danny McNamara (vocals, words, songs, acoustic guitar, passion, quotes and misquotes, just learnt to play piano) has a fucked heart, in the clinical, medical, spent-time-in-hospital way. In the takes-drugs-every-day-so-he-doesn’t-die way. The beta blockers he’s on are prescribed at 15 times the dose his friend’s mum, in her 50s, is on, and he’s been taking them for longer than he cares to remember. I imagine it’s part of the reason why Embrace have never been a drugs band; even weed would send your body over the edge if you had arrhythmia, palpitations, heart-flutter verging on panic attacks. Dilated arteries and swooshing blood flow wouldn’t be good. Going on stage and singing isn’t particularly good. The rider tonight has a couple of bottles of champagne, a few dozen cans of Belgian lager and a load of bottles of low-carb beer for the band members getting down to fighting weight. No one in the band even smokes anymore. They’re a lean machine now, literally and metaphorically. Steve Firth (bass, age indeterminate, absolutely beautiful from certain angles, long time married) might still get occasional acid flashbacks—a few years ago the other members of the band would take advantage when playing him at pool, because he’d forget what colour he was shooting for—but that’s it. Danny’s been dropping hints about his condition for years, talking about his “splashing heart” in lyrics and occasionally mentioning beta blockers in interviews, but he’s never come out about it fully until now.

In the pub pre pre-gig gig (I’ll explain that later) we’re sitting at a table situated beneath some badly drawn rock caricatures. Bono and Noel Gallagher are easy to guess (sunglasses and eyebrows respectively), as are Shane Macgowan and Bob Geldoff. I suggest that another is some amalgamation of Freddie Mercury and Brian May, like the cover of The Miracle taken to its logical conclusion, but someone else reckons it’s Phil Lynott. I call the big dude in the blue suit as Tony Bennett, someone suggests the androgynous figure is Bowie (and not, in fact, Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian), but we’re divided over who the short-haired woman with splashes of inept marbling-effect colour behind her head is. I am standing firm with my suggestion that it’s Enya. There’s one more that might be Phil Collins, only the artist has given him a full head of hair. Someone says that they want Embrace to be in the kind of position where crap draughtsmen might draw shitty caricatures of them and hang them on pub walls. Someone else suggests that this might come to pass rather quicker than we realise.

Album pre-orders at record shops had been 25,000, which is respectable but not outstanding. On Thursday “Gravity” is back up to 6 in the midweek charts, rising back from 7 after dropping from 5, where it had stood proud on Tuesday. This means that it will definitely be Top Ten come the weekend, and quite possibly equal their best chart position, number 6 back in 1998. As soon as the success of the single was announced, album pre-orders shot up to 81,000. With another week to go and more press to do (News Of The World are waiting for me to finish), people are hopeful that pre-orders will reach 100,000, meaning that the album goes gold in its first week of release just like their debut did 6 years ago. Which also pretty much guarantees the album will be top five, or maybe top three. Or better. The label put two grand behind the bar for the after-show in celebration. The gig is a stormer, two thousand people losing their shit, singing every word to the songs they know and most words to the songs they don’t know. The band are on CD:UK Live the next morning, meaning they’ll have to get up early, but people are in high spirits nonetheless, drinking and chatting and soaking in the air of anticipation, of inevitability, till nearly 2am. Youth, producer of the new album, is at the gig and so is Independiente boss Andy Macdonald. We agree that Embrace are back doing what they should have been doing for years, that they needed their arses kicked, and we kind of thank each other for doing the kicking. Mike Heaton (drums, melodica, clarinet, backing vocals, jaw-line like a superhero, just married) says “That was more like it, that was a proper venue, a proper size”. We look at each other and one of us says “They’ll be even bigger soon”. Mickey Dale (keyboards, guitars, stupidly gifted musician, sassy and effusive, recently bearded) is beaming. “Long time no-see,” he says to me. Yes, too long, I reply. The single ends up at number seven on Sunday. Somebody says something about how it could have gone even higher had the label shipped more copies to stores. Numbers 2 and 3 are mentioned. In any other week (sans Nelly, sans Bedingfield, sans Jojo) it would have been top five anyway, probably. (The following week it will be hovering just outside the Top Ten in the midweeks, demonstrating a longevity that previous singles haven’t always managed.)

At half past six the band wander surreptitiously onto Shepherd’s Bush green, where they’ve arranged to meet fans for a sing-along. A few hundred people are gathered, white helium balloons emblazoned with the word “gravity” are being handed out. There are some people, oblivious to what’s happening, still queuing outside the venue only 30 yards away. Danny asks that people don’t let go of the balloons because we’re right in the flight path for Heathrow. Unsavoury characters are trying to steal beer off the massed fans. Throughout the day people have been gathering, playing football, throwing a Frisbee, having a drink, meeting friends they haven’t seen for ages and friends they’ve never met before. This pre-gig busking session is the thirteenth of Embrace’s Secret Gigs. Previously they’ve played in a cave, a quarry, a forest, a beach, a country house, leaving trails across the internet and teletext for fans to follow in order to get there. The last one was another busk, in Leicester Square, and the band were chased off by police after five songs. Tonight they do four. There’s a sold-out gig to play and they can’t afford to be arrested for breaching the Criminal Justice Bill. I say hello to their manager as the crowd is dispersing. He’s also managing The Streets, The Music and The Zutons. Must be having a busy year, I say. “I haven’t had time to stop and take it all in yet.”



“I want R’n’B divas to namedrop us in interviews because they think we’re cool,” says Danny with a wry smile. The tour manager keeps shouting through the door or sticking his head through it to ask questions. Mobiles perpetually ring (Mike wanting to know where someone or something is), Richard McNamara (guitar, distraction, jokes, funny faces, keyboards, decks, analogue squelch boxes, stomach-like a washboard and biceps like fat apples still on branches) applies liquid skin to his fingers (“The guitar tech sands and waxes the fucking guitars after every gig to make them bloody smooth and I’m still tearing huge chunks out of my fingers” “He’s like a leper!” says Danny—Richard’s fingers are bound up like Michael Jackson’s circa Bad—“There’s a b-side coming up that’s a Michael Jackson rip-off!” (I’m aware of that, I say, I’m keen), friends and family mill around eating fruit and crisps, Danny and Richard’s brother, J, films the interview for www.embrace.co.uk, Kate Moss is meant to be on the guest list (we never spot her if she is), Chris Martin is on the guest list but isn’t anywhere to be seen, until during the gig when Danny spots him in the balcony going apeshit.

It’s been hard for the band watching other groups emerge over the last five years and reap the commercial rewards that Embrace sowed with their first album. “I always think of The Flaming Lips,” says Danny, “a band I really love but who didn’t do as well as we did, and think it’s in the lap of the gods. It’s not like a race where the fastest always come first. I remember Nicky Wire saying that, and thinking it was a beautiful thing to say, that he loves athletics because the best always win. But I don’t actually. I like the fact that no matter how hard you try you can still get shat on. It just makes you work harder. You’ve got to get in there with Nelly and Jojo and Natasha Bedingfield. This is our best album because the shitness of the system has given us our ambition back. We had it originally because we weren’t signed and we needed to get signed, and all the songs had that spark. But we lost it somewhere.” I mention a comment about the band by a journalist years ago, stating that all great music was a reaction to what had gone before and that Embrace would never be great because they weren’t kicking against things. “I remember that, but the thing is we were with that first album. We’d just been signed and we had so much to prove.” Richard: “I thought that was exactly what we did? React. We wanted to be My Bloody Valentine with strings, that was the game plan.” “ The guy who said that loved our second record,” Danny continues, “and that wasn’t a reaction to anything. The thing with music journalists is that if they don’t like a record, if it’s not on their wavelength, they try and find cultural reasons to justify it. It’s finding clever ways to say something doesn’t move them.” Are you kicking against things again now? “Yes. Definitely.”

“The guy who dropped us is the same guy who dropped Shaggy and David Gray before they went massive,” Richard says, “that’s one of the things that’s kept me going, through the wilderness years as it were.” People, not just me, not just the people outside waiting for the gig, but the band as well, have been waiting for this record, waiting seven years. “There’s so much goodwill behind this band now”, says Danny, “so many people wanting us to succeed, asking us where we’ve been. Everybody wants us to win. It’s amazing. People finally realise that there’s a really romantic story to be told here. Knowing there’s a story there has kept us going. When we were all working day jobs like plastics welding, or when we were building our rehearsal studio with our own hands, when Mickey Dale fell down a flight of stairs and nearly killed himself with a floor polisher—when we got dropped and we didn’t have a pot to piss in we said to ourselves, Just think how good this is gonna look when things get better.” There was concern that they might not be able to tour properly—Steve had been working with industrial equipment, and his hands were so fucked he nearly couldn’t play, Mike has just got married, is managing a band (Anechoic, echoless pastures, supporting tonight) and didn’t know if he’d be able to afford to come on tour. Mickey had been working for an advertising firm.

The lead single from the album was written by Chris Martin, and given to Embrace because he thought it sounded more like them than his own band. “We knew that if we were gonna do it we had to have balls of iron,” says Richard, “had to wear it as a badge of honour. Danny said, It’s just some song my mate’s knocked off. But it’s not, you can’t look at it like that. They’re one of the biggest bands in the world, so we knew if we were going to do it we had to do it properly.” “It’s a beautiful song,” says Danny, “if it wasn’t we wouldn’t have done it.” Embrace songs have always been McNamara/McNamara compositions (bar one b-side, written by Mike), but the new album changes that, and not just with “Gravity”. The last two tracks are credited as Words – Danny McNamara, Music – Embrace. “Youth’s gonna get a writing credit for those songs on the second print-run of the album too,” Danny notes, “because we couldn’t have done them without him. He went above and beyond being just a producer.” I point out that bands who alter their creative dynamic after a number of albums normally shift the other way, leaving collaboration behind and being carried by one person’s songs. I cite The Stone Roses, The Verve, Pavement, The Beatles. “Oh wow, yeah. That’s true. I didn’t think about that. We’ve done the opposite.” I say that it fills me with hope for the band’s future. Are you going to continue to write this way? “It’s certainly easier like this,” says Richard. “I don’t think we could do another album that’s better than this in the same way that we’ve made this album. I don’t think we’ve got the strength,” Danny says. “It was absolute hell. It was harder than the other three albums put together. I couldn’t face a blank sheet and have to write fifteen hours a day for three years again.” “Our strength now,” says Richard, “is that we’ve got a really strong aesthetic. We know what we do. There’s a pecking order, it’s like Song, Guitar, Stuff. We’ve got that guitar edge back. Cos I got bored of it; I wanted to play keys and twiddle buttons. Playing guitar’s something you fall in and out of love with.”

Danny has said that he had writer’s block for five years. How did you cope with that? “Richard. The second album was Richard. It’s just the way we developed as a band. We used to jam a lot, and that was quite 80s, quite Cure, Joy Division, which is hip now but back then we were either ten years in front or ten years behind. Richard used to write pieces of music and I used to sing over them. But he still had a day job, and basically I had to start writing songs or we weren’t going to get anywhere. The first album, melodically, is almost all me. Without Richard it would just be like a load of b-sides, so it’s definitely a partnership. But since then, there are maybe… two or three songs by me on the next two albums that are any good. If that’s not writer’s block I don’t know what is. Richard was about two years behind me in writing terms and he caught up all at once.” You learnt piano for this album, didn’t you? “Yeah, and all these new shapes started coming out, it felt as exciting as when I first picked up a guitar and couldn’t play. I still can’t, but I couldn’t even play it to write on. Every time I hit a chord that was vaguely musical it was inspiring, and all these melodies came out. It’s the same with piano now.” He explains that “Looking As You Are” was written in almost the time it takes to sing. “Someday” took seven years to finish.



Youth’s involvement can’t be emphasised enough. Between him and Andy Macdonald, Embrace have been saved. Richard says they knew they were too good to go under, knew how many great songs they had sitting on the shelf just waiting for the right time to be heard. But with no way to realise these songs, no forum to present them to, they could easily have slipped away. “With “Near Life” I couldn’t understand what Youth was on about,” says Danny. “We all thought, we’ve done better jams than this, why work on this one? But he was right.” They’ve always had the final say before, always gone into the studio with an engineer and told him what to do. Relinquishing control wasn’t easy, especially with Danny’s fucked-up heart. Things were thrown. Danny walked out, Danny tried to quit the band, Danny told the label to make Youth listen to him. The label told him, Youth is in charge. The label was right. “The songs work better like this. If it was just me they’d all have been slow, stripped down. Some people love our intimate stuff, but I think we’re a better band when we go faster, larger.” Richard says that it’s too easy to try and inspire emotional responses by slowing everything down and making it quieter. I think back to the days when I was involved in theatre groups, and we were always told it was easier to make someone cry than make them laugh. I suggest that complete artistic control isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. “We always had the final say before,” says Richard, “I think the way to go is to relinquish that, especially if you’ve got somebody as artistic and musical as Youth is. He’s the best person we could have had as producer. When he’s happy you feel confident in what you’ve done.” “He has an… evangelical belief in the rightness of what he’s saying, and will fight for it, even if there’s ten people in the room disagreeing,” concludes Danny. Even the 1970 Brazil team had a coach. Kelly Holmes has a huge backroom team. Talent does not necessarily nurture itself.

There’s an ambition again in the Embrace camp. Some might call it a hunger for commercial success, having spent the last two records thinking it was an artistic ambition, and be dismayed that the band (Bill Hicks fans, too) have knelt down to suck Satan’s cock. But this band were never about selling enough records to get by, about making records people think are quite nice. They were about changing people’s lives, about making an impact. “Every time you sit down to write a song, in your bedroom with your shitty acoustic guitar that cost £100,” says Richard, “you have to be aiming for a Grammy. You can never tell what’s going to happen. You can never expect. Because you’re always gonna be disappointed with anything less than Number One. When “Ashes” is a single I just hope it does really well because I believe in it and love it.” It’s a shitty, dirty, nasty business, and if you have ambitions you have to compromise on some things in order to achieve others that mean more to you. All that cottage industry, doing-what-you-do-and-if-anyone-else-likes-it-that’s-a-bonus shit, all that indie mythology, all that stuff which takes the cultural and attempts to make it natural, all that falsity-masquerading-as-art, all that art-for-art’s sake bollocks, that can all fuck off. That’s just as much marketing as releasing a single written by the songwriter for the biggest band in the world is. And it’s much less honest.

Embrace aren’t about dressing up like a dead soldier and being an addict, they aren’t about being cool. You couldn’t put them on a badge stuck to some 15-year old boy’s rebelliously adorned school bag. Kids aren’t going to scratch their names in desks during maths. Well, I scratched their name on a table during a philosophy seminar once, but I was drunk. Embrace are about changing the world. Not all of it. Just your world. And if you’re going to change the world, first you have to conquer it. You can’t make an omelette without—oh, you know the rest. Look at who they’re aiming for; it’s not Teenage Fanclub or Stereolab or Felt, however good those bands are. Number 36 one week and nothing the next isn’t good enough. If you grow up taping the charts on a Sunday afternoon then you have to be there if it’s going to mean anything at all. Ambition isn’t something to be scared of. But neither is… If Radiohead had wanted to be loved rather than wanted to be clever, if they hadn’t been so fucking cold. Back in 1989 Ian Brown said he wanted The Stone Roses to be the first band to play a gig on the moon. Danny McNamara said a few months ago that he didn’t consider himself a “great songwriter. Just someone who’s written some great songs.” He wants to play a gig “20,000 leagues under the sea, where the fish all glow.” I think he’d settle for the moon, though.

And for those of you still concerned about Satan’s engorged member, worry not. Youth won most of the arguments in the studio, made most of their songs bigger, faster, glossier than the band would have made them on their own, but they stuck to their guns for one tune. “A Glorious Day” would have been another massive anthem, but for this one song they fought tooth and nail, insisted they were right, and kept it low-key and warm. Which was the right thing to do. Danny and Richard felt strongly that “Ashes” was the only possible choice for a comeback single, but a couple of hours with Mark Richardson, their manager at Independiente, in a room with his argument and passion and belief in where the band should be and how to get them there, convinced them that “Gravity” was the way to go. After all it’s just a song. (That’s rich coming from me.) But the label also wanted to trim the final climax from the title track, edit the last two and a half minutes, the yowling, cacophonous noise like My Bloody Valentine and Fennesz fed through a blender, the most sonically extreme and emotionally powerful thing they’ve done. And the label wanted to cut it, said it was too much, too savage. The band said no. The label still wanted to cut it. The band said No. The label relented. Which was the right thing to do. At one of the warm up gigs in the week running up to Shepherd’s Bush the band played “Out Of Nothing” and some punter took exception to this fearsome wall of white noise, heckling them by yelling “bollocks” when it finished. Richard exploded, yelling at the heckler to get out. “If I didn’t put my all into that I don’t know what I did!?” Satan has been bought a drink, had sweet nothings whispered in his ear, even had his tummy tickled, and then, when he’s paid up, he’s been punched in the face.


Photo: Chris Holmes


The gig at Shepherd’s Bush is the end of the first phase of a comeback plan that started last December when they played three gigs in Leeds to showcase new material. As soon as the New Year broke they went into the studio and recorded. Since then they’ve busked in London, celebrated their tenth anniversary as a band by playing the scout hut in the town where they grew up (supplying cake and lemonade for the fans), and played small venues across the country to warm up for this gig, in an old theatre with an air of faded glamour and dodgy gangs of men smoking at picnic tables in the green across the road. They’ve maybe played better gigs, but only just. The gig at the Astoria in January 2000 after more than a year away, the album launch at Hanover Grand three months later, a few dates on their winter tour in 1997 when they’d encore to 800 people with “One Big Family” and masonry would threaten to collapse under the weight of stamping feet and hollering voices. But tonight… There is a sense of elation and relief and huge, huge excitement and anticipation. The reaction to one song (don’t ask me which, I was lost) is so strong that Danny finds himself collapsed on his back on the floor, arms splayed out and a huge grin on his face. During “The Good Will Out” (which never worked on record but which works so, so well live) the crowd lose their shit so much and start screaming during the beat-long pause between one bridge and the next (it’s a song composed of bridges and a giant, wordless chorus) that the band have to stop. They look at each other, utterly bemused and delighted, and smile. The more intimate shows the band have played, the Secret Gigs, the warm ups, they’re OK, they show another side of the band, but this is where it’s at. You can lose yourself in a crowd of ten people, but it’s not the same as losing yourself in a crowd of two thousand or ten thousand, as knowing that so many other people right now are feeling something approaching what you’re feeling. They play a tune from the next album, the one after the one they haven’t even released yet, another taster of where they’re going. “Even Smaller Stones” is a brooding cavalcade of drums, a vortex of guitars and deranged handclaps and whispered words of vengeance. “I will break your boulders / into even smaller stones” is the nearest thing to a refrain, repeated with mantra-like intensity.

The band once said they wanted to write a song as great as “Love Me Tender”. Whether they ever will or not is debatable. Whether that song is great or not in the first place is debatable. Elvis was a hero to most but he never… Three years ago they said they’d never play “Come Back To What You Know” again, perhaps recognising that it rather aimlessly pushes all the buttons that people recognised as Embrace without bothering to delve further, all the buttons that became the band’s albatross. These days they recognise that people love it, and so they like it again, and play it, because people want to hear it. I’m still not keen but I sing along anyway, and with every song, until I’m hoarse, dancing in the wings like an idiot, occasionally standing back and just watching the crowd go nuts. This is a London gig, where crowds are notoriously difficult, too cool for school, standing at the back being judgemental, and everyone, everyone in the venue is going mental, from the front row to the uppermost balcony. Something is afoot. This is like Lazarus waking up.



By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2004-09-13
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