by Rob Mair

The thing about 90’s British alternative rockers Bush is that by 2010, their debut record Sixteen Stone had sold a frankly ridiculous six million copies(!) in the US alone, enough to go six times platinum in the process. In the UK, meanwhile, it topped out at a not unreasonable 60,000, earning the group a nice silver disc and ne’er another mention in the annals of UK music history. 

But, speaking as one of the 60,000 who helped put a silver disc in the hands of Gavin Rossdale, its relative success on one side of the Atlantic compared to the other highlighted the contrasting styles and tastes of the public at the time. Riding in on the coat-tails of the post-grunge boom, Sixteen Stone put the band snugly alongside the likes of US contemporaries Live, Soul Asylum and Screaming Trees, while the UK’s fixation with Britpop meant that such an abrasive record didn’t sit comfortably with the domestic music press and wider public at the time. 

That’s just one story, though, and sometimes it’s harder to ascertain why one band would get more success in the land of the free compared to good ol’ Blighty. Take the Catherine Wheel, a highly-lauded and critically acclaimed indie-rock act in the mid-90s (in America, at least); I can remember watching East Anglia’s finest play at Rugeley’s Red Rose Theatre in the late 90s. It was certainly A Big Deal due to the unusually high £6 ticket price, but the venue was less than a third full because no-one had the faintest idea who they were. 

Watford’s Lakes – freshly signed to Philadelphia’s Know Hope Records – can certainly relate to the feeling of being overlooked in their homeland while picking up acclaim and celebrity fans abroad. The Watford sextet released their debut full-length The Constance LP last year, earning a fistful of plaudits from the likes of Washed Up Emo and Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, who favourably compared the band to Los Campesinos and Driver Friendly. Yet in the UK, its release passed by with little fanfare. 

“If you look at the streaming stats, we’re by far – and I mean by far – more popular in America,” says founder and drummer Matthew Shaw. “And that’s definitely part of the reason why we had to get an American label; that’s where all the interest is, and always has been. And I don’t know why. Maybe our sound just appeals to an American audience more…but yeah, the Ian Cohen and the Washed Up Emo comments just blew my mind.”

Then there’s the chance encounter with Real Friends’ former frontman Dan Lambton, who has been a vocal champion of the band, inviting them along to their Electric Ballroom show and now the proud owner of a Lakes tattoo.  

It’s an unlikely story of success – albeit modest so far – from one of Watford’s unlikeliest exports. Indeed, the textured and math-rock influenced sound isn’t one you’d readily associate with the Hertfordshire town.  Having given rise to the likes of Gallows, Cry For Silence (which featured Alessandro Venturella, now of Slipknot) and metallic crossover act Sikth, the town has been associated with heavy music – and in particular hardcore – for more than a generation. It’s a legacy tag that holds firm to this day, with the likes of Gold Key doing interesting things in the realms of heavy and uncompromising music.

Yet Lakes – completed by vocalists Roberto Cappellina and Blue Jenkins, guitarists Rob Vacher and Gareth Arthur and bassist Charlie Smith – are far from a hardcore band. Instead, the group take their cues from the more Midwestern emo/indie-rock style of music, which although may have once been a hardcore offshoot, is now a very different beast. Shaw is an emo aficionado himself and is wise to point out the relationship between the sound of Lakes and Watford’s historic musical roots.

“Even though we’re not even slightly hardcore, there’s definitely a relationship there,” he says. “It might be very tenuous, and maybe it doesn’t come across, but I’d like to think that you could trace elements of the sound back to some part of that hardcore/emo crossover.

“Also, I quite often talk about a ‘Watford sound’, which isn’t just a hardcore sound, it’s spread across loads of different Watford bands, but there’s something ‘Watford’ about so many of the bands, and Lakes has that because we grew up with that sound; bands like Neverthemore, Spycatcher, and now Gold Key, who are this kind of spacey progrock thing. Nervus as well; all of that stuff is just so identifiably Watford, even though it’s not hardcore.” 

Similarly, while Lakes don’t sound like a hardcore band, nor do they sound especially British – and this may go some way to explain why America is much more in tune with the group than music fans on these shores. Originally started as a DIY solo project for Shaw to write some songs after he was inspired by the return of Illinois’ American Football, the most obvious touchstones to Lakes’ sound can be traced back to the turn of the century output by Polyvinyl and Deep Elm. In short, they sound like the type of band a teenage Shaw listened to.

But they also have a secret weapon in vocalist Roberto Cappellina. While much of Shaw’s output gets filtered through a math-rock and emo prism, Cappellina is coming at the band from a different perspective, and a much broader musical upbringing.

“I think, because I get most of my emo from Matt – and I have that constant steady stream of emo, whether that’s new stuff or old stuff – that area is covered,” says Cappellina. “But also, I’ve never written the kind of music that I listen to. This is the kind of band I’ve always wanted to be in, ever since Matt introduced me to Polyvinyl Records – like Owen, the Dodos, Aloha – that sort of stuff.”

Having established the musical direction for Lakes, this songwriting collaboration between Shaw and Cappellina led to some unexpected decisions, with one in particular helping to define the group’s sound. Having fully fallen for American Football’s second record, Shaw set himself the target of writing without using chords. This naturally lent itself to a math-rock slant, but the duo still wanted the songs to be accessible, as Cappellina explains:  

“I found with a lot of math-rock – I know we’re not massively mathy but there’s definitely that flirtation – that there are not too many proper ‘songs’. The structure is always scattered and sparse, and I think what separates Lakes from everything else is that we have very pop structures. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus, so it’s quite linear.

“So I’ll write a chorus over what I think is the chorus section, and then I’ll repeat it later on in the song, but it’ll be a beat short so it sounds completely different. Do you remember the band The Magic Numbers? I wasn’t massively into them, but there was something about the high octave, low octave thing, and when I heard the demos, even though I’d never actually done anything like that, I just went with that idea – and it kind of worked.”

And it’s this approach which has helped mark Lakes out as somewhat unique, certainly in the realms of UK indie-rock. “I would say that, if Roberto wasn’t involved, we would just sound like a pretty average generic emo band,” Shaw attests. “I just listen to one genre every day, but I couldn’t even tell you what he likes – and he brings that to the writing. When he sends stuff back, it’s like ‘holy shit’ every time. And that’s what makes it different.”

The group are evolving this sound too, and this will be evidenced on two new songs they will be releasing as a single for Know Hope in the summer. They’ve also added another songwriter to the group, with Blue Jenkins replacing the departed Sam Neale. 

Like much of the group’s history, Jenkins joining the band is as much down to serendipity as any sort of grand plan. After watching the band play at the Old Blue Last and enjoying their set while working behind the bar, she approached the group afterwards and handed them a demo of her songs. Impressed with what they heard – “it was incredible” comments Shaw – they decided to get her in after Neale left. Jenkins is now working on a handful of songs the group hope to take into LP two, which they have tentatively earmarked for release next summer.

A similar dose of good fortune arrived after Nervus’ Paul Terris – who co-runs Lakes’ UK label at the LP Café alongside Leila Simpson – dished out copies of The Constance LP to people at Audiotree while Nervus were touring the States. One of the copies found its way to producer and engineer Neil Strauch (whose resume includes Owen, Owls and Joan of Arc). 

So enamoured with what he’d heard, Strauch reached out to the band saying he’d love to work with them in the future. Shaw – already a huge fan of his work – took him up on the offer and had him remotely mix the upcoming single, with production duties helmed in Watford by former Gallows’ guitarist Steph Carter.

“It’s almost Biblical in terms of how things have actually evolved,” jokes Cappelina, but when you consider just how much the group has crammed in over the last 12 months – and especially considering they only gig sporadically – it doesn’t feel like an understatement. 

There’s a saying about the breaking wave not explaining the whole sea, and it feels an apt reference point for Lakes, beyond the tenuous nautical theme. It’s perhaps churlish to make sweeping generalisations about why they’re making strides Stateside compared to the UK. It might be even foolish to look at the lessons of history – Lakes are vastly different to Bush and The Catherine Wheel, after all – but there’s no doubting the fact they’ve achieved a huge amount in a very short space of time, growing from a bedroom songwriting project into an ambitious 12-legged glockenspiel-toting group that defies easy descriptions. With the next 18 months now planned out, expect the group to be making far bigger waves in the not too distant future.