny – I know Andy, because I’ve seen him since The Smiths split and up to the present day, but I haven’t seen Morrissey or Johnny, or sat down or spoken to them for 30-odd years. Why would I want to do that?

The financial gain is something that everybody talks about they say everybody’s got a price. Well, I don’t think so. It depends on how much you want the money, doesn’t it? Maybe you haven’t got a price and someone says: ‘We’ll give you £1oo,000,000  each.’ And the answer is still ‘no.’ ‘We’ll give you £5oo,000,000’ the answer is still ‘no.’ Maybe they’d then just leave them alone because it’s not going to happen. The rumours do come out it seems to happen just before either a Morrissey or a Johnny tour. I don’t know [laughs]... It make sense put it in the news…

There have been a lot of books published about the The Smiths, and Morrissey and Johnny have both written their autobiographies. Would you ever write one?

MJ: No. It’s funny – after an interview, usually, someone says to me, ‘Have you ever thought about writing a book?’ I have thought about it and then I think about not writing a book. It’s as simple as that. I have no desire, but a lot of people want to hear what I’ve got to say. Maybe it might happen, it might not happen… I just can’t be arsed. I know that’s not the most eloquent answer to your question.

There’s more to life than books you know…

MJ: But not much more.

To enter Mike Joyce’s charity raffle for Back on Track, please click here. 

https://www.mikejoyce.com/

https://www.backontrackmanchester.org.uk/

Mike Joyce – picture by Paul Husband

 

From heroes to Zeros

Brand New Zeros – Luke Dolan and Ronan MacManus.

Back To Zero, the second album by London-based Brand New Zeros – singer-songwriter Ronan MacManus and lead guitarist Luke Dolan – is steeped in classic rock ‘n’ roll, New Wave, dirty blues and classy pop ballads.

The album came out in 2021, but some of the socio-political songs on the record are even more relevant now than they were written – especially in the light of the cost of living crisis the UK is facing and the strange times we’re living in, when hate seems to the dominant force and emotion, rather than values like love and compassion.

There are moments on Back To Zero that recall the crunching power-rock of The Who – This Love – the soulful sound of Paul Carrack-era Squeeze – Human Kindness, and, at times, like on the angry and acerbic racket of Money Goes To Money – a diatribe on the wealth divide in the UK – the frantic and urgent, Hammond-organ fuelled Can’t Do It, which tackles extreme anxiety, and the grunge-tinged, Angels With Guns – a stinging comment on US kids carrying out school shootings – you’ll be reminded of vintage Elvis Costello. So, it’s no surprise to find that Ronan is actually his younger brother – Elvis’s real name is Declan MacManus.

Say It With Garage Flowers editor, Sean Hannam, with Ronan MacManus.

 

“Just so you know, I’m happy to talk about Dec,” says Ronan – he never calls him Elvis – sipping a non-alcoholic drink, outside the Mad Squirrel craft beer shop and bar, in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, on a hot July afternoon. More on that later, but, in the meantime, let’s get back to zero…

Q&A

So, how did you and Luke first meet?

Ronan MacManus: I met Luke at his barber’s shop, which was in Watford – we had a mutual friend. He was in a duo before and that kind of fell apart, so he was looking for something else before.

I was in a band, The BibleCode Sundays, and I needed a side-project. I’d done solo stuff before – I’d released an album back in 2010 and I’d finished a record with my younger brother, Rory, called Elephant In The Room.

Luke and I met at the barber’s shop and we started to write after hours and it really clicked – for the first time, I wasn’t playing guitar. Luke took care of that I was taking care of the lyrics and melodies.

There’s some great guitar on the new record…

RM: Luke’s a real blues head – his dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James [in London] for years. He’d worked every night for six months, but, famously, took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played. It’s one of those great rock ‘n’ roll stories.

Ronan MacManus and Luke Dolan

So, when you and Luke got together, things happened pretty quickly…

RM: Luke and I gelled – it was meant to be an acoustic duo at first, but we quickly realised it needed to be bigger than that, so I asked the bass player [Enda Mulloy] and the drummer [Carlton Hunt] from The BibleCode Sundays to come and join us. Carlton had played with Bad Manners and been in bands for years.

The four of us went to Ireland and recorded the first Brand New Zeros album, which was called Brand New Zeros. We recorded the whole of the album in three days – in-between drinking sessions. We arranged all the songs so we could play them drunk – there were no weird, fancy bits. We were emulating all the bands we listened to as kids, like grunge stuff, but we called it acoustic grunge.

Myself, Luke and Enda all had similar teenage musical upbringings – we all got into the grunge scene: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden…

Luke and I grew up in different parts of London – Harrow and Twickenham – and Enda had grown up in Mayo, in the west of Ireland. Carlton was a bit older than us, so he’d grown up on things like my brother’s music.

‘Luke’s dad was the house drummer at the Scotch of St James. He worked every night for six months, but took the night off when a young guy called Jimi Hendrix got up and played’

And now you have a second album out, Back To Zero, which, musically, is a step on from the first one…

RM: We started recording it at RYP, which is a studio in Rayners Lane [north west London], where [singer-songwriter] Alex Lipinski recorded his last album. Then [in 2017] our drummer, Carlton, died and everything was shelved. Fast forward to 2018/2019 and we started recording again.

This record has a bigger sound than the first one…

RM: The idea was that it was going to sound much more like a four-piece. One night, myself, Carlton and Luke met up in the studio – Enda couldn’t make it – and we did a song called This Love, which is on the record. The version you hear is the only time we ever played that song.

We jammed and recorded it, in the way that U2 used to do and probably still do – play some stuff together, record it and trawl back through it. There was the riff and then the drums came in. I came back in after being out of the room, and I started improvising lyrics – this thing happened.

After we’d listened to it, we thought ‘that’s done’. When Carlton died, we didn’t have any other way of recording it, so that’s how it ended up.

It’s got a dirty bluesy sound…

RM: Yeah – Luke came up with that riff. The song became the catalyst for the album.

So, after that you nailed that song, you carried on recording the rest of the tracks that ended up on the album?

RM: It was actually going to be a solo album – there was no band, but I got some friends to come to RYP to play bass, guitar and keys, with a new drummer, Joe.

We then went to another studio, with a producer called James Halliwell, who played keys with The Waterboys – I’d met him 20 years before, when he was Marti Pellow’s keyboard player. He has a studio in Richmond and we started to flesh things out – he played piano on Human Kindness. 

‘Money Goes To Money was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that’

We then did some recording and mixing with James Knight at his studio – he pulled it all together and then, when it was finished, we heard it, we thought ‘this is the Brand New Zeros album that we started doing four years previously’. That’s when I decided I wanted it to be a Brand New Zeros album.

Hence the title, Back To Zero

RM: Yeah – we’d come full circle.

Money Goes To Money is one of my favourite songs on the album. What can you tell me about it? It’s an angry song about the wealth divide in the UK …

RM: It was written around the time Jacob Rees-Mogg was lying on the backbenches of Westminster – it was a reaction to that.

I love the guitar solo…

RM: Luke played it – I wanted it to be almost like he was having an argument with himself. It was meant to be glitchy and come in and out.

He’s quite a chilled guy, but when we were recording it, I needed him to be angry, so I was shouting in his face, saying ‘C’mon! C’mon!’ I wanted the solo to be a bit like Radiohead – atonal and choppy at times.

Luke Dolan

It’s quite an angry album at times, isn’t it? When were all the songs written?

RM: They were written pre-lockdown – the album was finished and ready to go by the end of January 2020, but it didn’t make it out until 2021.  I’d gone through some mental health issues and some of that is addressed on the record. Luke went through a breakup and there were some rocky patches.

Talking of angry songs, Can’t Do It is a real rocker, and it has some great Hammond organ on it…

RM: It was written about a time when I sat outside a gig and I just couldn’t open the door – my anxiety was so bad. It’s all about self-doubt and depression – mental health issues. It’s about hating yourself.

The album veers from heavy, angry songs to ballads. There are some complete mood changes, like on the slow song, Free As A Bird, which shares its name with a Beatles song…

RM: That’s about me after I’d given up drinking. It was written about a moment, when I was sober, I was looking out of the window at the garden and the sun was coming in –  the clouds had cleared on some of the mental health issues I’d had. I felt happy for the first time and I wanted to capture it.

Let’s go back to ‘angry MacManus’ – Angels With Guns was written about shootings carried out by kids in US schools… 

RM: Yeah – you’d always hear the parents say, ‘He was such a nice kid – we didn’t see it coming…’

You sound very like Elvis on it…

RM: The verses are very Costello.

Human Kindness is one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s a song about compassion and how we treat each other. I think you sound like Paul Carrack on it. 

RM: I’ll take that.

You talked about being sober earlier. Cigarette, which has a Deep South, swamp-blues feel, deals with addiction – drugs and drink. It references cocaine in the lyrics…

RM: Yeah. I’ve been off the booze for over four years. I was trying to give up drink and a bit of drugs as well – I was never heavily into drugs, but I was led into them. I was trying to give up. I stopped drinking, but I was still going to pubs.

‘Being Elvis Costello’s brother has opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened – some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. I’ve embraced it more in recent years’

I had a friend and I could always tell when he was on coke, because his face always looked a certain way and he’d only ever smoke when he was on it. So, when I turned up, he’d be outside the pub with a cigarette and that look on his face. I needed to avoid him to try and keep myself on track. In my mind, I distilled it to just the light of his cigarette in his contorted face.

Finally, has being Elvis’s brother been a help or hindrance to your music career?

RM: A bit of both –  it’s opened doors that wouldn’t have necessarily been opened, and some people listen to us who maybe wouldn’t have. It’s interesting and I’ve embraced it more in recent years. He’s such an extraordinary artist – the musical experiences he had growing up, his record collection, his exposure to music and literature… I don’t think he’ll ever be repeated. His are big shoes to fill.

Red shoes?

RM [laughs]:He’s been a big influence – most people don’t get to call up their heroes and ask them for advice.

Back To Zero by Brand New Zeros is out now on Fretsore Records – vinyl and digital.

https://www.fretsorerecords.com/

https://brandnewzeros.bandcamp.com/album/back-to-zero

Say It With Garage Flowers founder and editor, Sean Hannam, will be interviewing Ronan MacManus and Luke Dolan from Brand New Zeros live on stage, at Beverage Boutique, in Ruislip, West London, on the night of September 25, for the launch of Back To Zero on vinyl.

The duo will perform songs from the record on the night too and there will be a vinyl playback of some of the tracks.

Details / tickets here: free entry!