Come on over to the dark side
The Zutons are happy to be back - be it on the music scene or in their homeland. FIONA STURGES meets the group's occasionally sombre lead singer, Dave McCabe
'When you get through making one album, you just start worrying about the next one. The more successful you are, the more you worry about it. You can't win. I suppose you could say it's healthy to worry. That's what makes you aim high and write the best possible record, but the pressure's on in music all the time."
It would be fair to say that The Zutons' Dave McCabe, he of such improbably sunny ditties as "You Will You Won't", is a glass-half-empty kind of guy. This is a man whose last two albums, Who Killed... The Zutons? and Tired of Hanging Around, sold more than 600,000 copies apiece, and yielded a string of naggingly catchy singles including "Pressure Point", "Confusion" and "Why Won't You Give Me Your Love?" as well as support slots with U2 and REM.
Lest we forget, he also penned the song "Valerie", which was co-opted by Mark Ronson with Amy Winehouse on vocals, and became one of the biggest-selling singles in recent memory, enabling McCabe to buy a house. On the surface of things, then, there's a lot to be cheerful about.
"I know, and I'm not the miserable git that people think I am," says McCabe, looking decidedly peaky after a night out watching the football, and not best pleased to be dragged out of bed for an interview. "I just tend to think about things a lot, you know?"
Miserable might be too strong a word but it's clear that McCabe has a complicated relationship with his art. He is fiercely protective of his music, yet given to endless questioning as to whether The Zutons have really earned their place in the pop firmament. For much of our conversation, he appears to be locked in a dispute with himself, offering up reasoned arguments from entirely opposing perspectives.
We meet at the K West hotel in London's Shepherds Bush, the watering hole of choice for touring rock bands and music industry hangers-on. As the band's singer, chief songwriter and de facto spokesman, McCabe is down from his native Liverpool to talk about The Zutons' new album, You Can Do Anything, the title of which pretty much sums up the central paradox of the band. Here they are encouraging their listeners to embrace life and be fearless, yet their singer is beset by uncertainty. The band have a knack of planting instant smiles on the faces of fans with their bright, poppy melodies, yet their lyrics are, more often than not, pitch-black. Where their last LP had songs about stalkers and kidnappers ("I'll chain you up, I'll make you mine... I'll keep you in the cellar, keep you there till dawn, wait until the sun comes up and I'll poke and prod you more"), on the new album we are treated to mordant snapshots of domestic violence ("Dirty Rat") and prostitution ("Freak").
"It's all fun to me," shrugs McCabe. "It comes from listening to The Kinks for years, particularly songs like 'Mr Pleasant', and from films, too, like that scene in Reservoir Dogs where he cuts the man's ear off but he's singing and dancing. We never really set out to make [our albums] sound too happy, it's just our sense of humour."
That's not to suggest that You Can Do Anything is all jolly singalongs about cartoon freaks and no-hopers. Songs such as the opener, "Harder and Harder", in which McCabe complains, "I used to be invincible, I coped with problems I found/ But now it's all changing, I'm falling apart," seem to be of a more personal nature.
Not at all, says McCabe, who insists the prime inspiration for his songs comes largely from his friends. Really? "Well, not from them directly," he says. "My mates aren't all prostitutes. But there are a lot of songs on this record that, one way or another, other people have inspired me to write. You just get stories off people you meet and exaggerate them. It's not like you can write about making your breakfast and doing the shopping or getting on the bus, can you?"
The band recorded the album last summer during a three-month stay in Los Angeles. It is the first time they have gone away to record and, given the choice, says McCabe, they wouldn't do it again. "I found Hollywood to be a pain in the arse," he says bleakly. "It just wasn't real. Where I'm from, it's maybe too real. People's feet are so on the ground they're practically underground, so to go to LA, that's so shiny and perfect and two-dimensional, well, it's just weird. Plus, everyone thought I was from Scotland!"
Matters probably weren't improved by the departure of guitarist Boyan Chowdhury, he of the droopy moustache, a few weeks before the trip. At the time, his exit was attributed to musical differences, but McCabe won't be drawn on the details. "It's a bit awkward, really. You'd better speak to Boyan," he says, adding: "Although he doesn't really answer his phone these days." Whatever Chowdhury's reasons, one senses that relations within the band had been frayed for a while.
Chowdhury was replaced by Paul Molloy, who has, McCabe says, breathed new life into the band. "He brought some enthusiasm back, which I think was needed. And it's good to have someone there with a fresh perspective. I think he enjoyed the time in LA more than anyone. He hasn't got all cynical yet."
At the start of their career, The Zutons seemed destined to be mere footnotes in the early-Noughties Liverpool scene in which they, The Bandits and The Coral were lumped together in the vanguard of the so-called "New Merseybeat". Now The Coral are on hiatus and The Bandits are no more, but The Zutons continue to go from strength to strength.
"It wasn't planned this way," McCabe says. "There was no plan at all. Everything that's happened to this band has been a happy accident. When you have a big idea and make plans, you generally find that things don't turn out how you want. When we started, I didn't really think beyond what we were doing day-to-day, and then The Coral came out and we had a sound that was a bit similar and everybody criticised us as being too like them. Now we don't get mentioned in the same sentence any more, which is a relief, if I'm honest, because at the time it really pissed me off."
A Talking Heads and Kraftwerk obsessive, McCabe was in and out of bands throughout his teens. The Zutons began life in 2001 "on a whim" after he met drummer Sean Payne in a chip shop in their native Liverpool. The name was inspired by Captain Beefheart's guitarist Bill Harkleroad, aka Zoot Horn Rollo. With the addition of Chowdhury on guitars and Russell Pritchard on bass, they started out as a four-piece until the arrival of the slinky ex-drama student Abi Harding, Payne's long-term girlfriend, who joined to play saxophone and inject some much-needed glamour into the group.
The band signed to Deltasonic, the same label as The Coral, and in 2003 got to work on their debut, Who Killed... The Zutons? The album, which drew inspiration from Fifties B-movies and Sixties Brit-rock, was a critical and commercial success and yielded a clutch of advertising deals. It was also shortlisted for the 2004 Mercury Music Prize (they lost out to Franz Ferdinand) and won the band Best Breakthrough Act at the 2005 Brit Awards.
Their engaging formula of singalong choruses and sinister themes was successfully employed for a second time on 2006's Tired of Hanging Around, which went to No 2 in the UK. It also spawned The Zutons' first two Top Ten singles, "Why Won't You Give Me Your Love" and, of course, "Valerie", a jaunty tale of a ginger-haired girl who lands herself in jail.
"She is a real person, Valerie," says McCabe, with a smile. "She got done for drink-driving. The song is a postcard to her, really. I was saying: 'Why don't you come see me, sort your head out', kind of thing, but, you know, she never did. She's an American bird and a bit scatty. When I wrote it I thought it was quite a silly song but I think that's where the charm is."
McCabe was "extremely flattered" when Ronson asked to cover it and was duly flabbergasted when he and Winehouse sent it into a new sales stratosphere. "Now that it's been No 1 in Germany and Austria, a part of me thinks that's good," he reflects. "In fact, that's amazing, but I wish our version would have done as well. I do think it's as good. Then again, maybe ours is a bit retro-Seventies. I don't know, it's all good, I suppose. I'm glad it wasn't on the first album as it would have overshadowed the rest of our songs.
"You always want more, don't you?" he ponders. "You buy a house and then you want a bigger one. You make an album and then you just want to make a better one. It's human nature, I reckon."
Yet McCabe claims that success sits well with The Zutons. They're still the same people they were when they started, albeit with bigger houses, and they're hardly the types to get chased down the street by photographers.
"No one ever recognises us. There was this girl in the pub last night who said: 'No way, you're not in The Zutons.' I said, 'All right, I'm not, but you asked me what I do for a living and I just told you.' It feels like we've always been in our own little world. We're not seen to be cool, and I feel quite boring a lot of the time. On the other hand, we haven't been fed through the NME or anything like that. We've never been hyped and I'm proud of that."
As for the future, McCabe says he prefers not to look too far ahead. His objective when he started out was "to make a living out of music, whether that's playing gigs in pubs or something bigger. I'm sure it'll go back to the pub gigs one day. It won't always be The Zutons. What's happening now is good but it won't last forever. Nothing does, does it?"
The single 'Always Right behind You' is available for download on Monday, and as a CD single on 26 May; the album 'You Can Do Anything' is out on 2 June on Deltasonic; The Zutons' UK forest tour is taking place from 5 to 27 June (www.thezutons.com)