Chapel Club have put out a great debut album, ‘Palace’, that I reviewed the first week of January. So great that I’m going out on a limb here and projecting it to be one of the best albums of 2011. Eager to find out more about them, I asked singer Lewis Bowman some questions and you can read his very thoughtful answers below. He’s quite self-conscious about his voice (I’m not really sure why, because I adore his singing on ‘Parade’) and he tells us about his dream of being ‘the Robert Frost of indie’ and the background behind one of their most evocative songs, ‘Blind’ – this is one interview you’re definitely going to want to read.
Let’s go back to the start of the Chapel Club story… (How did your band form, how long have you known each other, etc.)
We just met, as people do – through friends, through going to the same parties and stuff. It was all quite natural and organic. I mean, Mike had it in his head before he knew any of us that he wanted to start a band, but I think he’d felt that way since he was about 12. So little by little each of our orbits intersected and we all met and got along really well, we all had the same sense of humour and similar tastes and whatnot. And when he realised as much, Mike kind of lured or cajoled each of us tiny, insignificant little planets into a new course. We started to revolve around one central star, and that star ended up being called Chapel Club. And I’ll let you judge whether it is newborn and twinkling with promise or a dim red husk soon to implode.
Who plays what in your band?
Mike plays guitar, Alex plays guitar, Liam plays bass, Rich plays drums. I play nothing: the fool, perhaps, sometimes. I sing, or at least attempt it. Though these roles may be slowly changing – the others tend to fool around with other, odder instruments a lot more recently.
So I understand that ‘Palace’, the name of your debut album coming out later this month, was an early name for your band. How did you make the leap and choose ‘Chapel Club’ as your new band moniker?
We needed a new name, quite desperately: everything we’d ever liked was already taken a thousand times over. And I like religious imagery, religious language. I like the heft of biblical stories and symbolism. I’m agnostic verging on atheist, but I kind of always wanted, at the back of my mind, to be a preacher, or better yet a prophet. So I liked the associations. And the others just kind of didn’t hate the phrase. So it stuck.
‘Palace’ was produced by Paul Epworth, who is famous for producing some pretty ‘dancey’ acts like Florence and the Machine and Friendly Fires. How did you decide he would be the producer you’d work with on your debut album?
We were a paragon of democratic efficiency. We tried several producers, then we took a vote – and Paul got the gig. He’s an incredibly impressive guy and he really loved the songs – plus when you look at the bands he broke through with, Bloc Party and the Rakes, etc. – he’s no stranger to making indie records.
A lot of your tracks feature an echoey lead vocal, something I find comforting in the midst of hard pounding drums and melodic guitars (e.g., ‘Oh Maybe I’, ‘All the Eastern Girls’). Has this always been part of the Chapel Club sound or was that something that you developed in the studio and/or with Paul?
I think that was always there. We hadn’t played a lot of live gigs by the time we began recording, but when we did I was always desperate for reverb because I hate my voice: I’m not a trained (or very experienced) singer, and really I feel like I spent the last year hanging on for dear life in vocal terms. Your voice is an instrument and mine wasn’t treated very well until recently – I didn’t think there was any need to look after it. So now it’s a bit battered, and I regret that. Also, I don’t have the patience to learn to play it properly. So I just have to do everything by ear and hope for the best. On another level, I guess that a lot of the band’s influences point in the same direction: we all like a reverb-drenched vocal, the more expansive sound often seems to work better with the atmosphere of the music we make. In fact, listening to the album now, we were pretty restrained: future stuff’s likely to be much more experimental in terms of vocal sounds, effects, accents, everything.
How does the ‘Wintering’ EP fit into the Chapel Club timeline with respect to ‘Palace’?
It was recorded towards the end of the summer of 2010 (we recorded ‘Palace’ in the spring). The songs are all newer than the ones on ‘Palace’. We just went in to record some B-sides, and ended up ditching the stuff we had and writing ‘Bodies’, ‘Telluride’, ‘Widows’ and ‘Roads’ instead. They took little over a day each to write, and we just felt so surprised by their appearance that we thought: these can’t just be released as vinyl B-sides. We wanted more people to hear about them, they seemed to mark an important moment in our evolution as a band. So we told our label we were going to release an EP to coincide with the Christmas gig at Salford. And then we added them to the Special Edition of the album. Palace is chapter one and the ‘Wintering’ EP is kind of like a quotation at the start of chapter two. That’s how I see it.
Who came up with the idea for the video of ‘Surfacing’ (released just before Christmas 2010)? It’s a shift from the videos for your first two singles, which were band-centric. Were you trying to go for a literal or more figurative interpretation of the song for the video? There seems to be a lot of religious and/or metaphysical imagery in Chapel Club lyrics.
We kind of just realised that we didn’t want to be in the videos any more. We thought: most music videos are awful, ours have been okay up to this point – not offensively bad but not great – and we’ve never really achieved what we’d like to achieve with them (creatively speaking). So why not hand the whole thing over to (‘Surfacing’ director) Dan Sully, who we trusted and who had come up with this incredible treatment ticking all my personal boxes, and let him do what he wants? The label were a bit like, “it’d be best if you were in it, Europe will want you in it”, and stuff like that. So we said to Dan, “You’re the one who came up with the idea, you’re the one making it. Do you need us in the video, because we like the idea of it being a cool little film short and we think our presence would be artistically meaningless, possibly distracting and only really helpful from an out-of-date marketing perspective”. And Dan said, “I agree, I don’t need you” (in the most polite and loveliest way possible). And he made a fucking amazing video, by far our best yet.
And when I was listening to ‘Surfacing’, I almost felt like you were channeling Johnny Cash a bit, and then I saw the video, which had a definite Southern American flavour.
Yep, Dan’s visual interpretation of the song was pretty perfect.
Having listened to ‘Palace’ a couple times now, the song that made the biggest impression on was ‘Blind’. The imagery comparing two people falling in love like continents slamming into each other and then falling out of it, separated by mountains, and the chorus of “you can take me for a long ride / my heart is high like a returning tide / hard at your body like a coastline” – really evocative, really great. And the guitars, just wow. What was the inspiration behind this one?
Wow, that was written a long time ago now, that’s the oldest song on the album, I don’t know how much I can recall. I’m glad you like it, though! I remember the night it was written, we were rehearsing in a tiny basement in Dalston in east London. It was about ten feet square and the floor was covered in leaves. I couldn’t hear my vocals, the PA was so small and shitty and the drums were so loud. The boys just started playing and I sang along.
It was probably the first song we wrote together as a band; before that, the songs had been built from demos Mike had recorded and which I’d sung over. The inspiration for the lyric…it was a while back, I can’t remember for definite. My girlfriend must have played some part, given that it’s a song of reminiscence and a love song. She was away in New York for a lot of 2008, so I guess that’s why the word ‘continents’ might have floated into view. The imagery… I seem to think in natural forms, I don’t know why… I read a lot of nature poetry and I’m obsessed with clouds and leaves and light and water, so I guess it just feeds in. That’s why virtually every song has a mention of light, water, the sea, lakes, shorelines etc. I’d like to be the Robert Frost of indie, that’s what it is.
Let’s talk tours. You were recently on the bill for the NME Emerge tour, co-headlining with the Joy Formidable, supported by Flats and Wilder. What was that like? Was there a camaraderie between the groups?
We didn’t see much of Wilder but I gather they hated us and felt very superior to us musically – apparently one of them said so somewhere, in an interview or something. They only played about three gigs on the tour anyway: they wear pirate boots and feathers in their hair and look like the Raggy Dolls after a night in a dumpster, it’s all very TopShop 2003, so I think there was a limit to how much stage time the NME was willing to give them. By contrast, Flats were fucking ace and we all got along with them really well. And Joy Formidable seemed lovely too, though they were mixing their album during the tour so we didn’t get to hang out with them that much.
Last autumn you toured Europe as support for Two Door Cinema Club. Tell us what that was like.
That was great, my favourite tour of the year. TDCC are lovely guys and their fans seem to be somewhat younger than ours – so we ended up playing these quite heavy, quite emotional songs to literally a thousand screaming teenage girls every night. They didn’t have a clue who we were and I’m sure they didn’t give a shit about the music, but still they kept shouting “I love you” and stuff like that, which is a pretty hilarious experience when you look like a skeletal tadpole.
For ‘Songs from the Dark River Archive’, you covered Morrissey‘s ‘Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself’. Lyrically or as the band as a whole, do you consider Morrissey / the Smiths a big musical influence? What other bands/artists contribute to what Chapel Club is today?
If their influence is there in our music, it’s crept in without us consciously inviting it. I mean, I love Morrissey, I love the Smiths, as do Mike and Alex. But we never saw ourselves as a Smiths-referencing band, and I think over the last year, because we emerged so suddenly into the public eye and garnered so many comparisons that we felt were a bit hasty or one-dimensional, we’ve learned that we have to make a concerted effort to recalibrate people’s understanding of who we are, what we’re about. We can’t just write songs and think, “this is good, this has something let’s run with it” any more. We have to be more critical than before – or at least, critical in different ways. Which is fun, I enjoy writing more than ever now, because it feels like the bar has been raised, the quality is increasing.
As for the Morrissey cover, that came about quite simply because Morrissey’s vocal melody fit perfectly over this instrumental demo Mike had sent me. And once I realised that, I knew I wouldn’t be able to write another vocal for it. So I recorded the Morrissey lyric (using my Macbook’s internal microphone – always professional) and we thought, “let’s just put it out there as a little weird sketch thing; someone might like it”.
So what’s next for Chapel Club in 2011?
We’re touring the UK throughout February, the U.S. in March and Europe in April. Then probably a little more touring in May, festivals all summer and… I’m not sure beyond that. The star might burn brighter, or it might expire. Who can tell? Whatever happens will be for the best, I’m sure.