"We've got a great sense of urgency now": DiS meets The Flatmates
Twenty-five years ago, the smart money was on The Flatmates to "do a Primitives" as it was called back then and gatecrash mainstream radio and eventually the official charts. Formed in Bristol during the summer of 1985 by guitarist Martin Whitehead and (then) drummer Rocker, their adrenalin fuelled fusion of The Ramones meets The Ronettes saw them quickly rise to prominence as part of the C86 indiepop scene.
Nevertheless, despite being on the cusp of commercial success, the band imploded around the end of 1989, seemingly never to be heard of again. Until the summer of 2012 that is, when the aforementioned founder members decided to get the band back together. Recruiting Lisa Bouvier on vocals, Brian Price on drums and a succession of bass players "just like the old days", they set about writing a bunch of songs culminating in last year's seven-inch 'You Held My Heart', the first Flatmates release to feature brand new material since 1987's 'Heaven Knows' single.
Last month, DiS caught up with Whitehead, Rocker and Bouvier prior to their set at Indietracks and found a band eager to embrace the future rather than their past.
DiS: This is your first time playing Indietracks. Have you been wanting to play the festival ever since the band reformed?
Martin Whitehead: It was two years ago at Indietracks 2012 when me and Rocker were standing at the side of the church chatting and people kept coming up to us asking if The Flatmates were playing that year. We had been talking about getting the band back together for seven or eight years before that, knocking new songs backwards and forwards and that's when we decided to do it. We knew we had to get a band together and Rocker said he knew a singer that might be interested, so it was this time two years ago at Indietracks that we finally decided to put The Flatmates back together. It orchestrated the rebirth of The Flatmates so it's kind of fitting for Indietracks to be at the top of our list of places we ought to come back and play.
Rocker: The thing I like about here is there's no attitude.
Martin Whitehead: Everyone's here because they like music whereas at Reading they're only interested in taking drugs and getting off with somebody. And they only do it at Reading because they can't do it in their parents' houses.
DiS: Do you feel as if the band are starting out from scratch again? It is predominantly a new line-up with just two remaining original members and you're also playing to a brand new audience.
Martin Whitehead: People have come up to us at the end of our shows and said they liked us and when we've asked how they heard about us, some of the responses have been, "My dad bought the records first time round, he's over there..."
Rocker: At one point we were fashionable and then we became unfashionable but it's so long ago no one remembers who we are!
Martin Whitehead: It doesn't feel like we're reforming a band from twenty-five years ago. Even after the band split up first time round, me and Rocker always hung out together. We spent a lot of that time talking about forming a band and knocking demos back and forth. It feels like we've had a really long break. We're not just going out playing old songs. There's some of the old songs in the set but we're always writing new songs and a lot of those have been recorded since we got back together. It's more a case of us just being slack for twenty-five years. We never got off our arses to do stuff. It isn't about us coming back and reforming for a year then going back to our day jobs. It's about progressing and picking up from where we left off.
DiS: Does Lisa (Bouvier) give the band fresh impetus being the new singer as well as an established musician and songwriter herself in numerous other bands?
Lisa Bouvier: I've written some of the songs. It's nice to be able to go in and not just sing someone else's words, but also give something back.
Martin Whitehead: We tried out several singers over the last few years. Some of them could sing the songs really well, but there's a certain spirit and feeling about The Flatmates which none of them had whereas when Lisa came along we instantly knew this was right. Lisa gets what The Flatmates are about. She brought songs along with the intention of them being Flatmates songs, and that became the first single ('You Held My Heart'/'One Last Kiss') from the new line-up. It just took us a long time to find the right singer for The Flatmates.
DiS: Do you see the rebirth of The Flatmates as unfinished business in a way? You were heavily tipped for mainstream success in the late 1980s but whereas similar bands such as The Wedding Present, The Primitives and The Darling Buds enjoyed that you kind of imploded.
Rocker: Definitely. We just got back from playing New York a month ago twenty-five years after we were meant to play there.
Martin Whitehead: We were offered lots of gigs in 1989 just after Debbie (Haynes, original singer) had left the band and it was like, "Yeah we'll get back to you!" but we never did.
Lisa Bouvier: Twenty-five years later we can come now!
Martin Whitehead: Getting our album recorded and going to America, they were two of the things the old line-up of The Flatmates never got round to doing and they never quite achieved it. Playing Indietracks was top of the list of things this incarnation of The Flatmates wanted to do but we've also done America and got the album in progress.
Lisa Bouvier: So what is the next goal?
Martin Whitehead: A US West Coast tour and Japan.
Rocker: We played Birmingham Popfest in April and we're doing the Indie Daze festival at the Forum in September.
Martin Whitehead: We've got a great sense of urgency now. We've actually had twenty-five years to think about it. It feels like we've compressed so much into only a year of gigging. From Indietracks 2012 it took us a year to get a band together, songs relearned and shows booked. Since then we've been playing constantly.
Rocker: We also do everything on our own terms. We don't feel obliged to do the things we would have done twenty-five years ago. Sign to a major label and all that kind of stuff.
Martin Whitehead: Back then we had a manager and an agent and they were reliant on taking their percentages from us to pay the mortgage or the rent. So we had to go and tour, had to release something to coincide, had to do this and do that. It was our manager back then who told us not to put out a cheaply recorded album because it would scare away the big labels and only sell a thousand copies. At the time it was probably reasonable advice but it meant we delayed putting the album out. Now after all this time it doesn't feel like we're trying to compete with anybody. We are The Flatmates, we know what we do. Only this time we're pleasing ourselves rather than trying to please a manager or an agent.
DiS: If you had the benefit of hindsight and had the opportunity to change the past, would you do things differently?
Rocker: The world's a different place now. You'll never have that opportunity again. Plus, we're proud of what we did back then.
Martin Whitehead: I remember saying in interviews back in the 1980s that we don't want to be like The Priitives in signing to a major record label then - excuse the pun - crash and burn. We'd rather be like The Fall in putting albums out and doing our own thing. Playing to our own audience rather than having one hit and disappearing. We've gone and done that without putting records out or playing gigs! Being a bit older we appreciate this for what it is. It's damn good being in The Flatmates. I appreciate it far more than I ever did in 1986, 1987, 1988 or 1989. I don't really want to spoil it all by going off and playing by someone else's tune.
Rocker: We've spent a year working on the album when we could easily have rushed one out within six months. But then that wouldn't have been the album we wanted to make.
DiS: How does it feel hearing so many new bands citing The Flatmates as an influence?
Rocker: It's great. Again, that's part of the whole Indietracks experience. Bands like The Spook School who we love. We only saw them for the first time here two years ago. Now they're one slot above us on the main stage.
DiS: Are there any other new bands you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
DiS: With Martin having started The Subway Organization and Sarah Records following suit shortly after, do you feel there is still a legacy in Bristol for indiepop and DIY labels?
Rocker: Only two of us still live in Bristol. Lisa lives in Sweden.
Martin Whitehead: I moved away from Bristol twenty-odd years ago. I started The Subway Organisation in 1985. At the time there wasn't any kind of indiepop scene there. All there seemed to be were old hippies bashing bongos and lots of reggae bands back then. People like Rip, Rig And Panic doing all this arty stuff with saxophones. There wasn't anybody doing three minute pop songs. Manchester had its post-punk scene, Liverpool too, but Bristol didn't really have much to speak of. The Blue Aeroplanes and The Brilliant Corners maybe, although they were very different in style despite having similar mindsets. Aside from that, there wasn't anything around to say that Bristol has some far-reaching indiepop legacy. I guess if one does exist I must have created it!
Rocker: It was a running joke for years that the only band to ever have any success from Bristol were The Korgis with a one-off single in 1980.
Martin Whitehead: And even they were from Bath!
Rocker: Sarah Records formed about a year after Subway and were clearly inspired by what Martin was doing. They used to put gigs on together and stuff.
Martin Whitehead: Both together and in opposition to one another.
Rocker: Very friendly rivalry.
Martin Whitehead: Yeah, it was a bit cheesy sometimes but we were all very much on the same side. We might take little potshots at each other in fanzines but we were all very supportive of one another. We'd always go to their gigs and you'd always see them at ours.
DiS: Do you feel a sense of pride when looking back through The Subway Organization back catalogue? There's a host of groundbreaking singles in there by many then-unknown bands like The Soup Dragons, The Charlottes and The Shop Assistants.
Rocker: Even now, many of those records stand up as some of the finest releases from that decade. I wasn't part of the record label, I was a DJ so I used to get them as test pressings and it was great to be one of the first people to get to play them. 'All Day Long' by The Shop Assistants still sounds great to this day.
Martin Whitehead: I've never really been one for nostalgia. I think John Peel once said he was always looking forward to next Saturday's game rather than FA Cup Final replays from twenty-five years ago and I feel the same way about music. That's why I'm here now rather than sitting at home listening to Soup Dragons records. I still get excited at the thought of seeing a band that can move me as much as they did in 1985.
Rocker: Indietracks were a bit worried about booking us. They thought we might just be a retro covers band of the tracks recorded twenty-five years ago.
Lisa Bouvier: A Flatmates tribute band!
Martin Whitehead: When we started gigging we had to try hard to fit some of the old songs into the set. At the start we were only playing about three of the old songs. It was all new material so we had to put some more songs in that people might know. We could have gone out and played a whole set of songs written over the last couple of years.
DiS: With you all being based in different places does it create problems for writing, recording and rehearsing?
Rocker: We have to organise rehearsals in advance. We were all based in the same country until recently...
Lisa Bouvier: ...but now we're not!
Rocker: This morning we booked a rehearsal room in Mansfield (Unit 5 for two hours.
Martin Whitehead: Dropbox is a useful invention with us all living in different places.
Rocker: The album has been recorded predominantly at my house as I have a studio. I do a show on Dandelion Radio and have bands in to record sessions.
DiS: Lisa, you have lots of other projects going on as well as The Flatmates. How do you find the time to fit everything in?
Lisa Bouvier: I'm just very unprepared all the time! I constantly wing it. I guess people who don't make music come home from work and watch TV for three hours, whereas I come home and write music for three hours. That's how I wind down. It's not about finding time. It's what I want to do. And also, never practice!
DiS: What are your plans for the rest of this year?
Rocker: We've got a single coming out shortly. We got asked to do a record by this little Italian label called Astro Girl. So we thought rather than give away any of the tracks planned for the LP we'd do two covers instead. It's meant to be out next month I think? We've covered 'Comedian' by Cinerama and 'When You Were Mine' by Prince.
Martin Whitehead: Because we didn't just want to be seen as revivalists of the whole C86 scene we decided to cover songs people would least expect The Flatmates to do. The Prince cover has given us the confidence to surprise people. It would have been very easy to just play a cover of an indiepop classic.
DiS: When is the album out?
Rocker: We've not got a label for it yet. We're going to finish it as soon as we can then get some artwork together...
Lisa Bouvier: ...so hopefully within the next twenty-five years!
Martin Whitehead: Someone said to me why don't we put it out on Subway? I did my bit for indie twenty-five years ago thanks! I put myself out there and had a go at running a record label, got nailed to a cross for it and hopefully did enough to justify my place in indiepop heaven. It's someone else's turn to have a go now.
For more information on The Flatmates visit their official Facebook page.
The single 'You Held My Heart' can be purchased here.