Interview with Billy Lunn of the Subways

Pseudonyms, break ups, surgery and pictures of Steve McQueen: lead singer of British rock group The Subways, Billy Lunn, shares all this and more with PopWreckoning‘s Bethany in the interview below:

PopWreckoning, Bethany: Can you tell me a little bit about your band history? Obviously, you and your brother [Josh Morgan] have known each other all your lives, but how did you guys meet up with Charlotte [Cooper]?
Billy Lunn, The Subways: Well basically, me and my brother, when we were still in school and when we would get bored at lunchtime, we used to go off and just jam out. I had just started learning to play the guitar and he wanted to learn to play the drums, so we’d jam out together at school and whenever we’d get home from school. Once we’d bought a drum kit and a guitar, we’d jam out there.
I met Charlotte when we used to go swimming together. So we started going out and then Charlotte would be hanging out at the house with us, and Josh and I would start jamming. So one day we asked Charlotte if she wanted to play along with us. We had a spare bass guitar and she said yes and started.
We were really young and felt we had nothing better to do because we were three kids from suburbia. Then we started writing our own songs after doing too many Nirvana covers and Green Day covers. We started playing some shows. We played our first show at a venue called the Harlow Square and after that we started thinking about playing in London. So we recorded a few demos in our parent’s front room, so we’d make like thirty demos and send that out to as many as possible and we started booking gigs. Eventually, after a couple of years of doing that, we started getting noticed by a couple of people in London. Crowds started coming out to the shows and we got some label interest that came out to the venues. I started a website forum so our friends could come and join, that kind of thing. Then we managed to get the Glastonbury competition in 2004.
I used to record local bands in our parent’s front room when they couldn’t afford the 2000 pound fee for the local recording studio and I used to bring some bands around and say, “I’ll record you guys.” And one band when we started recording them, we asked what they were going to do with that CD, with that mix. And they said, “Oh Michael Eavis is running this competition to play this festival, Glastonbury Festival, and if he really likes your demo, he’ll let you play in the festival.” So we thought, we should do that because we have lots of stuff in demos and that’s enough to find one song, so we put all the demos on one CD and sent them off and didn’t really think much more of it.
Then one we day we got a call from Michael Eavis saying we’d really like you to play at Glastonbury Festival. It was one of our first big breaks, basically. We went from playing for 250 people to about 10,000 people at that one show. After that we organized our first tour of the UK and it was also funded. It basically just kicked off. In 2004, in November, we signed a record deal with Warner to record our first album Young For Eternity and released it in 2005.

PW: So how did the other band react when they found out you had won the same contest they were entering?
BL: I think they kind of forgot about it. I don’t think they ended up sending that CD in. Which is really strange because they were the ones who notified us about it. I still see the guys a lot and we don’t talk about it. So I think it was completely forgotten, which is ok.
PW: So, there’s no tension from it?
BL: Oh no, we’re best friends. We’ve been friends for like eight years now. They don’t mind.

PW: Ok. Now, why do you and your brother have different last names?
BL: Our parents divorced about 10 years ago and they never really told us about it until a couple of years ago when the band first started. So after I found that out, I took my mom’s maiden name. It’s actually for my mother’s father, my granddad, who really got me into writing short stories and got me into storytelling and being creative. When he died, it was probably one of the worst things that ever happened to me in my life. I thought it would almost be true to take his name. It also adds to the mystery and the confusion of being in a rock band.

PW: Did he get to hear any of your guys’ songs before he died?
BL: No, our band started a few years after he actually died, so when we formed the band I just thought it would be a good idea. I’ve always liked it when fiction novelists take on different names, pseudonyms. I’ve found that really sort of fascinating. It would be cool, like Freddie Mercury, to have a sort of a stage name.

PW: Yeah, definitely. On your latest album you guys have a harder sound than your first record. Did that happen naturally or did you make a decision to progress the music that way?
BL: For us, it was really an organic thing. After we released our first album, Young For Eternity in 2005-that was in the UK, we released it in the US in 2006-we toured for about two and a half years after that. And when we were on tour we got to tour with bands like Oasis and we did an American tour with bands like Taking Back Sunday, and we played to these audiences, these really huge audiences.
When you think of how we wrote Young For Eternity before that, we were just playing these tiny little London venues. So when it came time for All of Nothing, we were on tour, these two and a half years of touring when we were just consistently writing. We were finding time in sound check in these different venues and when we got to play these amazing venues.
When the venues got bigger and the audiences got bigger and they got crazier, I eventually got quite theatrical on stage and started diving off speakers and balconies and I guess that’s when I started getting huge with the songwriting process. All of the songs that we were writing from then on just got heavier and heavier and more raucous and rambunctious. I think that played a big part in making the rock sound really, really huge.
I remember the first time I went to America and I listened to the radio, it was shortly after we had finished Young For Eternity, the first record, I can remember saying to my brother, “God, this music sounds huge compared to British music.” I just turned to him and said, “You know, next time we make a record, we should really get an American producer because I want our next record to sound like this.” And we did this with Butch Vig, who did Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth. Butch Vig produced our next record and we knew we had the right guy. The album was as big as we had always imagined it to be.

PW: Is America radio really that different than British radio? What artists do you hear over there that you aren’t hearing here and the other way around?
BL: Well actually, they aren’t really that different, but the heavy American rock sound is really different to the more subdued English rock sound. There’s a particular style of being understated and we wanted to be really loud and brash and sort of in your face. I think the American style of wide screen production is more suited to our style and our tastes, I guess.

PW: What other differences have you noticed between America and the UK? Like with touring is it harder to get American audiences’ attention than say the at home crowd?
BL: I think in terms of touring, that the distances between each city and each venue in the UK is so minuscule compared to America. One thing that really amazed us about touring in America is that you’d get on the bus in Arizona where it is really hot and widespread and the landscape is huge and it was just desert. But then you’d get off the bus and you’d be in the Rockies and it would be a really cold, snowy sort of condition. That sort of freaked us out, but it made for a more interesting tour, I guess.
I think one thing that really, really, really sort of surprised us when we got to America is that the audiences were just so rambunctious and energetic. Heckling, yelling and whooping and it was awesome! We played this one show in North Carolina, in Chapel Hill and it was awesome. There were like twenty, thirty people in the audience and each and every person was throwing their hands in the air and screaming along to the songs. It was fantastic.
That sort of thing happens now in the UK, now that we play bigger gigs at 2,000 capacity venues and 3,000 capacity venues. There’s not a massively huge difference, I guess. But America is so huge that each state is basically like a new country. The reactions are different. The weather and I guess their conditions, so that makes their reactions different like people in different countries are different. And we love that.

PW: Do you guys have plans to tour in America soon?
BL: Yeah, well we recently finished a really short-a whistle stop tour, I think that’s what they call it. We did New York, Boston, San Francisco and then Los Angeles and then finished up in San Diego. That was amazing. That was actually one of the hardest tours we’ve done. It was a really short tour, but the whole reason was that before we even left the country, our tour manager and our sound engineer, they just didn’t come through in time, so we just left them behind.
It was just a hard tour. We took a plane to New York and then with three hours of sleep hopped a train to Boston and got no sleep. But it was awesome. So, sometime next year after we finish the European dates we’ve got planned, we’d like to come back to America. We’re just looking for a big support slot. That would be amazing for us.

PW: You recently under went voice surgery. Has that been hard to get back into the touring schedule? Does that still give you problems or are you all-recovered? Have you had to change your lifestyle because of that?
BL: Everything is totally fine now. I sing and I scream ten times better than I ever did before. I look back on it and it was a really, really tough time. The doctor said that I might never sing again if the recovery process goes awry. But it was totally cool.
I guess, at the time, I was sort of psyched out and sort of stressed out. I couldn’t speak for three weeks and I couldn’t sing for two months. Singing, and talking especially, is my favorite thing ever. I couldn’t imagine living without it. We stayed positive and went into a local rehearsal studio and just jammed out for six hours a day perfecting all the songs that we had written on tour.
I guess that’s sort of why we came out with the album that we did that we’re really, really proud of. We got this opportunity to sort of sit back after this whirlwind tour and really look at these songs and concentrate on them. We got to figure out what sort of record we really wanted to make with All or Nothing. I got to say I feel like I was reborn. I feel like that process was a rebirth, I’m a completely new purpose. I got this edge, since I’m not finished.

PW: Is there something you do now to protect your throat so this doesn’t happen again?
BL: Yeah, warming up. Before every show anyway, I always sit down with an acoustic guitar and warm up. But other warm ups too that Charlotte and I do. I think because we have more harmonies on the new record and we really need to go and rehearse them before we do them on stage. I guess just sitting down and sounding things out before the show really, really helps out.
I hardly drink before any of the shows. Well, I don’t drink before any of the shows and I hardly drink on tour at all. Maybe one or two beers if there is a day off. I really try to look after my voice. When I’m on stage, I relish the opportunity to be up there and play for the audience and get them going by singing about all the things that matter the most to me in the world. I don’t want to risk that ever again with my voice leaving me.

PW: That is very impressive. Especially that you don’t drink on tour. It seems like so many rock stars are through six beers before the show even starts.
BL: Yeah, there are so many rock and rollers out there who love to drink. I’m one of these people who wants to look back in 10, 15 or 20 years, if I’m still alive, and remember all the amazing things that we get to experience. This is like an adventure. I’ve been given this opportunity to go out on this adventure and explore the world.
Not only that, but explore myself and learn new things about myself. I feel like if I just drink all the time when the band’s out, it would all be rather pointless unless I’m aware, completely aware. I find that the buzz is a thousand-fold when I’m on stage in front of the audience of the audience, when it’s me playing to my fans. It is a real organic, natural feeling that you get.

PW: Now, you recently did a show in Germany where it was just you because Charlotte was sick and you played an acoustic set. How was that received and was it hard to quickly adapt all your songs into acoustic numbers? Did you have that prepared beforehand?
BL: I write all my songs on acoustic guitar anyways. That’s where the ideas sort of spring from. I’m always traveling with an acoustic guitar and I’m always sitting down and jamming out with an acoustic guitar. When I found out Charlotte was ill, I phoned my manager and said, “We’re not canceling a show are we?” and said, “Yeah, we’re going to have to because Charlotte can’t play.”
So I said, “Well, I feel really terrible letting the fans down because they’ve been looking forward to this for such a long time. I mean, we’ve all been looking forward to this for such a long time. You know, book me a ticket over there to Hamburg and I’ll play the show on acoustic.”
So, before I boarded the plane, I was rehearsing the songs. It’s pretty easy to break some of our songs down into acoustic anyway, since that’s how they’re written initially. I’ll write an idea on the acoustic guitar and take it to Charlotte if I think it needs working on melodically or I’ll take it to Josh if I think it needs working on rhythmically. I don’t really want to miss out on a chance to get on the stage and play if for people.
It was great. I think they were really surprised that I turned up. They were really happy about it. Halfway through the show I ended up phoning Charlotte and I got the audience to wish Charlotte, wish her a get well soon in German.

PW: So how do you say that in German?
BL: I have no idea. I think I just spoke it really slowly in English.

PW: Now you and Charlotte used to date, but how do you keep such a good friendship, while being in a band and having all that time together?
BL: I think mainly we realized that music is the most important thing to us and nothing was ever going to get in the way of us playing together on the stage. When we broke up and were working on the record, being able to go through that while making the record was a totally incredible thing because it did actually teach us what we really, really, really love and that’s playing music together.
It sort of helped make the record. We wrote “Obsession” about it and we really honestly put our feelings into the songs. I guess it was pretty therapeutic making the record at that particular time. It sort of got all the issues out of the way.
When couples usually break up, they spend time apart from each other, don’t they? But Charlotte and I were sort of forced into this environment where we were sort of forced to overcome any issues that we had and just get on with it. We were sort of lucky to be able to do that you know?
We realized that life is sort of full of hard times and good times. We still have fun together and we still really appreciate what we’ve done for each other in this life. Whenever we’re on stage and we’re playing these songs together, there’s never really any awkwardness like people might think. We really consider it a celebration of all that we’ve been through.

PW: Do you have any tips or advice for people going through break ups so that they can get to the point that you and Charlotte are at?
BL: Yeah, just talk through it. Charlotte and I played through it, but that’s how we sort of communicate with the world: by playing our instruments and singing melodies. I guess that’s probably the most important thing. Not only do you get closure, but you learn about yourself and you learn about relationships and how we should treat people. You learn about your mistakes and how to become a better person because of it. That’s one of the main things, becoming a better person and realizing when it’s time to move on and learn a lot.

PW: I know Charlotte DJs in her off time. Do you and Josh have anything you do during the band’s off time?
BL: Well, Charlotte DJs and I DJ whenever I can. We love DJing. It is so much fun. You basically get to play all your favorite records and pretend that it is you performing them. It is easy and you get free drinks and everybody loves it. It’s just a great time. I don’t know.
I guess when we’re not playing music, we’re still playing music. When we’re not touring, we’re writing. When we’re not writing, we’re rehearsing new ideas. I don’t think there’s anything, there’s no other sort of hobbies that will mean as much to us as music in our lives.

PW: My last question: what is the most surprising or strangest thing that you guys put on your rider?
BL: A framed picture of Steve McQueen. We asked for that at every show that we ever did on our first ever UK tour. Everyday the promoter would say that was the strangest request to have on a rider. That’s it really. I’ve actually still got a bunch of them out my house up on the walls. I love Steve McQueen. I think he’s amazing.

PW: So you just have a collection of McQueen photos? Now did anybody refuse to give that to you?
BL: No. We just had it on the first tour, that first ever tour, and every venue did it for me. It was great. It was very hospitable.

PW: Well, that’s awesome. Thank you.
BL: Thanks.

The Subways: website | myspace

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One Response

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    —Thank Rocker—

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