Lost Brum band returns for shoegaze boxset

Tipped for greatness in the early-90s, Sweet Jesus find themselves featured on a mammoth new compilation. "It’s good to look back and see the musical history of that period. I think it stands up pretty good.," they say.

Sweet Jesus

Released on Cherry Red Records, Still In A Dream: A Story of Shoegaze 1988-1995 is a monster 87-track survey of a highly creative, but often overlooked period of British music. Sandwiched between, and overlapping with, the baggy ‘Madchester’ beats, acid house and grunge of the late-80s/ early-90s, and the mid-90s Britpop explosion, ‘shoegaze’ was a term coined initially as an insult – referring to bands who were head-down, trashing their guitars, looking at their effects pedals or Sneakers. But as the boxset reveals, it was a vital and exciting time as bands took their cues from the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins and Sonic Youth to create a sound that married dreamy melodies with heavily effected guitar lines with tinges of psychedelia.

Charting the genre’s evolution, Still In A Dream features choice cuts from such acts as The Jesus and Mary Train, Cocteau Twins, House Of Love, Spiritualized, Ride, Lush, Slowdive, Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips. Also included are Evesham’s Bang Bang Machine, Coventry’s Adorable, and Birmingham’s own Sweet Jesus.

Hotly tipped by the music press of the time (alongside the likes of Suede and PJ Harvey), Sweet Jesus looked set for stardom, but dissolved after just four singles, including 1992’s Phonefreak Honey – a Single Of The Week in national music paper Melody Maker, and now part of Cherry Red’s 5xCD collection.

To coincide with the release of the album, BrumNotes tracked down Sweet Jesus’ founders, vocalist Ben Bentley and guitarist Roy Priest…

Q: The story of music during the late-80s and into the mid-90s tends to read Acid House and Madcester/ Baggy, then grunge, with Britpop following (as a reaction against that American-led rock onslaught). Yet this boxset seems to tell an alternate story, that there was far more going on in the UK music scene than some would have us believe – what are your thoughts?

ROY: There was loads of good stuff going on, our focus wasn’t particularly on British bands; Sugarcubes [from Iceland], [American acts] Mercury Rev, Pixies, Sparklehorse, Dinosaur Jr, [and] Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine. Not so much Acid House, we were still steeped in the band thing.

BEN: The good thing about the boxset is that I think it tells the story of kindred spirits making inventive new sounds over a span of several years. I’m glad it’s not just a ‘Now’ compilation of so-called shoegaze. It’s good to look back and see the musical history of that period. I think it stands up pretty good. There are lot of groups making music now who have clearly been influenced by that era.

Q: Looking at the boxset tracklisting, do you have any favourite tracks?

ROY: [House Of Love’s] Christine’s a great track, still sounds good. I’ve loved the Cocteau Twins for years. Saw a fantastic gig they did at the Powerhouse in Birmingham. They went down a storm and the crowd refused to go at the end. They came back on, clearly moved (Liz Frazer was wiping away tears). They said they had no more songs left to play so re-wound the drum track on the reel-to-reel and played a track for the second time as an encore.

Kitchens of Distinction had some fantastic songs. Made a great racket live. We did various gigs with them. The 3rd Time We Opened The Capsule is a great song but my favourite was always Prize. The lead track off their last album, Japan To Jupiter was a cracker.

Chapterhouse seemed to epitomise shoegaze at the time but they didn’t quite do it for me. I was too much in awe of Kevin Shields [from My Bloody Valentine].

BEN: As Roy says, Christine by the House of Love is great and still sounds terrific today. The Mary Chain were an inspiration too. They inspired more people to start a group than anyone at that point. And The Cocteaus … just magic. Actual real magic.

Q: How do you think Sweet Jesus fitted in with the rest of the bands featured? Did you see yourself as part of that ‘shoegaze’ scene?

ROY: We gigged with Kitchens of Distinction and Revolver.

I’m not sure where we fitted in; we were always one step removed. Much as we loved noise we loved pop songs and that commercial sensibility in the hooks is there in our singles.

It is a cliché for bands to say that they weren’t part of a scene, but we never felt part of the shoegaze thing. Much as we loved dissonance, distortion and effects pedals we still loved bands with a bit of showmanship rather that staring at the floor. We were brought up on Bowie, Weller and Morrissey. Same with guitarists. Much as Johnny Marr [The Smiths] and Bernard Butler [Suede] are great guitarists and songwriters they knew how to work a stage with a guitar in their hands.

BEN: I don’t think we did really fit in, musically. Then again, the boxset shows that most groups didn’t fit in to this so-called shoegaze thing. But that’s good. I think the attitude towards making great sonic music, without having to sound like a builder’s fart in a cement mixer, is probably a common link.

Q: Compared to some of the other stuff on the compilation, your contribution seems to have a different, almost glam/ T-Rex vibe …

ROY: Me and Ben both have older brothers and were brought up on Bowie and Bolan (not to mention Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music etc). For us there was a direct link from T Rex to the Mary Chain; [they both made] brilliant pop singles and we were drawing on that.

BEN: As well as other things, such as my voice being vaguely Bolan-esque, it maybe has something to do with my voice being quite whispery, unmacho. I was never a shouter. I could never have sung any differently anyway. But we aimed to make pop music, no two ways about it. I liked Blondie and The Smiths more than I liked dirge.

Q: Is the track Phonefreak Honey pretty representative of Sweet Jesus’ sound …?

ROY: I think it’s fair to say that it sums up what we were about at the time. There was another track, Cat Thing which was originally going to be our proper first single (not counting Honey Loving Honey which came out via the Rough Trade Singles Club). I always loved that song. Slower, great melody and layers of guitar and feedback. Shame it never saw the light of day.

BEN: Of the sound, probably yes. Although capturing that sound in the studio was sometimes frustrating for us. It sometimes lost its dynamics, whereas live it was overwhelming and mood altering. I can vouch for that. If I went onstage feeling blue, I’d come off feeling bright orange!

Roy would invent these amazing new guitar sounds. Quite orchestral and soaring really, and they suited my voice. Sometimes you couldn’t tell which was which. When we played it felt like a gang, 100-strong. It was mood-altering for me.

I remember recording song ideas on a Philips cassette player and excitedly playing them down a crackly telephone line to Roy, who was at the other end, holding the cassette player’s speaker to the mouthpiece of the phone. He’d be at the other end, recording what was coming out of the earpiece. I think that somewhere down the phone line, amongst the crackles, some magic would happen.

Q: How did the band come together?

ROY: Me and my brother Dave were in bands together for years. We did the usual thing of sticking up ads everywhere with a long list of all the bands we were into. Ben spotted it in Birmingham’s legendary Oasis, was struck by the facsimile of his tastes and gave us a call, originally joining as the drummer. There’s quite a history of drummers stepping out from behind the drum kit and grabbing the mic which goes way beyond Phil Collins… Paul joined later. Once Ben became the frontman we struggled to find a good drummer. Paul was fantastic and a lovely guy to boot.

BEN: I remember seeing a poster in a second-hand clothing market – “Band member wanted… influences include Joy Division, The Smiths,  Barbara Streisand.” I went to the nearest telephone box…

Q: You were tipped for big things by the then pretty powerful (and well-read) national music press, but only released four singles, no album – what happened?

ROY: Rough Trade went bust (for a second time) which pretty much finished us off.

BEN: The record label had some financial issues. It hit us quite hard. Being on Rough Trade was a big thing for me personally. It had the spirit of great music, having been home to some of my favourite groups such as The Smiths. This was in a time before the Internet. If what happened then happened now, there would have been other ways of producing music and reaching fans globally. But back then the only real exposure was through having records out, radio play, or through gigging.

Q: What was the highpoint of Sweet Jesus’ career?

ROY: For me it was playing Reading Festival in ’92, introduced by Mark Radcliffe who had picked up on us a while before after hearing a demo of Albino Ballerina.

We worked with a couple of name producers in fancy studios but in terms of recording I’ve got fonder memories of some of the earlier demos when we really hit our stride; the excitement of starting to nail the sound we were after.

BEN: The Reading Festival of ’92 was great. And it was always great to hear your records on the radio. I was driving along one day when one of the tracks came on and I thought, yikes, we’ve got someone copying us… then I realised that it WAS us. I’d have been a fan, definitely.

Q: What was the Brum music scene like in the early ’90s?

ROY: It was a pretty disparate scene in Birmingham at the time. Again we never really felt part of a scene locally.

Prior to signing to Rough Trade we played everywhere we could both in Birmingham and elsewhere including playing the usual haunts in London at the time; Falcon, Bull and Gate etc.

We did various headline and support tours later. Much as it was exciting to play places like the Brixton Academy I’ve got good memories of playing tiny venues off the beaten track to a bunch of kids who were loving it.

BEN: I don’t think we fitted in to a Birmingham scene. We didn’t really know other bands. We were outsiders. We rehearsed and made music in a factory unit.

The factory was like the fifth member of the band. We’d go in when the workers stopped at 6pm and slope out again before they got back for the morning shift. It gave us a lot of time to ferment. In the middle of the night, when everyone was asleep. We found our sound there. Sometimes we’d sit and eat pot noodles and just talk about music… without playing a note. We never hired a proper rehearsal studio so we never mixed too much with other musicians. I think that’s why we didn’t really fit in with other music going on locally. The factory was like our own private Hamburg!

There were some great groups around before us in the late ’80s, like Felt and some really inventive, individual-sounding pop groups. But by the ’90s that pop sensibility seemed to be drowned out by grunge and T shirt bands.

In the early development days, a local venue called JB’s [in Dudley] was important. It was an old schoolhouse, but it gave groups a chance. You could read about groups like The Stone Roses in the Melody Maker on a Wednesday and then go and see them at JB’s on a Friday. We played there a few times. Although because we weren’t really part of a local scene I think we puzzled people.

Q: Why did the band call it a day? And what did you do next?

ROY: The band morphed into Venus and we recorded an album, Miss Paris. Some nice songs but we were struggling to hold it together. Ben went on to do Groupie with Gavin (who had replaced my brother in Sweet Jesus). I moved into the business side of things, doing allsorts including band management. Eventually I had enough, manoeuvred my way into Higher Education and never left. Every year another intake of students finds a few photos of me when I had hair and cheekbones…

BEN: I was in a few bands after that, and we had records out. Then when all that ended, like a lot of musicians, I stopped playing altogether. It was too painful. But I still write songs and I always will. I’ve even played some acoustic gigs on my own in recent months.

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