vendredi, juillet 22, 2005

Hard-Fi: The Staines massive

Hard-Fi came from nowhere to secure a nomination for the Mercury Prize. Ed Caesar meets their front man and founder

Published: 22 July 2005

It has been an extraordinary few weeks for Richard Archer, the front man of the quartet Hard-Fi. On 25 June, his dreams were about to come true: his band, who are arguably the hottest British act of the moment, had arrived for their first Glastonbury Festival.

"We're not doing many festivals this summer," he tells me, in the estuary tones of his Staines upbringing. "So Glastonbury was the big one. And we'd been moved up the bill on Sunday. But we were so busy over the whole weekend. We recorded an acoustic session for Radio 1 as soon as we got there, and we were meant to be doing a show on Saturday night, where we were going to meet Jerry from The Specials. That was really important to us, and we were looking forward to it."

But Hard-Fi never played that gig, and they didn't play on the Sunday. Richard had to travel back to Staines, to be at the side of his mother, who died shortly afterward. "Someone told me that, for our slot on the Sunday, the tent was completely packed, and the crowd were gagging for us to come on. The boys were gutted, although, to be honest, I wasn't thinking about it at all."

Hard-Fi had been gathering critical approval among journalists and punters since their extraordinary mini-LP Stars of CCTV was released in October, (the CD changed hands on eBay for up to £70), but to be the must-see band at Glastonbury without an album in the shops is an extraordinary achievement. And it was this fanbase that pushed their debut album, also called Stars of CCTV, to No 6 in the album charts in its first week of release this month.

"For me, it felt as if I'd finally got to the place where I'd been trying to get," says Archer. "Maybe we're not there quite yet, but we're at Base Camp. And if it hadn't been for my old man and my mum who supported me, it would have been much harder for me to get there. They always said, 'Break out of the usual circuit, you don't have to get the McJob - we'll support you all the way.' And now, the one person who really wanted to see me do well isn't around to see it. It's heartbreaking."

What makes it more heartbreaking for Archer is that he founded the band around the time that his father was dying. "I dedicated the album to my dad. My mum never got to see the final printed copy [with the dedication on it]. It was going to be a surprise for her, but she never saw it."

The Archer family would also have loved the news, this week, that Hard-Fi's debut has been nominated for the prestigious, career-defining Mercury Music Awards. Catching up with Archer in New York a week after our first interview, where the band are playing two shows on their North America tour, the singer is clearly overwhelmed.

"It's amazing. It was so weird this morning. We're on some crazy sleeping pills to help with the jet-lag, and people had been trying to phone us for the last three hours. I found out while I was still half asleep. It was all a bit unreal. To be up there with Kaiser Chiefs, Coldplay, Bloc Party. There are some great acts. The fact that Coldplay spent millions on their album and we spent about 300 quid kind of vindicates our approach."

It all started, in the spring of 2004, because Archer wouldn't accept less than the best musicians he could find. "I used to see Steve [Kemp, the drummer] around Staines, and we'd talk about music. I wasn't looking for a rock drummer, I was looking for someone who could play jazz, funk, breakbeat, whatever. Steve could do that."

Despite endless auditions with people who "weren't right", Hard-Fi slowly came together. "I met up with Kai [Stephens, the bassist]," says Archer, "outside Feltham Young Offenders Institute. He was working for Rentokil, and he was doing a job at the prison. I gave him a CD and two days later he came back and he could play everything perfectly. He said he was tired of the bad karma associated with killing things for a living. He desperately wanted to be in a band."

Ross Phillips, the lead guitarist, was the last to be recruited. The brother of a friend of Archer's, he was working in a Staines hi-fi outlet when Archer came in to play his demos on the shop's stereos. "He'd be sitting there with me going, 'who is this playing guitar, coz it's shit.' It was me. So I said, 'alright, you think you can do better?' And he could. He was right on it immediately."

It was a rapid process from first gigs to recording to fame. "It was only a month or so after we had formed that we had our first gig. And it was great, it felt really natural. We were all from the same town. We all knew the same people, and it just came together immediately. It felt like a genuine gang mentality."

The music industry woke up to Hard-Fi pretty quickly too. "We'd be at a gig, and there would be a couple of A&R guys there, scratching their beards. And then, at the next one, there would be a couple more, and it just grew from there."

When asked what he thought those A&R men found interesting about Hard-Fi, Archer takes a rather circuitous route. "We've always had a sound. The thing about Staines is it's insular. We're on the outskirts of London. You can get into town easily in the day, but you can't get back late at night. So everything interesting gets sucked into London. It's a cultural wasteland."

"But because it's insular it's helped us out. We were never like, 'Oh, the NME and all our mates in Camden are telling us that we have to make this kind of sound.' So we just listened to the music that we loved, and that could be anything from soul, dub, hip hop, reggae, house. When it came to making the record - we thought the same thing. We didn't have to be just a rock band."

And so the mini-LP emerged, a blazing collection of tracks drawn from the myriad influences of Archer and the band's own record collections. But it wasn't easy.

"There are no rehearsal rooms in Staines, so we were spending an hour and a half driving up to north-west London, where we'd have three hours at a time. By the time we had our gear set up and did a number, we'd have to take it down again and go home. It was ridiculous."

"So we thought, we could rent a lock-up for two weeks for the same price. It was an old cab office, and a pretty small one too. We started rehearsing there, and then we tried recording something there, and it sounded pretty good.

"I bumped into a mate of mine [Wolsey White], who remixed it, and suddenly the whole thing had another angle. He made us work really hard about getting the sound right. He started co-producing the album for nothing."

After listening to the recorded tracks in a variety of odd locations around Staines - the cab office, the pub, White's BMW - Archer and White became more and more confident that they were heading in the right direction.

"Considering the resources we had," says Archer, "I was really proud of it. But when we put the mini-LP out I was sure we were going to get a kicking for it. There we were, writing songs with hooks, talking about the ins and outs of the everyday life of everyday people. We weren't doing what was hot."

Cue a heatwave. Record labels were soon fighting it out over who could sign Hard-Fi. Archer reveals it was a tough decision for a new band.

"We went with Atlantic because they were one of the first - it was between them and Sony. But we were wary. Once you start getting hot, all these labels want to sign you just because you're hot, not because they are into what you're doing. I think Atlantic have bought into what we're doing."

The first job Atlantic had was to turn the promise of the original mini-LP into something they could sell in HMV.

"We just went back to the cab office," laughs Archer. "Atlantic told us we could go into any studio, anywhere in the world - Abbey Road, anywhere - to record the full LP. But we thought, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Rick Rubin [the legendary American producer] had called us to say he thought it was going to be a landmark record of the 21st Century, and you ain't going to argue with him."

What emerged from the second recording session at the cab offices was a fleshed out, fuller version of the original six-track effort - a skip-free barrage of punchy hooks and lyrical wisdom. There is an arresting variety of subject matter, too, considering the band's stated aim to write music about life in their dead-end home town.

"Middle Eastern Holiday", for instance, rails against British deaths in Iraq. "I wrote it when I saw the news that six young British soldiers had been killed," recalls Archer. "It just struck me when I saw the pictures, how young they were. It's not a pro or anti-war song. It's a song about how weird it is for a guy our age to go off and do that kind of shit when all his mates are here getting drunk, going to clubs, and seeing girls. It's about that parallel universe."

Archer is equally lucid about "Move On Now", the only ballad on the album, and one of the greatest songs ever written about Heathrow Airport.

"I don't know how many songs have been written about Heathrow. But I wrote it just after my old man had died. If you look out of my bedroom window in Staines, planes take off from Heathrow every 90 seconds, and when they take off, a red light flashes on one wing, and a green light flashes on the other. I could only see the red light. It's tracing a route out of where you are. The whole song is about wanting to get the hell out of Staines and experience something different, something better than what you've got."

It could be the tagline for the entire album. But the songwriting skill is only as important as the heady mix of punk, ska and funk influences that pervade Hard-Fi's music, particularly the music of The Jam and The Specials.

"I think it gets overplayed," says Archer. "Someone asked us what decade we were influenced by. We're influenced by this decade. This is the one we're living through. What's the point in recreating the sound of 30 years ago? We're influenced by it, and moved by the spirit of it, but we've lived through a massive dance culture in our lifetime. How can we ignore that?"

"We take things and make them our own. All the great British bands - and, for me, I'm talking about The Rolling Stones, The Clash, The Specials, Dexys, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays, Massive Attack, and maybe The Streets - they've always taken influences and made them their own. That's a great British tradition."

It is this heady catalogue of great bands which Hard-Fi aspire to emulate. So when Q magazine calls Hard-Fi "the next great British band", should we believe it? "We don't believe the hype," says Archer. "And we've always said that when people write nice things about you, it's great. And when people play your record on the radio, it's great. But it is not until the man on the street puts his hand in his pocket and buys the album, or comes and sees a gig, that it means anything. That's when they are saying, 'I'm part of this - and I want to be connected to it.'"

It must be particularly gratifying, then, for Archer and his Hard-Fi mates to see 30,000 copies of their album shipped in a week.

"Yeah, it's pretty exciting, especially considering we had to pull Glastonbury, but we still look at James Blunt with his 90,000 albums a week. We're thinking, 'hello, that's what we want.'"

But for a punk-infused four-piece from Staines to hit No 6 in the first week of their debut album is impressive. It has certainly infused Archer with a quiet confidence.

"I personally think we've got what it takes to be the next major British band," he says, "but it's not just about turning up. It's down to us."

'Stars of CCTV' is out now on Atlantic

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.