Words by Alex & Taylor
Photographs by Darren Warner
When you think of Merthyr Tydfil and its musical heritage, not that many names spring to mind. There is the great Peter Carey, the show-stopping singer famous for his role in Phantom Of The Opera and… Donny Osmond, though really it’s a distant family link as he never actually grew up on the Gurnos estate himself! But those two famous names aside, there was only one group of guys who actually featured on the Merthyr PLUGGED IN list of bands we wanted to talk to. They are, of course, The Blackout.
PLUGGED IN first interviewed The Blackout prior to their gig at Cardiff University for Issue 3 and have always kept an eye on the six guys’ progress — as they have done with us, asking about the next issue whenever we meet. So to finally get hold of them and give them a cover was a long time coming — and a bit of a coup, as the boys were in the middle of a tour and were back in Wales visiting family for just one week…it happened to be the week we contacted them explaining we were working on a mini-mag called Merthyr PLUGGED IN. As usual, they were extremely supportive of what we were doing and three of the six-piece were able to give up one of their evenings to come along and be interviewed by two of our young students on the project.
Settling down at a table just inside the picture window of Glamorgan Gates in Merthyr’s high street, Gareth, Matt and Sean were introduced to Merthyr PLUGGED IN’s Alex and Taylor who would be asking a few questions. But before the interview got underway, I [Darren] started the conversation by talking about the distance the guys have come since our last interview, having released two albums in a fairly short time — firstly, the long-awaited tour de force We Are The Dynamite followed, more recently, by the more commercial but no less explosive Best In Town.
So how did they feel We Are The Dynamite was received? Sean gives a proud little smile and says, “I think it was received quite well.” Very modest there I think! “Looking back, we were kind of forced into it by our label Fierce Panda who basically said: ‘OK guys, you’ve got to have an album out in two months.’ But it was good for us to have a full-length album out, with lots of new material on it.”
Well they definitely gave themselves a bit of an anthem with the title track, I remember hearing loud chants from the crowd of “We are the dynamite!” before the band hit the stage. “Yes, our fans seem to like that one,” says Sean, again in modest tones.
With the release of their second full-length album Best In Town the band seem to have picked up more radio airplay. I was amazed, but very pleasantly surprised and happy for the guys, when I heard the first single, Save Yourselves, being played by Jo Whiley on daytime Radio 1. So what is it like to be finally recognised and placed into the mainstream?
“Whatever you do when you make something new you’re always going to have people who are not going to like it, but we’ve never intended to limit ourselves to a certain kind of audience. It’s always been a dream of ours to get as far and do as much as we possibly can. We an never be accused of selling out because how can you sell out from your original intentions? We’re a kind of pop band in a rock band’s body, whose song-writing skills have developed as we’ve developed. Working with Jason Perry on the Best In Town has given us a compatriot who has found the best in us, commercial or otherwise. You know, a little bit pop, a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll…”
Gareth interjects: “We’ve never really stuck to one formula from the start. If you take our first ep, The Blackout, The Blackout, The Blackout, most of the songs were heavy, but then you get High Tide that brought us away from everything else we were doing at that time kind of showing the next step. What you now get with Best In Town is a sort of mix of everything and all that influences us on one album.”
Matt adds: “We just like to mix it up, which shows we’re not following one route.”
This is a factor that was shown with the release of the first single from Best In Town. Called Save Yourselves it is a very commercially astute song that is still without a doubt The Blackout. Mellower in its style, the chorus consists of the repeated line “This is The Blackout” which leads me to say that I believe it to be one of the most effective pieces of song-writing marketing that I’ve heard in a long time. If you’re new to The Blackout, like most Radio 1 listeners would be, then the boys are telling you exactly who they are throughout the song.
So who formulated that idea? “We’d written the main structure of the song but had a problem with the chorus, though we knew we had a certain number of syllables to sing. It was actually Jason’s idea to use ‘The Blackout’ as the line and we thought that’ll work, plus we’d be constantly shouting our name out,” explains Sean.
Matt adds: “It was kind of strange. We’d finished the album and had left Sean and Gavin in Essex to complete the vocals, not knowing what this crucial chorus was going to be. When we got it back and we heard ‘This is The Blackout’ it was so right.”
So with six members in a band that is touring relentlessly, the boys must feel like they’re living in each other’s pockets. I had to ask how come they aren’t publicly ripping each other’s heads off. Matt kicks off by saying, “The thing is, we’re all friends and basically have always been together….”
“Apart from the drummer who we found one day in Giles Sports,” interjects Sean with a wry smile. “The band became something to do really just to pass the time. And nothing has changed. We’re just friends who play music together.”
“Everything’s a joke,” adds Gareth. “Sometimes we’re just having a laugh and practising something and we go: ‘Boys! We’ve been to Japan, twice!! How did that happen?’”
“If you’d told me three years ago that I’d know Linkin Park, I’d have said: “That’s not going to happen’,” adds Sean. “To have toured with them, well, that was awesome.”
The gig Sean was referring to was Linkin Park’s European tour that Gail and myself caught up with at the National Bowl in Milton Keynes, which under the title of Projekt Revoution also featured the superstar rapper Jay-Z. Much to our disappointment, The Blackout were not scheduled to play this one-off event — though the boys were moshing with the rest of the crowd on the day. A shame because we’re sure the 80,000 crowd would have been blown away by the Merthyr boys.
So who else have the guys toured with? “So many great bands you wouldn’t believe. Like America’s The Used, who I got to sing on stage with,” says Sean. “In fact, I’ll have to say that of all the bands we’ve ever wanted to play with, we actually have. Apart from the ones who are dead, that is. I’d like to reanimate Freddy Mercury… but apparently that’s not allowed!”
Personally, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Blackout play live, first noticing them at the Full Ponty 2006 where they were down the list and regarded as “a band from Merthyr”. Since that time I’ve caught them at Clwb y Bont, performing an acoustic set with guest vocals by Ian Watkins (of the LostProphets), playing the Full Ponty 2007 (almost topping the playlist and taking to the stage with the crowd chanting “We Are The Dynamite”), then headlining the rock night at the following year’s Big Weekend, among many other occasions. (These mean a lot to me as all the gigs were within a mile of my house, so I could float home happy.) One thing I’ve noticed each time is that the live set hasn’t just got stronger due to the professional nature of a band’s learning process, but that they are getting much more energetic at a time when most other groups seem to calm down and just perform the numbers. Unlike any other group, The Blackout seem to have stepped up a gear.
“With the amount of touring that we’ve done and the amount of other bands that we’ve seen who just seem to be strolling along, I want them to say of us, ‘What’s wrong with these guys, they’re constantly running about.’ When we started the band we didn’t think about things like recording albums, we just wanted to play live. And we do enjoying shocking people! By touring so much we’ve got to hone our instrumental and vocal skills to a point that means we can run around and climb things,” says Sean.
“And enjoy ourselves,” adds Matt.
Gareth sums up saying: “We try to be the band that we’d like to go and see, and no offence to indie bands but if you’re just stood there your audience might as well just listen to the CD and save themselves £30 or more. As for us, we’re just trying to mix it up a bit.”
The Blackout and LostProphets have always shown friendship and respect for each other, with Ian Watkins even guesting on the anthem hit Hide Tide Baby (check). Have they ever considered doing a double-headlining tour or collaborating on a track together?
“What I’d like to do is a Christmas dingle, but not just with the LostProphets with all the Welsh bands, like Funeral For A Friend, Bullet For My Valentine and Attack! Attack! among others,” answers Sean.
Gail (the editor) who is in the room keeping an eye on the proceedings and never one to miss an opportunity quickly interjects, “Well I’ve always wanted to do a cover shoot with all the Welsh bands on it. Maybe for the magazine’s 5th Birthday.” (I’m not quite sure how we would fit them all on the cover but, hey, I’ll find a way!) “Yeah,” says Sean getting excited at the prospect, “and we could put a CD on the front with tracks from all the bands including the Christmas song!”
When the laughter dies down, Taylor and Alex start to question the guys about coming from a town like Merthyr Tydfil.
Taylor: While you were growing up in Merthyr was their anything in particular that influenced you to be a part of the music industry? “Boredom, I guess,” answers Sean. “When we were in school there was really nothing to do. Matthew and me were sitting in a science lesson at one time and said, ‘Let’s just start a band’ and because there was nothing else to do it just made sense.”
Alex: So what was the first music you bought? “Guns ’ n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion 2,” says Sean, adding, “I was into a lot of dance music until I was about 16 when I found Limp Biskit. I heard Fred Durst the lead vocalist swearing and I thought, ‘That’s really cool, I want to do that, swearing is the future.’ And as I grow up I want to do more swearing and I’ve got to learn to swear as best as I can. I suppose Limp Biskit changed my world. Without them I would never have found rock and would never be in the position we are today. And guess what, I told him so when we met him once. He just said ‘Thank you’ and walked away as if he didn’t care…”
Taylor: Any influences musically to form a band? “I became a bit of a sweaty mosher and had been playing LostProphets’ Fake Sound Of Progress constantly so decided to watch them live at the Blackwood Miners Institute. It was my first ever gig and it was awesome. We said that if we could be even a quarter as good as they were, it’ll be amazing.”
Matt adds: “I think that the Prophets made us believe that making it in music was achievable. Around that time rock was stadium based with the likes of Metallica and Bon Jovi and was distant. Seeing the LostProphets doing it in front of 200 people was very inspiring.”
“They were doing what was regarded as more of an American thing at that time, being more of a rock band than an indie band,” adds Sean.
Gareth then tells us: “Local rock bands around that time couldn’t get a gig for love nor money. By the Prophets doing what they did they became pioneers and have influenced every Welsh band since.”
Alex: So where did The Blackout get their name from? “We used to be called Ten Minute Preview, then we changed our sound when Bob, our rapidly balding guitarist, joined. The new sound needed a new name and we saw a T-shirt regarding the New York Blackout that afflicted the city in 2001 (I think). It said: ‘I Survived The Blackout’ and we thought that’d be a great name for our band — plus we got a T-shirt idea as well! Apparently, there’s a white power band called Blackout, but we didn’t realise that fact or we wouldn’t have chosen the name. At one gig we played in LA this fella turned up, stripped to the waste and had white pride tattooed across his chest. We started playing and he looked at us as if saying ‘poofs’ and quickly left.”
Taylor: So was there any band you wanted to be like? “LostProphet, I guess,” says Sean. “For a long time I wanted to be Ian Watkins, but now I know him I find him quite annoying really…” He laughs. “I did want to be Limp Biskit, too, and definitely wanted a red baseball cap.”
“I’ve still got mine,” adds Gareth.
“And for a while,” continues Sean, “I wanted to be Kelly Jones, being a fan of the Stereophonics at that time. I saw them in Morpha Stadium.”
“I think everyone in Wales saw them in Morpha Stadium,” quips Gareth again.
“Just loads of bands really, including PLUGGED IN Issue 4 cover stars Midasuno, who we used to follow everywhere. They were just wild and smashed up the venue.”
Most bands try to escape the places where they grew up, but The Blackout are renowned for returning home. So what is it about the town that pulls them back?
“My mother lives here,” says Matt, and Sean adds: “I have thought about getting an apartment in Cardiff, but I like being here. Merthyr is not as bad as people like to make out. My parents live here and living with them is cheaper than having my own place. In fact there’s no point in any of us having an apartment as we’re never home long enough before we’re off touring again.”
But do you think that Methyr could do with a decent live venue?
“I don’t think it’s that necessary. Venues in the past have failed because Cardiff isn’t that far away and attracts the more popular bands. They probably think Cardiff is far enough so don’t want to travel further into Wales,” answers Sean, adding, “Not that it’s like Deliverance up here!”
So are you proud to be Welsh? “I guess so. It’s growing on me.” Then Sean explains: “I originally didn’t like the patriotism that you can get with the Rugby boys going out saying ‘Let’s fight the English’. But my pride has grown because I think we’re a humourous nation who have learned not to take ourselves too seriously.”
“We’re not ashamed of our heritage, being from Merthyr or Wales,” continues Matt. “We always tell our audience we’re from Wales, but don’t need to go as far as having ‘Made In Wales’ tatooed across our foreheads.”
“And we do have the best flag in the world. Think of a better one!” challenges Sean. I rack my brain and instantly think of the St George’s Cross but don’t believe that anyone else in the room, let alone Methyr Tydfil, would agree with my choice.
“If somebody made a flag with a wolf fighting a bear on it, maybe that’ll win, but I don’t think anybody could really beat a dragon,” concludes Gareth.
So what would do they believe The Blackout would have turned out like if they had grown up in somewhere like Surbiton in Surrey? “Well we would never have seen the LostProphets which would have been a bummer…” quips Sean.
Matt adds: “Welsh bands seem more focused on songs, while English bands are more technical. Our personalities are like this, because of being from Merthyr Tydfi, being from Wales.”
“Also, we would have been English which would have automatically made us scumbags…” jokes Sean as he looks straight at me, the English fella sitting opposite him.
The Blackout have presence and have the wit, humour and, of course, talent to take them away from the confines of the town where they grew up. But they are not ready to turn their backs on the place, nor I believe ever will. They want to stay in touch and by staying within touching distance of the ground will always mean that the ground is in touching distance of them. Cut the ties and you’ll float off, forgetting who you are. The Blackout will never forget who they are, ever.
The Best In Town by The Blackout is out now, featuring additional vocals on
Children Of The Night by Year 6 Heolgerrig Primary School, Merthyr Tydfil
To download the complete magazine visit www.pluggedinmagazine.co.uk