“On the back sleeve of the new record, I’m holding a Stratocaster,” grins Danny Wilson. “A friend saw it and said, ‘Woah, a Strat… Controversial!’ Yeah, too fuckin’ right! I wanna play a Strat, and I wanna plug it into a valve amp, and I wanna play music with my friends, and we’ve got a sax in the band, so let’s have a party. We can play all night, if you want. That’s what I love.”
The choice of this particular guitar is by no means random, and signals a number of profound changes for Danny and his Champions Of The World with their third album. First off, the current line-up of the Champs is very different from the line-up that recorded their 2008 eponymous debut album and its 2010 follow-up, Streets Of Our Time. Whereas the Champions Of The World were originally a loose and chaotic collective of like-minded souls – so loose and so chaotic that, at any given gig or session, you couldn’t accurately predict who exactly would be performing alongside Wilson – this new incarnation of the group is a proper rock’n’roll band, wholly and entirely committed to being the Champs.
Wilson admits that the ever-shifting format of the Champs’ former incarnation was a reaction to the decade-and-change he’d spent playing in Grand Drive. Formed with his brother Julian from the ashes of their previous group Soul Green, and featuring old friend Ed Balch on bass guitar, Grand Drive were, Wilson says, “very much a ‘proper’ band.” He’s too modest to say so, but Grand Drive were also a remarkable band, locating a fertile delta of rock’n’soul in their South London rehearsal rooms, and sharing their gift for country-fried, sometimes-psychedelic, always-soulful rock music across five sublime full-lengths that wore their love for Springsteen, Neil Diamond, Al Green and the rest of a rich, deep and wide constellation of Americana proudly and profoundly.
Wilson formed the Champs almost by accident. With Grand Drive on indefinite hiatus, and following a joyful solo performance at Oxford’s Truck Festival in the Summer of 2007, Wilson and a bunch of friends recorded an impromptu session at a studio on the farm where the festival is based. The session was successful enough for Wilson to cut an album with his Champions Of The World, and take this fluid unit on the road.
“I felt like, hey, I don’t need to do the whole ‘we have to rehearse’ thing to be in a band,” remembers Wilson. “I was freewheeling, entirely, and I loved it. It was exactly what I needed at the time: making music, making friends, going up onstage and not really giving a fuck who turns up.”
The freedom and anarchy of the Champs proved fertile: their second album, Streets Of Our Time, arrived on the heels of the debut; Danny’s ninth album as a recording artist, it was also one of his best. But, as Wilson was to learn, when your group’s as loose and free as the Champs were, it’s difficult to keep it from all falling apart.
“People started taking notice of the group with the second album,” says Danny. “We went on tour with the Magic Numbers, the Drive By Truckers, but there wasn’t a lot of money to pay people. Some nights, we’d have the whole band up there. Some nights, it’d be me, the drummer and the kazoo player. The loose collective was too loose, and it was too hard to try and steer it in the right direction.”
The dissolution of the original Champs, Wilson says, inspired much of the lyric sheet to Hearts & Arrows. “This record is about friendship, and it’s almost a break-up album,” he smiles. “I’ve been with my missus forever, so I’ve never really written a proper break-up song. But some of these songs are sad, emotional, heart-rending… The album’s a mixture of love letters and break-up letters. And it’s a defiant record. I’m not flicking the Vs at anyone, but when you form a new group, it’s like when you break up with someone and then you get a new haircut and a new girlfriend, and wanna show ‘em off.”