Austrian Indie Pop Rock Band Charlywood Has Everything It Takes To Be Huge — Exclusive Interview


One of the Austrian bands I became interested in before I even moved to Vienna in July is an indie pop rock band called Charlywood. A band that has everything it takes to become huge — cool and quite unique songs, both lyrically and musically, a guitarist and lead singer (Andy Charlewood) with a superb voice, a first-rate multi-talented guitarist, keyboardist and backing vocalist in Fabian Lewey, and a stellar bassist and a killer drummer in Markus Manahl and Fabian Natter.

That the four are good-looking guys, and sport rocking beards, certainly doesn’t hurt either.

So, when the end of August rolled around, and I was off to Bunkerei, a cafe in the Augarten area of Vienna, to meet them, I have to say I was excited. Ten minutes into our conversation, and I knew these guys were not only extremely talented musicians, but also some of the coolest guys I’d met in a while.

And during my conversation with the lads of Charlywood, we talked about many things.

The music industry in general, the Austrian music industry and how challenging it can be for musicians, considering how small it is and how little support there is for anyone outside the mainstream, their debut album and their upcoming second album, how Andy Charlewood got one of the high school classes he teaches to create a music video for the band, and what they see the future of music actually being.

In fact, after over two and a half hours of talking (and eating and drinking), they had so many interesting things to say, this one planned article on Charlywood is actually going to be two. Part one kicks off here.

So who are Charlywood, and how did the band first come into being?

Andy Charlewood, the founder of the band, is originally from Basingstoke in the UK but has been living in Austria since 2002. He moved to Vienna for a girl, as many expats often seem to. When I asked if he speaks fluent German, he said he did and the other three quickly rushed in to say yes, and he was good. He founded Charlywood in 2010.

Fabian Lewey is German but, in one way, almost more Viennese than the two Austrians in the band. “I initially came to study in Vienna — to study guitar. But my home town is actually closer to Vienna than theirs (and he motioned to Fabian Natter and Markus Manahl), as it’s very close to the border of Austria and Bavaria”.

Markus Manahl and Fabian Natter are Austrian, and are both from small towns in Vorarlberg in western Austria, right on the opposite side of the country to Vienna. Both moved to Vienna to study, and then stayed for work and music and life in general.

Sure, music is a career, but what do the guys currently do to pay the rent?

Andy Charlewood teaches music at an Austrian school. Fabian Natter teaches piano and drums, and plays in a variety of bands. Markus Manahl is a waiter, and Fabian Lewey had just finished studying when I met them, so had just started to look for a job.

How did the guys of Charlywood get together?

That was due to Andy Charlewood himself. “When I first moved to Austria, I was in other people’s bands playing bass and doing backing vocals, but I had some songs knocking about and I studied music at university so I thought it’s about time I started taking control of my own destiny. About time I started my own band.

So, I hung up posters at the music school where these two went (Natter and Manahl) asking for musicians. Mr. Natter was the first person to respond, and I even remember his email. “Ah, I’m in a couple of bands already, but I think I’ve got time for a pop project” (and they all laughed), and then we found Lewey (Fabian). Markus is the most recent addition.”

Who writes the music for Charlywood?

Andy Charlewood is the main writer for most of what the band puts out. “I write the songs, in the sense of chords, melody and lyrics and then final directions. I mean sometimes they’re completely done – I hear them in one go in my head – and sometimes I’ll just have bits of a song, and sometimes I won’t know what the rest of the song sounds like, and I’ll bring it to rehearsal and say “This is what I’ve got”, and ask the guys what do we do with it?”

Markus Manahl jumped in then, “Yeah, we do arrangements together, but he (Andy) is definitely the song writer.”

How long have they been in bands?

Fabian Natter was the first to respond, as he seemed sure of what his musical background looked like. Even if it was a bit all over the place. “I joined my first band when I was 12, and then I was in a punk band, and still am, for years. We even toured – Germany, Austria, Sweden, France. Then after that, I came to Vienna and studied and got into jazz, and did some Latino rock and then joined Charlywood. But basically, I’m a rock drummer, although punk rock…and skateboarding, was my thing for years.

Now I even play weddings. But I like it. And when I did that first wedding gig, it was the hardest thing to do at first, because I’ve never been in that scene before. All of a sudden I’m playing all these Top 40 songs, but I’m actually having fun doing it. It’s a long night – we start at 8pm and finish at 2am – but I’m still playing music. I’m playing drums, and people are dancing, so it’s cool.”.

Markus Manahl confirmed he had played in bands for years as well. “I’ve played in bands forever. I started playing guitar when I was 12, joined my first band when I was 14, and actually started with this indie rock thing, and then came more the kind of blues thing, but now I’m back in this indie pop rock thing and I love it. It’s great”.

What’s the music scene like in Vienna? Are there a lot of opportunities to play?

According to Fabian Natter, “Not too much I would say. I mean there are many bands, and there are a few clubs, but I wouldn’t say it’s like a strong gigging scene in Vienna. Not like other cities. It can be difficult to get gigs.”

And when I asked them how often they played live, they explained they averaged once every two months. Not a poor amount, but not massively often either.

Plus, getting anyone to focus on Austrian music outside Austria is incredibly difficult. Particularly as Austrians are not always supportive of their own music.

As Andy explained, “The sad thing is Germany has to tell Austria that there’s an Austrian band that’s good, before the Austrians believe it.”

As for the direction, music-wise, that Charlywood is now going in?

Again, Andy Charlewood spoke about this, as he has been thinking a lot about the band’s new direction. 

It’s basically a more focused version of what the first album was all about. Continuing along the vein of not being massively concerned about genre restrictions, so not saying we can’t do a song in this genre or this style because we’re not that sort of band. But at the same time we want a fresh sound, sort of a whimsical attitude – we want a sense of fun to be heard in all our music basically”. (Fun, which you can hear in the four tracks below — then scroll down for the rest of the interview).

On how the first album came into being

Andy Charlewood, who did the production work on the album, talked about the frustrations of being an indie band with little money, yet still wanting to produce an album.

We all put a lot of work into it musically, and then I mixed it myself, I mastered it myself, I did all the photos for the cover, I learned the graphic program and all the software necessary to put it all together, and so it’s literally just us that first album. No-one else was involved.

Plus it was nearly a year of work to get the album done, and friends and family were asking me, “You’re putting so much work into it, but what do you expect to come of this?”And I gave that some serious thought and I realized, for the protection of my sanity, the only thing we could expect to get out of this was the best album that we, as a band, were physically capable of making.

And that’s all that you can expect to happen. Because we knew we were indie, and we knew there weren’t thousands of people just waiting for this album to be released. And we knew, of course it was possible that it would come out and it would go viral, but we presumed that wasn’t going to happen.

To be honest, when it did come out, it was kind of an anti climax. Because it’s months and months of our lives, I mean I don’t even want to know how much time I put into it because it would probably upset me. And then you pick up the boxes of CDs from the duplicator, and there you are with a tower of boxes all sitting underneath the bed, and you’re holding a CD in your hand, and then you’re like, “Hmmm. That’s it”. There’s no party, no streamers, no parade. It’s just over”.

How did the video for their single “Nobody Does What They’re Supposed To” get made?

Interestingly, the music video for the song was actually conceived, acted in and created by a class Andy Charlewood taught at the time (class 3C)  “The concept for that video I left entirely up to the kids. I told them “Okay, super strict teacher, naughty children, go!”, and they did.

And that class, I just fell in love with them as a group right from the beginning. They were a super cool group. And so I thought, “They’re the class to make a music video with”. So we put aside a month of classroom time to film a music video. They filmed it, and I had them putting shots together, and storyboards, they did everything, the camera work, the dance routines, everything – they made a full on project out of it. I sort of directed it, but I tried to let them do as much as they could.

And sure, it was nerve-wracking, because there were certainly days where I wasn’t sure if they were going to pull it off. But they did it.”

As for the video itself, it looks professionally developed and filmed and, while the concept is not one I would have thought of for the song, it works very, very well. Plus, it’s just a fun video to watch.

What’s the band’s goal ultimately?

Andy Charlewood — To make a reasonable living from playing music. And the only way you can do that is by ‘best practices’. Do your best, create your best and hope for the best. But most of what happens from that, and if you make it or not, is completely out of  your control.

What are the band’s future plans? Especially with a second album on the way.

We’re going ‘label fishing’, said Andy Charlewood, “but statistically it’s unlikely we’re going to get signed by any of them, especially as we are different. After all, it would take a far-sighted record label to risk their money on – well, I’d say we still fit quite safely into the pop genre, but we’re pushing things a little bit outside of what is ‘standard procedure’.

So, of course, we’re trying and everyone believes we have something that could be hugely successful, but it’s not likely that a label is willing to take the risk with us.

So I’m moving more and more towards the idea of crowd funding – making Charlywood a ‘group effort’ by bringing the fans on board, making it clear to them that, if they think we’re making art that is worth being made, if they think the world is going to be a slightly better place because our art is in it, then they have the power, even if they’re only giving us five euros. But, if enough people do that, we can get a whole record made”.

To that end, they are in the process of putting everything in place to have much of their funding coming from fans, or from people who believe good indie bands should have the money necessary to do what they do full-time.

The band currently has a membership page on Bandcamp where you can sign up to start supporting them, with patronage for as little as 12 euros a year getting you some very cool rewards, including free music.

As for when Charlywood will be playing live again? Their next gig is scheduled for Thursday, December 1st in Vienna at Chelsea. You can find more details here.

About Michelle Topham

I'm a Brit-American journalist, former radio DJ at 97X WOXY, and Founder/CEO of Leo Sigh. I'm also obsessed with music, anime, manga, and K-dramas. Help!