I first met Steve in 1983 in my first week at college in Liverpool. He was studying Geography (and then later Psychology, the History of Art and Fine Art) and I was studying geology. I think probably because our names were close in the alphabet we ended up in the same accommodation. Turned out we shared exactly the same birthday, but I don’t think that had much to do with anything.
We knocked around with the same group of friends and in our second and third years, Steve lived in a house with a cellar that we painted up and used to rehearse our band. There was Pete on guitar, Jez on keyboards, Dicky on drums, Steve playing bass and me doing vocals. I can’t remember the name of the band but we did a couple of college gigs.
For me, that was the beginning and end of my career in music. Steve on the other hand went on to much bigger things and now, since lockdown, he’s taken up his art again, painting pictures featuring the rock band he’s played in for twenty-five years now – the mighty Embrace.
Steve Firth grew up in Halifax, listening to John Peel on the radio.
‘My era is the early punk stuff,’ he says. ‘I was listening to bands like The Damned, Buzzcocks and The Clash. When I was about 15 went to see Stiff Little Fingers. They looked really cool in their skinny tight pants with zips everywhere and I thought, I want to be on stage doing that.’
Steve persuaded his mum to but him an electric guitar.
‘I thought you’d just plug it in and it would be all big and distorted and I’d sound like The Sex Pistols, but it sounded terrible!’ Steve laughs. ‘There was no internet in those days to learn from and I knew nobody that knew anything about music. My mum bought me a music book but it was all Skip to My Lou My Darling and stuff like that, and I wanted to play Anarchy in the UK. Anyway, I kept it up for a few years. I was in a band at school but I never really took it seriously.
By the time he got to college, Steve was into post-punk and goth rock, listening to bands like Birthday Party and The Mission
‘Everyone at college liked different music to me, and they wouldn’t listen to mine,’ he remembers. They started playing me Pink Floyd and a bit of prog rock. So I started to like Pink Floyd, which I still do now, to be fair. I was in a couple of bands there but I was still only really playing at it. We didn’t really knew what we were doing and we never got to the studio or played any proper gigs.
After college, Steve needed to get a job and with nothing doing in Halifax, he went with a friend down to Crawley, where he found work straightaway, in a warehouse near Gatwick Airport. But after a year of living in friends’ garages and camping out in gardens, he popped home to Halifax to see his mum and never went back.
‘I got a part-time job there, which became permanent and before I knew it, six or seven years had gone by and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘During that time, I played in a punk band that did covers and some of our own stuff. I remember doing a gig in a pub in Halifax and it looked as if we had about fifty people watching us, but there were two TV screens above our heads with the boxing on, and everyone was watching that and we were just an annoyance. So I gave that up and I decided that was it.’
The cat, the suit and the wardrobe
In 1994, Steve was looking at the small ads in the local free paper. His cats had ripped up his work suit while he was asleep and he needed a cheap wardrobe to put his clothes in. Glancing through the music ads, he came across a band looking for a bass player.
‘It was influences The Smiths, Stone Roses, Pixies, Nirvana all the bands I was into at that time,’ Steve remembers. ‘And they were literally just half a mile up the road, so I gave them a ring and went to see Danny [McNamara]. He got out his guitar and played me a load of songs, demos they’d done in the studio and I thought, “this guy is serious, he knows what he’s doing”. So I picked up my bass and joined in, and that was the start of it. I was in the band.’
It was two years later before Steve did his first gig with Embrace.
‘At that point, the band hadn’t recorded anything,’ Steve explains. ‘ They sounded a bit like Echo and the Bunnymen, which was good. But they’d done a couple of gigs and got some bad reviews saying they were the lowest common denominator of all the bands they were influenced by, so they were like, “OK, we need to go away and write some proper songs and find an identity”.
They worked really hard.
Steve remembers travelling to Leeds to rehearse three evenings a week after work, and later at the weekend too, while the band worked on new songs and reinvented itself. Finally, they made a demo tape , got hold of a copy of Music Week from the library, and contacted some agents. They got a lot of interest, and after spending a couple of days in London visiting them all, Embrace decided to go with Coalition Management and met Tony Perrin, who still manages the band today.
Tony Perrin set about contacting record companies and the band did three showcase gigs at iconic live music venue, the Duchess of York, in Leeds.
‘About a dozen record companies came to see us play,’ Steve says. ‘Butch Vig even came over from America to see us, because there was a real buzz about us at this stage. We weren’t very good really but they saw the potential and at that time, everyone was looking for the next Oasis.’
The band signed with Hut Records, part of the Virgin group.
‘Hut had Placebo, Smashing Pumpkins, Gomez – all these bands that were kicking off at the same time, so it was a hip label to be with,’ Steve explains. ‘David Boyd was in charge and there can’t have been a much more successful person than him in the music business at the time.’
The first three albums
In June 1998, Embrace released their debut album The Good Will Out, which went to number 1 in the UK Album Chart. It went gold immediately and became the fastest-ever-selling debut albums by a British band, going on to sell over half a million copies in the UK. Soon the band were touring in Europe, Thailand and Japan.
‘We didn’t expect that,’ Steve laughs. ‘No-one expects that. You hope for it, but just to get in the charts was a massive thing.’
Their second album, Drawn from Memory, was released in 2000. It was well received by the music press and reached number 8 in the UK Album Chart .
‘That album was a bit more eclectic than the first one, because we thought the first one didn’t show off the band as well as it could have done – we thought we were more interesting than that,’ Steve says. ‘But we took too long over it. In those days, everyone was pushing us to keep up the impetus, telling us you can’t be off the radio for too long or everyone will forget about you and someone new will replace you.’
While they were touring Drawn from Memory, Embrace were supported in Blackpool by emerging band, Coldplay who, later, also supported them at Glastonbury.
‘In those days, we used to get hundreds of tapes from bands that wanted to support us,’ Steve explains. ‘Danny used to religiously listen to them all. He got this tape from Coldplay and offered them the support slot in Blackpool. We thought they were really good, that they’d have a career at least and get a few albums out. We never thought they’d be one of the biggest bands on the planet, just about!’
In 2017, Coldplay returned the favour, offering Embrace the main support slot when they played to 80,000 people at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Drawn From Memory was followed in 2001, by Embrace’s third studio album, If You’ve Never Been.
‘That’s my least favourite album,’ Steve says. ‘It’s too sleepy – sounds as if it needs a good kick up the arse! But it was really a reaction against the criticism we received for the second album. The music press called it “schizophrenic”. We thought that maybe that was why it didn’t do so well, so we did something that was a little bit more chilled.
The album reached number 9 in the charts.
‘Normally, if you got to number 9, you’d be well pleased, wouldn’t you?’ Steve asserts. ‘But that wasn’t good enough for the record label and they dropped us.’
‘The biggest comeback since Lazarus’
Being dropped by Virgin didn’t worry Embrace as much as it might have.
‘Rick [McNamara] had bought a farmhouse with a derelict barn, which the band converted into a studio, ‘ Steve explains. ‘Rick taught himself to operate a mixing desk and we got stuck in.’
Freed from the record company and from the financial implications of recording in London, the band took things a bit slower. They made some more demos and Tony Perrin got them signed to Independiente Records. With new producer, ‘Youth’ on board, Embrace released the album Out of Nothing, which reached number one in the UK Album Charts in 2004.
‘NME were calling it “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”!’ Steve laughs. ‘And I think we appreciated it more second time around. The first time we were caught up, touring, doing interviews, doing photoshoots, videos, all the stuff that goes on. This time we had time to enjoy it.’
Out of Nothing included the hit single Gravity, which was gifted to the band by Coldplay.
‘Danny and Chris Martin stayed in touch all the time,’ Steve explains. ‘They used to talk and play songs over the phone to each other. .. What do you think of this?… Oh that’s not good enough for you….That’s your best song. All that sort of stuff.
‘Gravity came out of one of these conversations. It was going to be on Coldplay’s next album, and then the rest of the Coldplay lads said they didn’t like it. So Chris rang Danny and said, “You know that song of mine Gravity that you really liked. Do you want to have a go at it, otherwise it’s never going to get used?
We’d just finished the album and Danny came in and said what do you think about doing a cover of this? So we did a version of it and it was really good. And, obviously, once our manager and the record company found out, they were really keen. So we went back down to London and recorded it, put it on the album and it turned out to be a great thing for us really. One of our biggest songs. It was even on Gavin and Stacey.’ [In Series 2, Episode 7, when Nessa gives birth to ‘Neil the baby’]
When Gravity was released as a single, Steve was back working again, this time on the shop floor, welding plastic.
‘I never told anybody I was in Embrace ’cause I found it a bit embarrassing, ‘ he says. ‘We had the radio on all day and suddenly Gravity’s coming on the radio and it’s quite exciting. And then it’s on three or four times a day. Finally I had to go to my boss and say, “Can I have Thursday off cos I’m on Top of the Pops.” I never went back!’
Embrace’s fifth studio album, This New Day was released in 2006. Just as they finished recording, manager Tony Perrin, was approached by the FA, who asked if Embrace had a song that might make a suitable anthem for the 2006 World Cup.
‘We did have a song with no lyrics, that we hadn’t quite finished that we thought might fit the bill,’ Steve remembers. ‘So Tony told the FA and they said, “That’s great, just what we’re after”. I think it was Tony that came up with the title World At Your Feet. We had about three days to get it recorded it and the FA really liked it and said they’d get all the England team to sing and join in on the video. But none of that happened. The players weren’t into that sort of music. So we didn’t get much support in terms of that.’
The single, which was also on the album, entered the UK Singles chart at number 3. Although Embrace were told the song would sell millions and make them their fortune, it didn’t affect album sales very much and Steve suspects that it might even have put some people off the band.
As the only football fan in Embrace – he follows Leeds – Steve quite enjoyed the experience.
‘I got to meet Groff Hurst, George Cohen, Alan Ball and I went to the Grosvenor in London to the PFA awards and Sven and Nancy and all those sort of people were there,’ he recalls. ‘But if you talk to certain members of the band they’ll say it was the worst decision we ever made. We did one tour after another and suddenly we were in a different league. Now instead of talking to music journalists we were talking to The Sun or The Mail and they didn’t really want to discuss music, they were always looking for an angle, something sexy, some gossip. I don’t think any of us enjoyed that. You were kind of scared of what you were going to say in case it came back to haunt you.’
Then, after probably one too many tours, Danny McNamara’s voice gave up and he told the band that he needed some time off, promising that they would get back together when he’d recharged his batteries. He moved to London and got involved in the club scene for a while.
Back in the zone again
‘After about four years, we got an email from Danny saying, “I’m in the zone again”, so we all got together at Rick’s and started on the next album,’ Steve says. ‘We reinvented ourselves and came back again.’
Embrace‘s next studio album, Embrace, was released after a seven year break, in 2014.
‘That’s still my favourite album,’ Steve says. ‘I think it’s got the most interesting music on it. A bit dancier, a bit heavier. I like the ballads but growing up with punk, I prefer something that people can react to.’
Embrace released their next album Love Is A Basic Need in 2018. And in 2019, the band celebrated 21 years since the release of The Good Will Out with a national tour.
The band’s line up now is the same as it was when that album was released – Danny McNamara on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Rick McNamara on lead guitar, Steve on bass, Mickey Dale on keyboards and Mike Heaton on drums.
‘We’ve stuck together, never fallen out, never split up, never had the whole rock star thing,’ Steve says. ‘We’re just a group of friends really who want to carry on doing what we do.’
Steve says that journalists can be pretty disappointed to find out that the McNamara brothers get on and are no Liam and Noel Gallagher.
In 2018, in a side project, Steve returned to his punk roots, playing in Land Sharks, the band he founded with Embrace drummer, Mike Heaton; Embrace’s keyboard tech, Beever; Mikey Shiraz from punk metal band Mr Shiraz; and Sam Wood, the guitarist from metal band Wayward Sons.
‘Mike our drummer was messing around in his little studio and he came up with this song that sounded very old school, like the Ramones but a bit heavier, and we started sending songs back and forth and then got everyone involved,’ Steve says. ‘We’ve only done about a dozen gigs. It’s not been a big thing because the virus kicked in. But it would be nice to carry on with it, because it’s fun. No stress. Just a laugh – turn up, plug in, have a few beers and a great night. If anything happened it would be fantastic, but it’s not likely to, ’cause we’re not trying hard to push anything.’
Embracing his artistic side
Art was Steve’s favourite subject at school and although he loved studying it at college, he says, he never had the confidence to pursue it once he left.
‘I never really thought I was good enough to make money from it,’ he admits. ‘ I didn’t really think I had a distinctive style or anything to say. It was one of those things I’d pick up every few years. I’d go out buy a load of artist’s pads and pens and paint, and then I’d think God, they’re not very good, and then I’d stop for a few years. I’ve never really known what to paint. I haven’t got a focus. ‘
But with time on his hands during lockdown Steve had a change of heart.
‘I thought, come on, you’re in a band. Paint what you know,’ Steve says. ‘I’ve got thousands of pictures, videos, images, and I could manipulate them on my laptop and try to make them look more pop art. So I started painting and I thought, this time I’m not going to give up straight away. I’m going to keep going and and try and develop a style.
‘And what I’ve found is, the more work you do, the more ideas you get. So I’m four canvasses in and suddenly I can’t sleep and I’m thinking, “Oh I’m going to do this or that tomorrow, I’m going to try this style”. And now I’m sat there for twelve hours painting, and it flies by and I still want to do more. I’m loving it for the first time in my life. I posted a few on Facebook and got some really nice responses so it builds your confidence up.’
Steve works in acrylics mainly and has completed 40 canvasses this year featuring the band, which he now offers for sale to sell as limited edition, signed prints.
Embrace have just finished their new album, due out later this year. It a long process, not helped by a six or seven month wait for vinyl. The schedule means Steve will have plenty of time to develop his art further.
‘We don’t do a lot of gigging, so it’s not really like I haven’t got the time.’ he says. ‘Plus, I don’t have to think about doing another job while I’m painting, so that’s a good thing!’
You can buy Steve’s artwork here: https://stevefirth.bigcartel.com/
Steve’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steve.firth.581
Links to all things Embrace can be found via https://linktr.ee/embraceband
Twitter – twitter.com/embrace