Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Ben Childhood
Nine Songs

Childhood’s Ben Romans-Hopcraft talks about the songs that inspired his love of music.

21 July 2017, 11:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Sitting in the beer garden of Ben Romans-Hopcraft’s local in Brixton feels like the ideal place to talk about the pivotal songs in his life.

The Childhood frontman’s formative musical experiences, from learning to play instruments at school, buying records and going to his first concert all took place within a stone’s throw from where we’re sat. In keeping with the theme, his bands’ second album Universal High is in part a story of growing up in South London and revisits a love of the soul, funk and pop music that he discovered as a child.

He describes the songs he’s chosen as a mixture from his childhood and beyond, but wants to make an honourable mention of one that just missed the cut, Kermit the Frog’s ‘The Rainbow Connection’ from The Muppets Movie. “It’s the best kid’s song ever, the most sophisticated kids tune I’ve ever heard.”

Talking about the three-year gap since Childhood's debut album Lacuna he explains he wanted to take some time out “to think about why I like music to be honest. At one point I was writing songs because I felt it was my job and that’s when you write really shit tunes. I started getting back to basics and listening to loads of records, like this Smokey Robinson tune which is first on the list.”

“Baby That's Backatcha” by Smokey Robinson

“This was the record that I first listened to when I realised what I wanted to do with the new idea for Childhood. It’s from A Quiet Storm which is a seminal soul album and ‘quiet storm’ was the name of a sub-genre of soul music in the ‘70s, all of that sound was influenced by this album.

“I heard it about two years ago and it was ‘Bang! I know what I want to do’, I was completely blown away. I didn’t realise how amazing his voice was, his earlier stuff was more Motown and it’s great, but this was super-sensitive. Listening to it I was kind of falling in love with him, the carefree lyrics, the diction, the way he sings it is so on point but so aloof at the same time.

“I initially didn’t understand how something could be that penetrating and not have distorted guitars and punchy drums, but it made me realise that you don’t need all these layers of sounds to create that kind of deep impact.

“I got really into how he crafted this song. Initially there was lots of trial and error, the early demos were sort of weird knock-offs of this album, but they got me into the headspace of how to think about writing those kind of songs. I didn’t want it to be only that kind of sound but I wanted to pay homage to it, there was a lot of playing lots of different genres and then kind of getting rid of it all.

“I did lots of homework, listening and learning, so when it came to writing I felt those flavours would just come out subconsciously, which is the place I wanted to be.”

“Inspiration Information” by Shuggie Otis

“He’s always been important, I’m obsessed with him. There’s a few angles on Lacuna, on the mellower songs, that had these kind of elements, the vocal melodies and chords that Shuggie Otis used. They weren’t celebrated or refined enough for people to notice them, which is fair enough because that wasn’t really what we were doing.

“When you write another record, you take what really excited you from the first one and go into a bit of wormhole and I thought Universal High was an opportunity to represent my love for this musician. ‘Inspiration Information’ is the best song on this album, I love the subtle use of bells and I’m getting really obsessed with them, I didn’t know how to use those types of percussive instruments before.

“The groove on this tune is incredible, it’s so simple and that’s the basis of a lot of things that I like now - ‘how simple can you make it, but with the most feeling?’ This tune sums that up for me and the vocals and harmonies are crazy as well.

“I got into Shuggie Otis and Todd Rundgren, who I’ve chosen for the next song, at the same time and they both put me on the track I’m on now. It’s a really amazing synthesis of Rock and Roll and soul, I’m obsessed with that marriage and they both do it so well. They’re similar people, they self-produce, they’re multi-instrumentalists, they’re really not afraid of pop music and that’s something I strive for with Childhood.

“I think they’re the best people at holding a consistent, across the board level of integrity but also not shying away from the biggest pop moments that I’ve ever heard in pop music. They’re almost cheesy, but people don’t think that because they’re both geniuses.”

“International Feel” by Todd Rundgren

“I love the intro to this, it’s the best beginning to an album I’ve ever heard. The chords are so epic, but also irreverent, it’s almost got this ‘we’re taking the piss out of rock music’ feel to it, but it’s so soulful and believable it fills you up with joy. I really like humour in rock music but not when it starts taking the piss out of the sentiment, this song treads a really fine line of seeming playful and fun, but also has a deep soul and power.

“’International Feel’ is the motif that comes in and out of the whole record and it’s really infectious. It’s got this chirpy organ part that sounds like the beginning of a Richard Linklater film like Dazed and Confused, with this cheesy, nostalgic soul to it and I love that.

“Lots of people don’t like Todd Rundgren because he’s quite an off-putting character. He looks kind of ridiculous, he’s got loads of different personas and styles, some of them are really contrasting, some of them are really weird. This is from A Wizard, a True Star which is a bizarre record, it’s really inaccessible and takes about three listens to get into. I didn’t even really register this song at first until I got into the album.

“I love his use of weird guitar pedals and mad sounds, that sometimes he has moments where he sounds like Elton John and some tunes sound super soulful. I loved his ethos, he was on a major label and his whole deal was ‘you put the records out, I’ll do whatever I want.’ He was super-prolific, he used to write two songs a day, I’ve always been inspired by him.”

“Black Cow” by Steely Dan

“This reminds me of Pharoah, my drum teacher at school, he gave me this record when I was fourteen. I was showing him some beats I liked and he said ‘you should listen to this.’ I’d listened to Steely Dan a bit and thought they were kind of cheesy, but when he played me this I was completely blown away, I felt an emotional connection to it immediately.

“I think in part it was because I was so inspired by him as a teacher and also that someone was telling me about music, because at school there was always peer pressure when it came to music. I was amazed there was a multi-racial mix of players on the album and I was really into that too, at school it was either black music or white music in a way, like ‘Hip-Hop or rock, are you affiliated with these guys or these guys?’ and I thought that was crazy.

“Before I heard this I was into drummers who soloed, but Steve Gadd’s drumming is super-swung, really straight beats and it’s so infectious, it’s almost got this ghetto-soul ‘Carwash’ vibe going on, I’d never heard anything like it.

“I started understanding the subtleties in the grooves of music when I heard this. At first I thought ‘That’s nothing special, I can play that beat’ and I tried to play along with it but I couldn’t, I was like ‘Why can’t I do it?’ Pharoah started teaching me about reading between the lines and not being a slave to a click track, I felt so privileged to have this cool guy teaching me.

“I veered away from this for a while but when I was making this record I realised it was always within me. I still try and achieve the concept of what they were doing on that record now, it’s resonated with me for years.”

“Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock

“This was a huge record for me, it was the first jazz album I ever heard. I think anyone who is apologetic about jazz is timid. Jazz is so many things, it’s got about twenty million different sub-genres, you can’t just say ‘jazz’.

“My Dad bought it for my birthday when I was a teenager and I was sort of ‘Um, OK, a jazz record? Cheers Dad.’ But then I listened to this song and it just turned into this thing, because I’ve always played jazz really, I played jazz clarinet, jazz drums, I used to go to music jazz school at weekends, so it’s always been there.

“Me, my Dad and my brother would listen to it in the car on holiday and we used sing all the solos like it was a pop song, to me they’re like pop hooks, it’s so ingrained in my head. There was a time this was pop music and it’s not indulgent, it’s popular music with melodies that are designed to connect with people.

“Watching Herbie Hancock play it is beautiful, it’s undeniable music of the soul. Regardless of what genre it is, it’s undeniably connected to the spirit, so who gives a fuck what genre it is, because it’s that good.

“The chords are really simple, classic jazz turnarounds. It’s got this mystical, cool jazz feel and it’s a really nice platform for all these musicians to play one mind-blowing performance after the other. It’s recorded live, they’ve done it one after the other in one take and the take is so mesmerising. It’s an amazing thing about the way music was recorded at that time, you got magical moments like this.”

“Homesick” by The Vines

Highly Evolved is one of the most underrated albums of the ‘00s. Craig Nicholls didn’t give a fuck and I loved that about him, he was an amazing frontman.

“This was an adolescent classic for me, I was mesmerised by them. Everyone was into The Libertines but I preferred The Vines, they were like Nirvana and The Beatles. I saw the video for ‘Homesick’ and it was so pining you couldn’t ignore it. I was listening to punk songs on MTV at the time but when I heard this I thought ‘this is kind of cool’, that you could be cool and also emotionally in-tune with yourself.

“I heard ‘Outtathaway’ that same night on John Kennedy’s XFM show and I loved it. So I went to Virgin Megastore on Brixton Road with my Mum and told her I wanted to buy the ‘Homesick’ single, but I picked up the album instead. She said ‘£10 is quite expensive for a single?’ and I said ‘Yeah, but it’s a really good song.’ They were the first band I went to see live on my own. It was at Brixton Academy and I was fourteen, I still have the ticket.

“I was so influenced by them, typically people discover The Beatles or Bob Dylan through their parents but I didn’t do that. I listened to things like ‘Maiden Voyage’ or The Wailers because that’s what my parents were into. I got into The Beatles, The Kinks and The Beach Boys via The Vines.

“You know when you have those crushes as a teenager? This song was one for me, this mystical idea of going on the road, that nostalgic sentiment, and the lyrics match how poignant the chords are. It’s a very simple message, but it’s done so well.”

“Like A Ship... (Without A Sail)” by Pastor T.L Barrett

“This is a massive party tune for all my mates. As well as Childhood, I have different musical projects and whoever I’m doing music with, every time we become inebriated to any level this is the go to tune. It’s one of those songs that I’ve no idea of when I first heard it, maybe I woke up after a night out and it was on my Shazam one morning.

“It’s a really rousing song and I think the main thing is the backing vocals, they’re so pining and otherworldly. They’re floating on top of this Pastor waxing lyrical and it’s got an amazing beat as well, it kind of sounds like The Rolling Stones.

“It’s like gospel music at its best, it has this divine entity to it, even if you’re not religious, with this song you can’t help but feel a little bit religious when you hear it. It’s got this spiritual feeling, the call and response, he says something and it feels like celestial beings are repeating what he says from some faraway land, it’s a really simple thing that goes back and forth.

“I’m not religious but I love gospel music and the commitment of it, the fact that they believe what they believe in and they’re not scared of showing it. Commitment in music is everything and that’s what we’re trying to do with this album, we’re committing to this style, I love seeing that in music and gospel music does that so well. There’s just something about it which is super-otherworldly but also very soulful and salt of the earth and I love that contrast.”

“Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson

“‘Smooth Criminal’ was in the Michael Jackson movie Moonwalker and it was me and my twin brother Mile’s tune, we couldn’t stop watching it when we were kids. My Mum used to videotape programmes like ‘Super ‘80s and ‘90s’ and Michael Jackson was always in them. He was doing all these amazing dance moves, I don’t really dance that much, but it was the first time I really got dancing and pop music.

“It was also the first time I was genuinely convinced by the power of pop music, the transcendent power of it. I was under the belief that Michael Jackson was a superhero, like Santa Claus, I didn’t really believe it, but part of me did and I loved that. I really liked the mystical feeling I got from the song, the video and that time in pop music. It was totally commercial but it was totally believable, because it was quite artistic in a commercial way.

“He was making these films like The Beatles films and if you did that now it’d seem so cold. I think it was the last time that all the output of pop music was directly related to entertainment as much as commerce, you never felt short-changed. Even if you knew that you were being convinced to buy something, you never felt like it was as cynical as it was. For something that mainstream to be so engaging and based around fantasy, I just loved it.

“The Michael Jackson film is weird now because my mate Sean Lennon is in it as one of the kids. I was talking to him about me and Miles watching it all the time when we were young and he said ‘I’m in that film’, which was bizarre.

“It was the first Michael Jackson song I heard and I’ve listened to it throughout my life. It reminds me of hanging out with my family. I remember Saturday mornings, hanging out my Mum, she’s a dancer as well and she was super into following all the moves, me and Miles used to copy her and I realised my Mum was cool. I have so much emotion attached to this song, it’s never left me.”

“Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” by The Beach Boys

“Sometimes when you’re playing Pet Sounds people overlook this one maybe. They always want to hear ‘Sloop John B’ or something like that, but this is the one where you secretly want to cry to yourself in the corner.

“A lot of Pet Sounds is layers of the same things happening, but ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’ has this technicoloured multi-layering of all these different melodies. They complement each other so perfectly, like a musical jigsaw of beauty, and every instrument has its own identity.

“I’ve really been getting into string arrangements and there’s this amazing string break in the middle. I constantly reference that when it comes to strings, it’s the best string arrangement I’ve ever heard.

“The lyrics are so sad but it’s such an amazing love song, it’s one of my favourite love songs ever, the sentiment of it is so simple. When you’re talking about love it’s always so tempting to get into the dramatics and the overarching sentiments of what your love means, but I love the imagery and the truth of this, ‘Don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder.’ That’s what you want to do with someone you love, no one wants to be dramatic with the one they love, because they love them. It’s a very appropriate song for love in its truest form.”

Universal High is out now on Marathon Artists
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