Britpop survivors Echobelly still want to do great things at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
‘I wanna do great things,
‘I don't wanna compromise,’ sang Echobelly on their top 20 1995 single Great Things.
Released at the height of Britpop, it welded a clear statement of intent and optimism to a catchy chorus, reflecting the unbounded possibilities of the future.
Twenty-six years down the line Sonya Madan and Glenn Johansson, the heart of Echobelly, may be older and wiser, but they are still looking for those ‘great things’.
The London-based duo met in 1992 and pulled together the band – top 10 albums Everyone's Got One and On followed, yielding hits like I Can’t Imagine The World Without Me and King of The Kerb.
Although the band faltered and ultimately split in a period described in their official band biog as including ‘death, drugs, theft and high court injunctions’, Glenn and Sonya’s enduring partnership didn’t come apart.
Even when Echobelly was on hold they continued to write and perform together as the acoustic project Calm of Zero.
But since 2015 they have been back under their original name and aiming to pick up where they left off pre-pandemic. They are currently on a UK tour which hits Portsmouth later this month.
With both on a call, The Guide naturally asks how they’ve been?
‘Hibernating like everyone else’, says Glenn drolly, ‘drinking too much – trying to write some songs.
‘We have done some bits and pieces, actually we released two albums on vinyl that we'd never done before, so that took up some time to compile those.’
Those rereleases are of their 2001 album People Are Expensive and its 2004 follow-up Gravity Pulls – both originally put out on their own Fry Up label.
How do they look back on those post-major label years now?
‘It's a push/pull thing,’ says Sonya. ‘When you write something you're just in the moment and sometimes music can be very much about a moment in time in your life, and fans say the same thing as well.
‘If you're into music, it's very often the soundtrack of your life. Even if you don't mean them to, as a writer, albums always have an element of autobiography in them, so it's interesting to look back.
‘I don't usually listen to our music, so when you're forced to you, you kind of mentally go back to other periods in your life. It's an interesting experience in that way.’
The band’s most recent album of new material was 2017’s Anarchy and Alchemy – their first since Gravity Pulls.
It was put together with help from a successful online crowdfunding campaign on the since defunct Pledgemusic platform.
How is work going on the new album?
‘If we were in a situation where we were with a label and we were 100 per cent free, we could release an album every year,’ says Sonya.
‘It's not the writing that's the difficult part, it's that we don't have the machinery behind us.
‘You haven't got the funding, you haven’t got the management, you haven't got the lawyers, you haven't got a record label, you haven't got publishers – all those pieces are missing.
‘So it's like climbing a mountain on your own – and people don't seem to understand that, they’re just like: “So, why haven't you released an album?”
‘It's not that we don't want to!’
How about the rest of the band?
‘I'm going to be candid, I think a lot of people fake it and talk BS. The reality of keeping a bunch of musicians together... let's face it as you get older, people have children, they have mortgages, have financial requirements, they can't live a rock'n'roll lifestyle any more, it isn't viable.
‘Keeping the original line-up together, some people manage to do it, but they tend to live outside London, because London is 10 times more expensive than anywhere else.
‘Practically speaking, Glenn and I are a bit weird – neither of us have kids, neither of us are married. We kind of managed to carry on doing this weird thing that they call music, or rock'n'roll, or whatever, but most people they join normality.
‘It's very difficult to keep an original band together, unless everyone’s got jobs and they come together to do the shows – but in reality they have a nine-to-five job, or a company of their own, which is what a lot of the Britpop bands are doing now.
‘They're all working other jobs and then they come together and do a tour.’
It seems there is a certain bull-headedness that drives Echobelly on these days – a refusal to roll over and give up.
‘I'd be very doubtful if a lot of acts from now will be around in 20 years time because everything's just a lot softer,’ Sonya explains, ‘I don't know... If it's what you feel you're here to do, you're going to do it, you're going to be bloody-minded about it, even if you have to live on the streets – you're still going to make music because you can't physically do anything else.’
‘You don't want to be on the planet doing anything else.
‘There are a few of us who are kind of hard-nosed about it because that's what we're here to do.’
After releasing a couple of mini-albums as Calm To Zero, Glenn and Sonya were nudged back towards resuming the Echobelly mantle.
‘Years ago we were involved with a big agency, and one of the agents, he said: “Forget all this Calm To Zero stuff, reform the band and let’s put on a show. We'll do it at the Scala in London and let's see what happens”, so we did. And it sold out, and it was like, ok, it's telling us something, isn't it?’
Glenn adds with a laugh: ‘To be honest, I got a little bit bored of the acoustic thing as well. I think we'd left it long enough, and I missed playing some of those songs again.
‘The thought of never playing those songs again felt a weird, so we were like, screw it, let's do Echobelly again. Turn the volume up a bit!’
Sonya was recently asked to contribute to the book While We Were Getting High: Britpop and the ’90s, by music photographer Kevin Cummins.
While happy to be associated with that era, Sonya sees a revisionism creeping in.
She says: ‘I'm very appreciative of it all (the Britpop era). I wrote a piece for Kevin’s book, and the attitude of the questions was almost apologetic. I got mildly confused and mildly annoyed because he was the principal photographer for the NME, and he was very much part of it, and here was apologising for it and accusing it all of being racist and sexist.
‘Although there were elements of that in it, it was everywhere, it wasn't just Britpop. But the thing with Britpop – there were a lot of women in bands, and people of colour, as you have to say at the moment – the bands weren't racist, there wasn't any real racism or sexism within the bands, it came from the society and certainly from the press. So to pin those labels on the bands I thought was quite unfair.
‘In a way, we were all pushing for the positive aspects of our country and I don't understand why that's a bad thing.
‘It wasn't just music, it was fashion, it was art – it was everywhere.’
Sonya was also put in a position where she was expected to act as a spokeswoman not just for her gender, but also as an Asian (although Indian-born, she came to the UK as a toddler).
It’s something that still frustrates her.
‘I understand where it's coming from, but I consider myself a wordsmith and I think I have something to offer – but 99 per cent of the interviews I do… I've just been asked to do a big documentary on Britbox from the 1960s onwards, I know what the agenda's going to be.
‘I write lyrics that I think are worthy of attention, and yet it's always about the colour of my skin.
‘To be tokenised by well-meaning people is also very frustrating – you're literally put in a box all the time.
‘You can jump on it and moan, and you will always get Guardian readers jumping up and down with joy, but I still think that the reason why I do this is because I think I'm a consummate lyricist – and yet that does get ignored. Nobody ever asks me about that!’
While the new album is in its very early stages Sonya and Glenn have no idea what lies ahead for their band.
Sonya says: ‘We will still keep writing and keep releasing through whatever means... so hopefully things will open up for us a bit more, but you just don't know because the music business itself has changed so much in the last few years. It's unrecognisable.’
And she adds: ‘Glenn and I are kind of used to living a weird lifestyle anyway.
‘There's a lot to be said for beans on toast and a bottle of wine!’
Echobelly are at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on Saturday, October 16. Tickets £17.50. Go wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.