DOWN A FLIGHT OF STAIRS OFF A BAKING MID-AFTERNOON PAVEMENT, THE BBC’s TEST MATCH SPECIAL MEANDERS POLITELY FROM A SPEAKER SYSTEM.
Henry Blofeld’s walnut tones crackle around The Duchess, in York, and transport me back to the previous day in Nottingham, where I’d been privileged to experience debutant Ashton Agar’s record-breaking innings for Australia at Trent Bridge: a feat as much to do with the joy and fearlessness of youth as it was good cricket. A young man surely destined to do great things?
Here, in York, ex-Bluetone Mark Morriss is milling about on a hot stage, shooting the lack of breeze with a sound engineer and setting up his guitar. It’s been a few months since we last met, to record an edition of The Mouthcast (listen), and we spend a little while catching up. It seems TMS over the PA is for his benefit: “Man, I would love to have seen Agar yesterday… I listened to it in the car,” he says. “But what a day to be there”… He mentions the heat and later, when he’s parked at a table checking e-mails, I eye with envy the ice-pop which dangles from his face. For now I leave him to get on with the business of his show (he soundchecks IT’S HARD TO BE GOOD ALL THE TIME) and I burrow into the dark in search of a cool spot at the back of this underground venue.
Not long after, Glenn Johannson and Sonya Aurora Madan (surely the finest arrangements of vowels and consonants to ever have been scattered onto birth certificates?) arrive. Sonya introduces herself to Morriss, who had told me earlier that he was surprised he’d never met her before (“… even during the whole Britpop circus thing…”). She disappears into the dressing room, while Johannson and Morriss discuss the drive from down South, the number of tourists swarming across York and, inevitably, the heat.
It’s clear Sonya and Johansson are on something of a nostalgia kick, headlining a mini-festival tonight (and a handful of dates through the summer) with the songs of their former band Echobelly – and using that name despite having recorded as Calm Of Zero for the last couple of years… But I wonder whether there is actually more to it than that? Perhaps the pair are finally shedding themselves of the old songs with one last shake up and down the motorways before concentrating entirely on their new name and the new material ..? Or, perhaps they’re road-testing the viability of their former name in advance of a second coming ..?
Either way, I get the impression that things are being steadily worked out: Johansson asks Morriss if he has management, and how often he plays live. “Oh, I’ve got gigs every weekend,” he answers. “But I have a weekend off every six weeks or so”. The guitarist says “Sure,” and nods as if cogs of deep wisdom have been oiled and turned.
He takes me into the dressing room, where Sonya seems somehow shy but bright, greeting with the kindest eyes. She takes my hand and gestures to sit on the sofa: “Here, sit next to me… errr… on my bag, wherever”. Another band are preparing to soundcheck so I suggest we actually find somewhere else – quiet – to record: “Yeah, somewhere also with air… Maybe outside” says Johannson. I mention the swelter of a couple of days outdoors at Trent Bridge and laugh at myself for suggesting mild sunstroke in the name of sport and music. Sonya says “Cricket… Now, I’d love to know about that game”, then bats away Johansson’s “It’s probably even more complicated than the offside rule” with a sweet “Yeah, but I don’t care – Steve will tell me, won’t you?”: I may well be subject to a subtle charm, and not a shred of me minds.
We find a reasonable site to record, round the back of The Duchess, but a bus coughs past on the nearby main road. “Well, that is going to mess things up!” says Sonya, so Johansson suggests “a little church place” that he’d spotted when the pair strolled out earlier on.
Eventually we sit in its grounds, in mild shade under a tree. The odd car passes by, people come and people go, there’s a rehearsal for some sort of vocal recital in the church – all of which drift somewhere across the background – but none of us notices in the moment. Sonya and Johansson are easy company and a solid team: generous enough to chat about anything, though when limits are reached one is likely to take over from the other and either add a little more or, perhaps, steer things off in different directions.
We discuss the notorious TOP OF THE POPS appearance for radiant hit GREAT THINGS, and the pair reveal how it felt when the Britpop bulb sparked out. I try to discern the blurry dividing line between Calm Of Zero and Echobelly. On more than one occasion I find myself returning to the subject for fascinating answers …