Words: Ingrid Marie Jensen
I ran away, hands stuck in pockets that seemed
All holes; my jacket was a holey ghost as well.
I followed you, Muse! Beneath your spell,
Oh, la, la, what glorious loves I dreamed!
– Arthur Rimbaud, “Wandering”
In the Deep South of America, where I happen to live, it was the honky-tonks and blues dives from Natchez to New Orleans that muddled the poorest states through the Great Depression. The government provided little, if any, saving grace in a desperate situation. It was music, and the blues in particular, that fuelled survival.
Besides a few tweaks in outward appearance (new street signs, new formats of currency) not much has changed in ninety years. There is still a big wedding cake of a house in Natchez with gold doorknobs, and everyone still has a sinking swampy feeling that something about that is not right or good. And there is still a shotgun tin-roof honky-tonk near the edge of a lake on the outskirts of town that reverberates with the heavy throb of slide guitar and the tinny, pained wail of harmonicas and voices splitting the dark with the age-old tale of the blues every Saturday night in summer. The honky-tonk was there when Jerry Lee Lewis played the keys of his first Starck upright piano to bloody splinters, and it is there still. In these dark days, when it is harder to buy a house than it was during the Great Depression, the right music can provide a panacea against giving over to total Orwellian despair. It’s the same story wherever you are: the strength of a city rests on its artists.
And so, when Juno Valentine moved from Brazil to London, alone, at the age of 18, traveling 5,500 miles solo with the express purpose of forming a band, he knew wanted to live his life someplace where music was the heartbeat of daily life. A wise choice. He elected to settle in south London, where he immediately began cobbling a band together.
Valentine is the founder, the front man, the main lyricist and songwriter of South London favourites, the Children of the Pope. The band’s current incarnation stands in the form of Valentine, Fells, Matilda Mother, Glenn Wild and James Robert. With Valentine’s swashbuckling moustaches, Fells’ retro ‘70s stylings and Matilda Mother’s halo of pre-Raphaelite curls and quiet sphinx-like dignity, they present a striking image as well as producing a striking sound.
“We all met at the Windmill. Drinking—and seeing other bands,” Valentine remembers. “Glenn, who plays guitar, I met him on the first night I had ever been out in London. It was at the Windmill. I believe Meatraffle was playing. I bought a Guinness and sat down outside and within five minutes he came and asked me my name.” Valentine then convinced his friend Fells, who was bored to tears working a 9-5 in Portugal, to relocate to London and become the band’s drummer.
By the end of 2018, the band had its first stable line-up. They also had a name: the Children of the Pope, a moniker suggested by Valentine’s friend Lewis, as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the convent school background of the band’s original singer, Karolina, as well as in recognition of Valentine’s “obsession with gospel music.”
Karolina had completed her training as a nun before falling out with the church and finding herself, in a bizarre twist of fate, fronting a rock band. She’s since departed the group due to mental health issues, but the influence she exerted on her bandmates remains palpable. Valentine describes her as: “Always bold and trying to test boundaries in art. Nothing was too deranged for her.”
Valentine’s songwriting is strongly informed by the extraordinary array of music that he was exposed to by his grandparents as a child. When young Valentine went on road trips with his grandfather, his grandfather would play his favourite records in the car: the Doors, the Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Talking Heads. After noticing his interest in the instrument, his grandmother gave him his first guitar when he was still very small. He grew up hearing stories of his cousin, who played in the Brazilian group Os Mutantes, known in their home country for being one of the keystones of a dissident musical movement called Tropicália that arose during the dictatorship of the late 1960s. (Kurt Cobain was also a big fan.) As Valentine’s all-time favourite group, they’ve wielded considerable influence over the Children of the Pope.
The Children of the Pope’s sound is full of sly nods to 60’s psych and Dick Dale-era West Coast surf rock. Yet it still manages to make itself accessible to 21st century kids who haven’t discovered Buffalo Springfield or “Misirlou,” yet. It’s nostalgic without being dated, a gateway sound to a bygone era. There’s a raw, punk, edge to their work that comes via the band’s fondness for “dirty guitars, manic shouting, surrealist melodies.” Valentine’s lyrics tell grimy little realist inner city Aesop’s fables, tales of love won and lost and all the twists and turns in between the two points. Songs such as “She Drank Holy Water from the Source,” and “Street of Chance,” are reminiscent of early Velvet Underground tracks.
The band got the chance to open for Insecure Men at Venue MOT last year. It’s one of their favourite shows to date: “Gotta thank Saul (Adamczewski) for that. He does a lot for us.” The ultimate dream is to return to Valentine’s hometown and perform. Brazilian musicians often hit him up, these days – a London contact makes the lure of a pond crossing seem less frightening, more sustainable, somehow.
The band recently signed to Isolar Records, and subsequently released their first single on the label, “Junkie Girlfriend,” in April. The various Covid-19 lockdowns were spent recording reams of new material and there are definite whispers of an album in the near future. Keep alert for the revival, as orchestrated by the Children of the Pope. Striped tents are going up and the choir is assembling. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost: laissez les bon temps rouler.