Nowhere men

ROCK; Who the hell are Dodgy anyway?
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The Independent Culture
At One end of the room an acoustic guitar leans patiently on its stand. Beside it is a wide shelf, its entire surface hidden by 12 packs of sandwiches, 12 jam doughnuts, three lemon-meringue pies, four family bags of crisps, three of tortilla chips, a bowl of fruit, another of cashew nuts, a bottle each of whisky, vodka and Coke, and a dozen cans of beer. Two kitchen bins full of ice and more beer cans sit nearby. And next to those sit Nigel Clark, 29, and Mathew Priest, 26, the bassist and drummer of Dodgy. Guitarist Andy Miller, 27, is supposed to be here, too, but he went AWOL at the end of last night's gig, and hasn't been seen since. That's Dodgy for you.

It's five hours until what will be their biggest British head-lining show so far, and equipment is being assembled on stage at the Kilburn National in north London. Dodgy's crew drift through the dressing-room, helping themselves to the low-nutrition, high-fat buffet of the itinerant musician. Every minute or two our conversation is drowned out by a shriek of feedback from the stage overhead. The interview should have finished well before the soundcheck began, but when the record company ordered a taxi for Priest, they got his address wrong. And his name.

That's Dodgy for you. A new Top 10 album, four Top 40 singles, and some of the more heartening recordings of the decade, and people still aren't sure who they are. "The way the music industry works is by pigeon-holing bands," says Clark, "and they can't do that easily with Dodgy. It's a weird name as well. We've had people come up to us and say, 'Oh, my mates wouldn't come tonight because they thought it would be crap, 'cause you're called Dodgy'. It takes time for people to get the joke."

"It's because we refused to follow the normal routes that bands take," adds Priest. "Dressing in a certain way, playing with the right people, being mean and moody: we never did that. An NME journalist said, 'I didn't want to like you, because you were too likeable, too genuine'. I thought, if that's all you've got against us ... well, sorry, mate, but we don't want your type on board anyway."

If not quite the relentlessly loopy clowns they appear in some interviews, Clark and Priest are indeed genuine and likeable - and only an Enid Blyton character could deem them mean and moody. The positivity that shines through even their most ambiguous songs illuminates their idealistic and - let's be honest - slightly stoned ramblings. As for "dressing in a certain way", both wear beach shirts that are painful to the eye. If they were on a beach, the hyperactive Priest would be the jolly holiday-maker: unshaven, grinning, and with the kind of figure that results from too many cashew nuts and meringues. Clark, the band's undoubted leader, would be a surfer: face sculpted and hair newly bleached. It's not a look that associates them with any particular scene or locality. "The press have said we're Scousers, Manc, Brummie, Kingston, Brighton, north London," says Math, as he's known, counting on his fingers. "But that's good, because then a lot of different people go, 'Yeah, they're from the same place as us!' "

"That's the thing about it," says Clark, seeing the confusion in a more serious, symbolic light. "We're not from anywhere ... "

Priest interrupts: "And if you've been to south Birmingham, you'll know what not being from anywhere means."

Clark and Priest met in Redditch, when Clark, a bored Austin Rover employee, "needed a band" to play his songs. He joined one that had Priest on drums, and proceeded to "split 'em up". Clark and Priest moved to London. They hooked up with Miller, who had replied to a guitarist-wanted ad, and built a studio in the garage of their house in Hounslow. The house and studio were later taken over by their friends the Bluetones. Priest is already planning to apply for a blue plaque.

Dodgy dabble in dance music (unprompted, Clark delivers a baffling lecture on how to apply jungle rhythms to Phil Spector songs), but they specialise in buoyant, classic pop, complete with irrepressible, Keith Moon-inspired drumming, and Beatlesy three-part harmonies (without nicking Beatles melodies - they've got plenty of their own). By rights, they should have been in the front seat of the Britpop bandwagon. Instead, it drove right past them. "We were doing pop in 1990, 1991, when indie and grunge were everything and pop was a dirty word," says Priest. "But it was our pop, it wasn't Britpop. It was as much inspired by Sly and the Family Stone as it was by the Beatles."

And they do tend to go about things the hard way. In 1992, they got themselves arrested for playing an anti-Poll Tax gig at Speakers' Corner. They speak up tirelessly for the legalisation of drugs. In August they go on a mini- tour of Bosnia. Earlier that month, they will tour Britain again - without playing in any venues. They will take their own big top from town to town, setting it up in parks and church grounds. Clark, meanwhile, is setting up a studio for young bands, and finding time to spend with his wife and his baby son, Marley. Are the other two members of Dodgy single? "Definitely," he says, with a wry snort, as a tortilla-crunching Priest politely excuses himself to soundcheck his drums.

Is Clark ever jealous of Oasis, who jumped from being Dodgy's support act to masters of the universe? "Not at all. Good luck to them. They have to live with each other. No matter how much money they have, I don't particularly want to be in a band with Liam and Noel." At that moment, by an unsettling coincidence, it seems as if he is. Blasting down from the soundcheck is the voice of Priest parodying the Gallaghers: "You are my soon-she-ine! My only soon-she-ine!" Clark is chattering so eagerly that he doesn't even notice.

! 'Free Peace Sweet' (A&M, CD/LP/tape) is out now. A single, 'Good Enough', is out on 29 Jul.