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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Oh Wonder: We spent our honeymoon covered in cockroaches in a burning building


Most people spend their honeymoon somewhere romantic. Mauritius, Antigua, a cosy B&B on the coast.

Not Oh Wonder.

The indie-pop duo, who’ve been a couple as long as they’ve been a band, travelled to Ipswich and made a movie about breaking up.

“We went from a happy day to an abandoned house full of cockroaches,” singer-songwriter Anthony West explains.

“And we spent the next week arguing on film,” Josephine (Josie) Vander Gucht, his musical and romantic partner, adds.

From there, the storey only gets weirder. Josie became hypothermic. Anthony was forced to flee into a burning building. They both had scorpions crawling all over their faces.

But, in order to understand how they got there, we must go back to the beginning of the pandemic.

The band was about to embark on the biggest tour of their lives in March 2020. They’d scheduled 120 dates across four continents and were only five dates in when everything fell through.

“We just didn’t know what to do with the adrenaline,” Anthony explains.

“We’d been practising for two months, so it was a physical thing. ‘Why aren’t we doing what we’ve just been told to do for the rest of the year?’ our bodies wondered. It was a difficult thing to figure out.”

Slowing down was especially difficult for a band that had always travelled at 100mph.

Since their inception in 2014, they’ve amassed a sizable international fan base for their low-key, musically intimate songs, which are distinguished by their distinct vocal unison.

They may not be household names, but they have 2.7 million global streams, have been sampled by Nicki Minaj, and have been covered by Billie Eilish.

Their work ethic has been crucial to their success; they began their career by releasing a track every month on Soundcloud, and they have toured relentlessly throughout their career.

“We both grew up with hardcore parents who said, ‘You have to work every minute you’re awake in order to be a good human,'” Josie laughs.

Lockdown initially provided an opportunity to work on new material in the studio at the bottom of their garden. By June, they had enough songs for an EP titled Home Tapes, which focused on the quarantine’s extreme isolation.

“Then Anthony, like 95 percent of the UK, started baking sourdough, and I started eating sourdough,” Josephine says.

The band’s last two albums went into the top 10 in the UK

But, as with so many other couples, lockdown exposed flaws in their relationship. As they continued to write songs over the summer, the lyrics took on an angry and resentful tone that caught the couple off guard.

“When we’d go in, all these venomous lyrics would just… come out,” Josie says. “And we weren’t going to talk about it. We’d just nod and carry on with the song.”

But, while the atmosphere in the studio was calm and professional, tension was building at the other end of the garden. As the project progressed, they realised that their fourth album might be their last.

The perfect couple?

Josie sat at the piano in their living room one day and played a chord sequence that immediately inspired the idea for a melody.

“I ran down there [to the studio] and said, ‘I think I’ve got a song idea,'” she says. “And then Anthony turned on the microphone, and I just started signing.”

“What if I hate who I’m becoming? / And my young heart never runs free? / I’m just afraid that I’m failing / I’m just afraid that I’m done,” the words poured out unbidden.

“It was my first time singing it. “I hadn’t even written down any lyrics or anything,” she remembers. However, the message was clear.

“We started telling people we were breaking up,” Anthony explains. “But they were like, ‘Wait, what?'” I thought you two were the ideal couple. ‘What am I if you’re unstable?'”

They poured their hearts into the album while confined to the house, documenting what they thought was the end of their personal and professional relationship.

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Then, on Free, Josie described the night they met “sat on the roof of your one bed apartment” on New Year’s Eve 2013, before confessing: “I’m sorry we got here / I wish I’d done more to save us.”

“We recorded it, and you hit the stop button,” she reminds Anthony. “And your eyes welled up with tears, as did mine, and we exchanged a small hug.”

She felt she had “truly honestly apologised” for disappointing him at that point. And, gradually, they began to mend their relationship through music.

“It was very strange,” Josie recalls. “I think a lot of people buried their feelings, especially during lockdown, just to survive.” However, we write songs because we dislike burying things.

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“In retrospect, we had these big fights, but the next day we’d go into the studio and the songs would be our way of apologising.” It sounds strange, and it appears that we were not communicating, but I believe we had talked so much, and, and…

“…And this was the final way for us to discuss everything,” Anthony concludes. “It’s almost like there’s a peace treaty within the songs.”

By the end of the album, the couple has recovered from the lowest point in their relationship. “What if we made a pact to make it right?” they ask on the upbeat ballad Kicking The Doors Down.

“That definitely feels like a turning point with some hope,” Anthony says. “We trudged through the night and emerged on the other side.”

The album, 22 Break, was nearly finished this time last year, but the band’s manager advised them not to rush it out because the UK was still in the grip of the Covid virus.

“We were thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll release this album before Christmas,’ and he said, ‘Guys, I think you should just sit and chill for a few months.'” Don’t get tired of the songs, and don’t lose interest in the music. “Go do something else for a minute because otherwise you’re going to get really resentful and sad – because you’ve created something and you can’t do anything with it,” Josie advises.

“Which, in retrospect, I think was quite clever.”

So they did what any couple who has just recovered from a devastating relationship crisis would do: they divorced. They purchased a coffee shop.

“It was something I’d always wanted to do but never had the time,” Anthony says.

“We’ve been to so many coffee shops around the world, and having that experience and not incorporating it into your own place would be a sin.”

So, for three months at the end of last year, unsuspecting Peckham residents were served coffee by a world-famous alt-pop band while they waited for their new album to be released.

“No one knew who we were,” Josie marvels. “We were just masked up, mopping the floor and working the till, and it was so nice to have a routine and interact with people.”

“Plus,” Anthony adds, “if you make 600 coffees a day, you get pretty good at foam art.”

Oh Wonder in concert: Mochaccino not pictured

When vaccines became a factor, the duo hired staff to keep the coffee shop running and finished the record.

This entailed two steps. (1) commissioning a short film to accompany the music and (2) a marriage proposal

“We’ve always known we wanted to get married,” Josie says. “And I think it was just like, if we don’t do it now, we won’t be able to do it later because we’ll be back on tour.”

The couple married in August, surrounded by friends and serenaded by fellow musicians Honne, Conor Albert, and Polly Paulusma.

Josie stood up and sang Katrina and the Waves’ Walking On Sunshine, while two friends dressed as Oh Wonder performed covers of their own songs.

“It was the best day of my life,” Josie exclaims. “It’s better than a show.” I’m just sorry I won’t be able to do it again. “I require another wedding!”

Josie says getting married is the only thing that matches the adrenalin high of playing live

So we return to the beginning of this storey. How did they end up filming a short film about their break-up two days after getting married?

“We were supposed to do it before the wedding, but the director, Thomas James, got Covid,” Josie explains.

Undaunted by the nuptials, James raked over the ashes of the break-up with a storey that depicts Josie and Anthony trying to walk towards each other while being pulled into dark voids and torturous situations.

“I think it was one of the most difficult weeks of my life,” Josie says.

“We shot a lot of it in this abandoned house, and on the ninth day, we discovered that someone actually lived there, and they were hiding in one of the rooms.”

Another scenario involved Josie wading into the sea off the coast of Norfolk, where she developed hypothermia and had to be treated in an ambulance.

Other scenes required the musicians to be covered in bugs, butterflies, and maggots, while Anthony put his life in danger for a pivotal scene in which the not-so-abandoned house burned down.

“We had these pyrotechnic specialists, and their job was to come up and set fire to a replica of the house,” he explains.

“One guy said, ‘We’re just going to do a test,’ and he lit the bottom of a nylon curtain on fire.” So everything caught fire, and everyone yelled, ‘Fire extinguisher!’ and they were like, ‘Oh crap, we left them in the van.’

“So the director said, ‘We have to roll!'” We’ll start filming as soon as you get in there!”

Josie found herself thinking as she watched her new husband battle the flames, “All I want to do is sit at home and write songs, and I’ve got hypothermia, and you’re in a burning building.” “How did this happen?”

The band say the story of 22 Break isn’t quite finished… Pointing out the album only features 11 of the 22 chapters promised by the title

Everyone survived, and Oh Wonder has a proper honeymoon planned for November.

Before that, they’re letting everyone see the near-collapse of their relationship via the 22 Break album. It’s more revealing, stripped-back, and infinitely more moving than their previous work.

Josie admits she hasn’t figured out how to perform the songs live without crying, but she knows she has all the support she needs right there on stage with her.

“It’s insane to look to your left on stage, while you’re high, and see the person you love the most in the world,” she says.

“To see someone else flying while you’re flying?” The combination is absurd. It’s fantastic.”

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