Back at the turn of the millennium a pair of school friends turned up at the legendary Freebutt venue in Brighton for their first ever public gig. Accompanied by just acoustic guitars and their voices, they beguiled a small audience with their angelic music, consisting of pure harmonies and strumming guitars….
Olly Knight and Gale Paridjanian, aka Turin Brakes, were at the forefront of what was called Quiet is the New Loud, and also the New Acoustic Movement, a response to the electric guitar driven Britpop epoch which was then fast running out of steam. Like the aftermath of an all-night party, Turin Brakes were the antidote to all that raucousness, when the after-party required something a little more chilled, and with more finesse.
"Phil Passera sort of discovered us and was responsible for us coming into existence in some ways," says Olly. "He was a Brighton boy for a long time, and he had his label, Anvil, through which we released our first record," That record, The Door EP, was a limited vinyl-only release, back in the day when vinyl was really on its last legs. But with a new sound in the air and acts such as Kings of Convenience, Coldplay, Travis, David Gray and Starsailor starting to make their mark, there was a scramble to sign Turin Brakes, with Source winning out. Two well-received EPs were then released, followed by their debut album, The Optimist LP in 2001. A quintessential 'New Acoustic Movement' release, the album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and stardom beckoned for the band. And for a while, they were indeed scoring minor hits, touring the world and making front covers. Their follow up album Ether Song went top five and contained their biggest ever hit, Painkiller, which also made the top five.
By the mid-noughties though, the hits had dried up and the momentum was being lost as they got submerged by major label needs to look after the big money earners. But, musicians to their core, Turin Brakes have survived, and are still releasing very fine albums. Indeed, the new one has got Olly all excited. "I'm pretty happy," he says. "We came in the album charts today… We got to number 31. If Bowie wasn't there we might be in top 20. It's been a lovely week for us. It's very exciting for us to pop up on people's radar after a while."
Like so many bands before them, they had to re-calibrate themselves in order to survive. Which is what they did after being dropped following the relative failure of 2007's Dark on Fire. The band had to reorganise themselves, and face life as an independent unit. But, once you have enjoyed some success, it's very hard to throw that away, and they astutely signed to the esteemed indie label Cooking Vinyl. With a combination of hard work, great songs, a sympathetic label, and a deep friendship amongst the band members, Turin Brakes have fought to survive, and are indeed now thriving again. "The general reaction has been amazing. We've become experts at carrying on regardless. So when something like this does happen, it's like 'oh my God'; all those things that felt quite far fetched, even just a couple of weeks ago.
"We always had confidence in making good music. We never felt we were putting out anything sub-par. But on this record we just stopped holding back in any way. We went for the jugular. Whatever we felt the song needed, we stopped being scared. There seemed a pathway in front of us for quite ambitious things. We just went for it. I don't know how else to describe it really."
Like their previous album, We Were Here, the band made their way to the legendary Rockfield Studios, near Monmouth in Wales. Lost Property may not mark any signifiant departure from what they do best, but it again shows how well they do it. Once again they mix up their classic acoustic/semi-acoustic sound, seamlessly rising from hushed intimacy to expansive textures, with occasional bouts of song experimentation, and topped off by the beautiful soulful voice of lead singer Olly Knights. And like We Were Here, Lost Property was recorded on analogue tape. "It's how we made our first couple of records," says Olly. "We had this realisation that as wonderful as laptops are – they are super powerful tools these days for songwriters and bands – you can fall into some funny little traps making music on computers. There are records we made a few years ago where only about half the songs on it have ever been played from start to finish, because of the ways computers allow you to make things in little pieces, and then stitch it together as a sort of virtual performance. You end up in this weird place where you don't know what you're doing. It's strange. It's certainly strange for musicians like us who are from a fairly old school mentality, where you pick up a guitar and play a song. We realised we had fallen into that trap. So, that is why we went back to analogue. Not because we are obsessed with the sound of analogue – although it does sound great – it's more to do with the work flow that forces you into the simplicity of it. We did that on Lost Property, so that the songs were understood in their linear, natural way.
"Live in the studio has been our favoured way of doing it, like we did at the beginning of our career. We trust each other. There's a four piece chemistry, that is undeniable. You can capture that chemistry if you're all playing together. We did our best to get as much of it as we could on tape, and then we used the studio to overdub things. But we always made sure that the live essence is in there. When it's there you feel it. When you're listening to a record you feel it moving around. It's not this kind of hyper-perfect, mathematically correct music, which is what computers tend to encourage you to do. It's different to that. It's moving around, it's speeding up, it's slowing down, there are pauses. There are little tiny things that you cannot really explain, but that you understand when you listen on an instinctive level. And that's the difference for me between a record that sounds forever a great record compared to a record that may be incredibly impressive for a couple of minutes, and then you just get knackered!"
How do you and Gale work, in terms of the songs? "I find that for a couple of months every year, is a very creative time, and everything sets up to allow me to spurt out a load of new ideas. I present them to Gale, which I always do, a load of scratchy ideas. You know, 'what do you think of this?' and he comes back with his reaction, his ideas. He always loves some, hates others. And then we took what we liked together and presented those to Ed and Rob.
It's another key to the longevity of Turin Brakes, the fact that since the early days they have had the same bassist and drummer in the line up; Brighton-based Eddie Myer on bass, and Rob Allum on drums. "I genuinely can't imagine doing it without them any more," says Olly. "When I'm writing I can hear Rob playing in my head, and Eddie in my head, as much as I can Gale. Yeah, it's huge. After 15 or 16 years of playing with each other very intensely, it crops up on the tape. It's there. It's this fraction of a second timing stuff that can only be done with each other. It makes all the difference."
As well as the theme of loss that permeates the record, there is a sense of playfulness in there, too, such as on one of the standout tracks, 96. "I had a bit of a row with my wife years and years ago, nothing serious. But I jokingly drew this cartoon of me standing at one end of the number six, and my wife standing at the other end of the number six, me saying it was a number six, and her saying it was a number nine. I was kidding around, saying essentially we were both right. I liked that idea of playing around with the number nine and the number six and what that meant for perspective, and how that can be brought into a domestic situation. In the song there's one character who is maybe changing in some way, or being enlightened about something and the other character is not necessarily happy about it. So, there's this tension. That all bubbles up in that song. There's nothing specific, we always like a bit of ambiguity. If there's any kind of story going on in there it's a sort of domestic perspective, a kind of skewed psychedelic mess" he laughs.