I Like Trains: How recording wrangle became crowd pleaser

I Like Trains.
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A new documentary chronicles the lives of Leeds band I Like Trains as they battle with record company desertion, family life and keeping the group alive. Mark Casci reports.

In the music industry, when people don’t want to deal with you any more they just clam up in silence and disappear, there’s barely any conflict, and that’s what happened to us...

So begins the trailer for A Divorce Before Marriage, the forthcoming documentary shot about Leeds band I Like Trains.

Formed a decade ago, the band looked set to become a roaring success.

A series of early 7ins singles quickly earned them a legion of loyal fans.

At the time when social media was first beginning to play a key role in the spread of music and I Like Trains suddenly found themselves with followers around the world.

Played on radio by the likes of Steve Lamaq, they were active around the same time as the likes of fellow Leeds bands Forward Russia and This Et Al were blowing up and making music magazine covers.

“It was a really exciting time to be making music in Leeds,” said Dave Martin, the band’s singer and guitar player.

Their baritone vocals, high brow lyrical themes (rail privatisation, witch trials, political assassination, Captain Scott’s ill-fated voyage to the South Pole) and moving atmospheres set them apart.

What followed was what Dave calls their “big-ish deal” – a multi-record contract with Beggars Banquet, home to the likes of The Charlatans, Gary Numan and Biffy Clyro over the years.

The deal meant the band felt safe in the medium-term and their full-length debut record Elegies to Lessons Learnt was well-received by press.

They toured a lot, several times around Europe, with two separate visits to the US.

However, with the music industry in turmoil, there began to be issues with the record label.

Just prior to taking the stage for a homecoming gig at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds they found out the deal had suddenly ceased to exist.

“It did not affect me massively,” recalls Dave.

“I felt we would get by and find another label to call home.

“We searched a lot, but there was nothing that felt an obvious choice.”

The band members individually found they had to take up day jobs in order to live but remained committed to I Like Trains.

With the search for a new label proving fruitless but still possessing a fanbase as large and it was dedicated, the band instead decided to go it alone and turned to the nascent process of web-based crowdfunding – a process which allows individuals or groups to appeal to the public to fund projects via donations.

The move was a risk but ultimately a highly successful one: they hit target they needed to record a follow-up record within 24 hours.

“That was a really special moment to us,” said Dave.

“To get such a reaction for hunger for music from us. We were really moved.”

The move was so popular that they emulated it for their next record The Shallows, with the band continuing to balance full time work, family life and the music.

This year the band celebrated their 10th anniversary with shows around Europe, culminating in a performance at Leeds Town Hall as part of the Live at Leeds festival.

However what no-one knew at the time was the band were plotting their most surprising move yet.

Last month they unveiled the existence of a three-year collaboration with filmmakers Ben Lankester and Matt Hopkins.

The pair spent months on and off with the band for the purposes of capturing footage for a documentary, A Divorce Before Marriage, which would chronicle their ups and downs as the struggled to maintain the group alongside their day-to-day lives. As well as filming them in the studio and on the road they also shot footage at their workplaces and family homes.

The experience was a strange one to begin with for the band.

“I was initially very apprehensive about it,” Dave said.

“It doesn’t feel at all like our lives are extraordinary, I was worried about the amount of time and money that Matt and Ben had invested.

“There are a lot of hard working people out there, perhaps not portrayed so much in documentaries.”

Matt and Ben had known the band for sometime and found they had one key element in common.

“We were in a position wherein we had dual similarities, trying to balance our creative endeavours alongside full time jobs,” said Matt.

In all Mat and Ben ended up with some 24 terabites of footage, capturing everything from large concerts and a band member’s wedding to the more mundane day-to-day occurrences of life on the road.

One particularly poignant moment in the trailer comes when a montage is shown of the band eating in a series of grim-looking motorway diners and cafes.

Inevitably the pair caught some fairly personal moments.

“When you’re with someone you know well there are moments where there’s points which do not seem overly dramatic but watching back look powerful,” said Matt.

“There was a moment we recorded at a ferry port in Dover. The ferry had been delayed and Dave was trying to speak to his wife. The phone reception kept breaking up and he couldn’t hear her.

“It really captures how life touring is hard and far from easy.

“Perhaps the most memorable delivery point came with Dave’s son Oscar being born. We got to see him growing up, something of a visual metaphor.”

The end result is a moving documentary on perhaps one of the great under-reported areas of modern music, those people in established and popular bands who need full time work to support it.

“In music you either seem to be classed as a superstar or a failure, there’s very little 
said about the guys in the middle.”

With the filming 90 per cent done the producers now faced the dilemma of how to get it released, and took inspiration from the band themselves by putting it up for crowdfunding.

And like the band’s appeals, they hit their stated target with hours.

“The band has very loyal fans who we knew would put down the cash. But when we put it live I really had my heart in my mouth as to what the reaction would be. In the end it was fantastic.”

As Dave sums up: “It is a film about how it is to be a creative person in day-to-day life, but with the responsibilities, difficulties, the triumphs and the ups and downs that come with it.

“It has not just been about us it has been a piece about how, no-one has a right to make a living from music. The life skills we have learned have proved invaluable to our subsequent careers.

“We have our own lives but nothing can substitute that feeling of playing music, it keeps us going, we certainly don’t feel like our career has failed.

“That was probably always the case in the music industry - the music industry is struggling you need a lot of luck and hard work to sustain a carer.”

A Divorce Before Marriage is due for release next year.

For more information visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/benlankester/a-divorce-before-marriage-feature-documentary.

If you have a crowd-funded project you’d like to tell us about, email: yep.newsdesk@jpress.co.uk

Jonathan Wilson

Gig review: Jonathan Wilson at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds