Postcards from the UK

Another wonderful post from our dear friend Dan Holloway.  Do enjoy.

From the Merlot monologues to his online reinvention of the surrealist gameshow Mornington Crescent, Charlie Cooke, aka @charlieatlantic, is the funniest man on twitter. He’s also the frontman of InLight (with guitarist Mike, bass Johnny, and drums Pete) “the best unsigned band in Britain” (according to the leading Indie site This Reality Podcast). So I was delighted when he spared an evening to chat to me in the idyllic environs of Oxford’s Queen’s Lane Coffee House.

The oldest coffee shop in this historic university city might seem like an unlikely place to hang out with one of the bright young things of the Indie music scene, but with his molasses smooth voice and cheeky humour, Charlie fits both worlds perfectly. As does InLight’s music. Which is why it makes sense that the band’s music is about to hit a wider audience courtesy of the film adaptation of Oxford author Phillip “His Dark Materials” Pulman’s novel The Butterfly Tattoo. The band’s song “Bridges” features not only in the film but on the soundtrack. “We saw an advert on MySpace for tracks that might suit the film,” Charlie explains. “We sent the producers Bridges, and they said yes.”

Exactly why InLight’s music has such a wide appeal is clear when I push Charlie on their influences. I ask him about “Disappear”, the track the band has just been working on, a song whose haunting lyrics and compelling hook remind me strangely of the writing of Haruki Murakami; a song I love so much I made it the star of a chapter in my current novel. “It probably doesn’t make any sense,” says Charlie, with his self-effacing charm, “but I was listening to Chopin, and I thought ‘I wonder how this would sound if it was done discobeat’.” It actually makes perfect sense, and it’s that range of influences that makes InLight’s music so interesting.

Charlie advertises himself on his twitter profile (he is so obsessed with the microblogging site the band has taken to teasing him about it during their sets) as a Beatles maniac. And that certainly comes through in our conversation (we talk for a while about what constitutes a band’s voice and he enthuses about the differences and similarities between Sergeant Pepper and Rubber soul; we talk about playing festivals by day or pubs by night and he exclaims it’s impossible to imagine Eleanor Rigby played live in the daylight).

But what also comes through is the depth of the influence on his songwriting. Charlie’s grandfather, and his great grandfather were both concert pianists. “I grew up with that kind of music, so I’ve always been interested in music that’s about melody and orchestration.” That’s what explains the richness of the band’s sound, the repeated listening it stands up to. I point out this shows in their gigs, that he’s more at home playing keyboard than guitar. “You noticed,” he smiles, elaborating, “I play guitar because I’m in a band. I play keyboard because I love it.”

I first came across InLight when they supported The Boxer Rebellion at Oxford’s Bullingdon Arms. I loved their music, but I also loved their approach. “If you buy our CD,” they said, “we’ll draw you a customised cover for it.” What a wonderful idea, I thought, especially as I’d just started writing a book about iconic images and modern art. So I ordered a copy of their postcards CD (which they will happily ship, with hand-drawn cover, to the US), which duly arrived with a hand-drawn cover based on my book’s central image. What made them come up with such a great idea? Is one of the band an artist “We didn’t really know what to put on the cover,” Charlie laughs, “So Mike said why not draw them as the orders come in. Besides, it’s cheaper than getting a load printed.” Strange how romantic ideas can have such prosaic origins.

Eventually I broach the big question. The UK’s best unsigned band. Indie gods. Would InLight ever consider a label if the opportunity arose? I wait for the agonising and the despair at giving away freedom for the sake of paying the rent. “I’d love to be on Parlophone,” Charlie answers in a flash. “No, it’s more than that. I’ve always dreamed of being on Parlophone. The first record I ever played was one of my dad’s. I remember watching the Parlophone logo spinning round and round, and thinking one day…”

It’s a refreshing honesty. “Going it alone suits some bands,” he says. “But I think our sound suits the studio production values you get with a label.” It’s the same honesty he has about the band’s music. The breadth of influence, the classical overtones, and the fact I’d spent the afternoon listening to Pure Reason Revolution, lead me to ask the inevitable. Has the band ever thought about doing something a bit proggy? “Well I like Pink Floyd,” says Charlie. But that’s as far as it goes. “Our music’s commercial. It’s what suits us, and what we do best.”

And that sums up InLight more than anything else. This is a band that knows what it wants to do, and is happy doing it. And as long as they keep knocking out beautifully crafted, brilliantly orchestrated 4 minute masterpieces like Icarus and Disappear, it can’t be too long till the telephone rings.

Inside Outside the Box

Dan Holloway talks to Todd Howe of The Boxer Rebellion as the UK’s best Indie band prepares to play North America

I was tired and cold and sopping wet, and the only seat on the Tube was covered with a dog-eared copy of Metro. I put on my gloves, picked it up by the corner with a look of disgust, and caught sight of a small article halfway down the page about a London band. In the few months since then, my wife and I have been to see The Boxer Rebellion four times, and acquired every piece of merch we can lay our hands on. Which, I gathered from guitarist Todd Howe, isn’t unusual for the band’s fans. “Yeah, we’ve had one guy who’s followed us around the country for five years,” he said in his cool Australian drawl when I spoke to him at home, between gigs. “Which is pretty cool.”

That original article recounted how the band’s single, Evacuate, had become the first iTunes Single of the Week (the album, Union, making the iTunes top 5 in the UK and the US). All that without a record label (they were dropped by their label in 2005 the week their first album, Exits, a dark, claustrophobic masterpiece that became an underground sensation, was released) or, indeed, a physical recording. Union, in fact (a few special, tour-only CDs, one signed copy of which is a proud possession, aside), isn’t released as a CD until August.

So what is it that makes fans so crazy for what has to be the hottest band in the UK right now, to the extent Evacuate achieved 560,000 downloads in a week? I wonder if it’s something to do with their unique sound. “We started off aiming at something between Massive Attack and Muse,” says Todd. What they ended up with is a sound that’s 100% their own. The combination of frontman Nathan Nicholson’s powerful but haunting vocals (think Richard Ashcroft gone down to the Crossroads) on songs like Silent Movie, the infectious hook of Forces, and the brilliant layering and structure of Semi-Automatic, give their music both instant appeal and the ability to stand endless relistening.

The band also has an incredible stage presence, and their gigs in front of their home London crowds are just electric. “Our London gigs have a family atmosphere,” says Todd. A family like The Sopranos, maybe. The night I saw the band play Scala, they sent the crowd berserk, and Todd ended up playing the guitar meltdown at the end of their signature track Watermelon on his back, on top of someone who later became my twitterbuddy! It helps build the relationship with the fans that they always sell their own merch and have a drink with the fans after the show “Yeah, we can’t afford a merch guy,” Todd laughs, adding, “Sometimes we spend longer selling merch than we do playing the gig.” It’s something the band loves doing, and it enhances the sense of being part of a family – or, given the band’s history, part of a story.

The Boxer Rebellion will be playing The Mercury Lounge, New York on August 6, and The Mod Club Toronto, on August 8, and the three shows they’ve played in the US so far this year – their first US dates – have been sellouts. But the band almost toured America before, supporting The Killers in 2004, when Nicholson was struck down with an illness that took a year to recover from. It clearly means a lot to the band to be playing there at last. “When we finished Flashing Red Light Means Go (the thumping set opener, to which the band – Nathan, Todd, and bassist Adam – make their rock’n’roll entrance – “but you feel like a bit of an idiot if you’re playing to like 10 people,” Todd jokes – whilst drummer Piers builds momentum) in LA the crowd just went mental. It was awesome.” I could sense both the pride, and the relief in his voice.

Between shows, the band is currently writing and recording their third album, which must be a little weird, I suggest, when they haven’t actually released the second one. “We want to make sure we stay ahead of the game,” says Todd, quickly. The band have had it all taken away before, and it’s clear they’re going to do everything they can to avoid it happening a second time.

The Boxer Rebellion embody everything that makes Indie culture great, from their unique sound to their absolute commitment to their fans (“if people are paying that much money, we want to make sure they get a hell of a show,” says Todd when I ask him about their unusually high quality of support acts, which have included the outstanding electro-prog band Pure Reason Revolution, and “the best unsigned band in Britain” according to many, InLight). But what about the clincher. Anything in the pipeline in terms of a label? “We’ve done a licensing deal in Japan and New Zealand,” says Todd, “and we’ve got a great distributor in Europe, so technically I guess we’re no longer unsigned.” Nonetheless, he explains, “we made a collective decision we didn’t need a label. If we were going to change our minds and look at anyone, they’d have to follow the way we wanted to work.” The kings of UK Indie look set to retain that status for some time to come.

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Dan Holloway is author of the novel Songs From the Other Side of the Wall, a founder member of the Year Zero Writers collective, and organiser of the Free-e-day Indie download festival. Based in the UK, he will be speaking at the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Association in Boston this November.

I hear it’s nice in the winter time

If you’ve been with us for a while, you remember Dutch Week, which went over surprisingly well with you people. Since then, Kristin and I have been dying to do another theme week. We considered taking on the Netherlands again because there is still so much incredible music we haven’t addressed yet, but instead, we are heading south to a place with a surprising amount of great music being created by a population of just over 400,000. That’s right, I’ve been promising this for a few weeks now, and here it is. It is time for MALTA MAYHEM!

We’re going to get things going with my favorite Maltese band (of the ones I have managed to preview thus far). Welcome to the world of nosnow/noalps. This is a band with more than a minor funky streak, just check out the video for “Headset” below. Drawing on equal parts rock, funk, and ska, with boy/girl vocals and some nice guitar work, nosnow/noalps remind me of something like a spiffed up version of CSS and even the art school sound of the Ting Tings (both of which you ought to check out if, for some reason, you didn’t the moment you first heard “Music is my hot, hot sex” on that iPod advert two years ago). There are songs streaming on their MySpace and Facebook pages (we’re on Facebook, too). Check out nosnownoalps.com for other information and stuff not available on either of those other pages.

One last bit of news completely unrelated to Malta Mayhem. Indie Handbook favorites The Joy Formidable released their new single, “Whirring” on 7″ vinyl today (if you are a fan of TIH on Facebook, you already know this). The single includes an alternate version of “Whirring” in Welsh. Visit our Facebook page to see a video for the Welsh version, or just Google it. Of course, it’s too late to pre-order the single and have your name entered into the drawing for the Joy Formidable golden ticket, but I’m sure they will still sell you the record anyway.