When I arranged to interview St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), her new album was just about to be released. She’s been touring for months, last year taking to the stage with indie icon David Byrne (Talking Heads) to tour the album they’d made together, Love This Giant. She started writing the solo album released this month during her tour with David, so she really hasn’t stopped in a very long time. When I asked her if she’d been doing a lot of interviews, she said “I have done so many”, succinct yet idiosyncratic, which would be good words to describe the whole interview
“At my funeral, I would like someone to make a jello mould of my body and serve it to the guests.” Annie Clark, sporting a white mad-scientist haircut, doesn’t shy away from the ‘quirky’, but as many critics have pointed out, she’s got more than just a few witty turns-of-phrase. Her music is highly personal and unusual, and she cites influences from Sonic Youth and Pavement to Charles Mingus, Yes, and Kanye West. When I ask her about them, she’s reticent – “Well, y’know, influences are one thing, and influences are great, and you have to have listened to so much music in your life to be able to make your own music, but ultimately it’s about having your own voice – it’s not about referencing this, that and the other and checking off some cool boxes or something, it’s about ‘what do you wanna say and how do you say it?’ And is your voice unmistakable, or do you sound like a million other things out there? The goal is to just sound like yourself.” Despite that, Annie’s willing to admit that “everything I hear anywhere somehow makes its way into my work”.
The new album doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there today. “I wanted to make a record that had the feel of human beings but the sound of machines. So everything is a real instrument, it’s just been distorted to the point where it sounds inorganic.” Nevertheless, I point out that the move to a digital sound has been quite popular recently, but Annie doesn’t seem to consider herself part of any wider movements in pop culture right now. It’s true that Annie’s projects seem to make a splash regardless of fashion recently – she and David Byrne worked with almost solely brass instruments on Love This Giant, and yet they still managed to court the critics – the Independent called it a “skewed and funky instant classic”. Annie and I talked about her time with David Byrne. “I’d worked with woodwinds and things before, and strings, but never with a full brass band.” Would she consider working with him again? “Well, we certainly had a wonderful time, and never say never, but I don’t think either of us are people who look back, so I think maybe it’s done.”
One era over, another era beginning – St. Vincent’s new self-titled release has already been lauded by hundreds of critics. It’s a bold and experimental record, and I asked how she went about writing it. “I come from the Nick Cave school of songwriting, where, if it’s time to write a record I just put on a suit and tie and go to work every day and write a record, and treat it like I have a day job… With a song like ‘Prince Johnny’, I wrote the lyrics first. I don’t usually work like that, I just had this fully formed short story. And then there are songs like ‘Rattlesnake’, which grew from a jam I was working on, and then I got bitten by a rattlesnake and had something to actually write about.” I asked Annie about her favourite lyrics on the album. “I like “Remember the time we went and snorted that piece of the Berlin Wall that you’d extorted and we had such a laugh of it?” and that’s because ‘snorted’ and ‘extorted’ are such ugly words. They’re ugly words in a pretty song. It’s just a challenge. How do you put the word ‘snorted’ in a song? How does that not sound just like a glaring mistake?”
St. Vincent seems like a more personal record than her others, partly because she looks particularly stately and individual on the cover art and partly because the lyrics give the album a confessional atmosphere. “Well, every record I’ve made has been in some cases really about my life, so I wouldn’t call this more confessional than others, but I would say that this is a more extroverted record than other records I’ve made.” Does she think that this approach to songwriting is a symptom of the culture she highlights on ‘Digital Witness’? “I think that we are obsessed with documenting our lives, and sometimes at the expense of actually experiencing our lives. But I’m also a fish swimming in the sea, and I have a Twitter account and I have Instagram and everything. My main rule for myself is just not do anything on social media that makes me feel empty inside. Like taking a selfie.”
Being a “fish swimming in the sea” in this internet age can be really beneficial for artist and fans, and Annie recognises that. “To me it’s all about the fans, and my fans are awesome, and I meet people after the shows, and everybody’s super-sweet, and that’s my favourite part of it. That’s the whole point of having all the social media stuff, it’s not just being a voice of propaganda for your interests, but to actually get that feedback, to be able to reach out.” Since Annie’s rise to prominence, she’s collected a fanbase which is increasingly diverse. “I feel lucky that it seems somewhat diverse. Y’know, it’s diverse in age, gender and race, and all that. That makes me very happy. I’m glad I’m making music that appeals to more than one kind of person.”
“I’d say it’s the more Eva Cassidy end of folk… for want of a better way to describe it!” laughs Devonshire singer-songwriter Jess Hall about her upcoming debut album Bookshelves. Though this is perhaps not the most current of comparisons, Jess’ naturally stunning vocals have been attracting a lot of attention on the Oxford music scene and Bookshelves is all about the voice. “My main skill is singing, so Barney, the producer, and I wanted to focus on that. It’s very simple and pared down; there are some bigger arrangements but the instrumentation is there to compliment the vocals really.” Thematically, Bookshelves is less steeped in the history and storytelling of conventional folk, with Jess instead drawing inspiration from the beauty of her coastal home town and wistful memories of experiences growing up there. “I was listening to Seth Lakeman, Cara Dillon and Katherine Roberts when I was starting to get back into folk and they were all singing about people getting murdered and really horrific sexual violence stories. It’s just quite depressing and probably not what you want to sing about all day or have stuck in your head; I think sometimes life’s hard enough on its own! So for my songs I’ve stuck to more personal experience… or if not personal, other people’s experiences and then cleverly hidden it so they don’t know I’m talking about them!
“Lyrically there’s a lot of romance and also a lot of beach references, as a literal thing and as a metaphor. I love the sea; whenever I see it anywhere it makes me glad inside.”
With such a deep emotional connection to the coast, moving to the land-locked spires of Oxford for her work with Christian Aid could have had a detrimental impact on Jess’ music. Not surprisingly though for someone with such natural talent, Jess has blossomed, with a number of high-profile local musicians falling for the clarity and purity of her voice. “It was something that I really wasn’t expecting actually, I didn’t realise fully that there was such a thriving scene here, and I’d only really just started to get into open mic stuff in Devon. It’s a hard place to move to if you’re not a student I think and getting involved in music has put me in touch with a lot of lovely people. It’s been really exciting, I think particularly working with Barney, I’ve been playing with him on and off over the last three years now.” Producer of Bookshelves, Barney Morse-Brown is a local folk-roots cellist with an impressive back-catalogue of session work, performing with the likes of Eliza Carthy, Birdy, The Imagined Village and Chris Wood, as well as garnering critical acclaim with his own work in Duotone.
“I’d seen him supporting Stornoway at the A1 Pool Hall gigs when they launched their debut album, and I was really intrigued by him and his beautiful cello playing. So I wrote him a message saying that I was interested in his lyrics and if it wasn’t too personal, could he tell me about them? A few days later he sent me a message back and I just thought it was really sweet he’d taken the time to do that. From there, I asked him if he’d play at a charity gig I was putting on and we ended up playing together. He’s worked with some big, big names so from the start I was very excited. He’s a very generous player; he’s not there to steal the show.”
As well as Morse-Brown’s production and cello accompaniment, Bookshelves also features input from Stornoway’s Jon Ouin who was keen to get involved with the project after seeing Jess perform at Wilderness festival. “I was singing with a local band called Flights of Helios, they’d asked me to do some folk songs with them. Jon came over afterwards and said he really enjoyed my singing which was just so cool. Jon met Barney at some point and expressed that he would be interested in being involved with the album too. He’s got a lot of respect for what Barney does. When Barney told me I was just running round the room going ‘Jon Ouin!’ like a massive geek, it’s so embarrassing, but I was a huge fan so it’s quite funny now that he’s a friend. I remember being quite nervous when I first met him. He’s an amazing musician as well and really accomplished, and my guitar playing… well obviously I’m a singer and the guitar is a back up to that, but Jon’s got an incredible knack for picking up instruments and being able to play them to a real degree of excellence.”
Such an encouraging experience from the creation of Bookshelves may have come as a surprise to Jess, who was quite reluctant to record when first starting out as an artist. “I had done a little bit randomly and I think it’s quite easy when you’re recording and you don’t know much about the process to end up with something that you think doesn’t really sound like you, and it put me off a bit. Actually it was trying to get gigs that really spurred on the recording because promoters if they’ve not heard of you need convincing sometimes.” After sending out a very basic, single track MP3 sung into a friend’s Tascam recorder and receiving a number of rejections, Jess decided she needed something stronger to send to the venues, and with the help of her uncle’s home-made studio, put together EP Red Jumper, released in 2011.
Now, having successfully produced a full-length album through a largely collaborative recording process, her confidence has grown and Jess hopes the album launch will bring further gigs and festival appearances, with Green Man and a return to Wilderness high on her wish list. Due to her full time job, there hasn’t been much time for planning an extensive tour but Jess has some tentative plans should her debut meet with favourable reception, including a return to the Netherlands. “I did a tour there a couple of years ago and they have these little house concerts which are quite intimate. Vez (PR manager) and I were also talking about touring around bookshops, so we’ll see what happens with that, that might be quite fun.”
For future work, Jess also hopes to finally bring in another voice. “On this album there was a song I wrote called ‘Duet’ and as the title would suggest it was initially intended to be a duet. So I think I would love to find particularly a male singer to sing with, that would compliment my voice. It’s quite low for a girl, I can reach higher registers but it’s more of an alto range so it would have to be someone with quite a deep voice”. Given the interest sparked by her initial endeavours, it seems unlikely that this search will remain fruitless for much longer, although as Jess proves beyond all doubt with Bookshelves, a voice as strong and technically flawless as her own really needs no addition.
Jess Hall’s debut album, Bookshelves, is available now.
I first encountered Carcrashlander in 2009 when they released Mountains on our Backs. It was a dark, impressive album that kept me company through my teenage years, making me feel older, cooler and infinitely more sophisticated than I ever had before. Carcrashlander is the project of Cory Gray, a Portland-based songwriter, who works with an ever-evolving team to produce moody experimental rock. In January 2014, Carcrashlander released A Plan to Tell the Future, their fourth or fifth major release (depending if you count their 2010 EP You Were Born in a Hospital). I had a chat with Cory about the record.
It felt like long time between the last EP and the current release. I asked Cory what he’s been doing in the interim. “I spent much of 2011/12 in a residency at a recording studio called Scenic Burrows, and began cutting my teeth producing records for other folks. I’ve also enjoyed doing some scoring for a few films and documentaries. And a bit of touring in other bands here and there.”
Carcrashlander’s music has always been fairly filmic – every release so far has been deeply atmospheric, weaving together lyrical and melodic themes. A Plan to Tell the Future is particularly complex in this way, repeatedly returning to the idea of entrapment and enclosure, though Cory reckons that not all of the mentions of ‘walls’ and darkness are downbeat. “There are plenty of dark elements on this record, although I’d like to think that ‘Walls of the World’ is not necessarily one of them. It’s more of an explorative mission into the unknown.”
‘Walls of the World’ is A Plan to Tell the Future‘s opening track, which launches us into the album’s sinister but laid-back atmosphere with breathy orchestration and dual vocals. The most notable departure from earlier albums is in the use of drum tracks and experimentation with synthesised sounds. ”There is a lot of re-amping going on here.” (Reamping is a process in which a recorded sound is run through a reverb chamber or other sound-altering device.)
“And there’s a bunch of processed drums. I think I was drawn to them because they were something new for me, and also because many of the tracks were started by myself, and there were plenty of toys around to mess with that had beats to start foundations for songs.”
A Plan to Tell the Future is unmistakably a Carcrashlander record, thanks to both Cory Gray’s breathily-sung, intriguing lyrics and the eeriness of the melodies and harmonies; yet the increase in processed and synthesised sounds has allowed for new and interesting creations such as ‘Interstate Prelude’, in which slightly off-tune guitar sounds are broken by trip-hop beats and echoey background noises.
I asked Cory how this evolution came about. “I think this record is particularly different to the others because it was written, at least the music, in the studio, and because instead of having a week to finish the project, I had no real timeline. That made it possible to try anything and to have anyone who was around play something on it, whereas before making records had usually been a rehearsed and time-constrained process.”
As a result of this more relaxed approach to recording, there are 12 named musicians on this record, far more than in an average band line-up. “I am always being influenced by my peers and friends, it’s part of the process of documenting life with music, and on this record I was fortunate to have a lot of talented folks stop by for an evening here or there. It was not so much a planned team as a circumstantial one.”
At the moment, Cory’s favourite from the album is ‘One Shot Charlie’, one of the jauntiest and most accessible songs in Carcrashlander’s new material. “It’s named after a bar in the mountains of northern Idaho, where Carcrashlander spent a few days one summer between shows. It was the classic “music stops and the regulars turn and stare” type of place, but after a few rounds we ended up making a bunch of new friends and jamming them a few tunes out on the bar piano. I learned that the name One Shot Charlie refers not to the lone bullet hole in the ceiling as you would expect, but to the founder of the place, who had the shakes so bad that when he poured one shot it would fill up a bucket by the time he was done, and you would only need that one shot of booze.”
Unfortunately, U.K. residents haven’t had much chance to experience Carcrashlander’s intense live shows. Cory has played plenty of gigs in mainland Europe though, and he remembers them fondly. I ask Cory what his favourite musical memories are. “My old band played in every state in the US before I ever travelled abroad, and those poverty-stricken, cheap-beer-drinking, floor-sleeping days are undoubtedly some of the best memories I have. Also playing shows in Portugal has surely earned a place on that list. And this summer playing with The Dandy Warhols in Brittany we had a slot between Sinead O’Connor and Snoop Whatever, which was pretty surreal, as well as a slot in Brussels going on before Madness, who are still totally amazing. Playing with a variety of groups and touring has just been one way to see the world and meet its different sorts. I feel very lucky to have visited so many places I probably never would have otherwise.”
Music seems always to have been a part of Cory’s life, and he’s still attached to formats which more fairweather music listeners have long-since abandoned. As a result, Carcrashlander have released A Plan to Tell the Future on cassette and record as well as the usual formats. I questioned Cory’s decision to release the record like this because it seemed like a niche market to pursue.
“I am a record collector for sure, I love the act of dropping a needle, flipping over the disc. I also much prefer the template for art that is an LP, as well as the opportunity for setting the flow of each side of a record. Jealous Butcher has been making beautiful records for years and I am honoured to be on their roster. Also, tape cassettes are an interesting fidelity because of their dark degeneration. I have found some amazing music on tape cassettes that sounds completely different from their newer digitally remastered versions. And in releasing this record on Curly Cassettes, a tape label that is the home to many of my favourite Portland bands, I was also able to make an alternate version of the record with some different material that is not included on the digital or vinyl release.”
So there it is – Portland retains its reputation for producing quirky musical items – and I encourage you to listen to some of Carcrashlander’s material in whatever format you can find it.
A Plan to Tell the Future is out now, and can be bought from Carcrashlander’s Bandcamp for just £3, or on vinyl or cassette from Jealous Butcher or Curly Cassettes.
It was to a sea of young teenagers clad in black denim, band shirts, Doc Martens and heavily applied kohl eyeliner that Mayday Parade played their penultimate UK tour date in Oxford’s 02 Academy. I caught up with the Florida-based alternative-rock band’s lead singer, Derek Sanders, and rhythm-guitarist, Brooks Betts, prior to their sold out ‘Meet-and-Greet’ to discuss their tour, albums and musical influences.
After spending time exploring the rainy city, Sanders was definitely excited for the night’s performance. “I woke up this morning and thought ‘There’s only two shows left in the UK, that’s wild! I’m looking forward to tonight, and obviously London’ll be the biggest night of the tour, so it’ll be good.” Two days before their sold-out show at London’s KOKO, the band certainly haven’t let the traditional British weather deter them from enjoying the tour – “Minus the rain, it’s been pretty awesome,” Betts laughed, “But one really cool thing about the tour was doing Dublin for the first time, that was awesome.”
After their London show, the band have been travelling across mainland Europe playing a string of sold-out shows, but they still greatly enjoyed their 2014 UK dates. Betts particularly enjoyed the familiarity of the country this time around: “It’s interesting because when I get off the bus, I may forget what certain cities look like, or what the venues looked like last time. However, this whole tour I wake up and look out, and it’s like yeah – I know where I am”. It appears that this has been the case for Sanders also, declaring that Monsters Overseas is “One of my favourite tours that we’ve done over here”. Mayday Parade picked Divided By Friday, Decade and Man Overboard as their support acts, and the bands certainly seem to get on – from watching the Superbowl together in Liverpool to enjoying Guinness in Ireland, their collective Instagram accounts have been very active the past few weeks. Sanders is especially enthusiastic about the other touring bands – “Sharing a bus with Man Overboard is great! They’re awesome dudes to be able to hang out with all the time. The rest of the bands on tour are great too, such nice people.”
Although the tour title directly references the band’s fourth studio album, Monsters in the Closet, the band’s set list included songs from their other albums. Sanders feels like the band’s latest offering is “a culmination of everything we’ve done before, with a step forward as well. It’s what we’ve tried to do with each album – and what we’ll probably keep trying to do.” Betts added that he feels it is “one of the most diverse records we’ve done”, before correcting himself, “No – it is the most diverse record we’ve done, and that’s pretty cool to me”. This diversity has made it the current favourite release of the group, although they admit that “generally it is the newer stuff that you like more”. This time, however, the band feel as though they have found their own sound – what Sanders has named “a Mayday Parade sound. I feel like we’ve accomplished that for this album, and it’ll keep moving that way in the future.”
The albums are definitely a collaborative effort from all five band members, with a Florida beach house being the hub of activity for the last two album writing periods. “Everyone brings material they’ve been working on over the last year or so of touring, and we just take it all and put it together.” The material apparently ranges from basic ideas to almost complete songs. “Once everyone adds their flavour, it becomes a Mayday Parade song,” Sanders explained. “Yeah, its interesting,” Betts added, “so if Derek has the idea, it’ll sound like a Derek song, and if someone else has an idea it sounds different – I think it comes from older influences we had growing up as kids, so I think its interesting how it works together.” This collaboration means once neglected songs can make a return – ‘Girls’, Betts favourite song on the newest album, was brought back by the band whilst in the beach house.
Keeping up with pop-punk tradition, Mayday Parade enjoy long song titles – ‘The Torment of Existence Weighed Against the Horror of Nonbeing and You Be the Anchor That Keeps My Feet On the Ground’, ‘I’ll Be the Wings That Let Your Heart Soar in the Clouds’ demonstrating this nicely. “I feel that for a lot of songs, if they’re gonna be a radio single, people like simple titles because then someone can go out and find what the song is, and purchase it easily,” explains Betts. “I like to think that we’re more of an album orientated band, so its more important to have an album title thats catchy and easier to remember than the actual song titles.” Sanders sees song-naming as an opportunity that the band like to “just have fun and do whatever we want with”. He also looks to other bands of the genre -”It was partly inspired by other bands, like Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy.”
Indeed, these bands were part of a collection that shaped and inspired the musical preferences of the band members during their late-teens. “Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, Brand New, Jimmy Eat World – all those bands at that time influenced us and are a big part of why we play that music that we play.” Jimmy Eat World are a band that Sanders is clearly a big fan of – he’s especially excited that they’ll be playing Australia’s Soundwave Festival alongside Mayday Parade in late-February and early March. A lot of big names are lined up for this festival, with Betts being particularly excited about seeing Stone Temple Pilots, System of a Down and Korn. He was even looking forward to Blink 182 being there, until Sanders gently corrected him – Green Day are playing instead. “It’s gonna be amazing,” he then continued, “We’ve done it once before and its such an incredible tour. They really do take care of you! There’s a lot of flying involved but there are also days off. It’s just a good time.”
Post-Soundwave the band are jetting off to South East Asia for four shows before returning to the USA, where, after a short time-off, they are playing Warped Tour from June to August. Sanders hopes that in the future the band’s touring schedule will be less intense – a sentiment most likely connected to his young daughter, who turns three this year. “We’ve been going at the same speed for a long time and doing amazing stuff all around the world. If we can keep doing this, but maybe slow down the touring part, that’d be great,” he mused. “We’ve been pretty full throttle for a while. So, maybe tour for six months out of the year, as opposed to eight. We want to just keep going out and making albums, going out and then supporting them – we love doing it, so that’d be amazing.”
Following the end of Warped Tour at the beginning of August, the band’s schedules are relatively clear. “We would love to do some big festivals in the UK,” Sanders confessed, “but we don’t know anything yet”. Fans of the band will certainly be hoping for appearances by the band across the festival scene, but it looks like only time will tell if Mayday Parade will be returning to the UK this summer.
After a four year break from album releases, New York-based (despite web searches that say otherwise) indie-rock band We Are Scientists are back with their fifth studio release, TV en Français. Following the release of their E.P. Business Casual at the latter end of last year, I caught up with lead singer Keith Murray to speak to him about the impending tour.
We Are Scientists kick off their largest tour for four years at Oxford’s O2 Academy on March the 6th; “there are worse places to start a tour” said Keith. TV en Français, although due to be released March 4th, has been completed for a year. “There’s a part of me that sometimes forgets that TV en Français isn’t out yet, but now it feels like a really awesome holiday got announced that I didn’t know was coming. It’s like ‘Oh, also now tomorrow’s Christmas! That’s so awesome!’. The reason for the delay was a change in band management once the album had been completed, and the administrative processes that came along with the change. “Hiring new management took a long time, although weirdly we ended up hiring the very first guy we interviewed”. It was this waiting-period that encouraged the band to release Business Casual.
Although the top-40 success of six of their singles between 2005 and 2008 meant that the band were well known on the UK indie scene, the gap between their last album and TV en Français has enabled We Are Scientists to experiment with their musical sound. “It’s funny,” Keith reminisced, “part of the reason why the gap between the albums is so long is that we started out with a preconceived idea of what we wanted it [TV en Français] to sound like”. The sound the group was trying to recreate was that of 1980s band The Lemonheads, who Keith and Andy (We Are Scientist’s drummer, formerly of Razorlight) were “really obsessed with” when the band did a UK tour about three years ago. “We just decided we wanted to make a Lemonhead 90′s college rock album. We wrote about half an album’s worth of that kinda stuff – then we realised that we couldn’t put out this album that really sounds like Lemonheads, even if we really like the songs, that’d be too weird.” This change in tune lead the band to eventually take a break from the album. “We just threw all those songs out and started over”. When asked what effect this had on TV en Français, Keith said that the new album feels “more natural than earlier. It’s funny, because at the time I was still really kinda frustrated that we wasted all that time, but I think we needed to get that out of our system before we had a clean slate.”
Despite this initial set back, Keith feels that TV en Français is the band’s best offering to date. “I think it’s the best balance of immediately appealing and slightly ambitious. I’m sorta proudest of Brain Thrust Mastery. Of the first three, it was the first one where we really just rolled up our sleeves and did the arrangements ourselves. The other two are fun and jaunty albums,” laughed Keith, “and I’m still less proud of those despite the fact writing songs like that is still really difficult”
We Are Scientists are kicking off their five month-long tour in the UK, before heading off to mainland Europe, back across the pond to the USA and Canada, before finishing up in Australia. I asked Keith how he was feeling ahead of the three-continent tour. ” It’s highly tempting to just give up my apartment in NY so I’m not paying rent for the months it’s on,” he joked, “but there’s nothing worse than coming home from five months of touring and not having a place to live. But it would make financial sense.”
Despite the unfortunate rent payments, the band are excited for their longest tour in four years. “Right now, it’s only exciting. I feel this kind of touring only becomes daunting when you look up two and a half months into it and you realise you’re not even quite half done. You just think ‘what did we get ourselves in to? I’m already exhausted’. But, right now, it’s all just appealing. In my mind by the time we get to Australia at the end of May I’m still gonna be raring to go, but, hell, I know even after the flight I’m gonna be ruined. But right now its nothing but anticipation.”
The band signed their first record deal in the UK, and singer Keith feels that this is why they keep coming back. “The UK always feels like…not the business base, but definitely the home base of the band. Even though we live in New York, the hub of our activity is in the UK…We have as many friends in London as we do in New York, and it just kinda feels like we’re in a different neighbourhood in New York.”
“Although the UK feels familiar and comforting, it lacks the exotic excitement of going to Japan, where we’ve played three or four times. It’s most exciting to be in places we haven’t been, and we’ve done shows in places like Colombia and Indonesia, which is exciting on the basis of being the most exotic. The UK isn’t gruelling though, because it is familiar.”
Keith shared a story of one of his most memorable gigs, in Indonesia. Between a festival in Jakarta and one in Singapore the following weekend, the band were booked to play at what Keith described as a “motorcycle-surfshop-restaurant-art gallery” in Bali. “It was run by some guys from Sydney, they put us up, so we just hung out in Bali for like a week, and the show was just in the courtyard of their shop. It felt really right, kinda like playing a university show when we were in university, and we’d just play outside of our dorms just drinking beer out of Red Solo Cups…but it was in Bali.” After a few moments of contemplation, Keith concluded that it was “super memorable, just surreal, because the venue was slightly familiar and it felt like a college show, but it was foreign because we were in Bali”.
Despite preferring smaller shows, Keith is looking forward to “a full summer of festivals, maybe have a couple of weeks off after Australia but hopefully we’ll be doing a bunch of festivals”. Claiming that his performances at festivals feel “a little too instant to get fully invested in”, Keith still loves the atmosphere at festivals – “its always amazing to stand up in front of 40,000 people and play, but I think that’s what it is, when we play festivals I always think about the show, rather than losing myself in it”.
After a more quiet couple of years, We Are Scientists are definitely coming back with a storm. Their five-month tour ends in May, and after the summer festival season, Keith is toying with making new material. With a few newly written songs under his belt already, Keith thinks that “wriggling free” from the “weirdly regimented cyclical way” that the band has always produced music (writing songs, recording them, releasing the album then touring), would be good. Coming back to the Lemonheads discussion of before, Keith feels that the band should “put those songs out there – there were some pretty good songs!”
We Are Scientists come to Oxford on March 6th, following the release of TV en Français.
Folk music is a difficult thing to define. Acoustic guitars and harmonicas may spring to many people’s minds, or else some line-up of highwaymen, widowed sailors’ wives and other assorted trope characters. But there’s something more to these enduring genre. “It has less to do with whether there’s a guy with a banjo or a synthesizer”, says Anaïs Mitchell, “for me, folk music has always been about storytelling”.
The Vermont-based singer-songwriter, whose first album appeared in 2002, has in the past decade become one of the leading figures in the American contemporary folk scene. Her 2010 record, Hadestown saw her teaming up with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem in a ‘folk-opera’ reimagining of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, while her most recent offering, Child Ballads, comprises seven traditional English folk songs recorded with fellow musician Jefferson Hamer.
It is not too hard to locate the roots of Mitchell’s penchant for storytelling, lyricism and emotional intensity. “My first influences were the artists my parents had in their record collection: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Marc Knopfler, Lou Reed, and so on. They were all great poets in their time, and that sets them apart in my mind from other artists of the era who were less lyric-oriented.”
She was also deeply influenced in her teens by Ani Difranco, Dar Williams, and Tori Amos, to her, members of “a very powerful emotional female songwriter wave that came along. The reverence for poetry and a kind of heart-on-sleeve emotionalism I definitely glommed onto as a young songwriter.”
As a female songwriter herself, she says that she feels no particular advantage or disadvantage in relation to male performers. “There’s of course some inequality when it comes to how women are expected to market their youth and sexuality […] but I don’t feel I’ve been too beleaguered by that.”
She says that “what I’m curious about is something a little harder to name. As a writer, can I write from a woman’s perspective and can it be received as a human story, an archetypal story, not just a woman’s story? Can I write about being a wife and mother, and can that be as and powerful and real as writing about being a single girl setting her sights on so-and-so?”
Her songs certainly pull on a deeply personal narrative, something particularly evident in her 2012 album Young Man in America, a record partly inspired by her own father. “My dad had just lost his own dad and I wrote a few of those songs for him, about that. There’s the experience of suddenly seeing your dad not as your dad but as another man’s son, as something of an orphan even at such and such an age. Also this character of the Young Man was someone I recognized in people around me and also in myself – this wild restless hunger, this longing for family.”
Images of the father, the shepherd, the daughter and the eponymous ‘young man’ recur throughout the album. But unlike Hadestown, she claims “I didn’t set out to write a concept record with Young Man. It wasn’t until I was in the studio listening back that I went “Hmm… pretty thematic”. But I think that happens in writing; you get on a jag. It’s not necessarily a conscious thing.”
To her, the record also explored the feeling of not “being a mother yet, and [yet] not being parented”. Following the birth of her first child last year, she feels her relationship to the album has shifted. “It’s funny when I sing some of those songs now. It used to be that I was singing, “look upon your children”, and I was one of the children. Now I sing it and it’s my own child I’m singing about and now it’s my job to look out for her.” But to her this shift is no bad thing. “I believe that you never really find your voice as a writer” she says, “you have to keep finding it again and again as the world changes and you change.”
Last year also saw the release of Child Ballads, which was recently nominated for a BBC folk award. The history of the record is to her one of discovery and learning. “I think it was touring in England, Scotland and Ireland that I first became exposed to the incredible old ballad culture you guys got going over there. Then I met Jefferson Hamer, who was equally enamoured of these old songs, and we vowed to make a record together. That said, she found “it was a long slow process trying to interpret the songs so they felt natural coming out of our (American) mouths. We worked on them together, line by line. Some we barely changed […] but others we took a pretty free hand with, making up melodies, heavily editing the text, and so on. It was a real education.”
From the sprawling grandiosity of Hadestown, and the personal intimacy of Young Man, to the lilting enchantment of Child Ballads, the centrality of the story shines through all of Mitchell’s work. She says “I think at its best folk music helps us feel that our own little stories have something in common with the old stories echoing across time and space. This is our time, but we’re not alone out here… the ancestors and the future generations sing with us.”
Anais Mitchell will be playing at the Jericho Tavern on the 7th of March.
“What’s more exposing than putting a target online and saying we need you to help us reach that?” So asks Matt Cooper, guitarist and songwriter of up-and-coming Oxford band Spring Offensive, at the preview show of their self-released debut album, Young Animal Hearts. In October of last year the 5-piece set up a crowdsourcing campaign through website pledgemusic.com to raise the funds to record their debut. The response was overwhelming. Having given themselves until February, their threshold was reached in just over a week. Such emphatic belief and support from fans is rare for a band still establishing themselves, and indeed, the quintet work incredibly hard to build a strong relationship with their fan base. “It’s fun to connect to people on that level,” remarks Lucas, lead singer and co-songwriter. “There are some bands who can just be totally aloof and anonymous and that can be their thing, but it has to be 100% that thing. You’ve either got to be non- existent, and exciting in that way, or you’ve got to be fully engaging with everybody the whole time and that’s more the kind of people we are. Our music’s pretty personal so for people to make a connection with it, must mean we’ve got something in common with them.”
The rewards on offer for helping the group create their debut reflect this attitude. Private gigs, dinner cooked by the band, personalised cassettes and even a day spent writing with them are all up for grabs. Oh and the offer of being kidnapped – a proposal that has, rather unfairly, received more media coverage than the band’s music itself, Matt notes. “We’ve yet to have good Guardian music coverage but they covered our pledge kidnapping. It was still very nice of them, but quite funny. A lot of people have been talking about the kidnapping and no-one has put their money where their mouth is. Not yet… still time!” Kidnapping aside, there are lessons to be taken from the band’s crowdsourcing adventure, especially in terms of the changing importance of record labels in the modern music industry. On why they chose to avoid a label, Matt states “We’ve got a lot of friends who’ve been burnt by record labels, a lot of friends who’ve pinned their hopes on something and when it happens, it hasn’t worked out for whatever reason. It’s not because the record labels are evil or the music industry’s evil, it’s just the way it works out sometimes in the business. When that amount of money is being invested in you and that big a risk is being taken, it becomes a business transaction.”
“We wanted to self-release it,” Lucas adds, “A band like us making a debut album weren’t going to get a record deal that was going to massively change our lives. We came close a couple of times and for whatever reason it would break down and you just get sick of waiting. I guess if you can, then doing it yourself is the best way to do it. We’re really proud of it and I think we’ve made the best album we possibly can.”
To promote their new release, the band are touring Germany twice over the next few months, with a UK tour in the pipeline, still yet to be announced. Germany is a country that often attracts UK artists and it seems Spring Offensive have already made an impact. “We toured Germany before we toured the UK, for various reasons,” remarks Lucas. “Mainly going out there and having a booking agent who was really keen to get us shows, really great shows. We went to towns we didn’t know anyone in, let alone have fans there, and these would be full shows, so that was a really eye-opening experience. We just kept going back and the shows got bigger and bigger and better and better. That’s where we get more airplay, more press. I don’t know why it is, no idea why the Germans connected with us so much.”
“I think they’re really open to going to gigs,” muses Matt, “not that the British public aren’t, but a lot of people take a chance on a band they don’t know; maybe less so here.”
Thematically, Young Animal Hearts captures a lot of the emotions the band have themselves experienced, and that countless young people (both in Britain and abroad) will relate to. “A lot of it is about struggling to get money together to pay rent,” Lucas told me. “Feeling that you haven’t got what you expected to get as a generation… leaving university at a certain age, we just arrived at the wrong time and couldn’t find nailed down jobs that we wanted to do.”
“It was written over a long time as well,” adds Matt, “We were quite careful picking the songs that would go on the album because we wanted them to knit together but we never consciously say we’re going to write about this or we’re going to write about that, I just think those concerns can be really vocal in your head, so when you start writing, they automatically come to the top. Lucas and I always vow to be honest when we write and unfortunately that usually comes out as rent worries and little things, but it’s the little things that make up the bigger picture.”
As well as channelling the angst of their generation, Spring Offensive’s material often has a strong narrative. Hinted at by their Wilfred Owen-inspired name, poetic storytelling is very much their forte. New single ‘Hengelo’ weaves the tale of a man running from debt, chasing a fresh start with a new identity, whilst album opener ‘Not Drowning But Waving’ is a clever twist on Stevie Smith’s classic poem, ‘Not Waving But Drowning’. The poem uses a man far out at sea, waving for help, as a metaphor for how the warning signs of depression can often be ignored or misinterpreted. “We wanted to do the opposite to the poem and tell the story of what happens on the beach,” explains Matt, “it always felt the wrong way round. I always remembered it as ‘Not Drowning But Waving’.” “The funny thing about the poem as well is it’s really concise,” adds Lucas, “it’s a really pure bit of metaphor and our song is the longest song on the album.”
With the pledge campaign’s astounding achievement, you could say Young Animal Hearts has already been a success, but the band are keen to stay grounded. “People haven’t heard it yet,” Lucas reminds me, “only a handful of people have, and I think that when people react to it and we see those responses, that’s the most important thing.” “I’m scared about how people are going to find it,” remarks Matt, “but we’ve got several hundred CDs that have already been bought through Pledge. We’re not going to be releasing our debut album thinking ‘is it just going to be us and our mums and our dads that buy it?’ We know that there’s people who want it and that’s an incredibly warming thing.”
The Warpaint of 2010’s The Fool is not the same Warpaint on the cover of their new self-titled album, one of 2014’s earliest major releases. “It feels like a new Warpaint,” says singer and guitarist Theresa Wayman. “It just felt like a new start for us, not that we’d forgotten what happened before or forgotten about our last album.” And they have good reason not to. Warpaint’s ethereal shoegaze won them an audience of die-hard fans and high-profile spots on the festival circuit, as well as serious critical acclaim.
The LA quartet took time out from years of heavy touring to record, working at The Joshua Tree and with legendary English producer Flood. The time to focus seems to have given the band a new sense of purpose. “The last album was a bunch of songs we’d had under our belt for years and years through many different stages of our band’s evolution and this felt like a totally new project really. We had an entirely new set of songs for this album and we were working with Stella [Mozgawa, drums]. Since we’ve been touring the last album, it seemed like we changed so much. Not necessarily ourselves, but our outlooks have changed quite a bit.”
Evolution from their past work it may be, but the focus this time is on reducing what was going on. “It was just the idea that we might be a little less complicated and a little bit more creative with our ideas. I felt that sometimes it was getting a little convoluted so I thought we should pull it back a little bit.” That kind of simplicity of form dominates the album, even the most The Fool-esque track ‘Keep It Healthy’: “It’s more reminiscent of our last album I think. Each part has a different sort of phrasing that it’s working in, interacting in a pretty complicated way, but at the same time, what everyone’s doing is sort of staying steady and not changing, so the complication is coming from the way they interact as opposed to having a lot of different changes.”
Having had the pleasure of seeing Warpaint live twice, it seems to me that the interaction between each of the four members is the defining characteristic of their style. It’s one that clearly emerges from the live approach and this album is no different. “What we’ve always done when we used to write from jams is just get together in a rehearsal space and start playing and writing music, and after initially writing a couple different parts that could go together in a song, then we spend a lot of time structuring it and just trying to perfect it.”
The new album also sees the band bring their electronic side to the fore, and Wayman stresses that this is not a big change for the band. “For us it’s nothing new, it’s always been something we’ve incorporated into our music but you wouldn’t really know that based on The Fool. When we started our band we used to play to drum machines all the time and used a lot of synthesisers but we toured the last record for so long, and it took us so long to make that record it’s just seems like that was ages ago that we were doing that. And now I feel like it’s a very relevant thing because there’s a lot of electronic sound in music nowadays.” But Warpaint are not just following trends: “We always just do what we want to do, we’re not really trying to fit in.”
While electronics are brought to the fore, Wayman, who takes more of the lead vocal lines on this album (“I just really like writing songs,” she says when asked about this), describes how the lyrical approach is “more obscure”. “On this album I guess we just tend to steer away from being too obvious about anything.” But that doesn’t necessarily rule the opposite approach out: “It can be a good thing or a bad thing, that’s just our taste. I do like the idea of experimenting with being a little more clear, I don’t mind people knowing what I’m talking about, I just always feel too obvious if I’m just saying it outright it just seems too simple.”
A desire for simplicity is reflected in the music that the band were listening to during recording. While emphasising the length of the recording and writing process and thus how hard it is to state each member’s taste, Wayman offers, “For my part over the last couple of years I’ve been listening to a lot more pop music than I ever have. I used to kind of shun it, now I find a lot of inspiration from it. Just musically and even lyrically it touches what we were talking about, being obscure about lyrics; pop music generally isn’t and I actually admire that, I feel like it’s brave. I think there are some songs in the higher echelons of pop music that are actually really adventurous, more adventurous and more avant-garde even than a lot of underground indie music.”
It’s the indie music scene that lays claim to Warpaint, and British music has influenced them a lot. “I think for some reason or another there always has been a little bit of that just because that’s what influenced us when we were growing up. There’s been a British feel somewhere in our music all along. I think Jenny [Lee Lindberg, bass] was really influenced by The Cure and The Smiths. I and Emily [Kokal, guitar/vocals] listened to a lot of trip hop in our formative years, and Aphex Twin.” For the new album English producers Flood (New Order, Depeche Mode, PJ Harvey) and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) were brought in. “It makes sense for us to be working with an English producer, in my opinion. I felt like his taste would take us where we wanted to go. I find the English to be really forward-moving.”
Electronic music seems to be a major part of Warpaint. “There’s a lot of electronic stuff, some of them came out of America but they were definitely picked up really quickly by the English and then progressed. I’m sure there’s lots of bands that I’m not even naming. There’s always something forward-moving about the way the English interpret things that may even have come from America.”
Ultimately, talk turns to touring and how the band will go about bringing their new sound into their live shows. “It’s just a few more things to plug in when we’re setting up. I’m excited, it sounds cooler to me. It sounds like there’s more depth to what we’re doing. There’s more textures and it’s just a lot more exciting.”