The Boo Radleys interview
By Paul Kirkley | April 29, 2022
More than 20 years after calling it a day, The Boo Radleys are back – older, wiser, and minus their original songwriter. “People are giving us a chance,” singer Sice Rowbottom and bassist Tim Brown tell Classic Pop.
One day in early 1999, singer Simon ‘Sice’ Rowbottom and guitarist/songwriter Martin Carr convened in Sice’s mum’s kitchen – the same kitchen where they had once sat and plotted their glorious rock and roll futures – and quietly called time on The Boo Radleys, the band that had been their lives for more than a decade.
“I think we felt it wasn’t something we could do over the phone, or get a manager to do,” Sice tells Classic Pop when we catch up with him and bassist Tim Brown over Zoom, nearly a quarter of a century on. “These days we’d probably have just texted each other…”
Afterwards, the pair drove around Wallasey, revisiting their old Merseyside haunts, before Sice gave Martin a lift back to London. “I was dropping him off in Archway, and just as we were pulling into his road, John Peel started playing The Old Newsstand At Hamilton Square [from The Boo Radleys’ sixth and final album, Kingsize],” recalls Sice, who sat with his old schoolfriend, listening to the song in silence. “If you wrote that in a screenplay, people would be like, ‘fuck off!’” he smiles. “It was a nice way to cap it all off.”
Except – plot twist! – 23 years later, The Boo Radleys are back, with a new album, Keep On With Falling, on which Sice, Tim and drummer Rob Cieka succeed in sounding reassuringly like The Boo Radleys of old, despite the not insignificant absence of the guy who used to write all the songs.
“It’s classic Boo Radleys,” says Sice. “But it’s new in that it’s got a new set of songwriters. It’s doing something we always tried to do – keep it new, keep it interesting, keep it different. It’s picking up where we left off 20-odd years ago, I think.”
“Music-wise, it felt the same,” agrees Tim. “Just minus the guitarist. It came together in the way it always did, but kind of on the cheap, as opposed to the luxurious studios we used to frequent. I suppose I just felt like I did the same old crap I usually do, and there was no one to tell me no.” So why now? “I think two main things,” says Sice. “One is that we got to a certain age, and the other is the technology that made it possible.
“When me and Tim were chatting at my 50th birthday party a couple of years ago, it turned out we were both writing songs, so that’s when we kind of said, ‘Well let’s do something.’ But what allowed that was technology – he’s in Northern Ireland, I live near Oxford. If it had meant doing it the old way, going to a rehearsal room and then being ensconced in a studio for six weeks, there’s no way it was going to happen.”
Because, of course, when The Boo Radleys were last a going concern, the likes of Dropbox and Google Drive were the stuff of science-fiction… “We were still on dial-up in them days,” chuckles Tim. “It would have taken a week just to send a hi-hat track.”
Having finished the album, the band tested the water last year with a couple of singles and a short tour. “The response has been really good,” says Sice. “There’s been very little negativity around it, that I’ve seen. People are giving us a chance. Obviously there are a few hardcore fans who aren’t keen on the idea that Martin isn’t involved. But that was bound to be the way of it.”
“At first there was confusion, and anger – all the stages of grief,” says Tim. “But I think people were pleasantly surprised.” Was it ever on the cards for Martin to be involved? “At one point, yeah,” says Sice. “But it just didn’t work out. I’m not sure he was particularly happy with the way it was done, which unfortunately was a bit organic.
“Me and Tim started working on songs first and then Rob got involved. Then when we were kind of ready to go, that’s when I went to Martin and said, ‘Look, we’re doing this stuff, do you want to come in?’ and he said no at that point.
“Martin’s been a solo artist for a long time [since 2000, he’s released six albums as bravecaptain, followed by three under his own name] – I think he prefers to be in charge of his own destiny. I don’t think that he was particularly keen on our new way of working. So it was a no, which was a shame, but it also forces us to do things slightly differently.”
Are he and Martin still friends? “Yeah, we’ve been on and off, ever since the band split up,” he says. “We’ll go over and see each other occasionally, but it’s like a lot of friends with families – it’s finding the time.”
While Keep On With Falling demonstrates that The Boo Radleys haven’t lost their knack for a hooky earworm, its lyrical concerns aren’t exactly upbeat.
The title of recent single I’ve Had Enough, I’m Out sounds more like a resignation than a rebirth, while last summer’s A Full Syringe And Memories Of You EP dealt with such sunny concerns as (and we quote) ‘euthanasia, alcohol abuse and the spectre of death’. Is everything okay, lads? “I think there’s always been that dichotomy about us,” suggests Sice. “Even something like [breezy 1995 Top 10 hit] Wake Up Boo! was about the death of summer. That’s a tradition of ours – if there’s a really nice melody there, we almost feel the need to darken it down with the lyrical content. That’s what we’re drawn to, personality-wise.”
“Plus an awful lot has happened,” notes Tim. “Though there are trials and tribulations of being in a band, life was easier then than it is in the real world…”
Formed in Wallasey in 1988, and named in honour of the misunderstood bogeyman in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, The Boo Radleys rode the tigers of both shoegaze and Britpop, without ever looking fully comfortable on either. “Bands will jump on any bandwagon, until they’re seen to be on that bandwagon, and then they’ll quickly jump off,” says Sice.
“With the shoegaze thing, we were very influenced by My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. The Britpop thing is harder to quantify – I think that was just timing. I don’t think, musically, we really had a lot to do with it. But we got a lot of benefit out of it.”
While Wake Up Boo! still brings in the airplay royalties, it’s the Boos’ 1993 album Giant Steps that remains their most enduring musical statement, an ambitious, sprawling psychedelic masterpiece whose magpie musical elements are perfectly distilled on signature track Lazarus’ woozily hypnotic mix of fuzzy guitars, distorted vocals and soaring brass.
“We were labelled as shoegaze and then Britpop, but at the point of Giant Steps, we were totally our own band,” notes Sice. “That was the only time we were allowed to be our own thing. But I don’t think, musically, we’ve ever actually been that far away from what we did on Giant Steps.”
One music magazine even claimed that ‘for 64 minutes, The Boo Radleys were the greatest band on the planet’… “Well at least it was more than 15,” laughs Sice.
Two years later, the success of Wake Up Boo! catapulted its parent album, Wake Up!, to the top of the charts, and The Boo Radleys suddenly found themselves bona fide pop stars. “That year was amazing,” says Tim. “Being on Top Of The Pops was a bit of a dream. We thought, ‘From now on, we’ll always sell this many records.’ But that wasn’t quite true…”
“With hindsight, you realise it isn’t about us as a band, it’s about that song,” says Sice. “Very quickly, I realised [being a pop star] wasn’t for me. I didn’t have that kind of personality. It’s a very vacuous, kind of narcissistic life.”
By the time 1998’s Kingsize scraped to a lowly No.62, Sice knew he wanted out, but was reluctant to be the one to pull the trigger. “I needed another challenge, but I didn’t want to leave, ‘cos I was just scared they’d get a new singer’.” The eventual break-up, he admits, came as “a relief”.
With the band all juggling day jobs and family commitments – between them, Sice (52), Tim and Rob (both 53) have seven children – there is no appetite for The Boo Radleys to return to full-time active duty. “It doesn’t appeal to me,” says Sice.
“We did a tour, we did one week in October and that was brilliant. There was just such a lot of warmth in the room. But it was enough. I’m just too old. A couple of weeks a year will probably be fine… And making new music – the ability to make new music the way we have been doing is fantastic.”
And for any sceptics still wondering how The Boo Radleys can work without Martin Carr’s songs…?
“I’d just say: be open, give it a try,” says Sice. “Be a sponge, not a stone.”
“For me, this album is as broad and deep as any record we’ve ever made,” adds Tim. “It’s Sice leading the way, with his unmistakable vocals… and the two fat lads at the back.”
Just as we’re wrapping things up, Tim receives an incoming call. “It’s from London,” he says, frowning at the number. “I don’t know anyone in London.” “It’s the big time calling!” laughs Sice.
He doesn’t pick up.