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Band members include Sarah Blackwood, vocals and lyrics; Steve Hillier, keyboards and lyrics; Chris Wilkie, guitar. Addresses: Record company: Dubstar Exclusive Worldwide Management, c/o Stevo, 124 New Bond St., London W1Y9AE, England. Fan club?Dubstar, P.O. Box 460, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, HP1245R, England.

With a string of successful singles and their debut album Disgraceful, released in 1995, England's Dubstar immediately proved to be the rare bird within the often banal menagerie of pop groups: a trio that combined infectious hooks and melodies and witty, understated lyrics. Their following output, including the 1997 album Goodbye, was just as strong, again meshing the best elements of electronic pop music from the 1980s into a fresh, often elegant composition rich in emotional resonance. However, despite launching their career during a resurgence of British pop bands such as Oasis and Spice Girls, it seemed unclear whether Dubstar would find an audience in the U.S. to equal their share of commercial and critical success in their native U.K.

Dubstar formed in 1993 around Gateshead, a city in the northeast of England, after its three young members-to-be discovered a shared musical appreciation. The band's key songwriter, London-born Steve Hillier, had spent several years as a deejay in local nightclubs, as well as working at music mega-stores such as Our Price and HMV, when he met guitarist Chris Wilkie. Both had been influenced by a number of seminal British pop bands of the 1980s, including the ethereal Cocteau Twins, the minimalist guitar-based outfit The Durutti Column, and the sampling pioneers Colourbox. In particular, Wilkie found inspiration in Johnny Marr, who had defined a generation of pop guitar playing through his work with The Smiths. Before long, the duo launched themselves under the moniker The Joans, which referred to Hillier's aunt.

With Wilkie on guitar and Hillier playing keyboards, as well as supplying sparse vocal tracks, The Joans began their unsatisfactory first dabblings. When Hillier found a practice tape of amateur singer Sarah Blackwood at a friend's house, he and Wilkie soon tracked her down. Blackwood, at the time a student of design at a university in nearby Halifax, promised to be the much needed missing element in the fledgling outfit. "We messed around a lot because we lacked a decent vocalist," Hillier recalled in an online interview. "But Sarah put a focus on the more experimental things of before." With a voice that exuded at the same time warmth, clarity, and a decidedly British cynicism, Blackwood proved to be the ideal front for the band, which then opted to change their name from The Joans to Dubstar.

The band tinkered with their sound for a year before making their work public, but once Dubstar's first demo tapes began to circulate, word of mouth spread among record companies. After the band played their debut live show, the band was accosted by an agent from the semi- independent label Food Records, which had released popular British acts such as Blur and Jesus Jones. With little ado, a deal was cut and the band released its first single, "Stars," in June of 1995. While its performance on sales charts was modest, "Stars" garnered the favor of British critics and established Dubstar's style of melancholic pop. Additionally, the single pricked the ears of the high-profile producer Stephen Hague, who had worked extensively with legends of electronic pop New Order and Pet Shop Boys and agreed to team up with Dubstar.

While Dubstar amassed material for what would be their first album, they also took to the road to perform at smaller venues under trying conditions, sometimes traveling in a cramped Yugo in lieu of a tour bus. "The first proper show we did was at a ball at St. Mary's College in London," recalled Hillier in an online interview. "It was an absolute disaster; they had this trip switch on the P.A. which went off every time the music got too loud." Despite such misfires, Dubstar's career was on the upswing.

After releasing a scond single, "Anywhere," in the fall of 1995, the band released the album Disgraceful, produced with the smooth craftsmanship of Stephen Hague--a fact that incited comparisons with both New Order and Pet Shop Boys, in addition to contemporary synth act Saint Etienne. Comparisons aside, the album was widely acclaimed by the press, and occasioned pop superstars Erasure to invite Dubstar on their European tour as an opening act. By the time their third single, "Not So Manic Now," a cover version of a song by the obscure West Yorkshire, England, outfit Brick Supply, hit record shops, Dubstar had gained enough momentum with the public for the single to enter the Top 20 charts.

Disgraceful was an impressive showcase of eleven songs ranging in scope from the euphoric "Anywhere" to the icily bitter "The Day I See You Again," all of them a testament to Dubstar's mastery of the electronic pop genre. Like New Order before them, what set Dubstar apart from lesser synth-oriented groups was their fusion of electronic innovation and understated emotional richness. As Hillier responded in an interview via e-mail, "electronic instruments are only good when you know what you want them to do. Dubstar {is} about soul songs (I don't mean R&B or Motown, but music that hits you in the heart) and we use modern technology to communicate our emotions." Such pathos was not lost on most reviewers of the album, such as reviewer Liz Schwartz, who in particular praised the album's "Just A Girl She Said." "{The song} will echo for quite a while in the male ego," wrote Schwartz. "The lyrics are a far cry from riot girl (a genre of vitriolic female-fronted guitar rock), but more the wit and cynicism of a pop diva. They show Sarah as a touchable, personable singer."

Continuing on their tour of Europe with the newly gained momentum of an acclaimed album, the band had obtained a modest degree of fame--as well as infamy. The original cover of Disgraceful featured artwork which depicted female genitalia, and was quickly withdrawn in favor of a less controversial cover for subsequent pressings, which included the release of the album in the United States. In the face of this legal to-do, the band remained unshaken, and perhaps press coverage from the fiasco ultimately lent a success of scandal to Dubstar's advantage. At any rate, the band was soon back in the studio, ready to release their new single, "No More Talk," in July of 1997, which charted at Number 20 on the British sales charts.

While "No More Talk" received mixed reviews, it marked no serious departure from the band's established style. Perhaps its flipside, "Unchained Monologue," was a better representation of Dubstar's strength. "It's bitterly cynical stuff," commented New Musical Express, "a fine list song of dishonesty and paranoia delivered in a perfectly dull Yorkshire girl brogue that pretty much translates every tired lie about dying relationships into mundane tragic truth."

In the fall of 1997, Dubstar released their second full- length recording, again with the production expertise of Steven Hague, and again with provocative artwork, this time involving plastic baby dolls, among other things. Entitled Goodbye, the album was on par with Disgraceful and offered a similarly rewarding blend of bubble-gum pop and scathing irony and hit home with British fans and critics. This time, the roster of musicians was expanded to include brass and string instruments alongside the band's electronic arsenal. Unfortunately, the album was released in a mutilated form in the U.S. which incorporated a large part of Disgraceful while eschewing half of the new album's fresh material.

A marketing strategy designed to win over American audiences deemed unreceptive to the characteristically "British" sensibilities of Dubstar's material, this editing move disrupted the integrity of the album and may not have helped boost U.S. sales after all. Still, Dubstar has remained hopeful in regards to breaking the crucial American market and, at the same time, has shown no signs of surrendering the band's personal songwriting approach in order to sell records and cate to the whims of label executives. "When bands start writing about hotels, they have lost it," Hillier remarked in a Billboard interview. "If we start writing about hotels or record companies, then that's it. It's nothing that people can identify with."

by Shaun Frentner

Dubstar's Career

Band formed by Hillier and Wilkie in 1993 in Gateshead, England, under the name The Joans; joined by vocalist Blackwood the following year; released their debut single "Stars" on Food Records, 1995; released Disgraceful in the U.K., October 1995; support Erasure on their European tour; released Goodbye, 1997; contribute their version of the Pet Shop Boys' "Jealousy" on the benefit album of cover versions Come Again, 1997.

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almost 5 years ago

Great band. Met Sarah at Colchester Arts Centre and spoke about the lyrics to 'Not so manic now' - which were the only 'borrowed' words the band recorded.