“I don’t even remember talking about it. It was all grime.” So says Charlie Steen, the 21-year-old singer of London band Shame. We’re pondering the fact that, for the first time in years, the music scene appears to be filled with exciting new guitar bands. He’d recently seen a kid on a train carrying a poster of Bristol post-punk quintet Idles. “There seems to be a real connection again.”
I agreed: with bands like Black Country, New Road; The Murder Capital; Squid – not for years has British and Irish rock been so genuinely interesting. Sure, these bands don’t particularly sound alike. Even so, for the circles that care, there’s a strong sense that they’re connected; perhaps less because they share the same record labels or play similar venues than the fact that, finally, the broad, long-dormant genre of guitar-based music has found a willing audience again. A momentum that, oddly enough, even some of the artists didn’t anticipate.
“When we started, we were just four people in our early thirties working full-time jobs,” says Flo Shaw, who fronts Dry Cleaning, a melodic but slightly odd indie rock outfit from London who make lyrics from snatches of overheard conversation or found text. “We had our heads in the sand about any kind of a ‘scene’,” she continues. “The fact that we seemed to be emerging into something that already existed was a huge surprise.”
To be clear: nobody is saying this is a kind of Britpop 2.0, a second coming of British guitar groups like Blur or Oasis that set the sonic agenda of the mid-1990s. For one thing, none of these bands appear to be chasing stadium-sized success; and none of them seem to want to sound like each other. With a dollop of glam and a smidge of AC/DC, a band like Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, for instance, suggests the indie-fied eccentricity of fellow Welsh group Super Furry Animals; quite distinct from the sombre, mordant Black Country, New Road, with their long, twisting narratives set to music in which violin and saxophone are as important as guitar (think, The Fall reinvented as a jazz-folk band).
Different again, Do Nothing, from Nottingham, are a kind of minimalist LCD Soundsystem. Then there’s Squid, with singer-drummer Ollie Judge: skronky and squawky and abrasive. There’s also Life, from Hull, who call themselves “postpunk absurdists”. From Ireland, but based in London, Sinead O’Brien offers poetry set to fluent guitar playing. The list goes on. All different, distinct, interesting.
“They’re playing guitar music that doesn’t follow the rules,” says Felix White, once of indie band The Maccabees, who now runs the Yala! Records label. “For a long time, guitar bands had to follow certain rules and do certain things.” In practice, that meant sounding like Oasis. “But these [new] groups are taking inspiration from places way outside that. So there’s a natural quirkiness.”
For a scene to flourish, two things are needed. The first is people who want to release music. In this case, that’s Dan Carey and Pierre Hall, who run the Speedy Wunderground label, which has released one-off singles by so many of these bands that it’s pretty much a finishing school for many of them. “These groups want to communicate something,” Carey says. “You get bands copying each other when they haven’t really got anything to say. But if you’re using the platform of music as a way of communicating, you’re more likely to come up with interesting stuff. That’s part of the idea here, you have to sound different.”
The second thing is the availability of gig venues. South London, home to a number of these bands, has offered spaces where they can play. Premier is the Windmill, a nondescript pub in Brixton, which nurtured the groups Shame, Goat Girl and Black Midi, all of whom have released acclaimed albums in the past couple of years, and count almost as elder statespeople of the scene, despite being in their early twenties.
“When we started doing nights at the Windmill, and booking bands like Goat Girl and Shark Dentist, the people who were watching the gigs were the people who were starting bands,” says Shame singer Charlie Steen, who used the Windmill as an early base. “It was a very DIY atmosphere. We were 17 – no-one else was going to do it for us. So it felt like there was a community.”
That’s been joined by the nights Felix White curates nearby at Bermondsey Social Club. “When the Maccabees started, you found out who you were from all the indie club nights and seven-inch singles labels. But when the band ended [in 2017] we realised that had totally stopped. So we were trying to give young bands a place to be and to grow. With Bermondsey Social Club, we are able to keep it open as late as we want, so we can cultivate an experience; you’re not just going to an everyday sort of gig. Bands leave feeling better about themselves.”
Another reason why these bands are so distinct could be that they weren’t deeply immersed in guitar music before they started making it. Ollie Judge says Squid were listening to ambient when they formed in Brighton in 2015. Flo Shaw of Dry Cleaning grew up listening to hip-hop. Steen says only two of Shame’s five members were paying any attention to guitar music.
That, almost certainly, has contributed to the unusual sounds. “We’ve always viewed Dry Cleaning as a project,” Shaw says, “as something quite specific and conceptual. We’re all quite dedicated to making sure the songs work, and what happens when we’re in a room together, we tend to make quite poppy guitar music that’s exciting to us. It’s a happy accident.”
With Squid, the accidental nature of the sound was even more pronounced. “We started off playing in a jazz venue, and it was all centred around piano and cello. We always used to sit down when we played. But at one gig, there were no chairs, so the rest of the band had to stand, and the sound engineer was so terrible that I had to shout into the mic.” He laughs at the haphazard nature of it. “That was a turning point.” And that was how Squid, unwittingly, transformed into one of the most exciting young bands in Britain, with their cacophonous mixture of post-punk, motorik, synth-pop and anything else that crosses their path.
What’s amazing is how many groups seem to be springing up. Each band talks glowingly about two or three others: Flo Shaw recommends Garden Centre and Dog Chocolate (yes, they’re real bands); Dan Carey raves about The Lounge Society, from Manchester (“Incredible”), Death Crash, Comfort and Blue Bendy. Ask anyone, the names just don’t stop coming.
“What we’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg,” Carey says. “There’s so much really good stuff out there.”
Sinead O Brien
What Sinead O’Brien is a poet who wanted to recite while a guitarist played with her. She realised that with Julian Hanson, who weaves fantastically melodic, spirally guitar lines underneath her vocals while drummer Oscar Robertson keeps things barrelling along.
Tell me more Her and Hanson’s first show together was at an open-mic style arts event in an east London warehouse. “It was brilliant,” O’Brien says. “It changed the path of what we were going to do, because we got such a good reaction from people. We were hooked together: this was going to be our thing.”
She says “The vocal style comes from the way that I decided to put the words down,” she says. “I didn’t have a band. It was a very solitary act at the beginning. I’d just moved to Paris after graduating, and in my spare time I was starting to put down what I was seeing around me. I could almost feel some music in the pieces, and I would always listen to music when I was writing, because that was my on switch.”
The verdict “The Irish punk poet thriving in an unsettled world,” Will Richards, NME.
Book ahead 20 March, Heaven, London; 9 May, Yes Basement, Manchester
The Murder Capital
What Just as London has got its wave of bands, so – across the Irish Sea – does Dublin, where the quartet Girl Band have inspired and nurtured a bunch of groups that have followed in their wake: the wildly acclaimed Fontaines DC, the dreamily melodic Just Mustard, feminist indie band Pillow Queens and, best of all, The Murder Capital, a quintet with the grandeur of U2, the intensity of Joy Division, and the performance skills of Bruce Springsteen.
Tell me more They’ve been together in their current form a little more than 18 months, but in that time their debut album, When I Have Fears, has reached the Irish top five, and they’ve seen the venues they play go from back rooms of pubs to 1,500-capacity clubs. And they need to be seen.
They say “There are moments on stage when it feels like, to me, the performance is very sexual,” says singer James McGovern. “It can be tongue-in-cheek, it can be facetious, it can be aggressive, it can be confrontational. You can see those things in the space of 60 seconds if you can catch the looks.”
The verdict “Thrillingly unnerving”, Dave Simpson, The Guardian.
Book ahead 12 March, Knitting Factory, New York; 16 March, DC9, Washington DC; 25 March, Velvet Underground, Toronto
Black Country, New Road
The 2018-formed up-and-coming indie six-piece might be the UK’s most exciting band right now
What Despite having only two tracks you can readily hear – Sunglasses and Athens, France, both on Spotify – Black Country, New Road have gained a reputation as one of the most startling young bands at work, with Isaac Wood intoning his odd lyrics, both surreal and deeply quotidian, over music that ebbs and surges, travelling far from its starting point. “I think the thing we’ve done is that the music takes the heavy load of the melodic work,” Wood says.
Tell me more The core of the group had been together before, in a band called Nervous Conditions, but this group was intended to be something different.
They say “Melodies were something we wanted to do more of,” says bassist Tyler Hyde. “Moving away from sounding so much like The Fall. The music isn’t driven or motivated by the lyrics. Someone will come with an idea for a section of a song and that will be taken to a practice room and fleshed out by everyone else, through talking, through improvisation.”
The verdict “Truly a sound less travelled”, Kitty Empire, The Guardian. Book ahead 6 March, The Roundhouse, London; 3-7 June, Primavera Sound, Barcelona.
What No-one paid much attention to Squid at first. Their first single, 2016’s Perfect Teeth, was pleasantly ambient. The next year’s follow-up, the Lino EP, was similar, if a little more focused. Their identity really began to emerge with The Dial in 2018, then last year’s Houseplants single and Town Centre EP suddenly saw them take off.
Tell me more Early last summer they were merely a support band at club shows; but by its end there were queues to see them at End of the Road Festival.
They say “Your guess is as good as mine as to how that happened,” says Ollie Judge, their singing drummer. “We’d played a lot of gigs in those two months, and had a lot of support from BBC Radio 6 Music. I’ve been going to End of the Road since I was 12 or 13, and my dad calls the slot we played – late Saturday afternoon in the Big Top – the one that gives you the alt-J effect.” Indeed, the Leeds band played it in 2012 and went on to fill arenas.
The verdict “Wonderfully anarchic”, Jazz Monroe, Pitchfork. Book ahead 2 April, The Scala, London; 3–6 Sept, End of the Road Festival, UK