Last month, the music world mourned the loss of promising indie band Viola Beach, who died alongside their manager in a car crash in Stockholm. Those close to the Warrington four-piece tell Barry Nicolson they’ll remember them for their humour, energy and ambition
The history of rock ’n’ roll is littered with untimely deaths, but few have seemed so monstrously unfair as those of Viola Beach and their manager Craig Tarry. The young band’s nascent career was cruelly cut short when their car crashed into a canal on the journey back from a Swedish music festival in the early hours of Saturday, February 13. In the weeks since the tragic event, the indie community has rallied around the Warrington four-piece, with everyone from Liam Gallagher to The Stone Roses to Kasabian expressing support for the successful campaign to get their debut single, ‘Swings & Waterslides’, into the charts. Yet for the people who knew them best that show of unity can never be anything but bittersweet: here was a band who might have achieved anything, yet whose memory will always be defined by a single, tragic twist of fate.
“The music industry can be quite an unforgiving place,” says the band’s agent, who asked not to be named in this piece, “but when a massive tragedy like this happens it really resonates, and that’s been lovely for the families to see. But there’s also the understanding that there was a promise to this band that was so, so immense. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever where Viola Beach were going.”
Among the first to recognise that promise were Adrian Hall and Lee McCarthy, who comprise the production duo Sugar House. Hall and McCarthy discovered Viola Beach on Soundcloud in early 2014, and over the next 18 months recorded five separate sessions with the band at their studio in St Helens. McCarthy remembers them as being, “Different to a lot of other bands we’d met. They were a bit off the wall, but they weren’t contrived. You could tell there was definitely something there, especially when you sat with Kris [Leonard, frontman] and listened to him talk about music. It wasn’t like he had some big plan, but he knew what he wanted to do.”
“Some bands work so hard at cultivating an image, but Viola Beach just were what they were,” agrees Hall. “Tomas [Lowe, bass], Kris and Jack [Dakin, drums] all worked in the same bar, and they spent a lot of time drinking together and having a laugh, which was a big part of their dynamic. I remember Jack arriving at the studio one day with a load of new tattoos, because he’d just bought himself a tattoo gun. Kris would turn up wearing girl’s pants, or dungarees, or a NASA jacket, and when you asked him about it, he’d say, ‘I woke up this morning and they were touching my legs, so I just put them on.’ They didn’t care, and that’s why it worked – because they weren’t trying.”
Irreverence was a big part of Viola Beach’s charm, but the absence of that “big plan” was initially what held them back: the songs were there, but the line-up was always in flux, with Leonard and drummer Dakin the only constants. It was when Craig Tarry came on board as manager in early 2015, says McCarthy, “that they really got their act together and everything clicked into gear. They needed someone to hold their hand and help them function like a real band.”
Instrumental to building that momentum was BBC Radio Merseyside’s Dave Monks, who gave the band their first radio play and invited them onto his show for numerous live sessions throughout 2015. Monks responded not only to the “energy and freshness” of Viola Beach’s songs, but also the band members’ individual personalities. “You couldn’t help but like them as people,” he says. “They were funny, polite, enthusiastic and ambitious – especially Kris, who was the ideas man.”
With Tarry as manager, bassist Tomas and guitarist River Reeves solidified the line-up in May 2015. Viola Beach released ‘Swings & Waterslides’ through their own label, Fuller Beans, which subsequently led to major-label interest and a deal with Communion Records. In August, at Dave Monks’ behest, the band were added to the bill on the BBC Introducing stage at last year’s Reading & Leeds festivals, and their performances there led to another milestone – their first UK tour, supporting London alt-folkers Eliza and the Bear.
“We met them on the first night of the tour in Manchester. You could see the excitement in their eyes,” says frontman James Kellegher. “We’d got them a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and they first thing they said was, ‘Do we have to drink it all now?’ They were young and super-keen and completely untainted by the industry. Everything was a pleasure for them.” Joining them on that tour were Scottish group The LaFontaines, whose guitarist Iain Findlay recalls the band being “Stupidly excited about going out on their first tour.”
“They had a really weird, beautiful outlook on life,” agrees their agent. “Kris used to message me saying he wanted to break the record for playing the most gigs in a year. He’d say, ‘I want to be known as that band who gig and gig and gig, and who make fans everywhere they go.’”
In 2016, the band were already booked to play SXSW, Latitude and Live at Leeds, with further appearances at Glastonbury and a return to Reading & Leeds being negotiated and a support tour for on-the-up indie band Blossoms. There was also a five or six-track EP, recorded with Communion co-founder and producer Ian Grimble, scheduled for release later this year. When NME reached out to Grimble, he confirmed there were currently no plans to release anything, but the band’s agent doesn’t completely rule out the possibility.
“The team around Viola Beach will sit down with the families once the funerals have taken place, and we’ll work out how best to proceed,” he says. “Whether that’s making an album internally for the families or an album that actually gets released, I don’t know. There’s a lot of music, a lot of demos, a lot of amazing songs, and it’d be great if it got out, but at the moment, everybody’s still grieving. We need to sit down and work out what we do with it.”
Viola Beach’s legacy may now be out of their own hands, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the last word on them has been written.