The Sundowners at The Kazimier
by Robert Parry
I came at the wrong time to interview The Sundowners. That’s not to say this isn’t an exciting time in their career – their self-titled debut was released a couple of weeks back to solid reviews and they’ve already begun recording their second album. As well as this, they’re planning to put out this gig as a live album (if all goes to plan – as Jim, the drummer, explained, the engineer’s laptop had just packed in, and unless they could sort it out there was no recording!).
I managed to pick the worst point to arrive. I turned up in the middle of the sound check, so at several times during the interview somebody downstairs absolutely ripped into a drum solo, nudging doors ajar and shaking noticeboards from the walls. Fiona and Niamh, the two singers, both skipped the interview to save their voices after losing them at a London gig, and nobody seemed to know where Tim, the bassist, was. This left me with Jim and Alfie, the guitarists:
So you’re still quite new as a band?
Alfie: We’ve been playing properly and gigging for three years now, but we’ve only just got the album out.
Jim: Yeah, I think we’ve got it to this point and been playing this sound for like a year.
Is it satisfying to have come so far in that stretch of time?
Alfie: Yeah, it’s always good when people show up to your gigs, isn’t it?
Jim: And with the album out everyone knows the songs, and there are a lot of people singing along and getting into it.
Alfie: That’s the worst thing, somebody knows all the lyrics and you’re like [makes an expression of panic].
Would you say you’re still developing as a band?
Alfie: Yeah I reckon so, we’ve finished the album and recorded like three new tunes for the next one. They’re not completely different, but they’ve got a bit of a different edge – a bit Radiohead-y, with the guitars and stuff.
Jim: We’ve been working off the stuff we’ve been listening to, I think.
Alfie: Like Axelrod, Radiohead, Scott Walker – it’s a bit more soundtrack-y on some of it, but it’ll probably change on the next batch we do [they laugh].
So do you think that it’s best to get material out whilst it’s fresh?
Alfie: Yes, but it’s not always possible. The best time you can perform a tune is just after you’ve done it and you’re excited about playing it, but obviously there are so many other logistical things in the way of doing it, especially with not being on a major label. You need to make sure that it’s the right record when you put it out so no-one kills it and it just ends all the hard work you’ve done. Every move you make has got to be in the best interests of the band.
Was it difficult to get this album out?
Alfie: It took a long time. I think for the first two years we had interesting people talking to us and stuff and then we just decided to do it on our own, then Skeleton Key got involved and they’ve been really great. We recorded the album in about two weeks.
I was reading somewhere that you paid for the recording of the album yourselves, was that tough to do?
Jim: We just gigged, didn’t we?
Alfie: Yeah, we probably spent a year saving the money and gigging everywhere – any gig we’d get, we’d just take it.
Jim: We were quite lucky though, because it’s quite hard to get the gigs in the first place and then we just got on a roll with This Feeling [a club night] and got quite a few good supports.
Alfie: Mikey from This Feeling put us on in London a lot, and on the back of that we played all these mad towns – we’d just play anywhere and keep the money and survive.
Jim: We had this big model Buddha and he was laughing like this [puts his hands on his stomach] ‘HA HA HA HA’ and all the money used to go in there. He was bent right over by the end of it.
If other bands were trying to get an album out, would you recommend doing it the same way?
Alfie: Every band’s different, aren’t they? We’re just such a live band, we like performing live and getting a crowd going so it worked out for us, but there were hindrances as well – some of the tunes that we wrote for the live set didn’t work when we put them down on record. They were good tunes, but they didn’t seem to last as long, because you didn’t have the sounds that you needed.
The Coral were quite an influence on the production of this album, would you say that they’re quite an influential band locally?
Jim: Definitely, I think they probably influenced a lot other bands. A lot of Liverpool bands are like that, like Echo and the Bunnymen –
Alfie: Like band’s bands, in the way that when you see them you want to be in a band like them. The Zutons as well – they were well good live. I think we might be more similar to them than we are to The Coral. They were a touring unit, like hard-working – not in the sense of a work ethic, but in the way that they gigged – and in that way I feel we lean more towards them.
I’ve been watching clips of you online, and it’s impressive how well you work as a group. Did that come naturally, or did it take a lot of work to figure out how to best complement each other?
Alfie: I worked them all into shape [they laugh].
Jim: Fiona and Niamh were best mates for years, and obviously they were annoying you [to Alfie] when you were a kid.
Alfie: So they already had that bond, and soon as you put it all together there was never really any difficulty – we all just get on and have a laugh. I think because there’s not one lead person, there’s no massive egos that get in the way of the cause. That could be a bad thing as well at times though, because sometimes you need someone to take charge, and if it means that they have to be a bit of a dick to get the job done –
Jim: You’ve done that loads! [they laugh]
Alfie: We just get on, really. When you’re in a van together that much, you’ve got no choice but to get on.
So is this gig the last one on your tour?
Alfie: This is the first batch of gigs, then we have a two week break and some more in March. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some festivals, as well.
Are there any particular places that have stood out so far?
Jim: The London one was probably the most surprising, because we did a London show about a year before and it was like a hard gig, but that was just easy – they egged us on and got us that much into it that the girls have lost their voices because they went for it, and we all went crazy at the end and had a big jam.
Alfie: That’s a gig though isn’t it, you feed off that energy.
Jim: I mean there’ve been bits where guitars have broken and cut out and stuff, but you just start giving it a kick and it comes back on. That’s going to a live gig, isn’t it? It comes with it. You cannot stop the tune once you’ve started. We’ve had really good crowds as well, they’ve all got behind us.
Are you looking forward to having a break?
Alfie: I think you just need like twenty four hours on your own, which you don’t get. You can go home for one day and you’re like “Right, let’s go”.
Jim: I think it’s just being around everyone, every day, all the time. You don’t get a minute to just unwind. I’m gutted that it’s over, but I can’t wait to just have one day.
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I saw them that evening in The Kazimier (if you’re going there in the near future, they’ve got an elderflower beer on one of the taps which is nowhere near as disgusting as it sounds). One of the first things that struck me was how few of the songs I knew. Even after spending the days leading up to the gig trawling through Youtube for all the songs I could find, I only recognised maybe four of the ones they played. I suppose that backlog of unreleased material that Alfie was talking about means that they have a deep well to draw from. Maybe it’s not right to compare them to an act like the Rolling Stones and laud them for not just playing their most recognisable songs when they don’t have all that many recognisable songs to play, but even so I was impressed that they were using the gig as an opportunity to develop stuff from further into their back catalogue. I enjoyed the gig a lot more for not being able to predict what was going to be played, and they balanced it out with enough from the album that I didn’t feel like I was being thrown into entirely uncharted territory.
One of the high points of the evening was Fiona and Niamh’s singing. Their decision to skip the interview paid off – one of them occasionally ducked out for a swig of water, but aside from that I’m not sure I’d have noticed that there was any danger of them losing their voices if I hadn’t been told. They were each good enough when they sang on their own, but singing together, with their voiced buoying each other up, they were incredible. On songs like Into the Light, in which their voices dovetailed with Alfie’s buzzing guitar without ever becoming lost in it, and the closer Medicine, they absolutely filled the room. If this is how they can sing two days after their voices going, then I’m very excited to see them at full strength.
Another thing I loved about The Sundowners is how much you can clearly tell they enjoy playing together. This led to some wonderful moments of spontaneity – a couple of songs in, for example, they started playing the intro to Into The Light before all suddenly deciding to launch into a different song. I hope that they can keep up this kind of camaraderie in the future, because it makes for an excellent performance. If did finally manage to sort out the engineer’s computer and record the gig, then I can see it being a more than worthy addition to their rapidly expanding discography.