Palma Violets are officially Britain’s “best new band”. These aren’t just our words, but those of the NME (which gave them an award with that very name), the music-buying and gig-going public who love them, and even Ronnie Wood, the Rolling Stone and bona fide rock ‘n’ roll mega-legend.
It’s a tag previously bestowed upon Oasis, Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines. Quite a lot to live up to then, but as we find out when we catch up with co-frontman Alexander ‘Chilli’ Jesson on the road, it’s the furthest thing from the boys’ minds.
Chilli (vocals, bass), Sam Fryer (vocals, guitar), Pete Mayhew (keys) and Will Doyle (drums) have just wrapped yet another soundcheck when we’re passed over to their spokesman Chilli. It sounds like all manner of rock ‘n’ roll ruckus is going on in the background, so we go with something simple.
What’s it like being voted best new band in the UK?
“It’s a very special thing as it’s voted for by the public,” Chilli tells us of the NME crowning. “I always followed [NME] as a kid and read it and so it is the most surreal thing [to be on the cover].”
Surreal for sure, particularly when one of those covers was before the band even had an album out. “The awards were unbelievable,” Chilli adds.
“We met Ronnie Wood and got a photo with him, and he said some nice words about us. And Paul Weller, who we’re playing with soon. I’ve never really been starstruck before, because I’ve never wanted to meet any of my heroes, but then you see people like Ronnie in the flesh and they are fucking wicked guys, fucking rock legends.”
Palma Violets were born in south London’s Lambeth in 2011, making an early name for themselves with tiny shows at Studio 180. These rough and ready gigs, combined with Chilli and Fryer’s co-frontmen duelling, immediately drew comparisons with The Libertines’ Carl Barât and Pete Doherty.
Not only that, but the sound – fusing garage rock with Sixties organ touches to create a shiny sunshine vibe with a rough yet soulful Brit indie approach – set them apart from the synth sounds emanating from just about everywhere else.
Palma Violets 180 album cover
As they played regular gigs at the Studio to a handful of punters – much like the Libs back in their Albion days – word spread. The gigs kept coming, the word kept building, and the hype started to form. Chilli then picks up the story.
“All these A&Rs started popping down – there must have been nothing going on at the time! All these majors were down and all that, and then Domino [Records] came down. We liked them but they didn’t want to do anything just yet.
“Then there was Rough Trade, the label of all time for us. Their roster and bands are our favourite bands – The Smiths, The Strokes, The Libertines. We love them and as soon as we met [label heads] Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee that was it.”
They signed with the label all indie bands dream of joining and soon dropped their debut single Best Of Friends – it was subsequently crowned 2012’s best song by the aforementioned mag. Chilli says it was “amazing, but controversial. Not sure I would have agreed with it”.
With all of this piling on the pressure, first album 180 arrived in February. Hype can be a dangerous thing – how many bands have been the next this or that, released one single and never been heard of again? Were they bothered?
“All this hype comes with all this bullshit and you wonder if you can live up to it. But we felt that it  was good enough and that people would connect with it. And it has worked to our advantage,” Chilli decides.
The album, produced by Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, was a critical and commercial success, loaded with top tunes that most agreed justified the hype and backed up the smash hit single. It also shut up the naysayers keen to cut down the tall poppy.
But the Violets happily shirk being lumped in with other trends and up-and-comers out there right now. And hailing from Lambeth stands them apart from the East End chic that still permeates London’s music scene today.
“No one is from south London,” Chilli says. “I went to Wimbledon Common, I’ve always been in the south. I really, really take pride in that. Even bands from south London call themselves an ‘east London band’, which is rubbish. We have our friends like Filthy Boy and Childhood from down in the south and it feels like there is a whole movement happening down there.”
So proud are the band of their home turf that it even features on the Clash-esque cover of 180.
“It was where the record and songs were born and where everything came from,” he says.
“Nobody knows this, but we were taking it [the cover shot] with a professional photographer and Jeannette from our label was taking pictures for herself. She had one in black and white and we were like, ‘This is better than the professional ones.’ We liked that it was a friend of ours who’d taken them … it made it more special.”
We ask what life on the road for a young band is like, particularly one whose success often sees half the crowd end up on the stage at some point in the gig. Who’s the most probable troublemaker?
“That would have to be Pete,” Chilli offers, half chuckling (perhaps troublemaker was the wrong word to use). How so? “He’s just mental, but in all the best ways. He doesn’t think that much so he tends to get himself in trouble.”
What sort of trouble, we wonder, all sorts of touring hedonism going through our minds. Where is he most likely to be found?
“He’s not likely to be found at all,” Chilli counters. “And if he is found it will be in a ditch or the police station. One or the other of those are the two points of call.” At least it makes it easy to track him down, we offer.
The Violets played the Royal Albert Hall with “fucking legend” Paul Weller last week and have their own show in their native Lambeth at Electric Brixton on April 9.
Then it’s off to Europe, the States and the circuit of summer festivals, one of which gets these lads especially excited, and nostalgic.
“Reading is a real rock ‘n’ roll festival and it’s where I first met Sam,” Chilli recalls. “Yellow 7 was our camping area for like five years. And then when we played it last year, Best Of Friends had not even been released, but all the kids went mental. So fingers crossed, now the record is out, it blows up again.”
And as for that hype: “We don’t care, we just go out and play every night. It doesn’t mean a thing to us – we are here for the rock ‘n’ rollercoaster.” Get on board!
Palma Violets play Electric Brixton. April 9. £12.50+.
Their debut album, 180, is out now. SW7 2AP
Tube | Brixton
Photos: Tom Beard