Music Interviews

Interview: The Boy Least Likely To

If there was an advert for how to achieve homespun success in the music business in 2006, The Boy Least Likely To are it.

Multi-instrumentalist Pete Hobbs and lyricist/singer Jof Owen honed the band’s self-produced debut, The Best Party Ever, and released it on their own label.

Friends talked to friends and, come the end of 2005, the album was in Rough Trade’s top 10 biggest sellers of the year.

What are the composite parts of The Boy like in person? musicOMH got comfy on a couch in the duo’s London studio…

The Boy Least Likely To’s debut album, The Best Party Ever, was self-produced, self-mixed and self-promoted. Loosely translated, this means the Wendover duo work much harder than artists signed to a major label – but they wouldn’t have it any other way.

They like being their own bosses and enjoy controlling every aspect of The Boy Least Likely To, from the wording in promotional emails to how their music is sold. As I soon discover, it helps that Pete and Jof have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences. They’ve spent a lot of time together.

Their west London studio, in an uninspiring industrial complex, at first seems an unlikely location for The Boy Least Likely To’s uplifting, campfire atmospherics to have emerged from. Once past the various security doors and in to the studio, however, it looks like home from home.

Musical luminaries – Belle and Sebastian, The Strokes, The Smiths – gaze down from the walls while a heavy drape entirely covers the window – assuredly the view is not missed. In front of this is a decidedly lived-in couch, from which the basic studio set-up is within reach. Pete presents his speakers. “We just bought these today,” announces the proud owner. I’m offered a drink. Warm Panda Cola, perchance? “I think we’ve got some Sprite,” says Pete as Jof heads fridgewards.

“We’re the Winnie the Pooh of indie pop.”
– Jof Owen

This is The Boy Least Likely To’s full-time studio. Pete and Jof are revelling in having their own space, for it was not always thus. They used to rent studio time one afternoon a week while holding down various means-to-ends. “I had a job selling records to Americans,” says Jof, while Pete was “just temping”.

The road to The Best Party Ever was far from short, but it was particularly personal. “The picture was done first,” says Jof, showing me the Paper Cuts single with artwork depicting a lonely-looking boy. “That last day of school, when the headmaster’s walking around congratulating everyone and saying ‘Oh I think you’ll go to Cambridge…’ He never said anything to me. He didn’t even know who I was. It stuck. It carried on at college. No-one ever notices you or really expects you to do anything.”

But Jof and Pete did do something. “It started that way with the record. We were just doing it because we wanted to – no one would have heard it,” says Pete. Jof continues: “We just wanted to put out one single really, and have it exist as an indie single, in that sort of tradition, but it just grew quite naturally through word of mouth.” There was a purposeful avoidance of the chart and single promotion. “You have to make a pretty concerted effort to make any dent (on the singles chart), so we just avoided it,” explains Pete. “What a disappointment – not getting in the charts by not making ourselves eligible!”

From single to album, and The Best Party Ever was a long time in coming. “We’d go (to the studio) and record one afternoon, then listen to it the next week… It was a very slow process.” It would take them a month to record a minute’s worth of music. “But we’re very patient.”

They’ve known each other for 15 years, since school in the small Buckinghamshire village of Wendover, but even patient people couldn’t wait forever. “It was important that we got our own studio,” Pete continues. “We needed somewhere that was our own space. We know where everything is. If we went to another studio I wouldn’t know how to work it or find things.”

“Not many people use a glock like we do, as a lead instrument…”
– Pete Hobbs on one of The Boy Least Likely To’s many distinctive points

What was the break that made it all possible? “It was really people like you, internet journalists, picking up on it,” says Pete. I blush. “And luck, I guess. It’s been a slow process.”

They’re still on their own label, Too Young To Die – and again this is by choice. “We were offered record deals with proper record companies but we still wanted to be our own bosses as much as we could be,” says Pete. “We wanted to keep it the same way. It feels natural. There’s a major label route that bands go down where you’re tried and tested and get to x amount of sales… ” Jof picks up the thought: “… and tours. That’s the way they work bands like us. They do the Barfly tour, then they move up a bit… then they put the album out, then they do session tracks on the B sides… That didn’t appeal. We wanted to make records that felt real and important.”

Their journey from hand-stamping promo copies to number 8 in Rough Trade’s list of 2005’s biggest selling albums is at least in part down to their support slot on the ubiquitous (major label artist) James Blunt‘s autumn UK tour (“James Blunt’s manager had 150 CDs and he chose us.” – Jof). It is suggested that one in 10 households in the UK own Blunt’s Back to Bedlam – and the former soldier’s fans were enamoured with The Boy’s seven-piece live set-up.

On recordings Jof sings, while Pete plays all the instruments, but in a live situation they are joined by childhood friends. “Most of them come from Wendover, where we grew up,” says Pete. “We’ve known them since school. It’s nice because you know everyone – I wouldn’t like to be in a situation where you bring in a session musician who just does his job. I’m not interested in that.” The front man agrees. “It’s nice to just turn round and see the same drummer who was in my band when I was 12.”

For Jof, the extra attention changed them not a bit. It was, he says, “a huge extension of mucking about. We didn’t change the process of how we do things. We didn’t expect anything of the album. We thought we’d press up a thousand, and worked out if we’d sold…” Pete: “…780…” Jof: “…including the cost of getting the posters done…” Pete: “And that was our first order. Rough Trade took a thousand. It’s always just been surprises from there.”

“It’s nice to just turn round and see the same drummer who was in my band when I was 12…”
– Jof Owen on touring as support for James Blunt

Sounding ever more endearing, Jof goes on. “When we played a gig we didn’t really expect anyone to turn up – and then people did. But the James Blunt thing never changed what we did to get it.”

What do they see as the attraction to The Boy Least Likely To’s music? Pete immediately wonders why people would like it. “I can see why people would be negative about it because it’s very much of its type, it’s not rock, it doesn’t appeal to everyone. But it’s not designed to… It sounds like we’re so laid back and just don’t care,” he says, lying back…

Jof chimes in. “A lot of people do seem to like it and I don’t really know why. I guess it appeals to people in a childlike way.” Pete picks up the thought. “Everyone says it makes them smile, which is quite a nice thing for it to do really. A lot of music doesn’t make you smile. It’s maybe just a little bit different.” Jof agrees. “We’re the Winnie the Pooh of Indie Pop!” But adults, not necessarily children, are the audience, I venture. “It does appeal to adults but on a nostalgic, sentimental, childlike way I suppose,” offers Pete. “It’s a mixture of cute and a little bit evil, dark…”

The album was born of a distinctively homespun sound, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the partnership took their time to find that, too. “The way we wrote songs, and the sounds we use, we’d just try things out,” says Pete. “We wanted to make the sort of record that we’d like, if we were making the perfect record for us. We didn’t think who might like this record. I don’t think we were trying to replicate anything.”

They cite their influences as varied as Dexys Midnight Runners, T-Rex, Belle and Sebastian and Aztec Camera, but their love of music started in unlikely surroundings.

“We used to go to car boot sales all the time when we were growing up to buy records coz they were cheap,” says Jof. Pete continues: “People were moving on to CDs so we’d get whole collections. We amassed these huge record collections. We came across this pile of Smash Hits from 1980-1985 in perfect condition.” Jof: “We asked this guy how much for them and he said 3 – we thought he meant each but he meant the lot! – it was just the most exciting day!”

The records changed their lives. “That opened our eyes to all these bands, like Orange Juice,” says Pete, with Jof continuing: “They were genuine bands who understood that you could cross over from the underground and indie and have a chart hit and that this wasn’t a dirty word. Then the ’86 stuff… Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits…” Pete: “Fieldmice…” They could talk for hours, and it’s obvious that both are enthusiasts and collectors as well as musicians.

Translating that enthusiasm in a studio didn’t follow any plan, at least to begin with. “Most of it was by accident,” Pete continues. “Most of the recordings were done on an eight track machine – you’re very limited in what you can do. Because we were working one day a week, we’d come back to recordings after a week, listen to them and decide we didn’t like something, we’d then try something else, have another week apart…” Jof picks up: “As we recorded more and more we got to know what sort of sounds made our sound, what sort of keyboard sounds… so then we wouldn’t go back to try other sounds because we knew what we wanted. Be Gentle With Me took months, but that was how we got the sound.”

“We have to constantly check that everything is being done the way we want it to be…”
– Jof Owen on The Boy Least Likely To’s hands-on approach

One of the albums’ most extraordinary aspects is that Pete plays all the instruments – and his knowledge was all self taught. They decided to use banjo because Pete couldn’t really play it, so it sounded different than how a banjo played correctly usually sounds. “And not many people use a glock like we do, as a lead instrument,” reasons Pete. “It sounded good up there, really loud.”

Lest the world think The Best Party Ever was all a happy accident, Jof points out that much thought went in to it – but the result is pleasing. “The magical bits are when it does come together,” he says. “It takes such a long time, and then just gradually it works – and it’s brilliant.”

Now it’s all taking off. “It started to get a bit much when we were doing everything ourselves because we couldn’t,” says Pete. He turns to Jof. “Luckily you lost your job so we had time, but it got a bit hairy when we were hand stamping 500 records and posting them off!” Jof: “Especially when we started getting interest in America. We couldn’t just put things in the post box. We’d have to go to the post office and just spend hours doing this…”

Their first video involves puppets – I half expect Jof and Pete to tell me they’ve made the puppets themselves. Jof laughs that they have a puppeteer, but… “We spent hours yesterday discussing the texture of the material to make the puppets,” says Pete, “just feeling bits of material…” Jof: “But it’s important. I guess some people wouldn’t care, but I want the video to have as much thought put into it as we put in to the records.” They really are hands on.

But as they get bigger, they’ve had to learn delegation. “We have to constantly check that everything is being done the way we want it to be,” says Jof, the proud small business owner. “The wording on the emails, everything. It’s really important to do that.”

The partnership’s attention to detail extends even to the booking of venues for their first headline tour, in February 2006. “We don’t really want to play venues like the Barflys and places like that, we want it to be a bit special,” says Jof, “we don’t really want gig venues, more theatres if anything.” Pete admits such venues are too big – for now. But they do like Bush Hall, scene of the tour’s London date. “It’s a nice place. It’s still a children’s playgroup during the day, which is why you can’t smoke in there,” says Jof.

Pete sums up the essence of the partnership’s approach. “There’s always something that will come along and take your time up, if you care about every aspect of it and want to check it.” That care and attention is plain to hear on The Best Party Ever.

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