When I hear Sheffield, I think of Joe Cocker, Stahl, Arctic Monkeys (who?), and 65dos. For three albums now, the guys from England have been challenging the attention of their listeners with complex, epic music, and have been moving between Mogwai, Envy, Godspeed… and Neurosis. Their latest work “The Destruction Of Small Ideas” was released by Monotreme Records again, and it shows that “instrumental” doesn’t mean a lack of vocals. It lacks nothing. Guitar and piano are enough of a common theme in all their epic compositions. I had a talk with Joe Shrewsbury and Paul Wolinski.
“When we were younger and better” is the title of the first song. When was that?
Joe: That’s a good question. The title represents our self-doubts, because it’s not easy to write music. The song was one of the first demos for the album, and the guy we recorded it with has been working with us for years. He claimed that it was the best and most mature song we had ever written. He meant it in a good way, but we got it wrong, because we don’t want to be “mature”. Because even if bands don’t play particularly well at the beginning of their careers, they have this delightful naivety.
Paul: They face the world with blind trust and innocence.
Joe: Yes. Then there’s this roughness and aggressiveness we never want to lose. We have seen that in many bands. They get better, technically. We are also better musicians than at the beginning. Still, that doesn’t mean your music gets better and more original.
Paul: We deliberately try not to follow any pattern. Our friend had become older and somewhat messed up due to the music industry. After his statement, we decided on the title of the album. We didn’t have a real concept back then.
Joe: We just know for sure that we don’t want to bother people with meaningless crap. People who come to your concerts, buy your records, and pay for that have the right to destroy you whenever they feel like it. Of course, we hope that won’t ever happen.
Paul: We also think that the latest album is the best we have ever recorded.
That’s what every band tells you.
Paul: And you have to believe that. If it’s not, why bother releasing it?
Joe: It’s our best song so far. We hadn’t done anything like it before, with this kind of guitars and piano arrangements. The title combined with the belief that it’s our best song is what makes it so attractive. Besides, we have completely delivered ourselves to our listeners. We wouldn’t have been able to create anything else, anything better than the songs on this record.
Do you have any kind of formal music education?
Paul: I took piano lessons, once, but it didn’t go beyond the basics. When we formed 65dos, I wasn’t even able to play the guitar. Instead of partying, I spent my freshmen year at university with my new sampler because I really wanted to ace it. So much for my “education”.
Joe: My mother forced me to play the cello for seven years. When I was 15, I told her “that’s it”, and bought a guitar. I took lessons for a few months and taught myself the rest. Rob, our drummer, also taught himself everything he knows. I think he was born with drumsticks in his hands. Simon’s also an autodidact. I think that’s great for us. If you don’t know the rules, you don’t have to follow them.
Have you ever wished to have a formal education in order to achieve a particular kind of sound?
Joe: No. The music we make evolves between the limits of our knowledge. Recording a new album broadens these limits without the need of any theory. When you follow an entirely practical approach instead of a theoretical one, you’re more open-minded when it comes to experimenting, because no one has ever told you what works and what doesn’t.
Paul: For instance, if we had the idea of working with brass instruments, we’d just try it. Even though we have never played such an instrument.
Joe: And if I wanted to play the piano, I’d ask Paul to teach me. I hate taking lessons. We’re not willing to let others tell us what we have to do. That’s what brought us together as a band. We like to learn new things, but we don’t want others to tell us what we have to learn.
You have made things more difficult by deciding to play in an instrumental band.
Paul: Whenever there’s a singer, they are in the spotlight. In exceptional bands it’s the charisma, the voice of the front man, that stands out. You either have such a front man or you haven’t.
Joe: Kathy and Drew from Circle Takes the Square sing the last song on the album “The Conspiracy Of Seeds”. It wasn’t about the singing itself, but rather about the quality of their voices that went very well with our music. It’s unique and very interesting, almost like an instrument. We wrote the lyrics and the melody for that part in the same way we write any instrumental part.
When I see your name, I instantly add the wort “noise”.
Paul: Good idea, maybe we should copy that. We have the reputation of playing these very loud concerts.
Joe: We like listening to quiet music, as well, but as soon as we are together, we play fast and loud music. We wrote a few rather quiet and slow songs for the new album that would have went well with it. However, in the end, they didn’t make it.
Paul: It’s hard to describe our definition of a good song. Probably, it has to do with intensity and energy, and some sense of frustration. We feel that in a song, and somehow, this energy always leads to noisiness. Atari Teenage Riot were an important band to me. I saw them five, six years ago, just when we formed our band. It was fantastic. Alec Empire’s later solo works, as well. Especially the first songs were incredible, so intense. I was really impressed. But after a few songs, he had reached his potential and wasn’t able to go any further. That taught me a lesson. I have seen Converge a few times, as well, they are completely different.
In the press release accompanying the album you complain about records getting mastered very loudly nowadays, and that the sense for nuances gets lost that way. Do you care to explain?
Joe: In mainstream rock, everything gets mastered on the same level. The loud and quiet pieces and parts are all on one single volume level. In the end, they only produce background music, because even though it’s rock music, you can always turn down the volume and still hear something. In our record, we tried to preserve the depths of the music. We wanted to leave the loud parts loud and the quiet parts quiet, physically. If you want to listen to all these parts, you have to turn up the volume. That way, you can’t ignore the album. At least, we hope so. You can’t listen to the record while doing something else, you have to fully concentrate on it.
Paul: We took a risk that way. It’s challenging to listen to the album on an iPod or something. We hope there are enough people who want to listen to it with the required attention. We don’t want to offend or challenge anyone with different habits but offer people who pay attention to us the most interesting music possible. We know that we’re not The Killers or Foo Fighters. Both make great pop music. We appreciate it but we aren’t able to do that. In a way, we also try to make pop music… We always try getting on point and being accessible. We’re not really into 25-minutes pieces, but I’m not sure whether that comes across.
Do you work with a producer or do you do everything on your own?
Paul: I’ve never understood why a band gets someone else on board who cuts the songs and arranges them back together. Songwriting and arrangement are essential, and I think every band should do that alone. We think of recording like Alfred Hitchcock of making movies. He didn’t allow a studio to change anything about his movies, either.
Joe: I read an interview with Steve Albini, the other day. He said that he didn’t want credits for his work as a producer, because to him, his job’s about making the band comfortable in his studio and assuring that the instruments work well together. It’s not about taking any influence on the band. For a band, recording is as important as concerts and songwriting, and they shouldn’t let other people tell them what to do. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to studio technicians. That time, it was important for us, as well, because unlike the first albums, we didn’t record the new one live at the studio, but recorded song after song, instead. The result is an album that sounds different. We’re looking forward to hearing what people, who’ve known us before will think about it.
You have worked with Monotreme in the past and are still working with them. Considering the sound and your vision, you really go well together.
Joe: Kim, Monotreme’s founder, is quite similar to us. Not necessarily when it comes to taste in music, but when it comes to how music should be done and its spirit. That’s why it’s natural for us to be with Monotreme. Besides, we were just lucky. I have no idea who else could have released our albums. Kim also took a risk. We work well with her and enjoy it. We’re not interested in “big business”, where faceless companies put bands under pressure. It would take a lot to get us away from Kim.
Paul: When it comes to influences, I just have to mention At the Drive-In, especially their attitude. We appreciate all bands at Monotreme, because we share the same attitude. None of those bands will become rich, we all need other jobs to survive. It’s a small label.
Joe: It’s not easy to find a label with music as its first priority, instead of money, and that’s willing to get its music out in the world and enjoys that. That’s what makes Monotreme so nice. They expect from their bands to be good, not to make lots of money. I think we can live up to these expectations. However, when it comes to money, I have no idea how that’s supposed to work out.
What to do for a living?
Joe: We have been in this band for about five, six years now, and we have given up having a “normal” job or a career. You need a job you can get away from whenever you go on tour.
Paul: We had crappy jobs, like at the post office, coffee shops, gift shops, industrial cleaning. Now, we’re lucky enough to have survived the last year on the band alone. I guess there are people willing to kill for that and many others playing in big bands who have no idea how privileged they are. That’s why we take our responsibility very seriously. So, we keep on living very modestly. We’re poorer than before but happy. Our reward is being able to get up every day and work on something meaningful: our band. In this situation, you’re willing to work a thousand times as hard as for a job you hate more and more with each day but where you earn much more money. I think you don’t need the decadence and fortune that many bands enjoy. It’s possible to be happy with less and work in a more positive way.
Your music places you in a pretty active scene: Envy, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Isis, Jesu and others are very popular.
Paul: I’m curious which direction that’s going to take. We get compared to Mogwai and Aphex Twins a lot, and we got used to that, but these bands already did that ten years ago. Apparently, this genre hasn’t changed a lot, so they’re still the leading bands. It’s great that there are new bands coming up. However, I don’t really think that many of the ones, who receive so much attention right now, have brought about any musical development. It’s easy to take your place in this niche, keep releasing albums in this style and play in front of the same people over and over again. We’re not interested in that. I’m not naïve, we don’t exist completely detached from all this, but we want to go beyond this genre and discover new things. If you want people’s attention, you have to be able to confront them with something they have never heard before. Otherwise, we end up with band that prepare Led Zeppelin, the Beatles or Mogwai. There’s a reason why these bands are so famous: they were the first ones of their genre, and it was exciting.
You work with a visual arts group called Medlo.
Joe: They’re also from Sheffield, and Paul has known them since university. We started about the same time as them and have a very similar style—DIY. So, we collaborate from time to time. They create videos for us and take care of the effects at our live shows. Whenever possible, we adapt their work. Last year, we went on tour through the UK with them. It was really impressing. They’re working on a DJ Set for their show right now that goes well with our development to use more and more electronica.
Translation by 65kid Arabella Lutz.