For a time, Leeds was top dog in the nation’s indie music scene in the mid-Noughties - thanks in part to the inspirational Whiskas and his band ¡Forward Russia! Now they’re back and excited to be headlining Live at Leeds,an older but wiser Whiskas tells GRAHAM CHALMERS.
An everyman who seemed to be everywhere, the first time I met Whiskas ten years ago he was on the top of the world.
Musician, record label owner and indie celebrity, it also looked like his band ¡Forward Russia! might become as big as fellow Leeds outfit the Kaiser Chiefs.
It didn’t quite turn out that way and, tired of the slog, ¡Forward Russia! announced a ‘hiatus’ in 2008.
But Whiskas and the band bounced back last November to headline the legendary Brudenell Social Club’s 100th birthday celebrations.
And they’re repeating the experience amid the grandeur of Leeds Town Hall shortly as part of the annual Live at Leeds extravaganza.
It’s fair to say this magnificent Victorian venue will never have seen anything like it before, certainly nothing quite as loud.
Whiskas himself tells me he’s excited to be bringing ¡Forward Russia!’s aggressive live set to a hall more accustomed to classical concerts than angular guitars and frenetic, high-pitched vocals.
“We genuinely didn’t think we’d do anything again after the Brudenell show. But when they said do you want to play Leeds Town Hall we said ‘great, sounds fun’.
“It will be the biggest stage we’ve ever headlined and it’s right in the middle of Leeds. The Brudenell is so small a lot of our mates couldn’t get in to see us last time so it’s the perfect gig for us.”
The first time time I met him in the days when he seemed to be in the NME every week, Whiskas was remarkably friendly and ego-free.
With his ginger hair and spectacles, positive attitude and surprising willingness to help others, it’s no wonder he became the music press’s voice of the ‘New Yorkshire’ musical movement.
Whiskas himself says the real reason for his popularity was simpler than that.
“The lines of communication between the music scene and the music press were terrible at the time.
“A bunch of NME journos had my phone number and it was easy for me to give them quotes.
“I must admit I did leverage the position to get press for ¡Forward Russia! and my record label.”
With a passionate belief in the merits of the city’s musical DIY scene, he quickly made that label, Dance to the Radio a success on a shoestring, releasing a series of 7in singles by ¡Forward Russia!themselves and other up-and-coming local bands such as I Like Trains, This Et Al, Napoleon IIIrd, many of whom I persuaded to play in Harrogate at the time as part of my Charm nights.
One band soon rose to outshine the rest commercially - The Pigeon Detectives whose debut album Wait For Me hit number three in the charts thanks to the success of singles such as I’m Not Sorry.
It was vindication not only of Whiskas’ own instincts but also the homemade Leeds indie scene which had been fighting to break out of the city since the mid-1990s when the Kaiser Chiefs were a little known band called Runstan Parva and I was a judge in a battle of the bands competition watching them fail.
Whiskas said: “I’m proud of Dance to the Radio, very much so. It showed you can achieve certain things in a certain way, You don’t have to go the industry way.”
But there’s a certain weary tone in Whiskas voice which worries me.
The reason soon becomes clear as he delves deeper into the past.
“At no point did we think we were going to be as big as the Kaiser Chiefs. My previous band, Les Flames! did want to be big but we never really interested in that. We wanted glory but we wanted it our way.”
At first the miracle seemed possible. In era dominated by Pop Idol, ¡Forward Russia!’s idealism paid off almost the moment vocalist Tom Woodhead, bassist Rob Canning, drummer Katie Nicholls and guitarist Whiskas, himself, first got together in 2004.
As well as the NME, BBC Radio’s Steve Lamacq was a big fan of the band and their principled if noisy post-punk, art rock ways.
Even though they were on their own label and every track on debut album Give Me A Wall was given a number rather than a name, it soared into the top 40 in 2006, as did two of their singles.
Like a gambler on a roll, they carried on going for broke, conducting lengthy tours of the UK and Europe, travelling to the USA to record their second album.
“At the time it was fun and it was a ride. Going to Seattle to record was amazing but it cost us £20,000. It was pretty cool going on the massive European tour but it wasn’t cheap.
“Both those financial aspects affected the longevity of the band.”
To make matters worse, while fellow Yorkshire bands like the Kaiser Chiefs and The Cribs became increasingly successful, sales of ¡Forward Russia!’s releases began to shrink.
Under pressure on all fronts, Whiskas relinquished his grip on his own record label. The band’s second album wasn’t released on Dance to the Radio at all but on Cooking Vinyl, a move which didn’t pay off.
But that was then. From all accounts, the frantic energy and muscular attack was still there when Whiskas and ¡Forward Russia! played the Brudenell’s birthday last year.
Despite being excited by the prospect of playing this year’s biggest gig of the Live at Leeds weekend, it’s possible the show will be ¡Forward Russia!’s last-ever appearance.
“Playing together again is kind of strange, It’s like nothing’s changed but everything’s changed.
“We’ve had to relearn all our songs. We lived with with them so long and not being able to remember them feels odd.
“The band was our life for so long but it cost us a lot.
“The band is way down the list of our priorities now. Myself and Tom have both got kids.
“Will it be our last time on stage with ¡Forward Russia!? I guess so. It’s hard to say.
“There would have to be a good reason for doing it. In five years time we will have forgotten all the songs again!”
If there’s anything to be learnt from the story of ¡Forward Russia! it’s not that success in music is hard to grasp it’s that once secured, it’s even harder to retain.
But it would be wrong to say ¡Forward Russia! failed. And Whiskas remains a keeper of the flame.
“Leeds is still a special place. There is still some degree of unity in the scene. People are still happy for each other if someone else does well. People aren’t just interested in themselves.”
l Live at Leeds and Dance to the Radio presents ¡Forward Russia! at Leeds Town Hall. Saturday, May 3. Support from I Like Trains, Lanterns on the Lake and Sam Airey.
For information and tickets, visit www.liveatleeds.com or www.lunatickets.co.uk