Thousand Yard Stare are back with a new album, Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman talks bouncy indie disco floor fillers with the band.
1993. John Major leads a miserable Conservative Government while Graham Taylor is at the helm of a similarly failing England football team. The UK charts are ruled by Meat Loaf, Whitney Houston and Ace Of Base.
In the midst of all this, a minor indie band release their second album to little fanfare before quietly splitting, forever to be a footnote in the collections of a faithful few.
But fast forward to 2020 and Thousand Yard Stare have finally recorded and released a third album.
27 years on from their original demise and five years since one of the most unlikely comebacks, The Panglossian Momentum sees the Slough five piece reunite and recapture the creative spark that once saw them as one of the early 90s’ most-loved bands.
“27 years is a long time between records,” says frontman Stephen Barnes with more than a hint of understatement. “We had the comeback but we were never the biggest band and to participate again in some new music was never something we were that sure about. I suppose a lot of bands of our ilk who have come back have ridden completely on the nostalgia thing where everyone turns up and pretends their 19 again. I totally get that and I’m all for it but for me if you’re going to be a band now than you have to do something and exist in the time you are in as well as harking back to what it was.
“We talked long and hard about whether we wanted to make new music and I was always of the opinion that I couldn’t see the point of being in a band unless you are – it feels a little fraudulent.”
After forming in 1988, Barnes (vocals), Giles Duffy (guitar), Sean McDonough (bass), Kevin Moxon (guitar) and Dominic Bostock (drums) quickly pricked the ears of the music press with their first proper EP, entitled Weatherwatching, which came out on their own Stifled Aardvark label in November 1990.
It was these early releases which really forged their reputation with the Keepsake and Seasonstream EPs and songs like Wonderment and 0-0aet showing a band well capable of jangling along with the likes of early champions the Wonder Stuff while keeping a foot in the shoegazing camp erected by Thames Valley neighbours Ride and Chapterhouse with their love of an extended guitar wig out.
“A lot of the early songs were clearly just jams,” laughs Barnes. “Wonderment is one riff for six and a half minutes with a vocal slapped in the middle. I was working at an indie venue and was running an indie night but I was also DJing at the start of the dance scene and going to raves and I was really into repetitive beats.
“Looking back it was clearly because I was getting all that coming into my system and it really chimed with the times.
“When I’m feeling boisterous I like to say we were pioneers! But there was that feeling that it was all seeping in together.”
1991 saw mounting music press interest in the band and support slots with bands such as Carter USM, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Milltown Brothers and James and it was Thousand Yard Stare’s live reputation that quickly won them fans amongst the long-sleeved T-shirt wearing indie kids of the time.
“We were very much a live band and we’d play anywhere,” says Barnes. “We’d play Halifax one night and then Aldershot the next and we didn’t care. We were a real band of brothers.
“I always imagined bands when they got together would say ‘how do we want to sound?’ but we never had that conversation. We were a rag tag bunch of friends really who just got together. We had a drummer who was into fairly straight ahead rock, I was a complete indie fop into Morrissey, Lloyd Cole and Stephen Duffy and then we had a guitarist who loved Ministry and a bass player who loved Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
“We found a few things we had in common and we all loved the Wonder Stuff and a band called The Sandkings who featured Jas Mann who went on to be in Babylon Zoo. We used to follow them around the country!
“I was a very confident young man and pretty bolshie back then. I remember one time when I was working at the Windsor Old Trout (legendary indie venue) and Martin Gilks, the drummer in the Wonder Stuff was there and I grabbed our EP and I went ‘can I give you this?’ and he said ‘no’. I was so deflated but I knew what car he’d come in so I went and sat on the bonnet after the gig and waited for him to come out. He was like ‘get off my car’ but he was with his girlfriend and she said she’d take it.
“It had my phone number on the back and I remember getting home from college and my mum said ‘someone called Penny has been on the phone’ so I rang her back and it was Martin’s girlfriend. She said she’d been listening to the EP and loved it and she was a press officer and she asked to represent us. That was our first break and after that we started getting written about a lot in the press.”
Thousand Yard Stare’s first release on a major after singing to Polydor (the Comeuppance EP) saw them break the UK Top 40 singles chart with debut album Hands On following in the early months of 1992.
“In the early days having all these different influences was an advantage because it made us a bit different to everyone else,” says Barnes. “Once we became part of the major label machine it became a disadvantage because they clearly didn’t have a clue what to do with us.
“We really shouldn’t have signed to a major label in retrospect,” he continues. “Don’t get me wrong, it brought us loads of amazing things but looking back it was like ‘how on earth was that going to work’? We had other major labels interested but it was very much a case of them thinking ‘we need one of those weird indie bands with floppy hair’.”
Key to the band’s success was Barnes skill as a lyricist. Full of references to cricket, maps, village greens and cottages, his willingness to delve into neo-romanticism and the English pastoral recalled the likes of XTC, The Kinks and would pre-date the likes of Blur and Suede.
On the band’s best-known track, Barnes managed to carry off that most difficult of tasks and produce one of the finest ever football metaphor songs. 0-0 a.e.t. became the bouncy indie disco floor filler everyone loved but at the same time the band were equally adept at producing slow burning epics like Seasonstream and Comeuppance – an atmosphere and sound they’ve explored with excellent effect on the new album.
“We were pretty brave putting Comeuppance out as a single before our debut album and it got panned by a couple of people at Radio One who said it was a bit of a dirge,” says Barnes
“What I’ve realised now is that there’s definitely two sections of the fans – the ones who like Comeuppance and Seasonstream and at the time they were like ‘these aren’t just another indie band’.
“It’s a bit like going into a party and everyone is going crazy in the front room dancing to the tunes and then you go in the kitchen and have a brilliant conversation with someone over a couple of beers – that’s what makes it a great night. You’ve got to have both. We’re a band who can be the party in the front room but also the interesting conversation in the corridor.”
With the oncoming rise of Britpop in 1993, Thousand Yard Stare and the bands they frequently shared stages with were quickly branded as yesterday’s men and despite a spirited effort to reclaim some ground with their second album Mappamundi and the nearly-hit and fan favourite, Version of Me, Polydor dropped them, and the band quickly split retreating into day jobs and in the case of Barnes into music industry promotion, lecturing and management.
“Around that time we were going through a bit of a growing pain,” he remembers. “We were trying things on Mappamundi but we should have had a break for six months and worked out what we were trying to do with it. There were external pressures and general naivety and I think if we’d just go through that period we would have been fine.
“So much of being in a band is an element of luck and timing as well as talent – it’s a strange alchemy. Look at someone like The La’s – they should’ve been as big as the Stone Roses and there would’ve been room for them along with Oasis and they could’ve been the biggest band in the world. There’s always elements of people and culture and so many things need to align for you and then you’ve got to grab that opportunity. Maybe it was just slightly out of reach for us at that point.”
T'was five years ago today we rebirthed with a one off (ahem) gig at The Borderline…. thans to all that came and made it a special night, and for subsequently keeping it alive x
Vide on the below link if you want to re-live…https://t.co/SoA6MC0SSI pic.twitter.com/bISh239pp0
— Thousand Yard Stare (@wearetys) June 6, 2020
Seemingly out of nowhere, 2015 saw a tentative reunion of the original line up with a handful of rapturously received gigs and 2016’s Live At Electric Studios mini album.
“Since reforming we’ve had a really lovely, dedicated crew of friends around us,” says Barnes. “We’re pretty active on social media and people use our gigs as a gathering point. I really like the tribal feel of it. It doesn’t really matter what we say or do anymore – it only matters to the people who are important to us. We’re not trying to start a new career but hopefully adding to the cannon and I certainly think with this new record we have returned the wheel somewhat.
“If there was always something nagging it was with how it ended the first time – it just spluttered and fell apart. We should have taken some time out because to be honest we were exhausted – it had been absolutely insane for so long and we didn’t really know what we were doing. Everyone was making it up as we went along and there was no grand design. I wasn’t old enough or knowledgeable enough to execute it and maybe that created friction.
“Now we’ve got this brilliant situation where we are all grown up and we know what are place is and we are all enjoying it collectively and individually.
“It sounds trite but my 11-year-old daughter got to see me on a stage so now I’m not a total square.”
The Panglossian Momentum’s eight tracks would be a fine achievement for a new band but for a group reuniting after a quarter of a century it’s something of a miracle and Barnes‘ satisfaction and pride is moving to hear especially for a teenage fan of the band who grew up in the same hometown and experienced so many special moments with them as the soundtrack. Gushing I know but these are strange times when a lot of us are looking back to push forward.
“I’m sitting here on my hands and knees packing these records and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” adds Barnes. “It’s like when we did the Weatherwatching EP for the first time – I remember doing this and marching up to Revolution Records in Windsor and thinking ‘I hope he takes a box’. He actually took five copies and I was still happy just seeing it in the rack but then he phoned me the next day and said ‘can you bring the rest of that box back’?
“Yes we’ve made a new record but everything we’re doing now has a connection to where we came from.”
The Panglossian Momentum album is out now and can be ordered on vinyl, CD and digital from their shop.