For a brief moment I feel as though I’ve taken a wrong turn on the way to a music interview and stumbled upon the auditions for the next Hobbit movie. The Strypes are small, skinny and ever so young — average age 16 — and look even younger. These sharp-suited toytown Mods ought to be standing in front of a mirror primping their Paul Weller hairdos and strumming a tennis racquet, not working hundreds of gig-goers into a frenzy.
“Rock ’n’ roll has always been teenagers’ music,” says drummer Evan Walsh, 16. Which would make them the experts. Josh McClorey, 17, is a demon guitarist, working with the rhythm section to keep things tight and fast with just the right level of rawness. It may be strange for four kids in 2013 to be covering Twenties favourite CC Rider and Fifties bluesman Billy Boy Arnold, and singing the praises of The Yardbirds and Dr Feelgood instead of making post-dubstep on an iPad, but they’re not pretending. They sound exciting because they’re excited about this music; it sounds fresh because it really is fresh to them.
They’re an unusual sight, though, racing through songs decades older than they are as well as a fast-growing collection of originals. They’ve already released two singles, Blue Collar Jane and Hometown Girls (on Mercury), and a debut album arrives in late September. The question of whether they’re five-foot novelties or the real deal has followed them in a short career that started with school concerts in their Irish hometown, Cavan, at just 12.
“People get suspicious,” says Walsh. “It seems like young people aren’t allowed to play rhythm and blues.”
We are in the studio in the Sussex countryside where they’re in the final days of recording the album. It’s being produced by Chris Thomas of Never Mind the Bollocks fame. Chris Difford of Squeeze is involved as a co-manager and mentor. Other fans include Jeff Beck, Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, who played with them at the record store Rough Trade East in April, and Elton John, who signed them up to his management company Rocket Music. “He’s down to earth and such a big music fan,” says McClorey. “He’s incredibly on top of the music scene.”
Bassist Pete O’Hanlon, 17, a relaxed fellow padding around in his socks, completes a core trio who have known each other since toddlerhood, hanging out at Walsh’s house and mining his parents’ shelves of vinyl.
“People think we’ve come out of nowhere but we’ve been going properly for a couple of years and known each other for ever,” says Walsh.
Singer Ross Farrelly, a family friend of McClorey’s from the nearby village of Killashandra, signed up in early 2011. He’s still 15 and finished his formal education only weeks ago. A tambourine-shaking wearer of Roy Orbison sunglasses on stage, he has yet to perfect the silent enigmatic cool image and looks as though I’ve put him in detention as he glumly picks at a table during our meeting. He only speaks up to tell me about the final year of his school life: “I never really went in at all.”
All of them have worked hard on their musical education, however. They enthuse about everyone from Bo Diddley to Rockpile in the course of our conversation, with their chief inspiration being the Sixties bands who mined the music of the previous generation to produce raucous rhythm and blues. From playing early Stones and Beatles albums, they moved on to the source material.
“Most kids haven’t heard of Howlin’ Wolf or Bo Diddley. If someone goes out and gets one of their albums because they hear our record, that’s great,” says McClorey.
Is it disappointing to them that they’re alive in this decade and not the Sixties? “In ways it’s better because all that music is there for us to discover. We have our parents’ record collections but also YouTube,” he continues. “Most kids rebel against what their parents listened to. We embraced it.”
One parent in particular is a key influence: Walsh’s father Niall, who was in a guitar pop band called The Fireflys in the late Eighties, is now one of their managers and with them at all times.
“It wasn’t a Svengali dad thing. It was more that he was the only one who could drive,” says O’Hanlon.
Walsh Senior offers advice on everything from staying sensible on the road (they say they aren’t drinkers, and share a bowl of sunflower seeds while we talk) to songwriting. “We all get round with songwriting. The five of us are so tight as a unit,” says McClorey.
But only teenage boys could have such conviction about what they see as a mission to bring guitars back to the charts. Like another staunchly retro teenager, Jake Bugg, they’re awfully down on The X Factor, bringing it up without me mentioning it.
“There needs to be more musicians who have real input into what they do,” says Walsh. “As opposed to the X Factor thing of winning a competition and having all these songs handed to you on a plate. That’s what really gets on our nerves.”
I try my best to get them to admit that they like at least one Rihanna song — no dice. “It’s all so fake and lifeless and very corporate,” says McClorey. It seems churlish to point out that they’re signed to the same major label.
In any case, as Neil Young once said, rock ’n’ roll will never die — and there’s definitely a place in the charts for this music today, especially when it’s being made by such passionate kids. Imagine being 14 this week and discovering this sound as if it’s brand new. Oh, for some teenage kicks with The Strypes.