Busted 2016 vintage… Bourne, Willis and Simpson. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say Charlie Simpson has had a change of heart. After he left Busted in 2005, he compared his time in the pop-punk boy band to “torture” and insisted he would never, under any circumstances, rejoin. Last May, though, he found himself headlining Wembley Arena with Busted in front of 12,500 fans. That’s some U-turn.
Simpson is now gearing up for the release of the third Busted album, Night Driver – 13 years after its predecessor, A Present for Everyone. The trio come with a reinvented look and sound: gone are buoyant guitars and questionable lyrics about shagging teachers and jizzing in pants. Instead, Busted 2.0 play pop-aligned R&B, like Maroon 5 channelling Get Lucky. The wacky facial expressions of their teens are replaced by brooding, faraway gazes; their schoolboy shirts by satin bombers. Think Ryan Gosling in Drive, only with more baggage.
At YouTube’s London headquarters, a multi-screen video wall is playing clips of seven-year-old singers and famous vloggers gesticulating, while Charli XCX booms from the speakers. The group is here to launch the record’s debut single, On What You’re On. It is a good song, I say.
“Shock horror!” Simpson replies.
How do they feel about people perhaps not having high expectations for their return?
“That’s a loaded question, but I like it,” replies Matt Willis.
“It feels good. I’m kind of at this point where I can’t wait for people to hear it,” Simpson says. ”It’s such a funny thing that I think people still don’t really get why we are here again, because they know the story of why it ended. It seems crazy that it might happen again.”
James Bourne and Willis formed the group in 2000. Simpson came later, in time for them to be launched as a pop-punk boy band in 2002, and also departed first. Bourne and Willis barely spoke to Simpson for the decade they were apart.
Then, one day in early 2013, they arrived on his doorstep to ask if he fancied giving Busted another shot. At this stage, Bourne and Willis had already committed to the McBusted tours of 2014 and 2015, a team up with their former proteges McFly, a lucrative tour that proved there was still an appetite for pop punk, even if the groups concerned were no longer boys. Simpson, to their surprise, was interested in re-forming their original group. One might suspect the prospect of earning decent money might have played a part in his decision. Did it?
“There are plenty of things over the years that I could have done for the money,” replies Simpson.
“Well for a start … what Matt and James did with the McFly guys. If there was ever a time for a massive amount of money to be made then that would be it. It wasn’t on my radar.” Details of the split are sketchy. The group, particularly Bourne and Simpson, seem keen to gloss over the past and concentrate on the future. Simpson left at the peak of their success, and you get the feeling from previous interviews that Bourne never really got closure, which hurt. He speaks of his time apart from Simpson – hearing songs on taxi radios, wondering whether Simpson might like them, too – with the kind of misty-eyed lament you imagine Marr and Morrissey would relate to.
Busted in Bournemouth in May. Photograph: Mark Holloway/Getty
In the intervening decade, they have all kept busy, but never matched their former band’s fame. Simpson released one solo album and three with Fightstar, a venture that largely revolved around convincing the music press that he was rock enough. Bourne meanwhile launched a string of solo albums under guises such as Son of Dork, Future Boy and Call Me When I’m 18, and wrote some musical theatre. A natural pop hit songwriter, he also co-wrote tracks for the Saturdays, the Vamps, 5 Seconds of Summer and McFly. Willis made a solo album, appeared in Birds of a Feather and EastEnders and was crowned king of the jungle on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here in 2006.
While Bourne felt “lost”, and finally relocated to the US in 2008, having spent a lot of time there, Simpson (who had formed Fightstar while still in Busted) says he was close to depression and turned to drink and drugs before he left. Willis, meanwhile, was admitted into the Priory in 2005 for alcohol abuse, and a year later for an addiction to weed. In 2008, he returned to rehab again. It’s something his wife, Emma Willis, spoke about in a documentary made in the run-up to the McBusted tour. She was naturally a little nervous about him going back out on the road. Given everything they have gone through, is it difficult for family members to see the band back together again?
“Different when you’re younger, different when you’re younger,” Bourne says.
“I think everything is different when you’re younger,” Willis agrees.
“Very different,” says Simpson.
“It’s a very weird thing to suddenly be in something enormous. Then for it to suddenly end. It’s hard to vocalise,” Willis says.
“It’s also weird because our perspectives were so drastically different,” Simpson suggests. “It affected us in different ways. It’s such a wide thing because we had such different things going on in our heads; different issues to deal with. And to be young in that situation … as hard as it is being young, you are also very naive, so you sort of take it more at face value. Now I know so much more about the industry, I know so much more about how things work.”
Bourne: “It’s night and day. You can’t compare it.”
Simpson: “What happened to us was 10 years ago, and I do want to move it past that.”
They are adamant that everything happens for a reason. Breaking up was a good thing because it meant they could preserve their friendship, and ultimately make this album, the album they wanted to make, without a label or any pressure.
“Had we stayed in the band, we would have driven our friendship into the ground,” says Simpson. “We probably wouldn’t have talked to each other again. It’s the only way this could have happened now, and I do quite want to move it on past talking about that because we are here to talk about something new and exciting.”
A week or so later, we meet again at their rehearsal space. The mood is a little less intense. First time around, Busted were lumped in with the manufactured pop groups of their era; they were never really treated as a legitimate band. Perhaps that had something to do with the songs about jizzing in pants. But there was also a suspicion among the champions of “real music” about a group who could sell 5m albums and appear on Saturday morning TV. And they did get really famous, really fast; the sort of famous where you get disconcerting fan gifts: “On a birthday card,” says Willis, “someone had shaved their pubes and sellotaped it to the side. With her number.”
“We didn’t know how to open our mail,” Bourne recalls of their time living together as teens. “I think our cleaner once found some crazy cheque from a publishing company that nobody knew was there – it was just sitting there in our mail, this massive cheque that nobody saw.” Having a support structure was never even on the agenda. “After being signed, we used to get the tube in, the Piccadilly line to the West End. We would just ride the tube in,” he recalls. “When the single came out, people started to recognise us. [Before then we] operated quite simply.”
“We didn’t know that shit was available. It wasn’t like: ‘Why don’t we have a person?’ I remember when we went to see One Direction, I saw their setup and was, like … ‘Woah!’ we were just kind of rolling around getting on with shit,” adds Willis.
Nevertheless, Bourne says, even if they had assembled a support team, it would not have protected them from the effects of their escalating fame. “It doesn’t matter how well you think you are looked after or how happy you think you are at the time. The only way you really learn things is when you go through things. You know you have to … it’s an experience you learn yourself. It’s up to you to flag the things.”
Busted still seem preoccupied with being taken seriously. They describe the recent spate of “big reunion” re-formations of pop bands as “tragic”; they say they don’t care about the success of Night Driver; they insist they would happily play in tiny venues if that were the only path open to them. You get the feeling they’re keen to erase a past that is too potent to ignore.
“Funnily enough, when we were out at a dinner I put on this fucking shit video from Busted back in the day, this thing of us hanging out, and someone filmed us and I was like, ‘Who the fuck is that guy?’” Willis says.
“You’re so young, 16, 17, you’re not really yourself yet. You’re copying other people. Your whole existence is made up from being what you’re supposed to be like,” Bourne says.
“A lot of that is that when you are 17, all you really give a shit about is what your mates think of you,” Willis says. “I just wanted my mates to think I was cool. Some of of them did and some of them did not. But now I don’t give a fuck.”
Their attitudes aren’t the only things that have evolved with time. Culture for one, has moved on. In a review of Busted’s show in London in May, the Daily Telegraph suggested the song Who’s David had dated badly, with its misogynistic undertones (“You stupid lying bitch, who’s David?”) all the more uncomfortable coming from people who no longer had the excuse of being teenagers.
“What do you mean, misogynistic undertones?” asks Bourne.
“You can’t say stupid lying bitch any more,” Willis replies.
“Really?” Bourne says.
Simpson: “As you say, society has changed hugely. Much more PC.”
Willis: “Basically, it’s not cool to call women bitches any more.”
Simpson: “I’m not sure it ever was.”
Willis: “That was kind of the point.”
Bourne: “Even if they lie?”
Willis: “Even if they have been a bitch to you.”
Bourne: “Even if she cheats on you, is she not a bitch?”
Simpson: “Derogotary terminology. Anyway, we would never write lyrics like that. We’re different people to the people we were. We were little kids back then.”
“It’s the difference between being 18 and 33, it’s that different,” concludes Bourne, on board with third-wave feminsim, on board with an all-new Busted.
Night Driver is out now on East West.