Next week at The Borderline, the magnificent Thousand Yard Stare are playing a gig for the first time in 22 years. I spoke to Sean McDonough (bass) and Stephen Barnes (vocals). Here’s what they had to say illustrated with various bits of Thousand Yard Stare ephemera from my collection.
[Sean] The first band I was really into was The Police and I thought Sting’s bass playing was great so that, I think, sowed the seed for me Then I saw them at Wembley Arena in 1983, I still have the t-shirt, and that was my mind made up that I wanted to be in a band although I didn’t play an instrument. I found myself listening to a real mix of music throughout the 80s, I still have a real penchant for the pop of that time, and the bassline to Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1984 cemented the idea of being a bass player, I got a second hand bass for my birthday around that time and that was it.
[Stephen]I was pretty much obsessed with music and bands from a very young age, being introduced to punk by a neighbours older brother at about 12 fixed a path away from the mainstream. I wasn’t angry enough to be a punk though…so it was the era of the Smiths, Wedding Present, early James being all poetic that made me want to be in a band.
Like you, I also grew up in commuter-land in the shadow of the M25. There was nowhere around my way that put on any decent bands so we had to travel to Aldershot, Brighton or London. When you started trying to get gigs, how did you convince the venues to put you on?
[Sean] We had a stroke of good fortune in that a Slough based promoter, Jim, started putting gigs on at a venue in Windsor, the much missed Old Trout. Stephen and I went down to the first gig, Diesel Park West, with the intention of trying to blag the support on the next gig which was Eat, who we were all huge fans of all. We also persuaded Jim to allow us to DJ in between bands and to have our own indie dance night. Jim went on to become one of our managers so that first trip to the Old Trout was pretty eventful for us all in all.
Your lyrics seem to show a love of the English language, so many examples but just off the top of my head… Woe betide, any way shape or form, world weary and all those compound word songtitles Standoffish, Seasonstream etc. What are your favourite words or phrases that you managed to get into one of your lyrics?
[Stephen] Yes, words and phrases are still very important to me. I was always more interested in the great lyricists more than the musicians growing up, guess thats why I ended up fronting the band. People who could conjure pictures in my head, and the music acting as a soundtrack – the maudlin poetry of Morrissey or Lloyd Cole, the direct but intelligent leftist sloganeering of McCarthy or Redskins, the day to day life observation of Strummer, Lou Reed and LL Cool J or the psychedelic imagery of Wayne Coyne or Julian Cope… when words and sound are in harmony, it’s magic. I know alot of people don’t pay much attention to lyrics, its just another sound in the sonic mix, but they have always meant alot to me.
For whatever reason, I always liked one word titles. Same with books, don’t know why. And to use words that aren’t often used – make people think, “what the hell does that mean?” – might make them pay attention.
I hadn’t looked at any of these lyrics for a very very long time. A few made me squirm a bit, but on the whole I still think there’s some good ones. “You want to get what’s yours, any way shape or form” was a lyric I had for a long time that just needed the right ‘soundtrack’, and obviously that came along with Comeuppance. As soon as I heard the riff I knew what the chorus had to be.
Looking back though, my favourite word is still Wonderment. I still love that word, and when I wrote the lyrics I always wanted it to be like a ‘positive poem’ – still proud of that.
And what are your favourite words or phrases that you wished you had put into one of your lyrics?
[Stephen] I think I put plenty words in at the time so don’t think there’s any I didn’t put in that I wish I had. I think there were more than enough. Always one to over elaborate!
How much of the music was written with all the band together playing in the rehearsal rooms?
[Sean] The usual way we wrote was that Giles would bring a bunch of ideas and riffs to rehearsals and we’d jam them into some sort of shape. Giles was the driver in respect of the music for the most part but we’d all add to what he brought in and layer it up. We drew some influences from what was happening at the time but I think we also had something that set us apart a little bit. We never had much in common, musically or otherwise, with the other bands from the Thames valley area that broke through around that time. For the second album Giles often had more fully formed ideas but we still bashed them into shape in the rehearsal room.
To this day Stephen is the only frontman I’ve ever seen eating an apple during a gig. You still managed to give off some attitude whilst doing so which is not an easy stunt to pull off. Was that a regular part of the gig or were you just really hungry?
[Stephen] I realised quite early on that I didnt like playing guitar and singing/frontman duties, so the guitar was ditched. I never thought I was a natural front man, so looked at the likes of Morrissey and Tim Booth, who had their trademark movements to fill in the instrumental gaps onstage. I wasnt much of a dancer either, and we had long sections of instrumentals in most of the songs, and the apple idea was born. One apple equals about 2 minutes… And, they’re good for you!
As well as seeing you support Five Thirty & James, I also saw some great bands supporting you, particularly The Frank & Walters and Pulp. Did you have much say in choosing support bands and who were the best/worst you played with?
[Sean] I don’t recall that we pushed massively for bands to support us. I think bands would contact our management and it went from there. In the case of Pulp that would have been down to the venue promoter. The Frank and Walters were great fun to be around with, just lovely blokes who were very funny and entertaining. I also enjoyed Spitfire who supported us supporting Chapterhouse, they were good guys. I don’t recall anyone supporting us being a pain in the arse particularly although we supported The Railway Children at the Old Trout and there was a shitload of attitude from a not very good band on that occasion.
How was it different working with Stephen Street from the self-produced earlier EPs?
[Sean] Up until that point we’d had our very able soundman Nick supporting us. What I recall most from working with Stephen Street is that he would offer other ideas around structure and arrangements which would have come from hearing them with a fresh pair of ears. We’d lived and breathed those songs from the moment Giles had come in with the initial riff and Stephen would be able to provide a much more objective view on them. That said I don’t recall that there were many big changes to them.
This business of naming the EP after a song that was on the subsequent release, did you get the idea for that from this Two Ronnies sketch?
[Stephen] Ha! one of the great comedy moments… guess I’ve always liked little quirks like this around band releases, finding unusual patterns. Julian Cope was very good at it. Also, guess we were trying to say ‘another chapter is coming soon’, always wanted to be looking forward, not back.
I saw you play at Reading in 92, what are your memories of that? Were you around for the whole weekend? Everything was alright when you played on the Saturday but it all got a bit apocalyptic after that.
[Sean] I think we were only there for the afternoon and then headed off early evening. I remember being told that MCA from the Beastie Boys was checking us out from the side of the stage with a particular interest in the bassline to Comeuppance. I always hoped it would turn up as a sample on one of their tracks but don’t think it ever did.
What happened after the 2nd album? You just seemed to disappear, I don’t remember any official announcement of a split or anything like that?
[Sean] We got dropped in a nutshell!! Didn’t sell enough and Polydor didn’t take up the option for a third album. Most of the people who’d been at the company when we signed had moved on and I don’t recall us being too disappointed. The band just came to a natural end a couple of months later.
A little while after that, I was pleasantly surprised to turn up to see the late great Kirsty MacColl at the Borderline and find Stephen singing with a new band Click. How did you end up working with Billy Bragg’s band?
[Stephen] A mutual friend put me and Wiggy in touch a few months after TYS. I wasn;t sure what i wanted to do, but had some song ideas and Wiggy was great to be around, a gentle, thoughtful and talented chap. I’d go to his house in Turnham Green and we’d lay down ideas on his 8 track, eat countless digestive biscuits (always and only digestive biscuits) and smoke pot. I was in quite a mellow phase at the time and it felt comfortable for a time. We had two or three really good tunes emerging, and it was amazing to play with these great musicians, but ultimately, my heart wasn’t really in it and new opportunities in the biz were taking up all my time
When you look back now, what are your best memories? What are the bits you’re going tell your grandkids about one day?
[Sean] For me I always remember the week we got in the Top 40. Playing Glastonbury was a real highlight, touring America was one of those things I’d dreamt about but never thought would happen. I also just loved being in a real studio, working with someone we’d all read about over the previous few years. And of course being naked on the cover of Melody Maker, I have a framed copy in my hallway!
In your glamorous rock’n’roll showbiz lifestyle, did you get to meet many of your musical heroes?
[Sean] We supported The Jesus and Mary Chain around Europe in 1992. Stephen and I had both been huge fans since the mid 1980s and I was really excited about this tour and hopefully hanging out with them. We never saw them at all until the very last night although one of our crew told us that he saw Jim Reid going to do his laundry which just shattered the rock and roll image for me!
[Stephen] We got to hang out with Tim Smith (Cardiacs) and toured with JAMC and James. Thats good enough for me.
We have a regular spot on our podcast “bands from the late 80s or early 90s who should’ve been massive but weren’t”. Some bands we’ve included are That Petrol Emotion, Five Thirty, Stump, Kitchens of Distinction, 1000 Violins and you. Who else should we feature?
[Sean] Eat. Their first album, Sell Me a God, is still one of my faves and as a live band they were amazing. I saw them supporting Spaceman 3 without knowing who they were and they blew me away. Bought the two EPs they’d released so far the next day and then proceeded to bend everyone’s ear about them all the time!
[Stephen] The Sandkings. I used to go to as many of their gigs as possible, just great, joyous guitar pop. Sadly, doesnt really stand the test of time but back then, they should have been as big as Wonder Stuff
Similar question, which more recent bands should’ve been massive but weren’t?
[Sean] The Besnard Lakes. Check them out, in album order, and you’ll see why.
What have you and the other bandmembers been doing since TYS ended?
[Sean] I’m a social worker now living in Brighton, been knocking around in various bands over that time. I also spent a lot of time travelling between 1996 and 2001. Dom is a chiropractor, he still lives not far from Slough, Kev lives up in Scotland and Giles is down in Hove near me. He’s also been in bands down here.
[Stephen] I still work in the music world… had alot of great experiences like DJing for Oasis at some of their stadium gigs, being part of promotion teams for the likes of Muse, Fatboy Slim etc. I moved to Bristol 4 years ago and started developing young bands and artists such as Oliver Wilde around the Howling Owl records family, and recently The Jacques, who are 16-20 and already going places. It feels very much like it was back when we started – making DIY releases, a real independent spirit, so hopefully I can offer them some useful experience.
How did the reunion gig come about?
[Sean] Dom’s been pushing for it for the past few years, he originally suggested it in 2009 as it was twenty years since our first demo cassette, but it never came off for one reason or another. Sad circumstances last year, when someone we knew passed away from cancer, got us talking on Facebook about doing a charity gig. We hooked up in Brighton in December, it was the first time all five of us had been together since 1993. We had some food and a few drinks to catch up properly and a rehearsal the following day. Everyone felt good about it so we thought let’s do this.
How have you decided what’s going to be in the setlist for 6th June? Have you had any arguments about it?
[Sean] It was all done through Facebook conversations to be honest. Given where we all live now, Brighton, Hove, Cookham, Bristol and Scotland we can’t just hook up for a drink so easily. There were no arguments at all. The general rule was that if there was a song that someone felt very strongly about not playing then we wouldn’t do it but there were very few that came up. In fact I think there was just one that I wasn’t keen on. Tragedy Number 6 if you’re wondering!
Next we have the questions that we ask everybody we interview. We can’t disappoint our audience by not asking you so here goes…
You’re in a caff ordering a breakfast. You can have toast and your choice of tea or coffee and then you’re allowed 4 more items. Go.
[Sean] Veggie sausages, fried eggs, mushrooms and beans. Can’t beat the classic. Although there’s no bacon so I may need to rethink this!!
[Stephen] Think I’d have the same to be honest.. with a piping mug of builders tea
Cricket, is it any good or is it just bollocks? (the Thisness lyric has already answered this one I guess? “odd bye-laws and cricket scores possess me”)
[Sean] I’m not a huge fan myself but wouldn’t say it’s bollocks either!
[Stephen] I’m a huge cricket fan. Its the best sport in the world, could bore you for hours on it. I remember once – we were DJing the Oasis aftershow at Lancashire County Cricket Ground, and the room was full of manc celebrities – Stone Roses, Mike Joyce, Corrie stars all over the place etc. but at the bar I saw Angus Fraser, my bowling hero at the time, and was beside myself. Spent half the night badgering him about his bowling techniques when I should have been playing records to the glitterati, the poor guy couldnt get away fast enough!… guess I’ve never been that cool.
If you could magic yourself into any other band, past or present, which would you choose and why?
[Sean] The Beatles. How immense would that have been?!
[Stephen] Super Furry Animals. The best band ever.
Many thanks to Sean and Stephen for taking the time to answer my geeky fanboy questions.
Here’s a playlist of the band’s debut album for you to enjoy.