Like most Mancunians, I’m packed with civic pride. I love Manchester’s energy, humour and Northern pragmatism. I’m proud that it reaches for the stars, knowing it will fail gloriously (remember the two Olympic bids?) but grasps at the opportunities that comes its way (‘our’ fabulous Commonwealth Games of 2002).
I bristle at the suggestion that my city is grey and rainy. Morrissey may have sung about “a humdrum town that drags you down” but he could because, well, he is a Manc. I love telling people that Anthony H Wilson was Manchester personified – a visionary maverick who made things happen, a loveable rogue who traded in myths and legends while maintaining the air of an arrogant shyster. For us Mancunians, these are all extremely positive traits.
And I also love Manchester’s music history. I was entranced by Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ when I was ten years old (and, yes, I realise Ian Curtis was from Macclesfield) and the first – life-changing – single by The Smiths came out when I was 13. I shuffled with youthful embarrassment to New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ at school discos and was in my late teens when the crazy years of the Madchester scene took hold. At that time, I was a DJ for a club night that only played tracks by The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays or Inspiral Carpets. Happy daze and easy money. The Hacienda nightclub molded my understanding of dance music and my love of rap was fuelled by acts like Ruthless Rap Assassins who were from Hulme, a mile away from my house. In 1994, Oasis seemed like the greatest group in the world.
But, I’m not one for nostalgia. Manchester’s legacy is probably a journalistic mind-trick that only surfaces when tickets need to be sold and records pushed. Manchester can get bogged down in veneration – personally, The Stone Roses’ reunion leaves me cold. While the city has created some incredible music, I don’t need a new band to be the ‘next Joy Division’. While the Madchester ‘scene’ was small, focused and sonically incestuous, in the intervening decades, the city has grown and the current music scene is diverse and rich in talent and vision. While bands such as Everything Everything, Hurts and Wu Lyf have all achieved recent success worldwide, they appear to have little in common – apart from the city that birthed them.
Currently, Manchester can boast dozens of fabulous new bands. Taking one as an example, Ghost Outfit are generating a lot of excitement around town. A two-piece comprising Jack Hardman on vocals and guitar and Mike Benson on drums, last year’s debut single ‘Tuesday’ is full of static hiss, machine-gun drumming and a cavalcade of guitar power. They have already played a number of frighteningly good shows and are currently writing new material ahead of tearing up the UK in the latter half of 2012. They score high on the ‘Ones-To-Watch-ometer’.
I’m intrigued as to what it is like to be an up-and-coming musician in Manchester so I meet with Ghost Outfit in the city’s majestic Deaf Institute venue to chat through – amongst other things – their perspective on the subject. What I discover is that for these two aspiring musicians, Manchester’s legacy means absolutely diddly squat.
You used to be a four-piece but are now a duo. Why the change?
Jack: It needed to be fun. We were tired of this awful, shoegazey indie. There were four of us in this band – we had a bassists and another guitarist – and it was only in 2010 that we became a two-piece. So, from when we became a two-piece, there wasn’t a two-piece band in Manchester who weren’t trying to sound like a two-piece – in the way that No Age are not trying to sound like a two-piece. They try to sound like a full band which is what we try to do.
I’m just about following your ‘two-piece’ train of thought. You are set up as a guitarist and drummer – how restrictive is this dynamic?
Jack: Well, some of our favourite bands are two-pieces. Initially, we thought it might restrict us, but after a very short while we realised it freed us up a lot. It forces us to not to prescribe to clichés – the certain things that a bass guitar does or a lead guitar does – and you are forced to think in a completely different way.
I can see that – I always thought that Jack White pushed himself harder in the relatively constrained environment of The White Stripes than he has done in his other bands. He had nowhere to hide in The White Stripes.
Mike: Exactly, we can’t hide what we are doing behind a load of instruments. I don’t see there being a ceiling to it just because there is so much a two-piece can do without having to resort to suddenly going acoustic or becoming an electronic band overnight. The White Stripes wrote garage rock and they pushed that boundary as far as they possibly could and then they couldn’t really go any further without having to have four stage guitarists and a backing brass quartet or something.
But there is a danger of being compared to The White Stripes.
Jack: Indeed. We had a great conversation with Mark from Brown Brogues who was saying that he bought a gorgeous guitar when he was in America. It was red and white and he loved it. But he brought it back to Britain and he said he can’t play it anymore because Brown Brogues are a two-piece and play sort of garage rock music. He didn’t like the association of having a red and white guitar and it is an easy association to make.
What sort of music has influenced the sound of Ghost Outfit? Which bands do you agree on?
Mike: Not many.
Jack: We like bands from the same era. If we like modern bands, they may be very similar but Mike will like one and I will like the other. One of the big one’s for us is Pavement and Sonic Youth. I absolutely love Sonic Youth and Mike absolutely loves Pavement.
Mike, you don’t like Sonic Youth?
Mike: I’ve tried.
Jack: We both love Deerhunter and No Age is a big one.
So, what is it like to be a musician in Manchester?
Jack: It’s brilliant. We’ve been lucky enough to have been going around a bit to London, Bristol and Leeds and although London is a huge place to explore, Manchester has such a density. You cannot walk 200 yards without coming across something which could be a music venue. Everyone wants to put new bands on; there are some brilliant promoters in the city.
While there are plenty of great bands in Manchester at present, the scene doesn’t have a unifying ‘sound’ like the whole Madchester thing.
Mike: Maybe they are all individual and that’s the charm. There is not a ‘sound’.
Jack: That’s what’s great about it.
As a new band, how do you view Manchester’s music history?
Jack: I assume we are going to lose that baggage. It is very easy to say that ‘they are like X Factory band or Y Factory band’ but I never grew up with that stuff. I was born in Oldham and that was never part of my world. I think a lot of people would agree with me. You go elsewhere and the assumption is that you like and know about that music. There are some Manchester bands I like but no more than from anywhere else.
Is the city’s history merely unwanted baggage?
Jack: Manchester is a great place and has an amazing musical history but there are not many bands, who are within our circle anyway, who are influenced by that sort of thing. Ever.
Listen to Ghost Outfit here and keep an eye out for a whole host of Manchester music content over the coming weeks.