Saturday, August 18, 2007

Interview: Simon Aldred plugged away for years with his music - now his band is topping the charts

"What a badly designed teapot," Cherry Ghost's Simon Aldred says after burning his fingers as we near the end of our lunch at a plush Manchester hotel, far removed from his working-class upbringing in nearby Bolton. Jokingly I suggest teapot design as his next project should the music fall apart, and he replies: "I'll get on Dragons' Den when all this goes tits up and I've turned into a content old fart living in Hampshire. Another invention of mine is the "bognet". You know when you go to people's houses when the lid flops right back down? I'd put a magnet on the top so it just attaches itself. In 12 months' time, that'll be my entry on Wikipedia – The Bognet – and there will be a footnote: 'wrote a couple of tunes'."

But Dragons' Den and teapot design are a long way off. When Cherry Ghost's debut album Thirst For Romance was released in July it went straight to No 7 in the chart, peaking at No 4.

At 31, Aldred is older than the average breakthrough musician, and his unshaven weather-worn features, dark suit, wearied air of northern gloom and jaded whiskey-soaked vocals make him maturer than his years. But it is his bubbly loquaciousness, sense of humour and genuine bursts of laughter; as well as his hope and defiance of gloom which are the themes throughout Thirst For Romance, that draws its inspiration from the ageing working-class community of Bolton. It is all illustrated in Aldred's current read The Condition of the Working Classes by Friedrich Engels, a study of the working class of Manchester amidst its Industrial Revolution 150 years ago.

"In conditions which appeal to brutality you either become a brute, or you rebel. And I think a thirst for romance is an act of rebellion in those conditions. For me it is about escaping the confines of the explainable and the mundane and trying to seek something of beauty. It's about hopefully believing something which is worth believing in. It's supposed to be a rock'*'roll statement, which is why the cover of the album is a very determined young man, a very rock'*'roll figure."

It's this determination and hope that we see in the characters of his songs. Aldred says: "There's a great integrity from that section of the community which is incredibly inspiring. These people have been through a war, they've worked in factories, left school at 14 and they're as pure as the driven snow – they still have a sense of romance about it, a very innocent outlook on life."

The song "Alfred the Great" is an ode to such a hero – and is loosely based around his grandfather and parents, while drawing on the poem by the Yorkshire poet Stevie Smith, which Aldred quotes with ease: "I worship and magnify this man of men/ Keeps a wife and six children on three and 10/ Paid weekly in an envelope, yet never has abandoned hope."

Aldred's favourite song on the album, "Mary on the Mend", is a triumph over divorce, alcoholism and illness. "It's about not being bitter in your circumstances and being eternally, hopeful, romantic, and full of a lust for life. All the things I aspire to be and all the things that should be respected in life. It's about giving a bit of romance to a pretty ordinary character."

The present and future may be positive for Cherry Ghost, but Aldred himself struggled for years before reaching this point. After gaining a degree in maths and some teaching experience, he continued playing in unsigned bands, but after five or six years feeling that he was compromising his own ideas amongst the conflicting egos of his fellow band members, he decided to go solo.

"The reason I'd opted away from that for such a long time is that I don't particularly like singer-songwriters. There's a handful that are worthy of note in the last 10 years – Johnny Cash, Cat Power, Bill Callahan, Willie Nelson, Vic Chesnutt, Daniel Johnston."

He took advantage of a six-month sound-recording course, a scheme offered by the dole (the other choice was working at Asda). Once he had secured £200 from the dole office for starting his own venture, and got his own computer, he managed to set up a mini studio in his bedroom at his parents' Bolton home. He began doing demos for bands before starting and sending out his own.

"People started paying more attention to what I was doing by myself than what I was doing in bands. It was a tentative step, but people were interested, like Richard Gottehrer who signed the Ramones in New York and produced Blondie's album. So I thought, alright, I'm not completely off track then."

It was these glimmers of hope that kept Aldred plugging away, despite his lack of independence, and work. He was ready to pack it all in and become an engineer.

"I was never the happiest of kids so it wasn't in my countenance to be a positive person. A bit of attention started coming in at the right time. I'm very fortunate that it happened when it did. If it had happened earlier, I might not have been as equipped to take advantage of it. The music industry is very corporate at the minute: if you don't make a mark in 12 months, gone are the days where you've got three or four albums to make an impression."

He already has five new songs, all in the minor key and which he considers more "atmospheric" and lyrically better than anything he has already put out. With his best songs yet to come, Dragons' Den seems a less likely suggestion than ever before.

'Thirst for Romance' is out now on Heavenly



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