How studying at the University of Cambridge influenced The Subways

Welwyn Garden City, the Hertfordshire town situated about halfway between Cambridge and London, sounds appealing, but I’ve never actually been there. Someone who knows it very well is Billy Lunn, singer and guitarist with indie rockers The Subways, who rose to prominence after winning the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition in 2004 and performing on the festival’s Other Stage.

The Subways. Picture: Laura Lewis
The Subways. Picture: Laura Lewis

“I was born in Welwyn Garden City and grew up there,” says Billy, 38, speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his girlfriend’s house in Manchester. “I lived in Hatfield for a while, and moved around quite a lot in and around Hertfordshire and a little bit in Essex. But Welwyn Garden City is where I spent most of my formative years.

“It’s quite fancy. I grew up in the residential area, in a council house – because there were a lot of council estates on the boundaries of the town – but if you go into the town centre, it sort of lives up to its name as a garden city: everything’s beautifully cultivated and very neat and tidy.

“From what I can remember when I first started reading George Orwell, when I was a teenager, I think it was in The Road to Wigan Pier when he decided to leave Norwich and go up to the north and look at the one-up-one-down properties of the industrial towns.

“He said, ‘These are the kind of places that we want to see flourish, rather than living in a country full of Welwyn Garden Cities’ – or something to that effect. So it was all too residential for the likes of George Orwell! But it started out as a post-war refuge for people and it’s grown since then. I feel very lucky having grown up there, definitely.”

When he’s not touring the world, Billy still lives in Hertfordshire – in Ware – but also spends time in Hatfield and Pembrokeshire, where his dad lives, and has his studio space in Welwyn Garden City. He also spent three years living in Cambridge, where he read English as a mature student at Wolfson College. “I’d say Cambridge is probably my favourite city in the world,” he notes.

The band – Billy, singer, bass and keyboard player Charlotte Cooper and drummer Camille Phillips (who replaced founding member Josh Morgan, Billy’s brother, in 2021) – are to release their fifth album, Uncertain Joys, on January 13.

The latest single off it is the thunderous Black Wax, which follows on from the previously-released trio of Love Waiting on You, You Kill My Cool, and Fight, which garnered press support from The Independent and NME, among other publications.

Black Wax also boasts a great accompanying video, shot in a beautiful art centre in Glossop, Derbyshire. “I had been really keen to shoot a video in an Art Deco-style setting,” explains Billy, who went straight from school into a job collecting dirty sheets from hotel rooms and packaging them up. He was writing the band’s debut album, 2005’s Young for Eternity, at the same time and the rest is history.

“We couldn’t do it for the first couple of singles off Uncertain Joys for whatever reason, but by the time it came round to filming the Black Wax video, we found a production company called Blink Productions, and they had already scouted for us and they found this incredible Art Deco arts theatre, very much a community space, but it had exactly what we were looking for.

“It was quite a beautiful experience, because I’m a huge fan of Art Deco. I think that has something to do with growing up in Welwyn Garden City, because a lot of the first buildings that were founded there are in the Art Deco style. I’m an Arsenal fan as well – the old Highbury Stadium is very Art Deco…

“Having a song that’s about the history of music, and especially a lot of the pop music of the 20th century, we felt like Art Deco was the aesthetic we really wanted to go for. We were really lucky to have found the space, and the guy who runs it was there all day with us, doing incredible work, filling us in on all the details.”

The Subways. Picture: Laura Lewis
The Subways. Picture: Laura Lewis

Billy, who believes the title track off the new album is the best song he’s ever written, adds: “I’m a big fan of [Irish poet, playwright and politician] Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the seating that they had in the arts space was lifted from the Drury Lane Theatre.

“So I was sitting down on the chairs going, ‘I wonder if Richard Brinsley Sheridan sat in this seat?’ because he ran the Drury Lane Theatre for, I think it was a decade…

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