The Dead 60s are back with a bang
A legal wrangle, long tours of the US, live UK gigs and a new single
Ten o'clock in the morning is definitely not a rock'*'roll time to meet a band. Especially not the night after the band in question have played a gig.
Lead guitarist Ben Gordon has been Awol since The Dead 60s' gig at London's 100 Club ended last night, while drummer Bryan Johnson is still in bed. "To be honest with you," the singer and guitarist Matt McManamon says with the solemnity and hushed tone of someone telling a dark secret, "Bryan our drummer, he goes to bed really early. Me and Charlie stayed up drinking all night, but he went to bed."
You'd never know McManamon and bassist Charlie Turner, both 25, have been up all night drinking. Immaculately dressed in jeans and crisp black tops and with the scent of aftershave hanging in the air, the band members look as fresh-faced and clean-cut as they did when they first came to attention in late 2004. Renowned for their penchant for wearing Fred Perry (although today McManamon sports a Lacoste polo shirt), such is their dedication to their favourite label that two years ago they played a gig at the label's London Laurel store opening and McManamon suggested the band design a Harrington jacket for them. The label was swift to take them up on the offer and the band set to work designing the jacket, which goes on sale next month.
Two years ago, when they released their debut, self-titled album, at a time when rock bands The Libertines, Razorlight and The Strokes were dominating the charts, The Dead 60s – who sounded like a mix of The Specials and The Clash – brought ska back into fashion. Their single "Riot Radio", with its exciting high-energy blend of ska-funk and dub vocals, made the Top 20.
From Liverpool, but sounding nothing like their Liverpool predecessors The Beatles and The La's, they summed up their rejection of Sixties-influenced rock bands in their name.
Turner explains: "The Dead 60s was more about bands replicating that La's kind of Sixties sound. "We sound dead Sixties" – that's how bands describe themselves. At the time we came out, every band in Liverpool seemed to sound like they had Sixties influences – that they were hung up on the past. Growing up in Liverpool you're surrounded by it – you're force- fed The Beatles. We weren't about that. We had a whole different set of influences. We wanted to do something different."
When they were 16, the band members (friends since their Liverpool schooldays) got into punk because it was "fast and loud" and it inspired them to start playing. Then they retraced the steps of the bands they liked – Talking Heads, The Clash, Kraftwerk and Gang of Four – and found themselves getting into dub. The result was songs that were more about rhythm and shouting than melody – and sloganeering in their song titles and lyrics became integral.
But while they retain the bold song titles that "look good on a page" and which they build their songs around, on their upcoming second album Time to Take Sides they have developed their sound to focus more on traditional song writing.
McManamon explains: "We've made a slightly harder sound. I think it's fair to say we went for a grander, epic-sounding record. One thing we did do is we wrote the album on acoustic guitars and stripped it all back, which is something we've never done before. The first album was oriented round beats or basslines or grooves. We all kind of jammed around it, but this is more thought out and back to the traditional approach to songwriting. We didn't want to make the same album again. That was important as well – I think we had to develop and not make album mark two."
Turner agrees: "I think the album sounds different. It sounds more naturally Dead 60s. The main thing we wanted to do with the album was strip it down back to basics with four of us playing in a room rather than concentrate on stylistic things we had on the first album. We wanted to concentrate on the song as the main thing."
You can tell from the bold sound of their new single "Stand Up", which puts melody and even guitar pop before the dub, ska and grooves of their previous album. While they maintain they are still influenced by traditional-style punk music, reggae, dub music and bands like the Talking Heads and Gang of Four, you can hear that more recently they have started listening to rockabilly and Fifties rock'*'roll. What is the new single about?
Turner says: "It's about pride, really, and self-respect and standing up for what you believe in. We just write about what we know."
McManamon adds: "Politics and things like that never really interested us. We have, like, newspapers and television channels, people ramming it down your throat – there's enough people doing that kind of stuff. We always make sure we concentrate on things we've experienced or things we've seen. We try and not be all smart-arse."
Their album was supposed to come out this summer, but the band decided to take things in their own hands and put it on hold until they felt the time was right for the album to be released. Now it will be out in January, to give them a chance to "get back out there touring again and connect with our existing fans and get a few new fans on board. We felt it might have been going a bit too quick. It just made more sense for us to delay it slightly," explains McManamon.
They have had some unpleasantness to deal with this year: a court case against their former record label Red Alert, which claimed the band were in breach of contract for signing to the label Deltasonic Records in 2003. Their former label had signed them when they were a punk band called Pinhole and the argument stemmed from a verbal agreement with the band's former manager, which the label claimed gave them rights beyond those in the recording contract the band had signed.
In April this year, an argument that had lasted two years and for which drummer Bryan Johnson faced four hours of grilling by a High Court judge, was resolved, and the band emerged victorious. It was a landmark case for all musicians who wish to have more rights over their intellectual property, but it's clear they are just pleased to be rid of the whole episode.
"It was just someone from the past really trying to get money," Turner says. "The whole thing was just thoroughly depressing and just shows you money can really forge rifts between people. It was a massive waste of time and it was horrible going through all that stuff.
"We are proud to have won it. It's just a shame it went that far. No one likes that side of the business, we just like to concentrate on the music and that's the bit that we enjoy. Maybe it's just changed our perception of people in the music business."
Their new single "Start a War" – despite sounding like it could be an anti-war protest song – is about a fractious relationship, because it's something anyone can relate to. The band were so inspired by Michael Head's Pale Fountains' song "You'll Start a War" that they took it as a starting point for their own song.
McManamon says: "He's a Liverpool legend, really. We listened to it and fell in love with it. It's just a really nice chorus line – 'do you really want to start a war?' It's an idea, the melody sparked a sentiment in us and we used it."
When other bands set about trying – often unsuccessfully – to crack America, when "Riot Radio" was released it became the third most-played single on US alternative radio, behind only Coldplay and the White Stripes. So early in their career The Dead 60s also embarked on a tour of the States. Recently they have returned from another extensive American tour.
"We were there for such a long time," McManamon says. "We've been to more places in America than Americans have. We got a really good reaction from people over there, especially on the West Coast and in Los Angeles."
It's also where they recorded the album with David Kahne (responsible for producing The Strokes, New Order and Regina Spektor). In an ironic turn of circumstances, at the Noise Studios in New York where they made the album, they came across Paul McCartney, there to record his new album.
"That was a weird one," Turner says. "He came into the studio for a couple of days. It was a bit odd because we come from the same place and ended up talking about the places we knew. He lives right by where we live in Liverpool. He's a nice guy. We listened to some of the tracks from his album and he told us a few stories. It's a bit of a surreal meeting."
Since the band take their inspiration for song subjects from real-life experiences, their worldwide tour has provided them with new material to draw on. Turner says: "I think this album has got a different perspective on it. The way we wouldn't write about places in Liverpool, we'd write about experiences that we've had, and even experiences could be about anything, a lot of the things we've seen on tour."
They spent six months together working on the album and they put the success down to the chemistry between the four. The song-writing process is a joint collaboration, as McManamon explains: "When you come up with the simplest of ideas and you start building on it. We all add our little individual musicianship to it. When you really start to see it and creating it, it's exciting and we get up and play it together. There is definitely a special sort of chemistry there. It can be a really good feeling."
Being a live band, the chemistry is especially important at their gigs, Turner explains: "If we can get the connection – that's what you're looking for really when you play live – that little spark between the four of you. If that happens, then it goes off."
This summer they played the main stage of the Reading Festival – their first UK festival in 18 months – and are now enjoying trying out the new material on fans in the UK. But the band are most excited about the new album coming out, to give people a bigger picture of The Dead 60s. Turner says: "It's always nice to get your first single out the way." McManamon continues: "But you get excited when you know the album's coming out. Sometimes one song isn't enough. It's nice to get the whole collection out there.
"We're just looking forward to the album coming out and people having it in their hands and listening to it. Getting the two albums side by side each other. There's no point in getting worked up or anything, we'll just relax and see what happens. It's also pretty early in the morning!" They laugh.
Their single 'Stand Up' is out now on Deltasonic