‘Famous First Words’ they called it. In actuality, that debut record signaled the abrupt end of a roller-coaster, headline-heavy twelve months for Viva Brother.
Released in August 2011, the album received nothing short of a mauling from a group of critics who had had their pens sharpened by a past year of massive industry hype and bold pronouncements of glory being loudly declared by the band’s frontman Lee Newell. While most expected the four Slough bandmates to subsequently regroup and recoup in the messy aftermath, they instead confirmed their split on April 1st 2012. It was no April Fools.
We at Live4ever had our first experience of the supreme, perhaps misplaced confidence which came to define Viva Brother’s short life in November 2010, when Lee told us how they were going to ‘bring guitar music back’. By the time we caught up with them again Stateside soon after their now infamous debut appearance at the 2011 South By Southwest festival, the new mantra declared it to be ‘their time now’.
Everyone had their fill, and most eager to gobble up these headline-grabbing quotes was, of course, the NME. Brazenly announcing ‘The Return Of The Great British Guitar Band’, Viva Brother were sharing their front covers with The Vaccines, and being hailed as the torch bearers for a renaissance in cock-sure rock n roll.
“I knew there was something fishy going on because of The Vaccines. They were playing us against them basically.
I just bought into that whole thing. I don’t blame them for anything, I just think it was a shame how that worked out or how that ended. I don’t blame them for anything.”
“I think your media persona is often an exaggeration of your actual one. Of course I had a little bit of arrogance because I was in a band, a singer in a band and I love the music I write, I do. I did believe it and I can see having someone as animated as I was was a very attractive thing for the media. Whether it was to laugh with me or at me it was interesting and I can see that.”
Then, just as quickly as they had disappeared, last June Viva Brother were back. It was another re-invention, a dramatic musical shift to leave behind the failings of the past. They’d relaunched themselves as Lovelife. The fallow months following the split had produced some big changes. A move to Brooklyn coincided with a brand new outlook and a brand new songwriting dynamic.
Except, this was no re-invention; the group which eventually quietly emerged into the New York live scene this summer, armed with a collection of synth-led, Eighties thinking pop songs, had actually begun to slowly evolve several months earlier, while Viva Brother were still an ongoing interest, and when a second album was developing in Reading with the help of one-time Mirrors member Ally Young.
“We regrouped after we did the whole world wide tour and we were like, ‘Right let’s do the second album’,” Lee explains. “We started writing these great songs and Alley was producing our album because that’s what he does. Ally had a very hands on approach to the point where we were writing together. And we wrote loads of songs, and they started getting really good. It got to a point where there was quite a heavy electronic element to it, which was a weird take for us ’cos this is what Ally knew about – it’s a world I did not know about.”
“So it was exciting for me to discover these new sounds. So yeah the album was pretty much done and we could release it. We were out of a record label ’cos we released the (first) album and that was it, we were done.”
“When we first started doing the Viva Brother album together I worked on it as the producer,“ Ally continues. “Somebody would do something good and I’d pick that out for Lee to work on and bring out the best bits of the band to make a whole. We worked very quickly and very well together. It worked very harmoniously when we started writing together.”
“We went to this little place in England that’s like a demo studio. We had no mobile phones, no internet and we slept in this tiny little out-building which had a tiny kitchen and a shower and we recorded and worked in the studio next door for months. It was therapeutic and transitional and that’s how we got to this style. It happened so naturally, it felt natural.”
By the end of these sessions, Viva Brother was a footnote in the history books. From the chrysalis of a grand manor house in Reading emerged a flowering butterfly of electronic mystery, with their talented producer now creatively at the forefront along side Newell.
“There were plans to do an EP leading up to an album and the guys knew what they wanted on it and it was done, but it didn’t feel like a normal project for me at this point,” Ally tells us. “There was more to do. By the end of it we were writing stuff that was so different from Viva Brother. It kind of felt like it didn’t have a place within it. We were writing with the view that this was not going to be for Viva Brother. We didn’t really know what it was going to be for, but we knew it was a separate entity, something else. It’s very easy to say Viva Brother reinvented themselves as this new band but now you’ve seen just how transitional this was.”
“People are so deceitful ’cos they think, ‘You weren’t a massive success in Brother so you’re just flipping the page and trying something new’. I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I wanna do something new. I wanna write music‘. Just because I like guitars I wrote a guitar record, so I did that. Now I’m gonna write electronic music, pop music.”
To those who’ve already witnessed Lovelife around town, the line-up will have seemed familiar. All barring the recently departed ex-Viva Brother bass player Josh continue on in a fresh existence, free of the shackles of the printed British press and embracing the endless, unprejudiced opportunities which New York has to offer. “We came here with nothing,“ Ally remembers. “We had no fans, no one at home in England, we were like a local band again. Moving to a new place, particularly like Brooklyn, is so inspiring. We made some really good friends and settled in. It’s like our home now. The whole kind of aura in America compared to England is so different.”
“We consider ourselves Brits abroad but a New York band,” Lee adds. “You can take the boy out of Slough but…It’s sort of cool ’cos Brother was a buzz band and with this band it’s hard work, getting yourself known and now it’s starting to happen. We’re being taken out by labels, people wanna book us.”
“We’re doing some CMJ and SXSW dates and have an EP coming out in November or December with an English label,” Ally confirms. “It’s going to be a 10-inch. The label is called National Anthem and they just did an EP for the US all-girl band Haim.”
So there it is. In fitting style for a group which crammed so much into such a brief period of time, within six months that tale is already far behind them, buried under a new wave of intrigue which on this occasion is developing thousands of miles away, and on much humbler terms. But what if NME came a-knocking again, with new promises of cover stories and headline features?
“They did actually,“ Lee reveals. “It was quite nice. I’ve got a couple of friends there as well, which is fucking weird. To be honest if they ask us to be on the front cover again I would think very carefully about it! Now I’m cautious . I’m learning my trade every day.”
Which sums it up – in the place of arrogance and hype, there’s now caution and understatement. No more grand proclamations of imminent world domination, just a quiet belief in allowing the music to do the talking.
For Lee Newell and Ally Young, the future is now all about simply lovin…well, you know the rest.
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