Every self-respecting gay man likes a rugby player. After all, what’s not to like about PJ Hopper, second coach for the King’s Cross Steelers, described as the world’s first rugby club for gay and bisexual men? As well as fitting in perfectly with So So Gay‘s general theme of health of fitness this month, PJ is also establishing himself as a singer-songwriter. In addition, PJ is an all-round lovely bloke to talk to. Here’s what he had to say.
SSG: Have you always wanted to be a singer?
PJ Hopper: I’ve been playing the guitar since the age of six. My dad also sang when I was younger, so I guess I’ve always been around music. I was the bassist in the same band from the age of 15 to 27. That was what brought me to London in about 1999. I’ve been writing songs since the age of seven or eight. Obviously, some of my earlier stuff was lyrically horrendous but from very early on, music was really important to me. I spend hours playing my guitar – it’s part of expressing who I am. If I’m fed up for whatever reason, I just pick up my guitar and it makes everything that little bit more bearable. I’m not saying I’m the most talented musician in the world, I just like to express who I am through music, and always have.
What are the sources of inspiration for your songwriting?
I find inspiration all over the place. Sometimes, I stumble across a nice little phrase, play with it and think ‘Ooh, that could work!’. Other times, I’m just sitting there when inspiration hits me. To be honest, it normally comes when I’m upset about something, which is maybe why some of my songs aren’t exactly chirpy. There are other times I see or hear something and just think ‘I’d love to write a song about that’. I’ve even been known to draw inspiration while simply sitting on the Tube. I’ve often tried to put myself into other people’s shoes when songwriting. When I was younger, I’d see someone and create a little scenario from their point of view. That would then give me lyrics to work with. I’ve also written songs for people such as boyfriends or people I’ve fallen in love with. There’s no shortage of inspiration from that point of view. I’ve even written songs about rugby. It’s basically about a need or desire to write a song.
What is the songwriting process like? Do you tend to start with the lyrics or the melody?
There are no hard and fast rules. I’ve been writing songs for 24 years now and the process has changed on a regular basis. More recently, I’ve been trying to start with lyrics and then work a melody around them. Lyrics work best if they are totally unrestricted. They don’t have to be limited by a rhythmic structure or a rhyme. The same goes for melodies.
Which bands or artists inspire you in particular?
The list is endless. Elbow are great. I’m a huge Radiohead fan. Every album Radiohead release is completely different, but my absolute favourite album of all time is OK Computer. It has all the aspects I love; lyrically, it’s flawless, the production is easily the best of any album ever. Thom Yorke’s voice is haunting and scary but the musicianship is absolutely faultless. I also think Rufus Wainwright is fantastic. There are always a few moments on his albums that literally take your breath away, even after listening to them several times over. I’ve also come to embrace more ‘commercial’ acts such as Snow Patrol who are really good at relating to their fanbase. Then, of course, there is Coldplay. I think Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head are great albums; not necessarily groundbreaking from a lyrical point of view but they reach a certain emotional level. I also very much like Fiona Apple. All of these acts inspire me greatly.
Lots of budding singers use YouTube as an outlet for their talent. How useful has it been to you?
I have to say, YouTube is a fantastic tool for me. Some of my gigs have come about as a result of my videos on YouTube. What’s great about sites such as YouTube and MySpace is that they make your music totally accessible to literally anyone and everyone. You can widen your audience on a global scale. People on other continents are able to access my work and that’s great. For example, I recently wrote a parody called ‘Jesus Can’t Play Rugby’ and posted it online. An American guy then contacted me to ask for the chords to the song so that he could play it at his own rugby club’s end-of-season dinner. A total stranger from thousands of miles away asking for a song I’d written to perform live himself? That’s fantastic. I’ve even had people cover my cover versions of other songs. Another advantage of an online presence is being able to keep in touch with fans and advertise upcoming gigs. So I’d say the main benefit of sites such as YouTube is the exposure it gives me as an artist – that’s invaluable.
Where do you hope your singing will lead you?
I honestly don’t know for sure. I want as many people as possible to enjoy my music. If people aren’t enjoying what I do then there really is no point. If my music went out to just a handful of people who all really enjoy it, I’d still be happier than if the whole world were listening but only a very small minority actually liked it. It’s nice making people smile, think or relax. I get so much satisfaction from other people getting something out of my music, whatever that may be. Obviously, like any singer-songwriter, I would love to be able to support myself through my music. That said, if I end up sitting playing the piano or guitar in a pub every night, I’ll be happy. I believe fully in what I’m doing and that’s the main thing.
During June, So So Gay is focusing on health and fitness. Tell us more about your work with the King’s Cross Steelers.
My involvement with the King’s Cross Steelers goes back about 11-12 years. I started as a player and started coaching the development squad about two years ago. A lot of rugby clubs can feel quite ‘cliquey’ and a little unwelcoming to newcomers. The Steelers offer training to all total newbies in the form of the development squad. Many gay men lack confidence as players when they first join. It’s important that we raise their confidence level quickly. I then moved on to coaching the second team and I also occasionally coach the first team.
What do you think it is about rugby that is particularly alluring for gay men?
Well, I suppose it’s a physical sport and very ‘manly’. It’s always appealed to me, although I call myself a rugby player rather than a ‘gay’ rugby player. Rugby is very much a game based on mutual respect. The social side of the sport is also really good. It appeals to a wide range of people and is less class-based than it was in the past. For example, I grew up on a council estate but we have had members who have been politicians too. We also have players representing a range of age groups.
What else do you like to do to keep fit?
As well as the King’s Cross Steelers, I’m also a member of London Frontrunners, a LGBT competitive and social running group.
How do you manage to fit so much into your life?
I know! I’m a busy man. I work in the accounts department of a law firm specialising in human rights work. I love my job. The people there are great; they really believe in what they do and are far more ethical than other companies I’ve worked for in the past. Basically, I make sure that I don’t waste any time. The rugby season is coming to an end which means that I’ll have a bit more spare time as it tends to take over most Saturdays. I run whenever I can fit it in, usually once a week. I sing whenever I can. Out of all the things I do, singing and songwriting are the most flexible. The guitar is always there when I get home. I can just pick it up and sing. Also, like I said earlier, I can write songs on the move, literally just walking down the road. An idea popped into my mind as I was walking along the South Bank today.
Finally, what can we expect from your upcoming Camden gig?
This gig will be stripped back, artistically. I’ve done a couple of gigs using a drum machine and other instruments and have been looking for a permanent band but that hasn’t come together yet. This gig will be a bit more ‘raw’. It will be me laid bare, more vulnerable if you like. I’ll be performing a new song which is about someone opening their whole self up to another person. That’s very much ‘me’, very personal. I’ve shied away from my ‘quieter’ songs recently but I’m putting them back out there to show my vulnerability more. What I basically want to say is, ‘Do you know what, this is me. I hope you like it’. I love performing live and it’s always very humbling to see that people are paying to come along. I often see the same people at my gigs and they tend to bring more and more friends with them each time. I appreciate that support massively. It’s very easy for some artists to undervalue the loyalty of their fans but I’m hugely appreciative, especially of those people who have supported me from the very start, including my parents and my original band. It’s a huge boost to my self-confidence as a performer. If it weren’t for them, I’d have given up a long time ago.
You can see PJ Hopper perform at Dublin Castle in Camden on Friday 10 June. Entry is £6 or £5 with a flyer and he will be gracing the stage at 20:30.