Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Stuff of Wonder: Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls

Twenty seven years of solid songs, changing line-ups and killer on-stage monologues

Convention says: if the bastards grind you down, your youthful exuberance will be drummed out of you, and your bright shiny work will be damned and spurned by the new breed. The new breed will, in turn, will be spat out by and swept aside. But they don't know that. Yet.

Durability and craft can work for you long after the business boys write you off. Look at the headliners at this summer's festivals: they're vintage acts. Later this year, the 47 year old Fairport Convention headline their 38th annual festival. High up on Fairport's bill? The Wonder Stuff who started in 1987.

The Wonder Stuff, like Fairport, are sustained by an adoring and loyal audience. They come for Miles Hunt's songs and brilliant on-stage patter. The repertoire works with a full band, and in a duo with partner and fiddle player, Erica NockallsThat tells you the songs are solid enough to take a whole range of treatments. And it says a lot about on-stage presence.

At first sight, it's an unlikely pairing. The two of them are fine, fine musicians, but ordinarily you might not expect these particular muso worlds to collide. Erica has a substantial online following, developed while building her own solo projects. Her songs are savage and uncompromising, with powerful imagery; it's some distance from the rousing singalongs, knockabout stage routines and patter that Miles has elaborated over the years.

Patter? Oh, yes. Here's Miles, captured last month on Kirsty MacColl and prepping for the David Letterman show....

... and here's a vid of the modified band, as described in Miles' patter, on the Letterman show. Sadly the footage doesn't extend to the handshake.
I captured Miles' onstage links at their recent Hare and Hounds gig, after we'd had a chat. He kindly agreed to let me use them in this blog post.

So: a full band The Wonder Stuff line-up; you and Erica together on-stage, using a lot of the same material. Erica tearing it up on her own. Do people 'get' the range of what you both are doing?
Erica: Never even considered it. 
Miles: We have done two Miles and Erica albums, and they've done well. But what we tend to find is that people want The Wonder Stuff songs. I understand that. But we do do songs in the early part of the set from the Miles and Erica records. It's all essentially leading into a Wonder Stuff jukebox.
Erica: That's what people want to see.
Miles: We've learned what people want, having done these acoustic shows together since 2007. it would be churlish to keep pushing new stuff at people. And because there's been a more recent The Wonder Stuff record, the first couple of songs are from the new record.
Musically now, I just look at the whole collection of songs - of which there are over two hundred - and we play the songs people want to hear.
Come on, you've got to have new stuff you're bursting to play?
Miles: I don't think I'm like that anymore. I like putting tracks together studio-wise. That's where I get my pleasure. I like that my audiences are enjoying themselves and that there's a dialogue between us. You don't want to start a new song at an acoustic gig and hear a murmur of conversation because it's not one they know.
Erica: They know what they're going to get at a Miles and Erica gig; equally, they know what to expect at a Wonder Stuff gig.
Miles: I was challenging when I was younger. To overcome shyness, I had to invent this loud-mouthed character. It's about wanting people to come back. And it's about me and Erica being able to avoid getting proper jobs. If we can keep paying our bills from touring... I'm two years off 50; I'm very lucky I've been able to pull that off.
From 2012's  'Oh No It's The Wonder Stuff''. With Ranking Roger.               
I've always been fascinated by what happens to musos over time: expectations, audiences and technique. All those 80s punk bands have to be able to play after thirty years...
Miles: It is a myth that punk bands were shit musicians! People like 999 and the Pistols were brilliant musicians. The Clash were a little bit ramshackle to start with....
But look what they turned into – a bunch of musicologists!
Miles: Thing with punk is: guys like Charlie Harper (UK Subs) can't go out and say things about the yoof, being oppressed and all that... Charlie! You're 70 now!
You made the point that you can make a living from touring – as opposed to record royalties, which, as we know have become vanishingly small said, especially with streaming services that pay tiny tiny sums out. And that's before YouTube muscled Indie record labels... Some veterans, not much older that you, have made their pile and now aren't worried about their revenue stream disappearing. Others haven't, of course. How do you feel about that?
Miles: I know what the answer is... but that's probably more a question for Erica than me...cos you're working harder at creating new music. But how do you feel about things going straight to Spotify when you haven't got the millionaire pad?
Erica: Mmmm. It's upsetting. That's pretty much it. As an artist who is writing original new material. You put all that time... you end up asking yourself 'What are you doing this for?' I've come to the conclusion that I don;t know what else to do. I'm obviously not in it for money, because I've not seen a single penny from my album sales – it's all gone back into the live show.
That puts you in very honourable company.... But the process of being screwed either by massive internet based corporations, or by dodgy management and record companies who ripped those old bands off in the 60s and 70s – it's the same.
Miles: At least it's a level playing field now. Prince is getting screwed... and so are we!
Erica: we don't have any outgoings, we don't have children, we don't have a mortgage. So, relatively, we don't earn much money, but we don't need much money.
Miles: Not that we lazily get out of bed at 11 o'clock and think 'Thank God we didn't have to go to work today'...
I'm sorry – all we're doing now is talking business, about what a crap deal musicians get. That's not why I wanted to talk to you. It's because you straddle so many areas of music, and bring such a wide range of skills and talent to the party. That fascinates me.
Miles: Well, I think a lot that is to do with my pitiful attention span. If I went out on a ten month The Wonder Stuff world tour, which I used to do, I'd be bored out of my mind in a month. To be able to do, like we've done this week, two days of The Wonder Stuff rehearsals, two gigs with me and Erica, and then The Wonder Stuff gigs. The next week, Erica goes in to work on her album and I go back to start writing my second book, as well as doing the layout for the first one. I like having all these different things to do.
There are stories of people trapped in their bands, no longer getting on with their band mates, and playing songs they've come to hate just to make ends meet.
Miles: If my work was going around the world singing 'It's Your Money I'm After Baby', I'd have packed it in years ago. Whereas, I might play that song tonight; The Wonder Stuff definitely will play it tomorrow night.
Erica: But we don't have to.
Miles, tell me what Erica has brought to The Wonder Stuff mark 2?
Miles: Erica's much calmer than anyone who's ever been in The Wonder Stuff before. Not as a player, as a person. When we first toured, I'd walk in the dressing room, and you'd be standing in the middle of the room, with no music on, just standing. Honestly it was weird! It was like something from a horror film. And I'd walk up and go...
'What are you doing?'
...and there's never been a member of The Wonder Stuff that ever stood in a room for more than five consecutive seconds, thinking. Somebody was always shouting..... And I remember thinking that was really interesting. But it's worked. Erica's also a far more aggressive violin player. Really tucks into it, which I really like. And Erica's not from a folk background. She's done so much else with the sound of a violin.
Erica: You often were quite harsh, back in the day. 'What have you done here?' But I'd leave it with you for a couple of days and...
Miles: 'This is fucking great!'
Erica: ...and then all is forgiven.
Miles: But now I know you're going to surprise me.
I'm trying to think of creative couples within the industry. Creative musically and personally that is.
Miles: When we told the band we were together, they were like 'Fucking Hell! Return to Fleetwood Mac! Give it eight months and it'll be a nightmare'. Eight years later....
Awwwww. Bless.
Erica: … and the rest of the band have gone! Generally it's a very very bad idea though...
Miles: ...but after six months I was thinking 'Why haven't we done this before? Date someone in the band!'
And with that, Miles and Erica sashayed on to the Hare and Hounds stage to play a lovely, relaxed, passionate set. Miles all animated and cosy on the left; Erica stylish and cool on the right. Chairs set out at the front, standing at the back, and an audience that lapped it up – all of it: Miles and Erica songs, The Wonder Stuff songs, rambling monologues... and even a book reading.

It works.

The Wonder Stuff
Erica Nockalls

And Miles has written a book...

See more music posts on Radio To Go


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