30 August 2018
Elton John adored his music. A French president loved his farm. Now Groove Armada’s Andy Cato is opening a trendy bakery in Britain
At the peak of his success Andy Cato was so famous that Madonna and Elton John argued about who’d discovered his music first. It was 1999 and Groove Armada, the double act he was in with Tom Findlay, had just released their album Vertigo, when the queen and king of pop met at an airport, he says.
“Apparently Elton said to Madonna, ‘You have to hear this new album,’ and Madonna replied that she already had, pulling it out of her handbag,” he explains, sitting in the open-plan living room of his farmhouse in France.
“We met Elton and he was one of those examples of the inverse correlation between the talent and bullshit: the more talent you have, the less bullshit you have. Down the corridor, surrounded by so many bodyguards you could barely get past, was the biggest flavour of the month rapper, whose name I can’t remember. Elton had nobody when he came to our dressing room, he was super-cool.”
Cato’s way of escaping from the metaphorical bullshit of the music business involved stepping in some of the literal stuff. Ten years ago, after achieving global success with Groove Armada — who had ten Top 40 hits in Britain and were twice nominated for Grammy awards — the Barnsley-born musician moved to Gascony in southwest France. There he bought a farm and 110 hectares of land, where he rears red Sussex cattle and grows heritage grains, eschewing massproduction methods.
Spending your days on a farm in the middle of nowhere bouncing through fields on a horse-drawn plough sounds like a rock star cliché, but for Cato this is a serious business. The 45-year-old has been knighted for his services to agriculture in France, and while Elton might not be turning up to talk about mob-grazing and soil health, François Hollande has, and the president of the time brought an entourage worthy of a rapper with him.
Cato was on the way back from a Groove Armada gig in Lithuania when he first read about chemical farming and the catastrophic effect it has on human health via the soil and plants.
He “fell in love” with the subject, he says, and shows me his “agricultural library” (which includes titles such as Secrets of Fertile Soils and Soils and Men) to prove it. “I never knew soil was so exciting,” I say.
The reason we’re talking is not to discuss the secrets of soil. It’s because Cato’s coming home — if launching a bakery that will mill his grain and serve £4 loaves to north London hipsters counts as a homecoming, that is. Next month he will be launching Jolene, an upmarket bakery in Stoke Newington, with David Gingell and Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim, the men behind two acclaimed restaurants in N5, Primeur and Westerns Laundry.
When I meet Gingell and Cometto-Lingenheim on the site in Newington Green that will be filled with smells of freshly baked raisin bread, croissants, financiers and madeleines, I discover that the duo do “maverick” quite well themselves. Cometto-Lingenheim, 43, who is in a string vest and cargo pants held up by the kind of belt you might find in a Tibetan bazaar, lives seminomadically in a van with his son, while Gingell, 38, apologises for his “smart shoes” (dusty trainers), saying that he left his sandals in the car.
The trio were introduced through a mutual friend, who knew the Primeur guys had an idea for a London bakery, but no grain, and that Cato had the grain, but no London site. “It was very much not a happy coincidence,” Gingell says with a laugh.
Neither of them had been massive fans of Groove Armada, they admit. “I mainly listened to Nineties hip-hop because I was more street, coming from Falmouth,” Gingell jokes. “Put it this way, we didn’t faint when we met him, but we almost fainted when we saw the farm. It is another level of brilliance, so beautifully simple. We went over for a few days to learn about the mill and to bake and, God, he put us to work. He gave us a lie-in and we still had to wake up at 3am. “I think of him as a farmer who occasionally has to play music now,” he adds. “He’s got farmers’s hands — they’re the size of spades.”
“I listened to Groove Armada in the Nineties,” says Cometto-Lingenheim. “I mean, you had to, because they were everywhere. I See You Baby played with every Renault advert on the telly and most restaurant staff in the country put Superstylin’ on to set up the tables before service.”
Cato sold his publishing rights to those songs — “the family silver” — to buy the farm, but the problems of acquiring and running a farm came faster than foxes to a chicken coop, and it took five years to purchase the land alone. After finally buying a swathe at the foot of the Pyrenees for €660,000, he was almost crippled by the costs. “Do you know what a tractor costs?” he asks incredulously.
“€80,000! It’s like buying a house every time you need something.”
Then just as he’d “signed on the dotted line” and moved to the farm with his wife, Jo, and their two young children he accidentally fell out of his car and injured his back. “I just couldn’t get back up,” he remembers. “I’m 6ft 8in, so I think it was partly from being crushed into tiny airline seats for years on the way to gigs. When the doctor told me I’d slipped a disc I thought, ‘Oh Jesus.’ I knew I’d be in bed for months and we’d just sold everything for this farm, which I now couldn’t get out of bed to walk to.”
When he eventually did get into the fields he realised that the previous owner had “declared war on the land”. The next few years were a struggle, and the grains he grew weren’t commercial enough to sell. He made them into flour, but the bakers wouldn’t take that either, so he knew he had to make the bread himself, but it took months (following the advice in a 1778 baking book) before he had a loaf. Now the fact that his French bakery produces 1,200 loaves a week seems quite biblical.
“It took everything I had. The irony was that I’d stopped music because I wanted to spend more time with my children (now 13 and 10) and suddenly I was working 20-hour days in the fields, seven days a week, thinking we were going to lose everything. I knew it was important to know when to stop; but I also knew we’d lose a lot of money if we had to sell up.
“I’d describe the feeling I had as a deep fatigue. The fact I was still working with Tom [Findlay] was a huge advantage because I wasn’t going to starve, but I wasn’t making anywhere near enough money to keep my head above water — I was gigging just to pay back the farming debts. It was almost a complete nightmare.”
Of course, Cato is not the first musician to turn his hand to the land. “I know what you’re going to say ” Cato tells me, before I’ve even uttered the “A” in Alex James’s name. The former Blur bassist bought a 200-acre farm in Oxfordshire in 2002 and produces award-winning cheese, while Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of the Who, created Lakedown Trout Fishery in the mid-Seventies on his East Sussex estate.
“I think there’s an assumption that musicians retire to the country because they want to drink rosé at 11am in a bucolic scene,” he says.
“I’ve never met those guys, so I can’t comment on their motives, but I certainly didn’t do this to relax, luckily. Maybe the noise and the amount of travelling you do when you’re a musician makes you appreciate nature more, but I can never fully appreciate silence anyway, because there’s a constant ringing in my ears.”
“Tinnitus?” I ask.
“God, yeah,” he says. “But ‘Je ne regrette rien,’ as Édith Piaf said. I count myself lucky to have had two consuming passions in one lifetime, music and the field stuff.”
You could perhaps tie it all together, if you wanted to, given that Cato was DJ-ing in fields for the “upper echelons” at Oxford (George Osbornecontemporary) while he was student there studying modern history in the early Nineties. “I was boy from Wakefield with the decent record collection, so I was often asked to play at parties,” he says. “I was more of a hired hand than a friend, but I remember being asked to some amazing places: Hellfire Caves and fields I just remember lots fields,” he trails off.
“The irony of trying to tell someone the most rock and roll moment of your career is that they’re you always keep to yourself — a lot of it blurs,” he admits, later that at their peak the crowd went back “as far as the eye could see” as they waited in the wings of the stage “full of anticipation” of “the plans and parties, the smoke-filled dressing rooms, the night ahead ” Back then, this time of year for Cato was Ibiza party season, a “summer homecoming” for Groove Armada for so many years. He says that he won’t ever forget “that sunset of ’88” during his first time there, but that he’s a different man now. “Farming changes your concept of time,” he says. “I think in terms of harvests now.”