Posted by Sheamus Duggan
05. Jun, 2012
When I told a co-worker I was interviewing East 17 singer/songwriter Tony Mortimer she squealed with delight, told me he was her “favourite one” and excitedly recounted a story about standing outside an Adelaide radio station with a bunch of like-minded screaming young girls hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols as they emerged.
Another co-worker groaned, neatly summarising the only two points of view on East 17 that seem to exist. Love them or loathe them, East 17 were one of the most popular boy bands in the world during the era that defined the boy band, amassing no less than 10 Australian top 40 hits in the early 90s.
With the group currently embarking on an Australian tour, we talked to Tony about their new album and direction as a band, what they’ll be playing on the forthcoming tour and ask why he thinks so many boy bands have been reforming lately.
Milk Bar: You released new album ‘Dark Light’ in April. How does the new album differ from what East 17 were known for and were releasing in the 90s?
Tony Mortimer: Firstly, for us just completing the album was a massive milestone, because we kept stop-starting for probably the last, oh, decade or something. But saying that, this album’s been incredibly easy to do, and we recorded it and it was over before we knew it.
We love that it’s where we are now. It’s live music, live drums and stuff and they’ve recorded it on analogue. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do. Now we’ve got this out of our system we’re kind of chuffed.
MB: You’ve stated that ‘Dark Light’ is influenced by the likes of U2, Bryan Adams and Kings of Leon. I guess you don’t always stay into the same sort of music you listen to when you’re younger…
TM: No, exactly, and that’s what we found. We had sleepless nights thinking ‘My God, we’ve changed musically, and how is this going to be accepted?’ But we’ve just done it anyway.
With this album hopefully people listen to it and go ‘Oh I like that album’ or ‘I didn’t like that album’. But at least it will be a strong enough sort of direction for them to make a decision. So we’re quite happy, it makes us feel a little bit more mature, even though we’re still immature (laughs).
MB: How do audiences take your new material? Is that something you’ve played live yet?
TM: They love it now! When they first heard it, it was like a slap round the face. They were like ‘What’s this?’ because they have build up in their heads what East 17 are, they’ve built up in their heads where we should be.
Don’t get us wrong, we tried to do the dancey stuff. We started doing the samples, and doing the rap stuff, and it was just like, ‘We can’t do this, this is twenty years ago. People will laugh at us.’ And there’s people doing it a lot better today than we could.
MB: For the upcoming Australian gigs, is it going to be mostly things from the new album or is it going to be a mix?
TM: That’s what we’re toying with. I think we’re going to do a couple of new ones, which is going to be risky. It’s mostly going to be the old stuff, but we might just have to slam the new ones in there, see if anyone recognises them. It’s either going to go really quiet at that point, or not. That’s when everyone leaves and goes to the bar (laughs).
MB: Have you found it difficult to break out of the stigma of what East 17 were?
TM: What we’ve done is accepted that we can’t break out of the stigma. We are what we are, and our history is part of us. So we do the old songs. Never, no matter how hard we try to break out of it, we never will. So we’ve just accepted it’s part of us.
MB: East 17, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys and Take That have all toured in the last couple of years. What do you think is behind this nineties boy band revival?
TM: I think the Take That kind of ignited this whole thing. It woke up a part of an industry that’s sort of been dying, and I think everyone’s thinking back on yesterday now.
I don’t know if the bands have jumped on the bandwagon but the record companies have allowed them to. I think it’s because our generation are the last of the buying public sort of thing and they’re trying to reignite that. A lot of it’s to do with money for the groups and for the record companies themselves, because they were struggling.
I think that’s sort of what the revival’s about. We’re a bit luckier than Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block, because they’ve got ‘boys’ and ‘kids’ in their titles and they’re never going to get away from it. I don’t think they’ll try to, but they’re never going to get away from it. But I think we’ve got a whole new lease on life at the moment, where we can go down a choice of roads.
MB: The record label aren’t steering you in a specific direction? You’re getting to do what you want to do?
TM: They’re fantastic. They’ve signed us for four albums, they’ve said, ‘We’re going to release four albums, we’re going to support you for four albums, we’re not just going to drop you if the first one isn’t successful’. We said, ‘Well, to be honest, we don’t think the first one will be successful’. It’s going to take two albums for East 17 to just get back to where we were.
There’s no pressure on us, so we’re really lucky. We’re very blessed, and I think luckily, when you write your own songs you’re a little bit more in control of your own destiny, you don’t have to rely on people sending you songs and stuff. Although that’d be nice. It’d be a lot easier work (laughs).