For the second column in a row, I’ll begin by writing about my first meeting with an artist and close with what they’re up to now. It is November 2009 and the amazing Prego (later Union Sound Set) are headlining a battle of the bands competition at the Regent Theatre in Ipswich. I have gone along to catch up with them having witnessed them perform a perfect live set on our programme just a few days earlier. I am also there to see the 4 acts competing on the night. 2 have already caught my ear in recent weeks. Metal band Echoes Fall are threatening, intimidating, angry and sweaty. This Boy Wonders are delicate, soulful, bluesey and very promising. Surely one of those two acts will leave with whatever the prize is on the night. Alas, neither triumph. What do I know?
I briefly spot the frontman of the latter band, Chris Athorne, among the crowd and we talk face to face for the first time. I thank him for sending his music our way. He thanks me for getting the songs on the radio and tells me about the band’s next gig which I promise to be at. I go along and less than 4 months later, we are on the road with our live show at the same venue. It is the Fleece in Boxford, where Chris and This Boy Wonders reside. There is plenty of love in the room for the band, who treat us to a triumphant set. Just over a year later the band plays Liverpool’s legendary Cavern Club, followed by the Reading and Leeds festivals. All of this ahead of the release of a self titled album in 2012, which is another significant step forward following a series of impressive EP’s. But by early 2014, This Boy Wonders are no more. I am sad, for now. But what comes next is Chris’s best work to date.
Now based in Brighton, Chris has been writing and performing under the name Oktoba. His debut solo album, Smoke Signals, which was released in October, is as magical as the best images and tastes that the month itself can conjure up. The leaves change colour, fall to the ground, and make a beautiful, crunchy blanket to walk across. Roast dinners, Red wines and roaring fires. It is hard to pick a standout song from an album of standout songs, but the title track and opener is simply wonderful. You to me is also exceptional (but then it all is, I’m just picking out personal favourites here). Tongue Tied and Wind Fire Water Stone complete my top 4. The former of those has an excellent video (captured by Dean Waite) to go with it, as it is the first single from the record, which was recorded with Tim Bidwell at The Clockwork Owl studio in Brighton’s Kemptown community.
There is a fine line between such beauty and tragedy. Chris lost his biggest fan and his father, Nick, at the beginning of the year. I enjoyed the privilege of a conversation with Nick at the aforementioned This Boy Wonders album launch. I’ll never forget how he rightly spoke with such pride about his son’s work. Chris says: ‘With the little bit of money that he left me I decided I would put it towards making this album the way that I wanted to make it.’ Dad would have been, and will be, immensely proud Chris.
‘One of the great things about working with Tim, was that he has a list of incredible musicians that he’s able to call upon to work on the tracks. So I ended up working with some of the best musicians that I have ever had the joy of working with. I feel very lucky to have met and recorded with the artists that I did for Smoke Signals, and no doubt we’ll all be working together again on the next one.’
As well as working great musicians, Oktoba has been gigging in some great locations, namely Chicago and New York. ‘I was visiting Chicago and New York on holiday and felt that I would try to take the opportunity to get some shows whilst I was there. It’s been a dream of mine to play for audiences in America and I was determined to make that a reality. One of the Chicago shows was for Sofar Sounds, a world wide music community that puts on shows at secret location and venues around different cities. I have already been part of some of their shows in England and they really support returning Sofar artists. That was a really amazing experience. Playing on a rooftop terrace to 60 people sitting on the floor overlooking the Chicago skyline, that was pretty special. In New York I played at The Rockwood Music Hall. A really well known venue to the city that has seen so many incredible acts pass through it.’
Well, it has now seen another one. For classic Americana and alternative folk, Oktoba and Smoke Signals is essential listening.