The follow-up, Free, is an ambitious love note to buzzing guitars, power pop hooks and Bono-worthy, arena-ready vocals. Produced by Gil Norton (The Pixies, Jimmy Eat World, Foo Fighters), quite possibly the best rock producer working today, the band managed to distill the energy that was apparent in Vivarium while highlighting a new sense of urgency.
Getting from the first record to the second wasn’t without plenty of sweat. They spent the past few years playing shows across the globe, touring with bands like Gaslight Anthem and Taking Back Sunday, winning over crowd’s one show at a time. The growth is apparent on their latest record.
Guitarist, cellist (yes, cellist), and backing vocalist Barry McKenna, spoke recently about making anyone care about a band from Glasgow, working with Norton and spending the past few years on the road.
Innocent Words: Let’s start with how the band first got together.
Barry McKenna: Our band’s roots were made when Ross and Sam met at school, and through a common love of music and skating decided to start a band. Years later they met Craig and I through the close knit Glasgow music community, since we played in other bands as well. Upon realizing how much we all had in common and that we all shared similar ambitions and goals and that we had the same musical outlook, we decided to put our heads together and start a new band.
IW: How was the recording of Free different than Vivarium? Were you more confident having already gotten a lot of solid feedback from the first EP?
McKenna: With Vivarium we were definitely still finding our feet. From songwriting right through to recording we were inexperienced, and everything felt brand new to us. We were basically a young band just overexcited about the opportunity that lay in front of us, and as a result I think the EP reflects this. The songs are quite schizophrenic and sound like a band wanting somebody to listen and pay attention.
As we moved into Free, on the other hand, despite still being a young band, the whole recording process was no longer fresh to us, and instead of being in awe of our circumstance, we were more able to focus all our attention on the songs and the sonics of how those songs were being committed. Also, as with most things in life, you tend to get more proficient with a something the longer you do it. We felt this happened to our songwriting. We learned how to play for the song and for each other. As a result, Free is an album we are all very proud of.
IW: Did it take you a while to end up on Red Bull Records?
McKenna: It took us a while to end up on any label, to be honest. Coming from Glasgow in Scotland, bands are pretty much excommunicated from the industry down south in London. Thanks to this geographical disadvantage, it takes a longer time to build up the kind of momentum that will make the industry types aware of your band, and an even longer time to get the attention of a U.S.-based label like Red Bull Records. To be honest though, it was a benefit for us to be sheltered from the industry for so long, as it gave us time to grow and develop naturally and honestly as a band.
IW: It took a while to follow up the first release. Was that intentional?
McKenna: We were in the whirlwind of touring around the world, and until then had never had to try to write songs on the road before. It is very difficult to snatch precious moments of spare time and turn them into something productive. Also, we had written a whole batch of songs which eventually we turned our back on to start over. We are glad we did take our time though, as Free wouldn’t have turned out like it did otherwise. For us it makes sense to take care and time over a record. It’s a snapshot of your band and yourself as people at a moment in time, and want it to develop to be clear and concise… and not to turn out all blurry and out of focus.
IW: In the press release you are quoted as saying, “This band was meant to be based on integrity.” Can you expand a bit on that? Was there a fear that that integrity was getting lost?
McKenna: We base our band on integrity because we feel like these are qualities that are severely lacking in most popular music today. We feel like we are one of the few bands trying to fill this void by playing music that derives solely from a love of music and ignore all the bullshit and falsities that surround it. This is the same reason Sam [McTrusty] retains his own accent when he sings. The most honest way to share anything is always in your own voice. Too many other bands hide behind false characters and personas. Good honest rock music has always been about integrity, and we are simply trying to retain it.
IW: What was it like to work with Gil Norton?McKenna: Gil Norton was a dream to work with. He’s pretty much a legend in his field, so to have him as excited about our songs as we were was pretty surreal, yes, but it certainly gave us an added enthusiasm and made us excited about getting in the studio with him and pushing the big red record button.
Also, with Free being our first proper LP, it was great to have such an experienced hand guide us through the whole process. On top of that, despite having done this for 20-plus years already, Gil still has a real passion and desire for his craft which is pretty inspiring. I must also give a mention to Dan “golden ears” Austin, who was the engineer and Gil’s right-hand man throughout the recording.
IW: Did you draw on different musical and outside influences when working on Free versus the first record?
McKenna: We had traveled the world since recording our first record, so we had grown immensely, both as people and as musicians. So this general life experience definitely became an influence on the album. Traveling also opens you up to the common threads of humanity that are apparent regardless of where you are in the world. Through this, lyrically, Sam has certainly learned to be less insular and instead take a much broader perspective on things. I think that has played a big part in the growth of our band around Free, since way more people are able to relate to our songs now with Sam tackling a more universal outlook.
IW: Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind the song “Edit Me”?
McKenna: I love the fact that everyone takes something different from a song’s lyrical content. For me personally, “Edit Me” is about being proud of who you are and standing up for what you believe in.