With the demise of Brussel, it's now left to a blistering bunch from Barrow to keep the edge of British Christian rock razor sharp. Marie-Louise Flint spoke to PITY THE SMALL THUMBS.
There are few encouragements in Britain's still feeble Christian music infrastructure to keep any kind of band together and gigging and fewer still if your choice of music is alternative, indie rock, Yet Barrow's Pity the Small Thumbs have not only survived but built up a sufficient reputation and following that they'll soon be achieving every small time band's dream and going full time.
I spoke to the band's lead singer and keyboards player Mark McClinchey and began by asking him how on earth the band arrived at such a bizarre moniker. "Jason, our lead guitarist and who is completely mad, used to do loads of doodling," explained Mark. "He wrote down loads of weird phrases. One he came up with was 'pity the small thumbs'. He used this for an A level art project - he had to design an album cover, T-shirts and posters. So when we formed the band we liked the name and the T-shirts etc were already designed. So we adopted it."
In view of subsequent events it could almost be claimed that Jason had demonstrated a prophetic gift. Explained Mark, "Craig, the drummer, was using a machine at the factory where he worked and ended up cutting off his thumb! This was a worry because they weren't sure if he'd be able to continue playing the drums. But he can and he's now got a small thumb!"
As only God can, he has greatly blessed the band through this bizarre accident. Mark explained, "Craig can only play for about an hour before his thumb starts to hurt. But as compensation he won £1,500 which we used to buy new equipment." Craig seems to be accident-prone as he made a very dramatic late entrance at a recent gig. "We were playing at Spring Mount church. We had to make our entrance down some steep stairs which we rushed down as we were late, as per usual. Craig slipped and fell and landed at the bottom concussed so the performance had to be delayed another 10 minutes or so as he came to."
Pity The Small Thumbs is a four piece who are all based in the same church. Mark McClinchey is their lead singer and plays keyboards; Jason Taylor is the lead guitarist; Kev Bell is on bass guitar and Craig Nellis is the drummer. All originate from Walney Island except Craig who's from Edinburgh. Mark was in various bands in school and when he became a Christian in 1988 he started to write songs. Jason also became a Christian in 1988. "Jason and I were best mates at school," said Mark, "and we decided we wanted to form a band. So we joined up with Kev and Craig who went to the same church as us." Kev Bell became a Christian in 1990 and Craig came to the Lord previously in October 1988. Pity The Small Thumbs made their debut in 1990 at an 18th birthday party which was a great success.
Since that first performance they have moved on in leaps and bounds. Now they do two gigs a week to both Christian and non-Christian audiences. As Mark told me, "We play in pubs which isn't specific Christian outreach, but it's a good way to raise money and we've had a very good response to the band." They also play at various festivals and outreaches. They've just returned from Spring Harvest in Skegness and recently played support to Eden Burning at Preston University. Mark was very impressed by the response they gained: 'The students came down from the bar to dance which is unusual for a support band."
Another notable performance has to be at Longton near Stoke-on-Trent. "It was a sell out! But the pastor wouldn't allow any dancing so every one waved their legs in the air for about half an hour instead!" laughed Mark. Not only have the Thumbs notched up many successful gigs since 1990 but they have recorded two 5 song EPs and a third one is coming out at the end of June. Their first recording, 'Something', was recorded in August 1990 at Lizard Studios in Barrow. ("It was pretty bad," commented Mark.) The second, 'Stumbling', was cut in April 1991 at South Studio, Ulverston, was excellent indie rock, and got an enthusiastic Cross Rhythms review that helped spread the word. "We've sold loads of tapes, about 500 copies. This is the best anyone has ever sold from South Studio." The Thumbs' third EP has six tracks which could prove to be their most original sounding yet, as Mark described, "The title sounds really dodgy but I think it should be really good. It's going to be called The Magic Balloon Man'. The title song is about all the problems in the world like drugs and alcohol. He's all the temptations that Christians and non-Christians are falling into all around us. But this doesn't have to be the answer because Jesus has a better way and God really honours us when we stick to him, especially when it's really hard."
In the autumn the Thumbs go full time. Mark explained their vision for this exciting step forward: "We feel God is opening doors to go into schools where we will run workshops." The band have made a stride or two along the long road to success. The key to this can best be explained by the original style the Thumbs have developed. As Mark said, "We don't have any particular influences because we all like different styles; Kev is indie based and Jason and I like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waites, Big Country and REM. Eden Burning has also been an inspiration." They all play a part in putting the songs together. "Jason and I write the lyrics," said Mark, "and then we all join up to put the music together. That's why our different tastes play such an important part."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.