Chinatown Slalom: Inside the weird and wonderful world of Britain’s most eccentric new band

Here’s the recommended career rollout for a new band these days: a few live shows, start a social media presence, release a debut single and EP. Then endlessly tour, do a second EP, hit the festivals and then, finally, tackle a debut album. That can take anywhere from six months to sometimes four years, before a band can even get out there with the album they’ve been working towards their whole lives. It’s a long, painful and expensive process.

So this is what Chinatown Slalom did instead: after meeting in Liverpool as freshers a couple years back, the group piled into each other’s bedrooms, swapped beats, became a tight unit and made an album, titled ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ Instead of launching a campaign, they took it slow – they started arranging meetings with record labels and managers, as rumours and leaks of the album made their way around the industry. When the album was officially released in June this year, they’d fulfilled the goal that member Liam Nolan set himself when moving to Liverpool as a student: “I went wanting to stir shit up both musically and politically and within a year, we might have done that.” 

We wouldn’t be entirely surprised if other new artists follow a similar launch method, but it’ll be hard to replicate anything on their debut, ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’. It’s as freaky as it is accessible and welcoming, blending the cut-and-paste sampling ethos of The Avalanches and Beck’s work with The Dust Brothers, to Kanye-sized beats and the twisted characters of Gorillaz. Start with the title track, then tackle the Patti LaBelle-sampling jam ‘Where U At?’ through the monstrous ‘8:30’ – as debut statements this one grabs you by the scruff of the neck from the off.

“I went wanting to stir shit up both musically and politically and within a year, we might have done that” – Liam Nolan

When NME meets them for the first time at London’s Tate Modern, the music starts to make a lot more sense. Liam, Ricky, Jake and Michael are proper gang of four: sporting multi-coloured outfits including shorts in the middle of a thunderstorm, bouncing off each other and – quite crucially – still laughing at each other’s jokes years down the line. Getting them to talk is the easy bit, as each member has its own version of events of their origin and journey so far, but getting them to stop is a far harder prospect. 

Liam and Jake met first as freshers a couple years back, and within three days, the pair had combined for the album’s bonkers opener ‘Dr Marvelo & His Best Friend Corkie’ (the audio file corrupted, so the lo-fi version on the album is basically from this initial session). They soon met Michael and Ricky who were also in their music production class, with all of them aiming for a career in music. 

But when the whole gang started making beats and living together, sticking around at college instead of being in the band seemed like a rubbish idea. They all dropped out and became recluses – except from each other. “We worked out we could spend £3 on a bag of weed and staying in and making music, which was cheaper than a night out” Liam says. “But it got too subjective. We were at the point thinking: it’s either brilliant or just totally shit.”

Melodies and ideas would come from the lads just hanging out in the kitchen or going out for a smoke, with the scat-fuelled melody you hear on ‘Where U At?’ being one such example. Liam meanwhile, would let his subconscious take over when plonked in front of the microphone. “The subconscious knows more shit than your conscious mind and if you can get into it, you can come up with so much better shit. I’ll listen to some of the songs now and they might as well be someone else’s words,” he says. “Basically, six months later it starts to make sense,” Ricky adds laughing.

But it was missing an overarching theme to make it all tie together. Six months after ‘Dr. Marvelo…’ was done, and with songs popping out from all angles, a mid-rave thought tied it together. “When I’m fucked, my mind has this clarity, and ideas that aren’t mine come into it,” Liam says. “I just remember running around saying: “who wants to be a millionaire?” It’s a concept album guys!”

It became not just the title of the album, but the ethos around it. The never-ending rat-race and grind for millennials and Gen Z is hinted to in that song (“feeling like I shouldn’t feel/And it’s not right, it’s not nice, it’s not cool/It’s not good for my health”) and on the noise-rock slapper ‘8:30’, inspired by the daily struggle. But by the end of the album ‘People Always Say What They Want’ is a relieved and care-free shrug that suggests that maybe, it isn’t that deep.

But there were struggles in the band, too. While they were crafting (and, by their own admission, smoking a bit too much weed), they had to grapple with the reality of being in a new band, and one that’s desperately wanted by the industry. “People got obsessed with things people didn’t have a clue about,” says Liam. “The more mysterious we were, the more industry cared.”

Jake adds: “We started to think ‘what have we got ourselves into?’ We’ve been round the bend and back, really, but we had an opportunity to mentally prepare ourselves before anyone had ever heard of us.”

Chinatown Slalom

“We’ve been round the bend and back, really. We started to think ‘what have we got ourselves into?'”

While they were navigating and readying the album, they threw a run of legendary nights and parties in their home city, which they’d sometimes play and DJ with their growing collective of friends. Rooms would be decorated completely and entire subcultures would loiter in the area that suited them best. “There would just be a room with a bass amp and an iPhone plugged into it,” Ricky remembers. “So the bass just travelled through the whole room: if you sat in that room it was just bass and a bunch of goths.” At one point, the floor was seconds away from caving in they collectively wince.

Now, they’re plotting another EP and album before the end of next year and working out how to turn this textured album into a live show. But first, they’re taking over electronic venue North Shore Troubadour in Liverpool for their debut show proper, on November 9. What’s the gaffe like then, lads? “It’s a bit lawless in there,” Ricky laughs. It’s going to be a weird, and likely, brilliant one.

After years of grafting and navigating the industry pitfalls – but retaining their “fierce independent” nature – the gang are limbering up to be a vibrant bunch of outsiders in a pop-world full of pretenders and posers. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but they’re raring to go. “Burnout is a real thing. You can really fall out of love with it and come back into it,” Liam says. “I feel ready again now.”