We’re back into manifesto territory, but it makes a nice change to hear a band willing to talk about what criteria one should actually judge a band. “I would have gone to see a show by Gentle Giant [’70s prog rockers] in ’76 if I’d been old enough, and enjoyed it just as much as a gig by the New York Dolls”, explains Giles. “I don’t understand why you have to be on either side of the fence. If somebody’s good, they’re good. If they’re shit, they’re shit – it’s as simple as that”. Christian continues, on the old chestnut of passion vs technical ability: “We’ve been to gigs where we’ve said, ‘that guy is technically rubbish, but I’m quite enjoying this. There’s a good song there, good emotion etc’. We’ve also been to gigs where you go, ‘I’m not into the stuff, but fuckin’ hell they’re good!’. You should take whatever’s good out of it. Just because it’s technically good but the songwriting isn’t up to scratch doesn’t mean it’s devoid of merit, and similarly, just because you go to a Daniel Johnson gig and he’s hamfisting the piano like he’s got mittens on, doesn’t mean that that’s shit. There’s a real emotional merit in it, and I just can’t understand why people can’t look at it both ways. We’re good mates with OceanSize, and I don’t actually like their stuff, but they’re good lads, and they’re awesome musicians. So I like watching them play. Their drummer, particularly, is one of the most talented and devoted musicians I’ve ever seen playing an instrument. To watch him is to watch something amazing, ’cause he’s in his element doing something that he totally loves. The music? when I walk out of there I won’t be putting the cd on or anything, but watching them is brilliant”. Shaking his head mournfully Christian concludes, winding down, “It’s a very British attitude”.
So Brandon partly joined the group, in a casual arrangement that saw music files being sent back and forth, online, across the Atlantic. “I wasn’t very into it for a very long time [laughs],” says Brandon, with a soft Texan drawl. “I was really involved with another band, and this was just something that every now and again John Mark would call me up and say, ‘I’ve got some stuff here – do you want to sing something over it?’. It was like that for years, a side project. I never thought I’d get to Europe with it.” Christian immediately jumps in, “Which you’re a bit ambivalent about – mimicking the singer- ‘I never thought I’d get here, and I’m not sure about how I feel now that I am here'”. There’s a gentle jostling continuously in their conversation, regulating each other.
This self-regulation has served them well, creating a balance that allows for equal input into the band’s studio work. “We’re pretty good at telling each other when something’s shit. Nobody’s that precious about it, ’cause everybody’s contributing something,” says Giles, while the other two nod in agreement. In fact, rather than some transatlantic culture clash, it seems there’s a certain shared ethic between Texas and Lancashire. “I think Texans are in a kind of similar position to Northern England,” Giles posits, “in that they’re ruled by this centralised government making all the decisions for them, even though the actual economy of the area is totally different. You sort of feel that your identity is different from the rest of the country if you’re from the North of England”. “I really enjoy being in Burnley as opposed to being in London. I just don’t get it down there at all,” chips in Brandon. As if sensing the unspoken spectre of George W. Bush, which is bubbling in my smug European head, threatening to form its way into an ever-so undiplomatic questions, Giles continues, “I always got on really well with any Texans I’ve met. I’m sure there are some bad apples, but then again [pauses] I’ve had me head kicked in in Ashdon by Northern Bastuds on many occasions!!”.
It’s true that Brandon’s Texan twang gives the album a particular American feel, but it’s also coupled with lyrics that veer towards the spiritual – or, in cases, almost evangelical (One of us is dead). “I guess there is a theme”, says Brandon, shrugging his shoulders when questioned, “but it came together by accident if there is one. We strung all the songs together, and they had a similar vibe”. But it’s not the first time they’ve heard the ‘religious’ line: “A review online gave a full-on religious analysis of the album, which kind of shocked us,” says Christian. “But when you think about it, we could go and play at Christfest!” Brandon throws in to the hearty laughter of his English bandmates.
“If they book us, we'll fookin’ play!”
“There's a lot of money in the Christian market,” Brandon points out sagely.
“We'll look at the fookin’ fee, and if it's alright we'll be there,” says Giles enthusiastically. You get the feeling that The Earlies would play anywhere given the chance [perhaps even if the fee wasn’t ‘alright’].
If the band, and Brandon in particular, aren’t necessarily forthcoming on the lyrics, it’s to some extent because a certain part of them were written by the missing John Mark. “If I haven’t written lyrics for a song,” says Brandon, “and I give John Mark half a chance, he will. It’s only the last couple of years that he’s really gotten into writing lyrics – he carries around a notebook and everything. They’re not really lyrics, they’re more ‘poetry’. He’ll try to squeeze them into a song and I’ll say 'Man, this doesn't work! The phrasing is all jacked up, you've got too many words here'”. It’s a combination of songwriting styles that produces interesting results. “John Mark is from that purely sample culture,” adds Giles. “That's the music he was listening to when I met him, '80s based chopped up sample stuff, and he's no problem with you editing what he's doing. It's all just put out there to be fucked with. Brandon is the one who's got the ear for the vocals, for how they fit. A lot of the stuff we did initially was, I suppose, free-forming words, words that fitted to the melody of the song”. Christian gives his reflection on the two different styles: “Brandon can often do stuff that's more straight down the line, a poppy-indie sort of thing, whereas John Mark does stuff that's just too weird to even get into. It just dun't make sense [all laugh]. It's unsingable!”. Brandon perhaps sums it up best, ” When I write lyrics, I'm trying to tell a story or talk about a life experience, something that makes sense. Then John Mark will bring in words that are just illogical, but when we combine them together we get the best of both worlds”.
“I didn't write any of the lyrics on the album, so it's not something I want to talk about,” says Giles when pushed. “I'm sure if you asked John Mark about them, he would actually have some concept as to what it all means”. “I think he finds that concept afterwards,” Christian butts in, “to be perfectly honest. I think a lot of people do when they're writing stuff. Just string words together, rhyme them up, bang ’em about and then afterwards go 'ooh, I think that's about that' – and you're entitled to do that”. But Giles continues, unperturbed, giving a glimpse of where his friend may have been at when writing: “John Mark was certainly in a position when he were making that record, when he was totally rootless, sleeping on people's floors, in their backrooms. He'd been in England for about ten years, learning how to make music, learning about studio stuff. And a lot of the themes seem to be about wanting to go back somewhere, feeling adrift in the world and all that. I can kind of see where that's coming from, ’cause I know him”.
The Earlies as a touring band came together as much out of exigence as anything else. The studio project found backing, and with an album release even this unconventional band found themselves on the traditional route of touring to promote the album. Has taking the songs out of the studio made the band’s sound different? “At the moment it’s very fuckin’ different, ’cause we’re losing bits of equipment by the day,” laughs Christian in exasperation. “It’s becoming more organic. We usually have samples, producing some of the weirder sounds from the album, and the machine broke three days into the tour [noticeably fed up]. It represents those songs but doesn’t sound exactly like them, ’cause it would have been a farily boring live show if we’d done it exactly the same. They’ve been lifted up a bit, there’s more guitar in the live show. The harmonies sound different, ’cause it’s four different voices doing them, whereas on the album it’s just Brandon doing them. But that’s cool as well – we could have got a vocoder or harmonizer, but it’s nice to have a real live harmony. There’s cello, brass etc.”
Amidst the touring (they’ve played Stateside, UK, and now Europe), they’ve started work on their second album. It will be their first, in a sense, as a fully formed band, given that the songs that appear on the first album were written before they actually realised they were to be a band. “We're pretty far into it, it's almost done. When we get back to England, we'll spend another couple of weeks getting it together. We've another couple of tracks to finish off, then it should be done. The label seems to be behind it, so…” says Christian. He then reminisces comparing the development of the first album with the current: “Honestly, if you’d heard the songs in their early stages, all of them sounded pretty toss. And with the new album we’ve gone through the same process again. It starts with a loop, or something simple, and everybody just adds to it. Then somebody chops something out, or leaves something in, we disagree over it, then Brandon puts some vocals over it. The words get re-written and moved around. It’s just this process of shifting things a tiny little bit”.
The process, though, has changed slightly, due to the live performances and schedules: “We did a lot of festivals in England last summer,” Brandon explains, “so I had a lot of down-time, and Christian and I would get together and work on stuff, a bunch of material. Nothing longer than two minutes – then we’d bring it to John Mark and Giles, and generate material from there. It was a bit more active than the first album”. “It still sounded so shit for a long time!” Christian picks up, with refreshing honesty. “We booked a studio for three weeks, and I was so pessimistic going in there, ’cause I thought ‘this is so shit’, but at the end of the three weeks I’m very happy with it. It’s surprising how quickly it can come together. It wasn’t particularly confidence-inspiring before Christmas, was it?”, he asks his bandmates, who nod with the visible relief of those who’ve weathered the storm.
So what can fans expect from the new album? “It's more musical,” opts Giles. “Christian and Brandon have sat down and actually written some chord sequences, so it's better”. “It is different,” agrees Christian, “but we couldn't really keep going on trudging through that sort of pastoral easy listening, gently in the background kind of stuff. We've evolved into a band that does live shows, and we've got to turn something out that represents that side of us too. We wanted the live set to have more impact, to have more up-tempo stuff. It's heavier and harder than the last record”.
Slipping momentarily into record-company speak, Giles declares, “we just wanted to progress with this record, to progress with each record”. “Bit hard that, in't it? After a while, to keep progressing,” Christian punctures the cliché with precision. That’s The Earlies for you – a self-regulating cliché-free zone, musically and otherwise. Three Monkeys are converted.