As their 30th anniversary year rolls on, The Men They Couldn’t Hang are just hitting the road for a series of autumn shows. The band’s Phil Odgers (a.k.a. Swill) kindly agreed to marshal the troops and answer a few questions abut their history and some of their adventures, with some thoughts about the new record, The Defiant, and the pledge campaign that set I it on its way as well. As you’ll see, getting the questions answered eventually required a visit to the pub, but they seem to have had some fun along the way. So many thanks lads and bon voyage as The Defiant once again sets sail.
How did we meet – what are our backgrounds?
Mr Philip Odgers hails from Oban on the West Coast of Scotland – a place of fine whiskey and even finer sea views. As told in his ballad Carrying the Flame, his father was indeed a sailor. An itinerant childhood is one that many musicians share and the Odgers family’s tide was eventually to wash up on the shores of Southampton; where, during the highly exciting punk rock winter of ’77/’78 he met…
Mr Paul Simmonds. Although born in Yorkshire, this was another whose family had travelled far and wide to reach the same cloakroom in the same college on the same day as Mr Odgers. Although he had spent most of his 17th year attempting to write a very poor pastiche of a DH Lawrence novel, it took only ten minutes for Mr Simmonds to agree with Mr Odgers that Generation X were brilliant but that they could probably do better.
….Interval of 4 quite amazing years of glorious failure (but that is another story)
….They moved to London. (Another epic tale) Where they met…
Mr Stefan Cush. A colourful man of Irish and Welsh descent; he claimed variously to be a courier of valuables, a rider, a writer, a roadie, a singer, a busker, a one man road movie and the mythic offspring of Dylan Thomas. And he was many of these things; but at this time he was a motorbike mechanic.
Together with Mr Jon Odgers and Mrs Shanne Hasler they learned some old skiffle songs in a squat close to Askew Road in the Spring of 1984. They called themselves The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Great times followed until Mrs Hasler bade adios and rode into the sunset. At that point they encountered..
Mr Ricky McGuire. A son of Ayrshire who carries his big heavy Fender bass like a low slung bazooka, Mr McGuire is sometimes known as the Enforcer – in life as in bass! He secured his employment with the motley band after being asked which songs he had learned from the group’s repertoire. The answer ‘All of them’, proved completely convincing.
Mr Tom Spencer is a renowned guitar player and recent banjo convert who previously plied his trade around Chiswick in West London and with many cool rocking bands, most of whom had tattoos. However his long involvement with TMTCH began as a driver, roadie, tour manager so in other words he was responsible for pouring their comatose bodies onto the floors of vans and making quick getaways from places of imminent trouble..
Lastly, Mr Sputnik Weasel. The most recent in a line of around ten drummers, this multi instrumentalist has survived the usual 2 year cull of drummers by being a. quite thick skinned b. quite good. He lives in a castle in Wales or in a boat in Sussex depending on the season. He enjoys a smoke and has finally mastered the drum roll cum shuffle….
Where did The Green Fields Of France come from?
Phil Odgers: That was one of, the songs we’d do when busking in Hammersmith. I think Cush had heard it and it was simple to play while sounding so moving.
Were you surprised by the success – it was a six minute song about a dead man?
Phil Odgers: The success was incredible. Phil Chevron introduced Elvis Costello to us and he heard us play and signed us up with Andrew Lauder’s Demon Records. His advice was release Green Fields of France as your first single – he said that with the buzz that was going around London at the time we could release Walkin’ Talkin’ (our own song) and it could be a huge hit but it would end up defining our sound and we could be a flash in the pan. He said that Green Fields of France would introduce us to the world slowly. That was a good bit of advice. Cheers Elvis.
Did it set the template for your sound?
Phil Odgers: It didn’t exactly set the template but we learned how important the story is in a song.
What was the most important step in your early career?
Phil Odgers: Making the decision NOT to have Walkin’ Talkin’ as our first single.
Tell me about making the new record. Why the pledge campaign?
Tom Spencer: I’d seen friends of mine in the rock world have great success through Pledge – Ginger (Wildhearts) in particular. When talking with them, they said how perfect a campaign would be for TMTCH. Not only because of having a fan base built up over thirty years but one that has a particularly intimate relationship with the band – there’s no gap between the stage and audience.
Phil Odgers: It was something we’d discussed for a while. I liked the idea but thought we had to be sure to plan it properly and not just rush at it. We talked about it as a band and Tom and I really planned the fine details and went along to see the people at Pledge HQ. I wasn’t sure what the people who follow TMTCH would think about it”
Tom Spencer: If a criticism of Pledge was that it could come across as money grabbing and maybe a tad desperate, this was proved entirely wrong. The bands followers seem to have loved getting involved, being part of the process. We’ve kept them posted throughout with decisions and made them aware of the whole album making process, from which guests to include to booking the cheapest accommodation so that all money raised was spent wisely.
Because the campaign went so well – reaching over 200% – we can now spend the extra money on promotion. It’s also done wonders for our neglected on line profile.
Phil Odgers: And we feel loved!
You’ve worked with Pat Collier again – a familiar face and someone you trust?
Tom Spencer: There were two options for producing the album. The first was Mick Glossup who had done a fine job in the past. He had just produced Swill’s excellent solo album (Phil Odgers – The Godforsaken Voyage). He was also our side of town in Shepherds Bush. We did talk to Mick about the album and almost went that route but it wasn’t to be. At the time we didn’t know how successful the Pledge campaign would be. Pat Collier not only suited our budget but I prefer his production. It did mean travelling South of the river though!!!
How do you work as a collective group?
Tom Spencer: Pat is used to the band chemistry and let’s it flow.
Phil Odgers: One day in the studio I said to Pat, “Feel free to tell us if we’re doing anything wrong, you know, produce us don’t hold back.” He said that after 30 years we all had a strong idea of what we are about and our hearts and minds were set on the right track. I liked that idea a lot.
Was there anything you did differently this time around?
Ricky: This time around we spent a lot more time working the songs, from the initial idea’s on Mp3 that were sent out to us all, to showing up at Bush rehearsal studios at 11.00am to find a very locked studio, (unfortunately no one had shown up to let us in) and from there, onto an impromptu decision to do the rehearsal acoustically at my flat in Acton, which turned out to be a very productive day and really started to shape the songs for The Defiant.
We eventually went into Bush studio the following day and started to run through the material with the full backline set up, we put a lot of effort into making these songs the best we possibly could, especially when Mr Cush put his headmasters glasses on and started barking out the arrangement to his Welsh epic, Turquoise Bracelet Bay, it was “six of the best” for anyone who dared get it wrong!
(Ricky and Swill pop over to the pub to join Cush…)
Tell me about the bonus disc?
Ricky: The bonus disc is an album of cover versions, mostly pledges from fans requesting their favourite songs and a few of ours as well.
We planned this to be our TMTCH take on those selected songs, some with a full drums and instrumental backing and some fairly stripped back and acoustic. This is going to be ready to go out to the pledgers very soon and will wrap up and finally finish off the pledge campaign.”
Phil Odgers: Yes, it’s been a bit of a mammoth task that.
Cush: You mean a mammoth tusk!
Phil Odgers: Yes, I suppose I do. Maybe that’s what we should call the covers album!
Cush: I’ve heard worse!
Phil Odgers: Wait till it’s finished! (they laugh like two maniacs)
Where did the songs on The Defiant come from and what inspired them?
Cush: They Came From Outer Space.
Phil Odgers: They came from Beyond Space!
Cush: One Step Beyond.
(Cush and Swill play imaginary trumpets and start a funny walk)
Cush: Most of these songs are based on real events, either from our own experiences or from a historical perspective. Things that have happened and shaped the men we are today or points in history that have been pivotal or damning. Anyone that fails to learn from history is destined to make the same mistakes again and again. The Defiant makes a strong point.
Phil Odgers: Did you say strong pint? (Swill points at his pint which is almost empty then points at Cush).
Cush: No, “Point!”
Phil Odgers: There’s always a point Cush.
Cush: There’s a terrific draught in here.
Cush: (sounding serious) Our songs come from the heart.
Phil Odgers: “I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched.” Who said that??
Cush: You did just then
What have been the highlights of the band’s career?
Ricky: Personally my highlights so far are, travelling to and playing Egypt at the bequest of the British Council, we played two nights at Cairo opera house, which was the first time the young Egyptian crowd had ever seen a western band and were really going for it, dancing and pogoing, one girl broke her leg on the first night, but was back the following evening in crutches with a plaster on her leg! We also played Port Said and Alexandria, but I think it would be almost impossible to do any those shows now in the current political situation.
What were the low points?
Paul Simmonds: So many low points. but fortunately, so many more high points…
The most recent low point was seeing my spotify and i-tunes royalties just the other day.
I’ve picked out 2 low points…
We only had one meeting at Warner Brothers…it was the day we left.
They had a big glass building in Kensington High Street. When you went to reception and said the name of your band the receptionist looked through a huge directory of groups they had signed. She had never heard of us. “Will that be in the T’s or the M’s?” she said.
We went up to an open plan office. About 20 people were working in silence. “We used to have music on,” said the girl who was escorting us, “but it distracted people.”
The A&R guy we were seeing – can’t remember his name thank God – had whale music on in his office but also a baseball bat on his desk. Pretty risky I would have thought. He came quickly to the point – the two singles they had put out by us hadn’t done well. He would allow us to record one more single – a choice of three covers he had picked out. They would hype it (buy it) into the charts. ‘What about our own material?’ I said. ‘We’ve tried that, it didn’t work.’
Phil Odgers: Yes, I remember he also said that we needed to change our name, that ‘The Men They Couldn’t Hang’ was just too long and that a name was just a name after all. “You could call yourselves anything – it’s not important,” he said looked around the room for inspiration, sighed, looked at the floor “Hey, the Carpet Tiles, you could call yourself the Carpet Tiles for all it matters!”
He said to let him know which track we had chosen in the next two weeks and we would go from there. We went to the pub. “Shall we just, y’ know, not go back?” “Yeah.” So ended our Major Label experience…
Paul Simmonds: The other low point was 2003, things had got bad. It was a nadir. We had made a good album – The Cherry Red Jukebox – but nobody would distribute it in the UK. It was only out in Germany. We couldn’t get arrested. I had a job in a haberdashery warehouse in Finsbury Park. You used to have to shin up the wire racks to pick out curtain trims and pelmets and beads etc. Your fingers got red raw and it was mind numbing. When it got out that I was in TMTCH I heard the boss crack the old – what’s the difference between a pizza and a musician? A pizza can feed a family of four – I used to eat my lunch in Finsbury Park right by where we had played the Fleadh to a huge crowd just a few years before. I eventually got made redundant. Fortunately, better times were around the corner….”
How has the last year been and what have you got planned?
Ricky: It’s been a pretty busy year so far, taking in our 30th anniversary show on April 19th and various festivals throughout the year, including Bearded Theory Festival, Sweden Rock Festival (playing alongside, Uriah Heep and Alice Cooper) The Rebellion Festival at Blackpool Winter Gardens (a punk festival, that turned out to be a great show for us) amongst a fair few others.
Phil Odgers: That’s something special about TMTCH we can play a Folk Festival one day a Heavy Rock Festival then go and do a Rebellion Festival at Blackpool and our own gigs – we seem to cross over to a very wide audience. We have travelled far and wide this year that’s for sure.
Ricky: We’re also travelling to the Shetlands on the 20th October and really looking forward to it, this will be our third visit there and promises to be a brilliant gig, considering our previous receptions there! We’re also doing a short tour towards the end of October, taking in: Liverpool, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Birmingham, Derby and Newcastle.
What are you most looking forward to?
Ricky: A quiet and peaceful end to the year, but also the end to our brilliant 30th Anniversary, culminating with a show at the Shepherds Bush Empire on 4th April 2015.
You seem to have retained a very loyal fan base, what do you put that down to?
Ricky: I think our fans have grown with us and been with us through the good and bad times, we have an underdog status as a band, yet we always bite back and come through stronger for it! I think they identify with this and want to be part of that.
Interview by: Simon Holland
18 Oct – Lerwick (Shetland), The Mareel
23 Oct – Liverpool, The Arts Club
24 Oct – Glasgow, King Tuts WahWah Hut
25 Oct – Aberdeen, The Moorings Bar
30 Oct – Birmingham, The Institute
31 Oct – Derby, The Flowerpot
01 Nov – Newcastle, Academy 2
05 Dec – London, The Borderline (Sold Out)
The Defiant is Out Now