Things were looking good for alternative rock act Little Barrie.
They had had a brush with the mainstream by providing the theme song for hit Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, and had just released their fifth album Death Express to rave reviews.
But as they were getting ready to head out on tour in September 2017 tragedy struck. Drummer Virgil Howe died aged 41 of a heart attack.
His bandmates and friends, guitarist Barrie Cadogan and bassist Lewis Wharton were left reeling – the plug was immediately pulled on all Little Barrie activities.
‘It was devastating. We played with him for nearly 10 years,’ explains Barrie. ‘It was such a massive blow we just couldn’t do anything at the time, we were really struggling to process what had happened, let alone think about the band. Our first thought was his daughter and his family and their loss.
'Virgil died the day before the UK tour was due to start so everything got derailed and ground to a halt.’
Now though, they are ready to re-enter the fray, more than two years after their last gig, here in Portsmouth.
The band have strong ties to the city – Lewis is a local boy, and Barrie has also been playing with former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason’s band. Mason’s bassist is Steve Duffield, another Pompey native.
‘Lewis is a local lad, but weirdly, we’ve never played there in all of the years of the band.
‘Lewis saw Jim Jones and The Righteous Mind there (The Barn in Milton), and we’ve known Jim for years as well. Lewis really liked the night and the venue, and Steve Duffield said he could open for us – he’s the bass player in (Portsmouth rock trio) The Rems as well.
‘Steve, he knew the guys at the venue, and he said: “Do you fancy doing this gig?”
‘I spoke to Lewis, and he was like, “Why not? It’s time to do something again”.’
After Virgil’s death Barrie had thrown himself into other work.
‘Luckily I had a chance to get my head in to some other things. I had things lined up with Matt Johnson and The The, and I was already working with Steve Mason, so I had these other things going on which helped – not that you ever forget. I think about Virgil every day, and I think I always will.
‘I went on tour with The The, did bits and pieces of writing when I could, me and Lewis did a bit of recording when we could.
‘Whatever happened, we decided early on that we would keep making music together because me and Lewis have known each other for 19 years now, it’s been a long friendship and there’s a real bond between us.
‘With time and starting to look at things differently, we thought that some of these songs (on Death Express) have never been properly played and we’ve never had the chance to explore this. And the only way we’re going to know this is if we get out there and have a go.’
Barrie describes the classic, sprawling, Beastie Boys albums Ill Communication and Check Your Head as major influences on the 20-track Death Express.
‘We were trying to take that sort of that attitude, but from the view of a garage-fuzz R’n’B band – that’s what we were trying to mix up with the fractured beats and the buzzing electric guitars.’
The big question though, is who will replace Virgil on the drum stool?
‘When someone’s unique like that, you can’t ever replace someone’s personality, and someone’s natural spirit or ability as a musician, but what you can try and do, and what we’ve aimed to do, is find someone who’s great in their own way, and can do those songs in a great way, and that’s what we’ve been working on.
‘We’ve had quite a few people approach us, but you don’t know until you get in a rehearsal room how it’s going to feel. We’ve explored it.’
But Barrie politely refuses to name their new drummer ahead of the gig.
‘It’s not Ginger Baker. He might not be a super-known name, but we want to just turn up and play the gig.’
As a guitarist of some prodigious skill, outside of his own band, Barrie has played with an extensive list of acts, from Paul Weller and Johnny Marr, to Spiritualized, The Chemical Brothers, Primal Scream and many more.
His services were called upon when The The mainman Matt Johnson decided he wanted to play his first gigs in 17 years, on no less than Johnny Marr’s recommendation.
‘I was very fortunate to get that gig. Johnny called me and said: “Matt’s looking for a guitar player, I’ve mentioned you, are you interested?”
‘I knew they’d been close friends since the early ’80s.’ Marr was part of The The’s set up for several years after The Smiths imploded, playing on the classic Mind Bomb and Dusk albums.
‘I think a great deal of Johnny, and if Johnny thinks a great deal of Matt he must be a cool guy.
‘I went around to Matt’s house one afternoon and we drank tea and just talked. I liked him instantly, and thought he was a great guy with a brilliant mind and a great energy about him.
‘To be honest, I didn’t know a huge amount of his music at the time, my older sister had some of the albums. I remember her buying Mind Bomb when it came out, and she was a fan, but I only knew the more well-known songs.’
It was only after accepting the gig and listening to Johnson’s back catalogue Barrie realised ‘how brilliant he is’.
‘It was was quite an emotional experience with what he’d been through. Also they were his first gigs in 17 years, so the love for him and his music from the fans, and playing with people who had been in different line-ups – I was the only new guy – they were just a brilliant bunch of people.’
Another significant figure in Little Barrie’s history is also very much part of the guitarist’s present. On the day we talk he is off to join Edwyn Collins for rehearsals.
He’s part of the Scottish singer-songwriter’s live band for the tour which is now underway and comes to The Wedgewood Rooms on September 10.
‘Me and Lewis have known Edwyn for a long time. Edwyn played a key role in the early days of the band, we met him when we moved to London because I met Andy his guitar player in a guitar shop.
‘He introduced us to Edwyn and then we went there to record one of our early singles. We had a really good day there – we went in to do two songs and ended up doing three, this was 2002, and he said: “Would you like to carry on and do an album?”
‘We told him we’d love to but we just don’t have the money, and he said: “Well, let’s just make the album and we’ll worry about that later”.
‘He let us make an album on tick, basically, in his incredible sounding studio. To get that sort of leg-up when you’re trying to get your band up and running is incredible, really.
‘He’s been a dear, kind and generous friend for many years. I’ve played with him off and on, but I’d not played with him for quite a while, so when the opportunity came up to do this tour, I jumped at it.’
The Barn, Milton
Saturday, September 21