As the tortured voice of A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s spiritual leader Ben Daniels crackles into life on the other end of the phone, he begins by wearily telling us that he’s trapped in a van in 40-degree heat as the band snake their way through the parts of North America closest to combusting. It sounds like the sort of situation that the UN Human Rights Council should be looking into, but it’s necessary to take new album Sea When Absent to the many who have had the album’s erratic, wilfully obtuse pop music lodged in their subconscious.
Released by the renowned incubator of visionary music, Lefse, back in June in the USA (its release is slated for 4th August in the UK), Sea When Absent has been peppered with praise from both critics and connoisseurs of left-field experimentalism. Though their previous three LPs have all been very well received, there is a feeling of completeness about Sea When Absent; a marriage of vision and reality that matches the record’s sonic ambition with screwed hooks.
Part of the rapturous response to Sea When Absent took the form of lengthy features on respected music publications that centred on the unique conception of the album, which was supposedly designed and recorded via e-mail, with the band’s members scattered between their home-town of Philadelphia, and New York and Sydney. It has, in some ways, become known as the album that was recorded without the band’s members ever setting foot in the same room together; if not a sign of things to come, then a surprisingly coherent reminder of how much modernity has changed the possibilities of recording music.
Though he’s clearly less than pleased at the prospect at being imprisoned in the mobile pressure cooker that is their tour van for the foreseeable future, Daniels’ half-baked tone suddenly becomes more animated when we approach the subject of the band’s supposed separation during the process of making Sea When Absent. “I think that’s an angle that’s kind of over-played, because for most of the recording we were all definitely in the same room. We live in different cities, but we would meet up in Philadelphia to go to the studio together. Then we’d go back to where we lived, and keep working on it, so there was a little bit of both.”
Whilst I go about crossing out all of the questions that centred around the members never setting foot in the room together, Daniels continues describing Sea When Absent’s unique gestation period. “I kind of had a bunch of demos that I sent to everybody, so we talked about those for a little bit on e-mail, and then I came back to Philadelphia, where we went into the studio with Jeff (Zeigler, producer of recent Kurt Vile and the War on Drugs records) to get as much done as we could in the limited time we had.”
Nevertheless, Daniels does admit that Sea When Absent did begin as a constellation of ideas fired around between the band members by e-mail, before they convened to put the album together. This took the form of a manifesto for Sea When Absent that outlined how the album should sound. “It was a declaration of principles setting out ideas that I thought would be interesting to explore. It’s useful to write them down because I find that once you start writing, it just kind of explodes and goes off in all directions.”
Having said that, one of the beautiful things about Sea When Absent is precisely that it does go off in all directions; like the way that “Boys Turn Into Girls (Initiation Rites)” collapses into celestial vocals before reimagining itself entirely with a pulsing synth that weaves in and out of the rest of the track and eventually breaks off down as many different paths as possible in five minutes. It’s unsurprising, then, that the original manifesto that Daniels had drawn up often melted away in the face of spontaneity. “It’s not that rigid, I had a look at it a couple of months ago and it’s funny because some of those things are in the record, but a lot of it isn’t. The collaboration over e-mail was more just about ideas; melody ideas that I had and things like that.”
When asked whether this new process of recording has made Sea When Absent noticeably separate to their previous three efforts, Daniels becomes cautious and reflective and seems to genuinely not really know what to make of his own record. As he explains, “I just feel like with Ashes Grammar, I had a certain way of thinking of it, and everyone else had a different way of thinking of it, so it’s hard to say right now. I have a way that I think about Sea When Absent, but we’ll see in a year or two whether that’s accurate…”
That said, Daniels does abandon his indecision regarding the new album to assert that “there’s a clarity in there that’s somewhat new.” It’s a statement that’s impossible to disagree with; in fact, Sea When Absent is so unforgettable simply because their off-the-wall ideas have been focussed through a prism which has tied these disparate fragments together into tracks which are at heart simply supremely off-kilter pop music.
It certainly seems that the sage presence of Philadelphia production veteran Jeff Zeigler contributed to the translation of the band’s restless imaginations into idiosyncratic pop songs. It’s perhaps no coincidence that their earlier self-recorded albums were praised for their ambition, whilst Sea When Absent represents their first foray into a professional studio and has been met with suggestions that their experimentalism has this time been paired up with the melodic ideas it deserves. Daniels is in full agreement about Zeigler’s role in turning their ideas into reality: “We had very strong ideas going in about how we wanted it to sound, but Jeff’s role meant that we’d be like ‘We want to try and do this,’ and he’s like, ‘Right, I know how to do that.’”
That’s not to say that A Sunny Day In Glasgow have lost their appetite for the experimentalism that set them apart: they still have even less regard for conventional song structures than Jackson Pollock had for paint brush etiquette. They spray their ideas over their canvas in just as erratic fashion as he does, as well – this is an album that genuinely deconstructs the idea of there being boundaries between genres by managing to be almost all of them at once. Psych, dream-pop, shoegaze, pop, rock, indie, electronica and R&B are all melted down into an alchemy of boundless imagination. They’re only a gesture of gabba and a pinch of scouse house away from complete genre coverage.
This unhinged sonic exploration seems to have led to the ironic situation in which their sound has been pigeonholed predominantly as shoegaze. It’s almost as if the harder it is to delineate genre boundaries, the harder we try to shoe-horn music into neat musical boxes, which really says more about our obsessive need to categorise music than it does about Sea When Absent. It’s a situation which Daniels has had to become used to: of the unrelenting shoegaze and dream-pop descriptors he says “I can understand why people use those terms, but I certainly wouldn’t use that label and I wouldn’t want to be in those genres… the bands that are in those genres I seldom listen to and I don’t enjoy very much.”
Having said that, Daniels seems grateful for the attention of the band’s fans, regardless of how they want to describe the band’s music, because as he admits, the record would never have been finished without them. After spending that first stint in the studio with Zeigler, Daniels returned to his job as a biostatistician in Sydney, whilst the rest of the band retreated to their homes in New York and Philadelphia. With their money spent, the record unfinished, and the band spread around the globe, they turned to the 21st century’s answer to financial problems; Kickstarter.
Daniels seems to momentarily forget the stifling heat of the van and enthusiastically outlines how surprised they were by their fans’ generosity. “It was really overwhelming. Before 24 hours were out we’d already reached our goal, and within six months we’d made even more money which was wonderful, as that really helped the record get finished. We were totally shocked. A lot of us, especially me, didn’t want to ask for so much money, we were like ‘We’re not going to get it, let’s ask for less,’ so we were completely caught off guard.” Considering their experience, do they feel like the need for record labels is ever diminishing? “We’ve never had a label to give us lots of money to do things, although with Lefse now we have a little bit of that, but I do think that record labels do things that are really helpful; Kickstarter is sort of putting a financial value on your social networking ability. But I do think that access to resources should be more democratic.”
There’s a real feeling that Sea When Absent is a decisive marker of the progress that A Sunny Day in Glasgow have made since forming seven years ago. As Daniels says, “back then, it was just me and my twin sisters and we played shows with like an iPod behind us. It had its charm but it was pretty awful. My sisters were never that thrilled about being in a band. It’s more of a band now, because everyone knows what they’ve signed up for.” For all that influence of the digital era, then – their exploration of Kickstarter and lofty statements of intent via e-mail - Sea When Absent proves that sometimes there’s just no replacement for getting five committed people together in the studio and letting their minds rove.
Sea When Absent is out now via Lefse Records.