Album review: LostAlone – The Warring Twenties
LostAlone return after eight years in the wilderness to remind you that all other rock bands aren't going anywhere near far enough...
As far back as he can remember, Steven Battelle always wanted to be a stadium rock guitarist.
It was watching the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert on TV from Wembley Stadium that did it. Having taken her son to his first gig before he was even born, attending the 1981 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington when she was pregnant with him, Steven's mother put the televised celebration of the late Queen frontman on in the living room. Seeing what remains one of the greatest concerts ever recorded, the boy's number one love of football was replaced almost immediately with what would become a lifelong obsession with Queen, alongside their supporting cast on the day: Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica. Inspired, aged 11 he and best friend from school in Derby, Mark Gibson, started a band. If you’re going to dream, they reasoned, dream biggest.
“We were doing little gigs at our school,” Steve remembers. “And there’s videos of me and Mark doing mock interviews with each other, as if it was right after we’d just played Wembley and we’d had, like, 10 Number Ones.”
The 10 chart-toppers would remain elusive, but as they grew up and their band, LostAlone, became a proper thing, they – along with bassist Alan Williamson – nevertheless managed to tread the boards at Wembley Arena no fewer than three times. Once supporting 30 Seconds To Mars, once supporting Paramore, once supporting My Chemical Romance. Gerard Way was so enamoured with LostAlone’s grandiose, eccentric, two-Queens-playing-at-once-with-Nirvana’s-propulsive-energy music, he’s named their debut album, 2007’s Say No To The World, as one of his favourite-ever records.
Each time they appeared, Steven – normally a quiet, polite music nerd – says he’s “never felt more comfortable than on those big stages”. This is one of many reasons people loved his band the way they did. They were a trio of full-time dreamers, talented enough to allow eccentric, mad ideas to run riot, while keeping it lassoed together with a melodic skill that verged on genuine magic.
Five years after LostAlone split in 2014, as My Chem were gearing up to get back together, they got in touch with Steven, then making music as a solo artist. ‘Do you want to come and play some stadiums with us on our reunion tour?’ they asked.
Steven Battelle thought about it. And he replied: “No.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, Steven Battelle playing in stadiums!’” he winces today. “And it was the most nerve-wracking moment to say it. I remember replying, and all I could think was: I’ve just turned down stadiums.”
And just as you’re thinking Steven Battelle might be an idiot and the worst character in his own life, he explains himself. He turned it down, he says, because he had a better idea. “Can LostAlone do it instead?” The wait almost gave him a heart attack. When it came back positive, it locked in a jumping-off point for the return of one of the best but most overlooked British bands of their time. It got them recording a new album, the excellent The Warring Twenties. It got the band, finally, heroically, into the stadia in which Steven truly believes should have been their home all along.
Most importantly, it gave Steven Battelle back his place in the world.
Steven Battelle didn’t want LostAlone to split. If you listen to a recording of the last song of the band’s farewell show in Derby in December 2014, “The music sounds great, but the vocals are just me crying my eyes out.” Sadly, the vagaries of the music industry had meant even the best of things must come to an end.
“How did I feel coming out of the band? Absolute hate,” he ponders today, with a slight hindsighted chuckle, “I hated every moment of it. Music was everything to me. It is everything to me.”
So much so, the day after LostAlone’s final show, while his bandmates prepared for life in the real world after “years of living and breathing this band 24/7 and thinking about nothing else”, the frontman simply refused to accept that he wouldn’t be a musician anymore. Not having a band was merely a technicality; he was simply a temporarily embarrassed rock star.
“The next morning, I went, ‘Well, now I’m a solo artist and a songwriter,’” he says. “I put my head down and just tried to pretend it was normal, carrying on with social media and stuff. I kind of wish now part of me had disappeared and then come back with a solo album. But I felt the need to keep in touch with fans and pretend everything was the same. I was just ignoring it, really, which probably wasn’t very good.”
Some time after, Steven took a trip to Montreux, a regular spot for writing getaways, partly on account of being the setting for the events in Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water. On this occasion, he took with him a vinyl copy of the band’s then-final album, the 5/5-rated Shapes Of Screams, and held a wake for it, and for the band.
“I sat there by Lake Geneva at about 5am when it was dark,” he explains. “I got the record and took it apart, and put it in the water and watched it sink. And I just cried there to myself, alone, in the middle of the night in this place that was so special to me and had such a connection to what we’d done.”
Recalling all this today from his London flat – which, over the pandemic, he literally didn’t leave for six months on account of asthma, and where he would spend all day making music, watching movies and doing enormous Lego projects – the way Steven talks tells you everything you need to know about what music means to him.
David Lee Roth once wrote that 'Eddie Van Halen without a guitar in his hand is a crummy human being'. Steven would have to go a very long way to even come close to such a thing – guitar or not, he is one of the friendliest, kindest and most enthusiastic musicians you could ever encounter, with an absolutely innocent, wide-eyed love for music that’s an infectious joy to be swept up in – but the point still stands. There was a piece missing.
Beyond his band’s larger-than-life ambition, and the unexpected ability for a nerd with a broad Midlands accent to become the coolest motherfucker on Earth when playing a double-necked guitar, Steven’s largest and most valuable talent is in his ability to write songs. He once harmonised a dinosaur from Jurassic Park in a solo track, but his genius with a melody stands just as tall strummed from an acoustic guitar without an audience. He once joke to his booking agent that, “We’ve played Wembley the most times and sold the least amount of records,” but the prodigious craft in those records hadn’t gone unnoticed.
At the invitation of a friend, Steven headed to Nashville, a hit-making town where musicians and songwriters can still find plenty of work, if they’re good enough. Staying at his mate’s place, and having artists lined up for him to work with, he figured that this would be an either/or situation. Either he was good enough or he wasn’t. Typically, he has a very Steven Battelle way of explaining things.
“When I was a kid, I was the best cross country runner at school. I just beat everybody,” he grins. “I was so good. So my parents went, ‘Great, let’s put him in for Derby athletics, because he could be good at this.’ The first time I was there. I just got lapped. I was not even remotely on par with real runners. Going to Nashville was a similar thing. It was a test. I see that as a songwriting Mecca, and I thought, ‘If I go there and I can do it, I am a proper songwriter.’”
He could. Right now, Steven has been working with no less a band than McFly for the past year or so. Amongst other things, he’s turned them on to Deep Purple. And unlike with other writing projects, where you work with someone for a bit, and then let what you’ve done grow legs and get sent out into the world without you, he describes the process as being “like something from the ’70s – that classic, old style of production where you’re properly involved in actually making something”.
He’s got an even better story about a songwriting session. A few years ago, Steven went on a solo cruise to America, on the QM (“Genuinely, up there with Wembley, one of the greatest experiences of my life”). Being a cruise, it was full of older passengers. Being November, none of them fancied going outside at night. Steven found that he had the whole top deck, exposed to miles of curiously beautiful nothingness, to himself. Taking a guitar and amp up there most nights, he wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And, being Steven, as he did, his imagination ran away with him.
“I just walked around at night, and I was looking at the stars, just having all these ideas,” he says. “I’m gonna get the band back together, gonna get Roger Taylor to produce some of these songs, gonna go back to Download… It’s like on planes, you have all these ideas above the clouds that feel really possible, and as soon as you land you’re like, ‘Nah.’ On those seven days, I felt so disconnected, and in that I wrote a bunch of songs for this album. Then I arrived in New York and texted the others and said, ‘We’re getting the band back together.’”
If this was a film, it's the glorious redemption of the third act, heavenly guitar solos and all. Obviously, Roger Taylor didn’t produce The Warring Twenties. But it didn’t need his hand in it. It is a brilliant album in which LostAlone’s dazzling spark shines as brightly and luminously as ever it did, pushed up a notch by a self-evident joy at having something loved and lost back in your life.
Its main theme was inspired by the January 6 insurrection, and a feeling that, “Right at the dawn of a new decade, it felt to me like the ’20s is just gonna be chaos.” And this, Steven says, was something he already felt before COVID hit, and continues to feel now that the rest of it’s unfolding: “Boris Johnson, Ukraine, climate change…”
There’s another, more personal side, though. It sees Steven unpacking things that previously he’d kept at bay. Things about where he sees himself and his music in the world. What he felt was missing as he went from band-frontman to solo songwriter.
“It's the most personal album I’ve made,” he says. “Everything’s dressed up in metaphors, but it’s there. I normally write songs by going for walks, but I couldn’t over lockdown because I was inside the whole time. So I was in my apartment, and I really had to go internal and address a lot of the things that I've felt in here. There’s a lyric: ‘The rain was falling just out of my reach / Too far away to wash the damage off my dreams / I don’t wanna bathe in reflected glory / I’m the only architect of this story.’ It’s quite common with me that I realise what I meant, like, six months later. That happened, and I realised, ‘Oh god, I’m quite hung up on the fact that a lot of my friends are in way more successful bands than me.’ I’ve never said this to anyone, and I hope it doesn’t make me sound awful, but I suppose I think, ‘I wish that were me.’”
However it may look written down, saying it, Steven doesn't sound bad at all. Quite the opposite, especially when he is so quick to add how proud he is of everyone he knows who ever achieves anything. And especially when he oscillates with excitement as he talks about anything to do with music.
Walking onstage at the My Chemical Romance shows, Steven says the feeling was, “like we were back where we’re supposed to be.” As someone who’s “always looking at the next thing, even before we step offstage”, the future already looks rosy. Real life having grown for his bandmates during the break means the band need to be more selective about their activities, “but that just means you have to enjoy it even more, and I’m more than fine with that”.
It’s hard not to feel delighted for Steven Battelle. It’s brilliant to know things have turned out so well, but more importantly, that such a genuine and rare talent has somewhere to go, that it’s being used, that it’s still making someone, somewhere, happy, even if he isn’t necessarily the one performing it. Music is Steven’s love. Had it all not come up trumps, he’d still be dreaming that one day it would.
“There’s a line on the first song on the album that sums me up better than any other lyric,” he says. “‘Ambition’s an affliction, every moment is a mission.’ Even the title, Enduring The Dream, is a take on the cliché ‘living the dream’, because to a lot of people, I probably am living a certain kind of dream. And I don’t take that for granted at all. But Enduring The Dream, to me means I can’t not do this. And there’s no break from it in my head. Like, people say, ‘Where have you been for last seven years?’ I’ve still been here.”
Steven Battelle, then: songwriting genius, music obsessive, Queen expert, dreamer, applicant for the greatest rock star who ever lived. Anything else?
“This is what I do,” he smiles, as he prepares to head off for another writing session. Then a shrug: “I’m useless at anything else.”
The Warring Twenties is out now via Dharma. LostAlone tour the UK in December.
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