The Wonder Stuff's Miles Hunt played blues in a tree while near naked Reeves and Mortimer smoked fags
PUBLISHED: 12:26 01 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:03 01 November 2018
Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff recalls a bonkers camping trip with Reeves and Mortimer and why, really, he no longer owns the songs that made him famous.
“They would involve me in sketches, so they would put me up a tree, pass me the guitar and say ‘play the blues’. So I was just playing this blues pastiche and they’d both appear, just in their underpants, smoking fags and being my audience which they thought was hysterical,” laughs Miles of his crazy camping trip with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer.
The trio famously recorded the number one single Dizzy, a cover of the Tommy Roe song which was first a hit in 1969 both sides of the Atlantic. The Wonder Stuff front-man had never heard it before.
“It was Vic who suggested doing it. It took five or six days to record. I’m just doing a bit of backing vocals at the end; I think I played the tambourine on it, maybe. I think we did a good job with the track, giving it a bit of a polish and making it relevant for the early 1990s.
“I can fully appreciate why it irritates a lot of people and I can fully appreciate why it makes people think of us as being a sort of one-hit wonder, a joke band and makes them not like us. I don’t care, I like us,” laughs Miles.
He has fond memories of hanging out with the comedy duo. He hasn’t seen Mortimer in a long time but he and Reeves still speak every few months and their families have stayed in touch.
“I made, what is now, a life-long friend in Jim Moir (Reeves’ real name). He’s an important person in my life, a good mate. I’ve had rough times where I needed a bit of kindness - I lived with him for three months in the late 1990s when I needed somewhere to be. Then he went through rough times and I’d be on the end of the phone for him.”
This brings us to their surreal sojourn to the south west of England.
“It was the three of us, in one tent, just driving round. We used to get together regularly at their local pub when they both lived in Blackheath, in south London. I’d go down once a week for a drink. We’d come to the end of a touring period, so had they. We were sitting there and it was starting to dawn on us that we were going to have to do some creative work quite soon,” he laughs.
The comedians had a load of characters and sketches to come up with for their new TV show. Miles had 20-plus songs to write for a new album.
“The three of us were all horrified there was so much work ahead of us. I think it was Vic who suggested we needed a ‘depravation holiday’. He’d just passed his driving test and bought himself a little jeep and said why ‘don’t we get a tent, clear it with our significant others and at the weekend just clear off in the car’.”
Miles was allowed to take a guitar, a notebook and a little tape recorder but ended up taking his video camera instead. Reeves and Mortimer were constantly jamming comedic ideas and it was his job to film them.
“They’d be like ‘Milo, grab the camera’ but it was nowhere near as contrived as that sounds. They would constantly lark about and it was just ‘Milo film this, film that’ while they’re laughing their heads off. It was ridiculous, they don’t stop; they’re absolutely no different in real life to what they’re like in their TV shows. It can be exhausting, spending a lot of time with them; but it was a brilliant thing to have done.”
The result is a 45-minute tape that - Miles adds, almost surprised – runs really well and actually seems like there’s a theme running through it.
“I watched it back when I got home and thought ‘is it just funny because I was there or is this funny’. I showed it to a couple of people who said it’s hysterical. I phoned up Jim and said ‘is there anything you can do with it’. He was amused and said we should dupe a load of copies and just give it away free to their fan club, so we did. I haven’t looked, maybe it’s on YouTube; everything else ends up there.”
And did he get any songs written?
“No, not one... it was a good time though,” says Miles, who’s still always working on some tunes, taking time out of the studio to talk about his current UK tour, The Custodian, visiting The John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, November 9, at 7.30pm.
The owner of a very short attention span, he wishes he was back in the studio when performing and vice versa. In reality, he enjoys both equally for lots of different reasons.
“Probably my favourite aspect of the job all these years is the creative side rather than the need to perform in front of people. I don’t have a hankering to get out and show myself off to the public, but I do have a hankering to always be creating something.”
Perhaps it was this restlessness that led Miles to take advantage of the burgeoning British independent music scene to form The Wonder Stuff in 1986 when he was 20. They went on to have four Top 20 albums and 17 Top 20 singles, including Dizzy.
“We put a lot of energy, a lot of work into the band every day when we were on the dole; before we got the record deal. I think it was basically driven by a need to get out of where we lived.
“This was Thatcher’s Britain at the end of the 1980s and it wasn’t a good time to be working class. There was that feeling ‘there’s a world out there’ and the people we admired were other musicians, people in bands. That was the world we looked at.
“We read NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and it looked like they were all having a great time. I think we wanted to carve ourselves out a slice of that and not be stuck in the Midlands for the rest of our lives. I’ve come back to the Midlands, but I’m happy to say I’ve seen a lot of the world.
“So, yeah, the dream came true but I think that’s essentially what it was. We didn’t see ourselves as people who could hold down jobs, you know? Doing menial tasks to line someone else’s pocket, staying in the same area, we weren’t those people.”
I wonder if The Wonder Stuff’s brashness was an antidote to those times.
“We wanted to throw a bit of colour into the mix, some energy. I mean I was quite an angsty young front-man as well. If I was p****d off I used to let everybody know,” Miles laughs.
“I suppose we felt... genuine. I’m not claiming I’m right in this thought but the glossy pop of the early and mid 1980s seemed very fake. I now have an appreciation for people like Duran Duran, they did a good job, wrote some good songs. I didn’t like them at the time, all those big Michael Jackson dance routines...
“We constantly looked back to the days of four-piece guitar bands like The Clash and the Buzzcocks, stuff we’d loved in our teens. So, yeah, I think we thought we were a bit more real... rather than what we seemed to have gone back to – that sort of mainstream pop, this aspiring to be wealthy is a good thing, looking all glossy and Hollywood is a good thing and I still feel an unattractive prospect for my tastes.”
TV talent shows offer a similarly distorted view of life in the spotlight. Mica Paris reminded me recently how back in the day people had to graft to be a success. Miles thinks the current mindset is more of a societal thing.
“Our politicians don’t appear to get into politics because they have a passion to make things better, they just have a passion to win. That’s all party politics is, winning. As you say, everything’s a bleeding competition these days.
“I don’t have live TV in my house, but the idea people are glued to a baking competition or a dancing competition, what’s the matter with you? I don’t find that entertainment. People are just, on a societal level, obsessed with winning. To me it’s not about winning. I’ve always been against award shows for instance or awards.
“I’ve been asked would I go on a panel for an awards show and I’m like ‘no, I won’t’. The way I come at music, it isn’t about getting a slap on the back or a handshake from some rich bloke. It’s about the work itself, not about being seen to be better than somebody else who’s also trying to do the same job.”
An overhang or return of the greed is good mentality?
“Could be, acquisition, feathering your nest; that was very much the Thatcher era wasn’t it,” says Miles, baring his angsty front-man side.
The Wonder Stuff split in 1994, with everybody embarking on solo projects until their reunion in 2000. Looking back, Miles ponders whether they made the most of their shot, was it all over too soon or was it the right time.
“It depends what angle I’m coming at it from – business or life experience. We didn’t really put the touring work in in the rest of Europe. I feel a bit sad we didn’t do that because if we had I’d be able to nip off to France, Spain, Germany and Holland regularly and gig in much the same way I can here.
“But we don’t have the audience and the band doesn’t really mean much in Europe and I think that’s kind of sad. It wasn’t like we were lazy, we put the touring in in North America and we had a great time, we picked up a good audience. Unfortunately, now touring North America is cost prohibitive and you can’t do it at our level. We can’t go out and play 300-500 capacity clubs because you can’t just make enough money to cover it.
“Whereas if we’d put the work in in Europe, it’s easy just to jump in the van and go and play there,” he laughs.
“I’m slightly regretful about some of our decisions. I don’t regret the months we spent on the road in the States because we had a wonderful time and probably my closest friends are still people I met on tour there so I’m grateful.”
Talking about touring, right now Miles is taking his solo acoustic show around the UK under the guise of The Custodian, an idea sparked by talking to one of his musical heroes, Tom Robinson, after being invited to guest at one of his shows a few years back.
“During our brief rehearsal Tom asked me who I felt now owned the songs I’ve written over all these years. I answered whoever the publishing company I signed with probably, but ultimately, I did. He was quick to correct me, explaining the songs I’d written over a period of – at that time, about 15 years - have been part of the soundtrack to thousands of people’s lives and it is those people who now truly own them.
“He said my position was now of The Custodian, the person whose job it is to see the songs are treated and performed with the respect the audiences deserve. It was an incredibly important thing to have said to me and something I have not and will not ever forget.
“Tom was someone I adored when I was younger, so we’d become fairly good friends. It wasn’t like I was in awe or he was giving some masterful knowledge to the young pretender, it was just two friends talking. I loved what he said. It was a lovely, romantic notion that made me just sit and stare at the wall and think ‘wow, have I really done that? Have I really had a part in people’s lives’ and it was just a nice feeling.
“It’s something I’d never considered before. I’ve made music all these years purely for my own ears, that’s the motivation. I don’t think about entertaining other people when I’m creating music, it’s entirely for my benefit.”
With this in mind Miles has rehearsed more than 60 of his best-loved songs to perform in chronological order on the tour.
“There are a couple of songs from the back catalogue I just couldn’t bring myself to sing again; either a lazy or nonsense lyric or just a rotten set of chords. When you’ve been at it as long as I have I don’t think anyone could expect a 100% strike rate.
“Really there are only two or three songs I would prefer not to revisit, where there wasn’t really much meat on the bones like It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby from the first album. I don’t look forward to playing that one particularly because it’s just a pretty shallow gag; I get nothing from it when I’m playing it.
“Also, from a similar period a couple of years later, there’s a song from the third album where I think maybe there is some real meat on the bones of that one and I enjoy singing and playing it because I can remember what I was thinking about when I scribbled the lyrics down for the first time.”
Miles has always had a pretty good feeling when it comes to which songs the audience like and which they don’t; an example of an artist in harmony with his fans. Every well-received track from every new album, tucked away in the bank for the next tour to bolster the tried and tested crowd pleasers.
Putting the collection for The Custodian together, he admits pleasing himself again not the fans.
“Bearing in mind this album isn’t for me, it’s for an audience. I can sit on my sofa or on the end of my bed with a guitar and amuse myself with tunes endlessly, but when you put a record out and you go out on tour, asking people to spend their hard-earned money on a night out there’s quite an important element of entertaining them. So I will play It’s Yer Money I’m After, Baby at some point because people do seem to enjoy hearing it and that’s why I’m there,” he laughs.
He’s found some different, more interesting tuning has injected a new lease of life, some excitement, into old songs. On the flipside, there are others that really don’t work.
“There’s a song that was a single that did quite well called Sleep Alone and another called Full of Life that just don’t work acoustically because I think there’s four lines of verse, two lines of chorus and it just keeps going round, repeating and building in the arrangement and that’s boring for everybody concerned.”
Miles will also be reading bits from his three acclaimed books The Wonder Stuff Diaries.
“I’m so very thankful to my younger self for keeping handwritten diaries during the early years of The Wonder Stuff’s activities. I’m fortunate I have a pretty decent memory of what went on in those days, but to have the actual voice from the past, recorded on the page, to tell me straight how things were and how I felt about what was going on, well, I would like to buy that young man a beer for having the foresight to give such a gift to his elder self,” he says.
“I’d kept them in a small brown suitcase in the loft or under the bed in the various places I’ve lived for coming up to 30 years. The original idea was I was going to write about my life, my experiences but it was going to be a conversation with a new dog; letting him know who he lives with, who I am...”
Others told him they’ve hated reading diaries by their younger selves. Not Miles.
“They really made me laugh; there were bits that made me quite sad. I thought ‘hang on; the conversation with the dog idea is just not necessary I should just transcribe all of these diaries and then go through them adding anecdotal information’. The ones in the 1990s really wrote themselves, it was just a case of getting some of the more legally dubious stuff edited out” he laughs.
“It didn’t seem like me, it was voice from the past and I just don’t feel like that kid anymore; it was almost like reading a complete stranger’s diary. I don’t have any awkward feelings about people reading these because I don’t feel like I’m answerable,” he laughs.
Change tends to creep up on us as we get older.
“You’re right. I remember when my grandmother was in her 80s saying ‘Miles, I still feel like an 18-year-old girl, I just don’t understand how I’m stuck in this old lady’s body’. I thought okay, that’s interesting, I still feel like I’m somewhere around 17-18 but when I look back on the diaries I think I’m nothing like that person.
“There has been change. It’s a nice romantic notion to think our motivation, our beliefs haven’t changed. It’s nice to think we’ve lived a consistent life and I don’t think any of us have that in reality.”
• See Miles at The John Peel Centre, Stowmarket, November 9, 7.30pm. The Custodian double album is out now on Good Deeds Music.