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The life, death and resurrection of Britain's 22-20s 

Named for the early Skip James song, 22-20s were always enamored with the blues, at least until frontman Martin Trimble ended up coming down with a case of his own.

The Northern English group — hailed as the U.K.'s next big thing while still in their teens — basically imploded on the road, with Trimble pronouncing them in "a state of arrested development" and saying he was no longer comfortable being in a band named after a blues song.

At which point things took a turn for the worse.

"We'd toured the first record for way too long, and we had complete writer's block," says Trimble, whose songwriting talent is easily on a par with Noel Gallagher's. "At the point where we broke up, I felt like I could never write a song again. I think the longer you go on NOT writing, the more impossible it seems."

After the split, Trimble moved to New York to be with his girlfriend and didn't touch his guitar for six months.

"We had a little apartment in Chinatown, and she was working, so I would kinda stay in all day drinking coffee and watching telly," recalls the musician. "For a year or so, it was a pretty dark time, you know, I needed to get out and play again. But you need to go through that, I think. It makes you realize what you love doing."

Sittin' on top of the world

Today, the re-formed 22-20s (including original bassist Glen Bartup and drummer James Irving, as well as new guitarist Dan Hare) are back on the road, playing small American clubs to promote their second studio album, Shake/Shiver/Moan, which is due out next week. It's all a marked contrast to 2003, when the band found itself in the middle of a massive bidding war.

"People were flying over on Concorde to see them, twice," Jeff Barrett, who signed the band to his Heavenly label, told the Guardian at the time. "I've been in this game 15 years, and they gave me more sleepless nights and grey hairs than any other band I've worked with." [Guardian writer Alexis Petridis placed the comment in perspective by noting that Barrett had "spent part of the 1980s working with the heroin-sodden Happy Mondays."]

"We got blown up out of all proportion in the U.K. over a demo that had four tracks on it," Trimble says in retrospect. "Suddenly we were the new Oasis and the biggest A&R scramble of the new millennium and all that crap. And we were 17 or 18 and didn't know how to deal with it.

"We were quite naïve at that age," he adds. "And quite fearless about things, which is probably good, because we'd just go on and play and do our thing."

Goodbye porkpie hats

All that would change soon enough. Like any number of British Invasion bands from four decades earlier, 22-20s rapidly evolved from playing blues covers to crafting their own hooky rock offerings. Soon, they began to feel hemmed in by the blues influence that once served as an antidote to constantly hearing Coldplay's "Yellow" at the local pub.

"We did this tour of Holland and Belgium where there were loads of blues aficionados — but in a really kinda tacky way, like wearing porkpie hats and that kind of stuff. And we had already started to write songs like "Devil in Me" and "Such a Fool," which both ended up on the first record. And people were kinda saying, 'Oh that's not blues, that's rock 'n roll.'"

Which it was. And is. After the group's former label encouraged it to re-form for a one-off gig at London's Royal Festival Hall in 2008, 22-20s ended up going back into the studio with Supergrass/Band of Skulls producer Ian Davenport. The rest is history that may or may not repeat.

The blues influences still turn up on a couple of the new tracks, but they've gone missing on songs like the instantly memorable "96 to 4," which Trimble says is about a friend who lost her mom.

"It's kind of the personal song on the record," he adds. "You've asked about the wrong song. Can I have another?"

Well, there's always "Latest Heartbreak," which is the result of listening to a lot of Motown.

"The chorus is ripped off from 'Heat Wave' by Martha & the Vandellas," Trimble admits, "but you're not conscious of those things when you're writing or even recording it."

What Trimble is conscious of at the moment is his determination to make good on a career that crashed and burned all too quickly the first time around. Although signed to TBD, which is Radiohead's label here in America, the group still doesn't have a U.K. deal. Instead, he says, they're content to spend the next four or five months touring the States.

"In the U.S., you have to work really hard to build up an audience. You have to go out and play shows in the middle of nowhere, and you play every night, and it seems like a really honest way of doing it. Whereas in the U.K, a lot of it's just bullshit."

bill@csindy.com

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