ABOVE (LEFT TO RIGHT): PETER MAYHEW, CHILLI JESSON, SAMUEL FRYER, WILLIAM DOYLE. PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM BEARD
In a climate of neatly produced synth-pop, British quartet Palma Violets is a necessary alternative. Signed to London’s legendary Rough Trade (home of The Strokes, The Libertines, and The Smiths back in the ’80s), their guitar riffs are a little gritty and their vocals a pleasant combination of impassioned shouting and Samuel Fryer’s sincere baritone.
Like their contemporaries Swim Deep, Fryer and bassist Alexander Jesson, drummer William Doyle, and keyboardist Peter Mayhew met as teenage music fans at Reading Festival. “I think everyone is at their most real state at a festival,” says Jesson, who is better known by his nickname Chilli. “You can be whoever you want. You live in such a different environment; all the rules of everyday life go out the window.”
Their transition from friends to bandmates was a gradual one, but their ascension as a band was not. Within less than a year, Palma Violets had joined Rough Trade, returned to Reading to play as musicians, won NME’s “track of the year” with their single “Best Friends,” and recorded and released their debut album 180. They’d also acquired a number of famous fans including Nick Cave, Zane Lowe, and Pulp’s Steve Mackey, who produced 180.
Ahead of shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg tomorrow and the Downtown Festival this weekend, we talk to Chilli about his ideal deceased fan and what he would do if someone stole his bass guitar.
EMMA BROWN: I really like your song “Fourteen.” What was your biggest concern as a 14-year-old?
ALEXANDER “CHILLI” JESSON: Probably getting a girlfriend or something.
BROWN: What is your biggest concern now?
JESSON: My biggest concern now is, I suppose, not being able to please everybody. I do go out of my way to try and please everyone, which I think is a big downfall on my own part. Only now that things have gotten a little bit bigger, you can’t really do that in the same way.
BROWN: Because someone on the Internet is bound to hate you?
JESSON: It’s not so much the hate. I think hate’s really healthy. When it was just me and my friends, my friends would go, “I don’t really like that”—now it’s open to the public. It’s very different.
BROWN: I know that “Fourteen” is the first song you wrote as a band. Did you set out to write a song together?
JESSON: No, it kind of just happened. I had something, and Sam had another bit, and we made a song.
BROWN: I would be embarrassed to share a song idea with one of my friends if we’d never written a song together before. Is there any of that?
JESSON: Of course there is—it still happens today—but that’s the exciting part. When you both go, “Fuck, this is going to work”—when you’re both excited about something—it’s such a beautiful thing. But of course it’s a really difficult to do.
BROWN: Are you ever excited about something that doesn’t end up working?
JESSON: No. To us, it’s going to work. If you’ve got that feeling of excitement about a certain song or something, it doesn’t matter if anybody in the world doesn’t like it. You’ve got to be selfish. As long as you, the player, are excited about it, then nothing can stop you.
BROWN: Now that you are touring your album, do the songs still hold up? Or are you sick of playing them?
JESSON: Not at all. Luckily for us we’re quite recent; some of the songs are months new. Most bands that have been going for two, three years, have been playing the same songs for two years. We’ve only been playing the same songs for the last six, seven months, so we’re still really learning them. We’re not that good at them yet. I still make mistakes. This is all fairly new, so I’m not bored at all.
BROWN: Do you ever forget bits onstage?
JESSON: Yeah, definitely.
BROWN: When was the last time you did that?
JESSON: Probably last night. You’ve got to take it with a pinch of salt; it’s only music. You just learn to grow and how to cover it. A band can muck up and regain their confidence onstage and make split-second decisions. That’s what makes a great show into an amazing show, I think. Maybe some new part comes flying out of nowhere, actually, that sounds better.
BROWN: Do you ever get stage fright?
JESSON: No. I used to very, very badly. I used to not be able to look at the crowd. I used to put my back to the crowd, put my microphone in front of me. I don’t know what happened, it was a sudden thing. I really don’t know when, but I decided to turn around and I kind of enjoyed that. Of course, I get nervous before I get on, but as soon as I’m there, I’m doing my thing, there’s nothing that will stop me. There’s so much emotion that drives through these songs—they mean a lot to me. They really help me. It’s often a very special feeling. Before the show, I’m quite apprehensive like anyone would be, but as soon as I start playing the song, I feel great. All the nerves go. I’ve got a secret, actually. I’ve got really bad eyesight, so I can’t really see anyone in the audience.
BROWN: Do you wear glasses?
JESSON: Yeah, I sometimes wear glasses. I try not to use them, because I really struggle not to rely on them.
BROWN: In case you’re caught in avalanche and you don’t have a pair of glasses and you need to survive?
JESSON: [laughs] No, it’s not that. It’s like if you start using glasses you feel like you need them all the time. I only use them very occasionally.
BROWN: Do you have a ritual to calm yourself down before you go on stage?
JESSON: No. We’re not that kind of band where we’re all high-fiving each other and stuff. We very much get on and play, really.
BROWN: I was Twitter-stalking you and you had tweeted about trying to help the Ming City Rockers find their guitar because someone had stolen it. Does that happen often?
JESSON: People steal gear all the time, wherever you go. Musical equipment is expensive. Bass guitars come out to 500 quid, and for people that don’t have any money it is quite difficult thing, so we wanted to help them out. The guy actually gave them a written apology and everything.
BROWN: “Sorry I stole your guitar?”
JESSON: Yeah, he didn’t mean it, he was saying. It was quite amazing. That is the power of the Internet. I don’t like some attributes about the Internet, but some good came out of it for the first time, which made me see the Internet in a different light.
BROWN: What don’t you like about it?
JESSON: For young bands, like for us when we were starting up—you know when you make a rubbish recording? I just don’t think it give bands time and space. As soon as you’ve made a song, it seems like everyone’s got to put it up on the Internet. I just don’t agree with that. It’s more the musical side; it’s more about young bands that I’m really fighting this whole Internet thing for. Back before the Internet, when everything was analog, bands could really practice without having the pressure of putting their songs online.
We didn’t put any of our stuff on the Internet, and it actually worked to our advantage. We wouldn’t put anything up ourselves, but then bloggers and people sort of did the talking for us. So it just goes to show that it is possible to do it without putting your songs on the Internet.
BROWN: Who was your first fan—the first person you didn’t really know who told you that they liked your music?
JESSON: Probably our manager, Milo, who we sat next to at the football. I needed a manager and he was one of the only ones I knew, so he came down and he loved, loved the songs and it turns out he’s the best manager in the world.
BROWN: You just met him at a football match?
JESSON: Yeah, he was an old friend from the football. He knew my old man. You want someone that you want to trust and it turns out that he’s just amazing.
BROWN: What football team do you support?
JESSON: Queens Park Rangers. We’re a rubbish football team, but we’ve got heart and soul. We’ve got the best fans in the world. We’re very passionate about our football in this camp.
BROWN: What would you do if someone stole your guitar?
JESSON: Probably beat them up, to be honest with you. I’d probably ask them why, and then I’d probably beat them up. What would you do? Is that bad of me to say? Is that fair? [laughs]
BROWN: I don’t think so. It’s a violation of personal space and property.
JESSON: It is. A violation!
BROWN: Are you working on new material now?
JESSON: Yeah, which is good.
BROWN: Can you elaborate?
JESSON: [laughs] Yes I can. Well, what would I need to elaborate on?
BROWN: A new album? A new song? Every day? Once a week?
JESSON: Oh right, right. Yeah we’re always writing, so it’s obviously towards a new record.
BROWN: Do you write a lot of songs that don’t make it on to the record?
JESSON: To be honest, we don’t really. We only write A-sides. [laughs] I think we have a pretty good idea when something’s going the right way. We don’t work on stuff that doesn’t ultimately excite us enough to put on a record.
BROWN: Do all of the songs on 180 feel personal?
JESSON: Yeah. I mean, to an extent. Some of them are very personal; some of them are personal in the sense that that song really helped me with something. Every song’s got to be personal in a way. It’s got to make you feel something or else there’s no point in doing it because no one else is going to feel it. It’s got to be real emotion.
BROWN: You have some pretty exciting fans—Nick Cave, for example.
JESSON: [laughs] Yeah. He came down to one of our shows.
BROWN: Did you know he was coming?
JESSON: I didn’t. He’s a friend of the label. But who else famous likes us? Anyone?
BROWN: Well, you have your producer Steve Mackey.
JESSON: Yes, Steve Mackey. He’s my favorite fan.
BROWN: That’s a pretty good start. You’ve only had one album.
JESSON: That’s true. Pretty good. I’m not complaining There’s a famous photographer Richard Johnson, and Jim Tobias— legend.
BROWN: Do you have any secret fantasies about someone you admire discovering your music and coming to your show? One night you’ll just look out into the audience and they’ll be there and you’ll become best friends.
JESSON: I don’t know, maybe someone who’s dead. I really like Jeffrey Lee Pierce [of punk band The Gun Club]. I really think he’s a cool character. He’s the one person. I reckon if I sat down in the pub and had a few pints with him—he’d just be an amazing person to meet. I just wish he was still alive. I wish Jeffrey Lee Pierce would rise up from the dead and come to one of my shows and have a chat with me, tell me what I’m doing wrong.
BROWN: Would you be very alarmed to see him in the crowd? Would you stop playing?
JESSON: No, I would try to play harder—but not show off.
BROWN: You wouldn’t be like, “I’m having a psychotic break.”
JESSON: No, no, no. I’m stronger than that. I am. But it would be fucking scary. I wouldn’t believe it at first.
BROWN: Who was your first crush?
JESSON: I think it was a girl from [the band that sang] “Pure Shores.” Do you remember that pop band? They’re a great band. Anyway, it was one of the girls. What was the band called? Fuck. The song was called “Pure Shores.”
BROWN: Oh, All Saints?
JESSON: Yeah. Sorry, I got mixed up. That’s one of my favorite songs. I forgot what her name is, but the hot one.
BROWN: Would you put your iPod on shuffle at a party?
JESSON: I’ve got some pretty incredible songs on my iPod, but I usually listen to full records. I’ve got some great compilation ones, stuff like that so probably not. I’ve got a few bits and bobs in there that people just won’t understand.
BROWN: Do you have a specific song in mind?
JESSON: [laughs] No, not that I’m going to tell you.
BROWN: Have you ever made a mixtape, or mixed CD, for someone?
JESSON: Yeah, for my mate Jim Tobias. His music taste is… eclectic. So I put him in the right direction sometimes.
BROWN: What’s the right direction?
JESSON: “Pure Shores” by All Saints.