Sweet Billy Pilgrim frontman Tim Elsenburg had his hand down a toilet when he got the call to say his band had been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.
The 2009 nomination, for his second album – Twice Born Men, brought his band’s music to a massive audience and helped Tim get a publishing deal that gave him enough money to quit his job as a handyman and focus on writing a recording another album.
Says Tim: ‘The Mercury is great. It’s just about the music, as are we. It made no qualitative differentiation between us and, say, Kasabian, just because they’d sold more records. It was just about whether or not that music had touched the judges in some way.
‘And there was such a positive response to an unknown band like us getting some recognition.’
Named after a character in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse 5, Sweet Billy Pilgrim had no ambitions of national recognition when they started. In fact, they first started making music as therapy.
‘Alistair, Anthony and I have known each other for many, many years,’ says Tim. ‘They were friends of my younger brother, who died. We kind of clung together to get through the loss and, being men, we found that playing music together was easier than talking.
‘We’ve played together ever since, as session musicians for other artists, as a jazz-funk band, as a rock power trio. Then, one day, I decided that I was tired of our recorded songs never sounding as I could imagine them. I bought a laptop and taught myself how to produce the stuff myself. That’s where SBP started.
‘We spent years finishing work at 6pm, rehearsing until midnight, coming home and then getting up at 6am to go to work again. The Mercury nomination woke us up to the fact that it was worth it because it meant something to other people, not just us. It gave us our second wind.’
That ‘second wind’ produced a third album, Crown and Treaty, which was named after a pub in Uxbridge and released last week.
Tim’s aim with this release was for a much bigger, more open, sound, so he moved all his equipment out of the shed at the end of his garden (where he’d recorded Twice Born Men) and moved into a bungalow in the extensive grounds of a much larger house. ‘I put the mixing desk in a bay window, overlooking the garden. For the first time, I had a view,’ Tim explains.
Another change for the new record was the introduction of a co-vocalist.
Tim had met Jana Carpenter (a singer, musician and actress who has appeared in Doctor Who, Silent Witness and Holby City) on Twitter.
‘I was following her husband and she made me laugh with her interactions with him,’ he explains.
‘We did a couple of songs together for a laugh at a birthday party of a friend of hers and it sounded lovely. It was unexpected because our voices are so different,’ he continues.
Adding Jana’s vocals was part of the process of opening the album out.
‘Previously I made voice almost one of the instruments. But vocals are what people connect to. It’s what moves you, so I made the voices lead,’ says Tim.
It’s that connection with his audience that he’s striving for with this release.
‘What I would like to do is connect with people on every level,’ he adds. ‘It’s going to sound very wet, but I want them not to feel alone.
‘The album is about dealing with your ghosts. If you don’t deal with stuff that’s happened in your life, it comes back to haunt you, whether it’s something that happened at school, issues with your parents or something else.
‘Most of us have something we haven’t dealt with affecting our behaviour and decisions and songs can speak to those parts of us, even if we don’t recognise what they are.
‘The album is about recognising our ghosts – crowning them, if you will – before we make our peace with them – making a treaty – and finally moving on. Otherwise we’re just repeating unconscious, learned behaviours for a lifetime, and that’s wasting precious time.’
Tim thinks the best way to get his message across is with live shows.
‘It’s the most direct way to connect with people because you can look them in the eyes as you sing,’ he explains.
‘I prefer to acknowledge the audience and let them in a bit, rather than enforcing the idea that I’m up on a stage and they’re down there watching. I’d rather it was an exchange than a performance.’
‘The songs are pretty serious and we take playing them seriously, but in between there’s plenty of scope to have a good laugh.’
Sweet Billy Pilgrim come to The Cellars at Eastney on Sunday at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £7 in advance from (023) 9282 6249 or thecellars.co.uk or £8 on the door.
See Tim talking about making the album and hear excerpts from it at portsmouth.co.uk/video