Tony Mortimer: East 17 were young and loutish once, but we're grown up now

The group's frontman on 'chavs', Brian Harvey's Ferrari, saucy lyrics and their new album

Hi Tony! So East 17 are back! And now you're a three piece! Can you explain to the readers the various permutations of East 17 since their inception in 1992.

We started as four piece, then I left the band in 1997 and the guys carried on as a threepiece unsuccessfully, doing their thing, and now I'm back. (1)

You came back before, though, right? For the documentary? (2)

Oh that, yeah. For a couple of weeks. That didn't work out. Brian [Harvey] is doing his solo thing. Basically the three of us really want to go in one musical direction and he wants to go in another.

Your former manager Tom Watkins said that you "loathed and detested" Brian. Is that true?

No. Probably he does. No one got on with Brian, it wasn't just me. He's tricky, bless him.

Are East 17 the male equivalent of the Sugababes?

No because the Sugababes keep changing their line-up don't they?

You're doing pretty well. Didn't you have a guy called Blair for a while who joined for about three months?

He's gone. We were going to use him as a producer and he had a great voice so we were trying to get him out of a record deal but he was still signed.

What do John and Terry bring to the group?

To be honest, they're more stylish than me. Terry kind of put the whole group together this time. Behind the scenes they deal with the workings of the group. Terry writes songs on the new album - he wrote three of the tracks and he sings. They're known as the two that don't do anything but that's just because they're quiet. It's a chemistry that all three of us have.

In the documentary it seemed like you made all the money and were living it up in your mock-Tudor house, while the others were forced to move back in with their families ...

I think anyone with half a brain knows that's not the truth. I would assume that Brian earned the most. It wasn't me that had the Ferrari ... the convertible sports cars. I was just different with my money. To say that I earned all the money, you've just got to look back at all the early pictures and see the people that are draped in the gold and the people that aren't.

Under the YouTube video for It's Alright, the most liked comment is "the first ever chavs". Did you ever feel like you weren't taken seriously because of your backgrounds? (3)

Not really. I'm not into being taken seriously in that way. I've never really minded the "chav" tag. It stands for "council housed and violent" and I'm not those things. I see what they mean to be honest. We were working-class and we were loutish, but I think there were a lot of groups that were similar to us. It's a predominantly middle-class industry. There were lots of cool bands in the 60s and 70s that were pretending to be working-class because there's an almost anti-middle-class feeling in society but when there's real working-class ... people aren't sure how to take it. I wouldn't know how to define class now, it's all become a bit blurred.

One of your all time great lyrics – apart from all of Stay Another Day (4) – is "outside is raining, but inside is wet" from Steam. What is it about?

[Laughs] Well... It's, er...

Is it rude Tony?

It is rude, yeah. Most of them are. Well, they were!

You say "were" ... but your new single I Can't Get You Off My Mind (Crazy) is about blowjobs, right?

[Laughs] It's not about blowjobs! There's a reference to it. It's a hot, crazy song about sex.

You sing the line "with the moon, you went down". (5)

But it could have been "went down in the elevator to the bar and got a drink". It depends if you have a dirty mind. I have to agree with you, when I was a kid there were a lot of emotions and it was very sexual. You write in your bedroom and you have no idea that it's going to be played on every radio station and your mum's going to hear it. It was like writing Stay Another Day. What inspired me was my brother's suicide. I had no idea it was going to go to No 1 and everyone was going to love it.

East 17 were always thought of as a "quintessentially British boyband", but your new album seems influenced by American soft rock and Kings of Leon. Why?

It gets to a point when you're too old to be doing a certain type of music and I think we're old enough to be the dads of the people making club music now. It would just feel wrong. We're all parents as well and I've got a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old daughter and I know that no matter how much you kid yourself, kids that age do not think you're cool. If you do the greatest dance mix in the world, they're just going to go: "Oh my God that's done by my parents – I ain't even buying it."

What are your hopes for this new album?

The charts don't really bother me. The singles charts move so fast, you've got to be young to keep up with it. Things are in and out, whereas in the old days we used to do a six-week lead up to a single, now you can't because somebody's already nicked it and put it on the net. It's just a digital dustbin where people take what they want from it.

What if I were to say that your album had entered at Number 33. Would that be OK?

That would be cool. We'd love to have an impact in Britain, but it's going to take time over here.

Why do you think that is? Because Take That were welcomed back with open arms.

That's a whole different animal. They never really came back before so it was a one off for them, whereas with us, when I left everyone should have just left it alone. But people dragged it on, slapped it around a bit and tried to change it into things it wasn't.

Your new album is called Dark Light, which is the colour seen by the eye in perfect darkness. (6)

Where does it say that?

It's the first line of your press release.

Don't know where they got that from. Light's not a colour is it. John [Hendy] came up with that title. We were trying to think of two powerful words that could mean a lot and are easily translated into other languages. I always see it more as saying we're bad angels, that's how I see it.

That's quite a good way of summing East 17 up.

Yes. We were devil's angels.


(1) But now Brian Harvey is no longer a member so the lineup is Tony, John Hendy and Terry Coldwell.
(2) East 17: The Reunion aired on Channel 4 in May 2007. It ended with Tony punching Brian in the face after he was late for a record-label meeting.
(3) E17 in London, obviously. It used to have a famous greyhound track but it closed.
(4) The greatest UK Christmas No 1 of all time. (5) The next lyric is: "Over by the window, against the wall".
(6) Also known as Eigengrau.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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