Sometimes a band needs to catch a lucky break. Space Monkeys have managed to catch all the unlucky ones across their quarter of a decade as a band with the demise of Factory Records putting an end to their first wave and then Pledge Music almost sinking their comeback album Modern Actions. But it's out in the world, a triumphant call to arms and celebration of love and survival. We caught up with front man Richard McNevin-Duff to find out about their past and present, the inspiration and friends behind the record and their plans for their Valentine's Day Deaf Institute show.
What was the inspiration behind going into the studio and recording a new album? Plenty of bands from the 90s have simply come back, played their old songs and taken the money. It's a brave move to commit so much time and money to making a new record.
Well, we’ve certainly not come back to take the money and run because we’ve never made any money out of this band. It’s been a series of adventures and highs and lows, but nobody has ever made any money out of it. Even back in the 90’s we had an underground cult following, not just in Manchester but around the world. We have always been that kind of obscure band that people play to their mates and say ‘have a listen to this’ and I’m more than happy with that. So the inspiration to make a new record was the same as it always was, a love of music.
That was obviously made much more difficult with the situation with Pledge Music which almost derailed the record completely. How did you find out about the problems and what was your initial reaction to it?
Pledge Music was a crowdfunding business so the money people paid towards the project was locked away and safely secured against us delivering the album to people at the end of it, that’s not too much to ask surely? When we finished recording the album and asked Pledge to send us the money so we could pay to get it manufactured and delivered to people it was only then they told us they didn’t have the cash any more. As soon as we found out we tried to encourage people to get refunds from their bank but nobody really did or it was too late.
Mani from the Stone Roses heard about it and tweeted that we should drive down to Soho with some paint cans and give their office a makeover (obviously joking) and after that the boss of Pledge refused to talk to us anymore and claimed his staff shouldn’t have to live with the fear of being attacked! So a week later he fixed that problem himself when he shut the Soho office and sacked all the staff. Mani clearly still strikes fear into Southerners to this day. Maybe he can sort out the current Iran crisis.
You have gone out of your way to help people who were affected and lost money in that process out of your own pockets while some other bands haven't. How has the whole experience impacted your interactions with your fans and has it dampened the enthusiasm for the release of the record given all the trouble you've been through?
I don’t blame other bands for not doing what we did, it’s been a financial struggle and soul sapping and the bands didn’t get the money so it would be difficult for them. With us, we have paid 100% for everything to be sent out to people so nobody loses out, apart from us. We’re not looking for any medals or anything for doing that, we just felt it was the right thing to do. People didn’t expect or ask us to do that and many said they would gladly pay again as everyone understood it was Pledge Music who had committed fraud.
The positive messages and comments that people have given us that they love the album and appreciate our gesture has made it worthwhile. We just have to pay off this debt now so hopefully people will spread the word, buy a t shirt, gig ticket etc but if they don’t that’s fine. We’re not doing this to make money - any money we make will go into paying off the debt and maybe make another album one day. Hopefully there won’t be another twenty year gap between albums.
Did you ever consider scrapping the album when it happened - or was it something that you needed to see through to its conclusion?
Pretty much the exact same thing happened with our debut album The Daddy Of Them All, it very nearly didn’t get released. We signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Too label in 95 which was bankrolled by London Records. London dropped the label just as we had finished recording the album. They gave us the master tapes and said we should offer it to another major label to release but then Tony would’ve been left with nothing.
We said to Tony ‘We didn’t sign to London, we signed to you’ and we gave him the master tapes for free and together we set up ‘Factory Records Ltd’ as he still owned the name and it was a 50/50 deal and we had a lot of fun for five years until we collectively ran it into the ground when we ran out of money which meant the second album Escape From The 20th Century couldn’t be released. So it was déjà vu time when this happened again with Modern Actions and we knew we had to get this record out there and just see where it takes us.
The album is named after and opens with a Tony Wilson quote. Why did you choose to use that?
I’d seen the interview and the words struck a chord with me and it just seemed to fit. We were the last band Tony signed to Factory Records and that is something that we are very proud of, not that we were the last, but that he believed in us as a band and as artists because he was a hugely important figure in music worldwide and his influence on the City of Manchester still resonates greatly. It was really nice to see before he passed away that he finally got the credit he deserved from people and the love that people had for him in Manchester because it wasn’t always that way and when we were working together in the 90’s, people at the NME and all those idiots in London who think they define what’s cool and what isn’t were far from respectful towards Tony and his achievements.
The line-up that recorded Modern Actions is pretty close to the original band. Was it important to have as many people involved who were around at the time of The Daddy Of It All and does it make it feel like a natural follow-up to that and Escape From The 20th Century?
There’s three original members - Myself, Chas (drums) and Neil. Neil was originally the programmer and engineer on the first album and then I asked him to join the band on the US tour because he was instrumental in helping us get that sound we were aiming for - ‘psychedelic hip hop/rock’ we called it. Mike who now plays bass, is an old friend who I originally asked to join the band as drummer in 1994 and he turned us down the cheeky bastard so I dragged him back in now he’s forty to get my own back. And we have a young gunslinger called Ras on keyboards who lives life to the maximum and adds a lot of energy to the band and widens the sound.
Also when people heard we were making this record, a lot of friends of ours messaged to offer help. Two of the greatest singers to ever come from Manchester - Denise Johnson and Kyla Brox - both offered to sing for free. That gesture really meant a lot for me personally that they offered to be involved and they both added so much with the vocals they recorded for us. They are both fantastic artists in every sense of the word, I could listen to them sing all day long and they are two of the most beautiful people you could wish to meet.
It feels like a very optimistic record, both sonically and lyrically - that love will get through all the crap that's going on. Was the record written with that intention in mind, or did it come naturally as you sat down and wrote and recorded it?
The first song we wrote We Are Together was written the week of the Manchester Arena tragedy. Neil had sent me the music with the title the night before the tragedy happened and I wrote the words the following week. Dave Haslam’s tweet ‘You’ve got the wrong city, if you think hate will tear us apart’ struck a chord and influenced the lyrics.
The day after the tragedy I had travelled to Halifax with a load of our friends from Middleton to see Courteeners play and Liam read the Tony Walsh poem This Is The Place from the stage and the whole place came together as one with love, positivity and defiance in the face of such a tragedy just twenty-four hours earlier. That week was the most emotional and saddest week certainly of my lifetime but there were so many signs of positivity, particularly connected to music and that optimism carried through the making of this album.
How long did that process take - had you written all the songs and then went in and recorded them - or was it very much a song at a time as you had the time and money to do it?
The songs were all written in 2017 and we did most of the recording throughout 2018 and then Pledge Music totally wrote off the whole of 2019 which delayed the release by a year. For most of the songs, Neil would send me music tracks he had written and recorded in his home studio and I would write the words and melodies and a few guitars over the top and send it back and we would then get the band to add things in the studio.
One song Born To Ride, I remember Neil sending it me on New Years Eve 2017 and I wrote all the words pretty much in one go, took about twenty minutes. I recorded a demo vocal on my laptop in my bedroom and sent it him back and it was pretty much the finished track. A few of the tracks like The Outsiders I would write on acoustic guitar and record a demo on my laptop at home and send to Neil and he would add the music and tidy things up a bit. And then I would try my best to untidy it all again.
It very much feels like a record that nods to the past in parts - there's a few tracks that have the vibe of dance floor fillers from the Hacienda in the 90s and then the final track Shadows Of The Sun has a very Beatles feel to it - but it also feels very modern and timeless. Were you aiming for that in the writing and recording - or did it just happen naturally when you all got in the studio?
I grew up in a working men’s club and I was obsessed with the jukebox. At weekends we had DJs on and I would hear Motown, Disco, Northern Soul, The Beatles all mixed together. No filter. I always say 1989 and the Manchester scene was my ‘punk’ as clubs started to mirror that open minded mentality for the first time. I started to go to clubs at 17 and DJ’s like Dave Booth at the Hangout and Dave Haslam at the Boardwalk would mix up the Stones and Happy Mondays and hip-hop so that’s always been my style - the melting pot philosophy.
But people who are expecting the album to sound like The Daddy Of Them All then it doesn’t for two reasons - Tony Pipes (original band DJ & keyboard player) wasn’t involved and neither was Johnny Jay (producer). Those two were a massive influence on the sound of the first album and both big hip-hop lovers. If they hadn’t been involved in the band then Sugar Cane would have sounded like it was when I wrote is as a Bob Dylan Subterranean Homesick Blues acoustic rock track. And we wouldn’t have got to tour America for two years. That’s the beauty of music and working with people who don’t have the exact same record collection as you do.
The album artwork is complex and looks fantastic. Who designed it and what was it inspired by?
Thank you. I designed it from start to finish and it was all done on an app on my iPhone. Again, that was dictated by the fact Pledge Music stole all the money we had set aside to pay a proper designer.
In the Factory days we designed our first two single record covers in a similar cut and paste style (scissors and glue in those days) which we thought were great but Tony Wilson notoriously hated. Tony once told me his only contribution to the art and music side of Factory was by putting people together. So he liked to make decisions on things like designers and producers. And they weren’t always successful.
He put us in the studio with the legendary US madcap producer Kim Fowley for example in 95 and we nearly killed the guy. Absolute nutcase. With the artwork Tony spent hours arguing that we couldn’t use the Acid House Smiley face on our debut single cos it was 'retro' and then the year after Fatboy Slim used it the same way and it became his trademark and Tony somehow managed to turn that around to him still winning the argument!
You're playing a live date at the Deaf Institute in Manchester on Valentine's Day. Did you choose that date in particular, and if so why, or was it pure coincidence?
We are having a John Lennon type bed-in/love fest. We’re encouraging people to just turn up wearing only a smile.
We’ll keep going as a band as long as people keep coming to the gigs. The venues are getting smaller and it gets harder to keep selling the tickets, we’re not one of those bands that is comfortable doing the big marketing ‘tickets flying out’ spiel - it’s not what we are about.
I agree with Liam Gallagher that you should never beg people to come and watch your band. And I hate the obsession these days where it’s considered some kind of failure if the gig doesn’t sell out. I didn’t join a band to sell out, quite the opposite.
So we put on this gig because we’ve never played the Deaf Institute and it’s a top venue and yeah, Valentines Night, love and peace and all that, let’s have it. Plenty of time to go for a romantic meal beforehand and plenty of love to go round at the aftershow.
And what can people expect from the show? Will it be mostly songs from the new record or will you mix it up more?
Some good old fashioned Mancunian rock and roll. All the old tunes mixed with a few modern actions. A big part of a Space Monkeys gig is the audience, it really is. There’s just a big feeling of love and positivity that always shines around the room and the Deaf Institute on Valentines Night is the perfect venue.
Are there any plans beyond the promotional cycle for the release of the album and that show - to take the record further afield or to go back and write and record more songs?
The promotional cycle has two flat tyres and we well and truly fell off the saddle when Pledge Music stole all the money we raised! We decided to do things differently and just release the record first and then try and spread the word, organically if you like. Again, back in the Factory days we never had expensive videos or any promo - Tony firmly believed if the music was good enough it would find its own way into people's hearts and that’s kind of stuck with us.
It would be nice to write and record another album but who knows what the future holds, after the Deaf Institute gig I think we may take a break for a while, so we may disappear back into orbit for a bit and then see where we land.
Space Monkeys' official site can be found here and they are on Facebook and Twitter.
The album and associated merchandise can be bought from their store - on vinyl, CD and download.
Our review of the album can be found here.
They play Manchester Deaf Institute on February 14. Tickets are available here.