Real Lies: Frontman Kev Kharas talks north London, memory and music as band gear up for new single and shows
- Credit: Lolly Orbell
One of north London’s best kept secrets, Real Lies are back with new music and a tour. Frontman Kev Kharas tells the Gazette about losing a band member and the inspiration behind his dreamlike songs.
As well as the distant roar of London-bound traffic on the Maidenhead Bypass, Kev Kharas's earliest impressions of the capital - and therefore the stirrings of what would become Real Lies - were formed by watching London Tonight on ITV.
"Newsreel footage of cardboard city," he remembers. "The Stephen Lawrence trial. Crystal Palace players with Streets of Rage haircuts."
At precisely this moment, Real Lies feel to me like the best band in the world. This moment is (for argument's sake) 9.35pm on a Thursday at the Highgate Inn, pretty much the exact point Kev begins explaining just how bad a time he was actually having, or about to have, at the only other precise moment we met.
It was four years ago, October 2015, immediately following a gig to promote the band's first album Real Life at Rough Trade East.
To a new listener, the record sounded like having a crush on London itself and was fabulously easy to get drunk on.
For its creators, despite its often unsettling lyrics and brooding sound, it had mainly been the product of a stream of nights out, happy accidents, excitement and potential.
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Kev was living in Stoke Newington with bandmate Tom Watson, who he'd met in the queue for a club. Their house, on the edge of what is now Woodberry Wetlands in Lordship Road, was largely isolated - a "weird, idyllic spot in the middle of London."
"What the band came out of originally was the house by the reservoir," Kev says. "At the time I was a music writer and we shared a wall. I would be in my room writing about music and he would be in his room making music. We became really close really quickly."
It was in one or other of these rooms that Kev wrote his first song, Deeper, over a backing track Watson and Real Lies' third member Patrick King had put together.
"We used to have parties that lasted for days on end," he said.
"One of the songs of that lakehouse canon was [Pet Shop Boys'] West End Girls, a song that - growing up in the suburbs - has always evoked what London is to me: these grim, romantic, sweeping strings and the sense that when you listen to it you're at the centre of your own film.
"It feels like you're just on the cusp of something. There's that sense of being right at the centre of something but still feeling alone."
No surprise, then, that Real Lies' signature song North Circular shares that cinematic loneliness. Both Real Lies and the Pets have a music journalist for a frontman, which in Kev's case might be why Real Lies' 14 extant songs are so well observed - not just in the sense of observing vanishing youth, nighttime, despair or north London, but in the sense of observing pop music and understanding what is and isn't a necessary ingredient for the perfect record, something Real Lies have made a few times now.
Not long after Real Life came out, a contract fell through at the eleventh hour, severing an anticipated source of income for which Kev had quit his job. He neglected his health, broke up with his girlfriend and began forgetting things. Real Lies made new music but weren't happy with it and scrapped the results. Eventually Watson quit the band altogether.
Fast forward to this wet evening and Kev's clean, in a happy relationship, and excited to share the songs and live show he and Patrick have been working on. A second album will come, eventually, though he won't say when.
The first track from the new two-piece is You Were In Love, a downtempo city lights basement ballad due for release in November. It's brilliant but a little tough to describe: noisy, considered; hip-hop crossed with dream pop, like Saint Etienne lent East 17 a load of novels and remixed the result.
Soon we're talking about pirate radio and hotboxing cars in the suburbs (Kev is cooler than me). Real Lies in fact now curate their own radio show of sorts, Unreal - a custom hour-long mix of other people's songs with the band performing over them - as well as putting on DJ sets under the same brand. A recent Unreal evening in Homerton concluded with a surprise live performance.
"When I was a music writer," he says, "I became a hunter. I was obsessed with finding new music, but it became a profession - something I had to do to live.
"When we started Real Lies I decided I didn't ever want to write about music ever again.
"Since 2012 or 2013 what I've liked most is listening to pirate stations - I prefer the experience of music as something that's transitory. I'd rather not know what it is. I like the idea of something that only exists in a moment."
Impermanence excites him, but it also makes him edgy. Kev was barely through the door this evening before he was asking the inn's manager why there had recently been a closure notice outside.
Turned out it was a false alarm, but there are other pubs and shops north of the Nag's Head he thinks are on borrowed time.
"You can go round London and point out the places that won't be there in a year's time," he says. "There's a version of London that's on the verge of disappearing."
Musicians were complaining about this before anyone had heard of London Tonight. Between 1992 and 1995, Blur repeatedly merged pastiche and elegy into absurd but moving songs about America's creep into Britain: The Universal, He Thought of Cars, End of a Century.
But the menace now isn't Uncle Sam: it's what Kev calls "generification", the erasure of London's communities and individuality that is gradually picking off "anything that knows its audience too well". He gives the example of Holloway Road rock bar Big Red, which shut last month.
Beyond that, he's worried about the disappearance of his own self and the memory lapses he sometimes experiences on nights out. So he's been writing about what happens in those blackouts, wondering where the lost moments take him.
"These things have been preying on my mind lately," he says, "so a lot of the music is about wanting to preserve memory, and that in-between space where I can't tell what's a memory and what isn't."
He adds: "The world of the first album has fallen apart over the last few years.
"London did feel like a place where you would inevitably live a romantic life, with a sense that you were being guided by some unseen hand through life and that you would never really be more than six feet away from a hot, loud, dark room filled with all your best friends having the time of your life.
"Over the last few years that has been shown up for the fantasy that it is, but it has kind of made me feel like that's the world that I should create and protect.
"I find myself wandering around a lot in the rain listening to music and figuring out how to find that world again. I know it's there - I get glimpses of it sometimes."
Perhaps now the goal is for Real Lies to provide some glimpse of that world for other people.
Real Lies will announce full tour dates soon, with a show at the Pickle Factory in Bethnal Green lined up for December 12 before they head to Scandinavia. You Were In Love is out next month.