The Hoosiers’ Irwin Sparkes: ‘I remember the halcyon days of bathing in champagne’

The Hoosiers  Irwin Sparkes is on the left.
The Hoosiers  Irwin Sparkes is on the left.
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Frontman of The Hoosiers Irwin Sparkes is a busy boy.

Frontman of The Hoosiers Irwin Sparkes is a busy boy.

He’s recently been starring in Dublin in Big: The Musical, based on the hit Tom Hanks comedy, playing Paul, the closest the show has to a bad guy.

But now that’s wrapped up he’s turning his attention back to his day job with the band – including headlining Beating Heart, a one-day festival at Portsmouth Guildhall on Saturday, March 18. The event features 30 acts across five stages with a whole host of great local bands such as Veludo Planes, Blackfoot Circle, Devin Jade and loads more. And it’s also raising money for a brace of charities, the Guildhall’s own Participate programme and Cash For Kids.

The Hoosiers top the bill, where they’ll be peddling their indie-pop wares with hits like Worried About Ray and Goodbye Mr A.

Irwin was appearing in Big alongside Jay McGuinness, Diana Vickers and Gary Wilmot.

He says: ‘The rest of the cast were cracking. ‘‘Cool” is a bit of a stretch, let’s be honest it’s musical theatre, but they were a lot of fun, and Diana Vickers has still got it, let me tell you.’

Was musical theatre something he’d always wanted to try his hand at?

‘It was just cold-blooded cash in hand, really,’ he pauses, mock apologetically.

‘I studied theatre and performing arts at uni, so I had always harboured a desire to board tread. I had done a few other shows and comedies around London in other friends’ productions.

‘I absolutely loved the Tom Hanks film – and who wouldn’t want to be in Big, with all the goodness of watching a 30-year-old woman trying to seduce what is inherently a 12-year-old trapped in a man’s body? But that was the ’80s, and that was normal then, right?’

The Hoosiers achieved huge success with their debut album The Trick To Life – it went double-platinum. Unfortunately after their second album The Illusion of Safety, they split with Sony. They have released their last two albums on their own label.

‘After releasing two albums on a major label, we’ve gone it alone and self-released two albums. You learn an awful lot. We set up our own record label and we’re kind of relying on the support we’ve got from the fans we’ve made along the way. We feel very fortunate to have that.

‘But I’ll be honest, it has been very hard doing that way – there’s definitely no easy ride.’

The touring cycle to their last album, The Secret Service, wrapped up last year, and they’re now looking at celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut. Sparkes is frequently self-deprecating and much of what he says sees his tongue lodged firmly in cheek, but he marvels at how many records they sold.

‘That was back when bands could sell records – I think we were one of the last. We were very fortunate to squeeze in before that window of opportunity came crashing down on the music industry. Now I’ve got to go and learn the album again!

‘Later this year we’re going to be touring the legs off of the album. Coming to Portsmouth will be a great way to try out some material, old and new.’

Will they be playing the whole album? ‘We’re keen on mixing it up a bit. There’s a fair bit of appetite for that, but we also like the idea of working in a few surprises, We’ve been having some thought about it, but I don’t want to give anything away - pay your money and come to see it!’

Does that make Portsmouth the guinea pigs? ‘Um, let’s move on rapidly,’ he chuckles.

Do they look back fondly on those times, or was it just a whirlwind?

‘There are some things Al (Sharland, drummer and co-founder) and I will get a little misty-eyed about, remembering the halcyon days of bathing in champagne back at Sony HQ...

‘Actually, a lot of that is just made up, but we like to think that could have happened if our second album had gone the way we wanted it to!

‘It was a fantastic time to be in a band, and we’re very glad to have had those moments, but maybe it’s just us as people, I’m enjoying my 30s more than my 20s – for both of us, we’re just happier people now.

‘The pressures of being on a major label, having to have follow-up success, the first thing we noticed was the word “good” being replaced by “hit”. We just needed to write hits. It wasn’t a question of ‘‘that’s a really good song, I enjoyed writing that”, it was ‘‘but are other people going to enjoy it?”

‘It was very easy to lose our way and take those things too seriously and it kind of destroyed our love for the music at a point. I think we were surprised as much as anyone when we came back with a third album, regardless of how big it was and how many it sold.’

And they’re looking forward to getting back to Portsmouth and playing Beating Heart.

‘It’s a heck of a start to our year, its our first festival of the year. I was very touched to see we’re playing on the same bill as a great local band called Pets, with Sam McCarthy. We all do bits and pieces outside the band, including writing with different artists, and I had the pleasure of writing with Sam.

‘Needless to say he used absolutely nothing, so clearly the day was a total disaster, and that will be a wonderfully awkward conversation.’

* Beating Heart runs from 3pm to 11pm on Saturday, March 18. Tickets are only £10. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk