THE first thing I notice about City Conga before the interview has even started is how accommodating they are.
A few days before the interview is due to take place, I confess to one-half of the music duo that as hard as I may try, I am not a London girl and cannot think of a “cool” enough interview location. Taking pity on my country ways, they email me a location and we sit down to chat in The Troubadour in Earls Court, which is possibly the most indie bar I’ve ever stepped foot in.
In typical “me” fashion, I walk straight past them to the other end of the bar, looking hopelessly lost, until one of them taps me on the shoulder. This is 22-year-old James-Eden Hutchinson, who I will come to learn likes to refer to himself in the third person. He’s dressed like an advert for Urban Outfitters, and I will spend the whole interview trying to match up his aesthetic against his well-spoken demeanour.
He embraces me and tells me it’s “lovely” to see me again, and introduces himself to my photographer, before pointing over to where his other half, 23-year-old Dan Choppen, is sitting. Dan does not get up when we approach him and watches us cautiously, and I instantly notice he appears a lot more reserved than James, who seems eager to please. Dan’s aesthetic is what I call “effortless,” dressed in a simple T-shirt featuring a scene from a movie I am nowhere near cool enough to have seen.
By this point, I’m confused about a lot of things. I’m confused about how these two found each other, confused about what genre of music they belong to and furthermore, still confused about how to operate the Circle and District line.
Firstly though, I want to address where in the world they got the name “City Conga,” and whether they are aware it has the potential to sound like the next dance craze or a strip club in Soho.
Dan admits that they went through a lot of potential names, but the penny finally dropped for him after spending a weekend back home. ‘I thought about the massive contradiction between the city, the business people doing the 9-5 type thing, and students like us stressing about not having a job after uni,’ says Dan, ‘and then I just got this image of all the business boys in like a conga dancing to work. I came back and said to James and he was like “that sounds cool.”’
Cool indeed, and that’s the vibe they seem so keen to give off, so much so that I feel artsier just breathing the same air as them.
James and Dan met when they were both students at The University of Westminster, studying mixed media arts. I nod when they mention this last part, even though I have no idea what such a degree entails. Initially working on their own “soundscapes,” they eventually “jumped in” on each other’s solo work and began writing together. Not only are they now one another’s bandmate, but they also live together and are best friends. How do they work together when they’re always in each other’s space?
Dan explains the creative collaboration process in possibly one of the best-worst analogy I’ve ever heard. ‘It’s kind of like that game you played as a kid called “hot potato,”’ he says, (it should be noted that I never played this game as a child), ‘I’ll have the potato and then I’ll chuck it on to James, and then he’ll add something and then I’ll add something and then the potato is perfectly cooked at the end.’
They admit that their “sound” is difficult to describe, and having seen them perform live, I would also agree. Experimental, angsty and synth heavy, their vibe is reminiscent of The 1975 or The Neighbourhood, without the poppy overtones and the floppy-haired poster boy. I recall being at a recent gig of theirs not being sure whether to sway thoughtfully, whoop like a teenage girl or start forming a mosh pit.
So how would they describe their sound to someone who was approaching it for the first time?
They look at each other as if they’re sharing some kind of inside joke that I’m not allowed to be privy to.
‘We’ve come up with a one liner,’ says Dan finally.
After a prolonged and slightly awkward hesitation, James pipes up: ‘I want to say Dark Renaissance.’
‘Dark Renaissance?’ I repeat uneasily, which perhaps gives the impression that I’m challenging his creative authority because in a moment of insecurity he backpedals and says “I’m not quite sure that fits.
Dan tries to save James from the hole he has dug himself, but that doesn’t go to plan either. “We say dark pop duo because influences range from…it’s weird really because one minute we’re listening to the Clash and the next minute we’re listening to Biggie.”
Biggie? I didn’t see that one coming.
“Yeah, I guess I’m slightly more hip-hop, broken beat more like actually DJing and producing music,” says James.
Who would be their dream collaboration?
‘I mean Kanye West would be class,’ James declares. I didn’t see that one coming either.
‘I just find him so intriguing and interesting,’ he elaborates, ‘and even if you try not to like him, I think his ability to instigate and play around with his image and music and everything that he’s pioneered is just very, very interesting. I’d just love to see how his brain works.’
“Dark pop” aside, they seem to be quite positive individuals. There is a sense of charming awkwardness about Dan and a sense that he would happily give you his undivided attention for hours on end. James is careful with his words and avoids eye contact, so much so that multiple times I wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself or not.
But they are fun and interesting, and to all intents and purposes, just like us regular young folk. They enjoy nights out (Peckham’s infamous “Soultrain” is a joint favourite night of theirs), are partial to a bit of laddish debauchery and despite seeming to have it all figured out, come across as being a bit lost post-graduation.
“Having a diverse range of musical influences is really important. There’s so much stuff out there now.”
Listening to the one song available on their Soundcloud called “Family Feud,” I’m surprised such dark lyrics could’ve been created inside the minds of the two charismatic lads in front of me. Are their lyrics always so dark and damning?
Dan laughs, aware that they’re never going to be asked to debut on a Disney soundtrack anytime soon. ‘I think our lyrics do often take quite dark turns, maybe because of our course. The lecturers were always like “you’re never going to be able to buy your own house,” “you’re always going to be struggling for money,” “you’re going to die alone,” and we’re like “fucking hell.” And then as the course developed, we realised that there’s a lot of shit wrong with the media industry, and I think that’s where a lot of dystopian or apocalyptic blues all stems from.’
The mood shifts and I suddenly want to order an entire bottle of wine to myself. ‘I mean, “Family Feud” is probably the most depressing song we’ve got,’ Dan clarifies.
What’s so wrong with the media industry then, I ask, aware that the answer is most likely “everything.”
‘Fake news’ says Dan, and I subconsciously clutch my notebook tighter to my chest, aware that as a journalist, I’m the creative industry’s public enemy #1.
‘The thing that really winds me up, I see it on my Facebook all the time, is that people believe anything they’re given. People say “oh my God, so-and-so did this,” but I’m like yeah but where did that come from? Billybob’snews.org.biz.za or something saying shit and everyone’s like “oh, it must be real.”’
This is the most animated I’ve seen Dan thus far, and I’m slightly taken aback but also want to hear more of what he has to say about the very industry he’s trying to break into.
James fails to outdo Dan on this one, telling me that we’ve “slightly been sold a lie” by the media, and I think reading too much George Orwell can sometimes be a bad thing in situations such as these.
Despite their differences in just about everything, it is that difference, at its very core, that seems to make City Conga what it is and has acted as a help, rather than a hindrance to their collective project.
‘I’d never think to do some of the stuff [Dan] says,’ James confesses, ‘but then [he] does it and I’m like “wow, I was wrong, that was quite good!” And same with me, I’ll be like what about some bongos here and he’s like “really?” and then we do it. Diversity is important, there’s so much stuff out there now.’
They both seem to realise that they have chosen an ever-saturated market to break into. Are they worried that they’ll never “make it?”
James disappears off into his own world again and seems hopeful. ‘ I guess sometimes it’s a challenge to make any noise at all because so many people are doing it,’ he ponders, ‘it’s wicked now that with like £20 you can buy a little sim thing and you can write an album on it and upload it and two million people can hear it. But I guess sometimes it’s like, you wonder…’
Dan finishes his sentence as it becomes clear James is about to venture off into his own personal monologue. ‘How are we going to get ourselves heard?’
On Saturday night, where they play a live set at The Water Rats in King’s Cross, they appear to answer their own question. Playing to a larger audience and their sound significantly more fine-tuned than the last time I saw them, they seem to be actually enjoying themselves this time, even if James’s interpretation of dancing was a bit dodgy, but 10/10 for comedic value.
Dan clocks me after the gig and admires my “dedication” since I have to make it back home to Kent from here. I joke about being eligible for a free T-shirt, and he says I’m like their “no. 1 fan,” by which he means to say “crazed groupie.” I’m not sure whether now is the appropriate time to tell him that my attendance was a personal challenge to see how much I would need to drink to approach edgy indie boys who play the guitar. I wouldn’t say no to a free T-shirt, though.
Nonetheless, with promises of “plenty” more music and a lit music video to come, the conga line is only just getting started.
WORDS by Georgia Chambers (@Just_GeorgiaSD)
PHOTOS by Robert Bruce (@RobBruceK)