The Smyths are one of the best tribute bands around. That might not sound like a terribly great compliment to many, but there is genuinely something interesting about a group of talented musicians who put a lot of dedication into reproducing the work of a band long gone. Last month I contacted Graham Sampson for an interview. Sampson fills the role of Morrissey for the London-based Smiths tribute. His responses were so thoughtful I thought I would share the discussion in it’s entirety below:
What do believe is the appeal of tributes acts in general? Do you think there is a difference between being an act of a band no longer together versus a band who still tours?
I think that a tribute to a band no longer together exists to keep that band’s music alive as a live proposition. The plays of Shakespeare did not die with him and neither should the live performance – in full (as opposed to occasional songs being covered) of the very best bands.
Tributes to bands that actually existing, to my mind, are providing a different proposition which is to hear those songs for less/ hear more often. When the Antarctic Monkeys came about I failed to see the need other than to enjoy the songs for less money. I guess it’s a win -win as the original act are having their songs promoted for them and it likely does mean more record sales.
What prompted you to form a band in tribute to the Smiths?
Going back to then – more than 11 years – at that time we felt our days of making original music had passed. I know I did. Yet the desire to perform in public still remained. In our case, our bass player had combined being in an original band (one in which I was in with him) along with several years in a tribute to the beautiful south/ Housemartins (called The Beautiful South). When they finished, coinciding with our original band the decision was made to form a tribute to our favourite band. Back then our template was a great tribute to The Jam called The Jamm. They seemed to combine the energy and passion of The Jam live with the look of the band, but it was the music rather than “the wigs” that mattered. And that was our thought. We didn’t want to do a silly, Harry-Hill style, tribute with props. We wanted to recreate what we saw when we (luckily) saw The Smiths back in the day, which was a great rock n roll band. No frills – just great songs performed with charisma, verve and energy.
I know other than The Smyths, you are in Beautiful Mechanica. In the latter you write original music. What do you personally get out of each and how are they different?
They are worlds apart. In the Smyths I have to be someone else and with that comes the straight jacket of being that other person. With my own work, the statements are mine and I have the freedom to be and say what I want. The constant in both is the attention to lyrics and their importance (though I could only hope of being anywhere as good as Morrissey in that regard) in songs that combine strong melody with emotion.
The interesting journey will be to see if they can co-exist. Were I already established, then perhaps it would be easier. Imagine, for example, if Jack White had a well-known and well liked “Roy Orbison show” that he wheeled out from time to time – that would be seen as an extension of his artistic ouevre. Having built The Smyths to be what it’s become I’d love for the tribute show to transform into something discussed by people as “I love beautiful mechanica – have you seen Graham’s Smiths show? I love that too”.
The Smyths are very popular. You played Glasto, for example. When the band formed, were you expecting this to be a long-term pursuit?
We remain constantly amazed at how big this is getting. No, I don’t think in our wildest dreams we could have imagined some of the things that have happened and indeed some of the very big opportunities that now lay before us as the pre-eminent tribute to The Smiths globally. I once said that a Smiths tribute could never become as big as one for The Beatles, Stones or Abba, for example.
Now, I’m not so sure. The first time “Las Vegas” was mentioned to us I realised just how big this could be. There are some big things in the pipeline. Vegas isn’t one for now, but taking the band overseas on a bigger scale than we have to date certainly is.
Has your relationship with the Smiths’ music changed after performing them yourself for years? Many musicians become tired of their own music, is it any different when you are a fan?
I guess it has, though in neither a negative or positive way. We know the songs now in an almost surgical way because we’ve studied those songs. Our memories of the songs are now more firmly tied to the live experience and less about how the songs bring back memories of the past – and remember these were the songs of our teenage years! Has something been lost to us because of that? I don’t know. What I would say is that we have the privilege of feeling about and knowing the songs more as the Smiths themselves would.