Next to him sits guitarist Skin. Fully bearded after a month spent in the wilds of Cumbria, he's sucking heartily on a bottle of premium-strength lager while simultaneously chanting the hair-chilling mantra, "Embalming the poodle! Embalming the poodle!" At top volume. This, apparently, is his bizarre tribute to ghoulish rockers Marilyn Manson.
Meanwhile, bassist Peter sits in a huge reclining chair, limbs outstretched along its elegantly curved lines, his eyes filled with the quietly laughing menace of an alien abductee. Across the way, singer John Power is engaged in what appears to be a wholly subdued and sensible conversation with Cast's press officer, though there's a brief moment of disquiet when a waiter comes up and politely asks the million-selling Scouse pop idol to remove his feet from the lush upholstery. Power stares at him serenely, scratches his crotch, then breaks into a cherubic grin: "No problem, la!"
Welcome to an ordinary day in the life of Cast, the Liverpudlian quartet who rose from the ashes of 80s under-achievers and pop mavericks the La's to create the fastest selling debut album ever issued by Polydor Records. Today, the band are in town to air their new single, "Guiding Star", on the welcome-to-the-weekend TV bonanza, TFI Friday. It's the second 45 to be lifted from their follow-up album, "Mother Nature Calls", a moody grower that's darker, more psychedelic and in many ways more satisfying than their fizz-bang Mersey-pop debut.
So it's alright being in Cast then?
"Yeah, it's great," beams the quiet but powerful presence of Wilkinson, between Beatles-style one-liners.
"Sound!" chirps the genuinely loveable Keith, a constant source of amusement for his bandmates, and an extraordinarily talented drummer to wit.
"Embalming the poodle!" grins the mystical Skin, who, when called upon, is more than equipped to provide the full monty on ancient civilisations, extra-terrestrial lifeforms, the prophecies of Nostradamus and, er, canoeing.
John Power, motormouth, charmer, antagonist, swami, and creatot of such Britpop classics as "Alright", "Walkaway and "Flying", is more circumspect. "At the end of the day I'm a musician," he explains. "I'm not even that - I'm a songwriter. These days everything else is secondary.
Cast's mercurial ascent began with the painfully slow death of the La's, towards the end of 1991. "I left because I had some songs," Power recalls, "and I wanted to try them out. It became apparent that I was more interested in my own stuf than anyone else. But I didn't expect some cunt to see what I saw, or get excited about what I wanted to do."
Follwing the split, Power, then 24, signed on the dole and moved to Bruckley House, a decaying Victorian mansion which was home to a number of other struggling writers, musicians and scally rogues. There, the singer hatched his masterplan for Cast - a name he'd come up with some months before. (Spookily, the penultimate line of the La's' debut album is "the stone is Cast.")
Power's first recruit was Peter Wilkinsn, previously of Shack - he quit before the group backed Love's Arthur Lee on his 1993 U.K. tour - and then funk workhorses Supercharge. A La's fan, he'd seen Power perform an acoustic version of "Finetime" at a Liverpool festival in 1990, and sensed the singer had the talent to take Cast to the top. "John thought I looked cool in Shack," says Wilkinson. "It wasn't my bass playing, because he wouldn't have had a clue what was good or bad . . ."
Cast Mark I was completed by a revolving line-up of former La's personnel and aspiring local musos, including guitarists Peter 'Cammy' Camell, Barry Sutton and Jed Malley, plus drummer Russell Brady ("Anyone, in fact, even me fookin' auntie!"). Power - who was still signed to Go! Discs, home of the La's - was impatient to bring his new songs like "Finetime" and "Alright" to the public, and after just a couple of months' rehearsals, took the band on the road.
However, it was clear that Cast Mark I wasn't happening. "John had these songs, but not the band," says Skin, who witnessed an early London gig from the audience. There were also echoes of the problems which split up the La's. We ended up as two groups in one," says Power. "There was me, the there was Cammy, and we both had different songs. I thought, fuck this! I got hold of Peter and said, It's up to you, I know where I'm going, do you wanna come?"
In summer 1993, after recording several unsatisfactory demos of "Alright" and several other early songs with the Who's soundman Bob Pridden, Power extricated himself from his Go! Discs deal, split the band, and embarked on a mission to build the ultimate Liverpool beat group. Wilkinson had long been recommending the silky axe skills of Skin, formerly of progressive-pop act Pyramid Dream, who'd contributed to the compilation, "One Summer In Liverpool". Pyramid Dream were the original subjects of the BBC-2 documentary The Next Big Thing, but pulled out of the project when they realised it was "one huge cock-up". Their place was taken by FMB, but not before 60 hours of fly-on-the-wall footage was shot.
"Yeah, it turned up in Cumbria," confirms the softly-spoken Skin. "It was like, 'Dear Liam, I'd like you to come back to Liverpol and join my band Cast. We're shortly going to be recording at John Entwistle's studio, touring and getting a record deal.' I mean, how many times have you hear that?"
However, convinced by a follow-up phone call that Power was deadly serious, Skin left the centre on Bonfire Night 1993. Cast's nifty scally jigsaw was completed by the arrival of Keith O'Neill, a school-orchestra trumpet player turned maniacal hide-whalloper. In the early '90s, Keith had been in a band called the Australians with Tommy from Space, though he didn't get on their "The Girl Who Was Man Enough To Kill Him" single. "Tommy tells the papers he's 26," reveals the mischievous Keith. "Is he fuck! He's 32! He was in a cabaret band for years."
O'Neill claims he met the group by chance: "I saw these three nobheads all pissed in the street one day. No, actually I woke up in a hotel one day with them peering down at me. They told me I was in their band." In fact, the drummer was a friend of the group who'd been invited to a rehearsal sometime before, when Russell Brady was in the line-up. ("He had a beard, so he had to go. Skin's next.")
At the time, O'Neill was playing with a pscychedelic Mod group called the Windmills, but was lured away by a persuasive Power who considered him "incredible to watch, more exciting than the rest of his group put together". "Keith didn't really start playing until he was 29," explains Wlikinson. "And he's only 28 now."
Throughoit November and December 1993, Cast Mk II underwent intensive rehearsals at a shared 24-hour facility. This time, everything clicked. They played their first gig together at the Hull Adelphi in January 1994, with the Moonflowers - it was the start of a year in which they would struggle hard to be taken seriously by record companies and promoters who were, according to Power, "only interested in signing Marion."
All four members were still on the dole, and money was virtually non-existant. "We went and did a gig at the Splash Club in London," recalls O'Neill. "We played to a pile of puke and four dogs. We were so skint we had to chip in to buy a bottle of sherry. £3.50 between seven of us."
Yet the group had admirers in high places. Impressed by their demo tape, Elvis Costello invited Cast to support him across two nights at the Royal Albert Hall. Noel Gallagher was also a fan, and secured the group an opening slot with Oasis at the New Cross venue in early 1994, while the group also played way down the bill at the Phoenix Festival. Around this time, Cast pressed up 700 white label 10"s featuring demos of "Tell It Like It Is", "Follow Me Down" and "Sandstorm" recorded at John Entwistle's studio in the Cotswolds. Most copies - hand stamped with a red Cast logo - were sold at gigs.
By the summer, Polydor were chansing the group's signatures, and a deal was inked later in the year. Power celebrated by advising the label's MD how best to run his company. Then it was down to work, with a number of low-key gigs, and numerous recording sessions shared between the now-defunct Manor in Oxfordshire, Sawmills Studios in Cornwall, and Entwistle's Fort Henry retreat.
In July 1995, the group emerged with their debut single - the five-years-in-the-offing "Finetime". It was a superb example of the Cast sound, all sky-scraping summer harmonies, jaunty R&B guitars and a disarmingly simple melody that lodged itself in the furthest recesses of the brain. Power's voice was exceptional, too, cascading from a phlegm-ridden scally growl to a sweet falsetto in asingle phrase.
Promoting the single, the group played a euphoric gig at 100 Club, before making a return appearance under canvas on the Phoenix Festival's second stage. Curiosity about his post-La's outfit was immence: the big top was positively heaving with punters craning their necks to see Lee Mavers' former bass-playing sidekick chopping on a vintage Telecaster.
Around this time, Mavers was spotted in the newsagent next to the Record Collector offices. he revealed that he was working on his first new material for five years at Rat Scabies' studio in nearby Brentford. Asked about Cast, he betrayed a mild biterness. "The first time I heard Cast on the radio, I thought, I'm in for a shock, it's gonna be good. But honest to God, it was nothing. It wasn't even worth thinking about." Two years on, Mavers has yet to release any post-La's recordings . . .
After a prestigious support slot with Noel and the chaps at Irvin Beach on the west coast of Scotland, Cast unleashed a second single, the joyous Mersey-pop of "Alright", and embarked on a U.K. tour. Live, they were developing into an untutored rock monster, still part the Fourmost, yes, but increasingly something else less tangible and more psychedelic. "If Oasis really are the new Beatles, then tonight Cast are threatening to be the new Pink Floyd," observed Melody Maker, who caught the band's show at the Blackpool Ballroom. "There's a spaciousness that wasn't there before."
November saw the release of Cast's debut album, the John-Leckie produced "All Change". It was a neat summation of the nation's mood at the time - direct, upbeat, life-affirming. britpop was still wildly in the ascendant, and the public seemed to key into the band's unfettered positivity, scally street-suss and '60s pop heroism. Yet "All Change" was also an album of light and shade: behind the swirling psych effervescence of "Sandstorm" and "Alright", there were hints of the frustration and self-doubt that Power had encountered in the dark days of 1992/93. "Four Walls" and the bittersweet eight-minute opus, "Two Of A Kind", appeared to relate directly to the last fragmented moments of the La's erratic career, when the singer was "drifting with the tide" and questioning, "am I free to go?"
Throw in the spacey terrace anthem, "Walkaway", and "All Change" assumed the aspect of a commendable debut, a feisty bantamweight with the potential to punch itself into a heavier class. Surfing the pre-Christmas Britpop frenzy, it sold by the lorry load, reviving Polydor's ailing fortunes and netting the group a tidy nest egg which could no doubt keep them in top-grade weed for life. All that, despite the NME concluding that the album was "a triumph of application over inspiration".
Meanwhile, Cast's never-ending tour continued. In December 1995, the group ran into a spot of bother with the French police, when an all-day drinking session in Nantes led to hotel-trashing antics of the indelibly alcoholic kind. A squad of gun-toting flic burst into the band's hotel room to find enough G-plan firewood to recreate Waco and four extremely inebriated Liverpudlians with large grins on their faces - which soon disappeared when Power and O'Neill were bundled into a van and carted of to chokey. (Then later escaped charges by blaming the damage on an imaginary local gang.)
Cast were making small inroads into the American market, and played a low-key tour there in the summer, before returning home to start work on a second album, at Rockfield studio in Wales, with Weller/OCS producer Brendan Lynch (and, later, John Leckie).
It was an indication of the group's stellar profile back home that they were now no longer the anonymous scallies of a year earlier, despite their baggy threads and workaday sportswear. Recognised by a gang of youths in the street, Wilkinson was bottled in the face and ended up having to walk to hospital, since no taxi driver would pick him up. Power, whose girlfriend had recently become pregnant, also admitted that he could no longer safely frequent Liverpool's "nutty alehouses" on a weekend night. The price of fame.
In October 1996, Cast released an interim single, "Flying", a thrilling flight into melodicism, propelled with a chunky rhythm guitar figure and O'Neill's superbly understated drums. An interview in Select then brought Power into contact with rival space cadet and harbinger of the deep and meaningful, Crispian Mills, though you could detect that Power's earthiness and Mills' occasionally bizarre abstractions ("If you drive around Hampstead Heath... these people are just crawling in their own shit") didn't always gell.
Back on terra firma - and after even more Stateside touring - Cast previewed their new album with a single, "Free Me". Opening with Power's pleading nasal whine over a grinding chord change, before steamroller bass and Moon-inflected drums joined the fray, it was proof that Cast may be in posession of enough musical ability and quadrophenic angst to explode into a modern-day Who.
Moody, sentimental, upbeat and cosmic by turns, "Mother Nature Calls" could be a contender for one of the greatest 'head' albums ever. And "I'm So Lonely", scheduled as their next 45, is without a doubt the most beautiful song Poer has written in his five years with Cast. "It's a better album than the first one," says Power, wistfully. "Well, maybe not better, you can't compare the two. But there's more to it, it's a grower. We don't want to be bish-bang wallop. We don't need to repeat what we've already done. People take about a month to get it.
"I listen to all sorts of music," he continues, "from Beck to the Prodigy to Bob Marley and John lennon. From Love to carole King, from Captain Beefheart to cast. I'm into the things that are good and make me laugh."
In May, the group set out on a punishing all-stations visitation of the British-Isles, though the second night of their sell-out weekend at London's Brixton Academy was cancelled when Power came down with flu. The date was rescheduled for July, when they put ona blinding rock show, during which the charismatic but egomaniacal presence of Liam Gallagher took the stage - not to sing, but to stand directly infront of Power and stare vacantly into the audience . . .
Fresh back from another American tour, Cast are now comfronted with the future. A support slot at reading Festival beckons, as does a new single, the swelling "Live The Dream". Now nearly 30 and a husband and father, Power is maturing into a substantial songwriting force, and his band into a tight musical unit capable of turning their hand to anything. "i've grown up," says Power. "And I'm happy. There's nothing wrong with looking good and feeling good. We all like to buy out £60 shirts (tugs on lime green Diesel number) and feel nice and sexy. There are a lot of things in life. What I'm saying is... I'm not a fucking mong."
And the next album? "It's going to be rhubarb and custard. It's going to be bendy and cartoony. The slower songs are all going to be classics, and the hard ones are going to have some movement in there."
So that's Cast - four amiable individuals with a raft of great songs, superb B-sides like "Hour Glass" and "Satellite" that match the majesty of their best work, and the potential to transmogriy into one of the rock greats. Thank heaven for the Power of vision.
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~ Keith ~
~ Back To Mars ~
~ Yellow Pages ~