Meet musician Mark Morriss
PUBLISHED: 07:19 21 January 2014 | UPDATED: 07:19 21 January 2014
Former frontman of The Bluetones, Mark Morriss talks about his adopted home town of Tunbridge Wells and why he loves playing The Forum
Do you know which band knocked Oasis’s top album (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? off the number one spot in 1996? Mark Morriss does.
Enjoying a mid-morning coffee in his adopted home town of Tunbridge Wells, the singer-songwriter was, until a couple of years ago, the frontman of successful indie band The Bluetones.
Back in 1996 the band’s debut album, Expecting To Fly, came straight into the album charts (in the days when they still really mattered) at number one.
Not bad for four young lads from Hounslow who had previously been working on songs together in the damp garage of the house they shared.
It was legendary Radio One DJ John Peel who was responsible for getting The Bluetones noticed. They recorded a number of studio sessions for Peel’s show in the early nineties and were eventually signed to a record company.
In January 1996 the band released the single Slight Return, which climbed to an impressive number two place in the Top 40, and a month later their album debuted.
Mark and The Bluetones immediately became Britpop darlings. It was the heyday of Oasis, Pulp, Blur, Suede and hundreds of other alternative bands who, for a while at least, topped the charts.
For a generation, Expecting To Fly, with its hit singles Slight Return, Cut Some Rug and Bluetonic, provided the soundtrack to their youth. This month that album turns 18.
“It’s a grown-up now, that record,” says Mark, 42, who is as usual in a jovial mood. “It’s probably getting ready to go off to university now.”
It’s been such a major part of his life for so long that Mark is probably very tired of talking about Expecting To Fly, but if he is he certainly doesn’t show it.
“It was the soundtrack for a certain generation,” he says. “It was a time when alternative came into the mainstream for a year or two. Bands who would have normally been tucked away were suddenly riding high in the charts and being asked to appear on Top Of The Pops.”
Mark was asked to do just that and appeared on the celebrated pop TV show clad in baggy jeans and an oversized waterproof jacket. It was the Britpop age, after all.
“We appeared a few times actually. As kids we’d watched Top Of The Pops religiously and recorded it and learnt all the songs during the week. So to be asked to go on, it had real significance. It was one of the best things about being in The Bluetones, doing Top Of The Pops.”
Expecting To Fly became a platinum-selling record and paved the way for them to gig all over the world, even headlining the Glastonbury festival in 1997. The band was huge in the UK but also enjoyed a great deal of success in Japan. So much so that when, in 2011, the band finally decided to call it a day, they signed off with a farewell tour ending in Osaka.
So what was it that brought Mark to Kent? “I’ve been here six years now,” he says. “We’d been looking to move out of London to start a family, my partner and I, and we were looking all around the commuter belt because she still worked in London. Then I remembered Tunbridge Wells and we focused our house hunt here.
“It’s got everything you need really: lots of bars and restaurants, nice houses, lots of parks and great schools. My little boy goes to the local primary school and I feel good about this being the place he’ll grow up in.”
Mark knew the town a little before he moved here because he and the band had played a gig at The Forum in 2003.
Sleeping on a tour bus at the time, he’d grown used to waking up in a different town every morning but something about Tunbridge Wells stuck with him.
“This one morning we turned up here and I wandered around, had a cup of tea and a scone - and I really liked it.”
The amazing thing is that Mark remembers the exact date of that gig at the Tunbridge Wells Forum. “I wouldn’t have known this place if it hadn’t been for The Forum,” he admits.
“It was March 2003 - Monday 13 March 2003, to be exact. I remember because two albums came out on that day that I’d been waiting ages for and I walked into town to find an independent record shop. It’s weird that I remember that.”
The Bluetones were playing at the live music venue as part of their mammoth 50-date tour of that year and since then Mark has played at the venue four or five more times, both with the band and as a solo act.
Originally a Victorian public toilet at the bottom of Tunbridge Wells Common, The Forum is full of character and is hugely popular with musicians and fans alike. It was even voted Best Small Venue in the UK by the influential NME magazine in 2012.
Another important gig The Bluetones played in Tunbridge Wells was as part of a nostalgic tour performing Expecting To Fly in its entirety.
Despite having three top 10 albums, as well as 13 top 40 singles, in their time it was still their debut album that fans wanted to hear and in 2009 they decided to give it to them.
“We’d been asked about it quite a lot and for the first time it just felt right,” says Mark. “There was enough distance between us and the original recordings to go ‘yeah, it would be nice to revisit it now actually’. We’d pretty much forgotten most of it. You don’t play it for years and years and it’s not like you’re listening to it at home all the time.”
When The Bluetones finally disbanded two years ago Mark had already been recording solo material for a while and was regularly performing alone up and down the country.
But he made sure he played with his bandmates one last time in the town he now called home. The 2011 farewell tour kicked off at The Forum – a place he has come to like so much that he held his 40th birthday party there.
As well as celebrating Expecting To Fly’s 18th birthday, this month also sees Mark release a solo album. Originally he had intended to write songs and farm them out to up-and-coming singers. But when he couldn’t find any takers, he decided to get a group of musician friends together and record it himself.
The album, A Flash Of Darkness, shows a different side to Mark’s usually bouncy, uplifting music. With a less polished sound and a more introspective tone, the album is something he’s clearly proud of.
Add to that the fact that he’s still gigging almost every weekend and that he’s recently written and performed the music for several children’s audiobooks, including David Walliams’ Mr Stink, and Mark is clearly still as busy as he’s ever been. In fact he’s only recently finished a sell-out national tour supporting fellow nineties indie rockers Shed Seven.
The fact that Mark spends most of his weekends travelling the rest of the country means that he doesn’t get to explore much of the rest of Kent, but with so much on his doorstep, he doesn’t really need to leave Tunbridge Wells when he’s home.
“It’s so nice here. It’s clean and friendly – what more can you ask for? When you tour the country you do pick up on the vibe of a place as soon as you step into the town. You get this ability to read a place quite quickly. The people of Tunbridge Wells are a friendly lot and there’s a lot going on here.
“There’s such a healthy arts community here. The Forum, in particular I think, is key really to keeping this town vibrant.”
It may well be 18 years since he was at the top of the charts but with a contented home life in Kent and a renewed enthusiasm for his solo career, Mark is far from unhappy about getting older.
“People will read this and think punk rock is truly dead,” he laughs. “Listen to me! I never thought I’d be talking about scones and second-hand toy shops.” n