London “proto-punks” Telegram are an anomaly in the field of today’s young bands. This time three years ago, the four-piece sat unknowingly at the start of an upward trajectory, going on to attract hype from NME and the BBC off the back of support slots with Palma Violets and The Horrors. But when a major record deal fell through, they turned their backs on the debut album formula, opting for a more grassroots approach. The fruit of their labour is 2016’s Operator, a fiery twelve track product hand recorded, packaged and distributed by the band themselves. On their first major tour in support of their new brainchild, bassist Oli Moon, frontman Matt Saunders, guitarist Pip Stakem and drummer Jordan Cook let us know where they’ve been since 2013, why music fans are being robbed and that if you’re wise, you should never describe them as “psychedelic”.
What has this tour been like? And how does it compare to the tours where you’ve been supporting?
OM: It’s gone in a flash, but it’s been great. Headlining is a new thing for us, tour wise. Everything runs a lot smoother. Things being more comfortable and less stressful really mean that we can concentrate on performing well.
MS: We’ve doubled our set and bought two party strobes for the first date, which have been handy. We get rid of all the epileptics that way. I’m joking! We welcome everyone to the show and the strobes add to the excitement of what we’re already trying to do.
OM: With headlining, so much of [the show] is to do with the audience. In Brighton for example someone shouted out in the middle of the set, “I love metal. I don’t know what the fuck this is but it’s brilliant!” Timing makes a difference as well. We’ve noticed that by going on half an hour later, everyone’s had an extra pint, which makes them a little bit more up for it. What we do is energy based so it’s important to us that the audience feel as speedy as we do.
It took a while for the album to finally be released. Give us the story on why this was.
OM: Basically, every negative thing you’ve ever heard about major record labels is true.
MS: We were let down by a major label, and strung along for about nine months. Even at that point it wasn’t a case of “no, sorry, it’s not happening”, it was a case of when. The momentum and the buzz around the tour supports was great, but that kind of thing has to be followed up by support elsewhere and we just weren’t getting it. Our management sat and counted on this deal happening, but then when it didn’t, they didn’t have a plan B. So we got rid of them, reassessed the situation, got a new team together and went back with the mentality that this album was going to fucking happen if we had to put it out ourselves. We applied for music funding which was good but everything from our artwork and videos to the biography and fucking packaging the records to post them off, we’ve had to do.
JC: A lot of cardboard boxes in my kitchen, a lot of signatures.
MS: It’s frustrating when we’re asked “it’s taken a while to get the record out, what were you doing?” as if we were going sat thinking “oh, we’ll put it out in a bit”… we’re a velocity band.
What was your experience like with Pledge Music?
OM: We were very hesitant at first; we thought we were going to look like a bunch of lameoids. But we were convinced to do it for Aeons first and the response was great. I don’t think [the album] would have been possible if we hadn’t got funding from PRS, which was invaluable, and also the Help Musicians UK fund. The money we got from them, plus the Pledge thing, is the only reason this was possible.
MS: The old idea that you would have to ask people for money to help you put a record out was in our heads as not going to do us any favours, that it was going to appear like we were digressing from where we were.
JC: And we’re really appreciative for all the support.
MS: You can print that because it’s hard to get that message across. Pledge are a really helpful company but because you do a lot of it yourself, the efficiency in terms of receiving things can be a bit off. Some people have been delivered broken records and stuff like that. We personally are responsible but also personally very grateful to all the people who helped out in that way.
Do you have any advice for bands that may find themselves in a similar situation to where you were?
MS: Don’t give up. You’ve got to be really fucking thick-skinned and find it within yourself to really not think, “It’s not going to happen”. The thing with music and art that people forget is, physically existing is all that really fucking matters. So many great painters didn’t make any money or didn’t get recognised until they were dead. Making an album, producing it, moving on, doing another one is the whole point. The amount of interest, the record label, NME giving a shit, whatever it is… it can feel frustrating if it’s not there as much as maybe you wanted, but it’s not important. Our intentions now Operator is out are to crack on and do a second record. You can only do a second record once you’ve done your first!
JC: Don’t let the whole thing disillusion you. You’re in a band because you love music.
OM: It’s taught us that nothing is just given to you on a plate and if you really are into it, just keep going. Don’t copy, don’t rehash, come up with your own creative vision, make it a good one and stick at it.
What are the stories behind your songs? It can be difficult to tell.
MS: Within all of the songs I feel like there are abstract beginnings lyrically. Follow was written when Jordan came into the fold and the pace picked up. That song is things happening, and that’s when it was written with a galactic sense of movement. I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan at the time which is a pretty abstractly futuristic sort of dystopian novel, somewhere outer spacey. There’s a thing in it called the Sirens of Titan, which are three images of beauty or ideas that can exist on Titan, and it’s sort of about movement towards them and a relentless pace and speed and repetition and déjà vu and things like that. Does that help? Probably not.
OM: All our songs have a meaning but just looking at the lyrics you couldn’t say “oh yeah this is obviously about that”. They’re quite personal to Matt but they can mean a lot to anyone.
JC: It’s in the eye of the holder; it’s about what you take from it. I hate those things where [artists] do a track-by-track breakdown of an album. It destroys what anything might mean to the listeners. Listening back to the songs, I never quite know how we got there. It’s all a blur and then there’s a song at the end. I don’t remember how we wrote all the parts and this and that, it just came together.
There’s a psychedelic sound to what Telegram do, which is quite a niche style for young people to be interested in. What are your musical upbringings?
JC: What is it about us you think is psychedelic?
The atmospheric, noise rock aspect of the guitars. That’s how I interpret it.
OM: ‘Psychedelic’ is always lumped in because it’s like the buzzword of the day.
MS: It’s such a wide term. New psychedelia [JC: Or neo-psych!] as the NME probably call it, comes from the sound of Temples et al. I think what’s happened over recent years is there’s been a resurgence in bands using various effects pedals and as soon as one’s used and it’s not sort of Arctic Monkeys sounding it’s sourced from psychedelia. I think what we do is more to do with proto, glam, there are elements of kraut in there.
OM: But hardly any of our songs are slow enough to be psychedelic. We’re more punk, we love the New York Dolls, Wire, the Ramones, M65, Stooges… but we’re not so much psychedelia. You look at any of those bands and they didn’t wear flowery shirts. We like Slade and Gary Glitter… or the Glitter band, I should have said.
MS: And a lot of the heavier stuff. Sabbath, Kraftwerk, but less of the psych please.
OM: I had a terrible musical upbringing. My dad went to loads of brilliant gigs in the 70s. He went to see David Bowie supported by Roxy Music at Finsbury Park Rainbow. But as a kid I wasn’t inundated with any music at all. I had to figure it all out myself. So obviously I went down the Nirvana route but improved my taste from there as I got friends recommending things to me. My dad was just playing country music shit.
JC: I was the fortunately blessed child. My parents are down with it. Listening to Ramones aged four is one of my earliest memories. They’re not musicians themselves, they’re just massive music fans. I have the utmost respect for people who don’t have that in their life and discover music for themselves. There’s no exposure from mainstream TV shows with bands playing nowadays. There’s Jools Holland but it’s god-awful and they’ll have one major label rock band who’ve just had loads of money pumped in to let them play.
What is it you feel sets you apart from bands like them?
MS: With us, nothing has been twisted or turned into a direction we didn’t want. In my personal opinion, they are nice people but it’s pop music disguised as guitar music. A pop element is fine, there’s pop elements in what we do probably as well, but it’s towing the line. Look at the Brit Awards, and the Reading line up that just came out, and the headliners of Glastonbury. Music is fucking dead.
JC: I was gutted when we didn’t get a Brit Award nomination. And I feel like if we were kids going to Reading this year we’d be like “what the fuck”. It’s not on!
PS: It’s disguising itself as something that’s an alternative world and it’s not at all. It’s a shame; it shouldn’t have to be like that. Not to sound bitter at all because that’s not the point, this comes from us as fans more than us wanting to be at the top. It’s just there’s so many brilliant bands and we feel like music fans in this country are cheated.
OS: If you’ve got hundreds of thousand pounds behind you, you can just pay your way onto these festivals and these TV shows. We don’t have that luxury. Kids have this propaganda rammed down their throats, basically.
MS: And taste is driven by what’s put in front of you. There will be people whose parents listen to alternative stuff but the majority of people’s parents, like my own, won’t be into that. So their taste will either be Justin Bieber or whatever band is being shown to them as being in existence. That’s how taste develops. If you stuck the fucking New York Dolls in front of those people, they’d be like, “this is fucking amazing! I’ve never heard this before in my life”. The Fat White Family are doing a fucking brilliant job. They’re a prime example of the abstract eras we want. They’re saviours. They’ve collectively become a band with this notoriety and if they didn’t exist, it would be slightly worrying because who else is there? You need someone to be kicking the heads of the pricks and kicking down the doors.
OM: That’s a good success story of a band sticking to what they’re good at. It’s worked for them. This is the route that we try to go down. Fuck playing it safe, fuck trying to create what the latest buzz hype is, just stick to what you’re good at and build your own world.
So on that note, what can we expect from Telegram in the near future?
OM: Next up is European tour dates at the end of April then festival dates if they ask us.
MS: We’re doing The Great Escape, I think we’re doing Festival No. 6 and End of the Road. We’re also going to nurture our album, our baby, and hopefully find time so that by the end of the summer we can get on with doing the second record. Whether that means doing it in a similar fashion to the way we’ve done this one, or whether we’re going to have achieved enough money from festivals and gigs to do something other deal-wise.
OM: After our kind of lost year or so, we want to make sure that never happens again. We want to keep the ball rolling. Constantly writing, constantly playing, and with Pip as the new guitarist it’s brought a new lease of life, writing with him. He offers a lot, a lot more humility, and the songwriting is going very well so far. Maybe with the second album we’ll even get a good review in Vapour Trail!
Telegram’s debut album Operator is out now.
They will perform at:
Le Pop-Up du Label, Paris (29/04)
Rotown, Rotterdam (01/05)
Paradiso, Amsterdam (02/05)
Milla, Munich (04/05)
Musik & Frieden, Berlin (05/05)
Tanzcafe Ilses Erika, Leipzig (06/05)
Psych Fest IV, Manchester (14/05)