All set for a slot on the BBC 6 Music stage at this year’s Glastonbury, SHELLSUIT were deprived of some much-warranted national exposure at the last minute by Camerclegg’s cutbacks. “We were invited to play there by Tom Robinson from 6 Music, he’s been a real big help for us,” says singer Ed. “We were really looking forward to it, but then the cutbacks came in and funding was cut. I’m not that arsed really: we’ll just come back next year as headliners!” You heard it here first.
While jumping from relative obscurity to major-leaguers may seem a bit pie in the sky at the moment, there is a definite sentiment rumbling about these former postmen that they are about to go massive in the very near future. With debut album Walton Prison Blues, they really have a gem of a record full of beguiling tunes that will have you hooked from the very first chords of opener Just Like Everybody Else. Moreover, they have a record that defies genre: “I’m happy to get pigeon-holed, people can put me in pigeon-holes all day,” declares Ed. “But whatever label you give us, it just sounds inadequate.” Scally-pop? City-beat-folk? What then Ed? “It’s soul music to me. Not like your Leona Lewis X Factor-warble: it’s all about experience and emotion.” And so it is. Shellsuit’s sound is big on heart and low on complication. Every song is engaging and heartfelt from the off, driven by the emotion that spawned it rather than being dressed up by fancy musical trickery. But that’s not to say that it’s not accomplished: there are plenty of pop hooks in there to keep you dancing for hours, and more than enough thoughtful lyrics to keep you wanting to come back time and again to delve in to the depths of meaning. This is not a grower of a record: if you don’t get it the first time round, please pass the album on to someone else who will, and get back to your Radiohead CDs.
There is a lyric from the insanely catchy track Split Brain And The Whole Mind that jumps out straight away, and encapsulates Shellsuit perfectly: ‘typical and original at the same time.’ Lending lush and layered harmonies from The La’s, and achingly real working-class-street social commentaries from fellow Scouser-rock luminaries Shack, Shellsuit seem to be walking an oft-trodden path for bands from Liverpool: even their choice of name was designed to invite every stereotype possible. But their resultant style and sound is subtly different, and seeks to debunk those stereotypes at every turn. Based in Liverpool, lyricist Ed has always identified more with our city’s musicians, while Cheshire-based bandmates Lee and Nathan have always sided more with the Manchester scene, with a lot of alt.country influence as well. As multi-instrumentalist and music swot Lee is responsible for the mixing and production of the music, this is perhaps why the band doesn’t fall firmly in to the jangly, scouse bracket. As a result, their crafted songs stand alongside those of their influences, separate from them and unique, in a style all of their own fashioning. This is something that Ed is acutely aware of: “You wanna see something that sticks in your mind, don’t you? That’s why we try and do something a bit different, to make things interesting.”
That is something that is evident even before you engage in the music. It is hard to find any information out about this lot, and in most of their press shots they are hidden behind an array of masks and wigs and false moustaches. While Ed maintains that it’s because “we’re not handsome enough to be interesting,” it sure does add an extra layer of mystery to the band that you wouldn’t recognise them if you walked past them in the street. Seeing them live is a whole other experience: the band often don high-visibility jackets for their shows, and have their friend Farquhar (“a man who lives behind a massive big hedge on a council estate”) read a poem out before they come on, to set the mood for the evening.
All in the name of crowd entertainment? “You do it for yourself, you do it because you love it,” explains Ed. “If no-one listens to it, or you only sell 10 records, it doesn’t matter.” Surely you want to sell more than 10 though? “We had this idea when we started the band, which has become a bit of a catchphrase now, is that we were going to try and get 10 people in to it. That’s an achievable number, and if you can have 10 people’s lives affected by it, that’s a good touch. And some times, at the early gigs, people would say, ‘I’m one of the 10!’ And then, when things get bigger, everyone’s claiming to be one of the 10, and it becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy: like Spartacus! That was then, 10 was just a good number. I can think of at least 12 now!” It is this self-deprecating humour which, added to their natural playfulness, gives them a charm that renders everything they do in the name of their music genuine.
There is at least one song on Walton Prison Blues that every person can relate to, from the careerist musings of Postman, to the post-holiday blues of Bali, Thailand, Sydney, America, and the prison cell lament of Decline Of Manufacturing: the album is a shining example of how songs can be whittled out of the quotidian experiences of real life, so long as there is genuine feeling at the heart of it. And one can’t fail to identify with the random encounters with the strange characters that pop up: the pep-talk from Tony the vagrant on the Tunnel Bus; the Iraqis In Shellsuits who ‘came over from seat of learning, with promises of the dough he’d be earning.’; even the inspiration behind Split Brain And The Whole Mind has some wisdom to impart (‘my brain’s got a brain of its own’), even though his nocturnal flashing habit gained him some unflattering notoriety in his native Birkenhead. Real life is anything but straightforward: one person’s triviality may be another person’s hardships, and these virtues are recognised by Ed’s lyrics, which gives Shellsuit a wholesome edge that will keep you coming back to them when all other music has drained you of emotion.
This is a band that you really can’t afford to miss. Get the album and get enriched by a genuinely heartfelt record. Go on the website and read the mission statement. Get to the live show and behold Farquhar and the high-vis jackets. Become one of The Ten and join in with something seismic. Get this band in your life, before you end up on the bonnet of a Royal Mail van.