INTERVIEW: TV PRIEST
Despite its infancy, 2021 has somehow managed to come to life with a host of exciting releases. From Shame to Black Country, New Road, there's been no lack of music to listen to and one clear standout has to have been TV Priest's debut album Uppers. Fronted by artist and musician Charlie Drinkwater, the four-piece introduced the world to their elegant post-punk meets fierce noise-rock stylings with two singles in 2020 before they announced their signing to the legendary Sub Pop label in advance of their first LP. In the wake of their impressive record, we sat down with the band to learn a bit more about them and see where they're at.
TV Priest are Nic Smith (Bass), Alex Sprogis (Guitar), Charlie Drinkwater (Vocals), and Ed Kelland (Drums)
DRAB: For many of us, 2020 provided a strong introduction to the purposeful sounds of TV Priest. 2021 is somehow upping the ante even more with a full-blown debut LP coming from the band on the Sub Pop label! In your own words, can you talk us through what TV Priest is for you and how you’d introduce the band to someone who hasn’t heard of you yet?
TP: TV Priest is loud, noisy, a bit aggressive, frustrating, humorous and perhaps a little bit hopeful too. I’d say we try and make music with a bit of a message (even if that message is how confusing everything in the world is). The band started out as a way for us to connect honestly with each other as mates and talk openly about things so we hope that comes across too.
Obviously, there's a lot of excitement and joy around the release of Uppers, but at the same time, it would be disingenuous to say that this year has been off to a great start. How are you all doing and how do you guys feel about the year to come?
Yeah it's difficult to decide whether to be excited for everything that could potentially happen to us as a band this year, or pack it in, disconnect the internet and hide under the bed in a tin foil hat. Obviously that’s a bit glib, but one of the guys had Covid in December, which wasn't a great Christmas present, and we're struggling to practice or record with the lockdown. However we’re taking the rough with the smooth and are all healthy again and trying to enjoy this tricky time day to day. We've really been looking forward to the album release and Nic is about to become a father, so 2021 will certainly be a year of firsts.
While listening to your music it becomes quickly apparent that you are easily one of the most directly political bands in the current stream of British punk music. It sometimes feels that, for better or worse, the politics of punk is getting increasingly watered down but when it comes to Uppers, there’s an inescapable urgency and current of relatability surging throughout. Is that something that you feel is central to the TV Priest identity, or is that more a matter of the context that Uppers is being released in?
I think it’s a little of both. When writing the lyrics there was a pretty conscious effort to not mediate ourselves or speak differently about topics than we would to our friends in day to day conversations. I think the main thing the lyrics were born out of were a kind of perpetual confusion and sense of being overwhelmed but the enormity of some of the situations we find ourselves in, both personally and culturally. It was an exercise in being honest about our failings and contradictions as politically conscious people too and I hope that comes across. Ultimately we’re not trying to provide a design for living but prompt questions or some further research outside of our music.
Given the sheer energy and clear intent behind the project many people will find it surprising that you’ve in fact only been a band since 2019 and have only done one live gig. Can you walk us through how you went about developing Uppers into the behemoth of an album that it is, given the band’s relative infancy? Have there been any notable highlights in the making of the LP?
This time last year, we were just about finishing the recording of the album. We had more tracks, such as our first two singles "House of York and 'Runner Up', but we felt that these had a different feel to what would become Uppers. "Press Gang" was a bit of a breakthrough in terms of the palette of sounds that we wanted to use, it felt tighter, learner but also blended in some of the more synthetic textures we were experimenting with in the studio. This became a sonic template for a lot of the other songs. "The Big Curve" was also a partial guide for other tracks, and came together quickly after we jammed on a riff originally sketched out by Nic. This kind of long-form playing process where we tried to kind of ‘breakthrough’ the riff was a new way of working for us as a band. "Decoration" also influenced how we used vocal takes. Often Charlie would improvise lines based around the general theme of a song just taking in notes and poems he and Alex had written. We left a lot of these lines in as the more spontaneous they were, the more natural and honest they felt.
While the band itself may be new to listeners, your singer Charlie Drinkwater is a notable name in the musical world as an accomplished artist who has designed cover art for bands like Fontaines D.C. and Sports Team. To our eyes and ears, there’s a notable juxtaposition between busy noise and elegant composition coursing through both his art and the band’s music. Do you find much of a crossover in how you approach your other work and how you work in TV Priest?
I think the main crossover is the sometimes ‘unknowing’ way of working Charlie tries to put himself into when making either art or music. It’s about putting yourself in a situation where you’ve done the research and preparation before you get to actually making so that you can be guided by instinct and feeling rather than making too many ‘rational’ decisions. Where it differs is the ‘responsibility’ in the work; when you’re working with other artists for their albums or artwork ultimately you have to let them and their ideas kind of ‘filter’ through you to make something bigger than the sum of you or them. With your own work, ultimately you only answer to yourself!
In terms of the juxtaposition, this was very conscious. We’re aware we’re playing music that is rooted in a ‘history’ and with it, a ‘punk’ aesthetic is often very easy to fall back on. We wanted the art to feel contemporary and clean, to look as interesting on phone screens as it does on a vinyl.
Continuing on from the last questions, what strikes me most about the band is the sheer amount of extremes within it. From claustrophobic verses to expansive musical passages, from detailed ideological discourses to exposes on personal anxieties, and from a DIY self-recorded background to working with one of the biggest indie labels around, Uppers is an album of contrast. How do you manage and perceive the nuance ingrained into the project?
I think this was just by us being as honest as we could be when making the record. Most people have lots of different facets, sides, and interests to them and ultimately this album was about trying to convey that through the music and world we created. I think this is what makes us really excited for where we go from here and what’s next creatively. This album deals with a time in our lives that felt frustrating and difficult, and those emotions run across a lot of the songs, but I’m very keen to see how we explore hope, or love, or joy too.
Over the past year, you’ve not only treated us to fantastic music but also a host of fantastic music videos. Given Charlie’s background as an artist, are those visuals something you have in mind while writing music or do they come from collaborating with directors and other creatives?
Very much a collaborative process. Obviously, we have an intention and ideas we’d like to convey but we’re really strong believers in partnering up with other people and letting them really run riot and own a part of the album to bring about something that might be greater than the sum of its part. It’s something that requires a lot of trust on both sides but it’s been very rewarding to work with people like Joe Wheatly who’s been directing our videos or Morgan Hill Murphy who shot the album cover.
Now that you have a finished album that I’m sure you must be proud of, are you able to reflect back on what it was like forming a band, getting plunged into the situation we find ourselves in now, and then still managing to release an album?
As we've mentioned, the band was initially a way for us to find a community and come back together again as mates. We had all slightly drifted apart and only really saw each other sporadically. We’d usually meet up a few times a year to play and reconnect with music but I think at the end of 2019 it just felt right to make an album. It was something we’d never done before and kind of gave us a goal to work towards, even if it was just in our own heads. After a few practices and recording sessions, we had a handful of songs that we were proud of.
None of us really expected anyone, let alone two record labels, to express any interest in us! I think at the start of the pandemic it was pretty weird, to effectively begin putting music out at a time that was so difficult for so many people, we all had mixed feelings about it. I think we realized that music and making music had been a big crutch for us personally at difficult times so perhaps we needed it more now than ever. It makes us feel pretty emotional to see it reaching people now.
By now you must be used to operating as a band within a pandemic but I’m sure you must also be waiting to reach the other end of this ordeal. Do you have any plans in mind for that day where we can freely stand in a venue alongside people watching live music? Do you have any plans for the meantime either in support of your album or for the next steps following its release?
Oh yes, we're getting quite used to (sick of) video chats now! I mean, we cannot wait for the day we can play shows anywhere and everywhere. I don't know whether I’ll start crying or be sick from nerves but I think it’s going to be a pretty cathartic the first time we can just get in a room and play music and drink a beer. We're working on live performance videos at the moment which will hopefully scratch the gig itch a little. Aside from that we've already made a start on the second album and are hoping to have new music ready to be released later in the year.
As we close out our interview, are there any final thoughts, recommendations and shoutouts you want to leave us with?
Stay safe, join a union, listen to the birds, always take a lunch break, and watch the sunset as often as possible.
Uppers is out now on Sub Pop Records
Words by Varun Govil
Photography by Dan Kendall