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Aide Memoire: The Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost Interviewed
Fergal Kinney , August 12th, 2021 07:40

Billy Reeves of Theaudience had his life thrown upside down in 2001 by a terrible car accident, he tells Fergal Kinney, and now his new band, The Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost, have released an album of old songs he can't even remember writing. N.B. readers who have been in traumatic traffic accidents may find some of the descriptions in this interview difficult to read

The Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost

It was only afterwards, months afterwards, that Billy Reeves even became aware that two planes had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001. “9/11 was this communal event that happened to everybody in the world” explains Reeves calmly, sipping a coffee by the South Bank and visibly enjoying his first visit to the capital since the beginning of the pandemic, “people told me about it, obviously, and I read a bit about it afterwards, but it was only when Channel 4 showed that Falling Man documentary on the tenth anniversary that I realised the full extent of it.” A pause. “I didn’t know anything about what happened to the Pentagon, or about the plane they made a movie out of [United 93] for a whole ten years. I hadn’t seen the footage, only ever the photographs.”

Crucial to our understanding of how we relate to songs – songs in the verse/chorus tradition – is that we expect the songs to mean something at least to those that created them. We watch documentaries during which pop stars recount every detail of how they created their masterpiece; and even when we read interviews where the songwriter blithely claims that whatever the listener hears is the real truth of it, man, we still know it means a great deal to them.

But what about when none of this is true? What happens when, even to the creator, the intention or purpose is irretrievably lost. Afters, the debut album by the Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost, deals with exactly that question.

Coming from an aspirational working class family in Staines, Billy Reeves elbowed his way into the music industry after a couple of years working as a probate genealogist – tracking down the distant families of those who die leaving fortunes and nobody to recoup them. Through working as PR and A&R for Fire Records in the early 1990s, Reeves had a ringside seat to Britpop and an industry on overheat where anyone – literally anyone – could and did find major label success.

“I thought it was like what had happened at points in the 80s, just ambulance chasing” he laughs, “they’ll sign anyone that sounds like this. It was the last gasp of the way the industry had operated from the early 70s onwards.”

Holding court in the summer of 1996 with an assortment of music press types at the Stamford Arms pub, by King's Reach, the old IPC building – NME on the 25th floor, Melody Maker on the 26th floor – and a few jars deep, Reeves made the outlandish assertion that he, of no fixed musical ability, would be able to get a record deal within the year. “I could play drums a bit, could not play the guitar, had never written a song.” A bet was placed for £100.

Reeves’ initial blueprint was for a kind of commercial Stereolab, teasing out the more pop elements of that band and thrusting them into the mainstream. He understood enough about that kind of music, it could be done without too much technical proficiency, he maintained – what he really needed was a female vocalist.

“My friend was, that week, at a photo exhibition of pictures of Oasis”, says Reeves, “and this girl got chatting to my friend, she said she’d love to sing. So that Thursday she turns up at the club I was running upstairs at the Garage with a tape of her singing Oasis b-sides with her cousin, I just thought this is great!” It was an eighteen year old Sophie Ellis Bextor.

“I got a guitarist in, I played the drums, got Gary Crowley to pay for the demo and it just went mad. Absolutely mad.” The band was christened Theaudience and seven shows later, Reeves won his £100 bet – he had signed his band for £250,000 to Mercury, complete with a publishing deal for the exact same amount. It was then that things went awry. The gurning record execs had nodded furiously to Reeves’ ambitions about a new Stereolab, until the ink went dry and they suddenly did not agree. Demos languished in development hell, and though Theaudeince were continually hyped up – singles performed well, thanks to improbable slots on TFI Friday and Richard & Judy, they even scored a Melody Maker front cover – he could feel his band slipping away from him.

Billy Reeves as a young man with a dream of stardom

Glastonbury 1998 would be the catalyst. Reeves was anxious, the weather was appalling, everything came to a head: "We were on the NME stage and the band went off to find the loo because we'd been in the van for ages. I found a damp Michael Head of Shack sitting on an amp looking downcast because their gear had got stuck and they were due on. I told him they could use our gear but then our tour manager got back from the loos and a massive row broke out – 'I'm not letting a bunch of scouse crackheads use this gear, I'm responsible for it.'

"And then we had to go onstage or lose our slot according to the stage manager even though the rest of the band hadn't returned yet. So I went on stage by myself. One by one they turned up and we did the show but by that point I thought, 'Fuck this. This is something I’ve dreamt about all my life and I hate it.' I was 32 and it was all I had dreamed of but I hated it."

He adds: "I did get to crowd surf. I was carried aloft! But as the crowd was only six deep I was carefully carried and placed at the back of the tent."

But it wasn't enough. The audience album narrowly missed the top 20 later that summer, but by that point Reeves had already walked: "I sacked myself essentially."

Bruised by the experience, did Reeves retreat to the shadows? No, he did the exact same thing again – signing the band Yours with Sony. Reeves got chatting to the tea boy at his publishers, who informed him that he had just ditched his old band – a dour Radiohead inspired effort – to form “the gay AC/DC”. Without hearing a note, Reeves booked said band for a show at Water Rats – it was an early show from The Darkness.

THOTHG, l-r Craylola Lectern, Mark Morris, Billy Reeves

It was a great day when England beat Germany 5-1 during the qualifying stages of the World Cup, on 1 September 2001. The Darkness show that evening was a huge success; Justin Hawkins had came out for an encore on the shoulders of a roadie with flames shooting from a device on his groin – everything anyone could want from an evening.

Reeves’ childhood friend James Gardiner had been celebrating – it was the first night he had his leg out of a cast – and such had been the velocity of the celebrations, Gardiner had become tired and emotional. Reeves offered to drive him back to Staines in his Morris Minor.

“The last thing I remember is we had just come out of Crouch End after dropping our friend Rachel off, we were on Hangar Hill en route to Jim's house and I was looking at a car at the traffic lights just ahead of us, near the big clock tower. And then I don’t remember anything for four months.”

A car being pursued in a high-speed police chase hit Reeves’ Morris Minor at 99mph.

At 4.44AM, the pair were cut out of a car that had “crumpled like a baked bean can.” The professional cutting them out of the car knew that Reeves was alive – “I was shouting orders apparently!” – but the prognosis looked significantly bleaker for Gardiner. On entering hospital, Reeves was put in an induced coma, whilst Gardiner was unfortunately already in one. Reeves broke almost every bone in his body, his arm and leg were “smashed completely in two” – the ambulance team told their families that they had never seen such smashed up people. Over twenty four hours, they were given 40 pints of blood each.

“Our lives were saved, our limbs were saved, I’ve had six operations – that’s forty five hours in surgery. It’s a bit fucked, the arm, but I’m grateful it’s still there.”

In hospital, Reeves suffered what is known as Sundowners – a group of symptoms that typically affects dementia sufferers, generally a combination of extreme agitation and aggression. “I was a nightmare. When I’ve had operations since, I warn the nurses first that I will wake up, and I will be a complete nightmare, but I’m not actually like that. The most recent one I forgot to tell them – they said that when wheeled out I was chanting what can only be described as Communist slogans.”

At one point, Reeves insisted whilst in hospital that the hospital PA system was playing 'The Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost', an early track by Irish indie band Microdisney. Reeves would leave the music business, and retrain as radio producer and broadcaster for BBC London. Gardiner’s recovery took longer, as he had sustained a serious head injury – Reeves paid him a salary from his compensation, and in the last five years Gardiner has had some success as a fine artist - using his damaged eyesight to create new ways of visualising the environment around him.

In 2017, Reeves’ brother found a minidisc whilst clearing out his old flat. It was almost an album’s worth of demos for Yours, Reeves’ post-Theaudience outfit. Such was the extent of Reeves’ amnesia from the collision, he could remember nothing of writing or recording the songs.

“Apparently, Yours did gigs” explains Reeves, “and I played drums at those gigs, but I have no memories of it.” Listening to the demos was a strange experience for Reeves. “I thought, 'Some of this is quite fancy, and I think these songs are amazing.'”

He took the demos to his friend Richard Archer, formerly of HiFi, who was able to strip the songs back to just vocals and piano, before bringing in the psychedelic musician Crayola Lectern to rebuild the tracks from the ground up. Though much of the material was clearly written with a mass commercial audience in mind, freed from these constraints twenty years later, through Crayola Lectern’s playing on the record the album began to push into the gently exploratory, autumnal prog of Canterbury Scene nodding to artists like Robert Wyatt, Caravan or basically anything you might find on either of Bob Stanley and Pete Wigg’s incredible English Weather compilations. Rather than maximising hooks outwards, as Reeves would have inevitably had to do for Yours, it has become a quiet, gentler album.

With just under half an hour of material, Crayola added two songs of his own to the project. When Mark Morris of the Bluetones agreed to sing on the album, the outfit was complete – Reeves titled the band The Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost in honour of the music he thought he had heard twenty years ago, while in hospital, fighting for his life.

How does it feel to listen to an album of your own material, with no idea what the songs might actually be about, or the events that might have inspired them? He shrugs. “A lot of it I just can’t know. Some of them sound like the end of Theaudience, me saying that things weren’t my fault. Is it after I fell out with a woman? Is it for her? Maybe it’s for me? The final song, 'I Didn't', I have no memory of what that’s about at all. There’s a couple of songs that seem to be bitter break-up songs. The lyric "featherweight summer that didn’t last too long", to me that’s amazing, but what is it about?” There was even some plagiarism that Reeves had no memory of committing. “I knew it was a ripoff of another song, either by accident or design, so I got in touch with the songwriter and he was really cool about it, which was really nice.”

Closure is hard to apply to an event that continues to shape how Reeves lives his daily life – equally, having carved out a successful career well outside of music, it’s strange for him to find that he did make music he was proud of after all, pregnant with the possibility of a career as a songwriter that was obviously thwarted by his collision.

“I’ve always fancied myself as a lyricist” he smiles, looking off over the South Bank, “and whenever I wrote with Theaudience it was all just done really quickly. What you’re supposed to do with demos, with music, is to get fresh ears on it. Sitting down twenty years later really is the freshest ears you can get.”

Afters by The Helicopter Of The Holy Ghost is out this Friday