If there was a statement as myopic and mad as ‘cracking America’, it was when an unsigned band seeked to ‘crack London’.
The ‘pay to play’ regime was still ruling with a Topman-tailored fist, bands would take a coach load of 50 fans from, say, Wolverhampton to London, play to their own followers, and return home able to say they’d rocked the capital. It was akin to saying you happened to be within the Glastonbury area on a busy June weekend but were only there to admire the countryside.
That was then, and bands are more astute now. Playing London isn’t as exotic as it might have seemed only ten years ago, and expectations have become refreshingly grounded. The latter is a neat way to describe Semantics. They’re not expecting a conveyor belt of conversations with A & R men. They’ve not bought fresh fountain pens, ready to ink an international publishing deal. All they have is copies of their debut EP and the songs from their forthcoming follow-up, Acid Test, an unfortunately timely title where LDN is concerned.
I make my way to London in the company of bassist Joshua Rochelle-Bates, whose usual moniker of ‘JRB’ gives him the predilections of a paunchy Texan. The band’s pulse, Bates is the reluctant leader, the Gordon Brown of bassists, the face on the milk carton. Thought-provoking, intelligent and comprising of a traditionally creative cohesion of self-assuredness and self-destruction, he’s the thinking man’s frontman, in the sense he doesn’t actually occupy the front of the stage. Driving us there is drummer Simon Lees, the easy-going, everyman ying to Bates’ overwrought yang. Furiously chain-smoking, wonderfully churlish, Lees thrives on simplicity both behind the wheel and behind the kit, eschewing fancy fills and insisting on simple, yet seismic, thrills.
This contradictory kinship suits Semantics’ sound. Completing the combo is guitarist Bridie Georgia – relaxed, good-natured, bequiffed – and vocalist, guitarist and lyricist Rob Lilley, who despite his bull-seal bellow, laughs hard and often. Together they form a truly collaborative coalition, bringing their contrasting personalities to the table and chipping away at songs until they form a cohesive representation of the foursome’s favourites.
Acid Test represents a giant leap forward for Semantics. If 2016’s cryptically-titled EP was the sound of a post-punk band treading the water of Peter Hook’s weekend getaway swimming pool, Acid Test is Semantics comfortable in their own skin. The title track and lead single continues the band’s gift for layering, a Pandora’s box of glacial guitars, Lilley’s laconic howl and Bates’ dextrous four-string fretwork. Lyrically, it is also the least subtle of Semantics’ numbers, with a chorus that could enter the pantheon of perverse love songs containing the likes of ‘I Want You’ by Elvis Costello and R.E.M.’s ‘Strange Currencies’.
Speaking of R.E.M., there was once an internet article concerning the band’s ‘mumble years’, which stated: “these lyrics are approximations. Stipe himself doesn’t know what he’s singing.” It’s, of course, blogging bollocks, but it could be a fitting caveat to Semantics. Lilley’s lyrics are incredibly difficult to decipher, and when grilled upon his motivations, influences and inspirations, his answers are so regimentally brusque one suspects he spent his pre-Semantics career fronting the SAS jazz combo.
He’s more open when discussing Acid Test’s artwork, which swaps the brutalist black & white of their debut for a dash of neon naughtiness, the kind of risqué red that mixes black-clad carnality with Amsterdam-esque amorousness. On the surface, it’s mysterious and almost sexy. “We’ve always wanted to make music for people to have sex to,” Bates comments, and although there’s a dark lust at the core of these songs (think Interpol and Suede), it’s hard to imagine anyone furiously rutting to ‘Another City’.
The gig itself, taking place at King’s Cross venue the Pack & Carriage, is a relative success. It’s not the kind of gig where the band will find fame, but as Lees says with trademark realism, it’s all about getting the Semantics brand out there. Anyone fearful the Nokia-drenched bygone era of Mark and Jez-esque London types had faded – men-children living in a Bethnal Green bubble of trust funds and self-loathing – should rest easy that some tonight’s clientele are still partying like it’s 2007, despite being old enough to really know better. At least one is a father of one of the support bands, and he fawns ferociously at the band after a triumphant set.
On the way home, a bullish Bates blasts out Acid Test at deafening volume, windows down, dabbing along to the music as if to tell London that this won’t be, like dabbing itself, a fleeting frenzy. When the journey reaches the halfway point, Lees takes over the stereo and begins blasting out The Corrs. Contradictions.