The Isle of Wight, it’s in a bit of a time warp, is it not? I ask Douglas Richards, who along with his older brother Jamie, and Chris Newnham, founded Plastic Mermaids earlier on this decade, with bassist Tom Farren, and drummer Chris Jones eventually completing the line up. “Yeah, definitely a little bit. There’s definitely some warped sides to it. There’s a lot of chavs and then there’s a lot old people and a lot of Brexit voters. And generally, anyone I went to school with who had half a brain, left the Isle of Wight,” he laughs. “Some people decide to come back, when they have kids and stuff. But, there’s also quite a creative community. I think there’s quite a few hippies from the 70s festival who ended up just staying in Ventnor (on the South Coast of the island) and breeding. There is a lot of really good music here, but not masses of people to go to gigs. It’s a slightly strange dynamic.”
The Isle of Wight is to some minds, a somewhat old fashioned place, home to boats, birds, and even more boats. It’s also known for its music, most particularly the Isle of Wight Festival, which first dropped anchor in 1968. In 1970 it famously hosted Jimi Hendrix’s last ever UK gig, an estimated audience of 600,000 descending on the small island. But by then it had become too big for its boots, and in 1971 Parliament added a section to the Isle of Wight County Council Act 1971 preventing overnight open-air gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special licence from the council…
But the Isle of Wight festival was revived in 2002, and along with Bestival (which had its home here until 2016), has helped put this small island of just under 150,000 people, back on the map. Music wise, the Isle of Wight has been punching above its weight of late with acts such as the Mercury nominated The Bees, Champs, and now Plastic Mermaids, who dropped their debut album Suddenly Everyone Explodes to great acclaim, earlier this year.
“It’s alright, really. Me, Jamie and drummer Chris all surf a lot as well,” says Doug, extolling the delights of the island. “So we keep ourselves busy between music and surfing. There’s not too much time to get bored. It’s quite nice when you go surfing, and all the people in the sea, you know them all. No one wants to get the ferry over, it’s £40/50. So, it’s got its positives. But, it’s not so good for like, dating…”
Born and raised here, and seemingly very happy to be still living on the island, Plastic Mermaids have been somewhat of a slow burner, their first EP, Dromtorp, released back in 2014. A succession of EPs followed, also released on the tiny indie label Cross keys, before Bestival founder, DJ, and label boss, Rob da Bank, expressed an interest in releasing some of the band’s material. “We met him a few times, and he came to a couple of our gigs,” says Doug, “and he just messaged us out of the blue, ‘You guys got any new music?’ It was literally the day we had finished recording the album. The timing was ridiculous. He’s a good person to be on our side.”
With influences ranging from Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse, and Grandaddy, Plastic Mermaids have developed an intricate, orchestral, and psychedelic inspired sound that is both harmony rich, and melody-driven, but also full of abrupt twists and turns that means their debut album is a rewarding and rich listening experience. How did this all come about then? “We never had any vision or direction,” explains Doug. “We just love music, and that’s where we ended up.”
How does a typical Plastic Mermaids song materialise? “It’s pretty random. Sometimes I’ll have come up with something sat in my bedroom, on my guitar, and then we’ll go from there. Sometimes we’ll be jamming at a practice, or maybe a sample loop that someone has come up with, and build on that. There’s no normal way. We record and self-produce it all ourselves, so we have time to mess around, which is quite nice.”
‘Yoyo’, the new single, is an example of the adventurist, and unpredictable nature of the band, as well as their introspective-yet-grand lyrical tendencies, At its centre is a spoken word vocal, overlaying a slow beat, with twinkling guitars, synths, and repeated gospel inflected harmony vocal refrain, adding to a sense of wonderment. It’s about Doug’s mother. “I wrote some of the words, when my Mum was ill. She was dying of cancer. I don’t really believe in God or heaven, and I guess I was thinking about how energy moves, and what life is, and how a person isn’t just their physical thing, how they’re also the effect they have on the world around them. And when they die, the effect kind of lives on. I spent a lot of time thinking about life and death, and what it is to be alive.”
It follows on from the Grandaddyesque indie-pop hazy rocker that is ‘I Still Like Kelis’, a song that sums up their penchant for homely-yet-universal truisms, As Doug says, it’s about, “Two people who used to hang out and now are in different places.” In it he sings, “But in a microscopic way we’re entangled up eternally, I’ll spin the same as you”. He says: “This is a reference to quantum entanglement, a phenomenon where two particles are linked and move in the same way even though they’re on different sides of a room, or universe even.”
Plastic Mermaids’ sound has grown very organically over the years, from the lo-fi rustic-psychedelic approach of their earlier material, to the grander, more sonically adventurous arrangements and production of now. But they still do pretty much everything themselves, from self-producing their music, to creating the artwork, As Doug says about their trial and error approach, they “just keep coming up with ideas and try to make them happen.” And if they ever come up against a technical problem, Jamie is on hand to build or fix whatever piece of kit they need to give life to their flights of fancy.
“Jamie and I, we’ve got a bunch of synthesisers. He’s got this big analogue beast with a sequencer which he built himself, and I’ve got a couple more keyboards and samplers, and we all run that into a ‘thing’. He’s a bit of a wizard with the electronics. Half the stuff we gig through, he’s made. We’ve also got two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. We switch around a bit on stage.”
Such is Jamie’s wizardry, that the band have developed a neat sideline in effects pedals, which has caught the attention of many-a-well known rock guitarist. “Yeah, he’s sold about 90 of them. He got an email the other day: ‘My name is Kurt Vile. I really like your pedals. I play guitar, too,’” Doug laughs at the memory of it. He’s given them to the guitarists out of Wilco, Grandaddy, and we bumped into Flaming Lips at a festival last year, and we sent one to them. “Yeah, it’s going well!”
So, what is it about this pedal that is so attractive? “It does something slightly different. It’s a big stereo reverb, with a sidechain input, so you can run a drum input, and can make the music pulsate to the drum. And, it looks quite cool. It looks like a little old synth. it’s not your standard box,” explains Doug. “The whole band has been working with Jamie during the summer, trying to help make them, like a production line.”
A Plastic Mermaid’s live show is, much like their fans the Flaming Lips, laced with theatre and visuals, the band often dressed in matching gold capes, with copious amounts of lasers and confetti often eating into their miniscule budgets. Again, it’s all homemade. I caught the band at this year’s The Great Escape, performing a free show, outside Jubilee Library, the band’s mix of melancholic-tinged joy, and visuals, somehow perfectly coalescing with the noodles of cables protruding from weird and wonderful synths and various gadgetry. They like the analogue approach it seems. Does it sound better? “A portion of it probably does sound better. And some of it is more just the process of how you use it. You end up working in a different direction, and ending in a different place, because the process is different, if you know what I mean. If you go through that process it affects the creative process, I think.”
Such is the communal and friendly small-town feel of the Isle of Wight, that they ended up making the album in a place that had once been their Dad’s boatbuilding shed. “Jamie and I grew up in a house near Newtown Creek, on the west of the island, in a house down the woods. We left there when we were eight and six. Our Dad used to have a wooden shed in the garden, to build boats in. The new owners had taken the boat shed down, and renovated it into this modernistic barn, slash open plan living space, slash garage. My Dad was walking past the house, and he was looking over the fence, admiring it, and happened to bump into the people who lived there. They got chatting, and he mentioned he used to live there. We were looking for a space to record the album at the time, and he mentioned our band, and they said we could use it to record in. They lived in London and weren’t there for most of the time. They just lent us their space for free.
“We’ve also got a room in our Dad’s house, which we practice in, but it’s a lot, lot smaller, and the acoustics aren’t amazing. If we want to record the drum tracks, sometimes we’ll go to a church, or just find an interesting space that we can rent out for a day, maybe a boat shed or something.”
And the name, Plastic Mermaids? “I couldn’t tell you to be honest,” says a half hungover Doug, whose birthday it was the previous day, when we spoke. “I know it was kicking around for a while.” Then, through the blur of an alcohol comedown, he recalls… “Jamie made a website, plasticmermaids.com, before we had the band. People kept visiting it. ‘This must be a sign!’ There was nothing on the website…”
Any mermaids off the coast of the Isle of Wight?! “Not that I have seen yet, but I live in hope. Some people get a bit too nautical with it (the bands name), the shell bras connotations,” he laughs. What about that mannequin you have on stage? Does she have a name? “Yeah, Patricia,” says Doug. “We had that for a video we made (‘Playing in Your Mind’, from the 2015 EP Inhale the Universe). “I don’t know, but it may have been my idea. Can’t remember why… I have no idea!”
She’s the band’s sixth member, I say. People are falling in love with her as well, I’m sure. “Yeah, she’s a babe!”