It seems virtually impossible to talk about music in 2021 without at least vaguely acknowledging the negative impact of the pandemic, but for W.H. Lung, an enforced year-long pause served as something of an impetus for the five-piece to rip things up and start again.
Originally hailing from Manchester, the group’s stellar 2019 debut, 'Incidental Music', owed a debt to krautrock, post-punk and synthpop, with its sprawling instrumentals and catchy hooks. Fast forward to 2021 and Vanities sees the group shifting gears into dancier territories, reflecting an all too relatable longing for the clubs and spaces denied to us all over the past 18 months.
Born from lengthy periods of experimentation during lockdown, which saw the group swapping ideas remotely, Vanities is an album that evolved from a personal means of maintaining contact in isolation into a celebratory burst of electronic rock.
It’s something of an antithesis to the global situation that ultimately inspired its creation and the end result is nine joyous tracks that arrive perfectly formed with a sound that feels tailor-made for live shows.
Paul Weedon caught up with lead singer Joe Evans back in early August at a time when COVID had temporarily put paid to the band’s plans to return to the stage. Evans was nevertheless in fine form, leaping at the opportunity to reflect on the album’s creation, its influences and the importance of its key ingredient - a keen sense of fun.
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Congratulations on the new album, Joe. It might not sound like it, but 'Vanities' is very much a product of the pandemic, isn’t it? Was it already kind of gestating when lockdown began?
We had started to write. We started to pass around different ideas. I wouldn't say that the album as it’s come out was gestating at that period. It was more a general evolution of 'Incidental Music', actually. We had one single that we released for charity between the first album and this one and it struck at kind of a strange time for us.
We weren't sure where to go from 'Incidental Music', so the enforced pause of the pandemic was useful for us creatively. We have never massively been a ‘write in the room’ kind of band, but there was a certain amount of distance, both in terms of the music that we created for Incidental Music and also from each other in the world that I think we used in order to almost start a new musical trajectory.
What was the starting point?
So, 'Pearl In The Palm' was written for the live set towards the end of when we were touring before the pandemic, but apart from that, all the songs were written in the summer. And they weren't written necessarily for anything in particular - it was actually just a way of me and Tom [Sharkett, guitarist] keeping in communication. We were just having fun.
So the songs that were on the album are kind of a handful of loads of ideas that we were just passing back and forth. We found ourselves randomly prolific. And I think it was because we weren't writing with the intention of putting out an album anytime soon… Tom was exploring new ways of writing music, new machines, new pieces of software and I was exploring new ways of singing - a more direct way of singing, starting with melody and building structure and lyrics around a melody, so having fun is how the album came about.
When did everything start coming together as an album?
It was around June, I think, or July and we said, ‘I think we might have an album here actually now’. We'd written 20-30 songs, and it was about ‘Right, let's kind of pick the ones that we want to roll with now’. But they were all written in the spirit of keeping in touch, you know? We'd lived together for a little while before that and then we went our separate ways. We lived together in Tod[morden] for a while… Tom was in Wales and I was in South Manchester in the family home, just passing ideas back and forth and then we came together again at the end of summer. We lived in Tod’ for a little bit, again to kind of bring the ideas together.
There's a much more overt dance vibe to 'Vanities', which I understand was reflective of the kind of music that you and Tom were listening to at the time?
Exactly. So I think it was when we stopped having to write songs for W.H. Lung that we were able to write the new album for W.H. Lung, really. On the first album - which I still love - it was a certain time of our lives and we were having so much fun writing songs that we didn't know when to stop, so they went on for ages… We’d have an idea and we’d just keep rolling with it... I think that album is often really well reflected live. You can really kind of bed into all the textures that we wanted to create and all the influences that were poured into it, consciously or unconsciously.
But with this one, Tom was writing the music that he was listening to much more. He was kind of digging into his record collection and saying, ‘Well, I can create some of these sounds as well and we're just having fun at the moment, so it doesn't need to be for anything’... He would pass me a song and it would kind of be instantly catchy and so I'd want to do something that was instant and direct for it.
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It comes through on tunes like 'Showstopper', but the whole album feels like a proper antidote for the last year that everyone's just had.
Yeah. Maybe it's the result of having an energy build up, like when you've been cooped up inside all day, and it gets to the evening and you feel like you're bouncing off the walls. It’s an extended version of that, really. These were the ideas that we were naturally having. I think it was our subconscious desire to get up and start dancing together and have a good time with mates... Showstopper was written so quickly. That was quite late on in the process actually. We wanted one that was driven by a kind of Grauzone-esque bass guitar riff. That was quite a deliberate choice.
You mentioned that you're not a ‘write in the room’ band. How did production ultimately work when it came to producing the record, especially when you're bouncing ideas around remotely?
Tom would send me an idea and he'd say, ‘This sounds cool, doesn't it?’ And I'd say ‘That does sound cool. I've got an afternoon, I’ll have a little play with it.’ And I would put an idea down on my basic USB mic setup here on some very basic recording software that I have and pass it back. He’d try his best to EQ out the fuzz and put together a demo and that was basically how we were constructing songs. He would write around the vocal ideas that I had and we’d pass ideas back and forth in terms of structure and changes.
Then, at that time when we thought we might have written an album in mid-summer, we got on to Chris [Mulligan, Bass/Synths] and said, ‘Let's make some of these songs into fully fledged demos… So we spent a week or two with Chris in his studio in Leeds, just fleshing out all the songs and polishing songwriting. When you put things through a big posh system, a lot of the flab is exposed, so that was a useful process; throwing away the excess, and then you go back in again and [producer] Matt adds on the excess again in a different way. We call it the ‘Matt Peel wonk’.
Every producer has to have their own signature technique and if it’s ‘the wonk’, that’s fine.
It’s the Matt Peel wonk. So we had a scrappy, scruffy, hear the people pottering around in the background demo, and then we’d take it to Chris, he polishes it up and then we take the polished version to Matt who adds his wonk and that's how the cookie is made.
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In terms of influences for this record, you’ve cited the likes of Andrew Weatherall, Robyn, Todd Terje, Helena Hauff. You can hear shades of them in there, but it still feels very much like your own unique stamp on those reference points.
It's funny those, isn't it? I think it's more that that was the information going in, rather than what the album massively sounds like. That was the information that was going into the filter of a band who were going to make a new album together with their instruments and the experiences that they have. It was a philosophy as well: we were really starting to enjoy the dance music philosophy… There was always so much love in the space when you go on a night like Wet Play or Electric Chair in Manchester, or all the stuff that Luke Unabomber puts on… All the stuff that he puts on is run with such love and a sense of connection and that was kind of the philosophy that we wanted to take into the new album. The music would kind of be an invitation.
That’s why we can't wait to get it up live and to start playing and see how it works. These are songs that we wrote after being inspired by big nights dancing and it's gonna be interesting to see how we put it back into the live space. It's exciting. It's a challenge. It's not two guitars and bass guitar music anymore, you know? It presents you with challenges: how you bring down the high level stuff and pull it into the world with physical instruments. That's part of the story as well and it's going to be a new album again when we start playing it live.
I think one of the things that's most interesting about releasing a new record after all this time is the process that you have to go through, almost re-learning how to play it live.
Yeah, you've got to learn how to cover your own music, really. We didn't write this music in the live space and, quite deliberately at the time, we weren't thinking about playing it live, because we wanted to free ourselves up. There's a few tracks that don't have any real drums on them and we're putting real drums on these tracks now, and it's changing them in interesting and exciting ways.
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What will it mean for you to actually be able to kind of get out and play these tunes?
The first gig back is End of the Road… It's a really nice festival and we first played there in our first year about three years ago now. It's gonna be nice to go back with all the experience after the journey we've been on.
When you guys first played there you hadn't really toured at that point, but you’d released the EP, right?
Yeah, we'd released that first EP, hadn't we? Yeah. And we had a half an hour set, which was three songs. [Laughs]
We just about got over the line in half an hour. In fact, I remember we wrote one more song so we could flesh out that set... So we were writing music in order to play festivals. That was a really exciting time. Again, we hadn't really thought about what we’d do as a live band… We were kind of getting together a band at the last minute.
In some ways, it’s similar to now - coming back into the world after quite a lengthy and forced break. How are we going to bring the songs down? How are we going to mesh that first album with the second album, and keep a consistency there with sound? Because the way that we play the first album is going to change as well. It will have changed because we've had this amount of time. We've changed as players… I love seeing the effect of songs. I think you learn a lot about what the songs are when you play them live. You see surprising parts of songs land and you are able to explore your own music through the reception that you get back, so it's going to be nice to go through that process again.
It would be remiss of me not to mention your namesake. There’s a Guardian piece that was written about the first record and the opening says something like, ‘Some people might assume that the ‘W.H.’ is a reference to W.H. Auden’, or something like that. But no...
[Laughs] It’s a supermarket. Yeah, we drove past it one day, and we said, ‘That's a great name. Let's use that name,’ And that is the start and the end of the story, Paul… We just loved the way it looked written down. And I think it holds within it a lot of potential and a lot of promise. From the off, we didn't want to be taking ourselves really seriously. We wanted the project to be a vessel for something else, rather than our own identities front and center - rather than us putting ourselves on a particular pedestal. We always wanted what we were creating to be the main event and I think having a slightly tongue in cheek name puts you on quite safe ground with an audience, really. We don't take ourselves too seriously.
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'Vanities' is out now.
Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap
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