Enduring Brit punkers Chelsea keep rolling on, careering towards a fiftieth year in the business, but still very much a viable act. The band’s new album Meanwhile Gardens (Westworld) is an absolute stormer, smashing into the Sentinel Daily Top Thirty Album Chart at number five last week, so it seemed a very sensible idea to have a chat with the band’s bassist Mat Sargent to find out how the last couple of years have treated the band…
Meanwhile Gardens has been out a little while now – are you pleased with the reception for it so far? “It came out on the 28th of May; The Pledgers who helped with the crowdfunding for it had got the album about a month before that so lots of people had been talking about it. There was loads of really good press about the album around the time of release… I was speaking to someone at the label’s warehouse and he said the record’s flying off the shelves! which makes a change…”
This is three albums in six years now for the band. “Yes, Saturday Night Sunday Morning was released in 2015, Mission Impossible came out in 2017, and we actually started writing Meanwhile Gardens in 2019. Me and Nic (Austin, guitars/vocals) did some demos, we demoed about six or seven songs. Then we went out on tour, and did some rough mixes in the van, and we were set to go into the Studio in April last year and then of course everything happened. So we postponed the session for three months, got in the studio for about two weeks, put most of the backing tracks down. Usually then you leave it for a couple of weeks, listen to the mixes, see if there’s anything that niggles you or you want to change before you go in and mix it. And so when we were ready to go back in we got hit with the second lockdown! So we had to wait another two or three months… so it’s been a long process, with there never being more than three people in the studio at the same time. We weren’t all there together and different people had to get their stuff done on different days. But we got there in the end!”
That’s a very Guns n’Roses way of doing things – only one person in the studio at a time, nobody seeing anybody else… “Yes! Well, Def Leppard‘s Hysteria took two years, I think”…
Notwithstanding COVID it’s hard to keep a band together these days, but when you add in that extra component of touring being taken away – how hard was it to hold things afloat these past few years? “As I said we did the Rebellion tour in 2019, and we had planned to take 2020 off to do the album, we were only going to do a few gigs here and there to keep the engine running really. We were hoping to tour the album this year but obviously that’s not going to happen. We heard yesterday that we’ve had a couple of gigs cancelled that we were due to play in July, so God knows what’s going to happen… our next gig booked is in September at The Hope and Anchor in Islington, which was supposed to be for (singer) Gene (October)’s seventieth birthday. We’ll see if that happens (laughs)… but I guess it hasn’t affected us that much. We had planned to tour for the fortieth anniversary of the Evacuate album next year. We were going to do the Hope and Anchor show and then start rehearsing for that; we’ll be playing the album in it’s entirety as well as all the classics like Right To Work and Urban Kids as well. We thought it would be something nice for the fans”.
Talking of fans, they seem to be getting younger, don’t they? It’s a nice position to be in to be able to tour an album for it’s fortieth anniversary with a whole new load of fans to come and see it. “Yes. But a lot of our fans remember the Evacuate era – the So What tour with The Anti-Nowhere League et cetera. Hitch hiking to gigs and following the tour so it’ll be a nostalgia thing for them. A lot of those songs, songs like Looks Right, Only Thinking… they are great songs. They aren’t in our usual set and I’m looking forward to playing some of those songs we don’t usually play”.
Watching your tour diaries on YouTube, it’s clear you still enjoy touring. “Which one have you watched? There are three or four!” I’ve watched a couple. The one where Goulash features is my favourite. “Goulash repeats through most of them (laughing). We started doing Goulash fridge magnets on the merch stall. They all went within a few days! Everyone wanted one! I always take my video camera with me on the road. I’ve got a lot of footage. During lockdown I put together those tour diaries. I did one from the Alternative tour in 1993. It’s great to get that footage out so people can see it”.
Let’s get back to the new album now. I’d like you to take me track-by-track through the record, and just give our readers a little bit of background on each song. First up is the title track. “Meanwhile Gardens. Nic wrote the title track. He likes to write the title track; Traitors Gate, The Alternative, Evacuate… it’s a great song, a great opener”.
Track two is Cash. “That was released as the single. Me and Nic wrote that. It was one of the ones we wrote up at Nic’s. It was the one we picked as the single, it was always going to be that or Meanwhile Gardens”.
Track three is Here and Now. “That’s another one me and Nic wrote. Meanwhile Gardens was actually a place in London where they had free festivals in the late seventies and early eighties, and Gene had given us a load of titles to write from. He wanted Meanwhile Gardens to be the title of the album, and Here and Now was another title, Worldwide Domination was another, so we wrote the songs from the titles. Here and Now was one of the bands that used to play at The Gardens. The song isn’t about them, it’s just the title. I couldn’t tell you what it was about! (laughs). When me and Nic write we write the music and the lyrics together, we get a vibe going, and then it’s whatever springs to mind”.
The Great Divide is next. “I can’t remember who wrote that one! (more laughter). I think it’s an Austin/Sargent one – you can hear Nic’s anthemic sound in the choruses. He’s got his signatures, his harmonic sounds. He layers his guitars to get that sound”.
It’s quite a varied album sound wise. When you write, do you look for that Chelsea sound, or as you say is the ‘vibe’ more important? “First and foremost, we write songs for ourselves. If we like them, we’ll pursue them. A couple of songs got dumped. Once we decide we like them, we put the Chelsea trademark sounds on them – Nic’s guitars, my basslines. Then Gene puts his voice on and it’s Chelsea!”
The next one is It’s Friday. “That’s Gene’s track. He’d written three songs. On Mission Impossible and SNSM me and James (Stevenson, former guitarist) went down to Gene’s house in Brighton and did some co-writing with him. But for this album Gene presented the band with three demos that he’d done in the studio. We took them away and reworked them – did what we do on them – and they turned out really well”.
Track six is Shine The Light. “Another me and Nic one. That was my least favourite on the album. We reworked it because I wasn’t happy with it – wrote some new lyrics a couple of months before we recorded it, and it turned out alright in the end once everyone had put their bits and pieces on. I think sometimes you listen to the demos, and you imagine how it’s going to be… so I was pleased that it turned out as it did”.
It’s easy to stuck on things in the writing and recording phase isn’t it. You can’t see the wood for the trees sometimes. “Yes. Me and Nic usually find the right road. We really enjoy the writing process – we get to hang out, spend some time together. Nic lives in Lowestoft, in Sussex, and I’m down in London, a three hour drive away. So when we do get together we always have a good caper! But I think we could just keep writing songs forever. We just really enjoy it”.
Next track: Why Aren’t We There. “Is that Nic singing that one?” Yes. “Yes it is. Occasionally we write songs and Gene will say ‘you sing it, it’s more suited to your voice’, or ‘I like the sound of your voice’ – really, he’s being lazy (laughs)! So Nic got to sing that one. I quite liked it because Nic’s influenced by bands like T-Rex and you can hear that in the guitar riffs. It’s a bit different. When you’re compiling the album, it’s not just record the songs and stick ’em on – you have to think about the vibe of the album, the journey. You have to get the dynamics right and this one was placed in the right place. It flows really well. Good track”.
People forget how important that is in these days where you can buy a single track from the album off of iTunes or whatever. People sometimes forget how good it is to listen to an album from start to finish, how good that journey can be. That’s part of the enjoyment. “Yes, like you say people can just ‘cherry pick’ off of iTunes. I like the old hippy thing of holding a record sleeve in your hand while the music’s playing! And of course with this album sleeve it’s a great one to look at. There are all sorts of things going on on the sleeve”.
I hesitate to say this, but it’s a very Marillion-style album sleeve. “Really?” I’m joking. But I like the way the tone of your voice changed when I said it. “Yeah… Marillion (more laughter). Martin Stacey, Chelsea’s original guitarist, does a punk rock art show in London. The year before last he asked us to go to the show and play three or four songs. Gene said he’s like to do it. So Martin asked us to do some artwork for his exhibition. He had people like Gaye Advert, Charlie Harper, Spizzenergi, Knox from The Vibrators all doing stuff. I bought a canvas in an Art Shop in Germany, and thought with so many hours on the road we’d just do a little picture. We all did little bits; Gene did the grass and the flowers, I did the people, Nic did the houses. We all had a go and that ended up in the art exhibition. We just thought it was a great bit of artwork. We got Richard Stone, who’s done the artwork on our last couple of albums and gave him the picture and asked him if he could render it as an art piece. We’re really pleased with it. I don’t know if you can see the little acid tab in the corner? We started rumours that the first batch of albums had to be sent back to warehouse because they’d somehow been dipped in acid ‘accidentally on purpose’… it got people talking!
The next track is my favourite one: Cold Cut. “That’s one of my tracks. I wrote that about the lineup change we had when James (Stevenson) and drummer Lee (Morrell) left the band. It was about that. James still plays with us but he’s very busy with The Alarm and his solo album that he just couldn’t commit. He played on the album for us. When Lee left three years ago Steve Grainger took over. He’d played with Tyla and Dogs D’Amour before that and new our chemistry very well having been with us on the road as a driver for ten years! Rob Miller, who played guitar on the Traitor’s Gate album came down and played on a couple of tracks, which was great as I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. Rob’s going to join us for the Evacuate tour. We haven’t actually announced that so you’ve got a little scoop there! Cold Cut was another one of the songs we did in those early demo sessions”.
World Wide Domination. “One of Gene’s titles. We just wrote it from the title. When we write it all starts as scrambled eggs, or cornflakes as we call it… then it turns into something more. I think it was one of the tracks that Gene heard us working on on the road. He never listens to demos, he doesn’t like them. He likes to just come down to the studio and do his thing. He thinks if he hears a vocal line that we’ve done it will stick in his head and stop him from doing his own thing. This one turned out all right, he was quite happy with the lyrics so it was a goer!”
Ladbroke Grove is next. “Great track. Another one of Gene’s. We got Martin Stacey to play the bass. He came down to the studio with Bob Jessie, who played bass for Chelsea when he was in the band. So we had two original members of the band. Bob played keyboards on Little Venice, which is the last track on the album. We also got Mike Spenser, who was the singer in The Count Bishops and has his own band, The Cannibals, to do the harmonica on it. He’s one of my neighbours, he lives in the next street, and we hang out. On Gene’s demo I could hear a mouth organ which he’d obviously been playing. It was badly out of tune (laughter). I thought we’d get Mike Spenser in to do it. He came over to England with The New York Dolls as their roadie, and I thought Ladbroke Grove needed to be a bit like Pills (from the Dolls’ 1973 debut) so we got him to do that. I’m really pleased with it and a lot of the fans like it”.
Next up is Falling Apart. “That was a Nic track. Not quite sure what it’s about. Falling apart maybe! Nic had written three tracks on his own beforehand, so when I went up to do the demo sessions we worked on the arrangements a little bit. I put some new bass on it and the track just worked. As you say there are a lot of different spices on this record; it’s not all ‘kill the pigs! smash the government!’. There is a bit of intelligent stuff in there, which I think is quite unusual for an ‘old’ band. Chelsea do get complimented on the melodies and the tunes that we come up with, which is good”.
But I think that’s part of punk’s legacy, isn’t it? I always feel that the best punk – or at least the best English punk – is an uplifting style of music. “Yes, exactly. It’s not that we’ve got older and we don’t give a fuck anymore, we’ve still got issues and angers that we want to talk about. I think we always will do. It’s getting those across; and the thing is to write things in the same vein as Chelsea, that’s what the fans like, but at the same time always trying to better ourselves. When We did SNSM, which was our first album in ten years, it was kind of like we were putting our flag in the sand. But we weren’t over keen with the mix; we might actually remix it for an anthology at some point. But it was the first time we’d worked with Dickie (Crippen, producer), although I’d personally worked with him on the Sex, Drugs and HIV album, so I knew how he worked. But it was Dickie’s first time working with us and it took a bit of adjusting. But Meanwhile Gardens is really well produced, the songs are great, lots of different flavours. So we knew we were going up. Meanwhile Gardens had to be better than Mission Impossible. And it’s gone down really well. I think the fans like it better than Mission Impossible“.
Given that as you say, you hadn’t done an album for ten years before SNSM, I always feel that this trio of albums forms a small set on it’s own within Chelsea’s history. And you can certainly see the progression through those three albums. “Yes. Each anthology we’ve done has been three albums, so I guess anthology four will be these three albums. We usually put demos and unreleased stuff too. But like you say, we definitely feel there’s a progression. We did say it was going to be our last album. Getting an album together takes a lot of hard work. It’s not just getting in a studio and boshing them out, as Gene thinks (laughs)… it takes a lot of organising. From start to finish – from writing the songs, demoing them – that process can take up to two years. By that time… Gene is seventy now. I’d never say never but if we do do something it might be some EPs or something like that. I’m not sure about another album. We’ll have to wait and see. We did do a new version of Right To Work during the sessions for Meanwhile Gardens, which didn’t get used. Gene didn’t want to do the vocals on it! So we have an instrumental version of right to work, a really good version. I don’t know why he didn’t want to sing it. He might be a bit precious about the original version, but it’s on so many compilations now. Two weeks later he phoned me up and said (adopts October style voice) ‘French or German!’ (laughs). We did the We Dare single in 1994 and he sang it in German, which was quite funny to watch. The engineer said he sounded like ‘a Dutch person trying to speak German’. So we’ve got the instrumental version of Right To Work. Maybe we could get Gene to do a Spanish version, a Japanese version…”
Just do a whole album of different language versions! The penultimate track on the album is Destination To Nowhere. “That was a song written on the road about the road. Two tours ago we went through about ten busses in four weeks. You couldn’t make it up. Promoters were having to pick us up half way down the motorway, fifty miles away, and take us to the gig, then take us to the next gig, it was chaos. And it was costing us a fortune. So this song is about all those things that happened. People at home think you’re living the life, being a rock star, but it’s not really like that”.
Last track – Little Venice. “I love that track, it’s one of my favourites. One of Gene’s songs. Like I said Gene gave us his demo and me and Nic reworked them; it was Nic’s idea to put the ending on the song. It kind of opens out at the end, ‘I hope that it never ends’… it brings a tear to the eye! It’s got a doo-wop feel to it. I don’t know whether anybody noticed but I put some castanets in there! I was really pleased with it”.
And that’s it. We’ve overrun out time massively – is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers of Sentinel Daily about the album? “If you haven’t got it, get it”.
Meanwhile Gardens is out now. Read Scott’s review of the album HERE