As much as the hype-hungry music industry likes to pretend that all acts arrive fully formed, ready for stardom from their first demo, the reality is that bands take time to progress. It helps if you have a work ethic that sees you play 100 gigs a year until you reach a tipping point – even more if you learn how to be your own tour managers, guitar techs and sound engineers as you go along.
That way, you’re more likely to become “unignorable”, as Bleech singer/guitarist Jen O’Neill explains, with a genuine fanbase. As drummer Matt Bick reasons: “You need to be at the point where you’re bursting out of your skin for it to happen, with a fanbase who completely adore you, having created something real on your own.”
On the eve of their second album, it’s a description that applies perfectly to the trio. Humble Sky arrives barely a year after debut album Nude, but is a quantum leap forward, bolstered by the experience of yet more concerts and recording in an atmosphere far more suited to their increasingly expansive, bold songwriting. It was recorded at residential studios Courtyard in the Oxfordshire countryside with producer Ian Davenport (Band Of Skulls, Supergrass, The Duke Spirit). Having endured a daily commute across London to record Nude, getting away from it all proved an inspiration, sleeping above the studio and recording vocals in the kitchen.
Jen recalls: “It was so relaxed that we thought ‘Oh, so recording can be fun!’ Ian encouraged everyone, going ‘If you’ve got an idea say it.’ It was the opposite of stories you hear of producers who chuck guitars at your head.”
Although comparisons with every female-fronted grunge and punk band have been bandied about in the past, it’s hard to see that continuing on hearing the hauntingly sparse ballad Grow, unsettling live favourite Love Is Free, the bleak and beautiful Isolate or Easy Ride’s dreamy atmospherics.
What Humble Sky shares with its predecessor is an innate gift for ferociously infectious melody.
“Melody is the foremost aspect of our songs,” Jen enthuses. “The music I listen to is always melodic – Queens Of The Stone Age and Metallica have so much melody. The songs that come out of us aren’t manipulated in any way to sound more like anyone or anything, it’s just us, but it means a lot that people don’t just call this a grunge album.”
The fact Humble Sky exists at all is testament to Bleech’s steely determination, having endured stalled hype and financial gloom in their four years that would have killed most bands. Bassist Katherine O’Neill notes: “The bands who were our peers have mostly either split up or had record label problems, but we’re still here. We’re proud of not giving up, but we’ve never wanted to. We get such a sense of freedom from being on tour. We do something we want to, and that can only be positive.”
Grouped at their local pub in Wanstead – the no-nonsense East London suburb that may as well be a thousand miles away from its geographically close hipster hangouts – Jen, her younger sister Katherine and ex-schoolfriend Matt are welcoming and waspishly hilarious, but passionately disgusted at the nonsensical battles bands face to survive. They all have part-time jobs; Katherine and Matt at a local café, Jen in admin for a special effects firm.
“The amount of bands who use vocal boxes to tune their live vocals is getting ridiculous,” spits Jen. “I don’t think a rock band should need those tools – technology can help, but you can go too far, I think. People won’t risk paying £7 to see a gig if they’re just as likely to see four weaker bands rather than two great ones. Record labels only look at the number of Facebook and Twitter followers you get. The numbers of people seeing us live is growing incrementally, but because our Facebook numbers don’t leap by 5,000 a week, labels aren’t interested.”
A powerful and combative live act, Bleech have certainly seen their audiences grow since an early gig in Burton-on-Trent where, as Katherine smiles, “We played to one man, his dog and a transvestite. I think there were two hookers hanging around too.” In Dunfermline, they survived a mass stage invasion and a promoter who fed the band Jaegerbombs on stage – before stealing their merchandise. But those and another 400 gigs have seen Bleech grow into a consistently superb force.
“It’s an unspoken rule that we have to be at our best every night,” insists Matt. “It used to be that, for certain gigs, we’d go ‘We have to be great tonight’, but now we know how to be on it at every show. We don’t shy away any more.” Jen adds: “We used to think everyone had to love us. There’s a lot of learning still to be done, but we’ve done it long enough that we can say ‘We can do this.
Jen puts the biggest leap in their live proficiency down to the confidence borne from completing such an accomplished new album. The band now view Nude as an accompaniment to their gigs of the time, whereas Humble Sky is a complete work in its own right.
Helped by post-studio chillout sessions where the band and Ian played each other inspiring songs by the likes of Neil Young, Rodriguez, Joni Mitchell and Talk Talk, they knuckled down to getting each component to sound just right – only going too far when Matt required over 60 takes to perfect the skittering drums on Easy Ride. “Ian had to tell me ‘Do you want to go for a walk?’,” Matt blushes. “I was throwing my sticks everywhere and broke a lamp in the kitchen.”
The fire familiar throughout Bleech’s career is still present, but is more controlled, none more evidently than in splenetic album opener Not Like You. “It’s about saying where you want to go in life, and wanting to escape from it all to a cottage in the countryside somewhere,” explains Jen. “Writing it was a very positive breakthrough.”
Equally uplifting, the soaring Light Up The World’s message of self-belief is the clearest statement of the band’s determination. “It invigorates a show instantly,” says Matt. “When the chorus comes in, people get animalistic.”
In a more sombre vein, Jen reveals that Isolate – the last song written for the album – “Is about someone sitting in a pub on their own and realising there’s somebody out there for them, needing to get off their arse and finding them… There’s a lot on this album about why people are attracted to each other and wanting things you can’t have, the temptation to cheat on each other. That’s in everybody, but does it come out in everybody?” She swigs her pint and smiles. “People interest me.”
Named in part after Jen’s blog The Humble Beginning and as a nod to their homely studio, Humble Sky finds a band giving their unignorable fanbase what they want and what they didn’t know they want. Bleech are ready to take your breath away.
Not Like You Party’ is the brand spanking new single from Bleech and released on 8th July.