A Tribute To Viola Beach: ‘They Wrote Songs To Make People Happy’

In February, Viola Beach’s short career came to a tragic end. As their debut album is posthumously released, Barry Nicolson talks to the band’s family and friends to celebrate four talented, ambitious and fun-loving friends

On the evening of June 26, at the point in Coldplay’s set usually reserved for their cover of David Bowie’s ‘“Heroes”’, Chris Martin asked the 100,000-strong Glastonbury crowd to picture a parallel universe, one where a young band and their manager, whose story had ended four months previously in the most horrific circumstances, finally got to have their moment on the Pyramid Stage. Viola Beach, Martin explained, “reminded us of all the other bands that come through here, the excitement and the joy and the hope… So instead of playing ‘“Heroes”’, we’re going to create Viola Beach’s alternate future and let them headline Glastonbury for a song.”

On a stage-side viewing platform, the friends and families of Viola Beach looked on as the biggest band in the world played along to footage of their lost sons and brothers performing ‘Boys That Sing’, their second single, released just weeks before the car crash that took their lives. The tribute was planned weeks in advance, but nothing had prepared them for the emotional impact of the moment itself. For Joanne Dakin, mother of drummer Jack, “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Emotionally, it brought me right back to square one. We met Chris Martin’s parents that day and they really seemed to understand how the families are in this with you – it’s not just the boys in the band, it’s the mums and sisters and girlfriends, everyone who wants it for them as much as they want it for themselves. And there’s nothing worse in this world than having that hope taken away from you.”

In a year where we’ve lost so many greats, it might seem strange that Coldplay should use their Glastonbury set to honour a little-known band from Warrington with just two singles to their name. On reflection, however, it makes perfect sense: only a handful of people will ever be able to relate to enigmas like Bowie or Prince, but any musician who’s driven through the night to play in a strange new town knows what it meant to be Viola Beach.

Lisa Leonard, whose son Kris wrote ‘Boys That Sing’ when he was just 15, still can’t express what she felt that day, but she’s kept the emails she exchanged with Chris Martin in the weeks before and after. “In one of them, he wrote, ‘I wanted to reach out to you, to help and support you, because I know what it feels like to be so young and to have that drive. However, at that age, we were never as good as Viola Beach were…’”

The name Viola Beach, coined by Kris Leonard, doesn’t denote a specific place, but a state of mind. “It was something Kris had dreamt of when he was 14 or 15,” explains Lisa. “It was something he wanted for himself in the future, something that symbolised peace and tranquility to him.” Once you understand the meaning behind their name, so much about Viola Beach’s music, story and outlook on life snaps into focus. This was a band for whom optimism and escapism were founding tenets.

Kris Leonard started Viola Beach when he was 15, alongside his old friend Jack Dakin, who he’d known since primary school. Jack had been playing drums for years, but Kris hadn’t taken a serious interest in music until 2010, when his parents separated. “Kris had refused counselling, but his teachers had given him this card to hold up if ever he was feeling stressed, and I could always come home from work if he needed me,” remembers Lisa. “Then one day he told me he wanted to start writing music. I didn’t take him seriously at first, but his dad bought him a second-hand guitar and for the next 12 months, he sat in his bedroom and taught himself to play it.”

Like most parents, Lisa would have preferred her son to go to university and find a “real” job, one that offered more stability than a moon-shot at the music industry. But when it became clear Kris wasn’t going to do that, she took the money she’d set aside for his education and spent it on instruments instead. The original Viola Beach line-up – Kris and Jack, plus guitarist Frank Coulson and bassist Jonathan Gibson – wrote and rehearsed in her garage, while she kept them supplied with pizza. She even arranged for them to receive Jobseeker’s Allowance. “She told me that she loves a boy who knows how to sing,” Kris wrote of Lisa in the notebook where he composed all his lyrics, “so I learnt how to sing.”

The first people to ‘discover’ Viola Beach were Ady Hall and Lee McCarthy, two producers based in St Helens, Merseyside, who came across a demo of ‘Daisies’ on SoundCloud in early 2014. The band went on to record five sessions with the pair, the most significant results of which were ‘Chumley Brown’ and ‘Swings And Waterslides’, which became their debut single. The sessions were always productive, but the unexpected departures of Coulson and Gibson temporarily hindered the band’s progress. After they’d recorded ‘Swings And Waterslides’, Kris asked Hall if he thought he should go ahead and release it. Hall advised him to wait until he’d found a settled line-up.

For Kris, it wasn’t enough to have bandmates: “They have to be my best friends,” he told his girlfriend Negin Karimi. In the end, he only had to look as far as The Lounge, a bar situated just off Warrington’s Palmyra Square, whose open mic night Kris became a fixture at. Eventually, he and Jack started working there, and that’s where they met Tomas, the “funny, sensible one”, who was seven years older but a kindred spirit nonetheless. Lowe had plenty of experience as a drummer for The Stocks, a band he’d started in 2004 with his best friends from high school, but he had to borrow a bass from them to start practicing with Viola Beach. He very quickly met Kris’ best-friend criteria, and shortly before the band’s first tour with Eliza and the Bear last October, the regulars at the Lounge would have a whip-round to buy Tom a bass of his own.

The Lounge quickly became the centre of Viola Beach’s universe. “They hung out there, they rehearsed there, they even slept there sometimes,” laughs Negin. “The manager, Adam, loved the band, and even the bar regulars were always supporting them and chipping in with money. It meant so much to them. It really was like a family.”

The desire everyone had to see Viola Beach succeed was matched only by the drive of their manager, Craig Tarry, to make it happen. Warrington is a town that sits in the shadow of two neighbouring cities, Manchester and Liverpool, whose gravitational pulls – geographic, economic and cultural – are keenly felt. “There was never really anyone from our town to look up to,” says Paul Bracegirdle, Craig’s best friend of 20 years, and later Viola Beach’s art director. “As kids, we listened to Manchester bands like The Stone Roses and Oasis, or Liverpool bands like The Beatles and The Coral. Craig was always looking for a band from Warrington to put the town on the map, and when he heard Viola Beach for the first time, he instantly rang me up and said, ‘I’ve found them.’”

Years earlier, Craig had found some success managing another local group, Exile Parade. Yet he never stopped searching for that band and when he came across Viola Beach in early 2015, he was absolutely convinced they were it. “Craig liked to keep them grounded,” remembers his sister Sarah, “but once he came onboard and saw how quickly everything was moving, he was just as excited as they were. I remember on Christmas Day, he sat the family down after dinner and put their Maida Vale session on the telly. That’s how proud he was of them.”

Around this time, the line-up was completed by the arrival of guitarist River Reeves, a fellow student of Kris’s at nearby Priestley College. River’s father Ben Dunne describes his son as a charismatic dreamer who excelled at drama and music, and who’d deferred a performing arts degree in Manchester to join Viola Beach. “In March or April last year, Riv suddenly hit us with, ‘I don’t need to go to uni because I’ve joined a band and we’re gonna be massive!’” laughs Ben. “He hadn’t even played a gig with them at that point, so I was quite nervous. But one day, after they’d been working with [record label] Communion for a while, he came home and played us ‘Boys That Sing’. I listened right through to the end, when he turned to me and said, ‘It’s alright, innit, Dad?’ That’s when I knew exciting things were probably going to happen for them.”

By releasing ‘Swings And Waterslides’ on their own label, the aptly named Fuller Beans, Viola Beach had already shown an independent streak, so Craig had engineered a singles deal with Communion rather than subject the band to the pressures that would inevitably come with signing to a major label. “Because they were still so young, we kind of tried to keep a lid on things,” admits Communion co-founder Ian Grimble, who produced ‘Boys That Sing’ and the four-track EP that was due to follow it. “But at the same time, they were incredibly driven. You listen to a lot of bands and think, ‘I like the music, but I don’t believe you live this life,’ whereas with Viola Beach, you did. They wanted to play everywhere, be heard by everyone.”

Even at the best of times, the music industry offers few guarantees, and it’s pointless to try to extrapolate what Viola Beach might ultimately have achieved. Yet they were certainly moving in the right direction. By the end of 2015, the band had triumphed on the BBC Introducing Stage at Reading & Leeds, completed their first UK tour with Eliza And The Bear and supported The Courteeners at the Manchester Apollo. In the weeks and months ahead, they were gearing up for their first release on their new label, looking forward to SXSW and the summer festival season, and in the early stages of planning a debut album – all off the back of a self-financed single that had received 30-plus plays on Radio 1. “In our neck of the woods, they were already being spoken of as the next Catfish And The Bottlemen,” recalls 6Music’s Steve Lamacq. “This was not a band who might have done something; this was a brilliant and audacious band who a lot of people had already nailed their colours to the mast for.”

On the afternoon of February 12, hours before Viola Beach were due to play their first overseas show at a festival in Sweden, Lisa Leonard went round to the band’s shared house in Warrington to lay birthday presents on her son’s bed. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got him where I want him. They’re all safe.’” By the following day, her world had fallen apart.
The deaths of Viola Beach and Craig Tarry on that bridge in Södertälje were shocking precisely because they felt so senseless. They hadn’t succumbed to drink or drugs or illness; there was nothing ‘glamorous’ or ‘romantic’ about it. It just seemed cruel, brutal and beyond reason. As the music world rallied around the band, launching a campaign to get ‘Swings And Waterslides’ to Number One, the families, most of whom had never met before, were faced with an awful dilemma: did they draw a line under what happened and try to rebuild their own lives, or would they take what few finished recordings there were and forge a legacy from them?

“I probably would have just buried my head in the sand,” admits Lisa, “but I had to take a step back and see it’s not about what I want – it’s about what Kris would want. There were times when I’d sit in his bedroom and ask him, ‘What do you want?’ Obviously you know he’s not going to answer, but you just get so desperate. You don’t want to do the wrong thing.”

Neither did Communion, which backed off from releasing anything, as Ian Grimble explains, “because we didn’t want to look like we were cashing in”. When the families decided to press ahead with an album, however, the label resolved to help in any way they could. “The process of putting it together was hardcore,” admits Grimble. “The hardest part was going through the session where they’d very quickly thrown down every song they had, so there were a lot of stops and mistakes and general mucking about – that was difficult to listen to. But by the time we’d finished recording, we had it exactly how they wanted it to sound – they were happy with every note. So I decided not to change anything. I felt that’s how these songs had to go out.”

The result is an album – released, like ‘Swings And Waterslides’, through their own label – whose existence might seem like a Pyrrhic victory, but for the families themselves, it represents much more than that. ‘Viola Beach’ is a document of – and a testament to – who this band were, the dream they all shared, and the friendships they forged. Ben Dunne, who’s since established the River Reeves Foundation to raise money for Priestley College and the band’s memorial fund, recounts a story told to him by Joanne Dakin, “who every year before Christmas would ask Jack what he wanted, and he’d always reply, ‘Batteries and a little brother please, mum.’ But last Christmas, he told her, ‘I only need batteries this year, because I’ve got a little brother now.’ There was always something quite vulnerable about Riv, but with Jack and the other boys he’d found people who were in tune with him, who would be there to look after him. He loved the world he was in for the short time he was in it.”

There will always be sadness, of course, as well as that terrible, unresolvable question: what if…? But there will just as surely be catharsis, too. For Negin Karimi, “some of the songs on the album I find harder to listen to than others. But we have to train ourselves to make it a positive thing, because this isn’t an album that should make people sad – they wrote songs to make people happy. I always think, ‘What would Kris say?’ And I know Kris would tell me to man up, put a smile on my face and enjoy the music.”

Ode
 By Arthur O’Shaughnessy 

(1844–1881)

‘We are the music-makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.’