Does the Mersey still have a beat? The great river in the north of England that defines the city of Liverpool also runs through the sound of some of the greatest artists in pop history, from The Beatles to Elvis Costello, and some of the most diverse too – it would be hard to put Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the same category as, for example, Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Yet there is a common thread through much of the music emerging from this harbour city, a hub of immigration and emigration that genuinely deserves the term “melting pot”. Its shameful part in the slave trade, in the 18th century, its prouder history of offering a home to generations of Irish immigrants escaping poverty, and its status as the start of millions of journeys to the New World: all combine to lend much of Merseyside’s music the magical combination of straightforward folky tunefulness, wry humour, bluesy kick and dreamy melancholy that makes it somehow irresistible.
And from The Beatles' more gentle, homely ballads – Let It Be, Norwegian Wood, The Fool on the Hill, even Carry That Weight – through The La's and Cast to more recent bands such as The Coral, who in their youth seemed to have been born playing Liverpudlian melancholia – there has been an enduring sound and ethos to the city's music.
And yes, in spite of house and hip hop, EDM and dubstep, it seems that Mersey does still have its beat, a legacy that is being continued by a still-thriving guitar-band music scene in Liverpool. And if recent signings by Domino Records (home of the likes of The Last Shadow Puppets, Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Hot Chip) are anything to go by, the seeds of a revival may currently be taking root. From the latest album release with Clinic (Free Reign II) – who, in spite of their long history of subversion, distortion and general freakiness, do peddle the twanging guitars, echoey basslines and analogue organs of their Liverpool heritage – to their signing of former The Coral lead guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones (still only 30, despite being a Coral veteran of 18 years), there is a current leading music back across the Mersey.
Their newest release cements this direction: the self-titled album of We Are Catchers, the recording name of 34-year-old Peter Jackson (the moniker coined to avoid any confusion with the world-famous Lord of the Rings movie director, he says). A wistful but chirpy record, it's packed with songs of disappointment and hope, yearning and love, gently melodic tunes and ravishing harmonies accompanied by Jackson's warm piano playing and Bill Ryder-Jones on guitar.
For Jackson, this is the culmination of 10 years of stop-and-start playing in bands on the Liverpool scene: his former band, Gheko, were so near success they could touch it, signed by the Stereophonics’ manager and deals on the table, before they broke up because of what Jackson dryly calls “disagreements with the world, more than artistic disagreements”. After a spell with a friend playing as Odega, during which he continued to share songwriting duties, he found himself on his own, penned in at home, writing songs on the piano in the living room. It wasn’t a good time, but it was a necessary sequestration from the world, allowing him to build a writing style of his own, shrugging off the mantle of band keyboardist to become a bona fide singer-songwriter.
“You kind of feel a bit lost when you’ve had million-pound deals on the table and the world promised to you and it gets taken away,” he says. “It becomes a bit of a struggle, shut up in the house for a few years. I’d been in a band since I left school: I just thought it was what I was going to do.”
Eventually, several hundred songs down the line (“I’m not saying they were all good,” he admits), Jackson bought himself a cheap eight-track and started recording, playing and singing all the parts himself, and burning the results onto CD demos. He started handing them out and the response was good, but it wasn’t until he contacted Bill Ryder-Jones that things started to happen.
“People were saying they liked the demo, and I knew of Bill from Liverpool, and I thought I’d give him a shout, as he wasn’t in The Coral any more,” says Jackson matter-of-factly. Many would baulk at just “giving a shout” to a famous, admired musician, but it is testament to the intimacy and mutual support within the Liverpool music scene that, even though he had never met Ryder-Jones, Jackson went ahead and sent him a demo with the idea that he might want to think about a band. “I don’t know that he really wanted to play in a band any more, but he got straight back to me and said: ‘I really love these songs,’ and that was all I heard from him for a week,” says Jackson. “And then I was down in this bar and he came up to me and said: ‘Are you Peter Jackson from the Catchers?’ He said, ‘Laurence Bell from Domino really likes your demo,’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean, how has he heard them?’”
A month or so later, he was signed to the label. That rock-band background is important, of course, but there is a cosiness, a down-to-earth homeliness to Jackson’s music that can perhaps be better explained by his story of learning to play. He is not from a musical family – “I’m the son of a fireman and a photo-developer” – but his grandmother spotted his talent early.
“My Nan started playing organ when she was about 60, and she always had this organ knocking around,” he says. “She came in and found me playing one day, when I was about three or four, and she said, ‘We’d better get some lessons for this one’.”
His musical references, too, are more classic than cutting-edge – The Doors, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Kings. “A bit of a throwback,” he says. “I just want straight songs with nice melodies. I like to think my songwriting’s a little bit different to everything that’s out now, maybe going back to that Brian Wilson thing, where the melody kind of travels a lot.”
The piano sound is, perhaps, what makes Jackson’s music stand out from the crowd of singer-songwriters thrown into the fray over the last 10 years. “In Liverpool, every party you go to there’s always 10 guitars and never a piano,” he laughs, and when it came to recording, a slick studio piano just didn’t cut it. “We went into the studio, with all the best equipment, but the magic wasn’t there,” he explains. “We actually ended up recording most of the album on the piano in my living room. It just brought back that magic.”
The first single from the album, Tap Tap Tap, is wisely chosen, combining all of Jackson's strengths into one shiveringly lovely package: a pounding, rolling piano, a driving but strangely unresolved melody, Beach Boys-esque falsetto harmony, and his own earnest, heavy Liverpudlian accent, in a song that sounds sanguine, even cheerful, but speaks of loss: "Tap tap tap away on my window in the morning / Is that you talking / 'cos I'm still mourning."
Like so much of the music of Jackson’s city, his songs are about struggle and endurance. “I think a lot of artists find you have to go through a bit of hard times sometimes, rather than having all the trappings of a normal job and material things, so you’re a bit of an outsider,” he says. “But there’s also that kind of hope, and a bright sound in there. It might be melancholy but there’s always a twist at the end of it.”
It could be the story of Liverpool itself.