Already one of the finest live bands in the country, their debut full-length has seen Tall Ships reaffirm their promise
Tall Ships are an increasingly rare entity. A band who’ve been prepared to pay their dues, to learn their craft; who accept that technical ability and a knack for the song are not in themselves enough. That in order to achieve genuine, prolonged success on your own terms, you have to work for it.
They’ve become a staple on the UK live circuit, bringing their combination of lofty ambition alongside an uncanny knack for making the complex somehow welcoming, to an array of venues which have gradually, promisingly, been expanding in capacity and attendance. It’s been a seemingly endless four year tour, crafting a band who understand their audiences, themselves and precisely what they want to achieve.
With a back catalogue including two EPs – peaking with last year’s exceptional Hit the Floor single – the levels of ambition shown since day one meant Tall Ships were always likely to thrive within the long-play format. To anyone who has witnessed them live, Ric Phethean (vocals, guitar, synths), Matt Parker (bass, samples) and Jamie Bush (percussion) immediately show themselves to be versatile musicians with a broad and experimental approach to arrangement and instrumentation, encased within a gossamer-thin guise of the traditional three- piece set-up. But even with these factors taken into account, Everything Touching displays a sonic breadth and collective sense of the grandiose it’s difficult to account to the band’s requisite parts.
Over ten tracks and three quarters of an hour, Tall Ships present a wildly varied and deeply sensory experience. Opening with the sonorous roar of T=0, the listener is immediately gripped by unrelenting layers of atmosphere. As the record progresses, you’re dealt the confident, melodic strut of Phosphoresence and the luxurious key-led Ode to Ancestors, before being moved towards a powerful closing suite. Ambient interlude Send News bleeds into the poignant crash of Books, which in turn makes way for a triumphant and euphoric finale, all nine minutes of the intensifying, overflowing Murmerations. This is how albums are meant to end.
With the album hitting the shelves in the coming weeks, Crack spoke to Ric about the long road which has led Tall Ships to this point. We touched on spades, raves and Bruce Willis along the way.
It must give you a great sense of satisfaction to finally see Everything Touching being released. How long a process has it been for you?
It’s been very slow and steady. We’ve been a band for nearly four years, and every year we find ourselves doing a little bit better and a little higher up. I think the reason it’s taken so long is because we haven’t really been ready to write a body of songs, it’s taken a long time to figure out what sort of band we were and what kind of music we want to make. If we had written and released an album a year ago we wouldn’t have been ready. We’ve got a body of songs we think are strong and represent our sound, but it’s taken four years to get us here.
Was it was a case of taking these songs out on the road and gauging reactions, or experimenting with sounds in the studio in order to get them to where you wanted?
This time we worked in the studio and then had to translate the songs live. For example, on the last song Murmerations there are about 40 players, so trying to figure out a way to do that live as a three piece is quite a challenge.
That song really stands out as an ambitious, almost dancefloor-aimed track. How interested are you in that kind of music and scene, were you listening to different kinds of music as inspiration?
We toured a lot with 65daysofstatic and the way they use electronics is so amazing. That probably had an influence when we were writing, having seen them live playing these songs which were eight minutes long, a solid kick all the way through, and the way people would just lose themselves in it.
So you saw the way crowds reacted to that and it appealed to you?
It wasn’t so much the crowd reaction, more the reaction in us. Dance music is a lot more inclusive. There’s something about going to see an amazing DJ; you’re not watching anything really, you’re feeding off the music and people around you. You bring a lot more to it and respond to it in a more personal way, while with rock music you’re much more of a spectator.
How much experimentation with sounds and instruments went into creating the album?
For Murmerations we went to Matt and Jamie’s old school hall and recorded a 35 piece choir of our friends and family, and put a message out on the internet asking if people wanted to be on the album. On the second song Best Ever, which is an instrumental track, we’ve got Jamie playing a spade. We tried out loads of percussion but couldn’t find anything quite right and ended up with this spade, which was perfect as you’ve got the wooden handle down to the metal head, you could roll up and down and get this huge variation of sound. It’s got everything you want!
You chose to open with T=0, which is a song you’re quickly becoming synonymous with. When you wrote that, did you immediately feel like you were onto something special?
Well the main riff had been kicking around for a long, long time. We really liked it and were excited by it, but had no idea how people might respond, because it’s quite an unusual song.
You must have had a lot of confidence in that riff to dedicate the first two minutes of your album to it.
Yeah, well the whole song is built around a four note riff. But it’s more about the dynamic of it. Live it’s all looped up, the same riff played on four octaves and trying to achieve as big a sound as possible.
With such variation in style, sound and tempo within the record, was there any concern as to them all forming one cohesive piece?
We’ve had issues with that before. We’ve always felt that our first two EPs didn’t hang together well because of that huge array of styles. We actually feel that even though there is a variation of sounds and instruments on the album, it does hang together nicely and there is a certain cohesion. Because lyrically and conceptually all the songs are so linked and self-referential. We’ve definitely got a sound, but it’s difficult to pin it down to a certain genre and arrangement of instruments. But we’re so lucky as a band that we’ve been able to do what we want.
You’ve mentioned this thematic strain that runs through the record, could you explain that a bit more?
When we were starting to write the record, I became really obsessed with the Big Bang, and the idea of the Singularity; of one infinitely small point where everything that exists and will ever exist was contained. The title, Everything Touching, which is the last line that I sing in T=0, was born out of that.
It’s so refreshing to see young bands having the confidence and ambition to express such high ideas within a record.
I feel like a lot of current bands can be quite empty lyrically, singing about going to the beach and hanging out with friends, which is important, but if you’re not going to articulate anything fresh or interesting about it then it’s a bit vacuous. For me, lyrically I like to try and actually address what it is that makes life so absolutely incredible, but also makes it so difficult and awkward at times.
You don’t know how many chances you’re going to get to release a record, so you don’t want to look back at it and think you wasted the opportunity singing about girls.
Exactly. Every song has a little subtext, I mean they’re all about girls deep down! I just like to hide that behind big concepts [laughs]. I mean it’s taken us such a long time to get to this point, and we’ve got here out of sheer hard work and amazing support from so many people. We’ve worked fucking hard to get here, and this album could be our only opportunity to do this. When we started we never dreamed we’d get to the point where we got a chance to make an album, never mind tour and have people come and see us and sing our lyrics back at us. We just wanted to create something that felt special.
The record is being jointly released by Blood and Biscuits and Big Scary Monsters, what was the reasoning behind that?
wasn’t for any reason as such, our first EPs were also jointly released by them. Kevin (Douch) who runs BSM is a really good friend of ours, as is Simon (Morley) who runs Blood and Biscuits, and they can pool their resources for us; it’s very practical for them and for us, we have the benefits of being on two great labels.
And do those labels work together for anyone else?
No, they don’t, and that’s been their offer right from the start. It’s a great compliment.
As a band who have toured fairly relentlessly, you’re in a strong position to comment on the live circuit within the UK at the moment. Are you still finding a great deal of appetite for live music? Do you play many gigs to two pissed blokes and the barman?
[laughs] The reason we are where we are is because of relentless touring. We’ve never been able to promote ourselves in other ways, it’s been pure touring. But for me, I write music to perform it live most of the time, because when the live music experience is done well it can be so intense and life-affirming, it’s a really important part of music and life. And strangely, people are happy to pay a load of money to see live music, even though they expect their recorded music to be free. They are such separate entities now. There’s no feeling of ownership with music these days, whereas before you’d buy a record and feel like it was yours. Now things just feel borrowed, through streaming or whatever, you can stake no claim to it really being yours.
There was that story recently about the fact that music downloaded from iTunes ceases to be your property after you die.
Wasn’t Bruce Willis suing them over that? That’s fucking amazing. What a guy
You’re setting out on a European tour with the legendary Nada Surf soon, how have you found Europe in the past?
We love it over there. We went out with 65daysofstatic and found the audiences to be really open and really hungry. We’d be playing first on at ten past seven in an eight hundred-capacity venue, and everyone would be there to watch the support band. That just doesn’t happen in the UK. We’ve had some really good experiences. We played a festival called Immergut about an hour north of Berlin. I’d say it’s the biggest crowd we’d ever played to, about 1000 people in a packed-out tent, and no one had heard of us before. But it was the best response we’ve ever had, the loudest crowd. They were applauding us as we were packing down our gear, they just wouldn’t stop clapping.
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Everything Touching is out now via Blood & Biscuits / Big Scary Monsters
Words: Geraint Davies
Photo: Stacey Hatfield