“No, you aren’t the Sex Pistols, stop acting like this!” – a fellow reviewer on twitter referring to the Violet May’s set at The Foundry.
Another band I got into thanks to The Hope Explosion. It was them who got me into The Violet May after a long conversation in the lovely beer garden at the Fat Cat. The stories, the myths, the ferocity. I missed a show when The Stock Room was closing, so the first time I saw The Violet May live was at the Forum, during Tramlines 2010. I remember feeling quite alive during that gig. Probably a well-needed dose of catharsis as it was then when my PhD supervisor left without letting me know and I was without a paddle, without direction. The looming threat of getting deported probably made me relish Tramlines 2010 like no other festival before or since.
I met Chris McClure (vocals), John Kubicki (guitars, synths) and Jono How (guitars, stylish golden guitar) at the Showroom in early September. They had just finished a practise and we talked for a good half an hour or so. I quite liked hearing them address some of the problems in music back then, making an emphasis on the lack of vigour in a lot of bands, both local and international. This is around the time where Avi Buffalo and their ilk were dominating the radio. Don’t take this as a diss, I like a few Avi Buffalo songs, but it all became too samey on the radio. A jolt was needed and The Violet May were happy to be one of several providers. In those days, I think we could pin down bands like them, Wet Nuns, Avida Dollars, The Hipshakes, Dead Sons, The Hope Explosion, Death Rays of Ardilla and Plush ‘n’ Plastix, Nerves as fringe bands that were trying to do something different, to various degrees of success. It’s hard trying to give the public something different when scene girls and scenesters are running loose with coked-up noses, only booking whatever the fuck Pitchfork and that Hipster Runoff bellend thought was “cool”.
No wonder ‘Being a dickhead’s cool’ was such a hit back then.
I ended up getting invited to Club 60 in October of 2010. It was my first time in the place and I had just arrived from Liverpool. A few pints of Cain’s Raisin Ale sloshing in my stomach, I meet the band at The Swim Inn, a depressing joint smack in the arsehole of West Street. It was an okay place whenever it wasn’t a Saturday, honest! We took a cab and when I went down the stairs, it felt like being Sam Tyler, trapped in a time vortex. 70s, 60s and maybe, just maybe, a dash of 90s in that place. A recording studio/live haunt/exclusive club for Paul Blakeman and his selection of musicians. The gig was tremendous, and it included Wet Nuns being their best. I remember being introduced to a lot of people that night. I wish I hadn’t, I prefer to be anonymous. Hard to achieve that, looking as Mexican as I am. So it goes.
The Office gig was a bit of a disaster. Sure, the idea behind was great: move away from the city centre, where it felt like only a few could get a show, and extend to other venues. In principle, it was going to be great. In reality, well, there was a two quid charge at the door, which stopped once everyone noticed no one was minding the door. The slam got brutal during The Violet May‘s set. Glass shards, a disco ball flung outside, Chris carrying the monitor speakers in a violent fashion. Like I said, the system needed a jolt.
And the system jolted back. It was around this time they got banned from Soyo for breaking a chandelier. A friend got hit with a mic stand at The Washington during a gig. It was getting physical. It was confrontational. I missed the gig at The Foundry but I heard things, including that Sex Pistols dig by the unnamed fellow reviewer. Reviewers were drawing a line in the sand too. I think I was the only fucker covering most of their gigs. I remember Counterfeit asking nicely for a few photos from time to time, maybe a quick note. Can’t remember delivering either, but it was a stressful time. Besides, do reviews really matter at all any more? I don’t think so.
2011 had a cold start. At least the PhD started to move once again, thanks to a new pair of supervisors, one from Civil Engineering, one from Geography, stepping up to help out. The beginning of the year drudgery was washed away with two gigs in a day. I thought I could make for a great feature: tagging along the Violet May for a whole day, get to experience band life for a day. First, a rammed early afternoon gig at Frog & Parrot. Nothing was broken and it was the second time I got to talk with one of my best mates, Keefy How. After the set was done and we waited for the band, we talked about ambient music and the Peaks. Always the magnificent leafy Peaks.
I got to Rotherham first as the band had to wait for their van and I had promised the organiser to cover most of the day. I called him but he said he couldn’t understand me at all. Then he never called back. I arrived to one of the venues. It was closed. I walked towards Dickens, the main venue. The place was barren of life. Maybe 3 people, plus the bar staff and the sound guy, who blasted Stiltskin between sets. I approached him and he mentioned the council moved the goalposts and everything had to be in just one venue and no alcohol was to be served.
So the band arrived, saw there was no alcohol on sight and decided to take a stroll around. The nightlife in Rotherham is interesting, to say the least. Hey, trying to be educated and condescending here! We went to a bar that probably has never seen a Mexican before or since. I finally chatted with Alan (drums) and Plim (bass), getting their thoughts on the current state of music. We changed bars to one in a basement, near the Cathedral. It was more of a cocktails thing and it started to get bizarre. People playing billiards stared at us, disapproving. Two very drunk ladies were hitting on the band. We moved out, sharpish. Two thugs were trying to pick a fight. We avoided them. Finally, we went back to the venue, defeated in this Bukowskian alcohol quest.
And the set was short. Three songs. Once the cigarette was lit and a banner was pulled down, the sound went off and we were shown the exit. To cool down, we went yet to another bar. A terrible band was performing and we split for a good half hour. I sat beside Alan on a bench outside, talking about Smashing Pumpkins. He was a fan and had read an article I wrote about Machina/The Machines of God. Jono, John and Plim eventually came out with Chris just behind them and we all went for the equipment. We were stopped at the entry. No one from the band could enter. The equipment couldn’t be removed either. I tried to get in as I still had to do some sort of review.
Bouncer: “Nah, love, you are with those fuckers, you’re all banned forever!”
Me: “Forever – ever?”
Bouncer: “Yes, don’t cry.”
Bouncer: “What was that?”
I was just asking for it, I know. He didn’t get my Outkast reference. We went to the fire exit and Leki and Rob sneaked us in. We smuggled the equipment out and loaded up the van, caught by the bouncers just when we were finished. Anyways, I was going to say goodbye to the band when they told me to tag along on their van. The cold February night was unforgiving and the prospect of getting the X-78 bus back wasn’t inviting, so I accepted. They were in good spirits, having been able to recover their equipment. We came to the Frog and Parrot and carried everything upstairs. They shared the place as a rehearsal space with other bands, and somehow, it felt like both a series of terrible, unfortunate choices and a real rock-n-roll night out. Rock n Roll, deal with it. On the way back, a lady screamed at me, saying I was her husband’s long lost brother. Oh, well.
The EP launch in October 2011 was a fierce show. The Leadmill was packed. The bill included Wet Nuns and The Hope Explosion, now a four-piece. The Violet May now had Matt on synths and keys. Tumultuous, explosive and with a big ol’ moshing during ‘Jennifer Lies’. As EP launches go, it worked fantastically. The shows were getting better and maybe it was the experience of touring Italy and Iceland was brought a whole ‘nother dose of energy to the band.
I would last see them in 2012, opening the Tramlines Main Stage on Friday. I stuck around in the photography pit for longer than the allotted time. The grey skies, the drizzle that came and went. There was something about gig, a certain finality to it.
This finality comes more from a re-appraisal than anything else. In hindsight, I think that Tramlines show had them work perfectly as a unit. There was no need to break anything, but at the same time, the confrontational spirit was there, always. I think one of the greatest parts of this show was when they brought Mike Hughes to perform ‘Temple Blues’. I loved that song since its early days as a Lenders in the Temple track. Shame there’s no studio version of this collaboration, it was a memorable one.
In the end, their meteoric rise ended up flaming out. Chris McClure left the band and Joe Hudson, from Whispering Dolls, gave his best shot, but the band didn’t survive the change. The bell had rung for The Violet May and the inevitable happened. A final EP, Strange Lives, was released. It was a good indicator of their new direction: raw, with a little more atmosphere thanks to the synths. What if maybes. The referee counted to ten. End of match.
The Violet May was a wild beast. It careened out of control. When? I can’t quite put my finger on it. They had a fiery live show, and I think it tells a lot about the problem with live music in the UK when people get their knickers twisted over a single cig being lit. The joke was always on you.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López