Bands comfortably on their way up the ladder will spout ‘we just do our thing and if people like it, that’s a bonus’, when asked what their motivation might be for lapping up the adoration of press and audiences alike.
Maybe some of those bands are telling the truth, but a shiny fiver says they’d be devastated if, for example, they supported the Arctic Monkeys at a huge homecoming gig due to a double-booking, and went down like a balloon full of shit.
“All of Sheffield turned up, and everyone looked like the guy out of Razorlight,” says guitarist Rob, “we started playing and everyone literally took a step back. I remember overhearing one guy saying to his mate ‘what do you think of these guys? ‘and his mate just went ‘loud’.”
“Rob used to wear a mask with a little gold paper crown on it,” says bassist Ryan between hysterics, “and there’s a picture of him on his back playing guitar, and you can see the Arctic Monkeys drum skin in the background”. Frontman Paul, then the drummer, recalls playing the Arctic Monkeys’ drumkit “with no top on and a cowboy hat – we really upset quite a few people I think.”
Including the Arctic Monkeys, it seems. “There was an interview where someone asked them what was the worst band you’ve ever played with,” says new drummer Matt, “and they said ‘well we played with this band once in Sheffield’, and they couldn’t remember the name”. “I’m pretty sure there was a reference to us”, says Paul.
“That should be a t-shirt, it should just be a quote – ‘Chickenhawk – the worst band we’ve ever played with’,” says Matt, formerly of WhoresWhoresWhores, who clearly wasn’t put off by the more damning feedback from earlier days when considering whether to join.
In fact, the whole band spend a considerable amount of our interview talking about the worst criticisms they’ve had in their five-year existence. They apologise for the tangent, but it’s brilliant stuff. “We played this gig in Nottingham and it was one of those three people and a cat gigs, and after we’d played, this woman turned to her husband and went ‘I feel like I’ve just been told off’.”
“There’s another picture on our MySpace from London,” says Ryan, “when we played with WhoreWhoresWhores, of a woman like that [puts his fingers in his ears] and someone’s superimposed a big red arrow pointing at her.” We come to the conclusion that she did like it, but it hurt.
The list of sitcom-worthy incidents goes on and on: they were banned from Trash for being too loud; they were invited to play a fan’s 18th birthday party in the middle of a field, until his mum came out and asked them to stop; at a gig in Macclesfield, the landlord’s wife appeared with a decibel meter; a neighbour called round to tell them their practise was disturbing his daughter; a promoter in Folkestone advertised them as Chicken Shack; another promoter in Eastbourne cut short their soundcheck, telling them they were ‘obviously not trained musicians’ and gave them ten minutes to pack up and leave before he called the police.
Not the most promising beginning for any serious musician. Luckily for Chickenhawk, they had no such aspirations. “Around the same time our other bands split up, we all ended up living together and literally no one else wanted to be in a band with us,” explains Rob. “So we went ‘shall we be in a band together then?’”
Where a lot of bands might take their time getting a palatable set and sound together before presenting it to the world, Chickenhawk chose a more… let’s say ‘character-building’ route. “The second gig we ever did was the first day of our tour, in London” says Paul. “It was an exercise in pissing people off,” sums up Ryan, “we were just three long-haired messes.”
“Our attitude when we first started was book a tour without actually having played or practised,” says Paul. “In our first year we did 54 gigs in a year and we all had full time jobs.
We were out all the time and did three week-long tours. We didn’t know if it was Christmas or Tuesday, in our first year we were an absolute state.”
These days, Chickenhawk are on a sudden upward trajectory, having released their first album in November last year. What changed? Paul explains: “When we started it was almost like noise art. We never set out to upset people. There were riffs in it, but we’d have bits that were three minutes of feedback. But then, doing it for five years, I thought ‘what am I doing this for?’ If I’m going to spend this much time with my friends then I want to do something that actually makes me feel good, and that’s what we set out to do, to make music that we like and we want to hear, and always move forward.”
“When we decided to get Matt involved it was like we are going to stop titting around,” says Ryan, “we’re actually going to start trying to get a bit more serious about this. A chaotic aspect is good but we want it to not be a shambles at the same time.” Although the way they got Matt involved was less than businesslike. “We used to have a little Whores Whores Whores, Chickenhawk club on a Friday night at Spunge Studios, we’d all just swap band members. You’d get another band member and you’d get to go off together to your own little room,” says Paul. Rob was apparently always in a room by himself. He’s still bitter.
The fact that the minute they decided to try was the very minute they began to succeed goes a long way towards explaining why all that negative feedback doesn’t bother them, and shouldn’t put off any Chickenhawk virgins reading this.
The noise they make is more complex than it sounds, and first impressions that it’s a mess of metal are deceptive. It’s more like a collection of the best middle eights you think you’ve ever heard but couldn’t actually place. “That’s the bit that takes the longest time, to make it flow,” says Paul. “We can have great riffs, put them back to back, and we’ll play them for weeks and weeks and someone will say they don’t sound good together.
“It’s difficult that we get pigeonholed as metal sometimes, because we’re loud and we have that guitar tone. But the thing is we can’t play any quieter because Matt is so loud, and we play such techy stuff that if our guitar tone didn’t sound like that, you couldn’t hear what we were playing, so that’s where our sound comes from, but hopefully if you listen to it you realise that it isn’t really heavy metal music, it’s just that it’s delivered in that way because we couldn’t do it any other way.”
The band have become known for their performance style, playing on the floors of venues with the kit out front, facing backwards, and the band in a circle. “It gives it a lot more energy,” says Paul, “imagine if Matt was hidden at the back and you couldn’t see what he was doing from the sides or the back.”
Putting it to them that it might be a DIY performance style leads to a debate about what actually constitutes a DIY band anyway. After all, they do get labelled as such, so surely they must know. “I don’t,” says Paul. “It’s a contentious issue because a lot of people will attach some sort of political or philosophical significance to it, and a lot of people would say we’re clearly not a DIY band. Everything is done in house, and if that’s not doing it yourself then what is?”
They’re gleaning favourable reviews left, right and centre, and their latest video – just finished – was directed by NME photographer extraordinaire Danny North.
“He said ‘I’ve got the album, do you want to do a photoshoot? All you’d have to pay is costs’,” says Rob. “So we said told him to fuck off, we weren’t interested.
“Or the real story is we said ‘absolutely’, and it spiralled out of control, until somehow 100 zombies turned up at Burley Liberal Club. Getting Danny on board was just ridiculous. I don’t think he’s aware that we’re just a shit basement band yet.”
The video saw them – and a LOT of extras – covering themselves in jam and strawberry sauce and trying to eat the band. Their gear suffered severely, and Matt has only just finished cleaning the jam off his kit (Mr Muscle, paper towels, with a hangover), but that’s nothing new. “I don’t feel that you can give everything you’ve got unless you know it won’t matter if you damage something,” says Paul. He means your eardrums and your sanity – watch out.