Popular Preston venue 53 Degrees holds its final live music event in its current guise this weekend, going out in style with cult indie outfit Inspiral Carpets, as MALCOLM WYATT learned from vocalist Stephen Holt.
It could be more a case of Inspirational Curtains than Inspiral Carpets this Sunday (December 21), the influential North Manchester indie outfit promising a last night to remember at UCLan’s 53 Degrees.
While plans are afoot to keep this state-of-the-art Brook Street venue alive – and there’s a Dark-Cide New Year’s Eve party still to come – the last headliners are raring to get out there.
And that’s not just because it also marks the finale of their 12-date winter tour.
Recently-returned vocalist Stephen Holt said: “It’s sad the venue’s going, but that was one of the main reasons we booked when putting the tour together, deciding on it as the final night.
“We’re honoured, really. Graham’s been there a fair bit, and I believe it’s quite a venue. I’m looking forward to it.”
That’s guitarist Graham Lambert he means, Stephen’s band co-founder back in 1983.
It’s been a strange Carpets ride since, not least with Stephen jumping off in 1989, just as the band were reaching their commercial peak.
But he finally returned in 2012, replacing vocalist Tom Hingley, and a couple of months ago the band released self-titled album Inspiral Carpets.
You could be excused for thinking it was their debut LP too. Not just because they chose their name for the title, but this five-piece - completed by organist Clint Boon, drummer Craig Gill and bass player Martyn Walsh - seem so fresh.
When Stephen initially left, Inspiral Carpets were on the brink of success, with the album Life partly written and major interest about to secure a Mute Records deal.
In 1990 they had a top-20 hit with This Is How It Feels, their debut album only kept off the summit by a retrospective Carpenters compilation.
By then Stephen was leading The Rainkings though, with Tom taking over vocal duties.
But the fruits of his eventual return can be heard on their new album for Cherry Red, the results arguably more in keeping with the band’s initial sound.
“Sales haven’t been tremendous, but the reviews and feedback have been brilliant, with many seeing it as either the best or second to Life of the albums we’ve done.
“It’s our first album in 20 years, but in reality only took around six months to write.
We only started kicking round the idea at the start of this year.
“One of the big things about me coming back was that I didn’t just want to just do the hits - they could have got someone else in to do that.
“I wanted to do fresh material, as did everyone else, and one of the reasons it sounds so fresh and spontaneous is we’ve had to just thrash the songs out, make it seem live.
“We did it in our spare time really, because we’ve all got other things on. Trying to get together for long period of time has proved difficult.”
There’s a bit of The Teardrop Explodes or perhaps The Mighty Lemon Drops on a few songs, not least super-catchy single You’re So Good To Me, albeit with Clint’s
tell-tale keyboard sound.
“Even when Tom was in the band, he got compared to Julian Cope for his voice. It’s a weird one though, because for the first time we’ve all had a hand in writing songs.
“We all bring in ideas and it’s a band effort. There are five different sets of influences there.
“But it’s about having that confidence to bring ideas in. You jam a bit, kick things around, then go for it!”
“One of Clint’s big ambitions was to get that sound of Life as well as Trainsurfing, Planecrash, those early singles, back to that garage sound - our old roots.”
Can it really be 31 years ago that Stephen and Graham got the band together?
“That’s scary that, and makes me feel old! I’d known Graham from school days, although we were at different schools.
“We were a little older when we started kicking things around. Craig was still at school though, doing a paper round! We had to pick him up from the school gates sometimes when we were off to gigs in London or elsewhere.
“Graham and I played a lot of cricket and football and had mutual friends, so our paths crossed. There were a couple of indie discos around Oldham too which we knew each other from.
“It wasn’t just the music, but the same philosophy and ideas, the inspiration to have a go, get a band together and see how it would go.”
“We still say there’s no way we’re the best musicians in the world or best songwriters.
But we have fun, knock out some tunes we really enjoy, and hope others do too.
“We just have a go, and our spirit keeps us going.”
Listen to the early material, like Joe, Planecrash and Find Out Why, and you hear a few of the influences at that stage.
From Stephen’s love of Joy Division, The Teardrop Explodes, Magazine, Echo and the Bunnymen, Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du and early REM to Graham’s championing of underground ‘60s bands like The Seeds and ? & the Mysterians.
“Definitely, and maybe we’ve always worn our influences on our sleeves. I guess that’s how Clint came to be in the band in those early days as well.”
They got to know Clint – now also an XFM presenter – when he had a studio in Ashton-under-Lyne.
“We would rehearse at his studio, where he recorded a few demos for us. Graham’s love of those American psychedelic bands resonated with him.
“That’s where they locked in. And Clint was a massive punk fan in the early days. We were quite raw and punky.
“It wasn’t until the Cow demo, the legendary Dung 4, when we first had the keyboard sound that became our direction.”
The band soon got swept up with the Madchester scene, alongside The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, The Charlatans and more, but always seemed to be outsiders.
“We were more about developing our craft, or more likely banging our way through what we were doing.
“From that whole scene we were always more on the outside, but got dragged along just for the fact that we were around at the same time.
“I guess we’re more a North Manchester band, with an Oldham and Moston feel!”
It was Radio 1 airplay from John Peel that launched them, the broadcasting legend playing the Planecrash EP then inviting them in for a session.
“He was a massive influence, and the catalyst for us moving on. I would listen to Peel a lot, and we had a bit of a nod that he was about to play that first single. And when it came on first song, that really made my day!
“We got invited to do a session and play live at a couple of his student nights, getting to meet him. That was me made, really. To get played on Peel ... I mean!”
Was their independent spirit back then something that helped them adapt to a very different music business 25 years later?
“I think so. Clint says - and he’s totally right - we’re hard-working, with a real work ethic, not afraid to go out and do however many gigs we feel necessary to put ourselves out there.
“There was also the thing with developing our own Cow record label, the merchandise thing with the t-shirts, and all that.
“We were never the sort of band to wait around for someone to come along and say they liked us, then just sit around and let them do it.
“That’s still the case, helping whoever’s working with us. Perhaps it’s our Northern working-class roots.”
But with mainstream success beckoning, Stephen and bassist Dave Swift left to form The Rainkings.
“I regret quite a bit of it now, but things had started to change. The way I saw it was that a lot of that early spirit had gone.
“I guess I was a bit naïve there, but it had been about us doing it all, arranging the gigs, singles, and so on.
“After Planecrash, managers and agents and all that got involved. It seemed to be taken away from us.
“Clint was more driven in that respect, and Graham too, so they were moving the band in a direction I wasn’t so sure about. Rather than speaking up, I moved towards Swifty a bit more and we became more unsure and the negative side of the band.
“Clint, Craig and Graham took a more positive view and were moving on. I was thinking maybe this wasn’t for me. I’ll try something different.”
How was it for Stephen to see the band’s subsequent success from the outside?
“I couldn’t have been more pleased, really. I knew it was right for them and never said anything negative, wishing them all the best.”
Second LP The Beast Inside also went top-five the next year, with ‘92’s Revenge of the Goldfish top-20, and ‘94’s Devil Hopping top-10.
“I was keeping an eye on how they were doing, but didn’t really have much contact for around 20 years.
“From what I understand, Mute let the band go, although demos were made for another album. But maybe things weren’t right between all five members.”
Stephen brought out two singles with The Rainkings on Playtime in 1989 and 1990, the second produced by the Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie, another artist with links to The Teardrops and Echo and the Bunnymen.
They carried on for a few more years, social science student Stephen also carving out a career, and now managing a drug and alcohol support service in North Manchester.
Meanwhile, the Inspirals famously employed a certain Noel Gallagher as a roadie, long before he made it big with Oasis.
“He was a massive fan, would come and watch and wanted to get involved. I remember this indie kid who looked pretty cool, wanting to be around the band, learn things, help out in any way.
“After I left, the band picked up on that as they got bigger, and from what I heard he did audition as the singer after I’d left.
“Even back then, he was always picking up a guitar, doing tunes. People could see he had potential.”
The Inspirals split in 1995 but reformed – with Tom - in 2003, with a single unearthed from those shelved Mute demos, followed by a couple of sell-out tours and back-catalogue releases.
Sporadic touring followed before Tom left in 2011 – supposedly frustrated at a lack of regular band activity - and Stephen stepped back into the fold.
And 2014 has proved extra busy, with the Isle of Wight Festival, T in the Park, and a defining gig at Manchester’s Band on the Wall, sold out in just 10 minutes.
“We’ve still got our support, albeit with quite a few of them older and balder than they used to be. There’s definitely a younger element to the audience as well.
“I love it when people say, ‘You were my dad’s favourite band and I’ve got all the old vinyl, now I’ve bought the new one’. It’s a heritage thing – music being handed down the generations, in some cases coming along with their children to gigs.”
The Spitfire single further whet the appetite before the album came out, with more surprises in store then, not least with performance poet John Cooper Clarke guesting on the latest single, Let You Down.
“The Bard of Salford! As soon as we started doing that song, we knew it would lend itself to something like that. We were so made up with what came back to us.
“We recorded the tune, and we were lucky he was in Manchester, so Clint got him in at XFM to record it.
“We hadn’t heard what he’d come up with before. And as soon as he started ...”
A true hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment?
Inspiral Carpets play 53 Degrees, Brook Street, Preston, this Sunday (7.30pm, December 21), with tickets £18 plus booking, and support from Blossoms and Brown Brogues.