"One of you must have a line by now!"
Tony, our professional bingo-caller for the day, shakes his head exhaustedly. Never has he seen the simple game of bingo destroyed by such ineptitude.
At least they're trying. Determine to win, theaudience's singer Sophie Ellis Bextor is annoyed when our chatter distracts her. "Ssssh, I can't hear." She pulls a face I haven't seen since Bianca last argued with Ricky in "Eastenders". "Now look. You made me miss one." Patch, their gregarious drummer, is treating it like an A-level Pure Mathematics exam. Unfortunately, it's one he's destined to fail. Rules had been explained but, as we're finding out, completely misunderstood. Guitarist Dean, for instance, is perplexed by the conceptual problems faced by a "full house".
"You do realise there are only five numbers left?" Tony says, with all the crowd-baiting sarcasm of Bruce Forsyth. theaudience's Guv'nor Billy Reeves, being "dreadfully working class", is a bingo veteran and therefore ashamed of his hapless colleagues.
He turns away in disgust: "theaudience: great at music, terrible at bingo."
Billy Reeves is a frustrated stand-up comedian. He's lovably waggish, talking with the speed of a machine gun nervously flushing lobster-pink throughout the interview. I leave the room for a minute and return to find him chewing gum noisily into my tape recorder. When Sophie enthuses about a new pair of shoes, Billy nicknames her "The Imelda Marcos Of Pop". For Billy, theaudience is like a Christmas where Santa remembers everything you asked for.
So why is their new single,, "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed", preaching caution and perspective when their future looks so star-shaped? Is it a warning - as the bingo profusely illustrated - that luck is a force beyond our control.
"It's not really about the group as such," explains Billy. "It's more of a general philosophy. Like all our songs, it's very intelligent, but we want to show people that we have a sense of humour. The title is a great witty phrase and I'm amazed no one has used it before."
Having worked as a press officer for a pre-global domination Pulp, and enough indie clodhoppers to play The Falcon every night until 2001, Billy has a self-conscious, semi-satirical intelligence of pop music (former single "If You Can't Do It When You're Young; When Can You Do It?" took a sideways glance at the mechanics of the industry). It's this acute understanding of pop's integral thrill that enables him to dramatise the 13 years between him and Sophie (he's 32, she's just turned 19), manipulating the age-gap so that it becomes their group's principal attraction.
Do you find that the older you get, the more you think about your adolescence, Billy?
"I've done nothing except think about my adolescence recently because that's what all my lyrics are about. It would be ridiculous if Sophie was singing about thing that worry me at my age - 'Oh my God my mortgage is really expensive.'"
Do you envy her youth?
"I envy her sense of belonging and the fact that she's got such a good head on her shoulders. When I was 19, it was all about being an outsider, being into Joy Division and the Bunnymen. So I don't envy her being 19, but I envy her for the way she is 19. She does it very well, I did very badly. All my lyrics are seen through the eyes of a 19-year-old. Sophie has to sing my lyrics, so it's very important that they're not just irrelevant hogwash. theaudience must reflect her personality, so musically speaking, we have to wear lipstick, high heels and have big bosoms!"
"But I get quite hurt when people call us a project," grieves Sophie. "I get portrayed as a jaded cynic, but I don't stand at the back cracking a whip saying 'We must not have fun. We must not do foolish things.'"
Prove it, then. Tell us a joke.
"OK. Two cows standing in a field. One says: 'I'm a bit worried about this mad cow disease.' The other one replies: 'I'm not because I'm a squirrel.' Ha ha ha ha."
Sophie has a laugh so dirty she sounds like Barbara Windsor being chased by Sid James.
The Ellis in "Ellis Bextor" comes from Janet Ellis, who presented "Blue Peter" in the Eighties. It's a trivial fact which should be of negligible interest, but, as much as her past has been over-scrutinised, it intrigues you in the same way that a copy of Hello! magazine would if you found it in a dentist's waiting room. For those of us whose life is one never-ending bus queue, a glimmer of proper fame (as in real, TV, mainstream fame) will always fascinate.
Has any interviewer not asked you about your mother?
"Only on regional radio where they were ignorant of the fact. I realise that a lot of people who interview us are at the right age to have watched her on television, and are enticed by the nostalgic resonance of it. I expected it. The only person who gets annoyed is my dad, because he directs our videos which I always mention, but it never gets printed - so he thinks I'm neglecting him."
"I understand why it's interesting for people because it's interesting to me," stresses Billy. "I was initially suspicious of all that celebrity nonsense, but then you realise they're as hard-working as anyone. It's just that they put their face on the telly and you think it's another world."
Is how you look as important as how you sound?
It takes Sophie a thousandth of a millisecond to answer.
"That's why we dress up with religious precision," verifies Billy. "It's very important to cultivate your look in order to impress. If I do this, I might as well make the effort."
For the photo shoot earlier, Billy replaced his faded, five-pence-down-Camden-Market top for a black polo-neck, thus transforming him instantly from the indie vinyl-spotter to the fantastically stylish pop scholar, a difference equivalent to that between a pint of dog's-piss cider and a sugar-rimmed cocktail.
But Billy could wear a tutu and a pink turban, and Sophie would still steal the limelight and demand a ransom. She has eyes that gleam like Tutankhamen's tomb and cheekbones larger than the iceberg that sunk the Titanic.
So are you prepared to be "The Face Of 1998"?
"Oh yeah, that would be great. It's not so long ago that I was reading all those teen mags with their ideas of female perfection, and I'm not conventionally good-looking at all. I would like to represent the opposite of all that. But it's only because I'm a pop star. The context is everything."
Come on, you'd would be good-looking if you were stacking dog food in Kwik-Save.
"I don't actually believe that. I'm not happy with myself a lot of the time. I'm still stuck in that feeling of being 15 and no one fancying me at all. I've always been quite a confident person, but there have been times when I thought I needed plastic surgery."
Billy, are you ever going to get sick of seeing Sophie's face - and hers alone - on magazine covers?
"I would hate to see mine."
Are you going to get sick of seeing your own face on magazine covers, Sophie?
"Of course not. I'd hate to see Billy's."
She laughs again. This time it's a child-like titter. They exchange fleeting glances and there's a certain look in their eyes. A look of intimacy. A look of celebration.
A look of triumph.
Here's one I slayed earlier: Sophie's big mouth
"I hate his single and he looks like such a tart. I loved Take That, but once you pretend to be credible and wear leotard and ridiculous make-up you look like a wanker. What a prat!"
"If you write intelligent lyrics in pop you have to make sure it's not in a worthy way like 'OAPs, man, they're getting smashed against the wall'. The Dubstar clumsiness is something we avoid."
"I've been called the 'British Drew Barrymore' because of my so-called celebrity upbringing. I saw her being interviewed by Ruby Wax and you think 'fine, fine, fine, then - whoops' and you realise she's a bit of prat. I hat the phrases she uses, all that hippie, cutesy crap."
1998 | Melody Maker