Behind the scenes with MP4 - the 'world's first parliamentary rock band'
The sound of the divison bell interrupts band practice in Tory MP Sir Greg Knight’s parliamentary office.
It is a busy afternoon in the Commons, and Westminster’s top rockers are stopped in their tracks mid-rehearsal.
Knight (drums), Labour’s Kevin Brennan (guitar and lyrics), the SNP’s Pete Wishart (keyboard) and former Labour MP Ian Cawsey (bass) together comprise MP4.
Huddled into Knight’s chambers, surrounded by thick walls they insist entraps the noise, the musicians are seizing a rare opportunity for some practice. Alas, duty calls and all but one of the group must relinquish their instruments to attend the division lobbies. Knight hurries his comrades towards the door as the warning sounds loom larger.
"Just because you’re a Tory doesn’t mean you can tell people what to do," retorts Brennan, the shadow trade minister, a cheeky smirk writ large across his face. It’s illustrative of the rapport developed over the band’s near 12-year existence.
MP4 proudly declare themselves to be the "world's first parliamentary' rock band". The group initially started out as three in 2004. Knight joined forces with Cawsey and Wishart, who were chasing a drummer for a new band.
"Then Kevin Brennan heard about it, invited himself to join and we had to change the name to MP4," the Conservative MP says.
However, Brennan had to work for the privilege. The original members made him and two other politicians audition, while an unnamed MP sent in a demo tape.
"It was the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. So they didn’t make it," Brennan confirms.
Initially unsure whether they would gel, MP4 were invited to a recording studio for a jam and “muck around” by contacts in the industry.
Robin Millar, a music producer for acts including 80s favourite Sade, listened to their session and offered to work on their first album. He remains the band’s producer to this day.
Their first gig came at the annual MPs and peers’ variety show for MacMillan Cancer Care in 2004, a charity they have frequently worked with, where they were introduced by former Tory leader Michael Howard.
Since then, MP4 have raised more than £1m through playing at various charitable events. Their 2010 album, Cross Party, contained eight original tracks. Money earned through album sales went towards Help for Heroes.
And in 2016? Alongside another record expected later this year, they have been asked to film a segment for a new satirical series, due to air on the BBC. This will be followed by festivals in the summer in aid of children’s charities.
Returning from the voting corridors, the band members don their instruments and resume rehearsal. They reel of a track from their album with consummate ease in the cramped conditions.
Their music, albeit slightly retro, is a certain crowd pleaser nonetheless. Brennan is the frontman while the others hold their own, Knight making do with a set of neighbour-friendly electric drums.
Jamming complete, talk turns to composition. Knight, Cawsey and Brennan are the main lyricists, while Wishart is yet to pen his masterpiece.
“I’m the Ringo of the band,” the SNP MP jokes. “I presented my rock opera to the House of Lords… but it was dismissed out of hand.”
“Yea, it was a rock opera called ‘Independence’,” Cawsey adds to raucous laughter.
MP4 insist that matters political are left at the door. But the tale of a pre-concert argument prompted good-natured exchanges among the group.
“There was one occasion before we did a gig where we had quite a heated discussion about politics in the dressing room. And we actually ended up going out and playing better than we ever had,” Brennan says.
“The argument was between two members of the band and I can’t say which two it was, but Greg and I were listening…” Cawsey says to yet more rambunctious laughter.
“….We were the first act on the show, and the changing room door knocked and someone said ‘two minutes’. And I said to Greg ‘I’m going to have to say something!’”
Wishart, the fierce proponent in the Commons of all things the SNP, jokes: "I don’t share a stage with Conservatives, so it makes performing really tricky.”
It’s typical of the warm humour shared between the four. They are compelling company, and the group dynamic is intriguing; Knight the straight-edged drummer holding the band together, Cawsey and Brennan the provocative guitarists, with Wishart the quiet but witty keyboardist, lurking in the wings with barbs that are very much the equal of his colleagues.
The band often perform gigs in parliament, the most recent of which was in Strangers Bar in December, when they were joined by Tory MP Jesse Norman on trumpet. They have also played at their respective party conferences.
Though the band do not yet have their own ‘Directioners’ or ‘Beliebers’, they do have two ardent fans in the form of speaker John Bercow and David Cameron. The PM is even a proud owner of MP4’s album, Cross Party.
They have also set their sights on representing the UK at this year’s edition of the Eurovision Song Contest.
How’s the reaction been so far? Wishart makes it clear that he is not taking this particular campaign too seriously.
“Incredible, the nation is demanding that it is MP4 that represents the UK in Eurovision. It’s time for real hardened politicians to take this on,” he says, before offering a rare olive branch to Cameron.
“And also while we’re there we can negotiate Britain’s position in the European Union.”
Yet Cawsey believes MP4 has the pedigree necessary to win the notoriously partisan contest.
“It is a completely political competition, so politicians should be doing it. The only act I can think in the UK at the moment who can deliver Eurovision for this country is MP4,” he argues, with a smile and a mischevious glint in his eye.
Knight adds: “It’s the one thing David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn agree on…”
“Yes,” replies Cawsey, never shy to miss an opportunity for a joke. “Jeremy and Hilary Benn agree on this as well.”
But Brennan has the last word, warning against the ramifications if MP4 takes part in the annual competition.
“There is some concern that if we go over there that Europe will vote to leave us.”
And with that, they resume their practice.
They may not be fully-fledged rock stars just yet, but MP4 set aside political differences to pursue a mutual love of music in a venture that is raising thousands for charities across the UK. And that’s pretty rock n' roll.