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The Sunshine Underground: Leeds' finest exports raise the alarm in Brighton

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If my stint in student journalism has taught me anything, it is to always expect the unexpected.  The PR guy promises you half an hour with the band?  You’ll get ten minutes at best.  The interview is scheduled for five o’clock?  Don’t count on asking anyone anything before half past.  And when you finally sit down with the band in question, whether they’ll be extraordinarily polite, discernably unimpressed or remarkably tolerable is anyone’s guess (I’ve experienced all three).

Thankfully, my interview with The Sunshine Underground is free of such surprises.  Well, almost.  “We’ve driven down to Brighton from Leeds today,” the tour manager informs me as we pace through the venue last Wednesday afternoon, “and experienced every weather condition going: ice in Leeds, fog as we left the city, snow between Nottingham and Northampton, and now sunshine in Brighton.  We’ve got a touch of cabin fever.”

That certainly explains why the quartet’s frontman has abandoned ship – the darkened depths of Digital, that is – in favour of Brighton’s pebbled beaches, I think to myself, peering out the window at a stranger knocking back beer across the promenade.  What I didn’t count on, though, was setting down on the pebbles myself just minutes later.

Still, as unexpected as it was to be in the midst of a Q&A session with The Sunshine Underground’s vocalist/guitarist Craig Wellington on Brighton beach, it was fitting all the same.  The band, who hail from Leeds, are almost famed (I say almost: more on that later) for their down-to-earth qualities: not only do they frequently offer guest list slots to the fastest responding fan via their Facebook page, but last year the band embarked on a nationwide scout for fourteen of the best unsigned acts to support them on their current tour.

“It was my idea,” Wellington explains, “to make it more interesting.  I mean, I remember going to watch bands, and I always thought it would be really cool to have the opportunity to support them.  People were always asking if they could support us on Myspace, so I thought it would be a good idea to give the opening slots to local bands in the area.”
The four-piece didn’t shy away from the administrative side of things either, even making the selections themselves.  “Stuart [Jones, guitarist] and I basically went through hundreds of Myspace sites, and we discovered some really good bands,” Wellington continues, stopping briefly to pause in recollection.  “But there were some crap ones as well,” he remembers, trailing off in laughter.

As refreshing as The Sunshine Underground’s streak is, though, I can’t help but feel it’s to be expected.  It’s why I tend to precede ‘famed’ with ‘almost’ whenever I consider the four-piece, as I explain to Wellington himself.

I was first acquainted with the band four or five years ago, when a friend-of-a-friend tipped The Sunshine Underground to be “the next big thing”.  I wasn’t surprised, then, when the band’s first album – Raise the Alarm, released in the autumn of 2006 – found itself on the receiving end of an impressive amount of critical acclaim.  But despite the record’s success, as I put to Wellington: I feel as though I’m still waiting for the explosion after the double-dose of hype.

Wellington sympathises with the observation, but his ambition hasn’t fizzled out yet.  “We are going to be big though,” he grins.  “We’re going to be massive.”  Again, he pauses for a moment before clarifying his thoughts.  “I’d like to be respected and recognised on a large scale for what we do,” he adds, neglecting laughter for a more realistic tack.  “But really, I just want the opportunity to carry on doing this full time.”

I can’t imagine that being too much of a problem.  After all, their set at Digital later that evening was truly one of the most enjoyable live performances I’ve seen in a while.  But there’s no denying that with gaps as big as the one between The Sunshine Underground’s first and second albums – Nobody’s Coming to Save You hit record stores four years after it’s predecessor – fading into obscurity remains a real possibility.

“We wanted to do something different,” Wellington says in defence.  “The first album was basically just the first eleven songs we’d written.  For the second, we were able to take our time and co-produce it.  The music is better, and the lyrics are better.  I mean, after touring for about two years after Raise the Alarm, we realised that it sounded better live than it ever did on record.  We didn’t want to rush the second album.”

It’s an admirable admission, and I have to admit, it’s not as if The Sunshine Underground made no attempts to bridge the gap.  Last year, the band not only released their Everything, Right Now EP, but also shared a number of new tracks with fans via their Myspace page.  While none actually made it onto the final cut of Nobody’s Coming to Save You, it served as a taster of the band’s subsequent efforts nevertheless.

With Brighton the third to last stop on The Sunshine Underground’s tour, I turn my attention to this year’s summer festivals.  I’m convinced these will be the band’s next port of call, and Wellington does little to dispel my theory.

“Nothing’s been confirmed yet, but I think we’re looking at T in the Park and, yeah, Reading and Leeds,” he nods, excitedly.  “And hopefully some of the smaller ones as well, but we’ll see.”

It was at T in the Park – Scotland’s answer to Reading and Leeds – three years ago that the band welcomed The View’s frontman, Kyle Falconer, on stage to perform with them, and Wellington still speaks fondly of the duet.

“We’re mates now,” he explains.  “We had the same sound engineer for a while, and he used to play this one track of ours all the time, and Kyle loved it.  We spoke about getting him out with us before, but it wasn’t until he was watching us from the side of the stage at T in the Park that we actually did it.  He knew all the harmonies and everything.”

The odds of future collaborations aren’t too shabby, either.  “Yeah, we’d definitely like to work with other people in the future,” Wellington confirms.  “LFO, maybe.  Definitely some sort of producers.  There are loads of people I’d like to collaborate with.”

But I’d not recommend The Sunshine Underground to anyone based on the vague possibility of a future working partnership alone.  Because this is a band who, quite simply, don’t need to rely on the merits of any other artist to demonstrate their worth.

“Are you coming to the pop concert tonight?” Wellington asks as the interview draws to a close, and I unashamedly nod rather eagerly in response.  The fact is, The Sunshine Underground are an act I’ve been wanting to see live for ages – and they absolutely did not disappoint.

Sure, Digital wasn’t exactly packed out, but those who were there seemed as taken as I did.  The performance was energetic, electric and entirely refreshing.  My only criticism?  Well, their set only lasted for an hour – but I suppose that’s just made me all that more excited for the next time they’re in town.

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