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Abrasive Nottingham rockers Six by Seven have suffered both the loss of their record company and principal members during the last few years. Frontman Chris Olley talks to John Clarkson about the band's survival against the odds and latest album 'O4'
Six by Seven are a vitriolic guitar band from Nottingham. The group kick started into life under their original moniker of Friends of.... in 1992, when its five inital members, Chris Olley (vocals and guitar), James Flower (organ, keyboards), Sam Hempson guitar), Paul Douglas (bass) and Chris Davis (drums) met at university.
After playing an infamous showcase gig for record companies in Leicester which ended in disaster with the room emptying out before the end of their first song, the band, whom by now had changed their name to Six by Seven, released their first 12", 'European Me', in 1996 on their own label MFS. It sold out within three days and shortly afterwards they signed to Mantra Recordings, an offshoot of Beggar's Banquet, with whom they released their debut album, 'The Things We Make', in 1997. Developing a reputation for being hard-hitting, uncompromising and confrontational, they put out another another two albums on Mantra, 'The Closer We Get' (2000) and 'The Way I Feel Today' (2002). The latter was recorded without Hempson who had by now quit the group.
Towards the end of 2002 Six by Seven and Mantra parted company. The band, now self-managing themselves and pared down to a three piece after Douglas too chose to leave the band, decided to return to their roots and set up their own label, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, upon which they plan to put out all future Six by Seven releases.
Their fourth studio album '04' came out on it last September. While the spitfire guitars and sharp, melodic tangents that dominated their previous albums are still very much a focus, '04' is a less abrasive record than its predecessors and reveals a softer side to Six by Seven. More electronica-based and psychedelic in tone, it is also lyrically more hopeful. While Six by Seven 's songs in the past angrily targeted government mismanagement, American culture and the dumbing down of society, many of the songs on '04' are about of redemption and tell of travel and escape.
Six by Seven also released offically at the end of February 'Lost Luggage at the Peveril Hotel', an album of out takes, rarities and demos which had only previously been available through the band's website.
On the eve of a British tour at the end of January, Pennyblackmusic spoke to Chris Olley.
PB : '04' is the first album not to be released on Mantra Records Why did you part company with them ?
CO : The guy who ran Mantra , John Empson, had a dispute with Martin Mills who runs Beggar’s Banquet. John left and, as he was really Mantra, the label basically shut down.
Our manager at the time hated Beggar’s Banquet and so we didn't get the opportunity to renegotiate with them which was a real shame as we would have liked to carry on with them. I spoke to Martin Mills and I think he would have been quite happy to keep us on also.
PB : Instead you decided to set up your own label Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Why did you decide to go totally independent rather than signing a deal with another label ?
CO : We got offered some deals from other labels. It honestly though didn’t seem worth it. V2 offered us a deal and Lizard King, the Killers ' label, also offered us a deal as well. We spoke to them, but felt that they were going over what was pretty familiar territory and weren't offering us anything new. We, therefore, looked at all the figures and decided to form our own record label and to kind of rebuild the band and go back to the beginning and to start again because it would be much more fun and exciting. And that’s basically what we have done.
PB : Do you hope eventually to put out releases by other bands on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning ?
CO : Yeah, we will do if we find any that we like (Laughs). Yes, definitely.
PB : Where did you take the name Saturday Night and Sunday Morning from? Is it from Alan Sillitoe's novel ?
CO : Yes. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was also a film with Albert Finney, which came out in 1960, two years after the book. They're both set in Nottingham.
PB : What was the attraction to you of that book and that film ?
CO : The book is about a guy who doesn’t like working for the regime and who doesn’t want to be part of the day to day norm. He rebels against it as sees where his life is going to go if he gets stuck in that. That book and Alan Sillitoe's next one, ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ (1959), are about fitting into the system or rallying against it . I felt that that was a very apt title for our record label and that there is a connection with us as we want to do the same thing as Arthur Seaton, the guy in the book and the film. We don’t want to work for the man. We want to do things for ourselves.
PB : It fits in with the whole of Six by Seven's philosophy then, doesn’t it ?
CO : Yes, we have always tried to do what we want to do and for ourselves. Our aim has always been to explore music and the kind of music we want to make. We are continually on that journey. We just do what we want to do really.
PB : ‘04’ ,the latest album, has been quite a surprise to some of your fans as as it has revealed a more vulnerable side to Six by Seven than some of your other records ? Would you agree with that ?
CO : Yeah, we are getting older and calming down. A lot of people have also said also how electronic the album sounds. I think that has been the main shock to people. I never even thought of it and didn’t even really think of it like that until people started saying to me “Your album sounds really electronic.” I was like “Does it ?” But there are lot of guitars on it (Laughs)". I suppose they're right though. I had never realised it and you don’t when you're creating something. It’s only when you have finished the work and then people come up to you and say that the music sounds like this or that that you can get a full perspective of it. What you have created can sometimes be a shock.
PB : The album has drawn various critical connotations with the likes of Spiritualized and the Flaming Lips. Were you surprised by that as well ?
CO : I am always surprised when people compare us to bands like that. My Bloody Valentine is another comparision which has come up a lot. I don’t see any kind of connection between what we do and what My Bloody Valentine do apart from turning the guitars up in the mix. That’s about it though.
I think that it is very difficult to pigeon hole Six by Seven. If a fan turned round and said that they liked Six by Seven and someone else said “Well, what do they sound like ?” they would probably have to say “I don’t know actually. It’s a big mix of lots of different styles”.
The Jesus and Mary Chain are another band that we have been compared to a lot as well. I just can’t see that one at all either. We have been compared to Prince as well. We have been compared to everything down the line.
I think that is why we have had the sales we have. I think if our music had fitted nicely into a category then we would have sold a lot more records. We have never been able to do that, although we have tried to. We have always, however, found ourselves steered in the opposite direction.
PB : You have said in the past that a lot of the inspiration for your songs have come from television, films and newspapers. Where did the inspiration for the songs from '04' come from ?
CO : A lot of them came from travelling. ‘Lude’, for example, was written on a laptop when I was travelling in Germany and it’s about having lived in Germany in the past and leaving it behind and it’s also about my daughter. That was the inspiration for that one.
I sometimes go into rehearsals and sort of sing out a stream of consciousness and hope for the best. I pick out certain words that I have sung and relate them to the way the music is taking me. I also have a notebook which I keep beside me and write in it when watching television. At the moment I have got a project in my head to write an album just using lines from TV adverts.
PB : When do you see that coming out ?
CO : Probably never (Laughs). I have got so many ideas that a lot of them never come to anything.
PB : To pick up up on your point about some of the songs being about travelling and to take it a little further, many of the lyrics on '04' seem to be about moving on. A lot of the songs, and especially perhaps 'There is a Ghost’ seem to be about putting the past to rest and moving away from it.
CO : Yeah, I think that is true. I am constantly thinking about the way in which people see me which is as a dour miserablist. People pigeon hole the band as being a very down affair and grim and bleak. I was trying to move away from that a little on this album, but having said that we have just written 10 songs, which are so bleak and desolate that it makes the first album sound like Peter, Paul and Mary (Laughs).
PB : You made the comment at the time that you were promoting 'The Way I Feel Today' that while the optimist sees the glass of milk as half full, and the pessimist sees it as half empty, you simply see it as sour. Do you still feel that way ?
CO : That was something which was on ‘The Day Today’ which was my favourite programme at the time and I just took it from that. I thought that I would throw it into interviews and say it to people, but it’s not really me. I guess I was tyring to lampoon that thing about me being miserable. I am pretty fed up with it now though as I am not actually like that.
PB : Yo don’t sound like it. I have to say.
CO : A lot of people are very shocked when they speak to me. They expect me to be very grim and morose, and then they find that I am not (Laughs).
PB : You have had an internet album, 'Lost Luggage at the Peveril Hotel’, out for a while, but it is coming out officially and will be in the shops at the end of February. What does that consist of ?
CO : It’s just made up of tracks that were left over from the album. We’ve got our own studio and we recorded a lot of songs and we mixed them and we decided when we put ‘O4’ out that we were going to pick the tracks that flowed together best on the album. The idea was that it would be a piece of music that would flow together from beginning to end, a nice, little journey if you like.
We then looked at all the demos and all the things that we had recorded which hadn't made the album about a month before that one came out and we thought "Let’s put this together and see what it sounds like.” We then decided to burn some CDs up and to flog them over the internet. We sold over 200 in the first day. It’s still selling on the internet now. Every day somebody buys a copy. It’s made enough money for us to pay for a professional plugger and for us to be able to reinvest our money into Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It's turned out to be a real life saver. We’re now going to put out a limited edition jewel case in the shops.
PB : How many copies do you mean by a limited edition?
CO : I think we have sold about a 1000 over the internet and now we’re going to put another 2000 in the shops. Whether we’ll just leave it at that we’ll have to see.
The mad thing is a lot of people are saying that the ‘Peveril’ album is better than ‘04’ (Laughs), which is just a tiny bit frustrating. That it is just the way it goes. That’s why you shouldn' t get too hung up on making the perfect record. You should just knock them out I think.
We are going to try to make two albums a year from now on. We’re going to try to always make one that is going to be a proper full release, and then we’re going to do a sister album which goes over the internet with it.
PB : Can we definitely expect then a new album of full studio material out in 2005 then ?
CO : Yes, the fifth album, '05' if you like, will be out on the exact same day upon which '04' came out in September, just a year later. There will be another compilation album before that, which will have our singles on it and we’re also working on a live record and various other bits and bobs.
PB : Your latest single ‘Ocean/Clouds’is coming out in February but you are going to be giving it away before that at gigs on your forthcoming tour. Why did you decide to do that ?
CO : Just as a thank you really to our fans and people who are coming to see us. If you are going to see us, you don't have to buy the single. We’ll give it to you at the door as you come in.
PB : As you are running your own label you must have very limited funding. Is that not going to be rather an expensive gesture ?
CO : Yeah, it is going to cost us money to do and we have got limited funds, but I think we can just about afford to do it. No one may give a shit at the end of the day. but I just thought it was a great idea. If you were signed to a regular record label, they wouldn't let you.
A lot of fans come up to us at the end of shows and they all say
” "Why aren't you much bigger than you are ?” We get this all the time, so what I am going to do at the end of each concert is say go and give this single to someone else. Go and give it away. Pass it on, and get them to pass it on to someone else and just share it round. Don’t necessarily hang on to it. If you want your own copy go out to the shop and buy it. Use it as a thing to pass around and to try to get your mates into the band.
PB : Many bands in your situation move to London as soon as they start to make an impact, but Six by Seven have always remained close to their roots in Nottingham. How do you think that has affected Six by Seven's career ?
CO : It’s probably not helped in any way at all . We should have probably moved to London and made it big (Laughs), but, no, we’re still here.
What always amazes us is that more people come to see us in Liverpool and Manchester and we’ve got a bigger following in Oxford than we do in Nottingham. I am not sure why that is. People from Nottingham maybe think “I’ll go and see them next time”. We've actually chosen not to play in Nottingham on this forthcoming tour.
PB : How much of an impact do you think living in Nottingham has had on your writing ?
CO : That's a question we get asked all the time and I really don’t know how to answer it. I just don’t know if the three of us were based somewhere else if we would be making different music. It’s like saying what’s it like having your Dad as your Dad. You would have to say “I just don’t know because I have never had another one.” I can't really answer that question. I think that it probably does have an impact, but I don’t know what it is because I have got nothing else to compare it to.
PB : You have also got a side project Twelve which has recently released its debut album, ‘The First Album’. It features Chris Davis on drums and a singer called Ty Diamond. Who is she ?
CO : She’s a friend of mine from Nottingham. She’s a solo artist who plays in pubs and does cover versions and things like that. I thought that she had a really nice voice so I asked her to come and sing on some songs that I had written. I really liked the sounds of our voices together. I thought we sounded quite good together.
PB : In what other ways does Twelve differ from Six By Seven ?
CO : It’s lot more electronic. The idea of the Twelve project was to write twelve songs and then not to do any more, but at the end of the line I wrote nine and gave up on it really. I was too busy with Six by Seven. It's taken a long time to release, but I did it while I was hanging around and waiting for Mantra to put out 'The Way I Feel Today.'
With Six by Seven that’s where it all began to go wrong. Mantra said "Let’s get you into the studio, You need to finish your album by March, so we can get it out in October." We finished it by then and then they said “Oh, we’re going to put it out next year now” .
While I carried on working and writing all the time because I didn't want to stop, people in the band began to drift off. Instead of going down the rehearsal rooms the bass player, Paul Douglas got a job in Sainsbury’s. The money kept on having to be spread out over longer and longer periods because the record wasn’t out. Instead of buckling down and writing another album and getting more music finished it wasn’t like that. Everyone just started doing other things.This time around we’re not doing that and people are saying “Look how prolific you are.” We’re just being a band really. We’re doing it on our own terms and we live and fall by what we do.
PB : You’re also down now to a three piece. You’ve had Paul Douglas with you on bass in the past. How do you fill the bass spot when you're touring ?
CO : We’ve done that comfortably. We’ve played gigs for over a year and a half without Paul. The bass line gets played in the studio, but live we put it out of a machine and then it goes into a bass amp and comes back out
The band are a lot tighter and better live now. When we first started touring as a three piece, a lot of people came to see us to write us off. They were convinced that we couldn't be any good as a three piece” but then after the shows they started coming over and saying “You’re much better as a three piece than you were as a five piece.” We have had to rebuild our reputation and now we’re starting to get some pay back from that.
PB : You have been through a lot in the last few years with both the departure of key members and label problems, but you have survived. Why do you think you have lasted when other bands would have fallen by the wayside ? You have made a point of being fairly uncompromising in the past. Do you think that it is because of that ?
CO : I don’t know what we would all do otherwise.
When Paul Douglas left the band, we had just got a new rehearsal room. It was because of Paul actually. He was saying “I can’t work in the daytime now because I have got a job in the day and I need the money.” I said “Okay, let’s rehearse in the evening then” and we got a rehearsal room and we started meeting up in the evenings. Then Paul turned around and said “I can’t rehearse in the evenings now. I have got an evening job as well." And so I said to him “Well, are you in this band or not ?” and he said “No, actually. I am not. I haven’t got the time because I am too busy working” and so he left.
As we had just got the rehearsal room I phoned up James and asked him if he wanted to go down there and to have a jam, because what else was there to do anyway ? James still wanted to play his keyboards and Chris wanted to play his drums, and so we went down there and we started writing some songs. It didn't matter that the bass wasn’t there. We started writing songs, and whatever was there before was still there. Then we started recording and moving all the studio gear in . We were really enjoying ourselves, just the three of us. We never came even close here to splitting up. It didn’t even come into our heads.
PB : To go full circle did you feel that way when things fell through with Mantra as well ?
CO : That happened before that, but yeah. I think that for Paul and the manager that was when it was over. Tha was when it finished, but for the other three of us it was like “No, it’s not. Let’s just carry on. Let’s make music.”
This is a dream. We’re fulfilling a dream and doing something that we have always wanted to do. Other people like it and we're making good music. If we were to jack it in, and to go and do something else, what would be the point ?
PB : Once you have finished the UK tour, what do you hope to do after thar ?
CO : After the tour, we’ve got three gigs in Greece, and so we’re going to be doing those and the when we come back we’ve got another four tracks to mix and to finish. We’re also going to be playing festivals.
The rest of the time we're just going to be a band really. We're going to what we do every day, which is we get up at eight ‘o’ clock every morning and then go down to the studio and work all day. At nights sometimes we go back to the rehearsal room in the evening as well and we carry on.
That’s why we make good records because we work really hard at what we do. Other bands come up to me at gigs and say “Oh, you’re really lucky. You’ve got talent. Your band sounds good and you’ve got a great drummer”. No we’re not lucky. We just work hard at it.
We might write 30 songs, but out of those 30 we might pick 10 out of that and then bin the other 20. That’s what we do. While we constantly make music. we constantly refine it. For every Six by Seven track that you hear there’s a whole load more that have been deleted that you won't have heard. We know the Dandy Warhols and Death in Vegas and Placebo. You speak to those people and they’re exactly the same. They’re even worse in fact. For every song that you hear there is another 50 that you don’t hear.
That’s the way it works and this is what people don’t understand. They think that you waltz into a rehearsal and it either works or it doesn't and that it is just based on talent. Talent is a God forgiven thing, but what you’ve got to do is look at it and work at it. Being a musician or an artist is all about getting up in the morning and working really hard at what you do and finding sponsorship and finding people to fund what you do.
That's what it’s about, and somehow that’s got lost. I find it a bit disconcerting that there are so many bands around who don’t have the songs and don't have a record deal and then when they get the record deal they think they deserve to be big and if they don't they split up. That’s shit. If you're going to achieve any kind of success, then you've got to work really hard at it.
PB : Thank you for your time.
The photographs that accompany this article were taken exclusively for Pennyblackmusic by Matthew Williams