Almost Gold: Introducing The Lapelles

The Lapelles are five hard-working youngsters from East Kilbride who are already commanding the attention of London's music industry. We retrace their appeal to a certain new town mentality

Feature by Chris McCall | 01 Jul 2016

It's a feel good story that even Bill Forsyth would be proud of. Four years ago, Gary Watson was a 16-year-old busker playing acoustic covers in a retail centre close to his family home in East Kilbride – his only audience being shoppers that briefly set down their carrier bags. But last month, Watson and his band, The Lapelles, were paid to support the very bands he once covered as a starry-eyed teenager.

You can imagine such a tale delighting Forsyth. The director of Gregory's Girl, the 1981 coming-of-age-classic set in Cumbernauld, did much to mythologise Scotland's new towns as places of boundless potential. They were communities where young families could escape the post-industrial blight of cities like Glasgow and settle down to raise a family in solid, semi-detached homes with parks and schools a short walk away. It seems fitting that a young five-piece indie pop band on the verge of success – four of them are still in their teens – would hail from a new town like East Kilbride.

When The Skinny meets two of them for a Tuesday afternoon pint, they exude all the excitement you would expect of a group who were little known outside of their home town just six months ago. We're here to talk about their much-anticipated gigs at T in the Park and King Tut's Summer Nights, and all things EK. Looking remarkably fresh-faced after a month of near-constant touring are Watson, lead vocalist and one of two guitarists in the band, and Chris Ballantyne, keyboard player and the most recent recruit to the cause. The missing trio – Leon Green, Jack Anderson and Jamie Holmes – are otherwise engaged with the kind of tasks you have to put on hold when travelling the UK in a van with only a few amps for company.

The Lapelles, photo: Kate Johnston

So lads, how does it feel to be touring with the likes of Alex Turner? "It was a weird experience to suddenly be playing shows of that scale," says Ballantyne of their recent Last Shadow Puppets support slots, with admirable understatement. "I think as a band we were surprised at how well we've handled it." Watson grins. "We're more used to playing venues the size of Stereo or Broadcast. Going from that to playing a 2000-capacity theatre was a bit daunting at first. But as you go through it, you get the hang of it. It's more space on stage than we're used to, especially as a five-piece."

The Lapelles were formed at the tail-end of 2012 when Watson, who had been writing songs since his mid-teens, decided he wanted to flesh out his musical ideas with others. "I used to go busking at East Kilbride Shopping Centre when I was about 16 and played songs by the likes of The View and Last Shadow Puppets. It would have been unbelievable then to think in four years' time I would be playing shows with them. At the time, I was writing a lot of my own songs, but by the time I was 18 I decided I wanted to start a band. I met Leon at a party, and we got Jack and Jamie in shortly after that. We were a four-piece for about a year before Chris joined. When he came on board, it gave us a much better idea of how we wanted to sound."

The group have since secured a heavyweight management deal with the same London agency that looks after the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, and record labels are reportedly dispatching A&R reps to predict just how massive this band have the potential to be. So why all the hype? That can be partly answered by The Lapelles' new single, Grab Life By, which has all the youthful exuberance you could want from a break-out track. "You've lost that magic feeling," croons Watson, sounding a lot like a young Roddy Frame, a fellow East Kilbride export. "Oh girl, you've lost your way."

East Kilbride: The influence of The Jesus and Mary Chain

It's the kind of song teenagers will fall in love to, a track to melt the cynicism of any jaded music fan who thought they'd heard it all. When listening to The Lapelles, it's hard to imagine one of the most toxic political campaigns in modern UK history is taking place outside. The single is a timely reminder that pop music can transport us to a more positive place, one far removed from the bitter sloganeering of Farage or Gove.

But that's not to say that the Lapelles' world is all sweetness and light. While Bill Forsyth helped create the positive impression of Scottish new towns in the 1980s, it was another East Kilbride band who offered up the flip side; boredom, alienation and general youthful frustration at being stuck miles from the city. The story of how the Reid brothers formed The Jesus and Mary Chain in their shared bedroom and changed the history of alt-rock seemingly by accident is well-known. When Jim and William can bear to be in each other's company for a few hours, the JAMC still play shows which are rapturously received around the world. Unsurprisingly, their legacy hangs heavy over the East Kilbride music scene to this day.

The Lapelles share the Reids' love of perfect three-chord melodies, if not the screaming feedback of their debut. "The original drummer from the Mary Chain works in a hairdressers across the road from my work," Watson explains with the relish of a die-hard fan. "He's in another band now – they're meant to be pretty good. Even when you see old photoshoots they did around town, it can inspire you. The album cover from Darklands is actually one of the old factories in East Kilbride."

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Another, more sinister, link with the town's past also inspired The Lapelles' debut single, Seventeen. Its title is a reference to the age of Anne Kneilands when she was found bludgeoned to death on an East Kilbride golf course in 1956. Two years later, the infamous serial killer Peter Manuel finally admitted he was responsible. Manuel killed at least eight people in a reign of terror across the west of Scotland in the late 1950s. He became the second-last man to be hanged in Glasgow following his conviction in 1958.

"With East Kilbride, from an outsiders' perspective, it's a nice, friendly town," Watson says. "But when you dig deeper there's a lot of doors left unopened. Not a lot of people in the town are aware Manuel's first murder took place there." Ballantyne agrees. "It's such a wrapped-in-cotton-wool place you don't think that kind of thing could ever happen there. Everything about the town is so recent – that's what can be scary about it."

It is only now, almost 60 years later, that Manuel's crimes are being discussed outside of cheap true-crime paperbacks. In the same week The Skinny meets the band, the Scottish Government announced it would help bankroll a new ITV drama inspired by the murderer, with filming due to get underway this summer. The Lapelles' interest in Manuel is not morbid, but rather stems from an understandable desire to place their modern home town in a wider historical context.

"We've never imagined doing anything else"

The group clearly hold East Kilbride in a lot of affection. Each of the quintet still lives there, and view it as a handy base for gigs in Glasgow and further afield. "The music scene is great here," Watson insists. "There are loads of really good bands – like Between Mockingbirds – but then it's such a small community, and you're only half an hour from Glasgow on the train, so you pretty much end up basing yourself in Glasgow. The first place we played was The Arts Centre in town, and we've had a great support network from day one. A lot of our friends turned out for our first show and it's grown from there. They didn't know any of our stuff but they still wanted to support us."

"We've never imagined doing anything else other than making music," Watson continues. "We have that shared mindset, all working together.  All we've done for the past month is play gigs. It's been great to step out of our comfort zone. It's weird to come off tour and sit in the house for three days."

Next up for The Lapelles is an appearance at T in the Park on Sunday, 10 July at the festival's celebrated T Break stage. While it's their first venture to T as a band, they are by no means strangers to the event. Ballantyne had such a good time at last year's festival he ended up falling and breaking his arm. The very recollection of this event sends Watson into howls of laughter, but his bandmate opts not to elaborate further. "This will be our first proper festival in Scotland," he says, tactfully changing the subject. "We've done a few multi-venue festivals, but this will be our first in a tent in a field. A lot of bands we like, such as The Van Ts and Sweaty Palms, are already on the bill. It should be a lot of fun."

The following Saturday, the five-piece will be back at King Tut's for the venue's Summer Season. It will be their first show in the city since May and one they are treating as a homecoming after a hectic month of gigging across the UK. "This is our first time headlining Tut's," grins Watson. "I think it will be like a homecoming show, it's the one we want everyone to be at. It's the weekend after T so we're sure there will still be a party atmosphere." It would mark a fitting final scene for a coming-of-age film about the remarkable rise of a Scottish indie pop band from a new town.

The Lapelles play T in the Park on 10 Jul, King Tut's, Glasgow on 16 Jul and Electric Fields, Drumlanrig Castle, 26-27 Aug