Guardian Weekend - Saturday, September 5th,1998

Nowhere Man

By Michael Bracewell

Mansun have been slated in the music press as a nothing band tram the back of beyond. But this, says their frontman Paul Draper, is exactly why they are so good. They come from Deeside, where the rules of the music-biz are unknown. And they speak to a generation that finds the posturing of today's alternative pop not only dishonest, but also plain stupid

Toward the middle of the 198Os at the start of his first senior year, an introspective teenager called Paul Draper decided to take his acoustic guitar into school with him. But no sooner had he got off the bus, than a couple of older boys - spotting the soft target of a would be musician - grabbed the guitar off him and proceeded to smash it to bits over a garden wall. And that was the young Draper's first experience of trying to become a musician.
   A little more than a decade later, as the lead singer and lyricist of his fledgling group Mansun, Draper would encounter further targeted hostility towards his career as a musician, but this time from a handfull of critics on the music press. "Mansun are four ugly, scruffy nothings, playing ugly, scruffy, nothing music. Dire." So reported the Melody Maker in July 1996. And a few months later, in Select magazine, Mansun were dismissed primarily because they came from Chester. All of which, for Draper, must have seemed as though the boys who smashed his first guitar were now reviewing his band.
   Certainly, the viciousness with which Mansun were first received in some quarters has left Draper with a heightened sensitivity - a bitterness, almost - towards the music press. "I think that when bands come out, says Draper, "the journalists from the magazines sit down and say, 'We're going to back such and such aband.' For instance, when we first came out there was another group called Northern Uproar, who pretty much came out at the same time, and the music papers decided to back them. But we were never even in the New Musical Express until we had a number one LP last year with Attack Of The Grey Lantern - and then they had to mention us. But week in and week out, just the constant barrage of abuse against Mansun has never really gone away."
   Now, however, Draper's conviction that Mansun are despised and rejected by the critical media is being challenged in a fairly big way. The group's latest single, the blisteringly sharp and provocatively androgynous Being A Girl, was a Radio 1 Single Of The Week a month before it was released, and their forthcoming second album, Six, has prompted the editor of the NME to describe Draper as some kind of genius". At the same time, Six has been tipped to enter the British album charts somewhere pretty near the number one spot, and the advance critical response to the record has been extremely favourable.
   And yet, be it from nervousness at the approaching release of the album, which "has been my life for the last year', or from residual anger towards the press for its earlier dismissal of Mansun, Draper remains deeply mistrustful of everything to do with the music business - of all the paraphernalia of pluggers and play-backs and press-releases.
   "That thing about Radio 1 was a fluke, he says, appearing almost anxious to dispel the idea that Mansun could receive any institutional support from anywhere. "The controller of Radio 1 was on holiday, or something, and so Zoe Ball played the record on her show, because she liked it. And then the controller came back and took it off again."
   Delivered by limousine to the minimalist chic of a room at the recently-opened Number One Aldwych hotel, Draper is sipping China tea and smoking Silk Cut with the air of a man who would be just as happy (or as indifferent) in a corner booth at Burger King, providing that the conversation was about music. Dressed in black trousers and a wildly russet-patterned jacket that fans would recognise from his performance on the video for Mansun's Wide Open Space, he has the natural style and ungroomed cool of a late-Nineties neo-punk troublemaker. With his slender figure and slightly frail movements, his messy auburn hair and clear, seldom-blinking gaze, he seems to represent a new departure for British pop music.
   Mansun's whole ethos and image is a distinct move away from the anthemic, festival-conquering guitar rock of The Verve or Oasis, and on - or back - towards a sound and sensibility that is more intricate, crafted and dedicated towards a school of creative free-thinking that can produce some stunningly audacious compositions. With a pop-driven sound, their songs are nervy, introspective, absurdist and aggressive. As a pop group comprising what the trend analyst Peter York would describe as "Neurotic Boy Outsiders" emerging from an industrial no-man's land in the north-west, Mansun could almost be regarded as producing music for the death of Lad culture. And the revenge of the boys who were picked on in the showers is always good for pop music.

   "I think that one thing - and I don't know if it's worked in our favour or not - is that, because we come from Chester, we didn't know anything shout musical culture. We're not from the Liverpool scene, or the Manchester scene, or the London scene - we're from nowhere. I mean, I didn't know that you were supposed to do certain things to he in a band - to be cool, and go to the Blow-Up club in London, or wear the right sort of trainers. I didn't know that you were supposed to write certain lyrics about 'Flying in the sky in the back of your mmd's eye' that all of these big indie bands keep on regurgitating. It's like there are predefined parameters of creativity within alternative music, and we didn't know about them. We came down to London for the first time and we didn't even have a fixed line-up: we had no record deal, and no manager. We only got a manager once we'd put out our first single. People just thought we were a bunch of scally hooligans. But I think that people took the piss out of us so much that eventually we became immune to it. Now we've got skin as thick as a cow's arse. I don't think that we felt as though we had anything to do with anything that was going on in music, and that gave us the freedom... to go down in a blaze of glory." I didn't know you had to wear the right sort of trainers to be in a band
   Three years ago, Mansun only existed in the plans of Draper and his friend Chad, who is now the guitar genius of the group and immortalised in the title of the swoopingly luxurious opening track of Grey Lantern - The Chad Who Loved Me. Eventually, they recruited Andy ("from around Chester") to play the drums, and Draper's friend Stove, from Wrexham Art College, to play the bass guitar. In keeping with the mythology of pop outsiders, Mansun was created from the sheer necessity of doing something to make music in a depressed, semi-suburban industrial hinterland.
   "I was born in Liverpool, but brought up just over the border, in a part of North Wales which is the absolute nothing of Great Britain - Deeside: the worst possible part of the United Kingdom. Pwellhi and Rhyl are like real Wales in comparison. Deeside is just the bit where the Welsh people really aren't Welsh because they were infiltrated by the English in the Fifties and Sixties. It's where everyone from Liverpool ended up. Basically, just after the war, Liverpool had 800,000 people; now it's got 390,000 people, and the missing 400,000 all live in Deeside. It's a horrible, horrible place, just totally deprived since the steel-works and the coal mines shut down. It's really violent, and it's gut nothing going for it at all.
   "As a kid, I spent all of my summer holidays in Liverpool, in some of the roughest parts, where my aunties lived. And even within that deprivation there was a musical culture. In Liverpool, if you're 15 and you pick up an acoustic guitar in school and play a song, then people would listen. But in my school when I tried to take in a guitar, I was just a poof and a queer, and that was that."
   In Deeside - which is one of those areas that the "psycho-geographer" Iain Sinclair would describe as a "peripheral space" - Draper went to the Catholic secondary school before spending a reasonably futile couple of years at art college. Art schools have played a major role in the careers of certain types of pop stars, from john Lennon's attendance at Liverpool School Of Art in the late Fifties, to Malcolm McLaren's pre-punk ponderings at Croydon Art College. Without the art school ethos, British pop would have been cheated of David Bowie's generation-shaping, intellectualised flamboyance, and Rosy Music's importation of the avant-garde to the high street. But for Draper, studying three-dimensional design at Wrexham Art College during the deep recession of the early 199Os, art school was more of a refuge from the seeming inevitability of unemployment than a laboratory for creative thinking.
   "I didn't get on with the lecturers at art school. It seemed like they had such strict ideas of creativity that just didn't make any sense to me. Governments have probably pumped millions into art education since the second world war, and what's it produced? Not much, in my opinion. But they've pumped absolutely nothing into popular music, and what has that produced? Probably the greatest body of creative work in this country since the war. I really do believe that pop music is the highest form of art there is; it's the greatest clash of contradictions: cynical, money-making entertainment and high art, all at the same time. It was probably msuic that sent me to art college. I didn't go thinking, 'I'm going to fashion a Cubist renaissance', or anything; I always thought that modern art was ridiculous. And then one of the lecturers said, 'Are you another musician wasting time in art college?' and I said, 'Yeah.' I did some paintings using a ruler to paint lines with, and the lecturer hated them. So I left, and that was that. I'd probably just heard Nevermind by Nirvana, and thought 'I've got to get a band together'; but I think that my experience at art college was just a microcosm of life in general, because as soon as I got into a band we had these reviews saying, 'You can't do that' and hating us. That's all people seem to say."
   Mansun were conceived in a marginalised provincial environment just as the consumer culture of regional regeneration - all precincts and post-modernism - was beginning to fall apart. In this sense, they have created an empathetic reaction to contemporary Britain's small towns, regional hinterlands and dormitory suburbs. Their music describes the emotional terrain of such places (Attack Of The Grey Lantern is more or less a biopsy of provincial Britain's secret psychology) and thus their fans have tended to come from the edges of the edge, rather than the hip centres of youth culture.
   "We like to play extremely small concerts in mad towns like Lincoln and Shrewsbury, where no bands ever go. With the money we made from Glastonbury, we played ten really small towns, and when we got to Bury St. Edmunds there was this guy waiting outside the venue for us. It was like something out of Star Wars. He said, 'Thank God you've come. I've been waiting here since 1976.' And we asked why. And he said, 'Well, in 1976 The Clash walked out of that door and signed my poster, and that was it - they were the last band to come here. And now you've arrived. Someone wanted to play Bury St Edmunds.'"
   Mansun's early struggles as a young live band - such as being put on at a Mod club in Leeds called Brighton Beach, and then being bottled off - were compounded by the mixture of critical hostility and indifference with which their attempts were being met by the music press. But for Draper, being bottled off the stage could have its exhilarating side; it was the response to Mansun from the press that really annoyed him.
Live and kicking: 'The worst thing people could say about Mansun is, "Oh, they're all nght,"' says frontman Paul Draper. 'Because we're not "all right". We're a really exiting live group'    "Now that the circulation of the music papers is so low," he asserts, "they have to back the groups which they know are going to come through. And the only groups that they know are going to come through are the groups that are played on the radio. And the groups that are played on the radio make really boring music. So I don't think that there's room for anything like punk rock to ever happen again. I think what the music industry needs is something to come along and blow it right open - like four kids from nowhere, who haven't gut a clue what they're doing. It's all old cliche, but if you can provoke someone to hate you, it's a lot better than people thinking you're average. For me, the worst thing would be for people to say about Mansun, 'Oh, they're all right, I suppose.' Because we're not 'all right', we're a really exciting live group, and we make interesting records which are challenging and different, and totally beyond the scope of what British bands are doing at the moment."
   In keeping with their creative stance of challenging accepted commercial practice, Mansun do not appear in the video for their latest single, Being A Girl. Instead, director Jamie Thraves describes the sexual ambiguity of the song through a gym and locker-room scenario that features a mascara'd, nail-polished boy outsider who is both in love with his wide-smiling, macho peers and ready to smash their faces in. But there is also a rising buzz of excitement from the older members of the music press and an entire army of original punk rockers towards the single's B-side, Railings, which is written and sung - in a duet with Draper - by Howard Devoto.
   Devoto is the man who co-founded The Buzzcocks with Pete Shelley in 1976, wrote the seminal punk single Spiral Scratch, and then went on to achieve phenomenal cult status with his second group, Magazine. He retired from making music in the mid-Eighties, subsequent to disbanding his third group, Luanria. Since then, unlike nearly all of his punk peers, Devoto has refused to either reform his former group, or to join in with any "new wave' reunions. He simply chose to disappear into an ordinary job. He now works at a leading photographic agency in London.
   But Devoto has always been the joker in the punk pack: he is one of the few pop writers whose lyrics have been published as a literary collection, in Black Spring's acclaimed edition of 1991, It Only Looks As If It Hurts. Morrissey has cited him as one of the inspirational figures for his own enigmatic single, The Last Of The Famous International Playboys, and biographer Peter Frame described him as "the Orson Welles of punk". Devoto is currently writing his autobiography, but strictly for posthumous publication.
   Now, having agreed to discuss his involvement with Mansun, Devoto is sitting in the restored Edwardian balcony bar at the Charing Cross Station Hotel. He is softly spoken, chooses his words with extreme care, and can sometimes sound like a slightly scary northern headmaster.
   "Writing lyrics can be relatively painless - given enough time. And none of this has been too arduous or time-consuming. I have to say that I think there is an awful lot of talent in Mansun. In fact, I'm sure that, at some point in the future, someone will ask Paul to collaborate with them. When that happens, I hope that they treat him with a little bit more respect. I got involved with the group through the ordinary bits of life: the sister of one of their managers works where I work in central London. She got to hear a little about my past and must have mentioned it to her brother, who then mentioned it to Mansun. And then I got these kind of feeler about would I possibly be interested in doing something with them..."
   "We sent him our record," says Draper, "and didn't hear anything back for ages. And then we got this phone call and it was, like, Howard Devoto! And we were totally awestruck, actually. Railings is such an amazing track, and I'd love to do more, or go deeper, or a do a whole EP with Howard, or whatever. But God knows if he would ever want to do it."
   "It would be entirely in their hands," says Devoto. "I simply wandered into a studio with them for a few afternoons. I've tried to make it clear that my involvement does have to stop somewhere. I am not going to have a career in the music business regenerated by this, thank you very much. It's just an after-hours thing that I do, or have done. There is nothing grand at all about my decision to stop being in music. I had, at a personal level, and at a professional level secondarily, a fairly appalling 1980s. My career went down the pan with a fair bit of a flash when I made a solo album that I still don't like very much to this day; and following that, predictably enough, my psyche went down the pan as well.
   "With my then partner Noko's assistance, and what eventually became Luxuria, I crawled my way out of that, and we made a couple of albums - the first of which, although I liked some of the material very much, I didn't think was that good. But I still, to this day, like the second album. But as I said at the time, 'I just thought that that record was really really good, but none of you folks out there did, and there's a lot more of you than me, so let democracy rule.' And I'm okay about that. I don't want to make records at any personal cost; there are other things I can do. But to make that work as a life decision, you have to say, 'I'm somewhere else, I'm doing something else, and I'm almost a different person.' And that's the kind of way I've had to do it." The outsiders: Paul Draper formed Mansun with his friend and guitarist Chad, and later recruits drummer Andie Rathbone and bassist Stove King, out of a need to make music in depressed semi-suburbia
   In their collaboration with Devoto, Mansun's credibility rating more or less goes off the scale. But Draper's sole interest is in the musical progression of the group, rather than in its image. In an interview last year, he said, "My ultimate aim is to create an album with just one song on it, and all the music ranging from one passage into the other with one lyrical theme." Six could be said to achieve just that. For people who have heard Grey Lantern, Six will show a powerful maturing of the group's sound, but no compromise to their edgy, pop-driven sensibility. Combining segments of punk thrash with cool stretches of lyrical virtuosity, the album has the distinct feeling of a musical journey, taking the listener through a succession of tight pop melodies and connecting passages of instrumentals that are effortlessly sexy and brooding. It could be argued, in fact, that Six is an album that rehabilitates that most unfashionable of rock media, the concept album.
   Lyrically, Six is something of a soundtrack for existential angst and teenage nihilism, beginning with the statement on the track Negative that "Life is a compromise anyway", and pressing on through tracks such as Anti-Everything and Special/Blown It (Delete As Appropriate) to the final thundering finale of Being A Girl.
   "The album originated on tour last year. We didn't have the luxury of finishing our touring and then going away to write a new album, so we came up with it in soundchecks. We'd have little snippets of ideas, and we'd play them. All I had was a little notebook, which I'd write in on the tour bus - just lines of thought that were honest for me. We'd sort of learned how to become a good live group last year, and I felt that I wanted to replicate that live sound, and so we put the album together chronologically, as we came up with the material in soundchecks, and then played it live. On the Internet, you can find transcripts of the early lyrics to the new songs - Six, Negative and Shotgun - and they're totally different to the finished versions."
   With his vehement opposition to the music press, and his insistence on Mansun's independence from any of the prevailing trends in British - or American - alternative music, Draper is now faced with the problem of critical acceptance and commercial success. If he has been driven to create by a sense of being a misunderstood outsider, even within his own profession of rock music, he may now have to consider new ways of maintaining the emotional chemistry of his creativity. Neurotic Boy Outsiders should never be picked for the First Eleven.
We like to play small concerts in mad towns like Lincoln, where no bands ever go    "If it wasn't for Mansun, I'd probably be a dogsbody in a reprographics factory. I used to lie in bed at night and will myself to make music. I can't contemplate the idea of being 30 and not being in a group. Something I've always questioned in myself is, 'Do I want to be creative?' or 'Do I want to be a pop star?' And I think I've sort of proved to myself that I want to be creative, because I could easily have taken the melodies out of some of the songs on Six and tried to make great radio-friendly hits out of them. But I didn't. I never even considered the possibility.
   "All the people who are into Mansun are, like, real music fans, and have big record collections and are really educated about music. And I still don't think that we'll ever pick up any fans outside of that. Because, I think, they just constantly read that we should fuck off back to Chester."
   Thus expressed, Paul Draper returns to his limousine.
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