Why The Hoosiers are getting seriously cheery

Critical acclaim, who needs it? Making pop with a bit of substance is doing wonders for The Hoosiers, says chris mugan
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The Independent Culture

Bristol Academy, 6pm. The doors will not open for another hour and a half and the main band is not due on until 9.30pm, but the entrance is crowded by a motley array of fairy wings, tutus and cowboy hats.

You might expect such colourful attire ahead of a concert by the Spice Girls or Take That, but not a mainstream, all-male guitar band. Yet The Hoosiers are no ordinary group. Instead, they are a three-piece party machine bringing good cheer up and down the country. Fancy dress may be optional, but the group known for their own sartorial quirks have encouraged fans to make an effort and on this evidence many have stepped up to the challenge.

Tonight there is a Star Wars stormtrooper, three Smurfs and even a couple of nuns. The main theme, though, is the superhero, in response to the trio's attire in the video for hit single "Goodbye Mr A". Their breakthrough "Worried About Ray" introduced us to frontman Irwin Sparkes's high voice and could easily be dismissed as a one-off, but then the band repeated its success with the costumed shenanigans of its follow-up. Since then, The Hoosiers have released a No 1 album, The Trick of Life, its success built on radio domination. Their singles have dominated airtime charts, entering them into a category of groups that have made up for a lack of critical acclaim with wireless-friendly tuneage: think Scouting For Girls, whose self-titled album leapt to No 1, cheery Scousers The Wombats and soft-rock kings The Feeling.

Meeting the band before the first gig of their UK tour, you notice a certain amount of trepidation as they begin to play hour-long sets that mean they get to perform the whole of their album live. Recent dates in Dublin and Belfast were well-received but, they admit, ragged from a technical point of view. The tour manager is keen to get them back to the venue for practice. This might take the sheen off their success, but the lads match their carefree image: fun should never be discounted, something that applies to the routine of the recording studio as much as their on-stage performance, including their penchant for fancy dress.

"We've done it a couple of times and suddenly people are, like, it's dress-up Wednesday," The Hoosiers singer and guitarist Sparkes explains from beneath a wild barnet. "We've done it in the recording studio to avoid boredom and it just happened at really embarrassing times. One was a horrible legal discussion and I'm dressed as Spider-Man, then the label boss came down and we were all dressed as skeletons."

You might wonder if the band suffer from a particularly low boredom threshold, but Sparkes's thinking runs deeper than that. "When people have such unlimited access to a band these days with technology and everything, it's hard to maintain a certain mystique or distance from what you do on stage. It's a natural defence, portraying the fun when it's not always like that. It's as much for us as for the audience."

At the same time, The Hoosiers are grateful to the fans that are selling out many dates on this tour, having been through years of playing to a couple of uninterested punters. For while the group might appear to have exploded out of nowhere, their success rests on hard work and determination.

Sparkes was at school when he met drummer Alfonso Sharland. They found their feet playing in covers bands, but realised no one else took it as seriously as themselves. "Even now, when we're better at our instruments, we're still learning," Sparkes affirms. "We really wanted it, even though it took 10 years for us to find our own voice and not sound like Oasis."

They received encouragement from chemistry teacher Grant Serpell, himself drummer with Seventies popsters Sailor. On hearing their debut "concept album", The Elephant Man, he advised the wannabes to seek out their own life experiences in order to write original songs, Sparkes remembers. "It was important for us to know someone that had been there before, even if we still don't know much about Sailor. He'd bring in video tapes of himself to show us, either for torture or treat. We may not have paid much attention to them, but he did give us useful advice."

"One reason we've got to where we have is that we listen to the right people," adds Sharland. "When you're younger, you tend to hide behind ridiculous lyrics and complicated structures," Sparkes adds, "We're a lot uglier and older than other bands, so we needed something else."

To find their X-factor, they first headed to Spain, having won a competition to tour the country. The enterprise ended when their van overturned on a motorway, injuring the tour manager's girlfriend, Sparkes reminisces. "We had to kick our way out of the van, but still tried to persuade them to get us to the first gig. We left boys and returned as men."

After this, the other two band members were pressured by parents into moving on. The remaining pair qualified for football scholarships at Indiana University, US. "We were tired of failing in a band," Sparkes explains. "But Al had shin splints and I had asthma. It was humid there and the ground was hard. They called us Mr Glass and Mr Wheeze. In the end, we left to free up that money for less fortunate kids."

On their return to Blighty in 2003, the twosome re-entered the music world, albeit through the route of holding down jobs and writing in the evening.

It was at a demo-recording session that they met bassist Martin Skarendahl, who stepped in when their regular partner failed to turn up. The Swede had arrived in London via Oslo and Paris from Stockholm, having completed his national service as a trainee fireman. "I went to Paris to learn French, but that was too difficult and the scene was geared towards electronic music."

By this stage, Sparkes and Sharland had an idea of the direction they wanted to pursue, something that solidified as they recorded the first tracks of what would become their debut album, the vocalist now realises. "There is that sense of dealing with failure and accepting yourself, which can be tough. A lot of the tracks are about seeking salvation and redemption from that. We learnt more in the States than we would have in three years at the Royal Academy of Music."

Sharland adds: "Learning how to fail was so massive for us, because we're two middle-class kids and everything comes to you. You get school, A-levels and bundle your way through. Then we went away on our own on this big adventure."

His old friend points out that "A Sadness Runs Through Him" and even "Worried About Ray" pursue these themes. "We wanted to make pop music with a bit of substance, something personal that meant something to us. Being good is overrated – bad things happen to good people, like in '...Ray' and 'Run Rabbit Run'."

Two years ago, The Hoosiers met a producer that believed in them, so they could perfect their sound before they approached record companies. "Our producer knew that in terms of what's expected live and how good we had to be, we had a lot of work to do," Sparkes says, and Sharland adds, "The nature of the industry seems to be that companies aren't developing bands any more. You get one album to make your mark, so your demos have to be album-quality."

"Worried About Ray" and the album title track are pretty much as the record company first heard them. A mate of Skarendahl came up with the group's cartoon-based imagery, while the musicians themselves began decorating their guitar amps as robots or TV sets, the bassist explains. "We tried a lot of things, like three years ago we had matching outfits with 4m long ties and, yes, we did step on them or get them caught in mike stands."

Despite such comic anecdotes, dark themes run through their debut album, which the general public will not pick up from radio-play alone. Sharland, at least, is philosophical about this. "We feel we are more than the radio songs and it is a big dilemma. We've argued about having another song as a single, but then you won't get it on the radio." After Dublin, though, he is enjoying the journey of running through The Trick of Life's varied moods.

Musically, the most contemporary comparison made with The Hoosiers is The Cure's "The Love Cats" on forthcoming single "Cops and Robbers", otherwise it is cheesy, overblown Seventies pop-rock all the way. "We just like good melodies and big sounds," Sharland says. "We needed an identity and on this album we had that one chance to make ourselves heard," Sparkes adds.

That night, The Hoosiers play an entertaining show that is strong in depth. They make use of a gamut of over-sized props: giant lampshades, a mammoth wardrobe and a wooden chair. The group had worked hard at incorporating slower numbers into the set. The band's claim to be influenced by the likes of Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire is hardly supported by a new number that owes more to a beefed-up "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and an earnest cover of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire". There is no mistaking, though, the band's generosity and the crowd's warmth.

After the show, Sparkes grimaces when told a fan shouted "We love you". "I have to shut it out, so I have no idea if people are enjoying it or not. Whenever I get close to the edge of the stage, people start screaming at me. I just want to say, 'Be quiet and listen'." His bandmates deride his complaints as killjoy griping, enjoying his discomfort at hard-won adulation. Getting used to the screams is just one more skill to learn.

Touring to 28 February (www.thehoosiers.co.uk); the album 'The Trick to Life' is out now on RCA