Interview with musician-turned-politican Billy Lunn, lead singer of The Subways
Billy Lunn is, he readily admits, “not your conventional politician.” Arriving for our chat in red knee-length shorts and a Pixies’ T-shirt, he looks more festival-goer than policy-maker (“I was going to come down in flip-flops but I thought ‘Hmm, is that too socialist?”), while his campaign speak veers from the impressively knowledgeable to the amusingly novel.
Particularly revealing is a grand interpretation of how county councils operate: “It’s a congregation, almost like a Roman senate, where you state your claim and make your case,” he says, before recoiling in horror at the choice of words. “I’ve just quoted you some lyrics of mine! ‘State your claim and make your case’ – that’s from a song called This is the Club for People who Hate People, which is a Bill Hicks quote. You’ll find a lot of them in my songs.”
Lunn is best known as lead singer with The Subways, the punky Hertfordshire trio made famous 10 years ago by a Glastonbury Festival unsigned band contest, who then did rather well in the US: appearing at the Lollapalooza festival, on the David Letterman show, even enticing Nirvana producer Butch Vig aboard for their second album. Right now though, this authentic rock star is in Hertfordshire telling me what he intends to do about, among other things, potholes.
Indeed, he’s appealing to me as both an interviewer and potential voter. My previous conversation with Lunn, five years ago, was for a trendy music magazine about those Vig sessions out in LA. So it rather boggled the mind last week when I happened across a leaflet announcing the candidature of William Morgan – Lunn’s real name – for the upcoming county council elections in my hometown: leafy, suburban Ware. He lives here now? And wants to help run the place?
“This community has given me a lot,” explains the singer, over a decaf latte in our local cafe. “When I first came here in 2009 I was exhausted because we’d been touring a long time, so I started going to the local doctor’s surgery, and the help they gave me was unbelievable. Basically Ware lifted me out of depression.”
Lunn grew up in the slightly better-known Herts town of Welwyn Garden City, forming The Subways with his brother Josh and then-girlfriend Charlotte when all three were teenagers. Now 28, married and better adjusted to the everyday, he’s offsetting any offstage malaise by fully embracing life in Ware – and trying to improve it. He traces this desire back to the band’s early days, when a venue that helped nurture their early efforts – The Square, in Harlow – faced closure by the council.
“Bill Rammell, Labour MP for Harlow, fought tooth and nail, sweated to the bone to keep the place open. He was such an inspiration for me, because he wasn’t going to benefit from The Square but he knew countless generations to come were going to.”
You might expect Lunn to be running a similarly rock-related campaign, perhaps promising livelier nightlife to entice younger voters. But music gets only a passing mention in the leaflet he has been hand-delivering around town (he consciously chose a slightly geeky headshot for it rather than a more attention-grabbing live photo), and the policies are intriguingly conventional: less potholes, better street lighting, lower speed limits. “It’s about making people feel safe,” he says, “then they become more trusting and it becomes a nicer society.”
Hardly a punk-rock platform, then, although a little more radical are his plans for public transport: subsidised travel for both job seekers and local businesses, but with those subsidies controlled by local communities, rather than paid directly to the transport companies, so councils get more clout regarding, say, bus routes. It sounds, in fact, like a local-level version of a traditional Labour policy.
“Renationalisation!” he says, nodding gleefully. Lunn is representing Labour in a staunchly Tory area, recalling the valiant attempt by Blur’s Dave Rowntree to turn Westminster red in 2010. The son of Labour voters, Lunn happily admits that receiving his leaflets – Labour emblem and all – “was a really touching moment,” although his own political ambitions were only fully formed when the coalition’s cuts kicked in.
“There’s so much moaning going on, and the best we can do is local politics,” he says. “There’s a ton of money that could be properly distributed in key areas, and a lot of the budget that we’re allocated is generated by ourselves [via council tax]. So the councils are a big entity”
In the long term Lunn has lofty plans for making the various councils – parish, town, district and county – work together more efficiently. But that all depends on him first persuading this peaceful town to let a rock singer run things: or at least Ware South, his bit. He insists that the music lifestyle won’t be a hindrance, given that the album he’s currently writing won’t be ready to tour for a couple of years. And the locals he’s been canvassing don’t seem too perturbed by his dress sense.
“I’m leafleting in this get-up, as the last thing I want to do is conform to the perceptions of a politician, it’s just not what I am,” he says. “But even people who are usually Conservative voters have been unbelievably polite.”
He’ll discover on Thursday whether Ware is for turning.
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