It’s a damp Sunday night in Camden, north London, and the five members of Eagulls stand in the street outside the Good Mixer, pints balanced on ledges, coats zipped against the winter chill. A couple of hours from now, Eagulls will support Parquet Courts at the Electric Ballroom, and in the interim between soundcheck and show time, we’ve wandered over the road in search of a game of pool. In the mid ’90s, this boozer was Britpop ground zero, frequented by the likes of Blur, Oasis and Elastica. But gentrification has yet to claim this corner of Camden, and inside the bar is thick with the rowdy weekend crowd, the pool tables claimed by hustlers who quietly scoop up coins left by outsiders hoping to intrude on their game. Outdoors for a smoke it is, then.
Right now, Eagulls are still buzzing at the strange twists that 2014 has delivered. In late January, they flew to New York for a handful of sold-out shows and a performance of new single “Possessed” on the Late Show With David Letterman. For a bunch of punk kids from northern England who drive their own van and still roll their own cigarettes, it’s a lot to get one’s head around. “I feel like we’ve used the word ‘surreal’ about a thousand times in the last month,” says bassist Tom Kelly. “But I can’t think of another word to describe it.”
Here and there, though, reality impinges. With the group’s debut album — 10 surly anthems of slate-gray guitar squall and snotty punk hectoring titled, simply, Eagulls — landing in March, a daunting tour itinerary lays ahead of them. All have packed in their day jobs — bar and retail, mostly, with vocalist George Mitchell and drummer Henry Ruddell having until recently worked at a warehouse owned by the British supermarket chain Tesco. It’s a relief, kind of, but the parlous state of the group’s finances is playing on their mind. “We’re never going to make any money from this, ever,” laments Ruddell. “That’s what I believe.”
Guitarist Mark “Goldy” Goldsworthy, a practical head, is more upbeat. “We’ve costed the tour, and we’re going to get enough money to get by. Sell a few records, a few T-shirts and we’ll be alright. He’s just a pessimist about it.”
“It’s better to be a pessimist about some things though, isn’t it?” says Kelly. “That way, you come prepared.”
The odd network-TV performance notwithstanding, it’s clear Eagulls haven’t yet outgrown their DIY roots. Visit their Facebook and you’ll see they’re still looking for floors to crash on after their regional UK shows, tour budget not yet allowing for a few rooms in a Travelodge. “It can be a laugh,” says Kelly. “You end up meeting people — good people, some weird people. This one guy we stayed with was really sexually frustrated and didn’t mind telling us about it. He’d be like, ‘Lads, I’m really horny…’ But it wasn’t even in a funny way. No hint of a smile. I was like, ‘I’ll sleep with one eye open tonight.’”
As we chat, Mitchell stands a few feet away from the rest of the group, army parka zipped right up to his chin — later, I’ll discover, stewing on a passive-aggressive argument he’s just had with tonight’s sound engineer, who ignored his plea to mix the vocals the way he likes it, caked in reverb. He only pricks his ears up when conversation turns to Bad Lads Army, a short-lived UK reality TV show in which working-class delinquents were subjected to the gruelling British Army training exercises of 1950s National Service. A number of Eagulls have had the show’s title tattooed on their arms, the result of a drunken afternoon spent with a Village Voice journalist and a tattoo gun while the band was staying in New York. It turns out, though, that their affinity for the show isn’t so much down to affection for the show’s subject matter as the stuff of a running joke.
“Journalists keep writing about us like we’re a lad band,” grins guitarist Liam Matthews. “Like Oasis, or something. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Mitchell pulls his face out of his coat, leans over, and states, emphatically into my recorder: “We can’t stand lads.”
Lad culture in the UK roughly equates to jock culture in the US: drunk, chauvinistic, meathead sorts. Not Eagulls, but you can sort of see how people might have got confused. Formed in and still based in Leeds, a former industrial city a few hours north of London, Eagulls cut their teeth on a UK punk circuit that still works to Get In The Van rules: rowdy DIY shows in regional towns. We’re probably more used to going to gigs where everyone jumps around, has a good time,” says Goldsworthy. “While you come down to play a show in London and everyone’s stood there with a notepad, or on their phones on Twitter.”
They have, too, made a habit of putting noses out of joint. The band gained some early notoriety for an hand-scrawled manifesto Mitchell posted up on their blog in January 2013, an outpouring of bile at “beach bands sucking each other’s dicks and rubbing the press’ clits,” rock groups with “disgusting Afrobeat sounds” and “mock American singing,” bands who “dress like a Disney character,” and announcing “you become known to the music industry heads due to the fact that you are girls or have girls in your band.” Not all of this — the latter point, especially — went down particularly well online, with bloggers accusing the band of arrogance, hypocrisy and sexism.
This is slightly hard to equate with the band I meet, who, while occasionally misanthropic — “I’m just the biggest pessimist ever, I’m always mardy,” admits Mitchell — come over soft-spoken, smart and respectful. Later, as Matthews and Kelly head back over the road to shift the van, we find seats inside the pub, and Mitchell is accosted by one of the Good Mixer’s more unsteady drinkers. “Could any of your gentlemen give up your stool for a lady?” she asks, fluttering her eyelashes. Mitchell acquiesces, and parks himself on the pub floor. When she totters back 15 minutes later and asks him for a kiss, he mutters something about having a girlfriend and practically sinks through it.
Mitchell still stands by the general thrust of his manifesto, which he says is directed at a generation of British bands concerned with fleeting fashion and hollow emulation. “It’s just false, all false,” he spits. “All these British bands writing songs about going to the beach with my surfboard and my bros, going to eat hotdogs and pizzas. They’ve got this weird vision that being cool is being an American jock.”
“There’s no sense of regional sound anymore,” adds Goldsworthy. “You get these American labels like Captured Tracks, who in my opinion release really good records. But their bands come over here and in support you get these English bands, straight mimicking them. It’s like prog bands in the ’80s, writing songs about distant planets, aliens, shit like that. It’s not based in life experience.”
“When Gary Numan was writing future shit, at least the music was good,” says Mitchell.
“But he was writing about real things,” says Goldsworthy. “He was writing about the future in the way that Orwell did. It wasn’t away with the fairies. His aesthetic, his sound — everything he was singing about, it was totally relevant.”
Eagulls find themselves in the peculiar position of being a bigger deal in the US than they are in the UK. While initially suspicious of the wider industry, at SXSW last year they met Tim Putnam, co-founder of Brooklyn’s Partisan Records. “He’s from the same sort of background as us, he used to be in a band signed to Touch And Go, and we just hit it off,” says Mitchell. “I’m glad no one picked us up earlier. English labels can be pretty shit — they’ll pick up a bunch of young kids, rush out an album, sell a few, then they die, get dumped and it’s onto the next band. This feels like a much better relationship.”
It’s hard to shake the sense that part of Eagulls’ appeal Stateside is precisely because of their distinct Englishness, though; after all, what use is punk rock if it’s not real to its participants’ experience? Mitchell is happy to discuss his lyrics, largely based in personal observation, and inevitably dwelling on the darker side of life: “Anything I want to write about, it’s a downer,” he explains. “The music is like an attack — it has that feel. So the lyrics have to sit with that.” “Amber Veins” is about the drug addicts that live on his road, hauling a washing machine down the street to pay for their next fix. He’s midway through explaining the lyric of “Opaque,” about a former work colleague accused of sexual harassment that Goldsworthy shushes him; apparently there’s a court case still pending.
The cover of Eagulls, meanwhile, is a very English tableau of poverty and abandonment, photographed by the band’s friend Andy on Park Hill, a brutalist housing estate in Sheffield now deserted and earmarked for demolition. “It’s like an old burnt-out car, parked up by a red telephone box, then these flats, this symbol of failed British idealism,” says Mitchell. “And then in the corner, the security camera, just to show it’s modern-day. It couldn’t be more perfect if it was staged.”
Being a buzz band can feel like a precarious state. As a DIY band, Eagulls were part of a punk-rock support network, touring with Iceage, Merchandise and their hometown friends Hookworms. But now Iceage are on Matador, Hookworms signed to Domino and Merchandise just got snapped up by 4AD. Everyone’s out there headlining on their own, living off per diems, tossed in the industry pond and left to sink or swim.
Still, Eagulls should be all right. Those Bad Lads Army tattoos might be tongue-in-cheek, but many a true word is spoken in jest. “When we first got together, it wasn’t our music taste that brought us together, it was friendship, personalities,” says Goldsworthy. “And I can’t imagine it any other way. Like, Tom, he can’t play bass for shit…”
“I can’t sing,” shoots back Mitchell. “Henry could get run over by a bus tomorrow.”
“But the idea of getting someone professional in,” continues Gordy. “You know, it would ruin everything. How this band is, we wouldn’t change it for the world.”