Two years on from their superb debut, this Liverpool-formed five-piece have found themselves scattered across three cities and two continents. Here, lead singer Andrew Hunt explains how Skype calls and the strain of maintaining long distance relationships informed the brooding electro-pop on their latest album, Slowness.

Hi Andrew, where are you today?

I’m in Liverpool, which is where we formed our band.

But you’ve recently moved to New York, right?

Yeah, I’m splitting my time between New York, here and London. Most of the time I’m in New York. I moved there six months ago, but I’ve been going over regularly for the last three years, because my wife lives over there.

Presumably that physical distance has impacted on the way that you worked on this album?

It has and it hasn’t. Basically, we set aside some time for us all to be in the same room playing, because we didn’t want to be recording guitar parts in a cupboard in Clapton or something, and then just emailing the files to someone else. So we’d do four months together, and then Tom [Gorton, keyboards] would go back to London, and I’d go back to New York and then we’d meet up a couple of months later to do a little bit more. And it just went on like that for about a year.

So, Slowness took a year to make?

Yeah, we started it at the beginning of March 2014, and by summer we thought we’d finished it. But when we revisited it a couple of months later, we ended up adding tracks and reworking the mixes; just very slowly chipping away at until it was completed.

Creatively, what was the goal for Slowness?

Well, we definitely went into it purposely trying to make a less “pop” record. We just wanted to create something that reflected our lives, and that allowed us to stretch out a bit more musically, without being rigidly tied to pop song structures and those physical narratives. On the first album, we really gave ourselves free reign to use any sound, and the record had that collage feel to it. This time round, we wanted to limit our palette of sounds. That meant that each sound needed to communicate more, which forced us to be more efficient with our arrangements.

Also, I think we wanted to make something that sounded lonely, to reflect the fact that we were spending a lot of time apart and outside of our comfort zones. That sense of alienation and melancholy is something that the first album does hint at, but we definitely wanted to bring it out. I think the first album is like standing at a party wondering why everyone’s behaving the way they are, and this one is more like staring into Skype, wondering if you’re ever going to see somebody again. (Laughs)

Were there any sonic reference points?

When we were doing the first album we quite explicitly referenced a lot of music, and with this one we cut ourselves off and just worked by intuition. But looking back, I think there are quite a few clear sonic influences in some of the different structural things we were doing. Certainly, some of the keyboard sounds are influenced by noisy techno stuff, like Perc; things with a harsher, more industrial sound. Also Scott Walker’s later albums, and the way he combines textures.

The Inheritors by James Holden was quite an important record for just changing the colour of the synth sounds that we were interested in. The same with Third by Portishead. That album made you hear synthesizers in a different way, like they were an organic instrument rather than this synthetic thing; they could sound warm, and a bit broken, in the same way that a voice or a guitar might. So we wanted to try and balance that against our quite natural inclination to write quite sweet, melodic pop songs.

Musically, we were also interested in getting out of this rut that we felt we had gotten in. When we’d been performing the songs off Performance live, it felt like endless recreation of these studio constructions, and we thought it would be really great to do something where we could play it live very naturally. So we based it around a live set-up, centred around the piano.

As you mentioned, the album is inspired by physical and emotional distance. Can you tell us more about your decision to make that your focus?

I mean, it was just completely inescapable, really; it would have been completely disingenuous for us to make some sort of smiley pop record. My wife was living on the other side of the world, and it was getting to a point between us where we were wondering if we would ever be able to actually find a place together in this world, and wondering if our lives were just moving in different directions.

Also, as a band we’d always been this tight-knit group of people who lived together and did everything together. With Tom moving down to London, it did feel like a turning point where we were finding ourselves coming to terms with the reality of certain aspects of life and love. So the album is very much reflective of our lives in that period. At times, the record sounds quite traumatised, and I think that reflects our situations at the time.

Swam Out’ reflects that sense of isolation particularly well, especially in the way that you incorporate the sound of Skype alerts.

Yeah, in the first half of the song. I mean, they’re all buried in reverb and delay, but if you use Skype a lot you might recognise them, and they might freak you out. We actually did this thing the other week where you could call me on Skype and listen to the track. It was gimmicky in a way, but it was really just to show the indeterminate aspects of that technology – the underlying glitches and uncertainties.

If you’re communicating constantly via Skype, there’s always this disconnect between you and whoever you’re talking you, as well as there being this almost uncomfortable intimacy. I used to Skype my wife – someone I knew incredibly well, and have loved for a long time – and it still almost felt too much to be staring into someone’s face like that. So Skype felt like a nice way for someone to be able to listen to the song, especially because if you’re listening to it, then no-one else is. Unique experiences like that are rare, especially on the internet.

Could you see who was calling you?

Yeah, I could see them, but they couldn’t see me. I had a still image up on the screen, and then the song was looping all day. So I’d be sitting at my computer – writing an invoice or something – and then, all of a sudden, someone’s face would pop up and just sit there listening to the song through headphones. Motionless. (Laughs)

Nice direct feedback, then?!

Yeah, it was weird. There was one guy that called up and I thought he was going to cry. He’d been listening to it for eight or nine minutes, and he had this really sad look in his eyes and then he hung up. He sent me a message on Skype 10 minutes later saying, “That was really beautiful.”

That’s really nice. To be honest, the idea of having someone you can’t see watching you while you listen to a song sounds pretty terrifying.

(Laughs) Yeah it’s pretty intense. I did tell people they could turn off their cameras if they didn’t want to be seen. But, yeah, there was something strangely enjoyable and voyeuristic about it at the same time. (Laughs)

So, where does the album title come from?

It’s a reference to this book I’d been reading called ‘Slowness’, by Milan Kundera. It’s quite a short novel but it manages to cover a lot of ground, and one of the main points it makes is about the slowness of longing and missing someone, in contrast with the rapidity of trying to forget somebody. He makes this comparison between a man pacing along the street, trying to forget what he did last night, and another man on the other side of the street who’s missing his wife and is just strolling along very slowly.

With my wife, it felt like our relationship almost went into slow motion. Everything else in your life is occurring as normal, rushing past you, but between us there was this sense of ominous inertia. And then you’d catch up when you met each other, and all of a sudden it would go into hyperdrive, and you’d suddenly remember all this stuff about the other person, or be brought up to speed with their life.

Milan Kundera aside, were there any other cultural reference points for Slowness?

Raymond Carver is a perennial influence on our lyrics because he manages to be so sparse and economical with what he says, and there’s always this sense of unseen dread. I was also reading quite a lot of philosophy and critical theory at the time, which I think undeniably seeps into the way you approach making songs.

I mean, recording is almost inherently philosophical because it’s a fiction in itself; you’re tricking people into thinking that something happened. That kind of critical thinking definitely informed how we put together a palette of sounds too. Because every sound has a code or a symbol associated with it that makes you think of something else, you have this chain of associations when you listen to music. For example, you identify a piano, and you think of all the other sounds in the context of a piano. So the piano sets this almost formal, traditionally romantic, frame to view everything else through, which I really like because we were also using a lot of harsher, almost industrial sounds.

Is there a particular track on the album that you’re drawn to?

For me, I think ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Swam Out’ are the most poignant and real tracks on the record. I listen to them and I really remember what it is I was talking about and feeling. Also, musically I’m quite proud of them because they’re more expansive, and they’re overtly emotional but we’ve still retained a sense of ambiguity.

Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself making Slowness?

I think we’re on a very long path towards realising that less is more, and that you can say a lot with a little. I think that’s something we’ve always wanted to do as a band, but have struggled with a little bit. This time we’ve managed to do that a lot better.

June 2015