It has always been very difficult for bands whose music can’t easily be categorised to get recognition, and a stubbornness to succumb to popular trends doesn’t make things necessarily easier. But then, that’s always how trends start in the first place: with someone who dares to be different and offers a fresh take on something that has been regurgitated endlessly until it ends up being a parody. Enter Chapter Sweetheart, a young London five piece with a love for DIY punk, jazz, and motown. Now, they’re not necessarily inventing the wheel anew, but their music is distinctive and different enough to make them stand out from the current wave of London’s dominating DIY and lo-fi scene. Unfortunately, though, as we’ll find out later, that’s exactly the reason life’s not always easy as a member of Chapter Sweetheart.
I meet up with Kevin (vocals, trumpet, saxophone), Alexei (drums), Angela (vocals, keyboard), Christy (bass, guitar) and Matthew (guitar, bass) for a short interview at the Old Blue Last in London’s trendy East End where they will appear on stage later on.
To make an easy and obvious start, I ask the band how it all started and how they’ve met. Kevin begins: “Me and Alex know each other from work and then we met Charlotte who used to be in the band.” Charlotte, Angela’s predecessor, is also present throughout the whole interview and answers laughingly after being asked why she’s no longer in the band: “Because I was crap!”, Kevin: “We didn’t kick her out, she just didn’t want to play any more.” Charlotte explains that she felt she wasn’t as good as her band mates musically, and therefore decided to quit, but, as can be seen, she remains a close friend. “So, Charlotte brought her brother in, Matt” continues Kevin, “then we put an advert on the internet, on Drowned in Sound, and that’s where we found Christy. Angela’s very recent, but that was through a friend who heard we needed a keyboardist.” Having played in a band myself for many years, it strikes me how honest their answers are when it comes to their biography, as bands normally get actively encouraged by music biz “professionals” to embellish or even invent their story to make them look more interesting. But the fact that Chapter Sweetheart don’t deem it necessary to portrait themselves in false colours makes them all the more likeable.
The band has been together for about a year and three months in total, yet only for one month in their current line-up. When asked how often they play, Kevin replies: “We don’t want to overkill it and play London every week”, “But we have been playing every week!” laughs Angela. Christy: “We normally play two gigs a month, but if you do ten in a month you only get like three people to each one.” Kevin explains further: “We usually try and keep it low and then we change the set around for every gig, so that there’s something new for the people all the time.”
I ask him if they mainly play in London. Kevin: “Well we would like to play more... I used to be in a band before and we would get gigs all around the country. Now we’re in a better band, but the money isn’t there any more to transport five people. One of us is unemployed, one is a student, and the rest of us are on, like, monkey dust. You can’t go up to Manchester for free, it costs so much money and then you have to take time off work. And the promoters don’t have the money either. We would love to play other gigs, but I don’t see so many London bands playing that many gigs outside London unless they’re signed or have a van.” Even in London the situation for bands on the gigging circuit is far from ideal; they hardly get anything from promoters as Christy points out: “You might get a drink, if you’re lucky - a few bottles of Carlsberg.” Kevin: “When we started we used to have this thing where we just played gigs that are free for people to get in and charity gigs. It always felt weird charging people to come and see us.” At this point Alex, who has been very quiet so far, joins the discussion: “It feels like you have to torture people to get them in and they enjoy having to pay - which I don’t think they do - but when you offer something for free they think you’re an entire gimmick. We’re not a gimmick, we’re a serious band. The fact that matters is it backfired on us - we didn’t get any gigs! On the other hand, decent promoters like Upset the Rhythm get much more people down and you get much more exposure.”
When we talk about the song writing process, the whole band points out that it’s a sort of ‘free form’ how a song comes together. Matt puts it nicely: “It grows like a flower. One drum beat might be the little seed and then we all add little bits and pieces until we finally have a song.” Alex affirms this notion: “Everything’s an organic process.” The fact that all of them have equal creative input might explain why they sound so distinctive. Their music is indeed at times reminiscent of free jazz, especially when Kevin makes use of his sax or trumpet. This is why pigeon-holing their music so difficult. “But that’s one of the reasons why it’s hard for us to get gigs,” says Alex.
During the course of the interview they confess to being heavily influenced by the Nation of Ulysses, a seminal, late ‘80s Washington, DC hardcore band that released records on the legendary Dischord label. Kevin and Alex are big admirers of Nation’s singer and trumpeter Ian Svenonius who himself loves jazz and soul. Adding to this the fact that Alex works part-time in a jazz and soul record shop, you get the idea where the jazz influence is coming from. Similar to Nation, Chapter Sweetheart’s music is politically charged, although they don’t want to come across as preachy. Instead, they try to deliver their message in more subtle ways. The band also reject the escapism of today’s modern music, and don’t think most artists have much to say. “That’s the reason why there are no hero-bands any more” says Matt.
So, dear reader, keep your eyes open for this very interesting and outspoken young London band, as they will release either a single or an EP early next year. Tonight, personally, I might have just found my new ‘hero-band’.