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RapidFax, September 18-24, 1997
Prolific UK foursome makes tracks for Eden
By KIM HUGHES
LONDON -- It's mid-August, and England's wilting, locked in a relentless heat wave of 78 degrees Fahrenheit, with no relief in sight.
Sticky weekenders flee down the M23 in droves to the pebbled shores of Brighton, where a quick dip in the Channel eases the discomforts of a nation without air-conditioning.
In central London, the charming members of Catherine Wheel -- singer/guitarist Rob Dickinson, guitarist Brian Futter, drummer Neil Sims and bassist Dave Hawes -- keep cool at Sanctuary Music, bustling management centre for their band and Iron Maiden.
Fans recognize the connection between these utterly disparate combos. Dickinson's cousin Bruce used to be Maiden's lead singer and, more significantly, introduced them to Merck Mercuriadis, Catherine Wheel's Canadian-born manager, point man, Internet fixture, constant companion and -- pardon the dog-eared cliche -- undisputed fifth member.
Merck and crew have done their jobs well, as is evidenced by legions of gold and platinum Maiden awards hanging from the white walls. Visitors shooting down the hall to the loo must run the gauntlet past the feral, rotting eyes of Eddie, the decomposing Maiden mascot. Refreshments are judiciously accepted.
Slightly less frightful is Catherine Wheel's mood during a photo shoot that seems to take roughly as long to complete as Adam And Eve, their stunning, year-in-the-making fourth studio album, and a work of true sonic grandeur.
Confidently expanding on the band's churning, hard-soft dynamic, Adam And Eve pitches scene-chewing guitar freakouts against the testimonial hum of an organ, the melancholic saw of a cello and Dickinson's smouldering purr, pushed far enough up in the mix to capture his languid breaths.
The songs breathe, too, which just goes to show that Catherine Wheel's initial more-is-more approach to recording has shifted along with their status as best-kept secrets.
"The great thing about this band," offers Dickinson, "is that our reasons for making music now are different than when we started. The lyrics, music and singing weren't really that important initially. It was the guitars and screwing around with odd sounds and just making this wall of noise. We were a gang onstage, making this team noise.
"That's changed quite a lot. We now feel that we need a structure for those sounds. I felt my singing was getting better through all the touring, so I wanted to write songs to reflect that. Being in a group gives you time to ruminate on things."
Similar introspection should be mandatory for record labels. Using logic that can only be described as Pete Best-ian, but with less dire consequences, Catherine Wheel's brand-new American label, Mercury, released Adam and Eve stateside the same day the new Oasis record dropped. This after months of delays.
For almost any other British rock group, such a strategic stumble could equal commercial death. But for Catherine Wheel -- who've cultivated a devoted fan base in North America by juxtaposing Dickinson's velvet-coated voice against Futter's unyielding sheets of feedback and distortion -- the timing is more comical than calamitous.
And the devoted fans? Last January, when Merck and Dickinson found themselves in L.A. with finished mixes of Adam And Eve in hand and no fresh ears to hear them, Merck put the call out to Catherine Wheel fans in cyberspace -- all acquainted with his frequent missives -- and invited them by the Sunset Marquis for an impromptu listening session.
"When word got out," recalls Dickinson with a husky chuckle, "fans were offering to fly up from Boston to hear the tapes. It was a really good way to start things off.
"I wanted to make this a very personable record," Dickinson explains. "When you see a good film, you're led through it by your interest in what's going to happen to the characters. You're on their side.
"With this record, I wanted to get people on our side early on and get them feeling that they had some kind of empathy for what we're singing about.
"The stuff that we felt was more challenging we left for later on in the record, whereas with (1995's) Happy Days we were putting up all these new ways of doing things, which maybe put people off. This time we wanted to drag people in and give them a very specific beginning and end. Those were our only goals. And we fit our songwriting around that."
While the group's confidence in the new disc is resolute, it wasn't exactly a cakewalk to complete. Produced by Dickinson with Bob Ezrin and GGGarth Richardson -- oddly, both dudes with serious hardcore/metal dossiers -- Adam and Eve came about only after endless rehearsals and songwriting.
All agree that Tim Friese-Greene, who produced their debut, Ferment, and returned to play keyboards, also provided a crucial grasp of the big picture throughout the sessions.
Meantime, an odds-and-sods collection -- 96's Like Cats And Dogs -- gathered loose ends while furnishing the Wheel's fans with a tender reading of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, a song second only to Happy Days' Eat My Dust You Insensitive Fuck for chutzpah.
Still, by Hawes' estimation, roughly 40 cassettes were required to chronicle the various ideas Catherine Wheel hacked through before finally settling on a dozen tracks. Futter moans that he could have bought a car with the money he spent shuttling himself via rentals between his home and the band's Norfolk rehearsal space.
On the upside, Hawes had time to compile and post the group's entire gigography on their already comprehensive Web site.
"We had so much to work with and, of course, some of it was real rubbish," Futter reveals with startling honesty.
"One thing sounded like a Blondie song, another sounded like a Garth Brooks song. We had a group of about 20, 25 songs, and it was so hard to get that down.
"In the end, we weren't a band, we were these four blokes who just went into this room and played for no reason, day in and day out, and went home on the weekends. But there you go. It took a long time, but I think it's the best thing we've done."
Futter's recollections may be less than rosy, but he comes by his assessment honestly, since it was he and Dickinson, the latter originally on drums, who launched Catherine Wheel from their Great Yarmouth home at the decade's dawn.
Some other factoids for consideration:
Dickinson reckons he and Futter still do "most of the spadework" with respect to songwriting, even though the four clearly revel in one another's input. The peripatetic, chatty Sims, who worked for a spell on an oil rig, once found himself fortuitously seated next to Charlie Watts on a plane. He is a parent.
Hawes joined after answering a newspaper advert. His wife is American. Futter met his wife when the group were recording their first disc, in Wales. Dickinson is an unabashed car fanatic, and single, not to imply any connection. He will doubtless marry one day.
Catherine Wheel gave its first gig in September 1990. Since then, they've played with House of Love, Jeff Buckley, INXS, Slowdive, Smashing Pumpkins and Belly, the latter spawning an anomalously sweet duet between Belly's Tanya Donelly and Dickinson on Judy Staring At The Sun, from Happy Days.
Canada is Catherine Wheel's best market, per capita, in the world. Not coincidentally, Adam and Eve was partly recorded and mixed in Vancouver. And yes, they're careerists, perfectly willing -- no, eager -- to embrace full-blown rock stardom, should it request the honour of their presence.
"It's a funny process, making a record," Sims offers. "You spend a few weeks or months writing songs and rehearsing, you record it in a few weeks and then you spend the next 18 months playing those songs out in public. By the end of that, the songs have changed and you're playing them so much better. If only you could record them at the end of that process.
"That's what we tried to do this time. We kept at stuff to determine what was working and what wasn't, rather than recording something because we were running out of time. That's confidence, I think. And it has a lot to do with how much time we've spent together and our knowing what we want."
"Rock and roll music works best when it's revealing something that has an inherent truth," Dickinson says. "So you might as well do what comes naturally. We've kind of succumbed to that and, hopefully, people will dig it."
NOW SEPTEMBER 18-24, 1997
- --------------------------------------------- * 1997 Adam and Eve (Mercury/Polydor) * 1996 Like Cats and Dogs (Mercury/Polydor) * 1995 Happy Days (Fontana/Polygram) * 1993 Chrome (Fontana/Polygram) * 1992 Ferment (Fontana/Polygram)