Montpellier: if you can make it there...

With a stunning debut album under their belts, Ben & Jason hit the road. The south of France beckons. Glamorous? Well...
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Things were looking bleak from the start. Ten minutes after Ben Parker and Jason Hazeley's midnight arrival in Montpellier someone threw a bucket of water at them from a fourth- storey window. Putting it down to their English number plates the pair - better known as the acoustic duo Ben & Jason - got on with unloading their equipment. They had spent 36 hours on the road to get here and they couldn't find anywhere to eat when they arrived. By lunchtime the next day they still hadn't been fed. Jason is mumbling deliriously about a packet of dried fruit he ate the previous day while Ben has resolved not to speak at all.

Things were looking bleak from the start. Ten minutes after Ben Parker and Jason Hazeley's midnight arrival in Montpellier someone threw a bucket of water at them from a fourth- storey window. Putting it down to their English number plates the pair - better known as the acoustic duo Ben & Jason - got on with unloading their equipment. They had spent 36 hours on the road to get here and they couldn't find anywhere to eat when they arrived. By lunchtime the next day they still hadn't been fed. Jason is mumbling deliriously about a packet of dried fruit he ate the previous day while Ben has resolved not to speak at all.

After trawling up and down the labyrinthine streets of Montpellier's Old Town, we end up in a pizza bar. "Classy, eh?" smiles Jason, valiantly trying to see the funny side of their predicament. But even full stomachs don't lift their spirits. "We've come to a town in the Southern most point of France where English people are not as welcome as they are in other parts of the country," says Jason. "We're in the middle of a row with the French about beef. This is a Catholic town and we're doing a gig on a Sunday night. But the most frightening bit is that they've given us a 1,000-seat venue which we can't possibly hope to fill and they have had to start giving away tickets. This is going to be the scariest gig we've ever done."

"Ah, but the music will win in the end," says Ben, sarcastically. Two days earlier, Ben & Jason had played in Caen to a rapturous reception. ("They knew all the words to our songs," gasps Jason). A couple of days before that they opened a sell-out show for Marianne Faithfull in Paris. Tonight, though, is a different story. They say they will be surprised if 30 people turn up.

"I recently read a book about REM and their early touring days," remarks Jason. "They used to play in Hickville, Arizona, to 10 guys chewing straw. If they can do it, so can we."

It's an unlikely partnership. Ben, vivacious with three days' stubble and spikey hair, and the owl-like Jason, eloquent, self-effacing, possibly too sensible to be in a band. They met five years ago while working for a music publishing company in London. Having discovered a mutual fascination with John Martyn and Joni Mitchell, they started swapping ideas. One day Jason arrived with a set of lyrics to work on - the result was "Joe's Ark", which is the opening track of their brilliant EP "Hello".

Their songs are characterised by simple yet soulful melodies that bear little relation to their work as co-writers with Martine McCutcheon ("the closest we've ever got to real glamour"). Their folk disposition has seen them dubbed the rightful scions of their hero Nick Drake, though Ben's soaring vocals have also prompted comparisons with Jeff Buckley and Radiohead's Thom Yorke.

"You can either take it as a compliment to be compared with people who have been very successful," says Ben "or you can take it to mean 'these boys aren't original, they're just ripping off these guys'. You can never quite tell how they mean it."

Either way, it is Ben's extraordinary vocals that have captured attention. "I have to keep it in check," he admits. "There's a tendency to get carried away with your own voice as an instrument - you hear that when you listen to Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey. You get these instants where they are just going: 'whoooaayeeeaaahh!' Where's the tune?"

Their first full-length album Emoticons is a work of exceptional warmth and beauty, one of the most stunning debuts of the year so far. The lyrics are deeply personal, sometimes sentimental, sometimes sour, and they are backed by some rather exotic, and uplifting, string arrangements.

But Jason doesn't seem to have made his mind up about the album. "I was listening to it last night and I was reassured. I like it, it's fine. But I think it takes about 10 listens to get used to it. Perhaps it's not coherent enough. It's definitely too long."

As the afternoon goes on, Ben & Jason get increasingly twitchy about the task ahead. As they trundle off for the sound check, they look ready for execution. In the end, about a 100 people turn up for the gig - not great but more than expected - with not a bucket of water in sight. Charmingly, they spread themselves evenly across the venue to make it look busier than it is. After a few hiccups with the sound, Ben & Jason are a stunning success. After a worrying silence for the first five songs, the crowd get increasingly animated, screaming themselves silly by the end. "You don't get this kind of enthusiasm in London," smiles Jason, the torture of the day a distant memory. "I think we may come back after all."

Ben & Jason are on tour with David Gray. They play Shepherd's Bush on 9 November, Brighton Pressure Point 10 November. Their single 'Romeo and Juliet Are Drowning' is out on 17 January on Go Beat

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