If ¡Forward Russia! frontman Tom Woodhead could sum up the past year, he would undoubtedly uses his two favourite adjectives, ‘weird’ and ‘amazing’. Over the course of our conversation, the slight, polite Yorkshireman can’t help but repeatedly describe life in such terms. Rising from the ashes of two highly respected Leeds bands – Les Flames! and The Black Helicopters - ¡Forward Russia! have taken their experience of playing the toilet circuit and burst into the musical conscience without nuzzling up to industry players. It doesn’t mean it’s been any less tiring though as Woodhead takes another bite of his well-deserved pub grub.
“It’s pretty weird at the moment, but because we’re on tour all the time we’re quite sheltered from everything. You get caught in a bubble so you don’t know about everything that’s going on.”
Not that Woodhead and cohorts, Whiskas (guitar), Rob Canning (bass) and Katie Nicholls (drums) should be in hiding. Their debut album, ‘Give Me A Wall’, has been released to rave reviews; its title hinting at the visceral determination that drives their music. Plus, they’re currently the band to name-check thanks to the business ingenuity of Whiskas, who having been one of the most visionary promoters on the Leeds music scene, now has his own record label, Dance To The Radio, to add some foundation to the ¡Forward Russia! empire. Clearly, Tom played his cards right by ending up in a band with the ubiquitous guitarist.
“Well I always thought it would be quite cool to be in a band with Whiskas because you don’t have to do as much work on him to get things done. He’s kind of obsessed with the organisational side of it, so you don’t have to do all that stuff that everyone else hates.”
Diplomatically, he balks at any suggestion that his bandmate may be a bit of a control freak. “Hmmm. There’s more than one way of looking at it. You could call him a control freak or just say he pays attention to detail.”
Whiskas’ passion to keep the band in control of their destiny is admirable, but having his younger sister on drums does occasionally cause the balance of power to shift. “Whiskas used to be a lot more protective than he is now but he’s resigned himself to the fact that Katie doesn’t listen to him most of the time. Anyway, she brings a lot of it on herself,” Woodhead says teasingly. “The brother and sister thing only really comes in during times of stress and they start calling each other by their full names. When you hear Katie calling Whiskas ‘Sam’, then you know something’s up.”
¡Forward Russia!’s DIY experience of the music industry hasn’t always been plain sailing. The main difference between letting everything fall apart and their plans coming together is the clear vision and self-belief that the four share.
“There’ve been little mistakes. A lot of stuff has been delayed but I think that happens to most bands anyway so to be honest, I would have liked a little more time around the recording of the album but beggars can’t be choosers,” he laughs.
The band may not be living the high life just yet - both they and Sheffield’s The Long Blondes undertook a recent NME tour in a van rather than an impressive tourbus. With only each other to rely on, they’re pretty astute when it comes to realizing that life on the road is what you make it.
“When you’re a band like Boy Kill Boy or The Automatic, for some reason, the label doesn’t mind just throwing money out the window. The amount of money that Boy Kill Boy has lost on this tour could probably feed a third world nation for a year.”
“But the NME tour was good fun. We got on really well with The Automatic and became really good mates. It’s a weird thing because the crowds are split almost down the middle. There are kids who come to see us who are fans and there’s a large proportion of the audience who come out of curiosity, so the crowds can be really weird or really amazing depending on what city you’re in.”
The brother and sister thing only really comes in during times of stress and they start calling each other by their full names.
Considering Whiskas’ guitar and Katie’s drums bounce against the walls like shards of glass and Tom yelps as though he’s just been dangled from a suspension bridge, it’s difficult to imagine ¡Forward Russia! appealing to a mainstream crowd. But whilst the sophisticated time signatures imply a certain amount of musical education is needed to be a fan, there’s also plenty of danceability and tormented guitar muscle which has won them legions of fans under the legal drinking age.
Tom looks philosophical. “I think there’s a lot of bands like us because indie is a lot more of a popular culture thing than it was five or six years ago. But I’m pretty impressed that we’ve got so many young people into music that maybe isn’t Razorlight or whatever. We’re on first name terms with quite a lot of people that we see around the country and they post on the forum on our website so it’s really nice to have that connection.”
Have you ever experienced anyone staring at you with starstruck awe?
“Erm…well…I dunno,” he blushes. “It happens occasionally but you just put it to the back of your mind or you end up with a massive ego.”
When I inquire as to who is guilty of the most self-congratulatory behaviour, he cheekily replies, “Rob probably has the biggest ego. Once in a while you just need to slap him around the head and tell him ‘You’re not a rock star yet boy - not until you write the next ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay’.”
Blossoming from a scene that doesn’t consider take stadium tours, Ivor Novello ceremonies and Brit Awards to be a rite of passage, word is spreading internationally about this hard-working, self-sufficient bunch tagged as the forerunners of the scene misguidedly known as New Yorkshire.
“I’ll be relieved when the phrase dies down. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard invented by some guy at the NME for a joke and people actually use it in regular conversation now. We got an email from these promoters in Finland who wanted to put us on in Helsinki and they said ‘we know the band is from New Yorkshire…’” he chuckles.
“I think they thought we actually live in a place called New Yorkshire.”