Hailing from Thurso in Caithness, a town that’s located only a few dozen miles from John O’Groats and faces out to the North Atlantic, diviners of melodic psych folk NEON WALTZ have spent the past two years in their rehearsal space honing their sound to perfection.
Sounding like a less angst-ridden version of The Walkmen jamming in their NYC loft with The National and The Coral, the band’s SoundCloud page serves notice of a group fully formed despite being only 18 months into their live career.
Consisting of vocalist Jordan Shearer, bassist/co-vocalist Calvin Wilson, guitar-playing brethren Jamie and Kevin Swanson, organist Liam Whittles and sticksman Darren Coghill, the six-piece have hit upon a rich seam of sun-baked indie jangle, ranging from the beautifully restrained sway of Bare Wood Aisles to the subtly anthemic Sombre Fayre and the beatific Perfect Frame; the buzz around the group at present is sizeable.
“We’ve just done two days, starting at ten and finishing at ten at night; we’re having a day off today,” Shearer explains over the phone from the band’s home base in Thurso. After hundreds of hours spent workshopping in their rehearsal room-cum-studio, the band emerged blinking into the light to make their live debut early last year. “It’s basically an abandoned old croft house,” Shearer explains of the splendid wilderness in which the band practice. “It’s in the grounds of Calvin’s mum and dad’s farm; it’s always been sitting there. It’s got no heating or anything.”
Rather than them falling over each other in such cramped conditions, Shearer believes that working at such close quarters has definitely helped the band progress to where they are now. “If it wasn’t so isolated we might never have started a band, cos up here it’s so isolated that everyone sort of knows everyone. We were kind of the six dudes who were into the same kind of music, could play instruments and write music. That’s how we formed in the first place and we were mates anyway. I would say there’s a lot of people up here who like the same music we do, but of people who started bands, we were six out of only a few.”
The isolation Shearer talks of was instrumental in shaping the band’s influences and formulating their sound. “Back in the day I remember having to borrow CDs – if you couldn’t afford to buy them out of Woolworths, you had to do a swap. It’s way easier to broaden your horizons nowadays, which is for the best, I think. Back then it certainly made us like similar stuff.”
The band played their first gig at legendary grassroots Glasgow venue King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in January 2014, a landmark gig which might be considered by some groups to be a long time in the making. “We’d been a band for maybe just under a year before the gig and we didn’t just want to throw ourselves out there and play a show without being completely ready,” Shearer states. “I think it’s quite tempting for bands to do that now; they get a couple of songs and they’re like, ‘Fuck, let’s just go and play!’ We were like, ‘No, we’ll take as much time as we can’. We just locked ourselves away for nearly a year and made sure the songs were perfect for going out [live], and the sound as well.”
Half a dozen of the band’s current tracks were pulled together in April to make up the EP First Light, a clutch of demos and live versions the band have been working with for some time. And they’ve stockpiled more than enough material for their first full-blown LP, which Shearer reckons is likely to surface early next year. “We’ve got a lot, some that are more finished than others. Totally finished, we’ve probably got about fifteen or sixteen tracks. Then we’ve got loads that are nearly there, then some that are at opening stages, but we’re always writing. It’s hard not to be prolific when there’s six of us.”
“It’s completely shared; everyone in the band writes,” continues Shearer. “So, for example, if I write a song for the band, I write it by myself, no-one sort of teams up and writes together, really. If I write a verse/chorus, then send it around the band, then at practice we’ll learn it, jam through it a few times then start thinking of ways we could improve it. Maybe take something out, add a middle eight in or whatever. It’s very, very shared, so by the time the song’s finished, it’s gone through such a process it really is everyone’s song.”
Citing the trio of New York bands The Walkmen, Deerhunter and The National as treasured influences, Shearer also highlights Timber Timbre’s most recent LP Hot Dreams (via a recommendation from The Coral’s Nick Power) and the work of former Walkmen Hamilton Leithauser and Peter Matthew Bauer as recent practice-room stereo staples. The inspiration of another of Neon Waltz’s formative inspirations, The Coral, has endured to this day too, and the Merseyside denizens are among many connections the Highlanders have formed with this region. “They were one of the new bands at the time that really got me into music and wanting to start a band,” Shearer recalls. “Big John” – tour driver and flatmate of Dave McCabe – has also been credited with giving the band some pointers, as he pointed Shearer towards what many view as the shiniest jewel in Mick Head’s glittering back catalogue, The Magical World Of The Strands. “We were in some shithole by a motorway outside Leicester. We [were] walking round going, ‘Fucking hell this is depressing!’ We were sitting in a Travelodge; the rest of the boys had gone to an Indian restaurant,” Shearer remembers. “The first song from that album John put on was Something Like You. I was like ‘I’ve got to hear the rest of this’.” The band were so smitten that, at their Shipping Forecast show in Liverpool last year, they were joined on stage by Bill Ryder-Jones for a rendition of the track.
Beyond musical influences, Neon Waltz are connected to Liverpool through co-manager Howie Payne – former frontman of The Stands and more recently a songwriter for Ren Harvieu – who initially discovered the band. “He heard some songs on the internet, we put some tunes up and he found them and got in contact with us; it all just happened from there,” Shearer states.
A further connection was made through being praised by the elder brother of Beady Eye’s former lead singer, as the Caithness group now share the same management. “Howie put the idea across that this guy Marcus Russell wants to co-manage us,” Shearer recalls. “I don’t think any of us knew who he was and then he said, ‘He manages Noel Gallagher’, and we said ‘Err, OK!’”
Neon Waltz’s upcoming Liverpool fixture, effectively kicking off this year’s Sound City, takes place amidst some reasonably frantic live activity for the six-piece, as they have a gig in Manchester the same night. Expect crowd numbers to be high for the group’s early-doors appearance, mind, as, going by present form, it’s highly probable that Neon Waltz will be one of the most talked-about new acts at this year’s festival.