By Graham Chalmers
The last time I saw singer and actor Roland Gift was a long time ago when I was staring at the back of his head in the dark of the Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh.
When I tell him this on the phone, he seems entirely unperturbed, his silky voice barely registering any note of surprise.
I’d always thought I’d chanced upon the frontman of Fine Young Cannibals at a premiere of a movie he was in back in the days of the late 1980s when he was in quite a few; Scandal, perhaps, or Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.
But then I remembered thinking at the time it was odd to see him in public, he’d been so quiet for so long.
Fortunately Roland’s recollection is clearer than mine.
“I was up there for a play I was in during the Edinburgh Fringe. It might have been Romeo and Juliet, “ he purrs down the phone with the warm, smooth tones which made his voice one of the most distinctive of his generation.
It’s easy to forget now just how huge Roland and the band Fine Young Cannibals were for a brief but starry time nearly 30 years ago.
The band had hit the jackpot with just their second album, The Raw and the Cooked, which not only reachd number one in the UK, it repeated the feat in the USA, something few British acts have managed before or since.
It partly explains Roland’s successful movie career which, memorably, included a role in Barry Levinson’s fantastic Tin Men starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny De Vito.
And it also makes it easier to understand why Roland, who hasn’t been a major chart contender for 20 years or more, is headlining the closing party for this year’s Grassington Festival in a few weeks’ time.
Great songs such as Good Thing and She Drives Me Crazy live forever and Roland is delighted to still be singing them, he sort of planned it that way, he tells me.
“One of the things myself and Dave Steel and Andy Cox said we wanted to do when we first formed Fine Young Cannibals was to make music which would still be played 25 years later.
“I always sing Cannibals songs live. I like to sing them. The setlist for the Grassington Festival will be a mixture of things like Suspicious Minds and Jonny Come Home and material from my solo career. It’s not like it’s going to be an experiment. When I do play new stuff people tend to say it sounds like the Cannibals anyway.”
I’d imagined in advance of talking to Roland, who was born in Birmingham in 1961, that the demise of the Fine Young Cannibals in 1992 must have involved the usual tale of drugs and squabbles and fame going to their head.
But it turns out to be just the opposite. The band dribbled out without any real effort to follow up their biggest album, releasing just one new track, The Flame, after a hiatus of more than three years..
“We just stopped wanting to do it. You might wake up one day and think “I’m out” but you don’t realise it’s been at the back of your mind for a while.
“We had this thing where our manager and our record company had never had that size of success before and they didn’t know how to handle it.
“They kept saying to us our next record had to be even bigger which was really stupid. That was one of the main things that killed it for me.
“It was hard to stick to how we appraised the band originally, which was to make great music.”
Before hooking up with Dave and Andy, who had just split from The Beat, Roland had been living in Hull playing in a ska band which recorded for York indie label Red Rhino Records.
I was working in Goole at the time but getting the train to Hull to see gigs at the Adelphi, a venue Roland spent a lot of time in, though he only sang there once.
When not singing, he’s currently working on a script for a new film called Return to Vegas. But he says the spiritual home for the idea is Hull.
Despite its dreary reputation, in my experience Hull is bit of a party town and Roland is certainly the right man to create that party spirit at Grassington Festival.
It doesn’t hurt that his last major tour was as a guest vocalist in Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.
“It’s always fun being on the road with Jools’ band. They’ve been doing it a while and there’s a very friendly atmosphere.
“It’s also very well organised and they know the good places to stay in each town!”
Mellow to a fault, Roland does not sound like a man who misses the sort of fame he tasted in the late 1980s.
“We were talking about this the other day. While all this craziness is going on and you’re feeling great you think you’re on vitamins but success is really like heroin.”
Roland Gift stars in The Last Night Party at Grassington Festival with guests Heaven 17 and Hope & Social on Saturday, June 27.
For information and tickets, visit www.grassington-festival.org.uk