Chappaqua Wrestling on “Plus Ultra” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Chappaqua Wrestling on “Plus Ultra”

The five-piece discuss their origins and how they made one of 2023's finest debuts

Jun 13, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Meet Chappaqua Wrestling, who just happen to be one of the most exciting bands to emerge from the UK in recent years. Formed by multi-instrumentalists and main songwriters Charlie Woods and Jake Mac who also share lead vocals. The Chappaqua Wrestling story is one that takes in two continents and several cities ending up with their excellent debut Plus Ultra, which came out on EMI earlier this year and scored a whopping 8.5/10 on these very pages.

Recruiting John-Paul Townsend on drums and Coco Varda on keyboards and vocals along the way, as well as recent recruit Tom Forbes on bass. Chappaqua Wrestling have just completed their biggest headline tour of the UK so far, and Under the Radar caught up with them before their sold-out show at Nottingham’s Bodega last month.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): How did Chappaqua Wrestling start? Talk me through the origins of the band.

Charlie Woods: So, me and Jake have been playing together for a long time because we met each other at school. I grew up in America, in a town called Chappaqua, New York then moved back to England. We met each other when we were fourteen and started playing music together all the time. That was in Brighton, and then we specifically just moved up to Manchester for university. Just to start a band, because we really love the Manchester music scene. They’re such huge influences and we just wanted to be a part of it. We didn’t really know what would be there now or whether it would still be so good in that way. So, we just literally went up there and took a leap of faith that it would be good for us. It was, and then we started playing a lot. We started recording ourselves, originally just me and Jake, and then we needed to branch out. We wanted better musicians so we could just do way, way, way, way more.

So, it was always your intention to branch out from a duo into a full band?

Charlie Woods: 100%.

Jake Mac: It started out as a duo, but it was always innately gonna be a band. We were always trying to find the right people to play with that could actually make the sound we wanted to make. That takes a long time, especially if you are going from Manchester to Brighton, then Brighton to London. We came back down from Manchester and found John-Paul (Townsend, drums), and that’s when the band actually started.

Charlie Woods: As soon as John joined we were able to record songs like the early version of “The Rift” and “Football.” That meant we could go in there with me on bass recording and do a whole band set up with a rhythm section in a new way, because Jake was doing the drums on “Plant Trees” and earlier things, which was cool. But we had to do it differently if we wanted to expand.

Who is the main lyricist?

Charlie Woods: We both write the lyrics.

Some of the lyrics are quite thought provoking such as “The morning scroll makes your whole day blind” from “Full Round Table.” They’re songs people can easily resonate with. Were you conscious of that?

Charlie Woods: I think I finished those lyrics when we were playing that Dungeons & Dragons game in Wales. Yeah. When we were recording “Full Round Table”, I was like, shit, lyrics are tomorrow, vocals are tomorrow! A lot of them I wrote quite carefully, but some of the later ones were a bit more last minute. So yeah, we both do lyrics. Anyway, just to finish this long story, after John joined, we met Coco (Varda, keys). Then Coco joined and our friend Jude Lilley used to play bass with us. He now plays in a band called Moreish Idols. He’s like our best friend from home, and John as well. We all know him from Brighton. So that was like a mutual understanding to Jude to do that, and now we’ve got Tom (Forbes, bass), and he’s absolutely smashing it. So yeah, it feels like we’re in a good place right now.

Listening back to some of those early singles such as ”Plant Trees” and “Football”, you can hear the progression from then to now. Particularly with those songs not being on the album. Was it a difficult process selecting the ten songs that made it onto Plus Ultra, and were there any other songs written around the same time that didn’t make it which might be revisited in the future?

Charlie Woods: It’s a big question but the short answer is, when we started Chappaqua Wrestling we were really into Steely Dan and the Beach Boys. So, we were going through this stage of trying to write cleverly and write smart, intricate indie acoustic music. Then after doing that for a year or two, which did get us somewhere. It got us a bit of a name, got us going, got us busy in Manchester and then very quickly we realised this isn’t actually what we really love as musicians. So, we kind of did like a full circle. We went back to our original roots about what we actually started playing when we were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and first started playing in bands together. Our first band was essentially a rock/shoegaze band when we were eighteen years old. Then at twenty we went to Manchester, tried to be clever and started writing things that we loved at the time. We just went down a bit of a rabbit hole with this sound, which we still love. There’s still a bit of that at times on songs like “Not In Love” but it’s not really representative of where we are as a band now.

Jake Mac: Like Charlie says, we’ve gone back to our roots and it’s taken quite a while to do that. Now we’re actually really comfortable with that because when we were kids and first loved music, we’ve always played really heavy stuff. So, we were always gonna come back to it. There’s definitely still songs that we’ve written in the last few years, which are probably some of our strongest songs but sonically don’t really match the grungier, shoegaze sound of our other songs.

One thing that really stands out on Plus Ultra is that there’s so much going on so its impossible to pigeonhole the band’s sound. The record continuously moves from genre to genre with consummate ease, yet the flow remains perfect. Were you conscious of that when making the album?

Charlie Woods: We write a lot of stuff in loads of different styles. So, trying to put it down into one album was a bit tough. There were a lot of hard decisions about song selection, but then again it felt like we were just putting a load of the songs together and the ones which sounded the best made the final cut essentially.

John-Paul Townsend: It was trial and error with a couple of songs, which didn’t quite make it. We also had demos which ended up sounding somewhat better than the actual finished products, which we then had to drop or they weren’t necessarily quite right.

Jake Mac: “Big Sun” and “Ballet.” We just couldn’t get them right in the studio. Like

Charlie Woods: There were lots of different techniques going on. We recorded most of it live, and ended up doing a bit of everything. They connected really well, So, the recording process was actually quite smooth. I’ve done loads of recording over the years, so we tried some different techniques that didn’t really sound great in the end. We wanted to make lo-fi, garage rock track, which demoed really well (“Drive”), but then we tried to make it sound like Spandau Ballet and thought it’d be really cool, but it sounded awful. Essentially we just ran out of time, because we made the album on a relatively small budget. So, once we recorded a song we just didn’t have the luxury to be able to start it again because of budgetary reasons.

Jake Mac: So, we just decided to move on instead. We benefited from that as well, as we ended up doing ten songs in fourteen days. Which also meant some song like for example, “Not In Love,” were really unproduced.

Coco Varda: So, I sing on “Not In Love.” I met Jake in a bar and he sent me the demo and said, can you add vocals to this? Then we added it to the album kind of last minute.

Charlie Woods: It stuck out sonically because it wasn’t like anything else on the album, but it was just too good to leave off.

Will “Not In Love” be released as a single?

Charlie Woods: No, because it doesn’t really fit in with the other singles on the album. It’s got a big chorus that would work as a single, but the rest of the singles that we’ve gone for are heavier and grungier talking about the state of today. So, to then put a love song in the mix might be a bit… suppressing? I don’t know really.

Coco Varda: I make a lot of ambient music on my own. So, whereas their influences are quite heavy mine are more spacey and the dreamier end of shoegaze. Having such contrasting influences helps add versatility to what we do.

Will Coco, John-Paul and Tom be more involved in the writing process going forwards?

Coco Varda: We started working on some demos. Charlie wrote a song that we’re working on together. I’ve been doing some writing with Jake, so a little bit. But mainly it’s Jake and Charlie.

Charlie Woods: I think when we’re in a room together, we all contribute to the set up and layout, stuff like that. It’s more like tiny adjustments that happen rather than whole songs being brought to the table.

You’ve moved around a lot from New York to Brighton then Manchester, back to Brighton and London. Has that nomadic existence influenced the way you write songs or even formed the basis of some of your lyrics? Do you feel settled and in your happy place right now?

Charlie Woods: I’d say personally, when I moved away as a kid, that’s when I started relying on music so much. Like, just as a pastime. I actually was a very, very, very bored kid for a couple of years when I moved away. It’s not a very glamorous answer, but that’s the truth. I was like, I’m just gonna play this guitar when I get home. When I moved to the States, it was just so different. Such a different environment to living just outside of Sussex. So basically, I really just played a lot of guitar and started writing from when I was about ten. Then when I moved back to England it just felt like I had to keep doing it and doing it and doing it because I felt very comfortable with it. So, from that sense, yes, just personally. Then moving to Manchester and Brighton and meeting Jake massively changed everything for me. I’m sure Jake has a similar answer writing wise.

Jake Mac: It’s a good question because I’ve lived in probably ten houses in the last ten years, and whenever I get comfortable in a house and I set up and I’m writing, writing lyrics, I don’t wanna move. I don’t wanna have to set up my little studio again. And then whenever I move into a new house, I just step back into writing songs again anyway so I don’t think geography really affects me too much. One thing though, is that we’re pretty much all based in London now. And I just think when we go out on tour and spend time on the road, especially abroad, we all really want to get out of London.

Do you find London oppressive? Competitive even?

Charlie Woods: I don’t feel like it’s necessarily competitive as such. Maybe it is like that when you’re a younger band? It’s so hard to start there. But then if you’ve got a little bit of something behind you, then it’s also quite easy. It’s actually the place to be to really push it forward. Going back to why we moved to Manchester, we were very aware back then when we were seventeen, eighteen, that we had no connections in the music industry at all. But we were very confident in what we were doing. So, we didn’t really want to do it in Brighton. Everyone’s got a mate who knows the promoters and we don’t know the promoters and they don’t want to book us. And it’s like, it’s crap. And then London’s just full of nepotism and it’s annoying, so we’ll go to Manchester instead and we just had a sense that if we just gig, gig, gig, gig, gig, then we’ll be able to get a name for ourselves there and bring it to London.

Going back to the album, Damon Minchella from Ocean Colour Scene co-produced the record. How did he become involved, what did he bring to the recording sessions and would you work with him again in the future?

Charlie Woods: Yes, I’d definitely work with him again. We got involved with him through our manager John (Dawkins). John used to be a massive, massive fanboy of Damon and Ocean Colour Scene. Just loving that band. So then when he started becoming a producer, John convinced us this guy’s gonna be good. He’d heard what Damon had done previously, so he started working with another guy called Tom Manning who shouldn’t be left out. Tom is absolutely amazing. Tom, Tom Manning. Okay. He’s the head engineer at Rockfield. Tom Manning and Damon did it together. Not at Rockfield, but Tom mostly works at Rockfield. They were both great. Damon brings like a huge amount of cool to the vibe in the room. There’s never any stress.

Jake Mac: He really understands playing live and getting your personality across. You’ll do one take of something and the producer’s like, right, I think we’ve got it. We’re thinking let’s let’s do twenty more but he’s like, that’s fucking sick mate even though we’ve only done one take! I’m going mate, what if we lose it and Damon’s saying we won’t fucking lose it.

John-Paul Townsend: We played “Need You No More” several times live in the studio and I played it perfectly every time except the last time, where I think I fumbled with my stick and so the very last fill - which is meant to be a big accentuated fill - I fumbled it. So, I wanted to use one of the other takes, obviously, but Damon just said, nah mate, that’s the fucking bomb! I dropped my sticks and also my snare exploded, but Damon thought it was the best take so it ended up on the album.

Charlie Woods: Tom actually joined the band because of Damon, because we were trying to find a new bass player and Damon knew this awesome bassist from the Midlands.

You’re currently in the middle of your biggest UK headline tour to date. What’s been your favourite show so far? Who’ve been the most receptive audiences?

Charlie Woods: They’ve all been fucking great! Last night in Birmingham was a little bit special as it was my birthday as well. The bartender gave me a shot of 70% rum after the show.

Jake Mac: We were worried it might be a sloppy one, so we gave it a lot of the energy and ended up being really tight. It was great.

Charlie Woods: We ended up having so much fun. They were a great crowd. It was a really good energy. But then London was super special too.

What advice would you give to a new artist or band just starting out? What would you tell them to do? What would you tell them to avoid?

John-Paul Townsend: Actually, I would say being a drummer it was different. It was a bit of a funny thing because I knew that I was made to play drums. I really did. I do play a bit of guitar as well, but I get nowhere near the enjoyment I do with playing drums. I started very young and it got me out of a lot of trouble. I was an ADHD little kid, kind of annoying and naughty and ended up getting kicked out of lessons at school, so I just wanted to smash the drums. So, I would just say, stick to your guns and if it feels right, just stick with it and do it.

Tom Forbes: My advice for someone just starting out would be just enjoy the creative process and find your identity out of that process you’re enjoying and keep the inspiration alive.

Charlie Woods: I think it’s really important - echoing what Tom says. Sometimes when you’re in a really important part of the creative process people back away from it. Even listening back to what you did last night while you’re out walking. Sometimes it can take months to get a good song done, and a tiny part of that process is going out while you’re at work, whatever you’re doing it and listening back to it in your ear. When you’re focusing, you’ve got to have that hunger, but don’t ever feel like you are wasting time by doing it. Tiny elements like that make a really good song, so a tiny little walk to the shop while you’re hearing it might trigger a new idea. You should make time for that, and don’t be ashamed that you are either. Some people might think it’s silly, but no it isn’t. Those little moments are really, really important and you should be proud to go out and discover a new idea because that’s how great songs are written. You have to be focused, know that is it and just enjoy it. For instance, “Full Round Table” was written when I was just trying to get a good relationship with sleep. I hadn’t been sleeping well and I was trying to go to sleep then I felt really comfortable and I don’t know how. I thought oh sick, I’m gonna go to sleep now and I don’t know what happened, but I like heard the “Full RoundTable” bassline and vocal melody in my head somehow. So, then I was like, oh shit, I need to fucking wake up! But then my body was saying no, go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep. You never sleep. It’s just mad. Some of the best songs I’ve ever written have been all in one go. So eventually I just shot up, went, and sat on the toilet and I’ve got the whole song written in gibberish on my phone. Little moments like that can create a fucking good song. It’s a tiny weird thing that’s difficult to explain. My girlfriend’s asking what the fuck are you doing in the toilet but you know it’s worth it to disrupt your whole schedule because sometimes great things can happen. Trust yourself that those little things are important.

Jake Mac: You’ve covered some good stuff there. I’ve got two. One of them following on from a guy that came up to us last night. He approached us and said, can you check this out? This lyric I’ve written, I’ve been working on it for months. It’s too long. Right? And I said, no mate it isn’t. Sometimes it takes years to finish a song. For example, “Can I Trick” was written over three years. “My Fall” we started writing when we were about nineteen and we’re twenty-seven now so the time it takes for it to get where t it should be doesn’t matter. At the same time, I remember when I wrote “Wide Asleep.” It was done in about two hours and then the rough layout took about a day. I finished off the lyrics then Charlie added some guitar parts. It was super quick. I think as a writer you have to appreciate that you can’t say how long a song takes to write. Nothing’s guaranteed. Especially with an album, unless you’re making a punk album. It takes years of writing and songs take such different routes before getting to their final destination. But you also have to appreciate that you can have such a weird relationship with tracks and that changes too. You love it. It’s recorded. Then you hate it. You then go to put it out, you get excited, it goes out. You then hate it, but then people start to love it. You love it and then you just cycle going back around and it’s like a constant relationship. It’s like a really difficult friend. It’s like, oh man, you were such a legend, why are you such a dick today? And it’s like that with performing them. Like why is “Wide Asleep” really hard to sing? So, it’s like one day I’ll think this is the best song ever to perform. And then the next day, it’s the absolute worst!

Coco Varda: I mean for me personally, being a woman in the music industry isn’t easy. We play some festivals and I’ll be the only woman on stage, especially with indie festivals. So, I think we’re in the minority still. But I mainly work in techno music, and I think there’s still only something like 2% of women who do electronic music and things like that. My advice for women is be okay with being assertive and knowing your worth and also supporting other women. That’s the biggest piece of advice I have. I don’t think it’s as bad as it has been in the past and it changes. I think it depends what genre you’re talking about. Every genre is slightly different.

There is a stigma and it doesn’t help when some of the bigger festivals are still very male dominated, particularly when it comes to headliners.

Coco Varda: It is very male dominated.

Charlie Woods: It’s up to these bigger promoters to act. They have to act first. If nothing changes then nothing changes, but they have to make that change first.

Coco Varda: But again, I think women are more likely to apologize for things that aren’t their problem, you know? So, I think if you’re starting out as a musician, you need to back yourself. Women need to back themselves really hard, and back each other as much as possible. That’s the biggest thing for me.

Are there any new artists or bands you’d recommend for Under the Radar and its readers to check out?

Charlie Woods: Moreish Idols. I think a lot of people already know about them. They’re great and also really good friends of ours. Lemondaze are really good. They’re from Cambridge.

Jake Mac: I really like Egyptian Blue.

Coco Varda: There’s a lot of great electronic music out there too. I also host a show on Atlantic Waves Radio so check that out.

Plus Ultra is out now on Universal/EMI.

For more information on Chappaqua Wrestling visit their Official Website.


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