Men from Unkle

With a huge following on the MySpace site, the bookish folk-poppers Unkle Bob look set to go places. All they need is a van. And some roadies... Ed Caesar meets them
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's hot, too hot to be underground. But, at 9pm on a midweek night, that's where we are: 150 sweating souls in Cabaret Voltaire, in Edinburgh, a small venue in the city's vaulted underbelly. You would need a good reason to be locked in a dungeon tonight, and we have one - Unkle Bob, the rather bookish-looking five-piece who are, this second, hauling their instruments on to the tiny stage.

On the Unkle Bob World Tour of Scotland, there are no roadies. No backstage riders, either. Instead, there are five Glasgow University graduates in their mid-twenties who really should have proper jobs by now; a mandolin; a second-hand car; a stand-up bass; and a sackful of plangent, endlessly singable tunes. At the microphone, Rick Webster, the vocalist, will soon launch into a rendition of his waltzing track "I Need A Car". But what he and the band really need is a van, and quick.

Webster and I had met that afternoon, along with the band's keyboard player, Geoff Widdowson, at a café across from Cabaret Voltaire. This, Webster and Widdowson surmised, was an ideal spot, "because we can keep an eye on the car." Their bandmates Stuart Cartwright (vocals, guitar, banjo, mandolin), Ron Yeadon (drums), and Graham Local (double bass) are unloading the roof-rack of the Renault Clio as The Independent's dictaphone rolls.

It's hard to believe these characters have generated such a groundswell of interest. Sure, their music, as championed by the hipsters at BBC Radio 6 and by tens of thousands of fans on their MySpace site, is an attractive proposition. Led by Webster's cherubic vocals and red-cell-rich lyrics ("I've got a working broken heart"), Unkle Bob produce an affecting brand of folk-infused West Coast pop that could make them Britain's Next Big Thing. But, with their manners, their work ethic and their middling wardrobe choices, they do not really look or feel like stars. Not yet, anyway.

"I suppose we've just evolved," says Webster, the band's amiable songwriter-in-chief, who looks like Tintin without the flick. "We started as a folk band with no drums or anything. The emphasis was always on the songs. I have always listened to great songwriters like Van Morrison and Nick Drake. But me, and everyone else, have so many other influences, too... And now it's all starting to make sense."

As a student, Webster started playing solo acoustic sets in a legendary tea room in the West End of Glasgow called Tchai Ovna, the spiritual home of their fellow Glaswegians Belle and Sebastian. It was there that he met Widdowson. With the core of Unkle Bob formed, other band members came and went, until their line-up was finalised around 18 months ago - Yeadon and Local forming a tight backbone, and Cartwright a lyrical, unique lead on all manner of plunking string instruments.

The band were soon regulars on Glasgow's gig scene, although that in itself was nothing special - in Glasgow, says Widdowson, "everyone is in a band". A more significant moment was when they attracted the attention of the former James guitarist, Saul Davies. He would soon join Unkle Bob as their manager and producer.

"I suppose what he's done is this," says Webster. "He came from the outside and could see our potential. We hadn't got there yet. We were still finding our feet as a band. And he brought this energy to it. Obviously, our sound is much more upbeat now, with the drums and everything. It's so much more fun to play live. We've gone from being a folk band, to being something with serious mainstream potential."

It was clear, too, both to Unkle Bob's producer and to Webster's bandmates, that their front man had a serious gift for melody - Davies says that he has "never met someone who writes good tunes so easily". But they were equally aware his talent needed to be more focused if anyone was actually going to listen to an Unkle Bob song.

"It's been a slow evolution," Webster admits. "Normally, the process is this. I'll have an idea for a song (although Stuart writes as well) but it will be more than five minutes long. And then the band will play with it and kick it about and rearrange it and make it slightly more... Well, slightly more like three and a half minutes. You know? Just so it functions as a song."

It is little surprise then that, in among Unkle Bob's tales of old love and new love, there is a self-referential quality to the band's work. "The Hit Parade", arguably the most commercial track in the band's repertoire, is not just about desire, but about songwriting. "I want to get laid/I want to get played/I want to walk down the hit parade", sings Webster. Given that nobody has used the phrase "hit parade" for a generation (at least not without irony), the lyric is worthy of query.

"Yep, that line is a little mad," admits Webster. "But, it was when I was studying the Tin Pan Alley period in my Sociology of Music class. I was very interested in the period - this thing where songwriters would sit in offices trying to sell sheet music for hit songs. And everyone assumes now that everyone at that time was hugely successful. But they weren't. There were only a handful of successful guys back then.

"So, it wasn't that I was insanely inspired by it, but it was going round in my head. At the same time, I'd broken up with my girlfriend for about the fifth time. I thought, 'I want to get laid, I want to get played, I want to walk down the hit parade.' Yeah, I thought, that's it! What pissed me off then and pisses me off now is when people talk about pop as if it's drivel. But when you look back on those early days, there was so much failure involved."

And so you have a song that, in one lyric, contains just about everything you might need to know about Unkle Bob - that music isn't just the medium; it's the message. They want all the same things that young white male songwriters have always wanted - the girls, and the acclaim - but they also want to be integrated into that same tradition, to become part of the canon. You can see that desire at the apex of Unkle Bob's set tonight, as Webster closes his eyes and pleads, "Say that you want me."

Unkle Bob finish the gig just before 10pm but don't stay on stage long enough to soak up the clammy enthusiasm of the crowd. On the steps at the back entrance of the club, it's so bright that it could be the afternoon. Webster emerges, blinking into the light. He takes a seat and a beer while, all around him, the rest of the band clear the decks. Cartwright, Local and Widdowson strike the stage and pack up the Clio, while Yeadon disappears into the audience to sell some Unkle Bob EPs for £5 a go. The club's manager, meanwhile, comes outside and peels off a stack of £20 notes into Davies' hand - the band's take from the door for tonight's sell-out gig.

So what happens now for Unkle Bob? "Well, we're going to do a big tour in the autumn," says Webster. "And every other day, our booking agent rings us up to say that he's booked us into some new festival. We were talking about what to do about the album, too. There's a huge demand for it on MySpace, particularly in America, where it's gone mad. We've got 10 great songs."

Does that mean a record deal?

"I think we'll just put out the music, under the radar, if you know what I mean. Everything else about this band has been grass-roots up, so we have to continue. Someone would have to offer us an amazing deal for us to take it. And that's such a good way to be. I'd rather we weren't advertised in between every soap opera on ITV. I'd rather we gathered our own momentum."

They've got momentum, all right. Now all they need is a brand-new motor.

'Too Many People' is out on 3 July on Mother City/Friendly Sounds (