Words by Tristan Kennedy
It’s British Championships week in Tignes, and the Drop Zone bar is heaving. Some people have managed to make it back to their apartments to shower and change, but many have obviously rolled straight on from après – there are more than a few pairs of ski and snowboard boots on the dancefloor.
On a small stage in one corner four guys are cranking out covers, the piano-playing lead singer urging the crowd of about 40 or 50 people to jump around as they rip through their set of rock n’ roll standards. It’s going well for the band, who go by the name of The Cheerleaders. By the time the guitarist starts on the opening arpeggios of Mr. Brightside they get a big drunken cheer and you could almost imagine they were rock stars.
How did these four guys go from being après ski entertainers to one of the most exciting new bands in the country?
Fast forward a year and a half and I’m watching the same four guys on stage, but in a very different set of circumstances. Now known as the Sunset Sons, they’re playing NME magazine’s Halloween party in Camden, part of a line-up of the hottest up and coming talent.
Once again it’s heaving, but the capacity in Koko is 1,500 not 150. And although their 40-minute set is as tight as the one in Tignes, there’s not a cheesy cover in sight. But as they launch into their penultimate tune a huge cheer of recognition goes up from the young crowd – these guys are rock stars.
So what’s changed? How did these four guys go from being après ski entertainers to one of the most exciting new bands in the country?
When I meet the Sunset Sons a few days before the gig in the boardroom at Polydor Records, the major label that signed them earlier this year they seem slightly unsure themselves. Modest, chatty and almost surprised by their own success, it’s obvious their stardom is still sinking in.
“It’s not bad company to be keeping is it?” says Rory, the long-haired lead singer, looking impressed by the album sleeves that adorn the walls – their new label mates include the likes of La Roux, The Klaxons and Take That.
But although their rise seems rapid from the outside – they’ve been played by Zane Lowe and shortly after our interview are featured on the BBC’s influential Sound of 2015 list – from inside the band things feel a bit more gradual.
Meeting on the Beach
“We’ve been playing together for a few years,” says Jed, the Geordie drummer. “I can’t really remember ‘cos we were jamming first so there wasn’t like an exact ‘start date’ but we were playing covers for while.” And initially at least, they were happy just to do that.
Music for the boys was a means to an end, a way of making money so the four could pursue their real passions – snowboarding and surfing. In fact, it was a wave that first brought them together.
Music was a means to an end, a way of making money so the four could pursue their real passions – snowboarding and surfing.
“I was going to Biarritz,” says Rory, “but we pulled over in Hossegor and there was a guy at like 8 o clock at night, surfing [legendary wave] la Graviere. And I was like: ‘This is epic.’” It was so epic that Rory decided to stay on while his mates moved down the coast.
He started working and hanging out in local bar called Le Surfing, run by an guy named Woody, the cousin of Pete, the man who’d become Sunset Sons’ bassist.
“I came over to visit just for a few weeks,” says Pete, who describes himself as the band’s “token Aussie.” But the world-class waves and the local scene sucked him in too.
Jed meanwhile had just finished a stint as a surfing instructor in the Canary Islands. “I knew Pete’s cousin from before when I’d been teaching surfing in Fuerteventura. He’d kept saying he was going to open this bar in Hossegor so when I left and was travelling I thought: ‘Ah I’ll go and see Woody. And when I got there I met Rory.”
“I’d been snowboarding but never done a season in the Alps,” he comntinues. “Rory had done one as a transfer driver and he said: ‘Look, there’s loads of bands out there but a lot of them are rubbish. We should go and make a band and we’ll kill it!’”
Having persuaded Rob, a fellow surfer and Le Surfing regular, to join them on guitar the group decamped to Newcastle. “We were there for like a month or so,” says Jed. “We all stayed at my mum’s and learned a load of songs, then we just chucked our gear in the van and went.”
Good times and bad roads
“It was slow going at first,” admits Rory. But the band soon earned themselves a reputation as capable entertainers and by their second season were playing regularly, not just in Tignes, but all over the Alps.
“I can pretty much remember our schedule,” says Jed. “We used to do two shows on a Sunday, two Tuesday, two Wednesday and then Thursday and Friday. And it was all over, Tignes, Meribel, La Tania, Val d’Isere, Val Thorens… We were always driving everywhere on these dodgy mountain roads, it’s amazing we’re still alive to be honest.”
“Yeah we had some sketchy moments,” Pete chips in. “Do you remember that death road shortcut? There’s this shortcut you can take but you just don’t do it if it’s snowing. We were late for a gig though so of course we did it…”
We were always driving everywhere on these dodgy mountain roads, it’s amazing we’re still alive to be honest.
Back then there was no tour bus driver and no roadies. “We had a little PA with a couple of speakers and a little mixer,” says Rob. “We’d just set it all up and go.”
“And then what happened Rob?” asks Pete.
“Well yeah, we lost a few mixers over time…”
“What do you mean we?” says Jed, laughing. “Rob kept putting pints out on them.”
“Yeah one actually exploded,” chuckles Rory.
But despite the sketchy roads and the dodgy gear, they were having a pretty good time. Especially when, after their second season, they realised they had enough of a reputation to turn their winter jobs into summer gigs too, playing in and around Hossegor.
Payment in pants
“We had a pretty cushy little number for a couple of years. We had loads of free time to go surfing and snowboarding, we were making a few quid,” says Jed.
“More than anyone working in a bar,” says Pete.
At least they were as long as Rory wasn’t left to do the negotiating. “I was talking to the owners of the Loop Bar in Tignes one day and I said ‘I really need some pants’.
“They were like ‘you know, we do Loop pants mate. How about you do a gig for half Loop pants, half cash?’ And I said: ‘done.’ I went back and told the boys and they were not that happy.”
We played a gig for half pants, half cash. We got 200 euros worth of pants.
“Yeah we got 200 euros worth of pants,” says Rob laughing. “Except it wasn’t 200 euros, we got like two pairs each. For 200 fucking euros!”
“Yeah, I’m not allowed to negotiate anymore,” says Rory.
So was it hard to make a living?
“Well back in Hossegor we were all doing other jobs and stuff – it took a while,” says Jed. “But once we were away and we got it up and running it was good.”
And “good” might have been how it stayed, were it not for the niggling feeling that they were starting to outgrow the Alpine après band scene, and they couldn’t play cheesy covers as The Cheerleaders forever.
“We’d won the battle of the bands twice…” says Rob.
“That’s two times,” jokes Pete, leaning into the Dictaphone to make sure I’ve recorded this unparalleled career highlight.
“But yeah, that is honestly about as big as it gets with ski resort bands,” finishes Rob.
So how did they start making the switch from playing other people’s songs to writing their own?
“Well people were always like” ‘you should write your own songs, Rory’s got a great voice’”, says Jed. “And I was always keen, but at the same time I was reticent. Because you know if you can’t, then what do you do? Is that it?”
Sun, surf and song-writing
They took it slowly though. “We got back to the beach in the summer time and got a little rehearsal space in a dance studio and we’d go there every Friday, whether the surf was good or not, and we’d go there for four hours and try and write.”
Their years of playing together had made them tight. Like the Beatles in Hamburg? I venture. “Yeah,” says Jed, “Tignes was our Hamburg,” chuckling.
Better still, despite their differing musical tastes (Rory grew up on Motown, Pete likes Motley Crüe and Guns n Roses while Rob’s favourite guitarists are The Edge and Graham Coxon) this tightness– both musically and as mates – meant they wrote well together.
They also wrote quickly and soon had a few songs recorded as demos, including their first hit, “She Wants.” The next question was what to do with them.
“I used to be in another band when I was a wee young lad,” says Jed. “And Steve who’s our manager now was my label manager. So when we had some tunes at the start of last year or whatever I had it in the back of my mind that I could send them to Steve.
“But I was also wary because what if I sent them to him and he said they were shit? And then one night I drunk half a bottle of wine and just sent them.”
It might have been the best half bottle of win he ever decided to drink. “I heard these really rough demos,” Steve says “and then Jed called me up and said ‘do you want to come out for a gig?
There were 300 kids going nuts at the front and I thought ‘these guys have really got something.
Luckily Steve was looking for a new management project at the time. But as a music industry veteran with years at Sony under his belt, he wasn’t going to be impressed by just anyone. But he says “I saw them at this tiny place in Hossegor and they only had about four songs but there were 300 kids going nuts at the front and I thought ‘these guys have really got something.’”
He helped them record their debut EP in a house they’d rented by the beach and by the time they’d headed back to Tignes, rumours were circling around the music industry that a band with serious chops were playing out in the Alps.
After the après
Steve was keen that anyone interested should see the boys in their natural habitat. “They just make sense as part of that scene,” he says. “You get to a place like Hossegor or Tignes and you see where they’ve come from and where their sound comes from.”
“People started flying over to France to see us,” says Jed. “And then the first UK show we did was in Tynemouth, my home town and there were record label people there wanting to sign us. Like half the audience.”
Was signing to a major label part of the reason for the name change?
I ask, imagining that the more marketable moniker might have been a label exec’s choice.
“Well no, I always had it in my head that we should have two separate identities. Do the covers one as a job and do this as like a labour of love. But keep them totally separate,” Jed explains.
“When we started we weren’t sure cos we had a big following with the Cheerleaders – well, not big, but big for our little world. But I remember the day I turned the Cheerleaders Facebook page off, it was sad. It was like click and that’s that.”
We still get emails even now: ‘There’s a wedding near Bordeaux boys, do you wanna play it?’
The move was a symbolic one – the final break with their past as après entertainers. So when did they take that huge step?
“I think it was… probably just the day after we signed the deal,” says Jed. “So not that sad then.” He laughs.
“But,” says Pete, “We still get emails even now: ‘There’s a wedding near Bordeaux boys, do you wanna play it?’”
They all laugh, and well they might. The way things are going, these boys won’t be needing to play weddings any time soon.