‘My mother thought I’d ruined my life’: how EMF made Unbelievable

‘I envisaged living off my royalties … but 10 years ago I retrained as a fully-fledged secondary school teacher’

James Atkin, singer

Ian [Dench, guitarist] was the genius behind Unbelievable. I just sang and looked pretty. Derry [Brownson, sampler], Zac [Foley, bass] and I had the idea for EMF, but we didn’t have much direction. We’d just go to Cinderford village hall and muck about dressing up in jumble sale clothes. I worked in a music shop and had got to know Ian. He was a bit older, part of the Gloucester scene and had experience of writing songs in bands.

We had the name EMF, which stands for Epsom Mad Funkers – which was how David Quantick, writing in NME, had described New Order fans, and we adored New Order – but no songs. We’d sit around Ian’s mum’s piano with this really primitive synthesiser and wrote the 10 songs that ended up on Schubert Dip. I said “I want to be Chicago house, Detroit techno” but Ian pulled us back into crossover indie/dance. Ian had Unbelievable pretty well formed: there’s the tale he tells of the melody coming into his head as he was riding on his bike. I was really inexperienced, and on the original four-track demo, my vocals are even more camp and throwaway than on the single.

We were in our late teens and thought we were invincible. The record labels invited us to London but we got them to come to us to witness the mayhem of this little scene we’d created in the Forest of Dean. People were literally climbing through the pub windows trying to get in to our gigs. Before we knew it, Virgin, Island and EMI were offering us big bucks. We looked to American hip-hop for fashion, and we used our first advance to buy really big dodgy puffer jackets like East 17.

Unbelievable is 30 years old, but it certainly hasn’t gone away. It was used in a terrible advert for Kraft Crumbles – this cheesy pie topping – with the lyrics: “They’re crumbelievable.” We got in a major battle with Asda – who wanted to use it – and finally we said “Yes, but only if you take out the Adsa-price slap on the bottom”, and they gave up. It’s hard to cover because it’s such a slow tempo. The judges tried on The Voice – I nearly choked on my cup of tea when I saw will.i.am trying to do my rap.

I’m still making music – I’m still a West Country raver at heart. I envisaged living off my royalties but 10 or so years ago I retrained as a secondary school teacher. None of the kids I teach have even heard of EMF, but being asked to sign autographs at parents’ evening can get a bit weird.

Ian Dench, guitarist

My mother thought I’d ruined my life because I’d dropped out of studying fine art at Oxford University and I was living in this grotty Gloucester bedsit in the street – as I later discovered – next to Fred West, the serial killer. My previous band, Apple Mosaic, had come to nothing in eight years. I had said to the singer: “Shall we work on some more songs?” and he said: “No, I’ve got to make my girlfriend’s dinner,” and that was it. I went to see my girlfriend at Cardiff University and she dumped me because she thought I was such a loser.

I hitched a lift home and the lorry dropped me on the M50. I remembered this cool kid called James that I’d met at Glos Music Co, who had kept saying: “You should come to the Forest of Dean. We’ve got this great band. We wear Afghan coats and play death metal.” I phoned him from a call box, 10 minutes later he arrived with Zac, we went out and got drunk and I didn’t go home for three days.

‘We were in our late teens and thought we were invincible’: EMF in 1990.
‘We were in our late teens and thought we were invincible’: EMF in 1990. Photograph: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

They had the name – EMF – but no songs, so I said: “We’d better write some.” One day, I was riding my bike home, still obsessed with this girl who had dumped me, and the idea just came to me: “The things you say / Your purple prose just gives you away / The things you say / You’re unbelievable.” My dad was a classical guitarist, so I’d learned classical guitar and also loved the blues. The guitar riff goes from blues mode to flamenco mode, like the two conflicting sides of my life.

Samples were all the rage, and the “Oh” is a sample of this misogynistic US comedian called Andrew Dice Clay that was weirdly released on Def Jam, but we couldn’t get hold of anyone in the Def Jam office to clear it. We were flown out to Los Angeles to meet EMI and I happened to see Rick Rubin, the founder of Def Jam, sitting in the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset. I asked if he’d clear the sample, he said: “Fax my office in the morning” and he did it for free.

Unbelievable only went to No 3 in the UK although it did go to No 1 in the US. I’m still a songwriter for hire. I co-wrote Beautiful Liar for Beyoncé and Shakira, so finally I’ve had a No 1 here.

  • EMF’s new album GO GO SAPIENS is out now. EMF tour this April. See emf-theband.com


Interviews by Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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