Despite worldwide fame, and songs about Iraq, Hard-fi seem unable to shake off their suburban roots. By nick hastedall their Hard-fi may have gained worldwide fame, but their suburban roots remain firmly at the core of their music
Richard Archer is sitting on a windswept bench at the end of the pier in Southsea, considering what has happened to him and his band Hard-Fi since 2005. The debut album they released that year, Stars of CCTV, reached No 1, sold 800,000, spawned hit singles including "Cash Machine", and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. It helped them sell out five nights at Brixton Academy, like Bob Dylan just had, a tribute to a fervent fan-base who bonded with Archer's yearning tales of limited lives in the band's hometown, Staines, an ordinary suburb west of London.
They toured the world for 18 months, seeing all the things they'd dreamed of when Staines was their existence. The only thing that spoilt it was that Archer's father had died before he could see his son's success. Then, as they prepared to play Glastonbury in 2006, they found out his mother had died suddenly, too, from complications after kidney surgery. And what Archer is recalling now is waking up in his childhood bed, in his childhood home, shattered after that tour, and being sure every bit of it had been a dream. Hard-Fi had never been a success. They had never left Staines. And his mum was still alive.
"It was the weirdest thing," he says. "I can remember waking up, and it was a sunny day. You could hear birds singing, not much traffic on the bypass. It was so peaceful. I sat there, and for a minute, I couldn't get my head around whether the last 18 months had happened. I couldn't work out whether my mum might walk through the door. I remember the feeling of realising that everything had happened. And then the sense of sorrow was quite profound. Because it was like for a minute, you had all that back again. It was a very strange morning. I'd come back after moving away, and I was in my old room. So I could've been 15. I'm still in that room now."
Hard-Fi were all exhausted after the last, American leg of that 18-month tour. But they're back with second album Once Upon a Time in the West, recorded in the same converted Staines cab office as their debut (then mixed in plusher places). Musically diverse, with touches of Northern Soul and Beyoncé-style R&B setting off booming, Clash-like choruses, it is emotionally honest and direct.
After testing the water with a few fan-club shows, they're in Southsea to start a tour of out-of-the-way, club-size venues. Albert's Bar, at the end of the pier in a town itself at the wrong end of Portsmouth, suits Staines' finest. When I enter in the early afternoon, their stage-lights mix with the sun to create a dusty fug, as if 100 hard-core pub smokers have just left. It is seedily opulent, with candelabras, a 1970s carpet, and a plush red stage-curtain.
Hard-Fi spend the next two hours sound-checking, slowly building up their music's constituent parts. At quiet moments, you can hear jazzy little bass riffs from Kai Stephens, Hendrix licks from Phillips, and dub rim-shots from drummer Steven Kemp. It's as if they are searching for their sound, after so long away. Archer's nerves show when he stumbles to a halt, murmuring, "Total blank on the words," during the new "Television". A sound-man allays his worries about sonic deficiencies in the empty room by saying that the crowd will soak the sound up. "I remember days when we didn't know it would be soaked up by lots of people, and just prayed to God it was," Archer replies with feeling. "We have to make hay while the sun shines," he tells me later. "Because you never know how long all this is going to last."
When they break off to talk on a bench outside, Archer, a military history buff, admires a fort just out at sea, put there to keep out Napoleon, and considers where he came from. He has researched the history of Staines, too, and everything about Hard-Fi comes back to it. Like Paul Weller's Woking or Ray Davies' Village Green, it is their apparently average source, resonating with depths of irreplaceable lived experience. The new album's "Tonight", with its desperate dream of getting to the edge of town then leaving on "the Great West Road", is pure Springsteen, relocated to Staines; surely not so different from the Boss's run-down old home, Asbury Park.
"I've always romanticised the night," Archer says. "It always seems like there's a possibility of something legendary happening. Once, it really did – we drove to France on a whim. Usually, though, we sit around in the same pub, and no one can be bothered to leave. It drives me mad, it made me desperate to escape, like that song. But now it also comforts me to go back." As Archer first started writing, he'd peer into every cranny of his town, seeking out pockets of the extraordinary. He'd stare at the people around him, and secretly conjure stories.
"You look at the pregnant 16-year-old girls, and you think, they're that way because they slept with a man who offered them tenderness they didn't get at home, and that story may be generational," he says. "Whenever I'm back, I look at the people, and wonder." As he talks about Staines, it starts to seem like some medieval village, or perhaps the one Patrick McGoohan's Prisoner was trapped in: a place that's complete in itself, where you wouldn't have to, or won't be able to, leave.
"People always say, 'Oh, you go on about coming from Staines,'" Archer sighs. "And of course we do, it's who we are. But the point is, Staines is Anytown. It looks identical to everywhere else. The songs are about basic human emotions. And the backdrop is a town like Staines. Someone was saying, [about Stars on CCTV, with its wry tales of minor criminals acting out for the security cameras, in places with nothing else to do] 'Oh, the suburbs aren't Darfur, they aren't Baghdad.' But I never said that. It's just that boredom and that mentality there that stifles people, unless you think, 'I'm going to do something. Because no one's going to do it for me.'
"It's irksome," he continues, "because we're one of the only bands around at the moment singing about stuff going on in Baghdad, and actual issues. 'Middle Eastern Holiday' was written after watching TV when those six military policemen were killed by a mob. They put the faces up, and it could have been a guy in the pub that night. I thought, 'It could have been me, it could be one of my friends.' I felt a connection, and I wanted to say something. People who don't like the band say we're not being clever enough, that we don't know what we're talking about. I've never said I'm a genius. I saw it on TV."
His voice rises. "Should I be shown up? Should I keep my head down? All my favourite bands were passionate. Like 'Feltham is Singing Out', we pass Feltham on the way to London all the time – one of Kai's friends ended up in the young offenders' institusion for a while. It's terrible about the bullying there, it's terrible that young guy was left to be murdered by that racist, the day he was going to be let out. I felt bad about it so I wrote it."
Phillips, sitting with us, is stoically shivering into his coat as the sea-wind lashes the pier. So we leave with the rest of the band and crew for a pre-show Thai meal. Archer pauses for photos with fans as he walks. "I'll have to change me knickers," one girl laughs, but with others he quietly chats about their lives. Still living in Staines, still seeing the same friends in the same pub, selling almost a million records has yet to put him through the looking glass into a world where fame, or making music, defines him. On a much-reduced scale, it's as if Mick Jagger chose to remain defined as a lad from Dartford, or Charlie Watts a kid from Wembley. Deep down, as Archer knows, that's what they still are.
During dinner, as a roadie discusses the finer points of blowing burps through straws, and regales his young charges with tales of The Clash, Archer quietly eats a bowl of rice, and pores over the set-list, wondering how to introduce Hard-Fi's new songs. The band dip into their own pockets to pay for the food. Wisely only licensed to Warner from their manager Warren Clarke's Necessary label, no major is wasting their money for them.
In the dressing room, Archer keeps scribbling at the set-list. The small venue is already heaving with fans outside, the show approaching fast. "Hard-Fi's shows are some of the best moments of my life," he tells me. "It's because the audience feel like they're part of it. And when you get that connection, it's like nothing else. Being on stage at bigger things like Brixton feels a bit like that energy when you're at a football match, when you hear that many people singing, even just from the amount of air they're moving..." He pauses. "We were in France when the riots kicked off, driving to the venue past a bus on fire. And I found it exciting to be caught up in that kind of energy. I've always wanted to witness a hurricane."
I get a rare glimpse of Hard-Fi's hurricane moments when show time hits, and I run with them across gravel in the dark to the stage-door. As their intro music, Ennio Morricone's majestic, brooding Once Upon a Time in the West movie theme "Man With a Harmonica" strikes up, at the side of the stage their inspirational manager Clarke is inviting high fives, revving them up. The previously calm Archer is jumping on the spot. By the light of a single bulb, drummer Kemp looks wide-eyed at the crowd through a gap in the curtain. Then they run on, and I'm alone.
"I think people like it when things go wrong," Archer told me earlier. "It makes gigs special. We don't have to choreograph it; they go wrong on their own quite happily." This proves prophetic as, four songs in, the lights go out. Hard-Fi's crew shine pencil torches across the packed crowd, then on to Archer's sweating face. They play on, undeterred, Phillips stepping forward for a crackling solo on "Tied Up Too Tight", and the fans' arms massing in the dark. Just as it's getting fraught at the front, the lights stutter back. "Cash Machine" inspires the local football chant, "Play up, Pompey!" And, when Archer reminds them it's Friday night, the oddly desultory crowd cut loose, at the last, for "Living for the Weekend".
Backstage, there's mild disappointment at Southsea's somewhat passive response, and a general buzz of satisfaction that a fresh campaign is underway. Phillips eyes one more drink, knowing where this, and the others it will lead to, will leave his plans to get home. But there's no Stones-style debauchery, and before midnight Archer is ready to quit. They're playing Birmingham tomorrow, and he values the chance he's been given too much to mess up.
A song from Once Upon a Time in the West that he didn't sing tonight, "Help Me Please", gives a clue to the ache behind everything Hard-Fi have achieved. It returns to the trauma of losing both parents. Sitting on the pier earlier, Archer had talked about them.
"They were the two people who believed in me," he said. '"We've played the game, now you don't have to.' If they were still here, I'd pay for the drive [up here], because I know that always annoyed Mum, and send them on holiday. But it wouldn't really have been about that. It would have been her going next door, showing the neighbours articles in the paper. She would've loved it. The problem I have is that to me this is their legacy. Which means that when people criticise us, I don't know how to deal with it."
This decent, intelligent 30-year-old rock star who still sleeps in his childhood bed, and still sees his childhood friends, may find that the world of Staines is all he ever needs. But he knows he must leave, to make sure. "We've always had that feeling of being positive, and fighting back," he concludes of his band. "Sometimes, we fight against things that aren't there. In Staines, you always feel like the underdog. And perhaps we're not. We've achieved something amazing. And that's something in my head I need to realise. I need to live my own life now. I've been stuck in someone else's. With my parents, it's been a way of keeping them around me. I'd love to try living in a different country. It's finding the time. And then the courage.
"Of course," he considers, "no one might buy the record, and I'll be back at the dole office, going, 'I really wanna be a lighthouse-keeper...'" The prospect doesn't seem to upset him. "Fingers crossed," he says brightly, getting up.
'Once Upon A Time In The West' is out now on Necessary/Atlantic