Jukebox heroes - The Zutons interview

ACCORDING to legend, Dave McCabe made so much money from Amy Winehouse's cover version of his song 'Valerie' that he bought himself a house. The Zutons' frontman says the tabloids – in their enthusiasm for cash-splashing stories – are exaggerating his current personal wealth. But what is not in doubt is that the track has become a modern standard, and there is now pressure on him to repeat the hit formula.

He tries to play this down by calling it "good pressure". Bad pressure – real pressure – is not being in a band but wanting to be. "Real pressure is having to flip bacon all day long," he says backstage in Glasgow. But, whatever it is, he feels it.

"I'm getting asked to write songs for other people. Always for women, funnily enough, and I suppose what's wanted is another 'Valerie'. But 'Valerie' – even though it's everybody's now – started out as a Zutons song. I'm not sure about this gun-for-hire malarkey; I don't know if I could write to order. I certainly have to try hard sometimes to not think about 'Valerie'. The days it's in my head are when I have to put down the guitar and just forget about writing."

McCabe has penned a number for Candi Payne but that was more of a favour to a friend and fellow Liverpudlian. She's the sister of Sean Payne, the Zutons' drummer and the boyfriend of Abi Harding, who plays saxophone in the band, the latter having just joined us in the ABC's dressing-room.

The same tabloids would dub these two "beauty and the beast": McCabe is gruff and hairy; Harding, petite and glamorous. But they complement each other in a group gloriously out of step with these times. The Zutons don't play skinny-jeaned disco-punk like just about everyone else; McCabe's bluesy rasp and Harding's honking sax seem to evoke that most unfashionable of genres – pub-rock.

They might appear stuck in the wrong time, but when they're on form their appeal is timeless. Imagine a bar jukebox that's never changed – maybe the one in the Tan Hill Inn, Britain's highest pub, which featured in old Ted Moult double-glazing commercials and is currently being revisited by TV for ads for solar panelling. The index would read A for Ace, B for Bad Company, C for Chicago – and now, spirited into the mix, Z for Zutons.

"Cheers – we take that as a compliment," says Harding. Both are in their twenties and would seem to conform to the old joke about Liverpool: that its poverty meant so many record collections were second-hand and therefore ancient. McCabe has heard the joke and others like it. You cannot stereotype a place, he says.

"Well, you know what? You can. We've recorded our new album in Los Angeles. I thought it was a myth that everyone in LA wanted to be famous – that it would be no more true than everyone from Liverpool being a robber, or everyone in Glasgow wanting to stab you. But it is true, so I didn't really dig Hollywood. I think we've made a good album, though."

You Can Do Anything is the Zutons' third. If fans were worried that McCabe's head would be turned by LA and that he would start writing songs about freeways, then they can sleep easy: the road travelled in a Zutons tune is still an unmistakably Scouse one.

Gangsters, chancers and entire families on Asbos populate the 12 songs so McCabe isn't exactly making it easy for chanteuses who come after Winehouse to find a karaoke classic among them. Most are based on real people and real incidents. For instance, 'Freak' is inspired by a friend who, down on his luck, became a male prostitute. "I've actually got loads of mates who've tried it," he says. "You'd be amazed at how many internet sites tout for lads to be gigolos."

Two songs concern infidelity, though when I mention this, McCabe looks puzzled. Harding is giggling as she explains what the word means. "Sorry mate, I was thinking about infidels and Osama bin Laden." Reassured that he isn't about to be the subject of a fatwa, he reveals that 'Dirty Rat' is autobiographical. But the track wildly exaggerates the extent of his involvement in a woman's extra-marital affairs; McCabe usually writes about love from the perspective of a single man and, once again, this is where he's at.

"When I don't have a girlfriend I want one," he says, "and when I have one I get sick of her or, more usually, she gets sick of me. But I've learned to chill out about this. If you chase, you're not going to get. And anyway, the Zutons is my bird. It makes me happy and it makes me sad."

Harding nods in approval, but how easy is it to be in a relationship in a rock band? "It's mad," she says. Tour schedules for such a hard-working outfit mean she and Payne have to grab at quality time together. "You're always trying to nick a sly one," laughs the minister's daughter less euphemistically. "But I suppose if one of us wasn't in the band we'd never see the other one and we would have split up long ago."

So what's it like for Payne when so many of the boys in a Zutons crowd are feigning interest in woodwind technique to lust after his girlfriend? Harding says she's never seen him get jealous of her sax appeal. "I have," says McCabe. "Maybe it takes a fella to see a fella in a certain way. I couldn't have a girlfriend in a band with all that stuff going on, no way."

And maybe it's this kind of perceptiveness which makes McCabe such a good songwriter. He writes instinctively and the ink can dry on the page before the blood has dried on the streets. So how instinctive was 'Valerie'? "I could tell you I was inspired by gazing out across the Mersey or walking past Macca's old house, but the truth is I got the idea in a cab on the way to my mum's. The whole song was written before I got there, so 20 minutes, max."

Harding loves Winehouse's version, jazzed up with the help of Mark Ronson. "I always thought I sang my songs the best," adds McCabe, "but then I heard that and thought: 'No, dickhead, you don't.'"

When he met Winehouse he told her how much he loved what she did to his song. Her response was cool, but he doesn't hold that against her. "Her world was just about to turn upside down – maybe she'd had a premonition of that."

Of course, 'Valerie' would probably never have been written if McCabe's love life was anything less than chaotic. And lines such as "And I've missed your ginger hair and the way you like to dress" just wouldn't have the same poignancy if you knew the man who wrote them was able to find solace in his very own rock star's mansion.

• The Zutons' new single 'Always Right Behind You' is released on May 26. Also on Deltasonic, You Can Do Anything follows on June 2. The band play T in the Park on July 13