Birmingham four-piece with a natural ability to make hazy, groove-laden rock bolstered by the foundations of psychedelia and indie.
For many aspiring musicians, the success of the British indie rock scene in the early 2000s was the catalyst for thousands of bands’ formations. The likes of Arctic Monkey, Foals, Franz Ferdinand and The Wombats opened a landfill of creativity, which has since become a quagmire of similarity. It takes guts to take a step away from the comforting format of indie rock and venture to pastures new, yet for Birmingham’s SUGARTHIEF, consisting of Jordi James (vocals, guitar), Jack James (guitar), Luke Owen (bass) and Reece Downton (drums), it looks to be a defining moment early in their careers. Now with a resilient, psychedelic core to their music, the four-piece look to be pioneering a creative swell in Birmingham ready to take the country by storm.
Growing up on 1960s rock and roll through their dad, the brothers slowly came to love ‘Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but also some 70s and 80s bands like Level 42 and Steely Dan. I think I’ve finally come back around to the soul and funk of that era,’ says Jordi. ‘It’s weird because we’re now playing the music we sort of grew up with,’ states Jack. ‘We’ve rediscovered the 60s influences and now appreciate it so much more than when I was growing up. My dad basically set me up to be a decent level guitarist without really me wanting to be. We love everything behind the songwriting and the development of those styles of songs.’
'With a resilient, psychedelic core to their music, the four-piece look to be pioneering a creative swell in Birmingham’
Whilst their father was an integral source of the brothers’ musical education growing up, his impact on their playing was also key. As a bass player, James Sr. taught a young Jordi and Jack to play both guitar and bass, which kickstarted the two playing acoustic tracks and writing songs. ‘Jordi must have been finishing school or GCSE’s or whatever when we realised we wanted to actually form a band because we were just getting into Peace and Jaws and the Birmingham scene basically,’ says Jack. ‘We wanted to play to people who gave a shit!’ Jordi goes on to reflect ‘It developed into the band when I started recording stuff when Jack moved out. I ended up recording a lot of stuff on my own. We found Luke, my best mate, and he couldn’t really play bass but we forced him and he learnt pretty fast. I was friends with Reece from school and he was the only drummer in my school. We’re lucky he’s such an unbelievable drummer.’
The first smatterings of creativity from the band came with singles New Ends and Crowing Youth, the former has a purposeful blend of warm guitars and guttural drums, the latter sees Jordi’s swaggering vocals demanding the attention of listeners and twitching guitars probing the spacious, lifting single. Following those singles with Joy Affair, a sparse, winding reflection in which the band navigate a path through peaks and troughs across five minutes; and Provide, a single testing the four-piece’s melodic capabilities, with happy-go-lucky verses contrasting a surging chorus, the band slowly amassed a loyal fan-based in their native Birmingham whilst other cities started to prick their ears.
'If you’re from outside of the group, you’d think we were probably horrible at times, but we’re all like siblings and we love each other, even if we say the worst thing’s we can think of to one another!’ Jordi James
Reflecting on their earlier material, the brothers speak honestly. ‘The song’s that we wrote earlier were when we were a few years younger,’ says Jack. ‘At the time all we cared about was creating a band and playing as a band.’ Despite their relative youthfulness to writing as a band, the four-piece still managed to pull off a masterpiece with 2017’s When Did It All Go So Wrong?, a crashing, monolithic giant fit for mosh pits worldwide and rivalling the likes of Kasabian and Circa Waves in terms of riff-making capabilities. The single’s insurgent riff drills into the very core of the track, making it an instant ear-worm, whilst the end product is a pummelling slice of nostalgic indie-rock.
Despite their ease in writing indie rock thrillers, SUGARTHIEF weren’t content with what they were producing and looked to transition their sound to something closer to home, with the influence of 1970s psychedelic rock providing a key inspiration. 'We’d been listening to a lot of different stuff anyway and I’d been experimenting a lot with different instruments, says Jordi. ‘In the last year or two I’ve started getting random organs and electric keyboards, and at first it was kind of a weird thing just trying different sounds and having some fun with it but then it kind of developed into me playing a bit more keys and then I got a few more synths and stuff and ended up getting a piano about a year ago. All of those influences have brought a different side to our sound and the way we write songs. We listen to different genres as well now so it kind of felt like instead of writing certain kinds of songs, we just set about writing what we want to write. It’s a more open process.’
‘SUGARTHIEF have matured beyond expectations across the past twelve months and the I Before E(P) release is a reflection of that.’
Listening to Jordi analyse his musical development makes clear just how the band have matured in general, something Jack further addresses. ‘We never really considered the early stuff as something for the EP,’ he says. ‘Everything on the EP took so much longer as we cared about the process so much more. Every element in recording had to be exactly how we wanted it to sound. Even the structure of the songs are so much more complex. The new stuff definitely represents us as where we are now. It highlights our influences and creativity.’
The band’s debut EP, I Before E(P) takes the four-piece’s sound into a new dimension. The sparse, delicate narrations of Anywhere and Talk in Moderation match the surging maelstrom of contrasting synths and guitar seen on Good Luck I Hope You Make It and Modern Man, the former of which Jordi describes the making of. ‘That was a song that me, Luke and Reece had been jamming on for ages. Jack was living in London at the time and we had the song going around for ages, just this little chord progression and we just ended jamming with a slider one day and it came about naturally. When it came to lyrics I had a few things written down, but I was watching this press conference with Bob Dylan from 1965 and he’s asked about Like A Rolling Stone and he gets asked whether it’s a process song and he just responds saying that he thinks of all of his songs as “good luck I hope you make it” songs, and I thought it was a great line.’
‘The opaque camaraderie that fleshes out the main body of the EP is rarely seen amongst the very best of British talent.’
Shifting styles seems to have worked wonders for the band’s confidence. SUGARTHIEF are making music begging for attention. Their ability to draw listeners into the intimate workings of the band is exceptional. The opaque camaraderie that fleshes out the main body of the EP is rarely seen amongst the very best of British talent. It takes skill to draw listeners into the fabric of the music whilst allowing space to breathe, dance and feel human, and perhaps this is best seen in their collaborative single Talk in Moderation, which sees the band work with fellow locals Spilt Milk Society. A hazy, synth-based offering oozing with the psychedelic roots of Kevin Parker, the single is a dreamy listen for those lazy Sunday morning’s and a true celebration of Birmingham talent.
The city’s thriving music scene is something that both brothers speak keenly about. ‘It’s wild at the moment,’ says Jack. ‘It’s really weird because you don’t necessarily acknowledge it when you’re in it. If you can get a lot of passionate music fans, which Birmingham has, the live aspect is incredible. Having that little scene to help you gain hype and all get a lot of people going crazy at shows is crazy. We all just hang about with each other now as well.’ The essence of camaraderie between bands seems to be crucial to the workings of the Birmingham scene, and the friendship that has blossomed between SUGARTHIEF and Spilt Milk Society looks to be integral to the futures of both bands. ‘One of the coolest things that has happened to us recently is meeting Harry from Spilt Milk Society,’ Jack confesses. ‘It all started when they got all of their stuff stolen and they needed to write an EP to fund it. We ended up on one of the songs on that (Talk in Moderation) and put it on our EP as well. Harry’s an amazing musician and we really got on with him immediately.’
‘A hazy, synth-based offering oozing with the psychedelic roots of Kevin Parker, [Talk in Moderation] is a dreamy listen for those lazy Sunday morning’s.’
The influence of the Spilt Milk Society frontman looks to have conjured a newfound spirit amongst the SUGARTHIEF members. ‘He’s definitely inspired me to write better and write more, confesses Jack. ‘He’s an interesting influence on us, especially from a recording perspective because he records a lot of his own stuff and recorded part of the EP and mixed a lot of the stuff. His style that he adds to our music from a producing side has really helped everything fit together and stand out. It’s a great thing to have and we’re definitely looking to collaborate with a lot more people. We’ve kind of unlocked this really cool thing and I don’t know why it’s only just rappers that feature artists. Why not just bring other interesting influences and see where it goes.’
Whilst the band look to be broadening their horizons in the future, there remains one relationship that’s a constant staple. ‘Mine and Jack’s relationship is an interesting one,’ chuckles Jordi. ‘We have our arguments as you can imagine, but we always love each other. If we’re practising, we’ll have an argument and try and fight each other but after we can never really stay angry with each other. It’s now expanded to the whole band where we’re all a bit savage to one another at times. If you’re from outside of the group, you’d think we were probably horrible at times, but we’re all like siblings and we love each other, even if we say the worst thing’s we can think of to one another!’
‘The new stuff definitely represents us as where we are now. It highlights our influences and creativity.’ Jack James
With a host of support slots and festival dates scheduled for the foreseeable future, SUGARTHIEF are finding their name on bigger and better stages, playing to bigger and better crowds, yet their core base in Birmingham still feeds their creative minds. Following the release of their debut EP, a newfound confidence and sense of assuredness reigns over the four-piece, one previously unseen in earlier material.
SUGARTHIEF have matured beyond expectations across the past twelve months and the I Before E(P) release is a reflection of that. The rich, beautiful soundscapes that flow spaciously across the EP have come about as a result of both vast experimentation and returning to the music that soundtracked their childhoods. The seeds of creativity have now been sown and as each new track blooms, Jordi and Jack’s instrumentation blossoms across a dreamy, psychedelic skyline that has been so carefully crafted by the four-piece. Where they will go next, who knows, but with a desire for collaboration, anything looks to be fair game for the Birmingham band.