We chat to Famous about their forthcoming album, the fear of growing old, and dream duets with Frank Sinatra
I first saw Famous perform in 2018, along with my housemates I’d headed to the back room of a pub in Bristol to support a friend of a friends band. If my lager-soaked memory serves me right, they were energetic and exciting if slightly chaotic. They (sadly) fell off my radar until last year, when they released their fantastic second EP ‘The Valley’. In January I attended their phenomenal headline show at The Windmill, Brixton. The now-trio have successfully retained their energy of previous years while sounding tighter and more intentional. It was a joy to see them clearly delighted by the packed room of dedicated fans singing along to their lyrics. The best gigs (the ones that leave you with a fizzy feeling of excitement about live music and the world in general) are the ones where everyone seems to be having fun… audience, performers and tired bar staff at the back of the room alike. After such a great show I knew I wanted to find out more about what’s changed for the group over the years.
I sat down with singer Jack Merrett to discuss the band’s story so far, their upcoming album and Jack’s dream of duetting with Frank Sinatra.
Sam: How did Famous form and what’s the band’s journey been like?
Jack: I met George, who plays bass, at school. We first played a show under the name Famous in late 2016. We started taking it more seriously in 2019 by which point the group had settled down into a six-piece. We recorded and released an EP together called ‘England‘. Preparing that coincided with our signing to untitled (recs), with whom we’ve stayed since. We toured those songs, before writing and recording our second EP, ‘The Valley’. That was made with a core group of myself, George and Danny, who was playing drums, plus a network of friends and collaborators. I think around 20-30 people worked on it in the end.
Sam: Apart from having a bunch of collaborators and a different band setup, how else was the process of making ‘The Valley’ different to working on ‘England’?
Jack: It was slightly more organised, if still pretty chaotic. ‘England’ was all over the place in lots of ways. We’d decided we were releasing this EP called ‘England’ before it existed and had a rough release date in mind. I think it was finished a month or so before it was released, which in normal circumstances is cutting it very fine. ‘The Valley’ was a bit more of a coherent enterprise. There’s something very maximalist about ‘England’. I hear or play those songs now, and this may sound stupid given it was only three years ago, but they sound like they were made by much younger people. Whereas with ‘The Valley’, I think we were in a confident place musically and that resulted in something a bit more minimalist and sparse at places. If there was an element in an arrangement that felt like it didn’t need to be there, we just took it out. We were also a bit more experimental in our approach, trying to use the studio as an instrument. That was really fun though I think now we’re slightly missing something a bit more straightforward, at least in setup.
Sam: Is that something we’re going to hear more of in the next release?
Jack: So we are working on an album now. I can’t really tell you much about it because it’s not done, but it’s going really well. I was very affected by the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary. It came out around the time we were discussing what to do for this album, and it made me just think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to just get a get a group together, learn some songs and go record them in a fairly uncomplicated way?”. I think we’ve always tried to complicate things. We’re just sort of running with that and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny, I’m turning 25 in a few weeks, which obviously is still incredibly young but it’s not that young in music terms.
Sam: I turned 25 last weekend, so I get where you’re coming from.
Jack: It’s a weird feeling. I didn’t expect to have really any thoughts about it. But, I suppose, one can’t be an unsuccessful musician forever… not that we’re completely unsuccessful but it’s not a job. I suppose we’ve been thinking for a while now, what would it feel like to do exactly what we really wanted? If this was the last thing we ever did, what would be the most fun and the most fulfilling? I think we’re just trying to answer that question.
“I’m turning 25 in a few weeks, which obviously is still incredibly young but it’s not that young in music terms“Jack Merrett
Sam: I read that you that described ‘The Valley’ as a quarter life crisis album. Can you tell me more about that?
Jack: I suppose what I was alluding to was a feeling that a certain picture of youth suddenly felt like something in the past. I think lockdown accentuated that a bit. While simultaneously freezing things in place, it also sped up growing up a bit. I went into that year, feeling a certain way and then coming out of it, feeling like nothing had really happened, but things had moved on.
Lockdown was enormously static, for me at least. So I found that when I was writing I was drawn into memory and nostalgia but also into some imaginary future. I think that’s where ‘The Valley’ EP sits.
Sam: The references to having a wife and wanting to be a children’s heart surgeon feel like they’re from the perspective of a kind of ageless character.
Jack: Yeah, I think that’s it. There’s a lot of like, digging into my childhood, but also an imagined childhood as well. That’s what I’m enjoying writing at the moment. I’ve always been drawn to quite a confessional style, but that can be a bit much sometimes. I like sitting between the confessional and the kind of fantastical or fictional, blending the two, never being entirely clear with either the listener or myself when I’m fabricating something or when I’m just being very honest. Maybe it feels like a safer way to talk honestly about yourself than being fully unguarded.
Sam: I suppose if you have some element of fantasy, then it’s hard for people to pick out the true parts. Do you have find writing a cathartic process?
Jack: In many ways it is enormously cathartic but there’s also a danger in that. There’s a temptation, especially when you are using real people and real events as your material, to set the record straight and be the tragic hero of your own life. I’d never want to be too sympathetic to myself, I hope it’s obvious that I’m the clown in the story. It’s a tricky balance to strike, though.
Sam: I can see elements of that in your stage presence. I saw your show at The Windmill a couple of weeks back and it’s both very confident but also kind of uncomfortable.
Jack: I think that’s kind of just me to be honest. Yeah, I can’t really rationalise it in any other way. I’m not shy but I’m also not unaware of my shortcomings.
Sam: Do you think your performance comes from taking elements of yourself and exaggerating them or do you think there is some sort of character? Are there any other performers that inspire you?
Jack: To be honest, I wish it was more conscious than it is. My favourite performers are all incredibly polished; my hero musically is Frank Sinatra. That might sound a bit stupid because his style could hardly be further than mine. I guess that’s just what I push for and something completely different comes out. I was obsessed with Elvis when I was growing up. David Bowie was also a very big deal for me, I guess he is for a lot of people. I think he’s where I get my garbled Anglo-American accent from.
Sam: Was there a conscious decision behind the accent or did it happen naturally?
Jack: I didn’t always do it so yeah I guess it was a decision. The way I rationalise it is I like American music… that might be one of the more uninteresting things anyone’s ever said… but I do like American music. So for me, sometimes when I’m writing lyrics, if I hear them in my own voice, they sound too sincere. When I put them through this alter-ego, then the irony and self-effacingness I intend them to have comes through.
Sam: Apart from your controversial interest in American music, what music influenced ‘The Valley’? Do your musical tastes within the band differ?
Jack: So George and Danny both studied jazz, though who knows how that comes through. I try and listen to as much music as possible – it’s hard to pick out particular names, before a core group of songwriters to whom I always come back: Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Brian Wilson, Hank Williams, Arthur Russell, Paul Simon to name a few.
Sam: I’ll make sure to try and listen out for the Joni Mitchell influences in your work…
Jack: I listened to her at a really formative age. I think I took a lot from her sweeping, fast-flowing lyrical style. It always feels as though she’s having this really conflicted conversation with herself. She’ll say something and then she’ll contradict it immediately, always with plenty of irony and deflection. I suppose the message comes across in aggregate, it’s really subtle…I feel like if I’m trying to do anything it’s probably that.
Sam: After lockdown restrictions lifted last summer, what was it like getting back to playing shows?
Jack: It’s funny, I don’t feel like we had that long where we didn’t play shows, or at least that we had maybe a few months, and then we played one, then we went back into lockdown. Once things opened up again, we were in a substantively different place than we were beforehand so that was really exciting. I guess people were listening to music a lot in lockdown. When we came back, we were starting to sell shows out and people were sometimes singing the words back and that kind of stuff. When that happened for the first time we were honestly shocked, it wasn’t at all what we were expecting. I don’t want to sound falsely modest, but it genuinely did blow me away. Whether it shows or not, I work really hard on the lyrics and think about them a lot, so to have someone listen to them enough to be able to remember them is an enormous complement.
Sam: Could you tell me more about your relationship with untitled (recs) and how that came about?
Jack: They’ve been without a doubt the most important part of our journey. I’d known Alex who runs it since we were teenagers. It was very good timing that just as we were starting to give Famous a go, he wanted to strike out and do his own label. It was really lucky, we were one of the first artists to sign. I can’t speak highly enough of them, we’ve been given a very unusual level of freedom and access to some really amazing people through them. It’s also it’s been really nice to have a sense that we’re growing together. There’s a sense of urgency and shared ambition, things that happen to us for the first time will sometimes be a first time for the label. A lot of the artists are friends so it’s quite a tight unit, it’s been a joy to be involved.
Sam: What’s coming up next for the band and is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to?
Jack: We’re working on an album with intent. All of the pieces are in place for it, we just need to actually write it. We’re still playing out some of our commitments following ‘The Valley’. We’ve got some really exciting shows coming up, we’re going to Estonia, Switzerland and Germany. That’s going to be really, really cool. But we’re simultaneously working on this whole new set of music which I don’t think anyone will hear until it’s all done. Apologies to anyone who comes to a show is expecting new music, there won’t be any for a little bit. But I hope people like it when it’s ready. I mean, I’m very proud of the direction where we’re going. It feels a bit more grown up.
Sam: Finally, if you could play your dream gig, who would be on the lineup and where would it be?
Jack: Good question. Well, it would have to be with Frank Sinatra probably. That would be a really weird evening. Frank and I are singing a duet at the piano, some old hits. I think that would be cool. I’d love to play in America, that remains a bit of a dream, so maybe in the desert in America with Frank. Johnny Cash could come and play a few songs.
Sam: That sounds like a great show. Are there any contemporary bands that you’d like to bring along for the support?
Jack: No, it’d just be me… well maybe Jerskin (Fendrix) can come along. He can play piano while me and Frank duet.