Sugarmen have had a momentous year, playing two Hyde Park shows and touring with the greats, but they’ve got their vision set firmly on the future. We catch them in a transition period which proves productive for the palimpsestuous four-piece.
Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions and passages, is depicted in the classical arts with two faces: one looks forward, the other looks back. Call me a dreamer, but it’s an appealing image. Head stuck in the past depressingly clutching at the last sweet dregs of former glories? Nope, not Janus. That’s all done and dusted; he has two eyes firmly facing the future. Sure, the past is viewed from a position of contemplation, something to be learned from and built on, but not something to dwell upon or define yourself by. Forward-thinking but not afraid to reflect and apply experience. That’s Janus.
SUGARMEN have plenty of reason to share this outlook with the ancient keeper of gates: the past year has seen the four-piece accomplish such stuff as young bands’ dreams are made on. Namely, two well-publicised Hyde Park shows with Blur and The Who, sitting pretty amidst big hitters Sleaford Mods and Metronomy, as well as a horde of other festival dates and high-profile support slots with the likes of Paul Weller and Buzzcocks, and a punchy debut single produced by none other than Mick Jones (whose Rock & Roll Public Library exhibition the band opened at the Venice Biennale – no biggie).
But, when I meet with them in their practice room a handful of times over a two-month period, they’re more excited about the direction they’re headed in next – even if, during our first encounter, they’re not quite sure what this is themselves. After a couple of sittings in the spacious attic room surreptitiously tucked upstairs in District that they call home, it transpires that this period of transition has spawned two new singles, Plastic Ocean, released on 4th December, and Kool-Aid, set to be released in late January.
Catching them in this quiet interlude towards the end of a heady year, however, it’d be rude not to ask them to divulge a little about what they’ve achieved and how it’s shaped their trajectory. “It’s just good to see how that kind of thing works,” guitarist and vocalist Chay Heney offers, unperturbed about the Hyde Park shows. “We were just so small compared to everything else around so it was incredibly interesting to experience it.” Drummer Sam McVann coolly drops in: “I remember on the first night we realised that none of the other bands on the entire line-up were getting to play Hyde Park twice this year and the enormity of it just hit.”
There’s no denying the cultural significance of two Hyde Park gigs and some of the other heavyweights they’ve supported, but they treat the shows they’ve played this year more as a learning curve than a badge of honour. McVann discloses: “It was difficult: on the first date of those Paul Weller gigs we were completely taken aback by the fact that we were playing a huge theatre, and the sound is so different.” Picking up the thread, Heney continues: “It doesn’t feel like you’re a band as much at first; everyone’s right at the other end of the stage so you have to learn how to adapt. But I think we’re pretty good at dealing with those different situations now.”
The interplay between the four of them is telling of a gang of mates who have spent the best part of a year touring in close quarters. Discussing the impact these associations have had on the band’s image, Heney begins, “I love all the musicians we’ve played with…” before bassist Tom Shields succinctly finishes his sentence, “but we’re labelled.” They nod in concurrence as Heney elaborates: “We got put into a corner we didn’t want to be in cos of the things we’ve done – which have been really nice and we’re grateful to have been given the opportunity to do them – but they’re not really us. You could sit there and go crazy thinking about how other people are gonna put you across, but really the only point of control you have is what you create, and people will take it and see whatever they want.”
Vocalist and guitarist Luke Fenlon agrees: “I think to the outside eye we’ve got Dirt out and played all these shows and that’s our style, but we’ve been doing a lot of other things as well.” Produced by Mick Jones, who Fenlon describes as like “an old friend and mentor”, their debut single Dirt, released in March, was the result of a week-long recording session with The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite maestro. They are quietly proud of this relationship, and treat their work with Jones as a schooling, as Heney expresses: “Being in the studio and living with him for a week was definitely one of the best educations I’ve ever had.”
Eager to put their end-of-summer lull to good use and getting restless waiting for outside forces to move things along, the band pressed forward, taking what they learned with them. Fenlon explains: “It’s just been refreshing to come back in and start working on new stuff that’s heading in a different direction. Our style has definitely changed – not cos we went ‘we don’t wanna do that’ but it’s just the way it’s evolved naturally.”
That evolution stems from that age-old nurse of creativity: boredom. To stop themselves tiring of their sound, they drink up influences wherever they can and keep a keen ear to what’s going on around them. “I think music is like a receive and give – you’ll listen to something and suddenly you’ll write something and, it might not be obvious, but there’ll be an element of it in there,” Fenlon muses. Of course, no idea is ever created in a vacuum; influence-wise, “there are certain ones that always come up and repeat themselves,” McVann offers before Fenlon interjects, “but you can take influence from anything really. Like, Psych Fest has been on and there’s a lot we took from that.” Or, as Heney puts it in more blunt terms: “I’ll watch a band and think ‘Fuck, they’re doing something we’re not doing and that’s really good; why aren’t we doing that?’” Ambition might seem a dirty word, but it’s evident that there’s a drive within the band to keep listening and learning, and a willingness to sit up, take note and soak up what they hear in other artists.
That drive and attentiveness has seen them record two new singles with Parr Street Studios’ engineer Chris Taylor, whose work with Bill Ryder-Jones and Hooton Tennis Club caught the band’s interest. The admiration was mutual: they’re releasing their second single Plastic Ocean on Taylor’s Rooftop Records in early December, with third outing Kool-Aid following up in late January. It’s not been a straightforward process, but it’s certainly been a fruitful one.
During my first meeting with the band, Plastic Ocean was still in embryonic form. Starting life as Music You Can Walk To – a Talking Heads-inspired track with a self-explanatory name – when they first recorded it, the title “easily became quite a cheesy line,” Fenlon concedes. Unhappy and unsure of where exactly they wanted to take it, they stripped the vocals, rewrote the lyrics and it came out as Plastic Ocean, a glittering palimpsest of a track, which was pieced and patched together in the studio, as Shields explains: “We didn’t know what we wanted when we went in to record and that’s probably why it sounds so different.” Different it is, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Think more along the lines of funk brethren Catfish Collins and Jimmy Nolen soundtracking a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, driven by a rhythm section more relentless than a cold hard, Clint Eastwood stare, all silver pistol drums and a fistful of bass, fronted with Fenlon’s helluva-hook vocal and cutting, cosmic, existential lyrics, and you’re maybe halfway there. In other words: it’s a belter.
The last time we meet it’s obvious that securing the second single was an affirmative moment. As well as a headline home-coming show of sorts at District, they’ve got the cleverly-named Kool-Aid under their belt, which possesses the kind of shimmering riff and propelling bassline combo that wouldn’t go amiss nestled in the opening credits of a Wes Anderson number. There’s nothing twee about it though; a little surf, a little sea shanty, a little Glasgow Postcard post-punk, it’s a nebulaic, melancholic, inky thing awash with surges of blissful, buzzing guitars. Littered with cynical, lyrical American dreams and sharp pop-art references, Heney’s vocal makes for definite ear candy.
Noticeably different, the two tracks showcase a breadth of songwriting, sounds and ideas, which can only be a good thing. So do they have a direction yet? They laugh and tell me that they’re “getting closer.” From spending a few collective hours in their company over the past couple of months, it’s clear that, whatever it is, it’s definitely moving forward.
Words: Bethany Garrett / @_bethanygarrett
Photography: John Johnson / johnjohnson-photography.com
Jack McVann / cargocollective.com/jackmcvann
Plastic Ocean is released on 4th December via Rooftop Records and is available on Amazon and iTunes. Sugarmen play District on 11th December