With the band’s fourth album receiving great reviews across the board, Danny & The Champions of the World have every reason to feel pleased with their current success.
When FLW first stumbled across the name Danny & The Champions of the World eons ago it immediately struck a chord due to its famous namesake the band were no doubt named after, but also because it smacked of new ‘indie’ band alert. To our surprise, however, the band was far removed from any such associations, choosing instead to browse through the annals of history and deciding that they had more in common with the sounds of Stax, Muscle Shoals and Americana than anything Britpop could offer.
Danny George Wilson – frontman of Danny & The Champions of the World – has nearly been around as long as the great sounds his band prefers to cite as influences due to racking up an impressive six albums with his other ongoing concern Grand Drive, as well as currently promoting album number four with the Champs as they’re often referred to. It would seem, therefore, that when it comes to proficiency in the songwriting department, the Champs songbird is more than equipped to get the job done when duty calls.
“I guess there’s been a lot of stuff out there as the first Grand Drive record came out in ’99,” responds Danny. “Over fourteen years there’s been eleven records, so I’m proud when I look at what there is and I still really like everything I’ve done, which is comforting to say the least as it’s a nice thing. I’m always writing and open to ideas and always got a guitar in my hands. It’s not something that I panic about as I’ve never had what you could call writer’s block because if an idea doesn’t come to me then I don’t write it. I guess some of the criticisms of someone like Ryan Adams are that he just writes songs constantly and maybe there isn’t the quality control, but I wouldn’t personally know. I try not to rush it and therefore I don’t feel prolific as it’s not quantity that I’m interested in.”
Quality control has definitely been exercised when it comes to the Champs current album ‘Stay True’ as it was recorded over a matter of days and therefore not sticking around long enough for things to become overplayed or ideas too stagnant. As a result, the band captured a live feel as a whole, as demonstrated by the open-heartedness of ‘Stop Thief!’ and ‘Cold Cold War’, rendering ‘Stay True’ an impressive achievement considering its short gestation period.
“We recorded the whole thing in five days,” explains Danny. “All the Champs’ records have been recorded quickly as I don’t have the patience for spending time looking at computer screens [recording studio] as I have no interest in it to be honest. I love hearing well produced records, but I think production is about setting the scene and making people feel good and feel like making the right sort of record. It was by design and not necessarily by budget that it [‘Stay True’] was recorded really quickly. I just don’t want to spend that much time in the studio. I find that music is better when it’s flying by the seat of its pants rather than being perfect.”
Having drafted in musicians from previous Champs outings to lend their services to the now, fully formed line-up of Chris Clarke (bass), Paul Lush (guitar), Steve Brookes (drums) and Geoff Widdowson (saxophone, organ) no doubt aided the no-nonsense time schedule of the recordings due to a sense of familiarity with the working processes and genuine bonhomie existing between past and present band members making for a pleasurable recording experience.
“The studio is called Reservoir Studios in north London and is actually run by Chris [Clarke] who plays bass in the band,” comments Danny. “We’re all very comfortable there because we didn’t have that feeling of this is new or distractions with Ping-Pong tables or PlayStations that you find in posh studios. We had friends popping in and out, so it was very sociable. It is the eleventh record I’ve made, and I’ve come to terms with what I sound like. I’m lucky enough to be able to sing in tune and incredibly lucky enough to have brilliant musicians around me, so there’s absolutely no reason why we wouldn’t just record [in that style]. When you consider that they made Otis Redding’s record ‘Otis Blue’ in twelve hours or less, five days seems luxurious! I have treated the songwriting similarly, to get on a roll and do it and try not to navel gaze too much. So yes, totally fine with it [‘Stay True’] as I feel it carries the charm where needed.”
The relaxed and almost low-key feel to the whole album also extends to the artwork, as it captures a moment in the life of the band during the recording process and emphasised further with the faded imprint of vinyl visible under its sepia exterior.
“A friend of ours Pete Millson has just made a record there [Reservoir Studios], and Chris and I play on that as well. He took the photos for the album, but it wasn’t a photo-shoot as we were just working and he was there with his camera. The photos look lovely, and the album sleeve is something I’m incredibly proud of.”
This love of nostalgia is a key ingredient when it comes to the overall sound of the Champs, taking elements of “Little Willie John and that kind of pre-soul sound” and mixing it with “Springsteen, Neil Young and Tom Waits influences, it kinda makes the sound of what I think ‘Stay True’ really is,” explains Danny regarding the influences infiltrating the band’s latest album. But it remains his father’s influence that has provided a guiding hand when it comes to offering a slice of nostalgia musically, but also when recollecting past family excursions as evidenced by album-opener ‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’.
“‘Space Rocket’ is literally a true story concerning me and my dad on a family holiday camping. I am one of five kids and basically we’d all jump in the back of the car and go camping for a month during the summer driving around Europe. One day, my dad was playing Petanque with a bunch of French blokes and they couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand them but he found out that The Fabulous Thunderbirds were playing twenty miles down the road. We thought that would be a great thing to do [to see them live]. Obviously he couldn’t drive as he had been drinking, so we hitchhiked to the gig and then got a lift home in an amazing vintage car. So, as I said, the song is true and it just felt like a great little story and that’s about the extent of it. My dad’s been a huge influence on my music and the band in terms of his experience and musical taste. He’s an Australian guy, and his parents had a milk bar shop in Melbourne. As a kid, he used to fill the jukebox at the milk bar as he is a massive R&B, doo wop and rock ‘n’ roll fan.”
‘(Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket’ sounds very nostalgic and a song about not giving up on your dreams?
“That’s exactly what it’s about, told through this story,” replies Danny. “I guess what the story is about, aside from music or ambitions in terms of something in particular you’re reaching for, is this guy and his five kids having moved from Australia and it’s a little chaotic in some ways. But to go hitchhiking to see a band is just instilling the passion and romance of life in your children, rather than telling them that you have to conform and this is how you have to do it.”
‘Stay True’ comes across as a truthful record and one that is perhaps directly autobiographical considering the aforementioned opening song, but also because of heartbreakers such as ‘Stop Thief!’ sounding as if coming from first-hand experience.
“Yes, I would say that it is largely autobiographical and certainly on this record as the song ‘Space Rocket’ is entirely true as it is just telling the story as it happened,” replies Danny. “I really like that, as I find it difficult to fabricate anything. It is much easier to sing a song that is essentially documenting what happened and the truth of it. Of course, there are songs that are love songs or heartbreak songs that are a little less specific in some way, but they’re all based on truth too. I am particulary proud of a lot of the story songs.”
FLW expects that the Champs have a few stories in their locker considering the hefty back catalogue of work and considering Danny’s aforementioned confession of his delight when it comes to the ‘story songs’.
“The life of a touring musician is fairly mundane,” replies Danny laughing. “It’s brilliant for me as we have a great time. For example, we get to hang out with our mates, drink beer and go to a rock ‘n’ roll show every night and meet really cool people and see different places. In terms of antics and stuff, it’s essentially sitting in a tin can with wheels and then turning up at a place and playing a gig and going to the cheapest hotel or staying at friend’s houses and sleeping on floors. I’m sure there are some funny things that have happened but nothing that sticks out to be honest. It’s a little bit like Groundhog Day [film] but a brilliant Groundhog Day! On a serious note, I have no interest in the sort of smoke and mirrors distance between a band and its audience. So when we finish playing, we generally have a beer with the people who were watching and just have a good time. I hated that Britpop thing with hiding behind shades and creating a huge gap between a band and its fans. It’s not the way I would want to be as a person, and it’s not my thing.”
This closing statement with its reference to Britpop provides a reminder of the assumption held when first hearing of the Champs all those years ago concerning their choice of moniker. The temptation must have been irresistible for some journalists curious as to the choice of moniker, but also a constant thorn of irritation for the Champs considering the popularity of this famous Roald Dahl novel and therefore one question the band could do without.
“Not as much as you would imagine,” comments Danny regarding the possibility of a constant barrage of questioning concerning their name. “Obviously, it’s named after Roald Dahl’s ‘Danny the Champion of the World’. It was probably my favourite book as a kid and helped by the fact that I shared a name with the hero in a way. The other reason for using this name was due to a British songwriter called Ronnie Lane, who was in The Faces and a band called Slim Chance. He was very much an influence at the beginning of the Champs and still is in terms of the songwriting and singing. After The Faces, he basically bought a gypsy caravan and lived in it and Danny – from Danny the Champion of the World – lived in a gypsy caravan with his dad, so there was this meeting of the two things. Also, Ronnie Lane had this tour with his band Slim Chance called The Passing Show where they jumped in vans and had a Big Top and would just stop on village greens in different cities and do this kind of circus with gigs. That was the initial idea with the Champs, this notion of freewheeling and going back to the roots and sitting around a fire and playing songs with your friends. So the book and echoes of Ronnie Lane’s ethos came together in that way.”
With the first part of a lengthy UK tour under their belts, Danny & The Champions of the World look set to take on the rest of the country in November before plans to tour parts of Europe next year. In the meantime, ‘Stay True’ continues to resonate in its honesty and soulful delivery and is righty the proud recipient of a deluge of critical appraisals and recent airplay on BBC Radio. The music, however, is not the only secret to this success as it has something to do with the overall principles held within the band and something to be admired as Danny explains.
“Funnily enough we’re kind of lucky that the album is called ‘Stay True’ because if that were to be a mantra for the day, I think it is a good one. If you be yourself and stay true to the things that you hold dear in your dreams and stuff like that, and be a good person, I think stay true is pretty cool. It suits me!”
I hated that Britpop thing with hiding behind shades and creating a huge gap between a band and its fans."
Danny George Wilson
FLW - From the Tapes
It will be a sad day if music choice comes down to only downloads being available to purchase. Can you see this happening?
“I’ve heard about it happening already, as I’ve heard about people not releasing stuff on CD or vinyl,” claims Danny. “I’m probably a bit long in the tooth as I’m a bit of an old b****** due to literally piles of CDs and vinyl in our flat where we live, and my wife complaining about it regularly as the collection is growing and growing! I’m just someone who loves to have an artefact (Hear, hear, FLW) because if I really like some music, then I want to buy the item and look at the pictures. I grew up looking at records in second-hand record shops, car boot sales and record fairs often with the intention of discovering who played on it. If James Burton played on a record, then I’d buy it and that’s pretty much never changed. The actual album artwork and design is a huge thing and one that I’d hate to see become less important. It’s certainly introduced me to a lot of records. I think the rise and interest in vinyl of late just shows that it will never go away, as the people who want it will have artefacts and the people who don’t will opt for a download.”