Oh Wonder: We spent our honeymoon covered in cockroaches in a burning building

By Mark Savage
BBC Music Correspondent

Image source, Island Records
Image caption,
Oh Wonder's Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht: "On our honeymoon, we had to pretend to break up."

Most people spend their honeymoon somewhere romantic. Mauritius, Antigua, a cosy B&B on the coast.

Not Oh Wonder.

The indie-pop duo, who've been a couple as long as they've been a band, travelled to Ipswich and made a movie about breaking up.

"We went from a day full of joy to an abandoned house full of cockroaches," says singer-songwriter Anthony West.

"And we spent the next week arguing on film," adds his musical and romantic partner, Josephine (Josie) Vander Gucht.

The story only gets weirder from there. Josie caught hypothermia. Anthony had to run into a burning building. They both ended up with scorpions crawling over their faces.

But to understand how they got there, we need to go back to the start of the pandemic.

In March 2020, the band were about to set off on the biggest tour of their lives. They'd booked 120 dates across four continents, and were just five dates in when everything got called off.

"We just didn't know what to do with the adrenalin," says Anthony.

"We'd been in rehearsals for two months, so it was literally a physical thing. Our bodies were like, 'Why are we not doing what we've just been told to do for the rest of the year?' It was a hard thing to work out."

For a band who've always travelled at 100mph, slowing down was particularly tricky.

Since forming in 2014, they've built a huge, international audience for their low-key, musically intimate songs, characterised by their unique vocal unison.

They might not be household names, but they've racked up 2.7 billion global streams, been sampled by Nicki Minaj and covered by Billie Eilish.

Key to their success is their work ethic - they started their career by releasing a track a month on Soundcloud; and have toured relentlessly throughout their career.

"We both grew up with hardcore parents that were like, 'You have to work every minute that you're awake in order to be a good human'," laughs Josie.

At first, lockdown presented the opportunity to work on new material in the studio at the bottom of their garden. By June, they had enough songs for an EP - Home Tapes - that pinpointed the acute isolation of the quarantine.

"Then Anthony took up baking sourdough, along with 95% of the UK," says Josephine, "and I took up eating sourdough."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The band's last two albums went into the top 10 in the UK

But like so many couples, lockdown exposed cracks in their relationship. As they continued to write songs over the summer, the lyrics adopted a tone of anger and resentment that took the couple by surprise.

"We'd go in and all these venomous lyrics would just... come out," says Josie. "And we wouldn't talk about it. We'd just nod and finish the song."

But while the studio atmosphere was calm and professional, tension was simmering at the other end of the garden. As work progressed, they began to realise their fourth album might be their last.

The perfect couple?

One day, Josie sat at the piano in their living room and picked out a chord sequence that immediately sparked the idea for a melody.

"I ran down there [to the studio] and said, 'I think I've got an idea for a song,'" she says. "And Anthony switched the microphone on and I just started singing."

The words poured out unbidden: "What if I hate who I'm becoming? / And my young heart never runs free? / I'm just afraid that I'm failing / I'm just afraid that I'm done."

"It was the first time I had sung it. I hadn't even written out lyrics or anything," she recalls. But the message was clear.

"We started telling people we had broken up," Anthony says. "But they were like, 'What? I thought you guys were the perfect couple. If you're unstable, then what am I?'"

Figure caption,
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Confined to the house, they poured their hearts into the album, documenting what they thought was the end of their personal and professional relationship.

Then, on a song called Free, Josie described the night they got together "sat on the roof of your one bed apartment" on New Year's Eve 2013, before confessing: "I'm sorry we got here / I wish I'd done more to save us."

"We recorded it and you pressed stop," she reminds Anthony. "And your eyes were flooded with tears and mine were flooded with tears and we had a little hug."

In that moment, she felt, she had "really honestly apologised" for letting him down. And somehow, slowly, they began repairing their relationship through the music.

Figure caption,
Warning: Third party content may contain adverts

"It was very odd," reflects Josie. "I think, especially in lockdown, a lot of people buried their feelings, just in the interest of surviving. But the reason we write songs is because we don't like burying things.

"So in hindsight, we had these big arguments - but the next day we'd go into the studio and the songs would be our way of apologising. It sounds really weird and it sounds like we weren't communicating, but I think we'd talked so much, and, and...

"...And this was the final way for us to discuss everything," says Anthony, finishing her thought. "It's like a peace treaty within the songs."

By the end of the record, the duo are emerging from the lowest ebb of their relationship. "What if we made a pact to make it right?" they sing on the promisingly optimistic ballad Kicking The Doors Down.

"That definitely feels like a turning point where there's some hope," says Anthony. "We've trudged through the darkness and come out the other side."

Image source, Island Records

The album, called 22 Break, was basically finished this time last year, but the band's manager advised them not to rush it out, mindful that the UK wasn't out of the Covid woods just yet.

"We were like, 'Oh we'll put this album out before Christmas,' and he said, 'Guys, I think you should just sit and chill for a few months. Don't get bored of the songs, don't fall out of love with the music. Go and do something else for a minute because otherwise you're gonna get really resentful and sad - because you've made something and you can't do anything with it'," says Josie.

"Which I think, in hindsight, was quite clever."

So they did what any couple who've just recovered from a devastating relationship crisis do. They bought a coffee shop.

"For me, it was something I've always wanted to do, but never had the time," says Anthony. ,"We've been to so many coffee shops around the world and to have that experience and not put it into your own place, would just be a sin."

So, for three months at the end of last year, the unsuspecting residents of Peckham were served coffee by a world-famous alt-pop band, who were biding the time before their new album could come out.

"Nobody knew who we were," marvels Josie. "We were just masked up, mopping the floor, working the till and it was so lovely just to have routine and interact with people."

"Plus," says Anthony, "you get pretty good at foam art if you make 600 coffees a day."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Oh Wonder in concert: Mochaccino not pictured

Once vaccines came into play, the duo hired staff to keep the coffee shop ticking over, and put the finishing touches to the record.

That involved two things (1) Commissioning a short film to accompany the music and (2) a proposal of marriage.

"We always knew we wanted to get married," says Josie. "And I think it was just like, if we don't do it now we'll never do it because we'll be back on tour."

The ceremony took place in August, with the couple surrounded by friends and serenaded by fellow musicians Honne, Conor Albert and Polly Paulusma.

Josie got up and sang Katrina and the Waves' Walking On Sunshine, while two friends dressed up as Oh Wonder and played covers of their own songs.

"It was the best day of my life," says Josie. "Better than a show. I'm just sad I can't do it again. I need another wedding!"

Image source, Oh Wonder / Twitter
Image caption,
Josie says getting married is the only thing that matches the adrenalin high of playing live

And so we circle back to the start of this story. How on earth did they end up shooting a short film about their break-up two days after tying the knot?

"We were actually supposed to do it before the wedding, and then the director, Thomas James, got Covid," explains Josie.

Undeterred by the nuptials, James raked over the coals of the break-up, with a narrative that sees Josie and Anthony trying to walk towards each other, while being constantly pulled into dark voids and torturous situations.

"I think it was one of the hardest weeks of my life," says Josie.

"We filmed a lot of it in this abandoned house, and on the ninth day we realised someone actually lived there, and they were hiding in one of the rooms."

Another set-up involved Josie wading into the sea off the Norfolk Coast - after which she caught hypothermia and had to be treated in an ambulance.

Other scenes required the musicians to be covered in bugs, butterflies and maggots; while Anthony risked his life for a pivotal scene where the not-so-abandoned house burned down.

"We had this pyrotechnic specialists and their job was to come up and set a replica of the house on fire," he says.

"One guy was like, 'We're just going to do a test,' and he set fire to the bottom of a nylon curtain. So it all burst into flames and everyone goes, 'Fire extinguisher!' and they're like, 'Oh crap, we left them in the van'.

"So the director said, 'We've got to roll! Run in there and we'll start filming!"

Watching as her new husband battled the flames, Josie found herself thinking: "All I want to do is sit at home and write songs and I've got hypothermia and you're in a burning building. How has this transpired?"

Image source, Island Records
Image caption,
The band say the story of 22 Break isn't quite finished... Pointing out the album only features 11 of the 22 chapters promised by the title

Thankfully, everyone survived and Oh Wonder have a proper honeymoon booked for November.

Before that, they're letting everyone witness the near-collapse of their relationship in the form of the 22 Break album. Compared to their earlier work, it's more revealing, more stripped-back and infinitely more moving.

Josie says she still hasn't worked out how to perform the songs live without crying - but she knows she's got all the support she needs right there on the stage with her.

"To look to your left on stage, while you're on a high, and see the person you love the most in the world is crazy," she says.

"To see someone else flying whilst you are? The combo is ridiculous. It's so good."

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