An interview with Spearmint’s Shirley Lee: “I remember Joe Strummer talking about how the Clash did 30 killer gigs in a row – well we did two!”

Indie cult-heroes Spearmint play their last gig for a couple of years next month at London’s Water Rats. The setlist will be decided entirely by a fan vote on the band’s website. Frontman Shirley Lee told me about the unusual gig format, a recent trip to Paris and his eclectic current listening.

Why did you choose The Water Rats for the ‘jukebox’ gig? Have you visited or played there before?

Oh yes, we played there quite a lot back in the day. It’s a classic venue, a great venue – wasn’t it the first place Dylan played in the UK? And Oasis in London? It’s recently been refurbished and I don’t think we’ve played there since around 2003, so it felt perfect for this ‘jukebox’ show.

How did you come to end up asking Fever Dream to support you? Do you like their stuff?

Paul from Guided Missile is promoting the show and he suggested Fever Dream. They sound good to me and I’m looking forward to seeing them on the night!

What made you decide to trust your fans to decide on the set? Did you not fancy an Elvis Costello-esque ‘wheel of justice’?!

Well you kind of build up an idea of which songs people like most, but there isn’t really any science to it as you never hear the reaction to the songs you don’t play, if you know what I mean… We’ve got a lot of songs now, so it felt timely to let people choose a whole set. I love the Costello wheel, but it gets a bit tiresome spinning it all the time, and it only has a finite number of songs on it, doesn’t it. I see that Ben Folds is playing ‘paper aeroplane’ request shows. That’s pretty cool, but I worry that with that certain fans will request forgotten b-sides (that’s what I’d do) and it might get a bit obscure!

If you could vote, what would be your top three?

That’s impossible for me… but I guess from a writer’s perspective there are songs like I Will Sleep Tonight, The Space, Death, The Last Song, Someone’s At The Door, I Can Wait, The Lights Change or What’s Wrong With Breaking Up Anyway that don’t get much attention, but that I’m really proud of.

With how the vote is going at the moment, are you expecting to be playing many of your solo songs?

A couple of songs from the [eponymous] Shirley Lee album are in the running at the moment, which is cool.

So far, have there been any surprises as a result of the vote that made you think ‘I didn’t realise ……. was that fondly regarded’?

Yes actually, and that means we’ve got our work cut out to play them live.

Are you going to reveal anything about the set in advance of the gig or make us wait to find out on the night?

We’re not going to reveal anything, except to say that all the ‘hits’ are getting votes, so it’s not going to be really obscure!

Will the set be ordered in any way or will you just take the top-ranking poll answers and arrange them in the way you think will run best?

We will play the top 20 or so. We’ll probably play a longer set than usual to fit in all the songs that are getting most votes, but not in a particular order…

Have you had any witty or silly responses to the poll like ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Harambe’, ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ etc.?

Yes, there was one, which I had to delete straight away. I suspect it came from within the band. Someone who normally sits at the back.

Would you condone such juvenility?

I’d say we need it, with Brexit and Trump at every turn…

Will Andy Lewis definitely be part of the band for this gig?

Yes, the estimable Mr Lewis will be there. Andy won’t be at the Hastings show [see below] as he’s in Italy with Fay Hallam, so we’ll be doing that as a four-piece with Jim [James Parsons] back on bass, which is great to do every so often [they also performed as a four-piece at 2014’s Indietracks festival, below]. We’ll need Andy for Water Rats, as some of the songs can’t be done by just four of us!

I’m always curious how much bands rehearse before live shows. I imagine you’ll have most of these songs nailed as a five-piece, how much will you be rehearsing?

We do need to rehearse for each gig. It’s not like we tour a lot, and we do have a lot of songs, so we always need to revisit the tunes. I’ve never been one for carrying all those words and chords around in my head, I’d rather keep that space free for new ideas. Although whether there is any truth to that I have no idea! We will be having three rehearsals for this show: one to work out the songs we’ve never played before and two to practise the set.

How did the A Different Lifetime gig [in June at London’s Lexington, where they played the album in full for the first time] go down? Did it re-ignite interest in the album?

We absolutely loved that gig! The audience seemed to enjoy it too… I’ve no idea if it re-iginited interest in the album. Generally once things are done, they’re done, so you have to have your own reasons for doing stuff, rather than expect interest from others.

How was your recent jaunt to Paris, to play at the Popfest at the end of September?

That was a cracking gig too! I remember Joe Strummer talking about how the Clash did 30 killer gigs in a row – well we did two!

Will we see any clues in Hastings as to your ‘jukebox’ set, or will it be a totally different ‘festival’ set as it were?

It will be different as we’re playing as a four-piece, but there will be overlap in terms of the songs.

Will there be anything in the way of merchandise available on the night at the Water Rats?

Yes, we’ll bring along anything we can find in the loft…

Can you give us any updates on the presence (or otherwise) of your beard?

It’s definitely there as I write this. I like it. You get to the point where an opportunity to cover half your face seems like a good idea. My wife likes it. I think because it makes me look more like the cat.

Shirley (right) on stage with Simon Calnan.

Where and when did you get the name plate on your guitar?

Good observational skills: it’s from San Francisco many years ago…

Can you recount your favourite ever touring/live memory?

Too many, too much, we’ve had a blast, really, so much hysterical laughter. In Germany once I played a Gb instead of a G and got the giggles and couldn’t control my laughter for the next three songs, the only time I really lost it on stage – it doesn’t sound too funny when I tell it like that does it? It’s a big messy mass of memories of laughter, problems, excitement, being stranded on the side of the autobahn, crying in Japan, trapped at Glastonbury, lost at Reading, snowbound in Sweden, but the best gigs stay with you, like Emmaboda or Lund or the two we’ve just done.

The ‘jukebox’ gig is being billed as the last for a couple of years. Why is that?

Only because I fancy writing a Shirley Lee album next. So it’s best to stop for a bit and focus on that. Having said that, Spearmint are open to anything good that comes up… for instance we are going to do a couple of new songs for the Wiaiwya singles club next year.

What are you listening to at the moment, either as a band or personally?

I’m not sure what the guys are listening to at the moment except that Andy is finding some great stuff on Bandcamp and I’m off to see Spoon with Jim in a couple of weeks time. Personally I’m listening to music that’s miles away from what we do – lots of Ambient, Jazz, African, Electronic and Hip-Hop. I think being in an Indie band spoilt Indie for me, but that’s OK, I’m really excited about the music I’m buying, it’s been a really good year for finding new stuff…

Spearmint headline the Indie Rock-A-Nore festival in Hastings on Saturday October 21st.

The band’s final show for a couple of years is on Wednesday 15th November at the Water Rats, London. Tickets are £10 plus £1 booking fee and can be purchased here.

Spearmint Poster

Poster designed by James Parsons. Photos by Spearmint.

Spearmint are: Shirley Lee (vocals, guitar); Simon Calnan (keys, vocals); James Parsons (guitar, occasional bass); Andy Lewis (bass); Ronan Larvor (drums).

Published by

Tony Allen

20-year-old student from Norwich.

One thought on “An interview with Spearmint’s Shirley Lee: “I remember Joe Strummer talking about how the Clash did 30 killer gigs in a row – well we did two!””

  1. My wife and I were at the A Different Lifetime gig, and it was great. There, now you know at two of the crowd were having a good time 🙂 Hoping we can be at the Water Rats too.


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