Guardian Weekend - Saturday, September 5th,1998
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
Thus expressed, Paul Draper returns to his limousine.
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1998