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Books About Cities
Interview for Maps Magazine
By Ian Viggars
Last year’s 'Season of False Dawns', the Sailplanes' brilliant mini-album, revealed an unsigned London based band that sounded refreshingly distinctive and fully-formed. Thankfully their new EP, 'Books about Cities', offers more of the same frantic but melancholy art-rock, albeit art-rock in the older sense of the
term- less the cartoonish posing of Franz and dullness of Bloc Party, more the genuinely pioneering spirit of Sleater-Kinney, Swells Maps, and Electrelane. 'Sideways On', 'Doom One', and the title track offer a thrilling combination of splintered guitars and urgent, yelped vocals, with added swathes of screeching
electronic frequencies, while 'Black Cheroot' is a blistering instrumental that incorporates a Nick Cave passage at the end (but more on that later). In short, it’s brilliant, and represents the Sailplanes as being fully in control of their incendiary musical vision. Therefore Maps interviewed Tim Webster (guitar, vocals), Stacy Hine (guitar, vocals) and Ady Batty (drums) of the band to find out more about the new EP, and about their trajectory so far.
A striking aspect about the Sailplanes' music is their remarkable gelling of disparate elements. Technically accomplished but never muso, Tim and Stacey’s twin guitar assaults skip beautifully between reflective melody and punishing noise, freeform expression and focused aggression, making a mockery of so many three-chord-wonder bands and rendering the idea of a bass guitarist redundant. Ady’s subtle yet propulsive drumming completes the unique musical telepathy the Sailplanes seem to share, a factor the
band ascribe to their unique roots.
Tim: I’d had it with being in bands with friends and acquaintances who share only a couple of influences- band-mates chosen from a limited pool of people originally thrown together by school cliques - once you get to your mid-twenties people have a different outlook, have drifted apart and generally take each other for granted. These are not good people to be in bands with, so I made a conscious decision to break away from all that. I applied to an advert Stacey posted in December 2004, we met up and
surprisingly got on. Stacey has similarly dry humour, a sense of injustice about chart indie, and importantly doesn’t put up with me being bossy. That and the fact she’s also a great guitar player. I think Ady joined last March, and it’s nice to have a drummer who doesn’t play the same damn boom-tish rhythms to every song - something a bit more inventive. We’ve been together for about a year. Our first show was at the end of June.
Stacey: Yeah, we didn’t have enough time to think up an exciting story. From my point of view, I was fortunate to meet two guys with similar tastes and the right attitude and thoughts as to what sound we wanted to go for. Creating three chord songs wasn’t our intention, I really like the fact that Tim’s willing to experiment and he certainly pushes me to think more about my parts. The fact that we don’t have a bass player, as a band, means there’s more thought in what parts are needed without resorting to bar chord fillers. Many bands certainly prove that it’s possible to have a full sound without bass; it works for us I think. Ady’s approach to drumming is certainly quite jazzy and gives us a fuller sound.
Ady: I was looking to meet people who like drumming to be an integral part of the music and not just a backdrop! Drumming for The Sailplanes I get a lot of freedom and a chance to be creative.
Although myself and many other fanzine writers have tried, the band’s unconventional sound is initially hard to pin down, so I asked them if there are there any bands or musicians that they collectively cite as an influence.
Tim: Grant Hart has always been a big influence on me personally, and is the reason that as much as I love noise, it’ll always gravitate back to beauty and melody. Lots of significant moments of my life have been set to 'No Promise Have I Made' and 'Keep Hanging On'. I tried to tell the guy how much his music meant to me the last time he played in London, but he seemed more intent on hitting on me. I can reel off some other bands that I think inform our sound: Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Electrelane, Kinski, Explosions. I don’t like many English bands. We initially bonded over Electrelane and Einsturzende Neubauten - those were the first bands Stacey and I saw together, although all three of us were at SY’s last London show, unbeknownst to each other.
Stacey: I like a strong melody that has sudden changes and noisier/ abrasive parts, I’ve recently been in awe of bands like The Swell Maps, Jackie O Motherfucker and Hangedup they manage to create something so catchy yet turn it around, mix it all up and yet it still flows. Collectively, I would say
the initial bond was Sleater-Kinney, Electrelane and Sonic Youth.
Ady: I have a big drumming influence for drumming for The Sailplanes: Steve Shelley. Other bands I like are My Bloody Valentine,Mogwai and Stereolab.
As encouragingly eclectic as their tastes may be, there is a certain name that crops up more regularly than others in the Sailplanes’ press, those godparents of New York art-punk, Sonic Youth. I asked the band how they felt about this.
Tim: Flattered at first, but I think it’s a bit too easy a comparison to make, because we only bring certain SY elements into our music. They’re an awesome band, and one I think still have much to offer, but we bring in our own influences and really have more epic, post-rock leanings…. Well, epic within the confines of very short songs.
Stacey: Yeah it is flattering, we use a lot of distortion and alternate vocal duties, and I guess it’s easy to pick Sonic Youth out of the hat.
Ady: I love Sonic Youth and being compared to them can only be a good thing, even if it is a bit of a linear comparison.
Whilst they are often quite abstract, a lot of The Sailplanes' lyrics (and indeed their artwork) brings to mind imagery of city life (like the title track of the 'Books About Cities' EP). With this in mind I asked if there were any unifying themes to the songs, or anything in particular that spurs on the lyric writing process.
Tim: Well initially I’d write abstract lyrics so people close to me couldn’t work out a particular song was about them, but I’d know, and that seemed to be what was important. But now I like it as I’m not tying people’s interpretations of a song to specific events in my life. I don’t like to give too much away really. There is a broader theme in songs like 'Indifference' and 'Books About Cities' of feeling completely insignificant in the city, impotently trying to make an impact on the world around you, some sort of artistic mark so you’ll be remembered in five years time. I genuinely like London, but I collect picture books of European cities- Stockholm, Berlin, Warsaw etc - all from the fifties to the early eighties. So I flick through them and get this kind of irreconcilable wanderlust for an idealised vision of a modern urban life that really doesn’t exist, now or then.
Perhaps this is why to me some of the Sailplanes’ lyrics often sound somewhat bleak- “Moving without meaning… what do you do when you find that it doesn’t last long?” from 'Sideways On', and “wasted years and faded memories” from 'Book about Cities' are two examples from the new EP. However the epic accompanying music often seems quite hopeful as a contrast. I asked the band if this was a fair assessment.
Stacey: Yeah we’re a happy bunch, aren’t we? I think it’s easier to write when you’re feeling melancholy. Bleak is very apt and there’s plenty of shit things to write about. I like to look at people and create characters and write from their perspective. Mental Illness, despair and broken promises are current themes for my lyrical content.
Tim: There’s this Grant Hart song, 'The Main' that sounds like a sea shanty about heroin abuse. It’s a cheery sing-along yet it works perfectly. No-one really likes music that mopes. There’s atmospheric then there’s dingy. I hope we get the balance right.
One of the more stylistically interesting tracks on the 'Books About Cities' EP is 'Black Cheroot'. It starts as a frenetically paced instrumental that builds to a thrilling climax 3 minutes and 10 seconds later at which point, as if collapsing under it’s own careering energy, the song segues into a hushed campfire style reading of a passage by Nick Cave, which Tim explained to me.
Tim: It’s taken from 'John Finn’s Wife'. I fucking love Nick Cave, grew up listening to him alongside American noise thanks to my mother’s record collection. Blixa Bargeld as well. 'John Finn’s Wife', especially the live version, builds to this dark claustrophobic melee, violent, sweaty and sexual. It’s the same ritual that goes on in every club in the country on the weekend, not just the American badlands of Cave’s imagination. I wanted to evoke that in an instrumental, a kind of homage, but without quoting
directly for most of the song. The title ‘Black Cheroot’ is pinched from a lyric.
Ideally we’d re-record this at some point with accordion and viola (that’s
how I always hear it in my head).
“Dancers writhed and squirmed and then,
Came apart and then writhed again
Like squirming flies on a pin
In the heat and in the din”
The new EP and last years mini-album were both recorded at Soup Studios by Simon Trought, and both have a sound that retains the energy of live performance with the depth of an ambitious band let loose in a recording studio. I asked the Sailplanes what their recording process was generally like.
Stacey: We like working with Simon, he’s worked with a favourite of ours Comet Gain. It’s a nice chilled atmosphere he listens to what we’re looking for. We record together live, we don’t fuss with overdubbing. It’s always rough around the edges which, I think pretty much represents what we’re like live. Ideally, in the future when we have more time and money, we would like to add additional instruments such as cello and xylophone.
The Sailplanes regularly gig around their hometown of London, but as I’m sadly yet to experience it, I asked them to describe their live show to me.
Tim: I could lie and say our live shows always go according to plan, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. Because of our make-up (plenty of distortion, twin guitars, no bass) we’re susceptible to sounding like a raging wall of fuzz with mysteriously mumbled vocals, all depending on the venue and who’s doing the sound. I can see why bands like Pretty Girls Make Graves take their own engineer everywhere - it’s something we’d be wise to consider. Visually, we look at our instruments too much because we play so
many notes, we don’t dance because we’re not dancers, although I will rock myself backwards and forwards in a bewildered daze on occasion. We’ve played some great shows, and we’ve played some where the sound has let us down. We never play shows drunk or loaded, so… um, you can’t blame
Stacey: Someone referred to us as having ant like energy which I think true.
Musically we come across as nervy. Most of the time we can’t hear each
other or the sound guy has a fit as soon as Tim hits all his pedals on. Each
gig varies from one extreme to the other, which is a shame as I don’t find the time to think of a good rock pose, I tend to go for the rigid stance, Peter Hook’s attempt at the splits makes me think I’ve chosen the better option.
Ady: playing live is sometimes a onerous task especially when we have to arrive early for a cursory sound check that doesn't really do any good, and wait about all night to play 20 mins to the ten people who haven’t been bored to death by the previous bands...on the certain nights that everything goes well, we sound good, and get the audience appreciation we deserve... it makes it all worth it.
Possible due to idiosyncratic sound and set up, the Sailplanes don’t feel that they’re a part of any particular movement or ‘scene’ (which is probably a good thing), as they expressed when I asked if they felt an affinity with any of the other bands they encounter or play with in London.
Tim: I’m not sure it’s an affinity, more empathy in an almost resigned “we’re
all in the same boat” kinda way. I like The Swear, and they’re cool, friendly
guys (and girl). Unlike that band though, we don’t feel part of any geographic
scene, coming from severely unmusical districts like Crouch End. To be
honest we get a bit of bitchiness from some groups we come into contact
and play with. Like, I think that we’re too noisy for the melodic rock and teen-
girl crowd, and too song-based and structured for some of the archly
pretentious post-rock crowd who can, to be fair, suck my dick.
Stacey: Yeah, The Swear are really friendly, and it’s not very often that you
get other bands that chat or acknowledge you. As Tim said, we rarely are on
a bill where we fit in with a certain night.
I then asked how the band felt about the state of underground ‘alternative’
music in general. Do the Sailplanes feel encouraged by the other bands in
London, or do they feel that good, independent music is harder to find?
Tim: The criteria I judge bands on, and this might be unfair, is more about their intent, like “what would this band sound like if they were given enough studio time to produce the record they really want to make, perhaps something that’d get them played on XFM” I sometimes enjoy watching scrappy new-wavey type bands, but if they’d sound like The Strokes given half a chance and a recording budget, what’s the point? This band Nosferatu D2, played with us at the Buffalo Bar a few weeks ago, and were excellent. The intent and poetry in their songs was so good that even a big recording budget couldn’t ruin it. I think some of the best new music isn’t even coming out of London at the moment, it’s atmospheric post-rock stuff like What The Moon Is Like, The Exploits of Elaine, Orbit Dear Beacon all from the provinces.
The Sailplanes may be an unsigned band, but they’re one of the
most fully- formed, perfectly realised unsigned bands I’ve heard
in a long time. Encouragingly, they’re also ambitious and
confident, something that came across when I asked them what
their long-term goals were.
Tim: I’m a both a realist and a cynic, but I never want to have to
work in an office again and totally believe that our music is good
enough and interesting enough to support us financially in the
long term. I’m not doing this as a hobby or to make myself look
cool. Whoever would pay us to make the music we love without fucking
with it would be fine to us. We need money to record, but on past
experience we don’t need much money to take what we’ve recorded so far that step further. Ideally someone would release 'Books about Cities' in its current rough-around-the-edges form, because I’m very proud of those four songs, but if that doesn’t happen then our next EP could well be self-released.
Stacey: Ideally I would like to see the band develop and to be supported financially would be a bonus, we all would like someone to release our songs, but realistically so do a million other bands. I think we’re progressing well as a band, it would be nice if a label picked up our cd, indie or major, but I agree, I wouldn’t want the label to mess with our sound and what we want from the recording.
These last statements are the ones that reveal Sailplanes’ underlying quality and faultless attitude. On their current form it’s hard to imagine them remaining unsigned for too long, and it’s comforting to know that when that does happen they’ll be at pains to ensure that nothing will affect their passionate, incendiary, and uncompromising music. Although I hate to do this, perhaps another dreaded comparison is in order, however this time it’s not solely for the music- if anything, Sonic Youth are the band that have shown that it is possible without compromise to eke out a brilliantly creative and distinct musical path over an impressive number of decades, regardless of being funded by major label or independent money. If there’s any justice, we’ll be hearing the Sailplanes’ music for just as long a time.
www.thesailplanes.com / www.myspace.com/thesailplanes
Download 'I See You Walk' from The Sailplanes' first demo 'Swoosh'
Interview by Ian Viggars