Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Connor Pope
The Hare and Hounds Venue One is bustling with anticipation at 9:30pm on the Monday before Christmas. I struggle to push my way through bodies on the dance floor to the smoking area, in need of some quick air and a moment to collect my thoughts before The Nature Centre arrives on stage.
Made up of Beth Hopkins on vocals and alto sax, Oli Pyper on vocals, bass and synths, Hamish Campbell-Legg on drums, and Bird on guitar, I’ve been meaning to catch up with these hard to place locals since this time last year. And with a room so full in our current economic climate, it feels like my drizzly outing might possibly be worth the hassle.
Back in the venue, I notice festive red lights bathing the stage matching the timeless ‘Please respect the vibe. No phones on the dance floor’ sign to my right.’ Is it ever enforced?
Christmas ballards play in the background and saxophonist Hopkins tunes up on stage. The show is about to begin.
The Nature Centre’s first number brags some tight, funky jazz, firmly punctuated by the persistent twang of the bass and the strong kick of the drums.
Then, the next track completely twists the room’s energy with Hopkins switching up the saxophone for vocals, which blend between punk, folk, and indie. The sound swings, becoming more textured with the addition of a synth; the bass and guitar combined with the vocals bring an almost two-tone feel.
“You know what they say, get your best song out of the way first!” jokes frontman Pyper introducing the band. Then sternly, “This is not a Christmas gig.”
‘Forecast’ offers up another turn, tropical indie pop, with jovial harmonies and gentle cymbals. Bird’s rhythmic strumming paints rolling ocean waves, or summer breezes across vineyards, and Hopkins drops vocals just in time to pick up the sax and play the final notes of the songs.
In ‘Maria’ I can hear a clarinet and it confuses me momentarily because the other instruments are all still present. The drums, guitar, and bass all groove and grumble whilst Hopkins now switches between vocals and flute, carrying the endlessly peaking melody with high note after high note.
There’s some sound issues but any worries are quickly placated as we’re assured it’s the “soul of the groove,” most likely frustrated at being silenced in between songs.
Up next it’s The Nature Centre’s latest release, ‘Parachute’, and yet again Bird’s fingers skate skilfully up and down the neck of his guitar, accompanied by the synth and Hopkins’ Slitsy head voice. It feels like a waterfall of treble notes cascading over my ears, and there’s a smidge of Latin flare.
The next two tracks are funny and interesting, a winning combination in any situation with lyrics like “Calling my cat Dog Face” and “Oooooo, the ghost of Eddie Bingo”.
The synths go nuts and so do the drums; The Nature Centre lets loose, indulging in a boogie for the first time all evening, and it feels like the set’s about to really get going.
But, wait … This is their last track? It’s a bit cheeky considering they’ve barely been on stage for 30 minutes.
The synth beeps and taps, the guitar and drums crescendo. The bass melts under the main sound and Hopkins is back producing immaculate warbling tones from the sax.
“Mmmmm you drive badly, I hate the way you drive,” grumbles Pyper, pulling the strings moodily on the bass.
“Like a bastard you drive,” he screams, “like a fucking bastard.”
So that’s it then? Sweet but disappointingly short.
What’s that? Making us their fool, The Nature Centre let us in on the big reveal. There’s a second set with self proclaimed “fringe” member Sean Murray.
I haven’t left enough words for this.
Murray’s bassy voice on ‘Blank Holiday’ has an even more gritty, British edge, which adds depth to the overall sound, now thick with three harmonies.
Pyper’s bass jumps up with the sax and guitar wrapping around the curve of Murray’s lead vocals at the end of each line.
In the breakdown, it gets rockier with Bird shredding the guitar and Campbell-Legg’s drums sticks blurr – The Nature Centre becomes harder to place. I understand why they describe themselves as avant garde pop, but maybe avant garde indie makes more sense.
“Look into my left eye – we’ve got one more song,” states Hopkins. What the hell does that mean?
The instruments on stage all skit, and it’s over.
My only criticism, still, is that it didn’t last long enough.
For more from The Nature Centre go to: www.thenaturecentre.bandcamp.com/
For more from Hare and Hounds go to: www.hareandhoundskingsheath.co.uk