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‘The most Mark E Smith thing ever’: the post-punk band whose members have learning disabilities | Music

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The best live bands are the most unpredictable, with every performance teetering between triumph and disaster. But even the most chaotic acts usually have some sort of set list.

Not Ultimate Thunder. This seven-piece post-punk outfit from Leeds amble on stage without even the vaguest running order, nor any confidence that their vocalist, Matthew Watson, will actually sing a note.

“We did one gig where he didn’t say a word the whole time and just stood staring at Scott, our drummer. The first the audience heard from him was right at the end when he said: ‘Isn’t the drummer amazing?!’” remembered guitarist James Heselwood this week, before the launch of Bring The Science, Ultimate Thunder’s debut single.

Ultimate Thunder
Several members of the band are almost or exclusively non-verbal. Photograph: Andrew Benge

That particular manoeuvre is described by the band’s producer, Napoleon IIIrd, as “The most Mark E Smith thing ever”, a reference to the famously unpredictable frontman of Manchester’s the Fall. Until his death in 2018, Smith stalked the stage like a belligerent tiger, twiddling with the amps and berating his bandmates, the audience never sure if he was going to start a fight or deliver the best gig of their lives.

It is a fitting comparison: though sunnier natured than Smith, Watson specialises in sometimes aggressive, always surreal stream-of-consciousness lyrics that make surprising juxtapositions: one track on their eponymous debut album is called Holiday Camp Holiday Inn.

Everyone in Ultimate Thunder except Heselwood has learning disabilities. He founded the band 11 years ago as an art project with the help of Leeds charity People In Action. Like the Fall, who went through 66 members in their 40-year existence, Ultimate Thunder has had a revolving lineup, with Watson now at the helm after the band’s original singer, Dan Milligan, died.

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Now supported by Pyramid, another Leeds-based arts charity, the band received a £43,000 grant from the Arts Council to make their debut LP and have it professionally mixed, pressed and promoted. The album artwork is by bassist John Greaves, another founding member, who gives off an air of supreme indifference. “Sometimes I wonder what’s going on with the basslines and I look over and see John playing a note with one hand and looking up anime comics on his phone with the other,” said Heselwood.

With several members of the band almost or exclusively non-verbal, and the others communicating in often non-linear fashion, they are less interested in being interviewed than jamming in their rehearsal space. Improvisation is their speciality. Someone tinkles a few notes on the piano or makes up a guitar riff, Anderson’s ferocious drums kick in, Watson begins to recite whatever is on his mind and they are off.

Ultimate Thunder
This seven-piece outfit from Leeds amble on stage without even the vaguest running order, nor any confidence that their vocalist, Matthew Watson, will actually sing a note. Photograph: Andrew Benge

There is just one rule in Ultimate Thunder: no covers. They have done just one in 11 years, a festive rant called Jingle Bloody Bells which bore no relation to the festive original.

None of the band is particularly into the Fall: their music just comes out like that, with an added sweep of Hawkwind-esque bombast. Despite delivering most of Ultimate Thunder’s lyrics as beat poetry meets rap, Watson, a big Tom Jones fan with perfect pitch, can effortlessly switch between genres when crooning around the piano. John Densley, on bongos, only really likes one song (Silent Night … any time of the year). Alex Sykes on keys has eclectic taste ranging from Kiss to Scooter, the German happy hardcore band.

“Who is the most rock’n’roll member?” mused Heselwood. “Tough question.” He looked over at Scott Anderson, the drummer, who is paying no attention to the conversation. “Sometimes I look over and see Scott spitting in the air and catching it again in his mouth. That’s pretty rock’n’roll.”

Wannabe rock stars study for years to project the nonchalance of their heroes. It comes naturally to Ultimate Thunder, who seem less interested in talking about their first album than getting back into their Leeds rehearsal studio to jam. Talking is not their speciality: guitarist Kenneth Stainburn, the baby of the band, hands over a piece of paper on which someone has handwritten his band bio.

“My name is Kenneth Stainburn. I am 22 years old and I live in Castleford and I have learning disabilities. I like music, singing and making my own songs. I like most music and I play drums and guitar. In my spare time I play learning disability rugby league and I play for Castleford Tigers LD team.”

Playing live requires a lot of coordination of support workers and helpers, but they have gigged in Leeds and Bradford, sometimes alongside non-disabled bands such as That Fucking Tank. On 21 July they launch their album at Sheaf Street/Duke Studios in Leeds. Just don’t expect them to actually play any of the album tracks. Or for their singer to sing. Anything could happen.

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