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In a grimy brickwork basement that lies backstage Manchester’s iconic Night and Day Café, Irwin Sparkes of The Hoosiers leans in and asks me if I “wanna hear a rock and roll story?” Both the location of venue and the very frontman-esque name tease me with the prospect of writing about candid tales of debauchery. “The other day, before a gig, we ate out at some chicken place before seeing Spectre, the new James Bond film. Close to the end of the film, our tour manager finds us engrossed in the cinema, and shakes us; we’re twenty minutes late from coming on stage. Pretty rock n’ roll, eh?” I laugh, but surely there must be more? Did they eat the chicken in the cinema? “C’mon,” Irwin smiles, “we’re not animals!”
It would seem that being rebellious has never been an aim for The Hoosiers. A pop/rock band with a flavour of theatricality, their newest record ‘The Secret Service’ feels like a band who are very comfortable with their sound. Opening with a snappy urgency, and providing bouts of ballad and dramatic, almost operatic tracks throughout, the diverse collection of songs are definitely catchy enough to have chart potential. Yet if you dig deep behind this allure of pop, there can in fact be found a certain rebellious nature in the band’s career. For Irwin, and drummer Al Sharland, the band want to purposefully remain “left of centre”, especially after having a number one debut record in the form of 2007’s ‘The Trick to Life’.
“The success of ‘The Trick to Life’ felt amazing, obviously, but at the same time, when you get there like we did – and because we’d worked so hard for it – it sort of feels like ‘is this it?’” This sense of dissolution with mainstream popularity led to a typically difficult second album, aptly titled ‘The Illusion of Safety’. Irwin elaborates. “Making that record was a stressful time…there was certainly a lot of pressure there for another success. Sony said to us ‘if you make a good one here, then you’ll be going to places up there’”. He points up, hinting at the possibility of sales in the stratospheric heights.
All this expectation doesn’t sound like the best environment for creative inspiration. “No, it wasn’t,” says Al, who then tells me about the pressures bands face when vying for popularity. “Radio 1 can seriously make or break bands. In their playlist meeting every week, they decide who’s going to go on their A, B and C playlists.” I think that’s pretty brutal. “It is; it’s like the House of Commons!” This then feeds back into the record labels, affirming a common belief that singles have more value than albums. “A lot of major labels think that we live in a culture where people instantly get what they want, but I don’t think that’s always the case. You look at many great bands, and they don’t fully get into their stride until their third or fourth record. People have more patience than they think.”
The question is, will that be the case tonight? My worries begin when the crowd rapturously applaud a support band’s cover of ‘Naïve’ by The Kooks, instantly transporting me back to the days of bands riding the wave of the back end of the noughties postpunk revival. Are the crowd here to appreciate artistic development, or for a nostalgia hit of ‘The Trick to Life’ days? And, more importantly, what about the band?
Coming on stage, The Hoosiers look as the title of their opening track: ‘Pristine’. Donning smart slim suits, their performance is polished, buy maybe too much so – the opening few tracks don’t quite connect with crowd. Maybe it’s the click track that makes their show a bit more regimented; maybe it’s the formality of their dress; or maybe it’s just nerves. Despite this, they have a solid set that neatly mixes the old with the new.
So far, so usual. However, midway through the set, after crowd pleaser ‘Cops & Robbers’, the band walk off stage, feedback buzzing and an alarm eerily fading in and out. What’s going on? Suddenly, the audience part like the Red Sea, and in come Irwin and Al, guitar and shaker in hand respectively, playing a joyful acoustic number not just for the crowd, but in the crowd. It’s a really genuine, intimate moment that breaks some of the more uptight elements of their performance. They walk back on stage to whoops and cheers, well and truly winning the crowd over. More new songs and old favourites follow, before leaving and returning again for a two-track encore. ‘Up to No Good’ is first; it’s a tightly wrapped song, with an interlocking piano-bass part and high register vocals telling a story of seduction that makes for their grooviest number yet. Next up is, inevitably, ‘Goodbye Mr A’, which, inevitably, goes down very, very well. Does the band feel any animosity that the song they are most remembered for is one that charted back in 2007?
Irwin acknowledges that “obviously, people wouldn’t be here without ‘Mr A’.” But the band are never bitter: not about this, not about their split from Sony and move onto their own independent label, and certainly not about having “less money” than before. Al says he is “still surprised” for their early chart success and is ever grateful for it. “It’s enabled us to carry on touring, to be a part of this band, and to be able to pay the mortgage!” Normalcy exudes from The Hoosiers, a charm and friendliness that makes me think that they aren’t done yet. And, with the promise of the songs on ‘The Secret Service’, and by developing and pushing forward to the “left of centre”, the band don’t need mainstream popularity to succeed.