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'We've Still Got Something To Say': The Return of Hard-Fi

Tuesday, 27 September 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Everything’s gone to shit. Politicians can’t be trusted. Society’s increasingly polarised.  We’re on the cusp of an unprecedented financial crisis. Youngs people are more disenfranchised than ever. The state of play in 2005, when socio-political indie-rockers Hard-Fi erupted onto the scene with their chart topping debut ‘Stars Of CCTV’, remains painfully on point today. Which is why, after an eight year hiatus, it feels like the perfect time for the Staines quartet to re-emerge from hibernation.

During the band’s initial 11 year run, Richard Archer, Ross Philips, Kai Stephens and Steve Kemp stormed the post-millennial guitar scene armed with a gritty, hook-heavy brand of electro-infused rock. Fuelled by working class attitudes and intense dissatisfaction at being born and raised in a dead end town, songs like Hard To Beat, Cash Machine and Living For The Weekend captured the mood of a generation who kept dreaming of an escape route that felt increasingly unlikely to appear.

Following their debut Hard-Fi released two more top 10 records, and successfully toured all over the globe, before taking a surprisingly long break after becoming disillusioned with a much changed, relentlessly demanding, music business. They finally broke radio silence earlier this year when posters popped up at various London Underground stations featuring the group’s iconic yellow and black surveillance camera emblem along with the teasing promise of ‘London 01.10.22.’

Initially heralding their return to action for one night only at London’s O2 Forum, that gig sold out in less than seven minutes, with the band subsequently scheduling two more dates in Manchester and Milton Keynes. We caught up with Archer to talk about where the hell they’ve been, what fans can expect from those shows and why there could be a lot more to come from the re-energised, refreshed quartet.

What have you and the band been up to since 2014. Did Kai go back to work for Rentokil?

Kai’s been doing all sorts. He was playing in several bands. He did a little bit of pest control on the side. He was a private investigator for a short while. Ross always loved nothing better than hanging out with the crew. So he started doing a bit of that. Not so much going on tours but installing PAs in posh parties and stuff. The last year of the band Steve was doing an Open University degree in nutrition. He suffers from Crohn’s disease so had to think about what he could eat, and how to look after himself, and ended up doing that and helping other people. Almost like a health and fitness guru. And I’ve been writing with other artists, doing production work and then I put together a band that finally got ready to roll. Then the pandemic happened and put that on the back burner for the time being. It’s shocking how quickly eight years have gone. No one thought that would be the case, but there you are.           

Have you ever regretted going on hiatus too early?

There was never any plan to it. At the time it was difficult.  We weren’t making any money and we’d been doing it pretty much non stop. We loved doing it but it was like being in each other’s pockets all the time and felt like we were always running uphill. And, in some ways, the music industry had changed and we didn’t notice. We could have just made music and put it out on Spotify. But when you’re with a major label there’s so much pressure to have a hit single, get on Radio 1 and all that stuff all the time. It’s like being on an oil tanker. It’s so difficult to turn around or change course. You get into that routine.  Now you need to be a lot more nimble, but back then everything was in a state of flux, state of transition. We were, the industry was, the music scene was. And I had kids. Ross had kids. So life gets in the way.    

Going back to those early days, when did you realise ‘Stars Of CCTV’ had become a phenomenon and things would never be the same again?

There were all sorts of stages. We put a mini album out which was, basically, half the album, and no one gave a shit. We couldn’t get arrested. Eventually someone in the States heard it, really rated it and got in touch with their equivalent in the UK. That’s how it started to pick up interest. Warren Clarke, of Necessary Records,  took one of the singles into what was then XFM. They played it and people started phoning in. We weren’t expecting anything, so to get a record deal...wow. And one of the terms of the deal was that if you sell 70, 000 albums you get to make another. It sold 70 000, kept on selling and eventually went to number one.  

So there were all these increments of ‘I don’t quite believe this.’ When we did five nights at Brixton, they sold out, that was a real moment. When that happened we were up there and had Paul Weller coming up on stage, Mick Jones and Billy Bragg playing with us every night. And also a very young Professor Green supported us for a couple of nights. It was an amazing feeling and every night was great.         

How did you cope when things blew up for the band?

We put a lot of unnecessary pressure on ourselves. You need a degree of that because it’s easy to take your foot off the gas. You’re given this opportunity and wanna make everything the best it can be. But there was always this feeling we shouldn’t be there.  Any minute now we’re going to be found out. We didn’t quite belong. I’ll never forget the first time we did Jools Holland. The other acts on it were Foo Fighters, Black Eyed Peas and Arcade Fire. And Foo Fighters, it was effortless. They were just enjoying it and were fantastic. And I was shitting myself. You look over and you’re thinking ‘oh my god.’ It was like this massive imposter syndrome, basically, and always worrying about stuff, rather than just enjoying the ride, because it was a miracle it happened at all.

And everything’s almost paper thin. You’re only as good as your last single that’s come out.  There’s this demand that you’ve always got to be there, always, and sometimes you’re going ‘does that affect the music you make?’ We were told, making the third album, ‘radio aren’t going to play a band that sounds like a band any more.’ You’ve got to have a dance element.  Well, we have a dance element anyway, but that’s pretty soul destroying. You’re telling me if Nirvana hadn’t been around and, say, popped up later with Smells Like Teen Spirit they’re not gonna play it? Bullshit. That is an incredible, seminal record. If it came out now it would still do what it did.  

So if I could go back I’d say, ‘don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control and the things you can, deal with them, but just enjoy it.’ We got to do some amazing things.  We went to all these different countries and met all these incredible people. Some of my best experiences were playing live. When it was working and rocking it was amazing.

Following the long hiatus, what was the sequence of events that led to Hard-Fi getting back together?

I’d been doing this band called OffWorld, which was basically me, Wolsey White and Kristen Cummings. She sang on some Hard-Fi records and used to be a leading light on the West End and Broadway. Just as Covid happened we did this live stream for the Royal Albert Hall and played some Hard-Fi numbers. Then we did a little thing down the phone in my back garden. We played a mixture of OffWorld and Hard-Fi numbers and there was a great reaction, particularly from Hard-Fi fans.   

So during the next lockdown, in January, I did the whole of ‘Stars Of CCTV’ acoustically from my kitchen. It got a nice reaction and there were lots of people popping up on social media like ‘I would have loved to have seen these guys back in the day.’ There was a lot of love for it. People seemed to be interested in the band and music so I thought ‘Lets see what happens. We’ll do a show.’ We didn’t have any idea what size it would be and how it would go but the response to the tickets going on sale was incredible. We were blown away by that. And then you look around, in some weird way the situation we face now in the country and the world, the sort of stuff we were singing about back in 2005, seems even more relevant now than it did then.  

When you regrouped was it like starting all over again?

The atmosphere, the relationship between us has been better than ever. Everyone seems really up for it.  I look forward to rehearsals. We’ve been doing a lot to try and get match fit and it’s not been a drag. Sometimes you get a feeling when you’re playing with your friends in a room and the songs work. You get a little tingle up the back of your neck because it’s like ‘this feels great.’ I haven’t felt that with Hard-Fi for ages because, as soon as everything got going, that whole thing of us just practising in a rehearsal room didn’t really happen. It was straight into an album, straight out on tour. You didn’t get to sit there, have a cup of tea, chat shit all day, try a few things out and get that buzz when it all starts to click into place.  

Will you be playing the old songs as people know and love them, or might you be updating any with modern twists?

There’s bits and pieces we’ve changed. For example, after  ‘Stars Of CCTV’ came out we released a DVD of a live show at the dearly departed Astoria in London. And with that DVD came an album. It was basically dub remixes of ‘Stars Of CCTV’ that were done by Wolsey White, the guy who produced it with me, and Rom Tom, who had done mixes for us since day one. He’s actually gonna be DJ-ing with us in London. I listened to it again and there’s some great stuff on there. So we were ‘can we introduce some of the vibes, the sounds, from that into some tunes to freshen it up a little bit?’

Other tunes you go ‘it’s been eight years and we know what people wanna hear.’ You don’t want to go ‘hey look we’ve changed it and made it unrecognisable’ because they’re so excited to come, they want to hear the songs they know like they know them. We were quite conscious that it will be a party night. Tom’s gonna be spinning some great records and then we’ll come on. It’s a Saturday night, Friday in Manchester, so that was the feeling.  We’ve done a few tweaks here and there but that’s something we’d like to explore if things move forwards. It just keeps it interesting, rehearsing and trying different approaches.         

A few years ago you said you’d only do shows like these if you had some new music to play. Will you make good on that promise?

We’ve got a couple of new numbers we want to put in there. There’s been discussions because, on the other hand, me and the guys have been saying ‘you know what people want to hear, they want to hear the ones that made them feel good.’ So when we sit down and go ‘right, what’s the final set list?’ we’ll decide whether there’s one or two. There’s some new bits to come but we want to make sure it’s as good as it can be.    

What can you say about those new songs, in terms of what they sound like in comparison to the classic Hard-Fi sound?

I don’t know because it’s always been ‘what is the classic Hard-Fi sound?’ I’ve been sitting here thinking about a new album and thinking ‘what is it?’ It’s always easy when you talk to other people, and when I’ve sat down and worked with other artists, I say ‘if someone’s told you to come here and they want you to write Hard To Beat because you want a radio record, you’ve got to get down to the essence of what is it about you, what is your thing, what resonates with your fans. Otherwise you end up sounding like everyone else.’ When you look at other people you can see that, but when it’s yourself it’s hard to spot.

So I want to try and simplify it a little bit. And what do you sing about?  ‘Stars Of CCTV’ covered almost everything. It was a snapshot of my life at the time, a lot of aspects of it, and if I’d thought about what I wanted to sing about I might not have done that. I’ve always told stories that either resonate with me about someone else’s life, little vignettes, or hyped up versions of my reality. So it’s still in flux. Since we said ‘let’s do the show’ I’ve been so focused that it’s mainly been ‘let’s get this done and then we can sit down,  lock ourselves in the studio and go ‘what is it?  What is this new thing?’ It’ll be interesting if we can do a couple of new ones to see what the reaction is.            

It sounds like these gigs are a launchpad for the second part of your career, rather than just a brief reunion?

I think so. We want to wait and see how the shows go but, knowing how we feel being around each other, and we all feel pretty good, it seems we’d like to do more stuff.  Obviously it’s a different world now. I don’t think we’re gonna get on Radio 1 any time soon, but we’d like to make some music. We’ve still got something to say. I’ve always enjoyed the process of making records.  It’s exciting. Having worked with new bands, it’s very difficult to get your stuff out there and find an audience. We’re in a very privileged position that we have an audience. It might not be like it was in the heyday but we’ve got great fans who’ve stuck by us. It seems like it would be a shame to not do something.              

And finally, can you put into words what you think it will feel like when you walk out on stage together again?

It’s gonna be exciting. It’s also gonna be pretty daunting because we’re so out of practice.  It’s those moments in between the songs when you feel like you ought to say something to the audience without quite knowing what to say. ‘So how is everyone?’ Back in the day I’d be yelling ‘fucking come on!’ I’ve grown out of that a little bit now. Maybe we’ll give them a bit of that, but it’s gonna be great. I’m really, really looking forward to it.

Hard-Fi Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu September 29 2022 - MILTON KEYNES Craufurd Arms
Fri September 30 2022 - MANCHESTER New Century Hall
Sat October 01 2022 - LONDON O2 Forum Kentish Town

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