Cellar Door: Life and Times
The members of Cellar Door make the necessary sacrifices to create and maintain a professional image as a band not so much with widespread success as the ultimate goal but for the sake of doing something worthwhile, tangible and enjoyable as a group of friends. No wonder they describe themselves as simply “five lads from Teesside making alternative indie music”. Nothing more, nothing less.
When I first met the band — and after hinting that they would have to be interviewed — they asked me, “But what if we’re not interesting?”
What makes people interesting is normally that which they are not aware of. It is the small things, the often overlooked aspects of who we are that make as undeniably human and the state of being human is in itself an unsolvable puzzle. It was my task however to discover those ‘small things’ to show that, after all, there is more to these five lads than meet the eye.
Three of the members took me to a place that held some special meaning for them. These places were inseparable from their time together as a band. Cellar Door was indeed a defining aspect of their lives. They were also unexpected: locations that had nothing spectacular and to an ordinary person would seem uninteresting. Because above all they were places of shared memories.
I take you on a short tour of the places of Cellar Door, of the lads themselves and of their times.
Teesside Student Union // Carl
When Carl speaks about himself, he will have you believe he is the most ordinary man in the world. He likes Netflix, football and food he should not be eating. But this ordinary man, who has a tortoise pet called Terry and works for an accountancy firm as an Excel wizard, has a priceless sense of humour such that even by just looking at someone he can make them laugh. And a genuine love for Teesside.
“I love Teesside,” he said when asked if he would move anywhere else, “it’s just got the best of everything. It is just perfectly placed…”. He went on to mention its proximity to big cities like Newcastle, the seaside and the North Yorkshire Moors, the excellent people and the fact that he would never leave any of that behind.
His appreciation of Teesside is such that when asked which one place holds more significance for him as an individual than others, he cannot say. And so he arranged to meet me at an important starting point for the band: the Teesside Student Union.
It was there that they had their first proper gig where they played a full set of original material, after a series of gigs playing mostly covers in Working men’s clubs in Billingham. The performance at the Teesside Student Union was followed by their first time playing in Ku Bar in Stockton and since then they have had the opportunity to play in all the majors venues in and around Teesside, including The Empire in Middlesbrough and The Georgian Theatre in Stockton.
Doctor Browns // Liam
Liam Rowden, frontman of Cellar Door, knew exactly where and when he wanted to meet me for the interview.
I was more than a little surprised as I walked into Doctor Browns on the appointed Thursday evening. The pub, located just a stone’s throw away from the Middlesbrough football stadium, was empty. The beer taps were dry. I could walk around and admire the classic pub decor at leisure and pick a different table for each question I had. The only person who was more astonished than me to find me there was the barman who had no idea what to make of my presence.
Thursday nights weren’t always like this. There was a time — well before I arrived in Teesside — when Doctor Browns was one of the most happening live music venues in the area run by a man called Leon. And Thursday nights used to be gig nights: a throbbing vein of music pumping life into the town, when bands from all over the North East would play and the pub would be packed. These nights played a huge part in the beginning of Cellar Door. It was there that they had their first taste of what could be.
Liam recalled that particular turning point for them. It was during a Battle of the Bands, in which they came second. An unforgettable sweaty night of endless applause, whooping and the general euphoria of realising what they were capable of. Doctor Browns wasn’t only a place where Cellar Door came to play. They gathered there to watch other bands play too and, once again, it was about having a good laugh together more than anything else.
It is the nostalgia of the place and the stark contrast between past and present that also characterise Liam as a person. With his nostalgic good looks, cool demeanour, hypnotic voice and gentlemanly manners, he ought to be working in the entertainment industry and not in customer relations. What really made an impression on me was his matter-a-fact outlook on the future. He prefers not to have any delusions about what the future holds for himself or for the band, which, according to him, will remain a hobby. But you really have to read between the lines to understand anything about Liam and what he says is not always what he means.
OK Diner on the A19 // Joe
Cellar Door’s beginning might be rooted in Middlesbrough but the majority of their dreams and future plans were formulated in a little American-themed diner on the A19.
I met Joe Kovacs at the OK Diner, located between the A689 and the Elwick turn-off, and in many respects this slice of the American dream was both suited to Joe and rather at odds with his dark inherited Hungarian looks and pessimism.
Due to its proximity to Pig Pen Rehearsal Studios, it was here that Cellar Door used to meet over a milkshake (and possibly pancake stacks and burgers) discussing their future while being serenaded by American country music. They also had their first photo shoot in the doorway to the diner. Photos which have now become grainy memories of their youth buried somewhere on their phones.
In his slow, pondering manner Joe told me that he was happily employed as a highway maintenance operator. Working on the roads involved working shifts, meaning he couldn’t always attend band practices and gigs. The others jokingly described him as the one member who did not really like ‘band stuff’. Yet, it was Joe and Carl who were the founding members of Cellar Door. They used to be in another band first with Steven from Mouses and Ollie from Casual Threats. When that band broke up, they couldn’t stand sitting around, feeling their guitar strings go cold. They had to do something and that’s when they approached Liam and Craig.
When asked about his musical background Joe, like most members of Cellar Door, instantly replies: “Zero.” A guitar literally got dropped in his lap. It happened one Christmas when his dad accepted a Fender Jaguar as payment for his gardening services instead of cash. He thought it would make a good Christmas present for Joe. The young Joe must have looked at this impressive piece of musical gear and realised that it was not just any old guitar. It simply couldn’t go to waste gathering dust in a forgotten corner of his room.
Pig Pen Rehearsal Studios and Blast Recording // Danny and Craig
The dreams and future plans formulated on the A19 were put into practice at Pig Pen Rehearsal Studios and Blast Recording Studio, the two places most representative of Cellar Door’s present. Some of their aspirations and hopes might have faded or changed but they still put in the effort that leads to the incomparable personal satisfaction of being a musician. They may not always get the exposure they’re hoping for but the unremittingly positive response from those people who do hear their music makes up for it.
I chatted to the other two members, Danny and Craig at Blast Studio during the recording weekend.
If there is one person in the world you want to receive a text message from it is Craig Trotter: the lead guitarist and most photogenic member of Cellar Door (‘by a country mile’ according to Carl). His A-level English studies reflects in beautifully written texts that make you feel like a real person. He is also the most intriguing Post Office worker I’ve ever come across. Despite being the oldest member of the band, on the brink of thirty, he is the only one who openly admits that he would prefer doing music as a profession and may give up everything if the opportunity presents itself. Influenced by his dad, who was a British 1960s and 70s rock fan and played in a band himself, Craig decided to teach himself guitar. But music, at that stage, was largely something he did for himself. He went on to study physical geography at Manchester University with no particular career in mind. In fact, like Liam, Craig does not set specific goals and prefers taking life as it comes and as long as he has something to do with music, as long as he can keep producing those lyrical guitar riffs that characterise Cellar Door’s music, he is content.
Danny Rees does not take life as it comes and has set many goals in his life. The last member to join Cellar Door, his perfectionism and need for control led him to take on the role of organiser for the band from the start, all while building a career as a chemical engineer, planning his wedding and redecorating his house. One member describes him as the smartest man alive with encyclopedic knowledge and an insane love for DIY: he can fix anything and make pretty much anything, including things that do not make sense. His love of DIY is such that it even creeps into the lyrics that he writes for the band, disguised as philosophical musings.
In Year 7, after unintentionally convincing his mates at school that he could play the drums, Danny started taking drumming lessons in a little dingy flat in deepest darkest Stockton, where he and his mum often got offered stolen television sets in the car park. The inhabitant of the flat was a jazz drummer with a massive bushy moustache and stores of drumming advice. Advice that Danny cites word-by-word to this day. A drummer has to have three ears, he tells me, one for how the drums sound themselves, one for what the band is playing, one for how the collective of drums and band sound together. What sets a mediocre drummer apart from a great one is his ability to adjust his playing according to what he hears with his three ears. Danny is an exceptional drummer.
But as with many other of his qualities, he will never admit it.