Bristol-based noise outfit Spectres have been making uncompromising, experimental, and occasionally confrontational music for the past seven years now. Originally from Barnstaple in Devon, the four-piece - Joe Hatt (guitar & vocals), Adrian Dutt (guitar), Darren Frost (bass) and Andy Came (drums) - first came to Drowned In Sound's attention after unleashing the excellent Hunger EP in the early part of 2013 on Howling Owl Records, the label set up by Hatt and Dutt that's gone on to become a creative hub for Bristol's thriving music and art scene. Having signed to Sonic Cathedral the following year, they put out their debut long player Dying in 2015 to a string of positive reviews, following it up in March of this year with Condition, a record that highlights Spectres as one of the most innovative bands around at the minute.
Currently in the middle of a European tour that's already seen one van written off in France, DiS caught up with them post-soundcheck before the first show of the UK leg at Nottingham's Old Angel Microbrewery.
DiS: How's the tour gone so far? I believe you've lost one van already?
Joe Hatt: We're playing almost double the shows we normally would on this tour. It's going really well. We played one awful gig in Bordeaux; that was our second show. It was organised at the last minute so there was no promotion. We got there two hours later than we were supposed to and literally had to do a quick soundcheck then play. Halfway through the set we were all looking at each other as if to say why are we here. But apart from that, it's been really interesting. There's been no support acts at a lot of the shows yet we've still been averaging around 30 people per show which to us, with the music we're making, is pretty good. We've been really happy with how it's gone so far. Now let's see what the UK has to offer!
Which show stood out the most? Which was your favourite?
JH: I guess Paris would be up there. It was amazing. We've played there quite a few times so we have a bit of a following there now. People keep coming back to see our shows.
Adrian Dutt: Paris, Barcelona, and Berlin for me. They were all good venues and we played to really good crowds.
Do you feel Spectres get a better response in mainland Europe than they do in the UK?
JH: This week will be interesting. I guess it will be the proof of that one way or the other. We've wondered about that before, why people seem more receptive to us in Europe than they do back home. I don't know why we get better crowds in France than we do in the UK.
Do people instantly know all the songs when you play there? Is there a certain album or era of the band that goes down better?
JH: We definitely find that when we play Paris. There's certain songs we'll never leave out when we play there as we notice a lot of repeat customers that come and see us. Which is great. So it's going to be interesting as we haven't done a proper UK tour for two years. We've played the odd show here and there but not had a proper run of dates in a long time. We've had some positive reviews for this record so it will be interesting to see how they translate to people coming to the shows.
Condition seems like a natural progression from Dying both sonically and in its lyrical themes. In many ways, it could be considered a concept record in the way it examines the human condition amidst shards of brutal noise. Was that your intention from the outset?
JH: I guess so. It seems like a natural progression for me as I started writing the lyrics for this record pretty much straight after we finished the first one. So I already had five songs ready almost immediately which kind of ties the two records together in a way. Then the artwork was highly conceptual too and took about a year to get sorted. It was never our intention to write the album in a certain style or mood, but as always happens everything just turned out that way. We didn't write many songs. At the end of the recording sessions, we had about half a song left over. So we ended up using pretty much everything we had.
AD: Every song informs the next song as far as the writing goes. We don't have a specific way or format in which we write. It just happens.
Which song came first?
AD: It was 'Neck'.
JH: Initially there were no plans to put that on the album. We recorded it at the last minute after we'd finished the first record. We were going to release it as a single in between the two records. But then there was one song which didn't work out, and we thought Condition needed another song on it. So we spoke to Nat (Cramp) at Sonic Cathedral about it and he said he couldn't believe we weren't going to put 'Neck' on the album anyway. I don't think it really bridges the gap between the two records soundwise, but we wrote it quite soon after Dying so I guess it does in a way. We weren't even going to play it live but it's now become a focal part of the set.
How did the rest of the album come together?
JH: In the end, it became really rushed. Initially, we'd planned on going away somewhere to write the second record but that never happened for various reasons. So we started writing and I literally only had five songs about a month before we were due to start recording. So I started to panic and tried to write a song a week for the next month, and half the songs weren't finished at all before we started recording. Stuff like 'Dissolve', which we'd been playing around with for weeks but hadn't quite got there yet. Then 'Intro' just came like that, something we just made up on the spot. Once we finished recording the album, we then had to spend even more time in the studio learning how to play the songs live. Not because we didn't play on the record, but because a lot of the songs changed instinctively over time with so many bits added during the recording process. For example 'Welcoming The Flowers' changed so much by the time we recorded it.
Dominic Mitchison has worked on both albums so I guess it's fair to say he's become an integral part of the recording process. What does he bring to your sound?
JH: He recorded the Hunger EP back in 2013 as well. That was the first time we worked with him, and that was in a mate's bedroom so God knows how he got it to sound like it did! He used mattresses as sound proofing and it sounded amazing. So from that moment onwards, he's been the first person we've gone to when it's come to recording not just our band but others we've worked with on the (Howling Owl) label as well. Then he built his own studio which is where The Naturals did their first album. The sound quality has been insane on the two albums he's done with us.
One thing that I find whenever I listen to Condition is I hear something new every time.
JH: And Dominic is a big part of that. He brings ideas in and isn't afraid to say if he doesn't think something is right. We really trust him so I guess he is like a fifth member in a Nigel Godrich kind of way. His mixing is second to none as well. He likes to keep it quite subtle rather than going too over the top. He puts his own electronic sounds in but very subtly. He fills every space really well.
It's probably fair to say you've developed into a very different band from that one that recorded the Hunger EP four years ago. Is that reflected in the current live set? Do you still play many songs from that era?
JH: For the European shows we actually started playing 'Maybe You Shouldn't Be Living Here' again. We were playing to people that had never seen us before and it felt like we had to play some of the older material rather than just fill the set with songs off the new record. We're not going to do that in the UK because it's not really representative of what we're doing now. So we've taken a couple of the older songs out of the set and replaced them with two from Condition, so it's really very new record heavy.
The video to 'Dissolve' is quite startling and harrowing in equal measures. Where did the idea come from for that piece of film?
JH: We normally do our videos with a guy called James Hankins. He'd made all of our videos up to that point but he really struggled to come up with an idea for 'Dissolve', so this guy called Will Hooper came up with lots of ideas instead and that's where the video came from. I'd be here all night if I tried to explain the concept behind it, but the main idea was to create this eerie vibe and leave people in suspense at the end. Which I think is also reflected in the song.
Are the visuals and artwork as important as the music? Not just your music videos but also the sleeve artwork too?
Darren Frost: We think as much about the artwork as we do the music. Both go hand in hand. We're always discussing the way we're presented as much as the music. It's so important and if it's not right or doesn't sit with us then we won't do it. The visual representation of the band has to be right otherwise it's a nonstarter.
AD: It's not about image or shock tactics. There's reasoning behind everything we do. We finished the album musically back in April or May of last year. But then we spent the next six months making sure the artwork and accompanying visuals were right. If we'd have just released the record with any old random cover it could have been out last summer. But that's not how we work. Once we'd finished the music it gave us half a year to think about everything else, and even then it seemed quite rushed. We really do as much put into the visual side of the band as we do the music. We try and use visuals for the live shows where possible as well. We just don't always get the opportunity to do it.
You tend to get booked to play "psych fests" but very little else on the festival front. Why do you think that is? Would you even consider Spectres as a psych band?
JH: We do get frustrated by it. We've never called ourselves "psych" but they're the only offers we get to play festivals. The shoegaze label makes sense because early on we did have elements of it and also we're signed to Sonic Cathedral. But again I think people assume we're a psych band because of our connection to that label and them having a major presence in the psych scene. It's just an empty genre where everyone is trying to outdo each other all the time. It's just a fashion thing. Everyone just dresses the same and there's this whole backstage attitude where everyone is trying to outcool each other. I remember we played a psych fest in Barcelona and the sound engineer was laughing when we told him we played quite loud and knew how to manage it. Thirty seconds into our soundcheck he was waving his arms around and shouting, "What are you doing? What are you doing?"
Nick who's with us has become our tour manager as well as the driver, so is another integral part of the band. It's not that there's anything wrong with the sound guys at the venues we're playing, it's just that we know our own sound and how to manage it and it's really difficult for someone that doesn't know the band to make it sound how it should. We always ask the venues not to put anything through the PA and let us do our own amps. It's tough, and we usually get there in the end, but without someone like Nick telling the sound man it sounds shit and therefore not an enjoyable experience, things would be a lot tougher. We're not very good at conveying that message whereas Nick is. But back to the psych thing, it really does frustrate me that they're the only bookings we get. But then another way of looking at it I guess is if we didn't have the psych label we probably wouldn't have half the dates on this tour either.
I saw you entered this year's Glastonbury Emerging Talent competition and made the long list for the final 40.
JH: It's the only way we'll get a chance to play somewhere like Glastonbury. We haven't got a booking agent in the UK, and we know now that it's such a closed avenue. If you haven't got an agent there's very little chance of getting on any lineup. That's the way the system works. We're not a part of all that so have to contact the festival bookers direct, except most of them only deal with agents which is why we end up having to enter Battle of the Bands competitions. And even then still can't get on the bill. It's frustrating because the first record was well received and we got a few random festivals off the back of it. So it will be a bit of an experiment to see what happens this time round with the second record.
If there's any weight behind it, we can use that, but even then we know that without a manager or a booking agent there's nothing. We've got one festival so far this summer in the whole of the UK and Europe and it's so disappointing because we want to be playing as many as possible. We have two albums out and we've played a lot of shows, far more than many of these bands that seem to land from nowhere on all these nice bills. Bands that are only there because of PRS or the BBC or having a good agency behind them. Even in the last two years between Dying and Condition it's become even harder trying to get onto festival bills without the right people working for you behind the scenes.
Why do you think it has become so marginalised now for smaller bands? Agents do seem to have more power than they've ever had nowadays. Do you think it might even be a regional thing? London is still the epicentre of the music industry in many people's eyes and if you have little to no presence there you're easily forgotten about.
JH: I think there's a little of that. I guess some of the things we've done over the past couple of years have had a negative effect to the point where some people just don't want to touch us. Maybe it's a bit of payback for certain things? If that is the case then what a sad state of affairs we're in if you can't speak out or do anything to ruffle a few feathers. It's horrific if everything is sanitised like that.
AD: We'll never be in limbo because we've done so much for ourselves.
JH: One of the reasons we got the album done so quickly was to give ourselves six months to find a booking agent. We went round a lot of agencies and we thought with two well-received albums to our name someone would take us on. Not in an arrogant way, but we've worked so hard in every aspect that we need to, so it's soul destroying to be told no because we're not the right fit, or this year they're focusing on bands with girls that play keyboards or whatever. There's plenty of guitar bands who are getting the opportunity to work with these agents but a lot of that is down to the way they look or being so inoffensive they have literally nothing to say. I get our music can be quite confrontational at times, but we could be making money for a booking agent. I really don't know what more we can do?
If you were offered a lucrative deal on the premise you moved to London would you do it?
JH: No, definitely not. The cool thing about working with Sonic Cathedral is the label's based in London but we don't need to be, and by the same token we can still be based in Bristol without having to be on a Bristol label. So no, I wouldn't move to London. It's not that I couldn't handle living there, it's just what's the point?
JH: We know it has. One of my friends works in the industry and he was in a meeting with Island Records and some other labels and there was a point in the meeting where they started talking about 'Spectre' and taking potshots at us. Mostly comments along the lines of "Who do they think they are?" and "Why have they done that?" Until it went wrong, that was a really positive thing. It was a really good campaign. After that we said we wouldn't do any more stunts or pranks, and then one day I was walking home and I saw the Spotify billboard. Those adverts are really annoying and patronising. They sum up so much about what is wrong within the music industry so I photoshopped it in about two minutes and thought no one would be paying any attention with it being Christmas time. Then Nat from Sonic Cathedral messaged me asking why I'd done that as Spotify had contacted saying that isn't the case! They asked us to take it down which we eventually did, but for me it was more a case of saying fuck you to Spotify and the industry in general.
I just find it all really arrogant and patronising. Things like that should be called out. And it's a sad state of affairs if when someone does they get blacklisted for doing it. That might not be the case at all. Maybe they just don't like our band and never think about that kind of stuff at all, but we're well within our rights to speak out about things like that, and after all the years we've chipped away trying to make this band work it does feel like other forces are constantly working against us. But then surely there are people who want to work with artists that are pushing against the system and aren't the same as everyone else?
So what does the future hold for Spectres? Will there be a third album?
JH: Definitely. That's the overriding thing of the last three weeks touring. If we weren't into it we wouldn't be driving 7,000 miles to play in front of 20 people. That isn't what drives us. We would like stuff to change in terms of playing where we feel we deserve to be playing; to have bigger exposure and play more festivals. We feel we've done our time now without getting the opportunities other bands get without ever having played anywhere near the number of shows we have. It's not a bitterness thing where we think we deserve more than they do but we genuinely feel like we've got so much to offer. We do connect with people and hopefully something sweet will happen this year where someone takes a punt on us.
Bristol's been quite vibrant with its diverse music scene for a number of years now. Do you think Howling Owl as a label could have existed and prospered anywhere else?
JH: I think Bristol's always had a healthy cultural vibe to it. The Howling Owl label has definitely developed as a result. It's not what it was when it started. Its developed into a more left field, electronic based label now. I don't really know what it is anymore. It started out as an outlet for noisy garage bands, but now it's become more of an extension of what we listen to. We've made so many more connections through the label and we want to put their music out there. We'll never stop pushing the boundaries. There is a second wave in the city now with new bands forming and labels setting up, and a lot of that is down to Howling Owl. It's just as exciting as it always was. We've become quite detached from it as a band. Last year we only played in Bristol twice. We tried to take ourselves - not out of the scene - but tried to make our shows a bit more special. We are going to try and play Bristol more this year. It is fun, and it also gives us the opportunity to experiment more with our visuals around the stage show.
What advice would you give to new bands that are just starting out?
JH: Move to London! It's a weird one because we can't really give advice on how to be a successful band. But the thing that's kept us going is the fact we've never compromised, and if we started changing the way we made music purely to appeal to a wider audience or get a major record deal it wouldn't be us. If you're doing it purely for enjoyment then do whatever feels natural. Do what you want to do. If you start chasing something you're more likely to fail.
Are there any new artists you'd recommend Drowned In Sound and its readers should check out?