Harrison Swann, frontman of rising post-punk band Talk Show, is in a strange predicament. His band released their debut EP, These People, just days ago, and were it not for the current Coronavirus epidemic, they would be out on the road right now, in support of it. But instead, in his own words, “my entire life has been put on hold”. It’s hard not to sympathise, they’re one of the most exciting bands in the country; just a year ago, their debut single was freshly released, and now, they’re one of the most unique voices in guitar music. RIOT spoke to Swann about the meteoric rise they’ve had.
Harrison is a disarming interviewee. The same approachable everyman that can be found on record is currently passionately expounding on what he thinks the musical landscape might look like once we’re out of this mess. “It’s a difficult one, because artists, creatives of any level are forced to be creative with how they stay on people’s radars, so that when we do come out of isolation you can get back on it. That’s one of the things we’ve been thinking about as a band, how do we stay engaged, positively, while also not pretending to be like ‘save us’. Obviously the NHS is the most important thing right now, not us releasing an EP. We do need the support, we’ve had our livelihoods pulled from underneath us, but it’s finding that balance.”
“Obviously the NHS is the most important thing right now, not us releasing an EP”
Swann talks at machine-gun pace, all delivered in a broad Mancunian accent. The conversation turned to the backing, or rather lack thereof, that we give the arts as a society. “People have been really supportive, I think music fans have been more supportive to independent artists and all that, and that’s been great, it’s been really encouraging to see that there is a community out there that’s gonna support us. But yeah, it is just absolutely bizarre, I think time will tell really. If we’re in this situation for a month, it maybe won’t be as bad… if we come out of self-isolation after 6 months maybe things won’t really be the same for another year? It’s really difficult to judge. It’s gonna be an interesting time.”
The crisis has caused bands to re-evaluate their approach to PR, with many turning to a more hands-on strategy, and Talk Show are no different: “Us as Talk Show have been thinking of as many ideas as we can do, and we’ve got some exciting things in the pipeline. I mean more than just live streams as well, there’s more out there, more productive things that you can still engage your audience with. Because now, more than ever, bands have to be on social media; if you’re not on social media, your band does not exist, whatsoever, and I think that’s gonna be really tough for some people. And arguably tough for bands that aren’t as vocal on social media, they’ll have to be more vocal. Some are more vocal than others anyway, but some choose to sit back, and let the music do the talking. Obviously it should be like that all the time, but it’ll be interesting to see what changes, who changes their direction.” Having said all of that, Swann is quick to point out that he’s in the dark just as much as the rest of us – “maybe I’m just chatting out my arse.”
We didn’t want the epidemic to cast a shadow over the entirety of the interview, so I asked Harrison about the EP; These People is a riveting selection of tracks, and I wanted to know whether much sleep had been lost over which songs made the cut, and in what order. “Yes and no,” Harrison tells me. ‘[There were] some songs that we already had in the catalogue, that we wanted to release, and knew were gonna be on the EP. We selected three, and we were looking for one more track, and actually that’s where ‘Atomica’ came from. So yeah ‘Atomica’ is the most recent track on the EP, we were looking for that final song. It was a combination of both; we wanted a mix, we didn’t want to just be like, ‘oh it’s just a collection of tracks that we just haven’t thought about’. We did spend a lot of time trying to piece together which tracks we thought would work best together on the EP, but it wasn’t as if we started from zero, and started writing 4 new tracks. We tried to show variation… it wasn’t gonna be like, boom, 4 similar tracks that all sound the same, we wanted to show some form of diversity on it.” And diversity does indeed come across; over 4 songs, Talk Show cover a lot of ground, and carve a path out for themselves in the crowded arena of guitar music.
I needed to pick Swann’s brains on something else, too. These People is an intriguing title, and very nicely ties together these tracks thematically. I asked him to take me through its genesis: “So basically, I’m pretty obsessed with a Belgian singer, called Jacques Brel, he’s got a track called ‘Ces Gens-Là’, and the translation of that is ‘These People’. There’s a performance of him on YouTube with English subtitles, and it’s mental… his performance, it’s heartfelt, but it’s also really engaging, really powerful, and not cheesy in a way. It doesn’t feel like he’s acting it, it feels like he’s actually performing it, and I like the way he’s formed the storytelling of it. That’s always been a big inspiration for me, in terms of performance and writing, especially lyrically as well.”
Swann’s lyrics are a particular strength, caustic and incisive; he’s a firm believer in art as a mirror to society. “When I was writing a lot of the lyrics for the EP, I wrote them whilst on public transport, kind of to or from work, and I’ve always done that. I’ve always worked in bars, I’ve always worked surrounded by lots of people, so it just seemed to fit the content of what I was naturally writing about, or subconsciously writing about, really. And I feel like I’ve said it a million times, but it’s not judgemental, it’s more like observation, it’s never in reaction to, it’s more an observation of. So I feel like my writing style naturally becomes about people, and society, and kind of more like finger-pointing, going ‘look at that, look at that’ rather than ‘look at that, isn’t that ridiculous, isn’t that a disgrace’”
Another feather to Talk Show’s bow are their live shows; it’s testament to their riveting presence that their first single, released on Yala! Records, came about entirely off the back of ex-Maccabee (and Yala! boss) Felix White seeing them live. Swann cuts an interesting figure onstage, performing guitar in hand, rather than taking the direct frontman approach of bands such as IDLES or Fontaines D.C.. But as it turns out, this is entirely as he wants it – he says he enjoys the diversity it affords him. “I kind of like the fact that I have the avenue to do both. Sometimes I feel like it’d be better for me to just perform lyrically, and ‘Atomica’ is an example of that. I kinda knew when we were writing that: ‘I know that this is not gonna need another guitar on it, so I’d love this space to be able to move and perform without that.’ It’s completely dependent on the song, really. At the moment, I’m playing a lot with the guitar, and performing, but it’s pretty fluid, and I like that. I don’t feel like I’m glued to it, or that I’m stuck behind it either.”
This is true of so many things Talk Show do; rejecting boxes and labels is part and parcel of their approach. When asked his opinion on the post-punk label Talk Show have been lumbered with (one that many of their contemporaries reject), Swann for once has a simple answer: “I’m really not arsed.” He says as long as descriptions aren’t really off-piste (“Talk Show are fucking hip-hop… it’s like, we’re just not.”), he’s uninterested. He’s upfront that he thinks that labels can be useful, saying “You know what, I get it, I get why that’s a thing. People want to have some idea of what they’re about to listen to. But bands don’t like it cause they want to feel like they’re the special ones, and it’s impossible to put a label on what that band is doing… at the end of the day, doesn’t bother me whatsoever. We can be put into that bracket, but I don’t think it defines us.” Actually, by their own admission, Talk Show can be quite difficult to define. “We purposefully try and take influence from loads of other stuff that’s not just like punk, like Jacques Brel, and loads of 90s electronica. We’ve all got separate influences, Chloe’s really into disco, but we’d never come out and say we’re disco. For me, at the end of the day, I’m not arsed what people call our band.”
“I’m not arsed what people call our band.”
Talk Show are currently resident on the prestigious indie label Council Records, and consider themselves to be in good company. “It’s a pleasure to be working alongside the artists that they’re pushing out at the moment, and in terms of how long they’ve been around as a label, it’s pretty mad, so yeah, it’s nice to sit at the table we’re sat at. When you’ve got bands like Scalping, The Wants…” Swann is audibly impressed. He sounds like he has to pinch himself when reminded of how far Talk Show have come; when asked his highlight of the past year, he simply says “There’s been so much. Stuff that I’ve always wanted to do, that we’ve been able to do, and I didn’t expect to do it so quickly.” When pushed, he cites a particularly memorable show in Zurich, in ‘this crazy weird army bunker’. He also mentions the rarefied experience of recording a session at Maida Vale; “Dream-come-true stuff.. an absolute honour to go there and play tracks. It was mad, when I was setting up in the vocal booth, the technician was like ‘oh, this is a microphone that Michael Jackson used’ and walked out, and I was like ‘holy fuck’; not that I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan, but those are the type of people that have been and played there.”
They’ve recorded in a number of impressive spaces; half of the EP was in the very capable hands of Paul Fraser, also known as Space, who’s engineered everything IDLES have done thus far. He also recorded the new Do Nothing EP, a band that are particularly close to Talk Show’s heart: “The first time we met them was at Handmade Festival, Chris and Kasper came up to us after our show and said, ‘you guys were fucking sick, we’re in a band called Do Nothing, we’re on just down the road, in an hour, d’you wanna come along?’ and we were like, ‘yeah, fuck it’. Then we were in the crowd – ‘oh shit, you guys are fucking sick as well’, and they’re sound, they’re lovely. So, yeah, it’s nice to hang out with nice people, rather than going to venues and the other band are just miserable bastards.”
Finally, we wrap up our chat with a tentatively optimistic look to the future – I asked Harrison what’s next for Talk Show. “So personally I’m writing the album, essentially, that’s what’s next. But we’re just gonna take it as it comes basically, it depends whether anyone picks it up, but also that won’t stop us; if nobody wants it, we’ll release it ourselves. At the moment we’re just focusing on writing more material, and when Coronavirus is in the distant past, we’ll be up and out on the road, gigging as much as we can, basically, taking Talk Show as far as we can take it.” I’d put money on them going rather far indeed.