American Kacey Underwood met Brit Alice Costelloe whilst living in London in 2010, teaching her some songs on the guitar. Not only did love blossom but so did Big Deal, the band they formed as a duo. They quickly released the lo-fi acoustic/electric grunge-pop Lights Out the following year, followed by June Gloom, released on the legendary Mute label in 2013. Around this time they expanded to a four-piece, bringing in drums and more guitars, with Jessica Bator on drums and Jesse Wong on bass. But, despite touring with Depeche Mode and winning critical and popular acclaim, Mute, in an ever-challenging financial world, decided not to renew their contract. This, however, only gave them the impetus to move forward.
“We parted with our label, Mute,” says Kacey, speaking on the phone while the band make their way to Leeds for the first date of a UK tour. “Our contract was up, and we didn't want to wait around. We just went back in and made a record. We generally try and take things in our hands. The only way we could do that was fund it ourselves and then shop it around to labels afterwards, which is what we did. It was nice. We didn't have people from the label coming down to check on us, and giving us any deadlines that created any extra stress. Funding it ourselves gave us a bit more freedom.”
How did you raise the money? “We thought about raising the money publicly, doing the whole crowd-sourcing, social media thing. But that gives us the heebee jeebies. So, we borrowed the money from our parents, and luckily our parents are fans.”
So they will get a free copy of the record when it is released? “You would think so,” Kacey laughs. “But it was like, ‘no, we are buying it! Already pre-ordered’. I ask him tentatively whether or not his parents actually like what Big Deal does, “I know what you mean,” he laughs. “Some parents like to support you no matter what you are doing. Some people aren’t so lucky that we have parents like that; no matter what they do! Both our parents are really supportive, and my parents are really big music fans. My first experiences of falling in love with music was my Dad's records, like Hendrix, Creedence, Beatles, Led Zeppelin. He doesn’t really listen to those records anymore, but he can still appreciate it, and gets what we’re doing, which is cool. I think he does actually really like it.”
Brighton’s exceptionally great indie label Fat Cat, were the ones to pick the record up. “As well as the heritage that Fat Cat has, the cool thing about them is that they don't rest on that; they release really good records year in and year out. Like Honey Blood's record. Me personally, I'm not that impressed by a lot of recent indie rock records. It's not so much about songs, it's more about trends, keeping up-to-date with the fastest trends. It's not as engaging for me, but those bands that Fat Cat release are just good bands, making really, really good records. That’s an attractive thing for us. We've never seen ourselves as a cool band or a fashionable band, we just try and make the best music we can. So it feels like a really natural, logical fit.”
While June Gloom (a southern California term for a weather pattern that results in cloudy, overcast skies with cool temperatures during the late spring and early summer) was a big step forward for the debut album, with its narcotic, dream-pop augmented by a rhythm section, and was very well received, Kacey feels that it was still a bit rushed. With the new album Say Yes they now have a permanent four-piece line-up, and because they made the record independently, they had the time and space to get it right. “The approach this time was a little different. We recorded it in the same studios as we did June Gloom, with Rory Attwell who produced the last one as well. But, we came to writing it and rehearsing it a lot differently, and took our time with it which was great.
“With June Gloom, we barely knew the songs before we went in the studio, and were still writing some of the album while recording. This time we had everything done before we went in. And we had time to play them live, which helped. I can remember with the last record and waiting around anxiously for the reviews. This time we aren't nervous about the reviews, we feel more confident about the record we made this time.”
There is also the small matter of the relationship between Underwood and Costelloe, which has provided most of the material for the songs on their three albums to date, but which has now apparently ended, although of course they are continuing as friends and musical partners. “Our relationship has always given us plenty of inspiration to write music.” Costelloe has said. “We’ve always been pretty private about our relationship within the band, but feel more comfortable talking about it for this record, as it’s pivotal in the placement of our career. It’s about taking all kinds of heartbreak and defeat, and just looking at it dead in the eye and going for it.” Say Yes can be seen as the final chapter of the band’s first installment. “The first [album] was about not being together, the second one about being together, the third is about breaking up and trying to make sense of it all,” Costelloe explains. “The three albums in effect make one enormous concept record.”
There is a new found confidence about the band, thanks in part to their evolution from a two-piece to a four-piece, but also in part due to the experience of touring with ex-label mates Depeche Mode in 2014. “We had done a couple of tours as a two-piece, and no-one really knew what to do with us. It was hard sonically for us to compete with bands we were touring with. We could do OK in smaller rooms, but as soon as you got to a bigger venue or a festival you would just get squashed.
“Playing with Depeche Mode was a big eureka moment for us. They were huge venues, like 20,000 Wembley-type places. It was really, really surreal. We had played some festival stages that were a few thousand, and we had played the Royal Albert Hall, which is quite big. But these places were,” he laughs at the memory of it, “were really sporting facilities. They aren’t really made for music. They are massive. But thankfully, Depeche Mode have the most amazing crew that took really good care of us. The first gig we did they gave us a five-hour soundcheck and doing everything they could to make us feel comfortable: all the lights and sound, getting that exactly right. We showed up with all this reverb and delay on our guitars, which is OK in a tiny room, but out it in a big room that generates natural delay and reverb, it just sounds like mashed potato. They really helped us to make it work. We spent a lifetime in the band, kind of hiding, especially after the first record, because we were totally exposed on stage. Our reaction to that was to hide in some ways. But we started to become this rock band we had always wanted to become, and on that tour we thought ‘why are we still hiding?’ We decided we could just really go for it, and let go of ourselves, and have a good time, and put a lot of our energy and our heart into. Watching them (Depeche Mode) play every night… sure, they do those big venues all the time, and it’s a bit choreographed but, at the same time, it’s very, very real. If they were hiding, it would never work.”
At the moment, its sounds like Kacey is relaxed, if a little excited about playing the first date of a tour, in support of a new album that he is confident about. He’s extra relaxed because this time he’s not having to do all the driving. “I get to watch DVDs like the rest of the band! The last couple of years I have been driving on tour; I am the only person who can drive the band. Driving, getting to a gig, unloading, doing the gig, loading, driving. It’s tiring. By the end of the tour I was usually pretty exhausted. This time around we’ve got a driver, so we can hang out, have fun and play gigs.”
As an American, what brought him here in the first place? “I came here to go to university to do social and political science.” How far did you get? “I got to my second year,” he laughs, “but ended up going back to the states for a bunch of reasons, before coming back here to live again.
“Initially, I really wanted to get as far away from where I grew up (California). I was too lazy to learn another language,” he laughs. “So England it was! Also, I’d heard from friends about how great it was. You know, being able to go to pubs at night, having a healthy local life. I don't think a lot of English people understand how lucky they are. ‘Oh, I'll just go down to the pub, or I'll ride my bike or walk somewhere’. In California you spend all your time in cars and it gets isolated.”