As they finish up their hotly anticipated second album, Palma Violets return to headline the NME Awards Tour with Austin, Texas. Kevin EG Perry heads to Scunthorpe with the proud pub-rockers and witnesses their new-found embrace of Hindu chanting. Photos by Ed Miles
Minutes before they’re due onstage in the back room of The Lincoln Imp pub in Scunthorpe, Palma Violets frontmen Sam Fryer and Chilli Jesson head out to their tour van for “a round of Hare Krishna”. I assume they’re referring to some exotic new drug extracted direct from the adrenal gland of Hindu beauty queens and available solely on the intra-band black market, but no. These days they spend the last 10 minutes before each gig chanting the 15th century Maha Mantra, so beloved of orange-clad, shaven-haired monks. “Take a breath after every ‘Hare Hare’,” Sam reminds everyone.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare
By the third cycle of the 16-word Vaishnava mantra heads are clear, hearts are pure and voices feel ready to belt out an hour’s worth of dirty punk rock songs.
“It’s saved the band,” says Sam as we head back inside. “I was reading a book about Hare Krishna and thought we should try it as a vocal warm-up. It really works. Neither of us are trained singers, so we needed to do something like this or we were going to destroy our throats.”
The band’s manager Milo Ross shakes his head in confusion. “Times have changed,” he shrugs.
Tonight is the first of a handful of warm-up dates the band have lined up ahead of headlining the NME Awards Tour in February and March and the release of their second album, ‘Danger In The Club’, on May 4. The wild-eyed boys that first broke through with the track ‘Best Of Friends’ in 2012 and followed it up with 2013’s ‘180’ album may be taking better care of their voice boxes these days, but have they matured enough to write a genuinely classic new record? Will their fans still have something to pogo around the room to? And what the hell are they doing in Scunthorpe anyway?
That morning the bleary-eyed quartet had gathered outside Studio 180, their home base on Lambeth Road in London that was immortalised on ‘180’. It’s 10am: unfashionably early for a rock’n’roll band to be up and about, but necessary if we’re to make the four-hour drive up to Scunthorpe in time for soundcheck. A town previously famous in rock’n’roll circles for being the birthplace of Buzzcocks and Magazine singer Howard Devoto, it doesn’t seem like an intuitive place to stage a comeback. After we pile into the back of the tour van and head north, Sam explains that the venue was chosen primarily to repay their mates Ming City Rockers for coming all the way down to Hitchin for last year’s Reading and Leeds warm-up gig. They’re what Chilli calls “the real deal”, and hail from nearby Immingham.
No sooner have we pulled onto the M1 than Chilli begins chanting a line about motorways (“M1! M2! M3! M4! M5! M6… I almost said M7, but they haven’t built that yet!”) that the band love from a live version of an old Brinsley Schwarz pub rock song called ‘Home In My Hand’. Spend long enough with Palma Violets and you’ll overhear the phrase ‘pub rock’ more often than you would backstage at a Dr Feelgood gig on Canvey Island in the mid-’70s. “I love that era,” explains Chilli. “I’m a big fan of Ducks Deluxe and all those bands who started punk before punk. I definitely consider us a pub rock band.”
The oft-overlooked genre, which gave starts to the likes of Joe Strummer, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, is in tune with the band’s music, and also their love of playing small, sweaty venues like the Lincoln Imp. “You’d consider us a pub rock band, wouldn’t you, Sam?” asks Chilli.
“Yeah!” nods Sam vigorously. “I think people just got confused at the beginning. Someone must have misheard us. It sounds a bit like ‘punk’, but it’s ‘pub’.”
Palma Violets have recently been working on a new song written by Graham Parker, whose group The Rumour were one of pub rock’s defining acts. After his daughter brought him to a PV show in America, Parker came to see them again at London’s Coronet and presented them with a song he’d been working on but didn’t quite fit on his new record. “He said he wanted us to give it a whirl,” says Chilli. “It’s called ‘Any Kind Of Weather’. He wrote it, without lyrics, or rather with what he called ‘nonsense lyrics’. We wrote some new ones, which was great because to us he’s a legend. We love his records, stuff like ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’. It’s not going to be on our record because we’re still working on it. It could be a great song, we just haven’t had the time to finish it.”
On arrival at the Lincoln Imp, mid-afternoon on Friday, the first thing landlady Lorraine Briggs says is that she’s been offered hundreds of pounds in cash for just one extra ticket. Demand for the gig is so over-capacity that the local newspaper, The Scunthorpe Telegraph, is reporting that “the Imp has been inundated with calls from female admirers offering to work the night for free as bar staff, glass collectors – and even bouncers!” Palma Violets don’t have fans, they have fanatics.
These aren’t just screaming kids either. Before the show, one dutiful mother spots Chilli outside and runs over to him. “I promised my daughter that if I saw you I’d give you a kiss!” she tells him breathlessly, before pecking him on the cheek. I ask her if her daughter’s at the gig as well. “No,” she replies. “I’ve put her on babysitting duty.” Another fan nervously shakes Chilli’s hand and tells him his Stones-mad grandfather had seen the Palmas on Later With Jools Holland and told his whole family to check them out. “I was blown away. I thought: those are some crazy, drugged-up motherfuckers!”
“That’s us,” grins Chilli.
Three new songs are played tonight. There’s ‘Girl, You Couldn’t Do Much Better On The Beach’, which features a strutting guitar riff and Sam’s favourite lyric on the new album: “We’ll probably burn out and fail, but at least it’s a marvellous failure”. Chilli explains it was inspired by the inscription on Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren’s grave: “Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success.” Words to live by.
Then there’s ‘Matador’, which Sam calls “probably the strangest song on the album.” He elaborates: “like two completely different songs together. It’s definitely the saddest song on the album. It’s got a D minor in it.”
And finally the new record’s title track ‘Danger In The Club’. “For me, it sums up this record,” explains Chilli. “Musically and lyrically, it rounds this whole album up. Whenever I listen to it I’m always amazed, because it’s complex and there’s so many different things going on. I never thought we’d be able to write a song like that. “It’s very punchy, like pub and glam rock mixed together,” adds Sam. “A fight breaks out in the middle of the song.”
How fitting, then, that the show is carnage. About halfway through the set the two hired bouncers, who had been struggling manfully to keep the crowd off the stage, are suddenly joined by a wall of hardcase blokes who form a wall between audience and band. They barely distinguish between the two, at one point grabbing Chilli in a headlock. At least one person gets knocked out and there’s an ambulance waiting outside. The landlady explains where the hardnuts came from: “They’re the Ashby army,” she says. “Anybody causes any trouble round ‘ere, I call the boys in.”
By the end of the night fans are staggering around like they’ve just been involved in a mugging in a sauna. There’s a guy called Mitch whose shoes have fallen apart. He’s covered in sweat from head to toe, and most of it isn’t his. He’s got pupils the size of dinner plates and he’s so giddy and exhausted he can barely string a sentence together. He doesn’t care. He’s found love. Mitch has just seen Palma Violets play in the back room of a pub to 150 people and they’ve blown his mind out through his ears.
“They were so good, man,” he mumbles. “Will even fixed my shoes.” He points down to where Palmas drummer Will Doyle has wrapped gaffer tape around the guy’s shredded footwear in an act of rudimentary punk cobbling.
“It was chaos,” says Sam. “If you’re honest, you’ll write that we played shit tonight. It was a great gig, but we played shit. I had to keep moving the mic stand because I thought someone was going to smash into it and knock all my teeth down my throat.”
“At some points I was playing every key on the keyboard,” adds Pete Mayhew. “Just because I was trying to hold them down and keep them upright.”
It’s all bullshit. They were on righteous form.
Unlike ‘180’, which contained 11 and a half songs written in sweaty basements and honed through relentless touring, the follow-up is a proper studio album. It was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, Wales, where Queen recorded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Oasis made ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ It was overseen by John Leckie, who produced ‘The Stone Roses’ in the same studio, and his influence as well as the band’s more mature songwriting is presenting them with a whole new set of challenges as they return to life on the road.
“Some of the new songs are going to change a lot as we play them live,” says Chilli. “We’ve never had this problem before, because we recorded ‘180’ as we’d been playing it. Working with John this time round means we’ve been doing more with percussion and backing vocals, and Pete and Will have stepped up and started singing too.”
“Leckie wasn’t as encouraging as Steve Mackey had been on our first album,” says Pete. “He wouldn’t say, ‘That’s great, but why don’t you try this…’ he’d just say ‘I don’t like that.’ It was a shock at first, but what we needed. He hasn’t worked with an English rock band in a long time, so we appreciated him almost coming out of retirement to work with us. He obviously thought it was worth it.”
“He turned the studio into his own little world,” says Will. “We’d write all day and then at the end of the day he’d play us records that he’d made, like Magazine’s first album ‘Real Life’ and a lot of The Fall, and the other stuff to push us like ‘The Four Horsemen’ by Aphrodite’s Child and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.”
The morning after the adrenalin rush of The Lincoln Imp begins on a roundabout outside Scunthorpe. Back in the van and back to London, for a show at Bethnal Green’s Sebright Arms. Again, it’s oversubscribed: over 7,000 people tried to get themselves a spot in the 150-capacity venue. And just like last night, Sam and Chilli spend 10 minutes before the show chanting ‘Hare Krishna’.
Everyone squeezed into the Sebright Arms will hear another new song: ‘English Tongue’. It’s the band’s newest anthem, which sums up their spontaneity. All of ‘Danger In The Club’ had been mixed and mastered when the band went into the studio for a couple of weeks to rehearse. Sam and Chilli decided to jam some ideas they’d been working on individually, and instantly sparked something. “It was a freak occurrence,” explains Sam, “because we both came in with the same idea. Different lyrics but the exact same melody and chords.”
They decided they wanted the song on the album, which left them just a day to get it recorded, mixed and mastered before the deadline for their record. “I was on one side of London doing the artwork and they were on the other side doing the mastering,” says Sam. “It all had to be done by 6pm. We were on the phone shouting at each other going: ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ It was an exciting way to finish it. A twist in the tail.”
Perhaps it’s all those Hare Krishnas, but the Palma Violets of 2015 seem older and wiser then the fresh-faced band who took the NME Awards Tour by storm in 2013. Now they’re returning to headline it, Chilli sees things differently. “My reason for doing what we’re doing has slightly changed,” he nods. “I think when you start in a band you do it for certain reasons – for the fame, maybe, or to impress a girl. Getting the chance to record an album is exciting and anywhere you can play is a gift.”
This time round, they’ve got their sights on immortality. “Now it’s about wanting to leave something behind,” he says. “A legacy. There are bands out there who say they don’t care if people listen to their albums in 10 years’ time. That’s not how I feel at all. I think it’s about making something timeless. I really hope people listen to our records in 10 years. Maybe I’m chatting shit. I don’t fucking know, to be honest, but I’m proud. That’s the thing. I can listen to our new record and think that it’s great, because we spent time on it. And now we get to come and play it to people, in pubs and on the NME Tour. I can’t think of anything better than that.”
That’s a mantra to live by.
This feature originally appeared in the February 21 issue of NME.