Having formed in 2011 from the ashes of Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man and Les Incompetents, Spector found themselves immediately thrust into the limelight, culminating in a nomination among the BBC's Sound Of 2012 music industry poll. Debut album Enjoy It While It Lasts followed in August, and while reviews were mixed, they played a host of sold out shows throughout the year.
However, by the summer of 2013, founder member and guitarist Chris Burman had left the band and plans for the second album appeared to be put on hold. Indeed, with the band's official website not being updated for over eighteen months it was unclear as to whether Spector were still a going concern.
Fast forward to December of last year, and finally, new music was made available online in the shape of 'Don't Make Me Try', a short sharp burst of sprightly synth pop in the vein of Pulp's 'O.U.' Then, earlier this month, the suave and sophisticated 'All The Sad Young Men' appeared like a distant debonair relative to The Horrors 'Still Life'. It heralded the second coming of Spector and with it, the promise of an as-yet untitled new album later this year.
Intrigued, DiS caught up with vocalist Fred MacPherson and guitarist-cum-synth player Jed Cullen in a quiet pub off North London's Holloway Road one Friday afternoon. Here's what they had to say...
DiS: I notice your official website hasn't been updated since 2013, which led some people to believe you had disappeared for good. In fact, when I told a couple of people I was interviewing you this week, their response was, "Are they still going?"
Fred MacPherson: I would say we disappeared on some levels because we were just in the midst of making our second album. We were conscious of things like keeping websites updated and we did for a while but then the new record took over. We were solely focused on making it as good as possible. It got to the point where our manager, our label, our booking agent; basically everyone that was working for us; were all saying if we don't finish this album soon we may as well never finish it. We were just really enjoying making it and trying to become the band we'd always wanted to be.
At first, a year went by and we thought we had it finished. But then we kept working on it. I think if various people hadn't come along and told us we needed to release an album we'd still be working on it for the next year. It's quite a fun place to be because you're not in a regimented time frame. Instead, you have the freedom to meet up with your friends and bounce lots of ideas off each other.
DiS: One of the songs on the new album, 'Decade Of Decay', was initially released as a demo back in the autumn of 2013. Do all of the songs on the record date back to that period?
Jed Cullen: The timespan of writing was around two years, maybe even longer. When you start an album you have an idea of going away and writing ten songs. But then if they're all written in the same time frame the chances are they'll also have the same meaning about the same things and in the context of an album you can't really do that.
Fred MacPherson: Piecing together an album is about going on a journey, and while there's no guarantee the songs will always get better they tend to shape the record's direction. It's almost like playing 'Wheel Of Fortune'. You spin and see where it stops in relation to what you had back then.
With the first album, we had twelve songs which were the only ones we had so we put them out there. Had we released it six months earlier it might only have been ten songs. Whereas six months later it may have been a different twelve. I think we could have put an album out last year, maybe even earlier, but it wouldn't have been as good. I think we had something to prove to ourselves.
'Decade of Decay' which we put out in December as a taster is the oldest song on the record. It was based on an old Lightspeed Champion song that Dev Hynes had in mind for Spector. We rewrote the lyrics and he produced it. There's a couple of songs that will probably come out as bonus tracks called 'Reeperbahn' and 'Difficult Phonecall'. 'Reeperbahn' we nearly released around the same time as 'Decade Of Decay'. We love the song and it's quite anthemic, but it doesn't quite fit on the album. Had we put it out back then we would have been nailing our colours to the mast which could have slightly belied how the album ended up. Some of the songs on the album were only written at the back end of last year, so we ended up taking some of the older songs out. It goes back to what Rick Rubin once said, that you should aim to write twenty-five songs and then choose the best ten. There's a lot of stuff in the ether which probably won't get heard or end up as b-sides. A lot of tracks that we thought were the best things we'd ever done initially. But then you realise it's a long process. We're still not there, and people will have to decide for themselves whether they think it's any good.
DiS: When I heard 'All The Sad Young Men' it felt like you were 'doing a Horrors' in the way the sound had developed dramatically and also various members' roles within the band changing in terms of what instruments they played. Also, your vocal style has changed significantly. It seems to have become more assertive if that makes sense?
Fred MacPherson: That's good to hear. I think we've definitely refined our sound between the first record and the new one.
Jed Cullen: I think The Horrors is an interesting comparison, in that they're similar to us fundamentally in how they did their first album one way and then the second one totally different. The whole album is quite varied in terms of sounds and song structures and I think seeing other contemporaries doing that may have inspired us a little. It certainly gave us the confidence to not worry too much. We were a bit worried that people might pick up on the songs being more synthesizer rather than guitar driven when in reality no one cares.
Fred MacPherson: When all's said and done, it's all about the songs. A lot of our favourite bands always go on journeys. For example, I look at someone like These New Puritans who started out as a basic post-punk band and now they're completely out in a field of their own unlike anybody else. Really creative top level stuff, and The Horrors as well. They changed dramatically on the second album then switched it up again on the third. Even the first album was very extreme in a certain direction and I like the fact they're still proud of that record, even if it wasn't as well received as the others. I like the fact they're not afraid to say this is us even if that first record wasn't as good as the others. It represents the first step of their journey just like when you look back on your first day at school. It's a process, just like getting your heart broken might make a relationship work the next time. We're still growing. We're not there yet, but we've gone far enough down the path to say hopefully we've improved on some level.
DiS: You've been quoted as saying 'All The Sad Young Men' is the best song you've ever written. Do you see that as setting the benchmark for the future?
Fred MacPherson: I think I've been overly quoted in that saying it's the best song we've written when there's a new album coming out. It might make people think twice about checking out the rest of the album if that's the best song we've ever written! It's a slightly shooting one's self in the foot comment. What I meant to say was it's the best song anyone's heard yet by us. I think the rest of the album is equally as strong, but 'All The Sad Young Men' is a great first one for people to hear because it works outside the context of an album. I've always been into bands that have singles. When I hear a song like 'Reptilia' off the second Strokes album it begins and ends. It exists in its own world. And 'All The Sad Young Men' can also exist by itself outside of the album.
DiS: Did a concept emerge for the album over time?
Fred MacPherson: I don't think there's an actual concept per se but I think we found ourselves writing songs set in a certain world. There's definitely songs that will work as singles outside of the album, but then there's also ones that will work even better when placed alongside the rest of the record. There's a lot more space on this record compared to the first one. The first one was just bang, bang, bang, bang from beginning to end whereas this one has much more light and shade.
Jed Cullen: We all find similar things inspiring to write about. If different songs talk about real life events then they're going to link together in some way.
Fred MacPherson: And we've also lived so much of our lives together for the past four or five years. We write about our own lives. I think one of the reasons this album's taken so long is that you have to live first and then formulate some kind of artistic response to how you've lived in a certain way. You have to exist first to be able to write about your existence. It's hard with music with lyrics. You don't want to be making music about music if that makes sense? It's easy to get caught up in a sea of references and recording styles. Whereas we've always worn our hearts on our sleeves. We're not trying to be political but we are saying something about our lives that someone else might find very banal. Or they might find it relates to something in their lives. That's what pop music does really. It connects with the stuff that might mean something to you.
DiS: I'd say it's a very radio friendly album.
Fred MacPherson: That's good of you to say. We never have the radio in mind when we're writing songs, but at the same time we do see this as a fun entity to some point. Not that I want every song to have a simple verse-chorus-verse structure, but we do write songs to be entertaining. I'm not saying we'll be doing that forever but for me, that's what Spector is. We've an idiosyncratic British pop identity where you listen to it once, it hits you on one level then you listen to it for the tenth time and you hear something else in it. I don't think there's enough lyrical pop music at the moment and if we can add something to it that's great, whether we get played on the radio or not. It's out of our hands. Is it helpful? Yes. Is it the be all and end all? No. I think it's always easier to connect to someone with a pop hook first. For example, AM by the Arctic Monkeys which for me ticks every single box with their fanbase. It's hard enough trying to tick a single box and say this our rock album, or this is our pop record, or this our one with really powerful lyrics. But when you can make your coolest music also your most hooky, most dancey, most singalong and most joyous then you're operating at the top level - like Pulp, but it's very hard to do. Unless you're a genius. And we're not geniuses. Yet!
DiS: It's interesting you mention Pulp as their influence comes across on the new Spector album. Did their music play a part in the direction you've taken with the new record?
Fred MacPherson: I wouldn't say a heavy influence but it's something we love. They're a part of our musical DNA and Danny (Blandy) our keyboard player is from Sheffield and they're one of his favourite bands. We've never really referenced anything from that era in the studio.
Jed Cullen: I don't think we've ever taken any direct references from the nineties.
Fred MacPherson: Jarvis Cocker is up there with the great British lyricists of all time. In all honesty, there aren't many others I'd take inspiration from. I could probably name them all on the fingers of one hand. Alex Turner, Jarvis Cocker, Morrissey. But the rest are people like Nick Cave and Tom Waits, then hip hop artists like Kanye West or Drake. It seems over the past fifteen years that lyrics no longer have a focus when it comes to writing a great song. Certainly over the last fifteen years. No one has a problem with people writing passive lyrics and neither do I to be fair. I think you can write great songs with lyrics that are perfect to sing along to and they work in the context of that moment in time. I'm not knocking bands that don't write great lyrics but I want Spector to be a band whose songs you can sing along to but also carry a meaning at the same time. One thing I will say about Pulp is they managed to marry guitars and synths quite well, whereas our first album consisted of all the electronics, all the guitars, all the synths and all the backing vocals at the same time. Whereas with this album we've been a lot more selective about what to have and where to have it. Connecting back to that, a guitarist leaving the band has actually been very helpful.
DiS: How did the recording process develop? You've already mentioned Dev Hynes' contribution to 'Decade Of Decay' and Duncan Mills produced 'All The Sad Young Men'. Did you have various people working across different parts of the album?
Fred MacPherson: No. On the first album it was more like that but with this record we started it with Dev. But due to issues that he had going on we finished it with two guys in London. We were introduced to Duncan Mills without really knowing much of his work, but when I found out he'd worked with Malcolm McLaren that sold it for me. We stayed in his studio for months. He has a very rare character trait of being hard to piss off! He brings a lot of joy and warmth to the studio situation. The studio can be stressful and it's not always easy to be someone's best mate but he created an environment where we could throw a lot of shit against a lot of walls for want of a better phrase until some of it stuck. He challenged and inspired us. He had loads of synths, loads of gear, he was keen for us to be us. I think the greatest producers are the ones that bring the heart of the artist out of the artist rather than asserting their agenda onto the artist. On our first album we worked with some really inspirational people but it was always more of a collaboration and we needed guidance where we were going. Whereas this album has been about learning to take responsibility.
Jed Cullen: I remember saying a while ago that there's no producer out there who's going to save us. You've got to have the songs and the direction in the bag already. They can help you, but no one can create the inspiration.
Fred MacPherson: They can help dress up and be the make-up and the clothes, but ultimately it's up to us to create the core.
DiS: Would you work with Duncan Mills again or are you looking to collaborate with different people in the future?
Fred MacPherson: I'd be interested in going on one journey with a producer but over a shorter time. The first album was over a very short time with lots of people against the clock. This album was a serious experimental process with a few people but without the same time constraints. We've not yet experienced a process with just one producer in one studio. Maybe if we get to album number three that's something we could do then? Write all the songs, get in the studio and record it in one go.
DiS: Founder member and guitarist Chris Burman left the band while you were making the second record. Was his departure amicable and was there ever a point where the band's future was in doubt?
Fred MacPherson: Genuinely, yes, but then I was also never more sure that the second album would happen after Chris said he was leaving. Not that I ever had a problem with him. He'd always been the inspiration and the engine of the band. But then once he said he wanted to go off and do his thing, which I completely supported, it was kind of a split second decision. Well is that the end of the band now the two people that started it are no longer together or is it in a way the beginning of the band? With the first album, a lot happened quite quickly so we never really had a chance to become a band. The music was in motion before we already had the final piece and we were auditioning drummers and people were moving around to accommodate others. Jed was playing keyboards originally before he moved to guitar, and we knew Danny (Blandy) who was originally the drummer but now plays keyboards.
We just got on with it, ended up getting signed - possibly too soon - and then the album had to happen quickly and all of a sudden we were exposed. Which in a way is good because it's all part of the adventure but it also meant we never really had much of a chance to sit down and formulate a plan. Work out who's best at doing what. We had songs early on like 'Never Fade Away' and that kind of dictated the direction of the album. We had loads of demos but no rehearsal time. Making the first album was a bit of a whirlwind and I never felt we had any foundation or creedence. But also karmically, I thought if this ends for some reason, I'm fine with it because we've had some luck and it's come together quite quickly. It can be easy come, easy go. So the making of this second album could be the making of the band really. I can't hammer that home enough. We're only just starting to work out what Spector is.
DiS: Were those early shows almost feel like public rehearsals? It must have been a very awkward learning process at times?
Fred MacPherson: Being in a band is a constant learning process. Until you're on that Eagles tour where you've been around for forty years playing the hits and it's literally the victory lap it's all a learning process. And to be honest, if it stops being a learning process then you're not in a good place as an artist.
Jed Cullen: It was actually quite special in a perverse kind of way. Every show was different and it taught us not to get too downhearted after a bad show or over-confident off the back of a good one. The shows gave us the confidence to interact with audiences, but I think we learned a lot more afterwards.
Fred MacPherson: It's like when your house burns down which probably isn't the best metaphor to use. You don't really take stock of it until afterwards when you're ringing your insurance company. I don't think we can ever look back on those years as being anything other than the most fun we've ever had despite the shambolic nature of it all. Now, we've grown up a bit and we're slightly more adult. But then like anyone who's grown up, there are occasions where you end up yearning for the times when everything was less organised.
DiS: Looking back, was being nominated as part of the BBC's Sound Of 2012 more of a hindrance than anything?
Fred MacPherson: I think it was a great help to be honest. It exposed us to a lot more people, and if it's only taken them until now to realise we're a good band at least it sowed some seeds. So I'm actually grateful for it. It would be easy to try and analyse the positives and negatives around it, but that's not really for us to worry about. I think we can only be thankful that we got to travel the world and be presented with so many great opportunities. It was a year when there weren't many bands being written about, and it's taken until now for people to see just how healthy that period really was. So no, I really don't think it was a hindrance. At least it made us part of the conversation.
DiS: Are you proud of the way Enjoy It While It Lasts turned out? Is there anything you'd change with the first record given the benefit of hindsight?
Fred MacPherson: I'd change everything given the benefit of hindsight. Hindsight has nothing to do with making records.
Jed Cullen: I'm hoping that in twelve months I'm listening to this record and thinking it's all terrible, because then we'll know what to do on the third album. It gives you the impetus to progress rather than come back with a follow-up that just sounds like a continuation of the previous record. That's the last thing I'd ever want to do.
Fred MacPherson: Undoubtedly I can see why some people would consider the first album to be a bit of a mess, but it was definitely the best we could do at that time. We're actually lucky it's as good as it is. I don't think there's any need to excuse anything you've done. We wouldn't be where we are now without that. It's like looking back at a picture of yourself when you had a shit haircut or shit dress sense. Then you see your parents looking back at pictures of themselves and talking about how cool they looked in the 1970s after years of thinking they looked shit in the seventies.
Jed Cullen: It might not sound that way but the first album was really experimental for us. We were experimenting with different styles and producers.
Fred MacPherson: Jed and I have spent years in bands no one gave a shit about, so for us the experimentation was about making the songs sound as big as possible. I think it worked quite well in places, particularly with the singles 'Never Fade Away' and 'Chevy Thunder'. They're good songs and we'll be playing them for a long time. Fair enough, we didn't know about the coolest production techniques and to an extent, still don't, so there's no need to put that album on the mortuary slab just yet. Having said that, if we get to album number ten and I get a chance to do a bit of 'Let It Be' naked or Iggy going back and remastering Raw Power there are things I'd try and change rather than leaving history as it is for the sake of it.
DiS: You've got some live shows coming up starting with one at The Lexington next month. Will the set be a mix of new and old material or is it predominantly based around the forthcoming second album?
Fred MacPherson: I think we'll be 70% new songs, mainly because we want people to hear them. At least for now. When it comes to festivals and stuff we'll see what works. At the moment our heads are in the new songs but we've also got a responsibility to the fans to play some old stuff. I remember going to see bands when I was growing up where they'd do a whole set of songs from the new album followed by an old one for the encore. Even though these songs are slightly more mature, we're still a pop band. I'd like to think that people could sing along with the hooks after hearing them once. It's not like we're going out and playing Metal Machine Music. It's just a slightly less guitar based album. Maybe slightly more melodic and slower. I don't think anyone's going to struggle with this album.
DiS: It's also probably fair to say that previous Spector live shows have been as much about the performance as the songs. Will that still be the case going forwards?
Fred MacPherson: I hope so. When we toured the first album I think it was 60% about the performance and the rest trying to remember which parts to play in time. Since Danny moved from drums to keyboards we've got a new drummer called Johan from Lyon. He's a brilliant musician who's really inspired us and everyone's stepped up. We're rehearsing a bit more, turning up on time and taking it a bit more seriously. We won't be going on all night benders the day before important shows. If someone's paying good money to see us we've got to be respectful of that. I remember going to shows when I was growing up and seeing people like The White Stripes where Jack White would deliver an incredible performance every night, and those performances have stayed with me forever. That's what I want us to be like. We aren't one of those bands who just turns up not knowing how to pronounce the name of this Welsh town we're playing in. We want to show people we've made a genuine effort on all fronts, and for that reason I think these shows will be of a better quality all round to previous ones we've done. And I hope the performance element hasn't been drained. We're not too old yet. We want to play more shows than we ever have before. Our ambitions with being a live band are still very high. We have in no way ticked any boxes in terms of our own vision of ourselves. We're not resting on our laurels. The Spector live experience has yet to be delivered in its truest and best form.
Jed Cullen: The good thing about playing with Fred is he has this attitude to saving the show if it's really terrible. He can interact with the crowd in a really good way. Sometimes when we're really terrible there'll be a lot of chat. Now I'd like to think when we come back and play these shows he won't need to do that anywhere near as much.
DiS: So I guess the bottom line from your point of view is wanting Spector to be taken more seriously as a band?
Fred MacPherson: The thing is, we've always put entertainment at the vanguard of it. Entertainment shouldn't be at the expense of art. We've often played some of our best shows when the stakes were low, and a few times we've fumbled big opportunities by not stepping up to the plate. Fumbled's maybe too strong a word but maybe not shown that we can exist or deliver on the top level.
Jed Cullen: You can either play to your strengths or work on your weaknesses. If you work on your weaknesses then there's every chance you'll improve your strengths, whereas if you only play to your strengths there's a chance you'll hit diminishing returns over time. We're not going to change or become all arty and not really care about what people think. But we do need to work on things we haven't really concentrated on before. If we can conquer that then we really have the potential to do well, and that is quite exciting.
DiS: It is quite commendable that you've chosen to push yourselves rather than simply rest on your laurels, which would have been the easier option.
Fred MacPherson: I think if we'd made a carbon copy of the first album we'd find it hard to be interested ourselves this time. Your opinion changes every day about what the right thing to do is. Whatever we say now won't be the same as whatever we say next week. The journey of an artist has to grow. That doesn't mean you have to move in a set direction but you need to always set yourselves new goals and ambitions. When we started Spector there were probably five things that were my biggest dreams in the world. Then after three or four of them, I realised that your dreams have to grow. The things you do in your early twenties in a band seem like the most important things in the world. Things like playing certain festivals or appearing on certain TV shows, so you tick them off and it all seems brilliant but then you realise that ultimately, what your friends or people in the media think of you doesn't matter at all. You can only hold yourself up against your own standards. It's not good enough to be a karaoke band playing alright songs.
Jed Cullen: It sounds like you're being really harsh about us.
Fred MacPherson: No, but you've always got to aim higher. I still don't think we're a brilliant band, and hopefully I'll never think that because it will spur me on to do better. Artistic aspirations should be infinite, and the second you're not inspired. The second you don't think it worth attempting to say anything then you shouldn't try because you're just going to be wasting everyone's time.
DiS: You've both been playing in bands for a number of years. What advice would you give to new bands and musicians just starting out?
Fred MacPherson: Don't worry about anything anyone says. Or any right way or path there appears to be because that won't necessarily be the right way to do it in a year's time. One should forge two paths, put on one's own events and even if that sometimes means playing gigs to no one, just experience it. If you're in it for the right reasons you'll be doing it forever anyway. Enjoy it, because if you don't enjoy it no one else will.
DiS: It is quite sad though seeing so many great bands fall by the wayside having attained only minor recognition, largely having to call it a day because it's financially impossible for them to continue.
Fred MacPherson: A lot of good bands do fall by the wayside, and having spent a lot of time on the wayside myself, I can speak from first hand experience. The music industry is stupid. If your band's good, just change your name and they'll come and see you next week. If that goes badly change your name again and they'll still come and see you! You can always be a new band, so don't feel because you've got five years under your belt without getting anywhere it's game over. You owe it to yourself to keep flying the same flag. Just change your name and put a pair of sunglasses on or take a pair of sunglasses off.
DiS: You recorded backing vocals on some new Sugababes material a while ago. How did that come about? Will these recordings see the light of day?
Fred MacPherson: It was right at the start of the recording process for the second Spector album. I was in New York recording some demos with Dev (Hynes), and he was recording with the original Sugababes the same week. The day Chris left the band, which was over a Skype conversation, Dev tried to cheer me up by inviting me to the studio to record backing vocals with the Sugababes. It was on a track called 'Blue', which I think is a really good song. I read somewhere recently that their album is still coming out because I was worried it might not come out.
DiS: Will that song be on it?
Fred MacPherson: I hope so because it's a really good song. I'm sad I didn't get chance to record more stuff with them. It was just great to meet them. It made up for finding out earlier that Chris had left the band. It made for an odd day but a good one in the end. I remember chatting to Mutya (Buena) after I'd finished my backing vocal and Chris's name was already forgotten. It's good working with Dev because I think we both have a very open mind towards music, and we're very open towards collaborating with other artists. There's a lot of people around I'd always be interested in working with. On 'Never Fade Away' it was George Barnett from These New Puritans who played the drums before we had a full-time drummer. Looking back I think that seems an unlikely collaboration, but a lot of the time it's about being honest with your friends about what you want them to do. Being honest with each other really.
Jed Cullen: Collaborations are the way forward. It's always worth remembering that two heads are better than one.
Fred MacPherson: That's why we've got two songs ('Cocktail Party' and 'Decade Of Decay') that were written with Dev on our album. I think it works so much better that way.
DiS: Do you have any other collaborations planned?
Fred MacPherson: Not really. Not at the minute anyway. Luckily, being in Spector is a full time job for us at the moment but that doesn’t mean we’re limited to just this one thing. I’m sure we’ll be part of other interesting collaborations in the future.
The single 'All The Sad Young Men' is available to download now.
For more information on Spector visit their official website.