The Brakes are off

The Brakes are off
With their first hit single and a new album out now, Turin Brakes are hot – even in Sweden

By Lynsey Hanley

Date:March 06, 2003, Thursday
Section:Pg. 21
Length:813 words

When one of Britain’s hottest bands enters Sweden’s coolest bar, you don’t expect the whole place to melt, except metaphorically. But, when South London singer-songwriter duo Turin Brakes walk into the hermetically sealed space-igloo-cum-tourist-attraction that is Stockholm’s Ice Bar, accompanied by their backing band, tour manager and various record company reps, the temperature struggles to stay below zero.

Half an hour earlier, the band, whose unseasonably summery single Pain Killer leapt into the charts at number five last week, and whose second album, Ether Song, is expected to do the same on Sunday, had been perspiring under the harsh lights and un-Scandinavian adulation of the crowd who had come to see them perform at the KGB theatre. Now they’re clasping the Ice Bar’s standard-issue sheepskin mittens around vodka tumblers carved from chunks of Lapland glacier. It’s a bizarre experience.

Not as bizarre, one suspects, as playing your biggest gigs to date to crowds of people who know only one of your songs, after three years of performing to a small but insanely loyal travelling fan base. Guitarist Gale Paridjanian, who provides the harmonies and intricate steel-guitar twangs that complement lead singer Olly Knights’s raspy vocals, admits that, with their first top-five single in the bag, their experience of life on the road is already beginning to change rapidly.

“We slept really badly a couple of nights when we started to think, whoa, it’s all going to change now. We’ve got twice as many fans now, but half of them don’t know anything we’ve done except Pain Killer, although that’s good in a way because they’re completely fresh. We’ve started noticing at the gigs that people didn’t know anything off our first album or the other singles before it, which has been odd because, generally, our fans know all our album tracks and everything else.”

Ether Song is a refreshingly ambitious progression from their first album, The Optimist, which through word-of-mouth managed to sell more than a quarter of a million copies while only scraping the album Top 30. Their debut, largely acoustic
and lacking the punchy, expansive grandeur of the new record, earned Turin Brakes a reputation as figureheads of a rather small “New Acoustic Movement”, which essentially consisted of them and Norwegian singing duo the Kings of Convenience. It’s clear that the label has long outstayed its welcome.

“It’s not that we weren’t ambitious before,” says Knights, whose amiable speaking voice unexpectedly resembles that of The Fast Show’s Charlie Higson. “We were. But our producer, Tony Hoffer, introduced us to new ways of using the studio.”
Paridjanian agrees: “He gave us this Los Lobos album, Colossal Head, to listen to. Los Lobos are only known for the song La Bamba, but this is totally different. Tony used it more as a studio sound reference than anything. It was his benchmark for how the record should sound. He wanted to do the same sort of thing but better.”

Hoffer’s previous production credits include Beck’s genre-bending funk album Midnite Vultures and an ill-fated attempt to inject Suede’s recent fourth album with similar joie de vivre. Working with Turin Brakes, then, was hardly the most
obvious step he could have taken.

“He was nothing like what we were expecting,” says Paridjanian. “We’d thought he’d be this huge Mr Bigshot producer guy when he was suggested to us, but he’s basically a cross between a young Woody Allen and Prince. He’s really small and skinny, and he tends to do this yelp like Michael Jackson when he’s into something.”

It’s perhaps thanks to Hoffer’s idiosyncratic vision that Ether Song both capitalises on and develops Turin Brakes’ sense of winsome eccentricity, which, on tracks such as Panic Attack, recalls an illustrious streak of oddness in British
music going back as far as Marc Bolan, Hunky Dory-era David Bowie and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett.

“What’s great about Tony is that he likes to use sounds that aren’t exactly pop, but still manages to get the end result sounding like a pop record,” Paridjanian confirms.

Three weeks and another dozen gigs later, virtually everyone on the Turin Brakes tour bus has taken it in turns to suffer from a particularly virulent strain of gastric flu, forcing Knights to threaten to take a bucket with him on stage at
Birmingham’s Academy last night in case of emergencies.

Paridjanian, now a world away from the snowball fights and vodka served in chunks of ice, is wondering how the gig can possibly go ahead when he’s the only band member capable of standing. “What we want to do now is play shows that make the new fans go, ‘Wow, that was great, I want to listen to the rest of the album now.’ ” Illness notwithstanding, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Turin Brakes tour until March 21. Information:

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