Noah Fence interviews King of the Slums

On the occasion of the release of King of the Slums’ new album, Encrypted Contemporary Narratives, Noah Fence interviews Charley Keigher and Clarissa Trees of the band.

From the band’s bandcamp page:

King of the Slums are probably the most ‘under the radar’ and important band to come from Manchester. They started up around 1985 in the Hulme area of Manchester, but never considered themselves a ‘Manchester’ band – just a band with an arty background, a little self-indulgent and gritty, story-type songs.

Noah: Thank you both, for joining me and agreeing to answer a few questions. As I write this,  your new album, Encrypted Contemporary Narratives, is only a few days away from being released. Can you tell me about the writing and recording process for this album, and what it means to be releasing an album during this current pandemic?

Charlie:  We wrote the album in late October last year, we had a break before mixing it, the lockdown kicked in and we couldn’t get in a studio to finish it. But the mixing went really well and sounded fresh. So we are very pleased with it. We wrote a load more stuff during lockdown and are thinking about developing all that.

 Clarissa: Hi Noah, thanks for inviting us! It seems like another lifetime that we started writing the album, back in March 2019. Because I live in Scotland, there were lots of fragments of ideas bouncing back and forth electronically for a while, until we had the chance to get together and finalise stuff. Recording happened between September and March, in fact Charlie got his vocals finished only a couple of weeks before we went into lockdown here in the UK. Then it was just a case of waiting it out until we could get back into the studio and mix it all, which finally happened at the end of July. Sometimes it felt very frustrating to have so much unexpected free time but not be able to finish the project, but that was minor compared to everything else that was going on. And once we were in the studio again it felt great to get back to work in a very focused way. Now I’m just happy that it’s ready and I hope our music will help to cheer folk up a bit…

Noah: The new album is being released on your own label, SLR Records. Are you happy with self-release and self distribution that is available to bands today, via the internet and web sites such as Bandcamp?

Clarissa: I’ll let Charlie answer this one!

Charlie: You can essentially finish mixing a song at midnight and have it available for digital download the next day. But the physical release still takes forever, CD/VINYL. 

We do have a distributor for physical releases, so it being in a record shop is great and I think it’s a whole heap more special when it’s a tangible product rather than a file on your hard drive. 

Noah:  This is the group’s third album since reforming. Can you tell me about the circumstances that lead to the band reforming?

Charlie: I got kidnapped in Mexico city, the guy had a King of the Slums T shirt on, I got released coz I showed him my KOTS tattoo, I felt it was a sign to finish what was started. Been at it since.

Clarissa: I got an email out of the blue late one night in 2017 asking me if I’d be interested in working with a tiny, under-the-radar band called King of the Slums. The message included links to some of the old-school stuff (including the famous Snub TV performance of Fanciable Headcase) and also the more recent Manco Diablo album. At first I thought it must be a scam, then after I looked at the links and realised it was a genuine request I still almost declined, thinking that with my age and my classical background I absolutely definitely wasn’t cool enough to be in a band like KOTS. Then I had a think and it was a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” kind of moment…I decided I was up for a challenge, it would be an experience far outside my comfort zone but there was no harm in going for an initial session to see if they liked me! Well that initial session went okay and within weeks we’d started proper work on the Artgod Dogs album…

Noah:  The band seems to be a well established going concern now…I am curious about live performances. Was the band playing live very often before the pandemic? With the release of this new album, do you think there will be any live performance opportunities in the future? 

Charlie: In the early days we played out a lot. But since the reform, it’s very seldom due to logistics of the personnel, we live all over the UK, and I am incredibly fussy about accepting LIVE appearances. But I personally wouldn’t mind doing more stuff, if only to create a LIVE album, which is what I truly would like to happen one day.  

Clarissa: We’ve only played live four times since the comeback gig (at Night and Day in Manchester in June 2018). Logistically it’s very tricky because the band are geographically distant from each other, with Charlie in Manchester, me in Scotland and Stu (drums) Nic (bass) and Dave (live guitar) all in Sheffield. (Snake Pass is an infamous road that connects Manchester with Sheffield, over the Pennines, so it earned a place on the album after several journeys to rehearsals late last year, often in atrocious weather!) In principle though, we’d love to play live again, I think some of the tracks on the new album would be amazing live, but there’s so much uncertainty about what’s going to be possible with music coming back in smaller venues… I just really hope the venues and the industry get enough support to keep going until we can all get through this.

Noah: I discovered King Of The Slums in 1989, with the release of the album, Dandelions, and was blindsided by the band’s unique sound. The standard guitar, bass and drums are off-set by the inclusion of the violin, which often cuts across the sound of each song, and makes the band’s noise one that you can hardly forget or ignore. With the changes in the line up, and the break up and reformation of the band, how have you managed to keep the band’s sound so consistent?

Charlie: We did an album with no violin, MANCO DIABLO, which did really well, but then Clarrissa, turned up, she kinda gets it, the whole KOTS sound, so she is rather brilliant at what she does, so Violins, distorted/discordant and sweet sounding are back in and going real strong….

Clarissa: Great question! Sarah’s were certainly big shoes to fill, I felt the weight of expectation from the fans before Artgod Dogs came out, and especially before playing live for the first time. I listened to absolutely everything KOTS on repeat for months, to try and distill into my own playing whatever it was that made the KOTS violin sound so unique, and learning the back catalogue for the gigs really helped with that (nothing was written down, and there are no surviving isolated violin tracks from the old recordings, so I had to work it all out by ear). Artgod Dogs is a little bit different because it’s all viola, and the viola is a lot mellower than the violin. But since the Peak Human Experience EP I’m now back on the violin, so we tried in this latest album to capture that rawness again, with the violin as a character in the songs, a character with a personality disorder perhaps?! I have to constantly remind myself that people aren’t expecting the violin to sound beautiful, which is always what was expected when I was part of the classical world, and it still feels quite rebellious to turn the distortion right up on the amp and use the violin in such a percussive and rhythmic way. 

Noah:  Another aspect of the band that I have long enjoyed are the lyrics. The lyrics seem to be wry, witty and observational. Telling stories about people one might not always be so lucky to have met. Have you always been a writer, and turned your focus towards songs? Or did your interest in music lead you to the necessity of putting words to the music?

Clarissa: Another one for Charlie!

Charlie: Originally, I was the guitarist and was looking to find a vocalist for a few words I had written, alas I had to make do with myself doing vocals. The lyrics are usually written to amuse myself on some level. I then kinda put them to the band, with no intention of changing them at all. Clarissa does help me with the phrasing…

Noah: Thank you both again for answering a few of my questions. Hope you and your families are all well and safe.

Clarissa: Thank you Noah, it’s been our pleasure, thinking of you guys in Portland too.

King of the Slums’ new album, Encrypted Contemporary Narratives, is available September 25 on bandcamp

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