Little Man Tate were destined for big things, but Jon Windle tells Mark Butler why they decided the price of fame wasn’t worth paying
ASK Sheffield songwriter Jon Windle for his opinion on the mainstream music industry and he certainly doesn’t mince his words.
“It’s full of liars,” he responds. “Everyone tells you how great you are, and when things are going well everybody wants to be your friend. But at the slightest sign that the ship might be sinking a little, they’re off. A lot of people in the industry are just out for themselves.”
Windle is, of course, speaking from personal experience. Back in 2009 his band, Little Man Tate, had established themselves as one of the brightest new indie acts in the UK.
The Sheffield outfit had scored five Top 40 hits, garnered a sizable fanbase and attracted a fair amount of critical acclaim into the bargain. But tensions with their record label and an increasing sense of disillusionment compelled them to act.
This was not the usual tale of internal struggles, “creative differences” or a dismal slide into obscurity – Little Man Tate decided to split up because they weren’t happy with the personal price of success.
“A lot of decisions were taken out of our hands, and we began to feel that we’d lost the whole meaning of what we’d set out to do,” explains Windle. “The label asked us to move down to London and I refused. Sheffield is my home. I love living here. The people of Sheffield are really proud of their bands and it was them who put us here in the first place. The decision to quit was heart over head – and a hundred per cent about principle.
“We wanted to go out at the top of our game, and we never cared about the money. We loved music and we loved touring, but we didn’t want to just carry on for the sake of cash.”
These days, it’s fair to say Windle feels a lot more comfortable with his lot. The 29-year-old actually considered calling it a day on his music career altogether following the band’s break-up, but an impromptu performance at a charity gig in Rotherham gave him a new thirst for songwriting, and resulted in the emergence of his debut solo album Step Out The Man last October.
It showed-off a distinctive change of style from the singer’s indie-rock days – with Windle professing his love for country music among other things.
“I wanted it to be different, otherwise we might as well have done a third Little Man Tate album,” he explains.
“Going solo has been really enjoyable throughout. In the band I felt a lot of pressure, but now the pressure’s off. I’ve got no record label telling me what needs to be done, or what I can and can’t do. In Little Man Tate we sometimes had to compromise a bit. Now I’ve got complete control.
“Of course, it has been a challenge to build it all up again. It’s been like going back to the early days of the band at times.
“But you have to prove yourself, and I’ve got no divine right to expect success just because I was in a successful band.”
Windle has been playing solo acoustic shows around the UK throughout November, and will be performing in both Leeds and Sheffield later this month with a full backing band.
“I can’t wait,” he says. “Yorkshire gigs are always special. There’s something about the people here that makes every gig into a proper event, rather than just a show. Every gig is almost like a celebration.”
Windle’s second album – recorded with renowned Sheffield producer Alan Smyth – is due out early next year, and sees him change musical direction once again.
“I like to write songs that tell stories, and that’s still there. But the new album has got a nice 60s rock ‘n’roll feel to it.
“We’ve tried to capture some sounds from the past. It’s more mature definitely.
“Writing it, recording it and showcasing the new material on the road has been good fun, which is exactly why I got back into all this in the first place. I was missing it.”
Windle played in various bands around Sheffield during his teenage years, with Little Man Tate officially forming in 2005.
Their lively, spiky indie rock had the boisterous energy of The Libertines, combined with the spiky cheekiness and urban storytelling of Sheffield compatriots The Arctic Monkeys – who used to work behind the bar at the city’s Boardwalk while Windle and guitarist Ed “Maz” Marriott toiled in the box office.
“I remember when we were all starting out everyone used to lend each other equipment,” recalls Windle. “Our van always had loads of borrowed gear in it – this person’s guitar, that person’s drumkit...”
He readily accepts that it was the massive breakthrough success of The Arctic Monkeys that paved the way for Little Man Tate’s own rise, and argues that the impact of Arctic Monkeys has had a profound effect on the region’s musical fortunes.
“What they’ve done for the music scene round here is fantastic.
“There have always been great bands in Sheffield and Yorkshire, but their success brought a focus on the region.
“It was great for bands like us who came through on the back of that. It created a buzz. And I think all of us were so closely indentified with the city because there were common threads in our songs about ordinary people, and characters and situations, which arose out of the spirit of Sheffield itself. Everyone related to that.”
Jon Windle plays Leeds Cockpit on December 16 and Sheffield Plug on December 17. For tickets visit www.seetickets.com
Rise and fall of LittLe Man Tate
John Windle, Edward ‘Maz’ Marriott, Ben Surtees and Dan Fields formed Little Man Tate in 2005.
Two years later their fifth single Sexy in Latin became their highest charting single, entering the singles chart at number 20.
Like Arctic Monkeys, they turned to the internet and soon built up a loyal fanbase.
However, after four years they announced they were to split and performed their two final shows at Sheffield O2 Academy.
Marriott is now a session musician living in London, Surtees is DJing, while Fields is drumming for Windle on his UK tour.