Don’t they say in 24 Hour Party People “if it's a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend?”
The legend we told was that after having almost killed myself twice, firstly in a car accident (truth) and then by electrocuting myself while re-wiring a moog during a thunderstorm (fiction, it was a delay box many years later and probably not even raining) I decided to form a band in order to leave something behind.
|My room, including original white album poster and KEF speakers|
The truth was equally mundane. I moved to Reading because I hated my job, my old band had fallen apart and I wanted to hang out with my friends. I moved into a sprawling 6-bedroom student house with my best friend Mike some of my other closest friends and an Irish girl called Nina. The first thing I did was paint my bedroom bright orange. The room was lit by, amongst other things, a vintage tanning lamp, under the light of which we recorded much of the first demo.
I moved to Reading with no job and only a couple of hundred quid of savings. And I had only one plan, to form a half decent band to play some of the ton of songs I had accumulated while writing for my last band The Deviants. (Perhaps one day I will write a post here about The Deviants, although right now the world probably isn’t ready for it). On my first Sunday in Reading, after going to see Austin Powers at the cinema, and while enjoying a drink in the Purple Turtle, I told my band plan to Mike. He wanted to be a part of it and we agreed, he would be the drummer and I would play bass (simply as they were always the hardest members to find and we wanted reliability), we would have a female singer, and we would wear black roll-neck jumpers, even in the summer. Within minutes he was scouring the pub asking any attractive woman in a roll-neck to join the band. We even agreed on the band name that night. Mike threw some words and. Saloon just jumped out. In hindsight I, don’t know exactly why I loved it so much. I liked the fact that it sounded countryish and that we could confound expectations. But mostly I just liked the look of the word. The next weekend I went into town and got the word SALOON printed in playbill on a red t-shirt.
Within a few weeks we assembled a group of people to join us. Our housemate Nina could play trumpet, so she was in. She had a friend called Steve who could play guitar and a friend called Natalie who could play viola, both were in. Our friend Dee also volunteered herself, she was a bass player though, so she joined as bassist and I became leader ‘without portfolio’ for a while.
One evening I went to see my friend Emma’s band playing downstairs at the Alleycat. She was playing cello in a local group called British Air Power. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the band, but the one-person who did stick out was their viola player. I recognised her from the Reading scene, as a bit of a face around town, but this evening she stood out because at the end of every song she’d run the bar and get another drink before running back on stage, increasingly more drunk on each turn. After the show we got chatting, and she agreed to join the band.
So Saloon by this stage had a fairly unconventional line up of two viola players, two bassists, a drummer, a trumpet player, one guitarist but no singer. To rectify this Mike and I put a few adverts up in bars and music shops. “Female Singer sought for Reading band. Influences, Portishead, Stereolab, Velvets, Easy Listening.” Perhaps more telling was the disclaimer “musicianship a bonus not a must”.
In my orange room over the next few days, I auditioned two people. The first sung an a capella version of Killing Me Softly. Her singing was terrible but what I disliked more was the fact that she sat on my bed rather than my vintage arkana chair. Too forward. The other person to audition has seen the advert in the local music shop with her boyfriend. She hasn’t heard of Stereolab (who her boyfriend told her were boring) but she was a fan of Portishead. I met her in the car park of the local pub, so that her mum could see that I wasn’t a weirdo out to pick-up girls (if I was of course I wouldn’t have listed Stereolab and The Velvets on the advert, surely).
Amanda sat on the arkana chair and sung two songs, while strumming my terribly cheap electric guitar. Those songs were Sugar Boy by Beth Orton and Flowers in December by Mazzy Star. The versions I have posted here, I found on a C90 and I am pretty sure this is her rehearsing for the audition.
She sung her songs through once, and I think I may have sing something (maybe ‘I am the cheese’) and then I got Mike to come in and she sung Sugar Boy again. You don’t need me to tell this to a Saloon fan, but her voice was such a revelation. I knew Mike was impressed because he became all giggly. In the back of my mind I was concerned that she was a bit young and wouldn’t stay in the band for long, I also was a bit worried that her voice was going to be drowned out by the rest of us, but I didn’t get to air those concerns. The three of us got a bus to town together and before we got off Amanda asked us if she was in the band, Mike just laughed and said ‘Yeah’. So she was in. We went and had some drinks to celebrate.
Now we had eight members. We still didn’t get all of us in a room together though. I think we may have had one rehearsal with Amanda, Mike, Natalie and Steve before Natalie and Steve left. Nina I don’t think we ever heard her play the trumpet. She did inspire a new song though, Nina Says, which I wrote over Xmas in 1997.
Amanda had a rehearsal space which was a total bonus above The Fox and Hounds in Caversham and I spent the last £500 of my savings on a PA (now only used for birthday parties and christenings.) We had one or two rehearsals with Dee before she left, I think citing that we weren’t really rock enough for her. The songs we had in our set at this stage were ‘ Fuzzy Felt’ ‘Spacer’ ‘I am the cheese’ and ‘Spectrum Colour Clash’ which were written while in The Deviants, a song of Amanda’s that I named ‘Conquistador’ and a new one based on the last days of Rome penned with Amanda who wrote the melody called ‘Bring all your love to me’. Alison had by now joined the band fully, but Mike was becoming concerned that we had quickly gone from 9 people to 4 and needed to do something before losing momentum.
Mike arranged for us to go to an acoustic session at a hippy café called Pangaea World Café Bar on London Street. We turned up in our roll-neck jumpers and rather hogged the evening. Mike took forever to set up his snare and cymbals much to the chagrin of the organiser. Despite my ineptitude, I had been forced to move onto acoustic guitar until we could find a proper guitarist. Alison was on viola and Amanda sung and played a little Casio PSS-30. We played three songs, ‘Fuzzy Felt’ ‘Cheese’ and ‘Spectrum’ before being invited back where we played ‘Bring all your love’. It was great to finally be playing in public. The organiser said something about it being the start of something big, or some similar cliché. Someone else said it was like seeing the Velvets for the first time (they must have been really old and well-travelled to have seen the Velvets the first time themselves)
After Pangaea, our confidence was up, but we knew we were missing a vital piece of the puzzle, notably a half-decent guitar player. We put up some more adverts which stated ‘No Pot-Noodling’ as more than anything I wanted to avoid getting a muso or proper musician.
I am pretty sure only one person replied, certainly only one person auditioned, which was Matt. His musical CV included some time in a bad funk band, he couldn’t play a bar-chord (I can still almost only play bar chords) but he was young, keen, knew who Stereolab were, and most importantly turned up to his first audition in a roll-neck.
The line-up was complete, and although we played two shows in our career without Alison and had the occasional guest musician, the line-up stayed the same five people for five and a half years. Only a few weeks after Matt joined, basically as soon as he had mastered the E-Bar chord, we played our first gig at the Fox and Hounds in the very room we rehearsed in.
Unlike with Amanda, we didn’t tell Matt straight away that he was in the band. He waited until after our second or third rehearsal to ask “Am I in the band”
“Of course you’re in the f-ing band we replied.
The rest, as they say, is anything but history.