The 405 Meets Veronica Falls
Twee? C86? Not from where I'm standing. As I pick my way gingerly past all the equipment and guitar cases strewn on the floor, Veronica Falls are busying themselves with a particularly intense sound check, one that's primarily concerned with the beefiness of their sound and punctuated by healthy discussions about monitor volume. There's not a polka dot or an ounce of chiffon in sight – black and denim being the order of the day – and they look mean and moody as they prepare for what will be the third gig of a short tour around Spain. A seriousness settles over them as they work to transfer the energy of their recordings – they record more or less live, as a band, with minimal over-dubs – to the cramped stage of Barcelona's Sala BeCool; an admirable attitude in such style-obsessed times.
For an artist, being pigeonholed can be incredibly annoying, especially when the label that sticks is incorrect. Misconception has plagued them from the beginning, with people struggling to get past the evocative press shots and snippets of jangling guitars without dismissing them as Pastels-worshipping twee revivalists. But it's a false comparison, as more than a cursory glance at their darkly macabre lyrics and noirish videos will confirm. It's also one that isn't even borne out by consideration of their formative influences, a list that makes for surprisingly interesting reading.
"I listened to a lot of The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian," says drummer Patrick Doyle. "And they kind of did a similar thing, with that juxtaposition of euphoric melodies with more downbeat, or sarcastic, lyrical content." Singer and guitarist Roxanne Clifford concurs. "Morrisey has a lot of humour in his music, and that's an element we try to embrace. For me, it was also bands like Felt, My Bloody Valentine…lots of indie music really." Fellow guitarist and vocalist James Hoare goes back even further, citing a Holy Trinty of late 1960's counter culture as his teenage listening of choice; the Beatles, the Stones, and the Velvet Underground.
What's particularly interesting is the bands they neglect to mention – no Shop Assistants, no Primitives, no Pastels. In other words, the acts they're most commonly associated with. They've always been baffled by such comparisons as, according to Roxanne, it's an entirely different era that acts as their muse. "Our inspiration comes from a lot of 1960s pop music, and the lyrics of the time; the sort of girl group, really over-the-top stuff, or people like Roky Erickson or Daniel Johnson. Dark pop songs with a lot of drama, and that create a lot of atmosphere."
A quick scan of the tracklisting for new LP Waiting For Something To Happen – 'Buried Alive', 'Falling Out', 'Last Conversation' – confirms that their hopelessly romantic yet doomed view of love and relationships is still present and correct, but there's a lightness about the new material that eschews the gothic, ghostly imagery of their debut; no more odes to stalkers and suicide spots, no more being described as "the happiest band with the saddest songs". "With the first record in particular, we were really into that contradiction between sad and dramatic lyrics, and happy melodies, so I guess that was a fair description," concedes Roxanne. "But this record doesn't necessarily have as much imagery, and it's a lot more honest. We're not trying to paint a particular picture, it just came from the heart a bit more."
Being honest and true to themselves are characteristics they've upheld since day one, at times to their own detriment. They infamously ditched the first recording of their debut album, by Guy Fixsen, as according to Patrick "it didn't really have any energy and sounded sterile" – a gutsy move for a fledgling band and one made at not inconsiderable cost. But, with Roxanne and Patrick having met James at a concert before recruiting mutual friend and Parisian Marion Herbain for bass duties, they're happy to admit that there was no grand plan, and no delusions of grandeur.
"We weren't driven by anything more than having the same musical influences and just wanting to make music together, really," says Roxanne. "It just felt easy to do stuff when we first got together." Patrick continues. "It wasn't so straightforward as saying 'Let's start a band!' and then deciding 'This is what we're going to sound like.' We were just playing together and it evolved organically into what it is now." The Eureka moment of realising they were onto a good thing came, says James, "after we'd done the first set of recordings. For me at least, it was quite clear. Before, you only hear things in your head, and you're in a practice space so you can't really tell how it sounds, but as soon as we did a recording that wasn't just on a tape player I was like 'Wow. This actually sounds like something pretty good'."
Even their name seems to have emerged accidentally over time, with no-one exactly sure as to how or when it was suggested. Some of the alternatives they went through – the Draculas, the Japanese Beatles ("Our friends in Brooklyn had a band called the Japanese Beatles that turned into the German Measles, so we kind of stole it"), and Spiral Stairs ("We'd almost settled on it then he, the guy from Pavement, started making some records at exactly the same time, so we were like 'Phew!'") – make you glad of the evocative simplicity they settled on. "We liked the double meaning. It could be this mythical, imaginary place, but it could also mean a woman falling. Plus, we just really like the name Veronica."
It won't have escaped your attention that times are hard for everyone in the music industry; sales and revenue continue to decline, HMV's slide into administration looks increasingly terminal, and iconic labels and venues struggle to make ends meet. Last year's New York magazine cover story on Grizzly Bear, and exactly what indie-rock royalty status pays – or more pertinently, doesn't pay – was an eye-opener for those who assumed that critical acclaim and a busy touring schedule are all that's required for bands to start raking in the cash, a theory Veronica Falls are well placed to debunk. I ask how hard it is to do this full time, to which Roxanne replies "Well, we're not [doing it full time]!"
"But I don't have any other job," protests James, "so to an extent, we are actually." The truth seems to be somewhere in the middle; "We all do little bits of work here and there, but it's alright. We can manage to do what we're doing, but we're all skint," admits Roxanne. Clearly, it's not an easy lifestyle, but nor, thinks James, does the future look any brighter. "It's hard enough just to make sufficient money to just about not have a job. That in itself is pretty hard, but it's definitely a lot harder than it used to be. I'm hoping it won't get worse, but that's because I imagine that people will always still want to go see bands live at gigs."
All four are keen to point out, however, that they're not carping; merely, this is the new reality, even for those who grace front covers and hog column inches. As Patrick notes, "bands are just constantly trying to find a way of actually surviving. It always happens that, just when you think you've got back out of the red, something else comes along. Everything costs money, but we're happy. Doing things like this [touring] is just really fun and we wouldn't change it for anything. You just make it work for you, really, and find your way around it."
Roxanne compares it to "working a minimum wage job, but that's fine, because it means we're doing what we're doing and we get by and we love it. It's generally harder having a creative lifestyle anyway, no matter what you do; you've decided to make that choice. I've personally never had a career, and I've just always done things that let me be able to be creative in some way. But it is hard." The trade off, according to Marion, comes from "having fun and being sent to nice places, so it doesn't feel like a sacrifice. And we do have quite a lot of freedom to do things, or to not do things, and we don't generally have to do anything we don't want to do. It's not at the point where it feels like a sacrifice, and I don't think we'd ever let it get to that point either."
It can be a tricky concept, freedom. It's common for nascent bands to be pig headed about what they see as their "vision" or "direction"; it's equally as common to hear of such bands being pushed around and manipulated by labels keen to recoup their investment. As Marion explains, that's not something they've had to deal with; they've found an understanding home. "Both our label bosses [Bella Union's Simon Raymonde, and Slumberland's Mike Schulman] are musicians themselves, and were in similar sort of bands with different degrees of success. They know where we're coming from and they're not at us all the time – they just let us do what we want."
Besides, for them, commercial pressures just aren't something that play on their mind. It's not that they don't care, but merely that they have other priorities; namely "we want it to be good. That's the main thing." As Patrick reasons, "you just have to make the record that you want to make really, and not let things like that affect or cloud your judgement. You could sit and read all the reviews, and take criticisms on board, but at the end of the day you just want to make a record that you like, and that you'd be happy to listen to." But it can't be easy having the courage of your convictions, surely?
Roxanne agrees, but it seems they've found a way. "It's impossible to 100% have that, because you can't help but think 'Oh, that person said this was good!' It's inevitable that, even subconsciously, it will affect you in some way, and there is pressure so it's really hard to just relax. But it's completely counterproductive if you try to do anything for anybody else. We're quite good now at forgetting about that stuff and just doing what we want to do." James agrees. "You don't want to release something that you don't like, because at the end of the day, you have to live with it. Once it's done, it's forever."
Considering the latest entry in their discography, Veronica Falls can rest easy; they've fashioned a gem of an album, one that highlights their growing maturity and confidence as songwriters. Watching them later, the drive and penetration that seemed so lost amid the swirling wind and enormity of the Mini Stage at last year's Primavera Sound are back with a vengeance. It's tight and focussed, the rolling beat of Patrick's floor tom pushing everything forward. Live, they fizz and sparkle, and I finally understand the punk references they've made in numerous other interviews; 'Beachy Head' could well be The Cramps in disguise.
Of course, there were those who wrote them off as simply the latest set of Emperor's Clothes to be worn by the indie fraternity, a passing fad of retro pastiche reliant on past, unsung glories. But here, in a basement club on a windy Thursday in January, those people would do well to look around. Some have come alone, some lurk in the shadows at the back, but they all know the words, and they're all lost in Holy Communion with the music. There's a connection at play, one that comes straight from the heart and soul, reflected back to the stage by hundreds of admiring faces. At the end, they descend en masse on the merch table, stripping it bare of tees, totes, and signed CDs. They clutch their new treasure with unfettered glee and wait patiently for photos; the band happily oblige.
As I wait to say goodbye, James thrusts two cardboard sleeves into my hand – copies of the cover EP's they've recorded to accompany each album. He tells me how he's especially proud of the latest one, "recorded in basically one take with the threat of eviction hanging over my head"; apparently, his neighbours aren't fond of sharing a block with a practising musician. It's an incredibly nice gesture, especially considering our earlier conversation, and I'm bitterly disappointed that there are no vinyl copies of the new LP for me to buy. As he turns back to the throng, it's uplifting to see the genuine gratitude all four have for their audience, and the hard graft they are prepared to put in to make what they do so well viable. Fans need nights like this, and bands like Veronica Falls; long may they continue.
Waiting for Something to Happen is out now via Bella Union. You can read our review of the album here.