Jasper Willems spoke to Nottingham indie pop upstarts Divorce about their peculiar origin story, playing with stereotypes and achieving that fine balance between drama and sincerity.
More often than not bands need – give or take – at least a couple of months to develop their definitive voice. Only on rare occasions, will you find an emerging lot brandishing a ready-made, incisively tailored clarity within their sound. Nottingham’s Divorce are part of that distinguished latter category.
Their first banger, “Services”, immediately embraces the most grandiose of sonic extremes; the ruby-eyed romance of a Busby Berkeley play, the fuzzy alt-grunge of Toadies, the kitchen sink grit of your favourite country golden oldies, all of those curious aesthetics imbued through Divorce’s crisp, hook-driven songwriting.
“Pretty” meanwhile, shows a gift of writing tunes that exist in specific scenarios: in this case, a story of two lovers under intense scrutiny smiling over the first cracks of their public facade. The song, accompanied by a deliberately tacky choreographed video in grainy VHS footage, somehow manages to be both camp and candid.
An educated guess can attribute all this to Divorce’s tantalising makeup: Tiger Cohen-Towell and Felix Mackenzie-Barrow of lo-fi alt-folk duo Megatrain paired with Kasper Sandstrøm (of post-punk group Do Nothing) and Adam Peter Smith. Indie imprint Hand In Hive took notice, which obviously means more recordings in the near future.
Before they explode, we took some time to get to know them in a delightful Q&A.
Is every Divorce song a collaborative thing or do one of you take turns taking point creatively?
Tiger: We [Tiger and Felix] tend to write together for lyrics and chord arrangements, and we take what we have to the rest of the band and we flesh it out with them. I think harmonising and vocal arrangements are a very important part of the band. Felix and myself have been doing that for many years together, so it feels like a very natural starting point in the songwriting process for us. It means that we write… – I don’t know if you understand what I mean with ‘song-y songs’? But we like ‘song-y songs… maybe a little too much! (laughs)
Wait, so you and Felix have been making music together longer?
Tiger: We’ve had previous projects and we had known each other since we were teenagers. We’ve been collaborating for a very long time and Divorce is fairly new, about a year old.
What can you tell me about your previous ‘musical liaisons’ before Divorce?
Felix: We were a duo called Megatrain; we were quite young when we started that. I think we were quite wide-eyed. We wanted to write songs together because it felt very natural. But we didn’t do anything outside of Nottingham. We put out a few singles, then the pandemic then hit and we weren’t anywhere near each other for nine months.
When we came back together we were in a bit of a rut with Megatrain, we felt the energy had gone from it. So we wanted to bring other people into the process. With Megatrain, Tiger and I spent a lot of time together, but when we needed to play shows, we needed to have a band with us. And being able to find a solid band was always difficult, because those people weren’t involved with the creative process.
It all happened by chance: during the lockdowns, we had the opportunity to write a song with Kasper (Sandstrøm) from Do Nothing. He came to us with an instrumental track, and we wrote some lyrics to it remotely, to see what we could come up with. The next day we came back with two section of this song called “John”, which ended up on a compilation album (initiated by local Notts fest Hockey Hustle). That spurred us on to bring Kasper into this new project, and Adam (Peter Smith), who we worked with previously as well.
We’ve all been friends for a long time, so it happened quite organically and naturally. Obviously it was still very much the pandemic when we started. We’ve had a good six months of incubation time. We had some time to put songs together and figure out how we worked together as a four-piece. When we played our first show with TV Priest in London, it was quite mad, because we were opening for this band that was doing really well. They were lovely people. And our label Hand In Hive saw that show and put a lot of faith in us immediately, and we were performing for a load of people straight away.
The two videos perfectly match the theatrical elements of your music. How has the process been on finding people who can extend your vision visually?
Tiger: We collaborated with Clump Collective from Bristol on the first video for “Services”. We put a lot in their hands really: they came up with the concept and developed the set. We’re good friends with them so we know their work well. I think they got a real sense for the track, and they managed to convey a real dark humor.
For the video for “Pretty” we worked with a director from Nottingham called Michael Jobling, who is primarily in short films and cinema. Although he worked with us before, he’s so narrative-focussed. We had free rein on the ideas we wanted to put into it, so we ended up filming loads up stuff without having any idea if it was going to work as one piece. But we came away with it with a completely different look than what we expected. We went into it with this idea of a dystopian future, and we came out of it with this Amdram theatre feel, or maybe like a Bryn show. There’s both a humor and a desperation to it, and it matches up really well to the lyrics of “Pretty”. We obviously take the work seriously, but we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.
Felix: I think we always take the opportunity to highlight the theatrical elements to our songwriting. That’s maybe harder to get across to someone who is just listening to a track. Both Tiger and myself met each other as actors when we were teenagers. We both come from that tradition, so the element of theatre is always gonna be present in what we do.
Well, meeting each other through acting does seem a significant premise for Divorce.
Tiger: We were both part of a youth theatre group in Nottingham. We were around 16, 17 when we met doing that. Felix grew up in Derby and I grew up in Nottingham; they are like neighbouring cities. But Felix went a bit further in his acting endeavours than I ever did. (laughs)
Felix: I grew up in a family who run a small theatre company that do sort of comedy version of Shakespeare and things like that. I was performing before audiences and actors for as long as I can remember. We both came to acting from very different places. It was funny, when we started Megatrain we were both feeling really disillusioned from the acting world. The sort of clique-y, self-indulgent atmosphere felt very dog-eat-dog. Everyone was climbing over each other to get a part. I think Tiger and I both found an independent creative spirit in music together.
Tiger: There’s certainly a lack of agency as an actor in what you get to do. Because it’s so saturated, you take what you are given in terms of parts. You often feel quite starved creatively. Obviously if you work hard at it you can get out of that and get agency over what you do. But I think we found that itch for theatrics in Divorce. It’s important to us in the way we present ourselves on stage, in our videos, in our writing. The art forms cross over. But we are definitely not a ‘concept band’. But that mode of self-expression that we are both experienced in with acting, it definitely comes across in our music. It’s part of our identity as a band.
Felix: We’ve often spoken about writing a musical. (laughs)
This makes me curious about the musical DNA of Divorce. What range of records am I going to find in your respective cabinets?
Felix: I came to music very much from a folk perspective. I had a solo project – which is very much on the back burner now – that had a more folky angle.
Tiger: I was training to become a jazz singer at first. That was what I was more focused on as a teenager. That generally came with show tunes and stuff, and that’s where a lot of my roots are as a vocalist.
Felix: I think that’s where we crossed over: musicals!
Tiger: I find musicals an infinite source of inspiration. Even though I’m not a massive musical person at all, but I definitely feel the commitment with various art forms. That’s so woven into the band’s fabric – for Felix and me as people, at least, I don’t want to speak for Kasper and Adam, because they fit into that so well.
Felix: I think the level of emotional expression in those forms is really important. We tend to write emotion-first, finding the phrases and melodic lines to get that across to trigger a feeling.
Tiger: I wouldn’t want to put a song out that I wasn’t clarified on emotional. Musicals are a reference point for that; the way we sing, the way we deliver. I think you can hear a lot of that in the songs. We take a lot from country music as well, which goes back into folk. It’s a bit of an amalgamation.
Felix: By definition the bones of a folk song or a country song is having to be communal, so archetypical that anyone could relate to it. Anyone can find something in the melody or the words that they can hold themselves. That means a folk and country song is very flexible when you bring it in a band format. Tiger grew up with very 70s, 80s pop, disco stuff; if the songwriting is strong enough to be a classic folk song, you can put as much on it as you want without losing the heart of it.
I guess a great country song takes a real life experience and makes it larger than life. There’s definitely a palpable grit and toughness to the vocals on “Services”, though not to an extent that you get transported to Bummerville either. It’s a cool balance of hamming it up without becoming detached from that real experience. I guess that’s the interesting challenge of performing on stage, to find that elusive sweet spot. I always think about Edward Norton’s character in Birdman confessing he’s actually acting more in real life than when he is on stage. How’s finding that balance been for you during the first Divorce shows?
Felix: There’s a truth in that you kind of get to be an unedited version of yourself when you’re taking something that deep within, and just giving it to load people.
Tiger: It’s the ultimate excuse to say exactly how you feel. The lyrics are only one part of the song, it’s multi-layered in how vulnerable you can feel. I think if you don’t feel good doing it, what’s the point? I think that’s why we’ve chosen to stylise how we present ourselves on stage. Me wearing a wig is a part of that. I’m not sure if that’s something I’ll hold onto forever. It makes sense for the project. There’s something slightly uncool about it. The band is called Divorce, so I think we want to have a smell of desperation, but in a stylised way. As a child I became obsessed with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I like to present myself as feminine and camp, different from the way I am in real life.
Felix: I often feel my stage-self plays up my masculinity in a way I’ve never felt in myself day-to-day. It maybe corresponds to a more stereotypical version of masculinity. Maybe Tiger plays with the idea of hyper-femininity, and forcing the question of how useless those ideas are. You are not seeing people thriving on those traits; they are still just as complicated, confused and vulnerable as anyone else.
Tiger: The irony of binary!
“Pretty” narrates a tale of two disgraced public figures who are also lovers. That immediate homes in on a field of tension, between keeping up appearances of this glamorous image, but also noticing the cracks and seams forming realtime. The song sounds like you are having a lot of fun getting into character there.
Felix: Some of the responses to the shows have been indicative of the feeling that you’re watching two people’s lives are crumbling around them. Once they’re on stage, there is a desperation and vulnerability to it that’s deeply comical. You’re watching someone in their worst moment, watching them grapple with all that emotion. That gives it a framework for those songs to hold onto. People have interpreted things in different ways, and I think that’s a good sign of the kind of mood we’re trying to get across.
Tiger: Accessibility is really important. We want people to be able to make their own decisions on what our music sounds like. And I like that it’s a lot of different things.