Ben Harding (Senseless Things) – interview
Those who were around at the time say that there wasn’t a better live band in the UK in 1990 than Senseless Things. Almost three decades later its members have served time in Gorillaz, The Who, Muse, 3 holours Red, Deadcuts and a host of other significant bands, before getting back together to do what they say is a one-off show. They’ve even reunited pretty much all their old road crew, too.
Louder Than War’s Cassie Fox catches up with Ben Harding, current bandmate in Thee Faction and a Senseless Things, about the band and their forthcoming reunion.
Ben Harding is one of the UK’s finest rock guitarists. He’s sold hundreds of thousands of records (tick), recorded at Paisley Park (tick), played Top of the Pops (tick), Reading and Glastonbury several times (tick tick), and toured Europe with Aerosmith (TICK).
To me, though, he’s my beloved friend and lovely bandmate, who these days records his face-melting solos in his ‘rockasin’ slippers, watched by his pug dog, Frida. But in the late ’80s and early ’90s Ben was lead guitarist in Senseless Things.
They were the pioneers of what Steve Lamacq, then of the NME, labelled Fraggle Rock: a blend of the best bits of UK punk, the poppiest bits of US hardcore, the spirit of the Replacements and, in Senseless Things’ case, the London-centric lyrical flavour of Chris Difford. They filled huge halls as a hard-gigging DIY band, and filled even huger ones as Sony recording artists. Then they quietly disappeared.
Just a few weeks away from their reunion show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I catch up with Ben for a chat in the wee-smelling basement of London’s Islington pub, ten minutes before we’re due onstage with our Socialist R’n’B band, Thee Faction.
LTW: You’ve seen it all really, haven’t you Ben… global stadium tours through to North London pub gigs and back again…
And I’m a fan too. That’s kind of what Senseless Things were all about. We loved a lot of the same music because we were together a lot – we were playing 200 gigs a year in the early years. We were a really hardworking band, and spent a lot of time together, listening to the same stuff.
So we were listening to The Replacements, Red Kross, Urge Orverkill, Soul Asylum – that kind of American sound. The starting point for us was Buzzcocks, Psychedelic Furs, Pete Perrett of the Only Ones … then later on we were listening to an awful lot of Ween, and at the same time Morgan would be playing The Meters, Funkadelic kinda stuff. And I’d play a bit of hard rock, when I got a chance, you know! Bit of Van Halen … so we were fans first and foremost, that’s what drove us. And also we were fans of the bands we were playing with. Like, fans of the Mega City Four, and big fans of Snuff!
So you were basically all just fanboys!
Yeah! I think Cass was just 12 when he joined the band, and he was 15 when I joined, and I was 20, maybe 21 …
That must have seemed quite a bit older than the others?
Exactly, yeah, relatively speaking! But I had a chequebook which meant that we could rehearse, you see. (Laughs) Even though I didn’t have any money in my account, you could give someone a cheque and run away, you know!
So how long did that ‘mucking about playing with your mates’ bands period last?
That lasted about two and a bit years I guess – ’87 through to about 1990 – the splitter truck years! That was all just about living on the road. The big break was the Peel session (Senseless Things’ first of three Peel Sessions was recorded in March 1988, produced by the late great Dale Griffin). That was when we thought, ‘Oh my God, this is actually for real’, you know? Everyone listened to the John Peel show, so all of a sudden you’re a known quantity. It got a lot easier to get gigs, there were more people at the gigs, and it just kinda snowballed from there. We pulled all those songs together, we worked with a fantastic producer, and it was just like, ‘yeah, here we go, this is it!’
So what was peak Senseless Things? What was your top ‘Things moment?
Ooo, I don’t know, it’s hard to say.
Oh we did Reading several times! We did Glastonbury. I think the first time at Reading was (grins) – ‘YAY!’ We were first on the main stage in the morning (August 1990), and as we started we could see people running from the campsite towards us. That was a fantastic time!
Same with Glastonbury. I don’t remember much of it to be honest. We arrived, got in a Land Rover, got taken to the gig, and then left again, on to the next gig on the tour. It wasn’t like you stayed for the weekend.
A bit different to Thee Faction playing Glastonbury in 2015, and camping with our families, hanging out with Charlotte Church!
Well yes exactly. We were chilling out for the weekend, and it was lovely!
So many different experiences …
Maybe the pinnacle of the Senseless Things was going to Japan. We signed to Sony, and the next thing we knew we got the invitation to go over and play a tour of Japan. Which was mind-blowing! It was about as alien as anything could get. Playing these Japanese venues – a good 400-500 size – and they were rammed. And they were going mental! They know how to have a good time. They booked us on this really stupid talent show called Ika-ten and, you know, they’d obviously pulled some strings and got us on it … and, you know, it was obvious we weren’t going to win it. Sony were just using it as a kind of promo vehicle. We had the best time though. Absolutely loved it. Playing gigs, doing stupid TV shows, getting taken out to dinner by the Sony execs … ate some really weird shit that I have no idea what it was, but didn’t care.
But then, one of my favourite times possibly of my entire life, was the two and a half months we spent in the States supporting Blur, in 1992. Blur had an horrific time – it was the tour that nearly broke them – but we were on first, playing to an Anglophile audience, and we came off stage at about 9 o’clock and had the rest of the evening to have a really good time! So we had an absolute whale of a time!
So how did the Senseless Things actually split up, or …
We kind of never did split up. When we were touring the last album, the audiences were noticably smaller. And by this time ‘grunge’ had really hit, and that’s what really killed our audience. All of a sudden we yesterday’s thing, but we were playing with all these grunge bands.
We played with Nirvana, we played with Mudhoney, we played with Tad. And we loved them! They were a big influence on us. We were taking all that stuff on board, and if you listen to the third album (Taking Care of Business), there’s a lot of grunge in there. We had the same press agent at Nirvana. I had a copy of Nevermind on cassette about a month and a half before anybody else had it. And I was just playing to people and going ‘Listen to this. This is going to be huge.’
So grunge killed the ‘Things …?
Yeah, our audiences just started declining … plus, we weren’t the same band as we had been three albums previously, you know … we were writing stuff that we wanted to do, I just don’t think the audience went with it. We went back to Japan and toured, and three of us came back and one didn’t. Mark just decided he wasn’t coming back. He was over there for another few weeks I think. But we had to pull out of a festival or two – it was the summer – and then just nothing happened after that … there was no announcement, no ‘This is it, we’re calling it a day’, you know?
No fans’ helpline?
Exactly! But we were still friends you know. It was Mark who put me on to Chris McCormack – he’d had a stint in The Wildhearts, and he’s the brother of Danny McCormack, the Wildheart’s bass player. So that connection got me into 3 Colours Red.
So did 3 Colours Red follow straight on from Senseless Things?
Pretty much. I spent nine months to a year basically working in a record shop, waiting to see what was going to happen next, then 3 Colours Red came along. Then that was ’95 to ’99, about four years.
You see, those were the years I was a teenager, and I knew of 3 Colours Red, so I always think of them as a bigger band than the ‘Things, but is that just my perspective?
Strictly speaking, in terms of chart positions, I think we might have been bigger but album sales and stuff, it’s really hard to compare one era with another. We were fairly successful! You know, we did pretty well. We kinda climbed our way a bit higher up festival bills, that kind of thing. We spent a lot of time actually playing festivals, you know. If I have to see Metallica one more time I am going to kill someone. Or Marilyn Manson, come to that. But I was playing literally every day with the same bands, around Europe. It was very much the ‘rock circuit’ – a very different thing to what Senseless Things had been doing.
So was 3CR more of a ‘career’ band in some sense?
Nah, I really loved that band. I did it for the same reasons I did Senseless Things: I loved the songwriting and I loved the music. And there’s always been a heavy metal element to my music, you know!
Haha oh I’m well aware of that! (I spend a lot of time onstage between Ben and his amp, turned up to 12)
I was always the hard rock fan, so I really loved it. Proper rock and roll!
So after 3CR you had a musical gap, filled with some ‘normal life’ …
I became a Dad, moved to Cornwall, was kind of occasionally picking up an acoustic, but generally didn’t play the guitar at all, not even for pleasure.
So did you feel that music was a chapter of your life that had ended?
Pretty much, I think. Although I still had my guitars and they looked fantastic. I had a big old amp in the study … but I wasn’t actively pursuing something musical to do. But then we were out one day and I saw a bunch of Morris dancers – they looked like a cross between The Mission and Levellers fans – with great big black boots on, blue faces, black hair, and black tatter jackets. They were what’s called Border Morris – a bit more aggressive and full-on than your average, hanky-waving Cotswold Morris, you know?
Kind of! And they were pretty young, relatively speaking, for Morris dancers. And it turned out that a fellow parent at the school was the Squire of the local Morris side, Trigg Morris, a Cotswold (ie ‘hanky’) side. They were going out that night, and said that if I wanted to go along I should bring my guitar so I did, and they were hilarious! Brilliant dancers. And after all the dancing’s done it was into the pub, out come the instruments, and they play and sing until closing time. And it’s a combination of Victorian Music Hall, country and western, ’50s rock n roll numbers and folk songs. A really great set of tunes! So this developed, and there was already a guitarist in the group, so I got a mandolin and really got into that. And I really got into the dancing too. The dancing really gets its claws into you!
When you moved back to London, that’s when Thee Faction came about …
Yep. Basically, Thee Faction called me up and said ‘How do you fancy being in a Communist version of Dr Feelgood?’ And I’d always loved Dr Feelgood, and I thought ‘why not!’ It was a chance to play loud music again. And the rest, as they say, is history …
How long is it we’ve been going now, is it six years?
Since 2009. Eight years! In which time we’ve done, what, six albums? But I love this as well. It’s different music but I’ve still kinda got the same guitar sound, it still fits in. It’s still quite an in-your-face, aggressive guitar sound, it just has to fit behind a three-piece brass section, keyboards, and a lot of vocals – and you have to be able to hear the vocals because it’s a great message. But I love it, and Billy is such a brilliant songwriter, as is Martin our bass player.
I’m really excited to hear you’ve just joined the latest line-up of those legendary garage protopunks The Charlemagnes!
Aren’t we all! It’s kinda garage rock stuff, which is very close to my heart! The first gigs with this new line-up are coming up soon. We almost played with Beach Slang at the Scala last month, but Dave (the drummer) wasn’t available. But that would have been so cool. Never mind.
You’re busily rehearsing with the Senseless Things at the moment, ready for the big reunion show.
We’ve had a couple of rehearsals. It sounds amazing!
The same as before?
It kind of sounds the same but better. I’m not sure if everyone would agree with me, but to me it sounds better because we’ve all stayed being musicians, so we’ve got a couple of decades worth of being better musicians. So you apply that to the muscle memory that just comes flooding back, when you figure out the first chord of how you used to play it, it’s just all there! It’s like putting a tape on.
But my playing technique is now so much better, particularly than in the early days, so the easy stuff is now really easy, and the harder stuff is actually not as hard as I remember it being. And it sounds fucking amazing. (laughs).
It’s nice to not have to take account of a brass section, no offence! (Melissa, Thee Faction’s trumpet player, waves her trumpet menacingly at Ben from across the hallway) I just crank it right up, and it’s liberating! That’s what it’s always been about for me – standing in front of an amp and making a really stupidly loud noise.
I see that Skinny Girl Diet and The Tuts are supporting you at Shepherd’s Bush – two all-girl DIY bands! Were these your own choice of support?
Yes – we chose them. We wanted very much to avoid this being an ‘indie all-star’ show, or a ’90s greatest hits package, so inviting current bands, who are now where we were back then was an imperative. Plus, we had something of a history of supporting women in bands, playing with the likes of Mambo Taxi and the Voodoo Queens. It’s another way of continuing the ethos we had back then.
And with that, we dashed upstairs to catch the end of Dunstan Bruce’s set, before playing a, if we do say so ourselves, epic performance.
Tickets for the Senseless Things reunion show, on 25 March at o2 Shepherds Bush Empire, are available from here.
Interview by Cassie Fox. More from Cassie in her Louder Than War author archive here.