Interview by Faye Bradley
LONDON. An ever-evolving music and coffee culture scene in London have shaped the city into the creative hub it is now. An interview with Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht of indie-pop band Oh Wonder and Peckham cafe NOLA on the relationship between music and coffee and how NOLA is bringing together communities.
London has spawned some of the most successful indie bands over the decades. Drifting away from mainstream tunes, the ‘indie’ moniker can be categorized by its soft melodies, passionate drum beats, and home-strung instrumentals. The alternative rock music genre coincides with the independent artist ethos, taking an autonomous, homegrown appeal. Neighborhood live music venues of London have brought us today’s legends, from David Bowie playing at London’s Marquee Club in Soho to The Horrors at The Spread Eagle on Kingsland Road.
But moving forward from the ’70s and ’80s of pop-rock culture, the ’90s and 2000s saw a surge in more acoustic melodies to soothe the soul – with indie fan favorites including The Libertines, Bombay Bicycle Club, and The xx. A more recent emergence from London’s indie scene is Oh Wonder, made up of couple Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West. The artists began their journey in 2014 when they were dropping one track per month for a year in anticipation of their debut album. The band became an instant hit with millions of streams, a series of tours, and four more album releases. Growing up around a live music scene was crucial in the making of the band and its influences. “We both grew up in the indie scene in London, playing super small venues and pubs to very small crowds,” Vander Gucht and West tell Paradigm Haus. Digital presence was instrumental in helping boost a loyal fan base. “Streaming services have had a huge impact on the way bands can develop and have enabled musicians to not just rely on playing shows to be noticed by fans and the industry.” The duo pointed out that it certainly helped them with forming an audience, but in-person attendance is of course, essential. “You can have many listeners and fans of your music without ever having played a show, but we both feel like it's so important to get on stage, find yourself as a musician, and grow in a very organic way.”
So what’s changed besides our obvious relationships with technology and an ability to ‘discover’ new artists online? London, without a doubt, has become a hub for artisanal coffee culture – one that has percolated over recent years. The spectrum of coffee options is wide-reaching with each district showcasing its own unique charm, and as a ritual stopover for many work commuters, coffee shops are embedded in the typical Londoner’s regime. It’s music that makes this daily pursuit even more uplifting – and is something that Oh Wonder has embraced with open arms.
“London is our home,” Oh Wonder tells us, on London’s influence on the band’s creative processes, “it's where we grew up, where we met, where our studio is – it has soundtracked our whole relationship”. They noted that the new albums are very personal and reflective of the conversations they have walking around their neighborhood. Oh Wonder had just started their first week into a world tour when the most unexpected, unprecedented call came to return home due to the pandemic. “We'd just released our third album, and put so much work into creating the live show,” they said, “it was actually really difficult to go from performing on stage and being mentally prepared to play hundreds of shows to thousands of people, to sitting inside with absolutely no prospect of live music opening back up.” This global loss of live music was undoubtedly a struggle for many bands and hindered opportunities for touring. It was at this moment that Oh Wonder decided to expand its ventures into the London coffee culture scene while being able to merge it with music.
Opening NOLA in Peckham, London was a way to stay creative during lockdown, they added. “We became extremely grateful for our community and neighborhood…We admire that each coffee shop, whilst sometimes being a destination coffee spot, predominantly and proudly serves its local people.” Choosing Peckham as the neighborhood for NOLA was no coincidence. The South London abode is frequently overshadowed by the likes of hipster Shoreditch and Soho but it has been cropping up on more radars thanks to its up-and-coming creative scene. To the couple Peckham is, “the center of culture and cool for South London.” Adding to the buzzing appeal of the affluent area, “it’s where we walk our dog, go out for dinner, drink cocktails, see friends, visit ceramic fairs and creative markets, go to the gym, fix our bike, do yoga...it’s the best place!”
The duo opened NOLA with the intent to fully welcome a neighborhood community. “Our slogan is ‘coffee for everyone’…for us, this means being able to facilitate the local coffee fans who want to enjoy our hand brew or try our rotating seasonal espressos, whilst also welcoming those who just want a flat white and a chat.” Coffee is about connecting with people, they said, “It’s a ritual, it’s an escape, it’s joy.”
Merging music with coffee culture was a given for the duo. The chosen tunes in a coffee shop are so important in setting a mood. “It dictates the vibe and feel of the space and fills the gaps to create a flow in the store. It puts people at ease and provides a soundtrack to the ritual of a coffee. It has to be the right song at the right volume.” They shared a story about a time when the speaker system was cut out for an hour and it was “the most awkward hour ever”. Of course, the playlist matters – and it varies depending on the sun. “In the morning people need a gentle nudge, by the weekend the sun is out, everyone is a bit happier and our staff wants something to boogie to whilst they're making hundreds of coffee.” Classics on the Nola speakers include Window by Still Woozy, Eugene by Arlo Parks, and Pink + White by Frank Ocean. On the similarities between the creative process of designing a coffee shop and curating an album, the Vander-Wests share their experiences, “in both processes, you are driven by an overall big feeling, but very focused on the details,” they said, “We have spent hours trying to find the perfect synth sound and hours trying to position the word NOLA on a cup.” The joy and the rewards are in the details. “It's also strangely similar in the way that you make an album and it's not yours anymore; it belongs to the listener – NOLA now belongs to the Peckham locals.”
As creators, they are facilitating everyone else’s emotions and providing a soundtrack to their lives. The main differences between coffee and music link back to perhaps the preferences of the people. “Even if we don't particularly like a mocha, we still have to try and serve the best one we can,” then when talking about music, “We'd never release a song we didn't like though!” Their top recommendations for NOLA include the Ethiopian Buku espresso made by Head Barista Kyumin, or the Columbian El Carmen batch brew. “Also order a pastrami sandwich, a waffled cinnamon bun, a slice of carrot cake for later and put them in one of our ‘Don't Cry Over Spilt Milk’ tote bags.”
Meanwhile, out in London’s famous Bermondsey Street, WatchHouse – a popular stop for Oh Wonder – honors a community of coffee lovers in a bright-designed space. Community Manager Faye Mitchell shared her notes on the importance of music in a coffee shop. “Experience for both customers and the team in a coffee shop is super important, and music plays a big part of that,” she told us, “For the team, it is part of expressing the identity of the café and keeping the ambiance welcoming and interesting. For customers, it is another layer of experience to connect with and enjoy.” The London coffee scene is so passionate and driven by community spirit. “There's lots of creativity too; people take chances on projects, ideas, and collaborations that take a lot of courage and curiosity, meaning the culture in London is always evolving in new and exciting ways.”
Oh Wonder’s new album 22 Make will be released July 22, 2022.
This article is from our interview feature on Oh Wonder available to read in print. Get your limited edition copy here.