“If ‘The Optimist’ was the soul of a heartbroken twenty one year old whose innocence was breaking, then this record is perhaps a summation of where that soul is a decade later. Maybe a little more afraid of the world and its systems, wrestling with the idea of either fitting in or dropping out and pulling up the escape hatch.” Olly Knights, summer 2013.
So what happens to an optimist when they have to face up to the realities of modern life? What to do when experience turns to weary pragmatism and — with it — wistful daydreams of escape?
A decade and a half into a career that’s inspired artists as diverse as the Staves and Flux Pavilion, these are the questions posed by the sublime sixth album from Turin Brakes. From the majestic opening swoop and swirl of “Time and Money” through to the elegiac campfire slide of closer “Goodbye,” “We Were Here” finds the band — Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian along with long time collaborators Rob Allum and Eddie Myer — at their most assertive and consistent, with a hypnotic collection of songs that nods to classic releases of the ’70s and also to the triggers of existential dread that sit right at the heart of the information age.
Recorded over two weeks of eighteen hour days in legendary Welsh studio Rockfield, “We Were Here” gorgeously chimes and echoes with the pastoral psychedelia of Pink Floyd, the sunset soul of Laurel Canyon, the blues of the Mississippi Delta and the band’s own six-stringed past.
“Gale and I spent much of our teens getting stoned listening to old blues records in our bedrooms. That informs Turin Brakes as much as my personal love of Laurel Canyon singer/songwriters — we’re hugely inspired by artists like Joni Mitchell and more recently people like Laura Marling; brave female soul singers aren’t afraid to leap into their own wells and come up spluttering, making something beautiful with what they find. With this record, the four of us brought in our own very different influences — everything from jazz to hip hop to ambient music and things like Pink Floyd. Their records have been there right since ‘The Door,’ the first single off ‘The Optimist.’ The records of the early ‘70s, they’re like extra limbs to us.”
As a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the release of their critically lauded, award nominated debut — “The Optimist LP” — Turin Brakes took to the road in 2011 to play a series of shows where the album was performed in its entirety. For the band, this meant a process of relearning the songs, some of which hadn’t been explored since back in 2001. That reassessment process proved a necessary spur in the creative process behind We Were Here.
“Collectively we were driven to make the best possible album that we could. We were determined not to rush into anything. Some records in the past have almost fallen together by luck, but this was the first since ‘The Optimist LP’ where we obsessed over each element. Initially, the four of us went into our studio in Brixton with a set of ideas to play around with. Those ideas could have been the basis of a song or just a couple of chords that we liked. We’d work things through as a band then I’d go off and shape them into songs and add lyrics. Gale as always has more of a hand in production and arrangement but this record represents the first time we’ve written together properly as a band.”
Eschewing digital technology wherever possible, the band recorded live to tape after managing to half-inch some reel-to-reels previously stashed at the studio by analogue overlord Steve Albini, during a countrywide tape shortage several years before. Working with Ali Staton who acted as engineer, co-producer and mixer, they were determined to “develop from the live takes into a full blown Technicolor indie movie”. The results — warm, crystal clear acoustics (“We Were Here”) that give way to expansive echo chamber electrics (Blindsided Again) and chaotic, proggy woodwind (Dear Dad) — are outstanding.
“There’s a certain perfection you get from recording everything to laptop that takes away some of the uniqueness of the music. With (previous album) Outbursts, some of the songs recorded that way had never even been played through as a band. There’s definitely something exhilarating about playing tracks as live and choosing to go with a particular take because of how it sounded on the day.”
Lyrically, the songs return to themes of loneliness, disconnection and realizing one’s own place in the scheme of things. Having recently released a set of intensely personal songs as a solo album (2012’s ‘If Not Now When’), Knights took a more tangential approach when writing We Were Here.
“As a writer, I love to plumb the depths of the human condition. I was thinking about something the other day that’s been a constant source of inspiration on our songs. Before we signed a record deal I was at Central St Martins on the film course. We had a real little gang; part of that gang was my best friend Liam who was like a brother to me and who I made several films with. He got very lost during the course. I knew he was having trouble but I was enjoying being in the band and wasn’t able to pay him much attention. After a holiday I got home and listened to my answer phone, it was packed full of barely audible messages from Liam, some laughing drunkenly and some sobbing. He filled up the entire memory of the answer phone. Later that day, my dad called me to tell me he’d been found dead having hung himself. There was something so utterly disturbing about having his final moments on my phone, like receiving messages from a ghost. It had a profound effect on me and my writing; we dedicated our first album to him and I think it really sent me down a more spiritual path of discovery with my music. The mixture of emotions it dredged up in me are still with me and I recognise those elements in the majority of the songs I write including the songs for this album; the ethereal themes and the mixture of melancholy and hope that I write about have been partly fuelled by this.”
Arriving as it does after a timely reevaluation of some of their earliest recordings, a Turin Brakes’ superlative sixth album is something of a confident fresh chapter; a wide open door to the band’s next decade.
As the title says, “We Were Here.”
Time, then, to join them there.