The return of rock: Four bands to watch
- 17 April 2014
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
After years in the doldrums, the UK rock scene is finally showing signs of life. We speak to four of the country's most promising new bands.
Where have all the UK's guitar bands gone?
It's a common cry in the music press, seemingly exasperated by the lack of bare-chested, spittle-flecked rock riffs in the top 40.
The truth is there have been guitar bands in the charts - it's just that most of them were playing banjos too.
Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes led the way, while sensitive singer-songwriters Ed Sheeran and Jake Bugg have also recorded multi-platinum-selling albums.
But rock, with a capital RRRR, has been curiously quiet.
"I think guitar music has just not been good enough," said James Curran, head of music at Absolute Radio, speaking at a Radio Academy event in February.
"Part of the problem we have in top 40 radio, a lot of it commercial, is that they will just play pop and R&B and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"They won't go near guitar music - and if it's not getting properly exposed, there's not going to be many chart hits that are guitar based."
At the same event, BBC Radio 1's music chief, George Ergatoudis, said rock was suffering a natural downswing after being the dominant musical genre in the mid-2000s.
As that era peaked, he recalled, "the audience were literally begging us to stop playing some of the bands.
But "the appetite is slowly starting to swing back," he added.
"I think 2015 is going to be more significant than this year, but already there are more really hot, interesting guitar acts that have emerged in the last six months that are on our radar right now, than there have been in the last three or four years."
Many of those bands are homegrown and, unusually, many of them are duos.
We spoke to four of rock's brightest hopes to find out what makes them tick.
Blackpool three-piece Darlia are the brainchild of 19-year-old Nathan Day, who's been carefully plotting a rock career since he was 10.
Joined by Dave Williams (bass) and Jack Bentham (drums), the band recorded their debut EP with Cam Blackwood - whose credits include London Grammar and Florence and The Machine.
Their second EP, Candyman, was released this week - but Day says he has plenty more material ready to go.
How did the band get together?
I used to play with Jack at primary school. He played drums, I played guitar.
Why did you wait 'til now to release anything?
We were playing from an early age but I didn't want to be a novelty band. So all we were doing was preparing, really.
Do those songs still stand up today?
Absolutely! The songs that will be on the first and second album, I wrote when I was that age.
Really? Most people are mortified by the songs they wrote at that age.
That's the thing - the songs were never: "I went to the park today, blah, blah, blah." They weren't immediate, literal descriptions of what was happening. Therefore they can last until I'm 20 and I want to play them again.
The attention was almost immediate when your EP came out last November. Were you taken aback by the reaction?
It was as quick as I'd hoped, but faster than I thought. It's strange. I didn't think people would judge so much on an EP. I didn't think people would listen to the EP and go "oh, they're a grunge band".
It seems like being judged on the strength of one song is a product of the internet age - people are encouraged to make snap decisions on Twitter and YouTube.
When people say "they sound like Nirvana", I can completely understand it. It's not a bad judgment, but it's not like we've released three albums and we're touring the world.
But I know what I'm doing at this stage and I know what songs are coming out, and what effect they'll have. It's almost a little game.
In what way?
The Knock Knock EP and Candyman were written with intimate venues in mind - clubs and things like that. But the music that comes after that is written with bigger things in mind. That's why I didn't want to release it now. No band starts off playing festivals on huge stages, and no band starts off playing 1,000-capacity rooms. It all ties in.
Why do you think rock is making a comeback now?
It's almost like mould. If there's mould in the room and you brush it away and get rid of it, it just goes. But the longer you look at mould and don't do anything about it… The longer that everyone's talking about this mould, it'll just get bigger. No-one's rubbing it off because they're all too busy speculating about it.
That's what I think it is. While people are busy analysing it, rock music is slowly growing and growing. And I think that's always been the case.
Hailing from Brighton, Royal Blood eschew electric guitars, creating riff-heavy power rock with just a bass guitar and a drum kit.
The immense, pulverising single Out Of The Black won Mike Kerr (vocals, bass) and Ben Thatcher (drums) comparisons to Queens of the Stone Age, as well as a place on the BBC Sound of 2014 longlist last year.
The Arctic Monkeys also endorsed the band - with drummer Matt Helders wearing one of their t-shirts onstage at the Glastonbury festival last summer.
After headlining the NME Awards Tour this summer, the band are hard at work on their debut album, Kerr told the BBC.
How did the band get together?
We've known each other since we were 15. We had a large group of friends that came out of being in bands around the south coast - Chichester to Brighton. We've been in all sorts of bands together - wedding bands, function bands. We've done it all.
This was something which we decided to take seriously and here we are.
So that's why you were able to play a gig the day after Royal Blood formed?
Exactly. I have a musical chemistry with Ben that doesn't happen overnight. Some of these song ideas were from the ashes of us working together and not having a band, or me having a song on my own. It seems like a quick growth but we've been making music since we were 15.
Did you always play bass?
Piano was kind of my instrument, but I was always obsessed with making big sounds. I picked up a bass really by default - then I found a way of making a really big sound that gave me my ticket to starting what would eventually become Royal Blood.
And how do you make that sound?
It's a secret! It took me so long to work out, and I feel like to give that away isn't fair. So I'm proud of keeping it a secret.
The riff on Out Of The Black is rhythmically very complex. How many times did you have to play it before you got it right?
It's funny. That riff was born out of the drum beat, so in my head I think of it as a drum hook.
It's something Ben was tapping with his hands in a pub one day. I thought it was really cool, so next time we met up to write, we used it. It didn't take very long. It sounds complicated but it really isn't. It's just a combination of two notes but we thought it sounded really exciting.
You wrote on Twitter you'd had a "Spinal Tap moment" on the NME tour. What happened?
Oh God! I said "good evening Nottingham" when I was in Birmingham. We'd been in Nottingham that morning. I fell asleep in the van, woke up, got myself together and went on stage. Then I said "good evening Nottingham". It was awful.
And is it true Ben broke a finger in the middle of one of your shows?
He definitely dislocated it. We were in Southampton and two songs before the end, he called me over to the kit and showed me his finger. It was at a very odd angle. He was very pale. I said I'd call the gig off, but he insisted he play the last two songs.
A mate of mine, who is a nurse, was in the crowd. He just got some gaffer tape and gaffered his two fingers together, and Ben played the rest of the set.
Has it been a big deal to have support from the Arctic Monkeys?
It actually has, yeah. You don't imagine a band who you respect and have grown up listening to, to turn around and start supporting you.
Do you know how they heard the songs?
We share the same management team, so I guess they got to hear us before anyone else. But there was no reason why they had to do any of the things they've done for us.
Honeyblood are Glaswegian musicians Stina Tweeddale (vocals, guitar) and Shona McVicar (drums) - aka "short and shorter" (their description).
A stripped-back guitar and drums combo, they recorded their first EP in a bathroom, distributing 50 copies on cassette.
Describing their sound as "crunchpop", they've subsequently released a brace of melodic, dreamy garage rock songs which have gained airplay on BBC 6 Music and Amazing Radio.
Stina spoke to the BBC shortly after the band wrapped up their first US tour.
How did Honeyblood begin?
We were both in bands before - but it was always that thing where you're the only girl on stage. The rest of the band were guys, there's a guy sound engineer, there's a guy promoter. It got to the point where you get bored of that.
So I started pulling away from my own band and writing my own songs.
I went to see Shona's band and kind of sneaked away - but then we bumped into each other in a bar. I was like: "Hey, I saw your band playing and you were really good, and I was wondering if maybe you want to go to a practice room and jam?" And that was it, really.
Did you try out other people?
It was never the intention to just be two of us. There weren't any other girls at the time who were good enough to play with us. They didn't like the same music, or whatever. Me and Shona really clicked because we both really wanted to rock out.
Is it true you recorded your first EP in your bathroom?
Not my bathroom. A friend recorded it for us and we did record some of it in a bathroom. We just recorded it on a four-track tape deck - we pressed record, we recorded drums, we recorded guitar, we recorded two vocal tracks and that was it.
How has it changed since?
We went and recorded with Peter Katis, who produced Interpol and The National, in his fancy studio in his house. So I guess we're still recording in someone's house.
But now you can't accidentally turn the shower on in the middle of a song.
There actually was a bathroom in the studio! Sometimes Peter would leave the door open to get that interesting reverb - especially when he was recording the drums. That is the common thread in all of our recordings.
Fans seem to love the song SuperRat - especially its refrain "scumbag, sleaze, slimeball, grease". Was that about someone in particular?
It's kind of a joke. I wrote it to cheer someone up about a bad time they had when someone was an asshole to them - so it's actually a really happy song.
Are you sick of being called "the female White Stripes"?
I love the White Stripes so much. So, no, never.
I think generally we don't sound like The White Stripes. But they're the most famous two-piece who made it work in recent years, so I guess that's why people get compared to them.
In a few years time, it'll be "oh, you're the mixed-gender Honeyblood".
Hey! Let's hope that happens.
Why do you think rock bands are coming back?
Pop music has always been guitar-based and it maybe goes in and out, but I love guitars. I'm such a guitar geek. So a good guitar sound is what makes it for me, other than a good song.
How many guitars do you have?
I actually don't know! My dad is a guitarist and he builds guitars, so all my guitars are custom-made for me.
Does he do that for a living?
Not for a living, but he's a guitarist and his hobby is to build them. I have one that's made by him and his friend and it's literally custom built from parts. And I have another that's a Telecaster that he's customised to the sound that I want.
But I don't believe in buying things that everybody else has and thinking "if I have the best thing, I'll sound the best". No, it makes you sound like everyone else.
The amp I use was 50 quid. I've had people come up to me after a show and say: "Oh my God, how do you get such a good sound? I've never seen one of those amps before". I'm like: "Yeah, 'cos no-one else uses them because they think they're too cheap when actually they're really good. Maybe you should do your homework."
Drenge (meaning boys in Danish) are 21-year-old Eoin Loveless, who is backed by his brother, Rory, on drums.
Praised by the NME for their "pleasingly feral" sound, they have been championed by BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq, who called them his favourite new band.
The Derbyshire duo were also endorsed by MP Tom Watson, after he cited them in his resignation letter to Labour leader Ed Miliband last year.
En route to a gig in Milan, Eoin explained why the MP's patronage had made little difference to their career.
As you're brothers, was there always a sense of inevitability you'd play together?
We've had music lessons together since we were four or five. There was always a piano in the house and if one person was playing and showing off, the other would jump on and try to out-play them.
What was the point when you decided "we're going to be a band"?
It was towards the end of 2010. I decided I'd take a year off before I went to university. This quickly emerged to be a really bad idea, because I found it very hard to get a job.
I needed something to do while I was unemployed and wasting day after day at my parent's house looking for jobs all the time. Having a band meant that I had something… When we started, we preoccupied ourselves with writing 'zines and making our own radio shows online. We did loads of stuff outside of playing gigs and writing songs, to keep my creative side ticking over, rather than having nothing, literally, going on in my life.
What's your approach to writing?
Most of the stuff is riff-based. The lyrics are the last thing. Lyrics can take months, or over a year, until you find something that stands up to the song. And if you're playing that song live you just mumble and make stuff up.
After signing a deal, you got a lot of attention very quickly.
I guess so. But when you're in the band things take months and months and months, so it never feels very quick - apart from the Tom Watson thing, which was a lot of media interest rather than musical interest. A lot of newspapers started writing about us in the politics pages but we didn't really notice a massive bump in Facebook fans or anything like that - it was just the media.
But we got a review in the Financial Times - not many bands can say that.
Was there part of you that wanted to distance the band from his comments?
Music and politics never sit well together, so we just ignored most of it really. It didn't bother us because we had shows to play and an album to come out.
Was the album finished at that point?
The day that story broke, we actually kind of signed off on everything - the artwork, the credits, the tracklisting. We ticked the box and sent the album off to be pressed.
So it was too late to put his name in the "Thank you" section.
Yes, he just missed that by a couple of hours.
Why do you think there are so many rock duos about?
It's probably down to the recession! The less people in a band, the more cash there is to split. A 12-person band isn't going to get paid more per show.
What restrictions are there?
You're hugely compromised when you play live because everything has to be done by the two of you, unless you start getting a backing track in or hiring other people. But for us, it's always been about the two of us providing all the sound on stage as best we can.
You make a huge sound on stage for just two people. How do you do it?
I guess because there's less to mix, the sound guy can exaggerate everything. Lots of effects on the guitar, and trying to make the drums sounds as big as possible.
Your videos are very cinematic - did any particular director inspire you?
It's not like a single influence... The first music video we did, Backwaters, is like a Shane Meadows/Mike Leigh realist video, filmed in the village where the song is set and we lived with our parents.
The video for Face Like a Skull was much more art-driven. We were looking at art installation videos and things like that. Then the video for Nothing is like a Scandi-noir video, inspired by The Killing and The Bridge and those sorts of programmes.
Why not just shoot a performance video? That's what most rock bands do...
I hate the idea of a video where we just stand in a room and play the song. We're not very interesting people to look at - my brother's saying "speak for yourself" - so you might as well take the budget you've been given and do something interesting.
The video might be the first time someone finds out about your band and you want that to be completely under your discretion. You don't want someone else to have artistic responsibility for that.