Cover Feature Bob Vylan: Independent’s Day

Back with a more holistic, introspective bang on their third album ‘Humble As The Sun’, London DIY grime-punks Bob Vylan are choosing to balance anger with optimism. But as their words will attest, they haven’t lost any of their political bite.

What’s eating Bob Vylan of late? Frankly, all manner of things. Capitalism. Congestion. The abundance of films that fail to depict the Black experience through anything other than trauma, and the lack of attention paid to TV that does. They’re concerned about the state of music journalism amongst ever-depleting funding, and fed up with the way that streaming metrics dictate the value placed upon the arts.

Most of all, they’re worried about genocide, and about people with platforms who don’t feel ready or willing to condemn it. But right now, Bobby Vylan (rapper, with a Y) is sitting alongside his mate Bobbie Vylan (drummer, with an ie) in the bowels of the Barbican Centre, wondering why it is that when they perform, their attempts to rally the crowd on a note of positivity tend not to excite as much as when they meet them from a place of pain.

“I’ve always found it weird that when we’re on stage and I say, ‘Fuck the government!’, people will say, ‘Yeaaaah!’” says Bobby, miming a cheering crowd. “But then when I say, ‘If we can do this, you can do anything, we had a dream and you can too!’, people are kind of like, yeah, cool, whatever. I’ve never known why they can so easily cheer the anger, but can’t so easily cheer the self-belief and the hopefulness.”

It’s a big conundrum to unravel, but there’s something about being flung headfirst into philosophical pondering that feels refreshingly on-brand for a band like Bob Vylan. In the last half-decade, the duo have used their music to explore a wide range of meaty societal issues, transforming from a best-kept live secret to the kind of chart-bothering entities that they are today, right on the cusp of releasing their rather astonishing third album, ‘Humble As The Sun’. That they’ve come this far without ever compromising on their DIY principles is a testament not only to their rabble-rousing spirit, but their insistence that, with the right attitude, independent artists don’t need to compromise on quality or aspirations of success.

“It’s something that we made a conscious decision over from the very beginning,” nods Bobby. “As a band, we are creatively on par with anything that comes out of a major label or a big independent or whatever of the same genre. Just because it’s DIY, doesn’t mean it has to be amateur - that’s true for anything in life, but especially music.”

While Bob Vylan felt assured that they had something special early on, meticulous effort was put in from the off to refine their process, setting up a camera at the back of their shows so that they could identify areas to improve. “The energy of it was the first thing where it was like, OK, that’s already right,” remembers Bobbie. “From there it was about trying to get the right balance of everything; how the drums kick, how we dress, how Bobby likes to talk during the show…”

“The songs deal with issues that are serious and quite heavy, but we’re laughing before we go on stage, and we laugh when we come off,” continues Bobby. “But [at the start] when we played, it all just looked angry. Some of our first shows, we’d come off stage and talk to the other bands and they’d be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you were gonna be this nice!’ There’s this expectation of you as a Black man that you’re going to be angry when you’re taking the bins out, angry when you’re cooking your meal, just so angry plating up your stir fry. But we’ve got so many things in our lives that we’re blessed and happy to have. So I’m like, OK, how can we bring that on stage with us too? The more we talked, the more people relaxed. The sugar helps the medicine go down - do you get me?”

Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun' Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun' Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun'
“A disheartened person is no benefit to anybody; if you ain’t got the energy, you are no use to the cause.”- Bobby Vylan

The timeliness of Bob Vylan’s arrival seems to mark a new era of representation within the music industry, proving just how few non-white artists had been properly platformed in the lane of alternative, experimental rock previously. The band’s debut record, 2020’s ‘We Live Here’, was startling for some people not just in its ferocity, but its potent mix of punk and grime, released at the peak of that year’s global Black Lives Matter uprisings.

It was their 2022 follow-up ‘The Price Of Life’ that really piqued crossover interest, however, taking a focused look at austerity and working class struggle well before the term ‘cost of living crisis’ had even been coined. Bob Vylan were heralded as some kind of prophets, when the truth, they say, was more about being innately attuned to underdog experiences, speaking the realities of what was going on in the UK before it had become headline news.

“Like, we do quite literally live here!” says Bobby, quoting back their album title. “We dropped that during lockdown at the height of the protests around George Floyd’s murder, but it wasn’t written the week he was killed. It was written ages ago, and it’s because we’re living on the ground and seeing what’s going on. Racism isn’t new, and neither is economic hardship bro! It’s rough out here, and we live it, same as anybody else. People say, ‘Oh, if you’re not laughing, you’re crying’. But I think if we all spent a little less time laughing, we might just burn something down.”

The thing they burnt down, it turns out, was the boundary between the mainstream and independents. When Bob Vylan released ‘We Live Here’, they could see that a fanbase was growing, but say that they were still somewhat “naive” to the process of music promotion, shouting truth to power from their counter-cultural sidelines. The second they realised that ‘The Price Of Life’ had the potential to infiltrate the charts, they went all-in on promo, determined to, if only for a week, “occupy a tiny piece of the market share”. “The major labels left the door cracked open, and we were like, ‘Oh!’” says Bobbie. “Let’s poke our heads in there and take a little walk around…”

Eventually settling at an impressive Number 18, ‘The Price Of Life’ campaign also won the duo the first ever Best Alternative Music Act award at the 2022 MOBOs: a way to better recognise contributions to Black musical cultures that weren’t just rap and R&B. In customary Vylan style, they used their speech to show sincere gratitude for the recognition, but also to point out the rarity of the achievement. “Everyone is here bigging up Atlantic, bigging up Warner - fuck that!” said Bobby. “Big us up, because we did it without a major label budget.”

In the band’s eyes, their achievements are not in what their records are, but how they get made. “I’d rather have an album that goes to Number 18 in that way than a Number One where somebody else picked the single, somebody else was in the room going, ‘Maybe you should change this…’,” says Bobby. “I’d rather this, every single day of the week. So whether it’s a Top 20 album or a MOBO, that’s what we celebrate in those instances, and that’s the main thing that we always want to display: the empowerment of artists.”

Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun' Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun'
“Just because it’s DIY, doesn’t mean it has to be amateur - that’s true for anything in life, but especially music.” - Bobby Vylan

Having achieved those tangible wins once already, Bob Vylan don’t necessarily feel the urge to replicate ‘The Price Of Life’’s chart-climbing success. While their artistic independence means that they never have to do anything as formal as sitting down and deciding on an official album ‘direction’, they did find themselves itching to explore new lyrical angles, whilst finding new language to inspire.

“The albums before this had to be made,” says Bobby. “Each one of them has had similar threads. ‘We Live Here’ was a very angry album, and it was needed at that time; ‘The Price of Life’ was angry too, but it was also comedic, which we needed at that time. And now, ‘Humble As The Sun’ is about looking at the situations that we’re in, and having that realisation that the same people that fuck things up in this country are not going to be the ones to make it better. It would be crazy for us to think otherwise.”

In this way, ‘Humble…’ is a record that strives towards positive feelings of grassroots community, learning how to keep one’s chin up without succumbing to toxic positivity or political complicity. Bob Vylan’s witty, anti-establishment lyrical barbs are stronger, cleverer and more pointed than ever, but there’s just as much encouragement as there is vitriol, pushing the listener to drag themselves out of bed and make shit happen.

“We’re not giving you this nonsense that some bands are giving you - ‘Joy is the answer’ or whatever; ‘Love is the thing’,” says Bobby. “These little slogans ain’t never worked for someone in my position growing up. It’s more about acknowledging that when things are shit, I’ve still got to do what I’ve got to do and find some way to get through my day.”

In many ways, this stylistic transition between records is fairly subtle. Recent singles ‘Dream Big’ and ‘Hunger Games’ paint the kind of brash, bold moshpit strokes that Bob Vylan fans will already be familiar with, while the Angela Bassett-via-Fatboy Slim-sampling ‘Right Here’ grins harder than any ‘90s smiley face logo. But there are moments of real poignancy too. The album’s titular opener, with Bobby spitting fire over a sprawling, soulful beat, might be one of the most moving, fully-fleshed things the pair have ever made, while ‘Makes Me Violent’ channels grunge rather than out-and-out rock, featuring a piano that once belonged to the Actual George Michael.

Recording for the first time with producer Jonny Breakwell in “proper studios,” the album was an exercise in loosening their reins, knowing that you can maintain an independent ethos while still leaning on the expertise of friends. “Being able to go, right, we know what we’re doing enough now that we can trust somebody else to help - it just makes the whole thing grow,” says Bobbie.

A more explicit motivation was the feeling that both members got from removing themselves from the London rat race, essentially learning how to touch grass. For Bobbie, trips to both Jamaica and the outskirts of Paris allowed him to re-evaluate his true wants and needs, shedding some of his inner-city comforts. He watched sunrises and looked up at the stars, shocked at the beauty that could be found. “Honestly, I finally realised why they always draw it like that!” he laughs. “Growing up in and around London, I’ve never seen through the pollution and all that to see constellations before.”

Bobby was also getting his Vitamin D in, moving to the Kent seaside and walking daily along the beach. When he returned to the city to record, he took time to sit in the studio garden, feeding the birds and generally trying to reconnect with life’s bigger picture. “After a while, you just start to meditate,” he explains. “I was having these conversations with myself, the nature around me, the sun even, kind of figuring out what it was I wanted to say.

“Things are hard here, but there’s way more to our existence than the bricks and mortar that we surround ourselves in. When the bill comes through, when you’re cramped on the tube, it’s easy to forget. But a disheartened person is no benefit to anybody; if you ain’t got the energy, you are no use to the cause. It’s important to find ways to continue to be positive and energetic and hopeful, because you will be more inclined to continue against the struggle.”

Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun' Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun' Bob Vylan on the power of optimism, advocating for Palestine, and their third album 'Humble As The Sun'
“It’s hard to watch people who have made a living off of speaking up for the oppressed sitting back and doing nothing.” - Bobby Vylan

It’s a simple profundity, but one that Bob Vylan hope they can pass onto others, striving for nuance on big red-button topics. Album highlight ‘He’s A Man’, for instance, can be read as a comedic diatribe against the oafishness of lad culture, going on benders and claiming that the “g spot don’t exist”. But when you dig a little deeper, it’s also an entry point to a much larger conversation about the crisis in men’s health and incel radicalisation. “It’s great that a conversation has started about men being more open and entitled to mental health support, but if you feel like the only one who doesn’t have access to that, it can make people lash out in strange ways,” says Bobbie. “You get certain demographics of Gen Z men who feel doubly hard done by, and so are becoming really right-wing. There’s no easy answer to it, but there needs to be more conversation, more resources.”

“Men are victims of the patriarchy, just in a different way,” nods Bobby. “The biggest killer of men under the age of 40 is suicide, and the second biggest is heart attacks. You can’t tell me that’s coincidence; you’re telling me I’m either going to take my own life, or the stress of how I’ve been living is gonna kill me anyway? That doesn’t sound like an appealing way to live.”

‘He’s A Man’ is a collaboration with good friends SOFT PLAY, a relationship founded when Bobby, messing around with a remix of their song ‘One More Day Won’t Hurt’, decided to reach out to guitarist Laurie Vincent for a stem of his original vocal. One collab turned into several, and a friendship blossomed - enough that internet rumours persist that it was Bob Vylan who encouraged the band to change their name from their previous moniker, Slaves.

“It’s true-ish,” says Bobby. “I know they were thinking about it already, but I did say to him, ‘I love your band, but I can never wear your merch; I can’t attach that word to me the same way that some of your fanbase might’. Some people are gonna get upset about it; ‘world’s gone woke’ or whatever. But it’s like, if the music is still good after they’ve changed their name, who cares?”


A message to DIY artists, from Bobby Vylan…

“To some artists, the fact that a label picks them up is validating, but it doesn’t always make any sense. You don’t need a label to put your stuff on Spotify. The internet has so much power now - it’s the gateway to everything. If there’s something you can’t do, like budgeting or PRS funding sheets or booking shows, find someone you trust who can, and share the wins with them. And you need to ask yourself, if the major label is coming to you - let’s be honest, in this day and age, nobody is dropping off their stack of demos - you’ve done something that’s caught their eye. So if they’re offering you five, know it’s at least worth 10. So many artists get caught up in being grateful, but if you don’t know your worth, someone else is only going to decide it for you.”

Another big talking point in the Vylan universe has been their vocal advocacy for Palestine, or rather, a widely-circulated video clip from a gig in which Bobby called out the bands who he felt were not matching the ‘punk’ energy from which they had previously profited. “It’s a cowardly fucking thing. So fuck IDLES, fuck Sleaford Mods, and fuck every single one of those fucking apolitical bands that don’t want to fucking speak up [when they’ve] got a fucking bullshit album to sell. We can’t respect that at all.” Neither band have responded directly to them, but both have since made statements calling for something akin to a ceasefire, suggesting that the message maybe did cut through.

“Either way, it definitely does encourage other people to make sure they use their voice,” says Bobbie, the bandmate ever-so-slightly more inclined towards diplomacy. “Other people from other bands also started posting things about using their platforms, and that was good to see.”

“I mean… in that instance [of a gig environment], emotions are high,” says Bobby, also choosing his words thoughtfully. “I have a personal connection to that struggle; it is something that I feel quite strongly about. Whereas for other people, maybe it’s the protest of the week. But it does make it hard to watch people who have made a living off of speaking up for the oppressed kind of sitting back and doing nothing. It’s harder still when it’s not the first time I see those bands doing it. They’re free to do whatever they want, but as a fan - or a former fan - I just become a little bit upset.”

Where Bobby was also upset, if not overly surprised, was how quickly the gravity of his words was subverted and played out in magazines as some sort of superficial band beef. “The whole focus became ‘Bob Vylan said this about this band’, not ‘Bob Vylan urge other bands to stand up for the people of Palestine’,” he says. “Some of the publications that reported on it are trash anyway, so it’s like, alright, let them have their clickbait. But it was never about targeting any band or judging their music. It’s about using the platform we have for some kind of good while we’re here on this earth. As we’ve established already, there are far bigger things than us. So I dunno - what are we doing with our time here?”

As ‘Humble As The Sun’ rather heavily implies, it’s a question that perhaps we could all do with asking. There’s a lot for Bob Vylan to be angry about - a lot for us all to feel indignant, exhausted and even helpless about. But if peaceful solutions are ever going to come, the two musicians are adamant that we all need to find ways to stay motivated: not just by fury, but by the genuine feeling that a positive future is possible for all. Whether it’s grassroots music or bigger forms of activism, change is a marathon, not just a sprint; why can’t we learn to cheer for both?

“People need hope, man,” says Bobby. “But more than that, they need self-belief. Some people can live with not saying anything, never speaking up. But us? Me? Bob Vylan? Never. It’s the very least of what we can do.”

‘Humble As The Sun’ is out 5th April via Ghost Theatre.

With thanks to the Barbican Conservatory for the use of their space.

Tags: Bob Vylan, From The Magazine, Features, Cover Features

As featured in the April 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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