Interview: Tim Wanstall of Athlete
The title of your new album (Beyond the Neighbourhood) is quite ironic, since it was actually recorded within your home neighbourhood, in a studio which you built yourselves.
Yeah, that’s true. I’d not really thought about that! Part of the story of the record is definitely the fact that we recorded and produced it ourselves. Quite literally, we just got a car mechanics’ warehouse, had the walls physically built inside it, brought in the gear, set it all up ourselves… because all along, we had it in the back of our minds that one day we’d like to make our own record. We just felt ready and confident enough to take that step.
It’s also the first album that we recorded whilst actually living at home. We’ve always had a place to write tunes and make demos, and then we would rent somewhere in the countryside for a couple of months, in order to go and physically make the record. But being able to stay at home this time has been really important for us. The environment that you make your record in, and the kind of lifestyle that you have at the time, is obviously going to contribute to the feeling of the music. After touring so much off the last album, to be able to make a record but still be able to get up and have breakfast with your family has been a really nice change.
It’s interesting that Hard-Fi have done the same thing on their new album: building their own studio near to where they live, and so keeping things within their own neighbourhood.
It’s become more and more affordable, as something for people to consider. If you’re someone like The Streets, making a kind of “bedroom” record, then it’s been possible for a while – but when you’ve got equipment like drum kits to consider, and when the sound of the record partly depends on having a space that sounds acoustically good, then it’s also becoming more possible for bands to do it. I think it will become a more frequent story as time goes on.
You didn’t miss having a producer, then? Is there nothing that an outside producer can give you at this stage?
It’s funny – Victor (Van Vugt), who produced the first record and most of the last one, was partly responsible for putting the idea into our heads, and thereby doing himself out of a job! Right at the beginning, he could tell that we were that kind of a band, and that one day this would work for us. By the time that we met up with him to record the tunes, we already knew, production-wise, what the parts were going to be, and all the little sounds and nuances. So to a certain extent, we have always been producing our own records.
Obviously, Victor knew how to get good sounds, how to capture the performance – and on the technical side of things, which microphones were going to be right for subtle changes in different tunes, what compressor boxes were going to work best on a particular sound, and so on. They were the kinds of things that worried us more. We were confident about producing the record, but physically capturing it was more of a concern.
But we needed a new home anyway. Even if it hadn’t worked out, we needed somewhere to write songs and make demos together. So in a sense, it’s a huge, glorified home studio, which would have served its purpose anyway.
As it turned out, with the first few songs that we wrote, we just felt that there was something there. It wasn’t just “good enough”, but it was going to make for a better record than us heading off to an expensive studio again. If you’re spending eight hundred pounds a day, and you’re looking at this huge desk that’s worth seventy-five grand, and you’re sitting in front of it and twiddling away on a Casio keyboard that you bought for £3.50 from a car boot sale, then it just feels a bit wrong! You can feel the money ticking away behind you. Having your own venue, you don’t need to worry about that kind of stuff.
When you look at the lyrical themes of this album, it does seem to be an album of “big issues”. You’re tackling the big themes here. Was that the intention?
Yes, definitely. It was quite a novel thing for us. That was partly why we wanted to recognise it in the title.
The first record was very much a bunch of stories about our little community, in our little corner of London, and just full of the joys of being in a band who had just signed a deal with a great record company.
The next record was very narrative in its basis, and very much about a band on the road, coming to terms with being away a lot from that home community. It’s full of longing – of being away from the people you love, and dealing with holding down important relationships whilst not being there for eight months of the year. It’s natural, as an artist, to work out your struggles within your music. But that’s something that we’ve dealt with now. We’ve got used to it being the routine of our life, and we’re more comfortable with it than we were when writing those tunes.
So, yeah, this is the first time that there’s a record that doesn’t exclusively deal with our little world, and our stories, and our concerns. There are still some songs whose stories are based in personal experience – but lyrically, it’s definitely a lot more outward looking. Dealing with big issues – but actually, not dealing with them at all. There’s a lot of environmental sentiment on there.
Yes, I picked that up. There’s Hurricane and there’s Airport Disco…
Hurricane’s an obvious one, yes. There’s also Second Hand Stores, which is based around an article that Joel read, that was talking about birdsong in Canada being out of synch with itself, with the wrong songs being sung at the wrong time of year.
But when you have a certain level of success, you also start getting approached by various concerns and charities, and you do start to wonder if there’s an extra responsibility which comes with this profile. All we’ve done is write a couple of tunes and toured a lot, but so many people feel like we’ve got a platform, and that they should ask for a quote from us, or something like that.
It’s a difficult line to walk…
It is difficult. I was recently listening to an advert on the radio, in which various Hollywood stars and big musicians were saying to people: what you should do is take showers instead of having a bath, and flush your toilet less often. And I was thinking that it just didn’t sit right. I don’t think people want us to be that prescriptive. It would be so hypocritical anyway, because our carbon footprint is probably ten times bigger than the average, as we spend half the year flying around the world to do gigs.
So it’s not the kind of record that has a message at all. It’s a record that’s full more of questions than answers.
Exactly. You’re questioning rather than preaching, and that’s how you walk that line.
It’s almost like sitting across the kitchen table, you know? It’s what people are chatting about. When we were writing our first album at the turn of the millennium, there was a lot of optimism around. Whereas now, I think everyone would say it feels like times are more uncertain, and so it’s natural that a kind of questioning comes into play.
So you’re asking the same questions that any members of your generation would ask, rather than it being a case of “we know best”.
Exactly. There’s this line in the song Tokyo: “I am a hypocrite”. For me, that’s a really important line on the record – because if you’re touching on those kinds of issues, then I would want that kind of humanity to be there. It basically says that I’m as culpable as anyone else. It also hints at the root of the problem, because if I were in the position of making decisions, then I’d probably make some of the same mistakes that other people have made. It’s always easier to rally against other people, but it’s actually much harder to live it yourself.
In musical terms, and especially with Hurricane and Tokyo towards the beginning, there’s a very confident sound to the album. The lyrics might be questioning, but the music sounds confident. I found a nice quote on an early Amazon review of the album, which says: “If Vehicles and Animals was the innocent child and Tourist was the emotional teenager, Beyond the Neighbourhood is the philosophical adult.”
Well, it’s been seven years for us now. It makes for a kind of progression, because obviously as people, we’re not twenty-two now. We’re hitting thirty, and I think that’s reflected in the music. That’s quite a nice summary, actually. We should probably start using it! (Laughter)
There’s certainly more of an electronic edge to the record. It’s Not Your Fault uses breakbeats, and there are some quite adventurous samples as well. There’s a whole section at the end of The Outsiders which is quite out-there and interesting.
We’ve always been into that. It was less prevalent on the last record, because of the subject matter of the tunes, and the emotion behind them, so it’s been nice to work some of the playfulness of the first album back into the production. We’ve always been into songs taking little twists which you don’t necessarily expect.
As for the end of The Outsiders, it’s just not what you think is going to happen to the tune at that point. I love those little twists and turns. I think when people know that tune, that’s going to be a real moment live.
I had a weird experience listening to that track, while out walking this morning. There are some “found sounds” in there, some everyday sounds, and I was thinking: wow, that’s really clever, the way they’ve got that burglar alarm in the distance. Then the track ended, and I could still hear the burglar alarm. It was coming from the next street…
It’s partly because there were mechanics around us, and carpenters next door, so it was always going to be impossible to get a pristine recording. But we were really happy about that. For us, Tourist was a beautiful sounding record, but it was also kind of “perfect”, and if there was one thing that we wanted to do this time, it was to make it feel like you were sitting in a room with a band playing their instruments together.
There are also things in there that people may only hear on the hundredth listen, or when they stick some headphones on, such as the piano stool creaking and being adjusted just as it’s about to be played, and the little knocks of the keys. At the end of one song, you even hear Joel get up, put his guitar down, and leave the room to go to the loo. It’s these little things that give you the sense that this music was played by real people.
For the end of The Outsiders, we just took the microphone round the studio, and hit chairs, stairs and anything we could find. We just banged things together, opened and shut doors, and sampled all those little noises from our room. Then Steve [Roberts – drummer] built them into this beautiful little loop. To begin with, they’re just weird noises, and then they start to make rhythmic sense. I like that.
And part of this record is obviously the room. There’s something really nice about the fact that no-one’s ever made music there before. On the last record, I loved going into Abbey Road to record the strings, and thinking of all the history in that room, and the people who have made their music there. That meant something, obviously. But it was a really nice experience just setting up that drum kit for the first time, and placing the mikes, and starting the first tune, and knowing that no-one had made music there before. That’s going to lend something to this record, you know?
This must be a strange time for you. You’ve completed all the work on the album, it’s ready to go out, and yet you’ve not had any sense of what the wider reaction’s going to be. I wouldn’t have thought you’d had many reviews yet…
No, no. It’s strange when you’ve handed it over. There’s a little bit of paranoia. In terms of the reviews, we had a bit of a reaction to the last record which was like: they’re using the piano now, so they’ve decided to copy Coldplay in order to sell as many records as possible. It hit us a bit hard, to be honest with you.
Are people going to say this time: oh, they’ve tried to make their own OK Computer? (Nervous laughter)
I’ve got absolutely no idea. I’m sure there will be someone who will accuse us of something. But when we’ve sat back and wondered what makes Athlete Athlete, across three very different sounding records, one thing that we’ve decided we’re good at is writing great pop tunes. People can choose to be cynical, but for us, we’ve just made a record where we’ve gone: we’re good at that, we’re good at writing those kinds of tunes that lots of people can sing along to, and you might not be comfortable with that, but we’re really comfortable with it. I like the fact that at the end of the day, the songs go out on the radio, and people make their own minds up, don’t they?
Yes, they’re pop tunes – but if you scratch below the surface of the record, there are things like the end of The Outsiders, and the whole of tunes like Flying Over Bus Stops, that in production terms are quite risky choices, and wouldn’t necessarily be made by some of the bands that we get compared to. Because that’s us doing our thing, playing around with it, and knowing that we’re going to sit on that line of writing pop tunes but wanting to produce them in ways that surprise people. So, who knows? Who knows which way it will fall?
It will be interesting to see how the songs work on stage. You did three nights in London, so I guess you were premiering the material there.
Yeah, done that. But there’s definitely something special about playing the gigs once the record’s out. I find this in-between period a bit hard, because part of the live experience is people knowing the songs. They come into their own, don’t they, when people have had the record for ages.
They’ll hear the opening notes of Hurricane… that could be your anthemic one, I think, that’s going to pull it all together in the room.
You never know which song it’s going to be, though. There are the obvious ones, like Hurricane and Second Hand Stores, but then there are tunes like The Outsiders and Airport Disco which have got that certain something, and also hidden gems on the record that might surprise people – and you find out about them live.
Well, we’re delighted that you’ve chosen Rock City, in our fair city of Nottingham, to start your UK tour…
It’s always a great gig, so I’m really looking forward to coming back.
It’s a great venue. I saw you there supporting the Doves and The Coral about five years ago, for a Radio One broadcast. That was the first time that I’d heard of you.
That’s right, that’s the first time that we played there.
I hope it goes well for you, and I look forward to seeing you in October.
Thanks very much, Mike. A pleasure talking to you.