Live Report: The Zig-Zag Unbleached Sessions: The Semi-Final

A battle of the bands like few others...

A Battle of the Bands event might conjure up dusty school assembly rooms, damp wooden benches and the unsure strums of an out-of-tune guitar. But the Zig-Zag Unbleached Sessions, powered by Spotify, are taking this tried-and-tested format for a string of gigs to champion new, undiscovered talent. Six unsigned bands, handpicked for their musical prowess, have been thrashing it out since May for a chance to win. The prize? Getting to support The Cribs, while earning an army of new fans in the process.

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Since its inception over 100 years ago, Zig-Zag has carved out its place as an originator, encouraging users to discover and enjoy new experiences – much like Le Zouave, the French soldier and creator of the first “roll-your-own” smoke who features on their packets.

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The people spoke, and the original six acts were whittled down to three for the semi-final. To suss out the competition, Clash headed down to Islington’s Garage prior to the gig.

Perched on a bench, the Yorkshire-born, Lancashire-bred Damon Valentine (pictured, main) is quietly confident in demeanour. “I usually go busking before gigs because that really gets my voice going,” the modern-day minstrel reveals. “I found a room that nobody was in earlier, so I blasted a few of my songs.” Having shared stages with Paolo Nutini and Elbow since, his first-ever gig was at school aged 16. “You were putting yourself up for being bullied – it was quite a laddish school,” he recalls. “But people reacted in such a positive way… that was the pinnacle moment of thinking, I want to do this.”

Essex indie band Secret Company (pictured, above) are lounging on the grass in front of the venue. “Playing with Mystery Jets is pretty good isn’t it,” nods frontman Scott Revell. “We’re always rushing around and panicking before a gig – there a lot of tears,” James Patman chips in. “We’re just a bunch of criers!” laughs drummer Tim Reyland. “I think we play better when there’s more people,” he continues. “We tend to smash the busy gigs. We don’t play as well down the pub.” Together with Rob Clemens on percussion and guitarist Kushal Gupta, the Chelmsford outfit are bringing their brand of melodic indie-pop to the Garage stage.

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Secret Company – ‘Lifeline’

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Tonight, Rale’s (pictured, below) pre-concert ritual is eating pizza on Highbury Fields – with their soundcheck out of the way. “It’s good, I get to be at the front!” beams drummer Kiran Stacey. “First time ever. The number of times I get off stage and people go, ‘Oh were you on?’” For the Alan Partridge enthusiasts (as discovered when owl sanctuaries and feet comparable to gammon crop up throughout our conversation), a strong stage presence is key. “There was one gig we did in Sheffield,” Kiran continues, “where we tried to come off stage in a cool way – and as we left, we all tried to file off as the backing track was playing. As we walked off we went into a cupboard – there was nowhere to go!” “Was it not the disabled lifts we walked into?” laughs singer Tom O’Hara. “It was a glass door, everybody could see us in there…”

But they’ll have to deliver a faultless performance to win the votes of the audience. Inside the venue, Damon is up first – banging out a hearty set that closes with an earnest cover of R Kelly’s ‘Ignition (Remix)’ and his own track ‘Oh Brother’ – penned for his sibling who’d been in hospital. “Personal experiences filter into my writing, definitely,” he discloses to Clash. “I had a bit of an unorthodox upbringing – I moved around a lot and didn’t meet my dad ‘til I was sixteen… and after that he didn’t want to know me. I was very angry – but writing has really helped me come to terms with certain things.” On stage, the gifted musician is aided by a backing guitarist and violinist, to wild applause.

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Damon Valentine – ‘Oh Brother’

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Secret Company jump up next, showcasing cuts such as ‘Lifeline’ and current single ‘Saviour’, placing soaring melodies over high-octane percussion from Tim and Rob. “We like to make our music quite cinematic, don’t we,” James offers over a pre-gig Red Stripe. “The drums help with that vibe.” He goes on, “It’s rare that we get to play big shows, what with it being so hard to draw a fanbase and get people to come to your gigs in the current climate.”

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Rale – ‘Looks Like Fire’

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Last on are Rale, who identify as a post-punk band with electro influences, after Kiran, Tom and Dino hooked up with producer Sena Verdi (who used to be Akala’s guitarist and boasts a multitude of production credits – including Abs from 5ive’s comeback single, no less). Translating seamlessly into a live setting, the foursome blast out striking tracks from their new, self-titled EP. So how would they celebrate if they won? “A shower, box of wine and Cash in the Attic,” nods Sena. “Heaven.”

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You can vote for your favourite act here, as well as nab tickets to the grand finale with the winning act and The Cribs on the 11th September at the Garage, Highbury.

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