Nottingham-based alternative rock outfit Luxury Stranger speak to Dave Goodwin about their new line-up, intensive touring schedule and playing Europe.
October 13, 2018
By David Goodwin
It is rather strange I know, but Luxury Stranger, strangely enough, are no strangers to Pennyblack. We have interviewed them and reviewed probably more of their and front man Simon York’s material than any other magazine this side of the Moon. Simon York has been writing and performing for a long time and the band itself has undergone many transformations along the way, some good, some not so good, but Simon has always carried on with his belief in Luxury Stranger and must be one of the hardest working guys in the music business.
This time I catch Luxury Stranger in a place where they haven't been and I haven't seen them for a long time and with a lead singer with a happy face. A change has come to the band. What was once an uncertain time has now calmed, and the band themselves are enjoying their time. It seems that Luxury Stranger may be destined for greater things.
We all walk into a famous Nottingham drinking house near enough at the same time, except for Martin Valentine, Luxury Stranger’s bassist, who will be joining us when he can. The surroundings are light and airy and the beer is good, and there is hardly anybody around at this time of day, except for a few early football supporters on the way to the match which starts a little later. We get a beer and all sit in the far room, which has just one group of footie lads in who despite their size are making a tidy din.
I am sitting next to Simon. We have met numerous times over the last five/six years and shared some darker and some brighter times over a beer at various pubs in the city, but this meeting is somehow different. Simon seems more animated and cheery than the last time I caught up with him. To his left and his right sits a new Luxury Stranger in the guise of drummer Harry Hallam. Martin, the third and final member of the band, will catch up with us when he makes it in from his recording studio duties. While we are waiting for him I start the proceedings by interrogating Harry...
PB: Harry, what have you been up to and how did you join Luxury Stranger?
HH: Well, I'm originally from Nottingham, well actually Chillwell which is between Beeston and Long Eaton. I left school and decided to go to college and study music. I spent just under three years there as I didn't quite finish. I did music, technology and performance learning how to build a stage through to how to work the decks etc, but I left just before the end of the third year. I have played in various other bands such as the college band I was in at the time.
PB: I know you auditioned for the drummer vacancy in the band. Were there any other candidates for it?
SY: There were other people. Yeah! We had people turning up and I thought, “Oh, this is good,” but then they would turn round and say they had other things to do and then it turns out that the things they had to do weren't actually anything special, so I thought they'd missed out on a big chance and so that was that. And then luckily Harry came along.
PB: Simon, with the new changes to the line-up what difference has it made to the old Luxury Stranger?
SY: I don't think there is an old Luxury Stranger as such. No disrespect to any of the band but I don't think of it as something old and then new. It is continually developing. Now, however, the people who are in the band seem to be the most committed people and driven people that I've worked with. Like I say at the end of shows, “This is Luxury Stranger.” Again, no disrespect to anybody but this is the best line up I've worked with.
PB: Is it a step up from where you've been before?
PB: People like young Harry here have made that step up?
PB: So what difference has Harry made and what has he brought to Luxury Stranger?
SY: Enthusiasm and again the commitment, drive, verve and also his interest in something he wouldn't have necessarily known about. He would probably never even thought about listening to Luxury Stranger. Even though it's not a million miles away from what Harry was brought up listening to, but it's also a bit different.
At this point the third member of the band arrives and we head for the bar. On returning we become involved in the discussion of the trials and tribulations of buying tickets for the match from the club’s website and how old people must really be hacked off with it, before we return to the art of the chat.
MV: I'm Martin Valentine, bass guitarist with Luxury Stranger and also backing vocalist and general raconteur and bringer / provider of deep insight and meaning and other things like that. I also own the studio where Darkness Falls Upon the Light, Luxury Stranger’s third and latest album, was made, and it's also a place in which to record and use as a base while we write and record the next album. The studio is Random Recording, which is arguably Nottingham's finest.
PB: So, Harry, you are the youngest member of the group. What sort of stuff were you listening to as you were growing up? Was it anything like the stuff you are playing now?
HH: Obviously I was listening to the same stuff as my mum and dad, but eventually I started buying rock and punk records and that broadened my horizons into everything else. So, now generally l will give anything a listen. Whether I like it or not is a different thing, but I'll give anything a try because it's all influence and something you can take inspiration from.
I started listening to Green Day and then from that got into the Sex Pistols and the Clash and that sort of thing. I love punk. I like Blink 182. That's the sort of stuff I grew up with. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers as well! Those, however, have been my main influences.
MV: I have just been to my 102nd Simple Minds gig. I started going to those on the 12th March 1984.
SY: Word has it that there are people who have been to more than two Luxury Stranger gigs!
PB: There is! There's a guy that has been at every gig I've been to who stands right at the front in the middle and he knows every single word.
SY: That's Dodds.
Simon then drifts off into remembering all the regular Luxury Stranger fans that he knows.
SY: But the best thing is that you stand and talk to some of these people and they are friends, but we never started off as friends but we met them along the way because we were gigging.
PB: You're off on the road touring and gigging and you've done a few gigs now outside Nottingham in this line-up of the band.
SY: Until we get to the next rung on the ladder, we've got our core following. There aren't that many bands that go out of their home town and gig and have a core following already that you can build on. This is one of things that I love about this band that we have that.
PB: You got your passports sorted and went off abroad, didn't you?
SY: We actually returned to play abroad in May. We are already booked over there for next year. We've got two shows already booked in Belgium and we are working on Germany, Holland and France in order to try and make it a big bigger tour. That's the sort of thing we want to be doing really.
PB: How does it affect your everyday life?
SY: This is our everyday life (Laughs). Martin will tell you. Martin used to be my boss in my old day job. My attitude is that this is my job and my career and that the day job's the hobby that pays money.
PB: It’s your bread and butter money.
SY: Yeah, and if the right thing comes along, even I've got no holidays left, I'll go. I'll take the time off and I willl lose pay, just to have that time off and go and do that because it is what is more important. I've been doing this sort of thing, being a musician performing in front of audiences that I did not know since I was about eight years old and I've been a working musician since I was about sixteen or seventeen. This is what is in my blood.
MV: I am the same. It's a hard thing to explain. This is who I am. It's hard to explain to people that this is who I am, not this is what I do. If you said to a musician or a performer that they need to stop doing it, you might as well tell them to go chop a leg off. It's just something you have to do, For me, it's always been a real problem because I own a studio, so I can go in and do my own work knowing years later that I haven't finished anything yet. It is even more of a problem now because I'm doing this which is fine. I have no problem with this.
The table erupts into laughter.
MV: Real life gets in the way. As well as the studio, I have my own property building company. Simon is used now to us when we get together getting a piece of music and picking the hell out of it and saying, “Let's try and make this as good as it can be.”
PB: Simon, you have written songs for many years. Do you feel like you have to write more or less or do these guys help out now? How does it work?
SY: It's not a case that I feel I have to write more, I'm encouraged to write more because I'm more excited and happy about what we are doing. I can be in the shower and I come up with a verse and a chorus. I will then get my phone while I'm drying myself off and just hum it into my phone.
MV: That's actually true! He came in one day and said, "I thought of this while I was in the shower."
SY: It’s almost like I have a secret power, like I can see music. It's got a colour. Luxury Stranger’s music has a colour, and it’s almost like a red or a maroon colour. It's like old velvet curtains that you get in old cinemas and theatres. It's kind of like that. There are things that I'll do and I'll go, “Yeah that's cool,” and then I'll go, “Mmm, it’s not really Luxury Stranger,” and then there's time when I'm in the shower and I can hear the other guitarist, or I can hear some string arrangements, or I can hear a really good rhythm that will work. A lot of the time I will just do a loop of the dynamics and get the feel and then say I've done a demo. Harry will go, "Oh, I know what you're doing with it." And then Harry will turn it into his own beat up of all the other stuff.
MV: Dynamics in a band is a very interesting one. It's interesting because when I was writing my own stuff I didn't really know who would be playing it. Then you bring people into play on it and immediately you think, “Oh well, how would he play the drums or how would he play the guitar to that one?” Your writing starts orientating around how you think people will play it. I can hear it on demos now and when we play, and I go, “I wonder how Harry would play that,” and it starts to seep into the way you write.
It's good in a way and it's also bad because you don't want to run the risk of getting stereotyped. So, we are in this kind of weird zone where I'll go and do something new or what my first instinct tells me. The first thing that anyone tells you is, “That's a bit long” or 'Yeah, it's alright but I think the chorus should be like this,” and I go, “Who the hell are you?” So, it is quite hard to go with it. What I will say, however, is that Simon’s output in the last two months has gone through the roof because he is bringing things into rehearsal shouting, “I've got this.” We will have a play of it and we will go, ”It's okay,” and you will see him a little crestfallen but then he goes away and writes a better song. It's the driving you on and the commitment to it that makes you go, “Oh right, I'll show you then.” I know I can do better. I'll probably chip in with something like, “I don't like the verse but I do like the chorus. I think you can do better there.”
My stance on it is the first one could be good but the next one will be better. And it has to be better. We recently had a conversation about the new Interpol album, and he has already coloured my view on it because I asked him about it and he said, “Yeah, it's kind of alright,” but a band in their position or in their career cycle “kind of alright” isn't good enough. It's not enough. The die hards will keep going but the new listeners will drift away. Maybe they don't want to be any more famous.
I fell in love with Death Cab for Cutie in around 2005, and I saw them at Glastonbury and thought they were amazing. They brought out a couple of albums which were beautiful and stunning, and then it just plateau-ed out. I felt really let down like they were on the cusp of something great, but there were too many yes men and not enough people saying, “No, that's not good enough and you could do better.” Where's the A&R people? Listen to Bono singing on the last few U2 albums. Whoever produced that should never have let him get away with it. The melodies are not strong. No one is saying, “You can do that better. Simplify that out. That lyric doesn't make sense'.
SY: It’s almost like Bono one day had a bad cold or maybe his voice went or something like that and he got scared to push himself. The way I sing in Luxury Stranger now I let it rip like I never used to do in my old band when I was younger. I used to just sing nice melodies and that's alright, but it’s better if you let it rip. I think what's happened to him is that he must have got in this comfy stage and then thought, “I don't want to get out because I've then got to sing that on tour, haven't I?”
MV: Which leads us nicely to the Achtung Baby theory. Radiohead used to muck about with the track listing on their albums. Not the songs but the order of the songs. A friend of mine gave this hypothesis to me that Achtung Baby was the perfect album in terms of that type of song is number one and that type of song is number two and so on, the structure of it and what follows what. Get Radiohead's The Bends and compare it to Achtung Baby. It's the same song in the same place. Zoo Station is kind of the scene setter. Planet Telex kind of sets the tone and then they are into the hit and it all flows. Then you have One etc etc. It's almost like they have billions of songs all stored up in various states of repair, and some of them they play like “we are already in the set now,” and we like them although they are givens, and then it is which one of those tracks fits into that track listing.
Harry was very bewildered by it all, so we sat there and said, “Okay, let’s fit what we can into that track listing like Achtung Baby and The Bends. It gives you a starting point, and if you know you can make it flow that way you are on to something.” My ultimate aim is that we will all fall out and have a massive fight over the track listing. Simon came in the other day and said, "You know that slow one we've got. I think that should be track eleven.” I said,”No, it should be track twelve because you've got the ending". This is the kind of territory we are in now. Simon brought in a couple tracks which were quite brooding and slow and he said he could see these two tracks as a pair, and I said, “To be honest, I could see them as one or the other.”
It's a really interesting tussle, and we are stretching ourselves with other stuff too like electronics and drum machines and programmed things going on, and there are some real practicalities as to how you make things work. We are not U2 and we don't have access to all the gear they have, and we simply have to find a way to make it work. There are some really interesting things to explore there.
Epic is the thing. I came in a long time ago and said that the album we are now working on needs to be epic. Now, that doesn't mean that every song needs to be epic. It's got to really cut it. Simon went away and wrote one song frankly as a pop song. It came together in about five minutes. I played it to my family the other day, and the only thing that is bad on it is that I'm really crap as a backing singer on it.
SY: It's similar to when I recorderd the Darkness Falls Upon The Light album. Originally we had nine songs but one of them was a bit too different and not 'Luxury Stranger'. As we were coming closer to recording the album, I just thought, “Screw this, I'm not going to do that song. I want to do this instead". That's when I brought in the actual song that is now the title track on the album. Originally that was like the Bunnymen doing a Beatles song. It had that kind of theme to it.
PB: I had heard that there could be an addition on the way.
SY: Oh yeah, definitely. That doesn't mean we are writing things to include another guitar. I continue to write as a three piece and still make songs sound great. It's like The Real is Done. There are two guitar parts on there but it can be gigged as one guitar if needs be and still sounds massive.
HH: Also we want to be playing as much as possible live and not be too reliant on backing tracks.
SY: We are trying to expand on what we have got without losing the fact that we have a big sound for a small group of people and we want to continue being as slick and good as we can be.
We realise that time is on us, and it's time for the lads to go and watch the football, so we all have a last little round up and Luxury Stranger disappear into the warm Nottingham evening.
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