Charles Cave (Class of 2006)

Charles Cave (Class of 2006) is bassist and lyricist with the band White Lies, whose epic alt-rock anthems have been compared to The Killers, Tears for Fears, U2 and Joy Division. Their first album, To Lose My Life, went to No 1 in January 2009, since when White Lies have toured the world, appeared on the Letterman Show, supported Coldplay and played at the Glastonbury, Reading and Coachella festivals and released four more successful albums. They are touring the UK in March, with a date at Hammersmith Apollo on March 26.

What was the moment when you realised the band was going to be a serious thing?

I was in a band with the other two guys when I was still at school. We were called Fear of Flying then. We would do shows in places like Exeter and Northampton even on a week night, coming back late on National Express and then back in school the next morning! But I can’t say that at that time we ever had a confidence that we were ever going to go anywhere.

A couple of years passed by and there was no real breakthrough. We all took a gap year after school and did music and again nothing happened. So we all, riskily deferred our University places and did a second gap year and at the end of that second gap year, me and Harry [McVeigh] the singer met up at his house to try and write – instead of writing as a band.

His parents had an electric piano. We had never written on a keyboard before. We wrote a song on the electric organ setting – Unfinished Business - and really thought we had gone to the next level - so much so that we thought we needed to set up a new My Space page under a new band. We sent the link to a few people and things really kicked off. We had loads of messages from record labels about that one song and everything kind of started from there and I feel like it never stopped, for 13 years – until the pandemic.

From early on, you were working with the producer Ed Buller, who had worked with big bands like Suede and Pulp. How did he help develop your music?

He taught me more about music and making records than anyone. He really directed our music through a few different influences that we didn’t really have before. He always explained things to us – ‘What about using a sound like on Scott 3 by Scott Walker?’ and we’d be like, ‘We’ve never heard that record, we’re only 18.’ And he would play us all this different music. It wasn’t about copying other people, it was expanding our horizons. We wanted to have this 80s-ish sound and he helped us to find a palette of sounds that was of that time but in quite a tasteful way. He still wanted to help us make a bombastic record but in the right way!

Had you always been into 80s music?

Maybe when I was 15 I discovered Talking Heads through my dad and would watch their Stop Making Sense concert on DVD all the time. The 80s started to make its way back into contemporary culture maybe with that film Donnie Darko which became a cult classic with teenagers my age – I was 15 when it came out I went with a friend to see it as the cinema. It had two Tears for Fears song and Killing Moon by Echo and the Bunnymen. So that helped a lot of us discover a lot of that music.

But at school I listened to all kinds of things. I was very into heavy metal but I got into Paul Simon and world music through my dad and things like Penguin Café Orchestra, which was the first gig I ever went to, at the Albert Hall. So: everything!

But more when we sat down to write songs the kind of songs we wanted to write had soaring euphoric choruses with melancholy woven through and quite a lush, decadent sound and those qualities were all there in 80s music.

What kind of world are you trying to create with your lyrics?

In the early days I was interested in narrative-led songs that were understandable as a short story. More recently, I’m still interested in telling stories but I feel more free to do it in a more abstract and scattered way, maybe switching perspectives and having different viewpoints in each verse. I feel more free to jump about a bit and jump through time, which has probably come through reading fiction and going into novels that weren’t linear in narrative. I did a few terms of a fiction course at City Lit and we had a couple of teachers there who encouraged us to read a lot of modern fiction that experimented with different forms of narrative.

But I also have to stress I feel very passionately that lyrics are a tool for singing. It’s really about the music. I always start with, ‘What words will sound good over this music?’ and then bringing in the actual verbal content later on. You can get words that sounds nice to sing but don’t mean anything and you have to change them and it’s almost like a puzzle. I mean, not everyone works like that!

Was there a moment of thinking, ‘Wow, we really did it?’

When we heard our album was No 1, we were in Siberia, in the Arctic Circle, making a video. We knew we were in the running but we weren’t expecting it. It was surreal. We were like, ‘What do you mean? Us?’ It didn’t make any sense.

I think the moments that have always been kind of poignant are when you see a lot of people singing your songs back to you. In the early days, being in Mexico or Iceland, we always felt it was wonderful but we were working so hard there wasn’t that much time to sit back and think about how cool it was. We were 19 or 20 but flying around the world doing shows every night and promo during the day.

Actually, it’s really in the last few years, especially the last tour in 2019, for our fifth album, Five, that we have really appreciated where we have got to; it’s not normal for a band at our point to keep growing. People move onto what’s new. But that album was our most successful since the first one.

On that tour, hearing people were singing back the new songs the same way as the old ones… we sold more tickets than ever. That was amazing.

So there’s a lot pinch-me moments but the overriding fact of keeping going and growing with each record is amazing.

What misconceptions do your old school friends have about life in a band?

The two CLS friends I keep in touch with from that time are both in music themselves and other old friends from my teenage years have grown up with us and seen our journey. It’s not like we are suddenly, ‘Come and see us at Wembley Arena’. They came to see us play in their student bars – and even when we were all still at school. So they saw us grow. I suppose when we had a No 1 album they realised it was getting serious, but it’s not like we live in a completely strange world.

It’s only really distant family members that don’t really understand it. You know, one of them said to me for years, ‘So, do you ever plan to go to University or do something with your life?!’ And I’d say, ‘Who knows…’

People don’t really get it. I mean even having a No 1 album, they might think in terms of singers that were one hit wonders in the 70s. So they are kind of right to be concerned! But they don’t see a band as a solid business and career, building an audience in Europe, they don’t see how that works so much.

But the other day a song of ours was used on a Netflix trailer for the show Sex Education and when things like that happen, I start getting texts from my family and they see that it’s a real thing!

What subjects did you most enjoy at school?

For A Levels, I chose the four subjects I really cared about: English Language and Literature, Drama and Music.

In the end, I dropped music after AS level and did the other three for A-Level. I have no classical training in music, my theory is fairly weak and I can’t read music. I thought my performance and composition would make up for the theory to get through Music AS Level – which it kind of did.

Up until the end of GCSEs, I hadn’t been a particularly good student. I got acceptable GCSEs but I was more focused on the social side of things. Because everyone at CLS was from all over London I was travelling a lot at the weekends going from Ealing to Islington or Hackney or the South Bank to go skateboarding. But then a lot of those friends left CLS after GCSEs, so my social life dwindled a little bit and I worked really hard academically in Sixth Form.

Which teachers inspired you?

I always had great English teachers. I still don’t know any of their first names. Mr Dyke, Mr Keates. My form tutor for GCSE years was Tom Wingate – he was at the school for five or six years, he’s now built a school in Mexico City and I see him every time we tour there. The first time we went there we met up and we had a day off and he took us to see the Pyramids. He turned up with a packed lunch and sunhats – he was in proper ‘School Trip Teacher’ mode. It was so nice. We had such a great day. He’s a great guy.

I had a really great English Language teacher – Brian Smith. Lovely guy. At some point early on, we did a signing in a record shop in London and someone showed up in a CLS uniform. I said I’d been to CLS and told him my name and he said, ‘Hang on, I think Mr Smith is still using your English language course work as an example for everyone else!’ Which was amazing. Very flattering.

I was so into theatre and Mr Biltcliffe, the head of drama, was inspirational. Earlier on, we had Miss Marsland, who was super charismatic – and I remember Joe, the theatre technician for a long time, being very supportive.

I had good music teachers: Jack Fitzgerald, who was very enthusiastic and into jazz. Also Alex Lestrange who was an external music teacher, who seemed to play every instrument. He was a young, really lovely guy and our lessons were very free form. We would just improvise or learn jazz standards or I’d bring in a song we could learn. He made the learning of music feel completely unacademic. It felt like play. That was really important for me.

Mr Mannington came into to teach guitar and bass and I remember him saying, ‘You could do this for real, you could be a professional bass player.’ That was very encouraging.

How do you look back on your time at CLS?

I had good relationships with teachers and a few really believed in me but I don’t think I was anyone’s favourite. I had the lead role in ‘The Government Inspector’ in my final year and I received a lot of nice notes from various teachers including the head, saying it was a great production. I always felt as if I was slightly under the radar at school, so it was nice to be recognised at that point.

My final memory of the school was collecting my A level results from the reception. Gerald Dowler was head of sixth form. I was terrified of him, but he was a lovely guy. I got my brown envelope and he was looming around there and he said to me, ’Well, well, well Mr Cave, isn’t this a turn up for the books?’ So, no one was really expecting me to do really well. I went through so much school being quite average and then quite poor at things like sciences at GCSE. OK, I did three artistic subjects for A Levels but I got three As and it obviously surprised a few people!

There’s things about school I didn’t appreciate until later in life. We had to join cadets. I wasn’t a passionate cadet. It was quite a funny thing. Probably a good reflection of the real services. A few people who love it, a few people who want to avoid doing anything. I was in the cadets with a couple of my skateboarding friends. We got to shoot rifles and do things that maybe you wouldn’t have got the chance to do at other schools. I mean, we didn’t want to walk through the rain and put up tents. Of course not! But I wouldn’t change it. It was a formative part of my life.