Irwin Sparkes and Alan Sharland have written an hilarious, and important, stage show about the perils of making it big in the music biz
“You know we are NME award winners?”
I’m sheltering from the rain in a small, pop-up bar in Bristo Square, Edinburgh, with founding members of The Hoosiers Irwin Sparkes and Alan Sharland, and Sparkes is talking about the Worst Band accolade they pipped Panic At The Disco, 30 Seconds To Mars, My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy to at the 2008 NME Awards.
“I think the kind of band we are, we could kind of take it in our stride,” he says. “We wanted to be bright and bold and it made us very easy targets.”
All water under the bridge now then?
“Actually, to pick a bone with the NME,” says Sharland. “We did offer to come and collect the award at the ceremony, but we got turned down!”
Sparks (guitarist, singer) and Sharland (drummer, singer) are at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, putting on their brilliant, zany two-man show Felix and The Scootermen: Self-Help Yourself Famous.
Partially based on the highs and lows they’ve had in their career (at one point Felix and The Scootermen talk about their hit song ‘Anxious about Anthony’, which is a pisstake of The Hoosiers’ ‘Worried About Ray’), it explores the relentlessness of the music industry and the toll it can take on the people working in it, via the front of a self-help seminar where attendees learn how to be famous.
It’s a charming watch, somewhere between The Mighty Boosh and Spinal Tap, filled with screwball songs, choreographed “tap-hop” dance routines, laugh out loud moments and just the right amount of sentimentality. It probably won’t actually make you famous, but it will make you laugh.
It follows members of the fictional band Felix and The Scootermen, with Sparkes playing conceited diva and fragile frontman Felix Scoot, and Sharland the drummer and ego-fluffer Lee Delamere. The interactions between the two (both onstage, and during the interview) are razor sharp and witty, honed by years of friendship and onstage banter.
They’d intended to bring the show to the Fringe last year, but were too busy playing with The Hoosiers and writing new material. Then, in March this year, they knuckled down to finish writing and rehearsing Self-Help Yourself Famous, intent on bringing it to Edinburgh.
It’s been a long time coming.
“The idea for the show stemmed from a conversation I had with Jo Wiley – clang! – about 12 years ago,” says Sparkes.
“She’s got a double barrelled name now, she married Mr Clang,” says Sharland.
Sparkes again: “I was saying to her, ‘isn’t it funny that there’s no guidebook on fame, how do you handle it?’ And she was like, ‘you don’t really’. And I imagined there should be a guidebook on fame and how to do that. And that’s where it started.”
They found that people loved to hear “silly tales from the road, from both being on a trajectory that went up, and then coming down” and they turned these tales into 54 minutes of on-stage gold.
So how much is based on real life?
“Quite a few of the key moments are,” says Sharland. “There’s a Radio 1 incident that’s real. I don’t want to give too much away, but the reason we didn’t do it under our name is because we wanted to exaggerate things a bit, because it’s otherwise not quite as fun story.”
One joke centres around a possible collaboration between Felix and The Scootermen’s and once enormous British hip hop trio N-Dubz.
“There are so many stories where we were being pressured by our label/management to ask artists for collaborations,” says Sparkes.
“They had some absurd suggestions,” says Sharland. “I think they tried to do something with Stacey from Gavin and Stacey at one point.”
“And Paloma Faith!” says Sparkes. “It made us uncomfortable.”
“I think the record company tried to do something with Stacey from Gavin and Stacey at one point” – Alan Sharland
Some of the other moments that inspired Self-Help Yourself Famous are less amusing, though, and focus on a “dereliction of care from the industry”.
Back in 2008, The Hoosiers were huge. Debut album ‘The Trick to Life’ was number one in the UK, and they were playing to huge crowds every night. But it wasn’t all glamorous parties and rockstar moments.
“One time we were on tour and doing so many shows,” says Sparkes. “And the head of Sony wanted to fly us somewhere for dinner, and I had a little wobble and couldn’t stop crying. How ridiculous is that? But everything was very pressured at the time. Like your life isn’t your own, and you’re pushed around, so you don’t have agency over it.”
Their workload at the time was brutal, and they didn’t feel well looked after. “When things are going well you want to capitalise on it,” says Sharland. “So you’re working 320 days of the year and you don’t get many days off. And you’re gigging and scared to let go of the dream, because the next cowboy is ready to jump in the queue.”
“You feel like you have to work harder to keep this really golden opportunity,” says Sparkes. “And I think this is the point we want to make. We’re not saying that being famous is the same as having completed a tour of Afghanistan. You know, that’s harrowing. The difference we’re trying to get across in the show is that fame is something people want, it’s aspirational. Everybody wants that 15 minutes, and we were lucky enough to have a crumb from the cupcake of fame.”
“It’s a dangerous thing if you put your own identity on your accomplishments. So when the band was doing well I felt like I was more of a successful human being” – Irwin Sparkes
Sharland is an ambassador for mental health charity SANE, and believes the music industry needs to take more responsibility for the effects that being in the public eye can have on artists. “You just hear awful things about people pushing artists for monetary purposes rather than taking care of how they are,” he says. “And it’s just raising awareness, so people start to do something about it. We all just need to raise our voices a little bit. That’s what we’re part of, what we’re doing.”
Things got even harder for The Hoosiers when the follow-up to ‘The Trick to Life’ – 2010’s ‘The Illusion Of Safety’ – didn’t do as well.
“I struggled really bad,” says Sparkes. “I didn’t think I did, because you’re aware you’ve got a job you can’t complain about. You’re the lucky one. But in another way it’s a dangerous thing if you put your own identity on your accomplishments. So when the band was doing well I felt like I was a successful human being, and there were a few years of having to put that back together.”
As The Hoosiers moved further away from the public eye, they noticed other things changing too. Initially they’d been encouraged to “reveal” aspects of their lives on social media to sell music, but this changed.
“You know it’s going well when you’re getting trolled,” Sparkes says. “But the trolls left us long ago. I remember the day the trolls departed. They packed up and I was like “no, come on, come here and rip the piss!””
“I remember the day the trolls departed. They packed up and I was like “no, come on, come here and rip the piss!”” – Irwin Sparkes
Nowadays the band play 30 gigs a year (“it’s more enjoyable than ever,” Sparkes says, “we appreciate it more, there’s less pressure”), and have just released their greatest hits album, ‘Greatest Hit(s)’, on their own record label. There’s a plan to write more music as The Hoosiers in the future, but at the moment Self-Help Yourself Famous is the priority.
“We’re in a comfort zone with the band,” says Sharland. “It’s easy to go and play the songs we’ve played 1000 times before, but Self-Help Yourself Famous is just great, the challenge of doing it. And I did miss that, the nervous feeling before a show. It’s a hell of a buzz.”
Here’s to them bagging a sliiiiightly more complimentary NME Award next time around.