Reunited with producer Stephen Hague, Dubstar are back with a cracking album of “full-spectrum megapop” and “acutely observed kitchen-sink dramas”. Normal service resumes, then…

It’s a Wednesday night in July 1997 and Dubstar are in front of a large studio audience on the set of ‘The National Lottery Live’ at BBC Television Centre in London, hungover or drunk – probably both, but they can’t quite remember. While they’re waiting for a camera to swoop over their heads to film the show’s opening sequence, host Carol Smillie turns to singer Sarah Blackwood and attempts to lighten the mood a little. 

“She was extraordinarily gorgeous – just stunning,” Blackwood recalls. “She was smiling. And she said to us, ‘Smile and kiss your credibility goodbye’.” 

“We were waving, but apparently not smiling,” multi-instrumentalist Chris Wilkie recalls, taking up the story in his broad Geordie lilt. “Then this producer comes out from behind and he’s full of hell. He looked like he was going to really kick our arses. He goes, ‘This a prime-time show – you’re meant to look happy to be here!’.” 

If, like Dubstar, fast-rising, indie-dance trio of the Britpop era, that producer had appeared on every possible prime-time TV show – including ‘Top Of The Pops’, ‘The O-Zone’, ‘TFI Friday’, ‘GMTV’ (where Mr Motivator told Wilkie off for smoking) and ‘This Morning’ with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan (twice, including one time when Judy tried complimenting Dubstar by suggesting their music sounded like Oasis) – perhaps he too might have struggled to summon a consummately professional Carol Smillie-esque pearly white grin. Not to mention they’d been pissed solid for the previous two years, playing a nightly lottery with the bottle. 

In their own, unsmiling, bullshit-resistant northern English way, were Dubstar happy to be “there”? Rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of 1990s celebrity culture, necking free booze practically every night at parties around London, thrown to celebrate even the faintest triumphs of their Britpop peers? Touring relentlessly, promoting their records to massive TV audiences, propelling the band to eight UK Top 40 hits and the best part of a million record sales? Yes and no – it’s complicated. 

But Blackwood and Wilkie are definitely happy to be here now. Still friends, still making music that’s as good as anything they’ve done before on their self-released fifth album, ‘Two’. And, most importantly, still alive. 

When Blackwood was a kid growing up in Halifax, West Yorkshire, she used to stick the same thing on top of her Christmas list time and again. 

“A record deal from EMI,” she says. 

By a fateful twist, her boyfriend accidentally left a cassette tape of her singing on the lounge table at Steve Hillier’s flat in Jesmond, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1993. Santa had nothing to do with it, but as a result, the 22-year-old interior design student ended up getting what she’d wished for far sooner than she could have imagined. That’s when both the dream and Blackwood’s nightmare began. 

Back then, nightclub DJ Hillier was playing around Newcastle with Wilkie in a 4AD and Creation Records-inspired two-piece band called The Joans. Dazzled by Blackwood’s understated and lovely voice, with its unaffected flicker of a West Yorkshire accent, they invited her to join the group early in 1994, taking over vocals from Hillier, who was then free to focus on guitar, keys and programming. 

Not long afterwards, the trio renamed themselves Dubstar. Some early demos – infusing Cocteaus-ish dreampop textures with hip hop beats and melancholic synth lines and lyrics – soon found their way onto the stereo of the late and much loved former Sounds journalist, Andy Ross. Nine months after the band formed, Dubstar promptly signed to Food, the London label run by Ross and Dave Balfe. Just in time for the feast. 

A freshly acquired subsidiary of EMI, Food had hit paydirt in April 1994 with the release of Blur’s multimillion-selling third album, ‘Parklife’. However – fun fact alert – Dubstar technically gave the label its first chart-topping single in July 1995, with their instantly evocative debut ‘Stars’, weeks before the release of Blur’s ‘Country House’ and all the unbridled mania surrounding it. A kind of double-helix meeting point between acid house’s great comedown and a Britpop scene very much on the up. 

“We had the first Number One for Food Records, don’t forget it,” Wilkie says with a mixture of pride and jest. “It was in Israel, mind you, but Andy was ecstatic with that because it came just before Blur’s imperial phase.” 

There was a party to mark the achievement, of course, because back then there was always a party. The Food Records family – and it really did come to feel like a family for Dubstar – were good at making sure all their artists’ triumphs were celebrated, however relatively minor they may have been in the grand firmament of musical stardom.

“There was always something to celebrate,” Wilkie says. “Blur were quite clearly massively successful. But Food made sure there was a party because, you know, somebody had been on ‘Top Of The Pops’ or reached Number One in Japan.” 

If it wasn’t a Food Records party that Dubstar were drinking at, then it was somebody else’s, because partying was the toxic lifeblood of Britpop. 

“Back then, every time there was a new single out for any band, there’d be a free bar somewhere in town,” Wilkie remembers. “You could plan your entire week’s diary around where you could go in London without having to put your hand in your pocket once and be hammered every night. That’s what sustained the industry, you know? It’s where the stories came from before they ended up in the NME.” 

The parties came thicker and faster as Dubstar’s successes rapidly grew and grew. Their 1995 debut album, ‘Disgraceful’, was produced by American Stephen Hague, best known for his work on Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Please’ and New Order’s ‘Republic’. It went platinum in the UK, boosted by its second hit single, ‘Not So Manic Now’ (a cover of a song by the ultra-obscure Brick Supply, self-hailed as “Wakefield’s laziest band”). When ‘Stars’ was re-released in March 1996 it gave Dubstar their highest-ever charting single at Number 15. 

Their second album, 1997’s ‘Goodbye’, kept the momentum going by scaling the Top 20. But by this point, all the drinking had begun to tip over into a much darker place. The hedonistic culture of the age had become a convenient veil for Blackwood’s deep feelings of inadequacy – about her looks, her voice and her songs. 

“I was expected to behave badly,” she says. “So I kind of thought, ‘OK, it’s alright to chuck my lack of confidence and my imposter syndrome into alcohol. It’s fine’.” 

None of this was helped by the savagely provocative media of the time, which obsessed over the appearance of female Britpop musicians yet struggled to grant them the creative kudos their male counterparts were earning with undue ease. An absolute low point came when Dubstar were getting out of the car one day to do a TV appearance and a journalist from The Sun was waiting to pounce. 

“He cornered me,” Blackwood sighs. “And he said, ‘The reason your band aren’t more successful is because you’re not pretty enough’. And that absolutely just… well, I was devastated. Horrible.” 

Blackwood would often drink until she passed out. Wilkie, struggling with mental health problems and no stranger to excessive boozing himself, was unable to confront his own demons because he was often too busy worrying about Blackwood, who as well as being his bandmate was also his flatmate. 

“The hardest thing about Sarah when she was having her problems with alcohol was just protecting her from predatory blokes,” he confides. “It’s sad to say, but people see a woman who’s inebriated as a soft target. So I turned into a sort of minder for a while.” 

Wilkie reveals affectionally that Blackwood in her natural, sober state is “an extremely self-deprecating, quiet, shrinking violet of a person”. 

“But by the second or third glass, she’d be standing on the table shouting at people,” he continues. “She’d be cursing at Brett Anderson.” 

“I don’t remember that!” Blackwood laughs. 

Brett Anderson probably doesn’t either, I reassure her. 

“There was always a scene which needed to be taken care of,” Wilkie says. “But it was difficult to be there 100 percent of the time.” 

“Chris tried his very best and so did Andy, who was like a father figure… oh, I’m gonna cry,” Blackwood adds, her voice quivering, throwing a hand over her mouth as tears prick her eyes. Ross died in January of this year at the age of 66 from complications following treatment for cancer. His loss is still very raw for all who knew him. 

Amid the cut-throat business deals and rampant excesses of the 90s music industry – which tied lots of bands into terrible record deals, leaving them deeply in debt – Ross fought hard for fair deals for all his artists. Dubstar never got rich but they did OK. 

“We were fortunate that we were surrounded by some good people,” Wilkie reflects, intervening while Blackwood is overcome with emotion. “We had Andy Ross and Food. They acted as a buffer between us and the mothership of EMI, which was obviously an all-consuming monolithic corporation. So we weren’t eaten alive. Instead, we kind of ate ourselves alive. We went to pieces at times.” 

Dubstar never actually broke up. They just sort of faded away following the release of their third album, 2000’s non-charting ‘Make It Better’. Hillier quit the band shortly before the album’s release and isn’t involved with the revived Dubstar of today. 

“Steve decided he didn’t want to do it anymore,” Wilkie says. “But we had just started promoting an album. So what he was really saying was that he couldn’t be arsed to promote the record. We wanted to keep going, but Sarah and I were burned out as human beings. We were really exhausted. I had mental health problems I was starting to get treatment for. Sarah’s talked about her ways of dealing with her stress. We just didn’t have the will to continue.” 

Instead, they each started pursuing other musical endeavours. Wilkie worked with Mark Owen – yes, the “cute” one from Take That – during his post-boyband indie cosplay period, playing guitar on Owen’s second solo album, 2003’s ‘In Your Own Time’. 

Blackwood, meanwhile, joined Creation Records’ synthpop group Technique in 2002, replacing Xan Tyler as singer ahead of a European  tour with Depeche Mode. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, she suddenly found herself flying around on private jets and performing in arenas with one of the world’s biggest bands. 

“That was a-m-a-a-a-a-zing,” she enthuses. 

Afterwards, Blackwood and Technique’s Kate Holmes decided to start writing together. They formed a new group, electroclash provocateurs Client, and swiftly inked a record deal with Mute imprint Toast Hawaii, owned by Depeche Mode’s Andy Fletcher. 

Dressed in latex outfits – part airline hostess, part fetish model – the duo toured extensively, generating a cult following and working with various rock ’n’ roll luminaries, from Carl Barât and (separately) Pete Doherty of The Libertines to Depeche’s Martin Gore, Tim Burgess of The Charlatans and Douglas McCarthy of Nitzer Ebb. Tour-bus life with Client brought some, shall we say, refreshing changes from the Dubstar days. 

“Being the only girl on a tour bus of men is pretty hard,” Blackwood admits. “It sounds a bit crude but you’d get balls in the face before you’d even had your coffee in the morning. With Client, it was different.” 

But little had changed in the way of Blackwood’s drinking problem, which was still running out of control. It took an intervention from, of all people, the hardly saintly Barât – who toured with Client to DJ and fleetingly jumped about the stage singing his guest vocal on their track ‘Pornography’ – to finally convince Blackwood to get into rehab, following a particularly self-destructive session in Basel, Switzerland. 

“He said, ‘Sazzy, I think it’s time’,” she remembers. “When somebody like him says it, you’re like, ‘OK, I think it’s time’.” 

That was in 2005 and she’s been sober ever since. Not so manic now, Blackwood instead throws much of her time and energy these days into serious exercise (she even worked as a fitness instructor). Wilkie is quietly raising a family back in North-East England. But the pair never lost touch and their friendship never faded. After a lot of false starts working together again over many years, they finally released new music under the Dubstar name in 2018. ‘One’, produced by Youth, became the band’s fourth official album, 18 years after their third. 

Thanks to the pandemic, its follow-up, ‘Two’, took a bit longer than planned to arrive and proved a lot more complicated to put together, with Blackwood and Wilkie working entirely remotely from their homes in different parts of the country. Youth had been on board to produce again but ended up locked down in Spain. 

So instead, a happy (albeit mostly online) reunion transpired with Stephen Hague, who they’d remained friendly with since ‘Disgraceful’ way back in 1994. The trio found they still shared a “telepathic” connection, bouncing ideas back and forth over the internet week after week, until a brand new and yet somehow still timeless iteration of Dubstar’s sombre, strident indie-dance emerged from the digital ether. 

Amid big, lush, sculpted soundscapes, crisp melodies and bittersweet choruses steeped in sweeping electropop classicism, ‘Two’ delves into the doldrums of suburban mania and the way that “women are forced to fit themselves to the shape of the world and not vice versa”. It represents, Wilkie says, the completion of “unfinished business”. 

“Sarah and I used to have certain ways of looking at things,” he explains. “It hasn’t changed drastically at all. I just think that it feels a bit more nuanced, a bit more mature.” 

Wilkie admits he quite enjoys going on YouTube now and again to revisit some of the glory days in all their weirdness. A lot of it is there, preserved for the ages in rips from wonky VHS videos taped off the telly by fans – from Glastonbury performances to a cringey interview with an extremely Alan Partridge-esque Richard Madeley, and the time Dubstardid Eurotrash, singing ‘Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son’ with the late French crooner Sacha Distel. Blackwood was so hungover she could barely remember the words. But she can’t and likely won’t ever go there, even if she has wondered whether it might be therapeutic. 

“I blocked out a lot of stuff,” she admits. “I look back and I don’t remember things. I feel things. And it feels painful. It took me a long time to make peace with the fact I’d ever even been in Dubstar.” 

Thankfully, the present is a far happier and more rewarding place for Blackwood and Wilkie. 

“We’re extremely lucky it stopped when it did, because that was at the very apex of our personal problems,” Wilkie says. “I think if we’d become more successful, or even carried on being how we were in 1996 through to 2000, we’d probably be dead.” 

They both laugh, but in a way that suggests they know that they probably shouldn’t. 

“I don’t think we could have carried on making records back then that are as good as the one we’ve just done now,” Wilkie adds. “It’s one of those things that had to blow up completely so it could be put back together in a healthy way. 

“It took a long time, but Sarah is doing very well now. She’s functioning as an artist probably better than she ever did. And I’m in a not bad place myself. We’re just making music we like and we’re proud of.” 

It’s not exactly the £13,201,260 National Lottery jackpot shared by some lucky souls later that Wednesday night back in July 1997, but in their own resilient and resurgent way, Dubstar’s numbers have come up. You might even get a smile out of them yet, Carol. 

‘Two’ is out on Northern Writes

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