The hype around the band may have faded, but Chris Cope finds Oscar Charlie more confident and more hopeful than ever.
“Oscar Charlie are from the Shetland Isles and moved to Glasgow after inventing music”, the band’s online biography says. “They were devastated to find that it already existed.”
Dry sarcasm or not, it is easy to see why Oscar Charlie jumped ship and set sail to Glasgow back in 2008. They were Black Bic Biro in a past life – youthful indie support act to Franz Ferdinand at that Whiteness and Weisdale Hall gig three and a half years ago – and were darlings of the Shetland music scene. Their indie-pop sound attracted apparent major label interest, and the big fishes in the small pond were soon off to Glasgow to make their millions.
On their trip down they rode not only the North Sea swell but a wave of gushing hype. They were, naturally, going to be Shetland’s biggest export after oil and fish. Local media tickled them gently. The isles were expectant.
Black Bic Biro changed their name – legal issues, apparently pursued by the pen company – to Oscar Charlie after they began to furrow themselves into the Scottish music scene. But it wasn’t the only thing to change. Their mainstream sound began to blur out of focus and tracks like the anthemic, overtly radio-friendly “Peggy Sue” – connoting the likes of the Libertines and Arctic Monkeys – began to be eschewed for synth driven, spaced-out introspective, edgy adventures.
I meet Reuben Quinn, guitarist and vocalist, and Jim Bevington, bassist, at a Glasgow vegetarian café/bar. The two Shetlanders are no longer the sprightly teenagers who used to spend their weekends playing the local halls around the isles. There is now a measured knowhow and a sense of level-headed enthusiasm in their eyes. It is their subtle, simmering excitement, however, that is the most intriguing. This band, formed years ago, seems to be only just beginning.
“Our music tastes have changed and what we’ve been playing and what we’ve been interested in playing have changed gradually”, said Bevington. “And our musicianship,” added Quinn, vocalist and guitarist. “Speaking for myself, when we got a bit of a buzz about us I couldn’t even play, and I was listening to the Libertines and stuff like that – stuff that really turned me on at the time, but not really any more. We ended up facing a crossroads between pursuing this thing that’s kind of maybe going to incline us towards a bit of success in the short term, or really wanting to be musicians. And we thought we wanted to commit to the idea of doing this for a long time. Even if it meant toiling away at a niche group of people who only want to listen to emotional space rock.”
In essence, Oscar Charlie had the chutzpah to change their sound and commit near commercial suicide in the noble pursuit of musical contentment. That’s not to say, however, that their current sound is lacking hooks and melody – it is still filled with it – it’s just found a bit deeper under the surface.
“I looked back and I listened to our first EP a few months ago and it’s still really good, I still enjoy listening to it,” Quinn added. “We were . . . spunky. But I think for people maybe who have a bit more musicality or people who are a bit more like us, then our new stuff is going to be a lot more rewarding. Certainly we’re a better live band, by a hundred miles.”
It’s not only in name and sound that Oscar Charlie have changed. They came to Glasgow as a three-piece and after a number of personnel changes, have ended up as a quartet. Original drummer John Gair left, and is currently gigging back in Shetland with rock group The Last. “We came down to Glasgow together and ended up going from being kids when we came down to skirting around the verges of adulthood and, yeah, for a good while probably didn’t do as much as we should have, for a variety of reasons, musical differences being one,” Quinn said. Their current line-up is completed by Englishman Tom Hoare on drums and Atli Mar Bjornsson on synth – morphing the group from local Shetland boys to a multi-national gang of heady musicians. Atli, for example, is the owner of a back-breaking 200kg Hammond 1968 C3 organ – “The king of Hammonds”, I’m told.
It is their apparent desire to hole themselves away to hone their sound that may have been a root cause for the disappointment faced by some Shetlanders who were hoping for the band to become a national success. They have played a number of shows in and around Glasgow since their mainland move and have a couple of releases under their belt, but there was little fanfare, no zealous PR campaign. They seemed like a hermit band happy to hide away and work on their trade instead of launching themselves headfirst, arms flailing into the public domain, perhaps unready. The band have done away with paying for one-off rehearsals – “ It stops us being skint students who can’t afford the practices”, said Quinn – and have been hiring out more long-term spaces in, well, some rather odd locations.
“For a while we were rehearsing in a boxing club, and that sort of went down the pan quite quickly. It was a nightmare getting in there and stuff,” Bevington said. “We’ve got a studio of our own now in a cotton mill factory in the East End in Dalmarnock”, Quinn added. “We’ve got our own little room which we have 24 hours a day, and over the past few weeks we’ve been kitting it out as our own recording studio – we’ve finally got the means to be able to record ourselves. We went to check out the place and it was completely empty, painted white – just nothing. You go down this little corridor like some sort of insane asylum and the key for the door has two bolts and that. But it’s ours, we could literally do anything – we could be conducting nuclear fusion experiments in there and no-one would know.”
Much like a sleepy eyed animal emerging from hibernation, it seems like the rebirth of Oscar Charlie is on the horizon. It is tangible; you can feel the excitement and vigour surrounding the band’s future. Oscar Charlie have finally, it seems, found musical gratification.
“I think for the first time in a long time then we feel like we know what we’re doing, said Bevington. “Tom joined about a year ago, and Atli joined about six months ago, and in that time we’ve really sussed out each other musically and the songs are coming faster and easier, everything sounds better. Each time we play it becomes more fun to play together, and we’ve got so many ideas. We’re just incredibly excited about what we’re going to do.”
“It’s still rock music though, Quinn retorted, while tearing open a bag of crisps onto the table into a ready salted free for all. “Fundamentally, it’s still rock music and the key I think is to be musical without being self-indulgent. We’re not a prog band, but we’re trying to do something that is new and interesting and something that when we get off stage, or finish a recording session, we think ‘This is really good’ rather than have a crisis of self-confidence.”
Oscar Charlie have played a few times in Shetland since their move south, mainly at the Norscot Angling Club in Lerwick, but this summer sees the band take on the Tall Ships in July. They’re joined by fellow mainland Shetland alumni including The Stagger Rats and Eat Dr. Ape, but Oscar Charlie carry with them the greatest local significance. They’ll be playing to their biggest audience yet, and it almost seems like they have a point to prove. Oscar Charlie have slipped under the Shetland consciousness in recent years, but the band will come back to the isles even stronger than when they left.
“My real hope is that we’ll go home and play the Tall Ships and even if the music is a maybe a bit on the unusual side or whatever, or has the occasional strange time signature, then people will still see it and think ‘these guys have gone from being kids playing pop songs to being musicians who are really going after something musical, but they also happen to be young and incredibly good looking and cool and so, you know, the world is their oyster basically’,” Quinn quipped. “That’s my real hope for the response from Shetland.”
It was the Franz Ferdinand support slot back in September 2007 that ignited interest in Oscar Charlie (then Black Bic Biro). They were picked by the indie superstars personally and from then on, hopes that they might emulate the Glasgow band escalated. Do they resent the support slot for placing too much pressure on their six shoulders?
“Not at all,” Bevington said. “It put us in a position where we made the choice to do this or not. We knew we were potentially leaving Shetland but it hadn’t really been spelled out to us that we were gonna pursue the band as a major thing, and that gig, and everything that happened after, all the buzz, made us decide to do it and we committed to it. We moved away together and a lot of things have changed since then.”
“It actually gave us the kick in the arse to move down and do this stuff together,” added Quinn. “And even if John fell by the wayside, which is understandable, we still take for granted that we take the band very, very, seriously. I think the climate at the moment is fantastic for people who are doing this themselves, and if you’re good enough – which I don’t think we were at the time a few years ago, but I think we are now – then you can pretty much get away with anything you want.”
With Oscar Charlie now the proud owner of their own recording studio, excitement seems to at a new high, but wild expectation – for once – is relatively tame. And I think they might just like that.