Doing it for themselves

By Joanna Hunkin

They learned a valuable lesson in London but The Checks are happy to be home. They talk to JOANNA HUNKIN

Sitting outside a pub on Auckland's Vulcan Lane, Edward Knowles and Callum Martin decline the offer of a second beer. They have soundcheck to get to.

Across the cobbled lane, the windows are being replaced at Cassette Number Nine, the bar which hosted The Checks' album launch - playing every track in order the night before. It had nothing to do with them, the boys protest, hands in the air. But it was a good night. It's always a good night when the boys are on home turf.

That evening, they were to return to another familiar spot - Takapuna Grammar - where they played a gig in their old school hall.

"Just like old assemblies," laughs Knowles, the band's enigmatic frontman.

It's been six years since the then-unknown-band used to entertain their teachers and classmates, springing around the school stage, playing the Beatles' Twist and Shout and practising their best Mick Jagger struts.

As they return to their old stomping ground, it may seem little has changed in the intervening years. The five bandmates still live on the Shore, have twice weekly practises at a nearby studio and hang out with their old schoolmates-turned-musicians - the Electric Confectionaires, Brain Slaves (formerly the Coshercot Honeys) and the Veils (when they are in town).

And they still make electrifying, blues-soaked rock 'n' roll - as captured on their diverse sophomore album Alice by the Moon.

Yet a world of change has taken place in that time. Some of which might have left others bitter and jaded, and far too cool to play a small charity gig at their old high school.

But The Checks have long been an exception to the rules, so it should come as little surprise they remain so blithely unaffected by their own success.

The past six years have seen the band open for perhaps more international headliners than any other New Zealand group. R.E.M and The Hives were early fans, giving way to Oasis, The Killers, Muse and more.

It's an impressive list by anyone's standards, but particularly so for a ramshackle group of Shore boys, all aged under 22. Joining Knowles and Martin (guitar) are Sven Pettersen (guitar), Jacob Moore (drums) and Karel Chabera (bass).

"They just seem to like us more than normal people like us," laughs Knowles, when asked if he can explain the phenomenon. "We've been really lucky," adds Martin. "More often than not they've approached us, which is lovely. It blows your mind."

For those unfamiliar with the band's rapid rise to prominence - here's a quick recap:

Already a name on the local music scene, the band caught the eye of Britain's NME magazine in 2005, when they performed at the local industry showcase Resonate. Three months later, they joined the NME New Music Tour in the UK.

With an ever-increasing profile, the boys were soon signed to Sony BMG and in 2006, they moved to London, where they recorded their lauded debut album Hunting Whales, released the following year.

It took longer than expected - much of the material had been around since the band's early days - but that's just how these things work.

"That was England, that's what England does," says Knowles lightly. "We were ready to go but they were like, 'no, wait'.

"You have to record in such a nice studio that they're all booked out. So you're not able to record for another six months."

To promote the album, the band spent most of 2007 on the road and played close to 110 shows throughout Britain and Europe. As the year came to a close, the band were growing tired - and the record company had some bad news. They were ending their contract.

"It's just the way the record industry is," says Knowles with a shrug, "it's all falling apart.

"They let go of all the smaller bands and we were one of them. All the projects went, they just kept the Foo Fighters and JT."

Rather than be dejected about the split, it provided the impetus the band needed to come home. And, says Knowles, they're happy to be here.

"We're comfortable here. It fits our psyche. We go on tours and make records. That's what we want and that's what we're doing."

It also allowed them the freedom to make their second album in their own time, on their own terms.

"In about December, we were like 'we're going to record an album in February. Screw the rules and everything like that, we're going to record an album in three weeks and we're going to release it.'

"And we did and it's awesome so we're going to keep with that plan," he grins. "Just cut the crap and do it."

Alice by the Moon was born from their London days, written (for the most part) in the band's shared flat in Kilburn. They're already mucking around with ideas for a third album.

"We've always been really sure of wanting to do more," explains the curly-haired Martin. "There's no problem with wanting to do more. We're lucky to have a bit of drive in us, a bit of willpower."

But equally, he says, they need to suppress those urges and lock them away for a bit so they don't get too far ahead of themselves.

"We're really happy with the album we've just written. We want to play that for a while.

"It's quite exciting to have a bigger repertoire to deal with. That was the drive in England - to have something else to play at home, aside from tours. Something to keep us refreshed."

The boys are also pursuing other avenues outside of the band. Trying their hand at university and working odd jobs. It's not all that different to their lives before London, with one notable exception.

"We're not chasing after record companies anymore," says Martin.

Knowles grins: "We learned it's best just to do it by yourself."

LOWDOWN

Who: The Checks are Edward Knowles (vocals), Sven Pettersen (guitar), Callum Martin (guitar), Jacob Moore (drums), Karel Chabera (bass)
What: Alice by the Moon, the sophomore follow-up to 2007's Hunting Whales
When: Out June 8
Tour: Bacco Room, Auckland, June 12; Cabana, Napier, June 18; Bodega, Wellington, June 19

- NZ Herald

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