Frontman James Cox tells us how a chance message with IDLES frontman Joe Talbot changed the fortunes of the London punks
Crows might just be your favourite band’s favourite band. Over the last half-decade, the London punks have alternated between tearing apart the toilet circuit, and hopping on progressively bigger stages alongside some of indie music’s finest prospects. Support slots with Wolf Alice, Slaves, METZ and more have fine-tuned Crows’ beguiling live show; this week, they’re heading out with IDLES on their UK tour. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, though, the path to their debut album ‘Silver Tongues’ has been anything but plain sailing.
We meet frontman James Cox in the Old Blue Last – a venue his band are no strangers to. The East London stepping stone has played host to Crows countless times over the years – just last Friday, to celebrate ‘Silver Tongues’ release, the four-piece played the ground floor of the pub, to an audience of baffled, post-work city boy pint-swiggers. Cox himself leaps from bar to floor, eyeballing each onlooker with a stare that could cut through steel. Beer and champagne alike rains from the ceiling.
Today, it’s slightly less hectic in here. Cox reclines in a leather booth as he recalls some of their more intense past outings – one of which even saw him breaking his hand after he punched a curtain, unaware that there was a concrete wall behind it. He carried on the set regardless. “We’re definitely calming down,” he laughs, “at least to the point of not breaking any bones.”
“When you close your eyes and dance to really loud music – that feeling of letting go and being completely free. That’s what we wanted from our record”
– James Cox, Crows
“The live show has always been our number one priority,” he states confidently. “There’s just something primal about live music that, since I was a kid, I’ve just been hooked on. I want to share that with as many people as possible.” Things are, admittedly, mellowing a little. “I think now we’ve got a little bit older we’re focusing more on the musicality of the band,” he continues, “as opposed to just a flat-out intense live show. With that comes a level of performance that we want to nail.”
They can perhaps be forgiven that slightly calmer demeanour – after all, the last few years nearly stopped Crows in their tracks entirely. After being passed from label to label, unable to lock down a deal anywhere, the band took it upon themselves to record ‘Silver Tongues’ off their own back. Holing up in various studio spaces wherever they could snatch some time, they began piecing together the record. “It was incredibly useful to have really supportive friends help us out,” Cox admits. “The guys at [East London’s] Moth Club let me do vocals in the venue during the day, onstage with a mic. That, for me, was really important to how my takes sounded. I wanted it them really live-sounding.”
The thing that united all these disparate recording locations? Recording in pitch blackness. Turning the lights off “makes you really get into a kind of ‘zone’, for lack of a better word,” explains Cox. “We had been rehearsing so much that we were really tight, so didn’t need any visual cues from each other to play – we thought, ‘Let’s try it’, and it really worked. We ended up doing pretty much all of it in the dark. It’s like when you close your eyes and dance to really loud music – that feeling of letting go and being completely free. That’s what we wanted from it.”
“Joe from IDLES really saved me from a near-breakdown”
– James Cox, Crows
With that record finally in hand, they began to send it out to labels once again. Yet more false promises and closed doors ensued. Then, drummer Laurence packed it in. About ready to resign himself to life on the toilet circuit, Cox headed off into festival season – not with his bandmates, but as staff on a burrito van. One set at Latitude changed all his fortunes.
“I was slogging away, working my day job at Luardos food truck, and IDLES were playing the stage opposite our pitch. I took my boss to go see ‘em as I’d always missed them in London.” The set blew him away. “After the set, I just wanted to message Joe [Talbot, IDLES frontman], as a fan, to say how important what they were doing is for music – especially bands like us – just to keep going, for all of us,” he says with a laugh. It landed. “He replied straight away, saying how he’d been a fan of the band for years! We got into this really amazing conversation, that eventually led onto the album…”
Now, ‘Silver Tongues’ has a home at Balley Records, the label co-owned by Talbot and IDLES manager Mark Bent. It’s the perfect place for an album as imbued with anger and atmosphere as IDLES’ own wares – a pairing which looks set to thrive on this month’s UK tour. “They’re are an amazing band, who are so supportive of new music,” Cox enthuses. “Also, they have an incredibly loyal fanbase just like ours. I’m really looking forward to seeing if they like us too,” he adds, understatedly.
Moving ahead, and with a huge UK headline run on the horizon, Cox is more positive than both his musical output and his run of shit luck would suggest. ‘Silver Tongues’ even eases up on the all-consuming anger, the album’s flip-side embracing more spacious, hypnotic shoegaze. It’s a record worth waiting for. “After Laurence leaving, it was really touch and as to go whether we would carry on,” Cox recalls. “I remember being at a really low point thinking, ‘Is this it? Are we finished?’ Then Sam [Lister, drums] joined us and really gave us a boost to carry on. We recorded the album and everything was looking good again. Then we had a real shit time getting fucked over by labels and wasted so much time. That’s when Joe came along and offered to release it via Balley. He really saved me from near-breakdown.” Looking forward, there’s an atypical positivity to Crows’ sense of self-belief: “Now it’s fucking out!” he smiles, “and I am fucking so happy that everything has been so positive so far.” Long may it last.
Crows’ debut album ‘Silver Tongues’ is out now via Balley Records.