CMU Interview – 18th June 2013
Brothers Tom and Alex White last released an album as Electric Soft Parade in 2007, their third effort ‘No Need To Be Downhearted’. Since then, the prolific pair have worked on various other musical projects, returning slowly to ELP over the last two years.
Now fully back up and running, they release their fourth album, ‘IDIOTS’, this week, with the first single, ‘Brother, You Must Walk Your Path Alone’, out earlier this year paving the way. They also have a number of headline shows and festival dates lined up over the coming months, including an in-store appearance at Rough Trade East in London this Wednesday.
In the run up to the album release, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Alex to discuss Electric Soft Parade’s hiatus, their return and more.
AM: It’s been six years since your last album. What led to such a lengthy hiatus?
AW: Indeed, it’s been six years since the last full record, but actually only a year or so since the last release. Around the last bout of touring we put together an EP for a French label called A Quick One, and named the EP after the label.
And a year before that we had done a retrospective series of gigs at a small pub in Brighton, the Prince Albert. We played through all our work album by album as a way of marking ten years in the game, mainly for ourselves, our friends and the hardcore Brightoners that love the group. I guess taking a few years away, then coming back and reappraising (and re-learning!) all that material gave the band a focus and somewhere to go.
In terms of the ‘hiatus’, we had worked very hard making and supporting the third album, and I suppose we were fairly burned out, and decided to focus on more personal projects. However, being brothers we were never really ‘apart’ as a group, and actually having most people think we’d split up, or weren’t doing any more records, was quite liberating in that we were able to work on upwards of a hundred songs for this new record and work our way through to the very best stuff at a pace we were comfortable with.
AM: You toured with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds in 2011. You’d done those small Brighton gigs earlier in the year, and another in Paris in 2010, but you were pretty much leaping back into playing much bigger venues on that tour. Was that a scary thing to do? How did those shows go?
AW: Indeed, Noel was very kind to invite us along for what were the debut performances of his latest record. We had played with Oasis back in the day and Tom actually just texted him and asked for some supports; good to his word, there we were a few months later on stage in Manchester.
The shows were great; obviously the audience was very focussed on seeing Noel and it’s certainly a partisan crowd! Being a bunch of southern softies doesn’t exactly endear one to a crowd such as this, but it’s all good natured and actually his crowd respect a band who get up there, do their thing properly, rock out a bit, then make way for Noel. We did our best to warm em up and be nice, and actually the reaction to the show was excellent.
Lots of people remembered us from the Oasis shows and seemed to dig it, especially out in Europe where audiences go to see the entire bill rather than just one specific act. In terms of rehearsing in our kitchen, then suddenly being in front of five and a half thousand people at Hammersmith Apollo, yes that was a little surreal! But actually it was a real personal pleasure to have put those shows together entirely ourselves, and made the financial side work touring across Europe with no support from a label.
AM: When did you actually start working on ‘IDIOTS’?
AW: The work never really stops, it’s ongoing. The songs were formed over a rather long period, some coming in a while back, but most probably came in an inspired burst of Tom’s writing in the last year or so.
We had an initial meeting with Helium, the label that we are now with, in which Chris, the label boss and producer of the album, made the point to us that though there was some excellent stuff we had written, he wanted to get back together with us and make a ‘great’ record, a classic. With that thought in mind, Tom was inspired to go back to the drawing board and really push himself. During this period he wrote ‘Summertime In My Heart’ and several other of the bigger pop tunes on the record, responding directly to Chris’s desire for the ultimate pop record.
The actual work on the album started over a year ago, and gradually we worked through everything with a tooth comb until we had what we as a team deemed the right result. It really was like making a film or something, rather than just getting in a room and playing. It took the best part of a year to get right, and in my view it’s a perfect piece of work. Given the time spent on it, and the time away in between sessions to refocus, it’s been a privilege to get to work in this way, and to really make sure we had something we were proud of and that people would enjoy.
AM: Did you have an idea of what you wanted to achieve with the album, or did it develop more organically?
AW: In terms of what we set out to achieve, I think we did it. My buzzword going into it was ‘undeniable’ – I wanted it to be great from any angle, so even someone that didn’t love it would have to say, ‘Yes, that’s a great bit of work’ – like ‘Rumours’ or ‘Rubber Soul’ or whatever, those records are undeniably great, from any angle, whether one likes them or not. That was the intention, to make something that would be taken seriously and that would last.
Certainly it wasn’t just ‘hits to order’, there was a more organic process, and each song developed on it’s own as we progressed through the making of the album. Certain tunes were entirely scrapped despite being great, because they interrupted the flow, or did the job another track was doing just as well. Others were finished, then re-appraised and turned on their head; the title track for example.
All of it is organic and musical though, all for a reason, not just chasing poppy songs. The natural disposition of the writing in the band has tended towards more pop based ideas and sonics, based on what we’ve been immersed in over the last few years. Always big pop fans, we decided to let this be our pop masterpiece!
AM: How would you say your sound has developed on this record?
AW: I’d argue the sound of the group never really changes in a way, in that the writing is coming from the same brains and ends up having a self similarity across all the records. It’s a bit like a new haircut; it’s still the same old face underneath, with a few more wrinkles possibly.
Frankly, I’m not in a position to judge, being too close to really have an opinion; I’ll leave that to the observers. But hopefully the sound is more refined and more ‘mature’; I don’t know, personally I hate all those words, it just makes the stuff sound dull. Actually I’m very proud of this record and I think it’s a genuinely great thing, which is more than I can say of any of our other records. That itself is an achievement in my view, when one can truly be happy with what one envisages and what one actually creates.
As Woody Allen said: “The best an idea gets is when it’s in your head”, so to have a finished product which ain’t too far from the idea is a joy. It’s up to the listener if it sounds any different to before.
AM: Why did you choose, ‘Brother, You Must Walk Your Path Alone’ as the first single?
AW: Actually, despite the overall ‘big pop’ theme of the sound of the record, we decided to release ‘Brother’ first as it just seemed to do a nice little modest job of re-introducing the band. There were more obvious ‘single’ tracks we could have used, but there was a feeling with everyone working the record that a soft, short track such as ‘Brother’ would do a better job than a massive pop tune. Saying that, the song is still very poppy and upbeat, but it’s got a melancholy and beauty to it that is striking I think, and I like the lack of swagger and ‘guns-blazing’ that is usually attached to a comeback single.
AM: What’s the song about – presumably it’s not Tom telling you that ESP is over?
AW: I couldn’t comment, as I did not write the words, but I feel like the song is about accepting the bad things in the world and trying to make your own life better day by day rather than blaming everyone else! I’m as much in the dark as you guys though, as Tom and I rarely have conversations about what songs are about. It doesn’t come up. And no, it’s not a coded message to me, or if it is I’ve yet to break the code.
AM: As far as you’re able to comment – given what you just said – what sort of lyrical themes run throughout the album?
AW: Across the album, I’d say there are feelings of love, of expression of one’s feelings, of discovery and reflection, of loss and all that brings, and mainly of total, unashamed honesty. There’s a lot of pretending in music in my view, and it’s a pleasure to sing lyrics that are totally from the heart and unapologetically straight and honest. We lost our mother to cancer a few years back and while it was a devastating time, I think she would be very proud to hear the words in these songs that relate to that experience. The raw expression of love and death (more Allen) that comes through in these songs is some of the truest emotion I’ve ever known people around me to be able to convey. It’s very humbling.
AM: What about the title of the record? Is that directed at anyone in particular?
AW: There are many idiotic notions populating this great world of ours; too many to go into now. Suffice to say we take as much as we give, and whoever maybe calling out ‘idiots’ may also like to look at their own proclamations and assess. Most activities are idiotic in the extreme, and being in bands is definitely up there. I think really we just liked the sound of the word and the fact that it’s at once frivolous and inoffensive, but at the same time sort of menacing and aggressive, and of course self-reflexive.
AM: You’ve both always had various other musical projects on the go. Are you working on any of those at the moment, or has everything taken a back seat for ESP?
AW: Indeed, I have started a new group, essentially a solo project, for the first time. It is called Interlocutor and is based around the theme of my mother’s death. Inspired by Tom’s writing on the subject, I felt moved to make my own thing happen, and the result is a giant ten piece band with a horn section and songs that go on and on for ten minutes at a time. It’s great!
I’m also producing ESP’s keyboard player Alan Grice’s record, which is like some fusing of Field Music, Ben Folds Five, and MBV. That will be released later in the year on Brighton’s own Big Salad Records. I’m also acting as producer for my friend Dave’s album, ‘Herb Denton’s Last Dime’, a record which features guest appearances by many stalwarts of the Brighton scene, including Marc from Brakes, Tom, and plenty of other great players.
But at the moment, ESP is the focus for us, given that we are very proud of this record and want to give it the best shot at reaching as many people as it deserves.
AM: You’re signed a new label for this album, Helium Records. How did that deal come about?
AW: Tom and Mark from the label saw the group at a show in Bristol a while back and enjoyed it; we had a few new songs in the set at that point, and it sparked their imagination. A while later, we got into talks about doing a full record with Helium, and eventually we got the deal done and started work. It all happened slowly but surely, and the whole way along there was maximum trust and love on both sides, as we have had a long history of working with these specific people and go back a long way, which is rare in this industry.
It’s an honour to be working with a label that is so focussed on the art, so intent on delivering a good end result and making sure everyone is happy; band, audience, label, press, everyone. Not to denigrate any label we’ve worked with before because they’ve all been great in different ways, but Helium feels like we’ve come home.
AM: It’s now over a decade since the release of your debut album. How has the industry changed in that time? Is it easier or more difficult to navigate?
AW: It’s funny, things change but a lot of things stay the same. There will always be demand for music, and there will always be the impetus for people to make music, regardless of commerce. I think the financial crisis has changed things in that bands aren’t handed ludicrous sums of money to stick up their noses or waste in some other way, and have to be more creative with the money they’re allocated.
Time was when you would constantly see huge tour busses parked outside Cardiff Barfly or wherever, when the group wouldn’t even fill it. Time was when I was in one of those bands! And much as a lot of the spending has dried up and that can be frustrating, it has separated the men from the boys, so to speak.
As I mentioned earlier, that Gallagher tour in 2011 – for us – was entirely booked by Tom, hotels etc sorted by myself, and I drove. We took a sound engineer as crew and that was it. We made it work on absolutely no budget other than the show fees (which weren’t huge), and I’d wager that a lot of groups couldn’t do this, especially having been used to the model of a big label where everything is laid on and one simply turns up at the airport.
It’s about how much you believe in your stuff I guess… some people are careerists and don’t actually want to express anything through music, so trekking around Europe in a van gets a bit tedious. For us it’s a pleasure to get on stage with this enormous machine that is Noel’s show, stand alongside that and do our job well having had no help from anyone, excepting of course our wonderful manager Sam Smith.
AM: How closely involved are you with the business side of things generally?
AW: Much as I’m grandstanding on doing all that stuff ourselves, actually my business is really working out why that Ab passing note on the string part is jarring with the brass when it slips back in 6/4 time, not the figures.
We have a great team put together by our manager for this record, and we have a working relationship of many years with her. She is the person that keeps ESP afloat, business-wise, and in many many other ways. And that’s the way it should be. I don’t ask her about string arrangements, so I try to keep out of what is her expertise as I’m usually wrong! Having said that, I think it’s good for bands to be aware of their finances and contracts etc, and to maintain some level of understanding of how the trade works.
AM: Beyond this album, do you have any idea what’s next for ESP?
AW: Who can tell? There are always songs floating about and new projects starting up. As I said I’m working on several things for other people, and I now have my own solo project which I’d like to invest some more time in and finish properly. But in terms of ESP, we could run and run.
‘Hiatus’ actually means that for this band, it’s not some code. We’re brothers, so we will never really split up, it’s not possible. And in terms of a working relationship, it’s stronger and better than ever.
One thing we’ve been talking about doing would be opening up the writing a bit more and getting a few songs each from each member for an album, something the Super Furries started doing a few albums ago. That could be an exciting project and make our albums less ‘studio’ and more ‘band’ oriented. However, maybe that’d be too far away from what the band ‘is’ and what people expect.
Frankly, as long as there’s an audience for it, and even if there isn’t, we’ll probably keep doing albums sporadically until we die or get sick of it, neither of which I can foresee with any clarity. I feel like we genuinely add something to the music scene that others cannot and it’s worth seeing where that takes us for a while longer yet.
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