Sarah Blackwood first encountered Chris Wilkie and Steve Hillier in a pub up in Gateshead, where they sat, drank, and, amongst other things, discussed and appreciated the Smiths. Wilkie and Hillier needed a decent singer for their group, and Sarah, as the story goes, had been brought to their attention due to her then boyfriend leaving one of demo tapes at Hillier’s flat.
‘The Joans’ had formed after one or two of Chris’s bands had gone under, and while finding something to do in the meantime, he met Steve while he was DJing at the ‘Walkers’ nightclub. Chris struck up a conversation, and the subject turned to forming a band.
‘It turned out he’d had similar aspirations of his own, sitting in his bedroom in Jesmond, wanting to be a singer.’ remembers Chris of this first meeting. ‘He said he played the guitar a bit which disappointed me because I knew that I was a good guitarist and I thought that the guitar would be my bag. But he was also a programmer – playing keyboards – because he’d had to make his own demos at home. So he invited me over to his place to listen to what he’d been doing.’ (1)
Chris had been playing guitar since he was 6, and, like so many other budding musicians of the time, had been influenced by Johnny Marr (just as a certain Noel Gallagher had been). Marr and co had such an influence on Wilkie that the band name that him and Steve eventually chose was modelled on ‘The Smiths’ – ‘The Joans’ – an average name carrying on the simple ethos. The name was eventually changed due to concerns of being mis-labelled as another indie rock group.
After hearing that demo tape (which happened to be ‘Sunday Morning’ by The Velvet Underground (2) by Sarah, she was recruited as their lead vocalist. They recorded a few demos with the support of their now manager Graeme Robinson, of who’s attention the group first came to after he witnessed one of their shows in early 1994.
Their big break came through when one of these demos found it’s way into the hands of Andy Ross, the boss of record label Food Records. He was so enlivened by the band that he promptly met with them in Newcastle and signed them to the label. It wasn’t as if this was a hobby, start-up label either; ‘Blur’ was also one of their signings. For the young Sarah Blackwood, this was overwhelming; ‘I kept thinking either I had sold my soul or done something very very good in a previous life’ she recalls. (2)
They recorded their first album in a studio near Bath with Steven Hague, who was fresh from recording Blur’s ‘To The End’ and New Order’s ‘Republic.’ The eventual end product, the 11 track ‘Disgraceful’ (along with it’s controversial cover art, seen below, which was banned by Woolworths due to bearing a resemblance to certain part of the female anatomy) was released in October 1995 on Food Records, who by now had been absorbed into record giant EMI.
The album eventually yielded four singles, quite an achievement for a debut. ‘Stars’ and ‘Anywhere’ loitered around the bottom end of the top 40, but it was ‘Not So Manic Now’ that got the band finally noticed, achieving an entry position of 18th.
What followed was the usual run around of TV shows, festivals, and concerts. Their Reading and Top of the Pops appearances that year helped expose them to a further audience.
A follow up came in 1997, reordered this time in Stephen Hague’s own studio in New York, entitled ‘Goodbye,’ and was met with praise.This was supposed to be their big entrance to the US, paving the way for a tour, but due to corporate mergers, their album was not high on the promoter’s to-do list, and the tour never materialized. However a small UK tour was undertaken, including an appearance at one of the wettest Glastonburys to date. The band played a great rendition of ‘Stars,’ with Sarah’s vocals right on, and Chris looking as cool as hell on stage right with his guitar. The performance can be seen here.
Sessions for their third album occupied most of 1998, although hardly anything came from them, with relationships within the outfit beginning to show cracks from the pressures of touring and songwriting. After a short break however, by 1999, along with a new producer, the album eventually got recorded, finally released in August 2000 entitled ‘Make it Better.’
The band, instead of doing what every true fan would hate, and begrudgingly carrying on for the sake of a large paycheck, called it a day and agreed an amicable split in 2000, thereby retaining their dignity and image without it being blighted by infighting, and break-up horror stories. The band continued to sell however, with a ‘Best of’ compilation released in 2004.
That was, however, not the end. After a couple of false starts, the band came together to produce a charity single for Amnesty International. This reinvigorated the band, now, in August 2011, their new album ‘United States of Being’ is now at the mixing stage, with a larger audience awaiting their return.
So what of their actual music? Well, it is difficult to sum up. They span dance, pop, dream pop, and alternative rock. In particular, their earlier releases are defined by melodic vocals, atmospheric and dreamy keyboards, and ethereal guitars. ‘Stars’ and ‘The Day I See You Again’ are laden with beautiful chord progressions, and ‘The Self Same Thing’ bears all the hallmarks of a classic pop/rock song. Lyrics are, according to Wilkie, based on real life experiences, are lucid enough to give an idea while at the same time not being obviously blatant, as well as inviting further discussion as to their meaning. Subjects such as Sexual equality through to elderly abuse, as well as tales of collapsing relationships are all covered within the songs. Sputnikmusic sum up ‘Disgraceful’ as ‘Wonderful ‘The Smiths’ aping synth pop,’ (3) which is true. In some places, for example on ‘Anywhere’ it is Johnny Marr’s guitar plus keyboards.
It is the sort of music that screams summers of the nineties, providing large elements of dance and indie pop from the era. Stephen Hague also brings his electronic touch to their sound, having experienced and influenced the likes of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and the Pet Shop Boys in his time.
Dubstar are a very underrated group, having never broken through in the States, and while they had their time in the UK, they are not as well remembered as they should have been. However, release of their new album is set to bring them back into the spotlight, heralding a new era for this band.
Dubstar: Left to Right: Steve Hillier, Sarah Blackwood, Chris Wilkie
Recommended Listening: Stars and No More Talk and The Day I See You Again
Recommended Albums: ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘The Best of Dubstar.’