London-based five-piece Captain’s debut album, This Is Hazelville, is just out. Unlike most debut albums, Trevor Horn produced it.
Reminding the world of a pop sensibility reminiscent of Deacon Blue and Prefab Sprout, Captain have been relentlessly touring through 2006 and are due to support Keane‘s autumn dates.
Returning home to the capital, the band found musicOMH waiting to welcome them back at Koko…
It’s a drizzly, cold August evening at what should be the height of summer as I arrive backstage at Koko to meet up with Captain. In a few hours, they’ll deliver an eight-song set to the Club NME audience, carefully selecting their rockier numbers and now-familiar singles Frontline, Broke and Glorious for a crowd they’re (unnecessarily) worried may be slightly hostile, but for now they’re in the first stages of setting up.
Rik Flynn, ubiquitous hat in place, stands in the middle of the stage gently strumming an acoustic guitar, and continues to do so as he disappears into the venue’s labyrinthine corridors towards a TV interview. The sound trails behind him long after he’s out of sight, echoing from the baroque shadows to create a slightly surreal atmosphere that matches perfectly the ethereal summer pop he and his band have been spreading across the UK over past 12 months.
While Rik and keyboardist/co-vocalist Clare Szembeck are being filmed, I sit outside on the mezzanine couches with bassist Alex Yeoman and guitarist Mario Athanasiou. Manager Justin Pritchard has warned me that, with the band nearing the end of a 25-date tour that’s taken in venues from Cambridge Sound Tree and Swindon Brunel Rooms to festivals including T in the Park and Latitude, they’re feeling pretty worn out, but Alex and Mario couldn’t be more welcoming. The same is true of Rik, Claire and drummer Reuben Humphries, who are bouncy and enthusiastic as they arrive to join us. Rik is still strumming and Clare is humming along.
Rik immediately reaches for a cigarette and, he lights up, I remind him of how, at their earlier gigs, they used to give out Captain matchbooks.
“Because we always ran out of lighters,” Rik jokes. “Everyone wants a light. If you hate our band at least you get a light out of us. You remember Captain as the band that gave you the matchbooks.”
It’s a gesture that seems typical of a band who come across as grateful for the success they’ve achieved and proud of the hard work they’ve put in to gain it. Only a few months ago, they were playing tiny venues to barely 200. Tonight they’re at Koko, and in the autumn they’ll be opening stadiums for Keane. It’s been a rapid rise.
A good part of the success is probably down to the fact that their music is brighter and more pop-oriented than many of the new sounds that have been around recently. Plus, their timing has been perfect, hitting the glorious summer at just the right time and though the weather has taken a turn for the worse as they prepare to head off to V, they seem undaunted. Rik has firmly informed Justin that he “doesn’t do wellies” – he’s not a big fan – but Clare loves them and Reuben is planning on staying stylish in white patent shoes. “They’re good,” he smiles, “they wipe clean.” In fact, the band are confident that the threatened mud and rain may actually help their cause.
“We’re playing in a tent, a giant massive marquee thing, so if it rains and we’re indoors, more people might come and see us,” Alex points out. “It worked for us that way at Leicester [at Summer Sundae]. The heatwave definitely helped our single and the rain’s going to help our festivals. The weather’s on our side.”
“Like Crowded House [Always Take The Weather With You],” Rik adds. “We’ve been playing it every day.”
But will festival-goers get the paisley hotpants Rik has previously promised Clare will be wearing? “Too cold, too wet,” she apologies. “Besides which, it was just something Rik started. I don’t actually own any!”
They’re playing the festival circuit at what could be construed as a delicate point in their career. They’re getting bigger all the time, but at the moment it’s a steady rise rather than a meteoric one. They’re happy to keep it this way, appreciating that the festivals are giving them a chance to showcase their talents to new audiences – which are increasing all the time.
“We’ve noticed, even in the past couple of weeks, an upturn in terms of people turning up and selling out the venues we’ve been doing – 200, 300 capacity,” Alex says. “It’s amazing seeing what getting on the radio, doing a bit of TV, does in terms of people’s perception of you, intriguing them enough to come and see you live.”
“As much of a buzz as you get hearing yourself on the radio, there’s something so much more satisfying about selling out a venue,” agrees Rik.
They’ve stated before that they’d like to headline Glastonbury – “What band wouldn’t!” – but they’ve also got their feet firmly planted on the ground. They’d like to play “the biggest venue in the world” but their immediate ambitions are still in proportion. ‘It would be amazing to sell out somewhere like Brixton on our own,” says Claire. “That would be amazing.”
“We don’t want to go too crazy too quickly,” Rik adds. “That can be the death of a band. We want to take it as it comes. We want to make it a career, not be a flash in the pan.” Alex feels that there’s something special about playing smaller venues, somewhere the band can connect with the audience. “If it goes so massive that you spend your whole time doing so much in the way of promotion, you never get time to write, you never get time to do what you’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “You can get taken away from that if you’re not careful. I think that’s really important.” Rik points out that they still play their club night, The Hat, in London, and have no plans to stop doing so in the near future.
“We’re very much of the opinion that we have to earn what we have,” Rik says. “When you start off, you’re in a transit van, and then you get a splitter bus, which is quite nice. We were offered a coach for this tour, but we don’t think we’ve earned it yet. Not until we’re playing stadiums, until enough people like us.”
This admirable work ethic is just as much in evidence on their debut album, which Rik describes as ‘a real statement of intent.”
“What we came out with, when we were recording the album, was exactly what was in our heads,” Alex explains. “We really worked hard to make sure that we knew what we were doing when we went into the studio, so that what we wanted was exactly what we came out with. Personally, I’ve never worked so hard on a record in my life.”
The result of their work is a sound which is appealing to a very wide audience, equally at home on XfM and Radio 2, on which they’ve had both a single and album of the week (Glorious and This is Hazelville respectively). They’re slightly baffled by this, but nonetheless grateful.
“We’ve noticed that at gigs,” says Claire. “We’re appealing to a very broad audience.” “It’s pretty mad that we can appeal to a 16-year-old girl and her dad,” says Rik. “Our gigs are turning into a real family event! I think that’s a real achievement. But when we set out, we didn’t think about that, we just did it. It was purely by accident.”
They are however proud of the fact that they don’t sound like an identikit indie guitar band, one of the many that, as Rik describes, “are recording on pre-’70s equipment and scratchy angular guitars – it’s been done to death recently and it’s – god, how many years since the Strokes came out? They still do it better than anyone else in my opinion. I think it’s important to make a statement and to rise above what else is out there rather than revisiting what’s come out before – you’ve got to try, you’ve got to gotta for it. We wanted to make a big glossy, sheeny summer pop album. We’re glad that people have received it well.”
This refusal to simply follow the current trends is something they see themselves as having in common with Keane, who they’ll be supporting later in the year. Both bands have suffered indie-backlash as the mainstream media has picked up on them and Captain see Keane as something as soulmates in this sense.
“Keane got a lot of stick when they came out,” Rik explains. “Trendy wonky-haircut people with skinny jeans and spiky shoes are never going to admit to liking Keane and yet they’ve sold five million albums. I love the fact that people who think they’re cool secretly whistle Keane songs. It’s very easy to like the bands you’re told to like because it makes you look better, but when they go home and have their tea, maybe it’s Keane they’re really listening to. I love that. I rate Keane.”
They instigated the support slot on the forthcoming tour by sending a copy of their album to the home of each Keane member, which paid off as, luckily, the band really liked what they heard. When both bands played the recent Summercase Festival in Barcelona, Keane made a point of watching Captain’s set and then came over to say hello.
“It’s really nice to be taken on merit,” Rik says. “A lot of bands buy onto those big tours but Keane let us do it because they really liked our music. It’s a massive, massive privilege.”
In general though, getting recognised by bigger bands is still something they’re getting a handle on.
“The first festival we did, people [backstage] were probably “who the hell are those guys?” says Alex. “At T In the Park, on the day of the World Cup Final, I ended up next to the Arctic Monkeys on one side and Hard-Fi on the other and I did think what’s going on here? But now, after all the work we’ve been doing at least people have heard our name before. I’m sure some of them are aware of who we are, but I don’t know if they’ll come over and say ‘hello’!”
Along with this recognition comes, inevitably, some of the downsides of fame. They’re already cramming in an unenviable series of interviews and are lucky if they can grab four or five hours of sleep a night, all with no time off until November. They’re writing the second album on the road, in Travelodges, in the back of buses and on boxes in stockrooms before in-store performances. But they’re looking positively at this too: with limited time, they have to exercise more quality control as they can only develop the songs they really want to keep. All in all, it’s an experience they’re still enjoying.
As we conclude, they receive a call to say they’ve been heard on Namibian radio. It’s still something new and novel, a cause for celebration. Their enthusiasm and exuberance shows no signs of waning.