Driving back across the Severn Bridge that connects England with Wales, where Chappaqua Wrestling had been recording their latest album Plus Ultra, the band’s founding members Jake Mac and Charlie Woods had what you might describe as a bit of a moment, listening to the board mixes of the album in the car.
The pair had begun their musical partnership at school in Brighton, aged around 14, following Charlie’s childhood upbringing in the small New York town of Chappaqua (which, you guessed it, would eventually become the band’s name).
First bonding over Foals, their inclinations grew in tandem. They took a mutual interest in the likes of Teenage Fanclub, The Pastels and Manchester bands such as New Order, before they eventually moved to the city themselves for university, drawn to its musical heritage.
Add into the mix the fact the band had gone through some line-up changes over the years, and had largely begun their ascendancy when the world was put on ice by the pandemic and you can understand why listening to the final touches of their debut album on this drive offered a moment where it all felt worth it.
“We were driving over the bridge and the sun was coming up – or it was going down,” Jake says, recalling the same worthy tiredness where it doesn’t matter what time it is, “but it was a beautiful landscape. We both thought, ‘Wow, this is the moment’. We’d realised we’d achieved what we wanted, and it sounded amazing. Everything from there on is a bonus.”
With the release of Plus Ultra tomorrow, the bonus is set to roll in. It’s not hard to see why both Jake and Charlie feel a degree of pride – not just in their near-lifelong road to get to this point, but in the sonic substance of the album itself.
The four well-received singles prior to tomorrow’s full-length release provide a cohesive indicator for the rest of the album and demonstrates a band who meld influences into something original as opposed to pastiche.
Fuzzy, shoegaze-y ‘Wayfinding’ is a full-throttle release. The line “It’s the same, God’s sake, can we drive any faster?” screams in righteous anger at the state of the world.
‘Wide Asleep’ and ‘Need You No More’ – the latter written after an intense 12-day session in aforementioned Wales, the product of letting loose rather than hunkering down – have moments of laddish guitar for sunny afternoons, the kind that resembles some of the Creation Records output Charlie and Jake have also always a shared a fondness for.
And whilst ‘Wide Asleep’ presents the paradox of our technological world, as we sleepwalk whilst being ever-connected to social media (“it’s annoying there was zero irony on our sponsored posts for it”, says Charlie), it’s ‘Full Round Table’ that makes the loudest proclamation. It’s unsurprising the track, released in May last year, was both the single put out to announce the band’s signing to EMI, and the opener on Plus Ultra.
Welcomingly angry – especially once its kickdrums and snarling guitars pummel into gear about a minute-and-a-half in – the track kicks against the setbacks of the present, both embracing the challenges of millennial life with a dose of realism (“In fifteen years, will our wages change? / The papers give our hopeless preview”) and refusing to be weighed down by them (“So I don’t care, they ignore what we can do / The papers and the cynics aren’t right”).
Ultimately, both Jake and Charlie are, for all intents and purposes, firmly rooted in the real world, allowing them to sing about modern life with an authentic rage. (Charlie and I began our interview for five minutes without Jake, who’d been looking for a spot to dial-in after work).
In fact, chatting to both of them, as we move to more worldly discussion, is the sort of elevated conversation you might have in the smoker’s section: deep, insightful, at times profound, but never overbearing.
“I stand by what we said on ‘Full Round Table’,” Charlie says. “There’s a lot of false standards informing our generation’s wellbeing; there’re a lot from an older generation saying, ‘Well, I had this at your age, or this was happening’; or it’s, ‘You guys are fucked, do you know that?’”
“And that’s really just making things sometimes unbearable for people. You can’t understate that. I know so many people who are anxious and depressed, everyone does. It’s off the scale. And I think that goes hand-in-hand with the cost of living – it’s just tough to survive, really, relative to previous generations.
“It’s so intense for people, and there’s not enough acceptance of things that make people feel good, stuff that’s just enough to have a bit of self-worth. I think that’s a massive problem for people. I know so many people struggling with self-worth because the standards to achieve that are just so old-fashioned.”
The band’s propensity to think deeply is at the root of their forthcoming album’s title, which is derived from the full expression ‘Ne Plus Ultra’. This Latin term – which was mulled over by Charlie, who studied an ancient philosophy unit at university, and discussed the term with his “massive reader” mum (“shout-out to mum; big, big reader”) – roughly translates into ‘nothing lies beyond’.
Formerly used on old-world maps to warn inexperienced sailors from venturing too far (should they fall off the end of the world), it’s since taken on a new meaning, one of taking risks and charting your own course – a message that seemed befitting of Chappaqua Wrestling’s recent history.
“When we were trying to map together all the grounds that we’ve covered over our journey together, it was all about going to new places and new territories because it’s a journey that we’ve gone through in our lives and then, also lyrically, we’ve gone into new ventures for us that we haven’t touched before, which are a bit unknown.”
Charlie was in fact such a fan of the phrase, Jake reveals anecdotally, that when the band signed to EMI “he tried to change the name of the band to Plus Ultra and call the album Chappaqua Wrestling.”
“The label said, ‘Fuck off, obviously not, you’re too far gone,’” he adds, laughing.
“It also would have been a bit like we’re German Techno DJs called Plus Ultra,” Charlie intervenes, covering his tracks.
That may not have come to fruition but in the band’s history, there’ve been some significant changes that have occurred: chiefly, the line-up. Yet herein lies another tale of patience-testing for Jake and Charlie, to reach a stage where, Jake puts it, “we’ve proper gone up a notch as a fully-fledged band”.
It was only some three years ago when drummer John-Paul Townsend entered the fray – only not exactly, as the pair had known him before.
“We were mates with John at school and just kind of forgot about him,” Charlie explains. “Then we went to a rehearsal. He was working on the desk, and we started a bit of an affair with him – because we were with a drummer before. We saw him and thought, ‘Fucking hell–’”
“Yeah, ‘You’re sick, why didn’t we think of you first?,’” Jake interrupts, “but then we didn’t work with John, for a while–”
“Because he went on holiday,” Charlie adds, the pair hardly noticing how cleanly they finish each other’s sentences. “It sounded banging but he went off to Italy for three months.”
“When he joined, though, it just aligned with our tastes and was very much the right style. He fucking loved the music as well, which is a massive thing and puts so much fire in your belly, puts in a new energy; he’s such a good rock player and is dynamic, he can play jazzy as well. It completely cemented the way for us, I think that was a big catalyst.”
The first result of this new pact was 2020 single ‘The Rift’, which slinks in a similar sinisterness as ‘Wayfinding’. But between the two tracks would arrive another welcome addition: Coco Varda, as a live keyboard, percussion player and additional vocalist.
A friend of Jake’s girlfriend, Coco was the final piece of the Chappaqua Wrestling jigsaw, again fulfilling a long-time musical admiration Jake and Charlie have had.
“We’ve always loved female vocals in all kinds of music,” Jake says. “We’ve always been really inspired by bands like The Sundays, The Cranberries, Mazzy Star, with that soft but very powerful female vocal. And we’ve always loved the contrast of male and female voices back-to-back in tracks.”
It’s there to hear on Plus Ultra’s ‘Not In Love’, as Coco and Charlie’s voices reinforce one another on a track which packs the sentiment of 10cc’s song of a similar name with some of the textured indie-rock of My Bloody Valentine and Jadu Heart.
Subsequent tracks on the album, ‘My Fall’ and ‘My Fall II’ demonstrate the two different levels of power the band can operate on with equal effect – the latter a hushed, Yo La Tengo-like track to catch you as you fall into your thoughts.
Album closer ‘Can I Trick’, meanwhile, is the sort that’s built to be played on a breezy festival day, its stripped-back acoustic played at just the right tempo for a sway in the sun. And it’s such occasions where the band now turn their attention, with “live performances,” Jake says affirmatively, being “the whole reason we do this project.”
“I can’t understate that enough,” adds Charlie. “When you’re seeing live music, you’re not on your phone, you’re with a whole group of people just having time in the present. It’s like going away on fucking holiday, it’s escapism. You’re connected: to everyone around you, to yourself, to your own brain.”
“We can’t wait to play the songs on the album when it’s released. In a weird sense that’s going to be the most important thing. It’ll definitely be the biggest live moment of our lives, because we’ve never played a whole set-worth of songs where the music’s all been released. It’s like engaging phase two.”
“So the next tour is going to be a huge moment for us, and I can’t wait. It’ll be the first time ever that in theory – in theory – everyone will know the songs. That’s such a luxury, and it’s taken us a long time to get here.”
No doubt there’ll be plenty more drives in which Jake and Charlie, on their long road, now flanked by John and Coco, where they’ll be having what you could call a bit of a moment.
For a full list of show dates to catch Chappaqua Wrestling, visit the band’s site here.
Plus Ultra is out tomorrow, 14 April, via EMI.