Dying On The Mic: An Interview With Blue Bendy

As they announce debut album So Medieval, Patrick Clarke meets rising London newcomers Blue Bendy, a band of contrasts, subversions, and hidden depths

Photos by Michael Julings

The way Blue Bendy describe it, it’s as if their band formed by accident. When frontman Arthur Nolan had moved to the capital from Scunthorpe for university, he felt isolated, and so reached out to the only other person he knew from his hometown. Joe Nash, who had been close with Nolan’s brother growing up, had moved the same month for a work placement in a recording studio. “You were like, ‘No one else has moved into my halls, I’ve got tickets to Sbtrkt at the iTunes Festival, wanna go?” Nash says, eliciting a cringe from the frontman and laughter from everyone else as we meet over drinks in a Hackney pub.

In time Nolan settled, striking up a friendship with fellow student Harrison Charles. “The first day we met we were talking about being in bands, eventually sharing green rooms with Grimes,” Nolan jokes. With Nash he went to gig after gig, one of which was Californian experimental duo The Garden at The 100 Club. “The Garden were great, but there was a band supporting them and we were like, ‘These are dogshit. If they can support The Garden at The 100 Club, then we can too.”

In 2012 Nolan’s brother Oliver had also moved to London, in his case for a music tech degree in Kingston. When hangovers and homesickness struck, often in tandem, the brothers would meet up, demoing songs and uploading them to Soundcloud to pass the time. Drummer Oscar Tebbutt was the linesman for a football match Charles was playing in when they met. Not long later “I got a message from him saying ‘Hi, mate do you wanna join Blue Bendy?’ I said, ‘what’s Blue Bendy?’” says Tebbutt.The band had wrongly assumed he was a talented percussionist based on a single rehearsal he’d had with experimental duo Jupiter-C. “I’d lied and said I was a drummer, but I’d really only played a handful of times.” Synth player Olivia Morgan’s ex-girlfriend was a friend of Nolan’s, and when he told her he was after someone to add keys she mentioned her name. The pair had broken up just a couple of weeks prior, but Nolan insisted she call her. Says Morgan: “I was with my mum, and she was saying ‘Don’t answer the phone!’ Then all that was on the other side was ‘D’you want to join Blue Bendy?’” Oliver Nolan, after a period on the sidelines since those early demos with his brother, joined full-time after their original bassist left, originally as a live stand-in.

It sounds a little, I offer politely, as if Blue Bendy simply stumbled into shape. It doesn’t fit with their music, which is purposeful and ambitious, that their foundation should be nothing more than loneliness and a random pinging of text messages across London. “Yeah, and then it kept on stumbling for a few years after that,” jokes Morgan. “I’d heard their name, and then after joining Blue Bendy it was horrible!” When they started, the band’s sound was nothing like the maximalism displayed on newly announced debut album So Medieval, nor the constantly-shifting babble of 2022 debut EP Motorbike. “Before Olivia joined we were really scratchy,” Charles recalls. “Quite purist,” adds Nolan. “We had a set of principles. No barre chords, no pedals. If it was poppy, it was scrapped.” It was partly their fandom of bands like Wire that was to blame – an admiration for songs like ‘106 Beats That’, which was a failed attempt to write a song with only 100 syllables – and partly a lack of experience; drummer Tebbutt wasn’t the only one learning on the job. It was a way, says Nash, “to try and push ourselves in different directions without the prowess on our instruments.”

They moved away from straightforward Wire-ness, says Nolan, for two reasons. That learning on the job was beginning to pay off – “Philosophies broaden when you’re technically capable,” he says – and because the kind of music they were originally playing had “become really saturated. Post punk was becoming landfill. Then after that it got really landfill. What we thought was something different became [the norm]. At that point the most subversive thing you could do was to write the most expansive pop music you possibly could.”

It’s difficult to envisage Blue Bendy as post punk scrappers when listening to So Medieval, but nor are they really a pop band. It is expansive, sure – the majestic emotional swell that closes ‘Darp 2 / Exorcism’, for instance, or the densely-packed six minute epic ‘Cloudy’ – and earworm hooks to spare, and yet they never quite settle into a groove. It’s the kind of music to which it’s hard to attach any genre descriptors at all, a record of contradictions that blasts full throttle in one direction and then the opposite. Nolan cites ‘Ezra’ by Onehotrix Point Never as a guiding light. “I don’t think he sits on any sound for longer than about ten seconds. If I could do a guitar song like that, that would be ultimate goal.” Adds Tebutt: “We’ve never liked jamming on one groove for too long. I think it’d become a bit boring if we just did a riff for two minutes, so why don’t we do it for 16 seconds? I think that comes from the live experience, thinking about what happens when you don’t personally know what you’re doing.”

And yet, perhaps the biggest juxtaposition of all is that Blue Bendy do know what they’re doing. For all their self-effacement in conversation – they joke at length about Nash’s formal musical training consisting of Grade 1 guitar lessons with a man called Bob in a garage in Flixborough, and about ‘Arthur Nolan time’, a term they coin to refer to their frontman’s distinct lack of rhythm – there’s an obvious ambition beneath the surface. You can sense it in their keen awareness about the other bands around them in London when they started, for instance, and the way in which they felt the need to innovate in order to set themselves apart. At first Arthur Nolan deflects when the subject’s raised – “It’s a deep-seated need for attention” – but when pressed reveals far more. “We always wanted to do something no one else is doing. We have lofty ambitions of starting something new. We’re trying to push something. Doing something a bit different to everyone else has always been the most appealing thing. We wouldn’t be happy with it if we felt otherwise.”

So Medieval presents an opportunity to prove what they can do. “You only get one chance to make your first album, so it’s a bit life and death,” says Charles. They’re happy with its predecessor, the Motorbike EP, but acknowledge that it didn’t really scratch the surface of what they wanted to achieve. “We saw the EP as a calling card. ‘Here’s a song that sounds like this, here’s something that’s completely different.’ There wasn’t really a narrative. Whereas on the album you don’t have to frontload it, you can let it flow and peak.”

“And let it breathe,” Nolan picks up. “A lot of the criticism I have of our earlier stuff is that we cared so much and wanted it to be different, that we ended up throwing loads at the wall. But the best singles just do one thing really well. On an album you can have ten songs that each do simple things well, and still get a broader view of the band. It allows each song to be its own without having to cram everything in there.”

That’s not to say that each of the ten songs on So Medieval don’t still pack plenty in; their energy sometimes borders on frantic, the record tearing at the seams as the band throw everything they can at it. This goes for Nolan’s vocals, too, recorded in an informal studio method they call ‘dying on the mic’ – pushing his emotional expression to its absolute limit. “Amp everything up until you’re quivering down the microphone” as he puts it.

Sometimes he doesn’t reveal his lyrics to the rest of the band until the day of recording. It’s “because I’m insecure about tying things down,” he says frankly. Not that they’d be easily deciphered anyway – Nolan speak-sings in a babbling stream of consciousness that flits between the meta and non-meta (he’ll often refer to bandmates by name within a song), swaggering pomposity and unflinching self-flagellation, the micro and macro. There are the echoes of undying Christian ideas of purity and sin as often as there are ephemeral little vignettes about Kendall Roy and memelords. “I grew up Catholic and I’ve always been attracted to Catholic myths. It feels like the loftiest thing you can be reaching for, and it’s confessional and cathartic,” he says. “But I see a lot of humour in the delusions of grandeur. My favourite role to play is that drunken self-importance, feeling like you’re the only one standing on the cliff edge and swearing into the abyss.”

“Secretly it’s all very on the nose,” says Morgan. Nolan’s multifaceted and cryptic words are essentially just straight autobiography, “but put through the meat grinder and make them abstract,” as Charles puts it. Adds Nolan: “I’m trying to play with a heightened sense of self. I wasn’t having a really great time this time last year. It’s a breakup album, even though that’s really boring. But I thought the best thing I could do would be to find a lot of the comedy or tragedy and then turbocharge that feeling.” He’s aware, he says, that “it’s a cliché – indie rock music from a white guy in his 20s, crying about a breakup. I’m not going to escape that because it would be false to do otherwise, but how can I do that in an original way?”

The originality of Blue Bendy, who are, after all, a guitar band in a city full of them, comes in their relentless pursuit of contrast – whether instrumentals that veer from one extreme to another, those multifaceted meat-grindered lyrics, the clashing between said words and said sounds, or even their awareness of their contemporaries and a desire set themselves apart. It’s even in the name of the band itself, playful but offering a hint of subversion – “we didn’t like all the serious band names,” says Nash. “Fucking hell, is that all we do? The opposite of what’s popular?” jokes Arthur Nolan. It’s there in the way they speak, too, where nonchalance and humour belies something far, far deeper.

Blue Bendy’s debut album So Medieval is released on 12 April via The state51 Conspiracy

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