Spray are the most unforgivably overlooked band in the history of pop music. For more than fifteen years, they have drip-fed their wry, iridescent anthems to the internet and have accumulated a cult following when, if there were any justice, they would be filling stadia.
No one can hold a candle to the singing of Jenny Mclaren, one half of the Preston technopop duo, who were, in turn, one half of late 90s prankster quartet, the Cuban Boys, best known for releasing the ‘Hamster Dance’, a single that almost unseated Cliff Richard from the top of the charts in the final days of the twentieth century. Jenny’s voice possesses a gorgeous full-throatedness, avoiding the slovenly vibrato favoured by last decade’s mob of weedy 80s copyists. She neither exaggerates her accent for the sake of kitschiness nor conceals it in any spurious bid for techno-authenticity. Spray’s music owes a lot to the euphoric club sound of the late 90s but self-awareness has never been that genre’s strong suit. Mclaren and her brother, John Matthews (operating under the alias of Ricardo Autobahn), adopt a wry, persona-hopping approach to songwriting which owes something to both the Pet Shop Boys and their personal favourites, Sparks. Their finest songs (and there are many) contain some exquisite one-liners. “I understand irony better than you” boasts the protagonist of ‘Child of the 80s’, a competitive nostalgist eager to accrue cultural capital in the early phase of that decade’s 00s reappropriation. “I Always Wanted to Say ‘I Always Wanted to Say That’” (from 2011) begins with an image of aspirationally rebellious Americana that might come out of an episode of Friends, before kicking away every mythological prop from which the image draws its meaning. “Parameters rule!”declares Jenny. It is as perfect a song as has ever been written.
Now in the middle of an autumn mini-tour, John, the unassuming genius behind the synthesiser, spoke to us about Spray’s journey to greatness. We begin by asking about his days with the Cuban Boys, the radical novelty act with which his recording career began.
“Skreen and Blu [the other Cuban Boys, now working together as the Beatbox Saboteurs] are from Eastbourne. Skreen wrote a fanzine about indie electronic pop and I read about it on Teletext of all places. In 1997, I sent him a demo tape and I went down and we hung out and started to make music together.”
Did you start the rumour that The Hamster Dance was a side-project of the national disgrace, Noel Gallagher?
We registered a website and we pretended that the Cuban Boys were a secret project by Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. It was quite easy to scam people back then just by making a fake website to the extent that Noel had to go on MTV and deny it. I think he was amused by it more than anything – the two most miserable men in pop making a cheesy dance song. We didn’t even have a record out at that point. We liked pulling these publicity stunts to get ourselves noticed. Once we got noticed, we didn’t really know what to do. We just fancied the idea of being a bit like the KLF or whatnot. At the time, nobody was abusing the internet like we were – putting out manifestos. The internet was big enough to get an audience but small enough to put something out that most people would hear about. Getting John Peel to read something out was quite easy to do if you knew what you were doing.
Around the turn of the millennium, The Cuban Boys’ sample-heavy japes were perennial favourites of John Peel. The Hamster Dance (‘Cognoscenti vs Intelligentsia’ to give it its proper title) topped the Festive Fifty in 1999. Why do you think your work is not more widely and fondly remembered?
I like to think we were pioneers. We spearheaded that junkshop sampling culture. I’m slightly annoyed that the Cuban Boys are written out of history as far as the history of sampling goes. We pushed it along quite a bit in those early days. Releasing the Hamster Dance in ’99 meant that we were never a 90s band and we were never a noughties band. It was just seen as a novelty record by those who pooh-pooh it.
John Peel was clearly enraptured with the Cuban Boys. What was it like being promoted by him?
I remember his saying that ‘The Hamster Dance’ was the most requested song since The Sex Pistols‘ ‘God Save the Queen’. It was an exciting time, a very exciting moment. He was a lovely fella – humble, a genuine, bona fide legend. We were invited to Peel Acres for his birthday and he was hanging around in a pair of shorts and a shirt with a wine stain on it. “Thanks for playing our records,” we said. “Thanks for making them,” he replied. He was just a normal fella, very likeable. Everything you want from John Peel.
Moving on to the subject of another likeable grey-bearded bloke often treated shabbily by the BBC – do you have any message for Jeremy Corbyn?
Keep on keeping on. We’re big fans. There’s nothing I can say – I love him. Genuinely. We grew up in the 80s in the north of England so it’s in our make-up to hate the Tories – especially in Preston which is a university town. There’s a lot of youthful urgency about the support of Corbyn that I find quite exciting, quite interesting.
What aspects of 80s pop culture, if any, are you looking to revive with Spray?
The 80s had this atmosphere about it. You can’t define music by decades but I always liked the expansive chord sequences, the way chords build and swoop, rise and fall. The Sun Always Shines on TV is the archetypal song for defining why 80s music is great: big chords and percussion sounds like someone falling down the stairs. The 90s had a less a definable character. The 80s started in ’77 with ‘I Feel Love’ and finished with Live Aid. By the mid-90s, there weren’t genres in the same way any more and no definable music of the era. Everything was cross-pollinated.
Which acts do you feel have influenced you the most directly?
Sparks and, oddly, REM – people who follow their own noses who make pop record but abstract and oblique pop records. – people who like pop music but also hate pop music at the same time. I was always a big fan of the Scatman who made one of the great pop records. ‘Arthur Daley – ‘E’s All Right”)’ by The Firm is a comic record that’s really clever and intellectual. People just throw it away as a Chas ‘n’ Dave pastiche but it’s brilliant.
On October 22nd, Spray play their first London show in Wimbledon Library. What’s your own local library like?
It’s the Harris Library in Preston and it dates back to the 19th century. It’s fantastic for exhibitions as well as being a real atmospheric place and a beautiful place just to hang out.