It’s January, which means that unless you’re impervious to hypothermia, or just one of those outdoorsy, proactive types with more hot Bovril than sense, under no circumstances should you be a) outside and/or b) dicking around anywhere near places evocative of the words ‘coastal’, ‘waves’, ‘sand’, ‘sea’ and ‘beach’. Especially the latter, which, apart from conveniently rounding off this collection of words, is no place to pose for an on-the-nose photo shoot. Shivering on the sandy dunes of Formby Beach, Kris Leonard (17, Guitar/Vocals), Frankie Coulson (18, Lead Guitar), Jonny Gibson aka Gib (18, Bass) and Jack Dakin (17, Drums) all look like they stole their outfits from donations left outside a charity shop. The role of hipsters with bucketloads of adolescent energy suits them well as they goof around across the layers of sediment on this blustery corner of Merseyside, systematically antagonising each other. But it’s all in the name of bantz and mega lolz, of course. “I don’t want to get sand in my shoes,” declares Jonny, mooting his concerns to the group. “Yeah, but that sunset’s amazing; it’s going to look like we’re in film or something,” adds Kris. “Yeah, the shittest film ever,” sniggers Jack under his breath.
This is the world according to VIOLA BEACH, Warrington’s answer to One Direction, but with better haircuts – and less colour co-ordinated narcissism. Most of them barely knew how to play their instruments six months ago, and now they find themselves the unassuming objects of desire. In a year that saw them gigging across the North West, with a notable supporting slot for Dumb at The Shipping Forecast, the response is hardly surprising. Kris ponders the anatomy of their fanbase. “There’s our friends, then there’s like… 400 girls,” he guffaws. “It’s pretty intense, but not in a bad way, yet.” In their own words, they’re frequently being recognised in public now and, at their last gig, the lovesick euphoria of Daisies even prompted a full-blown sing-along. Swarms of pious, fawning fan-girls (whom shall henceforth be known as Violans?) – sounds familiar, right. But this is where the smarmy 1D comparisons stop.
Viola Beach make songs that sound like a game of spin the bottle during a 36-degree heat wave, frontloaded with schmaltzy boyish frippery and saturated in that spin-off seasonal lager that’s infused with a hint of zest. Which is ironic given that they’re from Warrington: a post-industrial town just off the M62 that’s “awful in places, but not as rough as it’s made out to be,” according to Kris. This begs the question: what’s it like being a teenager in Warrington? Jonny screws his face, carefully percolating his response. “All we really do is…” “Get drunk, at mine, every weekend,” Kris interjects. “Go out, stumble home; he stays [winces at Jack],” to which Jonny can’t resist adding, “We have a rota for who has to look after Jack each weekend.” So far so typically adolescent, which begs the question if hanging out in the park nursing a bottle of White Lightning is still on their socialising agenda? “We don’t usually go to the park,” chimes Frank, before Jack pipes up: “Nah, it’s just the bottle of White Lightning; there’s no park involved.”
After the photo shoot, we make haste to the nearest boozer with central heating to feed Jack’s thirsty albeit underage liver. He orders a cider; Jonny persistently teases Frank by flicking his earlobes while Kris relays botched details of how they recorded their self-titled debut EP. “We recorded the EP at [my mate’s] home studio,” he says. “I think the quality works for us; it has this raw and unedited finish to it.” It sounds crude, but they’ve already started work on their second EP (The T-shirt EP), which is slated for release in late-February. “The new EP has got a bit of fuzz to it; we like that it’s not been properly polished,” says Kris. “On one song, we talk underneath it, just having random conversations.”
Random conversations is right. In between beer-swilling anecdotes that veer off-topic, they talk of “escapism”, music as “a state of ecstasy”, a “potential slot supporting JAWS” and “making indie pop again”, which – despite Jonny Borrell’s best efforts – isn’t such a flimsy proposition. In fact – thanks to the entrenched B-Town boom of 2013, Viola Beach included (“We borrow a lot from the Birmingham scene, but we’d like to put on own spin on it”) – the indie pop canon is in fairly rude health, and it probably always has been (thanks to NME and the annual conveyor belt of pretty-boys-in-bands equipped with four insipid power chords siphoned from a Supernova in the 90s, a couple of Fender Telecasters and a public school education).
The formula is simple: industry tastemakers pinpoint a localised, grassroots scene comprised of two or three OK bands, brand it with a dumb, geographical pseudonym that rolls off the tongue, and milk it to the point of parody. It’s a cycle perpetuated by straw-clutching gatekeepers and endorsed by every po-faced Rakes enthusiast with bleary eyes for those fake tales of San Francisco. Viola Beach want to revel in it. “Bands are too preoccupied with being cool. I want to be mainstream; I just want to play pop music. Why shouldn’t you want as many people as possible enjoying your music?” says Kris. “The thing is,” continues Jonny, “there’s literally no scene to feed off in Warrington, so it’d be nice to create a scene from nothing.” Such grandiose ambitions are by no means beyond the pale but, for now at least, the band seem content with waking dreams of Daisies, Pretty Girls, budget piss-ups and girlfriends as seen through the gauzy hue of youth.
Besides, the next fuckwit who posits another all-male, post-baggy indie band as “the future of guitar music” deserves to be seriously reprimanded. Honestly, that shit needs to be curbed. It’s not 2006 anymore and, even if it were, your over-zealous mythologising will still see you condemned to an existence of rare, fifth-hand Milburn DVDs and dewy-eyed remembrances of when your mate’s tit popped out whilst crowd surfing at that Subways gig. And nobody wants that. As Kris puts it: “Even if [the increased popularity of guitar music] is nothing to do with us, even if we break up tomorrow, I’d still like to see guitar music charting higher again. Just as long it’s not in a contrived way, like Jake Bugg.” He sips his pint thoughtfully, then adds: “I mean, we’re just a bunch of best friends who write songs and enjoy playing music together.” Harry Styles And The Caricatures, take note, this 17-year-old could well be onto something.
This article was published on 23rd January 2014, in the February 2014 issue of Bido Lito! On 14th February 2016, the four members of Viola Beach – River Reeves, Kristian Leonard, Jack Dakin, Tomas Lowe – and their manager, Craig Tarry, tragically passed away in a road accident. We have published this original interview in honour of their memory.