Interview with Matt & Gareth of Serpentine

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Gareth Noon and Matt Black: Speaking In High Definition. Birmingham, June 2012.

By Harry Paterson

Birmingham and it’s hammering down. Now there’s a combo to make you all warm and fuzzy inside. Brum; in the rain. Great…

And the venue? Improbably situated (actually, hidden would be more accurate) on an industrial estate running alongside a greasy stagnant canal, you’d never find the place in a month of Sundays if you hadn’t been here before or owned a sat nav designed by NASA.  Christ, it just gets better. Let joy be unconfined.

Despite the image the venue’s name, The Roadhouse, might conjure up, there is no Swayze-like mullet-head muscle on the door. Nor any slinky, big-haired blondes in tight, hot-pink, satin mini-dresses, either. Sadly. It’s no longer 1989 and, sometimes, one has to admit progress sucks.

None of the above seems to have dented the brisk, cheerful professionalism of Lyndon Noon, Serpentine’s amicable and accommodating manager. Thanks to a previous equipment malfunction, this interview with his charges, originally conducted the previous Saturday, has been rescheduled for tonight. We find a cool, quiet room and as the sound-check ends, Lyndon ushers in Gareth Noon, the band’s keyboard warrior and, a few minutes later, frontman Matt Black.

Young Noon is getting over the cold he gave me last Saturday and for which he remains cheerfully unapologetic. The bastard. He’s warm and articulate and intelligent with it. Black’s onstage persona, an appealing amalgam of wry comic observations and skilful crowd-control, honed in the bear-pit of the working men’s club circuit, contrasts sharply with his off-stage vibe; quieter, more considered and thoughtful, he pauses often before offering his insights.

“The tour’s going really well, so far” Noon opens. “Saturday’s gig [Rock City, Nottingham] was well-received and we felt, despite there always being the odd thing you’d want to improve, that it was a great show. We’re enjoying things, having fun and the audiences are responding really well”. All true as my own observations of the band’s thoroughly excellent Rock City gig confirmed.

Now then; the band’s two albums have been extremely well-received so how is the traditionally difficult third album shaping up? Feeling the pressure in a post-Tony Mills world? “No, I don’t think so” answers Noon firmly. “In many ways, it actually feels like a first album because, obviously, Matt is now contributing to the writing and that gives things a different feel. We couldn’t, and I certainly wouldn’t, wish to understate Tony’s contribution, which was huge, but we’re a different band now and we need to proceed with that in mind. So, in that sense, as I said, it feels more like a debut for us than a third album, with all the weight of expectations that normally brings. I was really happy with the second album and, even now, there’s very little about it I would change or feel unhappy about. It was genuinely the best possible album we could have made at the time and it reflected really well where we were and what we were about.”

Indeed. ‘Living and Dying In High Definition’ was one of the finest UK releases of 2011 and while it’s predecessor met with mixed reviews, critical reaction to the second has been unequivocally favourable, and deservedly so. For Serpentine the quality of song-writing has never been in doubt but they faced the same challenges most recording melodic rock bands face; how to retain the melody and the intricacies of the material without diluting the heaviness of the live sound. After all, history is littered with great collections of songs, let down by lightweight production. FM’s rightly celebrated debut ‘Indiscreet’ being just one example.

“That’s an interesting point” Noon responds. “I think, sometimes, that’s a just a natural progression, though. Look at ‘Tough It Out’. That was much heavier than ‘Indiscreet’ and when you record your first album, it’s all brand new. You’re learning as you go along, feeling your way. I would say that, for us, we’re always looking for an edge, if you like. Something that makes us just a little bit different and, as you said yourself, we’ve got a contemporary sound. I think that’s vital; making sure our music stays current, you’ve got to stay contemporary, relevant, and that lends itself anyway to a heavier sound than a lot of the bands of the past, like FM. We also have tools at our disposal in the studio, thanks to advances in technology, that they didn’t have, which helps. Also, we are first and foremost a rock band and we certainly want to combine our love of melody with that heaviness.”

So far so good so what about the new album, then? Again, Noon is focused and clear on where his band needs to go next. “Now we’re a different band and the challenge is not to somehow retread past glories or meet whatever expectations people may, or may not, have based on the first two albums, but to capture who we are now and what we’re about now. Matt is a vital part of that process. We’re looking to build on what we did with Tony, sure, but to go to new places and produce an album that reflects Serpentine today. The split, if you could even call it that, with Tony, was perfectly amicable. Even now I hear people saying ‘Oh, I know the real story’. There is no ‘real story’. The man had a heart attack, for God’s sake! And what with the constant travelling back and forth from Norway, his work with TNT and so on, it just wasn’t possible for him to continue with us without putting his health at further risk and himself under an unacceptable amount of pressure. I speak to Tony, still, and I can call him anytime for help or to simply bounce things off, you know? The man’s a good friend to me and to the band. Always has been.”

Black chips in, “I spoke to him on the ‘phone when I got the gig and he was great. Really supportive and he said if he could help with anything, I only had to call. He was great. I even went to the wedding. That doesn’t sound like a bad split, does it?” Ah, yes. Matt Black; the man with the unenviable task of filling the boots once worn by the legendary Tony Mills. Simply put; a giant of UK melodic rock. The former Shy frontman, and TNT vocalist, is someone with a very distinctive style and comparisons are simply inevitable.

Black smiles easily. “He’s great and there was a feeling, at the beginning, of a little bit of pressure, obviously, but Tony never gigged with the band. He never sang live with Serpentine so it wasn’t as if people had anything to compare me to in that sense. So that really helped me. Yeah, there’s going to be comparisons when the album comes out, obviously, but, like Matt said, it feels like a first album for us, in a lot of ways, so I’m fairly relaxed about it, really.”

Its apparent Black has respect for his predecessor and holds him in high regard. But who else would he cite as an influence and a source of inspiration? He responds with no hesitation. “Jeff Scott Soto. He’s incredible and his work ethic and approach, he always has so many different projects on the go, that’s sort of my model; to keep busy, doing different things, but to try and maintain the quality that all his work has. He’s brilliant.” Certainly no arguments there and the singer, of course, is a busy man, himself; in addition to fronting Serpentine he also has his own solo gig, The Matt Black Band.

The two musicians radiate focused confidence and a quiet determination where their work is concerned; a maturity that is entirely professional. Serpentine is certainly a killer live act and one of whom UK rocks fans should feel inordinately proud. Yes, Matt has big boots to fill but on stage he is his own man and the band have gelled superbly around their undoubtedly gifted singer. The challenge is on for the third album, yes, but it would be an incredibly stupid individual who would bet against them. Don’t be surprised if it’s their best yet. In any event, one thing’s for sure; this is a class act and they’re in it for the long-haul. There are greater things still to come from this remarkable act. Count on it.