In a grotty, puddley room above a music venue in Manchester sit four young men from Sheffield, writes Colin Drury.
They drink cans of cola and bottles of beer, one is changing his trousers: “Don’t mind me.” There’s European football on a laptop and the odd snatch of conversation. Everybody is vaguely wary of what they touch - the furniture in here is ominously sticky.
Earlier, the quartet - collectively known as The Crookes, and arguably Sheffield’s second biggest band of the Noughties - stood on a stage downstairs hitting the same notes for nearly an hour to make things sound right.
Later, after they’ve played to some 300 fans, they will haul their own instruments up the stairs and into a hired van. Then they’ll drive back to their homes in Hunter’s Bar and Highfield along the Snake Pass with conversation flicking between Scunthorpe United’s promotion hopes (good) and full English breakfasts (better). The whole evening will end with a discount pizza in London Road.
Welcome, reader, to life at the coal face of rock n roll.
When you’re in a band that’s big but not, say, as big as the Arctic Monkeys it’s not all sex, drugs and outrageous behaviour, it seems.
“I’d love to tell you it’s like Motley Crue every night,” says lead singer and bassist George Waite, over a pre-gig meal at a Manchester vegetarian cafe. “But not so much. When you’re on tour, you may end up talking to an intelligent, attractive young lady after a gig. But inviting someone back to a Travelodge on an industrial estate 10 miles out of town in a car with three other lads - that’s not an easy pitch to make.”
Tonight, The Star is witnessing life on the road first hand.
Ahead of their hometown gig at The Leadmill on May 31, the quartet have invited this newspaper along for one night of their UK tour. And while we see plenty of adoration for the group - dozens of youngsters hang about after the show waiting for autographs - what stands out is the sheer hard work of this most unusual way of making a living...
The Crookes - that’s George, as well as guitarists Daniel Hopewell and Tom Dakin, and drummer Russell Bates - have been playing tours like this for six years now. They formed after meeting at Sheffield University and named themselves after the suburb where they lived. Over the course of three albums, they’ve achieved both critical and commercial success, with Noel Gallagher, Steve Lamacq and Sheffield’s own Richard Hawley all acclaiming them.
Their new album Soapbox is so good, the Government has selected them for a grant to try to crack America.
Fans - a mix of teenage girls and world-wise blokes - can get obsessive. “We had someone fly from Japan to see us in London,” notes George. “Someone came from Sweden but I think they were going to Alton Towers or something too.”
Crucially, though, the group remain far enough from the mainstream not to be recognised if, say, they pop out for a pint of milk in Nether Edge. They have a job, in essence, which means they are adored by night - yet as anonymous as anyone else by day.
“It can be quite a strange contrast,” says Daniel, 26, of Highfield. “I remember when we first started out and we’d play support slots in Nottingham and then drive home and we’d be back in the house with a cup of tea watching the news by 10pm. You’re just sat there thinking: I didn’t realise being in a band would be this sensible.
“The glamour bits are few and far between. But that’s not what we do it for. Playing music is our dream job.”
“If you’re only in it for girls and drugs,” adds George, 25, of Highfield, “there’d be a lot of times - like when you’re slogging your guts out to play to a handful of people in the middle of nowhere - you’d be disappointed. You do this, above all else, for that hour when you’re on stage. It’s the biggest adrenaline rush there is. It’s addictive.”
They’ve done their fair share of ‘slogging’, certainly.
Even now they load their own equipment. If a gig is in striking distance of home, they drive to cut costs.
There are strict rules to adhere to. Anyone late in a morning is fined: “It’s a pound for every minute,” winces George. “It definitely motivates you to be punctual.”
Not that there haven’t been considerable rewards too. They may play down the glamour but they’ve had their fair share.
They’ve travelled across Europe, Asia and North America. They’ve partied with Emma Watson and Elton John. They’ve been asked for their autographs in the middle of America’s Joshua Tree National Park. They appeared on the front of Slovenia’s biggest national newspaper. And they’ve played some of the most incredible venues in the UK while supporting Richard Hawley.
“We walked on stage at Buxton Opera House, and you could hear a pin drop,” remembers George. “I was scared a bouncer would chuck us off any second.”
They’ve also recently been on BBC Breakfast after securing that government funding to try tour the US. “Not with Susanna, though,” notes George with disappointment. “It was Charlie.”
Being on tour remains their favourite thing, though.
There’s the odd argument (“football and music, mainly”), the bad diet (“we try and only eat kebabs post show”) and the fact their parents don’t always understand what they do (“I told my mum we were playing Reading Festival but she was pretty nonplussed,” says 26-year-old Russell of Hunter’s Bar).
But being paid to travel the world to play their songs is a dream job in any currency.
One suspects those pitches to potential amours are rather more successful than they let on - “no comment,” says Daniel, “my mum will read this”. And they especially enjoy playing Europe and Japan. “We don’t have to stay in Travelodges there,” notes Russell.
“I hate it when you hear bands complain about being on tour,” says Tom, 27, of Hunter’s Bar. “It’s an amazing thing to be able to do. Playing live is the best feeling you can have with your clothes on.”
Those tours are getting bigger too. Tonight in Manchester at the Sound Control venue, they are upgraded to the bigger room after 350 people buy tickets. Last time round here, they played to 150. “We’re earning our stripes,” says George.
Afterwards, they can’t move for people asking them to sign records, T-shirts, posters and the odd body part. And afterwards, still, when the venue is finally shutting the doors and switching off the lights, they’re in that car, on the way back to Sheffield.
They’re good lads, too. They haven’t let their semi-fame change them. They drop this writer off, sometime after 1am, at his front door.
* The Star travelled to Manchester to meet The Crookes with TransPennine Express. Tickets start from £5 one way.