In which 17 Seconds hears about why Miles Hunt is The Custodian…
When I catch up with Miles Hunt over the ‘phone at his home in Shropshire, he’s not long returned from London. ‘I have a rule about London,’ he tells me. It transpires that it’s not about bacchanalian excess, but a far more necessary concern for any musician in the second decade of the twenty-first century. ‘Coming back with more money in me pocket than I went away with!’ As someone who feels that trips to the Big Smoke end up with me haemorrhaging money, I can sympathise.
He and his partner, Erica Nockalls, are working towards a new Wonder Stuff album, which will be due out next year. But for now, he’s talking about his new album, The Custodian. Given that some people’s solo albums have so many co-writers and collaborators it makes a mockery of the concept, this is the real deal. It’s just Miles and his acoustic guitar. Though another person’s input that is central to the thirty song project is none other than the legendary Tom Robinson.
Miles describes Tom Robinson as a ‘sweet man,’ who’s been in his life since he was eleven or twelve (his tells me his Dad used to take him to Tom Robinson band gigs in the late seventies). In the late nineties, a conversation between Messrs Robinson and Hunt in New York City led to Tom Robinson asking Miles ‘Who do you think owns your songs now?’ The publishers…or me? suggested Miles. But Tom Robinson’s answer changed his approach. He reminded Miles that his songs now belonged to his audience. With the songs out there in the world, it was Miles’ job to see that the songs he had written were treated and performed with respect.
‘You’re in the very privileged position of performing part of the soundtrack of their lives,’ explains Miles, now. The album was recorded over the course six weeks. ‘It starts with the very first song I ever wrote, which amazingly I can still remember, ‘Speakeasy.’ ‘ It finishes with a brand new song called ‘Custodian’ which looks at the Tom Robinson idea. So few albums have ever ended so…neatly.
The Wonder Stuff were described as being part of the Stourbridge scene, which also included Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. All three bands came from the indie scene but in the late eighties and early nineties made enough of a splash that they made the journey to Top Of The Pops and Smash Hits (I should know, I was reading it. the latter magazine once said he was really nice, and he is!). Pre-stardom, he’d played in a band with members of the Poppies (as they were affectionately known), though he wasn’t actually from Stourbridge himself. ‘Pop Will Eat Itself were incredibly helpful to [The Wonder Stuff],’ he says, generously, citing examples of how the former passed on contacts of places they played beyond the Midlands and encouraging listeners to Janice Long’s show (then on Radio 1) to check out the new singles from the Stuffies.
The second half of the eighties saw the Wonder Stuff sign with Polydor, with whom they released four albums between 1988 and 1993: The Eight Legged Groove Machine; Hup; Never Loved Elvis and Construction For The Modern Idiot. While the first two albums did well, it was ...Elvis which saw the band move up a step or two with top ten hits and stadium gigs in the UK. How did he handle stardom?
‘I wouldn’t say I was handling stardom,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘I had this idea that I should be on-duty and off-duty. As far as audiences are concerned there is no off duty.’ ‘Size Of A Cow’ became a top ten hit, and the band worked on their biggest record yet with producer Mick Glossop. Glossop had been bought in because Polydor wanted a different producer, and because of his work on The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea as well as a variety of punk albums. Around this time, the band also found themselves reaching no.1 in the singles chart, when they backed Vic Rooves on his cover of Tommy Roe’s 1969 single ‘Dizzy.’
‘What I got out of the [‘Dizzy] experience was making two really good friends,’ he says of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. ‘I’d never heard the song!’ Another person he met around the same time was the legendary Kirsty MacColl. He recalls meeting her at the Townhouse Studio one night when they were both drunk. MacColl was working with her husband Steve Lillywhite on the Electric Landlady album.While Hunt exclaimed ‘You’re Kirsty MacColl!’ she replied that yes, she was, and who the fuck was he? But Glossop played her a rough mix of the track ‘Welcome To The Cheap Seats’ and within a week MacColl had added her vocal. The single went on to be another top ten hit for the Stuffies.
The fourth album, Construction For The Modern Idiot was released in 1993. It wasn’t the best period for him. Some of the tracks on the album he views poorly, singly out ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘I Wish Them All Dead.’ Of the latter he describes it as a ‘lazy re-working of ‘A Size Of A Cow.’ By his own admission, at the time he wasn’t in a place where he wanted to write. He’d just married Radio 1 DJ Mary Ann Hobbes and was ‘happier with home life than with band life.’ Looking back he tells me ‘I think we chose all the wrong tracks to put on the album.’ I mention how strong b-sides like ‘I Think I Must’ve Had Something Really Useful To Say’ and ‘Room 512, All The News That’s Fit To Print’ are. They’re both on The Custodian. ‘The suspicion that we’d chosen the wrong tracks [to put on the Construction For The Modern Idiot album] was confirmed.”
The version of ‘On The Ropes’ is possibly the finest performance on the album, and takes what was already an excellent song (and was yet another top ten hit for the band) and takes it some place else. If you were going to only listen to one track on the album, well, you’d be a fool, but it would be a good choice. I ask him how the song came about.
“It came about after listening to ‘Ghosts’ by The Jam,’ he reveals (the song is one of the finest things Paul Weller has ever recorded, and can be found on their final studio album, The Gift).
A friend of a friend asked me to ask him why it often appears second in the set list. He’s very happy to explain.
‘If we’ve opened with ‘Redberry Joy Town [the opening track on their debut album], it’s got lots of space in it. It allows our sound engineer to adjust to the audience being in. I like songs one, two, three to go bang! bang! bang! Instrumentationwise, it’s the same as Redberry Joy Town.’
Reflecting on his role as the custodian, he concludes: ‘These songs have been in people’s lives for so many years. Nowadays you’re like ‘I can hear the audience more than I can hear us!’