Tower Records' “Pulse !”
Texas is a band of multiple ironies. It takes its name from a state with powerful images and traditions, yet it hails from Glasgow, Scotland. Its members are barely out of their teens, yet the band sounds like it's been playing for years. And its debut LP – Southside – offers ample proof that Texas is gonna be around for a long time.
Sydney's winter sun slips under the Harbour Bridge as Texas – a talented group from the unlikely locale of Scotland that has released one of the most stunning debut LPs in recent memory – enters the Sebel Townhouse for its last interview of the day. Post-concert parties are frequent in the cozy bar of the Sebel, where the walls (decorated with hundreds of glossy eight-by-tens) have absorbed many a tale.
Lead singer Sharleen Spiteri and guitarist Ally McErlaine retire to one of the adjacent alcoves. Both members are eager to talk, despite the fact that they've probably relayed the basic history of the band to the press over and over ad nauseum since Mercury/PolyGram released its first single, “I Don't Want a Lover,” earlier this year. The album, Southside, followed on its heels.
“We toured the U.K. extensively before the album came out,” Spiteri begins. “When it was released there it entered the charts at number three and then went straight to gold. Even the record company was surprised because they really hadn't done anything or pulled all of the strings.”
In fact, not only did Phonogram (the U.K. parent company of the band's label, Mercury) take a conservative approach in promoting Texas, it was downright blasé about the band since it was signed three years ago. Which is not to say that the label was unsupportive; on more than one occasion Texas got itself in a sticky situation and the record company came to its rescue.
Three years ago, Spiteri was on her way to international status as a hairdresser when a friend told her about a band that his friend was putting together. He convinced her to take her guitar down and play a few songs with him. The result was an invitation to form a band.
Despite McErlaine's affinity for Cooder's fretwork, the Texans are adamant that the name for their group evolved after they had developed their unique brand of contemporary blues.
“We saw the movie 'Paris, Texas,'” explains Spiteri patiently, “and we just liked everything about it. We liked the soundtrack, too, but everything in the film is just so open. And, in turn, we feel that our music is very open and sparse.”
Apparently, the name didn't evoke the wrath many had predicted when Texas started taking off, and it has been the freshness of McErlaine's playing and the natural power and control of Spiteri's singing that has been attracting all the attention.
“Johnny and I got together and wrote a few songs,” says Spiteri, referring to bass player John McElhorne, “and then sent them off to various record companies. Within weeks Phonogram signed us up without ever seeing us play !”
It's a story that every frustrated musician cringes upon hearing, but the fantasy sequence stops there. “Only a couple weeks after we signed I got a call from Chic producer Bernard Edwards telling me that he'd heard our tape and he wanted us to go to L.A. to record,” she explains, “but he had a lot of personal problems, and after a month we ended up scrapping everything and going home.”
“It was a great learning experience for me because it was the first time I had worked with a producer,” she continues. “Things just didn't work out, though, and I guess I discovered that everybody isn't nice.”
When Spiteri and McElhorne returned to Glasgow, their hometown, they concentrated on getting the band together, and that's when guitar-mad McErlaine was enlisted to join Texas. He had a reputation for skipping school in order to stay home and practice the licks of his idols, players like Keith Richards and Ry Cooder.
“The band had lost a lot of money trying to record in the States,” says McErlaine, taking up the story of how Texas floundered before hitting paydirt. “When I joined the band we tried a few other producers in Glasgow in order to do it as cheaply as we could, but things weren't working out, and so we scrapped them, and there was more debt.”
Eventually Texas connected with producer Tim Palmer, who has worked with Robert Plant (Now and Zen), the Mission, Mighty Lemon Drops and David Bowie's Tin Machine. His enthusiasm for the band's material and his easygoing manner endeared Palmer to the band, and he's already been enlisted to produce the next album.
The other two members brought experience into the studio – McElhorne had worked with Altered Images and Hipsway; drummer Stuart Kerr had been with the group Love and Money. With Spiteri and McErlaine, they were able to maintain the sound they'd developed, which was not dramatically altered by Palmer in the studio. “What Tim really did for us was give us confidence,” says McErlaine, while ordering some potent Red Back beer. “We just wanted to make an album that we wanted to hear.”
“The album is really one long story about our lives in the past three and a half years,” says Spiteri. “We really put our necks on the line for this record and we fought for everything.”
“People told us that 'I Don't Want a Lover' was too long because it was over four minutes, but we refused to let them edit it,” adds McErlaine. “They told us that radio wouldn't play it, but we said that if radio liked the song, they'd take it no matter what.”
The band's insistence paid off, as “I Don't Want a Lover” can be heard on a majority of the globe's seven continents these days. “Lover” – with its atmospheric slide guitar runs knifing through a (now standard) modern MTV-pop synth/guitar/walloping drums rhythm track, over which Spiteri's husky contralto lays down the law – is, like the remainder of Southside, uncommonly confident for such a young band. You know how some records just sound like smash hits, even on the first listen ? Southside sounds massive, with at least three other potential chartbusters – “Tell Me Why,” “Everyday Now” and “Thrill Has Gone” – lurking in the album's grooves.
Texas' sound is a unique reflection of the music that has been imported to Scotland via radio, TV, records and tapes. And by the friends of Texas who sought out the rock, pop, soul and blues of North America on their trips overseas.
“My dad was in the navy and went to San Francisco during the flower power days and brought back all these records,” says Spiteri, laughing. “'These Boots Were Made for Walking' by Nancy Sinatra was one of the first records I can remember listening to. But my dad's also a big Stones fan, and he even gets into Beatles vs. Stones arguments with people !”
Spiteri cites Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline and Sarah Vaughn as her biggest influences; she also admits that critics who compare her to former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee aren't far off.
McErlaine doesn't hesitate when naming London Calling by the Clash as his first album purchase. The names of guitarists Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eddie Van Halen, The Edge and Peter Buck also creep into his conversation, and it isn't hard to see what other albums and tapes he checked out in order to forge his slide guitar style.
Radio is definitely not an influence on Scots who wish to discover the talents of artists outside the mainstream. “Radio stations in Britain are so conservative,” Spiteri moans. “It's all monopolized by the government, and Radio One seems to have a playlist of about 20 records. That's all you hear.”
Spiteri and McErlaine like to reflect on the quick rise of Texas and with it the newfound freedom of leaving your past behind, not always a pleasant thing when you're used to a close group of family and friends.
“It's very weird traveling to different countries,” says McErlaine. “You know how it is when you go home at night and you feel very comfortable? Well, now we don't have that security.”
“Plus, when you go on the road,” adds Spiteri, “you become like a little family. You try to stay in touch with reality, but you can understand how some people lose it after so many years.”
“But when you go back to Glasgow it brings you right down again,” says McErlaine. “Like, my dad's unemployed and I feel very lucky to be doing this. You know, my friends won't even tell me that they have a copy of our album! Sometimes we'll go to friends' houses and you'll hear our album blaring out from the living room, but as soon as you arrive at the door, it's off.”
The down-to-earth attitude that Spiteri and McErlaine have toward their music (and the music business) is not as unique as it is refreshing. “Sometimes it's hard to believe that we're in a real band,” says McErlaine.
“It's like when we were in Ireland for some Irish music awards,” Spiteri says. “We were just standing there watching everybody when they started saying 'U2 are here! U2 are here!' Suddenly somebody tapped Johnny on the shoulder and there's Bono and The Edge standing there ! Bono says, 'I just wanted to tell you that I really like your record.' I think my jaw dropped wide open and we didn't stop smiling all night.”
“We know that they're real people like us,” says McErlaine, “but we've grown up loving their music and still respect them. Now we're in the situation where we can talk to these people. Like when we met Robert Plant when we were doing the album. He had that voice that you've heard a million times on record !”
Not all their meetings are as pleasant, however. “Sometimes we'll be taping a TV show or something and I'll say something to one of the other bands there, “Spiteri says, “and they'll just ignore you. Some people really do have problems.
“We always think that civility costs nothing,” she continues. “You're nobody special if you are in a band; it's just a job.”
Unlike most professions, however, musicians are fair game for the media. As the band is finding out, music journalists have incompetents in their ranks like everybody else.
“We had one reviewer at our gigs who wrote that he didn't like the way our guitarist was standing!” Spiteri recalls. “And we think to ourselves, 'This is supposed to be a music paper?' The article went on to say nothing about the music or the songs we wrote, but at the end he wrote, 'Texas are a very good band.'”
Live performance is the band's current focus, and it puts the group in a put-up-or-shut-up situation with the press and punters alike. Spiteri agrees that Texas' material like “Thrill Has Gone,” “Tell Me Why,” “Future is Promises” and the band favorite “Fight the Feeling,” is much harder to play live now than it was before going into the studio. The precision that Palmer helped the band achieve has a sharper edge than its previous rehearsal halls of Glasgow sound.
The material on Southside, even after a few listens, is so sophisticated and mature that virtually anyone hearing the album will swear that the band must be longtime veterans of the music business. The album's 10 tracks (the compact disc contains the bonus track “Faith”) contain music so rich and full that it's leaving journalists scrambling for yet another way to say “brilliant”.
Texas' material is completely original – with obvious influences by Cooder, Richard et al. in the guitar department – and the sound is not only a surprising hybrid, but one that's decidedly non-Celtic. Simple Minds, Big Country, Aztec Camera and newer outfits like Gun and Slide have nothing on these guys. The band is already responding to the pressure that comes with this type of recognition.
“We know that there is a lot expected of us for the second album,” says Spiteri, “but we won't go into the studio until next year because we don't want to get off tour and go in tired and bored. This is very important to us, and we're not going to rush into anything.”
“We recorded Southside in two and a half months,” McErlaine adds. “So we know that we don't need a year in the studio. But, we want to do it right.”
Doing it right means heading back to the States for a tour of the clubs in August and September before returning to Europe for another sweep across venues teeming with an ever-growing number of Texas converts. The band has chosen to play the smaller clubs in preference to supporting a major artist in a stadium tour, and this game plan may just work. Countrymen Simple Minds did three pub tours of Australia before cracking it overseas.
Now it's up to the denizens of the U.S. to decide whether to embrace a Scottish band, bold enough to name itself Texas, that has made the rootiest, most American-sounding record of the year. The welcome mat, unused as of late, is all theirs.
By Kim Reed
Taken from "Pulse !", the US Tower Records magazine, September 1989.
Transcription by Sophie van Rooijen.