Despite borrowing ideas from music’s rich history, Harry Violet & the Sharks remain determined to find their own sound, which ‘Jungle Cavalcade’ goes some way to proving.
Braving the concrete jungle that is otherwise known as the heart of London, Harry Violet & the Sharks is four brave souls willing to embrace any challenge that comes their way in order to make a name for themselves and their music.
Fully aware of the glut of bands currently filling up London’s live music venues, in addition to the sharks of various descriptions loitering on pretty much every corner looking to exploit the next big thing, the determination of this four-piece band is ferociously independent and one that is not concerned with the machinations of the music industry and big shiny label deals; something of which is proving to be a myth these days any way.
By taking the initiative with a determination to forge ahead no matter what this jungle may or may not have in store for these four plucky souls, Harry Violet & the Sharks made the collective decision to record, produce and promote their first single entirely on their own. The result of this purely independent release is a 7″ single by the name ‘Jungle Cavalcade’, and backed with ‘Dance At The Korova’. A novel approach, perhaps, when it comes to making your opening bow with a vinyl single and therefore bucking the current trend (thankfully) of streaming music, but not so, once you learn of Harry Violet & the Sharks personal tastes and ideas for their music that certainly embraces more of the past rather than the present.
“For me, it was all about getting into early 50s and early 60s rock and roll,” begins frontman Harry Violet (real name Harry Rylott) regarding the band’s main sources of inspirations for their style of music. “I grew up in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, in one of those towns where nothing happened. However, once a year, I used to borrow a massive trailer and hire a diesel generator and put on a festival in a field where loads of local indie bands would play. For a long time, I’ve wanted to play 50s and 60s rock and roll music, so I decided to put together a band with saxophone and stuff like that, and we played rock and roll.”
These initial forays into the worlds of 50s and 60s rock and roll led Harry Violet to packing up, and moving out of the tranquil surrounds of his countryside upbringing and heading to the capital, as London was definitely calling. The decision to move to a bigger and more vibrant environment transformed the initial aspirations Harry Violet held for his music as the band, consisting of Murdo Mackenzie (drums), Tim Barrow (bass) and Max Ellenberger (saxophone), developed their initial sound by incorporating a smorgasbord of influences that consisted of various 50s and 60s references, but also far more subtle links to punk, psychobilly and oddball indie bands from the 80s.
“When we got together in London, we began playing a selection of 50s and 60s numbers at live gigs for fun,” explains Harry. “Last summer, we lost our drummer and then spent six months trying to get a new drummer, so it wasn’t until the start of this year that we actually got together. However, from the first moment that we got in a practice room, it was just one of those things where it all clicked in to place, and that was a great feeling. It was also at this point that we started to do our original take on this sound as well. We had been putting our own ideas together before that, but things progressed further when our drummer, Murdo, joined the band because he’s performed with all sorts of bands from psychobilly to rockabilly to surf bands and therefore gained much experience, which led to everything clicking into place.”
When listening to your debut single, ‘Jungle Cavalcade’, you can definitely hear other influences at work other than the 50s and 60s references you have mentioned.
“I agree because we’re all into different styles of music as well,” replies Harry. “I would say that Murdo and I are definitely into the fandom [aspect] of 50s and 60s music, where you start digging into the obscure material from those periods. Tim and Max are really into this style of music as well, but they’re probably not as obsessive about it on a music geek level of picking out rare songs and whether you can find it on vinyl. Max, for example, is a massive Screamin’ Jay Hawkins fan, and I know that part of his rock and roll sax influence stems from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ sound. Tim has been one of my friends for years now, and, in a way, I think he was introduced to rock and roll by me playing it, and him loving it, and it was one of those relationships. Murdo, as mentioned earlier, has played with a bunch of rock and roll, rockabilly and psychobilly acts and I suppose we’re really the [two] guys who started chatting about the more obscure stuff when we got together as a band.”
With the band coming together for their shared passions for music as well as notable differences, the recipe for success is most definitely there as Harry Violet & the Sharks have set out their ideas on a broad canvass, that bodes well for the future as the band will have much to draw from in order to create a sound that is not exclusively a niche market, therefore avoiding the risk of being pigeonholed for the rest of their time together. Definitely a wise decision and something Harry Violet is keen to elaborate on further.
“I like to think of us as a dark, sax-driven rock and roll band, which is our tagline, but I would stress that we are going for that darker sound. We love stuff like Charlie Feathers’ ‘Can’t Hardly Stand It’ and a lot of the Tarantino style surf rock and the stuff that’s used in those types of soundtracks. The Screamin’ Jay Hawkins kind of horror thing, The Cramps and old records such as Kip Tyler ‘She’s My Witch’, all of them are dark and brooding and almost sound [as if they have] a heavy metal evilness to them, but remain strictly in the vein of the 50s instrumentation. Also, I like The Sonics as I love that combination of the evil chords with rock and roll or that garage kind of ‘Kinks guitar riffing. For us though, in this style of music, there are people who want to specifically sound like a rockabilly band with an upright bass and acoustic and lead guitar, or specifically want to be like a garage rock band. I feel that we don’t want to fall into a strict distillation of a certain type of rock and roll. Therefore, for us, it’s definitely trying to go down that dark route. It also makes a difference that we have an electric bass guitar rather than a double bass, and trying not to fall into the blue suede shoes formula [mimics the typical rhythm pattern] on every song.”
There are quite a few bands out there who actually like a lot of different types of music other than the one genre they often find their music lumped under, would you agree?
“I read an interview with The Bellfuries and they were talking about JD McPherson, who is really big at the moment,” responds Harry. “It was interesting to learn that he [McPherson] was really popular with the rock and roll and rockabilly crowds, but has now branched out into a bigger target audience and is getting people interested in that, and there doesn’t seem to have been a backlash against him. One of the guys in The Bellfuries was saying how they met JD McPherson and that they used to chat about Iron Maiden and The Smiths and things like that, and how they loved all this different music.”
What The Bellfuries did?!
“Yeah, they used to chat to JD McPherson about all those kinds of bands,” Harry confirms. “They’re [The Bellfuries] an interesting example because the first ‘Bellfuries record is such a cool rockabilly kind of Hank Williams style album, which has some tracks on there that are absolutely perfect. Then, with their second album, they went down a route of trying to break out of that mould, and that album didn’t really appeal as much to me. The way I look at it is that they didn’t want to get stuck in rehashing a traditional style [of music], and that they wanted to try and make it modern by adding different influences to it.”
By having a varied taste in music, especially when you’re part of a band, perhaps this creates more problems when trying to incorporate all of these different ideas together when writing and recording an album?
“My thoughts on having a varied taste in music are that it helps you define music by the other,” says Harry. “What I mean here is that you can understand what punk is if you listen to metal because you can see where the boundaries are, and where the crossover lies by listening to other styles of music; therefore, you can define the boundaries and what the characteristics of the music you’re actually playing are. For me, I’m trying to use the mechanics of rock and roll, surf rock, and maybe a bit of garage rock, and then adding fresh ideas rather than trying to twist too far the form of the music in order to add these other forms of music to it.”
In a way, such a theory also applies to the name of your band when it comes to an understanding of the genre your moniker sounds most at home with, and the fact that you’re applying other influences via your overall sound without sounding too far removed from the cultural references the band’s title, Harry Violet & the Sharks suggests.
“People, who like only one particular genre, will look at a name that is structured and then identify with that 50s and early 60s subculture or cultural things, for example,” explains Harry regarding the thinking behind the band’s name. “So the idea, by having that format of name, was always going to be somebody and the somethings because if a person who is into that style of music sees your band name on a line up, it’s tapping into those subcultural factors.”
FLW is of the opinion that Harry Violet & the Sharks is also a play on words when it comes to your own name. Care to explain?
“The Harry Violet side of our name, as you mentioned, is kind of a play on my own name, but it’s just that playing up to the showmanship of it,” is the response from the band’s frontman. “I think that a huge part of this style of music [rock and roll] is the showmanship. For me, the ultimate rock and roller is Little Richard (Hear, hear, FLW), and when you look into the cultural history of someone like Little Richard, he’s this openly gay, black performer in America in a deeply white conservative culture yet everything is so flamboyant and camp and out there when it comes to him. So, for us, there’s definitely an element of trying to capture that level of showmanship, and that’s a hugely enjoyable part of rock and roll music with the imagery, the names and logos and things like that.
The shark part of the band’s name comes from Hunter S. Thompson [author], which sounds like a bit of a cliché, maybe, but in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas there are loads of parts where he’s talking about sharks and how everybody around [him] is a shark, and it just felt like a great metaphor and use of a word to describe contemporary society and the kind of people you might find in dive bars and scuzzy places where rock and roll might be playing. As I said earlier, we’re kind of going for a darker sound, and that’s kind of worked for us.”
Are you referring to the business side of the music industry as well when using the ‘Sharks’ reference in relation to the band name?
“Oh yeah, absolutely, “confirms Harry. “Not to get too political about things, but I think in terms of writing the lyrics, I feel that one of the really interesting things about rock and roll is that there’s a thing of ‘working man’ element to it. For example, if you look at Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’, it’s all of these frustrations of modern life. If you look at modern life now, living in a city like London, it’s just such a rampant, selfish, corporate, capitalist [environment] which, if you go into it, you can start sounding like an old punk from the 80s under Thatcher or something like that. There’s the glossy side of this city, and there’s such an underbelly caused by the massive inequality of London. I think that by reading authors such as Hunter S. Thompson, it’s almost like there is that side of the Las Vegas thing going on in this city; you’ve got your cool areas with the neon lights and the dimly lit parts. For me in particular, being put into some of these situations is really appealing and a match that goes with the genre of rock and roll. But in terms of the music industry, I think for the duration that I’ve been interested in music, I’ve been aware since the 90s with alternative rock and the rise of Nirvana and record labels and big corporations taking hold of stuff, that the whole music industry is just full of ripping people off and artists being seen as a product and being taken advantage of.”
It sounds like you’re fully aware of any potential pitfalls that may lie ahead for Harry Violet & the Sharks?
“I don’t think that applies to us much because we’re completely interested in finding our own sound, and our own songs that we think are good and on a completely independent level. In a way, the music industry has kind of crashed and there’s not really an option to think about that big rock star stuff for many people any more, particularly if you’re playing a specialist style of music. In fact, it makes it easier to focus on what is the most important thing, which is the music and the sound that you get at the end of the day, as well as creating something for yourself. The vast reality is that unless you’re the next Pete Doherty or similar and people think you’re massively marketable and you get someone to ghost write your songs for you, then you’re not going to be picked up and invested with loads of money.”
Considering Harry Violet & the Sharks use of saxophone in relation to their sound, talk turns to use of brass instruments in rock and roll music in general, with Sonny Burgess, Kip Tyler and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins all being great examples mentioned. In addition to this discussion, Harry Violet goes on to relay a story about the latter artist after watching a documentary, and one particular interviewee from the garage punk band The Gories who found Screamin’ Jay Hawkins playing in a bar out in Detroit after his career had somewhat faded.
No such thing for Harry Violet & the Sharks who find themselves at the beginning of their rock and roll adventure with their debut single and recent showcase evening in order to promote this new release. With the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins story still fresh in the mind, what sort of crowd did Harry Violet & the Sharks muster for the official release night in London for the single ‘Jungle Cavalcade’?
“The great thing was that it was a mix of everybody,” says Harry. “There were some people from the rock and roll scene as well as the rockabilly scene, but also people who are rock fans in London who came out in their leather jackets for example. Murdo and I had a chat about this as well, as he’s got a lot more experience than me playing in all sorts of dedicated scene events and playing in bands who have been at those events. But it’s really important for us that we have people who don’t strictly belong to a particular subculture and have their looped collar shirts for example. It’s the biggest compliment in the world if people are really into the music, tell us that they like it, but the fact that all sorts of young people who are into rock music, and are into all sorts of music, want to come down and see this style of music, we think that’s really great. As part of our manifesto, the point of rock and roll is that it’s just really good time music and that everybody can enjoy it and have a great time. There are so many good things to so many different styles of music that any closemindedness is just about people’s egos. For example, if you’re a rockabilly and love rockabilly so much, surely the best thing is that people go to rockabilly gigs and fall in love with it, and that they become rockabillies as well; [in the sense] that they like it so much that they convert to your church.”
With such strong opinions and a determined attitude, it comes as no surprise that Harry Violet & the Sharks decided to pursue the independent route of recording and releasing their debut single. Such a decision was down to a belief in their own abilities and confidence in terms of the direction the band wished to take. More notably, the decision to record and promote ‘Jungle Cavalcade’ independently was down to a desire to see their first recorded output released rather than having to wait behind a release schedule if the decision had been made to involve more people within the industry.
“We just wanted to get on with it by keep writing music, and keep playing shows, and that led to us wanting to put out a 7″ record,” Harry explains regarding the independent release of the band’s first single. “In rock and roll styles of music, the 45 [single] is often more important to people than albums or things like that. So we took the first two tracks that we’d written together as band, and decided that we’d put it out there in the hope that people are going to listen to it. It’s funny because in this day and age, playing a slightly specialist style of music, there’s definitely something that’s independent about the whole process because you don’t really have any choice in the matter as there aren’t record labels waiting around to discover people as you’ve got to do it yourself. Therefore, as I said earlier, we recorded and produced the single ourselves, and that is our introduction to the world.”
Where did you record the debut single, and how long did the whole process take?
“In addition to what I said previously, we decided to record it ourselves as we didn’t want it to sound overproduced and we didn’t want it to sound too glossy. We wanted it to sound raw as we like the sound of The Sonics and Link Wray. We’re not professional studio engineers or anything like that, but we wanted to do it and get it done as we knew how we wanted it to sound. We went into a practice room and basically recorded live takes of us playing the rhythm tracks of it. I think we had two hours to do it or something, and we decided to produce a few takes and recorded that. Then I met up with Max and recorded him one afternoon playing his sax parts, including his sax solos. Then I recorded some vocals and just put them on top. So it was a really quick recording process. I suppose the longest part to all of this was trying to mix it, as we kept sending it back and forth between us, and coming up with new suggestions. There was definitely that urgency of wanting it to sound raw, as a lot of those old recordings don’t sound processed and polished because the technology that they had at the time, they were only beginning to know how to use it properly. I guess I’m partly a disciple from the school of thinking that all forms of rock music generally sound better raw than super polished. I’m a massive fan of really extreme metal (Wow! Didn’t see that reference coming, FLW) and stuff like the Norwegian black metal bands, and just that idea of obtaining the rawness in sound and to make it a part of the feature.”
With both sides of this debut slice of vinyl from Harry Violet & the Sharks highlighting issues concerning the unfairness of life and its various inequalities, stitched together with references from the past that are still relevant today, the twists and turns of the narratives, coupled with the dark tones of the music and vocals, not to mention the driving urgency of the band, Harry Violet & the Sharks are steadily gaining momentum in terms of adding new disciples to their church due to this familiar, as well as unfamiliar beat they’ve just started brewing.
“The most important thing that we talk about, and think about, is that we want to sound like we are a band. It’s really about finding a sound that sounds like us, and that’s all it’s about really, as it’s not about trying to replicate something exactly. A huge part of it is that we love getting dressed up, going out and playing music because that’s the best dance music we think there is. The greatest bands have always taken rock and roll and made it their own, whether that’s The Sonics or The Cramps. So we’re in the process of trying to do that, and trying to find our own sound.”
(Photography courtesy of Harry Violet & the Sharks)
The most important thing that we talk about, and think about, is that we want to sound like we are a band. It's really about finding a sound that sounds like us, and that's all it's about really, as it's not about trying to replicate something exactly."
Harry Violet & the Sharks
FLW - From the Tapes
Harry Violet provides an explanation of the lead track, ‘Jungle Cavalcade’, from the band’s debut single.
“The lead track, ‘Jungle Cavalcade’, is taken from an old black and white movie of the same name. There was this guy called Frank Buck, who was like a 1930s version of Steve Irwin, and he went into the jungle and filmed in black and white animals fighting. He captured genuine live footage of a tiger fighting a panther in the jungle. These films are not politically correct, and I’m not interested in non-politically correct stuff, but I think it’s fascinating to watch that kind of thing as there weren’t any rules, as there was no health and safety for example. He narrates such films in a Vincent Price, old-fashioned way. So that’s where the title [of the single] comes from and the idea of going into the jungle, which partly ties in with fiction and plays into my lyrics because rock and roll, as a sound, is so vibrant and it just goes really well with fiction, so it’s partly that. Also, there are references to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. But a massive theme of some of the rock and roll that I really love is jungle-based songs. The fact that it’s a genre of music where you can write about little things like going into the jungle whether ‘Ubangi Stomp’ by Warren Smith or ‘Jungle Rock’ by Hank Mizell or ‘King Kong’ by Big ‘T’ Tyler and [for capturing] the darkness of rock and roll. So, ‘Jungle Cavalcade’ is a melting pot of all those sorts of themes involving witch doctors and the jungle, as well as trying to paint a world and a fantasy that’s a little bit exciting.”