Wet Wet Wet head on The Journey to a new album and tour, including a show at Portsmouth Guildhall

Wet Wet Wet, from left: Kevin Simm, Graeme Clark, Neil Mitchell and Tommy Cunningham. Picture by Dougie SounessWet Wet Wet, from left: Kevin Simm, Graeme Clark, Neil Mitchell and Tommy Cunningham. Picture by Dougie Souness
Wet Wet Wet, from left: Kevin Simm, Graeme Clark, Neil Mitchell and Tommy Cunningham. Picture by Dougie Souness
For any established band to lose their frontman – the person who is the face of the group to many – is a huge blow.

Do you carry on with someone new, or do you call it a day?

This was the dilemma faced by Wet Wet Wet when Marti Pellow dropped the bombshell on the rest of the band in mid-2017 that he was quitting to focus on his solo music and stage career.

Scoring their first hits in 1987 with the likes of Sweet Little Mystery and Angel Eyes, the Scottish four-piece’s brand of pop-soul went on to sell millions of albums and they had many more hits, including a mammoth 15-week run at number one with Love Is All Around in 1994.

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Over a Zoom call with The Guide, drummer Tommy Cunningham, recalls Marti telling them he was leaving.

‘Two years ago we got a big knockdown when Marti, our great friend, decided that rather being in a band, he would rather do solo stuff, he would rather do theatre, he would rather pursue that side of his life, which had opened up for him.

‘With all the best will in the world, if we said: “Great, you go and do that, we cannot sit around waiting for you, we have to keep going”.

‘We can't sit around for five years.’

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So, with Marti gone, the rest of the band set about finding a replacement. Tommy recounts the audition process, which saw them try out a hilarious procession of characters, including a Pavarotti-esque singer, a George Michael tribute act, and an Elvis-like vocalist, quiff and all.

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Tommy laughs at the memory, but there was one thing the band were sure of: ‘You can't expect someone to come in and do a carbon copy of Marti, that would be a mistake.

‘We didn't have preconceived ideas about how it should be, but this was basically all these people doing copies of other people's styles instead.’

They eventually came across Kevin Simm – a former member of chart-toppers Liberty X and winner of the 2016 series of The Voice.

‘It took us roughly half a song to agree that Kevin was the right guy to fit in. He's down to earth, he's a working class lad, and the voice of an angel. It's like: “Wow, we've found something here – this works!”’

And most importantly for them, he was his own man.

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‘Kevin did Kevin. He's not a popstar, he's a singer, there's a difference – he doesn't wiggle his bum or do that sexy, smouldering thing.

‘He's a guy with a great voice delivering the songs, and there's a kind of honesty to that.’

And is this a little dig at their former singer turned stage musical theatre star? ‘It's less showman and more direct.

‘It's pure and it's open and it seems more like a working band than a bunch of popstars putting on a show.

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‘Maybe that's a thing that happened with Marti when we learned how to put on shows and it became much more of the same moves, the same place, same time every night – different town but same show. But now it's organic and it changes.

‘That's a bit of a relief to an extent. It means there's less of a safety net and it makes you feel a bit more alive.

‘We're definitely energised – part of that is because of the fear factor,’ he chuckles.

The band introduced Kevin to their fans with a 2019 tour with big plans for 2020, but then of course, ‘the worldwide Covid brick wall happened’ and changed everything.

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The newly energised band, though, were determined not to let the momentum stop. During lockdown they shared videos of rerecorded acoustic versions of their classics and have been working on an album of new material, The Journey, their first since 2007’s Timeless.

In reference to the changes in the band, Tommy says: ‘We're here on a mission now.

‘That journey started when we got Kevin in, so the new album has been called that because it's showing that there's steps forward.

‘What we're not doing is sitting back on our laurels and saying: “We've got (debut hit) Wishing I Was Lucky and all that, lucky us”. None of that. We need fresh, new horizons and we need to attack it.

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‘It's given us time to write songs, and the real thing about it is that it's for Kevin.

‘He's proved that he can do the old back catalogue, he delivers it with aplomb, but he really needs to put his stamp on something – something he's got ownership of.

‘The new songs are really about Wet Wet Wet and Kevin's voice.’

However, with the band spread across England and Scotland (Tommy’s in Glasgow, the others are in ‘Lancashire, Northumberland and London’), lockdown restrictions have made recording together nigh-on impossible. But they have all been able to do their parts from their respective homes and Zoom has ‘become a bit of a lifeline.’

He recalls rerecording 1991 number one Goodnight Girl.

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‘It would take us two weeks to record the song which lasts three minutes. And then right at the deadline someone would say: “Oh, it needs to be videoed as well!”

‘So then we're all trying to set up cameras and trying to get that together, and it was so stressful, but it got the juices flowing, and we got to perform – we got to do something, but it was definitely a compromised way of doing it.

‘The stage is the only place it really comes alive.’

As a band who have scaled the pinnacle of pop, Tommy is realistic about their current position and their fans’ acceptance of replacing Marti.

‘Fifty per cent are like: “It will never be the same and Marti is Wet Wet Wet”. And that's partly our own fault – as the frontman, the way the videos were put together, his smile – we definitely used that as a sales pitch. It gave him a huge profile and the image of Wet Wet Wet, I guess, became Marti Pellow's face.

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‘And 50 per cent are going: “I'll give it a chance". So far, all we've had is positives from those who are at least willing to go: “Right, let's see what we've got here”. We know we're not doing arenas, that we're back at the coalface, working hard and trying to win people over.

‘Luckily for us there have been a few bands who have trod this path, like UB40, going out there and fighting their corner, not giving up, or INXS, or the ultimate, which is Queen.

‘There's been failures in that, Spandau Ballet tried and only lasted a few months without Tony Hadley. It just didn't deliver, but we've got something we believe delivers

‘Kevin has to make his own mark here, and the new record, that's what we want to be judged on.

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‘We're not going to rely on Love Is All Around and the hits, or we'll end up doing holiday parks – no offence to Showaddywaddy, but that's where you're heading if you do that. Third on the bill to the puppet show...’

Like any band with big hits, Tommy admits there have been times when they could happily never play them again.

‘There's been times in the past, if we heard the intro to Angel Eyes one more time then we were all going to scream. But we've matured and there's a great release when you play those songs.

‘As a musician when you're onstage and you're trying to deliver a new song, and something that's very passionate and trying to get a message across, you're very focused.

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‘You get through that, and then you start Angel Eyes and the whole roof lifts and the place goes crazy – you just smile.

‘I'm so thankful we've got those songs, it means that in our live show, we're not having to convince people with every song, there's a great part of show which is just: sit back and wallow,’ he laughs.

‘Love Is All Around is coming – don't worry!’

Speaking of the record-breaking single, Tommy recalls the time they tried to shake-up their setlist.

‘We did a tour about a decade ago, and we overthought it, we were too smart for our own good. We went: “Let's go on and start with Love Is All Around.” So we walked out, did Love, and everybody afterwards is like: “What the hell are we waiting for? Where's the crescendo now? Where is it?”

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‘We learned on that one and didn't do it again,’ he says with a wry smile.

It’s clear from talking with Tommy, that it’s the live shows he really misses.

‘Live is where the spark happens, This year particularly with lockdown, everyone's isolated, trying to do their best, it ain't going to really make sense until we walk on stage. The live shows are very, very important to us. It's the one thing that can't be digitised, that experience.

‘You can hear great musicians and great songs online, but I've never been brought to tears by watching a video of a band playing, but I have been brought to tears being in a crowd. There's an electricity there.

‘I'm getting a bit nervous just talking about it!

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‘The reason I became a musician at 14 is because of that feeling and it's still the thing I crave more than anything else. It's nothing to do with ego, it's just something that delivers inside – something real.’

The Journey is due out in June, and can be pre-ordered here: wetwetwet.tmstor.es. They play Portsmouth Guildhall on November 9. For tickets go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.

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