Moody, energetic and thoroughly enjoying themselves, Chew Lips translate an album which is minimalistic, contained and well-measured (and being touted as one of the best of the year only twenty-five days into 2010) into a vibrant live performance, emphasising maudlin ambience and fiery dancing spirit in equal measure. Flanked on either side by the two boys who go from Simian Mobile Disco synth-pushers to Iron Maiden rockers with the change of a beat, front-woman Tigs embodies the individuality of a band who are confident, know exactly which path they are treading and, most importantly, why they are on it.
“We don’t really feel pressure about anything; we know who we are and why we’re here”. Diminutive in size but not personality, Tigs runs me through the band’s attitude towards their rapidly expanding popularity and the expectations on them when I meet her and multi-instrumentalist James Watkins before their performance at Jabez Clegg on 30/1/10. Reluctant to identify themselves with a particular scene or genre, Watkins tells me that the band were conscious of complacency and not making an album which was just a collection of demos. “I think that there was a type of album people would have expected us to make having listened to the earlier stuff, and if we’d made that album then all kind of comparisons would have been made. But I think the album moves on from the demos, its darker and more stripped back, and that makes it harder to categorise”. Tigs agrees, adding that “we didn’t really want to choose a particular style or to sound like a type of music, that’s asking to be made out as the new La Roux. We wanted to make a different, more modern album and we knew it would still sound like us. There’s always going to be my annoying voice, but also the boys’ musical style is always similar if not with the same influences”.
Moving back to their performance at the end of the night, this consistent image of the band’s music is apparent; Watkins on bass bouncing out of the darkness, Will Sanderson controlling the lights and atmosphere of the room with each oscillating synth riff and Tigs crepuscular, defiant and fearlessly enjoying the moment of every potential electro-pop single breathing only life into the limbs of the audience. Even more pronounced here though, thrown into the watching faces from the stage, are the currents of isolation and violence with shadows lurching from the corners. “Don´t want nothing but the callousness I had/and I’m trying all I can to get it back/on the bridge and it’s not such a long way down” she wails despairingly, only the incessant rhythm inside forcing ‘Salt Air’ onwards. ‘Karen’ would have you thinking of Dusty and The Strokes, pleasantly, and then the paranoia kicks: “Everybody’s watching you/for secrecy/where you running to/selfishly?” For such a young band, one so untried by critical opinion or fully exposed to the wrath of the alternative Gestapo, their consistency and confidence in variety is astounding.
Looking at their creative process it is obvious why. “It’s easy to keep layering things on top of each other, but it’s much harder to strip it back and restrain yourself once you’re in the studio,” says Tigs, “that’s what we felt we had to do. We went into the studio with sixty songs and wrote more whilst we were there so it was impossible to just throw what he had out there”. I tell them that it’s interesting to hear the vibrant, harder dancing sounds of ‘Seven’, ‘Karen’ and storming recent single ‘Play Together’ which reflect their early demos, interplay with the more experimental and dramatic elements of ‘Too Much Talking’ and ‘Gold Key’ which I assume was written in the studio. Tigs laughs. “Actually, err, ‘Gold Key’ was the third song we wrote as a band. There’s always been that different element to our music which is why I think the album sounds totally like us, but you don’t get to explore that with singles. We didn’t include all the demos because we wanted to give the complete sound”. Watkins concurs: “We wanted to make a modern album, not just something which could be compared with everything else but which stood by itself”. When I ask them which of either musical or personal influences they feel to be the most important, then, I can guess the answer. “Every song on the album is personal; it comes out of the three of us together. You won’t last long if you only pay attention to what’s around you”.
Chew Lips are an impressive bunch. Dominating the stage, they entice an audience to shake, tremble and laugh with a relentless attack of well crafted pop songs. Despite the tiring comparisons to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Little Boots, The xx and Blondie prevalent in most reviews (often more gender based than musical) Unicorn will come into its own, and with the rest of 2010 to tour it (“we’ve got twelve months of playing shows now, it’s going to be hard but we’re going to love it”), threatens to be the sound which defines the year. Not many bands seem to have much point or reason to exist, but Tigs makes it clear: “Either way we’d be in music. James will go into production; he’s a good knob twiddler. There’s no special reason to be in the band, we were just three friends who wanted to make music and make an impact together”. It looks like it’s going to pay off.