Like Venus from the clam, TV Priest emerged from the whipped-up seafoam of contemporary post-punk suddenly and fully-formed. Or at least that’s how it appears to an observer in 2021. In fact, deep below the waves, the band had been forming and reforming for years – each time with the same core, but with variations of a sound that in its present iteration feels eerily current and appropriate for our frustrated mid-pandemic landscape.
Legend has it that this latest model of the band played a single gig in 2019 in an industrial freezer unit and subsequently signed a major deal with Sub Pop. Before they had even the faintest whiff of their current stardom, they had lovingly crafted and self-produced their excellent full length debut, Uppers, as first and foremost a passion project by (and for) a group of old friends.
A comparison with the bands of the Windmill-centric Dan Carey Extended Universe is unavoidable, by the simple fact that they are a London-based contemporary post-punk band. The fact that they are each individually about a decade older and wiser than the members of the more prominent DCEU bands invites an inevitable and somewhat foreboding comparison to IDLES. Having drawn the above comparisons myself upon first listening to the opening track ‘The Big Curve’, both equivalences had ended up doing the band a disservice by the time one reaches the midpoint track ‘Decoration’. The song presents a rich tapestry of bizarre but oddly familiar images and vignettes designed to reflect the talent-show gamification of modern living – smashed avocado and broken Sky+ boxes, dancing dogs and feature walls.
Beneath all this posturing lies the unmistakable scent of introspection that creeps into focus across the record’s runtime. “All I can do is talk / I probably never had an original thought” is crooned on ‘Slideshow’; “I’m just a priest in search of God” is mused almost breathlessly on ‘Powers of Ten’. By the album’s eight minute closing track, ‘Saintless’, the artifice has fallen away completely, and a live wire of emotional fluency and deep sensitivity is on full display in a heartfelt tribute to frontman Charlie’s wife and young son.
Seeking to verify the rumours for myself, and despite the last-minute efforts of his faulty broadband router, I managed to have a quick chat with Charlie a couple of months after the release of Uppers.
How have you been the past couple of months? Because you’ve had a busy few months.
Yeah. It’s been pretty wild if I’m honest. I didn’t fucking expect to sign a record contract in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s a bit fucking weird. But I mean, amazing. I’m just in a massive blur with it. I can’t kind of articulate it, which is useful for an interview.
It’s probably a weird microcosm of probably what everyone’s been going through in lots of ways. There’s a disconnection from context. We put the album out and I was just in my house with my two year old boy and my wife. When it’s on the internet and some people are nice about it and some people aren’t, you close the laptop and you feel good, but you also feel bad? You feel really weirdly self-reflective; I don’t necessarily think I would have if we were playing gigs and stuff. I don’t think I would have had that level of real inwardness based on, you know, a comment on Twitter.
Some dickhead is like, ‘I don’t like this style of music’ and it’s like, cool. Listen to something else then.
Thanks for letting me know directly into my phone. Because you tagged me. That’s sick! Wicked, man. But you know what, you put yourself out there, you set yourself up.
I would also say it’s been incredible. Being able to make music and having the boys as my friends has kept me sane in lots of ways. Some therapists are like, you shouldn’t invest your self worth or your mental health in something like this. But as I’ve got older I’ve realised art and making art and doing music and stuff is a very big part of me not going completely loopy. It sounds a bit glib, but it’s just a very good release, you know?
I’m sure at this point you’re tired of recounting the story, but if the legend is true: you played one gig in an industrial freezer to an audience of mostly your friends in 2019, and were then snapped up by Sub Pop. Could you talk me through that?
Unfortunately the legend is true and I know that our press release has made a fucking big deal about it. I do not wear it as a badge of honour that we have played one gig. We got back together again at the beginning of 2019, and we kind of mucked around until we decided to actually put some limitations on. When we reformed, we were doing the same thing we’ve done every other time that we’ve reformed – just make half a dozen songs and then drift. The purpose of making an album or whatever was to give ourselves a dedicated timeframe to do this.
And then we were like, ‘we’d love to play a show’. But we had nowhere – we didn’t know any promoters in London, and the thought of sending the album to someone who could instantly crush our dreams was horrendous. So we were like: ‘let’s just put a gig on ourselves’. I think we’re old enough and stupid enough to be able to front the 80 quid door money. Then at our little practice space our producer says “I know a guy who knows a guy”, because obviously it’s in fucking Hackney Wick and everyone there knows each other. “I know a guy who has an industrial freezer unit and puts on psytrance raves”.
So he goes, “yeah, come and play this gig at our space”. We did it with a band called Crushed Beaks – they headlined because no one knows who the fuck TV Priest are. Our managers now are a small record label called Hand in Hive, and a friend of a friend basically said, “Oh, I’m going to this little gig in Hackney Wick, do you want to come for some beers?” “Yeah. Cool, cool. Sounds good.” They came and afterwards they met us and said “we run this little label. Do you want to press a hundred vinyls?”. And we’re thinking, ‘Well, we made it. We’re in the big leagues. We’re going to get vinyl.’ And literally that was it.
We just thought ‘we’ll put out some singles, see what happens’. And that’s where it all went a bit weird. The Sub Pop signing came off of the two people in the UK that work at Sub Pop. One of their wives heard us on Radio 6 music when there was a Spotlight from Steve Lamacq, and she said to her husband “this band, I think you’d like them”. He liked us and sent it to Seattle, and then two days later they got on a Zoom call with us. I was thinking, “Oh, I’m probably gonna meet the intern or something”, but it’s like the whole of Sub Pop on a fucking Zoom call. And they’re like, “we like your record”. And the next day they were like, “we’d like to put it out.” And I was like, am I going to cry or be sick? Like, what is the vibe here? And that’s it. So that’s the potted history of what’s happened. Wow. I’m sorry. You probably didn’t need that much detail, but it’s a rich tapestry.
I love a rich tapestry. So onto the album then – how did it come together?
We did it in a kind of weird way. Because we’d all played together for so long, there was a situation where we all had this kind of shared musical language already so we didn’t have to learn each other. When we came together, we wanted to really reconnect as mates. Also, everything I’ve ever made up to this point has been cloaked in a position, or a way of speaking, that I didn’t necessarily feel was my own. Let’s just be honest and direct?
The record was written in a really intense period of time, probably October 2019 to January 2020, and that was kind of on purpose. We wanted to bottle something, a time and a place. I think we felt that we should have written this album fifteen years ago. We’re 32.
So there’s a sense of ‘if I knew then what I know now’. Something like that?
Yeah, I think so. I think we struggled with the album at the beginning, when the world kind of came to a halt. I certainly struggled thinking no one wants to hear any of this. There’s too many important things happening. But then I think there’s an inverse pretension there because at the same time music was helping me get through some pretty rough times at points. I was thinking if one person hears this and thinks, ‘oh, that’s a distraction for 15 minutes from the unrelenting bin fire that is 2020’, if it gives someone a bit of a chuckle or makes someone feel something, then that’s enough. Sorry, I’m giving you really long answers.
No, it’s great. You mentioned that you played music when you were teenagers, and that you came together and came apart, and then together again. What do you think it was in 2019 that was the catalyst for you to get together?
A big part of it was coming to terms with growing up in a lot of ways, and I couldn’t process it in any other way. It sounds really, really cheesy again, but I realised ‘oh, this is this thing that’s been missing from my life’. And that’s really why we got into the practice room.
I think this is the really hard thing to impress on people because when you’re in a band there is an expectation that you want to play Wembley or something. That’s not to say that you’re ambitious for your art to reach people because otherwise I’d just never release it. But honestly – and it’s really, really hard to not sound like you’re a wellness influencer or something – but it really, really did come from a place of ‘I just want to be able to talk about this stuff with my friends. I want to make this music. I want to be in a room with them again, being loud, being a version of myself that I can’t just do every day,’ you know? Because otherwise I’d be in prison.
I suppose it’s just the mediation on the wider idea of why people will do things. It’s because of the mental late capitalist society that we live in is all about accumulation. It’s all about career progression. And this is the first time in my life that I’ve made work or art without ever having that in the back of my mind. Like, what’s going to be the reward from this? Will this make people like me? Will this make people interested in what I’ve got to say? I thought, no-one’s interested. I’m just some shlubby man. What have I got to lose other than my mates?
You speak to an interesting point about intention. I’m sure the irony isn’t lost on you that in avoiding that kind of career-driven or sort of reward focused intention behind your art, you’ve actually ended up in a position where you’re living the dream to a certain extent.
You’re a hundred percent right. It’s a bit distressing in a way. It’s also weird as well because it changes things. We are having to really not feel like it changes the reasons why we did it and why we make it.
I think also this idea of intention has been a really interesting one to me over the last couple of months, because suddenly your intentions as someone that just wants to make something get called into question. I would hasten to add that I’m under no illusion as to why we suddenly have a record deal, bearing in mind that we’ve been playing this music for 15 years.
I’d like to think that it’s because we are a really good band and we make good music, which is obviously a part of it – I’m not going to do myself down on that. But, I’m also aware that people have kicked the door down for us, whereas in our mid-twenties when we were playing a version of this music or something a bit gothier people were just like ‘this is a stinky stinky whiff’. I don’t think I’m some sort of special genius. It’s just really weird.
Your sound is very confident. Setting any kind of modesty aside just for a second, where would you say that this confidence comes from?
I think it’s when you get to a point where you don’t really feel as though you have much to lose. I don’t care about whether or not I look cool. Look at the state of me, I’m an 18 stone sack of shit with a bald head.
I think the thing about the record that maybe some people got misconstrued is that it projects itself quite outwardly, but a lot of what the record is doing is very inward. When I’m talking about my response to politics or the media or social media, I’m not really aiming at anyone other than me. I’m kind of punching myself in the face because I’m using this stupid shouty band as a way to try and make sense of the world to myself. It’s not fucking helping, but at least I can shout about it.
At least you’ve got something out of it.
Exactly. At least I’ve got something out of the unrelenting horror. I wouldn’t even necessarily call it confidence but maybe that’s the best way to explain it. Maybe it’s just a disregard. I don’t believe my own hype. Why should I? Because there’s plenty of people that do what I do. There’s plenty of people that can draw a picture or write a song or emote or articulate in the way that I do. It’s just been a weird confluence of influences that has somehow pre-ordained the fact that, for a minute, we might have a record deal. But ultimately, I can’t affect that or change that, so maybe that’s where it comes from. Maybe that’s all bravado. Maybe I’m fronting that.
We’re going to start getting into double, triple bluffs. Maybe you’re interviewing me.
Yeah. We’re gunna get really psycho-analytical here.
I played ‘The Big Curve’ to my housemate, and then he messaged me the next day and said “why have I played ‘Decoration’ four times in a row?” I told him about this interview and he said “can you ask them why they’re so good?“
That’s very kind. Can you ask him why he’s so hunky?
I will. He actually is, that’s the thing.
Oh, I knew it.
I just want to quickly talk about some of the songs on the record. ‘Decoration’ lives in its own quite zany, very visual world, and I’m very interested in where it comes from lyrically. My favorite couplet on the record is when you spit with bile about “a lager can and a packet of quavers, a face paler than a holy wafer”.
That was from a bloke on the train on a Friday. He was just one of those insufferable dickheads. I know that sounds horrible. I don’t know what’s going on in his life. He might’ve had a terrible time, but it was a very English male presence of just taking up space. Just- “I take up space and I don’t give a fuck about anyone else, and, and I’m just gunna inhabit this space and it’s my space and fuck you”. He’s just stuffing his face with crisps, knocking back tinnies and people are literally moving down the train and you just think “why?” When we boil you down, when we get to the core of you, what makes you sad? What makes you happy? You’re a person, so why have you got to project in this way? Who hurt you?
We wanted that song to be quite funny. It’s talking about this weird conveyor belt of life, like you’re just walking through life picking flowers from someone else’s garden. The gamification of life – through to the next round, big tick, past go, progress.
I remember hearing Black Francis from Pixies talking abot how a lot of their songs have visual hooks. They may have a really abstract concept or meaning, but when you listen to them, he jumps out, grabs you in and gets you into the song. So you start listening to and go ‘Oh, what does that mean? Or what’s he talking about there, you know?’ Like the dog thing, for example, that’s from Britain’s Got Talent. Do you remember Pudsey the Dog? Who won Britain’s Got Talent?
Well, he was just a performing dog. And everyone was like, ‘look at that fucking dog‘. Like, ‘wow, shit, that dog can go up this thing’. It was just a misremembered quote where Simon Cowell goes “I’ve never seen a dog do what that dog does” and we can’t find it anywhere. It became this personal meme where if anyone ever did anything that was kind of not great, but they were really trying, you’d say “I’ve never seen a dog do what that dog does”. I messed up the first verse of that song and Ed in the booth goes “I’ve never seen a dog do what that dog does”. And I thought, right. Let’s put that in. It made us all laugh when we were in the studio, you know, and hopefully that comes across.
The other song I wanted to talk about was ‘Saintless’. It’s got this sort of meditative quality and a real sense of catharsis, as every good closing track should. Could you tell me a bit more about the stories that you’ve woven into it?
It’s the only love song on the record. It’s to my wife and to my little boy. I wrote it as a poem originally. My little boy was born in 2018 and my wife was really unwell after his birth. It was a really incredible but terrifying time. I still don’t know if I really have processed it. I feel kind of cheap using it in a way, and I feel cheap talking about it.
That song was written in a really different way – we had that backing track kind of floating around for a while and we just couldn’t work it out. One day I was in the studio with Nick and I was said “I’ve got a set of lyrics. Can I give it a go?” And, I performed it. It was quite an emotive thing. That’s the first take of that song I ever did, and you can hear that. And for a long time I didn’t want that song on the record. I wanted to revocal the whole thing because I thought it was too much – too overwrought. There’s too much emotion in it. It’s too close. It felt a bit cheesy, you know? It took Nick saying, “no, it’s really a good man. It’s really good. You’re doing something on it that I don’t think you’ll capture again”.
It was written pretty close to beginning the record, so it took me the whole recording process of the other stuff to get back to a point where I listened to it again. And I was like, ‘Oh, there is something in this’.
I think it was important that it kind of comes at the end because we built the record to have an arc. At the start I’m maybe frustrated or angry or dissatisfied, and as we progress, you realize that maybe that anger has been a front, or I’m using it as a tool. When you get to ‘Saintless’, it’s the coda for the whole thing. It’s probably the most emotive song in the record, it’s the only love song, really. I mean, make of it what you will.
We still haven’t done it properly live. It was written in the studio and there’s part of me that feels like I don’t want to play it live until we can do it in a space that does it justice, or to a crowd of people that do it justice. I don’t feel as though that emotion is going to translate to the back room of a pub. Maybe it will! Maybe it’s my poor songwriting that won’t translate, you know?
Also, I’m nervous about it. I’m really nervous. I haven’t necessarily conveyed this to anyone even in the band. I’m really nervous about singing that song live. It scares me what it could make me feel like.
Or what kind of emotions it could elicit. It’s a long enough song that you’re probably not going to feel the same at the end as it did at the start in a dramatic way, because obviously you feel differently when you start performing a song when you finish it.
I think that’s also what I’m nervous about. I’m nervous that it will lose that resonance for me because it’s very special to me, and what that song is doing is special for my family. So that’s what I’m nervous of. But then I shouldn’t have fucking put it in a song then should I, moron.
But nothing is really off limits. I think everything is something to write about. Maybe it could just be a song that you crack out in 15 years time and everyone loses their minds, or it could be a song that someone has a bootleg of or something. It could be something special like that. There’s no pressure to actually perform it if you don’t think it’s going to come off.
GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT.
On that point though, what song in particular are you looking forward most to performing?
Ooh. I really like doing ‘The Big Curve’. That one is really fun cause it just opens up, which is quite nice. I really enjoy ‘Decoration’ because I can kind of muck around with how I sing it which is quite nice, you know? And then ‘Runner Up’ is always pretty fun as well. That’s quite a good one. I’m just excited to see also how these songs exist when they meet a crowd of people. You know, they’ve not done that yet.
I have a fairly good idea.
Words: Ed Hambly // Photos: Dan Kendall
TV Priest’s debut album ‘Uppers’ is out now via Sub Pop. You can purchase or stream the album via Bandcamp.