The Zutons: 'We've never known what we're doing'

The Zutons have a Mercury nomination and a hit album. They tell Alexia Loundras why it's all just a happy accident
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Set back from the busy streets of Liverpool's city centre, Café Tabac is a quietly buzzing place dotted with cool, arty types lingering over their late lunches. Until, that is, the doors are flung open and in troop The Zutons, trailing a rush of cartoon commotion in their wake. There's just five of them and yet their bustling entrance fills the room. The Zutons are in their home city, enjoying a welcome few days off, before heading back out on the road, first supporting The Thrills in America then returning to play to the home crowds on their own 18-date headline UK tour.

As they shrug off their coats - and, in the case of the petite saxophonist Abi Harding, peel off the brightest of cherry-red French berets - these Liverpudlians flood the place with primary-coloured energy. Only the singer Dave McCabe, The Zutons' bleary-eyed leader, looks a little washed out. "In Liverpool, there are either good days or bad days," he explains with a weary half-smile. "And today I'm hung over, so obviously it's a bad day." Happily for The Zutons, a "bad day" isn't anything that a hot bacon sarnie won't fix, and the colour returns to McCabe's cheeks as he ravenously consumes his lunch.

Lately, it must be said, the band have had very little to complain about. Their ever-growing popularity over the past 12 months have seen them propelled beyond the obligatory new band "toilet" gig circuit and on to the international festival circuit, making flying visits to venues around the UK, Europe, America and Japan. In the process, The Zutons have built themselves a reputation as a ferocious live act, with their exhilarating performances winning them fans everywhere.

Bunched round the cafe's small tables, talking over each other like giddy teenagers, their exuberance is infect- ious. Put them on a stage and the effect is magnified tenfold. At Glastonbury this summer, the more romantic souls in the audience might have been tempted to believe that the band were drawing the sun from behind the clouds when they took to the stage in matching canary-yellow boiler suits and proceeded to blast away the rain with their spiky blues-rock.

But The Zutons are more than just a live act. Their feverish debut album, Who Killed The Zutons? was deservedly shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize. Though the band lost out to art-rockers Franz Ferdinand, just being nominated was enough for The Zutons. "I'm dead happy about it," says McCabe. "Until then only thing we'd ever won were fans at gigs - just being nominated was where we won really. If we'd actually won, it would have been too big a thing - there'd be too much pressure on us."

McCabe is not being disingenuous; he appears to mean every word: for The Zutons, winning is unnecessary. Thanks to both their association with the Mercury Prize and their phenomenal festival shows, since its April release Who Killed The Zutons? has become one of the year's smouldering hits, scoring three Top 40 singles - the frantic "Pressure Point", the electrified, blues-ridden "You Will You Won't", and "Remember Me", a heartfelt plea to a love-struck best mate. And, to top it off, thanks to heavy rotation on TV the sweetly lolloping break-up song "Confusion" is becoming to Citroëns what Aqualung's "Strange and Beautiful" was to the VW Beetle.

But while 2004 has undoubtedly seen a steady and impressive rise to prominence for The Zutons, they're certainly not a band who were always on a fast track to the top. Having garnered press attention within months of forming (on the back of the Coral-led explosion of Liverpool bands), their progress has been more of a meandering stroll than a heads-down sprint. In fact, they only bothered to get themselves a manager at the beginning of this year, when they needed help keeping track of their growing calendar of live commitments.

"I met our drummer Sean [Payne] in a chippy," says McCabe brightly, outling his band's haphazard genesis. Liverpool, say The Zutons, is a small place, and while only Payne and the bass-player Russell Pritchard had actually known each other before forming The Zutons (they played together in a band called The Big Kids), the remaining members had seen each other around town for years. Mutual appreciation brought them together: "We liked the way each other played," says Payne.

" We were all a bit different," says McCabe. "We stood out." The guitarist Boyan Chowdhury, the band's quietest member, probably stood out the most - thanks to his smouldering indie-heart-throb looks and his penchant for carrying his sitar around Liverpool with him. He says nothing while my tape-recorder's rolling, but will later explain candidly how, as a boy, he sacrificed a cow as part of a religious ceremony while staying with his family in rural Bangladesh.

The addition of drama-and-dance student Harding, who is also Payne's girlfriend, to the band was something of an afterthought. The Zutons had already been a gigging entity on the Liverpool scene for a fair few months - they'd even played a few dates supporting The Coral - before the then four-piece decided they needed some new blood: "We wanted someone else, who wasn't already in a band and who could play an instrument that we couldn't," says Payne. "It wasn't planned - it could have been someone with a piano - but we knew Abi and we thought a bit of sax would be good." Theirs was an entirely organic union, insists McCabe: "No one wanted to say, 'join my band'," he says. "That would make it look as though one was pushing the others. It was more like: 'Come and help us,' " he says, laughing. "Now that's an old trick, isn't it?"

Appetites sated, we wander around Liverpool's quiet side-streets, heading for Harding's cosy flat and taking in the local sights which often served as inspirations for the larger-than-life lyrical snapshots that pepper The Zutons' album. We spot the neighbourhood transvestite, today decked out in a fuchsia dress and orange pumps, and an old man given to waltzing down streets in the manner of Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain.

"We're going to write our next album based solely on that lot," says McCabe, settling himself onto Harding's sofa. "That's what Lou Reed did with Transformer. He managed a whole album writing about such characters and Liverpool's a good place for that. We've got some great characters here."

The Zutons hail from the same thriving, Liverpool DIY music scene that spawned their fellow Mercury Prize-nominees and Deltasonic label-mates The Coral. Both bands played at the legendary Bandwagon club nights run by fellow Scouse band The Bandits, and both are influenced by their city's colour and heritage. Though early comparisons to their Hoylake cousins - "That Coral thing," sighs McCabe, exasperated - have rubbed The Zutons up the wrong way. But it has to be said that back then - before the arrival of Harding - those comparisons were not unfounded. And the band know it, too. "When people were writing those things, they weren't totally wrong," admits Payne today. The Coral's success opened doors for many Liverpool bands, but with the spotlight poised on the city's music scene, the pressure was on to get some music out. "Liverpool bands like The Coral, The Stands and The Bandits were all getting on and we weren't," says McCabe. "We felt we were at the bottom of the pile. We had to do something."

Just as the band formed without any plan - on a whim really - their music, too, lacked direction. In September 2002, they rushed out their debut single, the psychedelic, sea-shanty-flavoured, Devil's Deal EP. Though it received favourable reviews, Devils Deal was influenced a little too much by the Bandwagon scene and failed to mark The Zutons out as anything other than a second-rate Coral. "It was a bad thing to do," says McCabe, with the wisdom of hindsight. "We just weren't ready," agrees Payne. "I think we thought we were ready - at the time you always think you are - but after we released the EP we realised our songs weren't there yet. We made the mistake of stepping out when we were still finding our sound."

Drastic measures were called for. The band started again from scratch. They stripped down their sound and concentrated on their songwriting, flooding the music with their own boisterous character. With the addition of Harding's signature frazzled sax, The Zutons found themselves becoming a band with a distinctive identity. "We wanted something different in our band," says McCabe on the decision to bring Harding in. It was a decision that proved to be the turning point. "It was then we started to feel like we were represent-ing our band." It'd taken them a little while but The Zutons had found their stride - and their sound.

Who Killed The Zutons? is a gloriously bracing debut. Inspired by classic B-movies such as Walter Hill's The Warriors, and, says McCabe, "that Singin' in the Rain fellow and the things people say in pubs", it's an album that has allowed the band to finally transcend the pesky "Coral wannabes" comparisons that blighted their early existence.

Hints of the music of Captain Beefheart, Johnny Cash, The Doors and The La's still permeate The Zutons' music, but subtle references to the likes of Talking Heads, Devo and Kraftwerk set them apart from their Liverpool rivals. This maelstrom of influences makes for a wonderfully textured album, where sax-punctured sounds swoon and jackknife mischievously from fiery squalls and swampy blues to sweet, countrified rhythms and smile-inducing Merseybeat. The album blazes with life: where The Coral hide behind their masks of psychedelic contrariness, The Zutons' songs are laced with compulsive, first- person tales of Technicolor riots, ("Havana Gang Brawl"), nights out on the town ("Dirty Dancehall"), rainy-day melancholia ("Not a Lot to Do") and poignant accounts of eclipsed friendships ("Remember Me"). Who Killed The Zutons? is an ambitious album that undeniably wears its influences in on its sleeve - but to The Zutons' credit, the final mash of sounds is uniquely theirs: "I don't feel like Gerry and The Pacemakers to The Coral's Beatles anymore," says McCabe. "I feel the way Julian Cope would have done in relation to Ian McCulloch and that's not such a bad thing."

McCabe has, in the past, described his band's customised clash of sounds and stories as "zombie soul": dark, almost voodoo-esque. But although his own definition of his music still stands, he doesn't like his music being labelled. "I just see our band as being a modern kind of soul band." After some dissenting groans from Payne, he continues: "I don't mean like Otis Redding, it's just that it's got soul. That's what I see it as. The fact that it sounds fun - that to me makes it soul music."

The Zutons' music does sound fun. And this exuberance floods through their off-kilter songs, and radiates from them when they perform live. "When we're playing our songs, we're not blagging when you see us smiling," says Payne, his sincerity gleaming brighter than Tom Cruise's teeth.

"To be honest," says McCabe, "I don't even care what our music does for other people - I just care what it does for me. It makes me feel like dancing and singing - it makes me feel excited. What we do - our music - is innocent in what it is. It's like a happy mistake and I think that's what people like about it."

McCabe is spot-on. It's exactly this honesty, this unashamed emotion, that defines his band and has helped them their own distinctive twist on the music they make. But despite chiselling a special niche in the landscape of Liverpool's band, The Zutons are still very much a work in progress. "We're still finding ourselves," continues McCabe, hangover long forgotten. "And that really is the fun part. We don't know what we're doing - we've never known what we're doing - and we don't want to know what we're doing. But," he says, flashing a wicked smile, "it looks like we're doing something right."

The single, 'Don't Ever Think', is out on 18 October on Deltasonic. The Zutons play The Leadmill, Sheffield on Monday; Corn Exchange Theatre, Brighton on 4 October, then touring (www.thezutons.co.uk; www.wayahead.com)

Comments