It seems apt that I meet EDGAR SUMMERTYME in a record shop. Surrounded by stacks of vinyl, this most avid of collectors looks at home as he leafs his way through the jazz section, excitedly telling me about his latest discovery, South American band leader Gustav Dudamel.
If you wanted to be metaphorical, the image of the music obsessive searching for the perfect tune is a neat summary of this remarkable musician’s career. Through numerous bands, line-ups, and solo records Edgar (who for much of his career has operated under his birth name Jones but – like a Scouse version of Kylie – no surname is required in his home town) has spent the last 25 years seeking out a musical blueprint that has attempted to meld his love of garage rock, soul, R n B and jazz.
With his new record Sense Of Harmony, this restless cult hero may finally have come closer than ever before. “As long as I’m setting a good example then I’m happy,” says the man whose playing forms a unique link between Liverpool’s various scenes and successes. From the Bunnymen to the Zutons via The Stairs and Paul Weller, Jones has had a hand in some of the coolest cuts and sharpest sounds to come out of the UK in the past two decades and, thankfully for a man whose first release was called Weed Bus, he’s come out of it with most of his memory intact.
“When I started writing I liked things like The Bodines and Echo & The Bunnymen,” says Edgar, lighting the first of countless Silk Cuts. “I was very lucky that I was taken under the wing of that whole 80s Liverpool scene and by the time I was 18 I was playing bass guitar for Ian McCulloch. Bands like The Lotus Eaters and The Wild Swans helped me too but it was weird because back then you seemed to get further on looks rather than ability. I was a teenager who looked cool and they liked me even though I couldn’t play.”
Despite his acceptance into the court of Liverpool’s crimson kings, Jones was already forming a world outlook that was singular, psychedelic and obsessed with the 60s, so much so that his first band The Stairs would rival even contemporaries The La’s for dedication to all things garage. “I was blinkered, young and hot-headed,” he says. “I found the 80s pretty disgusting morally, socially and musically. It was a time for new toys and forgetting about your fellow man and when I started listening and buying things like the Nuggets and Pebbles compilations from Probe, I couldn’t help but be drawn into that look.”
Flying in the face of fashion, The Stairs ignored the ecstasy-fuelled baggy boom that consumed so many other bands from the North West, donning instead the look, sound and spirit of snotty US legends like The Chocolate Watch Band and The Electric Prunes.
“Everything was based around the year 1966 rather than that psychedelic Woodstock thing which came later,” explains Jones. “It was like no other music existed apart from songs made in that year but it was much harder work to be into something then. There was a network of cool people and you either got to know them or you didn’t; and you’d try and gather as much information and knowledge as you could from things like record sleeves, but it was those cool people who acted like a quality control, which is something the internet can’t do.”
The Stairs released one wonderful album Mexican R ‘n’ B, in mono, in 1992 before collapsing due to what Edgar describes as “chaos”. “Ged (Lynn, the Stairs guitarist) kept leaving the group and then rejoining and on the first day of our album sessions Jason (Otty, harmonica player) walked out and went on holiday to Europe after I’d shared out the publishing money. That’s what The Stairs was like – it was volatile and has psychologically affected the way I have been in bands ever since because I have this fear people will go just when I need them.”
After The Stairs, Edgar followed the well-worn path of many a talented Liverpudlian musician and joined Lee Mavers in The La’s, an experience he describes as being “like National Service”. “Lee would headhunt you, and we all had a go and did our bit for a year,” he laughs. “I didn’t get Lee at his best but then I don’t think many people did after about 1987. There just wasn’t a lot going on and I was disappointed because I was looking forward to getting my teeth into that band, but they didn’t want to get their teeth into the world. You have to go to the world and not expect it to come to you, especially if you’re not putting any records out.”
Solace came with a stint in Saint Etienne, an experience which Edgar describes as “happy” because he was able to develop his love of soul playing with a great band. “I didn’t mind being a sideman as I had really started to respect those people,” he remembers. “In Liverpool you had this thing about session musicians which was a dirty word because of all the punk snobbery. People pretended they didn’t own any Led Zep albums, and that lasted about 15 years. Music is still recovering from that and it wasn’t like it was replaced by anything cool and from the streets – punk was more a case of letting the morons have a go.”
Paul Weller (“a gent who was very kind to me”) was next on Jones’s list of employers after he joined the Mod hero’s live band, while he also had the time to play with another guitar legend in the form of Johnny Marr. “That was amazing and it was just me, Johnny and Zak Starkey playing in Johnny’s barn. It eventually came out as The Healers but I had been replaced by then by the bloke from Kula Shaker.”
Despite a burgeoning reputation as a go-to bass player for anyone keen to recreate a sixties vibe, Jones was still determined to explore his own path in a band of his own. “I never had that idea that I’d be a star, which was maybe my trouble,” he admits. “I’d like to be one now because I think I’d be a good example as I have worked hard over a long period of time and I think people should be inspired by that.”
Edgar’s next turn in the spotlight was with the Big Kids, a group that collected a whole new set of Liverpudlian musicians who would all play crucial roles in the city’s next wave of success. “I wanted something that was healthy musically and getting in Sean and Russ (later of The Zutons) and Howie Payne (The Stands) helped me, as I wanted people who were open to a different idea of what Liverpool was used to.” The band gigged incessantly, with a storming residency at The Magnet, and everything seemed in place for Edgar to take his rightful place in a Britpop scene which had come around to his sixties sensibility. But yet again a band would crumble when everything was poised for take-off. “It was great watching Russ and Sean develop as players and I was kind of glad when they formed the Zutons because I had a bit of guilt about stopping them form their own band with a bunch of other youngsters doing their own thing. It was less hurtful than if they had been poached by someone of my own ilk and it seemed right, but I still wish they had told me!”
Another period of soul-searching followed as Edgar began to formulate his idea of creating a group of musicians who would emulate the great sixties session bands like the Wrecking Crew. The plan would manifest itself in the form of The Joneses, a musical collective who began to encompass Edgar’s love of jazz and R ‘n’ B in a glorious fashion, especially on the critical favourite Soothing Music For Stray Cats album, which won fans as diverse as Noel Gallagher and Daniel Radcliffe, as well as being voted by NME as ‘The Best Album
You’ve Never Heard’.
“We wanted a Dr John and Sly and the Family Stone vibe at first and I also had the idea that we would start to back people outside the group. The problem with that was that the rest of the band didn’t have time for me anymore and when in a week running up to a gig no one returned my calls, I just thought ‘well, fuck you I’m off’. I regret it now because we had a gig lined up that MOJO had organised and everyone who played at that gig went on to play on Jools Holland and get a live following, which would have been nice.”
Edgar’s response to The Joneses’ split was to go back to the start and once again convene a three-piece called, err, Free Peace, who played loud garage rock. But despite some blistering live shows and a support slot with Oasis, Edgar was beginning to pay the price for twenty years of stretching his distinctive vocals to the limit. “I was over-confident with Free Peace and I wore my voice into the ground. It was depressing. I couldn’t sing anymore and we had to scrap the first album and work on material that I could actually sing.”
To make matters worse Edgar was beginning to suffer from a long-standing stomach complaint which soon became deadly serious. “I became ill and ran out of money to bankroll the band and it was becoming worse and worse. I ended up in hospital for two weeks and lost two stone which, if you know me, I haven’t got two stone to lose.”
The illness enabled Edgar to re-prioritise and after a brief spell playing with ex-Zutons singer Dave McCabe, he retreated to his Toxteth pad to record the demos for what was to become the wonderful and rather moving Sense Of Harmony album. “I have been trying to not eat things like sugar and dairy products and now it’s all juice and vegetables,” says Edgar. “It’s my organic calcium album! I had lots of time on my hands but I had to do something lighter as I simply didn’t have the energy. The vocals you hear have got a delicacy to them because I would record two lines and then have to lie down, so there’s a fragility there to the songs which maybe there hasn’t been before.”
Sense Of Harmony is indeed a beautiful yet triumphant album that sees Edgar find a new voice for his undoubted talents. He’s a survivor and we’re lucky to have him. “When I was young I was stupid and easily led,” he says at the end of our interview. “If I had had the success that maybe some people thought I deserved, I don’t think I’d be sitting here now.”
Sense Of Harmony is out on The Viper Label