Hope. What to make of it? I decide to consult David Byrne’s handy pocket companion, The New Sins: “Hope, although irrational, illogical and immaterial, encourages the most ridiculous, vile and treacherous acts. Hope allows human beings to suffer, daily and eternally.” Harsh, perhaps. But ask a football fan to equate what they’re hoping for – promotion, avoiding relegation, a trophy, the World Cup – with what they often get – eternal, excruciating suffering – and Byrne’s words begin to resonate. Hope loiters in the intangible alleyways that separate the present from the future. A deviant, asexual beast, its flashes of fleshy nothingness continually attract hordes of breath-baited worshippers. Hope then vanishes, pimping the masses to the Depths of Despair. This year, however, hope is being whipped into submission by a burly, ball-breaking deity. Belief.
Ah, irrefutable, trustworthy belief. Is Mike Heaton, Embrace’s skin merchant, a believer? Will England win the World Cup? “It’s our best chance in 30 years,” he concedes. “But you don’t know.” And that’s the crux – and the crutch – belief cannot magically create certainties. Like hope, it’s intangible. But unlike passive hope, belief can be empowering. In a World Cup year, where belief is beginning to break down the turgid defence of hope in the minds of England’s football fans, it’s fitting that Embrace have been charged with delivering the accompanying anthem. Mike recalls first meeting the band, which at the time consisted of Danny and Richard McNamara, “I was looking for people who were serious about making music. And Danny’s attitude, you don’t often see it. With not a lot behind him, he had blind belief that the band were going to make it. It’s rubbed off on everyone.”
Despite being barely able to sing or play guitar, the McNamara brothers convinced Mike, Steve Firth on bass and keyboard player, Mickey Dale that together, they could make it as a band. They’ve been together for over ten years now. “It’s been the same line-up since we started,” explains Mike. “As long as people keep coming to see us, we’ll keep playing. There’s no way out unless you die!” I ask if age will restrict their progress; after all, they are approaching the wizened hills of the mid-thirties. “No, I don’t think age matters,” states Mike. “Things are changing to the US way where you can get in whatever age you are. Our record company in the US recently signed a 67 year-old guy because he is playing some great blues. And there are still the younger bands, like the Arctic Monkeys coming through. We were talking about this the other day. In October it will be ten years since we signed our first deal. And now we’ve got our highest chart position (the current single, Nature’s Law which went in at number two). Bands normally get their highest charting singles at the beginning of their career. We’re doing things back to front.”
Don’t be fooled. Embrace were no slouches, after signing to Hut Records in 1996. The band added to a growing bag of songs and garnered the sort of industry praise reserved for the chosen few. The Guardian exclaimed: “The first truly excellent new band in some time.” More importantly for Embrace, the general public were greeting them with open arms. “We’ve always had a loyal following,” says Mike. “We try to make every gig a celebration, an uplifting experience. Danny is renowned for getting people up for it. And if the audience is up then it helps us to step up another level. We’ve always had that determination, felt like there is some unfinished business.” They first put out All You Good Good People through Fierce Panda, re-releasing the track on Hut a few months later; which promptly went top ten. The Fierce Panda recording captures Embrace’s live appeal; its raw energy is almost contagious. The second edition and album version are much more polished affairs. Warmer. Embracing. Anthemic. Britpop bands had anthems and Embrace seemed to use this as a sonic template. But the band eschewed jaunty, lifestyle themes for lyrics that aspired to be grander in scope. More inclusive.
Current single, Nature’s Law, is a good example: “You should never fight your feelings, when your very bones believe it,” sings Danny. “You should never find your feelings, you’ll have to follow nature’s law.” There is vagueness to Embrace’s lyrics that can appeal to many points of view. To be inclusive often means sacrificing a sharp focus. It’s probable that the band’s songs have given many people a renewed sense of hope and optimism. Not David Byrne’s favourite group then? However, in selling over 500,000 copies, Embrace’s number one debut album – The Good Will Out – clearly struck a chord. It was a chord the band wanted to sustain and play with. On their next two albums, Embrace began to experiment. “We shied away a bit from our authentic sound after the first album,” remembers Mike; a direction that probably contributed to declining sales and ultimately, the band being dropped by Hut in 2002. “But now we know what we’re good at,” he continues. “Over the years our favourite songs have always been anthemic ones like Ashes and All You Good Good people. And in terms of playing live, it really comes across.”
Almost immediately, Embrace were picked up by Andy McDonald’s Independiente label. But it would take two years for the band to release any new material. I ask Mike how this sudden change in fortunes affected them. “It didn’t,” he replies. “When the deal went and the money ran out we said we’d keep on writing. So we built our own studio. Then we spent three years jamming ideas. Every six months Andy McDonald would come and have a look. Towards the end of this time our advance ran out, so we had to get jobs. But we never considered stopping.” For Embrace there were no rock ‘n’ roll hissy fits. And speaking with Mike, it’s easy to understand why. Sincere and affable, he talks about the band as friends who simply love what they’re doing.
Released in 2004, Out Of Nothing ensured that Embrace were not broke for long. It topped the album charts and sold over half-a-million copies. And for the first time, song-writing duties were shared by the band; previously the domain of Danny and Richard. “It’s been amazing,” states Mike. On Out Of Nothing we found a new way of doing it, through Youth. He would come in and say, ‘what about playing around these chords, or these grooves.’ For this album we went to the studio with nothing in terms of songs and after the first day we had four songs. Then after 9 days we had 24! Writing together, we now find that we’re firing on five cylinders.” Or perhaps six. “Youth has enhanced the Embrace sound.” Says Mike. The former Killing Joke bassist and respected producer has co-writing credits on This New Day. “It’s amazing for us, especially after all the ups and downs we’ve had,” states Mike. “It was fantastic when the last album got to number one. And reaching it again, we’re over the moon.” Which is all well and good. But what can we hope for from their World Cup song? It won’t be another back-of-the-net type footy song,” finishes Mike. “It’s got a more uplifting style; joyous. Everyone gets behind the World Cup, even if they’re not that keen on football. This song sums it up.”
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- May 7, 2006 / 11:16 am