Saturday, 30 August 2008
It’s with a degree of scepticism, then, that I meet and greet with Glasgow-dwelling indie-pop ensemble We Were Promised Jetpacks. Sure, the quartet are blessed with a magnificent, dreamy-eyed moniker and exhale the type of fleet-footed songsmithery that led Kapranos and co catapulting up the charts, but such virtues don’t necessarily go hand in hand with an accommodating chit-chat. In fact, so concerned is The Skinny that our rendezvous will hit a dead end that I’ve scribbled down the token silence-filling contingency of every music journalist: “Describe your sound in three words”.
I should have saved the ink.
Huddled tableside in the pit of a sun-soaked Edinburgh tavern, Adam Thompson [Vocals/Guitar], Darren Lackie [Drums] and Sean Smith [Bass] are a breath of fresh air. As loquacious and antsy as a gaggle of primary school freshmen, the trio complete each others sentences and continuously answer questions before they’ve been fully put – particularly when discussing a certain blast from the past:
“We told a guy about it once and now it’s what everyone asks us,” interrupts a riled Adam as I enquire about an infamous and ultimately unsuccessful Battle Of The Bands competition where the group reinterpreted Jet's woeful dirge Are You Gonna Be My Girl. “We had two of our own songs played as well, it wasn’t just a Jet cover. It was one of our first shows and we tried to secure victory with our own stuff but we had our set cut short.”
They may still be reeling from this fledgling defeat but the Edinburgh-born group have certainly raised their game since moving to Glasgow three years ago: “I think there’s a lot more maturity to the songs now,” says Darren, only recently returned from a four month trek to Germany. Sean agrees: “Before, we wrote three minute pops songs but I think what we’re producing now is a lot more intense. When we started out we all liked things like Franz Ferdinand and Muse but now we’re listening to bands like El Padre – they’re amazing.”
Definite stamps of Franz-styled angularity can still be found in the jerking revs of Roll Up Your Sleeves but the thrill of sprightly jangling is beginning to wear off on the WWPJ boys: “When Darren was away we did a few low-key acoustic shows where we played different versions of our songs,” says Sean before Adam interjects: “We ended up having more people in the band than we normally do. We’ve introduced glockenspiel, organ, violins and bells – we’re trying to become a little more expansive.”
With such a sci-fi loving appellation are We Were Promised Jetpacks looking for lift-off into the charts? “We’ve not really thought about [mainstream success],” says Adam. “I don’t see us as an indie band and there’s nothing particularly experimental about us so I’m not sure where we fit in.” Sean continues: “The worst kind of question is ‘what kind of music is it?’ Especially when someone doesn’t really know what to compare it to.”
Sensing I'll never get a better opportunity than now, I make a play for those three eternal adjectives. Eyes are rolled and cheeks are puffed before a well-primed response is delivered: “Loud. Full. Fun”. Nae quite a bravado-packed statement of intent but, then again, did you really expect anything else?
Published in a different form here
Thursday, 14 August 2008
Likewise Liars, Hella, Fucked Up and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (perhaps more in spirit than in sound) are all perfect examples of modern day tune-churners whose choice of appellation epitomises their enticing aural arrangements. And kings of the ID-wearing musical miscreant? Stand forth, the UK's most effective Roland Rat impersonators, The Enemy (yeah, yeah, easy target).
With such name-tagged notions lodged firmly in mind, the prospect of The Great Depression's third LP Forever Altered doesn't exactly fill me with hopes of major-key whirring pop ditties played in the sun-blushed styling of Sweden's I'm From Barcelona. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what's so great about depression - economically or emotionally - but it's fair to say I’ve grasped the idea that any band that so openly dips its toes in the dank cauldron of despondency ain’t gonna produce a spirit-lifting collection of choons.
See, Forever Altered’s a record best suited to the house-warming chitter-chatter of a 30-something couple who’ve transcended beyond the first notch of the property ladder. It’s music that's perfectly composed and beautifully executed but somehow floats benignly from the speakers, neither heightening states of consciousness nor submerging mindsets in the depths of despair - in other words, it’s utterly futile.
With the seconds ticking drearily by, the record’s lack of stomach grows ever more intolerable; embedding itself throughout the melodramatic opus of ‘Stolen’, into ‘Throw Me Ropes’’ weeping chromosome of string-swept whispers before mercifully resting by the padded wall finale of ‘Colliding (into what might been)’ for a bluster of soaring key-speckled reflection.
Ultimately, such a shimmering climax is what grates most about Forever Altered. This could have been a collection of wondrous, tear-duct seeping soundscapes, but all that’s evolved is a record so stagnant it would spawn a million malaria-spreading mosquitoes were it to be liquidised. Sure, The Great Depression may appeal to the more mournful of heart, but what lies beneath Forever Altered’s cover is a set of tatty pages with very little content.
Saturday, 9 August 2008
Given the UK’s rebuking of Pythagoras theorem then, it seems almost contradictory that its music loving masses so willingly embrace the algo-rhythmic sounds of math-rock. The complex dissonance of Shellac, Slint and Don Caballero is revered by those with a predilection for challenging sonic arrangements, and with a plethora of newer acts likes Battles and Foals polishing up the genre's more abrasive edges math-rock looks set to continue burning a pathway through the country’s musical landscape.
One band standing by, gas-canister and a box of matches already to hand, is Chicago-based ensemble Maps & Atlases. The quartet’s debut EP, 2006’s exhilarating Trees, Swallows, Houses, skewered the discordant crepitating of home town leviathans Don Caballero with wheezing melodic splutters and elasticated yelps. They’ve since returned with follow-up EP You And Me And The Mountain, completed a stateside tour with Foals and will embark upon their first-ever jaunt to the UK this autumn.So, in eager anticipation of the band’s venture across the pond, we caught up with guitarist Erin Elders before a show in Nashville, Tennessee to DiScover whether Maps & Atlases’ numbers really do add up.
Video: Maps & Atlases, ‘Songs For Ghosts To Haunt To’, live
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Evening Erin. Whenever I see the name Maps & Atlases it’s almost always followed by two words: ‘math’ and ‘rock’. Is that frustrating at all?
Erin Elders: I think we have definite elements that could be described that way, especially when compared to other math-rock bands, but we’re much more comfortable with being seen as a progressive band. We try not to see our music like that; we don’t sit down when we’re writing a song and think, “How are we going to make this more Math?” But I think because we include elements like time signatures you can see how people would consider us more of a math group.
EE: No, not really. There’s always a lot going on in our songs so I suppose that’s why people see it that way. I think we get lumped together with other math-rock bands because of the techniques we use.
Talking of fellow math-rockers, I believe you recently toured with Foals across there in the States. How did that go?
EE: We did a bunch of West Coast shows with them a couple of weeks ago and I think we’re going to be doing some more together in the UK soon. The shows here were amazing - they’re a band we really respect. We’d heard the record though we didn’t know much about them, but from the first shows we hit it off with them straight away. They were the sweetest, most kind-hearted people and it was the first time we’d toured with a band we had a great connection with. It seemed like we were playing from the same page and I feel like our two bands really compliment each other.
EE: Yeah, I can definitely see where he’s coming from. Some of the songs took a really long time to write on You And Me And The Mountain. When we first sit down to start writing we try to figure out the best relationships between each part. It’s almost as if we’re overly critical of ourselves during the writing process because we really want to make the best songs we can make. If we put out a record we want it to be representative of ourselves as it’s an important thing for us. Other bands can just make a record and whatever happens happens, but for us each element goes through a long process where we’re almost building something up just to tear it down again.
Hmm... sounds like your band's the musical equivalent of the British press. So do you deliberately set out to make songs with as much scope and depth as those on Trees, Swallows, Houses?
EE: Definitely. A lot of the songs start as an idea that Dave [Davison, guitar/vocals] has and then we’ll flesh out the structure by bringing it into a band setting where we layer things on top and figure out the drum part, then look at the relationship between the bass and the drums, the guitar and the drums and so on. We look at each instrument and how every one fits together - it’s like a puzzle of some sort.
EE: Yeah, it is but I feel like the longer we’re in the band the more we’ll figure out our songwriting process.
Having spawned bands like Shellac and Don Caballero, Chicago has form for math-rock. Just how much of an impact has the city had on your sound?
EE: When we started out you could hear a lot of elements of Chicago-based bands like Shellac, but now I’d like to think we’re reaching out in different directions a little bit with this record.
EE: I think what appealed to us initially was the percussive element to it. In the songwriting process we’re a band that thinks with a certain sense of percussion behind all of our parts. We found it was really easy to emulate different percussive sounds with our instruments by using tapping techniques, and that’s really where it all started. We went crazy with it on our first EP, but now we’re trying to find ways of getting out of that pigeonhole.
Is You And Me And The Mountain an attempt to step away from the math-rock stigma, then?
EE: That was really the idea with this record. As a band, you make your first record and then think, “Where do we go from here?”. We wanted to achieve the same level of intensity as on the first record, but we didn’t want to make just another mathy record. We wanted to figure out ways to branch out melodically and we feel like we’ve made a Jethro Tull record with this new one.
Maps & Atlases shot by Ryan Russell
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If Don Caballero has been the obvious influence, what other sounds have inspired you that people perhaps wouldn’t consider?
EE: We really like older progressive bands, but you could also argue we use elements of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. One of the things we wanted to do was pull out a lot of old soul melodies - not that we’re looking to do a Sam Cooke record or anything, but there’s definitely more of a combination of soul and folk in our sound now.
EE: On a lot of the songs Dave will have put together almost the entire song on his guitar and we’d tape the vocal melody without really thinking about the lyrics for a while. But then sometimes it works out the other way round and we’ll come up with the lyrics first and then Dave and I will come up with the melody to complement it.
It seems like you’ve got an organic ethos to creating music.
EE: It’s not like we’ve ever set rules for ourselves, but we’ve always tried to make something interesting from regular instruments that haven’t been digitally manipulated. We’ve always liked the idea of at least trying to make sounds that are as organic as possible. But we’re not going to limit ourselves where we can’t do something because we want to keep it organic.
EE: Oh, definitely. Outside of the music we play nobody really listens to math-rock. For this whole tour Dave has been listening to Bruce Springsteen. We would just love to make a pop record and strip all the math away, but we’re hesitant to do that because we don’t want to lose the intensity that is our band. We’ve got some songs that haven’t worked out with the style we have, but maybe we’ll try to do that on another project sometime in the future.
There seems to be a lot of blog buzz about you guys but a severe lack of press coverage, which is surprising considering a band like Foals are on the cover of every rag over here. Why do you think that is?
EE: With the last record it was a really slow and organic development and we didn’t do much press. We put out our first EP initially by ourselves and then we did as much touring as we could. After we sold out our first pressings and re-released the record there was a bit of press, but by then the record had been out for a little while so there wasn’t really a big campaign. The thing is we’re really impatient and we don’t want to sit for four months waiting for our record to come out just because we’ve got press to do.
EE: Yeah, I mean the interesting thing on this tour has been that we’ve played a load of shows in places we’ve never, ever been to before, but there’s still people there who’ve heard the records and are singing back the words to all of our songs. It’s weird because we think of ourselves as a touring band, so for people to get into us through the internet still seems really strange.
You’re touring the UK in autumn this year, are you looking forward to it?
EE: It’s the first time we’ve been anywhere out of the country and we’re really excited about it. It will be interesting because Foals are absolutely huge out there, aren’t they, so it will be fun to see what the crowds are like.
EE: Obviously we started playing shows before we made the records so we consider ourselves to be a live band first. Of course, the records are a little more polished where we’ll add some guitar noises and a few slide parts but I think they’re pretty similar. If anything the live shows are a little more intense because of the crowd’s energy but I don’t think there’s too much difference right now. We’re trying to figure out how to make the live shows different to the record.
Thus far you’ve recorded EPs, but when do you plan to start working on an album?
EE: We have some songs that we’re working on at the moment which we plan on putting on full-length and we’ve got some that we’ll use for other ideas. We’re also hoping to run a series of digital singles or 7”s, so when we get back from Europe we’ll do those and start a full-length.
EE: I think Shiraz [Dada, bass] has the makings of a pretty good beard as do I, whereas Dave has the full sideburns/moustache combo going on. By the time we make our way over to the UK we’ll have some full-on facial hair going on.
Well, I suppose if you’re going to be in the math-rock club you’ll need some face fuzz.
EE: That’s true. I’ll try and grow my beard out as much as I can before I get over there so I can look like some sort of sulking outsider.
Video: Maps & Atlases, ‘Every Place Is A House’, live
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Maps & Atlases play a number of headline dates in September and October as well as a good number in support of Foals – details below. Find the band’s MySpace page here
27 Aylesbury Civic Centre with Foals
28 Cardiff University with Foals
29 Norwich UAE with Foals
30 Nottingham Rock City with Foals
1 Leeds Brudenell Social Club headline
2 Hull University with Foals
3 Liverpool Academy with Foals
4 Aberdeen Music Hall with Foals
5 headline date TBC
6 headline date TBC
7 Newcastle Academy with Foals
8 Glasgow Captain’s Rest headline
9 headline date TBC
10 headline date TBC
11 Exeter Cavern Club headline
12 Brighton Engine Room headline
13 Oxford The Regal headline
14 London Bardens Boudoir headline
Tuesday, 5 August 2008
With this in mind, it would be easy to cast Johnny Foreigner alongside this new breed of overnight sensations. Having shot from the blocks like a speed-freaking Ben Johnson with last year’s - praised in all quarters - mini-album Arcs Across The City, the Birmingham born trio’s debut LP Waited Up Til’ It Was Light is one of the indie blogosphere's most eagerly anticipated debuts of the year. So in the run-up to their maiden full-length release, I caught up with bassist Kelly to uncover whether the sprightly young group of frantic punk-poppers have the stamina to run the distance.
Pondering the superlatives being thrown in JoFo's direction thus far, the bubbly Brummie takes it all in her stride. “It was just amazing and totally flattering but it’s kind of put a bit of pressure on for the new record,” she confesses. “We were pretty proud of the record, but we didn’t think people would love it enough to give it that much. I mean how do you beat scores like ten out of ten? We’re thinking about bribing music magazines to give us eleven next time.”
Formed just over two years ago when college chums Alexei (guitars/vocals) and Junior (drums) coerced Kelly into enlisting in their pursuit of creating break-neck indie rock, Johnny Foreigner’s trajectory toward the top of the indie rag-pile has been meteoric. However, despite amassing plaudits from critics and bloggers alike in such a short space of time, Kelly struggles to pin down a point where success seemed inevitable.
“I don’t think there really was a moment when we thought: ‘Right that’s it, we can actually make a living out of this’ – it was more of a gradual progression,” she says coyly. “I suppose when we signed to Best Before [small London based label, also home to The Pistolas] it was maybe the time when we started thinking we could make something of it. They wanted us to be touring loads and we’ve always liked to do lots of gigs so it’s worked out well.”
With a blizzard of hype surrounding Waited Up Til It Was Light’s arrival, it would be forgivable if a few primadonna moments had crept into the band’s carefree attitude but Kelly believes change has come only in the form of tour-van spawned professionalism: “I think we’ve been so busy that we don’t have time to put emphasis on what people say,” she explains. “The only difference is that when we first started out we were pretty shambolic and all our gear was falling apart. Now we like to think about ourselves as a professional band; all our equipment works and we get to change our strings now and then.”
With the eyes of the mainstream gazing down on the band, does Kelly believe they'll ever curtail their misdemeanant ways and vitriolic snarl to play ball in the cash-rich courtyard of populism? “God, I dunno. We could turn into REM and sell to the masses before living in big hillside mansions,” she says mischievously before quickly retreading her steps: “Nah, nah. Honestly, we’ll be in wheelchairs playing the same old music before we do that. If not, it would be the end of Johnny Foreigner.”
A dizzy carousel of downtrodden electronica, Prisoner… takes Pram's sultry minimalism and builds atop an extraordinary wealth of effect-laden idealism that further magnifies the cinematic soundscapes of these Birmingham-born avant-gardeners.
Setting sail with the unaffected album cut of ‘Beluga’ initially appears a baffling decision. As phosphorescent and dreamy as the stumbled percussion and xylophonic chimes are, there seems little point in its existence on this, a remix record. But once each proceeding number gloops honey-like into the atmosphere, the track begins to emanate as a clear focus point in this crossroads of ideas.Psapp Vital Sand Pit’s touch up of ‘Metaluna’ is first to wriggle its way into the bloodstream, tweeting and chirping to Spirographic effects that march stoically against a grieving viola wail. It’s an infectious juxtaposition of child-like emotion bound together by the sensuous scales of Rosie Cuckson that would be an unperturbed highlight if it wasn’t for the brilliance to come.
See, the curiously named A Guire Wrath of Godsy’s interpretation of ‘The Silk Road’ is simply phenomenal. A slime-infested cavern of synth and drum, the sheer depth of sound emitting from the speakers is enough to have an audiophile running to the launderette, soiled bedsheets in hand. As harrowing and orchestrated as Liars’ ‘A Visit From Drum’, the track’s duplicity both bleeds the lugs and soothes the soul with a shrill of aching skin pummels wedged between textured melodic lilts.
Such peaks, of course, are hard to maintain and Grandmaster Gareth’s reprisal of 'Beluga' lacks the sonic intensity of its predecessor; embellishing an annoying merry-go-round of kiddie-tronic keys amidst the track’s antsy-pants percussion. Thankfully, the Modified Toy Orchestra’s skewering of ‘Salva’ resuscitates the EP’s withering lungs at the last. Making for a sublime finale, the track's opening blow of oxygen grabbing chimes and floating harmonies submerge into a dreamy mezzanine of instrumentation upon which Cuckson wondrously exhales.
Who'd have thought it: a remix record that stands up on its own. Pram’s Prisoner Of The Seven Pines truly is one of life’s oddities.
Video: Pram, ‘Beluga’
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Saturday, 2 August 2008
Teeth now straightened and threads finally befitting (thanks to a nicotine-replacing antidote of cheese and biscuits), the prospect of ‘The Remix’ continues to rest unsteadily. Throughout all my adult life it's been drummed home, like some sort of God-fearing Calvinistic maxim, that plagiarism is unacceptable, unforgivable even, so for someone to have free reign over another’s work and *gasp* profit from it is beyond contempt. And aye, I’m full of contradictions - my love of The Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’ bears testament to this - but for all the sticky-fingered sample swindling that goes on in my iPod you’ll be hard pushed to find a remix record amidst the clutter of overplayed MP3 and podcasts.
That is until now.
Chopped, grated, toasted and garnished by “new, exciting DJs and producers and established dance heavyweights” (thanks, the press blurb), truth be told, this is a record no discerning listener should really give a shit about – least of all me. But, y’see, Sample And Hold’s a perplexing swine.
On one hand, it’s a diluted etch-a-sketch of the screwball beat-makery that made Attack Decay Sustain Release such an entrancing proposition, with The Invisible Conga People’s Balearic-infused rehash of ‘I Got This Down’ and Danton Eeprom’s pitifully limp take on ‘Wooden’ eking out the last remnants of joy from their floor-spitting blueprints. Yet, in ‘Sleep Deprivation’ (Simon Baker Remix) lies a smattering of hope that leaves limbs loosened and senses perked to the tune of escalating synth wobbles and alien chimes. And the drug-hound breaks of ‘It’s The Beat’ (Shit Robot Remix) has pristinely buffed sneakers cutting rug like Jesus on overtime to the Casio-toned odyssey of B-Boy chants and ulcer-stinging afro-rhythm.
As enjoyable and fresh as these reappraisals are, it’s difficult to resist reaching for the original to excavate each hidden crevice yourself. And with cursory remix tokens spread thickly – many tracks predictably over-stretch in aid of deluded bedroom beat-matchers while others merely annihilate the already atrocious (Pinch’s schmooze-infused take on the originally jaded ‘I Believe’ is particularly grating) – those glances towards Attack Decay Sustain Release's grassy-pitched sleeve become all the more frequent.
But in Joakim’s mix of ‘The Hustler’ rests a sliver of ingenuity that's brought to the forecourt as a tirade of brutal beats resonating around the track's deep, galactical bassline. Climaxing with a clunk of android disco-filth, it's the only true, pocket-burning moment on an album that drizzles attention-spans with infrequent showers rather than engulfing them in a waterfall-like continuum. Yet while Sample And Hold’s not quite a vehement affirmation of The Remix’s merits, it’s enticing enough to have you wondering what life would have been like without all those Suede records.