BerkoFest: Robin Ince talks to Miles Hunt
When I was an undergraduate, I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to mix tapes of The Wonder Stuff — and went to see them pretty much every time they played anywhere near where I was at university, jumping around like a loony.
Now I’m a respectable middle-aged mother-of-two, I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to Radio 4 and telling my kids to stop jumping around like loonies.
Imagine my delight, then, to realise that this year’s BerkoFest is being headlined by The Wonder Stuff’s Miles Hunt (*squeak*) and Radio 4’s Robin Ince (*squeak*). And get this: here’s one of them interviewing the other (*squeak*).
Robin Ince: What do you reckon young, angry Miles Hunt makes of the Wonder Stuff touring at 30?
Miles Hunt: I know for a fact that he would be very proud and satisfied that he managed to hold off from ever having to get a proper job to cover his bills. Seriously though, it was always my intention to have an entire life in music. I wasn’t ****ing around when I got into this. I always knew I was in it for the long haul.
What to you is perfect pop?
It would involve musicians for starters, not programmed bits of computer tech’. Anything much over three minutes has outstayed my welcome when it comes to perfect pop. I’m not overly interested in a singer having technical ability. Same goes for guitarists and drummers. I want character.
I’m not bothered about genres either: perfect pop can have its roots in all forms of music, reggae, rock’n’roll, folk, soul… it matters not to me as long as it has character.
I lost my contact lens when I came to see you at the Brixton Academy on the HUP tour. Do you know if anyone found it when you were clearing up?
I have it at home, I’ll bring it to the festival.
Frank Zappa asked, ‘does humour belong in music?’ When you write witty, sometimes catty, funny songs, is there a line that cannot be crossed with humour in music?
I don’t like out and out comedy in music, I know, I know… I played a part in ‘Dizzy’ and wrote ‘The Size Of A Cow’, but to me neither are funny songs. For instance when Jim (Vic Reeves) recorded his vocal to ‘Dizzy,’ he was absolutely serious about his performance. Of course there is character in it, but I don’t find it at all funny. He was being passionate about his love of pop. Likewise with Martin Gilks’ drum parts on that song. It’s a stunning performance. I used to stand in awe at his abilities behind the drum kit.
As for ‘The Size Of A Cow’, I think of it as an internal argument: the lyrics are about dissatisfaction and disappointment with oneself. Sure, it’s wrapped up in a load of aural candy floss, but I see the fact that we got an utterly miserable lyric over to a huge good-time pop-consuming audience in the UK as an achievement.
Is there any song that, after writing it, you’ve thought, “Oh cripes, I’ll never top that”?
Yeah… quite a few actually. I think the first time that I felt I had really developed my song writing further than just being a sum of my influences was a song called ‘Sing The Absurd’ from The Wonder Stuff’s fourth album Construction For The Modern Idiot back in 1993. I honestly had no idea where it came from and it hardly took more time to write than it does to play it. I was slightly unnerved by it to be honest: I felt it was the best thing that I had ever written but didn’t understand what had caused me to write it.
The same thing has happened a few times since and still I don’t know how or why. I’m not worried that it doesn’t happen all the time, there’s no hard and fast rule to song writing. Some times they come easily and other times it’s like forcing an inflated balloon through a keyhole. I think one of the reasons I continue to pursue the process is that I never know whether I’m onto a winner or a stinker. The end result is as big a mystery to me as it is to the first time listener.
In terms of clanging name-drop pop stories, what is the cast of your greatest anecdote?
How’s Tony Bennett sound to you? I’ll save the actual story for my next book.
Ever signed an autograph for someone who thought you were someone else?
No. I’m hard pushed to sign autographs in my own name. It’s something I’ve never really become comfortable with. I just feel daft doing it.
You have published your Wonder Stuff diaries from ’86-’89. Was the return to the past a horror or delight?
Both, I guess. The one thing that did surprise me on completing the book was that I found the experience cathartic, one word I wasn’t expecting to find myself using. Sadly, The Wonder Stuff has had its rather unfair share of deaths over the years. Both our original bass player, Rob ‘The Bass Thing’ Jones, and drummer, Martin Gilks, are no longer with us.
Particularly in the case of Martin, I had not had a good word to say about him during the last years of his life and, regrettably, since his death prior to writing the book either. We had knocked heads over matters that I now view as trivia during the last years of his life and whenever I thought about him since his death I thought about the guy that was trying to make life difficult for me. As I wrote the book I was reminded of the kind, generous, witty and extraordinarily talented young man that I knew him to be when we started out in the band together. Whenever I have cause to think about Martin these days, I think of the young man that I achieved so much with in our younger days.
At what point in your career did you think, “we’ve bloody made it”?
I haven’t had a career, I’ve had a life. And without wanting to sound overly pedantic, I still don’t feel I have made it. There is still much to be done.
First time I remember you on Top of the Pops was ‘Don’t Let Me Down Gently.’ However cool the artist, it seems that appearing on Top of the Pops is iconic. Was it iconic for you?
Not at all, I hated every second of every appearance we did on there, six in total I believe. It was a constant bone of contention between Polydor Records and me. I never had TotP in my sights, I never saw myself as becoming a mainstream pop star, I wanted the band to remain out on the fringes. Unfortunately, when you take heaps of money from major record companies they generally want it back. It was impossible to turn down the invite to go and mime to our songs on the silly show as it would have done untold damage to our relationship with Polydor.
Miming to the music you have recorded is an incredibly humiliating experience. I took the trouble to learn how to play and sing, so pretending to do those things in front of potentially millions of people is utter nonsense to me.
You still tour regularly. Is there still a delight in unveiling a new song to a new crowd?
Of course, but then I thoroughly enjoy the delight on the audiences faces when we play old favourites. Doing either is all good by me.
Are there more tour dates in the offing?
Indeed there are. 2016, being our 30th anniversary year, has been a really busy year for the band, touring the UK and internationally, and we’ve loved every minute of it. I feel blessed to still have an audience to play to.
Check here for future dates.
What will surprise the BerkoFest audience most this year when you and Erica Nockalls perform?
We don’t tend to do a lot of planning for our acoustic duo shows, we know what song we will open with and take it from there. I always feel that I need to take the measure of the audience to make a gig worthwhile. Going on stage with a strict plan never really works out for the two of us or the audience.
There’ll be a mix of Wonder Stuff songs from across all of our albums that’s for sure, and a handful of songs that Erica and I have released as a duo.
You can catch Miles Hunt, performing alongside Erica Nockalls, at BerkoFest this year — as well as a host of other acts including Starsailor, Republica, Hackney Colliery Band, James Walsh, Shane Lamont and the brilliant BerkoFest House Band. It’s a great day of music in the great open fields of the Berkhamsted Cricket Club — with great food and drink, as well as bits and bobs to keep the kids amused. Not been before? You’re missing a trick.