Northern Uproar: Neon Waltz interviewed

They hail from one of the remotest parts of Europe and only got together last year, but Neon Waltz have already secured a major record deal and are working with the man that made Oasis famous. How did they do it?

Feature by Chris McCall | 06 Apr 2015

It is early evening in the basement venue of Glasgow bar Nice N Sleazy and Howie Payne is excitedly talking up the new group he is co-managing. The genial Liverpudlian, former leader of underrated alt-rockers The Stands, grins widely as he explains his enthusiasm for his latest charges. “It’s been ages since we’ve had a proper band we can get excited about, you know?”

The band in question have just finished a soundcheck ahead of their headline show later that night. A six-piece, including two guitarists and a keyboardist, the small stage struggles to accommodate both them and their equipment. Despite having released only one limited edition vinyl single since their first gig a little over a year ago, they exude the quiet confidence of a group that has come a long way in a short space of time – and Neon Waltz have travelled further than most. Each member hails from in or around John o’ Groats, the second most northerly settlement on mainland Britain. Each time they begin a run of shows, it takes a minimum of six hours just to reach Glasgow and meet up with their tour manager. The night before Sleazy's they played Sheffield, a short dash up the motorway in comparison.

This is the story of how a group from one of the most remote corners of Europe came to be signed by Atlantic Records – and win a management deal with the man who made Oasis the biggest band in the world. It’s a tale that involves parties in ancient castles, jamming sessions in Highland crofts and proves the power of the internet to connect people from disparate backgrounds.

"Where we're from, no one that starts a band really thinks they're going to become massive" – Jordan Shearer

With the soundcheck now complete, Neon Waltz front man Jordan Shearer, his fringe partly masking his eyes, steps off stage and introduces himself. Moments later he’s sitting next to drummer Darren Coghill in a neighbouring bar to talk about why 2015 is shaping up to be a very exciting year for this group of pals from Caithness. All still in their early 20s, they have been friends since attending Wick High, one of only two senior schools in the region. “We all went away to university and then found ourselves back home about two years ago,” explains Coghill. “That’s when we started to take it seriously. We used to play different covers gigs when we were on holiday from uni – it was inevitable we would end up in the same band at some point. We all love the same music.”

Like many teenagers growing up in the early 2000s, it was the likes of The Coral and The Libertines that first caught their attention; bands defined by tight bonds and novel use of online promotion in the days before social media. Record shops have never been prevalent in rural Scotland but in an age of digital downloads that no longer mattered – kids in north Caithness could enjoy the same music as those in north London.

It was through the internet that co-manager Payne first heard a demo version of Sombre Fayre, which is fast becoming Neon Waltz’s signature tune. He travelled north to meet the band after first emailing to rave how about how good he thought they were. “It was kind of a weird meeting,” recalls Shearer. “He came up and basically told us we were doing something that no one else was. I don’t think it was really set in stone that he was going to manage us at that point.”

“I don’t think that was his intention, he just wanted to help as a music fan – then I think he realised he could help us a lot more, you know?” adds Coghill. Shearer nods. “I think he saw there was a really good band from the middle of nowhere, and without a little bit of help other people might never hear us.”

Through Payne came the involvement of Marcus Russell, owner of Ignition Management. Well-known in the industry for looking after the likes of Johnny Marr and Matt Johnson of The The, it would be the spectacular success of the Gallagher brothers that would define his career. If Neon Waltz are daunted by working with such a figure they’re certainly doing a fine job of hiding it. “I find it so hard to connect him and Oasis, because he is the most down to earth person you could hope to meet,” laughs Coghill. “What he’s achieved in his career is insane – really insane – and now he’s managing us!”

Shearer insists it’s a practical arrangement and one that’s already paid dividends for the band. “I think we needed someone to give us a bit of encouragement and let us know what we could do,” he says. “I don’t think we should feel daunted by someone that’s done a lot of stuff in the past who is now helping us. We have a lot of confidence in our songs and we don’t feel like we should be below anyone else. Where we’re from, no one that starts a band really thinks they’re going to become massive. We all hugely believe in how good we are, but it’s hard to picture to ourselves as a huge success. Howie came in and said: ‘You realise you could be massive, you have brilliant songs,’ and I think that just gave us more of an urge – a bit of kick – to be more prolific and we’ve just been writing since then.”

The pair explain the band works as a democracy and everyone is expected to contribute to songwriting. Whether it’s a set of lyrics or a middle right, each member will present something when they arrive at the Neon Waltz HQ – a formerly abandoned croft belonging to the parents of bass player Calvin Wilson. It’s here they spend hours perfecting every small detail of their songs, with everything taped so it can be played back and studied for potential improvements. “No one will ever hear them, but those tapes are vital to how we work,” nods Coghill.

First Light, an EP of demos and live recordings, and their first release on Atlantic, will be released this month. It will include a version of Bare Wood Aisles which has already achieved more than 23,000 views on YouTube. What starts as a simple chord progression suddenly explodes into Technicolour when Liam Whittles plays an organ fill that will haunt you for days. While it’s tempting to think of other great bands driven by distinctive keys men, such as the late Ian McLagan of the Small Faces or The Charlatans’ Rob Collins, it would do an injustice to Neon Waltz – this is a band who are very much a sum of their parts.

Also on the EP is a live version of Sundial, recorded at former Norse stronghold Freswick Castle in Caithness. “Our association with it goes back a long way, to when were young teenagers – we’re all good mates with the guy whose dad owns it. We just use it to party and stuff, as well as occasional band practises and gigs,” Coghill says. “The croft is our base, the castle is for special occasions,” Shearer confirms.

While a debut album may be some time away, Neon Waltz are already on the bill at a variety of festivals and will embark on their second headlining tour of the year this month. They’re about to become a difficult band to miss. Proudly draped in front of Whittles’ keyboard at every show is the banner of the XV Brigada Internacional – one of the battalions of volunteers who travelled to fight fascism and support the democratically-elected socialist government in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. “It’s a fine flag to fly,” says Coghill. “Liam found out his grandfather was in one of the Scottish units that travelled to Spain.”

On a lighter note, the distinctive hair style of Whittles is proving to be another Neon Waltz beacon, having already drawn comment from the sharpest tongue in music, one Noel Gallagher. “We were all introduced to him individually,” Shearer grins. “I wondered if he would give us cheek, because he’s so quick-witted, but he was so nice to everyone. Then Liam came up and Noel says ‘Fookin’ ell – is that your real hair?’ ‘You look like a Liverpool player from 1982.’” Friendly piss-taking from stars is part of the fun of being in a rising band. But Neon Waltz already look the part of serious contenders – a group from the top of the country are already scaling the music industry.

First Light is out on 13 April via Atlantic. Playing Electric Circus, Edinburgh, on 9 April and Dot to Dot festival, Manchester, on 22 May.