Q&A by Nick Mee. @Nickjmee
Having reconsidered an earlier split and retrieved the sticks and strings from storage, Grimsby trio Orphan Boy recruited multi-instrumentalist Sam and put together a third album, their most wide-reaching collection yet. ‘Coastal Tones’, out this week, is packed with head-turning cerebral pop, featuring a rich lyrical realism detailing life in the overlooked regions of a Britain run by and for the plutocrats, public schoolboys and press barons. The band shot a top-flight video for new single 'From The Provinces' [watch it at the bottom of the page], the second taster for the album, and singer/guitarist Rob Cross found time to answer a few questions for Lost In The Manor.
LITM: Congratulations on the forthcoming release of ‘Coastal Tones’. Your lyrics and and vocal delivery reminded me, in parts, of early Alex Turner, John Cooper Clarke and Carter USM. Are any of these artists influences on the band? Who else would you cite as inspirations?
Rob:: I’ve never really listened to Carter USM, but I hold JCC in high esteem as a wordsmith. His stuff is basically poetry rather than lyricism (because his words are spoken rather than sung), but I also love the soundscapes that were created for him and the lo-fi production from Martin Hannett. As for Alex Turner, his early songs are so good lyrically that you can't believe they wrote them when they were so young. Our early records, like 'Trophies Of Love’, certainly sounded like Arctic Monkeys, but I think that is down to the fact that we're both from a similar part of the country, had a similar accent and similar observational lyrical styles back then. But nowadays I don't see that so much. I actually don't think this latest album has been influenced by any band. That's not me trying to make us sound authentic; I actually wasn't listening to any music from about 2011-2013 when we wrote it. I like to think that we've shaken off our influences now.
The widescreen album closers, ‘Coastal Tones’ and ‘Thirtysomething Lovesick Ballad’ come complete with contemplative sax and evocative depictions of the north-east coast. Do you think it’s important to portray a sense of place/geographical identity in music?
Rob: I think if your lyrics create a sense of place then it definitely helps that cinematic quality you refer to. Especially if the music itself can suggest wide-open spaces, or misty beaches, or late-night train journeys, and so on. If our first album was mainly about characters around us, and the second was about ourselves, then I agree this one definitely is about places. But that was not intentional; you've actually just made me realise that now with your question. I think people attach themes and concepts to albums and assume that the bands had these in mind from the start, but it's more that bands progress through different stages of maturity and each album captures the band at different stages in that progression. So, traditionally, first albums are energetic and raw, whereas third albums are focused and expansive. Although more and more bands these days seem reluctant to put out a raw first album.
There’s plenty of props to provincial edge-territory Britain on ‘Coastal Tones’. Have you played any specific gigs or venues in less well-trodden towns that particularly live in the memory?
Rob: Of course, especially when we lived in Manchester and there are all of those satellite towns within an hour's drive (Oldham, Stockport, Bolton, Wigan, etc). A lot of the gigs kind of blur into one a bit, but we're grateful to Carl Nunn (aka Spikey) who filmed so many gigs for lots of Manchester bands back then and uploaded them on to YouTube. So there's a lot of the craziness documented. I've attached a link to a gig Spikey filmed at a pub in Chorley. It was a weeknight in 2009. We went on after a contortionist and a burlesque act. The stage was made out of boxes which kept drifting this way and that, especially when it got invaded by a pregnant woman who became pretty attached to us, plus about half a dozen others including members of The Heartbreaks who were there playing one of their very first gigs. So, this kind of gig was the norm really:
Your songs also document austerity Britain. What are your thoughts following the election?
Rob: I think there's the illusion of change, and always the promise that things are going to change for the better or worse depending on which party, or newspaper, is speaking. But ultimately life is the same for the vast majority of people across the country; most people (even those with full-time work) are still skint and struggling but striving just like they always have, and will continue to do. Look at the choice on offer at this election: Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Farage. All middle-aged, white men from very similar, privileged backgrounds - some of them even in the same classes at Eton or wherever. All wearing different coloured ties but speaking the same bullshit language made up of slogans and soundbites. How can anything change when everyone you're voting for is essentially the same?
Orphan Boy initially disbanded in 2011. How did you spend the time away?
Rob: We were tired and jaded by about 2010. We'd put real life on hold for five years and it was necessary to return to real life for a while. Me personally, in that time I've started a family with my long-term girlfriend who has been with me since way before Orphan Boy ever existed, and who was good enough to move to Manchester with me for several years while I lived the life of a struggling musician. Chris and Smith have also settled down a bit. And we've got Sam in the band now too, who plays keys and sax and guitar. These days we're not able to rush off and play every gig that comes our way, but when we do gig we're a lot more professional and things just seem to run smoothly and everyone is fairly sober and relaxed. We even arrive on time for sound check occasionally.
You recorded the official Grimsby Town anthem prior to this season’s Conference playoffs. Commiserations on the outcome [Grimsby lost on penalties at Wembley to Bristol Rovers]. One consolation is that football in the lower leagues is still relatively affordable to watch. If Orphan Boy were running the FA, what would be the first thing you'd do to shake-up the game?
Rob: Well, talking complete nonsense here of course, but I'd cap players wages at £100,000 a year (because no one really needs more than that do they?). Then I imagine all of the top players would leave and play in other European leagues, but that wouldn't be a bad thing because it's embarrassing how few English players there are playing in La Liga or Bundesliga (are there any?) and probably one of the reasons why the national team seems so out of its depth at major tournaments. So yeah I'd make the Premier League inferior thus making the lower leagues more attractive and also helping the national team in the process. Until somebody assassinated me, that is.
And, partisan loyalties aside, if you were forced to cover one other football song of any era, which would it be?
Rob: 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is an incredible piece of music. Plus my eldest boy is a Liverpool fan so I'd have no qualms about that one.
'Coastal Tones' is out now on Concrete Recordings