Meet the Yorkshire band who plugged away in obscurity for years before finding huge success – in the US. But this side of the pond they can still go for a pint unrecognised. Sarah Freeman finds out how it all began with a young footballer’s injury.
When the members of one of Yorkshire’s most successful bands walk into the Victoria Hotel in Drighlington, none of the regulars bother to look up from their afternoon pints. Even when lead singer Danny Bemrose, who has recently seen his name mentioned alongside the likes of Coldplay’s Chris Martin in the US, struggles to find enough loose change to pay for a round, there’s no offer of a free drink or even the vaguest flicker of recognition from a barman inpatient to move onto the next customer.
The truth is while Scars on 45 have found unlikely success Stateside – in the last 12 months they have appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, seen their songs used on some of the highest-rated TV series in town and completed their first headline tour which they played to sell-out audiences – no-one knows much about them back home.
“I guess it is kind of strange, but we can’t complain,” says Danny, pint now in hand. “One of the great things about coming home is the chance of a quiet drink.”
If Scars on 45’s recent brush with fame seems improbable, the story of how they got there is even more unlikely.
Until a few years ago, Danny’s first love was football and after a spell with England Schoolboys, alongside the likes of Frank Lampard, he had his heart set on turning professional.
By the time he reached his teens, he was playing regularly for his home club Huddersfield FC and when he heard on the grapevine that a full-time contract from the PFA was heading his way, it seemed there was little which could stand in his way.
However, shortly before the end of the 2000 season, Danny injured his foot.
“I was staying at the Premier Inn on the M62, and was rushing to get ready to go to a gig when I stubbed my foot,” he says. “I broke three toes and that was it. It was a stupid accident, but it changed the rest of my life.”
What happened next is up for debate. Danny suspects the club didn’t believe his story and reckoned he wasn’t committed to the training. However, the end result was he never received a contract and, unable to train, he was also prevented trying out for different clubs.
It was then while abiding by doctor’s orders to rest, that he picked up his dad’s acoustic guitar.
“I had a lot of time on my hands and I’ve got a bit of an addictive personality so I spent hours and hours just learning the basic chords, the guitar was the perfect distraction,” he says. “By the time my foot had recovered, my love of the game had fizzled out. I just knew that I didn’t want to go back into football. I knew I wanted to be in a band.”
The history of music it littered with cautionary tales of footballers who think they can sing. Who can forget Ian Wright’s Do The Right Thing (did you see what he did there) or the travesty which was Hoddle and Waddle’s Diamond Lights. Even those who look back fondly on John Barnes’s World in Motion rap recognise that it wasn’t exactly a masterclass in delivery.
Yet for every rule there is an exception and Danny Bemrose might just be it.
Having quickly picked up the basics of guitar, he was introduced to Stuart Nichols, who’s own dreams of being a footballer had also ended when he was released by Bradford City at the age of 18.
“I’d like to say it was an injustice,” says Nichols, who shared the same passion for music. “But unlike Danny, the truth was I wasn’t good enough to make it as a professional.”
With Stuart on bass and Danny still plucking his old acoustic guitar, the pair began rehearsing together, but it was a further three years before they felt confident to put the feelers out for a keyboard player and drummer. When they did, the first to respond was David ‘Nova’ Nowakowski, who was two weeks into a course at Bradford College to study music technology.
“A friend of a friend said they’d heard of a band in need of keyboards,” says the 27-year-old. “I got in touch and they basically told me they were going to get a record deal so I might as well quit college. I’d already been having doubts about the course, so I didn’t need much persuasion, plus I believed them. I was convinced that a few months later we’d be signed to a label and living the dream.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way, Scars on 45 weren’t a band destined for overnight success. While the line-up was completed when they found a drummer in the shape of Chris Durling and recruited Aimee Driver, one of Nova’s old school friend’s to complement Danny’s vocals, it would be 10 long years since Danny first picked up a guitar that anyone took serious notice of their indie pop sound.
Originally called Jeepster, the band decided on a change of name after Danny heard an interview with the American singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris in which she talked about how her dad scolded her for scratching his records, accusing her of getting scars on his 45s. In their new incarnation, there was no doubting their commitment to the cause.
Every evening they would meet at a disused church in Bradford. It was owned by a friend whose plans to turn the building into flats hadn’t yet come to fruition and in the meantime was happy to rent it out.
The arrangement gave them space, but little else.
“Let’s just say it didn’t have many facilities, but it didn’t matter,” says Stuart, who along with Nova and Aimee grew up in Bradford. “There was a little studio which had been used by Terrorvision, but the real attraction was it was cheap. We paid about £100 a month for the privilege. There was a huge hall upstairs and we basically set up camp.”
Writing their own songs, the band enjoyed modest success, but whenever they played live they admit the crowd was largely made up of friends and family.
As promises of record deals came and went, Danny and Nova paid the bills delivering washing machines while Stuart got a job with British Gas and Aimee found work as a lifeguard. Only Chris, who worked as a drum tutor seemed to have found a way to make music pay.
“We’d been really dedicated, but it’s hard when things don’t ever seem to pan out,” says Danny.
“We’d been going about eight years and I think if we are honest we were all thinking about packing it in. You just get to a point where you think, ‘What’s the point?’ Then out of the blue we got a call from someone we knew from EMI records.
“They’d started doing some work in America with a label which is known for providing tracks for TV series. He knew the kind of stuff we did and wondered whether we might be interested in having a chat.”
They were and the end result was a contract to use one of their songs, Beauty’s Running Wild, on the hit series CSI: New York.
“We were paid £10,000,” says Danny, who has yet to learn that successful musicians don’t talk about money. “That was the turning point right there. When we got that money and it gave us a bit of a hope. It also meant we could buy a bit of equipment. We were still rehearsing in the church, but we bought a computer and a new microphone and decided we might as well record our own album.
“We’d had our hopes dashed so many times before that none of us got carried away. We just kept on doing what we’d always done.”
Their album might have been recorded in the most bargain basement of ways, but those songs sealed the deal and after years of disappointment in 2010 they were signed to the US-based Atlantic Records’ Chop Shop Records.
“We expected they would want a lot of changes or at the very least for us ask us to re-record it in one of their studios, but when they said they liked it just the way it was it was vindication of all the years of hard work we’d put in,” says Danny. “It made us think that finally we were doing something right.”
Their first single Give Me Something was released in the US in January last year and their long-awaited eponymous début album came out 18 months later to rave reviews. Success seemed to breed success.
“There are various different charts in the US, but the one we were going for was the Triple A,” says Danny. “To be honest we didn’t really have a clue, but it ended up in the Top 10 for six months and was at No. 3 for 15 weeks. We basically hit the ground running and suddenly lots of things started to drop into place.”
That it turns out is a bit of an understatement.
In the months that followed another of their songs, Heart on Fire, was used as the lead track on Grey’s Anatomy, when they appeared as Jay Leno’s guests it was alongside Emily Blunt and on Amazon’s US site their album is currently at number seven in the list of 50 best albums of this year.
“Now when you say that VH1 chose us as the band of the month it sounds incredible, but when you’re in the eye of the storm you don’t have any perspective,” says Stuart. “When we appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, we’d not even done local TV. It was funny when we were being driven to the studio in a limo to appear on one of the biggest TV shows in the States, I was doing a quick interview on Radio Leeds. We didn’t have time to think about it, so we didn’t have time to build it into a big deal.”
In fact it wasn’t until recently when they embarked their first epic headline tour of America that they allowed themselves to think they might just had made it.
“We were really worried that no-one would turn up,” says Danny.
“When we played back home we were lucky if my mum came out to see us, but suddenly we were on stage in front of thousands of fans who knew the words to our songs.”
Having spent the best part of two years in America, Danny, Chris and Nav all have girlfriends out there, but for Stuart, married with two young daughters who live in Drighlington, life is more challenging.
“Let’s just say my wife is very understanding,” he says. “It’s not easy, but all our families know how hard we worked for this. Basically we sacrificed 10 years of our lives and this is our opportunity.
“A lot of bands talk about how hard it is being out on the road and the inevitable artistic differences, but it’s not been like that for us at all.
“Maybe we are lucky or may be we just know how far we’ve come. Some people have said we are one of the hardest working bands there is, but the heart of what we do hasn’t changed, we play gigs because we love it.”
When we speak the band are a few hours away from playing a short set at the Leeds Festival. The organiser have always used the opening night as a showcase for local bands, but Danny and the rest of Scars on 45 are understandably worried how the largely rock crowd will react. They needn’t have lost any sleep, it turns out even those there to see the Foo Fighters don’t mind a bit of indie music.
Next there’s a European tour and then it will be back once again to America to record their second album and while the anonymity they enjoy at home has its advantages that may well change.
“It would be great for people here to know our music, but you can’t ask for everything,” says Danny.
As Scars on 45 know life often has a funny way of working out.
“It’s crazy to think that if Danny hadn’t broke his foot none of us would be here know,” says Nova.
“Sometimes it takes a disaster to make good things happen.”