Releasing debut Pink Fur on pink vinyl, splatter-effect design for second album Feeling Strange and now exclusive white vinyl release for their third album in as many years, Swan Songs, songwriter and spokesman James Anthony Smith spoke candidly about the bands changes in style and his love of independent record shops.
After last year’s Long Division album, recorded live in Wakefield, Swan Songs will be your third studio album proper in as many years. How has the band evolved or indeed what elements remain from when you began writing?
I think the band understands each other better than we ever have before. Musically and otherwise. That’s something we’ve gained the longer we’ve been writing and playing together. We’ve always written in the same way which is I bring a rough demo and then the band crafts the song together. It’s a completely equal four way process so it takes longer to agree on stuff sometimes. With Swan Songs we actually went into the studio for the first time without the record written. This was a deliberate choice we made. We did one track a day and as we were writing as we were recording, it meant that we had to go with our gut on a lot of it. Rather than listening back to demos for months on end finessing parts before the studio we had to make those decisions on the spot. It makes for a far more exciting listen I think and funnily enough is actually the most concise and considered record we’ve ever made. The risk is greater but the pay off is far better if you let instinct write the record for you.
The album is released on April 21, the launch is being held at the Brudenell Social Club and you are heading over to Wah Wah Records in Wakefield to play a solo set during Record Store Day on April 22. What should people expect to hear at these performances?
At Wah Wah I’ll play a few off Swan Songs in the hopes of flogging it to the RSD punters, but then the rest will be new stuff and a couple of covers. I’ve been writing songs for a solo project so I’ll probably play a few off that and a new one called Middling which will either be a Post War b-side or not get released. I’m also gonna ask Jamie from Mi Mye to play fiddle with me, I think.
You’ve always been very creative with your album artwork and the colour and design of your records, is it important that the whole product is a creative process that is tangible to the owner?
Of course. At the end of the day, the record is an artifact, it’s the only physical evidence we’ll leave behind when we’re gone. You don’t know what a record sounds like when you look at it, but great artwork piques your interest and reels you in. It makes you ask questions, it makes you want to hear it. Why is that there, what does that mean? I wonder what this record sounds like? I used to buy albums blind off the appeal of the artwork when I was younger so I know the importance of it, especially considering we don’t put our name on our sleeves, so people really have no idea who that record is by when they see our artwork on the shelf in the shop. It means there are no connotations between records, no expectancy, no assumptions. When you walk into a record store the first thing that hits you is the colour. The racks of colour, it’s like a sweet shop. That’s why it’s important.
Are there any limited collectors releases’ of Swan Songs, such as the much coveted pink vinyl release of your debut?
The first pressing is white, the second and so on will be black. So if you like coloured vinyl, get it while you can!
As RSD is round the corner from your own record release, what one record do you still seek when you go crate-digging?
Long gone are the days of finding a gem in the crates, I think. Even the charity shops have clocked on to the value of records now, the prices are becoming absurd. You can still get some decent stuff without paying silly money, as long as it’s not too cool. I’m on the lookout for Wes Montgomery in the bins at the moment, anything by Lee Hazlewood or Neil Young too.
There appears to be a resurgence of guitar music in Leeds at present with bands like yourself and Menace Beach fronting the helm. Which bands are making an impression in your mind and why do you think Leeds keeps pushing the envelope when other cities seem to be struggling?
Well, I think Menace Beach are ace and they’re friends and they’ve just moved into our rehearsal space next door, so that’s nice. I think Lemon Memory is a fantastically weird listen and it’s really consistent all the way through. I really love Cattle, they’re a joy and Nature’s Champion is a top debut, I hope they do more. I think there are a lot of cool garage-y/psych bands around at the moment but we’re not really involved with that. We’re quite out of the loop actually. I think the scene is as healthy as it ever was, with loads of young new bands coming through, but we’re old now... new bands always come through and when i decent one sticks out you take note.
What has been your highlight of the band so far and what plans do you have for the year ahead?
‘Career’ wise I don’t really know what the highlights have been, we’ve had amazing gigs and terrible ones, we’ve had brilliant reviews and rubbish ones. I haven’t really reflected on the past as we’ve always been pushing forward with the music, but it’s been pretty special either way. From a personal perspective our trip to Scotland to make Swan Songs was a beautiful experience. We’ve got the album tour in May and then a couple of festivals, including Bluedot with The Pixies.
From listening to Swan Songs, your musical style and vocal delivery have changed from say Pink Fur’s Nick Cave baritone, to at times a more upbeat and lighter tone. What are the themes running through this album?
Funnily enough the upbeat vibe conflicts with the themes of depression, mental health, war and oppression which run through the album. Moving away from the Nick Cave thing was important to me as I was getting really sick of the comparison. I felt like people were no longer listening to me, they we’re listening to something to plug the gap until a new Bad Seeds record came out. I know people tend to like what they like, but the last thing we ever wanted to be was a bracketed band, I think a lot of goths were digging us around the first album, and I love The Birthday Party, but I couldn’t just listen to bands that sound like The Birthday Party forever. By pushing my voice away from that baritone I actually managed to get a bit better at singing and found new tricks I could do with my voice. Feeling Strange was written in detachment, it’s a really cold record, written from the perspective of someone not channeling any emotion, because I didn’t feel happy, sad, angry or any of that. I felt detached and lost and that’s why those songs maybe didn’t resonate in the same way with people, but that was where we were as a band at the time and it felt important to document that. Swan Songs however comes from a place of love, it’s a warm, welcoming record. I’ve learnt to channel that anger into something positive.
Why is it so important that independent bands and record shops exist?
Because they provide an alternative to what you see and hear directly in front of you. It’s defiance really. That’s true independence and god bless those who pursue it. All that really matters is that people still make stuff and that indie record shops are there to expose it to new people who wouldn’t necessarily find it otherwise.
Which of your three studio releases are you most proud of, and which tracks do you enjoy playing the most?
I think Pink Fur was a strong effort, there are things on it I would change looking back, but I think as far as debut albums go, we created something pretty deep and complex at the age of 22 years old. Feeling Strange I feel totally went under a lot of people’s radars. We released it quite fast after Pink Fur and the sound shift was pretty drastic. I consider the Live at St Austin’s part of the canon too. We reinvented the old songs on that and it feels like a cohesive record in itself rather than a live show playing songs off different albums.
Swan Songs is the best thing we’ve done. I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life. There isn’t a single song on it I have a single doubt about.
In regards to which tracks I enjoy playing most, I think Sestra has a special place in our hearts, off Pink Fur. It was really the catalyst for the rest of that album and feels like a calling card for the band, it signified a shift in writing and performing ability for us. After two years on the bench it’s now back in the set, so that’s cool.
That said, the best track is Divine Decline, the last track on the new record. I can’t wait for people to hear that one. It’s the best thing we’ve ever put together and a fitting curtain call to Swan Songs.
Swan Songs is released on April 21, with an album launch at the Brudenell Social Club the same day, followed by an exclusive free in-store performance on Record Store Day at Wah Wah Records in Wakefield on April 22. www.facebook.com/postwarglamourgirls