David Champion, one half of Champs, chats with Kevin Cooper about his admiration for Simon and Garfunkel, being record of the week on the Steve Lamacq show on BBC Radio 6, the release of their new album Vamala and their forthcoming tour.
David Champion is one half of Champs; the other half being his brother Michael. Hailing from the Isle of Wight, their debut album Down Like Gold, released in 2014 was very well received. They admit that their inspiration behind their music is Simon and Garfunkel, which shows in their music. Their second album, Vamala is a collaboration of the writing skills of the two brothers, and will be promoted on their tour.
Taking time out from a busy rehearsal schedule, it was a real privilege for Kevin Cooper to have a chat with him.
Hi David how are you today?
I’m fine thanks Kevin. I am just in town picking up some new leads for my guitar ready for the tour.
Are you getting plenty of rehearsal time?
Yes we are, we have been really busy rehearsing every day just trying to get it nailed because we are doing the tour with a slightly different line-up from how we have done it in the past. On this tour we will be performing as a three-piece and not as we usually do by using a full band. So we are rehearsing hard trying to get it as good as we can.
So who is going to be the third member of the band on tour?
It will be a local guy called Tom Gardner who was also born and bred on the Isle of Wight the same as Mike and me. He is an absolutely incredible musician and a very talented singer who used to be in the band, Motion Pictures. He will be playing the drums for us on this tour, but he also plays the bass and the guitar. He’s a bit of a gem really and he will also be doing some backing vocals when he is out on the road with us together with drumming, so that’s great.
So are you looking forward to the tour?
We are all feeling really good about the tour at the moment, and I seriously can’t wait to get out on the road. The Isle of Wight in the winter is a pretty dreary place with not a lot going on, as it is all based upon tourism as you can imagine, so there is nobody here during the winter, with the exception of retired people and farmers (laughter). It is very quiet here and I can’t wait to get out on the road.
Does Mark King (Level 42) still live on the island?
You are totally right Kevin, Mark King does still live here. We inadvertently played a gig with Level 42 here a few years ago now (laughter) with one of our old band’s. It was a charity gig and let me tell you, it was quite a spectacle watching that thumb in action. I have never seen anything like it. I was very impressed.
Now forgive me but I have to ask you, do you have a beard or are you the clean shaven one?
(Hysterical laughter) I’m the clean shaven one Kevin.
You will just have to make sure that one of you keeps a beard.
People have used the beard as a method of identifying us for a long time now Kevin so don’t worry (laughter). So we have just got to stick to it. We might just swap it over just to confuse everyone (laughter).
The new album is titled Vamala, what does it mean?
It doesn’t actually mean anything (laughter). My brother Mike tells me that he dreamt it and he thought that it was a Croatian girl’s name. However when he looked it up he realised that it is not a name nor does it mean anything. But we both liked the sound of it so we decided to use it (laughter). We found that it was a nice looking word when it is written down in capital letters, it really looks good. We like it. I quite like the fact that everyone is confused by it, which makes them think a bit which is nice.
The good thing is now that you have told me I will remember it.
Yes exactly Kevin, That’s good. It’s also bloody good in Google (laughter) seeing as it doesn’t exist, that helps.
I have been playing the album for a few days now and I have to say that I love it.
That’s brilliant Kevin, thank you very much, that really means a lot. It is genuinely nice to hear that because when you are involved in making the album, it is easy for you to lose perspective and think ‘I think this is good’. I hope that other people do, so that is really nice to hear.
Have you kept it in-house or have you bought in someone to produce the album?
We went to London and worked closely with French producer Dimitri Tikovoi whilst using his studio. It is a really nice room in a really nice old building and it just felt great. It was a really relaxed way to record the album. We had a brilliant time, it was really good.
Do you and Michael write together?
Mike has written the main bulk of the stuff on this album Kevin; he has been writing for such a long time which means that he has such a back-log of songs and so much to choose from. It is hard to crowbar my songs in, simply because we don’t need to (laughter). We both write a lot of songs at home and then demo the songs together, and then we start working out the structures, harmonies and lyrics, and then we record the track collaboratively. Most of the songs on the new album have come from Mike, but we often fill them out together.
Thinking about writers royalties, you need to be changing the odd word or two (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) we are all good Kevin.
Now being a lot older than you (but I’m not going to tell you by how much) when I have been listening to the album I have heard some Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Bronski Beat and even some Simon and Garfunkel in there.
That’s brilliant Kevin and I take them all as a compliment. Mike and I are fans of all of those groups who you have mentioned but in particular Simon and Garfunkel. Obviously I have always been aware of Simon and Garfunkel and I have always liked them, but over the past couple of years I have really properly got stuck into listening to them. I began thinking ‘Jesus Christ, this is the real deal’. Paul Simon as a songwriter is as good as it gets, so yes, Mike and I grew up listening to that kind of music a lot so when we come to write songs they usually tend to come out sounding a bit like that. However we never try to go in any sort of direction, we just write a song and let it go in its own direction. So yes, a few of them came out like that.
I have always been a huge fan of harmonising and I am doing all of the backing on the album. I find it a really powerful thing to use a voice to make a chord, it is quite incredible. I love Simon and Garfunkel obviously for that. I simply love harmonies, which is why there are so many of them on the new album (laughter).
One track in particular which highlights that is Forever Be Upstanding At The Door. This track reminds me of The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel.
I have to tell you Kevin that The Boxer is one of my all-time favourite songs by Simon and Garfunkel, together with Kathy’s Song. Those are my two favourite songs ever. But that is nice if it reminds you of The Boxer, I would like to take that as a compliment (laughter).
So how did music start for you?
Mike and I both grew up listening to a lot of music as our parents have always loved good music, such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young. We also listened to a lot of early R.E.M. too. We had a background of listening to a lot of good music and you could also add The Beatles to that list. The funny thing was that we both started playing the guitar relatively late; when we were sixteen years old. Mike actually started playing the guitar because he had been really badly beaten up here on the Isle of Wight and while he was recovering at home, a friend of his came round to see him and gave him a guitar in an attempt to try to cheer him up, and I think that Mike sought some solace in that.
So Mike started learning to play the guitar and weirdly I started learning completely separately from him, and then we both got the same teacher (laughter). It was a man called Alan who lived in our village who was heavily into the same music that we had grown up listening to. He loved Simon and Garfunkel, Donovan; he loved all of the old folk troubadours, and he was an amazing finger-pick style guitarist which he thought Mike and I should be. I think it is great because when kids start learning to play the guitar, they always pick up the loudest electric guitar and want to play power chords (laughter).
So we had this great grounding of learning about the true great songwriters and how to actually play the guitar properly in a pretty cool way I think. It really was a stroke of great luck to end up with a truly great teacher who has influenced us a lot. Then we both played in separate bands as teenagers because that is what you do, you get into bands with your mates. But then as we got older, we both thought that we might as well do it together, so we did that (laughter).
We went into a recording studio here on the Isle of Wight with a couple of friends, recorded some demos, and then somehow, Dermot O’Leary’s producer heard them and played one of them on his Radio 2 show which was St. Peters, and then from there a label heard it and said that they would like to get involved. They allowed us to finish off the album and then they released it. And now we are here with our second album (laughter). So there you have it Kevin, the condensed history of Champs (laughter).
Are you happy with the second album?
Yes Kevin, I am really, really happy with it actually. When we record new things and they are finished, I always try not to listen to them too much because I never want to hear something that I wish that I had changed or that I wish I had done differently. I also try to avoid listening to it because I don’t want to get bored with it; I don’t want to over listen to it and end up hating the songs. However, the other night we had a few beers and listened to the whole album on record, start to finish, and I thought ‘wow’, so yes I am really happy with it. It was a really nice moment because every time the next track came on I thought ‘hey I had forgotten about that one’ and so I am quite proud of it, it’s brilliant.
I heard that someone has described your music as being low-fi, electro-indie. Would you go along with that?
(Hysterical laughter) well Kevin, I suppose that some of the songs are, especially with this album. If you take Forever Be Upstanding At The Door and compare that with let’s say Vamala, then yes, they are poles apart in their sound. However, some people just call us outright folk music. So although I don’t disagree with it, I don’t think that it covers all of it (laughter).
But this is a problem that we have here in the UK, we like to pigeon-hole everybody.
Exactly, and it is very nice to hear you say that Kevin. I never really care how people would describe us because I simply feel that they are trying to pigeon-hole us. I like the fact that people struggle because I like to think that they are struggling to pigeon-hole us, and that can only be a good sign. If it is easy for people to pigeon-hole you, then I always think that what you are doing can’t be that original or that interesting. So I think the fact that I have watched a lot of journalists flounder when trying to pigeon-hole us, is quite satisfying actually (laughter).
I have stopped doing it, if I like it then I will listen to it. It’s as simple as that.
That’s awesome Kevin, which is bloody nice to hear. That is really refreshing to hear. But as you have said it is so true with this country. We have noticed in Europe that like you, if people like something they will listen to it. They will review it on its merit, rather than what it sounds like. In this country we have this obsession with comparisons; I’m not really sure why but they don’t seem to do it so much in Europe which is nice, and clearly Nottingham doesn’t which is good (laughter). I think that one of the major problems that we have here in the UK is down to the fact that we have such centralised radio with BBC Radio. The masses are so dictated too regarding what they listen to, and they have their hand held so much that they have to look for this approval when they hear something which they like. They think ‘I like that but am I supposed to like it. Is it cool to like that song? I had better check’ (laughter).
I think that is a problem caused because there are not many independent radio stations and there are so few independent record outlets. I think that if we had more of them people would be more open minded and that they would consume music in a different way. I think that it is so top-down in this country, people seem to be a little scared about enjoying something that they haven’t heard before. I think that the Europeans are definitely more open-minded. They don’t have to have this stamp of approval from the powers that be.
What I was your age we had pirate radio stations which were trying to break down the barriers but the powers that be even put those out of business.
Yes you did Kevin, there was Radio Caroline, Radio Luxemburg and stations like that. That is what it should be like Kevin, we need that; we really do need that. There is so much music that falls through the cracks; they don’t fit the quota of what the BBC is looking for at that moment in time, it simply is not in fashion and it gets forgotten. I think that, in America, a band such as ourselves would be doing quite well now because we would get college radio behind us, and you can break America almost state by state simply by working hard and persevering, but in this country sometimes you can literally work your socks off but nothing ever happens because you have only got a small number of options to get behind you. If they don’t get behind you then you are stuffed (laughter).
There are not so many opportunities for grass-roots music to work its way up in this country I don’t feel. You can’t seem to get that low-level support, it’s a case of all or nothing. 6 Music is great but they can’t do it all. There are still so many bands still out there that need this early platform which they don’t get so much in this country which really is a shame.
But again we go back to pigeon-holes. If they can’t label you then they simply won’t play you.
I have to say that Mike and I listen to more American music than we listen to English music. I think that the reason for that is that there is better music coming out of American than there is coming out of England for the reasons that we have just mentioned. America is consistently producing more authentic music.
There seems to be more freedom regarding music in America. The radio stations appear to play what they want to play.
Exactly Kevin, they are not in the studios over there thinking ‘I wonder if Radio 1 will play this. We had better change it’ which unfortunately does happen here in the UK. You find yourself in the position of constantly trying to second guess what the radio stations are thinking and what the BBC will play which is an awful state of affairs. It is a case of the tail wagging the dog.
Having said all of that you were Steve Lamacq’s record of the week on BBC Radio 6. How did that feel?
(Laughter) I do hope that I don’t come across as someone who is bitter Kevin (laughter). We have had great support from the BBC and Steve Lamacq is one of the good people. Actually everyone at BBC Radio 6 are very good people; they are genuine music fans. They all try as hard as they can to give everyone a fair opportunity. That was great Kevin and we love Radio 6. It is nice if you can get the support; it’s just a nightmare if you are struggling to get it (laughter).
I have to ask you what was the rationale behind the video for the song Desire?
(Hysterical laughter) good question. I’m not sure myself really (laughter). Our record label knew a director and they had a concept, and they sent a storyboard over and Mike and I thought that it looked nice. Desire is quite a moody song and I feel that the video fits the feel of the song quite well. Aesthetically the lack of colours and the stark contrasts I feel fits the song quite well. I think that if we had had a really colourful video of us outside running around in fields it simply wouldn’t have fit.
Now I am going to ask you a couple of potentially embarrassing questions David.
Go for it Kevin (laughter).
What was the first record that you ever bought?
I wish that I could tell you that it was something really embarrassing Kevin like the Spice Girls or All Saints but my first record was actually OK Computer by Radiohead. I’m pretty proud of that because I still love that album. So I am quite smug about that one (laughter). Mike’s was the Spice Girls actually (laughter).
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
That’s a really good question Kevin. I have never actually really thought about that. It would probably be The Bees a local band here on the Isle of Wight who signed to Virgin.
Now Mr King will be very disappointed that you didn’t say Level 42.
I know, I know he really will be disappointed (laughter).
Who has been your biggest musical inspiration?
That would have to be Paul Simon Kevin, although I only realised that recently. And of course The Beatles, so it would be Paul Simon and The Beatles. I would absolutely love to see Paul Simon perform live.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Last summer we played a festival in Germany called the Haldern Pop Festival which was held in Haldern, Nordrhein-Westfalen. It is a really cool festival. I liked every single band that was playing there. Mike and I were chuffed to be asked to play. We played in a huge big-top tent in front of a few thousand people, and everyone was singing along to our songs. They knew all of the words and we were just blown away. Mike and I were absolutely flabbergasted; we could have stopped singing and the audience would have just continued. That was a real milestone of our career so far. We both looked around and thought ‘wow this is what it could be like’. That was a real moment Kevin.
What is it like working and touring with your brother Mike?
Its fine, I think that with every relationship you get on each other’s nerves sometimes but we both respect each other and so we never really argue so to speak. If either of us is pissing the other off we just keep our distance for a while and then its fine (laughter). The good thing is that because we grew up together listening to the same music, and being influenced by the same stuff, I think that creatively it is easy because we both want to do the same thing all of the time. When it comes to the music we are both pulling in the same direction with how we want songs to go. I feel that if you are coming from the same place and you want to go in the same direction then its half of the battle won really.
I think that bands struggle when one member wants to go electro and the other wants to be authentic acoustic (laughter) and then they start arguing. I honestly don’t think that we will ever have that problem because we still do listen to the same music; we are always sharing that sort of thing. Working with Mike is really easy especially live because I do genuinely believe that I can second-guess what he is going to do. I can sense if Mike is going to play a double chorus and I think that is simply because of growing up together, knowing each other for so long and obviously being brothers. It really does have advantages, I think that it is brilliant.
So you are not looking to take over the mantle from the Gallagher’s just yet then?
(Hysterical laughter) no not yet, not just yet. We will have to get ourselves some serious drug habits first (laughter) and drink far too much alcohol.
The album has been received really well, you are looking forward to the tour, what next for Champs?
Well Kevin we are always writing now, all of the time. We have already built up another back-log of songs so we would just love to record another album. We recognise that today, attention spans are so short that if you keep releasing quality music, then eventually you will break through into people’s consciousness. The days of releasing an album and then waiting five years before releasing another one have gone; you simply can’t do that anymore. More importantly, we wouldn’t want to do that. So we just want to keep recording and keep releasing music; that’s what being a musician is. We can’t be ignored forever, at least that is what we like to think (laughter). We want to keep progressing.
Well you now find yourselves with the hardest one of all to record, the dreaded third album.
I know Kevin, that’s always the hardest one isn’t it. But I think that we will be alright, we try not to overthink it really. We just write songs and we record them (laughter). I think that the overthinking happens when you are struggling to write and I think that it was perhaps fashionable some years ago to feel the pressure. I don’t think that we will ever be like that, we are just going to have some fun with it and see what happens.
And being an old fart, will you be putting the album out on vinyl?
Oh yes, the album will definitely be out on 180 grams heavyweight vinyl. That is definitely not an old farts thing Kevin (laughter). We love vinyl, it is just far superior to cd.
You are playing The Bodega here in Nottingham on 18th March.
Yes we are and we are really looking forward to that one. We are intending to play the gig and then go out for a drink or two and see some of the city. We intend to find ourselves a local pub with a few local ales on sale.
You played the Dot To Dot Festival here in Nottingham last year. What did you think to our fair city?
Yes we did and we bloody loved it. We really had a great time although it really was a flying visit. We have got a few friends who went to University in Nottingham and they all speak very highly of the city.
David, I wish you all the very best with everything that you do and I hope to see you here in Nottingham.
Thank you very much. Nice one Kevin, It’s been really enjoyable. Make sure that you say hi in Nottingham.