After 'Happy People', Birmingham's Peace found themselves in a cruelly ironic rut. As they release third album ‘Kindness Is The New Rock & Roll’, frontman Harry Koisser tells Lisa Wright how sobriety helped him embrace positivity
Back in 2009, an unknown Peace (then going by the thankfully short-lived name Triangles In Egypt) played their first ever gig in the back room of a Birmingham pub. Irked that only “about seven” of their friends had bothered to come inside and watch, guitarist Doug Castle “marched outside to this beer garden where everyone was drinking, stood up on a table and shouted ‘WE’RE BETTER THAN THE FUCKING BEATLES’,” recalls singer Harry Koisser, with a grin.
Today, nearly a decade later, we meet the band (completed by bassist Sam Koisser and drummer Dom Boyce) in Shepherd’s Bush, where they’re filming the video for swaggering new single ‘You Don’t Walk Away From Love’. Directed by a longterm pal known fondly as The Mad Bastard and featuring a wildly ambitious concept involving eight separate sets wheeled in and out in one continuous take, it also finds the quartet dressed in near-identical mock-ups of The Fab Four’s iconic ‘Abbey Road’ suits. The logic, as with most things Peace, seems to extend no further than it seeming like a good idea at the time. “Coming full circle, it’s very strange that we’re dressed this way today,” muses Harry, currently sat pre-costume change in a baby pink hoodie emblazoned with the words ‘Festival Junkie’ in bubble writing. “But that’s what it’s like being in this band. On this album, we had a discussion about how we don’t particularly want to represent ourselves in a retroactive way and yet somehow here we are dressing up pretty much as The Beatles. Every single thing you try to avoid happens right in front of your eyes and you just go with it…”
Since they emerged with debut single ‘Follow Baby’ back in 2012 in a flurry of ludicrous charity shop jackets, glitter and quotable bon mots, this sense of gamely shrugging off seriousness has characterised Peace’s every move. Whether stipulating in their contract that label Columbia would erect a giant billboard in their hometown declaring ‘What The Fuck, Birmingham’, or walking out to their massive Reading 2015 set with Koisser wearing a dripping, recently-lacquered coat and deadpanning to the crowd that they’re “literally watching paint dry”, the band burst out as a lol-a-minute breath of fresh air from the start. In a world of po-faced, media-trained pop stars, Peace’s motto always seemed to be “fuck it, why not?”
Soon, with 2013 debut ‘In Love’ and 2015 follow-up ‘Happy People’ both landing in the Top 20 and propelling the quartet to increasingly large stages across the world, Peace’s natural propensity for high jinks was being encouraged on all sides. Koisser in particular found himself branded as indie’s poster boy for 24/7 party time good vibes: a role that he embraced with gusto. “I definitely lost sight of reality. To be honest, I was just celebrating for three years. It was just a non-stop celebration, just pure fireworks,” recalls Harry. “It was really fun, but it also had a gigantically negative effect. Honestly, I was just so smashed for the last tour that I don’t remember any of it particularly clearly. I don’t really remember headlining Brixton [Academy], or having any strong feelings. What comes up must come down, and the hangover from that three-year period was monumental.” Having cultivated this free-spirited, anything-goes persona, Harry soon began to find that his reality was becoming increasingly removed from the hype. “I couldn’t sustain it because it was getting more and more false,” he says. “On the last album it was like, well the album’s called ‘Happy People’, but I’m not a happy person. Quite ironic touring an album called ‘Happy People’ and being probably the most unhappy you’ve ever been…
“I was at a point where I was in the middle of it and I could have stayed there forever. Not done anything with the rest of my life but always just been at parties. I figured I’d probably done enough to just mill around and coast forever,” he continues. But thankfully, he opted for a different path.
These days, Harry doesn’t drink anymore. “It was out of absolute necessity,” he reasons. “The knock on effects all add up and I mathematically realised it didn’t lead to us recording a third album.” And from the cathartic writing sessions that birthed it to the grandiose message of positivity that makes up its title, new album ‘Kindness Is The New Rock’n’Roll’ is a reflection of these new-found priorities. It’s still Peace in all their technicolour bombast, but this time they’re coming at it from a different angle.
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Throwing themselves into this newly zen school of thought, the band decamped to a National Trust farmhouse in rural Herefordshire to begin writing. Tucked away in the forest in the middle of nowhere, however, it soon became the site for Peace’s own personal Blair Witch Project – a series of spooky events ranging from the ridiculous to the genuinely concerning. “There was this shack with statues of the Virgin Mary everywhere outside, satanic wood carvings hanging from all the trees, a slate saying ‘Do Not Enter’,” the singer recalls. “You’re in the farmhouse in the middle of the night and you can just hear drums coming from the middle of the forest where this thing is and smoke coming up through the trees.” While the rest of the band would come and go in stints, Harry stayed out there for a full six months. With just a single bed in the middle of a massive empty room where he’d sit and write songs all day, the experience unsurprisingly was a fairly formative one for the now-27-year-old. “The lines between reality and fantasy were so blurred there. I was treating songwriting like a form of worship, getting so deep into it that the idea of life itself was changing. It changed everything about me,” he says. “I was not inside my head or body. I was the forest. I can remember someone from the label coming up and getting out the car, and his face was like, you’ve really grown into the place. I didn’t have a mirror there so I looked in the reflection on my phone and I had a beard and really long hair.”
As Harry descended into full-on man of the woods territory, however, the creative pennies started to drop. “I’m not religious but there were some really religious experiences of getting a breakthrough, where it would be like EVERYTHING MAKES SENSE NOW,” he enthuses, emphasising the point with a mock explosion noise and half-throwing himself across the bench where we’re sat with Sam, who spends the hour occasionally interjecting his brother’s elaborate musings with brief translations back to English. The first public outing of these breakthroughs, meanwhile, would come in the form of lead single ‘From Under Liquid Glass’.
“I always keep a lot of songs to myself but our new manager helped me dig in deep. You know how snakes throw up eggs out of their own mouth? Like that.”
Released at the end of 2017 in support of mental health charity MQ, the track – an open exploration into Harry’s own struggles with depression – shone a light on a hitherto unseen side of Peace. Instead of hedonistic tales of love and life, it found them tapping into something all the more human and fallible. “I always keep a lot of songs to myself, but our new manager helped me dig in deep. You know how snakes throw up eggs out of their own mouth? Like that. Get the real songs out, the real shit that’s going on,” laughs Harry. Throughout the record, the band throw out a series of these personal truth eggs to latch onto. On ‘Magnificent’, the singer wavers over wishing he was “everything [he’s] cracked up to be”, before emerging in the chorus: “So don’t give up on me just yet/ Someday I will be magnificent”. On ‘Silverlined’, meanwhile, he offers up a reassuring line about being “the scalpel that will shape [his] destiny”. “The chorus of ‘Silverlined’ I wrote for myself,” Koisser explains. “I listened to that chorus on headphones before showing it to anyone or it even becoming a song. Same with ‘From Under Liquid Glass’ – it was a song for myself that became for everyone else. Unless I put a bit of what I’ve got onto the table, I’m in no real position [to say anything].”
“Everyone really struggles at some point,” he continues. “No-one just has the 100%, 10 out of 10 groovy existence that I kind of believed you could get to, so it’s like comfort. A comforting thing for the world. It’s an optimistic and helpful record if you’re a human alive in 2018.”
And that’s where the flipside comes in. Because, as you may have gathered from a title like ‘Kindness Is The New Rock’n’Roll’, there’s still a hell of a lot of grand, lofty thought on the world at large going on in LP3 too. Or, as Harry puts it, “music is essentially iPhone photography in that you can take a picture of the outside world or a picture of yourself and that’s literally it. So I can take as many selfies as possible on this record but you’ve got to use both cameras.” He pauses. “Fuck, if I was in the farmhouse and I’d had an idea like that I’d be speaking in tongues…”
Having spent time working with charity Help Refugees, Koisser speaks of feeling more and more “the responsibility of being a musician with an actual voice” and embracing the hippy ideals that prompted their band name in the first place. And so out came the big, anthemic manifestos of ‘Choose Love’ (itself the motto of the charity) and previous single ‘Power’. And as for the title track? “Rock’n’roll was very cool and now I honestly think it’s cool to be kind and that’s such a positive thing,” he enthuses. “It was always more about the aesthetic for us. Palma Violets were the rock’n’roll ones. They were living it, whereas we were listening to the Spice Girls.”
“We’re really in a hellish dystopia when it comes to what’s cool and what’s not anyway because everything moves so fast now. Pop culture is this Mad Max-style neon city built into the limestone crater and everyone’s in there just milking the young,” he continues, picking up enthusiasm for the analogy. “Whereas what I think is cool, and what maybe we’re attempting to do, is to just get out of there. Hot-foot it into the desert, find our own little oasis, cultivate life and let it grow. And maybe people in this big, distracting, noisy place will look out and be like: What are those guys doing out there? They found life! Why are we living here, wondering what the fuck’s going on, when those kids have got some wholesome good times over there? Some elvish good times going on?!”
And therein lies the beauty of Peace. Even when they’ve gone through the emotional wringer, they’re still twenty times more entertaining than most. And even on the dawn of their most personal album yet, they’re still just seeking those elvish good times. “Now we’ll always be one of those bands trying to channel it into something positive,” grins Harry as he heads off to don his Lennon suit for another day in one of the UK’s most infectiously loveable bands. “Turns out you can save the world and have a good time doing it.”