Band To Watch: Real Lies

Will Grundy

Band To Watch: Real Lies

Will Grundy

It all started with an A4-sized piece of paper. It was posted in a London shop window, and it advertised a “must-see property”: a detached, five-bedroom house for rent. The house was nestled in between the East and West Reservoirs in Woodberry Down, so the words “has lake” were scrawled on the page in pencil. As soon as Kev Kharas and Tom Watson spotted the ad 12 years ago, everything was about to change.

The house was surrounded by a large, slatted fence and barbed wire, and it was almost completely isolated, apart from the occasional birdwatchers who passed through to catch a glimpse of various feathered creatures at the nearby nature reserve. As luck would have it, the area wasn’t overrun by luxury flats just yet, so as promised, the property was a needle in a haystack. “It looked like a countryside cottage — maybe what the English countryside is in the North American imagination,” Kharas remembers.

The two friends moved into the house with three others, but countless faces passed through its walls during the few years they lived there. This was because, on multiple occasions, they’ve described it as the best nightclub in North London. Decks and speakers were set up in their living room, and they held parties that lasted for days and drew considerable crowds. Patrick King, whose twin brother lived in the house, often found himself DJing there, and due to their relative seclusion, the music blared without the threat of noise complaints.

At the time, Watson was enrolled in university and writing songs, and Kharas was working as a freelance music journalist. During their run of marathon partying, something special began to materialize. It goes something like this: A sharp writer, a skilled DJ and a singer with great pop sensibilities walk into a bar — or rather, their makeshift nightclub. They then proceed to form Real Lies, one of the best club-centric pop bands in recent memory.

Both during their deafeningly loud parties and in their hungover aftermath, Watson, Kharas, and King started working on music together. They all shared an interest in British guitar bands with a strong sense of identity and storytelling, and the underground electronic music that fueled their drawn-out raves: Detroit house music, UK garage, drum and bass, techno and the like. Their first songs — which were so ingrained in their nocturnal lifestyle that you can literally hear the chatter of lake house partygoers on “Dab Housing” — made up their debut album Real Life, released in 2015 via Marathon Artists (Courtney Barnett, Pond).

The LP was an engrossing, inextricable blend of euphoria and melancholia, heightened by the satisfyingly distinct strengths of each band member. Watson has a pretty, melodic pop voice with a subtle airiness and swagger, and he has a great ear for a hook. Kharas writes affecting monologues about fleeting late-night encounters, which he delivers in a low-toned spoken word. And King constructs their atmospheric patchworks of samples, synths and loops, each a reflection of their broad tastes and emotional modulation. “North Circular” was arguably the standout, a tear-jerking, house-tinged stream of consciousness named after the bustling London ring road.

“I think it’s really the sound of a group trying to figure out what they’re good at,” Kharas says of the album. “I’d never made any serious music until that point.” Real Life married guitars and big choruses with poetic electro-pop and artful dance music — not as baggy as Happy Mondays, not as rock-forward as Primal Scream, and clubbier than New Order (or at least, it existed within a different club). Although they share similarities with and have admiration for those classic alternative-dance groups, none of those comparisons totally fit. Perhaps they have more in common with the long-winded, narrative-driven dance-pop of For Those I Love, or the forlorn, textured electronic music of Darkstar. Not content with comparisons to those ’80s bands and the perception of a laddish hedonism in their music, they considered pulling a complete u-turn afterwards.

“I was trying to create something which is quite three-dimensional, emotionally sensitive and nuanced,” Kharas explains, “but it became swept along with this ‘cans, cocaine, and whatever the third c-word is’ — this world which was quite cartoonish. That’s not something I ever wanted to do. I never wanted to sledgehammer these obvious emotions down people’s throats or to make music that was for idiots.”

A lot happened in the six years since Real Life came out. Tom Watson amicably departed the band to pursue a different university course and life path, while Kharas was struggling with the effects of the fast and loose lifestyle they’d been living. On top of that, a life-changing deal was pulled from the band at the last minute, which felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back. “The first few years after the first album came out were… I don’t want to say harrowing, but it wasn’t very fun for me,” Kharas says. “I had this weird year when I turned 30. I had a nervous breakdown about it.”

Once a career-propelling deal was on the table, their management told them they could quit their jobs, making the eleventh-hour reversal that much more heartbreaking. “None of us had jobs anymore, but we also didn’t have immediate access to this dream that we’d all lived together and been pursuing for a few years,” Kharas says. “That definitely knocked the stuffing out of me. I just found myself in a position where I couldn’t focus on writing music.” With several overlapping dilemmas, creative and otherwise, Real Lies were largely quiet after their debut. Their next release — a one-off single called “The Checks” — didn’t arrive until three years later, after they gained clarity about their vision going forward. Before that, they thought about completely reinventing their ethos, which Kharas realized wasn’t a good idea.

“We wanted to take it somewhere else completely, and go from A to C without the B in between… make it more aligned with esoteric tastes, more cryptic, more arcane, less related to life, and to put a buffer between us and the music we made,” Kharas says. After Kharas was reminded of what made Real Lies so special, he was able to plant the seeds of the band’s next phase and their second album, Lad Ash, which is set to arrive in the spring. “The driving force of Lad Ash and what really made it all come together was that I realized that was a massive mistake to stop writing about life when we’re a biographical band,” Kharas says.

Lad Ash is more dance-oriented than its predecessor, stripping away the guitars and slightly tempering the pop heights but preserving the things that make Real Lies so intoxicating. Kharas’ lyrics, with the help of King’s stylish, ruminative instrumentals, pull you into the thick of their clubbing triumphs, smoking area tales, tragic missed connections, and the bonding moments — both romantic and platonic — so heady and rooted in raw vulnerability that once you’ve experienced them, you have no choice but to construct your life around the search for more. It’s a collage of the night — evoking regretful conversations, the tacky glow of takeaway signs, and dizzying Uber rides home, but also sweaty arms-around-shoulders, the unexpected sight of a cherished acquaintance, a stiff house party that starts to soar and a kiss that briefly keeps your life in tact. As Kharas says, listeners can see the lives of the band through their own eyes — almost like the film Being John Malkovich.

Real Lies describe their second album as “slightly Gothic” due to its meditations on the past. It’s a celebration of the world inhabited by the first iteration of the band, and an excavation of Kharas’ childhood, but also a hopeful look into the future. “Since I,” their new single out this week, centers on a gyrating synth hook written by Tom Watson; it also features his anthemic voice, lending a warm yet ghostly presence to the album. “Boss Trick” bids farewell to People’s Club, which shut several years ago and was home to Real Lies’ monthly club night, Eternal. “I felt like I was part of something/ And for that, I’ll say this/ I’ve never been a part of something/ So bliss to reminisce,” Kharas sings on the track. Elsewhere, “An Oral History Of My First Kiss” is exactly what the title suggests. Kharas describes the “awkward gap between childhood and being properly teenage, a peripheral shadowland of not quite being enough,” and explains the origins of his fascination with the nighttime and the “adult world.”

But one of the album’s most powerful and pervasive narratives is the disappearance of Kharas’ schoolfriend, Richard — Kev’s first realization that life has consequences. One night when Kharas was 19, his friends embarked on a drive to visit Richard, who had a troubled home life and was going through a hard time, but they got lost on the way, buzzing on the ecstasy pills they swallowed. When they called Richard for directions, an unknown voice answered the phone and told them, “Richard’s not here anymore. Don’t ever call this number again.” Neither Kharas, nor his friends, ever saw or heard from Richard again. “Late Arcades” and “Dolphin Junction” try to grapple with that distressing event, which Kharas now describes as “this weird, unresolved thread in my life.”

But Lad Ash isn’t clouded by mournful regret or self-indulgent nostalgia — Real Lies are just as infatuated with the present moment as they always were. “20,000 streets beneath the stars/ And they’re all ours/ We found magic in the parlance of the passing cars,” Kharas sings on “Boss Trick.” Their poetic joy still looms large, particularly on the rapturous “Dream On,” which celebrates “a deep end to shallow weeks” and revels in the rush of a new romance (“It’s a feeling I’ve not felt at all/ This is something far more visceral”). Elation and sadness alternate so quickly within Real Lies’ music that it’s obvious they view them as reciprocal. Their songs exist in liminal spaces, where parallel emotions arise once you’ve surrendered to the sacredness of the present moment. “One of the reasons why I make music is to describe feelings that drift in between labels or words,” Kharas says. “If I can say with complete accuracy what the emotion of a song is, then I wouldn’t need to write a song about that emotion.” Their sonic and emotional blur is an integral pillar of Real Lies, and it’s in every nook and cranny of Lad Ash.

Kharas spent his childhood nights lying awake in bed, wondering where the cars on the adjacent motorway were going, and listening to pirate transmissions of underground electronic music, and the complaints of cabbies on talk radio. Several years later, Kharas and Watson mapped out their vision for the band during late-night walks while chain smoking and drinking cans of lager. Whether it was Kharas’ young insomnia, these after-dark strolls, or the advertisement that led them to their lake house, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint when the roots of Real Lies were laid. But like the emotions they write about, things are more interesting in the undefined.

Lad Ash is out next year.

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