By Flora Pick, Deputy Music Editor
Sierra are in an odd fix. Having made the choice to establish roots in Bristol at the beginning of 2020, any plans for Thekla takeovers were shortly thwarted by pandemic mundanity.
‘I’ve been here for 12 months and have only been able to do things for a month of that. I don’t really feel like a proper Bristolian yet, even though I’ve been living here.’
Says Charlie Kempson, who heads up Sierra as singer-songwriter, guitarist, bassist and primary producer. Joining him is guitarist and Instagram manager Harry Bowden-Ford and Richard Discombe, who’s official role is defined as ‘going crazy on guitar’. Together they create music that aims to disregard the arbitrary barriers that surround indie rock and instead expands to include funk and electronica infused touches.
Despite the lack of opportunities for rock-n-roll living provided by a city wherein everything is closed, Sierra have been singularly proactive in their ability to take COVID-19 limitations in their stride. Over the past 12 months there has been an intense effort to get pre-existing tracks recorded, leading to a streamable back-catalogue more extensive than many bands who have been at it for years. Produced in a home studio, the quality of the songs is an impressively far-cry from the usual lo-fi bedroom efforts. Elaborating on the deceptively humble process Charlie admits: ‘The only production background is from being in studios before. I basically find videos of artists I like and copy it’ adding that ‘Harry and Richard are great, as I’m no good at disciplining myself with things; Harry has a good ear for detail.’
The scope of their ambition is palpable, with singles such as ‘Mind/Body’ traversing an expansive soundscape that transcends suburbia.
‘We just decided to get our arses in gear, really’, Charlie explains of the rapidly mounting back catalogue that has appeared on Sierra’s Spotify over the past 12 months. ‘We’d been fairly unproductive… I always felt I’d get to the age of 40 and wish that I’d given the band a go. Because I’d been ticking along at 60 per cent and saying, "we should do this sometime".’
Now having existed in some iteration for the best part of the decade, Sierra emerged in its larval form when Charlie and Harry were just 13, searching for other people at their secondary school to make music with. Previous names falling by the wayside — first Atticus (struck down because ‘we found out that was the same name as the clothing brand from Blink-182’) and later Eve and the Animals (‘weird because our drummer was going out with someone called Eve at the time’). Sierra came into its present self when Harry met Richard while studying at Bristol. Uni had the band strewn across the country, with Charlie far afield at Royal Holloway; it was a numbers game that had them gravitate towards Bristol after graduation.
Emerging from this seemingly untimely move is an unexpected optimism, reflected in music that ‘only gets happier and happier.’ Charlie highlights that ‘what’s nice about being locked indoors is that we can give music a proper crack - if things were normal, I would feel more guilty about spending so much time on music. There is the old-fashioned sense of "oh you should have a proper job; you should be doing this, that, and the other", but we can’t really have proper jobs!’
The relocation was, strangely, not Sierra’s first encounter with the city; they enjoyed a surprising prelude when they landed a gig at the iconic Fleece, performing as the solo project of Charlie Kempson. They hope that this bodes well for future live endeavours, jokingly answering ‘Wembley’ to questions of where they might aim next.
Yet the band recognise the issues that face musicians entering a scene without having an already established presence in the midst of the pandemic. Richard recognises that, while ‘live sets are a fantastic solution, tailored towards bands that would have already been playing live anyway’, they face difficulty as ‘most of the venues have no idea who we are because we only turned up in the last 12 months.’
While this is understandably frustrating, the band again seem to be remarkably practical about the restrictions they’ve faced: ‘the last 12 months or so have seen us completely shift away from a thought process where we’d say, "we’re doing well if we’re playing gigs".’ While a lack of live audience has provided the privilege of rather more out-there production tricks, the bands current line-up is unlikely to be the entirety of their live outfit. They would love to track down a drummer who is also able to drive, if any aspiring local musicians fit the bill, they would love you to get in touch.
Eliciting the most excitement is the prospect of a future music video for their single ‘Lonely Spring’: ‘we’ve managed to wrangle ourselves an hour and a half on a passenger ferry when it opens up, just us and the crew. Buy some silly costumes, go alone with our instruments — who knows what’s going to happen?’
‘Who knows what’s going to happen?’ is the operative question with Sierra. With a remarkable backbone and a tendency for resilience and growth in less-than perfect circumstances, it is exciting to see how they take on the world when it opens back up.
Featured Image: Catherine Cranefeild
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