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Ultimate Thunder: The most punk-rock band in Britain

Their producer describes this Leeds eight-piece as “The Fall meets Hawkwind” but they actually sound like no one else. Ahead of their debut album release, Malcolm Jack gives his eardrums a workout.

Ultimate Thunder are discussing their musical influences.

“Listening to James,” says percussionist John Densley, although he doesn’t mean the Mancunian indie veterans, he means his bandmate, guitarist James Heselwood. 

“I like old songs,” chips in Kenneth Stainburn, who plays guitar and synth. “Like Buddy Holly, Slade, The Platters, really old. I like Smiley Culture.”

“I like watching music channels,” says drummer Scott Anderson.

“I like Sepultura, Iron Maiden, Pantera,” responds keyboardist Alex Sykes.

“I like the biggest bands,” says frontman Matthew Watson. “I like Abba and Queen.” His bandmate Anderson reacts enthusiastically to this by breaking out into an impromptu chorus of Dancing Queen.

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Meet the most punk-rock band in Britain. A Leeds eight-piece, also featuring bassist John Greaves and synth player Stuart Illingworth, who sound like absolutely none of their influences – nor indeed like anyone. A gang of drone-tastic one-chord noisenik wonders, whose forthcoming self-titled debut album is a mind-melting meld of motorik drumbeats, menacing fuzz basslines and cosmic synthesiser swirls. Ultimate Thunder have been described by their producer James Mabbett, AKA lo-fi pop artist Napoleon III, as “The Fall meets Hawkwind”.

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First formed by Heselwood in 2013 as an art project in collaboration with Leeds charity People In Action, Ultimate Thunder have been playing together in a variety of different line-ups for nine years now. But it was only during lockdown in 2020, when their once-weekly jam sessions had to be moved online, that they set about writing and recording their first album over Zoom, with support from Pyramid, another Leeds-based charity which supports artists with learning disabilities to “discover, develop and disrupt the arts”. The band received a £43,000 grant from the Arts Council to have their record professionally mixed, pressed and promoted. 

Making an album over Zoom brought with it a few technical challenges, mostly to do with wonky
internet connections. “It was difficult,” reflects Stainburn, “because it was hard to sing through the screen and you couldn’t see anyone.”

“It was difficult sometimes because we kept losing Kenneth,” Heselwood adds, “you kept freezing with a big grin on your face.”

All of Ultimate Thunder’s members have learning disabilities, except for founder Heselwood – who acts as mentor and guide, as well as playing guitar. Several members are almost non-verbal. Frontman Watson isn’t one of them – it would be problematic if he was – but that doesn’t guarantee that he’ll actually sing during shows. Sometimes he prefers to just cheerfully prowl around, watching the rest of the band, like a kindlier Mark E Smith. “I think being on the stage feels wonderful,” says Watson. “When I  go on stage I feel happy.” Ultimate Thunder never follow setlists. Freeform chaos reigns.

One of drummer Anderson’s favourite things about doing shows is watching his bandmates – of whom he is extremely complimentary – strut their stuff. “Alex, playing piano,” he says, “he’s a fabulous star.”

Star keyboardist Sykes’s favourite thing about playing shows, for his part: “I like it because it’s loud,” he says.

When Watson does sing the results are fantastically unpredictable. “Lions, tigers! To America!” he incants mischievously on the Ultimate Thunder album’s opening track A Silver Tollerman, in a trademark sprechgesang stream-of-consciousness spiel. He does a lot of devious cackling into the mic, slathered unnervingly in echo, like something from an amusement park house of horror. Bring The Science sounds a tiny bit like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, except re-tooled by some angry robots. Other intriguingly weird song titles on the album include Laminations, Take My Head and my personal favourite, Holiday Camp Holiday Inn. Their very cool cartoon cover artwork and logo is drawn by bass player Greaves.

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What’s the best thing about being in Ultimate Thunder? 

“Being in a band, getting to play music,” Sykes answers.

“Being in a rock band, making beats and playing drums,” replies Anderson. Clearly a lover of spontaneous song, he breaks into a bit of Queen’s We Will Rock You at this point.

Illingworth: “Being with friends.”

Stainburn: “Teaching other people music.”

Lastly, singer Watson: “I think it’s just really nice,” he reflects. “Being in a band is really amazing. Every Monday, seeing everyone. You’re using a guitar, you’re playing drums.”

Ultimate Thunder’s self-titled debut album is released on vinyl, CD, and digital platforms on July 29

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available from the App Store or Google Play.

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