More than a decade after the demise of Mansun, the band’s frontman Paul Draper is returning with his first solo album. Neill Barston speaks to the singer on his hopes for the long-awaited new material and upcoming tour
Two decades on from Mansun’s chart-conquering debut album and time appears to have been largely kind to the band’s bristling, alternative sounds.
As frontman Paul Draper explains, while the group may have frustratingly long-since since combusted just as the prospect of global recognition beckoned, their influence on a new generation of acts has ensured a fitting legacy.
Taking an expansive mix of cues spanning The Beatles, Prince, David Bowie, through to the prog rock of Pink Floyd, they carved out a cult fanbase that tapped into music’s mainstream at the tail end of the 90’s Britpop era.
To their credit, they were prepared to take musical risks that few others dared attempt, as witnessed with their ambitious and commendably unpredictable concept album, Six.
While this brought its share of critical acclaim, magazine covers and touring success, it was a musical tightrope that was to ultimately prove unsustainable.
When the group finally unravelled following their third album, far less determined acts or artists would have simply walked away and explored other interests.
However, since their demise in 2003, a prominent Facebook petition calling for fresh material, fervent fan conventions and a collaboration with The Anchoress, prompted Mansun’s frontman to finally unleash his solo venture.
Though he’s refreshingly modest about its prospects, recent endorsements from the likes of the NME have re-ignited the spark of something special.
“I’ve never actually been away – I’ve just been carrying on doing music including producing Skunk Anansie singer Skin’s album and doing other jobs as well, which meant I just shelved plans for the solo album,” says Paul, by way of explanation as to the course of events during the past decade.
He adds: “We have our studio in West London which is used by other artists, I produced an album for the Anchoress last year, and did some interviews around that which I think made people realise I hadn’t just grown a beard and was hiding out in a cave in Snowdonia. I’m still alive!”
As Paul concedes, he is very much a studio man these days who professes to be “just as happy soldering a capacitor” as doing anything else connected with music.
He enthuses that he feels much more comfortable being on an Independent label such as Kscope, after feeling burnt by the uncertainties of life under the auspices of a major record company.
It’s such wariness of the mainstream that reportedly led to one of his former band’s most remembered moments with Taxloss - a thinly, veiled jab aimed squarely at perceived corporate excess within the record industry. Consequently, the Beatle’s inspired single famously saw £25,000 in cash being splashed with abandon for disbelieving commuters to seize upon at Liverpool Street train station.
While there are undoubtedly darker themes emerging on Draper’s solo album, Spooky Action, amid its restless nature there are at least some glimmers of positivity.
From the epic six minute opener Don’t Poke the Bear, it’s clear he’s lost none of the ambitious scope of his former work, as its muscular sound packed with electro beats, synthesisers and insistent bass lines offers a definite statement of intent.
But just how pleased is he with the finished product after such a long period of anticipation for its release?
“I am going to wait until the first reviews come back for it. I think it’s like a painting a piece of art – you have to abandon work on it at some point.
“If I could go back, there’s probably 50 things I would change on it, so in that way it is like a piece of art. I don’t know if it’s any good – I am my own worst critic. But this is an album that feels like a continuation of what we could have done had the band stayed together,” reflects Paul, who is perhaps understandably a little cautious given the ocean of time since seriously being under the musical spotlight.
“With Mansun, our first couple of albums in particular had pretty abstract lyrics, but this is more personal. I didn’t find it all that hard to write about all those experiences in rock and roll – I had a lot I wanted to say about it. So it was actually good fun, and in a way it was kind of like therapy, getting it all out there.
“I’ve been asked who the people are in tracks like Friends make the worst enemies - I won’t say, though it’s all in there,” adds the songwriter.
In his own words, his career to date may well have ‘taken an unusual curve,’ but the 46 year-old has certainly achieved more than many could have hoped for.
From touring in locations around the world, to encountering some of the biggest names in the business including his personal heroes the late Prince and David Bowie, his has very much been a life less ordinary.
Casting his mind back to his early days, he says it wasn’t a question of being inspired by family members into taking up music, it was more his surroundings offering some clear inspiration.
“I don’t come from a musical family, but I come from a very musical city in Liverpool, even though we moved away near Chester. The whole of my childhood was surrounded by music - from the Beatles, Johnny Mathis, Peter Gabriel, Mike Oldfield, through to Pink Floyd, and even people like Dean Martin and Tom Jones through my dad,” recalls the singer songwriter of his earliest experiences with music.
Like a number in the industry, he attended art school in London, at Thames Polytechnic (now Greenwich), which led on to his first band, Grind. While this was a fleeting experience that folded after just one single, it sowed the seeds for bigger and better projects.
After returning home to the North, he hooked up with his Mansun bandmates just as a major resurgence in British rock occurred in the early 90s, which saw them quickly snapped up by Parlophone.
However, he says there had never been a sense of grand destiny surrounding their approach to the band, which found itself at the centre of major media attention.
“I think it was just a case of us really wanting it – you just have to have that hunger and the offers of record deals started coming in, which led to those early albums, Attack of the Grey Lantern and Six,” recalls Paul of those first few rollercoaster years of being with the group.
Having gained two top 10 albums under their belt they were on a creative roll, despite some criticism of a decision to explore more experimental territory.
However, there were plenty of heady highlights along the road such as unexpected tours of unlikely venues that proved to be a winning move for the band.
“One day I just picked up a map and starting pointing and said to our manager why don’t we play all these places – I was told there were no venues in towns like Bury St Edmunds and Worthing, but there were and I loved those shows. It was by playing those gigs that we built our fanbase, and we never once took those people for granted.”
As Paul recalls, tensions grew within the band following the recording of their third album, Little Kix, which despite producing a top 10 single, I can Only Disappoint U, saw relationships deteriorate further and plans for an extended tour were put on ice.
It’s perhaps even now still a thorny subject as to precisely what happened with the band, but he admits he couldn’t point to a defining moment that sealed their fate.
“After we did Little Kix I was gutted about how our last recordings on Kleptomania had been put out there in the end, as it was only half finished. It was just me using a DAT recording machine, and it was such a waste as that could have been our greatest record and the one that could have broken us internationally.”
According to Paul, should relationships ever be repaired within the band, a reunion would only be worth it if it was to make new music rather than for nostalgia’s sake.
“Though we imploded, we went on to become a cult band that was influential on others. We never made our millions from it or got to play stadiums, so I don’t know what really happened with it all at the end.
“I am not opposed to the band happening again, but I think there may be more chance of the Beatles getting back in their original line-up than Mansun reforming,” quips Paul, who appears to be relatively content with his lot.
As for life outside of music, he says it has proved hard for him to tear himself away from his beloved studio space that has become an almost all-consuming task.
“For me life is pretty much about the music, it’s what defines me - I rarely take days off. Generally I am in the studio every day and I get home feeling pretty wiped out. I have a whole lot of music books to read back in the house, and I’m into other things like architecture, but I don’t have hobbies like ten pin bowling,” he offers with a wry laugh.
Though he’s anticipating his solo shows this September, he says audiences are not to expect any ‘Olly Murs type dancing’ as such pop showmanship isn’t a part of his make-up.
Nevertheless, he says the chance to play new material for fans and to test the water once again with his long-awaited solo music will offer a fine challenge.
“We only set up a handful of dates for the tour, not knowing how they would go, but as these have sold out I’ll hopefully be doing a much bigger tour early next year, with the aim of coming to Ireland also, so we’ll have to see how it all goes with the album out soon,” he adds with a sense of genuine anticipation at the prospect of hitting the road once again.
Though being ensconced within the studio is clearly where he feels in his natural environment, his days with the band have furnished some pretty amazing memories. Does he have a favourite gig of all-time?
“Well, I don’t think I’ll ever top our performance at the Reading festival, I think it was back in 98 or 99 where we came on stage to people throwing pints of pee at us, only for us to win them over, which was a great feeling,” adds Paul who adds that he believes it’s a fantastic time to be involved in music.
With a mix of old favourites and newer acts dominating his personal playlist, he’s gearing up with renewed optimism for what should prove especially memorable live shows.
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