Contemporaries of Britpop, Space knocked us all out in the mid-1990s with their ace, surreal pop tunes. Joel McIver meets bassist Phil Hartley and bassist-turned-guitarist Tommy Scott for a look back - and forward...
The 1990s was a chaotic decade, musically speaking, and specifically in the world of bass guitar. When grunge and then Britpop arrived, suddenly it was deemed uncool to be playing a hot-rodded Japanese bass with no headstock and a turbo-charged active circuit; all you saw on Top Of The Pops (ask your dad) for at least five years was old Fenders and Gibsons. Space, a sort-of Britpop band, took this a step further, with frontman Tommy Scott bringing out a positively ancient Framus. What was a Steinberger owner to do?
Fortunately Space’s amazing music made us forget all that. Unleashing a killer run of singles - Neighbourhood, Female Of The Species, Me And You Versus The World, you know the rest - the Liverpool band were all over the radio and TV from 1996 onwards. They made it all the way to 2005 before splitting, but a reunion six years later is ongoing to this day.
With a new album, an anthology and international tours on the way in 2019, it’s a good time to be a Space case, as we found out when we caught up with Scott (now playing guitar) and the band’s long-serving bassist Phil Hartley in the ‘beautiful neighbourhood’ of the Cool Britannia festival at Knebworth in Hertfordshire.
How come you switched from bass to guitar, Tommy?
Tommy: “I switched because I was a guitarist in the first place. The only reason I played bass was because the other guitarist in Space was better than me, so I had to be the bass player. Simple as that! I actually wrote all the songs just on a bass. No guitar. All of them. I was trying to be Cypress Hill, but we were rubbish at it.”
Are you still writing songs on bass?
Tommy: “Yes, I’ve just done it for our next album.”
Phil: “The parts have got a ska vibe, as well as a hip-hop thing going on. It’s more groove-based - back to the old hip-hop roots, with a lot of loops and funky parts.”
Tommy: “There was keyboard bass all over the last album (Give Me Your Future, 2017), so there’s none this time. Phil’s got tons of effects on his bass for the new stuff.”
Phil: “A load of pedals, yeah. The band used to be a lot bigger; we’d have two keyboard players and two guitarists, so we had Moog bass and all the other top lines. Nowadays we have to find a way of getting all the sounds in there and amalgamating everything for the live set, hence the effects.”
A bit different from the 1990s, then?
Tommy: “Yeah, we didn’t use any of those back in the day, just a Framus bass from the 1950s. And a Vox teardrop bass that had its own fuzz.”
Phil: “That bass went really quiet whenever you put the fuzz on!”
Tommy: “I was against effects back then, to tell you the truth. I’m not into being retro for its own sake, but basically I just couldn’t be arsed pressing loads of pedals. My sound just needed to be dubby. I took all the treble right off the amps.”
Did you use flatwound strings for that tone?
Phil: “Actually the same strings are still on there. They’re virtually flat now!”
Tommy: “I wouldn’t change them, because they sound like the music from Twin Peaks now. That tone comes from the Framus, which I only ever played with my thumb. I just couldn’t use my fingers. I got it from Brian Wilson.”
Phil: “There’s a song called Drop Dead from the Spiders album, which has a line based on sixteenths, and he used to do it with his thumb! It was like the James Jamerson hook, but done with a thumb rather than a single finger. It was really weird.”
Do you use the same technique, Phil?
Phil: “Sometimes I’ll do it to get that sound, but I have to roll the tone off. For the hip-hop-influenced sounds, I use a really old Gibson EB3, which gives us that sound straight away. I also use a 1963 Precision, the real deal. I like to keep them old. I don’t like new instruments. Tommy And I’ve got a 1962 Eko guitar. I’ve still got the Framus bass too.”
Phil: “That one was in a case for four or five years, we didn’t touch it at all in that time. When we opened the case, the neck had separated from the body!”
As I recall it, modern basses were uncool back then.
Tommy: “Well, on Female Of The Species I played a fretless Ibanez, because it was the only way to get that sound. I was dead against it at first, because it seemed so naff and cheesy. At the time, only people who had their basses really high on their chests played those instruments.”
Your songs often have a lot of keyboard sub-bass going on. How do you find a spot for the bass guitar?
Phil: “Three years ago I changed all my rigs up for that very reason. I used to use Ampeg SVTs and Mesa Boogie 400s, but there was a lot of sub and a lot of top end, but hardly any mids from the 8x10, so I’m with Ashdown now. Mark Gooday made me some fliptop combos, like B-15s. I have four 1x15 cabs and two 30- watt CTM heads. They don’t have much sub or top; there’s more mids than the SVT, so I can sit in the middle, above the keyboard bass.”
Tommy: “I used to have a Fender 50 Bassman, but it didn’t last long. I was taking all the treble tones out of it and it the speaker clipped all the time, but I liked that sound.”
Phil: “That’s why I prefer little amps these days. When we were using the massive Ampegs, you’d never have the volume past two on the dial. They only sounded good on five or six, when you were starting to push the amplifier, so nowadays I use little ones so I can turn them up and make a huge sound.”
Are you on in-ear monitors?
Tommy: “No. We used them back in the day, but it takes you away from the music. You feel detached. My ears are fucked anyway, I get bad tinnitus. First it was high-pitched and I could handle that, but then it started getting low, and it was making me suicidal! Fortunately it only comes on when I’m dead stressed.”
Phil: “I got 16k rammed down my ear and since then I’ve got a low-end rumble tinnitus. It ruined me for about five years.”
Tommy: “I hear it when I’m trying to get to sleep, and it’s horrible.”
Brutal. Any other bass-related injuries in your collection?
Tommy: “My shoulder’s completely knackered, because I stupidly went to hit the drummer with my guitar. I was only joking - I wasn’t actually going to hit him - but I picked it up and leaned forward like I was going to and the muscle just went.”
What would you have done if you hadn’t been a musician, Tommy?
Tommy: “I couldn’t do nothing else, I was on the dole before Space. I’d never been further from Liverpool than north Wales before the band took off, and then it took me to Japan and I found myself recording with Tom Jones. That was amazing - we recorded at Abbey Road and went to the pub with him afterwards.”
When you look back at the bass-playing on the early Space songs, do you ever wish you’d done anything differently?
Tommy: “I don’t think I could have done it differently. That’s the only way I could play. I never classed myself as a bass player, I just wanted it to groove. I know it sounds mad saying that we wanted our songs to sound like hip-hop, because we sound nothing like hip-hop - but that’s how we got our own sound, by throwing in Sinatra and easy listening. As long as it grooved and you could put a little beat next to it, I was happy...”
Space will be touring throughout 2019. The next Cool Britannia festival will be held from 30 August to 1 September 2019.