Bristolian Rhapsody: how the Struts put the pout back in pop

He’s the leotard-clad double of Freddie Mercury with the showboating to match. Struts frontman Luke Spiller reveals how he owes it all to Justin Hawkins in a catsuit

‘Is anyone in the audience feeling a little bit dirty?” asks Luke Spiller during a two-hour display of preening, pouting and rock’n’roll showboating that has reduced Bristol’s SWX club to a quivering mess. As the crowd roar their affirmation, the charismatic frontman of the Struts – dressed in a black-and-gold leather trouser suit by Lady Gaga designer Ray Brown – allows himself a lascivious grin.

For Spiller, this is not just another gig on the band’s sold-out tour. After 10 years of false dawns, it represents a significant milestone on his personal journey. This morning, a BBC camera crew accompanied the singer on a visit to his old school, Bristol Cathedral, and tonight’s homecoming crowd is awash with ex-teachers, family members and former classmates who, until now, have mostly been forced to follow his progress from afar.

After their 2014 debut album, Everybody Wants, Spiller and his fellow Struts signed to US giants Interscope and set off on a mission to crack America the hard way. Crisscrossing the US on an endless tour in between support slots with rock giants – Foo Fighters, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe – their brash, high-energy homages to Slade and Oasis have slowly won them an audience.

Foo Fighter Dave Grohl called them “the best opening band we’ve ever had”, while performances on America’s Got Talent and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, alongside Shawn Mendes and Rita Ora, have seen their second album, Young & Dangerous, chalk up 20m streams a month, despite being so culturally off-piste it should come with snow boots.

Watch the video for Body Talks on YouTube

Meanwhile, the band’s treat ’em mean approach to the UK – they played only three gigs here last year – has created a groundswell of interest, despite a virtual radio blackout. Factor in the upsurge of interest in all things glam thanks to the Oscar-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody (Spiller is a dead-ringer for the young Freddie Mercury), and the Struts feel like a band on the brink.

Speaking to me backstage before the gig, Spiller, 30, has the air of a man who knows fame lurks around the corner. Shaggy-haired and doe-eyed, his natural warmth masks a steely determination to make his mark. “I only saw the highlights coverage, but it looked very boring,” he says of the recent Brit awards, his plummy tones seeming more suited to Henley Royal Regatta than a musty dressing room. “It’s the lack of irreverence that gets me aggravated. What happened to Oasis picking up best British band and Noel Gallagher saying, ‘Sausages’? Everything’s gone so serious and, dare I say, slightly morbid.”

Spiller may sound like a throwback to a less buttoned-up age, but it turns out he’s teetotal on tour (no Mötley Crüe-style debauchery here). He praises the 1975’s Matt Healy for his comments on misogyny in the music industry and reveals that, beneath the froth, the songs on Young & Dangerous lift the lid on gnawing anxieties dating from his youth. Freak Like You, he says, is a shout-out to those “17-year-old weekend rock stars” destined never to fit in.

Luke Spiller with the Struts performing in Milan.
‘Party band for everybody’ … Luke Spiller performing with the Struts in Milan. Photograph: Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images

Spiller’s determination to bring showmanship back to rock’n’roll can also be traced to his childhood. Growing up in a strict Christian household, he recalls being mesmerised by Pentecostal preachers, whose sermons would “have people shaking on the ground and jumping out of wheelchairs”. He says: “Rock’n’roll and religion have a lot in common. What I learned from church was how faith gave my dad this unshakeable sincerity when he sang. He wasn’t performing – he was getting people going with raw emotion.”

Spiller’s own Damascene conversion came at 15, when he clapped eyes on a catsuit-wearing Justin Hawkins in the video for I Believe in a Thing Called Love, by the Darkness. After meeting guitarist and fellow glam-rock obsessive Adam Slack, the pair formed the band in Derby, Slack’s home town, in 2009.

While the decade since has seen him encounter plenty of bumps in the road, Spiller’s infectious belief in what he’s doing has never wavered. “What make us unique is that we never go left at the chorus,” he says. “We work our asses off to make sure people have a good time.”

Cynics may scoff, but the Struts have an undeniable ability to bring people together. Rather than the usual gaggle of indie kids, the pre-show meet’n’greet session is an all-ages affair where willowy teenage girls and hairy Grateful Dead fans rub shoulders with entire families decked out in band merchandise. A woman called Angela, who has flown in from Ohio for tonight’s show, sums them up with the words: “They make you feel young again.”

“At a Struts show, you leave your problems at the door,” says affable drummer Gethin Davies. “We’re a party band for everybody.” Bass player Jed Elliott is living proof of the band’s broad appeal. His girlfriend is Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall, and he’s clearly learned from seeing at close quarters their rise to global dominance. “So many bands capitalise on one subculture that only lasts two or three years until that thing isn’t cool any more,” Elliott says. “With us, everyone’s welcome. It’s pure entertainment.”

After the show, Spiller is sweaty but contented. Having delivered his sermon, he no longer feels dirty, but cleansed. “If I walk off stage knowing that people enjoyed themselves,” he says with a grin, “that’s my job done.”

• The Struts’ US tour begins on 21 March.


Paul Moody

The GuardianTramp

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