With The Nouvelles making waves on the indie scene, Belfast-born frontman Johnnie Jackson faced some searching questions from MALCOLM WYATT not least ‘How did you end up in Wigan?’
It seems odd a band that recently recorded a song for the Northern Ireland football team’s Euro 2016 campaign should be based in Wigan.
Everyone since The Smiths got sucked in by money, but we can avoid that
What’s more, this happening indie outfit are fronted by a singer who played a key role in his home nation’s peace process.
I’ll address that soon enough, but will mention first how The Nouvelles – recently touted as ‘the next big Northern band’ – have already enjoyed plenty of interest.
Formed in Manchester by Belfast’s Johnnie Jackson, early achievements included appearances at esteemed UK festivals and a major record deal.
But then came hiatus and time out, Johnnie taking to France to think things over before reassembling the band in Wigan with help from producer John Kettle.
Having exorcised themselves from previous record and publishing deals, The Nouvelles set about putting their new DIY model to the test, self-releasing single Rising while deciding which offer on the table they should go with for debut album, This Modern Sound.
Meanwhile, there’s that football link, working with the Irish FA on a song for potential European Championships qualification.
That’s on hold for now, but it’s fair to say things are looking rosy – not only for Michael O’Neill’s national footie side, but The Nouvelles too.
Fair point. So, moving on, if you’re the only Belfast boy in the band, where are the rest from?
Johnnie is joined in The Nouvelles by guitarist Tom Kinton, from Chester, bassist Rob Regan of Bolton, and drummer Steve Atkinson, from Merseyside, with regular guest appearances from notable deputies such as singer Robyn Xanthia.
I caught up with Johnnie during a tea break from his job as a trainee social worker, based around Greater Manchester.
He’s not the only one in the band working, but as he puts it: “We’re hoping we can take a little career break soon.”
Johnnie proved an entertaining interviewee, passionate about his band, his influences and his football, and prone to fits of laughter.
There’s already been plenty of hype written about the band. Is that vindication for all they set out to achieve?
“We’re certainly looking to be the next big Northern indie band, and we’re pretty focused on that.
“But we really just want to be able to play to 200 people, and for the last few gigs we’ve been doing that. Then we can take it from there.
“Our whole priority is just avoiding this whole X-Factor circus. All sorts of people seem to be sucked into this stardom idea.
“It’s not what we’re about at all. We’re a purist indie band. One venue recently said, ‘These guys are going to be playing arenas at £70 per head soon’, but that’s not us!
“It nearly got a bit too much for us, leading to our hiatus. There were lots of labels around and we weren’t sure if it was the right moment.
“When we came back, we decided to launch ourselves in Greater Manchester rather than Central Manchester.”
I should have told Real Lancashire advocates to look away there, because when Johnnie says Greater Manchester, he means Wigan, his band rehearsing at Urban Sound Studios.
“You get an element of peace in Wigan. You can focus on it all very easily and don’t get caught up in things.
“It was fantastic in Manchester but the masterstroke was to get out, take our time and see if we really wanted this, away from journalists and the fanbase.
“I went to France for six months, near Bordeaux, but when I gave someone a CD in a surf shop, they told me I had to go back to Manchester and finish the job!
“That made the decision for me. I wasn’t learning to surf that well anyway. I nearly drowned a couple of times, with the waves so big.”
The Nouvelles’ rebirth was helped by BBC 6Music’s Tom Robinson playing the single.
“Rising was short-listed via his Fresh on the Net feature, and he follows us on Twitter now, which is great. You know you’re going in the right direction when that happens.
“The reaction’s been mind-blowing! It started with Tom, then we loaded it on to BBC Introducing nationally, which led to support from BBC Manchester too.
“There’s a little indie rave feel on the single, but it’s a natural extension of what we do.
“There’s another tune on the album, Fade Away, which is piano-driven and a fantastic song to lead into Rising, but darker, less commercial.
“There’s a real cross-section across the album, and we remain keen to recreate that indie vibe The X-Factor almost killed off.
“The Smiths broke up in 1990, The Stone Roses looked like they were going to recreate the whole thing but then split up, while Oasis were more like a super-group.
“There was never really anyone who replaced that Smiths feel. Everyone’s sucked in by money, but we can avoid that.
“We’ve all got careers outside this, and range from 20 to 40-year-olds – that brings security too.”
So where does Johnnie fit into that age range?
“Me? Gosh! I just say mid-30s now. But I’m looking well on it!
“The beauty of that 10 years’ experience – having spent five years in a rehearsal studio in Manchester and the last few getting it right – is we needn’t worry about things a band solely in their early 20s would.
“Given the chance, a younger band might take anything offered. We’ve had loads of offers from indie labels and publishers, and have a publishing deal right now.
“We want to get the album finished by Easter, and we’re talking about that to the producer, John Kettle.”
John Kettle is best-known outside the studio for work with Wigan bands Merry Hell and The Tansads. Was he a factor in the relocation?
“We heard about John through the guitarist I wrote Shine with, Trevor Standish. He brought us down to his studio, and there the decision was made.
“We’ve been working very closely since. I’ve learned a lot from John, like how to structure songs rather than just knock out a catchy tune.”
Johnnie uses the example of a new song, This is Our Love, inspired by his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, explaining how John Kettle’s methods changed the way the song developed.
“That turned out very much like a Stone Roses sound, and lots of our new songs have taken that direction – if you can imagine how the Roses’ third album might have sounded.”
That’s not to say The Nouvelles are copyist, despite a love for several bands from that era, including two with Wigan links – Starsailor and The Verve.
“We’ve definitely got our own wee sound. I call us post-Oasis, but you don’t want to make too much of that.”
If anything, Johnnie’s voice and accent suggest homegrown influences such as Ash’s Tim Wheeler instead.
Then perhaps their more commercial songs bring to mind someone like Embrace.
“Absolutely – both influences. I couldn’t agree more!”
So fair to say we’re talking about a 1990s indie sound?
“True, and I think we’d have done all this when I was in my 20s, but I was working in the peace process over in Northern Ireland.
“Tim Wheeler was busy with his band, but we were in the same bars, like Laverys in Belfast.”
So what was Johnnie’s role in the process?
“Conflict management, working on the fringes of the peace process, a junior advisor to senior players.
“I was never a leader and never wanted to be a leader. I was more a junior academic advisor.”
Understandably, Johnnie is careful of his wording, stressing independence from any political party.
He was however part of a team helping bring the likes of Loyalist politicians Frankie Gallagher and brothers David and Brian Ervine to the talks, paving the way for peace.
“One of my breakthroughs was with the Drumcree parade in the 1990s, when I was just coming out of my teens.
“Next thing I knew I was being driven around in armoured cars, mediating between Republicans and the Government.
“I’d get out of a car at the end of a day in somewhere like Portadown, and bump into old schoolmates serving as police officers by then.
“I’m glad they did see me though – or they wouldn’t have believed me! Aye, I lost my 20s to all that.”
Does he get back to Belfast much?
“I’d like to do a ticketed gig over at The Limelight soon. There are so many new venues now, but that would be our choice.
“When we were kids in the ‘90s, that’s where we went. So 200 people at a tenner a ticket – let’s get them in! But we’re going to wait for the album, then do it.”
Could he have made it in Belfast with his first band The Thirty Ones (who took their name from a notion for better racial diversity)?
“We had a cracking wee band, and were doing really well. With the peace process going well, we were starting to do live gigs.
“But I just thought there was a glass ceiling, and wanted more. It was a great crowd, but very dance-focused. Belfast is an eclectic crowd rather than a punk crowd.
“You had to work really hard to find the indie pubs. It’s changed over the last few years though.”
Is there a thriving indie scene in Wigan at present?
“I’d say it’s in crisis at the minute. We were set for a couple of nights at the Cube, but since then it’s closed down for some bizarre reason.
“That said, the Greater Manchester music scene is strong and competitive.”
Johnnie continues to retain links with his homeland. So how did it come about that he got asked to do a song for the national football team?
“There’s a funny story. I went back to Belfast for a visit a couple of years ago, and my friend, now a director of football development at the IFA, said off the cuff, ‘Go and write a song for the Northern Ireland football team.’
“He probably thought nothing of it, but I thought that was a brilliant idea, went away and did it.
“We’re not sure if it’s the right time for that just yet – but it’s coming, preferably on a proper label. We’re talking to Cherry Red Records. They put out football songs, so that would be perfect!”
If Northern Ireland reach the Euro 2016 finals in France, will the band recruit team manager Michael O’Neill, captain Steven Davis and the rest of the squad for a remix?
“Well… At the minute the song’s been done, and it’s up there on soundcloud…”
The team have got to do their bit on the pitch now.
“They’re doing it! They’re doing really well, and that would just be fantastic.
“I heard Billy Hamilton wants to be involved in the video too.
“He likes his Stone Roses and his indie scene. Besides, my Mum and him are pretty friendly.”
Some of that may not be true, but I ask if Johnnie recalls Northern Ireland’s last great international campaigns – World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986 – when Billy Hamilton was among the stars?
“I was only a kid at the time, but that’s when I started watching football. I vaguely remember watching the 1986 World Cup with my Dad.
“Norman Whiteside getting injured was my first real conscious memory of football.”
So why does he support Wolves? Does it go back to Northern Ireland legend, the late Derek Dougan?
“My mum said she was one of those who actually did go out with Derek Dougan. But I think every woman in Belfast says that!
“The Dougan family lived across the road from us, while my Dad was George Best’s dad Dickie’s gardener. He did it for free though – didn’t take a penny off him. I think he just did it to show off!
“And although it’s only really broken recently, we knew for years that George Best was a Wolves fan before he signed for Manchester United.”
Back to the music, what about another Northern Irish band that made it big on this side of the Irish Sea, Snow Patrol. Has he watched their progress with pride?
“Absolutely. Again, they were on the rise the same time as Ash and our band. We were bigger than Snow Patrol in Belfast at the time.
“But we always knew Gary Lightbody would do well. He’s from just down the road in Bangor.
“And Snow Patrol had the continuity. They didn’t just up sticks and go.”
So are The Nouvelles confident of an Easter 2016 release for This Modern Sound?
“I’d say 100 per cent. Everything’s on course, and we’ll be done by Good Friday.”
I warn him that will be a shoe-in for lazy journalists, with mentions of Good Friday, plus talk of Easter and last single Rising, inspiring wild fits of laughter.
“I never thought about that! I’m not so sure though, being from a liberal loyalist community!”
It appears the band are already on the way to a follow-up release too.
“We’ve already got the second album written! I was only thinking this morning about some of the great songs not going on this first album.
“And when you’re listening to bands like The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis and Doves, you’re going to be writing good songs.”
For more information about the band and forthcoming dates, including an appearance at Chorley The Railway on May 16, head to www.thenouvelles.com