Thirty-four years is a hell of a long wait for a debut album, but better late than never for the Bristol-based indie rockers The Flatmates! Formed during the heady era of C86 and of the indie-pop explosion, the group released a handful of absolutely fantastic singles…but then imploded before they could deliver a proper debut. The Flatmates, which is out March 20th via the band’s Subway Organization and HHBTM Records, is a welcomed and triumphant reentry into the world for a much beloved band.
To that end, we’re extremely proud to bring you this exclusive track, the wonderfully titled “(If You are Gonna Live Your Life for a Lost Cause Then) Why Can’t It Be Love?” As you can hear, the song more than lives up to such a fantastic title. The rest of The Flatmates is equally as perfect, making this return a delightful one.
We sat down with founding members Martin Whitehead and Rocker to discuss the track, why it took so long for a debut album to appear, and what their plans are.
Preorder The Flatmates: HHBTM Records
Was it a conscious decision from the start to not make an album/to stick to being a singles band, or did it just work out that way?
Martin: The band was ready to record an album after our third single “You’re Gonna Cry”. We got a manager at that time, and his plan was to build the band’s profile over the next two singles, “Shimmer” and “Heaven Knows”, and then sign the band to a bigger label. The first part of the plan went well, but then the onstage fight between me and guitarist Tim Rippington at ULU (the 600 capacity venue of the University of London student union) happened. We had planned that night to be the point at which all the labels came in with their offers. London Records still remained interested and recorded some demos with us, but most labels backed off. Over the next six months or so, Debbie Haynes (our first singer) was getting anxiety attacks about playing live and eventually quit the band. Both Love and Death (Subway Org.) and Potpourri (Cherry Red) are compilations of earlier recordings, so it’s good to be able to release a set of songs which are current to this band and which we can go out and play to people. (Note: Subway Organization recently released a new version of Love and Death, returning the highly sought-after compilation to print after 15 years. It can be purchased directly from the band by clicking here.)
The Flatmates have been seen as Martin’s project, but the new album is, from what I understand, a more democratic affair. Was the spirit of collaboration key to sitting down and making an album for you?
I’ve never really seen it as being solely “my” band. I think I’ve always needed other people around me to do the things I can’t do very well, like singing, or to generally organise me and kick me until I get round to doing things. Working with Rocker seems to be quite productive cos I think he’s probably one of the few people sufficiently thick skinned enough not to get totally pissed off with my moaning, pedantry, vagueness, constant mind-changing and general artistic whims. We’ve always included some Rocker songs in our set, but since Lisa Bouvier joined, it’s taken some of the burden off me as the main songwriter. I’m not a songwriter that churns out loads of songs every week then discards most of them. I tend to write songs quite slowly. They can be in my head for months or even years, so it’s good to have someone else writing songs as well. Between the three of us we have a chance of having enough songs to release albums as well as singles.
We’re in quite a privileged position now as “elder statesmen” of indie. It means we can ask people to help us out and there’s a chance they might say yes, so we’ve got a few guests making appearances on the album. Also, technology makes it a lot easy to collaborate. When we first got together, I had to play and sing finished songs to the rest of the band and hope they “got” them. Now we can bounce ideas around between Bristol, London and Sweden and chip in with comments and changes if people have ideas. And things like the album sleeve picture. I saw this striking picture, managed to find who the photographer was, get in touch with her and get her permission to use it on the sleeve. We didn’t necessarily plan to collaborate at the outset, but it certainly helped with making the album.
Not only is this new album the return of the Flatmates, but it’s also the return of Subway Organization. Will the label be releasing new and archival material, or is it strictly for the band at this time?
Well, Subway’s never entirely gone away; we’ve consistently licensed or reissued our back catalog. Back in the 80’s and 90’s the label had the backing of Revolver Distribution who handled all the manufacturing as well as the costs, in addition to getting the records into the shops. Bands can record songs themselves now, so you don’t need a studio budget. If you distribute songs digitally there’s no manufacturing costs. I’m not sure I could really offer a bunch of 21 year olds anything they can’t already do themselves, but who knows? Maybe there’s a demand for some reissues, whether that’s Subway recordings or some of those great lost indie labels from the post C86 period?
Tell me a little bit about the song “Why Can’t It Be Love.”
Martin: We’re kind of known for being a mix of The Ramones and The Ronettes, but musically it’s more of an indie, punky, stomping soul song. I guess we’ve kind of shown that side of us before on previous songs like “Trust Me”. It’s part Martha and the Vandellas, but I think it also owes a debt to The Redskins “Keep On Keeping On”. It was quite a challenge to record. Firstly it’s got a really tight bass line that sits behind everything. I wrote the song, and I knew what the bass line should sound like, but I just couldn’t get my fingers round it. A friend of ours, Geoff Gorton, came in and played it and he did a great job. Secondly, the guitars really take a back seat in the arrangement. They’re the usual overdriven Flatmates sound, but they’re just going “chukka chukka” and adding to the rhythm and texture, while all the heavy work is done by the organ, electric piano, strings and brass. I don’t know how we’d ever play it live without having about twenty people on stage, but it was a lot of fun and really satisfying to do. Something that, for me at least, still has The Flatmates sound, but doesn’t quite sound like The Flatmates you know.
Rocker: ‘Why Can’t It Be Love’ is that I spent part of the last 30 years getting into rare US 60s Soul, as well as learning how to engineer, so when Martin came up with a Motown-inspired song, making it a full on production with strings and horns seemed to me the obvious thing to do, and I’m pleased that we’ve managed to achieve a sound that combines soul with a bit of Phil Spector, whilst still keeping it indie and not losing The Flatmates‘ sound.