Simon Fuller, the creator of Pop Idol, may be familiar as an impresario of disposable muzak, but the first signing to his new record label suggests he has a keener ear than you might think.
The imprint, 19, shares its name with Fuller's management company, which has looked after Annie Lennox, Spice Girls and S Club. This should not be taken as a clue to its direction, as Fuller has signed two lads from Buckinghamshire who make sweet pop music on a defiantly do-it-yourself basis.
The Boy Least Likely To are Jof Owen and Pete Hobbs, schoolmates who grew up in Wendover and bonded over the Manic Street Preachers' early glam punk. Their first singles, hand-stamped in their bedrooms, made waves in indie circles, including the Rough Trade shop in London.
"A&R men go in every Monday morning to ask what the score is," Hobbs says, "and people in the shop suggest what they should listen to. We only realised this when we started getting calls on the Monday afternoon."
Hobbs and Owensurprised a lot of people by signing with 19. "We're the only band on there, so it was nice to be the priority," Owen says. "They didn't want to change anything or make us tour massively. They understood how to make a pop record successful, while everyone else saw us as an indie band."
Their first release under the new deal is set to be the quiet "Be Gentle With Me", out in April to coincide with their US tour in of support of a singer more associated with bland commercialism, James Blunt. This is not the first time "The Boy" have been associated with the army captain turned balladeer. They played UK dates with him last year.
"It's like signing with Simon, the thing you shouldn't do," Hobbs explains. "Everyone was up in arms about it, so we thought that was quite good. I thought the tour was going [to be] too mainstream, full of middle-aged people, but it was all teenage girls who were really fun. When we came on stage, the venues were full already."
Superficially, Blunt and The Boy sound like a good fit. Both Blunt and Owen sing in a light manner, both steer away from rockist backing. From then on, though, they part company. While Blunt writes in the most insipid fashion The Boy are, in fact, subtle artists.
The first thing you notice, from the cover of the album, The Best Party Ever, and its song titles is an obsession with animals. The CD case is covered in childlike scrawls that make Rhubarb And Custard look like sophisticated manga animation. These are the work of Owen's brother. "Everywhere you go he just draws stuff, it's really annoying," Hobbs complains. Owen adds: "If he was here now, he'd be drawing on the table. He's like Tony Hart."
The song titles include "Fur Soft As Fur", "I See Spiders..." and "Warm Panda Cola". "I find it easier sometimes to write in the character of an animal," Owen says. "Somehow, if you take all the animal elements out, you are left with something that's more true to human nature. If I write from the perspective of a tortoise, I get closer to what it is to be me."
"Fur Soft As Fur" is the tortoise song. "Sleeping With A Gun" was written from the point of view of a worm pushing up through topsoil. Hobbs asks if there are any horses on the album. "No. There is a donkey, but I don't really understand the horse yet. I like feeding them, but they race around too much."
Their sound has been informed by tours of car boot sales around Aylesbury. These were a rich source of inspiration, since Sony owned a pressing plant nearby. "There wasn't much else to do in Wendover, so we just went around the villages buying loads and loads of records," Owen says. "Sometimes we bought stuff just because we liked the cover, but then we found what we liked and what influenced them."
Joy Division, The Smiths and Black Sabbath seized Owen's attention, while Hobbs picked up Dexy's Midnight Runners, The Stone Roses and Neil Diamond.
"We don't differentiate between pop and what people consider to be more credible," Hobbs explains. "I never accepted that Wham were different to Joy Division. I never thought one was better than the other. Both were great for different reasons."
The Manics inspired them to divide their labours. "They divided it so one guy did the music and the other did the lyrics, so that's what we did," says Hobbs.
"It was handy because I can't play an instrument," Owen adds. "But it was quite nice because we didn't really tread on each others toes. When it came to making the sound of the record, we both came up with ideas, but in terms of the actual music I didn't really get involved."
Not that the creation of The Best Party Ever was straightforward. The two moved to London, forming various bands including an intriguing line-up with Hobbs as singer and Owen on rhythm guitar. ("Crap", is the former's succinct critique.)
"We were just a rubbish Manics band," Hobbs says. Owen adds: "We wanted to be a rock band but didn't have any rock influences, apart from the Manics and The Clash. When we started doing this, we were trying to get back to the music that we first fell in love with."
When Hobbs bought a computer they became self-sufficient, but Owen only started writing properly when he returned to Wendover, leaving Hobbs in Ladbroke Grove. Owen wrote one song in his 11-month stay in London, but back in his home village, the lyrics flooded out.
He disagrees with the notion that he found a childlike perspective by returning home, despite writing lines like "This town is full of monsters", and "I see spiders when I close my eyes".
"I always thought the album was more about the little things in life, the journey to where you came from and finding yourself back where you started. It was me going to the city, then coming back to the country."
Plenty of bands have tapped a similar vein recently, including the Deptford folk urchins The Shortwave Set, Sheffield's pop kids The Research and Manchester's Jim Noir, who sings songs about getting his football back from irate neighbours. "I've noticed the innocent thing in different ways to us, like Jim Noir," Owen muses. "There is an ethic now that you can make pop music out of anything."
The duo are determined to stay in charge of their career. "I'm never going to work with a producer," Hobbs says. "Unless it's Kanye West or somebody that can take it into a different realm."
Owen wonders where to turn for lyrical inspiration. "I've noticed you've started to think like inanimate objects," Hobbs cuts in.
"Anything not human," Owen laughs. "All of I sudden, I think I'm a balloon."
'The Best Party Ever' is out now on AbsoluteReuse content