Long-lost West Country post-punks LIFE STUDIES have just issued a career-spanning anthology.
The Gloucester trio only managed to release one EP - 1983's Homeward - during their lifetime, but achieved a modicum of fame thanks to the record being picked up for airplay by John Peel.
The band made several recordings during their brief career before splitting, but continued to make music, which can be found on Joy Riding. Vive Le Rock caught up with band-member Phil Thomas to hear the band's story...
How did the band get together? How old were you at the time?
The kernel of the group was always me and Graham Nicholson. In true rock'n'roll fashion, we first met at a David Bowie gig in 1978 so I’d have been 17, Gray 18. We found that we shared similar musical tastes, punk, Bowie, Roxy, Talking Heads, and I played a bit of guitar and Gray had started playing the drums, so we formed a band. Gray’s colleague from work, Tony, came in on bass, then his next-door neighbour, Nick, who really knew how to play, on guitar. He’s responsible for the riffs on the early ‘punkier’ stuff. Nick moved on after a couple of gigs and we started playing as a three-piece. This incarnation is what you can hear on the tracks 'Territory' and 'New Friends' for example.
Was there much of a ‘scene’ in Gloucester at the time? If so, what other bands were you playing/hanging out with?
There was a pretty good ‘scene’ in and around Gloucester. The first local band I remember was Demob, a fairly hardcore punk band who did pretty well given the thousands of bands that grew out of the punk scene nationally. There’s a good Facebook group that gives a far more comprehensive overview than I ever could. And the fact that it has nearly 500 members suggests there’s a lot of love for the bands who were around at the time.
I understand Animals That Swim’s Del Crabtree was in the band at one point….? Any other famous names pass through the ranks?
I knew Del from school and the village we all lived in, Brockworth, was quite small so everyone ended up hanging out with one another at some time or other. As we evolved into the next incarnation, as Tony left and Martyn [Bennett] joined us, we shifted to a more acoustic sound, inspired by the bands like the Pale Fountains, Felt and a lot of the Cherry Red stuff that was coming out on that label. Martyn was another mate from school and began to learn the guitar, pretty soon outclassing all of us, and the trio of Gray, Mart and I became the Life Studies that most people remember. Del came along to augment the sound with his trumpet. I don’t think anyone else who got involved with us went on to become famous.
What sort of gigs were you playing? Did you get to support any touring bands?
We did quite a few local gigs as Life Studies. Gray tended to organise them, venues were still limited but a few local entrepreneurs would set up gig nights at various places around town. The legendary venues in Glos were The Barge, Semington (an actual Barge in the docks), that was the centre of the local arts scene. The British Flag, a pub now renamed The Tall Ships, that held regular gigs for a whole variety of bands. We also played our local pubs in Brockworth too. One story I never tire of telling is that one of Banarama’s first gigs was supporting us in Cheltenham. We had a slot supporting post-punk poster boys Department S, whose single ‘Is Vic There?’ was in the charts and their singer Vaughn Toulouse had brought along ‘three girls’ who are going to mime to their new record ‘Aie A Mwana’. I can’t recall how they went down but as the saying goes ‘people were still booing them when we came on!’
How did the single get picked up by John Peel? Did you ever meet him?
We decided to make a single which we recorded at a place called Spadger Studios just outside Gloucester which was a converted barn, on a farm, with egg boxes (naturally) on the walls and ceiling for soundproofing. We had rehearsed there a lot and got on well with the owner, John [Eeles], so we decided to record a single. It was our first time in a ‘proper’ studio and like kids in a sweet shop we threw everything at the tunes. John had an early keyboard that had settings for organ, vibes, piano all the usual stuff so we just piled on the instruments! 40 years later a nice stripped back version of 'Girl On Fire' would be lovely! We sent the record in to JP but none of us heard him play it. A friend of the band, Mark, heard it on the show and apparently JP said something along the lines of ‘It’s the year of the acoustic guitar’. We did get to meet him several years later but only to shake hands at a Fall gig that was held in his honour at the Royal Festival Hall.
The Joy Riding anthology incorporates material from 1980 to 2016. Presumably Life Studies as a band haven’t existed for all that time…? How do the recording dates span out across the years…? What did you do next?
The anthology is the result of one or two cassettes being unearthed by Gray and a friend, Colin Anderson (later to be a bandmate). Life Studies per se dissipated around 1984 as Mart went off to work for the VSO in the Caribbean. Gray and I carried on with a variety of line ups, the most successful of which were The Trout Faced Few, an obvious Beefheart reference and heavily influenced by The Fall and their ilk. The Trouts had more gig success than Life Studies we supported the band Apple Mosaic (from Glos) at Dingwall’s and played larger venues like the Bridge in Bristol. That morphed into a band called The Citizens, with Gray and I, another old friend Pete and the singer from the Trouts, Ju. Gray also played with another band, The Erratic Strides. The reason I included ‘Suzy Don’t’ on Joy Riding was that it is just Gray and I, with Gray on vocals this time and felt like a Life Studies thing. Gray still jams along with some friends and played quite a few gigs with a covers band called The Lawn Dogs in and around Gloucester. We have lived quite a distance from each other for 25 years so don’t get to play together often.
The music changes from quite lo-fi (post-)punk to more jangly indie-pop? Was this a conscious decision at a more approachable sound? What were some of your influences over the years….. you sound very Go-Betweensy in parts.
Thank you for the Go Betweens nod, still a band we all love today. We defiantly wanted to try new and different things all the time. We would rope friends, and local buskers even, into playing with us to try and add something new to the sound. We weren’t very ‘studio smart’ so tended to just record everything live with the odd overdub but we would test ourselves. We once did a gig with just acoustic instruments, with our singer Helen taking over lead vocals where we just sang Cole Porter covers.
How did you approach songwriting?
Fitfully. No method, if anyone came up with a good riff in rehearsal, we would build on it. I would often come up with the words and basic tune or riff as I enjoyed it but at the end of the day it was always a collective approach (unless, that is, any of the songs suddenly takes off and gets recorded by Adele in which case I wrote it all by myself!!).
Are you still in touch with the other band members? Are you still making music?
Gray and I still see a lot of each other. Sadly, Mart died a few years back, but we had all remained close until then. I chat to a few ex-members on the Facebook page . I still spend hours creating tunes at home mainly for my own amusement, although I have had bit of success with some sync tunes for TV etc. Gray and I also send each other stuff we’ve done but rarely find the time to sit down and knock out a completed tune.
In summation, Life Studies were a band with potential, that we think could have done more but didn’t really grasp the opportunities at the time. Still there is a small legacy and a lot of great memories, so no regrets.
Joy Riding is available now through Bandcamp.