“Get Me Some Beer and Fags!”

TJ Worthington interviews Roger Griffiths

First published June 2005

Over the summer of 1993, Channel 4′s fly-on-the-wall documentary series The Next Big Thing followed the fortunes of FMB, a young indie band trawling the gig circuit and looking for their big break in the music industry. Although the show was endearing and compelling viewing, the band likeable and amusing and their mooted single a well above average effort, even this sort of television exposure was no guarantee of wider media interest back then, and sadly for FMB lasting fame did not ensue. Early in 2005, former FMB frontman Roger Griffiths chanced upon a mention of the band as part of OTT’s guide to TV tie-in records, and after contacting us to express his appreciation, agreed to give us an insider’s account of the making of the series.

OTT: How long had FMB been around for before The Next Big Thing came along?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: The band was originally conceived by Jeff and me at university in Lancaster. We were in the same chemistry group, and I recall this lanky Rod Stewart-haired rocker running in late to a lecture. A few weeks later I was introduced to him by a guy called Andy, who was trying to put together and manage a band. I was into the guitar at the time and an alternative singer was drafted in with me playing rhythm to Jeff’s lead. Taffer was on bass and a weird Scottish guy whose name eludes me at the moment (I think we called him Scotty!) was the drummer. This was around 1988/89 and we had no name. The singer became so self-absorbed it was only right we kick him out leaving us singer-less, so I became front man to fill in for rehearsals. The band took the name the Steeplejacks.

Within weeks it was pretty clear there was something interesting happening between me and Jeff. His ability was remarkable, playing any and all styles, particularly metal which certainly had its place! We had started to play some covers, mainly Jimi Hendrix, and progressed to writing original material, but that was taking a secondary role at the time. Our first moment of glory came with a battle of the bands, at the local university club, The Sugar House, judged by the Milltown Brothers. We weren’t on the bill, but once the winners had been announced – and with a desire to be seen – I cajoled the Milltowns’ singer Matt to play drums, grabbed Jeff and Taffer and we rushed the stage. Before security could step in (looking back we were let on far too easily, I believe the prospect of playing drums had tempted Matt to grease the wheels a little!) we were on stage and Jeff had opened up with the chords for Foxy Lady. With impromptu versions of Should I Stay or Should I Go and Wild Thing, the stage was mobbed with drunken students clambering on to dance wildly. We had arrived – albeit with a very small splash.

Given our new found status, which sat easily with us, we set about rehearsing in earnest, but things weren’t really working out with the bass player so unfortunately he had to go. Cue Big Dan. He wasn’t technically brilliant but he was into playing and being a mate and having transport he was in. Our first gig was six months later at the return of the battle of the bands. We were up for it but it didn’t go well. We were drawn to play first, and I broke a string right at the start. We were shit. We broke for summer and returned to disastrous news: Jeff had been pretty ill all year and decided a year out was required. So the end seemed imminent. I was gutted.

Throughout this first year at uni we had been mates with Rags, but he had been in a band called Sky Blue Life, which was established on the college scene. He looked a bit out of place though. He was technically very good and could easily cope with all the pop Sky Blue Life played, but his look was much more goth, like mine. With Jeff now in Cambridge I decided to ask Rags if he would like to do something. We to’d and fro’d for a while without much happening, then finally got in a room to play. Again it was pretty instant and the fact we were becoming very close also worked really well. We reformed with Rags and Dan, and a new drummer Tommy Greenard. He was excellent, but his hands always bled at every rehearsal. I have to hand it to him (excuse the pun) he was tough enough to see it through, but to add insult we used to drive him really hard.

The band was almost there and to top everything off Jeff decided to go to Leeds to study music, which was close enough for him to rejoin and there it was: the group was formed. The difference was remarkable. We started writing with a new found passion and style. We gigged throughout the colleges that year and cemented ourselves as one of the three main acts to see in Lancaster (my wife was actually the singer in one of the other two!) Eventually Dan quit, or was forced to quit, and John Russo joined on bass. John was amazingly skilled but it was all funk and soul – he was responsible for playing me the Red Hot Chilli Peppers for the first time. His hook stayed with us for a long time – “it’s funk and soul, not rock and roll”.

We entered a battle of the bands again, and although we were drawn early once more, there was no competition. We rocked. It’s funny, as I have been in five bands to date, but I truly believe you just know if something works and us three key players – Jeff, Rags and I – had that feeling.

Unfortunately John was a year older, and left before we completed our final year at uni, so we had a hole to fill on bass again – I know, very Spinal Tap. In came Milo. Given he was Rags’ brother, he’d had access to all our demos and had already learnt the songs, so at the audition he fitted straight in. He was perfect: he just fitted the bill better than any of the previous bass players. He was solid, reliable and kept a really tight rhythm with the drums. It was his playing that was the foundation for the rest of the sound. We finished uni on a massive high, playing all the end of year bashes, and then realised we had a pretty big decision to make. And there was no hesitation!

We made our plans to move to the capital. Tommy wasn’t into it anymore, and only played one gig in London – our first. We invited Alex to come and see the show. He loved it, he left the band he was in and joined us. He had taught himself using a chest of drawers and a bass pedal, and his talent was instantly evident. Plus he was one of the funniest people I have ever known. As the youngest and the last to sign up, I think he found it hard at first, but it never showed. His performances were phenomenal – his natural ability made him one of he best drummers I have seen.

We started playing at every given opportunity and rehearsing almost daily. Living together made it easy to write and the band was really gelling. We’d even found a cheap space to rehearse at a school in Archway. Eventually one of our demos arrived at Sammy Jacobs’ desk. He worked for Fiction Records and was Chris Parry’s right hand man. He was in the process of setting up XFM at the time, trying to get a full licence to broadcast, when he heard something in the songs we’d put together. He arranged a meeting and we recorded some more demos which all seemed to be going really well. Chris was convinced by Sammy to give us some real studio time to cut a single and see where it took us. But when we got to the recording it just didn’t happen musically, we couldn’t get it to come out like our live shows – mostly due to my voice, which was without doubt the weakest link in the band. I was great as a front man, but just didn’t have the vocal talent to back it up. Fiction pulled the plug shortly before they themselves went under, and it was back to gigging – fortunately Wild and Fresh were just around the corner ready to catch our fall!

So the band had been around in one form or another for at least four years.

OTT: Had you always used the initials, or were you asked to abbreviate the name for television?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: The name was always FMB. It came from Rags while we were at the Sugarhouse one night – he fell off his chair, probably pissed, and shouted “fuck my boots!”, and somehow that stuck! Scary – it’s easy to write songs, but really difficult to think up a great name.

OTT: How and when did you first become involved with The Next Big Thing?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: As I mentioned earlier, we had taken the decision to move the London after college. The band had amassed quite a following a uni, so the natural next step was to become full time rock stars, rather than work. At the time we didn’t falter, we had such self-belief and a common goal. It was the only thing for us to do. Fortunately Rags and Milo lived there, so we had a base and their mum was kind enough to put me up. We had sent a demo to the Mean Fiddler amongst other venues, and a guy called Neil Pengelly picked it up. He gave us a gig, the Powerhaus on Liverpool Road Islington (which has now gone) opening on a Tuesday night. We managed to persuade a mass of London based ex-students to come down, so we played to an all right audience. From that a friendship was borne which led to further gigs at Mean Fiddler venues, and in time we asked Neil to represent us. After about six months of being in London, he called to tell us a TV company was looking for an up-and-coming band to feature in a fly-on-the-wall series. We didn’t hesitate. Without telling them he represented us, he advised the company we were up for it and promptly forgot to forward details of any of the other bands they had discussed.

Wild and Fresh decided they would talk to us to evaluate our presence. On the day of the interview we all met at Rags’ house and carried out the formal introductions. We all seemed to hit it off with the producers and APs, and whilst the meeting was in full swing we received a call from Island records. They wanted to see us, they had heard a demo, and Chris Blackwell himself was very interested. The producers nearly fell out of their chairs exclaiming that this was exactly what they needed to be getting on camera, and if we were up for it, so were they. It wasn’t until the contract were signed we owned up to Neil calling and pretending to be Island to secure us the job. The rest, as they say, is history!

OTT: There have been rumours that another band named Pyramid Dream were to have been the original subjects of The Next Big Thing, but pulled out after some 60 hours of footage had been shot. Do you know anything more about this?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: I saw something about this on the internet. I don’t know – it’s very likely. Just after the filming and airing of the series I was down about the negativity we were getting, and from that perspective I can understand a band pulling out, but I couldn’t say if they did or not. Either way, I am really glad we did it, because it gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. Interestingly, if you watch the series there is an episode where we are trying to get a gig at the Borderline in London. Rags is filmed calling the venue to see if we are in and he is told the gig has gone to Bang Bang Machine. In the subsequent footage the support act for the night are filmed – a band called Future Primitive – which is in fact the first incarnation of Bush fronted by a young looking Gavin Rossdale!

OTT: Was there any resistance in the band towards the idea of getting involved with a project like this, or were you all happy to take part?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: I think I hesitated initially, concerned that this might not be right, but that’s more of a family trait rather than good judgement. Jeff was certainly concerned and I think this ultimately led to him leaving. The whole premise went against everything he held dear as a musician; to me it was all rock and roll!

OTT: How long did the production team spend with the band, and how many hours a day on average were captured by the cameras?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Six months pretty much filming every day all day. The team really made the effort, and you will notice the same skills in many of the new fly-on-the-walls, in that very quickly the participants grow accustomed to the camera, allowing the production company to really catch the essence of the individuals. It was the same for us – we became pretty close to them and the equipment, and after a while walking into a crowded pub followed by lighting, sound and cameraman seemed normal. The team were so committed, if we went out, they came – no question. They took some shit from us (and gave it out) and a real bond was formed. I don’t recall it ever getting to be a bind. If the absolute worst came to the worst we all knew how to disconnect our mics.

OTT: Were there any moments when you found yourselves resenting the presence of the cameras or regretting the decision to participate?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Not for me as such. My parents felt it was an intrusion when we all went to Wales, but as I stated earlier, this really was a chance of a lifetime. The crew were also pretty respectful of our lives before the series and didn’t attempt to put us anywhere we weren’t comfortable.

OTT: One thing that really came across on camera was your collective sense of humour. Was there a conscious decision to play this up for the cameras, or was it just a reflection of the natural interplay between the band members? And had any of you seen the BBC2 Teenage Video Diaries: “In Bed with Chris Needham”?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Really, that is how we have always behaved. We were all really good friends and there was rarely any conflict between the members. I think the humour of the series is one of its finer points and it is still remarked upon. However I don’t think you can be in a band and not end up being more than a little Spinal Tap. I hadn’t seen the Chris Needham piece at that time – watching telly was not really done, we were always out – but I have literally just looked it up, and get what you are saying. The “In Bed with Chris Needham” Yahoo group is almost scary in a way!

OTT: Were you happy with the somewhat unusual timeslot of the series, or did you think it was not particularly suited to the sort of audience that the show was aimed towards?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: I don’t think we cared, as long as it was on. It was weird, but as pubs were closed on Sunday afternoons, everyone came back in pissed and then usually slouched about watching this cool programme about a pretty average band desperately trying to make it big.

OTT: How did your friends and family (and indeed your existing fan base) react to the news that you were to be filmed for a television series, and what did they make of the finished product?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: The existing fan base was pretty cool and in fact a lot of them can be clearly seen in the footage as the majority of filming was completed before the first show aired. My siblings were more than a little excited, capped by the autograph-signing whilst in the street. My parents were just shocked and concerned so many of my secrets were aired – especially the line “mum, dad: I smoke!” Secretly, my dad was a big fan (as was my mum), and they never missed an episode. That made me very happy. However, I think he was probably more disappointed than me when it became apparent the career wasn’t really going to happen.

OTT: The series was generally well received, getting some good reviews and a fair amount of support from the music press. When did you first become aware of how popular it was? Was there a corresponding increase in gig attendance figures?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: We played the Mean Fiddler soon after the first show aired. It was dead to begin with and we were enjoying a pint and a chat out front when the doors opened. All of a sudden we became aware of the young girls just standing with their mouths open and staring. When we said “hello”, they screamed. It was the weirdest thing. After the show – which was packed – we invited some of them to join us for a drink. I was sat with my friend Louise at the time, who suddenly became a figure of hate as one of the teenage girls sitting with us professed her love for me over and over again. Scary but – to be honest – great. It continued like that for the next year, really. We suddenly had an agent and a new manager. We were gigging and filling venues. The change was remarkable as it happened overnight. We finished off the first tour at the Marquee, coming onstage to a packed house and the sounds of Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back in Town – great! We followed that up with a show at the Reading festival, which was the icing on the cake. We played the tent at 1.30pm, the third band on that day, usually a shit time to play. When we walked on it was packed – there was around 5000 people in there, as full as the headliners would get it!

To top it all we were suddenly on guest lists throughout London. Although this was mainly the indie circuit, we were invited. No more waiting. It was all topped off for me by the greatest gig I have ever been to – Depeche Mode at Wembley Arena. That was followed up with VIPs for Green Day and the Smashing Pumpkins … it really was a dream come true!

The press, on the other hand, were a different beast – some were good to us, others hated us. The thought of a band being given a leg-up by a TV show was unheard of, and the NME were not about to allow a group to come through the ranks without their say so, so they shot us down at every opportunity. It was weird – we hadn’t expected any kind of backlash, and being of a pretty light-hearted nature the criticisms really did hurt. I think this was the turning-point for Jeff, he had sold himself in his eyes and it was time to go. I respect his decision, but I was gutted and would have given anything to have him stay. I was closest to him at the time and suddenly found myself short of a sparring partner.

OTT: Did you make many promotional appearances on radio, television or at live events to tie in with the series?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: I did some local London radio; we did the Mark Lamarr show on GLR and became friendly with him. We’d been bumping into him and Sean Hughes on the club circuit for some time. We went to Manchester to do a live show, where we quite frankly shat ourselves whilst being interviewed by Tara Newley. Also on the programme was Pete Waterman, who slated the idea of a fly-on-the-wall music series. You’d think he’d have learnt from our mistakes before setting out with One True Voice! Also hosting and, who you can hear doing our intro, was a young Mark Radcliffe.

OTT: By the time The Next Big Thing went to air, the sort of sound that FMB was associated with was starting to fall from favour. As there was presumably a gap of several months between filming and broadcast, do you feel that this unfortunate timing disadvantaged you in any way?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: We hadn’t set out with a specific sound, other than we were indie, which was pretty narrow-minded of us. I think the type of music you create is often influenced by what is around you, and from that respect, yes the tunes were dated by the time it was released. We didn’t help ourselves either as we were bored of playing James so didn’t want to really promote it, going against what the TV show was doing. We thought we had integrity, but that had been sold when we signed up. By this time we were all really confused – Jeff was gone, and we wanted to create a totally different sound, but were famous for being “Fraggle Rock”. It wasn’t a disadvantage though, because two million viewers a week were watching it, so in hindsight I am grateful to have had our music heard by such a large audience.

OTT: Do you feel that the series was a fair and accurate reflection of the band overall, or were events ever distorted to produce a “good story”?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: No, it’s pretty much as true as you could get, really. There were the odd moments when they missed something and we’d be asked to re-enact it, but really most of what you saw happened; so much so we didn’t get signed and we didn’t release James – so we failed!

OTT: Did you get much in the way of advice or assistance from Channel 4 or any other sectors of the media after the series went out?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Not really. Wild and Fresh kept in touch and did try to help us release James ourselves when the offers dried up. In coping with being there one minute and then seeing everything slip away, there was no one, and that was a very painful time for all of us. But I don’t feel it was really anyone’s fault. I think it is probably just as bad today for any Big Brother contestant – nothing can prepare you for a massive change in your status, with people you do not know talking to you or harassing you, and generally knowing more about your life than you do. It is a life-changing ordeal, and when that dries up you start to question why and what could be done to restore that adulation. You have to be mentally strong to cope. It’s so evident by the amount of people who now want to be famous just for the sake of being famous without anything to offer in return, no matter how shit.

OTT: How long did the band carry on for after The Next Big Thing?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Probably about 18 months. It was Christmas a year after the final show aired and we decided we needed a break. So we decided to take a month off. I was living in Camden on my own, Jeff had gone, Milo was at uni himself, and that month never ended. We haven’t played together again, and from that our relationships deteriorated dramatically. It was like we couldn’t face each other, and we all stopped talking – going from being the closest of friends to distant acquaintances. Perhaps we were just tired, but I really regret the fact we lost touch. We probably didn’t really start speaking again properly for three years. Even now Rags and I haven’t spoken for more than a couple of hours in the last 13 years. I talk to Milo daily by email, and fortunately have such a weird relationship with Jeff that every so often out of the blue we meet, go mad, get drunk party a bit, reminisce and then it’s over until the next time. It works, as we have no regrets, we cleared up his departure a long time ago and we have been able to become friend again just as we were in college. I have since recorded some tracks with him, which I think we are both proud of.

OTT: The Next Big Thing is certainly fondly remembered by many viewers, and copies of the series and James are now keenly sought after. Does this surprise you at all?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Not really – there was something special about it. Unlike the other reality shows we have seen to date, there was a camaraderie to it that gave the viewer five flavours to like, and with us being funny, it wasn’t really about the music as such, but more about the characters. You can tell we were all close and that we weren’t there for the cameras. It was a true statement of who we were and what we wanted, showing our one love was music. Unfortunately even though the voiceover states we were offered a contract, we couldn’t take it, and so James was never released. This interview has made me start to think about rectifying that, if it is at all possible.

OTT: Would you be happy to see the series released on DVD? If so, what would you suggest as potential extras?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Absolutely! I would love to see it released. I think it would do well. The outtakes ran for hours, we’d go and watch them every so often at the production offices and there is some really funny stuff in there – including my pre-gig bath scene with added huge rubber penis! We did a dreadful video at the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus, which could be in there. I don’t really know – it would take a long time to decide.

OTT: Reality television has certainly changed a lot since the days when you were the subject of it, with a much greater emphasis being placed on fame and viewing figures seemingly at the expense of individuality and creativity. What are your feelings on this? Do you think Channel 4 itself has changed since then too? How do you think FMB would have fared in the post-Pop Idol/X Factor world?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: I think your criticism of the format today is spot on. When we signed up we were told in no uncertain terms Channel 4 would not help us succeed. The aim of the series was to show the viewer the inner workings of a band trying to make it. What we now have is a format where “contestants” are forced to spar it out in return for votes, which seems a very clever way to pay for the program and outcome. That to me is the difference between a fly-on-the-wall documentary (which is exactly what out series was) compared to reality TV. I’m not sure if this is a natural progression. Would the public have voted to get us signed? Was it simply a format that hadn’t been explored until Endemol? I don’t know, but I am sure that had it been the case The Next Big Thing would have failed in its goal. The producers/directors, – Eric Harwood and Josh Halil – both came with exceptional pedigree, and resisted getting involved and manipulating us which is why we came across as we did. I know for a fact we wouldn’t make it in today’s talent shows, but that wasn’t what we were about.

Plus some of our covers were terrible. Our talent was actually in being able to write some pretty fine pop tunes. I truly believe that James would still stand up today as a single, and I don’t think winning the right to release covers is an acceptable musical career. In fact I see some of this as the reason the music industry is in such a poor state of health. It seems to have completely lost its will to develop talent yet falls over itself to suck up to those that manage to get through, such as Coldplay. Not wanting to take anything away from them, I truly believe there are probably 10 bands of that quality trying to get into the industry at this moment, and nine won’t make it because their first single won’t do well enough. It’s madness – please don’t get me started on this topic!

I hate to see it and will the industry to get better and realise that it’s the brilliance of the musicians writing music that’s the most important element. So many times we were told “the industry doesn’t owe you a living”. Well the truth is that the artists keep those companies alive, so I believe the artist should reply in the same manner: “This artist doesn’t owe you a living, A&R man – now get me some beer and fags!”

OTT: What are the other members of FMB up to nowadays?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: Alex and Jeff have both been actively involved with music projects; Alex had been in a band with Charlotte Hatherley before Ash poached her. Rags and Milo went on to form a group with one of the guys from Soho (who had a hit with Hippychick) which did well. Jeff formed Bullets and Blue Eyes with John Russo, also ex-FMB. I failed to get anything off the ground until I left London in 1996. I moved to Leeds where I formed KimdolPhin with Anton Witter, which is still alive and kicking but in a pretty dormant state. We did some shows with Shed 7 and managed to produce a few decent demos. All the guys except me live in London. Milo is married with two children, as is Rags. I believe Jeff and Alex are both single and I am married with a daughter.

OTT: How do you view The Next Big Thing nowadays? What for you were the highpoints and lowpoints of the series?

ROGER GRIFFITHS: It is one of my greatest achievements, which I will always be proud of. Shortly after the series I doubted what it had done for me and the impact it had on my life, but the truth is I would never have really made any impact on the music scene at that time without it. I just wasn’t talented enough! So looking back, it is now always with great fondness; sure I would have done things differently, but not a great deal. Failing to get signed did not mean we had failed per se. In the end we were performers and we gave the nation a pretty good show. Eight weeks on TV is no mean feat, and I think there is only one weak episode, all the rest are classics. To this day I watch them, and I can’t wait to show my daughter when she is old enough. Only yesterday, Milo told me Rags and Alex get together regularly and put them on, so the experience is still very close to our hearts. So much time has passed I can’t think of any real low points from it. All the insults, the verbal abuse, the paranoia were worth it. To be quite honest they were the best months of my life. How many 21-year-olds get that kind of opportunity? I think public opinion is split – some people loved it, some hated it, but we will always be the first fly-on-the-wall docusoap, and I think one of the best. We as people will always be those “blokes from that band off the telly!”