Sunday, 9 July 2006

total:spec - Matt Willis

If there’s one thing Matt Willis likes talking about it’s Big Brother. The former Busted bassist turned Robbie Williams-in-waiting is a huge fan of the show, but he’s finding his burgeoning solo career something of a distraction from those all-important viewing appointments.

“I’ve missed everything,” he groans. “I missed Aisleyne going into the other house, all the new housemates coming in. I missed absolutely everything. And it’s gutting because this series has been wicked. Glyn to win I say.”

There’s no stopping him now.

“I know everyone’s saying Pete, and I do like him, but I prefer Glyn. He just seems like a really decent, nice guy. You know when you just see something in somebody and you just think they are a wicked, decent fella? That’s what I think of Glyn.”

For someone who’s conversation is punctuated with yawns (“Sorry man, it’s been a long day and an early morning.”), Willis is quite the talker. But although he’s finding the work involved in being an up and coming solo singer gruelling, he says it’s actually quite relaxed in comparison to his previous life as one third of chart-slaying pop act Busted.

“It’s not anywhere as bad as that,” says the 23-year-old. “Busted was so manic all the time, like crazy busy, because you were literally here, there and everywhere doing as much as you could. Now it’s not that bad. It’s still hard but it’s worth it.”

It certainly is. Matt Willis is shaping up to be one of Britain’s most exciting and interesting new pop stars since, well - oh sod it - since Robbie Williams caught us all by surprise. The Robbie Williams comparison might be an obvious one - both Willis and he had a troubled post-band period, they both have irresistible cheeky chappy charisma - but it’s a fair one. In Willis’s few live shows since he released his debut single Up All Night back in May he’s shown he can do that hugely energetic performing style backed up with some humility.

“I find myself just saying things that bum me out,” he grimaces. “You know it’s bad when you bum yourself out. I say things I wouldn’t even say in normal life, but I choose to say them in front of a crowd of people. I’m silly up there.”
And Willis has made an album full of ballsy guitar-driven pop music with lyrics full of enough wit and honesty to sit happily on any Robbie track.

“It’s taken a long time to make,” he says of his as-yet-untitled opus. “But that’s not for any other reason than wanting it to sound wicked. And to be honest I didn’t know what it was going to sound like for a while. It wasn’t until we wrote Hey Kid, the next single, that that we really had a direction for the album. I was writing really self-indulgent bullshit songs for a long time, just out of Busted. I was trying to please everybody else and I didn’t really know which direction to take. And then I just thought, sod that, write music that makes you happy. So I did. I actually remember the moment I thought that. I was in a dodgy 80s nightclub and Van Halen’s Jump came on and I went absolutely nuts. I’d forgotten how much of an amazing song it is. I just ran into the studio going, ‘We’ve got to make Jump!’, and everyone looked a bit worried. But they understood and it was a real turning point because we started to make music as flamboyant as that. So it’s influenced by that sound but with a modern day pop twist.”

Willis, of course, is having none of these Robbie comparisons.

“I mean, it’s quite flattering,” he says. “But he is the biggest megastar in Europe, for fuck’s sake. I think people have to remember that - Robbie Williams is a megastar, I’ve only had one single out. I don’t think it’s fair. Maybe in four years time, if I’ve sold 10 million albums and I’m doing stadium gigs, you might be able to say I’m the next Robbie Williams. But right now I think it’s a bit premature.”

There is another difference. While Robbie pelted away from his past in Take That as fast as he could, doing as much as he could to disassociate himself with his career as a boy bander, Willis is doing the opposite. It’s Willis’s pride of where he’s come from, of why he’s famous in the first place, that’s partly why he’s so refreshing as a pop star. So many acts who have been in his position before - whether they’ve come from a boy band, girl band or reality talent show - have tried to distance themselves from their uncredible origins and begged to be taken seriously. Not so Willis.

“I was in Busted,” he says simply. “I’m not ashamed of it. I’d never play it down or anything like that. Busted was a massive part of my life and I loved it and if [guitarist] Charlie [Simpson] hadn’t left I’d still be doing it now. It was just unfortunate timing and I was forced to make other career plans. I loved Busted and I was in that band, so of course I’m going to get people who will always want to know about that, but that’s understandable man. It doesn’t piss me off or anything.

“I just want things to be a bit more fun,” he adds. “Because everybody starts to get a bit too serious. Even everything around [May’s debut solo single] Up All Night started to get like that. It was perceived maybe as I’m trying to be like this super cool, dark, mysterious guy, whereas I’m not, man. I just want to have a laugh. I want my music to be seen as fun and not taken too seriously. It’s music not politics.”

Whatever you thought of Busted, and however saccharine and fluffy hits like What I Go To School For and Year 3000 might have seemed, the three-piece’s two year chart reign made an enormous and still lasting impact on pop music. They effectively killed the boy band for a start. Busted made pop fans realise that they could have something a bit more ‘real’ in the bands they liked, and the traditional format for male pop bands of five all-singing, all-dancing pretty boy puppets began to seem old hat. Busted actually played their own instruments and, even more shocking, wrote their own songs. 

More importantly they weren’t trying to be anything they weren’t. While it was obvious they were influenced by the likes of blink-182 and Green Day, they weren’t trying to be those bands. They were pop and they were proud of it. Also their success saw a beginning of the blurring between the lines of what is pop and what is alternative. Bands like Keane, Hard-Fi, Kaiser Chiefs and The Feeling now sit quite happily in both worlds and fill the pages of both NME and its pop rivals. It’s now okay for alternative bands to make music that’s a bit poppy, or vice versa.

“I do think what we did to music is cool but I think it was more of a timing thing,” says Willis, playing down his band’s legacy. “It was just the right time for Busted. Everyone was sick and tired of five guys sitting on stools, standing up for key changes, or doing dance routines. There’s only so much of that music you can shove down kids throats before they want something a bit more real. I know writing about school teachers and the year 3000 isn’t the most real thing in the world, but at that time it’s what people wanted and that’s why it became so successful.”

Willis, from Molesey in Surrey, first met James Bourne, the main songwriting talent in Busted, at a gig in Southend. They decided to form a band together, with Willis changing his name to Mattie Jay, and put an ad in NME for a guitarist to join them. Simpson replied and Busted was born. Before long their obvious knack for writing pop hits got them a deal with Universal. Two No 2 albums followed - Busted and A Present For Everyone - as well as four No 1 singles. They won a string of Brit awards as well and at the tale end of 2004, after having released the successful live album Busted Live: A Ticket For Everyone, Busted were at the top of their game.

But internally things were not as they seemed. For a long time it was quite clear in all the media coverage of the band that Simpson was unhappy. He seemed distinctly uncomfortable with the teen pop side of the band’s promotional activities and garnered a reputation as the ‘grumpy’ member. Late in 2003 he formed his emo-metal outfit Fightstar after an impromptu jam session with some friends at his home. As soon as the news was made public, speculation about Busted’s future increased, but Simpson insisted it was just a side project.

In 2004 Busted headed out to America to try and break that most lucrative of music markets. MTV’s cameras followed them out there to make the show America Or Busted, and fans watched as the three-piece faced increasingly bad luck in the US. What wasn’t so clear on the show was how relations within the band were dwindling. So much so that Willis only found out Simpson had decided to leave by accident. At the tail end of their second arena tour, Willis spotted Simpson’s parents in the foyer of their manager’s hotel. He called his manager straight away and was told that Simpson, “was 99% leaving the band”.

“Why didn’t he talk to me and James about leaving? That’s a very good question,” says Willis. “Basically he didn’t, and shit went down at the end which sucked. The end of Busted was not a fun time for any of us. Doing that MTV series was probably one of the lowest points. I could see my band falling apart and it wasn’t very nice. And however much you say you’re preparing yourself for something, it’s not until it actually happens that you think, Right. Fuck. Shit. What the bloody hell do I do now?”

It was Willis that decided the band shouldn’t continue without Simpson.

“I just thought it would look sad,” he explains. “It’s not like Charlie was replaceable. It’s not like one of Westlife leaving - there’s another four of them who do the same thing. I think the reason Busted worked so well was that it had three completely contrasting personalities in it. And the minute you try and mess with that it fucks up. It would have been shit. You couldn’t have manufactured this band, because you wouldn’t have found three such different people in the audition rooms.”

Was Bourne upset with you? Willis pauses.

“Yeah, he was,” he says. “At first. But you know now he’s very happy with Son Of Dork and they’re having a wicked time.”

Simpson went on to have moderate success with Fightstar, winning over the rock press and rock fans by doing that thing of distancing himself from his pop star past. Reading Simpson’s comments about their former band in one interview infuriated Willis and, in one of his own interviews, he lashed out at Simpson, calling him a bastard.

“When you’re in a band with somebody who you regard as one of your best friends and you suddenly hear them talking like that about their time with you, I challenge anyone not to take that personally,” says Willis.

“I was pissed off and I said something back. But at no point did I ever stop liking the guy. We’ve totally made up now. When it happened he sent me a text saying that he never meant to offend me. He’s a good lad, man, he’s not a bad person.”

Bourne went on to form Son Of Dork, a disappointing pastiche of his favourite pop punk bands that had none of the originality of Busted. They scored two Top 10 hits from their album Welcome To Loserville but the album itself failed to do as well and the band are currently the subject of much speculation about their future.

Willis himself went into tailspin after the band split up. His drinking had begun to get out of control during the final months of the band, but, depressed and directionless after the band’s break-up, it got even worse. He asked for help - from his girlfriend, MTV presenter Emma Griffiths, and his friends, and before he knew what was happening he found himself in rehab. But Willis only spent two weeks of the expected month there.

“I did learn a lot about myself,” he says. “But I still go out and get pissed now so it obviously didn’t do the job,” he laughs. “But I learnt things like how to deal with things and what my head does, and I know certain things about myself now, which is cool.”

You said you still drink now, do you think you had a drink problem or was it just a matter of needing to cut down?

“Do you know what? I was just a bit sad. That’s it. I don’t know how else to explain it. And when you’re not very happy you do silly things. You just get pissed all the time because you don’t see anything else to do. That’s what I did. I was just a very unhappy guy. And I’m normally not like that, I normally have a laugh all day. I love having fun. It was like, suddenly all that was taken away from me. I had such a laugh in Busted and before that my life was very different - I was a normal kid from Molesey cutting grass for a living. So after the band I needed to go and find my happy place, as they say. I found it and I feel fucking great.”

So while Simpson retreats into emo obscurity, and Bourne flounders in the lower reaches of the chart, the way has been left clear for Willis to outshine both of them. But there has been no grand plan behind Willis’s apparent triumph over his former bandmates. It has, he says, almost happened by accident.

“I’m not really sure when I decided to go solo,” he says. “I don’t know how this happened man. I really wanted to be in another band. The thought of being solo scared the shit out of me. But then suddenly I’d written the album and it was being recorded.

“I just felt that to go and find a band now I’d be like Simon Cowell sitting there in a room and it wouldn’t really be a proper band. So I just fucked it off. It was a hard decision to make but I think it was the right one.”

Saturday, 8 July 2006


We're not all that different. Or, ultimately, when you bunch a group of disparate people together under one label, similar issues will arise.

The other week I went to a screening of a new film to be shown on BBC Two in the autumn called Shoot The Messenger.

It starred David Oyelowo (of Spooks fame) and was about a teacher in a predominantly black school who is driven out of his job when he is accused (wrongly) of assaulting a pupil. His life loses focus and he ends up in a downward spiral that leads to him being homeless and on the streets, blaming his misfortune entirely on black people. (The film opens with him declaring that, 'Everything bad that has ever happened to me was caused by a black person.')

From there on in the film is unrelentingly negative about black people and black culture. It is very humorous, but it is also, like I say, wearyingly negative and sometimes racist, with characters saying that black people can't be trusted, that they should 'get over slavery', that they have silly 'individual' names, that they isolate themselves by going on about community and yet contradict that so-called community by invovleing themselves with guns and gangs.

And yet it starred a predominantly black cast, and was written, directed and produced by black people. As a white person this was interesting and hugely enlightening to me. I had no idea that black people had these issues with themselves and their culture. As a white person looking in I've always seen a people who were very proud, defiantly so, of their skin colour. I had no idea that some of them were fed up the way they were 'supposed' to conduct themselves.

As a gay man it was even more interesting to me, not least because I've had exactly the same issues with my sexuality for as many years as I've been 'out' and a regular on the gay scene. When I was growing up and felt what I now realise are quite common feelings - all the usual of being an outsider and thinking there is no one else like me out there - I thought that once I did come out and start going out on the scene that everything would fall into place and I'd feel 'right'. It didn't and I didn't. In fact I felt worse. All I found was another set of rules and ways I was supposed to be that I didn't want to be.

It's only in the last couple years that I've come to some sort of truce with the gay scene and being 'gay', if that's what you must label me. Rather than try and fit in with the scene, or try and fit in with any scene, I've made it all fit in with me. I take what I want from the scene and the gay 'community' then I leave it behind and go and do something else. I don't let it define me, I just exist within it when I choose to. I just be.

Watching Shoot The Messenger I realised that it's extremely easy for me to do that. While I'm sure people have preconceptions about me when they discover I'm a homo, I have the luxury of being able to break those preconceptions down either before or after they discover that. If you're a black person unhappy with some or all of the codes or conventions of their community, that's less easy because the colour of your skin is immovable.

Of course, like sexuality, it is something that becomes irrelevant. To any decent human being free of bigotry such things are unimportant and provide no barrier. But, as I say, it was interesting to me that some black people DO have these issues. What really rammed the similarities to my own experiences with sexuality home was the reaction to the film afterwards.

It was watched by a predominantly black media crowd - journalists from black papers and magazines and representives from bodies that monitored black representation - who gave a wildly contradictory and inflamed response as those that made the film took questions. There was a lot of shouting. Some were angered by its unrelenting negativity and perceived racism, some found it incredibly uncomfortable viewing and, while they hadn't experienced themselves the issues raised, applauded its bravery, while others just applauded it and sung its praises.

What I noticed was now similar the reactions were to those that the gay community and the gay media had in response to Queer As Folk when it was first broadcast seven years ago. There were, of course, plenty who loved it, those that moaned that it didn't represent the gay community as a whole, and those that said it was a negative representation of gay people.

I would say, in response to both Shoot... and Queer..., they are both high profile representations of their respective cultures and that should be enough. They are realistic representations to those people they are talking about. How exactly can you represent a whole community or culture in a piece of drama? The very nature of the medium means you can only follow one or a handful of characters' journeys. How can those few characters speak to and about everyone? It should be enough that these dramas are bringing little known sides of people's lives to the mainstream.

It's not about 'positive' or 'negative' representation. How we would like to be seen by others is different for every single individual black or gay or any other person from a minority. It's about having as much representation as possible, getting as many people's stories on screen, in books, in magazines etc etc. Queer As Folk was ground-breaking and paved the way for much more gay representation on TV. I expect Shoot The Messenger will be talked of in a similar way in years to come.