The geographical origins of bands can be critical to both the sound and development of artists, and Champs, the band comprising brothers David and Michael Champion, have certainly made a virtue of their genesis on the Isle of Wight, a location that seemingly lent a choral isolationism to their gloriously harmonious debut album, Down Like Gold. Not content to rest on their critical plaudits, they proceeded to repeat the trick less than a year later with the release of Vamala, an album that further developed the duo’s now-trademark vocal harmonies and ear for a pop tune, all wrapped up in a classical songwriting style honed on the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and other luminaries of the classic songwriter guild. The brothers managed to capture a timeless feel while retaining elements of their musical geography to hit upon a beautiful sound that’s grounded in classic transatlantic pop, but more crucially rooted in the remarkable vocals of the two singers, whose harmonies at once recall classic Americana and summon a sound of near-religious choral magnificence. Indeed, watching them live is a euphoric experience, and after their recent Brighton shows David Champion sat down to answer some questions about sibling harmonies, armchair critics and surviving the Titanic.
Hailing from the Isle of Wight presumably gives you a different perspective as artists from, say, a band based in London or one of the mainland cities? Do you feel like it’s been an advantage in terms of building up a strong base of support and making music away from the demands of a big city?
I think the isolation of the island has been quite a significant advantage in terms of honing our sound and songs free from distraction and without feeling the need to fit into any particular genre or scene. However we never really did the local thing as there are no real proper music venues on the Isle of Wight. Because of this we were kind of forced to play in London straight away which I think in the long term was very beneficial as we were instantly removed from our comfort zone. Also, you can’t take your local fans with you on tour!
You’re one of a handful of really good British bands in the last few years that have made music that feels like it has its roots with the Beatles, but with tinges of Americana influence. At what point do you think your sound coalesced into what it is and what and who were the key influences for you?
We did grow up listening to a lot of The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young and Dylan but we’re also very much into modern music. We listen to a lot of electronic and pop music and we quite like to reflect a bit of this with our music. I’d say the majority of the music we listen to is American and we love the sounds of classic Americana. We basically try our best to combine this all in a big mix.
Being brothers it would be easy to assume that you just had the vocal/harmonising magic pretty much from the start. Is it something that you had to work hard at or was it very much an instinctive thing, and what were your musical upbringings like, is your family musical?
To be honest I’d say that it was very much was an instinctive thing. Neither of us have had any musical education in terms of singing and we try not to over-think harmonies. We tend to just try and add whatever will benefit the song, and if it doesn’t work we’ll leave it out. I genuinely have no idea what I’m doing with harmonies, I just sing what sounds best for the song. We were brought up listening to Elvis, Dylan, Young, Orbison and early REM and The Beatles. I think listening to artists like these gives you a pretty good grounding in classic songwriting and we still listen to them all today. Our mum and dad don’t play any instruments but they’re also very modest and I reckon they’re both secretly really musical. Our great grandfather was a pioneering fiddle player who was meant to play on the Titanic with the orchestra that famously went down with the ship. However, he met up with an old friend in Southampton the night before they set sail and ended up missing the boat. You could say that we owe our lives to alcoholism.
What are the best/worst and funniest things that have been written about the band and do you like reading what’s written about you or approach it with a sense of dread?
We’ve been quite lucky so far with reviews write-ups and we’re yet to see anything too unpleasant. I guess what I find funniest is when random people pop up on social media saying things like “Your first album was better” or “Not sure about this video”. I just find it so bizarre that some people go to the trouble to say something which is ultimately negative and destructive. I find it pretty annoying when people call us ‘The Champs’ as it sounds like we’re calling ourselves The Winners or something. I must admit though that I cannot help getting really angry when people write negative comments or reviews. It’s a really unpleasant feeling so I try not to read them anymore.
It’s quite unusual these days to see a band release a second album a year after their debut album. Are you prolific songwriters or did you have a lot of extra songs that you were waiting to record at the time of Down Like Gold?
I’d say it’s a bit of both. Half of the songs on Vamala were brand new and half were a bit older. We’re constantly writing and demoing new material and we’re hoping to record a third album as soon as possible.
How has the touring experience affected the band in terms of both your feelings about making music as a career and developing you as musicians?
It’s been amazing! The only way to really get good live is to play in front of people night after night. You can rehearse all you want in private and you’ll reach a ceiling. I basically just want to tour as much as possible now and be able to keep doing it for as long as possible – it’s just about the most fun you can possibly have.
Moving onto Vamala…it’s another terrific album that seamlessly pushes on from the foundations you set with Down Like Gold. Going into the studio to record the album had you finalised a set of songs for recording and did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to develop your sound from the debut album and how much did the production of Dimitri influence that?
We went into the process with about 20 or 30 songs which existed in varying states. We spent a day with Dimitri listening to all of them and then decided on which ones to record. We definitely wanted to show a progression from the first album and we definitely wanted it to sound different. However we try not to over think anything too much and tend to just try and do the songs justice as best we can. Dmitri gave us a level of bravery which we didn’t have on the first album. His enthusiasm and willingness to try anything created some great results. The drums on the beginning of Vamala for example are quite urban sounding and some producers may have said “Hmmm this doesn’t really sound like you” whereas Dimitri would say “This sounds massive, let’s keep going”.
Down Like Gold was a major critical success, did that take you by surprise and did that add any pressure to following it up?
It did take us by surprise but I don’t think it added any pressure. I think if the reviews of Down Like Gold had been terrible we would have definitely felt under pressure but the positivity of the review gave us a lot of confidence.
We were lucky enough to catch you when you played in Brighton recently and you were absolutely superb, but do you feel like the kind of music you make isn’t always necessarily appreciated best by British audiences? Similarly, do you think there is enough of an outlet for classic pop music in the media here?
Thank you! I just don’t think enough people have heard us yet. I think it’s very, very difficult to break through in this country as there are SO many people trying to do it. It is difficult when there are only a handful of outlets for music in this country, and we’ve never been a ‘hyped’ band, but we feel like we’re really starting to build a proper, loyal fan base purely through patience and hard work. We’re basically just going to try and keep doing that.
What are your plans for the rest of the year, and can we expect any festival appearances?
We’re just about to embark on a short UK tour with our label mates Balthazar and then we have a smattering of shows in the late spring. So far we’re only playing a handful of festivals and we’d like to be playing more.
When you’re not playing and writing do you get much time to listen to other new music, and what albums have you been enjoying in the last few months?
Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs is on repeat for me. I also really like Alt-J’s new album. The new track from Borns is totally killer and I always love anything by Kurt Vile and Devendra Banhart.