Music Interview - Ocean Colour Scene

SIMON Fowler is under the weather. The day we speak, 45-year-old frontman of Ocean Colour Scene is rueing the effects of a cold, which has caused the postponement of a couple of solo shows in Ireland.

"I think it might be a chest infection," he says. "I took my dog for a walk this morning and felt totally out of breath. I got home and nearly passed out."

As a child, he recalls, he regularly suffered throat infections. "Not very good for a singer."

Hopefully such ailments will be a distant memory come February, when OCS embark on another bout of touring. 2010 was certainly hectic. "In terms of travelling it was possibly one of our busiest years for a long time," says Simon. "We did a British tour in February then Europe, India, Dubai."

A UK tour is pencilled in for February 2011 followed by "Japan, festivals, then rehab".

Last autumn the band celebrated its 21st anniversary with the release of a four-CD retrospective. Birmingham-born Simon feels "quite proud" of such a compendious box set; it's also been a useful memory aid. "There are a couple of songs that, frankly, I've got no idea how they go," he chuckles. "There's a demo called Dreams - I don't remember it at all."

What is intriguing is the band's development over the years, from their 'baggy' roots to the broader palette of blues, Mod, rock, psychedelia and folk that their sound encompasses today.

"At the beginning we were more liable to wear our influences on our sleeve," Simon acknowledges. "In a sense you can't yet have formed your own sound. (Over the years] it's been a combination of influences of people in the band. As you spend more years together you feel less pressured.

"When we came out everyone wanted us to be a Midlands version of the Stone Roses, then Nirvana. Fashions tend to come and go.

"We have never been fashionable," he notes. "I always thought basically we were a folk rock band that got lucky."

It was the arrival of Oasis that opened the door for OCS to become a commercial force in the mid-1990s. "For 18 months were were pop stars," Simon says with faint bemusement. "We had no intention of doing that.

"It was nice," he adds, "but tiring."

They were heady times indeed. The band were taken "under Paul (Weller's] wing to a degree", with guitarist Steve Cradock and bass player Damon Minchella even joining the former Jam and Style Council singer's touring group. "We introduced him to Noel (Gallagher]," remembers Simon. "That became our gang. By the time we played the Royal Albert Hall ourselves we knew where the changing rooms were."

The driving force behind OCS's success though, he reckons, is often overlooked, "The real fulcrum was Chris Evans," says Simon. "(After he invited them on his television show TFI Friday and adopted the Riverboat Song as its theme tune] suddenly we got in at No.15 in the singles charts and the album took off. That was down to Chris, as well as the fact that we had other singles which people liked.

"Paul (Weller] was enormously important to preparing us for that time. He prepared the rocket," he says, jokingly slipping into the kind of journalese he might once have employed in his former career as reporter for the Birmingham Post and Mail group. "Chris Evans lit the fuse."

OCS's February tour will focus on songs from the band's 1996 breakthrough album Moseley Shoals. Simon recalls the record came together "over a prolonged period", with initial sessions in Bob Lamb's fabled Kings Heath studio (where UB40 and Duran Duran also recorded). The chronology gets hazier but the album was finished off in the band's own studio, with Max Hayes and Brendan Lynch at the production helm. "I was extremely happy a lot in those days," says Simon, fondly. "I was having the time of my life, though no-one tells you at the time."

Back in 1996 the album reached No.2 in the charts, selling an estimated 1.3 million copies. That summer OCS supported Oasis at one of their massive concerts at Knebworth House. "It was terrifying," remembers Simon of looking out on the gathered throng. "It was the most nervous I've ever been. I leant over to our manager; he had a cine camera. I said, 'What do you do?' He said 'Press that button'. The crowd went ballistic and the nerves went. One hundred and twenty five thousand people singing the chorus of The Day We Caught The Train will stand in my mind."

By the following year OCS were arguably on a par - in terms of album sales - with their mentors. In September 1997 Marchin' Already knocked Oasis' Be Here Now off the top of the UK charts. "It was amusing," says Simon. "It did show where we now were. It was nice to get a plaque off Noel. It said 'Congratulations to the second best band in the world'. We thought, 'If he thinks The Beatles are the best, where does that leave his lot?'"

Marchin' Already was to be OCS's zenith. Over the course of the last decade their record sales have dipped but they remain a popular attraction on the live circuit. After bass player Damon Minchella's departure in 2003 the band operated as a trio but later expanded to a five-piece, with the recruitment of Dan Sealey and Andy Bennett.

"They are both songwriters," says Simon. "They both had their own bands. They are gigging together at the minute, doing some of my songs and some of their songs. They're a good act. I'm quite proud they have developed like that.

"They were the only two people who could have come in. Andy used to come round in his school uniform when he was nine or 10 and watch us rehearsing. Dan's sister is married to my brother Matthew.

"It's good for the vocals, having five singers on stage."

After more than 21 years as a going concern, to what does he attribute OCS's longevity? "We have always been friends – and also Steve's father, Chris, being so closely involved for so many years (as manager]. It's had a family air to it.

"But if we had not made it in '96 whether we would be together now I don't know. I don't think we would've stayed on the dole in Moseley for 21 years."

It's time to wrap up our conversation, but Simon has a final revelation: "I used to support Leeds (United] at school. Back in '74 I followed my new friend's team."

Things were never the same, he says, after rioting marred the 1975 European Cup final against Bayern Munich, and he eventually switched his allegiance to Birmingham City. "It didn't seem to make sense a boy from Birmingham supporting Leeds."

The beautiful game is keenly debated within Ocean Colour Scene, with band loyalties split between the Blues and Aston Villa. "What would men have to talk about without football and music?" Simon muses wryly.

Feb 18, O2 Academy, Cookridge Street, Leeds, 7pm, 23.50. Tel: 0844 477 2000. www.ticketweb.co.uk

Karly Strawson and four-year-old Myles Smith, from Pontefract, strike a pose. Picture: James Hardisty

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