How does the South West shape a rock band? For the Exmouth-born Black Thistles it gave them a solid alt-rock sound and a penchant for smart songwriting. They’re set to perform at Exeter’s hottest upcoming event – Poltimore Festival, a revivified independent music festival, more edgy than a vaping dodecahedron, so I called band-mates “Paul” and “Ryan” to discuss Poltimore, festivals and what they’re all about. Little did I know I’d be navigating some uncertain terrain.
Upon greeting me they set their own scene – “we’re in Paul’s kitchen in Dalston,” says bass-man Ryan, “it’s a sight for sore eyes.” Their social media presence is potently sardonic, at times labelling their own gigs as “Generic Indie Wank” as they wear the quote – “The next big thing…” – from Model Airplane News in their Facebook cover picture. Indeed, a grimy scullery in a burgeoning but dingy district of London is a fitting residence for their trendy irony. They’d had to reschedule the interview twice due to travel issues so I asked whether everything had settled. In response I got only a distant, dismissive burble from them as they reclined, probably on flaccid beanbags, away from the phone and all my sincerity. I was immediately anxious that I’d be the victim of their aloofness.
More edgy than a vaping dodecahedron
I asked them about Poltimore. “Yeah we’re excited” says Paul, vocalist, “It’s good that it’s independent and not affiliated with the BBC like Big Weekend,” his voice dripping with as much vitriol as his probably reclined posture would allow – “I think it’s important.” Ryan then told me about a debauched time he’d gone to Pukkel Pop, the Belgian answer to Glasto: “One night I got completely blackout drunk and lost my friends. Woke up thinking I’d just had a little nap but everyone was packing up to leave. It turned out I’d lost about 12 hours, and when I lifted up my shirt I was covered in heart monitors and had a wristband with my name on it. No idea what happened.” Here’s hoping they bring a similar level of depravity to twee old Poltimore House, but maybe with a bit less clinical eerieness.
They stressed a surprising similarity between the music scenes they span – Exeter and London. To them, the prevalent likeness is, as Ryan scoffs, “People just don’t really go to gigs.” For him, the current guitar music scene: “fits into two camps.” Black Thistles’ sound is one undoubtedly rooted in Noughties rock; the Arctic Monkey’s inspiration is clear. They label themselves “like The Strokes, Blur and Jamie T all put in a big toilet and mixed up.” Elaborating on this “two-camp” toilet, Paul says – “There’s this sort of spacy grunge revivalist thing which people are doing with a lot of reverb-y vocals at the moment, which we don’t really get. Or there’s stuff like The Hunna which is basically like pop guitar music for teenage girls. We try to do something else.” The apathy and irony of their lyrics clearly stems from this ethos, the two agreed their favourite song to perform is ‘Man of War’ from their Pop Quiz EP but were quick to joke that, while they love playing it, the audience tend to react – “yeah, it’s okay.”
“WE’re Nonplussed by everything”
“What do you think draws you to the pessimism in general?” I said. Paul immediately replies, “just being generally nonplussed by everything” – probably the most fitting answer I could’ve asked for. But I knew that as well as being coy and wry and aloof and what not, they also have real vitality as performers and songwriters. So, grasping at straws, I asked why they use so many pictures of The Simpsons for their news updates, and why they quote the show in every other tweet. At this, amazingly, they burst into life. Did I hear two beanbags creak under the strain of newly rapt attention? “It’s everything that’s right with your childhood” says Ryan, “The Simpsons from ’91 to ’98, it’s just the golden age of telly and you can watch it back now and it’s even better.” “Why just the first 10 seasons?” I say coaxingly. Ryan audibly groans – it sounds almost like a vocal on their recent EP – “It just isn’t as clever now. It’s too obvious and too wacky. The storylines are so wacky. They’re just wacky!” said Ryan, flustered (!).
I suppose if you want to reveal the passion in such a self-conscious band, you have to be indirect. Or, you can just outright address The Simpsons, the bastion of irony that has fed a generation of postmodern gremlins from the age of 7 (myself included). Black Thistles are a smart Devonian band, and I think I might’ve tapped into the proof that their Poltimore performance will be as strong and vital as the best (early) Simpsons episodes.
Editor’s Note: Black Thistles later corrected that they were in fact sitting on weak chairs – NOT bean-bags – further clarifying – “this isn’t the UN.”