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Lordship Recreation GroundsPhotography by James Greig

Real Lies are still searching for paradise

The electronic duo take us on a tour of London to celebrate their new album, Lad Ash – an evocative ode to loss, failure and romantic living

TextJames GreigPhotographyJames Greig

It’s an overcast day in April, and I’m at Lordship Recreation Grounds with Real Lies. A bleak, peripheral park in Haringey, north London, it’s an area that feels remarkably untouched by gentrification. It’s also the inspiration for the first track on the electronic duo’s new album, Lad Ash, which we have come here to discuss. Marked by the strikingly evocative specificity of Kharas’s lyrics, and King’s alternately euphoric and mournful backdrops, the record is a more coherent and sophisticated work than its predecessor, Real Life (2015). Borne of disaster, failure and loss, it transfigures these things into something beautiful. But this park represents the lowest point of their journey.

First envisioned as a five-track EP, with each track bidding farewell to something, a sense of loss remains a heavy presence: “Boss Trick” is about the departure of former band member Tom Watson, for instance, and “Dolphin Junction” is an elegy to a friend who went missing. “The first song on the album, ‘Ethos’, is tumbling out of the world of the first album, which was upbeat and had all these euphoric moments. It’s about that world collapsing,” explains Kharas.

“The month after Real Life came out, my relationship had fallen apart,” he continues. “We got told to quit our jobs for a record deal that would have set us up for the next five years, but which fell through at the last minute. I didn’t have any money or a job, and I ended up out here sleeping in someone's spare bedroom on a single camp bed.” Because he was feeling so low, a friend suggested taking up running as a way of boosting his mood. But he didn’t know what he was doing, so he’d come to Lordship Rec late at night with a pair of unsuitable Reebok classics. “I’d hear the sound of these really flat soles slapping against the concrete, just echoing around in the darkness, which felt like an existential metaphor of some kind,” he says. Considering how bleak the time in question sounds, I ask Kharas how it feels to return here this afternoon. “It’s actually quite nice today,” he says. “There’s more happy people around. I was coming here at 2am, so there weren’t as many children here.” He pauses and adds, “There were almost no children.”

Next, we go to Alexandra Palace, a palatial Victorian concert venue at the top of a steep hill, from which you are afforded an expansive view of the London skyline in the distance. A number of the songs on the album are odes to lost friends, including Richard, who went missing when Kharas was 19. The last time they saw each other, they came to a drum-and-bass rave here: “It transformed this very regal Vista into a strange Midsummer Night’s Dream filled with thousands of gurning pillheads scattered around the grounds,” he says. Shortly after, Richard disappeared and has never been heard from since. Lad Ash is partly a tribute, and a “sad farewell” to Richard, along with other departed friends. “Loss was the motor of the record,” Kharas says. “It pushed us into a lot of new territories. Whenever you lose something, something changes and you end up in a new situation. You either gain a memory or it pushes you to adapt.” 

“Boss Trick”, the lead single, is built around the refrain “I felt like I was part of something”. This is a common feeling to yearn for, but it can be hard to find in a city as large and isolating as London. For Kharas, this yearning to be subsumed into the city can be traced back to early on in his life. When he was a kid growing up in Maidenhead, on its western outskirts, he used to stay up late with a transistor radio next to his bed. “I was really lonely,” he says, “so I’d just stay up surfing on the medium wave dial for talk radio phone-ins with this guy called James Whale, who was what I would now recognise as a right-wing provocateur, but at the time I just thought was an adult speaking.”

Alongside conservative shock jocks, he’d seek out pirate radio stations. “I’d have this weird mixture of irate cabbies moaning about the congestion charges and diatribes about immigration mixed in with jungle, UK garage and bhangra,” he says. Just behind his bedroom window, there was a motorway that led to the city, and at night he’d hear cars speeding along, sometimes blasting dance music through open windows. “As a kid, all of that stuff melds into a kind of alchemical mix.” He began to wonder: who were these people? Why were they driving so fast to get to London, and what were they going to do once they arrive? “It created a fantasy,” he says. “When you’re that young and that lonely, you can’t help but feel drawn to it. I think the reason I feel this impulse to be part of something bigger than myself came from those early days as a lonely kid in the suburbs, being cut off from it yet having these tantalising glimpses.”

The idea of moving to a big city and becoming one with it, dissolving your ego among an endless flow of strangers, is an appealing fantasy, but the reality of urban life can be quite different. It’s an experience that is more often atomising than it is communal, with opportunities for collective revelry getting scarcer as rent goes up and venues shut down. But in the first half of the 2010s, Kharas did eventually find the elusive sense of belonging he was searching for. “We had it a couple of times,” he says. “First at the Lake House, which was a cottage on the grounds of Woodberry reservoir [near Finsbury Park]. The area is built-up and gentrified now, but at the time there was nothing there really. We used to have parties that lasted for days, where you could play music at ear-splitting volume and take late-night dinghy rides out into the reservoir. That felt like a real paradise in London.”

“People like to slag off hedonism and say it's a waste of time and money, but really, I think those nights make you who you are. It’s where you find the memories and the people who most define your life” – Kev Kharas

The second place was People’s Club, a now-shuttered venue on Holloway Road where friends of theirs started a club night called ‘Eternal’. “I’d never been somewhere in London before where I’d walk in and spend the first 45 minutes saying hello because there were always so many people there that I knew,” he says. “It’s also where I met my girlfriend, which is what the song ‘Dream On’ is about. For all the misery, sadness and navel-gazing on the album, when I think about it I do feel incredibly lucky that I fell in love at first sight surrounded by all my best friends at this place that we’d created together. People like to slag off hedonism and say it's a waste of time and money, but really, I think those nights make you who you are. It’s where you find the memories and the people who most define your life. Real Lies is about trying to carry a torch for that idea.”

Woodbury Reservoir is now changed beyond recognition and the People’s Club is gone forever, which means that Lad Ash is a partly elegy for a city that no longer exists. There are presumably people in their early twenties moving to London now and finding their own equivalents, but it’s also true that the city is becoming ever more expensive and hostile to nightlife. Has London changed, or have they? “For a while, I thought it was London, but then I realised it was probably more me, and the various crises I’ve been through,” Kharas says. “A lot of my favourite pubs are shutting down and a lot of the clubs I used to go to aren't there anymore. But it’s stupid to come to a city like this and expect it to be the same as it was 20 years ago, when you first formed your idea of it, as it is to come to London and complain about the noise. They are two sides of the same coin, right? It’d be fucking boring if it never changed, and it always does.”

The search for romance is at the heart of Real Lie’s music, and while it can feel as though a romantic life is harder to lead in London, the possibility is never entirely foreclosed. “One of the songs on the album, ‘Your Guiding Hand’ is about how when I first moved to London, I did feel as if my life was composed of these grand, sweeping narratives,” says Kharas. “It felt like a film almost, where your movement through the night was guided by something that beckoned you on through off-licenses and cashpoints, up flights of stairs into stranger’s living rooms and then down into basements where you might discover something that changes your world. I think that’s probably not there as much today, but I feel duty-bound to try to find it still. ‘Your Guiding Hand’ is about the search to find a life that once again, feels like it's being swept along by some unseen force.”

I listened to Real Lies a lot when I first moved to London, during which time their music helped to transform countless night-bus comedowns into something transcendent and to imagine the city in the latter half of the 2010s as somewhere exciting – at a time when everyone else was telling me that it had peaked long before I’d arrived. Lad Ash is just as much about London, but it’s more sombre and reflective; there’s less of the swagger that soundtracked me pretending to be an enfant terrible, fresh off the Megabus. But for all its melancholy, the album is still insistent upon the romance of London, and suffused with a kind of sordid glamour. “Romance to me isn’t relentlessly upbeat and about things just getting better and better,” says Kharas. “I think it comes from any search for meaning. We’ve always been a biographical band, so it would have been disingenuous to write an album about how happy I was. But at the same time, I realised that what we’re good at is telling stories that people can relate to, which mirror their own private anxieties, fantasies and nostalgic triumphs. If the stories are sad they’re sad, if they’re happy, they’re happy, but they will always be suffused with a sense of romance.”

On Lad Ash, the elegiac quality of Kharas’s lyrics is matched by King’s music to such an extent it’s surprising to discover that the music is written first, and separately. “I make a lot of it alone in my bedroom working on stuff, so perhaps there's an inherent sadness to that,” says King. While making the first album, he used to get out his laptop on the overground on the way to work. “Now, it’s just me stuck in my little hovel on my own, playing with samples and synths,” he says. While Lad Ash has its moments of rapture and euphoria, it’s more melancholy in tone than its predecessor. Patrick cites his influences as ‘left of centre’ and ‘generally not banging’; lots of Detroit house, old techno records, and songs that are classed as dance music but which no one’s going to dance to. In a sense, Real Lie’s music is about dance music rather than being dance music, just as the lyrics often concern hedonism but you wouldn’t necessarily play them at a house party. There’s always a sense of distance from the experiences it portrays. “It's not necessarily about making people move,” explains Patrick. “It’s more about creating a spherical, immersive experience. I always tend towards that rather than the banging stuff.” 

Lastly, we end up at Mascara Bar, a late-night pub in Stoke Newington where Kharas spent many a chaotic Sunday evening – “a completely self-destructive way of chucking yourself headfirst into the Monday morning work shift” – before deciding to knock that lifestyle on the head. On one hand, Lad Ash is a paean to hedonism, but it’s also about the necessity of moving on to something different. “When you start having those nights out they’re exciting because they’re new, and they feel transgressive,” says Kharas. “But after a while, for me, it felt like punching the clock. I knew exactly what the trajectory of my week would be. It just loses its sense of fun and I got sick of being ill, sad, and unfit, and everyone I cared about hating me. There’s still a way to lead a romantic life here without blowing yourself up every weekend. I felt like I couldn't move on without taking those memories and stories and packing them onto an album, in order to move on and find another paradise, if I can.”

Lad Ash is out now