York has long been home to extremely talented musicians, bands and songwriters. In the first of his occasional series of interviews with local artists, Steve Cowell talks to Chris Helme, latter-day singer with The Seahorses, about his early years in York to where he is now
August the first, Yorkshire Day. I had arranged to meet Chris Helme in the grand setting of the wood-panelled bar at Gray’s Court in York. We grabbed a couple of beers and sat near the open doors looking out over the beautiful gardens up to the Bar Walls.
Chris is possibly best known for his time with The Seahorses, the band John Squire formed after his time in Stone Roses. But I wanted to find out how he got to that point – and what happened in the aftermath of The Seahorses’ split.
Chris is proud of his Yorkshire heritage: “I was born in Fulford Hospital in 1971, without my underpants,” he said, with a smile on his face – justifying the abstract comment with: “Some people in York will understand what that means!”
Although born in the Groves area of the city, Chris and his family moved out to Osbaldwick when he was young. And it was during his formative years at the county primary school in the village that he first realised that he mad a musical talent.
“I remember the Seventies education, and how the teachers kept us in order – I have a fear of number because of the way I was taught maths was: ‘learn this, or you’ll get the cane’.
“But the headmaster, Mr Feasby, kind of took a shine to me – because he thought I could sing. I didn’t know that I could, but he used to always give me the leads for the plays.
“Although I was never actually in one, because I always ended up being ill with mumps or something!
“He was a really good teacher. He used to teach us rhythms using names like: Chris-to-pher-helme [he taps the table to the rhythm] or Ben Patt-ison, Ben Patt-ison…
“I didn’t realise until much later, when I saw something about Ravi Shankar, that he was actually teaching us Indian rhythms – tabla-speak – I don’t know where he had been to get his musical inspiration, but he let it creep into our music lessons.
“He was massively influential in my development one way or another – for good or bad.”
I was born in Fulford Hospital in 1971, without my underpants … some people in York will understand what that means!
I asked if this is when he realised that he wanted to play an instrument, and whether the guitar as his instrument of choice.
“Well, no – my mate, Rob Lawson, at school was the only lad I know that was having piano lessons. I used to go round to his house and he was playing all this stuff – and I remember thinking: ‘I wish I could do that.’
“So, I begged my mum and dad for piano lessons, But they couldn’t afford the fees – so I never got them.
“But my grandad had bought himself a Bontempi keyboard – he fancied himself as a bit of a crooner, so was learning how to play Frank Sinatra stuff.
“He never used to let me touch his keyboard. But I remember going on it when he wasn’t in!
“I started by playing little riffs that I had heard – like Boney M: Ma Ma Ma Ma Ma Baker… I just remember playing that!”
Chris was laughing as he reminisced. But he went on to say that those few faltering steps helped him to realise that if he knew the notes, there was scope to develop it. Although it would be a while before he revisited the idea of playing an instrument.
After Osbaldwick, Chris moved up to Huntington School, and has mixed memories from that time.
“I didn’t really like school if I am to be totally honest. I went to Huntington in the Eighties at the start Falklands conflict – and the start of a lot of horrendous music.
“There was a some good music, though not a great deal of it – I was a bit of a mod, and enjoyed listening to bands like The Jam, Secret Affair and Nine Below Zero. And a lot of ska stuff from people like The Specials… that was all good, but I wasn’t keen on punk.”
At Huntington, Chris tried to play guitar – but found it difficult within a class of 30 schoolmates all playing out-of-tune classical guitars. And he wasn’t interested in the kind of music being taught on the curriculum at that time.
“I remembered thinking – where do bands come from?
“There were kids who were in bands at school – that were dreadful! But I had started listening to stuff like The Beatles, and I wondered how the iconic music and image package came about.
“I could just understand it as a concept of something that was ‘entertainment’. I didn’t really understand what level of dedication it takes to actually create music like that.”
Dumped for a guitarist
Chris left school at 16 and went to Scarborough Tech to study graphic design. Also on the same course was an old schoolfriend – Paul Render, and it was Paul who introduced him to the music of artists like James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and early Rolling Stones.
I wondered if it was this broadening of his musical knowledge that pushed him into picking up the guitar again: not quite.
“When I was at Scarborough Tech there was a girl called Jeannie that I was going out with, I was totally besotted with her – she got me into Pink Floyd and The Doors.
“Anyway, she blew me out to go off with a guy who played guitar!”
That was where the motivation came from! Chris’s friend Paul had a ‘beautiful’ cherry red Telecaster – he let Chris use it, and taught him how to play I’m A King Bee by the Stones, a slow lazy blues.
It was when he realised that he could play it, that he developed his affinity with the guitar.
“It took me back to being really frustrated with the guitar at school. I suppose it just about being in the right environment really. And having people around that had the time of day to be patient with me.
“Fortunately, I have really been blessed with that, with everybody I have played with.”
After college Chris worked as a graphic designer – but was finding he was spending more and more time playing guitar.
He started singing and admits it was difficult at first – he was OK singing, he was OK playing guitar, but doing both at once was like “patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time!”
But after a lot of practice – and losing a lot of girlfriends who took second place to his love of music – Chris started playing in bands. His first was called Genuine Moon Material, the second was Daisy Space – which became Chutzpah.
“We were trying to be all freak-out psychedelic kind of thing – but we didn’t have a clue what we were doing to be fair!”
Fat rain and France
It didn’t stop Chutzpah from travelling around France busking on the terraces – moving from town to town and sleeping on the beaches. The only downside was trying to sleep through monsoon-like downpours with what Chris described as “fat rain”.
“I had the time of my life – it was awesome. We used to make enough money to eat – and buy enough wine to knock us out, to be able to sleep on the beach!
“I met some really interesting people there. We spent quite a lot of time in Provence… I haven’t been back since, but would love to.
“One thing I regret is not buying a place over there when I could have afforded to – although it is not as free and easy now as it was back then.”
The band eventually died a typical death brought on by “egos clashing, boredom and claustrophobia” – although falling out back then, Chris is happy that they are now all good friends again.
“I would definitely do it again. If I could turn back time I would do it exactly the same, with all the same people.”
Chris returned to the UK, and to York. But the normality of his home city compared to the excitement of his recent travels led to him making the decision to move away.
He and his girlfriend relocated to Brighton, where he tried to make his money busking. It was tough though – the music scene was too dance-orientated, and there were a lot of beggars on the street working as competition against the humble busker. So, in early 1996 they moved back to York.
Three goals in one week
Chris was back out in the city, playing and singing on Coney Street. And then in a single week everything seemed to take a turn for the better. Tim Hornsby (Mr H) asked Chris if he wanted to play support for John Martyn at Fibbers … John being one of Chris’s all-time heroes.
Chris was also approached by someone who wanted him to audition for a band in Durham. And a day or so later he was asked to put together a tape for John Squire from Stone Roses.
This all happened at the point when Chris was re-considering his future. He was 25, and wasn’t making enough busking, so was contemplating getting a ‘proper job’.
“I took my eye of the ball, and – weirdly – managed to score three goals in one week!”
“I went to the Durham audition, and had to sing Cigarettes And Alcohol [Oasis]; Going For Gold [Shed Seven] and Fake Plastic Trees [Radiohead] which taught me how to sing falsetto – and I got offered the job because nobody else could do the falsetto bit!
I was with this guy who used to be in The Stone Roses, and I was like – this is crazy, and pinching myself a lot
“But they wanted me to sing a song of theirs called I Don’t Want To Be A Teenage Hero – or something similar. And I said ‘how can I? There’s no chance of that – I am 25’. I was told that I had to sing it if I wanted to be in the band.
“I said ‘Look, I am not doing it – I have been offered an opportunity with John Squire, I am not sure if I am going to get that either, but am going to focus on that.”
Fortunately John Squire liked the tape and invited Chris to meet him at his house near Lancaster. They spent three days going through his songs.
“It was awesome. It was the quietist place I have ever been. And I was with this guy who used to be in The Stone Roses, and I was like – this is crazy, and pinching myself a lot… and stressing!
“All I was thinking was that I just had to be myself and do what I do – and I didn’t think any further than that.
“He gave me a four track – and I did some harmonies, something I had not done before, and he liked that.”
A rock’n’roll star
So Chris was in the band. They completed the line up shortly afterwards, after eventually finding a drummer who could sing (Andy Watts – who had been in a band with bassist Stuart Fletcher previously).
But how did the band’s name come about?
“I remember the journey. It was raining, and John was driving us about in The Lake District, and he just said ‘What about The Seahorses? I just keep seeing seahorses everywhere – in bathrooms there’ll be a seahorse soap dish, and there’ll be a seahorses tile – and another thing… I banged my head on a massive blue plastic seahorse when I was in Delrio’s when I was in York – so it has got to be a sign!’
“He used to have this kind of ironic cosmic outlook to life did John.”
The conversation then went off on a tangent when I mentioned that I had held my stag night in Delrio’s, the Sardinian restaurant, to which Chris replied that he had the first date with his wife there.
Back on track, we talked about life in The Seahorses. They recorded a number of demo tracks at a place called Sunny Bank Farm in Coniston, in the Lake District. They then went over to the States, to Hollywood to record the first album with the luminary Tony Visconti (Bowie, T Rex) as their producer.
Because they were fresh from their time in the Lakes, the band were ready to go and played through the songs as live and added a few overdubs. So the first album – Do It Yourself – was recorded in two weeks, with a further week for mixing.
When I asked Chris what it felt like to be a ‘rock and roll star’ he squirmed a little. He is quite self-deprecating – and even today finds it hard to listen to himself, or watch back videos of himself (even those I have shot!). I expected an answer along the lines of ‘I didn’t’ – so was surprised when he said:
“I didn’t really feel I was very good at it. I didn’t like the expectation that was thrust on me and I didn’t really know what was expected … people had been providing stuff like new guitars, and I was wondering – where is all the money coming from for this?
“This all seems too good to be true. The Yorkshireman in me kind of came out, and I was very suspicious of the hospitality – so I didn’t really appreciate it.
I felt under pressure… It got in the way of what we wanted to do, which was to write good music.
“At the end of the day you are there as a product to sell records, while trying to be yourself. Everyone pulling you and pushing you to do this, and do that. And interviews – I wish I knew then what I know now about interviews, I was trying to say what I imagined people wanted to hear, rather than me being myself.
“No one had ever coached me on how to interview, and I didn’t really know who I was anyway. I was taken out of my lovely little place where I knew what I was doing – to being in a band with people I didn’t really know.”
During their time together The Seahorses experienced great success – with support slots for The Rolling Stones, U2 and Oasis. But after a couple of years Chris felt worn down, it had become too much of a ‘slog’.
“I felt under pressure. It was kind of like the TV show Episodes – that’s the closest thing I can relate it to.”
Plastic? I suggested.
“Yes, incredibly plastic – it got in the way of what we wanted to do, which was to write good music.
“I was turning into someone that wasn’t me – and I didn’t like it. And I didn’t like people’s perceptions and expectations of me. So I got a little bit introverted … to the point where, during the recording of the second album, we split up in 1999.”
Chris was contractually tied in with the band and simply could not afford to leave. But John Squire disbanded The Seahorses, and they all walked away from it.
Taking back control
YorkMix sessions: Chris Helme – Darkest Days. Film by Steve and Will Cowell
Chris told me that they were incredibly traumatic times. But felt like a weight had been lifted once he had been free from the shackles of the band.
He was able to take back control of his own music. Writing material he wanted to hear instead of being told what to write. Also he and his wife had a son, which Chris told me “added a whole new perspective” to his life.
Post-Seahorses Chris put together a band called The Yards – who were primarily a recording band, although they did do a few gigs. He was back to enjoying writing and performing.
He met and played with many different amazing musicians – something that may not have happened if The Seahorses had stayed together longer than it did.
Although currently playing under the name of Chris Helme, he has a range of friends he has played with over the years to man his band – including long-time associate and ex-Seahorses bassist Stuart Fletcher. That said, he doesn’t like seeing his name displayed prominently – which is why he has never had any T-shirts printed.
He realised he was missing a trick when people were asking to buy CDs at his gigs, and all he had to sell were The Yards recordings. So he recorded Ashes, to enable him to sell something at his shows (seeing as T-shirts are off the menu!).
The follow up album to Ashes was The Rookery. And Chris is putting the finishing touches to his third album, which he has been working on for more than a year – and will be ready “when it is ready – though not long now!”
Chris plays shows the length and breadth of the country, and has recently played support to York band Shed Seven – with Martha and The Vandellas on the same bill.
A personal highlight of mine was last year’s Galtres Festival at Duncombe Park, Helmsley enjoying Chris Helme’s midnight set in the little top – it was an astounding show, with one man, one guitar (and the odd nip of brandy).
A very humble man, Chris also likes to be involved with promoting new music. He has recently launched Ruby Tuesdays, an open mic night at which anyone can get up and play music and sing.
Situated at Sotano, Little Stonegate in York – beneath Kennedys – the Tuesday night event has gained a great following, and has featured some superb artists. Including Chris, of course.