Recovering in bed after a heavy session, Kagoule’s Cai Burns describes Nottingham’s musical architecture, the knock-on effect of the newly built Rough Trade and how his band came to be signed by the city’s premier heavy metal label
Nottingham is famous for a few things; Robin Hood, Brian Clough, Britain’s oldest pub (albeit debatable), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, if you’re into saucy twentieth century literature. It once held the tower blocks made famous by This Is England (until they were demolished) and a bit of The Dark Knight was filmed in the city’s poshest park… but is it famous for its music scene?
In recent history, the Midland city’s seen several emerging chart-botherers, with local lad Jake Bugg, uni attendees London Grammar and Bramcote-born Saint Raymond busy doing things like Radio One’s Live Lounge and supporting Haim on international tours. Or providing the soundtrack to the Olympics.
Obviously there’s Sleaford Mods, too – the undisputed kings of the East Midlands dialect and savage portrayers of modern life. It’s also home to Rock City, one of the country’s largest independent venues, but now, in a very surprising turn of events, it’s also home to a brand new Rough Trade record store.
After London and New York City, Nottingham is the iconic indie chain’s third location worldwide. It could seem incongruous with the store and label’s carefully crafted major city aesthetic, but what does it say about Nottingham’s musical credentials? The Skinny called Cai Burns, from Nottingham’s premier post-punk outfit Kagoule, to investigate whether their city’s worth the fuss. “There’s this weird thing like, Nottingham’s a ‘hot’ place for music,” he reports.“But you’re walking around thinking, ‘it is definitely not.’ There are like, three bands at the moment. I’d absolutely love to have more bands that are our age here… and hopefully, maybe, what’s happened to us might mean that other people join us.”
What’s happened to Kagoule is a story of elbow grease and chance encounter. Burns formed the band with school friends Lucy Hatter and Lawrence English when the three were all in their mid-teens. Some four years on (he estimates) the still partially teenaged band have released their debut album Urth on renowned Nottingham metal label Earache, toured up and down the country, and featured on XFM, BBC 6 Music and Amazon’s new Front Row platform.
A stalwart of Nottingham’s live scene, they’ve played almost every stage the city has to offer. When we speak, Burns is still in bed after a heavy session the night before. Last night saw the launch party for Urth, with the band showcasing the album in full at the new Rough Trade, accompanied by a free bar and a slowly buffering projection of old sci-fi films.
“Hopefully, maybe, what’s happened to us might mean that other people join us” – Cai Burns
Kagoule have played the new venue before, performing at the opening party in 2014: possibly a savvy move on behalf of Rough Trade in ingratiating the store within Nottingham’s local DIY culture. As Burns reflects, “It didn’t really fit in, but now everything else is standing up around it. It’s okay now. It’s gone from terrible to okay.”
One of the chief complaints by locals against the new Rough Trade was that it might detract from The Music Exchange, an independent record store at the centre of Nottingham’s music scene that is, at heart, a social enterprise run by volunteers in need of work and support. It’s noted for providing a backbone for local bands, and, as Burns explains, “It has a cult following, and will always have certain people buying records there all the time.” He pauses. “But I do think Rough Trade are sneaking a lot of their business. I work in the cafe next to Rough Trade, and people really want to be carrying around a Rough Trade bag. 35-year-old hipsters, that kind of thing.”
Both Rough Trade and The Music Exchange offered a pre-sale on Kagoule’s album, weeks before its “real” release, but Burns headed straight to the Exchange to see the band’s record in vinyl flesh: “They’ve had us since the start. It was really overwhelming to see the record there. I was talking really quietly, in a high pitched voice. Just holding it, and resting it on things… asking other people to hold it. It’s so surreal. I calmed down, went back and said sorry for how weird I’d been earlier.”
Despite any potential rivalries with local record stores, Rough Trade also doubles as a venue; hosting in-store sets, offering a stage during inner city festivals like Dot to Dot, and enticing smaller touring bands that before “had nowhere to go.” It marks a clear change in the map of Nottingham’s music halls. Kagoule have launched previous EPs in institutions like The Chameleon, a quirky hub for the city’s artists which sees the sweat drip from the ceiling before even a hundred people have passed through the doors.
The band are also affiliated with a practice space/DIY venue called JT Soar – beloved for its sparse cover charges and BYOB ethos, it’s a by-word for Nottingham’s underground scene and, as Burns excitedly describes, “it’s definitely grown, it’s getting a name for itself. We’ll see it in more bands coming over from different countries to play, they’re starting to get a lot of American bands, hardcore.”
Kagoule don’t necessarily sound like they’re into hardcore. Urth sees the three piece pick and choose from four years’ worth of song-writing: earlier double A-side releases like Monarchy/Mudhole showed a band fully at home within structural, gothic walls of sound, fuzzed-out and gargantuan – but tracks like these haven’t made it onto their first full length. “I really wanted Urth to be as little as possible. Never more than a few guitar layers. There’s synths on Mudhole, I’d never put synths on a chorus now. It’s a very angular album.”
Made of Concrete, the second track the teenaged band ever wrote together, started life as crunchy post-punk, providing one of the few opportunities within an early-years Kagoule set for a crowd-based singalong. Captured on record now, in 2015, Made of Concrete sounds more subtle, more alien. Burns describes it as having grown “the confidence to mess around, to change, to have a horrible chord under the whole song” – a description applicable to the record on the whole. Urth sees new life breathed into older tracks, but also a young band who aren’t afraid to build upon older genres in a weird, and markedly contemporary manner. Similarities to 1990s bands like Sebadoh and even Pavement have been floated in past reviews, but Burns is just into “heavy guitar riffs. My favourite thing in the world.”
When the band announced they’d be releasing Urth with Earache Records – an iconic Nottingham metal label previously home to the likes of Napalm Death, Pitchshifter andThe Dillinger Escape Plan – the news fell on mostly baffled ears. Yet, as Burns explains, it’s not the most unlikely pairing. Did the Nottingham connection inspire the band’s decision? “I think… it was one of the deciding factors. People that worked there would see us playing… One of the guys there, Tom, he nagged them for ages: ‘What about this band Kagoule? What about this band Kagoule?’ It was at the stage when we wanted to take the next step, talking to various people. But then you get an offer from Earache with their flashing, scribbled logo. We were like, ‘I’d love to tell my friends I’ve just signed to a heavy metal label.’”
“And a lot of the stuff they were doing in the ‘90s is stuff we were already into. Fudge Tunnel and that. So it made sense to me. People wouldn’t think we have those influences, it might confuse them, but…” It’s likely that anyone confused by Kagoule’s signing might have expected the band to choose a smaller, DIY outfit, but Burns retorts, matter-of-fact: “Yeah, but those labels can’t ring up Amazon.” It’s a mixture of pragmatism and perversity: on the one hand, Kagoule enjoy appearing a cuckoo in the nest of Earache’s metal-heads, and on the other, are evidently well aware of the commercial benefits of being tied to such a prestigious name.
This ethos seems apt for describing Nottingham’s half-resistance to Rough Trade’s invasion. In shaking the long-established infrastructure of the city’s record stores and smaller venues, it’s provided both competition and attraction. In highlighting the city as one of the UK’s musical hotspots, it’s drawn attention to Nottingham’s potential – and it could well provide a platform for a new generation of Midlands musicians. If a slightly more ‘big business’ approach to music will inspire young bands to grow up through the grass remains to be seen – but as Burns reflects, somewhat incredulously, no one would ever have predicted that the three school friends would be releasing on Earache, “in a brand new Rough Trade… built in Nottingham? And be album of the month?” Surely stranger things have happened.
Written for The Skinny, October 2015