The Pineapple, in Lambeth, south London, is a pub. It is not a wine bar, not a gastro this or that. It’s a place where lasagne is served with chips, where the lunch menu is daubed on one vast blackboard in faded chalk, where Del Boy could fall through the bar at any minute. To one side of the pork scratchings is an impossibly punctured dartboard; to the other, four young men spread along the worn corner seating. Food arrives and is rabidly devoured, wolf-like, as if we’ve been waiting for 4 hours rather than 3 minutes. A spare panini is lunged at by everyone as soon it has been identified as fair prey. The landlord comes over and greets his regulars, no longer four familiar, scruffy boys, not since he watched Later With Jools Holland a few weeks ago. Those guys who keep coming in aren’t lazy students at all – they’re a lazy band, and one that seems to be doing something right.
Palma Violets are a little bewildered by their recent good fortune – their October 2012 NME cover feature (their first ever interview); appearing not as the free toy on Jools but as the three-song band (their first ever TV appearance); recording a debut album with Pulp’s Steve Mackey for release on Rough Trade next month; preparing for a residency in New York and an east coast tour in February. They excitedly ponder between them what the States is going to be like and what winter coats each of them will buy for the trip. Until now, they have toured the UK just once, before returning to this corner of London. This decidedly un-showbiz corner.
Lambeth, on the south bank of the Thames, is not a creative hotspot. It has all the necessary ingredients to be – the encrusted Dickensian muck, the romantic, crumbling town houses, the Pineapple pubs – but at 5 miles down and left from east London’s Dalston, it might as well be on the moon. Nevertheless, Sam Fryer, Chilli Jesson, Pete Mayhew and Will Doyle have made it their unlikely base – number 180 Lambeth Road, to be exact. It’s perhaps the most romantic townhouse of them all; a completely decrepit hunk of brown bricks that leans with subsidence, likely to fall through The Pineapple’s bar at any minute. Play it cool, Trig.
When NME wrote about the place in October, it sounded too bad to be true. Too mythical. A lopsided Steptoe hovel, void of right angles, damp through and physically shaking every time a train skims across the roof? It’s a nice idea, but no. Or yes, in fact. 180 Lambeth Road makes the house in Fight Club look like the house in Mary Poppins. It’s dank and dark and creaky, full of tat and bric-a-brac, odd golf clubs and covered windows. It would be worth a million pounds if you spent twice that doing it up. In the basement is an over-stocked, dated kitchen, as if an authentic 1940s mock up in the nearby Imperial War Museum; all red and white gingham cloths, mismatched chairs and dangling copper pots. Doodled about the walls are rather neatly stencilled thoughts from unlikely sources (In times like these it helps to recall there have always been times like these – American ABC Radio broadcaster Paul Harvey; The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it – poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, another American). As you approach 180, the front door reads: In times of turmoil find a home to attack from. God knows who said that, but it’s what Palma Violets have done. This virtual squat is where everything has happened, including 90 per cent of their live shows, all of their rehearsals, their A&R showcases and where the band signed to Rough Trade. It seems only right that their debut album be named after it.
“Sheila!” the band say as one.
“Yes, it was Sheila that I met in [Soho cabaret club] Madame JoJo’s,” says bassist Chilli. “Shelia was a transvestite, and she was the only person I spoke to all night that night… Cut a long story short, I was walking home, down the street in Soho, and I put my hands in my pockets and pulled out this piece of paper with a map on it – not a hand-drawn map, a printed map, and it just said on it Lambeth Road 180. I put it up in my room and just left it there. Sam was living in Holloway with Pete at the time, but I was seeing these guys all the time.
“One day, I take this sheet of paper, look it up on Google maps and get on the train. I went there and knocked on the door. Tom, who owns the place – have you met Tom?” Chilli asks, “He’s a really nice guy. Well, Tom opens the door and says: ‘what are you doing here?’. I say: “Look, I’ve just got this sheet of paper’. The thing is, I had nothing going on in my life at that point, so if there was ever any chance of possible magic, it seemed like I should pursue it.”
Chilli – Palma Violet’s own catalyst to getting things done, and the only member of the band who isn’t an old school friend – explains how Tom, “the king of Lambeth”, flung open 180’s portcullis and showed him around his crooked ‘art space’ with rooms to let at rock-bottom prices. He called guitarist Sam, who he’d met two years earlier at that old annual bandmate speed-date known as Reading Festival, in 2009. “And I instantly saw the potential,” says Sam. “We went down to the basement room [next to the wartime kitchen], and I could just imagine putting on gigs there – loads of people crammed in that little, sweaty room.” Palma Violets effectively had a rehearsal room before they had a band. Nice one Sheila, London’s most enigmatic estate agent.
“Without it, we would have probably played that normal circuit,” says Chilli. “Y’know, the Shacklewell etc. And you might have come down and thought, here we go, here’s another indie group trying to make it big time. But 180 was ours, that was the thing! We’d be like, ‘you come to us. We’re not going to come in for a meeting with you. Come to us and hear this music!” And it worked, against the odds, or perhaps because of them. A band that refuses to leave Lambeth are certainly worth a look, and plenty came snooping, from young fans by night to daytime label scouts. Lots of label scouts. Six per week.
It works like this: Milo, the band’s manager and “number one fan”, convinces one A&R personnel to stop by to see his new band. They come, they go, they pass in the street another scout from another label. This being the tiniest of clubs, the second scout now wants a look, too. And that is enough to get every A&R knocking on your door, because this lot are terrible at keeping their mouths shut. “It’s just so incestuous, and they all talk,” says Chilli. “They’re worried about missing it, but they’re worried about looking like fucking idiots too, so they have to check what the others are thinking.”
“Apparently there were lots of emails going around saying, ‘apparently they sound like early Blur’,” laughs Sam.
“Oh yeah,” says Chilli, “there’s all that kind of shit. But that’s how it works.”
A mammoth amount of luck is involved in this kind of thing too, in Palma Violet’s case the fact that scout B was passing as scout A ducked out of 180. But word would have no doubt caught on regardless, if not due to the band’s rickety indie punk, the old fashioned romance of their threadbare nerve centre, then. It’s been a long time since labels have been able to compare a group’s entire operation to the squat-dwelling ways of The Clash. And on the off chance that someone should feel short-changed by the charm provided by 180, the band quite effortlessly pick up the slack, adept in the art of rock’n’roll gang speak – one-part excited chatter, two parts bone-dry one-liners, surreal half-truths and patent lies for their own amusement, all the while careful to not exclude the outsider, today in The Pineapple, me.
If allowed, they’ll happily ramble off point, about cats (all four of them own at least one each; Will has two) or fish.
“Well, talking of fish,” says Sam when we weren’t talking of fish at all. “Chilli doesn’t believe me, but these guys know that I am actually a better fisherman than I am a musician, and I always will be. In Wales I am famous for being a fisherman.”
What comes next is either complete bollocks or the kind of true story that’s made for British cinema.
“The funny thing is, I’m a massive fisherman myself,” says Chilli. “If I had known…”
“Basically,” Will informs me, “up until the other day, they’d never been in the same room together when talking about fishing.”
“Do you talk about it often?” Chilli asks Sam.
“It’s my main chat up line to girls – ‘do you know how good I am at fishing?’”
“Really? Mine’s ‘my mate works in a lighthouse.’”
“I still am good at fishing,” Sam insists, “but I sort of stopped because the fame got a bit too much around the Pembrokeshire coast. It wasn’t a good fame. It was similar to what we’re experiencing now – it was the hype,” he says to not as many sniggers as I’d expected. “I mean, some people would throw a pint at me because they thought I’d stolen their fish away from them, and I wasn’t from the area, and neither was my friend Dale (we’d work as a duo), who was from Cardiff. All the local fishermen would spit at us as we walked past…”
“In the face!” says Will.
“…but other people liked us, because there was this one day when we went out mackerel fishing, as you do, and no other boys went out, because it was very, very rough, but we went out for a bit of a laugh, and we ended up catching 365 mackerel in two hours. It became considered a bit of a legend, because we’d managed to catch a fish for every day of the year. It was probably one of the greatest days of my life, and we took the mackerel back to shore and ended up selling half to one restaurant and the other half to a pub, and made a fortune.”
“Do you need a licence?” Chilli asks.
“Weellll…,” says Sam, wobbling his hand. “I was 11 then,” he says, “and then I retired at the age of 13, because we thought we could do it again, but there was a lot of pressure on us…” The rest of the band help Sam finish off the story in thinly veiled musical metaphor – the tricky second album (nay, mackerel haul), the meltdown of poor Dale, flush with success and out of his head, and so on. By the end, I’m no wiser to how much of it – if any of it at all – is true, but I am thoroughly entertained.
“There was also that time Pete fainted and all of his clothes fell off,” says Sam.
“The truth is that we were behind the smoking bush at school and I woke up with half of my clothes off, and no one around would admit to taking them off,” says Pete, definitely the driest member of Palma Violets and the first person we came across today, sat in silence in a dark, empty room in 180, hungover or shell shocked, having quite possibly been pulled through an all night party backwards.
“I had just seen the film SAW, and I was explaining a scene when a whole arm is severed,” continues Sam, “and Pete was quiet, but I was telling it to about five people…”
Pete: “All I remember is waking up in the recovery position and my jacket and jumper were half off. Someone had physically tried to pull them off.”
Chilli: “I thought they’d slid off.”
Pete: “And my trousers were down.”
“It wasn’t me,” insists Sam.
The band digress some more.
Before Sheila, the house and the ‘bad fame’, Chilli and Sam tried their own hands at the A&R game, namely to get into shows for free. “It was something we did to make ourselves feel important,” says Sam. Yet as fate would have it (and fate seems to play more than a bit part in the Palma Violets story), their brief paddle in industry waters taught them something – something about how cheek-by-jowl the handful of scouts are, and something about the novelty of environment. “We were going to the same pubs and seeing all the same scouts there,” says Chilli, “and it was just really boring. That’s why we didn’t play gigs outside of 180 – it made people feel part of something.”
“It was a really exciting time when all the record labels would come by,” says Sam, “and that was when we really learned to play. We’d just play every day and people would come and knock on the door – Parlophone, then Polydor… We just got used to it. They’d come down and bring us gifts.”
“Funnily enough, Rough Trade were the only ones that didn’t try to appease us,” says Pete. “Geoff [Travis] just used his Jedi mind tricks.”
“That’s where you felt famous,” says Chilli, as opposed to this, Jools Holland and breaking NME’s 10-year duck of established-to-deceased cover stars.
Of course it makes complete sense that NME have adopted Palma Violets as their own. For all the comparisons the band have been greeted with (“The Swell Maps, The Teardrop Explodes, Arctic Monkeys, The Waterboys, Mark E Smith, Blur as Seymour,” they list on and on), it’s The Libertines that rings most true, the weekly’s last true love.
They had duelling, charismatic frontmen and a penchant for playing shows in their front room, too, in an area of London (Bethnal Green) where nobody went, at a time when British guitar music was one more Stereophonics album away from utter collapse. In early 2013, our continually burgeoning DIY scene aside, if you want to pin your colours to a – ahem – exciting young guitar band, your choices are The Vaccines or Spector.
Cynicism will have us believe that Palma Violets are fraudulently rag-tag, because since The Libertines, marketing departments from Topshop to T-mobile have realised the true power of something that appears on product reports as ‘grass roots’. Companies have gotten better at it, too, with fake Twitter feeds and blogs, or, one better, no online presence at all, because they’re so damn real. Palma Violets put what little money they had into an off-grid headquarters in order to release ‘180’, an album of uncontrived, sloppy indie punk songs that hammer home the Libertines likeness yet remain more genuine than most BBC pollers and bright new hopes for overground success in 2013. They’ve been lumbered with ‘the saviours of British guitar music’ a.) because that’s what NME do once every five years, and b.) because right now someone has to be, and for a generation at least, it is them. And as NME’s readers revolt (Sam and Pete trade tirades of “fuck off” that they’ve spotted below Palma Violets posts on NME.com), bloated on a force-fed diet of one new band, you can’t help but think that they’re missing the point – that from the clangy, howling teenage wasteland ‘Best Of Friends’ to a sloshed, enviably youthful lighter anthem about the night bus home (‘14’), to 180’s splintered floors, to trousers that fall off and fish for every day of the year, Palma Violets are a lot of fun. They never claimed they were reinventing the wheel.
“I don’t think we’re in need of a guitar resurgence,” says Will, “we’re in need of a resurgence in good music. We’ve got to a point where it’s hard to be completely original unless…”
“Well, you don’t need to be original as long as people can feel it,” interrupts Sam.
“Exactly!” says Will. “Music has only ever been about how it makes you feel. You look at Chuck Berry. As soon as ‘Johnny B. Good’ came out, there were hundreds of versions of the same song with slightly different vocal melodies and guitar solos, because it made people dance. Pop music shouldn’t solely be about originality, because it’s about fun as well.”
“The joy has been taken out of music,” says Sam. “Everyone’s just gotten a bit serious, and that should change.”