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Nice Guys Finish First: Inside Boy Azooga's Whirlwind Year

Monday, 10 December 2018 Written by Laura Johnson

On Quay Street, a dogleg corner away from Womanby Street, Cardiff’s live music hub, sits the Blue Honey Night Café. During the day it’s a hard hat-friendly, bacon and eggs greasy spoon called Sully’s, but come five pm it’s a fried chicken and beer hangout spot. Directly opposite there’s an alcove that smokers use to hide from the rain when the building’s awning is packed with a motley crew of punters, and it’s here in the spring of 2017 that a local musician called Davey Newington set up his guitar and a kick drum to play some songs.
These days, his portrait hangs on the wall inside the café as part of an ongoing exhibition by Welsh photographer Elijah Thomas. He occasionally DJs there too—a new-found hobby he’s enjoying—but he hasn’t said farewell to his one man band act yet, either. A couple of weeks back he used the same set up, which he calls “Dick Van Dyke-ing it”, to play a gig as part of the Turner Prize celebrations at the Tate Gallery in London. BBC 6Music’s Mary Anne Hobbs stood close by, headphones on, as Anna Calvi prepped for her own performance.
Things like this have been happening to Newington all year, and all because of Boy Azooga. He released his debut LP with the band, ‘1, 2 Kung Fu!’, in the summer off the back of plenty of radio play and some healthy hype. Since then, things have changed. But when he opens the door to his flat a couple of days prior to his outing at the Tate, the kettle’s already on and Newington’s decked out in  a t-shirt from Kelly’s Records—an independent store in Cardiff Market that’s been going since 1969. He says he has plenty of time to talk as he’s left three hours between rehearsals for a hometown show at O’Neill’s the following night just for this.

Newington wanders into a connecting living room busy with music memorabilia—an Avalanches flag from their ‘Wildflower’ LP, Django Django artwork that inspired the cover of ‘1, 2 Kung Fu!’, and an overflowing stack of records home to a lot of Black Sabbath and Neil Young. There’s even a poster for Ty Segall and White Fence’s collaborative album on the fridge. The space is a lo-fi shrine to the musicians Newington loves—he surrounds himself with them, and when lightning strikes for his own music he’s got a rack of guitars near the door ready to go.

He’s now able to reflect on a year that’s been a wild ride. Along with releasing a record, he got a band together, toured extensively, played numerous festivals, performed at another hometown institution in Spillers (the oldest record shop in the world) on Record Store Day, and took his music to the masses with a set on Later...with Jools Holland. To top it all off, a few weeks ago Boy Azooga won the Welsh Music Prize and they recently announced a gig opening for Noel Gallagher at Cardiff Castle. His bucket list is looking pretty good right now, how’s yours?

“Jools Holland was really, really good,” he says, sitting on the edge of a Chesterfield sofa, within arm’s reach of the new Beastie Boys book on his coffee table. “It was great, scary as well, though. I remember when I found out we were doing it—I was stood in the kitchen and half of me was buzzing but I was also absolutely terrified. It’s the big one, Jools. Fully live and everything. That was such a good experience.”

Despite a deep musical background—his parents both played in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, his gramps was a jazzman—and years of graft with Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon, Monico Blonde, Houdini Dax and the Keys (whom he first toured with aged 16), Newington sometimes still feels undeserving of the attention he’s been receiving recently. He confesses to waiting for a tap on the shoulder at Jools Holland, and expecting someone to ask him why he was there.

This attitude won’t be surprising to those who know him. As well as being one of the most visible musicians in the Cardiff scene, he’s also one of the most well-liked. Blue Honey general manager Nathan Whitehead says that Newington is “known as the nicest guy, and he is.” Adam Whitmore, production manager for Sŵn Festival and a longtime friend of Davey’s, can’t find enough synonyms for nice to describe him. He recalls the band’s astonishment at queues for their show during this year’s Great Escape in Brighton—they asked who everyone was waiting for and didn’t for a second believe it was them.

In recent months Newington has been quick to credit Boy Azooga’s success to being in the right place at the right time, and he was concerned that their new-found popularity would be a flash in the pan. Now he is more confident and thinks a little differently, though he regularly downplays his achievements by prefacing them with the word “just”. He makes sure to keep his hands busy, having them close to his face when they’re not fidgeting on his knees. It’s subtle self-deprecation, a habit that is slowly dissipating the more momentum the band gains. “I remember the first Boy Azooga song I put out [Breakfast Epiphany], I was sat at the laptop,” he says. “You wait for comments or likes. It sounds so pathetic, but it’s weird how much confidence that can give you. It’s never as scary as you thought it was going to be.”

In the past, that internal strength has sprung from the “gang mentality” that comes with collaborating with bandmates—us against the world. But the beginnings of Boy Azooga were much more lonely, and intimidating, for a while. These were his songs and his alone, and he was stepping out from the comfort of his drum kit to take centre stage. “It was scary,” he says more than once.

Fortunately, he found help in the scene he’d initially cut his teeth in. One well-needed shove in the right direction came from Aimee Hayes of Cardiff live music publication Miniature Music Press and See Monkey Do Monkey Recordings, Houdini Dax’s former label. Newington spent hours pounding the pavement with flyers to promote the magazine and the Welsh bands within its pages.

Worried he would fritter away his wages, as is the norm for most 21-year-olds, Hayes gave him two options of payment for his work: cash in hand or money towards studio time with local producer Eddie Al-Shakarchi to record the songs she knew he had been coddling for years. He went with option two and began a relationship with Al-Shakarchi what would later develop into ‘1, 2 Kung Fu!’.

“We just started with really basic demos,” Newington explains. “Some of the songs on the album started off as literally a one minute loop. I was just testing out ideas. But it was really exciting because before that I only ever really demoed my songs into GarageBand and I didn’t really have any means to flesh out the ideas any more. Ed has a home studio and has all these keyboards, guitars and infinite sounds—it was like a kid in a candy shop. Like ‘Fucking hell, I can throw anything at this now.”

“I think that was part of the making of the album,” he continues with a big smile on face, something that is present throughout. “I was just so excited to be there. ‘Try this! Try this!’, and he would encourage me. We were literally just making it for ourselves and we were just getting really excited by it.”

As soon as the songs began circulating, words of support started pouring in. Daniel Minty, the host of a popular podcast called Minty’s Gig Guide to Cardiff, describes the first time he heard the song Jerry: “Oh my actual fuck! This is like modern Beatles. It’s like White Album 2017.” Whitmore repeatedly uses the phrase “something special” when referring to all of Boy Azooga’s milestones: these early songs, the quartet’s debut gig together, Jools Holland.

The band’s rise is a success not only for them but also for the scene that props them up, which Minty calls “a 200 band/artist scrum”. “Everyone is in tune with each other at the minute,” he adds. In Cardiff some have attributed this feeling of togetherness to the Save Womanby Street campaign, which was formed in response to possible venue closures, and the resulting march on City Hall is an important waypoint in Boy Azooga’s story.

It was the people he stood shoulder to shoulder with—bands from assorted clashing genres, people from different venues, fans of all stripes—while walking through Cardiff city centre that gave Newington the confidence to finally air his long-hidden compositions. He fielded repeated enquiries about his progress and resolved not to let things descend into the realms of a south Walian ‘Chinese Democracy’. “There’s only so much you can throw at something before you are just shying away from actually showing people it,” he admits. “You can be, ‘Yeah we’re working on it!’, but actually you’re just hiding away a little bit. I think there was a lot of that.”

It was also from these ever-growing musical networks that he plucked his future bandmates. Newington knew drummer Daf Davies from school and his band, Afrocluster, while bassist Sam Barnes, who plays as Shoebox Orchestra, previously approached him about a collaboration. Dylan Morgan is a fellow multi-instrumentalist and part of the same friendship circles as Newington, making him a straightforward choice on keys, and whatever else he can turn his hand to. Whitmore describes them as a “perfect working group, like a family.”

But Newington has not always felt self-assured enough to put himself out there. He doesn’t see himself as one of the cool kids, and these days he’s fine with that. He also refuses to take himself too seriously, something that’s always been the case. He used to play in a band called Babezilla, who would perform while covered in glitter and wearing sombreros and fake moustaches.

“I think when I was a late teenager writing songs in my bedroom I took it quite seriously,” he says. “I was writing these folky songs. You get older and you realise it’s just bullshit. It’s so stupid. I realise all my heroes, like Beastie Boys or whoever, they all have that element.

“I can’t pretend to be cool. There’s way too much pressure to be cool. I tried way too hard to be cool when I was in my late teens. You kind of realise it’s just nonsense. It’s liberating when you realise that, but I’m sure I do stuff now where I’m trying too hard. I think, at least for me, I really like it when you feel like you can relate to the people you’re listening to. Even just some bands you follow and their social media is them dicking around. It's so much more real and makes the music more relatable.”

The wonderful thing about Newington is that he does seem like a genuinely nice person. His love of music is infectious and has instigated a wave of appreciation. At O’Neills the guestlist is a who’s who of young Welsh music. Newington can be found wandering through the crowd dishing out hearty hugs while sporting a brown suede tasselled jacket over that Kelly’s Records tee. During their set the beginning of each song is greeted with joyful cheers and crowd surfers.

Despite no longer being a one man band, Newington can’t help but jump on different instruments, playing guitar, bass and kazoo. A few familiar faces even join them on stage for their final song, a cover of the Paul McCartney’s Coming Up that is delivered with Blue Honey DJ Esther and singer-songwriter Jessy Allen as the band give out flowers.

With encouragement behind him, from family, friends, fans and now people he can call peers in Cardiff,  Newington is edging closer to the fearlessness that he admires in Patti Smith, Neil Young and Nick Cave. They are prolific without getting hung up on perfection or the possibility of failure, a quality he hopes to embrace on the band’s second album, which he’s currently working on with Al-Shakarchi in between giving drum lessons and playing covers gigs.

“Now I just feel like it’s a really good pressure to have,” he says of the compulsion to keep up the band’s momentum. “If that wasn’t happening then I probably would be lazy. I can imagine getting complacent. I just want to make good records and play live. If people stop listening as much, I’m still going to make records regardless of the audiences. But hopefully lots of people want to listen.”

Laura Johnson is a staff writer at Stereoboard. She's on Twitter. 

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