In an outdoor courtyard located on a major Hollywood studio lot, the London quartet Hidden Charms perform a short acoustic set for a group of music executives, clearly enthralled by the experience. The band appears instantly comfortable, sounds flawlessly tight and tuneful, navigating tricky harmonies, key changes, and instrument swaps like a veteran ensemble. Yet they’re all between the ages of 20 and 21 and have only been performing together as Hidden Charms since April of 2014. There’s clearly something out of the ordinary going on here.
Equally extraordinary is the presence of Shel Talmy, whose music production credits include the greatest hits of British Invasion bands The Kinks and The Who. The picture becomes much clearer when Shel later confides, “These guys are the band that I’ve always wanted to find and never did… until I found them.”
For many bands, such high praise from a recording legend would constitute a career highlight. For Hidden Charms, it is a starting point on the cusp of a career that holds tremendous promise. Hidden Charms are Vincent Davies (vocals, bass, guitar), Ranald Macdonald (vocals, bass, keyboards, guitar), Josh Lewis (bass, guitar), and Oscar Robertson (almost surprisingly, just drums). Earlier this year we spent two very full days in their company culminating with a sold out show at The Lyric Theatre in Los Angeles.
How does a UK band less than a year old find its way to Los Angeles to record with a legendary producer? So far, the band’s path has followed an upward-spiraling swirl of serendipity, opportunity, and hard work. The journey begins with a tweet about the band seen by A&R executive John Zagata of Bullitt Management. John clicked on a link and liked what he heard, so much in fact that he immediately reached out to the band. A series of phone calls was followed by a trip to London to continue the conversation, ultimately leading to representation.
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Hidden Charms began gigging in the UK in April of 2014 with Craig Tarry of Bullitt Management accompanying them on the road. The band was booked early on by John Britton aka “John the Mod” of The Lanes in Bristol. “ I heard Hidden Charms before I saw them and from the opening bars of ‘It’s Time’ it was clear to me that there was something very special going on and the fact they were so young just added to their potential, “ says John. Describing the actual show, he remembers, “It was only their second gig ever, but they owned the stage from the opening song and I knew they were destined for bigger things. The chemistry between the band members and their energy was compelling.” John Britton shot a short video of the song Sunny Side and posted it to Facebook. That simple act of sharing a video on social media set off an astonishing chain of events.
First, the video caught the attention of an individual who scouts new bands for radio play on behalf of Steven Van Zandt’s company Renegade Nation. She shared the track Sunny Side with Chris Carter of Chris Carter’s British Invasion on Sirius XM. Chris was impressed, “I loved them. They sounded so authentic. They had the old soul. I’ll go through 20 bands and leave 19 of them on the floor and they were one of the ones I played.’”
But it didn’t stop at just airplay. Chris went on to make a connection with his friend Shel Talmy whom he had interviewed in the past. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be great if Shel Talmy could work with a band like them because they are so authentic and young. You can’t just learn to play like that. You have to have it in you.”
Chris then brought the band to Shel Talmy’s attention. “He loved them, says Chris. “It happened. He met their management and the next thing you know the band flew over and did 10 songs, old style, live.”
Josh Lewis comments, “It was a joy. When we came out to LA we only had 7 days in the studio and a couple of days pre-production. We recorded 10 tracks. We went out with the expectation to record two or three that could be singles. In pre-production Shel says on day one, ‘I want to do ten!’ which we’d never heard of before. We were all a bit skeptical but as soon as we got in there, the ball got rolling. Everyone had a really great time.”
Shel recalls the sessions fondly. All of the recordings were done live. “I wouldn’t do it any other way,” he says. “I gave them a lecture about back in the 60s, the mark of a really good band is that they could get it done in three, four, or five takes and get in and out of the studio. Only the crappy bands took weeks and weeks to do stuff. So I said, ‘You guys are a really good band. Let’s do it like it used to be done.’”
Chris Carter adds, “You listen to their singer Vincent. Shel will tell me ‘This is the best vocalist that I’ve recorded since Roger Daltry,’ and he’s serious! And I’m thinking ‘Ah, really?’ and then I go back and listen and I hear what he’s saying. You know there’s that old cliché about having an old soul, but these guys really have that. There’s really something unique about them you don’t find very often. Shel‘s right!”
John Zagata of the band’s management team describes Hidden Charms as “creatively self-sufficient,” requiring a producer with whom they could bond and nothing more. This creativity is rooted in a lifetime of musical influences and constant exploration that gives the band its unique sound.
“I hear American R&B. I hear The Animals. I hear The Pretty Things,” says Chris Carter. “Instrumentally I hear different influences than I hear vocally and that’s a cool thing. They have a sound, in the same way that Creedence Clearwater Revival has a sound. You always know it’s Creedence. The Sex Pistols had that. Early Beatles. The Stones. And Hidden Charms has that.” When asked why Hidden Charms is not just a vintage, 60s revival band, Chris is quick to answer: “The songwriting. They wear their influences on their sleeve, but they have the songs. That’s what makes the difference between a great band and an imitation. And talent. That combination of songwriting and talent still works believe it or not. And they’re good looking guys. They have a really good image. They seem to have all the bases covered. But above and beyond everything, they have good songwriting and that’s what will last.”
Shel Talmy concurs, “I heard influences—The Kinks, The Stones, a little bit of The Beatles—I heard 60s influences but different, they were up to date. What really attracted me is the fact that they weren’t copying anybody. Yes there were influences; we’re all influenced by somebody.”
Vincent adds, “I think it’s a mix between the British Blues Boom and, I guess, because we came out here, some of the California surf-garage stuff snuck through somehow: The Growlers, The Allah-Lahs, The Blank Tapes. We like the 60s guys as well.”
“Yeah, The Doors,” says Josh.
“The West Coast stuff, you absorb it,” agrees Oscar.
Band member Ranald Macdonald adds, “I think it’s a bit of a false premise as well what people say about influence. It’s not about what you’re influenced by; it’s about how you’re influenced by it. We like a lot of music. We make music and that’s how it comes out. If we were influenced by a 90s band would that make us more contemporary? It’s all going to be in the past tense. No one’s going to be influenced by the future.”
“As long as you’re trying to be yourself and you are a new being on the planet, it’s as new as anything can be. There’s only 12 notes so stuff is going to go around, and the best stuff is within a certain part of those notes. So of course there’s going to be repetition. Anything that’s entirely brand new is going to sound terrible because that’s why it’s never been done before,” adds Vincent.
The band’s 1960s bluesy influences are in fact what brought the group together. Vincent tells the story, ”In London there was a sort of blues scene going on with about five different bands. We were all aware of each other, we used to go and watch each other, and really it just made so much sense to get together because we were the best ones!” (laughs)
“The whole social scene of it as well was quite important. Eventually when we all got the opportunity to meet up and play together it just kind of clicked,” says Oscar.
The band name Hidden Charms pays tribute to the blues. “It’s a Howlin’ Wolf song, well, Willie Dixon wrote it, but that’s the stuff that sort of gelled us initially, then the name kind of stuck,” tells Josh. “People didn’t like it at first so that made us kind of like it even more.”
Ranald: “People don’t really know the song so it sounds a bit like a cereal as well.”
Shel: “Hidden Charms like hidden talents!”
Oscar: “A lot of people have done a version of it, it’s a very popular song: Link Wray, Elvis Costello…”
Josh: “And that’s cool as well. If anyone checks out Howlin’ Wolf as a consequence of hearing our name, or Willie Dixon and all that magic, then that’s cool by us.”
In addition to having completed a series of soon to be released tracks with a top producer, Hidden Charms has been gaining a following thanks to the appeal of their live shows. “In order to understand us, you’ve got to see us live,” affirms Ranald. “We’re trying to bring it back to music that was very much intended to be live. We don’t use lots of effects pedals or anything. We try to make it groovy and danceable and entertaining. “
Craig Tarry of Bullitt Management comments, “I’ve seen them develop from the very beginning. What they are now, to say it’s like a different band is an understatement. Obviously they’re still the same people, but the way they play, they way they started playing and the way they play now is a natural progression but in such a short time.”
The band has criss-crossed the UK playing “all the nooks and crannies” but has also had the opportunity to support and learn from several well-known bands including Razorlight, Benjamin Booker, July Talk, and The Mavericks in front of audiences of up to 5,000 people at Hammersmith Apollo. Says Craig, “For the guys to be able to stand at the side of the stage or in the audience and watch those acts – that really showed them that level we need to get to to be able to sell tickets. You could see a lightbulb going off in their heads: this is where we need to aim to be.”
Craig credits July Talk in particular for taking the band under their wing. “They would hang around with them afterwards, give them advice. After each show they would say “We love this or that about your set…you should try this… They really played a big part in the band’s growth as a live band.”
Hidden Charms’ drive has also played a key role in their emerging success story. According to Craig, “The guys’ work ethic is amazing. They’re prepared to play anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s to a dog or 10,000 people. What makes my job easier is they’re not precious about it. They’ll get their hands dirty and they’ll all chip in. They’re prepared to get on a cheap coach to Glasgow for 10 hours to play in a small venue there. Everyone thinks touring is glamorous but the reality of it is you’re sleeping on floors or you’re squashed up in a van. You’ve got to scrape around for money or food. It’s not for the faint-hearted. You’ve got to really dive deep into how much you want to be a musician. If you’re not prepared to work hard, you’re not going to make it. The touring game right now is the survival of the fittest. That applies to rehearsing and writing the songs as well. You’ve really got to get smart and creative with it.”
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At the band’s recent live show in Los Angeles at The Lyric Theatre they stayed true to form and gave the crowd an energetic and danceable set greeted by massive applause after each song. At one point, Vincent pauses to express the band’s gratitude, “There really is a legend in the building, and wherever he may be, we love you, Shel. You changed our lives and we’ll never forget that, mate.”
The set is peppered with performance gems from start to finish. “Are you cats ready?” queries Vincent to a crowd clearly hungry for more. Oscar ends a pregnant pause of anticipation with a screaming “Woooo!” before launching into Lady Like You. Josh serves up his best bluesy guitar and searing high notes on Dreaming of Another Girl as Ranald delivers particularly stunning vocals on the same.
One of the biggest thrills at any Hidden Charms show is that the multi-instrumentalist band members swap instruments. Tradeoffs on lead vocals between Vincent and Ranald, the bands’ songwriters, are also part of the band’s signature sound. “Other bands have one instrument and that’s what you play. You get comfortable in that, but the Hidden Charms are always on their toes. One of them will try something new and try to throw the other ones off. That’s what rock and roll is. It’s not meant to be perfect. It adds to the performance element. It adds that extra bit of showmanship,“ explains Craig.
He continues, “At the end of the show, they really let go and rock out. When I say rock out, I mean like a punk band and people’s minds are blown. In a way the crowd gets lulled into a false sense of security and no one expects them to explode the way they do at the end of the show. They usually end with a song called Mona, a very dirty rocker, very Stones-esque. Bands shouldn’t be predictable but at the same time fans will come to know and expect ‘Mona’ with Vincent hopping around the stage like AC/DC, Ranald hitting the keys like a madman, Oscar standing up at the kit, Josh in his own world rocking out on the guitar with his head down. It hits people like a punch in the face. They won’t forget that. It’s so strong. I love the dynamics of the set. I’ve seen over 60 shows and I still go away with my adrenaline pumping. That’s what live music is. If it doesn’t evoke emotion in your body, then you’re not doing your job. Hidden Charms really do pump you up.”
The band’s management emphasizes, “Your work doesn’t end when you finish on stage. You’ve got to go meet your fans. That’s why everyone comes back. The band is like a friend. They feel like they’re all part of a clan.” The band has already been given radio play on major stations Sirius XM, KCRW, BBC Radio 1, and Xfm and has had successful song placement in film and advertising without even having a record released.
Where is Hidden Charms headed next? First, towards a widespread release of new material via B3 Science outside of Europe and on Liverpool label Deltasonic in the UK and Europe. Shel Talmy thinks that “If it all came out as an LP, it would be one of the strongest records in the last several years.” In two years time he predicts they will be, “At the top of the charts several times, I would think. This band, barring unforeseen circumstances, is going a very long way.”
Hidden Charms are, without a doubt, a band worth seeking out and bound to remain hidden in name only.
Hidden Charms Tour dates in the US and Europe including support of AWOLNATION’s European Tour can be found HERE
Photos by Tamarind Free Jones
Special thanks to Hidden Charms, John Zagata and Craig Tarry of Bullitt Management, Cindi Avnet, John Britton aka “John the Mod”, Chris Carter, Shel Talmy, and Tamarind Free Jones for their time and invaluable contributions to this article.