A combination of white wine and nostalgia are making once-and-future Bluetones frontman Mark Morriss a bit emotional. We’re sat in a Wetherspoons on the Charing Cross Road, a building with a bit of history: “This was the Marquee Club” says Morriss, “That’s where the stage would have been over there.” he gestures at the back wall. “I saw Dodgy here once, and the Gin Blossoms. Peter Buck was in the crowd.” He sighs. To get here we’ve both walked through Denmark Street, once the songwriting centre of the city its rehearsal rooms, guitar shops and clubs now being replaced bit-by-bit to build something flash and depressing. It’s a good place to talk about the past.
Four years ago The Bluetones, one of the last surviving foot soldiers of Britpop, took their bows and went their separate ways, spitting up - we assumed - for good. Singer Morriss became a wandering troubadour, on a never-ending solo tour, acoustic in hand, playing old hits and new tunes. He’s just put out his third record, The Taste Of Mark Morris. They’ve all been very good. His brother, bassist Scott, moved to Japan to utilise a nifty skill for graphic design and animation; drummer Eds Chester is an osteopath, while guitarist Adam Devlin has carved out a new identity as a guitarist for hire (most notably with excellent Socialist supergroup Thee Cee Cees) and, despite being genuinely sweet in real life, has a neat sideline as a superbly effective twitter troll (according to his profile “BLOCKED by: @piersmorgan @DailyMailUK @KTHopkins @KayBurley @Nigel_Farage @Scientology @lancearmstrong @Joey7Barton @U2 @Sting and @gwenstefani. Twice”.)
Now they’re back, back back, at least for a while. Having just wrapped up a successful reunion tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of debut album Expecting To Fly, they've announced another jaunt for next year to mop up the rest of the country. What better time for a celebration? Morriss and Devlin joined us, one sat in a nostalgia soaked Wetherspoons’ during a Thursday Curry Club (he’s not hungry but impressed with the value), one over the phone, to delve back through six classic records and two decades of personal pop history, album by album.
A New Athens (2010)
MARK: I think it's our best record. It's the sound of us all grooving. All the on the same page, and all completely in control of the process. We produced the album ourselves, it's our sixth bloody album so you'd think we'd know what we were doing. It's all the excess stripped away: we're not in a glamorous studio, we're in a shed in Chertsey, and that's exactly where we wanted to be. No airs and graces, and songs we really liked. Adam and I did that great thing like you imagine Page and Plant did, and fucked off to the country for a few weeks. Took these demos, Scott's songs, Adam's songs, my songs, and just like the old days we fucked off to a cottage and bashed out this album. It was so liberating after being, not-mollycoddled, but you go to a recording studio and it's got a floodlit tennis court and an indoor swimming pool and a jacuzzi, you're not necessarily there prioritising the music, you're thinking "I've got to get all of my friends here." It embraced a work ethic for us that we'd been removed from for a while, because of the early success. I think we were all at the top of our game.
I was disappointed with how it sold. If I had to tick a box it would be 'D' for ‘disappointed,’ but you've got to let these things go. You've got to hope that the few hundred people who heard it really get it as well. That's all you can hope for. It's like Van Gough- when I die, it's all there if people want it. My children can be the cock of the walk. That'll do for me.
ADAM: It was definitely the lowest budget I've worked on for an album. Gordon Mills, who engineered a lot of our records, did it at his sister's home studio in her back garden in Chertsey. It was either side of Christmas and it was freezing, we got snowed in. I don't think, during any stage, all four of us were in that room at the same time. It was a strange way to make a record, but I enjoyed it quite a lot. I probably enjoyed it more than some of the more glamorous locations. We'd got to the stage in our career where it didn't really matter how well the record did, from Luxembourg onwards we were making records for our own entertainment. Hopefully for others too, but there was no pressure to make "a hit record."
The Bluetones (2006)
MARK: At the time it was my favourite, but it faded after some perspective and distance. There's some great songs on there, but it doesn't have the energy that the albums before and after it had. I think we were going through some sticky periods with our management. That's our most grown up album, 'Last Song But One' is one of the best songs we ever did, 'Hope And Jump' is one of the best things I've ever written.
ADAM: We did that residentially, we went to the Chapel studios in Lincolnshire. It's nice, but there's not a lot to do: It concentrates the mind. It's an album of moments, it's got good songs on it but perhaps doesn't hang together quite as well as an entity as some of the others. It was nice to work with Hugh Jones again, who produced Expecting to Fly and ...Last Chance Saloon. I love 'Head On a Spike' and 'Hope and Jump' and a couple of others, but it's not one of my favourites. The World Cup was on as well, so we had disappointment as the backdrop.
MARK: We were dropped by a major label when we were still hot and still having hit records. That was weird. We were signed to A&M, but then A&M got bought and sold, we just became another property. They stuck us on Mercury Records, but all the people that worked in that office- good people, credible people, hard working people, none of them signed us or found us. They might quite like our first few records, but in the last five years they'd been trying to develop bands to knock us off our pedestal. It's tribal. No-one at Mercury had any great love for us.
We were dumped in that girlfriend way- "I really fucking loved you, what happened? I remembered every birthday, I even got you little treats in-between, and then you dumped me. For who? I don't even know who." It was our first experience of failure, we'd had a pretty charmed life up to that point. That completely informed our lo-fi mojo, to be a garage band like we used to be, nine years before that. "No acoustic instruments"- that's a good start. “Let's write new-wave, garage songs,” we all loved that. Get rid of the keyboards and be Martha and the Muffins. That was our ethos for that whole period. I think we pulled it off. It's the odd-son album. I like it when bands you love reinvent themselves.
ADAM: The first time album was Ridgefarm, the second at Rockfields, the third at Sawmills, they're all very nice residential studios where you're looked after and cooked for and all that kind of stuff. To go from the swimming pool and tennis courts to an an industrial estate in Wandsworth was a bit of a culture shock, but once you're in there doing your thing it shouldn't make that much difference. Probably not the most enjoyable record to make, but I did like what we were doing, because there was such a clear focus. There are people who love that record, although it wasn't really reflected in the sales. I still like it a lot. We didn't have A&R people coming in and sitting in the room. We weren't bothering with overdubs, or acoustic instruments, no-one could interfere with it, it was quite liberating.
MARK: We did 99 UK gigs on that album, 50 of them on one tour, then we got to the end of the year and we had no money. "How can we have no fucking money, we've just done a hundred shows?" and that's when the penny should have dropped with us and our manager. "You say there's no money, okay I suppose we believe you." We were exploited.
ADAM: We did a 50 date tour of the the outposts of the UK, we went everywhere. We saw off four support bands- it wasn't for the faint hearted. We were living on a tour bus so cabin favour really kicked in. We were playing in the Brecon Beacons on a Sunday night, we played a tiny village north of Inverness. When you play those places everyone comes. Only a smattering even know who you are, the rest are just "there's a band on! Let's see the band!".
MARK: We got on Top Of The Pops as well, which was miraculous as we had no record label, a tiny press company, no radio plugger, and we got on TOTP and had two top 40 singles. Then obviously the arse fell out of it. 'Never Going Nowhere' is one of the three best songs we ever wrote or recorded.
The Singles (2002)
MARK: We weren't keen on it, but they were they paymasters. We only had three albums. I remember doing a radio interview with Danny Baker and he was going "you've got a greatest hits album out, how's that?" and I said "yer, I know... three albums!". Every cloud has a single lining though, there was the purchase incentive tracks: 'After Hours', ‘Persuasion’, 'Bluetones Bigscore', 'Freeze-dried Pop'- they're good songs, and they're songs of their time. These things happen for a reason. 'After Hours' was bashed out because we needed a B-side, and it became the great single with the great video.
ADAM: We all thought it was too early for a Greatest Hits, but Mercury were going to do it with or without our permission, we didn't have a great deal of say in it. We did record some new songs, I think we did four, but it was ridiculous. You can't do a Greatest Hits after three albums.
Science & Nature (2000)
MARK: We'd had a bad experience going into that recording, we recorded three songs with Edwyn Collins- 'Tiger Lily', 'Autophila' and 'One Speed Gearbox'. They came out plain awful and we thought for a second we'd lost our mojo, but then we realised we'd just picked the wrong producer. It was a difficult time for Edwyn, he was drinking heavily and, well it's not for me to say, but we didn't meet him at his peak, he wasn't focussed. He had a TV show at the time on Friday nights, like a little sitcom, West Heath Yard, and he was more focussed on that than he was about making a new album with seminal Britpop band The Bluetones. It was a total wash out, and time was running out, the clock was ticking.
ADAM: He'd start getting out all these records and we'd sit listening to 'The Best Of Moog' for three hours, but ultimately we weren't getting anything done. When we got the three songs back they just weren't what we were looking for. It was a massive shame for me personally because I'm a huge Orange Juice fan, he was a big style and music icon for me as a teenager. I was really flattered that he was interested in doing it, but the magic just didn't happen. He's in a much better place these days.
MARK: We'd loved the Supergrass record, so we wondered what John Cornfield was doing: Turned out nothing. So we went there. You can't even access his studio by road, you could only get there by boat- that in itself sold it to us. You have to wait til the tides up to take your gear. If you listen to 'Slackjaw' you can hear the ducks quacking and a train going past. It was a creek off the river Fowey, these old steam trains. We did the album in nine weeks- we could have done it in three, but it was the beautiful summer of 1999 and the sun didn't stop shining, except for the eclipse. So we figured if the budget allows for two and half months, we'll take two and a half months.
ADAM: It was almost the opposite to Luxembourg, there was stand up bass and mandolin and harmonica, all that kind of thing. We had a proper harpsichord shipped in, and it had to be put on a boat across the lake, lap steel. The setting does come through. For instance, 'Last of the Great Navigators' was just an instrumental and Mark wrote it while we were there, I think he'd just been floating in a boat late at night.
MARK: Every single song on that record is a diamond. It's easy for me to say that now because it's been a long time and I've had a couple of drink, but there's not a bad song, a duff lyric, a duff four beats of music on that record. We put a lot into that.
ADAM: Even [then-Q & NME writer] John Harris liked it, and he reviewed [early single] 'Marblehead Johnson' by printing a picture of it being trodden on. He reviewed Science & Nature for Q and gave it 9/10.
MARK: John Harris always gave the Bluetones such a hard time, and I got a great deal of satisfaction from the fact he liked Science & Nature: "He likes all these other shit bands! Why doesn't he like us?!" And then he got us, finally, and gave us a couple of great reviews. I was so glad he got it, because I respect John Harris, he's a socialist, he's a man of integrity and taste, and he got it. Up to that point he'd given us a bit of a kicking in the press. He was never kind to us. Mostly because I was seeing a girl he really fancied, a Scottish girl who worked for Mercury and had a real thing for me. When I found out he fancied her I thought "oh, that explains some of the reviews!" But that was 97/98, in 2000 he was listening to the records without seeing my face in his mind’s eye and wanting to punch it. I can understand that. He was right when he said we finally justified our hype. It's a great record, it's our second best album.
Return To The Last Chance Saloon (1997)
MARK: I think it's the only miss-step in our career. It was too long, it took too long to make it. It's 75 minutes long, a record should be 48 minutes tops. Even at the time I thought it was too big, but we felt we had to prove ourselves. We had to show we weren't a big flash in the pan and have a big record, an ambitious record, adjust our sound. I think we could lose three songs, any three, and make it a smaller capsule for someone to swallow. We should have focussed on the atmosphere.
ADAM: It's one of my favourites. I enjoyed making that record, I threw a lot of guitars at it, and played a lot of instruments as well. I worked quite hard on that record, it's our busiest. There's lots of silly little things we sampled, like Bill Hicks at the beginning of the 'Jub Jub Bird.' We wanted to shift away from the lightness of the first album, the Rickenbackers and the reverb and stuff like that. We were still a four piece band writing pop songs, but we didn't just want to be thought of as jangly, so we went at it with a bit more muscle. I used a lot more Gretches and Telecasters, and using AC30 amps in the studio. I enjoyed it a lot. It's probably the one I enjoyed making the most.
Expecting To Fly (1995)
MARK: This was really the catalyst for getting back together, it’s the 20th anniversary of the record and you only get one of them. We didn't want to wake up in three years time and realise we'd missed it.
ADAM: The album was quite a surreal experience. We'd only really been in a studio before for a day, or two days, and never in that kind of surroundings. For the first couple of weeks our heads were really turned, and we didn't work as hard as we should have been, there was definitely a sense of "hey, we've made it."
MARK: It's difficult for me to judge it, because I'm too close to it, but there's a sense of... “fuck... I can't believe we wrote that when we were 21 years old.” I can't believe how good we were so young. But then that's what's rock n' roll has always done: Maybe it's because we were young, you don't think about it, you just slam it down. We weren't analysing anything. It was lunacy, we were in the big studio with the tennis court and the pool thinking "how the fuck did we end up here?" We were there for about five or six weeks recording that, in the glorious summer of 1995, in a jacuzzi at 2am staring through a glass roof at a star-filled sky saying "how the fuck did this happen?" You're looking around at your best friends in the world saying "this went alright, didn't it?". That's quite a powerful emotion for a 23 year old to process. It could have gone the whole other way, I could have been working in Argos. We forfeited our educations, all of us had jumped out of university early, to pursue what we felt, our musical mojo.
ADAM: The actual recording of the record, I was quite nervy. I didn't really enjoy it as much as the recording experience on other albums. We'd never really done it before. There was a sense that it was the most important thing in the world, and we had to get it right, so it was a little bit fraught. It was quite a surreal experience. We were occasionally going off to do other things like festivals, as it was the summer, which did help.
MARK: I remember we had a big party in London to celebrate the release, and even at that point we knew it would go number one or two. We thought "let's just remember this time as the night we got all our mates really fucking pissed and high on our ticket." That was more important to us than any charts, and to be honest it still is, and always was. We were never out to sell records, just to have a good time and drag as many friends along with us as we could. I remember being down in Cornwall in these old deserted tin mines on the Cornish coast, where the lands been eroded to the point there's only the man-made mines left, and we're sat there trying to write 'Time and Again', that sense of being that age and thinking that "nothing is more important in my life than finishing this song." I still feel that. I love my children, I love my country, but they can go fuck each other when it comes to writing a song. It's too late for that to ever change.