22-20s: Blues thunder

Thank heavens the 22-20s' barrage of sound is coming our way, says Martin Longley
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Sleaford proved too dull, and London was too rife with temptations, so maybe Oxford is the place if you're a young band wanting to live out the communal rock'n'roll lifestyle experiment, in the venerable tradition of Sun Ra's Arkestra or Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica-era Magic Band. It was in Oxford that the 22-20s immersed themselves in music while preparing their debut album, 22-20s. And when they weren't writing or rehearsing their own songs, they were drinking in records by their heroes, deep into the night.

Sleaford proved too dull, and London was too rife with temptations, so maybe Oxford is the place if you're a young band wanting to live out the communal rock'n'roll lifestyle experiment, in the venerable tradition of Sun Ra's Arkestra or Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica-era Magic Band. It was in Oxford that the 22-20s immersed themselves in music while preparing their debut album, 22-20s. And when they weren't writing or rehearsing their own songs, they were drinking in records by their heroes, deep into the night.

When I meet the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Martin Trimble, he looks the rock'n'roll part in raven-black jacket, spider-leg trousers and anteater boots, tousled hair drooping strategically over his eyes. Trimble is a reserved 21-year-old, but he's focused in his opinions and decisive in his vision for the band's future.

Later that night, he's in his element, down at the Zodiac on the run of alternative restaurants, bars and clubs that is Oxford's Cowley Road. It's a jammed home-town crowd. Just four nights into the tour, the foursome have already welded into a fearsome unit. Guitars are cranked up for a primitivist barrage of sound, but their individual parts are still discernible, retaining a melodic heart. James Irving's drums maintain a brutally primeval beat, sluiced around by the organ swirls of Charly Coombes. The lanky bassist Glen Bartup is a flailing presence, frequently encroaching on Trimble's body space.

The songs race past with a purposeful bullishness, the volume curve rising exponentially. Due to a balanced mix, all the rowdy elements are lovingly sculpted. There's a headbanging power, but numbers such as "Devil In Me", "Such a Fool" and "Why Don't You Do It For Me?" all have aggressive hook-lines.

The band's name is taken from the old "22-20 Blues", recorded by the Mississippi-born Skip James in the early 1930s. Although blues music is essential to the mood of the foursome, they are not directly of that genre, but they are its spiritual descendants.

In their Lincolnshire home town of Sleaford, the band started playing not long after they could walk. "When we were 14 or 15 we were actually gigging," Trimble says. "That was me and Glen [Bartup], the bass player. We played in a lot of blues bands. My uncle used to bring round a lot of blues records at Christmas - Skip James, Charley Patton. It's quite hard to get into that at the age of 13 or 14, but there was something about it..."

Trimble and Bartup were soon investigating the Chicago-based Chess label's wares, digging back into Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. "We had a little band going, and we were able to do that kind of stuff," Trimble recalls. "The Otis Rush song, "All Your Love", was the first one we tried, and it sounded great. Really loose.

"It was just more fun to do that kind of thing, more expressive at that time. I didn't feel any inclination to write songs. That was the next best thing, having these backbones to songs we could mess around with. That looseness stuck with us. When we got to 18, playing the blues scene was so uncool. They seemed to have straitjacketed blues into this kind of cabaret thing. We wanted to be a band like Oasis or The Stone Roses."

Trimble wanted his blues to be more threatening, although it's curious he doesn't mention the likes of Jon Spencer, The Gun Club or The Stooges as benchmarks. He was also listening to country music, making a start with the obvious Hank Williams and Johnny Cash records.

"It's a pretty guttural form of music, not something you play in the corner of a restaurant. It annoys me that in record shops, you've got blues and jazz categorised together as a similar form of music. I always think of blues going in the Stones or T Rex way, and then into punk music. It should be about the groove and the lyrics. It shouldn't be about how fast you can play the guitar."

Eventually, The White Stripes and The Von Bondies have to come up. "The White Stripes kicked open the door. They were a great antidote to the records that were coming out in '98, '99. The guitars sounded like they'd gone through a million processes to be where they are. When the Stripes came out, they sounded so raw. They really showed that you can play a guitar and it sounds like a guitar. They showed that you can still be creative within the tightest of parameters. That's always been our ethos. All I want to do is write about what's happened to me."

In the early days, Trimble and Bartup employed session drummers. Then they met James Irving. "It was the first time someone came in and unconditionally wanted to play music. It was the first time we were able to ring up and just get together that night, to work on something Glen and I had done in the day."

Irving was heading for college in London, but that was short-lived; the band were beginning to get noticed by the NME. Before long, they all wound up in the capital. "London's so much more cosmopolitan," Trimble says. "You don't get black or Asian people walking down the streets in Sleaford. It's an RAF mentality, very anti-homosexual, very anti-asylum-seekers, very anti-everything.

"We wanted to move to London so we could go out and see bands every night. We had six months there, and we were just going out and getting wrecked. We couldn't really write, because we were in a kind of big flat complex. It was so expensive, and we were right next to professionals who'd put letters through our door complaining about our music. So we moved to this little village called Milton, about 20 miles from Oxford, in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. We spent the whole summer staying up until five, listening to records."

The communal rock'n'roll living situation was an important factor. "We see it as a lifestyle thing. If we're not touring, then we're listening to music, or writing. I've got a romantic illusion of travelling around, doing gigs and writing songs. I know that's the most honest thing you can do."

For the rest of the year, the band are finishing off Europe, then travelling to the USA, Australia and Japan. Their set has expanded from 30 to 55 minutes.

Six months ago, the 22-20s moved to Oxford because they were tired of driving to the service station for cigarettes. "We're pretty restless, really. We'll probably move again in a couple of weeks..."

Now, the commune has divided in half. Trimble lives with Bartup, and Irving lives with the new fourth member Charly Coombes, the keyboardist, who's actually been gigging with the original trio for a while but has only recently been inducted as a permanent 22-20.

"We don't just want to be a thrash band, although we like playing loud. We're interested in melody." Martin mentions Bob Dylan in 1966, and also gives the nod to Gram Parsons. "We'll lay down the track completely live. With the album, we wanted to get the energy and kind of sound you only get when all four play at once. We didn't want to be precious about not adding extra guitars or keyboards. We wanted to be experimental with the sounds, building on a template of a proper live take."

In the beginning, Trimble poured out his inner demons. He's completely dedicated. "Everything you do should be documented in songs. The way we dress, even the records we listen to; it's all part of it. It's an ongoing thing. We don't care if we don't sell millions of records, but we want to keep doing it for 10 years and make five great records, and have lots of fun doing it. We might get chucked after two, I don't know..."

The debut album had been delayed for many months, subjected to endless mixing, which had frustrated the band. Jason Pierce of Spiritualized has remixed their "Hold On" number for limited-edition release in the new year. He's succeeded in almost completely dismantling the original tune, reshaping it as a wordless, abstracted meditation. "I don't recognise it," Trimble laughs. "It's really different, but I love it."

The 22-20s already have three songs virtually completed for the next album. Trimble sees the new material as a continuation, not representing any radical shift in direction. "Maybe it's a little more flippant. One of my regrets about the first album is that it gave too much, it was so direct. I'd like to hide a few things on this next one, make it a little less obvious. I got so depressed writing that stuff. I don't want to put out a negative record for the sake of it."

The 22-20s tour to the end of this month. Their debut album is out on Heavenly Recordings/EMI

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