Chris Helme: The Former Seahorse on John Squire, Bono and Instant Stardom

Chris Helme, ex Seahorses and The Yards frontman, talks about his time with the Seahorses, musical differences and going back on tour.
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CS: Lets start with your first band Chris, Chutzpah. What did they sound like?

CH: Ha, well, er, we had the usual influences like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, but we also had a drum and bass thing going on, made for some interesting music..ha ha. I was 23 when we went to the south of France on tour, we had a good laugh but five young lads cooped up in a van on the road, the inevitable happened and there were arguments and what not, we came back to York and I went to live in Brighton for a bit. Came back to York because I was broke and started busking, plus I started writing quite a lot as well. I was also working at Fibbers (York venue) and playing there. This is around the time I passed a tape on to a friend of John Squire.

CS: That’s how it happened yeah, you were singing outside Woolworth’s one day and some guy asked you for a tape?

CH: Yeah, at the time John Squire was looking to do his own thing after the Stone Roses and it was a guy called Dennis, a friend of John’s guitar tech, who heard me and asked ‘Have you got a tape?’ So I handed it over and later on I played a set at Fibbers for John and his guitar tech, Marin Herbert. It was obviously a big deal to me and I’d had a few drinks to calm the nerves. I went through the tunes and played my set but I really thought I cooked my goose because after it I would drift up to John and say ‘well, what do ya think, did you like it?’ and he said ‘yeah, you were good mate’. But I did this a couple of times, walking up to John with ‘Newky Brown’ in hand, more than a little drunk and asking him what he thought. After a few times he just said ‘for fucks sake I’ve told ya once, you were alright!’

About a week later I did another gig at the same venue and John, Steve ‘Adge’ Atherton, (Stone Roses tour manager) and Simon Moran (music promoter) were in attendance. At the time John was actually looking at the singer of The Steamboat Band to set up his new band with. As far as I was concerned, the thing with Squire wasn’t happening after my earlier boozy display so I got up there and played with the reins off, I just thought ‘fuck it, nothing to lose’ and went through my set with a more confident performance, and it was that night John came up to me and said he was well impressed and had really enjoyed the gig.

He then set me up a gig at The Roadhouse in Manchester, which was the first solo gig I’d ever played that wasn’t in cosy old York. They put me on in the middle of 3 rock bands, but I came away unscathed and the audience were pretty warm towards me. John came up at the end and said ‘do you wanna join a band then?’

CS: From singing in the pubs and busking to fronting The Seahorses sounds like it was a real quick process for you?

CH: Yeah, about 2-3 weeks.

I wanted to get more of my work in there with the band, so I managed to squeeze in ‘Moving On‘, and wrote ‘Hello‘ and ‘I Want You To Know‘. The rest were John’s babies.

CS: That is quick. Looking back how did you take to it all, was it really daunting or did you just take it as it came, fronting The Seahorses and everything that went with it?

CH: Well, I was overwhelmed at first, getting to do what I’ve always loved doing – playing music 24/7 and obviously playing with John. I was eager to please, maybe a bit to eager for his tastes, but at the time he was the most focused musician I’d ever encountered, and as far as the album went, John seemed to have a pretty pre-ordained idea of what he wanted. He was very particular about things. I imagine that’s how he approached his work in the Roses. I would be into the feel of it more than repeating a structure, but John was quite adamant about a lot of things, like the way I sang, my accent, things like that.

CS: Creatively, what was it like working with Squire, was it hard getting your ideas across in the band as it was chiefly John’s?

CH: My songs (before the Seahorses) were never published. I didn’t even know what a publishing deal was, never mind anything else. I had a stack of tunes but I thought they’d never get a look in, I was sensitive to the fact that John wasn’t going to air his opinion either way, cards close to his chest and all that.

The only tune that seem to prick his ears was Blinded By The Sun‘. Originally it was slightly faster than the finished version. Like most things, John would work on his own so when we heard the guitar lines I was real pleased with it, but I had about another 30 or 40 tunes that I had wrote and was willing to work on. I wanted to get more of my work in there with the band, so I managed to squeeze in ‘Moving On‘, and wrote ‘Hello‘ and ‘I Want You To Know‘. The rest were John’s babies.

CS: What were The Seahorses like off stage? John was slightly older than you, and you say he liked to work on his own so as a band did you all mix well?

CH: Yeah well that’s it, John was older than us, Stuart Fletcher (bass player) was 20, I was 26 and John was 36, that’s quite a spread and I found myself in the middle of that in a way; I would be telling Stu to chill out because he would be doing my nut in, like you do when your 20, John would be telling me to chill out and so it went like that, but nothing too heated. Plus John had obviously lived a bit more than the rest of us, he had been through all that with the Roses, the court case, the highly publicised break up of the band and so on.

On a personal level me and John got on alright, it was me and John who would do the press for the band, so I probably spent more time with him than the others, but it’s not like we hung out a lot. We weren’t the chattiest of fellas. I got the impression it was best not to ask too many questions about stuff, like The Roses, or other personal stuff. It was nothing to do with me. However, later on when I did have the right to ask questions relating to band business dealings, I think that was when trust issues started to develop due to nothing being out in the open. This wasn’t so much John, and don’t get me wrong, none of us were done badly, but too many questions seemed to piss certain people off. All that niggling shite aside, being in The Seahorses was amazing. I loved the travelling, meeting people, playing to huge crowds – lucky as fuck.

CS: What about playing live with The Seahorses? Playing with John and the tours. Supporting Oasis, the Stones and U2, again going from the busking to playing such gigs so quickly must have been some ride for you personally?

CH: Yeah of course, I thought we put on decent shows and playing live was great. For me, seeing how the other half lived, or rather toured, was an eye opener. Like the gig at Murrayfield supporting U2 on the Pop Mart Tour; getting in the dressing room and finding crates of Guinness and bottles of champagne left for us with a note attached from Bono, though I doubt he actually wrote it himself. I remember looking out of the dressing room window and seeing presidential-type security men with shades and earpieces ushering U2 into the stadium and getting told to get back in as ‘no one gets to watch the band come in’. Ha ha. Stu shouting ‘fuck off, what’s it to you where we look?’

These were things that John had already been through but we were just taking it all in and getting to watch personal favourites from the side stage, like Beck. What an artist, that guy had to have had the greatest record deal of all time, with a top record advance, complete and utter artistic control and being able to play with whoever he wanted to. I have to say his acoustic stuff has helped me out emotionally many a time. That ‘Mutations‘ album turned my world around. I was like ‘more of that please’, but John had other plans for the second album, and I don’t think a mellow acoustic vibe was it. He liked it loud.

Getting in the dressing room and finding crates of Guinness and bottles of champagne left for us with a note attached from Bono, though I doubt he actually wrote it himself.

CS: Yeah, well John was also real loud on the Roses ‘Second Coming’ tour. Ian Brown actually said he found it hard to hear himself sometimes playing with John live, was it the same for you?

CH: Oh yes, ha ha. John was very loud on stage. You know, it’s been said that Ian Brown would sometimes struggle singing live but I’ve heard Ian sing live a few times and that guy can definitely sing. I actually think he had the same problem I did, just finding it hard to hear yourself over John’s guitar, and then the band all turn up to 11 to compensate with 4 stage monitors each.

It got ridiculous and counter productive. The Seahorses were always too loud. I never really enjoyed playing at that volume. I wanted to be at my best, which was impossible when I couldn’t hear a thing that came out of my mouth. When we played Glastonbury I remember from the 2nd or 3rd guitar riff from John your teeth were shaking and it went right through you. I saw the camera coming towards me and I’m thinking, ‘where am I, am I coming in at the right time, where’s the fucking note?’ So I would sing and just hope I was in time and in tune with what we were playing. It’s quite unnerving and a little selfish really, being that loud, and it was like that for the next 2 years and it was during that time I got permanent tinnitus.

CS: Though the first album was a success there was no follow up. During the sessions for the 2nd album the band split up and the record company sent a press release to the NME stating due to ‘irreconcilable musical differences’ The Seahorses were no more. What exactly were those differences?

CH: We got together for the rehearsals for the next album but the sessions were really strained, and John was becoming more and more irritated with me. We’d been touring non-stop since we’d met and I was drinking heavily and turning up hungover and stinking. John’s new material was starting to become something I didn’t like, just loads of loud guitar riffing and lyrics that I had nothing in common with. He was too strict with the melodies and it was all a bit stiff and laboured. The publisher’s weren’t into John’s new stuff much either and even the roadies around us were pulling faces and saying it was below standard. Me and Stu started to feel like we were just session men and there just to finish his songs off with him picking up all the publishing and that, it didn’t feel right. By then me and John were going two different ways, with me being more acoustic and him and his loudness. I started to express my opinions and John wasn’t used to that, but I stuck to my guns. It became apparent that none of us were happy with where we were heading, and I suppose we were just tired, frustrated and getting really down about stuff.

I remember we were playing a gig on the run up to Christmas at Glasgow Barrowlands. It was the last gig we ever played before we started work on the second album and we put in a really good performance. After John said ‘that was great Chris, you’re a fucking star!’ That really meant a lot to me, but then I realised that we’d been together for 3 years and it was the first time John had ever given me any really positive encouragement. After the gig I came back to York and it felt very strange. I didn’t feel like I was home at all and with other personal things going on in my life, I tried to get my priorities in order but just started drinking instead.  My head was done in. Then the dissatisfaction of the second album sessions and more touring…a band meeting, the band split.

CS: All in all though it sounds like you still benefited from being in The Seahorses and working with John.

CH: Of course. John gave me my chance and I took it. I realised the opportunity he gave me was a big one and like I said I wanted to please, wanted to get it right and regardless of how it finished, it was one of the greatest times of my life.

CS: You’ve also established yourself now as a solo singer-songwriter, though you did have the Yards after the Seahorses, but as a solo performer you seem really settled.

CH: Yeah I am, I reckon I’m comfortable. I’m happiest when I know what’s going on and can steer my destiny a bit. I make my own luck and try not to worry about stuff or let anything bother me.

CS: ‘Ashes’ was your fist solo album and you’re now following it up with an album due to be released this year, but first you released a new single on the 20th of December, ‘Pleased’.

CH: Yes, I’m happy with it and I can’t wait to start touring again. I’ve got some great people with me like Christian Topman on double bass, and Chris Farrel from the Yards and Nick Walker and Chris Johnson who were in Chutzpah. Got a fella called Geoff on drums too, who’s well chilled. We’ve been invited out to Australia next year and after the single I’m realising my second solo album in January-ish, so it’s all go. Still love to tour, the travelling and playing, and I’m really looking forward to playing my new stuff live. That’s what it’s all about for me, getting up there and pretending you’re in your front room at home and singing your heart out.

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