The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Van Politics: Miles Hunt Of The Wonder Stuff Interviewed
The Quietus , July 20th, 2015 07:34

Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff met up with Karen Shook in Letchworth Garden City recently to talk diaries, crying at Clash songs, vibrating fans and “shitty office politics in a van”

All photographs courtesy Nick Sayers Photography

“I smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, bite my fingernails and for seven barely tolerable years, I was a pescatarian. However, I haven’t smoked cannabis or owned a television for almost ten years, and can’t help but wonder whether the two are related. I have never taken a Class A drug, I don’t do ‘shots’ and at the age of 40 I swore off ever again wearing a pair of shoes that could be described as ‘sportswear’. Throughout my teens and into my mid-twenties I kept scrapbooks, and since 1987 I have been a sporadic diary keeper. It is from those diaries that I have attempted to tell the story of how I became the Curly-Haired Gobshite That Sings for the Wonder Stuff in the book you are about to read. I make no claim that it is a wholly original story. I have met too many other people that have been in or around bands during the last 25 years and have come to the conclusion that one band’s experiences are much the same as another’s. As I have read these diaries for the first time since they were written, beginning over 25 years ago, I have been amused and saddened in equal measure.”
Extract from the introduction to Miles Hunt’s The Wonder Stuff Diaries 86-89

The last joke is quipped, the last wry slice of anecdote is read, the last full-throated, sweet-and-spiky acoustic version of an early Wonder Stuff song is sung, and all that remains is for tonight’s entire stock of The Wonder Stuff Diaries 86-89 to be sold, as duly happens, to the former teenaged stage divers and onetime shitfaced sing-alongers now sitting in tidy rows in the Letchworth Arts Centre on a warm summer night.

But first, as promised, Miles Hunt reads out the questions they’ve written down during the interval, using the biros and the pieces of paper that he put on 100-odd chairs a couple of hours ago.

“Why did you break up The Wonder Stuff in 1994?”

“Because I hated the rest of the band."

As feel-good books of the summer go, for anyone of a certain age who ever wore a sweaty band T-shirt to death, The Wonder Stuff Diaries 86-89 is a gem, a best-in-show display of sharp writing and indignant drollery from the Black Country’s long-haired child of John Lydon. It’s one of those madcap races from first rehearsal to first big triumphs (even though the Stuffies’ lairy, hairy and indie-poptastic greatest success lay in the 1990s, and in a Diaries yet to come), and the soundtrack is all irresistible toplines and comic basslines… and a discordant note of something unforgotten, unforgiving, and probably unfixable in the mix.

It is, inevitably, a scrapbook of all those yesterdays: a fateful “drummer seeks band into Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen” advert, and all the other bits and bobs that more frontmen than you imagine collect carefully and save lovingly – handwritten lyrics, demo tape artwork, gig tickets, stick-on passes, adverts from long-dead weekly music papers, single sleeves, test pressings. A 1982 Stourbridge News cutting about Into Eden, the “camp, pretentious and utterly directionless” band Hunt shared with Clint Mansell, future Pop Will Eat Itself frontman and, later, Mr Big of film soundtracks. Hunt’s earnest accounts – which today probably need footnotes – of the moral dilemma posed by leaving an indie for a major, or selling singles in multiple, cash-grabbing formats. A Garfield the Cat diary in which 1987’s events of import are detailed ("Monday 21 December: signed to Polydor for £80,000!!! Tuesday 22 December: Doctors 4pm"). Snapshots of harassed-looking managers on hotel lobby sofas; the American girls who came and went; the odd traumatic fashion decision (leather beret and chin hair, page 172). And, poignantly, on the final page, a Tom Sheehan portrait of The Wonder Stuff’s Rob “Bass Thing” Jones, fag in hand, staring straight to camera, not long before he quit and Hunt never spoke to him again. Three and a half years later, aged 29, he would be dead.

Post-gig, or rather post-reading, we sit outside Letchworth’s finest Wetherspoon’s around the corner from the Arts Centre, as the Stuffies fans who grew into dads crane their heads for a look and weigh up a second reckless pint at the bar. We’re talking, not for the first time, about books, and books about bands, and the “proper books of fiction” Hunt intends one day to write – David Sedaris-esque short stories (“I’ve not read anything by him I don’t like”), or Lawrence Block-ish crime novels, although not set in the world of music, as “you’d just meet a lot of farting moaning blokes on a tour bus who get pissed out of their heads to try to get the energy up to do their job”.

In the realm of biography, bands’ stories, as Hunt observes, may well be similar. Especially, I’d add, in first-person accounts, which rarely rise beyond hoary tour-bus hijinks and at-the-end-of-the-dayisms that tell you as little about songs that made your heart sing as footballers’ post-match boy-done-goodisms tell you about goals of golden grace.

But on several occasions in The Wonder Stuff Diaries, our gobby narrator outstrips the rest of the in-their-own-words pack. A polished and possibly apocryphal tale of the seven-year-old Milo’s Damascene vision of his uncle Bill’s band Wizzard asleep post-gig in the Hunt family lounge, all hairy arses and ludicrous capes; field notes on a Grateful Dead gig in 1989, which begins in the deadpan tones of an accidental anthropologist and concludes in best appalled Huntian style (“this god-awful fucking noise”); a brief, toe-curling confession about saying the stupidest possible thing to an admired older musician, in this case Roddy Frame.

In The Wonder Stuff’s most recent album, Oh No…, there’s an ambiguously lovely line, “I see holes in diaries where the future used to be."

Miles Hunt: I was chuffed with that one myself. Although I did wonder if I had nicked it from somewhere.

Writing this book must have made you think of the passing of time for your audience as well as you. For most people, the band they were obsessed with as teenagers becomes an infrequent memory. The artist may still be growing musically, recording and touring – as you do with the latest Wonder Stuff lineup – but for acts that have been as big as you were, the great majority of fans are no longer engaged.

MH: I always think of what Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing said about the kind of response he gets to playing new material: “I get it, because a new song by me isn’t going to make you feel 20 again.”

Here we’re supposed to say ageing isn’t for wimps and look wise…

MH: There’s a track on Oh No… inspired by some friends turning 50; some people I know have really not been happy about it. Whereas I’d think – I’m 48 now - fucking hell, I made 50! Not least because with our track record, two of the people who are part of this story [original Wonder Stuff drummer Martin Gilks died in a motorcycle accident in 2006] didn’t make it. Surely it needs to be celebrated, not to be all sad about.”

What other musicians' autobiographies did you read? Ian Hunter’s Diary Of A Rock’n’Roll Star?

MH: Absolutely. What’s great about it is that it’s something that just can’t be falsified – that he did write it at the time. It’s of its moment, and I love that, and how he is obviously in awe of David Bowie, despite being as good a songwriter as Bowie was. He’s a fucking genuine rock star, but he feels like the rest of us around people that we look up to. That was the book that made me think, I should do this.

Then later there was the Rollins stuff. Henry Rollins wrote Get In The Van and his friend Joe Cole, who later got shot, had written Planet Joe. The two books are more or less about the same tour but one’s Joe’s version and one’s Rollins’. Joe just did the one tour and couldn’t believe that Henry, his best mate, became an asshole to him on the road and treated him like staff, and he wouldn’t want to do it again.

On the final European tour with the Wonder Stuff, I bought ten copies of Planet Joe and gave them to the band and crew, and explained that Rollins’ Get In The Van was about the same tour, and said, “I want you all to write a diary of this tour”. Which nobody did, apart from my brother Russ [a member of The Wonder Stuff’s crew]. Then he said, “I’m not going to let you see it. I might go over it again and give you some edited highlights.” I would have loved to see what other people would have written…though it would be weird, because for pretty much the whole of the last European tour I don’t think me and [Wonder Stuff drummer, Martin] Gilks said so much as good morning. Just looked daggers at each other.

Your diary entries were pretty terse for the years this book covers. You weren’t waxing lyrical.

MH: No. I didn’t. I mean, there are little rants, say when Bob [Wonder Stuff bassist, Rob 'Bass Thing' Jones] misbehaved, with shouty capitals. But there’ll be tons of it in the next book.

Why did it change – did you have more time in hotel rooms?

MH: Possibly, yeah, I needed something to do. I used to look forward to it. Thinking, what am I going to do – sit here and have another fag with Gilksy? I know, I’ll go sit in the back of the bus and do some writing. It felt good. From 1990, I decided I was writing this for someone else to read some day. Whereas in the years covered by this book, the diary entries were just me keeping track of stuff. Being an excited kid.

I wonder if it’s harder to be a raconteur on the page than onstage.

MH: No, because I try them out on people. It’s all to do with my ego, isn’t it? [Laughs] I’ve understood that for a long time. The most interesting thing that’s been said to me about this book was by my auntie Sandra, who’s an actress, and in her early sixties now. She said, “So you’ve written a book. Can I ask you a question – why?” Nobody had said that before, and I just didn’t have an answer for it. She said: “Why do you want people to know this about you?” I can only say – I’m a showoff. [laughs] I’m just pleasing my big old ego.

Do you see any weaknesses now when you look at the book?

MH: The writing style in 1989 really changes because, oddly, I wrote the entries on that year first. When I read it now, I think, fuck, I’ve got better at it. I was aware of it when I gave it over to go to print; I was asking myself, should I rewrite this? But I was just kind of sick of it, and I thought, I’ve got to let go of this now, or I’ll be playing with sentences to the end of time. It’s like mixing a record – you’ve got to know when to say, 'Enough!'

How would you feel if people didn’t like it?

MH: A bad review would be painful.

More than of the music?

MH: [laughs] Yeah.

On the subject of reviews, these Diaries are full of cuttings of pieces written by my former colleagues in the weekly music press, superlatives and brickbats alike. Did the slaggings ever bother you?

MH: I didn’t care. As I was reading it, I’d be thinking, 'You cunt, I’m glad you had a fucking shit night, you wanker. I’m glad I spoiled your fucking night out.' And then I’d put it down and wouldn’t think of it again.

They strike me now as very peculiar pieces of prose. All of us, at fever pitch and apparently entirely randomly, alternately pronouncing a band the shittest thing ever and the most brilliant thing since the dawn of time.

MH: I certainly remember not understanding most of what the journalists wrote. Does that mean I’m good? What does that mean? What are you on about?

Are you glad that sort of music press is gone?

MH: No. I wish it was still there. Because, with all respect to The Quietus, I’m sick of looking at screens. Because if I could take the internet down a notch in my life, I would. I don’t want to do everything through the internet. Like when they took away the tax discs from our car. I don’t want a fucking digital card. I liked the music press. I liked the ink on my fingers.

Did you ever feel like any review was insightful?

MH: Terry Staunton [NME writer] did an amazing review of [second Wonder Stuff album] Hup, and basically proclaimed it the Sgt. Pepper's for its age. Which made me laugh when I read it. I thought, 'Jeez, this is going to ruffle a few feathers.' But it certainly made me think, 'Fucking hell, rather than just being us lads mucking about and having a good time, and now making a bit of money and seeing the world, we could actually be something. Somebody thinks we could be something.'

As much as we hacks like to think our interviewees are bowled over by how insightful and cool we are, interviews are not much fun. Interviewees don’t have much control over the outcome.

MH: Actually you do. You don’t have to say everything that comes into your mind – which is, unfortunately, exactly what we did. When I started this book, I thought I’d better go read some of our press. I thought, Jesus, how dumb were we? We were young and we were four lads in the pub and some bloke pulled out a microphone. We just did what we normally did when we were in the pub. It didn’t occur to any of us, when we did those early interviews, that any of this was going to end up in print. We always felt like… why have we got to keep justifying what we’re doing? Of course nobody’s asking you to justify it, your PR is trying to get you more attention is what’s happening. And we didn’t grasp it. They’re terrible for me to read, and I don’t think they get much better in the 1990s to be honest. I think I probably just become a moaner, and less fun. But you know, I never had a point. There was nothing I wanted to say. I’d’ve been much happier never doing interviews. And if I did – if I wanted to make a point, I could satisfy myself by putting it down in song.

The age of social media, it has been argued, has made things better; the likes of you can speak directly to those who want to hear from you. Without me in the middle.

MH: No. It’s far worse. I remember when my brother bought The Face, and I can remember exactly what John Lydon was wearing, a beautiful big red coat; I can remember Paul Weller’s little boating jacket in a Jam feature. I didn’t read it, I just looked at the pictures. I wanted to see what they were wearing – not that I was fashion conscious; it was just like, wow, they look fucking great, they’re living the life. Brilliant, love it, want to do that. But that was all an additional thing to loving the music, to sitting with your headphones in your bedroom when your dad’s told you to turn the stereo down, and you want it loud. Obsessing over records. Obviously I can’t speak for the experience of kids who are 35 years younger than me, but now what I feel is – and I know exactly what our record sales are every time I put something out, because I’m on an indie label, and I know exactly how many books we’ve sold – the experience is, instead of let’s see what Miles is wearing in this printed publication, it’s a case of seeing what stupid things is Miles going to say on Twitter or Facebook this week. Slag off Glastonbury, slag off the new 50 Shades Of Grey book. That’s the point now; they just want that contact. Thankfully a lot of them still want to come to the gigs, but they don’t want the records. [Laughs] I know nobody really wants another Wonder Stuff record. What used to be the additional thing – see the press, see what they’re wearing, see that bold quote pulled out – now that’s the point. Now Facebook and Twitter, because I do that, that’s what they want.

You’re good at it. It’s a medium that suits you.

MH: I’m trying to engage with the people who were here tonight. I’m trying to keep putting bums on seats. That said, I think if I wasn’t trying to sell them something I’d still do social media. Not to the point I do it, however. I try to think of something every day: put something funny up, put something caustic up every day. And then every fourth day I try to sell them something.

Surely it’s not much different to twatting about making promo videos.

MH: Well, other than The Quietus nobody’s beating a path to my door to do interviews, even online. I said tonight onstage, and I don’t know if I should have said it, I’m over it – it’s like our period’s been written out of history.

Well, that’s not something I’m keen to ask an interviewee; I’ll look like your younger self did asking Roddy Frame questions about his – ouch - declining fame.

MH: I really like The Twang. Their singer sings in a Birmingham accent, a bit like Robert Smith. Their first record was big, straight out of the box, and he’s a big Wonder Stuff fan. But you look at their Twitter feed, and they call themselves “the band your best mate hates”. So the band we did influence are not looked upon as cool. [Shrugs]. So it’s not gonna come around.

Maybe half of the motivation behind this book is me trying to put it back on the map, with this book and another one on the way. I’ve not seen a bad review – although I’m not going to go searching one out, either. And most of the reviews I have read are not journalists, but regular Joes on Amazon and so on. But it’s really nice, the things people have picked up on. This book has sold more than the last Wonder Stuff album, and it’s because they want more of what was. Like Mike Doughty’s said – "Don’t give me something new, that’s not going to make me feel twenty." Of course the first thing people say to me about the book is, “I remember the 14th of December!” They want to see that the gig they were at in 1989 is in there.

What do you think of that?

MH: I think it’s nice! I think it’s all nice. I know that’s a terrible word. But we’re all older now. People who were into us have raised families, like my brother Russ and his wife Deb’s age, their kids are all gone, and they want a bit more of what they had. The book gives them that, and a new record won’t.

Were you just an incidental soundtrack to people’s puberty?

MH: Yep. When I put on a Go-Betweens album now, you know, although I’ve bought all the latter ones, Tallulah makes me feel optimistic and hopeful, because when that came out, that’s what I was. I’m as guilty as anyone. Not that I’m unhappy about being 48. I’m fine with it.

I like to think the songs mattered to your fans because they were good.

MH: If I hear 'Gates Of The West' by The Clash I fucking cry. I can be in the happiest mood, washing up with the radio on, and a song like that comes on and I stop and well up. But at the same time I bought that record I probably bought 'Solid' by Ashford & Simpson. Where we lived there was as disco, not an alternative disco but a disco, where the most alternative thing would be 'The Model' by Kraftwerk, which I hated. And that’s what it was; you’d get pissed up with your girlfriend and you’d dance to 'Solid'. That’s not going to make me well up. I’m not going to get it out and play it. And if it comes on the radio I’m not going to feel young and optimistic. So yes. The songs have to have been good.

Inevitably doing the kinds of things you are doing now – smaller venues, book readings, acoustic-duo gigs – the fans you’ve been exchanging quips with on Twitter are up closer and personal in the flesh, too, a lot closer than when I saw you headlining Bescot Stadium in Walsall in 1991. Do you mind being groped?

MH: I could slap the bastard that put a fucking camera in a phone. It infuriates me. Because years ago people didn’t fucking carry cameras around. It’s a constant barrage – and I wonder what happens to all these pictures? Because I do interact with people on social media and I am not tagged in hundreds of photos of me grinning in a sweaty t-shirt after a gig. What are they doing with them? [Laughs] I like shaking a paw, I like swapping some sentences, and the whole autograph thing I’m fine with now, although that used to annoy me. You know what I think is quite sweet? When I take a photograph with someone, I always throw my arm around them, and it’s strange how often I feel people vibrating. Because they’re so nervous. I’m like mate, you’re 50, your kids have left home and you’re honestly shaking because me and you are having our picture taken. I am taking the piss a little bit, but I do think of it as being quite sweet.

Although when this book ends, your greatest hits and gigs are yet to come, it's hard to ignore the discord and unhappiness that are already apparent. I think of that line in 'Size Of A Cow': “These should be the best days of my life/ life is not what I thought it was”. It ends as Rob left because his American girlfriend meant more to him than the band. He chose her.

MH: Yeah. He really did. It obviously didn’t mean as much to him as it did to me. None of them felt about it like I felt about it. [Pause] That’s why none of them are here.

You almost seem to suggest that personal relationships are betrayals.

MH: It’s as simple as this: the band means more to me than anything else in life. And the beauty of the situation with me and Erica [Nockalls, Miles’ partner and Wonder Stuff member since 2005] is that she’s in the band. And she feels exactly like me. She doesn’t want to pick out bathrooms and kitchens, she doesn’t want family – she just wants this.

It’s a very unnatural thing to do, being in a band. If you’re between 18 and 24, and four or five of you put a band together, it’s shocking that anything lasts beyond two years, that any band manages to make it last. U2 are such a quandary to me. They’ve been rich for so long it can’t be that they just keep doing it for the fucking money. They’re the only band that have kept this thing together, unfortunately for the rest of us. And, you know, what this band is to a lot of people now, especially with gigs, is for groups of old college friends, who say, 'We’ll go see the Stuffies; it’ll be like the old days.' They don’t spend all their time together now, they’ve got families and jobs and houses. So the idea that just because you play an instrument that you should be capable of hanging out with each other forever when, really, by the time you’re 23, 24, 25, something else should have happened in your life, is ridiculous. Yeah, stay in touch, but it’s really unnatural to expect anything else.

Will people be disappointed to hear that these weren’t the best days of your life?

MH: I think it’s ok. My brother’s worked in offices for years and had to put up with office politics. You can’t even imagine how people do it, but they do it because they’ve got to put the kids through school and put food on the table; that’s why they do it. It was no different for us. Shitty office politics.

Office politics in a van.

MH: Yeah. Office politics in a van. It’s alright when you’re 15 to think those people are having a better life than me, if it gives you a bit of aspiration. Not to be in a band, per se – but, wouldn’t it be great to be looking as happy as they are, and thinking that something’s achieved? That’s what we thought, too. But when you get a little bit older, you lose patience with people in their fifties who defend bands like U2 and say, 'Oh, they must be brilliant, because look at how successful they are.' I want to say, have you got all of James Last’s albums as well, because you know he was Polydor’s highest selling artist of the 80s, 90s and 2000s? Have you got all of Barry Manilow’s records, because he’s probably sold more records than the Rolling Stones? Just because it’s successful doesn’t mean that it has fucking worth. I like showbiz, because I understand what it is. I just feel sorry for people who are hoodwinked by celebrity. And I think that telling people that, you know, it wasn’t half as good as it looked is fine.

What of the lineup changes since The Wonder Stuff reappeared in the early 2000s? You’re the only original member. Do you wish it were otherwise?

MH: I don’t feel bad. I’m completely comfortable with the rejuvenating [laughs] lineup changes that keep happening. It breathes new life, it does. And the Waterboys have proved that, the Cure proved that, the Cult proved that. I ain’t got a problem with that…

Did you have to grit your teeth to tell the truth in this book?

MH: I knew that I was going to be pointing fingers at certain people, and Malc [Treece, guitarist] probably comes off the worst, I was going to point fingers and say why I felt he let me down. Well, if I’m going to say that about him, I’ve got to be honest about the fact that I wasn’t a fucking blue-eyed boy either. Definitely. The other thing I’d say is that I don’t like the word cathartic; I think it gets thrown around. But I was really surprised when I found myself writing about Gilksy. When he died I hadn’t seen him in about 2 ½ years, and he was making life difficult for me. So when he died, I didn’t shed a tear. I said something unpleasant out loud. But then I’d keep meeting fans at gigs who’d say, “Aah, I met Gilksy once, he was out having a fag in the pub across the road before you did Brixton, couldn’t fucking believe he was in there, what a great guy.” I’d be thinking, 'No, he’s a dick.' I wouldn’t say it most of the time, I’d let them go on if they’re being so enthusiastic about how they thought he was a great guy; I wouldn’t take that away from them. But when I wrote this book, I was like, Jesus, I remember old Martin now. And when his name comes up now, I think of that Martin, not the later one.

I’ve always thought of you as a good hater. Better than was good for you.

MH: Definitely. Some of it comes from Clint Mansell. Clint’s great about being negative about things, and I used to love his crazy rants. The Alarm’s new single; he could put a good two hours into that. The excitement was brilliant. But it also comes from my dad’s side of the family. There was my aunt Sandra, who worked mostly in theatre but had also done a lot of TV. When we were kids, it was a fucking nightmare going to the Hunt grandparents’ house when the telly was on. Uncle Bill would be sarcastic about any music, Sandra would slag off every actress, and then the news would be on and my dad would be sitting there saying, “These bleeding assholes”, seething about all the politicians.

A masterclass…

MH: …in slagging shit off. Very eloquently. And to me quite entertaining.

Have you become a kinder person?

MH: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. Although it isn’t a conscious decision. Whereas in the past I could have spent a good hour slagging off the Spice Girls, I now think, why? What’s the point? Since I got rid of the television, I just do not care what anybody’s up to. I know I don’t want to be around it, but also I’m not going to waste my fucking energy slagging something off just because I don’t like it. And getting your heart thumping when you’re 20 is fantastic; heart thumping when you’re looking at 50 could be a heart attack. My dad had his when he was 48. I want to focus on positive stuff. Me and Erica have been together for nine years this year, and a lot of that is to do with her influence. Because she just doesn’t rise to it.

Maybe it would have been useful to have twigged earlier.

MH: Yeah. I think I could definitely have benefitted from not shouting and disliking things. But in your twenties and your thirties it makes your heart go faster. Some people like cocaine, some people like shagging around. Me, I like shouting about things I don’t like.

Miles Hunt’s The Wonder Stuff Diaries 86-89 (IRL) is out now. Current tour dates for The Wonder Stuff, and the acoustic duo of Miles Hunt and Erica Nockalls here

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.