SEATTLE – It is 1987, and I am returning home from my first trip to the United States, a wild two-month coast to coast Kerouac-like road trip.
My big distraction, music, had not yet given me the excuse to drop out of college in London, and it seemed silly to stop so close to graduation. That said, a guy I knew from the local record store in Leeds had something cooking. His name was Choque, and he had already recorded an album with singer David Ashmore under the name The Hollow Men to favorable reviews.
My friend Howi Taylor had played bass on their debut and recommended me to them. So I took a trip up north to meet them at the ludicrously named Chocolate Factory, a psychedelic nightclub. There we hatched a plan for me to play on their sophomore effort, "The Man Who Would Be King."
I ended up playing on a good half of the record in breaks between my studies. It was a bit weird playing over the top of a drum machine and existing overdubs, but they gave a bit of freedom to express myself and made me feel very welcome. The resulting single, "White Train," made a bit of noise, so we painted a set based on a French kids TV show ("Magic Roundabout") and shot a video.
I think we had just had our minds blown by Prince a few weeks prior so there were a lot of polka dots and fedoras flyin' around. My personal homage to the purple one (or at least Sheila E) was to buy a bright pink drum kit with our advance from Arista records. The label signed us after a stint opening for the Stone Roses just as they were about to explode.
We thrashed them in a soccer match outside Sheffield University one sunny Sunday afternoon only to be humbled by their stagecraft later that night. I will never forget Ian Brown's prowling menace and the band's utter brilliance rendering those early tunes as they came of age.
It was a great time for live music in retrospect; all the touring bands had traveling supporters, much like soccer, and I think we even picked up a few of our own. We were then dispatched to record our major label debut album. It was my first time in a residential studio – a bit like a holiday camp for recording musicians, full board and lodging, all paid for by the record company, to be hopefully paid back later.
It was there that the musical revolution of the early nineties inspired our own internal revolution in The Hollow Men. Trading The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Waterboys for The Happy Mondays and The Beloved, we set about making a pop record the only way we knew how. There were a few awkward moments trading drums for drum machines, but overall it was a very creative time.
David wasn't much of a singer, but was always steering the band's direction one way or another, whether lyrically or otherwise, a meticulous planner. Howi once said you could learn all you needed to know about the guy by watching him make a bacon sandwich, which, in his case, involved a pair of surgical scissors.
Choque was the mouthpiece of the band, never short of a thing or two to say. But also a talented producer, weirdly harsh and patriarchal, simultaneously. He would cook us curry and play us all the latest releases from the record shop on Friday nights.
The album came out and perhaps inevitably flopped, lost in a swirl of other bands on other labels trying to cash in on Madchester as they called it. The irony didn't escape us, being from Leeds. Our respective football teams were pitted against each other in a battle to win the old first division title. And apart from Brian our brilliant Mancunian guitar player, the closest we came to Manchester was to record at 10cc's old studio, Strawberry, in nearby Stockport.
The studio has some real history, not least as a result of the late great producer Martin Hannett's residency there. He was known to spend the night sleeping under the mixing console toward the end of his checkered career.
The release of "Cresta" did, however, achieve modest success in the U.S. before a bar band from Kansas with the same name put a stop to our progress with a High Court Injunction. The resulting loss of our deal exposed the band's inner flaws, and we disbanded in 1992. There was a new environment emerging. The recession was looming, dance music was taking over and the guitar bands were following in the slipstream left by Nirvana.
I often think back to that time, realizing how hard it is for young bands now to have a comparable experience, how the big bad old record companies maybe weren't so bad after all. At this point, I'd like to thank Whitney Houston and Barry Manilow for paying my wages for a couple of years! Even "the dole," the much maligned, oft-criticized British system of unemployment benefit, basically created conditions for art to thrive in so many instances in the beginning stages.
By the time the band broke up, I had already gone back to New York with David to review the landscape at Arista and plant the seeds to move to what was to become my new home.
Jonny Cragg was born in Hythe England on July 18th 1966. Raised and educated in Yorkshire he chose Leeds as his spiritual home. Whilst at school he learned to play the drums, playing in local bands until opting to study Psychology at the University of East London in 1985.
Almost by accident his first job after graduation was back behind the drums for Leeds band The Hollowmen. They recorded four studio albums, signed to Arista Records, and toured extensively throughout Europe. A press trip to New York served to strengthen his resolve to move to the States, and that finally happened in the Spring of 1993. By the following year, Cragg had formed Spacehog with a group of Leeds expatriates in The Lower East Side: The group went onto sell millions of records, and tour the world to great success. He remains active in the group having made four studio albums to date.
Jonny is also a session musician, producer, writer, DJ and educator. His credits include: The Pierces, Supergrass, Edie Brickell, The Utah Saints, David Johansen and Richard Butler and Marty Wilson Piper, HBO, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.
He has two daughters, Laila and Domino, and lives with his partner in Seattle.