They’re an unpretentious yet archetypical, going for broke, indie story.
Manchester-based foursome City Reign have decided to do things their own way – and it seems to be starting to pay off.
Inspired by their love of Ryan Adams – hence the name – the four have set up their own record label, gigged constantly around Manchester and beyond over the last couple of years and steadily built up interest and an enthusiastic fanbase through their blend of Idlewild and Britpopesque ’90s indie rock.
Their debut album, Another Step, recorded in a church in Salford and produced by Sam Jones (Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner), has been well received, and Steve Lamacq has also thrown his support behind the quartet.
We had a word with the band’s lead singer and guitarist, Chris Bull, to find out what it’s like going it alone and the grind of doing what it takes to breakthrough. Those trudging the same path should, perhaps, take note.
musicOMH: Ryan Adams was quite an influence on the band’s formation. Indeed, he seems to be quite a central figure.
Chris Bull: Mike [Grice, guitarist] and I had recently moved to Manchester from London and Ryan Adams was playing at Manchester Academy. We were on the same bus to the gig, got chatting about Ryan, and music in general. We realised we both wanted to write and be in a band and shared a lot of influences. We’d both moved to Manchester to start a band, and it all came from there really.
OMH: You don’t sound hugely influenced by Adams, though. When we saw you live at your album launch at the Castle Hotel in Manchester, Idlewild instantly came to mind. Do you see yourselves as filling the hole they’ve left?
CB: While we both love Ryan, he’s very American and we’re very not! Our first band began writing songs that sounded more like him but it sounded forced, and basically pretty bad. Eventually we found a sound and a mood that seemed to fit us better.
Idlewild are one of my favorite bands so they’re definitely a big influence on me and my contribution to the band’s sound. They were the band for the comfortably uncool: not exactly misfits, but they never did anything to follow the ‘scene’ and we identify with that. We have made our music regardless of what others are doing, wearing or saying. Not in a ‘look at us, we’re really individual’ sort of way, because that’s the biggest cliché in the pop encyclopedia, we just do what we feel is right for us.
OMH: You seem to be chasing the proverbial dream by setting up your own label to release your debut album, Another Step. How did this come about and why did you do it? It’s quintessentially – and applaudably – indie, as if you’re impatient to be discovered.
CB: I think you sum it up perfectly. We are impatient to be successful but not so much that we’ll compromise what we’re doing. We have a very strong belief in what we’re doing but we also recognise that we won’t ever, and don’t want to be an overnight buzz band that disappears as quickly as they arrived on the scene.
So, we decided about two or three years ago to think about what we needed to do to get our music out there and listened to by the people we hoped would appreciate it, and the relative success we’ve had in the past few months has been many years in the making. We feel we have laid the platform for our longer term plans to reach a broader audience and concentrate on our music full time.
OMH: I presume you all have regular day jobs; do you see City Reign as a chance to break away from the monotony of everyday life? Again, the effort in setting up a label shows there’s arguably something else driving you from somewhere.
CB: We all work day jobs and obviously the dream is to be able to focus on writing, recording, travelling the world playing our music to people all over the place. I’d be lying if I said that the grind of daily life isn’t a motivation in wanting to do something different. Sometimes you have to knuckle down and get on with things, but if there’s something you want to do with your life you have to get out there and do it and give yourself every chance of getting what you want out of life.
OMH: Another Step was recorded in Sacred Trinity Church up in Salford. Bands seem to be drawn to churches a lot now, particularly for gigs. What effect did the church have on recording the album and what do you think makes churches so attractive to bands?
CB: Well they are almost purpose built for music. For all the digital wizardry you can achieve on your laptop, you can’t replicate the richness of natural acoustics. It was Sam [Jones, the album producer’s] idea to record there, and he spoke with such passion about what could be achieved in there that we thought we’d be mad not to take this opportunity.
OMH: Indeed, you managed to secure producer Jones for the album, who’s perhaps most notable for working with Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. What did he bring to the experience of recording and how did he impact on your sound, so to speak?
CB: His experience was invaluable. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it takes a lot of skill to be able to harness those big sounds from the hall and mix them all so well. He added little things to the recording that we would never have thought of but just lifted certain songs. Tiny things like a tambourine crack, or obvious things like totally changing the way we strum the guitars on [album track] Retaliate. There’s other things he did too but I wouldn’t want to reveal too many of his secrets!
OMH: In a blog post you wrote, you seemed to enthuse about playing The Lomax in Liverpool, particularly with its posters for 90s bands still glued to the walls. In which case, supporting Ultrasound last year must have been a massive highlight for you all?
CB: I fell in love with guitar music in that era – bands like Oasis, Stereophonics, Suede, Blur and all the rest of it: it just lit a fire in me even from a very young age, that was picked up a few years later by bands like The Libertines and The Strokes. It was great to be able to share a bill with Ultrasound; it’s great to come into contact with people who’ve had a degree of success.
OMH: Steve Lamacq seems to like you a lot, with album tracks Anchor and Making Plans both played on BBC 6 Music. These must have been huge confidence boosting moments for you all – how important have they been for the band’s future?
CB: It’s definitely been great to get support from people like Steve Lamacq. It all started because I wrote him a letter about how he helped break Idlewild, so to be supported by someone who is so closely linked to a band that mean so much to me personally is great.
But ultimately, it’s the support of people who come to our gigs, buy our records, talk about us to their friends that means the most – these are the people that your career is built on.
OMH: There are countless other bands up and down the country who are trying to break through. You seem close to achieving this, so what advice could you give for other bands trying to go it alone without the backing of a label?
CB: I recently went to a BBC Introducing Masterclass in Salford and it was dealing with this very question. The message I got from it is that you need to constantly be getting better, and never give up. If you do those things you will be successful.
It seems pretty obvious but it’s amazing how many people forget that. If people aren’t listening it’s because your songs aren’t good enough, or you’re not working hard enough to get them heard. It’s easy to look for other excuses but that’s the reality.
OMH: Where do you expect yourselves to be in a year’s time?
CB: We plan to release a couple more singles over the next six months from this album and tour and promote them as best we can. We have been writing a load of new material in the past two months, hopefully we can write more and get together another for a second album that is better than the last one. That’s the challenge for us now.
City Reign’s Another Step is out now through Car Boot Records.