BBC Sound of 2020: Band formed 'on a whim in the pub' are the runners-up
Hard to describe, but easy to love, Leicester's Easy Life have been named runners-up in the BBC's Sound of 2020.
The genre-hopping quintet formed "on a whim" in a pub two years ago, after earning their stripes in an assortment of swing and reggae bands around the city.
Fronted by singer/trumpeter Murray Matravers, they've "bodged together" (their words) an incongruous mix of wonky hip-hop beats, gossamer jazz guitar, afro-beat optimism, wavy pop melodies, psychedelic electronica and witty lyrics, all filtered through the lens of "rainy middle England".
"We've been in lots of projects before and this was very much for ourselves," says Matravers. "Very self-indulgent, going down rabbit holes with the sound.
"I thought no-one would care, that they would be like, 'What are you doing? Write some pop music'. But that wasn't the way it was, and I'm very grateful for that."
The band's music is inspired "almost exclusively by personal experience" with Matravers' discussing everything from anxiety-induced insomnia (Nightmares) and money problems (Pockets) to environmental catastrophe (Earth).
"The song isn't all 'save the whales', it just sort of alludes to it - but I felt like loads of my mates were talking about it, so why not put it in a song?" says the singer.
Easy Life's early songs have already earned the band support from BBC Radio 1 and a headline slot on the BBC Introducing Stage at Glastonbury.
Coming second on the BBC Sound of 2020 puts them alongside previous years' runners-up, including Frank Ocean, James Blake, Franz Ferdinand and Rag 'N' Bone Man.
"It feels good to be with those lot," says Matravers as he settles down to chat about the band's origins and his penchant for performing in his underwear. "There's some amazing talent in there."
Easy Life were chosen for the BBC Sound of 2020 list by a panel of 170 music critics, broadcasters, festival bookers and previous nominees - including Lewis Capaldi, Chvrches and Billie Eilish. The top five were:
Your official biography says you got together "on a whim," which makes it sound almost accidental.
The story of how we met is quite long and boring, I'm afraid. A couple of us went to school together and the rest of us met in Leicester through music.
We were were touring as a little four-piece, playing gigs in pubs to our mates, and then one night we were out and saw Jordan Birtles, the keyboard extraordinaire, in the smoking area of a club. He used to be in another band called By The Rivers, which was quite a successful reggae band - they supported The Specials and The Wailers - so we stumbled over to him and went, 'You've got to join our band, bro', And he was like, 'Oh, go on then'.
And that was it: He was in Easy Life and six months later, we got signed!
The first single you put out was Pockets and it picked up a huge amount of buzz straight away.
We were so lucky. I'd basically written this EP but, at the time, I was kind of done with the music industry. Then Chess Club records got in touch and saying, 'Look, we want to put Pockets out as a single.' That was a massive deal for us, because we were just five dudes from Leicester rehearsing on an industrial estate.
Why were you disillusioned with the music industry?
Since I left school when I was 18, this is all I've done - and I'm 24 now. I've been working terrible jobs, horrific work all over the place, just to try and pay the rent while I pursue music. It's not a very original story but I felt I'd been chewed up and spat out.
What made Easy Life different?
It's strange because we did this very much for ourselves. Pockets is four-and-a-half minutes long and it's not very commercial, but ironically it was that song that got a moderate commercial seal of approval.
What was the worst job you had to do in those early years?
Do you know what? I said it was awful but I had the best time at work. I worked on a jacket potato van on a market for three years and my boss was incredible. He gave me so much support. I love him to bits, I really do.
What was your most popular filling?
Beans and cheese.
We called that "the classic," in fact! But then we did beef chilli, and bolognese and garlic butter. I still make homemade garlic butter now. I've got some in my fridge. It's pretty good.
The other lads had funny jobs, too. Jordan was a music teacher in this school for troubled kids. He used to come into rehearsal after having to restrain kids who'd tried to beat him up. Sam [Hewitt - bass] did clinical trials, where he'd be given the flu for a week for £1,000 and he'd come back like completely ragged. And Cass [Oliver Cassidy - drums] was an electrician, so he took a bit of a pay cut to be in a band!
At least you've got someone to rig the stage.
Honestly, he's amazing. He wired our whole studio. And when my grandma needed some lights doing six months ago, he came through on it. He's great.
One thing I hear repeatedly in your lyrics is that life can be a struggle - but there's optimism and beauty in the small moments.
Absolutely. The overarching thing is the idea that life can get a bit crap, but everything's going to be OK. It's quite a British outlook to grit your teeth and smile - but I can't help it, that's my general outlook.
Bad stuff does happen to me and I feel sad and all the rest of it, but I always have to smile at the end of the song and think, 'You know what? I've got running water'.
There's also a thread of escaping reality by getting into altered states...
I don't want to go too deep into that. I'm pretty clean now. I've quit smoking and I'm pretty tee-total. But I write from experience - so I think back to when I was really trying to push the boundaries. The world looked different through a different lens.
But that's not to say I would recommend that myself, or even get involved with that any more, really. I was actually hit by a van once when I was on acid. I was in hospital, broke my collar bone, both my hands.
That's not good for a trumpeter.
No, no… I was ok after a while but it knocked me back into reality.
On a completely different tangent, Earth is a song that deals with climate change. Why was it important to make that statement?
WelI, I was brought up on an organic farm, and we've had to change the way we farm completely in the last 10 years because of the weather. We can't plant certain crops at the same time we used to because it rains, or it's too hot or it's too cold. And this is England - we have a moderate climate. If you're already facing an extreme climate, and then you add global warming and climate change on top of it, it becomes almost impossible to farm.
So my parents were pumping me with environmental ethics from quite a young age and it just felt like a good time to sing about it. In an interesting way it unites people - because if we don't sort it, we're doomed. This really is our problem to solve.
Was it eye-opening to film the video in a junk yard?
So that was in Morocco, literally in the middle of the desert. You drive out of Marrakech for maybe 20 or 30 minutes and there's this recycling centre in the middle of nowhere and they had acres and acres of plastic. Most of the rubbish didn't have Arabic writing on it, it's mostly been imported from England. You realise we're shunting our problem to someone else; and this beautiful environment was completely destroyed by plastic. It really hit the message home.
Is that the biggest problem - that we can choose to ignore it?
It's easy to ignore it. When you put something in the bin, it's done. You never see that piece of rubbish again. But realistically, someone comes along, picks it up and drives it off to a landfill, where it lives for decades or centuries. It's out of sight, out of mind.
Your new EP has a song called Dead Celebrities. What inspired that?
We played Coachella last April, and that was my first time in LA. Mate, honestly it's amazing, for so many reasons but they're completely obsessed with death and celebrities. There's the museum of celebrity death, the dearly departed museum, and even a hotel we were staying in which was supposed to be haunted by Marilyn Monroe. So that inspired the song.
We shot the video in LA, too, and it's very very funny. We got lots of celebrity look-a-likes and they chased me down Hollywood Boulevard. There's one moment where I'm holding Paris Hilton and my mum over a cliff; and I'm not sure which one to drop. It's really out there.
And should we expect an album this year, too?
Yeah. I've just started work on the album; and I've been lucky to work with some incredible producers. Some heroes of mine, actually.
Can you name them?
Not really, sorry! But it'll all come out in the wash.
When you say 'I've started work on the album,' does that mean you're the chief writer?
Sometimes it's all of us together but I write a lot of the music on my own. I'd say 80% of it.
I'm a recluse, really. I don't like to get out much. When we do the gigs, it's all very extroverted and a big show, but for me that takes quite a lot of doing. I need the rest of the week to sit and read or listen to music.
That surprises me... You've got a reputation for stripping down to your underwear on stage!
Being fully-clothed on stage is difficult when you play for an hour and a half! We might be under those lights for a long time and it's nice to get naked, man, it feels liberating.
Clothes are, you know... we become institutionalised. A million years ago we would all be running around naked eating berries. Things were simpler back then.