Joe Shrewsbury hasn’t seen Green Room, surely 2016’s most claustrophobic and oppressive horror that involves neo-Nazi Patrick Stewart and a punk band fighting for their lives, but he’d like to think that if 65daysofstatic found themselves in a similar nightmarish situation, they’d band together and win the day. After all, fighting out of corners and finding light is what they’re all about.
As a matter of fact, the affable guitarist and his partners-in-crime make exceedingly good tunnel music. Whilst on a bus a couple of months back, this writer got to experience rather serendipitous timing as darkness and solitude gave way to the bright bustle of the afternoon and ‘Monolith’, the first shot in anger on the Sheffield outfit’s new record, kicked in. As with so many things 65, ‘euphoric’ doesn’t quite cover it.
Though it speaks to the unique individual experience, No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe is meticulously constructed with much more than subterranean travel in mind. As both the soundtrack to a highly anticipated game that could well be a game-changer and a standalone 65daysofstatic album in its own considerable right, No Man’s Sky has many masters to serve.
You may have seen the numbers. 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 procedurally generated planets. 500 billion years estimated to reach each and every vivid environ presented by the game. One hell of an ambitious concept. Who better to provide the sonic aspect – itself a constant state of flux thanks to a clever algorithm – than four men who specialise in the most compelling of world building?
“There was a conscious effort to start the project from somewhere much darker than the game’s aesthetic might suggest,” notes Joe. “We thought it would be beautiful in a lurid, classic mid-century sci-fi paperback cover kind of way, so the question was; how can we make this more malevolent and strange? How can we impose our music on it in a way that removes that comforting edge? That was at the forefront of our minds throughout.”
DiS: By your own admission, none of the band are hardcore gamers. Was this a case of trying to push 65daysofstatic out of a comfort zone?
Joe Shrewsbury: We had a break over 2010 and 2011. Various personal things happened that meant that after we finished touring We Were Exploding Anyway it was just a very natural thing to take a break. It had been about a decade since we’d started and it seemed a good time to stop for a bit, although we never really announced an official hiatus. We had a six-month period where we didn’t really do much. We met up a fair bit and discussed what it was we wanted the band to be as a group of people who were entering their 30s rather than their 20s and while we wanted to keep making records and tour in the traditional sense, we also wanted to try and branch out into areas that we were interested in and that we thought 65 would be a good umbrella environment in which to develop.
We were really interested in soundtrack work and also developing some conceptual art installations, so instead of breaking up, we felt it best to continue and that the band was still a really receptive place for all our ideas – we just wanted to take it somewhere else. In that sense, we were actively looking for soundtrack work. We did a little bit of music for a BBC Radio 3 production of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, but that was a very small amount of instrumental music. We re-scored Silent Running for the Glasgow Film Festival but instrumental bands doing live re-scores was and is quite popular so it wasn’t a soundtrack project in the truest sense of the word.
No Man’s Sky was the first such concrete thing we were offered. It’s a big project and it has a pretty high profile in the gaming world and possibly outside of it, so it just seemed like a perfect fit. To answer your question though, I believe that 65daysofstatic always looks to be outside of that comfort zone. We’re certainly not trying to make music that’s about being comfortable and we were definitely up for this particular challenge.
Let’s go back to that hiatus. Was breaking up ever a serious consideration?
Not in personal terms, it was more about having a philosophy that we’ve always had which is that if we are making music for the sake of making music, for the sake of perpetuating the cycle of going on tour and getting to play live and we don’t feel like the music itself comes from a strong emotional place, then that would be unfair to people who listen to it. There are so many bands out there right now and I’m pretty sure that 80% don’t really need to exist, and we didn’t want to be one of those bands that had been around for 10 years and were just clinging on to what they had built. We wanted to make sure that the actual creative process was still at the core of it.
Breaking up was never something we seriously considered but you have to commit to another five or 10 years of being in a band that doesn’t sell a lot of records and so you know that you’re going to live a life that’s going to involve minimum wage jobs and not having a lot of money. That’s one decision to make when you’re 21 and another decision to make when you’re 31. The secret of keeping a band together is that everybody has a shared interest. If you can’t meet four different people’s expectations and remain on the same page, there’s going to be conflict. You have to respect the continued tension when it comes to making music that’s creatively uncompromised while also trying to make some sort of living. The reality of being in a strange instrumental band with no singer is that money is always going to be an issue.
No Man’s Sky marks the band’s first properly commissioned soundtrack work. What pressures or challenges did that bring?
The creative side of things has been really, really good. I suspect it’s been unique for a project of its size as I’ve spoken to people with varying levels of experience in film and gaming soundtrack work including Clint Mansell and you hear stories about the pressure that comes down on people once they’re making music for what is essentially boardrooms full of executives who prioritise commerciality over creativity, but thankfully we were protected throughout the process.
There was also the important distinction that we were making a 65daysofstatic record and not a soundtrack. In those terms, we had to do both. The unique aspect of No Man’s Sky is that you then have to take that music and de-atomise it into its constituent parts and use those as the jump-off for much more abstract instances of music that are being created by software. That’s where the difficulties lay, but fortunately, half of 65 are very good with computers and we’ve worked a lot with more loop-based music, more granular stuff, and so we were quite well placed to meet that head-on. The album was completed a year ago but there’s been so much day-to-day going through all the material to create something different, to achieve infinite reiterations of the record.
It feels very much a 65daysofstatic record in its own regard.
We’re really proud of the first half and the opening three tracks in particular. ‘Monolith’ feels like something we haven’t quite done before and with ‘Asimov’ I’m really glad that we’ve managed to take the guitar aspect of 65 up another notch again. That wasn’t really on our agenda with Wild Light. If we hadn’t have received the No Man’s Sky commission we would have gone off and made a very abrasive electronic record so in that sense we’re really proud of this. We’re also aware that we wrote it in a third of the time that we wrote Wild Light in. The odds were against us when it came to making something as good as that record and I don’t know if it’s as cohesive due to the amount of material that we had to write, but we’re very happy with it.
How much of much of a visual guide did you have and was that important either way?
It was important not to have a visual guide. We were very disappointed initially at the lack of access that we had to the game’s development but I suspect that was a conscious decision on the part of Sean Murray at Hello Games. He basically left us to come up with our own set of creative reference points in which to create music for something that has this great scope to it. Soundtracking a game is not like soundtracking a film because you’re not scoring a linear set of images from a world or environment that has been created - you’re dealing with the entire scope of the thing. We saw our job as soundtracking the size of the game, more than anything. Not being privy to how it was developing became really interesting because we had to imagine how it would be to play the game and the truth is that human imagination is capable of being more vivid and ambitious than what we are able to create visually anyway.
It seems that Hello Games largely left you to your own devices.
Totally, yeah. We had a year and after about three months we sent over a bunch of demos and just said, ‘Is this heading in the right direction?’ and the response was really good. We changed a few things like reintroducing the female vocal samples on ‘Supermoon’ because that was something they really liked about our music. They had previously licensed ‘Debutante’ which is how 65 and Hello Games met, so we teamed up with the same singer, Debbie Clare. For the most part it was a case of, ‘This is all going in the right direction – continue!’ and I suppose that level of creative freedom must be rather unheard of.
You mentioned constituent parts and focusing on kicking guitar-based elements up a notch. Is it difficult to make those pieces form the whole?
You can’t be precious about the individual parts. I’m still just a guy who plays guitar but my approach has never really been virtuosity, it was always about smashing odd lines of pedals into each other. My favourite thing at the moment is to distort digital reverb, which is very simple; it’s just about putting the reverb in the wrong place in the pedal chamber. Front of house engineers hate it, but you achieve a My Bloody Valentine-esque guitar sound which has a lot of harmonics in it. Difficult to control, but quite compelling musically. The computer stuff I tend to leave to the other guys, but I think that’s where the creativity comes with this band, from having people who are very exact and clever with computers and software and building electronics and then having someone else who really doesn’t understand how any of that works but is willing to let themselves be compromised by it.
That middle ground of total amateur-ness versus this hard-won technological knowledge is where 65 moves forward from those two positions. Where we meet, something better than could be achieved individually happens. In that sense, 65 is the sum of its parts and what we like most about being in the band in 2016 is that we have started to talk to each other in that musical vocabulary that transcends being weird and ambitious 19-year-olds. We’re now supposed to be proper grown-ups who know stuff and have had to develop this way of communicating in music. In a way, we probably communicate with each better that way because we’re four people who have known each other for a very long time and I think that’s the great joy of being in a band for about 15 years. You lose a lot of that youthful energy that refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer but you learn craft and that’s something that exists between you.
Older and wiser and all that, but the energy still comes through…
It feels like we’re just getting started on what we’re capable of, whereas after The Fall of Math, with the next two records we sort of hit a wall of like, ‘you’re a post rock band’. The whole post rock thing was descending into endless iterations of guys playing metal riffs and it just wasn’t anything to do with us anymore. Since we took that break six or seven years ago, we’ve rethought what it is we wanted to do. There’s a lot less ego to it now.
No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe is out now on Laced Music.