After six years of unprecedented chart success between 1988 and 1994, The Wonder Stuff finally called it a day; swept away it seemed by the fallout of grunge and the landslide of Britpop. Now, over a decade since the release of their last album ‘Construction for The Modern Idiot’, The Wonder Stuff are back with a new collection of songs entitled ‘Escape From Rubbish Island.’
Whether he was being unbearable or meaner than mean, Miles Hunt, frontman with the legendary Wonder Stuff has never been one to beat about the bush. If anything, his down to earth honesty and straight talking make him one of the most unique icons in the music business. Love him or hate him maybe, but ignore him, never.
Now with a (semi)new-ish line up and the new record to promote, Miles has reformed The Wonder Stuff and decided to take them out on the road to party like it’s…1989 all over again.
“The tour has been brilliant so far,” says Miles with the enthusiasm of an eight year old on Christmas morning. “It got off to a slow start in Leeds but by the second date in Glasgow it was just fucking brilliant! The big surprise for me though was Manchester, as I was expecting them to be a little more reserved as they used to be when we played there in the past, but they were really up for it, maybe even topping Glasgow, which is pretty hard to do because I think it’s the best city in the UK for playing to a live audience. There was a great heckler in Manchester, actually. This bloke down the front kept shouting “MILES! MILES!” and in the end I was like, “What???”, and he just went “THANKYOU!!!”, and I thought that was such a great thing to say!”
In the early days, the Wonder Stuff used to attract an army of fans who would think nothing of bunking off work or college for weeks at a time to follow them around the country, sometimes taking in the whole tour and mostly sleeping in railway stations or all night car parks in the process.
“We’ve been blessed over the years that we’ve had such a loyal audience. Obviously it’s changed in size since the beginning. When we were touring the fourth album (‘Construction…’) in 1994 the front row at each show would be 16-17 year old girls, and I honestly felt silly!” admits an embarrassed Miles Hunt. “No disrespect to them but I’d always been used to blokes rolling around on top of each other’s heads! It seriously changed at that point and I didn’t really feel I’d got anything to say to people who were ten years younger than me. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to get out of it then."
What sort of audiences have you seen on the tour to date?
“It’s been a good mix of young and old really. You’ve had people who probably saw us on Top Of The Pops when they were kids but weren’t old enough to go the gigs at the time and then you’ve got big, bald, fat blokes squeezed into t-shirts they last wore 15 years ago,” ponders the distinctly good humoured Mr Hunt, something which he was not always portrayed as being by the music press at the height of his band’s success. “I think most of the older fans are a bit more sophisticated than sleeping in train stations these days. They’re all holding down respectable jobs now, but it’s always good to see the hardcore traveller repeat offenders, as I used to call them. I guess when I think about it its quite funny. I can’t think of any band I’d want to see time and time again, especially us!”
When the band started out in 1986 as kindred spirits of fellow midlands based bands like Pop Will Eat Itself and Gaye Bykers On Acid, the expectations of number one albums, a glut of hit singles, countless appearances on Top Of The Pops and duets with successful comedians must have seemed like a pipedream. Yet, the likes of ‘Dizzy’ (OK, not strictly a Wonder Stuff composition but still their biggest hit to date thanks to a little help from Vic’n’Bob) and ‘Size Of A Cow’ remain student disco, indie club night and wedding reception staples. If that’s not all a bit surreal, then I guess nothing is.
“Some guy told me ‘Size Of A Cow’ was his wedding song!” says Miles, his face aghast in amazement. “I said to him, “I bet your wife really appreciated that!” You don’t really know what you’re doing with any song you write. I can’t sit down and just write a single. I don’t have that ability. Some of our best songs have come about by accident. I’ll have a set of words and the rest of the band will play a few notes and we’ll just sit there and someone’ll say that’s got to be a single. It’s amazing really what has happened with some of the songs. I think I’ve got a very short attention span as it happens. When we were doing (‘Never Loved Elvis’) the album ‘Size Of A Cow’ was from and we’re messing around with fiddles and all kinds of acoustic instruments, I just didn’t want to play anything from ‘The Eight Legged Groove Machine’ days. Our American manager at the time used to kick my ass constantly. I remember once saying that us not playing ‘Wish Away’ or ‘Give Give Give…’ was like going to see the Stones and them not playing ‘Satisfaction’. I think back then I was constantly trying to reinvent the band’s sound whereas now, I mean I’m nearly 40, and I am really proud of what we’ve done over the years. I’m also really grateful, because there’s a certain amount of what I get from touring and generally feeding my ego onstage shouting and bawling, but I also appreciate that you’ve got people spending their hard-earned cash coming to see you, and so to not play the songs they want to hear would be just unfair. At the same time though, we have got over 100 songs in the archives and I suppose it would take seven or eight hours if we were to do everything, so I suppose there will always be one or two people’s favourites that get left behind.”
Would you say commercial success was the band’s undoing?
“To a degree it was,” shrugs the painfully honest frontman. “I was uncomfortable about it and so was Malc (Treece, guitarist) although he was less vocal about it at the time. We were spending shed loads of money on glossy cartoon videos that were fun to do – I mean to us it just meant a whole day of dressing up and getting drunk. We didn’t think the whole process through that this was how we were represented and this was what people were going to see. We know what we are. We know we’ve always been a good live rock band and then you start picking up a whole new audience by dressing up in tartan or in drag and it becomes very cartoon. But then you get that hardcore following, which we’ve built up from before the first album by just going out and playing live not through the help of TV or radio, and they started to resent the fact that we’d attracted this whole new audience courtesy of the frivolous pop stuff like ‘Size Of A Cow’ and ‘Welcome To The Cheap Seats’, so now I see the (live) set we’re playing at the moment as a way of saying thanks to those people who’ve stayed the course for the full 18 years rather than just being around for the pop bit before moving onto something else.”
The new album, ‘Escape From Rubbish Island’ sees The Wonder Stuff returning to their roots as a four-piece guitar band. Without a doubt it is their most upbeat, rockiest album since ‘The Eight Legged Groove Machine’, the original twin guitar beast of Miles Hunt and Malc Treece sounding revitalising and inspirational alongside the new rhythm section of Mark McCarthy (bass) and drummer Luke Johnson, who combines his full time role with Amen moonlighting with the Stuffies, although sadly unable to play on this tour due to problems obtaining a work permit. Lyrically, its also fair to say that Miles Hunt has lost none of the attitude that made him an antihero for thousands more than a decade ago, with the likes of ‘Bile Chant’ and ‘Better Get Ready For A Fist Fight’ displaying the type of angst normally associated with disaffected youths half his age.
“I feel really at ease with the set up we’ve got at the moment,” Miles admits, “it feels like we’re a proper four piece guitar band. ’Escape From Rubbish Island’ is like a statement about the way Britain’s gone over the last ten years. Politically, socially, musically, it’s just very backward looking. Without wanting to dwell too much on the government issues, I voted for them – as did most people I know – and I feel like I’ve been horribly lied to and horribly cheated, and you get to the point where issues that you don’t have any real thoughts on – the hunt issue for example – and yet I was really pleased to see these people bum rush parliament because it basically involved British people seizing back their power. Its ours not theirs, they’re not our masters they’re our representatives, and I thought it was good they should be reminded of that because they’re a bunch of arrogant cock suckers like the last lot were! I’ve lived in London for 15 years and this government are just so blatantly London-centric. They’re just a bunch of champagne Charlies and all that nonsense with the Cool Britannia bullshit, where the idiot popstars of the day fell for that. It’s like within the genre that the Wonder Stuff consider themselves to be a part of, the alternative rock bands, there doesn’t seem to be anyone that’s really pushing the boundaries at the moment. I mean, I enjoy the parameters of the three minute verse-chorus-verse pop song and all that but what I’m not really seeing, and that goes from everything from Britpop through to people like Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines, are any real characters. It just seems as if people are dressing up as someone they’ve seen in their dad’s record collection, and not doing it very well.”
Would you say that ‘Escape From Rubbish Island’ is Miles Hunt’s way of setting the record straight?
“Yeah I suppose it is,” admits the pensive frontman. “I think the whole flavour lyrically of the album – and its by no means a concept album – comes from the fact all the words were written over a two month period. I remember talking to Paul Weller when he was doing ‘Stanley Road’ and asking him how can you keep coming up with these new ideas every couple of years and he said “Oh, its all the same song!” and I actually disrespected him for that for a short time but then I thought to myself that he’s right…he’s writing about himself and how he feels and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t approach that in different moods on different songs. There were actually four softer tracks that were set to be called ‘Escape From Rubbish Island’ to start off with and I ended up ditching two of them pretty much straight away because I didn’t think the choruses were good enough but…I think what got me writing was frustration, in that it was really time for me to get out of London, and perhaps time to leave England completely. I’d made plans to move to Dublin where I’ve got a few musician friends and the mother ship of our label (Hummingbird Records) is based over there, and then I met my daughter and I got the life change that I’d always wanted. My daughter lives in Devon, and I don’t want to be very far from her so as soon as this tour’s finished I’m packing all my stuff away and moving down to Shropshire.”
So how did you end up working with Amen’s drummer?
“I’ve know Luke since he was five,” says Miles with an authoritative glint in his eye. “At the time we were recording some demos of the new songs in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Luke had just come back from California where he lives to see his parents, and I offered to pay for his flight home if he delayed it for a week to have a knock around in the studio with us, which he agreed to do and the rest is history…”
Although essentially revolving around the archetypical four piece band, The Wonder Stuff have seen several line-up changes over the years, from the original bass player Bob ‘Bass Thing’ Jones (now sadly deceased) in their ‘Eight Legged Groove Machine’ days onto the later addition of Martin ‘Fiddly’ Bell during the pop years. When I asked Miles Hunt for what he considered to be THE definitive Wonder Stuff line-up, his answer wasn’t too surprising.
“I think I’m in it now” pipes up Miles, all serious and matter-of-factly. “It’s really weird sometimes looking back…I think Martin Gilks (original sticksman) is a really superb drummer, and there’s bits that we’d always do live and I’d just have a little proud moment when he’d pull something off. It’s weird now because he’s no longer playing the drums, (on this tour) it’s Andres Karu, and I still have those moments in certain tracks where the drumming makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I look over my shoulder and it’s not Gilksy…but me and Gilksy just don’t get on as people, very rarely ever did. We butted heads all the time, so I think from a personality point of view this is by far the best line up of the band. Mark (McCarthy), the bass player, is my brother from another mother. Him and me have lived together for three years. Its funny actually that when we were in America recently, we saw one of our old managers from years ago who came to see us play and he remarked that Mark’s style of playing was really similar to that of the Bass Thing (Bob Jones), and that for me justifies what we’re doing in stripping everything back down to a four piece. It actually sounds more electric now. We actually sound more like the ‘…Groove Machine’ band more than we ever have since Bob Jones left. I never made any secret about it then and I still don’t. Paul Clifford got the job of bass player in the band then because he didn’t have a personality. I mean, Bob Jones was mad! Paul wasn’t really a great musician or anything, he never drove anything we did or created much. Stuart Quinnell, who’s played bass with us on and off for the last three years is a fantastic bass player but again we never wrote anything with him. I really do think this is the one…”
As with all good things, the Wonder Stuff’s reintroduction into the general public’s eye hasn’t gone without the odd technical hitch or two. Most notably, this has come from two of the band’s former members; original drummer Martin Gilks and fiddle player Martin Bell, who attacked messrs Hunt and Treece on the forum of a popular website stating that ‘…Rubbish Island’ was in effect a Miles Hunt solo album trading under the name The Wonder Stuff in order to sell a few more copies. How does the defendant plead?
“I’m amazed at their lack of dignity and how they publicly want to be seen as whiners. I felt embarrassed for them,” admits a startled Miles. “Our manager saw what they’d put up on that website before anybody else did and he was nervous to tell me. When he did tell me I was actually having my dinner and I thought about looking at it the next day, so I was preparing to have my day ruined and yet when I looked at it I just laughed out loud. I just thought, how can you not respect yourselves? I know exactly what went on in December 2003. Martin Gilks said to Malc Treece and my manager that he could not work with Miles Hunt any more. He was also acting manager of the business side of the band at the time and he told me via my manager – he never actually spoke directly to me – when I’d be getting my last cheque, when to get my equipment out of the lock-up and when he’d be ending the band. I know exactly what happened so when I was sitting in the studio working with Malc on this bunch of songs I just said, “Fuck it Malc, it’s me and you!” I’d had conversations with Martin Gilks a few times over the last two years and he’d said how it would be great to work on a new album, and I explained to him that I don’t do business like I used to. I don’t do all-for-one-and-one-for-all, people get paid for what they do. I don’t give out writing royalties to people just because you happen to be in the room whilst I’m writing a song, and he said he had a problem with that. Basically, I told him that if he wanted songwriting royalties then its time he actually wrote something. In all the years of being in The Wonder Stuff, Gilksy never wrote anything, never came to me and said he had an idea for a song, nothing. In many ways, I blame myself because I think I taught them to behave like whining babies and to expect to get something for nothing because they’d always been given that from the beginning. Me and Malc Treece are the writers in The Wonder Stuff. That’s not to say Martin Gilks or Martin Bell never brought any of those songs to life brilliantly because they did. You’ll never hear me say anything negative about them as musicians – they’re fucking genius musicians, I wouldn’t have wanted either of them in a band with me if they weren’t, and they did great things to the songs me and Malc wrote. I don’t understand why they are behaving in that way and I also think it’s very unfair to bring in Pete Whittaker (guitarist on the band’s live performances for the three years prior to this tour) and Stuart Quinnell’s names into that statement. Me and Stuart speak all the time and I know he doesn’t feel anything for those two. He’s the bass technician for The Darkness, he’s earning more money now than he ever has in his life and he’s travelling round the world living it up like a king. I thought to have his name dragged up was insulting."
Having been in the music industry for the best part of 20 years, it would be fair to say that Miles Hunt has seen his fair share of changes, from the mid-eighties cider’n’black goth explosion to the current trend of cabbage karaoke reality television shows.
“I don’t think that kind of thing is that different really, when you think about it. I mean going back to the late seventies you had ‘Opportunity Knocks’ and ‘New Faces’, both similar kinds of talent shows”, spits the enigmatic Hunt. “What has changed for me is the mentality of the media. It used to be fairly intelligent, the tabloids excepted, and yet when I pick up a copy of Q magazine or the NME today it reads like Smash Hits did when I was 14. I don’t really see the point in giving the new REM album a three page spread when its only been given 2/5 and then later on there’ll be an album by some unknown, up and coming artist that’s been awarded 4/5 and all they get written about them are four lines if they’re lucky! In my day the NME had people like Steven Wells, Dele Fadele, James Brown writing for it…all great writers with their own styles, and yet its become imbecilic beyond belief now. At the same time, they’ve got to pander to the needs of the record labels, who want an instant return. If we were around now, we’d probably never have been allowed to make our second or third albums because the first only sold about 60,000 copies in the first six months. We’d have been dropped pretty soon after because bands aren’t allowed to develop any more, which is quite preposterous. I mean, if you think of some of the artists who would never have made it in the current climate…U2 didn’t really get into their stride until album number five, REM didn’t start shifting units until a decade or so into their recording careers.”
One of The Wonder Stuff’s early b-sides was entitled ‘Astley In The Noose’, a satirical jibe at the Ronan/Robbie/Daniel of the day, Rick Astley. If the rope was dusted down and cast over a brand new set of gallows, would Miles Hunt have any more deserving candidates for the noose in the 21st Century?
“It was pure comedy that, and I feel rotten actually because he hasn’t had much of a career has he?” says Miles, a wry smile creeping out at the same time. “I used to spend a lot of time getting wound up by what I considered to be bad music and I finally figured out that I was wasting my own time and energy and realised the best thing to do was just not listen to it any more. It astounds me that things like (Robbie) Williams gets all these breaks, he’s kind of like a Tommy Steele type character. He’d may as well be selling Zanussi washing machines as much as he’s selling his career.”
“Not at all, no. Sometimes I’m very irritated by what people have written about us and they’ll usually start off the attack by mentioning ‘Dizzy’. I mean it got to number one for God’s sake. For me it was piss easy to do. I don’t play on it and I just sing a few words now and then. We were in the studio for nearly a week and I made two great new friends. I’m still really close to Jim Moir (Vic Reeves) and I speak to him every week. I think the only thing I would wish to change is that people were more focused on the fact we were a great live band rather than just people who fannied around in videos,” concludes a resolute Miles Hunt.