Backstage before their set at The Borderline in Soho – the first of three consecutive London shows – I got the chance to talk to frontman Ralph Pelleymounter and bassist James Bull about their new album and breaking their touring hiatus.
I stuck around in the almost unsettlingly suave and schmaltzy venue amongst the overwhelming young and very attentive crowd to catch the lovely guys in action. The set undulated smoothly between folky and emotive quiet moments and punchier typical indie-rock moment, Ralph’s powerful vocals all the while underpinned by tight harmonies from the rest of the lads. They do seem to be a band growing naturally and transforming with ease between their strengths; Sweeping choruses are lifted up by Josh Taffel’s tight drumming and the washing synths of Ben Jackson, completely immersed in performing.
They surprised some of the audience with their newer and heavier songs, and the band was evidently pleased with the reaction. You wouldn’t have known they haven’t played live properly in long time, they seemed entirely at home and comfortable with each other.
So, you were just saying you haven’t gigged in a long time, are you excited to play in London again?
RP: Yeah! We did the first couple of albums and a few EPs and were touring constantly in Europe and the States, so we decided to take a break between the second and the third album. We’ve not been touring, not been playing, just writing – we wanted to make sure the third one came out completely right and that there were no regrets. I’m pleased to say I think it’s sounding really good! At the moment we are really proud of it; it’s one of those weird things that you work on for so long and then you have to just put them out then see what the world does. So far, the fans seem to be really on board with The Problem of Evil and The Good Old Days at least.
This is the 2nd album with the current line up, right?
RP: For me and Ben it is our third, for Grant and [Josh] Taffel it’s their second and for young James Ball here it’s his debut. We’ve got a first a second and a third all in one.
JB: We want to be like Sugarbabes, that’s the aim.
So how has the writing process been, with the malleable group setting?
RP: Well the writing process has probably stayed pretty similar throughout – I lock myself away and write the bare bones of it. Then it will go to the band and we will arrange it together.
The new tracks are a bit more anthemic, particularly The Good Old Days, how did that come about?
RP: That’s good to hear. It’s definitely been a journey: the first album’s definitely more folk-influenced, and the second one is trying to be a little more rocky and a little more indie. With this one, one of the key things is that we’ve all gone off and been doing our own things. Ben’s been doing production for a lot of bands, I’ve been doing writing for artists like Rag’n’Bone man and also managed to do a couple weeks in Nashville. You pick up things along the way.
The production is also quite different, who’s behind that?
RP: Gethin Pearson – who is mad. Wonderful, but mad.
JB: He’s absolutely barmy, didn’t he win Welsh producer of the year?
RP: Yeah he did, something like that…
JB: Credit to him and Ben. I think when you are recording somewhere and you’re sat in a basement for twelve plus hours a day and you’re re-listening to things over and over again, it’s quite easy to get a bit itchy I guess.
RP: Especially if you aren’t washing.
JB: Yeah, I was wearing a potato sack. We went up for two long weekends to a converted vicarage outside Manchester. It was a lovely environment, by a river and left to our own devices. In this house where each room was pretty much a different instrument, a drum room, a piano room, all sorts of toys to play around with. It’s really good just to have someone like him around where it’s just really easy, but he still puts all the effort in and he shares our vision.
RP: I had an initial meeting with him before we went into the studio and we just chatted about loads of bands -TV on the Radio, The National, Modest Mouse- and it was great. Quite often he would say ‘these are the bands I am thinking of drawing influence in terms of the soundscape for this track’ and we were bang on the same page. As I said, he is a lovely crazy man.
You described your last album is more personal and your first as more about story-telling, what’s the direction with this one?
RP: Oh god! I don’t know, maybe a little more back to the storytelling. Possibly, there’s a little more ‘bigger picture’ stuff.
JB: I think one of the big differences is that the world’s a lot different now than it was when the first album came out. It’s is a pretty sad place now – welcome to The Spiritual Dark Age! We started writing that about a year ago and we are quite fortunate that things are still quite bad. I mean, we’re lucky that it’s still relevant.
RP: True, true, I wouldn’t like to draw direct parallels with The Spiritual Dark Age and what’s going on directly like Brexit etc though – it’s not about that sort of thing.
Do you feel like you have split from the folk scene, or do you still feel attached to it?
RP: I think it’s always nice to strip stuff down – that’s one thing that we are planning on doing with this release. People always like us for doing our shows in house parties, which is how we started out, so that’s what we are going to do with this one. We’ve recorded a really stripped back version of The Good Old Days and we’re going to put that out, and we’ll probably do that for most of the tracks, so you’ll get one electric and one acoustic. Sometimes you’ll see ‘bands’ doing acoustic versions and you’re like ‘what is this?’, they’ve done no work whatsoever. With us we really do think about the acoustic arrangements, really try and make them different.
JB: It’s definitely important for a band to progress and for the sound to evolve, but also it’s essential to us that we fall back on the things people liked us for in the first place. There are still folky aspects in it, like the harmonies and Ralph’s storytelling.
Well, The Problem of Evil has got that lovely folky guitar picking underneath.
RP: We were so pleased with that, it got Music Friday from Spotify. It’s got a 45 second acoustic guitar intro and ends with a church organ solo and we were like ‘how has this happened?’ So hats off to the people and Spotify.
JB: And us?
RP: Well, we just write the songs, they picked it and that takes skill.
JB: It takes courage.
RP: Yeah! I mean to put something out on a list like that, something which is a bit more out there.
We probably shouldn’t keep you for too long, what with the fans waiting outside.
RP: We were so impressed! I always feel so sorry – but then when I was a kid, me and my cousin waited from midday to see Skunk Anansie. It was ridiculous, we were about twelve, it was literally the two of us in the queue and I remember saying ‘you go get McDonalds and I’ll hold the place in the queue’. There was no one else in that queue, we were first in… and Muse were supporting.
My old teacher’s band was supported by Muse once, at a small tour where they picked up local bands.
RP: They were all mad teenage players weren’t they?
Apparently they were all wearing white denim suits. Well, anything else you want to add?
RP: No, I think let’s end on the point that ‘Muse are very good’; it can be the headline.
JB: Just don’t mention Kasabian.
RP: No, wouldn’t want beef with Kasabian.
Words by Nick Hann