I trek to Cowley for the first time in daylight, excited to see my favourite band for the sixth time. But this time would be different, offering the opportunity of an interview.
No doubt, over the years the Geordie five-piece Little Comets have had it hard, having experienced changing line-ups, being dropped by labels, and, eventually, becoming totally self-sufficient. But after I sit down to interview Rob Coles (lead singer/guitarist) he puts a positive spin on this. As they’ve never had any huge success, they really get to know the people who regularly attend their gigs. The boys genuinely appreciate the support.
The gig begins with an electric rendition of their newest track ‘The Punk is in the Detail’. Released alongside ‘M62’, it demonstrates the band’s practice of putting tracks out in pairs, rather than feel the pressure to rush through enough for an album: one of the many perks of independence. The song, condensed from an original eight verses in length, connects examples from Eastern European immigrants, to the Grenfell Tower victims, and with the chorus line “We are here / Deal with it”, those disempowered individuals become an empowered group.
This is something Rob tells me as we chat:
“The chorus of ‘The Punk is in the Detail’ can be representative of anybody. It was a good one to write. I felt lighter when I’d finished writing it.”
His catharsis manifests onstage. The track’s solemn lyrics initially contrast its upbeat soundscape, engineered by Rob’s brother, guitarist Mickey, which intensifies throughout the performance. By the time we reach the chorus line’s final chants it feels anthemic and universally empowering.
This energy is matched by ‘À Bientôt’ off 2017’s Worhead. It is a track which reflects on ignorant attitudes towards the refugee crisis, drawing on the tragic photo of Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach. Screeching feedback electrifies the room and enforces the vitality which drives the song, as well as the desperation of those it defends.
An unapologetic pride of being oneself resonates with me after chatting to Rob about the particular feelings created by playing in Oxford. Across their oeuvre, Little Comets have many tracks which communicate frustration at societal elitism, buttressed by the culture bred and fostered by institutions like Oxbridge. He insists that “people are people” and that it barely occurs to him when playing to an Oxford crowd. However, it does make him reflect on how studying Land Economy at Cambridge shaped his character:
“It’s a magical place, but you do really feel the weight of the history. At Cambridge, I went backwards as a person. I lost confidence by going there because there were so many confident people and I went into my shell a bit. Many of those students have an enhanced sense of self and confidence from it and, because the next stage they go onto is often as set up in their favour, [they] just kind of go further and further into the bubble.”
Rob speaks of his frustration at the disparity that institutions like Oxbridge can perpetuate, in tracks like 2012’s ‘A Little Opus’. When I remark that there probably weren’t many other Geordies at Cambridge, he touches on David Lammy’s report on state school admissions statistics. He compares his experience as the only pupil from his school to go to Cambridge that year to that of grammar school students who often matriculated with many friends from home.
‘A Little Opus’ always proves popular, but this time my ears prick up after our chat about the Oxbridge bubble. Rob sings “I’d rather starve than become a member of your old boys’ club / Sooner depart than see the ascension of the Bullingdon”. While singing along I wonder how conscious other fans are of the lyrics’ contextual significance. I half-expect a slight undercurrent of self-awareness from students but don’t detect any atmospheric change.
After pondering the need for improving access to Oxbridge, Rob thoughtfully relates it back to his role in the band. Reflecting on the all-male line-up of Little Comets and their support acts he says:
“I think as tours go forward we need more diversity. I had an idea to have people speaking at gigs between bands, like poets to come and read. I think going forward that would be a good one because you never see it and people would really appreciate it.”
Little Comets’ lyrics accentuate this conscious desire for increased artistic and social inclusivity. I notice a subtle shift in the lyrics of 2011 release ‘Joanna’ from “girls with three syllable names” to “people”, once again reflecting a self-managed and self-produced band’s freedom to play with their own material. Artistic independence means there is no reason why Rob shouldn’t be able to achieve these other ambitions.
But as a busy family man, greater diversity has an extra bonus according to Rob; “I think I’d really appreciate it as well because I don’t really go out much!” As a father to five-year-old William and sixteen-month-old Martha, he has often spoken of fatherhood’s influence on his daily routine, lyrical approach, and outlook on life. He tells me this is intensified by having Martha:
“Having a daughter is very different to having a son. The way she will experience the world will be very different to William. She won’t have the same privileges that he has, and he needs to understand that as well.”
This conversation makes the performance of their 2015 song ‘My Boy William’ even more striking. A song that reflects Rob’s hopes for his son’s future, it’s the first time I’ve heard it without omitting the heart-warming recording of William playing with Mickey’s son George. I thought this intimate insight wouldn’t have the same effect played live as it does on the album version; blaring this sweet snapshot into family life into a room full of people is a risk. Yet it remains tender and profound, particularly preceded by Rob describing wanting to protect his son’s innocence; “I cut all the pages from a magazine / So my boy stays true enough to dream”.
Our conversation ends with me asking Rob if there’s anything he would change if he could go back ten years to the birth of Little Comets. His answer is a firm no:
“I wouldn’t be here now and I wouldn’t have William or Martha. When we started we thought we wanted the touring and the success, but that’s just not what it’s about for me. If Little Comets finished tomorrow, it would be saddening but my priority is in the house.”
The Little Comets are a band with purpose and integrity. Their performance was impeccable, and after chatting to Rob I realise they don’t just seem, but are, refreshingly grounded. They genuinely just want to write and play music.