Today (November 27) marks the release of Steps' new album What The Future Holds, a record overflowing with pop bangers penned by the likes of Sia, Hannah Robinson (Kylie Minogue) and many more.
In the new issue of Music Week, we welcome the returning pop titans to our cover for the first time ahead to get the full story behind its creation.
What The Future Holds should be something of a victory lap for the group. In 2017, they released their Tears On The Dancefloor album as a DIY endeavour after a host of labels turned them down. The result? A gold-selling album and a sold-out 22-date arena tour, shifting 200,000 tickets.
Now, as they return with their new album, Music Week asks Claire Richards, Faye Tozer, Lisa Scott-Lee, Ian ‘H’ Watkins and Lee Latchford-Evans, plus Fascination Management and their new label BMG, if they can do it all over again.
Here, in an unread extract of our cover feature interview, the group talk about how they are perceived, the modern charts and their live plans for 2021…
You’ve spoken about how the industry underestimated Steps, but ahead of your 2017 return’s huge success did you also underestimate anything about yourselves or your appeal?
Claire Richards: “It’s not that we've underestimated ourselves, but you are sometimes in a little bit of a bubble, so you do the work and then, all of a sudden, you have to unleash it on the world and you hope that everyone's going to love it. Deep down, I suppose part of you always thinks, ‘Out of everything that's released and out of all the bands that have been successful, why us?’ And if I knew the answer to that question, I would bottle it and I would sell it, or I would put together millions of bands and be a mogul. Right from the start, it's always been like that, every single time we've released an album or put a tour on sale, there's always been that moment of, ‘Is this going to work? Why would people want to buy a ticket? Why do people want to buy this album?’ And ultimately, I think it's because we are doing something that no one else is. And we've always been like that. Everyone either looked at us as if to say, ‘What the hell are you?’ or, ‘Oh my God, that's amazing!’ And the people that say, ‘Oh my God, that's amazing!’ have stuck with us for 23 years and still love it as much as they did back then.”
On the back of Tears On The Dancefloor, do you feel Steps have got more respect from the industry now?
CR: “No, not entirely, some people are surprised that we're still around. But I do think we have got a bit more respect, I think people will appreciate that we've done well. We’re not cool. We are unashamedly pop. And I think embracing that has helped us no end, we just do our thing. And that's good enough for us. And it's good enough for the fans. And it was good enough for BMG. When they came on board, it felt like the whole thing has lifted up another level.”
Given that your DIY approach last time was so successful, why didn’t you stick to that? What was it about BMG that appealed to you?
Lee Latchford-Evans: “I think it was the fact that we're performers, artists, and creators. That’s what we do. At the end of the day, there are people behind us that you don't see, and they're doing all the work that, in reality, we can't really do that well, or don't really want to do because we're not about that. That's where BMG have taken over. We did have lots of [DIY] success, but it was hard work and it was probably taking away from the performance elements because we were thinking of other things. It's great to have everybody in their box and do the job that they're very good at, then the whole team clicks and it just goes forward like a juggernaut. It just works really well.”
Are you feeling any pressure to repeat the success of last time?
Ian ‘H’ Watkins: “We don't take anything for granted. Nothing is a given. The world is a very uncertain place right now, and pop music is in a very uncertain place. I mean, we don't know if we still fit in.”
A few years ago you said the same thing about not fitting in – yet in the charts this year, a lot of acts have scored big with uplifting, disco-leaning music. Does the Steps sound fit the charts more now in 2020 than it did in 2017?
Faye Tozer: “I agree with that, actually. I think everyone feels the need for something a bit more positive, and that resonates in how the songs are melodically being written. We need that energy and that force. We were originally supposed to release the album back in March, when we heard the word about lockdown [one], there was a 50/50 camp at the time because everyone was desperate and ready to put it forward but we didn't want to put ourselves out there. It was quite interesting to sit on it for so many months… But we knew that we'd have to do the campaign properly and to do that would require the five of us in a room to do the performances and have the energy that people can see. It’s landing at the right time now.”
IW: “Songs are escapism and we, as a group, have always promoted that: our concerts are about living in our beautiful little bubbles. Our songs do that as well. Everybody needs a bit of positivity right now. I think somebody said Steps should be eligible for a list of keyworkers [laughs].”
Lisa Scott-Lee: “I just think it's what people need. With everything that's happened, people need to have positivity and hope and they know what they get with Steps. We are what we say on the tin. We've never changed. I think we guarantee some positivity and some happiness. We all need that don’t we?”
So what do you make of the charts at the moment?
CR: “There is a very heavy '80s influence going on right now, like The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus. Music seems to be moving much faster these days, people release much more quickly than they used to. I listen to Capital because that's what the kids want to listen to in the car – most of the time they don't want to listen to anything else. You hear the turnover, it feels like one week is one song and the next it’s another song from the same artist, and then there’s the ‘featured artists’ thing, it means that you can have your own single and be featured on someone else's record at the same time. We've all got families so it's not possible for us to have that kind of turnover.”
So it’s a definite no to a Steps x Drake collabo, then?
FT: “Well, we asked…”
What do you think would have happened if you came back in 2017 and had tried to radically reinvent yourself for the modern age?
CR: “Can you imagine!? It wouldn’t have worked, would it? You have to remember – and I know it's a bit of a cliché and sometimes it's used as a bit of an insult – to stay in your lane. You've got to know what you do best, and this is what we do best. If you do look at our material, we're never going to ignore our history; we can’t, because it is the reason we are here today.”
But a lot of returning pop acts do try and reinsert themselves into a contemporary pop sound…
CR: “I think pop these days, it all pretty much sounds the same. And that's not really meant to be an insult because some of it is good music and it is listenable. But nothing is really distinguishable to a certain degree. I think the voices might be but then again, a lot of voices all sound the same these days. I don't think we sound like anything or anybody else. I always say that, even back in the ’90s, we were a very specific corner of our market. It was a very specific type of pop that we did. Everyone used to say we were cheesy, and if it's cheesy then so be it. But every single one of our songs had a good melody, it told a story, it wasn't made up of just a load of nonsense. Because of the way we packaged it, and the way we sold ourselves, people just looked at it on the surface and said, ‘Oh, they're just a joke, they're just a novelty.’ But actually, if you break it down, and you break down the music, most of those songs stand up and can also be sung in many different styles, which I think is telling of a good song. We are all very aware of ourselves, we're aware of the business side too, and we are conscious to make sure that we give our audience what they want. Ultimately, they're the ones that are going to keep us going, it's not the industry and it's not us. You have to give your audience what they want and what they want are harmonies, big, banging choruses and key changes – the minor chords with big euphoric explosions.”
How far into the planning your live return are you?
LS-L: “Not everybody realises it, but it probably takes three years for us to plan tours because we really do push it with the production, and we've got an incredible team. We've decided on the amazing set that we're going to have, it's something that we haven't had before. We’re always trying to push boundaries and come up with something even bigger and better than the last tour, which is quite a feat really. It's definitely a challenge and also the other challenge is the setlist. We're so lucky, we've got such a great back catalogue and it's a really great problem to have when we sit down as a collective and say, ‘OK, we're going to do the Steps classics, but we also need to look at the last album and the new album’. We look at Spotify to see which ones are really appealing to fans and audience.”
It's quite telling that, 23 years into your career, you're still trying to get even bigger...
LS-L: “Absolutely. Steps aren't done yet.”
Subscribers can read the full Steps cover feature here.