Former Bluetones singer Mark Morriss has an enduring memory of being on a plane sometime in 1996 and looking out to see the coastline of Japan looming in the distance.
Sitting in his kitchen breakfasting on coffee and crumpets, Morriss recalls: “That’s still a really vivid memory because you’re on the plane - and you look round at all your pals.
“At that time, our tour manager was our drummer’s brother in law so it was all old friends and family members. And it suddenly dawned on me that we’d taken this thing that was our hobby and here we were on the other side of the world with people in Tokyo paying to come and hear us. So it was a bit of an epiphany.”
This was the year that, after four years of making music in their bedrooms, Hounslow band The Bluetones suddenly shot to Number One with their debut album, Expecting to Fly.
It spawned their biggest hits, Bluetonic and Slight Return, and made them the instant darlings of the nascent Britpop scene. Morriss admits: “It was pretty amazing because we’d gone from signing on the dole and having £30 a week to suddenly being driven around in big cars and flown about on small aircraft.
“To be honest, we all took it with a pinch of salt, even at that early age because it did happen so quickly and we had suddenly gone from all those limitations to this illusion of freedom. We never really expected anything like the success that that record enjoyed and I don’t think it really sat easy with us.
“I don’t mean we were troubled souls but we never took it seriously. We always thought, well, this isn’t going to last forever so take the free lunches.”
It almost did last forever - 18 years - certainly longer than any of Britpop’s other names, including Blur and Oasis. Yet the final demise of those ultimate Britpop survivors The Bluetones last year came as a shock to fans after 18 years outliving the movement they rode to fame on.
None were more crushed than The Bluetones themselves. Though now carving out a solo career, singer Mark Morriss admits sadly: “All of us still talk about it all the time and we do miss it but...., you know....there you go....”
The brotherly love that kept the four - Morriss, his younger brother Scott, Adam Devlin, Eds Chesters and Richard Payne - together through those 18 years is still much in evidence.
Morriss, who released his first solo album, Memory Muscle in 2008 and is preparing to put out a second this year, said: “I saw Eds and Adam last week and we were talking about it, how we miss it. How we miss being together, just the excuse to hang out.
“Because for us, it was just getting together, it was just like a social thing as much as a work thing - but you always had a perfect excuse because it was a work thing! Like, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go and do the band stuff. See you later, love. Sorry. Going to be away for a month. Dammit.’
“But we just make each other laugh. And we were always turning each other on to new things, new books and movies and records. We never really changed. We never really grew up.”
After surviving first the Britpop hysteria and then the movement’s collapse, it was ironically the balance sheet that finally put paid to The Bluetones. Although reviews of their last album, A New Athens, were great, sales failed to live up to it and the four piece felt forced to face some hard truths.
Morriss recalls: “We just sat down and looked at the numbers really and we just thought, well, we love writing songs and we love recording songs but if no-one wants to hear them, then there’s no point in us doing this.
“We didn’t want to become just a band that plays the same old same old songs again and again and again, that’s not really what we got into it for.”
Like a tribute band to yourselves? “That’s a phrase that came up actually quite a lot in our discussions - a tribute band to ourselves. And we thought, if we don’t have to, let’s not. It’s going to be hard for us to walk away from this but it might be the best thing to do. Then we can leave it as a perfect thing rather than something that just evolves into something that has lost all the love.”
The roots of The Bluetones lay in childhood - Morriss and Scott used act out their favourite records together. He laughs: “My earliest memories are of War of the Worlds.
“My mum would be hoovering and my brother and I would go into the front room and stick on War of the Worlds and turn it up really loud and we’d bounce around on the settee. It still gets the hairs on the back of my neck every time.”
But it was at secondary school that Morriss started to make his own music. He remembers: “One of my best friends at school was a musician, he was a drummer and he spent a lot of time in the music department and so on rainy days, I’d find myself up there. And I just picked up a guitar one day and started strumming, not even playing any chords, just bashing away.
“And this music teacher walked past and said, ‘Ooh, you’ve got a good strumming arm.’ And sometimes that’s all you need, as an 11 year old, a compliment! And you suddenly start thinking to yourself, Ooh, I’m clearly a natural!”
Coincidentally the same man also taught Adam. Clearly without him, The Bluetones might never have existed. Morriss agrees: “I never really thought about it like that until just then but you’re right.
“He does actually know it, yeah. Years later, Adam invited him to a gig. So it was quite a nice reunion. I never used to call him Mr anything, he was just Mike.”
Scott was originally drafted into Morriss’s first band as fill in bassist but his brother laughs: “It was like, OK, Scott, you can join but it’s not permanent, this is MY band, haha. If you want a band, get your own band, sort of thing, like you do when you’re 17.
“But he just picked it up so quickly that after about three rehearsals it was evident that we weren’t going to replace him. So that was the beginning of what became the Bluetones.”
Adam came from another local band. Morriss says: “In that arrogant way that you think you’re the best thing since sliced bread when you’re 18, they weren’t as good in my eyes and he wasn’t worthy of them. So I said,’ Why don’t you come and join our band, we’re a bit better than your band.’ He was a much better musician than any of us - and he agreed.”
A few reshuffles later, Morriss was on vocals and he and his brother had formed a songwriting partnership which bore early fruit. He remembers: “Slight Return was really early, that was the second or third song we wrote together. I think we peaked too soon, to be honest, haha!
“It was my brother who wrote the verses and recorded the music on a little casette player, well, two casette players really. He had an idea for the melody for the verses and that was it. We had a little garage and we would just jam it in the garage and then I tended to sit in my bedroom and hum melodies and write lyrics and whatnot.
“It happened very quickly because it’s such a simple song. There’s been a handful of them like that in our career that have popped in like that, not many.
“I thought it was a nice little song, quite throwaway. In fact, I remember at the time, the record label were discussing releasing it as the single ahead of the album release to push the album. I wasn’t in favour because we’d already issued it as a 7in that we were selling at some of our early gigs.
“I was thinking, no, this is bad form, we’re making our fans buy it twice, these 200 people! I had to be convinced by the record label - and lo, look what happened!”
Having decided to split, they embarked on an emotional farewell tour. Morriss says: “It was very hard at the end, to be honest. For the bulk of it, we just carried on as normal and it was the elephant in the room, we never talked about it.
“It’s not as if we were counting down the days at all, it was the opposite, we didn’t want it to end. It was quite tough at the end because it suddenly dawned on us that we’re not going to be doing this anymore, this could be the last time the four of us are on a stage together or even in a room just making music.
“There’s nothing really stopping us apart from ourselves, we don’t want to cheapen what we spent the best part of our early years of manhood doing.”
The final gig was difficult, he admits. “Yeah, it was in Osaka so it was quite emotional. It was perfect in a way because we didn’t have all our friends and family swarming the dressing room as soon as we came offstage, it was just the four of us. It was quite poignant really.”
Life post Bluetones is still tough. He says: “It did take a while to get my head around it. It’s like moving into a new home, it’s a while before it feels like your home. You can have all your stuff there but it still doesn’t feel like home, you still don’t sleep properly at night.
“And then eventually one day, you wake up and without noticing it, it does feel like your home. And that was the landscape after the band, like, all my stuff’s here but none of it feels right. It did take a long time for me to figure out a new role.”
Mark Morriss plays 53 Degrees Dark Room tonight. Tickets are £8 advance on 01772 893000 or £10 on the door.