Chapel Club are currently on the Emerge NME Radar Tour with The Joy Formidable. Purchase your tickets here.
The lights low, the air thick with incense, five musicians huddle in a circle beneath a swirling glitterball conjuring sonic sea-storms and words of classical import and poetic resonance. And all beneath the squinting glare of the man projected onto the studio wall, masturbating furiously into a salad.
“We had Chatroulette on the projector,” says Chapel Club singer Lewis Bowman of their sessions recording their debut album in south London’s Pool studios with producer Paul Epworth. “For a day or two it was the object of real fascination for us.”
Did that have an effect on the record? “Some,” Lewis laughs. “It nearly didn’t get made! HAHAHA! You’d be in the live room and hear this burst of laughter and you’d look around and there’d be four people grouped around a laptop.”
Bassist Liam Arklie leans forward and commits to tape one of only two utterances he’ll make today: “You just try to get past all the cocks to see a pair of tits.”
On paper NME Radar Tour co-headliners Chapel Club are the archetypal Band In Black: the latest major label cash-in on the never-ending Joy Division revival. With an advance rumoured to be the size of a gas giant and their vocals fed through Auto-Curtis, you’d imagine them curling out reverb-swamped subterranean noir rock like the back end of a human centipede behind Interpol, Editors and White Lies.
But on record and in person they’re a dazzlingly alternative proposition. Their intense, introspective recording sessions are interspersed with random video chats with some of the globe’s loudest and proudest self-abusers. Their ‘tortured poet’ singer grew up – distinctly un-tortured – on a musical diet of hip-hop, R&B and Motown rather than The Smiths, and hung out with Turkish gangsters and pill-popping dance bods.
And their music is the last word on the whole Dour Division scene because a) it steps far beyond such blinkered influences to take in the broiling thunders of My Bloody Valentine, Kitchens Of Distinction, Echo & The Bunnymen, House Of Love, Cocteau Twins, Clearlake and Smog and b) it’s not all that ‘gloomy’ at all, actually.
“I don’t see us as being a dark band,” argues Lewis. “In my head it’s like light on water. It’s this constantly moving play of light, it’s very sensory. ‘Surfacing’ was dark because it’s a hate song, but the album generally gives a sense that life is fucking difficult and complex.
“There’s a melancholia to it, but listen to the music. It’s the contrast, the dark meeting the light. That’s what life’s about. Anyone that pegs us as ‘gloomy’ is missing half of what’s there.”
Dammit, and there was us ready to slap Lewis – an aspiring poet since the age of 11 and arguably the first man ever to deploy the word ‘tessellate’ in popular song – with the overslapped ‘New Morrissey’ tag…
“The way people see me and the way I actually think I am are two very different things,” Lewis smirks. “I’ve always been seen as someone who’s really confident and at ease, but I have massive insecurities. I’m like any human being, a forest of insecurities, but the biggest tree in the forest is the tree of arrogance and self-assurance and that’s the one that bears the finest fruit.” That’s such a Morrissey thing to say.
Lewis laughs. “I read interviews with Morrissey and I think we’re probably fairly similar, but near the end of the path we diverge.”
We meet Chapel Club, one suitably stormy afternoon, in the Shacklewell Arms, a mural-smothered Jamaican pub in Dalston where they played their first gig a year ago. CC were the first band ever to play the venue, keen to create their “own world” and make the CC live experience more interesting than the endless shit hole circuit.
“We walked in and went ‘this place is fucking mind-blowing’,” smiles drummer Rich Mitchell. “It was all these old people playing dominoes,” says Mike Hibbert, ex-Hope Of The States guitarist and Chapel Club’s musical fulcrum.
Back in September 2009, Mike had spent the three years since the split of HOTS “feeling sorry for myself, smoking shitloads of weed and starting to write songs that are Chapel Club songs now”, and “grooming” the (then) 17-year-old Swindonite Liam to be in his band.
Liam, Rich and guitarist Alex Parry had all been in local combos before but Lewis, recommended to Mike by a friend when he was hunting out a vocalist, was entirely new to band life, having spent his adolescence exploring other artistic avenues.
“I used to spend loads of time writing, 10 hours a day,” he recalls. “I was into Byron when I was 14, I was writing all this rampant love poetry set in Italy and I’d never been. I’ve got it all still and it’s really shocking.
“I’m very over-emotional but at the same time I come from southeast London and I would’ve laughed at the notion of being ‘troubled’. I hung around with loads of Turkish kids whose dads were small-time gangsters, so I can handle myself. With the lyrics I keep it very personal and very specific because I want it to be true. If it’s too vague and abstract then people read their own meanings into it. I don’t trust people to do that. I haven’t got enough faith in mankind.”
Far from the isolated loner, Lewis was a DJ, promoter and Trash club regular while at university. “I booked Wild Beasts for their first London gig, which I’m proud of. I’d DJ and get fucked, I was big into pills and stuff – then there came a day where I went ‘I love this music but I can’t enjoy it anymore because someone’s making this and I’m not, I’m just sat on my arse writing poems I don’t even show to anyone’.”
Once he’d “lucked into” Chapel Club, though, it wasn’t long before his star quality blazed through. He’d take many lyrics from his previously-written poetry – ‘The Shore’, for instance, with its sonorous depictions of lonely flower markets and desolate train rides, is one of several poems Lewis wrote on the Biblical theme of Jonah while also retelling a drug-blasted stagger home.
“I’d been out on pills and ketamine for a weekend and I was walking home at 7am through Whitechapel with my girlfriend and I’d had the worst night, throwing up and stuff. [It’s] this experience of being totally hungover on a comedown but being alive to the colour and light and beauty that’s in the world.”
By the time they played their fourth gig, the classic A&R dog-fight was underway. The band vehemently deny that they signed one of the biggest deals of last year (Rich: “We took creative control over loads of cash”), but there’s no doubting they’re about to release one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of this.
Thanks to Paul Epworth’s production techniques (see opposite), CC are following their ‘Dream A Little Dream’-quoting debut single ‘Surfacing’ and snappy pop banger ‘O Maybe I’ with the breezy Bunnymen anthem ‘All The Eastern Girls’, an album of cavernous guitar and finely turned lyrics, then a slot on the Emerge NME Radar Tour.
“It’s exciting,” Mike enthuses. “For us it’ll be the first experience of doing a proper tour, we haven’t had the chance to play with any other bands. We feel a bit lonely. We could do with some friends.”
Only Bands With Something To Say need apply, mind. “I find it so frustrating when bands don’t pay any attention to what their songs actually mean,” Lewis jabbers. “Why would you do it? Why would you labour over something so long? Do instrumentals. Be Philip Glass. You can do it without lyrics, don’t do bad shit. If you heard some of the lyrics that I come up with spontaneously when we’re writing a song, that’s what some bands put into their finished song.”
He sighs. “It’s such a wasted opportunity.”
Chapel Club: not a band to let a chance for greatness pass by. On your knees…