Inspired by a trip across America, Oxford quartet released A Silent film released Sand & Snow in July of this year. They'll bring their expansive, cinematic rock to the Rathskeller Biergarten tomorrow evening. Below, my chat with lead singer and pianist Robert Stevenson.
NUVO: Robert! How are you this afternoon. What are you doing?
Robert Stevenson: We're driving into Virginia Beach.
NUVO: Is it beautiful?
Stevenson: I've got to say, it's been a bit dreary. We've had some thunderstorms. It's pretty warm though, so I think we'll still be able to go out to the beach.
NUVO: Well I won't keep you too long then, because the beach is way more fun than an interview.
Stevenson: I don't know, we can make this pretty fun.
NUVO: I just saw you at Bunbury, and I have to say it blew me away.
Stevenson: No! That's really kind, it was really fun.
NUVO: The first thing I noticed when you loaded in was how beautiful your gear was. Then I saw the album art [for Sand & Snow] and [realized the connection]. Did you work with an artist?
Stevenson: Good little association there. The artist is a girl from Portland whose name is also Kat. Can you believe that? She just came to a show on our very first trip around America. We got talking afterwards, and this striking image was a painting that she had already done. We just passed it around each other and said this is album cover material. We already had it formed in our head, which is quite unusual and a blessing, I think. So we asked her to expand on it, and we ended up using all the other bits she did on the inside. But that main image stayed exactly like it was from the beginning.
NUVO: It's very beautiful. Do you know if the image is based on anything in particular — a specific mountain range?
Stevenson: No, not at all. She just drew it out of her head, straight out of her head.
A Silent Film - "You Will Leave a Mark"
NUVO: You recorded this album after quite the our around America. What were a few surprising things you've discovered about our country here?
Stevenson: Everything's been pretty surprising. We were driving ourselves on that trip, just in a van, with all of our gear stacked up behind us. We were taking these very, very long drives, drives we had never done. Ten hours in England and you'd drop off the other end of the island. You can't do that. The Blue Mountains, and you come out of there and there are places like Utah that are so unbelievably beautiful. Just such a shock to us, the sense of space is really arresting to people like us, coming from England.
In England, there are areas that are quite spacious, but there's still electrical pylons going by you and stuff, but in Utah and Colorado, they're just completely untouched, absolutely incredible.
[Arizona] would seem like a strange place to be. I think that's possibly the reason we ended up there — [because it's the opposite of rainy England]. Once we finished this first trek around America and got our heads around it, we were feeling really inspired by this process and the momentum we built up and we didn't really want to lose that by going back to England, so we thought, let's just stay if we can. We worked it out that we could. One of the places we could go to was Arizona. And because it's absolutely the polar opposite of England — there's no desert in England at all — all the things that we saw there, you could not see back at home. It just seemed like a place that would be truly inspiring to us. I'm sure many places would have been. It was teeming with little insects and creatures that we would see everyday. It shaped the album, that space and sense of seclusion we hadn't felt, and the culture there is very laid back.
NUVO: Your songs are so much about stories and storytelling — do you think of your album as a whole as parts of one long story? If it was the soundtrack to a movie, what would that movie be about?
Stevenson: I always like playing with the idea of two characters. For me, the idea of sand and snow was to take two different people, locations, whatever, that possibly could never meet, and play around with that idea. You don't get anywhere when you have sand and snow. I thought that would be kind of nice, maybe the movie could have two protagonists that have sort of a Montague, Capulet, Romeo - Juliet thing, you know?
NUVO: Describe the English / Scottish sound to me.
Stevenson: It's tough. I think the bands in England are very, very moody. Very moody and grumpy. That was mainly in the '90s — Joy Division and the Manchester sort of bands, very grumpy. But everybody really loved that, because the intensity was really good. I think that's what people in America really liked about it. Strangely, I think that we have a very serious side, but there's also a very optimistic side to us too. I'm not sure where we fit into that. But people definitely seem to relate us back to these '80s, '90s British bands.
One of the things that's tricky is avoiding and imitating bands to the point where you become part of a fad. And riding that wave is very very temporary. We've worked very hard to make music with longevity.
When we were making the album, there was a lot of moving between studios and over-dubbing, changing things very frantically. As a result, as soon as we started to play the songs together live, we were so — we had this fantastic release of energy. We'd over-analyzed and finished the album, so we just had this time in the studio where we were going to start working on new material. But we thought, we've got something to offer here. So we set it up so we set up and performed the songs completely live, absolutely without any overdubs and any fixes, all of these studio fixes that people tend to use as a crutch. To add to that, we decided to film so we could put those online. We wanted to give ourselves limitations, to make something really pure. We [decided] it had to be one take, one camera, one light as well. We're really proud of them. We came up with something like 15 — 17 live versions, with some covers, acoustic versions. To us, it's just very pure.
NUVO: Your second album seems remarkably mature — I'm sure you've been playing and recording forever, and I've also read you have a wealth of unreleased material
I hope not. I always think about moving forward. I'm very bad with nostalgia, I very much try and move forward. I believe that your best song is only half an hour's work away.
NUVO: Can you bare to listen to your first album?
Stevenson: I don't own a copy, I don't have a copy, I don't have access to a copy.
NUVO: [laughing] If you have iTunes you have access
Stevenson: Good point. I would possibly consider purchasing my own album if I have to. I find it very very difficult to deal with that. Once its done, it's done, and I move forward. I certainly don't take any pleasure from stroking my non-existent beard and listening to my [work] on my own. That is a very long way away. Maybe when this is all over, I'll look back on it as if there is no future. But right now, I'm just moving forward.
A Silent Film - "Sleeping Pills"
NUVO: How do you bare to perform your first album if you can't listen? Because you're performing, so you can manipulate the songs?
Stevenson: That's the fear of going back and re-visiting and listening to [the first album]. Because it's fixed, it's set in stone. You know that everyone out there is experiencing it like that, but you always want to make changes, because as an artist, you always want to evolve. Live, I can always change things, I can always improve. We can change how to deliver certain parts of the songs and make it more fun, make it unique. I think that's really important. I don't think people come to hear you play live just to hear you play the album, exactly as it is. I think they want something new, something more. I think they deserve that as well.
NUVO: You mentioned in an interview you and your bandmates bonded over a love of Weezer, who you opened for at Bunbury. What was that like?
Stevenson: Kat. That was so cool. You have no idea. I shouldn't stress about it too much, but, oh Lord. I was such a fan of Weezer when I was younger and when we were told we were going on that festival we thought we'd be on another stage, on another day. Then we found out we were four bands below them on the same stage. My jaw hit the floor. We made the most of it — we made it a big deal. To me, the show was secondary to just being around and seeing them play in the evening. I had never even seen them play live.
I just loved hearing those songs again. I just think his personality onstage is — he's completely one in a million and he knows it.