“I would give anything to have seen The Jam play in a small venue back in the day.” I’m talking to Oli Orton at The Chameleon. His band, SubCulture – on the bill tonight with Gazelle – will be ripping through a set of hard-edged numbers about ninety minutes hence. In ten day’s time they’ll be making their London debut at the legendary Dublin Castle in Camden Town.
Comparisons with The Jam are going to run hot for many years for this talented young man and the three-piece Mod outfit he fronts. It’s something Orton is going to have to get used to. Seeing SubCulture play live is, to a degree, a turning back of the clock to Woking in 1976 and The Jam, or The Who’s Shepherds Bush era. And like The Jam, SubCulture are managed by the front man’s father.
Orton junior has a confident stage presence and focused determination that belies his relatively tender age. He and bandmates - Lewis Smith on bass and Declan Mills on drums - are all just seventeen. SubCulture formed in 2017 when the three were attending The Long Eaton School. An early name for the band was Scrimmage. “We Googled ‘clash,’” Orton says, “because we wanted a synonym of The Clash, but Scrimmage didn’t really work.” A wise move probably.
The band’s nascent performances were at school talent shows and assemblies, before an opportunity at the Hop Merchant in June 2017 saw them deliver fifteen or so cover versions to a more discerning external audience for the first time. SubCulture’s influences shone through then and since with covers of The Who’s My Generation, Eton Rifles by The Jam and the Small Faces’ Tin Soldier making not infrequent appearances in their set. There’s also a kind of punk energy about the band; Orton cites the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Undertones as influences.
Tonight though, with only half an hour scheduled on stage, it’s original material only. “I write something,” Orton explains, “then bring it along to practice and the band make some suggestions and we take it from there.” It’s also only original material that has made its way into the studio so far. Young was released digitally late last year and subsequently on vinyl with Commoner as the B-side in February. The Kids Don’t Dance and B-side Street Act came out in May. Young started life when Orton wrote it for his music GCSE exam. “Very obviously influenced by The Jam’s When You’re Young,” he says with a knowing smile.
Somewhat a traditionalist, Orton is a big champion of the vinyl revival. “Vinyl feels more real,” he says, gesturing with his hands as though he was carefully lowering a 180-gram record onto a turntable.
It’s been a relatively short journey for Orton, Smith and Mills from school assemblies to over 200 gigs under their belts from as far afield as the Isle of Wight – supporting The Secret Affair at a scooter rally – to Liverpool’s Maida Vale via the intriguing-sounding Derbyshire Sausage & Cider Festival. They’ve built a solid local following at Nottingham venues such as The Chameleon, The Bodega and the much-missed Maze.
Oli Orton picked up his first guitar at the age of six and started writing songs at twelve. “No one in my family played music,” he explains, “but there was always music in the house growing up. My parents liked Madness and bands from that era. A few years ago they took me to The Jam exhibition down at Somerset House. I pretended I wasn’t interested because I was at that kind of age,” he says with a bit of a mischievous smirk, “but I was.” His interest in Mod culture grew from there. And he’s very clear about the band’s direction and image as a Mod outfit. “I like the ideology and the culture that goes with it. There’s a sense of something you can be a part of.”
Orton’s confident stage presence and no fuss delivery is reminiscent of Paul Weller – his vocals a passion-aggression hybrid. He is a focused young man with a very clear idea of where he wants this band to go. Complemented by long-term allies Smith and Mills, Orton and SubCulture can look forward to an exciting future winning over more fans at every gig – they will play more than eighty shows in 2019.
Coming to a pub, bar or festival near you very soon, this exciting young band is one to watch out for.
SubCulture played The Chameleon with Gazelle and Louis Croft on Thursday 18 July.