It was a passing on-line conversation that got me singing Natural Life’s Strange World again. Someone had mentioned the band, and we were all vouching for their balearic credentials, and wondering why, in `90, `91, they never made it big. It seems to me that Strange World is so fucking apt right now, more of an anthem then ever, and I honestly haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Listening put me in mind of what balearic really was, what it really meant, back in `87, `88, `89 – particularly in South London. It was house, acid, sure, but there was also a lot of rock being played. I remembered shopping for records in Croydon`s legendary second-hand store, Beano`s, while original Amnesiac Elvis was in there buying Genesis 12s*. Boys Own Fanzine even had “Extremely loud guitars” listed in their Uppers column. I posted a comment, something like, “Man, I`d love to interview those guys”, and then Chris from the marvelous Disco Tees magically made the introduction…
Where are you from?
Whereabouts? I grew up around Norwood, and Croydon.
I grew up in the Forest Hill / Catford area which is where I spent most of my formative years. I attended school there – Forest Hill Comprehensive – and pre-acid house would’ve gone to all of the local pubs/clubs of that area. The main local was the Forest Barn – a wine bar, which were all the rage back then (laughs), and our nights out would’ve involved going to places like Cheeks in Deptford or venturing out on occasion to places like Stage 3 in Leysdown, The Goldmine in Canvey Island – to see DJs like Chris Hill, and then later it would’ve been rare groove nights. We all seemed to end up frequenting a boozer called The Rutland, which was on Catford Hill and was football related, as we`d get mini-buses to go and watch Millwall. I do remember things started to change with acid house as you would spend the whole Sunday lunch-time session talking about Es probably to the huge boredom of people that hadn’t been where you had… then pub life kind of petered out.
Where are you based now?
Isle of Dogs, East London.
How did you first get into music?
I got my first guitar aged 11, played in bands with mates I hung around with. We made punk music because you didn’t need much in the way of lessons
What instruments do you play? I’ve seen clips of you on guitar and piano.
Just guitar really, although I make electronic music also so play a little keyboards.
Were you in bands before Natural Life?
Aside from the punk groups at school I was in a jazz funk-type band. The percussionist Shovell – Andrew Lovell – and the drummer Syd Holdforth – along with myself – went on to join Natural Life.
Who else was in Natural Life? How did you meet the other band mates?
Natural Life were all from the same part of South East London. We all went to the same pubs and clubs, and realized that we could do something together.
Who played what? Who wrote the songs?
There was the vocalist Jon Spong, two guitarists – myself and Darren Hunter – Mark Matthews on bass, Ray Wilson on keyboards – later replaced by Hakan Tuna – Shovell on percussion and Syd on drums. Jon wrote all the lyrics and the songs were formed in countless jams and rehearsal sessions.
What was your relationship with “balearic”?
Balearic was a hugely important part of the make up of Natural Life. It allowed us to come at the idea of a rock band from a different angle and it informed all the music we made. Our attendance at house music clubs gave us a common bond, and so what we were listening to at the weekend informed what we were doing in rehearsals.
When did you first go to Ibiza?
I didn’t go to Ibiza – well, the Ibiza that we know now – until the mid-90s, when I went to play some gigs out there with Deja Vu. I think we played at KU, but there were some sound issues and I’m not sure whether we played or not. I think we just ended up on bit of a bender.
Are there any tunes in particular that remind you of that trip?
I don’t remember particular songs but I do remember Darren Emerson DJing in Space – which was excellent.
In London, did you go to clubs / parties like The Project Club, Future, Shoom, Spectrum?
Yes, I went to all of them. My mate’s Dad owned the Fitness Centre and his sister and her boyfriend used to run the bar on the Shoom night so they told us about it and we went down and that was, of course, a game changer. We just carried on going there when it was Promised Land (Saturday night party run by Steve Proctor at The Fitness Centre, once Shoom had moved on) for a bit and to everywhere else wherever there was the opportunity for a night out.
A lot of people who first “got” the balearic thing seem to have either been big on soul music, or big on football. Did you fall into either of those categories?
Yes, that’s true. I’d been to Caister before, and soul and rare groove clubs were very popular in South London It’s an often-told tale of the different football allegiances all ending up in the same clubs and not being as bothered about getting into scraps. I went football – I used to go down the Den, with `88 / `89 being a pivotal year as Millwall went into the top division. It seemed quite normal to go in a mini-bus up to Liverpool to watch the match, and then get back into London and go out clubbing. I don’t know where I found the energy!
Did you throw any parties, host any club nights of your own?
We never really got the bug to do club promotion. I think having been behind the curtain, waiting around to do gigs, you saw the stress levels for those guys putting things on and it generally appeared to lead to only bouts of fleeting success plus personally I was never really that entrepreneurial.
Were you friendly with, close to, the Deja Vu folks?
Yes, their percussionist Blaine (Scanlon) was friends with us pre-acid house and there were links with the Roundshaw Estate lads through clubbing. They put us on at a few venues they were running, and also Sean Slattery went on to do some tour managing for Natural Life. They were kindred spirits and were very encouraging of us. As I just mentioned, I used to do PAs with Deja Vu up and down the country – and also that trip out to Ibiza.
Did you go to parties like Monkey Drum**?
Yes, I loved Monkey Drum. The place had a great atmosphere for a Monday night and a style all of its own. It was quite inspirational to the Natural Life sound – since they’d play remixes of guitar bands, which was similar to what we were going after sound-wise, and I think there was a big desire for London to have bands that were hip to dance culture.
Dance music influenced the music we were making massively. With a drummer and percussionist in the band we were emulating breakbeats that you might’ve got from a sampler to give the feel of the loops we were listening to in clubs and then we would structure the guitars and keyboards around that. There was quite a funk feel to a lot of the band’s sound as well, as a lot of the guys in the band were influenced by that along with jazz, folk – loads of stuff really.
Are there any tunes in particular that remind you of Monkey Drum? Can you remember who the DJs were? Steve Lee?
I remember St. Etienne’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Weatherall’s remix of My Bloody Valentine’s Soon, Hippy Chick by Soho. I remember getting given a white label copy of Come Together with Weatherall’s version on one side and Farley’s on the other. In terms of DJs I remember Steve Lee, Andy Nicholls. Andrew Weatherall, Terry Farley, John Edis, Fabi Paras….
Did you have any links to the promoters, Fascinations, and their parties at the Downham Tavern, or places like Bonnies in Catford, and Echoes in Bow?
We definitely had links with Fascinations. I think the first, full, gig with Natural Life was at the Downham Tavern. Me, Jon Spong, and Shovell played a Downham Tavern all-dayer with a drum machine – playing covers of tracks like Raul Orellana`s Real Wild House and Talking Heads` Psycho Killer, and Shovell then convinced them to invite back the full band for the next one. So a big thank you to them for giving us the opportunity.
Bon-Bonnies – if that’s where you’re referring to – was just a local place where people who went clubbing from South London would meet up for a cheap, midweek beer. As a Millwall supporter I would’ve been reluctant to go to Echoes in Bow!
The Bonnies I was referring to was on Southend Lane – Bon Bonnie was in West Norwood – as you said a popular pre-acid house night out. Half the crowd on Do-Dos. Bonnies was another mid-week thing – maybe Wednesday, probably Thursday. I think Andy Nichols used to DJ there and I always assumed it was run by Fascinations – because Andy would also play at the (Downham) Tavern. The reason I asked about Echoes, was because Tony Wilson DJed there on a Friday – something called Adrenalin – and again – because of the Downham Tavern connection I assumed it was Fascinations. I know Andy Swallow / Centreforce, etc., did the the Saturday night – Pacha – at Echoes. Guess I’m confused, but I`ll admit to not being on an even keel back then.
How did you get signed to Hollywood? I think people might have expected you to be on a label like Boys Own.
We were talking with Boys Own at one point about signing with them but it never worked out. We were a big band – a 7 piece – and wanted to pack in our day jobs. When we did some back of the fag packet sums with our management, it worked out that to pay us all about £100 per week for 1 year came to a fair bit of cash. We spoke with a few labels and Hollywood agreed to pay so we took a punt and went with them. It really was a punt as they had no set up in the UK at that time but it meant that we could fully concentrate on the music.
Who picked your producer, Adam Fuest? Was it the band or the label? What was it like working with Adam? Were you happy with the finished album?
We picked Adam out of a number of people and the reason for doing so was that he came down to see us and just offered a couple of small suggestions on songs, small details, which made us think that he was listening and to be honest he was great to work with. In hindsight, personally, I think that the album sounds a bit over-produced but I don’t see that as Adam’s fault – as there was a lot of us in the band and I think we were bombarding him with suggestions as to how the album should sound – and also while there were some edges taken away, Natural Life had a lot of pop sensibility as well as the more obvious club influences. We were quite eclectic which was down to our attendance at clubs and going back to mate’s houses and listening to all kinds of mad music that seemed to make sense with the drugs we were taking.
I remember reading an interview and it saying that Andrew Weatherall was lined up to remix one of your tracks – do you know which one it was? The Promise?
We had a track called Deb n Duf. It was a dub track and Andrew said that it reminded him of A Certain Ratio. The remix didn’t end up happening and I can’t really remember why but, again, I do remember him being very encouraging of the band as most people were.
Does Deb N Duff mean anything?
Yeah, it’s a word play on dub and puff, with both inspiring the record.
The Promise in particular seemed to predict the sound of later bands – like Flowered Up. Did you know the Flowered Up guys?
Yes, we used to rehearse at the same place as Flowered Up – a place called the Sunday School in Elephant & Castle. Myself and Shovell also rented a flat in Forest Hill from Barry Mooncult – so there were a lot connections around that time. I don’t think they were particularly influenced by us, or us them, but we were all very much of that time. Jah Wobble also used to rehearse at The Sunday School – around the time of Visions Of You – and he had a similar band set up to us – so I think that sound was very much in the air.
How hard did you tour? Did you get to play abroad?
We had a massive spell of touring which, in between recording the album, lasted a couple of years I think. We did club nights, universities, pub type venues, plus support tours with The Farm and Seal – along with the odd gig at places like the Brixton Academy, on bills with other bands like The Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai.
Did you perform at any festivals?
Glastonbury and Reading – which were great – but there wasn’t the variety of festivals around then that there is now.
What happened to the band? When and why did you break up?
We got to a point where we were into the record label for about £250k and they hadn’t got a return. Our big track, Natural Life, didn’t break the Top 40 so when it came to negotiate a new term the money offered was impossible for us to operate on and that kind of was the beginning of the end. We ended up with no cash, in-debt and after trying to keep it going for a bit it just dragged us down.
Did it have anything to do with “accounts” and “managers”? I’ve watched the band documentary – which is up on Youtube.
Yes, we were poor with our accounts, naive and just concentrating on making music without looking at the bigger picture which was obviously a huge mistake.
What did you do next?
I carried on making music, did the club tours with Deja Vu for a bit while working on other side projects, such as some soundtrack music for a film by the director John Maybury, and playing session guitar for various producers. After a while I ended getting a ‘straight job’ at the PRS then re-trained and now work in IT.
What was the name of the film that you worked on? John Maybury has worked with some “big guns” – Ryuichi Sakamoto, Eno, Angelo Badalamenti.
Sadly I’ve had a look and can’t see which film it might’ve been. It was very art-house and I remember going to the premier at the ICA and the images being fairly out there.
Are Natural Life all still in contact? Are you all still involved in and / or making music?
Yes, we have a WhatsApp group and try to meet up once a year or so. We were looking at doing a final / reunion gig and had a venue booked in London but sadly the pandemic has put paid to that for the time being.
Listening to Strange World, it is an anthem – one big fucking pissed off shout – a positive voice for disaffected working class youth – fucked off with the system. Fucked off with being told what to do. Very symbolic of those optimistic late `80s, early 90s times – when we thought we were going to change the world. Sadly it seems more relevant today than ever. Time for a remix and reissue?
Yes, some great lyrics by Jon and, as you say, very symbolic of those times when we really thought we could change things… and in some ways we did. Take our band for example, we were all South London boys in dead-end jobs but forming the band and doing what we did lifted us out of the humdrum and gave us the opportunity to do other things with our lives. I think this is true for a lot of people who were involved at the start of balearic and acid house.
Musically, these days, what sort of stuff are you into?
Anything and everything really. It’s never been easier to get hold of new music, which simply ends up on your phone, curated by algorithms based on your previous listening history. I’m still quite balearic in my tastes and comfortable listening to hard-edged dance music next to a folk track. I’ve been listening to a guy called Otik at the moment that I really like and a guy called Pharma. I make my own music on laptop which mixes electronic music and everything else that I like. I aim to get some of that up on Bandcamp in the next few months for no other reason than a love of music.
Yes, I’d been to the last 3 and really enjoyed them. There`s a great atmosphere and some really special music being played – which I hope will carry on, since, as you can see, music continues being the driving force.
*This Phil Collins track turned up on a bootleg called Balearic Beats Volume 3.
**Monkey Drum was an early underground balearic night held at Solaris, on the Grays Inn Road – on a Monday I think.
A huge Happy Christmas!!! from Ban Ban Ton Ton. Thank you to everyone who, despite 2020`s strangeness, tuned-in.