Meet: Lisbon – Lead singer Matthew Varty interviewed


One of the North East’s finest, Lisbon, stop off on their first headline tour of the UK to chat to me ahead of their Sheffield gig at The Rocking Chair. Lead singer Matthew Varty chats Whitley Bay, Westeros and what’s in a name…


Backseat Mafia: Your latest track “Khaleesi” received a high profile play on Radio 1 this week. How does it feel to hear your records played on the radio?

Matthew Varty: It’s always pretty spectacular. It’s always good. I think this time was the first time we had an exclusive play so that was like the best possible start to the campaign. In the past it’s always been a good thing, but to know that we’re starting the single process on Radio 1 is pretty bang on to be honest.

BM: They do seem to be behind you.

MV: Well, we went on Introducing about a year and a half ago. It was actually April 2014 with “B L U E L O V E” which was our first single so since then they’ve played every single single we’ve released.

BM: You originally came together from two groups, but how different were they from each other and what Lisbon is now?

MV: It was kind of like two little teenage bands sort of like “oh I wanna be in a band. I wanna give this a go”. Just two of them and neither of them were very good. But the bands sort of deteriorated towards the end of high school. So when we started doing our A levels we still wanted to keep playing so Lisbon was just an idea that meant we could still do gigs because we enjoyed it and we had a few months off when we did our A levels and when it came to coming back from that we had a bit more spare time and thought, “ah, actually, this is quite good when you put your mind to it!”

BM: Did you have any other plans that have been cast aside for the band?

MV: Well yeah, cos you never really know…I’ve been brought up to feel like you’ve got to have your back up plan, you’ve got to get your job sorted. I’ve been going to uni, I studied journalism at Northumbria and Gaz is at Northumbria as well. He’s third year. And the lads have been keeping their options open as well just in case. But I think as obviously the radio 1 plays came about that sort of took a back seat. We all sort of thought that this is a better thing to do, I think!

BM: Where does the name Lisbon come from?

MV: It all ties in with our debut EP which is going to be released in the next few weeks which is called “Life is Good” so the basic relationship between the two is that the “L” stands for the “life”, the “is” bit’s the same then the “bon” is obviously the French word for good so that’s what it means. That’s why we’ve called it that.

BM: Because the funny thing is when I was doing my research I found there was a band called Lisbon from Manchester about ten years ago but they seem to have gone by the wayside.

MV: They fortunately stopped. We were about a few weeks into having the new name for the band and people were like “oh is it this Lisbon or that Lisbon?” and we thought we’d made a bit of a mistake here!

BM: Is there an etiquette to it?

MV: We checked their Facebook feed – there wasn’t anything for a long time on it so I think we were lucky to be honest! It’s too late to change it now. [He laughs] So I hope they don’t have any sort of reunion!

BM: What’s the first gig you can remember playing? Was it as Lisbon or one of the other bands?

MV: The first gig I remember playing was in one of our older bands. Me and Joe the guitarist we were in this band – I’m not going to tell you the name! It was that bad! –

BM: Oh that was going to be my next question!

MV: Oh I’ll tell you. It was called The Plimps. Like the Plimsolls cos there was this craze at high school where everyone wore these £8 plimsolls from the Army & Navy shop. It was mental. Everyone had them and we thought this is cool! That was your 13-year-old self thinking it was a good idea! I think it was for a few weeks maybe. Our first gig was supporting the Bay City Rollers. Les McKeown, isn’t it? They played at the rugby club where we’re from and where the lads played rugby and somehow we ended up supporting them. It was them and then a group of session musicians as well. That was the first gig I remember. It was a pretty mental gig. And then the first Lisbon gig I remember might have actually been the same cos they came back a few years later! I think it was sort of a reunion for them, so we did the Bay City Rollers again. And we had like a school rock show as well, the day after. We were a bit rusty then. I think we’ve improved a bit since then!

BM: And you won this battle of the bands contest and got to play the Mouth of the Tyne festival?

MV: That was in our second year of sixth form just before A levels. It was called “The Event”, run by Tyneside council and there were about 12 bands and basically everyone watches the show and then they get this coin to put in and whichever band wins at the end and we got it. [Laughing] It was mental! We didn’t actually think we’d be that excited about something and then we played Mouth of the Tyne the week afterwards. Definitely the place we’re from has the biggest buzz.

BM: Whitley Bay is obviously a big part of your music. What is it about it that draws you home after the long weeks on tour?

MV: It’s a beautiful place. I’m not just saying that because it’s my home. Most people have a special place in their heart for their home. But besides that, it’s a beautiful place. It’s a beautiful coastal town and when you spend so much time on the road in all these concrete cities, you get back home and have a little breather and look around at the ocean and it’s like “ahhh!” You realise how calm it can be. There’s this place in Whitley Bay called South Parade and as teenagers we always used to go out on Thursdays. It was called Thursbay so that was the local thing for all the kids. Especially once you left school as well. You’d get to see all of your mates every week as well. There’s a big community of people like our age, it’s not as if it’s a place where you feel lonely or lost.

BM: Do you get anything like a hero’s welcome yet or do you think that’s going to build up more?

MV: We hope it’s going to build up more. We do get people who come up to us in Whitley and say “Oh are you in Lisbon? How’s it going?” which is cool. Obviously I hope that expands to bigger regions beyond Whitley Bay and we see our mates who we haven’t seen for a while and they give us a pat on the back and say “hope it’s going well” or a high five and that’s really cool.

BM: Tying in to your lyrics then, what’s a Whitley Bay native like?

MV: A native, woah? That’s tough! You get the guy that will never take his coat off no matter where he is on the earth. If it’s 25 degrees on the beach, he’s still got his coat on, walking his dog! That’s the native. There’s a guy who might be known as the native. I think the legend is his family’s in this big gangster boxing thing but he’s a bit of an outcast, always walking around with a cigarette and everyone knows his name and are always shouting him, wanting to get a picture with him. He’s probably the Whitley Bay native!

BM: You’ve got to get him in one of your videos!

MV: Yeah I know that would be wicked! We should’ve had him in “Native”! We made a mistake there!

BM: [continuing with the lyrical line of questioning] What’s the furthest you’ve been from home?

MV: Ah that’s a good one. The furthest I’ve been from home is Cyprus or Turkey…Greece, towards south east Europe. The lads have all been to America apart from me. We got this shout about an American gig, New York a few months ago. It’s still in the pipeline but we need to get the resources to go first but they’re all winding me up saying we’re never going to go to New York and they’ve all been! We’ve got this song called “Liberty City” which is probably one of the first songs I wrote when I was about 16 or something and it’s about going to New York basically and how it sort of captivates the world. That’s my one dream. That’s where I wanna go.

BM: So there’s a lot of travel in your lyrics, from “Rio” to “Native”, to the not knowing where you’re going nature of “I Don’t Know” through to “Khaleesi”, crossing the narrow sea. Do you find yourself inspired by the idea of travel or is it because you’re travelling a lot you end up writing about it?

MV: I think it’s because I’ve always wanted to travel around. We’ve all wanted to get out there and travel the world. I wanna go to Asia, I’d love to road trip America. I really hope we get to do that as a band. That’d be perfect. Obviously we love being a band but there’s a sense that we need to stay here to make it, to build something up first. So you could say that the lyrics sort of express the way that you do imagine your way from here, that desire to get out of here, it’s a passion that we want to fulfil.

BM: Is your song “I Don’t Know” all about literally being lost or is it more about exciting things ahead like a new relationship?

MV: Yeah, it’s mainly to do with the band, to do with the idea that we don’t know where it’s going and you’re unsure, but just do it anyway, bash through that wall, you’re only young once! You may as well do it now – go for it and give it everything.

BM: How did you end up working with Foo Fighters producer Gil Norton on this track?

MV: We had a few meetings in London and basically the outcome was that it’d be a good idea for us to use a different sort of producer because we’ve got our guy called Jordan Riley, one of our closest mates who’s an absolutely brilliant producer who’s quite poppy, a really, really good pop producer, but we wanted to produce a heavier track so we fancied going for someone with a bit of grit and we couldn’t think of anyone better than Gil Norton who’s done Foo Fighters, Echo and the Bunnymen. Big big records. So we had to go and meet him. He came to a show and his manager came with him to London and he said he was looking forward to this, that it was cool. So we spent a week in Rockfield and lost our minds! We recorded two tracks with him. We did “Liberty City” which should be out later this year and the end product- it was a blur that week! I can’t tell you what happened that week! We played a lot of FIFA and just sat outside, breathing in the air, but the end product was good. It was definitely worth it!

BM: Did you feel like you were auditioning for him, that he might walk away and say “Nah, I’m not doing it!”?

MV: Kind of yeah, cos he’s worked with Dave Grohl, he’s worked with massive, massive acts and people who are hugely respected so to take on someone so new to the scene, so untested… Him coming on board was huge for us. We just wanted to make sure that we did something good that he could be proud of and we could be proud of as well.

BM: What do you think of the current wave of new exciting bands (yourself included) from the north, like the 1975, Circa Waves, Little Comets and the acts from across the border like Django Django, CHVRCHES, Prides, Model Aeroplanes?

MV: It’s a bit of a commotion, sort of a resurgence, like the battle between…I don’t want to say battle cos that’s harsh, but there’s this sort of idea that London’s the place to be and the southern bands run the show. It’s like “Game of Thrones” this man, it’s like king of the north! That sort of rebellion. I don’t want to say it’s hard to get people to come to the north, but now I think with so much talent coming together, people are noticing that you don’t have to be a southern band, you don’t have to be from London to do it. You get this idea that a lot of bands from the north have to move to London to get signed, which I think is a bad thing for the industry. It can really, really dilute it, destroying the culture of the north, so with all this talent up north, only good can come of it.

BM: Since you brought it up, let’s move on to the whole “Game of Thrones” section! How much of an influence is Game of Thrones on you as a band?

MV: It’s such a massive concept and it’s such a huge thing that it can take over anything. I just love just engrossing myself in fictional worlds, they’re really inspiring. Really influential. As a band, we’re really influenced by popular culture , I think because of our age and the way we’ve been brought up, always watching television, playing games , you’re always surrounded by commercialism. We wanted to turn that into a positive thing for us, so we’ve got “Liberty City” which is about “Grand Theft Auto” and other things that we love, but then we dedicated one whole song to “Game of Thrones” cos we absolutely love it [their new single “Khaleesi”]. We’ve played around with this single for about a year now. It wasn’t going to be a single because we thought, because of its context. People who hadn’t heard of the show might go what’s it about? The show has taken over the world, so I don’t think there’s going to be a better time for it. It’s a sort of buy-in, or a way of connecting with people instantly. It’s just a matter of relating to people and even if people don’t relate to other songs, they might find a place in their heart for that one, surely?

BM: I saw on twitter you’re getting costumes together for the video. Are you going to go all out?

MV: This could be the 11th episode of season five [laughing]. We’re struggling because it’s the tour now to find dates to record it. We’ve got the costumes, we’ve got these big furs from a friend who works in costumes for the BBC and things like that and she’s got this group of furs and we went to a fancy dress shop and got the usual medieval suits. We think the song’s good, but if we can make a really good video, obviously tongue-in-cheek! Everyone needs to know that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously! But if we can come out with this something that looks good and is funny…We’re waiting on availability for [Daenerys] (the Khaleesi character of the song’s title) but we’ve got someone who will hopefully live up to the part!

BM: Who are you favourite characters from the show?

MV: I always root for the bad guys! They’re such good characters. Apart from Joffrey there hasn’t really been a fully all out 100% bad character. Even Cersei’s had her problems. I don’t like her though! I really, really like Ramsay Bolton. He’s a wicked, wicked man and this season he’s gone a bit over the line! I’m always going to have a place in my heart for Rob Stark and Ned Stark and Jon Snow as well. I don’t wanna say anything now, but oh my God! It’s bad! That end scene…I dunno? I love Jorrah Mormont as well. He’s actually hopeless and I love him for it. He’s got no chance [with Daenerys] bless him!

BM: Which places would you most and least like to visit from Game of Thrones?

MV: I’d love to see The Wall, obviously.

BM: And take a piss off the top of it?

MV: [laughing] Yeah, take a piss off the top with Tyrion. I think the Northern locations look the best to me. Places like King’s Landing and Dorne look good. I think the Dothraki Sea as well. Those beautiful places across the Narrow Sea look nice. Or Harrenhall, a nice little spooky castle!

BM: So continuing with travel, you’ve just started the tour. Which places are you looking forward to visiting?

MV: Glasgow – King Tut’s is just a name that’s been spoken about so much. Every band that you invest in plays there and London Barfly as well. It’s our first headline show in London. We’ve been there so many times, we think we’ve got quite a following there now. We struggle , there’s this sort of inbetween London and Newcsatle, no man’s land where we have occasional fans but London’s where we’re ending the tour as well, so we think we might have a bit of a party there as well. We’ve have loved to have been in Liverpool or Manchester but we couldn’t work something out this time around. I’d actually really like to play Ireland. I’ve never been and have always wanted to go to Dublin or Belfast.

BM: You could visit the “Game of Throne” set!

MV: We actually emailed them about the set. We were trying to get them to notice. It wasn’t full on like, we wanna hire your place but that would’ve been a pretty good music video if we’d managed to get there.

We also talk the Game of Thrones books and prequels, visiting the real King’s Landing in Dubrovnik and Sean Bean’s chip shop in Broomhill, about whether George R R Martin might approve of “Khaleesi” and if there’s such a thing as bad publicity. Talk returns to touring.

BM: Do you have any other touring ambitions do you have? Larger venues? Festivals etc?

MV: We’re doing Lainfest along with people like Lucy Rose. There are so many bands we’ve played with along the way like Eliza and the Bear. A lot of friends there. Then there’s Kendal Calling which should be brilliant. In terms of ambitions, we’ve just said all along that we’d love to do an O2 Academy tour. That’s the dream come true.

BM: Do you feel it’s important to start off by giving away your music to get interest rather than jumping into trying to sell it to an audience that might not exist yet?

MV: I think so, because we feel like we’ve got so many song already but we want people to hear them at the right time. We’d like to keep some songs back and blow people’s heads off with them later down the line. We’re not going to do an album until we’re absolutely ready to do one. I think we’ve got 12 songs tonight which would be on the album but there’s no way we’d put the album out until we’ve got the fans and resources to make sure it goes as well as it possibly can. We’re happy with all our songs and we love the set that we play but they might come across as disjointed in a way if you put them together as a group. I think that once you get the time to actually sit down and put a group of songs together, to write the album, that’s when you put together an album that means something. And that’s what I’m looking forward to.

BM: So, what can we expect from upcoming “Life is Good EP?

MV: Fun and games. Some of the tracks you’ll have heard already like “Khaleesi” and a remix on it, which is something we’ve been keen to get for a while. We’re really into the electronic production and it’s something we might progress into. Joe (Atkinson, the band’s guitarist) is a really good electronic music producer and it’s something we fancy doing. The EP’s just bright and colourful, lively. There’s no melancholy on there at all. Just excitement and that’s the way we wanna keep it at the moment. That’s the whole “Life is Good” ideology. We wanna make sure that everyone feels the way that we feel when we’re playing our music.

BM: So, complete the sentence – “Life is Good because…”

MV: Oh! [groans playfully] These are the ones I struggle with! You can’t say life is good because Game of Thrones is on, cos it’s not…or because it ended well, cos it didn’t! It ended terribly. I think life is good because the sun’s shining and we’re on the road for the first time as a headlining act and I hope everyone feels the same when they hear the songs.

Lisbon's Matthew Varty
Lisbon’s Matthew Varty interviewed at The Rocking Chair, Sheffield

Lisbon are active on Facebook, twitter and their own website and YouTube channel, but as I said in my review, live is the best option! Check them out at Leicester, Banbury, Sunderland, Leeds, Whitley Bay (of course!), Stoke, Middlesbrough, London and festivals like Kendal Calling and Forgotten Fields in Sussex. Details here:

Matthew Varty was speaking to Ben Lewis.

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