The Cover Story

Bob Vylan, Witch Fever and High Vis are propelling punk into a vital new era

Next month, 2000trees will bring together everyone from rock veterans to breakout stars for the ultimate celebration of the scene. Ahead of the festival, and to applaud just how incredible UK punk is right now, Bob Vylan, Witch Fever and High Vis come together to put the world to rights…

Bob Vylan, Witch Fever and High Vis are propelling punk into a vital new era
Huw Baines

“So much great art comes out of hardship,” Witch Fever vocalist Amy Walpole observes, with an almost audible air of frustration. “But it sucks. It's nothing new – music has been made for so long off the back of trauma.”

It’s early on a Friday morning as Amy bats this idea back and forth with Bobby Vylan and High Vis frontman Graham Sayle, situating one of music’s most galling truisms at the heart of a vital wave of young, politically-engaged British punk bands.

When our conversation gets underway it’s already hot outside, forebodingly so, as the planet hammers home a point it’s been trying to make for years, while another political scandal unfolds close to the top of the parliamentary tree, with the usual blend of cowardice and self-interest stitched to the Partygate affair like patches on the saddest battle jacket you’ve ever seen.

But while Boris Johnson scuttles and obfuscates, almost everyone else is struggling to keep the lights on and put food on the table. It’s not a great time to live in Britain, which is essentially a post-Brexit hinterland of sour moods and grim inequality. Conversely, cliché or not, it’s a great time to start a punk band. “The current political climate is a shitshow,” Graham says. “All of a sudden the spotlight’s on [punk] because people are hungry for that kind of thing.”

Last spring, Bob Vylan saw that hunger up close. The duo – completed by drummer Bobbie Vylan – sent their 5/5-rated album Bob Vylan Presents The Price Of Life into the Top 20 of the UK album charts like a jolt of pure energy. The record felt both of its time and like an absolute rejection of present day, climbing into everything from the political elite to institutional racism and food poverty with snarling precision. ‘Yeah, the BBC are talking about the GDP, that means fuck all to me,’ Bobby spat over roiling bassline and crushing distortion of single GDP. 'I gotta eat!'

That they were able to gatecrash the party is indicative of a groundswell of support in direct response to the vitality of their music – their rise was not a top-down thing, and it wasn’t initially bolstered by a local scene, as so many band’s ascents are. It was DIY because it had to be, it was confrontational because it had to be. They were Black men used to being told to wind it in, but they refused. “We couldn't even find somebody to do our press! They're saying, ‘The music is a little bit too aggressive, and you're saying these things about the police.’ So we had to force our way through,” Bobby says.

So far, so punk, you say. It’s not like the Sex Pistols were welcomed with open arms back in 1977. But these bands – alongside everyone from London’s Oi!-leaning hardcore revivalists The Chisel to Leeds’ crossover thrash chaos merchants Pest Control, Cardiff’s proto-hardcore party starters Panic Shack and the anxiously anthemic Glasgow group Goodbye Blue Monday – tap into the intensity and communal release of punk, while explicitly rejecting the iconography and ingrained ways of doing things.

When the Pistols and The Clash began pogoing their way across the UK, everything was shit and on its way to getting worse as Margaret Thatcher got her hooks in. They made great music during terrible times, but that doesn’t mean they showed the only way to do it. “There's definitely something to be said for the solid framework of, ‘Here's three chords, go and do stuff,’" Graham says. "But I think the bands that are most interesting draw from all the different parts of what is a rich punk history and then make something new."

In 2022, High Vis and Witch Fever held a mirror up to this idea, displaying punk’s essential malleability on a brace of exceptional albums. The former’s Blending was a fusion of hardcore spirit, Madchester-flecked indie-rock and needling emotional candour, while the latter’s Congregation was a febrile whirl of doom-rock and slashing chords. Bob Vylan’s music, meanwhile, continues to pinwheel between jarring noise, grotty power chords and bouncing keys lifted directly from grime. They’re all about disassembling punk’s rudimentary blueprints and building something that more accurately reflects who they are and where they come from. Graham knows his history and is interested in the punk canon, but has no time for what he calls “’77 cosplay”. Equally, Amy sees a prominent strain of macho bullshit in the way the Pistols are still lionised. “I actively try to not be that,” she says.

“The ’70s weren’t a great time for people like me, you get me?” Bobby adds. “I don’t want to go back there anytime soon.” Noting a greater affinity with foundational American hardcore bands such as Circle Jerks, Gorilla Biscuits and Bad Brains, he continues, “I do think that the reason people have a tendency to go back to that when they talk about punk is because the genre has done such a good job at making that the only punk music that anybody knows. So if I say, ‘I'm in a punk band’, someone goes, ‘Oh, like the Sex Pistols.’ That was fucking ages ago, bro. I wasn't even born. I wasn't even thought about. The genre has done a good job of holding that up as punk, and everything else that came after it has not been championed in the same way. It's been seen as somehow less important.”

There is little doubt that what Bob Vylan, High Vis and Witch Fever are doing is important. They offer an outlet at a time when people desperately need one. Their music is vibrant and exciting, and lyrically they have found a way to scratch beneath the skin by using granular, human details to connect with listeners through anger, grief, anxiety and hope. “I've never written for anyone, I'm always just trying to make sense of stuff,” Graham says. “I think it's really important to be honest about what you know. This is such a fucking naff way of saying it, but be true to yourself, and your actual lived experience.”

For High Vis, that begins with the UK hardcore scene that spread out across the country a decade or so ago, held together by grit, determination and a lot of noise. Graham fronted the feral Dirty Money and Tremors, bands that also housed High Vis bassist Rob Moss and drummer Edward ​‘Ski’ Harper, whose bedroom post-punk experiments became the basis for their melodically savvy sound. Having grown up in New Brighton, a town on the Wirral left to rot under Thatcherism, he moved to London to study at Goldsmiths, running headlong into privately-educated kids whose existences were nothing like his own. Hardcore became a haven for an outsider.

Now – more so than Bobby and Amy, whose experiences in London and Manchester have been defined at different times by cliques and othering – Graham points to a scene that has helped to prop up both High Vis and a wider network, from established labels like La Vida Es Un Mus to upstart organisations such as Fuzzbrain, a studio and community project designed to help working class kids get a foot in the door with free access to facilities.

“The hardcore scene in the UK is in quite a healthy position,” he says. “It was a scene that traditionally presented itself as revolutionary, but it was always quite conservative, I felt, when I first was getting into that stuff. Now it does feel like it's shifting in small increments, there are a lot more diverse characters in bands and it's fucking cool to see.”

Witch Fever – rounded out by guitarist Alisha Yarwood, bassist Alex Thompson and drummer Annabelle Joyce – have long been happy to exist on their own terms. When they were starting out in Manchester the local punk scene shunned them, with one band going as far as to cover their songs as an exercise in piss-taking. “People did not like us,” Amy says. But good luck ignoring them now. There is something baroque and enticing about their music, which radiates out from Amy’s lurid use of metaphor and straight-up barked slogans.

I'm crushing popcorn kernels underneath my knees to feel closer to the Trinity,’ she screams on the surging Congregation opener Blessed Be Thy – try shifting that image in a hurry. Having grown up in the shadow of the Yorkshire church her parents joined while they were barely out of their teens, she had rules put upon her as a woman that she continues to reject as a musician. “Our drummer is non-binary, but at the start we all went by she/her and people saw us as women first, and needed us to have a reason to be making music,” she explains.

“We couldn't just be women having fun. We had to be making a political statement in order to be on the stage and making music. When we first started, it was never our intention to be a political band, but the more we were in the industry, we realised that we had to because it was just so fucked up – the things we were experiencing, and things we were seeing other people experience. I feel like a lot of people see us as women and queer people first, and we have to win them over because they have this preconception about what we're gonna be like based on what we look like and our identity.”

Bobby nods along as Amy says this. “I get that, for sure,” he agrees. “And I think that's probably one of the reasons why I don't feel like there is much of a scene in London. But, like, that might just be because I don't get invited to the scene, do you know what I mean?” Self-sufficiency is the Bob Vylan way, though. They’re a DIY enterprise, from putting out their early work on their own label to booking their own shows.

“As cliché as it sounds, you have to be the change that you want to see,” he says. “I've spent countless hours talking to people about how to release a record yourself, for example. If I can pass that information down, then I'm more than happy to do that. I think that sort of stuff then does help create a scene to some degree, because people will hopefully pay that forward. If I can learn something from somebody, I can teach it to somebody else, and they can teach it to somebody else. I feel like that can only be a good thing, especially if it means taking a little bit of power away from the industry.”

For half an hour a night, for an hour, for however long they have, these bands pour it all out, finding that physical and emotional release that punk has always thrived on. On paper, their words exist to spark conversations, but live they are fuel for something altogether more visceral. “That’s what keeps me at it,” Amy says, reflecting on the exchange of energy that she shares with an audience. “A show isn't just you performing, it's your interaction with a crowd,” Graham agrees.

In a few weeks, Bob Vylan, High Vis and Witch Fever will roll up in the leafy surrounds of Upcote Farm near Cheltenham for 2000trees, a festival that increasingly looks like a staging post for the UK punk scene. Joining them on the bill are veterans such as Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, a one-two of The Chisel and Chubby And The Gang, the remorselessly intense Crows, fuzzbomb newcomers Beach Riot, and Toodles & The Hectic Pity, the latest sound to emerge from Specialist Subject Records’ west country proving ground. It will be another lovely time. "It's a really good atmosphere,” says Bobby of the Gloucestershire weekender. “When I was out in the crowd, it was just nice. A nice vibe in those fields. The bands are all cool."

“I find the festivals weird, innit,” Graham adds. “I've never been to rock festivals, really. I'd go raving and that. And then this one… I was like, ‘Fuckin' hell, man, people are nice!’ Everyone's like, 'Sorry, mate, please.’”

A couple of weeks after landing in tents at Download, Bob Vylan and Witch Fever will hit the main stage at 2000trees. There is a sense that this will right the balance of things a little bit, tuning in more acutely to what’s going on in the UK scene. “I don't think we should have been on the main stage for Download but, Bobby, I think you probably could have done that,” Amy enthuses.

“I think 2000trees is one of the few festivals that makes a point of championing new bands, like us, for example,” Bobby continues. “Last year we were in a tent, which was far too small. And this year, we're on the main stage, you know? We're doing two sets, we're headlining one stage, and then we're earlier on the main stage. So, you can see that there is a progression.”

2000trees is not immune from the perennial line-up problems that dog the festival scene, but the feeling is that they’re not trying to pull the ladder up behind them. Where many events rely on returning veterans with collective ages running to 200+ years, it’s not out of the question that Bob Vylan will be topping the bill in the not too distant future.

“It doesn't help when festivals are fucking booking the same half-dead – because they're not far off – headliners year after year,” Bobby says. “That doesn't help bring in any new talent or any potential headliners for five years down the road, 10 years down the road, and it doesn't help punk or rock music as a whole move forward and progress. And that's why, at the moment, rock music is not the most popular music.”

Turning that tide will not happen quickly, but events like 2000trees can be bulwarks that draw together a culture. Amy points to the crushingly heavy British metallers Heriot and visiting side-project Fleshwater as her picks for the weekend, Bobby will try to see ZULU’s head-spinning mix of powerviolence and soul samples, while Graham is all-in on seeing some mates and maybe catching post-hardcore legends Rival Schools.

In between all that, their bands will seek to make a mark on thousands of minds, delivering unvarnished truths from a massive platform while having as good a time as humanly possible. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it’s honest. It’s reflective of the difficult situation we find ourselves in, and music’s power to drag us out of a hole. “It's kind of weird to be making shit that is really fun and you enjoy, but it has come out of stuff that is horrible,” Amy admits. Graham concurs, settling on a simple approach that removes the difference between playing a floor show and a festival set. “I'll always just do the best that I can, and exert as much energy as I can,” he says.

“If I'm making a song, it's for me,” Bobby chimes in, looking toward his 2000trees sets. “I made it for myself because it's missing from my life. It's the same with the live show. I play music for a living. That is ridiculous. Why would I not go out there and have fun? I'm gonna go out and have as much fun as I possibly can with my friends, and convey this message as true as I possibly can to the audience – they see you having fun, they want to have fun.

“Everybody wants to come to the party.”

2000trees takes place July 5 – 8 at Upcote Farm in Cheltenham – get your tickets now

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