Bob Wratten, singer for Trembling Blue Stars, is sweeter than cotton candy -- or should we say toffee; he is British after all. He's entirely huggable, with big eyes and a soft manner that comes from genuine modesty. Ask him a distinctly American question, like "How'd you git so dang sweet?" and he giggles like a pinched schoolgirl. For those familiar with the music of the Trembling Blue Stars, its leader and main songwriter's convivial nature may come as a surprise, because every TBS album is filled with one thing: abject misery. On each song Wratten yearns for his lost love, Annemari Davies, a former fan-cum-bandmember who apparently dissected his heart and then fried it up with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. I think people are always surprised after they've met me," laughs Wratten. "'Hmm, he didn't slit his wrists when I was talking to him!'"
But his loss is our gain, having funneled all his sadness into compact, ambient ditties reminiscent of jangly pop bands and music released on the 4AD label. In his songs, he doesn't just wear his heart on his sleeve, it's fastened around his neck in a wreath of white roses held together with baby's breath.
Wratten began in the late '80s South London band the Field Mice, an indie-pop outfit that had a small but loyal following here in the states. The groups built up a large fan base in England, and then they became BIF (Big in France), where they are still revered to this day. It was during this period that Wratten and Annemari began their love affair, which, along with other things, caused a rift in the band, culminating in widespread reports about a flurry of fists on stage in Glasgow in '91. "It's not true!" Wratten says, laughing. "I don't know where that story came from." It might not have been fisticuffs, but there was a kick, he admits. "Trouble was," he continues, "we'd broken up just before we went on stage, so it was a bad-tempered gig."
After the Field Mice got plowed, Wratten and Davies formed Northern Picture Library, and the music began to move in a more ambient direction. This incarnation didn't grab as many people, and slowly petered out -- until the Big Breakup. When Bob and Annemari split up, Wratten took all of his pain and poured it into the Trembling Blue Stars, writing song after song about his loss. The 1996 album Her Handwriting was the result.
By the time their second UK release came out, Lips That Taste Like Tears, Annemari was back in the picture, at least vocally. The still heartbroken Wratten even put her picture on the cover. "There's always something that groups are known for," says Wratten. "And if people know about us, this is the thing that they know, that I write loads and loads of songs about this girl."
But being pegged as the guy who writes gentle, sad love songs about one person whilst gazing at her picture with tearstained cheeks doesn't really irk Wratten. "The only thing that would bother me is if it would annoy Annemari, and it doesn't."
"Someone stop the hands of time/ Every tick is a cruel blow," he sings on "Here All Day" from Alive to Every Smile, released this past October. "I want a world that's hers and mine and not let go/ be told that all is well/ that our racing hearts will cope." Musically, the group gets compared to other ambient indie rock groups. Trembling Blue Stars doesn't really cover any new musical terrain, but Wratten's compositions are little pop gems. That, coupled with a cultish following, has lent the band comparisons to Belle & Sebastian. "I used to think we were quite dissimilar," says Wratten. "But actually the way I look at it now is, there are a lot worse groups you could be compared to. I'd rather get lumped in with them than with Coldplay."
None of the band's stuff had ever been available domestically until Sub Pop snapped them up in '99. Now the group is on its first extensive US tour, opening up for Death Cab for Cutie in several cities. The last time they were in the States they only played in New York and DC, with fans flying in to see them from as far away as San Diego and Alaska.
A strong believer in fate and destiny, perhaps this American tour holds another Annemari for Bob Wratten. "I believe there is that one person out there for you," he says, a bit giggly. "I always love books or films that sort of confirm that view." But what if you thought you had the one, and you don't have the one anymore? "Well," he laughs, "Then you're completely screwed."
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