MOST musicians who’ve been in big bands, launching a new project, will only talk about how excited they are to be moving forward, how their new music has put them back in touch with what first excited them about music.
That’s not an option for No Devotion, no matter how much they might wish it were, because of the identity of the band five-sixths of them used to be in. Or, more specifically, because of the identity of the singer of that band.
The last time Lee Gaze saw Ian Watkins was in December 2012, when the pair met in London to film the video for a single from Lostprophets’ fifth album, Weapons. Though the rest of the band were in America, leaving the guitarist and singer to shoot the clip on their own, Watkins was upbeat. When he arrived (“Four hours late,” Gaze recalls), he avidly discussed the future of the group, who were still one of Britain’s bigger rock outfits despite a drop-off in sales.
“He was talking about looking forward to the next record — he thought we’d return to being as successful as we’d been five years before,” Gaze says, He’s tucked into a corner booth in a south London pub, sipping mineral water and answering each question so diligently that at one point he checks his phone to establish the date of Lostprophets’ last gig together (November 14, 2012, in Newport, south Wales). Blond, slight and shy, he’s the polar opposite of his dark, confident ex-bandmate, with whom he co-founded Lostprophets in Pontypridd in 1997.
“He seemed OK that day,” Gaze says. But he wasn’t OK. A week or so later, Watkins was charged with child sex offences, and the lives of the other Lostprophets were turned upside down. On the day his trial was due to start, Watkins changed his plea to guilty and was jailed for 29 years. His former bandmates released a statement that said, in part: “Many of you understandably want to know if we knew what Ian was doing. To be clear: we did not. We are heartbroken, angry, and disgusted at what has been revealed. Our hearts go out to Ian’s family, the fans and friends he betrayed, and most importantly, the victims of his crimes and others like them.”
Eight months later, the former Lostprophets have found their own ways of dealing with the situation. “Stuart [Richardson, bass] and I have talked about it a lot. Jamie [Oliver, keyboards] won’t at all. Mike [Lewis, guitar] talks about it …” Gaze, who briefly ran a coffee stand, also found himself discussing it with Lostprophets fans who tracked him down there. “Kids would come in with Lostprophets wristbands … Wow, that’s brave. I’ve had some intense conversations with them.”
He feels sorry for the superfans who tattooed Watkins’s face and lyrics on their bodies during the golden years — the high-water mark was 2006, when the album Liberation Transmission (“their most punkily accessible yet”, according to the Guardian) entered the chart at No 1 and they became arena-fillers — but is flummoxed by the support shown by a few Watkins diehards. “One guy got a tattoo after...” he says, meaning after the conviction. He shakes his head.
One thing he and Richardson — who speaks to me on the phone from his home in Florida the day after I meet Gaze — emphasise is that they’re still struggling to understand what happened. Understandably, they also want to make it clear they had no knowledge of the singer’s crimes until 24 hours before he was charged. As their words tumble out, it’s obvious they were poleaxed by the revelations.
“A day before the charges went public, we heard he’d been arrested and immediately we knew the band was over,” Richardson says. “The next morning, we started reading tweets about what he tried to do. And we couldn’t believe it.” Every member except Watkins has children — Richardson’s young daughter knew the singer as Uncle Ian — which, they say, made the betrayal worse. Both he and Gaze say they’ll never listen to the music again. “I can’t,” Gaze says. “It’s tainted, because he was the voice of the band, and it was his lyrics.”
They’re anxious not to portray themselves as victims, however, and Richardson speaks at length of the balancing act involved in talking publicly. The sudden ending of their 15-year career, during which they sold 3.5m albums, has been “horrible, torture”, but he stresses: “There are bigger victims in this whole thing; there are families trying to deal with this right now.”
He’s consumed by the need to know whether they could have spotted Watkins’s behaviour earlier. “I’ve gone back and tried to find clues, and read interviews. I think about four years ago we started noticing a change in him. We heard he was doing cocaine, which for most people is nothing, but Ian was straight-edge [a punk who avoids alcohol and drugs] and for him to start doing it was, ‘No, he wouldn’t do that.’ “We had an intervention with him to get him off coke, and he denied he was doing it, and then a year later he was addicted to crystal meth. The gigs in 2012 were awful — on tour, he was barely functioning; he’d miss cues for songs and wasn’t interacting with the audience,” Richardson says.
Gaze adds: “He really didn’t spend much time with us. I’m quite a loner, anyway, and we weren’t close. I wouldn’t even know when he was in London except from his Twitter. We were operating on a fractured basis, where we would only get together to do our job.”
The reason nobody detected his crimes, says Gaze, was that “you wouldn’t expect a handsome rock star in his 30s to be a paedophile”.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently investigating whether his celebrity status prevented him from being charged earlier, but Gaze points out that even those close enough to him to be aware that he was a drug and sex addict had assumed he confined his activities to adult women. “Ian was incredibly charming and manipulative — he could win anybody over. It was a powerful tool of his. We knew he had a different woman in every city, but with paedophiles, you don’t assume them having relationships with adult women.”
Lostprophets’ cleancut image and raw-throated angst attracted an intensely loyal teen following. As frontman, Watkins was besieged by women. Having interviewed him several years ago, I can verify not just the charm but an intelligence that wasn’t what you’d have expected from someone who looked like a male model impersonating a rock star. He was aware enough of his looks to have used the email name Mirrorboy — according to Gaze, who was two years above him at school, he had a coterie of female admirers even as a teenager.
On tour, he exploited it. “Sometimes two women would turn up at the hotel at the same time, and he would manipulate that,” Gaze remembers. Nonetheless he never saw Watkins with anyone underage, even when the drugs turned him truculent and unreliable, and his taste in women changed from “beautiful TV presenters [such as former girlfriends Fearne Cotton and Alexa Chung] to unattractive girls”. He hesitates before adding: “A guy who’d been in prison with Ian did an interview when he came out, and said that he [Watkins] had said: ‘How could I be attracted to children? Because they don’t have features.’ I think he was just attracted to what was bad, and to being in control.”
The band are incensed that Watkins, who turns 37 this month, maintained his innocence until the very last minute. He had arrived at Cardiff crown court, and the jury was about to be sworn in when he abruptly pleaded guilty to 13 of the 24 charges against him. “Ian had sent a letter to Mike at his gran’s funeral, protesting his innocence,” recounts Richardson. “It was typical — ‘Oh, I’m sorry about your gran’ — and then the rest of the letter was me-me-me. But as much as the evidence was getting larger and larger, we still hoped that it was some misunderstanding.” He pauses. Unlike Gaze, who finds talking “therapeutic“, Richardson is deeply uncomfortable, and only agreed to this interview because he considers it “our public duty” to raise awareness of abuse.
“Basically, over the last year-and-a-half, my life has been, like … you know the end of The Usual Suspects? I just feel like I’ve had plot twist after plot twist,” says Richardson. “I can’t believe the things Ian’s capable of. Up until the final second he said he was innocent. He destroyed his family’s life, giving them a glimpse of hope every time he said he was innocent. His mum thought he was innocent. What a fucking c***.”
One of the twists was that Watkins had seemed finally to be getting on top of the crystal meth addiction that they believe had precipitated the sexual abuse. Richardson says: “Obviously he was hooked on drugs for a while, and we tried every intervention; it almost got to the point where we wanted to split the band, but we didn’t want to because we thought he would die. We were expecting a call telling us he’d died every day for the last 18 months of the band. But by the last tour it actually seemed like he was getting better. And then this happens.”
As for Gaze, he had long been disenchanted with Lostprophets. “From 2006, I was bored with it. I had a love-hate relationship with the band, because Ian was getting very difficult, and we’d been painted into having to write for a certain audience. We were in our mid-30s, and you’d be at a gig and the first few rows were all kids.” But he’d been prepared to press on, and their records were still selling well enough to make it worthwhile (Weapons had reached No 9, and received mainly favourable reviews).
THE former Lostprophets assumed their lives as musicians were over. “I resigned myself to being done with music — the person I wrote the songs with was locked away, with good reason, for eternity,” Gaze says. But they eventually worked on new demos, and in February of this year invited Geoff Rickly, former singer of the now-defunct New Jersey post-hardcore group Thursday, to join them. “I have friends who said: ‘Don’t do it, just being associated will be a stain on your career,’” says Rickly on the phone from Brooklyn. “But once I talked to them and knew they truly didn’t know anything about it, I decided to do it.”
Renaming themselves No Devotion, they launch this month with a single, ‘Stay’, and four British dates. Rickly reveals that they bonded over a mutual love of the Cocteau Twins and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Stay’s 80s electropop style certainly militates against their new project simply being labelled “Lostprophets with a new singer”.
About the future, Richardson is cautiously optimistic: “A week ago I didn’t know if anybody would want to listen to us because of the associations, but people seem to really want to see us succeed.” Indeed, Stay entered the British charts at No 47 — not a smash, but certainly proof they haven’t been shunned (in Belarus, it reached No 1).
Gaze and Richardson disagree about whether Watkins’s deeds negate what Lostprophets achieved as a band. Though both say they can no longer listen to the five albums they made together, Gaze cites the example of Roman Polanski. “I’m a massive cinephile, and I still watch his movies. With music, it’s subjective; viewing a band from a fan’s perspective is different from our own.” Richardson, though, is unequivocal: “I don’t know how his badness can’t cancel out our music. We had platinum records in our houses, awards. I smashed Liberation Transmission the other day. The rest are in the garage and they’ll probably never come out again.”
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