This is the first of a series of blogs that I’m hoping to do to accompany Stoat’s suite of 2017 releases, which has so far included 3 singles. There’ll probably be one more, plus the album itself – which is called ‘Try not to think about it’. Same name as the current single.
The first thing I want to talk about is failure. Commercial failure, specifically. Something we in Stoat have wallowed in right from the beginning. No record deal, no album sales, no acclaim of any magnitude.
I would classify our efforts as almost completely unsuccessful.
The almost is there to signify the handful of small achievements – a fair few successful gigs, some nice reviews. What else? There’s probably a TV appearance in there too, an interview or two, a bit of radio play. These things are insignificant commercially but at a certain point in time, taken together, they might have suggested that there was the slight possibility of a hope of a suggestion of something more than total failure.
I guess too I need to make the point that by other measures we have been pretty damn successful. We have written songs that a small group of people love. When we get together, we have a great deal of fun, which explains in part why we’ve been together for the bones of twenty years. Longer probably, than most of your favourite bands.
Part of the reason – I think – that we have been so successful in these other areas is that we failed so completely in that key one.
Success would have been great, yes – but to have been of any use, it would have had to have been total success (though I guess I would have settled for almost total success). Anything other than that would probably have lead to a great deal of misery.
To illustrate this point, I’m going to tell you a story, about a band called ‘Six. By Seven’.
Back in 1998, NME described their debut single ‘European Me’ as one of the greatest debut singles of all time. In the magazine’s end of year poll, the album it came from, ‘The Things We Make’ came in at number 13.
In the six years that followed this release, the band did the kinds of things that anyone who’s ever been in a band dreams about. They released four albums to huge critical acclaim. They recorded four sessions with John Peel, including the first ever session broadcast live on Radio 1. They toured with Manic Street Preachers, the Dandy Warhols, Placebo and Ash. They performed on the Jules Holland show twice, playing alongside Blondie, Eliot Smith and Massive Attack.
I interviewed the band’s lead singer, Chris Olley a few years ago. He cites the Jules Holland performances as particularly special.
“While we were sound-checking, Blondie came in to do their sound-check. We finished our song and there was this explosion of applause from the other side of the room. Blondie were standing there shouting ‘You guys are fucking brilliant!’ And then Massive Attack came in later, and we played a tune and they came over. ‘The way that you played was great, guys…We’re thinking of doing a similar thing on our next album, we’re going to rock out a bit more…’”
As they stood on the set of Jules Holland that day, receiving the adulation of two of the biggest names in popular music, they were not to know that this was as good as it would get. Despite the immensity of this beginning, Six. By Seven never made it. The album sales didn’t come. The band simply never generated enough revenue to break them into the big time.
But forget that for a moment. Forget about conventional definitions of success and what we understand about ‘making it.’
Here was a young band at the early stages of its career, basking in tremendous critical acclaim. Here was a group of young men actually getting paid to do something that they loved doing. They got to make four albums that mattered deeply to a small but loyal fanbase. They got to travel the world playing their music. What was that like?
“It was fucking miserable.” Says Olley. “It was one continuous stream of misery.”
“There was constant infighting, there was no money. We signed a $250,000 deal with Interscope records in America for the first album, the following week were dropped because Seagram bought Universal Studios and they decided they were going to get rid of the new roster. Island signed us, Island dropped us, then we signed a deal with BMG, then Island decided we made the second record too soon, so they took us to court. We were touring the second album, we got 9/10 on the NME, the whole music press were like, ‘This album is amazing!’ And I couldn’t even pay the rent. I was drinking Mountain Dew and eating beans and none of us had any money and we were fucked. It was awful.”
This pattern was repeated over and over again in the years ahead. The live shows got dazzling reviews, the albums were feted in the press, but none of it converted into sales. As the band slogged from tour bus to studio and back, Chris Olley’s bandmates began to lose their faith.
“I kept on pushing everyone around me like a lunatic.” He says. “I was like ‘Come on, we gotta keep going, come on…’ Because it was my dream and no one was going to bloody stop me.”
Eventually the guitar player decided he couldn’t endure the slog any longer and the five piece became a four piece. Shortly afterwards, Six. by Seven were back touring, not in a bus this time but in a transit van kitted out with sofas rescued from a junkyard. The bassplayer walked out after a gig in Spain. Eventually it was just Olley and the drummer. Then it was just Olley.
When I talked to him, which was about three years ago now, he had a variety of solo projects on the go, and there was a new Six. by Seven album in the pipeline. I checked back recently and he’s still trucking. Still playing, still releasing stuff.
He’s also just brought out a documentary about his band called ‘The Dream is Sweeter than the Taste’. Great title. Reminds me of this poem