Frontman Ben Romans-Hopcraft fills us in on the band’s soulful transformation.
It’s two minutes into my interview with Ben Romans-Hopcraft – the frontman of south London band Childhood – and we’ve already established that the barman, Frank, saw Childhood at The Great Escape, and I in turn had seen Frank’s band, MarthaGunn at the same festival. It’s somewhat surprising that two promising young musicians have found themselves at an ex-Tory members club in Brixton at the same time, and Romans-Hopcraft is particularly enthralled by the coincidence. “What a sesh!” he cries, leading us to a table in the corner.
Since Lacuna – the debut album from 2014 – Childhood’s sound has undergone significant changes. While the first album’s dreamlike melodies and loose riffs spoke for the band’s experiences of growing up in London and meeting at Nottingham University, Universal High is a sharp, soul-infused record that marks the beginning of an exciting new direction for the four-piece.
Romans-Hopcraft has taken the reigns of Childhood’s reinvention, however, his new-found headship is by no means a selfish pursuit. “I just think that this record needed some kind of focus which is easier to get from just one person,” he says. Now performing with up to nine people on stage, Romans-Hopcraft has transformed Childhood into a musical collective that are doing something different for themselves.
You formed the band in 2010 when you were still at university; how have things developed since then?
To be honest, when we formed the band we didn’t really form the band, we only really formed the idea, because you know with the internet and stuff it’s quite easy to seem like you’re in a band when you’re actually not. We had like three demos and we called ourselves Childhood, but we literally couldn’t even play our songs live. We only really formed in 2012 or 2013 when we actually left university and got an actual band together and actually started playing gigs. It’s basically just been a very gradual process. I mean, it’s gone at quite a slow pace but it has gone the way that we wanted it to go, I feel like we’ve been in control of it which is good.
So the internet was the first stepping stone?
Yeah, the internet and social media are great! In 2010 there were a lot of blogs and I actually remember asking what a music blog was… I was like, “What is this?” But they were really helpful; they helped us meet the people who have promoted our music and stuff.
Did you always want to be a musician?
Not really. I wanted to be a music journalist… I wanted to be you! Yeah, I wanted to be an animator, and then I wanted to be a journalist, and then I wanted to be in a band. But I’ve always been a musician. My dad is a musician and my mum has worked in music too. I’ve played music since I was seven or eight so it has always been a big thing.
Your new album, Universal High, is out on 21st July. Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind it?
The first record we did was kind of like a mixtape of band stuff that we were really into when we were younger. Me and Leo met because we didn’t really enjoy our experiences at university. We both had a really indie perspective on everything and we had a shared interest in bands; we both liked Deerhunter and Slowdive. So we kind of explored that as a way of building a friendship more than anything, and then that turned into music and then we thought, “Oh ok, I guess this is a band.” But as we got older I think we realised that that was cool but we wanted to do something that hit home a little bit more.
I feel like we did that record out of a shared experience, as if we were trying to work out why we were into music. For me, I like all of those bands, but I got kind of nostalgic when I moved back in with my mum and started listening to the old soul records that I’ve always listened to. So it took ages to kind of really realise that. So yeah, it’s just more of an ode to where I actually come from really rather than the kind of faddy university band thing
What was it about university that didn’t speak to you?
The main thing about it was the fact that we were a bit disillusioned at university. We both did humanities courses that were like six contact hours a week, and so you’re just kind of sitting around barely doing anything. I found it quite hard to make friends there – I’m not saying I was anti-social or a loner – I just don’t think it was the right vibe. Meeting people who are on a similar wavelength to you is really hard, and you value it more at university than you usually would at home. If anything, what I got out of university was a brotherhood of friends. Everyone I met felt the same way as I did, so it was pretty vindicating when we all came together, and it naturally made us do creative things together like making music. I’ve never felt that intense level of friendship before.
How have you found working on Universal High compared to your first album, Lacuna?
Quite different…but also kind of the same. You know when you’re there and you’re in a studio and when someone has paid for you to be there it’s kind of like a bit pressured. The first one we did up the road and the second one we did in Atlanta in America somewhere, so obviously that was quite unusual, but it was really fun. The main thing was just writing it really. Lacuna was a little more collaborative, and Universal High was still collaborative but I definitely did more work on it just on my own than the first one.
I hear that you’ve worked alongside Ben Allen, how was that?
Yeah, he recorded Universal High. To be honest, that was really important for us working with him, because he’s worked on loads of Deerhunter albums and me and Leo literally became friends because of our mutual love for Deerhunter. He’s also worked on soulful records, leftfield hip-hop records, and with artists like Ceelo Green, so we really liked the idea of working with someone who had experience transitioning from a more indie kind of sound to a more soulful one. He was one of the producers that definitely understood where we were coming from as a band and where we wanted to be with the new record, and he bridged that gap. So he was definitely the right person to understand what we were like originally and how to take us forward in the right way.
And your last album had a lot of support from Johnny Marr…
Yeah, that was great. His daughter actually lives up the road and she’s a really good friend of ours. We met her and then we went on tour with Johnny and that was an amazing experience. He’s so loving and giving. I felt a bit intimidated for an hour before I met him and then after that I felt like he was my uncle or something. Before most gigs he would come to our dressing room and just talk to us about music and his history and what music means to him and stuff. He has so many anecdotes, and we’ve literally been forced on stage by the stage manager at a few gigs being like, “Guys you have to go on now!” He’s been so supportive and encouraging in other ways than music as well, so it was a complete blessing working with him.
“Californian Light” is a great track! Can you tell me about the inspiration behind it?
Basically, we were in America and were quite inebriated one evening in San Francisco. We were near Coit Tower which is an iconic spot, and I was like, “Look at all these lights surrounding us, this is so incredible, this is great!” And then we realised that we were surrounded by loads of police, and they had all their lights flashing from their cars right into our eyes, and I was suddenly like, “Oh…ok, I get it.” It was fine, we just kind of ran off. Well it wasn’t actually that fine…they were kind of pointing guns at us which is quite traumatic really, but it was ultimately fine.
So I have that as an allegory for every time I feel like I’m kind of comfortable in a situation but actually I’m not. It’s that sort of deception where you think that you’re in a good place but you are actually kind of deluded by that and reality is completely different to what you think. So when I have a situation with someone or anyone or anything, I always put it back to that one moment where I thought I was in heaven but really I was surrounded by police. I just use it as an allegorical thing to describe loads of other situations which remind me of that.
How has the tour been? You’ve done quite a few festivals!
To be honest, we haven’t really toured yet. I mean, I guess we have but it doesn’t feel like a typical one because it’s been promotional. We’ve been doing a few festivals, and we’re doing quite a few things in a few places that we haven’t been before. But really it’s just been quite preliminary.
Are you planning to do a proper one after the new album is released?
Yeah, we’re going to do a proper tour then. We haven’t actually mapped it out yet but the plan is definitely to do a headline tour. We’re playing at Scala pretty soon, and I guess there’ll be a tour based around that gig. I know that there are definitely going to be a lot of shows because I’ve tried to book holidays and they’ve said no.
I’m glad that happens to musicians too!
Yeah, being in a band and booking holidays is just ridiculous! I mean, you’re on holiday most of the time – touring and festivals and stuff – but it’s not the same!
What’s your favourite part of performing live?
Just performing with a bigger band really. We try and play with about nine people now – singers and horn players and shit – so it’s just really nice playing in a band with loads of people. It feels like more of a collective thing. The reason why I make music is not to be in a band like The Strokes where you’ve got four personalities and it’s all very marketable, I don’t give a shit about that. I just like creating an energy onstage. People can obviously do that in different ways, but I like a collective, orchestral experience with different kinds of voices and layers and everyone interacting with each other on a big scale, and that’s an option for us now. So it’s really nice to be able to do that and to feed off people.
Does anyone get nervous?
I don’t get nervous anymore. I think that’s because there are more players! If you fuck up it’s like, “Oh well, they are playing that bit anyway!” Where it used to be like, “I’ve broken a string and the song is over!” You feel like you have a safety net and that makes you feel a lot more comfortable.
And is there a particular song that you’re looking forward to play on the new album?
My favourite song to play is “Understanding”. It sounds different live to the recorded version because we have loads of horns and everyone who plays it is really involved in the song. In a lot of songs horns play in one bit and there a backing vocals a little bit here and there, but on this one a lot of people are playing at the same time, a lot of people are singing at the same time, so it’s a real collective thing.
Who have your main influences been for the new album?
I’d definitely say MF Doom because even though it’s not a hip-hop album, a lot of the concepts – like sampling and discovering old records via sampling – were taken from hip-hop. I listen to a lot of Special Herbs which is an instrumental series that he does, and I found loads of amazing old soul records through that. I saw how he replicated old music and made it relevant. This record definitely sounds quite modern too, and that was always a thing that stuck in my mind, how to replicate something to make it relevant without making it sounds pastiche. Then I guess Shuggie Otis was a big influence, Todd Rundgren, The Beach Boys, and Smokey Robinson was a massive influence as well.
Cool. So finally, what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
I’m going to America quite soon to make a record; I do a bit of production on the side. I’ve been writing songs with my friend Saul who is in Fat White Family actually, so we’re going to finish a record off in September. That’s about it really. But yeah, side projects, shitloads of side projects! Just music constantly. Keep yourself busy with shit that you like.
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