Pennyblackmusic Presents: Heist & Idiot Son + The Volunteered & Simon Bromide

Headlining are Heist with support from Idiot Son , The Volunteered and Simon Bromide
Hosted at the Water Rats London, Saturday 10th September. Doors open 7:30; First band on at 7:45; Admission £10 on the door or £8 in advance from We got Tickets
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Miscellaneous - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 23 / 6 / 2006

Miscellaneous - Interview


Recorded on cheap instruments including a vintage Casio, indiepop trio the Research released their debut album 'Breaking Up' earlier this year. Frontman Russell talks to Mark Rowland about it and why the band try to reject twee comparisions

It seems at the moment that any melodic British band that doesn’t play angular post-punk is automatically labelled twee by the UK music press. It is a term that means little, and yet is used in a context that brings to mind the worst kind of trad folk. Essentially, it has become a way to dismiss a band as a novelty – not worthy of serious consideration – with just one word. If any band knows about the shortfalls of being called twee, it’s the Research. Their music is distinctly different to the current clutch of popular British bands – a sort of bargain basement Beach Boys, all honey-drenched harmonies, great pop hooks and songs about love and stuff, all played on dirt cheap instruments – and yet they aren’t getting the radio and TV airplay or the column inches they richly deserve. “I kind of get really angry with the press,” says Russell, singer and keyboard player in the band. “Sometimes a writer will take a bit of care and actually know what they’re writing about, be able to listen to a record and not just hear that it’s twee, but actually hear it as someone’s vision, and that there’s thought gone into the record down to who produced it. There’s thought gone into every word of the lyrics. A lot of the time, though, you get generalised by the 'NME' or whoever as being in a twee scene. They just kind of make stuff up to sell papers without thinking about the effect it’s having on the band.” It’s not really the press that the band – Russell, singer/bassist Georgia and singer/drummer Sarah - has had trouble with, however. Television and radio have been particularly difficult for the band to break into. Radio One DJ Zane Lowe loves the band, but his producer won’t let him play their records. “We’ve come up against it quite a lot on the radio, basically because the sound of the record’s quite different from everything else at the moment, the sort of angular post-rock or whatever ” Russell says. “Zane Lowe’s actually a really good guy and he really likes the stuff but he’s not allowed to play it, because radio DJs’ producers don’t like the clash of sonics on the airwaves. I can kind of understand it from the producer’s point of view, but it’s just kind of frustrating from our point of view, because we’re still doing gigs to half full venues, and we’re still selling a moderate amount of records but not enough to really make an impact on things. It’s frustrating that we don’t get much airplay, but at least the DJs like it, I guess.” The band are currently driving “through a lot of hills somewhere in the north of England” on their continuing tour of the UK. The band have been working particularly hard this year, touring almost non-stop, as well as playing at big musical events like the trend-forming SXSW festival in Texas. "It’s kind of just coming to an end now,” Russell says of the tour. “Which is nice. We get to work on some new stuff, record some new demos for the next album and stuff, but it has been pretty busy for a while.” The band’s first record, 'Breaking Up', was released in February through EMI subsidiary At Large. Far from being the fey geeks the press has painted them as, they wrangled a deal which gave them creative control over everything, right down to the content of their videos. “We get a lot of people asking us how we managed to maintain our control when we signed to EMI and it wasn’t hard at all” Russell says. “All we had to do was say we want control of everything and explain what we were going to do with the artwork and what we were going to do with the videos and who we were going to produce it with, and what ideas we were going to explore with the first album and things and it seems like bands don’t really do that. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of with us. It’s like I can pretty much say I knew it was going this way right from the start.” This statement takes me by surprise, and I ask a silly question - you knew exactly where you were going as soon as you formed the band Russell laughs: “Well, it was sort of like soon after we started playing together. We realised it was a good band to be in, and then it was obvious how things should be conceptualised. We weren’t ever going for a record deal and to do videos and things. We wanted to put out records, whether we did it ourselves or through an indie label or a major label, but we were always going to do it the same way. We were always going to do it our own way.” The Research may create their music on cheap instruments, but they have a surprising drive to make it into the public consciousness, or to put in their words, they want to “make an impact on things.” Unfortunately, they are completely at odds with the current crop of hot bands. “I’m not really a big fan of bands. Most of the stuff I hear on the radio and wherever I go. I don’t get it at all - it doesn’t sound like anything to me. It sounds like people haven’t really got a vision of what they really want to do.” In the Summer of 2003 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, Russell asked his fellow students Georgia and Sarah to be in a band with him, but instead of asking them to play instruments they were actually good with, he asked them to pick up instruments they’d never played before. “Georgia wasn’t a bass player and Sarah wasn’t a drummer” Russell says. “But we’d all been involved in other bands and played other instruments, so they knew what they were getting themselves in for.” Russell had also been in bands before, but had never been satisfied with the way they had worked. When he formed the Research, he wanted to do things differently: “The Research was more about just an intentional disregard for technicality. I really wanted to be in a band where we could just focus on songs. I’d been in bands with drummers that were just completely over the top, and bass players that were too dominant, and I just wanted to be in a band where it wasn’t about the instruments. It was about the songs. I thought that by not really being able to play the instruments particularly well. We were going to achieve that quite easily. Straight away it was going to be about the songs because we had nothing to offer technically. I think that was kind of the thought process behind starting the Research.” The only thing left for Russell to do after recruiting the girls was find an instrument for him to play. He found it when trying out instruments in his local Cash Converters, a toy keyboard with a built in synthesiser, bought for the grand total of nine pounds. “When I played it in the shop just before I bought it, I saw it had a digital synthesiser on it, a really kind of basic 1980;s digital synthesiser” he says. “I turned that on and just kind of played it with one fader on it and it made it sound like a guitar, and I thought okay. We can make it sound like a guitar-based thing without having guitars on it, which I guess is what we were trying to do originally. It’s made me a lot better on the keyboard. I couldn’t play a thing to start with.” Most people, including me, assume that the Research’s distinctive keyboard sound comes from a vintage Casio, the favourite toys of many lo fi keyboard bands, but most people are mistaken: “It’s actually a Yamaha. Everyone assumes it’s a Casio because it’s quite small, but Casios aren’t as rock ‘n’ roll. It doesn’t distort like that and you can’t hit them around and trigger all the sensors off.” Does it have a good demo button? “Yeah, of course! It’s pretty good – lots of 70's disco classics.” The band played their first gig at a charity event at a local Salvation Army Hall. As they had no amp, they had to plug the bass into the speaker cabinet on the organ. The keyboard was the only instrument they actually owned – everything else was borrowed from friends. After a few gigs, key figures in the Yorkshire music scene such as the Cribs and Whiskas, of Forward Russia and the owner of record label Dance to the Radio, who helped them get gigs in Leeds and put them in contact with record labels. “Whiskas was really helpful initially” explains Russell. “We never really experienced it because of Whiskas, but with other bands it was a constant effort phoning around promoters and trying to get gigs and we’ve never had to do that with the Research because right from the off Whiskas was getting us gigs around Leeds. He was almost acting as an agent for us. We’re not from Leeds. We’re from Wakefield, so we didn’t really know the scene there very well, so he was really helpful. And you get record label people in London phoning up and asking him who was sounding good in his area, and he was getting them in contact with us, so he played a big part in our initial successes.” The band recorded a six song demo tape and started sending it out to labels, charging each of them two pounds per copy. According to the band’s website, they never cashed their cheque from Sony as they thought it looked funny. Eventually, they signed a contract with At Large, giving them creative control over all aspects of the band. The band decided they wanted to record their debut album in Chicago, at post-rock legend John McEntire’s Soma Electronic Studios. “It was kind of us instigating everything and being a bit aware of the pitfalls of record labels and traps that people have fallen into previously” Russell says. “How frequently they’ll go for a hotly-tipped producer rather than an apt producer for the band, which usually makes for duller records. We pretty much went in and said ok, we’ll sign this deal with EMI, but first we’re going to make sure we’re going to go straight out to record with John McEntire. It was all kind of instigated by us anyway. We’re just stubborn I guess.” McEntire produced the record with the band. Listening to the concise, layered compositions of his band Tortoise, you would imagine he would be a very precise producer – is this true? “He’s really precise, but he’s great for bands to work with, especially bands who are really into sounding like how they sound rather than having their records produced, you know. He did do a degree of producing, but it was basically just making the keyboard sound better, making the bass sound a bit better and the drums sound a bit better rather than adding loads of filters and effects to make it sound good for the radio waves. It was amazing. We literally just went into the studio, set up our stuff and made a record - there was no hassles or anything. Everything just came together. We used really good old microphones and recorded onto a brilliant tape machine, and everything just sounded great straight away, so we were happy with it right from the start. He’s also a bit of a hero of mine, so it was a dream come true for that reason.” The band even got control over the content of their videos, and came up with the ideas for all of them to date. Most of them feature a structured narrative. For a band of such humble beginnings, was it strange to suddenly have to start acting? “It’s kind of a conscious choice of ours though. We conceptualised all our videos, so we were well aware that we would have to do a bit of acting. We were more up for that than just doing a kind of…visually, our performance isn’t that interesting, so I didn’t want to just do one of those fashionable performance videos, though we did sort of get pushed into it with 'The Hard Times' because we weren’t really getting airplay on MTV2 or anything, so they really wanted to go for it on the current single, so we did a bit more of a performance based video. Previously we’ve tried to make it a bit more interesting, and narrative based.” The video for 'The Hard Times' may be a compromise on the band’s part, but does feature an interesting concept, with the band being scrumpled and unravelled like paper. “It’s amazing how long it takes to edit that stuff” says Russell enthusiastically. “That took the production company such a long time to edit that video. I just couldn’t believe it, it didn’t seem worth it. Before they’d started, I was just like ‘We’d just finished recording all this stuff, and now you’ve got to spend weeks and weeks and weeks editing it.’ They did it in quite a simple way, but quite a clever way, sort of like cutting things out in Photoshop and printing it out on photo paper so it looked like a photograph, then literally crumpling them up and filming it, then unravelling it a bit and filming it and unravelling it a bit> It’s actually each time it does it it’s actually a real photo being unravelled, so it’s pretty clever.” This brings us up to date. The whooshing of traffic can be heard in the background as Russell explains the current situation with the number of instruments now owned by the band, which for major label band isn’t particularly impressive. “We’re still borrowing some hi hats from a friend, but I think we’ve got all the stuff now. We still don’t have a bass guitar tuner, we still have to borrow those.” Could you not tune it by ear? “Well, we’re not very good at that. We can’t really tune it to the keyboard because the keyboard has this vibrato thing on it all the time. The note kind of wavers, so it’s hard to tune it to that.” Russell has had to buy a few more keyboards, however: “As I tour a lot and play it a lot, I need to get backups quite quickly cause they break every now and then, so eBay’s the place now.” Talk turns to musical heroes. Russell’s song-writing obviously owes a debt to the Beach Boys, so it’s unsurprising to hear that he’s a big fan. One of his main musical loves is, however, a bit unexpected: “I’m more into sort of country music than I am pop music really, which I think will be a bit more evident on the next record, a bit of country rock on there and stuff, I’m more influenced by that sort of thing.” That will be interesting to hear, country rock played on a toy keyboard. “I’m not going straight country with it, because we’ll never get airplay with that either!” The band is planning to start working on songs for their new record as soon as they finish touring. Russell seems excited to start working on it, and although he assures me that it will be an extension of their current sound, it sounds as if the band is moving away from its stripped down, cheap roots. “I like the idea of it building on what we’ve already done” says Russel. “But it is going to be a bit different, partly because we’re all a bit bored with… not really bored, but we’ve kind of reached a block where we can’t really do much more with the limitations we’ve set ourselves, with such basic instruments and arrangements." "We’ve got a good friend who plays the fiddle and we’re going to get a lot of that on the next record. We’re also getting a lot more guitar work on it.” Considering there is no guitar work on their debut, any guitar work would be a lot more than previously. It is for this reason, however, that the band wants to bring guitars into the mix. “I’ve realised through playing the keyboard that I actually really like the sound of guitars, and it was a kind of a stubborn move in the first place not to use them” Russell says. “Now I’m starting to think that actually guitars are pretty good." The band are also getting a bit sick of singing about lost love all the time. “It’s going to have a whole different mood to the previous record. It’s going to be less kind of whingy and a bit more spiritual hopefully - I want to write a gospel record" "In all these ways, it’s going to be quite different, but I am still writing the songs in a similar way, so it’s still going to be a lot of three vocal harmonies and things, standard pop arrangements and stuff. Hopefully it’s a progression but not a complete removal from the old stuff.” Perhaps once people hear the new themes and arrangements of their newer material, the band will escape the stigma of being called twee, and finally the ever elusive media of television and radio. “The thing is you read that we’re twee" says Russell. "And then you read the list of other bands that are supposed to be twee, like Herman Dune, Beat Happening and Calvin Johnson and things, and they’re some of my favourite artists, so I’m fine with it. It just doesn’t really say anything does it?”

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Miscellaneous - Interview

Miscellaneous - Interview

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