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Glass Animals: “We'd never been in bands before, we'd never written anything before that was anything like pop music

Glass Animals: “We'd never been in bands before, we'd never written anything before that was anything like pop music

26 March 2014, 14:00

2pm at the Old Bookbinders on Victor Street: Best Fit is at a low-ceilinged pub with car-boot sale décor. Tucked away down a Jericho backstreet in lovely sunny Oxford, we’re in a residential area dominated by grey-bricked terraced student houses. Sandwiched on the corner, you’ll find the Bookbinders, a fine local establishment plastered with peculiar paraphernalia. That is, ice skates, football boots and Chinese hats hanging from the beams, amassed cigarette lighters protruding from the wall, and a fine selection of ales foaming up behind the bar. Cosy, quiet, managed by Glass Animals’ friend Josh, this place literally secretes history.

Like many pubs in Oxford, it’s rumoured to be one of the spots CS Lewis and Tolkien met to discuss their writings, and it’s also the setting of classic Inspector Morse episode ‘The Dead of Jericho’. We’re also just down the road from the Jericho Tavern, which gives this area its name. That’s the same venue in which Radiohead played their first ever gig in 1991, and Glass Animals two decades later.

Lead singer Dave Bayley lives just nearby, next to the brilliant-sounding Peppa’s Burgers, which apparently used to be “run by a bunch of crack addicts”, but the rest of the band (drummer Joe Seaward, bassist/keyboardist Edmund Irwin-Singer and keyboardist/guitarist Drew MacFarlane) live in other parts of the city and have cycled in today.

Remarkably, all four band members appear rather chirpy, even energised this afternoon. Really, they should all be exhausted. They only got back from a gig at Manchester Cathedral late last night, having supported all-round 2014-winner St. Vincent on her entire European tour. The shows were well received, but things could have gone better off the stage. It was all going well until Brussels. “We had all of our gear nicked,” explains Dave, wearing his trademark peacock feather tee-shirt. “Five laptops got stolen. It was pretty serious. Someone, like, crowbarred our van open and stole so much stuff”. Awful, yes, and as something like Marissa Nadler plays on the pub stereo, our interview begins to feels a little like a therapeutic venting session. “Be careful in Brussels, basically,” he advises. “We got warned about Brussels after we left Brussels. We’d already been hit, and it kind of sucked. But we continued anyway”.

Helped out by Annie Clark and band, who kindly lent the band equipment and plentiful moral support, the band sound honoured to have been invited on tour with the musician. The lasting memory is overwhelmingly receptive crowds, applause wherever they went, and Annie’s “funky riffs,” which were adapted and extrapolated tenfold for the live show. For Dave, though, there’s also the scarring memory of getting bollocked for eating Annie’s dinner. “She quite likes things, like, done in her way, and I felt really bad because I totally fucked with that,” he regrets. “She didn’t know. Her tour manager basically gave me her dinner by accident, along with my dinner. He gave me two plates and I was only meant to have one, but I ate them both anyway because I was pretty hungry. I’d just come off stage. Anyway, he came back about ten minutes later saying, like, ‘Um, did I give you an extra plate?’, and just went totally white, like, ‘Oh shit, that was Annie’s,’ and then buggered off.”

Lots of in-jokes fly between the band and their manager as we chat, sat around the Bookbinders’ largest, most oblong dining table (the only one big enough). Clearly, Glass Animals are a tight group of mates, and have been for a long time. As it turns out, they all went to secondary school together. Joe, Ed and Drew were there from the start, and Dave rocked up in their second year. They enthuse about their city’s limited but important musical heritage. “We used to go see loads of shows at the Zodiac, which was a really small, cool music venue,” says Joe looking very East Coast in his sSur sweater. “I think it was owned by Supergrass and Radiohead. It was like the venue in Oxford. We used to see loads of cool bands there, like the Rakes, British Sea Power, Maximo Park and the Young Knives, who are from Oxford.” A bit later, they would also sneak into Foals’ early gigs, “with like four people in the crowd” at the sweat-smelling Cellar venue.

Inspired but with interests elsewhere, no actual recordings came out of the quartet’s childhood here and they all scurried off to university in different towns. But then, Dave started writing songs. “We were at home one holiday,” continues Joe, “and he was just like, ‘I’ve written these songs. I’m going to put them on Myspace. Do you want to be in a band?’ So, we were all like, Yeah, all right’. We didn’t really think anything of it. We, like, really didn’t think anything of it. And then, the stuff went online and it kind of took off quite fast”. The band decided to finish university first, like good students. “We were like, let’s see if anything happens this year,” he expands. “If anything happens, then that’s cool. And otherwise, we can go and do something sensible with our lives. By the end of that year, it was all go. We played our first show at the Jericho Tavern probably, like, five months after the songs went online”.

They’ve come a long way since the early days when “they had no clue what were doing”. As Dave explains, “we’d never been in bands before, we’d never written anything before that was anything like pop music, so it was a pretty steep learning curve for us”.

Now, they’re closer to the top. Today, they’re metaphorically clutching the mastered WAV files for new Gooey EP, which were completed and sent off just yesterday. The title-track is hands down the weirdest but most refined song they’ve released so far. And they’re understandably proud. The song evokes an extreme and eccentric world in which the driving-force is male falsetto melodies, underpinned by whimsical hip hop handclaps and subtle synth presets inducing an oozing, rhythmic daze. These include one particular sample (starting at 1.37) that sounds like the vocal from Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt”, but if strained though the dankest, gloopiest of filters.

The lyrics are particularly out-there. Some lines are indecipherable, but others, like “don’t you just wanna know those peanut butter vibes?” are clear enough. This is so-called ‘intelligent pop’ music, but aren’t the band surprised that people take their music so seriously? “It’s kind of meant to be funny,” Dave quips like a shot. “All the lyrics are meant to be cheeky and said from the perspective of a child, someone a bit up in the clouds, so I was using all these references to things that kids would talk about. But I’m glad people take it seriously. Our label were definitely worried.”

But Dave, what does it actually mean? “I don’t know,” he replies, evasively. “I never go into what songs actually mean, in serious detail, to me, because it’s quite a personal thing, and I think also, I remember this one instance where Joe was like, ‘hey Dave, what’s this all about?’ And I told Joe what this song was about, and he was like, ‘Oh, that’s totally not what it meant to me.’ So, I don’t want to ruin it like that for other people, just in case there’s some weirdo out there who’s come up with some kind of personal meaning to it.”

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Glass Animals 2 - Harry Lawlor

The band frequently do writing sessions for other artists and make tracks for rappers. In fact, that’s exactly how “Gooey” started out: as a simple beat for a hip hop artist. But as often happens, a vocal line suddenly slipped into Dave’s head and got in the way. Then, some simple chords he had lingering around happened to fit, and they stitched it all together just like that. The same happened on equally chilled-out B-side “Holiest”, now a collaboration with rising RnB vocalist Tei Shi.

“That actually weirdly also started off as a session for a rapper”, Dave confirms. “And yeah, it didn’t get used because we ran out of time, and I think it ended up on a kind of bunch of beats that we started sending around. We were really interested in that girl, Tei Shi. She’s got a really cool voice, but she was in New York. She seemed to like that beat and so she put a vocal on it”.

These beat-making side projects, the “Gooey” remix by 16-year-old rapper Chester Watson and last year’s “Woozy”, featuring Chicagoan Jean Deaux, all suggest that Glass Animals have a deep-rooted interest in hip hop. It’s true: while Dave was growing up in Texas from the age of 7 to 14, he was faced with the decision between two main local radio stations. The first played Christian rock and country, the second played gangsta rap. You can guess which one he chose. He and drummer Joe are still big hip hop heads, as the latter is keen to emphasise: “I think it’s what we listen to in our spare time, you know, when we’re not having to think about music”.

Sometimes the hip hop infusion causes perplexity among fans. “We met some guy in Berlin who watched our show,” Joe reminisces. “He was a Canadian, like, music dude, and afterwards he came up to us and was like, ‘that was fucking cool man, it sounded like Dre. And I just couldn’t like, it’s just like, these four skinny white guys from Oxford making hip hop and it’s fucking blowing my mind’. That was one of the weirdest fucking comments I’ve ever received. But I do think it’s probably quite a head-fuck when people see a photo of us sometimes”.

The band usually cycle out of town to craft these beats and practise in their nearby ‘shed-space’ in Shotover. Recently, however, they’ve been using Paul Epworth’s studio in London. The super-producer and songwriter (Adele, Florence, Plan B) got in touch with the band at one of their first gigs in London, just after the release of their 2012 EP Leaflings. “He was in the audience, and our manager introduced us afterwards”, reveals Joe. “He really liked it. I think he liked the production, and the fact that each song sounded like its own world, occupying its own space”. Their subsequent collaboration with the producer was the dreamiest possible outcome. “He was the guy who produced all those bands we used to see at the Zodiac. He did the Futureheads, and Maximo Park, the Rakes and Bloc Party. All of that of that stuff that we loved and, like, bonded over, was him. So, when his name was there on the list for that show, we were just like, ‘fuck, out of all the people in the world’.’ ‘We didn’t think it was the real Paul Epworth”, laughs Dave.

After their first encounter, Glass Animals became the first outfit to be signed to Epworth’s new Wolf Tone imprint, a close-knit set-up where everyone knows everyone. “I think he was asked to set up this label and wanted to work with something that he didn’t have to fiddle with too much”, says Dave. “He could have a more hands-off approach and work with something that he actually liked. His job, normally, is moulding songs and creating those worlds for vocalists to put their top-lines into, so he liked the idea of working in a world that was already created, I guess”. They’ve been working with Epworth and his team in the studio non-stop for months. “He’d walk in and chuck a grenade in”, Joe continues. “He’d smash it to bits, and we’d have to rebuild it. We wouldn’t have thrown those grenades at the times he did, and so it really helped”.

The band is reluctant to reveal too many details about their forthcoming debut album, now fully recorded and due for release ‘some time in the next 8 months’, but they do concede that 2013 single “Psylla” will be neglected from the track-list. “I think we’ve progressed a bit from ‘Psylla’ and we didn’t think it fits with what we’ve been doing lately as much,” Dave explains. “It’s a lot bigger sounding, and I think a bit bolder. I think on our first couple of releases, we were afraid to do something really bold and large-sounding. It was quite intimate to begin with, just kind of made in a very small, cosy bedroom. I was very afraid of what my Mum would think. So, everything was kind of toned down a little bit, and I kind of feel like we’ve just forgotten about that, and that when we were in the studio, everything was just a bit wilder, a little bit more raw”.

Inspired by psychiatry (that was Dave’s degree), 70s-era Can, the Island of Doctor Moreau, Heart of Darkness and “weird books about the New World, exploration and people going deep into the jungle finding weird communities and crazy people”, the result is a highly literary, highly exotic-sounding album. “It’s definitely a step onwards,” continues Joe, “and it feels like quite a natural progression. I think our goal is just to write music that we find really interesting and fun to make and have fun doing it,” adds Dave. “So, you know, hopefully that makes a cool record.”

Zaba, the band’s debut record, will be released June 9 via Wolf Tone. All photography by Harry Lawlor.

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