The disappointment of a four album deal being quietly torn up and the grind of relentless touring through some of the UK’s less appealing towns would have been enough for most young bands to call it a day. Having been given an astronomical budget to make an album that was produced by Ian Broudie in one of London’s finest studios, they had also sung karaoke with The Hives in Tokyo, talked guitar pedals in London with Muse and shared the stage with a who’s who of modern rock bands – Oasis, Muse, AC/DC and REM to name but a few. As their own rock’n’roll dreams faded to a grim and soul-destroying reality The Checks would have been forgiven for drifting apart, seeking new projects, slinking quietly home to Devonport and finding a new quieter life. But, to their enormous credit, the five high school pals have stayed together. Spend time with them and you are struck by how little they brood on the past, how strongly they give off the feeling that their best is very much yet to come. Ben Martin caught up with Ed Knowles, Sven Pettersen and Jake Moore in their Auckland HQ to talk about their new album ‘Deadly Summer Sway’.
There is real anticipation lingering in the air of the second floor empty office space that has been The Checks’ base since work began on their third album, ‘Deadly Summer Sway’. It’s the day before they start their Antipodean tour; promotional posters are piled on the floor, ready to be plastered on hoardings across the country. The van parked outside is soon to be loaded with equipment and driven to Wellington for the album’s first show. Sitting around on an assortment of beaten up furniture, presumably donated by the previous occupants, the boys seem as excited as if the tour was their first. This is by no means a band looking backwards.
Early conversation turns to some of the feedback on the new album. It doesn’t officially come out until the next day, but there have already been web-land mutterings about the evident diversion from the band’s trademark, anarchic-rock sound.
“Not as guitar-heavy,” says lead guitarist Sven Pettersen when I ask them to compare the new album with their first two records, ‘Hunting Whales’ and ‘Alice by The Moon’.
“Less heavy generally,” adds drummer Jake Moore.
“More songy,” says lead singer Ed Knowles, prompting laughter from his bandmates – but that’s probably a fair description of the balance The Checks have managed to strike between structured, melodic arrangements and the unrestrained energy that they have been known for.
“It’s a more listenable record – the dynamic’s not so in your face all the time like ‘Alice by The Moon’ was,” Jake continues. “I mean, we can still play the songs at any dynamic we might feel appropriate. There’s no doubt that people will come to our gigs and want to be rocked out and that’ll still happen, but it’s just going to be a bit more interesting.”
This album was recorded at Auckland’s Roundhead Studios, where the boys were joined by US producer Bob Brockman, who must be one of the few people they have met in music, locally, that can drop more names than them – Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Christina Aguilera all appear on his Grammy award-laden CV. With children living here, ‘Bassy’ Bob Brockman has become a regular visitor to NZ, teaching audio engineering at SIT in Invercargill and growing a local industry profile that will be considerably enhanced by the results of his first major Kiwi recording project.
“Bob was amazing,” Jake says. “Just an ultimate enthusiasm for music. He wasn’t afraid to tell us when things weren’t working, but he was the first to jump out of his seat and be screaming, ‘Fuck yeah!’ when it really was.”
Released (as was ‘Alice By The Moon’) on their own Pie Club Records label, half the funding for this album came from revenue remaining from the band’s last tour, the other half put up by NZ On Air. After time and space to reflect and, as Jake says “… figure out what we do outside of the band” in-between this album and the last, the sound they have come back with is more varied, measured and more experimental than ever before. Early Checks fans will not be disappointed as that raw, anarchic R&B feel is still present, but complimented by a more mature feel for composition. The album is balanced by some slower, beautifully tuneful tracks such as Perfect Lover and Winter Sun. Candyman Shimmer, which is also the first video release of the album, explores a new direction again with a more bass-focused groove.
The slight mellowing in tone and the willingness to experiment with a more expansive variety of styles are perhaps the natural result of age, but influences from the time of writing plays a part as well. While the first album was an explosion of teenage confidence and the self-produced (Jol Mulholland-engineered) second an understandably angry reaction to hard slog on the UK’s motorways, ‘Deadly Summer Sway’ Sven explains “… comes from all over the shop. There’s elements of touring, but more touring NZ and Australia in the summertime – it hasn’t got that ‘van through Sheffield’ feel. [The process] was more relaxed… just jamming with each other for fun without very much forward intention.”
“The time between the last record and this was more similar to the time before our first record,” Jake adds. “More time spent in Auckland, less time on the high-rise, hyped-up sort of buzz, and more time to think about writing music.”
“There was nothing to prove,” agrees Ed. “We just made songs and they turned out to be the best we’d written. Possibly that’s because there was no external pressure.”
The external pressure he refers to is of course the world of A&R guys, multiple-zero deals, image consultants and fabricated music videos into which they were thrust over half a decade ago.
“It was amazing but it does feel like another lifetime,” Sven admits. “Like a different world. But you just do what’s in front of you.”
There is something very Zen about their attitude to all that has happened and I get the feeling it is not simply a coping method for their individual disappointments. Watch early interviews from the time the hype was at its zenith and you notice the same level-headed, live-for-the-moment approach. And while they will quite readily tangent into stories about nights out with The Hives, or encounters with the many eccentric characters of the world to which they fleetingly belonged, there is no hint of regret or bitterness towards industry figures for the way their story panned out.
“It’s a fickle thing and you can’t invest too much emotion into it,” says Sven. “You have to bear in mind it’s an industry. Music and money don’t mix very nicely in my opinion – it’s a necessary evil but it’s a terrible distraction.”
“When they get bands like us I think they try a bit too hard to amplify what the band is,” Jake opines when asked if they think big labels could handle young talent better. “We were a lot cooler before they got the stylists involved. When we were just five kids playing music it was a lot more real. But there’s no hard feelings.”
The sentiment is shared by the whole band, and seems less a desire not to bite the hand that could yet again feed them, more an illustration of the sort of attitude that has kept them together, and sane, throughout their whirlwind nine year history. They are first to admit that their path has been a reverse of the way things usually work, but when you look at the facts it seems obvious that The Checks now find themselves in an incredibly strong position. They have almost a decade of experience playing together live, including a year in which they averaged nearly one gig every third day. They are industry savvy, and armed with the knowledge that they can make it work by going it alone. They are unrestrained by the shackles of what fickle industry figures may consider current – and undeniably, they are freakishly talented.
“The feeling we got from having written and recorded and toured that last album was that our best record was still in front of us,” says Sven. “Everyone had the same feeling, and we knew what to do this time.”
While this album is certainly the pinnacle of their musical achievements thus far, there seems every likelihood that they can go on to even better things. Characteristically, they are understated about future prospects, but in the unique position they now occupy, with the space to develop and the experience they have behind them, history may yet repeat itself for The Checks. Next time though, it will certainly be on their terms.