I’ve been a Sarah fan since I first heard the infallibly dreamy ‘Pristine Christine’ on the There And Back Again Lane compilation CD I picked up out of curiosity after being recommend it by a friend. It seemed like an odd place to start, with it being the last thing Sarah Records ever released back in 1995, but it worked – I was hooked, and, coincidentally, ‘Pristine Christine’ was The Sea Urchins’ first single; the first record to be released on the label, and now one of their most highly coveted among record collectors.
Having formed in 1986, their first two releases were flexi discs given away with fanzines the following year, and then a double A-side was released in ‘88. Purported disagreements with Sarah led to them moving to Cheree Records who issued ‘Please Don’t Cry’ in 1991. The band subsequently disbanded that summer, and although they never really recorded a proper album, two LP’s were released: 1992’s Stardust, a retrospective compilation issued on Sarah, and a live album released by Fierce Records in 1994.
The music of Sarah Records still has a place in many hearts, as much as its saccharine connotations are still reviled by a relative few. It continues to inspire not just nostalgic misty-eyed 40-somethings, but today’s vibrant indie pop scene, whether knowingly or not.
The Sea Urchins are a case in point. Despite remaining relatively obscure, they are quietly revered by a collective of old and young music fans alike: their records – now rare- are selling for hundreds on the internet. But interviews with the band are, to my knowledge, nonexistent - except for those seemingly hidden away in dusty pages of old fanzines. With this in mind, I managed to track down singer James Roberts to talk about life after The Sea Urchins, his thoughts on nostalgia, the ‘vinyl revival’ and dispelling the myth of those Sarah Records feuds, or lack thereof..
Hi James, it’s been quite a while! What are you up to these days?
I’m just living the family life really with my wife and two boys. The last proper thing I did musically was the solo album not long after Delta called it a day which is a few years ago now. Since then I have kind of just kicked back and got myself domesticated.
Still living in West Bromwich?
Not quite, although still in the same neck of the woods - just a few miles down the road.
You’re considered an ‘indie legend’ by people all over the world, yet The Sea Urchins still remain relatively unknown. Do you ever get recognised or asked about the band much?
I’m really not so sure about legend but thank you! Very occasionally around Birmingham I get the odd “weren’t you in that band…” from some middle aged sort but no, unsurprisingly, I don’t really get recognised or quizzed about the band that much.
Have you considered getting back into music after Delta?
I have thought about perhaps doing some more recording and I might do yet if it feels right. I don’t have any inclination to really to get out there and do the whole touring thing again, but another album quietly released at some point appeals to me.
Loads of Sea Urchins stuff has been out of print for years, what’s the story behind that? I read somewhere that it was something to do with a dispute with Sarah Records?
There’s no dispute that I’m aware of. I do still hear from Matt or Claire from Sarah every once in a while and we are on decent terms, at least I think we are! We did have some disagreements towards the end of being on Sarah - we were pretty strong minded about which way we wanted the band to go and they were the same with regard to their label and, in the end, they didn’t align. But that’s all a long time ago now and I don’t think anyone is holding any grudges or anything like that. They haven’t raised the prospect of re-issuing stuff with us but neither have we with them.
What’s going on with the rights to all your stuff, then?
Well I guess Matt and Claire must still hold and own the physical recordings of all of that stuff barring the last Sea Urchins single which Vinita at Rocket Girl will have. As for the song rights, they weren’t ever published so they will sit with those of us that wrote them.
As a result, a lot of your records have become highly coveted. How do you feel about records like Stardust and particularly the ‘Pristine Christine’ single selling for big money on sites like eBay etc?
I just find it mad! It’s crazy to see what ‘Pristine Christine’ sells for. It’s funny, and kind of nice for the ego I guess, but not something I would ever have expected.
There’s a fair few people hoping for some reissues, or a Sea Urchins retrospective, with a label like Cherry Red for example? I think you’d be a great fit.
There was a guy from New York who got in touch with Robert from the band a little while ago about doing something like this so it’s a possibility. I’m not quite sure where that’s at now though. If anything, I think we’d maybe like to do something that had the Sarah stuff plus the last ‘Please Don’t Cry’ single and a few recordings of things that were never released, along with alternate & live versions etc. It would be nicer to do something like that rather than just some reissues I think.
What are your thoughts on the supposed ‘vinyl revival’? Are you much of a record collector?
It’s weird and cool how that seems to have come around again lately. I have a 15 year old niece that got a record player for Christmas this year! I think that’s great. I do love my IPod, but vinyl is definitely a completely different experience, so maybe it’s not that surprising it is being re-discovered and re-invigorated. I’m not as nerdy as I once was in terms of record collecting but I still love my music.
In retrospect, how was your time in The Sea Urchins, and what was it like working with a label like Sarah at the height of it all? – do you look back on it fondly?
I do look back on it all really fondly and even though we were just this tiny band nobody has ever really heard of, I like that we did something when we were young that meant everything to us at the time, and for whatever reason, still seems to mean something to a few people at least. That’s a really cool thing, and more than anything I’d have expected or hoped for. There was definitely a fair share of grief and nonsense along the way but hey, that’s being young.
Do you still speak to the others in the band? If so, what are they all up to these days?
Patrick is the only one I see with any regularity, but I did catch up with the rest of them a couple of times last year after what had been quite some time. They are all well and doing OK and just getting on doing their own thing with families and work etc. Robert’s the only one really still actively doing the band thing; he’s in a band called Golden Glass now.
I think I already know the answer to this, but have The Sea Urchins ever considered reforming?
It was considered for a brief period last year which is why we ended up meeting up. There had been offers to get back together to play a few festivals – here, Europe and one in the US. There wasn’t really consensus on who did or didn’t want to do anything; I really wasn’t that convinced it was a great idea. Plus- in truth, there was still some baggage knocking around with people. I don’t think it is on the cards and that’s probably for the best.
There’s quite a vibrant DIY/indie pop scene both in the UK and further afield at the moment. Did you ever think that your music would be influencing bands nearly 30 years on?
I’m not sure how influential it is, but it does certainly surprise me that there seems to be this ongoing undercurrent of interest that keeps on. I’m not sure why that is because it was a long time ago now, and it was all on a very small scale - even at the time. It’s nice though, it makes me smile.
Do you still own those anoraks (do you still wear them?)
Nope. They are long gone. Probably thrown in the bin by a former girlfriend bored of people assuming she was walking around with someone on day release from some kind of institution.
What music are you currently listening to? Are you much in tune with Birmingham’s music scene?
I don’t get out see bands around Birmingham that much at all at the moment, so I guess I’m not really that in tune with some of what is happening locally. I’m pretty flighty with what I listen to these days: I’m still into a lot of old 50’s, 60’s & 70’s stuff and still discovering new things. I like my country music, some hip-hop and there’s always something interesting coming out of the indie scene. I just tend to hear a song I like and then dig a little. I’m not as partisan about it all as I probably was when I was younger.
In Bob Stanley’s sleeve notes for ‘CD86’ CD he says that when ‘Pristine Christine’ came out in 1987 it was “too late”, whereas now it is regarded as one of the classics. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I think I know what Bob was saying. Robert and I were especially really into all of the very early Creation bands and the kind of stuff that probably pre-dated our first releases by a year or so. I think at the time we were trying to be the Birmingham version of those bands, because they all seemed to be coming out of Scotland and London. I think you can hear that in at least the first couple of things we released, so I guess we were a bit behind that particular curve. In the end though I don’t suppose it’s that relevant because all of that stuff is just viewed from a distance now, some of it still seems to resonate and some doesn’t, but ‘Pristine...’ certainly wasn’t the first of its kind.
How do you feel about the renewal of interest in Sarah and C86? Did it feel truly exciting at the time, or do you feel like people look back on it with too much nostalgia?
I don’t think the C86 thing was as joined up or as much of a “scene” as perhaps people might think it was. I think it was more that the C86 moniker got tagged to a bunch of stuff with that original cassette and once it was named then it became defined somehow. We never felt that much part of something bigger at the time, but in hindsight I suppose we were part of a certain movement because we’re now perceived to have been. It was fun and exciting though, being a young guy in a band with your mates is great and little stuff like your first record, review or radio play was exciting and not something I’ll forget in a hurry. I’m sure there is some dewy eyed nostalgia about it all but that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of that sometimes.