Once in a while an album will come along and win us over before we’ve even had time to put something else on. Often they’re the cohesive gems meticulously put together in someone’s dishevelled bedroom, teeming with character and buoyed by a complete lack of expectation. Such is the case with Jonquil, an eclectic sextet whose new album is destined to be a word of mouth sensation. While they’re a slightly softer sounding ensemble than Beirut, this Oxford collective share a similar range of instruments and the same infectious sing-a-long quality. Where they outdo Zach Condon and friends, however, is in their ability to fuse it all into what feels like one long, wonderfully flowing whole. Expertly assembled, the fourteen-track Lions glides along smoothly, each song alighting effortlessly until it’s time to pass the torch on to its successor, stepping aside to smoulder on in the background.
Being somewhat of a departure from their first album, Sunny Casinos, the band’s new and improved style owes more to a process of belated self-discovery than a conscious decision to change. Having initially begun as a set of home recordings by lead singer Hugo Manuel, the project grew gradually, coming together so seamlessly that Jonquil’s debut was released before they’d even settled on a definitive line-up. “By the time we had an album’s worth of material,” explains Manuel, “the first person we gave it to wanted to put it out on their label immediately. That was kind of the beginning of the band, really…We hadn’t even played any gigs before that! So when the album came out we realised we had to start playing it live, which was a whole new concept.”
Originally inspired by the ambient releases of Kranky records, Sunny Casinos focused more on atmosphere than anthems, the songs being haunted, fleeting moments that drifted in between field recordings and obscure sound bites. “It was very much a product of the studio,” agrees Manuel. “As soon as we started trying to reproduce that on stage, we realised it wasn’t really what we were after.” Drummer Kit Monteith feels that the ensuing growing pains caused Jonquil to adopt a more light-hearted sensibility. “It was probably quite an effort to watch us,” he recalls. “All the tracks kind of linked together naturally, so we’d just sit down and play the whole set straight through without any gaps for clapping. And that doesn’t always go down well when you’re playing a really loud club!”
The results, Manuel concludes, chart the band’s learning curve. “The new stuff is a lot more live-orientated and poppy. It’s still constructed the same way in the studio, but it sounds like a real band rather than just a bunch of people overdubbing. We wanted to make it less serious, as well. Our shows are all about having fun and we wanted to reflect that in our music.”
Although Jonquil still spend much more time in post-production than recording, carefully editing together each take on computer, it was their approach to capturing the new material that made all the difference. “We kind of branched out for the second album,” explains Manuel. “We recorded it an abandoned house that I was house-sitting for on the outskirts of Oxford. White walls, no furniture, nothing. It had been squatted in a few times so I was hired to sleep there and ward off anyone trying to spray paint the place. So after a week of me just going crazy by myself, I thought: ‘fuck it, let’s just get everyone down and record’. We got a group of ten people together and assembled our own little choir…effectively putting the fun back into Jonquil!” he laughs.
As for the diverse instrumentation, Manuel claims to have spent his gap year collecting assorted oddities, harvesting eBay for Nepalese singing bowls and scouring Bulgarian flea markets for tattered accordions. “I was working in an office and making far more money than I was used to, so I just bought a shit-load of instruments with ridiculous names: a dead rat dulcimer, a gremlin melodica, that sort of thing. We still use them all but it’s a lot harder on stage. We’ve done gigs where we turn up, get our bouzouki out, only to find a bewildered soundman going: ‘em…’”
Manuel, evidently as good at conducting his bandmates’ laughter as he is at leading them on stage, has several of his cohorts in stitches at this point. “Try tuning one in a crowded toilet,” sighs guitarist Jody Prewett. “And after all that, I realised it wasn’t even a real bouzouki – it was an ornamental one,” he laments, prompting more laughter.
Yet even these setbacks are just another case of enforced change helping to shape Jonquil’s direction. “We’re kind of trying to move away from the folky element anyway,” says Manuel. “It’s not really what we’re listening to anymore. When we did the first album I was into that stuff, but now that scene – and it is very much a scene – isn’t really going anywhere.” As Monteith recalls, certain reactions to their shows have left the band questioning the open-mindedness of such circles. “We played a few gigs that were folk-orientated and while they went down well, now and again the high-brow set would mumble amongst themselves…” Clearly balking at the idea, Manuel interjects in protestation: “Well a lot of our songs are just in no way folky! They’re quite loud and poppy. So as soon as we’d hit the chorus, these people would be like: ‘oh, hang on a minute…I don’t know about that! They’re all smiling and singing along! Where’s the finger-picking?’ And it’s not like we’re trying to be one thing or the other, so that attitude’s just a bit silly.”
Crowded around the open doors of their borrowed and well-travelled van, pinching at clusters of rolling tobacco to skin up with, the band contemplate their upcoming headline tour. Prewett, whose previous online tour diary detailed the rigors of insomnia, malnourishment and hysteria, takes a deep breath when asked if it was as exhausting as it sounds. “It was okay until…Derby,” he concludes solemnly, spurring another eruption of laughter. “The Ketamine epidemic…” acknowledges Monteith, equally deadpan. “Yeah, there was a bit of a problem there,” Manuel chuckles. “I think that tour was a little bit odd. We decided to do two weeks and we kind of overstretched ourselves in terms of getting good gigs.”
Still, aware that they’ll be heading back to the very same places soon, the band realise that there are always lessons to be picked up along the way. “It is a learning experience,” says Monteith. “Especially when you play shows to fifteen or twenty people and half of them buy the record. And we’ve always taken it as quite a compliment that people aren’t coming up to us after shows and making comparisons. That’s the difference from other bands we’ve been in. Something about it just feels…right.”
It’s a little odd to hear such shrewd observations from a group of guys that spend half their time honing their ability to mock each other with well-timed wisecracks. Excluding their trumpet player, who has only recently left school, the average age of Jonquil is just twenty-one. In fact, with the light of a half moon obscuring their faces as they talk of skipping classes, it’s a little hard to believe they’re capable of creating something as special as Lions. Promising to be a sure source of warmth in the coming winter months, one gets the sense that this album is something far bigger than the band…and they don’t quite realise what they have on their hands yet. It has that sleeper, surprise quality about it that could easily end up eclipsing the significance of their college degrees combined. At the very least, it raises the bar immeasurably for the next bedroom-produced classic that comes calling, hogging time on your stereo until it’s earned that treasured, well-lived-in status.