Later this month the original line-up of Six By Seven - Chris Olley (vocals/guitars), Sam Hempton (guitar), Paul Douglas (bass), James Flower (keyboards) and Christian Davis (drums) - will share a stage for the first time in nearly seventeen years for an in-store show at Nottingham's Rough Trade venue on 22nd February. Essentially a warm-up for the two proper shows they're playing at Nottingham's Maze and London's Garage venues on the 4th and 11th March respectively. The first of which will see the band perform their second album The Closer You Get in full to coincide with a vinyl reissue and retrospective Best Of CD that comes out on 17th February.
Last week, DiS visited Chris Olley at his home and spent a couple of hours discussing Six By Seven and the making of The Closer You Get, the music industry and his adopted city of Nottingham.
It's seventeen years since The Closer You Get came out yet it still sounds quite relevant today. Were you conscious of making something back then that would go on to be so timeless? 2000 was a pretty barren time for music and that album felt like a breath of fresh air.
It wasn't a great time for music. That's one thing I can't really get my head round because things have changed so much. If you were an alternative band like we were you didn't really have a chance to play to a lot of people. I remember going to see bands like Spiritualized, Mercury Rev, Sonic Youth and Pavement and about 200 people were there. If that. I remember going to Rock City to see Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations - I've still got the ticket - and there must have been about 150 people there. In the main room. We used to go over to Derby a lot to watch bands. Places like the Wherehouse and the Dial. Nottingham didn't have a great live scene back then. Bands either played Rock City or the Old Angel. There was no in between. There was no place for up and coming bands to play. It was such a different time and it was difficult. The way we saw it was like this; if you were in a band like we were you either followed what the music industry wanted you to be. So for example, when The White Stripes broke through record labels were literally falling over themselves to tell bands to get rid of their bass player. And it was no coincidence that suddenly a load of bands started appearing with no bass player.
Post-Oasis there was this signing frenzy for bands like Embrace. What happens then is it gets snapped up and sold then diluted. Then it fades away. Then a new maverick somehow slips through the net that no one is expecting and we're onto the next thing. To us, the industry looked like it was following itself. Because we'd just done our first album and toured it, then played on Jools Holland, it didn't feel like a real thing. What we thought it would be was not how it turned out to be. As the lyricist, I voiced that in the songs. It wasn't just me. The whole band were feeling like that too. When I came out with stuff like 'Eat Junk Become Junk' it was no surprise to them because that's how they were feeling. The industry was chasing bands like Gay Dad, and I don't know if they were concocted just to extort money but to us it was frustrating.
So we were making The Closer You Get and the label and publishers were saying it sounded great yet we knew enough about the music industry to know that we'd probably get a load of good reviews. But it's not the quality of the review that counts. It's the size of the review. So the fact you were on page three of the reviews page with a fantastic five star review is insignificant compared to Gay Dad who were on the lead page. We'd see these sort of bands getting so much publicity and it felt like everyone was taking the piss. We didn't necessarily want that. We wanted our records to be angry and vitriolic and misanthropic. Talk about success and what a commodity it is and the fact it's a junk culture.
What's also interesting about The Closer You Get are the number of direct references to Nottingham many people from outside the city may not have picked up on. 'Slab Square' and '100 & Something Foxhall Road' for instance.
I did that on purpose. I put as many references in as I felt were needed without becoming too overtly localized. What I wanted to do was put in things people from Nottingham would understand. Basically, I wanted the band to sound particular and insular, rocking out from an island of its own making. Initially we were going to record the album somewhere else, in South Cornwall with John Leckie. He was lined up to do the whole record, so we said to him we're going to stay in Nottingham because it's our town and we don't want anything going on around us. We'd just been on tour, we wanted to be at home and the studio here is fantastic. We can walk to it. We were fed up of staying in residential studios and being in strange places, so John said OK but we were already in the studio doing it. And John had stuff to do with Muse at the time so just came up when he could. He came up on two occasions so he recorded other stuff with us as well that didn't go on the album. He recorded my favourite Six By Seven song 'Always Waiting For...' which ended up on an EP but it was all part of The Closer You Get sessions. So it was important for me to put in a couple of references to the town I was living in at the exclusion of everything else.
Whose idea was it to get the original line-up back together for the two shows you're playing in March, and was it hard getting everyone on board?
It was the record label's idea. If you've got a live working band you'll sell three times as many records. Also, it gives you a lot more to hang the release on. It wakens up press and radio. There's a show. There's stuff going on. What happened was Lesley (Bleakley, Beggars Banquet) came up from London so I met her at the railway station. We had lunch at the Pitcher And Piano and talked about what the record would be. And the first thing she said was do you think we can do some gigs? And I knew she'd ask me that! I was fully expecting her to. So I said I could talk to the boys about doing some gigs but we really need to give them something. The band has reformed in the past and we've gone out and played to 30 people. It's heartbreaking. We're just completely fed up of doing a full on Six By Seven show at the Exeter Cavern to literally 15 people. Then all 15 of them come up to us in tears and say why aren't you headlining Glastonbury? We're just fed up of it. We've had enough. Everybody in the band has reached a point where it's no longer viable to play to that many people. You just can't do it. It was the label's idea, and then it was me that went to the rest of the guys and said they're gonna bring out a record, and if we give them a couple of shows it will make it even better. And everyone said yeah.
With Six By Seven still being a going concern, did any of the current members who weren't part of the band back then feel aggrieved that they wouldn't be involved in these shows?
Pete Stevenson who plays in Six By Seven now is too nice for that. This is about reforming that line-up and doing two shows for helping with the marketing of that record. Pete's alright with that. It's not about me or him. It's about The Closer You Get being re-released and the band doing a couple of shows to hang around it.
You're only booked to play two shows at the moment. The Maze in Nottingham on 4th March and The Garage in London on 11th. Will there be any more shows later on in the year?
The Maze is billed as primarily The Closer You Get played in full whereas the one at the Garage is a "Best Of" show. How will the sets pan out on the evening? Will there be more than one set at either show?
The one at the Maze will be a "Best Of" to start with and then we're going to play The Closer You Get in full. Because we did this through Kickstarter ourselves we decided to play ten songs of our choice then go off stage for a break, come back and play the album in full. In London we'll be playing a much shorter set where we'll shuffle things around and maybe add a few bits. It will be completely different from the show in Nottingham. London will be more like a greatest hits show, whereas the one in Nottingham will be drawing material from the first three, mainly first two albums.
Why did you choose those particular venues?
We could have probably played a much bigger venue in Nottingham. But me and Ric (Peet) who produced The Closer You Get have got a little studio space above The Maze. We know them and they're really great people down there, so I said to Gaz (Peacham) who runs the venue how many does it hold? And he said 200, so I said let's do it here, keep it really small and intimate.
Was it difficult revisiting some of those songs on The Closer You Get again, both from a personal and rehearsal perspective?
There's some songs off that record we didn't play live. Also, the idea of playing an album in its entirety was not really something we ever thought about doing back when we released music. We just used to make an album then go on tour. I think the band in the rehearsal room was totally different to what it was live. We never once came up with the idea that we should play an album in its entirety. Mainly because the way it's listed and the way it's put together is for the benefit of the record it goes on. When we signed our record deal it was just that - a record deal. It was for a minimum of eight tracks lasting no less than thirty-four minutes spread across two sides of a plastic sound carrier. Which from here-on-in shall be called "the record". I don't know if you know much about making vinyl but when the needle gets towards the middle of a record you lose bass. Generally, you put your favourite song first then your singles around the third place. The second to last song on side two is called the boneyard. That's normally where you find the drummer's songs. If you have a look at any record by The Police you'll find whenever Stewart Copeland wrote a song it was always in the boneyard. If you have five tracks on each side it will always be in the fourth on side two. It's the least memorable slot on a record.
The Kickstarter target wasn't reached for the London show so DHP came in and promoted the show instead. They've been a focal part of Nottingham's live music scene for some time. What's your relationship like with them? Do you think they've had a positive influence on the city?
They seem to have a monopoly on the city's music scene, but quite rightly. They started Rock City in 1980 and it's a legendary venue. It's right up there with CBGBs for me. It's like we were saying earlier about going to Derby Wherehouse in the early 90s to see the fringe bands. DHP addressed that by opening the Bodega and the Rescue Rooms. I remember when the Rescue Rooms was just a horrible sports bar. Now we've got venues of all shapes and sizes, it's absolutely fantastic. They've opened up venues in this city and made music come to town.
Going back to that Kickstarter, it was more of a publicity stunt than a failure. I did that on purpose. I set the bar incredibly high to £10,000 and what I wanted to do was generate a bit of ill feeling. What was great about it was it clearly worked because I suddenly had people emailing me and going on to my blog. Also commenting on Facebook that they thought it was outrageous we should get paid £10,000 to do a show. I just thought how brilliant is that? All I did was write to people and say we're not asking for £10,000. We're asking for £20 a ticket which is a reasonable price for what we're going to give you and pretty much what bands charge now. And we're trying to sell 500 tickets so that makes £10,000 net. But then we've got to pay the venue and all the rest of it. What was brilliant was so many people didn't like the idea of us making £10,000. It didn't sit well with them. On Kickstarter you have to write what it is you want the money for and I put rehearsals. And there were people writing: "How dare you demand money to pay for your rehearsals!" What I find amazing is how artists are frowned upon if you make a living. Even if you sell all 500 tickets at £20 each, by the time we've paid Kickstarter fees, the venue, people to run the door, the band to go into a rehearsal room... these are all costs. Now the very people who were writing to us and saying: "I think it's outrageous you're asking this amount of money to do one show", they're probably earning a fixed rate and paying a mortgage which is probably more than we'd be getting for doing a load of shows.
The same people who'd rather download music for free from torrent sites than pay £0.79 from iTunes.
There's another can of worms. Is it the culture now to download music for free? The whole thing we were singing about on 'Eat Junk Become Junk' back then is relatable to this. You have to remember back then it was the time of Tony Blair. Everyone had a credit card and was spending money they didn't have. The age of boom and bust was over. It was about to bust much quicker than they thought. It was the onset of greed and the time when the internet was just waking up to destroy the music industry. And we were very much in the middle of that. It's alright for Elton John's wages to drop down from £8 million to £3 million. It's obviously bad for him, but he can still survive. When you're an indie band like Six By Seven with five people and you're earning £20,000 a year, and then you drop down to £8,000 it's impossible to carry on. And that's what was going on at the time. So how many of these people starting downloading music for free? What was good about that Kickstarter campaign was it made people think.
I grew up in Germany, and when I came to England I looked at this country from the viewpoint of an outsider. Germany doesn't have a class system. The class system they had was destroyed in the first world war. The German mentality is if you're good at something and work hard, you'll probably make a buck out of it. In this country if you're good at something and work hard at it, you'll probably make a buck if Johnny Ravenscroft is pulling a few strings for you at such and such, and that is the way this country works. It looks to me like a country of middlemen. We are fixated by this idea of protecting our own. I can make a great record like Love And Peace And Sympathy, but that record does not exist in the grand scheme of things. It will only exist if I pay £2,000 to make it exist. The system is in place, and set up by those in place. They make their own establishment, and what they do is look out for their own. They protect themselves. If you want to break through and have that success you have to go through the right route. It will not get played on that radio station, and you will not get interviewed by that person unless it's coming through the correct channels in the right way. Because if you circumnavigate those channels the people in the middle aren't going to get paid. Everything I've achieved in my life has been through someone I know. It's been given to me by connections and not on merit. It's not what I do.
It's not like sport; you do not get through on merit. In sport for example, you can be as thick as you like. You can be racist. You can be anything. But if you're absolutely the fastest runner or hardest boxer then you will do it, because a lot of people will make a lot of money out of you. In music and the arts it doesn't work like that. It is subjective, but then the subjectivity itself comes under scrutiny by the way in which it's fed through the grinder. So it backfires on itself and you end up with those that play the game becoming successful. Love And Peace And Sympathy is probably a better album than The Closer You Get but no one wants to know about that record. We did a great record called 04 after we got dropped by Beggars Banquet and nobody talked about it. All they talked about was us deciding to carry on after being dropped. We very much felt we'd been kicked out of the club. For me personally it's been a tough road because I've had to accept that. I've had to sell everything that I owned to keep making music. The only thing I kept was my guitar, and I even tried to sell that.
You came back with (The Death Of) Six By Seven project in 2012. What preempted that idea?
(The Death Of) Six By Seven was a way of saying we're not dead.
Sonically it was a huge departure from what people had been accustomed to with Six By Seven. The song structures and arrangements were a lot more stripped down and traditional.
What I wanted to do to try and survive was keep the name alive. And the best way to keep the name alive was to kill it within the title. So that became it's own brand but it was intrinsically linked to Six By Seven. Imagine a band with Pete Kember in it called (The Death Of) Spacemen 3; you'd be really intrigued. I sat and thought about it and decided that's what I'm going to do. Then (The Death Of) Six By Seven will be Six By Seven without drums. So that's what it was. Because music doesn't become alive until you drag a real drummer onto it. Put a drummer into rock music and the whole thing comes alive. So I decided to create songs that sounded like Six By Seven but without a drummer. If you think about it, with drums those songs would sound more like Six By Seven than Six By Seven do. That's actually what Love And Peace And Sympathy is.
It was actually supposed to be a collection of (The Death Of) Six By Seven songs but with drums added. But then when the drummer heard these other songs I'd written like 'Crying' and 'Fall Into Your Arms' he said we've got to do these instead. I had a huge argument with him to begin with but then Love And Peace And Sympathy began to take shape. With (The Death Of) Six By Seven I plugged a loop pedal into my guitar, then recorded four minutes of that loop pedal on my eight track. Then I'd write a song over the top of it with an acoustic guitar. Then I'd add a Moog synthesizer, string machine, Hammond organ and bass guitar to it. Finally, I'd take the acoustic guitar out because that is like a percussive thing; when you replace it with an electric guitar you end up with a flat sound. Then I'd start adding Velvet Underground style kick-ride, kick-ride to it. Those were the songs I was writing back then. At the time, I was reduced to just my guitar, my acoustic and my string machine because I had to sell everything. The Moog, it came and went. I'm on my fifth Moog now. The thing about the Moog synthesizer is if you buy it for £500 you can sell it for £500. It never depreciates. It's like a Rolls Royce. So I'd buy the Moog then the car would break down and we'd have to sell the Moog to pay for the car to be fixed. So I'd spend eight months saving up for a new Moog then something else would happen and we'd have to sell it again! (The Death Of) Six By Seven was pragmatic. It was trying to link to the name, trying to kill the name, trying to be ironic in the sense that it's dead but it isn't.
Will there be another Six By Seven record?
I'm working on one at the moment. In fact, before I met you today I was working on a new (The Death Of) Six By Seven record. I'm going to change (The Death Of) Six By Seven into something a bit more otherworldly. I've been working on a couple of tracks which I'm just about to upload on my blog and give away in secret. I've started making these Barbara Kruger style visuals with cryptic messages on them that people can hover over, and if they click on them it might give them something for free. At the moment I'm actually working on one that says "Trust me! Click me!"
Are there any new artists that you would recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
I find that the most interesting new music is on the peripheral and under the radar. That's often more interesting musically because it doesn't pander to what the industry wants.
Do you see or hear any bands in Nottingham at the moment that were clearly influenced by Six By Seven?
I Am Lono. I've been hassling them to join that band for months. The problem is if you're Chris Olley from Six By Seven you can't join another band! No one lets you in because they think you're just going to take over. So I keep saying to them I'll just shut up and play the guitar! I think they're just brilliant. They have all my favourite music rolled into one; Suicide, early Cure, Joy Division, Killing Joke. They've got all those sounds. The singer's absolutely brilliant. He's a great singer and he plays this string machine on everything that takes over the sound. It's absolutely fantastic. There are other great bands in Nottingham as well. There's so many. What's interesting is twenty-three years ago when Six By Seven first started, we were the only band in Nottingham making that kind of music. What we found was every single band around us was trying to get signed to Earache. Silencer, Bob Tilton, Pitchshifter, Hard To Swallow. There were all these bands, and the only places to play were either the Narrow Boat or the Old Angel. There was nowhere else to play. Everything was rooted in post-hardcore or leaning towards the rock kind of side. Whereas we were into bands like Spacemen 3, Can, and Neu! Those bands we used to play endless gigs with weren't like that. Yet after a while we became part of their scene and they began to respect us.
Do you think Six By Seven's longevity is down to the fact you never really fitted into a scene or genre?
What you have to do is analyse why we are here. I read a review in Uncut the other day that said they didn't deserve to become Radiohead but they didn't deserve to be forgotten either. When I hear the word "deserve" I think of the end of 'The Unforgiven' where Clint Eastwood is holding a gun over Gene Hackman and he's about to kill him, and Gene Hackman goes, "I didn't deserve to die like this. I was building a house." And Clint Eastwood replies, "Deserve has got nothing to do with it" and he blows his brains out. When I read that it made me think why are we here? Is it not because I've refused to give up? That's a big part of it. People don't want to hear another album. Maybe you do and about 400 other people. They're the only people I've managed to keep. There are no more. You mustn't be fooled. There is no longevity. The Closer You Get happened years ago. It was that band led by me talking about the world it was living in back then. I've never stopped making The Closer You Get. I'm doing it at the moment. I did it with The Things We Make and The Way I Feel Today and every record I've made since. I've never stopped. The trouble with me is I can't do anything but carry on. That's why we're here. There is no Six By Seven. There's only these two shows and this album. But there is me carrying on with what I was always doing. Unfortunately, because I'm not part of the system - and I think the system now recognises that I don't really want to be - it would take a very brave label to sign me because I'm only going to do it exactly how I want to. If I want to give some of my music away for free and they don't like it we are immediately at loggerheads and the relationship falls to bits. From now on Six By Seven will be what I want it to be.
Are record labels really that important in 2017?
When we first started we had to get a record deal, we had to go through that route. What did the record label do? They paid for the recording but then they only did that so they owned the copyright. That was a two-way thing that worked in their favour. Then they promised you they'd exploit your music to the best of their ability. They'd get it out there through their contacts. Create an identity. So you had to do a lot of things on their terms. You then had the choice whether you wanted to be an alternative, independent band or join the mainstream. There was no other way of doing it. Whereas now, you can do it yourself. The trouble is, you're still not invited to the party! I've stopped haggling with the guy on the door. I'm the one sitting in the garden selling lemonade! But I'm actually doing alright.
What advice would you give new bands just starting out?
Try and get a record deal! And I really mean that because ultimately the best way to do it is go through those channels. When we were a new band the record label built something around us, but now if you''re a new band you have to go on tour straight away. But then how can you make a living out of touring if no one knows who you are? It's like I was saying earlier, they've created a system where it doesn't matter how good you are. Unless you're invited to the party it's not going to make that band a career. Record labels still know what they're doing.