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Interview: Hugo Manuel of Chad Valley

"I wanted to make something contrasty, glossy, and slick."


Hugo Manuel aka Chad Valley performs on stage
Andy Sheppard/Contributor/Redferns/Getty Images

Chad Valley is the stage pseudonym of Hugo Manuel, a 26-year-old from Oxford, England, who also fronts the shape-shifting indie-pop band Jonquil. After a run of Jonquil records —two LPs, 2006's Sunny Casinos and 2007's Lions and two EPs, 2009's Whistle Low and 2010's One Hundred Suns— that ran the gamut from drone-folk to synth-pop, Manuel began Chad Valley in 2010, inspired by the dreamy, downbeat, Balearic disco of Swedish producers like Studio and Korallreven. He released his first, self-titled Chad Valley EP in 2010, and followed it with the mini-LP, Equatorial Ultravox, in 2011. After two records of washed-out, hazy, near-chillwavey sounds, Manuel sought to make a bright, shiny debut LP proper: 2012's Young Hunger inspired by glossy '80s pop and '90s R&B slow-jams. The album features guest vocals from Twin Shadow, Active Child, Glasser, and El Perro del Mar.

Interview: October 12, 2012

What were your beginnings making music?
"I had a piano in my house when I was growing up. I started out just playing it by myself, just literally bashing on keys, then I started taking lessons, studying it seriously for all of my childhood. After that, the next thing I did was join a band. A very awful rockband when i was 14, 15 maybe. It was kind of classic rock, I guess; Led Zeppelin wannabes. I think we had one original song, the rest were covers. I was playing keyboard and singing, much like I am now. After that, then, somehow —I guess I used to play around on computers a lot— I started transponding with music-making software. I was about 16 I guess. Completely teaching myself without any instructions; none of my friends or family knew how to do any of that stuff at all. It two me two or three years to learn how to use sequencers and synths, through trial-and-error. I really liked Aphex Twin and German techno, and I was trying to do something like that, but failed miserably. What I'm doing now feels like a total continuation of that thing, only these days with a lot more hardware, and a lot better skill."

If you see a sense of continuity between what you were doing in your youth and what you're doing as Chad Valley, how does Jonquil fit into that lineage?
"While I was making electronic music in my bedroom, I formed a band with my friends. It was about five years ago now we started Jonquil, initially, and it's a completely different line-up now; I'm the only member who's stayed in Jonquil this whole time. My friends and I were all in loads of different bands, so it just felt like an obvious thing to do, to form another band. When we started out, we were this band into the very noisy, droney aspects of outsider folk; that kind of world. All the time I was doing that I was still battling with my electronic set-up, but it took a long time to form any group of songs cohesive enough for me to actually put a name to. When I did, it was Chad Valley."

To me Chad Valley sounds like the name of the rich jerk who has the girl that the nerds have to overthrow, in one of those '80s American teen romps. I was shocked to discover it's an actual place.
"I like the fact that people think it's a name. That it's my name. Because the other connotation that people have here, in England, is this old toy company, who makes these cheap, budget toys. I didn't know that when I chose the name, I just knew it was a place and that it sounded like a name. I like it when I turn up to a venue for a gig, and the sound person says 'hey, Chad, nice to meet you!'; I just go along with it. It's like having a double persona. It sounds really American, to me, and I've always been into Americanisms."

When did you feel as if you had enough music, and songs that had enough of an identity, for Chad Valley to be its own thing? Its own persona?
"About three years ago. I was doing a lot of stuff with Jonquil at the time, and working a full-time job in a shop. I wanted to be able to work less at the shop, because I was doing 9-5s, then coming home and writing stuff, and three evenings a week we'd have Jonquil band practice. So, I'd had enough of that; and I came up with a name, and put the four songs that I had up on Myspace, just for the sake of getting gigs. I realised playing gigs by yourself you get to keep all the money. So, in those early days, getting 50 quid, 100 quid for a show, that'd mean I'd get to work less at my job. That was a huge motivation at the start of it: being able to almost call myself a professional musician. That gave me the impetus to really pursue this project as much as the band."

What did you want this project to be, musically?
"I definitely set out with a goal. I'd been writing a lot of solo music by myself, and it was all over the place; I'd have a few dance tracks, then some ambient stuff. It was a bunch of completely disparate pieces. I'm not naturally someone who writes in one style; once I've done something once, I kind of want to move on from it. So, I had to make a concerted effort to do something cohesive. It was always going to be upbeat, major key. I've never shied away from that. When I sit down at the piano, it'll always be in major keys. Writing sad songs doesn't come naturally to me. I guess I'm just a happy guy. Plus, at the time I was influenced by a lot of music that was, for want of a better word, very tropical, or exploring the elements of world music. A lot of Swedish stuff: the Tough Alliance, Studio, Korallreven, Air France; all that Gothenburg stuff that was coming out thick-and-fast at the time. Tough Alliance were huge for me."

Were you excited to be able to rope D. Lissvik [of Studio] into doing a remix for you recently?
"Incredibly excited. Beyond excited! I was really pleased. I guess I'm biased, but to me it's the best remix he's ever done. I'm a really big fan, I've heard all his stuff, and I really like that one. I'm hard-to-please with remixes of my stuff, and his was very exciting to me."

Did your love of Gothenburg lead you in the arms of El Perro del Mar, as well?
"Exactly. Or, wait, maybe she came a bit earlier? I think I'd been listening to her for a while. She was a huge influence on me; not specifically as Chad Valley —her first album was completely acoustic, not electronic— but on me as a person. So, being able to work with her was just as exciting. I'd got really obsessed with New Edition, the R&B group from the '80s. They were like the original boy-band, produced by Jam & Lewis, a real New Jack Swing kind of thing. So I just wanted to, somehow, incorporate elements of that. It's such a specific sound, that uses such specific instruments; and being the synth geek that I am, I could spot most of the instruments that they used. I even had a lot of them, all these forgotten late-'80s synths that people don't want because they're not fat and analog, they're crispy and digital. But I love that. So, I wrote a whole bunch of tunes in that kind of vein, and 'Evening Surrender' was the result of that. I definitely wanted a girl on that, and I didn't know anyone who could do it justice; I wanted a really fragile voice on there. Someone at my label suggested El Perro del Mar because they knew her manager, and I jumped on it: 'this has to happen! Let's definitely make it happen!' I don't think anyone realised how much of a fan of hers I was. And, lo and behold, she was up for it. She was in the middle of making her album, Pale Fire, that's just come out; we were both in the middle of making our albums so it took a while for it to get recorded. She just did it herself and sent it over to me. I've still not even met her. Quite weirdly. It was a completely remote and surreal duet."

Did you really want to have the All-Star celebrity guest cavalcade on the album? Or did it just happen that way?
"It was always the intention to have loads of guests from the very beginning. As a way to involve more people than anything else; because I think it's hard, as a solo musician, to not get really introspective. I'd done two EPs worth of introspection; songs that were just me and my thoughts, written and produced by me with lyrics by me. It was all a little too me-centric, and I'm not too comfortable with that. So, I wanted to have other voices in there to widen the palette. I find it interesting that it's something that's not done much in this genre of music. You look at hip-hop albums, or R&B albums, and it's pretty standard to have a guest vocalist on almost every song. I like that element of that kind of music a lot. I'm not the hugest hip-hop fan, but I like that feeling of having different voices coming through. I just really like duets as well; I have a soft spot for any duet. There's a great Joni Mitchell/Peter Gabriel duet ['My Secret Place'] that really inspired me as well. I also just realized that I have a lot of friends, and it was something I could do easily."

Did you think of this as making a debut album, with all the connotations that come with?
"I really did. It doesn't feel as much like a debut album as a lot of bands. I've been friends with a lot of bands who got signed really early, released a couple of singles, then put out their debut album, and all the songs from their singles were on there. With me, I'd already released two EPs worth of music, so it doesn't seem as much like a traditional debut album. But that's the way I went about it, that it was my introduction to the world. I'm probably unknown to most people who are hearing this album. But, wait, now that I'm thinking about it, it's almost more like a second album the way I conceived of it, because I set out to make something very different from what I'd already done. I wanted to contradict myself a little bit. Everything I'd done had been hazy, recorded onto tape, a bit distorted. I wanted to make something contrasty, glossy, and slick."

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