“In England these are dark times.”
The Heartbreaks interviewed by Fergal Kinney
In amongst the recent clamour of re-appraisals and re-dismissals of ‘Britpop’, as the curious term marks its twentieth birthday, the point was made that what happened in 1994 was the last time mainstream radio was even semi-serious about backing young guitar bands. Not just that, but the people in those bands could generally be relied upon to come from a broader range of backgrounds than in the present climate. These two dual tragedies are on my mind the Friday morning that I go to meet one half of The Heartbreaks in a café in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Though one-time exiles in Manchester, The Heartbreaks are from Morecambe, a town where, by their own admission, “nothing happens…ever”.
Four years on from their emergence with debut single ‘Liar, My Dear’, The Heartbreaks are preparing the release of their second album, ‘We May Yet Stand a Chance’. Their debut ‘Funtimes’, was broadly well-received but failed to mark the band out as anything worth setting the video for in a music world that didn’t really need four more skinny 22 year olds with guitars. When I ask whether they were disappointed with the response to ‘Funtimes’, singer Matthew Whitehouse intones a sharp “yes” before I can even finish my sentence. Drummer, and songwriter, Joseph Kondras is quick to articulate his uneasy relationship with their debut album; “I don’t think we expressed ourselves in the way we truly wanted to, it wasn’t a true expression of the band, a lot of the songs were really old and due to touring commitments and financial restraints it kind of took ten months to record in quite sporadic bursts. Whereas with this album, we locked ourselves away for six weeks and we were all on the same level, more than we ever have been before I think, and that was really helpful. Would you agree Matthew?”. This in turn is followed by another sharp “yes” from Matthew.
‘We May Yet Stand a Chance’ is a strikingly bold and defiant album; brimming with a last-chance optimism as well as hooky, intelligent songs. A furious sonic progression from the indie pop (Matthew: “I hate that tag, despise it) of ‘Funtimes’, you wouldn’t be wide of the mark in thinking the album sounded like Postcard Records soundtracking ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. “We deliberately narrowed down the influences for this record”, explains Matthew, “in the studio we’d listen to Nancy and Lee, Echo and the Bunnymen, Scott Walker, Bruce Springsteen…”, Kondras lifts his head from beans on toast to interrupt “Ennio Morricone film soundtracks” as Matthew nods. I put to them that the album sounds out of step with current British music and seems to celebrate that.
MW: In a musical sense, yes, not being part of the music scene that we perceive to be beige and quite gangrenous and quite homogenised, I think that ties in with the album cover as well…have you seen the album cover?
Louder Than War: Yeah, with the coffin?
MW: Yeah, and that ties in with the lyrics, dealing with the demise of many things, be it political opinion or conviction or passion. And I like the idea that it’s us four, this gang, facing the same direction, pulling in the same direction, I’m really proud of that.
MW: No-one seems to say anything. They certainly don’t say anything about politics…
JK: We’re living in quite serious times, in England these are dark times that we’re living in politically. It strikes me as really strange that we wouldn’t say anything.
MW: This is hardly an album of protest songs but there’s an underlying…
JK: …there’s political connotations, it’s a reaction to the times we’re living in without a doubt.
Louder Than War: More small ‘p’ political…
MW: Yes, definitely.
Louder Than War: I was going to ask you about that actually, we’re in the midst of a Conservative-led government and austerity programme and yet, for the first time, bands seem completely silent on the topic
MW: There was a thing in the NME a couple of weeks ago and they had, you know, ‘the most exciting British bands’ and they were asked about politics, and everybody was saying they’d just rather get stoned than talk about politics.
JK: And that is worse than voting Tory. It’s absolutely appalling and I’m ashamed.
MW: We did a concert supporting the Courteeners last summer in Castlefield, and I wore a t-shirt that said ‘Born in the NHS’ and said a few things about it, just basically about how we should fight to save it, yada yada yada, and for weeks I got called a cunt on Twitter for talking about politics. And the fact that you can’t talk about politics to a load of 20 year olds at a rock’n’roll concert, you know. It’s not bands jobs to be talking about politics, I don’t care if someone doesn’t, it’s when no-one is talking about, literally no-one. When Thatcher died, no-one said anything. And forget the fucking eighties for a second, nobody’s saying anything about this government and it’s terrifying.
Their native Morecambe, it seems, is a source of much frustration for the band. Kondras speaks movingly about the first time he heard Morrissey’s ‘Everyday is Like Sunday’ and his disbelief that somebody had put into words exactly how he felt about his hometown. Album opener ‘Paint the Town Beige’ explores the very modern problems facing the seaside towns that they forgot to close down, which Kondras wrote after his local pub was bought out and renovated by a chain; “Why is charm and character not valued anymore? It doesn’t seem to be whatsoever and I find that quite distressing. It’s a great thing your local pub, it’s very important, and on a broader scale people are content with blandness and I don’t think it’s acceptable, look on any level, football, music, I see no colour anymore and that really upsets me”.
Much of the recent commentary surrounding the anniversary of Britpop has caricatured Pulp and Parklife-era Blur as parochial for their shared lyrical obsessions with the more mundane aspects of the typically English, but now that those subjects are covered by virtually no bands it’s hard not to feel that this is yet another symptom of the seeming gentrification of British music. “There’s such a drought of working class voices at the moment, not just in music but in fashion, or television, or journalism” agrees Matthew, “bands getting signed and the pool from which bands are getting signed is growing narrower and narrower because nobody can afford to sustain themselves as a musician, so the only people who can afford to be in bands are people from the middle classes. It’s really, really quite scary that those working class voices are being airbrushed out of our culture, a culture that was made by the working classes.”
The rising tide of political apathy informs much of ‘We May Yet Stand A Chance’, not least in two of the album’s strongest moments ‘Robert Jordan’ and “¡No pasarán!”. Both are references to the Spanish Civil War, the former the name of the protagonist in Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and the latter a slogan from the Spanish anti-fascist struggle that endures to this day. The Spanish Civil War, in which left-sympathisers from across Europe (including famously George Orwell) fought the fascist military uprising that was supported by Hitler’s Germany, has been a touchstone for bands like The Clash and the Manic Street Preachers for decades, though curiously The Heartbreaks are now in a minority of bands comfortable associating themselves with political ideology. “I just got really fascinated by that period” explains Kondras, “and the International Brigade in particular, that people from my town and your town would go and fight in a war that didn’t directly affect them and that line just came, “no one would die for anything around here”, and they wouldn’t.” “There’s an ideological war happening in this country right now” Matthew continues, as calmly as if explaining that his tea had gone cold, “which is the ideology of austerity, which is an ideology”. When I ask whether they agree with Russell Brand’s suggested remedy of disengagement the two wear the same steely frown of disapproval.
JK: I think that’s a disgrace. Telling young people not to vote is absolutely appalling. I have no idea what he’s trying to achieve by that. I really think that’s appalling. Disengaging…you have to engage because how do you change anything? I don’t know what he’s getting at.
MW: I understand because you look at Labour and they’re the same, they’re white, they went to private schools, it is hard…
Louder Than War: In ‘Hey, Hey Lover’ you mention that ‘the bastards are winning’, who are said bastards?
JK: We’ve been waiting for this question! There’s a lot of people in positions of power who are doing quite well right now and I don’t feel they deserve it. Basically what we were talking about before, nobody’s saying anything, nobody’s doing anything, it just feels like people are happy and content with the people above us. That’s what we’re getting at with that line.
MW: I’m glad we didn’t call the album ‘the Bastards Are Winning’, there’s an undercurrent of hope on the album and for a long time we thought it was like ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, you know we thought it was quite funny, but I’m really glad we didn’t call it that, because that qualifying bit afterwards, ‘we may yet stand a chance’, that feeling of hope and that we’re still fucking fighting. Musically, despite what the press say, people still want a band like us with conviction and who want to create something beautiful and lasting. We’re hopeful of this.
Since the release of ‘Funtimes’, there’s been a growing sense that the best is yet to come from The Heartbreaks, not least due to the support they’ve received from high profile influences. Edwyn Collins recorded a double A-side single with the band whilst Morrissey invited the band to support him in Europe – “it was exactly like meeting Morrissey” testifies Joseph Kondras, “he said ‘I’ve been to Morecambe once…for a joke’”. 6Music DJ Steve Lamacq even made an on-air vow to resign in the event of the station not playlisting their forthcoming single ‘Absolved’. An anthemic celebration of guilt and masculine emotion with an intoxicating chorus, the single is precisely the kind of track that even Radio 1 – if they still would go near a guitar band with a bargepole – should relish. Speaking to them about the track, it’s Joseph Kondras’ grappling for words to describe his difficulty confronting emotions like guilt that leads me to surprise myself by offering tentatively “are you…Catholics?”. They’ve been rumbled. Kondras thrusts a handshake in my direction and both confess to a Catholic upbringing. “And I’ve been to the Vatican” adds Matthew, “it’s like a football match”.
Being allowed the space and time to grow from a debut album is something increasingly rare in music, indeed as is much about The Heartbreaks. This is a band of a rich but neglected lineage of small town romanticism, equal parts bookish, playful, articulate, disgusted and optimistic. As I leave, Matthew contends “despite what the press say, people still want a band like us with conviction and who want to create something beautiful and lasting. We’re hopeful of this”. The recently departed Tony Benn described hope as “the fuel of progress”, and though hope may seem in short supply it’s The Heartbreaks that have found hope to be a powerful fuel in ‘We May Yet Stand a Chance’, and the music press and radio would do well to give them a chance too.
‘We May Yet Stand a Chance’ is released June 2nd and The Heartbreaks play Sheffield, Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham and London in May.
All words and interview by Fergal Kinney. Fergal runs a monthly indie and soul night at Gulliver’s in Manchester called “Let’s Make This Precious”, beginning May 23rd. Find his Louder Than war archive here.