It’s the stuff of narcotic dreams and nightmares. It’s the fulfillment of the promise of a decade of sonic cellarscapes. It’s Kitchens of Distinction, Echo & The Bunnymen, Neu, My Bloody Valentine, The Cocteau Twins and – yes, okay – Joy Division encapsulated and crystallised in one almighty rush. It is ‘Palace’, the debut album from London’s Chapel Club – and it is quite possibly the album of the year.
“In making the record, we were thinking in terms of artists like Mercury Rev,” says drummer Rich Mitchell. “We weren’t scared to put extra sounds in there, to try interesting ideas. It felt like a good time to do it, at the start of a new decade.”
In the words of guitarist Michael Hibbert, it’s also about “not being afraid to be too ambitious. We wanted to take the grandeur and force of the lyrics and make a record that resonates on a large emotional scale. It’s music to thrill to.”
As singer Lewis Bowman explains, it’s also the result of an ardent refusal to compromise. “We’re a new band, a young band, and we’ve had to find our feet quickly. Our approach this year has been to take things slowly and stick to our vision of what we are and can be. It’s very much ‘this is what we want to do and you’re gonna have to make space for it in your plans because this is the way we’re operating’.”
Hence the photo shoot on the famous Abbey Road crossing wearing grotesque animal masks. Hence the unconventional recording sessions with the legendary Paul Epworth, which saw the band recording live in the same room as the producer, experimenting with Epworth’s wild variety of musical toys. And hence the cult following and insane industry buzz that swiftly grew around the band when they started gigging in late 2009, eschewing regular venues to play their cavernous and brilliant spire-rock in art spaces, warehouses and the back rooms of Jamaican pubs.
“We did things a bit differently to make it all more interesting,” says Lewis. “Whereas if we’d told people ‘We’re third on the bill at the Purple Turtle this Tuesday and after us there’s a hard rock band and before us there’s an electro duo’, people would’ve been like ‘Mmm, yeah, think I’m busy’.”
The resulting A&R battle for Chapel Club was among the most ardent of recent years, which came as a shock to the band. Though all apart from Lewis had been in bands before (Rich had been signed to an underground noise rock label aged 14: “Our only mention anywhere was an NME review that said ‘The sleeve is infinitely better than the racket it surrounds’ – we split up after six months”), it seemed particularly sudden to Mike, who’d been a little lost in the three years since his previous band split: “I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do at all. I had no money and no focus. No-one I knew had moved to London yet so I just sat there feeling sorry for myself, smoking shitloads of weed and starting to write songs.”
Next, Mike recruited a (then) 17-year-old bassist called Liam Arklie, new to London from Swindon, and the pair began to “hang out all day and try things out, then go out drinking. We repeated that process seven days a week for a while.”
The line-up grew with the addition of mild-mannered guitarist Alex Parry, Liam’s best friend since childhood. But it wasn’t until Mike was introduced to Lewis that Chapel Club found their focus and their spark. Lewis had been writing stories and poetry for years, never showing it to anyone beyond a few close friends. “I wasn’t bothered about getting published,” he says. “I just wanted to get better. I had a vague hope of making something of it all one day, but I knew I had a long way to go before I could compete with the writers I respected. Then Mike asked me if I wanted to try writing something for this embryonic band he was putting together, and I thought I may as well have a go. It seemed like the perfect outlet.”
Of the tunes that emerged from those first attempts, several appear on ‘Palace’, pushing the dark arts of Interpol and My Bloody Valentine way off into the future, stunning and confrontational in equal measure.
Debut single ‘O Maybe I’ offers a moral tug-of-war between romantic security and recklessness (“O maybe I should settle down to a quiet life… or maybe I should fuck around with someone’s wife”), while ‘Surfacing’ – a pile-driving shimmer that’ll never make the band any money since Lewis included a large chunk of the lyric from Mama Cass’ ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ in the chorus – is an out-and-out hate song directed at an unnamed London scenester.
“I can’t tell you who it’s about,” Lewis insists, “but it doesn’t matter. It’s enough to say it was inspired by someone who for me represented a certain type of London life-form, totally vacuous and celebrity-obsessed and success-obsessed. I remember being at uni and putting on these club nights and it was all about music and sex. Everyone used to go back to after-parties and everyone was trying to get off with everyone else. I had a girlfriend but I was like ‘this is the way it should be when you’re young, this is fun’. Then I came back to London and it all changed. Everyone here was all about success, about how much you earn and what access you’ve got to which parties. And ‘Surfacing’ is about someone who represented all that for me, a person who’d squandered their humanity or something. They were devoid of personality, of talent, of taste or insight or innocence or wisdom – yet they were doing very well despite all this. I guess you could work out who it’s about if you looked into it, the clues are there. The lyric’s cryptic rather than obscure.”
‘Surfacing’ then, is the first spite-bite of ‘Palace’, a thunderous opening like the crack of a volcano. As the record develops, however, it takes on a different form, with many lyrics drawing on a sense of almost spiritual awe for the natural world, while others reflect the
confusion and romance of youth and early adulthood through the warmth and borderline mania of the hedonist’s post-party haze.
‘The Shore’ replays a morning-after walk home through a flower market (“I felt awful,” says Lewis, “I wanted to get home and get to bed, but at the same time the experience of everything was so alive and vivid”), while the shoegazey ‘Fine Light’ envisions a brief but grateful moment of existential calm, sat on a beach at the peak of a high, watching lights over the sea. Second single ‘Five Trees’, meanwhile, offers a vision to rival Coleridge at his most wankered.
“That lyric came from a scribbled paragraph based on a dream I had years ago,” Lewis remembers. “I’d over-indulged one weekend and woke up at a friend’s house on a drizzly Monday morning feeling pretty fragile. In the last moments before waking, I had this amazing dream. I remember it so clearly. I was watching five trees on a hilltop. Each tree had five branches and there were five leaves at the end of each branch. As I looked the leaves started to glow and turned into these giant glowing snowflake-type shapes and fell to earth. I woke up on such a comedown and I had to go to work and it was raining and I felt like crying because it was such a vivid, beautiful image in my mind. I felt my life wasn’t really going anywhere and I just wanted to retreat back into the dream.”
Elsewhere, the krautrock drive beneath both ‘After the Flood’ and ‘White Knight Position’ serves as the engine room of the record, while luscious pop hits like ‘All the Eastern Girls’ and ‘Blind’ provide the intricate and immaculate decoration – bright, enormous love songs that illuminate the core meaning of the album.
“The album’s a love story,” Lewis says. “The whole thing’s about love, but not in a typical way, it’s not about falling in or out of love. I don’t really understand the concept of love as a fall. Real love doesn’t strike me as being so sudden or swift or clean or complete. For me, the album is like the fragmentary history of a long relationship, as well as a reflection on some of the questions you ask yourself as you move from youth to adulthood.”
It’s also very much the first chapter in a growing story, hence the title of the record – which refers to the band’s first name. “We were called Palace for a few months, but there were too many other bands who’d gotten there first,” says Alex. “Calling the album ‘Palace’ is a nod to the fact that the five of us started this together. And it beginning of something.”
For now though, ‘Palace’ breaks bright and promising as a dawn, a magical mind-state where the female body becomes as devastating a natural form as a coastline or mountain ridge, where a bustling psychedelic flower market becomes the loneliest place on earth and
love is never quite as simple as the movies make out. Lend it your ears for forty minutes and its kiss will linger on your lips for a long time to come.
The single ‘Surfacing’ is released on 24th January 2011
The album ‘Palace’ is released on 31st January 2011
Chapel Club tour the UK and Ireland throughout February 2011