Saturday, 4 February 2012

Happy Particles

Glasgow's Happy Particles operate with a healthy disregard for the conventions of music industry operations, and with some admirable inattention to the notion of self-promotion.
Since his solo beginnings with the lo-fi post-shimmercore Slowness project, Steven Kane has built a six-piece band of like minds, and together this group of friends have created something quite magical - their 'Under Sleeping Waves' album exudes hopelessness as much as it does joy, and is as thoughtful and heartfelt as it is bitter and cynical. Simultaneously drawing influence from the American independent underground, contemporary classical and vintage avant garde space-rock; Happy Particles' debut is undoubtedly going to be one of the albums of 2012 - despite its considered and contrary 2011 release date.
I spoke to Steven and guitarist/bassist Al Doherty about their past, present and future.

L-R James Swinburne (Rhodes piano, saxophone), Gordon Farquhar (drums, percussion), Graeme Ronald (bass), Steven Kane (guitar, vocals, laptop, piano, glockenspiel), Al Doherty (guitar, bass), Ricky Egan (guitar). The guy in the trolley is Ally McCrae, a radio presenter.

The album came out on Christmas Day. Is it intended as a gift, or is it something holy?
S: It's definitely not holy. We just though, "When is the worst time you could possibly put an album out?"
A: It was the most obtuse time, but also just seemed the best time to put it out.
S: We did argue about it a wee tiny bit at first. The thing is, we can do whatever we want because nobody's signed us, and we paid for the album ourselves and recorded it with our pal. No one's stopping us from doing anything. When's the worst time you can put an album out? Christmas Day. But actually it wasn't that bad.

It's still being talked about in terms of being a 'Best of 2012' album.
S: Aye, I think people are thinking of it as a 2012 album...
A: Again, unintentional! It is the most ridiculous time to put a record out if you feel it's even good enough to be considered for an end-of-year list. That didn't even cross my mind!
S: It didn't cross our minds until people started saying "Why have you put it out when we've already done our lists?" We didn't really thing about your lists or whatever. I had a sneaking suspicion that people would be doing fuck all. I just thought, "I bet people are still on the internet over Christmas", because they wouldn't be at work, they wouldn't be at college. I think I was right, because people were talking about it for about a week, and it was all over the internet. That wasn't planned. But it was nice.

It's the first Happy Particles album, but do you consider it an album, or is it a collection of songs you've all had in your heads for a while?
S: It's definitely an album. There are songs on the album that are only on the album because we started recording the album. A lot of the stuff didn't have strings on it until we started recording the album. And we chucked songs out too.
A: There are songs that are there that definitely weren't for that album...
S: ...that precede some of the songs that were written for the album.
A: We started recording to record an album. We didn't just do bits and bobs and put them all together. We went with the intention of making an album from start to finish.
S: It's quite varied, but that's not because it's all thrown together. We were planning on being varied. I can see why you might think it was "Let's pick the best songs from whatever style they're in", but we tried to make it as cohesive as possible.

What's the cover? Where are those clouds?.
S: That's my girlfriend's photograph. It's up in Skye, I think. Or maybe it's at her granny's house... It's completely irrelevant. It's just the sky where she lived. She had loads of them, but she took it on this camera, called a Diana, and I just liked the look of it. I gave it to (drummer) Gordon (Farquhar), and he turned it on its side. It looks better the way he's done it. It's irrelevant, because I just chose a picture my girlfriend had, but to me it's relevant because it looks like you're falling asleep out your back garden or something. It probably doesn't mean that to anybody else in the band though. Or even my girlfriend.

Is that the best place to listen to the album? In your back garden? Or where?
A: In their own minds, I think...
S: I'd say, in the dark with headphones on. But I don't really like listening to music load with loads of people. It depends how many drugs you've taken, really. Maybe you'd like to jump about dancing.

Or listen to it in a car, tearing down Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night...
S: Actually, that's great - when we were driving back when it was completely finished, me and him were listening to it. Driving back from Dundee, and it was still light but it was getting dark, and it was all minging and cloudy, and it was good in the car. I forgot about that.

And that's not just because it was the first listen after having finished it?
S: It was good because of that, but it seemed to suit the car as well. I forgot about that. But then I can't drive.

So the best place to listen to it is in the passenger seat of a car, while somebody drives you around?
S: Exactly. In a car, as a passenger.

Unless you're very good at hiding the bad stuff, you've had nothing but praise for the album in the press. Does it make you nervous?
S: Nervous in what way? Like we're waiting for a bad one?

No, like you're now obliged to do interviews.
S: No... I'm just getting a bit wary of saying the same things over and over again, if you know what I mean? But you're doing alright, that's not happened with you. But that would be my fault anyway. I don't feel nervous because it's quite removed. How we're using the internet and all that, and we don't have a label telling us what to do, so no one's putting pressure on us.

You can't do it wrong when you're doing it on your own terms.
S: Aye. And we don't see anyone - it's kind of faceless. Apart from you. I can see you.

You've seen me before anyway. Can you imagine, in ten years time, playing the album from start to finish at an off-season holiday camp in Minehead?
A: That'd be amazing. We'd have to have some sort of horrible fall-out though. I think there's got to be a proportion of that time when people don't talk to each other, and then they come back, and do it.

What do you think of the whole ATP culture, with everybody reforming to recite albums?
A: It works. There's bands that have done it who haven't stopped. Say bands like Low, or Tortoise. They've done it.
S: Are you talking about somebody who's specifically doing an album?

Yeah, somebody who's split up, and reformed to play one album live.
S: People have to make money. And that's it.
A: It sort of depends on your vision of who the band are, you know? If it's somebody you're not really into, you're going to think they're just doing it for the money. But if it's somebody like Codeine, you think it's amazing...

"They're doing this for me!"

A: Yeah! I suppose it's a fan thing, really.If the people who are watching it get that feeling, then it's a success.

Steven, you've done solo stuff for a long time. How did the album come about? Did you decide you needed a full band?
S: The album wasn't there before the band. There were songs on the album that existed, but the whole album didn't exist before the band. I didn't get a band together to do an album. I formed a band to play gigs, and we only had a handful of songs, and then other songs kind of popped out of that, to the point where there was enough songs to do an album. It was the band before the album. We didn't even think about the album 'til at least a year, maybe more, after we started.

When was that point, when you realised you could do an album?

S: I can't remember!
A: I suppose it was a personal thing for you (Steven), I don't think we ever really thought... We were in a band before we ever thought that it was the thing to do - you know, what you do is, you make an album. It wasn't this project that had to be completed or something.
S: It became that, but I can't remember when that happened.
A: I don't think you ever really set out to do that in the first place.
 S: No. Basically we were trying to do gigs that were quite intense or whatever, and we weren't thinking about an album. I don't know when it happened, but at some point we spoke to Gordon - it was Gordon's pal Robin (Sutherland) that recorded the album - and he said that we might be able to get some time with Robin to record. Not an album, just anything. And we must have clicked then that we had enough songs, because after we started going up there, that was all we were thinking about. So it became this thing that took over a year of our lives, because we were doing it on the cheap and when we could fit it in. So we were going there once a month, or whatever. But I really can't remember when we decided to record an album now. It's weird, having been so obsessed by it.

It always seemed like you were quite private with your music when you were working on your own. You didn't do much with it.
S: That was because I was pretty much waiting for them to get their act together and join the band. We were talking through emails, and bumping into each other in the pub. It was me and him separately, and me and Gordon separately. Graeme and James came from Remember Remember, so it was me and Al talking about it over a couple of years. That stuff was up on the internet as demos, and I was patiently waiting for them to hurry up and come and play in a room with me. I wasn't being mega-private, I was just waiting for the rest of the band to get their fingers out! Haha!

People can either buy the album, or just listen to it, on bandcamp. Why did you put the whole thing up?
S: Just because there's no point in not. You can just as easily nick it. If you treat people with respect, then they might give you money. Or they might not. I don't know. It's that thing about not treating someone like a thief.
A: If you're thinking about media upload sites, there's an embedded thing that you can do where you can just put the thing there, and you can have a review of the album, so as immediately as you can read it you can press play and listen to it. The streaming thing's brilliant. In the end it wasn't that obtuse to release an album on Christmas Day because you could just listen to it. Everyone's connected to the internet.
S: It wouldn't have worked if we couldn't have streamed it.

Where did you record it?

A: Our friend Robin had just built a studio... He called it a barn but I think it was actually a stable conversion at some guy's house. The first time we went up, it was still in the process of getting finished, I think, and we were one of the first people to come in and try it out. It's just by Dundee.
S: Out in the middle of nowhere. Fields, and things.

Did your listening habits change over the recording of the album?
A: It was over such a long period of time. I think albums have a feel to them when they're recorded quickly, and albums that are thought about have a feel to them - they go through movements in small amounts of time, rather than just being a collection of influences. If something was recorded in three weeks, and all of yous were listening to the same five or six albums, it'd have a different feel to it. I suppose with the strings we were all listening to a load of contemporary classic, but we were listening to that anyway.
S: I don't think the album made us listen to anything different. I think I might have started listening to different stuff anyway, over the year. More jazz, probably.

It's always jazz.
S: Aye. I've listened to jazz for years though. I've been a saddo for years. I think I just listened to more jazz. We used to listen to... In the car going up - what was the record?
A: Miles Davis.
S: 'In a Silent Way'. We used to listen to that in the car on the way up quite a lot.
A: It was a journey every time we went up to add a little bit to it. In the morning we'd pick up everybody in the car, then two hours in the car up to the barn, and then we're usually coming home about twelve o'clock at night, knackered. On the way home you'd really get the vibe of it.

(My phone rings, and I leave to take the call. I think I've switched off my recorder, but it turns out I have not)

S: (nervously) That's still on. We can't say anything now.
A: We'll sit in silence.
S: Or give away our secrets.
A: Or how inane we usually are.
S: Our plans for debauchery on a Thursday night... We really can't say anything.
A: It's all a ruse, to get your darkest secrets.
S: That'd be a great idea...
A: ...interview bands, and then just disappear.
S: I bet a lot of bands would just not think about it. They'd think "Oh, he's switched it off". Because it's just on the table, you don't really suspect it'd still be running.

(I return)

Shit, this is still on...
S: We were talking about that. Wondering if it was a ruse.

Ha! Right, sorry about that. So, you've got a track called 'Classes in Silence (for Jess)'. Who is Jess?
S: That's actually my friend's mother, who passed away a couple of years ago. She was really nice to me when I was a teenager. I used to stay at his bit and she would be all nice and take care of me. And she passed away a couple of years ago, and I put her name on that song. That's what that is.

How is the writing shared out? A solo project is now a six-piece band.
S: I used to write the songs as demos, and I'll bring them in, and they'll finish parts of them. That's the way it's been going so far. But I didn't really write the strings, I just kind of 'guided' it. James (Swinburne) and Graeme (Ronald) wrote separately for that. In the future, other people's demos will probably be adapted, rather than just my demos be adapted. It's a very collaborative thing. It's quite a weird collage, and the album's quite like that as well, because everyone's personalities are blurred all over it now.
A: Things get transformed - for the better - into things that are completely different. Even things like 'Aerials', the first song on the album, that's now morphed into something completely different.
S: Aye, the first song wasn't even a song, it was just me singing, and a drone. Now it's a song with two keyboard parts, and a guitar part, and a bass part, and I wrote none of it. Apart from the vocal line and the chord progression. So that was pretty collaborative! But that's not what's on the album. We do everything a bit arse-backwards.

You don't play live very often.
S: We don't.

Why not? Is it hard?
S: It is hard to play live. It's hard to play live and be good. But also, it's hard to play live all the time, and not be shit. Especially if the songs are quite intense. Or if they're intense to you. You've got to make it intense. You can't saturate people. You know what it's like, someone gets their family and their pals to their gig every month, and a few months in you're absolutely tired. You don't want to hear them ever again. It's a mixture of trying to keep it intense and make it a bit special, so people have something to look forward to, rather than get bored of.
A: Think of a touring band, or someone that's releasing regular albums. You maybe get to see them in Glasgow once, or twice, a year, and it's amazing. Somebody like Earth can consistently do the rounds.

I've stopped going to see Earth, I think they play too much.
A: I still go. They change bits about. It depends on what members are there. But I suppose with us... When did we play live last?
S: That planetarium gig. I'm saying it has to be good, and not to saturate it, but also, we've not played out of Glasgow. So I don't think you should do that many gigs in the same city, over and over again. Maybe if we did a tour we'd lay more gigs. Maybe that's a factor as well.

Are you planning a tour?
S: Not at the moment!

Have you got any gigs coming up?
S: A gig on the 31st of March. And we're going to do a gig with a string quartet. We just need to figure that out, but it'll happen before summer. Maybe. It's got to be in a decent location. It's got be a somewhere that isn't a circuit gig, and it's going to have a string quartet. And maybe visuals and stuff. But we're doing a 'rock' show in March! Haha!

You seem to have sold quite a lot of digital copies of the album.
S: Well, we've made enough to fund another album. It took us about a month to get the money to record another album. So to me, that's success. If you can release an album, and a month later it's paid for the next one, to me that's success. But we haven't sold thousands and thousands. Because we don't have a publicist, we don't have a label, and we've got a narrow field of people who know us. Although that's getting bigger because of the internet.

Do you think you subconsciously hoped it would grow like that, organically?
S: Probably. If you're taking that attitude, then you can't start greeting about not having all these magazines call you up, and not being on telly or whatever. It doesn't really sit with the same philosophy. We were prepared for that.
A: I think we've been part of this circuit, this game, enough to know what happens and to know why people are in magazines or why they're not. We realised that it's just up to ourselves, and that's why we're surprised with these pockets of people that appear, like an album review from Belgium, and Mexican articles...

A review from California posted on Christmas Day...
A: Yeah.
S: We don't expect anything. So if anything comes up, we're like "Wow! Somebody's asking us to do something!" Like this. I think that's maybe the problem with some other people in bands, they expect so much, and it's unrealistic. And why do you need that much anyway? A lot of it's a bit pointless. The ego-stroking stuff.

Right, I'm going to say some words, and you can discuss them.
S: Ok. That's cool. I like that.

Based on things that have been written about you recently.
S: Haha! Ok.
A: Ha!

Discuss 'ethereal'.
S: I've no idea what that means. I think it means 'when someone's got a falsetto'.
A: I think that means 'whenever you put Steven's vocals through a pedal'. Haha!
S: It's something you can take the piss out of, but I can totally understand what people mean when they say it. It's just a word people clutch when they're trying to find a description...
A: It's a good word that conjures images in your head, and with associations with other bands who have been termed that, you can almost get a grasp of what they mean. When you read what's been written about us, then put the record on, you'd probably not be surprised at what you hear.
S: The only problem I've got with the word 'ethereal', is that it's got connotations with music that's either quite over-emotive or religious, but I think the vocals and the lyrics on this album are extremely cold, and dead inside. Haha! So that's the only problem I've got with 'ethereal'. It's far too positive a word!

The next one is two words. 'Sigur Ros'.
S: They don't interest me at all. The first album's alright. It's not even that good. It's fine. Coffee Table. I'm sure some people think we're Coffee Table though. It's just your...

S: Exactly.

I think you sound more like Galaxie 500.
S: That's nice. They were more dead-inside. A bit of reverb, and a bit of deadness. I like Galaxie 500. They're quite minimal as well.
A: I think our songs, although constructed minimally, are a bit...
S: More colourful?
A: well there's six of us and there was three of them...
S: I'm quite happy with that comparison.

What about Stars of the Lid?
S: Ah, I really like them. But I'd rather discuss, have you heard (new project from SOTL's Adam Wiltzie) Winged Victory for the Sullen?

Yeah, but only recently.
S: I love Stars of the Lid. Do you like Stars of the Lid? I think they're just one of the most important bands of the last, like, fifty years or something. They're really important to me. But I like the new record that Adam Wiltzie's done, it's totally blowing my mind right now.
A: Yeah, it's incredible.
S: They played Oran Mor in January, and we didn't get to go. I saw Stars of the Lid twice. Remember Remember were supporting them before I was in Remember Remember, in Glasgow and Dundee, so I saw them twice. And it was fucking amazing.

Are there any bands in Glasgow's musical lineage you think people neglected? Like Sputniks Down.
S: I don't think Sputniks Down were neglected, I think they just stopped being a band so long ago. There are bands that are neglected though... Alec Cheer! Do you know that guy?

S: He's neglected because he's a total genius, and he's put out five or six albums, basically for free, over the last five years, and they're as good as anything John Fahey has put out. So he's definitely been neglected. He's like a ghost, almost.
A: There's a lot of bands, unashamedly our friends bands, who are about to put out their first record, who have been kicking about for years. Like Olympic Swimmers.
S: They're a great band.

Did they not get Steve Albini to do their record?

S: No. Iain Cook. Same thing! Basically. So many bands in Scotland have done that though, so that's probably why you're getting confused. So many bands go over and get Albini to do their record, because he's affordable.
A: Mclusky did that.
S: I thought they were Welsh?

I think they are.
S: Who else... Pioneers of Anaesthetic. Steven's worked with us, and he's just put a wee album out. He's been doing it for a few years. He's under-appreciated, especially that new album he put out on bandcamp, which he picked from songs he'd done in one take. Not live, but he'd just done them in an hour or something, and that was them finished. Quality Control, it's called. The melodies in it are just mad, and beautiful. Ganger, they were under-appreciated, I believe. Their record's amazing, but they're ancient. I don't know if that's applicable any more.

What are the plans for Happy Particles in 2012?
S: We've got that string quartet gig, and we're writing a new album. We've probably got thirty half-songs. We need to start figuring out what the new album's going to be like. So I think there'll be a second album ready to get recorded by the end of the year. If we can do some string quartet gigs and have an album ready to record by the end of the year, then that'll be pretty good for us.

Is the pressure on for your second album?
S: Nah. I don't really give a shit. It'll be what it'll be. I don't know what it'll be yet.
A: I think we've got an idea of what we want a good few things to sound like. The relief of getting our album done, and now not rehearsing songs in order to play a gig, has kind of freed us up a wee bit. We're just going to start going back to the rehearsal studio and turning up the guitars.
S: One thing I would say, is that our first album - our album - is quite varied, and I think that the next album we do will be more specifically one part of that album. An element of that album will be more broadly represented as another album.

Do you know which element that'll be?
S: Well, I've kind of got an idea, but you don't know, because then you look an absolute fool if...
A: I think our interpretation of what we want becomes something else anyway.
S: Yeah. Because if I told you what I thought our first album was going to sound like, it would probably just have been quite indie-rock fare, and it ended up being infused with neo-classical stuff and all that. We're quite open to stuff, but there'll definitely be less elements than the first one, but brought out more. Maybe not just one element, but not as many. There was quite a lot of shit going on in the first one. I think anyway.

You can (and should) buy 'Under Sleeping Waves' here

Frànçois and the Atlas Mountains

Frànçois and the Atlas Mountains recently became Domino's first Gallic signings, and it's a pairing that seems to be long overdue - the band's indie-afro-funk-pop charms sit perfectly amidst the likes of Robert Wyatt, Animal Collective and The Magnetic Fields on Domino's inimitable roster.

Since moving to Bristol (with just a trumpet and a desire to play music),
Frànçois Marry has effortlessly endeared himself, and his music, to the thinking-person's indie underground. A stint in Camera Obscura and a record released on Fence ought to be enough to convince you of that, regardless of the contract the band have just signed, and the hugely successful tour they've just completed.

I spoke to Frànçois on the final night of this tour, and in-between the background noise and signal problems, we had the following conversation...

                                     Frànçois (left) and the Atlas Mountains. Photograph by Lola Prestowski

Who are the Atlas Mountains?
At the moment, it's an English drummer called Rob Hunter - I met him in Bristol - there's a Scottish keyboard player and singer - I met him in Fife, when I was touring - and there's two other French guys, called Amaury Ranger - he plays bass and saxophone - and there's another guy called Pierre. I met him in Bordeaux. I am Fránçois, and I am French, and I live in the UK. I have lived in Bristol for six years. We're touring the UK at the moment. It's the first tour we've done with the record out.

How has the tour been? It's probably the first time most of the audience have seen you.

It's been really good. It's good timing because there's been a lot of radio play for the songs. It's been quite busy every night. We've played in Glasgow, London, Bristol, Brighton, Liverpool, Manchester... It's been busy everywhere and we're playing the new songs, to get ourselves excited.

Are you playing any of your old songs?

No. Maybe just a couple. We played 'Royan' (from 2009), and one of the songs that was on Fence Records.

Do you think you would have still signed to Domino if you lived in France?
I live in France at the moment, but I would never have signed to Domino if I had never been to Bristol. My album came to them by way of Fence Records, and I met the people from Fence Records when I was living in Bristol.

You lived in Glasgow too, didn't you?
Yes, for six years.

Woah, really?
No, sorry! Six months. Months.

You like a lot of the music from around here, don't you?
Yeah, there are a lot of bands I really love from Glasgow, like The Pastels and International Airport. I really like anything that Geographic put out. I really like Camera Obscura. I played with them for a while. I really like Bill Wells. There's lots of stuff. The people there are quite relaxed, but at the same time it's modern music. They really keep up to date with modern music and modern sound in Glasgow,but it's a city that manages to be quite laid-back and down to earth about it.

As a French guy who loves Glasgow music and lived in Bristol, where does the African sound in your music come from?
There are a lot of African music festivals in France, and when you go to the library in France there's a lot about African culture, about African life, about African music. There's a lot of connection between Africa and France because of the colonial past. And obviously, musically, it's one of the most interesting musics because it's so strong rhythmically. It doesn't seem elaborate when you hear it from the outside, it can sound like dance music or like pop music, but actually there's lots of subtleties in the playing. And the way it sounds magical, when it's done with very simple instruments. It can sound very transcendental, very spiritual.

Am I right that you recorded the new record in a church? Why did you do that?
It wasn't really part of the process really, it's actually a community centre. Like a town hall type of thing. It was just one space that was available in Saintes, where we're from. It's been declared by the city as a sort of residency space for musicians. It was the most simple, and most available place to work in.

Tell me about what you were listening to when you were making the album. I've read that you were listening to Soundway stuff, which I can hear in it, but also Aphex Twin?
Well, I'm not really attached to any genre of music, but I really like when you can feel the artist behind the music has been trying to explore a new territory, sonically. Via sound. It doesn't matter if it's Aphex Twin, or if it's Pictish Trail doing folk music. I like when you feel that the musician behind it is looking for something other-worldly.

You've been getting a lot of good press, and loads of radio play since the record came out. Is it hard work now, or just more fun?

It's not more fun, actually. It's just the same amount of fun. It feels like it's changing, and it's always a good sign when things aren't staying the same. I'm the type of person who gets bored really quickly, and I'm really pleased that we have more excitement and more people coming to see us. If we didn't, it would feel exactly the same as it did five years ago. It is fun because it's changing, but it's also a lot of work. There's more things to organise and more people involved... Just different I guess.

What are your plans for 2012?
It's going to be a big year, we're mostly touring. We're doing a German tour in February, then we're touring France in March, and there's a big London show - in Cargo - scheduled for April as well. Then the summer festivals, and all that kind of thing. But I really want to carry on finding new songs, or new ways to play the songs we have. Trying different musical ideas inside the band, but also maybe trying to collaborate with some people on side-projects. Can you hear me?

I'm in a cafe and I can't get out, because my phone is plugged in the wall. Can you hear me?

That's better.
Ok. Everything is going so well that I'm just happy to go along with it!

Did you ever skateboard?
Yeah! From the ages of eleven to about seventeen I pretty much spent most of my time outside skateboarding. It was a big part of my teenage years.

That was a good time for skateboard videos.
Yeah, yeah! There was the Plan B video, Questionable, and the 101 videos... Mark Gonzales and Ed Templeton too, I really loved those guys. And I really loved Slap magazine. There was always a bit of painting, a bit of illustration and things about music in it. I was very much influenced by the more gentle side of skateboarding. I wasn't much of a Thrasher fan. More of a Slap fan.

Cool. Do you get much of a chance to go record shopping when you're on tour?
We don't have much time. I spend a lot of my time downloading stuff from Analog Africa, of Awesome Tapes From Africa. But in terms of records, recently I've bought Ducktails, the album of the guy from Real Estate.

Matthew Mondanile.
Yeah, Matthew from Real Estate.It's really nice. And also a Robert Wyatt compilation...

You're on Domino! You should get your Robert Wyatt stuff for free.
Haha! Well, we can't get everything for free. And it's quite good to support people. We've been quite liking the new R&B sound, stuff like The Weeknd, and Drake. Hmmm... I'm sitting next to my friend and I don't think he really likes that stuff.