A solo career has long been the natural progression for charismatic frontmen whether they be a Smokey Robinson or a Ronan Keating. Few, though, wait 15 years, two bands and 30 hit singles before cutting the apron strings. But, then, Paul Heaton has never been your typical pop star.
Since he inflamed the tabloids in the mid-1980s with his first group, the Housemartins, and then buried himself among three singers in the northern country soul revue band that we know as the Beautiful South, the singer and songwriter has displayed a cussedly bloody-minded attitude to pop stardom. This partially explains why Fat Chance, his debut solo album, is credited not to Paul Heaton but Biscuit Boy, aka Crackerman. It is his way of playing down expectation and deflecting the attention he has always sought to avoid.
Sat in the bar of a central London hotel, dressed in a St Pauli football club T-shirt with skull and cross bones and faded jeans, 39-year-old Heaton, now a teetotal father of one, attempts to explain his belated career move.
"I suppose it's to do with respect in a way," he ponders, waving a Silk Cut airily. "I don't know whether I deserve respect, but I'd like to think so. It's partly my own fault because I'm so flippant about everything I do. People like Paul Weller, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello take themselves a lot more seriously, whereas I struggle. I am a serious songwriter but I'm also daft. Plus I plug into pop music and there's a strange attitude that says the more melodic your songs are, the less you're taken seriously. My problem is that I'm a coward," he says, turning his own argument on its head. "Those artists have the courage to do their own thing, whereas I always want hits. I'm terrified of the bargain bin."
There are several other factors at work in his decision to make a record of his own, not least that the Beautiful South are in some disarray. The band's last album, Painting It Red, contained no hit singles and dropped out of the charts rapidly, whereas its two predecessors went on to be certified multi-platinum. Then, on the band's last tour of North America, vocalist Jacqueline Abbott, the voice on their most recent hits, quit after a row.
"It was a big misunderstanding but there's been no real explanation for her departure," he sighs. "I blame myself; it's my job to keep everyone happy. But I also knew that our last album wouldn't be massive because it didn't have any obvious singles on it – that was clear when we were writing it. I don't think the musical climate is right for us at the moment and that certainly contributed to the timing of this record."
Recorded with production duo Scott Shields and Martin Slattery, who also figure in Joe Strummer's Mescaleros, Fat Chance is a looser, groovier record but it stops well short from emulating Heaton's friend and former bandmate Norman Cook in the dance stakes. "When Norman works, what comes out the speakers mystifies me," he says with a shake of the head. "If I tried to do that I'd be exposed as the village idiot. I buy a lot of dance records and I can use a set of decks to mix, but I'd feel like a fake making that sort of music. I can't even work the remote control for my TV, let alone a computer."
Having grown up together, Cook and Heaton remain good friends, regularly texting each other about the new additions to their lives, Woody, born to Norman and Zoë, and Maisie, who both arrived within a couple of months of each other.
"Our kids are going to have very different backgrounds," smiles Heaton, the contented father. "There are no musical instruments in my house, you wouldn't know I was in a band. There's the record collections – that's a worry. Norman is always pretty haphazard about his stuff but mine are carefully filed. It could be the first proper telling off if she starts putting Otis Redding under 'O' instead of 'R'." If Heaton has avoided the temptation of singing over programmed music or even working with his former partner, the Biscuit Boy alias surely owes something to Cook's choice of monickers before he settled on Fatboy Slim.
"Norman kept changing his name, didn't he? Pizzaman, Mighty Dub Katz, so no one knows how many other duff ones there were. He only settled on Fatboy Slim because of all the blues albums I used to play him. He used to laugh at their names. I remember telling him I was going to see Memphis Slim once and him saying, 'What kind of name is that?' I told him that it was the coolest name in the world and he was going, 'It's ridiculous!'.
"Norman was fascinated by my blues collection. It was quite unusual a kid from Surrey to have a 17-year-old mate whose collection was built around Washboard Sam. But then he did dress like Adam Ant back then." It seems unlikely, for all the quality of Fat Chance with its typically hummable songs and waspish lyricism, that Biscuit Boy will be thrust unwillingly into the spotlight again. And that will probably be for the best. The Beautiful South have a greatest hits album due in November and there are a lot of nappies to change between now and then.
Biscuit Boy aka Crackerman's 'Fat Chance' (Mercury) is released tomorrowReuse content