On 24th May 2014 Ben and I will take to the stage for the last time as Over the Wall. There's been a wee bit of light-hearted cynicism at our announcement, but I can assure you that it's real. We are in no position to be able to cash in on anything related to Over the Wall let alone a reunion tour in a year or two. We're not going to appear at one more festival in the summer, a pal's birthday party, your cousin's bar mitzvah, or anything else. This is definitely it.
When they ask, I've been telling people that the reason we've split up is that Ben wants to do less music and I want to do more, and as convenient a way to stop the conversation as that is, it's far from the full story. Ben's desire to make music hasn't gone away. He'll no doubt be making stuff in the future just as I will. The real problem is that I am now depending on music as my sole income, and in order to maintain that in this day and age you have to make certain sacrifices. Ben has a proper job now. He's an engineer. He travels down past Hadrian's Wall on a weekly basis for that very purpose. The practicalities of working around that aside, he's not in a position where he wants to sacrifice that in order to play to our very nice, very loyal, but unfortunately fairly small fanbase, often under working conditions (suffered by the vast majority of artists) that can at best be described as indifferent. The daily grind of touring in this country isn't something that interests Ben any more. When faced with this, we were for a while in a halfway house, trying to still make interesting music that gets heard by as many people as possible but trying to find ways of doing it where you didn't have to tour so much, or even meet up as much. We were turning down lots of interesting offers as a result, and I didn't want to keep doing that. I like playing live for its own sake. So ultimately it was my decision, but done in order that we both be happy with what we're doing, and in a way that best stayed true to what we were trying to do when we first created Over the Wall.
I'm concerned that people will think we've kind of given up as some sort of admission of failure, or after having simply not worked hard enough at this music lark. Nothing we've released has bothered the charts, therefore you may be forgiven for thinking that we tried something, it didn't work, and now we want to try something else. But if that was never the driving purpose of your actions in the first place then it can't really be seen to have failed. I think. That's the thing, I've been trying my best lately to honestly assess what we can take from the experience of doing this for 8 years with so little in terms of recognition or financial reward, and it's hard work.
When we started Over the Wall, it was supposed to be a 'collective' - lots of different artists of various kinds helping each other out as friends. The first Over the Wall night took place at Stereo (it was on Kelvingrove Street at the time, in a Finnieston which looked pretty different to the way it does now) primarily as a means to showcase Ben's shambolic but brilliant proggy metal band and my own solo material. We were both still teenagers. Over the course of a few years while we were students, the 'collective' idea gradually receded, culminating in a trilogy of shows with Ben Hillman and Gav Prentice' billed as the headliners. This was essentially Over the Wall as it became - two singer-songwriters playing on each other's songs, some noisy, some delicate, all of them some sort of attempt to make the other impressed, or laugh, or stuck trying to come up with something to go along with it. We used battered old keyboards, guitars, a trumpet and the simplest beat-making program we could find on a laptop, all purely because they were close to hand. We almost had a manifesto for the 'euphoric pop' which we saw as the only through-line for it all - completely honest and completely unpretentious pop music that made you feel good (I didn't see the irony when I would then pretentiously witter on, no doubt boring people to tears about it, when they made the mistake of asking what my band was like). It was completely for the hell of it, and despite our lofty ambitions we had absolutely no idea of how to make money from what we were doing. It was the innocent playtime before anything got serious, and I've always found it really helpful to just think back to the spirit of what we were doing then if anything seems stressful.
The trouble is, we both got that crippling fear as we came to the end of our student days - "what are you going to do with your life?" - and it seemed obvious to reply that we would do this. In a capitalist economy you are valued by the monetised labour that you produce, so our response to the panic that realisation brings was to try to monetise the labour we were already engaged with. I thought that because we were trying something new, and we really didn't know of anyone doing what we were doing, then people would get on board quickly. We played our first gig as a band called Over the Wall in May 2006, in fact our final gig will be pretty close to our 8 year anniversary. It was downstairs in the old Captain's Rest. The few people there were fortunately very drunk and went absolutely mental for us. I remember being a sweaty mess afterwards, looking out at the empty floor covered in smashed pint glasses and thinking that we must have something pretty special.
When we weren't at our day jobs we were constantly writing songs, and none of it was a struggle. Over the next couple of years there was a steady trajectory and things all seemed to be happening in the correct order. We played at T in the Park and, despite it being a childhood dream come true for me, we were dismissive of the hyper-sponsorship of it enough to do this and this. Motive Sounds wanted to bring out an EP - we put it together entirely by ourselves in our flat, including mixing and mastering, and when we released it, it got played on the radio and magazines (actual physically-printed magazines) wrote about it. Gigs on our first tour were generally well attended, and when we filmed a video for Thurso in Brighton people really took to it. I had folk telling me that the song had helped their relationship with their own father or helped them get out of a really dark time, crazy stuff to suddenly be sharing with strangers. If you're young and you get that kind of depth of feeling in reactions from people you don't know, it's hard not to conclude that you've cracked it, you've found your calling, you're on your way. We were working tremendously hard at it, but still for a good while the whole thing kind of felt like a piece of piss.
Making an album was always the idea, and we had a mountain of songs to choose from, but making Treacherous is still probably the most difficult thing I've done, a kind of self-inflicted torture at times. Simply working on it to the extent that we thought necessary while still holding down day jobs was bad enough, but we became obsessive about vanishingly small details. Through the two-year-long period over which we recorded it we were also still going out and gigging, still regularly playing in the same cycle of venues in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and it did start to feel a bit like actual work at times. But that just added to the sense of achievement when the album eventually came out. We were always really lucky with what critics said (if they chose to write about us at all) but some of the stuff that people said about Treacherous was amazing, and it was the fastest selling thing that Motive Sounds had made at the time. We established a good working routine for touring (not possible without the help of some great friends and the greatest estate car of all time, Amelia, may she rest in peace) and we always had a laugh.
That said, the Around The Isles in 80 Days tour of Britain and Ireland in 2011 can most accurately be called the beginning of the end. That attempt to be a 'proper band' and monetise what we did was never going to be easy, but I think we both naively thought it would be. For every great show on that tour there was a really difficult one, for every brilliant story we have there's also the memory of how tired we got. I would go to work in an office for three days, go on the road for three days, and then repeat, for 3 months. And right through this period, there was no big breakthrough, no larger label knocking down the door or sudden influx of sales, just the steady grind of a hard working band which'll be familiar to many. Later in 2011 we had an opportunity to go to Germany, where a radio station had made Treacherous their album of the month, but when I put it to Ben I could tell his heart sank. That's not really the reaction that you want when you think you could go to another country to play, but he was getting to the point where he'd had enough.
All of this work might still seem like it was a right good laugh, and it was, but while it was happening, so was the lion's share of our twenties. You see pals moving away to other cities, or out to the countryside, to different countries, you see them becoming things like teachers and accountants. You can feel pretty worthless when you see people close to you move on like this while you self-indulgently just play songs for people, and not even to enough people to be able to maintain it as your sole income. But, although I often have my doubts, I have to believe that every single thing we did for Over the Wall was worthwhile. Some people really liked it, and I'm really proud of the music we made, which stands up all the better because none of it was conceived as a way to make money or get famous. And no matter what walk of life you are in you can't let that shit get to you. You can't compare your life to others like that, it doesn't work, it's not a race with a winner and medals at the end. That means that counting up achievements for yourself is missing the point too. To the extent that we made euphoric pop music, gave people a good time, and stayed friends, I think we were pretty successful.
So here's the end of the story: Ben went back to uni, did a Masters, and then got his current real job. I maintained the job I was in before for a while, recorded my solo album The Invisible Hand, and made a theatre show called Rantin with three other folk who weren't Ben. It meant that when we got back together, it was a joy, and new stuff happened pretty easily. The new songs that we released in 2013, the Tell Her I Love Her single and the This Is How We Did It EP, are the best things we ever did, but in all of the stuff outside of the actual music, we were pulling in different directions, and rather than maintain a half-hearted and cross-border Over the Wall, we decided to call it a day. Otherwise there would be a real danger that it would just fizzle out, and that is simply not an option to us. Decidedly splitting up by playing our final gigs and making it clear that's what they are is the only real way to do it.
It's going to be really sad saying goodbye to Over the Wall, but I'm just really glad it happened at all, and thankful that anyone whatsoever gave a shit about it. Come and join us at one of our last two gigs if you can and we'll raise a glass to it all. The details are below. Thanks for reading.
Saturday 10th May - Limbo at The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, Doors 8pm, tickets:
Saturday 24th May - Oran Mor, Glasgow, Doors 7pm, tickets:
We want to make the final two gigs in May pretty special. It'll be as close to a greatest hits set as a band with no hits (and that isn't really a band) can manage. Here's the dates:
Saturday 10th May - Limbo at The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh
Saturday 24th May - Oran Mor, Glasgow
We would love to see you there. 'This Is How We Did It' seems very appropriate now. Thanks again.