Here’s the write up from the interview we did with Ouse Listening a couple of weeks ago. Make sure to check them out here if you’re in the York area, they’re only just starting out but are planning big things for the next few months.
On the face of it Ross McLeod, Ash Harding, Ben Porter and Jordan Maher, collectively Likely Lads, are four typical York teenagers. They have their car insurance worries, they’re as familiar as the next man with drunken antics in The Willow, and they can’t always deny the allure of the local bookie from time to time. As guitarist Ash says, they’re “just your average person you’d say hello to in the street”. Average, however, is most definitely not the word to describe their song writing talents, and over the past year or so they’ve worked tirelessly to get their up-tempo, homely and thoroughly infectious brand of indie rock ‘n’ roll out into the wider world.
It hasn’t fallen on deaf ears either. In twelve months they’ve grown from virtual nobodies to a band that’s captured the imagination of a growing and dedicated fan base that already spans the Atlantic, thanks to the technological witchcraft we call the internet, and opened shows for the iconic Pete Doherty and Shed Seven, along with rising stars Viva Brother (a band which slow-coaches like myself will still know as Brother, until a courtroom scuppered that one). And that hasn’t even been their crowning achievement! “I think the best thing out of the whole year has been getting the agent, that’s been the highlight for us” says ‘the clever one’ Ben. “He’s the one who books for Muse, Paramore, and The Pogues, among others.”
Geoff Meall, the agent in question, snapped the boys up following their debut London show, adding them to a select list of artists that includes more household names than I’ve got fingers to count. “I wouldn’t like to call it a showcase”, Ash explains, “but definitely a lot of the industry characters are in London. It’s really difficult to get them out, but once they’re there, everyone will come. We had quite a few people come to see us. Fifty per cent of the audience must have been media people, and you wouldn’t get that [in York] would you?” It sounds like Geoff wasn’t the only man in the room looking to take the boys under his wing either: “at first everyone backs off and then someone puts their offer in and everyone jumps on you. If someone has the balls to do it there’s a lot more people fancying a piece”.
Likely Lads must have known their fans thought a lot of them anyway: one negative comment on a YouTube video received a huge backlash of the ilk you’d struggle to find even on a Justin Bieber song, and with an agent (and load of free Fred Perry t-shirts apparently) now to boot, you can’t blame them for beginning to think big. Ash, the Rod Stewart fan of the bunch, even has plans for throwing that influence in (to album number three specifically) once the band have established themselves more firmly: “I say, I’d write a couple of songs and I’d write string parts for it, and piano parts, but we’re not going to turn up at places like we’re going play tonight, at the Duchess, and say right, now we’re gonna play you a medley with strings and piano’. People will be like ‘that’s not them, but if we move towards there over time…”
Even as they walk down a road that you surely think should lead them to success if the industry has any sense left in it, their feet remain firmly in contact with the turf. Of course they’re chasing the dream, but they’re happy to wait for it too: “A lot of bands, if you said what’s the plan, they’d say ‘oh, get signed, get signed’, but we’re more than happy to let that come in time, because we’d rather have the fan base where the demand is there for us to put an album out. If labels are still backing off in six, seven months’ time, then we’ll start putting stuff out ourselves. But you’ve got to think we’re still only 18, we’ve been together, what, 14 months? We’re still babies. We’d rather wait two years to get everything right.”
Patience is one thing, but the lads are eager to stress they are the complete antithesis of complacence, and that is what sets them apart from numerous other local bands that haven’t achieved half as much in double the time. They’ll respond to every message on Facebook, record and release a new song every few weeks, and (I’m glad to say) take up all the opportunities they can for interviews and other coverage. “It’s hard work” says Ross, “and I’ve always considered hard work to be manual labour – physical hard work – but it means something different to me now, it can mean playing gigs every night and get your stuff out there when you’re not being heard, and that’s a difficult thing to do. This isn’t a game”.
Ash chips in: “I think the reality kicked in when we realised we need a lot of songs, a lot of fans and a lot of everything. You’ve got to have everything now because it doesn’t work like it used to. A label won’t do what they used to do and just go into a place and see a band that no-one had heard of and sign them. You’ve got to do the development then go to your label.”
It’s far from an impossible task though. Both Arctic Monkeys and Ed Sheeran enter the conversation, two immensely popular acts who were selling out shows before they were even signed thanks to a big grassroots following, and while not quite a mirror image as yet (in 2009 Sheeran played over 300 gigs), things could well be looking the same way for Likely Lads. Jordan sums it all up quite nicely, “the good thing about the supports we’ve had, the Shed Seven one especially, we never had to really do anything, it was more our fans that got us them. It’s the power of a good fan base really”.
Speaking of their big support dates, I ask which kind of gig they find the most rewarding. Opening big shows for equally big bands, or their own smaller dates where they know everyone has paid their money just to see Likely lads? “I’d definitely say the supports,” pipes up Ross without a shadow of a doubt. “When you play a show like tonight, all your mates are here. When you’re stood there singing and a metre away are all the people you know, it’s different to the bigger shows. Like at the Barbican you get up there and look out, and it’s just this massive crowd, it’s not embarrassing, daunting. Or at Castle Howard it was playing to 8,000 people in deck chairs, and you’d think that would make you quake in your boots, but we just walked on and didn’t give a shit. When you’re playing your own shows, your fans are there and they’ve come to see you because they like you. And that’s great. But there’s no better feeling than being a support act and winning over a crowd and hearing the applause of people who’ve never heard it before. But having said that, we’ve played gigs to just the bar staff, and some of them have been our best gigs. We played in Selby and we played amazing, and even those three people who said we’re amazing means a lot.” The lads clearly love the atmosphere and setting of a pub gig, but you’ve got to wonder how much longer those venues are going to be big enough. Since the start of 2011, their number of online fans has grown more than a hundredfold. If that trend can continue, then who knows what 2013 might have in store?
But enough of the future. Let’s hear a bit about the past. “When you want to start a band, you’ve got an idea and it’s like ‘let’s find a couple of people who want to start a band’, and we just talked to a couple of people, but once us four got in a room together, we knew that it was right, we knew this is Likely Lads and this is what’s going to happen. We knew other people we’d played with a little bit, but together we really clicked as a band. We’ve just got the balance between all four different people who all come together, if you like”. No prizes for guessing they all come from similar musical backgrounds then…? Well that’s where you’d be mistaken. As it happens, Jordan is the only member who’s been a sole indie fan for any considerable time. Ross and Ash were writing rap and hip-hop music back in the day, while Ben was creating house tunes. As Ben points out, “We’ve always had a mutual point as we all love rock music, but between the four of us we like pretty much every other style of music too”.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons Likely Lads’ music is so accessible. They’re a guitar band through and through, their songs are dancey and hooky, while Ross states his taste for rap may have had an influence in his no-nonsense lyricism: “I don’t see the point in being mysterious and beating around the bush. Some people write cryptic lyrics but if I wanted to make a point, like in Once Too Many, I’ll go ahead and make it. Most people wouldn’t describe it so bluntly with those words. People love it though; but lyricists are scared to do it. For us it’s ‘this is what the song’s about,’ and the lyrics explain it exactly, it’s nothing fancy.” Ben adds, “but even then people on the videos will quote the lyrics back to us and say ‘what amazing lyrics,’ they say they can really relate to these songs, because they’re simple and they know what they’re about. They’ve been in that same situation that we’re writing about.” Ash sums up, “People like listening to stuff like that. We just observe the everyday man in the street, and that’s why it’s accessible.”
The pressure might now be on to keep churning out such a high volume of quality output, but Ash doesn’t see this as ever posing an issue: “I think I’m right in saying, with most of our songs you don’t write the lyrics to be too personal: ‘I did this last night and it was awful’, instead it’s ‘I watched someone do this last night and this is awful’. We’ve got the songs now, but we’ve still got stuff to say, and so we’re still writing more songs. We’re going to have stuff to say for the rest of our lives.” “We’re going to change as people as well, you’re not always the scally you were when you were 18, maybe a boring old man! But that’s why the stuff we say is observational, you can always observe every day people no matter what age you are.” And as if to prove his point ten minutes later over a pint… “You’re a good interviewer, you can listen but you’re not very good at answering questions yourself are you?” Nail on the head, boss. Nail on the head.
Likely Lads reckon they can keep making these observations for a while to come yet, and as their debut single of that very name hits iTunes in spring this year, I’m sure everyone who knows them hopes they can too.
- Matt Tomlinson, Ouse Listening