It was the planes he sang to; they taunted and enticed him. By day he was the school Weird Kid, into Prince and Abba when everyone else was gabba’d off their cakeholes to 808 State, but by night he was the traveller’s troubadour – strumming in his suburban teenage bedroom on the outskirts of Southampton airport, listening to the roar of the jets hitting the runway and soaking in a little of their far-flung romance.
“Southampton’s really really average in every way,” says’ Greg Gilbert, the wide-eyed loner behind South Coast sensations Delay’s. “It’s not really depressed or downbeat so you’ve got romantic notions of it, it’s terribly average. The only thing you’ve got is these airplanes coming in and out constantly over your head, so you can feel the world is a big place but you’re not seeing any of it. This is just a stop-off point, a port where people come and go but your scenery doesn’t change.”
1996 and, while the capital was feeling the first twinges of the Britpop hangover, the Greg’s Southampton felt like “an awkward silence, people waiting for something to happen.” And Greg was tired of waiting. Spurred on by the worldly jeer of the jet engines, inspired by ‘The La’s’ and ‘The Holy bible’ and with a bundle of breathy pop pearls under his snakeskin belt – plus a voice that made McAlmont sound like Phil Mitchell – he trawled Southampton’s local indie club Thursdays (now the fresh fruit isle of Europe’s largest supermarket) for fellow rock freaks. Their names were drummer Rowley and bassist Colin Fox and they weren’t difficult to spot. They were the only other people on the dancefloor during ‘Alphabet Street’.
Nods were swapped. Small-talk about T-Rex was engaged. And suddenly, Southampton had the crazed acousti-rock revolution it had been gasping for. And it’s name was, um, Corky.
“Total Britpop name,” Greg admits, “But we started to kick against it. When we started it was eyeliner and leopardskin flares to get people talking. It was like The La’s without any finesse, played in a Manic’s aggressive style.”
The band were a volatile, explosive and visceral band hampered only by the fact that they weren’t actually any good. So they made a pact to shut themselves away from the Southampton scene until they had a raft of material capable of soiling A&R trouser from half a mile away. To this end they roped in sequencer alchemist Aaron Gilbert, stewed in Greg’s elegantly harmonic romanticism for a few years and metamorphosed into Delay’s – a tech-friendly British Byrds and a fresh flowering of florid, ethereal future-pop.
Their unique, uniquely out-of-step demos – sumptuous West Coast harmonies; cloud-busting falsetto vocals full of beauteous yearning and splendid desolation; synth atmospherics we’d describe as a ‘cathedral of sound’ if the use of such phrases weren’t punishable by death under the Anti-shoegazing Act of 1991 – licked lusciously at the ears of Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, who sped down to Southampton Joiners for a private show (“I played the sympathy card,” Greg admits, “I told him I’d reapplied to go back to art school, and he said ‘why?’ At that moment I knew we were onto something.”) and promptly signed them as unlikely label-fellows to The Strokes and The Libertines at the dawn of 2003.
“Our notions of being a pop band are such that we needed Rough Trade to make sure people listened,” Greg argues. “It’s a taste-making thing and you’ve got the heritage there. When you’re on a label like Rough Trade people will approach you differently than when you’re on a major. And I think we’re quite a significant signing for them because we’re not really similar to what’s been going on over the past year or so.”
Delays wasted no time in proving their significance. Their debut single ‘Nearer Than Heaven’ – essentially The Cocteau Twins and The La’s making a joint attempt to scale the north face of the world’s highest chorus – cropped up in Mel Smith’s movie ‘Blackball’ while it’s follow-up – the sixties sugar-rush of ‘Hey Girl’ – dented the Top 40 last July. What’s more, a second half of 2003 on the road with the likes of Tim Burgess, The Coral, McAlmont & Butler, The Thrills and Sleepy Jackson paid major dividends when third single ‘Long Time Coming’ crashed the Top Twenty at Number 16 in January 2004. For all it’s idyllic, summery jauntiness, however, it proved to contain the sourest of centres.
“It’s been a really hard year,” says Greg. “A great year for us as a band but a hard year personally. I’ve never known as much death or illness ever in my life as in the past year and I think that’s come through in a lot of lyrics. ‘Long Time coming’ is about watching people you love losing their innocence and naivety that you shared when you were younger and fallen into the kind of adulthood you swore you never would, and wishing you could’ve done something about it. It’s a loss of innocence and also of spontaneity and people becoming really guarded and jaded. Friends stuck in jobs you know they don’t wanna do, living in houses they don’t wanna live in.”
If one characteristic defines Delays debut album ‘Faded Seaside Glamour’ – recorded in intricate and lengthy sessions at Rockfield Studios (“I think I drove everybody up the wall,” Greg laughs, “I made everybody go mental. Take after take.”) – it’s delicious, duvet-wrapped melancholy and sunburnt devastation. It’s as fresh as The Thrills and as old as The Hollies, it’s taken in everyone from Big Star to Geneva to The Stone Roses in between and Delays tap into its sepia-soaked, moist-eyed heritage like a kick-ass ‘Wonder Years’. The louche Happy Mondays groove of ‘On’, the giddy pop of ‘Hey Girl’, the gargantuan romantic whoosh of ‘Wanderlust': this is a record mournful of its past but with a dizzy fervour to go out and devour the world. Sweetly.
“I’m totally happy with it as a statement of our mindset over the years,” Greg says. “The optimism and the melancholy and wanting to get out. I think we’ve got goals and big ideals. No band’s ever been perfect, so no ban has ever achieved what we wanna achieve. We wanna be the perfect pop band.”
So finally, Greg’s there in pop’s departure lounge, sweaty ticket in his hand. He doesn’t know where he’s headed, but he’s sure as hell ready to fly.