Releasing their Graham Coxon-produced debut album on the Blur axeman’s own label Transcopic back in 2001 Mower were a band who were a bug-eyed jittering rock nightmare dressed as a hook-laden garage pop daydream. Imploding twelve years ago after the release of their second album the band are about to make a comeback.
Louder Than War editor Sarah Lay catches up with Mower as they prepare to make their return with new material and live dates.
It’s a dream: you move to London to start university, you join a band and through hard work and a modicum of luck you find yourself signed and with a critically acclaimed album under your belts. But then it is also the nightmare: relentless touring, the pressure to be creative on demand and on point for a hard-to-please public and even harder-to-please music press.
So it was for Mower, who found themselves in the favour of Blur’s Graham Coxon with the legend-in-his-lifetime guitarist producing their self-titled debut and releasing it through his now defunct own label, Transcopic. Matthew Motte, guitarist and vocalist, described the band’s beginnings: “We’d all done the usual stuff of playing in bands growing up, but I didn’t have my full-on eureka moment until 1995, when I moved to London to start a History course at Goldsmiths College, in New Cross.
“I applied to Goldsmiths because it had a rich history in avant-guard and rock and roll music, John Cale and various members of Blur studied there. I met the first version of Mower at some point in 1999, when I joined the bands and musicians society. Our first gigs were shambolic, and that’s being kind, but, as we were rehearsing every day, we really upped our game. We went from the worst band in South London, to one that could seriously pull a crowd.
“At some point in 2000, after we’d started to build a following, Matt James from Gene, who became our manager, caught us at a gig by chance, and loved it. Six months later, when he thought we were ready, he invited the Transcopic people down to see us. They were really into it and so went on to make the self-titled debut album with Transcopic founder, Graham Coxon from Blur.
“I’d actually sent them a demo tape some time before, so they’d already been primed to our existence. When they came to our gig and signed us, it was totally fate! We ending up sharing the bill with our label mates Billy Childish and The Buff Medways pretty often, as you might expect, and the Transcopic offices in Camden were shared with the old Food Records (Blur/Idlewild) guys, so there was a nice little set-up, which we fit really well into.
“I’m really proud of that album — and Na became Single of the Week in the NME shortly after — but the cracks were starting to show. After being threatened with being shot in the head by the bass player, I decided to move on and recruit new members and to write a new album. Enter Nash and John!”
Nash Trevelyan, bass, picks up the story: “Pre-Mower, I got to know Graham pretty well after being chucked a quid by a barman in The Good Mixer to make some selections on the jukebox. Graham seemed to approve and asked me if I’d put the records on. As it turned out, he was sitting with some mutual friends. He pulled up a stool for me and we ended up getting on like a house on fire — two nerds chatting about music and guitars.
“A few months later I heard about the Mower vacancy, and before I knew it, John was in the fold and we all went off on tour with Drugstore and cut a single Mike Pelanconi (Graham Coxon, Lily Allen). I was only 18. It was quite the adventure.
“We toured loads, the stint with British Sea Power being the highlight, and got to make our next album with Stephen Street (Blur, The Smiths). Scuzzy Mower at Mayfair Studios. We could hardly believe it either.”
That first album has the familiar sound of Coxon all across it. Almost distressingly lo-fi and shambolically cacophonous, or as the NME sneered, ‘half a nifty no-fi blues-punk pop album, half the sound of a man having his tonsils removed with pliers and then hanging himself with his own guitar strings.’ There are however spots of blistering and catchy pop breaking through, distinctly Mower moments that bring winning charm to the rough edges which hinted toward the more melodic sound of their second album, People Are Cruel.
Nash said of working with Coxon, “We’ve always been fans of Graham’s solo stuff, and particularly the Blur records where he’s clearly taken the reigns. He’s got a great ear, and it’s no surprise he’s as well-respected as he is. And modest with it. He also makes a cracking cup of tea.”
Matthew adds, “Graham is lovely, and he’s been very kind to us over the years. He recently gave us the licensing to our old albums, so that we could get them up online for people to buy and listen to. As for the Transcopic days, he pretty much let us get on with it!
“It was just a really good match, so there was no massive pull in any particular direction for the sound of the record. Mostly, Graham would come in towards the end of the day and make some suggestions. Then we’d all jam for a bit before heading off to the pub.
“During the period between the first line-up and getting Nash and John in, Graham would assist me by coming on stage at gigs and doing backing vocals and extra guitar. A particular highlight was when Graham joined me onstage for my solo Mower show at Reading Festival. That was an amazing weekend.”
Nash chimes in, “I was at that Reading gig! I’d already tried out for Mower and got the good news that I’d made the line-up shorty after. I love the sound of the first record. It’s what made me want to be in the band. I think our next record will have more of those lo-fi influences in it.”
And while this is the first mention that this comeback could be more than a one hit nostalgia trip, the story of how they ended the first time isn’t done just yet. The rock n roll dream they were living couldn’t hold and the band imploded while touring their second album. Mower played their biggest show to date and headed out for UK dates, but by the third night both Nash and the band’s manager had quit leaving the tour and band in disarray.
Nash said, “Well it didn’t strictly end when I left in mid 2003. I was actually suffering from nervous exhaustion — we were touring like maniacs, and there was a lot of partying. We had XFM andBBC Radio 1 Singles of the Week, great reviews in Q, MOJO, NME, Time Out, The Fly, and Kerrang!. The record was even an Album of the Month for HMV. Things were amazing, but as you might imagine, it took its toll. I was still only 19 when I left.
John (Barrett, drummer) picks up the tale, “When Nash left we still had a record to promote so we auditioned some bass players and met Alex. We then toured with The Futureheads and The Ordinary Boys but things sort of lost momentum once the People Are Cruel line-up disbanded; we’d all worked so hard over the last few years to making and promoting the second record, that it just wasn’t the same after.
“I’d already started playing with a band called Gold Sounds and a friend then put me in touch with Eugene McGuinness (Domino Records), who I played with for a while. That then led on to Stats and Eat Lights Become Lights who I still play for now. Nash did stints with Alex Mahan/Phil Elverum (Marriage Records/K Records), KillCity (Alan McGee’s Poptones), and her own project Wonder Lanes, amongst others. Mat continued writing in both Mat Motte and The People That Hate Him and Shock Horror.”
The passage of time softens the scale of challenges faced before and gives a wistful sheen to friendships, to the bonding of being in a band.
Matthew describes how the idea of reforming came about, “I was boozing it up down by the river at London Bridge with my friend and old Mower cohort Colin Haikin on a day off from work and we started reminiscing about the good old days.
“Colin used to drive around from gig to gig and get pissed with us in the dressing room after shows. He started rattling off these stories, like the one where we broke in to Nottingham castle with British Sea Power and I started to feel all warm and fuzzy. Yeah, that could have been the 10 pints of strong lager, or the fact that I missed my old partners in crime.
“I sheepishly said to Col that I might text John and Nash at some point, then we talked about some of the old gigs, and he had me hooked; he totally knew what he was doing! I reckon he’d planned it all along! A couple more beers down the line and he’d persuaded me to text them both and we arranged to meet for a beer.”
Nash said, “We’d all stayed mates the whole time though, but I think we were all naturally wary of starting anything up again. We wondered if people would be interested in seeing the band again, but the response has been overwhelming.
“It’s funny revisiting things after such a long time has passed. But it’s been really cathartic, and everything just snapped straight back into place! I’d forgotten how much fun it could be — whether I like it or not, Mower is part of who I am now.
“I’m so lucky to have that indefinable rhythm section thing with John. We’ve all played with a lot of different people over the years, but we’ve definitely got a special bond. People have always commented on that dynamic between us as a band. Soppy, but true.”
The band have recorded new material and are working toward the release of single, Protest. Currently working in a DIY way without a label Matthew enthuses about the track, “Our new single is called Protest and it’s a social commentary. We all protest, whether it is standing in the rain outside Westminster, or on a bus, standing up to a racist football fan. We protest every day, some protests are tiny, but we make them, to show ourselves that we haven’t sold our souls. We stand in defiance, in the hope that our protest will make a difference and change our world for the better.
“We recorded it with Barny Barnicott at Blue Bell Hill Studio in Kent. The recording is in the same vein as some of our heavier stuff, but were all older and wiser with way more experience, so hopefully it should sound bigger, better, stronger, fitter. Well, maybe not fitter! I would say that it’s rawer than the second album. Maybe closer to the rawness of the first album, but with the second album’s melodic bent.”
Protest is just the start, the band now in full spate working together and on more new material, plotting their route through the music landscape they find themselves in now. Matthew said, “Ultimately the goal is to record an album — we’ve got the material and it’s some of our best yet. I’m constantly writing, so I have a stockpile of songs ready to go, we just need time to work on them. Were also gonna write some stuff by jamming and cutting it up, a bit like a Krautrock or prog band.”
Nash picks up, “We’ve taken a really DIY approach to it, so there’s something quite raw about it. But I think over the course of two quite different sounding albums, and three line-ups, we’ve managed to distill what the Mower sound is. We really know what works now. I think our next record will be the most important to us on a personal level, as, I think in coming together again with none of the backing we had before, it’s really a labour of love.
“Gig-wise we’re playing a show at the Sebright Arms with our mates, recent Fierce Panda signings, Sean Grant & The Wolfgang, in support. It’s on Friday 9 December 2016 and it’s going to be a stormer of a show. After that, we’ll be looking to play some shows around the launch of Protest, and of course we’d be chomping at the bit to tour the album.
“We’ve done some pretty amazing shows since our comeback; we played Refugee Rock with The Wedding Present, and did a set for the London Short Film Festival Beastie Boys retrospective at the Ace Hotel. More of that please!”
Interview by Sarah Lay.
Sarah is editor of Louder Than War and you can find more of her writing in her author archive here. You can also find her on Twitter and her wider portfolio as a music journalist here. She provides the Louder Than War recommended track of the week on her co-produced show The Rumble on Radio Andra. Tune in Tuesdays from 8pm or listen again.