uillemots are the best new band on the planet, and this week they release their fantastic debut album, Through the Window Pane. Nick Southall and the band's founder, Fyfe Dangerfield, have been exchanging emails...
What’s your favourite common small British mammal, and do grey squirrels deserve the bad press they get?
Undoubtedly the dormouse—I'd love to see one...my parents moved to the countryside near Ludlow a couple of years ago, and where they live now, right by the house, is one of the few areas in Britain where dormouse are known to breed. But of course they hibernate for half the year and only really move around by night, so they're not easy to see. I've sat around on muddy paths at dusk trying to see them, believe me, but to no avail. Also, I've never seen a stoat. Just thought you should know that. But I've seen a weasel. Grey squirrels? They may not be quite as elegant as red ones, but they don't deserve culling, that's for sure.
How do you feel about Top Of The Pops ending?
I think it’s a goddamn travesty! But there you go.
A couple of days before its termination was announced publicly, Guillemots made quite possibly the last ever truly GREAT Top Of The Pops appearance. Resplendent in a red suit, singer Fyfe Dangerfield was backed by his fellow Guillemots Rical Caran, Aristazabal Hawkes and MC Lord Magrao, plus the “Bridled Guillemots” (a two-piece brass and woodwind section who play on the band’s records and accompany them live) and a gaggle of female backing singers, and together they wound their way through an expressive, energetic, and resoundingly live take on “Made Up Love Song #43,” their first chart-eligible single (which landed at #23 a couple of weeks later). You can see it here, thanks to the power of that there interweb.
Who are you really?
A lost boy in a red suit, howling into the wind but smiling, wondering where the nearest bakery is.”
Fyfe’s real name is Anthony, and Rical is actually a Scotsman named Greig. I have no idea if the other two Guillemots are masquerading under nom-de-plumes or not, but I can tell you that they are from Canada and Brazil respectively. If these revelations make Guillemots seem somehow more normal, then the fact that Arista and Fyfe, both classically-trained musicians, met when they were hired to produce a soundtrack for a “utopian village,” the brainchild of a mad architect in Cheltenham, might add a little more pep back into their surreal story. If I mention that Fyfe met Greig over the buffet on the set of a comedy show (featuring Fyfe’s brother and Greig’s wife), and that Magrao answered a “musicians wanted” advert Fyfe had placed (“technical skill not a requirement”) by claiming he could play “the typewriter and matchbox,” then things will begin to make even more sense.
I can never go more than about four or five days unshaven without my stubble getting unbearably itchy—how do you lot (obviously not Aristazabal) manage with a proper beard?
We don't really grow proper beards. They're immature beards. Most of my male friends of my generation have them at the moment. I think we're all still enthralled by being able to grow any hair on our faces at all. Although mine, I must admit, has become trampish on occasion. Is trampish manly though? And is that a rhetorical question? God nose.
There are other details that flesh-out their bizarre narrative: Fyfe and Arista’s pre-Guillemots improvisational project (including gigs in village halls where Fyfe rolled around on the floor with a distortion pedal); Magrao’s past in Brazilian death metal bands and an experimental group that featured him playing “a giant clothes peg” (a track by said band featuring the giant peg is included as a vinyl b-side on “Made Up Love Song #43”); getting a record company to pay for the clothes peg to be shipped to the UK; and, of course, that Top Of The Pops performance. Just the fact that this strange, beguiling, beautiful band were signed, let alone became the subject of a bidding war between major record labels, is a minor miracle considering how at odds they seem to be with the prevailing conservatism of British “alternative” rock (alternative to what?).
What's your favourite film?
Many....I often tend to mention Watership Down, though that would perhaps be a better answer for the next question. I've been getting very into David Lynch recently. Twin Peaks (Fire Walk with Me) is about as close as I've ever seen to a dream being realised visually and cinematically. It's so surreal, but very watchable. But this idea of "favourite" is something I find impossible really...it's like trying to name your favourite friend or something...the last really good film I saw was one about a boy in Sweden who likes boxing and keeps thinking about the dog that was sent into space and then his mum dies… I have no idea what the name of the film was…
What's your favourite children's book?
Greig, our drummer, is actually writing one at the moment…
The first product of this slightly bizarre, multi-national musical union was the I Saw Such Things In My Sleep EP in the middle of 2005, which demonstrated from the outset their melodic talents, attention to detail, and complete lack of fear in their own creativity, proving that it is possible to be both experimental and resoundingly pop at the same time. The EP now goes for anywhere between £20 and £100 on eBay.
Name three key musical influences.
The Beatles, Debussy, free jazz.
How important is the concept of geographical dislocation to your album?
Not particularly… not in a conscious way, at least. But maybe as a sort of unthought-about-undercurrent! There's certainly a bit of a thread of solitude running through it.
The debut EP was followed in November last year by “Trains To Brazil,” an effortlessly uplifting slice of tubthumping, rollicking dance-pop with extraordinary brass blasts that happened to be about fear of terrorism in the wake of the London bombings last summer—the title seemingly a reference to John Charles De Menezes, the innocent Brazillian tragically shot dead on the London Underground by police officers high on paranoia and adrenaline. Eat your heart out, Radiohead.
Do you regularly get your recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day? Is this more difficult ‘on the road’?
You sort of rely on Innocent Smoothies etc ‘on the road.’ Although we do have carrots and avocados on our rider. And, strangely, vacuum-packed mackerel…
Spring saw a flurry of activity—the download-only Of The Night EP was released via their website on Valentine’s day (containing songs entitled “Bad Boyfriend” and “She’s Evil” which had more in common with LCD Soundsystem and Monster Magnet than their previous strung-out jazzified-Beatles aesthetic), and From the Cliffs, a mini-album collecting tracks from I Saw Such Things... and “Trains to Brazil” (including b-side and live favourite “Go Away,” an eight-minute shouty-krauty-psychopath-party tune) followed at the start of March, with “We’re Here” at the end of the month, before a tour through April and May.
On the single version of "We're Here" there was a little piano tinkle during the intro that reminded me of another song, but it has gone from the album version. What did it remind me of, do you think?
Um. I don't know. Probably a Nivea advert or something. The album version's mastered better anyroad. KIDS! MASTERING CAN RUIN YOUR RECORD IF IT'S DONE WRONG! TAKE HEED!”
Some music journalists seem to think that Guillemots sound like Keane and have an unpronounceable name. I received the Keane album on the same day as Through the Window Pane and I can tell you that they come from different universes, to the extent that Guillemots seem to me to be the perfect antidote to the scared mediocrity that the likes of Keane peddle as music. As for the name—it’s pronounced Gill-ee-mots, and is a type of seabird). Some music journalists also seem to think that Through the Window Pane is overblown and indulgent. They’re wrong. Some music fans think that too; but they’re generally the kind of music fans who think that music starts and stops with The Stone Roses and anyone else with the same haircut and an adjacent postcode. Great music doesn’t sound great because it comes from a particular area of the country. Great music sounds great because it seems like it comes from outer space.
Who do you feel your contemporaries are?
Well, anyone trying to push the boat out a wee bit really… and our friends, I guess… and a lot of physically dead people…
Guillemots are great because they aren’t afraid. Too many bands (too many of my favorite bands) are so fearful of looking ridiculous that they never seem to go that one last creative step, that extra mile, where you end up either ridiculous or genius. Instead everyone plumps for sounding like U2 instead.
How do you feel being described as ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’ or ‘eccentric’?
It does somewhat create the impression that we run around in clown's costumes and stuff—I think if anybody tries to do anything different these days they get the same label. It's hard to convince people of this, but when we use, say, paperclips inside a piano, we don't do it because we think people will think we're ker-azee—we do it because it sounds good. That's not to say it's not amusing, because it can be, but the main priority is the music. If you do things like that in ‘high art’ music, you're revered, but if you try to do in ‘pop’ music these days you get ridiculed a bit.
Bjork's a classic example. She probably didn't help herself by releasing "It's Oh So Quiet" as a single, but still, her music's one of the most vibrant, inventive, original, and beautiful things you could ever hope to hear. But because she tends to have unusual ideas about the way pop music could sound, and because in one song she decided to dance around like a loony, she's kind of acquired that label as ‘an eccentric’ and the British press, at least, will probably never allow her to lose it. I think pop music's very unimaginative at the moment, on the whole, and anyone who tries to do anything remotely different gets called zany or something. It's just funny how things go in circles. What's described as ‘surrealism’ in one era, and regarded as high art, can be dismissed as wacky and throwaway in another. I think at the moment, people are very self-conscious and maybe a bit afraid to do things that are different, due to the risk they may seem uncool… but that will hopefully change… there is always hope!
I’ve been in love with Guillemots since I first heard “Made Up Love Song #43” late last summer, and it’s an affection that’s not about to abate. I saw them live last winter in a room above a pub in a riverside backstreet in Bristol with maybe 80 other people, the band a glorious, ramshackle, clattering mess of melody and dissonance and charm and parping brass explosions. Someone in the audience called out for “Cats Eyes,” a track from their debut EP, prompting Aristazabal to mutter “fuck off!” and laugh when Fyfe played the opening chords (presumably because it both calls on Arista to sing lead at one point, and also sounds as if it wouldn’t be the easiest song to reproduce live).
Does it demean the efforts of the creative process if people assume that in order to be inventive one must also be loaded on drugs / ‘divinely inspired’? Because that really pisses me off.
Yeah, that annoys me too. "What drugs are you taking?!" Look at someone like Messaien. A devout Catholic, totally straight lifestyle from what I've heard, and yet he wrote some of the most outlandish music… drugs can be amazing but personally I'm too much of a control freak to ever go too far with them. Well, I say that, give me a few years and I might be squatting with Pete Doherty. But with alcohol, say, I drink more or less every night, but don't really enjoy getting drunk. I like the looseness you can find with certain drugs, but after a while I just end up wanting to be sober again.
All drugs do is get you in touch with certain parts of your brain, and you can get in touch with them without touching anything herbal or chemical. I think people rely on drugs far too much, really...fun as they can be… it's much more exciting when you sort of feel giddy on just life itself… or love, or whatever it might be…
I saw Guillemots a second time in May, in Bristol once again but at a larger venue that holds 300+ people, and they were tighter, more experienced and controlled, but just as unpredictable and inspired (typewriters as instruments, equipment failure that may or may not have been staged to add drama). I’ll be seeing them again whenever I get the chance, and there aren’t many bands I’d say that about.
What is a genius?
I have no idea. Probably a gross egotist.
Which albums from the last year have you loved?
Joan as Police Woman - Real Life, Mara Carlyle - The Lovely, Ray Lamontagne - whatever his album's called, Paul McCartney - Chaos and Creation in the Backyard… Richard Burke - The Wintered Sea… the M.I.A. one - I'm looking forward to hearing The Noisettes debut album too… and probably a million others I've forgotten…
It’s been said many times that all great music is a reaction to that which came before it. I’m not sure if that’s true or even if it only works on a macro-cultural scale (can music be great by reacting to micro-cosmic precedents?—of course it can), but whether it is or it isn’t the case, punk’s got a lot to answer for. Not just the spitting and snarling and safety pins and volume—the philosophy of it, the idea that anyone can be in a band if they just pick up an instrument, that all you need in order to write a song is something worth “expressing.” It’s not a bad idea in itself, but people need to realise that as well as something to express, you also need a worthwhile way of expressing it.
There’s noticeably little overuse of dynamic range compression on your album, a recording/mixing/mastering technique that I personally believe to be the scourge of modern music—was this a conscious decision?
HA! YES! We spent ages on the mastering of this record, with a guy called Doug who worked very patiently and lovingly on the task… everyone seems to want their record to sound as rocky and loud as possible these days—we all wanted it to sound warm and subtle and to have quiets and louds within the songs, rather than trying to iron out these so-called "imperfections"… I think generally people almost mix and master their records so that they sound good on the radio now. And important as radio is, when you're making a record, I think the priority should be that it sounds good on a nice stereo, where you can sit down and listen to it… and hopefully drift off…
I blame Warhol too, for encouraging everyone to want to be famous, even if only briefly, rather than encouraging them to want to be brilliant. The net result is musicians (and footballers and journalists) who seem to think it’s their job to be a celebrity first and foremost rather than a musician or a footballer or a journalist. Tie in pop’s obsession with artifice and spectacle to the desire for fame, and the idea that anything is worth expressing no matter how banal, and you get the illusion of dour sincerity as entertainment, as art. Factor in big business, and you get… well, just look at the album charts and VH1.
What’s your favourite wine? I like a nice Campo Veijo Rioja Reserva myself. The 95 was particularly good but is as rare as hen's teeth and twice as dear now.
Well, ever since I heard that John Peel always favoured Rioja, I've tended to do the same. He is much missed. The one I'm glugging at the moment isn't bad actually. A cheap Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Whatever. I'm no expert. It's all grape juice gone stale really.
The point is that I might die tomorrow, and I can't afford to have Morning Runner or Kaiser Chiefs in my life, if that’s the case. In an increasingly conservative world where music fans are brain-fucked into homogeneity by MTV from infancy, Guillemots offer something genuinely special. They’ve managed to make, in Through the Window Pane, one of the key albums of the burgeoning new century, a record that stands alongside XTRMNTR, Wind in the Wires, Awfully Deep, Kid A and a precious handful of others as a document of what British music in the noughties is actually capable of when it stops worrying about marketing demographics and illusions of cool.
What's the best album ever?
Is this where I'm supposed to say ‘OURS, MAN’? I have no idea. There are a million of the things.
And one last question...
How many fibres are intertwined on a Shredded Wheat biscuit?
None once milk gets involved.
Stylus Review of Through the Window Pane
Guillemots Official Site
Guillemots on MySpace
Fantastic Plastic Records