From time to time it can be good to take time out, to sit back and claim a little perspective.
It's important, though, not to let this linger; it's important to get back on route, to keep moving forwards.
It's something that Tall Ships have learned, and learned well. The band's new album 'Impressions' arrives on March 31st, some five years after the release of their much-heralded debut.
Out on Fat Cat, the record is a wonderful return - lyrically astute, the arrangements wring out fresh meaning while also allowing plenty of room for that rhythm section to shudder into fresh arenas.
A rich, complex, and rewarding return, Clash spoke to Tall Ships frontman Ric Phethean about creativity, recording in the countryside, and what exactly took them so long...
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Did you mean to take five years off?
No, that was never the plan! We definitely needed a bit of a break after all the touring around the first album. We had to deal with real life for a bit, and try to earn some money. And make up for all the time we’d spent touring. Initially it was meant to be about a six month break. It took ages to come together and actually have the songs and put them together. It just took a really long time for everything to coalesce and start working as a band again. We were all doing different things… working, I played with another band for a little while. We just had a break. It did take a long time.
The new record is entirely independent – it’s a DIY route.
Yeah! Much like the first album. We just recorded it ourselves. It was produced by our keyboard player Jamie, he’s got this space down in Devon. We were doing maybe two week-long sessions, maybe every couple of months just slowly recording the album. It was just the four of us. And then once we’d got the core tracks down then we got a friend in to help, to do some orchestration, and then we recorded some other players, other singers on there. It was good fun! It was all ourselves… which is probably why it took five years.
Did secluding yourself away in Devon help rejuvenate the band as a creative entity?
Yeah it’s great because you’re completely isolated down there and it just means that you can focus 100% on the songs and making the tracks. It was great because it was very clear time off work, so we could go down and focus on it. It was a beautiful place to make an album. We were right on the entrance to Dartmoor, basically, so it was a 20 minute drive and you were up in the middle of the moor. It was an amazing place to be.
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It just took a really long time for everything to coalesce and start working as a band again...
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Lyrically, this feels like an intimate, introverted record. Did being away from your everyday lives help you burrow within yourselves?
Yeah. I’d say definitely the inward-looking thing is definitely a product of the kind of mindset that I was particularly in over the time – it was quite a low period for me. So the mindset and the general place that my head was at… everything was very internal, looking inwards. So that definitely shaped the album. But the kind of stories, the lyrics on it, are drawn completely from experiences that I’ve had or people close to me, people I know have gone through. So it was a very inward-looking album. It was a very direct experience.
Do you take sole control of lyrics in the band?
I write all the lyrics. When I was recording them with Jamie he would say if there was an absolute clanger. He would say ‘that’s too much...’ So I would write all the lyrics, and Jamie is the filter. He would take out any crap that I would try and squeeze in… anything that’s cheesy!
Would you all work in the studio at the same time?
Initially, for the first three weeks we were all down there. That was when we were finalising the structures of the songs. We got down the drums, the bass, and most of the guitars… all four of us were in the room then, but then after we’d done that there would be spates where there would be just me and Jamie doing the guitars, keyboards, and vocals. But then we’d all come back together… maybe six months later and go through everything. It was all separated out.
It was very much when people could get time off work. We worked it around that. As much as we could possibly do, we tried to all do it together. It’s just great – even if you’re not doing anything at that point it’s just really nice having everyone around. For instance, if Jamie was doing drums I’d go and cook dinner, or vice versa. We’d all try and get down as much as possible.
Lots of cooking involved, then!
Lots of cooking… I say cooking – mostly pizza! Constant buy one, get one free on pizza. So it would be pasties for lunch, and then pizza – or Mexican – for dinner. Mostly eating and drinking, yeah.
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Was there a moment, or a song, when the album began to coalesce?
Yeah. There’s a song called ‘Home’ on the new album, which is basically the first song that we started demoing for the second album. And we started demoing it as soon as we’d finished the tour. So it’s the oldest of the new songs. We’ve recorded maybe five or six different versions of it, and it just never ever quite felt right.
There’s a moment in the middle of the song where it’s a big layered build up of guitars and drums and everything. It was when we were recording that, we just felt: oh right, we’ve finally conquered that song. It had been a bit of a git, to be honest. It felt great – that was a real moment. It’s just really exciting when you’re recording – it feels amazing, really amazing. That was the song that definitely felt: right we’re on track, this isn’t going to be demo number six that we’ll need to scrap and do again, it’s like right… we’re in this now!
The song ‘Petrichor’ started lyrically as a collection of one-liners – is that something you’d done before? Was it a writing exercise?
With that song I tend to just mumble along to demos that I have to see what vowels and words sound good and feel good. With that, it turned out being loads of different lines that felt that they’d kind of work together, but I’d always imagined trying to get them into other songs. But when I started listing them out they all seemed to fit together.
Once I started looking at them… they worked together, and it felt like a big release of stuff that you’re keeping inside but never really say. And it kind of feels like lots of stuff that I’d never say in real life to people but want to. The idea behind that song in the end was this thing about externalising all this stuff that you carry within you, and letting that out. And how good it can feel.
Is that the role the band plays in each member’s lives, do you think? To externalise feelings that often go unsaid?
Yeah. I think for all of us it’s what we’ve done for years now. We’ve been a band for eight years and it’s just something that we love doing. It’s been the central focus of our adult lives, really. It’s definitely an incredibly pleasurable thing to do. To play live, in particular, which for all of us is just so much fun. It is such an amazing thing to be able to do. We’re so lucky to be able to play live and to play to people who are interested in our songs, and enjoy our songs.
It’s definitely something that feels like a real release for us, because we’ve put everything into the band. So all the jobs and all the work that we do has pretty much purely been so we can do the band. I think the band just really love playing live. It’s an outlet, and it makes it feel good. And we’re lucky to be able to do that.
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I caught you doing the Big Scary Monsters in-store a few weeks back – a solo set, no less!
It was great! The new album actually translated to being played on acoustic guitar. Which was the problem we had with the first album which consisted of five minute songs with one riff going round. And you can’t really play that on the acoustic! So it was a really enjoyable experience. It was really nice to be able to play songs on an acoustic and for them to feel right. You just take them into a really different place. Especially because the album is so dense – there’s so much going on, all the songs have different layers of guitars, vocals, and percussion.
It’s really nice to be able to strip it back to just vocals and guitar. It was a really enjoyable experience.
Have you reached a decision on whether Tall Ships will tour quite as much around this album?
We definitely want to tour it as much as we can, but now we’ve got other responsibilities so we can’t really tour as heavily as we did last time. But we’re hoping to tour it as much as we possibly can – get a couple of support tours. Do a couple of tours for the album. I think the touring was just a bit extreme last time. But we loved it – it’s great! This time round we’ve got a bit more on our plates, so we can’t just chuck everything in and disappear for six months.
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The response to the songs has been nothing but positive...
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It’s a dream come true, in many ways.
Oh completely. It’s an incredible experience. You go to really interesting places you’ve never been before, and you make loads of really great friends. Through other bands that you tour with, promoters, crew, people that you stay with. You make some really amazing friends. We were so lucky to have those opportunities – we toured in Europe, it was a fantastic experience. Especially for us, as well, it was kind of the main way for us getting our name out there. So that’s how we built the fan base we have now – it was built from playing live in front of those people. It’s very pure, and it’s just a great way to get the band out there.
It’s the first album in five years… do you feel re-energised now? Is there a lot more to come? I’d hope so. We’ve got loads of new ideas. New song ideas. We’re definitely hoping to follow it up with something pretty soon after. It’s excitement – finally we’ve got a new album out there, and we just need to hope that people are into it, and people like the new tracks and come to the gigs, and they haven’t forgotten about us.
Does the warm feeling around the return of Tall Ships make you feel more confident about the future?
Definitely! It’s really great that we still have people who come to the gigs. There’s always that fear of after five years people moving on – people change. They might not give a shit any more! But we’ve been really grateful that people have stuck around. The response to the songs has been nothing but positive and that’s why we can’t wait to do this tour. We can’t wait to get out there and play and get this album out.
It was a bit of a worry, us going away for that long. We did worry that people wouldn’t care any more. But it does feel that there’s a real warmth there, and we’re just really grateful for those fans who stick around, who are still interested, and still come to gigs and enjoy it.
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'Impressions' will be released on March 31st. Tall Ships are set to play a Cheap Monday x Clash in-store tomorrow - RSVP to [email protected]