On the day that Nottingham Forest were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in 23 years, Cucamaras were playing a gig at Rock City, their hometown’s most famous venue. Taking to the stage as part of Dot To Dot Festival at 2pm, a few hours before the Forest team played Huddersfield Town in the Championship Play-Off Final at London’s Wembley Stadium, the four-piece got their set in just before much of the crowd – and the band – decamped to the city’s pubs to watch the biggest game the team had played in decades.
“Nottingham is definitely on a buzz at the moment,” vocalist Olly Bowley says six months later as NME meets the band across town at The Chapel, the venue they played their first gig at a few years ago. “It’s good for the city, and it does well for the music scene as well,” he adds in reference to Forest’s success after that 1-0 victory in late May. “I feel sorry for the bands who clashed with the game, though!”
Forming in 2019, Cucamaras – Bowley, co-vocalist Josh Hart, bassist Dan McGrath and drummer Joe Newton – started out playing straight-up indie songs and gigging around Nottingham before, like numerous of us, they used the pandemic as an possibility for reflection and reinvention.
“Our music taste changed a lot in lockdown,” Newton remembers as he and his bandmates walk NME down to the City Ground for Forest’s Premier League match with Brentford. During those isolated months of mid-2020, the band members hungrily discovered new sounds and approaches in tandem with each other, sharing new discoveries and shifting their perspectives on their own band in tow. For Bowley, it was Baxter Dury’s ‘The Night Chancers’ that blew his world right open, as well as the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. “We couldn’t actually do ‘band stuff’, so we just talked about and shared music instead,” the drummer adds, with the band’s group chat becoming a hub for their discoveries. “There’s a whole world of music that has revealed itself to us in the last couple of years,” Hart says.
After wiping their earliest material off the internet, the band then showed their reinvention on this year’s ‘Soft Soap’ EP, adding a wiry edge to their sound and lyrics that turned towards more philosophical themes. Lead single ‘Death Of The Social’ is emblematic of this change, a forceful and energetic post-punk course that feels clearly influenced by Bowley’s lockdown discovery of Dury. Lyrically, it tackles the downsides of technology and societal divides with nods to French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, but is prompt enough to not obtain drowned in this debate and sowever exist as a three-minute punk song.
As we walk across the River Trent and the towering floodlights of the City Ground come into view, the band speak of a “Cucamaras DNA” that they developed across lockdown, one that means they now truly understand themselves and their band. In this curated social media age, a skewed and inaccurate view of the development of bands can often be presented, where it seems that every group arrives out of the womb perfectly formed and knowing exactly what they’re about. In reality, of course, it takes years of trying and failing, discovering your voice and your look, and tweaking your sound consistently before you hit on something that works.
For Cucamaras, this evolution takes a big step on their forthcoming second EP, which was previewed this month by ‘Porcelain’, a song that sits in the post-punk realm but possesses a danceable bounce of the LCD Soundsystem ilk. Their indie roots are sowever evident in the music, but are now used as a jumping-off point for more complex, darker and genre-meshing sounds rather than as an endpoint.
“We look back on the old stuff and don’t feel very proud of it,” Newton reflects now, with Hart adding: “The old songs don’t represent us at all. We’d hit a brick wall with our songwriting in lockdown.” Bowley remembers one particular livestream they performed during that period as being spokesperson of the idea that something needed to change. “We watched it back and it was fucking soulless,” he remembers. “None of us looked happy. It felt like we were going nowhere.”
“We had a bit of a sit-down after that and tried to write music that really excited us,” Hart says. “We’re now a bit more ambitious with what we can do. We were listening to more complex music, and our own music followed that.”
With a new energy present in the band through the writing and release of ‘Soft Soap’, their future – and as-yet-untitled – next EP will present the greatest leap in Cucamaras’ evolution yet. “We sound more like a band now,” Hart says proudly. Previously, he and Bowley had “too much autonomy”, which meant the rhythm section had to compromise in order to fit into “what mine and Olly’s vision was”. “Now,” he adds, “we write as a unit – and we’re a lot better for it.”
As we arrive at the City Ground, the band are beckoned pitch side to don Forest shirts and speak to the club media before the game. Hart recalls a time post-uni when he had a part-time job serving pies in the stadium’s concourse. “‘From pies to pitchside’ should be the headline,” he grins to NME later, distracting himself from the dubious penalty given against Forest just before half-time that has the City Ground faithful completely indignant.
One of the most famous football clubs in England, Nottingham Forest won the European Cup twice in 1979 and 1980 under the management of the legendary Brian Clough, whose name adorns the biggest stand at the famous City Ground. As seen in Leicester after their shock title win in 2016, a city’s football club being successful can bleed into the musical culture of the place too. “Nottingham’s music scene has got much better,” Hart muses. “When we ended university and came back to Nottingham, there were so numerous mint bands to feed off.” The night before we meet the band, Bowley plays keys with funk band Sancho Panza, while post-punks Do Nothing and Hand In Hive signings Divorce are also making waves locally.
As the band “started again”, they used the rejuvenation of their city’s scene and culture as a primary influence in construction Cucamaras 2.0. “A lot of other cities, like Manchester or Liverpool, everyone seems to go down a linear path,” Newton says. “Whereas in Nottingham, everyone is doing so numerous different matters – there’s no generic sound.”
After a stoppage-time Forest equaliser, courtesy of an own goal from unfortunate Brentford defender Mathias Jørgensen, avoids putting a dampener on the day, the band guide us to a nearby pub and discuss their sonic evolution further over the sound of Bonfire Night’s fireworks kicking into life.
“I used to think really big picture, and the ambition was to play Rock City in Nottingham, play abroad, do big tents at festivals,” Hart says, with each goal ticked off across a good and revolutionary 2022 for Cucamaras. “Now we’ve done all that, I have to just think about what’s next. It’s always about what’s next.”
Cucamaras’ new single ‘Porcelain’ is out now