Of all the things you might expect to find in Wick, a gently euphoric indie band probably wouldn’t feature high on your list. The town of just over 6,000 sits at the very north-western tip of Scotland, three hours from Inverness, seven from Glasgow – “the arse end of nowhere,” as Darren Coghill, drummer for Neon Waltz, jokingly puts it. It’s the sort of place where deer roam freely and castles outnumber supermarkets. Even the band themselves seem faintly bemused by their success. “We never expected to get anywhere because nobody from up here normally gets anywhere,” says singer Jordan Shearer matter of factly. “When people started taking an interest, we thought, ‘Jesus, people actually like our band?’”
Shearer, Coghill, guitarists (and brothers) Kevin and Jamie Swanson, bassist Calvin Wilson, and keyboardist Liam Whittles met the same way everyone does here: at the high school, of which there is only one. As teenagers, their interest in music was piqued by parents’ record collections and the radio, and they drifted in and out of numerous cover bands with friends. Neon Waltz “just fell into place”, says Shearer, as they were the only six who wanted to take it further. “I don’t know exactly when we started jamming together, it just kind of happened.” Their early promise was spotted by Atlantic, who signed them to a lucrative deal that meant quitting their day jobs and, for Shearer, getting a car, even though he can’t drive. (He remains the only one yet to pass his test.) Almost immediately though, tensions surfaced.
“From day one we thought, ‘This doesn’t feel right,’” says Kevin. Things came to a head when a demo was sent back to them featuring synths that weren’t their own. “We went: ‘Where did that come from?’” says Shearer, recoiling at the experience. “It was clear they just wanted to turn us into a band that were ‘in’. We weren’t willing to do that.” Despite admitting a degree of naivety, Shearer has no regrets. “You get offered a lot of money from a big label, especially when you didn’t expect anything, of course you’re going to take it.” It took a year to sort out a formal split from the label, during which time the band got their heads down and wrote.
Some songs ended up on their debut album Strange Hymns, with the rest ready to go as soon as the “boffins”, as Shearer calls his management, agree. They recorded a new version of one of them, Heavy Heartless, in the schoolhouse on the abandoned island of Stroma off the north coast, utilising the school’s harmonium, which had lain silent for 50 years.
Two days earlier, we’re all squashed into Morris, their beloved van, whizzing along narrow roads past fields of sheep and endless brown scrubland to soundcheck for their own mini festival in Wick, Sounds of the Summer. The van has over 250,000 miles on the clock – not all theirs – and it shows; the speedometer is broken and rust is slowly eating it. “We once plugged a radiator leak with white bread,” grins Whittles mischievously. “It got us all the way to Sheffield and back.” Inside, it’s strewn with the detritus of lads on tour: empty cans and bottles, takeaway cartons, Viz yearbooks. It’s also home to Stevie, a battered ventriloquist’s dummy that was a gift from Atlantic.
This far north, logistics matter, and Morris forms an important part of that. The band’s HQ and practice space is the Croft, a cold, dilapidated house belonging to Wilson’s sheep-farming father. But the band are spread out; some are closer to town while Coghill lives in John O’Groats, in North House, almost the most northerly residence in mainland Britain. Planning is also vital. Festival soundcheck over, we speed east to Thurso because the band need guitar strings; the last music shop in Wick closed more than 10 years ago.
We take a stroll around the centre before retiring to a local pub they’ve played before. Not five minutes have passed before one of their tunes is piped through the speakers. “Oh, here we go,” says Wilson suspiciously. “Someone’s at it.” They say this isn’t common in bars, but house parties are a different story. “They always want you to sing along,” says Shearer. “It’s a wee bit embarrassing.” Almost everyone I encounter over three days knows who they are, while well over half the festival’s 600 attendees are wearing band T-shirts and pin badges.
And then there’s Nana, their Japanese superfan. A Tokyo native who speaks only basic English, who has seen them at least 10 times and has tickets for the first five shows of their forthcoming tour. No one is sure exactly what she does or how she affords such globetrotting. Three signed plectrums from the band dangle from her iPhone. The band dote on her, and she seems genuinely happy to just soak up their presence. During the show she is front and centre, taking pictures and dancing away; when Shearer reveals he is wearing the T-shirt she gave him as a gift, she almost bursts into tears.
Later, over drinks, he tells me their manager once said that moving away would become inevitable. Will it? “We would work it out,” he replies. “It always works out.” There’s an evident pride in the local lads done good, a “same team” ethos as Kevin calls it. Understandably, they’re reluctant to leave all this behind; homes, the familiar, this “cold place with explosions of light” as Kevin puts it. Late on Sunday, we are at Camps Bar, the local karaoke joint. Shearer gamely struggles through TLC’s No Scrubs before last orders and closing time. “Right Neon Waltz, get OOT!” shouts the barmaid; it’s the only time all weekend their indulgences are denied.
- Strange Hymns by Neon Waltz is out now on Ignition Records.