It’s around 4pm in the middle of an empty Casino De Paris – the kind of floor-to-ceiling red-velvet-and-chandeliers venue that feels like being in the belly of an upmarket Moulin Rouge (which, incidentally, is situated a stone’s throw up the road) – and Blaenavon are feeling a little peaky. Having just finished a run of dates with pals Sundara Karma, they’re now back out with label mates Two Door Cinema Club in Europe before returning to UK shores for their own headline jaunt throughout April. The dreaded tour lurgy is starting to rear its head.
Daunting schedule though this may be, over the past couple of years the trio – comprised of Hampshire school friends Ben Gregory (vocals, guitar), Frank Wright (bass) and Harris MacMillan (drums) – have become used to this sort of thing (see a near-incessant string of dates alongside Mystery Jets, DIIV and tons more for proof). Now, they have the additional incentive of long-awaited debut ‘That’s Your Lot’ to build them back up to full health, too. And while Blaenavon may still be a young band in the technical sense, they’ve been in this game long enough to know when the going’s good.
“When we disappeared for two years, we were so young and we just wanted to make loads of music, so that when we came back it’d be fucking great. We didn’t realise we’d have to start again from scratch. That was kind of surprising,” concedes Ben, gathered in a typically Parisian bistro with the band ahead of the evening’s show. He’s talking about the group’s ‘downtime’ in 2014 and early ‘15, following a string of early hype-creating singles and subsequent media attention. “We never paid any mind to the structure of a career or anything like that,” he adds. It normally goes: stick a few tracks online; get a bit of buzz; put out some proper singles; get some more buzz; hurriedly rush an album out to capitalise on the buzz; either become the next Muse or, more likely, find yourself struggling by album two.
Blaenavon, however, got to stage four at the tender age of 18 and then decided to bide their time. “We had to finish college, get our shit together and make sure the debut album we were gonna put out would be actually brilliant rather than an album that could have been good if we’d spent more time on it,” explains the singer. “We spent time on us as a band as well, making us the best band we can be, just getting all of it together and becoming a powerhouse,” adds bassist Frank with a wry smile. So that’s what they did. And then in late 2015 they re-emerged with the ‘Miss World’ EP, a significant enough leap forward to reignite the embers of success they’d previously garnered. And they toured. And they toured a bit more and dished up the ‘Let’s Pray’ EP – another step forward. All of a sudden their early, youthful forays into the music world seemed just that: a test run for the, well, for the “powerhouse” that they were slowly becoming. Because while Frank’s statement may have been in jest, and each of the band members are wont to crack out similar tongue-in-cheek one-liners at any given point (Ben: “I wanna be that guy on a massive ass stage with stupid fucking lights behind where I don’t even have to play guitar, I just walk around and people think I’m god”), truth is that Blaenavon are a band with ambitions of that size.
‘That’s Your Lot’ marks Blaenavon out as truly special songwriters, capable of crafting intricate, intoxicating worlds as well as radio-friendly earworms. Cribbed from the last half decade together and recorded in Cambridge, “in this industrial estate next to a fruit and veg distributor,” its collection of tracks may span from across their time so far, but don’t think they’re less than considered. “We had to be really deliberate with how we could make it a proper, complete record instead of a collection of songs we’d written over five years,” explains Ben. “Some of it had gotten a bit too self-deprecating and I wanted to have a bit of fun, so we made sure ‘Orthodox Man’ and ‘Let’s Pray’ were on there. It’s important to show we’re all sensitive guys, but you don’t want someone to wallow with you for 59 minutes…”
Ben, you sense, perpetually exists in a limbo between these two things. Of embodying the troubled, Morrissey-esque doomed hero in all its verbose glory - and then beating himself up about the very same thing. Getting the lyricist to talk about his craft is like putting a puppy in a torture chamber and by the end of this conversation, he’s managed to stress-shred a pink carnation lying on the table into tiny shrivelled pieces. Inadvertently appropriate imagery, you’ll agree. But, tense as he may be while discussing it, the singer’s unusual turn of phrase is one of the band’s most enticing qualities. Not for them are “horsemeat burgers / committing murders” couplets. “I was reading a load of Evelyn Waugh, particularly ‘Decline and Fall’ which is the funniest, most absurd book ever, around the time I was writing ‘Orthodox Man’. I realised that just because it’s a comedy, it still makes me feel things. I wanted to see if I could make music that was funny but people still cared about it,” he explains of the recent single’s twisted tale of romantic obedience. “And [German author] Herman Hesse has this effortless turn of phrase that I wanted to echo,” he continues. “His writing has these dark, twisted, shocking elements. There are some quite graphic things on the record.”
From the nihilistic musings that run throughout ‘Let’s Pray’ – musically the album’s jauntiest moment – to the brooding paranoia of ‘My Bark Is Your Bite’, shot over needling guitar lines, ‘That’s Your Lot’ runs the gamut of self-lacerating emotions but never caves under the weight of them. ‘Lonely Side’ has the kind of mellifluous groove that wouldn’t be out of place on Foals’ ‘Holy Fire’, while old favourite ‘Prague’ is a throat-ripping, moshpit-starting anthem. ‘Let Me See What Happens Next’’s delicate atmospherics are as fragile as anything The Antlers have put their name to, whereas ‘I Will Be The World’ is wired and raging, distilling all their emotion into one punctuated, determined shot.
Collectively it’s an album not to be taken lightly – in its reach, its ambition or its sheer determination to push every element to the nth degree. It is, as the trio attest, 100% an album that they could not have produced had they attempted it first time round. “We weren’t happy to make an album until we’d learnt how to say what we wanted to say,” says Frank. “It would have been a flash in the pan: ‘four 16 year olds put out a bright indie record’ and then everyone gets bored pretty quickly,” agrees Ben. “But a first record is a bold statement and we needed to work out how to say it properly.”
Five years on and having played the game their own way, ‘That’s Your Lot’ is a special record from a band who know exactly what they want to say and how they want to say it. In a couple of hours they’ll be back on stage and then back in the van towards the next city, but you get the sense that some altogether more seismic things may be happening for them very soon. “We’ve done the hard bit which is making an album that all of us think is amazing, so now all we can do is go out and play it to as many people as possible and hope they think it’s as good as we do,” shrugs Ben. That bit? It should be easy as anything.
Blaenavon’s debut album ‘That’s Your Lot’ is out now.
Photos: Emma Swann
Taken from the April 2017 issue of DIY, subscribe below.