Turn on, tune in, burn out

Disco outfit Sub Sub may have seemed like one-hit wonders back in the early Nineties, but now they're back with a new direction
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The Independent Culture

If the adage "it never rains but it pours" were meant for a band, it would surely have to be Manchester's Doves. For more than 11 years they've pursued their personal pop grails, from their inception as an indie act at school to their commercial peak as a dance outfit in the early Nineties, and now as a rock band. Yet in the intervening years circumstances have seemed to conspire against them and their story is second only to Shack's in terms of bad luck.

In the early Nineties, during their incarnation as the house act Sub Sub, twin brothers Jez and Andy Williams and their old classmate Jimi Goodwin were unceremoniously dumped by their record company soon after their (relatively successful) début single "Spaceface". Fortune smiled upon them for a short time as they were picked up by Rob's Records, the label founded by former New Order manager Rob Gretton, and had a number three hit with 1993's "Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use)". This fantastically dizzy club tune, featuring the iron-lunged howl of Melanie Williams, was not only the ultimate hands-in-the-air disco anthem but it quickly crossed over into the mainstream and got the band on Top of the Tops, surely the sum of any fresh young band's ambitions.

Indeed, so dazed were the trio by their success that they didn't think twice about going to the dole office to collect their giros the day after their television appearance. "We had this mate working at the dole," says Jez, sipping a Guinness in a pub off Manchester's insalubrious Cheetham Hill. "When we got there he took us aside and said, 'Look, you're really taking the piss here. I saw you on telly last night'." They duly signed off, but were to return to the dole office sooner than expected.

In the long and graceless tradition of one-hit-wonder bands, the weight of expectation proved too much for Sub Sub and, as the excitement surrounding "Ain't No Love" died down, they found themselves at a creative dead end. Their subsequent single, "Respect", sank without trace.

"We backed ourselves into that corner," admits Andy, the band's guitarist and drummer. "We were thinking 'we've got all this attention and we can't blow it'. 'Respect' was nothing like the rest of Sub Sub's stuff."

Perhaps it was their timing that was wrong; Sub Sub took off just as the club scene turned sour. Ecstasy just wasn't what it used to be and the Hacienda, formerly the epicentre of the Manchester club scene, had slowly turned into a battleground for local gangs.

The band laid low for four years, tentatively re-emerging to collaborate with Tricky and New Order's Bernard Sumner. Over the past few years they have appeared as Badly Drawn Boy's backing band. But for the most part they stayed in the studio, adhering to a rigorous schedule of writing and recording. "It was like a military operation," shivers Jez. "The studio had no windows - it was like being in a submarine. It's no wonder we got on each other's nerves."

Disaster struck again in 1995 in the form of a fire. It happened on the night of the twins' birthday and the band had been out celebrating. At about 4am Andy got a phone call to say that the alarm had gone off and could he go down and take a look.

"I got there and there was smoke billowing out of roof of the studio and firemen all around outside," he says. "The place was gutted; £40,000 worth of gear and three years' work went up in smoke."

Such a disaster might have prompted a lesser band to admit defeat. But in their characteristic spirit of optimism the trio viewed the fire as a new beginning. They had already been dabbling with a darker, more guitar-based sound and now, with a new name and a new album to write, they had decided to take this new direction seriously.

"We got bored with dance music. You can't help but be influenced by what you listen to when you are writing. We went to see Supergrass just after their first album came out and they were fearsome live. We thought we'd better get back to the studio."

Their world came to a standstill once more in May last year when Gretton suffered a fatal stroke. "He believed in us for years. People always talk about Tony Wilson (head of Factory Records) but Rob was a real musical force in Manchester. He spent his own money on bands and really got behind people." His death came just before the completion of Doves' début album, Lost Souls, which is released next month.

The album is a brave statement that discards all that has gone before. It is also a work of extraordinary intensity, a heady compound of indie guitar rock, hazy psychedelia and fractured emotions that recall Talk Talk or the grandiloquent vision of Stone Roses.

During the elegiac "Sea Song" you are sucked into a whirlpool of disconsolate acoustic guitars and reverberating drums; "The Cedar Room" similarly sweeps you along in a tide of epic conceit. The band have the extraordinary ability to sound concurrently comatose and wide awake, with each song tightly composed yet meandering like smoke from a freshly extinguished candle.

The music press have leapt quickly on the promise of Doves, already hailing them as the potential saviours of rock in the new millennium. Not surprisingly, the trio are circumspect about such attention. "We're really happy about the work we are doing. We just hope that other people are into it too." As for a follow-up, let's just wait and see, shall we?

The single 'The Cedar Room' is out on Heavenly. The album 'Lost Souls' will be released on 10 April. Doves will be playing tonight at Tunbridge Wells Forum and continue their tour at Colchester Arts Centre (Sun), Bristol Fleece (Mon), Nottingham Social (Tues) and London Scala (Wed)