More about: Neon Waltz
Some bands run on hard drugs and adrenalin nights. Others on ego fumes and creative dissonance. Neon Waltz, on the other hand, run on small, exhaust-sized nuggets of Hovis.
At least, for one night they did. “We were going to Tramlines festival,” says guitarist Jamie Swanson, “and we broke down in the Pennines with no signal. Calvin [Wilson, bass] sorted the van with a piece of bread from the rider. There was a hole in a pipe or something.”
Singer Jordan Shearer chuckles. “We tried chewing gum and stuff.”
If Neon Waltz were wheat intolerant they might still be there now, rather than sat on a mezzanine of the BBC session studio at Maida Vale, having just blasted the booth to bits with four powerhouse modern indie epics, discussing one of a thousand Long Drives Home. For Neon Waltz, the saviours of the sizzling indie guitar anthem, hail from Caithness, literally the end of the earth. At the northernmost point of Scotland, near John O’Groats, it’s a quiet, insular community where the six-piece gestated as schoolfriends, practiced in a wind-beaten, heater-less croft house that a Thomas Hardy character might consider uninhabitable – “it’s a nightmare in winter, you have to properly dress up,” says Jamie, “all the windows are broken” – and played early gigs in their friends’ castle.
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“We grew up with the castle,” says Jordan. “One of our mates, his father owns the castle, when they bought it it was pretty much a ruin, it was really run down. Over the years he’s been transforming it, he’s done it up really well, he’s a screenwriter and he markets it as a retreat for writers to come up. But the bit we used to do gigs in hasn’t changed too much.”
“The croft is quite claustrophobic and the castle has got a big room and it’s brilliant for live,” Jamie adds.
Have you had any Elizabethan themed parties there?
Jamie: “No. There has been fancy dress parties but it was just Freddie Mercurys.”
With only the croft, the castle and the odd local bar to play in, the burgeoning band had to improvise, venue-wise. “We did a gig in another croft and we put a roof on it with a tarpaulin,” Jamie laughs. “They built a new high school so we played the last gig in the old one.”
“That was quite weird,” Jordan nods. “We all met at high school. I was really looking forward to getting a walk round the high school and reliving some of my youth, so that was quite cool. It was weird you and your mates getting really fucked up in a classroom. It’s frustrating not having a venue but it’s good to be creative, the sort of things we can do to make things a little bit different.”
Being so remote had its advantages – there was nothing to do in Caithness but rehearse, and practicing in a lovely castle anywhere near civilisation would bankrupt most bands before they’ve got the bass amp plugged in – but being a band from Caithness was a bit like the rock’n’roll equivalent of those cut-off Channel 4 idiots who didn’t realise their reality show had been cancelled. If they wanted to play a show outside of town, they had a six-hour drive just to get to Glasgow, let alone the English toilet circuit. Presumably you developed some killer driving games to pass the time?
“Not really, it’s just drinking tins of lager,” says Jordan. “That’s how we pass the time. We do the fish game, types of fish with band names. An example would be Cod Stewart. We’ve done cheese ones.”
Luckily, when they would reach civilisation, drunk and insanely shouting “Fun Boy Brie!”, the world was already listening. They put their first track - the atmospheric ‘Sombre Fayre’, a pastoral swirl engrained with the idyllic chill of their hometown - online on January 1, 2014, like hopeful astronomers firing a beacon at Neptune in the hope the Neptunians might respond. Almost immediately, Neptune called. Howie Payne, once of The Strands, picked them up and connected them to Noel Gallagher’s manager Marcus Russell at Ignition. “They flew up to meet us at first and see the croft,” says Jamie, “and it was weird because it really is a shithole.”
“We’re so far away from it,” says Jordan. “If we were based in London and all this was happening and we were going to meetings it would sink in a lot more, but because we were so far away and just getting emails saying ‘Marcus Russell wants to manage you’ we were like ‘what the fuck!’.”
The distance was a blessing. Their first record deal, with Atlantic, kept them in limbo for a year as the label wanted to squish them into populist shapes they didn’t fit. “There were some bands coming out and they maybe thought ‘we could try and get them in that category’, and we hate that category,” Jordan recalls. “They wanted us to be more The 1975 and less Neon Waltz.”
The High Priority life sat awkwardly with their down-to-earth, hard-slogging ethics too. “We used to get tour managers but we’re doing a lot of it ourselves now and it kinda feels like it’s the six of us, it’s given us a bit of drive,” Jordan explains. “We should’ve been slogging out the way we are now. No-one had heard of us and we’re rolling up in this lovely van with an Xbox and TV, you get too comfortable.”
Eventually slipping from the (albeit quite fluffy) major label shackles, the band – Jordan, Jamie, Calvin, keyboardist Liam Whittles, drummer Darren Coghill and guitarist (and brother of Jamie) Kevin Swanson – set about self-releasing a stream of songs while recording, re-recording, scrapping sessions and gradually inching towards realising their otherworldly rock’n’roll on debut album ‘Strange Hymns’. These post-teen symphonies to God - channelling the post-rock firestorms of The National and Arcade Fire as well as the amorphous pop sensibilities of Fleet Foxes, Glasvegas and Echo & The Bunnymen - crept out dripping with the hard learned lessons of their brush with Atlantic. ‘I Fall Asleep’ was driven by the frustrations of being trapped in a loveless record deal – “I have become so vain that I’m wrapped up in only things about us” Jordan sings, as though sweetening band morale through sour times. Then came ‘Dreamers’, a tornado of a tune with a rousing message – “you should do what you like while you can”. Is that the band’s moral?
“Yeah,” Jordan grins. “It’s a poignant message. We just try and enjoy ourselves the whole time anyway. You’re only young once and not everyone has the chance to go on the road with their best mates the whole year.”
Their quiet pride and determination came leavened with darkness. ‘Perfect Frame’, complete with a video of the band in Polyphonic Spree robes conducting strange psychedelic ceremonies on a beach - concerned the same photograph by Kevin Carter of a starving child being stalked by a vulture that inspired The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Kevin Carter’. Not that Jordan knew what literate rock heavyweights he was sizing up against. “I’d never heard it, I never even knew!” he insists. “I only found out about a year ago and I wrote that song four years ago. I saw that photo and it’s so powerful I thought I’d write about it. It was looking at both sides, people criticising him, saying he should have done something, but he was only showing the world what was happening. It was looking at both sides of the fence and weighing it up.”
Then there was ‘Heavy Heartless’, a stirring death disco tune about emptiness and depression revolving around the phrase “nothing is okay, I’m going through change”. In the current climate of openness about mental health issues, it struck a chord with some listeners. “There’s people who’ve messaged and been really touched by that song, which is really good,” Jordan says. “We’ve got one fan who comes to a lot of gigs and he messaged me about this song saying it had helped him. It’s really good if that’s the case.”
With the uplifting ‘Bring Me To Light’ leading into the album Neon Waltz look set for a dazzling future, but are they wary of guitar music being a tough sell in 2017? “Maybe, but if something’s good enough it’ll be heard,” Jordan argues. “We’ve got faith that it will get heard eventually. Everything comes in cycles so at some point I think guitar bands will be everywhere again, I just don’t know when. I’m seeing signs of more guitar bands going in a poppy direction. Some to really good effect and some not so good. The Horrors new tune is quite synthy and poppy but it’s brilliant. Then you’ve got Coldplay’s new tunes and they’re awful.”
Having been known to drape International Brigade flags around the stage at gigs, Neon Waltz have a sly political slant – they deem Brexit “annoying” but find a glimmer of hope in Corbyn’s ability to bring the nation’s youth together. “It’s cool, you can see it happening, people getting together because of Corbyn,” Jordan nods. “There was quite a lot of division.”
Now it’s Neon Waltz’s turn to unite the disparate guitar faithful under their bold revivalist banner. After all, they come armed with world beating tunes, undimmed defiance and several loaves of Warburton’s for emergencies.
More about: Neon Waltz