As the rain lashes down in Austin, Texas, Sam Fryer and Chilli Jesson sit in a Mexican restaurant, crunching their way through a bowl of tortilla chips and sipping on strawberry daiquiris. Palma Violets have not long finished playing their last show of SXSW – their fifth over a hectic few days – and drummer Will Doyle and keyboardist Pete Mayhew have gone AWOL in the city’s downtown area with the group’s shared credit card, leaving the dual frontmen with just a few meagre dollars crumpled in their pockets.
Earlier that day, the band played a raucous show at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin ahead of the release of their second album ‘Danger In The Club’. If, two years ago, debut ‘180’ painted the Lambeth-based group as a riotous gang of reprobates taking their cues from The Clash, its successor shows a subtle shift into something more considered and adventurous than thrashing out electrically-charged, howling punk anthems like ‘Best Of Friends’. Written and recorded in Wales with producer John Leckie (The Stone Roses, John Lennon, Pink Floyd and more), it found the band changing their approach to making music. Songs were recorded, dropped, re-recorded – sometimes because they initially sounded too polished – and, as Chilli says, “The difficulty was just getting them right. It caused a lot of upset. But it’s a good thing. We wrote about three times as much as we needed, and what John made us do is rehearse the songs a lot to get them in a good place. I think we played them better in the recording process than we do now.”
“We had a lot more time to make this record than we did with the first one,” says Sam, shrugging and staring out of the window. “We took our time, gave it more thought and more of ourselves has gone into it. A lot of the first album was, ‘Let’s just get it done as fast as possible.’ We’d never been in the studio before so it was a bit daunting. This time, we knew the score and had a producer who wanted to make a great rock’n’roll record with us. It was really exciting.”
To get to that stage, the band first had to regroup and reboot themselves after months of relentless touring. Sam says touring puts you “through hell with each other” and, although it’s hard to imagine a band that falls about the stage night after night ever being shy in front of each other, they say that’s exactly how they felt when they tried to write together again. “It’s hard to break the barrier, hard to open up,” Sam explains. We go through different phases and put up barriers, but once those barriers are broken again, you’re back in with each other.”
While musically, Palmas haven’t lost their sense of uninhibited anything-could-happen fun, lyrically ‘Danger In The Club’ is a lot starker and more upfront than ‘180’. ‘Girl, You Couldn’t Do Much Better (On The Beach)’ puts it best when Chilli and Sam sing “you said I’ve changed but I’ve always been this way”. Instead of reinventing themselves, they’ve just uncovered a new layer that’s always been there, fighting to get out. By being “bolder” and trying to make something “a bit more out in the open”, they’ve unleashed it – exposing a hearts-on-sleeves, honest side to their craft.
The most startling example of this newfound approach arrives on ‘Coming Over To My Place’, a swooning song about the complications of romancing girls. Suddenly, it all shifts with one killer, pining line: “I would rather die than be in love”. It’s a lyric that’s at odds with what Palma Violets are perceived to be – raucous young ruffians, laughing their way through life. Is the concept of finding someone to love so completely hopeless and bleak to them?
Chilli laughs at the suggestion. “That’s ironic,” he says, although he won’t be pressed on why it’s ironic. “I quite like that song because you go through it thinking it’s all happy-clappy and then it’s just BOOM. It’s not what you think is coming.”
The record as a whole documents similar romantic regret, from the tipsy ‘Walking Home’’s “my baby’s got a new man” to ‘The Jacket Song’’s “I’m sorry for the way I treated you” lament and the longing “you were in my arms just the other day”, on ‘Matador’. Try and delve deeper into these subjects though and Sam and Chilli will close down, turning to vagaries. Sam does promise that their songs, at least, will continue to reveal more. “I hope to get even more honest as the next record comes and whatever comes next. That’s what I hope to achieve with my songwriting.”
There are more hints of bleakness in ‘English Tongue’, too. “All the folks poke their eyes at me/Is it just my fame or my infamy?” asks Sam at one point. Despite his claims that the band were never really affected by the swirl of excitement around them, is all the attention getting a bit much? “It’s not just about me!” protests the 24-year-old. “It’s kind of about paranoia and getting old, and watching other people. I dunno, I’m still working out what some of the lyrics on the first album are about…”
‘Danger In The Club’ isn’t all down in the dumps, though. ‘Gout! Gang! Go!’ – one of the shortest, most immediate full songs on the record – is a bold, frenetic highlight, Chilli’s basslines bouncing up and down as Sam weaves ramshackle guitar hooks in and out of them. And then there are surreal, undecipherable lyrics like, “In comes the devil with his greasy hands/He’s got forks and spatulas/He’s got pots and pans”. Most interesting of all, though, is, “Don’t destruct my menopause”. A deep and considered critique of the changing nature of female sexuality?
“Errr…” manages Chilli.
“We wrote those lyrics in the dressing room in Amsterdam,” says Sam.
“And that sort of speaks for itself!” says Chilli, laughing. “I think it relates to our mothers’ menopauses. I’m sure lots of people can relate to it…” He stops and takes a long swig of the drink in front of him. “I wouldn’t read too much into those, actually. But you know what? They’re probably the most profound lyrics we’ve ever written!”
At the heart of ‘Danger In The Club’ is Palma Violets’ passion and enthusiasm for early to mid-‘70s back-to-basics British rock music, which they call “pre-punk”. “It’s a bit of a forgotten time in music,” Sam says. “It’s very similar to punk in the way that all the bands were doing it themselves and putting on gigs with their mates in the room. It was a really good time for music and that particular scene.”
You can see the similarities between Palma Violets and the likes of Dr Feelgood and Nick Lowe. Early shows at their Studio 180 base were like those gigs Sam describes, while the band – who recently completed a headline stint on the NME Awards Tour 2015 with Austin, Texas – are spending most of April on the road, visiting only intimate venues in lesser-visited towns like Wakefield and Stoke-on-Trent.
Pub-rock – or “pre-punk” – might be an obvious influence on ‘Danger In The Club’, but folk also looms large. The album starts with a snatch of ‘Sweet Violets’, a traditional song that’s been passed down through generations and is, apparently, a big hit in the Netherlands. It’s sung by Mike and Jen, the couple who own the farm where the band stayed while they were recording at Wales’ legendary Rockfield Studios, and its inclusion on the record came about because of a surreptitious moment of luck. “We don’t know much about the song,” admits Sam. “But they just started singing it around the dinner table. We always have our recorders on in case something comes up. We didn’t realise we had it ‘til the last minute. We discovered it and thought we’d put it on the album. It sets the scene.”
Sam describes songs like ‘No Money Honey’ and ‘Peter And The Gun’ as folk songs in their own right, stating that both remind him of being in the Welsh hills. The latter details a dream Sam had one night where Pete went on a murderous rampage, while the former is a lilting narrative about shame. ‘English Tongue’, meanwhile, has touches of Americana to it, a consequence perhaps of the band spending time in the US while touring ‘180’.
Although the band still sound as resolutely British – if not more so – as they do on their debut, they say they engage with America on the album, albeit with raised eyebrows. ‘Hollywood (I Got It)’, a swipe at everyone who aims to make it to Tinsel Town in search of fame, is “quite ironic”, according to Chilli; ‘Secrets Of America’, meanwhile, finds the boys “asking the question/Paying attention” in search of the hidden mysteries of the States.
“Some people think we’re being so typical – a British band writes a song about America,” says a sighing Sam. “We’re just doing it for the customs officers. We want them to say something. ‘We’ve got no secrets here, boy.’ We won’t be allowed back into the country!”
While it’s extremely unlikely the song will actually get them banned from the USA, the band are still making the most of this trip. Now SXSW is done, they head to LA, San Francisco and Orange County, where they play as part of Burger Records’ Burgerama festival alongside the likes of Weezer, Ariel Pink, Ty Segall and Roky Erickson. It makes the worries around the band identifying too publicly with pub-rock seem nonsensical – no matter how you pigeonhole it, two albums in, Palma Violets’ spirit is still as wild, raucous and magnetic as ever.