Plucked from obscurity at a London nightclub, Sophie Ellis Bextor is all set to become the glam icon of '98. theaudience have been artfully sculpted by the band's scheming uncle figure, Billy Reeves, and now they're ready to wander through music's exotic gardens...
The Roof Gardens banqueting complex in Kensington is the perfect setting for theaudience – a series of sumptuous gold suites which are, every so often graced by vast white Ionic columns. The massive picture windows open out onto - oh yes! - a roof garden. Ghostly white birches hang over the lily-pond and plastic flamingos provided by Select litter the lawn. In a move of quite unparalleled Hyper-Silliness, two actual flamingos freak around, like the huge pink backward-leg birds they are.
Sophie Ellis Bextor stands by the pond in a shimmery evening dress, professionally ignoring her hypothermia in order to smoulder at the camera. Eighteen years old, she looks like God melted Vivien Leigh's face and poured it into the mould left over from the making of Helena Bonham-Carter. She's a scary girl made entirely from marble and lipstick: Ellis Bextor's eyes have that gimlet poshness that mean she's never going to get hassle from Jehovah's Witnesses door-to-door salesmen, or free-floating grope-pervs. Every so often a tiny, heart-felt "Fuck" escapes her shiny lips.
"You're a cracking bird, you really are," shouts Billy Reeves, theaudience effervescent overlord, jollying her along. He looks like Gary Crowley injected with brains. "He's my brother, yes," at which Billy beams, "my Brother in Rock. Wonderful man but the taste of gibbon!"
"Get me a portable radiator," Sophie moans, vibrating with cold. "Deduct it from my royalties. I'll stick it up my dress and hide it. My face has gone numb."
"It'll be cold onstage at Wembley, too." Billy comforts her. "This is all training."
Sophie flicks a V-sign at Billy. Billy flicks one back. Sophie glares at him and there is a small impasse before the simultaneously break and grin at each other. It's a confident, gangish, clannish, delighted grin. It's the kind grinning you do when you know that, in the company you're keeping, everything is possible and, pretty soon, you'll be able to order the world for breakfast on room service.
Billy Reeves was 30: A teetotal vegan manic manic-depressive who jobbed at What Car and gave the Skoda Estelle a good review . By 1994, Fate's fair winds had blown him along to Fire Records, where he did PR for Pulp, who no-one cared about at the time, and who Billy thought were overrated anyway.
"We knew our place at Fire," says Billy, countering any suspicions that theaudience are the plaything of nepotistic industry insiders. "We were the lowest of the low. There aren't that many favours you can pull in as the ex-press officer of Telstar Ponies. Except from Telstar Ponies, obviously, but the most influential and powerful person they knew was probably me."
Although Billy had been married to her for four years, he didn't know his wife Helen could play guitar. One evening, between Eastenders and The Nine O'Clock News, Helen showed Billy how to spell chords out o a fret. He wrote his first song in 20 minutes. Acquainted with a fistful of chords, the plan coalesced just as quickly. Although it had never occurred to him before, Billy realised he wanted a band more than most of us want cancer-free fags. This band would be like Echo And The Bunnymen at their peak, when they had the delicious luxury of working on the two best levels: dark, arty and angular, yet so melodically pop that Radiohead could rip them off ten years later and have a multi-platinum album.
Says Billy, "I thought, 'I'll sing! NO! I won't sing! What shall I do? I need a singer. OK, it needs to be someone that I don't need to worry about, someone drowning in talent.' I held auditions, put adverts in the weeklies, spread the word around... no-one was right." He sighs. "It took me so long to find her."
For the record, Sophie is not the foetus that got her mother, TV's Janet Ellis, fired from Squeakyclean Blue Peter in the 80's. "Jesus, if anyone asks me that one more time!" she says, with Cruella deVille's flashing eyes. We are seated in one of the Roof Garden's gold suites - Sophie's shoe collection covers the table.
"If I had been that pregnancy," she continues, exasperated, "I'd be, like, ten and I don't think I'd ave these," she gestures dramatically to her bazoomas. "That was my brother, and besides," she adds loyally, "Mum wasn't fired, she left because she was pregnant." Despite being only related to 1986's most famous zygote, Sophie Ellis Bextor has lived a life that would make most of us boggle and choke every minute of the day, had it been ours.
"It was never really famous people I was around," she explains. "It was all very C-list."
This, of course, is nothing like the truth: when Chris Serle from That's Life and In At The Deep End is your lodger, Caron Keating is your brother's godmother, and you can talk comfortably about Gloria Hunniford because you know her, then that makes you, Sophie Ellis Bextor, the British Drew Barrymore. You have a Surreal Showbiz Upbringing.
"I think I probably was a bit of a madam at one point" she apologises. "Sky were filming a TV series in our kitchen with Nerys Hughes, and I would come home from school for lunch and flounce into the kitchen in an adolescent strop, shouting, 'Get out of the way, Nerys, I'm trying to get to the tuna.'"
Sophie was launched into indie-rock society in 1996 along with several other celeb-sprogs. For six months, the gossip pages fairly hummed with the news that a Symposium gig had been attended by Ellis Bextor, Rosie Daltrey, one of Paul McCartney's luckier sperms and something descended from Peter Townshend - although Ellis Bextor didn't come down with the others in their Charabanc fro Annabells'.
"I never knew any of them," she explain. "I presume they all got tickets to these things through their dads, but I always blagged my way in. My Mum doesn't know anyone from Cast, y'know. You don't make those kinds of contacts on Jigsaw."
When, in the midst of her indie blossoming, Sophie stumbled into a club called Uncle Bob's Wedding Reception on Holloway Road, North London, she had no idea Billy Reeves had been looking to build his imaginary band around her for two years.
"I thought it was actually someone's wedding reception," she sighs, "and I was really confused, wandering around and I suddenly found myself in the DJ booth. Billy was DJing that night. It was fate, I suppose."
"I thought, she's got to be shit - she looks too fantastic to be any good," Billy says. "I gave her a tape of my songs...."
"It was just him humming" Sophie counters disgustedly "And he hadn't rewound it properly. The first side was 'Neu! 1972-1979'. He nearly lost me there."
"Then I heard her sing," Billy continues, undaunted, "and it was really bloody unfeasible that she'd sound like that. As soon as I heard her I knew she was the one."
"I never wanted to be in a band at all," Sophie sniffs. "I was planning to go into theatre and act, or do some presenting after I left university. But I thought I'd give it a go."
The next week Billy sold all his records, all his gorgeous vinyl: Echo And The Bunnymen, New Order, Teardrop Explodes, rare jazz LPs that misty-eyed men worship the very grooves of. He got £458.
"It was the bloody sacrifice, the high ceremony to mark the birth of theaudience," he says, rolling his eyes, frothing and looking rather like the evil Queen of Narnia does at the moment she kills Aslan. "And besides," he says dampening down and folding all his gangly limbs back into their proper place, "we needed the money."
And so was forged this year's most unlikely pop-partnership. The 32-year-old Cockney post-rock fan, and the icy descendant of showbiz royalty vaguely reminiscent of David and Maddie from Moonlighting: Billy is the irrepressible, piss-taking bloke who believes everything is possible and Sophie is the posh, cynical bird who knows what is viable.
"Billy comes to me with an idea, and I tell him if it's naff or not," Sophie elucidates.
"Some of the things..." she rolls her eyes to the heavens and pulls a face.
"It just works, amazingly" Billy insists, slapping his hand on the table. "We can do anything. We're all the bands you'll ever need."
There really hasn't been a band since Suede whose first three singles have sounded so like a muezzin-call to worship. Most bands' first steps are triumphs of energy over elegance, vim over verve.
Their debut single 'I Got The Wherewithal', is well worth tracking down now before it gets uncommonly rare and ‘50-is. It will puncture your heart at 50 paces - a vertiginously adult orchestral drama that comes across like a Gothic Swan Lake. Its lyrics map out theaudience's emotional feng shui instantly: a poised yet visceral hatred of the beigeness that saturates most of the world, a fierce sense of ambition and a family-bucket-sized portion of revenge. There's even a hint at Billy's PR days waiting for his band's review ratings: "Five stars is unsurpassable / Four Stars it's unbelievable / Three stars it's undulating / Two stars is uninspiring/One star is unpalatable / And you get no stars."
The second single, 'If You Can't Do It When You're Young When Can You Do It?' is lushly appointed with expensively languorous verses and a fizzing, frankly insane Theremin chorus.
theaudience's clannish disdain of the ordinary is spelt out, with Sophie bitching that she "I don't need much of your funds / I get paid for my imagination / in this dark, dull and dusty island / I get no stimulation."
The third and final goal in theaudience's hat-trick is the current single, 'A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed'. It sounds like Shakespear's Sister interbreeding with Pulp, and pivots on the kind of chord-change that elicits a dewey-eyed response. "It's a song about wanting to get out of the gutter,"
Billy explains. "All that 'we must be so humble when we're praised' - everyone feels like that when they achieve something. And then I puncture my own message with 'This is the highlight of your miserable life / A pessimist is never disappointed'. It's the twist in the tale. The poo on the pavement."
The real twist in the tale, however, is that Bextor Ellis' voice has the accusatory sexiness of Chrissy Hynde and the poise of Debbie Harry. She sings like she's got something delicious in her mouth - Belgian chocolate, a half-dozen oysters, a spoonful of champagne. Of course, what she also has in her mouth are the words of a 32-year-old man. Although it all works insanely well, isn't it just a tad creepy writing songs for a teenage girl to sing?
"Not really - they're all about me," Billy beams. "A lot of the songs are about people from my teenage years; people who were so cool, who were gonna go places and become famous, and they became square and drab and dull and gave up.
"You need adversity to drive you on, don't you? If this single doesn't go smashing into the chart, or at a push the next one, we'll chuck it in. Seriously. We're not going to limp along like Menswear - I'm too old to piss about with failure. Sophie'll tell you the same."
Billy stands and gathers his battered tweedy coat about him. "I've got to go now," he says. "There's one bus a hour from here to my house. Rock 'n' roll!"
Select is left in the deserted Roof Gardens with Miss Sophie Ellis Bextor. She stretches languorously in her chair.
"This group is all or nothing," Sophie agrees, sleepily. "We have our manifesto - it's to bring intelligence and glamour and pomposity back into the charts again." She casts about languidly before her eye suddenly spark. "Oh, look! There's a bar over there."
Sure enough, God has seen fit to tempt the weak with a lavishly stocked bar and not a staff member in sight. Ellis Bextor totters over on her four-inch heels and lolls against the bar.
"If you have hypothermia, alcohol warms you, doesn't it?" she muses. "What do they have? Oh!" A tender sigh escapes. "It's Bollinger." Looking quickly left and right, she slips off her heels, slaps them on the bar, and leaps over, effortlessly.
"Free champagne!" she beams, before her innate common sense returns. A frown creases her brow.
"Now, do you think they've got the proper glasses back here?"
PICTURES USED ON ARTICLE
Derrick Santini shoot
May 1998 | Select Magazine