THERE’S been a lot of revision and revisiting in recent years of the C86 era: the scene (which almost no one involved, when asked, claimed to actually be part of). The semi-legendary NME tape from which the movement was tagged had roots in The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Television Personalities, and also, over in the so-called “shambling” corner, Captain Beefheart and the Fire Engines.
Fringes were long, or more ideally, bowl-cut; jackets were suede; toe profiles were distinctly winklepicker. Guitars, usually Rickenbackers, arpeggiated and jangled. Fanzines were sold, traded and devoured.
As this scene moved forward through 1987 and 1988, and apart from Bristolian standard-bearers Sarah Records, the scene fractured as bands discovered their inner Lee Ranaldo (The Wolfhounds); started to move across towards a whispered-of dance scene in the continental sun, with drugs that made you feel incredible (The Woodentops, The Beloved) or flat-out went out for a kind of cliched Celtic rock chart success (Del Amitri: and if you don’t believe me, hunt out their early fanzine tape janglepop). Still others just fell by the wayside, such as Alan McGee’s songwriting vehicle Biff Bang Pow! and Scotland’s The Jasmine Minks.
But there was new growth, though of course no one knew where it was headed. Erstwhile Berlin-based goth makeweights My Bloody Valentine had gone jangly, but there was this edge there; this deep fuzz. They’d never amount to anything, sure, but tracks like “Claire” seemed to open new doors. And Creation newbies The House of Love were really showing out with some deep psychedelic pop on “Real Animal”.
Let’s zoom in now, as if we were Google Maps. Prepare for that lurch as the British Isles yaws in and we arrive overlooking West Yorkshire; and its capital, Leeds.
Leeds had developed a full-on reputation as goth central during the early and mid-1980s. Bands such as the Sisters of Mercy, The Mission and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry had made it the mecca for everything black-clad, dancefloor-minimal and profoundly deep of voice. Operating elsewhere were noiseniks The Three Johns, punks-turning-roots songsmiths The Mekons, and The Age of Chance, who were busy fusing a sorta loud as hell noise-disco soundclash.
As the decade ticked on, The Wedding Present were the torchbearers for a new, thrashy, bittersweet indiepop, releasing records on their own Reception Records imprint. Joining them in this new wave of Loiners were Cud!, with their pranksterish, art-school riffs; a young jangly outfit, at that time indebted to Sonic Flower Groove, called the Pale Saints; and down from Harrogate, the Edsel Auctioneer, who began knitting together classic janglepop melodies with a thrashier US alt.rock sound that was only just making its way to these shores from labels like SST and Blast First.
And in an exclusive for Backseat Mafia, Edsel’s guitarist and vocalist Ashley Horner has delved into his archives to bring out photos and memories of life breaking in and breaking out of the Leeds indie scene. Ashley proved warm, voluble, candid and funny about life in a nearly famous British noisepop band in the 90s. It’s a fantastic look at the privations and fun of being in a band just bubbling under. Do read on …
BACKSTREET MAFIA: So how did it all begin for you, your involvement with music?
ASHLEY HORNER: Starting out? I first met Aiden and Tom Winterburn and Martin Westwood in Harrogate when I was 17.
BACKSTREET MAFIA: What music was influencing you, had spurred you on to think: Yeah, I want to be in a band?
ASHLEY HORNER: I wanted to be in The Beatles and obviously, The Beatles had split up; I didn’t realise that at the time! I grew up in this little village in the middle of nowhere; the only place I could hear reggae was John Peel [his seminal show on Radio 1 in the evenings] and that got me into people like Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, REM, Cocteau Twins, Joy Division …
BSM: And so, you came to your first band …
AH: I saw there was an ad up in a music shop in Harrogate looking for someone that was into the Velvet Underground – I had never heard of them – and The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, REM. I met Aidan, we went for a cup of coffee, probably somewhere like the Caprice, which was like an old 50s’ café in Harrogate. We got on alright and I went round to his house. His mum and dad let him drink beer, I think he was about 17 or 18, and up in the loft of this house they had a drum kit and amps and guitars. We started writing songs straightaway. For a couple of years that went on. [This first incarnation was called Valerie and the Malchicks].
BSM: And your first chance of wider exposure came through the fanzine world.
AH: We’d recorded these three songs for a guy called Jim [Kavanagh, who ran Scottish imprint Egg Records] who, I think, ran a fanzine call Simply Thrilled. He wanted to release a single; he had already put out the first single by a band called The Prayers, which was meg! We recorded four songs and he hated them; we had gone from being like a slightly noisy jangly guitar pop band to full on post-Dinosaur Jr – well, post-Dinosaur, they hadn’t become Dinosaur Jr then … a post-Dinosaur, Neil Young, Velvet Undergroundy art band. At least that’s what we thought we were at the time. He hated them.
BSM: So a false start. And there were some line-up changes at this crossroads …
AH: Well, Thom and Martin went off to art school; they were both really quite talented artists. Aidan and I moved to Leeds and we sent out demo tapes to record labels – we sent one to the Wedding Present, one to Peel … and I don’t know, about four or five weeks after we sent one to Peel we got a letter through from the BBC. [It said] Dear Billy – because I had signed my name Ashley and it looked like Billy … dear Billy, we really loved the tape and could you come and do a session? I thought our mates up the road, Ian and Jock, who were Pale Saints, had made this letter up and sent it to me!
For three weeks I didn’t reply to the letter and then I said: right lads, you got me, and they said: We never sent a letter, what ya talking about? And it was genuinely John Walters and John Peel asking us to go in and do a session!
BSM: You’d changed your name and there were only the two of you! How did that play out?
AH: Yeah, Valerie and the Malchicks had changed its name to the Edsel Auctioneer. It was Aidan and I: Aidan singing and playing guitar and I was playing guitar. I said we could come in in four weeks! We didn’t have a drummer, we didn’t have a bass player; we ended up borrowing Chris from Pale Saints to come in and play drums. I played bass live and we recorded the four songs that made up the first Peel Session. [The session was recorded on January 24th, 1989, and broadcast on February 8th; the tracks recorded were “Brickwall Dawn”, “Between Two Crimes”, “Place In The Sun” and “Blind Hurricane”].
BSM: And who were you listening to at this point?
AH: Aidan used to buy a lot of music. I was always skint; from that time I recall having about four records – a copy of [Dinosaur Jr’s] You’re Living All Over Me; I think I had a copy of Loaded, by the Velvets, and a load of reggae and ska, a bit of Beatles … but we’d buy a record once every two weeks when the dole money came through.
We’d tape a lot of stuff off the radio and at that time we would go and see quite a lot of bands, that sort of scene … of all the SST bands and you know, go and see Steve Albini’s Rapeman down at Leeds Poly and and walk through a picket [to get in – the band’s name, understandably, causing uproar on the British college circuit].
We were into the quite twee stuff, you know, like Primal Scream, The Sea Urchins … I remember going to see Mighty Mighty and people like that; but also Screaming Trees and Dinosaur and Sonic Youth.
BSM: And the Mary Chain.
AH: I mean, The Jesus and Mary Chain were a massive influence. I think we wanted to be The Jesus and Mary Chain cos, not only were they cool, they did pop songs, they were noisy …
BSM: So at this point, you were living in Hyde Park [Leeds 6].
AH: Harold Avenue. The reason why we ended up living down the road from Jock and Ian, The Pale Saints, was: when me and Aidan decided we’d get out in Leeds and try and make it in music, we looked around to see where we could afford in Leeds; and Harold Avenue was the cheapest street in the whole of Leeds. I think it was £30 a week, the rent, for a two-bedroom back-to-back. We’d looked all over town for two days and Ian said, well I think there’s this house to rent on our street. It was alright, we could afford it, we were on the dole, we were getting housing benefit … so I think we lived at no.17 and the Saints lived at no.34.
BSM: So how was life back then for the up and coming Leeds musician?
AH: For about five or six months we’d write songs, Monday to Thursday, then Aidan would go off and stay with his girlfriend, Cathh, at the weekend, back in Harrogate. And I started going to the cinema then, the Hyde Park Picturehouse, round the corner. When someone had a dole cheque come through, they’d get the beers in; we’d play a lot of Subbuteo late at night, on a snooker table round at the Saints’ house; we smoked quite a lot of black, Ian was into acid … we used to do quite a lot of speed, I suppose, back in those days …
We used to pay £4 into [Leeds indie night] Kaleidoscope Pop, but it was 10p a pint; that made me sick a few times. I remember hearing “Freak Scene” for the first time in Kaleidoscope Pop and I was like, whoah … and then about a year and a half later I remember hearing this song come on there and thinking: this is good, and it was “Our New Skin” by the Edsel Auctioneer. And people danced, and it was mega (laughs).
BSM: So talk us forward from that Peel Session.
AH: After we did the session, Chris [Cooper, of Pale Saints] stayed in the band. We had about three or four record labels offer us deals; well, show interest, after that session went out, but nobody would do an album with us. We had all these songs and we wanted to make an album; we thought we were an albums band. And Vinyl Solution, Decoy, were one of the first people who came to us.
We went back to them after about four months and said, what sort of deal do you wanna do then? And they said oh: we just want to put out a single, so we said if we can do a single and an album, we’ll sign with you. And they put us in a studio really quickly, a place called Falconer Studios [in Camden]. We recorded “Our New Skin” and “Strung” over a day and mixed them over a day, and that was it.
BSM: So you were finally out in the world on vinyl, and a recording band.
AH: It took ages for the record to come out, about six months. I think Peel played it for four months before it even came out. And then it went straight into the top ten of the indie charts. Higher than Kylie Minogue (whispered, thumbs up: yes!). That took off to a degree and eventually we found Tris Williams, who came in to play drums, and Phil Pettler, who was a mate of mine from college – Phil Privilege as he’s called now, lead singer of Cyanide Pills, Leeds’ top punk band – and we got a band together who could write, and play live. So after the first single came out, we had a band. Was that right … no, Tris didn’t join the band until we did the album.
BSM: But you were out on the road, playing live.
AH: I’m trying to remember gigs that we played. I certainly remember playing The Royal Park [pub venue in Leeds 6] when I was about 17 or 18, and it was shit … and later playing with Pale Saints and Mousefolk and it was like … packed in this upper room. And there was a really good review in the NME by Dave Simpson, who was a fan of the band briefly (chuckles). And then we started to get gigs and go out on the road.
I remember going and playing at Norwich Arts Centre, supporting Birdland, and getting into a fight with mike stands with Birdland afterwards, cos they were such cocks. We were quite young and a bit laddish, maybe; certainly liked drinking.
BSM: And the Pale Saints connection was really beneficial.
AH: When the Pale Saints took off … the first gig I played [as a live guitarist] with the Pale Saints was at the Camden Falcon, when they supported Lush, and 4AD offered them a deal the next day. And the Pale Saints took off. And every time something happened for the Pale Saints I would use it to piggyback an Edsel Auctioneer thing. That’s how we got on to [cult British music series] SNUB TV.
BSM: Yes, I remember that appearance really well. I was living in Cornwall and went to my local Chain With No Name shop, Soundcheck in Penzance, and bought your Gutted 12” off the back of that.
AH: The Pale Saints did SNUB TV and I said: howay lads, my band’s better! And I persuaded them [the production company] to come and record us at some pub in London. Silverfish played with us … and it was absolute mayhem, but it was brilliant. And it was total punk rock really.
AH: I started doing gigs with them [The Pale Saints, as a touring musician] as well, so from when I was about 19 to about 21, I did something like 170 gigs in those two years. I went to Japan with Pale Saints, and Glastonbury, and the Edsels were doing their own thing. It was incredibly good fun. I used to get terrible stage fright live and used to throw up. And I was drinking too much by this point, cos free booze: it’s free booze.
BSM: So how were the Edsels at this point?
AH: Aidan and I, we kept the writing thing going. He’d often write the bare bones of a song and the lyrics, and he’d bring it and we’d develop it together; then we’d take it to rehearsal and develop it with the band. We could never afford the rates for the rehearsal room, we always had a bill of like £200 or £300 and [we’d] pay it off once we’d got a decent gig or something. We were living on absolutely bollock all really. You’d be down to the lentils at the end of every two weeks.
BSM: What was your best experience or memory?
AH: Well, one of the most amazing things that happened, although it was also one of the most foolhardy things we ever did: after the first Edsel’s album, Simmer, was released, Decoy were pretty much skint and had got into dance music and [parent label] Vinyl Solution were making money out of Bizarre Inc and stuff like that [the label scored a surprise UK no.4 chart hit with Bizarre Inc’s “Playing With Knives” in March 1991] and they weren’t really interested in the guitar bands … Nirvana had happened and grunge had happened and suddenly everyone was playing similar music to what the Edsels were playing, because everyone was jumping on the bandwagon.
And the record got licensed by Kokopop in the States, a subsidiary of Shimmy Disc [run by the legendary figure behind Bongwater and Galaxie 500, Kramer]. And a fan called Laurie got in touch and said, listen, I can get a tour together of like, three weeks; there’ll be enough money to pay for you to travel around the States; can you get to America? And we were like, not really?
Anyway, we managed to scrape together like four air fares, and we took like, just plectrums and guitar pedals, cos we were gonna borrow all the gear; and we ended up doing a warm-up show in Poughkeepsie, up in the hills above New York, and it … you know, twelve people and a dog … and we’d hired this van using money from the record label, but they hated us, they were frightened we were gonna steal all their stuff.
And we came back to New York to do a show for this thing called The New Music Seminar, which is basically like [current band showcase festival] NXNW. Anyway we’d played this show and it’s like 3am and we were gonna sleep in the van and it’s like November, and we didn’t have anywhere to stay. And we’d basically decided we were gonna go home after this New York gig cos it was a disaster, to be honest … and the place was packed!
We went on and played a really good show and afterwards these two women came up to us dressed in matching red satin jackets and said [affects American accent] ‘Hi! We love you! We’re from a record label called Alias [home of Trumans Water and Yo La Tengo], blahblahblahblahblah. Do you wanna come and stay with us?’ And, to cut a long story short, we stayed with them for five days in New York before we went out and did the three-week tour …. and at the end of that, they offered us a half-a-million dollar record deal … and we did actually sign that record deal, and the first album that we made of that five-album deal was [1994’s] The Good Time Music Of.
BSM: Your second album.
AH: Which is still my favourite record that we made, even though it’s the most eclectic and … produced, I suppose. I was really into that record and me and Steve Whitfield [who has also worked with The Cure and Terrorvision] did a lot of work on that in the producing side of things. I thought there were some cracking songs on there. I thought it could’ve done with a slightly meatier production, to be honest, but it was moving forwards, and it kinda had echoes of the more eclectic … you know, “Country Song”, on that we were using slide, and using repeated riffs instead of y’know, straight Husker Du pop chuggers. It was an interesting time. [See “Summer Hit”, below]
BSM: So. The big question. How, in retrospect, do you see Edsel’s Auctioneers oeuvre – the catalogue?
AH: It seems to me they were one of those bands you can put in the unlucky bracket: had the songs, but didn’t have the luck. [thinks]. Hmm … had the songs, but didn’t have the luck. Did we have the songs? Umm … I think timing fucked us, to be honest. I think if the Edsel’s first album had come out just before the Nirvana Nevermind thing had kicked off, I think we might have got lucky. And we probably threw away 20 songs that we were never able actually to record. Because the money wasn’t there to record them. And so we could’ve made … I think we could’ve done an album a year, easily.
But we were very reliant on Aidan as a writer and Aidan had other things he wanted to do … but he was married and he had a kid by the time we did the first album. And when we signed for Alias, on that first album [for them] they would’ve paid for us to tour America, but nobody wanted to go on the road. I think Tris had just had a kid as well. And by that point we had been … well certainly Aidan and I had been working together for something like eight years … and we were friends, but we fell out in America, cos America was tough.
I actually only lived in Harold Avenue for two years; I moved up to Newcastle in 91, and then ended up going to film school there … and so, it wasn’t really natural for the band to stay together, and back in those days you really didn’t think about it as a career at all. You know, if someone signed to a major record deal, you thought they were a sellout.
BSM: So really it was luck, or a lack of …?
AH: I think we were unlucky, to be honest. We worked really hard, I thought we had some good songs, I thought we were great live. And even though, y’know, we tried Swervedriver’s management, and I ended up managing us, we kinda missed our own boat. We missed the boat; we missed the grunge boat, to be honest.
And so consequently, I think our records are interesting as sort of time capsules. And I think a lot of people would’ve liked them if they’d heard them. John Peel was a massive supporter, he was always playing stuff … but we never had any money, no one ever paid any money to promote the band and … the band had grown apart by the time it had got to the point that it could’ve been successful.
And I think sometimes, if there’s money involved, and a living, then bands stay together; and if there’s not a living to be had, you’ve got to out and find a different way to survive.
BSM: And do you look back at your records with fondness now?
AH: I’m glad we made two records. I’m glad we made two LPs. I think there’s a body of work there that’s really interesting. Aidan was a really good songwriter. As a band, I think we made what little we had go a long way.
And I used to love it! I used to love playing live, even with the stage fright; I didn’t mind the nomadic lifestyle, I used to hitchhike up and down between Newcastle and Leeds and sleep on sofas and stay up all night, but it is, it is, [affects comedy Cockney accent for affect], it’s a young man’s game, innit? Total cliche …
So no. I don’t think we were unlucky; I think we could’ve been luckier. But we left behind some songs, and we soundtracked a certain time for a certain small group of people. And they have a love for it still. And I have a love for it still. I look back on it with a fondness; things seemed simpler then. But even then then we would get frustrated about not being able to record songs or … eat! (laughs).
BSM: Any Pale Saints memories?
AH: Lots, but that’s another story.
BSM: Someone comes forward and says, I’ve got the money, some decent venues, and a cool van, how about it: would Edsel Auctioneer reform?
AH: Would the Edsels reform? I don’t know. We’ve all grown apart to such an extent, we’re very different people. And you know, I don’t think anybody would come to see The Edsel Auctioneer play live, to be honest … well, apart from half of those who came at our peak, so that’s 70 people, 80 people. I think Pale Saints could do alright, if they went out and re-toured The Comforts of Madness … and I said to Ian [Masters, Pale Saints’ singer] if they ever wanted to, I’d be up for it … that ain’t gonna happen, cos Ian’s living in Japan.
The last time I saw Aidan was ten years ago in Leeds, when he came to see the last feature film that I made, that was playing at that cinema in Hyde Park, and we had a little chat beforehand … I’d go out on the road with the Pale Saints, cos there’d be a crowd; I’d rather reform the Edsels and make a record. I’d rather go back and find those songs we’d never recorded, record them all … and then think about going on tour.
Y’know, I’m a much better guitar player now, but that means fuck all, dunnit? (laughs).