@ The Sunday Times

Vagabond are latest from Xenomania stable

By Dan Cairns
The Sunday Times, April 19, 2009

Getting producer Brian Higgins, the star-maker behind such as Girls Aloud and Sugababes, bodes well for singer Alex Vargas

On his album Songs for Swingin' Sellers, the actor Peter Sellers included a satirical sketch about an unscrupulous rock manager and the impressionable teenagers he steers towards stardom. Twit Conway, the singer interviewed during the sketch, is a particularly gormless example, complaining, when asked to remember even the simplest detail: "So much to do, so little time." The manager, Major Ralph, also voiced by Sellers, was a clear takeoff of pop's biggest impresario at the time, Larry Parnes, and his so-called Stable of Stars. The skit continues to resonate. Never mind the crazed machinations of today's reality-TV celebrities; there are any number of gimlet-eyed, stop-at-nothing pop singers eager to top the charts, and the showbiz desks of most British newspapers continue to hoard hair-raising but legally leaky accounts of the lengths some wannabe stars will go to to achieve their goal.

Alex Vargas, the 21-year-old front man of the new band Vagabond, is unlikely to feature in such dossiers; and unlikely, too, to face accusations of either gormlessness or ruthless opportunism. If eyebrows are raised about his band, it will be because Vagabond are the latest act to emerge from contemporary pop's most prolific stable of stars: Xenomania. The producer Brian Higgins's hit factory is famous for taking bands such as Sugababes and Girls Aloud into the Top 10, and keeping them there. The songwriting and production team's stock in trade is irresistible, often bracingly eccentric, electro-pop. Yet Vagabond deal in rocked-up pop-soul, their songs recalling Hall & Oates, Simply Red, Robert Palmer and Maroon 5. When Vargas and his band first started working with Higgins and his colleagues, he was sceptical - he thought he was a rock singer. Higgins begged to differ. The story of who won that argument is instructive. And it wasn't Vargas.

"There's nothing wrong with teenage musicians having an idea that doesn't tally with their ability," says the producer. "That's called being young. Growing up is about learning who you really are and what your true ability is. If Xenomania stands for anything, it's about trying to get clarity into that situation far quicker than life experience allows."

Higgins, 40, is sitting in a vast purple drawing room, the centre of operations at Xenomania's Kent base. An affable though slightly edgy character, he admits to having "worked most weekends, going back, I suppose, to about 1994", and the buzz of activity around him suggests that others put in a similar amount of hours.

Yet the company's HQ seems at first glance like an enviably laidback holiday camp. Two huge houses, set back from a picturesque village green, look out onto rolling lawns, a swimming pool and woodland. It is the first day of spring, and sunlight streams through the windows. A guided tour takes in a warren of upstairs rooms and cubbyholes, in which hit singles such as Girls Aloud's audacious Biology and, most recently, Love Etc by Pet Shop Boys, were fine-tuned. In a kitchen filled with the aroma of fresh coffee, a sound engineer prepares a sausage sandwich. In the pool room, impossibly photogenic, guitar-toting adolescents lay down a groove. Can I come and stay here, please, I want to ask. Higgins soon snaps me out of this reverie. "It isn't an entirely benign environment," he says. "The work ethic is so total. When people sign up, they sign up for a lot; it's a fundamental lifestyle change. While they're here, all these artists are used to witnessing a lot of success, but what they also see is, no limos, no champagne, nothing other than, 'Right, what are we getting on with today?' That culture is deeply ingrained."

Vargas concurs. "Most people, when they have a No 1, will go to the pub to celebrate, and get lashed. Whereas in the Xenomania house, if they have one, they go, 'Okay, let's beat it.' You have to be made of a certain material to be able to survive in an environment like that. There are people that come and go very quickly because they can't handle it. I've been beaten up, verbally, a couple of times." The singer admits it required some adjusting to. "It was a bit of a mindf***, to realise, not that what I'd been doing before I met Brian was wrong, but to go in there as a 17-year-old, a bit arrogant, used to having a band and telling everyone what to do, and suddenly meet someone with such authority. He's a very intimidating man. I was so impressed with how he opened my eyes; just the brutal honesty - you don't get that with many people." Vargas is convinced the experience was good for him, painful though it was. "You know the expression 'killing your babies'?" he laughs. "Well, please don't highlight this, but Brian will kill your babies."

Higgins says he was attracted to Vargas not because of the songs the singer was writing when they first met, but because he could hear in his head the music he felt the front man should be making. "You have to meet the right person," he says. "It's not fate, I don't mean that, and I don't really believe in it. It's all about chemistry and connection. As important as I knew I was for Alex, because I had a vision of where he could be, he was of critical, enormous importance to us, because of this sense that we would be able to move forward into areas we hadn't been able to go to before, because there hadn't been a voice of that nature." In the early days, Vargas was all higher register and rock phrasing, a sound his rock-poster-boy image and looks would certainly suit. Higgins, though, had "a hunch that he wasn't particularly a rock singer but a soul singer". This led the producer, whose pre-Xenomania background was, he says, all about "really underground, trendy club music", to reconnect with buried influences. "I suddenly remembered the feelings I had for Hall & Oates records."

Vagabond are the latest signing to Higgins's rapidly expanding Xenomania label. He may be at pains to stress that he and longtime colleagues such as Miranda Cooper "reject 95% of what we do here; our year is spent trying to get to that 5% that is truly great", but he wouldn't be placing so much faith in Vagabond unless he had a pretty strong sense of their potential. The band's debut single, Sweat (Until the Morning), seems surprisingly tentative for a song that has been through such a rigorous process. But likely successor singles such as the epic, Verve-like Don't Wanna Run No More, and the electro-propelled I've Been Wanting You, sound like huge future hits. The band's London shows have seen a steadily increasing fanbase of mostly teenage girls, gazing adoringly up at Vargas, and everyone involved in the project probably has the enormous sales figures of Simply Red and Maroon 5 in mind.

Vargas has the charisma and the talent - and the work ethic that Higgins has now instilled in him. As for Higgins himself, well, he doesn't look like someone who is taking anything for granted. His drive would mean little if the music Xenomania produced were fodder and pap. But it isn't: the team is responsible for some of the greatest pop songs of the past 10 years, and that can only partly be ascribed to the fact Higgins ensures there is "so much to do, so little time". Permanently furrowed of brow, he is a man on a mission, and, says Vargas, never really switches off. "At one of the Christmas parties," the singer recalls, "we had all the amps set up in the purple room, all these musicians, and we ended up having this blues jam. And afterwards, Brian goes, 'That song, what was that? Could you do it again?' "

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