Monday, 30 June 2014

Fear and Loathing in West Yorkshire - In conversation with Eagulls

For a band who’ve recently played on one of America’s biggest TV shows, released their debut album to critical acclaim and hobnobbed amongst some of britains most exciting new bands, Leeds band Eagulls should have this celebrity thing sussed. Unfortunately, life isn't always that simple. I chatted to frontman George Mitchell about snakes, sexism and saying what you mean…


It’s 3.30am and George Mitchell is slumped against the glass window of the tour van, on some unknown motorway halfway between Glasgow and his hometown of Leeds. He and his bandmates, collectively known as Eagulls, finished a set supporting indie heroes Franz Ferdinand at a sold-out Barrowlands show several hours earlier, but he is struggling to wind down, the noise of the rabid crowd still pulsing in his ears, making his thoughts race. He closes his eyes to block out the lights of the road, but the snakes are already slithering, his brain is blackening, and the next few minutes are to be lost completely as he descends into a whirlpool of anxiety, a familiar wrestle with his longstanding condition.

“I have an ongoing fear of snakes that becomes worse as I grow older. I cannot stand the way they move and the way they look.” George admits bluntly, challenging us to probe further. I’ve opened our short exchange by asking him to share his biggest fear, but the frontman is already on the defensive. “I think I have always had anxiety issues, but I am still unsure of what triggers it and I am still unsure how to end it.” He folds his arms, case closed. Much like the music he makes, the 25 year old singer is eloquent, but taut and matter of fact, straight forward, never telling us anything he doesn’t have to. “We are not in control of what people say about us,” he shrugs. “But I am control of what I tell people.” 

From the outside in, it doesn’t appear that the frontman should have much to be defensive about. The tale of the post-punk fivesomes formation and rise to fame is one fairly unremarkable and organic, hardly the sort of dark, cultlike experience you would expect from an outfit who used to trade under the name ‘Peter Sutcliffe And His Victims’. Formed in 2010, the group came together after meeting at Leeds University, skipping lectures to play cover versions of The Clash and Black Flag. ‘I think the main band when I was young that made me think ‘I could do this’ was Black Flag. I think Black Flag ‘The First Four Years was one of the first albums I got of any importance.’ Mitchell says. He admits his experience of education were fairly non-influential to the music he is making now and was probably a waste of time: “The band more than likely hindered our studies and the only thing we gained from University was that it placed us all together at the same place at the same time.” However, the years of access to the University’s music department proved to be fruitful, as the band were snapped up record label Moshi Moshi in 2011 to release a 7 inch of their single ‘Council Flat Blues’ described by the MM team as being “the opposite of easy listening.”

A series of well received EP’s and split singles followed, before The David Letterman team came knocking. Esteemed in the industry as a ‘bucket list’ item for bands to tick off when they’ve made it, Eagulls made their appearance in January 2014, performing their surf-rock single ‘Possessed’ in front of a studio audience and fellow guests, which on that day happened to include veteran actor Bill Murray. “It was almost as if you are watching TV then the next minute you’re inside of it. A bit like on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a lot less candy” deadpans Mitchell. “Backstage we bumped into a Ghostbuster, Bill Murray. But mainly, backstage from what I remember, is that it's very cold.” Their attention stateside was bolstered with a rambunctious performance at industry trend-led festival SXSW that got the blogosphere bashing away at the keyboards, unearthing some controversial material from the bands Tumblr blog. Interviews began to centre around one specific post, a since-removed open letter that decried the state of hipster trends in the industry, having a pop at everyone from ‘beach bands’ (“without your 90’s hairstyles over your ugly faces you have nothing.”) to female fronted acts (“Having a female singer doesn’t make you any better”), a phrase which much of the press decided to zoom in on, claiming the band to be sexist. It’s an issue which has been brought up a lot since, and as we mention it, the singer leans forward, ready to wade into the debate once again with a look of long suffering on his face. “Being labelled sexist was ridiculous. There was nothing in the letter implying that we are sexists, it was actually addressing the fact that certain parts of the industry are still sexist. The letter was to be taken with a pinch of salt and it seems that at the end of the long line of Chinese Whispers, they have ran out of salt” he explains. It was an experience he doesn’t care to repeat, but one which has made him both more aware and more disillusioned with the music industry press. “I watched the press closely about us being so poorly labelled as sexists as it was important for me to keep track on how out of proportion things we're being taken and said about us. It just shows that if one person writes one thing the next will just trace it in a fast and tasteless manner leaving nothing but jargon. Sadly people believe the jargon and jargon creates hits and views.”

Elephant in the room out of the way, Mitchell visibly relaxes. His shoulders drop, he leans back in his chair, and the air of an angry young man is replaced with one who is simply frustrated at having his every word misconstrued. It’s a problem he tries to combat in his lyrics, which he describes as being “somewhat personal and meaningful songs that relate to the everyday on goings of life.” From even a basic listen of the bands self titled debut album, released earlier this year at a Brudenell Social Club homecoming show (“The best and most fun show we’ve ever played”), it’s clear they are a band who aren’t afraid of the uglier sides of life – the almost disturbingly upbeat ‘Opaque’ is written about a work colleague of Mitchell and guitarist Mark Thompson who was arrested for sexual abusing young women, but managed to evade charges, and ‘Amber Veins’ is a diatribe against the heroin addicts who used to live in their Burley park Neighbourhood, regularly pawning their possessions in order to get their next fix. Their lyrical themes are hardly the easiest emotional weight to heave night after night on tour, but their candour is important to Mitchell : “I think bands are very afraid to speak their mind nowadays. But, I also think a lot of bands choose not to write about the truth as they would much rather go the easy route and write about sweet nothings.” 

This desire to show life at it’s bleakest came to a literal head when the band set about making a music video for their scuzzy album opener ‘Nerve Endings’. “The video we made was of a time lapsed image of a real decaying pigs brain in our basement. This was to imply the lyrics of the nerves decaying in anxiety and then when the maggots spawned from the brain this was to emphasise that the cycle of anxiety will never end.” He explains.  “Unfortunately the gas man came round to check our meter, went into the basement and phoned the police - he thought it was a human brain, so the coppers came round and inspected the basement.” He smirks and sips his coffee. “Good to know the police still care.”

Suitably embittered with authority, it is no surprise when Mitchell tells us that the next Eagulls record will probably be concerning itself with wider political issues, and in particular, the “sorry mess” he believes the current government have left our country in. “The future holds a lot of shows all over the world - we really want to start recording a new album, but with our ever growing hectic schedule we can't say when this will be done.” He says. “My biggest peeve with the government is that no matter who you vote for or believe in, when they come to power they never do what they say they would do.” He says. “The day they will do what they say is the day I will vote.”

 Although that second record is a little while off, it’s obvious that George Mitchell’s brain is running active, a far cry away from the one decaying in his basement. With his anxiety leaving him nearly incapable of switching off, it is new songs, riffs and lyrical themes that keep the snakes at bay when he is trying to sleep. Whilst Eagulls aren’t yet the biggest or most commercial band on the block, there’s no denying that they’re keeping things real, however anxious it makes them.

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