Charles Howl is the solo project of London-based musician and filmmaker Danny Nellis. It’s been quite a journey for him since releasing a five track garage-surf-punk EP back in 2013, he and his words back then hidden behind a wall of fuzz. Debut album Sir Vices a couple of years later showcased the emergence of serious songwriting skills, but on My Idol Family, the new record, we see him step out of the psych blur proper, and with a confidence not previously apparent.
‘The first EP we made, as soon as that was finished I was, it’s too garage, it’s too loud, it’s too noisy, let’s do something quiet, see if you can hold a room with a quiet song. I’m always trying to outdo myself and my previous thing,’ he says. ‘There’s never been a plan…I get bored very quickly. I want to push myself all the time.’
Danny started making music when, at age 20, he was inspired by a friend’s band playing ‘really simple, slashy punk music’. He learned the guitar but ‘I quickly wanted to get past 3 chord thrashy songs. Now we’re using strings!’
My Idol Family is a tough album to categorise, in many ways; within its 36 minutes we pick up affection for soundtracks and pop, indie guitar, and strong tuneful melody. The strings on the record are understated, there’s a beautiful lightness of touch; arranged by Richard Jones of the Ligeti Quartet, one of the UK’s leading ensembles, they lift the album to a different level.
‘I hope so. That was the idea, to take it away from a band sound, two guitarists, bass and drums. As soon as strings went on, they had to go on in a tasteful way. We’ve played with a quartet a couple of times but I think whenever we can get on a stage big enough I’d like to take the band away from being a rock n roll band, and be able to do more interesting stuff.’
This month saw the release of the video for Never Forget What You Are, from My Idol Family. On the song, the strings are mocking, almost comedic, charting the protagonist’s descent into madness, maybe. In the video, amateur actors recruited via a casting call express themselves in scenarios from the everyday to the curious, dilemmas conjured up by Danny and his friend Wesley Gonzalez. Written and directed by Danny, the film makes for rather strange and wickedly funny viewing.
‘They had to be genuine amateur actors. Actors, when they really get into it, you can’t fake that. I knew if I’d got friends it wouldn’t be taken seriously,’ he explains. ‘I genuinely set up and rented this rehearsal hall and…basically held a fake acting class. But filmed it. We got the weirdest stuff to put against a nice song.’
Quite a bleak song, though. The narrative to Never Forget What You Are is a tragic scenario in itself, a man waking up to find loved ones and world around him unrecognisable. It’s desperately sad. It’s quite a contrast to the video, where the actors try their darnedest to convince and are fed on ‘a depressing wedding buffet’ of sloppy egg sandwiches and vacuum packed cocktail sausages.
‘I’m really interested in stuff that kind of doesn’t fit, and too many videos…if a song’s about a forest, the video’s in a forest, I don’t like those sort of things. I like having something that jars against what the song’s about. If it’s on the nose I don’t think enough work’s been put into it.’
You seem to be very efficient in persuading people to bend to your will onscreen, I suggest to him. In the videos for singles Meet Lou’s Needs and The Dinner Party, Danny talked a bunch of women into doing Busby Berkeley dance formations, and we get a naked fella under a tree.
‘I really get into it myself. I’ve done a lot of videos for other people, so I’m used to pulling in favours…’
There’s dark melancholic humour in the videos, and his song lyrics are very cutting, and sharp. There’s much more of that on My Idol Family.
‘(I’ve) got a good group of friends, running ideas past each other trying to help each other, and outdo each other in terms of songwriting in a healthy way. I caught the bug, and (I’m) persevering at it. Especially songwriting, and lyrics are very important. They’re the thing that get changed the most and put on last and it’s not until I’m happy with every word that it’s allowed to be finished, I guess.’
Danny and then drummer Bobby who produced the record, went over to Amsterdam to make the album. He paints a poetic scene as he describes this place, on the outskirts of a ‘cute little village almost, and it looked completely different to home. Canals, it was coming up to Christmas, it was snowing a bit. It definitely felt like a different world.’
There was nothing of the album written beforehand, bar a few phone recordings and ideas; removing himself from the everyday worked.
‘I wanted to create that environment where we didn’t have any distractions. Everyone’s always got stuff going on so it was, we’re going away and this is what we’re going to be doing for a month. Wake up every day at the same time, did some work, gave ourselves the weekend off, had some fun. Strict about it in a way, but I think because i was doing something I wanted to do it didn’t feel like work. We were putting the hours in.’
On top of that, the album got a touch up at a very late stage, is that right?
‘It wasn’t until the month before it coming out I quickly went ‘ah, got to clean everything up’…so it got a complete remix last minute. It had been sitting there for quite a few months so I think that last burst of energy took it in a different direction and cleaned it up and really helped it.’
I heard that with My Idol Family, ultimately you wanted to prove you can write songs.
‘I think that’s me being too hard on myself. (On) the first record, the songwriting interested me but I think there were a few more pieces of the jigsaw I needed to learn how to put together. I was a lot more comfortable with the songs on the second record, it came on a lot further. And now maybe (we will) do the stereotypical third record thing and go halfway between the first one which was a bit looser structures than the last one was more pop structured. But we’ll see!’
You’re touring the UK over the next couple of weeks, and coming to Liverpool for your first headline show. What can we expect?
‘We’ll be playing with the normal band line up so the string textures will be played out of synths so it will sound a little bit different to the record. But it’s going to be interesting…’
Charles Howl plays Shipping Forecast, Liverpool on Thursday 31st May.