A Bunch Of Fives: a retrospective with The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt – PART TWO, Suspended By Stars
Having hinted at the magic being rediscovered here and there on Escape From Rubbish Island, Miles and co went one step further with the splendid Suspended By Stars, which featured at least a handful of bona fide classics (my personal favourite being the affectionate ‘The Sun Goes Down On Manor Road‘). Over to you, Milo…
PART TWO – SUSPENDED BY STARS
Unlike Escape From Rubbish Island, I very much went into the writing of this album with every intention of it being a Wonder Stuff album. For starters I had my old writing partner, Malc Treece, back at my side from the very first day we began the project. The two of us hadn’t been in this situation since we wrote The Eight Legged Groove Machine together in the late 1980s.
Malc and I had written stuff together for HUP and Construction For The Modern Idiot (not so with Never Loved Elvis, that’s a whole other story that you will have to buy my second book of diaries to read about) but Malc had always found it difficult to work around what original fiddle player, Martin Bell, was bringing to the table. He would often complain that Bell filled in all the gaps before he had a chance to work on his guitar lines. I suggested, time and time again, that if Malc wanted prominent guitar parts in our material then he needed to write more and make the fiddle player work around him. Even though as we started the Suspended By Stars writing sessions there was no fiddle player in The Wonder Stuff that is exactly what he did.
Malc came to me with some great pieces that soon became ‘Tricks Of My Trade’, ‘The Popular Choice’, ‘Someone Tell Me What To Think’ and ‘No-One Tells ‘Em Like You Do’; it felt good to be writing from his ideas again and spurred me on in my own writing.
By now I had left the flat in London and was living full time, on my own, up in Shropshire. I rebuilt the home studio in a spare bedroom and quickly came up with ‘The Last Second Of The Minute’, ‘Angelica Maybe’, ‘We Hold Each Other Up’ and an ode to the good times that I had shared with Mark McCarthy and our friend Laney living at the flat we shared in Stoke Newington, ‘The Sun Goes Down On Manor Road’.
Before recording Suspended By Stars we did another run of shows in the UK to promote Escape From Rubbish Island in early 2005. As much as I had enjoyed the previous tour, playing as a four piece again, I started to miss the sound of the violin on stage. Particularly not being able to play the likes of ‘Mission Drive’, ‘Circlesquare’, ‘Cartoon Boyfriend’ or ‘Here Comes Everyone’ – all songs featuring the violin heavily – was beginning to frustrate me.
Our friend and producer, Matt Terry, had spotted a young woman busking violin in the high street of Stratford Upon Avon a couple of times and having asked around for information on her learned that she was in a progressive metal band based in Birmingham called Fireswitch. I remember him describing her to me as looking like ‘a scary Snow White’. We tracked her down and asked her if she would be interested in auditioning to play live with The Wonder Stuff. I sent her three or four songs to learn and arranged an audition at Matt’s studio.
The young woman in question was of course Erica Nockalls. We met briefly after a fund raising gig that The Wonder Stuff played for the Tsunami Relief Fund in Bromsgrove and Matt’s description of Erica was spot on. A few days later we arranged a time to meet up at Matt’s studio to hear Erica play.
I recall with absolute clarity the two minutes that Erica and I played acoustically for. We chose ‘Circlesquare’ as the first song to try out. By the time we got to the violin solo I knew she was the player for us, there was no need to get to the end of the song, the part she played had never sounded so good, not even when played by the guy that originally came up with it!
We began recording some of the backing tracks to the songs that would make up Suspended By Stars whilst we were in NYC at the beginning of the 2005 US tour, at drummer Andres Karu’s studio in Queens. I had had on ongoing love affair with the city of New York since I first visited there back in 1989 and it felt like the perfect place to be writing and recording.
A book I had read by journalist Pete Hamill, ‘Downtown, My Manhattan’ gave me the title for the album. He described a moment in his childhood when he had asked his mother how the skyscrapers of New York managed to stay standing and she answered him by saying that they were suspended by the stars. It was sweet and poetic and leapt of the page of Pete Hamill’s book straight into my lyric notebook.
On returning back from the USA we immediately headed to Matt’s studio in Stratford Upon Avon to complete the new album. One track I had written, ‘Angelica Maybe’, I had left great big instrumental sections in hope that Erica could fill them with wild Gypsy-esque violin solos. She didn’t disappoint. Neither did she let us down when it was suggested the guitar line that Malc had written for ‘Someone Tell Me What To Think’ was replaced and embellished by Erica or when we asked her to think like Brian Eno and layer some atmosphere into ‘Tricks Of My Trade’.
As well as Erica bringing much missed dynamics back to The Wonder Stuff’s sound I was now off the pot and with a clearer head keen to make a return to form album.
Something else that we tried on this album was writing together out of jams. A process I hadn’t been involved in since playing with Pete Howard and Morgan Nicholls in my mid 90’s band, Vent 414. The songs that came about from these jams were ‘Blah, Blah Lah Di Dah’, ‘Long Time No See’ and ‘Give Us What We Want’. On the whole this album contained every style of writing that I knew how to do; jamming with the whole band, writing at home on my own and collaborating with the band’s guitarist. I couldn’t have been happier. Matt Terry and his engineer, James Edwards, were great people to work with in the studio and with the added talents of drummer/multi-instrumentalist/producer, Andres Karu, the sessions were a joy.
After releasing the album in February 2006 we did a lot of touring during that year but it was difficult to raise our commercial game. The new look Wonder Stuff wasn’t accepted by many of our older fans and whilst I thought we had made a great record in Suspended By Stars, the sales did not reflect my opinion. It was disappointing to say the least.
We decided that 2007 should be a fallow year for The Wonder Stuff, to give the grass a chance to grow again. So Erica and I teamed up as an acoustic duo and hit the road for what we now refer to as ‘The Never Ending Acoustic Tour’. We got on great together and decided to see what we might come up with if we set ourselves the task of making an album.
I had a couple of tunes hanging around that I asked her to play on, one of which made it onto our first album together, Not An Exit, a song called ‘These Things Remembered’. The rest of the album we wrote and recorded together in January and February of 2007 at my house in Shropshire. This would also be the first time that file sharing over the internet became a thing with us.
Erica and I would work on backing tracks, email them to Andres Karu in New York, whereby he would add his drum parts and email them back to us to add to the recordings we were making at home. I had heard of other people doing such things and was amazed that it actually worked. We were now essentially free from ever having to come up with the money to pay for studio time or being restricted by the clock. We had entered a new era of recording.
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