It’s not like London nufolkprogrockpopaltcountry band Turin Brakes are survivors in the Gloria Gaynor sense of the term. But as long as they know how to live, they know they will survive.
Cast your mind back to 2000-2003 and you’d see Turin Brakes all over Europe – playing enormo venues, posh-backed seated theatres, festivals, doing interviews every waking minute and occasionally acting a little arsey. (Like the time I interviewed the band back around 2002 at the Virgin offices in London. One half of the band, Gale Paridjanian, wasn’t having any of it, read a magazine through the entire interview and bit my head off.)
But bygones, really, because Gale and childhood mate Olly Knights continue to make simply pretty music. Still, it’s been five years since Turin Brakes has been able to tour North America, their last album Dark on Fire wasn’t released here, and anglophile-love on UhMerica soil only goes so far. So it’s a different world now for Turin Brakes. A smaller, no major-label, we-can’t-afford-to-bring our drummer on tour world.
And yet, they have a lovely new album Outbursts out and the feeling that, you know, it’s worth it to keep on trucking.
I caught up with the relaxed and all-smiles Olly and Gale in Vancouver on the night of their first North American tour in yonks to talk about 10 years, why Outbursts captures the spirit of their much-adored The Optimist debut and…uh…Take That.
You seem so much more relaxed since when we first met. It’s a different band.
Olly: We’ve let go. [laughs]
Really? Like in therapy?
Olly: Yeah, pretty much. We never realized how much pressure was being put on us back then. It was ridiculous. We’d get rung up in the morning by our very antagonistic manager at the time and he’d just want to wind us up. You’d feel the pressure and feel like everyone was focusing on you and you weren’t really equipped to deal with it. And I think neither of us feel naturally that that is what we particularly want out of life. But now there’s far less people focused on us…
Olly: …so the pressure is off. It actually suits us. Say whatever you want, but it suits us. It’s been five years since we’ve been back anywhere in the Americas and we’re just happy to be here.
Gale: If it works out, it’ll feel really empowering. The main thing is that if the shows are good, we won’t be worrying about the rest of the stuff.
So the pressure’s off? How about live? I recall seeing you at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Olly had a panic attack and had to leave the stage.
Olly: Oh and you saw that? Yeah, yeah, I remember that…
Gale: Before people were endlessly booking us into things and we didn’t really see the reason, whereas now we’re doing it ourselves and we’ve been kind of aware that every show has the potential to be really good. Whereas before, we didn’t even really register it. It was just get on and play the shows and get off. But now we’re trying to enjoying it because it might go away tomorrow. Which means that we’re probably connecting a bit more. Having said that, tonight we might just still just look at the floor [laughs]
But why would you think that it could all go away? It’s been more than 10 years, 5 albums.
Gale: It’s been 5 years to get us back to America, for example. And it’s taken a lot of planning and it’s all sort of teetering on bankruptcy. It’s a very fine line. Like do we pay for parking or not? [laughs].
Outbursts is the third self-produced album you’ve done.
Olly: Yeah. And quite a conscious return to the earlier stuff, but not literally. We didn’t sit there thinking, okay, how did we do that? But when we produce, we have a particular way of doing it and we have a shared feeling about it. When we worked with producers it was always a great learning experience, but I think producing is part of the whole thing. It’s almost the same as writing the music and performing it. It’s about following it through to the end, for us.
But sometimes you can over-paint things.
Olly: Sure, yeah, you can. But, actually, we tend to underpaint.
Gale: Yeah, that’s actually our problem. We don’t do enough.
Olly: We leave things at 80% done. Because we can hear what we want and say, ‘okay, that’s great, done.’ Then someone else will come in and go ‘uh are you sure?’ So sometimes we need a little of help at the end to force us to finish things properly.
How was it different then this time?
Olly: We just knew it would be. It’s been 10 years since the first one and the technology we were using was very different and we recorded it all on a laptop, and it’s almost the same technology people are using to make electronic music, but you can use it to make acoustic music and that’s what we did. So everything was different really. And we were doing things with vocals and sound that were different. I actually really love this one. I really do. I don’t always feel like that. But I feel really close to it. I feel like it’s ours. And it’s really beautiful.
Lead track “Sea Change” seems like a rallying cry. Not just because of the larger implications and environmental messages but it seems to be a bold statement. Does it also speak to a sense of perseverance for the band?
Olly: You mean “If we don’t do this, somebody else will?”
Gale: Yeah, but…
Does it feel like that to you, Gale?
Gale: There are other tracks on the album where I feel like that more. Because of all the artwork and the video, I really think of it as about waves and volcanoes and stuff and toy soldiers…
Olly: That feeling was around a lot for me. When you’re writing and you’ve got no manager and no deal and you’re in your kitchen with a guitar, you do have to find courage or an idea that there’s a point to this. A lot of our songs have threads of that going through.
Gale: For me, it’s “Never Stops” – it’s kind of about getting on and doing it yourself and it doesn’t matter if there is no end product. Maybe we could just keep going even if we lost our studio and if we couldn’t pay for our parking and get anywhere, maybe we would return to the way we used to do it when we were kids. We could do that for the rest of our lives.
There’s so much talk about this new album being marking a return to the earlier Turin Brakes. Take me through the where were your heads at over the past four album lead up to here.
Olly: The first album was us really sticking our flag in the ground. Even though we didn’t feel at all part of any scene when we made it, we were completely in our own world and we trusted it.
Gale: It was 1999 that we made it, but we’d got a record deal based on a four-track demo we did so we were just elaborating on those…and because there were only four tracks it was totally pared down and quite essential. No ear candy.
Gale: And the dance thing was winding down and people were sort of running out of ideas and we were making a point with The Optimist that we could be acoustic but not be fey. That we could be fierce.
Olly: You know what it was? It was almost the attitude of a rock band but we replaced the electrics with acoustics. That alone sounds kind of special and didn’t sound like anything else. Like the drums on The Optimist are SO punchy. Really, fucking full-on.
Gale: Our manager used to always say we were folk and I used to say, ‘but why do people have to think we’re folk, just because we’ve got acoustic guitars? Everyone can handle Nirvana Unplugged, can’t they just think of it in that way?’
Well, but everyone needs a label to describe you. Like the New Acoustic tag. Or the New New Acoustic…
Olly: Or the New New New Acoustic! Okay so on album two, I kinda think we went into the studio to kind of do part two of The Optimist. We never really talk about this, but we went to Chris Difford from Squeeze who has this studio, and went to his place in Rye and it was gorgeous. We started trying to kinda make the next step of that same thing…and it just wasn’t there. We just weren’t excited. It was cool, it was a nice time but it wasn’t coming back out of the speakers at us in this fresh way. And that’s a big thing for us, we really have to buzz. So then we met Tony Hoffer, and thought, let’s just do exactly what we thought we’d never do and let’s go with this guy and make something with a different kind of edge. And he really wanted to push us out.
Gale: He said “I heard The Optimist, but I thought it was a bit boring”, and we were like….uh…
Olly: But that was perfect for that time, someone who was bored of it and thought they could recognize something else in us. So we turned into this sort of prog-folk thing.
Olly: Yeah, that’s it. Frog rock! We were playing with Beck’s bass player and Air’s drummer…and there we were in Los Angeles living a hilarious life and it was good fun. And actually, I think the record Ether Song, some people love that record, man. It was a strong as The Optimist, but it was just SO different and some people that had bought the first one, were, like, “what the fuck? What’s this?”
So then Jackinabox was like us going on holiday with our music. It was us going “let’s not keep getting heavy with our music, cos we were getting dangerously into that territory where it’s getting really dark. I listen to Ether Song now and it’s just so dark.
Gale: Yeah, there are some really dark patches…
Olly: Like “Panic Attack”! Or “Little Brother”! Fuck! It’s a bit too much and we really didn’t want to live that 24-7 for two years, and that’s when we were playing live that it got a bit too much. And that’s probably that night when I walked off. So then Jackinabox was us making a summer pop album and really being okay with that. After that we made Dark on Fire…
Gale: And they all react to each other. We started off not producing, and then Tony produced the second one and it’s dark, and then we produce the third and it’s summertime and then Ethan [Johns] comes in and produces something and we’re just constantly ping-ponging.
You recently wrote a song for Take That. Could you ever see yourself writing songs for other people in future?
Olly: …for money? Yeah, definitely! I don’t think it did any harm to do it. We’re known as songwriters as well as Turin Brakes so it was great fun. We were saying to someone the other day, once you take away how you present yourselves and once you meet these people then they’re just cool. And Gary Barlow is a blinding piano player.
Did you give them a song you weren’t going to use? Or write one specially?
Olly: Howard said ‘we really like your vibe, we’d like to get a bit of it.’ And we said, ‘well, what do you like about it?’ And he specifically said “Above the Clouds” from Jackinabox. So I went home, played that song and sort of went down the fretboard a bit and found something else. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Take That so I ended up writing all these weird boyband harmonies into it. And I was sitting there thinking, ‘they’re going to think I’m talking the piss’ but then we walked in with them and we did it and it was perfect.
Gale: It was exactly what they wanted.
And yet, you two have a symbiotic musical relationship and here you are writing with a bunch of strangers in a megaband…
Olly: …and telling Gary Barlow to re-sing it. “That wasn’t right, Gary, just sing it more like this.” And he’s actually listening!
Gale: He’s very matter of fact, Gary. He’s like “right, you’ve got a song for us? Great. Sit down. What’s your name? What you got? Awww, that’s fucking brilliant….” [laughs]. It was really great how he cut out all the crap.
Stuff like that finances your art, then?
Gale: If we were selling millions of albums as Turin Brakes, then it’d be a different story. But if you don’t do something, you won’t be around very long.
Olly: Even a band as small as us, it costs a shitload of money to do it at any level, to do it in a professional way.
If you could back and undo something or unwrite a part of the Turin Brakes history, what would it be?
Gale: God, maybe the re-releasing of Ether Song with a new single on it, when people and the label really wanted another “Painkiller”. The experience was really good, they made a video, because they flew us around and it was really exciting and we were really busy…
Olly: …but a hangover is what we put out into the world.
Gale: And we really should have said, ‘find someone else. Forget it, we’re not interested.’ I think we should have put our foot down. What I’ve realized is that the thing that sticks around is integrity. And every time you drop a little bit of it, it never comes back. You might have taken a dip for a few years, but you’ll still be around in 20 years, because you made your own decisions. \m/
All photos by The Backstage Rider, Mikala T.
Turin Brakes are on tour in the US now. Have a listen to them on MySpace. Turin Brakes are also on Twitter (@the_real_TB) and Facebook.