With their new EP, The Valley, Famous have delivered their own mutated take on the sprechgesang guitar music that has defined the sector in recent years.
It would be reductive, however, to categorise the band as post-punk, or even post-rock. With a performative, theatrical delivery and tracks that refuse to adhere to any familiar structure, Famous’ releases play out like a spoken word piece – or a psychotic episode soundtracked by jagged synthesisers and peppered with teasing glimpses of hooky indie.
The lyrics throughout Famous’s growing songbook are thick with cultural touchstones of all sizes. From Greek literature, to The 1975, via callbacks to their own former members and releases, the band have curated their own macabre library within just two EPs.
It is the ongoing battle between anxiety-fuelled dread and reassuring optimism within their music, however, that has caught the mood of the last year so perfectly.
“It feels a little inappropriate to be reflecting on lockdown with any kind of positivity or nostalgia,” Jack reasons via our Zoom call. ‘But the EP was pretty much recorded entirely during the pandemic, all of us had more free time and more thinking space.’
Having released his sophomore EP with Famous last week – alongside drummer Danny Sanders and bassist George Gardner – it’s fair to say that the frontman’s lockdown has been a productive one.
In comparison to their peers in the world of fledging bands, Famous are schooled in the craft of collaborating with one another through logistical hurdles. When releasing their debut EP England exactly two years ago, the group operated as a 6-piece; with two members in Cambridge, two in Leeds and a third of the lineup living in London. “So it was always a bit chaotic getting together for the minimum of rehearsal,” Jack recalls from his Tottenham bedroom. ‘Whereas now I live a tube stop away from Danny and George is in Bermondsey.’
There are some impressive alumni among those who have departed the band in the interim between releases. Oddball hyper-popstar Jerskin Fendrix has released his own record, Winterreise, which Loud & Quiet magazine named the best album of 2020. And guitarist Tiernan Banks fronts minimalist outfit deathcrash, whose meandering lo-fi tracks evoke the sound of math rock revivalists such as Slint or Unwound. Both Jerskin & deathcrash are now label-mates with Famous at Untitled Records.
“We knew [England] was going to be the last thing we did together, but they’re all really close friends of ours,” the frontman resolves. ‘They were all really involved in moving Famous on to this next stage and we collaborated a lot.’
A 50% decrease in hands on deck has proven to be a blessing in disguise for Famous thus far, with a more malleable musical setup, both sonically and physically. Drawing from a pool of collaborators, the band now perform with the bare minimum in on-stage gear and refer to a backing track throughout the set. “We essentially have this live drum and bass..” Jack stumbles to clarify that the band haven’t switched genre entirely, ‘obviously not drum n bass.. but yeah, we have those two instruments live and the rest is on a track.”
“It means we are very fluid with who we work with on the backing tracks; there are no rules really,” he continues as he exhales a cloud of vape smoke. ‘It’s been good for the creative process, because it feels like we can start with a completely blank slate in terms of instrumentation – whereas a more conventional band might have to find roles for everyone in the group.’
This reduction in overheads also offers Famous the far less creatively-facing advantage of travel convenience. With just three members, a bass guitar and a backing track on a hard drive, the trio are free to tour via train, reducing costs and negating the requirement to take turns in the driving seat. This may be a little more Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys than it is Led-Zep’s fleet of private jets, but this modern method of touring is somehow fitting for Famous: eccentric, yet (as suggested by their name) self-aware is a manner that would be hard to imagine from a band outside of the UK. “We know a band who play as a large ensemble, and they had to turn down shows in the past, due to logistics,” Jack says.
He is referring to 7-piece Black Country, New Road – who have been lifted from the same Brixton-centric world as Famous to pick up critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic over the past year or so. Along with the likes of black midi, BCNR’s rise has caused a great deal of press attention to fall onto The Windmill: Brixton’s primary venue for up and coming artists.
“There is a strong scene to an extent, but also I think some artists are thrown together who have probably never met,” Jack laughs. “It comes down to Tim, who runs the Windmill, being a genius promoter; he has a very profound place in the world of London music. The fact that people are so interested in the Windmill scene, stems from Tim being an amazing facilitator of new acts – the ones you’ve heard of and the ones you haven’t.”
Whether Jack believes that there is something in the Brixton water or not, the geography around them has left its mark on Famous’s output, with the cover art for almost all of their songs featuring views of London, specifically architecture such as The Shard or The Gherkin. “The first EP, England, was about these intense emotional experiences that you have when you’re young,” Jack explains. ‘These experiences can have so much grandeur in your world, but ultimately they are sort of meaningless.. The urban landscape was representative of raising this mundane everyday stuff to the status of mythology or grandness.” He pauses again and smiles, ‘..Which is fairly overblown I guess.’
The visual use of these instantly recognisable landscapes, shared nuggets of the London experience, mirrors the way in which Famous saturate their songs with references. From the high-brow to the mainstream, the band have already come to capture a certain flux that arrives with a love of popular culture, alongside a respect for the classic arts… wherever the boundary may lie.
“One of my favourite lyrics on the new EP is from [the Greek tragedy writer] Euripides’ Bacchae.. it’s quite a pretentious source,” Jack is still passing his vape from one hand to the other from my laptop monitor. “But then I have nicked quotes from John McCain’s autobiography and The Simpsons.”
The Simpsons quote in question (Marriage is hard work / But it’s worth it when you’ve got someone wonderful like I do) is typical of Jack’s relationship to his lyrics. The words don’t necessarily apply to the frontman’s personal circumstance, but he delivers these lines with such histrionic earnestness that a listener has little choice but to invest in them.
This readiness to weave the irreverence into the profound, paired with an exaggerated – almost zany – delivery, is the catalyst of Famous’s charm. Songs that flash glimpses of turmoil and a genuine struggle with the human condition are balanced by lyrics that are not only funny, but wholly optimistic.
His exaggerated persona – which neither sounds nor acts especially like the man in my Zoom window – grants Jack a conduit for reciting the words that he writes with absolute openness. Delivering these tracks in a “garbled American accent” permits the songwriter in Jack to adopt the role of unflinching frontman. “songwriting is quite a personal thing, and it’s easier to find humour in it if I separate my act from myself. I’m sure it’s weird for people, but y’know, I like it.”
Having recently played two nights at London’s landmark 100 Club, and picking up ever more critical acclaim, how easy can it be to retain this self-referential humour as Famous grow to be taken more seriously as an act?
“I certainly don’t think that humour in music – or any art form where it sits alongside poignance – cheapens it in any way. In fact, it makes it a richer experience,” Jack says with sincerity, before flashing a smile. ‘So I’ll keep making jokes.’
The Valley EP is out now via Untitled Recs
feature image: James Ogram