Born to be mild Starsailor are the latest modest, British, nice-bloke band to make it big.
September 27, 2001, Thursday
By Andrew Perry
When the NME introduced Starsailor early this year as the best new band in Britain, little did the staff of the music weekly know that, in a matter of weeks, they would have forgotten all about the merits of our indigenous artists, championing instead an influx of Americans such as the White Stripes and the Strokes. However, now that Starsailor’s debut album, Love is Here, is imminent, the band have returned to the paper’s front cover, with their Chorley-born singer-songwriter James Walsh in full messianic pose.
Indie rock fans are thus presented with a choice between the US and the UK, between the young Americans’ brash sounds and attitudes, and the studied songcraft and mild manners of their British counterparts. Higher up the scale, a similar divide has already been established between Limp Bizkit and Travis, Marilyn Manson and Coldplay. Indeed, battle lines haven’t been so distinctly drawn between the two musical communities since the early Nineties, when Suede, swiftly followed by Oasis, waved the Union Jack in the face of Nirvana’s grunge invasion. Recent events in the wider world have made all this look rather trivial, of course, and it remains to be seen how these will affect music in the US, and its reception here. For the moment, though, Starsailor’s place in our pantheon of nice-bloke bands is amply confirmed when I meet Walsh at his PR’s office in Islington.
Boasting at least three of the crucial Brit pre-requisites – a shaggy fringe, blue denims and a bad hangover – he not only speaks so timidly that he often fails to register on my tape recorder, but is also the first (and last) person I’ve chatted to for any length of time who makes no mention of the atrocity at the World Trade Centre.
As Walsh struggles for things to say between bites from his bacon sandwich, I almost start wondering why we look to people whose essential aptitude is writing and performing melodies to provide us with the answers to big questions.
“I used to try and be some amalgamation of Liam Gallagher and Tim Burgess [the lippy singer from the Charlatans],” Walsh confesses. “They were my first heroes, but I didn’t have the bottle to pull it off. So when I heard Neil Young and Jeff Buckley and artists like that, that was when it all came to me. It was more important to be a respectable and revered songwriter than try to exude all this angst and rebellion.”
Walsh’s new approach has certainly borne fruit. The band’s first two singles, Fever and the soaring Good Souls, both charted inside the top 20 – a rare feat in itself these days for a traditional guitar band. The third, Alcoholic, entered this week at number 10. These hits, like all the other songs on Love is Here, have an undeniable emotional impact. Their punch comes from Walsh’s often histrionic voice, which is possibly most readily comparable with that of David Gray, and their classy arrangements for piano and acoustic guitar, which often suggest a more distant ancestor – Mike Scott’s Waterboys.
If these seem very adult, unhip parallels for such a young band – Walsh is just 21 – Starsailor have certainly faced criticism from red-blooded British indie groups such as Ash and Mogwai, who resent the band’s sudden success. The latter claimed recently that Walsh would do terrible things to his granny in order to become famous.
“I think all that’s a bit odd,” Walsh counters with almost superhuman evenness. “We’re not a reactionary band, saying we’re the next Beatles and everything else is rubbish. We’ve always been very modest.
“I think it’s because Ash and Mogwai see us and Coldplay and Travis who say very little, and they’re thinking, ‘We do all this self-promotion, and these bands just come out saying, We’re nice lads from Wigan, listen to our songs. And they sell more records than us.’ The funny thing is, I don’t actually mind Mogwai. I’ve listened to their records and thought they’re pretty good.”
Walsh, it’s clear, is happy to be seen to speak out about nothing. Like his mates in Travis, Coldplay and the rest, among whom he says there is “an atmosphere of friendly rivalry”, he believes only in the higher power of the melody. If Starsailor have a message, it’s that everything should remain undefined and open to interpretation. This, he points out, is what his album’s title, and its cover photograph of an empty railway line stretching out to the horizon, are all about.
‘I can’t remember who it was,” he sort of explains, “but some philosopher said that love is like two parallel lines that never meet. It’s just the idea that you can find love in any of the songs, if you look into it like that, or in none of the songs, depending on your mood, and your idea of love. It’s either always there, or it’s not there at all. You can’t categorise it, like it’s one girl or it’s one singer. It’s more your outlook on life, and your feelings.
“It’s not very cool to be nice or positive,” he says, “but the title of the album is meant to be hippyish,” he says. “It’s the complete anti-American metal vibe. You couldn’t get any further away from all that Limp Bizkit stuff, really. All these albums dealing in as much negativity as possible – you know, hate your mum and throw your dog on the railway line.” He smirks with a glimmer of subversive intent. “That’s what we’d call our album if we were American.” ‘Love is Here’ is released on Oct 8 on Chrysalis.