Thanks so much to Nick Fuller for the great interview! Please be sure to check the I Think of the Sea compilation that includes most of the recorded output by Almost Charlotte. You can get it at the Moments of Pleasure website.
++ Almost Charlotte starts as a three-piece and then later it expands to a full five-piece. How did you all meet? And how did this change in the line-up affected the band? Were the songs very different now? I ask especially because Matthew came in to add vocals and guitars! That must have changed a lot what Ian, Anthony and Bill were doing, right?
The original three piece (Ian Phillipson, Anthony Squires and Bill Russell) had all known each other for ages but they were looking to bring in a singer and they met Matthew through work. They were then looking for a drummer and, I think, advertised locally; I’d just moved to Brighton and replied to the ad. I think that Matthew joining certainly changed things because it gave us two quite different writers (Matthew and Ian). They were looking for a drummer to replace the machine that they were using in order to add some ‘light and shade’ so I hope that both additions moved things on. Certainly when we started to introduce more of Matthew’s songs the band’s overall sound changed quite a lot; the best period was really when we had a good mix of both writers’ stuff because I think that they were both strong in different ways.
++ Where does the name Almost Charlotte comes from?
Good question. I always took it to be a reference to The Cure’s ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ but I asked when I joined and I’m not sure I ever got a definitive answer!
++ Why did you decide to self-release your single? Was it easy to set up the Moments of Pleasure label?
I think we all believed in the indie ethic (and still do.) If the truth be told too we probably felt that we were only likely to sell a modest number locally and at our gigs so we didn’t really need to go cap in hand to a label especially as they were likely to tell us to get lost! It was pretty straightforward to set it up as long as you accepted that there wouldn’t be any national distribution and you were happy to do the leg work of pestering people to stock it/play it. We did both.
++ You recorded the single with Terry Popple from Van Morrison. How was working with him? What do you remember from this recording session? Any anecdotes you can share with me?
Terry was a good bloke and had a succession of Brighton bands in his studio at that time. We used to laugh that he was quite diplomatic in that, after a certain take, he’d say ‘that’s good – we’ll use it’ when he clearly meant ‘that’s as good as it’s going to get given that you lot can only just play your instruments!’ Diplomacy at its best. We weren’t offended. I’m not sure how his personal taste was but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that people in the music biz (studio’s , promoters, labels) all have to sometimes work on such a range of stuff that they almost have to put their tastes aside. At that time there were a few C86 type bands around Brighton but there was also a thrash scene beginning to emerge so I’m sure that he’d have had his share of that stuff too which was hardly Van The Man.
++ I read on the Leamington Spa compilation that there were a couple of major label conversations after the single was released. What happened with that? Why didn’t that come through?
Text book stories really. We had a call from Chrysalis records once saying that they really liked the single and inviting us to go and see them with some other material. When we got there they didn’t really know who we were and weren’t much interested in our new stuff. That was a good example of how it was – and probably still is.
++ Why do you think the “break” never happened?
We were just one of a million bands really. We weren’t consistent enough and I do think that we changed so much in a short time that we’d have been a bit of a nightmare for anyone to catgeorise. The shift in people inside the band just meant that the songs changed – after Bill Russell left we had two other guitarists come and go and both (particularly Gwyn Carwardine) were very different. It was a bit unrealistic for us to expect the audience to change with us especially when some of the later developments were – er – pretty bad! I don’t get much pride from listening to the last stuff we did before calling it a day – it sounds directionless which it was.
++ On the “I Think of the Sea” compilation, you include 8 songs from your repertoire. One of them appeared on the single. What about the other 7? When and where were these recorded? Are these, plus the single, all the songs ever recorded by the band, or are there any more demo tapes lying around?
ITOTS is a compilation of the stuff that I thought represented what we did most accurately. It’s not necessarily always the best but it does sum up the band overall. For instance there are some live tracks on there that were very roughly recorded by hanging a mic off the ceiling above the stage; these were from the first gig I ever played with the band and I didn’t know the songs so I kept playing v steady (rather like the drum machine I was supposed to be replacing) so that I didn’t do something ambitious in the wrong place! Nevertheless those songs – warts and all – are a pretty good reflection of what the band was like live then. I clearly remember my first gig with them in a really crowded pub with people dancing on the tables to this pretty messy noise that we were making – it was great. ‘Sleep’ was chosen as the single because we all thought that it was an example of the next chapter – as a song it was a lot more complete and structured than most and we felt that it was a sign of where we were going. Most of the studio stuff was recorded with Terry Popple although we did do a session with the legendary Grant @ La Di Da. There are other demo’s on tape that haven’t been digitised – they’re of variable quality both in terms of the strength of the songs and the recording process.
++ Did you gig a lot? What gigs do you remember the most and why?
A fair amount. There was a kind of hierarchy then and we were always some way down it. The Popguns were at the top – quite rightly as they were brilliant. We weren’t seen as being in their league so we played lesser venues but, for all that, we enjoyed it and had a consistent following whose support we always appreciated. London gigs always gave us a bit of a boost but far and away the best for me was a support slot to The Band of Holy Joy. At the time they were the darlings of the indie press so getting the slot – and at the Escape club which was one of the best – was a result in itself. On the night we were desperate to put on a good show as it was a big crowd most of which didn’t know us. We played really well and came off the stage feeling great. A few people came up and said how much they liked it and asked us when we were playing next as they’d definitely come. The next gig though was that same old crowd. This again is a standard story for so many bands. It’s so hard to build momentum. I’m not complaining though – it was a great night and I’m still listening to Holy Joy’s stuff today.
++ Your single seems very rare, hard to come by. So I’m wondering how many copies were pressed? I really hope finding one soon!
I think we did 1000. As I said we never expected to sell them outside of gigs and local shops. We certainly didn’t sell the lot at the time and until a couple of years ago I still had some old copies in my loft. What happened though was that, somehow, it got picked up by some indie fans in Japan and became collectible which is why people now know about it. Two of the three tracks are now available on CD (one on Leamington Spa and one on I Think Of The Sea) but I doubt that any more copies of the original single will surface.
++ Among the titles of your songs I find “Moments of Pleasure” and “Too Cold for Comfort”, two titles that kind of antagonize each other. Then there’s “Hope” and “Sleep”, so I have to ask, what was the inspiration and creative process for Almost Charlotte?
That’s not easy to answer. Ian’s early songs were certainly melancholic and Matthew’s often had a more jangly pop angle although not lyrically. The route of our problem was probably that we weren’t very good at melding the two together so instead of taking the best of both we sometimes ended up clashing in the middle. In some bands that friction is really productive but in many it isn’t and I don’t think it ultimately was with us. I think that Ian wrote some really good stuff and was more accomplished than he gave himself credit for and I’ve always liked Matthew’s stuff – I’m still writing with him today.
++ Why did you call it a day with Almost Charlotte?
A collective tiredness really. We’d changed so much in three years and felt that we’d improved, become more ambitious and worthy of attention. We didn’t get any though; we felt that we’d not really seen any progress in terms of gigs/audiences/interest so I don’t think we had the appetite for anymore. A pretty familiar story.
++ What do you think was the biggest highlight of the band?
For me it was The Band Of Holy Joy gig and the day that I saw our single in the window of the legendary Rounder Records shop in Brighton! It is though undeniably nice to still know that people have an interest in us for a single that came out 20 years ago.
++ What did you do after Almost Charlotte? Are you still in touch with the other Almost Charlotte members? What do you dedicate your time nowadays aside from music?
Matthew and I got together with another couple of Brighton musicians to form Bluff which ran for a couple of years and ten of its songs also appear on I Think Of The Sea. Nowadays, Matthew and I still do some sporadic stuff as Rogue Beauty (www.wwwroguebeautycom.moonfruit.com) and I write too (I’ve done a couple of books including www.callmebud.com) I think that Ian is playing and writing music too. Some of us are still in touch occasionally through the magic of Facebook (!) but it’s been a very long time since we all met up.
++ Do you still live in Brighton? Has it changed much? What were your favourite Brighton bands from back in the day? oh! and which is your favourite beach in Brighton?
I don’t but I still get back there. It has changed a lot but it’s still a very vibrant place for all of the arts including music so it’s always great to go back there. Brighton band #1 has to be The Popguns but I also liked HBM5. As for beaches there’s really only one and it’s OK but the best thing about the place is more the vibe than the pebbles!