Why X Factor repels me

It’s 10 years, near enough, since The Magnets went full-time. One of the guys, who grew up in Ipswich, tells Steven Russell about life on the road, Apache helicopters, ‘food parcels’ from his mum, singing for Elle Macpherson and why he’s repelled by X Factor

IT’S 1.30pm and, in theory, The Magnets should be making final preparations for a private gig – a 60th birthday party in Hale, Manchester. But showbiz being showbiz, the schedule’s been torn up and stuck back together again in a different shape. Three of the lads have been involved in a major project – the making of a T-Mobile advert – and were called in for a big rehearsal this morning. So the start of the party has been put back 90 minutes and, therefore, we find Magnet Steve Trowell on a train to the north-west, about to change at Crewe . . . “That’s rock and roll,” quips the singer who grew up in Ipswich and whose parents still live there. “Actually, it’s nice not to be driving for a change, because I tend to do all the driving around the country.” He’s just poured himself a Kronenbourg as a bit of a treat. “I apologise if I start to slur my words.”

Most mortals would rapidly lose the plot if they had to keep pace with The Magnets’ diary. The day after Manchester will see Steve and bandmates Fraser Collins and Andy Frost back in London, filming that telecom ad at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5. The next five days bring Germany: initial engagements at a private venue, followed by the Tipi am Kanzleramt in Berlin on Monday and Tuesday. And then it’s Christmas. Well, sort of.

For on Wednesday it’s back to England to film a Christmas special for the Sky 1 documentary/comedy/drama luvvie-fest show Pineapple Dance Studios – a place “where careers are made, dreams are broken, bitching is an Olympic sport and everyone is fabulous!” as the publicity blurb trills.

A long day is due to end with a free evening gig at Charlotte Street Blues bar that will be filmed as extra material for the TV show. “It should be fun to do, but we’ll be knackered because it’s a week in Germany and then we land and go straight to the Pineapple thing,” agrees Steve. “I remember watching it” – Pineapple Dance Studios – “when it started and thinking ‘Oh my god, this is a bit horrible!’ A couple of weeks ago they called up and said ‘Would you like to come and be on an episode?’ Their line was ‘We’re trying to make it a bit more credible’, so we thought ‘OK, we’ll go for that.’”


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They already know the dance studio’s effervescent artistic director, Louie Spence, from a joint appearance on the ITV show Magic Numbers during the summer. “He was brilliant and stole the show. He’s got so much energy and was really funny. But backstage he was totally lovely and normal.

“You’d think he’d be right in your face, but he was a really lovely guy.”

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Steve says The Magnets have cut their engagements from a peak of about 200 gigs a year to 100 or so, but life still seems busy to an outsider’s eye. They did 23 dates at the Edinburgh Festival, for instance, and 10 days ago appeared on the late-night German comedy/talk show TV total – a jaunt that required a 4am wakeup call, a 7am flight and a midday soundcheck before recording the show at 5pm.

After the premature festive jollities, the a cappella group (no instruments – just voices) resumes its UK tour. With Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds on the schedule, it’s an ideal chance for this adopted son of Suffolk to spend some time in the county where he spent his formative years.

The Magnets are no strangers to this neck of the woods, with appearances in the past at the New Wolsey and Christchurch Park in Ipswich, but Steve doesn’t think they’ve been this way since about 2005. “I actually don’t get back very often, because things are so busy in London. I tend to come back to Ipswich at Christmas and for occasional visits to see my parents, so it will be really nice to play before an Ipswich crowd again.”

As a schoolboy he harboured dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, and hopes to lose himself in a few minutes of reverie when he comes to Suffolk. One of his bandmates has a friend who flies Apaches from Wattisham Airfield. “I was very much into the air force when I was younger – did the cadets at school and was given a flying scholarship and stuff – so he’s promised me a little walk around an Apache if we get there on time.”

Steve is a Brummie by birth, but when he was four his family moved to a house on the edge of north-eastern Ipswich and he grew up there, going to St John’s primary and Ipswich School. He did a music degree in York – graduating in 1994 – had a couple of teaching jobs, and joined The Magnets in 1996. The group signed to EMI and went full-time in the summer of 2000.

He used to be married to an Ipswich girl. They were divorced a couple of years ago but are still good friends. In fact, they both recently took part in the Bupa Great South Run, to raise money for orang-utan protection in Borneo – a cause close to their hearts.

Steve recalls very well singing at Portman Road during Ipswich Town’s second season in the Premiership, in 2001-2. “They’d finished fifth the year before and they were still doing well . . . and then we sang on the centre circle when they were playing Blackburn or someone and they were two-nil up, before they drew. Ever since then they went downhill, and went back down again, and we’ve always blamed ourselves for that! We seem to have the kiss of death on lots of people’s careers and Ipswich Town Football Club was just another victim!”

It all went a little pear-shaped for The Magnets about four years ago, Steve explains, after an unfortunate relationship with a production company that exposed creative differences. When the end came, the guys were left with an empty diary for about three months. They sought other work while rebuilding momentum.

“I did lots of session singing, and singing with bands, but a couple of the guys took up ‘proper’ jobs. At the moment we juggle between doing The Magnets, choosing the gigs we want to do, and doing other jobs we each want to do. We now try to pick the ones that pay well or the ones that go somewhere sunny! It keeps us sane and means we’re not with each other 100% of the time. You definitely need to have other influences and interests in your life – and that means we stay best friends, too. It’s just a pleasure to be in each other’s company. We work really hard together, but it’s not all the time.”

Steve reckons Nic Doodson has the most stressful job. “He’s an IT expert and works in the City, writing software and helping big clients with their software needs. The company he works for are kind of mates from a long time ago – they love The Magnets – and so if he needs to go off and do tours, they support him.

“He kind of runs the band as well, organising the bookings, so holding down a job and running The Magnets can be a bit stressful. But he’s hyper-organised.”

Michael Welton moved to Manchester some three years ago, working in a music shop with his wife, and links up with the band for gigs and other engagements.

Steve is also in a band with Andy Frost – “a little function band that does weddings and so on, with instruments, which is a nice change”. Does the tenor take special care to look after his voice?

Not really, is the answer.

“The only problem, really, is when you’re ill and it’s hard to get well again because you’re singing all the time and putting pressure on the voice, and it’s hard to recover from that.

“We often do the Edinburgh Festival in August and if you go into that feeling a little bit of a cold it’s really hard to get through it, because you’re singing a lot and it’s such a big party atmosphere as well; and while you’re meant to be looking after yourself, you end up drinking every night and have at least one gig every day – and perhaps a few others, guesting on other people’s shows and stuff – and that becomes a bit of an effort.

“But in terms of everyday wear and tear . . . you build up stamina. It’s funny: the more gigs you do, the stronger you get. I find that.”

No homemade honeyed drinks, then, to keep the vocal chords nicely oiled? Well, funnily enough . . .

“My mum keeps buying me Manuka honey, which is quite expensive and has got ‘special healing powers’ or something. It’s like �10 a pot! But as long as she buys it for me, I’ll eat that!” Maternal offerings can also feature chocolate and the odd �10 note.

“But you can be in danger of becoming superstitious about things, and if you haven’t had your honey that morning you wonder ‘what’s going to happen to my voice?’ and you end up in a panic. So we don’t really worry. And singing pop isn’t like singing opera, where you have to take more care, perhaps. Anyway, a bit of a rasp on the voice adds to it! That‘s my excuse, anyway.”

Why does music appeal to Steve – and what highlights would he pluck from the past decade of full-time Magnetism?

“I was accused this morning of being far too obsessed with my job – just by some girl – which I really don’t think is true! I just enjoy what I do and I like to do the best I can. I suppose we’re busy all the time, but it doesn’t feel like it’s that busy, because we really love what we’re doing.” It wasn’t by a female with amorous intentions, was it? “I couldn’t possibly comment!

“In terms of the appeal, I suppose it’s a bit of everything. I like being creative. If you have a project like an arrangement for The Magnets, it’s nice to see that come to fruition. I like being on stage. All singers have a bit of an ego, so it’s nice to be loved and adored! It’s just a really interesting lifestyle; there’s no kind of routine to it.” If it were me, I’d rate singing in Elle Macpherson’s living room as the all-time-ever highlight of all time. Ever.

“We did some private gigs for her,” Steve confirms. “We’re not allowed to talk about them much, because we signed a confidentiality agreement, but, yeah, we basically performed in a castle in the north of England. They flew us in by private jet because we were touring in Germany at the time.

“I stayed in touch – which is quite nice, to have her as a friend. We see each other – hang out. I would go round to her house and play piano, her and her kids, and have a bit of a jam session. She’s a genuinely lovely person.”

Ambitions?

“It’s strange – we were talking about this the other day, with the band, and taking about where we go from here. There’s always other stuff we could be doing, but we’re kind of happy – content, in a way – doing a variety of things.

“It’s a difficult thing to have – high and burning ambition. You know: people yearning to be famous and a desire to be on TV all the time. I think because we’ve done what we do for so long, we’re over that. I suppose it would be nice to be rich and famous, but I’m not sure about that any more.

“I just count my blessings I can earn a living doing things I enjoy, with people I enjoy spending time with, doing something I really love.

“I don’t think about it too much. There’s all that X Factor kind of thing, too. I hate all that – all that manufactured rubbish. People think it’s giving opportunities to real people, but it’s not. People like Simon Cowell are always in control of who gets through to the final or whatever. I’m just lucky I can do it for real, really, and get appreciated for my talents.”

I’m no fan of the show either, but surely a group like The Magnets could have been plucked from obscurity in its pre-record-deal days if it had appeared on a programme such as X Factor?

“Well, you’d like to think that, but it’s just not true, unfortunately. Maybe in the very early days, I suppose; but as soon as you become vaguely successful, or vaguely polished, people sort of react against you.

“They want someone who’s got a story, or someone who had a dancing dog with them – that kind of rubbish.

“We don’t want to tug on people’s heartstrings; we just want to be appreciated as a good musical act, and that’s kind of not what those programmes are about.

“ Obviously they have good singers, of course they do, but there’s got to be another angle, and we don’t really have that angle . . . because we just do what we do.”

Main attraction

The Magnets are at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, on November 7 – box office 01473 295 900; web www.wolseytheatre.co.uk – and The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on November 16 (01284 700 004 and www.the-apex.co.uk).

They also have a new album out. Gobsmacked includes songs such as I Don’t Feel Like Dancing, Living On A Prayer, Sweet Dreams and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face.

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