Safety In Sound have been out of the interview game for a little while, but I'm pleased to say I'm back! This week I went to the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds to catch up with Tall Ships, a band I first encountered at Beacons over the summer. Despite being from the south, they write the sort of passionate, anthemic rock that is more traditional of Scottish rock bands. Think Biffy Clyro and Twin Atlantic, throw in a loop pedal and a lyrically scientific sensibility and you're on the right track. Their brilliant debut album Everything Touching is out now, and I caught up with Ric Phethean (guitar, vocals, synths), Matt Parker (bass, sampler), Jamie Bush (drums, bass) to chat about it's influences, being on an independent label and their love of Craig David.
Tall Ships, Interview, Brudenell Social Club, 15.10.2012
SIS: I saw you play at Beacons in the summer. As a festival it seemed to be a mix of electronic and garage music and heavy rock stuff, and you fitted somewhere in the middle. It got me thinking as to what kind of music I’d categorise you as. The guardian said that your ‘brand of brainiac indie recalls the math-rock of Foals and the indie-funk of Futureheads’. Would you say that that is a fair reflection of your music?
Rick: The math rock part we’ve always been confused about, because we always play in 4/4, we’re not like math rock bands in that way. We do an injustice really to bands who play intelligently like that, we just do straight forward rock. Primary school rock!
Jamie: it’s not Meet Me In St Louis or anything like that. I think it’s because we’re signed to BSM (Big Scary Monsters) which is associated with math rock bands, we were just lumped into that label but we’re not at all. We use a loop pedal; that’s as close as we are to math rock.
SIS: Maybe its just lazy journalism in that sense, people making assumptions?
Rick: That’s the thing really, I think the term is just bandied about now and it sort of ceases to mean anything. If I see the term math rock now, it instantly switches me off to a band because as a genre, I don’t think it means anything anymore. When it first started, with bands like Don Caballero, they were visionaries, coming about with this music that was really fresh and exciting. it had a relevance then. But now, what people call math rock is just watered down twiddly guitar stuff. I think we’d like to disassociate ourselves with that. We’re chord based, and kind of heavier. I think we’re better understood as a rock band, it’s we all liked as kids, what we grew up on. And I like the term Rock and Roll because it so open, you can deviate from it in whatever direction you like.
SIS: That brings me on to the next question nicely. What bands would you like to be associated with and call influences?
Jamie: There is kind of the Holy Trinity for me, which is like WHY?, Battles and Sigur Ros.
Rick: I think for me, the core band who influenced me, the band who you listen to and love throughout your teens and they’re ‘your’ band, that was Biffy Clyro. Before that, I was listening to Greenday, and Blink 182, which was great, but then I came across Biffy, somehow managed to predorder their first album and that became a teenage obsession, right from 14 years old to around 18,19. I loved their first three albums with a passion.
SIS: You say their first three albums, what do you make of them now they’ve gone down a mainstream route?
Rick: We actually listen to that album (Only Revolutions) a lot in the van this year, but it has become a kind of guilty pleasure.
SIS: I love it all personally, but I can see the frustrations of early biffy fans nowadays...
Rick: Yeah I understand it too. But they deserve all the success they’ve got and I think they’ve just been very clever. They’ve been a band for years, and they struggled and struggled and struggled, and any musician wants to make a living out of it. The bigger part of me wants to say fair play to them, I’m not going to call them sell outs.
SIS: I did see them in Leeds a few weeks back and their new stuff sounds amazing, just like the old stuff.
Rick: Oh really, that’s wicked! I mean, those first three albums were just seminal. They’re great, because its music you can love, just really f***ing love. I don’t think there’s enough of that in music nowadays. But yeah, to come back to influences, it was Biffy first, and then we saw Battles, who are just the best modern rock band. They sound like the future. And then there’s Sigur Ros.
SIS: So speaking of influences, I’ve heard a little rumour about Matt. I hear you keep a picture of Craig David in your bass case. I really hope it’s true, because I think Craig David is a bit of an underrated genius...
Matt: I don’t know who told you that! But yeah, if one day we can collaborate with Craig David, I think it will be the best day of our lives. It all came about because we had a signed picture of Craig David on our rider about three years ago, and we just kept getting these terrible print outs of the first picture on google, all pixelated and rubbish with a forged signature.
Rick: I remember one time Huw Stephens forged us one. In fact, I don’t think he even wrote Craig David, just his own name (laughs)
Matt: But no, it was always nice, whatever venue you were in, to be able to open up your case and go ‘oh hello Craig!’
SIS: do you actually like Craig David? Or was it just something to wind up promoters?
Rick: Oh no, Born To Do It was a SEMINAL album!
Jamie: We used to do a 7 days cover, a kiNd of reggae drum and bass sort of thing. It was disgusting! (all laugh) People still shout out for it to be played though. We don’t even care that he’s not cool, he’s f***ing amazing and one day we’ll come together to take over the world.
SIS: So the album has been out a week today, does it feel weird to finally have it out in the world?
Rick: It was a huge relief because we’d been sat on it for so long, it was basically finished in January but at that point it was a nine track album. We were completely done with it, happy and were ready to get it out in May. But then we lived with it for two months and our managers came back to us and said, ‘there isn’t really any hits on it, can you write a single?’ So that’s where gallop came from.
SIS: Did you find that difficult, having to consciously write a hit?
Rick: It was quite nice actually, there’s almost sort of rules you can follow. We have a tendency to go on a bit in our songs so it nice to be able to say ‘this has to be three and a half minutes. We wanted to write something upbeat and catchy so it was actually a pretty fun exercise. Lyrically it’s actually the most dark and depressing song on the album which is ironic.
Jamie: I don’t feel any different now it’s out, but it’s nice to know people are listening to it.
SIS: You’ve been getting a lot of good feedback and review from what I’ve seen?
Rick: That aspect is amazing, it’s really nice finally getting a response. Music making is quite self-obsessed and very self-reflective, so when you can actually put it out and have other people who take something from it and enjoy it, it kind of makes you think there is some value to it, it’s not just a narcissistic thing.
SIS: Are there any tracks that have gone down particularly well with fans?
Jamie: Mumurations seems to be the one, most people I’ve spoken to bring that one up first.
Rick: Mumurations was always my favourite song. We wanted to make quite an audacious pop rock song, and the concept behind it was about having lots and lots of people perform on that track. Mumurations is the name for a flock of starlings, so the idea was to get as many people on there as possible. We have about 40 players, a 30 strong choir and then strings and all sorts of things.
SIS: That’s quite a bold move for a debut album…
Rick: Yeah, we wanted to make a statement. We’ve always existed on the fringes as a band and its nice to do stuff like that which is quite bold.
Jamie: We can just do what we want without anyone telling us what to do, basically.
SIS: That mentality kind of feeds into you being part of Big Scary Monsters. Is it important to you to be on an independent label, or would you take the opportunity to be on a bigger one?
Jamie:It all depends on the label, and more about the people. With BSM it’s like a family, there’s no restrictions and Kev that runs BSM also co manages us. It’s quite a fluid thing, not your usual label set up.
Rick: There’s this band that we’re really good friends with, they’re on a major label and they have it f***ing great. They tour the world, they have amazing gear, they earn a good living and they have a great time. On the other side of it, the compromise, they have very little control over what they’re doing and what their band is about. For instance, they had to completely let go of artistic direction of their artwork and their videos, even down to the tracklisting for their album. There were songs they were desperate not to put on there but the label insisted they use them and made them re-record different versions that would be more radio friendly.
Jamie: That just would never work for us, we’re completely control freaks. We would sign to a major if it was right for us. When you make music, you want as many people as possible to hear it, and if they could facilitate that without major compromise…
Rick: But that’s basically impossible nowadays. With major labels, there’s always compromise. We’re very happy where we are right now. We’re an ambitious band, we’d love to expand our fan base and have more and more people enjoying our music.
Jamie: I don’t think major labels are even that relevant anymore.
Rick: I think it’s all about the big independent labels these days, like XL, theyre amazing. But when you talk about majors… actually, f*** majors! They’re rubbish!
SIS: You worked with your friend Harriet Bridgewater on the artwork for Everything Touching, did you have a particular brief in mind or does she just run with her ideas?
Jamie: The lyrics and the music are a starting point, but it’s mainly all her.
Rick: We like to say ‘here’s the music, do what you want with it’, we give her complete freedom.
Jamie: And then she brings it back, we say no and she says ‘Oh you guys! (laughs)
Rick: We won’t tell her what we want because we don’t know what we want (laughs). But she really gets what we’re about as a band, she’s a very talented artist and we’re just lucky to have the same tastes, we went to university together. Aesthetics are such an important part of being in a band, the sounds and visuals can be married together so well. Sigur Ros for instance have smashed it, it’s not just music, it’s this whole aesthetic, it’s just… perfect. You can do some really exciting good stuff with it.
SIS: Has Harriet ever brought you something that two of you liked and the other one didn’t?
Jamie: Usually when it comes to artwork we have a slight dictatorship in the group… (all look towards Rick and laugh), so as long as it passes by him…
SIS: So it’s like an X Factor situation, three yes’s and you’re through?
Rick: Exactly. I’m Gary Barlow, the nasty one.
Matt: I think I’m Tulisa, I look good in a mini skirt (all laugh)
SIS: You’ve mentioned that you like to put effort into things like artwork so that the music feels a bit more tangible and less disposable, is this a reaction to the ease of downloading music for free in today’s society?
Rick: It came naturally to start with. We had to make a cover for the first E.P. and Harriet is a screen printer so it made sense. It was the cheapest way of making artwork and posters. People always commented on how nice the artwork was because it was homemade and kind of limited and it’s just gone from there. Now, it definitely feels very important to create something that people want to own, because I don’t think people feel like they need to pay for music anymore. With streaming sites like YouTube and Spotify, people will listen to albums and not care where it came from. People have become so used to not paying that if you create a package, a tangible thing, people might be more willing to buy it.
SIS: I think the problem really is that it’s so easy to download something, decide you don’t like it and then delete it having not really given it enough time to grow on you. With music being so easy to get hold for nothing, it’s like a musical buffet where you just take a tiny bit of everything.
Matt: The flipside to it is that more people are going to go to gigs, if they’ve had the chance to hear the music for free beforehand. Even people who don’t really like gigs seem to go to festivals, it’s kind of the done thing nowadays, whereas before it was just rock fans.
SIS: One last question for our student audience. You all went to Falmouth uni, do you have any advice for students looking to survive all the partying and student antics?
Jamie: Roses chicken pasty and a can of coke, that was the Cornish prescription for a hangover.
SIS: No Greggs then?
Rick: Definitely no Greggs.
Matt: Or, just have a can of Strongbow.
Jamie: And don’t go to Lidl’s, because that XL s**t has the worst hangovers. If you’re hard on cash, just go to Iceland once they lock up and go through the bins, they throw out loads of stuff there. It’s great!