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Interview: Federal Charm, Generating Headlines.

Interview: Federal Charm, Generating Headlines.

Federal Charm are a four-piece blues-edged rock band from Stockport, Greater Manchester. Both their eponymous debut album released in 2013 and the sophomore Across The Divide have received strong critical acclaim, and the band are set to commence their first headline tour later this year. I caught up with the twin guitar pairing of Nick Bowden (who is also vocalist) and Paul Bowe ahead of the final night of the current tour with Australian rockers Tracer at The Talking Heads Southampton. Whilst the band most obviously occupy the Free/Zeppelin part of the musical Venn Diagram, their influences extend some way beyond this, as I was about to discover.

Federal Charm backstage at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

Federal Charm backstage at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

 

This is the last night of the tour. How has the tour been?

 Nick: The tour has been absolutely brilliant. We’ve got on really well with everyone, it’s gone completely without a hitch – all the audiences have been really responsive and we’ve been well received; all the bands have.

Paul: We’ve been on a lot of tours these last three years and this has been the most seamless one. We’re in a position now where 50% of the people will have heard the name Federal Charm and 50% will have no idea who we are, and I think that on this tour, this is the best case scenario…

Nick: That’s the point really isn’t it? To get your name out there…

 

The last time I saw you down here was at the Joanne Shaw Taylor gig and Tracer are about as far removed from that as you can get…

 Nick: They’re a lot heavier aren’t they?

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking you couldn’t possibly be the same support playing those two gigs, and yet here you are…

 Nick: We’ve been able to tailor our respective sets. Joanne Shaw Taylor, we put some of our more bluesy stuff in there, and this time we’ve gone pretty balls out with the heavier stuff that we’ve got – and it seems to do the trick, because people are coming to see a heavier show.

Paul: We are able to literally put our hands in the bowl and say, there’s the heavy set, there’s the blues set.

 

Does the heavier stuff indicate a change in direction?

 Paul: Potentially…

Nick: We look at who we’re playing with and kind of respond accordingly with our set list. If we had two hours, you’d have everything that we did, but these half an hour or forty minute slots mean that we tailor it.

Paul: I think the direction thing has a weird element to it – we’ve had that over the past few months, it’s like ‘what direction are they going in, are they a heavy band now’, and the answer is I don’t really know. It’s a complete natural progression but we’re lucky enough to be able to pull songs off the list and to be able to appease what we’re doing at the time. It’s not intentional; it just is what it is.

 

And the reaction has been good?

 Paul: That Joanne Shaw Taylor tour was phenomenally good for us, I mean that was a turning point. When the album (Across The Divide) came out that was a massive kick up the arse and it did the world of good for us. This tour was new territory – we’ve never played with a band as heavy as this before – we’ve been blues or blues-rock. This is an out and out rock show, but we’re not out of place at all. It works really well.

Federal Charm backstage at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

Federal Charm backstage at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

So last night you were in Exeter and tonight in Southampton. When you’re careering down the motorway in the van, what have you got on the stereo?

 Paul: That’s a good question.

Nick: Last night we were listening to Pantera…

Paul: … But two nights ago we were listening to Ray Charles. We have James Brown on, Pantera, Deftones, Elton John, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Led Zeppelin. It just depends what the mood is: “Are we heavy tonight or a bit lighter?” It just depends what the mood is in our head at the time.

Nick: We always listen to James Brown before we go on…

Paul: (laughing) … It seems to work us up…

Nick: … Just to get us moving.

 

What are the various musical influences that hit all four of you? What’s come together to form the band as it is now?

 Paul: I think the main thing that’s come together is the element of groove and movement. If all four of us were to choose a band, all four of us like different things. Me and Nick have got similar tastes in music but when it comes to it, it’s the element of being able to move and feel it; whatever that may be. Whether it be a James Brown song or a Pantera song; if it makes you move and laugh and make you feel good – we like the rhythmic side of it don’t we?

Nick: I think the four of us between us have a definite idea about how a song should be structured and written, and we’re very careful not to make the songs boring and not to make them too formulaic – always throwing something in there that will make you think “Ooh” every so often. Like Tell Your Friends, that riff gets played around so much in that song – it stops and starts everywhere. The last thing we want to be is boring.

Paul: We have to make it interesting for us every night. Something that we can look at and wink at and think ‘it’s a bit of that, you know’. It’s not to throw the punters off…

Nick: … Yes, we do things differently live every night.

Paul: You listen to Reconsider from album one; who on earth would have put in that middle eight? It wasn’t necessary, but it was funny…

Nick: … Some people didn’t like it, the blues purists weren’t into that…

Paul: … Yeah it was like: “Why have you done that, it was shambolic”, but then you get other people, another faction of people that said it was nice that you did something a bit different. Let me be clear about something: It’s never intentional; we never feel that we need to be off kilter and left-field for the sake of it, it is really a very real ‘how about doing this because it will feel good to do this’. That’s how it is.

Nick: If something doesn’t work, you just go back to the drawing board, don’t you?

Federal Charm backstage at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

Federal Charm backstage at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

What was the song on the last record that had the bluegrass feel?

 Nick: That was Give me Something.

 

That came a bit out of left-field…

 Paul: We actually came up with that riff when we were writing album one and it got dismissed immediately. We were laughing that much that we couldn’t take it seriously. But we came back to it a second time and it was relevant again, ‘cos we ended up writing it quite heavy, didn’t we?

Nick: Yeah, the initial riff was really heavy and we thought it’s funny to play and we were laughing at it – but we ended up toning it down and coming up with the verse lick, and then I thought I can do a question and answer here and use the harmonica.

Paul: And the harmonica is the key to that song because Nick plays it well, and we are a heavy band… but who plays harmonica now in a band, there aren’t very many and we want to utilize everything we’ve got.

 

When are you going to crack out the grand piano then? (Prior to the interview, Paul had demonstrated he was an accomplished piano player on a baby grand piano in the corner of the room).

Paul: Well, we’ve traditionally had other musicians to do that, but it will be there as soon as we headline…

You said that you dismissed Give Me Something out of hand for the first record, but it appears on the second one. Does that indicate an increase in confidence that you can now do what you like?

 Nick: I think so. We didn’t really want to limit ourselves or to be pigeonholed in any kind of way. When the first album came out, we got with a blues manager and we went on all these blues tours…

Paul: … Yeah, it was blues orientated wasn’t it?…

Nick: …Yeah, and while we do obviously love blues – that’s why we started the band in the first place – the second album has still got it, but there’s also a bit of a shift away from it I think. But it’s not a conscious decision to say ‘right, let’s not be blues anymore’, because at the end of the day that’s our bread and butter.

 

You just talked about the piano. Am I right in thinking you started as a five piece?

 Nick: Yeah, we did have a piano player on and off for a few months.

 

On the There’s A Light video, there are five of you on that…

 Paul: When we first got together with this band, we both said to each other that one of the main ingredients has to be organ and piano and that was a big thing for me. And when we did the first album it was integral. Every song on the recording had something on it – we just battered a pianist! But as the band has progressed, from a live point of view we simply haven’t had a keyboard player for two reasons. Firstly, we were finding if difficult to incorporate a keyboard player as a fifth member; and secondly, because we have to hire session, to have a keyboard player out there is an outlay for us…

Nick: Once we start making a few quid though, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t do it…

Paul: … I like having it on the records and when we do it live it’s like ‘where has that piano gone’, but we’ve also become very, very good at not thinking about it. But if you bought the album and you listened to it intently you’d be wondering where the keyboard player has gone.

Nick: It’s always nice to have it there and when we start playing our own shows and where it’s feasible, we’ll have one because we love the instrument.

 

When are you going to start playing your own shows since you mention it?

 Paul: This summer…

Nick: …Pretty soon, next couple of months.

Paul: Pretty much three years of aggressive tour supports now and as we’re sitting here it’s all in motion now to get the headline…

Nick: … And people have been asking us for months: ‘when are you going to do your tour?’…

Paul: It’s about our time.

 

Good stuff. And similar venues presumably? You’ll get to the south coast will you?

 Paul: Absolutely!

Federal Charm performing at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

Federal Charm performing at The Talking Heads Southampton on 26 March 2016 (Simon Reed)

Where do you imagine you’ll be in say two and five years’ time?

 Paul: I can tell you where I’d hope to be…

 

Which is what I should have asked…

 Paul: I’d hope to have attracted as many more people to fill more rooms and to play bigger gigs. I’d like to put another album out.

Nick: You’ve just got to hope that the trajectory keeps going up. As long as it goes the right way, you can’t say fairer than that.

Paul: It’s not about being stupid rich or famous. I’d love to be sat in front of a couple of thousand people every night globally. Then it’s job done for us – anything else is a bonus. The genre that we’re in is a difficult place to be and hopefully we can connect with the mass of people across rock and blues and classic rock and contemporary rock and attract as many people as possible without selling out as much as maybe we should have! (laughs)…

 

Is there just a tiny, tiny, tiny part of your brain that thinks ‘if only we played slightly different music’…

 Nick: Not for me. I think we can only play the kind of music…

Paul: … It depends where the line is drawn with that. We’ve all been in different bands before this. We’ve all been in heavy bands or indie bands and it didn’t really make a difference at that point. We ended up getting together and attracting a couple of record offers and management, and I’d been in the game for ten years before that…

Nick: … For me, this is the first band that I’ve been in where I’ve been able to play the kind of music that I want to play. Before I was in indie bands and it was ok, but it wasn’t the stuff that I wanted to be doing – this is well more up my street.

Paul: There is a market for this. It’s a loyal fan base, a loyal market. If you buy an album from a band in the circuit you can bet that they’ll go back and watch you again and buy your next album. It’s a bit of an old school methodology but it works. But like Nick has just said, I am really happy playing what I’m doing. I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing anything artistically at the moment.

 

Where does the name Federal Charm come from?

 Nick: It came from weeks and weeks of us two racking our brains trying to come up with a cool name and it got to the point where we were getting headaches thinking about it. Eventually, Paul came up with ‘The Federation’ and I liked something charm like; I think I had ‘Blatant Charm’, so we just thought let’s put them together. It was such a relief as much as anything. We just thought: ‘Federal Charm. We don’t have to think about this any more’.

Paul: So in a way, we both got what we wanted out of it.

 

Last question. The artwork on Across The Divide. The big ship. What’s that all about?

 Nick: It’s open to your own interpretation really; it’s one of those. You can think of your own story. But it’s a great thing to look at isn’t it? You wonder, ‘what’s going on here?’

Paul: When I approached our art designer Brian I said that the sleeve should not relate to the music in any way. It should almost be like a barren wasteland. Who is that person? Am I that person? Do I feel sorry for them? There’s a mix of emotions going on. It was inspired by the Siberian salt desert, where the sea has receded but the ships still remain on this beach hundreds of miles inland.

Nick: That’s the beauty of it for me; the fact that there is no one story. You have people coming up to you and saying: “To me it means this” and getting a new story every time somebody talks about it.

Paul: (laughing) It’s better than having us four faces on there anyway!

 

That’s great, thank you.

Nick & Paul: Thank you.

Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe of Federal Charm were in conversation with Simon Reed. The band commences their inaugural headline tour this summer at venues throughout the UK.

 

About The Author

Simon Reed

I am a music, event and portrait photographer, shooting pictures mainly in London and on the South coast. I tend to like bands with guitars - they move about more. When I'm not photographing music, I write about it and sometimes conduct the odd interview. Also in occasional spare moments, I control air traffic and walk Zebedee and Florence, the springerdoodles.

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