Imagine the scenario: you enter a room full of strangers, and your task for the evening is to win their approval within the next couple of hours. Ice-cold stares point in your direction over half-sipped lagers as you brace yourself for the judgement of discerning punters. A man in a well-worn Sonic Youth t-shirt might lean over your way and mutter something that could resemble encouragement but could just as easily be a snide comment about your presence. Welcome to the life of a grassroots touring musician.
It’s somewhat fortunate for Nottingham quartet Divorce that they’re adept at grinding the best out of these potentially awkward situations, and if their experience of the last year is anything to go by, they’ve got a canny ability to swing the approval of a room. This is down to a combination of their consummate professionalism on stage, their playful candour, and most of all their knack for penning earworms of the highest calibre. Having all plied their trade in other bands in their hometown circuit and beyond, they’ve certainly used their expertise to elevate their output to new levels under this new guise.
Now twelve months on from the release of their first single, ‘Services’, it’s hard to deny that Divorce have experienced a whirlwind of a year, culminating in the release of the four tracks that make up their debut EP Get Mean. The resulting record careers between a raw and grungy sound and country-flecked indie balladry, and while those may sit at rather opposing opposites of the musical spectrum, it’s a winning combination for Divorce. While the songs are ultimately a slick mix of their dry wit and tight musicianship, it’s the interplay between vocalists Tiger Cohen-Towell and Felix McKenzie-Barrow that stand out as the stars of the show, crafting impeccable harmonies that often catch the listener off guard.
After the two spent years together performing under the name Megatrain, Tiger and Felix clearly have this bond that creates magic when they collaborate, and Divorce is no exception to that. With the additions of singer-songwriter Adam Peter Smith on guitar and Do Nothing guitarist Kasper Sandstrom on drums, their sound is elevated to a greater level, and once you witness it unfold both live and on record, it’s no wonder they’re able to provide that star factor.
Speaking at the tail end of last year prior to the release of Get Mean, I spoke to Felix about the spectacular breakout year Divorce have had, their coming together as a band, and what lies ahead for the group in 2023.
How are things going in the world of Divorce?
Things are good, we’re all fairly tired from tour, but I’m kind of addicted to touring and I’d quite like to stay on tour forever. I think the rest of the band feel like it’s nice to have a few days off where they can see their respective partners and I’m sitting alone wishing I was still playing shows, but we’re kind of excited about the EP being out in the world.
Do you feel that the other three don’t share the same love of the road?
They do, but they’ve all got lives at the moment and I don’t seem to. I really like doing things like packing the van. I don’t like sleeping on people’s floors much but I’ll do it if I have to. I think I get a little bit itchy if I haven’t done it a few times a year. We’ve got one show in December coming up and a few in the new year, and I tend to set my calendar by the shows that we’ve got.
The two tours you’ve done this year have been pretty sizeable as well – what have you enjoyed most about those? Being a band with only a handful of songs released, how has it been trying to get fans on board and meeting people who are excited for what’s to come?
That’s been the nicest thing about being on the road actually, because all of those things start to get real. You can end up living in a bit of an online bubble where you’re just looking at numbers of streams and followers, but actually being in front of a crowd and them being really into it suddenly solidifies everything. I think in terms of the band experience on the road together in quite an intense way for a long period of time, I think we all really enjoy it because we’re all at ease with each other and our rhythms play off each other well. We don’t have many fights, and even if individually we all have differences, the group mellows everyone out to the extent we all play each other off.
I guess you knew it would work going into the project because you’ve worked together in the past in various guises, but the main dynamic at the core is you and Tiger. How does doing this with the additions of Adam and Kasper differ from when the two of you worked together as Megatrain?
I think it takes the pressure off us both. When there’s two of you, you feel a little bit like it’s you against the world, and there’s a lot less character to soak up the ups and downs. It can get a bit insular. It’s a bit more of a leveller having four of us involved equally. It takes the pressure off us two and allows us to feel freer creatively, because we tend to do the bulk of the songwriting between us. We can have a bit more fun and not pressurise ourselves so much. I think because we’ve been such close friends for so many years, I think if it were just the two of us we’d probably argue quite a lot.
Was having a more diverse input from the others a major factor in wanting to expand?
Adam and Kasper were people we’ve always respected massively as musicians, and we knew that we would work. It was a conscious decision to open the room of thoughts a bit wider and I think that’s enabled us to have more faith in our decisions and pick each other up when we’re not feeling good. As well as the band having a really strong ensemble presence, the team around us has been great as well.
Was the idea for Divorce already floating around before the other members came along?
I think there were a few songs that were written in a limbo period where we were unsure whether we were going to carry on Megatrain or do something different. ‘Checking Out’ is one of those that we wrote a while back, maybe four or five months before we started Divorce. Some stuff has been sitting there a little while, and it’s been really nice to revisit that as the four of us, but the bulk of it has happened pretty organically as a four-piece. I think largely it feels nicer to share that with all the members.
Were you still figuring out where things were going when Adam and Kasper came on board?
Yeah – all four of us have pretty individual characters, and I think that people have noticed when we play live that we all have quite distinct looks and presences, and I think that carries into the background of the band as well. We’re all offering different things, and the further we go into this the happier we are with that. It feels like it’s too nice, it shouldn’t be that nice. It sounds really soppy but we all love each other a lot.
It’s a beautiful thing to have.
I actually bumped into Kasper last night having not seen him for three days, and we were just like little kids. I could barely hold myself together even though it hadn’t been that long and gave him a big, wet kiss on the mouth.
You can’t have long been back from doing your first European date at Left of the Dial in Rotterdam then either – how was that?
It was so exciting. Both Adam and Kasper had played in Europe before, but for me and Tiger it was the first time. The festival treated us so well, and there were so many other bands from the UK that we either knew or sort of knew which was lovely. We all had a bit of a cold though, so we each spent one evening at different times just lying in bed.
I feel like Dutch festivals seem to get what’s going on in the UK scene at the moment and pay close attention to it.
I feel like it shows what difference it makes having a well-funded arts scene. It makes the experience of playing shows so much better. They’re properly funded, whereas we’re just not taken seriously by the government.
A lot of people have been quick to make comparisons to alt-country, which is something that there isn’t as much of here in the UK. Where do you stand on this labelling, and what do you feel you have to offer towards it?
I think it’s a tricky one, because I wouldn’t say I know the country culture enough to wholeheartedly say that we’re making country music. That comes from a whole different world to anything we really know, but I think maybe we have an instinct for writing folk songs essentially. Maybe when you add a band to that it becomes country – I don’t know. We’re quite heavily inspired by a lot of US music. Tiger and I had the chance to do a few dates with The Felice Brothers in Ireland while we were playing as the backing band for our friend Lorkin O’Reilly, which was pretty special. Coming back from those shows, we felt really inspired, and their records have inspired us for a long time. There’s something that I feel is sometimes missing from band stuff in the UK; there’s a lack of warmth that I think we want to feel running through our music. As long as there’s a warmth that feels as human and imperfect as possible, while still being listenable, that’s the aim.
I think you tread that line well, it’s not overtly either side of your influence. What inspires you both lyrically? Does the country influence continue to run through that?
I think storytelling is a big thing. We both lean towards finding small microcosm scenarios or characters. Personally, I feel that my lyric writing tends to be focused around smaller moments that can come to resonate around something bigger. I guess there’s a lot of theatrical influence to that as well, both Tiger and I grew up and met doing a lot of musicals; we were both nerdy theatre kids. There’s a character in everything that we aim for, which is nice because it distances us from the heart of the song, as that’s quite a vulnerable place to be at times. It’s funny because that tends to fluctuate and sometimes you really want to put something you’re going through into a song, and having a fairly open book allows us to occasionally do that, but it’s all part of the same process.
I did wonder what role your theatrical backgrounds might have played in the band – there’s an underlying tragicomic sense to a lot of the lyrics which also runs into the videos. How much of a part do you feel it plays, and how much input did you have on the visual side alongside Clump Collective?
They’ve made two of the videos so far [‘Services’ and ‘Checking Out’], ‘Pretty’ was made by Michael and Jack Jobling. They really led the whole concept for ‘Services’, which was really fun because it allowed us to find involvement in a different way of interpreting the song we’d written. It lined up in a cool way because they’ve got really silly ideas and ways of doing things, which makes for that warm feeling I was on about. It isn’t overly cool, and we wanted to do something that broke the fourth wall a little bit and make us look silly. I think they’ve been really good at picking up on our individual quirks as a band and how we want to carry ourselves in front of an audience. ‘Checking Out’ was similar to that; Tiger took more of a hands-on role in terms of direction and vision, but between us we spent a lot of time prepping that and Clunk came on board with the little genius touches that they’re good at. They’re just a joy to work with, and it’s lovely to see them doing so well.
As your capacity to play bigger venues grows, do you see yourself expanding the live show to put some of that theatricality into it?
It’s something we’ve thought about, and I’m not against the idea of it. I would love the audience to be quite involved in it. The first show we ever played was quite a mad show opening for TV Priest at The Shacklewell Arms in London. They’d planned for it to be in the round, so we were right in the middle of the room with audience all the way around us. It was really weird but felt so fun because even though you were ‘on stage’, you felt like you were part of the crowd at the same time, and I think that’s what I’d be interested in doing. I’m not interested in it being a big, flashy light show, but maybe in a more Tom Waits-style dive bar kind of thing – maybe with a brass section.
There aren’t enough shows done in the round.
I’ve always been into that kind of thing. Sometimes the traditional gig format can get a bit tired. It’s a winner, but I’d love to do it that way.
Obviously a lot can change in a short space of time, and the band hasn’t existed for that long so it can be hard to put stuff into perspective. With that in mind, do you feel that this collection of tracks best represents you currently, how you have been leading up to now, or where things are heading in the future?
Altogether I feel like it’s a pretty good example of how we’ve grown over this first year. We played our first show in late 2021, and the music didn’t start getting released until a little while after that, so it definitely is a marker of where we’ve been and maybe the last two tracks on it (‘Checking Out’ and ‘That Hill’) are possibly the most closely linked out of the four. When we did ‘Services’ we kind of bashed it out and didn’t bother with any overdubs playing how we’d play live, and while that’s fun and a good place to start, I think those two show we’ve opened our minds a bit more to the instrumentation and aesthetics. We’ve allowed the softness and some of the subtleties that come with it to come through, and maybe having a little more confidence in ourselves has allowed us to not be fighting so hard. It’d be nice to carry that on into the new year, and whatever comes after this we’ll be a bit more prepared to tackle.
Like a journey, if you will.
Yeah, definitely. At the start of the year, we didn’t specifically set out to do an EP, but hopefully it represents us well as a body of work so far. There’s so many songs we have that we can work through, and because I get quite restless, I’m always chucking things out or changing them and wanting to move on. Tiger tells me off for doing that. I’m very excited for what next year will bring though.
Do you think having that outlook makes you constantly have to reassess where you want to work towards?
I think where we want to be stays the same, which is doing this all the time for a living, and being able to have the time to properly dig into this. It’s hard when you’ve all got jobs, which is obviously the eternal musician problem. In that sense I think it’ll always stay the same, but things have happened this year that none of us thought would happen, and occasionally you just have to remind yourself that all you have to do is be grateful for that.
Of all the things to happen to you in 2022, what has been the biggest ‘pinch yourself’ moment?
Doing the most recent tour and the buzz around ‘Checking Out’ have been incredible. Just constantly being told things that are way above anything we could have expected, but I think the main thing is seeing people enjoy themselves at shows. At the start of the year we said we wanted to play at the Bodega in Nottingham for the first time, so for us to sell out there and get a great reaction felt like a real marker. Seeing fans already singing along has been quite crazy as well. I often wonder why all these people are at our shows, surely they have somewhere better to be. Hopefully we’re not just a flash in the pan, although I don’t know if we’ve made enough of a flash yet to get there. Maybe a long flash in a big pan.
Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Rosie Sco
Divorce’s debut EP, ‘Get Mean’, is out now via Hand in Hive. Stream or purchase the record via Bandcamp.