Reading and Leeds festival 2016 was almost tainted by tragedy. Following two triumphant sets at the summer's-end bash, English south coast punks Creeper went missing, vanishing somewhere along the M1. Frontman Will Gould, guitarists Ian Miles and Oliver Burdett, pianist Hannah Greenwood, bassist Sean Scott and drummer Dan Bratton, all lost to the ether.
Their social media accounts went with them, mobile numbers were cut off, friends and family were left in the dark. All that remained was a missing persons poster for a "James Scythe" and a phone number that, when called, whispered the same eerie pre-recorded message: "On the 2nd of October 2016, we'll die holding hands." A link was promptly texted to anyone who called the number, pointing them in the direction of the site Where is James Scythe?, which attempted to explain the mysterious disappearance of a paranormal investigator from Southampton.
The phone number rang off the hook. Creeper watched their plan unfold, months of script writing and deception finally paying off. "I was really excited coming back from Reading and Leeds in that van, and beginning the whole thing," Gould says today, reflecting on the self-made murder mystery that he'd longed to write for years. "We'd spent months and months and months in anticipation of it going live and to launch the whole thing in one go on the drive back… Our label called us up like, 'This has all gone mad, the phone lines are jammed'," and he drifts off, smiling. "How many hits did the phone line have in that week? It was thousands and thousands. It resonated immediately."
From there on out, things went bonkers – treasure hunts emerged, and Southampton's notoriously haunted Dolphin Hotel was inundated with calls, fans demanding information on James Scythe and begging to book themselves into room 309, from which he was supposedly last seen. To this day, the band are banned from the hotel premises for the grief they caused the receptionist. Creeper's self-written ghost story began to leak IRL, and the devoted masses in their fan-made Creeper Cult Facebook group followed each breadcrumb from the screen to the streets.
At the end of it all lay "Suzanne" – the band's most triumphant, baroque cut of gothic punk-rock to date – and the reveal of their debut album Eternity, in Your Arms, which houses the ghost story of James Scythe, his supernatural assailant The Stranger, and a mysterious, ghost-busting bunch who go by the name 'The Callous Heart'. It's a release that feels fit-to-burst with ambition – one that, from lesser bands, would sink under the weight of its mythology. It should be totally corny and awful. But here, every Meatloaf-meets-Misfits, Warped-Tour-meets-Wagner slice of ornate punk genuinely works and already feels timeless.
In typical British seaside fashion, rain lashes down on Southampton on a spring afternoon when I go to meet the band. Walking through the city centre's Palmerston Park, Gould – hooded and dressed all in black – guns straight for the rougher end of town, to legendary local venue The Joiners. Hang on – he's stopped to chat to a passer-by first, gushing and asking for a selfie.
When Creeper first emerged summer 2014, theirs was a fully formed explosion of glammed-up goth rock. They took the image-conscious aesthetic of their horror-punk heroes, injecting life into an increasingly stagnant British guitar music scene. Cutting his teeth behind the mic in UK punk's best-kept secret Our Time Down Here, Gould found himself bored of the jack-the-lads content to settle for little more than four chords and a rickety van. The band that would become Creeper longed for – and hinted at – the glory days of their beloved AFI, Alkaline Trio and My Chemical Romance, including their levels of ambition. All heavy eyeliner, hair dye and black faux-leather jackets, Creeper fused punk rock and pantomime in a way that blew the cobwebs off rock's escapist heyday - in doing so, they charged ahead of their stale contemporaries, and brought a certain magic and fun back to rock which had been lost for a while.
Since that first self-titled EP, Creeper's ambitions have multiplied – and you can see their mythology plastered all over this port city. The clock tower that forms the backbone of the supernatural story of heartbreak in Eternity, in Your Arms looms overhead wherever you turn. It's attached to Southampton Guildhall, a Grade II listed building that at night lights up the same shade of purple as the band's imagery – pure coincidence, according to Gould. Perhaps most notably, he points out a lamppost near the Catholic Parish church (where they were banned from filming due to having a song called "Black Mass"). That lamppost anchors the opening shot of the video for Eternity, in Your Arms' opener "Black Rain" – and better yet, behind it Gould first met lifelong musical partner and Creeper guitarist Ian Miles, at a DIY punk house show.
"The idea was to try and take Southampton from being the grey, boring place where we grew up into something more exciting," Gould later tells me, as we duck into a faux-American diner away from the rain. "The whole idea of Creeper in the early days was to be a reaction to how boring everything else was around us and make something that was a bit more glam and exciting; visually, a lot more striking. It made sense when we were beginning to take the story and give it a home – to use our own home, but try and make it the same way the music was. Dress it up a little bit."
It wasn't until he met keyboardist and co-vocalist Hannah Greenwood, a year into Creeper's existence, that his hopes really took flight. "Before I embarked on a contemporary music degree, I was going to be an opera singer," Greenwood says, "I did loads of classical violin and classical singing, so coming into Creeper was a completely different world for me."
"It works nicely," Gould adds, "because I came from punk and I've always been interested in musical theatre, and Hannah came from musical theatre and was interested in punk. We met in the middle, as opposites."
With all the pieces in place, they sunk into the work of author JM Barrie – notably The Little White Bird, the Edwardian origin story of Peter Pan. Inspired by both the fantastical elements of those stories of eternal life and the notion of glory-day rock bands (and his beloved David Bowie) as ethereal, unknowable figures, Gould started plotting his own band's abduction.
Recording Eternity, in Your Arms meant Creeper needed to play a game of cat and mouse. Knowing their keen-eyed audience would notice they were recording an album if they took time off the road, they slotted studio time into every corner of their jammed touring schedule. Fibbing in interviews became the norm. "We're always lying," says Gould. "You could interview anyone, and anyone could tell you the dates they're doing – me and Hannah have been telling people for ages that we're brother and sister! I'd like to think that part of our job, as musicians, in the sort of band we are, is to get people's imaginations going. To second-guess things, and to look at things a little differently as well. I lied to everyone at Reading, to every single person, saying 'I dunno when we're gonna do it.' We were recording at the time," he says, grinning.
"We were like, 'Oh, we're just really busy touring right now,' and people thought, 'Yeah, that's true, they are touring so they can't be writing an album!'" Greenwood says, with a cackle. "It worked pretty well."
"It was a really, really horrible time," Gould emphasises, "but it meant that when we did our blackout after Leeds, it caught everybody off-guard. People couldn't imagine how we could've fit in recording an album into a cycle like that. It was a lot more exciting – it had a lot more gravitas to it."
Eternity, in Your Arms is more than just the end game of Creeper's obsession with storytelling, though – it marks the return of a sense of wonder to the scene. From "Black Rain", through "Misery"'s script tattooable declaration that "misery never goes out of style", and onto the closing, ballroom-ready piano of "I Choose to Live", the thousand Topman-clad clones of British rock's recent years are deftly consigned to the bin – the "papier mâché feeling", as Gould calls it, of insincere, bland radio-rock has no place here. Harking back to emo's bolshy, otherworldly early 00s era, it's an escapist's paradise – an open-armed refuge from an increasingly grim real world. "All my favourite records were like that when I was growing up," says Gould. "I didn't want to know who Davey Havok was; I wanted to know him as this weird, ethereal being."
It's having a tangible impact on their audience, too. "I think nowadays a lot of people are perhaps much more solitary than when we were kids," Greenwood says, quietly. "I see posts of people from the Creeper Cult group getting together, though – meeting up with people that they've never met before, and going and hanging out outside. I think that's great – they're meeting other people through this, and actually getting out of the house rather than sitting and looking at it on the internet."
"One of the hardest things for me, when I was a kid suffering really badly with anxiety, was leaving my room," Gould admits. "Someone to go to things with – that's all you need. That's the biggest reward you could possibly get from a band like this, the idea that you're helping someone leave the house. I think that the magic of these sorts of things, especially when fantasy and those sort of elements are involved, is that it's an experience that you can go through together. The band become a background music to the friendship you've made – it becomes something so much more than the music of a band you're going to see, or some faces you're going to see. It's something life-changing. It's something that sticks with you your whole life.
"It's really, really nice to be that for someone else, because that's exactly why I started doing music, to have the same effect that music had on me when I was younger," Gould says. "It's incredibly exciting."
Eternity, in Your Arms is a watershed moment for both Creeper and the scene at large. Casting aside those inauthentic tropes that have plagued modern rock for nearly a decade, it's been embraced by a fandom seldom seen since those early 00s glory days – one that's already invested in the group's every move in a way few non-Matt-Healy-fronted bands could ever dream of. Proof that fantasy and fun can co-exist with today's always-on, reality-obsessed world of social media and smartphones, Creeper feel like that little dash of pixie dust punk's been after for years.
Follow Tom on Twitter.
(Lead illustration by Owain Anderson)
Eternity, in Your Arms is out March 24 via Roadrunner Records.