Sound of the suburbs
Elizabeth Sankey, one half of English indie pop outfit Summer Camp, says Zack Morris, the loveable, bleach-blond star of high school television show Saved By the Bell, is one of her main influences. Her thing seems to be 1980s and '90s Americana. 'California Dreams? Yeah loved that show, but the band was rubbish. Hang Time, that was probably the best,' she says.
There's no irony, no knowing humour: she's serious. The Hong Kong-bound Summer Camp may be a pop band, but it's pop from another time. The London-based duo's critically acclaimed debut album Welcome to Condale on the surface sounds like a post-modern, meta-irony hipster concept album, with its imagined Californian locations and characters, and overt references to '80s fashion, music and pop culture. And that's before you get to the Instagram-like blog and music videos suffused with sunny nostalgia.
But Summer Camp's music will strike a nerve with everyone who was or remains a suburban teenager feeling suffocated by the boredom of small-town life. 'Condale isn't a real American place, it's made up, but it's still more exciting than Walton-on-Thames,' Sankey says.
Summer Camp comprise vocalist Sankey and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Warmsley. Friends for years, the duo came together quite by accident in 2009. 'We began with making a few songs just for fun. We covered this song called I Only Have Eyes for You [by The Flamingos] and put it on MySpace under a fake account. We weren't really thinking about it. We had the default location as Sweden and pretended we were seven Swedish teenagers who met at summer camp when we were 14.'
The internet being what it is, within days the song went viral and was picked up by trendy music blog Transparent. After more positive feedback followed the uploading of a few more songs, Sankey and Warmsley came clean and things moved on at a bewildering pace.
'It all happened really quickly. I had never really sung before, and Jeremy had his own music. We decided to put on a couple more songs and then eventually we got management and then started playing live. It's just sort of snowballed,' Sankey says.
There were no plans to start a band: Sankey says she and Warmsley were busy enough before Summer Camp set the indie blogosphere abuzz. Warmsley is something of a music industry veteran - as a solo artist he released his first single in 2005 and to date has two electro/acoustic solo albums under his belt.
Sankey came to music in a more convoluted way, 'I trained as an actress and I wanted to be an actress, but I guess I feel like a performer,' she says. Aside from the dramatic arts, Sankey's recent CV is more telling for her stints as an editor of online pop culture magazine Platform and occasional contributor to the NME.
So was Sankey following in the footsteps of former music journalists who became pop stars, such as Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and NME alumni Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders? 'Oh God no! I definitely wasn't thinking 'Oh yeah I could do that'. It was quite stressful and I wasn't very confident at the beginning. Even writing about music, I didn't feel all that confident. I didn't know the right words to describe, say, a drum sound, I didn't have an understanding of it other than I loved it.'
Despite her dalliances with journalism and acting, Sankey is taking Summer Camp seriously after two years of writing, recording and touring. 'It may have started out as a laugh, but it isn't now. I've always loved words and I've always loved music, so I guess it's bringing together two passions of mine, but I still feel weird when I put musician on my visa application.'
Summer Camp's music has changed a lot since their first EP, Young, was released in 2010. It featured more overt references to '80s pop culture with song titles such as Veronica Sawyer, the name of Winona Ryder's character in cult classic Heathers.
Sankey is loath to put a label on her music and is indignant to hear Summer Camp described as 'twee'. 'I hate the word. To me, twee is about acoustic guitars and singing about your boyfriend. I remember we went for an interview at the NME and the journalist called us twee. I said 'I don't think we're twee' and he said 'Well, stop wearing cardigans, then',' she recalls.
Welcome to Condale certainly isn't twee, the music more grown up. However, the music does take something of a backseat to the quite gloriously elaborate concept of Condale, the imaginary California town that anchors all of Sankey's and Warmsley's stories.
'Condale kind of represents every suburban place where you feel safe, but also really bored and can't wait to get out of. But also you're kind of scared of leaving as you don't know what it's going to be like in the city. The stories and lyrics come from there.'
Sankey admits she found it difficult to write lyrics about herself so she looked for what she felt was a glamorous cipher. 'America is more glamorous. With Condale, we wanted to create a place. We write about characters and don't really write about ourselves. And then we wanted to have a location for these people. Also we're massive geeks, so we wanted to create a whole narrative back story for each character.'
When pushed, Sankey likes to say Summer Camp play 'twisted pop', a description that came from Stephen Street, storied producer for The Smiths and Blur. Despite the obvious hard work and tight control and consistency that has gone into creating the concept, Welcome to Condale in musical terms is much freer and veers from song to song.
Brian Krakow, sung by Warmsley rather than Sankey, represents the best of '80s power pop distilled into three minutes and 11 seconds. Lead single Better Off Without You is upbeat sun-drenched pop with a catchy chorus somewhat at odds with the lyrics of the song. Second single Down is more familiar indie rock and there are the obligatory synth/electro songs that no doubt sound better live than on record.
All the press attention and hype would go to the heads of many people, but Sankey is aware it could all be over as quickly as it began. 'We are artists, but we also see this as our business, so we want to do this as long as possible and be as successful as we can. This isn't perhaps the way people want bands to talk about their music, but I know how much we need people, we need people to support us.'
With some reviewers dismissing them as a hipster fad, Sankey remains humble. 'We're not better than ordinary people, we just happen to be in a band. I'm still very pretentious though.'
Summer Camp, Fri, 9pm, Backstage Live, 1/F Somptueux Central, 52-54 Wellington St, Central, HK$250 (advance), HK$300 (door). For details, go to wegottickets.com