The measure of a man
Words: Cherie Millns / Photos: Barbara Graf Horka
It’s a cliché, that old adage about getting the measure of a man or woman by their handshake, but all the same I can’t help but notice how Steve Hewitt’s massive hands engulf my own in a firm warm handshake when we meet him shortly before Love Amongst Ruin’s Zurich gig in early October (read my review of that gig here).
Sitting in the green room (literally – the walls are a lurid forest green) of the Abart, the atmosphere is one of an exhaustion borne of the previous 3 weeks’ hard touring and travelling. Tins of biscuits and large bottles of Coke sit on the coffee table, as well as (oddly) an open loaf of sliced white bread. Bodies in various states of repose are draped around the room, sleeping, propped up on cushions, yawning, weary chins in hands, before Steve shoos them from the room for a little privacy (except the sofa sleeper – whoever it is stays blissfully asleep with a jacket thrown over their head). Steve himself looks tired but focused, cradling an Abart-brand beer and fielding text messages on his phone.
Firstly, congratulations on the new album.
Thank you. It’s always nerve-wracking when you put something like this together and release it to the world. You just have to wait and see how it’s received. That’s the worst thing about being an artist really. It’s great when you are in the studio and you think ‘That’s really great!’ but the real test is seeing what people think of it later.
You make it in a personal space and then you have to present it to the public.
Yeah, you’ve got to give the baby away.
How do you feel the album has been received?
It’s been fantastic. We haven’t had a bad review yet, which is unexpected.
Were you expecting bad reviews?
Well, always. When you put something out like that you expect it. It’s been a nerve-wracking time, but the way the album has been received and reviewed has been a huge confidence boost, especially seeing as it is my first time out on my own. Writing and doing it on my own, that was a great freedom. You have less things to check against. But you know, I trust myself, I trust my judgement, and I’ve obviously got it right, so I’m really chuffed with it.
The lyrics of this album are very personal, quite raw and emotional – has this been a cathartic experience for you?
Well, of course. It takes a crisis to come up with great art. The whole thing with Placebo was very unexpected and very weird. After 12 years together…it was shocking, your world falls apart. I’m lucky to have the kind of talent to be able to express myself through music. It was either the pub or the studio, and the studio seemed the obvious choice.
Do you feel any animosity towards Placebo now?
I don’t know. It’s a faceless thing for me at the moment. The way it happened was faceless, and disappointing, and angry. When you’ve been friends with someone for 17 years and you’re just cut out like that you tend to ask yourself lots of questions, because no one is giving you reasons or answers. It’s been very difficult. But that’s why the record is written the way it’s written. I’m from the North of England, Manchester, so I say what I think; it is very honest in that respect. Three years ago the future seemed really really daunting, now it just feels really exciting.
You’ve made a lot of progress.
Of course, yeah. Just jumping in at the deep end, and seeing what happens. It could have failed miserably, but at least I gave it a go.
I think everyone really admires you for having the courage to pick yourself up and carry on.
I could have just retired. We sold 20 million records with Placebo, everyone is all right, we made what we needed to make. But it’s not about that for me. Maybe that’s part of what it was with Placebo, it turned into just a fucking business; it was all about bread, making money. I can’t walk on stage every night if it’s just about the cash, you know. It doesn’t make any fucking sense to me. And I’m very disappointed in them now [Placebo], because we did 12 years of our dark rock thing, and then they just suddenly switched and said, ‘No! It’s all about sunlight and pop now’. Well, you’ve just fucking led everyone up the garden path! You fucking hypocrites!
Dare I ask you what you think of their latest album? Have you listened to it?
I didn’t listen to the radio or watch TV for two years just so I wouldn’t be confronted with it. But obviously I’ve got all this shit out of my system now. Of course I come across it every so often on the radio and stuff, but I can deal with it now. And I think it’s shit. There’s something missing. There are a lot of Placebo fans that have been following Love Amongst Ruin and the main thing I’ve been hearing from them is that this should have been the next Placebo album. But Love Amongst Ruin is very different to Placebo; at least I think it is. It is much more rocky, but it’s still the dark side. I believe in reinvention, but I think when you completely flip it [Placebo’s new approach] like that, I don’t actually believe them. I think it’s just a big scam. It’s very disappointing. I just think they want to be gay icons and that’s it, really.
If you had a chance to say something to them, would you? Or would you just walk away?
[Long pause]. I don’t know. I would probably…umm…I don’t know. I’m not one to hold grudges but the way it was done was disgusting and wrong, and very weak of them. But I really just don’t have the time anymore. For me, Placebo is ancient history, and I just keep walking away from it. I’m very proud of what I did in that band, though, very proud. We had some fucking great times, we toured the world nine times, we sold a lot of records, we met a lot of people, I worked with all my heroes – I played with Robert Smith, David Bowie, Michael Stipe, Frank Black. I had some amazing experiences, and beautiful moments playing music around the world. It’s just a shame how it all came to an end. I suppose it’s like Dave Grohl said in a recent interview – I think it’s right that bands split up, because they just run their course in the end.
Like any relationship, there’s a time for it, and then that time is over.
Exactly. So I’d just walk away, really, I’d just turn my head and walk away. Get on with my shit.
So what will you do differently with Love Amongst Ruin?
Well, obviously I was in bands before Placebo, I’ve been doing this for 20-odd years. I used everything I learnt during my music career to get this album together, to write this album, took on new challenges – 20 years behind the drum kit, and now I’m fronting the band!
Yeah, that’s amazing. How do you feel?
You know, I never thought in a million years…it was never on the agenda for me. It was the last thing on my mind, to ever front a band. Not interested at all. But hey, here I am [laughs], fronting a band.
Touring Europe and at the mike every night.
Yeah, it’s funny how life throws these things at you. It’s life’s rich tapestry. But it’s exciting, and I’m always up for a challenge. [We are interrupted by Steve’s phone ringing, with a screaming Ronnie James Dio as the ring tone – such a rocker, is Steve!]. A change is as good as a rest, I think, and when I started doing this it was purely to go into the studio to start writing music and keep recording, and keep experimenting to see what was going on in my head. And then the songs kept coming. I thought the lyric writing was going to be a challenge, but once I started it felt like the most natural thing in the world. The biggest thing was getting behind the mike in the studio to actually sing and express all this. But it just came together really easily, you know?
I’ve seen some You Tube videos of your live shows and you seem really confident, so it doesn’t seem to be a problem for you anymore, to say the least.
No, I’ve gotten used to it very quickly. Because I know I can do it. It’s just a matter of confidence-building – the more we go on, the more confident I get, it’s a natural progression. It’s very exciting to be doing this. But I still sometimes think to myself, ‘What the fuck are you doing?! How did this happen?!’
How does it feel to be on the road again after three or so years, leaving your family behind and touring again?
Quite tough, because I’ve just had a new son, who is nine months old now. I’ve got a 16-year old daughter, and now I’ve got a nine-month old.
So sleepless nights?
Yeah! He was a beautiful surprise, and he’s a wonderful kid. But as all this started [Love Amongst Ruin] I thought to myself, I’ve done all this before, I did this with my daughter, and now it’s starting all over again. And also, it’s not all the glitz and glamour that we had with Placebo; it isn’t private jets and all that kind of stuff. I’m back to where I was in 1988 with Breed and The Boo Radleys – hauling ass and helping lift the gear. I’m cool with it, though. Fortunately I don’t have a massive ego, so I can take it; it’s not a problem. It’s hard work, but it’s enjoyable.
And you are doing it for yourself; it’s your own project.
Well, it’s for the band, it isn’t and it never was going to be a solo record, I always wanted it to be about a band. Even though I did the record first and the band came later, I very much wanted it to be a band. And it’s becoming that. This first tour has been great to get everything tight, to get it all together. I handpicked everyone in the band, and there’s some great talent there. I think everyone plays drums in the band, too, so we’ve got like six drummers.
Has it been ok for you to hand over the reigns, or in this case, drumsticks?
Yeah, I do get the odd pang. It’s my first love, isn’t it? But we’ve got Keith playing drums, and I’ve known him for 20 years. We used to teach together. So it’s all good. He’s great. And very reliable.
Speaking of your daughter – she does backing vocals on one of your songs, doesn’t she?
Yeah, she does, on ‘Love Song’.
How do you feel about that? Is that a career that she wants to pursue?
She does. She’s been pitch perfect since she was three years old. And now she’s 16 she’s got the attitude of ‘Oh well, now I might drop out of school, I’m destined for greater things’. And I’m like, riiiight. Not till you do your exams and get your results, young lady! That’s it. I’ve been quite strict on that front.
You know what the industry is like.
Yeah. She is free to do what she wants but she has to be prepared for the peaks and the troughs. Because it isn’t all as nice as it’s made out to be on fucking X Factor, you know. Which she is not going in for. She’s not doing it.
Don’t let her do it!
No, if you are going to do it, do it properly and go out and gig, for fuck’s sake.
I have some questions now from your official Heaven & Hell fan forum. Which of your songs do you think are particularly suited to acoustic performances?
Well, we are doing an unplugged show in November. We are finding that ‘Truth’ is a good one – we’ve just done a recorded version of that, and it really works, it’s really special. But otherwise, I think most of them. I think if it’s a good song you can strip it back to nothing and it will still work. We haven’t tried ‘So Sad’ yet, but at the same time I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. Or ‘Blood and Earth’. I suppose it’s the way you approach it. It’s something that we have to look into more, but at the moment ‘Truth’ is really the special one for us.
Are there any other covers that you would like to do?
Yeah! We are doing ‘Got To Give It Up’ by Thin Lizzy, which is…you know how I said I would never say anything to Placebo? Well, this is my way of saying you know what. It’s me being an arrogant tosser. It’s a song about trying to give up alcohol, which is one of Brian’s biggest problems. So I do that as bit of a middle finger. And it rocks. It’s a good one to point that out. There were two songs which struck me after the Placebo break-up, which I loved anyway, but they seemed so fitting – ‘Got to give it up’, which is obviously alcohol-related, a problem for some people. And the other one is ‘Rise’ by PiL, which is a just a really hopeful song. We’ve been doing that in sound checks and rehearsals, but we haven’t had the chance to sort it out enough to put it in the show yet. Hopefully we’ll do that for Paris. Those are the two at the moment. We will eventually record those, I think.
There’s a dub remix of ‘Home’ out there – any plans for more dub remixes?
Well, I’m getting some remixes done by a friend of mine, Darren Emerson, who used to be in Underworld. He’s working on a mix for ‘Alone’. But the dub stuff for me…it’s not a personal taste of mine. It’s trendy at the moment, that dub-step stuff. It’s interesting music, with that ska-thing going on. It’s ok. I prefer deep house. I’m a big fan of that. I listen to Darren Emerson all day, DJ-ing. That’s my thing. It’s a little bit bitty, that dub stuff. I heard the Baxta track, I put it on a few times and it’s really good, very different, very raw. I just look for a bit more melody, really.
What will you be doing for Christmas this year?
Well, my son was born on the 22nd December, so unfortunately for him [laughs]…
Poor kid! He’ll be the one getting just the one present all year, then.
…He doesn’t know that yet, but it will be like that – ‘here you go, this is for your birthday and for Christmas’ – for him. So obviously Christmas will be with family. But also I’m working on another project with a guy called Brandun Reed, who is an ex-session keyboard player and used to play with Queens of the Stone Age, and he’s got a band/project called Polaroid Kiss. We’ve been working on that and we’ve got about 15 tracks so far. I’ve done the drums already, and I’m just working on some celebrity vocalists at the moment.
Have you got anyone in mind?
Oh yeah! But I’m not going to tell you.
Not even one little hint?
I can’t, I can’t. Because I don’t want to put it in jeopardy.
You could tell me but you’d have to kill me?
Yes, yes I would. But I will tell you that we’re going for the big ones. So I finish this tour on Thursday, then we go off and do the UK tour, finish mid-November and then I’ll be in the studio all December with Brandun, and hopefully celeb vocalists to finish off the Polaroid Kiss album, which will also be out on Ancient B records. That will be out next year. So hopefully I’ll be back behind the kit as well. We’ve got one of the keyboard players from a Swedish band called Kent, Perry Bamonte from The Cure playing guitar, we’ve got me on drums, and we’ve got the singer from Dubstar, Sarah Blackwood. We’re just building up the line-up at the moment, but it’s going to be bit of a supergroup. And the music is fucking excellent, otherwise I wouldn’t have touched it. I’ve had so many offers to play drums on projects, but I’m really selective. This is like when Depeche Mode were good, but a bit more dancey. But melodically it’s fantastic. And again it’s dark. So that’s what I’m going to be doing right up till Christmas. And by Christmas I’ll be dead. I’ll be dead by Christmas!
You’ll deserve some family time at home by then.
Yeah. And hopefully I’ll be back out on tour with Love Amongst Ruin in February.
Great to hear. I get all my best ideas in the shower – where do you get your best ideas?
Ooh. In the pub! [laughs uproariously]. I don’t know…lately, since I’ve been writing more and more, I’ve been doing the Keith Richards thing of getting up at 3 am in the morning, going straight to record them, getting the ideas down and then going back to bed. The ideas are coming to me at night at the moment.
That must be a productive time, when your mind is working.
My mind is trying to sleep but instead it’s coming up with stuff. Yeah. I’m making efforts to get up and record them, because once they are gone they gone. He [Keith] did that with ‘Satisfaction’ and look what came out of that. So I’ve been taking that on board. If anything comes to my mind I try to get it down instantly. I’m not going to bypass anything.
So, what are your plans for the future? What are your ambitions for Love Amongst Ruin? World domination?
Well, yeah [laughs. Ronnie James Dio screams again], world domination, obviously! Hopefully we’ll take this album through till next September, so festivals and things like that. Then I’ll be looking to do the next record with Love Amongst Ruin, but this time with the band, not just me doing everything. We’ll be seeing how that goes, how Love Amongst Ruin works as a unit and matures. Just keep on going, really.
It’s seems like you have a very big and busy future ahead of you.
I hope so. The band are coming across really well live, they are world class. I’ve been quite strict with them on that, because obviously I’ve scaled the lofty heights, and I know how it has to be. I tell them that it has to be this good, all the time. They are very tight, they are very together, and they’ve really pulled their socks up. We’re at a level after only three weeks that is really special.
Ok, well, that was my last question. Is there anything you would like to add?
I could talk all night!
Oh, well in that case, where are all the other questions I wanted to ask you? [I rifle frantically around for more questions]. You have a show that you need to prepare for, I don’t want to keep you.
[laughs] Yeah. We’re going on 9.15pm tonight. We’ve been going on at 11.30pm, so you do the sound check at 4pm and then have to hang around for 5 or 6 hours.
Not getting to bed till 3 or 4 am and then up again…ugh, it’s just stupid. But I’m a glutton for punishment.
Well, all the best things come to those who try.
Exactly. You’ve got to go out and find it and look for it. I’m definitely one who believes in trying, because even if you fail you won’t have any regrets, because you tried to do it. I can’t live with regrets.
We stand up and stretch, and Steve comes over to give us all a big warm sincere Mancunian hug, and for the first time ever I fervently thank (on the inside, of course) the archaic Swiss custom of kissing cheeks three times to say goodbye. I’m surprised at how genuine, humorous and candid he is, entirely without artifice, and when I wish him well I really mean it. He deserves it.
As we head out of the room I see that the sleeping sofa person has not moved an inch, and Ronnie James Dio is screaming yet again. Only another two hours to wait till show time, and till Steve Hewitt takes one more step in his new life with Love Amongst Ruin.
Love Amongst Ruin are currently touring the UK.