A Flock of Seagulls Interview: ‘Try to be yourself, because that way people will remember you’
One of the few British bands of the 80s to be bigger in the states than back home, A Flock Of Seagulls were known to many as much for their sensational hair and technicolour images as hits like I Ran (So Far Away) and Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You). They’ve come back together after 30 years for an orchestral reworking of their biggest tunes – and singer Mike Score tell Classic Pop it’s about time the band reformed properly…
Flock Of Seagulls singer Mike Score is aware of his band’s image. To this day, “A Flock Of Seagulls” is used as shorthand for bizarre hair in pop culture referencing the 80s, up to current Netflix smash Stranger Things.
It’s a status Mike is relatively comfortable with. “I didn’t think our image ever dominated the music – but I know MTV thought it did,” he admits. “For a long time, people came to see us for the band’s image. I get that, because I’m the same with Kiss. To me, Kiss’ music is rubbish – but I’d love to see Kiss to see them! Over the years, people have realised that there’s more to us than the image. They’ve realised there are great songs there.”
It’s a well-known story that Score’s trademark “winged” haircut came about largely by accident. With Mike having gone for a virtual mohican at first, bassist Frank Maudsley patted the singer’s hair before an early gig, with the resulting flattened look becoming the unique style former hairdresser Score was after. “I was a little space cadet and I wanted to look like an alien,” Mike explains. “My mum used to say, ‘Don’t copy people. Try to be yourself, because that way people will remember you.’ There was a bit of David Bowie and Alice Cooper in how the band looked, without copying them. Looking at photos of that first gig where Frank flattened my hair, I thought, ‘That looks pretty alien’, and I tried to bend it towards being more alien.”
Mike can afford to be calm about A Flock Of Seagulls’ position. There was a lot of turmoil in the band, which meant the original four members haven’t been in the same room since a short-lived reunion tour in the US in 2003. But they came together last year to work on music for the first time since 1984, albeit remotely, for the album Ascension – an orchestral reworking of their biggest songs. In the meantime, the touring line-up of A Flock Of Seagulls fronted by Mike has been busy playing US festivals.
Gulls On Film
Last year, Mike moved back from the US to Liverpool where the band formed. He’s since met up with Frank and guitarist Paul Reynolds to film the new video for the orchestral version of 1982 single Space Age Love Song. Drummer Ali Score is Mike’s brother, so the two meet up at family gatherings – despite long-standing rumours that the siblings never speak. “Everyone thinks we hate each other,” laughs Mike, at 61 five years Ali’s junior. “But we’re the kind of brothers who just go, ‘How you doing?’ ‘Great! You?’ ‘Yeah, great!’ ‘Cool. See you.’ Some brothers go to the pub together, some go, ‘How you doing?’ ‘Great!’ and that’s me and Ali. It’s love/hate.”
Mike greets Classic Pop at his impressive townhouse in Liverpool. It’s the only building in its street not turned into flats, with our interview at the home studio in his basement. As well as keyboards, synth drums and a wall of guitars, there’s a large TV set into one wall with a games console on the shelf below. It’s five years since Mike’s debut solo album Zeebratta, but he’s not short of material for a follow-up, currently titled Space Boy. “I’ve got between 100 and 200 songs,” shrugs Mike. “The problem is that I could write a song today, but tomorrow I won’t be interested in it. You end up with a backlog where you go, ‘Oh, I’ll have to finish that one day.’ I don’t force a song. If I get stuck, I’ll play a game or watch Star Trek or go out and buy some shoes!”
As the dominant force, Mike reveals he’s the member of A Flock Of Seagulls who has been most resistant at getting the original line-up back together. But making Ascension has led to him thinking they should try to properly reunite for a tour.
“Ascension has brought us a bit closer, and so has getting older,” he reveals. “There’s space to do a tour. If the right offer comes up, we’ll see how the vibe goes. I’d love to look across the stage to see Paul and Frank – then look back and see my brother scowling at me like he always did! I’d love to feel that electricity again, and I think it could be like that.”
The abortive reunion tour in 2003 came on the back of appearing in VH1 show Bands Reunited, where A Flock Of Seagulls joined the likes of The Alarm, Haircut One Hundred and Kajagoogoo in reforming, 19 years after third album The Story Of A Young Heart in 1984. “Doing that TV show, the same problems that had taken five or six years to arise first time round, they came up in two weeks,” says Mike. “I don’t want that to happen again. It didn’t work out, but there was certainly some of the old magic there. Making Ascension brought back a lot of memories, to when we were in our rehearsal room 35 years ago.”
Gulls Just Want To Have Fun
The crackling atmosphere of A Flock Of Seagulls’ music initially came about by accident. Mike was the bassist in his previous band, sacked when they got a record contract only to be told Mike’s playing didn’t fit in. On the rebound, Mike bought his first synth, a mono MS-10, so his workmate Frank suggested taking over on bass. Ali casually said he’d love to be a drummer. “Ali had never played drums, Frank had never played bass, but within an hour they both could,” enthuses Mike. “As soon as we started messing around, good things started to happen. Within three hours of first rehearsing, we had a song.”
They got through “six or seven” guitarists before Paul Reynolds auditioned, and they were initially looking for a singer, too. “Because I wrote the songs, in rehearsals I’d say, ‘The vocal should go something like this’ and start singing, but only so we could understand how to play it,” laughs Mike. “Frank was saying, ‘It sounds good when you sing it,’ but I thought, ‘We’re still looking for a singer.’” Trying to combine singing with playing keyboards led to Mike’s distinctive minimal style. “When I sang, I’d hold one note on a synth. Paul understood that meant there wasn’t enough going on in the song, and he was brilliant at fitting in his echoey guitar parts that didn’t disturb the vocal. The reason Paul joined is he understood about restraint, where so many guitarists want to blast everything at you.”
A Flock Of Seagulls’ self-titled 1982 debut album featured their biggest worldwide hit, I Ran (So Far Away), as well as DNA, which won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental. Mike has long been ambivalent about I Ran, feeling it’s far from the band’s best song. But he recognises why it became such a smash. “I Ran was a great bridge between what was already going on in music and what was about to happen,” he ponders. “Guitarists and drummers could join in and realise ‘Even though there’s synths, we’ve got a place’ and it helped people getting into synths with the next step. Without us knowing it at the time, I Ran was a big step forward.”
Initially going to the States to play the usual 300-capacity clubs, the success of I Ran and the album’s other single Space Age Love Song quickly saw the band headline 1,500-capacity theatres in the US. “Every day, it was going up and up,” Mike recalls. “It was ‘Next week, you’re opening for The Psychedelic Furs to 3,000 people.’ That was as big as the Empire in Liverpool, so it was amazing, but then it was, ‘And now, you’re opening up for The Police.’ ‘What?!’ ‘Yeah, it’s in Chicago, and it’s 60,000 people.’ It was going up so fast, you’re scared to look down because that drop was suddenly massive. So we just did our best and had fun with it. The first year we toured the States was ridiculous. We were out of our minds. But at the end of that year, the attitude from the record company was, ‘You guys must be so exhausted… By the way, you need to make another album.’”
Flying The Nest
At least Mike was able to write songs quickly for second album Listen, including Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You). Their biggest UK hit, reaching No.10, Mike considers the ballad the band’s best song. It was written about a short-lived romance when the band were between US tours on the first album. “She had a Polaroid of herself and I asked if I could have the picture,” Mike recalls. “She said, ‘No, you’ll forget all this when you go off and become a star.’ I can still picture what she looked like, she was absolutely gorgeous. I’d already got the riff, and once I started thinking, ‘I wish I had that photograph’, the song wrote itself.”
Tragically, 1984’s third album The Story Of A Young Heart proved all too easy to write. Mike’s best friend, who he’d known since his school days, died by suicide. “I really needed to let everything out,” Mike sighs. “I’d go to our rehearsal room two hours before everybody else to write. There was a long time when I couldn’t sing those songs live, the memories were too fresh. I’ve got distance, but I’m still really pissed off at what my friend did. If he’d been alive, he’d have been with me on our journey and I was so angry at him that he took that chance away.”
Amidst that heartbreak, the band had begun to drift apart. After three years, touring the States was by now feeling routine rather than exciting. Mike felt only he had the ambition in the band to capitalise on their arena-sized Stateside success. “We could have improved and been one of the best bands in the world,” he insists. “But to do that, everybody would need to point in the same direction and work their arses off. It seemed to me that nobody wanted to do that.”
In truth, they’d never had a close gang mentality outside the studio. “We faced the same direction and were tight in the studio, but after rehearsals we were pretty loose,” says Mike. “We’d go off and do our own thing, not particularly hang out together. Paul was a quiet, shy kid. I loved his playing, but he was more in the background. My brother was my brother, we were fine. Frank was my best buddy in the band, but at the time we were having too much fun on our own to notice we were drifting. We’d drift apart, come back, but drift a little further apart each time.”
Paul left immediately after The Story Of A Young Heart, with Mike and Ali moving to Boston to capitalise on their US success. Frank stayed in England, coming out to record fourth album Dream Come True in 1985. “We never went, ‘We’re splitting up,’” Mike recalls. “Paul had some problems, and by the time he left I didn’t see him as a loss. At a certain point, I realised, ‘There’s no more band’. But there was still A Flock Of Seagulls, because the ideas were mine.”
Although Mike retained the band’s name, it wasn’t until 1995 that another album arrived. So far, The Light At The End Of The World is the final LP under the A Flock Of Seagulls name, with Mike the only original member. “That was a weird record,” Mike grimaces. “A lot of people had been pressuring me to make an album, and I wasn’t at my best at that point. That record is me going, ‘OK, here’s an album, now go away!’ New Wave had taken a big dive, I wasn’t fully confident, and I made a record so I could clear the decks a bit. It’s not the best record, but there are a few good songs on it.”
Mike’s 2014 solo album Zeebratta is a lost gem, a lively pop record which shares the disguised melancholia of The Lightning Seeds. He’s uncertain whether the dozens of songs he’s amassed will become a Mike Score or an A Flock Of Seagulls record next. In addition to feeling more comfortable about reuniting the original A Flock Of Seagulls line-up, he’s also much less competitive than he was in the ‘80s, thanks to regular appearances on the nostalgia festival circuit in the States with the touring line-up of A Flock Of Seagulls. “In the old days, I’d think, ‘How come The Police are headlining and not us?’” he cackles. “The Police had sold 20 million albums, but to me, we were better than them. If we were at No.8, I’d look at who was at No.7 and think, ‘How did they get there? Our song is much better than theirs!’ I didn’t hate them, but they were where we need to be. And we were too busy to hang out with other bands.
“Now, you tour with 12 other bands, each doing your hits, so it’s more sociable. You all need each other to promote these big package shows, so they’re suddenly your friend, not your enemy anymore. I got to hang out with Eddie Van Halen for a couple of hours, which was incredible. I was thinking, ‘He is talking to me. He likes A Flock Of Seagulls!’ If it’s another band headlining a festival instead of us, I just think, ‘Let ‘em headline.’ In the ‘80s, I’d have been, ‘Kill them!’” Another long laugh. “Ah, the folly of youth…”