It's been two years since we first paid compliments to Oxford quartet This Town Needs Guns' excellent brand of emo-math-pop-whatever wizardry (review). Since then, they’ve released another single (review), a split LP with Cats and Cats and Cats (review), played the DiScover club twice, and have toured extensively with the likes of other UK rock hopefuls like Rolo Tomassi, Meet Me In St Louis (R.I.P) and I Was A Cub Scout (R.I.P).
Now, on the verge of the release of their debut album proper, Animals, we catch up with This Town Needs Guns via the ways of electronic mail to discuss popularity, illegal downloading, and working for the man 9 ‘til 5. For those yet to hear This Town Needs Guns: read, discover, and listen to their myspace at the bottom of this article.
It's been almost two years since your début single was released, how do you think you've progressed musically since that release? From listening to Animals, it sounds like you've ditched the heavy guitars and big build ups for good...
Since the first single we've changed a lot. Not least as the result of losing two members of the band since then. I think things really stepped up when Chris joined on drums. He pushed us all to be a bit more ambitious with what we were already doing. We've become a lot more 'tech' since the first release, but I like to think that we still write songs that we enjoy listening to as much as we enjoy playing. We all share a fondness for music that is technical whilst also retaining a soft spot for a good tune. I think this is reflected in the type of music we write. We've always tried to push our own musical abilities and try out new styles. If we didn't feel as though we were progressing as a band I don't think we would continue. Being in a DIY band is to hard to do unless you enjoy simply playing the music that you make. I would've given up a long time ago if I wasn't being challenged musically by the other members of the band. With the album, we wanted to try new things out. I think we all realised that using distortion to bash out some chords for an 'epic' ending simply wouldn't cut it any more. We all wanted to experiment and try to use techniques that were new to us. Sometimes it worked and sometimes we ended up with something entirely different from what we had set out to achieve. I don't think there was a conscious decision made to ban distortion, it just never seemed to fit with the style we had grown into.
So where do you feel your style fits in to the current UK music scene? As with many Big Scary Monsters-affiliated acts, you seem to be receiving equal love from both the popular indie and rock publications where before your fan base might have been more marginal.
It's a bit awkward really. Musically I don't think we really fit in with any existing scene/genre. I've seen the term 'math-pop' being bandied around various internet forums and write ups recently. It's not an altogether bad description of the kind of music we write, but then I wouldn't feel entirely comfortable being compared to some of the other acts with the tag. That being said, bands like Foals and Battles are at least making the term 'math' popular, and sparking interest in a style of music that has largely been marginalised since it's inception. So the popularity of our music and that of other 'math' bands is most likely down to timing and luck as much as anything else. At present there doesn't seem to be the same emphasis on what 'type' of music we play, as people are increasingly becoming more open to different styles of music, which I find really encouraging. One of the best tours we've done was earlier this year when we played a bunch of dates with I Was A Cub Scout and Rolo Tomassi. A varied line-up I'm sure most would agree, but it didn't seem to matter to anyone who came to the gigs. The people that were there were just fans of music and musicianship, most were happy listening to all of the acts that played. Some of the bands we feel closest to as people (Jonquil, Dartz, Hreda, Pennines, IWACS and RT) share little with us in musical style (with the exception of Pennines), but we love those guys as both musicians and friends. So if that can be regarded as a scene then I suppose that's where we’re at.
Video: '26 Is Dancier Than 4'
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You say your music's been described as 'math-pop', but do you ever see yourself going the way of Foals who play out the 'pop' element more for commercial success?
I think we're all strong believers in the attitude of "never say never". However, I don't think that we would ever make a conscious decision to make music that we didn't like purely so we could shift some units. If on the other hand (as in the case with Foals) we enjoyed what we were playing and that had some kind of mass appeal, then that would be quite the happy coincidence. First and foremost I think we try to push each other as musicians, without that challenge I don't think we'd bother continuing. I think we're quite fortunate in that we all have a soft spot for a nice melody and a tune, so at least there is a chance that we might appeal to a wider audience. Who knows? The last thing we worry about when we're writing a song is whether it will appeal to others. Decisions on structure and progression always begin with us doing what we want and perhaps not what is expected.
So who are your main influences? I'm guessing some of the Tim Kinsella-affiliated acts have inspired your sound in some way?
Well it's no secret that we've been inspired by various Kinsella related projects, namely; Owls, American Football and Make Believe. The whole Chicago scene is a wealth of inspiration. Bands like Joan of Arc, Birthmark, Maps & Atlases, Collossal, Anathallo, Russian Circles and Them Roaring Twenties have all had regular spins in our various CD players. It's amusing at times to read other peoples opinions on this though. We get a bit of stick from time to time and are accused of ripping off our influences, where as none of us really think we ape any one bands style. I think we have our own sound that encompasses elements of our influences as well as injecting something of ourselves. No-one wants to listen to rip offs of other acts and if we thought we were doing that then I'm sure we wouldn't bother recording and touring. There just wouldn't be any point. Fortunately for every 1 person that says we're ripping off American Football, there's a whole bunch of people that disagree and share the same opinion that we do. The old adage is true; "You'll never please everyone", so we try to please ourselves, so far it appears to have been enough for most people.
Do you think you're a gateway band for people that haven't heard American Football, Owls etc....? Maybe my perspective is all-wrong, but these bands are still relatively unheard of over here.
I suppose so. I know this has certainly been the case with some people. I've definitely read of a few people who began listening to us and then started checking out our influences. I think we're all pretty pleased with that though. They're all great bands and if we can get people interested in listening to them then all the better. Personally I started listening to Ghosts and Vodka first, it was years before I listened to anything else Kinsella related. It was when I listened to Andy, Glenn and Ritch, The Jesus Years and The Little Explorer and I found out their influences that I started to get really excited about American Football, Owls and subsequently JoA and Make Believe. I suppose it brings us back to your previous question about influences. When I listened to all the Kinsella stuff, it didn't make me think any less of those British acts that inspired me in the first place. It just meant there was a bunch of other bands material that I could listen to and enjoy.
Video: 'And I'll Tell You For Why' - live on City Centre Social
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How do you manage the work/gig balance? Certainly, with a few other UK bands I've spoken to, it's hard to tour with work commitments getting in the way. I imagine you're getting a lot more gig offers these days...
We all deal/don't deal with it in different ways. In the past we've all just finished work and bombed it up/down whatever motorway we need to get on so we can play the gig. Most people who have been to see us in the past will most likely have noticed us walking through the door with moments to spare before we're supposed to go on and play. It isn't ideal, but then it was either that or we just don't gig at all. Most promoters are pretty understanding so long as we let them know in advance that we won't exactly be able to get there and sound check at 4 in the afternoon or something. Usually a line-check is all that is required anyway. Seeing as this year has been a bit quiet on the gig front thanks to spending most of it in the studio writing/recording, I now have enough accumulated holiday to do a few tours at the end of the year. Tim is now a qualified primary school teacher, so he is going to be working supply in between tours. Chris is a librarian, I think he is going to go on unpaid leave quite a bit and Jamie is 'between jobs' so he's happy to tour whenever. It's pretty tough holding down a full-time job and touring, but it can be done so long as you have a pretty understanding employer.... that and a very understanding girlfriend, when you inform her that you can't go away for a few weeks again this year because you need to save your holiday for touring.
Do you see This Town Needs Guns as a long-term commitment? What ambitions do you have for the band?
I think there is a commitment from everyone to keep going for as long as we enjoy the music and playing gigs. I think we've got our priorities in order. Family comes first and I think if our personal relationships with family members were to suffer then we would stop/take a break. Our bass player Dan left the band recently after becoming a dad. It was sad, but when it comes to something like that you can't really dedicate the time to touring/rehearsing anymore.
Back to Animals then, your debut album - are you pleased with how it's turned out?
I think we're all really happy with how it came out. Obviously it would've been nice to have more time, but that would've required more money that we simply didn't have. Also, with Dan leaving the band and Tim taking a 3-month break to concentrate on teaching from April, there was a self imposed time limit upon the writing/recording process. We began writing in January and recording was done over 4 weekends; 2 in March and 2 in May. It was really great getting back in the studio, I think we all really like being there. We'd written all the songs in the garage down at the end of our garden and we kind of wanted to keep that raw stripped down feel to it. Going into the studio to do a whole bunch of overdubs would've been a bit weird. We spent a lot of time making sure that we were recording the most natural and real sounds out of the instruments that we could get. We wanted this album to be a representation of where we were at a particular time in our lives, so I suppose it's good that we had only those 4/5 months to get everything out of our heads and onto record. We're all pleased with how the record has been received by our friends and the people who have heard it. It was important to us to get the right mix of 'instant' songs and 'growers'. At the very least I think we succeeded with that.
You have a 'download amnesty' on your myspace, where you invite people to donate if they have illegally downloaded one of your records. Do you feel that illegal downloading can, in fact, be a major benefit for DIY bands, and are vinyl copies the way forward in terms of physical sales?
I think most music fans these days will download music for free or get copies of albums from friends. We all pass around CD's between our friends and it is a great way to get new music out to people. I think for most DIY bands, the internet and word of mouth are great tools for getting your music heard by as many people as possible. That being said, none of us are rich and a lot of what we do is paid for out of our own pockets and it gets frustrating when we're struggling to afford even just a few days in a pretty humble studio. It's not like we're lining the pockets of a major producer to record this stuff, we rely on the kindness of some genuinely lovely people at The Lodge. Honestly, without their kindness and understanding there is no way we could've recorded Animals. There are various torrent sites that publish how many times our music has been downloaded and when you see that 1000+ downloads have been made and you're worrying about how you're going to pay for the last recording session, it can be pretty disappointing. We had a bit of a chat about it and we mentioned it to Kev (BSM) and we thought that some sort of amnesty would be a nice idea. Really it's for the type of person who has become a real fan of the music. If someone has downloaded a song and didn't like it then we wouldn't expect them to pay for it, but if someone has really enjoyed it and our music is a regular feature on their mp3 player, then we thought we'd give that person the opportunity to help us out. I'll be honest, it hasn't exactly been a roaring success but it's nice to get occasional dribs and drabs of money coming in. Every little helps. As for vinyl, we're all big fans of the medium. We were really pleased when Dan at Faux Disc said he would release the album on vinyl. I can't wait to get a copy. It'll be really nice. I think the whole run will be limited to just 250. The first 100 will be on blue vinyl and the rest will be on black. I'm not sure that vinyl is the future for physical releases, but I'm glad that it has made a bit of a come back.
Animals is released through Big Scary Monsters on 6th October (download only), before a CD release on the 13th. The album is preceded by a split single with Pennines on 22nd September, and another single –‘Panda' - on 6th October as well. Catch them on tour at one of their many dates listed here: myspace.com/thistownneedsguns.