The Interview: Milltown Brothers
Almost 25 years after top-30 debut LP Slinky Lancashire’s Milltown Brothers are set to release their fourth. MALCOLM WYATT avoided talk of pony tails and flares with frontman Matt Nelson.
Matt Nelson is on his way home from work to Burnley, having moved back to the North-West around a dozen years ago.
Milltown Brothers chief singer-songwriter Matt is a family man these days, a dad-of-three running a visual effects film production firm at Media City, Salford.
But now and again he’s asked about his indie pop past, and reminds people his band were never really away for too long.
In fact, the original five-piece – Matt, older brother Simon Nelson (guitar), James Fraser (bass), Barney Williams (organ/piano) and Nian Brindle (drums) – are set to release a new album, Long Road.
A spell in film production, including time at Granada Studios, led to Matt setting up his own studio concern, Space Digital, now supplying various VFX graphics, animation and international film production services, including work on Dr Who.
Was that parallel career in the background while he was enjoying chart success in the early ‘90s?
“I actually fell into it. A fan of the band was working in film production in London and I was at a loose end when the band finished, working on these strange TV commercials.”
Did promo video work with the Milltown Brothers, not least on sole top-40 hit Which Way Should I Jump? and near-misses Here I Stand and Apple Green, pave the way for that?
“Yeah, we did quite a few, and it’s worked out pretty well, one thing leading to another.”
I should interject and suggest the Milltown Brothers deserved more from the single-buying public than five top-60 singles and one top-30 album, Slinky.
And it appears that Here I Stand – later the theme tune for BBC comedy drama Preston Front, set in fictional Lancashire town Roker Bridge - might have fared better but for some rum goings-on in the music industry at the time.
“That was another kick for us. Here I Stand was No.22 in the charts in mid-week and expected to go top-10, but somebody at A&M was putting dodgy sales through and we lost our position.
“If that had gone top-10 it could have been a different picture.”
The fact that the track was used on Preston Front gives me a more local link though. And it appears there’s another, despite Matt’s love of Burnley Football Club.
“I spend about four days a week in Preston as my son Kit, who is 10, plays for the PNE Academy and has been there for two years.”
As well as his budding North End star, Matt has a 13-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, and says a lot of his recent songwriting is inspired by his family, as we will find out when Long Road sees the light of day.
“We hadn’t done anything on the writing front for quite a while, and I wasn’t really missing it.
“Then I started writing at home over a period of around two years, eventually playing those songs to a couple of band members.
“So far it’s been a nice experience, with no big decisions to make and no real pressure. And there’s no pretence anymore.
“We’re not young budding guys out to forge a career. It’s not about that. It’s about being together doing songs we really enjoy playing.
“We went to Spain to record a lot of the songs, with James living out there at the time, and a week away with your friends is not so bad. It’s taken about a year so far, and we’re enjoying it.”
On Saturday, May 23, the band play the Gigantic indie all-dayer at Manchester Academy, starting the show on the Academy 2 stage with a greatest hits set at an event involving many feted independent bands, with Echo and the Bunnymen headlining.
“The Bunnymen are one of my favourite bands. To be playing on the same bill as them is great.”
Will there be a few dates ahead to promote the new album?
“We’d like to play around four or five dates and see how it goes, with help from a little promotion by Nian, previously involved with promoting The Heartbreaks.
“The record’s set to come out on Ditto Music, online, and we’ll see if there’s interest, with a view to do some more gigs.”
On breakthrough 1991 album Slinky, Matt wrote most of the songs with his brother. Is that not still the case?
“On this one, I’ve written them all, and it was quite a cathartic experience. James has also been very influential in all this, and he felt I should write the songs.
“Everyone’s played the parts they want to play, and I think my songs are stronger lyrically than in the past.
“We also wanted an album you could properly listen to. In the past we went bigger on the live shows. It was about filling that sound and looking to make it more exciting.
“Everything was more full-on in many ways. This time we want something a little more mellow, a little more acoustic, less over-driven by guitars.
“We did a gig a couple of weeks ago at Burnley FC. And I’ve quite a bit of history there, including interviews with Granada Reports and the NME on the pitch.”
The Milltown Brothers rise really started with their Coming from the Mill EP in 1989, Matt reminding me of the build-up to their NME single of the week accolade.
“It was our sixth gig, playing the Bull and Gate, by the Town and Country Club in North London.
“We were first on, at around six, with nobody in then apart from three other people and Steve Lamacq, who came up and asked if we had a tape.
“He then wrote a really great review - the luck you just don’t get. Within a couple of months we had a publishing deal then went to Strawberry Studios for our Coming From The Mill EP.
“We put out two or three independent singles, and Which Way Should I Jump? opened the door to major offers.
“It was all very quick. Our first gig was at Manchester University’s halls of residence, with us at Manchester Poly at the time.
“Then we started playing The Boardwalk and those various little gigs in London.”
And this time around, how far can you take it all?
“The big goal would be to try and get invited to play a couple of big festivals, but it’s a great thing to be asked to do the Gigantic show too.”
The Manchester Academy is a venue that has played large in the life of the band.
“We played some great gigs there. I remember Oasis supporting us at the Academy 2. We also supported The La’s there, and loved that.
“We were a little in awe of The La’s, I have to say. It was great to be able to play with them. I don’t think we were trying to be like them though.
“We were well into The Byrds, REM and all that kind of American indie scene, and all that kind of poppy, jingly-jangly guitar.
“I liked that whole late-80s indie scene, That was all kind of new and exciting to us at the time.”
Was there a particular band you saw that made you sit up and take notice, thinking, ‘I can do this’?
“When I was growing up, I was very into The Waterboys, then it was REM, then The House of Love.”
Matt and Simon hail from Colne, with Barney from nearby Padiham and Nian and James from Lancaster, meeting the Nelson boys at Lancaster Grammar School.
Do they regret that band name? It proved a good excuse for lazy journalists, revelling in Northern clichés, referring to clogs and cloth caps, dark satanic mills and whippets.
“In hindsight, we were a bit naïve, but we’d barely turned 18 and 19 and just didn’t know what we were entering into really.
“A name we thought was quite clever at that age wasn’t really by the time we’d reached 21. It probably wasn’t the coolest decision.”
It helped give them an identity though, and all the original members remain, despite a few breaks between albums.
By the time of the A&M deal, the band seemed a little more stylised, with a bit more of that Inspiral Carpets, Stone Roses, Charlatans and whole ‘Madchester’ sound.
“I think that’s fair. We could have gone very folky or could have gone a bit more jingly-jangly. At the time everything was dominated by that whole Manchester scene.
“We had to play the game really. It wasn’t a million miles from what we were doing anyway. It’s not like we introduced things because of all that. We had Barney playing organ since the start.
“But yeah, we styled our haircuts and wore baggy trousers. Actually, my kids can barely watch the videos now.”
I must admit, that ‘pony tail and flares’ line from Here I Stand jumps out at me now. A great song though. Did you feel a proper part of any scene?
“I don’t think we did. We didn’t really know the in-people in Manchester. We weren’t privy to that circle, if there even was one.
“Burnley seemed a long way from Manchester when we talked about any scene.
“We probably felt closer to The La’s and the Liverpool scene, more about songwriting than just being a cool thing.”
Ever have moments when you looked at bands and thought, ‘We were better than them’, even if those bands got better over the years.
“Well, Blur and us were neck and neck for six months or so. I remember an NME front-cover story saying, ‘this band are clever’, suggesting we weren’t.
“They’d ridden it out, that Manchester scene replaced by the American grunge scene and a period when all that music was seen as dead, before the Brit Pop thing.
“By then we’d had enough after a few knocks and kicks. It was all getting a bit messy and it was time to bow out.
“I think if you can outstay all that you’ve got something extra about you, something which possibly we didn’t have.”
Was part of that down to a lack of support from A&M?
“That didn’t help. We had a really good offer from Atlantic Records, who had been chasing us for a while, and were talking about seven years and building us up.
“But we were pushed into a deal by our management to sign for A&M, who were a lot more about ‘now’.
“After that first album we went to America and that didn’t go quite as well as they’d hoped. After that we never really had quite the same backing.
“We thought we should have got a few more breaks, and it was all over very quickly after four years to get there.
“It was a great journey, but we could have done with at least another year of enjoying the good times.
“It was good for us to get out when we did though. It allowed us to get on and do other things. Sometimes it’s all a little one-dimensional. There’s a bit more to life than all that.”
So was Barney, whose departure from the band at that point proved to be the catalyst for you splitting, ahead of you on thinking that?
“We decided to continue, but we all knew it was kind of dying. Then we got dropped, then Nian got a job.
“When it’s going well, it’s great, but if you find yourself in your mid-20s on your own in London and everyone else is getting on with their lives, it can be a bit scary.”
Was there ever any money in being in the band?
“Not really. We got a £100,000 advance from A&M when we signed, but 20% of that goes to management, then there were five of us drawing a wage off for two years.
“The royalties were never great. You certainly didn’t come away with anything. But it gives you a lot of life experiences and gets a lot out of your system at an early age.”
• Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, with his own blog at http://writewyattuk.com/
Tickets for Manchester Academy’s Gigantic all-dayer (1.30pm-11.30pm) are £29 in advance from the Oxford Road venue’s box office on 0161 832 1111 or via www.manchesteracademy.net.
For details of the new Milltown Brothers LP and forthcoming dates, head to their facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MilltownBrothers