Billy Lunn is sitting on a sofa in an empty Oxford Brookes University concert hall sipping a well-earned bottle of lager. Thirty minutes earlier he was taking a lit cigarette in the eye, hanging from a ceiling rail, and leaping into the crowd off speaker stacks as his band, the Subways, played the latest stop on their marathon sold-out 40-date UK tour. For nearly an hour Lunn, a few days short of his 21st birthday, held 1,200 rabid Oxfordites in the palm of his hand as his band fired out a string of rock songs with timelessness stamped all over them. Business as usual then. With one small difference. For 24 hours, the Subways have us along for company.
“I can’t say I’m really scared of anything,” shrugs Lunn when we ask about the obvious dangers of diving off fifteen-foot speaker stacks. “You can’t be when you’re in this kind of life. You’ve got to abandon all expectations, stick your head down and get through it. I know this sounds a bit brash but I can’t imagine a better death than at a gig. Because it’s the way I live. And hopefully it’s going to be the way I die.”
If Lunn’s approach to stage diving borders on nihilism, every other aspect of the Subways’ touring life is strictly down to earth. When we first poke our heads into their dressing room Lunn and girlfriend/bassist Charlotte Cooper were calmly watching Raising Arizona on their laptop. No trashed TVs or vomit-lined bathrooms. Energy must be conserved in order for it to be unleashed when it matters. Keep a level head and coping with a fag in the eye suddenly becomes a lot easier.
“I considered it an action of affection,” smiles Lunn. “This guy wanted me to take a toke of his cigarette. He didn’t mean for it to go in my eye. I was singing “No Goodbyes” and it was one of those poignant moments when I was just about to go into the chorus when he flicked it. Those kind of things happen. In Glasgow I dived into the audience when I had a couple of t-shirts on. One of them got ripped off and this kid was pulling the other one. It was pulling on my ribs and strangling me. I thought I was gonna die. It’s not malicious. It’s them taking advantage of the situation because the energy is so high.”
Lunn isn’t just another talented 20 year old that’s struck record company gold. His band are in it for the long haul, and if that means spending their days speaking to anyone who’ll listen and their nights resisting the urge to drain the rider to the last drop, that’s what it’s going to take. Tonight we’re all invited to a party somewhere in Oxford by Luke from tour support band the Kooks. Lunn declines on our behalf. There’s a big show with Nine Black Alps tomorrow at the Bristol Academy, and the Subways will be operating at full power.
The tour bus, it turns out, is surprisingly placid. Beer flows but the vodka is left untouched. The main entertainment for the evening is the soccer game on the bus’s PlayStation 2 console. Josh Morgan, drummer extraordinaire and Lunn’s younger brother (Lunn uses his grandfather’s surname as a mark of respect) is the reigning champion, and although your correspondent takes the match to extra time, he retires around two-thirty still undefeated.
“We make sure we’re ready for the next day,” explains Lunn the next morning over a mug of tea in the bus, “because this is one of the biggest tours any British band is doing this year. Day after day for 40 dates and then it’s straight off to America and Germany. We’ve got to make sure that the people who come to these shows really have a great time, and the only way for us to do that is to be on top form. Whenever we play these songs we always try to revert back to the emotion or energy of when we first wrote them. And the only way to do that is with a clear head.”
“This is our third big tour now,” adds the perpetually cheerful Cooper. “The first time, we got halfway through and we were knackered. We partied too hard, too early.”
“The first tour was self funded this time last year,” recalls Lunn. “We were in a Transit van with no windows. The second one was in a splitter earlier this year on the back of one single. Now on the back of the album we’re on a really massive tour.”
“We’re used to working hard,” beams Cooper. “When we started I was in the band, doing A-levels and had a part time job.”
“Charlotte’s a very focussed person,” nods Lunn
It takes one to know one. Lunn and Cooper have dedicated their youth to the Subways. Today they’ll have five interviews with local press and radio, with the moments they’re not talking or soundchecking answering e-mails. It’s a less-than-glamorous existence for a band of their stature, but it somehow adds to the charm. Their first album, Young For Eternity, is arguably Britain’s best debut this year. While others have stolen the headlines, the Subways have been at the coalface.
“We need to earn our bread,” insists Lunn. “I love the prospect of doing 40 dates. We didn’t want to do eight dates at Brixton Academy and Birmingham Academy. That would have just defeated the object. I want to do 40 dates packed with people who have yet to see the true Subways, and I want to convert them, pull them to my bosom and make them feel part of the community. We want that goal to be there. If we’d reached that goal too early we’d have spent ourselves. Korda Marshall, the guy who runs things at Warners is a fantastic mentor. He signed Muse and Ash and Garbage, bands who developed themselves over time. At beginning he said they had America and Japan on the phone wanting singles. I said I wanted this to grow organically and he said, ‘That’s exactly what I told them’.
“I’ve never, ever wanted to be part of a scene or a movement,” Lunn continues, his confidence blending with his enthusiasm to make a convincing argument. “If we did fit in, where would our identity be? I think we’re on something a little bigger. It takes time. Word needs to spread. People need to believe. But you don’t believe straight away. Beliefs find you and convince you. We’ve got the songs. They will stand out, because content beats style.”
Before soundcheck we bump into Luke from the Kooks who’s finally rolled into Bristol after the party that never was. It turns out the invite from a female fan was for Luke alone, and she was less than pleased when he turned up with the band and 25 eager revellers. PS2 Soccer is looking like a wise decision.
The Subway it’s hardest to pin down is drummer Josh Morgan. Cooper and Lunn may be the faces and voices of the band, but Morgan’s incessant pummelling is the engine that makes them potential members of the rock elite. Peering out from under his mane of hair, which he only had cut a week ago, it turns out he’s as sweet as his brother and future sister-in-law.
“The gigs are so fun,” he smiles as Nine Black Alps roar through their set later that night. “I get to sit down and listen to music, and no one hassles me about not having a job. My job is to sit on my arse all day and then play at night.”
Naturally edgier than his ultra-laid back brother, he spent much of yesterday with a pair of headphones clamped to his head, playing early Prodigy and blocking out the world. This afternoon however, his mood has blossomed. He’s had a rewarding meeting with Tama about his drum endorsement, and now he’s asking us for musical recommendations and singing Nine Black Alps tunes at anyone who’ll listen.
“When I sit down and do nothing it gives me too much time to think about it,” he explains. “But watching Nine Black Alps has given me confidence. It’s gonna be a good night. You go through different phases. Right now I’m really relaxed, but a few weeks ago I went through this weird phase where I was so worried about making it perfect and whether the single would be out on time.
“I love Nine Black Alps,” he continues, delighted that their tour schedules have collided in Bristol. “They were playing the same day as us in Bristol so why compete? Music’s not a competition. It’s not like, who can win the crowd over or who doesn’t get booed off. It’s about people listening to music and enjoying it.”
A quarter of an hour before the Subways’ second show in 24 hours and the calmest people in the 1,600-capacity venue are the three youngsters. Their manager has just received a call saying that David Bailey wants to shoot the band and in a matter of minutes Lunn will be back among the snatching hands of the moshpit, Cooper will be bouncing around the stage and Morgan will be doing the most convincing Dave Grohl impression anyone has managed this decade. Business as usual.
“We still have a point to prove,” promises Lunn, grabbing a good luck beer. “When you’ve got a message, you’ve got to make sure it’s the strongest, loudest message they can possibly hear. We’ve just got to be totally in tune with it. If we were stoned or on skag it would completely deny the whole message we’re putting across, which is we’re all here for another day.”
“We realised the other day that we’d play to over 50,000 people on this tour,” adds Cooper as the band calmly head towards the stage. “It’s a complete mindfuck.”
An earlier version of this feature originally appeared in British music magazine Playmusic.