By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It would seem to say a lot about the strength of the British music renaissance led by Blur and Oasis that a band like Bush, monstrously huge in America, is almost overlooked in England. After years of having American this and Yankee that shoved down their throats, the Brits tend to have a very upturned nose toward American culture these days (at least that's what they say publicly). But then along comes a band like Reef, turning everything upside down.
Touting a blatantly American sound, Reef nabbed a top spot on the U.K. charts a few years back with their debut release, Replenish--specifically, the second single, "Naked," which just missed the Top 10 by a hair's breadth. But it went unnoticed in America, as we were too busy eating our morning muesli, listening to Portishead, and reading Time magazine articles about how London was cool again.
This year, Reef is faring much better in America with their second release, Glow, mostly thanks to a bunch of fancy videos that MTV has taken to heart. They're even bigger news on the English summer festival tours, such as the Glastonbury Festival. Playing alongside Orbital and the Chemical Brothers, Reef sounds more like the Black Crowes than anything--and, incredibly, people are loving every minute of it.
"The people who go to our gigs in England, they're between the ages of 14 and 25," says Kenwyn House. Reef's guitarist--his short hair all in a morning muss--smokes a cigarette while he talks. "There's obviously people out there who are as young as us or younger than us who are still finding something in this music."
In fact, the tradition of American music in British culture is a strong one. Anyone ever hear of Led Zeppelin or the Stones? Hello? But for almost 20 years now, that music has fallen out of favor, with Brits preferring homegrown sounds--the Sex Pistols, the Smiths, Joy Division, the Clash, Massive Attack, and others--to anything with a stateside flavor.
Only now are the first signs starting to appear that the trend might be reversing a bit. Take Blur, for example, whose latest self-titled release is almost pure American indie pop. Does it spell an end to Brit-pop as we know it?
"At the time when [Reef] met, there was a real dance-music scene in England, and electric guitars were sort of dying," says bassist Jack Bessant, who was nonetheless defiantly submerged in Fishbone, Jane's Addiction, and American hip-hop. "We enjoy dance music as well, but we wanted to combine more rock lyrics and sound." Rather than a Happy Mondays-sort of a result, however, they emerged with a band more akin to Humble Pie or even B.B. King. "There were so many bands in London doing the same thing, and we wanted to do something different," he says.
Indeed, there is a blind spot when it comes to American music in the minds of many young Brits these days--to an almost astonishing degree. Consider the anecdote involving American producer George Drakoulias (the Black Crowes and Beastie Boys), who oversaw the making of Glow for the band and was asked by 23-year-old Reef vocalist Gary Stringer "Who's that band that did 'Proud Mary'--was it Creedence Clearwater Revival?"
And these are the guys who actually like American music.
Drakoulias was kind enough to sit Stringer down and play some CCR records for him, providing some of the inspiration for Stringer's "sad but uplifting" lyrics, such as the very powerful "Consideration," as well as the upbeat MTV hit "Place Your Hands," which is actually about the death of his grandfather. It also might explain the idea behind "Come Back Brighter," in which Stringer professes, "Been down, but I come back brighter" in a very bluesy "I been downhearted, baby" fashion.
All the obsession over American music might have more to do with coincidence, however, than a conscious plot to overturn London's narcissism. Specifically, the fact that Reef is from England's West Country, thus already separating them from the London and Manchester scenes.
"Even the environment, the actual rural environment, changes it slightly," says House. "Where we came from, it's sort of rural. And we eventually got it together in London, but I think we kept a vibe that was from the country, which made us different and is something I'm eternally grateful for."
In fact, one band with which they have much in common has strong ties to their early days. Kula Shaker drummer Paul Winterhart was Reef's first drummer, eventually leaving the band and lamenting it later because Reef's first album took off before Kula Shaker's debut made it big.
"One of our first gigs was with Kula Shaker," recalls Bessant. "There were only about six or seven people there, and we had to go into the pub and ask people to come in and watch us."
"I think in England it's perceived as though we're pushing the boat out a little farther than they are," says House. "I don't mean to put them down by saying this, but I think they're more retro than we are, definitely relying on the past more, though I love what they do."
The questions of originality--or the lack thereof--that have dogged Kula Shaker raises House's hackles. "I'd say 'fuck off' straight away," he says when asked for a response to such allegations. "But if you wanted a logical, rational explanation, I'd say, well you go some place like Japan, and they don't give a shit about what's in the past. They got something from our music, and it's a question they never put forward. Obviously they see the influence, but they don't see it as bad. And I think that someone who'd ask that question would've missed the point with us. I think once you're trying to be new, then you've failed in the first place."
Nice, but that's not the way most British journalists see it, unfortunately. Notoriously nasty in their criticisms, Reef has gotten good and bad press in England, but the bad has been so bad as to inspire their third single, "Yer Old," which is aimed at music scribes. "It's not about age," says House. "You've got people who are 50 years old with really young minds, and then you've got these cunts who are 25, British journalists, who are totally obsessed with bitching and are older in mind than my grandad."
Despite the many negative responses, Reef is steadily winning fans over on both shores, employing a formula that's all American blues. Even the prestigious and often snotty British mag NME declared, "There is no band as utterly poised for world domination as Reef." Shortly thereafter, Glow entered the UK charts at number one.
Thus, the firm grip on Britainiana that has made bands like Pulp and The London Suede--who flaunt their accents, class, and nationalism--appears to be loosening a bit. But don't count the Brits out just yet. "Oasis has a new album coming out soon," says House. "We'll see what happens after that."
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.