S is for Surf, Sixties and Sense of Humour
“Hang on, that’s the S Club 7 ‘S’,” realises Joe, having spent 20 minutes atop the giant concrete letter. True enough, when you take a step back, that’s exactly what it is. And Speak & The Spells cut quite the tribute to Rachel Steven’s Sunny-D-quaffers in their stark white threads. The deceitful ‘S’ in question is in fact living a lie as it plays its part in spelling out ARSENAL on the pavement of the Emirates Stadium. And the band’s choice of matching clothes is equally as devious. “We love John’s Children,” says bassist Ben “but also, everyone in London is always wearing black, so we just wanted to go the complete opposite.”
It’s not being west Londoners that Ben, Joe [guitars] and Alex [drums] are proud of, more the fact that they’re not from the opposite side of town. Despite what you might think when you hear their 60s-inspired surf punk, Speak & The Spells’ love/loathe relationship with Shoreditch leans heaviest on the loathing. “All the venues are there,” explains Joe “so it’s quite difficult to play anywhere else. But no one young there is un-jaded, going to gigs and having a good time; now, everyone’s a critic, just standing there, judging you.”
The “just standing there” particularly irks S&TS, so when they go to gigs themselves they’re inclined to lead from the front, which in turn results in further judgement. At a recent S.C.U.M. show at the 100 Club, the band arrived suitably dressed in their Clockwork Orange garb. Surrounded by black lace frills and eyeliner, Alex and Joe then proceeded to tumble around on the floor whilst being scorched by looks of distain.
“We turned up there, dress in white, and everyone was like, ‘who are you, giant tampons?'” remembers Alex.
“We were throwing ourselves about, listening to music we didn’t really like and fucking up our clothes,” continues Joe. “I don’t know why we did it really, just to have a good time.”
Alex: “A girl pinched me. ‘Can you calm down, I’m enjoying the band.’ They all got really arsy, because no one has fun.”
Favouring record shopping over double games on a Wednesday is what ultimately spawned this noisy, clattering trio. Ben – a keen 60s enthusiast (as if his Brian Jones bob didn’t tell you that already) – had been playing bass for a year, listening to obscure psyche/surf bands. Joe was a punk, which made the two of them a rare breed in a school full of heavy metallers.
“I used to nag Ben all the time about being in a band,” says Joe, away from the S Club ‘S’, now in a local greasy spoon cafe. “I was obsessed with the idea, so he was like, ‘well, start a band then.'”
“I got a text saying ‘you play drums don’t you?” recalls Alex. “I didn’t really like anything until then, just shiny things. I’d met Ben in year 7 when a teacher pulled his hair. He could have sued for that!”
Joe: “‚”and I met Ben when I stole a pen and tried to sell it to him for 40p.”
Forty coins for a Parker suggests that this was all going on in the mid 80s, inspired by a doomed Grange Hill subplot. In actual fact, the band are still in their teens – Alex did after all receive a text to confirm that his services were required.
The working title of ‘The Waves’ was scrapped for one that didn’t have a ‘The’ prefix (“I thought of it when I found a Speak & Spell in the country,” explains Ben), and as the three friends split for various colleges and sixth forms they vowed to practise whenever Ben wasn’t having his hair pulled by right wing professors and Joe wasn’t doing his Del Boy shtick.
“We used to do recordings in my brothers bathroom,” says Alex, whose dry wit lends itself perfectly to the role of drummer. “With the four track in the sink, Ben was sitting on the toilet and Joe was in the shower doing the vocals with a towel pinned around it, trying to get a natural reverb.”
For eight hours at a time they’d bash their influences into a sound they could call their own, until they were ready to play live. Or until they were nearly ready. “It’s only recently that we’ve had proper songs,” explains Joe. “At first we’d just do what we did in rehearsals but onstage in front of people.”
More and more, Speak & The Spells remind us of another group of outsiders who vented their frustration through creating excitable garage punk. Ironically, they’re the very band responsible for all of those black shirts in Shoreditch. Like The Horrors, S&TS are driven by the US psyche rock of The Sonics and the snarling punk of The Cramps; they too were so eager to get playing in front of people that they began doing so without any ‘proper songs’ (Faris and Co. famously only had a 10 minute set in the band’s early days, made up of half ideas and covers); and Ben, Joe and Alex also run a low-key basement club night, not called Junk, but Rick Ticks, where the emphasis is on the songs being DJ’d.
“It’s in a really small basement, just near Tottenham Court Road,” says Joe. “It’s literally like a cellar, and we used to play there every second Saturday. We didn’t know anyone so we didn’t promote it or anything‚””
“When we started there it was just full of businessmen,” continues Ben “all middle-aged in their suits, because we’d do it on a Friday and they’d go there after work. They’d all be like, ‘oh I remember this song, it’s the Rolling Stones’. It’s too small for bands really so we just get our friends to DJ, and people can come and go. It’s not a serious club night or anything, just somewhere to listen to our records.”
With titles as brilliantly direct as ‘She’s Dead’ and ‘Born A Loser’, it’s no surprise that the songs written by a band prone to writhing around on the floors of toilet venues, just to avoid being considered ‘trendy’, aren’t all that serious either.
“These two don’t even know the lyrics,” says Joe.
“He mumbles,” defends a grinning Alex.
Joe: “No, the new ones are pretty clear. The new song called ‘I Think Not’ is a little bit of a dig about the people dressed in black. It’s not very serious, just a little hit at the trendy followers. There’s no massive message.”
‘She’s Dead’ – a track in which Joe describes digging up his deceased girlfriend – meanwhile features a surf riff and shredding lead vocal that both marries the band’s two main influences (psyche and punk) and defends Ben’s claims that Speak & The Spells “aren’t just a garage band”.
Californian label In The Red Records may be spearheading the garage rock rival with samey bands – The Strange Boys, The Oh Seas, Black Lips – but S&TS stand out from the crowd not only because they’re “giant tampons” sat on a massive letter. Their DIY sound is a little more monstrous than most, but infinitely more fun, and that’s something that’s missing from guitar music at the moment. The Horrors’ return has been brilliant, but trading ‘Sheena Is A Parasite’ for ‘Sea Within A Sea’ has left a void. Music to move to – that doesn’t feature a synthesiser – is thin on the ground. We’re in need of bands like this to prove that there is a party like an S Club‚” oh, don’t pretend you didn’t see that coming!
Originally published in issue 6 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2009