Luxury Stranger’s singer/guitarist SIMON YORK talks to Nick Awde
Alhambra Live Magazine #005
— Luxury Stranger: www.luxurystranger.net
— Alhambra Live: the-alhambra-theatre/bats-in-the-attic
ALHAMBRA LIVE is one of the biggest grassroots music venues in the North West. Based in Morecambe on the sea Promenade, its adaptable spaces (and unique Lake District views) make it a vibrant hub for all-dayers and weekend festivals (Goth, Mod, Ska, Northern Soul…). It is also a hub and home for gothic music with Corrosion club night and the CorrosionFest & Bats in the Attic festivals. For more info, contact Fiona +44 (0)7771 200 873 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick Awde: How did you get into music in the first place?
Simon York: I’ve been performing in front of people since a very early age. When I was eight years old, I started playing violin and I was classically trained. It came to me very easily and during that time I also taught myself guitar, piano, bass and the very basics of drums. When I was 16, I did what happened to a lot of people that age – I suddenly went, “I don’t want to do this!” [laughs]
Was all that music possible because it was happening at school?
Yeah, it was all at school.
So it sounds like you had a good supportive programme?
There was – we had peripatetic teachers for woodwind, brass and string instruments. This was in Sutton-In-Ashfield, an old mining town in Nottinghamshire, but we didn’t think, “wow, this is amazingly special” or anything, it just seemed to be a standard thing at the time. You could say it was ‘awarded’ to some extent, because certain children were picked out and you had to do a test. Those that got a certain level of assessment were the ones that they thought, “they’re the ones we can invest in with music” – and I was one of them. At that point, there was no private tuition so parents didn’t have to pay.
As a result of that, I was able to join West Midlands Symphony Orchestra as a violinist, and from there I went on to play in the Nottingham Symphony Orchestra as well. But when I was 16, I thought, “I want to play rock ’n’ roll.” So I just applied everything I’d learned from classical music to contemporary popular music. I’d got into all the music that was flying around at the time like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, as well as some of the dance and indie music from the UK, and it just grew from there. I put my first band together, and we did the usual thing where you play a load of covers to find your sound and then you start writing your own stuff – and in our case we managed to land a major record deal.
Unfortunately, as we all know, there’s a lot of backstabbing within the industry. A certain person wanted the job of the managing director, who was the person that signed us. When that person got his job, they dropped everybody that he’d signed. We’d only just recorded our debut album so it didn’t even get released. Half of the band thought, “Well that’s it, we’ve failed” – and they wanted to go on and start a tribute band. But I was like, “No that’s not what you do. We’ve had something taken from us, so we’ve got to get it back. If you want to do a tribute band, you do that – but I’m getting it all back!”
I got talking with somebody I knew who used to work at China Records, who the Levellers were signed with. We put together what was meant to be a solo project for me, but it turned into something where I was doing theatrical film stuff which got me in doing music for TV documentaries and things like that, but it also opened my mind a little bit to looking at music as something that’s an art form rather than just bands and all that stuff. So I thought, “Right, I’m going to take a break and use the money that I’ve got from the record deal to pay myself through university.”
I did a contemporary arts degree in Nottingham, shortly after I moved back from briefly living in Brighton. I focused on film and sonic art and after that I went from job to job to job – like working at the back end of supermarkets in the freezer room and Paul Smith warehouses. I managed to land a job in social housing where I was working in a marketing and communications team and they became aware of my art side of things, and I managed to fluke my way into a job as a graphic designer – which I’m still doing now, 15 years later.
It was that sort of start that gave me the solidarity to start the Luxury Stranger project. As just myself, I recorded an album and then got a live band together – and it’s grown and changed across different transitions. It’s got better every time, from my point of view and certainly from that of the people that have found us.
So the name of the band?
Luxury Stranger… I was talking to my Dad when I was thinking of a name and he said, just think of words that don’t necessarily go together – and it was the first thing that came to mind. At the time I’d not long finished at uni, and I’d been doing a lot of stuff that involved identity – the idea of disguise and how identity can be a shield that allows you to open up a bit more. I’d taken on looking at ideas like fetishism, latex and BDSM scenes, and it all came together as the two words that don’t necessarily go together but they could create a meaning within themselves.
So when people ask what Luxury Stranger means, sometimes I’ve said it could be a luxury that’s not the norm, it’s quite developed, just a bit on the edge of the dark, if you like. At the same time it could also be a stranger who’s very luxurious… When we played with that idea we came up with the term ‘Dickensian Mod’ to try and describe our music. [laughs]
Actually, now you’ve mentioned it, there’s an image in my head… Yeah it works.
Well the thing with ‘Luxury Stranger’ is it’s a very chameleonic word. It’s not just in terms of the line-ups that it changes, it’s the way the music has developed, the way the aesthetic has changed and shifted depending on what’s necessary. I think the meaning of the songs as well can change and shift – some people think such and such song is about this, and I’m there chuckling to myself thinking, if you only knew. But I like the fact that they’ve taken that meaning for themselves.
But is there a conceptual cohesiveness or attitude to all the Luxury Stranger songs? Or do you just take them as they come?
It’s an element of what comes along and then dropping in the telling of a story. Things that are part of a collection, then you paint a picture. There’s a lot of argument for and against the idea of ‘the album’ nowadays, and you have people who are very much ‘single’ driven instead. I’m a big believer in an album being played in its track listing, that it’s there the artist puts across their vision because they know the flow, the dips and troughs. Yes, there will be singles in there but they’re still dropped in the right place.
I remember when I got Sgt. Pepper’s on CD when it was first released in the format, and in the booklet it told you the track listing that the Beatles actually wanted it to be. But because they were working on vinyl they couldn’t put it in that order because of how vinyl LPs are cut. So the booklet said “programme your CD player to listen to it like this”, which I thought was obviously an interesting thing to do for a fan, but at the same time as you’re listening to it you think to yourself, “hmm, it really does change the flow of the feel and atmosphere of it as an album”. It’s interesting to think about how that can happen.
I am pretty much writing all the time, which is why I’ll often say to the guys in the band or on social media posts, “We’re working on this record at the moment but I’ve also just started the one coming after it.” It’s a bit more complicated now, because we’ve got one album in the can that was meant to come out before the Pandemic. It got shelved because I felt it was not going to sit right, because people were thinking in a different frame of mind during Lockdown. So I just thought “let’s write another record instead and put this one to one side”. The guys in the band were like, “yeah, this cool” – they possibly were feeling a bit like that too because of what was happening over Lockdown.
You bring a fair range of disciplines as well as influences to shaping Luxury Stranger’s sound.
I’ve brought over a lot of my classical training – and because I also used to play in jazz and swing bands, that comes in as well. But in terms of popular music, I’m into a lot of things like Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye. But then there’s also stuff that was listened to as a kid that my dad used to play, because he worked in a record shop and he’d bring a lot of stuff home. He’d be playing things like Stevie Wonder followed by Kraftwerk followed by Bowie, and all that stuff. Obviously that was all soaking in without me realising at the time.
Then there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve done where somebody’s said, “Oh, that reminds me of So-and-So”, and I’d be like, “Really? I can’t say I’ve actually listened to them.” And then you listen to them and you go, “Oh bloody hell, that’s a bit close for comfort, isn’t it?” [laughs] But you start listening to it again and then you go, “Oh actually, it’s okay, I could blend in with that a bit.” And then next thing, you’re supporting that band on a European tour, so maybe that was something that was meant to happen? I spoke to a friend of mine who we’re putting a show on with, and I asked, “I’m writing the bumpf for it, so tell me who you’re in influenced by.” And he said, “I hate answering that question.” I can understand that, but at the same time you want people to know what you listen to so they can ‘get’ your own music in a way.
I don’t often ask the question about influences, if I’m honest, but it seemed to me that this is a band where I’d get an interesting answer, which I just did – we found out that your dad worked in a record shop!
I mean the stories he’s come out with, things like, “Well actually, the Jam didn’t sell that many records. What we would do is, if somebody bought a Val Doonican record, we’d have to scan the Jam instead of Val Doonican.” They’d get gifts like tickets or backstage passes as a reward for doing that!
Not much has changed, has it? Going back to the subject of Lockdown, the Pandemic exposed all the weaknesses in a sector that had problems that were there long before, and most knew that when we came out of Lockdown that live music was one of the areas that had suffered the most and was going to struggle the most to make its comeback. The fact that in 2022 Ed Sheeran & Co are having one of their most successful years ever live-wise simply highlights the fact that everyone else isn’t so lucky. When the venues all started opening up and the circuit for gigs and festivals reactivated, how did you prepare for it?
You’re dealing with a massive mix of feelings, emotions and thoughts, because obviously you want to just get straight back into it, straight back on stage and get on with it. But at the same time you’ve got to have your sensible cap on. When we first came out of Lockdown, we were thinking, “Hang on a minute – we could book a show, turn up to play, and then the next day we find out somebody’s fallen ill so then the shows we’ve booked after that would have to be cancelled.” Or worse, you don’t even get to play the first show because somebody else has done the same thing the day before and the venue gets closed. Then there’s taking into consideration family and friends – for example, vulnerable or elderly members of the family. If you’re playing in a room full of people, what’s the possibility of you picking up something but not showing any symptoms but you pass it onto a family member?
There’s all those things that you’ve got to bear in mind, but it’s also the managing of how the band members are thinking, because they might be afraid to even get going. So when Luxury Stranger first opened up, at the first shows it’s like those images you see of a deer being born and it’s struggling on its legs and it’s all wobbling, but when you look at its eyes and it seems as if it was born several months ago – there’s a sense of “I’m with it – but I’m all over the place!” It’s been very much like that.
Picking up on recording again has also brought unexpected challenges for everyone – as you say, you even had an album ready to go that you didn’t release.
Before we’d even heard of anything to do with pandemics, we’d played a couple of shows at Rough Trade in Nottingham and the plan was: we’ve just done some great shows, now we’re going to finish rehearsing up the album, tighten it up then we’re going to start recording it. That album would’ve been Take Me, I’m Yours! – the idea for that was I wanted to really go full-on with the almost pop culture idea of making it obvious that the band is a sellable entity. It’s not just guys playing guitars and putting their own feelings into people’s ears and hoping they’ll relate to it. So we were playing on bright colours, big splashes and all that stuff.
We were all geared up for that, and then bang… and we’re like: we can’t rehearse together, we can’t record together, we can’t even record together remotely. So that that was a brick wall that we wouldn’t have expected. And then, as I say, as time went on I just thought, “that record’s not going to sit well…”
Also during that first year, some personal issues happened and as a result I went through a lot of stress and depression. I ended up losing my voice and I couldn’t even talk, never mind sing. I lost complete faith in my natural ability to make music, which is something that I’ve been doing pretty much since forever. So I needed to find something that would go, “Come on Simon, buck your ideas up, you can do this, this is what you have to do.”
So I did a solo record, “Uh-Huh…”, which I wrote and recorded within a month. It’s not the best recording but I needed to do it and just put it out there. It was released on April 16th in 2021 on SoundCloud for three days for people to listen to digitally – and the reactions were good. What it did was give me that message, “Yes you are fine, Simon, get yourself together, let’s move on.” And that’s when I started working on what we are now rehearsing and aiming to record soon – it’s an album called Above and Below, and,like the songs, it can be taken to mean whatever people want it to mean!
It’s been a strange period for us all. Bassist Martin has been with us about five years and drummer Harry has been with us pretty much about the same time, but it’s really weird because we’ve lost two of those five years.
Livewise, did you come back to find the usual gig/festival circuits were more or less there, or was it scorched earth and you have had to be part of the reconstruction-of-everything process?
We were pounding out those live shows before the Pandemic, and it was strange afterwards seeing that some venues had closed. Like you said, the early signs of it were there before the Pandemic, it was just that final nail that has happened to small businesses across the country. You could call me a bit of a ‘tin-foil hat’ when it comes to the intentions of governments and things like that when I ask do they really want the little people being able to stretch out to their real potential?
That’s tin-foil hat realism when it comes to the devastation that the government allowed to be inflicted on small and medium businesses and freelancers across the country. Lockdown was unbridled hypocrisy because everyone was going, oh isn’t the effect on the economy terrible, and you’re just thinking, well have you not watched the high streets and independent sectors being systematically destroyed since 2010 at least? So tin-foil hat it may be, but we’re seeing the grim evidence now where levelling up, especially for anywhere that’s not the South East, means quite the opposite.
Before the Pandemic, I lived in Nottingham city centre where my girlfriend managed a jewellery shop. It was on a very fashionable high street, one of the most popular, but shops were already going one by one, and these were big names as well. Eventually she moved to work somewhere else but we carried on living in the city centre and just started to see places falling down pretty much – eventually we decided we had to move out, but because of the Pandemic hitting our move was put back a few months. But now we’re finally out of Nottingham. So it’s been interesting seeing on your doorstep, a town dealing with that situation where everything was once so big and it’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Where once there was Marks & Spencer, British Home Stores, Littlewoods, C&A – now it’s Poundland and charity shops. Something like that was already happening in the whole music scene, and it’s been pushed by what’s happened over the two-and-a-half years of Covid.
But in the case of music, it’s not the big ones that have suffered but the small and medium, haven’t they?
Yes, here it’s the venues that are the small to medium businesses and it’s the independent artists who are the freelancers. And of course all the other people like the technicians, road crew, equipment hire, bar staff, people like the bookers who now have to make up two-and-a-half years’ worth of money in order to finance and keep acts going in the venues. They’re less likely to book bands above a certain level because it’s easier and cheaper to book those bands that are going to be able to play for free in order to keep things ticking along and building it back up.
That creates a longer delay for some acts to get back to playing live. I’ve seen some larger names who’ve taken a step down, for example in Nottingham they’ve gone from playing somewhere like the size of Rock City down to somewhere the size of Rescue Rooms or more likely the Social (or the Bodega as it’s now known), which is 220 capacity, it’s not massive.
But everything has been torn down. There were the people who had that stroke of luck because they could (or were willing to) do the online gigs. A lot of them were bands that had not even got out of the bedroom before the Pandemic, they wouldn’t even know how to book a gig. All of a sudden they’ve got this lifeline, and they were like, yeah we can do this! And they did. But then they were pushed down because of things like Facebook trying to cash in and making it so you couldn’t do the gigs the way you used to. And then the only ones who managed to succeed in this format were the über-financed or ‘grown-up’ bands.
They’re the real ‘little people’ who are getting stamped on. When people think of the fall of a civilisation they think of the big monuments collapsing etc, they don’t think of the people that are doing the work to build those monuments.
Goth is certainly a monument that’s supported by an often bewildering variety of people. How does that expand your worldview of the music scene?
It’s an interesting one when people go, “oh yeah Luxury Stranger, they’re a goth band”, and we’re like, “well we’re a band that people are into goth music are into.” In my opinion, the Cure aren’t a goth band, they’re a post-punk band. So people can say, hey it’s Goth Night, and they open with a Smiths song. It’s people just finding something that sparks the imagination and they just happen to be part of a particular scene. If the term ‘goth’ hadn’t have been created, I think people would just see it as an art-school scene or as people very heavily into literature or I don’t know what. It’s just where we are. I always say Luxury Stranger is a rock band but then we’re not specifically ‘rock’ [sign of the devil, dude]. At times, we’re quite ‘indie’ but I wouldn’t want someone to think that Luxury Stranger is all jangly guitars, baggy Ts and bowl cuts.
A friend of mine always says that he was a goth ‘back in the day’, and his attitude is that goth died in 1984 – that’s the line as far as he’s concerned. He was once telling me about some of the things that he was into, bands like Specimen. I went back and had a look at pictures and the live shows, and I thought that it’s like they’ve taken punk and glam, made it dark, and then chopped it all together. There’s a bit of that in everybody, like what I’ve said about the Cure – they’ve done some very ‘pop’ songs that have been mainstream hits but there’s that gallows humour element in there. It’s probably the Englishness of it because we can do that – see the funny side of something negative. It’s that that’s weaving through our music that enables people to go, “oh yeah I can relate to that, I can do that”.
It’s probably why Luxury Stranger gets accepted into that circle, because we’ll do something that is very indie in the 90s sense yet lyrically there’s something that’s quite dark. It can all mash together and people can clip onto something, like how Lou Reed would do very dark lyrics but it’s an upbeat ‘oompah’ feeling song.
Is there a song that sums that up, that you can think of?
There’s a song we are working on called All Will Be Well that’s going to be on the new album. It’s a happy upbeat song but the actual subject matter itself is a support for a friend of mine who was close to committing suicide – I wanted to address that but without making it necessarily obvious. He heard the demo and was like, “oh I really like that.” He didn’t say that he knew what it was about or anything. But whether it’s subtle or obvious, I think the song does the job.
As I said, there’s very much a sense everywhere that we’re not returning to live music but we’re having to actively reconstruct it. So many venues are struggling with longstanding pre-Covid problems in addition to what the Pandemic has thrown at them, and it’s the grassroots festivals like Bats in the Attic that are a critical door to re-establishing a healthy burgeoning music scene, especially for goth/alt rock/post punk. So, playing a festival now, is it just another gig or is there that sense of contributing to that bigger picture?
I’m of a mindset that comes from the way I’ve been brought up within music. When I was learning the whole idea of being in a band etcetera, it was that every gig isn’t ‘just a gig’ – it’s not just an opportunity for the band to go “hey look at me, this what I’m doing, I’m really cool” etc. It’s symbiotic – when a band plays in a venue you’re bringing people to both band and venue. And then it grows from there…
That’s my view of it. With all that’s been happening and the way that it’s evolved or devolved after the Pandemic, you’ve got these festivals that are picking up the pieces and saying this is still possible. Now, that’s a great thing but I worry that a lot of people have switched off to certain things because they’ve switched over their priorities. It worries me that the good stuff might be missed out on when you think to yourself that there are people who have been going “we’ve got to play gigs” when the venues were first starting to book shows, but then they’re having to cancel a week later. And the same for the audiences who were buying tickets but not showing up for whatever reason.
You’ve got to take all those things on board, especially with people losing their jobs, people’s wages not shifting in-line with living costs – something’s got to give or got to go. But I really do hope that the festivals are going, “Look this is happening, the bands that are getting involved are able to just pull it out of the mud.” I’m a pessimist about a lot of things but for something like this I’ve got so much faith and belief that if we all do it right, it can work.
Obviously that’s putting a lot of faith not just in what I can do and what the band can do but also in what the people running festivals can do. And it’s also the people that are beyond that, everyone working behind the scenes, the fans and supporters. I’ve never been one for ’sides’ or cliques so I think it’s everybody together having that massive belief, it’s showing that it’s not just a rock scene, it’s not just an indie scene, it’s not just a pop scene, it’s not just a goth scene – it’s a music scene. And every one of us needs to pull together.
— Bats in the Attic 2022 tickets: morecambe/the-alhambra-theatre/bats-in-the-attic
— McGothicfox Promotions Facebook: @McGothicfox
— Corrosion Facebook: @morecambegoths