“Who the hell wants to listen to this, another group of dudes again?” Two minutes into our chat with TV Priest frontman Charlie Drinkwater, and he’s the one asking the difficult questions. The London band might be the latest arrival into an increasingly crowded post-punk field, and yes, they are another group of white dudes, but one listen to their debut album ‘Uppers’ marks them out as something to still get excited about. A very 2020 record packed with political angst, despair and uncomfortable questions (no party bangers here, folks), it has leapfrogged them into must-see status when live music eventually returns from its hibernation – even more so when you consider the band has played one, yes one, gig. Ever.
So who on earth are TV Priest, then? It’s highly likely you know Charlie’s work already from his ‘other’ job – having designed the artwork for Sports Team’s debut record, as well as the latest from Fontaines DC. Life had taken him, and his childhood friends, Alex Sprogis (guitar), Nic Smith (bass) and Ed Kellan (drums) in different directions but there was an inevitability about them crashing back into each other’s orbits. That re-union eventually led to the formation of the band and that one solitary live performance in an industrial freezer in Hackney Wick right before lockdown froze everything all by itself.
It sounds like the kind of apocryphal story that the music industry is fuelled by, but it turns out to be an entirely real situation, as Charlie picks up the story. “Man, it was fun. It wasn’t like some kind of fucking Manchester Free Trade Hall gig or anything though, it was just our mates.” (MFTH was the host to a legendary Sex Pistols gig back in Ye Olde Days that saw many famous bands of the future in attendance. Ask your Grandad). “A friend of a friend knew someone who had a venue, but when we got there, it was fucked,” he remembers with a laugh. “There was a deep fat fryer on the stage! But it was really fun, nerve-wracking but I loved it.”
Like everyone, the pandemic put paid to any more follow-up performances, but the band had plenty more to say as their early singles ‘House Of York’ and ‘Runner-Up’ soon showed. Those first tracks felt like discovering a secret time capsule of a band that had been lost to the past before you could get the chance to see them. You could be forgiven for expecting TV Priest to bide their time then, rather than following them up with a debut record this quickly.
Charlie and the gang had other ideas however, though he does admit to being tempted to wait and that he didn’t even know if it was worth it. “To be honest, even though I’ve worked in music for a long time, I’m as clueless as anyone,” he laughs. “So when it came to actually releasing music, I actually felt really powerless. It was a really conscious thing of like, I don’t want to go to Alex from Sports Team or Carlos from Fontaines and be like ‘dude, check out this band!’ Fucking terrible idea, they don’t want to hear my shit band…”
Nearly everything Charlie says during our chat is undercut with an easy laugh, the singer instantly dispelling any comparison with the foreboding strife of his band’s music with sheer force of personality. “We came to the conclusion that people were still consuming culture after a period where everyone was collectively reeling from a load of really difficult things. I know I was clinging on to any little cultural artefact that was coming my way. It sounds very altruistic, and a bit grand, but I just thought that it made sense [to release it] now.”
You can say that again, because ‘Uppers’ is so ridiculously prescient at times you could swear it was written post-pandemic. There’s even a song called ‘Journal of a Plague Year’ for goodness sake. From the first clang of ‘The Big Curve’ onwards, it is an oppressive, brutally honest sledgehammer of a listen that skitters and crashes through every aspect of pre-COVID modern life in Britain today. Laughing when I call it a stressful record, he stresses that the timing was all an accident. “I think you’re right. There are things on there that just feel, fucking hell… ‘Journal’ happened just because I had finished reading the Daniel Defoe book, and we were into psychogeography and were asking, ‘how would London cope with a plague and how has it been shaped by it in the past?'” he smiles incredulously before admitting: “I felt really weird, almost difficult about it afterwards. Because I didn’t want to seem glib about it, because I wrote it as this abstract thing. And then it takes on a life of its own… But I think it’s an important song to the album.”
There is something about Charlie, both on the record, and in person that is reminiscent of A Very British version of Protomartyr frontman Joe Casey, a comparison that he is obviously pleased with. “They’re incredible, so thank you,” he smiles before continuing: “It’s about being diffuse in a way, and hopefully, therefore, the message becomes more powerful because you’re enticing people in with abstract imagery. It means they have to explore it a little. That’s always been important to us.” Largely dealing in oblique messages rather than definitive statements, the lyrics at times feel like snatches torn from different pages of a book, or half-heard conversations – all somehow meshing into a cohesive patchwork of moods. “I get the most satisfaction out of reading a passage in a book, knowing it’s trying to communicate something but not necessarily knowing how it’s doing it,” he agrees. “And when I do get it, I’m like ‘fuck, right’. I think you have to let the audience feel like they’ve made their own conclusions about the world a little more, because I can’t stand inside every single person’s head every time they’re listening to the record and explain it. We can talk in interviews about what we meant and what we believe in, who we are as people and why we made the record, but not everyone will listen to me fucking drivel on incessantly.”
For an obviously politically left-wing band, and record, ‘Uppers’ treads a fine line between asking tough questions and providing its own answers. And of course, one glance at Twitter over the last few months will tell you that you can’t be a post-punk band without dealing in politics at some point or another. “I think our politics have been established through the album and how we’re framing ourselves. We’re all obviously left-wing to varying degrees, so I think there was always an intention to talk about in the same way that I speak about it with my friends in the pub, you know?” Charlie continues carefully, fully aware of the territory that he’s wandering into. “I think in recent weeks, it’s been really interesting looking at contemporaries across the spectrum online. The left, by its very nature, has this polyphony of voices but the trouble is that if you’re right-wing, then it’s very easy to be united on things like low taxes and cutting benefits. There are obviously internal wrangling, but ultimately no-one’s calling out others across the right for being less right-wing than them?” He hits full speed. “Even bands like Sports Team, who I think have been unfairly maligned because the politics are there to see in a lot of their songs, just not as overtly. These guys aren’t the enemy, you know? Let’s aim at the right people.”
It is obviously a topic that he is fiercely passionate about but eventually, he stops himself with a laugh. “Sorry, that was a very rambling answer. It just upset me. So many bad things are happening… Maybe I just got Bad Thing Fatigue.”
Returning to talk of making a debut record at this ‘later’ time in the life, he admits disparagingly with a grin that the band are “the fucking last gang in town in leather jackets,” but feels that it is only now, after they have been through the right experiences, that they could have produced the work that they have. “I don’t mind that [we’re a bit older], because I hope that I mean that our music is inclusive and shows that art isn’t limited to an age or a demographic. It might be limited because of the fucking Chancellor and economic circumstances, though. But you know, it shouldn’t be.”
Despite those obstacles, it’s pretty obvious what Charlie is yearning for. “I think you understand pretty quickly the reason why bands and people continue to go to gigs,” he says. “It’s a craving, that communion, people getting into a space and communicating with each other. That’s really special. Even if you’re playing at the back of an All Bar One, magic can happen there because it’s about the people in that room.”
He breaks into one more big laugh, before signing off simply. “Man, I miss it. I can’t believe we’ve only played one gig… What a mad position to be in.” One thing is for sure, and that’s whether it is in a freezer or not, the second TV Priest gig is sure going to be one of the hottest tickets in town when live music thaws out.
Taken from the November issue of Dork. TV Priest’s debut album ‘Uppers’ is out 13th November.
Words: Jamie MacMillan