Britain's Largest Small Band (1996-2002)
Words Darren Hayman
Illustration Darren Hayman
From issue 16, May 2008
Around 2005, I was trying to think of a t-shirt slogan for my old band, Hefner, and I came up with ‘Britain’s Largest Small Band 1996-2002’. It allowed me to have a boast about a career, which had little to boast about. Hefner were never the loudest, oddest or fastest band, but then I’ve always hated the loudest, oddest, fastest bands. When I listen to their records or read their interviews, I always have the feeling that I’m being shouted at.
Hefner were a conversation, a handshake, a cup of tea.
If I am to claim Hefner to be ‘Britain’s Largest Small Band 1996-2002’ then who was ‘Britain’s Smallest Large Band 1996-2002’? I think it was the Delgados; they had a cello and one more roadie than us, and were always one above us on festival bills. And they got to go on Later… and we didn’t.
I met Antony Harding (below) at art college in 1988. Antony was a drummer who hated drums and drummers. He had a kick, snare, hi-hat and ride. Everything that was special about Hefner was epitomised by Antony and his drum kit; no fat, just muscle and bone. It was the beginning of the end when he bought congas.
John Morrison (bass, below) makes songs better by taking things away from them. He was always subtracting. Few people can erase a day’s work to improve the whole. I knew John would make my songs sound tight and concise, so I tried to match that in the lyrics. We used less notes and less words and tried to make them count.
Me, John and Ant thought and played in similar ways; we were exact and economic. I asked Jack Hayter (final image) to join the band because he was the opposite. Jack’s playing was gorgeous, messy and sprawling. He never played a song the same way twice. He was our deliberate spanner in the works. We needed a little pepper in our salt, just to make things more vigorous.
John Peel liked us, imagine that! My girlfriend and I were staying at the Beamish Mary in No Place, near Durham, in 1999. We bought a cheap radio to listen to John Peel’s festive 50. Hefner had five entries including number 2 and 3 but were beaten to number 1 by the Cuban Boys. I met John quite a few times; I went to his house, got drunk with him in Birmingham and Groningen, Holland. But I never got to know him well. He seemed shy and gentle; he wanted to get off the subject of music when talking to bands. I can understand that.
Sometimes, when people talk to me about Hefner, they say things like, “It’s a shame Hefner weren’t bigger.” They look at me sympathetically as though I’ve lost an aunt. I have no regrets about any decisions I made with Hefner; from the outside we must have appeared very contrary and truculent. At times it must have looked like we were trying our best to shake off our audience, but we were so much more successful then we ever expected. When we started, my heroes were The New Bad Things and Refrigerator. Even now I admire the careers of Emit Rhodes and John Howard. If I don’t aspire to people who sell records how is it likely that I will sell records myself?
Obviously, the breadhead in me thinks of reforming Hefner, but the market is saturated, right? Make a list of bands that haven’t reformed, it’s not very long: Abba, The Carpenters, Galaxy 500? Surely there should be a larger group of bands that have split up and stay split up. I’m nominating Hefner for the job. We don’t mind; we’ll not reform just so that Rialto can do so in good conscience.
I got to meet some of my musical idols. I loved The Wedding Present and was thrilled when Hefner got to support Cinerama. I met David Gedge in the dressing room of the Manchester Hop and Grape. David asked me if we were selling t-shirts and I said yes. He suggested that Cinerama could sell our shirts while we were on stage and when they played we could do the same. For some unknown reason, in front of Hefner and Cinerama, I said, “What if we want to leave?” What made me say that? Why would I want to leave? I like David Gedge! I’m a dick, I shouldn’t be allowed out.
I get compliments about my lyrics. I did work hard on them. I didn’t want to say anything that made me sound stupid. I was concerned that my words should be clear and precise. I was tired of lyrics about ‘crushed souls’ and ‘burning desires’ and wanted to construct a smaller lyrical world with believable narratives. I avoided metaphor and simile and used a more direct language.
The first two albums give the impression that I’m a bit of a player (or slut), but I was really writing a lot of songs about one girl, and just tried to make it look like five. There is also the problem of writing in character. Songs tend to be considered confessional in a way that novels and plays are not. I would happily take a friend’s situation and sing it in a first person narrative.
Hefner made some bad records: our first is patchy and our last is erratic and over confidant. In between, we made two fantastic records, The Fidelity Wars and We Love The City. Due to a long set of circumstances I now own the Hefner back catalogue. It feels wrong being the custodian of my recorded history. Artists should be thinking about their new record rather than the one they made nine years ago. I worry that I’m doing a good job. I have to juggle what I might want as a fan with the demands of running a business and also my artistic intentions. I want to keep it special; I don’t want to spoil anything. It was easy when I could blame the record company.