A founder member of acclaimed electronic rock group Death in Vegas has formed a new Country & Western band - and is set to play at this month's Angel Field Festival.
While the move to Country music might catch fans by surprise, Steve Hellier says that with new act Django Rhinestone he’s actually returning to his musical roots.
And as Django Rhinestone prepares to appear at Angel Field Festival, which is organised by Liverpool Hope University, Hellier also has some words of wisdom for fledgling groups trying to break into the industry - telling them, ‘Your over-seriousness is damaging your mental health’.
Hellier, along with frontman Richard Fearless, formed Death in Vegas in 1994 and has writing and production credits on - Dead Elvis and a writing credit on - The Contino Sessions.
1999’s Contino Sessions saw critical and commercial success, with single Dirge featured in a Levi’s advert as well as 2002 horror movie 28 Days Later, while serial killer-themed Aisha peaked at No.9 in the UK charts.
Hellier, from Catford, south east London, ultimately quit the band in 1999 to cement a career as a BBC studio manager.
And while Death in Vegas was famed for fusing various musical genres, from psychedelic rock to techno, Hellier isn’t afraid of embracing new territory either.
Describing his latest Americana-inspired venture Django Rhinestone - which comprises Hellier on guitar and keyboards, Nick Gunner on vocals, Rod Stewart as guitarist, Maggie Stephens on bass, and David Krupski on drums - the 55-year-old says: “Independent of all my musical leanings, as I was growing up in south east London my dad had a succession of friends stay over - mostly blokes who’d been chucked-out by their partners or wives!
“One of them was a chap called Keith Nelson, a Californian session banjo player. I was 16 years old, desperately keen to find my way into music, and Keith was a mentor for me for almost a year.
“Keith was refreshingly free of any cynicism, blindingly enthusiastic about life, and he took me under his wing as he played two or three times a week at gigs or studios. I’m going to do some terrible name-dropping here but I ended up sitting in pubs with people like Albert Lee, the quintessential Country guitarist and local Deptford boy, and one of the Everly Brothers.
“It was just amazing to be around and to watch and learn from these people.
“At the time I was playing guitar and this experience gave me a real interest in Country music and that form of songwriting.”
Django Rhinestone itself grew from Hellier’s long-standing friendship with Stewart. The pair played together in a band called the Hometown Boys during their time at Goldsmiths, University of London, at the tail end of the 80s and also enjoyed Country music at that point - with Hellier describing Willie Nelson as one of his heroes.
Fast forward 30 years, and Hellier and Stewart decided to play together once more, drafting others into this new group.
Hellier, who has also worked on a series of thought-provoking sound installations exploring the history of London, particularly the docklands, adds: “With Django, we’re all in our 50s and it’s just lovely to sit in a room and play music together.
“It’s also so diametrically opposed to what I’ve done elsewhere in the money-making stage of my music career. But I’ve never lost the love for this, the social aspect of music.
“It’s not a tidy story, the way Django Rhinestone has formed, but it’s not random either - there’s a real genesis there.”
Django Rhinestone initially formed in 2017 but, like many acts, was forced to hit the ‘pause’ button during the Covid-19 pandemic.
They’ll play the Angel Field Festival - a ten day-long celebration of the arts - on Friday 2nd July, 8pm, in what will be the group’s first gig for a year and a half.
Django also plans to record its songs for the first time in the coming months.
Explaining how Django plays on the strong Country tradition of narratives that blur the lines between fact and fiction, Hellier says: “We’re interested in that American tradition of the snake oil salesman.
“You want to go listen to that person, you’re interested in what they’re telling you, but you don’t necessarily know if it’s true or not.
“That whole mechanism fascinates us. It’s oral, folk tradition - it might be complete fiction but you want to believe it.”
Ahead of the band’s appearance in Liverpool, Hellier is aware of the long-standing love of Country music on Merseyside - and suggests many Beatles’ songs are underpinned by a Country bedrock, including the track What Goes On from Rubber Soul.
Describing recent practice sessions, Hellier laughs: “We started rehearsing two weeks ago having not played together for 18 months and everyone remembered everything. It felt as if we’d found a cure for Alzheimer’s!
“We’re not the best musicians in the world but this is a celebration of the fact that I’m 55 and still knocking out some stuff.”
Hellier admits his time in Death in Vegas was something of a whirlwind.
He reveals: “Initially, I thought it was all a bit of a punt. But all of a sudden we’ve got a singles deal... and it got a bit scary.
"Other people get involved, it’s not the same gig it was, suddenly you’ve got tour managers and A&R departments, you’re going on tour, and the music almost takes a backseat because there’s so much more to do.
“I was juggling all of this with my job at the BBC as a radio sound engineer and it was the right thing to do for me to leave the band. I’d done all the things I’d ever wanted to do and made a bit of money out of it. You can’t ask for more than that.”
He’s also got advice for anyone else looking to make a splash in the industry.
He warns: “I think there are a number of problems for younger kids now, and this has been borne out from my experiences working with younger bands.
“Firstly, they seem to be ridiculously over-serious about it all. The only thing that kept me sane was having a sense of humour, which I think is slightly lost on some of the new acts. There’s an earnestness and seriousness these days that I think is damaging, almost verging on mental health issues.
“Social media means people have multiple avenues to pump themselves up with, too, while the gatekeepers are more restrictive than ever. It’s really tough for them.”
You can watch Django Rhinestone: Snake Oil - Stories for the Soul at Liverpool Hope University’s Angel Field Festival on Friday 2nd July, 8pm.
Book your seats via TicketQuarter.
Staff and students can book 2 free tickets per event by inputting the code LHAF21 when booking. Please ensure you bring your Liverpool Hope ID card with you to the event.
Your guest does not have to be a member of staff or a student at the University. Admission to events will only be possible with a pre-booked ticket, unless otherwise stated.
There will be no tickets available on the door.