The Long Blondes: Blondes' ambition

The latest sensation from Sheffield isn't actually from Sheffield - but that's a mere detail, The Long Blondes tell Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

"I think in the Sixties it was used to make pornos. It's got loads of amazing decor still intact, shag pile carpets everywhere, even on some of the walls. There's actually a sauna." Dorian Cox, the chief songwriter and guitarist in The Long Blondes, is describing a penthouse flat that he is using in Brighton. Not for a dirty weekend, mind, the kind of thing he might describe in one of his tales of desperate romance or doomed lust, but to shoot the video for forthcoming single "Giddy Stratospheres".

A fitting location, then, for a band that have come to encapsulate charity shop chic and budget escapism. Not cognisant with the idiom of Sixties UK blue movies, I dredge my mind for memories of those dire Seventies sex comedies, the Confessions... series and, most bizarre, Ronnie Corbett in No Sex Please - We're British. "That's one of our favourite ever films," Cox replies excitedly. "There's a particular scene from that me and Kate [Jackson, singer] can recite verbatim."

It is always handy in an interview to find the way to a person's heart. With the Blondes, it is picking the right pop culture references, though it is the girls in the band that have so far gained most attention. Since their early missives were released on obscure indie labels up and down the country, this Sheffield-based outfit have cut a dash in today's more-than-ever laddish band scene. Three-fifths of the group are female, while the band as a whole have stood out thanks to their penchant for smart slacks (for the boys) and chiffon scarves (for the girls), in sharp contrast to a horde of sportswear-clad pseudo-ruffians. Even the bard of Albion, Pete Doherty, has cut a deal with scally label Gio Gio. And all this is encapsulated in Jackson's eye-catching presence.

Her bright, if slightly raw, vocal has made an impact just as immediate as her dashing visual sense, part-Fifties high school, part Georgie Girl. Second-hand aesthetics that show cheap can be stylish, if not exactly classy. It is a theme continued in the artwork for the album, designed by Jackson herself, that shows a fair representation of Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, posing beside a red Seventies Ford Cortina.

Almost forgotten in the rush to celebrate this nascent style icon has been the guy responsible for writing most of the tunes on debut album Someone to Drive You Home. At least Cox is happy with this state of affairs. "I'm a very placid character," he shrugs, and goes on to explain how Jackson is a natural frontwoman. Cox, the bassist Reenie Hollis and the guitarist/keyboardist Emma Chaplin all knew each other in a tight-knit community in Sheffield. Now, the drummer, Screech Louder, and Hollis are an item, as are Cox and Jackson. "We all knew each other because we went to the same gigs, charity shops and second-hand record stores," Cox explains. "We were the only people that looked like we did in Sheffield at the time and you can tell someone's on the same wavelength as you just by what they wear. I don't know how the band started. I think it was one of those pub ideas. I knew Kate just from seeing her around and we all decided that she would make a perfect singer, it didn't matter what her voice was like."

Similarly, they recruited Louder, who "would look good as a drummer". None of the band had played in bands before, nor had Cox written songs. "I was always interested in the art of songwriting and it was nice to meet people through which I could realise my passion."

It is hard to believe, but Cox insists the band learnt to play by performing his songs written quickly so they had something to aim for. Another thing in common is they all hail from outside the city - Cox is from York, while Jackson came via Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire. What attracted them to study there was a rich musical heritage that had given us The Human League, Heaven 17 and Pulp, as Jackson admits.

"Sheffield is like an eccentric aunt. There's a lot wrong with it, but you like it anyway. We came because of Jarvis Cocker - he's a role model to all of us and a hero of mine - but we decided to stay because of the city."

"The fact we all moved there makes us more of a Sheffield band, in a way," Cox adds. "We've been consciously influenced by it, as opposed to Arctic Monkeys, who could exist in any town. It's a northern, working-class thing. They are just doing the same thing HARD-Fi are doing, wherever they come from. We're more interested in bands where it's not just about the everyday, but about refracting that through different cultural references and doing it in a more poetic way."

Yet the city was not the Mecca for hip young things that its pop output promised. "There's not really a lot to do there. It's not been reinvented like Manchester or Leeds," Cox admits. "They look like proper places as opposed to some post-industrial wasteland. Because of that, people have formed bands as a means of escape from the city. We'd never run into the Arctic Monkeys until we saw them backstage at festivals. We never saw them in Sheffield because they were doing the same thing as us."

This explains why escapism is such a massive theme running through the album. Sometimes it is a yearning to move away, as in "Separated by Motorways". Sometimes it is fantasy as in "Lust in the Movies" and elsewhere it is through a relationship, which "Giddy Stratopsheres" warns against.

"We were all doing pretty boring jobs after university, so that's why we formed a band," Cox admits. "If one word sums up why we are doing this, it's escapism." So it is not a problem writing songs for Jackson to sing. "I didn't really set out to write songs from a woman's point of view. I'm more inspired by people like Dusty Springfield and Scott Walker, whom songwriters gave material to and they made it their own. I like to think we're carrying that on with Kate."

Not that this has been a major challenge for Cox, inspired as he is by films anyone could sing about. There are the obvious references to Warhol muse Edie Sedgewick and Anna Karina on "Lust", though Cox is most pleased when fans notice more obscure imagery, such as the line on "You Could Have Both": "I feel like C C Baxter in Wilder's Apartment", an allusion to the black comedy where Jack Lemmon lets his superiors at work use his home for extra-marital trysts.

"It's nice when people come up to us at gigs and pull us up on things, especially when we've forgotten about it ourselves. People like Morrissey have always alluded to these things and caused people to go and look deeper. It is not just about playing guitar and being influenced by The Beatles or The Velvet Underground, it is more important to project a whole different universe.

"That's one of the strengths pop music has, you can completely immerse yourself and films are part of that. Morrissey references a lot of things from popular culture. It's not just your standard 'baby, baby' platitudes. It makes you search out what he is referencing."

"You Could Have It Both" also stands out as it contains Cox's only vocal delivery, albeit a deadpan spoken-word interlude in the manner of Gang of Four's Andy Gill or, more germane, Cocker. Though it did take a while for the rest of the band to convince Cox. "Everyone else said 'keep it in' and I've grown to accept it now. It harks back to a certain Sheffield music heritage and the male and female vocal gives it a Human League thing. I don't think I'll be doing it in the future, though."

It is not only their sartorial views that bind the group together. Alongside those is an independence of spirit that means only in the week of their album's release are they finally looking to recruit a manager. Not that they have missed one until recently, Cox explains.

"A lot of it is just common sense and easy to do if you have got a brain between you. You see a lot of managers that just go round with pound signs in their heads. They're telling their bands they're brilliant and it's all a bit creepy really. It was only when I was checking e-mails at four in the morning that I thought it got a bit annoying." "We've never been frustrated, though, just needed to be patient at times," Jackson interjects. "We've always had a strong idea of what we wanted."

So despite forming in 2003, it was only earlier this year that they inked a deal with reborn indie staple Rough Trade. Despite their well-groomed looks, The Long Blondes carry a lot of punk spirit, as well as tipping a hat to their more obvious inspirations.

"First and foremost, what inspired us to start were The Slits and X-Ray Spex," Cox says. "People that picked up instruments with no knowledge of what they were doing yet somehow got great songs out of it. All our favourite bands projected a whole image and lifestyle through their videos, interviews, whatever. You could tell they had complete control."

Not only punks, though. The band have a deep respect for the likes of Roxy Music and David Bowie, something that sets them apart from the street-urchin outfits that have followed in the wake of Arctic Monkeys. It is telling that Cox's response begins with a description of the foreboding Park Hill estate

"Historically, they always used to get the most radical architectural ideas and stick them in Sheffield. When you come into the train station, Park Hill is just a concrete wall. It just looks like something out of Eastern Europe, though they were amazing avant-garde flats that didn't fit the surrounding aesthetic at all. And they kept doing the same thing throughout the Seventies and Eighties, so you end up with a mish-mash.

"I like to think that's what we're like with our music. We don't stick to one particular style, we have a lot of stuff we like independently. When we started we had more of a Fifties influence than we do now, girl groups like The Shangri-Las. Then we moved on to more of a Seventies disco thing. I am not a big fan of the Arctic Monkeys' derivatives and there's all them bands and us, so we really stand out."

So while on the surface, The Long Blondes may sound like another angular guitar band, all is not as it seems. Their debut album is merely the snapshot of a band's struggle to find their sound in the public eye. Indeed, Hollis and Chaplin have had stick in the past for their lack of musicianship, something that Cox considers unfair.

"That's not something we hide, and certainly it was true a year ago, writing down what chords we were supposed to play, but we've worked really hard and been on tour so it's not an issue any more. I'd like people to listen to us and think they could do it themselves."

Cox claims the album shows their breadth of taste, something disguised in reality by a limited palate, though in the future the band could take any number of directions. "The first album sounds very live and knockabout, as a debut record should, but we're definitely getting into a lot more Donna Summer- and Giorgio Moroder-type stuff, though by the time we come to record the next album, we might have changed our minds and started listening to prog rock."

Dorian may only be joking, but it goes to show that blondes do have more fun.

'Someone to Drive You Home' is out now on Rough Trade

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