Neon Waltz on their debut album Strange Hymns
Finally on the verge of releasing their debut album, The Skinny meets up with Neon Waltz in the Islay Inn to find out what the future holds for the six-piece band from Caithness
A late Saturday morning in a quiet Glasgow pub on the edge of Kelvingrove Park. A group of friends in cord jackets and denims, with sunglasses at the ready, nurse their first pints of the day, looking to shake off hangovers of varying strengths and face the new day with vigour. It's a scene being played out in bars and cafes across the West End of the city after a night spent on the other side of town at the opening day of TRNSMT, the stripped down urban music festival held at Glasgow Green. Neon Waltz have the quiet confidence of artists who nailed their performance. Except they're not due on stage for another seven hours. This is merely the warm-up before the soundcheck before the show.
The group, who all live in or around John O'Groats, some six hours' journey by car to the north, have rented rooms in a nearby student halls as their base for TRNSMT. Judging by the face being pulled by frontman Jordan Shearer, it wasn't the most comfortable of stays. "The rooms were so hot," he groans, placing his head in his hands. "We had beers and tried to keep them cold by putting them in the bath. And they still tasted like they'd been in a kettle."
Such is the glamour of life on the road for touring bands not blessed with the riches of major label support. But Neon Waltz aren't complaining. Far from it. This is a group who happily drive themselves across the UK for shows, believing a tour manager is a luxury they can live without. "They are pretty much taxi drivers who print out setlists," deadpans drummer Darren Coghill. "But we've made a lot of friends doing it our way."
The Skinny first met Neon Waltz back in March 2015 before a show at Nice 'N' Sleazy, a short stroll down the road from where we are now. Despite only forming the year before, and hailing from one of the most remote corners of Europe, they had by then secured a deal with Atlantic Records and were being managed by Ignition – the firm which oversaw the not-too-shabby careers of Noel Gallagher and Johnny Marr. Fast forward two years and the band have cut ties with Atlantic – albeit on good terms – but remain with Ignition. They've played countless shows and released several well-received singles. But now, at last, following recording sessions across Glasgow, London, and Eastbourne, they have an album in the can and ready for release.
Strange Hymns is out on 18 August via Ignition's own label. A stronger debut LP from a Scottish band you are unlikely to hear in 2017. The ten tracks will be largely familiar to anyone who's caught Neon Waltz live at one of the 70 or so shows they play annually, but they still have the power to inspire. Bare Wood Aisles – the song that first got them noticed online – sounds unlike anything else produced in recent times. The organ fills provided by keysman Liam Whittles elevates them above the average guitar band. Then there's recent single Dreamers, a life-affirming anthem which features Shearer imploring 'You should do what you love while you can'. But then you need a positive attitude if you're going to spend half your life driving to and from Caithness on roads far removed from the luxury of motorways.
"Being on the road is second nature to us," Coghill says. "Even before we were in a band. If you live in Caithness and want to see a show, you have to travel down to Inverness or Glasgow. Besides, we're cooking with gas now – we're a better live band than we've ever been – something just feels right. Maybe it's not having the pressure of a big record label behind you. We're having a lot more fun [and] there's something about it now that makes more sense. We have more confidence in what we're doing [and] we're not praying before shows that people like us." Shearer agrees. "It's at a stage now that we can play anywhere and revel in it."
Being a six-piece band, it's little wonder they hope to reach a level where they can routinely perform on larger stages. They got a taste for it supporting Noel Gallagher at the famous Apollo theatre in Manchester in 2015 and are eager to reach that level again. What worried them most ahead of that show wasn't stage fright, but more the worry of being hit with a plastic pint of weak lager... or worse.
The band are launching their album somewhere closer to home, at Wick Assembly Rooms, and will welcome many of their diehard fans. Among those making the journey will be Nanase Iwakawa, a 25-year-old jeweller from Tokyo who has already travelled to Scotland twice to attend gigs by her favourite band. "Has anyone ever made that journey before?" wonders Shearer. "Tokyo to Wick. You fly into John O'Groats International Airport."
Joking aside, their home county remains important to them. Few Scots ever make the journey north of Inverness, let alone Japanese super fans, and Neon Waltz's gradual climb of the music industry ladder is a source of local pride. They still rehearse at a former croft belonging to the family of the band's bassist Calvin Wilson. The weekend before our interview, the band convened at Freswick Castle for an intensive writing session focusing on new material. The former Norse stronghold and local landmark belongs to a friend of the band, which it's safe to say offers more inspiration than the average suburban rehearsal studio.
Meanwhile, the artwork for Strange Hymns was taken on the island of Stroma, two miles off the coast of Caithness in the Pentland Firth. It was inhabited for millenia and as recently as 1901 was home to almost 400 people. But its population – like many island communities across Scotland – went into freefall as the 20th century marched on. Its final residents abandoned the island in 1961, leaving behind numerous houses, a church and a school which are slowly being reclaimed by nature.
"The view from my kitchen window of the Orkney Isles is blocked only by Stroma," Coghill explains. "There’s nothing other than a mile of water between me and the rock. I look at it every day, but the maddest thing is that I’d never been. Finally getting the opportunity to go I didn’t know if it could fulfil what my imagination was suggesting. We took an acoustic guitar and a little Casio battery operated keyboard with us hoping to make some recordings on the island… possibly the first ever recordings. We had no idea that we’d find this organ and that it’d work. Sometimes it just all adds up: the song, the sound, the surroundings, the people and the history. I see the island in a totally different way – there’s something really magical about it for me now.”
Refreshed from these adventures, the band are already planning album number two. "It's important to keep the momentum going," says Shearer. So will album number two be another couple of years away? Coghill issues an emphatic no. "I don't want people to think we're the kind of band that take years to release anything. There are six of us writing songs. There's a whole lot of material piled up."
Strange Hymns is released on 18 Aug via Ignition Records
Neon Waltz play Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, 5 Aug; Wick Assembly Rooms, 19 Aug; Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 6 Sep