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European Sun - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 29 / 10 / 2020

European Sun - Interview


Short Stories' frontman Steve Miles speaks to John Clarkson about his new band European Sun, which he has formed with Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey from Heavenly, Tender Trap and the Catenary Wires, and their eponymous debut album.

Of all the many releases that have come out this year, there are few that have such charismatic and striking packaging as European Sun’s eponymous debut LP, which has just been released on vinyl and digitally by WIAWYA. One of its songs, ‘Favourite Day’, tells of a couple who have the perfect day out at the seaside, singing Lou Reed songs and enjoying each other’s company, and the album’s front cover, a humorous but affectionate tribute to ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’. with its seminal Andy Warhol screen print of a banana, has on its sleeve a painting of an ice cream cone. Inside the record comes in a gorgeous white vinyl. When Pennyblackmusic first spoke to European Sun’s frontman and guitarist Steve Miles in 2013, he was the co-vocalist and co-songwriter with ex-Flatmates member Tim Rippington in the Short Stories, and they had just released their fourth album in five years, ‘Send My Love to Everyone’. That line-up of the Short Stories broke up amicably shortly afterwards, Rippington wanting to take things in a noise rock direction and doing so with various permutations of his Charlie Tipper project (The Charlie Tipper Experiment, the Charlie Tipper Conspiracy and Arrest! Charlie Tipper), and Miles, who kept the Short Stories moniker, going for a more introspective approach and realigning the band as an acoustic duo. European Sun, which formed last year, began as a sideline, but has now become the West Country-based Miles’ main act. It also involves cult indie pop stars and husband-and-wife Rob Pursey and Amelia Fletcher (Heavenly, Marine Research, Tender Trap and the Catenary Wires), who provide other instruments and backing vocals. Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge, Rotifer, Death in Vegas) meanwhile provides drums on some tracks. There were two download-only singles, ‘The Future’s Female’ and ‘My Station’ earlier this year. Both of these appear on the digital version of the album, along with another additional track, ‘Hugs’. The vinyl version of ‘European Sun’ features twelve new tracks, the overall tone of which is lo-fi, intimate and confessional. The wistful ‘Never Too Old To Be Young’, on which Miles’ vocals and rhythm guitar are backed by chiming bells and percussion, tells of the simple joy Miles and his wife find on the first snowy day in years of building a snowgirl and throwing snowballs at it (“And all the fun we had on a freezing cold day/Proves that you’re only old if you forget how to play.”) Other highlights on the first side are the rustic, slow-burning ‘The Robin’, in which the sight of a robin sparks off for Miles a succession of memories of his late mother (“And she was there/Always there”), and the sinister-sounding, harmonium-drenched ‘So Small’ in which, across three scenarios, a childhood encounter with a designer-clad Ferrari driver with model looks, a description of the savagery of public school life, and the memory of the imposing view of the sea on a cliffside walk on a stormy day, only the latter makes him feel small in a good way (“It makes me feel so very small/I don’t mind that at all”). On the second side, ‘Favourite Day’ is a breezy indie pop anthem in which Miles and Fletcher trade lyrics with each other (“But that’s when they both knew/That it’s a perfect day, it’s true/When you both sing along with Lou”). The discordant, brief ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ reflects on the Sex Pistols’ 1976 generation-changing fall-out with Bill Grundy (“Ninety seconds that changed the world/Gave a new voice to young boys and girls”). Best of all is ‘Small Steps’, a spiky garage rock number which concludes with a gritty yet self-deprecatingly hilarious monologue in which Miles wears an anti-royalist T-shirt on the day of the royal wedding, goes on an environmental march and spoils his ballot paper, all of which have little impact, but realises that any changes are going to have to be made through small steps rather than giant leaps. The album is concluded with the soft psychedelia of ‘Sleep Cottage’, in which Miles describes the perfect beauty of a remote cottage he has come across miles away from anywhere (“I want to buy Sleep Cottage/It looks like peace to me/Wrapped in Dorset’s greenest fields/And not too far from the sea”). Pennyblackmusic spoke to Steve Miles a few hours before European Sun played their first gig, a live stream with the Catenary Wires in September, which was filmed at Fletcher and Pursey’s rural Kent home. PB: You have kept the Short Stories going as well as starting European Sun. How do you decide which of your songs are going to go to the Short Stories and which songs you are going to release as European Sun? SM: It has been a long time since any Short Stories material came out. Our last album, ‘Send My Love to Everyone’, came out in 2013. I had developed a very different style with the Short Stories over the years anyway, so when the Short Stories became me as the songwriter I started only playing acoustic guitar gigs with a bassist. When I was playing like that, I was writing songs that I knew I would play quietly, so when I started European Sun with Rob, Amy and Ian Button I thought those quieter songs would suit us best. I suppose I now feel that the next Short Stories record will probably be a return to the first Short Stories album, ‘Short Stories for Long Nights’, in that it will probably be quite loud and punky. The Short Stories had quite a lot of styles to them, but I want there to be a split between what I do in the Short Stories and European Sun. They will, therefore, be a little bit poppy and a little bit more sophisticated with European Sun, and slightly more old-fashioned in the sense that they go back to our original sound with the Short Stories. PB: Do you write specifically for the Short Stories and specifically for European Sun? SM: I didn’t used to, but I have started to of late because we got offered a couple of gigs that we would have played this summer as the Short Stories. I didn’t want to play European Sun songs at those gigs, so I started writing songs specifically for Short Stories again, but then those gigs got cancelled because of the pandemic and those songs were never finished (laughs). I think that I will do in the future though because they are two different outlets. PB: The ‘European Sun’ LP was about 75% completed before lockdown. How easy was it for you to finish it off? SM: It was relatively easy because lockdown didn’t really affect us. We have been very lucky because most things we can do at some distance apart. We were just reflecting earlier on the fact that the very first songs we recorded we did at this time last year, so the first time that we tried to see if we could work as a band was this time last year, and now we have an album out and our first livestream tonight. That is a great achievement, but I am very lucky in that a lot of what Rob and Amy did they did without me needing to be there. PB: What was Ian Button’s role on the album? SM: Sometimes Rob and Amy play by themselves in the Catenary Wires, but they also have a five-piece band, so Ian plays with them. We felt that there would be about half a dozen songs on this album that would be better with drums or percussion, so we asked Ian to join and play on those. He is also an extremely talented soundman, so he mastered the record. He had a double impact on the record. PB: Why have you decided to put this album out on vinyl and digitally and not to bother with a CD version? SM: That was a record company decision. John Jervis, who runs WIAIWYA, says that the people he expects to listen to albums and our kind of music are mainly buying vinyl now. He says that if there is a demand and people say that they want a CD version then we will produce it. PB: You describe in an article on the European Sun website listening to your parents’ record player as a child in the early 1970s and the profound effect that it had on you. Did you put it out on vinyl as a tribute to that as well? SM: That was absolutely the case. None of the Short Stories albums came out on vinyl. They all came out on CD and as downloads, and the desire to have a vinyl product was strong. The record is beautiful, and for people of a certain age the joy associated with holding something twelve inches by twelve inches, of sliding it open and taking the record to the turntable and putting the needle down is something that many of us never forget. Part of that is associating it with our childhoods and there is an element of nostalgia definitely involved. Records are, however, much more beautiful as objects compared to CD or a download. I won’t be a hypocrite as I almost entirely download music myself now, so I don’t really buy music anymore but there is a beauty to vinyl. We, and John Jervis in particular, put an awful lot of effort into the design and look of it, and it is a beautiful thing to hold, and it does make reference to vinyl history. People’s initial reaction has been, “Oh, it’s a cross between Warhol and Factory Records,” and that is good. PB: Was the picture on the front cover done in homage to ‘The Banana Album’? SM: That’s right. I am an unrepentantly gigantic Velvet Underground fan. There is the song, ‘Favourite Day’, on the record which is both about Lou Reed and also going to the seaside, and John Jervis had the idea of an ice cream being like a banana and then the concept went from there really (laughs). PB; ‘Bohemian Blasphemy’ is about the Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance with Bill Grundy and its effect on the nation’s youth in the mid 1970s. How big an impact did it have on you personally? SM: That programme just aired in London, and I only heard about it afterwards. Punk itself had a big, big effect on me, and I wanted to write a song which captured that. I was thinking about the way that affected a generation of people and the changes for good and otherwise. As I have two five-year-old daughters I am slightly concerned about swearing on television, but then I think to myself it was me and my gang that started that (laughs). A chunk of the words in the middle of the song are from the interview itself, and I tried to write the song to be the same length as the interview. The interview took place over a very short space of time, and it made such a difference, They were also not supposed to be there at all. Queen was supposed to do the show, but had at the last minute pulled out, and the Sex Pistols were brought in instead. In a wider sense ‘Bohemian Blasphemy’ is about those moments which change things unexpectedly. PB: ‘Small Steps’ seems to sum up what the main theme of this record in some ways. It is about changes, not especially dramatic changes, but personally important changes which have to be taken slowly and done on a small scale. Would you agree? SM: You’re absolutely right. If the album had been named after any of the songs, it would have been called ‘Small Steps’. The older I have got the more I think that is the only way that you can seek to make the world a better place. If you sit down and think about all the challenges that we need to face, they may seem insurmountable, so the only thing that you can do on a political scale is to make the small steps that you can. The world has paid a lot more attention to our internal landscapes in the last few years and all the challenges that we are facing with our mental health and so on, and I think that the same is true mentally and emotionally. If you are facing social anxiety or whatever it may be, there is no miracle cure that will snap you out of it or make you happier. You have to take small steps. Whether it is global warming or depression, you have to again take small steps. PB: It also seems to be an album about simple pleasures such as building a snowman on ‘Never Too Old to Be Young’ or admiring the immense landscape of the sea in ‘Small Steps’. The couple in 'Favourite Day' have the perfect day at the seaside eating ice cream and being with each other, despite things going wrong like the pub they go to being too noisy. Do you see maintaining simplicity in life as being also one of its main themes? SM: I'm naturally a strongly glass-half-empty kind of person and those simple pleasures, 'small mercies', are one of the best ways to deal with that - trying to make myself see the glass as half full. I made a conscious decision a few years ago not to write any more about feeling depressed without offering some consolation or hope at the same time - that's a definite theme of the album, I think. Most of the songs - possibly even all of them now I come to think of it - say, ‘This isn't great, but-’ and go on to offer some reason to be cheerful. I've never woken up happy in my life and I've tried to write a song about that but haven't managed to get the plus side nailed yet; who knows, that might be one for the next album... But yes, if you can take pleasure in the little things, in the moment, and take small steps towards something better - that's the message of the whole album, right there. PB: Nature and the environment seems to be another of the main themes of the album. You reference them on songs like ‘Never Too Old To Be Young’, ‘The Robin’, ‘So Small’, ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Sleep Cottage’. Did you set out intentionally to make that also one of the themes or was that something which emerged? SM: It wasn't an intentional theme, but I do live in the countryside and it's obviously natural to write about the things you see around you. I do see nature, I suppose, as an antidote to the worst aspects of humanity and as a source of hope, because whatever bad things are in the news, flowers go on flowering and seeds go on spreading. I also think the natural world is reflected remarkably little in popular music, given the enormity of the challenge of climate change. There's a danger that unless you're photographed against a backdrop of a graffiti-decked derelict buildings, that people will think you don't know what real life is like, that you're not 'streetwise' or 'authentic'. That's why we took the bold step of taking photos for this album in the woods! I have written a couple of songs that I feel are just too bucolic to share, but bees definitely don't get a big enough mention in the charts! PB: Is there a real life 'Sleep Cottage'? SM: There pretty much is. I was coming home after a long, miserable day of work, and I drove past a chocolate-box thatched cottage in beautiful countryside and thought, ‘That's what I would like doing, living there, not stressing and wearing myself out.’ So, it became an obvious metaphor for the work versus life conundrum. I developed the song more when I went through a really demoralising period of bullying at work, and that strain is what the scrabbly feedback at the end of that song and the album is supposed to represent. PB: Are you working on a second European Sun album? Will that come next or will it be a Short Stories album? When do you hope to release that? SM: We haven't recorded anything else other than, perhaps bizarrely, a Christmas single coming out this year. But the positive reaction to this album has inspired me to devote a lot more time than I had been doing to music, so it won't be long until I have enough songs to start the second album. It could be the end of 2021 maybe. I'd like to do another Short Stories record and I'd especially like to re-record a lot of their songs, but at the moment European Sun takes precedence as we are in the groove, so to speak. PB: It doesn't look like there are going to be any gigs for a long time to come. Will you be focusing on doing more at home gigs like the one you are doing tonight with the Catenary Wires? SM: I hope to do both, I really do. We had good plans for gigs. But even getting together to do online stuff is tricky with the mixture of geography and pandemic. When we can, we will, is I guess the answer. PB: Thank you.

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