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We Are Together – Space Monkeys 25 years on…
January 17, 2020 – 8:19 pm | No Comment | by:

More than 20 years since their first album became the last long player released by Factory Records, Space Monkeys are back with new material, so we had a chat with singer Richard McNevin-Duff…

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We Are Together – Space Monkeys 25 years on… by:
January 17, 2020 – 8:19 pm | No Comment
Modern Day Monkeys. The current line up. Picture by Trust A Fox

The current line up. Picture by Trust A Fox

More than 20 years since their first album became the last long player released by Factory Records, Space Monkeys are back with new material.

Tony Wilson’s last ever signing to the iconic label sold over 100,000 copies of their 1997 debut The Daddy of them All and had a big hit in America with single Sugar Cane, that helped take the Middleton band across the world. They recorded a second album with hip-hop legend Prince Paul, as detailed in issue 11 of AFL, but it never saw the light of day due to familiar Factory fuck ups and they went on to split up as years of rock n roll living took their toll.

Subsequently they reformed in 2015, playing several festivals and gigs, including FC United of Manchester’s Course You Can Malcolm on more than one occasion. The buzz was back, leading to them spending 2017 and 2018 working on Modern Actions. Typically, its release has been fraught with difficulties. This time the collapse of Pledge Music was to blame – a crowd-funding organisation that raised money from crowds but then failed to fund anything…

McNevin-Duff at CYCM

McNevin-Duff at CYCM

We caught up with Space Monkeys singer and long-time friend of AFL Richard McNevin-Duff, to find out what the fuck has been going on…

Let’s get the bad stuff out the way first. Pledge Music’s problems were obviously a massive blow. How did that impact you and the band? I presume it has left you very out of pocket? Is there anything fans can do to help?
They stole thousands of pounds of our money and our friends’ and fans’ money and because of them we now have a debt about the size of the Glazers at United which we need to pay off.

We made a band decision to pay for all the cost of sending the orders out to everyone so nobody lost out and I’m glad we did that. I believe in karma and I hope that act of positivity will repay us in some way. We were going to put all the money we raised from Pledge into promotion and PR to try and get the album heard by as many people as possible so the way people can help is just by playing the record and spreading the word and coming to any gigs. If you know anyone who might like the album, give them a nudge. Small acorns and all that. If anyone knows how to make one of them lyric video things, be our guest.

The album coming out at all is a real victory over adversity. It is very Space Monkeys and very Factory… You’ve had some tricky times with both the previous albums too. This feels like just the latest chapter in the story?
A lot of people don’t really know the full history but ‘The Daddy Of Them All’ almost didn’t come out at all. Tony Wilson signed us in 1995 to his Factory Too label which was owned by London Records.

After we finished the recording London dropped Factory Too so the album wasn’t gonna get released. London gave us the master tapes and said ‘Take it to another label’ so we told them ‘We don’t need another label, we signed to Tony not you, we don’t need money we need belief’ and that spirit of independence took us half way around the world for five years.

Tony really respected us for that loyalty which to this day makes me very proud of the decision we made. And he repaid the loyalty tenfold with everything he did for us. But this album is about the future not the past. Hence the title.

Space Monkeys in the late 1990s

Space Monkeys in the late 1990s

I’m proud of this record and all the hard work that was put into making it by all the band, because nobody was getting paid. People don’t realise the amount of time and effort that goes on with bands. You do a gig and after venue hire costs, bar staff, security, cost of rehearsals and everything else a band of our size would be lucky to break even and the tickets are only a tenner and all your mates ask to be on the guest list and you feel bad if you say no, so yeah, it’s a constant struggle being in a band these days.

Neil Walsh (Space Monkey guitarist) was the driving force behind this album and main producer and engineer and he spent countless hours at home in his studio editing and mixing and recording everything. On top of all that he spent a lot of his Christmas holiday with his ten year old son sat in their front room going through all the order info from Pledge and posting all the records and CDs out to everyone to make sure nobody lost out.

Spotify delayed the digital release because they said we had to remove all the faces of famous people from the cover collage for copyright reasons so I replaced Tony Wilson with a picture of Neil in the true Factory spirit in reward for him turning his front room into Santa’s Indie Record Label Grotto for a few days.

How different was this album to put together than the previous two?
The songs on ‘The Daddy Of Them All’ were written by me, alone in my bedroom, sat on my bed, with an acoustic guitar. I then played the songs to the band in our rehearsal space which was in Beehive Mill (Sankeys Soap) on Jersey Street and the band would all add their own musical parts and we’d turn it up to 12 and that’s what made it great.

The second album was written by me and Tony Pipes (Space Monkeys founder and former spinmaster, DJ and keyboard player), who would put loops together to make a track and I’d write the song over that. That’s why that album was more hip-hop influenced and a bit more Lo-Fi.

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This time, the songs on ‘Modern Actions’ were all written by me and Neil. The band all then added stuff. Neil is a much more accomplished musician than me (which isn’t hard) so it’s different in that respect but if he wrote anything too fancy (like more than three or four chords) he knew I’d throw it out so he kept it simple and we worked well as a songwriting partnership.

He would send me the music and I’d write a song over it or sometimes, like ‘The Outsiders’ or ‘Wishing On A Daydream’ I’d send him a song I’d written on acoustic guitar and he’d add the music.

You had battles with Wilson over production in the past. Did you feel more freedom this time than the previous two albums?
The main battles we had with Tony would usually be me suggesting a producer I’d like to work with and him saying ‘We can’t use that fucker, he’s still upset because we owe him twenty grand’.

Neil and me produced this album. Neil did all the audio production, engineering and mixing (all the difficult technical stuff) and I played the enigmatic intoxicated producer role of sitting in the studio pointing at things and asking him to mix the arrangement around and add and remove certain things and throwing ideas around to the others to play certain sounds or riffs.

Neil started in the band in 1995 as the programmer and engineer on ’The Daddy Of Them All’ and he added so much to the sound of the band that I asked him to join the band properly on the US tour a couple of years later. Plus it was cheaper to have him in the band than pay him the £50 a day engineer rates, but don’t tell him that…

There is a theme of love and peace overcoming hate and division in the lyrics. Very positive in the face of the difficulties the world currently faces. Was that deliberate or did those lyrics just happen? Do they reflect your personal circumstances?
Yeah definitely, I’m glad that shines through.

I wrote all the lyrics on the album apart from the very first three words – ‘We Are Together’. That was the first song we wrote for the album and it was just a few days after the Manchester Arena tragedy and we were rehearsing at Band On The Wall in town. The whole of Manchester was in mourning.

At the end of the rehearsal Neil asked me if I’d had chance to listen to the song that he had sent to me on email that he’d written. I didn’t know that he had sent me anything so I said I’d have a listen on the bus ride home. The song was ‘We Are Together’ and had no verses but a chorus that repeated ‘We Are Together’.

Neil had sent it to me the night before the tragedy had happened but I hadn’t noticed the email. I wrote the rest of the words pretty quickly and it was inspired by the effect the tragedy had on the people of Manchester and the way the city had reacted positively.

The Dave Haslam tweet that said ‘You’ve got the wrong city if you think Hate will tear us apart’ really struck a chord, along with the poems and gigs that took place. There was a huge movement of people from all different backgrounds sending out the message that we will not fight hate with more hate, love is stronger than hate.

That wasn’t a hippy ideal it was an incredibly strong statement from almost everyone in the city of Manchester and it was a very emotional and sad time but I’m so proud that the people reacted that way and that’s what inspired the lyrics to the song and that theme of positivity travelled right through the album.

Tony Wilson features at the start of the record and it’s his quote used as the album title. You have spoken a lot about how important he was to the Space Monkeys story. Do you think he’d like the album?
I hope so. I like to think so.

There was a little record shop in Bury called ‘Vibes’ when I was a teenager in the 80’s I used to go there and spend all my cash on records. Those days have gone now with Spotify and everything, but I’d ride home on the bus and read all the sleeve notes and I still know to this day where all these classic records were recorded, what label, who produced them, who wrote them, who played what. I was obsessed.

Because of that I was still kind of star struck with Tony Wilson when we were together, even though we were close. He came to my wedding in 1998 and it was still surreal for me to say we were friends. He is a legend for all the right reasons, he made great things happen.

The album harks back to the past only slightly (Wilson’s quote and a couple of songs that could have featured on the previous two albums) but it definitely sounds new and fresh too. It could have been a proper nostalgia piece, but it isn’t. It is very recognisable as the Space Monkeys but also takes things forward. Did you set out to achieve that deliberately or has it just happened?
I never really understand this thing with bands being referred to as nostalgic or a ‘90s band’ and all that just because that’s the decade they started out. It doesn’t happen with other jobs. You wouldn’t call a welder who started welding in the 80s an ’80s welder’.

It’s probably because people attach memories to songs from their youth that’s the only reason I guess. It doesn’t make much sense if you think about it. And bands only get decades attached to them but painters and poets get centuries, don’t they? How is that fair? The modern crop of musicians will probably only get a year or a month or something as reference maybe, or last Tuesday afternoon… Serves them right for having stupid names with numbers and symbols instead of vowels.

Anyway, at what moment do the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan be seen as 60s nostalgia? They don’t because they keep moving forward and that’s the same with what we will always do as a band, if we continue.

But also, you’ve got to be real and true to who you are. In 1995 I was living above the nightclub Home in Piccadilly [in Ducie House] and I was into raving and living life to the maximum. So the songs on ‘The Daddy Of Them All’ reflected that.

With ‘Modern Actions’ I’m almost 50 and I’m kind of picking at the scabs and the bruises of that lifestyle looking back through it all. Personally, I’ve had a lot of highs and lows. And I’ve paid pretty heavily for both.

There’s a lot of metaphors in the lyrics to disguise some of the darker moments, depression, self harm, addiction, infidelity, breakdown, heartbreak, death. It’s not a happy collection of themes but somehow the light at the end of the tunnel shines through and it’s an album with a message of hope.

Space Monkeys play the Socialist Sunday event. Picture by Trust A Fox

Space Monkeys play the Socialist Sunday event. Picture by Trust A Fox

Speaking of ‘hope’, the band took part in the pre-election Socialist Sunday event at The Ritz. It was a lovely day involving thousands of energised young people, believing a better world is possible. Then the result of the election came through a few days later. It was devastating, but do you still believe there is hope in our futures?
I’m a socialist and I have been since I first listened to records by The Jam, The Redskins and Billy Bragg so my politics has been directly influenced by music. This election was always doomed to fail. Brexit has been a huge Trojan Horse to keep the Tories in power from day one.

Labour couldn’t ever win whilst it was all about Brexit and I admire Jeremy Corbyn greatly but he never stood a chance with a manifesto that blatantly said it was going all out to attack the billionaires.

The billionaire owners of the media in this country are too powerful and sadly there’s a lot of people of my generation and those before us who have spent their lives reading certain newspapers every day and actually believing what they print is the truth. There’s a reason they put tits on page three.

And the one thing people who are being brainwashed hate being told is that they are being brainwashed. Try it, it’s good fun.

I have hope for the future though because young people don’t read newspapers, they make their own news, they find their own opinions and they share the truth and they see through what isn’t real. My kids knows that when Donald Trump says something is ‘Fake News’ that it’s probably extremely accurate news and he’s trying to hide something.

My nine year old daughter was on her iPad the other day and my dad said ‘You shouldn’t be on that, you should be outside. When I was your age I was playing knock a door run and climbing trees, what are you doing?’. She said ‘Granddad I’m just researching about how to teach myself coding so I can be a computer programmer when I’m older’.

But yeah I consider myself a Socialist but I don’t agree with the ‘left and right’ bollocks. It’s divide and conquer and another example of the powers-that-be putting people into little boxes so it’s easier to control them. I like to challenge everything and if everyone follows a certain path, I’ll look for a different way through. Which winds up a lot of people who know me no end, especially my girlfriend Katie at 4am at music festivals.

The band has now been together, in one form or another, for 25 years. In all that time you have been a prolific song-writer? What is your formula, if you have one?
I can’t sing and I can’t read music and I can barely tune my own guitar. Thats not being humble that’s the truth. That’s my formula. Because of that I think I’ve always had to try harder writing songs, making them stick in people’s heads or make them a bit different in some way so they stand out.

I’m 50 next year and I’ve been writing songs constantly since I was 14. I grew up in a pub with a big jukebox and my first full time job was working in a record shop. And then I started a band and got a record deal and toured the UK and around the world for most of the 1990s.

For a music obsessive I’ve led a pretty good life. Pop music has always been my life and I learned how to write songs from listening to the masters, like Dylan, Smokey Robinson and The Beatles.

TAF_3504

I still have a big box of typed songs I wrote as a teenager before Space Monkeys even formed, hundreds of them. I showed them to my kids the other day and told them if you love doing something and you want to get better, this is how you do it – hard work and practise.

I was lying a bit about the hard work part though, it’s a doddle being in a band and anyone who says otherwise needs to try working in a factory for a week.

The make up of the band has changed since the first time round. Any interesting stories around those changes?
Tell you something I hate? I see young bands these days split up with a very amicable politely worded social media statement. You know.. ‘Rupert, Oscar, Cuthbert and Felix would like to sadly announce their conscious decoupling’ all that bollocks ‘We feel we have taken this project as far as we can’. Completely alien to me all that.

Does that answer the question?

We’ve got a quality line up in the band now, great musicians and top people – that’s all that matters to me and I’d be very happy to be in this band, with this group of people until I die.

Denise Johnson’s amazing voice sounds great on the first track ‘We are Together’. You’ve known Denise a long time, but how great was it getting her involved?
Denise is an unbelievable singer and a top human being. She only sings on the one song though. Although we are good friends, I’m still in awe of her as an artist so I was nervous asking her to sing on too much. Hopefully in the future we will do more writing/recording together on different things because she’s a great songwriter and artist.

I still get a buzz when I’m in a car somewhere and one of many of the classic records she has sang on comes on the radio and I’m like – ‘That’s my friend Denise’ I’ll never stop smiling whenever that happens. I bore my kids to death with it on a weekly basis.

Did anyone else from your wide group of musician acquaintances ‘guest’ on the album that we may not immediately notice?
Yeah – Kyla Brox is the main guest vocalist and she has an unbelievable voice. She sings on three of the tracks and that’s because when she was about 16 or 17 and starting out she used to come down to our home studio in Bury (Rebel Bass) and we’d give her £50 and work her to death and get her to sing five or six songs in a couple of hours so I did the exact same this time.

But she wouldn’t accept the £50… She must’ve been in the studio for only two hours maximum and she recorded three pitch perfect out of this world vocal tracks. Unbelievable talent and again, a great friend and wonderful person.

And also our very good friend Mary Joanna Coogan sings on ‘Yesterdays Rain’. (If you’re reading this Mary – you can blame Neil for mixing you a bit low on the final mix. I wanted you higher…) There’s a few other surprises too, including the wonderful Courtnay Reddy, who has a bright future and a beautiful voice.

All these people offered to sing for free to support what we were doing.

What does the future hold for Space Monkeys? You play The Deaf Institute on February 14, but have said that’s the only gig of the year. Has reforming and all the album issues taken its toll? Please tell us the band isn’t coming to another end?
This might be the last gig of the year or it might be the first of many who knows, we never really plan that far ahead. Life’s a trip.

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