Back in 2009, Tom Watson and Kev Kharas became the occupants of a five-bedroom detached house in North London that backed onto a reservoir. The rent was cheap, the house was isolated, and the living room was big enough to have decks and speakers set up on a semi-permanent basis and still leave space for people to dance. They'd invite their friend Pat King round to DJ at their house parties, which would start on a Thursday and end on a Sunday. The lake house, to them, was the best nightclub in North London. It was also the perfect place to form a band.
As Real Lies, Tom, Pat, and Kev write hook-filled, anthemic pop songs about their lives and experiences in North London. Though they're a 'guitar band', Real Lies take more inspiration from club music and club culture than any rock group, recalling an era where indie music wasn't afraid of embracing the same ideas and ideals as acid house. Their debut album 'Real Life' is filled with memories of ring roads, hedonistic nights, summer romances, and melancholic winters. It's a celebration of the friendships formed in the city, but there's sadness in it too, anxiety about growing up, moving on, and letting go. At the same time, it isn't exactly a London album: if anything, 'Real Life' speaks more to the alienated youth of Britain's small towns, those who yearn to break free from their dreary surroundings and make a new life for themselves in a new city. Real Lies – like Jarvis Cocker, Neil Tennant, or Jason Williamson – understand that the specificity of their lyrics can take on a universal meaning.
Real Lies no longer live in the lake house. The city has changed a lot since then, with rents rising to parodic levels and countless new luxury flat developments demolishing a community's history and cultural identity. Meanwhile, homogenised lineups, expensive tickets, and corporate sponsorship are sapping the joy out of nightclubs, while the few alternative clubbing spaces left in the city are getting shut down. One of those venues was People's Club, an inconspicuous North London venue that served the area's Afro-Caribbean community for 30 years. People's had also become home to Eternal; a monthly club night started by Real Lies and their friends that hosted secret DJ sets from Evian Christ, Jacques Greene, Jamie xx, Terry Farley and many others, but the venue was closed after a protracted battle with Islington Council over noise complaints. It's against the setting of a changing city that 'Real Life' takes on a greater meaning.
Over an hour-long conversation in an Islington pub after work, the band discussed the genesis of 'Real Life'. Speaking to the band's members is like talking to an opinionated friend, but if they're quick to criticise the current musical and cultural landscape, they're quicker to celebrate what they love.
The last time I spoke to you was roughly two years ago. How do you feel your outlook has changed since then?
Kev Kharas: "We're quite steadfast in the way we look at the world. I think maybe our feelings have intensified [since then]. Back in 2013, we were playing around, getting to grips with what we were doing. Now, with all the clubs closing and with the completely barren cultural wasteland that is this city at the moment, it feels like we're in a proper war, and we can't play around anymore."
Tom Watson: "And against that backdrop, the thing that we've spent the most time on has been writing and recording our album – which took a long time. It took longer than we thought it would. We spent a long time thinking about how we'd align these tunes [in terms of genre], but very quickly we realised that if the songs didn't match up, it says more about other bands around at the moment than us. There's a real lack of imagination, especially amongst bands."
At a time when the tools to make music and the variety of influences are so easily accessible, it's strange that so many bands retreat into genre formality – 'Oh, we'll be a garage rock band', or whatever.
Tom Watson: "It's very boring. I could never do that."
Kev Kharas: "It's not authentic either. For better or worse, the way that pop culture functions these days is that you're exposed to so many different things that you can't not be influenced by. The stuff that always gets chucked at us is [comparisons to] New Order, the Pet Shop Boys, The Streets – every single fucking time – but in Dab Housing we've got snares from industrial music, a baggy beat, some dub…"
Tom Watson: "It's so easy to make music now. It's so easy to record music now. The idea of making the same tune 15 times, in 2015, it seems. As Kev said, it doesn't seem authentic."
Kev Kharas: "It's boring. It's futile. What's the fucking point? With the way we operate, we naturally resonate with music that comes out of ideas and culture. If the music isn't a product of that, if it's not born from some way of life or lifestyle, I don't see what the point of it is."
Tom Watson: "For some people, it's still a novel idea for a band to write songs not holding a guitar, but with samplers and drum machines."
Let's go back to what Kev said about being at "war". Do you feel the songs on 'Real Life' make more sense today than they did when you wrote them two years ago?
Kev Kharas: "I think so. The one thing that really struck me over that period is how dominant U.S. culture has become in our lives. I can't go 10 minutes without being reminded of this pool of, what, maybe ten massive U.S. pop stars? Taylor Swift, Jay Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé… It's all you get, all day, this fucking blare of these people. It doesn't say anything to me about my life. The most defining image from that culture is two millionaires having an argument in silence in a lift in this five-star Manhattan hotel. What does that tell you? How insulated is that? How unreal is that? When I talk about that, I start to feel like maybe we are in a kind of cultural war. To me, American pop culture is the same as an imposing luxury development of flats that's 15 storeys high that is completely impenetrable and that I'll never be able to afford."
Tom Watson: "It's all about finding new angles and new ways of doing things. The alternative is that we all leave London, but that's bullshit as well. You can't get forced out of your own home."
Kev Kharas: "Unless we take all of our friends and go and colonise some small village somewhere, set up some piss taker's paradise. It's very easy for us to have still a good time, though – we sit here saying this now, every single weekend, I have a great time."
"To me, American pop culture is the same as an imposing luxury development of flats that's 15 storeys high that is completely impenetrable and that I'll never be able to afford." – Kev Kharas, Real Lies
A lot of writers seem to reduce your music to these clichés – 'lager cans', 'fag ash', 'footie', 'nights out' and things. Is there stuff on the album that goes against all that?
Tom Watson: "The first track on the album is about moving to a new city, and the last track on the album is about leaving where you've come from."
Kev Kharas: "While going out with your mates and being hungover is part of it, it's something bigger than that. It's moving to a city with an imaginary idea of what it might be – whether you get that idea from London Tonight or from pirate radio that you pick up with some tinfoil around your aerial – and then turning up and realising that it's not like that at all, that there are basically eight million people all vying to make the city their own."
Cities have always had that pull, haven't they? I can imagine hearing Soft Cell in the '80s for the first time, and the way they talk about Soho – if you were living in a fairly conservative town and didn't fit in, you'd want nothing more to be in that world. Which is why I feel that dismissing your music as 'London-centric' does it a bit of a disservice, because you can talk about London and still have it resonate with people elsewhere.
Tom Watson: "Absolutely. Our record is not a London record. It's the gravitational pull of 'the big city', and that goes beyond where you're from. I remember growing up when you got bored of going to the shit club near the train station in the centre of town, you'd go on the internet, and you'd be reading about [clubs in cities]. For me, it was shit drum'n'bass nights and dubstep nights, and the city was London. The pull of the nearest city is a universal thing."
Kev Kharas: "That's what One Club Town is about – being from that town, where the club always had a name like Utopia or Fantasia, going there every Friday and seeing the same faces, getting into the same fights with the same people, holding the same grudges, getting off with the same girls."
Tom Watson: "And a lot of what that song is about isn't the nights out, but the guilt of leaving your mates at home."
Kev Kharas: "It's about moving from a cul-de-sac to a place of infinite opportunity. From the place where there was that one club to a place where you walk down the street, and there're more clubs in two minutes. There's that kind of longing, too – you always wonder what would have happened if you'd stayed in that town. You imagine this parallel existence, looking at your mates with their wives sharing their ugly children on Facebook, drinking in the same pub."
There's a moment in Naked Ambition that I really like, where Kev clears his throat before singing. Why'd you leave that in?
Tom Watson: "We never had a chat about it. It's part of the song. It's part of what Kev as a vocalist is. It's very natural. Usually, you'd say 'Chop the front and the back off this', but the first time I heard it, it sounded natural."
Kev Kharas: "Dab Housing was recorded while there was a party going on. You can hear that it was recorded in Tom's bedroom. There were 20 people in his bed – you can hear someone go 'What's this tune called?' if you turn it up."
Tom Watson: "The record itself sounds like it was recorded in the middle of a house party, which it was."
"The record sounds like it was recorded in the middle of a house party, which it kind of was." – Tom Watson
Do you feel that cities have a certain sound that people tap into? Not a literal sound, but more of a feeling – the same feeling that Burial, garage, and jungle all tapped into. You guys don't stylistically reference this stuff – it's not like you're writing a pop-garage song – and yet when I listen to Naked Ambition or Black Market Blues, I just hear the sound of a city.
Kev Kharas: "That's the aim right, to create that atmosphere? That's what you get more than anything else. While there're parallels to garage or jungle [in our music], there's not an explicit 2-step beat, no amen breaks. But it comes through. It's just there. You just know it."
Tom Watson: "I think if you wanted to know the antithesis of what a London sound is, go to a Dalston rooftop party on a Wednesday night with a load of graphic designers eating burritos, listening to The O'Jays. That's not London."
There's a lyric in Lover's Lane that goes, Utopia, in a summer breeze. That feels like the thing you're always chasing in your music – utopia, this idea of something bigger, something else, something beyond.
Kev Kharas: "In the last interview we did, they used that word 'utopia'. I went off on a rant about how the living room in the lake house was the best nightclub in London, and however since then we've been trying to prolong that. Eternal and [our new clubnight] Luxury are attempts to prolong that. Every song that we write is an attempt to prolong that. It's really what our music is about. It's about excitement; it's about being with your friends. It's about trying to find pockets of utopia in London."
Marathon Artists release 'Real Life' on October 16th (buy).