What's in a Name?
Nov 27, 2012
On his last EP, Equatorial Ultravox, British musician Hugo Manuel (also known by his stage name Chad Valley) proved that tropical tunes need not hail from a warm climate. For his debut full-length Young Hunger, out now on Cascine, Manuel continued his musical journey, gently guiding listeners from the beaches to the packed club dance floors. On Young Hunger, with the help of such heavy-hitting guests as El Perro Del Mar, Glasser, and Twin Shadow, Manuel marries 1980s sensibilities with modern production to create a musical soundscape placed just somewhere out of time and place.
Under the Radar caught up with Manuel to discuss the power of pop, nostalgia, and that "Chad" guy.
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): Hello! I'm calling from Los Angeles and it's still pretty early here. I have it written across the top of my notes: You haven't had caffeine this morning; don't call Hugo "Chad."
Hugo Manuel: No. I really like it when people call me Chad. One of the reasons I chose that name is because it's a name that I really wanted to have! Often when I turn up to gigs, the promoter or soundman will say, "Hello Chad, nice to meet you." I'll just go along with it. "Yup, hello, my name is Chad." I love it. Why ruin the buzz? They just know Chad Valley. Let them meet Chad Valley.
Given that we're both fans of so many bands out of Gothenburg such as Tough Alliance, El Perro Del Mar, and Air France, I've got to know: are you secretly Swedish? Is there something else you're not telling us?
I think I secretly wish I was Swedish. It's a weird thing; they have so many amazing bands. Particularly from Gothenburg, which is such a small town. It's pretty amazing. I went there last year. I played Way Out West Festival. It's a beautiful place. I could feel it. I could sense why there was this great scene there. Everyone is so friendly. I met some of the guys from Air France. There's this great community there.
Did you have any downtime between touring behind the Equatorial Ultravox EP and working on your full-length?
Not at all...I don't do very well with downtime. I really feel the need to do something. It's not like I need to be going places, but creatively. Making something. It makes me feel better as a person to be making music. So I just do it to help myself. It seems like a logical thing to me. If something makes me happy, then do it a lot.
Seems logical. If you're not happy, how will you make your listeners happy?
True, true! A lot of times I make happy music. I don't do well writing dark, depressing stuff. I should maybe call it a self-help album.
You could start a whole new genre.
Yeah! I just discovered this album the other day by a photographer called Lynn Goldsmith. It was under the name Will Powers. It's like a self-help album, but with the backing of really funky, New York, early '80s disco funk. It's spoken word, self-help stuff. It's amazing. It's got guest vocals on it as well. It's got Sting on it, it's got Carly Simon on it. It's amazing.
How have I never heard about it?
I think it only exists on vinyl. It was never re-released on CD. That's a tip for you right there.
Ha! Yes. When it comes to your self-help album, where did you record Young Hunger?
I recorded it here, at home in Oxford. It's nothing like Los Angeles. It kind of couldn't be more different. I love LA so much. It's one of my favorite cities. I think one reason is because it's the opposite thing to Oxford.
Given that you were recording at home in Oxford, how much of recording an album is about escapism?
I definitely think that's an element of it. I've always said that before. In my earliest of interviews, I'd always talk about escaping. At the time I was living in a rubbish apartment in the rubbish end of Oxford. There is a bad part of Oxford! I was working a rubbish day job. It was definitely a thing of escapism. Now, I've managed to start doing music professionally. I live in a really nice house with my girlfriend. My life is in a good place. I feel like I don't need to escape from anything. I'm just happy.
It's interesting that happiness hasn't changed your music.
Yeah. I think I try to be less conscious of it. I was really into the idea of making something that was tropical and beachy and all things that my life isn't. I think I tried to be less blatant about that with the new album. I was trying to be real and true to myself.
With this new album being so collaborator heavy, how did you assure that it would still sound like a Chad Valley album?
That's the one worry I had when I was planning the album and planning the collaborators: whether it would sound like a compilation album of all my favorite bands. I wrote all the music in a really short period of time. It came together all within six months. I think it's a snapshot of me in that period of time. I wrote all the parts for the guest vocalists and with them in mind. So it was quite easy to make it all sound like me. I was conducting the whole thing. So yeah, I think it's worked out OK. I like diversity in an album a lot. I don't like those albums where it's 12 tracks that are all the same thing. I think I have to push myself to make something that is more cohesive than I would naturally do otherwise. With Jonquil, the first and second albums, which are really weird albums, it sounds like 10 bands over 10 tracks. That's what I naturally do because I'm a chameleon in that way, I like to do a lot of types of music. So I have to rein myself in and take stock every now and again and be like, "Right, is this song going to work with that song?"
Do you give yourself rules or reference points to work with during the writing process?
To an extent, yeah. It's something that I've not done before. I've normally just written for the hell of it. Not with anything in mind. The first two EPs were written for the sake of writing music, not for the sake of writing a release. I wasn't really thinking about it, I was just writing music to make myself happy. Now, it's different because I'm writing music that I know people are going to hear and I know is going to be associated with an album. So I did try to reference things more consciously and try and keep within a certain framework. The music that I was listening to at the time comes through quite a lot.
So you wrote specifically with a collaborator in mind?
Yeah, pretty much always. It was very early on. I started contacting people like Sarah [Assbring of El Perro Del Mar] and Twin Shadow and Active Child who I knew from tour, and I knew early on that they were up for doing it. So I was writing specifically for them. I think that's really important to do. Otherwise it sounds like I've got someone on the album just for the sake of having someone on the album. I didn't want it to be like that at all. It's a dangerous thing, I think. I wanted to make this album a lot more, less introspective. For me, the way to do that was to get other people involved. Getting other singers involved was just a way of making it less introspective and more looking outward.
It's a party album.
[Laughs] Yeah, it's a party album.
It's funny that you claim that you're not good with collaborators. Looking at the list of other artists on this album I'd assume that you do play well with others.
With these guest vocalists it was a case of saying, "Look, here's something that I've written, would you like to sing it?" Put your own twist on it. I still have control. I have complete control over it. For me, when there's someone else who has their own ideas, that's when I find it hard. But it was a different thing on this album, because I was calling the shots.
So play well with others—
—As long as they're subordinates. [Laughs]
I've heard you describe your music as pop for people who don't like pop. The real question: Who doesn't like pop?
That's true! It's weird, when I was growing up "pop" was a really dirty word, and no one liked it. It's possible that music wasn't as good back then. Backstreet Boys, I don't look back on that period with music fondness. I guess the change in people now a day is that "pop" is not a dirty word, and it's acceptable to the mainstream. I'm totally with that, I love pop music. So maybe it's a bit misguided to say that I make pop music for people who don't like pop music. As you say, everyone likes pop music.
I feel like we both came of age in the era of the guilty pleasure, where everyone feels compelled to discuss pop in that context.
If it's a pleasure it's a pleasure. Embrace it. I think that pop music is now a lot better. People are more discerning. It's a good period for pop music. I'm a huge fan of music like that. I definitely do listen to pop music. When I say pop music, I mean Ke$ha or Britney Spears or whatever. I listen to that kind of music in a different headspace than I do other music. I don't put it on the same footing as the latest cool indie band or whatever. I listen to that kind of music as research in a way. Just out of curiosity. It definitely gets me excited. It's not to say that I just listen to the music academically. It gets me really excited when I hear a great new pop song. But I treat it differently.
Do you think that people still fail to perceive slick production or pop as something that can be sincere?
I don't really like lo-fi production. It's such a trend. I think it's going away. It really annoys me when I hear a great song that's produced badly. It makes me not want to listen to it. There are a lot of songs like that, that have really suffered. People say, "Oh, I've made this album and recorded it on one microphone in the bathroom because that's what I wanted it to sound like." No, you did it like that because you couldn't be bothered to make it sound good. It's just lazy. There are so many bands that have done a badly recorded, lo-fi album. Then their second album they get a producer and make it sound good. Why didn't you just do that in the first place? I even suffered a little from that on my first two EPs. They're a bit lo-fi. Maybe not lo-fi, but they were not slickly produced. I wanted to do something that was slickly produced. All the music that I was listening to was glossy and expensive sounding. I wanted it to sound like money.
That's one thing I really appreciate about this album. Not only is it really slick, but you have unabashedly pop references. I like "My Girl" where you shamelessly reference Spice Girls.
Yeah, there is a Spice Girls' lyric in it. "If you want to be my girl, you've got to get with my friends." Spice Girls said, "If you want to be my lover, you've got to get with my friends." [Laughs] That lyric, I didn't realize at first what I had done, that I had just ripped off The Spice Girls. But I wanted to keep it in because it's fun. It's a fun song. It's not heads down, serious. I wanted to keep it like that.
We briefly touched on escapism, but is there also an element of nostalgia to what you're creating?
Yeah. I listen to very little new music. I went through a phase of loving everything new. I was very excited by lots of young bands. In the run up to making this album, I kind of lost interest. Kind of on purpose as well. I wanted to not be influenced by what was going on in music at the moment. I wanted to get away from the current musical climate. So I went back and listened to old music. There's so much great music from the past. Why limit yourself to just listening to new music when there's always great music from 20, 30 years ago? So I've really delved deep into mostly 1980s music. I quickly found this group of bands like Prefab Sprout and China Crisis. Late '80s British bands that I realized they were doing what I wanted to do. They were making pop music that was very slickly produced. Thomas Dolby production on Prefab Sprout was hugely influential. Here's a band that are not pop. They're four people who don't look like pop stars. But they're singing this incredibly catchy music. It's produced sublimely. You can hear everything crystal clear. It's beautiful production. It's that kind of thing, is it pop music? Or is it not? The fact that it's really glossy, does that make it pop? I purposely referenced that. There were certain songs that I wrote, very much thinking that I want to write a song that sounds like this guy. It was all stuff from the past. So in that respect it's nostalgic. I was listening to a lot of old music, so it was bound to sound like those kinds of bands. The whole nostalgia thing, people talk about that a lot, and I find it hard to understand what that means in terms of my music. It's used a lot and I'm not sure I get what people mean when they say that it sounds nostalgic.
As one of the kings of the tropical dance sound, have you gone surfing yet?
God no! I think I'd be awful at it! I can't imagine myself surfing. Maybe swimming in the sea. Swimming in the sea and the river and the lake is my favorite thing to do. That's my one tropical thing that I can do, swim.
It means that you're secretly Scandinavian.
[Laughs] Yeah, probably!
Maybe you could send your alternate persona Chad out surfing.
Yeah, I probably should. [Laughs] Yeah, Chad surfs.