Duncan Lovatt (Ten Benson, Nine Tons) – interview
As a member of Swimmer and a founding member of Ten Benson Duncan Lovatt has been around the musical block a few times. Now recording and touring with new band Nine Tons, Louder Than War editor Sarah Lay gets in depth with him about his musical history from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to Peel Sessions at Maida Vale, as well as where he’s headed now.
“It was very institutional and very British. Maida Vale is unique. I remember wondering around in low lit corridors that might have been in the belly of some old battleship, looking through small, porthole windows into vast recording studios that shouldn’t really be there.”
As a member of Swimmer, and a founding member of Ten Benson, Duncan Lovatt has a deep past in music and a bushel of stories about his life in bands. Now fronting Newcastle shautrock band Nine Tons he’s returning to songwriting refreshed after a break and reflective on the path he’s taken.
“I grew up in a small village close to Chesterfield and so during the late eighties, I would travel to Sheffield and Derby to get to gigs at great venues like the Leadmill and Take Two in Sheffield and the Warehouse in Derby. I have great memories of seeing bands like Galaxie 500, Janes Addiction, The Fall and the Lunachicks when I was 16 or 17.
“But I couldn’t really describe my family as the Derbyshire Von Trapps. My dad still only listens to ABBA, James Last and The Shadows. I love the Shadows and will instantly do the Shadow Shuffle at the first note of many of their tunes. For the Shadows I am grateful, but not so much for the James Last experience. My sister is musical and had organ and flute tuition. I would record versions of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Jesus and Mary Chain songs on her Lowrey Genie 44 but never had the patience to learn music theory myself.
“I remember a music teacher at junior school telling me to consider coming back to music when I was older because I couldn’t play the recorder. I think I wanted to prove her wrong though. If Mark E Smith and Daniel Johnston could do it, then so could I. There was no internet back then and so you either relied on the music press, John Peel or your siblings to introduce you to new music.
“SNUB TV on BBC 2 made quite an impact on me at the end of the eighties/start of the nineties. It was the first time that I had seen the alternative music that I had been reading about. SNUB TV introduced me to great bands like King of The Slums, Ultra Vivid Scene, Mute Drivers and Dinosaur Jr as well as covering all the stuff that I was already into like The Fall and Spaceman 3. My mate Jonny who grew up in the same village was really into the hair-rock side of things but as he started to get more and more into the American alternative rock of Alternative Tentacles, Discord and Sub Pop, we met in the middle and began swapping vinyl.”
Although like many he dabbled with music in his teenage years, emulating the bands he was listening to, it wasn’t until he went to London for university that he really began developing his own style, and found musical opportunities headed his way.
“I joyfully spent the majority of my student loan and grant on gigs and vinyl with little time left for study. After graduating I lived in North London with friends who were in a band called Delicatessen. They had signed a deal with Big Life and were recording their first album at Toerag Studios in a pre-gentrified Shoreditch. Whilst visiting my friends recording at Toe Rag, I met with Ed Deegan who was engineering Delicatessen’s first album.
“Ed was approached by Chris Teckkam from Swimmer to join them on guitar. Swimmer were already fairly well established and had recently recorded at Toe Rag. Up to this point I had only played bass guitar but Ed insisted that I come along to the Swimmer audition with him as a second guitarist. He quickly showed me how to play bar chords and I swapped my black and white portable television for his spare Thin-Line Telecaster. This was probably one of the best swaps I have ever made to this day. After the audition we were both asked to join Swimmer.
“We very quickly contributed to new Swimmer material, influenced by the likes of Swell Maps, PIL and Wire. I played my first proper gig with Swimmer at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town very soon after joining in 1995. Swimmer gigs at venues like The Dublin Castle and Hope and Anchor in London were always busy, drunken occasions. We recorded an album called Petit Pois at Toe Rag with Liam, or The Weasel as we called him. As usual Liam had alternative names for all of us during the recording process. I was called Davenport and I have no idea why.
“I remember being amazed when Terry Edwards agreed to record brass parts on a track that I had written for the album. I had been a big fan of Terry Edward’s versions of The Fall and Jesus and Mary Chain tunes that Peel dutifully broadcast on his show. I think Terry was playing with Gallon Drunk at that time and I was living in an old piano factory on Old Street which was also run as a rehearsal room called The Greasy Hood. I would be tucked up in bed watching TV when bands like Gallon Drunk would turn up to rehearse downstairs. The bands would politely greet me whilst loading in and out through my ‘bedroom’.
“I met many interesting people and artists during the Swimmer days in and around Liam Watson’s first Toe Rag. Many of these artists now play in PJ Harvey’s current backing band. One Toe Rag regular was Sexton Ming who painted the cover of Petits Pois for us and and was a big inspiration for me and what would come next with Ten Benson.”
While Swimmer made themselves a great reputation as a live band in London their meetings with ‘powdery nosed music moguls in an executive chairs’ came to nothing as the tidal wave of Britpop bands rushed through the music scene.
“Ed and I were both living in the same room at our rehearsal room (The Greasy Hood) by now. We didn’t have a kitchen, warm water, a bathroom or any privacy. Just mice, music and roll ups. We were like the grimier version of The Monkees, cleaning ourselves in a washing up bowl and living on the Kwik Save, No Frills food range. Eventually Ed decided to leave Swimmer to concentrate on his studio engineering.
“Chris and I took the opportunity to start something fresh. We sat together in the pub one night and pretty much came up with the whole Ten Benson model based around a plan to record ourselves in The Greasy Hood (our own rehearsal room) and never do any more gigs. At that point in time we were tired of playing the same small London venues every other week for next to nothing.
“The first Ten Benson single was a tune I had written for Swimmer called City Hoppers. A song influenced by my mum’s experiences on Chesterfield’s East Midlands bus service. We backed this with a Lou Reed/Country style version of a live Swimmer fave called Transport Overseas. The 7” was picked up by Peel and we were off.
“We quickly followed City Hoppers with another track recorded at the Greasy Hood called The Claw. By this time I had got a job working as a Mud Logger in the oil industry and was regularly working off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea. You meet some of the most diverse, strange and single-minded people breathing on oil rigs. An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico is an interesting place to be for about a day and a half. After that you should go home immediately, in my opinion.
“I heard that Ten Benson’s second 7” called ‘The Claw’ was Steve Lamacq’s single of the week on Radio One’s Evening Session, whilst out working on an oil rig somewhere in the Arctic Circle. As soon as my two week incarceration on the rig was up, I marched with my bags from the heliport to the drilling company’s headquarters in Inverness and handed in my notice to resign with immediate effect. “You will never work in the industry again”, I was told and I didn’t care one bit.
“The summer after I quit the oil industry, Ten Benson played their second gig at The Reading Festival. We hadn’t really planned to play our new songs live and this is when I recruited my old school friend Jonny Wood to fill out our live sound a little with keyboard and backing vocals. He brought a whole lot more than that to our live shows though. It was ironic that he was the most musically able member of Ten Benson and we had him pogoing, whilst playing one or two notes and singing old lady style backing vocals. Jonny is still helping me out today but I let him loose on his fiddle these days.
“I think that the Reading performance was the first thing that we had recorded for Radio One. We sounded quite amateur compared to the rest of the line-up and that was because we were. I remember being alone in the Reading Festival, VIP catering tent, selecting vol-au-vents with Anna Friel. That was already quite a departure from selecting your next meal from the No Frills range but as we got to the exit we (Anna and I) politely squeezed ourselves between Brian May and Dave Grohl who were deep in conversation about swiss roll or something.
“Ten Benson settled into a strange hinterland between being the band that other bands, BBC DJs and the music press all appreciated and what the old school established music companies wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. I remember Ten Benson releases being chosen as Melody Maker Singles of the Week by guest reviewers like Reef and The Levellers. I was pleasantly surprised to read Eric Clapton name checking us in a Mojo interview. He seemed to know where we were coming from and commented that we seemed to be having a lot of fun. He was right.
“We didn’t get the full industry backing to go any further, probably because they had no idea how to market us and ultimately make returns on any investment. I think that that this was as a lucky escape for us to be honest. We had the ‘executive chair’ meetings all over again but this time Chris and I would record spoof songs to play to the guys in the leather chairs. Keeping our faces straight whilst they nodded their head in politeness was always difficult. We had a lot of fun but it wasn’t the perfect business model.”
But critical claim doesn’t always equal a wage you can live off and eventually the band realised they would have to develop their careers away from music in order to survive. Napolean was first to head off, right ahead of a support tour with Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros.
“Joe Strummer was really good fun to be around and very supportive of what Ten Benson were doing. I will never forget glancing over to the side of the stage whilst we played at the Liverpool Royal Court to see him stood alone, playing air guitar with me.”
But London was losing its appeal for Lovatt and he headed back to Derbyshire. Although songwriting, recording and touring continued for a while and eventually it was time to part ways. “I didn’t earn very much whilst I was in the band but ironically it was after I left the band that I received a reasonable royalty payment from our song ‘Mystery Man’ that had been used by Mark and Lard for a daily quiz on their radio show. I used this cash to help pay for the fees to complete a Masters course which ultimately led me into my current occupation.
“Chris and I didn’t see very much of each other for a long time. I remember going to see a Ten Benson gig in Sheffield when they released the Satan Kidney Pie album, a few year later. Chris asked if I was in the audience before dedicating a track called ‘One Way Ticket’ to me. I think this may have been a reference to his view that I had disembarked the Ten Benson train and he was in it for the long haul. I wrote a track called ‘Standard Open Return’ in response to his ‘One Way Ticket’.
“I think I always hoped that Chris would move on from Ten Benson and start something fresh when I left. I appreciate that Chris was the chief songwriter in Ten Benson but I felt that the band represented something we had created together to reflect both of our personalities and tastes and it had run its course.
“In the last few years, Chris and I have been in touch with each other again and we have met up on a few occasions. It has been good to put the past behind us a little and reflect on what we achieved with Swimmer and Ten Benson and what we are both up to these days. We have even spoken about our bands playing with each other at some point. I have a lot of respect for Chris’s determination and creativity. He is a talented songwriter and has a charismatic personality. His most recent release as Ten Benson was called Mud Man and was great fun.”
It was from these fond memories of Swimmer and Ten Benson being stirred that Lovatt returned to his own songwriting, wanting to revisit the energy of the earlier band.
“I had been listening to a live recording of Swimmer’s last gig at the Hope and Anchor in Islington, London. The songs were simple but full of character and played at a breakneck speed as a result of the atmosphere and our familiarity with the songs. Friends who witnessed the Swimmer gigs in the late nineties often recall how much fun they were. I wanted to play live again and see if I could recapture the Swimmer vibe. It was shouty, melodic and a little bit cheeky.
“We were also starting to mess with simple synth sounds towards the end. I suppose you could call it a krautrock influence and we would play with this style further in Ten Benson. I remember being really proud of a poster outside of a venue that we were playing at in Dusseldorf, which described us as sounding like Black Sabbath and Kraftwerk. The recent resurgence of krautrock has amused me and I guess that is why I described the sound of my current band Nine Tons as being Shaütrock.”
Compared to Earl Brutus and The Fall, Nine Tons took a backward route in recording their album No Frills before playing live. They’ve since played a clutch of gigs around the North East, honing their sound with each performance, and realising how elusive that Swimmer-energy can be.
“Recording our debut ‘No Frills’ at First Avenue in Newcastle was a lot of fun and we really enjoyed working with David Curle. I think David’s chilled approach to recording helped some of the band’s ‘recording anxiety’. It was the first time in a studio for half of the band but we are all now fully broken-in recording artists.
“It took a long time to get the right group of people together for Nine Tons but we are now Mark (drums), Yin (guitar,vox) and Dylan (bass, vox). This stability has helped to progress at least part of the songwriting process back towards a group activity. I tend to record the band rehearsing and try to get them to play along to my latest ideas.
“Occasionally I come home with a song patched up together and ready to progress. It is important for me to involve the band in all aspects of the writing, recording and organisation. I really wouldn’t want to be part of a band that does not share the whole experience. We are all very different and have very different influences and skills. Dylan decided on the band name this time and I have no idea if it has any significance but knowing Dylan it probably does. Nothing to do with Ten Benson though, apparently.”
The band are about to play another couple of dates and are starting to work toward a second album, their approach continuing to be ongoing development of their sound and material.
“When I started rehearsing with Nine Tons, I realised that it was going to take a lot of hard work to get close to the energy heard in those old live Swimmer recordings but I think that we are getting close now. I have occasionally felt that I am about to keel over and die mid-set, as I try to get a breath in between the verses but so far I have survived.
“We have been rehearsing new songs and hope to add these to our set before we play live again in early 2017. It will be a luxury to play these songs and develop them live before recording them this time.
“I am looking forward to Nine Tons playing a at the Hope and Anchor in Islington on Sat 11 Feb followed by a performance at The Hairy Dog in Derby on Sun 12 Feb. It will be nearly twenty years since Swimmer played their last gig at The Hope and Anchor in London and the recording of that performance was the main inspiration for forming Nine Tons. It will be a little like going full circle for me and hopefully we will have a really good night down there.
“Our new material will hopefully push on from our more eclectic debut and will introduce new sounds from our extended group membership. I hope that my long time collaborator Jonny, will rejoin us at some point and we hope to have a keyboard player in place for the next gig. After a clutch of live dates in the spring we plan to get into the studio to record, with the aim of a couple more releases during 2017.”
No Frills by Nine Tons is out now on Bandcamp. See them live:
- Saturday 11 February – Hope and Anchor, London
- Sunday 12 February – Hairy Dog, Derby