Reef [L-R]: Luke Bullen, Jesse Wood, Gary Stringer, Jack Bessant.
Absolute Label Services 16th Feb 2022

Reef's Gary Stringer: 'If the budget isn’t there, fill it with creativity'

Reef shot to stardom in the mid-90s with a major label deal in a music business that was a world away from the one we know now. Their next album lands in April on their own label powered by Absolute. Here, singer Gary Stringer talks about the band's approach in 2022, finding the right people, and doing more with less...

Reef’s rise to fame in the early 90s was rapid.

Gary Stringer, the band’s unmistakable singer, and bass player Jack Bessant had been playing together in bands since college, before quitting to focus solely on music. Stringer himself was only 17 when he moved out of his family home in Glastonbury to pursue the dream.

After a period of travelling and playing, Stringer and Bessant ended up in London. By 1993, within six months of arriving in the capital, they had formed Reef with Kenwyn House and Dominic Greensmith, produced a demo, piqued the interest of record execs scouting the touring circuit, and signed a deal with Sony’s S2 Records under the legendary A&R tutelage of Lincoln Elias and Muff Winwood.

By 1995, Reef had supported Paul Weller, The Rolling Stones and Soundgarden, and released their now gold debut album Replenish.

“That was it. It just lifted off,” Stringer remembers. “It was exciting. We felt we could do anything.”

And Reef did indeed do quite a lot. They released nine Top 40 singles between 1995 and 2000 – most famously Place Your Hands on 1996’s platinum-selling No.1 album Glow.

The band disbanded in 2004, with Stringer and Bessant continuing to work together, forming ‘knucklehead metal’ band Them Is Me and acoustic duo StringerBessant.

Reef’s hiatus came to an end in 2010, when they were tempted into reuniting for a short tour for Live Nation.

“We never really split completely,” says Stringer. “We got the original line-up back together and it worked. It was good fun. We said yes to the shows and they all sold out – which was exciting after being quiet for so long.”

In 2014, Jesse Wood replaced Kenwyn House after he amicably left the band to pursue other projects. In 2018, the new line-up released the Revelation album on earMUSIC with the support of Absolute.

Today, the band have approximately 400,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, with Place Your Hands having more than 35 million streams on the platform.

They will release their latest album Shoot Me Your Ace on April 15 on their own label via Absolute, with the title track produced by Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor, who joins the band as an honorary guitarist alongside new drummer Luke Bullen.

We spoke to Stringer, looking back on the rise of Reef and discussing the rock band’s approach today in a very different music industry…

You started your career at a major label in the 90s. What was it like being part of that environment?

Obviously financially it was great. We weren’t thinking about that loads, but we were signed for a decent amount of money. Not huge, but enough to give us a few hundred pounds a week. For musicians who were 19 or 20 years old, that was brilliant.

They asked us to re-record a couple of songs and then bought us a bus – a VW Transporter. Muff Winwood said, “You’re going to go and do some shows.” We got an agent, we met a lawyer for the first time… All these things are really exciting and you’re trying to soak it in.

We drove to Dundee, Perth, Manchester, Birmingham, Cornwall… just doing all these shows. Looking back, it was a really good shout from Muff. We could play and get tight. You’d go into the office and Muff would say, “How are you boys doing?” and we’d say, “Yeah, we’re a bit tired.” But you knew Muff had done it all. When you’ve got some marketing dude or someone in a side office telling you, “This is what you’re going to do…” With Muff it was different. You knew he’d done it: from production, to the back of a van driving on motorways to do two shows a day.

They pulled two songs off the album: Good Feeling and Choose To Live. We were signed to Sony at this point but they cut them on a seven inch and, while we were doing gigs, we had them to sell. It wasn’t a commercial release, they were just for selling at shows. Paul Weller ended up hearing one and he really liked Choose To Live on the B side. He asked us to be on his Wildwood tour. That was a big deal – he was a legend and he was right on!

When we were on tour with him, he would watch the soundcheck because he was so into it. Can you imagine how that makes you feel? He made sure we could get into his catering to eat, he made sure his tour manager knew who we were and that we’d be looked after. He just made us feel welcome and it’s something I won’t forget.

We got asked to do this mini disc advert as well. We’d done the record and Naked got used in the sync. So at some point we flew to New York, had a week there at some posh hotel, got given a load of clothes, got fussed over… some of us had never been on planes before. It was bonkers.

We released Good Feeling first, then the album came out and went Top 10. Everything just went boom.

The personnel has changed a bit since that original line-up. Jesse Wood joined soon after your 2010 reunion. How did that come about?

After the initial shows that we did with Live Nation, we did a few UK and Australia tours and had a couple of good summers off the back of that reunion. Then we looked at making a new record but Kenwyn decided he didn’t want to do that. He enjoyed the reunion but wanted to leave it there. So, we did auditions and came across Jesse Wood at Metropolis in Chiswick. It was just so obvious that it would work. His rhythm playing is just out of this world. Then we did Revelation, which came out in 2018.

That was with earMUSIC, right?

Yeah that’s right, ear under Edel out in Germany. That was really good fun. We did a handful of shows out in Europe, which was great, as well as in the UK. The fact that album charted… It’s a great record but I just never imagined it. I thought that so much water had gone under the bridge people wouldn’t give a toss. I thought it was amazing when it charted.

More recently, you’ve also got a new drummer in Luke Bullen…

Yeah. Dom was hard to replace. He was world class. But we played with Luke, who’s worked with Bryan Ferry, KT Tunstall, Joe Strummer… and he is world class. He’s fucking hot. He just clicks. There’s no messing about. It’s not, “Can you re-do this section?” No, he can just do it. He got the music, he knocked it out of the park, and he’s in the band.

Working with Andy was cool too. He’s got such a great set of skills. He produced the record, he helped write the record, he played on it. Having him and Luke is part of why it’s such a great record. The standard is really high.

Tell us about the new album…

It’s been the quickest and the longest album we’ve ever made. It was written and recorded very quickly. We went up to Baltic in East London with 12 songs written and the idea to record three or four in a weekend. We ended up recording all 12, it was so exciting, there was such a good buzz.

Then, we came back to Somerset and the whole country locked down. We sat on it for about 18 months thinking, “What shall we do with this fabulous record?”

I’m sure everyone says it about their new records but I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever made, if not the best. It’s a really strong rock record. On Revelation, we had knucklehead rock on there, metal, rock and roll, we had a couple of covers, there was a George vibe on there that leans towards R&B…  This is a rock and roll record. It’s straight rock and roll.

Over the course of your career, both in and out of Reef, you’ve been with both majors and indies, how do they differ from your perspective?

Obviously budget. When we did Place Your Hands, for example, the video cost a quarter of a million pounds. Back then, that was expensive but not particularly crazy. You could easily spend 100,000 on making a video.

We created a label for Them Is Me and it took us yonks to do all the things we’d never done before. But it was good to do. Now we’ve just formed Raging Sea Records for Shoot Me Your Ace. We had a small budget – we made a video for our new single and spent maybe seven grand. It’s not much but creativity is what fills the void.

With Reef, I loathed the meetings about videos. It was foreign to me, I didn’t understand that world, but Jack is very creative visually. With Shoot Me Your Ace, which is a fucking classic banger that takes you for a ride, Jack came up with the idea of calling his friends that work on the Demon Drone Wall Of Death. So we’ve got these guys on their motorbikes whizzing around us while we’re performing. Then, at night, we shot some dark scenes and burned a fucking piano. It was just wicked.

We don’t have huge amounts of money to spend but you can’t deny that the video that came out of it looks fucking cool. It’s a strong creative idea. Like I say: if the budget isn’t there, fill it with creativity.

Do you think you can do more with less these days?

You have to. It’s just about making a success of something. For us, we’ve made a great record, released it ourselves, and Absolute have helped us with it. We’ve got good management who can deal with it all. What I want to concentrate on is the music. That’s my be all and end all: singing, creating songs, rocking out with my pals.

What brought you to Absolute Label Services? What made you go down that route?

Our managers suggested we talk with the guys at Absolute and it seemed obvious and clear that that was the path to go down when we did talk. There are only so many hours in the day and you have to find the right people and let them do what they’re good at. We were offered more money by another company but it made sense to go with Absolute. What they bring to the table is all the things I don’t want to do. I say that with the upmost respect – it’s just not my world. Let people do what they’re good at. I can sing – that’s what I’m good at – so I’ve got to create and let other people take it and share it.

If you were talking to a young artist now, what would you tell them about the music industry?

I guess I’d probably come out with the cliches. There’s a lot to be said for following your heart. Your heart and your gut are what make things happen. Listen to yourself. If you’re uncomfortable about something, don’t do it.

As far as the business goes, I’m in a different position to 20-year-olds now. How they approach their business world is totally different to me. I’ve got a set of assets behind me that help me, but they’re creating something new and probably understand that world better than me. I started at a major label, recording on to tape. It’s different now.

Absolute Label Services

Founded in 1998, Absolute is one of the world’s most established independent label services companies.