DiS meets Slow Club: "Retro isn’t bad, but it’s too easy."
“We’re still the same people but it’s all quite different.” says Rebecca Taylor of the new look, super-sexy, super sleek, super-classy “champagne and diamonds” version of Slow Club, the band she formed with Charles Watson back in 2006. The duo, now expanded to a quartet, have been consistently ace since their first release, moving from the cute folk of their 2009 debut, Yeah So, to the smart, wonky-pop of its follow up Paradise two years later. They have an impeccable knack for likeable, emotive songs, sharp performances, warmth, silliness and wit that has seen them amass a strong following and plenty of critical love, all the while flying cheerfully under the mainstream radar, carving out their own happy little nook. The happy-nook days might be coming to an end though. The band are prepping for the release of Complete Surrender, an album not necessarily radically better than their previous work, which was already pretty good, but one that presents their ideas in their most accessible, purest form yet. It’s a record that justifies their potential, a classy album that nods to a faultless record collection, that buffs their ideas to a polished shine, that takes the best of its two masterminds and combines them together to create something that could take on the world, and very probably win. A bit like Power Rangers, but with soul and R&B instead of giant robot dinosaurs.
One listen to Complete Surrender is enough to convince you of its’ confidence and charm, ranging from Rebecca’s staggering heart-on-her-sleeve ballad ‘The Queen’s Nose’, to Charles’ shuffley garage pop on ‘The Pieces’. It’s a record with its heart in the 60s and 70s, that sounds in places like it could have come out of the studios of Muscle Shoals 40 years ago, but that somehow manages not to sound at all dated or retro. “We wanted to make a straight record - drums, bass, organ, guitar, maybe strings.” says Charles, “It wasn’t so much about the sound as the mentality going forward, not throwing the whole kitchen sink at it, which is what we did with the last one. The idea behind it was to be a bit more reserved as opposed to putting reverb on everything.” The vision was to be timeless, rather than be lost in nostalgia.
SLOW CLUB - Mahogany Session Premiere
“Retro isn’t bad, but it’s too easy, it’s like going into Topshop and finding the perfect dress, that I really like and it’s got all these cool things on it - I want to work harder for that.” Says Rebecca, adding “but I will have Topshop clothes for free please.” Just in case. “Obviously these days it’s easy to make something sound old. Lot’s of big pop acts have done it. That’s what we were wary of, it not being too easy, not to just go ‘do-wop’ over the top of it. I don’t like that kind of new-retro music. It’s all got its place, but it’s not the band we are. Our references are so in the past now and you want to use that, but not rely on it. Colin Elliot, who produced it and does all of Richard Hawley’s stuff, that’s what he does really well. It has to sound expensive and beautiful.”
It’s interesting to trace the pair’s journey from their twee-as-fuck roots, playing rooms above pubs with a percussion rig made from odds and ends, like dangling glass bottles (Rebecca: “I can’t believe how much faff we used to have live. I can barely be bothered to pick up a guitar now. Our friend smashed them by accident anyway.”) through to last year’s sold out Christmas show at Shepherds Bush Empire.
“As a two piece we were starting to play bigger gigs, rowdier gigs, and having to compete with more stuff” explains Rebecca, “I was playing more drum kit, and it started to feel like the songs and the vocals weren’t there because we were trying so hard to be loud and compete, so that’s why we had to make it four people. It’s really lovely now, it’s really helped because we can play our full band shows, and there’s also enough people interested for us to do a two-piece gig and it feel special, it’s perfect. I don’t think we’d have still been a band otherwise.” The expanded line up, brought in to tour the more technically complex Paradise album meant that they started to approach their music as live songs with all the energy and feeling a full band can bring, which in turn influenced the sound they wanted to capture. In a literal sense they were changing the shape of ‘Slow Club’. “I think the songs we were writing demanded a certain way of doing it.” says Charles. The two were very much on the same page “There was a really nice moment when we were thinking about the next record. Obviously from the second album we could have gone anywhere from that, we could have gone more dancey, or stripped it all back again, but we both definitely wanted to make it sound like this.” says Rebecca “To make it beautiful, and as nice as every sound can be. There’s a lot less going on instrumentally, nowhere near as much stuff on it. All of the bands who are our friends or who we listen to are coming across the same realisation, ‘don’t put every fucking thing you can possibly put on a song every time’ It’s a growing up thing. It’s just like life really- just make everything really simple and make everything really count.” The result is an album that’s best described as, well, classy. “Well I’m a classy lady.” dead-pans Rebecca, “Champagne and oysters and diamonds is what I was thinking about all the time, I was literally saying that in the studio, I wanted it to sound expensive. I love fabulous things,” she stops and thinks, “but I love shit things as well.”
Their early songs saw the duo almost always combine their voices, practically hiding behind each others harmonies, writing from a shared perspective. It was always good, but was also limiting. Since then, especially on Paradise, the pair have worked to create separate identities in their songs, the joy of Complete Surrender is that it brings the two voices back together to interpret each others work, while still keeping those separate characters in the music, “I think on Paradise we both felt we had something to prove, so there’s this line down the middle. I feel like this time it comes together more.” says Charles. The best-of-both-worlds approach brings out the best in the songs - take the title track, comfortably the bands strongest single to date: Its' bouncing, shuffley rhythm comes from a Rebecca Taylor drum loop, Charles takes the lead on the song and it’s very much one of his, but it’s Rebecca that’s doing the top lines and the chorus, giving it the shape of the big US pop R&B she loves so much (“I get it in there somehow! I disguise it!” she says.) “That one came together really quickly.” says Charles, “We were renting a room from a friend in Old Street and there were a lot of loops knocking around. We sat down and banged it out super-quick.”
“‘Banged it out’” teases Rebecca, “‘super-quick’”
“We were renting these vans to go out to Stroud to work on it” continues Charles, ignoring her, “it was really fun to just put the demo on really loud and just blast it.”
“‘Bang it out’ and ‘blast it’.” Rebecca laughs “We wanted to do it quick. We wanted to be one of those dramatic pop songs, have that Frankie Valli or Abba thing, then we took that to Colin. It was the first day in the studio. We were thinking ‘this is going to take forever, we’re going to really doubt ourselves’ and then within a day it sounded fucking great. We were all ‘it’s easy, this!’ Our manager and people weren’t sure about that one, even though we were all going ‘THIS IS BRILLIANT’. Everyone likes it now though.”
The accompanying video goes out of its way to show off the new Slow Club. There’s nothing ‘Twee’ or ‘cute’ here, it’s sexy and dramatic and witty. Shot in black and white it features a brooding, well groomed Charles petting a cat like a bond villain, singing from a floor surrounded by beautiful women, meanwhile Rebecca goes a bit further, delivering her choruses draped in front of a mirror in a slinky frock, doing proper pin-up pouting; leading a dance routine straight out of a Beyonce video and playing artily-filmed drums with her kit off. “I just wanted to dance really, and look nice.” says Rebecca, “That’s was the brief I had.”
“I actually broke my toe the day before. I’d learned the dance and I was going to do it as well.” says Charles.
Is that true?
“I wish!” says Rebecca, “He won’t dance! And he’s such a good dancer! I’m not joking, he really is.” “I have to be a certain level of intoxicated.”
“When Charles wants to dance though, it’s maybe the top five happiest times in my life. I see his eyes go, and we know it’s fucking on!”
“I do like dancing. But it’s not for the cameras.” “He looks fit though [in the video]. Sex sells, dunnit! We’re using Charles’ gorgeous hair. It’s so ridiculous, I love it. I was quite nervous, so I really love that people like it. If you know me, I’m a total donkey and I’m trying to be a popstar, but why not? We’ve got a pop promo to do this shit if we want to do it, so do it!”
It’s not a video you can imagine the Slow Club of 2008 making. Contrasting to their very early videos, like the lo-fi shot ‘Come On Youth’ which sees the pair running through the countryside, filmed in reverse, it could be a different band entirely. Early photos of the two show them looking slightly awkward, usually depicted in a sunny field or amidst the most English of settings, her in floaty dresses with a plait, him in a shirt with his hair all fluffy. Look at them now - they’re sculpted and styled and, well, sexy. They can pose. The music has gone that way too - poured over, polished, recognisably the same band but sophisticated and dramatic.
The signs have been there for all to see for a while- in 2010 the release of a Christmas EP, Christmas Thanks For Nothing included covers of two Darlene Love classics: a melancholy, glacial, fuzzy take on ‘All Alone On Christmas’ sung by Charles, and a ripping, completely faithful version of the Phil Spector-produced ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ sang with gleeful, big-voiced abandon by Rebecca. Both were eye-opening, showing for the first time the directions this band could push in, the latter especially relevant here because up to then no-one had quite realised Rebecca Taylor could rip her voice open like that, it was a proper soulful wail of a performance, totally true to the R'n'B spirit of the original. You realised at that point, that Slow Club could do far more than many had expected- It set them on the way to what would ultimately be Complete Surrender. Both tracks get an annual airing at the duo’s now-traditional Christmas shows.
Other ingredients in Complete Surrender’s complete success come from an impeccable taste in records. As noted, their musical tastes are firmly rooted in the past. “I think ‘I’m Glad’ by Captain Beefheart was a main reference point for the vibe.” says Charles, “and there’s an Arthur Russell tune I was listening to a lot when we were doing it, called ‘I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face’, it sounds pretty similar, with kind of garagey drums.”
“‘The Night’ by Frankie Valli, that was a big one.” adds Rebecca “I was listening to a lot of Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, that kind of thing. Always, always keeping in mind [Fleetwood] Mac, and the Beatles, obviously.”
“I discovered Paul McCartney this year as well.” says Charles,
“Ah, Paul…” Rebecca sighs,
“I’d totally written him off.”
“I never wrote him off!”
“I got Band On The Run and just could not stop listening to it. It’s fucking incredible. It’s so good. And Linda has such an incredible voice! It’s so good!”
“It’s like the angels singing.”
Listening to the new album, those influences make a lot of sense. Though Beefheart, Frankie Valli, Arthur Russell and Dolly Parton (not to mention Rebecca’s beloved Taylor Swift and Katy Perry) are obvious references for the tone and the sound, the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac ring very true as well- both bands were made up of multiple songwriters, who would work on each others material but maintain distinct identities within the music. Much as Beatles fans can spot a ‘Paul’ song from a ‘John’ song, and Fleetwood Mac fans can easily track differences between McVie, Buckingham and Nicks’ work, Slow Club records are now clearly composed of ‘Charles’ songs and ‘Rebecca’ songs. “We write quite separately and then bring it to each other.” Says Rebecca, “You can still write from each others perspective, a bit. Charles will tell me what it’s about and I’ll write lyrics from there.”
“I think we’ve found it works better when one of us takes the lead and the other holds back.” says Charles,
“You can say what you want to that way.” agrees Rebecca, “For years I was struggling to write away from a shared perspective. Our first album, everything was shared. We were just kids and we felt the same about everything, now our lives have gone in different directions. It’s an interesting place to be in a band- we are so different, but it’s still working. There’s still fundamental things that happen to a person you can bond on and understand and write from there.”
So what are the differences between their songs?
“It’s quite obvious. I can’t play as many chords as Charles.” says Rebecca,
“I find it hard to write from the first person.” replies Charles,
“Yer, I’m in tune with my feelings.”
“I prefer to write about more global issues.” says Charles, nearly keeping a straight face,
“Charles prefers to write about ‘Global’ ‘issues’.” Rebecca can’t keep a straight face.
“Most of mine are about the redistribution of wealth.” He actually manages a straight face this time. Rebecca isn’t having it though. “No they’re fucking not! Shut up!” she snaps “The main difference is that Charles was in a happy, stable relationship and I, er, wasn’t. I got an album out of it though.”
Whether seen as 60s-inspired break up record, modern pop drama or, if Charles is to be believed (hint: he isn’t,) a treatise on the global economy, Complete Surrender is a magnificent achievement, one that has sad, sad beauty in the mournful ‘Number One’, a proper motown rat-a-tat wall-of-sound in the glorious ‘Suffering You, Suffering Me’ and the sound of a breaking heart on ‘Not Mine To Love’, it’s one of the most beautiful and completely realised indie/pop/indiepop/whatever albums to be released this year and, with the marketing boost provided by new label Wichita, one that could just possibly bump this band into the glare of the mainstream. Is that a hope? “I said today, our lives are so great. We get to travel, wonderful things happen, we’ve met all these people.” says Rebecca “We’ve been a band nearly ten years, if I can carry on being like this, maybe a bit bigger, a bit better, a bit more higher stakes and general excitement then great. But if we can just get to play and carry on- and I do genuinely mean this as well, I’ve had dreams where I’ve thought ‘we’re never going to make it’, whatever that means, but we are making it. We’re doing it. It’s a really wonderful thing to have done and tell my adopted children. None of that ‘Slow Club should be bigger than they are’ shit - I do feel like a lot of people haven’t heard of us or took us seriously yet, and that would be wonderful, and for the gigs to be bigger would be amazing but…”
Charles chips in, “I’m always amazed that we go to a town somewhere and there’s people there who know our records, it just seems bizarre to me.”
“It is amazing isn’t it?”
“It’s just a really gnarly way to spend your twenties. We’ve seen so many friends bands disappear and dissolve for whatever reasons. We’ve seen friends bands be signed and dropped, argument over money, I’m just so glad we’re still making records.”
“I can’t believe how well we do really.”
You can never predict these things, and Complete Surrender could miss the aligning of the stars and not make it past the bands existing fans, it would be a shame but it happens. That wouldn’t take away from its accomplishments though. This is a strong, completely realised pop record by a band that have come further than many would have dared hope, and done so completely naturally and on their own terms. It deserves to be heard and enjoyed- you’ll love it, your friends will love it, your Mum will love it, the girl who sits opposite you at work will love it. You can play it in the disco, you can cry to it at home. Like Slow Club themselves it’s sophisticated, funny, sweet, daft and brilliant, the best album so far by a band that are already one of our finest: treasure them.