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The Slow Readers Club frontman Aaron Starkie talks about what it’s like to be a working class band in an industry that doesn’t invest in talent

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By any metric, things had been going well for The Slow Readers Club. After touring relentlessly and carving out their reputation at the mood-pop coalface, their third album Build a Tower cracked the UK top 40 in 2018, allowing frontman Aaron Starkie and the rest of the group to quit their day jobs. 

That same year, they played two sold-out 3,500-capacity homecoming shows and their music – with its brooding Interpol-style guitar lines and icy synths – had been championed by the likes of ex-New Order bassist Peter Hook. Their fourth record, The Joy of the Return, fared even better. With blissfully gloomy lyrics tackling political and personal turmoil, it reached number nine in the charts. 

However, in the week of its release in 2020, the UK went into its first Covid-19 lockdown. With their tour dates imperilled, the band hailed by NME as “the next northern pop powerhouse” had to return to the jobs they’d worked so hard to escape from. 

“Our woes were very small in comparison to the whole picture so we just rolled with it and thought of it as a once-in-a-2,000-year event,” shrugs Starkie today from his home study in Urmston, Greater Manchester. “It was unfortunate but we thought about it in terms of people having been through worse.” 

Faced with a snake in a career path that had lately been leading him up lofty ladders, Starkie – also responsible for The Slow Readers Club’s arresting artwork – returned to life as a freelance designer, while his younger sibling and guitarist in the band, Kurtis Starkie, returned to work as an operations manager for the NHS involved in co-ordinating the vaccine rollout in South Manchester. Drummer David Whitworth returned to work in insurance, while bassist James Ryan was building sheds and decking. Juggling the recording, live, and promotional requirements of being in a popular group with the demands of a boss’s timesheet is tricky, but The Slow Readers Club are used to overcoming adversity. 

Starkie, 44, was raised in Wythenshawe on the largest council estate in Europe. 

“Growing up in a place like that, you’re self-conscious of having limited horizons, rightly or wrongly, the rest of society thinking of you in a certain way and your opportunities not being the same as middle class kids,” he says. Hence they took the moniker The Slow Readers Club as “a celebration of the underdog”, and a similar mentality has informed the MO of their latest, more optimistic post-pandemic album, Knowledge Freedom Power. 

“It’s a manifesto for embracing that we have free education, we have libraries that are free, and these things are a passport to a better life,” Starkie elaborates. “It’s two fingers up to people’s preconceptions.” 

Previously, Starkie’s dark and cathartic soul-baring and state-of-the-nation lyrics covered his struggles with drinking-induced anxiety and Cambridge Analytica’s malign influence on the Trump and Brexit campaigns. But – following the remotely-recorded 91 Days In Isolation album in 2020, which metabolised his pandemic feelings – for Knowledge Freedom Power, he sought to draw back the curtains on The Slow Readers Club’s desolate worldview. As he sings on the euphoric electro of the title track, “A world of beauty and wonder is waiting out there/Tomorrow has come around/The future is yours to discover…knowledge, freedom, power, all this is yours.” 

“The world is so bleak right now, with social and economic inequality and civil unrest, where we’re just tearing strips out of each other, and the rise of nationalism and the war in Ukraine,” says Starkie. “There’s a lot of darkness out there. Whereas on previous albums I’ve been happy to explore dystopian themes and very deep psychological stuff, it felt indulgent to do that on this record and I wanted to have more shafts of light coming through.”

Starkie’s middle-name is Elvis, a tribute to his photographer father’s love of the king. “Growing up, I was always trying to impress my dad by singing Elvis songs in concerts at schools, and that was part of my route into music,” he says. His dad also DJed part time, as well as regularly busking The Smiths songs, casting a formative influence over Starkie and his brother Kurtis. 

“You can hear loads of 1980s in our music – we’re probably quite nostalgic for our childhoods,” he laughs of their sound, which has been compared to the electro-noir of Depeche Mode. It was a household where they were encouraged to learn instruments and one of Starkie’s earliest memories is of receiving a drum kit for Christmas, before Kurtis smashed it up. Thankfully their creative relationship is better now. “We’re not the Gallaghers,” he notes. “We don’t get headlines for knocking holes out of each other.” 

But it was the likes of Liam and Noel Gallagher who influenced the ambitions of working class kids in the 1990s compared to now where the music industry is increasingly resembling a finishing school for nepo-babies. 

“Groups like Oasis made being in a band feel attainable,” points out Starkie. “There’s a bigger barrier now for working class voices in music, because you need substantial sums of money to get things off the ground and record deals won’t sustain you. You need money to tour around the UK and ideally Europe to build up a following. It’s a bugbear of mine that there aren’t enough working class voices in music and it requires investing more in the arts and there being subsidies for kids coming through.” 

It’s also about increasing the aspirations of working class kids. “My school friends would go and see the careers officer and they’d be talking to them about going into the forces – you were always aware you’re pre-destined to go into certain roles within society.” 

Though it’s been a turbulent time for The Slow Readers Club, their return to day jobs yielded the creative silver lining of their single Modernize. With its buzzsaw synths, it’s an adrenalised rave-up that talks of the need to adapt in our ever-changing labour market. 

“Though design work is creatively fulfilling for me, it made me think of the previous jobs I had and the dehumanising nature of working nine to five doing something you don’t particularly want to do. It’s an aggressive opener and signals to long-term fans to expect something new,” says Starkie, acknowledging that despite Knowledge Freedom Power being a relatively more sunlit uplands album, it doesn’t take long for the clouds to gather. He made a deliberate attempt to eschew politics but current events seeped through the cracks. The anthemic melodrama of  Seconds Out was written amid the impotent fury of watching the Ukrainian conflict start.

As with every band, the last few years have proved a test of mettle, but with the declaration of intent of Knowledge Freedom Power, The Slow Readers Club are writing themselves a new chapter.  

“Despite the challenges, the pandemic made me take stock of how proud I am that our songs have moved people – you see it with your own eyes from emotional messages and people singing every lyric back at gigs,” he concludes with content pride. “When I leave this earth, I’ll know I’ve put some good stuff into the world.”

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