I caught up with Mike Bullock (he’d been having email problems) on a cold Sunday. We sat outside the Seven Stars – where the bells of St Thomas the Martyr were setting up a clamour of their own – and shivered our way through an interview that delivered a real surprise, to me at least, halfway through.
Mike was born in 1960 in Leeds, Yorkshire, which should make it easy to work out his birthday except – nothing’s ever easy – he was born right at the end of the year. So he’s actually a youthful looking 51, not an even more youthful looking 52.
So where did it all begin for him?
“There wasn’t much music in the family. Apparently two of my uncles… when they were younger, they used to perform in a bit of a skiffle outfit, and one of them did have a guitar, but I never heard him play it – so there wasn’t a strong influence.
“I got into music because I remember I loved singing at school, singing in assembly and all that when I was really young, and I remember when mum and dad bought an old stereogram. They bought two albums: one was Ray Charles, I forget which one, and the other was With The Beatles. When they put the Ray Charles one on I just started crying – it just hit me, it got into my soul straightaway.
“My parents bought me a guitar when I was about 10, but because I didn’t have anyone there to kind of mentor me, I didn’t get on with it at all. So then I went to grammar school and there were a lot of musicians there and we were all listening to the same kind of music, so we decided to form a band and I was the singer. I was about 15 then. Then the guitarist taught me a few chords and it ended up with me teaching him basically. I picked up the guitar very quickly when I wanted to, had a reason to.
“The other thing was, the school was very much into formal music training and I was playing guitar in the music lessons, or trying to, but it was all formal, sight reading and so on and I couldn’t get on with that at all. So I just used to go and put a record on, listen to it and work it out myself.
“What happened next was our school band were meant to do a gig but the guitarist broke his arm a week before. Now there was another band at the school, in the sixth form, who needed a bass player. And I was good friends with one of them – he was a real sort of Paul McCartney character, a multi-instrumentalist, really clever and a good singer – so they asked me to quickly learn how to play bass and then we did the school gig instead. I enjoyed that immensely.
“And then that band, they were called Gent Lemon as in ‘gentlemen’, kind of took off a little bit, we were doing a lot of local gigs. We entered a talent contest and got to the final at Leeds Town Hall – we didn’t win it but at least we got to the final.
“I left school after fifth form when I was about 16 and got a job in retail but I was really into playing bass. I got a job with a local working men’s club band and just went from band to band doing covers until I joined a band who were writing their own songs, called Seven Ten, that was really good. They had two songwriters but then they split so me and one of the songwriters formed another band called Messenger, very prog-rock – Genesis type stuff.
“We recorded an album in a studio. It didn’t sell very well but I’m quite proud of it, I’ve still got it somewhere. I played it again a few years ago and, considering we recorded it in a proper studio, the sound quality is awful! But the songs were all right – a bit dated now perhaps…
“That kind of died the death after a while – I’d be about 20 or 21 by now – so I went back to more working men’s club bands on the south Yorkshire club circuit, lots of different bands.
“I did that right up until I moved down here in 1995. I work in the wine industry and the firm bought the old Harvey’s site in Whitchurch. They shut the Leeds site down and offered some of us jobs, so I decided to go for it. These days we’re out in Avonmouth.
“Anyway when I got down here in about 1996, I co-formed a band that’s still going now – a Blues Brothers tribute band called Kick The Cat – and I was with them for about seven years. After I left them I switched to lead vocals and joined a rock covers band called Trouble ‘n’ Strife and did that for about another seven years. But meanwhile I’d started to do the acoustic thing with a friend of mine called Graham Nicholls, a very good guitarist, again covers. We then formed a big band, an 11-piece band with a four-piece brass section called Vehicle, but still covers.
“Then I started to write my own stuff, about four years ago…”
This astonished me. Mike’s songs sound as if he has been writing for years. They are beautifully crafted with instantly hummable tunes and memorable words. In particular, Laughing Out Loud, the title track of his first and so far only CD, is a firm favourite. A friend I played it to couldn’t believe she wasn’t listening to track off a top-selling album. Anyway, after I’ve expressed my amazement, Mike continues…
“I’ve always had lots of musical ideas, but had a mental block with lyrics. The breakthrough really came about four years ago when I met Sue (his partner) and she was egging me on to write lyrics and she got me into reading books, because I’d never really read books, as a way of getting me writing lyrics. So with all these musical ideas, when I started playing around with lyrics, that’s how I got started.
“But I’ve never been a musician who’s into a genre. I’ve always believed a good song is a good song, it doesn’t matter whether its pop, rock, blues, soul or whatever. I just love melodies and chord sequences, so my influences are drawn from all of those different things. So I’ve written blues, I’ve written soul, I’ve written rock, pop…
“My main writing influence musically… I’d have to say Lennon is a big, big influence. Lyrically, I just love lyrics that tell a story and I love Guy Garvey who is the singer/songwriter in the band Elbow, he’s just a poet.”
“As far as the CD… I recorded everything on it apart from the drums in my flat in Clevedon. Then I took the recording to an industrial unit a friend of mine had in Weston and recorded the drums on top of it.”
Any more songs in the pipeline?
“I’ve only recorded those six, but I’ve got about 30 under my belt now and I’m planning this year to record a full album of 12 or 13 songs. And I’ve got a few friends who are interested in contributing to that, because that original recording is all me apart from the drums. I’ve got Alex Pearson on bass, I’ve got a drummer, Rob Perham, who wants to work on it and a keyboardist, Ben Wilcockes, and a Jo Line on bass.
“The other thing I’d like to do and keep talking about but haven’t planned yet is basically, hire a camper van and try and get as many gigs as I can down Devon and Cornwall and just tour round there doing my own material – that’s my dream. But it’s difficult finding venues that will support you doing your own material.
“But we’ve got another project going at the moment, which is a band with Alex and Sue, called Cocoa Hill – which is an anagram of ‘alcoholic’. The thing about my songs is, because I’ve written them all on acoustic guitar, they are ‘portable’, so I can do them on my own, I can do them with Sue, I can do them with me, Sue and Alex, I can do them with a full band. It’s nice if you can get a full band behind you because it brings it to life, but I can still do them on my own if I want to.”
Presumably he prefers doing his own stuff to covers?
“I enjoy doing both. When I started writing a few years ago I went right off covers but I’ve got back into doing covers again recently and I enjoy doing them. I also do electric guitar and lead vocals in a Seventies disco/funk band called Jeliphish. We do KC & The Sunshine Band, Kool and The Gang, Stevie Wonder, Chic, Sister Sledge and so on. Sue does all the female parts, and Rob, Ben and Jo are the other members.
“But it’s great to do the Cocoa Hill stuff because we do 50/50: my stuff and covers. I think my songs are catchy enough that you can get away with it. They’re not too self-indulgent.”
No Mike, they’re not – they are as good as the covers – and I can’t wait to hear the new album.
Favourite gigs? “My favourite gigs when I was with Trouble ‘n’ Strife were at The Back Bar in Weston. It’s a great venue and it’s definitely a live music venue, rather than a pub that has bands on. People go there to see the band.”
Who are the people to watch on the Bristol acoustic circuit? “One of my favourite songwriters is actually Lonely Tourist, fabulous, fantastic. I think Chris Webb is superb, I was knocked out when I heard his own songs, I’d only heard him do covers before. Also a band who have gone to ground sadly because the lead singer Dan Broughan, a really talented singer/songwiter, has got trouble with his hearing, loud noises have become too painful… Alex plays bass for them, they’re called The Ouijabirds – they are absolutely superb.”
Up-coming gigs: Cocoa Hill are playing tomorrow (Saturday, February 11), at St John’s Church Hall in Clevedon, and again at The Old Inn on March 22.