Thee Hypnotics' brand of soul-infused garage rock was the right music at the wrong time.
Critically adored, but never quite getting the big break they needed, in little over a decade from the late '80s they released three acclaimed studio albums and a slew of EPs and singles before fizzling out at the end of the '90s.
They always seemed out of step with wider trends and never fitted in with any scene – even though they were the first band outside the US to have anything released on the none-cooler Seattle-based Sub Pop label (aka, ground zero for grunge).
Frontman Jim Jones has since gone on to refine his love of testfiying rock'n'roll in a series of bands, Black Moses, The Jim Jones Revue and currently Jim Jones and The Righteous Mind.
But now, their former UK label Beggars Banquet has put together a boxset, Righteously Recharged, gathering up their albums and a host of rarities, and the band has reunited for an accompanying tour.
So what prompted this reunion?
'It is 20 years since we kind of split up, but that’s kind of coincidence. Every now and then me and [guitarist] Ray would get messages from somewhere, asking can we reissue one of your records on one of our fanzine labels?
'A friend of mine, Sterling Roswell, who was in [cult space-rock act] Spacemen 3, he opened some dates for The Righteous Mind, and he mentioned that he’d been back to Beggars Banquet – we’d both been on Beggars, and he was saying there’s still some of the guys there from back in the day and it had been really nice to see them.
'I thought I’d make some time to go see them and it would be an excuse to catch up but also to ask about how the licensing would work for these fanzine labels. To cut a long story short, I met up with Lesley, who’s been there since Thee Hypnotics were there for the first time, and I asked her about it, and she said: "Why don’t you just let Beggars put everything out in a boxset?" I wasn’t expecting that at all, but it was like: "Yeah, all right." I spoke with Ray and told him what they were offering, and asked: "Do you think we could do some dates?"
'We just started talking and it came together. We booked a bunch of shows, everything sort of lined up. I was a good way through an album cycle with my Righteous Mind project, enough to be flexible, I had this little window of time, Phil [Smith], the drummer is a school teacher now – he teaches film, and it lines up with his Easter holiday, so he can do it.
'I didn’t want to do it unless we did it properly and had a decent crack at it. The planets aligned – so it was a case of: let’s jump on it now.'
Phil has also created a documentary, Soul Trading, on the band's history that will be on sale during the tour.
Early on for Thee Hypnotics things were going well they had fans in other well-respected bands like Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and The Black Crowes (who they later toured with). Their second studio album, Soul, Glitter and Sin was released in 1991 and was hailed as their masterpiece.
But like so many before them, the band embraced the full on rock'n'roll lifestyle a little too well. Bassist of six years Will Pepper quit, but sadly his replacement Craig Pike died of an overdose and Craig rejoined for the recording of what was to be their final album – The Very Crystal Speed Machine.
For that album, the band signed to American Recordings, the then-new label set up by famed producer Rick Rubin. The Black Crowes' frontman Chris Robinson helmed the project, but things ran far from smoothly. There were clashes in the studio and then the label hit financial trouble.
'I think everything ran out of steam, the industry was changing. We’d switched from Beggars Banquet to American, which looked like the light at the end of the tunnel, but as we joined them they went into some heavy litigation with their European distributor and they pulled all the funding from anything that wasn’t The Black Crowes or Danzig.
'So guys like us, The Jayhawks, Raging Slab, and various other bands that were further down the ladder on the roster, we were left to fend for ourselves. They said: "We’ll put the records out, but there’s no press, no tour support, there’s no this, no that".
'Our last record didn’t even come out in Europe, they just released it in America. That again was one of the appeals of the boxset, we could put that album in which a lot of people couldn’t get at the time, we’ll put the John Peel sessions in which a lot of people couldn’t get on vinyl, and there’s some previously unheard demos and knick-knacks.'
There was a final single, Earth Blues 99/Thing 4 U in 1997, but the band members' hearts were no longer in it. They split without fanfare in 1999.
Jim recalls the mood of the time: 'I had recently had my first son, and he was getting on for two years old. I had spoken about with the guys and said, I can’t muck about with this any more, we’re either doing this or we’re not doing it. We’ve got to throw ourselves fully into it.
'I was drifting already, this situation with the label, I think the final straw came when we were offered a load of dates with Shed Seven, and they gave us all the tour dates because they poached our piano player, so in return they gave us these dates.
'I was keen to do all the show and the others were like: "I don’t want to travel that far". One of the shows was Glasgow Barrowland, which is one of the best venues in the world in my opinion, but they didn’t want to drive to Scotland,' he imitates someone moaning: '"Plus the World Cup is on and we might miss part of the game". When I heard that, I was like, I’m out of here.
'I think the writing was on the wall but we didn’t know how to end it. And that kick up the arse of having a kid – it was not necessarily taking yourself seriously, but taking your work seriously.
'There wasn’t enough energy left with the other guys to push through. We’d been doing it for so many years it becomes like a habit, it’s what we do.
'I’m most happy when I’m being productive and doing stuff, which I’m sure the other guys were too, but it was times to go our separate ways.
'I spent about a month doing no music, but then I realised I needed to be working on something, so I started the Black Moses project.
'We played Portsmouth a couple of times and became friends with a local bunch, The Good Time Charlies.'
Since his days in Thee Hypnotics Jim has adopted a scorched earth policy with each new project – he doesn't play material from his previous bands. Had he gone back to Thee Hypnotics material at all in the intervening years?
'Not at all. It’s like that Bob Dylan thing, don’t look back – I’m always moving forward. Stupidly, I have to climb my way back up each time,' he laughs. 'I was saying to someone the other day, if I was smart I would have kept the name Thee Hypnotics and just changed the personnel. Every time you change the name it’s like starting again, even if people know your reputation.
'I haven’t listened to it, Ray has listened to it a lot because he’s been talking to people about putting compilations together and Phil had been listening to it a bit because he was putting the film together.
'For me I wrote the songs, so it’s like putting on an old pair of jeans. They don’t fit perfectly the first time, but you start to remember.'
And reunited with Ray, his childhood friend who he had been playing in bands with since they were 16, the years have dropped off: 'You look back with rose-tinted glasses, all the good and bad, that was my learning curve, my growing up.
'There’s a bit of rust here and there but when everyone locks in it sounds really powerful and everyone’s been really enjoying the rehearsals.'
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Saturday, April 14