Dave Woodhall talks to Pete Williams, Oldbury’s greatest musical export.
Pete Williams is one of those great unsung heroes that the Birmingham music scene regularly throws up. He’s served as bassist with Dexy’s, left them to form the vastly-underrated Bureau and then played with the highly-respected local band These Tender Virtues. Most recently he’s been performing and recording with his own Pete Williams Band and they have a new album, H.O.L.L.A.N.D. out recently. He’s also playing the REP Studio Theatre on Saturday 15th December and we spoke to him about music and a few other things.
“I’m pleased to say the new album is picking up traction on 6 Music, Iggy Pop played it. The vinyl’s out, it’s got extra artwork and different mixes from the CD. It’s something we’re very proud of.”
The title is a throwback to the sort of thing you’d see written on walls when we were kids. Would you say the music’s throwback to your youth as well?
“I wouldn’t say that it’s obviously a reflective album, but forward looking at the same time. It’s me as a man in his fifties looking back on borders I’ve been through and checkpoints in my life. I think about the success I had as a young man, the recent resurgence of Dexy’s, that was cathartic. To be clear about HOLLAND, I guess it’s a throwback to when people would use acronyms. SWALK for example, you don’t see that anymore because I don’t suppose it translates into text but it harks back, it was on the block of flats in Whiteheath where I come from.
“You used to see all this graffiti on the flats when I was growing up but you’d see Joey loves Julie IDST and all that. Anyway I asked this girl what HOLLAND meant and she gave me that sort of disdainful look girls give to lads at that age and she whispered that it stands for ‘Hope Our Love Lasts And Never Dies’.
“I was a clumsy thirteen year old and it lodged with me, the fact that she whispered it and said the word ‘love’ which you just didn’t say on the estate that time so it stayed with me. So I’m looking back at things that have happened in my life and what Iv’e seen, and now with my kids growing up and being a Black Country father, at 58 I do hope our love lasts and never dies.”
The album has had some wide references. You’ve been compared with Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop likes it and there’s also a comparison to Richard Hell on there. You’ve managed to touch a lot of bases on there.
“It’s incredibly flattering to be compared with Paul McCartney. I’m from the Black Country, we don’t take praise that well, but if it moves people and if I can endure as long as some of those names that’s great. I do realise that there’s people I don’t know from Adam but they come to see me me and sand afterwards they’ll tell me they were moved by what I played.
“I did a tour with the Proclaimers and after the gigs people would come up to me with tears in their eyes. One of them was Simon Weston, and he was saying that Are You Listening, which is about my turbulent relationship with my father, then when I had children of my own I could see what he was trying to do with me, that strikes a chord with a lot of people. Just to shake hands with him, after what he’s been through, it’s very moving.
“The reference to Richard Hell was from one review and it was about my guitarist, Andy Wellins, his insane guitar solo on the song Twice Around the Bend. Richard Hell & the Voidoids eh, that takes me back. Andy was very flattered.
“But I just write, I try to keep myself open. As a songwriter you have to have your nerves on the outside, it’s almost like having permanent shingles or something. I try to write from a personal perspective, with empathy and what I write isn’t just about rhyme and words, it means something.”
Playing at the Rep Studio seems to be keeping up your tradition of every band you play with performing in odd venues.
“There’s a circuit I’m not vastly interested in playing. The Studio’s anonymous, it’s not branded, it’s not an O2 or a Carling, it’s not got the stamp of Birmingham promoters, it’s not one of the regular venues.
“I want to play places that are accessible and do a night we can make our own. In my set we take stuff down to a whisper, it’s a leap of faith and a very dynamic show. I just like the fact that the Studio is lit well, people can sit and watch. It’s a 300 capacity room and we sold it out last time. It’ll be an incredible night.”
how does Birmingham’s music scene compare to the time you were first starting out?
“There are fewer venues, and Birmingham went through a period when it went a bit dry, although it’s picking up now. I’d rather see a lot more smaller promoters having a go at running nights and trying different things rather than the same old. I’m being careful here not to say that Kings Heath and Moseley are spoilt rotten, while there’s not much happening in say West Bromwich or my side of town.
“Dexy’s played at the Romulus with Joy Division supporting us in 1980, they didn’t put many gigs on, then there was places like the Duma Express, Imperial Hotel and the Bier Keller, it seemed such a wide spread then it all died out. I think it was the Quaker influence, they’re not exactly party people.”
But even then there was a great live scene up until about 1982 then it stopped dead and nothing came along for years.
“That’s right, there was a real buzz in the city. Stephen Duffy was doing his thing, Fashion were a great band, the Au Pairs.”
It seems to me that every so often Birmingham almost bursts into life again, but never really revs up.
“There’s a few people trying to do that but it’s the same old faces and it needs some younger guys with some energy but it’s difficult. I do listen to some of the new music coming out locally. The last time we played there we had Felix Shepherd with us who’s very talented and there’s a few bands, Hunger Moon for example who are very tasty. I try to listen to as much as I can. There’s a lot of talent in the city.”
And you’re still highly respected amongst your peers. You couldn’t really ask for more.
“No, it’s not been bought. The Proclaimers tour of 2015, going into 2016, 32 dates in three and four thousand seater venues. I couldn’t buy onto that without a record company behind me but the Reids insisted that I did the whole tour. You can buy onto a tour and be treated like shit but the Reids are very decent people and great songwriters. ”