Belfast trio Chalk onstage at Left of the Dial in Rotterdam
Credit: Julia Mason

IN CONVERSATION: Chalk at Left of the Dial festival

Belfast trio Chalk are ending 2023 year on a high, shortlisted for both the BBC Radio Ulster ATL Artist of the Year Award and the Single of the Year with ‘Conditions‘ as part of the Northern Ireland Music Prize.

Chalk are Ross Cullen (Vocals), Benedict Goddard (Guitar, Synth) and Luke Niblock (Drums) and as they were performing at Left of the Dial in Rotterdam I jumped at the opportunity to sit down and learn about a band that was unknown this time last year.

Are these gigs at Left of the Dial your first outside of the UK and Ireland?
Last night in Utrecht was our first ever headline outside the UK but we’ve played a few festivals this summer.  We played Beauregard in France, Chelsea festival in Vienna, Reeperbahn in Hamburg and Misty Fields here about a month ago. So we’ve dabbled a little bit, and played a few European shows which is cool.

And what’s the response been?  Do people know your music?
Beauregard in Normandy is a really big festival and we were on the main stage.  We never thought we’d play as big a stage as that, maybe 10,000 people. A lot of them were there to see Indochine, a popular French band who were on after us, so a lot of those guys probably didn’t know us. I’d say about 99% probably didn’t know us!  But that was just its own experience, just watching this sea of faces. But they were so welcoming and so accepting of the music. The Netherlands has been really nice. So yeah, we feel like we’ve got a bit of love and response from the audience.

Just to go back to the beginning of Chalk. You all got together from being at university.  Is that right?
Yes, we all studied films together in Belfast.  I met Ben first and I knew he played guitar and I’d been drumming for years. So basically, we decided we should get something going. And then we knew Ross who was on the course with us but we hadn’t really spoken to him much.  He had a Gilla Band (fka Girl Band) poster in his room, and we were pretty sold. If he was into Gilla Band then this is someone we can talk to about music.  It kind of just went from there, just us three chatting about music.  It’s changed a good bit over the years, and we finally settled on something that feels like us.

And has that taken a bit of time?
Yeah, we’ve been annoying everyone by just waiting forever! Trying to perfect the songs.

Now that is really interesting, and it obviously worked because the first single ‘Them’ came out in March 2022 and you just got such a great response straight out the blocks.
Yeah there was a lot of back and forth. And with that first single we put it out on a bit of a whim because we didn’t really have any other songs that were completely finished and ready to go. We just put that song out there as a bit of a kick up the arse, so to speak. And I think it gave us that fuel we needed to succeed with radio play. To see Steve Lamacq get on it we were like, okay, hold on, we can do something with this now. That was the catalyst just to get us going and really start knuckling down and writing stuff we want to write.

With that being your first single you must have been delighted.
It was weird because we didn’t gig either. We thought it was good, you know, but we didn’t really get to like litmus test it or get a gauge of it. We just kind of put it out. So I mean, we didn’t really know what to expect.  We’d never played it to an audience live, because it was during the pandemic. We were just saying that our first ever show as Chalk was just a year ago supporting PVA in Workmans Club (22 October 2022).  We still haven’t gigged that much, if feels like we’re making up for lost time, we’re playing like loads more, but it’s only been a year, which is mad.  It’s still only about 20 something gigs, early 20s or so. I think we’ll hit 30 by the end of the year. It’s still fresh, you know, it’s school, we’re learning things every day.

Just off on a bit of a tangent here but just on the gig front, I just can’t believe that Chalk played in Chalk (The Great Escape, Brighton May 2023)!  And it looked incredible, and the EP Conditions had just come out.
We played Glasgow the day after the EP came out, and then The Great Escape was basically that week, so yeah, it was just kind of riding a bit of a crest of a wave that week.  It was really good fun. The Chalk show felt like a turning point for us.  100%. It was like I don’t know, maybe our 7th or 8th gig?  It’s just been a bit mad. We were very much like that for a lot of our stuff, we kind of just like sink or swim.  We find its best for us to just kind of go for something and see what happens.  So that was again like no real time to find our feet, we just kind of see what works.

So when you’re playing The Great Escape how is the venue you’re in decided?
Our agent handles that and they did well, and played up that Chalk in Chalk thing.  James and Natasha of Mother Artists, the Enola Gay guys also work with them, they’re just amazing agents. They just care so much about their clients it’s almost parental, you know, the way they look after everyone, it’s like a mum and dad.  They really want the best for every single person they work with.  We felt that right from the get go with those guys. I mean, we really had no idea.  That’s why we just put out a song because we didn’t really know like, this is what you do. In retrospect, you should probably have, like a six months release strategy but we didn’t know anything.  We were just making up for time afterwards.  We’re been very lucky we’ve been able to work with some good people that have been able to put the music in front of the right people. So then it makes it easier for us, we just have to go out and play. It certainly helps with that side of things, totally.

What is the creation process for your music? How does that come together?
Mostly bedroom project logic is a good starting point.  You know like working with drum loops and guitar and synthesiser. We used to sort of try and work stuff out in the room, but now it’s more just creating demos in the room. And then working on the loops, working on the live drums, maybe like a vocal line comes from that. We all share the role of writing the lyrics as well. Sometimes, I’ll write a couple of lines then the guys jump in or maybe Ben will have an idea of what the song should be about. And then we just flesh it out live. We work with our producer Chris Ryan (also plays in his own band Robocobra Quartet), who’s really great for feedback and stuff. He has been so important for us, like even just giving us confidence, with the song-writing ability and performances, as well. He’s kind of like our George Martin!  We discovered him through Just Mustard and NewDad in Ireland, and that was where the influence was for us, and finding Chris it just made sense for us.  Chris liked the first track and it just went from there and now Chris is someone we want to keep working with.

Had you approached him initially?
We sent him a demo that Ross had put together and he was really on board right away, which was so exciting for us because we were like, oh my God, this guy’s the producer we really want to work with. Even though he just lives around the corner in Belfast. And now he’s someone we want to continue to work and build with moving forward.

With the single ‘Asking’ can you just share a little about the theme of the song?
We always like to just leave it up to how the audience want to feel about it. I think we’ve all got our own personal sort of attachment about what it is.  It’s heavily inspired by the film, Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders.  There is a shot in particular with this angel looking over the people of Berlin in this beautiful black and white frame, and he has his head on his shoulder. That line came from that and maybe it’s kind of approaching that lost friendship of sorts.  But that maybe will reconnect with in some way.  We all have that kind of person in our lives, whether it’s a friend or a partner, whatever, maybe. So it’s just exploring that idea, people get lost on the way a little. There is a mental health element to it too but Wings of Desire was a huge influence on all of us now. It’s an incredible movie. You know, that’s where a lot of our song-writing come from just watching images on screen and just trying to write something based on that.

Obviously that’s how you met, studying Film, but does that still inform your songwriting?
100%.  It’s hard not to be inspired when you watch a film like that. That song was pretty easy to work out the theme for, and get ball rolling with it. Yeah, it was just the first line came about and then it was okay, well, that’s what the song is about.

It’s a little bit different to have you all contributing to the lyrics. There are no rules, of course, but your lyric writing is more collaborative
We each kind of like proofread it, you know. Maybe we’re recording it in the studio, and one of us might say, we’re not sure about that word or this and maybe try this line. We’re so open in the studio. But if we all feel good about it, then that’s the line that stays.  I mean we’re very flexible to be honest and it’s usually the last thing that’s added.  They are the final touches, but I’d say we’re still finding on feet with a load of stuff. It’s also on a song-to-song basis I suppose with some stuff as well, because we’re still so early on.  I don’t know that our tried and tested method is completely solidified yet, but yes it’s collaborative. It’s most certainly the most like collaborative aspect, the song-writing. The best example is probably ‘Static’. The lyrics were really annoying us for weeks trying to find the right sort of lines for that. So that was probably the best effort between us all just trying to get it right.

The EP Conditions came out in May so looking forward have you any releases on the horizon?
We have a new project on the way so hopefully trying to get another couple of songs out so we’re in the middle of that. We really want to get one out, we don’t want to have this big gap between releases so we want to try to get one out as quick as we can.  There is another EP mixed mastered and ready to go.  It’s just a case of working out the dates. So you may hear about it in a week or it might be a couple of months! With this EP these are songs that we got to play live before recording them.  For the first EP we’d never played live before, we just went in blind.  With this one we got to play them live and gage the reaction from the audience. It’s a different experience putting this one together.  We can’t wait to see what people think of the studio versions.  We just want to get them out.

And you are so well looked after here at Left of the Dial.
I just think it’s a European thing. In the UK it’s like “just go in, see you later”.  Here it’s constantly “what do you need?“.  We were at Misty Fields, another Dutch festival, and it constantly, another six pack of beer, another six pack of beer. They just really respect musicians as a career choice and its really nice to hear that.

It’s an important message to get out at the moment. 
Yeah, absolutely. The bands know as well that coming compared to the UK is so different. And its not about the gigs, we love playing to UK audiences, it’s just a different vibe.

And final question, is there plans for another tour soon?
Yes early next year, around springtime we’re hoping to do another UK tour.  The dates are pencilled in, they’re just not announced yet.  Hopefully they’ll be out in the public domain in the next month or two. We can’t wait to get out again, playing some bigger rooms in the UK. We should be playing some rooms that we love and that are really cool, and we should be dotting around a bit so that should be nice. We are so excited to get out again in a van and just play.  With these shows we’ve been playing weekends, weekends, weekends in the past couple months. We’ve been flying everywhere recently and we’re ready for the van again, and just sweat it out.  About 10 shows in 12 days.  We can’t wait……..

Chalk play:
15 November – Ulster Hall, Belfast at Northern Ireland’s Music Prize)
13 December – upstairs at Whelan’s, Dublin

For more information on Chalk please check out their facebook and instagram.

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