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A Quietus Interview

Natural Habitat: Real Lies Interviewed
John Doran , October 29th, 2015 09:58

John Doran talks to Tom Watson and Kev Kharas of Real Lies about finding a house by a lake in the middle of a city to live in and how that changed everything for them

You could walk past the house on the lake a thousand times and not really be aware of its existence. And I'm pretty sure that's exactly what I did myself. In the first half of my two decades of living in North East London I'd sometimes tramp up Lordship Road, making a cut between Stamford Hill and Manor House - going to my doctors, going to Finsbury Park, heading for Manor House tube station on Green Lanes, drawn by the tractor beams of Turkish food. My head would be down staring at my trainers, oblivious that I was cutting straight through the southernmost twins of the Lee Valley reservoirs.

As you walk in a northerly direction, you pass the West Reservoir on your left which has now been repurposed as the Water Sports Centre and is mainly used by kids for kayaking and sailing at the weekend. Nearby two grand old Victorian pumping stations remain, externally, intact, which is why it looks like there's a huge castle visible from Clissold Park or towering above the housing estates scattered up that section of Green Lanes. (One of the buildings now houses a cafe and the other a huge indoor climbing wall, however, the original purpose of both buildings is evident if you are looking for it.)

On your right, behind a tall, slatted-concrete fence, topped with a music stave of barbed wire, lies the East Reservoir. Lurking in the south west corner of the lake, visible above the fence, is a giant metal crushing arm on a gantry which is used to pull silt and rubbish out of the New River which flows parallel to both reservoirs. And standing just yards away from that, strange, functional sci-fi sculpture, partially hidden from the road by the fence, is a large detached house standing by the water's edge. And it was in this house, with no neighbours other than rare migrating birds and Thames Water-sanctioned twitchers, amid the wreckage of a two-year-long party, that Real Lies formed in 2011.

Real Lies are a pop band who have feet planted firmly in the traditions of love-lorn synth pop, Madchester-era rave influenced anthems and big room house music. After releasing a string of singles, such as the swaggering 'Dab Housing' and the hypnotic 'North Circular', they have just released their excellent debut album Real Life on Marathon Artists.

Tom Watson, Kev Kharas and Pat King have brought together a collection of songs which celebrate the joyful impermanence of nightlife and strong friendship; but like any chroniclers of clubland and youthful excess, they have noticed that something darker and altogether less pleasant is lurking at the periphery of their vision. As they were forced to leave the house by the lake while recording their debut, new luxury housing blocks were springing up all over the capital. These songs are anthems for a generation who dreamt of nothing but moving to a big city, only to find, as soon as they got there, that life was already close to untenable. This album is a joyful but fated bildungsroman written in haste and exuberant defiance at the times we find ourselves in.

When did you meet?

Tom Watson: I met Kev in a queue outside of Plastic People, in London, nearly ten years ago. We were waiting to get into FWD>>. I already knew Pat from playing football. We both come from towns that are about an hour north of London. We used to play football against each other when we were 15 and we ended up going to the same college. We got into the first wave of dubstep because it was the first type of music we could call our own. And me and Pat used to go down to London to listen to it. We’d get the last train to London on a Friday and then get the first train back.

Do you want to tell me about music that you made before Real Lies.

TW: I was in a punk band when I was about 11. We were called Dope Jam. We were named after a font. We were writing songs about how we thought our teachers were Nazis. We grew out of that quite quickly. I was in a few other bands after that. But in 2008 to 2009 a lot of recording software had just become widely available. Anyone who bought a new computer would get the means of recording as part of it so it was a good way of learning about home recording and sounding exactly like you wanted to.

Are you the first generation of musicians who had to get used to recording at home out of financial necessity?

TW: We are. For most of this record, we didn’t spend any time in a recording studio. We spent years at home getting bass sounds right on the 20 tunes we have. This wasn’t done by going into a studio. If you go into a studio with an engineer and a producer they’ll just do it for you whereas we just spent a long time ourselves on the details.

Kev Kharas: We spent an absurdly long time, tweaking things over and over and over again. We used to sit in Pat’s bedroom in Lewisham, freezing our nuts off because there was no central heating in the house, going over sounds. At the end of our time in the house by the lake that’s where the genesis of this album is from.

Ah, the house by the lake… Tell me about how you came to move in there.

TW: It was a five-bedroom detached cottage inside the grounds of a nature reserve, which backed on to the East Reservoir in Manor House, which is where the New River ends up. There was a eight-foot high concrete wall around the outside with barbed wire on top of it, we were the only people with the keys to get inside. There was a huge metal claw, or ‘crusher’, in the back garden which was used to extract all the silt and shit out of the river that ran alongside. It was very isolated, you could throw a stone in any direction and not hit another house, so there was little chance of irritated neighbours or noise complaints. There was a big living room downstairs, which we set up the speakers at one end, and the decks at the other. We’d invite our friends round on Thursday, and often they’d stay till Sunday. It was like having a nightclub full of all your friends in your front room.

KK: We had some amazing nights there. You’d take people there and they’d be a bit scared, especially if you’d just met them because of all the barbed wire. But inside, once we’d led them through the house to the lake, they’d be speechless. I remember nights we used to get one of the various dinghies and glide out across the lake. For some reason – I think cos it’s a nature reserve and humans didn’t really disturb them – the birds wouldn’t fly away. They’d just float around placidly as if there weren’t a weird yellow boat full of drunk people on it five yards from them. Some nights we had 200-odd people there but the magic came from the fact that it was basically five best friends who somehow wound up living in a nature reservoir in the middle of the greatest city on earth.

TW: Me and Kev and a few other people needed somewhere to live. We were walking down the street one day and saw this piece of A4 paper in a shop window written in pencil. “Five bedroom house. Detached. Has lake.”

KK: We were waiting for the bus and as luck would have it we saw this scrappy bit of A4 in the window. It might make me sound like a wanker but it’s also no exaggeration to say that it was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. Because if we had not moved into that house my life would be very different. Everything. Even how strong my friendship with Tom is, is down to the house. It provided the conditions we needed to create Real Lies. All of the early songs were written in the house and a lot of the songs we write now are about our time in that house.

TW: I’d be working on the bare bones of these songs that I had while we had loads of people round. Kev had the bedroom next to me. He was working as a music journalist at the time. He would come in and say, “You should do that differently. That should be there or you should try doing that there.” And from that really loose arrangement, the advice developed into, “I should sing on that tune.”

KK: “Sing” isn’t quite the right word.

TW: We knew Pat as a DJ, He’d come round and DJ at the parties. I had the core of these songs that I was working on and I also had help from a DJ and a writer and over the space of the year, we’d meet up on Sunday afternoons when we were very hungover and would throw loads of ideas together. We had no band name and we never expected it would become something we’d take seriously. None of us knew what we were doing, there were no clearly defined roles and no rules for what we were supposed to be doing. Anyway, a lot of it wasn’t about songwriting. Me and Kev would go for these long walks...

KK: Because I was a freelance writer and he was at university but never went in, neither of us had anywhere that we particularly had to be at any point. Every night basically, when the sun went down, we just had this urge to go out but we didn’t have that much money so we’d just go out for a walk with cans just talking theoretically about what we wanted the band to be and what we didn’t want the band to be. Just looking around us and realising there was a complete dearth of people making music. That’s why I gave up writing about music because no one was doing anything that I wanted to write about so I felt like we should do it ourselves.

TW: One of the most important things about that period was we were literally writing songs and writing lyrics as there was a party taking place around us. There would be times when we’d be at a party at 2am with Pat DJing and me and Kev would go upstairs sing a lyric in [to Garageband].

KK: People would follow us up to see what we were doing. If you turn some of the tracks on the album up loud enough you can hear the other people in the room.

TW: When I wrote ‘Dab Housing’ there were ten people in my bed.

KK: You can hear people jabbering away in the background on that track.

Tell me about some of the parties you threw.

TW: My favourite one was during the 2010 World Cup when one of our flatmates Ben had ten of his friends over from France. None of us knew that they were turning up and suddenly there were ten French people in our house. And they turned up on Thursday and were there until Monday.

KK: We were up all night every night for about a week. People were DJing; we took the dinghy out. On one of the mornings, Thames Water came round and one of the French people Alexi had passed out in the dinghy outside the house. They were straight onto the landlord.

TW: It was two years of constant partying.

KK: We were the party hub for our friends. Sometimes we’d get home and there would be people waiting outside the front gate sitting on the curb waiting for us to get back. Once there was this guy walking past, talking on his phone to his girlfriend, saying, ‘Yeah babe I’ll be there in a second.’ Someone invited him in, his name was Jerome. He got stuck in pretty well. Two hours later we found him in Watson’s room getting a blowjob from this girl from Southend. And Thomas from These New Puritans was passed out on the bed next to them. Jerome was still there at 7 or 8am the next morning when we were trying to get everyone out of the house… we’d just had enough. I don’t think Jerome made it round to see his girlfriend anyway. We had a soundsystem in the front room and we would just listen to music at really incredibly loud volumes.

TW: We basically built a nightclub in our front room and it was the best nightclub in North London.

It was odd the house, in that you had this secluded, almost rural vibe going on right in the middle of North London. Do you think that sense of contrast is reflected in the music?

TW: Two songs off the album ‘Deeper’ and ‘North Circular’ were written in a bedroom where if you looked out of the window you could see 1,000 yards of very calm water, with massive, massive tower blocks at the other end. And in our front room we had what was essentially a nightclub in our front room but if you looked out of the window you would see birdspotters who had come from all over the UK to see rare hawks.

KK: The reservoirs were part of the migratory pattern for some types of bird. I think there’s a sense that the vocals are quite placid or calm while the music is quite hectic. It’s quite nice to have that contrast.

Did the idea of having a nightclub in your front room help sow the seeds for your own club nights Congress and Eternal?

TW: Yeah, 100%. Those two nights represent the second phase of what we’ve done. If I think back to when I was 16, me and all my friends would go to the local nightclub, pay £1 to get in and dance to the Ragga Twins or Ray Keith. But now, in London, you can’t do that. A lot of the clubs are disappearing. You can’t go out en masse to nightclubs because you won’t get in. You can’t afford to get in anyway. And all the big clubs in London aren’t much fun anyway. I can’t remember the last time I had a good night out in London, the clubs are too big and too expensive. And when we started Eternal it was a reaction against all that. It was about having somewhere where we could go with our friends. It was about dance music and having a night out rather than chin scratching, notebook keeping, dance music for trainspotters.

KK: This ties into people’s perceptions of us as well. Occasionally people say we’re retro or we sound like the we’re from the 80s or whatever but to me the only thing retro about us is the urge to scratch that itch. To have dance music and community in going out, to go out with people that we like and listen to music that we like and to not be surrounded by mugs eating burgers trying to listen to house music in the distance somewhere. Or to not be surrounded by people afraid to move. Or to not be surrounded by people who say, “It’s only OK to like this house or techno music because it’s sanctioned by people who write for The WIRE.” It’s about music being more than the sum of its parts.

TW: We never sat down and said that Eternal should be related to our band but it’s just inevitable that it came out in exactly the same way. We never announced who was playing. One day you might get one of our mates doing his first ever gig and the next month you might get Jamie xx. It was £5 in and open til 4am. One thing we noticed was we’d get gangs of eight or nine or ten people turning up which you don’t see any more at XOYO or Corsica studios.

KK: Because they’d get turned away.

Other that how you’ve already mentioned did Eternal feedback into the album in any way?

KK: It did in a very visual way because the video for ‘Seven Sisters’ was shot at the night. But as regards to lyrically or musically I don’t think so but then as we said we just think that Eternal was simply a continuation of all the other stuff we’d been talking about.

TW: It’s about finding something bigger than yourself in the city.

KK: It’s about carving your own niche out. You turn up here when you’re 16 or 17 on the train. You do the all night thing and then you go home. And then it’s about finding a foothold so you don’t have to go home because then you’ve got a place to stay. It’s more about coming to London when you’re from the outside and finding out it’s not what you imagined it would be because reality will never live up to your imagination but then it’s about turning what was in your imagination in the first pace into reality. London never lives up to your expectations so it’s about turning London into your expectations.

What was the influence on your vocal style Kev?

KK: When we first started I listened to a lot of house and techno stuff and there would be some MC going on some bombastic spoken word flight of fantasy about driving a Porsche, hanging out with supermodels and taking really good cocaine. I tried to turn that into something I could relate to which was feeling sad after going out or your girlfriend thinking you’re an idiot or not having enough money to buy any cigarettes... things like that.

Tell me about the sample in ‘One Club Town’.

TW: It’s a sample of that William Orbit track, Bassomatic’s ‘Fascinating Rhythm’. We’d never sampled a chorus before, so we thought, “Fuck it, let’s just do it.” The lyrics are very Real Lies. We emailed William Orbit and said, “Is it alright if we use this song?” not expecting a reply and half an hour later he got back to us and said, “Yeah, I love the song and love the band.” He was in LA and he said, “I’ll go down to my studio tomorrow and dig out my old DAT cassette of the original.” He sent us all 25 stems of the original. All of the early 90s house piano and that.

Do you exist in a tradition of British musical acts who cast a baleful eye over the darker more negative side to club life, like Soft Cell or the Happy Mondays did?

KK: I think what we do sits on both sides of the fence. Whatever you do, there’s a sacrifice to be made - you sacrifice parts of the day and if you’re getting your euphoria in massive massive bursts late at night then obviously the days aren’t going to be as happy as they’re should. But ultimately it’s not a lament… I wouldn’t swap the last five years for anything. I think some people are built for it. As much as some people say, get it out of your system while you’re young. For some people it just is their system. They need someone to slap them round the face and say, “You have to go to bed now.” And I’m one of those people. I think we all are to an extent.

Real Life is out now on Marathon Artists