We instead natter about the things that would have otherwise echoed throughout all the empty boozers across the land – football, politics and well, pubs. We rattle off a list of haunts local to the band, now based in Whitechapel, East London, before one pub crops up that holds significance. “There’s a pub by the water called The Prospect of Whitby.” Duffin recollects. “Just outside that pub, there’s this really tall noose where they used to hang pirates and sailors. It’s an interesting pub that one.”
The Prospect of Whitby is London’s oldest riverside pub, having hosted earlier chroniclers of every-day London life such as Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys. It’s also where Hotel Lux shot their music video for 2017 break-out “The Last Hangman”, a song depicting the enigmatic 20th-century British hangman Albert Pierrepoint. Duffin still appears stunned by the synchronicity. “It was absolutely perfect. This pub was literally around the corner from our flat in Wapping and we were in there one day and we just noticed the noose. We said we have to film the video there.”
“The Last Hangman” is reflective of Hotel Lux’s other early releases “Envoi” and “Daddy” that caught attention; songs built on irresistibly mythic characters, most notoriously, the unsettling pedophilic character in “Daddy”. These grand sweeping tales are backed by swirling sounds that grow to a rousing chaos: Sam Coburn and Jake Sewell’s bluesy roots rock guitar lines ping and permeate, Cam Sims’ bass taunts and dominates and Craig Macvicar’s drums prance and trot before bursting into unsolicited gallops. When the jaunty keys and organ sounds reminiscent of The Doors and Dr. Feelgood get thrown in by Coburn, the music becomes almost mesmeric.
“The Last Hangman” and “Envoi” were crafted in Fareham, a market town just outside Portsmouth where they grew up. When asked how they all met, Duffin skips over his, Coburn & Macvicar’s first band Clues, insisting “they mostly tried to rip-off The Clash” and mentions they knew Sims from other bands playing in Portsmouth and Duffin knew Sewell from college.
However, despite being south coast made, Hotel Lux were always London bound. Duffin elaborates on their game-plan: “We were moving up for university and there were bands at the time that we really liked – that initial Windmill phase of bands HMLTD, Shame, Sorry, Goat Girl … For the first few months of Hotel Lux we were just called ‘London Band’. I even created a playlist that I sent to them and said we should sound like this. It was Dexys Midnight Runners, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Specials, The Pogues and The Kinks.”
They moved into a place in Wapping, London together at eighteen and immediately slipstreamed into the bludgeoning Windmill scene. “For our first two gigs we were supporting HMLTD and the third gig was actually at the Brixton Windmill,” Duffin tells me. As they ratcheted up shows in the capital, across England and in Europe playing alongside Shame, Slaves, Black Midi, Yak and others, Hotel Lux began recording what would eventually become their recently released Barstool Preaching EP produced by Dave McCracken (Ian Brown, Sports Team and Pip Blom) and put out by Nice Swan Records.
Barstool Preaching, Duffin admits, is drastically different from those early south coast tracks; towering macabre tales are eschewed for more personal and relatable material – songs about love, nights out and being in a band. “Recently every time I write a song, maybe it’s not directly personal but it’s a caricature of myself put into it” he tells me. “It’s weird how it went from writing these big stories more into the characters.”
The songs radiate youthfulness but Duffin’s precision-like lyrical scalpel ensures it maintains the mature, theatrical and visual edge that the earlier songs possessed and as a result, the songs now feel even bigger. Huge nights out and failed relationships feel almost mythic as the music maintains the sense that it’s on the edge of chaos, especially during opener “Tabloid Newspaper”, “Eddie’s Gaff” and “Loneliness of the Stage Performer”. It’s music to while away the night to, drinking, singing, dancing and only remembering parts of it in the morning.
There remain elements of those bands on the ‘London band’ playlist in the instrumentation and vocals, but other sounds leak through; Brit-pop pub staples such as Blur, Pulp but most notably The Libertines and Pete Doherty. “I always listen to Pete Doherty when I struggle for lyrics,” says Duffin. “He’s got everything, great lyrics, great melody and great hooks.”
The five-track EP culminates with “The Ballad of You & I”, an accomplished recounting of being dumped, filled with great lyrics, great melody and, you got it, great hooks. It rattles with the raw energy of those potent first releases; balancing it with the richness of blazing horns and organs oozing seaside nostalgia that build to the cathartic finale reminiscent of early Beirut or The National. Duffin sees “The Ballad of You & I” as the shape of things to come. “It’s definitely my favourite song on the EP,” explains Duffin, “and I think musically that is the sort of song that we would like Hotel Lux to be writing – that sort of vibe.”
The band toured the EP prior to release, playing throughout England and finished up the tour Mid-March in France. However, despite the tour’s triumph, it felt like a Pyrrhic victory. “We found out the day before the last day of the tour in La Havre as we came offstage that South by Southwest was cancelled [due to the coronavirus pandemic],” says Duffin. “That was really awful. We never played America before and as I’m sure you can imagine getting a band over to America is expensive. We had done a big fundraiser for it and everything.”
Hotel Lux’s last live performance, the aforementioned SXSW fundraiser, was 13 March 2020 at the Brixton Windmill played to a thinned-out crowd as the capital began to recede into their homes. The band joined them shortly after and have been in self-isolation since. It could have left them in suspended animation, unsure what to do, but having toured the EP prior to the release, they felt ready to move on and kept the release date of their EP, happy to share it with all those wanting to swap the feeling of lockdown for one of a lock-in.
With the EP out and already pleased with its performance, Hotel Lux are now using this time to plot the next step. “We want to record and release something bigger as soon as possible,” says Duffin. “Like an album…The couple of songs that have come already are a progression from Barstool Preaching. Definitely, they are the next step-up in quality”.
Throughout his recounting of how Hotel Lux crafted their own niche in the flourishing London rock scene still all at the age of 22, Duffin makes an off-hand comment of what Hotel Lux is to him, taking account of their developing and changing sound, fiercely proud of their early material but cautious for the future: “Hotel Lux is just a series of things I wish I could do again.”
It catches me off-guard and for a brief second it feels like we are talking about pubs again. But like the vacant pubs that Hotel Lux’s music is made for, we eagerly await whatever comes next and hope we can, as they put it in “Eddie’s Gaff”, once again “Dance all through the night / Listening to that Dexys Midnight Runners tune.”