The story of Blaenavon's debut album might be quite easily told: three teenage friends who entered a school talent contest, posted their songs online, and sprawled their way through early gigs, gathering a devoted fanbase and critical acclaim as they went. A band who, after the juggle of exams, EPs, record company attention, have finally delivered a debut album that is sumptuous and thrilling and brave.
But it is also a story of a more complicated time, a coming of age of sorts, of 12 intensely personal songs that explore friendship, sadness, hope, love held and lost, and all the confusions of youth in a world that is slowly revealing itself. And perhaps more than any of this, it is a story of a band that stand many feet taller than their peers, a band to help define a generation, whose songs provide the anthems for this time. Ben Gregory, Frank Wright and Harris McMillan were 14 and living in Hampshire when they first performed a slightly shambolic cover of Muse's 'Knights of Cydonia' in front of a judging panel of three geography teachers sitting on plastic chairs. The teachers were bemused, their fellow students rapturous, the boys themselves so lit up by the experience that they took up residence in a bedroom at Wright's house, recording as they wrote, swiftly posting their songs to Soundcloud. It was a process that proved impulsive, instinctive, compelling. Soon they were hitting the monthly download limit, music blogs sought them out, and gig offers followed.
To see Blaenavon live is to be struck by a sense of
invincibility, and even at their earliest shows - even when they played
their first London gig at the Barfly in 2012, they were infused with
that same pluck and spirit: "We weren't scared," McMillan says.
"We didn't really rehearse, we just rocked up, had a couple of illicit pints and four minutes before we went on stage thought Shit, what songs are we going to play?' and wrote a setlist out. We didn't know how long we had to play for, we didn't have tuners, we had one pedal and this funny Yamaha keyboard."
For all their ramshackleness, the band's live shows soon grew an exuberant following: the dedicated schoolfriends who followed them down from Hampshire, the bands who took them under their wings, the new recruits and devotees they met along the way - not to mention Transgressive, the record label that signed them early on.
But Blaenavon were young yet, their attentions still somewhat scattered. They released a handful of songs, focused more of their attention on their A-levels - on studying jazz double bass and Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', than the pursuit of rock stardom. In the autumn after college however they made the decision to postpone university to record their debut album, decamping to a houseboat in Gloucestershire, a place where they could be cut off from the world and work on their music.
It did not go particularly well. "I think all of us fell into floating around because we had suddenly been given all the facilities and the time to make this thing and we realised how difficult it was to create this seminal piece," says McMillan. "It was kind of a weird time. When you haven't got someone setting some kind of deadline and you've 50 crates of free wine you tend to fall into apathy." It was, Wright remembers "Both a lovely way of being and a horrid way of being." Gregory is more blunt: "I got really fucking upset and had the worst time ever," he says. "I was happy when I was drinking wine and I was sad when I was making music."
Still, they took the 12 songs they had demoed and played them to their
record label. The label was not convinced. "We were all really upset
about it, because we'd played this album that we'd poured our hearts
into," McMillan says. "And that night they held an emergency
meeting, sitting round the table, us being quite despondent and them
saying a lot of things that were really true, and I suppose it took
about a week for it to sink in that what they were saying had ground.
They told us we needed to take it seriously and we were screwing it all up. Before then we hadn't really realised the amount of work you have to put in to fulfill your potential as a band." "I guess," adds Wright, "they convinced us that it was worth knuckling down and making a proper debut album."
That same night the label helped them to draw up a kind of mission statement that the band named the '12 Commandments of Blaenavon' and now keep pinned up in their band space in an old warehouse in rural Hampshire. "They're useful things," says McMillan, "like Try to rehearse nine-to-five', but also there are things about how we should be with each other and how we should be in life."
Re-galvanised, the band began again, writing, rehearsing, rethinking how they should be. "We kind of had to screw up," is the conclusion Gregory has reached. "And the way we screwed up worked out quite perfectly. If we'd recorded an album earlier it would have been quite juvenile."
Though its preoccupations are youthful, the songs on 'That's Your Lot' are far from juvenile. They run the lifetime of the band - from those written fresh in the studio to the epic 'Swans', one of the earliest tracks they ever dreamed up. "'Swans' is a remarkable song for me," says Gregory, "because it was written when I was 15 and contains such clarity and sincerity, which I would usually be too afraid to utter nowadays."
The six-year span this album covers means these are songs of burgeoning maturity - in 'Let's Pray', Gregory examining the point where self-doubt drifts to wallowing, in 'Lonely Side', the contortions of desire and romantic indecision, in 'Take Care', the simple purity of platonic love. Meanwhile in 'Orthodox Man' there is hedonism and abandonment and grandeur, and in the back-to-back placing of 'Swans' and the album's title track, the harrowing experience of falling in and out of love with the same person. Somewhere in the middle lies the sublime 'Let Me See What Happens Next'; just piano and vocal, it reveals every exquisite angle of Gregory's voice, as well as capturing the strange and restless no-man's land of a fading relationship.
Gregory is a remarkable lyrical talent, at times inspired by the writing of Herman Hesse and Evelyn Waugh and the songs of Elliott Smith, but with his own distinctive style: an openness, a keen wit, an eye for beauty. On bass and drums, Wright and McMillan provide Blaenavon's musical backbone; a sound that is ambitious, frequently majestic, while on tracks such as 'Alice Come Home' becomes something ferocious yet refined. Elsewhere, songs such as 'Prague '99', 'Lonely Side', and 'Orthodox Man' display a brilliant pop sensibility.
The band worked with producer Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele, Bombay Bicycle Club) to create 'That's Your Lot', whittling down their clutch of 100 songs, helping to find their sense and common thread. They were impressed by his track record of course, as well as his work ethic, but most of all by the space he gave them to find their songs. "He sits there," Wright says, "and as soon as it's necessary for him to he'll interject and make us enthusiastic about what we're recording, or make the tiniest suggestion, or if one of us has a concept he'll know how to realise it."
"He's the best guy ever to record vocals with," Gregory adds. "Before recording with Jim I just tried to sing as well and in tune as I could without being over the top. But we spoke about what the songs were about, and he encouraged me and suggested how I should bring that character into every word that I'm singing. We'd go through all the takes so carefully. It's a really long process and it worked so well."
Blaenavon are a different band now to the one they were at the beginning. No longer slapdash schoolkids making it all up as they go along, they have an ambition and sense of purpose now, a desire to go further, bigger, better than before. In this collection of songs, in their stunning live shows, the sheer force of this band seems undeniable. And in Gregory, it is impossible not to see the kindling of one of rock's great frontmen, an artist coming to recognise his band is destined to be something special.
"That's Your Lot," he says, mulling over the ambiguity of the album's title. "Is this a parting message? A final goodbye? To a person or from us as artists? Is it more about the idea of fate and acceptance of what the world has planned for you?"