As he sits, nursing a cold and a mineral water, in a quiet corner of a working-men’s club in Leeds, it’s hard to believe that George Mitchell has just caused uproar on American network television. But it’s true. Mitchell’s band Eagulls are fresh from playing live on The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, where Mitchell shouted about “voices in my head”, his eyes closed tight, while the noisy guitars of their single Possessed raged around him like an FX-laden circular saw. A virtually unknown, viscerally angry, British guitar band creating a storm on a chatshow? It wasn’t what anyone expected.
“A lot of people thought I was on drugs,” Mitchell sniffles. “It’s the opposite; the music does that to me.”
“The crowd went wild when we were announced because they thought they’d said ‘the Eagles’,” says guitarist Mark Goldsworthy. “We’re probably a bit much if you’re expecting Hotel California.”
The West Yorkshire noiseniks are the forefront of one of this year’s more unlikely trends: bands re-embracing what the rock critic Lester Bangs – referring to the Stooges – once called the “sacred power of horrible noise”. And getting noticed for it, after years of rock bands seeming to have to make themselves as smooth, likable and bland as possible to make any impression outside the narrowest of niches. Like the nihilist Detroit bands of 1969/70 or indeed the early punks of 1976/77, Eagulls and the other new racket-makers are the product of what they perceive as a careerist music scene, when even so-called “alternative” bands often sound as if they’re regurgitating the first Strokes album to get on the radio.
A year ago, Mitchell was feeling fed up with the state of the live circuit. “Everything felt stale,” he says. “Nothing was sticking.” So in January 2013 he posted on Eagulls’ blog his analysis of what was wrong with the bands he was watching. It was impulsive, heartfelt, scattergun stuff – “Without your 90s hairstyles over your ugly faces you have nothing”; “Fuck you and all your mums and dads that pay for you to do the band full time” – and it went viral, suggesting Mitchell had unwittingly tapped into an unchannelled disaffection. A year on, he notes that while the bands he was addressing have disappeared, a whole new bunch are making him feel excited.
Dublin’s Girl Band, who are as much a girl band as Eagulls are the Eagles, have been similarly blowing up a live storm in recent months with songs such as the terrific, ear-splitting Lawman. “We like noise because it’s intense and you can shape it,” offers bassist Daniel Fox. “Tame it? You can try. We’re not so much a reaction against what’s going on – it’s more down to the music that we’re into – but in terms of guitar music there hasn’t been much in terms of louder groups.”
Another band making a racket are Preston’s Evil Blizzard, who have been terrorising and thrilling audiences in recent months with a fearsome collision of Hawkwind, krautrock, molten noise, dazzling psychedelic lights and weird, gnarly-looking masks. They arrive at Manchester’s Cornerhouse cafe to meet me in full regalia, putting the fear of God into passersby who are startled to glance up and see a human with a pig’s head.
‘When we supported the Fall, half of the crowd said: That’s the absolute worst thing I’ve ever seen. The rest thought it was fucking brilliant’ Side, Evil Blizzard
“They’re latex, made in specialist places,” explains singer-drummer Side, whose real name is Mark Whiteside. “They’re placed on our faces so they start to look like caricatures of us. Kids love them. Grownups hate them. Look at the reactions in here.” He glances around: people are gawping while desperately trying not to be seen doing so. “It’s theatrical, but if the music wasn’t there it wouldn’t work. People don’t come to see us just because of the masks.”
These bands have little in common except for the fact that all doing something different. Evil Blizzard have four bass players – Prowler, Filthydirty, Kav and Stomper – a lineup they arrived at by accident after their guitarist had a heart attack and bassists kept pestering to join. Girl Band are all under 22, grew up listening to techno and Fela Kuti – and you can hear those grooves in their ear-splitting music – but discovering Nick Cave’s old band the Birthday Party provided a eureka moment. As Fox remembers: “Using distortion and feedback, but as part of the tune, was a revelation.”
They are all confrontational and keen to cause a reaction, though – and don’t care whether it’s positive or negative. Eagulls like playing shows where the crowd hasn’t come specifically to see them, because “it’s more shocking. To give them something unexpected.” When Evil Blizzard got their first break supporting the Fall, Whiteside went outside afterwards to find everyone talking about his band. “Half of them said: ‘That’s the absolute worst thing I’ve ever seen.’ The rest thought it was fucking brilliant.”
It’s probably no coincidence that these bands are cropping up in the sort of towns where the music industry doesn’t often venture, where there isn’t a scrum of record label scouts to worry about impressing. Leeds-based Eagulls originally hailed from Ripley in Derbyshire (Mitchell) and Durham (Goldsworthy). They gravitated to the city’s “music hub” and bonded over a love of American hardcore. Mitchell, who’d never sung before, was the last to join. His sole previous musical experience was as guitarist in a Chesterfield band called Scumf (short for Scumfucks), who managed to get barred from a pub after their first and only gig. By then he was spending so much time kipping at Goldsworthy’s flat in the student district of Hyde Park, curled up on the floor that the guitarist’s visiting mother thought he’d got a dog.
“We weren’t after a singer so much as someone who did something weird and different,” he explains. “I’d seen Mark’s drawings and short stories. I thought that if he could bring that to the sound it might be interesting. He sings with a strong accent [part Derbyshire, part adopted Yorkshire] which we thought was important.” Cue another of Mitchell’s pet hates: “English bands who sing in American accents.”
None of that from Sleaford Mods, who aren’t mods or from Sleaford – a little-known town in Lincolnshire – but from nearby Grantham, famously Margaret Thatcher’s home town. Which makes it sweeter that their expletive-littered brutal album Austerity Dogs – part East Midlands rap, part post-punk, which they describe as “electronic munt minimalist”, with track titles including Urine Mate, Shitstreet and Wage Don’t Fit – has seen frontgob Jason Williamson labeled “Iain Duncan Smith’s worst nightmare” for portraying unpalatable truths about life on the breadline.
“I’ve worked in factories, clothes shops, as a security guard, you name it,” he says. “I’m currently working in a call centre because it’s all that’s left.” Williamson was a mod once – “real Weller nut as a kid” – but after getting jaded fronting guitar bands, he was dabbling with computers when he bumped into his “partner in crime”, sound loops man Andrew Fearn. Together, they make a fearsome “punk-hop” racket that Williamson says is a collision of English punk, the Wu-Tang Clan and Andrew Weatherall’s dubby Two Lone Swordsmen. Surely the most uncompromising British protest music made in years, Williamson’s blistering critique is all the more searing because of its seeming randomness: his vocal punches can land anywhere from limp copyist guitar bands to Boris Johnson to – more curiously – Kasabian and Brian Eno.
‘It’s dark, but the music’s celebratory. We have shit times but still have fun. We’re not going to write maudlin dirges. Enjoy your fucking self’ George Mitchell, Eagulls
“They all represent things I find shallow,” he explains. “All right, Eno’s done some good stuff but he produced Coldplay. There was a picture of Boris Johnson in Metro with his arms around the Cheeky Girls, for God’s sake! The country’s on its arse. Kasabian? Fakes, complete arseholes. They say they’re punk but punk was built on blood and sweat. They’re a can of deodorant. Piss off!”
Williamson says he chooses to swear so much on record as a Situationist act of provocation, but admits he doesn’t want it to become a schtick. “I don’t want it to become too obvious, every song fucking this and cunting that,” he says, with a hint of a chuckle. “Donkey doesn’t contain any swear words. All right, one ‘bollocks’. It’s frustration. You feel so trapped all the time.”
Frustration is a common thread among these bands. Eagulls’ Coffin Song was written during a period when Mitchell was drinking a lot and didn’t want to wake up because he’d “had enough. It’s dark, but the music’s celebratory. We have shit times but still have fun. We’re not going to write maudlin dirges. Enjoy your fucking self!”
They’re certainly doing that, and after landing a grant to go to America’s SXSW festival last year – which they thought would be a “last hurrah” – are as amazed as anybody that their raucous showing there led to a US indie deal and ultimately to that Letterman appearance.
As for how far any of these bands – and other emerging noiseniks, such as Leeds’ Autobahn and Glasgow’s Amazing Snakeheads – can take it, who knows? Evil Blizzard admit that, commercially, they’re “Simon Cowell’s worst nightmare”. Eagulls’ Mitchell is just glad to bring the noise.
“It’s an outlet for something that has no other outlet,” he concludes, finishing off the mineral water. “It’s therapeutic. A primal scream.”