Yellow jersey and brown ale: Paul Heaton interviewed
Paul Heaton is currently celebrating his birthday by cycling 2,500 miles - 50 for each of the years he's been alive. And he's playing gigs in pubs along the route. Jim Keoghan investigates...
After more than twenty five years in music you’d be forgiven for thinking that Paul Heaton would be taking things easy. But you’d be wrong. The former Housemartin and Beautiful South frontman is half-way through a gruelling 2500 miles bike tour, during which he is performing gigs at pubs along the way. It’s a far cry from the big venue, ‘nostalgia’ tours that many musicians of his generation indulge in. Sitting in a beer garden and enjoying the rare English sunshine, Paul took time out to explain to me the thinking behind the tour.
What is the inspiration for the tour?
Paul Heaton: Probably the main idea for doing this is to help pubs out really. You hear a lot of different figures bandied about regarding the growing number of pub closures, which always seem really sad. But seeing it with your own eyes, as I’ve done when I’ve cycled around different places is really affecting. The thing is, I’m a pub person, whether that involves drinking or not. I love pubs and if I had my way I’d visit all of them. So, I wanted to do something to help them and that’s where the tour comes in. It’s helping these pubs bring people in and maybe throw a bit of attention onto the problems they face. I also wanted to play the kinds of places that most musicians don’t visit. Often these locals have never had professionals play there and I hope that maybe once I’ve done it then more musicians might try this too. Although they don’t have to do it by bike.
Is this love of pubs what inspired you to buy your own (The King’s Arms in Salford)?
PH: It’s part of the reason, although really I bought the lease of the pub more by accident. I’m something of a pub snob, in that I hate what big pub companies do to pubs. I like them to stay as they were, and that’s often how the regulars want them too. The pub that I rehearse over was threatened with a horrible renovation by this big chain, where they were going to massacre the place. And so I offered, along with a few other people I know, to buy the lease and save it. I don’t run the pub day-to-day but it is nice to have a hand in something I love so much.
When it comes to the tour, couldn’t you have still helped pubs but driven to the gigs. That would seem a lot easier?
PH: I could but I enjoy cycling. And also I’m aware of the environmental impact that a tour can have. I don’t drive but the bands I’ve been in must have clocked up a few thousand miles on the road. This was my chance to put a little back. Plus, there is a nice symmetry to it. I’m cycling 2500 miles over fifty days. That represents fifty miles for every year I’ve been alive, which I think is a nice touch.
Has it been knackering so far?
PH: It varies day to day. Coming over the Pennines was hard going and there have been days when the wind has been difficult to cycle against. But today has been great. The sun’s been shining, it’s warm but not too hot and the scenery is beautiful. When you have a day like this then it makes you feel confident that this was a good idea. When you’re uphill against the wind, that confidence isn’t always so apparent.
So what kind of set are you playing at the gigs?
PH: It’s mainly my solo stuff. I respect my back catalogue and know that people like to hear a few songs from The Housemartins and The Beautiful South but I’m not big on nostalgia. I do a few from each band but just a few. I’ve been solo for a while and have released music that I’ve enjoyed making and which I enjoy performing. That’s more what I’m about now.
What’s the response to the tour been like so far?
PH: It’s been really good. At a couple of places crowds have gathered and clapped my arrival, which is always nice. And the audiences at the pubs have been great too. There’s an intimacy there that I really like. Also, because I’m normally staying upstairs at the pub, after the gig I can hang around and talk to the punters and have a drink; immerse myself into pub life. You don’t get that with big gigs. Although seeing as my throat is buggered this morning, maybe a bit less mixing might be a good idea for the next few days.
Do you prefer these kind of gigs to the ones that you used to perform with The Housemartins and the Beautiful South?
PH: There are pluses and minuses to both. The thing that I really like about touring and performing like this is that I’m getting to experience the places that I play. When I was with my previous bands I’d go and play somewhere, arrive by bus, do the gig, go and stay in some chain hotel outside the town or city and then the next day go somewhere else. I never got to know the places that we played. This time around I feel that I have the opportunity to take my time and enjoy the experience.
How much do you think your music has changed over the years?
PH: Not that much really. I still write in the same way and I still think what I write today has much in common with the music I was putting together earlier in my career. I suppose one difference is that it doesn’t sell as well but that’s not really why I got into music in the first place. A lot of musicians get disillusioned when their records stop selling in massive numbers but for me, as long as I can do this for a living and get up and perform in front of an audience then I’m quite happy. And I think that by doing this for so long I’ve also improved as a musician. I’m technically better than when I first started out busking on the streets of Hull many, many years ago.
You’ve always been a politically aware writer, so has the arrival of a horribly Thatcherite Tory Government fired you up creatively?
PH: For me, there’s not a lot of difference between this lot and New Labour. I never voted for either Blair or Brown. I saw them as Thatcherites in disguise. So for the past thirty-odd years the political system has always made me angry and inspired me in my writing. What’s been interesting doing this tour, and the similar one I did a few years ago, is that you get to see a lot of the country and by doing so realise that we are far from ‘all in this together’. I’ve seen places where there’s more cash around than you can imagine, people untouched by the recession. By contrast, there are places where people are penniless. The disparity is massive and really illustrates that there are two different versions of Britain in the country.
So after what I assume will be a long rest, what’s next for you after the cycle tour?
PH: I’m doing another tour, only shorter this time and without the bike. It’s going to involve a performance of The 8th, a song in eight chapters, which looks at the seven deadly sins through a series of scenes taking place in a single poverty-stricken neighbourhood. It was performed at the Manchester International Festival last year and got a good response. I’ll be touring (bigger venues this time) and then releasing it as an album in the summer. Then in the winter there’s a tour supporting Squeeze. And then after that I’m not sure. Maybe, I’ll take some time off and spend time in my pub, get to experience life the other side of the bar.