Tape Sales & Jean Shorts: How a DIY Band from Nunhead got to the USA

“I remember it was the middle of the night. I checked my emails and saw that South by Southwest had got back to me offering us a couple of showcases.”

Alexander Sokolow, or Sox, is making two cups of tea in his Nunhead kitchen whilst he recounts the story. One mug is stamped with the Maidstone Utd football crest, while the other features a hairline fracture from the rim to the base. ‘My girlfriend was so pissed off, because I woke her up by celebrating and jumping around the room.’

Sox has fronted the South London band Tugboat Captain, since their first album – a lo-fi solo venture recorded in his bedroom. The as-yet-unreleased third LP is a collaboration with his 3 bandmates, all of whom have ever-changing stage personas, including Sloppy Giuseppe, the naked bassoon player.

As he takes a seat at the table in his lounge, Sox struggles to find the music terminology to describe what it is that Tugboat Captain do; until I ask him how he would describe the venture to his Aunty at a family gathering.
“Hey Aunty,” he begins, engaging in the roleplay, ‘I’m sort of doing music now, but not quite. it’s pretty hard and we are struggling to get any attention, no major publications will write about us’. Sox glances at my voice recorder and the self-effacing humour disperses. ‘Nah, but seriously, we’ve been doing our own thing for a couple of years, fairly successfully.’

The band have garnered a respectable cult following in the three years since their inception, accumulating close to a million streams online and organising their own 20-date tour of the UK in 2019. “We’ve been playing shows to people without losing money”, Sox relays – conceding to how impressive a feat this is in the world of DIY music, ‘we haven’t lost any money at all in the band, which is a big thing for us, it’s like this self-funding hobby.’

The buoyancy of this self-sustaining project is testament to two things; one of which is the vocalist’s endless administrative workload, with which his engagement is fuelled by an amalgam of Sox’s confidence in the band’s output and the nuances of delusion that is necessary for any artistic venture to take flight. The other component to Tugboat’s perpetual progression is the fanbase that the group have cultivated.

If we are to believe that artists are defined by the people that they inspire, then it is clear to see why Sox struggles to summarise the outfit. Tugboat Captain have a loyal following of oddballs and music fanatics, some of which are university graduates with day-jobs, alongside others who seem to exist solely on the fringes of life. One regular at their gigs carries a violin as a permanent fashion accessory.

This growing collective of devotees turn the band’s live shows into a phenomenal celebration of weirdness, whilst Sox and his cohorts perform pop music for people who don’t exist in the sphere of pop music. Sox himself lives immersed in this blissfully oblivious subterranean world; he came across the George Ezra mega-hit Shotgun one year after its release and cites it as a “Fucking bop.”

“It’s just been us as a group, rattling around up and down the country in some shitty old-school van.”

The unlikely frontman takes a sip from his Maidstone United mug and smiles when considering the obscure space that the band occupy.

“We’ve done things that are so hodgepodge over the past few years, where it’s just been us as a group, rattling around up and down the country in some shitty old-school van.” Sox reflects upon the DIY romanticism, before steering the conversation back to South by Southwest. “That’s why it’s really cool for someone to reach out and say ‘Yo, do you want to come and perform at our legitimate thing?’, as supposed to running these crazy schemes that we usually do.”

This opportunity to begin life as a legitimate band completing legitimate milestones was one that needed to be ceased, and the group quickly sought to obtain funding from the UK’s PRS Foundation. Alongside their two showcases at South by Southwest, Tugboat Captain have also arranged to play a series of shows in New York City, as part of the New Colossus festival.

“We reached out to New Colossus because some friends of ours, Penelope Isles and Flirting, played there last year. The festival got back to us almost straight away saying ‘yeah, come over!’.”

The enthusiasm with which the festival organisers responded to Tugboat’s offer to play isn’t as surprising as you might think. The band’s biggest song, ‘Don’t Wanna Wake Up On My Own’, made it to the USA via Reddit and became a low-key hit on college radio stations. And the group’s Spotify cites New York, LA, Chicago, Seattle and Dallas as the regions where TC receive the most streams. London doesn’t even feature on the list.

Sox’s administrative duties don’t subside, and he continues to hit refresh on his laptop throughout our meet. “The US fanbase is a weird one, we stream a lot better in America, I guess because we are received there outside of the confines of what the UK media deem to be cool. Over here, we don’t necessarily make any sense. We don’t sit alongside anyone or fit in a scene,” He emphasises the word ‘scene’, as if it were a new-fangled idea that he doesn’t like the sound of. ‘..And I guess that when Americans come across us through the isolated world of the internet, they aren’t concerned with which publications are writing about us’.

Tugboat Captain’s stateside popularity is a curious topic. The four-piece personify a type of archetypal Englishness that US Indie fans celebrate in music; sittingsomewhere between the cracks where Barbour jackets & autumnal walks in the park, meet beans on toast & rolled-up cigarettes. Sonically, the group incorporate the twee pop elements that Americans find in Country music, without the associated jingoism that stints the progression of the genre into more left-of-centre demographics.

“I remember us looking at each other and thinking ‘how the fuck are we going to afford this?’”

Tugboat’s onwards voyage across the Atlantic all seemed a little too good to be true, when the venture hit a monstrous iceberg several months ago, and they received confirmation that PRS had denied their application for funding.

“I remember us looking at each other and thinking ‘how the fuck are we going to afford this?’” Sox recalls. The cost of getting the band to New York, before heading down to Austin to perform at SXSW was in the thousands. After crunching numbers and weighing up various sacrifices, it was decided that the band will fly to New York to perform their dates there as a unit, before sending Sox to Austin to perform Tugboat’s songs as a solo venture. “Then the fundraising began”.

Tugboat put the word out over social media that they were scraping funds together for the trip and played several gigs around London in the following months; including headline shows in Dalston and The Brixton Windmill. The latter of which has nurtured such artists as Shame, Goat Girl and Black Midi in recent years.

Previously unreleased demo tapes were available to purchase online and the community surrounding the project all helped out. “We are lucky to have people really get behind it online,” Sox reflects. ‘We raised £2,000, which is fucking nuts.’

Other bands from the area performed shows in aid of the effort, which were organised and promoted by members of Tugboat Captain. London artists including Hether and Queer/Trans outfit Bitch Hunt performed shows. Flowers of Palo also played a show, making the journey to London from Cornwall – where Tugboat have another isolated, but numerous, fanbase.

With the band within touching distance of a manageable fund for the expedition, one more show was scheduled, to take place days before Tugboat fly to New York. In a perfect stroke of serendipity, this final bid to raise funds was to take place at Sox’s Nunhead local, The Ivy House, which is London’s first co-operatively owned pub. Nestled in the suburbs just south of Peckham, the establishment is managed and operated by the community who saved the venue in 2012.

Arriving at the Ivy House on the night Tugboat Captain’s final campaign to raise funds for their trip, the sense of celebration seems to far outweigh the weight of the struggle. Sox and his bandmates greet each new arrival in a manner more akin to a birthday celebration than a gig. Both support acts pay tribute to the headline act and wish them luck Stateside as they perform to the wood-panelled function room behind the main bar.

Tugboat Captain take to the stage – which is adorned with the shimmering gold tassels that are a permanent fixture of the event space. And from the very first track of the set, the Tugboat faithful (or Tuggers, as is the adopted name of the collective) set the tone of celebration, waving a temporary farewell to the group that they have grown with over the past three years.

I pull my phone from my back pocket to get a video of the band’s opening number, and catch a notification on my home screen.

South by Southwest – the annual technology, music and film festival – has been cancelled over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The headline reads like a surreal hypothetical. Coronavirus, up to this point, was widely disregarded as another buzz word in pop culture, doomed to fall to the wayside within weeks; like fidget spinners or Baby Shark before it.

Ducking to the wings of the audience, I scroll Twitter; awash with music blogs posting articles and bands releasing SXSW-themed statements. Armageddon unfolding in the worldwide Indie community. Nobody in the Ivy House function room have their phones in their hands, too busy celebrating their successful efforts to send a band to a festival that is no longer taking place.

Sox takes to the mic between tracks, thanking supporters for their part in this journey and, in typical Tugboat fashion, the band auction off a pair of customised jean-shorts – complete with ‘TC’ stitched into the rear and a Barry White-inspired song about jean-shorts. Chants of USA! USA! Are initiated from the stage and each of the band’s songs – many of which are recited word for word by the audience – adopt entirely new contexts, with the chorus refrain of new track ‘Downward Slope’ provoking the crowd to join in unison and proclaim “I’m not designed for hope”.

The show comes to an end with a typical crescendo, Sox removing his guitar for a climactic final chorus and a meaningful end to a chapter with the community that have got them to America.

I caught Sox outside briefly after the show, looking exasperated, laughing-but-not-really-laughing and shrugging off the SXSW news as ‘classic’ and ‘just too funny’, before bustling back into the bar to speak to people.

“This was our priority”

“Last night I was too drunk to really deal with it.” It’s the following day and we are in Sox’s flat, “We were chanting USA! USA! in the middle of the set, for fuck sake!”

I’m only afforded 50% of the frontman’s attention, as his phone and laptop repeatedly interject between questions.

“It’s been a weird morning, so many people have been reaching out to us about SXSW being cancelled. We’ve been talking to a few different bands. Spoke to Hotel Lux briefly earlier and NME have reached out, asking me for a statement”. It feels reductive to point out the irony in mainstream media paying attention to the band at this particular junction.

“We are so lucky that we put most of our eggs in the New York basket, we were already flying out there to play shows as a full band, which is an insane bit of luck.” The tone in his voice implies that this bit of luck was not only overdue, but also fraught with a deficit of luck elsewhere.

Tugboat Captain, like many other small bands, had invested money, resources and time into the looming promise of SXSW. Sox explains that the group have allowed festival opportunities and the release of their third album to take a back seat in order to prioritise the Austin showcase.
Industry ladder progression and wasted time aside, the overriding sense of loss appears to be rooted in the personal milestone that this opportunity presented. The assurance that the frontman’s years of work and perseverance (sometimes in the face of all logic) was culminating in a legitimate credential, another endowment of validity towards being a legitimate band.

Alexander fluctuates between laughing at the situation and it’s perfectly typical nature, before reining in his optimism. “This was our priority. Everything else for the band has been written off for the year, and to lose that does really sting.” Sox refreshes his email. ‘To lose an opportunity like that after working for so long really hurts.’

“We’ve got four days of shows lined up in New York whilst we are there as a full band, then after that… I don’t know. My own little holiday to Texas?”. I ask what this trip to Texas looks like in his mind’s eye, ‘I honestly don’t know yet. Everyone that I’ve spoken to this morning is pulling out, but I didn’t insure my flight or anything, so I guess I’m still going.”

It is still mid-afternoon on the day following SXSW’s cancellation and, between emails, Sox informs me that two unofficial Austin showcases – who aren’t obliged to follow the festival’s cancellation advice – have reached out to offer the artist two replacement gigs. And a few other promoters in Austin have been in touch.

Music generally has a way of existing, often thriving, amid troubled circumstances. In the wake of nuclear fallout, one can’t help but believe that the only recognisable items of substance will be the cockroaches and a fundraising festival to rebuild society.

“The speed with which the music community has rallied together is pretty incredible, I’ve been touched by the response that has been given to bands like us, who had put so much energy into being at the festival. Twitter has been lighting up with support”.

At the time of writing, the frontman has received around ten gig offers from local Austin promoters; eight more than he had on the official SXSW bill. In the most fitting way imaginable, Tugboat Captain are arriving at one of the world’s most established music festivals, carved in their image as a DIY wonderland.

Between hustling and checking emails throughout his travels, Sox owes himself the perspective to see that – regardless of where his band are left following their US excursion – this trip in itself is a mantlepiece moment, and as impressive an adventure as he will ever have, with or without legitimacy. Whatever that means.

All photos by Gabriel Daughtry @g_daughtry

Author avatar
Matt Ganfield

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