Rather than the global recognition they so richly deserved, 90s indie band Bradford were relegated to corners of second hand record shops, names on old gig listings and, sadly, a footnote. But it didn’t end. They were always that little gem on a mix cassette, a ‘do you remember?’ Or ‘did you ever hear’ in conversations about bands you loved growing up, a small but committed band of fans who loved what they had left, mainly in the shape of a beautiful, engaging album ‘Shouting Quietly’, and a handful of singles, where you knew how good they were because even the b-sides had the ability to choke, to goad, to inspire.
We tracked singer Ian H. down for an interview a few years ago, basically because we (well, I) was one of the said fans, and at the time it was just about the best thing we had ever had when the emails back and forth were pinging away. Still might be.
But a series of very fortunate events began to happen, which has led us to this point. The band, or at least Ian H and guitarist Ewan Butler, are back together, and are joined by celebrated producer Stephen Street, who not only produced that one album, but signed them to his The Foundation Label at the time. And album is on the way, Bright Hours, out on February 19th via Foundation II, and a clutch of singles that we have frankly loved. The melodies, the feelings, that turn of phrase that always made Ian stand out are all there.
To our great excitement, we managed to tie the band down ahead of Bright Hours release, to find out more.
So, first album in 30 years. Why now? What happened to bring you back together and to do this?
IAN: A series of fortunate events I suppose, the first being: I was invited to play support to Glen Tilbrook at a special ‘one off’ event held at Blackburn Museum in 2016. Ewan and I always remained friends, each hosting cultured film nights for friends where we would drink wine and talk over some incredibly beautiful cinematic experiences. We haven’t actually played on stage together for 25 years though and I suggested him joining me for a couple of songs – one of my new ones – ‘Sun Ray Cathedral’ and our one ‘hit’ – ‘Skin Storm’. The whole event was photographed [made into a book even!] and filmed and we were very warmly received. We are ‘bookends’ – each belongs next to each other ‘propping up’ interesting things in between. So that was that, then A Turntable Friend Record got in touch several months after that wishing to do a re-release of our back catalogue. Bolt from the blue! Also, a great excuse to re-establish our fond link with Stephen as he helped to hunt down masters, tracks, peek into dusty vaults etc. for the release. ‘Thirty Years Of Shouting Quietly’ was well received and re-appraised as a ‘lost English classic’ in 2018, with extensive sleeve notes and heaps of photos – a classy re-release. Ewan had his own studio where he honed his incredible musical and arranging skills and seeing as songs pour out of me and I’d never stopped writing, we looked at each other and said: “Shall we…?”
STEPHEN: Ewan and Ian had been working together initially in Ewan’s home studio and then they sent me some rough mixes of a couple of tracks asking if I knew of any ‘mixing engineers’ they could approach to mix the tracks. It was lovely to hear Ian’s voice on recordings again but I felt that the songs needed more work before they were ready to mix so I proposed that I join them and that we work as a ‘team’ to bring these songs to full fruition and it all blossomed naturally from there! Once we started, the standard of the tracks got better and better. In fact, the first song that Ewan and Ian sent me (It Gave Me Life) was discarded from the album as we felt that it didn’t match the quality of the rest of the songs.
Ewan – A support slot to Glen Tilbrook paired us up in 2016, then an offer from a German label ‘A Turntable Friend’ to reissue most of our back catalogue in 2018. A few gigs followed then almost a year spent creating ‘Bright Hours’.
Tell us about Stephens involvement – I know he produced and released Shouting Quietly. How did he come to join the band?
Ewan – We were about two thirds through the album and beginning to look towards mixing it. I emailed Stephen to ask if he could recommend anyone and he asked to hear the material then offered to get involved so we jumped at the chance. We tentatively suggested he may like to feature as part of the band on the album. He played an significant part in getting it all finished and mixed to a high standard. Since then we’ve been happy to welcome him into the fold on a permanent arrangement. We’re a great team, we all bring our own uniqueness to the table and what has come out has shone, so we’re optimistic for the future.
IAN: He’s rather like George Martin only with a London accent and dresses far cooler! Hard to stress how integral and key he’s always been to the Bradford story. A real pleasure to work with and the older brother we always looked up to [Ewan used to borrow his Levi jacket during the Shouting Quietly sessions – hope he doesn’t mind me slipping that one out…]. Ewan and I were nervous about asking him to ‘mix one of our new songs’ as he’s a legend and at the top of the English music production tree and we were trying to guess his ‘rates’! As gracious as ever, he agreed to work on a track and it came back to us sounding fantastic. Well, once you’ve heard that, you naturally wish for more and gradually further exchanges of songs occurred. Stephen played bass, keyboards and guitar on several songs and totally put a higher level of sheen on our tracks. I mean Ewan had spent hours and hours and hours arranging and putting parts down and totally impressed me, then Mr Street goes and makes it all even better! Happy Days! All three of us work together so well and it felt natural that we now were Bradford. I feel so blessed to work with people this good.
Tell us about the writing process. Was it similar to all those years ago, or have things changed over the years?
IAN: I actually never set out to write a song – I play guitar/ukulele/banjo most evenings and while doing so, melodies and patterns seem to appear which excite and please me. Every single time is a surprise and a mystery. I’ve written songs on occasion ‘to order’ for a school music project or something but I don’t really vibe on that – it’s when music starts to play through me that I get lost in it and blessed by it. That’s the initial stage and I have to try to bottle the lightning, then go away and spend days and weeks whittling away at lyrics until each word is ‘earning its keep’. Sometimes I have a lyric ready written and I then have to crowbar that into the music that flows through me. I love melody – it has healing spiritual powers and naturally one gets better at it, the more one does it.
Ewan – Ian still brings a song [lyric & melody] played on his acoustic guitar but once where the band would have contributed the musical components/ instrumentation of the song, Stephen and I have taken over this task. I have particularly enjoyed working this way instead of long hours spent in a rehearsal room with all the aggro that accompanies that.
Tell us about the album – we’re very excited. What can we expect from it? Are there a lyrical themes – especially with everything going on in the world? What are your favourite moments?
IAN: Too many favourite moments to list. Themes: Water. The passing of time. Adversity can make you stronger and defiant. Celebrating the Bright Hours where we are creative, vibrant, happy and engaged in positive, life-affirming experiences. Stephen has sequenced the album brilliantly so the listener is in for a full on journey which will uplift and provide nourishment for the soul. Man.
STEPHEN: My favourite moments are Present Day Array, Gave A Time and Like Water which was the last track we completed for the album and for me it seemed to sum up the whole theme of the album and represented the new chapter of Bradford in this day and age.
And leading up to the release of the record – are you excited? Nervous? Is it the same feelings as you had leading up to Shouting Quietly?
IAN: Personally I can’t believe it has happened – that I am once more making music with people I love and respect so much – I mean we have our moments like any other old gang who has ‘history’ but I honestly feel Bright Hours adds to the pool of music that exists on earth which potentially offers a transformative experience. And I’m fucking allowed to say that after thirty years!
STEPHEN: I know it’s a cliche to say ‘we just make the music we make, put it out and hope people like it’, but that is where we are really. We made this album in a vacuum, no outside investors, no real proper social media profile and so it’s been daunting but exciting to build up the profile of the band with the single releases before the album. Having Republic of Music agree to distribute the physical versions of the album was a huge boost to our morale because it was obvious that people outside of ‘us’ were interested!
Ewan – looking forward to people hearing the new material. A different kind of excitement I guess but not nervous as the expectations are different now. I am just enjoying creating music again with old friends, that is a pleasure in-itself and if people appreciate it then that will be a nice bonus.
We’ve loved all the singles from the album so far, but in particular My Wet Face – Can you tell us a little about that?
IAN: That poured out of me almost complete in one fell swoop. I remember feeling so ecstatic with the two fingered descending chord sequence [ ‘gather up your moments and your memories’ bit] that it became almost shamanic and trance inducing as I couldn’t stop playing it and then bursting back into the chorus bit – total elation. Lee Mavers of The La’s had it nailed in when he said music is ‘passing on a feeling’ and it’s our shared hope that all the love and good feelings we felt when making this song and this album together can be felt by the listener too.
It must be weird releasing a record in the midst of a global pandemic. How has that felt?
IAN: It felt weird.
STEPHEN: These are extremely testing times but music can be a great healer and bring people together even when staying in. Look at the success of the Tim Burgess listening parties! I think many people will be able to connect to a lot of the lyrical themes than Ian writes about. (Ian can expand on this).
Have you been able to stay in touch?
Ewan – we’ve seen a little bit of each other, however, the album was recorded and mixed before this all began so it hasn’t impacted on the creative process. Only time will tell what happens next.
IAN: We zoom and I love in particular seeing what Stephen is wearing – last zoom was a really tasty dark blue Lyle and Scott cardigan. I’ve told him if it shrinks a bit in the wash he has to mail it to me – these London boys know the score when it comes to clobber.
Are there wider plans to play some dates and write more songs, once things get back to normal? Anything in the pipeline?
IAN: Well we have no live plans at all unless Elbow want us for support at MEN – Mr Garvey…? There’s a couple of new songs we are all moulding on the potter’s wheel at the moment.
STEPHEN: No gigs at this stage obviously. I do feel though that there will be more recorded material to come. We just want to see what people make of this record first, to see if enough people are interested and care enough.
Ewan – We’d love to perform the songs live but, alas, we don’t see that happening any time soon, if at all. It will all come down to the feasibility of it; we ain’t youngsters and we all have other responsibilities to take into consideration.
And the music industry is a lot different nowadays – has anything surprised you, and do you prefer things today in a world where music is so accessible or would you turn the clock back if you could?
IAN: I live in a warm cocoon of song. No TV. No radio unless its Gary Crowley or someone else good. A coal fire. A banjo. A glass. Unfortunately, music seems to occupy the space of a commodity in a lot of people’s lives, or so it seems. It’s not the same scrawling for a tune or album. Physically having to find it, put it on, stare at the cover, read the lyric sheet – soak up the entire album – that cannot be beaten.
STEPHEN: Don’t get me started on the troubles of the music industry. I was saying for years that recorded music has value and should be respected but the whole music industry was busy filling the monetary gaps with income from Festivals and concerts whilst the recording side of the industry withered away. Now that gigging has stopped everyone is saying ‘hold on a minute, why are we not getting paid enough for our recorded output’? Wake up! This has been a problem for years and it’s taken a pandemic for it to hit the news! Things need to change but I’m not holding my breath…
Ewan – I feel rather indifferent tbh. Although music has been a large part of my life and it was a source of great excitement in my younger years, the industry wasn’t that kind to us back then and now it feels like you are competing with far more artists for a much smaller piece of the pie, so I try not to have too many expectations and just enjoy things for what they are.
Finally, hows lockdown for you?
Ewan – It hasn’t affected me that much actually. My job that pays the bills [MH nursing] has remained pretty much unchanged although it has been nice seeing more of my family who have been home quite a bit.
We have a second chance with Bradford. One we should be thankful, and we shouldn’t miss out on again.