It’s a Saturday night in the middle of Birkenhead’s industrial heartland. Amid storage units, scrapyards and proper old-school pubs, a quiet voice edges from behind a steel door, offering solace from the eerie quiet with the hottest new music from the peninsula. We walk between excited in-the-know crowds and through a veil of cigarette smoke to catch one of the acts shaking off the shackles of sea-shanty folky psych, offering much heavier and darker fare. On the stage of Fresh Goods Studios’ first ever live event stands a ginger, denim-clad behemoth screaming into the audience as though possessed, leaving no room for air. The bassist ducks and weaves wide-eyed and open-mouthed, his moustache curving around a fixed, sinister smile. The anarchy is happily managed by a drummer, whose rhythm keeps the whole sordid affair in order. The group onstage is unmistakably SPQR, a band who have been turning heads for quite some time now – from shouting out of windows at disturbed passers by to shaking as though possessed, their time onstage is hard to forget.
With the memory of that night hazy yet lingering, frantic shadows tussling among a rum-tinged hue, the faint scent of alcohol as I meet the trio brings everything flooding back. With that in mind, it is a little surprising to find that their daytime personas are a calmer, tamer beast than their night time entities. We’re sat in the beer garden of Peter Kavanagh’s as lead singer Pete rolls a cigarette. “I find that going mad onstage allows me to stay normal offstage,” he says. Smiley and placid, it’s a far cry from the 40 minutes after his last set where he scrambled on hands and knees trying to retrieve the glasses he threw halfway across the room in the heat of the moment. The individuals who sit in front of me are not from the intimidating collective who shook violently before me mere days ago. As Robert Louis Stephenson once wrote, “man is not truly one, but truly two”. It’s something that has appeared throughout the whole of rock ’n’ roll, where performance becomes a cathartic escape from the frustrations of everyday life. While Iggy Pop could be found greased up and rolling in broken glass, James Newell Osterberg Jr was a much more civilised and modest individual. Music, and the limelight it brings, seems to have a liberating quality; it’s an unrivalled chance to show a side to yourself that would otherwise be shunned, and it seems like SPQR are no different.
Bassist Jack adds, “I like to go for it onstage, as the best music… makes you feel something.” It’s true that their energy onstage is highly infectious. “When we first started I felt super crazy, as the SPQR thing had been a long time coming. Nowadays I actually want to be good, but back then I was like, ‘Fuck everyone, I want to piss everyone off,’” Pete adds as a child whoops repeatedly across the room. Whether it be a growing maturity and comfort in his style, or the company that Pete now keeps on stage, the band seems to be a much stronger, tighter unit. The furious snarled live persona of old has endured even as their music has changed and improved. On the other side of things, their amicable, friendly and approachable nature offstage has helped them find both gigs and fans. “I think that we have always taken the time to be as interested in our fanbase as they are in us. When people come up and say, ‘I really like your band,’ we are just as interested to chat to them as it always gets us that people are such big fans.” It’s a sentiment which has really cemented their following, not just in Liverpool but across the wider North West and as far as Dublin and London.
“I used to write everything myself, from lyrics through to bass and drums, but now that I have Bex and Jack I feel a lot more open to having them contribute,” Pete continues. This has added a punchier dimension in the latest songs, and this more matured and developed line-up is receiving more attention than ever. Having signed a deal with the Liverpool-based Modern Sky UK, the band have recently been in the studio with Margo Broom, whose work has become some of the most exciting in the guitar underground in recent years. “It was great for us. Everything that we’ve released to date has been done by us in our little studio in Neston,” explains Pete, with a slight air of awe. “I thought that would hold us in good stead when we went down, but as she’s very good at what she does and she’s a very honest person she said, ‘Oh you’ve got this, but you need this this, this, this and this’. She asked us if she wanted to make a record or just a bunch of singles. She’s made us realise that if you want your record then you have to make it. It was fun as well; it was like recording with your mate. It helps when the producer isn’t a knobhead.” The switch from DIY to commercial studio has opened a new chapter for the band’s future.
Despite strong connections in the city with Society Of Losers and the Wrong Freak Scene crowd as well as the likes of Eggy Records, their alter egos’ nine-to-five existence makes it hard for them to really fall into one particular group. “With us working normal jobs, after a gig we’re usually knackered and just want to go home and sleep! We like the idea of going out as partying, but after an hour we’re usually just knackered.” But getting a good night’s rest has not stopped them from amassing a cross-generational diehard fanbase swarming down to any show with their name gracing the bill. Without penning themselves in within any particular clique, they have created a loyal cult following who turn out for a true variety of gigs. From indie pop through to heavy punk line ups, you can find them anywhere. “I think we make pretty heavy music, but I don’t think your mum would hate it either and that’s our strength!”
With growing support has come an ever-improving line-up and sound. Their place in the Liverpool music scene escapes categorisation, and their sound is just as impenetrable. “I don’t listen to too much heavy music. I used to listen to a lot of heavy music and I always wanted SPQR to be a heavy band… but I listen to a lot more indie to be honest.” SPQR seem to break down genre boundaries taking on the previous constraints of rock which have come before them. “The music is more emotionally-led than musically-led. I think that’s where you get a lot more of the schizophrenic nature of the songs.” This encapsulates what makes the music so hard to pin down, what gives them such cross-sectional appeal. They remind me of the early Manic Street Preachers records, ignited by the emotional instability, anger and wit of Richey and put to music by Bradfield. SPQR allows Pete a release not only onstage but through his words. People tune into emotion both in stage performance and song as it’s real. It’s the feeling of shared alienation which brings people together.
One thing we all share is loss, and the obligation to die. “I find that you can often find the most beauty in the darkest things… I think about death a lot in lots of ways. I find in the heavy stuff, that’s where you can pull the most beauty… That’s kind of what I live to do. When I’m having the most fun is when I’m exploring a darker thing and getting something lighter out of that.” Our environment mirrors this mindset; merely feet away sit the ashes of deceased drinkers, forever in their favourite drinking hole. In both Pete’s mindset, and the pub’s approach to death, is almost a lightness. Maybe one way to think of SPQR is a coping mechanism. For the band, it appears to be much more than just a profession or brand – it’s a way to remove themselves from the mundanity of the nine-to-five, and the anger and frustrations that it brings with it through escapism. “I think one of my main philosophies in life is the importance of chatting complete and utter shite. Just spending a few hours in the pub at least twice a week with friends and just chatting about nothing.” And as I press the button to end the recording, we get another pint and do just that.
What separates SPQR from their counterparts is their uncompromising duality: modest, humble and amicable offstage, ferocious, unpredictable and inimitable on it. With a streamlined sound, label backing and more focused than ever, SPQR are a band who seem to have their fingers on the trigger just waiting to unleash their most impressive move yet.
SPQR headline Sound Basement on 6th October.