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Tales of a Go-Nowhere Indie Band

“Things can only get better” – D:Ream, “Things Can Only Get Better”

Where were we? Oh yes, I remember: no fans, no record deal, no point. That’s where we stood at the end of 2007.

Of course, it can be difficult to let go sometimes, and we weren’t willing to do so just yet. Despite having experienced a complete lack of success, we still thought highly enough of ourselves and of the music we were making to keep working at it. What that meant, as always, was locking ourselves away in our practise room.

By this point we were rehearsing in a damn-near derelict old mill located on, appropriately enough, Old Mill Street in Ancoats, and I can say with some conviction that we were dedicated. We turned up there Christmas Eve morning, planning to put a full day in, only to find that for once the place had been properly locked up. To be honest, I was relieved; I’d just finished the last of my 10pm till 8am shifts as a temp at Toys R Us. Playing music was the last thing on my mind, given that the preceding two months had been an exercise in draining every last trace of joy out of my life. 50 hour weeks working unsociable shifts will do that to a person.

Anyway, one of our biggest problems was always a complete inability to self-promote. Other bands make creating buzz seem effortless (although it should be noted that many actually hire someone to do the work for them), but we laboured at it without success. You could be writing some of the greatest songs of all time, but if no-one gets the chance to hear them that doesn’t count for anything. “If a tree falls in the woods” and all that. Naturally, this in no way deterred us from spending money we couldn’t really afford on studio time.

Early in 2008 we entered the studio for the fourth time. The previous sessions had never gone that well. The first was a rush job, and involved getting down four tracks in an epic single session just so that we’d have something to shop ourselves around with. The second was slightly more relaxed, but we still weren’t all that happy with the results. In the immediate aftermath of both, we ended up writing much better songs, meaning that the recorded material was disowned. Still, we handcrafted a small amount of CDs and managed to sell them at our gigs, meaning that somewhere in this city a few copies must still be dotted around.

Alas, third time was not the charm. If things don’t click quickly in the studio, then it soon becomes a nightmare. A late start on the first day was followed by various complications and malfunctions. I had to play my parts again, and again, and again, until they had lost all meaning. As did everyone else. We became more and more dispirited and started losing all patience with one another, and in the end were just glad when it was over, regardless of how anything sounded. Months later, after I had finally quit the band, I had a habit of bumping into the guy who had helped engineer the session, and every time he would tell me how much he hated our lead guitarist’s vocals.

In comparison, then, the fourth session was a joy. The setup for the drums was perfect, and I banged out my parts with a minimum of fuss, and then happily disengaged my brain from the boredom of the process as everyone else laid down theirs. It went very well indeed, and we came out with two songs that were of “professional” quality. We were thrilled, and felt that this time, we could definitely find a label – local or otherwise – that would want to put them out.

We were wrong.

In part four: time to call it a day.

It’s pretty much a truism that every small-time indie band you could care to mention is going to be composed of three to five shy and awkward individuals who are in no way cut out to be placed upon a stage in front of other people. So to say that we were terrified on the day of our first gig seems redundant. Also, it’s a massive understatement: we were in a state of near-panic over all the things that could, and likely would, go wrong.

It didn’t help that by this point, we’d accumulated an ungodly amount of instruments and equipment. To compound the problem further, some of the drum machines and keyboards we had incorporated into our act were liable to stop working if you so much as brushed against them the wrong way. A recipe for disaster if ever there was one.

After a not entirely promising soundcheck, and with our nerves on a knife edge, we took to the stage, doing our very best to avoid eye contact with the audience; one bored or disinterested look would likely have destroyed us. Once you’re up there, there’s nothing to do but play…

It wasn’t a flawless performance by any stretch, but we carried it off well enough, and the folks who saw it seemed to enjoy it. It was a start, at any rate, one we quickly followed up on a month later with a much improved showing at Joshua Brooks. Everything went right for us, from the sound on the stage to the enthusiasm of those who’d showed up. The Manchester Music review was flattering to say the least; we were dubbed “one of Manchester’s most exciting newcomers for 2006.” High praise indeed, and there were still nine months of the year left to go.

We spent the year attempting to build on those kind words, by gigging whenever we could, wherever we could, and locking ourselves away in whatever spaces we could find to work on new and better songs. We closed out the year triumphantly enough, appearing on the High Voltage compilation, Full Charge, and felt poised to push on further.

Alas, 2007 was an exercise in standing still. We still received plenty of positive reviews, but our gigs were almost always populated by no more than a handful of people. We got some great support slots – with Subtle at the Bierkeller, with Danielson at the Levenshulme Bowling Social Club on a bill that also included Los Campesinos! – but even those made no difference to our fortunes, and with Twitter still in its formative stages, creating word of mouth seemed like the hardest thing in the world. No matter that we were “glitch ridden intelli pop of the highest order” (Subba-Cultcha’s words) with a “frail and fractured, dreamy and downbeat sound” (Is This Music?). We were going nowhere fast.

It isn’t difficult to remember rock bottom. Let me tell you, the Dry Bar basement is a lonely place to be when the band members outnumber the audience. It sends you into a spiral of “are we actually not very good?” doubt and despondency. If creating and sharing music is supposed to be fun, then performing live to a room of four people is the surest way of ruining that feeling. No-one wanted to come to our gigs, no-one wanted to put out our music. Sometimes it’s hard to carry on…

In part three: things fail to get better before getting worse.

It’s 2011, and Manchester has an absolutely thriving music scene. No matter what they tell you, though, it wasn’t always this way. I should know: after all, I was a small part of it during the first decade of the new century, playing drums in a band called, let’s say, The Found Navigation Chart. Throughout that time, this city’s music scene was as much characterised by audience indifference and dreadful bands as anything else. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

It started aged sixteen, when four friends asked me to learn to play the drums. For them, that was easier than having to recruit somebody by meeting new people. I wasn’t all that up for it – it sounded too much like hard work – but It’s hard to say no to friends, and soon enough I was buying drums, arranging lessons, and experiencing the cathartic joy of pounding away on a beautiful new kit.

This happened at the start of 2002. Naturally when it came to establishing the sound of the band, we aimed for Kid A and ended up with a slightly more angsty, less catchy version of Coldplay. Our practise room, for the most part, was a church hall we were allowed to use for free thanks to a rather generous reverend. Occasionally, garages and living rooms would suffice. With little else to do with our lives, we’d lock ourselves away for hours at a time, for days in a row, plotting a path towards indie stardom.

From those humble origins we soon found our feet, and became a little more ambitious. Not always with positive results; one song featured live drums, a drum machine, and a line sampled from Darren Aronofsky’s Pi that was shoehorned in in such a way that is was almost impossible to play around it. Alas, that was to become something of a theme for us – overcomplicating things to the point where actually just playing a song was almost more trouble than it was worth. Perhaps that’s why it took three years of practising before we finally played our first gig. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Over the course of those years, we honed our craft, developed an understanding as musicians, argued a hell of a lot, and – crucially – started listening to better music. Our songs improved massively as a result, and our collective egos had us convinced that we were one of the best bands in Manchester before we’d even played a note in front of an audience.

That wasn’t just arrogance on our part, though; as I’ve already alluded to, the city’s music scene wasn’t exactly in rude health back then. Too many bands were still in thrall to Joy Division, Stone Roses, Oasis et al, and as a result were producing derivative music that wasn’t worth listening to. A good few people – promoters and reviewers and the like – were trying to push things forward, but progress was slow. We honestly thought we could make a difference. How naive we were…

In part two: we start playing gigs and start recording our songs, and critical acclaim quickly follows. The fans, sadly, do not.

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