With their debut album Uppers just released, Rob Hakimian spoke to TV Priest vocalist Charlie Drinkwater about their journey so far. Tracing their trajectory from a bunch of friends forming a band as a way to reconnect, to being signed by boutique label Hand in Hive, to being playlisted on BBC Radio, to attracting the attentions one of the biggest indie labels in the world, it’s a true tale of victory for passion, honesty and doing it for the right reasons.
My interview with TV Priest singer Charlie Drinkwater happened way back in June of last year – well before their debut album Uppers was announced and way before it was revealed that they’d been snapped up by Sub Pop, who would delay the release of the record to February.
One of the main reasons it’s taken me so long to write this up is because Charlie and I spoke for a good two hours, and while the conversation was enjoyable, illuminating, and full of character – it’s still no fun transcribing that much material. Even before we got to talking about TV Priest, Charlie had touched on a myriad of topics including Black Lives Matter, urban planning, gatekeeping in the music press, and his work as a designer – which could be a whole piece in itself, as he worked for Island Records for four years and since going freelance he’s done everything from album covers for Fontaines D.C. to pro bono work for anti-fascist campaigners in Portland. Truly, the conversation would’ve been better served as a podcast, so that each and every book he referenced – from Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism to John Wyndham’s The Chrysalid to his charity shop discovery of John Douch’s accounts of smuggling off the Kent coast in the 19th century, and beyond – could be acknowledged.
At the time, I chalked the extent of our conversation up to lockdown lunacy and the need for someone to talk to, but it seems Charlie is a talker no matter the situation. George O’Brien and Tristan Wilson, the co-founders of London label Hand in Hive who originally signed the band and planned to release Uppers, confirm this. “It’s good being on calls with Sub Pop when he’s there,” George says. “They ask him a question and he just goes brain wandering off and five minutes later is like ‘somebody stop me – put me on mute or something!’”
Of course, this is probably obvious from his verbose lyricism, which is the first thing that smacks you in TV Priest’s music and is perhaps the main reason that they can stand a little apart from the rest in the current crop of political post-punk bands. Charlie’s growling sing-speak is immediately distinctive, but so is the character; by turns angry, unimpressed, vulnerable and humorous – often within the same verse.
Key to his lyrical and vocal prowess is his self-awareness, which has to be put down to the fact that, unusually for a breaking band, the foursome are all in their 30s – and Charlie is also a father to a young son. “We’ve had a bit more life experience and maybe that resonates with people a little more,” he reflects. This allows him more perspective on life and more understanding of how important – or not – their music is. “I would never deign to tell anyone else how to live their life, the lyrics in my songs are not instructions for other people,” he says. “I look back on some of the things I was writing when I was younger and I’m like ‘what was I trying to talk about?’”
Indeed, it’s been a long evolution for the foursome. Although just releasing their debut album now, the members of TV Priest have been making music together in various projects and combinations since their school days. Charlie describes guitarist Alex ‘Sprog’ Sprogis as a “main constant in [his] life”, as they’ve known each other since they were six. Bonds with bassist/producer Nic Bueth and drummer Ed Kelland formed in their teens when they went to school together in Guildford, to the South East of London. “There were about 2000 people that went to that school and for some reason we formed a friendship, pretty much based around music,” Charlie says.
They soon started a band, but Charlie is reluctant to reflect on the earliest music they made together. “It was just the worst, because the trouble was a lot of us liked different things. It’d be like one minute you’re playing an extended prog jam and the next a punk song,” he laughs. “But I suppose you need those formative experiences, and we liked playing with each other so I think that cements your friendship as well.” Charlie intended to be a bass player originally, but “kind of got shuffled over to being the singer when Nic started playing bass”. As a fledgling vocalist, he took his cues from David Byrne and Frank Sinatra (which remains his go-to karaoke pick).
Following school, they went their separate ways for university. Three of them were in London, and lived together for a period where they continued to try to make music together, but without much success. “I think life takes over sometimes and it kind of falls apart,” he reflects. “We just kind of stopped enjoying it and went in different ways – though we were all still very close.”
Nic remained focused on music, and set up his own recording and practice space in Hackney Wick called Studio East, where he offers his services as a mixer, engineer and producer, while continuing to tinker on his own material. Having this hub meant that the foursome never fully gave up on the idea of creating music together, even if some years went past without any progress on getting the band back together.
As Charlie got married, had a child and started to settle into life in his new home outside the city, he found himself working doubly hard; “I drove myself to the limits of exhaustion because I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to provide for my son,” he reveals, but he also felt limited: “I love my job as a designer dearly, but I’m making and facilitating a lot of other people’s visions, which is brilliant, but sometimes you just want to do something for yourself. I was pretty sad for a while, and I didn’t want my son to grow up around someone like that.”
He saw music as an outlet for all of this: “I missed my mates, and I just wanted to communicate,” he says. “It’s easier for me to talk about the birth of my little boy and the fact that it was really difficult on my wife in a song. Maybe it’s wrong of me not to be able to sit down in a pub and be like ‘Hey guys, I had this really tough time’, but for me it was easier to put it in a song and frame it that way.”
Seizing on this impetus, he and Sprog had “a pretty frank discussion” about making some kind of music or art together. “I was just like, ‘I really want to be in a room with you guys again, let’s just play and talk’,” he says. “It was all just very loose, there wasn’t a master plan.”
TV Priest started writing songs piecemeal, sending ideas back and forth, with Nic assembling them at his studio. They would get together to practice when possible, sometimes “playing a riff over and over and over again for an hour” in order to nail down the groove and interplay between the instrumental elements, which is such a key feature of TV Priest’s appeal. This is also when Charlie would start to put words to the songs – although it’s far from a simple task of writing them from beginning to end. “I’ll send Sprog terrible snippets and voice notes and then he’ll very considerably print out pages and pages of lyrics,” he explains. “Then I’ll take them to the booth and scribble on them, cross bits out, take a stanza from this page and put it on that page… I coalesce a load of thoughts and try to put them in a singular theme.” Sprog also contributes some lyrics, which Charlie incorporates into his diatribes, and nobody’s afraid to tell each other when something’s not working. “The boys would probably say I’m quite ruthless in terms of making us take a lot of things out,” he says. “I’m lucky I’ve known them for a very long time, because I think if we were working together with other people they’d be quite offended.”
In late 2019 they put on the first TV Priest show at the Greenhouse in Hackney Wick – a former industrial fridge that didn’t even have a rig. Nonetheless, they had a great time and had plans for more shows, with dates supporting the likes of Egyptian Blue lined up for 2020 – before the pandemic hit. That Greenhouse performance remains their one and only live set as TV Priest, which is pretty ironic considering they “primarily formed the band as a live experience”.
On the bright side, two of the people who were in the audience that night were George and Tristan from Hand in Hive. They had been passed a link to some of TV Priest’s early recordings by a friend and were attracted by its “immediate authenticity”. Tristan remembers: “I was walking down my road in Clapton listening to the song George had sent me, and I had had a few beers, and I just thought ‘this has got some bollocks’.”
They showed up to the show at the Greenhouse “already pretty set that [they] wanted to work with them”, but after seeing them play they were certain. “I remember walking away from that gig humming and nodding along to “The Big Curve”,” George says. “It’s a good sign if you come out singing a song you haven’t heard before.”
When they discovered more about TV Priest’s ethos and set up, they were even more determined to put them out on Hand in Hive. “They had no expectations at all, really,” George remembers. “They were doing it for the right reasons, they were doing it for themselves as a creative output as opposed to being like ‘we’re going to hit X million Spotify streams’.” On top of this was the fact of the band’s self-sufficiency, with Charlie a professional and passionate designer and Nic being a talented producer with his own space. “We don’t have loads of money to put people in with big name producers, so when a band can sound the finished article and it was just them who created it, it’s really exciting for us as a label because we can put the budget into promotion and marketing,” George says. “Charlie’s connections in the design world is really helpful too, because loads of bands hate making videos and the artwork is a pain and needs to be outsourced, but a group of guys who enjoy doing that is awesome, and the aesthetic is such an important part of TV Priest.”
It was also a stroke of luck for the band. “Despite the fact that I’d worked at Island Records for four years, I had no idea how we were going to release our music or who would be interested,” Charlie admits. “We were just going to put “Press Gang” out as the first single on our own, on like CD Baby, because obviously that’s what you do – just shout into the void.”
Hand in Hive stepped in and took control, pausing them for a moment to strategise. They released the first single, “House of York” in April 2020, and quickly followed it up with “Runner Up”, which became a playlist fixture over the summer on BBC 6 Music. Things were moving quickly at that point, despite the fact that no touring could happen. When the seething “This Island” was released in August, it brought with it the news of debut album Uppers, and Hand in Hive were overwhelmed with 600 pre-orders, which they had never experienced before. It appears that TV Priest’s surging, rhythmic and anti-nationalist missives had caught the imaginations of many.
It wasn’t just people in the UK either. Tim Hall, head of Sub Pop’s International Sales in the UK, had been turned on to TV Priest by his wife who’d heard them on the radio. He sent it to his colleagues in Seattle, and it spread like wildfire around the office. “Within a few days we were on a call with us, the band and all the heads of department at Sub Pop,” Tristan recalls. “They just said ‘we are obsessed with this band and we need to work with them’.” George remembers “they used the word ‘stoked’ a lot, which is always good”.
Of course, for band and label alike, it was a no-brainer to let Sub Pop in. “I had to try and play it cool, which I’m certainly not good at,” George laughs. “You’re talking to the people that run Sub Pop, and you’ve been a fan of their label for so long – they were the first label that I kind of understood as a record label. We’re just at the beginning, and the commitment they’ve put into the band for the future is really exciting.”
In many ways, Sub Pop is the perfect home for TV Priest. Despite being unavoidably British and the ease with which you can label them a ‘political band’, their music is much broader and more universal than that. “I’m happy for people to say ‘you guys are one of our political bands’,” Charlie says. “But I also hope that we can talk about emotion or friendship or joy or sorrow or history. We are talking about a wealth of human experiences.”
With Uppers now out in the world – and literally worldwide – TV Priest are already thinking about what’s next. While they’re still itching to play live, they’re not twiddling their thumbs until the time comes. “We’re lucky because Nic can get to the studio without seeing anyone and Sprog is just around the corner. So we’ve probably got another album’s worth of demos sorted – we like to work quickly,” Charlie says. But the main aim is still the same as ever, to maintain their friendship: “I’m looking forward to when we can properly get back together again.”