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If they aren’t already, Sheffield-based Drenge are a band that should be on your radar. The trio from Castleton, Derbyshire, have been gaining a significant amount of traction over the past 3 years since the release of their self-titled debut: a raw, grunge filled masterpiece Cobain himself would be proud of. They’re now heading out on tour again, as part of the NME awards tour alongside Bloc Party, RAT BOY and MC Bugzy Malone, and in support of their second record ‘Undertow’, a more polished, but still savage sophomore statement. Ahead of the tour, which starts in Cardiff this Friday, the 29th of January, I had the opportunity to speak with vocalist/guitarist Eoin Loveless about changes to Drenge’s music going forward.
The addition of bassist Rob Graham, a long time friend and figure in their career, has allowed the Drenge sound to progress from a monstrous duo to a mammoth trio. This is something Eoin felt necessary: “It’s not really a band if there’s only two people in it…if there’s one person playing on a stage, then it’s just them playing music, if there’s two people playing music then it’s just two people playing with each other. But if there’s three, you need to start lending your hearing around the room a bit more. That’s where I think the traits of a band, like listening and being aware of what’s going on around you musically, that’s when those skills tend to get tested”.
‘Undertow’ is a cleaner effort, for lack of a better word. While their self-titled debut saw a new dawning for grunge/punk, 2015’s ‘Undertow’ built upon this, seeing the sound become more monstrous and, at times, sinister. In terms of contextualising the second record, Eoin came up with a rather pleasing metaphor. “Think of the first record like a car, and then the second record like a polished car…the next car/album will have…hydraulics…” Though there are currently no plans for the follow-up to ‘Undertow’ as of yet, they’re definitely on the horizon.
Lyrically, Drenge have always had a certain appeal with the way they convey their message, utilising both religious and carnal symbols in their writing. Though in terms of self-appreciation towards his skill, this is where Eoin struggles. “I kind of lose a relationship with [the lyrics] through over-performing … like the lyrics for ‘Nothing’ (from ‘Drenge’), I don’t think are particularly good, but when we play it live I’ve discovered that the way that they’ve been written, the syllables and the harshness of the sound all sits together and now whenever we play it live, I kind of scat it, so I’ll take syllables and hold them back and drop them in the space where they’re supposed to go next.”
For the past 3 years Drenge have been a constant presence on the Glastonbury lineup. 2015 saw them appear as a secret act on the Williams Green stage on the first day of the festival. When I ask him about the possibility of playing this year’s event, Eoin considers this. “If we did it this year, it would be 4 [times already], we’re probably not allowed! I think there’s some rule that unless you’re Billy Bragg…I think Mumford and Sons did it 7 years on the trot, and you know you don’t want to end up like that, do you?”
Last year’s festival was a unique opportunity to witness someone who is undoubtedly one of the current generation’s musical focal points, Kanye West, someone the band had met previously after their appearance on ‘…Later With Jools Holland’. “I’m a huge Kanye fan”, admits Eoin. “I listen to like his new tracks three times a day. I think he’s exceptional and vastly underappreciated…we’ve got a great artist on the planet and a lot people aren’t willing to take him seriously.” On the Kanye set itself, “That’s one of the main reasons we chose to do the show”, Eoin confesses, laughing. “I went and thought it was amazing, but people really weren’t into it…I think one of the delusions people had if they were at the festival was that Kanye was performing to them, but he wasn’t. He was performing to the world’s media.”
Those who have been following Drenge from the beginning may remember at their earlier shows in 2013, they would distribute a self-made zine titled ‘Blood & Milk’, the initial title for the self-titled album cut ‘Backwaters’. Though there are no plans to resurrect this perfect piece of audience engagement, they have are plenty of other ideas that they’d like to put into action. “I’ve been thinking about…doing a podcast, where I could go around and talk to other bands about stuff … If I can find an interview where one of my favourite artists is being interviewed by another musician, then you get a level of reference points that I can relate to as a musician. I can also relate to the fact that because they’re not guarded, because it’s not an interview scenario, and they’re not worried there words will be taken out of context. I think there’s a lot that me and Rory (brother and bandmate) want to do that exits out of the music that we make.”
Many thanks to Ian for arranging this interview for us. ‘Undertow’, Drenge’s second album, is out now via Infectious Records; for more on the Sheffield group on TGTF, head here. Catch them on the NME Awards Tour starting this Friday through mid-February.
By Mary Chang
on Friday, 6th November 2015 at 4:30 pm
Glaswegian electropop band Prides have been busy bees this year, having released their debut album ‘The Way Back Up’ on Island Records back in July. (Read my review of the LP here.) They’re also currently in the midst of a massive autumn UK and Irish tour to support their debut release; the tour runs through until Thursday the 26th of November in Belfast (my birthday, in case anyone wants to get me anything).
As part of their #PluggedIn60 campaign and as they queried bands including Flyte before them, Prides were asked this summer, after supporting Lucy Rose on the road, about the importance of the electro, hair band-filled ’80s has had on their music. Watch it below.
For all past coverage on Prides on TGTF, go here.
If you missed part 1 of my interview with the Crookes’ guitarist and lyricist Daniel Hopewell, you can catch up with that right back here. In this second part of the interview, Hopewell talks about how the Crookes’ American tour last year and their subsequent time at home in Sheffield shaped the sound of their new album ‘Lucky Ones’.
The recording of this album was quite different from what you had done when you recorded your previous album ‘Soapbox’, where you all kind of decamped to the middle of nowhere in Italy.
Yeah. We did that in a way because our producer was getting a new studio, and that wasn’t ready yet. When we were in Italy, there were a few occasions when we were doing ‘Soapbox’ where we kind of thought, we really we should have [different instruments or sounds] but we couldn’t, because we didn’t have them there. [In the new studio] we had all the gadgets and all the toys and we kind of just played with them and experimented. I enjoyed doing this album far more than any of the other ones, I think we all said that. It was the most enjoyable time in the studio we’ve ever had.
I think [this album is] really different. I’m not sure if everyone would say the same or not. The same kind of key elements are there. It’s always going to be George singing, and he always sings in a certain way. I’m always going to write lyrics that are kind of, at least I try to be thought-provoking in them. I want to have them say something. But it’s just a lot happier, if that makes sense. When I wrote ‘Soapbox’ I was in a bit of a bad place. I look back at it now, and I don’t even feel very attached to it as an album. I feel quite distanced from it. We wrote this one, a lot of the ideas, whilst we were touring America, and having just the most fun we’ve ever had. So, I was really happy when I wrote this. It’s a really happy album.
That was actually the next question I wanted to ask you, whether it was inspired by touring in America. I read part of your American tour diary, and the lyrics to ‘I Wanna Waste My Time on You’ seemed to be sort of in that same vein.
Yeah, a lot of the lyrics came from things that happened over there, but weirdly, I think this album is a lot more English, if that makes sense. I never feel more English than when I’m outside of England. Being over there so much, although it gave us loads of inspiration, it still kind of reminded us of the fact that at heart we are just very British guys, and I think it sounds a lot more like that than of the other albums too. It’s got a bit of a narrative throughout the whole album that starts at home, in terms of the tracklisting, and then kind of runs away to all these different places, then it comes back again. It’s got a nice symmetry to it in that sense, I think. People who listen to an album and listen to the lyrics, listen to how it flows, and listen to it as a whole rather than just a collection of singles [will find] that sort of narrative journey that goes through it.
I’ve talked to several musicians about that concept of writing an album, versus writing 10 singles and shoving them together. People don’t really buy albums for the entirety of an album anymore, that’s not the way people consume their music.
No, I don’t think they do. And it’s kind of a shame, because I think we all grew up listening to albums, and in the modern world people seem to just want to go on YouTube and listen to a song and then go on to the next. So [as a songwriter] you’ve got to kind of think about that, because people might not give it the sort of attention it deserves as a whole body of work. But we always try and write it as that, that’s how it’s meant to be listened to. Any of these songs on any of our other albums would stand out, by a long way. They belong to this album only, if that makes sense.
So, here’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while. As the lyricist, you write these lyrics, and then you hand them over to George [Waite, Crookes lead singer and bassist] for his interpretation of them. Is it hard for you to write these and then hand them over to someone else?
It’s not hard, because I can’t sing as well as he can. We play to our strengths. George has never written any lyrics as far as I know, and he kind of likes me to write for him. Similarly, I can’t get my ideas out [vocally], so I kind of rely on him to do that. It’s like a songwriting partnership, that’s always what it’s been between us. A lot of people seem surprised by it, but we’ve been doing it for so long now that I kind of forget that it’s not the normal thing to do. But yeah, I enjoy it. Whenever I write something, whatever it is, whether he’s singing it and thinking about something else, people listen to him and take their own meaning. I think once I’ve written it, it kind of belongs to whoever listens to it, or whoever uses it, so whatever I mean doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s what people take from it that I think is more important.
People will always interpret it the way they want to, whether you intended it that way or not.
Yeah, but I think there will be less of that on this album. The only song on ‘Soapbox’ that I really like is a song called ‘Holy Innocents’. It was the last one that we wrote, and I wrote it really quickly, went downstairs and played it to George, then we went round Tom’s place and put it on piano, and we’d done the whole thing in an afternoon. And I really liked it because you knew exactly what it was about, and I wasn’t trying to hide things. And on this album, I’ve tried to go with that, I’ve taken that further. I used to sort of triple code everything, so you wouldn’t know what I meant, because I’m sort of shy about saying it, and it would have been hard for people to see that. But this time, I just wanted you to sort of know what it’s about straight away. I think people might relate to it a bit more, maybe.
So maybe a little more straightforward. Your lyrics have in the past been sometimes a little obscure.
I still can’t help it. I still kind of put things together in a way that I think sounds interesting or has nice imagery. But I’ve just tried to be really honest on this album, and I think the other guys, from their reaction to what I’ve given them, have kind of enjoyed that as well. George can sing it and know exactly what I mean, and really understand what he’s saying. I’m really happy with this one, it’s my favourite by a long way.
It worked out really well, then, that you’re writing these more extroverted lyrics at a time when you’re also able to write larger instrumental arrangements to go with them.
Yeah. We had a conversation [about it], the three of us. We [had done] a Christmas single, and we really enjoyed that because you know when it’s a Christmas single, you can sort of write anything and kind of get away with it and no one’s going to take you too seriously because there’s always a bit of novelty factor in a Christmas single. But I really enjoyed how we did that, because it was just really fun and really happy and we were all in that sort of place, so it slides together nicely [with the new album].
You are, if I understand correctly, about to go on tour with another band called the Fratellis. Will this be the first time you’ve played the new songs live?
We played a new song at Tramlines, played one song there. But this will be a few new ones for the first time, yeah. I’m really looking forward to going out again and playing some of these new songs live. The Fratellis play really big venues, and they’re kind of a guitar band and play kind of upbeat songs, so it’ll work well, I think. We went on tour with Richard Hawley in these amazingly beautiful philharmonic venues and theatres and that kind of thing. That was incredible, but for that set we kind of tailored out the songs we played to suit his audience. We played a few more of the slower songs, that kind of stuff. I think with this tour, we can play upbeat, fast, fun songs. Playing to that many people and playing a bit more like we play our own gigs is going to be fun.
That takes you through to the end of the year, and then the album release is in January, and then probably more touring after that. So for the foreseeable future, it looks like you’re fairly busy.
(laughing) Yeah, yeah, we are. We try and do new stuff in the hope that it keeps us busy. For a while we were kind of just stuck in Sheffield writing. But sometimes music comes out of it. We did a song, the b-side for ‘I Wanna Waste My Time On You’, with a girl called Misty Miller. When we were stuck in Sheffield in our downtime, we were writing a couple of songs that were a bit slower that probably reflected the pace of life. That’s how we ended up working with her, and that came about just because we were here and she was here at the same time.
It was really nice to write for somebody else, it was quite interesting though, because originally I’d written those lyrics just for George. And then we thought it would be great if we had a girl singer, and we approached Misty. But I was a bit worried because I like to write things from a male perspective where it shows off your emotions and it’s quite vulnerable. But I really hate it in art and movies and films, or television, where you have these male writers projecting females in a way that makes them too vulnerable, if that makes sense. I don’t want to do that thing where the female response is a bit demure. I wanted to empower her more in the conversation. From a sort of feminist perspective, I thought it would be bad to write something that makes her seem weak. That’s kind of the way it was when George was singing it. So I sort of switched a few lines and redid it with that in mind.
I’ll definitely have to give another listen to that song now that I’ve talked with you about it. Sometimes songwriters don’t like to tell too much about what’s behind their songs, but I think that context is sort of important. As a listener, I feel like having that background information makes the songs a little bit more enjoyable to listen to.
Definitely. I love sort of looking at my favourite songs and kind of working out bits, like have you seen ‘Love & Mercy’ the film? It’s like a biography of Brian Wilson. Like most people, I’m obsessed with ‘God Only Knows’, and I’ve read loads of stuff about the lyrics behind that, and the sort of things that inspired him. If you really listen to it through that framework and that knowledge, it kind of takes on more meaning, and you know, I enjoy doing that as well.
Talking about that, what music are you listening to right now? If you weren’t busy with your own, what would you be listening to?
As you Skyped me, I was just listening to Ryan Adams’ Taylor Swift album. (ICYMI, Adams recently covered Swift’s album ‘1989’ in its entirety.) You really listen to the words a lot more maybe than you do when it’s Taylor Swift’s version, because it’s so different. Other than that, I don’t know. I don’t listen to that much new music, to be honest. [Recently] I’ve listened to a lot of New Order, and I’ve listened to The Cure absolutely loads. I read this really good interview with Robert Smith where he was talking about how The Cure had got this reputation for being a bit, sort of gloomy, and then they decided to come back and just write some pop bangers, and I thought that was pretty good inspiration for this album. We had got kind of a bit gloomy and sober, so we thought, let’s just have some fun this time. So, The Cure, Taylor Swift, basically, that’s the mixture. We all like pop music more than anything else.
I’ll be looking forward to hearing the new album in January. It’s on your own label, Anywhere Records, in the UK, but will it still be on Modern Outsider in the U.S.?
Yeah, they’re an amazing label that we want to keep working with. Obviously as we’re based in England, and doing all of Europe, we still want an American label to take care of that side of it. It’s such a big job, we knew how to do it in England, but we didn’t know how to do it over there. We’re massive, massive fans of our label, really like working with them.
Special thanks to Brendan for organizing this interview, and to Daniel for taking the time to chat with me.
Dates for the Crookes’ upcoming tour with the Fratellis can be found on the Crookes’ official Web site. Their fourth LP ‘Lucky Ones’ will be released on Anywhere Records in the UK and Modern Outsider in America on the 29th of January 2016. TGTF’s full archive of coverage on the Crookes can be found by clicking here.
While our globetrotting editor Mary was on her recent working holiday in the UK, I had the opportunity for a trans-Atlantic Skype interview with guitarist and lyricist Daniel Hopewell (pictured at far left in the header photo above) from Sheffield indie pop quartet the Crookes. The Crookes have been featured here at TGTF in the past, most recently for their new single ‘I Wanna Waste My Time On You’. The song marks a bit of a change in direction for the band, and we were curious to find out a little more about what’s behind the new, more expansive Crookes sound.
My last encounter with the Crookes had been in the summer of 2014, when they toured America in support of their third album ‘Soapbox’. Hopewell and I began our Skype chat from there, then made a segue into recent developments with the band and how those have shaped their fourth album ‘Lucky Ones’, which is due for release early next year.
So, the last time you and I met was in Phoenix, I think, last summer.
It was, in the desert, and it was boiling hot, I remember that. I had a really good night there. We ended up going out to these really sort of small bars where everyone was really baffled by the fact that we were there. I enjoyed that, because you know, when you’re in like, New York, and there’s loads of English people, no one bats an eyelid, but then when you turn up somewhere like that, in these kind of…it was kind of like a bar you’d see on ‘True Detective’, that kind of place, and they were just really sort of confused by it.
Yeah, I can see how you guys are maybe sort of a novelty around here.
(laughing) Novelty is the word, yeah. They kept buying us drinks, these sort of tough biker guys kept buying us drinks, it was really nice.
Since the last time I talked with you, the Crookes have undergone a couple of changes?
Yeah, yeah, Russell [Bates, the Crookes’ former drummer] left to get a sort of proper job.
And your new drummer’s name is Adam Crofts. How did you find him?
Surname is Crofts, yeah, but everyone just calls him Croftsy. He played in a band that has supported us a few times, and he came to a lot of our gigs when he wasn’t playing, and we kind of got to know him through that. We thought it would be good to have someone who we knew was an actual fan of the band. I never really watch support bands, because I kind of want to concentrate on what I’m doing, but Tom [Dakin, Crookes’ guitarist] knew him and said he was a fantastic drummer, and he’s also a really nice guy. So he was kind of the first choice, and yeah, he quit his band and we poached him.
Aside from the drumming, what does he bring to the table for the Crookes? Has he affected the way you play in any way?
Yeah, I guess he changes things quite subtly. It’s probably not something that you’d notice unless you were in the band. He’s incredibly tight, [and] it’s down to him a lot to keep things steady, you know, sort of lay the foundation for what we’re playing. He does that really well, it’s been really easy with him.
You’ve also started a new record label, Anywhere Records.
We have, yeah. We’d done three records and a mini-record on Fierce Panda (2010’s ‘Dreaming of Another Day’), and we kind of got to the point where we could sort of do this ourselves. We always liked having control over everything, and Fierce Panda were good for that, but now it’s just down to us, you know? We’re just a very independent band, so it seemed like the logical thing to do, and it was a bit of an adventure as well, so we’re going to give it a go. We’ve got a really good team of people in place who are helping us, so it’s all going well.
And this new album will be your fourth, so it’s not like it’s your first rodeo.
(laughing) Exactly. First rodeo, that’s lovely. But yeah, we know what we’re doing by now. We’ve been going at it for a while and we’re fairly prolific, so we’re lucky to be on our fourth. A lot of bands would be doing it for this long, slaving on a second album, so we’re quite happy.
It’s already album number four, that’s a little hard to believe. You guys do work pretty quickly.
Yeah, we all just do this, it’s our only job, we just write constantly. It’s more something like we have to do, you know? I think that was the thing, Russell never wrote songs, so he never had that feeling of dependency on being able to voice things, whereas the rest of us, we all kind of need to write songs or play guitar, or whatever and songs happen because we have to do it rather than thinking “oh yeah, I want to do that.”
Do you feel like Adam is more on the same page with you in that way?
Yeah, Adam’s an amazing pianist, plays guitar, writes his own songs as well. He didn’t join us until after we’d written this album, but having a fourth person, he obviously chips in with things. I think it will just make the whole process even better.
So it will be interesting to hear what might happen on album number five, then.
Yeah. (laughing) I mean, we’re always going to need a drummer, but it’s nice to have someone who can just play piano really well in case we decide we want to stick some pianos on a track or something.
I hadn’t thought of the Crookes as having a piano in the group, but your new single ‘I Wanna Waste My Time On You’ is a little more instrumentally expansive than what we’ve heard you do in the past.
Yeah. And I think that’s probably relatively limited compared to the full album. We’re quite lucky, the studio we recorded at in Leeds is owned by a guy called Nick [Baines], or Peanut, from the Kaiser Chiefs, if you know that band. He’s their pianist or keyboardist. He had so many synths there that we could just use, so synths are sort of all over the album. (Baines opened the studio earlier this year with Andy Hawkins and the Crookes’ producer Matt Peel. You can read more about it, courtesy of Impolitikal, right here.)
It’s quite different, I think, to what people might be expecting from us, in terms of sound. We got a brass band in for one song, and we had a duet and things like that. We just thought we’d try and do things a bit differently this time, a bit more experimentally. And obviously we didn’t have a drummer, so we had to start with electronic drums and drum machines. Once you start using drum machines to set the foundation of a song, then you want to put synths with it, and we listened to a lot of the Postal Service, a lot of New Order, so it sounds a lot more like that kind of stuff, and probably less guitar heavy. There are two or three songs that I don’t even think have guitars on them.
With the new album not featuring guitars as heavily, where does that leave you and Tom in the live performances? Does it change what you’ll be doing at all?
There are still plenty of guitars [in the live setup]. We’ll have to work out exactly how we’re going to do our live shows. Whether that be simulating synth sounds with pedals or somebody actually playing it, I’m not sure yet. It’s going to be exciting to work out, though!
Check back with us tomorrow for part 2 of my interview with Daniel Hopewell, where we talked more about the writing process for the Crookes’ new album. ‘Lucky Ones’ is due for release on the 29th of January 2016 via Anywhere Records in the UK and via Modern Outsider in America. You can have a look back at our past coverage of the Crookes by clicking here.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 28th September 2015 at 11:00 am
As part of their #PluggedIn60 campaign, fashion house Original Penguin interviewed Flyte to ask them what decade of popular music has proven to be most influential to their songwriting and their style of music. Filmed by the sea, Will Taylor (lead vocals, guitar), Sam Berridge (guitar / keyboards / backing vocals), Nick Hill (bass / backing vocals) and Jon Supran (drums / backing vocals) chat about the Beatles, Paul Simon and currently active bands like Tame Impala who share a similar approach. Watch the clip below.
The band’s last release was back in December 2014; the ‘Diamond White’ EP is available only on vinyl. Past coverage on indie pop group Flyte on TGTF is this way.
By Mary Chang
on Thursday, 10th September 2015 at 11:00 am
“Yesterday morning, we were heading back from Electric Picnic. I think it’s in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland? Then it was on to Wales to play at Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion (North Wales). So we go to these crazy locations for some really boutique, lovely festivals. Back in 2009, 2010, we were doing the V Festivals and the sort of really commercial stuff. But what we really love, what we’ve gravitated towards over the years are these boutique experience festivals. Last night I got to watch Grace Jones do 32 costume changes in 10 songs, so that was pretty incredible! These are the kind of things we love playing. It’s definitely a different kind of experience.”
It’s hard not to be jealous of the experiences bassist Oliver “Oli” Steadman (far left in header photo) describes as he tells me what he and his band Stornoway have been up to on their very packed summer festival season. Thanks to the technological wonder that is Skype, we happen to sit down for a chat – him being in East London, myself in DC – a week within the 10th anniversary of him playing his first live show with Brian Briggs (lead vocals / guitar) and Jon Ouin (multi-instrumentalist / backing vocals) just prior to his younger brother Rob joining the group on drums. Considering the current uncertain climate in the music business, the combination of having your band survive and staying in said same band, as well as staying close friends with your bandmates is quite a feat.
He’s upbeat, explaining that Festival No. 6, their final festival of the season, was his favourite of all this year. “I’d never been before, and I didn’t know anything about it. The atmosphere, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Around every new corner, there’s a new, sort of strange Tuscan architectural construction by a strange gentleman who lived there (Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis) who lived there and built things there some 100 years ago or something. I still don’t know the whole story yet, I’m still discovering that. But around each other, you see the most incredible natural sight as well, like this huge estuary. You’d get some people trying to walk across it just while the tide’s out, hoping they have enough time to run across. You’d watch people get stranded. One guy was carrying a guitar, trying to get to the festival. Then the sun would set over the Western sea. It’s just a natural beauty, and I was really impressed by that festival.”
Given that Stornoway christened their most recent album after a seabird, ‘Bonxie’ (reviewed by me here), and their band’s long association with nature, Steadman’s appreciation for the great outdoors, even in the context of doing their jobs as musicians. The LP was released on their new label Cooking Vinyl in April, with the American release following it at the end of July on Slimstyle Records. ‘Bonxie’ also marks an important moment in Stornoway’s career in that it is the first of their studio albums to not be self-produced. For this album, they brought in acclaimed producer Gil Norton, whose credits include Foo Fighters‘ ‘The Colour and the Shape’ and several albums by Pixies, including 2014’s ‘Indie Cindy’.
Seeing that Norton is most famous for working with some of rock’s heavy hitters, this seemed like a mismatch to me, and I wondered if Norton had been one on a list of several producers they had been considering. According to Steadman, Norton was their first choice and securing him as producer came with a hefty price tag – hence their PledgeMusic campaign, which was so massively successful, their fans surpasses the original target goal in mere days of its launch – and it surprised me in what ways he says Norton influenced the sound of ‘Bonxie’.
“I think Gil taught us a lot about ourselves and finding within ourselves some kind of performance that has always been there, it’s always been available to us, but we’ve only accessed it in the wild gigs that we play. It’s a way of playing that has more conviction and volume, a bit more of an emotional investment. Playing our hearts out, really. For recording our previous albums, it was very relaxing, we’d have a pot of tea, sit in a small Oxford garage…Gil, he’s not really a tea guy. He’s got one huge bottle of mineral water that he starts off with in the morning and the rest of the time, it’s strong coffees. He’s got a manner about him…he can tell if you’re not being true to yourself, for the album you’re trying to make, he will let you know. He will say the ‘let’s give it some welly’ kind of thing. He gets the best performances out of people. So I listened to ‘The Pretender’ from the Foo Fighters and some of the Pixies’ albums, and you tell they went on the same kind of emotional journey we were on during the making of this album.
“But then having taught you that side of yourself, Gil is then the kind of producer who leaves his mark, and with this new ‘Unplucked’ EP, we self-produced again, although we had George Shilling to mix again, so he’s kind of the constant presence, the constant character in our creations. But we took Gil’s teachings from the whole ‘Bonxie’ album and we tried to look at those from a different angle and think, ‘okay, we can use this new way of performing that we’ve discovered from Gil, but we want to do it in these new instrumental arrangements’, so each song is stripped back to the barest instruments.
“We’re still playing with the conviction, but that really manifested in the technical aspects. So the songs that you hear on ‘Unplucked’, generally, every note was done in two or three takes. There’s the harmonica solo on ‘Lost Youth’, that’s the first time we really accessed that within ourselves. Having been given that massive confidence by Gil, we are returning with this ‘Unplucked’ EP, which is us doing it without Gil, but with all that Gil did teach us. We’re very proud of it… It’s like a return to what we were doing before. That’s why when we did the artwork, it’s a skeleton, it’s the bare essentials, none of the frilly stuff. I’m very excited to see what people make of it.”
As you all and Oli will read in my forthcoming review of the EP, I was really impressed with the sound of ‘Unplucked’, as it fully shows off through the five redone ‘Bonxie’ tracks the band’s talent in a very raw, naked state, and he agrees “‘Unplucked’ is something more for the traditional core of Stornoway fans”. This feels like a stark contrast to the festival and gig performing version of Stornoway I saw live in May, first at their star turn at the Academy during Live at Leeds 2015 the first Saturday of the month, then at a gig proper at Sheffield Leadmill the following Friday. It’s clear that their more confident sound has translated to a more accessible, farther reaching sound that Steadman himself has noticed the change in the type of fans who queue up after their appearances to say hello and get their autographs, as well as the overall reception.
“For most of this summer festival season, we’ve been playing these ‘Unplucked’ arrangements, even on the big stages. And it seems to excite them [the punters] in a way maybe I think they wouldn’t have been with the ‘Bonxie’ versions. Perhaps there was a sense that in the room that it might be a bit loud for the typical Stornoway fan, that they hadn’t gotten quite used to it yet…when you’re at the merch stall at the end of the night signing people’s albums and saying hello, you get a sense of who’s coming to the show, and there’s a whole new kind of Stornoway fan coming to us as a result of this record”. Longtime fans need to get onboard with the ‘new’, cocksure Stornoway quick, it appears, as Steadman says there’s already rumours of ‘Bonxie’ being tipped for a 2015 Mercury Prize nomination. “‘Bonxie’ is the new benchmark, the new triumph”, Steadman asserts. “This [‘Unplucked’] is a gift to all the fans who saw us through to making it.”
The surprise track on the new EP, especially if you haven’t seen Stornoway live in the last 6 months, is a cover of the late ’80s dance pop hit by Yazz, ‘The Only Way is Up’. It didn’t seem like the kind of song any of the guys in Stornoway would have on regular rotation, so I asked Oli how they chose it for a cover treatment. It turns out the writing was, literally, on the wall when they were working on ‘Unplucked’. “We initially went into the studio to make those five new versions. While we were there back at George Shilling’s place, we saw all these gold records up. They’ve always been up, but we took a closer look this time. It turns out that he produced it.
“It’s very out of character for him, because we’d known him as a rock mixer, or the guy who produced for ‘Tales from Terra Firma’. We quizzed him on it, we asked, ‘did you actually produce this?’ And he said, ‘yeah, that was in my electro heyday where I was programming all the drums and synths for Yazz’. He talked us through his experience with it, and it inspired us to play it and try it in a soulful, mellow cover… Whenever we’ve done a cover, we tried to choose a song we can take on as our own, even if people don’t know the words or the structure of the song.” Shilling’s own hospitality turned out to be important to the band’s creative process, as after their original planned recording location, Moles in Bath, had a major fire in early 2014, Steadman says the band camped out in Shilling’s back garden in the Cotswolds and got the recording that needed doing done.
The band may be done with summer festivals, but this doesn’t mean Steadman is about to go into hibernation. In addition to being a member of Stornoway and a cofounder of the Oxford branch of the Sofar Sounds movement, Oli has another band with his brother Rob called Count Drachma, in which they stay in touch with their South African roots by singing in Zulu and playing native Zulu folk music, called maskandi. And on his off days from these two bands – if you can call them off days – he is hard at work either with Tigmus (This is Good Music), a DIY gig-booking site for bands that he cofounded in 2013, or managing or producing bands in Oxford for his own company Stone Street Productions when he has an opportunity to return to the city where he first arrived in blighty at age 15.
Steadman’s plate is full these days: what he’s doing and all the projects he has his hands in seem altogether appropriate for someone young, talented and so clearly passionate about our business. We need more people as excited about music as him in this world. And even though I find Steadman this afternoon in London, he never stays in one place too long. Before we say goodbye, he says he’s just finished unpacking from the festivaling weekend, but he’s returning to his flat to pack again. He’s off to Mallorca in the morning. If that isn’t inspiration, I don’t know what is.
Many thanks to Oli for taking the time out of his busy day (and life!) to chat with me. Stay tuned for my review of Stornoway’s new EP ‘Unplucked’ on TGTF next week. It will be released on the 18th of September on Cooking Vinyl; ‘Bonxie’ is available now, as is our massive archive on TGTF on Stornoway over here.
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