In conversation with The Hepburns, Nah…

Today The Hepburns and Nah… are both releasing a cover of one of their favourite bands!! The Hepburns have covered a Vic Godard track and Nah… have had a go at a song by The Hepburns themselves. Time for a chat between the Welsh indie veteran Matthew Jones and neophyte Estella Rosa.

Stella Hi Matt, thanks for doing this interview/chat. I have been wondering lately: could you explain to me why I had never heard of The Hepburns until recently? I certainly don’t know every band in universe, but being hugely into Sophistipop in the 80s, and fanatic in all things retro-pop in the late 90’s, how is it possible that I missed out on you? Is it because the name of the band conjures up the image of a 50’s rockabilly band, rather than well-crafted, narrational indie-guitar-pop?

Matt: “That’s interesting – I’d never thought about the 50’s connotations of the name before, but you’re quite right, it doesn’t say a great deal about our style of music, and what it does say is misleading! There are two answers to your question: a long and a short one. The short one is that we have never done much to actively promote ourselves or our music. But when you stop to think about why, then the answer is a lot longer and more complicated.

When The Hepburns first started in 1985, if you wanted publicity then the only way you could get any was to contact the local newspaper. If we’d been a cabaret band, you know, a professional or semi-professional act that played cover versions in pubs and clubs, then we’d have had a promoter who would have done all the publicity for us. But right from the very start, we played our own songs. That meant we were less likely to get booked, and if we did, the audience might get a bit pissed off if we didn’t play oldies or the hits of the day – which meant it was a much better idea to arrange our own gigs in community centres and church halls, where we didn’t run the risk of getting beaten up! The Llanelli Star wouldn’t advertise a gig in a church hall. So, right from the start, The Hepburns were a very low-key band without much of a following, more from necessity than choice, although we chose to do our own thing and accept the consequences. 

It was a good decision to play our own songs. By 1986, we had signed to a London indie label called Cherry Red. They did our publicity for us and pretty soon we were being interviewed by the NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds. That all stopped 2 years later when we parted company with them. The truth of it is, after that, we never warmed to the job of doing our own publicity. It might not have been the case for every band of our generation, but as far as we were concerned, PR was something somebody else did for you. You wrote and played the songs. That may sound lazy, in fact, to someone used to social media, it definitely will sound completely absurd! I will be totally honest and say that the first time we ever took self-promotion seriously was for the release of Electric Lliedi Land in 2020. And we really enjoyed it! With the help of a friend of ours, Karl Morgan, who also designed the album cover, we suddenly got the hang of it. And you only intend to enjoy the things you’re good at and avoid the things that you’re not. We’re very friendly and supportive towards each other, so all we did was adopt the same attitude towards people on social media – other bands as well as fans, like-minded people, basically. “

Stella: Flashback to the end of the 80s’: It must have been quite something to be signed to Cherry Red and making an appearance on John Peel at that age! Then also getting married and having a kid. Wasn’t it a bit much all at once?

Matt: Signing to Cherry Red was fantastic – absolutely mindblowing. We couldn’t believe it – and nor could anybody else, really. I remember we did an interview with a Welsh fanzine from Cardiff shortly after we signed and that was the tone of the conversation – disbelief. How the hell did we get a record deal with Cherry Red? The answer was – just sheer good luck. They were looking to sign a new band and our demo tape happened to drop through their letterbox. We got the Peel session in 1989 after splitting up with Cherry Red. I’d written a letter to John Peel previously, thanking him for playing our records, and mentioning ‘Rush Must Stay’, a campaign by Liverpool FC supporters to keep their Welsh star at the club (he was leaving to play for Juventus). He mentioned the letter on air. He was very friendly and remarkably approachable. Getting the session wasn’t a massive surprise – but it was still a dream come true. By the way, I was 26 by then, so, not that young anymore! 

Having all this going on in my life at the same time as getting married and having a kid, my daughter Billie, was definitely a bit much. Becoming a dad was easily the happiest moment of my life, but neither me nor my wife had a job and things were very tough, in all sorts of ways. To say that everything was pulling in different directions at the same time was an understatement: signed to a label, yes, but not a single penny coming in, so having to sign on the dole, too. We didn’t make any money at all from the Cherry Red deal – literally nothing. I’d be going up to London to do an interview with the NME one day and signing on in Llanelli the next. This was right in the middle of the Thatcher era and unemployment was the norm all over the UK. I was no different from anyone else. I’m making myself out to be some kind of tragic hero, but we were all living through the same shit. Both my brothers joined the Royal Navy – always an option for working class boys without jobs – and the youngest one, Jim, got himself out a couple of months before the Falklands War. Being an unemployed popstar wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. 

Matt: So how did Nah.. start out? I read that you and Sebastian (Voss) write songs together without meeting up – or that you’d only met once. Firstly, how exactly does that work? Secondly, what are the pros and cons of working remotely from each other?

Stella: “Sebastian works on his iPad (yes) and Garageband. He records and mixes everything on there. That pretty much accounts for our lofi sound… lol. Nah.. he’s very clever with it! I myself work with Logic Pro X, a mic and a sound-card, which allows me to record, mix and add midi files etc. When we started out, I didn’t know anything about this stuff, which is around 2 years ago. I kinda freaked out about singing one sentence, and having to send isolated vocals. That’s all become the most normal thing now. 

So, we send files back ’n forth between us. Seb works really fast and has a good mood aaallll the time, and I am the nagging pedantic killjoy…haha. In every single exchange something is sculpted until we are both happy, which is usually pretty quickly. The good thing about the twee-pop, is that it celebrates flaws! 

And yes, we met once, he came all the way from Münster to sunny Enkhuizen and we had a lovely day with inspiring conversations. It was no different than I expected actually! We present ourselves pretty much as what we are anyway, I think, and just get along greatly!”

Matt:Apple Blossoms” is a great song. It sounds so bright and breezy and ‘full of the joys of spring’ but Seb sings ‘We’ve noticed we’re no longer on the blooming side of life’. While the music jangles along, the lyrics are comparatively sombre, giving the song depth and complexity. Would you agree with this observation, and if so, are you drawn to the contrast between light and dark, both in your own work and that of others?

Stella: “Yes, very keenly observed. I suppose it is in nearly all songs. “Summer’s Failing” for sure, but even “Roadtrip”.  Call it bittersweet or escapist. “Torn” is probably literally about that: I wrote that about always residing in, or torn between two worlds (waking/dreaming) and the threshold that is so thin, a switch of perspective in literally nanoseconds. One minute you are busy somewhere with something in an alternate reality, and the next you’re in a train. At least I often have that.”

Matt: Nah… formed quite recently in 2017. I wondered if either you or Seb had been in bands before? My internet searches revealed nothing about you, and all they revealed about Seb is that he’s a psychotherapist! That would explain the ‘subconscious’ of a complex song like “Apple Blossoms” – but what about your musical past, or pasts?   

Stella: Seb has plenty! He has been making music for 25 years! He was in a band called Stars Play Music and Lancaster, and he also has his solo project The Fisherman and his Soul. I am just a total noob with a good ear for melodies. If it weren’t for the internet I’d probably would still be that, but just without any songs.

Stella: Talking about the internet, social media and the DIY PR that bands (have to) do these days: You are renowned for being a recluse? Does the social media thing make it easier for you to “network” and promote, because it is relatively “impersonal” and can be switched off at will? Or do you just get overwhelmed by it all and want to delete it?

Matt: I have a tendency to be a bit cynical about people’s motives when it comes to promoting their wares on social media, if I’m brutally honest, which is probably why I’ve shied away from Facebook in the past. I hadn’t thought about its usefulness as a means of ‘networking’ which you can just switch off and walk away from – although you could be right. In the past, my first reaction would have been to walk away from it altogether. Which is what I did – for 3 years. I’ve had a change in attitude, though. I’ve been persuaded of the benefits of it in recent months. One of the people responsible for this change of heart is Karl Morgan. Karl did the artwork for ‘Electric Lliedi Land’, including the brilliant linocut of Alvin Stardust, but he’s also a dab hand at PR, and a thoroughly decent human being to boot. He tends to be a lot more positive (and tolerant!) than me, and he’s actually managed to persuade me that ‘networking’ is not (a) a dirty word (b) a sell out and (c) the work of Satan. 

‘Electric Lliedi Land’ was the first time we had a serious go at DIY PR because it was our first self-release. For the last twenty years or so, we’ve been releasing our records through the Berkeley-based label, Radio Khartoum, run by Alexander Bailey.Electric Lliedi Land’ and our next single, a cover version of Vic Godard and Subway Sect’s ‘I’ll Find Out Over Time, are the only self-releases that we have planned. I say ‘planned’. They weren’t planned at all. ‘ELL’ just came out of nowhere, as did the single. That’s why we ended up releasing them ourselves. The album we had planned on releasing this year, ‘On the Parcels’ – 20 tracks, all mixed and mastered and good to go – will now be released, through Radio Khartoum in 2021. So, if you want to know why we ended up doing our own PR for the first time in four decades, it’s all because of the Coronavirus! 

Anyway, when we finally did get around to it, we found that we were already part of a worldwide community of bands and music fans (and music fans in bands). It may have been new territory to us, but it was familiar ground to Alexander, who had been making connections on our behalf for years. The funny thing is – I’m not sure whether to thank him or not – I wish I’d discovered it sooner! Anyway, some of the names we came across when we sallied forth into the world of DIY PR were actually quite familiar. Alexander pulled together an international roster of artists on RK, such as Watoo Watoo from France and Testbild! from Sweden and promoted the cause of all these amazing musicians through what he called his ‘bicycle powered’ operation. It’s a very apt description of this loose-knit but richly diverse and talented cooperative, including Michaël Korchia of Watoo Watoo (now of Vacance and Feutre), and none other than Ed from Shelflife. So you see – only a few degrees of separation between Nah… and The Hepburns! I think Radio Khartoum offered a foretaste of what is possible when like-minded people get together to help each other. It may have taken me 20 years to realise this but at least I got there in the end. 

Matt: You seem to have gotten the hang of that a bit quicker than me, so turning to another side of your involvement with music: you are a music-blogger as well as the host of a number of Facebook ‘muso groups’ such as The Sophistipop Lounge. I must confess that while I’ve been writing music for over 35 years, I haven’t got a clue about genres and microgenres. Can you tell me how and why you became a music-blogger and muso-group host, and tell me and the uninitiated about your favourite genres?

Stella: Ah, there are many great music groups on Facebook! The term indie used to be quite narrow, but has become so dispersed into little sub-genres and niches. My god, I even have an article on my blog about the development of the term Dreampop and how many different kinds there are of that right now!  

Facebook has proven a great tool for finding like-minded people, fine-tuning and also making friends and starting collaborations. I started a shoegaze group in 2014, then started writing and just decided to do my own thing. Since my music taste is quite broad, 1 group wasn’t enough. The Sophistipop Lounge I actually started for fun and because there was such a resurgence in all things Sophistipop. Just look at acts like Ice Choir (also on Shelflife), The Loch Ness Mouse, Ablebody, Treatment and Germans. Mostly all those people hang out in the Lounge btw. We started a cover compilation for fun on there because Ole (The Loch Ness Mouse) and I toyed with the idea. Their contribution to that compilation (ft. Tenant From Zero) was my first attempt of recorded singing if you must know! This is why Sebastian asked me to try! The C86 compilation followed the Sophistipop one, and so on… I could make a group or comp of any genre I fancy (we also did a Yacht rock comp and a Sunshine pop one) but I prefer to stick with the 3 that have been going steadily for quite a while now.

Stella: So considering all discussed here, would you say labels could be obsolete and DIY/ bedroom pop mentality is taking over? Is this liberating and democratic? Or would you rather lean back and leave it all to the “experts”? I mean, a lot of musicians are rubbish at this stuff…

Matt: Definitely liberating and democratic. I kid you not, while thinking about the answers to your questions, I have started to change my opinions about the internet and what you call the bedroom pop mentality. It reminds me of the growth of independent music after punk, back in the late-70s. People are doing it for themselves. They are driven by a love of music and are very knowledgeable about it. Much more so than myself. I’m a good example of the fact that just because you make music doesn’t mean you’re knowledgeable about it or appreciative of other people’s stuff. I mean, if you don’t know about it, then how can you appreciate it? Listening to the compilations that you have done, the penny dropped. Not only are people doing it for themselves – they are also doing it for each other. 

In the past, to make a record you had to record demo’s for a record label, who had final control over what you did, who may (or may not) have sent you to a studio to record a single or an album, which cost money, lots of it (even the cheaper studios), then they took all that money back, of course, before you saw any of it, which often meant you didn’t see a penny because the costs swallowed up all the proceeds from whatever sales you got. They promoted the record, or not as the case may be, which, I have realised while doing this interview, denies the artist the chance to connect with various individuals and groups who have a genuine love of your music and who will share their enthusiasm with others. 

This change of heart started during the Covid lockdown when The Hepburns got involved with a series of charity covers compilations, all with ‘Corona’ in the title, such as The Corona Underground (Velvet Underground covers) and Corona Stardust (I’ll let you figure that one  out for yourself). The Corona albums were the brainchild of Jon Mlynarksi who pulled together loads of Welsh bands for various good causes. There were launch parties on WhatsApp. I had no idea how a WhatsApp launch party worked! Anyway, work they did, and there was such a good feeling among the bands, who commented on each track as it played and – yes, it’s true! – talked about and supported each other’s music! What you’ve got going on with your compilations and collaborations is very similar to what Jon did with the Corona albums. And now we’ve had a taste of what it’s like, let me state for the record that The Hepburns want to be a part of things and to keep on collaborating! I don’t think musicians are rubbish at this stuff at all. I think they’re really good at it. And it’s all about the music, not the ego, or the money, or the status. People might scoff at this opinion – surely ego, money, and status are what bands are all about – but if that’s the way it used to be, then the internet and bedroom pop can change – is changing – all that.  

Matt: Talking about labels and bedroom-pop: just how excited were you to hear that a label like Shelflife Records were going to release your first album?

Stella: It was weird and exciting. We talked about releasing with a few (smaller) labels, but had totally decided to do it ourselves and were completely happy with that. It was already done around January, but there was no way we could see no to Shelflife since most of our fav artists are on there, and Ed (Mazzuco) is just the best guy to deal with. 2021 will be just gonna be us again, DIY style

Stella: About your own back-catalogue: when I listen to the 12 albums dispersed over around 35 years,  I notice one thing really clearly: you come in with a bang, and go out with one. Full circle! Not saying everything in between isn’t nice, but I can clearly hear the enthusiasm and general inspiration from the debut back in “Electric Lliedi Land”. The preceding albums have absolute gems on them, but also some songs that may not particularly “stand out”. “Electric Lliedi Land”,  like “The Magic of The Hepburns”, doesn’t have a single lesser moment on it. Has something happened that made you have renewed vision or energy with this release?

Matt: It’s good that you can hear the enthusiasm in ‘Electric Lliedi Land’ – and I can see your point about the similarities with our first album and what the reasons for that might be. Obviously, ‘The Magic of…’ was invested with a lot of enthusiasm. ‘Electric Lliedi Land’ was very exciting – totally improvised and written very, very quickly, but also unique in the sense that I was writing songs based on other people’s memories of the town where we live. Adapting them, I suppose. I can’t tell you how inspiring and fulfilling that was. You can hear the excitement in all of the individual performances – the bass and drums as well as the vocals. The fact that we were recording our parts separately and never met up didn’t make any difference. So – yes – there was a huge amount of energy invested in both projects.

Having said that, I didn’t really notice the similarity between them myself. I lack perspective. Or to put it another way, I can only see things from the inside, not the outside. What is more, I never look back on our so-called ‘body of work’. Where my own contribution is concerned, each piece of music and each lyric is a spontaneous outpouring of what I’m thinking or feeling at the time. Sometimes it’s just a way of keeping busy or amusing myself, for instance, by coming up with funny rhymes. And there’s something else which stops me from taking a view, or even wanting to. It’s not just a case of writing something to amuse myself or satisfy a creative urge – it’s about the excitement of hearing what happens to the song when Mike and Les add the bass and drums, and then when the other musicians, Sue and Cris, add theirs, too. We don’t make music just for ourselves – but in the final analysis, that’s what it’s all about – the act of making music. I think that’s also why I’m so thrilled when people like it. I feel very proud of The Hepburns and I love it when others approve of what we do. It means the world to me – but it couldn’t be further from vanity or egotism.  

Stella: Tell us a bit about your upcoming release that has something to do with Vic Godard from Subway Sect. Are you old friends?

Matt: Okay. Three years ago, The Hepburns supported Vic Godard and Subway Sect at The Thunderbolt in Bristol. We’d never met before the gig, but we have formed a good connection with Vic since then. Vic and his partner Mandy were really supportive when we released ‘Electric Lliedi Land’. They bought a copy then posted some brilliant comments on Facebook, saying the album was a ‘truly wondrous piece of work’, and paying tribute to ‘the lasting friendship’ that had formed since the gig. 

During the gig, Vic announced on the mic that he thought The Hepburns should cover a song of theirs called ‘I’ll Find Out Over Time’. I’d had a go at arranging or adapting it back in 2017 but I didn’t get very far with it – it’s a fantastic song with a really vibrant Northern Soul feel to it and full of this manic energy that Vic brings to his vocals, and I couldn’t find a way to unlock it, or to come up with an original interpretation. A few things happened since then. First, I discovered Garageband on my phone, and with it the ability to do my own home recordings for the first time in my life! This gave me a terrific amount of scope for getting creative, exploring new sounds, trying out different arrangements, etc, even though I had to play all the keyboard parts on an iPhone 6 – not easy! Then we started doing the covers compilations albums with Jon Mlynarski. That went pretty well so we’re pretty much in the groove when I thought about revisiting the Vic cover- with better results this time. 

There are two original tracks on the single – ‘Who Really Wants To Be A Star?’ and ‘The Ship That Didn’t Sail. It’s self-released through Bandcamp. There’s a CD in a 7” colour booklet with an original linocut of Vic by Karl Morgan on the cover – it’s meant to look like a 7” single and it does, especially in the plastic single bags that we’re packaging it in. You can download it too, of course. The single is being released the same day as the re-release of the 1982 Vic Godard and Subway Sect album ‘Songs for Sale on Vic’s label GNUinc Records. It’s a superb album – groundbreaking. Vic and the Sect were part of the punk rock scene but here they explored Vic’s fascination with swing and the music of some of his heroes like the great Tony Bennett. They were taking a big risk but it came off and I think the album had a huge influence on indie bands and changed what was possible. Just listen to Edwyn Collins crooning away and you can hear what I mean. Oh – and I like a bit of a croon myself too, you may have noticed! We owe it all to Vic and I’m really happy and proud to be releasing the single jointly with the re-release of this seminal piece of work. 

Stella: I do hope you have upgraded your iPhone since then! You and Seb should meet ffs: one on his outdated phone and the other on his iPad! What do you think of our cover of Porthcawl? How flattering is it to be at a point where you are being covered by other bands? Mission accomplished?

Matt: I think your cover of ‘Porthcawl’ is sublime. It is incredibly flattering to be covered by other bands. It has only happened once before, as far as I know, when Testbild! covered ‘My Brother the Submariner’. Both covers transformed and improved upon the original. I think both you and Seb on the one hand, and Petter, Douglas, Katja and the crew on the other have an incredible affinity with what it is The Hepburns are doing – or trying to do. 

I think there are some specific reasons why I like your cover so much. You’ve obviously shown a lot respect – and care and attention – to the original and you’ve captured the sombre and melancholic atmosphere perfectly, to the extent that I wonder – surely Seb and Estella must have been to Porthcawl?? The trumpet playing is a lovely tribute to Cris Haines’s work, and Mike our bass player, who also plays the melodica, was very complimentary about the way you’ve incorporated the melodica from the original. 

But where the song really soars is in the vocals – your lead vocal, first and foremost, but also the lush, layered harmonies. I detect the influence of The Free Design! Anyway, I can appreciate the way you’ve negotiated your way between the seriousness of my vocal delivery and a playfulness which I absolutely love. The words take on new meanings, especially the line ‘You look much better when you’re undressed’. Also, your range is amazing. I think you can sing lower than me! You’ve definitely got a richness in the lower range that I – and I dare say many others – would die for. 

Anyway. Mission accomplished! Commendations all round. What’s the next mission?

Stella: Duet?

Matt: Sublime!

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