In the run-up to the marriage equality referendum earlier this year, there were many poignant speeches, online proclamations and status updates, and McAlmont & Butler’s single Yes started to become an unofficial anthem of affirmation.
Some 20 years on from its release, the epic chart hit spread its wings again – on social media and playlists – as it was shared daily on the way to victory for the Yes campaign.
Sitting in a Dublin hotel five months later, David McAlmont and Bernard Butler tell me they’ve heard the tale a few times since arriving in Ireland, and Bernard jokes: “What people don’t realise is that we were behind the entire campaign, which we hatched and planned from London, so it all worked out for us.”
Joking aside, the 20-year milestone is a big one. The pair have reunited for their first tour in more than a decade, and they’re playing Dublin on Sunday – their first Irish gig since the Ambassador in 2002.
It’s also 20 years since the release of The Sound of McAlmont & Butler, a compilation of sorts that became the duo’s de facto debut album.
The actual sound of McAlmont & Butler is many degrees of separation away from the Britpop of the day – pitching McAlmont’s incredible soul voice with Butler’s sweeping string arrangements and loose guitar, a break away from his freewheeling leads and (blah blah) on the first two Suede albums.
For such an accomplished and classic hit single, Yes was the first song Butler wrote after leaving Suede, and he said of his writing then: “It was a very idealistic concept, make some noise… just the most pure thing that pop could be.”
The pair’s paths crossed via a series of flukes, with the song not working out with another singer, and McAlmont having a fully-formed melody and set of lyrics begging for a suitable backing.
There’s no sense of the pair being bored of talking about their first release, as David’s recalling the first time hearing Yes, and he’s still humming Bernard’s melodies.
“I had to go on a journey with that song, at first it was just a conversation that Bernard and I had, ‘here’s a piece of music’. The thing I most enjoyed about it was the flute in the second verse, that was the bit when I thought, ‘Oh I like this’.
David adds “So we recorded it and my friends were saying, ‘You know this is gonna be a hit, right?’ But I was thinking I didn’t have those powers of analysis to determine that.”
Even before any music had been laid down, the collaboration was sealed as Bernard was name-dropping Burt Bacharach, and David adds: “Then Bernard said the magic words to me, ‘I’m thinking of working on some music and I’ve been listening to lots of Dusty Springfield. That was the ‘ping’ for me.
“I wasn’t expecting anything Suede-like, I wasn’t surprised. What was fresh about it was that it was symphonic and melodious, but with this raging guitarist in the middle of it.”
The Sound… was never supposed to be an album, as Yes was written as a standalone piece, but after a few B-sides and further studio work, Bernard says they soon realised they “could do whatever the hell we wanted”. The record label asked if they could put them all together as a compilation, and he adds: “Fast forward, it’s quite a cool album, I like it because it’s quite odd, we were aware it wasn’t put together as a regular album, there wasn’t a thread. The reasons why it’s an odd record are the reasons why I like it.”
The record also seems like a contrary step well away from the Britpop of the era, with Bernard adding: “There were lots of references to the 60s in that period, but sometimes the way they were done, it was pastiche, just corny. Y’know, ‘We like the Beatles, so therefore we’re gonna try and sound like them – and look like them if we can.
“It wasn’t like an inspiration. And the waving flags and all that stuff. I found that really vulgar. It was very white, male aggressive, macho, and none of those things were us. The record has its own little space… it’s not very coke-y, let’s put it that way.”
One of the most enduring pop culture debates is the devaluation of recorded music, with forks in the road like home taping, CD burning, MP3 sharing and streaming all becoming scapegoats along the way. Butler said he was confronted by this stark fact after finding out that the Sound of McAlmont and Butler could be bought on CD for 1p on Amazon Marketplace.
The 1p Album Club is tumblr group of friends who buy these “criminally undersold” albums and review them on the site, and Bernard was alerted to the record appearing on the site.
He says: “Say you haven’t heard Grace by Jeff Buckley and I have, well I’m gonna give you that and you’re gonna give me the Sound of McAlmont & Butler and we’re gonna write a little piece and post a review on Twitter.
“I thought it was really funny when they did ours. It was nice, the person liked it overall. It got me thinking that someone was evaluating it outside of the campaign, there’s no pressure. I just wanted it to be full price again, sounding good, put it on vinyl, it’s the definitive version, and we wrote notes about it.”
McAlmont & Butler are the first to admit they’re an odd couple – including 2002’s Bring It Back they’ve released two albums and haven’t toured between these long breaks. They keep having to point out that they don’t split acrimoniously, but David says they generally “drift off into a million records each”.
Bernard has his solo records, as well as being a member of The Tears and Trans, and has produced and collaborated with 20-odd artists, including Neneh Cherry, Duffy, Kate Nash, Bert Jansch and The Cribs. David also has his solo efforts, as well as notable collaborations with Michael Nyman and David Arnold.
David adds that he’s generally good to go when he gets “the call” from Bernard, with the guitarist chiming in: “I like putting people on the spot, let’s make it spontaneous, instead of, you know when you arrange to meet someone and it’s only lunch or a pint, you’re sometimes back and forth with your diaries for ages.
The current tour was hatched after Bernard ran the London Marathon for the Bobath Centre for children with cerebral palsy, and he thought a one-off gig would raise some more funds. He knew David was his “best best” so they agreed a show at Union Chapel and Islington Assembly, with the rest of the band made up of members of The Magic Numbers.
“We went out drinking with the Magic Numbers afterwards, I remember walking down the road with Romeo after the Union Chapel gig and him saying, ‘Man we gotta do this again… this is brilliant, when are we gonna do this?’”
David jokes: “I don’t know where I was at this stage, but Romeo and Bernard let me know what was going on. but it’s a lovely thing, because I love the Magic Numbers and they’re fans of ours, and Romeo got around it by asking the others. so next thing you know, for the tour it’s me, Bernard, three quarters of the Magic Numbers and Mako [Sakamoto] and string players doing this really enjoyable show, and we get a chance to do six more of them.”
After the current six dates, signs are good that the pair won’t drift apart for another decade, as David says there’s “a good possibility” they’ll finish the third album they started after Bring It Back, amid some pretty gloomy times getting bogged down in record label limbo, becoming untethered after the guy who signed them was sacked.
David says the rest of this year is “a bit mental” as he’s finishing a history of art degree, so they’re projecting they’ll work on finishing it next summer. They’ll be playing songs at the show, and Bernard reveals that it’s “not as dayglo as Bring It Back”, with David replying: “Yeah this is more dusky, isn’t it?”
Bernard adds: “Dusky is a good word, that fits. It’s funny, we wrote the songs and demoed them but with record company interference we just got fed upo with it, not with each other. Bernard turns to David saying he was “in a bit of a phase” at the time, adding”I don’t think you’d write those words now.”
David agrees, saying he looks back and it feels like it’s a “different character”. When recalling the period, David slips into third person mode, saying: “When Bernard said recently I was a very different person then, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I remember him. With that I was having a Halloween Jekyll, Aladdin Sane kind of experience.
“But he’s very intriguing… he’s planning suicide and talking about staggering into the Thames and going down to muddy waters and speaking about the old and the bewildered in forgotten rooms, having a dark moment.”
They say they’re avoiding labels this time, with Bernard sayin: “We wouldn’t go near a label with a barge pole… why would you? David adds: “Labels make you feel like you’re the birth of rock’n’roll till they have your signature. I’ve had one A&R guy sit at my feet.”
With no pressure we’re all winners, as Bernard adds: “We benefit from having more freedom and fans benefit from us not having to go on the treadmill. We don’t do this lightly.”
- Irish Daily Star, October 30, 2015