We heard that The South were playing at the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre on September 27th and thought it would be a great idea to hook up with Alison 'Lady' Wheeler who, alongside Dave Hemmingway, head up a band called The South (formerly The Beautiful South). Alison kindly agreed to a chat, we got together and had a gas about Tammy Wynette's Winebago, embarrassing albums from the 80's and vegetarian hangover cures, here's how we got on....
There really is no need for lengthy introductions as 99% of folk know who you are, for the uneducated 1%, please would you describe your music in one sentence?
We are the new incarnation from the embers of the Beautiful South, carrying on traditions and improving and growing as well.
You’ve been on tour since February, any particular highlights that you’d care to share with us?
It’s amazing, this has been a really sociable tour, most tours tend to be a block of 3-4 weeks but this one has been spread out over the year to allow us to do gigs primarily from Fridays through to Sundays and you can’t beat a weekend crowd. Hats off to everyone who’s been to see us so far, everyone’s up for the craic and it’s all just been amazing, I think it doesn’t really feel like a tour, singing in front of 30000 people at the Rewind Festival this year was definitely a first for me, despite the band members telling me that we had previously performed in front of more, I think that this was the first time that I had actually stopped to appreciate it, it was lovely!
You also played at the Gosport Real Ale festival, did you manage to sample any of the wares?
I remember that one, I was driving, bad timing on my part, I love ale too, I’ve only recently come onto it, I was mightily upset about that!
If you had a chance to put together your own ‘super group’, who would be in it?
I’m all about the vocals so it would probably be a close harmony group with Beyonce, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Madonna and Lady Gaga!
Which do you find more rewarding, playing gigs in the ‘early days’ to people who were yet to discover your music or playing gigs nowadays to people who sing along to every song?
Both are exciting in different ways, we're very fortunate this time around as we're playing smaller venues, the type of places that don’t pitch you 30 feet away from the front row, instead, we are literally in their laps and you can see the whites of their eyes and it’s great for interaction as you feed off the energy from the audience. I must say that this has been a different type of tour and I’ve really enjoyed it, with them being smaller venues, we take the opportunity to come ‘front of house’ after the gigs (time allowing) and meet the fans, we all enjoy a chat and a pint after all, it’s so nice to catch up and thank the fans for supporting us all these years!
If push came to shove, what do you feel is the best album ever made?
That’s a tough one, really hard, give me a second……(lengthy pause), I think The White Album is a great orchestrated piece, I can’t really say what the all time best album ever is, if I knew the answer to that I think I’d have the key to unlock the universe!
Looking back over the years, what advice would you have given your younger selves?
Learn your trade, there’s a lot of reality TV shows out there that offer a 'quick fix' to talented people but get out there, do as much as you can and as often as you can, get your face out there and get noticed, keep trying. I tell my kids that indignation is the best skill that you can have, tell yourself that you deserve to be on the stage and until someone comes and performs better than you, you are in the stronger position…..
Do you own a record that you wouldn’t like to admit you have?
Can I just say yes and move on? (I politely asked her to stop stalling and answer the question....) My dad used to own the first record shop in my hometown which was a real bonus for me and quite an exciting time, it was when you had to put a small insert into the middle of a 45 RPM record to be able to play them. I must admit that I did accumulate quite a few albums back then that I’m quite ashamed of now…..I think it would have to be an album by a band called ‘Dollar’….(Taxi for Ms Wheeler!!)
What was the last live gig you attended as audience members?
I went to see Paolo Nutini at The Roundhouse in August, I didn’t appreciate that he was only doing 4 dates and I ended up having to go online to purchase tickets from one of these ‘semi-legal’ touting sites so I did pay over the odds, it was worth it as he is now playing an arena tour and as I said earlier, you just can’t repeat the experience of a smaller, more intimate venue in a larger place so I’m glad I went. I heard that Paolo Nutini actually auditioned for S Club Juniors back in the day, imagine what a cruel twist of fate that would have been if he had joined them?
You are now called ‘The South’, why not ‘The Beautiful South’?
We split in 2007, Paul Heaton decided that he wanted to go his own way and do his own thing and thought it would be healthier to finish the band rather than keeping us all hanging on. We reformed 2 years later, it was a bit of a stumbling block, we were going to continue to play the back catalogue but also wanted to have ago at producing new material. The first go at a name was ‘The New Beautiful South’ , we were thinking along the same lines of The New Seekers from the 70’s who went on to perform after The Seekers split, something just wasn’t right with the name so we sat down and had a few discussions and as the fans who used to follow The Beautiful South used to refer to us as ‘The South’, it seemed the best name to go with, keep the long standing fans happy as that’s what they referred to us back in the day, it keeps the connection but allows us to grow and perform new material too. We felt that we had to change the name as we did lose a band member and it wouldn’t have been right to carry on with the same name.
Tell us a fascinating fact about any of the band members?
(lengthy pause)…..I can do the splits which has proven that my body can do it but my back doesn’t agree anymore, maybe just a special party trick after a few real ales!
Your catalogue of hits is more than impressive, which is your favourite and why?
To play, I would have to say the following three tracks, Don’t Marry her, Rotterdam and Perfect 10, it’s during these tracks that you just know why you do what you do, the crowd just carry you along. For listening, I quite enjoy The Mediterranean, it’s a very engrossing track.
Which live venue brings back the best memories?
So many, now that we have been doing the smaller venues, there are loads that are amazing, I would probably say my home town gigs are the favourites, Leamington Spa as I can have my entire family there along with friends and my friends (more nerve racking but fun at the same time). The green room at the venue houses Tammy Wynette’s old Winebago, they actually built the room around the bus! It’s an amazing place, really kitsch, it’s like Laurence Llewellyn Bowen has come in and vomited all over the place....
How did your approach to recording your debut album ‘Sweet Refrains’ differ from that of The Beautiful South’s approach?
We had no financing this time so no big record company bank balance behind us, we had to be a lot more frugal. As The Beautiful South, we went away for 3 months and lived in a studio to pull the tracks together, this time we have had to really keep a reign on the purse strings, we found an amazing producer at The Cowshed Studio and he produced the album in North London. There was lots of driving to and fro as everyone is all over the country now. It was great fun as it is our responsibility and our decision on how we marketed it and it was up to us as to which singles we put out.
Do you find that having the level of creative control better now or did you prefer it when you were almost dictated to by the label?
It’s a fine line, I really enjoy the options and seeing as there are 9 of us in the band, it’s sometimes difficult to agree on things and you wish there was one ‘trouser wearer’ that can come up with the decisions, you can’t expect a unanimous decision with 9 people. Saying that, if there was just one ‘leader’, it would spoil the chemistry of the band so I think we’ll stick with what we have right now!
Dave Hemmingway isn't here, which do you think he prefers, drumming or singing?
I have been in many interviews where he has answered the exact same question so I hope I can remember what he has said in the past! He is a drummer by profession, Paul (Heaton) asked him to join the Beautiful South, he wasn’t a front man, he never felt that he was right for the role, especially with Paul being such a flamboyant character. Dave really is the lead focus of the band as he has been there since the beginning. I’ve seen such a change in his behaviour, he now has a good laugh with the crowd and he’s so dry witted on stage. Whenever our drummer takes a break, he darts in like a rat up a drainpipe and takes over the hot seat!
What is the best cure for a hangover?
I’m a vegetarian now (15 months) and I would have said a big fat greasy fry up but that doesn’t really cut it anymore as I can only have eggs and beans! So lots of water, lots of chocolate and a large bottle of Coca Cola and ideally lots of sleep but with everyday pressures and demands, that can sometimes be a big ask and never normally happens!
Playing live these days, what percentage of the setlist do you give to the older Beautiful South classics?
We normally play about 20 mins of new material and we are hoping to get back into the studio early next year to record more so we have new stuff to throw at the audience, I guess we would play ¾ of the back catalogue material which poses it’s own problems as we receive so many requests for more random, obscure material, it’s hard to know what to include!
We have to whittle them down and agree what’s going to work best combined with the classics that we’re going to play, it’s a pleasant challenge! We hold a couple of ace cards in the wings that we can pull out if needs be. It’s a trial and error exercise, if we feel that the songs aren't going down as well as they should be, we’ll revert to plan B and get the crowd jumping again!
Do you share Kate Bush’s views that smartphones and tablet devices should be banned from live shows?
It’s a really grey area re intellectual property and sharing stuff like this, I think there’ll be new avenues that are explored down the line. If people profit from pictures well that’s a different story, something that would have to be acted on in the future. Come back and ask me when I have Kate Bush’s following (and bank balance) as I may have a different view on it!
You split in 2007 owing to ‘musical similarities’, are you still in contact with Paul Heaton?
Paul is back with Jacqui Abbot and they are doing really well. We made initial contact with Paul when we decided to go back on the road as Dave Hemmingway wanted to do it out of politeness and Paul was happy for us to do it. Our paths do not cross now, he signed with a major label and is super busy and luckily there seems to be enough space out there for all of us to do what we want to do.
Prior to letting Alison go and dig out her old 'Dollar' records, we thought it only fair that we subject her to the musicmuso quick fire questions that everyone loves.....
Coffee or Tea?
Coca Cola or Pepsi?
Drum machine or the real deal?
Fry up or Sunday Roast?
Lemmy (Motorhead) or Ozzy (Black Sabbath)?
Rotterdam or Perfect 10?
Acoustic or Electric?
Tattoos or Piercings?
Robert De Niro or Al Pacino?
God or Google?
We'd like to thank Alison for sparing her time to chat to us and we wish them every success on the remainder of the 2014 live dates which are selling out FAST, we'll be at the Exeter show at the Phoenix Arts Centre to take some pictures and review the evening, we'll see you all there!
Interview by Steve Muscutt