New Musical Express, 13 February 1993 (1)
by Roger Morton
Three Top 20 hits and a debut album that really gets to the grips with the dance/rock hybrid, and still SUNSCREEM remain anonymous, ‘just one of those dance bands’. ROGER MORTON passes on the bowls of Jelly Tots to grab a beer with the Keef and Marianne of the ’90s.
“Champagne? No-one ever gives us champagne. The most I think we’ve ever been given is pop and sweets. We went along to do this interview at a radio station and they had all these Jelly Tots for us. They said ‘You’re one of them dance bands, aren’t you? I thought you all liked Jelly Tots’.”
In a hire car twisting through the back streets of Camden, Lucia, Sunscreem’s Goldilocks lead singer, sits back and sighs. In two hours’ time she’s to perform a nerve-yanking live musical striptease for the cameras of MTV. Darren, Sunscreem’s guitar slasher, sits next to her on the back seat, slowly metamorphosising into Keith Richards, on the grounds that if Keef could drop his guitar at Live Aid and still stagger tall, then he can do a televised live acoustic version of the band’s Love U More with a six-string that hasn’t been tuned for a fortnight.
Sunscreem are about to busk it in good old fashioned r’n’r style. In a hushed studio, they’ll jam through the song, adrenaline pumping, tendons taut, and expose the ice-melting poetry and stained glass tunesmithery at the heart of the normally danced-up Love U More. They’ll perform with the cool of Nico and Lou doing Femme Fatale while looking a lot less scary than the Cocteau Twins. They’ll pull off the traditional singer-songwriter duo thing with aplomb.
But Lucia still has cause to sigh. She knows that the next time they turn up for a radio show, the one-of-them-dance-bands syndrome will still be there. And so, probably, will the Jelly Tots. Sunscreem, three proper pop hits and a debut album down the line, are still struggling against mistaken identity.
“So how are you doing, Lucinda?” says Alf Garnett, the car driver.
“It’s not Lucinda, it’s Lucia,” says Lucia.
“Well, when I first drove you two years ago you were introduced to me as Lucinda,” says Alf. “So you’re Lucinda to me.”
There is a lot of Alf Garnetts about. And pop has more than its fair share.
When Sunscreem hijacked their name from a strange and unpredictable sound on a Yamaha synth back at the end of ’89, it all seemed quite logical. The Chelmsford three – Lucia Holm, Darren Woodford and long-limbed keyboardist Paul Carnell – had done their time in various banging and plucking local bands. They had immersed themselves in the post-acid house club/rave scene around Essex.
By mid-1990, fed up with miming PAs and offering token gesture ‘live’ performances, it just seemed obvious to them that you could do more with the energy rush of house than lip-synch to a patched-on sample.
They had Lucia, with a blue sky voice that could fly with the beats. They had a proper drummer mate, Sean Wright, a frenzy-fingered bassist buddy Rob Fricker, twitch-happy dancer friends Tony and Gary, and a willing local DJ, Dave Valentine. They also had a converted 14th Century milking shed to rehearse and record in. Surely, they assumed, the world was ready for the non-particularly-radical concept of some songs with some dance.
Flicker, flicker… There’s Paul up on the video screen at MTV, cyborg shades clamped on and mouth in action.
“It just seemed obvious to me when house came along that that was the music for the next 20 or 30 years, like R&B was when that came long…”
Obvious, no? What Sunscreem reckoned without was Alf Garnett. Or, at least, the Alf Garnett factor in pop that refuses to embrace the unfamiliar, that only wants to know what it already knows. Until the sales figures start coming in.
For a year-and-a-half, Sunscreem gigged solidly at dance parties, colleges, Reading Festival, the lot. Their media coverage was at best tokenistic. For all their live fire and playing prowess, they found themselves fighting an uphill battle against two armies of Alf Garnetts. One lot thought they were a ‘rave’ act and therefore intrinsically unworthy. The other lot thought they were Blondie.
Ask Sunscreem about the last 12 months and they will talk about “the struggle.” All new bands, of course, have to fight for elbow space. But not all of them need three Top 20 hits (Love U More, Perfect Motion and their version of Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English) before they’re acknowledged. Not all of them have to fight a losing battle with their record company (they’re on Sony’s S2 subsidiary) to be allowed to produce and mix their own album.
Sunscreem are not naïve.
“It’s the oldest trick in the book,” laughs Paul, as he explains how their American label has managed to go against their wishes and release their LP with Lucia-centered band photo on the sleeve. They’re just a little regretful that it has to be like that.
“We get a lot of, ‘Oh you’ve got to pull her out and make her much more sexy, and they’re her backing band really’,” says Lucia. “And that’s not the way we want to go about it at all. It’s not the way we are as personalities.”
“It’s not surprising, businessmen making judgements on that sort of thing,” adds Paul. “A lot of people get pushed into it, and I guess we were when we started out, there was a lot of that and we couldn’t contain it at all. In our first year that’s what everyone thought we were – a plastic pop band – and to a certain extent you’re forced to go along with it. It’s just a bit of a shame.”
If there’s cause for pop Alf Gernetts to be wary of Sunscreem it’s not because they’re about to infect the airwaves with a killer techno virus. Their O3 album is an uplifting, song-led, organic incorporation of clubland aesthetics into mainstream pop. It might awaken your Eurythmics fan in the street to the adventureworld potential of techno, but mass suicide of guitar teachers is unlikely. What might, however, be a little disconcerting to pop xenophobes is Sunscreem’s conspicuous lack of pop star wannabe instincts.
Meeting Lucia for the first time six months ago, she tried hard to hide in a corner. When trapped, she explained in a low whisper how she’d been hijacked into being a singer in the first place, and considered gardening to be a more suitable profession. It might just be significant that, whereas those at the fore of guitar band culture are happy to parade as personalities, Sunscreem, emerging triumphantly from a world of white label anonymity, are somewhat shy. It might just be that the priorities of the next generation of pop’s leading lights will be genuinely different.
“I don’t hate being a singer, but I do find it very uncomfortable to get up onstage,” admits Lucia. “I’m getting used to it, but I still have to lock myself in the toilet for about an hour before I go on. I’m very different off stage than when I’m on. It’s not an act, it’s just another side of me.
Normally I’m very quiet and not particularly boisterous. I don’t clump around the place. I don’t really want to be a media personality. So here I am talking to you. Ha ha! But you know, not in the sense that Madonna is, or Courtney Love is. I wouldn’t like to be like that. Everyone in the band just wants to travel and have a laugh basically. And play music.”
“It’s a buzz if people get into the music, and getting critically acclaimed for what you’ve done is excellent,” adds Paul. “But the rest of it is just embarrassing. We freaked a but the other day at The Word because there were a couple of tabloid photographers taking pictures in the dressing room, and that was like ‘F—, they’re in the dressing room, what the f— is going on?’ I guess if we were like Take That it’d be fine, but everyone’s in this band for the music and the crack, not the ‘Oh I’ve got to be famous’.”
It is a balancing act for Sunscreem. They’re not in the business of simply writing a score for whatever dubious substances are being handed out in clubland. But a good part of their raison d’être can be put down to a desire to translate the euphoria-drome atmosphere of wild club nights into a more complex language.
Paul: “The majority of our music is done while being straight. There’s no point in making music that only appeals to people who are in clubs who are off their heads. But then you don’t have to have smoked opium to appreciate a poet who’s been inspired by it. And most of Shakespeare you can read without taking magic mushrooms.”
Shakespeare was on magic mushrooms?
Paul: “Well, I mean, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? C’mon! Sometimes I think it would be a bit more healthy if people were made a bit more aware of that type of thing.”
Lucia: “But there are other highs as well. I mean, there’s sex. There’s all sorts of things that are probably far better than Ecstasy thank you very much. And it’s also about that. That sort of euphoric, spiritual high. I remember when I first went out to clubs it was very much a spiritual experience. Lots of people will laugh at me for saying this, but it’s true. It was very much like visiting a Baptist church. It’s that sort of spirit.
I get very frightened by large groups of people, but there are certain types of clubs where that was all changed for me. It proved that people could be nice as well as being able to incite themselves to loot and riot and rape through the power of being together, the crowd psychology thing. It proved that it didn’t have to be like that.”
Then again, although Sunscreem have gone way beyond the realms of introspective studio boffinry, their attitudes are sufficiently coloured by primary roots in pure dance noise to be wary of trying to explain the meaning of life in a four-minute song. The Shamen they are not.
“If you feel strongly about something and write about it, it’s not that you feel you’re going to change anybody’s life,” says Lucia. “But you still want to make the point. I think we do it quite subtly though.”
So Sunscreem have titled their LP O3 – after the oxygen atoms that should be where the holes in the ozone layer are – not because they’re about to join Sting in the rainforest, but because they thought a subtle nod in that direction was a good idea.
“I’ve always been interested in the balance of things,” says Lucia, cringing visibly.
“It’s true. If you just unbalance something in nature you have a whole chain reaction and it can cause devastation. I’ve always watched programmes about how man is destroying the earth. Maybe it’s a morbid fascination I have. But it’s really important to me. I spent a little time on a farm, it was an organic farm, and it just opened my eyes to the stuff we chuck down the drain. Even as one person, it’s pretty bad.”
As the band pull up at MTV studios, Darren growing ever more Keith Richards-like by the second, a miracle happens. A smart young man appears from an upstairs room and approaches the band.
“I’m in charge of hospitality,” he says.
Simultaneously, Lucia, Darren and Paul cringe like subjects in a Jelly Tots toxicity test. But then the miracle occurs.
“We’ve got a crate of beers for you upstairs,” says Mr Hospitality, and Sunscreem’s eyes light up. Maybe, slowly, the message is getting through. No Jelly Tots. Not just one of them dance bands.
What do you think of Keith Richards’ solo career?
Paul: “I haven’t actually noticed. I wouldn’t buy anything, but I’d go and see him live.”
I only ask you because people assume you have little connection with that sort of pop history.
Lucia: “It’s everything to do with it!”
Paul: “Quite the opposite. Darren is a serious expert on The Beatles and The Stones! I think that’s why we had the confidence to go out and say ‘Right. We’re a band. We’re here’.”
© 1993 NME
New Musical Express, 13 February 1993 (2)
House Music Of The Rising Sun
by Sam Steele
Who are Sunscreem? You mean you don’t know yet?
It’s like this. With all the cross-fertilisation of dance with rock, techno and industrial hardcore, it’s inevitable that a band will emerge with a hybrid style all of their own. Sunscreem are that and they’ve taken their cue from sequencers and samplers, grafted on tight and slinky bass and haunting, pop-friendly melodies. Imagine Primal Scream with the rock guitars and Stones riffs, or The Orb without all that Tangerine Dreamness and bombed-out appeal… You’ve got it.
Having spend the last two years refining their style, increasing their following and organising their own raves, Sunscreem have made the quantum leap from PA personalities to bone-fide pop stars-in-the-making, infusing their recordings with the same kinetic energy that is the crux of their live performance, and which propelled two singles into the national charts last year. In fact, if their stunning debut album, O3 (out on Sony subsidiary S2 this month) is any indication, Sunscreem are, even as we speak, poised on the brink of a distinctly poptastic success.
Tonight, exhausted from a day spent being interviewed, soundchecking and dashing back from recording a slot for MTV, these five solar components are still capable of illuminating. Lead singer Lucia, (un)dressed in white shorts and stocking tops, effortlessly exudes the kind of devil-may-care sex appeal Wendy James has spent years trying to achieve and still hasn’t managed yet. Love U More and Perfect Motion are gloriously spun through with dance beats that subtly enhance rather than dominate the melodic harmonies and strange nuances of Lucia’s singing. And Walk On contains the kind of sparkling shenanigans of sound that could easily become an anthem of the dancing classes, with joyous hallelujah keys and vibrant rhythms bouncing around sassy vocals.
An organic derivation of harder-edged dance acts like Snap and 2 Unlimited, except with intelligent lyrics, gentle melodies and wide open grooves rubbing up against the outer edges of indie jangledom, Sunscreem are defining the standard of modern dance music. So now you know.