Why Wasn’t This Band Massive?: A Conversation with Six By Seven’s Chris Olley

"Under virtually all YouTube video of ours, there's a comment that says, 'Why wasn't this band massive?' This thing has followed me around all my life," says Chris Olley.
Six By Seven
Greatest Hits
Beggars Banquet

In the early aughts, Six By Seven was touted as the next Radiohead, another in a long string of bands that would save rock and roll. Still, despite rapturous press, the approval of John Peel and a deal with Beggars Banquet, the arena tours, and worldwide fame never materialized. “Under virtually YouTube video of ours, there’s a comment that says, ‘Why wasn’t this band massive?’ This thing has followed me around all my life,” says Chris Olley.

Quite possibly Six By Seven just missed the window for world-striding rock and roll bands, with Radiohead squeaking through as the last of its kind. Or maybe the band’s output was too heterogeneous for easy digesting, spanning brash near punk rockers like “Eat Junk Become Junk” and “Sawed Off Metallica T-Shirt” alongside broody mid-tempo ballads like “My Life Is an Accident” and noise-blurred lo-fi experiments such as “England & A Broken Radio”. Or perhaps Six By Seven’s palpable rage and disdain bled through even its most arena-friendly anthems so that the masses couldn’t quite identify.

In any case, the reissue of 2000’s The Closer You Get, as well as a new, slightly tongue-in-cheek Greatest Hits and collected Peel Sessions and B Sides makes a case for this odd, prickly denizen of the space between cultivated taste and commercial phenomenon. Six By Seven’s best songs have the sweep and scale of lighters-in-air, rock-festival showstoppers, but enough bile and idiosyncrasy to keep them from ubiquity.

Chris Olley, who has never stopped making music, who has released four more albums as Six By Seven and 45 additional recordings through his online MuZiK KluB is mystified but also not very interested in the question of why mass fame eluded his band. He’s somewhat put off by the fact that Six By Seven’s best-known song, these days, is the raucous “Eat Junk Become Junk”, a song recorded on the fly to DAT after a separate non-The Closer You Get session and not, in his view, at all representative of the band’s main sound.

“I guess that song is becoming our signature tune in a way,” he says, a bit ruefully. “It’s odd really because we, as a band, we never really thought of ourselves as being that kind of band that played that kind of song. We thought we were like Pink Floyd. We thought we were art. And then we used to go and do these loud, fast, almost punk songs because it’s fun. Now it’s become one of those things that are defining the sound of the band, but as far as the band was concerned, we just never thought of ourselves as sounding like that.”

“We were being quite punk in the studio because we were drinking a lot of beer. Drinking beer and playing electric guitars leads to rock,” says Olley. “And then we were pissed off. We were really fucking pissed off. And when you’re pissed off, that’s what you start doing if you’ve got a guitar. That was the way that we felt, and we didn’t really have any pretentions about hiding it.”

But really, says Olley, if you were looking for Six By Seven’s signature sound, he’d point you towards slower cuts like “England & a Broken Radio” or “My Life Is an Accident”. Of this latter track, he says, “It’s slow. It’s got a weird beat, and it’s got one chord, and then it just builds up. That was the sort of music that we really kind of, looking back on it, that’s the sort of stuff we should have concentrated on doing.”

At a recent London gig, Six By Seven played only those types of songs for its regular set, then played “Eat Junk Become Junk” in the encore. “It went down an absolute storm. The whole set was just this big slow burning stuff,” he recalls, “and then we thought well, we can’t not play ‘Junk’. We’ve got to give people what they want to hear, so we did them as an encore.”

Beer, Rage, and Guitars

“Eat Junk Become Junk” and, indeed, the rest of The Closer You Get came during a period of intense pressure when Six By Seven’s label was demanding a new album after the band had spent years on the road. “The approach was panic really. Let’s get this done,” Olley remembers.

The album was recorded near the band’s home base in Nottingham. “Everybody was almost equally far away from it, which was about an eight-minute walk, and it was a great studio,” says Olley. “Because we were on that label at the time, they’d budgeted for us to go to a posher residential studio. But we ended up getting that studio for a lot longer period of time than we would have gotten the more expensive studio. So we were able to go in there with five or six songs written, and there were a table and chair, and I used to sit there and write songs at the table and chair. And then we used to drink lots of beer and smoke dope and really sort of just into it really and read papers and talk about things and listen to music.”

The stereo system pumped classics like the Who, punk rock like Never Mind the Bollocks and the Clash and art oddities like Scott Walker, along with a fair amount of techno, the Fatboy Slim, and Chemical Brothers songs then dominating the airwaves. Olley had brought in a handful of songs, but the rest were written in the studio. A few of the late-comers failed to make the album but were later released on an EP called Two and a Half Days in Love with You.

“The interesting thing about it was that ‘New Year’ and ‘Eat Junk Become Junk’ and ‘Another Love Song’ were written after the album was finished and mainly recorded in my house,” says Olley. “New Year” came out of a jam at Olley’s house. “Eat Junk Become Junk” emerged from sessions at a different recording studio. “I always insisted that everything was recorded to DAT as well, so we always had a left-right mix laid down on DAT and I would take the DATs away with me, and I would go through them and pick out anything, and then I would sample it and throw it on my eight-track recorder,” says Olley. “That’s what happened with ‘Eat Junk.’ It’s got some drums from somewhere, and I sampled them, and then I looped them up, and then I wrote that, and I didn’t have the title for it, and then we went back into the studio, and then all of the sudden the song came about like that.”

An Empty Slot in the Record Collection

Olley’s father was in the army, so he grew up in towns all around Germany and didn’t live in England for any sustained period until he arrived at university in Nottingham in the 1990s. He was studying photography when he met Sam Hempton, the guitarist (who quit the band following The Closer You Get). They formed Six By Seven and signed with Beggars Banquet while still students.

“We wanted to make music that would fit into our record collections but wasn’t already there,” says Olley. “We weren’t going to be Dinosaur Jr., and we weren’t going to be Mercury Rev. We were going to make our own sound, but we didn’t know what that sound was because it didn’t exist yet. So what we did was just talk about the things we hated — no, we’re not doing that, we’re not doing that, and we did this for about four years, and then we started to get the sound.” When John Peel invited them for their first of five sessions in 1998, Olley says he felt “Okay, we exist.”

That same year, Six By Seven’s first single “European Me” was hailed by the NME as “one of the all-time great debut singles.” The band took it in stride. “The thing is at that point, we had worked so hard to get where we were that we didn’t really think that we deserved anything less really,” says Olley. “The band was cooking live as well, and we did get lots of great press, but unfortunately, it didn’t translate into sales.”

Revolt Against the Bland

Olley doesn’t seem especially bitter, but he can be scathingly funny when he’s talking about bands that somehow obtained the mass market success that eluded Six By Seven, while remaining resolutely uninteresting. “I think music’s quite bland at the moment. I thought it was bland back then as well,” he shrugs.

Take for instance the phenomenon of Britpop. “I’ve seen so many young men go to the acoustic guitar and do this vowel-sucking song-writing,” he says. “You know, it started with ‘Wonderwall’ with Oasis. The acoustic sound and it went in that direction, even bands … it even went from acoustic to piano at one point with Coldplay and Keane.”

Which leads to Coldplay. “I actually went to see Coldplay at the arena. The girl that signed us, she signed Coldplay as well, so she gave us some free tickets, and we went to see Coldplay at the arena, ice rink, in Nottingham, and there was one moment where they kind of lifted it and almost became U2,” he says.

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” I interject.

“Yeah, and they rocked out like the middle eight of ‘Pride’ or something at one point. And then they quickly went back to just being … the whole thing was like a dry fuck. It was awful,” he answers.

And then there’s Ed Sheeran, just off a four-night stand at Wembley Stadium. “He’s not as good as James Taylor was. It’s just really boring. And the people seem to want that. I don’t know,” he says.

But asked about fellow Nottingham-ites, the Sleaford Mods, Olley warms considerably. “I’ve known Fearny for years and years. He’s always been writing beats and stuff,” he says. “I bumped into him in the supermarket a couple of years ago, just down the road, I’ve got a local shop, and he was down there. I was like, ‘All right Fearny, how’s it going?’ And he said, ‘I’m in Sleaford Mods now. I’m doing this that and the other.’ And we sat and talked about how shit the music business is, and then said, see you later. And now I keep seeing him on the telly.

“I think there’s a lot of parallels to be drawn between the Sleaford Mods and The Closer You Get,” Olley adds. “It’s that kind of vitriolic intent. And generally pissed off attitude, yeah.”

While Olley can come across as jaded when it comes to commercial success, he’s not at all cynical about the music itself which, you can tell, matters to him in a fundamental way.

“What I think’s amazing about music is how someone can strike a chord with people so that a song can become universal. Someone sits down and writes a song, and then that song is taken through various stages, and it ends up being the final thing that goes out there, and then that song kind of gets picked up on, and people just take it in,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re only into rock music, or you’re only into hip-hop, or you’re only into country and western, then these certain songs have a universal appeal. What’s the most popular thing in the world? It’s probably music. It doesn’t really matter what color you are or where you’re from or your political or sexual orientation. It kind of transcends all that, and it makes us what we are, I think.”

Olley works steadily at songwriting, cranking out new tunes every day, long past the point where he worries about whether this one or that one will catch on. On meeting Burt Bacharach’s manager, one day, he asked him if the great songwriter ever produced a bad one. The manager nearly choked on his curry. Nearly all of them, he replied, but every so often he comes up with a real corker. “He does what all those people from the Brill Building used to do. They used to start at nine in the morning, and they used to finish at six at night, and they used to write eight to ten to fifteen songs a day. And send them all over, and eventually one of them would stick,” says Olley. “So that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

You can subscribe to Olley’s output by joining his MuZiK KluB. Every month he packages up his new songs, plus photographs and other collectibles and sends them out to members. “Just this month, I’m on number 45. I’ve earned something like 60,000 pounds out of it, do you know what I mean? I’ve done it completely without a label — I’ve been able to sort of be an artist,” he concludes.

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