At the age of just twenty-five, after three weeks in his hospital bed, Pete Hayes – the drummer with Echo Lake but more importantly also a son, a friend and a lover – died on Thursday 21 June 2012, four days before the release of his band’s debut album Wild Peace. His band mates, guitarist Thom Hill, a long-time friend who saw Hayes as a brother, and singer Linda Jarvis, were left shocked and devastated.
All plans for the band, other than a few commitments here and there in the deeply sad and empty months after Pete’s death, were put on hold. Echo Lake didn’t matter. There are times in life when music drags us through the darkness, but here Hill and Jarvis were not even thinking about music (the biggest part of their lives, without a doubt) because it was just too hard.
Slowly but surely, though, over the course of three years Hill and Jarvis decided to continue on with Echo Lake; when music is all you’ve known and what brought the trio together in the first place how could they truly leave it all behind. So over an extended period Echo Lake wrote and recorded the songs that make up their second album, Era. A more expansive and encompassing record than Wild Peace, it takes the band’s shoegaze sound and magnifies everything: the pop moments becomes more pop, more crystallised, and the longer tracks become more involving, more hazy, more layered – “newgaze” as our review at the time of release called it.
The overriding feeling is being inside of or part of a dream; Era is a record that focuses on sleep and dreaming, poised on a liminality between the real world where terrible things and beautiful things happen, and a place that might on the face of it provide safety and solace…but can quickly spin out of your control.
We’re speaking in release week, and months on from Era being in the can, so I’m interested to know how Jarvis and Hill feel about the record in the wake of reviews; it’s Linda who speaks first, saying: “Pretty good; we’ve only played two shows so far but they went down really well…” And Thom? “It’s had a couple of good reviews, and it’s had a couple of mixed reviews,” he begins, “and the mixed reviews were mixed for all the right reasons, so we can’t ask for more than that!” Given the mixed reviews have been acceptable to Hill, does he wish he’d done anything different? “No, not really,” is the confident riposte. “I would have kept doing stuff if no-one had stopped me because I can’t really see the end of the process when I’m doing it, but looking back I’m glad we stopped when we did. It’s the best record we could have done. We did what set out to do, and we don’t regret any of it. I mean, you can always make an album better but you can only work on it for so long before someone says ‘stop’” Linda is a little more succinct when Hill asks her view on the process: “Yeah, same!”
There’s an elephant in the room and I don’t feel like the interview will progress with a natural flow until we talk about the death of Pete Hayes. I say to Thom and Linda that I’d read some reviews that mentioned Pete’s death and some that haven’t, but as I thought about how his absence might have affected Echo Lake I remembered that he was also a long-time friend – and above all, it’s that loss which should take our focus, not how Era sounds in the wake of this tragedy. Hill immediately agrees: “I think that’s the most important thing to remember as well,” he says. “At the end of the day he was one of my oldest friends, he knew Linda for a long time as well – and the sort of friendship group and family ties we had as friends goes a lot deeper than just being in a band and, you know, that’s obviously the biggest part.” Hill goes on to explain how music very much took a back seat: “Making music is something that we do because we love it, and it made things a bit more difficult, a bit crazy and messed up afterwards. It affects all areas of your life, not just making a record….Linda, do you think it influenced the sound at all?”
Jarvis (although I couldn’t see her, I got the sense this was something she still found extremely hard to discuss) adds: “Yeah, I think what you said was pretty spot on!”
I take this as a cue to move on, for the time being, to talking about Era in a more direct way. I’m interested in the sound of Era and whether or not it acts as a reaction to, or a counterpoint from, Wild Peace. Hill explains “I wanted to go back to something that sounded a bit more expansive and a bit more intense, and just throw ourselves back into making music that didn’t really feel like we had to prove something to anyone.” So, that awful cliché of “back to basics”? “Yeah, just back to basics in a way,” agrees the guitarist, “even though it’s a bit more advanced as we had access to a studio and stuff! In terms of song writing, we didn’t set ourselves any boundaries…” Was that important, given the band had transformed overnight following their loss? “I think that was important after Pete,” agrees Hill, “because we had to figure out the right reasons why you do stuff. We just decided for ourselves to get back into and we’d release it when we were ready…which took two years!” So there was a time when Echo Lake might not have continued? “Yeah, there definitely was for me,” confirms Hill. “Everything all happened at the same time, and obviously the last thing on my mind was the album we’d just released and….you kind of feel like you might not do it again. But as months go by you try to make sense of stuff, you realise what you like doing in your life – which is making music – so….”
As Thom trails off, his bandmate takes over. Linda explains, as simply as you like, that “making music is something that we’ve been doing, so I think you don’t give up on doing that.” In the end, Echo Lake continued and tried to keep to the commitments made in the wake of releasing Wild Peace: “We had Dayo, who took over on the drums [from Hayes] a few months down the line,” explains Hill. “He knew Pete pretty well, and they had a good respect for each other. Dayo just eased into the band nicely. We finished the tour commitments we made a few months after - a bit later than planned.” I don’t think the band could have handled events in a more sensitive or considered way, but do Echo Lake agree with that analysis? “I think the way we carried on was the best way we could have done it really,” admits Hill. “We kept it pretty close to a friendship group, and it had to be right that we all got along as well. Now we have Jordan on drums as Dayo got an opportunity to study a Masters somewhere….”
What’s striking about Era, a record written in the messy, chaotic and traumatic aftermath of the death of a loved one is how focused and precise a listen it turns out to be. Yes, there are ten minute songs like closing track “Heavy Dreaming”, a song key to the leitmotif of Era which alternates between languid passages punctuated by Jarvis’ gauze-like vocals and Hill’s guitar fireworks, but it feels like there’s a real structure to the album, with longer pieces alternately balanced out by instant pop hits. As it happens, this wasn’t a sequencing that Hill and Jarvis stumbled upon: “I kind of knew how all the songs would go when we started,” reveals Thom. “But we threw ourselves into it and if a song ended up being seven minutes or eight minutes long, which a few of them did, we just didn’t worry ourselves about it. If our first song back after a few years away is seven minutes, that’s just the way it is. If you’re not prepared to sit and listen to that much then you probably won’t like the whole album!” Jarvis explains a little more about the record’s structure, and in particular about the tracks – “Light Sleeper, “Drom” and “Heavy Dreaming – that dominate Era: “We knew ‘Drom’ was going to be the opening song for the second side of the record, and we knew which ones would be last and first, the placeholders,” she says. Hill agrees with his singer: “Yeah definitely, Linda’s right. If you look at the track listing ‘Light Sleeper’, ‘Drom’ and ‘Heavy Dreaming’ are all placeholders; ‘Drom’ [Swedish for “dream”] is the centrepiece and we tried to fit tracks in between those. Those three tracks really link together as one piece; if you listened to those three on their own I think they’d make a lot of sense. We tried to fit the others in where it would make a progression…I saw one review which said it wasn’t background music and I totally agree with that. I think of it best as a listen to it on your own, headphones, whatever. I’d really like it if people can break it down track-by-track and listen to something like ‘Sun’ and appreciate it as a pop song, because that’s what we wanted when we wrote it…but I think in the bigger context of the record, the ‘journey’ really pays off.”
Part of the journey is the aforementioned leitmotif of sleeping and dreaming, an ironically coherent thread that makes Era work very much in the way Hill wishes. However, Jarvis admits this wasn’t an initial aim: “I don’t think it was done intentionally really, it just came together as a theme…” she begins, with Thom adding: “We spoke a lot about lucid dreaming as a topic we were both interested in and had been reading some stuff about, and I think that influenced one or two of those songs. ‘Heavy Dreaming’ was Linda’s but I think it influenced the lyrics of the other two, that kind of subject. And I think the way they link together instrumentally, I think they do lyrically as well. But like we said it wasn’t intentional but it’s nice it came together that way at the end. It helped make more sense of those three as well, and linked them up in a better way. I do feel they all slip in and out of consciousness too…” I say that I had recently been discussing the lucid dreaming machine and the idea of some artists being inspired by waking up from dreaming and immediately writing down snatches of music which had been plaguing their dreams. I wonder aloud if the lucid dreaming machine might have aided our understanding of Jarvis’ lyrics, much of which are buried just out of reach of conscious understanding, only fleetingly audible in the way that Liz Fraser’s vocals were: “That’s really cool,” says Hill. “If you listen to ‘Drom’ lyrically it’s all a bit in-and-out and you can’t make a lot of sense out of it…and that was intentional. But like what you just said, it was about trying to capture what you’ve just woken up from, and to maybe remember it and make some sense out of it.” Hill explains that it was something which was on his mind during the making of Era: “I definitely remember speaking about it during recording…but it’s such a long time ago now. We both have pretty terrible memories, lucid dreaming or not! But I do remember talking about capturing that moment, making sense out of these broken stories or recollections. I think it fits really well with the music.” Jarvis reveals a bit more about why the lyrics remain partially, or sometimes completely, hidden: “We’ve sort of always done it that way,” she explains. “We don’t like to expose the lyrics and have them very up front; we keep the meanings quite hidden as well. You can then sort of make sense of it and take what you want from it, really, interpret it yourself. Some of the songs have different meanings to me than they do to Tom….I’ve even changed lyrics live because they seem to make more sense after recording it…”
I say that I was searching for any songs directly relating to Pete Hayes, most likely creating meaning from something that isn’t there, such as the line about taking chances in the opening track “Light Sleeper”, the reference to walking away on “Waves” or simply the title of “Nothing Lasts”; but then I would catch myself myth-making….am I right to look for Pete in these songs? Hill agrees, to an extent: “I like that aspect of it as well,” he says. “If Linda’s written a song or written some lyrics I try not to ask her what it’s about as I’d rather make my own interpretation of it – and that’s the most fun part of the music. We’ve said that since we started: thinking you hear one thing and getting it wrong! That’s the fun you have with pop music; if something’s written personally I’m not going to start questioning Linda about it…”
Linda: “That’s what we want as well…” For us to question, you mean?
Thom: “Yeah; I hear ‘Sun’ and I think I know what it’s about but I’m not going to ask Linda about where she got this line, or what it’s all about. Even halfway through recording I thought she was singing one thing, and she told me she was actually singing another. The way I was listening to it, I thought I was hearing something – and when she told me what it was I was like ‘oh, that’s even better!’ I think I know what a song is about, but I might not – that’s what keeps it totally exciting.”
It’s the trick of how much soul-bearing an artist wants to do or feels comfortable with. Some song writers are suited to the heart-on-sleeve approach, some end up making rather uncomfortable or mawkish records: “It depends what kind of artist you are,” says Hill. “If you want to bear your soul and put it all out there then that’s fine, but it’s not in our personalities. We’re definitely quite shy in normal life. I remember when Radiohead did Kid A and it was the first time a big indie band had made that wild decision not to have the lyrics in the booklet. I was at school and I thought it was the coolest thing ever; it didn’t need to be there on a plate for you – they had this idea that while it wasn’t all gibberish it didn’t need to be explained and you knew it was all genuine. I think that’s why I got into post rock music and shoegaze and all that stuff, because it was so vague and didn’t need all that stuff – and I still find all that exciting about music.”
We end on a discussion about what comes next for Echo Lake; they’ve been close to the brink of breaking up, they’ve dealt with the worst the world can throw at them and come back stronger. Pete Hayes will never be replaced, never be forgotten but as Thom and Linda said earlier in the interview they’ve always made music and they’ll always come back to it: “We’ve got some stuff lined up in a couple of months and I think we’re just trying to build it all up,” says Hill, “and get back to work on some other things. I don’t see the next record as being as long a process at all. I’d like to get going as quick as possible…but I said that about the last one, and you can get carried away with stuff.”
Era is out now on No Pain In Pop.