To take A Lovely War on face value is a deceptive approach. Shy, understated and purveyors of the kind of post-Belle & Sebastian blend of self-effacing indie pop so often maligned as twee, it’s easy to place them firmly amidst that tedious huddle of the gratingly timorous – the kind of artificial ‘alternative’ concocted by a satchel-wearing, ironically-bearded 44-year-old charged with sucking any hint of personality from Renault’s latest ad campaign. This four-piece are profoundly not so. Rather, their early recorded work and embryonic live performances show signs of an assertive zealousness; an enthralling absorption of left-field musical tradition from Bush to Bowie to Banhart, distilled into a firm individualism that’s anything but imitation.
In short, there aren’t many bands that sound much like A LOVELY WAR – in their native Merseyside, essentially none – and on the subject of their contemporaries the band are more naturally drawn to discussing what they’re not. “Well we’re not really indie rock, are we?” muses guitarist Chris Keogh on the subject. “[The music] is in opposition to a lot of the Liverpool scene.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever be singing about the Liver Birds,” says bassist Patrick Hughes on their place as a ‘Liverpool band’, “but I think you do get a lot [from the city] subconsciously; as opposed to just singing about the city, you pick up a lot just from being here. There’s always music, there’s always gigs in Liverpool, always things to see; you can have Africa Oyé, then you can go out and see metal gigs. You pick it up.”
The result on record is in a sense indefinable; on their debut EP proper – November’s self-titled four-track effort – the group careen from synth to accordion to frenetic, vaudevillian stretches and off-kilter hits to the heartstrings, and they themselves struggle for the catch-all adjective. “It’s quite poppy, but it’s not pop…” offers Patrick. “The influences are quite mixed,” his brother and drummer Liam adds. Ultimately it’s singer, keyboardist and chief-songwriter Sean Keogh, brother to Chris, who makes the best stab at it. “I think we just want to be weird. Different. There’s no point in not doing that musically… When we started I just wanted to be doing something I thought was interesting.”
Interesting is certainly the word, and the group are unafraid when it comes to flexing their offbeat muscles. In their younger days Patrick, Sean and Chris were members of a live ska group, and cut their teeth across a series of inconsequential toilet-circuit gigs. “We were all fairly young at that point; we were all under 20. We’d have to sell X amount of tickets and pay to play. Thinking of it now it was crazy; they were just taking advantage of us as we were so young.” The long-term results have still impacted on their sound, however, particularly in a ska-influenced offbeat tone to a lot of the tunes. “With Autumn Leaves Us Blue [lead single from the recent EP], the time signature is just… weird. Sean’s played it on his own a few times and people have got up to dance, and they’ve just not been able to. I like that, though; there’s gotta be some sort of confusion,” remembers Patrick.
The sense of idiosyncrasy surrounding the group doesn’t dent their passion for their peers either. As if their sound wasn’t indefinable enough, there’s the potential of the group hooking up with a local hip hop artist; though at the moment it’s a collaboration that’s in its formative stages. “We’ve been talking about getting involved with him,” says Patrick of the potential plans, “maybe jam with him. Just jamming, then we’ll see what happens. I think it’ll be quite interesting with our poppy kind of sound and his vocals. That’d be kinda nice.”
It’s fair to say the group have come a fairly long way since those early days of ska. Now with a couple of gigs as a full band under their belts, the group are fast ascending to the top of the local radar. “It’s good to have recorded the music, got the buzz and then started playing it live as opposed to what we used to do in Liverpool,” points out Patrick of their approach. “We spent a lot of time doing these crappy gigs – they were good fun but just in front of our mates. We’d play them every week and nothing would really happen.”
Until university scattered the group, the two pairs of brothers had spent almost their entire lives in each other’s company. “All of us were into music; we all played in different bands. We all played different gigs together but people went to uni and stuff and the bands just stopped,” recalls Patrick. Time passed, short-lived student bands came and went, until, as Patrick continues, “There was this time when we were all in the same place and we started A Lovely War. We did some gigs together, just me and Sean. It was really good fun but we needed a band – it felt like there was a lot more we could do – so it was really good to get Chris playing guitar and singing, and Liam on drums.”
The fortunes of A Lovely War are undeniably on the rise, yet the group still retain an animosity for the state of Britain’s cultural opportunities for unestablished artists. “Music and art isn’t treated as a commodity like any other job is, and that’s a problem,” says Sean on the subject. “We put so much work into this band, and people can assume that that somehow doesn’t count,” agrees Patrick. “We’re making money for other people, and somewhere along the way it’s become acceptable that that’s just the way it is.” “It’s sold to the bands as if they’re being given all these opportunities, rather than ‘you’re making us money’,” his brother adds.
“It’s so much easier now to record yourself and get yourself out there; that’s changed things a lot,” Liam continues, and it’s a state of affairs that’s helped immeasurably with his own outfit. It was the video for Autumn Leaves Us Blue that saw ears initially pricked, even though they barely had a finalised line-up; since then, their EP has become a fast favourite for all of an alternative sensibility, representing the quartet’s steady rise. As a live backbone begins to assert itself, we can only hope that ascent is a long and continued one for these understated instigators of the kind of individualism this city sorely needs.
Words: Patrick Clarke / @Paddyclarke
Photography: Robin Clewley / robinclewley.co.uk