Wonderland chats literature, androgyny and parsnips with the trio on the rise, Blaenavon.
This up-and-coming trio of stylish, shaggy haired twenty year olds from Hampshire boasts a lead singer who’s modelled for Burberry’s SS16 campaign and a refreshing take on indie rock. Plus (most of the time) they’re pretty funny fellas.
Their sound is mostly mellow, punctuated by smatterings of Frank Wright’s energetic, broody riffs and Harris McMillian’s heavy drumming. Ben Gregory’s haunting, sultry vocals coupled with his sharp, well crafted lyrics (he’s got a nice flair for the Gothic) really bring the sound all together and leaves an undeniably beautiful, if melancholy, taste on the tongue – kinda like if Jonathan Higgs and Thom Yorke’s voices had a sweet love child. Blaenavon can give off some seriously spooky vibes when they want to. There’s a certain veiled, enigmatic quality to their songs that might hint at something a little twisted. The boys have been killing their performances, they’ve mastered the crowd surf and the hair flips and if their recent gig at London’s Scala is anything to go by, this offbeat crew is headed for big things.
How do you feel about being called an indie group? How would you define your style?
‘Indie’ is a difficult word because nowadays it actually doesn’t mean anything whatsoever. We’re on an independent label in Europe and that is fantastic but the music we make doesn’t overly reflect any kind of indie sensibility.. We like to describe ourselves as a progressive alternative rock band, but obviously that’s incredibly pompous. Call us whatever you like, as long as you’re listening to our music and spending vast sums of money on merchandise.
You guys have grown up playing together. How has both your approach to your music and your sound changed as you’ve gotten older?
Over the years we’ve become incredibly well-versed at making music together. We adapt to eachother’s needs and insecurities and know how to get the best from each of our tiny little brains. We started as kids messing around making simple rock music, but whilst the writing process has become more nuanced, we’ve adjusted to make more complicated and emotive songs. I write a lot of folk-style songs at home on my acoustic guitar (lovely lil old spanish nylon-string that used to be my uncle’s) and then we turn them into the alternative progressive alternative rock behemoths you know and love.
From the perspective of an up and coming band, how has social media and the ability to live stream affected your growth?
Social media is a tricky one. Making music nowadays is so much easier and more affordable that far more people can do it without any label or management support. The growth of social media now means it’s incredibly simple for anyone to spread their music or art around singlehandedly. This is amazing because it enables so many people to share what they’re doing – however it also makes it very difficult for you to stand out as an individual or as a band. I think we’re very lucky to live in an age where everyone can keep up to date with us as musicians and as people: social media is the key to that. It’s a massive web in which growth can be very dramatic if you’re doing things right. However, our live streams are total bullshit.
I’m really into your album artwork and videos, particularly “I Will Be the World”. The autumnal, woodland imagery works so well with the music and Harris’s baptism is just great. How did you settle on the naturalist aesthetic? How do you know it would reflect your sound?
I’m afraid I can’t take credit for this so much. It was the brainchild of the beautiful director Claes Nordwall, who made that video as well as “Let’s Pray” – the motion picture. However, the song “I Will Be The World” is very, very important to us and we were so happy that someone could interpret what we were doing in such an artful and inspiring way. When a song is about ambition, it fits for the imagery to be so bold, grandiose.
What kind of energy do you think you each bring to the group? How do you keep things dynamic when you’re touring a lot?
I bring impatience alongside occasional splurges of irritation. Fortunately Harris and Frank are probably the two kindest men I’ve ever met so they deal with my relentless bullshit. More specifically, Frank brings a sharp wit, a benevolent nature, fart jokes and photoshop, whilst Harris excels in dry banter, facial hair, pelagic fiction and contortion.
Of all your recent live shows, is there any one moment that stands out as a highlight for you?
We just headlined Scala. It was packed. It was insane. We felt like rock gods. Thank you to everyone that made that amazing day happen.
“I think we’re very lucky to live in an age where everyone can keep up to date with us as musicians and as people: social media is the key to that. It’s a massive web in which growth can be very dramatic if you’re doing things right. However, our live streams are total bullshit.”
Your song “Something Boring” from “Let’s Pray” has such a nice kinda early Radiohead feel to it. Can you talk about some of your favourite artists?
I’m very pleased you think so. We are big fans of Radiohead, but that song was also inspired by Elliott Smith, who is my favourite artist ever. I was introduced to him 4 or 5 years ago by a dear friend of mine and his music has had a remarkable impact on my life. I think 4 of his records sit comfortably in my top 10 and whenever I sit down to write music I find myself striving to be like him and then feeling incredibly guilty for ripping him off. The man was an utter genius, remarkable songwriter, beautiful human and a sweetheart. I think back to his lyrics or quotations often when I’m struggling with a big decision: “playing things too safe is the most popular way to fail / dying is another way.”
What current projects do you guys have going on right now? What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
This weekend we’re heading to the big apple. I finally feel like this career in show-business has some justification. One show in Brooklyn at ‘Baby’s All Right’ and one in Manhattan at ‘Berlin’ – with amazing support from Hazel English and Pretty Sick. It’s a pretty amazing feeling for us, especially considering we started the whole band-thing aged 15 recording in Frank’s sister’s bedroom for a bit of a giggle. We’ve just signed to Canvasback Music in the states and it’s sort of like starting out again in the U.S. which is pretty scary! Our debut record will be coming out early next year. When I first hold that in my hands I think it will be a bit of a moment. It’s been 5 years in the making and reflects our lives and entire existence over that lustrum. We’re so so proud of it.
Ben, these two are for you:
I hear you’re into literature. I feel like there’s a gothic element / vampire vibe going on in a lot of your writing: But these blood red skies/ Cover my eyes / From the sleepless nights / And a haunted life. How has that interest in literature influenced your writing?
That’s funny. I studied the Gothic genre in lit class at college – I think we focused on Frankenstein. I’m a big Mary Shelley fan but never deliberately took reference from her. I think I was just a moody teenager who wanted to occasionally wear black… That’s your lot. I went through a stage a few years ago, where all the best music I was writing was coming quite directly from Evelyn Waugh – there are 2 tracks based on ‘A Handful of Dust’ and I was reading ‘Decline and Fall’ when we first wrote and recorded demo tracks for the record. That kept my spirits up. I’m half German from my father’s side, so I took quite an interest in german literature, particularly DDR stuff. However, Hermann Hesse had the biggest impact on my writing. Demian is probably my favourite novel – there was a lyric in an old song called “Black Retreat” that referenced a line about drinking someone’s voice like sweet wine. I liked that line. There was actually a brief period when we considered naming the record after that book.
How do you think being something of an androgynous figure has affected your musical and modelling career?
It’s very difficult to speak about one’s own androgyny without sounding far too deliberate. I think I wrote music a certain way when I looked like a boy and nothing has changed. However, image can be very important – if we tried to put on a life-affirming live show and I had a bowl-cut and a hoodie on, it might be slightly less potent. I get a lot of stick on fashion sites and social media for looking like an unplucked underweight girl, but that’s all part of the fun really isn’t it.
Just as a final question: How much do you guys like parsnips?
Personally, I’m not a fan. But I hear they’re on their way?