‘Honesty is definitely a massive part of what we do as a band. We really don’t try to be anything we’re not‘ – Siobhán Kane spoke with Ric Phethean of Tall Ships ahead of their show with The National in Cork tonight. Just the memory of the choir singing on Tall Ships beautiful song “Murmurations” from their 2012 record Everything Touching sends a shiver, the gathering pace towards the simple, but potent lyric “stay with me, for just a while” – which leads to a place of heady grace, something this band do so well. After their 2010 EP’s Tall Ships, and There is Nothing but Chemistry Here, Everything Touching came out of the mist; a confection of jangly guitars, with Ric Phethean’s serene vocal, which sometimes appears, wandering around a landscape of driving, layered, nuanced rhythms, providing a battered, but acute sense of hope.
This idea of hope is something explored in “Gallop”, a poetic, searching song about getting older and losing heart, but something about those guitars, and those lyrics suggest that perhaps we should hold on, just a little longer: “And before you know, you’re getting old and losing touch/ with the things that mean the most, and your life is full of ghosts/ And you’re weathering a loss in your heart, and your body’s falling apart/ Though we’re singing tonight, as we celebrate this night/ Celebrate this night, celebrate this night/ And before you know, you’re getting old and you’re losing touch with other things/ That mean the most and with a lump in your throat, you cry/ That you’ve lived your life, well and honestly/ And with an open heart, give yourself to history.” There is a strange comfort bound up in that melancholy song, perhaps it’s the honesty, Ric Phethean tells Siobhán Kane.
With your two EP’s as a kind of preface, Everything Touching was much anticipated – did it take a long time to work out?It is a very layered record, and I wondered how the songwriting worked for that record? The EP’s framed the record so well.
The recording did take a relatively long time. We usually start by getting the basic song structure down – the bass, drums and guitar parts normally – and then using that as a solid base, start experimenting with layering various instruments, harmonies and parts over the top. Right from the beginning of the band we were using looped guitars, so that process of layering up parts and sounds is pretty ingrained in our songwriting process. It is a quite strange position to be in really. Our music or the songs themselves are wholly dependent upon an awareness and use of this technology. Our songs simply wouldn’t be able to exist without it.
You and Matt met at university, but you had known Jamie for some years – is it true that you were initially going to be a photographer? How did your relationship to making music begin then? Did you instantly started playing the kind of music together that we have heard on the records, or if it was quite different early on?
That’s right. Matt and I met whilst studying photography together in Falmouth so photographing for a living was the original plan before music got in the way! One of the major differences between us now and when we first started is that vocals and words are now the focal point. Initially we pretty much wanted to be Battles circa B-EP C-EP era so it was mostly instrumental and any singing was more of an after thought. The music was more important. Slowly this changed though, as we played more shows and wrote more songs. I think there still is an element of that within us though because there are large parts of the album, which are instrumental, so I suppose that has stuck with us. In terms of new material though, vocals are going to be the main focus.
What precipitated the move to Brighton? It seems to be a place very conducive to making music, where are some of your favourite places there?
Well firstly, Jamie and I grew up there, so it was a natural and comfortable move to make. But as a band it made sense because we felt so isolated down in Cornwall. The average 6-hour drive to play anywhere outside the South West was just too much! Brighton is also a wonderful place to be in a band. It’s got everything. There are incredible venues like the Prince Albert where we played many of our first gigs, awesome promoters like One Inch Badge who have a real dedication to the local scene and bands within it. And most importantly there are great bands, The Physics House Band, KINS, Us Baby Bear Bones and AKDK to name a few. It really is a great city to be based within.
Falmouth and Bristol are very special to you – and are places where you evolved as a band, I read that at the beginning, or early on, you played a concert in Bristol almost every fortnight for a year, so it must be very special to go back to these places and play now?
Yeah it wasn’t quite as much as that but near enough! Bristol really does feel like a second home for us. It was the first place outside of our hometown Falmouth where we could play a headline show and it would be busy. It is always great to play these places because we’ve made loads of friends through playing them so much. It’s always a good night.
When you added the vocals to the song “Gallop”, did that seem like a leap, that you were consciously trying to say something different?
Gallop was definitely one of the quickest songs to come together musically and conceptually on the album. It was a song born very much out of a kind of mid-twenties crisis. It’s a difficult age I feel. Especially when you don’t really know what it is you want to do with your life and you feel like your just fumbling your way along, struggling to keep up with the relentless march forward of time. The song itself was an attempt to address this fear of waking up in 20 years time and realising you’ve lost touch with everyone that is important to you, and finding life has just passed you by. Quite depressing lyrical content really for what on the surface appears to be our most upbeat track..
In terms of vocals, yours is so distinctive, was it something you always knew you wanted to explore further?
With my singing it’s always been about confidence. Initially we were an instrumental band so vocals were always an after thought. To begin with I hated my voice but over time and the more singing I did, I learned to accept it. I think we also realised that vocals are such an effective and easy way to generate an emotional connection with your audience. It meant we could articulate our ideas more directly and clearly. And by having songs which people could sing along to, meant there was an increased connection between the crowd and us. That was the most exciting thing. Now when we have people singing the words back at us, it just feels amazing.
Your use of loops is also very distinctive, and I am thinking of a song like “Murmurations” as a kind of centrepiece to that idea – is that how it feels to you?
It’s funny you picked that song out because it was exactly that! It was us trying to push the idea of looping and repetition as far as we could. We took the four base chords that make up the song and then just really explored how we can layer these up and constantly ramp up the energy for 9 minutes until it climaxes at the end with the choir.
There are so many people performing on that song, in various capacities, for example, the choir – which really is a highlight of the record – how did that collaboration come about and how did you feel with the final result?
Conceptually the song for us was really about this idea of people coming together. How in life, relationships and interactions with other human beings is the only way of creating a truly meaningful and happy life. So with that idea in mind we rounded up all our friends and family in about 30 people in my old primary school hall and recorded it. It was a lovely experience and just seemed to work so well in the context of the record. I think it really added warmth to the track, which is something we were searching for. It was satisfying to have an idea, see it through and have it work out in the end!
You are supporting The National in Cork – have you been fans of theirs for some time? What is interesting about them is that they are quite a literary band in many ways, and Aaron Dessner, for example, is hugely interested in experimental music – I could understand you having something of a kinship with them.
I’m personally a massive fan. It’s not often you get to play with bands that you are completely in awe of. Everything they do is so well considered and thought out. It’s so natural and honest how they’ve progress and developed as a band. Just no bullshit or hype or anything like that. They just do their own thing, consistently making powerful, moving records, which enrich a lot of people’s lives. Something any good band should be striving for
In Everything Touching the lyrics seem so personal, the spaces, people, situations – is it very important for you to be as honest as possible? It seems to honour people’s lives, and providing a cathartic kind of charge as well.
Honesty is definitely a massive part of what we do as a band. We really don’t try to be anything we’re not. Lyrically, I suppose it’s the only way I know how to write. It just seems natural to reflect upon my life and the people within it. And to do this openly requires a certain amount of honesty. It’s definitely a cathartic process as well. I’m quite a closed person and find it hard to express how I feel to certain people so these songs provide me with an outlet to say all these things I couldn’t normally.
You have supported many different kinds of musicians over the last few years, but it seems that perhaps Tubelord has been the most instrumental in terms of development for you as a band – and with James [Elliott Field] coming in as a touring member and a producer of the band – that must have seemed quite poetic, really. What was it about those musicians that really struck something within you? I was sad they disbanded.
Without Tubelord we would have never left Falmouth and continued making music. By pure coincidence and a huge amount of luck we played our first ever show supporting them. They liked us and started spreading the word around and got us a few shows in London, took us on tour with them, became really great friends of ours, and eventually brought us to the attention of Kevin Douche from BSM who ended up releasing our EP’s and Album – which Jamie from Tubelord had recorded and mixed before joining our band. So to say they were pretty instrumental in making us the band as we are today would be an understatement. What really struck us about them? They were just really lovely, genuine guys who were completely dedicated to making and playing music. They taught us a huge amount about what being in a band was really about.
You have a myriad of influences, but one you have spoken about previously is Biffy Clyro – and I was wondering if you could expand as to why they have meant so much to you? They caught your attention when you were a teenager, didn’t they?
They were the first band that I truly loved, and I mean loved in that unhealthily intense kind of way, you can only do as a teenager. They were such a huge part of my identity when I was navigating my way through the awkward years where you’re discovering what kind of person you actually are. I remember pre-ordering their first album Blackened Sky and – having previously exclusively listened to Green Day and Blink 182 – it just blowing my mind. I’d go and see them religiously every time they came through town. And this continued throughout my teens. Each album they released would be better than the previous and thus I grew up almost exclusively listening to Biffy. Infinity Lands was their final record that I really loved though. I think by the time Puzzle came out I had kind of grown out of the obsession a little bit and thankfully opened up to discovering other bands. I think one of the main things we loved about them was they provided an underground alternative to the whole mainstream indie thing. Biffy Clyro were our own band and we loved them for it.
You have been a band that has really given yourself over the live performance and touring, and it has stood you in good stead – though I can imagine it is exhausting. Over the years what are some of your favourite memories of live shows and touring?
Yeah it is definitely hard work, but without it we would definitely not be in the position we are now. The best thing overall about touring is meeting people. We’ve been so fortunate to meet the people we have through touring. We have never been able to afford hotels so we were always reliant upon somebody welcoming us in to their home and letting us sleep on their floors. It’s a great way to meet people and make friends. Particular experiences are hard to pick out though to be honest. We did a couple of shows in Brazil, which was pretty surreal. We’ve been to Malta, America and played numerous countries around Europe. These are all experiences we would never have had without music. That’s the amazing thing about it all really. This upcoming show in Cork for instance is going to be the first time we’ve ever been to Ireland so we’re incredibly excited. It’s also going to be the biggest audience we’ve ever played to, so fingers crossed nothing goes too wrong and we can add this experience to our ever growing list of ridiculous experiences.
How is work coming along on the writing of your second record? I wonder if you have seen any particular themes emerge?
We’re just really getting started on it now, so it’s very early days. It’s going to be a natural continuation and development both musically and thematically from the first record. I can’t say too much about it just yet but we’re really excited to be writing some new material.
What are you reading, listening to, and watching?
I’m currently making my way through David Byrne’s latest book ‘How Music Works‘ which is an incredibly enjoyable read. He has some really interesting ideas about music and the function of music within society. It’s also full of little stories about Talking Heads recording sessions that are pretty fascinating. Listening, I’d have to say mostly ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ by The National. It’s a stunning record. So comforting. I really cannot wait to see them perform it live. Alongside that the new record by Jon Hopkins ‘Immunity’ has really sucked me in and I’m currently trying to really break in to the new These New Puritans record ‘Field Of Reeds’. Watching I don’t actually do too much of to be honest so I haven’t seen it, but, I’ll say Game Of Thrones, because all the other guys in the band watch it religiously as does everybody else!