As a band in the modern-day music industry, resilience is key.
Having your tour van robbed of your worldly belongings just before a gig, yet successfully tracing the offenders’ tracks to a nearby council estate and recovering said items from a dustbin just in time for the performance that evening shows a degree of resilience.
As does hunting for a lost passport in remote North-Eastern woodlands at 4am, a few hours before the first flight of a European tour is due - and at a time when Raoul Moat is still at large, yet to be placated by police Tasers or Gazza’s chicken. Defying all odds and logic, the passport was found and the band made the tour; the story demonstrating the never-say-die spirit Little Comets have in abundance.
“If there was a moment to sum up our attitude to life and just our stubborn persistence, it was that”, explains Comets frontman Rob Coles. Such traits have been crucial in the band surviving an acrimonious split from ex-label Columbia Records and the departure of childhood friend and drummer Mark Harle, to continue producing a criminally-underrated brand of indie-pop.
“Leaving Columbia probably wasn't the best thing to do if we wanted a massive career in music, but we stayed true to what we wanted to do and I'm really pleased that we left that relationship with a lot of pride intact. With our first record [In Search of Elusive Little Comets – released at the beginning of this year] we made an album that is truly ours, artwork and all.”
Like so many artists, Little Comets felt increasingly straight-jacketed by their record company big-wigs and an unhappy Columbia marriage endured one domestic too many when the band’s creativity was compromised. “When they started tinkering with the music side of things we were like, ‘Hang on, if you can do that I can send you back one of your press releases that's got shitloads of errors in.’ And they really didn't like that.”
This brash assessment betrays the demeanour of softly spoken and mild-mannered lead singer Rob, who chats freely about all matters thrown his way as we perch on the back-seats of the tour van before the Comets’ gig at The Garage in Islington. Clutter is crammed into every foot-well and crevice of the vehicle as endearing apologies are offered by Rob for the mess, and bassist Matt for his personal hygiene; the latter dousing himself in Lynx before scarpering to continue typically DIY pre-show preparations. The scene aptly illustrates the less-than-glamorous life on the road for a rising band, but a ruthless hunt for mainstream stardom and luxury tour buses is not besotting the Geordie trio.
“When Columbia started tinkering with the music side of things we were like, ‘Hang on, if you can do that I can send you back one of your press releases that's got shitloads of errors in.’ And they really didn't like that.”
“If this is as far as we get as a band then we can still be really proud”, says Rob. “If it comes to making a contrived effort to be appreciated by radio and chart well, what’s the point? It’s not true anymore.” Their afro-beat permeated sound has nevertheless been lauded by new music titans Zane Lowe, Steve Lamacq and Huw Stephens and has earned the Comets a strong fanbase – as demonstrated by the packed and raucous London venue later that evening.
Flagship singles Joanna and One Night In October are echoed word-for-word by a pogo jumping crowd comprising both sweaty indie-kids and even sweatier middle-agers, while the poignancy of slower, stripped back tracks like Her Black Eyes have the audience captivated, momentarily locked in a stand-still. It’s a contrast that characterises much of Little Comets’ music, from the debut album to their forthcoming Worry EP, as sombre tales often lurk beneath jangly guitars and sing-a-long choruses.
“We're pretty cheerful musicians so melodically our sound is quite major and upbeat, but lyrically it can be a lot darker, and the new EP has retained that contrast. I like trying to talk about issues in songs because there's a lot of shit stuff that goes on out there. It was weird listening to our track Isles when the riots were going on as it became so relevant, it was crazy.”
Isles, released last year, did indeed offer social commentary with commendable foresight. Focusing on the travails of Britain’s disenchanted youth during the economic downturn, lyrics including, ‘The streets are bleak, the kids are running wild’, and ‘Terror on the pavement, panic in the street…’ were of course played out in vivid fashion this summer. And Isles isn’t the only foray into weightier issues on In Search Of Elusive Little Comets; the aforementioned Her Black Eyes deals with the trauma of domestic violence, Darling Alistair (switch words to find name of prominently eye-browed politician) alludes to the increasing distrust of the Labour Party in the band’s native North East, while Intelligent Animals laments the atrocities of conflict-ravaged Darfur in Sudan.
Though critical of their own lyrics and admitting “summing up an entire social issue in two verses and a chorus can be pretty impossible to do”, it is clear actually saying something is a valued weapon in the Little Comets' armoury. A quality that is most welcome in a world where our radios continue to vomit out vacuous, cliché-ridden nonsense from the charts, typically barking out orders along the lines of ‘getting on the floor’, ‘raising hands to the air’, and, of course, ‘not having a care’.
“I think acts need to say more. You hear too many songs which lyrically are just shit”, says Rob. “It’s important to try and comment on issues that you feel passionate about, or just to use language in a better way because so many lyrics are plain lazy. There’s a bit of a dearth of clever music at the moment and it would be nice to hear more songs that not just musically made you feel good, but lyrically made you think. Music is a way to express yourself and influence people, if you feel like you don’t have a voice you can write a song about it because it’s a way of connecting with others.
What makes the Comets one of the most likeable bands you’ll ever encounter is the fact that this earnest ambition to reach musical and lyrical heights is allied with an utterly pretention-free sense of fun.
“That’s what I love about bands like Everything Everything - they’re album musically and lyrically is very intricate, and it makes you go away and type the lyrics on the internet to find out what the meanings are and what they’re talking about, and I think bands like that are really important as they make you properly assess what you’re listening to.”
Yet what makes the Comets one of the most likeable bands you’ll ever encounter is the fact that this earnest ambition to reach musical and lyrical heights is allied with an utterly pretention-free sense of fun. For evidence, look no further than the band’s early penchant for ‘guerrilla gigs’, as university lectures theatres, metros, trams and Mark & Spencer bakery aisles were invaded for spontaneous performances before the inevitable intrusion of police and security. More recent Comets phenomena include the whole band simultaneously playing tracks on one instrument, be it piano or guitar, and even taking the feat to live shows.
The license for bands like Little Comets to continue adding exciting songs and performances to their repertoire nevertheless depends on public support, and specifically, financial backing. The music industry has gone from scratching its head to positively ripping its hair out over the issue of trying to generate money in the age of the free download, and musicians without the mainstream clout behind them seem in danger of being marginalised.
All too aware of the problem, Rob claims, “I think it’s really important that if you like music by a band who aren’t signed to a major label you should buy it, otherwise it’s stopping that band from being creative. For bands at our level, to sell an extra thousand albums is like six months wages, so it’s important to support. There’s nothing wrong with downloading in the first place I don’t think, but if you then like it, you should go and buy it because that’s just right.”
The smaller bands of this world deserve our hard earned now more than ever. And when it comes to making room on your CD rack or in your iTunes library, few bands will warrant the space more than Little Comets.
Little Comets' title track from the 'Worry EP' to be released 12th December:
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