With only a Radio 2 session to precede it, the debut album from brothers Michael and David Champion appeared like a bolt out of the blue. And for believers in the environmental influence on music, it makes sense the Champions hail from the hamlet of Niton outside the Victorian seaside enclave of Ventnor on the Isle Of Wight, as Down Like Gold sounded beautifully out of time and place, even with artists they could call peers. Combining elder brother Michael’s exquisitely melodic, intensely dreamy and persuasively heartbreaking songs with their folk-pop leanings, his affecting vocal timbre, David’s empathic lead guitar and reinforcing harmonies that only siblings seem able to make, the album was a unique statement – much like the word Vamala, which fell out of Michael’s mouth as he was singing along to a new tune. “It had a nice ring, like a Croatian girl’s name,” he thought.
The follow-up album VAMALA (blame Michael’s OCD for the capitals: “I like letters the same height!”) follows only a year on after their debut. “The record-buying attention span is shorter these days,” he reasons. “There’s so much new music out there, so we wanted to get an album out quickly. But only as we had the songs.”
Second albums always test an artist’s strength in depth, and the 12 tracks that constitute VAMALA reach higher and wider than even its sublime predecessor: the up-tempo tracks are punchier (for example the lead single ‘Desire’ and the title track) while the ballads are sparser and more haunting (head for ‘Forever Be Standing At The Door’ and ‘Roll Me Out’), the sound altogether richer. It proves that CHAMPS were right to make some brave choices. Down Like Gold was produced by friends (brothers too), Jim and Rob Homes (aka Boe Weaver), at Studio Humbug, an old water tower belonging to Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s island retreat. To initiate progress, CHAMPS decamped to London for the new recordings.
Michael: “We’d spent so much time in desolate rural surroundings, I wanted more of a vibe this time, to feed off some energy. “It’s important to try for something different. I also wanted to make more of a pop record, but a sparse one too.”
“We wanted to focus on the core of the songs,” David adds. “Which, in a strange way, opened up the record and we built some of the songs up.”
VAMALA was recorded by just the brothers with producer Dimitri Tikovoi at his Kilburn studio. Given his CV (which includes Goldfrapp and Placebo), the Frenchman was another risk, but Tikovoi’s rhythmic nous (he doubles as a session drummer) added more colour, including electronics, to the duo’s palate. “Dimitri’s from a pop background,” says David, “and wasn’t scared to add different elements, like the drums at the start of ‘Vamala’, which are almost urban.”
Yet VAMALA remains a definitive CHAMPS record, beautifully rendered and resolutely melancholic. “Maybe I have a permanent state of heartbreak!” says Michael. “But I always find the most engaging songs have that context of relationships not working out.”
If the album is rooted in love, it’s not just for people. The Isle of Wight is a regular presence. ‘Roll Me Out’, a pure folk ballad stripped right back to voice, acoustic guitar and a spot of whistling, documents Michael’s love of surfing: “it really helps when I’m stressed,” he says. “It’s a metaphor: “roll me out into the blue”.” ‘Blood’ and ‘Balfron Tower’ mirror the conflicting feelings of home. Michael lived with his German girlfriend for a time at Balfron Tower, a classic ‘brutalist’ tower block in East London: “It was quite bleak and miserable, and I got so sick of it, I decided to leave. Back at the island, everything felt clean and pure again. The song is my apology.”
Yet the album’s eerie finale ‘Devil’s Carnival’ is a reminder that clean air and isolation also have drawbacks. “It’s like I’m dreaming, looking across big fields of fog and mist, like in Withnail & I. I wanted to capture that bleak imagery.”
Bleakness spills into the songs about relationships A lilting ‘Running’ ironically channels nightmares, “feeling like you’re constantly running,” but it’s clear what’s triggering the panic (“I fell asleep with a full-on feeling that I had a heart to break”). ‘Sophia’ recalls last summer in Vienna, “sitting in cafes, smoking and drinking. It’s a cliché, but a romantic city can help with songwriting.” But it’s romance with an Achilles’ heel (“I tell you all my secrets and I share with you my news / Now there’s nothing left for me to do but lose.”
‘Vamala’ is also a contradiction. The track is both brothers’ favourite on the album: “I especially love the chorus,” says David. “It’s sad but upbeat at the same time.”It’s irresistibly breezy nature also masks a deep anxiety: “Am I up as high as I feel / Or am I dying?”
The anxiety of transience penetrates almost every CHAMPS song, in the brothers’ lifestyle (needing cities for work, treasuring their island’s rural beauty) and the trick of making relationships work while always moving. The island, says, Michael, “has little to do.” There is no official venue dedicated to live music, while “nightlife is the pub, full of angry farmers.” This meant that music became its own escape. “The weather is often rainy and foggy, so you hunker down and get creative,” says David. You’ve a lot more time to think.”
Though the brothers grew up listening to the same music” (favouring R.E.M., The Beatles, Beck and MGMT), they initially had different bands; Michael on a Flaming Lips tip, David more Fleet Foxes. Then Michael began stockpiling more ‘downbeat’ songs – closer, in fact, to David’s modus operandi – that he felt didn’t suit his band: “I had a different vision of what I wanted, something sparser, more personal and sincere.”
United at last, they began recording Michael’s songs, one of which, ‘St Peters’, found its way to Radio 2 DJ Dermot O’Leary, who quickly commissioned a CHAMPS session. Likewise Play It Again Sam signed the band on hearing early tracks and helped them complete what became Down Like Gold, named after falling leaves. “It felt like a very autumnal record to me, moving into winter,” says Michael.
Accompanied by the albums two breeziest tracks (‘Savannah’ and ‘My Spirit Is Broken’) released as singles, the album found widespread approval. “Few artists get close to the understated simplistic perfection of Neil Young, but CHAMPS, scribbling both the poetic verse and landscape reverse of a postcard to a vintage idea of love, can do just that” (The Line Of Best Fit). “Exquisite white winter hymnals…a dazzling folk-pop crush” (MOJO). “An album of satisfying melodic warmth, Down Like Gold is a winter warming headphone treat.” (Q magazine) “Sorrow-tinged dreaminess and ethereal symphonies” (Clash Music).
Double all that for VAMALA, which lives up to expectations, and then some. And CHAMPS still don’t sound like anyone else. Just ask Vamala…