Karma Violets


karma-violetsMinutes before they’re due on stage in the back room of a pub called the Lincoln Imp in Scunthorpe, Palma Violets frontmen Sam Fryer and Chilli Jesson invite me out to their tour van to join them for “a round of Hare Krishna”. I agree, assuming they’re referring to some exotic new drug extracted direct from the adrenal gland of Hindu beauty queens and available solely on the intra-band black market.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare

They’re not. These days they really do spend the last 10 minutes before each gig chanting the 15th century Maha Mantra, or ‘Great Mantra’, so beloved of orange-clad, shaven-haired monks. I’m sceptical, but I realise I’ll have to join in out of politeness. “Take a breath after every ‘Hare Hare’,” Sam reminds us. By the third cycle of the sixteen-word Vaishnava mantra I begin to understand. My head is clear, my heart is pure and my voice feels ready to belt out at least an hour’s worth of dirty punk rock songs.

“I think it’s saved the band,” says Sam as we head back inside. “I was reading a book about Hare Krishna and thought we should try it as a vocal warm-up. It really works. Neither of us are trained singers, so we needed to start doing something like this or we were going to destroy our throats.”

Tonight is the first of a handful of warm-up dates the band have lined up ahead of headlining the NME Awards Tour in February and March and the release of their second album, ‘Danger In The Club’, on May 4. The wild-eyed boys that first broke through with ‘Best Of Friends’ in 2012 may be taking better care of their voice boxes these days, but have they matured enough to write a genuinely classic new record? Will their fans still have something to pogo around the room to? And what the hell are they doing in Scunthorpe anyway?


That morning I’d met the bleary-eyed band outside Studio 180, the home base on the Lambeth Road they immortalised on debut record ‘180’. It’s 10am, unfashionably early for a rock’n’roll band to be up and about, but necessary if we’re to make the four hour drive up to Scunthorpe in time for sound check.

A town previously primarily famous in rock’n’roll circles for being the birthplace of Howard Devoto, of Buzzcocks and Magazine, and for being one of the few English place names with the word “cunt” in it, Scunthorpe doesn’t seem like an intuitive place to stage a comeback. After we pile into the back of the tour van and start heading north, Sam explains that the venue was chosen primarily to repay their mates Ming City Rockers for coming all the way down to Hitchin for last year’s Reading and Leeds warm-up gig. They’re what Chilli calls “the real deal”, and hail from nearby Immingham (an English place name with the word “ming” in it, it must be something in the water).

No sooner have we pulled onto the M1 than Chilli begins chanting a line about motorways that the band love from a live version of an old Brinsley Schwarz pub rock song called ‘Home In My Hand’.

Spend long enough with Palma Violets and you’ll overhear the phrase ‘pub rock’ more often than backstage at a Dr Feelgood gig on Canvey Island. “I love that era,” explains Chilli. “I’m a big fan of Ducks Deluxe and all those bands who started punk before punk. I would definitely consider us a pub rock band.”

The oft-overlooked genre, which gave starts to the likes of Joe Strummer, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, is in tune with the band both in terms of their music and their love of playing small, sweaty venues like the Lincoln Imp. “You’d consider us a pub rock band, wouldn’t you Sam?” asks Chilli.

“Yeah!” nods Sam vigorously. “I think people just got confused at the beginning. Someone must have misheard us. It sounds a bit like ‘punk’, but it’s ‘pub’.”

The band have recently been working on a new song written by Graham Parker, whose group The Rumour were one of pub rock’s defining acts. After his daughter brought him to a Palma Violets show in America, Parker came to see them again at London’s Coronet and presented them with a song he’d been working on but didn’t quite fit on his new record. “He said he wanted us to give it a whirl,” says Chilli. “It’s called ‘Any Kind Of Weather’. He wrote it, without lyrics, or rather with what he called ‘nonsense lyrics’. We wrote some new ones, which was great because to us he’s a legend. We love his records, stuff like ‘Squeezing Out Sparks’. It’s not going to be on our record because we’re still working on it. It could be a great song, we just haven’t had the time to finish it.”

When we arrive at the Lincoln Imp mid-afternoon on Friday, the first thing landlady Lorraine Briggs tells us is that she’s been offered hundreds of pounds in cash for just one extra ticket. Demand for the gig has so outstripped available places in the room that the local newspaper, The Scunthorpe Telegraph, is reporting that “the Imp has been inundated with calls from female admirers offering to work the night for free as barstaff, glass collectors – and even bouncers!” Palma Violets don’t just have fans, they have fanatics. The same kind of dedicated lifers who would have moaned for Elvis or thrown jelly beans at The Beatles and fainted at airports.

These aren’t just screaming kids either. Before the show, one mum spots Chilli outside and runs over to him. “I promised my daughter that if I saw you I’d give you a kiss!” she tells him breathlessly before pecking him on the cheek. I ask her if her daughter’s at the gig as well. “No,” she replies. “I’ve put her on babysitting duty.” Another fan nervously shakes Chilli’s hand and tells him his Stones-mad grandfather had seen the Palmas on Jools Holland and told his whole family to check them out. “I watched it because I know he knows his stuff, and I was blown away. I thought: those are some crazy, drugged-up motherfuckers!”

“That’s us,” grins Chilli. Back inside, he shrugs off the fanaticism. “It’s just nice that we haven’t been forgotten about. You never know what’s going to happen when you go away to record an album.”

If tonight is supposed to be a lowkey way to make sure everyone can play the new songs in time, it’s doomed from the start. It’s carnage. About halfway through the set the two hired bouncers, who had been struggling manfully to keep the crowd off the stage, are suddenly joined by a wall of hardcase blokes who form a wall between audience and band. They barely distinguish between the two, at one point grabbing Chilli in a headlock. At least one person gets knocked out and there’s an ambulance waiting outside. Nobody has any idea where the hardnuts came from, until the landlady explains. “They’re the Ashby army,” she says. “Anybody causes any trouble round ‘ere, I call the boys in.” Considering the Imp is the sort of pub that has a spit and sawdust boxing ring in the basement, I don’t doubt her for a second.

By the end of the night fans are staggering around like they’ve just been involved in a mugging in a sauna. There’s a guy called Mitch whose shoes have fallen apart. He’s covered in sweat from head to toe, and most of it isn’t his. He’s got pupils the size of dinner plates and he’s so giddy and exhausted he can barely string a sentence together. Mitch doesn’t care. He’s found love. Mitch has just seen Palma Violets play in the back room of a pub to 150 people and they’ve blown his mind out through his ears.

“They were so good, man,” he mumbles. “Will even fixed my shoes.” He points down to where Palma’s drummer Will Doyle has wrapped gaffer tape around the guy’s shredded footwear in an act of rudimentary punk cobbling.

“It was chaos,” says Sam. “If you’re honest, you’ll write that we played shit tonight. It was a great gig, but we played shit. I had to keep moving the mic stand because I thought someone was going to smash into it and knock all my teeth down my throat.”

This is bullshit. They were on righteous form, despite the extenuating circumstances. “At some points I was playing every key on the keyboards at once,” adds Pete Mayhew. “Just because I was trying to hold them down and keep them upright.”

I don’t doubt that there’ll be further rehearsals ahead of the NME Awards Tour. Unlike ‘180’, which contained eleven and a half songs written together in sweaty basements and honed through relentless touring, their second album is a proper studio album. It was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, Wales, where Queen recorded ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Oasis made ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ It was overseen by John Leckie, who produced ‘The Stone Roses’ in the same studio, and his influence as well as the band’s maturation as writers is presenting them with a whole new set of challenges as they return to life on the road.

“Some of the new songs are going to have to change a lot when we play them live,” says Chilli. “We’ve never had this problem before, because we recorded ‘180’ just as we’d been playing it. Working with John Leckie this time round means that we’ve been doing more with percussion and backing vocals, and Pete and Will have stepped up and started singing too.”

“Leckie wasn’t as encouraging as Steve Mackey had been on our first album,” says Pete. “He wouldn’t say, ‘That’s great, but why don’t you try this…’ he’d just say ‘I don’t like that.’ It was a shock at first, but I think it was what we needed. He hasn’t worked with an English rock band in a long time, so we really appreciated him almost coming out of retirement to work with us. He obviously thought it was worth it.”

“He turned the studio into his own little world,” says Will. “We’d write all day and then at the end of the day he’d play us records that he’d made, like Magazine’s first album ‘Real Life’ and a lot of The Fall, and the other stuff to push us like ‘The Four Horsemen’ by Aphrodite’s Child and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.”

“He helped us add something to our sound, but as Chilli says it means that even though we’ve finished the album we’re still working out how to play it live,” adds Sam. “It’s the complete opposite way of working to what we did on the last album.”

In Scunthorpe they play three new songs. There’s ‘On The Beach’, or rather ‘Girl You Couldn’t Do Much Better (On The Beach)’, to give it it’s full title. It features a strutting guitar riff as well as Sam’s favourite lyric on the album, “We’ll probably burn out and fail, but at least it’s a marvellous failure”, which Chilli explains was inspired by the inscription on Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren’s grave: “Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success.” Words to live by.

They also play ‘Matador’, which Sam calls “probably the strangest song on the album.” He describes it as: “like two completely different songs together. It’s definitely the saddest song on the album. It’s got a D minor in it.”

The final new song they play in Scunthorpe is the new record’s title track ‘Danger In The Club’. Both Sam and Chilli agree it’s among their favourites of the new songs. “For me, it sums up this record,” explains Chilli. “Musically and lyrically, it rounds this whole album up. Whenever I listen to it I’m always amazed, because it’s complex and there’s so many different things going on. I never thought we’d be able to write a song like that, and I think that’s one of the things that John Leckie helped us to do.”

“A fight breaks out in the middle of the song,” adds Sam. “It’s very punchy, like pub and glam rock mixed together.”

The morning after the adrenalin rush of the gig at the Imp we wake up on a truly dismal morning at a Travel Lodge on a roundabout somewhere outside Scunthorpe. We pile back into the van and head towards London and another tiny show at Bethnal Green’s Sebright Arms. Like the night before at the Imp, you could trade yourself just about anything you want for a spare ticket. Over 7,000 people tried to get themselves a spot in the 150 capacity venue. Also like the night before, Sam and Chilli spend the last 10 minutes before the show in a van chanting ‘Hare Krishna’. The band’s manager Milo Ross shakes his head in confusion as he watches. “Times have changed,” he shrugs.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare

Anyone lucky enough to squeeze themselves into the Sebright Arms will have heard another new song. ‘English Tongue’ is the band’s newest anthem, and one which sums up the band’s spontaneous way of working. The whole album had already been mixed and mastered when the band went into the studio for a couple of weeks to rehearse. Sam and Chilli decided to jam some ideas they’d been working on individually, and instantly sparked something. “It was a freak occurrence,” explains Sam, “because we both came in with the same idea. Different lyrics but the exact same melody and chords.”

“We just wanted to record a couple of demos,” adds Chilli, “but then Geoff and Jeannette [Travis and Lee from Rough Trade] came down and loved it so much they wanted to put it on the album.”

That left them with just a day to get the song properly recorded, mixed and mastered before the deadline for their record. “I was on one side of London doing the artwork and they were on the other side of London doing the mastering,” says Sam. “It all had to be done by 6pm. We were on the phone shouting at each other going: ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ It was an exciting way to finish it. A twist in the tail.”

“You have to realise, we thought we had the record done…” sighs Chilli.

Maybe it’s all those Hare Krishnas, but the Palma Violets of 2015 seem somehow older and wiser then the fresh-faced band who took the NME Awards Tour by storm in 2013. Now that they’re returning to headline it, I ask Chilli if he agrees the band see things differently now. “I think my reason for doing what we’re doing has slightly changed,” he nods. “I think when you start in a band you do it for certain reasons – for the fame, maybe, or to impress a girl. Getting the chance to record an album is exciting and anywhere you can play is a gift.”

This time round, they’ve got their sights on immortality. “Now it’s about wanting to leave something behind,” he says. “A legacy. There are bands out there who say they don’t care if people listen to their albums in 10 years time. That’s not how I feel at all. I think it’s about making something timeless. I really hope people listen to our records in 10 years. Maybe I’m chatting shit. I don’t fucking know, to be honest, but I’m proud. That’s the thing. I can listen to our new record and think that it’s great, because we spent time on it. And now we get to come and play it to people, in pubs and on the NME Tour. I can’t think of anything better than that.”

That’s a mantra to live by.

Cover story for NME, 21 February 2015.