'We like big, fat voices with plenty of welly'

Reef have come a long way since the days when they pasted up flyers for their own pub gigs. Now they're the heroes of British heavy rock. James McNair catches up with them in Milan

'I think we're a rhythm-oriented rock'n'roll band in the same way that, say, The Prodigy are a rock'n'roll band. Obviously what we do is a bit more organic, but it's just that thing of being on your front foot and raring to go." Having apologised for the lingering smell of unwashed bodies (no showers till Hammersmith), Reef's straw-haired vocalist Gary Stringer is trying to explain how the band see themselves. We're parked outside the 300-capacity Tunnel Club, a rather seedy venue in a seamier part of Milan's city centre, and Reef's state-of-the-art tour bus seems a little ostentatious for its surroundings. Blanked out by its one-way windows, a posse of teenage Italian girls hover expectantly on the pavement outside. When Jack Bessant (bass guitar) and Dominic Greensmith (drums) return from a local radio interview in a taxi there's a small flurry of adoration. One of the more forthright fans starts to serenade Greensmith with Babybird's "You're Gorgeous" and another girl has a monster Easter egg for the band to share. Greensmith breaks into a laddish grin and he and Bessant pose amiably for snapshots.

Here in Britain, Sony S2, the band's label, are further ahead with the campaign. Reef's current single, "Consideration", a Led Zeppelin-esque ballad with a fine falsetto vocal, charted at No 13 this week. That completes a hat-trick of top 20 hits from the band's No 1 album Glow, and in the music press they're being lauded as the saviours of British rock. The quartet's taut funk workouts, clearly defined stomach muscles and sexually charged live performances have certainly made for a hipper brand of hard rock, and while guitarist Kenwyn House still favours the heavyweight riff, the excess flab of the extended solo has been sheared away.

Most agree, however, that it's 23-year-old Stringer's remarkably mature voice that truly sets Reef apart. Archetypally British, gritty, rich and primal, it stands alongside that of The Small Faces' Steve Marriott or Free's Paul Rodgers. "I suppose the first singer that really turned me on was Bon Scott from AC/DC," says Stringer, reclining barefoot in the upstairs lounge of the bus. "I was a 14-year-old white boy and I'd just started drinking and noticing girls, and that's what Bon sung about. Then I got into BB King and Aretha Franklin - big, fat voices with plenty of welly and a lot more substance in the lyrics. Jack and I were playing in a band that did P-Funk and James Brown covers by this time. We'd turn up for a gig in Bristol and people who'd heard our demo would be disappointed I wasn't black."

All four members of Reef have West Country connections. Stringer's softly twanging accent bears testament to his Somerset roots, Bessant grew up on his parents' strawberry farm by Cheddar Gorge, and Greensmith comes from Barnstaple in North Devon. House did live near Glastonbury for a while, but as the son of a Methodist minister, he's travelled all over Britain. and this goes some way to explaining his ability to mimic any accent almost perfectly (tonight, pre-gig, he's in character as a Dutch tourist).

But it took a mass relocation to London for Reef to come into being. While living at the strawberry farm one summer, Bessant and Stringer had made a pact that they'd move to the capital to pursue their music. Initially they worked as labourers for an environmental company, planting trees and helping to construct children's playgrounds all over the city. Meanwhile, Greensmith and House had met on a contemporary music course at the West London Institute in Twickenham. "There was a bit too much 'No, you've got to play this chord after that one' for my liking," says Greensmith, "but we could rehearse there and we got some free studio time out of it."

Soon the band were sharing a large detached house on the A4 near Osterley Park. They'd rehearse there during the day, then travel into town at night to paste up flyers for gigs at pub venues like The Swan in Fulham. "We were incredibly naive at that point," remembers Bessant. "We'd paste over Take That posters or whatever, not realizing that it could get you into shit. Not long after that we heard of a guy who got stabbed for doing something similar."

In was in the summer of 1994 that their fortunes took a remarkable turn for the better. A demo sent to Sony's S2 label had created a buzz, and the company brought two top video directors over to Osterley Park to record some material for use in the early television commercials for Sony's Minidisc player. Next, DJ and presenter Gary Crowley filmed a tongue-in- cheek "rockumentary" for Carlton Television's The Beat at their house. "It was all going off at once," says Greensmith. "We got the Minidisc thing, we got a manager, and we got signed."

"What really set it off, though, was a little record we cut with 'Good Feeling' on one side and 'Choose to Live' on the other," adds Bessant. "Paul Weller got hold of it and invited us on to his Wildwood tour. One minute we were playing to 80 people at the Kings Head in Fulham, the next we were appearing in front of thousands at the Royal Albert Hall."

In March 1995, "Naked", the second single from Reef's debut album Replenish, charted at No 11. Its bluesy, looping guitar figure, punctuating bass stabs and spacious groove had such rhythmic precision that the track almost sounded like it had been spliced together from samples. It hadn't. The album peaked at No 9, and later that year there was another prestigious support slot, this time a one-off for the Rolling Stones at the Brixton Academy. Inter-band camaraderie on the Weller tour had been strong, but ranks were more closed on the Stones support. Stringer maintains - and justifiably so - that doing the show was a thrill in itself. One senses, however, that perhaps he's still a little disappointed that he never got to meet Jagger and Richards.

The sessions for the current album Glow were a rather more protracted affair than those for the band's debut. First, they demo'd some songs in Sydney while touring Australia, then work on the album proper began at Abbey Road with American producer George Drakoulias, famous for his work with the Beastie Boys, Primal Scream and the Black Crowes. Though Stringer never admitted to Drakoulias that he used to play Beasties covers in the early days, he's obviously proud to have worked with the man who, together with Rick Rubin, co-founded the seminal Def Jam label and produced the first successful white rap group. "I remember loving The Beasties when they first came over from the States," he enthuses. "'Fight for Your Right to Party' had so much attitude - to me they seemed far more rebellious than the Sex Pistols ever did."

Perhaps surprisingly, Reef's Abbey Road sessions weren't particularly fruitful. "It just wasn't conducive to our way of working," explains Greensmith. "The place is more of a tourist attraction than a vibey studio these days. I'm a big Beatles fan and it was great to be there, but there were tourists turning up to sign the walls every day - you couldn't make the place your own for the week." At Drakoulias's suggestion, the album was finished off at Royaltone Studios in Los Angeles, and here things really came together. Reef are huge football fans, and the sessions in LA coincided with last summer's European Championship. When England were knocked out by Germany, the band were left disconsolate, but Drakoulias was hatching a plan to channel their anger. "We were just so gutted when England missed that penalty," says Stringer. "George was like 'Right, that's enough of this football malarkey," and he started singing German songs to wind us up. He made us do a take of 'Place Your Hands', and it's that particular one that appears on the record." Any doubts about Drakoulias's tactics were dispelled when the gospel-tinged stomper gave Reef their first top 10 single in the UK.

With just half an hour to go till the band take the stage in Milan for the last gig of their European tour, they climb back on the bus to relax for a few minutes. The CD choices - everything from Jane's Addiction to Stevie Wonder - give some further clues about the influences they prefer not to state. Stringer and House are engrossed in a game of football on the PlayStation, Greensmith is waxing lyrical on Diana Ross's "Upside Down" and Bessant is signing the body of a beaten-up guitar for a competition giveaway.

By showtime, The Cellar's recommended audience capacity has at least doubled. Stringer pouts, shimmies, and makes as much teasing use of his midriff as Madonna, while Jack Bessant, a tirelessly kinetic and athletic six-foot-four, drives things forward with his pumping bass. Bessant's penchant for diving into the audience has already cost him several pairs of training shoes this year, but the Italian mosh-pit at front of stage looks inviting, and suddenly he's in there. Such histrionic gestures can often seem contrived, but somehow Bessant's leap seems natural. Later, Stringer's in jubilant mood for the post-mortem: "The audience were well up for it tonight, and last night we sold out a venue in Bologna that The Boo Radleys could only sell a handful of tickets at. It's been a blast"n

"Consideration" is out on Sony S2. Their UK tour begins next month

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