Gig preview: Embrace at O2 Academy Leeds

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THEY were one of the biggest guitar bands to emerge from West Yorkshire – a five-piece so successful that they once toured the country with Coldplay as a support act.

Yet after three Number One albums and 11 top 20 singles little has been heard of Embrace since 2006.

Now at last the Brighouse group are poised to end their eight-year silence with a new EP, to be released on Monday (February 17). An album will follow at the end of April.

“It was a planned six-month break that we were going to have which turned into a four-year break,” says Richard McNamara, the band’s guitarist and co-songwriter, of Embrace’s long absence from the recording studio.

“I think on the last album [This New Day] we felt the machine had taken over a little bit, that we were doing things for commerce rather than art. The record had most of its integrity but the way we remixed things for radio, the singles choices and the video choices were forced upon us in a way. Outside influences pulled us in different directions. We felt it was not the same band any more.”

The intention was to “go on holiday to recharge the batteries” but then Richard, his brother Danny, bass player Steve Firth, drummer Mike Heaton and keyboardist Mickey Dale became involved in other projects.

Richard McNamara produced a string of up-and-coming bands whose punkish resistance to doing “things that were cheesy”, he says, “really rejuvenated my inner artist”. But when one band who he thought were particularly promising broke up before they’d released a record their frustrated producer decided to pour all the ideas he’s been storing up into his own songs.

“I had 12 to 15 ideas together which I put to Danny and the lads. It was a four-year process of leaning who we were as a band,” he says.

“I had a strong vision that had come about through working with young bands. It was following that aesthetic – changing the way we sound to the point where it’s recognisable but different.”

Feeling that the songs A Thief on My Island and Refugees were “the best things I had ever done – period”, McNamara was keen to press on. “I wanted to better them,” he says. Hence the band spent three years in a Halifax studio. “Trying to lift that bar, that’s what took all the time.”

To pave their way back into the public conscious, the band began playing secret shows, with fans tipped off about the date and venue via the internet.

“We needed to retain a lot of control,” says McNamara of their unusual return to gigging. “It was better for us to know everything was being done right. We planned them, we negotiated with the venue owners, hired a PA, decided the lights, the running order, who was going to supply things. Everything was nailed down to exactly how we wanted it. It was an amazing experience and more rewarding.

“On the other hand,” he jokes, “it was a pain in the a***. It was hard to plan.”

One show was at the boxing club where McNamara is a member. “We spent a fortune on barriers and PA and protective clothes and plastic,” the 41-year-old guitarist recalls of their “masochistic endeavour”.

Yet, again, it was a matter of reconnecting with the band’s early ideals. They’d first started playing in secret a few years ago as a warm-up before they played “high up the bill at Glastonbury”. Now they’ve done 20 such gigs. It helps to bring the band closer to their fans. “They all feel part of it – they’re equally to blame for our success or lack of success,” McNamara quips.

But even he has been surprised how their followers have taken the concept to their hearts.

“People have been printing up their own leaflets saying that the album is coming soon. They’ve been making 20ft roadside banners and organising flash mob groups in the centre of towns to sing our songs. It’s crazy. It’s above and beyond what we expected them to do.”

To pay them back, the band intend to play another secret show in addition to more conventional touring. “We’re going to do another amazing one but we’ve not found the place to do it yet,” McNamara says.

The bright, danceable, electronic sound of their new single Refugees has already surprised one or two music critics. McNamara reckons as a reflection of the album as a whole it’s “in the middle ground on the scale of sounding like Embrace and nothing like Embrace”.

His brother Danny had argued for I Run to be the first single, but Richard wasn’t giving ground. “I love it as a song but it sounds too much like Embrace. I didn’t want to come back with Embrace doing Embrace. We need people to think the band has changed and maybe give us another listen.”

In part it’s an acknowledgement that the musical landscape has radically changed from when Embrace were regularly topping the British charts around the turn of the Millennium. “It’s completely different,” McNamara says. “If I was managing the band now I wouldn’t have a clue.”

Every non-musical decision he runs by his brother Jonathan, who runs a successful internet company that works for the likes of Lady Gaga and U2. “If I’m unsure or if somebody sends something through I send it straight to him. It’s a liberating thing as well if you can delegate in a good way. I told myself a long time ago I would concentrate on the music.”

As for the band’s plans for the coming months, McNamara says they will release another EP before their eponymous album comes out in April after which the band will tour.

“We feel like we are reborn as band,” he says confidently. “We want to get the music out there so people can see what we are like.”

They’ve had offers to play at festivals, he reveals, but the band want to consider each step closely.

“We’re really precious about what we’ve done and we want to make sure we do it right,” he says. “It’s been the same five guys since day one, we don’t have backing singers or other musicians. We’ve got to make it pay. It takes a lot of head-scratching to do that.”

Refugees was released on Cooking Vinyl on Monday. The album Embrace is out on April 28. The band play at O2 Academy Leeds on May 14, http://www.gigsandtours.com/tour/embrace

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