It would be fair to say that Walk The River, Guillemots’ third album, is not an altogether happy affair. In fact, typically bonkers current single ‘The Basket’ aside, the album’s tales of having to rethink everything about who you are after being uprooted in cataclysmic fashion is likely to give a major case of the sadfaces. It is also brilliant: the polar opposite of second album Red’s Looney Tunes adventures in experimental pop, it manages to both be sprawling and have a laser-like focus on its targets. It’s the sound of the band’s disparate personalities coming together in the chaos and heading down the same road, even if that road is decidedly murky.
The messy, fractured despair of whole worlds falling apart inside one person’s head is evident in the depiction of a rebound fling disaster-in-waiting in ‘I Don’t Feel Amazing Now’, or the moment of realisation, in ‘Dancing In The Devil’s Shoes’, that the self-destruct button is fully pressed with no idea how it happened. Not to mention the ‘oh fuck I’ve broken another person with my stupid decisions’ carnage of nine-minute opus ‘Sometimes I Remember Wrong’: devastating in its simplicity, it’s quite possibly the band’s best song to date. It’s an album giving voice to just about every nagging doubt anyone’s ever had, and never admitted to.
In true Guillemots style there’s a certain euphoria to be found in amongst the gloom, highlighted by ‘Tigers’ musings on being “stolen in love”, ‘Inside’s cautious optimism about new relationships and closer ‘Yesterday Is Dead’ – you don’t need me to spell out that one. It’s one of the most atmospheric and lyrically complex, yet universal, records of the year so far, dealing in a subject few artists dare to go near, with an intelligence and subtlety even fewer possess. It’s intensely personal, beguiling, heartbreaking and ultimately full of hope.
Needless to say, when I was offered the chance to have a chat with Fyfe recently I didn’t need to be asked twice. Read on for Fyfe’s thoughts about Walk The River, via the bottom falling out, Glastonbury, whether the band could be this year’s Arcade Fire and Billy Joel…
In a nutshell, what’s the album about?
It’s hard to say what things are about with us; with me, it always comes from that musical side of it. We definitely had an atmosphere we wanted to capture on the record - I think that was what drove it. In terms of specific lyrics, I very rarely sit down and try to write about it. It’s more like we’ll play music, or I’ll be writing, and something in the music makes you feel a certain way, and it’s about lyrics coming out that match that.
There was this real feeling [that] I just kept imagining which if we’d based the album around strictly, it would have become a concept album - which would have been terrible! In a loose sense I had this feeling of someone waking up, coming to consciousness on a planet in the night sky and is sort of, ‘Why am I here, how did I get here?’ And just remembering they have a home somewhere and needing to get there but not really knowing how on earth they can, the hope being they can. But it’s not like all the songs are about that at all - it’s more… wanting the music to have this sort of feeling of being lost and wanting to be found again.
I described it to a friend of mine as ‘this is possibly what it sounds like when the bottom falls out!’ As in, you wake up one morning, and “Oh, something’s changed, and I have no idea, and now I have to rethink everything.”
That’s a really nice way of describing it. That’s it, really. It is kind of… the sense of things that you feel something momentous has happened, and it could be anything, and you have to carry on, and not knowing how to, but carrying on is all you have.
And I suppose with things as they are at the moment, whether we’re talking about jobs or relationships or whatever, that’s something possibly quite a lot of people are dealing with.
I guess so. It’s funny, I find like it’s often after we make the music, rather than before, you definitely start seeing these dots and are like “Oh actually, that could be about that, and that could apply to that”. I hate to keep going on about “it all comes to the music” because then you start sounding like some wanky session musician! It’s not like that, but that’s just very much how it is for us. That’s what bonds us as a band.
We spent a year writing this record, and a lot of that was just us playing together; we’ll just play for hours. When you’re playing, there’s just bits that you just aren’t thinking about what you’re doing, and you just get completely lost in it. That’s how we all respond to music - I don’t know what it is about these sounds, that music can stir up such feelings in you.
That’s always what you want people to get out of your music. For me that’s the most important thing, more than being played on the radio or anything. Well certainly with the music we’re making within Guillemots, I just want people to just get lost in it and feel like they’re right in the middle of the record. And I think with this one specifically we really wanted the sound to be like 3D or something, so it feels like it envelops you.
You mentioned that a lot of the coming together of the record was through playing together as a band. With Red, the talk at the time was that it was the first time you’d really collaborated together, rather than like Through The Windowpane where you were presenting the songs relatively fully-formed. And certainly in comparison to Walk The River, Red’s quite manic…
Yeah, it is manic. I think part of that was definitely what we wanted, I think part of it we didn’t realise at the time, it was a combination. But I think we also learnt from that as well. I think the thing with Red was that there’s there’s certain tracks I’m really proud of and think they’re some of the best things we’ve done. But the album as a whole, I really love the way it sounds. It’s just that we got so involved in the sounds of it, we forgot it’s supposed to be a record of songs!
I think [with] some songs I almost didn’t spend any time thinking about the lyrics or how I was singing it, or just about the actual raw song. I was just thinking about the sound of a car that comes in for a second on this verse! I think certainly with things like ‘Big Dog’, I love the way it sounds but at the time I think it surprised people so much. So you look back on it and think that the second track on a record sounds like an R&B pisstake! But that’s just what we’re like! We got so carried away. I’m proud of it in a perverse way but I can see why it confused people.
I’m not sure we’ll ever do a record quite like our first in the sense that I think it would be impossible. Because that record I’d had quite a few years to prepare songs that were generally, as you say, quite fully-formed. And we also had the budget to get a huge orchestra. It’s that kind of thing that can only be a first record, in terms of the amount of time you have for them to gestate.
I think it just feels like it’s in a really lovely place now where it’s very much we’re making music that is us as a band. But I think everyone’s kind of accepting of the fact that, you know, the band needs a leader as well. That’s maybe where we’re at with that. But if I’ve got ideas nobody’s responding to, there’s no point forcing it on everyone as a Guillemots thing. Generally it just felt like there was loads of stuff where that was a very natural balance.
It was quite nice in a way, with some songs on this record, I’d write them and the next day we’d start trying to figure them out as a band. I hadn’t really had that before. So on this one, before I’d had a chance to get really attached to a demo of the songs they just kind of grew. Our producer David (Kosten) was really good at having that perspective. Like ‘Vermillion’, we just built it on top of a demo I did at home; that main vocal is me playing guitar and singing into my computer mike. That was just me putting something down before I forgot it, and he was just like, “well let’s just use that, build on that”. That was what I felt in some of our earlier stuff, [and] was quite a big part of ‘Made Up Love Song’… just build up from the demo. There’s something about capturing something sometimes that you can’t repeat again. It’s just very unthought about, it’s before you’ve had time to really start overthinking it.
Walk The Riverdoes feel quite a bit more cohesive, and there’s a definite sense of going on a journey.
Yeah, that was what we wanted. I think we definitely wanted it to be a record that had a mood as a whole. Which I think our first record did overall but even on that was a little bit of a sense of… I think it had its own world, but then some tracks would come along like ‘Annie Let’s Not Wait’. I don’t know. This one’s still got extremes, like ‘The Basket’ or ‘Inside’ are pretty different. But… they’re all kind of still on the same planet.
A lot of it reminded me of ‘If The World Ends’(from Through The Windowpane)…
It’s funny that, I was saying the other day, being asked in interviews about “what’s it like playing the new songs live?” it’s actually interesting how they fit with… The songs on this record all seem to really fit with the more ballady side of things on Windowpane. ‘[Made Up] Love Song’ and ‘Trains [to Brazil]’ will always stand out, and we’ll always play those songs - I mean I love them but they sound so young! I think songs like ‘If The World Ends’ and ‘Redwings’ at the time sounded a bit more weathered, and I think they now really fit with the songs on this record. And ‘If The World Ends’ is probably as a band one of our favourite songs from that record. We’ve always been like that, I think most bands are like that – the ones you’re most proud of aren’t necessarily the singles, it’s always the more atmospheric album tracks.
Moving on, the very first thing I said about Walk The River, and I’ve heard it in general chatter as well, was it felt like it could be your version of The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. Just in terms of it’s that big next step up, and that’s obviously very much an atmosphere-driven piece as well. I’m wondering if that was a conscious thing – obviously not to make the next Arcade Fire album but just to take that step up?
I don’t know! I suppose in the sense that I mean, in terms of the Arcade Fire album, I haven’t actually heard The Suburbs. I really love their first record but I haven’t gotten round to hearing that one so I can’t say in terms of that. I think asking David, again, probably really steered us in that direction of “just for this record, we really want to do something that’s very atmospheric,” but David was always like “we can’t lose sight of [the fact that] the songs have got to be strong songs”. We could quite happily have made an album more like our B-sides which are much more sprawling.
I think as long as we write music that’s melodic, and not completely obscure-- you know, I don’t want to be just writing ‘I love you’! But there’s always that side that you want your music to be quite universal, because that’s kind of what melody is. And so I definitely think we were aware of wanting to make this record something that… we certainly didn’t want it to sound obscure. But at the same time, there was never any sense of ‘what would make this commercial?’ because that would suck! So we weren’t really referencing anything current, or anything. I think all you can do is just try to really represent yourself at that time and what you want to make, and I think that’s what we feel like with this record.
It’s a very long-winded way of saying ‘yes and no’ basically! Like definitely to a degree if you’re talking about making something quite universal. But I don’t think we were thinking, “oh let’s try and make…” Well it didn’t feel like a career move! I’m sure it didn’t for Arcade Fire either.
You mentioned about being commercial and that slight tug of war. There’s obviously a certain audience who have become aware of Guillemots and you specifically through the John Lewis advert - how surreal exactly is that?
It is surreal! But it’s just one of those weird things that I can’t really work out in retrospect. I don’t ever tend to think I shouldn’t have done things. I don’t know, I think if I had a chance to do it again I probably would have, it’s just very bizarre. I had no idea it was going to become what it did, and I don’t think it’s anything to do with me either.
[I received] a text from my manager one day saying “Do you want to sing Billy Joel’s ‘She’s Always A Woman’ for a John Lewis advert?” And I thought: “we’ve got oodles of debt! John Lewis are a decent ethical company so I’m not going to feel guilty for doing the ad in that sense, I like the song anyway—“ And I do genuinely like it, since I’ve been a kid I’ve liked Billy Joel and that made me more keen to do it in a sense, because I fucking hate musical elitism. I know so many people are like [makes ‘meh’ sound] but it’s a really fucking amazing pop song. So it was just “Yeah, I suppose, and it’ll probably be on TV for a few weeks, and no-one’ll really even know who it is…” [laughs] Suddenly it was, like, this huge thing!
I certainly had to think about it in terms of an ad, because we’ve turned down things with Guillemots before. It’s a very fine line with ads, because more and more if you want to survive financially you have to do those things, which is horrible. I hate the idea of writing something and it being used to advertise a car. Maybe that it made it easier because it wasn’t my song.
What was really weird was… they wanted something that was really similar to the original, and whenever I’ve done covers before I’ve really changed them and tried to put my stamp on them. So suddenly this thing’s all around, and I just felt a bit like Robson and Jerome or something! Not because of the song but just because it was a guy in a suit singing a ballad. It was just bizarre creatively for me - I wasn’t really doing anything! At the same time, yeah, suddenly my record sold so much more than it had done. But it’s that weird thing of actually, how many of those people are going to really like the record? I don’t know, hopefully they will. I’m sure there’ll be some cross-section, but I don’t actually know how great the cross-section would be. It’s just a bizarre chapter in my life.
I did get to know Billy Joel a little bit, which was very funny. I mean not ‘funny’, just surreal! He’s just one of the most cool, down to earth guys you can imagine, really generous as well. I felt even more glad I’d done it in that respect, brought his music to a bunch of people… maybe young people wouldn’t have known it as well. So I’m happy to be his UK correspondent! But yeah, it’s quite a world away from Guillemots really.
I suppose the upside is, with the secret gigs you’ve been doing recently, I know one of them sold out in four minutes! So I suppose bigger audiences is the trade off.
Yeah, I suppose, although I kind of think those gigs are probably our own fanbase anyway. I think we probably have, maybe not a very big fanbase, but we do have quite loyal fans at the centre of that, even if it’s probably not a huge-- I’m sure there’s bands with bigger followings!
I really love our audiences. It’s great having gigs - and I had it on my solo tour as well – when they’re just silent for you when you play quiet songs. I really appreciate that. And it’s happened more on this tour. I remember when we were touring Guillemots for the first few years, that didn’t happen so much in this country but I hope that continues on this record. It makes such a difference when you can play to a quiet audience, because you can just dip the songs down and you can do so much more and take the songs so much further.
Absolutely. Speaking of touring –any plans to head over to the States? It seems to be the moment for British bands over there…
I hope so! We’re just trying to sort out who’s putting the record out over there at the moment. We did have a deal lined up but that fell through… We absolutely want to go over, it’s just finding a label that will have us, and will enable us to go over there without bankrupting ourselves. But we completely want to.
Any festivals planned that you can tell us about?
Er, yeah… I can’t actually remember which ones, some are confirmed… [Cue much debate with PR] Great Escape, Wilderness… are the rest TBCs?! Secret Garden, Glastonbury…
That’s the one everyone really wants to know about, let’s be honest!
Walk The River is out today.