There was always so much more to Childhood than meets the eye. The band’s songwriting, for instance, had a shimmer, a slinky sense of groove that sat outside the rigid hips of their indie peers, a willingness to try the unexpected that made them stand out – awkwardly at first, then with confidence – from the crowd.
Debut album ‘Lacuna’ was overseen by Dan Carey, who seemed to ring out Childhood’s more psych-leaning desires. And while it was definitely imbued with promise, it didn’t quite seem to open out the full reach of the band’s creative faculties.
New album ‘Universal High’, though, not only breaks down they barriers but it digs out the foundations. It’s funky, soulful, and even nods towards jazz while still remaining true to the voice that fuelled their debut album.
Ben Romans-Hopcraft muses on these changes on the phone to Clash. “Realistically, we made that first record when we were at university, so by the time we released it, some of the songs were already three years old. Although publicly our debut was fresh, a lot of it had been around for a while, so since then things have evolved a lot musically. So the changes may seem dramatic, but it was actually quite organic.”
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It all came out organically, where the first record it was almost robotic...
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Affording themselves time and space to develop, Childhood have taken daring risks when re-evaluating their sound. Growing up in a musical household – Ben’s brother is a key figure in London’s jazz scene right now – the singer was keen to let his early love of funk and soul come to the fore. “Most of the record I wrote in my Mum’s flat, and she’s heavily into soul music,” he explains. “My Dad’s a musician, and he’s into some really great rare groove and jazz and soul records. It’s always been in my existence.”
“It just kind of came out,” he says. “It all came out organically, where the first record it was almost robotic. We recorded all of those through a computer – almost bashing them out, so with this record we made sure the demos were a lot less structured and limiting.”
A natural follow on, everything about ‘Universal High’ feels right. It wasn’t just Ben Romans-Hopcraft pursuing this new direction, but each member of Childhood. “I think everyone in the band is into that kind of music anyway,” he said. “Obviously, I’m the key songwriter, but everyone was kind of inclined to embrace this direction. It seemed natural, for sure!”
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Sessions in London were allowed to stretch out, the band waiting until each note clicked into place. Lead cut ‘Californian Light’ is a superb indication of where their heads are at – lucid, hypnotic fare, laced with blissful sunshine, it boasts a superbly laid-back vocal, all pieced together with a new person at the helm.
Ben H. Allen has worked with everyone from Gnarls Barkley to Animal Collective, an extensive CV that builds into a near-unrivalled breadth of experience. The producer agreed to work with Childhood, and the band flew out to Atlanta for some intense recording sessions.
“As a band, we were really into what he’s done,” the singer explains. “Like, the records he’s done with Deerhunter, but obviously, he’s had experience with artists like CeeLo Green, so there’s a good balance of guitar music and soul. He was a good person to bridge that gap for us.”
“Ben was really good at arranging when it came to the production of the record,” he continues. “We wanted to make a record that wasn’t just soulful. We wanted it to have this element of accessibility to it as well.”
“The demos were very, very soulful, and Ben saw the need for us to not change the wheel completely, so he collaborated with us to make it a smooth transition from one record into the next. Ben put the limiter on the record for us.”
Far from basking in the Southern sunshine, the producer immediately put Childhood through their paces in a rigorous studio routine. “It was pretty disciplined,” Ben recalls. “It was a different experience to what we were used to. Ben Allen’s pretty solid, man. He’d have us in there pretty early, and we’d work 12-hour days. There was no 'do a take, go to the pub' attitudes. He was pretty on it!”
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There’s a good balance of guitar music and soul...
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One aspect the producer was able to help with was the vocals – having worked with some enormously successful vocalists, he teased out each melodic idea to allow Ben Romans-Hopcraft to further explore his voice. “Ben is really good at making you challenge yourself without making you think you’re challenging yourself. A lot of the vocal things I was doing, I wasn’t used to doing at all. Usually I’m used to sitting in my shell, but Ben was good at coaxing things out of me.”
Thankfully, their extensive work back home in London allowed the record to click into place. “We wrote the record over a long time,” he explains. “Working out what we wanted it to do, and if we were to do another record how were we gonna do it. When it came to actually recording the thing, that was pretty swift. I was pretty impressed - there was no fucking around!”
Laid down at breakneck speed, Childhood were left with the task of fitting ‘Universal High’ into their stage show. Set to play this weekend’s Great Escape festival – on the Clash stage, no less – fans can expect a brass section and backing singers as the group expand still further.
“It happened unbelievably naturally – almost shockingly naturally,” he insists. “The people we have working with us are so professional, and we’re a bunch of idiots really when it comes to rehearsing! I had my Dad write up the score for the brass section, and the players came in and smashed it – first time. We rehearsed with them once before playing a show, which is kind of amazing.”
In a way, this remark sums up the space Childhood are in right now. Creative and entirely natural, it feels as though they are steadily peeling back the layers of their musical life, exploring those early influences to chart a path forward. You can’t escape childhood, after all – so best embrace it.
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Childhood will release new album 'Universal High' on July 21st.
Catch Childhood at The Great Escape this weekend - tickets.