Count on a Comeback for Unsung Post-Britpop Heroes Six by Seven
The chances of succeeding as a band are pretty slim when the majority of people don’t understand your music. Six by Seven are a prime example of that. Formed in 1991 by Chris Olley and Sam Hempton in Nottingham, England, the band — originally named Friends Of … — took six years to get off the ground. In 1997, they released their debut single, “European Me,” followed by an album for Beggars label Mantra called The Things We Make the next year. They arrived just as Britpop fizzled out and the U.K. music press was dying to find some kind of “next big thing” outside of the flourishing electronica movement. Six by Seven were but one of countless rock bands fighting to be heard, and although they scored two hits in the charts, they just didn't have the gimmicks to sell music.
In 2000, they returned with The Closer You Get, an uncompromising and raw album that was harder, faster and better. Produced by John Leckie (Stone Roses, PiL, the Fall), their sophomore effort seemed just like the kind of statement that would elevate them to the next tier. The NME gave it a nine out of 10, calling it “a fist-in-the-air triumph, a beautifully realised shot of vitriol to the mainstream’s limpid veins.” But all the rave reviews in the world could not translate into sales. And so, over the course of five years, they released three rather brilliant albums of innovative and confounding rock music that left critics and their reasonably sized fan base craving more. But it just wasn’t enough. After 2002’s The Way I Feel Today, Six by Seven were dropped by Mantra.
Despite never getting the break they’d hoped for, Six by Seven continued to self-release albums — three more — before Olley finally called it a day in 2008. But in 2012, Olley decided to give it another shot, and the following year a newly revamped version of Six by Seven (also featuring keyboardist James Flower) released their seventh album, Love and Peace and Sympathy. Now, thanks to renewed interest in the band by Beggars Arkive, Six by Seven’s second album, The Closer You Get, is receiving a reissue that also includes a bonus LP of Peel Sessions, as well as a separate collection of their greatest hits, and a brand new documentary on the album called The Dream Is Sweeter Than the Taste. To celebrate all of this activity, the classic Six by Seven lineup has reformed to play three shows, the first of which is a free in-store gig at Rough Trade Shop in their hometown of Nottingham on February 22.
We got Olley on the phone to discuss this flurry of activity for the band, and why they were always overlooked, despite their greatness.
So, where did the idea to reissue The Closer You Get come from?
That was Lesley [Bleakley] at Beggars who made it happen. She wanted to do a retrospective “best of,” but not a straight one; she wanted it to be a bit special. And then she said, “If I had it my way, I’d re-release the first album and make it look great.” And I said, “Instead of the first album, let’s do the second album, because that’s the one that seems to be people’s favorite.”
You chose this reissue based on the fans and not your preference?
Yeah. When I bump into a Six by Seven [fan], they generally say, “The Closer You Get is an album that meant something to me.” And now that we’re doing this, I’m getting people saying, “Oh, well, The Way I Feel Today was the album that did it for me.” We were rehearsing the other day, and the band said the same thing, that The Closer You Get is the album that defined the band, really. Because Sam wasn’t on The Way I Feel Today, I felt we should do The Closer You Get.
The press release says, “The Closer You Get reissue will be presented in all its former glory, without being remastered or tampered with, and will sound the same as it did when it originally came out.” What don’t you like about remastering?
That is completely from me. Whenever I’ve bought a remastered album, I’ve never really liked it. I remember buying R.E.M.’s Green on cassette, and listened to it for about a year before it got chewed up. Then I bought it on vinyl and it just sounded horrible. And then I bought it on CD and it sounded even worse. You get used to the sound of the format you buy an album on, and there’s no right or wrong, better or worse — it’s the thing about sound. My sound bought me the remastered Kraftwerk’s Computer World, and I know that record inside and out; I’ve listened to it to death on vinyl and CD. When I listened to the remastered one, it was just horrible. I think what they do is when they remaster it, they just add a bit of bass, add a bit of treble and put some phase shifter on it to make it sound more stereo. And I just think if it was good enough back then to release, why change it? I just want the record to sound the way I first fell in love with it.
So, I said to Lesley, “When we do this, let’s not remaster it. Let’s just make it sound exactly like it did before.” Which is what we did. We got the original tapes, went down to Abbey Road and made it sound exactly the same.
You posted some reviews of the reissue from Uncut and Q on your blog. They both talk about the band never getting the breakthrough it deserved. What is your reaction when you read things like that?
Well, a few years ago, when my son was 15, he knew about the band, but decided to do a bit of research on us to find out about what his dad did. So, he spent all night on the internet reading YouTube comments and album reviews. And he came down the next morning [and] said, “Dad, I spent the night reading about your band, and everywhere it said the same thing over and over again — that Six by Seven should have been bigger and you didn’t get what you deserved.” It actually used to happen when we were playing, and literally after every gig someone would come up and say, “Why on earth are you playing this shithole?” or “Why are you supporting this band? You’re much better than them!” I remember when we played Benicàssim with Elastica, Placebo and the Verve, and I went into the crowd to watch the Verve afterwards, and people were coming up to me saying, “You should be headlining this festival!” After we’d been dropped, we played Glastonbury and the NME actually wrote a whole-page article on us, saying, “This band should have headlined the mainstage.”
What can you do? What you can’t do as an artist is start to believe the press. You’ll fall foul to what the press is saying. It didn’t happen. I can’t sit around and think about that. There are members of the band that are bitter that it didn’t happen. But what’s the point of that?
Why do you think it never happened, then?
I think with us, it was just timing. I think that we came out at a time when two things were happening, really. It was the time of the superstar DJ, like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers. And the kind of music we were making was hard for people to understand. Also, the record industry was collapsing around us at the time. So, there wasn’t a push for the band to succeed the way that perhaps it could have. Though it didn’t really seem like that. We were playing like a stadium band, but we were accepted as an indie band. That’s what I think caused all of these reviews. The people that did hear and see the band thought it should be in a bigger venue, but it wasn’t, so it got put to one side. I don’t know. It’s a difficult one.
Did you even want commercial success? Did you want to be on the charts?
I think we had the ability to write that kind of song, and the record label was happy for us to do that, to release singles and videos. But for me personally, the minor brush I did have with fame, I didn’t like it at all. I ran away from it. Maybe [to] a certain extent, I sabotaged my own success. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. The way I was brought up, I wasn’t really supposed to do this. I didn’t have the swagger or confidence to be a rock star. It wasn’t something I was chasing after. But let me tell you: I did want success, because success is a positive thing. When you do have a certain amount of it, the people around you are happy. And with us at the time, it was all a little sad. Like, “Great record, but it’s just not selling. And we don’t know why. It’s just not crossing over and we can’t understand it.”
The thing is, what I did find slightly weird is when I see bands like the National, Sigur Rós and Arcade Fire, 10 to 15 years later, doing a similar thing to what we were doing and having this great success. It’s a bit like Bill Hicks, y’know? He never played to more than 400 people. If he were alive now, he’d be doing the O2 Arena. That can be a bit weird. I remember when the National played Glastonbury, my phone rang three times with people saying, “Chris, have you seen this band?” And my wife and I were sitting there watching and going, “God, that’s so similar to what we were doing.” And we were the only ones doing it. We were a band’s band. All of the other bands we toured with really liked us. I think it’s because we were doing something different with sound, and those bands got it and respected it. Whereas the general population didn’t. Everything was being watered down and diluted after “Wonderwall” came out. The Verve went into being acoustic-y, and Travis came out. And then the acoustics went and the flipping piano came in, and then Coldplay and Keane became the biggest bands. And you just think, “Right …” That was another thing that added to the band not making it.
The press was a little confused about how to categorize Six by Seven. Most bands will say they want to be different and stand out. Was that something you were striving for?
We wanted to be a cool art house band, like Pink Floyd, but we didn’t know what we were. The problem with Six by Seven was that there were quite a few strong characters in the band, and a lot of arguments would ensue. Because of that, people knew what they didn’t want. In rehearsals, we would just say, “I don’t want to do that!” But no one actually said, “I want to do it like this.” Everything happened by default and taking away certain things, so what you ended up with at the end was us lot. We wanted to make music that we didn’t have in our record collections, but we would have liked to have in our record collections. That was the idea, and I think that is what led to us being less than universal. We couldn’t be pigeonholed and fit into anything. The NME used to call us “Punk Floyd.” I think once we made a list of all the bands we’d been compared to in reviews, and it went all the way from Prince to Portishead. It was just amazing. I guess because we had all of the little bits from our record collection in there, people couldn’t hear it as one thing. It was a double-edged sword. If you say to a band, “Go and make some really weird rock music that doesn’t fit into any category and forsake success for it,” most would say, “Well, I’ll actually just be a metal band or a punk band and try to make it.”
You brought in John Leckie to co-produce The Closer You Get. Was that about trying to have some success or more about working with a legend?
What happened there was, we played a gig at the Union Chapel, and Martin Mills, who owned our label, asked John to come see the band. He came backstage afterwards and said, “Your band is really good and I’ve heard the record. But the band on stage is different from the record. It’s not as good as the band is live.” And I said, “Well, that’s it. We know that. We know our first album didn’t sound right. It’s not the way we wanted it to sound. We fucked it up.” And he said, “I can help you get that sound.” It was really about that. We knew who he was and what he’d done. That was just his CV. For us, it was more about getting the sound right. So, he came up to Nottingham and helped us make the record.
How do you think he did?
He was brilliant! I can talk for hours about what he did in the studio. I learned a tremendous amount from working with him. We wanted him to do the next album, but he couldn’t.
The Closer You Get was a lot more aggressive than your debut, The Things We Make. What brought that on?
We had a better idea of what we wanted to be. A lot of people were telling us lots of nice things, and then when the first album didn’t quite make the grade, a lot of people stopped answering our phone calls. We got into some trouble with our publishers, who were trying to sue us. And we were seeing all of these bands like Gay Dad and Ultrasound on the covers of magazines, and we were thinking, “No one’s gonna know who they are in six months!” And everyone was going on about the Beta Band, who then released their album that wasn’t very good. We just saw the whole circus around us and felt we needed to get away from it. We just went into the studio and I started writing about what was going on in my life. I think that’s just where the record came from.
I haven’t heard the name Gay Dad in at least 15 years.
I rest my fucking case! Back then, they were on the front cover of the NME every other fucking week. And we would say to our label, “But the NME just gave our album nine out of 10. Can’t you get us on the cover?” And no, it was Gay Dad again. We just knew that band was basically just playing this game where they were using the press. It kept happening, where bands would start bidding wars, get all sorts of money, and then take that money and make a slapdash record or just fuck off and buy a house in the country! We weren’t that kind of band. We turned down a million quid. We stuck to our principles. It was a case of, “Who’s gonna remember fucking Gay Dad in 20 years' time?” But they were taking up all of the space that was preventing us from getting some of it. And that’s where songs like “Overnight Success” and “England and a Broken Radio” and “Eat Junk Become Junk” came from.
Tell me about that campaign to get “Eat Junk Become Junk” to be the Christmas number-one in 2015. What was all of that about?
There is a radio station here called BBC Radio 6 Music that plays alternative music. It’s quite a cool radio station. And there was this band T-shirt day right before Christmas, where everyone at the station wore their favorite band’s shirt for the hell of it. And the producer for this DJ called Shaun Keaveny wore his “Eat Junk Become Junk” shirt that day. That day he played the song, and someone went onto my blog and wrote, “You should try and get ‘Eat Junk Become Junk’ to become the Christmas number-one.” So, we started a Facebook campaign and we thought it might be a good laugh. Like, what harm could it do? And we ended up going to number one on the download chart, knocking Slade [“Merry Christmas Everybody”] off the top. It was brilliant.
Along with the album, the reissue comes the Peel Sessions you recorded. John Peel was a big fan of the band. What do you remember from the time you spent with him?
We didn’t really spend much time with him. The thing about Peely was, he’d invite you down for a session, and after we’d just talk to each other across the airwaves. But I met him on three occasions. When we played up in Newcastle at Sound City, he came into the dressing room and said, “I don’t know what you do, but you do it brilliantly.” That sums us up, really.
You’re simultaneously releasing a greatest hits album. Six by Seven weren’t exactly a band known for hits. How did you decide what to include?
That was difficult. It wasn’t my decision, really. I was asked to do it initially, but then we had to compromise it. The album I would have put together would’ve been very different. It needed the shorter, snappier songs and [to] lean more towards the Beggars years, because they are putting it out. But I was really chuffed because we did an album called Love and Peace and Sympathy, which I thought was great. When Lesley heard it, she was adamant about putting a couple of songs from it onto the album, which I thought was great.
Do you think every band at some point wants to release a greatest hits record?
No. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek for us. We did have a couple of minor hits. But I once went into a bookshop and took a look at the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles & Albums and see if we’re in it. Lo and behold, we are in it twice. So, we’ve had two official hits and one hit album with The Way I Feel Today. But it doesn’t feel like that. The band is so under the radar that it doesn’t feel like a great accomplishment. I’d much prefer to have a signature tune that everybody knew, because in my life people say, “Oh, you’re in a band?” And I say, “Yeah, Six by Seven.” They go, “Oh right, never heard of ya.” And that’s because we never had a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Common People” or a “Creep.” But oddly enough, “Eat Junk Become Junk” seems to be turning into a signature tune for us.
The original lineup is getting back together to play some shows. Why was it important to do the gig that way?
It wasn’t. The thing that happened was that Lesley decided to do the greatest hits and came up to see me in Nottingham. She asked if I could talk to the guys about doing some gigs around the release to hang it on. So, I got into contact with everyone and they all said yes. We did the one gig here in Nottingham through Kickstarter to get some money together for it. And when that sold out, we were offered another gig in London. And that’s it. As far as we’re concerned, there’s nothing more, because no one has offered us anything and nothing else is on the horizon.