The first artist I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing since the beginning of the UK lockdown to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, is with an artist based over 5,000 miles away in a lockdown of their own in the US…
Christian Gisborne is just 16, yet alongside his band, the Velvet Starlings, has already seen international tours, festival bookings including the infamous SXSW and has two EPs under his belt. He will also be playing our live streaming event from across the pond tomorrow night (11th April 2020) , in support of the Dubby.
The band’s enticing blend of British influenced indie rock, sixties psychodelia and modern production values provide an ironically mature take on social themes and the current political backdrop, wrapped in an extremely palatable amalgam of engaging pop melodies and dance-floor backbeats.
I caught up with him ahead of the gig to talk about music, politics and productivity in the middle of lockdown…
Hi Christan. How’s your day going so far?
Pretty good. It’s 10am here so I just got out of bed.
Where are you spending your lockdown?
Right now I’m actually in hiding. I’m in Northern California. We fled because, you know, there’s just so many confirmed cases of Coronavirus in LA. So we figured out here in Northern California is kind of more remote. The stores aren’t full of people. But we’re going to be heading back to LA in a couple weeks.
How are you coping with it?
It definitely sucks. But I’ve been watching a lot of movies, trying to start a YouTube channel, learning how to properly edit videos, recording and writing and stuff like that. Just trying to keep myself busy.
Do you feel the lockdown has created a pressure to be musically productive?
Yeah, definitely. The pressure is there. You know, you see all these people talking about what they’re up to, it’s gonna be funny in six to eight months when everyone comes out with songs about the quarantine! But I don’t have a full studio setup here unfortunately, so lately, I’ve just been demo-ing out the songs and making sure everything’s sounding good.
You seem to be adapting well to the circumstances. You have a couple of streaming gigs lined up, right?
Yeah, we did one the other day, that was acoustic. We’ve also got the performance for Camden Live coming up of course. We’ve got good weather now, so I’ll be setting up outside with a kick drum, and I just got this thing. It’s called the Boss V20. Vocal processor. It’s super cool. You can have distortion on your voice, add harmonies and change the key for certain songs so it’s almost like having a backup singer. I’m going to have the electric guitar set up as well and a PA outside. It’s definitely going to be a lot more dynamic with the electric guitar and I’ve been putting like a capo on my sustain pedal and running like whatever the root note of the song is through the organ to sound a lot more full; because the band, they’re all in LA right now.
Are you finding it difficult being separated from your band mates?
Yeah, definitely. It sucks not being able to play shows or even just hang with them. I’ve been keeping up with Daniel, the drummer and Tiara. Probably going to do a bit of FaceTime with them later, hang out for a bit.
All the shows are being rescheduled for like October/November/December. I hope people aren’t afraid to go out when things return to normal. Myself at least, I’m going to be wanting to go out to every show I can. I had so many tickets to different shows happening in LA. I had tickets to Supergrass! They were going to be playing in April and I was so ready! We were actually in the UK when we found out they were reuniting. We missed the first show they played at some remote spot in London. But we had tickets for the show at The Wiltern. They just rescheduled to October, so that’s going to be a super fun time!
I think a lot of people in the States may not have even heard of Supergrass. There’s clearly a lot of British influence in your music… How did that come about?
So my dad, he’s from Leicester. He came here when he was like 20 and was signed to Universal with a band he was in. They were like a Brit rock, Stone Roses meets Oasis style band. Sadly, it didn’t totally work out but they’re trying to do a reunion or something sometime soon. But he was definitely a huge influence on me. You know, I’m a huge fan of anything Damon Albarn does, The Charlatans, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys all sorts of stuff like that. And obviously, you know, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who; and all that. We always have the argument about American versus Britain bands, ’cause I mean, we’ve got acts like The Doors and Jack White but honestly, I think Britain has to take the cake with the best bands.
I think that’s what it’s all about, you know? Telling the truth and trying to be on the right side of history.
I think its arguable Jack White clearly has a lot of British musical influences himself…
Yeah, definitely. He’s a huge fan of Zeppelin. You know, you hear him sometimes, in those interviews and he’ll say, “Yeah, my favourite song is a song from like the 20s…” and it’s like… “Are you sure it’s not Led Zeppelin”?
In the past you’ve spoken about the negative aspects of social media in our daily lives. Do you still feel the same in the light of the recent reliance of society and the music industry on it?
Well, our new single ‘Kids in Droves‘, that’s another song about you know, social media. It’s a whole thing; being in high school, you see how it affects people. You know, labels signing bands, it’s all about social media. If you don’t have 100,000 followers, then you’re not going to be insured to make money, no matter who you are. There’s no real reason for signing people, it’s all about, you know, likes and views and all this social media stuff. The ‘Cash Me Outside‘ girl who was the biggest trend in 2018, she got signed and became a rapper? You’re allowed to just become a rapper when you’re a meme! So that’s where we’re living now.
People were saying rock is dead. Really, all those great bands who would be selling the number one records right now, they all exist, they’re just not in the mainstream. The media is just not talking about them. I kind of feel like that’s why there’s no political songs anymore because the media doesn’t want it out there. Just like what happened to Bernie. He was clearly winning and everyone was behind him and they just took it away because the media has the power. It totally sucks.
I was going to ask how you felt about Bernie ending his campaign? I know you were quite vocal in your support of him…
I mean, whatever your opinion is, most people here hate Trump. We can all agree Trump sucks. But that’s the thing. Republicans, they’ve got all their stuff together. They say, “We want Trump” and they all agree. But with the Democrats, it’s so disheartening when you have all these people, particularly musicians behind Bernie, and he’s there with really no stake in anything, no special interest or any reason to be doing what he does, other than he’s just trying to help and make the world a better place. But then you have the media telling us Joe Biden is the man we want. He’s against gay rights, he voted to overturn Roe v Wade, and he’s basically a Republican himself. Now they’re trying to switch him out too, because he can’t even talk. They’re trying to replace him with Cuomo now. So yeah… politics, you know…
I read somewhere you were quoted as saying you like to write music about things that matter. What matters to you?
I guess with music you can always have a song about anything. Like freakin’ ‘Savoy Truffle’, that song is awesome! But I don’t know, I feel like if you’re making music and people are listening to what you have to say, it’s our duty to try and preach these things and get the word out, whether it’s about animal rights or it’s about what’s going on with our totally corrupt system. I think the same applies if you’re a painter, actor or whatever.
John Lennon is personally my favourite musician of all time and I look up to him in every aspect. He was the truly greatest rock star because he was able to, you know, break into the mainstream, or rather, the mainstream came to the Beatles and from there he was able to go out and preach the truth. He died for it. So I think that’s what it’s all about, you know? Telling the truth and trying to be on the right side of history.
It’s certainly a similarity I see between your songs and The Beatles’. There’s some pretty ‘high concept’ ideas in there, but wrapped up in a catchy, accessible package.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s what the Beatles did; made it more accessible. Tax Man and all those songs. They were sneaking stuff in early. Like ‘Revolution’. Come on. Where’s that [now]?
That’s the other thing, because you know when you’re hearing it from some dude on a rock, who’s like “Oh, don’t do this. Don’t do that”. Sometimes people switch off. It’s almost like dipping your feet into boiling water. Sometimes people need to hear it from someone who they think agrees with them. Like the Beatles, they put the message to a catchy tune, so it’s easier to swallow. And you kind of start to agree with it more and it sinks in as you listen to it.
And how do you think marketing relates in the music industry?
What happens with the news is they just say whatever and it kind of starts to permeate. The idea is the more that you say something, the more you put the idea out into the universe, and the more it becomes reality. The music industry works in the same way. They say that, you know, “Drake is the greatest artist” because they have money in it and then you know, all the kids see the Spotify playlist and they’re like, “Yeah, that’s my freakin’ favourite artist!”, and that’s how Drake outsold The Beatles. Now he’s better than the Beatles according to billboard?!
Talking of The Beatles, Velvet Starlings played the Cavern Club a while ago. How was that?
Yeah, we played there about six months ago. That was a super fun time! We were supposed to be playing again in June but it was cancelled, sadly, due to Corona. That was such a fun time playing there. I know it’s not the actual original, they did a recreation but when you take the photos, and then you run the black and white filter over it, it’s like, “Oh my gosh! So cool!”
I also heard you played with Will Crewsden from Rachel Stamp recently, in LA?
Oh, yeah. Will! That was our last show. We met Will when we played at The Monarch. He was playing as Scant Regard and then with his other band, ‘She Made Me Do It‘. We met Will and were just like, “Oh man, he’s a killer guitar player and got some awesome songs.” Then he came to Dublin Castle gig we played and after we were talking and he was like, “Oh, yeah, you guys are from LA. You got to check out this place called the Redwood Bar. It’s kinda like a pirate spot.” “Oh, do you know the Redwood Bar? That’s like my favourite spot!” And so we set up a show. That was a super fun time. Actually, the day after Will came with me and we went to Cory Feldman’s premiere for his new movie. He was like the last person I hung out with outside before Coronavirus! Shout out to Will. Will’s the man!
If you could pick one person to jam with, who would it be and what instrument would you play?
I’m gonna kind of like mess up that question a bit. Definitely Jack White, but I think I would want to do one of those things where we swap instruments around. He plays all the instruments just so well, it would have to be like Jack on drums and then I’ll play guitar and then he plays guitar and then I go to drums and then we have someone else from his band in, like LJ from the Racounteurs playing bass. That would just be the coolest.
What the best gig you’ve ever played?
We played Summerfest last year in Milwaukee. It was such a cool time. Courtney Barnett was there and yungblud, like two hours after us. It was like just the coolest to play on, for real, like a festival stage with all the and the people and it’s just such so much more energy… I was talking about the universe almost – when there’s more people, there’s more energy, the stakes are higher and it’s just such a great feeling.
You seem to find yourselves in the UK a lot. Is there anything in particular which keeps bringing you back here?
England just friggin’ rocks. Like, it’s where all the best bands are from. They got the awesome crowds. We’ve been to Sweden, and we’ve been all over the US but honestly there’s just something about England, The rock and roll was in everyone’s blood. It’s just like, part of the culture. And that’s what makes it such a fun time. I think that’s one reason that, you know, playing in England is exciting and it is where I definitely have the most fun.
And you’ve played in Camden quite a bit when you’ve been over here. How do you find it?
Yeah, we played the Camden Assembly, and the Dublin Castle, we played twice. And the Monarch, too.
I hope that no one from LA is going to read this and take offence, but LA, you know, you play the spots where people will go to see you. But they’re usually the indie ‘cool’ spots. So they have like hats on and they have to act like they don’t know who the band is. Everyone is like 15 feet away from the stage. And it’s like, “Guys, let’s party?!”
But in England and in Camden specifically, everyone’s just going crazy. And everyone’s way better at dancing! I met this guy called Sylvester from this band, The Dirty Blondes, and he’s just such a good dancer. He jumped up on the bar and it was just awesome! And when we played the Monarch I jumped up to the top – the second story and I almost fell out the window with my wireless.
But yeah, definitely the audience is in Camden way better.
If you could go back to the beginning of the lockdown, where would you choose to spend it and which one person would you like to be locked in with?
If it were my total choice, Jack Black from Tenacious D. He probably would be the most entertaining person to hang out with for a couple months, or whatever. Where would I want to hang out with JB? Probably like Lego Land! Or somewhere like a huge Guitar Center or something where there’s no workers and you don’t have to ask them to get the pedals out. You just unlock it yourself. Because you know you’re with Jack Black and he has tons of cash. And that would probably be the ultimate time
You were very young when you got started and you’re not much older now. Do you find your age affects how people in the industry treat you, for better or worse?
Yeah, I mean, truly, when we started I was 13. It started with me and a singer and we would both just play like the farmers market. Then it moved on to more members and I think we started really pushing it around 2017.
I mean, sometimes it’s one of those things where they’re like, “Oh, he’s a kid, so he’s allowed to suck”, so I definitely do get off easy sometimes! But really the biggest problem is age restrictions. I often have to try and act like, I’m just really short, not 16 and sometimes that works. Like we played in Glasgow at The Box. We got there and I was like, “Oh, it’s gonna be such a freakin’ fun time” and they were like, “Oh, you’re not 18 we looked it up”. So they told us instead of going on at 10 when everyone’s there, you’re going on 8pm before everyone’s come in. So we went on, and we left. At least they were nice enough to let us play the show!
How did you find the name Velvet Starlings?
It came from White Room, by Cream. You know, “tired, starlings“. That song has one of my favourite ever guitar solos. Originally we were trying to come up with something and we touched on the Velvet Scene but it sounded too much like the Velvet Underground. So then we’re like, “Okay, we got to change it, but it has to be like psychedelic 60s and not too cheesy”. So Velvet Starlings, stuck with us.
Who’s your biggest influence as a guitar player?
I feel bad because I just keep mentioning him everywhere and it’s starting to sound like I just am obsessed, but probably Jack White would be my biggest influence on guitar for the technical aspects. He took the blues and made it this whole thing. Last year Velvet Starlings had an entire line-up change, when our keyboard player and bassist and drummer all left. During that time, I had to play the rest of the shows as a two piece. I had never done it but knowing that Jack White, Sleater Kinney, Royal Blood, any of these bands exist, you know, not having bass and not having all these things, you kind of think, “They can do it, so it can be done”. I had to play the rest of the shows as a two piece, just the guitar and drums, making the songs come across without all the production. Putting yourself in that box definitely breeds a lot more creativity.
Pete Townsend was another big influence on me as a guitar player, definitely. I went through a huge Who phase for like a year and a half where all I listened to was all things Who. I don’t know, there’s something about Pete Townsend. He’s probably one of the greatest writers of all time.
I just saw the Hollywood Bowl performance. Liam was opening and Townsend, he’s like a guitar God now. He’s doing all this tapping and crazy guitar virtuoso genius stuff that he never used to do that with the Who. He never really had any huge solos on the songs, he mainly stuck to the chords, big melodies and lyrics and stuff like that. But there’s something about just playing a chord and jumping in the air and making a big deal out of it that made The Who so good. He didn’t take himself too seriously. There’s so many Who tracks that are just frickin’ funny. Like ‘Silas Stingy’, and even like ‘Pictures of Lil’ or ‘Substitute’. He’s making jokes like Tenacious D but no one even understood it.
Have you got any new releases on the horizon?
Well, at the moment all I can pitch is our last record,’Love Everything. Love Everyone’ which is not as new now as it’s been out for like, five or six months. So you can go check out that record and then we’ve got our new record coming out. We don’t have the title yet, but the songs are finished. We just got to get into the studio, get it mixed, get it mastered and then once Coronavirus is blown over we’re looking at releasing it. It seems like everyone kind of lost their year this year!
Thanks for chatting to us today. I look forward to the show on Saturday!
Thanks for having me. It was definitely a fun time. You know, like you were saying about keeping busy during the pandemic. You know, sometimes it’s like, “Oh, man, I’m doing nothing right now!” I’m glad to be doing something like this, you know? It feels almost like a regular day, talking about music, talking about the Beatles, so thanks for having me!
It speaks volumes about the international music scene that in times of hardship, where separation is a necessity we find new ways to come together and support each other, not just within our communities but over oceans.
Christian will be performing live this Saturday on the Camden-Live YouTube live stream. Please consider donating via our paypal link to support The Dublin Castle, one of many small venues across Camden and the UK who’s futures are being threatened by the COVID-19 Pandemic.