Interview: Ross Philips of Hard-Fi
Before the release of your current album Once Upon A Time In The West, you disappeared from public view for quite a while, and there was a 16 month gap between singles. What were you getting up to?
Oh right, now you’re asking! We were in the studio for around five months, maybe even six. We extended and converted our old studio, so there was a month of building work, and then five months of recording.
So you wanted to focus on recording the album as a complete piece, rather than putting out a single or two in the meantime, just to remind people you were there?
Yeah, I think that’s the best way to do it.
The studio you were renovating was back in your home town of Staines. This was the former mini-cab office, right?
Yes, it was. We looked round at other places, and the record company was on at us to go into a big studio like Abbey Road with a big name producer – but we didn’t really want to do that, because we’d come out sounding the same as everyone else. There was an idea of renting a massive house and then all moving in, but we couldn’t find anywhere suitable. So we were down the pub one night, we’d had a few beers, and thought, well, why not? The guttering company had moved out from next door, so we thought we may as well knock through and see how that went. The plans were basically done on the back of a beer mat, and it’s just turned out great.
Since you were recording your second album in more or less the same place as your first, that must given you a feeling of being at home.
Yeah, totally. It’s our place. We moved all of our old stuff in there, so it just feels comfortable down there. We do like to do things our own way. We do everything the way we want to do it.
I guess that also gives you a kind of continuity. Listening to the album, it’s very clearly stamped with your particular sound and your particular pre-occupations – but it has also moved on in certain areas. Did you have a pre-conceived idea of what changes you wanted to make, or did it all just come out naturally?
We had the songs already written, but we didn’t really know the kind of sound that the album would have. So we just got in there and started getting stuff down, and it all came together. There are three key tracks, which give a sound to the album: I Shall Overcome, Suburban Knights, and Tonight. They’re the backbone, if you like.
That comes across. They’re the opening three tracks, and it does feel as if you’re defining yourselves with them.
Yes, I think so. We don’t like to limit ourselves. Whatever we do, we try everything out, so there’s strings, there’s brass, there’s everything. Why limit yourself? We wanted to make a big album; we wanted it to sound huge – and if the record company are stupid enough to give us the money, we’ll fucking spend it!
The orchestral sounds blend in well with the sound of the band. So did you have to ship the orchestra out to Staines?
No, I don’t think they would come out that far. We spent a day in Olympic Studios, and we worked with a guy called Will Malone, who worked with Massive Attack and Portishead, and arranged the strings on The Verve’s Urban Hymns.
Quite a few of the tracks contain the sort of singalong chants that are made to be chanted back at you at gigs. There are a lot of hey-ey-eys, woh-oh-ohs and ah-ah-ahs…
Yeah yeah, we love all of that. At our live shows, it’s like a kind of party. We get the crowd involved, and it’s great to have people singing that stuff back to you.
With the first album, it felt as you belonged to a tradition stretching back to Suede, The Jam and The Kinks: coming from the suburbs and observing big city life with mixed emotions. What’s interesting is that for the second album, you’ve kept that suburban identity. There are songs about feeling conflicted by them, and wanting to escape them.
And almost celebrating them, as well. There are more personal tracks on there, and a lot of deeper ones for Rich [Archer, singer and principal songwriter]. In the last couple of years, he’s had everything he’s ever wanted in terms of success with the band, but a lot of horrible things have also happened to him. But we all still live in Staines, and I still go down the pub with all my mates, so I see what’s going on. That’s where we’re from!
I’m trying not to say “keeping it real” here. [laughter] But that’s interesting, because a lot of bands from out in the suburbs would have taken the first opportunity to head for the city, whereas you’ve done the opposite.
It’s good in theory, but my family and friends live there, so if you moved into London you’d just be sitting on your own in a flat somewhere. You’d have to get the train back to Staines every day to go and have a pint.
And then your second album would have been full of the songs that everyone puts on second albums, about the agonies of being successful. That’s kind of been done! [laughter] You also got some mixed press for the album cover, which The Guardian named as one of the worst of all time, before it had even been released.
We were looking round at all the others, and it’s just like, fucking black and white photos with everyone on the front, all trying to look cool. The record company’s idea was to do exactly that. They were saying: that’s what the record shops want, that’s what sells records. But we didn’t want to play that game. We always like to do things differently. So we thought, right, fuck it, let’s go the complete opposite way. With album covers, most people buy the CD, bung it on their iTunes and then put it in a box and never get it out again – so it’s a tiny little square on a screen, that you hardly even see. We like getting up people’s noses anyway, so we’re really pleased with the reaction it’s got!