|Bronco Bullfrog, Crossfire, London, October 2016 (Mike, Andy & Louis)|
I last interviewed Bronco Bullfrog in 1999 for Shindig! magazine ahead of their first ever London gig, at the Nice Club situated off Tower Bridge. In the finished article, I described them as “purveyors of the finest, classiest, most gorgeous pop gems”. Why use one adjective when you can you three? They went on to record four albums before splitting five years after our chat.
Their debut, Bronco Bullfrog, remains to my mind one of the best albums of that period. Chief songwriter Andy Morten’s attention to the details of everyday lives would be unmatched by his peers, if he had any. A few years ago the band quietly reconvened and have since issued four singles and played the occasional show. The most recent being the Crossfire allnighter in London last month.
Watching them I marvelled, once again, at not only their stunning songs – full of classic pop hooks and three-part harmonies – but what a powerful live band they are. The songs blasted from stage crushed their recorded counterparts to dust, making them sound like cheap demos. It was a very well chosen set too, as if distance has allowed them to reflect and cherrypick their greatest moments. Early favourites from the first two LPs ‘Can’t Find My Own Way’, ‘One Day With Melody Love’, ‘History’, Get To Know You’, ‘Jigsaw Mind’ and more nestled flawlessly with recent singles ‘Marmalade’ and ‘Never Been To California’. The Move and Pete Ham/Badfinger covers being glorious bonus balls. It was one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve seen all year and spent the set and days after wondering how they escaped the attention of just about everyone, then and now.
I rolled back the years with Andy Morten for the New Untouchables’ NUTSMAG to wonder that aloud.
For those new to Bronco Bullfrog, can you give us a quick account of who, how, when and why the band started?
1996. 20 years ago – Jesus. Mike and I had been in The Nerve and Louis had been in The Beatpack, Immediates, Morticians and probably others. He was in garage bands when he was about 10. These bands were playing the same ’60s / mod circuit in London and slowly got to know each other; dogs sniffing each other’s arses, so to speak. I joined Louis’ post-Immediates band Vibraphone sometime around 1990 but left after we were involved in a motorway accident after a gig in Spain. In ’96 all three of us found ourselves at a loose end and decided to try our luck together with something a little different. The garage / psych / mod approach had been mined pretty deep and we’d all started listening to a wider palette of music; country-rock, folk, powerpop, sunshine-pop. The aim was to absorb all of these influences into one cohesive whole while retaining our roots as Who / Kinks / Small Faces-worshipping fanboys. There were no rules at the beginning: if we liked the sound of it, it was in.
The band took their name from Barney Platts-Mills’ 1969 film, and your debut LP included ‘Del Quant’, based on the main character. What was it that captured your imagination about that film?
We’d all discovered the film around the time the band was starting out and I suspect, like many bands, needed a name for a poster in a hurry. It was to hand and it stuck. I had no idea there was a Spanish Oi! label with the same name. We watched the film endlessly and used to run off copies of my third-generation VHS, taped off Channel 4 in the ’80s, for our mates. When we were writing that first flurry of songs, it loomed large in our world and that’s where the lyrics to ‘Del Quant’ came from. Louis and I wrote it in the kitchen in the house we were sharing in Fosse Road South, Leicester. ‘Down Angel Lane’ is also named after a street in Stratford that appears in the film.
Your debut album, Bronco Bullfrog, came out in 1998 on the small independent Twist label. In the preceding few years swathes of bands with even the slightest 60s echo were signed to big labels and had money pumped into them. Bronco Bullfrog had far more depth, imagination and superior songs (I’m allowed to say this, you can agree….) but got overlooked. Why do you think this was and was it a source of irritation?
We’ve talked about this a lot over the years (and over the beers) and we’re still not sure. Laziness? Nonchalance? Ignorance probably. When we started there was very little awareness of a lot of the stuff that most bands seem to crave from day one: we had no desire to get signed up or play at certain cool gigs or support Supergrass or whatever. We’d come up through provincial bands where playing to 40 people on a Saturday night was kind of enough. We weren’t chasing any kind of success or acceptance; we were literally doing our own thing. It all felt very insular; us against the world, getting stoned and buying obscure pop and psych records from Leicester market and writing these little songs.
You enjoyed a greater appreciation in other parts of Europe than in the UK. What were the differences at home and abroad and why do you think that was?
Again, we’ve asked lots people, particularly in Spain, where we’ve achieved a modicum of success, about this as we have no idea. The over-riding impression we’ve been give is that they like the songs primarily, and secondarily the way we try and put them across – with gusto and without fear of failure! Perhaps our tendency to “over-write” songs – to keep adding more musicality, more chord changes and structural elements – singled us out somewhat. I wasn’t hearing a lot of bands playing songs as naively adventurous as ‘Greenacre Hill’ and ‘7:38’ around that time. Still don’t actually. I guess the balance of downbeat, often melancholic lyrics in a spunky, super-pop framework isn’t that common either.
Some of the songs, particularly early on, appear very autobiographical and personal. What emotions do they provoke in you now?
Like I said earlier, this was 20 years ago – we were young men writing about the travails that young men go through: break-ups, breakdowns, high times, low times, girls, films, pubs and cake. Life was easier then – we didn’t have responsibilities like we do now.
What I hadn’t done before (as primary songwriter) was to write about myself and my emotions and those of my friends and the world around me. The Nerve was resolutely a psychedelic rock band; the lyrics were, for the most part, meaningless. The wah-wah and the Hammond were more important. It was only when people started telling me how much the words to ‘Paper Mask’ or ‘Sweet Tooth’ meant to them that I started to consider that there might be some emotional depth to what we were doing. Then we’d get on stage and try and be The Who in 1968 and any subtlety went straight out the window.
How self-critical are you of your albums?
All three of us are incredibly self-critical of Bronco Bullfrog’s recordings – I can’t bear to listen to anything other than the first album and a couple of tracks from each of the others. They were all recorded cheaply, quickly and honestly – which is the way we wanted it – but that method can result in some rather, er, candid performances. We weren’t confident in the studio and would continually swop instruments if the other guy could do it better. That spirit was lost as time passed. And the red light syndrome always defeated us.
Which three songs would you pick to give the best representation of Bronco Bullfrog and why?
Tricky. The first batch will always remain the most resonant as they represent a snapshot of our lives and our friendship at that time; precious, life-affirming memories. After that we tried our hand at all sorts of things but ended up gravitating towards a fairly regulation powerpop / power-trio format and some of that variety was sacrificed. Stylistically, a selection that I like would be ‘Paper Mask’ for its emotional heft, ‘Sweet Tooth’ for its blind pop optimism - poptimism? - and something like ‘Down Angel Lane’, ‘History’ or ‘One Day With Melody Love’ for almost capturing the essence of all those ’60s 45s we adore: punch, power, melody and dynamics. And mistakes.
After years away Bronco Bullfrog have reformed in a very gentle manner, releasing a series of stand-alone 7 inch singles and the occasional gig. Tell us about those. What prompted the three of you getting back in the studio?
I guess we needed some time apart after the band split up in 2004; some growing up had to be done. I’m not saying any of us have grown up but we’re all best mates again now and that’s by far the best thing that’s come out of this reunion.
The singles were a natural by-product of getting back together and not wanting to go straight back on stage; we were more interested in writing and recording a bunch of new songs in as informal and low-key a manner as we could manage. We went to State Recorders when it was in Folkestone, then when it moved to St Leonard’s, as we’d known Mole and Marty since their Mystreated days and liked the rough and ready sound they were busy patenting. I emailed a few labels and lo and behold. We’ve done four 45s on four labels so far.
|The four Bronco Bullfrog 45s: 2012-2015|
So many bands reform years down the line. People have mixed views about this, what’s your take? What makes a successful reunion, both from the point of view of a musician and a fan?
I can only speak from my own experience, which is that the whole time we were out of action we were still getting requests to go and play in Spain, Germany and Italy. After a while we realised that people remembered us and maybe we should give it a shot. We did a couple of warm-up gigs late last year to quell the nerves, then headed back to Spain in December and dived in at the deep end at Purple Weekend. We’ve done two tours over there since then and, while we’ve undoubtedly become less ragged, we’ve also realised that playing those songs for 90 minutes when you’re 47 is knackering.
What can we expect from Bronco Bullfrog in the future? More gigs? Singles? An album?
We haven’t recorded anything for 18 months as we were preparing our sea legs for the Spanish shows. We’re all in other bands too and have assorted jobs and families that require our attention. The plan, however tentative, is to record an album and another single early next year. We’ll probably do it ourselves, in our time and space, on a couple of old four-tracks so (a) it sounds more like the old records we dig and (b) you can’t hear the mistakes so well.
Finally, your 2013 single for State Records included ‘Never Been To California’ (my favourite track of the new BB-era). For someone whose songs have so often included Californian sunshine pop in their grooves, please tell me this isn’t true!
Sorry Mark, it is true. Neither Louis, Mike nor myself have been to the US of A so I thought I’d write a song about it and we’d try and make it sound like a Californian sunshine-pop band. Obviously we failed but that’s what Bronco Bullfrog has always been about really: creating something interesting and exciting by failing!
|The Way We Were|
This interviewed was conducted for, and first appeared on, Nutsmag - the on-line home of The New Untouchables - 21st Century Modernist and Sixties Underground Music Culture. Check 'em out for tons of events around Europe.