Four years isn’t a long time at all in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t stop some people from accomplishing a hell of a lot. Take The Subways for example: in late 2004 they were signed to Infectious Records, home of Northern Ireland indie heroes Ash. By the end of 2008 they’d made a guest appearance in US teen drama The OC, opened for Oasis, played countless festivals, appeared on US talk shows and released two albums. It’s a list of achievements that, frankly, ought to make us hate them.
But when Billy Lunn, guitarist and vocalist for The Subways, starts talking we find it awfully hard to hold it all against him. While some young musicians swagger around like uppity, Jim Morrison-aping wazzocks, Billy’s candidness and infectious enthusiasm are enormously endearing. ‘We opened for AC/DC two days ago in [London’s] Wembley Stadium,’ he chatters. ‘It was very, very scary. AC/DC crowds don’t give a crap about anyone other than AC/DC. But, you know, we looked out at that crowd and thought: we just have to make the most of this. We’re opening for them again tomorrow in Scotland. I’m sweating just thinking about it.’
Sadly, working alongside megastars doesn’t necessarily mean that you get to be mates with them – apparently neither AC/DC nor Weezer bothered to meet The Subways when on tour with them – but the band have chatted with the likes of the Gallaghers (‘Liam and Noel are such gentlemen,’ says Billy, and we almost believe him) and fuzz-faced rockers Foo Fighters.
It’s not all been fun and games, though. Those four years of intense success also brought with them intense worry and unhappiness, most notably during the development of the band’s second album, All Or Nothing. After an extended period of touring Billy’s voice failed, forcing the band to cancel gigs. ‘It turned out that I had developed polyps [small, noncancerous growths on the vocal cords] in my throat and all I could do was have surgery. The doctor said that if I spoke within three weeks of having them removed I might never sing again.
‘It was unbearable: I almost fell apart because we didn’t know what would happen – whether my voice would change or whether it wouldn’t be there at all. But we had the tunes and I had to think positive, so [before the – thankfully, successful – operation] we went to a local recording studio first and just jammed eight hours a day, coming up with a bunch of new material that otherwise wouldn’t have been there.’
Physical problems weren’t the end of it, though – there was emotional turmoil too. For the first part of The Subways’ life, Billy and the band’s bassist, Charlotte, had been going out. But as work on the second album progressed, their relationship began to crumble. ‘Charlotte and I realised that we weren’t meant to be together, so we broke up. But we…’ his usually enthusiastic voice falters as he searches for the word, ‘we decided that the most important thing was that we made this record, because it had been such a trial, and all our emotions played in the music.
‘At one point we said, “We’ve got to address this,” so we wrote a song called ‘Obsession’, which is all about the break-up. We faced each other in the room and I suggested the line “I could travel 10,000 miles just to see your smile,” and Charlotte said, “That’s not quite right,” and suggested, “I could travel 10,000 miles so I could escape your smile.” That honesty, and the music, is what kept us together as friends. If we weren’t in the band we would have just gone our separate ways. But we were forced into the studio, so the songs became a catalyst that fused us back together in a different form,’ he explains.
‘It was worth it, though – I’m really happy with the album. I said to my mum after it was done, “A bus could knock me down now and I wouldn’t care because I’ve made something that’s justified my life.” And now I know that me, Charlotte and Josh [the drummer] will always be together as The Subways. We’re not stopping until one of us dies. We’ll be rocking out with the zimmer frame out.’
And in that spirit the band are now working on a third album, some songs from which will likely turn up at Billy’s live set at Alpha on Friday. ‘I’ll most likely do some stuff from our first two albums,’ he says. ‘And a few covers – maybe Kylie or Madonna – and some stuff that might go on the new album. Our songs always start out with something I’ve done on acoustic guitar, something quite lush. But Josh is the fiercest drummer I’ve ever heard, so once he puts down the heavy beats and Charlotte ties it all together with her bass they become something else. I just don’t know where it’s all going to end up.’
That could pretty much be the band’s motto, if the last few years are anything to go by. So here’s one last surprising story for the road: ‘My agent gave me a call one morning and said, “Guy Ritchie’s about to get in touch. Put some pants on.” Ritchie called and it turned out he liked our song ‘Rock & Roll Queen’ and wanted us to perform in [Cockney crimefest RocknRolla]. Charlotte and I loved his first two films, so we were interested. So we performed a gig and he filmed it for the movie. And we got free Maltesers and popcorn at the premiere. That’s what sold it to me, really – when I found out about the snacks, I was like: “Let’s do this!”’
Billy Lunn plays Alpha, July 17. Tickets Dhs75 for guys, Dhs50 for girls.
The sound of silence
What would Billy be getting up to now if he’d lost his voice permanently? We suggested new career options…
A sign-language interpreter for TV dramas
‘I’d love that but I’d get kind of nervous because I get fidgety. Maybe if they’d let me dance or something during the quiet bits. I can actually do the moonwalk, so if they can let me moonwalk along the bottom of the screen, that would be great. I can do the worm as well. Worm to one side, moonwalk to the other.’
A dancer for The Prodigy
‘That would be amazing! But I don’t think there’s anything that can compete with Keith Flint’s haircut. No matter how many dance moves I can pull out in one minute, everyone’s going to be looking at the haircut. But I’d try if they asked me. So long as they don’t get tired of seeing the worm.’
A street mime artist
‘Nah – again, I’m too fidgety. And I’d be a bit scary. I have some talents I could use, I guess. I can do a belly roll, where you lift your top up and just kind of… roll your belly. Check it out on YouTube. It takes a pretty talented person to do that. And I can make myself look pregnant by pushing my stomach out very far. That’s what I mean by scary.’