The Pokédex defines Gengar as ‘a ghost which steals heat from its surroundings. If you feel a sudden chill, it is certain that a Gengar appeared.’ Apparently Gengahr, the dream-pop four piece from Dalston (note the extra ‘h’), share more with their eponymous Pokémon than just a name.
‘We are always looking to create an endothermic atmosphere,’ laughs bass guitarist Hugh Schulte in the alley behind the Exchange, a few hours prior to their show that evening.‘ But the name was nothing serious. It just sounded like a cool word,’ he mentions in a grown-up voice, before adding with a nostalgic grin, ‘and it is the coolest Pokémon.’
‘We’d have looked a bit silly if we’d called ourselves ‘Clefairy’,’ pipes up drummer Danny Ward, who with this quipped comparison unwittingly plunges into the nerdier depths of the Pokémon universe: a popular conspiracy theory goes that Gengar only exists as the ghastly shadow of the more effeminate Clefairy.
Funnily enough, the dichotomy between light and dark created in the juxtaposition of these two Pokémon is crucial to the output of Gengahr (the band) too. ‘We love to mix the light with the dark,’ says Danny, indulging the awkward non-sequitor. ‘It’s fun when the music is joyous and happy, so we can give it a darker spin lyrically- and vice versa. It’s a good formula.’
It’s a well-trodden formula too, the blending of happy backing with darker lyrical undertones; think ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ by The Smiths or Foster The People‘s ‘Pumped Up Kicks’. Gengahr’s song-craft ,however, is coloured by a remarkable eeriness that has attracted critical attention.
‘We try to incorporate lots of contrasts and try not to be too obvious,’ elaborates Hugh. ‘Felix [Bushe, singer] writes all the lyrics. They’re all narratives, he doesn’t like to write directly about his own life, they all emit a weird, fantastical kind of vibe.’
It’s reassuring, given the grisliness of his subject matter, to hear that Bushe’s lyrics don’t draw from personal experience. Nestled fabulously behind warm, sunny melodies, the standout tracks from Gengahr’s debut long-player A Dream Outside share ethereal topics: ‘Fill My Gums With Blood’ is a tender love song to a vampire, and ‘She’s A Witch’ and ‘Dizzy Ghosts’ are dedicated to similarly spooky muses.
Due in no small part to this formula, A Dream Outside received near-unanimous praise from critics and fans alike, kudos which the band shrug off with consummate modesty: ‘You never really know how things are going to be received,’ says Hugh.‘We were confident with it, we liked it, but it was a really nice feeling to think that people liked it too.’
‘We had no idea what to expect really, first album and that. It’s kind of a surprise, but ultimately it’s… top banana!’ Danny adds, ever insightful.
The effects of this great critical response have trickled into the band’s live shows too. Hugh posits that ‘at gigs people know the material more thoroughly, so it’s much more fun for us because we’re not just trying to showcase things any more, we’re just trying to bring people what they already know and like.’
With great success, though, comes great responsibility, and the strong reception of the band’s debut has brought a degree of pressure to their performances. ‘People expect the shows to be perfect realisations of the album,’ posits Danny. ‘That can be hard to live up to.’
A few technical difficulties inform this disparity between the record and its live realisation in the early stages of their show at the Exchange later that evening. The mis-managed levels render Bushe’s fragile falsetto too delicate for John Victor’s warm guitar lines, and opening tracks ‘Loki’ and ‘Dizzy Ghosts’ suffer accordingly.
On the ensuing track ‘Heroine’, which draws rapturous whoops from the 16-year-old NME readers up the front, the band begin to find their groove, and begin to exhibit the acumen which has seen Gengahr draw justified comparisons and support slots to leading guitar names Wolf Alice and The Maccabees– the latter of which, Danny describes as ‘the nicest band in rock’n’roll.’
It is due to bands like these and others that Gengahr remain enthusiastic about the state of the scene which they perpetuate: ‘I think speaking about the medium-term, there has been reason to be slightly despondent about British guitar music. But more recently there has been some really good stuff coming out of the UK. We’re playing catch up with places like Australia, so it’s by no means the best scene in the world but it’s getting there.’
Gengahr are getting there too. They improve continually as they canter towards the clamorous climax of their set, flicking through ‘Lonely As A Shark’ and ‘Bathed In Light’ on the way to the encore of ‘She’s A Witch’– which, incidentally is pretty close to perfect.
And as they strut from the stage, the soggy brows and sweaty walls of the Exchange attest to an atmosphere which has been, contrary to their intentions, positively exothermic.