Meet England’s most underrated rock band…
There’s no stopping Tellison. A variety of dream-busting health hazards have previously threatened their continuation - university, vast distances between members, the arrival and departure of record labels, the inevitably empty bank accounts that come with touring in a loyally loved but moderately obscure pop rock collective.
These things might be enough to end the music careers of most guitar-toting clever cloggs’, but not these ones. After nine years of playing together, the original Tellison line-up remains in tact, and they continue to play shows nationwide, professing their adoration for small venues and independent music as they go.
But with only two albums to show for nine year career, quality over quantity has rarely been taken quite so far. It was only last year that they released their sophomore full length, The Wages of Fear, and lead vocalist/guitarist Stephen Davidson admits that the process of writing and recording a follow-up to their brilliantly raw debut Contact! Contact! was a challenge.
"Our second record was a weird one," reflects the songwriter. "It’s a very complicated album. Obviously it’s a pop rock record, but there’s all these weird bits and weird things happening all the way through, because we were concentrating on trying to make it very clever. We got very worried that it was boring. We were just in this room together playing these songs through like ten times, and eventually we were like ‘I know how to do that now. That’s boring.’ We lost track of what it would be like for someone else to hear it for the first time."
Luckily, the band’s perfectionist approach paid off. The result was a momentous album that put Tellison back on the map, and The Wages of Fear became one of the most talked about independent releases in the UK. Keen to capitalise on this momentum, they’ve been touring ever since, whilst simultaneously writing a third album to make up for lost time. ‘We want to do it a lot faster, that’s the key notion”, Davidson explains. “We’ve taken so long with our past two records, and spending so long on something makes you go a bit mad; you lose sight of any kind of quality control which makes everything take ten times as long because you second guess everything. You end up being like ‘Is this snare drum ok? Is that snare hit at 58 seconds the snare hit that we want to have associated with us for the rest of our lives?’ That shit doesn’t matter, so we’ve been talking about recording in different ways. But we want to do it swifter, we want to make it fun.”
With rivaled chemistry in the live environment, it’s easy to believe that a band like Tellison could pull off another belter of an album simply by tracking it live, one option that Davidson considers “a definite possibility.” Rest assured, the new material will impress: at Truck Festival this year, the band showcased a new song that was bold in its simplicity and shone as a set highlight, even among a host of archive favourites. The lead singer’s musical influences reveal more of what the new stuff’s about:
"I’ve been listening to the Weakerthans, Greg MacPherson, Pedro the Lion, David Bazan… I think with this record we want a style of songwriting that’s not too highly wrought. We want to state our ideas honestly, straight up. That’s exciting for me.
"With this record, I’m just interested in writing great pop songs. That’s difficult, it’s hard. People often stick their noses up at it and decide to write songs in 8/15, write weird time signatures and weird shit just because that’s supposedly clever. I’m much more interested in writing songs that are in 4/4. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. But making it great.
"So many people have done that, and if you can do it well then it’s gonna be instinctive; people who are listening to it are gonna feel like they know it already. That’s what I want to do."
With the demoing process underway, expect big things from Tellison in 2013. For now, you can pay what you like for their cracking Christmas song, ‘Good Luck It’s Christmas.’ It’s available from tellison.bandcamp.com (where you can also check out the rest of the band’s back catalogue). All proceeds go to CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a charity dedicated to lowering suicide rates among young males in the UK. Have a heart and pay generously - good music + good ethics = good on you.
MUSIC: Lower Than Atlantis - Changing Tune
Easily one of the coolest bands to like in South England at the moment, Lower Than Atlantis really struck a (power) chord with new listeners last year when they released World Record, a cockily titled but cracking rock album that took the hardcore attack of previous effort Far Q, married it with basement-busting singalong choruses and took the rock scene by storm. Since then they’ve signed to a major label; this is supposed to be their Nevermind, a chance to take the signature aggro-rock sound they’ve mastered and blast it into the mainstream with the backing of real money and influence.
Certainly, Changing Tune is in keeping with the feedback-laden, grungey brand of melodic rock that LTA have made their signature. It’s a safe continuation for them, and a better produced interpretation of the sound tailored on World Record, most notable on single ‘Love Someone Else’ which contains an opening segment straight from the grave of Kurt Cobain and the double guitar assault last demonstrated on sophomore favourites ‘Deadliest Catch’ and ‘(Motor) Way Of Life’.
It’s not going to take the world by storm though, because the majority of the album isn’t this good. Almost as if the band plugged into their Marshalls, played with distortion pedals and big sounding riffs for a while, decided to re-record the whole thing in an expensive recording studio with a top notch producer and name it their difficult third album. Moments of genius shine through occasionally, undeniably: album closers ‘I Know A Song That Will Get On Your Nerves’ and ‘Showtime’ are two of the better ones, as if LTA want you to remember the good bits when it’s all said and done.
As a whole, though, Changing Tune is a disappointment when you consider its title: their tuning remains drop-D, and their status in the grand scheme of UK music doesn’t look like it’s changing much either.
MUSIC: Lucy Rose - Like I Used To
This tender-voiced singer-songwriter from London has proved with her debut album that she’s deserving of much more than a side-spot in a band that’s already made its niche in the British music industry.
Alongside the sentimental, lyrical focus you might expect, Lucy Rose manages to fit in a number of tracks on Like I Used To that feel more like the collaborative work of a band. Perhaps it’s the amount of time she’s spent on the road with Bombay Bicycle Club, one of our country’s most original talents in recent years, or her ethic of working with likeminded musicians in the recording process. Either way, numbers like ‘Red Face’, ‘Bikes’ and ‘Lines’ have a richness to them that goes beyond the territory of solo hollow-bodied strumming: drums boom with reverb, harmonies are multi-voiced.
Most of Lucy Rose’s music is still of the acoustically rendered variety, though (see ‘Middle of the Bed’, ‘Shiver’, ‘First’), a genre admittedly saturated by young, attractive women in thick-knit jumpers and a fringe. There’s always the argument that something very similar has been done before, that it lacks a certain stroke of uniqueness, but that argument is missing the point. Lucy has taken a beloved, tried and tested style back to its roots – somehow this is warmer, more welcoming and kinder to the everyday listener than the efforts of her contemporaries. Really, it’s definitive of how acoustic music should always be: recognisably honest and stripped of the pretension that seems to have spread like wood rot across fret boards worldwide.
Instead, listening to Like I Used To feels like an incredibly talented friend playing you songs about her life, being lucky enough to sit in her bedroom while she showcases her incredible talent and pushes some emotional weight out the door.
MUSIC: Tall Ships - Everything Touching
Tall Ships were once ‘the band that uses loop pedals a lot’. It may well be that they still are, given that there’s only three of them and that they can weave a hell of a sonic tapestry when they feel like it. This album, however, shows that they’re capable of far more than an overused live gimmick, expanding exponentially on their last release to include the elephant-crushing weight of leviathan stadium rock in their trademark math-infused sound. Newly refurbished ‘Ode To Ancestors’ is proof, taking a once middle of the road track and turning it into something altogether more memorable.
The entire album is a victorious progression for the band, but most memorable are bookends ‘T=0’ and ‘Murmurations.’ The former is the album’s lead single and a deafeningly awesome, perfectly executed album opener, whilst the latter begins inaudible and ends fucking gigantic, growing with every bar to produce a musical mammoth of anthemic proportions.
(This review was published in Issue #2 of Spires, available online here)
LIVE: Slam Dunk Wales (Featuring Taking Back Sunday, Motion City Soundtrack, Say Anything & More), Cardiff University, 28th May 2012
Various live events have endeavored to provide the UK with an alternative music line-up rivaling the stateside Vans Warped Tour, perhaps none more successfully than Slam Dunk. The festival, which hosts its two largest events in Hatfield and Leeds, has this year expanded to previously uncharted territory - namely Cardiff University’s Student Union, so that Welsh fans might receive their annual dose of summer pop punk. It’s certainly the weather for it.
Kicking off this evening’s affairs are Cardiff regulars Straight Lines. Although their catchy brand of Biffy-esque guitar-slamming has scored them big points within and beyond the competitive South Wales scene, tonight’s performance seems to lack any real spark, perhaps no thanks to the apathetic splatter of fans who arrive early enough to see them play.
Another local act, Save Your Breath, fare better in the smaller, downstairs room. Sauntering onstage to an unlikely choice of intro music (Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’), the band promptly explode into hardcore D-beats and gang vocals, scoring an impressive singalong for their opener ‘Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy.’ The rest of the set continues at much the same pace, reaffirming the Newport band’s place as strong contenders in the UK’s burgeoning pop punk revival.
Returning to main-stage, our first American import seem to have warmed up the troops considerably. Mixing modern pop leanings with devilish streaks of sex-driven classic rock and funk, The Audition easily win over the crowd, vocalist Danny Stevens charming the mostly underage audience with horny anecdotes and promiscuous gesturing. He’s got a decent voice, too, expertly leading the outfit through one of the most professional performances of the night.
It’s still a league below what comes next, though: Say Anything, whose touring presence in the UK has evidently been craved, attract the evening’s first mass audience. The Californian six-piece do not disappoint, opening with the anthemic ‘Belt’ and rousing fans into an impassioned chorus from the first lyric that slips past frontman Max Bemis’s razor tongue. Momentum only builds from here, and the band’s short set whirls by in a hurricane of genre-bending energy, elements of theatrical pomp, new wave and indie-pop working their way into an otherwise steadfast rock show. Closing numbers ‘Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too’ and ‘Alive With The Glory of Love’ are fitting finales that showcase both Bemis’s incredible showmanship and his band’s virtuoso tightness, setting an unreachable precedent for the following bands.
Indeed, Motion City Soundtrack fail to fill the boots of their predecessors. Theirs is an eccentric, hook-laden take on the pop punk genre, one that ordinarily ebbs and flows with dynamic edge, but that tonight feels more than a little muted. This is no thanks to the inaudible nature of their trademark Moog keyboard, leaving the synth-led likes of ‘Make Out Kids’, ‘Time Turned Fragile’ and ‘My Favorite Accident’ stunted and unsatisfying. Elsewhere, Justin Pierre’s singing fails to project upon the expectant crowd, dwarfed by the deafening treble-centric tones of guitarist Joshua Cain. Despite a diverse set-list containing multiple crowd pleasers, there are only a few moments of real excitement here: first shining through mid-set in the form of new single ‘True Romance’ and returning for the double-headed crescendo of ‘Everything Is Alright’ and ‘The Future Freaks Me Out’, thankfully ending the performance with some much-needed zeal.
The headliners are up next, and after a tedious forty-minute void, Taking Back Sunday emerge on to an instrument-strewn stage. They prove themselves to be worth the wait, bursting immediately into two album-openers - first the aggressive ‘El Paso’ from their latest self-titled effort, followed by ‘You Know How I Do’, the leading track from now-legendary debut album Tell All Your Friends. It’s a significant introduction, given that the band’s newest additions (guitarist/singer John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper) feature in both of the original recordings: between numerous line-up changes, side-projects and album releases, the band now stood before us are the original, reunited members of TBS that formed early-millennium in Long Island, New York - albeit with a decade more playing experience.
It shows. The band rampage through a diverse range of material, spanning their five albums (although curiously skipping past New Again). Of particular prominence are songs from Tell All Your Friends - clearly the band wish to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of their first album, and the nostalgic audience aren’t complaining, with the surprise inclusions of ‘Timberwolves at New Jersey’, ‘You’re So Last Summer’ and ‘There’s No “I” in Team’ proving set highlights. Although notoriously unpredictable in the live environment, frontman Adam Lazzara owns the stage tonight; his trademark mic-swinging antics remain secondary to a consistent vocal performance. This is no more evident than in the last song of the evening, emo classic ‘MakeDamnSure’ - if you can hear it over the audience’s thunderous approval.
MUSIC: Motion City Soundtrack - Go
Motion City Soundtrack have certainly earned their reputation as a tour-de-force in alternative music. The feats of playing extensively worldwide, releasing numerous critically-acclaimed LPs under the legendary punk rock label Epitaph and even starting their own record company (The Boombox Generation) warrant plaid-ribboned medals of honour, proving the band’s veteran status in contemporary music. All of this is coupled with a fiercely loyal fanbase, who have eagerly awaited new material ever since the release of their 2010 full-length, My Dinosaur Life.
Its follow-up, Go, should certainly please those hoping for an album as consistent as its predecessors. Each track here follows the formula that MCS have come to be recognised for: the foundations of crisp, clean rhythm guitar and infectious pop sensibility are constructed around vocalist Justin Pierre’s trademark tones, with distortion and vintage Moog sounds joining the sonic structure on most occasions (for a stellar example, see the album’s lead single, ‘True Romance’). This is a style that was first pioneered on the band’s mainstream breakthrough Commit This To Memory: clearly pleased with the success it brought them, they’ve stuck with it ever since.
And therein lies the problem. Releasing a couple of safe, listenable albums prior to now has kept the band afloat, whilst eccentric live performances, culture-savvy lyrics and a distinctive vocal style mark them out from their denim-clad peers. But idiosyncrasies will only get you so far, and there’s nothing particularly new or exciting on Go to freshen up this increasingly stale recipe. ‘The Coma Kid’ is catchy indeed, but would also have been at home on the previous album, whilst the likeable-enough likes of ‘Timelines’ and ‘Floating Down The River’ might have been substituted for songs on Even If It Kills Me. In fact, whilst scouring the archive, MCS would have been better off taking some personal inspiration from their unhinged debut I Am The Movie; its stompbox-heavy mentality could have introduced some gutsy guitar-work to the otherwise neutral flavours that begin to sour around the mid-album mark.
Quite simply, this Minnesota five-piece seem to have lost their ability to write stand-out tracks, the kind you might have previously shown your friends as a convincing argument that pop punk isn’t dying. One can’t shake the feeling that by their fifth album, a band of Motion City’s calibur should be taking more risks than this - when ‘not bad’ becomes the norm, perhaps it’s time to shake things up. They haven’t done that, and the result is an album that’s about as exciting as its sepia-toned, Instagram-esque album cover: pleasant enough, but depressingly overdone.
INTERVIEW: Said The Whale
As Said The Whale invite their Welsh fans to share a final post-tour drink before heading home to Vancouver, I take the chance to speak with singer-guitarist Ben Worcester about his band’s experiences on British soil, as well the overwhelmingly positive reception to their latest full-length, Little Mountain.
Stood outside the venue in Cardiff with a pint and a smile, there’s no questioning that Ben Worcester is a musician who’s passionate about what he does. Still, there’s a way to go before his band will find itself playing larger venues than this in the UK. ‘Playing over here is so much fun, but if putting in the hard work and touring your ass off constantly counts for something, we’ve got a few more years of coming here before the shows are comparable to Canada. We’re only just starting to tour in the United States and the UK. After five or six years touring back home, it’s neat to branch out, go elsewhere and start again. The only difference is that instead of starting from square one, we’re starting with 300 shows under our belt. That makes things a little easier for us!’
Judging by tonight’s reception, Little Mountain has made a lasting impression on fans. ‘It’s amazing,’ Ben enthuses. ‘When you release a new record you really hope that people are going to enjoy it and appreciate it in the same way that they might have appreciated past albums. So far we’ve seen people singing along to all the new songs as much as the old ones. Everyone’s got their favourite and usually they’re all different.
'I feel like we’re having a lot of fun playing the new material. That’s great, because it’s still new to us; it’s fresh and we’re having fun.’
Now on album number three, Said The Whale decided to take a refreshingly different approach to music promotion: filming a music video for every number on the record and independently uploading them online. With each video providing its own unique perspective on the track at hand, what inspired the band to commit themselves to such an artistically challenging project?
‘We have some pretty huge influences back home in our little circle of musician friends – our good friends in We Are The City created a video for each of the six songs that are on their EP, High School. Their videos coincided to make one story – ours are all kind of separate, but we were just looking for an opportunity to work with the same producers, who call themselves ‘Amazing Factory.’ They filmed all of the videos and worked with us to get ideas and brainstorm before setting off and recording them.
‘Of all of them, my favourite is probably the video for ‘Big Sky, MT’, which really reminds me of the personal story that I was telling in that song, interpreted through someone else’s eyes. To see it acted out in a video by strangers who still manage to get the intended message across was quite beautiful.’
In actual fact, the video’s have proved more than sentimentally rewarding: it’s evident that their viral presence on the Internet has really paid off for the band. As music-listeners make the transition from the ashes of MySpace to YouTube, these online videos provide a means for fans worldwide to listen for free and spread the word about new material, helping to bring additional punters through the door each night. Ben concurs: ‘These days people go to YouTube to listen to music, so instead of looking at a photograph or a screencap it’s cool that there’s an actual video to go along with each song.’
The success that comes with being able to tour internationally means that Said The Whale have taken the vital step of quitting their day-jobs, but Ben stresses that the decadence of rock ‘n’ roll stardom is some way off yet. ‘Having a steady income would be amazing, but we don’t have enough time to have jobs. I guess that means we’ve achieved our first goal of playing music full-time – when we are home, it’s usually just for a few weeks at a time, so it would be unfair to any employer to ask them for a job only to take off straight away and leave them hanging. We’re lucky in that way, but none of us are at all wealthy. We still feel like we’re working when we’re on tour.’
Having visited the UK a few times, will the Whales be returning again? ‘We’d love to come back soon. Last time we were here we did the same thing: fourteen days, twelve shows. It’s good to just blast around and play in different places every night, but this time we managed to hit mostly new cities that we had never been to, so we’re not overlapping yet.
‘It makes me curious for next time when we do overlap, to see who comes back, who brings their friends and if the crowd grows. Even small shows prove worthwhile when you tour: if ten people were there, maybe next time there’ll be fifteen or twenty, the time after maybe thirty or fourty – crowds tends to keep growing the more you play. We didn’t really get to see if that worked on this tour, but it was cool to meet new friends and see new places, and we hope to revisit those same places next time around!’
After a performance like tonight’s, it’s no wonder Ben and his band plan to spread their empire to our shores. Post-gig, we raise a glass to their successful British voyage, and the many that are likely to follow.
LIVE: Said The Whale, Buffalo Bar, 20th May 2012
Cardiff’s Buffalo Bar feels distinctly Canadian tonight – the usual dominance of singsong Welsh accents has been replaced by yodelling yokel tones of the Great White North. Discussions at the bar include the rare joy of seeing a mountain lion on the highway and how easy it is to drive from Scotland to Manchester, compared to the epic commute between Vancouver, British Columbia and Regina, Saskatchewan.
The reason behind all this Canuckery is that Said The Whale, one of the brightest hopes for Canada’s burgeoning indie-music scene, are in town on the last date of their UK tour. Preceding them are their national brethren Library Voices, a tom-thumping, booty-shaking hybridisation of retro rock and analogue synth noises. Their dynamic, sax-infused sound goes down fantastically with the modest crowd, some feat considering their musical differences with the headliners.
As Said The Whale take to the stage, though, they make the transition seamless – the distorted bass sounds and razor sharp keyboards of opener ‘Heavy Ceiling’ build an easily crossed bridge towards their own distinctive but varied take on indie music. They continue to weave fluidly between catchy powerpop (‘Loveless’, ‘Camilo’), acoustic-driven folk (‘False Creek Change’, ‘Big Sky, MT’) and balls-to-the-walls alt-rock (‘We Are 1980’, ‘New Brighton’).
It’s a testament to the band’s tightness that such a mishmash of genre-traits works to their favour. Co-frontmen Tyler Bancroft and Ben Worcester keep things fresh by trading off on vocal duties throughout the set – specialising in infectious contemporary jams and introspective folk serenades respectively. Both provide curious lyrical anecdotes and genuine gratitude to the small audience that came out to support them.
Revelling in an encore, the band mix things up even further by letting drummer Spencer Schoening take centre-stage to sing the beautifully succinct piano ballad ‘Seasons’. This is followed by a fan request – ‘Out on the Shield’ – before the band kill the PA for the finale: an unexpected, unamplified performance of maritime lament ‘Curse of the Currents.’ It makes for a hauntingly memorable closer to a beautifully crafted performance, one that the delighted viewership will doubtless tell their friends about for the next time Said The Whale visit our fair country.