With his old band on “hiatus”, Idlewild guitarist Rod Jones is gearing up to release a new album, A Conversation Well Rehearsed (out 3 December), with his solo project The Birthday Suit. Having supported some of the world’s biggest bands, he ponders the impact of constantly playing for big crowds that aren’t his own, and if he can apply the stadium class of the likes of R.E.M., Foo Fighters or The Rolling Stones to his new act.
After 15 years on the road and making albums with Idlewild we came to the decision it was time to take a break. The “indefinite hiatus” that people so often assume is the end of a band was a decision in part born of the fact we had never really managed to fully “break through” to the level of the bands we spent years supporting on tour. While we enjoyed success, or our definition of it, it was hard not to aspire to the dizzy heights on display by our peers. Watching the likes of R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Coldplay and The Rolling Stones night after night playing to these enormous crowds, sometimes you couldn’t help but feel “I want that!” I know it’s not particularly cool or fashionably aloof to admit you wanted more popularity but it was hard not to when you were surrounded by it.
Maybe part of the problem was that I remained star struck by some of the people we played with and perhaps I was destined to always be looking upward. There is an attitude or swagger that is needed I feel to make it to the top. A self belief that convinces all around you that they too should be believers. I found it all too hard to be calm and collected however when standing next to my idols. I remember being bowled over at a festival when Dave Grohl had actually remembered my name. Add to this the surprise arrival of his old friend Krist Novoselic who’d come along to see the show and I realise I’m standing in a Nirvana reunion.
Maybe the more confident amongst us would have played it cool and not asked for a photo but I couldn’t help myself as i fumbled with my camera phone come breeze block (pre-iPhone). I guess my point is, if you act like a fanboy maybe you are never going to be admitted to the exclusive stadium elite club.
I honestly think we made some great records, and maybe we will do again some day, but without the rose tinted glasses I probably had fixed to my face at the time, I realise there were definitely opportunities squandered. Too late in the bands life came the notion that throwing yourself around the stage and making a racket was great in a club but maybe didn’t translate to an arena or stadium crowd. We needed to be more ambitious with our shows. It wasn’t just about having a laugh. Being a stadium band was an artform. One all too foreign to us.
Don’t get me wrong, its not just about being slick. It’s a fine balancing act between rehearsed and spontaneous. R.E.M. were the masters here for me. They would pull from a huge repertoire with ease, chopping and changing the set every night but it would always appear so effortless. Even after so many years touring they always came across as really enjoying themselves and the show was never the same. From the more lighthearted moments of Michael Stipe sitting atop Mike Mill‘s piano playing it with his feet during Nightswimming to the incredibly touching and eloquent way he addressed the crowd the day after the London bombings. Something I will never forget. Being a frontman at that level is about so much more than just singing in tune.
Despite our shortcomings I feel incredibly lucky that we had the chance to meet and tour with some of the greatest bands of our lifetime. Seeing the inner workings of some of my favourite bands and the master classes in live music night after night is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. We were always treated so well by the bands we toured with and some of my proudest moments were seeing the groups we admired so much standing side of stage watching our sets. Many of my fondest memories are related to the people we played with. From Mike Mills joining us onstage at the Millennium Stadium for a perhaps ill advised but excitable version of Sweet Home Alabama whilst I grinned like a little boy, to watching Eddie Vedder doing acoustic sets to bring the crowd in quicker to see us play when we supported Pearl Jam. Far beyond the call of duty.
Starting out again as I am now with my new band The Birthday Suit I try to draw on the lessons I learned during my stadium education. There are however aspects I still struggle with. Although I now know the importance of making sure every show is as good as it can be and try to vary the set each night, I still find it hard to project the all knowing self confidence when standing in front of a microphone. I tell myself that it’s charming to be self depreciating but as I’m regularly told by both my bandmates and my father, “if you don’t believe in yourself, why would anybody else?”. Maybe there is still time to change.
I do believe in what I’m doing, I just need to work on letting other people know it. Above all this there is one thing I learned that I always try to remember. All of these bands started somewhere before they hit the enormodome circuit. Thoughts of reaching that level now seem far away, but there is something very comforting when Keith Richards leans over and tells you “I remember when I used to support Bo Diddley…” It’s almost like him telling you to keep going. That’s how I took it anyway…
For more, head to Thebirthdaysuit.co.uk.