Pop: The approach to stardom

When Joe McAlinden arrives at the rather swanky Malmaison hotel in Glasgow's West George Street, there's no mistaking him. Superstar's frontman might euphemistically be described as "portly", his short red hair looks like it's just had a playful ruffle, and he's wearing the same pullover that he wore on Jool's Holland's Later. "It's my `Mars Bar jumper", he quips when I quiz him about it over our cafe au laits. "It's for work, rest and play."

With their forthcoming `Every Day I Fall Apart' - a delicious, guitar- driven morsel of seasoned pop in which Joe comes across like the bastard offspring of Sting and The Vienna Boys Choir - currently getting the big thumbs-up from Radio 1's Jo Wylie, Superstar are finally on the verge of lending their moniker credence. As rises go, it's been less then meteoric, though. Despite his baby-face looks, Joe is now 30. You probably haven't heard Greatest Hits Vol 1 (note the title's playful self-aggrandisement), a much-acclaimed album he made for Creation records for just pounds 3,000. It's probably escaped your notice, too, that it was Joe who arranged the strings on Teenage Fanclub's breakthrough album Bandwagonesque back in 1991. As a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist proficient on violin, saxophone, piano and guitar, Joe's played with a whole plethora of Glasgow bands, but despite his omnipresence, he's remained more or less invisible until now. "I was quite happy helping people out but I was definitely living in the shadow of my pals for a while," he confirms. "It's only in the last two or three years that I've gained a real confidence in my own voice and my own songs."

The band now have a kosher deal with the Camp Fabulous label, but perhaps the biggest obstacle they had to overcome was the fiasco which ensued when Superstar Mark I signed to the huge American company SBK a few years back. "I still get shivers every time I hear those three letters," laughs Joe.

"It was very surreal because one minute we were in Glasgow, and the next we were living in Hoboken in New York, home of baseball and the place where Frank Sinatra was born. We could see the whole Manhattan skyline from our apartment window. One morning we opened the curtains and the QE2 was sailing past." Despite enjoying SBK's rather cavalier attitude towards expenditure initially, Joe soon realised that the company's "master- plan" was somewhat flawed. "We were supposed to be playing the college circuit but they'd brought us over when all the students were on holidays he explains ruefully. The final straw came when he sensed that SBK were about to offer them a support tour with Barney The Dinosaur, "some knob in a T-Rex suit who was making them a fortune".

Further perusal of Joe's impressive CV reveals that he once played violin in the Strathclyde Regional Schools Orchestra. "It was great, but I went to the biggest Catholic comprehensive school in Europe, so you can imagine what it was like walking past smoke's corner with my violin case", he smiles.

To complicate matters, his father was the principal music teacher at the school, a state of affairs which he describes as "fantastic actually, except that I didn't know whether to call him `dad', or `sir' when I put up my hand to answer a question."

Listening to Superstar's `Every Second Hurts', a quite beautiful and deceptively simple song which Joe wrote when his Godmother died last year, his classical roots are audible, without being overbearing. The song's chords have an internal logic redolent of say, Pachelbel's Canon but apart from the rolling piano section at the end, the overall arrangement came together quite spontaneously in the studio.

Without pretension, Joe explains that the piano coda came to him in a vision. "I woke up one morning thinking about a similar section in Oscar Peterson's `Hymn To Freedom' ", he says. "I always loved the drama of that particular song, and it seemed right to borrow from it for `Every Second Hurts'."

"If I can hear my classical background anywhere in our music," he continues, "it's in our sense of dynamics. Volume-wise, most pop songs stay on the same notch from start to finish, but when we play a song like `Palm Tree' live, in places you'll be able to hear a pin drop. It's the quiet bit that makes the loud bit loud, and vice-versa."

Whatever the influences behind and constituents of Superstar's sound, there can be no denying that the band have some high-profile fans. Not so long ago, Joe was asked to work with The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson on an album he was producing for his daughters. He was honoured obviously, but having had to put Superstar on hold for so long due to contractual obligations with SBK, Joe wasn't going to procrastinate any longer, not even for Brian: "For some reason, people seem to think that bands from Glasgow, live and die for the Beach Boys, but for me, although he's a legend, that's not the case."

Just as intriguing, but packing a tad less kudos, is the fact that Rod Stewart has expressed an interest in Joe's songwriting. "All I know is that a few months back we got a call from his record company asking if I could fax old Hot Legs the lyrics to `Superstar'," he says. "What was it they said again ..." he adds, smiling quizzically. "Yeah, they said he was `routining it' with his band in LA - whatever that means. Apparently they'd been `routining' about 30 songs that they were thinking of recording, and they'd whittled it down to `Superstar' and one other number. We'll see what happens."

Superstar are on tour in Britain throughout January and February. `Everyday I Fall Apart' is out on Camp Fabulous on 26 January.

James McNair

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