Don’t they say in 24 Hour Party People “if it's a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend?”
The legend we told was that after having almost killed myself twice, firstly in a car accident (truth) and then by electrocuting myself while re-wiring a moog during a thunderstorm (fiction, it was a delay box years later and it probably wasn't even raining) I decided to form a band in order to leave something behind.
|My room, including original white album poster and KEF speakers
The truth was equally mundane. I moved to Reading because I hated my job, my old band had fallen apart and I wanted to hang out with my friends. I moved into a sprawling 6-bedroom student house with my best friend Mike some of my other closest friends and an Irish girl called Nina. The first thing I did was paint my bedroom bright orange. The room was lit by a vintage tanning lamp, under the light of which we recorded our first demo.
I moved to Reading with no job and a couple of hundred pounds in the bank. I had one plan, to form a half decent band to play some of the better songs I had accumulated while in my last band The Deviants. On my first Sunday in Reading, after going to see Austin Powers at the cinema, and while enjoying a drink in the Purple Turtle, I told my plan to Mike. He immediately wanted to be a part of it. We agreed, he would be the drummer and I would play bass (simply because they were always the hardest members to find and we wanted reliability). The plan was to have a female singer, and we would wear black roll-neck jumpers, even in the summer. Within minutes he was scouring the pub asking any attractive woman in a roll-neck jumpers to join the band. We even agreed on the band name that night. Mike threw some words and. Saloon just jumped out. In hindsight I, don’t know exactly why I loved it so much. I liked the fact that it sounded countryish and that we could confound expectations. But mostly I just liked the look of the word. The next weekend I went into town and got the word SALOON printed in playbill on a red t-shirt. I still have it, and it still looks a bit shit.
Within a few weeks we assembled a group of people to join us. Our housemate Nina could play trumpet, so she was in. She had a friend called Steve who could play guitar and a friend called Natalie who could play viola, both were in. Our friend Dee also volunteered herself, but she was a bass player, so she joined as bassist and I became leader ‘without portfolio’ for a while.
One evening I went to see my friend Emma’s band playing downstairs at the Alleycat. Emma was playing cello in a local group called British Air Power. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the band, but the one-person who did stick-out was their viola player. I recognised her from the Reading scene, as a bit of a face from around town, probably the After Dark Club or Rockit the vintage clothes shop. On this evening she stood out because at the end of every song she’d run to the bar and get another drink before running back on stage. After the show we got chatting, and she agreed to join the band.
So Saloon by this stage had a fairly unconventional line up of two viola players, two bassists, a drummer, a trumpet player, one guitarist but no singer. Although at no point had we managed to get us all in a room together. To rectify the singer issue Mike and I put a few adverts up in bars and music shops. “Female Singer sought for Reading band. Influences, Portishead, Stereolab, Velvets, Easy Listening.” Perhaps more telling was the disclaimer “musicianship a bonus not a must”.
In my orange room over the next few days, I auditioned two people. The first sung an acapella version of Killing Me Softly. Her singing was pretty terrible but what I disliked most was the fact that she sat on my bed rather than my vintage arkana chair. Too forward. The other person to audition had seen the advert in the local music shop with her boyfriend. She hadn’t heard of Stereolab (her boyfriend told her they were boring anyway) but she was a fan of Portishead. I met her in the car park of the local pub, so that her mum could see that I wasn’t some weirdo out to pick-up girls (if I was I wouldn’t have listed Stereolab and The Velvets on the advert anyway).
The singer was Amanda. She sat on the arkana chair and sung two songs, while strumming my terribly cheap electric guitar. Those songs were Sugar Boy by Beth Orton and Flowers in December by Mazzy Star. The versions I have posted here, I found on a C90 and I am pretty sure this is her rehearsing for the audition.
She sung her songs through once, and I think I may have sung her back one of my own tunes (probably ‘I am the cheese’) and then I got Mike to come in and she sung Sugar Boy again. You don’t need me to tell this to a Saloon fan, but her voice was a revelation. I knew Mike was impressed because he became all giggly. In the back of my mind though I was worried that at 17 she was a bit young for the band and wouldn’t stick with us for long, I also was a bit worried that her voice was going to be drowned out by the rest of us, but I didn’t get to air those concerns. The three of us got a bus to town and before we got off Amanda asked us if she was in the band, Mike just laughed and said ‘Yeah’. So she was in. We went and had some drinks to celebrate.
Now we had eight members. We didn’t ever all get in a room together. I think we may have had one rehearsal with Amanda, Mike, Natalie and Steve before Natalie and Steve left. Nina I don’t think we ever heard her play the trumpet. She did inspire a song though, 'Nina Says', which I wrote over Xmas in 1997.
On top of being an amazing singer, Amanda also had access to a rehearsal space which was a bonus, this was a room above The Fox and Hounds pub in Caversham. By now I'd got a proper job so I spent my pay packet on a £500 PA. We had a couple more rehearsals with Dee before she left. We weren’t rock enough for her. The songs we had in our set at this stage were four of mine being ‘ Fuzzy Felt’ ‘Spacer’ ‘I am the cheese’ and ‘Spectrum Colour Clash’, a song of Amanda’s that I named ‘Conquistador’ and a new one based on the last days of Rome that I penned with Amanda who wrote the melody, which was called ‘Bring all your love to me’. Alison had by now joined the band fully, but Mike was becoming concerned that we had quickly gone from 9 people to 4 and that we needed to do something before losing momentum.
Mike arranged for us to turn up at an acoustic session at a hippy café called Pangaea World Café Bar on London Street, Reading. We turned up in our roll-neck jumpers and did our best to hog the evening. Mike took forever to set up his snare and cymbals much to the annoyance of the organiser. Despite my ineptitude on a guitar, I had been forced to move onto acoustic until we could find a proper guitarist. Alison was on viola and Amanda sung and played a Casio PSS-30. We played three songs, ‘Fuzzy Felt’ ‘I am the cheese’ and ‘Spectrum Colour Clash’ before being ushered off. About half an hour later we were invited back on where we played ‘Bring all your love (to me)’. It was great to finally be playing in public. The organiser said something about it being the start of something big, or some similar cliché. Someone else said it was like seeing the Velvets for the first time (they must have been really old and well-travelled to have seen the Velvets the first time themselves).
After Pangaea, our confidence was up, but we knew we were missing something, notably a half-decent guitar player. We put up some more adverts which stated ‘No Pot-Noodling’ as, more than anything, I wanted to avoid getting a proper musician in the band and being found-out.
I am pretty sure only one person replied, certainly only one person auditioned, which was Matt. His musical CV included some time in a funk band, he couldn’t play a barre-chord (I can still almost only play barre chords) but he was young, keen, knew who Stereolab were, and most importantly turned up to his first audition in a roll-neck.
The line-up was complete, and although we played two shows in our career without Alison and had the occasional guest musician, the line-up stayed the same five people for five and a half years. Only a few weeks after Matt joined (basically as soon as he had mastered the E-Barre) chord, we played our first gig at the Fox and Hounds in the very room we rehearsed in.
Unlike with Amanda, we didn’t tell Matt straight away that he was in the band. He waited until after our second or third rehearsal to ask “Am I in the band”
“Of course you’re in the f-ing band" we replied.
The rest, as they say, is anything but history.