Karkosa – big in Seoul

Stephen Pennell reports on another promising Birmingham band.

Birmingham is one of the greatest and most creative cities on earth, but the perception of it rarely lives up to the reality.

Half the people who live here haven’t got a good word to say about the place and if you go a bit further afield the brickbats are even worse. The BBC have abandoned us, run off with our TV licence money, turned Pebble Mill into a dental hospital and shacked up with Manchester. We’ve had a lot of good press in the print media lately but they always seem to preface even the most positive article with “We know it’s terrible but it’s not as bad as you think”.

Yet the negativity towards the birthplace of the first industrial revolution seems to be a particularly British phenomenon, and I sometimes feel like telling the country that if we’d known you were going to be like this, we wouldn’t have bothered building all those Spitfires.

But don’t be disheartened fellow Brummies – there’s a big wide world out there and lots of it loves us. For example: a few years ago a portion of England seemed in danger of losing its collective mind over the Stone Roses reunion, mainly, it seemed to me, due to the fact they’re from Blow-Your-Own-Trumpetsville. Elsewhere, a comeback by Black Sabbath, a much bigger and more influential band, went comparatively unheralded. At the end of it all the Roses played a couple of big gigs in parks slightly smaller than Sutton’s before their comeback fizzled out to nothing, while Sabbath set off on a massive world tour and released an album that went to number one in the States, Canada, the U.K. and numerous other countries around the world.

More recently, I was on holiday in Mexico and many I spoke to had a refreshingly high opinion of Birmingham culture, be it JRR Tolkien, Lee Child or Peaky Blinders. I met fans of UB40, ELO and Duran Duran, and everybody just LOVED Ozzy. Merely for fun, and to prove a point to my missus, I mentioned Oasis and the Roses, which proved to be useful research – if you were researching the various ways different nationalities do blank looks.

Something about Birmingham music and culture seems to travel well, even when not universally loved closer to home, and the latest example of this phenomenon comes in the form of Karkosa, an indie/alternative rock band made in the manor.

Formed in 2014 by Sutton Coldfield brothers Michael (vocals & guitar) and Jack Warnock (drums), they later recruited Tom Rushton from Longbridge on lead guitar, Ryan Trott (another Royal town lad) on bass, and Will Clews, a Silhillian, on keyboards. The band wrote and recorded a batch of singles, inspired and influenced by the likes of Catfish and the Bottlemen, The Amazons and Royal Blood, which they self-released online.

The brilliant Red Hoodie, the joyous Mango Tree, and the hard-rocking Sheffield (another distant fan-base in the making perhaps?) are the ones to listen out for; songs that blend bouncy, singalong choruses, heavy guitar riffs, subtle synths and Killers-esque monologues – perfect adolescent anthems for the 21st century which most of the band were actually born in (rather depressingly for an old codger like me).

I first saw them last year at the Sonic Gun weekender at the Castle and Falcon in Balsall Heath, where I think they were about fifth on the bill supporting more celebrated B-town bands like Sugarthief and Violet. They were great and got a good reaction from the crowd, but their early slot meant the 300-capacity venue wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams. Try putting them fifth on the bill in Seoul however, and you’d have a riot on your hands. How the hell did that happen?

“We’ve got a system on Instagram,” says lyricist and lead singer Michael. “We follow a lot of people who are influencers and send them a direct message asking them for an opinion on our work. One random Korean girl picked up on it and she absolutely loved it and spread it. Our Instagram following went from about 300 to 2000 overnight. It was incredible.

“We have more Korean fans than Brummie. It’s a really unique situation that not many others can say they’ve achieved. Our Spotify listens in the UK have been rising and it’s nice to see that. But when the South Koreans got Apple Music [in 2016] it exploded”.

They signed to a record company over there (Beeline), played a couple of dates last October and have just returned from playing a show for which the 400 tickets sold out in under a minute. Back home, they’ve been nominated in the indie/rock category at this year’s Birmingham Music Awards, and have a showcase gig being put on by BBC WM, again at the Castle and Falcon, on the 31st May.

It’s nice to see their hometown falling for them at last, and reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’ story of making it abroad before people in his country took a blind bit of notice of him. Without the sad ending, hopefully! Oh, and by the way lads, if you need someone to chronicle your first South Korean national tour, I’ll do it for flights and guest list.