Interview: Cheatahs change their spots: “We’re quite self-sufficient”

Cheatahs change their spots: “We’re quite self-sufficient”

In a converted office block two doors down from MI5, Cheatahs crafted their most experimental offering to date. Now they’re itching to finally get out of the studio.

Cheatahs are the perfect figureheads for London’s hodgepodge of culture. Each of them descended on the capital from far-flung corners of the globe in the mid-noughties, in search of a creative hub. Instead, they found each other, together forming an outlet for the four musicians to flex their artistic muscles.

Tucked away down an alleyway in Camberwell, South London is the four-piece’s home-from-home, Dropout Studios - a basement–dwelling recording haven, packed full of guitar pedals and a snake-pit of various wires. Like everything the band put their name to, it’s patchwork, the over-flowing studio tucked amongst the foundations of a cosy living quarters above, which itself sits below a massive suntrap of a roof terrace. It’s here that Cheatahs’ earliest works began to take shape.

“Marc used to live here for a while,” states Canadian frontman Nathan Hewitt down in the basement, gesturing upstairs. The German-born drummer in question entered the mix through guitarist James Wignall, who himself shared a bar job with Nathan, the pair bonding behind the taps over their musical obsessions. Bassist Dean Reid – owner of an American passport - was an avid fan of Nathan’s earlier bands. Coming together in their newly chosen hometown, it was only a matter of time before the four of them holed up in the downstairs floor of this building, instruments in hand.

“It used to just be loads of people living here,” explains Marc, “But yeah, loads of our early recordings, this studio’s always been involved in it. Then we’ve moved onto to trying out different things, other environments.”

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“Reduction is as much of a key to songwriting as throwing everything in.”

James Wignall

For the band’s latest record ‘Mythologies’, the other members of Cheatahs once again decamped to Marc’s latest abode – a guardian scheme property on the northern bank of the River Thames, just two doors down from MI5’s headquarters. A former police station, the office block provided the perfect environment for the band to polish ‘Mythologies’’ widescreen sheen.

“It was pretty cool,” enthuses Nathan, “you could look out through the view and you just had the Thames and the whole city.” “Which was inspiring… or demoralising, depending on how we were doing!” James laughs.

Taking over a whole floor of the building allowed the band “just to make noise throughout the day,” Nathan notes, a luxury they’re careful not to take for granted. Indeed, while London may have brought the band together, the band are highly aware that the rising rents and incessant pace of the city could well have pulled them apart too. “It was pretty fortunate,” Nathan admits, because the amount of money it would’ve cost to have a studio that we could do that in… we never would have been able to do it.”

“We looked to bands that inspire us, and they didn’t just find themselves only operating in one area or one genre.”

James Wignall

Outside of Cheatahs, Dean spends his time recording pop artists. When ‘Mythologies’ came a-knocking, he took up the spot behind the desk once more. “That’s the thing – with Dean being able to record so well, we wouldn’t… especially in London; there’s no way we would’ve been able to be a band,” Nathan continues. “We’re quite self-sufficient, that way,” states Marc, “which is quite a luxury I guess; that we can really just do everything between ourselves and do what we wanna do.”

That sense of freedom certainly seeps into ‘Mythologies’. A kaleidoscopic record, it’s packed full of playful ideas, each track twisting and turning as electronic and reverb-heavy melodies shimmer in and out of view. While not quite a world away from their punchier past, it’s a brave new step. “We looked to bands that inspire us,” explains James, “and they didn’t just find themselves only operating in one area or one genre. For me, a band like No Age – though there’s not comparison between us – in terms of their output they do everything from ambient dreamscapes to full-on DIY punk. That’s quite inspiring – bands that just do whatever they want, and it kind of legitimised what we were doing in a way.

“But reduction is as much of a key to songwriting as throwing everything in. It’s not a maximalist record – as much stuff on there as there is, we’ve taken a lot of stuff away. It’s like throwing paint at a canvas and then scraping a lot of stuff back.”

“You should see how many versions of songs there are!” laughs Nathan.

“It’s the best thing when a song actually arrives fully formed,” Dean admits, “and it does happen once in a while. Some of them went through so many versions and such a journey.”

“Which is the nature of four songwriters in a band, all pitching in and all saying ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this’,” Nathan continues, “it’s not just as simple as one person saying ‘this is the song, learn it’ and then we record it.”

“These days, it seems to be this unwritten rule that you have to go away and ‘disappear’ in between records.”

Dean Reid

Given that constant back and forth, Cheatahs’ productivity is nothing short of a miracle, ‘Mythologies’ marking the band’s third release this year after a pair of “transitional” EPs – ‘Sunne’ and ‘Murasaki’, in February and May respectively. Drop this recording schedule on any other band and it’d bleed them dry – with Cheatahs, though, it brought forth wave after wave of inspiration. “It was just fun to experiment on those two EPs and just do whatever we wanted really,” admits James. “It was a bit of a road map.”

“The more we were writing the more fun it became and the more interesting it became,” says Nathan, “so we just kept going until we found enough. And then it gets to a point where you can’t just be sitting on songs – you have to put them out.”

Dean agrees - “I feel like it wasn’t that unusual back in the day, for bands to just put out EPs when they felt like it,” he shrugs. “It’s just these days, it seems to be this unwritten rule that you have to go away and ‘disappear’ in between records for a while so people can forget about you, but we just didn’t care about that.”

“We didn’t really know what we were doing on the first record either,” says James. “We had a bunch of songs and we put them out. I think we’d always hoped to have more time to develop ideas – that’s what we did with the EPs, we took our time and wrote the record as well. It was just consciously putting the brakes on a little bit – even though it seems like we’ve been very productive, we were spending a lot more time on songs and thinking about them and how we were gonna present them.”

That said, they’re gagging to leave the studio. “I can’t wait to play shows, seriously,” says Nathan restlessly. “We’ve just been rehearsing so much and it’s like, we need to get out, cause it still feels like we’re in the studio.”

They enthuse about how fresh the live show now feels after adding in a new organ and more electronics, Dean even noting that they’re “doing slight musical chairs” as part of their new set, “trading instruments… not like crazy, Arcade Fire style, but y’know.”

“We don’t feel pressure to make a facsimile of the recording.”

James Wignall

They may be finally rubbing their eyes and stepping out into fresh air, then, but that’s not to say the creative well’s dried up. “It’s nice,” says James, “we don’t feel pressure to make a facsimile of the recording. We’re actually, with some songs, doing a live version that’s different to the record. We change up the songs in the set and revisit old songs and re-invent them.”

“I really think that sometimes the version of the song on a record isn’t the definitive version,” admits Dean, “it’s just what the song happened to be when you had to turn it in.” James agrees; “Yeah, I don’t think there is a definitive version, really. The record is just a diary of that period and what we did at that point - it’s quite fluid. Creativity shouldn’t end when an album finishes.”

Cheatahs’ new album ‘Mythologies’ is out now on Wichita Recordings. They play London’s XOYO on 19th January 2016.

Taken from the November ‘Our Shit, Our Rules’ issue of DIY - order a copy below.

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