It is now a decade since The Subways swaggered their way into the limelight as the precocious upstarts of British rock music with their 2005 debut Young For Eternity. Now in their late ‘20s, Billy Lunn (guitar, vocals), Charlotte Cooper (bass, vocals) and Josh Morgan (drums) have been through enough to look back and work out where the terrain was rough and where it was smooth. The band’s new self-titled record feels like both a full stop and a new chapter. It is an album armed with a resurgent spirit and independent vigour. The Subways don’t do coasting: for Lunn, Cooper and Morgan, it’s do or die.
Their new record began to take shape before a song was written. Sitting in a café with his bandmates and manager, Lunn jokingly suggested that to save himself the arduous and exhaustive demo’ing proces, he could produce it himself. Much to his surprise, everyone around the table agreed. When the obsessive Lunn says he’s going to do something, there are no half measures: The Subways' new album has been produced, mixed, engineered and written by the frontman. “I’m a total control freak,” he says. “I said I’d do it without thinking of the consequences of getting the recording stuff together and all the organisational stuff,” he says.
As newly-appointed producer, Lunn had a wealth of experience to draw on: he remembered back to how Ian Broudie would carefully structure every day when they were recording Young For Eternity in 2005. He recalled Butch Vig’s long to-do lists laid out on a table every morning as they made All Or Nothing at LA’s Conway Studios in 2008 and Stephen Street’s organised, settled approach to making a record during 2011’s Money & Celebrity. Even so, he couldn’t help but feel a pang of panic as the trio first got down to the nuts and bolts of recording. “We got into the studio and Josh and Charlotte would look at me an go, “Right Bill, what we gonna do?” And I’d think, “Shiiiiiit!”
On one hand, this was a challenge that the gnarly Lunn revelled in. But on the other, it brought to the fore an issue he’d been struggling with: The Subways frontman was in the throes of an alcohol addiction. “The drinking filled a hole. I suppose it’s mainly insecurity,” says Lunn. Onstage, Lunn felt like he had some semblance of control. Indeed, on tour he could go without drinking at all. The gig was the drug. It was when he got home that trouble kicked in. “My sisters would say, “Where’s Billy, where’s our brother gone?” I was an arsehole.”
The vocals and lyrics came as he embraced a new life of sobriety. All of a sudden, the album started to take a clear shape. “Charlotte, Josh and I started working together and we were a team again. We’ve always been tightly knit but we’d just been in different places.” Everything started to lock into place.
The Subways is both an album that reconnects the trio to their early days at the same time as offering a grand leap forward. “We wanted to capture what we love about being in a band.” says Cooper, “We wanted to keep that energy and rawness that we have when we play live.” The song that most embodies this two-pronged spirit is the ferocious I’m In Love I’m Burning My Soul. Revolving around a riff that dates from before Young For Eternity, the track sums up the album’s recurring theme of returning to your past to find direction in the present. “Ostensibly it’s a song about love,” says Lunn, “but really it’s about me wanting so badly to get absolutely hammered.” It was reworked from its original version and was the propeller that helped to push the band through to the end. “It felt like I was falling in love with making music again and falling back in love with The Subways,” offers Lunn.
The stomping and melodic Dirty Muddy Paws was written when Lunn’s dog came in from the garden covered in mud, but is actually about the singer's shame at how he acted towards his wife when he was drinking. “I never cheated, but I certainly made it possible the way I acted. Writing songs is the way for me to be honest,” he says. Because Of You (Negative Love), inspired by John Donne’s poem on the wonder of the mundane, is a plaintive, melancholic thank you letter from Lunn to his other half for sticking with him. The lolloping campfire anthem Taking All The Blame, meanwhile, is his apology to Cooper for how he behaved when they were together. Cooper co-wrote the lyrics. “I was saying sorry for the person I was to her,” says Lunn, “cos I was young. We were both really young. I feel like I was an arsehole to everyone.”
If it feels like Lunn is making himself his very own whipping boy, then don’t feel sorry for him, not when it means he’s making music like this: My Heart Is Pumping To A Brand New Beat is a surging, electrifying opener, the pounding Good Times is a defiant call-to-arms, whilst Black Letter, We Get Around and Twisted Game are vital stabs of alt-rock. It’s the band’s leanest, most vital album to date. And so this is The Subways’ new era. “You have to be thankful for the shit you go through because if you do come out the other side, that’s the impetus, that’s the catalyst for starting afresh,” says Lunn. They’re not young for eternity, but no-one is. Life makes much more sense when it’s been lived in: The Subways march boldly on.
By Niall Doherty (editor Q-Magazine)