By Lisa Firth. First published in The Local Leader magazine
Lisa interviews Rick Witter, lead singer of cult indie band Shed Seven. Rick and the band scored 15 top 40 hits during the golden era of Britpop in the 1990s, with singles including Getting Better, Chasing Rainbows and Going for Gold. Reforming in 2007, the York outfit has been packing out venues across the country and is now all set to wow the crowds at this year’s Bingley Music Live festival on 29 August.
You started playing in bands when you were still in your teens. Would you say that the music scene’s changed a lot since then, particularly with the web changing how bands get their stuff out there?
Yes, exactly that. I’m not that old, but it’s totally different to when I was growing up, and I guess if you were to ask people in bands like the Rolling Stones they’d say even moreso. Me and Paul Banks, our guitarist, formed our first band when we were 12 I think, while we were at school. The difference since those days is just untrue. The other day my oldest kid, who’s 16, was asking me stuff about Shed Seven. And at one point I told him that we did Top of the Pops ten times and he went, “What’s Top of the Pops?” That’s how much things have changed. That was a programme that I watched religiously every week, always thinking, “One day, I want to go on that”. And I got to do it, which was like the dream coming true, and now I’m asked what it is!
Definitely, the Internet, it’s totally changed things. You don’t even particularly need a record deal anymore, you can almost do it yourself. There are so many artists these days who say that they recorded it in their bedroom on a computer. There is still a lot to be said about doing it old school but there are these other avenues now.
And you’ve embraced that, haven’t you? I know you’re a big user of Twitter.
I do use Twitter but to be honest with you, I only use it because I’ve got a radio show: I wouldn’t use it in any other way. I’m not on Facebook as such either. I’m not one of these people who cooks a meal, then I have to take a picture of it and show everyone what I’ve cooked before I eat it, you know what I mean? That kind of thing annoys me a little bit. But just to make people aware of what you’re doing, Twitter’s a brilliant promotional tool. I do put personal tweets on there every now and then and I will answer questions if people who are following me on Twitter ask me anything about Shed Seven, but I wouldn’t be on there if it wasn’t for doing this radio show.
You mentioned one of your six kids. Are any of them into Shed Seven at all?
They can take it or leave it to be honest. I don’t push it on them or make them listen to it. I do hear it on in the house every now and again, but I don’t rush upstairs and go “Oh, brilliant, you’re listening to this!”. I just let them do it. It’s the same when people ask me whether they’re interested in music or if they want to be in bands. They’re not massively like that yet. I’m hoping one day they will be, but I’d never force them to learn an instrument just because I did it. I’m a big believer in them finding their own path in life. Obviously it would be nice if they started to take more of an interest in that respect, but I never push it on them.
What were your musical influences when you were growing up?
Well, I think my brother had a big influence on me. He’s four years older than me, and when he was getting into music, around the time he was 12 and I was 8, all I heard from his bedroom was electronic stuff: Gary Newman’s Depeche Mode, all keyboard-based music. And because he liked that it made me not like that, because he was my brother! So I started following guitar bands, probably to annoy my brother more than anything: bands like The Smiths were very influential for me. Obviously now I’ve grown up I can see that electronic music is also good and relevant and necessary though. And further on as I grew up, there was The Stone Roses, and I’ve always been quite a big fan of The Rolling Stones. I suppose I’ve got my brother to thank for the position I find myself in now!
Shed Seven have often been compared to The Smiths, favourably so. Is that something that bothers you or something you welcome?
I can kind of see it, perhaps more in our earlier work: that if you heard it you might think, “Oh, that sounds like The Smiths”. It doesn’t bother me. But as much as it’s good to have influences, it’s also important to put your own stamp on what you’re doing, which I think we did as well. As I say, I’m a big Smiths fan so I would take it as a compliment if anyone ever made that comparison. But it’s not an intentional thing.
Are there any artists or bands currently on the scene that you particularly connect with or admire?
Again, because I’ve got this radio show thing it’s almost made me fall back in love with music – not that I ever fell out of love with music, but now that I have a two-hour show and I’m responsible for choosing everything that’s played on it, it’s much more of a focus. Obviously I’ve got an awful lot of music from the past that I can delve into, but it’s just as important to be as current as I can as well. There’s a big mix of good music that I would play over the two hours. These days I’m constantly browsing the Internet to see what’s new and what’s coming up, and there’s loads of brilliant stuff out there.
What I love is that I think indie music has become independent again. When we were in the charts a lot, I would class us as an indie band just as much as a pop band. But independent music then became the norm, because in those Britpop days everyone was charting. Indie music now is more difficult to find, it’s not as full on or in your face. Bands like Temples I really like, another band called Teleman.
There’s loads of stuff today, too much to mention, but if anyone wants to know what I might like they should tune into my radio show. It’s on a York station called Minster FM, but I’m sure you can probably pick that up where you are, and we do have people who listen all over the country, even as far away as Canada, via the web. If you go to minsterfm.com you can listen live from their page. Sunday nights 7-9pm, it’s called Rick Witter’s Disco Down.
You’ve had a few issues with the music industry over the years, and with your various record labels. How do you think that affected the trajectory of the band?
When we originally called it a day in 2003, that was probably because of the record company side of things. We found ourselves under a lot of pressure to write chart hits and that was never why we formed in the first place: we just liked writing songs. It was alright in the beginning because we had a major say in stuff like what would become a B-side: we’d write a batch of songs and then we’d decide what would be the single and what would be the extra track on the CD, things like that. But then, as record companies do, they just started to see the pound signs. They were dictating a little bit too much how our career should be led, and we weren’t really comfortable with that. I could see that we would probably have ended up falling out as people, and we’ve all been friends for a long time.
When we reformed it was solely to do some gigs because we missed playing live. That was why we started in the first place, because we just liked playing music. So over the last few years we’ve found ourselves reuniting to play the old songs: there’s not really been much chat about writing new material, but that could change and I’m hoping it will do. Everyone’s so busy at the moment doing other things, we just don’t find enough time to get together to do that. If we were to do that, it would have to be done properly. It’s been an awfully long time since we last released a record. It would have to be up there with our past, and we wouldn’t want to feel pressured into doing that.
If we ever did start writing songs, I’m not sure we would go down the record company route again. I think we would probably release it ourselves and then just put it on iTunes. You’d maybe need distribution and stuff, and possibly a radio plug for it, but again you can just do that yourselves. You don’t exactly need to be on a record label to do that.
So in the early days, the journey to becoming recognised was quite a gradual one for you. Your first chart hit came four years after you originally got together in 1990. What are your thoughts on the current trend for overnight successes through TV reality talent shows?
It’s just naff! It’s all too easy, and when you start doing things like talent shows and you’re being told “oh well, you’re rubbish”, it’s all too in your face for me. It’s fair enough if that’s what people want to do: there’s room out there for that to happen. And every now and again you might end up discovering someone who might not otherwise be discovered. But half of the appeal to me is putting the groundwork in. We did an awful lot of that: an awful lot of driving down the motorway to London to play in front of nobody and then driving straight back home after it, arriving home at six in the morning, getting changed and going to work. But we had belief in what we were doing so we stuck at it, and it worked for us. On the other hand, there’s probably so many bands who do that and don’t get anywhere. There’s an awful lot of pot luck involved in these things, but I do believe that because we did that hard graft in the first place, it made it all the sweeter when it actually worked for us.
What’s the response been like from your fans since you reformed in 2007? Have “Shed Heads” welcomed the new Shed Seven?
Yeah, I think we’re a better band now than we ever were actually. I don’t know if a bit of that is age, or if it’s the fact that there’s no pressure on us as a band. All we do is announce a gig and then the tickets sell for that gig. So we know that the people who’ve bought the tickets know what they’ve paid their money for: they know that they’ll have a few drinks and sing their hearts out and that’s exactly what we’ll do as well, we’ll have a few drinks and we’ll sing our hearts out back. Because we don’t tour that much, I think people really, really look forward to it. And we do it around Christmas time, which is a good time of year to go out and do gigs: everyone’s winding down from work because the Christmas holidays are coming. I think that they just really like coming to see us, and the fact that we still keep selling tickets proves that I suppose.
What I also see on stage when I’m looking out is, funnily, a lot of teenagers and kids. Obviously the parents who liked us originally have now got children and are bringing them with them. But the kids don’t look like they’re in too much sufferance! They look like they’re really enjoying themselves and they’re singing along as well, so obviously their parents are playing it at home a lot and the kids are picking up on it. That’s a whole new generation of fans for us, which means we can keep going longer!
You’ll be playing at the Bingley Music Live festival next month, alongside other big acts like the Pet Shop Boys. Which of your classic hits can fans expect to hear when you perform?
Well, we understand that it’s a festival and we’re playing later in the day, so I think it would be rude not to play most of our big hits. That’s what people will want to hear and what they will expect to hear. We’re not one of these bands who would play loads of songs that no one’s heard of, that’s not the point, especially when you’re headlining a night.
Do you enjoy the atmosphere of playing festivals? Is it different to other live gigs?
Yeah, it’s a whole different experience playing a festival. It’s not “your gig” for a start: you’re not guaranteed a crowd because you don’t know if people are there for you or not. A lot of festivalgoers nowadays just like the experience and the music’s a secondary thing for them. But then there’s other people who might be a big fan of the music and can’t wait to see a particular band. So it’s a different setup, but enjoyable. I’m looking forward to it.
And finally, the obligatory question! Do you have any advice for young people trying to make it in the music industry today?
Have belief. If you love what you’re doing and it’s coming from the heart, then keep at it, just keep doing it and putting in the hard work and the mileage. Any knocks that you might get, just dust them off and keep doing it.
See Rick and the rest of Shed Seven on Friday 29 August 2014 at Bingley Music Live, Myrtle Park, Bingley. Day tickets are available from £25. www.bingleymusiclive.com