There is little that is pretty in Tompaulin's world. The seven piece Northern English group's debut album 'The Town and the City' is filled with breezy, snappy melodies and swooping boy-girl harmonies, but beneath its sunny exterior, however, it is underlayed with a bitter sense of discontent and a deep-rooted melancholy. The majority of the dozen songs on 'The Town and the City' are set against the backdrop of the band's home town, the industrial former mining town of Blackburn. Each is a vignette or a small short story that tells of dreams and illusions broken, and of lives shattered and in the raw.

The opening track 'My Life at the Movies' describes the plight of a girl who takes flight in ultimately unsuccessful fantasies about the movies to escape both the drudgery of her dull job, and the grim reality of her landlord banging at her door demanding a rent that she probably can't pay. Things are similarly bleak elsewhere also. 'Daydreaming' tells of the hopeless affair between a factory worker and an older and rich married man, and 'Short Affairs' captures the anguish of an outwardly respectable, but repressed homosexual businessman reduced to finding anonymous sex in public toilets. 'On the Buses' is about a self-consciously handicapped child desperate just to be normal or alternatively invisible. 'The Boy Hairdresser' meanwhile will always remain an outsider and a figure of ridicule in the machismo,but oppressive environment of Blackburn.

Tompaulin was formed by the group's two songwriters , long term friends. Jamie Holman and Ciaron Melia, in Melia's bedroom in 1999. Holman plays acoustic guitar and vocals in the band, while Melia, who does not enjoy live performing and prefers to opt out of playing gigs, provides additional guitar on studio recordings. The pair also quickly recruited into the band's line-up Stacey McKenna on vocals, Lee Davies on piano, Simon Trought on guitar, Amos Memon on drums and Katie Grocott on bass.

Tompaulin self-released their debut single 'Ballad of the Bootboys' in late 1999 on their own Action label in a limited vinyl only edition of 1000 copies, which sold out in a week. Since then, they have released two other 7" vinyl singles 'Slender', which came out on Earworm in 2000, and 'It's a Girls World', which was released on Track and Field in 2001.

The band have released as well two other singles which have run to both a CD and vinyl edition, the three track 'Car Crash EP' which was put out again on the Action label in 2000, and 'My Life at the Movies', which was released by the Manchester-based label Ugly Man in September of last year. 'The Town and the City' likewise has both a CD and a LP edition and released again on Ugly Man, came out in November.

While Holman, Melia and Davies live in Blackburn, the remainder of Tompaulin are based in London. Both McKenna, who was at school with Holman and Melia, and Trought are formerly from Blackburn, but have since moved down to the capital. Memon meanwhile is a friend of Holman's from his university days, while Grocott was brought into the band after meeting and becoming friendly with Trought in London. The split location of the group is an arrangement that suits its members.

"It works really well for us" says Holman , talking with Melia to Pennyblackmusic. "I wouldn't want to be in a band that rehearsed three nights a week and took over your life. We swop tapes up and down, and rehearse either in London or up here every other weekend or so. The band members who live down there get to come out of London for the weekend and enjoy coming up and having a drink and getting out to the local pubs. We get when we go down there the chance to see local bands, and to do all the things you want to do when you are in London. It is like a permanent honeymoon period really."

"I think that is good for us to be away" he continues. "We have got to know other bands, who have got sucked in and have ended up moving around in circles in London, but we are a healthy distant from that and are really lucky, as we have got a foot in both camps. Simon represents us all in London, which means that Ciaron and I in Blackburn can get on with the business of writing the songs."

Inevitably Tompaulin, because of its breezy sound and its use of boy-girl vocals, has drawn critical comparisons with Belle and Sebastian. With Tompaulin's vision much darker and less offbeat than that of the Scottish act, Holman and Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian's frontman , have both been quoted in fanzines and the musical press as saying that, while enjoying the other's music, it is a likeness that neither feels is particulary fitting. Tompaulin, however, cite openly a wide tapestry of influences, and the sleeve notes on 'The Town and the City' credit and thank an extensive range of the group's musical heroes which include the Temptations, the Stooges, Brian Wilson , Kristen Hersh, Bob Dylan and Dexy's Midnight Runners.

"Our influences don't always show through on the records" says Melia. "Dylan is a massive influence though, because of his lyrics. He has always been a big hero, and really encouraged us through his songs to start writing, and just to try to get something down on paper. Dexy's have also been a big influence, not necessarily because of their music, although I think it shows through on some of our tracks, but in view of their gang ethics and the soul behind their sound."

"There is a big difference between comparisions and influences" Holman continues. "We have no control over comparisions, and the influences don't always manifest themselves at all times in what we do. Ciaron's into hip hop. You won't perhaps see it on a record, but that influence is definitely there. We are all also into the idea from right across the spectrum of being an independent band , so the Television Personalities and New Order are both really important, perhaps not musically, but because of the way they do things."

"Stacey also has her own influences as far as her singing goes. She's obsessed with Patti Smith and Brian Wilson, while Simon is really into country music. He likes Gram Parsons and George Jones, and I can see some of that stuff appearing on the album in his guitar playing. Pulp meanwhile are important too to me , and so are Dexy's. Everyone brings their own influences into the mix, and so we always end up sounding like Tompaulin."

Literature too has had a direct bearing on the group. Both Holman and Melia are avid readers, with Melia favouring the books of American Beat novelists such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Richard Brautigan, and Holman preferring the work of British farcicists and realists like Simon Armitage, Joe Orton and Jim Cartwright.

'The Town and the City' is named after the sprawling debut novel by Jack Kerouac, while the band takes its name from Tom Paulin, an Irish poet and a critic on the BBC2 late night arts programme 'The Late Show'. 'Richard Brautigan', one of the tracks on the album, meanwhile is a tribute to the fiction writer , poet and structuralist who committed suicide in 1984.

"Books have been as big an influence as any of the groups we have talked about" Melia reflects. "The way that Richard Brautigan writes has had as strong an influence on our lyrics as any piece of music. It is quite difficult to deconstruct, but his idea of rhythms and beats have had a really important effect . There is a relationship there with hip hop as well. I would take him as probably one of my biggest influences of all."

"In the band's first few months we wrote 107 dirges" says Holman, evaluating the contrast between the band's upbeat sound and its bleak subject matter. "But then we talked about good bands that we liked, bands like the Smiths. How did Morrissey manage to write this stuff with that subject matter, but make it into a pop song ? The pop aesthetic is really important to us, and Simon is really, really important in that. He keeps pushing us when we are writing towards that direction."

Humour is also an essential element of Tompaulin's music. In 'Kicking and Punching', one of the middle tracks on 'The Town and the City', its protagonist is beaten up in a brutal back street kicking and hospitalised after drunkenly kissing the girlfriend of a notorious local hard man . The song is, however, executed with a sense of pastiche and such an enforced jollity that it comes across as comical, rather than horrific or depressing. The situation that the dreamy girl in 'My Life and the Movies' finds herself in, and also that which involves the two adulterous lovers in 'Daydreaming', who sleep together in the man's marital bed watched over by a disapproving but discreet maid while his wife is out shopping , both also have a similar sense of farce and of the absurd.

"We are sometimes perceived as po-faced miserablists, but we're not" reflects Holman. "Stuff like Joe Orton's stuff is really tragic, but it is also really funny. The idea of farce as a device I think works really well in music. The best Smiths stuff is really dark, but you laugh along with them as well. With us too, it's definitely a case of "If you don't laugh, you cry."

"Our music is a mixed reflection on Blackburn itself" Melia continues. "It is easy to look at it as a grimy Northern town, but there is a humour there as well, so it is a case of balancing what you see."

It is, however, anger too which drives the band, anger at the casual cruelties that people inflict on each other and at prejudice and narrow-mindedness, anger also at the injustices and the disappointments of life.

"I think twenty five years of being told you're a piece of shit does make you bitter" says Holman . "You do everything you're supposed to do, but nothing actually comes true of it. You do your exams. You read the right books, but you find that all that waits for you is being unemployed and being shafted. You do end up being angry if that happens. You do end up being angry as well if you're one of those boys who goes to meet other boys in the park and get beaten up for it. You come out of it with a fighter mentality though . People keep saying "Oh, they've got a chip on their shoulder". We have, but I'm okay with that, because who wouldn't have ?"

"A lot of people are beaten down, and a lot of people stay beaten down" adds Melia. " If you come through it, you're going to bring the anger through with you, but will have something to show for it."

"I'm immensely proud to be in this band with my friends" he concludes forcefully a few moments later. "Just having one single out was good, but getting an album out was superb. I'm still taking it all in really, but we're proof that you can rise above that. We're proof that you can come out of it.'

Tompaulin will releasing their next record, an as yet-untitled single, on Track and Field in the spring. Holman and Melia have also recently finished writing a second album, which they will start recording soon and release again on Ugly Man later in the year. With the band attracting increasing interest in the music press and on radio, and with 'The Town and City' appearing high on indie albums chart, it seems that mainstream chart appearances and further success is imminent for the group.

We are all perhaps in the gutter, but Tompaulin, however, are defiantly looking at the stars.

























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