Petrols set to ignite the flames again
After 14 years away, the members of That Petrol Emotion walked into a rehearsal room earlier this year and played together. Now they're back on the road again, writes Jim Carroll
IT'S TIME FOR a new chapter in an old story. Many probably assumed the That Petrol Emotion tale came to an unsatisfactory conclusion when they played their last shows in Dublin and London in May 1994.
By then, the band were tired and frustrated with the business and probably each other. They may have been one of the most incendiary live bands in the business, but the manic pop thrills displayed on five studio albums over the course of a decade had not translated into huge sales. The band said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.
These days, lead singer Steve Mack earns his corn as an expert on streaming media online. But it's not his highly respected books on podcasting or webcasting which have him talking with enthusiasm today. With a bunch of reunion shows on the horizon, he is talking as a member of That Petrol Emotion again.
After 14 years away, Mack and the other members of That Petrol Emotion walked into a rehearsal room earlier this year and played such songs as Hey Venus, Big Decisionand Scumsurfingonce again. And it felt great.
"It was all there - the power of the melodies and the tightness and the looseness we finally achieved towards the end," Mack remembers. "It was like going down a 15-year time tunnel. It was so strange. In a split second, I realised how much I missed it and how much we gave up when we split up."
It's a view echoed by the band's guitarist Raymond Gorman. "It sounds great in rehearsal because we're better musicians now," he says. "I'm finding it to be a bit of a doddle, to be honest, just playing guitar. In my own band Wavewalkers, I have a lot more to do and get right."
That Petrol Emotion should have been one of the most significant bands of their generation. Formed in Derry by Gorman and Undertones members Sean and Damian O'Neill (with Ciaran McLaughlin joining later on drums), they stood apart from their peers from the off.
From 1986's Manic Pop Thrilldebut album on, their mix of sharp guitar pop, sinewy funk, driving grooves and frenzied lyrics attracted many devotees. Add a blow-in from Seattle as the frontman who just couldn't stand still on a stage to the mix and you had a band who were truly firing on all cylinders.
Yet as the band perfected their sound on the Babbleand Chemicrazyalbums and live reviews came swaddled with superlatives, the rewards did not come. So what went wrong? Mack feels they were just too early. "We never had a good sense of timing", he says. "When we were mixing rock music and dance music, no-one else was doing that. Three to five years later, everyone else had caught up, but we had moved on because we thought we should have been going in a different direction. The dance music we were into was a lot funkier and out-there than some of the crappy Manchester stuff which followed."
IN THE EARLY days, TPE were also a highly political group, keen to articulate what they saw happening around them in Northern Ireland. Gorman thinks this didn't help them in the long run.
"With hindsight, we should have waited and presented the political side of the band in a different way," he says. "But you're young and passionate and you're doing interviews in a pub and you're wound up by what the journalist is saying and how ignorant he is about the situation. We ended up going further with our opinions than we would if we were just talking amongst ourselves.
"All we wanted to talk about was civil rights which, when you look back now, was not very radical at all. But back in the late 1980s, guitar music wasn't politically motivated in any way.
"We were always flabbergasted by how little people knew about what was going on in Northern Ireland, especially when we went to America. We were kicking against the pr**ks a bit with what we were doing."
It was the lack of a significant breakthrough which took its toll on the band in the end. By 1994, Gorman says he had enough of "writing what we thought were fantastic songs, yet meeting this blank wall of indifference all the time. It was hard to get yourself motivated to do it one more time. At the end, there was no money so there was no wages. I had just gotten married and I had other things to think about.
"In retrospective, we should have just taken a year off and had a think about what we were doing. At the time, it was all about moving on. Looking back now, I wish we had just taken a break. But we were tired and we had spent 10 years living in each other's pockets."
Mack, though, sees TPE's decade-long run in different terms. "It didn't work, but we didn't have to worry about pay cheques for 10 years," he points out.
"Mind you, those cheques were very, very small. As a major label band, we were fortunate to be given many, many chances to try to snatch the golden ring. You can drive yourself crazy thinking you didn't get your just desserts or that you were so much better than people thought you were.
"The people who came to see us, and there were thousands and thousands of them down through the years, appreciated what we were doing. Okay, we didn't have chart success but I would defy any other band to come up with fans as ardent as our fans were when it came to supporting the live show."
Many of those fans will be flocking to the band's reunion gigs at the end of August, hoping to catch a glimpse of the thrilling, spectacular live band TPE were in their pomp.
GORMAN SAYS THERE were "a few offers" in the past, but it felt right this time. "I'm not going to pretend that it is easy getting back together like this," he admits. "Some people think it's just a matter of us picking up where we left off and that it's all hunky-dory.
"But we're very different people now to what we were and we have all kinds of work and family commitments beyond the band. You're dealing with five chiefs."
He certainly feels there are a few points to prove. "It's unfinished business as far as I'm concerned. When we broke up, I thought we would subsequently be rediscovered and re-evaluated but we have been forgotten and I want that put to rights. I want people to see how good live we are. I mean, we can blow anyone off the stage. I really pity whoever goes on after us at the Electric Picnic."
It was Mack who sparked the reunion. "I had started playing bass with a band in Seattle and, as enjoyable as it was, it made me realise how much better the Petrols were. It made me wish for those days. There's a feeling you get when you're playing in a band like that and it's incomparable to anything else.
"So I called the boys and went 'Look, the Mary Chain are back together, the Pixies are playing together, everybody and their brother is playing, we were better than they were'."
For the moment, none of the band are thinking beyond these shows. Mack says the dates are akin to dipping "a cautious toe in the water". He's adopting a wait-and-see attitude to the whole thing, though something tells you this one might well run and run.
"I'm sure it will ignite a fire in all of our bellies," Mack says, "though what happens after we take a week out of our schedules to jump around like 25-year-olds again remains to be seen."
That Petrol Emotion play the Spirit Store, Dundalk, on Aug 28 and the Electric Picnic festival on Aug 30