We get out of the van feeling nauseous. Two nights ago was Newcastle, yesterday Edinburgh, today Manchester, and this travelling schedule combined with too much booze and crap food has given us sore heads and sallow faces. Touring is just as awful as everyone says it is. I quite enjoyed our first one out of sheer novelty, but the second one is already turning into a mundane, exhausting experience. I was eating a Snickers bar washed down with Coke Zero for breakfast this morning as we pulled out of a Scottish service station, when the van iPod spewed up MGMT’s “Time to Pretend”. I suddenly realised why this song is such a pithy one for our rainbow-chasing generation. "I’m feeling rough I’m feeling wrong in the time of my life". Underneath the carapace of fashionable hedonism, this is the sickly reality of culture industry work life in the early twenty-first century.
Tonight we’re playing a “hometown gig” at a venue called Night and Day in Manchester. While we did play our first gig here a couple of years ago, our Manc identity is at best a half-truth. Two band members studied performing arts at uni here – lead singer Danny and bassist Geoffrey – and until recently we all lived together in a squalid terrace house, which would at least have been rock’n’roll in the clichéd, old-fashioned sense if it hadn’t been in affluent Didsbury (home of stockbrokers and aging comedy actors). But this is the sum total of our Manchester credentials. I would have been happy for us to become an adopted Manchester band, but for a long time this wasn’t on the cards. The city’s music scene has been in a bad way for some time, caught in the grip of Britpop nostalgia and Blairite shallowness, and we’ve found the local ambience difficult to fit in with. More to the point, the rest of the band seemed totally indifferent to the city, especially Geoffrey, a native of Reigate, Surrey, and a tireless advocate of re-location to London (a place “where stuff actually happens”). I’ve long since realised that we should probably have started the band in the North East where the remaining three of us grew up. As it is, we’re deracinated and rootless professionals, careerist young men living on parental handouts and inheritance money, praying that eventually the indie equivalent of Simon Cowell – whoever that is – will throw some industry dollar our way. We could be in Manchester, Shoreditch, Sydney, or Brooklyn, and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference.
But recently we have been told that “it is good for us to be a Manchester band”. Not being from London automatically lends us a very slight tinge of hinterland mystique. On top of this, a spate of bankable Topshop-indie acts has emerged from the city in recent times, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we've recently attracted the attention of Guy Garvey from Elbow, who won the Mercury Prize last September, and who is proving a vital name to drop in all kinds of contexts. So although three of us have recently moved to completely different parts of the country to live with girlfriends, we’ve started to emphasise the Manc connection more and more. This is part of the rationale, I think, behind tonight's show in the Northern Quarter, one of a nationwide set of gigs sponsored by a well-known American whiskey manufacturer, which sees us paired with another “local” act, the much-hyped solo singer Faerie Queen. She’s from Preston, which is part of historical Lancashire at least.
I say the tour is “sponsored” by the American whiskey brand – let’s call it Johnny Roberts – but in fact they’re pretty much owning the whole thing. The brand imagery (monochrome Americana and hackneyed rockstar shibboleths) has invaded the venue like a shrewd STI. Before we’ve even finished unloading the van, two über-fit blonde girls with orange, fake-tanned faces and dead eyes greet us with armfuls of corporate merchandise – tee shirts, posters, triple-A pass-holders, all of which bear the Johnny Roberts logo replicated many times over in prominent places.
As we begin the usual interminable wait for someone to tell us when we’re soundchecking and what the hell is going on, the dead-eyed girls thrust a couple of sleek black Johnny Roberts-customized Fender Stratocasters in front of us. We’re encouraged to autograph the guitars with silver pen, as all the other JR Tour bands have done already (they're the first prizes in a tie-in competition). As we sketch gloopy, metallic signatures on these gleaming artifacts, it occurs to me that this might be one of the strangest things I’ve ever done.
After several hours of unrelenting boredom we’re finally given the nod to soundcheck, which we perform in a seamless, automatic maneuver.
As stage time approaches, the smallish venue begins to fill up, and the downstairs dressing area coagulates with friends, relatives, stagehands, journalists, and a TV crew here to film the gig for a special T4 highlights show. My girlfriend arrives, and I greet her with unbridled soppiness. I can hardly believe this one-woman oasis of sanity and down-to-earth intelligence is still taking the trouble to join me at ersatz, soul-numbing media spectacles like this. Her brother and his family are coming over from Warrington to watch tonight, and she tells me they’re excited. Why this is, I can’t really fathom. Even though we’ve been playing pretty much the same set of songs for two years now, it’s only recently, after NME features and Zane Lowe radio plays that any enthusiasm for the band has started to grow among our friends and family. For a long time everyone was politely sceptical about our robotic, theatrical brand of art-pop. But after the London media “got onboard” (a favourite phrase of both Manager and Geoffrey), the scepticism was replaced overnight with dozens of “likes” on Facebook and messages of support from people we barely know. It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that people are turned on by even the merest flash of minor celebrity. Pure fame must be the most powerful intoxicant in modern Britain.
In the dressing area most of the attention is directed at Faerie Queen, who topped many of the Ones to Watch polls in January, and who has recently picked up a Best Solo Artist award at a major industry ceremony (even though she hasn’t actually released an album yet). She’s standing chatting to her NME journalist boyfriend, who wrote an especially poorly-written-yet-hyperbolic feature about our band last month. God she’s tiny, I think. What is this Faerie Queen shtick all about? She’s turned herself into a real-life pop Alice in Wonderland, without a thought for the consequences. A little girl consumer fantasy for old and young, men and women alike.
As if to underline this, my attention wanders to a conversation between Faerie Queen's manager and her dad, which is unfolding just within earshot. Dad is a huge man with a thick torso covered by an expensive-looking Aran sweater, the polar opposite of his diminutive daughter. Someone told us earlier that he’s obscenely wealthy, a casino owner or something. This seems appropriate, as there’s definitely a hint of Veruca Salt about Faerie Queen. She might be a northerner, but she’s incredibly posh. Like seemingly everyone else in the modern music industry, she went to a private school followed by a performing arts college.
Right now, I can hear her Dad speaking aggressively to a frightened-looking manager:
“You know she’s been crying lots this past week”.
“It’s all this attention she’s getting, it’s not good for her. She’s stuck doing exactly the same thing every day." Dad’s voice gets louder and louder, until he’s basically shouting. "What if it all falls through? She needs another life!”
“Of course, of course. But you see, it’ll just take time,” says her manager in a soothing undertone. “At the moment we’re very close to establishing her as a Madonna-style mainstream pop act. Once she makes it through to what we call ‘sustainable territory’, things will get much easier, I promise you”.
This innuendo-filled business-talk seems to have a mollifying effect. After all, Faerie Queen's Dad is an entrepreneurial man-of-the-world. But just to make clear he's not someone to be messed with, Dad repeats his final point with a guttural, growling emphasis:
“She needs another life. She needs another life.”
Onstage later, we play our honed, professional set of songs to a blandly appreciative audience. Always the same act: the same clinical riffs, the same gestures and movements, the same computerized rigidity about everything. Jimmy the drummer is an expert session musician; he’s consummately businesslike behind his wall of cymbals. Danny the lead singer gets lost in his hermetic, impenetrable music, not speaking to us except to make snappy comments now and then, not looking anyone in the eye for the duration of the performance, his redeeming sense of humour put on ice. Out of all of us, Geoffrey is by far the most comfortable performer. A onetime model and high-school actor with parents in the media, Geoffrey was born to inhabit the indie pop star stereotype. His act consists of clichéd posturing and occasional insouciant one-liners delivered to the audience (“Huh, you didn’t expect that now did you?”; “We’re the band you’ve all been hearing about”, etc). This is embarrassing, to put it mildly.
Surrounded by these examples, I really haven’t got a clue how to behave onstage. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t get over the fakeness of it. I can't get over the fact that, while pop music is supposed to be a spontaneous, subversive, anarchic form of expression, a typical gig is now an utterly rule-bound, schematized event, every bit as staid and ritualized as a ballet or a TV commercial. I’m constantly being told to “move around a bit more”, “work on your stagecraft”, “look like you’re enjoying things”. Just because the compulsion is to have fun rather than to retain composure and suppress emotion doesn’t make it any less of a compulsion. I find the whole thing oppressive and terrifying, and play my guitar like a frightened rabbit as a result.
The TV crew tonight aren’t helping. We’re playing on a tiny stage made even more cramped by Johnny Roberts banners, iron railings and camera dollies. The gig goes relatively well up until the last song. Then, as we begin the histrionic crescendo that we always finish with, I look over at the T4 director and my heart freezes over with terror. He’s looking straight at me and gesturing furiously at the floor.
“Dance!” he screams, as a camera swings towards me, so close that it nearly knocks me off my feet. “Dance! … Dance! … Dance!”
It takes me a while to realize that he’s actually saying “drums”. He’s trying to get one of the cameramen to zoom in on Jimmy’s frenetic drumming. He's looking for a spectacular money shot. He’s not looking at me at all.
[Endgame Part One here.]
[Endgame Part One here.]