Euan Rodger I remember we wanted the title of ‘Plotting To Kill Your Friends’ to have a veiled dread to it or involve some sort of contradiction. At the time we were interested in situations that appear one way but are really about something else, in our case something darker or subverted. For me it represented the potential for darkness/evil in all of us. It might have been influenced by a suburban existence, your neighbours present one front but who can say what happens behind closed doors?
Gareth wrote all of the lyrics. My understanding of the themes are that they range from literary references to satirical observations regarding social conventions and behaviour.
Gareth Owen I’m incredibly lucky because it was very rare that the others would say ‘you’re not singing that’, so for the most part we were all on the same page as it were, so thankfully were used to me trying to be clever. I’m not sure if me explaining these will ruin anything, but for the most part, the lyrics were a lot more literal than people thought they were. ‘Swimming Comparisons’ was actually just a simple title that I liked that inspired the theme of the lyrics. It’s about claiming small victories (of thinking you’re victorious when you’re not) and a reference to when you were a kid you’d compare the daftest of things. I remember my friend when we were at primary school saying ‘well you’re better at running than I am, but I’m better at swimming’. Around the time I wrote it I was in a conversation with somebody my own age who ostensibly said the same thing as my friend at school had said, albeit in a slightly more (arguably) adult context. It made me chuckle, so I wrote some lyrics for a song we had…
Stuart Turner I was always very happy to leave all lyrical duties to Gareth, he’s much better at all that than me, and I always liked his ideas. He would always run stuff past us, but I don’t think I ever wanted to change anything. I did think ‘Plotting…’ was a great title when I heard it, it gives you a lot to think about. Like all Gareth’s lyrics, there are a lot of ways to interpret it. I think the best interpretation is always the one that means something to you, it doesn’t really matter what the person who wrote the lyric or whatever was trying to say, if you can hear a lyric or read a poem and it feels like it was written for you, it’s probably better if you don’t know too much about its origins.
Gareth Owen The recording session for that EP started with me crashing my car into the back of Stuart’s car the moment we arrived in Southend, so we turned up at John Hannon’s studio trying to sort out how bad the damage was. Thankfully it was cosmetic, and both cars were still drivable so we could get home. I remember John thinking we might’ve been another Kerrang style band and thankfully after we were warming up, realising we weren’t. He was really enthusiastic about the recording and put in a lot of effort into making it sound how we wanted it to.
Euan Rodger The circumstances were not actually that different from recording ‘Plotting…’ to the Blind Bear EP. All the instruments were tracked one Saturday and then vocals and some additional parts added on the Sunday. We returned a month later to mix the record. Following our accident on the way to the studio I barely had time to say hi to John [Hannon], we just loaded in, threw our gear up and as soon as the mics were in place, started recording.
Listening back to that record now I think we captured some of the energy of that band at that stage. The material was probably written between 2000 and 2001, each song carefully examined from every angle and scrutinising its form (sometimes to excess). You can hear individuals’ strengths represented more clearly on this recording and we were beginning to understand our roles better. Gareth’s vocals and guitar parts were the core of each track but arranged with enough consideration for space and interplay. Lee’s ability to lay down supportive foundations but then come out with these lyrical flourishes that suggested other influences and sonic spaces were so imaginative. Stu’s interplay and ability to create a counterpoint was becoming a theme of the band’s sound, he wrote these absorbing cyclical parts that could abstract the song using just a few notes.
You can hear my enthusiasm for the material on ‘Plotting…’; I hadn’t yet learned the “less is more” maxim at this point so my playing is very busy and tempos are somewhat elastic. I certainly wouldn’t play that way again but I think it adds something to the overall sound of the record.
We also experimented with other sounds a little on that recording. There’s piano (‘Harder Than Cars’), production tricks from John (‘Icarus Was Bored’, ‘I Lie All The Time’) and noise/Guitar FX (‘Boxing Champion’, ‘Plotting To Kill Your Friends’).
Stuart Turner I remember being pretty excited about the whole thing, and a little nervous at first. I was quite a fan of Understand, they were the first British band I’d seen with that kind of sound and that didn’t only play shitty little punk shows, I liked Woe a lot too and John’s Guitar playing in general. It was also the longest time we had got to spend on a recording, and although we had recorded in some technically much better studios, it was much more the right place for us. I think John got where we were coming from quickly too, so his approach to our sound and getting the best out of us was what we needed.
We did a lot of pre production planning too. Even though we couldn’t demo the songs, we wanted to know as much about how they should sound and feel as possible.
As with everything we did, I’m really proud of ‘Plotting to Kill Your Friends’, it was definitely the sound of all of our influences coming together, and we had really locked in to playing off each other musically. I always thought it was as much about what we didn’t play as what we did, there is a lot of space in our music, even if it doesn’t always sound that way, and we always tried to respect the song; it wasn’t about our individual parts, so if one of us thought it would sound better without our playing we wouldn’t play. We would all tell each other if we thought someone else should change what they were doing too. It made writing pretty intense and fictitious, because we didn’t always have the same ideas on where a song was going, and a lot of perfectly good songs got scrapped before they were finished as a result… but we all cared that much.
We had a lot of fun outside the studio as well, just spending all of our time together in a horrible Travelodge making each other laugh. That whole period was good times whatever we were doing.
Gareth Owen I always forget about the version of ‘Coronary’ for the ‘Squirrel’ EP (Fierce Panda). In some ways I think I prefer it to the version on ‘Pilots’ as it sounded old by the time we came to record it. I think there’s a bit more life in the ‘Squirrel’ EP one…I didn’t want to scream, as it wasn’t really the sound of our band. Way too many bands that I never cared for were doing the shouting verse/singing chorus thing, so I didn’t want us to be associated with that. Plus, our band wasn’t angry or upset, so it seemed a bit false shouting about something that was either funny or nice.
Another of the reasons to sing rather than scream was informed by our desire to sound more ambiguous and less identifiable with a particular scene or musical genre. Ultimately ‘Plotting…’ was transitional, as it sits fairly comfortably as a post-hardcore record, but I think we were more successful with that approach for ‘Pilots’.
Stuart Turner I always liked Gareth’s scream, but I also liked that it only came out occasionally. I remember us all talking it through and it being a concious decision for there to be no shouting at all on Pilots as a reaction to a lot of the other stuff that was coming out from similar bands. We always tried to make music that wasn’t too predictable, but was still kind of catchy, or at least something you might want to sing along to. I’m still really pleased we stuck to the no shouting thing. I remember talking with Lee about how it would be cool for the next release to be an EP of all screamed through noise songs, whether that would have happened or not I don’t know, but I think Gareth’s scream would have come out again at some point.
As far as Coronary goes, I actually prefer the album version, but I think it’s just little things I hear in the music of the first version that I didn’t like and we cut out for the album version, they’re pretty close though.
Euan Rodger I like the ‘Squirrel’ EP version of ‘Coronary’… I think it sounds fresher ostensibly as it’s a live take. We recorded it at the wonderful Battery studios, just so you know.
Euan Rodger Very soon after releasing ‘Plotting…’ we knew we were going to attempt something different for next album. The writing process for ‘Pilots’ had the vocal line as the focus, whereas with ‘Plotting…’ the vocal lines were written side by side or after the music and this gives the material on the LP a cohesion that is absent from our other records.
When discussions about the production feel were taking place I remember we talked a lot about wanting the record to sound very cold. I had spent a little time in Eastern Europe in January 2002 and was inspired by these ex-communist capitals and post war Soviet architecture. They were full of huge concrete blocks of flats separated by wide streets that seemed to go on for miles, it was bold and powerful but very bleak also, I remember thinking “I want our next record to sound how this looks.”
Stuart Turner We were just writing the songs we wanted to write, but like when you’re creating anything there are recurring themes because of the things that are influencing you at the time, so it kind of presented itself, then we just pushed it a little further. It’s not a concept album or anything, rather lots of separate stories connected by various thoughts and feelings.
Euan Rodger Gareth managed all the artwork for the album… He’s a natural leader and had a clear concept of what it should look like which was great. I was finishing up an art degree at the time but couldn’t think of anything, in fact all my ideas were awful, we had complete confidence in him, he also came up with the all white theme and black CD which I thought was very chic. Nick Ainsworth drew the cover and Chris Coleman completed the design.
Gareth Owen I guess we tried to keep things thematic to a certain degree and maintain some consistent imagery. I remember the order of the songs being very important due to keeping within the theme and there was definitely an element of ‘concept album’ in ‘Pilots’. Lyrically, everything is different in terms of the subject matter, but with regards to metaphor etc, I tried to keep things consistent so everything felt as though it fitted. We also got my cousin (who is now the concept artist on Game of Thrones…we like to think he got his start with us, ha ha) to do the artwork. Then our mate Chris Coleman (singer from another Firefly band ‘Otherwise’) to do the layout etc. It was Chris’ idea to do the shiny/shadow thing, which looks awesome, but cost lots. More than the budget we had from Firefly anyway, so we paid for it ourselves and I’m so glad we did.
I think things started to fall into place concept wise, when ‘We Are A Black Box Recorders’ started to come together. I’d written the verse & chorus part, but as a stand alone piece, it wasn’t working as I think we all felt we needed to play a bit heavier and we couldn’t with what we had. Then Lee showed us this riff he’d written, which is the repeated ending and everything just became clear. It was ambitious definitely and I think even after we’d tracked what would be the final version, I remember there being uncertainty and John Hannon being unsure as to whether we’d nailed it. I just was adamant that we had, as I could hear and visualise the orchestration in my head. As long as it was layered, it built subtly to a crashing finish, I was confident it would come together. Thankfully it did.
The grammar behind ‘We Are A Black Box Recorders’ was, like a lot of things, an in joke. We were/are huge fans of Chris Morris and he’d often do things like that with sentences such as ‘…a nearby drug abuse’. It was me trying to be funny, but possibly failing. The lyrics are about how I was envious that countries such as North & South America had such beautiful sounding place names when sung in songs, yet our own island, not so much. Has Leicester ever been sung romantically in a song? That’s rhetorical…
Euan Rodger Before recording ‘Pilots’ we had most of the material pretty much worked out. There were a few tracks that were still quite new, ‘Look Alive’ was only written a couple of weeks before the recording date. One of the tracks that we left deliberately very loose to work on in the studio was ‘Glass And Chrome’. Gareth and I had a structure worked out and we’d played it a few times as a band but the consensus was that the track would be become altered if it became too defined before it was recorded, we wanted a more open, loose ambience for it.
We tried one or two takes in the studio and for some reason it wasn’t working. John, who would normally have something constructive to say if a take didn’t feel right, said nothing, he just got up after the last take, walked quietly into the studio from the control room, lit a few candles, turned off all the lights and then exited again. It was so simple, his way of saying “you’re over thinking this.” That third take is what you hear on the album.
Stuart Turner I used a Line 6 DL4; I love that Line 6 pedal though, it’s so versatile, it was always my most used pedal. I used effects a lot more than Gareth did, it covered my lack of technical ability(!). I always tried to make it to sound like that was how my instrument should sound, to kind of play the effect as much as the guitar, not just play something and then run it through an effect.
Gareth Owen I had a Boss PS2 & PS3, but ostensibly they do the same thing. Stuart was more the effects guy than I was. Or at least, he actually used them correctly. I just hit mine until the delay became a white noise and twiddled the dials so that it looked like I was doing more than I actually was.
However, I play the ‘Glass & Chrome’ opening riff. I love that song, definitely one of my favourites. It was also largely written in the studio. I’d written it and Euan and myself had very quickly rehearsed it prior to leaving for recording. The version on ‘Pilots’… a lot of the white noise at the end is just my guide guitar, as we figured we may as well keep it in. It’s a very easy riff. Just set to delay until you’ve got the right repeat speed and play…we wanted to make it quite shoegaze sounding, so that’s why it’s just layered, dreamy sounding guitars.
Stuart Turner I think that song is probably our best recording, it’s one of the few that I can happily listen back to and not want to change anything, or think that it could have sounded better given more time or better equipment. There is a lot less going on in the music than it sounds like, just enough to support Gareth’s lovely vocals, definitely my favourite vocal.
Euan Rodger Like ‘Glass And Chrome’, ‘Black Snow’ was another track we left to work on in the studio. I think we had a riff that was discarded when we began to work on it. We looped the sound of Stu plugging his guitar in and this became the hypnotic marker to work around, ambient noise, cymbal wash and a superb guitar take from John were added and then finally Gareth’s vocal line. There was some discussion if it was to be left off the album as it was a departure from our other material but I’m so glad we left it on as it’s one of my favourite tracks on the album, and I love where it sits in the track listing.
‘Black Snow’ was a conscious move towards other creative practices and an attempt at independence from any particular scene. Demdike Stare recently said “…getting fans is great but losing them is more fun.” I enjoyed the debate this song provoked within people that knew our music.
Stuart Turner That track I’m really proud of, but a lot of people weren’t very complimentary about it. It almost wasn’t on the album, it was just some disjointed bits of music I had been playing around with and wanted us to hold into a song, but it just wasn’t something that worked in the practise room, it needed too many layers. We ended up with a spare afternoon when everything had been recorded and we still had our equipment set up, and John asked if there was anything else we wanted to try, so we decided to see what we could do with this rough sketch of a song. I explained my ideas to John and we sat in the control room with my guitar and a cool old delay unit of John’s and just built it up, then we just added a little bass and percussion. Meanwhile Gareth went off and wrote the lyrics. I think what he came up with was great, and like all of his lyrics I think they’re a lot deeper than he will ever admit to, they still give me a little shiver.
Gareth Owen The title ‘Black Snow’ is taken from the short story of the same name by a Russian author called ‘Mikhail Bulgakov’ who I was massively into at the time. The audio at the end of the album is in Russian too, and it’s actually the lyrics to ‘Pilots’. My friend’s Mum is Russian, we thought it’d be cool idea, so we asked her to transcribe ‘Pilots’ into Russian and record them onto a shitty tape recorder. For all we know she actually could be saying ‘ha ha, you guys thought you were being all arty and cool, but this is actually Russian transcripts of *insert terrible tv show here*.
Stuart Turner Another real favourite of mine, and one that I always enjoyed playing liv,e is ‘Start the Ice Age’. I like how it comes together as a song, and I think it’s a good representation of the band, it has a lot of the different elements that made us us. Plus, Euan’s drumming in it is amazing.
Euan Rodger I’m fond of all the tracks on the LP for different reasons. I think it represents our sound at that time accurately. ‘Pilots’ was also an album where (just about) everyone matured musically; I still hadn’t learned that less is more and was still finding my feet as a musician. Very early on in the writing process Lee stated he was only going to play exactly what he felt each track needed with little to no embellishment, an inspiring approach when I think about it now.
Again, there’s a lot more in there than you’ll probably notice first time. We tried more studio experimentation than we had done with ‘Plotting…’, possibly because we had more time. For example, on ‘Atlas & I’, the choruses have a monotone backing vocal and I’m hitting a metal filing cabinet on the 2 & 4 of each bar, ‘Start The Ice Age’ has a tremolo guitar manually faded in to each change on the verses and there’s also accordion, melodica and lots of little production tricks from John.
Gareth Owen I like the riff to ‘Pilots’ itself because the rhythm is weird. Lee wrote that and it confused the hell out of me for ages. I was definitely the last one of the four to properly get it right! The ending of ‘…Black Box…’ because it was so hypnotic and crushing to play and live it was so loud. Lyrically, my favourites were ‘If you deny evolution, then you better move on’, from ‘Start The Ice Age’. I was so proud of it at the time as I thought I was super clever, but looking back now, it’s just an ok lyric that works. I’m really proud of the lyrics to ‘Harbour’, although if there was one song I wish we’d recorded and mixed differently, it would be that one. I cannot stand the acoustic guitar sound. Hey ho!
I also really like the lyrics still to ‘The Future Is A Dare’. That title was taken from something Thurston Moore says in ‘The Year Punk Broke’ film. He’s messing around trying to be faux-philosophical and says that line. I loved it, because it lends itself to being massively interpreted by people looking for a hidden meaning and to assume we’re full of student-esque rhetoric. It’s also, in Thurston Moore’s context, very funny. I think we all enjoyed the fact that a lot of people assumed so much about our band based on not much. The line ‘I imagine in a plane crash the most cynical of non-believers pray’ is our version of the aphorism ‘there are no atheists in fox holes’. None of us are/were religious, but for some reason again, people took that literally due to the word ‘pray’, and perhaps the use of the line ‘I am God’s instrument’ from ‘Ornament’, and thought we were Christians. Again, let people think what they want, it’s much funnier. The ‘God’s instrument’ line is taken from the book ‘A Prayer For Owen Meany’.
Stuart Turner It was not a good time to be in a guitar heavy band, and definitely not making our kind of music. You had to look like a fairly safe bet for a big label to take a chance on you, and I think Hundred Reasons and Hell is for Heroes appealed to more people than we did. Both of those bands did all they could to help us though, which I’ll always be grateful for. Their labels didn’t exactly give them the support they deserved.
Despite having some fairly big ambitions I wonder how much we actually wanted those things because we did pass up a few opportunities that could have changed our situation without giving them too much thought. In hindsight though it might have given the band a longer life if we had given up our jobs and been pushed to tour more on current songs. We were always putting ourselves under pressure to come up with something new and different to what we had done before, I think because we had to be busy as a band, but didn’t have enough to keep us occupied.
Gareth Owen Maybe we were control freaks, but I’d sooner we were the architects of our own destruction, than it come about due to being coerced into becoming something we didn’t want to be and us fall apart then.
Euan Rodger The band reached it’s creative logical conclusion. We’re deeply grateful to bands like Hundred Reasons and Hell Is For Heroes for helping us to share our music with a wider audience, we’ve always been very honest about our ambition in that respect. I’m also convinced if we were to become more established it would have had a negative impact on the music and our relationships.
Gareth Owen There’s a life cycle with everything and eventually we came to the end of ours. Our schedules weren’t matching any more. Euan & Stuart lived in Leicester, Lee was moving to Southend and I’d juggled the band by living in London the whole time. I’ve never understood bands that persist through multiple line up changes personally. Some work, but for us, we knew that if we couldn’t all do it to the level we deserve, then that’s when we call it a day. And we did…
Euan Rodger It’s odd, being in the band went from being one of the most important things in our lives to being one of the least very quickly. There was so much happening at that point, I was finishing up my degree, Gareth was based in London, Lee and Stu were both moving and our rehearsal space was in Leicester. Logistically it was going to be tough to continue if nothing else.
Another large factor was that stylistically we were all headed in different directions and wanted to pursue other projects. When we were together I always knew the band would end and I imagined that when it did it would personally be a real loss, in fact it was the opposite, it was liberating. I’m so lucky for the experiences it has afforded, I’ve worked in the music industry since we split and work as a musician, composer, tutor and at a small record label.
One other circumstance of leaving the band was it kind of destroyed my desire to play in a band again, I’ve only ever involved myself in singular projects or collaborations since. I’m not saying I wouldn’t again but it feels like something as unique as that experience is unlikely to come around again.
Stuart Turner I always felt like we let ourselves down, considering how we used to be, and I thought that ‘Pilots’ was just the start for us. I still feel like we were capable of a lot more…
Gareth Owen We had an amazing and hilarious, albeit at times, stressful five years, and we did everything how we wanted it to be done and we kept our integrity. We played some huge venues on the Hundred Reasons tour, the Astoria in London with Hell Is For Heroes and the fact that despite those gigs and that experience, our, or my, favourite places to play were always Derby Victoria Inn, The Ferryboat in Norwich amd Jospeh’s Well in Leeds. And I am glad that we finished when we did, so that we didn’t have a Myspace page, or get sponsored by an energy drink company.
Euan Rodger Overall, I feel there are actually quite a few things the band achieved together. First of all, our creative and organisational independence. We were able to write, record, release and tour records largely without any support other than ourselves and latterly Chris at Firefly. It’s easy to forget how hard it was at that time to do any of those things, again mostly before the age of social media. I think it’s great today that people have opportunities to record and release records online, even if it does saturate the “market” a little, those channels weren’t open to us then and if you wanted to release a record you had to adhere to the preset hierarchical structure of the music industry (now all but dead). In lots of ways, I can’t believe we did it. In fact, I can’t believe we did it without owing anyone vast amounts of money.
I’m proud of how hard we worked. The music was the easy part, almost effortless at times, for four years or so we toured in a van, playing shows and then driving off sometimes as soon as we’d played. we juggled jobs, university, relationships, family etc to do what we loved.
But I’m most proud of our friendship. I feel very lucky to have met and still be in contact with the band. It is rare that in a relationship as intense as the one our band had that everyone still enjoys each other’s company, particularly when we are so different in our nature. Between us all there is still an ease, a shorthand between us that hasn’t died.
Stuart Turner The friendship, the way we played together, the level of shows that we played and the recordings we produced with relatively little support… Thinking about it though, maybe the greatest achievement is that our music actually meant something to anyone, and maybe even influenced some other peoples’ music a little, and that all these years on a few people still remember us.
Gareth Owen After we finished, I really couldn’t be bothered to invest the same amount of time & energy into playing music as I had done in all honesty; the spark for me had gone. So I played the odd gig here and there on my own when ‘singers going solo with a harmonica’ was the thing to do… There’s an acoustic cover of ‘The Weather As Your Common Ground’, which I recorded when I lived in Australia 6 years ago.
However, I was lucky enough to do another band with Euan, that unfortunately nobody heard. It’s my favourite collection of songs I have my name associated with, yet we’ve never played a gig or even properly finished the recordings. I hope we can at least play one gig at some point. The track ‘P Kindred D’ is actually pretty close to sounding how I imagine the Copperpot Journals might’ve sounded had we done any more recordings, although ultimately it would’ve manifested into something different as Stuart & Lee would’ve been involved, so despite what I just said, it actually probably wouldn’t have done…incidentally Stuart wrote the riff to ‘Dead Scenes’.
I also play/shout/act in a band called The Fuckin Hate. We somehow got a favourable review in Kerrang despite slagging off the magazine in one of the songs and have released 2 albums. I’m 35…
DISCLAIMER: To celebrate the warm and fuzzy feeling induced by this nostalgia, the band have made their entire LP – ‘Pilots’ – available for free download here