The band formerly known as Charlie Boyer & The Voyeurs are now just The Voyeurs. Alongside this shortened name comes widened perspective. The band’s second album takes in the rail networks of Eastern Europe and a transvestite bar in Limehouse in East London. Rhythmic inspiration comes from both The Glitter Band and the Berlin-fermented pulse of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot album. Such broadening horizons were maybe foreshadowed by the band’s personal history – a ‘London group’ whose origins take in Palestine and the Forest of Dean.
The Voyeurs are based in London, but drummer Samir Eskanda was born in the Middle East. Frontman Charlie Boyer’s childhood was spent in the Forest of Dean, where he went to the same school once attended by the sainted hit-maker and recording-studio revolutionary Joe Meek. Charlie says that Meek was ‘a bit of celebrity for all the little freaks at school – we’d often listen to Telstar at the right time of an evening…’ Wow! Can pop-music hot-housing get any better? Certainly Meek’s spirit of adventure is audible in the opening track on the The Voyeurs’ new album, ‘Rhubarb Rhubarb’. ‘Train To Minsk’ is the track that draws on the idiot-savant wunder-chug of The Glitter Band and Iggy Pop. The lyrics range from Belarus to Japan.
‘It’s about the idea of just getting to somewhere else,’ says Charlie. ‘The new album is about interesting sounds and interesting stories. Some parts are lush and almost orchestral, with Mellotron-type sound effects. Other parts are stripped back to almost nothing. It’s a studio record where the first album was a live record.’
This band’s initial impact was indeed down to live performance. Charlie jump-started the band in 2012. He recorded a double A-side single for the Blank Editions label – ‘Ducks’ / ’You Haven’t Got A Chance’ – before assembling a band to elaborate on his as-yet-unperformed songs. By the time they’d played two shows they’d found a new label – Heavenly Recordings. The label was immediately impressed by the way the band imported legendary East Coast American sounds to East London. As Heavenly diagnosed at the time: ‘Perfectly channelling mid-’70s NYC art-punk in the back room of an East End pub, Charlie took the sounds of one blank generation and blasted them out to another.’
The band released their debut album, ‘Clarietta’, in 2013 – a British revision of Jonathan Richman and Television, but with its underlying UK character lit up by hints of the Buzzcocks and Syd Barrett. The album was recorded by Edwyn Collins, singer/songwriter and producer, and much-loved laird of the expansive Orange Juice estates. The album’s persuasive blend of the cerebral and the primitive was saluted by the press. ‘”Clarietta” is no routine homage,’ reported MOJO magazine in a four-star review. ‘A gripping twist on a timeless classic.’ The NME gave the album 8/10 and proclaimed things in rhetorical style: ‘No new bands to get excited about? Give it a fucking rest and listen to this, will you?’
‘Rhubarb Rhubarb’ was played by the same people as the band’s debut album: Charlie Boyer (vocals, guitar), Danny Stead (bass), Sam Davies (guitar), Samir Eskanda (drums) and Ross Kristian (keyboards). But while the personnel stays constant the song does not remain the same. Charlie says that if the debut album had a spiritual home in New York City, the new LP has its heart in London. ‘A lot of the album is about characters,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of domestic themes – sometimes a story about a boy and a girl, with maybe some of the characters moving from song to song. It’s more of an English record – where showtunes and a sense of humour enter the picture, moving on from simple gutter rock.’
The narratives detail domestic violence (‘Pete The Pugilist’) and the chemical glee of the clubber at the break of dawn (‘The Smiling Loon’). ‘Stunners’ takes its title from the now-defunct Limehouse transvestite niterie that, until recently, added much local colour to the band’s adjacent rehearsal space. But where the new album’s words navigate a defined geography, the music has a wider perspective. Key influences include Faust’s abrupt inter-song editing and Kevin Ayres’ taste for exotic instrumental detail. A new premium was placed on rhythm. ‘We were putting more emphasis on the drums than ever before,’ says Charlie. A particular influence here was John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album, with its occasional reduction to just slapback drums and vocals.
‘The new album has a colder, darker feeling than the first one,’ says Charlie. ‘One of my favourite records is Lou Reed’s Berlin, which swings between a cold starkness and a kind of brilliant pomposity. We wanted to have those two elements – really stripped-down moments of just tambourine alongside ten layers of harmonised guitar.’
The result is an album that looks determinedly out into the world, but also maintains contact with the band’s origins. The album title comes from an old English theatrical device – the tradition where the phrase ‘rhubarb, rhubarb’ is used to produce background dialogue on stage and on the TV.
‘There’s a lot of noise around in the world today,’ says Charlie. ‘I was thinking of the idea of making noise but not really saying anything. The idea of “rhubarb, rhubarb” is unscripted background conversation in plays and on television. Today people are commenting on things all the time, commenting in new ways – Twitter and things. But a lot of it’s just more background, another kind of “rhubarb, rhubarb”…’
At time of writing The Voyeurs are taking their bold new noise across Europe – out with Fat White Family from Oslo to Berlin, Eindhoven to Prague. As The Voyeurs play ‘Rhubarb Rhubarb’ across the Continent the people will surely welcome a new international language – sounds ancient and modern, local and universal.
“Charlie Boyer and The Voyeurs came to our attention supporting TOY earlier this year. Perfectly channeling mid-70s NYC art punk in the back room of a scuzzed up East End pub, Charlie took the sounds of one blank generation and blasted them out to another. Only took a minute before we were sold.” HEAVENLY RECORDINGS, summer 2012
Charlie Boyer sits in an East End café as a Friday morning rush subsides, talking about his band’s work ethic. It’s an approach that he and the Voyeurs have adhered to ruthlessly for the last twelve months; a process that has rapidly thrown Boyer from a tentative first gigs to a much-anticipated debut album, Clarietta.
“We write a song a week, minimum. I like that way. I want to keep that kind of work rate, it helps to make the writing process very intense. I like the idea of having quite strict writing schedules. Every Sunday I start a demo on the 4 track then send it to the band who work out their parts before we learn it the following Wednesday. We then demo it the Sunday after before starting the process again. Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday. It works really well for us. I don’t understand why all bands aren’t working that way.”
Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs look, act and sound like a band that’s joined at the hip. While a statement made in a recent NME interview (Charlie said that they set out to make “primitive, sexy, glamorous rock’n’roll”) may have been intended as throwaway at the time, it neatly surmised the band’s ethos. Physically, they look like the louche-est gang in town. Musically they conjure a mesmerizing garage racket — a sound as heavy as it is direct, primitive in the best possible way. Although there are time-honoured musical elements (there are nods to – amongst others — the Velvets, Spacemen 3 and T-Rex), in the hands of the Voyeurs it’s all warped into a feral monolithic trance; simple and viciously effective.
“Making music isn’t rocket science is it? The simpler the better. Often we simplify our songs, invariably it improves everything. You know when a song is working, it’s usually when it’s at its most basic. Really, I’d like the band to get more primitive.”
Inception point for The Voyeurs was the start of 2012, although it was initially a vehicle for Charlie to strike it alone after years playing in other bands. Having recorded a 7” for Blank Editions — the double A side ‘Ducks’/’You Haven’t Got A Chance’ — he booked two gigs promote it (one at Dalston’s vinyl only Kristina Records, the other supporting Boyer’s friends Toy at an insanely over-subscribed show at the nearby Shacklewell Arms) and hastily assembled a scratch band to flesh out a handful of as-yet-unperformed songs.
Even in those nascent stages, the Voyeurs sound and Charlie’s vision was present. While so many other bands playing support slots in pub backrooms were in thrall to the sounds of the previous decade, the Voyeurs played things entirely differently. A singer who looked and sounded like a young Tom Verlaine fronting a band that seemed to owe as much to the Blank Generation as it did to the a long line of truly hypnotic guitar music stretching from Syd Barrett to the Mondays.
“Even at those first two gigs, I knew exactly how I wanted the music to sound. I’m actually surprised at how close we’ve got to the sound I heard in my head. The benchmark, the blueprint is the album version of Sister Ray. That’s the feeling I want from every song we do; that ecstatic, relentless sound. I didn’t purposely set out to try to make the music sound different to everyone else around, I was just following my instincts.”
Boyer’s instincts were clearly sharply tuned. Within a week of the Shacklewell Arms gig, Heavenly — Toy’s record label – had asked Charlie to make a record. The result was a visceral sucker punch of a single called ‘I Watch You’, a song that would be described by the Guardian as “one of those crudely simple two-chord affairs (with a third for the chorus) that reduces rock’n’roll to its basics but does so with intelligence, not dumbness. It’s boogie with brains, basically”. I Watch You was recorded by legendary artist and producer Edwyn Collins (the Cribs) at his studio, West Heath Yard.
“I was a huge fan of Postcard Records. As soon as Jeff suggested Edwyn as a producer, I jumped on it. The sound I hear in my head is maybe more chaotic but I really liked the idea of working with Edwyn because I knew he’d make it poppier, lighter. He gave it a real shimmering elegance. There’s this box in his studio that he calls the Scintillator; it’s just a couple of switches — it doesn’t actually do anything other than encourage greatness.”
With a record deal in place, the Voyeurs settled on a final five-piece line up (Charlie Boyer, Sam Davies, Danny Stead, Samir Eskandar, Ross Kristian) and set about realising Charlie’s vision in a rehearsal space near Docklands.
“We practise in Cable Street Studios down in Limehouse. There’s a great drag club opposite the studio called Stunners; we have cigarette breaks with these really brilliant trannies. There’s a crazy looking S&M club down there too. I think it’s about as close to early ’70s New York City as you’re going to get in London in 2013. I love it there.”
One listen to the band’s debut album – again recorded with Edywn Collins – it’s clear that it’s influenced as much by the capital’s seedy underbelly as it is by the Scintillator. With keyboards that flow like an eddy current against the measured rhythmic attack of vocals, guitar, bass and drums, the eleven tracks on the Voyeurs debut are primitive, sexy, glamorous rock’n’roll at its very finest.
From the pummelling, out of control ram raid of ‘I’ve Got a River’ to the Syd-meets-Sonic Boom stomp of ‘Clarinet’ via the album’s second single, the gonzo-riff heavy ‘Things We Be’, ‘Clarietta’ is insistent, addictive and just a little degenerate, it’s the best British garage record of the 21st century. In fact, it’s good enough to make you ponder Charlie’s question – why aren’t all bands doing this?
Charlie Boyer and The Voyeurs released their debut album ‘Clarietta’ on Monday 27th May 2013 on Heavenly Recordings