by Nich Sullivan
The wide-eyed wisdom of the Black Country’s finest new export
Picture the hazy abstract netherworld where music genres collide and coalesce just to break back apart into new and slightly different pieces. There exists, here, an intersection of trip-hop, chamber pop, jazz expressionism and blue-eyed soul. This is where one finds a band whose comfort level belies the reality that they are yet in their artistic youth.
Chartreuse are a four-piece hailing from the UK’s Black Country who’ve just released their second EP, Keep Checking Up On Me, into the world. The songs are calibrated missiles that expertly home in on the heart, but purposely keep a cool and collected distance. The EP represents a coming of age for a band reaching emotional actualisation and, perhaps more importantly, a group of people unafraid of taking artistic risks.
When pressed on why the Black Country plays such a prominent part in how they self-identify, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, Hattie Wilson, explains that claiming the Black Country as their origin was personal for the band. ‘We didn’t want to say we were from Birmingham because it just felt quite easy to do that, and Birmingham doesn’t necessarily represent us.’ Her partner in vocal duties and fellow player, Mike Wagstaff, agrees with this, but admits that there can be a bit of tribalism between Brummies and Black Country folk. Insisting, albeit half-jokingly, that he’s ‘Black Country born and bred.’
This isn’t Chartreuse’s first foray into music, however. The Fluorescents was a band they created in their teens. Along with Mike’s brother Rory Wagstaff (drums) and longtime childhood friend Perry Lovering (bass), Mike and Hattie spent time in this group as well. They describe The Fluorescents as ‘…childish… just children trying to make music we’d heard before.’ As many young bands can, they eventually fell into the trappings of excess, having four guitarists on the roster by the end of the endeavor according to Mike’s recollection. But the group learned some important lessons about the social aspects of music from their time in their younger iteration. ‘It was good fun though,’ says Mike. ‘We hung out a lot… it was an excuse to have some beers.’
Becoming something more cohesive, and crafting more mature songs required strong bonds. Mike and Rory’s familial ties were invaluable in the brothers being able to engineer a productive working relationship. Hattie and Perry’s half-lifetime of friendship prohibited walls being built between them. Using these existing relationships, the four were able to craft a band dynamic that was accepting of new ideas and honest in its feedback. ‘We don’t pussyfoot around each other,’ Mike explains. ‘It’s actually quite professional, really.’ Hattie agrees with this take and describes that being transparent and honest allows the band to ‘get more stuff done’ by quickly moving on from ideas that may not be the best direction for a particular song or project. She goes into more detail: ‘We’re all really good friends… so it’s a friendship respect as well. I wouldn’t say anyone leaves the room annoyed.’
Keep Checking Up On Me is a subtle step forward for Chartreuse. Displaying a similar restraint to previous work it also manages the trick of adding more groove and aural texture (Enemy’s Belly). While in other areas, it strips itself down until it sounds like refined bedroom pop (Tall Grass). Throughout, the work shimmers like a blacklight reflecting off a white surface – catching the eye, but keeping a low profile that requires the listener’s scrutiny in order to be fully appreciated.
In talking through the construction of some of the tracks, Hattie explains that Enemy’s Belly began as a bass line that Perry came up with. After some work with Mike recording the sections, the whole band got involved and learned the parts, which resulted in the track’s further evolution. Lastly, the band took their work into the studio and added synth layers over the top. ‘That was probably the most layers we’ve put in a song,’ she says. But the song wasn’t finished until vocals were added.
After several attempts that proved unfruitful, Mike looked through his lyric books and found a poem that just so happened to fit the music in both rhythm and tone. ‘Poems are quite awkward in songs, but this one was quite straightforward. It left nice impressions, it worked with the music really well. It was quite exciting when it all came together.’
And on the other side of things, the EP’s leadoff track is the direct result of an early demo. Mike explains, ‘It was all written in pretty much an hour.’ Hattie interjects, ‘And the version on the original demo [Mike] did was the one that went on the record.’ Mike details how the band had tried to recreate a moody, studio-quality version of a demo he’d done. But in the end, they decided collectively that the original was near-perfect and should be the work that was showcased. Hattie says of the realisation, ‘Why were we trying to recreate something that we absolutely love [in its original form]?’
Chartreuse are reaching the point where their intra-band relationships have become petrified wood – transitioning with the passage of time from young suppleness into something more lasting, wholly unquestionable, beyond durable. Keep Checking Up On Me demonstrates this again and again in their choices – whether those choices are to add or subtract, or to simply let something be as it is. There is a confidence in the ability to stop tinkering; a strength in walking away from something that cannot be improved.
The future is as uncertain for the band as it is for all of us. When asked about where they see themselves in five years, both Mike and Hattie get visibly flustered. ‘We don’t think that far ahead,’ says Mike with a chuckle. ‘I think for us, at the moment, it’s just kind of go, go, go. It’s frustrating not doing gigs, and quite heartbreaking knowing that our songs are a snapshot right now of us as musicians, and that people will never see us in that way.’ Hattie echoes this, but she tempers it with a bit of Zen-like positivity: ‘We’re just keen for people to hear what we’re making, and excited to share whatever comes next.’
Whatever happens, Chartreuse has a bright future ahead of them… even if their songs tend to walk on the darker side.
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