East London outfit Gengahr released one of 2015's finest debuts with A Dream Outside. Since then they've been locked away in the studio writing new material that will hopefully see the release of a follow-up sometime next year.
Currently on tour roadtesting a bunch of new songs alongside more familiar numbers from their debut, the four-piece - Felix Bushe (vocals/guitar), John Victor (guitar), Hugh Schulte (bass) and Danny Ward (drums) - will take the stage to a sold out Nottingham Bodega later this evening.
Beforehand, DiS caught up with main songwriter Bushe where the talk turned from perseverance and difficult second albums to Oasis documentaries and Pokémon GO.
DiS: Gengahr signed to Transgressive two years ago and you released your debut album A Dream Outside soon after. Was it a quick and effortless process getting a deal so early on?
Felix Bushe: That couldn't be further from the truth to be honest! We'd been playing in bands for about ten years. We started playing when we were very young and had various managers. We weren't signed to a label but we stayed semi-professional. We took it seriously from around the age of fourteen and I think that's one of the reasons why it's taken us so long. We worked with a management company who kept us under wraps for years. We were picked around 2012 when we were rehearsing in the studio. We waited for this big reveal that never happened. We spent two to three years writing songs that no one ever got to hear and in that time we never really went anywhere. When we eventually got dropped by our management company, we were no better off than when we first joined them; we'd played very few shows so we just thought it best to start again. We took a short break and started doing it for fun again. It was much less serious and more about what we wanted rather than what somebody else expected us to do. It's really difficult when you start so young - these expectations get given to you. I remember having crazy conversations with managers about writing songs for Radio One who said that's what we should be doing if we want to be in a band. As soon as we threw all that shit out the window, things started to feel better and work better. It became more about us. Thankfully we didn't leave it too late and got to where we wanted to be eventually.
Were any other labels interested in signing you at this point?
We did have quite a bit of interest at that point. We'd already been through the process of being signed to a management company, so didn't really have much hope for anything. We put some demos online and jokingly said we were from North Dakota! Then we started getting all these emails from A&R people saying things like, "I know you guys are based in the States but will you be in the UK any time?" We had an American agent from LA ask us to go and meet him so we had to come clean and say actually, we're from London! I think a few people thought we were taking the piss and lost interest but again, it all worked out for us in the end. We talked to a lot of labels, but once we spoke with Transgressive we knew they were the right one. We'd always wanted to be on an independent label anyway; we wanted to have that element where our fate was slightly in our own hands.
Trangressive have an incredible roster of artists both past and present. Did that influence your decision to go with them?
I was a big fan of the label early on. I started promoting club nights when I was about seventeen and I knew their roster pretty well. Some of the stuff probably hasn't aged that well but back then it was the best. I was very aware of what they were doing so it was a big thing for me that they were interested in signing the band. It meant a lot to have the opportunity to become part of the Transgressive family.
You're from Stoke Newington and based in Dalston, but at the same time you don't really fit the mould of your stereotypical East London scene band. Is that deliberate?
We tried to avoid that scene really. Not that I have any issues with it, but we're quite a tight knit group who are at our best standing alone together. We have friends in other bands but the scene thing was never really for us. We were always a small band when we saw people like Klaxons and The Horrors rehearsing in the same studio as us so we knew what we were doing. We'd seen all that kind of stuff happen before and not that I have anything against them, but we focused on making our music, recording our album, and just going ahead with it. I don't think anyone should actively try and be part of a scene. I've seen a lot of it happen around East London so I was well aware of it, but I never wanted to be involved in any way other than to make music.
A Dream Outside came out last year to widespread critical acclaim. Did you expect the reception to be so positive?
No, I really didn't! Kerrang! gave it a really good review which none of us expected, which I guess confirmed to us that we're doing things in our own way to the point where we don't fit into any scene or genre. Which was nice.
Were those eleven songs that made the album always going to end up on the record? Did you have any songs left over at that point which just missed the cut?
I think the majority of the album was ready before we started recording it. They weren't the first eleven that we recorded. I remember 'Trampoline' being recorded right at the very end. 'Tired Eyes' and 'Loki' both could have made the album, so we released them as an EP later, almost as an extension of the album. We wanted to make the album as easy a listening experience as possible and couldn't find a place to put those two in. I think it's important not to give people seventeen songs or whatever when it's your debut record. Maybe if we'd been a little more confident we could have put twelve or thirteen on the album, but eleven seemed to work for the first album so we stuck with it.
If you had the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you'd change about A Dream Outside?
Definitely. I think we made a lot of... I don't want to say mistakes but I think there are engineers who'd feel they could have done it better. We had a very good idea of the aesthetic of the album, and wanted to use a lot of distortion on it. That may sound strange because it's a very soft album in many ways, but everything is distorted. That gave us quite a few difficult problems when it came to mixing and engineering the album, and I do think it's too quiet. Not that it's a major problem as such, but I think if you are play our record back-to-back with a lot of other contemporary albums you'll see ours is a lot quieter. There's quite a fundamental problem in that but there was nothing we could do. You just have to accept these things as being part of a debut album. We wanted to do as much as we could ourselves and you have to take the full brunt of responsibility when it comes to making naive errors. It doesn't necessarily make it worse but it's something I would change 100% if I had the opportunity to do it again.
So bearing all that in mind will the next record have a different aesthetic to the first one?
There are things I want to differently. I want the next record to maintain a level of energy through it. A lot of the first album has a very similar vibe and feel to it, and we want to inject some of the live experience into the new songs a little bit. We're actually recording a lot of the new songs at the live shows, then playing them back just to listen and work out how we might harness them into a new album. We've been experimenting a lot, but we don't want to rush our second album. People have said to us we should put an EP out first but we want to make albums. We'd rather put out a full body of work at once rather than bits here and there. One of the reasons we booked this tour was to be able to road test some of the new songs and see if people liked them. It's all very well someone at a record label saying something's good or whatever, but they can have different demands and perceptions from somebody else. The people who buy a ticket for a Gengahr show might not necessarily buy the records, but if they like the songs there's every chance they'll keep coming back and eventually pick up an album. Ultimately, we make records for ourselves but then in order to be able to do that we need people to buy them, so it's a case of balancing those responsibilities between being the artist you want to be but also not ignoring the people who've helped get you to that place. We've been spending a lot of time writing, and now we want to see what the response is; hopefully that will help us decide what works on the album.
How many new songs are you playing on this tour?
We're switching it up each night. I think we played six last night and we're doing five tonight. Some of them are a bit more ambitious vocally and I've only just recovered from a really bad throat infection. Some nights I've not been able to do them which is annoying, but we've been testing them in soundcheck.
Are you still writing all the lyrics?
I'm still writing them, yes. Dan's doing the backing vocals and John's doing a little bit as well. We're just trying to grow and I think we're getting better as musicians. Whereas before it was probably more a case of do what you feel comfortable with doing, now we're naturally pushing the way we want to go forwards. The most notable change for me is the use of layers on the new songs compared to the first album. I think everyone is more experienced now, so everyone feels more confident taking different approaches to writing and recording.
Is there a timescale for the album to be completed by?
No. The label have been very good about it; everyone has been really supportive. I think they know how important it is but they're also very excited about some of the stuff we've got. It isn't finished yet writing wise, but I think it could be by the end of the year. We've got about five or six songs that we really like, then there are others that we're working on and still playing around with that might make the album. Then there's a few more in the background that might come in, so we're still working through them all at the minute. It's quite a fruitful period for us as far as writing is concerned.
Do you tend to write more when you're on the road?
Not always. I'm going back home on Sunday for the day and I'm really annoyed I didn't bring my acoustic guitar with me so I can work on some stuff. There's so much going on I'm not getting a lot of bed time - sometimes you wish there were more hours in the day! Everyone's got their laptops and stuff, and there is a lot I'm excited about. When I go to sleep I'm always thinking up new ideas in my head, then I'll get up the next day and play another song I've thought about that morning. It's a strange position for us; we've never had to write and play at the same time. It's nice to be able to reflect on the live shows from a different perspective in terms of how the new material is progressing.
Is there a marked difference structurally with the new songs from those on the first record?
I think there's just more variety. We did quite a lot of extensive demos where some songs had quite unorthodox arrangements. It's hard to say at this stage what is going to be on the album. We tend to pick the more commercially sounding, single type of songs then build around them. Then we've got loads of other more weird bizarre shit that's very different to anything we've done before.
2016 hasn't been a particularly great year with the rise of right-wing politics worldwide, the UK's impending removal from the EU, and now Donald Trump becoming President of the United States. Have any of these events influenced your writing?
I've tried very hard not to let it seep in. Obviously everyone feels enraged and bitter about a lot of things that have happened this year, and part of me maybe wants to help channel people's aggression in a positive way, but another part of me also thinks it's naff so I don't want to do that. I try to avoid being too political. I think political tragedies are naturally affecting to a lot of people. It's harsh that someone like Lily Allen got stick for going into the Calais jungle, but at the same time it does make you an easy target. Our profile is nowhere near the same sort of level so it's not something I'll ever have to worry about, but you do have to be careful about being overly preachy because a lot of what you're saying is fairly obvious stuff. I remember when the Brexit thing happened - we were playing a show in Leicester and people were chanting "Fuck Brexit!" These are the kind of people that come to our show so why would I need to tell them that? I don't agree with it either but I don't want to be preaching to people. If you think Brexit's a great idea then let me have a discussion why I think it's not, but I'm not going to put it on a song. I find it condescending when artists do that a lot of the time. That's what people tend to object to when celebrities start getting involved with politics. I didn't study politics at university and don't feel comfortable trying to have a public debate with someone about these things. Gauge what you feel on a personal level and that's it for me.
Going back to the first record, a lot of the lyrics seem quite personal.
A lot of my favourite artists are the ones whose lyrics were quite intriguing. I remember being in my dad's car listening to Lou Reed and a song like 'Andy's Chest', where he's singing about heroin and hookers. I was only a young boy so had no idea what he was talking about. I could have found my own meaning in that song. There should be an element layered to songwriting where there's the writer's meaning, and there's the listener's meaning that should be able to transcend itself onto any generation. That's when songwriting is at its best. It's all very well having a simple message. It can also be very effective but for me, the best songs are the ones that have hidden depths where you can take from it what you want. Not necessarily ambiguous either; ambiguity can be misconstrued for having a lack of meaning, a lack of definition. I hear some songs and immediately think they're not about anything at all. Songs that use lots of descriptives to cloud the lack of a plot to them. But then a lot of the great writers like David Bowie, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Joni Mitchell use metaphors and hidden meanings within their songs. They also stand up on their own in whichever way you want to break it down. I always strive to be in that bracket. That's what I try to do anyway.
What are your plans for 2017?
I think a lot depends on where we are with the album. I don't think it will take that long to record, it's just a case of coming up with a start and finish that we're happy with.
Do you have a producer in mind for the album?
We've been working with a producer called Adam Jaffrey so he's someone we may continue to record with when we get around to making the album. He's based in Hackney and spent a lot of time working with us on the new songs. Nothing's concrete. I think we'll probably assess what we want to do next after this tour is finished; there'll probably be a big team meeting and serious hats will be put on! There will be some more songwriting as there's some stuff I want to finish before we lock in all the tracks. I've a few things up my sleeve.
Are there any new bands you've been impressed with recently?
We played with someone in Liverpool last night called AGP who were really good. I'd never heard them before and they were great. No one told me they were playing with us either but it was perfect. Really nice. I'd definitely recommend them.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
I was watching the Oasis documentary Supersonic the other day and Noel was saying: "People think it's easy but we've been doing this for three years!" And I was like, three years? We've been doing this for ten years! This day and age it really isn't easy. If you want to do it and succeed - and your success is all relative - then being able to continue doing it is a start. We run a pretty tight ship. It's not as luxurious being in a band as people might expect. If you love writing and playing music then that's a good enough reason I guess. We played with Local Natives recently and they said how hard it had been for them, staying on people's sofas after shows and so on. You're going to be one in a million if it comes in really easily. I've seen bands sign really early to major labels and then suffer the other side of the industry where they're promised the world but given very little, the first album doesn't sell, and they're dropped. I've got friends who've been in bands where that's happened. It's tricky, so you've got to have your wits about you. Be smart. Often doing less is more; keep things short and sweet when playing to unknown crowds, and just play your best songs. Always leave people wanting more.
Finally, the name Gengahr is a play on the Pokémon character of a similar name and Pokémon GO is currently a huge worldwide phenomenon. Are you fans?
No, not really. Everyone deleted it after about two days. It's pretty boring. Our agent didn't know what Pokémon was when he started working with us. I told him about Pokémon GO and he didn't really get the whole Pokémon thing, but now he's on it all the time! When we were kids it was huge. People used to get stabbed for Pokémon cards. It was crazy. Sometimes someone has a good idea and it connects with everybody.
For more information on Gengahr visit their official website.
Photo by Shaun Gordon