Toshack Highway - Dec. 11 '00: Spexx, Krefeld (D)

Review + interview
Adam Franklin and Robin Proper-Sheppard get in the ring (metaphorically speaking)

For you Swervedriver was one of the most exciting bands of the 90s? You'd give your last dime for a Spirtualized live show? You always listen to Sophia's records when you're down and as soon as you put them on you feel better? Well, then two things are for certain: 1) you got an excellent taste in music, and 2) you gotta ask yourself why the hell you haven't been at the show at the Spexx Club in Krefeld, Germany on December 11th!

Because that's where Toshack Highway - the new project of Swervedriver main man Adam Franklin - played that night, possibly the only band right now who manages to mix the epic elegance of Spiritualized and the heartbreaking melancholy of Sophia. The latter is not really that surprising since the live line-up of Toshack Highway is almost identical to Sophia's live band. And yes, that's Robin Proper-Sheppard, the mainman from Sophia and its excellent spin-off project, The May Queens, playing bass in Toshack Highway as well. The sad thing is, though, that Sophia usually still draw quite a number of people even on a slow Monday night, even if they play a relatively new venue like the Spexx, whereas Toshack Highway don't. And so they had to play their still very good show in front of only nine people - including the sound guy, the bartender and the promoter. And if that wouldn't have been reason enough to shed some tears, Adam played a gorgeous solo version of Candy Says by The Velvet Underground at the soundcheck that almost moved your truly to tears - tears of joy, that is.

Even though the fact that there was no audience meant that the band's show wasn't exactly enthusiastic, the English quartet still managed to give us some hints how awesome the performance possible could've been if anybody had bothered to show up. Especially the old Swervedriver fans, who may have thought that Toshack Highway's album this spring was too soft and/or experimental, should be sorry. Because on stage the band sounded a lot more raw and - in contrast to the album - didn't have a lot in common with Sophia anymore. I've Lost The Feeling was a huge wall-of-sound-kinda number, something that's hardly apparent in the studio version and on Board The Bullet Train they played around a lot more with a sound on loan from My Bloody Valentine than on the record as well. All that's left to say is that is was a great show and you missed it. Until next time you can show that you're able to learn from your mistakes.

In the meantime, you can get up to date with what's been happening in Adam's and Robin's world. Luna Kafé met them as the two came to Cologne, Germany earlier last year, to talk about their new albums with Toshack Highway and The May Queens, the Flower Shop label (which Robin owns), music, band names and friendship.

Carsten: I was very surprised when I got The May Queens' and Toshack Highway's albums. Judging from the first track alone, it sounds as if Adam was the man behind the May Queens and Robin did the Toshack Highway album, even though it's actually the other way round!
Adam: I know! We were discussing this yesterday. It's quite good that these two albums come out at the same time and will be promoted at the same time, because they sounds so different. But we both feel that we can listen to these new things easier than things in the past. When you finish recording something and get the finished CD of it, that's often the point where you switch off and think of the next thing. This time, it's a little different.

Carsten: So what's the main difference been Swervedriver and Toshack Highway the way you look at it?
Adam: The main difference sound wise is that a lot of the songs were actually composed on the keyboard, which is something I'd never done before. If you actually heard some of my demos for Swervedriver songs they generally in some way initially sound a lot more like Toshack Highway, because they are bedroomy sort of demos. It's just when they get harnessed to the Swervedriver machine, they become something totally different. This album just stayed at a calm and surreal level.

Carsten: Did you write the songs for a side-project or whatever you wanna call it or were they initially composed for the next Swervedriver record?
Adam: Initially I was looking at it from both angles. I played some of the songs to the guys in Swervedriver and said: 'How we go on about doing it? Do we need to get a keyboard player and everything?' But then we thought: 'Well, this is a different thing really'. Ultimately, we decided that it deserved to be a different thing with a different approach And once this decision was made, it opened the whole thing up, because you didn't need to have drums on every track anymore, you could use programmed drums or a tabla or whatever. In the end it was the best thing to do. It's a richer instrument tapestry, a richer kind of sound, something a bit less expected.

Carsten: So working on the Toshack Highway album was a real challenge?
Adam: Definitely! The first song for example started out as a guitar chord sequence and we built the rest around it and when we listened to it, it wasn't quite right, it was a bit too busy, so we took out the guitar and suddenly we had this whole new thing. I like that kind of evolution, when you start off with something and by the end of it that initial thing is not even there anymore.

Carsten: I guess it's very much different with Swervedriver. That's probably more like: 'Can we have another guitar here?'
Adam (laughs): Yeah, that's right! There is actually a lot of stuff on this album that I didn't expect to be there. I thought it would be more stripped down and originally it was supposed to be all-instrumental and really minimal and lo-fi sounding, because the budget was much smaller than ever before. But we actually warmed to the task of doing it with little money and at the same time these rich sounds came out anyway. It was definitely a challenge, though.

Carsten: You did the album with Charlie Francis. How did you get involved with him?
Adam: I met him on a Swervedriver session years ago and I remembered him, because he's an engineer and also a musician, he's great at the piano and we sat down and played songs like Superstition by Stevie Wonder and I Am The Walrus [by The Beatles] and I was looking at the chord changes and stuff. I couldn't really play most of the songs that are now on the record, I just got the basic ideas down on a keyboard on a tape and then I passed them over to Charlie and suddenly he played the songs that I had written... the process was quite interesting. On the first song there's a whole section where I'm not even on it.

Carsten: Since you're having so much fun with Toshack Highway, does this mean Swervedriver are finished?
Adam: We have been demoing things. The last Swervedriver record took soooo long to come out. We started recording at the end of 1996 or something ridiculous like that and by the start of 1998 it finally came out and there are various things, reels of tape in our studio with songs on. But with the label going bust and us taking this time out... we originally wanted to take six months off, that's now become a year and everybody's doing their own little thing.

Carsten: In what ways do you think Toshack Highway will reflect on future Swervedriver songs?
Adam: Well, Swervedriver was going in that direction anyway. There is a song on a b-side called Good Ships which is just us jamming and Jez, our drummer put it through the computer, so he was definitely thinking more along the lines of doing that kind of thing. The last time we sat down and discussed everything, it was all slightly different angles. That's why we decided rather than doing something that's a bit of everything as Swervedriver, everybody can go and do their own thing for a while. It was also a conscious decision to make sure that Toshack Highway didn't tread on Swervedriver's ground. There are three songs that didn't make it onto the album, one of which sounded too much like Swervedriver. I thought: 'It needs a big guitar.' And then: 'Wait, if it needs a big guitar, why is it a Toshack Highway song?'

Carsten: Adam, you also had some disastrous experiences with (major) record labels over the last five years or so. And now you're on Robin's label Flower Shop, which interestingly enough, released a limited edition Swervedriver single some six years ago. Is that how you guys first met?
Adam: I think we actually met in a pub called the Camden Falcon. I think you [pointing at Robin] were drunk actually and you were like: 'Heeeeey, aren't you the guy from Swervedriver?' and I replied: 'Then you must be in the God Machine' or something.
Robin: I remember our friendship was sealed when... well, there was this 60s pop band from San Diego called The Morlocks and they had a track called Last Train To Satansville and we [The God Machine] covered it, but we couldn't use the original title for some stupid reason, so we changed the name of it and just called it Train and I was telling Adam the title of the song and then, a few weeks later, when we were rehearsing at the same place, I see written down on a cassette - Last Train To Satansville! I go: 'Hmmmmmmm...' So basically we did the song and changed the name and Adam used the name and recorded a different song. Then I thought: 'Ok, we are on something here.' That must have been in 1993.
Adam: I guess there was a whole little scene going on at the time in Camden with Silverfish and all these bands...
Robin(laughs, making fun of Adam and Swervedriver): That ole shoegazer scene...
Adam (returning the "favour"): ...and that old neo-goth scene...(laughs)

Carsten: So what took you so long then, Adam, to finally make an album on Flower Shop?
Adam (smiling): Well, the money was terrible. No really, it was fun doing that single all those years ago, like a one-off thing, but we never talked about doing another record until I did the Sophia stuff [Adam joined Robin's "main" band for their 1999 tour]. But even the Toshack Highway album was originally going to be released by Zero Hour and they kinda funded half of the album and then went bust. So Charlie, my manager Andy and me kind of thought: 'Who can we ask to put this out and somebody thought, well maybe Robin would be into doing it and as it happens he was. It's really cool now, because Robin's a mate of mine and it's just a different way of doing things after all the bad luck we'd had in the past.
Robin: The irony of it all is, he's been on major labels for all of this time, but this is actually the first European press trip he's done as well. It's such a small level, but it's really important. When you're involved in a big system like a major label, the simplest things just seem so difficult. It was the same for The God Machine. But at this level, we can just talk about it. If Adam or his manager Andy have an idea, it's just a phone call and you book a ticket and you're there! For example, the Sophia records on Flower Shop sold more than The God Machine did on Polygram! In some ways it can actually be better to be on a small label.

Carsten: I know you're into limited edition things as well. Is that mainly because of financial reasons? I guess the new album by The May Queens is a 5,000 copies only release?
Robin: It was set at 5,000 because it's just a side project and I wanted to have fun and express a different side of myself musically, but if I was to keep manufacturing records, there would be pressure to try to force it to build and build and build.

Carsten: Silly last question: I know the name Toshack Highway combines the name of two football players from Liverpool FC, John Toshack and Steve Heighway [sic!]. But where does The May Queens come from?
Robin: When we were on tour in Germany in the winter of 1998, our van broke down in Schweinfurt and we were sitting in the van in the snow and we were playing Led Zeppelin IV and Stairway To Heaven came on. I was kinda listening to the words and there is a line that goes 'it's just a spring clean for the May Queen'. And I thought: 'That was THE worst line in rock'n'roll history'. But at the same time I thought: 'The May Queens? What a brilliant name for a band!'
Carsten Wohlfeld, Luna Kafé e-zine

Pic by Carsten Wohlfeld

Pic by Carsten Wohlfeld

Pic by Carsten Wohlfeld