Interview: Codename Colin

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With the recent slow but steady resurgence of UK ska punk over the last couple of years, Codename Colin have emerged as one of the most promising acts of the next generation. Originating from deepest, darkest Hertfordshire, the six piece’s lively, upbeat, pop punk-tinged sound has won over audiences up and down the country, which included a spot at Slam Dunk South 2018, with infectious rhythms and equally skankable melodies. As the release of debut album, ‘Escape From Everything’, looms, the future is looking bright for the band. Still in a rather delicate state from a night out in Camden the day before, frontman Charlie “Chaz” Gabriel joins us from his own shed to discuss the story of the group so far, how their own personal experiences gone hand-in-hand with the development of their sound, and the best kind of squash is for conquering a hangover.

Thanks for taking the time to have a chat with us, Chaz. How are you doing today?

I’m terrible today. Hangovers are evil.

Really? A necessary evil, surely?

Yeah, it’s a necessary evil. But was feeling pretty awful this morning, that’s why I’ve drank about 20 glasses of squash.

What’s your squash of choice?

Summer Fruits at the minute. I like the Summer Fruits. And my Mum bought me a SodaStream as well so I can make it fizzy and pretend I’m a 10 year old.

It was always Cherries & Berries for me. So for those who are new to the band, who are Codename Colin?

We are a bunch of idiots from all over Hertfordshire that decided to play music that went out of fashion in 1996, the year it came into fashion as well.

Concise and to the point. We’re chatting today because you’ve got a new album coming out. It’s done, dusted and due to be released on 1st June. Why did you feel that the time was right now to record your debut album?

Well, we did ‘Outgunned’. We never wanted to do a short EP because when you put it in your car stereo, you get five minutes down the road and it’s done and you’ve got to change it. So we were like “we’ve got to have a longer one” so that’s why that record had, like, eight tracks on it. And then we thought “we’ve done eight, we could probably do an album”. And then Call Me Malcolm put their album out [2018’s ‘I Was Broken When You Got Here’] and pretty much everyone in the ska scene went “right ok, let’s start doing albums, then”. It was a bit of that, trying to get that extra push, seeing other bands put out full albums and do alright. Because it always seemed like everyone was putting out EPs once a year, that was the way to go, so it was nice to see an album do well locally and think “the album’s not dead yet, so let’s do one before it dies”.

Was the material already written or did you have to write a lot to fill out the time? How long were you working on it for?

A couple of songs were written very early on. We played ‘Kelly’s Missing’ at every single show last year. I think we wrote it last January and the first time we played it was at the Filthy Militia EP [‘Innocent Until Proven Filthy’] launch in February. We wrote bits of songs throughout the year, but it wasn’t until September sort of time that we really knuckled down and started writing new songs. I was just sitting in my room every night, I wrote about 50 songs, sort of nicked bits from one and nicked bits from another. It was mostly spread out from September to the end of December. It was quite nice because it wasn’t just me this time. Lewis [bass] wrote a lot of the lyrics with me; it was more of a band effort rather than me bringing songs for the band to learn.

The album was recorded and produced by Andy Baker, of Fandangle and traveling-all-over-world-for-some-reason fame…

He can’t sit still…

…for sure. How did that working arrangement come about?

He mastered ‘Outgunned’, and he said he really liked it and wanted to work with us next time we did some stuff, and then we did the Bowling For Soup cover. He didn’t record that but mixed and mastered it, so he said next time he wanted to do all the tracking as well and properly produce. So we got talking and we told him we were going to do an album, so it was pretty much decided, well before we had anything written, that we were going to do it with him, just because of how his stuff sounds. His stuff with Andy B And The World, we really liked the sound of the horns, which was a crucial thing because we never really got the right sound on ‘Outgunned’. He just seemed to know exactly what to do to get that.

Following on from that, what was it like working with him? Do you feel that he has a particular impact on the sound or how songs were arranged?

He’s really cool to work with, ridiculously hardworking. When we were doing the recording he slept about three hours a night. We were up until well early in the morning, I was having little sleeps during the day and that, but he’s like a robot, man. He’s good at hearing other ideas on the spot, just picking things up and getting you to try different things. Rather than just letting you getting on with it, he’s there but not trying to get you to rewrite the songs. He was very focused on the horn melodies and getting them really punchy and really catchy, so a lot of them weren’t quite rewritten, they had the same riffs but just more to it. ‘The World If Going To End’, that riff was a lot simpler, and he was like “no, I want to add more to it, make it stand out a little bit more” and things like that. So it was really good having that extra pair of ears, despite me being me and hating it when someone goes “no, change it” and I’m like “NO, I DON’T LIKE CHANGE!” It was good, though. It’s nice having someone that’s there to say what needs to be changed.

The material on ‘Outgunned’ and earlier is known for having quite a light-hearted feel, bet there’s definitely a more serious tone on the new album, although the Codename Colin sound is still there. Was that a concious decision or did that just naturally evolve?

The last few years I’ve struggled with a lot of things mentally so a lot of that came out in it, and before I didn’t feel like I could write about that sort of thing, so I’d always write the chirpy, poppy…well…‘Outgunned’ sort of stuff [laughs]. I’d never write anything too serious because I didn’t really feel like I wanted that out there. I didn’t really want to be seen as that guy, I wanted to be seen as, y’know, “oh, it’s Chaz, he’s always up for a laugh”…

Well, you mentioned ‘I Was Broken When You Got Here’ earlier, which speaks very frankly about mental health. Was that an influence?

Oh yeah, huge inspiration, huge inspiration, that album. It was a realisation that you can be in a ska punk band and write serious songs. Our biggest influences are like Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake, and I know their lyrics are quite a contrast to how their music sounds, but I never got to that point in my lyric writing until then, and with Call Me Malcolm’s album it was like, yeah, I can write about stuff like this and not feel awkward. Well, ish. Still feels a bit awkward playing some of the songs. But yeah, they were a massive influence. The other topics, like ‘The World Is Going To End’, I just got fed up of hearing people not take anything seriously and be like “oh, well, there’s no point voting, you can’t change anything, there’s no point in doing this, there’s no point in that”. And it’s like, well, with that attitude, nothing’s gonna change. The whole planet is in a serious state and people have got to start talking about it, and so I wrote that song. That was written in the last year and the timing, with all the Extinction Rebellion and the protests the other week, we weren’t going to release that song but Lewis said we should put that one out as a single. So that happened.

Mental health is a hot button topic in music right now, particularly in the wake of what sadly happened with Chester Bennington, Keith Flint, people like that. Do you think music has an important role to play in discussing these issues?

Yeah, definitely. Most people don’t tend to talk about things unless they have an outlet, so music or art, y’know, painters will paint things that are depressing because they’re depressed, and songwriters will write really depressing songs. We’ll only let it out in our songs, we won’t talk about it normally. That’s the way I see it, so it has got a massive role to play in reminding everyone that it’s alright, y’know? Not everything’s perfect, and if there’s one way to do it, music is the best way to do it.

Ska is seen as dancey music, bouncy music, generally happy music. Do you think it can discuss these serious topics in a more accessible way than a genre that’s perhaps generally more on the nose?

It depends on the person, obviously. If you’re into more dark stuff anyway, then you tend to find enjoyment in listening to heavier, darker-sounding music and listen to the lyrics that way. A lot of people in punk bands, things like that, will tend to listen to the happier side of music, the jokier side of music. And if you’re putting your lyrics to happier-sounding music, then your message is going to get out there more than with depressing-sounding music. Again, it depends on the person. For me, going back to Call Me Malcolm’s album, it’s not a “happy”-sounding album for the most part, it’s a middle ground, I guess. But it being a ska album talking about major mental health problems, it really helped me focus more and I could go to shows and enjoy the music, and it really means something. You’re there and 100% behind those songs.

You decided to rerecord ‘Losing Touch’ to open the album, having previously released it along with the music video back in May 2017. Why was this?

We recorded that a year before we recorded the rest of ‘Outgunned’, and it was while we were first finding our feet as we’d gone through so many member changes. It was recorded when we didn’t really have a solid band together: Lewis wasn’t on it, our old bass player, Adam, his vocals and playing still featured quite prominently on it, there’s no trumpet, just the two saxes. That song’s still a favourite of everyone’s, an undroppable song in our live set, really; we dropped it once and people were LIVID. So when Lewis joined the band he really wanted to go and rerecord the bass for it, and we wanted to rerecord vocals, get Snowy [trumpet] on it, but our producer, George, had all his hard drives stolen so he didn’t have the original stems for the song, so we couldn’t rerecord anything on top of it. So it’s always been something that’s been in the back of our minds. When we released ‘Outgunned’, we always knew it didn’t quite sound the same as the rest of the record, I mean half of it was a different band entirely. From when we started in 2016, the only original people who are in the band from then are me and Iain [tenor sax], everyone else is a new member but we feel like we’re solid now, so it was like “let’s get this recorded as US” rather than Charlie’s backing band as it sort of felt at the time.

Do you have any personal favourite moments on the album?

The two songs that are my favourites are ‘Escape From Everything’ and ‘Nervous’. ‘Nervous’ was written AGES ago and it was twice the speed, and the main riff from ‘Escape From Everything’ used to be the second half of ‘Nervous’. So that’s where the two songs tie in, we sort of ripped them apart where it wasn’t working and made another song out of it. I wrote ‘Nervous’ when I was actually feeling alright, rather than the rest of the album where I was feeling like shit. It’s quite a nice, uplifting song. The trumpet solo in it, Snowy messed up recording it but it was a really good mess up and it sounded awesome, what he accidentally played. Right in the middle of the solo there’s this little run he did where he was supposed to play something completely different. It was weird, it didn’t quite sound like the right thing but it sounded awesome. It was funny, this little accident that made it go a level up. And ‘Escape From Everything”, that song was written in about 20 minutes. I guess it’s the most emotional song on the album, another one I wrote when I was feeling like crap. Wrote the chorus, wrote the verse, thought it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and that’s how it came about. It’s one of those songs that I would have loved when I was 15, would have been jumping around my room pretending to play guitar to it. So yeah, those are probably my two favourite bits from the album.

What have been your favourite moments with Codename Colin so far?

Obviously Slam Dunk…[laughs]…yeah, the Slam Dunk competition was just unreal, I’ve talked enough about that over the last year. Other than that, we played a gig at The Chelsea Inn in Bristol in March 2018. We were booked in with Bandits!! and we thought we were just going to open up, play a set, people might enjoy it and have a drink, and that was that. Turns out we were booked as the headliners, and it was chaotic. We didn’t know Bandits!! then, and there was another band called Ill Gotten Gains. We felt really awkward because we turned up in bloody suits and it was this proper little punk pub. We just felt really out of place. The other bands were quite punky and we felt like a pop band, essentially. We thought we were going to go down like a lead balloon. We were cacking it, me especially. Lewis was just like “ah, we’ll just play and go home”. Then we played, and literally everyone came in from the garden; the pub was RAMMED. People were singing along from the word go, we were like “what was happening? People actually know who we are?!” That was the moment we realised we were a bit more than just a local band, people actually liked our stuff. We’d turned up to Bristol where we’d never played in our lives and had a pub full of people singing along to our songs and going crazy. That was the coolest moment last year.

Any other bands that really excite you at the moment?

Well, we love playing with Last Edition, Filthy Militia, Saving Sebastian

Oh yeah, because Saving Sebastian actually appear on the album, don’t they?

Yeah, they did some gang vocals on it. A couple of shouts on ‘Losing Touch’, a couple of shouts on ‘ The World Is Going To End’, and then the woahs that are all over the place, a bit on ‘Escape From Everything’…

I suppose there’s no one better than a pop punk band to do a chorus of woahs…

Yeah, exactly. I don’t think they personally have any songs with actually woahs in, though. Strange that. I’m looking forward to their new EP. I’ve heard it and it sounds absolutely amazing. They’ve been a band for like 11 years, I’ve been in about six different bands since they’ve been a band, and we used to play in pubs around Hemel, and they never really found their feet until pretty recently. They’ve recorded with Andy as well and he gave them that push. It’s really showing their potential. Jamie and Sonny are great songwriters and they’ve never had a good enough recording to show that, so I’m hoping that helps them. They’ve just won the Marshall competition, which has replaced the Slam Dunk competition this year. Hopefully that gives them a good push before they get too old.

It’s interesting how, for somewhere that you really wouldn’t expect it, Hemel Hempstead seems to be quite a strong music scene. I mean, you just have to look at how quickly the online tickets sold out for your album launch…

Yeah, Hemel’s alright, it’s got a huge amount of talent. It’s just one of those towns nobody knows of, unless you talking about Buncefield. We don’t have a proper music venue, it’s only little pubs. We had a really good venue years ago but it got torn down. They promised they were going to build something new and never did. That was about 20 years ago now, so I don’t think it’s likely it’s ever going to happen again. The problem with it is that it’s a very Tory town; most people are middle-aged with houses and they don’t really care what goes on around their town as long as they’ve got their house and their money. Probably speaking a bit too broadly there, but it feels like that sometimes around here. On the other side, we’ve got a huge amount of talent, some great bands. A band I used to be part of, Silo 18, the singer Chris is living in Canada at the minute, great rock band. DodoBones, great acoustic, folky band. Saving Sebastian are awesome. Another band called Lunasun, they’re like an indie rock band, there’s just so much talent. A load of great acoustic songwriters as well, but there’s just not enough places around Hemel to showcase it. I put on shows at the Rose & Crown every now and again, and we’re going to try and start doing stuff at The Oddfellow’s Arms. Robbyn and Steve from DodoBones do an open mic night once a month, and there’s a cafe in the town that has a lot of music on, an open mic and some acoustic stuff, but other than that there’s not a huge amount of places, so it’s really frustrating being a musician around here. Especially as there is so much talent. I’ve actually made a playlist on Spotify just of bands from around here. There’s also a pop punk band called Victory Lane, they’re not from around here but their drummer’s from just down the road, they’ve signed a record deal and put out a huge new single. So much talent but no way to put it out, so we’re just…doing things in pubs [laughs].

Anyone else you wanted to give a shout out to?

Who haven’t I mentioned…er…Lead Shot Hazard, Bandits!!, all the Be Sharp bands: King Punch, Call Me Malcolm, Millie Manders, all the band who’ve played at the New Cross Inn. Obviously Paul and Mike for being dudes…I can’t really think at the minute because I’m a bit hungover still. All the London bands. We didn’t really feel like we were part of the London scene until we spoke to everyone and they were all like “no, no, you’re one of us now”. Just Say Nay always said that, even though we’re not from London. It’s really good, the whole London scene’s great. We really appreciate it when we get put on there.

And finally, what’s next? Anything exciting coming up for Codename Colin?

We’re probably going to do something a little less serious next, in terms of what recordings we put out. We’ve talked for absolutely ages about a cover album, because everyone knows us for doing silly covers and things. We’ve only recorded the odd one or two, and we do a few live. I think that’ll be the next project we’re gonna do, whether it’ll be a long EP again or a full album I don’t know. We haven’t really talked about it enough, but me and Snowy have a list of songs that’s about three metres long. Just an endless list of songs we wanna cover. We’re going to do another tour at the end of the year, I think, like we did last October, we’re going to try and sort out the same sort of thing. Just try and gig as much as we can to get the album out there. That’s about it, and if Slam Dunk do another competition again we’ll enter that, try and win that. Because that was fun.

Thanks very much for taking the time to sit down with us today.

‘Escape From Everything’ is out on 1st June. Preorder you copy on bandcamp now.

Codename Colin will be playing two album launch shows at the Oddfellows Arms, Hemel Hempstead on Saturday 1st June, and the New Cross Inn, London on Sunday 9th June.

Check out their latest single, Kelly’s Missing, below.

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