'People can't grasp the idea of comedy appearing next to tragedy. But that's life. And I did call the band My Life Story'

James McNair talks to Jake Shillingford about his band's latest album, 'The Golden Mile'
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The Independent Culture
Dining al fresco at a restaurant in Athens, 10-piece orchestral pop outfit My Life Story commandeer attention through simple weight of numbers. Despite the banquet of stuffed vine leaves, swordfish kebabs, and all kinds of Greek delicacies, the band's front-man and songwriter Jake Shillingford seems less than chipper, however. "I've lost my black leather jacket," he explains. "It's part of a special Elvis '68 come-back- type suit that my tailor Mr Gammon made for me, and it went missing after the gig in Thessaloniki last night. Still, never mind," he adds, brightening a little. " 'No jacket required' - that can be the title for your piece."

Sartorial mishaps aside, My Life Story are enjoying Greece. To their evident surprise, the gig in Thessaloniki was very well attended, and the ubiquity of the bill-posters advertising tonight's performance at the Rodon Club in Athens augurs well. Though the tastes of European pop fans are notoriously difficult to predict, it seems strange that such a quintessentially English band are selling records in a country where traditional bouzouki music still rules the airwaves. "It is bizarre," agrees the loquacious and amiable Shillingford. "We got a call from a local promoter saying, 'Please come and play, it's really kicking off over here.' The fans seem to like the fact that the B-side of 'Strumpet' is called 'Welcome to My Archipelago'. You don't get too many pop songs with Greek words in the title."

Back here in Britain, 'Strumpet' charted at Number 27 this week. The single, which Shillingford describes as a "crossover record based on a series of media soundbites", is the band's fourth hit from their current album The Golden Mile, a rather more lavishly produced affair than their 1995 indie-label debut Mornington Crescent. Now signed to Parlophone records, the band spend more on one video than they did on the entire recording of the first album. The basic approach, however, hasn't changed that much. Shillingford still houses his sometimes wry, sometimes poignant lyrical vignettes in the kind of gloriously elaborate orchestral arrangements pioneered by John Barry on 1950s Adam Faith singles. The real difference between Mornington Crescent and The Golden Mile is that, on the latter, My Life Story no longer sound like they are overreaching themselves.

"I think that the way the new album's been received by the music press is fascinating," offers Shillingford. "Basically, it's either been given high praise or condemned to the abyss. Select gave it zero out of five, whereas Melody Maker called it a pop masterpiece. Initially I was quite upset by some of the bad reviews, but then a lot of my favourite bands have provoked that kind of love/ hate reaction, and I think that's preferable to a consistent 'five out of 10, this is OK' type review."

One of the main criticisms of the album was that it placed "Claret", a song about alcoholism, and "November 5th", a song about a friend of Shillingford's who died of Aids, alongside lighthearted tracks such as the previous single "The King of Kissingdom" and the aforementioned "Strumpet". "A lot of people just don't seem able to grasp the idea of comedy appearing next to tragedy," says Shillingford, "but, as I've said before, that's exactly what life is like and, after all, I did call the band My Life Story."

The Golden Mile is one of the growing number of "enhanced CDs" that offer additional entertainment features when placed in the CD-Rom drive of a suitable PC. Shillingford is obviously excited about the possibilities of the medium: "I think that by the time we get to the year 2000, people are going to be disappointed if they buy a new album that doesn't have at least some CD-Rom features," he says. "At first, we were just going to have a little file with the lyrics inside, but then we thought, 'Why stop there? Why should Peter Gabriel and The Rolling Stones have the monopoly on this?' The album's actually named after the street in Southend on Sea where I was born, so we've developed a 'virtual Golden Mile' with all kinds of stuff like a casino, a merry-go-round and a shop called the Suited & Booted Emporium." Shillingford's favourite feature, it transpires, is the shooting gallery in which the object of the game is to kill as many members of My Life Story as possible within a given time limit. "If you get a high enough score you get to see a picture of me in the nude," he adds, trying to remain straightfaced, but eventually breaking into a grin.

Later that night at the Rodon Club, there's no bouzouki music, and Shillingford's in his "away strip"; a black velvet suit with a gold lame shirt and black winkle-pickers. Remarkably, My Life Story's string quartet faithfully reproduce the arrangements on The Golden Mile while striking some distinctly non-classical poses, and to the band's obvious delight, the mostly twentysomething audience seem genuinely thrilled by their performance. "This is about that situation where you meet your ex-girlfriend outside the record shop and go home and have sex with her," announces Shillingford before "You Can't Uneat the Apple". Judging by the cheers that ensue, this is obviously a universal experience.

Post-gig and post-shower, Shillingford sits musing in front of a decrepit electric fan that is having little effect on the sauna-like humidity of the dressing-room. "I think that one day, when we all get old and wrinkly and we're fed up with traipsing around the world, we might get more into film music," he says. "Perhaps we'll need a little bit more exposure before we can get our teeth into it, but I still want to write that Bond theme, you know"n

'The Golden Mile' is out on Parlophone. My Life Story play the Brighton Essential Music Festival on 25 May, Glastonbury Festival on 27 June, and the Phoenix Festival on 20 July