Three’s a charm: In the studio with Slyder Smith & The Oblivion Kids, March 2022
Producer Pete Brown does a 180-degree swivel in his battered but comfy looking chair, and announces to the room: “It’s a lovely sounding Hammond, innit?”
Who doesn’t love a good, solid organ?
Yep, more than four years after my last visit, I’m back at Oxfordshire’s Brown House Studio – the recording complex formerly known as Henwood – to dream up double entendres and other cheap gags, under the guise of fly-on-the-wall music journalism.
Also present is singer, songwriter and guitarist Slyder Smith, bassist and footwear connoisseur Tim Emery, and keyboard player and guest star Neil Scully.
“It’s a lovely sounding Hammond, innit?”
The band are no slouches at Carry On-style humour themselves, though they have far worthier roles than me: they’re making an album, under the name Slyder Smith & The Oblivion Kids, which they’re part funding through a Kickstarter campaign that runs until 30 April.
Slyder says he’s going to call the album Charm Offensive, which ties in to some of the music he’s written for it. It’s a title that he’s been sitting on for years, and although I wasn’t sure about it at first, the more I pondered it, the more it grew on me. I like the duality of the term: the fact that charm and offence are opposites. And it could be read as a wry comment about wanting people to like the record, too. At this juncture, for this project, I think it’s a good fit.
Until recently drummer Rik Pratt was at the studio, too - I’ve missed him by a few days. He’s still here in spirit, though, thanks to the sound of his kit pumping out of the studio monitors. If this was a seance, there’d be no doubt at all about the drummer’s presence. “Knock once for no, twice for yes, and bang out a nice fill if you’re all over this thing.”
As Neil warms up the Hammond, he marvels at the fact that it once belonged to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord. I doubt he’ll be keeping that quiet, though he does at least manage to resist a bit of Hush.
A thoughtful presence, Neil also plays alongside Tim in Richard Davies & The Dissidents, a fine Wiltshire-based band whose debut album Human Traffic is well worth your time, if you like your power pop with a rock ‘n’ roll edge.
So that’s the cast. What’s the story?
Our tale begins with a prologue set in the summer of 2016, when Last Great Dreamers recorded a song called Oblivion Kids for their third album, Transmissions From Oblivion. At the time, the Dreamers comprised Slyder, frontman and fellow guitarist Marc Valentine, bassist Steve Fielding and drummer Denley Slade.
Two and a half years later, after a fourth album called 13th Floor Renegades and an amicable change of rhythm section – hello, Tim and Rik – the band set off on a UK tour supporting colourful Illinois rockers Enuff Znuff. And then, in the summer in 2019, there was a huge plot twist.
“We’d been touring very hard, and it had been quite intense,” says Slyder. "We’d done a lot of travelling; there was a lot of time away from home – and we had this offer of another Enuff Znuff tour. Marc didn’t want to do it and we did, so he said: ‘Why don’t you do it without me?’
“Marc didn’t want to do the tour and we did, so he said: ‘Why don’t you do it without me?’”
“At first I thought, no, the Dreamers is me and you. Obviously the band is the band, with Rik and Tim as well, but we’re the founder members. So I didn’t know whether people would be into it. I think the other two didn’t know whether it would sound good, or whether I could do it or not.”
“We got together just to see what it would be like,” says Tim. “And it was different but it was good. So we took it on the road.”
To acknowledge Marc’s absence, the band called themselves Three Great Dreamers. By an ironic coincidence, Enuff Znuff had named the tour ‘Where Did You Go?’, after their song of that title.
“The tour was great,” says Slyder. “It had a lot of power, and it just got better every night. No disrespect to the four-piece Dreamers but this had a different vibe. And I loved the opportunity to be… not actually centre stage, because I was on the right still, but to be lead vocalist.”
He says that the main problem he had was remembering lyrics.
“I’d sung parts of the songs for years, but remembering whole lead vocals… I had lyric sheets on stage and I was quite nervous, that first show. But I think we did a good performance. And by three quarters of the way through, the lyric book didn’t come out any more.”
Says Tim: “People who knew Last Great Dreamers expected one thing and they got something else. But I think the vast majority of people were, like, ‘yeah, this is good’. And I suppose that’s what planted the seeds.”
For a long time those seeds were left unwatered, as Covid brought the UK’s live music industry to a halt. But in the summer of 2021, just 11 days after the UK government allowed venues to reopen, Slyder, Tim and Rik debuted on a London stage as the Oblivion Kids.
“I’m 50 in less than a year,” says Tim, “and I’m the baby of the band, but I’m okay being a kid. I thought that was kind of cool, and it went from there, really.”
Though their set was still made up of Last Great Dreamers songs, their new name signified a gear change.
“We had talked about doing something,” says Slyder, “a band, a solo album, whatever. That show set the tone, in a way.”
Slyder describes himself as a “frustrated lead singer”, and reminds me about his old power trio Toy Eye, a band he formed and fronted in 1999, at the beginning of the Dreamers’ 17-year hiatus. He isn’t a novice at this – though up to now he has, understandably, felt like he’s in an odd situation.
“Part of you is thinking, we actually killed it tonight yet we’re still apologising that Marc’s not here. So that’s why I’ve had to go out in my own right, with new songs and all the rest: so I’m not feeling apologetic about playing.”
“That’s why I’ve had to go out in my own right: so I’m not feeling apologetic about playing.”
Tim and Rik joined Last Great Dreamers at the same time, making their live debut in early 2019. “Because we came as one,” says Tim, “you get that bond and cementing. It’s this well-gelled unit that you put Marc and Slyder, or Slyder, on top of and it just works.”
Slyder’s initial plan for an Oblivion Kids release was to rework some Dreamers songs, write a couple of new ones, and put out an EP.
“I think part of that was me being cautious,” he says. “I was thinking, I’m never going to be able to write 12 songs, in whatever time I had to write them. And yeah, it took a long time. I had studio dates pencilled in last November, which I cancelled. I thought, this is me being overambitious – I should probably bump it back to next year.”
However, he’s reached a point where he now has too many songs – certainly for a vinyl release: “We’re recording everything we’ve got, and then we’ll see how it all pans out.”
Today is the sixth day of recording, and although the songs I hear are all missing bits of their arrangements – lead guitar lines, backing vocals and no doubt all manner of other sparkly sounds – the melodies, rhythm and riffage suggest there’s some good work going down with Pete Brown.
When Pete plays me a song called When The Rain Comes, I take in a few bars, open my notebook and scribble: “Poppy vibe – a bit pretty.”
“I’ve just inhaled a peanut,” announces Slyder. To his credit – or perhaps the peanut’s, I’m not sure – he seems to be doing well on it.
Tim seems impressed with the recording so far: “I can’t believe you got Herbie Flowers to come in and overdub all those bass parts.”
“We’ll have a big, fat Hammond on that, mate,” says Pete, riding the high of Neil’s earlier performance.
“I can’t believe you got Herbie Flowers to come in and overdub all those bass parts.”
The song for which Neil was recording some tasty organ is called Maya, which Tim says has a “Beatley vibe”. Slyder describes it as “a break-up sort of thing – a nice, pretty song. It’s a bit sad, a bit melancholy”.
He says that the track originally had a different title: “I loved watching that Beatles thing [Peter Jackson’s Get Back], where they’d just sing a word that fits. ‘Something in the way she moves attracts me like no cauliflower’ or whatever. So this started off as ‘mama’, and I thought, I’ve got to find a girl’s name that works with that.”
While sifting through various recorded takes, Pete and Slyder debate Neil’s best performances, and there’s a difference of opinion. “Fine, it’s your record,” says Pete. “If you want to fuck it up…”
Ooh, tension - this’ll be great for the article!
No such luck, though. It’s all in good humour. Pete says that he’ll sneak his preferred take into the mix when Slyder isn’t looking.
The producer-band relationship here is a beautiful thing to watch. Every step of the way, Pete puts the musicians at ease.
He’s a master at getting the best from people and has the ability to tell someone when something isn’t right, while making them feel like they’re a hair’s width away from perfection – so, hey, let’s go again and try it this way. And his enthusiasm for music, and recording music, is infectious.
“I’d heard a few different stories about Pete from Slyder, bigging him up,” says Tim. “My immediate thought was, yeah, he seems quite chilled – he relaxes you. It’s the little touches, like he learns your name rather than [clicks fingers]: ‘Bass man!’ Yeah, he’s great.”
“It’s the little touches with Pete, like he learns your name rather than: ‘Bass man!’”
“I learn from him,” says Slyder. “And I want to learn; I want to be better. I’m pretty strong minded, but I need to work with somebody I respect and trust, to allow them to tell me what to do, if you like. This is what I’m paying him for – to make a brilliant record. He’s got more experience of that than I have. And it’s good fun, we have good banter – we have a good laugh, tell stupid jokes, and it’s nice.”
Pete does seem to get the best out of singers.
“I knew from last time, when we did the vocals on the Renegades album, that he was really good on vocal arrangements,” says Slyder. “And I suppose because it’s quite a new thing to do all that for me, it’s exciting. I really enjoy it.”
I hear a new side to Slyder’s vocals today – they sound bolder, braver, more spot-lit, if you will, particularly on Never Ending Story – yep, that Never Ending Story – the playback of which has everyone in the control room heaping praise on the singer.
“I thought you were gonna call me in to do it,” says Tim. “But you’ve managed it yourself – that’s good.”
The track is only half recorded but it still manages to stir my emotions – due, I suspect, to the mixture of Slyder’s strident pipes, the link to my early teenage years and the pleasure burst of ’80s nostalgia, which is something I’ve been riding for a while now.
“I want to put some synths on this one,” says Pete. “Real fuzzy arpeggios.”
Slyder isn’t sure about that yet, but he loves the song, and its recording is clearly, as Pete puts it, “a bit of a mission”.
“I remember the Top Of The Pops clip with Limahl and the backing vocalist,” says Slyder. “Manic Street Preachers are one of my favourite bands, and they do a lot of duets with female vocals. I quite fancied trying to write something for a duet, but then this came up and I thought, this’ll be perfect. I want it to be a rock song but quite commercial, like Def Leppard or Van Halen.”
While we’re throwing big names around, how about AC/DC? I hear a lot of the brothers Young in what so far sounds like the album’s heaviest track, Pleasure Victim.
“Never Ending Story came up and I thought, this’ll be perfect. I want it to be a rock song but quite commercial, like Def Leppard or Van Halen.”
“That’s sounding immense at the moment,” says Slyder. “And I’m thinking, yeah, that’s a single, ’cos it’s a big, heavy riff – big wallops on the drums. That’s about social media and the underground rock/sleaze scene, in a way. Sort of.”
And then there’s I’m Done, which I don’t hear today but which Slyder describes as funk: “I hate the word funk, and I don’t like funk really. But it’s funk rock. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I’m really liking that one. It’s got quite a lot of anger in it. It’s an ‘I’m done, sick of all the shit, fuck you’ sort of thing. I’m channelling my inner James Dean Bradfield, who’s channelling Nicky Wire.”
Recently, on a video he did for Kickstarter, Slyder spoke of his inclination to write dark, angry lyrics, which he’ll often hide in an upbeat-sounding song.
“I think I’m maybe a bit ‘heart on my sleeve’,” he says today, "though I probably spend a lot of time trying to bury it in poetic words. The lyric writing on this record has been a real labour of love. I’ve put a lot into it. And I’m a real harsh critic of myself, so I can’t just let any old crap go out. I hope that people like it.
“That part’s been quite tough, and there’s a lot of pressure because it isn’t my main job with the Dreamers. I’m, if you like, the second lyric writer in the band. I love Marc’s lyrics – he’s a brilliant writer. So, in a way, I aspire to be as good as that if I can, or close to that. On this album I made it a pressure for myself, and I’m pleased with the results.”
Marc has been busy preparing his own solo album, due for release in the summer, which features Tim’s bass work on one track.
“Marc’s an incredible performer,” says Tim. “One of the finest frontmen around. I think he’s a great writer. He’ll always be an important person in my musical history, and I obviously wish him every bit of luck with his record. I’m sure it’ll be fantastic.”
Says Slyder: “I think Marc and I were at a stage where we felt we needed to flex our own muscles, individually. Because we went out as a three-piece Dreamers without Marc, that probably made him think, well, I should do something on my own.”
“Marc and I were at a stage where we felt we needed to flex our own muscles, individually.”
Slyder says that the Dreamers are still together, though he admits: “I don’t really know what the future holds. If both of us can get this out of our system – not necessarily not do it again; it depends how things go – we can go back to doing something in a different way, maybe. Or in the same way, having had time to… I can’t think of the right word.”
He thinks for a bit then laughs.
“Sow our wild oats.”
Marc and Slyder have known each other since 1989, when they formed a band called Silver Hearts, the forerunner to Last Great Dreamers.
“It’s a long friendship,” says Slyder. “After the Dreamers split [in 1997] we didn’t see each other for a long time, but I felt that when we did get back together [in 2014], we were closer than ever because it was just us two. And both our lives had changed in so many ways over the years.”
Is he worried that, with Marc’s band featuring ex-Dreamers Steve Fielding and Denley Slade, these solo projects will be seen by some as two competing versions of Last Great Dreamers?
“It is a bit strange,” he admits, acknowledging that the optics might not be ideal, but “it’s just the way it happened”.
Certainly, it appeared to me that this all occurred quite naturally: Oblivion Kids came into being through the necessity of the Dreamers performing live without Marc, and Marc’s band formed through him asking friends old and new (his lead guitarist is Richard Davies, of aforementioned ‘& The Dissidents’ fame) to help him record an album.
“When you’re young in a band, you have these big fall-outs over things that don’t matter.”
Says Tim: “I think there are always people who look for a drama when there’s no drama there. Something that maybe punters don’t get is that when you’re older you’re more chilled out. When you’re young in a band, you have these big fall-outs over things that don’t matter.
“I remember locking horns with people who I now hold very dear to my heart, because at the time it’s all youth and ego and everything else. And you get older and it doesn’t really make a difference.”
Tim says that one fear he has is that he and Rik will be seen as “the Camilla Parker Bowles of it all”, which makes for a lovely image.
“Suddenly we come in and the band runs for a bit and then Marc goes off and we’re there [in his place]. But there’s no issue.”
Pete loads up another song, Calico Queen, for Neil to add some piano.
“You’ll like this one,” says Tim.
As I listen to the song, I note shades of Hanoi Rocks and a raucous bar-room feel. When it finishes, Slyder suggests that we “get the honky tonks on”. I can see where he’s coming from. He says that the song has “turned into a bit of a Bonnie & Clyde type thing - loosely”.
This slots into Slyder’s plan for what he describes, with plenty of wriggle room, as “almost a bit of a concept album – a sort of cowboy thing.”
“It’s almost a bit of a concept album – a sort of cowboy thing.”
“It’s not much of a concept; it’s a theme more than a concept, probably. It depends how it all ends up sounding. I wanted to link everything together with an acoustic guitar, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
He describes a pair of instrumentals he’s written: one with the title El Encantador, which is Spanish for ‘the charmer’ – a tie-in to the album’s title – and another called No More Mr Bad Guy (“a play on the Alice Cooper title”), which Tim says has “a gothic, dark Americana thing going on”.
“It’s all gone a bit western,” says Slyder. “I’m gonna have to swap the top hat for a cowboy hat.”
One song I hear that doesn’t dovetail with the western theme is Road Love, which has a spiky, Britpop-style riff during its verses, and some classic-rock power chords running through the chorus. Apparently, the song’s roots go back to the late ’90s.
Says Slyder: “I wanted to write a song that, I think at the time, was like I’m In Love With My Car by Queen. The lyrics on that are fantastic. I said to Pete, that’s the only one that doesn’t fit because it’s about a car and not being on a horse. And he said, I thought it was about shagging on the road.”
Road Love isn’t actually the oldest song on the album. That honour goes to Hope Without Warning, which dates back to the late ’80s, though it’s been furnished with a new set of lyrics and some reworked guitar parts. Tim describes it as “very Lords Of The New Church – very bass driven”.
Slyder says that it’s “sort of about what happens in your mind when insomnia sets in and you wake up at four in the morning, and everything’s going to shit in your head”.
The album’s most intriguing lyric, by way of description at least, is I Don’t Want To Run. “It’s written from the perspective of my now dearly departed, ex-racing greyhound,” says Slyder.
“It’s her point of view - of being rescued and coming to live in a home with people. So that’s quite an unusual one. It might have a bit of banjo on it. Anything goes at the moment.”
“It might have a bit of banjo on it. Anything goes at the moment.”
As a fan of Last Great Dreamers, I think this is part of the joy of Slyder Smith & The Oblivion Kids, as well as Marc’s solo project – the idea that, musically, anything could happen right now, because the two songwriters are pitching their tents somewhere that’s wholly them.
There’s magic in what they do together, for sure, but there’s total freedom in writing and recording outside of the Dreamers and the expectation that comes with that. Sometimes in life you reach a point where you just have to do your own thing and see what happens.
“I haven’t consciously done anything with this record,” says Slyder, "other than just try to write some good songs and let it happen organically. I’m not thinking I’ve got to write a rock album or whatever; it was ‘whatever happens happens’.
“I want it to be successful, so I want it to be commercial. But it’s not that I’m selling out. I like commercial stuff; I like pop music. And I’d like people to be able to hear this on the radio, and to get it to the masses. Whether I’m kidding myself at my age or not, who knows? At the end of the day I want to throw everything out there to make it as good as I can.”
All being well, the album will be released over the summer – and, believe it or not, I haven’t spilled all of its secrets here. There are surprises, in various forms, still to come: songs, sounds, even the odd guest or two.
I’d like people to be able to hear this on the radio, and to get it to the masses. Whether I’m kidding myself at my age or not, who knows?
“In a way, I’ve been standing in the shadows,” says Slyder, “singing brilliant vocals, I think, that aren’t necessarily heard because I’m behind a frontman. So I want to prove myself in that way.”
“It’s exciting for me,” says Tim. “I’m pleased that I got to make a record with Rik and Slyder, I really am. And I’m really pleased that we’ve got Neil in on it.”
“The Hammond organ is fucking magnificent,” says Slyder.
And that, I believe, is where we came in.
I’ve had an enlightening day at the Brown House Studio, bearing witness to the beginnings of Slyder and the boys’ Charm Offensive. And after some consideration, as well as consultation with the chorus of a much-loved Last Great Dreamers song, I’ve arrived at the following conclusion.
I wanna be with the Oblivion Kids. And I’ve a hunch that you will, too.