The Zutons: ‘Loads of people texted me money emojis when Amy Winehouse died’

‘The next thing I hear, Amy’s covering our song:’ The Zutons reflect on Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’ cover ahead of their new album  (Jonathan Turton)
‘The next thing I hear, Amy’s covering our song:’ The Zutons reflect on Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’ cover ahead of their new album (Jonathan Turton)

Dave McCabe of The Zutons remembers the details – just about – of his first encounter with the singer who would go on to provide an invaluable income stream for the band when they found themselves unavoidably detained by, well, a decades-spanning hiatus.

At a drunken house party in Camden, the singer and songwriter of the Liverpool indie outfit was being bothered by a hanger-on. When the scouser told him to hop it, another sozzled guest – a local – jumped in to defend the hanger-on. “No, you f*** off!” shouted Amy Winehouse. “And I went: ‘No, you f*** off!’” recalls McCabe, slapping his thighs at the memory.

In an alco-huff, he stormed out of the party, only to remember that he was in an unfamiliar part of north London, unable to get a taxi, “out my head, fuming… And then Amy comes out with her fella at the time – not Blake [Fielder-Civil], some other guy – he was quite normal compared to Blake...

“They run down the road after me and she goes: ‘Come back! I love that song “Valerie”! I didn’t realise it was you who wrote that!’ So then we go back upstairs and it’s all hunky dory. The next thing I hear, Amy’s covering our song.”

And the rest, as they say, is pan-cultural, pan-global, permanent rotation. Winehouse’s 2007 version of “Valerie” went viral before “viral” was a thing, the Mark Ronson production currently sitting pretty with 434 million Spotify streams. The Zutons’ 2006 original? “Only” 54 million. Before long, recalls saxophonist and singer Abi Harding, the band would constantly be asked: “How does Amy feel about you doing her song?” To which the band’s muttered response could be paraphrased as: “F***ing idiots, you haven’t done your research.” But then, “we’d just go along with it: ‘Oh yeah, she’s fine with it.’”

There’s gaps between albums, and there’s gaps between albums. Shania Twain, topping this year’s Glastonbury “Legend” slot, was studio-absent for almost 15 years before the release of 2017’s Now. Massive Attack, maestros of the elongated release schedule, are also festival headliners this summer, but they’re currently on the 14-year mark since the release of Heligoland.

And then there’s The Zutons. It’s 16 years since the band released an album. Where the hell have they been? True to his reputation as “a tough scouser” who “doesn’t bulls***”, as Ronson once described him to me, frontman McCabe gives a direct answer to a direct opening question.

“I was in a world of drug addiction, basically – for a f***ing long time! I had a lot of fun. But then, you know, it got the better of me. And it wasn’t fun any more. And I started to realise I couldn’t really function outside of that.”

How bad did things get for McCabe? Really bad.

“I was waking in the middle of the night, sweating, shaking, and creeping out of bed, going downstairs, creeping into the fridge, finding bottles of lager, downing them – violently – and taking whatever I could get my hands on, like Valium or whatever. Going back to bed, sitting there, going: ‘F***ing hell, I feel worse, this isn’t working…’

Dave McCabe, Sean Payne and Abi Harding of The Zutons (Jonathan Turton)
Dave McCabe, Sean Payne and Abi Harding of The Zutons (Jonathan Turton)

“Then I started drinking spirits in the middle of the night. Then it was obvious to everyone around me – when you get up in the real morning and you stink of booze... Anxiety got a proper grip on me. And in all honesty, if the alcohol was still working, I’d still be drinking. But it actually just stopped working. So it was time to stop. But it took me a long time.”

No kidding. Harding recalls the band’s don’t-call-it-a-comeback 2018 tour. “Oh my God!” she says with a shudder.

It was a low-lift UK jaunt celebrating 15 years since their Mercury Music Prize-nominated 2003 debut Who Killed…… The Zutons? (pipped at the post on the night, by all accounts, by Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled debut). “We got all sorts on the rider,” says Harding. “Two bottles of vodka, two bottles of Jack Daniels, two bottles of wine, loads of beer. Which was just ridiculous. But we’d drink it all… Yeah, it got messy.”

Inarguably, it had already been very messy for McCabe. In 2010 he was sentenced to 150 hours of community service after being convicted of assault for breaking a man’s nose outside a Liverpool pub. He admits to me that he’d been drinking all day – it was his mum’s 60th birthday and he’d also “been doing everything, you name it”.

“I was sticking up for my girlfriend,” the singer, now 43, adds. “But it got shown in court that I acted unlawfully. I accept that.”

It got shown in court that I acted unlawfully. I accept that

Dave McCabe

Despite that, drummer Sean Payne insists, McCabe may have “inner angst [but] he’s not a trouble-causer at all. “But we weren’t really talking then,” acknowledges the 45-year-old who, before Covid, spent several years living in Los Angeles. “And Dave said: ‘None of yous turned up for my court date.’ I was like: ‘I didn’t even know you were going to court, mate.’ I just thought, yeah, that was bound to happen if you go into town all the time and you’re off your head.”

But all that – the misbehaviour, the addiction, the not talking – are firmly in their past. McCabe has been both sober and a dad since 2021. From wee-hours creeping into the fridge to “Creeping on the Dancefloor” – The Zutons’ excellent recent single; a reminder of their way with a brilliantly wonky pop song. It’s from their exceedingly long-awaited fourth album, co-produced by a dream team of Nile Rodgers and old band pal Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds. The Big Decider is a masterclass in old-school, radio-friendly, genre-agnostic indie.

McCabe remembers sending demos of five of their new songs to Rodgers during lockdown.

“And within 48 hours, he came back, and he was thumbs up, singing our songs to us. At that point you know, this is real now.”

McCabe and Harding at a festival in Bologna in 2004 (P Luigi Zolli/Shutterstock)
McCabe and Harding at a festival in Bologna in 2004 (P Luigi Zolli/Shutterstock)

I meet the three core members of The Zutons, separately, in Liverpool. McCabe is first up, chirpy, chatty and off the chips – he’s lost two and a half stone and is trying to lose more ahead of his wedding next month.

Then, Harding takes McCabe’s seat in the cafe and pours a herbal tea. Another part of the band’s healing was Harding and Payne getting back together as a couple. They’d broken up following the band’s drifting apart in 2009. Talking about The Zutons’ extensive run of low-key, club-sized shows earlier this year, the 42-year-old says: “It’s been boss. After you’ve been away so long, you don’t know if people will care, or remember you. But they’ve been amazing.”

Finally, a Guinness round the corner with Payne. More healing chat: recent years, he says, have “showed us all what we were to each other”.

The writers of “Why Won’t You Give Me Your Love?” and “Valerie”, Top 10 singles both in 2006, were a band out of time in an era that became retrospectively known as indie sleaze. As Payne reflects now: “We were definitely part of the ‘10 best new bands in the NME’ world… But we never felt cool or that we wore the right gear. We were all stoner musos. The image thing was never a thing to us.”

For a while, the only way was up. Receiving that Mercury nomination for their debut album was, for McCabe, validation. “For a long time we were basically The Coral’s undies,” he says of their Liverpool peers (he means understudies, not underpants). “Then all of a sudden, we weren’t. That thing in my head, that barrier, was broken that night.”

Then the “Valerie”-powered second album Tired of Hanging Around shot them round the world. “One year, I was in my flat, not far from here, about three days in total,” remembers Harding. “You were just going from one thing to the next. I wasn’t overwhelmed. But I would get nervous when someone would say [at a gig]: ‘Oh my God, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio.’ But people are just people, aren’t they?”

But the pace, and the partying, caught up with them. In early 2008 they spent three months recording their third album, You Can Do Anything, in Los Angeles with, at their record label’s urging, Black Crowes’ producer George Drakoulias. But The Zutons were being overwhelmed with dysfunctionality. In LA, they went through the motions – McCabe’s “motions” being to disappear from the studio and day drink in local bars. “We were just sick of each other,” he says. “And I can see why people were sick of me.”

Just before Christmas 2008, six months after the album’s release, The Zutons were dropped by Sony. They staggered on into the following summer, their final show being a headline appearance at Leicester’s Summer Sundae Weekender on 16 August 2009. As Payne recalls of some studio sessions shortly afterwards, he and McCabe “looked each other in the eye and knew [the songs] weren’t good enough”. With a shrug they “agreed to sack it for a bit”.

And then they were gone. Although, courtesy of “Valerie”, The Zutons were never fully gone.

The feeling I had when I first heard Amy Winehouse singing was magical

Dave McCabe

Ronson later told the band how his blockbuster cover came about. He was making Version, his 2007 album of funk-flavoured indie-anthem covers (The Charlatans’ “The Only One I Know” by Robbie Williams, Kaiser Chiefs’ “Oh My God” by Lily Allen, etc), “and I was dying for Amy to [contribute]. And she was like: ‘I don’t like modern music, I just want to do Dinah Washington.’ I said: ‘Every day you’ve come into the studio singing that “Valerie” song. Why don’t we do that?’ ‘Oh, yeah, alright!’”

“The feeling I had when I first heard her singing was magical,” says McCabe. Then he received an email: Ronson wanted to release it as a single. “I was like: really? Because we’d just had a mad hit with it, on Radio 1 all the time.” But Ronson went ahead and, little over a year later, it was a mad hit – an even madder one – all over again. Now, almost 20 years later, McCabe characterises “Valerie” as “on that loop now – the Beyoncé loop – and I’m dead happy about it”.

When Winehouse died in 2011, the song was boosted further. “I remember loads of people texting me money emojis,” he says with a shake of the head. “Then my mum turned round to me: ‘Are you going to the funeral?’ No, I didn’t know her that well, Mum!”

It’s McCabe’s songwriting finesse – untapped and unrealised since Gordon Brown was prime minister – that makes the return of The Zutons welcome all round.

“It’s not like we’re doing this to make money, because we’re not making any money at the moment – we’re barely breaking even!” says McCabe, chirpily, of a band now releasing their music on their own label. “I’m just doing this for the love of the music. And because it’s therapy for me. It makes me feel like this is what I should be doing with my life.

Mark Ronson performing with The Zutons in 2011 (Warren King/Shutterstock)
Mark Ronson performing with The Zutons in 2011 (Warren King/Shutterstock)

“And hopefully this good feeling can carry on,” he concludes of a trio radiating, like their new tunes, nuclear-powered good vibes. “I think it will. I’m not planning on turning into a nightmare any time soon.”

The Big Decider (ICEPOP) is released on 26 April. The Zutons are touring this month