In the last few weeks they’ve released a new studio album – their 14th, called Maisieworld – and a six-disc box set of their earliest material. Later this month comes a three-CD reissue of their classic third album Eligible Bachelors.
Gigging activities may largely be confined to weekends these days, as several members have day jobs, but the band’s singer and founder Bid sounds unfazed. “It’s more expensive because we have to do more trips but we quite like that, it’s the only exercise we get outside of our house at the age of 60,” he says.
Having in recent years settled into a regular five-piece touring line-up, the band briefly welcomed back original guitarist Lester Square for two shows in London to mark their 40th anniversary. At the first they performed their debut album, Strange Boutique, in its entirety; the following night they revisited Love Zombies. “It was fine – it was just going through a different thing, like playing five-a-side football,” Bid reckons. “It was really fine to play those two old albums and we still play a lot of the old stuff live anyway, but we’ve kind of moved into being a different band.
“The thing is you go into being a musician because it’s fun and the idea of doing it in exactly the same way or churning out exactly the same old stuff for years some bands do that but it’s not really what I wanted to do. I could have become a lawyer or something and earned some proper money. It’s not why I picked up a guitar in the first place.
“So we have fun in a different way. To a degree our fans expect us to change over a period of time as well. I suppose that’s really why we picked them up in the first place.”
Bid says he came to wanting to perform their first two albums from “a different angle” to mere nostalgia. “We still a lot of the old stuff and I like playing what a lot of people might have but then it came to me that the first two albums weren’t available. The rights had reverted to us and they suddenly weren’t in the shops. I mentioned this to Tapete, the German record company [who have released The Monochrome Set’s most recent albums], and they came up with the idea of the box set. I think that once the box set has run its course – and I think the CD has already sold out – they’ll continue with the first two albums releasing them by themselves. I like to keep things on release, to keep them available.”
He finds the experience of revisiting material he’d written as a young man interesting. “Actually learning some of that stuff and playing it live – because we didn’t play all the songs of the first two albums live [in the early 1980s] – I was thinking, ‘This is just too complicated’. It was experimental, we were just putting things together and constructing in certain ways and not exactly knowing what we were doing. It was fun but there’s quite a lot of chords to figure out. Even now when we do it live we don’t know all the chords because we didn’t write things down in those days. We had to take a couple of weeks to sort out exactly what we did.”
Maisieworld is the band’s fifth album in the last six years – an impressive strike rate for any band these days let alone one of The Monochrome Set’s vintage. Yet Bid disagrees with the idea that they’ve actually become more prolific. “I think it’s about one album every year – isn’t that par for the course with the way it was when we started?” he says. “I think the first albums were in the same year.
“I think that once you get into a flow that’s about normal for releasing and doing gigs and then taking a bit of time off. It’s not unusual for younger bands. It maybe be unusual for an older band but we still have ideas and we’re still creative. In that sense I suppose it’s unusual because a lot of older bands hardly do anything, they just try to keep themselves out of the crematorium.”
Bid himself suffered a stroke in his early fifties yet he feels its effects have actually aided his creativity. In the last few years he says at times he has had to stop himself from writing. “As soon as a string of gigs has stopped if I wanted to write the next album I just could within a few weeks,” he says. “I just pick up a guitar and I could go ahead and do it. I have to stop myself from doing it.
“It’s also busy in the sense that when you’re doing gigs and travelling a lot you pick up amusing things to write about – at the same time trying not to write about being on the road. You just meet new people, which is why we like to go by train – and we’re not big enough to be kept away from the public with enormous bodyguards – so it just adds to the grist.”
Changes of personnel over the last 40 years have also made the band adaptable, Bid feels. “You have to go with the flow and to a degree adjust the way you write and the way you rehearse what you’ve written and record what you’ve written,” he says. “It still kind of sounds like us, mainly because I’ve always been the main writer. We’re not three or four people in a group that do the writing so when one of them goes there’s a very different sound. It was a bit like that earlier – Strange Boutique was the result of Lester Square and John Haney the drummer who used to write a lot of the lyrics with myself, but I developed into being the main writer.”
Although they might not have enjoyed the kind of success of some of their peers, Bid has always considered The Monochrome Set a mainstream band. “People just seem to think there’s only the Ed Sheerans of this world and there’s not,” he says. “The mainstream is a very wide stream. You could almost say that it encompasses everything.
“When we played a village in France three years ago it was full of mothers and kids and grandmas and families and we did the biggest merch sales we’ve ever done. I consider us a mainstream band because when we play in front of people that don’t have any preconceptions of us they really like us – and they don’t like Ed Sheeran – so from our point of view we are mainstream because we can appeal to a wide audience.
“There are some avant-garde bands or rap bands or city bands they may appeal to more people than us but it’s a particular strata of society. I think we do have wide appeal but we don’t fit into the commercial workflow, if you like. We don’t write songs about kissing girls on top of buses unless we climbed on to the top of the bus in the first place.”
In terms of long-term ambition, Bid says: “I think once we decided that we weren’t actually going to get anywhere we just had fun and kept going. We weren’t going to be Adam and the Ants circa kings of the Wild Frontier, we just weren’t interested in doing that kind of thing. Dancing around in the bleeding video that was just no, thanks.
“We were a big band as well. Outside of the press and the media we had a very good following. We could go around the country and get quite big audiences so it was fine. We have just kept on with that since then. The question is you’ve always got to release something of quality every couple of years or so and then you’ll keep your audience – so that’s the way it is.”
The Monochrome Set play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on March 23. www.themonochromeset.co.uk