November 08, 2006
Keris Howard might not be a name that you are familiar with, but don't let that stop you from investigating his music. He was the leader of the beloved Sarah Records band Brighter, and later formed Harper Lee, as well as serving as a member of Bob Wratten's Trembling Blue Stars. Earlier this year, Harper Lee released a wonderful EP, He Holds A Flame, which appears to be the band's farewell release. But longtime label Matinee has also released a second Brighter collection, entitled Out to Sea, and it, too, is wonderful. It was nice to have him sit down and tell him a little bit about his past, his present, and his future.
What brought Brighter together, and what broke it apart?
Brighter was basically just me for our first two singles. I'd sent a very rough demo to Sarah in late 1988 after falling in love with the first Sea Urchins and Another Sunny Day singles, and much to my shock, they wrote back and asked me to do a 7" EP. The "band" came about when people started suggesting we played live, so i grabbed the two people closest to me, my girlfriend Alison and my best mate Alex, and asked them to join. From then on we recorded and gigged as a three-piece.
I think it's fair to say we were never given the artistic freedom on the label that bigger hitters like the Field Mice and Heavenly were afforded. This was never really a great problem as i was never that confident a song writer and getting Sarah's (ie Matt & Clare's) thumbs up before we were able to take the songs into the studio was in some ways reassuring. Unfortunately it set us on a bit of a collision course. By 1992 it seemed that the label was finding it harder and harder to find songs of ours that they wanted to put out and i was starting to take it personally! It took quite lengthy negotiations to agree a tracklisting for what was to be our final EP and in honesty, i think we recognized as we went into the studio that this was likely to be the last thing we did on the label. Despite al ot of people telling me now how they loved it, when we released the "Disney" EP it had a bit of a mixed reception. Ironically, it was the first recording we'd made without the presence of both Matt & Clare in the studio and without their mediating influence, the three of us all tried to pull the band's sound in different directions. Against this background we then did an ill-fated tour of the UK with Blueboy, a tour which prompted me to realize that what ever small success we'd had, it wasn't enough to pull an audience on a wet and windy night in Hull during University reading week! Alex decided to leave the band shortly after, and after a brief dalliance with recruiting a new bassist, Alison and I decided to bring the band to an end.
In recent years, you've worked with Bob Wratten. Was he an influence for you in Brighter?
I think Bobby's actually been more of an influence on my post-Brighter song-writing as most of the songs that made up our first couple of singles and the “Laurel” LP had already been written prior to me hearing "Emma's House".
Do you feel a tinge of romantic longing for those heady Sarah Records days?
I do, but then Alison or Alex reminds me that I spent most of the time moaning and complaining. As with much in life, you don't tend to appreciate things till you lose them. Saying that, the great thing about those days was that the “club” we were part of was such an egalitarian one. I think the whole fan/band relationship was pretty blurred. The idea of “fans” being in some kind of passive relationship just wasn't there. So many of the people who'd come to our gigs were writing their own fanzines, or in bands themselves or setting up labels. If there is some romantic longing it's probably for that feeling of being part of something special, mixing with people you confidently knew shared your values and politics, people who really believed they could make a difference and that what they were doing wasn't just about music, but about effecting a change over life in general.
Does it surprise you that many of those bands (Field Mice, Aberdeen, Secret Shine, Orchids, for instance) are finding renewed interest 15-20 years later?
Not at all. I think the back catalogue of bands like the Field Mice and Orchids will sound great whatever decade you happen to be listening to it in. The only possible shame is that although people are rediscovering the label's bands, there doesn't seem to be much rediscovery of the label's politics and ethics. It'd be great to think that the label's legacy isn't only a new wave of bands inspired by the “Sarah sound”, but also maybe a new wave of labels that wear their politics as proudly and doggedly as Matt and Clare did.
What do you consider to be the highlight of Brighter's brief existence?
“Laurel” was the first release to really get picked up by the music press, and to give us that brief feeling of giddiness that comes with suddenly getting good reviews in the Melody Maker and NME. For a month or two we really started to believe we might be going somewhere, and that we might be able to really define ourselves as a proper band. Unfortunately, that was to be as good as it got.
Let's talk a moment about Harper Lee. Were you surprised by the attention paid to the song "He Holds a Flame?" Does such attention inspire you or motivate you to write?
When I'd written our last LP, All Things Can Be Mended, it'd been in my mind that it would probably be the last thing we'd do (you only need to listen to the last track, “There's a light in me that's gone” to hear the sound of a man laying down 'calling it a day' metaphors with a trowel). 18 months on from that I wrote some songs which actually made me think it might be worth one final throw of the dice so we released the EP and thankfully, it received a pretty decent reception. Oddly, the result of this was to make me think even more strongly than I did after the last LP that this is the perfect time to bring the band to an end. Best to go out on a high, I guess.
Is Harper Lee an ongoing project, or do you consider it more of a hobby that occasionally releases records?
I've never liked the idea of the band as a hobby as that suggests to me something quite self-indulgent. It's always been important for our music to reach an audience and connect with people in some small way, so i guess it's a bit more outward looking than the word “hobby” suggests. To describe it as “an ongoing project” would probably have been more accurate, especially as both myself and Laura have been involved with other bands during the last 7 years (Laura with Kicker and me with Trembling Blue Stars). However, the word “ongoing” probably no longer fits; as intimated before, I think the last EP will prove to have been our final release.
What are you working on next?
Over the last twelve months, I've been working with Andrew Montgomery (once lead singer in the band Geneva) and Dick Preece from Lovejoy on a new “project” called St Famous. It's giving me the opportunity to give free reign to the OMD/New Order influences which have occasionally popped up during my previous incarnations. Additionally, over the summer I was doing bass duties on the new Trembling Blue Stars LP, The Last Holy Writer. I think that should be out early next year and trust me, it's utterly wonderful.
Harper Lee's final release, He Holds A Flame EP and Brighter's latest compilation, Out to Sea, are both available now on Matinee Recordings