Ahead of the release of their latest single, Louis Griffin chatted to The Novus to discuss their work ethic, lockdown and new music.
I’ve caught Connor and Tyla from The Novus at a slightly stressful time. Connor, their frontman, is explaining to me that they’ve decided to move in together. “Lockdown is the longest we’ve ever been apart” he says. “I think myself and Tyla (bassist) had never gone more than a week without seeing each other before.” Of course, the natural decision, then, was to move in – you see, The Novus don’t do things by half measures.
Hailing from Stourbridge, just outside of Birmingham, the band, consisting of Connor Hill (vocals), Thomas Rhodes (guitar), Tyla Challenger (bass) and Euan Woodman (drums), have a fairly unremarkable backstory, the standard tale of meeting at school, forming from the remnants of a few earlier bands. What is remarkable, however, is their work ethic. When the band set their mind to something, there’s no stopping. They’re renowned in the local scene for their secret venue shows – they rent out a local venue, usually somewhere off the map (previous locations include a particularly memorable show in a warehouse), and proceed to build the show themselves. Lighting, staging, sound, all handled DIY and in-house by the band themselves, at no small effort. “It’s the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done”, Tyla says – although not without its headaches. “We were lucky enough to get endorsed by Blackstar, so I had a brand new bass amp turn up on the day – but mine just didn’t work, at all” he grimaces. “We got it sorted in the end, though, and then we played to our biggest ever crowd.”
DIY ethos runs through The Novus like lettering through Blackpool rock. If the band can do something themselves, they will, and they’ll devote themselves entirely to it – as Tyla puts it, “we are obsessed with every aspect of what we do”. Take art direction, for example; every graphic, album cover and gig poster the band put out are all designed by him. “It’s quite literally as simple as this: we got to a stage when we were needing to put out graphics all the time, and I love art” he explains, “so we thought let’s get a Photoshop trial, and it’s all gone from there really”. The intriguing thing then, is that their visual identity as a band is so cohesive and, well, so them. Tyla can explain that one, too: “styles can get diluted when they go through too many people, but with us it’s just raw The Novus”.
We’re talking because the band have a new track out – Man On The Bridge, which acts as their first ever release on vinyl, courtesy of Flying Vinyl. They’re releasing it alongside a demo version of a track yet to come, called Castaway. Man On The Bridge itself is a fun, unabashedly bouncy tune – it takes itself less than seriously, which is a marked change for the band. Their stock-in-trade is tense, politically charged guitar music, and while the track certainly rips in all the right places, it has a grin on its face rather than a grimace. The interesting thing is, it was never meant to be released. The band put out a cassette last year, celebrating the new wave of Birmingham bands, and one found its way into the hands of Huw Stephens, who promptly played it on BBC Radio 1. The track was then sat on for quite a while, until both Coronavirus and Flying Vinyl came knocking, and suddenly Man On The Bridge seemed to be man of the hour. Recorded at Magic Garden studios with Gavin Monaghan (Editors, The Blinders), the track is a welcome burst of energy in these dark times. As Tyla put it, “now, more than ever, we needed to put some fun into the world”.
The conversation turned, then, to the dark times we find ourselves in. I wondered what state the band thought we might find the music industry in after COVID-19 – would the virus be a great equaliser between bigger and smaller acts, or would it exacerbate all the problems already inherent in the business? “It’s hard to decipher whether it’s made a more level playing field”, Tyla mused, “because everyone’s only really got one or two angles they can attack fans from. Or maybe it’s created a bigger divide because the people who already have audiences are sorted; the people who are still trying to build audiences are being pushed down by algorithms … at a live gig, everyone’s on a clean slate.”
The one resounding message from the band is simple: “the government critically underfunds the arts”. It would appear that this is a uniquely British problem, too; EU countries have a great track record when it comes to arts funding, as the band know first-hand. “When we played Paris in January, we were taking the mick on the Eurostar and I said to our manager ‘What time do we get the buffet, then?’ and he said ‘no, you’ll get some food at 7’” Connor laughs. “We literally paid for nothing the whole night… I took 50 euros with me and I came back with 35. They treat you with the utmost respect.”
With the mention of the industry suffering, the band recount their own misfortunes thanks to COVID-19. “Our biggest ever tour got cancelled – we would’ve started with another secret location gig in Birmingham, but that had to be postponed” Tyla says – and livestreams are no substitute. “We’re really happy that people like them, but it’s not the same; it’s so much more effort, for so much less reward.” With this in mind, I asked the band how readers who want to support them should go about doing so. “I’ve been saying at the end of all our interviews – for most bands, merch and physicals are the only way they’re making money at the moment” says Connor. “Whether it’s us or whether it’s another band you like, even if it’s a badge pack for two quid, that two quid will help them, especially for those bands that do it full-time.”
Well, these are tough times to be in music, but bands like The Novus give this interviewer hope. You can be sure that whatever it takes to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after all of this, they’ll do it – and that when venues reopen, they’ll be there, with a secret DIY show in one hand, and dark, alt-rock bangers in the other.