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MY UNBELIEVABLE LIFE IN THE DALES

He was the man responsible for singing one of the biggest hits of the 90s – a song which reached number one in America, gave him an Ivor Novello nomination for song writing and saw his band EMF enjoy platinum album sales. Beyond catches up with James Atkin to talk about his unbelievable life raving in the Yorkshire Dales, his new career as a school teacher in Keighley and hanging out with Alan Bennett.

James Atkin is nursing a monster hangover when we catch up at the picturesque farmhouse in the North Yorkshire village of Clapham, that he now calls home.

It’s as far removed from the bright lights of the London and LA music scenes as you can imagine, but when you’ve got a thumping headache after a night out trying to do what you did 30 years ago, it’s the perfect place to recuperate.

Back on tour with his beloved EMF bandmates, following the release of their fifth album The Beauty And The Chaos, James, now 54, is feeling the effects of a post-gig party that went on too long and left him wishing he’d called it a night well before he actually did.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Jeffrey Davy/Shutterstock (182199a)
EMF
VARIOUS POP

“We’re not getting any younger are we?” he smiles as he sips on a coffee and looks out across the rolling hills that are his back garden.

“I guess I got a bit carried away and thought that because we’re back on tour I could party like we used to but when I woke up this morning I soon realised that’s certainly no longer the case!”

Nearly 35 years have passed since a youthful James and his bunch of mates from Gloucester burst on to the music scene and released a song that would change their lives forever.

It was 1990 when Unbelievable first hit the airwaves and almost instantly they went from unknowns to international superstars.

Within weeks they were appearing on Top of the Pops, on the front covers of music mags and attracting a huge fan base as they hit the road on their first national tour.

The song reached number three in the UK charts and went on to become a worldwide hit – peaking at the number one spot in America the following year.

Looking back on that incredible chapter of his life, James says it is hard to believe over 30 years have passed since the release of that iconic song and it is
a time he reflects back on with mixed emotions.

“It all happened so very fast,” he recalls, “I was very young and everything seemed to be happening at about a thousand miles an hour.

“We did a handful of gigs, got some interest from a record label and within a few months we were in a studio recording, out on the road touring and making headlines across the world which seemed so crazy.

“I remember we made the front cover of Smash Hits which we weren’t really expecting, because back then we thought of ourselves as an indie band, as that was what we were into, and then all of a sudden we were propelled into being pop stars.

“It was a rollercoaster ride and before we knew it we were being whisked off to America to tour the country which was another incredible experience especially at such a young age.

“For guys our age, five best friends, touring America, partying all night, sleeping on the bus and getting up in a new town just to do it all again, for six weeks at a time, was surreal and memories you never forget.

“I guess if I could have changed anything though it would have been to enjoy it a bit more, I was one of the youngest in the band and pretty inexperienced but suddenly we were thrust into this spotlight on the other side of the world and as a 20-year-old that is pretty hard to deal with.

“I wasn’t the most confident of frontmen and probably amidst this whirlwind of fame, I didn’t take the pressure that well, whereas if it happened now I’d be in my element.

“It was a lot of fun though and an experience I’ll never forget because for that short time in our lives we really were living the dream and while it only lasted a few years we were lucky enough to achieve something other musicians often never get to enjoy.”

After the success of their debut album Schubert Dip in 1991, two more albums followed with Stigma in ‘92 and Cha Cha Cha three years later but by then, under the constraints and pressures from an ever-demanding and changing industry, James admits the band lost its way and slowly drifted apart.

“We did a couple of really great albums but after that I think we just grew apart from each other as individuals, we lost focus, and it just basically fell to bits.

“It’s amazing how, when you’re young, in the space of three or four years, you can change so much and from that first album to the third album that’s exactly what happened.

“While we all remained friends, there was a time when we couldn’t talk to each other and for me it’s always very much been a love-hate relationship when it comes to EMF.”

Thankfully for their fan base that relationship is very much about love at the moment and this year they released their fifth album, an uplifting 10 track masterpiece that turns back the clock and delights with hits like Hello People, The Day The Music Died and Do It Again.

And having just completed a hugely successful tour across the country, James was left delighted with the response from fans.

“It’s been great to get out there again and play up and down the country and the feedback has been brilliant – it’s been a long time but our fans have remained pretty loyal and all five of us have enjoyed hitting the road, if not as energetically as we used to!

“Sadly the days of going out clubbing on a Friday and returning home in bits on a Sunday are well behind us, I think I’d be a bit lost in a club now and having the energy to throw shapes all night might be pushing it a bit.

“The closest we get to raving these days is turning the PA up loud at home and with only a few neighbouring farmers to upset, thankfully we don’t get too many complaints.”

It is a life far removed from those hedonistic days of the early 90s and James says it was a chance trip up north 15 years ago that inspired his move to the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, where he counts playwright Alan Bennett as one of his neighbours.

Reflecting back on the moment he decided to escape the rat race of London, James said: “Me and my wife Rachael were on a trip up to the Lakes when we drove through the Dales and absolutely fell in love with it. We love the peace and quiet and it provides me with all the inspiration I need to write songs, record music, enjoy my family and truly switch off.

“We’ve even bumped into Alan Bennett a few times and my wife has spoken to him while out buying the bread. I’ve yet to ask him round for a cup of tea but it’s something I’m definitely working on!”

It’s not just a change of scenery that Yorkshire brought though and after moving to the Dales, James embarked on a teaching degree which resulted in him landing a job as a music teacher at Keighley’s Holy Family Catholic School.

“It’s something I really enjoy and while not many of the kids know my music or show much interest, it is usually their mums, dads and even grandparents at parent’s evening who are asking for autographs!

“Thankfully though I think everyone’s got over that now and when I go into work I’m just Mr Atkin the music teacher who spends most of his time chasing kids around the playground for smoking!”

For a man who once toured the world and was responsible for one of music’s most iconic tunes, it’s an unbelievable story.

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