Photo: Konnor Brunsdon (@swankiller_)
Around ten miles south out of the city of Lincoln the landscape begins to change; the roads become narrower, the topography flatter, the skies wider. As the fields begin to blend into one mass of earth and populated areas become harder to find, for those unaccustomed to the English countryside the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere truly begins to set in. Amongst this quiet, low-lying land, partially hidden by a small gathering of ancient trees, lies Somerton Castle, parts of which date back as far as the 13th century. On the subdued morning of 1st January 2020, from within this castle’s grand stairwell, the swirling, hypnotic sounds of psychedelic noise rockers Concrete Ships were taking shape, morphing into the compositions that would make up their stunning first full-length release In Observance. Ahead of the album’s release, Astral Noize sat down with vocalist/bassist Chris Thompson, guitarist Joe Dickinson and drummer Jamie Batt to discuss the album’s creation, the band’s writing process and the practicalities of recording in a castle.
Like many band formations, Concrete Ships came into being casually, with members coming together simply through knowing each other in Lincoln’s small but thriving creative scene. With Thompson previously having a stint in Buffalode and Batt still the main sticksman for progressive death metallers Luna’s Call, it was guitarist Dickinson who managed to get all three together in a practice room for initial jam sessions. “I’d never played bass before that point,” admits Thompson. “We had a jam, and initially I was on guitar too, there was meant to be a different bassist but he never turned up.” With that, the band decided to stick as a three piece, with Thompson taking on bass and vocal duties and Dickinson the sole guitarist.
“Neil from Luna’s Call knows Joe, so we became friends that way,” explains drummer Batt. “I got a call from Joe saying ‘do you wanna form a band playing noise rock kinda stuff’ and I was instantly like ‘yep sure’. We had that first band practice, got everything set up and we just sort of all said to each other ‘let’s just see what happens’.” It turns out those initial sessions didn’t quite yield the results they intended. “We started out sounding like a horrible Queens Of The Stone Age tribute,” laughs Thompson, with Dickinson adding, “We had a whole EP worth of that stuff.” Luckily, this never saw the light of day. “We listened back and thought ‘nah, scrap that’,” laughs Batt. Following those initial sessions, the band started to head in a more jam-oriented, organic direction, resulting in the songs that would make up their debut self-titled EP released in 2018.
The sound Concrete Ships now create traverses many genres, with elements of noise rock bleeding into longer progressive sections and psychedelic jams. Capturing this sound on record and presenting it in an authentic manner was paramount as the trio searched for a suitable place to record. “In our heads, we knew what sound we wanted,” explains Thompson. “Our first attempt was recorded in a church. It sounded alright, but it was too cold, too… churchy. The performances were quite rubbish too, obviously because it was so cold, so we had to go back to the drawing board. Naturally, we know someone who lives in a castle, so Joe asked him outright and we set up in the massive stairwell at Somerton Castle.”
The grand setting for the recording of In Observance soon became just as important an element as the music itself, with an emphasis on capturing a powerful drum sound being the initial driver behind the recording sessions. “As soon as Jamie set up the drums, it sounded amazing. It was a really chilled out space,” Thompson enthuses about the unique setting they found themselves in. And whilst the stairwell of an ancient castle may have been perfect for capturing a desired sound, it was often less practical in terms of jamming together. “Because we did the drums first, I recorded Chris playing guide bass tracks,” Batt explains. “He was in the next room to the main entrance way and I think a couple of songs with the more improvised parts, I needed that door open so I could actually see him, trying to work out when those bits were coming.”
The tracks that comprise In Observance were pretty much already written and fully realised when the band came to record them at Somerton Castle. In terms of the writing, many of their songs stem from longer jam sessions that have been chopped, cropped and pulled together to become fully realised in their final form. “A lot of our stuff starts as phone recordings,” Batt confirms. “We then go back, tweak and work out what bits work best.”
This method can be heard on the hypnotic, bass led ‘Vibration White Finger’ – one of the album’s many highlights. “That was one of those songs when we were first jamming in the rehearsal studio, Chris coming up with a bass line and Joe quickly just chucking his phone down to record it,” says Batt. “We’ve got loads of recordings like that. There must be so many on Joe’s phone that are basically just the date and time. The original recording of ‘Vibration White Finger’ will definitely be a lot longer than the finished song. We had to reign it in a bit.” Knowing when to stop, when to curtail these jams and mould them succinctly into songs is a process in itself, one the band are ever conscious of. “We didn’t want to overdo it with that song,” explains Thompson. “It would have been easy to add more and more layers to it, so we kind of restrained ourselves a bit with that. It benefits the song when it reaches its climax; adds to the intensity of the song.”
Intensity is a word that frequently comes to mind when listening to In Observance. From the thundering drum sound to the prominence of the bass, to the cathartic vocals and kaleidoscopic guitar lines, the album grabs the listener and doesn’t let go. When speaking to the band about their influences, they themselves hone in on the more immersive and impassioned sounds. “I tend to get a bit myopic with music and back myself into a safe corner with noise rock. Stuff like King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard, Shellac and Swans,” admits Thompson. “When it comes to lyrics, Swans have been a big influence. I don’t find writing lyrics that easy, it can be a bit of a struggle. Some of it is improvised and I’ll have vocal lines in my head when we’re jamming, but then I’ll try and flesh it out with more substance.”
Themes of repetition run throughout the album musically but also manifest in the lyrics, through which the band explore themes of dutiful bodies, floating uncontrollably and self-estrangement. Reflective and existential themes (that is to say being In Observance of ourselves), particularly ones wrapped up in the despair of eternal recurrence, may be a little close to home right now given that every day spent in lockdown feels identical, but as a result there’s certainly some catharsis to be found in the noise as well. “Repetition is a tried and tested formula,” says Thompson. “If you can find a good hook or lyric, repeat it as much as possible… almost to the point of annoyance *laughs*. I also enjoy that idea musically, that balancing act where you’re repeating something to the point where the listener is starting to experience it, or being unnerved by it. Listening to something that plays on a repetition just seems to tap into something meditative.”
Indeed, this is something which is incredibly striking with Concrete Ships; where some music of this nature can often unintentionally force the listener to zone out, it’s practically impossible to do that with In Observance. In fact the opposite effect happens, the listener is dragged into the music with the band, experiencing every feature of their sound with them. When it came to tying it all together and presenting the songs, the band kept production duties in house, with the band’s mastermind and guitarist Dickinson taking on these all important duties. “It is difficult when it’s your own band, separating yourself from the music,” admits the quietly spoken Dickinson. “You have to force yourself to listen to it more objectively, rather than thinking ‘I was involved in writing and playing this’. I think it got to the point, I’d heard it that many times I felt completely disconnected from it. It’s a completely different mindset from writing and recording it.”
Like many of our favourite artists this past year, the coronavirus epidemic has inevitably had an impact on the band, in terms of both their recording and live plans, with the recording process of In Observance having begun just a couple of months before the first lockdown hit. “We’d done all the drums, and most of the bass as well, then lockdown hit and we were left with stuff to do on the album, particularly vocals,” says Thompson. “I found it… well, I recorded a lot of vocals at home and I think it was actually probably a lot easier doing it alone without Joe staring at me!” So whilst the band managed to finish the recording process in individual spaces, writing and live plans were well and truly put on hold.
“We’ve already got a few pretty good ideas for new songs,” enthuses Batt. “But we were talking about how differently we write songs, like we struggle with the music we write, if we’re not in a room jamming. Other bands have done livestreaming things from different corners of the world, but we don’t work remotely like that.” Similarly, the band’s ideas to perhaps expand their live show have been put on hold too. Having already experimented with adding loops between songs into their live show, a track on In Observance, the swirling, mesmerising ‘Clouds’, also hints at the direction the band may head in next, as it finds the band adding synths to their already colossal sound. “We just wanted to build up the textures on that one a bit.” Thompson explains, with Batt adding, “It’s always something that we talked about having. We never really set out to just be a straightforward three-piece of guitar, bass and drums. We’re always open to putting weird sounds in there, then figure out how to do that live later on.”
While the live scene currently remains stagnant, there is movement behind the scenes as the band are eager to confirm new ideas are being worked on individually and there are plans for more releases in the future. “We’ve got ideas and themes we were playing on before lockdown,” confirms Thompson. “It’ll continue in a similar vein, but I don’t know, maybe more refined.” In terms of how this new music may sound, Batt states, “We’re pretty open about which direction we go in. Some things are a lot heavier than what’s on In Observance but then we have some ideas that are completely in the opposite direction too. We’re not too tied up in which direction we go.” And as we wait for gigs to resume, we can all devour In Observance in the full knowledge that the trio are as eager to play these songs live as we are to hear them. “I don’t know how far away gigs are at the minute,” says Batt. “But any opportunity to play together as soon as lockdown eases, we’ll be jumping straight back on that”.
In Observance is out now on Trepanation Recordings. Order here.
Words: Adam Pegg