Sam Lambeth is a journalist and musician with Birmingham-based band Quinn. Prior to this, he spent three years in The MonoBloggers, who enjoyed successful UK tours, a record deal and magazine coverage. Back in the rock saddle as both a spectator (journo) and participant (muso), he offers a glimpse at the grubby but glorious world of unsigned music.
It’s 8.30pm on a Wednesday night. Not late, by any means, and now we’re running on SCT (student central time), it’s too late to sample some sushi but a little too early to begin the mid-week Mai Tais. We’re knee-deep in the initial stages of our second record, getting the drums tracked from a tiny, tinny vessel – affectionately known as the ‘drum tank’ – while I, from the other side of the glass, sing and play guitar half-heartedly, like a prison lover preening for his parole.
I’ve been in this situation before. In fact, I can remember almost six years ago when I was running the risk of reneging my curfew by staying up late to finish recording my first band’s first EP. Work has been shifted around, homework – which has turned into university work – has been put on the backburner. My gym gear sighs in the backseat of my car, crinkled and damp from miserly underuse. We get to 10pm – we’ve been working for six hours on basement level, with no signal, and re-emerging into the black Birmingham sky has rendered our corrupt corneas frazzled and confused. “This is the life,” my drummer says to me, a fresh fag fumbling with his furrowed lips. “…of an unsigned band,” I finish.
Hastily cramming in recording slots, awkwardly avoiding heavily-priced PR agents, begging friends, begging taxis and begging promoters…this is the life of an underground, unsigned band circa 2016. In a world of saturated social media, we long for the heady days of the 1990s, when record deals littered antique coffee tables like purer cocaine and where guitar music was dubbed the past, present and future of music. Heck, we get misty-eyed over the MySpace malaise, when Arctic Monkeys uploaded a demo and a love of John Cooper Clarke and found themselves floored in Domino’s demo reel. In 2016, music is everywhere. Bands are everywhere. So how do you stand out? Do you become a Luddite, eschewing Soundcloud and Spotify and instead sending out your music via carrier pigeon (with a Teenage Fanclub tattoo on the wing)? Do you pay £1,000 to get played at 3am on XFM? Or do you keep hoping you’ll be “found”?
For my band, Quinn, it’s been a good week, and anyone who’s in a band will know you have to cherish such occurrences with giddy aplomb. Based in Birmingham, we’re fortunate enough to rub shoulders with some esteemed bands, and in my role as a music journalist I’ve been lucky enough to review and interview most of them. As any good music scene should, it’s all connected, all intertwining kites of gig news, label interest, ‘zine zeal and denouncing influences.
Quinn’s good week came right off the back of a bad one. We were due to begin recording our second EP on the Saturday, and thus we overloaded my feeble Fiat 500 with a raft of recording equipment, several guitars, drums and, for me, an exhaustive tome on post-feminist poetry (to keep me sane while the drums are edited). As the last person to always record (I sometimes curse myself for not being part of a rhythm section), I often find myself hanging around, reading, nervously looking over the producer’s shoulder and coming up with riffs I’ll instantly forget. As the band’s songwriter, though, I have to be there at all times, if only to keep my control-freak tendencies in check.
Anyway, alas, this recording session was cancelled while we were halfway there, causing a U-turn not seen since Billy Corgan went back out with Courtney Love. We had a slew of gigs for October, which all got cancelled in tandem, and my amp finally gave up the ghost and will now only play if the ‘gain’ is on at 8.5 or ‘FIDLAR’ level. I felt depressed and, as ever, questioned why I was doing this – I’ve done it before, with two other bands, and have the t-shirts, ticket stubs and dusty master CDs to prove it. Who am I trying to impress? As if I’m going to make it now. As if we’re going to get signed. In truth, all unsigned musicians are masochists – we thrive on the frivolous, we crave the connections and we anticipate the ascensions. We don’t want the glory, we just want one person, alone in their room with a stiffy and a Smiths poster, to come across our YouTube video, smile and realise the world isn’t so contemptuous after all.
So, the good week – we bagged three really good gigs for October, all of them statements of intent. Sometimes, regions are like league tables for bands. Birmingham is a pretty good league, like the Championship (in the sense anyone can win it). We don’t want to be relegation fodder; we don’t want to be Rotherham. All bands need another band, or a slew of bands, to look up to, to see the bar and see how they can match it and, hopefully one day, raise it. With Quinn, we’re always trying hard to improve and evolve.
The good news carried on with the recording session, and as we pile into the car, fragile, hungry and stoned, we laugh and say: “here’s to the next bad patch.” I’m sure you all know it.