Gengahr have played to hundreds of thousands of strangers in their short lifetime. But the only thing on the London four-piece’s wishlist is a few tiny headline gigs. These have been in short supply for a group who’ve taken the unusual route with their first steps. Only this March did they play a show of their own. That followed tours with Alt-J and Wolf Alice, plus high-profile slots at Latitude and Glastonbury. For a handful of onlookers, they’ve been one of the most exciting bands to come of the UK for quite some time. For others, they’ve been a second thought, that band playing in the distance between drinks orders and a quick festival lie-down.
Perhaps that’s why debut album ‘A Dream Outside’ comes out all guns blazing. It’s the sound of a group aligning their stars without letting anyone else get a word in. Such is the sheer force behind the majority of this LP, Felix Bushe and co. had to make an instrumental track last minute, just to give everyone a breather. And even then, the tightly-wound ‘Dark Star’ demands attention.
“Instead of trying to win people over, it’s gonna be a different thing,” claims drummer Danny Ward. Before, says frontman Bushe, they could “get away with murder, do whatever we want,” because nobody was paying too much attention. This is a full-length that goes for the gut, however. Zero warning, no time to get a quick cup of tea - it’s a ferocious statement of intent. Gengahr are making their introduction.
The prospect of being the centre of attention is “more nerve-wracking,” says bassist Hugh Schulte. Headline gigs are “much more scary than The O2.” Everyone’s in agreement. John Victor - the band’s guitarist, whose razor-like technique has him compared to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood - lets out a slight tremor of fear at the very thought of having all eyes directed at his band.
“We’ve got the bug for headline shows now, though,” says Bushe, the opposite of a reluctant frontman. “Even if it’s a fifty cap venue. We’ve been playing for so long without having that kind of thing - now we want it. For over a year, you’re playing to other people’s crowds and you’re trying your best to persuade them that you’re not shit. And now you get to the stage where you can suddenly say you’ve got some fans. That’s a better experience than doing any of the support stuff.”
If it hadn’t been for one effortless recording session two years ago, Gengahr might not even be considering this dilemma. Going by the name RES, they met up for the first time to put down rough ideas and see if there was anything worth keeping. “We had three or four strong songs from the very start, and that allowed us the confidence to carry on,” says Bushe. With those early efforts, they had a blueprint, which might explain why an album’s come round so quickly. “That first demo session was the benchmark for us. Having those tracks rather than just one, where everyone’s like ‘We really like that song’, then you might not have anything else to offer. We had at least a couple, and that gives you that respite to not really feel too much pressure. When we were writing, we had a relaxed attitude.”
What followed was a game of probability. Month by month, they’d visit the studio with new songs at the ready. If just one sounded complete by the end of that session, it’d be tallied up towards the album. “And luckily, every so often two or three of those songs ended up working,” notes Ward. It’s a pattern that continued right up into the final days of LP recording in a remote South Devon studio. Album closer ‘Trampoline’ stepped out from nowhere. As did the re-worked ‘Dark Star’, a glitchy, Battles-channelling exercise in restraint. It sounds like child’s play, few brick walls to contend with. Although Bushe admits that “sometimes you can tear apart a song ten times and start again before you get anywhere.”
The only stumbling block arrived when it came to mixing the record. “It was only difficult at the end, because our own lack of ability made us have to make loads of mistakes,” says Bushe. “As soon as we got part that exciting stage, it was just that final little bit…”
“Sometimes you can tear apart a song ten times and start again before you get anywhere.”
Gengahr don’t possess a perfectionist streak (their ‘see what sticks’ approach will attest to that), but from day one they’ve had a big sense of control. Schulte designs all the sleeves, and each of their videos - ranging from child stars to witch hunts and seances - have been put together with the band involved. “I think there’s the worry that the further you go down the line, the inevitable will happen where you end up with less control, and you have less time to do these things,” explains Bushe. “While you have the opportunity, it feels important to do what we want to do. And hopefully we can create enough of an identity where if we did, god forbid, end up having less time, then we could work with people who knew what we were aiming for, instead of random artwork and random videos for a band.
If there’s one mantra Gengahr go by, it’s summed by by Bushe when saying: “If we feel like we can do it, we’ll do it ourselves.” Without getting distracted by the O2 lights or playing second fiddle to the big guns, quietly - without giving too much of the game away - they’ve forged their own path. If ever a new band needs an example of how to start off the right way, this should be it: Perfect the live game, have enough songs to make a go of it, and keep everything on your own terms.
Photos: Mike Massaro / DIY. Taken from the June 2015 issue of DIY, out now.
Gengahr will play Best Kept Secret (19th-21st June) and Latitude (16th-19th July), where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/presents for more information.