Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
– Extract from The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot (1925)
Ten years, performing in eleven countries, releasing four LPs, two EPs and one DVD.
The Bedlam Six: 2006-2016.
Matthew Cleghorn and I formed what would later turn into the Bedlams in Autumn 2006. I’d just got back from the USA where I’d been studying at the University Of Pennsylvania. I didn’t have a clue what to do with my life at this point. I’d fallen out of love with academia, tired of over-analysing Shakespearean anachronisms (what can only be described as a bizarre species of intellectual circle-jerking). We met at The Thirsty Scholar in Manchester where we were both on the bill as solo artists. We went back to my apartment afterwards, got drunk and formed a folk duo that soon became a four-piece with Al Baker and Jay Bardsley, then a five piece with Ali Cegielka, then Tom Cleghorn took over from Al and we went ROCK, then it got jazzy with Nick Walters on trumpet who then disappeared so we went back to folk-rock with Hannah Miller and Georgina Leach from The Moulettes as our string section; then Dan Watkins took over bass duties from Jay and Gus Fairbairn joined on sax; then Fran Lydiatt joined on accordion and piano; then Gus left to focus on poetry and Biff Roxby stepped up with his formidable trombone skills to establish what will be remembered as the definitive line-up (if we are remembered at all). That was 2009. Three years just to get the line-up right. We could certainly never be accused of rushing things.
One thing sticks out from the early folk days with Cleg: I said to him one night “the band probably won’t go anywhere but at least we’ll have a good time” to which he replied “if you don’t think this will go anywhere I’m leaving right now.” So we made a proper go of it. All or nothing. From one angle it looks like a decade long gap in my CV. From another they’re the best years of my life.
With hindsight I think we reached our peak in 2011-2012. Journalists were calling us words like “next big thing” and “hotly tipped”, lots of unhelpful hype. But this was also the time when things changed. Ali got ill and it became six men in a tour van versus one woman in a hospital bed. We left her behind and I lost one of my closest friends. I’ve not seen her in three years and I suspect we’ll never repair our friendship, though I hope we do, some day. It is without doubt the profoundest regret of my entire life. But the band kept going, we knew we were being ruthless but it was this way or no way at all. We buried whatever remorse we felt and forged on. Our tour schedules were full of promise, what we often lacked in audience numbers we made up for in potential. But there’s no future in being new. We stupidly decided to play the PR game and all that happened was a loss of momentum. By the time Youth (what I think is our best album) came out in 2014 (recorded over a year before) the press wasn’t interested and airplay was minimal. Dennis our European booking agent told us the response from promoters was a near-universal “they were exciting once but now they’re old news”. He stood by us though, he’s been a good friend.
Potential is a funny thing. Journalists love it, they can take credit for it in a way they can’t for more established facts. They were right about us, we had lost our potential… but Potential Energy turns to Kinetic Energy (it’s one of the few bits of science I remember from school). Unburdened by the weight of expectation we toured and toured, building a word-of-mouth following all across Europe. Our last tour had the smallest media coverage but the largest attendance. But it’s too late, we all felt it in our bones, a shifting of priorities and a deep deep ache. Even our van has fallen to pieces from overuse, we had to abandon it in Belgium. We got together the other day and decided that we’d rather quit while we’re still vaguely ahead than gradually disintegrate or suffer death by a thousand cuts.
What no one tells you is that a big part of keeping a band going is trying to honour the promises you make to your younger self. I was twenty three when I started down this road. I have very little in common with that man, even my cells are different. You start out thinking you know what you want but not being able to really express it: “You know… I want to make it big… you know… BIG”.
No, I don’t know. I still don’t know. Not only do none of us know what we want out of this, we don’t even know what we’re supposed to want. We’ve done great things. We’ve been all over the world, played venues large and small – in some places there have been as many as ten thousand people, in other places the rats outnumbered the humans. I am proud of what we’ve done and how we did it. We did it OUR WAY. I think we were a success, though no major label would agree.
So the new album DOWN DOWN DOWN will be our last. It’s a mixture of brand new material and live favourites that up until now haven’t been recorded in a studio. I personally think the first three tracks sum us up well, possibly the best work we’ve ever done.
There will be two farewell shows: one in London at The Lexington on 17th September, the second in Manchester at The Ruby Lounge (the first place we played under the name Bedlam Six) on 30th September. The rest is silence.
There is, of course, unfinished business: video ideas we never tried out, songs we never completed (I’d originally planned for the Matilda saga to have ten chapters but I doubt that’ll happen now). Still, that’s always the way of things. To quote Leonardo DaVinci (probably): “No work of art is ever finished, only abandoned.”
But we’re still friends, we’ll still play together in various permutations, still go to the pub together and scheme about things. We all have other projects bubbling away: Tom’s in a new band, Biff and Dan’s recording business is going from strength to strength, I’m writing a musical and continuing my work with the MU and Debt Records, Fran and Cleg are both at the top of their game and play with all sorts of people. We’re about, you’ll see us.
But it’s time to close the doors on Bedlam and lock up the asylum for good.
We had fun though right?
Some advice for bands starting out:
- Work with other artists, help people out, be part of a scene (and if you can’t find a scene you aren’t looking hard enough… and if you still can’t find a scene then start one yourself). Forget about Blur vs Oasis, Stones vs Beatles – it’s marketing bullshit. You are not in competition with anyone. Music is the most universal of all the arts, the greatest connector we have, it spans language and culture, it crosses borders. The whole Rock N Roll “us against the world” thing is stupid. Support other bands, go to gigs, listen as well as broadcast, soak up the things around you. Be influenced, be seduced, let accidents happen. Art cannot exist in a vacuum. Be part of something and work hard to make that something better for everyone. Schiller once said “Live with your century but do not be its creature” – worthy advice.
- Don’t rush but don’t waste time. We spent ages working out what kind of band we were. Our sound crept up on us and was a genuine surprise. But those first few years could definitely have been better spent. We played events organised by crooks and phonies, those wretched multi-band nights that con everyone from the performers to the audience. Avoid those. Play pubs, play cafes, busk, play where real people are, go to them, don’t make them come to you, not at the start. Push, don’t pull. Learn on the job.
- If a promoter with no performer budget says a gig will be “great exposure” walk away. Don’t be rude, don’t make enemies, just explain that exposure is what mountaineers die of and that it’s not for you.
- If someone is making money from an event then so should you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive, I know everyone has to build a crowd from somewhere and you’re inevitably going to have to make the first move and do a few gigs for beer at the start but if you’re there drawing a crowd and the bar is making a killing then you should be properly paid for what you’re doing. Otherwise you’re no better than fish bait.
- You will all change over the years. The road does this. The early poverty does this. The later money does this. Biology and Time does this. Let yourself be changed. Stay in flux.
- Talk to the people at your gig. Not because they might work at a label or have influential friends but for no other reason than you share an interest (and it’s polite). I’ve never liked the term “fan” – having met a lot of people attending Bedlam Six shows I’ve ended up thinking of most of them as mates (indeed some members of the Bedlam Six met their longterm partners in the audience of our concerts). Not only are these people the engine of your music career, they are a pretty good barometer of what works and what doesn’t work. Listen to what they have to say.
- Don’t be seduced by media attention. Journalists like discovering things, they like to take credit. They’re not bad people but they’re mostly quite self-interested (which is no different from most bands out there). There’s a big John Peel shaped hole in our world and lots of bloggers/DJs are jostling to fill it, building temples to their own personalities, mostly by using new bands as currency. It’s good to get attention, it’s good to get your name out there but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Making good music, immortal music, irrespective of fashions and fads… that is the job.
- Have a plan but not too much of a plan. Hope can be a poisonous thing, too many bands spend all their time thinking about the future, thinking success is just around the corner, that things haven’t really started yet but will soon, nurturing some perfect album, waiting for the perfect time to release, to astound. Just get on with it, whatever gig you’re doing tonight is the most important one. Keep moving. The internet is a great archiving tool as well as a promotional megaphone – your releases will linger, if you keep going your old stuff remains evergreen. Don’t dwell, keep going forwards.
- Music is important, as a social balm, as a movement, as an industry, as a cultural connector. But you as a musician, individually, are not important. That weird phenomenon of making songwriters into messiahs is ridiculous and is a big reason why the creative industries are struggling at the moment. That big cliched rock ego and all the enabling that feeds it is a seriously caustic thing. Among the Bedlam Six audience are paramedics and nurses and all kinds of actually heroic individuals – sometimes I think the applause goes in the wrong direction. Entertain people, enjoy the moment but don’t let it go to your head. Be someone’s great Saturday night, be the thing that they’ve trudged through a week of shifts to reach, but never think you’re better than the people listening.
- Music isn’t as popular as most of us think. The biggest audience is the casual listener who’s happy to buy whatever the X Factor winner releases at christmas. There’s nothing wrong with that, these people have other interests, maybe they’re bird watchers or model train enthusiasts. That’s fine. But don’t try to tap into this audience unless you are SERIOUSLY willing to compromise. It’s a whole separate industry and it’s not about art. Your non-music friends will say things like “Ooh you should go on Britain’s Got Talent” simply because people who don’t actively seek music by going to gigs and listening to niche radio stations don’t know that there’s a whole underground world of art mirroring everything we do. It is a privilege to be a part of this underworld, it is our secret, we are special. But we will not be rewarded for being members of this dubious elite – it is its own reward.
- Enjoy it. Have you seen how many bands seem to be having a really lousy time? ENJOY IT. It’s the best job in the damned world, the least you can do is ENJOY IT.
Thanks to our booking agents Dennis Adler at Listen Collective and Rob Gibbs at Live It Out for being tireless and optimistic when everything was pointing the other way. Also to Liam Walsh and Joe Sparrow at Ask Me PR who really did try very hard to make us famous. Thanks to all the amazing people who worked on our music videos: Andrew Ab, Ste Webster, Sammy Deas, Brett Gregory, Ella Gainsborough, Andy Brittain, Charles Leak, Joe Mannion, Sam Alder, Scott Lockhart, Sarah Jane Blake, Paul Wright and all the crews; artists who have given us wonderful images for record sleeves and posters like Grebo Gray, Aixinjerro Valliard, Mary Eileen Croft and Rebekah Joy Shirley; to the people who’ve built sets and designed costumes like Mari Ruth Oda and Kelly Joseph; to people who’ve joined us on stage as special guests like John Otway, Bridie Jackson, Kirsty Almeida, Hope & Social, Liz Green, Becca Williams, John Robb, Rioghnach Connolly, Hannah Miller, Laura Kidd, Felix Hagan, Mika Doo and so many others; to the photographers who’ve gifted us great press shots like Christine Keating, Steve Hall, Ben Robins, Ian O Brien, Annie Golden, Karen McBride, Gordon Jackson and all the live photographers who I’ve chased around the stage and generally abused over the years.
Also thanks to Tom Robinson and Chris Hawkins at BBC 6 Music, Sam Walker, Chris Long and Michelle Hussey at BBC Radio Manchester, Jason Cooke, Uschi Engel and Caroline Rennie at All FM and Shell Zenner at Amazing Radio for playing us regularly when no one else would. We’ve also been helped a lot by reviewers at R2 Magazine, Drowned In Sound, Echoes & Dust, Now Then Magazine, Louder Than War, Von Pip Musical Express, Even The Stars, The Devil Has The Best Tuna, Get Into This, BeardRock, City Life, NARC, Whisperin’ & Hollerin’, Manchester Music, Soundwise, The Underclassed, Never Enough Notes, A New Band A Day, Fresh On The Net and so many great independent periodicals, local and international.
And thanks to our long-suffering partners: Bryony, Sara, Hannah, Jess and Marta who’ve stuck by us through good times and bad, plus the ones who fell along the way (gone but not forgotten). Also, sorry to our parents – we know how much you worry about us.
But mostly thanks to our audience, the people who came to the shows and bought the music. We couldn’t have done any of it without you.