Interview: Pete Lawrie-Winfield of Until the Ribbon Breaks

By on Tuesday, 16th June 2015 at 11:00 am
 

“I was in Paris the other day. This little boy comes up to me, he must be no older than 6 or 7. He seemed to make a beeline for me, and I didn’t know why. I thought, okay, uh, where are your parents? And then he started singing ‘Romeo’ to me, in French. And then I thought, you know what? That’s more than anything else…you know that thing about always chasing the next thing? I try not to believe in that, because where does that stop? When does that train stop?…How do you sustain that? I think I’m in a place where I’m perfectly fine playing to 50 people in Washington, it’s not where I’m not from, and that’s amazing to me. On the next album, there might be twice that amount [of people], you know?”

It is a balmy Thursday night in Washington, DC, and it feels like most any other night here in summer, around 34 degrees C (93 F), the sun is slowly setting in the distance behind my interviewee, electronic producer and musician Pete Lawrie-Winfield (pictured far right in the top photo), the mastermind of the eclectic, hard to pin down by genre Until the Ribbon Breaks, who will be playing Black Cat Backstage in an hour. I am sat at a table with the tall and tattooed Welshman on the corner of 14th and T outside the Cafe Saint-Ex, a restaurant inspired by author of The Little Prince and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and we’re having drinks. We’re like old friends; I met and chatted with him in Austin the first time they showcased at SXSW back in 2014, and I was so chuffed seeing that Huw Stephens placed them to headline his Music Wales: Cerdd Cymru night in March at SXSW 2015, high-fiving him after their brilliant performance there.


Lawrie-Winfield and bandmate James Gordon performing at the British Music Embassy,
Latitude 30 at SXSW 2015, 17 March 2015

That moment in time where a small child proved this Cardiff musician’s popularity, however niche, in France will no doubt stick in his mind forever. Lawrie-Winfield is being quite philosophical about where he’s been and how much he’s accomplished. Which in my opinion is an extremely good place for your head to be, and an all too uncommon place for said head to be after you’ve released your debut album. “I look at bands like The National. It’s taken so long [for them to be successful], but because it’s taken so long, and it happened naturally and it happened the right way, their fans will always be their fans. We see [the same] people at our gigs over and over again, and that’s amazing. We’re not on the radio, so you go see the show. So I try not to be impatient.”

He tells me how he’s come up with a way to keep the positivity flowing while on tour. “I try and do this thing, we have a preshow ritual which used to be an obligatory American sports [chant], ‘U-T-R-B!’ But now we’ve added something new to it on this tour. The main thing I get inspired by when I’m on tour is watching music documentaries. I saw the White Stripes one when they toured Canada (2007’s Under Great White Northern Lights), and I always come away from music documentaries thinking if you feel negative about the industry or you feel like there should be more people at the show, you watch that Nirvana documentary that just came out (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck), that made me feel, ‘whoa, I gotta keep pushing, keep pushing’.

“So now I’ve done this new thing where just before we do the American sports celebration, we had a quote. We have a different quote each night from a different musician in time. So last night was Freddie Mercury, this was the first night I decided to do this. I said to the guys, ‘I’ve got this idea!’ And they’re all like, whatever. Last night’s was Freddie Mercury’s, and he said all he cared about was that when he dies…I can’t remember the exact quote…’when I die, I want to be remembered as a musician who made something of substance’. He was always thinking that. You can hear it in his music. And he will be remembered for making something of substance and it came true.” Later on in our conversation, he says songwriting inspiration lately has been coming from unlikely sources: “Read more…the influence doesn’t have be from music. Go to a weird new restaurant. Go swimming. You might get a song out of that.”

At the moment, Montage of Heck is looming large in his thoughts. “When I watched that Nirvana documentary, I went back and listened to all the Nirvana records. It comes in cycles, that sense of inspiration. His work, someone like Kurt Cobain’s work, it will loop through time. There will be times when it dips, and there will be times when it’s relevant again. It was just radio, meh, you could tell that he had to say something. That part of the documentary that blows my mind, have you seen it?” I shake my head no. “It is amazing, whether you’re a Nirvana fan or not…it’s about him an artist, a writer…they take his drawings and they animate them. And there’s this fascinating bit when he’s 16 and on his own in his bedroom, and he’s playing the record button on a cassette recorder and he documents everything he thinks, but in a way that sounds like he’s doing a voiceover for the documentary you’re watching, like he knew that some 30 years later he would have done all the things he knew he was going to do and died and there was going to be this film. It was like he got all the bits together and put it in a time capsule and thought, ‘yep, that’s going to happen’. He was 16 and he hadn’t written any of the songs or done any of the shows yet. It’s wild.”


Lawrie-Winfield performing at The Palm Door on Sixth at SXSW 2014, 13 March 2014

It isn’t as common as one might think to be invited to perform at back to back SXSWs, so I use the opportunity to ask Lawrie-Winfield what it felt like to be given another shout. “When I found out we were going to do it again – and I do this whenever I find out we’re doing anything, music-related or not, even before we did this tour – my first instinct is dread, and I’m trying to get over that. I don’t know where I get that, because I don’t feel like that at all. I’m actually really, really excited. Maybe it’s something to do with nerves or something.

“Maybe not so much dread, but [makes gasping sound], and I was like oh god, because I know what SXSW is like. It’ll be like five shows in 2 days, and no sound checks. And our live show is quite intricate with equipment, and technical, and you’re like, ugh! But you know, it’s like everything. My initial instinct was, ‘oh god!’ But then you go with it, and it ends up being the best show you’ve ever done. The last Run the Jewels show at the end of South By, our last one [Friday night with FLOOD, at FLOODfest at Cedar Street Courtyard]…and it’s gone into my top three shows. I’m always ranking our shows.”

I express anguish that I missed that one in favour of Tuesday night’s Music Wales: Cerdd Cymru show, but he’s come up with a solution. “Well, let’s try and make tonight go straight into the top! That’s another part of our preshow ritual, we say, ‘let’s make tonight top 3!’. We have one in Montreal, it was the London Grammar support tour. For a while that was my favourite show ever, and it was because you’re doing a support slot, you don’t know how people will react [to you], you’re the support band, people will be talking, are on their phones, whatever. But that show, before we’d even played our last song, they were so loud – in terms in a good way, screaming – we couldn’t start ‘Goldfish’, which is our last song, we just couldn’t. Every time we went to go for the mike…I came off crying. And that’s hard to top. It’s not often that I cry! How am I going to top that?”

We switch gears to discuss his debut album, ‘A Lesson Unlearnt’, which was released in January in the States. (It’s available on iTunes this week in the UK.) I ask him if he felt a huge sigh of relief to have finally let it go into the wild. “I’ve spent a long time thinking about that. I put this post up on Tumblr recently because I never felt, still don’t feel, will never feel that our record – not in terms of it did commercially, because I never had any expectation – just in terms of how it was received or delivered artistically.

“What I wanted is to present this kind of world of film and music, and then be completely intertwined, as it was in the band name, you know, with cassette and VHS ribbons and intertwined with that concept. The music was going underscore the film, and the film would then underscore the music, and it was just going to be a way. And then inevitably, you sign a record deal to a big major label, because you’re broke and you’re sleeping in the studio, which I was. This company comes along and offers you a lot of money and they promise you the world, and before you know it, ‘what’s the first single, Pete? And let’s make a video that isn’t any of the videos you did without us’. I understand that the videos I made, which were chopped up films, you can’t use those, they were [my personal] tributes to the directors. But they could have been more…not even more innovative, just more thought [could have been put into them], like [as if they] felt more like they fit our music. And I guess to some extent I am responsible because I dropped the ball and put my trust in the industry that shouldn’t be trusted.

“I would hate for this to sound like a criticism for the people who made those videos, because I was involved in the process. It’s a criticism of myself for not having the balls to go, ‘you know what, my gut is saying let’s not do this’. I just went along with them. So there’s that side of about how I feel about the album being released. But the album is called ‘A Lesson Unlearnt’. Like I now will make the second one, I won’t make the same mistakes again. It’s like it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, that record. It’s almost like telling me to listen to it. Not [to the] music [itself], but [waves hands in the air] ‘hey, you didn’t do what you said you were going to do! Now no-one’s listening to me!’ It was an amazing lesson, that. Why did I do it?” He explains to me that before he started the Until the Ribbon Breaks project, he had a solo singer/songwriter act, was signed to a major label, and had similar issues. “I let other people get involved to the point I didn’t like making music, but I was really young.” So here’s the take home message to all fledgling artists: work hard and be proud of your art, but don’t be shy to speak up when you think you’re being led astray from your original intention.

But perhaps even Lawrie-Winfield’s original intention live has changed quite a lot from the earliest days of touring Until the Ribbon Breaks, to now as a three-man unit: himself on lead vocals, keyboards, programming, trumpet and percussion; James Gordon on keyboards, programming, percussion, bass and backing vocals; and Elliot Wood on drums, programming and backing vocals. “The band is in an amazing place right now in terms of three people. It started as me, and then it became three people, and now it’s definitely three people. James is just getting better and better at what he does, and so is Elliot…it keeps getting looser and live-r, and hopefully you’ll see that tonight. We’re losing laptop more and more as we go, and we’re taking that into the writing and recording process too. When I was growing up, my hero was Paul Simon. He didn’t use a laptop! I look at a laptop sometimes and think, no way, [it’s] so restricted, playing to a click [track]. Sometimes I feel like I want ‘A Taste of Silver’ to be a little bit slower, or ‘Pressure’ to be a little bit faster, and you can’t, you know?

“And then I watch bands that don’t use them, like Nick Cave. Last year I saw Nick Cave in LA and it changed my life. I thought to myself, ‘okay, what are we fucking doing?’ It was so good to see someone that makes me you think, ‘I am much worse at what I’m doing than I thought I was’. You see Nick Cave and think, ‘I’ve got so much work to do’. He’s so loose, he’s got his right hand man Warren [Ellis], and he plays the violin. He had his bow, almost like a bow and arrow. And he had a bunch of bows and he’d take one out and throw one into the crowd. It’s so spontaneous. And you don’t know what Nick Cave is going to do, he might turn to the band and say, ‘we’re going to do this one slower tonight’. And you’re like, this is so real. He’s like a voodoo musician or something. And I’m listening to a laptop, going do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do…”

I tell him that’s the best thing about music, that there will never be a shortage of goals to achieve or mountains to climb. I share with him the uplifting storyline of Stornoway‘s ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, and the lyrics “but sometimes, when you get to the summit / you will see another hill to climb.” He makes the surprising admittance that he loves Stornoway and upon my recommendation, he is excited to check out their new album. “Even now, we’re smashing that mountain, but that’s the aim. Looser, live-r. More honest.” Sounds like a plan to me.

Massive thanks to Pete for such a lovely, insightful interview! Until the Ribbon Breaks’ remaining tour dates in America include the Barboza in Seattle tonight (16 June), Bunk Bar in Portland tomorrow (17 June), the Roxy in Hollywood 22 June and Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco 25 June. They will also appear the Underground Music Showcase festival in Denver on 25 July.


Lawrie-Winfield performing at Black Cat Backstage, Washington DC, 11 June 2015

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