published in November Stool Pigeon under headline 'Class Act - Darren Hayman keeps it comprehensively British and old school
You’ve seen it. The generic Fruit of the Loom t-shirt in block colours, with the word ‘Hefner’ printed across the chest. You see it worn occasionally at a market or a record store, and more often at festivals, where they share a status with Slipknot hoodies at Reading. Walking past one of these t-shirts, some people will think, what is this shit skate label that only sells one thing?, but to others, a quiet society of John Peel listeners and knowing indie boffins, this is the secret handshake, a seal of approval as dependable as a lion on an egg.
The man behind the t-shirts, once the main force behind Hefner, is today comfortably unaware of his cult status. Or at least, if he’s aware, he doesn’t show it. Tucking into a bacon sandwich in between home and the cinema, Darren Hayman talks me through an ordinary day as an underground pop icon. “Some days,” he tells me, “my job is just like anyone else’s job.” He isn’t being blasé, it does sound pretty normal.
“My wife’s alarm goes off at six to the Today programme, and I’m usually up by 7.” He says, “I’ll do a bit of housekeeping, then I’ll walk the dog, do me emails, update the website, this and that. When my wife gets home I usually make sure I’ve done her dinner. Might do a gig.”
You might wonder why we’ve settled so quickly on the unremarkable, but in a world where kids are making big money with songs about owning trainers, it’s rare to find someone who’s living a life as real as he sings. Of course, Darren Hayman started making music with the intention to keep it real. He first picked up a guitar in 1986 after seeing Billy Bragg play, and what follows
“I remember being about 17 when I saw Billy Bragg play,” he says, “and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I could do this.’ up until then I’d never hard anyone sing with an essex accent, just American ones, or Liverpudlian like the Beatles. It just made me think, that if he’s only got his guitar and his voice, maybe I could do it too. I guess it was quite arrogant really.”
Hefner’s songs, like Billy Bragg’s, were at their best with the smallest situations as starting points, songs like Greater London Radio, or Lee Remick, a lament to family dysfunction centred around a teenager’s film star crush. Emerging just as Britpop faded out, Darren largely ignored the fiercely marketed bolshiness of Cool Britannia, ad drew inspiration from observational lo-fi artists from America, like the Mountain Goats, Simon Joyner and the New Bad Things.
“All those bands inspired me because they had an audience but they weren’t rich or famous in any way. They had this real, genuine, troubadour quality that I couldn’t see in bands English bands at the time.” he muses, then continues, “but I was always very keen I would sing about what I saw - British things, with a British accent. That was the most important to me.”
Darren is unique in this country in that he hasn’t really strayed from those early inspirations, or filtered his style as he became more successful. He would tell you its because he hasn’t sold enough records to sell out, but one suspects that at the heart of his music lies a voice that won’t be manipulated. Today, we’re here to talk about Darren Hayman & the Secondary Modern, his first album proper since splitting up with Hefner, and it is still lyrically outstanding, and still Very British. It’s British in the same way that Jarvis Cocker, Graham Coxon and the Arctic Monkeys make British Records, but instead of a kitchen sink drama, we have a full blown episode of Channel 4’s Teachers. Well, maybe without the swearing. And the sex. But there’s definitely some smutty looks in the teachers lounge and a few too many whisky sodas after school. It’s a Britishness that’s peculiar to the high streets of suburban East London, where he grew up and still lives. Songs like Rochelle, which begins, ‘if you can’t walk in high heels, then don’t walk in high heels’, or Elizabeth Duke, about proposing to a girlfriend with a cheap ring, invoke images of a town you’ve never been to, but you’ve seen on telly. Unless of course, it reminds you of a town you do know. That’s the beauty of the album, you can either have experienced it, or not, but either way, you know what he means. The album also unique in that it may be pop’s first age-appropriate album since Kate Bush started singing about dishwashers. You wouldn’t catch Jarvis singing about marriage or mortgages in a hurry, nor any other thirty-something pop star for that matter, but that’s precisely what Darren has done on this record. Is this a nod to the write-what-you-see school of his early influences?
“I have no problems with writing adult songs for adults,” says Darren, “There’s a bit of a gap in the market for that isn’t there?”
If there was a gap in the market for Walthamstow centric, part-time teacher indie pop, then it looks like it’s just been filled. And anyone who was looking for that missing record on the moon-landing, or the new town of Harlow can also expect the wait to be over. Since breaking up with Hefner’s label, Too Pure, Darren has been afforded an unprecendnted amoung of creative freedom. So much so, the next album may well be 14 songs about town planning.
“I’m getting used to the idea that I’m not on a label anymore and I can do all the silly ideas I’ve had.” He says, “I’m sure if Chris Martin wanted to write an album about Harlow, someone would tell him it was a shit idea. I’m sure he would think it was a shit idea.” He giggles, “I’m sure it is a shit idea – but I’m just going to keep doing this until I do something so bloody awful that nobody buys it.”
On last count, Darren Hayman is yet to release a bloody awful album, Coldplay on the other hand... If his initial dream on seeing Billy Bragg was only to represent his own background as well as Bragg did, then he’s succeeded. He's also managed to rival heroes like the Mountain Goats & Simon Joyner on prolificacy, and maintain a double life of artist/ working man of which Phillip Larkin would be proud. Occasionally, however, news of his success will filter into his reality.
“I was doing a music crossword the other day, and the answer was Darren Hayman,” he says, “and I didn’t get it. I left it blank. My wife told me off for that.” He laughs, “That’s a sign isn’t it? That I can’t even get my own name in a crossword.”
I bet the kid on the next table with the Hefner tee figured it out.