Musical siblings have a magical quality – they share the same influences, paint from the same sound palette and trade ‘goosebump’ moments back and forth with a kind of easy telepathy. Michael and David Champion have been playing together since they were kids, as you’d expect, and they’re veterans of the Isle of Wight’s exceptional music scene: Michael fronted buzzy indie band The Shutes, and he recently contributed bass to the debut smash by fellow islanders Wet Leg. The brothers, who started learning guitar at seven and nine, formed Champs in 2012 – but there was music in their bloodline. Their great-grandfather, a violinist with the Royal Philharmonic, was due to play on the Titanic, but he got drunk with a friend the night before it set sail and never made it out of Southampton...
Their fourth album Ride The Morning Glass is the record they always wanted to make: a unique combination of cool minimalism and evocative Americana, studded with radio-friendly songs. Island life, and a childhood steeped in music of Laurel Canyon, formed a sensibility in the brothers that makes them, in sound and aesthetic, more like an American band: “We’ve never really considered ourselves a ‘British band’,” says David. “Our music has always felt transatlantic. It’s driving music, big scenery...”
They grew up in the small village of Niton, near Ventnor, and their harmonies – as sweet and evocative as Crosby Stills and Nash – were formed on one eternal road trip: “There’s basically no public transport, and we spent hours and hours in cars as children listening to The Beatles and other sixties stuff – it had a huge effect on us.” There was Kirsty MacColl, Neil Young, Tracey Chapman and REM on those trips too. Like all the best brother duos – The Beach Boys, The Everly Brothers – their voices blend effortlessly, swapping lead vocals back and forth: even their own mother can’t tell them apart.
“There is something in the water on the Isle of Wight,” says David. “We have this pool of musicians who are so good, like The Wrecking Crew, elite-level session players. The island must have the highest number of signed bands per capita in Britain – there are 100,000 people and probably 20 signed bands…”
On Ride The Morning Glass they achieved a level of creative involvement they’ve always dreamed of. With time (songs were collected over five years), space (the island’s legendary Red Squirrel studios) and as many vintage analogue synths as they could get their hands on, they were able finally to produce the sound they heard in their heads – a sound that unites past and present, and conjures up a thousand dreamlike associations.
Red Squirrel, formerly run by Paul Butler of The Bees, and locally known as Anarchy Ranch, was home to early sessions for Devendra Banhart and Michael Kiwanuka. The studio still features some incredible equipment – “museum pieces” – such as the Russian synth you’ll hear played, in reverse, on Adeleine. “It was a musical free-for-all,” says Mike: “We have always been analogue nerds and now we are finally able to indulge it…”
They were adamant that song-writing would be at the album’s core. Rich and arrestingly catchy melodies – such as unshakeable earworm All The Wrong Places – feature lyrics which, like all the best poetry, capture the imagination with a standout phrase open to a dozen interpretations. Such as the title. I’d like to drink with you and ride the morning glass… - it’s a surfing reference, in fact, about the joy of catching waves on a windless day, but it conjures up images of sticky saloon bars at noon, and the hair of the dog. And just who is Adeleine (“smile sweetly, kind lady”)? A girl from a cowboy legend? Or a 1930s star of the silver screen? Actually, it’s a name completely made up by Mike, “mumbled” into the microphone. The song’s powerful sense of nostalgia lies as much in its vowel sounds and melody as in its lyrics, recalling the retro nineties classic ’74-’75 by The Connells.
Hidden In The Dark stalks along on huge synths reminiscent of Antonio Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack (“We wanted lingering menace – a song that would be playing when a Coen Brothers villain walks in”). And while Deadly Son of Hollywood seems to conjure up characters from a Spaghetti Western, it was in fact inspired by the MeToo movement and darker baddies altogether. Not that you’d know… the brothers wear their backstories lightly, channelling everything into creating a sound that has “a happy sad lilt”, an effect they’ve loved since the music of their childhood.
Their mother worked in youth services and their father delivered coffee on the Isle of Wight: but the boys had a wild time when they were young, a feature of a small community where you make your own entertainment, drink too much too fast and go bombing down the backroads. David traces, in their teenage years, the sense of longing and sadness that underpins the band’s music: the yearning for other times and places, a frustrated sense of possibility.
Rosie Rosie was inspired by a friend who passed away; Take Me Home is about pure homesickness while away on tour. And Where My Heartbeat Likes The Wildlife – another of those oddly compelling phrases – is, says Michael, about “going off the rails and getting into situations you shouldn’t be in; getting into chaos, but being more at home in chaos… It’s about loss and longing, and things you regret having thrown away.” A reedy voice sings of drinking too much to let anyone in…
Champs recall how their first three albums were made so much faster, with such momentum, as to sound on reflection “programmed and rigid – this one feels like a living thing. It’s the kind of album we were always looking for someone else to have made.”
It was produced with James Thorpe, and features drums by local legend Tom Gardner of The Bees and Motion Pictures. David Champion has perfect pitch – which is not the blessing it might appear to be, when an instrument that is just one cent out of tune sounds like nails on a blackboard.
Ride The Morning Glass, with its cinematic vistas, colourful characters and the kind of melodies that stay with you for days, will bring Champs closer to the audience their music deserves. “Some of our stuff always needed to be played on a bigger stage for it to make sense,” David says. “We were playing anthems in a basement to 150 people. Now we’re making music for the stage we want to play on.”