Songwriting catches up with the Welwyn Garden City trio ahead of Godney Gathering to talk about fans, females, money and celebrity
raternal relationships within bands have traditionally become notoriously prickly when confronted with the glare of music industry attention… the Gallagher brothers, anyone? Thankfully for Welwyn three-piece The Subways, such issues have never been a concern. They’ve even survived the dissolution of the relationship between singer/guitarist Billy Lunn and bassist/guitarist Charlotte Cooper. It’s this tightly-knit bond that’s seen them enjoy a ten-year career which has taken in three UK Top 50 albums and seen the indie-rock collective gain a cult following among festival goers.
Formed in 2000, the band gained fame by winning Glastonbury’s Unsigned Band competition and playing at the festival as their reward. With a songwriting approach driven by the crunchy chords of Green Day and the loud/soft dynamics of Nirvana, there’s an instant accessibility about the music of The Subways. When Songwriting gained access ahead of the recent Godney Gathering, we discovered that the band share a close relationship with not just each other but their fans as well.
The Godney appearance was in support of new single Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, culled from their third album Money & Celebrity, released last year. The single, and indeed the album as whole, combines thrashing pop-punk with lyrical themes of wanting to party and have a good time. It’s a unifying motif in a time of recession.They don’t really know why they want to be famous, they’re just hungry for the fame itself…
“I think one of things that a lot of people love about music is the escapism”, says Charlotte. “You can put on your favourite album, close your eyes and forget where you are for a moment”. The Subways unite those who see music as a way to escape small-town life and the grind of work.
“We were three kids who grew up in a pretty boring suburban area,” she says, namechecking bands like Nirvana, Oasis, Green Day for providing her with “an outlet”. And as a young woman, role models like Shirley Manson, PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue were also important. “For me, I’ve always been inspired by strong female musicians and singers in the rock world, but also the pop world“.
Lyrically, new songs like Celebrity and Popdeath also attack the empty pursuit of fame and its consequences; a prevalent feature of 21st century society. Reality television culture has created a “lack of role models for kids,” says Charlotte. “They don’t really know why they want to be famous, they’re just hungry for the fame itself. I hope that with such a great year in sport with the European Championships and the Olympics, kids will start to realise that these athletes have worked very hard to get to this stage.”
For The Subways, hard work and styling yourself against the mainstream has always been at the heart of what they do. They are indeed very much a band for the 21st century, who independently launched themselves through a homemade studio and website in 2002. From there, their scattershot approach to marketing – which involved sending demos to music industry figures both great and small – brought them to the attention of Eavis and their subsequent place on the Glastonbury bill. “That was such an amazing day for us,” says Charlotte. “I think it set us up for our future as a band who thrive on and love playing festivals.”They also landed on the desk of John Peel, who debuted their first single 1am in 2004. In 2012, such an approach is not that unusual. Song-sharing websites and social media mean modern bands are able to control how their music is distributed and promoted. However, The Subways were early pioneers in playing by their own rules.
“I think it’s amazing that bands can have such direct access to their fans via social networks, and that you can reach such a huge amount of people all over the world,” Charlotte tells us, though she’s also keen to credit the “old-fashioned” approach of getting out and touring. Operating so independently has been made possible by a mammoth following. The Subways’ relationship with their fanbase makes it one of the most passionate around. Relentless touring, getting among the fans at the after-show and allowing them to have a creative influence – from producing their videos to putting forward song ideas – has given them an epic cult status right across Europe.
“I really love that aspect of what we do”, Charlotte tells me, “They are the most important thing; without them we wouldn’t be able to go on tour! I’ll always be eternally grateful to the people who buy tickets to our shows, queue up in the cold, wait for us by the bus on freezing winter nights… how could we not go out and meet them?”.
The band tapped into this fanbase by putting their third album out through Pledge Music, a typically interactive approach in which music is accessed by making pledges, 10 per cent of which go The Subways’ chosen charities, The National Autistic Society and Clic Sargent. Beyond a download of the album, fans may receive an acoustic performance in their own front room, a day in the studio, special T-shirt designs or who knows what else. The site has again enabled them to bridge the gap between band and fan and create an interactive space where devotees gain insight into the music-making process and even contribute to it.
Meanwhile, they’ll be heading out on the European festival circuit for the rest of the summer. Expect boundless energy, all-consuming melodies and wave after wave of guitar assaults. Charlotte has promised new songs as well as some favourites from previous albums Young For Eternity (2005) and All Or Nothing’ (2008), plus “some crowd participation fun”.
During the course of these albums, the band have worked with producers of the stature of Ian Broudie (The Lightning Seeds) and Butch Vig (Nirvana). Money & Celebrity has maintained the standard of revered producers, teaming them with Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur) who Charlotte says has returned them to a “quintessentially British” sound while maintaining the energy of their live shows.
Bigger things surely beckon… in the meantime, for more information visit The Subways website.
You can catch The Subways at Godney Gathering on Saturday 21 July, which is now taking place at the venue @J24 in North Petherton at junction 24 off the M5 motorway. For more information go to www.thegodneygathering.com
Words: Matt Nicholson