Words by Luke LaBenne
Often artists are making their art just for themselves, pure expression without considering the audience who will consume their work. However, sometimes the stars align and an artists’ style syncs up with the cultural zeitgeist and they reach greater heights than they had imagined. This is what happened with UK post-punk quartet TV Priest.
The band is made up of childhood friends who played music together as teens and then parted ways until 2019 when they reunited to once again make music together. What began as an excuse to bring friends together and nurture their relationships through mutual creativity developed into a band that is necessary for our age and fitting for the moment. The pureness of the intention makes the product all the more genuine and affecting. Uppers is an album about the many methods we use to get through this crazy life. Through self-reflection and cultural commentary frontman Charlie Drinkwater’s poetic ramblings provide powerful insights on our current era while providing an odd prophetic pre-pandemic time capsule. The band perfectly carries on the post-punk tradition while pushing the form into new avenues.
Off Shelf: How does it feel to have your debut album out on Sub Pop?
Charlie Drinkwater: I mean it’s really mad and weird. It’s amazing as well, I should preface it with that. I mean it’s just been the craziest, strangest year. We were writing the record around this time last year and we kind of finished it in March last year and then for all of this to happen and then for Sub Pop to suddenly be like, “We’d like to release your music,” it’s like winning the lottery, it’s mad. Seeing as how we can’t gig and all the things that we should be doing as a band. It was quite overwhelming in a lot of ways, because we’re a bit older as well, we’re in our thirties and we’ve been playing and making music for a really long time. I supposed it feels a little bit in the UK, and you guys are probably getting it over there too, this post-punk explosion revival. There’s been certain bands that have kicked the door open for that, like your Idles and your Fontaines and that, but we’ve kind of been consistently doing this music since we were 15 and no one really cared before. So it was overwhelming for someone to be like, “we think this is really good and we’d like to release it.” When those people are Sub Pop it blows your mind.
OS: Yeah, I had read that you guys played together when you were younger and then went your separate ways, lived your lives. What brought you back together to form the band?
CD: It was probably in the beginning of 2019. My son was about a year old then, I think all of us had just moved in different directions, doing different things. I know it sounds a bit glib and a bit cheesy but I missed seeing my friends. I had built my connection with those guys through music. I’ve known Alex since I was like 6 years old. I’ve known Nick and Ed since we were about 13 and really our friendship was always bonded and formed around playing in a band with each other. Listening to music, sharing music, going to gigs. I still have lived with Alex longer than I’ve lived with my wife. We lived together since we were like 18 when we left home. I think a lot of those things that you connect with in that space when you’re being creative, they had gone from my life. I was making artwork for other bands and other people but it’s a very different thing, it’s a client-worker relationship. Even though it’s cool and it’s collaborative and exciting and it still is your work, you’re still ultimately accountable to someone who is like, “this is my thing.” I think that was really that was the thing that drove me back. I was really honest with Alex. I was like, “I really want to play music with you guys.” I mean we’d always kind of been playing on and off but I was like, “Let’s just do this and make an album.” At least we’ve done it and at least it gives us a goal and we have to actually get together a couple of times a week after work to work on it. Rather than every six months be like, “Do you guys fancy a jam?” And mainly it’s just an excuse to get together and drink beers.
OS: That’s good. It’s an excuse to keep the friendships together. That’s important.
CD: Basically. That’s where it started. Going back to your first question about signing with Sub Pop and releasing it through Sub Pop, it’s like so much greater than anything I could ever imagine. I think that’s why I’m kind of overwhelmed by it. Obviously, you want the music that you make to find an audience and give it to people and them to experience it, but it’s so much more. I thought those people were going to be friends of friends, maybe like two hundred people. It’s been emotionally quite mad.
OS: That’s a nice surprise, a bigger audience. You mentioned your day job as an Art Director. Did you do the album art for Uppers?
CD: Yeah. I did it with my friend Morgan who’s a photographer. He’s just a really good friend and we did it during lockdown actually and we couldn’t be together, so that’s the reason it came out the way it came. Because the record was all self-produced it was like, “How do we make some thing with the things at hand.” Like we kind of wanted to set ourselves a bit of task, like we can’t go and shoot a picture of the band so how do we make the everyday interesting.
OS: I’ve been listening to the album a lot, it’s very great. You got some harder-rocking bangers, some dissonant mechanical jams and then the more restrained melodic moments. How did you guys approach balancing all the sounds and the energy level throughout the album?
CD: Well I think we wanted it to fit together rather than be just songs like bang, bang, bang. I think a lot of the reviews and a lot of the people we’ve spoken to have seen, even if it fits within this post-punk tradition, I think there’s a least a hint at other things too. We wanted the record to have this arc, so it starts in one place and ends in another. So it was really conscious that at the beginning it’s a lot more furious and then towards the end it becomes more resigned and then hopefully at the end it becomes more hopeful. We thought a lot about the intention of what the record meant. So if you’re someone who is just a casual listener that’s just going to go in for the first three or four songs you might like well this sounds like three or four other post-punk bands. But I hope if you sit with it and you hear these weird sound design things, those things are designed to take you out of the record and take you outside of the studio. That’s kind of a reflection of where we made it which is kind of an industrial area. We just wanted it to be a bit of a time capsule of us as a band but also of the world we were making the music in as well. I’m hopeful with a bit of distance, like if I don’t listen for a year or two that I’ll listen and then maybe it will take me back to somewhere.
OS: I was surprised by those moments, especially the last track where it’s like that building atmospheric track. You do get that hopeful sense. I think that did stand out that this isn’t your typical post-punk album there’s something else going on here.
CD: Thanks man. I think people are perhaps mistaking, like as a lyricist I know what I’m doing, I’m using anger and emotion in a way to communicate a message that I want to be received pretty clearly. I think sometimes people, not that they don’t understand it but that first section of the album the anger is genuine, the frustration is genuine but there’s also levels of like I’m playing with it. I’m playing with it to deliver something and put something in there. The same way that on the last song I really open myself up and I’m very vulnerable and emotional. That is also me trying to communicate that to people. So I hope it hints at the fact that there’s more to us then a bunch of angry dads.
OS: That would be a good name for the band too, Angry Dads. I want to talk about the song “Press Gang” which was inspired by your Grandfather’s work as a photojournalist and war correspondent, I bet he had some incredible stories and insights. Do you feel like that gave you a unique perspective?
CD: Yeah, he was like my hero growing up. He had this mad life where he grew up in London after the war, like during the war like so, so poor. Like I can’t even tell you how poor, like his brother didn’t have shoes poor. He left school at twelve, he just left, that was it he was done. His mum was an Irish immigrant, she was very clever and she was a nurse. She was a real kind of matriarch and she basically forced him to get an apprenticeship in a place called Fleet Street. Which at the time in the UK was like the center of journalism and it was like blokes running around in macks like, “What a scoop!” When he started in that profession you would get taken on as an apprentice at like fourteen years of age and you would be doing messaging and running and that kind of stuff. Then at sixteen they gave you a camera and told you to go take a picture. If the picture was good enough it got published in the paper and you became a photographer and if it wasn’t good enough you went and worked in the darkroom and that was your life.
His life kind of unfolded once he started taking pictures. He had a knack for it and he became this person that traveled the world at a time when the world was very big. He ended up doing four tours in Vietnam and he was in the Israeli-Arab conflict. He was all over the place, he was everywhere and he was doing it all the way up to the late 70’s/early 80’s because he was addicted to it. He was an incredible character growing up to have that as your grandfather because he came from this kind of working class stock where he was a scrapper, he was a real kind of fighter. He was also this person who really impressed on me this idea of truth. I think maybe he was naive in a lot of ways because even then he was working for a newspaper that was owned by a very rich man that presented certain political ideas. Perhaps because the world was bigger and the gatekeepers to stories and information were smaller, he truly believed that what he was doing was showing truth to power. When we came to write the song Alex was talking to me about how we take in the news and media. So we used that as the jump off point as the inspiration, but it’s kind of an uneasy song because it doesn’t condemn. Also I don’t think the opening up of news sources is a bad thing. Open source journalism in a lot of ways is incredible. So it’s kind of an uneasy song because it also condemns some of the practices that he was a part of. It’s a bit more abstract than we’ve explained maybe, but also it’s like a three minute punk song.
OS: Exactly, you do what you can in the short time.
CD: He was a bit of a hero and so I guess the song is – it’s not a really a tribute to him because he’d fucking hate it – but it’s a bit of a nod to him.
OS: That’s interesting. Like you’re saying that it’s opened up with the internet there are positives but as we’ve seen there are serious negatives too. How do you think that contributed to the age of misinformation.
CD: I think it’s got to do with a lot of things but I don’t think it has to do with like citizens. I think it’s to do with people who are very powerful. We’ve got a government who are very liberal with the truth. You’ve just come out of the backend of four years with a person who basically tells people the sky is purple and if he tells them enough they believe it. I think we’ve got an issue where these tech corporations that we entrust so much of our daily life to, and I’m not saying that they’re necessarily all bad because I think community through social media is so important and it’s been a lifeline to me in lots of ways, but because the algorithms are built to such a degree where they can push this stuff. If you can kind of game the system then you don’t have an off button. You don’t have a moment where someone can say, “Woah, hold up.” I think it comes back to the failure of free market capitalism in a way like the idea that the market will right itself. It’s the same kind of thing that the market of ideas will right itself and it’s just not true, you just don’t see that. Also I think on our record as well, the whole record is really I can’t offer anyone solutions, that’s the whole thing. The whole record is a kind of flawed piece of work in a way because I’m flawed and I’m addicted to my phone and I’m addicted to going on social media and scrolling until one o’clock in the morning. So I’m not saying this thing is good or this thing is bad, it’s more self-reflective. You try to write it from a position of hopefully it transcends to a universal idea.
OS: I was wondering about that because in the “Slideshow” video you’re doing the endless scroll. When passing judgements or commentary does some of your own behavior slip in there too?
CD: Maybe for the next record I need to be more overt, but so much of this record is rooted in criticisms of myself. I don’t know maybe the genre of music that we play is often associated with being outwardly political, like this is bad this is a bad thing. But so much of that record is inward and it’s really critiquing my thoughts and beliefs on situations, it’s critiquing how I act and behave in the world.
OS: Well, be the change you want to see.
CD: [laughs] Yeah it’s very true. It’s like that song “Slideshow” that lyric, “I’ve probably never had an original thought.” That’s not about anyone else, that’s about me. That’s about my consumption of media and my worry as someone who makes art and has ideas. It’s squarely, I am in the crosshairs there.
OS: I’ve heard many conversations about how there are no original thoughts and I don’t know if I believe that because we are all the sum of our influences environmentally and societally. Do you think there are some original thoughts in some way?
CD: Well yeah. I also think there is too much stock placed on originality in some ways because I think by the nature of who you are, like you said, through your society or your experiences or how you process information in a certain way and it comes out of you through you.
OS: Yeah, it’s like your own filter.
CD: Yeah, and you know what, any piece of art that you’re making that has your fingerprints on it is yours. Otherwise you’d just be in a cover band playing Pink Floyd tracks. You’re letting it come through you. I suppose you can have derivatives, someone could say of us they’re making music that is derivative of that but it becomes so subjective.
OS: You wrote “Journal of a Plague Year” pre-COVID, was it weird to have some added relevance to that song.
CD: That was a hard song to put on the record because it was written in October-November of 2019. It was written after Alex – actually Alex wrote most of that song – had read a book by a guy name Daniel Defoe called Journal of a Plague Year and it’s a 17th century account of the plague in London. It started off as this sort of historical exercise of like what would happen if the plague came to our city would we react the same way? Would there still be the same failures of leadership? Then it happened.
We spoke a lot about it because we were all quite worried that it felt too glib or like making light of something that was a huge tragedy. But I think there is a naivety that runs through the song in a way because it was written before this stuff happened. I don’t think we could write a song like that in response to the situation that we’d been in. I think when we were looking at it’s inclusion on the record and speaking about the record being like a time capsule or a bottling of something. We looked at it and we were like it should go on because it did sort of address some of the things that we were thinking about, it did happen. Would people try and make money off of it? Would leadership fail? Those things are in that song and it happened so we felt as though it was apt. I love the song in terms of it’s musicality but I still feel difficult about it. It’s still a song that doesn’t make me feel easy listening to it, but maybe that’s a good thing sometimes to feel a bit unsure of some of your work.
OS: You mentioned Alex wrote some lyrics. What was the lyric writing process? It is the whole band or do you come in with ideas?
CD: It’s mainly me and Alex. The way that it works is I will be writing things all the time, scraps of paper, notes on my phone, things like that. Alex also writes stuff all the time. Then essentially what we do is pool all that stuff together and then the way that I like to record vocals and record our lyrics is to just have reams and reams. I’ll take all of that into the room with me, into the recording studio, all of those sheets of lyrics. We’ll have loose themes like this one should be about history. Then I’ll go in and basically edit as I sing, so I’ll start pulling things in and out and I’ll just get into a zone as it were. So I’ll kind of build a meaning like that, it’s kind of like a collage process. The only songs on the record that aren’t like that are a song called “Powers of Ten” and the last song on the record “Saintless”. Those songs were written, just me, writing them as kind of poems in the first instance. Then going into the studio and setting them to the music. The more aggressive, frustrated songs are the ones that are more collaged or put together, banged together because there’s an energy to it I suppose.
OS: I like the lyric in “Powers of Ten” that goes, “I’m a priest in search of a god” I was also thinking in “Decoration” and even the title Uppers, I interpret it as searching for things to decorate our life and find meaning. Do you think we are by nature searchers?
CD: Yeah, I think so, I certainly am. I’m still searching for – I don’t know what I’m looking for. There’s this weird feeling of like what do you want to do, build some giant monument to yourself, like some kind of meaning monument. Also it’s the nature of the lives we lead, like that song “Powers of Ten” is about the corporatization of all aspects of your life and this perpetual idea that everything’s got to be the next run up.
Like you get this job and then someone else in your office has got a better job so then you’ve got to compete with them to get the next job and then that person has a better car. It’s the carrot on the stick approach of late capitalism I supposed and it kind of just feeds into your everyday psyche when you live in the west.
Then there’s this idea that everything is about media, like performance metrics and I think it drives you to search for meaning. I got to a point where I realized that that made me really unhappy. I’m not saying that I fixed that or resolved that at any point, if I look at a review and if it’s not as good as I want it to be there’s like a performance metric that I’m like I’ve got to measure up to that it’s got to be comparative. Because again in our world everything is a listicle, everything is comparative. Like best albums of the week, worst album of the week and I think that’s always been the case, people have always quantified. Now more than ever though you’ve got this whole system that is set up to game-ify your life in a sort of weird corporate construct. It’s just become so bleak, because if you don’t feel like you’re hitting these – again back to tech speak – benchmarks like somehow you’re not good or valid or you’re not contributing something to society or you’re not creative enough or you’re not driven enough. I think that makes so many people so so so unhappy.
OS: Yeah, it’s real. You’ll see advertisements and it’ll be like well maybe this will be the thing that will give your life that meaning or will help you hit that benchmark. Then you’re comparing yourself to others.
CD: It’s even just going on Instagram. I think that the fucking wellness epidemic, it’s so weird because so many of these people use these phrases that are just like corporate and it’s supposed to be holistic and natural. I’m speaking openly as someone who suffers often with my mental health, but those cultures are not about helping you get better in any way, shape or form. I think they’re really dangerous. I can’t speak for other people because what works for one person’s treatment doesn’t necessarily work for others but I don’t feel like they are spaces of healing.
OS: Yeah and it’s like we talked about with other things, maybe they do bring some good but they’ve got some nefarious other effects. What do you hope people take away from listening to Uppers?
CD: I hope they experience the fact that there is also joy and humor and hopefully we’ve left the door ajar a little bit for a little hope. I didn’t want the record to be an unrelentingly bleak thing. I didn’t want to just be a shout into the digital wasteland. I wanted it to be human. I wanted it to hopefully talk to someone like it was written just for them. I also hope that they take away from it that it isn’t just fashionable, there’s a lot of us that went into it so I hope that level of communication comes across.