It's been another great year for debut albums and one of 2018's finest just happens to be 1, 2, Kung Fu! by Cardiff four-piece Boy Azooga. Initially the solo project of highly respected local musician and songwriter Davey Newington, who lists Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon, Monico Blonde, and Keys among the many bands he's previously played with, he spent years writing, arranging, and rearranging (several times!) the songs that would go on to become 1, 2, Kung Fu! Newington then set about recruiting a band to play them, and Boy Azooga was born.
Now, having spent the best part of this year on the road, Newington and band are gearing up for their biggest UK headline tour to date next month. What's more, their second album is already well on the way to being ready for release next year. Exciting times indeed!
DiS: It's been a great year for Boy Azooga so far. The album has received unanimously positive reviews so far while throughout the summer you've played to thousands of people at numerous festivals culminating in October's headline tour, which looks set to sell out in advance. Did you envisage things moving at such a rapid pace?
Davey Newington: No! I genuinely have no idea as it was never intended to get as big as it has so quickly. There was never a grand plan. I was playing drums in other bands so I made this record in my spare time. I poured everything into this project and kept notebooks full of lyrics and ideas so it became a bit of an obsession. After I finished the record, it was Eddie (Al-Shakarchi) who produced that encouraged me to do something with it. I was just going to put it on Soundcloud and see what happened, but he said I should send it to people instead. So it's all come as a bit of a shock.
What's the oldest song on the record? Has it been in gestation for a long time?
It has. The songs have all had multiple lives! 'Loner Boogie' was a completely different song to start with. 'Hangover Square' I wrote when I was 19. Back then it was just an acoustic, bedroom-y thing. Over time it grew into what became the album 1, 2, Kung Fu!. It probably sounds cheesy, but it was just something I was doing for the love of making a record, so everything else has been a massive bonus.
You also play several new songs in the set that aren't on 1, 2, Kung Fu!. Does this mean you're already well into the planning stage for the follow-up?
We're recording the second album at the moment. Most of it is written, but there are still one or two little flavours to drop in. I'd say we have 8 or 9 songs that are definitely going to be on the next record. Hopefully, it will be out early next year. I'm not sure what month yet but I can safely say it's not going to be a Chinese Democracy scenario!
Do you try the songs out live first before deciding whether to record them or not?
It's more a case of me bringing a song to rehearsals, and if it sounds good in practice then we get really excited about playing it live. We've never played a song live and then decided it doesn't work - by the time it becomes part of the set, it's there to stay. We won't play anything live if it doesn't feel solid in rehearsals. The first few gigs can be terrifying. When we played with Estrons last year - who are a very different band to us - we noticed some of the songs weren't translating as well; we were still learning how to shape the set, so it changed quite a lot around that time.
How did you become involved with Heavenly Recordings?
That came about through a friend, Mark Thomas, who plays in Islet. He runs Shape Records with his wife Emma. I'd always dreamed about being on Heavenly and had actually written it several times across my notebooks. We'd finished the record and it was about four in the morning, and Eddie the producer dropped me back home - I can't drive so he drove me everywhere. So we were outside my flat, and he said what's your plan now? I said I'll chuck it on Soundcloud and he was like, don't you dare! Then he said what would be your dream label? And I said Heavenly would be the dream, but failing that, just someone that wants to put the record out. A short time after that I got Jeff's (Barrett) and Danny's (Mitchell) emails off someone, sent them the record which they downloaded, but didn't hear back from them for a while so I was gutted.
Then I was teaching drums at the Atrium in Cardiff which is part of the university, and Mark Thomas was having a coffee with a friend of mine in the morning. He'd been at a gig I put on in Cardiff - it wasn't on his radar, He just happened to come along. So he asked me what I planned to do with the album, and it turned out he knew Jeff from Heavenly so he messaged him on the spot. Later that day I got an email from Jeff saying he'd seen the video to 'Loner Boogie' and loved it so could we hook up at some point? From there on we had multiple conversations. One time he was sat on the train off to see King Gizzard and H Hawkline was supporting, and we have a song called 'Hangover Square' where one of the lyrics goes "On the train to Brighton" and Jeff said, "I'm on the train to Brighton listening to your album and you just sang it! I want to put your album out!" It was really quite emotional. Such a good moment.
Have they set any targets or expectations for the band?
There's never been any crazy pressure. For me personally, being around everyone at Heavenly has been an amazing experience. Everyone knows their music. The first time I met Jeff, we were in the Heavenly office and he gave me a beer then put a record on - 'Boyfriend' by Confidence Man, which I hadn't heard before - and started dancing around the office! Then he put another record on, then another, and I soon realised these guys just love music. They're obsessed with music, which is really encouraging. There have been times where they've advised us to do certain things but for us, it's all about just wanting to be a part of it. That's where the expectation comes from. Wanting to create good stuff that hopefully they'll feel confident enough to share with the world.
You've played drums in most of your other projects. Was it a big transition to make in becoming the frontman with this one?
Yes. I'm shitting myself now to be honest! It still feels very new, and in a way, I hope that never goes away because it keeps me on my toes. I've been drumming for years. I don't know what it was, but I did a few gigs with Charlotte Church's Pop Dungeon and that was my window into doing bigger gigs that I'd never done before. So I think that helped my confidence a bit when playing to bigger crowds. To be honest, there was a lot of goodwill around that project which really helped Boy Azooga, in terms of just meeting people. Every single member of the Pop Dungeon including Charlotte and her husband Jonny always encouraged me to do Boy Azooga. They were so supportive which gave me a massive confidence boost. The singing drummer thing is so funny anyway. As long as you laugh at it it's fine!
How did the four members of Boy Azooga come together? Had you made music with the other three before?
I've known Dylan (Morgan, keys and guitar) and Dafydd (Davies, drums) for years. Dylan's been in my circle of friends for years and Dafydd's someone I've known from my teens. He used to play in this band called The Lay-Lows who were amazing and he was doing these incredible things on the drums. I remember thinking at the time if I ever do my own thing I want him as the drummer! We met at a Boxing Day party at four in the morning and we kept in touch on WhatsApp. With Sam (Barnes, bass), it was one of the most chance meetings of my life. I've never had anything like it where it's been so quick. He asked me to play drums for his band Shoebox Orchestra, who are amazing. We've just recorded his album which should come out next year. He asked me to play drums but I was playing with the Pop Dungeon, so he sent me his record which I fell in love with. I messaged him to say I couldn't play on the record but I was starting my own project, so would he come and play with me instead? Then we had a jam and I'm so glad we did, because he was the missing piece in the whole thing. He's such a talented musician. They all are. They've learned the songs and brought their own things to them. The second album's going to be quite different because all four of us play on it.
Will the others be involved in the writing going forwards?
No, it's still me. But we did a gig recently with Deerhunter and Sam Evian in Manchester, and I was so inspired by those two artists I wrote a song that was a rip off of them both called 'Hunter Sam'. It's a White Album style character called "Sam" so I'm going to ask Sam to sing it, so who knows how it will end up! I really want him to sing on the next record. Just bring different flavours into it. There's a load of great musicians in Cardiff I want to get on the second record as well, hopefully make it a more collaborative thing. We have a song called 'Splott 5-0' which is about Splott in Cardiff. Splott's where I live with my girlfriend and there's a primary school nearby, so I want to get some of the kids singing on the chorus. Kind of like the Gorillaz. I want to make sure the next album is a progression from the first rather than just make the same record again.
The Welsh music scene is getting a lot of focus from outside of Wales right now. Why do you think it's taken so long to attract such widespread recognition?
Honestly? I don't know. Maybe it's coincidental? I think Estrons were the first band that broke through. They were the ones that made me realise it was possible to play in London and have people come to see you, and they achieved it in a way that seemed inspirational rather than intimidating. I think another factor is Tom (Rees) from Buzzard, Buzzard, Buzzard also produces lots of other bands like Perfect Body, Private World, and Socks. He mixes and engineers his own band too, but I think there's a little scene developing around that. We all help each other. I play drums for Buzzard... and Tom's done stuff for Boy Azooga. We did a split EP with Bubblewrap Collective who are an amazing label in Cardiff. I remember speaking to Mark (Thomas) about it and he said the last time he'd seen anything like this was when Islet first broke along with Cate Le Bon, Sweet Baboo, and all those acts.
What advice would you give to a new band just starting out?
Make sure you really want to do it for just doing it, because there are a lot of setbacks that will happen. You will break down at three in the morning on the way back from a gig and you will play to no one many times. But it's always worth it. Also, make sure you're truly happy with the music you're making. There's no rush, even though it can be frustrating at times. Brian Wilson might have made Pet Sounds by the time he was twenty-two but my advice would be to take your time. Make sure you're happy because if people see you enjoying yourself it will be infectious.
Boy Azooga's music takes inspiration from a lot of different sources and as a result, is difficult to pigeonhole in terms of sound or genre. Do you think that's something else bands and musicians need to be more aware of?
Definitely. We still get called a guitar band or an indie band but I think that's just a product of the industry we're working in. I've always taken little bits from everywhere. When I was growing up, my parents were playing everything from Henry Mancini to ELO. My brother was really into metal, and my sister R&B. It sounds ridiculous but I also grew up playing games like Grand Theft Auto which had such incredible soundtracks. They were never genre specific and that influenced me as a kid too. Music should never be defined by one thing. I've always wanted this project to be a celebration of music.
Are there any other artists you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?
Bitw is a musician from North Wales and he's great. Sock, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard who I mentioned earlier, Perfect Body,Monico Blonde, Rainbow Maniac, Darkhouse Family, Esther Taylor, CVC, The Bug Club. It's just never-ending. There's so much good stuff happening in Wales right now. Also, I have to plug my cousin's band Man Of Moon. They're an amazing two-piece from Edinburgh.
1, 2, Kung Fu! is out now via Heavenly Recordings. For more information on Boy Azooga, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Richard Gray.