“On the back sleeve of the new record, I’m holding a Stratocaster,” grins Danny Wilson. “A friend saw it and said, ‘Woah, a Strat… Controversial!’ Yeah, too fuckin’ right! I wanna play a Strat, and I wanna plug it into a valve amp, and I wanna play music with my friends, and we’ve got a sax in the band, so let’s have a party. We can play all night, if you want. That’s what I love.”
The choice of this particular guitar is by no means random, and signals a number of profound changes for Danny and his Champions Of The World with their third album. First off, the current line-up of the Champs is very different from the line-up that recorded their 2008 eponymous debut album and its 2010 follow-up, Streets Of Our Time. Whereas the Champions Of The World were originally a loose and chaotic collective of like-minded souls – so loose and so chaotic that, at any given gig or session, you couldn’t accurately predict who exactly would be performing alongside Wilson – this new incarnation of the group is a proper rock’n’roll band, wholly and entirely committed to being the Champs.
Wilson admits that the ever-shifting format of the Champs’ former incarnation was a reaction to the decade-and-change he’d spent playing in Grand Drive. Formed with his brother Julian from the ashes of their previous group Soul Green, and featuring old friend Ed Balch on bass guitar, Grand Drive were, Wilson says, “very much a ‘proper’ band.” He’s too modest to say so, but Grand Drive were also a remarkable band, locating a fertile delta of rock’n’soul in their South London rehearsal rooms, and sharing their gift for country-fried, sometimes-psychedelic, always-soulful rock music across five sublime full-lengths that wore their love for Springsteen, Neil Diamond, Al Green and the rest of a rich, deep and wide constellation of Americana proudly and profoundly.
Wilson formed the Champs almost by accident. With Grand Drive on indefinite hiatus, and following a joyful solo performance at Oxford’s Truck Festival in the Summer of 2007, Wilson and a bunch of friends recorded an impromptu session at a studio on the farm where the festival is based. The session was successful enough for Wilson to cut an album with his Champions Of The World, and take this fluid unit on the road.
“I felt like, hey, I don’t need to do the whole ‘we have to rehearse’ thing to be in a band,” remembers Wilson. “I was freewheeling, entirely, and I loved it. It was exactly what I needed at the time: making music, making friends, going up onstage and not really giving a fuck who turns up.”
The freedom and anarchy of the Champs proved fertile: their second album, Streets Of Our Time, arrived on the heels of the debut; Danny’s ninth album as a recording artist, it was also one of his best. But, as Wilson was to learn, when your group’s as loose and free as the Champs were, it’s difficult to keep it from all falling apart.
“People started taking notice of the group with the second album,” says Danny. “We went on tour with the Magic Numbers, the Drive By Truckers, but there wasn’t a lot of money to pay people. Some nights, we’d have the whole band up there. Some nights, it’d be me, the drummer and the kazoo player. The loose collective was too loose, and it was too hard to try and steer it in the right direction.”
The dissolution of the original Champs, Wilson says, inspired much of the lyric sheet to Hearts & Arrows. “This record is about friendship, and it’s almost a break-up album,” he smiles. “I’ve been with my missus forever, so I’ve never really written a proper break-up song. But some of these songs are sad, emotional, heart-rending… The album’s a mixture of love letters and break-up letters. And it’s a defiant record. I’m not flicking the Vs at anyone, but when you form a new group, it’s like when you break up with someone and then you get a new haircut and a new girlfriend, and wanna show ‘em off.”
Crucially, Hearts & Arrows is a rock’n’roll record. “I love folk music, I always have,” Wilson says. “But I’m so fucking bored of ‘new folk’, and the trendiness that surrounds it, everyone pretending that it’s 1971 again. I wanted to make a totally un-bearded record. My reference points were Black Flag and Bad Brains, Tom Petty and Thin Lizzy, not Nick Drake and Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Forget 1971, this is 1976: Dr Feelgood, Nick Lowe, just great rock’n’roll.”
Be assured, Hearts & Arrows sounds much more alike Tom Petty than Black Flag (who are name-checked on Can’t Hold Back), but it is also the rockingest waxing the Champs have thus far delivered: you can hear it in the hopeful pulse of opener Ghosts In The Wire and the purposeful, melodic hurtle of its chorus, the chiming riffs of the title track and its infectious call to freedom, the urgent gospel-y overtones of You Don’t Know (My Heart Is In the Right Place). The album also harbours some of Wilson’s trademark heartbreakers, ballads and laments… Some of his best, in fact, as the potent mourn of Too Tough To Cry, and his fair-minded, Guralnick-inspired meditation upon Elvis – Colonel & The King – prove.
To best capture both sides of the Champs’ temperament, Wilson worked with two particularly adept studio magicians, men who knew the ground upon which the Champs tread. The album was produced with Tony Poole, once guitarist with Starry Eyed And Laughing, mid-70s rockers of a kin with Nick Lowe and Brinsley Schwartz, a man Wilson describes as “a genius guitarist, who comes from a time when the Hippy-ness of music was coming to an end, and pub- and punk-rock was rising up. I went back to the source of the sound I was after, with Tony.”
The album was mixed, meanwhile, by Ted Hutt, former member of Flogging Molly now better known as one of LA’s most in-demand producers, his CV including key releases by Lucero, Dropkick Murphys and Gaslight Anthem. “Ted’s a punk-rock guy who’s well into his Springsteen and his Tom Petty,” grins Danny. “He brought an edge, and an urgency, to the record.”
The lion’s share of the credit for Hearts & Arrows, however, belongs to Danny Wilson and his Champions Of The World, for their songs that wear your heart on their sleeves, for the timeless melodies played with a glorious desperation, like we’re only moments from the curfew, like this were the sweetest encore ever given. Cos Danny’s got a Strat, and he’s gonna plug it into a valve amp, and he’s got a sax in the band, so let’s have a party. They can play all night, if you want. That’s what they love.
Press quotes for ‘Streets Of Our Time’
“a dusty, wistful sepia-toned postcard from an imagined past, it slots right in between peak Kerouac, Pat Garrett-era Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young” **** MOJO
“Danny Wilson is turning into one of those artists whose work he has venerated – Ryan Adams, Mark Olson, Bruce Springsteen even” **** THE TIMES
“footloose folk music big on soul – a bit special” **** THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
“a timeless collection of songs steeped in soulful nostalgia” **** THE SUN
“fragile and rootsy with real depth of feeling” THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
“the real thing – they are the champions” **** Q
“lovely, improbably elegiac stuff” **** UNCUT
“a great unsung country hero” – THE MIRROR
“A rousing, hypnotic affair” – **** BIG ISSUE
“country-hued, clankety banjo and lilting lapsteel catchiness” THE GUARDIAN
“Danny shows passion for the trail and the road is wide open” **** THE INDEPENDENT
“a joy for fans of bittersweet, deftly underplayed, but hugely heartfelt countrified soul pop-cum-Americana” TIME OUT
“tremendously human… an uplifting uproar” WORD
“it would seem fair if Paulo Nutini now held the door open for Danny & The Champions Of The World” **** THE MAIL ON SUNDAY