Ready to take to the stage in Henley-Upon-Thames, it’s a particularly chipper Wet Wet Wet that greets eonmusic. Headlining Rewind 2021, and following the most turbulent period in their history, it’s easy to see why the band are in a good mood. “Everyone is just in a party mood, and it’s a wonderful thing to see”, says founder Tommy Cunningham as we sit down for a chat. Introducing new singer Kevin Simm, the band are about to release new album ‘The Journey’ – their first in almost fifteen years. We caught up with Tommy and Kevin to chat the transition, the early days, and the song that just wouldn’t go away. Holding back the river; Eamon O’Neill
How are you today, chaps?
Tommy Cunningham: Not bad! It’s a mad day, isn’t it? We’re used to doing our own gigs and getting out and having an audience, but you come to Rewind, and its not really our audience. What I mean is, it’s not particularly fans of Wet Wet Wet, but my god, they are fans of music, aren’t they? Everyone is just in a party mood, and it’s a wonderful thing to see.
They’re fans of hit songs – of which you’ve had many - and there’s no room for b sides here, is there?
Tommy: Well, tonight we’re just going to do b sides; that’s a good idea! Even our b sides are better than everybody else’s. [laughing]. Yeah, it’s all hits.
What’s it like to have such a catalogue of well-known songs that the audience can sing along to?
Kevin Simm: Yeah, it’s amazing. I think just being here and getting to the gig early and stuff, you hear so many hits just throughout the day. Myself, being of a younger generation, ‘80s music has always been something I’ve listened to growing up, and to hear some of the tracks that have come off that stage is amazing. There’s just so much wonderful music taking place throughout the day. It’s a great feeling.
We were joking about b sides, and in a strange way, Wet Wet Wet released an album like that right at the beginning of your career in ‘The Memphis Sessions’ .
Tommy: That’s correct. ‘The Memphis Sessions’ was actually recorded before ‘Popped in, Souled Out’ [debut album, released in 1987], and we always thought of ourselves - and still do - as a soul band. The reason Kevin is our singer is because soul music is steeped through our veins. We step on stage, and obviously we’re not four black guys from Detroit doing the moves, but intrinsically the music is always about soul. So, ‘Memphis Sessions’ was our attempt to get an authentic soul album, but it wasn’t commercial enough for the ‘80s, so we had to redo it in a pop structure – ‘Popped in Souled Out’ – full of hits, and then release ‘The Memphis Sessions’ to say; “yes we’re a pop band, but remember we are this as well”.
You obviously went to Memphis so record that one; what was it like?
Tommy: There was a guy called Willie Mitchell who recorded Al Green, and Al Green was a favourite of ours. The record company simply asked us; “who would you like to produce you?”, and we went; “Willie Mitchell”. We’d never met the man, we didn’t really know much of the history beyond Al Green, but we steeped ourselves in the community, in the city, and tried to capture that feel on the record. We’re all about being authentic, about being honest, and being truthful, and music, we believe in four chords and the truth, man!
You had a huge album with ‘Popped in Souled Out’, but it was dwarfed by the massive success of ‘Love is All Around’ in 1994.
Tommy: Well, I’m sitting here next to Kevin, and Kevin is a guy who – and you don’t mind me saying, Kevin – through your career there’s always been curveballs, and different new directions, and Wet Wet Wet have lived that experience as well, so that’s why there’s a really strong connection there. Yes, ‘Popped In Souled Out’ was up there at number one, but we never stopped all the way through that whole period. You’ve got to remember there was ‘Sweet Surrender’ on the next album [‘Holding Back the River’, 1989]; ‘Goodnight Girl’ , that was a huge hit, so there was always a continuation of the career. But you do hit troughs, and you do hit peaks, and right now we’re on a peak, because we’re here at Rewind.
What’s it like for you Kevin to be tackling these songs that are now so iconic?
Kevin: To be honest, it’s just a pleasure to come in. I’ve lived through my days with Liberty X, and been part of festivals similar to this with a whole different generation of people out there watching, and to be able to be here and do this and sing these amazing songs with this amazing band, it’s just like a dream come true, really.
There’s an urban legend that it was the band who deleted the ‘Love Is All Around’ single following its fifteen-week run as you got sick of seeing it at No.1; is that true?
Tommy: We did delete it, but there was a reason why we deleted it. The reason it got deleted is we thought we were going to get beat [to the No.1 spot] on the last week. We knew that, what was her name? Sickfield?
Kevin: Whigfield, ‘Saturday Night’?
Tommy: ‘Saturday Night’! That was coming out, and we knew it had sold tonnes of records, and we knew it was neck and neck, so we just said; “right, we’re going to stop this record, but it means it’s the last chance to buy it”. So there was a little bit of horseplay, and a little bit of tongue-in-cheek, but we did pull it, we were sick of it, but we thought we could get one more week out of it.
Fifteen weeks is an incredible run that puts Wet Wet Wet in a very exclusive club.
Bryan Adams was about three years before [with ‘(Everything I Do) I Do it For You’ , which spent sixteen weeks at No.1], and Whitney Houston had been a couple of years before that [ with ‘I Will Always Love You’ , which spent ten weeks at the top of the charts]. It’s not something we thought was going to happen, and if you’d asked us then if this little song that we’ve recorded in two or three days in a Glasgow studio was still going to be getting played twenty-five years later, we would have laughed at you. It was a b side; we thought it was a b side. It shows how we shouldn’t be picking our records!
Does it ever grate on you that your most well-known song is a cover, and not one of your own hits?
Tommy: A cover version is something that you take on and make your own, and there’s no point doing it if you’re going to try and copy an original and do it all the same. So, you must take it, you must change it, and you must make it your own.
Kevin: I would totally agree with that.
I have to ask, was it a difficult decision to continue the band following the departure of Marti Pellow?
Tommy: Well, I can be very honest. The way it works in the U.K. is the singer is the focus. The lead singer is the person who becomes the face, or the talking point, and we had a very strong pop star of a singer in Marti. He stood there, and he done it for many years. He decided that he wants to go down the Jimmy Tarbuck route and become a presenter and do theatre. You can’t say no to a friend that wants to go and do that, but what you’ve got to do is say; “well, we’re not stopping”. The hardest challenge we’ve faced in our thirty year career is finding the right person who could stand there and fill those shoes. Guess what? We’ve found him.
What’s it like got you Kevin to be thrown in with a load of rowdy Scotsmen?
Kevin: It’s great. I’m probably the easiest person to work with, I would imagine. That’s not bigging myself up or anything, but I do generally get told that by people because I just come in and do the job. Obviously, there’s a lot of expectation and pressure that comes with doing this, and obviously, Marti, like you say is a huge pop star with a recognisable voice, and the only thing I’ve ever bore coming onto the band is to try and deliver the songs kind of like they were on the record and just add a bit of myself to it as well.
What’s your favourite song to sing?
Kevin: I’d probably say ‘Temptation’, I think. Do you know, I love singing them all. It really is like, being able to sing huge hits in front of these huge crowds and get a reaction out of each one, its just brilliant. They kind of just fit right with my voice.
Tommy: I kind of feel like this is a miracle the way it’s worked out for us. We’ve just spent two / three years rebuilding the band because we have to introduce Kevin, on at a time, and it’s all about getting on stage. Luckily we’re all getting on stage, and luckily again, we’ve got a back catalogue that’s so strong and so rich that we can step on stage and it’s all killer, no filler. We go; “bang, bang bang”, and at the end of it, we’ve won everyone over. We’ve got no detractors. As long as we get in front of people, we deliver.
Wet Wet Wet have had quite the story; from success to drug problems and beyond, yet you’re still standing.
Tommy: We always said at the beginning, and I think this is true for everyone who’s on stage at Rewind today including Wet Wet Wet, which is; “don’t become a victim”. Do not let this business chew you up, spit you out, because it will. We all watched the ‘70s and saw drugs destroy many bands. We have been to many places and watched bands from the ‘70s that could hardly walk; they’re almost going on stage in wheelchairs, but they have to do it because they’ve got a mortgage to pay. We aren’t about that; we’re about the music, not the rock and roll lifestyle. I mean, a cup of tea and a beer; that’s as rock and roll as we get. The songs are what do the talking, not the personalities.
Finally, what’s happening next for Wet Wet Wet?
Kevin: We actually wrote an album during lockdown, so that’s kind of ready to go. It’s being released on October 1st, and is out for pre-order now.
Tommy: There’s a tour, there’s other things, so we’re still on the road, we’re still moving, we’re still relevant, we’re still producing music. Wet Wet Wet; you can not get rid of us!
Wet Wet Wet's 'The Journey' is now released on 5th November 2021. To pre-order, click here.
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