Challenging Your Established Sound

This is a really interesting one, isn’t it?  Challenging your established sound. It raised it’s head in a recent debate on Song By Toad and it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since.

Let us assume that your in a band, you prodce and album, it doesn’t have to be your debut, that establishes your popularity and is therefore being used as a guage for your established sound.  As the dust settles, it’s time to sit down and write the follow up record.   This  album is going to be extremenly important as it will either cement and increase your popularity or be the beginning of the end.  So what do you do?  Do you stick with the sound that has brought you the success in the first place or do you challenge it.  Change it?  Play with it?  Distort it?  Destroy it?  Is there even a right answer to this question?  If I’m honest, I’m not sure that there is.  Some people will want more of the same, whatever it is that made them love the band in the first place.  Some people will want to hear an artist challenging themselves constantly.  Some people really won’t have an opinion one way or the other.  And if we’re perfectly honest, how many artists can you name who have ever, let alone consistently, challenged their established sound?  And more interestingly, who has done it successfully?  I think you could count the list on two hands.  Off the top of my head I’m thinking: Radiohead, Blur, Tom Waits, Wilco………….see, that’s as far as I can get, and thats just my music collection.

I genuinely think it’s a difficult one.  Take Midlake for example.  How can you realistically expect a band to change their sound after only one successful album.  Surely that is a massive, massive gamble?  Surely it’s something their record company would not encourage?  Let us not forget that Wilco got dropped by Reprise for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  Even the most subtle of changes in direction can result in a bad taste in the mouth of those who loved you for what you were.  But if you take the case of Fionn Regan.  His debut did well, but not amazingly so.  He’s perhaps still not massively “established”.   On his new record he does challenge his sound, with positive results.  So does that mean it actually has to do with popularity?  Do bands who don’t have huge success have more flexibilty to challenge themselves creatively?  I think there is an element of truth in that for sure.  In fact, I’d argue that it is the “popularity” if a band that makes it more likely that the established sound will not change.  Or at least one of the reasons.

I am fascinated by this.  I genuinely am.  The last thing I want is for a band to produce the same record over and over again.  At the same time.  If it’s good.  It’s good.  Right?  Like I said, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this, but I do think as an established act you have to have a right pair of balls on you and a very understanding record label to be able to really challenge your established sound.  Thoughts?

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Fionn Regan – The Shadow Of An Empire

On Song By Toad there was a recent article about Midlake’s new record ‘The Courage Of Others’.  The article suggested that their new record was nothing more than a poorer version of previous record ‘The Trials Of Van Occupanther’ making no attempt to challenge their established sound or push themselves creatively as a band.  Play it safe if you will.  Fionn Regan’s debut record ‘The End Of History’ is without doubt one of my favourite records, so you could say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating the follow up record for quite some time now.  It’s long over due.  And so it has finally arrived.  And the one thing that cannot be thrown at this record is the accusation that the artist has played it safe with an album in the same vein as the previous one.  In fact, I am going to see Fionn this Saturday at King Tuts and if this were 1965 I would be in amongst a crowd most likely shouting “Judas” as Mr Regan strikes up his band.  For you see, this is quite a major departure from the acoustic sounds of debut record and has many paralells to when Bob Dylan decided to trade in his gentle acoustic strumming for some real rock n’roll riffs.  Not that I would say Regan sounds that like Bob Dylan.  I just see parallels in the departure in sound.  It’s a bold step.

The record starts with ‘Protection Racket’, a short, raucous number, which is also the debut single off the album.  The electric upbeat sounds continue for the first part of the album culminating with the wonderful ‘Genocide Matinee’.  It’s only at this point that we get a glimpse of the Fionn Regan from ‘The End Of History’ as ‘Violent Demeanour’ brings the record down and ‘Lines Written In Winter’ goes a step further to beautiful effect.  It’s when he drops the tempo we are really reminded of just what a wonderful song writer he is.  The simple beauty of ‘Lines Written In Winter’ is a joy to behold.  The acoustic foray is short lived though as ‘House Detective’ kicks in with full electric backing once again.  This is not a long record clocking in at about 35 minutes.  What it lacks in length though it more than makes up for in quality.  Is it a better record than his debut?  Well I think its too early for me to answer that.  However, I do feel that its a step forward and a brave progression of his sound.  Not many artists have the balls to do this so early into their careers.  In my opinion Fionn Regan has done so with great success and this record confirms to me that he is one of the most important songwriters of our day.  Wonderful lyrics, wonderful songs, wonderful record.  Check him out here.  Enjoy.

Interview #12: Meursault

At the end of 2008 Meursault released (re-released really) their debut album ‘Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues on lovely Edinburgh label Song By Toad Records.  That album is, without doubt, one of my favourite records by a Scottish artist.  It’s stunning.  They followed this up in 2009 with an excellent EP and are now due to release their 2nd album in March this year.  To say this record is one of the most eagerly anticipated records of 2010 is no understatement.  On top of Meursault,  Neil plays in Withered Hand and has put his hand to recording a number of bands work (including most of the Kays debut album).  He has very kindly taken the time out of his bust schedule to answer some questions for your pleasure.  He has also very kindly given me a track off the new Meursault record.  Bit of an exclusive I believe.  So I feel pretty privaliged.  However, being a bit of a dunce when it comes to getting my media player to work on this bloody blog I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait.  It was easy when I ran Song By Toad, but not so easy on my own blog.  WordPress being a bit of a dick! Anyways, enjoy the interview and I’ll try and sort out my problems in the meantime and post the track later this week.  Enjoy.

TSP:  2009 was a big year for Meursault.  The album was re-released on Song by Toad reocrds at the end of 2008 to rave reviews and the follow up EP ‘Nothing Broke’ also received brilliant reviews.  What were the highlights of 2009 for you personally? 

NP:  The highlight would have to be Phil and Pete joining the band. I’ve followed both of them (in their various projects) for what feels like years, and can’t believe how lucky I am to have the chance to work them both. In terms of gig highlights, there are almost too many to mention, but if I had to choose I would say Homegame, which was really special for me. We played twice over that weekend, the first time was a full-on electro/folk monster which was dogged by technical issues and kind of knocked the wind out of us, however, the next day we played a completely acoustic set which seemed to reaffirm my faith in what it is that I love playing live.

TSP:  2010 looks like being another big year for you with the scheduled release of the second record.  An April album launch is pencilled in right?  Given that second records are often considered to be the most difficult, especially when the debut is so critically acclaimed, have you felt under pressure to deliver on this record?   How has the process changed for you this time around if at all?

NP:  I can honestly say that the shadow of the first record has not loomed over this one to heavily. The themes and motivation behind ‘All creatures will make merry’ come from completely different place than those on ‘Pissing/Kissing’. I feel a certain duty to myself in terms of my own expectations for this album, other than that I couldn’t imagine making an album to someone else’s supposed criteria, that is my idea of hell.

TSP:  Has the experience of 2009 helped you prepare for the year ahead in any way?

NP:  Probably best ask me this again in a years time.

TSP:  The Skinny put ‘Pissing on Bonfires/Kissing with Tongues’ at 15 in the top 50 Scottish albums of the decade.  How did that feel given that it was only originally released in 2007 and then re-released late 2008? 

NP:  It felt good, but I would be lying if I said I could tell you why. The world of music journalism and espicially ‘best of’ lists is and always will be a complete mystery to me. I feel the best thing to do in these situations is to say ‘thank you’ and not dwell on it to much.

TSP:  What are the plans for 2010 other than the album?  Do you plan to get out and tour the new record? 

NP:  Oh yes. The album launch is at Cabaret Voltaire in Edinburgh at the start of April, this gig is effectively the first date of a month long european tour, after which we’ll be playing throughout  the summer, both in the UK as well as additional european dates. I’m also toying with the idea of a more low key ‘solo’ tour around autumn time.

TSP:  Aside from Meursault, 2009 was a pretty busy year for you.  In between recording other bands, playing on others records, recording and mixing toad sessions do you actually find time to listen to other music?  

NP:  Always! I can’t imagine a hell worse than having only my music as company! I will always make time for just listening to records, always have done really. In my head I kind of think of myself as part of this weird, (seemingly) dying breed of music nerds who will happily sit and take in an album in the same way that someone would go to the cinema or spend an afternoon with their nose in a book.

TSP:  Edinburgh has been producing some excellent music for a long time now yet it still seems to lack the media attention that it probably deserves.  Following the success of Meursault and Withered Hand, what bands coming out of the city at the moment would you expect to make an impact in 2010? 

NP:  It’s hard to say really. There are dozens of great bands in this city but you never really know who people will pick up on. To name a few favourites though…

Conquering Animal Sound have been absolutely stunning every time I’ve seen them and their EP is never off the stereo for long. In fact anything involving Jamie (Japanese War Effort) generally tickles my fancy.

The Last Battle seem to be gathering quite a bit of well deserved praise, looking forward to hearing more. They have one song called ‘Ward 119’ which makes me greet, bastards!

Found have a new record coming out!

Jesus H Foxx, also recording a new album. Should be great.

Am I allowed to say Debutant or is that too close to home? Fuck it, Phils got stuff coming out this year and I can’t wait to hear it.

I could go on and on. So I will.

Yusuf Azak is recording an album just now. He’s a Glasgow based songwriter that I was lucky enough to see play at Sneaky Pete’s last summer. Just beautiful songs recorded in a completely unique way.

EAGLEOWL.

TSP:  What’s on the stereo at the moment?

NP:  ‘Wind’s Poem’ by Mount Eerie hasn’t been off the stereo since it came out last year. Last week I treated myself to ‘Rock n’ Roll Singer’ by Mark Kozelek, it’s the first thing he recorded after Red House Painters went on permanent hiatus. It has this one song called ‘Ruth Marie’ which is absolutley devastating (in a good way).

TSP:  Any albums you are particularly looking forward to in 2010?

NP:  I feel a little out of the loop on this one actually. Since I’ve not been reading many music journals or blogs in the last year or so I’ve just been buying the music that grabs me at the time, so most of the albums which are on their way this year will probably pass me by until I actually see them on the shelf at a record store. I do know, however that Samamidon has a new album on the way. This can only be a good thing.

TSP:  Collaborations have been something you’ve been involved in lately.  Tell us a little more about the record with Pete from the Leg, Frances of Animal Magic Tricks and King Creosote.  How did that all come about?

NP:  Frances came to edinburgh to record some songs at our friend Matthews (Song, by Toad) house and I was asked if I wouldn’t mind helping out. Around the same time I had been involved in recording the Withered Hand album (Good news) with Pete who had expressed an interest in joining Meursault and who had already played with Frances on a number of occassions. One thing led to another and I ended up having more and more input into the songs and the next time frances came to Edinburgh we decided it might be nice to record some of my songs in a similar fashion. It just so happened that Kenny was also in town that day and was also interested in getting involved. By the time we were finished we had 9 songs which sat really well together and Matthew suggested releasing them. The ‘band’/album is called ‘Cold Seeds’ and we’re hoping it’ll be available by the time of Homegame in March.

TSP:  You also play a variety of instruments in Withered Hand’s band.  Is it becoming harder and harder to juggle both Meursault and Withered Hand as you both get busier and busier?

NP:  If things are as much fun as playing in Withered Hand then finding time for them becomes less of a bind and more of a neccesity. Too many great things have come from making music with Dan, Hannah, Benni and Alun for me to want to give that up any time soon.

TSP: What are you most looking forward to this year?

NP:  Obviously having the new album finished and released will bring with it a huge sense of achievment (or at least I would hope so). Other than that, I really can’t wait for the tour to start, it’s a new experience and a different level of exictement for myself and the rest of the band. The novelty of traveling across europe is not lost on me.