The last time we saw The International Playboys they were being serenaded post-gig by a man who wanted them to incorporate his composition into their set – it was something about his heartbeat, and the melody sounded suspiciously like You Are My Sunshine. They responded with incredible humility, perhaps beyond the call of duty. So were they tempted to take it on? “It’s done, it’s out,” says bassist Charlie Cutforth.
“But now we’ve changed the melody, the genre, the lyrics. And it’s called Coward, by Nicola Warwick,” says singer Nicola Warwick. Coward is the first song on her new EP, BOAT (Born on a Tuesday), released with the band’s support a few months ago at their home venue, Heroes.
They might be known for their late-night cover sets, but there is more to this band. For starters, The International Playboys are three-time winners of Time Out Abu Dhabi’s Best Resident Band – or as Cutforth puts it, “The International Playboys award”, having retained the title in May. They are the only band to have ever won it.
We meet in Cho Gao at the Crown Plaza downtown, near Heroes where the band play five nights a week. Cutworth has ordered a sushi platter, and now has enough maki rolls in front of him to feed an orchestra. Warwick is filming his “error” for Instagram stories. “I’m surrounded by [her phone],” he says. “It’s like having Spitfires flying in from every angle.”
It was Cutforth who started the group and named it (although not, as often thought after the Morrissey song). The original line-up toured in England for a year before they got a call from an agent who wanted a band for Le Méridien Dubai. This was around 1998, and they soon ended up joining the Rock Bottom circuit, touring for eight years and opening all the Middle Eastern outlets, bar the one in Bahrain. “We just tried to be the cover band that other cover bands weren’t,” says Cutforth.
“The mission brief was always the same – we had to be edgy, we had to push the boundaries a little bit. I wanted be part of something I wanted to see. There was only cabaret then and bands playing Hotel California – one night I went to six bars in Bahrain and heard it in every one.”
The Playboys do have a bête noir too, though, their own Hotel California, and we’re surprised to hear it’s Zombie by The Cranberries. “It doesn’t matter what time of evening or day it is,” says Warwick, “it’s always requested. A few times.”
“And it’s such a weird song. In England there’s no way you’d be requested to do that,” adds Cutforth.
So how do they keep things fresh? “You’ve got to rebrand yourselves every six months or every year. We go through phases – we’ll have an indie phase…”
“Where we do mainly Indie music,” Warwick chimes in, before there’s a playful discussion about whether she said “indie” or “Indian”, which she blames on her Cape Town accent. And that’s the thing that stands out about this band – their chemistry. They have an infectious love for life and passion for what they do. Warwick joined the band over six years ago, as did drummer Josef Holmes. Guitarist Michael Pickstone joined two years ago. They are a team who riff off each other, but also push each other to work harder and aim higher.
“It’s like a relationship – if you’re pretending to like each other it doesn’t work out,” says Cutforth. He coaxed Warwick into joining the band after seeing her perform in PJ’s, although it didn’t take much. “He told me that I was going to join his band, but little did he know that I was in Heroes every chance I could get saying to myself, ‘I will join this band one day’. It was exactly me – the performance and energy. So it worked out well,” she says.
Their advice to other bands would be to be self-critical, to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb and kick anyone out who’s not on the same page. The band not only do their own audio engineering (Warwick), they do their own branding (Cutforth) and are hoping to take things to the next level this year – “we feel like this is our year”. They have been recording more original songs in Warwick’s home studio, as well as working on a new music video (“it’s not the same as any other cover band’s promotional videos”) and there are hopes to take part in November’s Formula One Grand Prix weekend. This really could be their moment.
So will they see they be four times lucky next year? We’ll hace to see, but if they do win it’ll be down to talent, not luck.
The International Playboys play from 10pm, Tuesday to Saturday at Heroes, Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi (02 616 6132).