The Zutons: Kicking up a storm

The Zutons' trademark trash rock is the sound of the moment. But are they happy? Nick Duerden finds stardom weighing heavily on newly sober front man, David McCabe
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Backstage at Folkestone's Leas Cliff Hall, the monotonous realities of touring are becoming evident to Liverpool's The Zutons, who have been on the road for a month. They're doing what they can to pass the hours each day before stage time, which, at 5pm on this particular day, translates roughly as follows.

The bassist Russell Pritchard is chatting with a couple of roadies about what he would not do for a million pounds. The guitarist Boyan Chowdhury and drummer Sean Payne are playing cricket in the canteen, to the irritation of the cooks.

In the squalid dressing-room, Payne's girlfriend, the band's saxophonist Abi Harding, is sitting with singer David McCabe on the sofa. Both look inconsolably bored. McCabe shuffles over and switches the TV off. "Enough of that," he mumbles. Despite his later assertion that "I'm in a pretty good mood at the moment, la," McCabe seems out of sorts. But this, you realise, is his way: his is always a long face, his disposition forever glum.

"Well, your energy dips every now and then, doesn't it?" he says. "I mean, you're only human, right? But don't get me wrong - the tour is going great, and I'm properly taking care of myself as well, perhaps for the first time since we started all this [five years ago]. On our last tour, I was 23, and drinking all the time. I'm 25 now, and I feel it more. But I'm realising I no longer need to drink every day. It's not necessary." He smiles: "I'm developing a wise head on these shoulders, see? I'm taking care of my voice. To be honest, I need to."

On this tour, particularly when singing songs from the band's recent second album, Tired of Hanging Around, he is required to sing "more high-pitched, like, more Robert Plant. It's like I've realised we've become a big band all of a sudden, so I'm acting accordingly. That's good, isn't it?"

Harding nods, but McCabe's expression is clouding over. "Then sometimes, I feel we are just another pop act, nothing special, just - I don't know - just crap. Know what I mean?"

The band emerged in 2004 with Who Killed The Zutons, a vibrant debut album. Their boisterous, hook-laden music, recently described by one member as "sci-fi trash rock", worked wonders at that year's Glastonbury, winning them support slots with U2 and REM. Two singles, "Pressure Point" and "Confusion", have been used on TV ads for jeans and cars. The album, nominated for a Mercury prize (losing out to Franz Ferdinand), shifted 600,000 copies in the UK. The band was happy, as you'd expect. But for McCabe, it brought a lot of "non-specific confusion".

"That, I suppose, is why I did all my drinking. But honestly," he adds, grinning, "it wasn't like I'd become alcoholic. Anyway, isn't everybody alcoholic these days? It's a social thing, and I was just trying to be social." Pause. "OK, maybe slightly too social."

The Zutons couldn't be less like the bands that are, ostensibly, their peers (Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party). Theirs is a soundtrack to good-time theatricality, their songs full of barrelling energy and terrace-chant choruses, and in McCabe, they have possibly the most interesting lyricist since Jarvis Cocker.

But Tired of Hanging Around sees McCabe is darker territory. The man who suffers from low self-esteem and who has, as he admits, been single for too long, here pines for a pair of American girls he met on their last US tour. But neither "Valerie" (with its "Did you have to go to jail, put your house up for sale/ Did you get a good lawyer?" line) or "Oh Stacey (Look What You've Done)", which runs: "She made her father worry till he was sick/ Found him on the couch one night all cold and stiff", could be called traditional love songs. And then there are the paeans to stalking, "You've Got a Friend in Me" and "Why Won't You Give Me Your Love?", in which McCabe casts himself as night-time predator - and, in the latter song, potential jailer: "I'll chain you up, I'll make you mine/ I'll keep you locked downstairs/ With all the bugs and all the gnats, I feed your rodent hair."

Harding insists the band members do not ask McCabe to explain his lyrics: "Best not," she jokes. The author himself likes to suggest that they are, "exaggerated slightly, but definitely facets of my personality, like."

McCabe earned the nickname "Mad Dave" when he was eight, after forcibly cutting off the hair of a female classmate and then covering her head in Sellotape. He was expelled for the stunt and packed off to a special school. "That's just kids messing around, isn't it?" he argues. "Kids are cruel, after all. It doesn't mean I was a troubled child, or anything."

He says now that he was a fairly well adjusted teenager, albeit something of a troublemaker. He was prone to bursts of aggression and craved attention. That craving still exists, but is largely sated by fronting a successful band. But, he suggests, the attention isn't always flattering. "Some bloke came up to me and said I looked fat on TV." He shakes his head, incredulous. "What's the point of that, eh? Somebody else, after a concert, said she thought I'd tried too hard to motivate the crowd and that I should relax more. Excuse me, but where do these people get off saying things like that?"

At the Leas Cliff Hall, a 1,200-capacity venue, The Zutons have finished the soundcheck. In the dressing room, three of them watch a DVD of Blind Faith in Hyde Park in 1969. Payne is hypnotised by the footage. Next door, McCabe and Harding are going through vocal exercises. The singer emerges, blinking. "See?" he beams. "No drinking!"

These days, his pre-show routine often consists of, as Harding puts it, "him being all intellectual, like". This means reading books. He's finishing John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. He likes it, but when Harding, who is also reading the novel, tells him she thinks it's about the Great Depression, McCabe says: "What Great Depression?"

He seems palpably uncomfortable, perhaps because of his pre-show sobriety. Not drinking gives him time to think, and that's perilous. He worries that the new single "Valerie" is so commercial that people will consider his band "as commercial as Coldplay, which wouldn't be a good thing". He says, apropos of nothing in particular, that he's looking forward to some time off, but doesn't quite know what to do with it.

He's currently living in Liverpool with his uncle. His uncle? "Well, you can't very well live with your mum when you are 25, can you? And my uncle's cool, though he is well old - in his fifties, maybe sixties. I suppose I'll need to get my own place soon enough. And a girlfriend, too, if only I had the time..."

Suddenly, he's apologising for coming across as glum and cynical. "But then, I do think I'm a cynical person by nature, and that the bigger the band gets, the more cynical I'll become. Hopefully, I'll be able to deflect most of that into my songwriting, or I'll turn into a right miserable bastard. And that wouldn't be fair on the others, would it?" An ironic smile gives way to his habitual frown.

For details of The Zutons' summer tour, see www.thezutons.com

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