Tomorrow (Friday 24th February) sees the 25th anniversary of Thousand Yard Stare's debut Hands On. Initially released by Polydor Records in 1992, it's gone on to become one of the most understated and seminal records from that era.
With the band also set to play London's 100 Club in June and release new material later this year, DiS spoke to lead singer and lyricist Stephen Barnes about the making of the record, what it meant then and now, and the band's future plans.
DiS: Hands On is 25 years old on Friday (24th February). Did you expect to be sat here discussing the album in 2017?
Stephen Barnes: No, I didn't expect to ever talk about it again! After the band initially disbanded I walked away from the whole thing completely. It's only since we've got back together and started touring again where people have spoken to us at the gigs and reminisced about some of those shows that I've really thought about it. It's given me a much better perspective of how things were back then really. The funny thing about Hands On is we were always a band that created EPs, and then after we signed to Polydor it became all about releasing albums. So it felt very different from what we were used to doing before. We had to decide which songs to take from our previous EPs along with some new ones we'd written to create this album and it became a totally different kind of project. The main difference was that we were in the studio with Stephen Street!
How did that happen? How did Stephen Street become involved with the record?
I remember talking to our A&R man at the time - a real wide boy called Glenn - and saying to him I'm not doing a record unless Stephen Street does it. Just saying the most outrageous thing I possibly could. And then a week later Glenn came back and said Stephen Street was on board. I remember being completely poleaxed by that! I don't think we had any idea that what we were doing was worthy of someone like Stephen Street. He was great to work with. I think that was the first time we'd actually written songs in the strictest sense of the word. Most of the tracks on the EPs were just jams and riffs and we recorded them how they were in the studio or in rehearsals. It's what we were into at the time. I'd be putting on indie clubs in the week then going to acid house nights at the weekend if someone like Andy Weatherall was playing in our town. I got into repetitive beats which is where that shuffling dance sound in our music came from to a degree. I wouldn't say we were particularly influenced by dance music, but I really loved that repetitive thing which filtered into our signature sound at the time.
Was it difficult choosing the final tracklist? I remember being surprised at the time 'Wonderment' wasn't on there with it being your debut single and such a prominent song in the live set.
Our original intention was to put no EP tracks on the album at all. When you're in that prolific early stage of your career and full of enthusiasm, new songs come and go all the time. It was only when we sat down and thought about it that we realised the album needed to have the likes of 'Buttermouth' and '0-0 A.E.T.' on there and looking back, I think it was the right decision as those songs kind of shaped it a little bit. Once they were in place it gave us the direction we wanted to go in. We still had four or five songs off the EPs we were considering that almost made it onto Hands On but in the meantime the album got finished. Those places were already taken and it became a collection of songs we'd written but hadn't yet released plus a couple of key tracks off the earlier EPs. I still see Hands On as more of a collection of songs we had at the time rather than specifically written for an album from scratch.
'Buttermouth' was re-recorded for the album. Why was that and looking back, which version do you prefer, the one on the album or the one off the Keepsake_ EP?
I've always preferred our first recordings of anything. I love raw, flawed recordings. The album version probably sounds smoother and more correct but I've always preferred flawed records. I'd rather hear the band than the producer. At the time the label wanted to use 'Buttermouth' as our song for America. I have no idea where that came from, but there is actually an American edit of it which sounds even more produced for radio where the music's quite tinny and my voice is sat over the top, which sounds really weird. I think the new recording works to a degree with Hands On but there's maybe a little too much sheen than we would have liked there to be. But then we were signed to a major label and this album was our big release, so I'm not surprised the edges were knocked off a few bits. I still think it's got an energy as a record, although I only actually listened to it all the way through from front to back about a year ago for the first time since we recorded it. It brought back a lot of memories that's for sure.
How did the running order develop? It seems there's a pattern with the faster, poppier songs opening the record before becoming more introspective towards the end of side one, then almost operating in reverse before 'Buttermouth' and 'Wideshire' bring it to a tumultuous close.
I guess that was the formula of the day and I've always liked albums that run in a similar kind of way. I usually make my mind up whether I like an album or not after I''ve listened to the first, third and last tracks. It's just something that's stuck in my head from years ago. The first and third tracks are definitely the headline tunes. Back in the day they'd often turn out to be the singles so it was pretty much a given that the most instant songs would end up nearer the front. And then you find out the song the band really like the most often ends up being the last track. So in a lot of ways, '0-0 A.E.T.', 'Comeuppance' and 'Wideshire' were the keystones of the album. If I only had three songs to describe what we were about, they're the three I would have picked at the time. 'Wideshire' in particular was the one connection between me and Giles (Duffy, guitar) because we had very different music tastes. I was very bookish and foppish about the stuff that I liked and was trying to be like Edwyn Collins, whereas Giles was more into the likes of Ministry. You couldn't get two opposites more further away musically. We did have a common ground which we've only just realised recently in that we're both quite fond of prog rock. He was getting into Rush and I'd be going "Oh for fuck's sake!" but then I really like Marillion, and I think that's how something like 'Wideshire' came about. Both of us trying to write in a way that had proggy sections with very different moods running through it. That's how it came about. We usually did twelve songs in 22 minutes for most of our live sets up until Hands On. Everything was three minutes long maximum. And then we felt confident enough to add enough content to a song to make it four or five minutes long. 'Wonderment' was only one riff, so sometimes it ended up being fifteen minutes long!
Which was the last song to be written and recorded for the album?
I'm pretty sure it was 'Absentee', which was an attempt at adding a different flavour to the record. I could see a shape in my head of the album and that bit was missing.
You haven't played it live since reforming. Will it feature in the set at the 100 Club in June?
No, we won't be playing it. I think we got lost in our own naivety at the time and 'Absentee' reminds me of that. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I quite like that we were very naive back then. We weren't playing any games. We genuinely didn't know that much about the music industry or what we were doing. Whatever would be would be. Hands On reminds me of that period in my life and the people I was engaging with. The way is living, people I was engaging with. It was important to me to have a song which represented that vibe on the record and it ended up being 'Absentee'.
If you had the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you'd change about Hands On or do differently?
I think last year's Live At Electric Studios album pretty much covered the tracks we wanted to re-record. There is a nice charm about the original versions on Hands On but the new versions sound better to me. We did actually talk about redoing the entire album but that idea didn't last long. I think we'd probably have liked the album to have been a little more representative of our live sound back then. And I guess if we were picking the tracks now there's maybe a couple on there that wouldn't necessarily make it.
'Last Up First To Go'. I'd even forgotten what it sounded like until I played the album recently. To us, that felt like a little bit of a throwaway on the record. It could have easily been replaced by something else off one of the EPs. Maybe something like 'Standoffish' or 'Twicetimes' for example. If we'd have been a bit more mature back then we'd probably have made those decisions. Hands On is very much a snapshot of the moment. It's a massive part of what we did but it's not a defining stone of Thousand Yard Stare as a band. The EPs that came before it were just as, if not more, important. If anything the album was a defining point of where we'd got to at that moment in time. I am proud of that record. Has it worn really well? I think it has. Parts of it might seem a little threadbare, but then the same applies to anything that's 25 years old.
You toured extensively around that time, both before and after the album came out. Do you remember much about those shows and being on tour back then?
I do. I've always said we were a live band that also did recordings rather than a studio band that sometimes played live. We were a gang that went out and met similar kinds of people that wanted to be in our gang. We weren't doing 300 shows a year but we were always around. I think one of the reasons we attracted the following we did was because we weren't averse to playing unusual towns that were off the beaten track. If someone offered us a show in Aldershot or Camberley we'd play it. We played a show in Gourock in the West of Scotland and I remember everyone going absolutely nuts. Sometimes the stage was falling apart after one song so they had to pull it out before we could restart the set on the floor. We really had a feeling of togetherness. Not only with our audiences but also the crew we had around us. We were a really tight-knit group. It wasn't quite like The Monkees but we all pretty much lived in the same house. So when we went out on tour together it felt like the people at our shows had come along to enjoy this with us rather than us being here to entertain you and then go home. We'd always have fans in the dressing room afterwards drinking the rider with us. It was that kind of feeling, and I think that was the only perspective we had as a band in terms of how well we were doing.
I thought the music press at the time treated you quite harshly. You seemed to get criticised more for where you came from than anything to do with the band's music and got lumped in the "scene with no name" as it was often referred to alongside numerous bands you had very little in common with. The likes of Kingmaker, Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, Ned's Atomic Dustbin and The Wonder Stuff for example. Did you feel any kind of kinship with those bands at the time?
We always had huge respect for The Wonder Stuff. They're the main reason we started a band really. We always said it would be cool to do what they're doing. I think they influenced a lot of our sound up to Hands On. Martin Bell played fiddle on '0-0 A.E.T.' which I guess does have quite a hoedown feel to it. We were quite strange with the bands we liked really. The more left of centre bands like Eat, Five Thirty and The Sandkings. So we were easier to be shot at because we never fell into any specific scene. The press put us in this so-called Thames Valley Scene of theirs alongside bands like Ride and Slowdive purely based on the fact we came from the Thames Valley. But we didn't really fit there. They often created regional scenes back then. I remember the so-called West Country scene where they put bands like The Wonder Stuff, Ned's, The Seers and Drop together. We probably had more in common with those bands but because we were always somewhere in between that made it difficult for the press to categorize us. I don't think we ever felt part of any scene that was going on at the time.
You played the Slough Festival with the likes of Ride, Slowdive, and Curve in 1991, an event that's now attained legendary status as the "Shoegaze Woodstock". How did that come about and would something like that ever happen in the town again?
We mainly got on that bill because of where we came from. It's interesting that most of those bands have come back. I think there's only Curve and The Mock Turtles left to come back now? It wasn't a predominantly shoegaze line-up to be fair. The Mock Turtles and fellow Slough band Soul Family Sensation being two others that didn't fall into that category. Going back to the Slough Festival, it's probably the biggest thing that's ever happened in the town. As for something like that happening again, I had heard a rumour they were planning something to commemorate the 25th anniversary which in the end never happened, and to be honest, I think some things are best left where they were. It was a great moment in time and should just be remembered as such.
You're playing the 100 Club on Friday 2nd June. Will you be playing Hands On in full or is the set going to be a mixture of old and new material?
We did talk about playing a Hands On anniversary show but in all honesty, none of us feel that's the way we should go. We don't consider that album to be a career defining record in the way some bands who've played their albums in full would. I don't think we reached our peak with that record. When we played the 100 Club last year it gave me time to reflect and what gave me the most satisfaction was how the audience responded to the new songs we played that night. They were written now rather than back then and people were enjoying them for that reason. It didn't feel like a nostalgia trip. So we have some more new songs we've written that might feature in the set and maybe one or two songs off Hands On we haven't played before. We need to have that discussion. We thought about having the album remastered and even came up with the idea of releasing a companion to the record called Hands Off, which would basically have been a collection of demos and alternative versions. But after we listened through all of them we didn't think it was really good enough to put out.
What does the future hold for Thousand Yard Stare? Will the band still be playing shows and releasing new material this time next year? Is the reunion permanent?
It's hard to say. We've enjoyed it more than we thought we would, and it's already gone on longer than we thought it would. We're also very conscious about not overstaying our welcome. There are two things that underpin whether we'll still carry on; whether people still come to the shows and whether we still want to do some creative stuff and write new songs. Those two things are crucial as to whether we'll carry on as a band. They're the only things that will give us a reason to go on. What I don't want is for us to just be going out and playing the same songs over and over again. We're going to do a couple more shows this year rather than a full tour. Mainly because of logistics and when everyone is available. Ultimately whether we carry on will come down to us, but the other thing that keeps us going is we never really finished the story. It feels like we wrote the first four chapters of an eight chapter book. We literally just left everything up in the air, maybe we should finish it...
With regard to the new songs you've written, when will these be released?
There will be news very soon. They are nearly finished and sound great. There's still the signature Thousand Yard Stare vibes, but with some new flavours, reflecting where we are 25 years later. They might even surprise some people! We’ll have the new stuff before the 100 Club show in June, and I'm looking forward to having them out there in the world. New material from Thousand Yard Stare in 2017? If you’d said that it me a year or so ago, I’d have laughed!
For more information on Thousand Yard Stare visit their official website.