By Linn Branson
Chapel Club: dark, brooding, intense, enigmatic; lyrically intriguing and enticing; musically captivating. Currently one of the most talked about bands in the UK, they have not just brought the guitar sound back to the fore, but heralded – what may well be the start of an avalanche – a new form of poetry and lyrical imagery set to music.
The Chapel Club inception took place in late 2007 when guitarist Michael Hibbert (formerly with indie rock outfit Hope of the States) met the then 17-year-old Liam Arklie (bassist), later to be joined by Alex Parry (guitar), drummer Rich Mitchell, and Lewis Bowman (vocals). With the line-up complete, the band began to rehearse and play a few shows local to their east London base under the names of Palace and Golden Age. By the autumn of 2009 they had embarked on hosting their own residency at the Shacklewell Arms in London’s Dalston and adopted their third, and final name: Chapel Club.
Throughout the course of 2009/10, Chapel Club although receiving radio airplay with their first ‘intended’ single ‘Surfacing’ (aborted before actual release due to copyright issues over the inclusion of Dream A Little Dream Of Me sequence, and finally released last month) and follow-ups ‘O Maybe I’, ‘All The Eastern Girls’ and ‘Five Trees’, playing a host of festivals across the country (including Glastonbury and Reading/Leeds), they have remained firmly on the ‘ones to watch’ lists, without kicking into touch. Now, with the long-awaited debut album Palace revealed and received to overall approving commendation (charting in its first week at #31), a UK tour underway and dates across the US and Europe over the coming months, Chapel Club are finally surfacing.
TDOA met with the two members of Chapel Club who have played key roles in its formation. Michael Hibbert, the laid-back, uber cool guitarist and founder member of the band, and vocalist and Byronic wordsmith Lewis Bowman. Hibbert, the more guarded of the two, seemingly happier letting his guitar dexterity on stage do the talking; whilst Bowman appears to subscribe to the Samuel Beckett school of thought in why give a two sentence response to a question when you can give twenty. Both were to prove interesting subjects. We also put a few questions to Paul Epworth, producer of Palace, for a behind-the-control-desk glimpse. Epworth, a Brit Award winner, has worked with, amongst others, Florence and the Machine, Friendly Fires, Primal Scream and Cee-Lo Green. At the time of writing he has a total of five albums in the UK Top 40 for which he holds production credit, including Adele’s number 1, platinum-selling latest album, 21.
The Dumbing Of America: So, the album is finally out and you are about to start your first headlining tour – how are you feeling?
Michael Hibbert: I’m feeling good. Quite relieved that the album is actually out. It was recorded over six months ago, so I think for any band to sit on something for so long, it is very frustrating – especially as we write quite quickly and have been pretty prolific of late. So, yeah, it’s a relief to have it out! And we’ve got the tour too. In fact, we’re pretty much on tour until the end of the year now. I’m very excited.
TDOA: Is the final Palace product what you envisaged at the start?
MH: Yeah, I think we probably exercised a little restraint when we were starting out, but yeah, pretty much how I’d imagined it. Blind is one of my favourite tracks, and I think that will be the next single. It appears to be a bit of a stand-out on the album from what I can gather reading the reviews. We haven’t played it very much live either as it is quite a hard track to recreate live. I think that’s why it still sounds fresh to us, compared to some of the other songs.
Lewis Bowman: I think Palace is a very honest depiction of where we were at, at that time. The songs all came from the earliest period of our being a band. The songs have really strong lyrics, and I’m pretty proud of it all, and that people seem to have got into it and are really feeling it. The tour is going well, I think. The first show in Bristol sold out on the night, which was a good start. Some people were telling us afterwards that the set was too short. We tend to kind of underestimate, I think, how much people actually want to watch us (laughs), so we have been extending the set.
MH: We’ll be playing to 1100 people on the London date at heaven, which has sold out.
TDOA: Have you noticed any change in audience reaction this time round, now that people have had a chance to hear the album?
LB: There’s definitely a more varied audience from the last UK stint we did. A lot more younger people than in the past. And, yeah, a lot of singing along on The Shore and All The Eastern Girls.
TDOA: You seem to be very much the band everyone wants to talk to at the moment.
MH: Yeah. I find doing interviews stressful….
TDOA: Stressful? Being asked the same questions and having to reel out the same endless responses?
MH: Well, I don’t mind that – it’s par for the course really – and we’re really lucky we have so many interviews. But Lewis is mainly the one that does the talking!
TDOA: You have tasted a little of what success is like with Hope of the States [formed in 2000 and split days after playing Reading festival in 2006. Signed to Sony, their album, The Lost Shots, made the UK Top 40], so are you able to take a more laid-back approach to all that is happening now for Chapel Club?
MH: My role in the States was quite minimal really. I didn’t have much say in the band. I basically did my part, did my thing and played guitar and left it at that really. This time round with Chapel Club I made sure I am far more involved.
TDOA: How did you all come together?
MH: After States split, I spent a year doing nothing really. I needed a little time to think about what I was going to do. Then I met Liam and we discussed the idea of possibly writing some music together. We just wanted to have a little bit of fun. And it all progressed from there. I met Alex, Lewis was a friend of a friend, Rich got involved and it all snowballed…a very, very slow snowball! (laughs). I was in no rush to go out and tour or whatever I wasn’t happy with, or be on the road with people I didn’t like. I’d done all that before and it was quite exhausting.
TDOA: You obviously felt you could work with these other four?
MH: Yeah. We’re all very close. It makes life a hell of a lot easier. We enjoy each other’s company, and when it comes to writing and touring, it makes that a pleasure.
TDOA: You opted for the title ‘Palace’ for the album. Given that was the name of the early Chapel Club incarnation, wasn’t it a step back?
MH: No, it’s relevant for a number of reasons. It fits with the whole thing of the last two years. A lot of the songs were written around that time when we were toying with the idea of calling ourselves Palace, and it’s a rich, grand-sounding record, so the title fits perfectly, I think!
TDOA: Lewis, you have called The Shore ‘the heartbeat of the whole album’. This is one of Chapel Club’s first penned numbers, isn’t it?
Lewis Bowman: The Shore was one of the songs we did in the first sessions with Paul. It has literally got this pulsing, wave-like kind of undertow to it, so that is the ‘heartbeat’ part. When we did it, I think it was Paul who said that he thought this song could be the way for how we approached the album. It was the first song that we thought this works so well with this kind of production. It acted as a reference point for the songs we recorded afterwards. It’s my favourite song on the album, actually, by quite a stretch. I’m pretty happy with that one.
Paul Epworth: I’m really proud of The Shore as a piece of music.
TDOA: Let’s bring you in here, Paul, as the producer of Palace. You’ve worked with a raft of outstanding artists, what was it like working with these guys?
PE: They were a joy. It was great fun. The band, as individuals, are all very musical thinkers, which is unusual in a band so young. We had a limited amount of time to make the record for a number of reasons, and I think it helped us try and keep a spontaneity to it we wouldn’t have had otherwise. They were very open to ideas, concepts and change. Which for a producer means that you have to spend time monitoring carefully how much you change things, and that can be tricky. But I think we made a record which stands apart from their contemporaries. We recorded the backing track for The Shore in the same session as Eastern Girls. Once we came back to do the album, it was a week’s rehearsal and 12 days recording, with a few days to wrap up odds and ends at the end. It was actually the fastest album I’ve done since Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm.
TDOA: What was it about Chapel Club in particular that sparked your interest in producing the album?
PE: I think between Lewis’ distinctive voice and the strength of their songs, it was a no-brainer. I’ve not worked with an out and out guitar band in a few years, and as Mike has been a friend of mine for awhile, it made perfect sense – I just had to leave it to the band to come round to the idea.
MH: It made it easier, I think, working with someone like Paul whom I already knew. I bumped into him in Denmark Street one day and we discussed the idea very briefly over lunch. By the end of lunch, we’d pretty much decided we should work together. We went into the studio and did All The Eastern Girls in two or three days. The results were very much how we’d imagined, so it was all quite quick and stress-free.
TDOA: Were there any particular tracks that created problems in trying to obtain just the right level and mix?
PE: Fine Light was tricky. It has odd dynamics which veer between euphoric release and driving rock. We ended up almost treating the two parts of the song as two separate tracks.
TDOA: I believe you were instrumental in making changes to After The Flood, from the original demo version to that which is now on the finished album?
PE: Well, I felt the track didn’t justify itself as a song for inclusion on the record, but yet it had so many good elements. It needed to be pulled apart and reassembled so it could compete amongst the strength of some of the other songs. I think the band wanted to change the rhythm, and I wanted to improve the music. Once we’d done that, the arrangement felt like it wanted to change up a little. That’s the tricky thing with production, you have to try and evaluate how much to change something, whether it’s better than before and whether it justifies the effort. I couldn’t tell with After The Flood whether it was better or just different – and that’s where you rely on the artists to help you tell how much your work sucks!
TDOA: Do you have any personal favourites on the album?
PE: Apart from The Shore, I think Paper Thin is a classic song – in the Mary Chain mould – and I love the momentum and lyric in Eastern Girls.
TDOA: Paul mentioning Paper Thin there, that is one that has intrigued me with its opening line ‘The archangel’s wings are still bleeding’.
LB: Paper Thin comes from a poem I wrote when someone close to me died. It ended quite hard and I wrote a very simple poem – not in any avant-garde way- one night when I was lying in bed. I liked the title ‘paper thin’, and then when the guys put the music to the original version of Paper Thin – which is quite different to the one on the album – I kind of thought, well I will proceed from the same kind of basis: we’ll call it Paper Thin and make it about this experience. But I kind of couched it in these relatively cryptic…(pauses)… because it’s embarrassing to talk about death openly…I can’t really go into detail on what it’s about or who it’s about, suffice to say that the lyrics mean a lot to me. It was written with my family in mind as well – my mum was hit very hard by this – so it is written in a kind of code, about the final day of this person. The idea being that it would mean something to the people that were involved.
TDOA: When you come up with a lyric and take it to the others, do you ever get that ‘what the hell is this one all about?’ reaction? (laughs)
LB: They’re musicians (laughs), but I’m not saying it’s not possible! Every now and then, yeah, they will say ‘What is that about?’ Sometimes they’re impressed, sometimes they’re bemused and bewildered by the answer they’re given. But generally they have faith in me – which is why I was so upset by the NME review [NME were somewhat scathing in their Palace review in reference to Bowman’s lyrics] because I felt shit, I’ve let them down. They probably trusted me to come up with the goods, and it seems I’m not as good as they thought! (laughs).
TDOA: That is rather more just the NME line though, isn’t it?
LB: Yeah…yeah, quite possibly.
TDOA: You’re known for your lyrics and for the literary influences, and you’ve mentioned being a little bit of a fan of Shakespeare. Have you read all his works?
LB: No, I haven’t! A friend bought me the Complete Works for my birthday. I’ve got it on my Kindle as well.
TDOA: Did you read Literature at university?
LB: No, no, I didn’t, actually. I should have done. I’m a big fan of that kind of language; I think I probably has had an influence on me. I did French Social Theory from the 20th century at uni. I’m into philosophy, but it was awful (laughs). Real post-modern philosophy, which just seemed to me to be a lot of over-intellectualising.
TDOA: Mark Twain adhered to the dogma that great writing had to be drawn from life. Is that something you can identify with? Are all your songs written from a personal frame of reference, or occasionally taken from an objective, outsider viewpoint?
LB: I hadn’t heard that about Twain, but I would say, on the stuff we’ve released so far, mostly they are quite grounded in the real and the real things I’ve experienced. To be fair, I think from my very amateur point of view you can create something that is entirely alien to you in certain detail, as long as the emotions at plat and the ideas within are in your mind and are true to yourself. A song like Telluride has a quite surreal lyric about a guy talking about being left by a lover or whatever and literally flying away; being cut adrift and beginning to lose his grounding, I suppose, and literally drifting off.
TDOA: Where did that title ‘Telluride’ come from? Was it taken from the town [in Colorado]?
LB: (laughs) I’ve never been to Telluride! I think I must have read it in a news story or something. I had had the word in my head for about six months – I’ve always got lines or words in my head that I’m just fooling around with – and then Liam sent me an instrumental demo and I was like, okay, I’m going to fit this word into it.
TDOA: You used a female vocal on Telluride…
LB: That’s my girlfriend. She was kind of coerced into doing it. She’s not a singer – this was probably only the second time I’ve ever heard her sing! I’m a big fan of female voices. I don’t really like my own very much. I am always suggesting duets and stuff to the boys, but they’re like no, no, we can’t keep bringing people in….
TDOA: You made reference once to our being ‘all God’s widows’. I wondered whether that has any relevance to the lyric of Widows itself?
LB: Erm, no…I think I was probably talking about The Shore or something – maybe in a very light and frothy way, about the issues encountered to do with faith and stuff. Widows as a song is pretty simple really. It’s about a relationship – as so many of the songs are – about a girl, and about this kind of…well, you know what it is? There is a pattern of behaviour in my life where I think I’m a pretty good bloke, and I think I am pretty good to my girlfriend, and I think I am probably more feminine than most blokes, and so maybe am nice to be with. But when times are tough or things seem a bit on the rocks, I kind of zig-zag quite haphazardly, defending myself really vociferously and venomously – and then feel really, really terrible about the means by which I tried to assert my opinion. A lot of the songs come from that place of looking back on what I’ve done, what I’ve said, and thinking of the consequences thereof, and wanting to express some kind of regret or apology. I sometimes wish I were a more tender person (pauses) – that’s what Widows is about: an appeal to myself! (laughs).
TDOA: It’s one hell of a song.
LB: I think it’s definitely the best thing we have done so far.
TDOA: Will you be including Widows on this tour, or In My Moments [B-side to Surfacing single]?
MH: Widows we will be doing, certainly in London and possibly at some of the other shows [it made its live debut, as it later transpired, at the Sheffield Leadmill on the third night], but it’s like, eight minutes long! (laughs) In My Moments we haven’t rehearsed or played it in a long time. It may make an entry at some point, but not on this tour. There’s a couple of songs on the album we won’t play – and probably won’t ever – but In My Moments…yeah, I’d forgotten about that one, actually. Alex is quite keen to do it at some point, and we’ve got a lot of gigs this year, so I’m sure we’ll be mixing the set up.
TDOA: Do you prefer the writing and recording side to touring?
MH: I enjoy the touring. I feel very comfortable on stage, for someone who’s actually, er, probably quite shy (laughs).
TDOA: I would not have thought that…
MH: (laughs) It’s very strange. Like, with this – this interview – and work related stuff, you hold yourself in a different way. So although I’m quite an introverted person, I thoroughly get off on the idea of showing-off on stage. I think Liam gets a little nervous sometimes, going on stage; as does Al a bit – although you’d never guess it with his on stage antics!
LB: I definitely prefer the writing and recording side. I can cope with the touring because I get on with the guys well and it’s a privilege to be able to do it rather than having to go into an office, 9-5. But I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the kind of lifestyle it demands. I’ve got a fiancée and a life at home. I know I sound ungrateful and the other guys are always telling me, oh how can you be like this; this is the most fun you can have in life! But I just…I’m pretty attached to the quiet, the calm. And I find singing live, being that emotional on stage every night, quite exhausting.
TDOA: Are you saying that you find showing an emotional side hard?
LB: Yeah…well, it’s not that I find it hard, but I find it inherently ridiculous. Not ridiculous for everyone, but from the way I’ve grown up. I grew up in an environment where you did certain things, acted in certain ways. There was a lot of gender stereotyping, so I’ve got all of these kind of ingrained things, which I don’t necessarily believe in, but that I can’t help but feel. I sometimes think, I’m a grown man and I’ve got responsibilities at home, and I’m here on the road doing nothing for like 12 hours a day, and then I get up on stage and bear my soul! I find it strange. It’s not a bad thing. It’s definitely a privilege, because I have the urge to write and I have the urge to put something out into the world and it is amazing that I get a chance to do it with the band. But it’s a very scary thing to do. I am the kind of person who takes things very personally. Like with the reviews for the album, I think ‘oh my God, I can never write another lyric again’ because, like, three people have criticised a song.
TDOA: I don’t think you can be too hard on yourself – it is only the opinion of three individuals, out of many….
LB: I think people seem to see us a hard band to get to know. We used to get, in the early days, oh they’re really arrogant, really moody, and that’s not the case at all. I think it is just as a frontman, well, I’m really shy, I think –
TDOA: ‘Shy’? It is interesting that both you and Mike say that. I am not sure that is the impression that people not knowing you would get.
LB: Yeah – it depends on what you read in interviews, I suppose. I have done some interviews with a certain publication which I suppose will have to remain nameless, but I am sure people can work out what it is, where even I think to myself that I have come across sounding like an absolute nightmare of a human being, a horror. But that’s more to do with selective editing.
TDOA: The later Wintering EP, on which Widows appears, has a very different feel to Palace. Will this sparser sound be the way forward for Chapel Club?
MH: I would say the EP is definitely more an indication of where we’re going. It’s a massively different sound.
LB: Basically, we recorded Wintering a good six months after the last Palace song – which was Fine Light – was written. I think that stylistically we are all pretty open and will do whatever we want. We don’t want to be hemmed in or pigeonholed, or feel like we have to do something in a certain Chapel Club way. We don’t want to be anything other than ourselves and see where that takes us because that will be much more interesting.
MH: I don’t know of many other bands who are doing something like that right now, which is why I want to get the second album done quickly because I know it’s going to have a lot of elements like that on it. I want to do it before someone else steals it! (laughs). It’s a bold move, even though I say it myself.
TDOA: Do you have an idea as yet when the second album might be forthcoming?
MH: We’ve already demo’d four songs, and have got a couple more on the back-burner. We’d like the next one out by the start of next year, but whether that will happen or not is another matter.
TDOA: Are there some songs more difficult to others to translate from record to live performance?
MH: We don’t try to recreate every track. I think for a guitar band it is quite important to actually make some of the stuff sound slightly different live. And certainly that’s the case with this particular album. I don’t know if we will always do it that way, but for now we work on each track as it feels. The track leads its own way really and you know pretty quickly if it is working or not. It’s not something we put a huge amount of thought into: what works, works. There are no hard and fast rules, like we will never use a backing track or whatever. I like the idea of boundaries, but I don’t like the idea of rules. I think it restricts you as a band.
TDOA: You’re going to be quite busy over the next months: UK tour, then touring the US and Europe. Will Palace be released in the States?
LB: It will be, yeah. I can’t remember when they were saying it was going to be out? I think it might be around May, not in time for the tour, unfortunately.
MH: It’s our biggest headline tour of Europe. I think we’re away for about 3 weeks or something. It’s going to be quite a slog – for us, anyway. I’m really excited about going over to the US. We’ll be going to San Antonio – somewhere I never thought I’d go in my life – driving through Nevada, Arizona, Texas, playing SXSW festival, Minneapolis, Chicago. We’re not doing that many shows, but we get to drive right through the country.
TDOA: You have been doing a few acoustic in-store gigs on this present UK tour, and the televised Shoreditch church session which went out on Channel 4. Would you consider doing an actual acoustic tour ever?
MH: We did the one in Manchester last year – well, half-acoustic anyway, and it was really good. But I personally don’t like them at all, although the rest of the band do.
TDOA: Why is that?
MH: I think if you’re going to do a song acoustic they have to be changed considerably. It sounds very old-fashioned, but I like the definition between bands that play acoustic and bands that are electric. The idea of our going and translating the songs to acoustic guitar, it just feels dull; it loses the essence. I don’t think we’ve spent enough time honing it either. I don’t like doing anything half-baked, so that’s why I don’t feel comfortable doing acoustic.
TDOA: Chapel Club have a presence on both Facebook and Twitter. Do you feel it important to maintain a link with fans through social networking?
LB: I think it’s important to have links, yes, but when you’re in a band of five people it’s deciding how much or in what way you’re going to communicate. I’m not into appearing cooler than I am, or creating a mystery: the songs can speak for themselves. My view is that if someone asks a question on FB, I’ll answer it politely. That’s the way I operate. I’ve got a personal Twitter account, but I don’t use it to tweet, just really to follow people.
TDOA: You must start tweeting! (laughs)
LB: Oh, I don’t know…(laughs). I love the idea of being able to speak directly to people, because I feel like I get misquoted sometimes in interviews. That really upsets me, when something is taken out of context. Like the Jessie J quote [in a recent interview, Bowman was asked by a journalist his views on the singer]. That I was really upset by because it made me sound almost slightly homophobic, when all I was actually trying to say is that I don’t think the Guardian has got much of a point in saying Jessie J is a feminist icon. Someone alerted me that a person had tweeted about it, and I sat there for like two hours one evening writing this person an email saying this is what was actually said, this is the other stuff that was talked about, I didn’t mean it in the way it was insinuated. I like the idea of Twitter because you can have a voice and you have control over it. I just feel self-conscious, I suppose, I think no-one would want to read what I tweet!
TDOA: I’m sure they would! But I shall be very careful I don’t misquote you in this (laughs).
LB: (laughs) Okay!
TDOA: Right, last question to Paul. Would you work with Chapel Club again, or was once enough? (laughs)
PE: Yes, of course – I love them. You couldn’t wish to work with a smarter, humbler – or better dressed – band. (laughs)
Palace is available now on Loog/Universal.