I loved Stroud. I felt right there. Purton was a nice village, countrified and all that, but it’s close proximity to Swindon and it’s white collared lack of culture bothered my young soul and I never really felt like I fitted in.
The Stroud area is deep in the heart of the Cotswolds, hidden way in and amongst a small network of five valleys. All the houses are old and higgedly piggedly and it had this kind of tarnished, faded glamour to it all. Laurie Lee had based ‘Cider with Rosie’ around nearby Slad and Damien Hirst had his studios in Thrupp. There was definitely a sense of decay. But also a sense of forward thinking through it’s Fairtrade values and conversions of old cotton mills and outbuildings into creative hubs for art and music. But it was the people that made it. They were different to the people I knew at home. They thought, acted and dressed differently to what I had known before. Everybody looked a bit dirtier, but in a wholesome kinda way. Their tastes were more esoteric and in turn the social scene was more exciting to me. The Pelican (The Peli) was mecca – a dark, grimy, hippified, druggy, arty, musicky honey trap for the young and old alternatives of Stroud. It was the place to be. An icon of the time. And Neon’s main stomping ground.
I however was living at Jools’s, up in Michinhampton, a small village built on common land, about 3 miles from the main town of Stroud. I’d also just joined the Art Foundation course at Stroud College, which Alex was on too, and had managed to get a job on the fish counter at Tesco. I was all set up for life in Stroud.
Neon continued to gig sporadically around the West Country, notably Bath Moles, Bristol Louisiana, and a couple of gigs at Gloucester Guildhall. One show in particular, supporting Post-rockers Mountain Men Anonymous at the Guildhall ended up in mild drama, as Andy (an art college accomplice) and I thought it would be fun to gently and carefully arrange the backstage furniture to look as though we had enacted some sort of rock n roll smash up. Our art installation backfired however, as the venue’s promoter genuinely thought we had trashed the backstage area. We explained that we hadn’t been violent in any way, but had merely created for the venue a masterwork that satirized the glorification of what it means to be a rock star. Unfortuntely he didn’t find our art, or humour, in the least bit funny, and the band and our college mates were immediately asked to leave the venue. And never come back.
In fact one of the members from the headline act reviewed us years later for Drowned In Sound and reminices about the occasion:
“Officially the best thing from Stroud ever (although there sure ain’t much competition), early experiments as plain ‘Neon’ even once ended, allegedly, with a gig promoter’s testicles coming under attack from one of the band’s entourage.”
I’m not sure anybody went for the promoter’s knackers, but I like the sense of exaggeration and drama created by the reviewer. Then again, it could’ve just been good ol’ chinese whispers. Either way, it was good.
Art college was great. I’d always loved drawing, but had coasted through my gcse and A Level art because although I felt that art was the natural route for me, I didn’t feel the route I was directed by my teachers was right for me. That all changed at Stroud College. At the time it was said to be the best art foundation course in England, and whether or not that was rumour, I would definitley agree. The tutors were inspiring, the course well organised and the vibe around the whole place was perfect. After a few months of dabbling in photography, metal work and graphic design, I chose my main subject of painting. Alex did too, and we had a studio space next to each other. We commandered the studio’s portable cd player and played Sonic Youth’s ‘Dirty’ and At the Drive-In’s ‘Relationship of Command’ pretty much all day, every day. All the other students simply didn’t have a choice in the matter. We felt that the dischord of the music fitted well with the liberal smearings of paint and faux-intellectual conversation happening in the studio.
Dan had started sending out our demo to record labels and promoters, which started the ball rolling when it came to getting gigs in London. Our first London show was postered up and stuck around college with the headline ‘Neon live in London’ to which one of our college friends questioned, as she knew us to live in Stroud. Apart from that miscommunication, promo went well and we managed to get a bus load of our friends down to see us play in Soho. No record companies came, which was fortunate, as we were nowhere near good enough, but we did have a great evening in Soho.
This sort of thing would happen on a regular basis for about a year. Me and Dan would train down to London, go and visit a few record label’s offices (namely Food, One Little Indian and Beggars Banquet), demo tape in hand, and ask to be let in (I think Dan had spoken to them on the phone first). An A+R man would let us in, listen to the tape and say he would come down and see us when we played in London next. But they never did. We did 6 gigs in London that year and no record labels had turned up. It was all rather disheartening for young ambitious upstarts like us, so we’d go home and make ourselves feel special by playing our demoes, that had found their way onto the Peli’s jukebox, over and over again to a pub full of lucky punters.
College had now ended and off to uni we scurried. I joined the Fine Art course at UWE Bristol, Alex the Fine Art course in Brighton, whilst Dan did Media at South Bank in London. Nath stayed in Stroud, working for Rapid Racking on Kemble airfield.
As a consequence, we couldn’t rehearse very often anymore, but it didn’t really matter cos by then we knew our set inside out. Another thing that made it quite easy was that we never wrote anything that we couldn’t get away with playing badly or drunk. I’d have a 5 pint rule. The rule being, if I couldn’t play my guitar bits after 5 pints then they would have to be simplified. I think Dan had a similar rule because some of his lyrics were equally throwaway and blasé. We’d also make sure that the inherent simpliciy of it all would lend itself to being fired up when the nerves, bravado and drunkeness kicked in when we went on stage. The simplicity basically enabled the songs to ignite easier, creating a certain unique energy and dynamic when played raucously. We christened our sound Drunk-Rock.
We also started to glorify the cliché of being alcoholic rock stars too. Our hairs got longer. As did our bristles. Our clothes got stripier, dirtier and trampier and our attitudes got cheekier. It all went together quite well. We also spent time cultivating our ego’s to merge nicely with our new look.
It was time for London gig number 7, and we were to play legendary punk venue – The Hope and Anchor. The Dark Lord (our Squarepusher loving website designer and loyal accomplice) had escaped Stroud and come along for the ride. He’d had his long, lank, locks cut off and was looking very svelte I thought. We went for a walk, post soundcheck, up the road to get some pre-gig beers from an offy and came across a venue called the Garage. We were in Highbury. My thoughts went back to our first pub gig and Lee’s banter, and then we walked back to the venue.
The gig was a winner. I broke a string on the epic and raucous set closer ‘Drone’, so decided to use the mic stand as a mock violin bow on my guitar in some of sort Jimmy Page through the eyes of Thurston Moore homage. A German guy came up after. His name was Dion and he told us he had a recording studio and would we like to come and record that last track with him. We readily agreed. We also checked the guestlist to see if any of the labels we had put on had turned up. Simon Williams from Fierce Panda had.
A few days passed and back in Bristol I was. Dan had followed up Simon’s appearance with a phone call to the panda people, which resulted in them offering us an opening slot at the revered Club Fandango night at The Dublin Castle in Camden. Simon was intrigued by us. The promo on the Fandango website labelled us “a foot to the polished floor kind of experience” which I think meant they thought we were exciting. Which of course we were. So we had got our foot in the door, and were very happy about this. We also had this offer of a free recording too. So, off we popped, down to London again to go and re-record Drone and another newie – S.P.A.C.E, which was as catchy as AIDS, we thought, and would be our new record company bait.
Dion’s studio was in a shed at the bottom of his garden, and was small but perfectly formed. Nath in particular enjoyed the organisation of it all. Everything had it’s little place. Dan’s friend Dan came down with us and hung out for a bit. I talked to him for a bit about Shrewdingo’s cat because i’d just bought a book on metaphysics, and wanted to be a know it all, and then we cracked on with recording.
We were really happy with what Dion did. He sent us the mixed tracks via post a few weeks later and the beautiful sound of dissonance, we had created, washed over our heads, cleansing our wearied souls.
It was now the second year of Uni and I’d moved into a house near Bristol City’s footy ground with my new mates Matt and Polly, and with them came a couple of their friends Chris and Caroline.
Life revolved around going to my studio at Uni to paint for a few hours. Matt and Polly would be there in the studios most days too, so we’d paint and chat and maybe go and get a beer at lunch from the Student’s union bar. In the evenings we’d either play Zelda: The Ocarina of Time or go to the pub with our friends Rach and John. Sometimes i’d sing my song about battery chickens at the open mic night and sometimes i’d tell a girl I fancied I was in a band.
The Neon boys would come up to see me now and again as well, and we’d go and see a gig or summat, but the best one was when Al came up and we went to the Fleece to go and some new noisy bands on the block. The NME had been raving about them all. Ikara Colt were headlining, then came The Parkinson’s, then came a band that Al had wanted to see cos they came from Brighton – The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster. Their ludicrous name intrigued me. We both came away from that gig reeling after the sonic assault we had just witnessed. 80’s Matchbox (as we called them ) were our absolute new favourite band. They sounded like all the best bands rolled into one. Kind of like if Jim Morrison was fronting a mad mix of Captain Beefheart, The Birthday Party and Joy Divison. But better.
Dan had also made a new friend at uni called Oli, and we all wanted to go to Scotland. Oli had just passed his driving test, so off we went.
I liked Scotland. We stayed in Edinburgh for a night at Oli’s cousin’s house. I talked to someone about Idlewild, then it was suggested we go to Oban, which was about 80 miles North West, on the coast. We passed Loch Lomond and were tired and in awe of it’s beauty, so we pitched our tent in a kid’s playground by the lake because we had no money. We noticed that the village we were in was called Luss. Dan and I liked that, because we would say “Lush” all the time because we were from the West cuntry and it sounded the same. And it was indeed lush to be in a tent, drunk, in a kid’s playground in Luss.
We arose from our tent in the morning feeling like paedophiles so we quickly packed up and scooted through the snow covered mountains and crystalline lochs to Oban.
Oli’s cousin was right, it was very nice here, so we had a look around, went to a pub, ate scampi and chips and thought about what we should do. We went to the harbour and saw there was a small island a mile or so out, and so we found the ferry (practically a raft), got on, and drifted slowly across like brown rats on a beer keg.
The island ‘Kerrera’ was amazing. Twas only about 3 miles long by a mile wide, had a b and b, which we couldn’t afford, about 5 houses and a dilapidated castle by the beach. We went and pitched our tent by it, took the instant bbq, 3 bottles of red, 3 makerel, a newspaper and some bread we had bought from the shop in Oban and ambled up to the beach to make some dinner. We sat down with our bottles of wine, lit the bbq and talked. I suggested that we wrap the fish in sea water soaked newspaper and steam them on the bbq. It was a good suggestion. A memorable meal it was – bread and fish in one hand, bottle of wine in tother, nestled in a cove away from the wind, on a remote island in Scotland in April, next to an old castle, with two great mates. To this day, I can’t lie, it has yet to be beaten.
Another good thing happened whilst we were in the land of the Thistle – Dan got a call to let us know ‘Drone’ was to be played on London’s XFM. Dan had been sending off the new demo to all sorts of people and this was to be the first catch with the new bait. So that was good. We’d had a little break up north, looked at some mountains and life back in reality land was looking promising.