Born and raised in Chesterfield, Duncan Lovatt made his musical name with Swimmer and as a founding member of Ten Benson back in the ’90s and now based in Newcastle is set to return to Derby for a gig with current band Nine Tons.
“I grew up in a small village close to Chesterfield and so during the late eighties, I would travel to Sheffield and Derby to get to gigs at great venues like the Leadmill and Take Two in Sheffield and the Warehouse in Derby. I have great memories of seeing bands like Galaxie 500, Janes Addiction, The Fall and the Lunachicks when I was 16 or 17.
“But I couldn’t really describe my family as the Derbyshire Von Trapps. My dad still only listens to ABBA, James Last and The Shadows. I love The Shadows and will instantly do the Shadow Shuffle at the first note of many of their tunes. For The Shadows I am grateful, but not so much for the James Last experience.
“My sister is musical and had organ and flute tuition. I would record versions of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry and Jesus and Mary Chain songs on her Lowrey Genie 44 but never had the patience to learn music theory myself.
“I remember a music teacher at junior school telling me to consider coming back to music when I was older because I couldn’t play the recorder. I think I wanted to prove her wrong though. If Mark E Smith and Daniel Johnston could do it, then so could I.”
These may have been fairly typical musical beginnings growing up in Derbyshire in the ’80s, with music handed down from older siblings or discovered via Peel and SNUB TV, but for Duncan Lovatt they were the foundation for being a player in the alternative scene of the 1990s through to today.
“SNUB TV on BBC 2 made quite an impact on me at the end of the eighties/start of the nineties. It was the first time that I had seen the alternative music that I had been reading about. SNUB TV introduced me to great bands like King of The Slums, Ultra Vivid Scene, Mute Drivers and Dinosaur Jr as well as covering all the stuff that I was already into like The Fall and Spaceman 3.
“My mate Jonny who grew up in the same village was really into the hair-rock side of things but as he started to get more and more into the American alternative rock of Alternative Tentacles, Discord and Sub Pop, we met in the middle and began swapping vinyl.”
Moving to London for university Lovatt found himself amongst the alternative music scene, and after graduating shared a house with friends who were in Delicatessen. It was while visiting them at Toe Rag Studios he became involved in Swimmer, already established on the London scene for their typically drunken and raucous gigs. However, as Britpop swept through the industry the talks with executives withered and eventually Lovatt and Chris Tekkam took the chance to start something new.
That band was Ten Benson, so named by Lovatt after a purchase at an all-night garage, and when their second 7″ was championed by Steve Lamacq he gave up the day job on offshore oil rigs in favour of being a full time musician. “Ten Benson settled into a strange hinterland between being the band that other bands, BBC DJs and the music press all appreciated and what the old school established music companies wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.
“I remember Ten Benson releases being chosen as Melody Maker Singles of the Week by guest reviewers like Reef and The Levellers. I was pleasantly surprised to read Eric Clapton name checking us in a Mojo interview. He seemed to know where we were coming from and commented that we seemed to be having a lot of fun. He was right.
“We didn’t get the full industry backing to go any further, probably because they had no idea how to market us and ultimately make returns on any investment. I think that that this was as a lucky escape for us to be honest.”
A move back to Derbyshire, as well as the departure of other long-time members, meant Lovatt’s days in Ten Benson were coming to an end. Although they continued for a while he and Chris eventually parted ways and while Tekkam continues under the Ten Benson name it was a while before Lovatt felt the call of songwriting again.
Now based in Newcastle he formed shautrock band Nine Tons to
“When I started rehearsing with Nine Tons, I realised that it was going to take a lot of hard work to get close to the energy heard in those old live Swimmer recordings but I think that we are getting close now. I have occasionally felt that I am about to keel over and die mid-set, as I try to get a breath in between the verses but so far I have survived.
“It took a long time to get the right group of people together for Nine Tons but we are now Mark (drums), Yin (guitar,vox) and Dylan (bass, vox). This stability has helped to progress at least part of the songwriting process back towards a group activity. I tend to record the band rehearsing and try to get them to play along to my latest ideas.
“Occasionally I come home with a song patched up together and ready to progress. It is important for me to involve the band in all aspects of the writing, recording and organisation. I really wouldn’t want to be part of a band that does not share the whole experience. We are all very different and have very different influences and skills. Dylan decided on the band name this time and I have no idea if it has any significance but knowing Dylan it probably does. Nothing to do with Ten Benson though, apparently.”
As the band start working toward their second album they’ve started playing dates outside of the North East including a February date in Derby, bring Lovatt back toward his childhood roots. The break from music, but a long-time involvement, has also given Lovatt pause to reflect on the changes – on the demise of physical releases and the explosion of choice on the live scene mixed with the apathy of the gig-goer. It’s also given him time to think about his own career and choices.
“I believed that I had achieved everything that I had set out to achieve in music with Swimmer and Ten Benson by 2000. I took a decision to move back to Derbyshire from London to try to spend as little time as possible indoors and as much time as possible enjoying music, family and friends.
“The problem with living in a rural area is that it can be a constant struggle to experience the more contemporary, challenging or alternative aspects of culture and society. I recently had an opportunity to maximise my ambition with regards to spending large amounts of time outside in a fairly remote and beautiful part of the country, whilst living close to the city with all the opportunities and benefits that brings.
“Forming a new band with people that have the right ability and understanding of what I am trying to do was one of the first hurdles achieved. This last year has also seen me record and perform my own music for the first time in sixteen years. The fact that the new music was appreciated and broadcast by Tom Robinson on 6Music and by other DJs that I respect and follow like Mark Whitby on Dandelion Radio, has been a highlight and a reward for what has also been a huge challenge in adapting to the new ways of doing something that I felt I already understood.
Nine Tons play the Hairy Dog on Sunday 12 February 2017 with fellow Newcastle band Ghost Signals and support from Derby duo Them Are They. Details and tickets here.
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A version of this interview was first published on Louder Than War here.