Weaving around Cardiff train station on an old bike, dressed in leggings, a black hoodie and football boots “for the grip”, 27-year-old Astroid Boys vocalist Benji Kendell cuts a faintly ridiculous figure. Since recording the filthy, furious grime-punk band’s as-yet-untitled debut album, he’s taken to cycling for hours in the Welsh countryside to try to stay out of trouble. It’s what he plans to do later on today, straight after his lunchtime interview alongside 25-year-old bandmate Phil ‘Traxx’ Davies, who arrives in black turn-ups and a zip-up coat.
The pair co-founded the five-piece band around a decade ago after meeting at a house party. “There’s a video of us in this council flat,” Kendell explains, settling in a sedate brew-house pub. “We’re both taking it in turns on the mic and it’s quite obvious that there’s tension. But that tension grew into a bond. We both understand the work-rate that’s needed.”
It has to be said, that work-rate hasn’t resulted in a breathless output to date: just two EPs, ‘Bacon Dream’ and ‘CF10’, both of which came out in 2015, have appeared so far. In part, this is because Kendell spent 16 months in prison for unlawful wounding in 2014. “I was mad at myself because I’d hurt somebody,” he recently told the BBC. Kendell’s jail time came when work was well underway on ‘Bacon Dream’, a record that combines grime beats, punk bile and towering, looping riffs that sound suspiciously like nu-metal. Traxx was left to finish and tour the EP without Kendell.
“I had the boys on the phone saying, ‘Bro, it’s looking good for you when you come out,’” Kendell explains. “I had purpose, I had something to look forward to, but for all I knew the buzz around ‘Bacon Dream’ could have ended naturally by the time I was released.” He spent the time inside writing an autobiography and preparing to work on ‘CF10’, which was recorded upon his release. His incarceration also caused difficulties on the ‘CF10’ UK tour. Kendell was electronically tagged, so the band played daytime shows and raced home in time for his 7pm curfew. “We played a sold-out show at [east London venue] The Old Blue Last,’ Traxx says, “ran offstage and dived into the car. We were even gonna get a back-up motorbike if there was traffic.”
Originally a grime duo, Astroid Boys became a group after a late-night performance at Glastonbury’s Shangri-La. “After the show I had such euphoria,” says Kendell. “It was like I was on serious drugs. [Traxx] said to me, ‘Man, I can’t wait to play this live.’ He said he wanted to add drums and guitar and stuff. I was like, ‘We’re not a rock band, bro, we’re rappers.’” Kendell was a hip-hop fan (“Mos Def, Common, anything on Rawkus Records”), so Traxx introduced him to underground bands such as Bad Brains and Gorilla Biscuits. It was Traxx who recruited Richard ‘DJ Comfort’ Bancroft, drummer Harry Williams and producer Elliot ‘Dellux’ Brussalis to fill out the line-up.
“We’re a very random mix of boys and that’s important,” says Kendell. “I’m a quarter Greek, a quarter Irish and half Jamaican. [Traxx] is Greek and white. We’re relatable. Britain is balancing out multiculturally and everybody now has friends from multiple backgrounds and they’re familiar with people who like all genres of music – it’s not like when I was at school and it was just the chavs and the moshers. It’s a melting pot and we’re representative of that. We’re the perfect mongrel.”
The group’s racial awareness is evident in ‘Foreigners’, the lead single from the forthcoming album. It features the rapper Sonny Double 1, who Kendell met in prison. The track throbs with muted beats and the chant “We know that you don’t like the foreigners” and could be an anthem for a racially, culturally and politically divided post-Brexit Britain, though they insist it’s not a protest song.“It’s not angry, it’s not happy,” says Traxx. “It’s just awareness, ’cos the situation is what it is.” “[Racial tension] just isn’t surprising any more,” Kendell adds. “It’s a bigger statement to feel detached from it.”
“People only unify through hate,” Traxx says. “They protest when they’re angry. The only time people come together for anything other than hate is at festivals. So ‘Foreigners’ isn’t about hate; it’s about mutual understanding. You’ve gotta look at the people around you and say, ‘We all cool? Good: everybody’s on the same page. Let’s make the best of a bad situation.’ And then you keep extending that understanding.”
Grime is often compared to punk, a socially conscious genre that emerged from disenfranchised youth. Since the mainstream has embraced grime, though, Astroid Boys reckon it has lost a little edge. “Back in the day,” says Traxx, “it was so f**king dangerous. It still has that, though not so much.” Kendell adds: “We’ve been through gang problems, drugs, fighting, bad attitudes. If I hadn’t found music, I would have been a bitof a muppet. But you can’t do both. I don’t think Skepta’s sincere because he’s rapping about things he ain’t doing.” Traxx is more forgiving: “He’s changed – he ain’t about that life any more.”
It’s debatable whether the most exciting genre in decades is really lacking edge. But it seems certain that Astroid Boys’ debut album, due in summer, will inject new life into grime. “It’s a very, very woke album,” says Traxx. “It’s very conscious, but at the same time it’s got flavours. We like to have a good time so some of the songs are just grime bangers that make you want to jump up and shout. But we’re speaking a lot of truth too.”
Traxx leaves after an hour, but Kendell stays for a mid-afternoon piss-up with NME. He explains that Traxx has an unusual level of drive and ambition: “People in Wales don’t move as fast as he does.” Traxx wants to leave Cardiff behind, while Kendell would be happy to stay, start a family and live a quieter life. He abandons the bike ride, but the next morning tweets, “Rode 35 miles today and I can barely feel my legs right now… champion!” The road’s been bumpy, but Astroid Boys will go the distance in the end.