Tall Ships – Interview – 2017

The Brighton-based band's difficult second album wasn't so much the result of flagging creativity, but a deep and thorough test of their resilience as they faced many obstacles in getting to this place. Following the buzz and promise of their 2012 debut album Everything Touching, including headline tours and prime festival slots, the band lost their management and their label, and it looked like it had all been a false start. Even worse, there was a growing sense of momentum lost. But the band battled on, eventually signing a new deal with the rather brilliant local label Fat Cat. Impressions is the result of this testing birthing process, of battle scars and lessons learnt, but has nevertheless cemented the band's wish to be in control of ther own destiny. They literally went it alone for a while, out of necessity, in crafting what is a magnificently realised alt-rock album that is passionate, intense at times, and alternately tender and euphoric at others. It's big on ideas and sound, whilst at the same time allowing the music to breathe and enabling contemplation. It's anthemic, without being overblown; DIY without being shambolic. They say first impressions are everything. That may be true, but second time around, Impressions can also be the one that transforms Tall Ships from being one of the country's most promising rock acts, into the rock premiership.

I spoke to frontman and main songwriter Ric Phethean, just as they had started their UK tour, which will bring them back home to Brighton in early May.

Where are you at the moment?
We’re in Oxford today. Second day of the tour. First show last night. Currently we're all sat in a Wetherspoon’s on a very rainy high street. £3.49 vegetarian breakfast. That’s all you need. Cheap beer, too!

How was the show last night?
It was great. We had people dancing, which is a bit of a first for us. And we had people singing the new songs which was also great. It was great to be able to play these new songs, for people to know them and respond to them. And enjoy them. Which is always a bit of a worry when you put out new songs. A good start.

Tell me about the album, and its title, Impressions.
A lot of the lyrics on the album are about the knocks and experiences that we all have day-to-day. Kind of impressions. Whether negative or positive, and the impressions they leave with you. The idea of pressure, of being under pressure, the marks that life leaves on us. Life is not all fun. It can be pretty hard and pretty tough and sad and horrible things happen to everybody, and I suppose it’s about finding ways of coping.

I have read that the album was originally scehduled to be released back in 2015.
Life got in the way! We needed a break after the first album to earn some money and pay the rent. We had accumulated debts, and so that was the initial reason for the break. There were also health issues, a member of the band was quite unwell for a while, and we were unable to play as a band. And the writing process took a long time. I think with every song on the album there has been five or six demo versions. And there were also false-starts with labels. We very nearly signed a deal that fell through and knocked back the album release for a year. There was a whole concoction of different things. Mostly just life! But the good thing is that the album is a lot better as a result of the time away. Maybe if we had gone straight to the studio to record it, it would have been absolutely terrible.

How does it feel to be on the Brighton Fat Cat label?
It’s so amazing to be signed to those guys. We’re all huge Sigur Ros fans (Fat Cat released their first album), and Frightened Rabbit. Just seemed like a good match, being a Brighton band as well. They put out the Honeyblood album which is awesome, and they have that classical imprint (130701). Max Richter, Johann Johansson are on there. Really interesting stuff.

You were labelled a math rock band in the early days.
Yeah. We’ve always found that math thing slightly problematic. We’re the most basic math. One plus one! There’s nothing technical about the music we make. But when we started out we did a lot of looping, and it was a very different kind of music. Our tastes have changed. It’s a hard question. I hadn’t really thought about it. We have been around for so long, nearly ten years. A lot of stuff changes in that time: your outlook, your tastes, what we like playing and listening to. And that all feeds into it.

But you have changed quite a lot as a band, haven't you?
I suppose the biggest difference was when we started it was pretty much all instrumental, and now we’ve gone almost full reversal. It’s now lyric-heavy. Initially I didn’t sing. I didn’t have the confidence. We made one song with some singing on, and that was the song that everyone really responded to. Slowly I became more confident with singing and writing lyrics. The first album had a bit of both, but with this album the lyrics are the most important thing.

A lot can change in five years.
People change. You think how much you change from when you were 15 or 16 years old. Tastes and outlooks change. It was a big worry for us. I did feel that there was a sense of momentum we had with the first album. It took us by surprise, really. We played some big shows which we didn’t ever envisage ourselves playing. So, it was a bit of a worry that we had lost some momentum. And it felt like we were starting again with this new album. We’re grateful that people waited and hung on and still give a shit.

Can you tell me about band member Jamie Field, and his role in the making of Impressions?
He produced the first album, and engineered it, and played the majority of the keyboard parts. When we started touring that album I was initially playing guitar and keyboards at the same time. Trying to loop, and do a bit of singing. It was a bit ridiculous. When we did a gig it felt like I was pushing a series of buttons. It was basically too complicated, so we asked Jamie if he would like to play some gigs. And he did, which felt quite natural as he was basically a member of the band anyway. And we engineered, mixed and produced this album again at Jamie's (in Bovey Tracey, on the edge of Dartmoor). Which is also another reason why it took so long! It was all down to us and we could spend a week trying to get the perfect guitar sound. If there was time or financial pressure we wouldn’t have been able to do that. It’s the way we like to work.

Can you tell me about the song 'Petrichor', and the meaning of that word?
The song itself was a collection of lines, outbursts, all coming straight out in one evening. It’s a word for that smell you get after a really heavy rainfall during a dry period in summer. The leaves have a waxy layer to protect themselves, but when it rains it looses that. It seemed like an apt word for describing the nature of the song. That sense of relief with letting stuff out, which a lot of time – I suspect most people do this – we tend to keep a lot of it inside.

You were based in Falmouth for a while, right?
So, three-quarters of us are now based in Brighton, with Jamie in Devon. Two of us were from Brighton originally, one from Worcester, one from Croydon. But we met at the university in Falmouth. We really miss that part of the world. Once we graduated Brighton just seemed like the natural place to go to. We had to drive at least two hours just to do a gig when we were in Falmouth. Bristol would take three hours one way, Exeter an hour and a half. Just one-off gigs. We’ve got a history with Brighton and it’s a great place to be. The music scene is amazing. Great venues, bands and people. It’s just a brilliant place to live.

And you'll be playing your home city very soon.
Yes, 6th May, at The Haunt. Should be loads of fun!

Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Thanks for giving a shit!
Jeff Hemmings

Website: wearetallships.co.uk
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