Famous: A Desire For Laughter

There has been a seemingly growing trend of artists blurring the lines between seriousness and satirisation. Many have opted to create a boundary between person and persona by toying with levels of irony that could either be perceived for what they are, or mistaken for arrogance. For example, there can’t possibly be a bolder choice of name for a fledgling band than Famous. The sheer audacity to suggest that a life of grand achievements awaits you is either the sign of a grossly inflated ego, or the result of melding together multiple acutely self-aware senses of humour. Spending any length of time with the experimental London trio who chose to adopt this name for themselves, you may come to realise it is most certainly the latter that can be applied to the group, and as if any more reassurance was needed, the band saw fit to let me know that they’re “the most self-aware band”.

The audacity of Famous isn’t just limited to the name; this is also a band that have decided to film a concert on a rooftop, a right usually reserved for those in the upper echelons of the music career ladder. The sound the band create is also nothing short of adventurous too; an often chaotic mixture of genres that can feel out of place side-by-side, all capped off with vocals delivered in a nervous yet confrontational fashion. However, for each sardonic remark frontman Jack Merrett makes, it is balanced with a moment of heart-aching sincerity. For every sonic onslaught provided in tracks like ‘Surf’s Up’, there are flourishes of impenetrable beauty the choruses of songs such as ‘Forever’. For every allusion to being on par with the biggest band in history, there is a sense of charm that is equal parts down to earth as it is absurd. Famous are seemingly a band of many contradictions, yet they make it work in the most captivating way they know how – by simply being themselves.

Despite having an impressive cast of band alumni including Joscelin Dent-Pooley, aka bizarro-pop maverick Jerskin Fendrix, and Tiernan Banks, guitarist and vocalist with rising post-rock outfit deathcrash, the band have seemingly not sacrificed any of the ambition they began with when they had twice the capacity. The live show, while aided by the use of backing tracks, is just as frenetic as they manage to sound on record, and the members demonstrate an unusual chemistry that is a joy to behold.

Sitting down to talk via the now familiar Zoom call interview setting, it feels as though I’ve caught the band at an awkward time, beginning by making small talk as bassist George Gardner devours a curry he can’t stop praising, whilst drummer Danny Sanders apologises for the tardiness of frontman Jack Merrett, who arrives enveloped in a vape cloud and leering into his laptop screen. However, once the ice is broken, the band dive head-first into fond memories of gigs gone by, transitioning into a smaller and tighter unit as a band and discussing the importance of cookery to their music.

First of all, how are things and how have you been coping with the ongoing saga of the past year?

Danny Sanders: I think all being said, I’m okay right now. I would feel bad complaining about anything at all that has happened to me personally over the last year, so based on that I’m good.

George Gardner: I think we’ve definitely felt the pinch of not being able to play gigs, as have all musicians, I think. It was such a big part of our life before and now we’ve not done it in such a long time.

Jack Merrett: We’re all also deeply concerned about the ongoing health of venues like The Windmill. It’s kind of mad that it’s even in that bracket of risk.

Would you consider The Windmill to be a hub for yourselves as many other artists do?

GG: Not so much a hub, but it’s such a culturally important place.

JM: It’s pretty much the only place I have any memories of our fans, it’s such a rare place of integrity. It would be a tragedy.

GG: I think it’s the cult status that it has that gives it a better chance of survival than maybe other venues. It has so many people that love it, on personal level too rather than simply because they enjoy going there. It’s a very special place.

You recently released new single ‘Nice While It Lasted’, your only single of 2020. What was the road to getting that out like and is it part of anything larger on the horizon?

JM: Yeah, there’s more stuff coming. I think we’ve been pretty lucky because of where we’re at in our personal lives. We’ve not been able to rehearse until recently, but lockdown has really been a good time creatively to hunker down. Again, not wanting to make light of a terrifying situation but one of the silver linings is that we’ve been allowed to put a lot into this project over the year.

GG: It’s true, it’s a lot easier to make like of the situation even if it is a dire one for lots of people, but if you want to take something away from it, it has given us a little bit of time to breathe. In the first lockdown, we were all in different parts of the country, but it gave us plenty of time to think about direction, what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. That’s not necessarily something we would have been able to get if life hadn’t changed so suddenly in 2020. Obviously, we’d prefer for it to have not happened at all, but it has happened and this is what we’ve done with it.

You began the band being spread across multiple cities though, would you say that you’re already quite accustomed to being separated and therefore equipped to handle it?

JM: I guess so, yeah.

DS: It probably didn’t feel as big a shock to us as it does for other bands, but then they’ve also not had to deal with long distance like we have. I feel like this is the only real time we’ve managed to maintain productivity whilst not being in the same place, usually we just wouldn’t really do anything, but we felt it would probably be good to keep things going.

JM: It’s nice to have a break from one another as well, you know.

Since the release of England in 2019, you’ve reduced down to being the three-piece unit that you are now – how have your approaches to creating things shifted since you halved in size?

DS: I think before we would spend a lot of time in the practice room and then not come out with anything good, we’d just spend more time jamming and coming out with something that wouldn’t last that long in the set. I feel like because now we rely on the backing track so much, when we come to rehearsing the songs, they’re pretty much already there. When you’re rehearsing, you’re more just fine-tuning things at that point, but in terms of creative process it definitely feels like that happens before we come together now.

GG: That’s nice as well, because in a way it can really take the pressure off. Sometimes being in a rehearsal studio together and thinking “we need to do something creative now” can actually stunt creativity, whereas having an idea and being able to come together to make it into something has been really interesting. It’s very different to our old process, but it’s been an interesting transition.

JM: Yeah, I think it’s put a bit of pressure on each of us to enhance our musicality. I’ve certainly done a lot more production on the new set of songs than I did last time, and I’ve taken a bit more ownership over the sound rather than delegating it to a larger group. Equally because of the unusual setup, George and Danny have pushed themselves to become more visually dynamic – that kind of thing becomes more important when there’s just the three of you, otherwise it’s just a big, empty stage. That’s been really positive.

Many bands would struggle going through such a transition, but would you say it’s helped you learn more about yourselves as musicians?

GG: Massively, yeah. I think that’s partly what Jack was trying to get at as well – we were lucky to be working with those musicians in the previous line-up, they were all fantastic. It was a real joy to play with them, but now that we don’t have them, it’s really made the three of us step forward and occupy these new spaces that we really didn’t before – both physically and musically. It’s been an interesting learning curve.

JM: The creative process has definitely widened even though the group on stage has become smaller. Obviously, we do a lot of it on our own, but we want to have this freeform network of people who are involved in the recordings and everything. Actually having the pre-recorded material for the stage means that we can be a lot more playful with collaboration in ways that aren’t usually that conventional for a band, but have worked very well for us. It’s been really fulfilling.

How much would you say that has impacted the live delivery as well?

JM: It’s funny, it kind of feels similar to doing a stand-up comedy set now. I remember our friend James Martin said that it was like watching the longest best man speech ever. There’s an empty stage, and you feel like there’s an element of artifice and humour to a lot of the songs. Like how there’s so much guitar on the new material on the new songs, but we don’t have a guitarist – I play some of it but most of it is other people. It’s pretty jokes.

DS: It’s like very elaborate karaoke.

When you came to Rough Trade Bristol in support of Black Country, New Road, it really did seem as though you were filling the stage there.

JM: That was one of our favourite shows actually.

DS: I feel as though with just vocals and a rhythm section, because myself and George would usually be the least ‘present’ in a band, there’s now a lot more responsibility to be a bit more energetic in our performance. Something I’ve learned, coming from being a quiet jazz drummer, there’s now more of a need for me to hit things a bit harder and become more of a presence when I’m playing.

JM: I also just feel like there’s a spirit of lightness with which we come at it now, because the set-up is fundamentally quite funny. I feel like the best shows are the ones where we engage with how funny it is and just fuck about.

DS: The best times we ever play the songs is during rehearsals when we’re just trying to make each other laugh but doing stupid things.

JM: The more we can do that live, the better it will be.

There’s quite an impressive current crop of experimental acts coming out of London at the moment that you’ve either worked with or played alongside – how does it feel to be part of such a rich network, and do you feel you ever feed off each other’s creativity?

GG: When we spoke earlier about these wider collaborations that we have done since moving to be a trio, that is in a sense referencing a lot of those people. We still work a lot with Tiernan and Jerskin, and it’s a pleasure to be around them because I find those guys extremely inspiring – they spur me on to want to do better.

JM: We’re blessed with our friends and their talents; it’s been a real joy finding one another.

Would you say there are any others within this network that are currently inspiring you?

DS: I’ve just started recording with Platonica Erotica, who is signed to Slow Dance Records – she’s got some great songs and I’m looking forward to hearing more of that.

JM: I think Jockstrap are very inspiring, they’re out front for me these days.

In terms of your wider influences, you’ve expressed a fondness for things ranging from Richard Wagner to Young Thug – where do these two extremes and anything in between fit into the inspiration behind the creative processes of Famous?

DS: I guess there’s an element of doing it because you can these days. Working with Jack, I often find the things I enjoy through him, but there’s often a productive element followed by him saying “we’re going to do this country thing now”. We’ll move onto something else after that, but there’s always a brief moment where it’s solely about one thing.

JM: I’m pretty obsessive in that way, when it comes to musical fads. Personally, I find it hard to listen to contemporary alternative music or whatever you’d call us. I find it stressful to listen to anything that’s in the same ballpark as what we do because it just reminds me of my inadequacies. Listening to my heroes in other genres, so like Young Thug as you mentioned, or Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash, there’s a feeling of liberation because you’re not thinking about how you’re going to do this or that. You get more in touch with what’s good about music in of itself, and less about what’s good about a certain guitar sound, and that’s quite freeing.

Is there an affinity towards other artforms within the band? It strikes me that there’s a certain sense of theatricality in your work and lyrically there are many absurdist themes running through the music – how much do you draw from influences outside of music?

JM: Comedy is a big part of what we do. Danny is a stand-up comedian. For me personally, it’d be comedy, cooking and dare I say, literature. It’s true, but it’s fucking lame.

GG: I’m big into musicals and I always have been. I feel no guilt in doing so.

JM: Not to be too lofty about it, but my approach to creating art has always been massively influenced by small things like watching Seinfeld. I think there’s something about the attitude of comedians that’s very healthy for musicians to take on board, that there’s this sense of likeness and detachment from what you make. I guess that’s why I make the analogy with cooking as well – I like the idea that when you cook or make a joke, however abstract or experimental it is, there’s still a sense in which you can be judged. There’s something quite objective and tangible about it, and in a way that makes it feel less personal. It becomes a craft to approach things like “I’m trying to get to this place where you’re laughing, and I’m going to do it in a way that’s going to be interesting”. Ultimately though, it’s about making you laugh, and I like thinking about music like that.

You gained a lot of attention for your ‘Rooftop Concert’, having previously said that you wanted to be like the Beatles and play on top of the Shard – can you tell us how it came about?

DS: Our friend [and former bandmate] James Ogram directed it all and produced it, and he did a great job of sorting out all of the equipment which was way beyond any of our remits. I think it was just a friend of a friend who had a nice roof terrace which was also very precarious and didn’t feel like it had much left it.

GG: It gave Danny and Jack the fear.

JM: Yeah, we’re both scared of heights.

DS: It was also the only nice day in January, so we just played through about four takes before the light started to fade.

GG: We didn’t actually get any sort of permission from the council or anything, and we weren’t really sure whether they were going to come at any point and shut it all down, so we were just trying to get through the first take because we were kind of convinced that we’d get asked to leave before the end of that. We thought if we could get that in then we’d be really happy with it. We gauged it after that though that nobody had anything really negative to say about it.

JM: The thing is, people could only really hear the drums.

GG: There was one very angry man actually, but he only became aggressive and angry afterwards.

JM: The Beatles thing was just because I was a big fan when I was a kid and it kind of had that sentimental value to it. It was an idea that had been kicking around for a while, and I think we thought we’d do it if and when we’d had a bit of success, but then it became quite funny to us to do it before any of that.

DS: There’s also something quite overreaching about doing a rooftop concert when barely anybody has ever heard of you, there’s perhaps a lot of self-awareness in it as well.

JM: I don’t know if you can call yourself self-aware. But we are self-aware, I promise.

You initially alluded to the fact that there was meant to be a companion to the England EP – is there anything in the pipeline, whether it will still be the same plan or whether you’re working on something completely new?

JM: There was an interview where I said there would be an England 1 and an England 2. In the end, England became both of them. We’d written eight songs but two of them weren’t very good so we got rid of them – the rest is history. We are doing other stuff though, I’m reluctant to do a big reveal yet, but there is exciting stuff that we’re working very hard on and are excited to share. That might be coming in the… next couple of months.

Words: Reuben Cross Photo: Maxwell Granger

You can listen to and purchase Famous’ entire catalogue, including the ‘England’ EP, and singles ‘Nice While It Lasted’ and ‘I Want To Crawl Inside Of You’ via Bandcamp. Watch their Rooftop Concert for untitled (recs) below.

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