TURIN BRAKES – LONDON, UK, AUTUMN 2002
By: Toby L
Original article here.
Such an age-old notion that even ‘three’s a crowd’ must have been Olly and Gale’s collective, primary motivation when first making music together as solely a twosome. Fortunately for them, such an initial, intuitive stance seems to be paying off dividends.
A pair that in recent years have received more record-sales and awards-nominations than perhaps healthy for a unit so intensive, Turin Brakes is the guise within which the pair of songwriters have fallen into the mainstream; entertaining the indie fraternity via their glaringly classic, guitar-driven odes, and even appealing to the couple next door too, who first probably heard of them after their Mercury Music Prize nomination in 2001, their crossover zeal is set to further rise in 2003: a year that sees the eagerly-anticipated release of the duo’s second album to date, ‘Ether Song’.
More outlandish than before, it’s a record of even more ups than their skyward-directing debut, ‘The Optimist LP’, a record itself hailed an immediate classic by the critics, and an album that’s gone on to sell quarter of a million copies worldwide, largely, thanks to the ancient medium of word-of-mouth. ‘ES’, meanwhile, is incidentally the natural fruition of a group discovering the core elements that have made them strong in the first place – and a mark of confidence to mess with the elements, and record the thrilling results in a mere three weeks in LA, alongside producer of the moment, Tony Hoffer (The Thrills, Air, Supergrass).
To set the campaign-ball rolling, the pair released the sweeping top-30 single ‘Long Distance’, prior to which they undertook a stealthy, UK acoustic-tour, one that they reminisce on as one of their finest to date.
‘Those shows were very different,’ recalls Olly, sipping coffee from a foam, white cup, amidst the meeting-room of their record-company’s London location.
‘Yeah,’ nods Gale thoughtfully. ‘They were almost like a very different animal, really. The acoustic-shows are calm…’
‘Yes, calm, but in a broader way,’ Olly ponders further. ‘They’re very intense… You can really feel the emotion in the songs when you play like that, and people reacted really positively. We weren’t sure how it would go down, because we were used to playing with a band in a rockier way, but it was almost as if people didn’t care that there wasn’t the full performance; they seemed to just love the songs.
‘It wasn’t that stripped down,’ he continues, ‘because we played with a guy called Dave Palmer on keyboards, who played on our new album as well, and it felt very modern. There was this folk-element to it obviously, but there was still a wide-screen feel to it, which made us feel like we were doing something quite progressive. It was a really good experience, and definitely something I think we’ll do again.’
Amidst such an environment where you were granted the opportunity to showcase new material for the first time, was there any spite you personally felt towards some of your older, original material in the set?
Gale smiles. ‘The old songs we know so well, after playing them so often, we could play them with our eyes shut, and it’s almost like having a break when you’re performing them. The new songs, you’re very much there, and aware of what you’re doing; on top of that, it can be quite scary, because you worry about if people like it, if they think it might be a tad cheesy or whatever.’
‘Fortunately,’ adds Olly, ‘it was all quite low-key, because – apart from the London shows – it felt like they were a series of secret-shows, it just had that spirit about it. But, we did end up playing to a lot of people, which just happens to us! I guess it’s a good thing, but there’s been times in the past where we think, ‘Ah, this will be a nice, sweet, little, relaxed tour,’ and then it turns into the most gruelling tour we’ve done to date. The one we’ve most recently done was quite heavy, in that we did ten shows in a row – and most bands don’t tend to do more than three or four shows in a row. We felt it by the end of it, we really did. If it was up to us, we’d do one show, then a week off, then another show, a week off…’ (Smiles)
‘You do get on a roll, though,’ argues Gale. ‘By the fourth show, you’re just so comfortable going on-stage, you’re not nervous before-hand, and it turns out great. That’s another reason why London shows are often a bit… not a mess… But it’s because you get your day off before you play in London, so you can recover, but – when it comes to the next day – it’s like you’re performing your first ever gig again, and it can be quite horrible.’
‘We are a duo as such, and it’d be foolish to not exploit that in some way,’ finalises Olly. ‘So not every sound we make has to come across as if it’s played by a band; even though our new album sounds very much as if it’s been played by a band, we know that there’s another side to things and, maybe, talking about future albums, we would try something that wasn’t purely band-orientated and that it would go somewhere else…’
Incredible then, that just two minds can encapsulate such evocative moods and sonic structures as those composed within their reasonably short time in the spotlight. Both gifted guitarists and non-intrusively distinctive, harmonic vocalists, Turin Brakes may be a rare example where two heads are better than five. Live, the effect as experienced on record, is just as achingly sublime.
‘We do sort of have rituals,’ starts up Olly, considering pre-performance regimes. ‘Walking around trying not to throw up is a good one. Gale sometimes… No, I won’t go into that… But rum is good, straight-vodka as well. Lots of straight, very intense liquors, just to whack you out, to try and stop you worrying. It’s the half-hour before you go on-stage that’s by far the worst; the minute you go on and start playing, you chill instantly…’
Gale agrees vividly, ‘It’s like a relief once you’re up there… The nerves just disappear.’
A relief – it’d be criminal to not feel assured in the presentation of such new gems as upcoming second single to be lifted from ‘Ether Song’ – their most instant and serene 45 thus far, ‘Pain Killer’ – but what is more forward-thinking about their new work over past triumphs?
‘There’s no doubt about it – it’s a very different record to the first one,’ clarifies Olly, bordering on quiet confidence and restrained excitement. ‘And consciously so. We know that we could have made another record that sounded a lot like ‘The Optimist LP’, or could have tried to exploit whatever the success of that first one was, but the feeling was that, if we did that, we wouldn’t really be able to try anything else. We saw this as our one and only chance to show we can move, and that it’s not a big deal. So, we really did just let ourselves go – for better or for worse, we’ll find out.
‘So, it is different, but having said that, we have still tried to protect what we think is most important about us. The songs themselves are very well worked out, strong arrangements, but the way we present it all is varying to before.’
Was the evolution-process of the song-writing a natural one, or did you try to control the issue?
Olly pauses. ‘It was as natural as we could make it, but we didn’t really have the time to do it the way we liked; we would have preferred to have a year where we could just slowly put together an album. But that doesn’t work. If we had done that, we’d have come back to people saying, ‘Turin… who?!’ So there was an element of, ‘Let’s not wait around for too long here.’
‘Writing became something we had to adapt with, slotting it in the best way you can in between everything. But that’s part of the challenge. It was weird, because we went from Turin Brakes being a very relaxed thing and evolving in the way it wanted to, to us having to become slightly more businessman-like about it, simply because of the interest that had formed. It isn’t as nice. But the end-result I think is still very strong.’
And do you have to be in any specific mind-set in order to pen your material?
‘Just any kind of strong mood,’ he continues, ‘something that’s strong enough to make you think, ‘I don’t know how to react to this, apart from, I know – I’ll write a song!’ I mean it’s not totally as conscious as that, nor is it very much, ‘Hmm, today, I feel betrayed by my girlfriend – so I’ll write about that.’ It’s a much longer, slower, seeping-down process of emotions of just being alive.
‘When I’m writing a song, I don’t know what the hell it is, or what I’m getting it. All I know is that when my hands are moving and the words are coming out, plus I can feel a melody somewhere… And that’s it really. It’s unfocussed in a way, but I think that’s why people like them, because they always feel slightly curious about them, and you can pick individual things out that mean something to you. But it’s always mysterious, you’re always trying to work it out, and that’s why you keep coming back.’
So for your recent return – did you want to avoid the whole ‘second album syndrome’ pressure, i.e. following up the first, and thus worked extra swiftly on a follow-up?
Gale sighs, commenting enigmatically, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah,’ suggesting events went on that can’t be discussed.
‘But it was not so much between us really,’ elaborates Olly. ‘We started off making the record, and we could see that our record-label and our manager and everyone involved, friends and family included, they were all freaked out; ‘What are they gonna do?’ Because it is a business, it becomes more worrying.
‘But Gale and I were quite chilled about it all really. We knew we had new tunes, and that we had a second album in us – we reckon we’ve got ten albums in us, at least – but the outside pressure around us got so severe that we ended up going to Los Angeles, which is 7,000 miles away from here, and pretty much didn’t talk to anyone for a month, just making the record.’
‘… Just doing the record without any outside influence on us,’ tails off Gale.
Los Angeles, though – isn’t this a clichéd pathway to go down?
‘It’s a cliché because it works, it does work,’ acknowledges Olly. ‘It wasn’t that we had a grand idea like, ‘Let’s make an album like such and such did,’ it was just the way it worked out. Tony Hoffer was the guy we worked with on it, and the engineer we wanted was also in LA, plus all the musicians we wanted were there. So it was purely a practical decision to do it there, but it ended up being a strong one, because we got freedom – and we had a great time out there. We were buzzing in a way that we couldn’t have been if we stayed here.’
‘We were focussed as well in a way that you couldn’t get anywhere else,’ heightens his accomplice. ‘When you’re that far away from England, where most of the attention currently is, all you can do is work fully on the album.’
The new entourage and musicians surrounding you for the project; did it help inspire you?
Olly: ‘Oh yeah, they offered us a massive contribution. This album is almost like a concept-album, and it wouldn’t have worked out the way it did without those particular characters being around. Literally, the situation we were in was fundamental to the way it sounds. It couldn’t have been done anywhere else.’
Lyrically and musically, what stands out to you personally from the sessions?
‘There’s one called ‘Self Help’,’ reveals Olly, ‘which got really badly treated by everyone, apart from us and our friends in Los Angeles. It kind of sounds different, but…’
‘Well, to me,’ interrupts Gale, ‘it sounds very classic and true to the sound we’ve already established…’
‘… But people were funny about it initially,’ advances Olly, ‘because we had a particular demo of it, which was just me sitting down singing a song, and people got very used to that version, and forgot that it was just the notes of the song, so we wouldn’t forget it. Of course, we then busted out and did it the way we wanted to do it, and they were just like, ‘Eh? What the hell is this?’ The new version is just so much fatter, and it’s grown; the nicest thing is that the people who weren’t interested at first are now really into it, and have admitted they like it… It’s good to know that the way our instinct works, it’s something that we can rely on, and such events teach you to remember that.’
Relevantly, how do you avoid outside, potentially sycophantic or detrimental opinions from others over what you’re doing?
‘Our record-label and our manager are very honest,’ outlines Olly, frankly. ‘If they don’t think something’s very good, they tell you – and they tell you repeatedly! So that’s cool.’
‘Absolutely, I’d prefer they tell you when they like something or not,’ laughs Gale. ‘They certainly don’t hold back at all.’
Olly emphasises the situation. ‘The last people you want to just tell you everything’s great is the label, in case they are just being too casual with the whole affair… The thing is, though, whose opinion is right, and whose is wrong? Whose views are on it, but whose ideas are way off the mark? It’s very confusing, and you have to find ways of protecting yourself from it all, because you’d just have a nervous breakdown otherwise!’
‘On the flipside,’ raises Gale, ‘if you’re making the music, it’s pretty hard to be objective about it. You don’t know how someone else will take it, until you play it to people. It’s good that we have people who are really opinionated near us; when people say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s really good, it’s really great,’ it just makes me very paranoid about it… ‘Are they just saying that,’ you think.’
‘Again, another cliché,’ smirks Olly. ‘You have to do what your heart tells you what to f**king do, and it’s true. At the end of the day, that’s it – we’re a living, breathing musical-entity, and the moment we stop living and breathing, it just won’t be good. Sometimes, we’ll make things people don’t get, yet other times we’ll make music that hits the nail on the head, and they’ll get it. But that’s our job, and what we’re constantly trying to do. Any album we respect is one that surprises you, where someone has really taken a risk – and won. Nothing really amazing happens to anyone that doesn’t take a risk. And that’s the way we talked when we were making ‘Ether Song’, and that’s the way it sounds.’
Well, with the US resurgence-wave of garage-rock still causing a firm mould on the times, how do you see yourselves muscling back in there?
‘For a pop-scene, it’s perfect,’ comments Olly. ‘It’s occasionally throwaway, and a band like The Hives knowexactly what they’re doing, and it works. It just depends what you’re after; if you want something that will last for ages, and you can come back to it in five years and it still speaks to you, it probably isn’t great for that. But, if you’re a teenager, you’re young and you’re into up-music, then it’s perfect for six months to a year or something. I don’t know if it will have a much longer time-space, because it’s such an explosive scene, and with things like that, you tend to look back at them and think, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?!’
‘It’s a heck of a lot better than what it could have been,’ balances Gale. ‘Generally, the popular market is terrible, and when something comes up like the garage-rock thing, at least it’s got some genuine, youthful energy, and once people have got hold of it after reading the press over it, they eventually dig it, and it’s just better than the crap we get shoved down our throats.’
‘It’s also far better than the less-fringe stuff, which are boy-bands playing heavy-metal,’ degenerates Olly. ‘That is satanic-driven. It’s f**king terrible. And it has to be stopped. The radio-stations focus on that far too much, and there are so many bands from this country alone that are doing so good, and some really interesting things, but they’re not getting heard, which means that the window for opportunity is just getting smaller and smaller…’
As you guys don’t fit into that present ‘scene’, do you feel yourselves are going out on a limb with your work?
Olly endeavours to answer without a blanketing ego. ‘I suppose, in some ways, we are, because the scene is not the same it was when we put out our first album…’
‘And we’re not really a fashion-band in a way,’ Gale details, failing to take into account his presently-adorned, fetching sweater. ‘We don’t really associate to any of those tags, and try to keep ourselves to ourselves.’
Do you feel concerned about progressing onwards after this effort?
‘We’re not worrying about it yet,’ Olly insists, ‘because we haven’t even put the second one out yet! But good conversations can come from that. When we’re on tour, we can often have a cocktail-fuelled discussion of what we could do next, and that’s great fun to be in the position where you can actually consider making another album. As we say, that acoustic-tour was pretty cool, and maybe that will inspire some new way of doing something.’
So, ’til then, for those 250,000 people that have bought your first record; when they listen to ‘Ether Song’, what do emotions or ideas would you ideally hope them to feel?
‘We want them to feel super excited about being into a band that have got clever ideas and are doing interesting things with music,’ anticipates Olly, dreamily. ‘We want them to buzz like the way we buzzed when we were making it.’
‘We want them to listen to it and understand it,’ notes Gale, ‘and understand the relevance between the first and the second, and to not freak out…’
Olly’s face then drops. ‘… Or shit themselves.’
Turin Brakes: the most original-sounding, yet clichéd band in UK alt-music; now there’s a tag that not many of their rivals could adopt and still prove quite so consistently breathtaking.