The Sunshine Underground: Out of the shadows

From darkest Shrewsbury to the spotlights of Reading and Leeds: Nick Hasted tracks the rise of The Sunshine Underground
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The Independent Culture

At last weekend's Reading Festival, The Sunshine Underground took a crucial step towards the surface. In a tent packed with thousands of dancing fans, days before their first album Raise the Alarm was released, their performance made them one of the festival's discoveries.

Next day they were at the Leeds Festival, in their adopted home town. Last year, they played it as Best Unsigned Band. Now, after the obligatory endorsement from Radio 1's Zane Lowe, real success is just one more break away.

"It was great," says singer Craig Wellington. "It was packed and everyone was having a dance. It's hard to stand still at our gigs. Leeds was a homecoming. It summed up the point we've got to, playing them gigs, and them being blinders. Matt [the drummer, Matthew Gilt] got up and kept taking photos of the crowd."

Raise the Alarm was produced by the dance veterans Dan Kahuna and Steve Dub, giving the rock energy of its songs a floor-filling boom. With the NME trying to crank up interest in a new rave movement, dance music exhausted, and the Arctic Monkeys-led slew of social realist garage-rock bands heading down a sonic dead end, dance-rock is rising again and the band have caught the moment. Wellington's non-specific lyrics of complaint, sung in a high, reverberating voice, make every song an anthem.

This leaves them close cousins to the Coldplay school of soaring, innocuous angst, with a pinch of grit. But the Underground haven't got here by calculation. It comes from an idealistic faith in acts from dance-rock's golden age, the early Nineties; the likes of Primal Scream, Fool's Gold-era Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. Primal Scream are also a touchstone - with Blur and Radiohead - as a British band that has survived by being endlessly mutable, seeing every sound as fair game. Wellington, who was in punk bands as a teenager and then spent time clubbing, sees no contradiction between these genres. He wants to follow in his heroes' footsteps, into the unknown.

"All the best music I've liked doesn't have any limits," he says. "I quite like the attitude of punk, but I find it limiting musically, and you can't deny the beats of dance. The Sex Pistols were great, but then Public Image Ltd happened from the Pistols - a better version of it, if you ask me. I like the way they went from punk into this dance thing. Especially Metal Box. And John Lydon - if I wasn't me, I'd like to be him.

"I loved the way Blur and Primal Scream would sound different from album to album, and tried really hard not to repeat themselves. Dan Kahuna and Steve Dub were really important in bringing out the beats and rhythms on our record, and they were consciously employed to do that - if you turn the bass up, it's an unbelievable house beat.

"But it's not as electronic as I thought it would be. That just leaves us open to really go for it in the next one. We're not going to write another song like [the punky] 'Put You In Your Place'. I like pop songs, so I want something in between - really underground, really commercial."

Wellington dreamed these ambitious dreams on his own for most of his adolescence. He grew up in Shrewsbury, 10 miles from future Underground members Gwilt, guitarist Stuart Jones and bassist Daley Smith, three childhood friends from Telford. As a boy, Wellington saved up for seven-inch singles. Shrewsbury's main previous claim to rock fame is Mott the Hoople singer Ian Hunter. He, like Wellington, spent his time there internally screaming to escape. Music was their ticket out.

"It was... all right," Wellington says of his home town. "It's just a small town, really. It's a nice place, all my family have been there for ever. But I'm one of those people who needs things happening. I can't just get a job, do something I have no passion or interest in.

"I guess that influenced my writing. That's why it's got this punk, anti-establishment edge to it. 'Panic Attack' is one of the earliest ones. It's an angry song about living in a small town, not having much to do. 'Put You In Your Place', too ['I'm on top, and you're trying to stop me now']; that's one of the most angry songs there. It's for the people who've given me a slagging over the years, and don't want me to do well."

Salvation came when he met the rest of the band on a college music course when he was 16. Shared tastes, and shock at finding musical soulmates, bonded them. Then they moved to Leeds, just before the Kaiser Chiefs made the town an indie mecca.

"If you were serious about being in a band in Shrewsbury," Wellington says, "there's just a pub you can play in. No one cares. Matty left anyway to go up to Leeds, so we followed him.

"Even before the Kaiser Chiefs brought attention to Leeds, certain people got off their arses to make music happen there. We didn't have much equipment when we started, but people put on gigs for us, put us on compilations. People weren't jealous when the Kaisers made it. It was encouraging to watch these lads everyone had seen playing tiny venues grow. It showed it was possible."

When they called themselves The Sunshine Underground, even the band didn't know how appropriate the name is. They took it from the 2005 Chemical Brothers track. But Wellington is only dimly aware of the Chemicals' own, slightly altered source: Tom Wolfe's 1968 article "The Noonday Underground", describing how Mods in London's West End would leave the straitjacket of their jobs in offices and shops at the stroke of lunch to get drugged up and dance in secret, afternoon basement clubs.

It sounds like a tale from the Shrewsbury days. "Yes!" Wellington says. "That sounds really fitting. I hear different things about The Sunshine Underground, why people think we're called that. I haven't heard a bad one yet!"

'Raise the Alarm' is out this week on City Rock

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