There’s a ragged glory to Broken Hands’ output, a rumbling growl and cathartic howl suggesting decades on the road, if not the wagon; half a lifetime of hard days, wild nights and regretful dawns. The fact that the impossibly youthful band are actually only just embarking on their own rock odyssey is hard to fathom then - and will probably prove deeply upsetting for the many addled bluesmen forced to symbolically sell their souls to achieve something like it. The roots of R&B run strong in such young blood, but dare to call what they do ‘classic’ rock and they’ll scoff politely: these are contemporary songs, culled from countless sessions down in their borrowed basement rehearsal space. They’ve just done it in a quiet bit of Kent.
Not that the Kent quartet are coy about their roots, or keen to fabricate spurious rumours of their rock ‘n’ roll pasts. “Sometimes people skip over stuff they don’t want you to know,” agrees Thomas Ford, the band’s softly-spoken, musically studious bass player, with some distaste. “Although the White Stripes story was a great idea, the brother/sister - boyfriend/girlfriend thing,” grins singer Dale Norton, briefly pondering the possibilities.
The four Broken Hands – singer Dale Norton, his (real) younger brother Callum on drums, guitarist Jamie Darby and bassist Thomas Ford - grew up around Canterbury, met at school and began playing together in their mid-teens. The band’s collective Damascene conversion to rock’s hoarier history came via a collection of early Fleetwood Mac tracks (Live At Boston Tea Party 1970), the stuff that eventually forced founder Peter Green to grow his fingernails freakishly long and render his guitar unplayable. Eager students of hard-rock’s evolution, they gradually forged a guitar sound that grabs you forcibly by the pelvic region, keeps a firm grasp until the final notes and leaves a lasting impression.
Canterbury hardly boasts the most vibrant live music scene, so to help things along the nascent band set up their own regular gig at an old working men’s club. At the weekly Hoochie Coochie nights they’d hone that sound before a live audience and generally provide an invaluable community service for gig-starved local punters and bands. The night generally ended with their pals playing hip-hop records, which also proved enlightening. Only having one place to go can really open your mind.
Booking those events also illustrated a significant difference between the hosts and their contemporaries: while the other Hoochie Coochie acts tended to immediately invest any profits at the bar, Ford, Darby and the Nortons ploughed theirs back into the band. They clearly meant business, but soon faced their own musical crossroads, which wasn’t quite Robert Johnson trading his soul for the blues in the Mississippi Delta but life-altering nonetheless. As their schoolmates left Kent for world travel and several years of subsidised study, the driven quartet stuck around, funding their still-unnamed project by working together in warehouses.
That helped chip away much of the industry mystique. A more direct boost occurred when, within months of forming, they opened local festival, Lounge on the Farm. Industry mogul James Endeacott was watching the show, they stayed in touch and it almost immediately led to a significant link-up with true rock legend, Edwyn Collins.
In late-2011 the former Orange Juice and ‘Girl Like You’ singer formed his own new label with Endeacott, Analogue Enhanced Digital, and made the Canterbury quartet its first signings: not that they has even settled on a name yet. Fans of old westerns, they decided to commemorate Chief Broken Hands from the old Robert Wagner flick White Feather, and the double A-side ‘Brother’/’What You’ve Taken’ emerged as AED 0001.
“What we recorded as our first single was actually quite a lot lighter and middle of the road than where we are now,” says Dale. “We’re all kind of drawn to the heavier ‘dark side’ really. But I quite like the fact that our first record was like that. I think Cream’s first record was like that too.”
Incubation over, a tour with fellow fresh-faced blues monsters Kill it Kid was followed by a live EP recording at the steeped-in-history Rockfield Studios, then a European jaunt with the mighty Band of Skulls, who selected them from a pile of CDs due to the rawness of their recorded output. Broken Hands have an enviable knack for retaining that live edge on record.
Broken Hands are now evolving rapidly as the old basements and garages give way to increasingly larger spaces, broadening their horizons and their sound. “The bigger venues we’ve played, we’ve realised ‘that’s how it’s got to be to make that room work,’” Dale explains. Their development over the next few years should be fascinating.
No doubt in a few decades’ time - when they're road-weary, weather-beaten and all sporting bizarrely long fingernails – Darby, Ford and the Norton brothers will look back on this idyllic breakthrough period and wonder whatever happened to those wide-eyed, well-intentioned young dreamers. Best catch Broken Hands now, then, before they really get the blues.