University are a band effortlessly capable of living up to their namesake. As we meet the Crewe four-piece over Zoom, it feels like NME has gatecrashed a student halls pre-drinks on a Friday night. A rowdy energy is bubbling up as these close pals crack jokes in their small rehearsal space. Rollies are being smoked, gaming posters are tacked on every bit of available wall space and heated conversations are constantly in danger of spilling over the edge. The only thing missing? Maybe a healthy stock of Super Noodles and cheap booze.
Having blazed their own path into the industry, this gang never exactly had a graduation day, or even a heap of student debt in their sights. After meeting in college while studying music during the pandemic, the band quickly hit it off, bonding over a shared drive to create something special. “We just kept trudging on,” explains drummer Joel Smith, who fields most of the questions throughout our chat, while his bandmates fiddle with equipment in the background.
“We were the only ones who wanted to do anything,” he says, describing how he felt pained at the lack of ambition from his classmates. “When you go to college and do an arts course there are just a lot of people there for the sake of it.” After meeting Zak Bowker (vocals/guitar) and Ewan Barton (bass), the picture quickly changed. Spurred on by the groundhog day nature of pandemic life in Crewe, a small town lacking any semblance of a music scene, endless hours were spent honing their sound in college. “We were incredibly focused – that was so sacred because it was the only time we could play.” You could hardly call the band isolated given that their northern hometown boasts one of the biggest railway junctions in the UK, but they still felt cut off from their peers.
A turning point came when University penned a sprawling, 14 minute-long epic that hasn’t yet seen the light of day. That wild and adventurous spirit still looms large across their recently-released debut EP ‘Title Track’, which arrives this month via Transgressive [HotWax, Black Country, New Road]. Just take lead single ‘Egypt Tune’, a jittery, fuzzed-up blast of noise that feels like an exorcism at times, as they dispatch lyrics that stoner rock juggernauts Sleep would be proud of: “Once again the powers of the herb open up your mind / Seek deep inside / Tell me what you might find.”
Without a scene on their doorstep to guide their early direction as a band, University found themselves bonding over leftfield guitar music discovered on the internet. They’re more quick to cite names like Californian math-rock pioneers Hella or Dilute as core inspirations than they are anything on these shores. “That stuff’s just sick isn’t it?” says Smith, beaming. “That group of artists just took things further and could really see everything through a different lens.”
It’s not exactly hard to find the hallmarks of those celebrated names in University’s output so far. Their first single ‘Can’t Breathe’ came as a gritty explosion of youthful energy in June last year. Replete with thrashing vocals akin to punk titans like Pup or Fugazi, there’s an unpredictable edge that has paved the way for everything they’ve dropped since; they seem more primed for the muddy moshpits of Download than some of the other festival bills they appeared on over the summer.
Even though the band have earned their place at the likes of The Great Escape, End Of The Road and Green Man, University feel like outliers in terms of what they’re striving to achieve compared to their peers. NME described one set this summer as “a riot of yelped vocals and eerie distortion,” while also pointing out “an additional, balaclava-clad member sits at the side of the stage playing Call Of Duty for the entire set, only further emphasising their purposefully meme-ish vibe.”
That extra member, Eddie Leigh, is hidden at the back of the Zoom call this afternoon donning a KFC cap, presumably a souvenir from Smith and Bowker’s short-lived careers as fried chicken chefs at the mammoth fast food chain. “He does everything, every last detail,” Smith says, bigging up his pals’ role in the project. “He’s the director and my shining star.” But what’s the deal with the Xbox onstage, then?
“It means we can bring him about with us and it beats getting a job,” laughs Smith. He explains that Leigh doesn’t play an instrument, but simply sits cross-legged onstage, risking square eyes as he shuffles through cult classics like Call Of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. “People obviously react to it, it brings a lot of laughter which is nice,” he adds. “But I won’t be surprised if the reception turns, I give it until the end of the year until [Leigh] is on TikTok being taken the piss out of.”
Whatever your thoughts on that particular schtick, the band’s sound and attitude alone is capable of setting them apart from their contemporaries on the leftfield UK guitar scene. Smith says that the band were never going to be swayed by current trends. “When the likes of Black Midi and Black Country, New Road first showed up it was something to really behold and we enjoyed it, but now everyone just wants to be those bands.”
He begins a Liam Gallagher-esque rant. “We didn’t realise how bad it had gotten until we went on the festival circuit. Everyone’s got a saxophone and everyone’s got a violin, everyone’s got a moustache. It can almost come as a detriment when a scene pops off. You get tunnel vision of everything happening around you. The elements that we all loved about that movement have all been scrubbed out, the things people lift are usually the worst bits and the easiest to mimic.”
Much like the explosive early noughties scene that University initially bonded over, the band have been happy to let their own music do the talking instead. “There was mystery to that scene, but the music told me everything I needed to know about them,” explains Smith. Anyone gripped off the back of University’s own live shows will have also struggled to dig deeper. A quick Google search shows that any information about the band is swallowed up by images of brass bands at US college football games. “You don’t need to reveal everything,” he says. “A good chess player doesn’t share his moves.”
However, University can count themselves as another northern force on the UK scene doing things on their own terms. After all, a drive up the M6 will lead you to a rich pocket of bands who also made hay through the pandemic, like The Lounge Society and Working Men’s Club – names who deftly turned their humdrum surroundings into vital and invigorating music.
University might tell anyone visiting their hometown to not bother leaving the train station, but you get the impression they actually relish in existing on the fringes. “We’re just weirdos man,” Smith concludes, scratching his shaggy mop of hair. “Because of where we’re from, I think we always will be.”
University’s debut EP ‘Title Track’ is out now via Transgressive Records