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Distractions - Interview

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 31 / 1 / 2011

Distractions - Interview


Malcolm Carter talks to vocalist Mike Finney and guitarist Steve Perrin from under rated 70's punk/new wave band the Distractions about their comeback and two new EPs, 'Black Velvet' and 'Come Home'

There were some great singles issued in the last few years of the 1970s and the early 1980s. The Jam and the Undertones were just two bands who released classic pop single after classic pop single. They were rewarded, for the most part, with decent chart placings, 'Top Of The Pops' appearances and magazine covers. But there was at least one other band who, during that time, was releasing equally outstanding singles and a classic album and who never got a chart placing, never got that 'TOTP' Thursday night appearance and was denied that 'NME' cover. Hailing from Manchester, the Distractions first arrived on the scene with their 1978 EP ‘You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That’. Even the title struck a chord with teenagers throughout the land. It was a good start, but the following years ‘Time Goes By So Slow’ single on Factory was the song that introduced the Distractions to a wider audience. It wasn’t a typical Factory single. There was a rush of melodic energy before the bruised vocals of Mike Finney came in with “I thought I saw you by my door today/I thought I saw you face the other way” and you knew instantly that here was a guy going through the same stuff that you were. That was the thing about the Distractions, a lot of their songs were about girls and all the feelings and problems associated with them. The Distractions were singing about us. We could identify with them. But it wasn’t only those lyrics sung by Finney (surely one of our best blue-eyed soul singers) that held them apart from the other bands; this group knew how to write tunes too. Tunes that got inside your head and stayed there. Tunes that still stand up and sound fresh some thirty years after we first heard them. ‘Time Goes By So Slow’ was the first indication that The Distractions were writing timeless pop music. It was simply the perfect 7” single. The band followed that slice of pop heaven with ‘It Doesn’t Bother Me’ this time on the Island label. A picture cover and white vinyl were unnecessary really. This was another killer 45. Although far from a copy of the Factory 7” it carried on in the same style. Melodic, with so much energy coming through in the music and those vocals again stealing the show. When Finney sang “Do what you want/It doesn’t bother me” he, once again, was speaking for us. There was so much passion, so much soul in his vocals. And those lyrics; here was one guy who didn’t need a dictionary to find out the meaning of unrequited. When the band’s only album was released the following year, 1980, it was more than we could have hoped for. Fourteen songs that could have been issued as fourteen separate singles and every one of them deserved to make the charts. Apart from the power pop rush that the band displayed on those singles there were some stunning ballads on the album which was titled ‘Nobody’s Perfect’. 'Still It Doesn’t Ring’ and the eerie, unsettling ‘Looking For a Ghost’ were highlights displaying a more melancholic side of the band and again lyrically we had all been there and felt that. Island released a couple of singles off the album ('It Doesn’t Bother Me', contrary to what many think, was never on the album), but they were the wrong ones. A cover of Eden Kane’s ‘Boys Cry’, although an interesting and inspired version, was an odd choice for a single given that ‘(Stuck in a) Fantasy’ which kicked off side two of ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ was never given that privilege and, while ‘Something For The Weekend’ was a more understandable choice for the second single to be pulled from the album. it was far from the best song on offer. In 1981 a gorgeous EP was issued on Rough Trade. ’24 Hours’ is still a great, timeless Distractions song, and then the band seemed to disappear. No news reached these ears about the band officially disbanding. News came through that Mike Finney had formed a new band named Secret Seven, but apart from that there was nothing. The strange thing is that because the songs the band left behind are truly timeless songs that could, and were, played constantly throughout the thirty years since they were recorded it was like the band still existed. There was no mourning as such like when Weller broke up the Jam or the Undertones split. Such was the power of the music that the Distractions made and the fact that it still sounds fresh today and hasn’t dated one single day over thirty years it has felt that the band, through their music, have always been there. There have been times when listening to ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ or that clutch of singles that never made it onto the album when I did wonder that if by some miracle there was suddenly some new Distractions music if they would still cut it, if they could match the beauty and passion of their past. It came as no little surprise late last year to hear that the band, or two of the original members in Finney and guitarist Steve Perrin, had recorded, along with three other musicians, some new songs. But before Occultation Recordings issued those brand new songs they released the ‘Black Velvet’ EP which consisted of three songs Finney, Perrin and Nick Garside who is in the latest line-up, recorded in 1995. There was a new version of ‘Still It Doesn’t Ring’ which, if anything, is more affecting than the 1980 version and the two new songs proved that in 1995 at least the Distractions still had the talent to write and record songs that could stand proud next to their back catalogue of material. ‘Come Home’, the other EP which Occultation issued recently, contains three brand new songs, two written by Perrin and one by new member Nick Halliwell and, believe me, all three songs are classic Distractions songs. They could easily have been on ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ they are that good. The Distractions have not had to update their sound from that we fell in love with thirty years ago due to the simple fact that they had it right way back then, classic pop songs never date. So with rumours of Occultation planning a re-issue of ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ and associated singles plus news of a new album filtering through it felt appropriate to ask Mike Finney and Steve Perrin a few questions to make sure that this isn’t all just a dream for those of us who fell in love with, and to, the music they made decades ago. PB: The Distractions are back states the press release. But how long for? You’re not going to get us all excited again and disappear after just one album and a clutch of classic singles again are you?! SP: That’s the plan. Yes. MF: Well, as we live on different continents, and Steve is New Zealand while I still live in England, it is difficult to get together properly – but equally difficult to split. PB: Back in the late 70s/early 80s the Distractions seemed to have it all. Great songs, a superb vocalist, brilliant guitarists and even white vinyl 7” singles. So why didn’t the singles and one of the best albums ever not sell? SP: It is hard to say. We tended to inspire complete devotion in a small number of people (many of whom were journalists so didn’t need to pay for their records) and complete indifference in everybody else. MF: It was more about how we looked and the difficulty in putting us in the right pigeon-hole perhaps? PB: Who owns the master tapes to ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ now? Are we going to finally see a reissue to replace our worn out vinyl with? SP: Universal bought out Island so they own the tapes. PB: Will ‘Time Goes By So Slow’ and ‘It Doesn’t Bother Me’ be included as bonus tracks if the album is re-issued? They weren’t on the original album. As different labels were involved I guess we won’t be that lucky. ’24 Hours’ would be another welcome addition to the album! SP: There’s a very good chance that some sort of retrospective will appear in 2011. What’s going to be on it, though, is a bit up in the air at the moment. PB: The new songs, spread over two EPs, are every bit as strong as the songs on ‘Nobody’s Perfect’. But what is most surprising is that you’ve included a version of ‘Still It Doesn’t Ring’ that stays true to the original and shows the band have lost none of their passion and power. Why did you choose that particular song from your back catalogue? SP: It’s one of the first songs that Mike and I wrote together. MF: In 1976. SF: I suppose we’ve got a soft spot for it. MF: And it made it through to the album. SF: Of course it makes very little sense since the development of mobile communications technology. I mean, why doesn’t he go out and do something constructive while taking his mobile with him? No sense in moping. I think the other reason it was recorded was that the 1990's line-up had a plan to play one old song at each gig we did but we only got round to that one. We might have done ‘Valerie’ as an encore once, but I can’t swear to it. PB: Of the two recently released EPs, one contains new songs that were recorded in 1995. Many fans missed that the Distractions were together again then let alone actually recording. Was anything actually released at that time? Were any gigs played? MF: Nothing was released in 1995, despite the recording. A few low key gigs, but only in Manchester and Liverpool. SP: Unfortunately it was before the internet had really taken off so it was hard to alert people who might have been interested. PB: Is the line-up that recorded the songs on the ‘Come Home’ EP in 2010 a settled line-up now? MF: Yes, I hope so. SP: The next record will have the Finney/Garside/Halliwell/Perrin line-up with somebody playing drums. It would be nice if it was Bernard Van Den Berg, but we’ll have to see. PB: Can we expect an album of new songs soon and maybe some gigs? MF: New songs are being written. SP: There should be some sort of new record. Gigs are more difficult given that we live in four different countries. MF: The median point is somewhere in Iran or the Russian Steppes. SP: Nick Garside is keen to do something in Manchester, but co-ordinating everybody’s schedule is a bloody nightmare. PB: Mike, you went on to form Secret Seven after the Distractions disbanded in 1981. Again, the band received good press but seemed to disappear quite quickly. What happened? Did Mike give up on the music business then? MF: The Secret Seven was set-up to intentionally have certain conflicts – unfortunately I was too naïve to realise what that really meant. When the arguments started, we blew apart. Bronze Records, who we were signed to, was folded because of the owner Gerry Bron’s divorce settlement and that sort of sealed it. I joined up with Alec Sidebottom, the Distractions' former drummer, in a country-rock band called the First Circle and made demos, did quite a few gigs, etc.,but I left because the rest of the band refused to play in the format we had. PB: What happened to the other members of the Distractions from the ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ era? What became of guitarist Adrian Wright, bassist Pip Nicholls and Alec? MF: Ade is in North Manchester keeping at arm’s-length from music. SP: Pip still plays and records and is living in Warrington. MF: Alex is still based in South Manchester and playing in a Samba band, the Republic of Swing, and I think is teaching drums. PB: The Distractions released songs on both indie and major labels back in the 80s. With the internet and downloads, it must feel like a completely different business now. Do you feel the band have a better chance of getting their music heard this time? MF: Yes. Luckily there are people around who understand this kind of thing and I would rather leave that to them. Maybe that’s what I should have done before…? SP: Probably less chance actually, as there’s so much stuff out there and the music press does not have the power it once did. PB: Something that I’ve wondered for years is concerning the cover of Eden Kane’s ‘Boys Cry’ on ‘Nobody’s Perfect’. It was a sympathetic cover but not up there with the originals on the album. Was it a band or label decision to include it on the album and also issue it as a single? MF: In principle, we were all against it being released as it was meant to be a giggle in the studio and a tension reliever. Unfortunately, some of us believed that it really would help get us known if we released it onto the album as some of the Island people said. That then became the ‘lead-single’ from the album. Steve was very much against it and I was softy Walter and went along with it. The Island press officers wanted ‘Waiting For Lorraine’ or ‘(Stuck in a) Fantasy’ – we should have gone with them! SP: After some persuasion the label got a majority of support in the band and I left in a huff. It’s a situation from which nobody emerges looking at their best. PB: The Distractions were regularly, and in many ways quite rightly, compared to the Undertones back in the 70's and 80's. But the Undertones were in and out of the all important back then charts on a regular basis. It must have been frustrating for your band to see songs of the calibre of ‘Time Goes By So Slow’ and ‘It Doesn’t Bother Me’ miss out on chart placings. SP: Yes, it was. MF: I would have liked to be charting and it was indeed very important in the various decisions made by both us and others at that point. But it wasn’t an issue with the Undertones, Buzzcocks, etc., as much as that the Nolans and the Dooleys and the like were what the public wanted. I was happy to see the Undertones, Buzzcocks, etc., in there. PB: It’s great to see both of you as the two main songwriters from the 1978-1981 line-up back together. Although Adrian Wright only wrote two songs on ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ one of them, ‘(Stuck In A) Fantasy’ defines the classic Distractions sound. Was Adrian approached to re-join the band? SP: Actually, Adrian also wrote ‘Time Goes By So Slow’, but it was wrongly credited to me and Mike on the record label. As Mike said, he keeps his distance and won’t come out for a drink, let alone join a band. He does know about the new stuff, however, and is fully supportive, as are Pip and Alex. MF: Ade was asked (twice) to re-join, but he declined for personal reasons. I haven’t written any songs since 'The Art of Noise' and that wasn’t used! I agree with you about Steve writing again. Good, innit? PB: The songs on ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ haven’t dated at all. Songs that are some thirty years old still sound fresh and with lyrics that we can all relate to will surely appeal to a new generation. Have you had any feedback from new converts who have checked out your back catalogue after hearing the new songs? MF: Many of the recent listeners haven’t heard the old stuff as it’s neither digital nor in CD but vinyl format, but I would be interested when they do hear it. The response from those who were there in 1978-1981 is great. SP: Most feedback has been from old supporters but some of them say that their kids like it. PB: ‘Lost’, the lead track on the ‘Come Home’ EP, could easily have been pulled from the ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ album and that’s a compliment not a criticism. Actually all the five new songs spread over the two EPs are classic Distractions songs but ‘Lost’ just has the edge. Mike, your vocals have always been described as soulful and the passing years have not diminished the passion in his vocals. I’d actually say that there’s a certain roughness now to your vocals which makes them even more appealing. Do you feel just as good, Mike, if not better, now vocally than you were thirty years ago? SP: I think he sounds better. I think maturity has added to rather than taken away from what was already there. MF: I was particularly pleased with the Liverpool recordings of ‘Lost’,‘Nicole’ and ‘Oil Painting’ as the two day session felt just like the ‘You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That’ or the ‘Time Goes By…’ sessions, but I could listen to the songs afterwards. We had never played ‘Lost’ and ‘Oil Painting’ together before meeting up in the studio. It was the first time I had sang with Steve for about ten years, the first time Steve, me and Nick Garside had played together for fifteen years and the first time Nick Halliwell had ever played with the three of us. We just couldn’t have done that back in 1980. I’m pleased that the passion is still there and I enjoyed the recording, both 1995 and 2010, more than the early stuff. I’m pretty sure that the roughness is due to being sober in the studio. The Liverpool session was unusually just a few pints in the evening on Albert Dock. Maybe I should have done that before too. PB: Thank you.

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Visitor Comments:-
395 Posted By: Albert, Manchester on 06 Feb 2011
Thanks for a terrific interview. You can sample tracks, buy records and keep track of the latest on The Distractions forthcoming albums at www.thedistractions.co.uk (@DistractionsMcr). Factory Star's "Enter Castle Perilous" and The Wild Swans' "Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years" are the next eagerly anticipated albums on Occultation (www.occultation.co.uk; @occultationuk).

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