I’m already regretting some of the things I’m going to admit in this article, and I’m only just finishing the first sentence.
Let’s start with Robbie Williams. Let’s start with the diagonal line I shaved into my eyebrow as a fourteen-year-old boy, in an attempt to look a little bit like the former Take That member that was my current musical hero. Let’s start with me; an outwardly confident teenager, desperate for everyone to think I was cool. I was bullied at primary school but here, at secondary school, I had found a way to fit in. Being the class clown. Fucking up at school and being an idiot, making people laugh by throwing my school bag at the teacher, shaving a line in my eyebrow and getting that same eyebrow pierced even though I knew it wasn’t allowed. Generally being a dick.
Robbie was the perfect role model for this slightly confused time of my life. He did the same kind of thing in front of millions. He had escaped from a setting (Take That) in which he felt restricted and pushed down, to a place where he was able to express himself in raucous choruses and with a ridiculous look and attitude that was all his own. Or at least that’s how I saw it at the time. Nowadays, I see the error of my ways – but for the first time in print, I’m going to admit that Life Thru a Lens and I’ve Been Expecting You got me through some of the most anxiety-provoking times of my life. They helped me to feel like I had a place.
This was a trend that continued. I was fifteen in 1999 when I graduated to a new bad lad of music following the release of Eminem’s ‘My Name Is’ and, subsequently, The Slim Shady LP. This was my first real foray into hip-hop and would be something that would live with me for a lot longer than anything Robbie Williams did. But when I think back to that song, and that album, the thing I remember more than anything is my friends. I feel like Eminem, and Dr Dre with his roughly contemporaneous album 2001, played a role in turning a solid friendship group into one that remains to this day. We were obsessed. We sat in my bedroom for days on end, listening to nothing else, barely speaking, all of us spitting the bars as if we ourselves were living the hip-hop life.
But I was still a much more nervous and insecure person than most of the people I was in a room with would’ve believed. So much so that when one of them (Phil Overend, I hope you’re reading) challenged my love of hip-hop, saying that I couldn’t really be a hip-hop fan if my favourite rapper was a white boy with one album, it stung. I tried not to show it. But I knew I had to do something. So I took a trip to the local music store and came out with an armful of CDs; Mobb Deep, Dead Prez, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man and Redman, and, of course, Outkast’s Stankonia. I remember casually calling Phil (who, by the way, is the only person I know who is officially whiter than Eminem) to tell him about this new album I’d discovered only for him to tell me about their better, previous album. Fine. But there I was again, using music to fit in – using music to try and look cool. But the point here is that, in a way, it worked. It cemented friendships. And, in trying to find a way to make myself feel a bit less insecure, I discovered a genre and several artists that I still love today.
Fast forward. At 24 years old, after finally getting past my days of trying to be like Robbie or Eminem (or Liam, or Noel, or any of the others in intervening years) and I was, somehow, moving into halls at university in Manchester. I was the oldest in a group of nine that lived in my flat. I spent the weeks leading up to it falling in and out of panic, wondering what the hell I was doing to myself moving in with a load of people who were likely to be five or six years younger than me. Crazy. And, as they all gradually arrived on that first day, the anxiety rose with every conversation. Of course, they were going to all think I was the old weirdo and I was going to be ostracised. The weirdly shaped box that was my new bedroom was likely to be my only escape from their scrutiny.
But then I got talking to Matt Paul, who is now one of my fellow Picky Bastards. We were at a party. I’d be lying if I said that I remembered all the bands we discussed that night, but I am pretty sure the likes of Bloc Party and Interpol would’ve been among them. That conversation eased the anxiety. And then, over a ridiculous Fresher’s Week (in which I remember new friends and old coming together to see Foals at Manchester Academy), and an even more ridiculous first year, the main thing I remember is that we all bonded over music. Nine very different people, going to gigs together, listening to music in the flat while playing horrible drinking games, regularly hitting up the indie clubs where the choice of songs was, to us at least, almost as important as the price of a Red Bull and Vodka.
And, in the end, what is this whole Picky Bastards project about if not fitting in and connecting with friends? The whole idea started when Nick Parker and Nirmal Trivedi wanted a way to stay in touch when Nick moved back to the UK from the US. When Nick started working with me and we bonded over music (of course), he invited me into their monthly discussions of music and I eventually suggested we turn it into a podcast. And when Nirmal sadly had to take a step back due to family commitments, I went straight to that person I’d talked about Interpol and Bloc Party with back in 2008 to fill the void. And once we moved from being just a podcast to running this shiny website you see before you, we didn’t just staff it with writers at random. We filled it with people that we’d all made some kind of musical connection with over the years. And here I am now, at 36, luckily with no line shaved in my eyebrow, but still using music as the main way in which I connect with people. The main way in which I find my place.
Words by Fran Slater