Here comes young folk upstarts' crowning glory
Ryan Hooper talks to Cornwall’s hotly tipped musical exports Crowns ahead of their debut album launch next weekend.
Ever wondered how Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friends might have turned out had they been raised on a diet of Frosty Jacks cider and MTV? Me neither, and it's unlikely we'll ever know. But those craving an alternative slice of Westcountry life ought to look no further than a band matching the grand bards of the Cornish chorus for grit and gusto, though several decades their junior and with a shot of pure punk spirit. Step forward Crowns.
It is under moody grey skies and against an ever-creeping-closer backdrop of gyrating Cornish waters that the regal foursome bound on stage, local brew in hand, to cheers from an audience whose ages cover almost every step on the spectrum of life.
The fantastic Looe Music Festival pulled off a significant coup last month in persuading The Levellers to headline the evening's entertainment, though it is Crowns, the energetic proponents of their self-styled "fish punk" sound, who warm the stage, and pull in the greatest crowd of the spectacular as the sun began to fade – and among them, one Mercury Music Prize nominee in the form of Devon songsmith Seth Lakeman. Esteemed company, indeed.
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Swagger and showmanship are dispensed in equal measure as lead singer and guitarist Bill Jefferson spits and snarls his way through a catalogue of material representing the influences – musical, visual and environmental – which have coloured the collective adolescence of a quartet who are now aged 22 and 23. There are original and traditional songs of Boscastle, the black and the gold, the china clay mines, as well as love, lust and pride. All are delivered with some exquisite two-, three- and four-part vocal harmonies and the home-reared sea-salty Celtic passion which courses through their veins.
"The next step is to play in the sea," says bassist and vocalist Jake Butler with a broad smile, though there is a sense he actually means it.
Stitches in the Flag, their debut album, rocks like the bustling village pub on a Friday evening, as the workmen stride to the bar to lavish the first of their hard-earned wages away. The clinking glasses, the swinging arms, the spit and sawdust and bumping in to one another and making acquaintances over a shared anecdote – it is all captured through the words and music of Crowns' maiden full-length offering, recorded at London's legendary RAK Studios.
It is an album – to be showcased at a launch party at Falmouth's Princess Pavilion next Saturday and officially released on Bonfire Night on their own Ship Wreckords label – that is enhanced by some unusual percussion, namely beer bottles and bin lids, designed to capture the rugged, rustic, semi-rural upbringing that has so shaped their lives to date.
"What was it like being a kid in Cornwall? Boring sometimes, but you make your own fun," says drummer Nathan Haynes, who along with Jake and Bill was raised near Launceston in North Cornwall.
"I was grateful that there was a lot of musicianship, everyone wanted to be in a band," he smiles. The four credit Launceston College music teacher Rob Strike – one of the few exponents of the Cornish bagpipes – for encouraging their passion for traditional folk sounds. And, without the luxuries of public transport and sports complexes that grace an urban area, the boys began to make music.
"If you're growing up in London or Manchester, it's not like waking up next to a field and going to the pub," says frontman Bill. "The city is like a clinic. You don't have space to think."
While the lyrics draw heavy influence from traditional Cornish industry, work and play, Crowns are conscious that not everybody might "get" the meaning. Not that it would be a problem.
"We don't get the reference to some American songs – Sweet Home Alabama, for example," says Bill. "We have some hardcore fans from Scotland, a guy from Birmingham, they love Cornwall, yet they might not know the references. They like the imagery, the sound."
The sound itself has been likened to the previously mentioned Levellers, to American pop-punksters Blink 182 and to London Irish folk pioneers The Pogues – all three of whom Crowns have played support to at major venues like the Eden Project and London's Brixton Academy.
Yet there is a perhaps obvious question; for a band so heavily dependent on capturing the Cornish sound, is there a worry that they will be defined by it? Other bands, notably 90s hopefuls Rootjoose, came and went without causing much of a ripple in the mainstream pond. And now the county is just as famous for being the holiday destination of A-list musicians, rather than being their starting point. All the while, across the water, Devon is triumphantly toasting yet further success to its homegrown talent in chart-topping rockers Muse and Coldplay.
"Can you name three successful Cornish bands? No, and that is another reason to strengthen our cause, not just carrying on the Cornish message but defy that message that Cornwall is just a holiday resort," says Bill again, on a non-stop explosion of passion for his county, which goes off on tangents to namedrop his Shakespeare and Keates – Jack Clemo and Robert Hawker – as well as the songs dear to his heart – Lamorna and Camborne Hill.
"We have got a positive message, and that happens to be a Cornish message because that's where we're from," he adds.
It would be easy to draw on the plentiful perceived beauty of the Duchy for inspiration, but, for those who have lived among the economic hardship of a Cornwall away from the second homes, the real beauty is in the authentic way of life.
"I don't like the 'lifestyle Cornwall' of Caroline Quentin," says Jake, referring to the recent picture postcard-like TV series. "For our album cover we chose a picture of somewhere rubbish, a shot of some place in Bodmin near the gaol."
Not that their swashbuckling sound and singalong-style live shows aren't polished – an ethic drummed into them by their mandolin player, Jack Speckleton, who was raised on Jersey but adopted Cornwall as his home county in more recent years.
"I used to work in a bank. They call me practical Jack," he smiles. "I keep the band ship-shape, we wouldn't be here if I wasn't so organised."
Backed by a fervent militia of fans – those that mouth every word of their songs – and trumpeted by rural royalty in emerging Cornish comedian Kernow King, Crowns are heading in the right direction for chart show coronation.
"There is a stereotype surrounding Celtic music, beards and banjos, and we are trying to make that music more relevant to a younger audience," says Jake.
The record – available for sale at the launch show – proudly bears a St Piran's black and white flag.
"If everyone in Cornwall bought a copy...," Jack pauses, "we'd have a Cornish number one in the album charts."
Bill adds: "Even if people don't like the music, to have an album with the St Piran's flag on it, just buy a copy. It will make a great coaster."
Judging by their swift ascent over recent months, playing 19 summer festivals across Britain from the Reading and Leeds rock festivals to last weekend's Lowender Peran Celtic Festival at Perranporth – greater recognition surely beckons.