[sic] Magazine

There Will Be Fireworks – Interview (January 2024)

I recently spoke with There Will Be Fireworks about their new album ‘Summer Moon’, their first in a decade.  Joining me are: Nicholas McManus (lead vocals/guitar) and David Madden (bass).

PL: Last time we met (in May 2023), we had a discussion about what you’ve been up to, and also your immediate plans at that point.  This time, I’m looking forward to talking about the new album ‘Summer Moon’ (reviewed here), which has been out for a couple of months and has been critically successful.  Are you pleased generally with the reaction which you’ve received?

TWBF: Yeah, absolutely.  When we last spoke, we’d just re-released The Dark, Dark Bright on vinyl at that point.  That kind of gave us a sense that there are people out there who had been waiting for that.  Up until then, it felt somewhat like a vacuum where we didn’t know how much interest there still is in the band, but once we saw the reaction to that release, we were really pleased and surprised by it.

Similarly, there’s been a really nice reaction to the new album.  Everyone’s been really kind, I think.  A few people have compared it to the previous albums and not treated it as its own thing, which we kind of expected, but I think that will come.

PL: It’s interesting because when I published my review, quite a few people were listening to you for the first time, on the back of people discussing the album on social media.  So they’re hearing you fresh, and the thing which jumped out of some of the comments were “It sounds a little bit like…”, and people always do that, as it offers people a signpost.  There were some obvious names like Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, but also some less obvious comparisons, such as The Blue Nile.

TWBF: I love that, that’s cool.  Not that we want to copy or sound exactly like anyone, but that’s cool.  Personally, with Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, it’s probably because we’re from Scotland and from the same generation as them.  The Blue Nile has become a bit of a touchstone for all of us in the band, not that we sound that much like them, but there’s some of that kind of atmosphere which has maybe somehow managed to find its way in there, which I personally find really gratifying because I love them.  Their first two albums are probably my two favourite albums of all-time and are right up there.

PL: It’s interesting when people see these things in other people’s music.  Maybe on the quieter tracks, it comes across more, because The Blue Nile’s sound rarely elevates, whereas you guys have some of the more serene tracks and then all of a sudden a song will explode.

TWBF: Yeah, which kinds of goes back to where we started and post-rock was a big thing for us.  It’s probably true that we’re not all listening to as much of that genre as we all once did.  It’s definitely hooked into the guitar sound in particular.  For example, fifteen years ago we’d all have been listening to Explosions In The Sky, whereas now I can’t remember the last time I played them.  At the same time, I can’t imagine us doing something without distortion, delay and a cathartic ending.

PL: The new album feels to me like a leap forwards.  There are definite differences in the way that you’ve approached this album from what’s gone before.  I don’t just mean in terms of the songwriting, but also in the way that you’ve layered the instrumentation, how you’ve considered what a song is going to do, where the dynamics are going to take place in the song, and also importantly, creating lots of space for the vocals.  You’ve really thought about what you’re going to do and carefully considered whether something goes in a particular position, or whether you choose not to put anything there.  It feels measured.  Thinking back to the debut album, there was a kind of ‘anything goes’ philosophy, whereas now you’re looking at an idea with an approach of “why don’t we try this? why don’t we try that?”.  Where do those ideas generally come from, in terms of whether to put a guitar here, or whether to put a drum there, or whether to add an extra vocal.  How do those discussions generally take place within the band?

TWBF: The aspect of how we have conversations about music has changed within the band.  The fact that we have conversations is a relatively new thing.  Around the time of the first album, we were recording for the first time and we didn’t really know anything about the studio or songwriting, it was mostly recorded live and then we would overdub stuff.  It all felt fun and good, but nobody sat down and listened to songs and thought, “How do I rearrange this to make it better?”.  It just came out the way it came out and that’s what we went with.

The second album was pretty similar in the writing.  Although we didn’t record it live, we’d have a few sessions to write and then go in and record very quickly.  That kind of pushes you towards what was gratifying at that moment, which probably means more… and louder… and more screamy.

On this new album, a couple of big things changed.  One is that Covid happened – and that forced us to trade ideas via email, so we were actually taking a lot more time to think about our own parts and thinking about the structure of the song, rather than sitting in a room during a six-hour session and figuring out a song.  This time, it was a much more gentle and long process.  I think we went in with a much better understanding of what the arrangements were going to be than we ever have before, because we were working that all out amongst ourselves.

I think the other big thing is probably in the mixing – Andy Miller, who we recorded with, is an amazing guy who’s produced Mogwai, Arab Strap, and Life Without Buildings – he really focuses on the vocals.  Performance is a big thing for him, so he would push all of us in terms of the performance, but particularly with the vocals, he created a lot of space for these in the mixing, so there’s probably a lot going on that even we don’t even appreciate that helped create that space.

Within that, there were lots of conversations around the recording, for example, “let’s pull the guitar for 5 seconds, then when it comes back in, there’s more impact” – or “let’s take these two drum beats out, then when it comes back in, it’s more powerful”.  This granular detail is something which we’ve never delved into before.

PL: I definitely picked up on those types of elements.  There are some parts of the album, for example, where the guitar flashes from left to right in the speakers, and that’s something which has definitely received consideration, because one is playing on the ‘on’ beat and one on the ‘off’ beat to produce a backwards/forwards effect, particularly in headphones.  It’s interesting, because to do that, someone’s got to come up with the idea.  You don’t simply record something twice and have the producer remove elements.  It’s got to be recorded in the way that you intend it to sound, and there must be a conscious decision to go down that route.

TWBF: You’re talking about ‘Something Borrowed’ where the guitars do that.  That’s a good example actually, because the way that we built that up was that we had a demo of it which we traded amongst ourselves, and everybody put lots of parts down and then we actually took a step back, changed the structure a little, and then started layering parts and different bits.  Stuart played the solo at the end of that song, and that’s something else which is different this time around – previously he was all keys or piano, but he’s played quite a lot of guitar on this album and he has slightly different instincts from me [Nicholas] and Gibs [Gibran] – he came up with this idea which became a solo, which neither I nor Gibs would have thought of.  That was originally going to be the start of the song, and then eventually, after conversations amongst ourselves, it ended up becoming elevated at the very end of the song.  The kind of ‘choppy’ part that you’re talking about came out of that process as well.  Even on the demo, we panned it hard-left and hard-right, so a lot of that stuff was thought about.

Quite a lot of it as well is that we’re all so used to listening to music in headphones now.  Everyone’s always listened to music in headphones, but I now listen to stuff a lot more on good headphones than I used to, and I think that after a decade of doing that, you think about music a bit differently, and you think about production as part of arrangement and as part of songwriting, rather than something which you deal with after you’ve written a song.

PL: I think you’re right.  The way that people consume music has changed.  You can’t assume that people are sat in front of a stereo, people listen in different ways.  I will usually listen via a stereo, but I recognise that I’m likely in a minority compared to the way that most people consume music, particularly those who listen when they’re travelling or who have young children.

TWBF: For me, it’s a case of having young kids, and I can’t really listen to stuff at a higher volume, so I’m finding that most of my listening is in bed using headphones, or on my commute to work, so if I want to sit down and listen to an album, then I’ll go to bed and put good headphones on.

The other thing that’s really quite important is – because of the pandemic, we started an album club amongst ourselves, which meant that we were constantly thinking about what we like about albums that we enjoy, and what we like about production & songwriting.  We’ve had some really amazing conversations with each other to articulate why we like the way that something’s recorded.  It throws out interesting parallels which we might try to draw for ourselves.

PL: You’ve mentioned The Blue Nile, whom I wouldn’t automatically compare with you guys, but there might be elements of The Blue Nile’s sound in your own, in the way that they’ve done something, or chosen not to do, because they’re more against adding layers, creating a minimalist structure.  To me, it’s almost like they’ve gone through the motions of recording the usual instrumentation and then actually taken it backwards, towards nothing.

TWBF: I think the way that they record is incredibly brave.  There are sounds in their recordings which are quite eighties, which on some other records might sound dated and of their own time, but I think that because they were so brave and so conscious in the arrangements which they have, it’s its own thing and sounds completely timeless.  We’ve not quite got to that level yet of minimalism or quality.

One name which we’ve talked about a few times is Brian Eno, in terms of production and sounds, and that kind of fed in towards the end of the recording.  That was quite a cool one.

Just generally, when we started writing the album, we were thinking a lot more about what kind of album we wanted to make.  The first time, we kind of just fell into making an album, because an EP became longer and longer, so we kind of manoeuvred it into an album, and then the second time round we tried to do something similar.  With this one we felt a lot more sure about what we wanted to do, so there were definitely conversations about building the dynamics without just putting a distortion pedal on.  We were thinking about how we could take it in a direction which we’d not been before.  From a production perspective, we definitely knew we didn’t want to do what we’d done before, just going quiet and then going loud, but how we could develop it and make it more interesting.

We were challenging ourselves not to just rely on our instincts.  Sometimes, of course, our instincts are right, but we encouraged ourselves to challenge them.

I think that once we’d got to a point where we’d made two full-length albums and EPs, we really knew what we were doing and we wanted to tweak it, but to the point where it was the best it could be, rather than the best songs we could write on the day.

PL: Interestingly, a couple of people who responded to my tweet mentioned that they really like the line in ‘Staying Gold’, which is “This year has been a slow defeat”.  Is this lyric aimed at, for example, the time during Covid, or is it in relation to something else that happened at some other point?

TWBF: It would have been around about that time… it would have been 2021 probably.  The rest of that song’s lyrics came along late in the day, because a lot of the lyrics wouldn’t have been written at that point, but that chorus for some reason just popped out and has always been there.  With that song, the verses took longer.  There was definitely an element of being a bit fed up with the whole grey world of Covid and all the shit that was going on at that time, so that was definitely part of it.

I quite enjoyed the beginning of lockdown and everything.  I enjoyed being home.  We’d just had our first child about five weeks before UK lockdown, so that initial period and that summer, which was a tragedy in so many ways, was selfishly quite a nice time for my little family where we had a lot of time together.  We’d go for a daily walk and all that stuff.  But yeah, by 2021 it had gone on long enough.

PL: I think most people would echo that.  The first lockdown happened during such a nice summer.  I remember around the April time suddenly being at home, the sun came out and it was glorious.  It was so weird, because you couldn’t hear traffic on the roads, there were no planes in the sky.

TWBF: That’s what I remember.  No traffic.  It was so peaceful.  Just out for your government-mandated walk.  But even that was a novelty… you were told that you could go out just for once a day, so everyone did it, whereas now everyone can go out for unlimited walks and you don’t go for a walk!

PL: Staying on the subject of the lyrics, would you typically grab something and discuss it in quite an overt way, or do your lyrics refer to subjects which are personal, which you try to obscure, so that you leave people guessing?

TWBF: I think this album’s probably the most personal.  I don’t think I try to obscure stuff.  On the last album, there were a few things where I was trying to do that Springsteen thing and write about a story that’s nothing to do with me or my life, but this album’s all pretty personal.  There’s probably some natural self-editing that happens, but yeah, there’s no cleverness in it, there’s no analogies where you think it’s about something, but it’s about something totally different.  I think I’ve maybe done a bit more of that in the past, but I think this one’s about family and love and all that kind of stuff.  My wife has picked up on a few things, in a nice way, so it’s not concealed.  I think it’s all pretty transparent.

PL: The title ‘Summer Moon’, when did this come about, and did that drive the overall direction of the album, or was that something that happened late in the day?

TWBF: It’s funny, it just kept popping up.  Maybe it’s just because ‘moon’ rhymes with lots of things, I don’t know… but the ‘moon’ thing kept coming up naturally when I was writing the lyrics and I liked the whole ‘summer moon’ thing.  It’s quite an evocative phrase, which for me ended up becoming a bit of a symbol which signifies the past in some of the songs, and in another sense, offers hope for the future.  That’s how I think about it in very big terms.  As I was writing the lyrics, one of the guys picked up on it and asked what the moon thing was about and why I keep talking about it.  Then it naturally ended up with someone suggesting that it should become the album title.  There were a few songs which maybe hadn’t been finished at that point, so it then informed, or leaned into, the whole moon thing.  There’s something fascinating about the moon generally… quite often if I’m trying to finish lyrics, I’ll go out for a walk or maybe a drive while listening to the demo, and a lot of the time, as I’m out having a walk at ten o’clock at night or whatever, the moon’s just kind of there and massive.  I’d take a photo of it and send it to the lads with a comment, “I’ve got a great moon!”.  It just seemed to be in the atmosphere of the thing, it felt like a cool sort of expression.

Two really cool and weird things have happened, which were completely unplanned.  Firstly, we wanted to find out when manufacturing would happen so that we could announce a date that we knew we’d be able to meet for releasing the album.  The earliest date that we could do that, which also happened to be a Bandcamp Friday – the night before just happened to be a supermoon.  Everyone was like… “did you look up to see when there was going to be a supermoon?”.  Another thing that happened was that we ended up releasing it on the weekend of Guy Fawkes’ night, so fireworks and stuff.  It was literally the earliest that we could get vinyl manufactured.

PL: Were there any key ideas or lyrical images that you felt worked particularly well across this album?

TWBF: Being honest, I feel really proud of the lyrics.  I definitely think that in terms of the writing, it’s much better than anything we’ve done before.  The stuff that I think kind of worked well… with the last two songs, I kind of liked the way that we ended up where the second-to-last song (‘Second City, Setting Sun’) does this nostalgic thing and then it sort of brings you into the present towards the end, that’s how I think about it, and then there’s this whole thing about fate in those two last songs, and the last song (‘Bloody Mary’) is kind of empowering, it’s trying to say actually, there’s no such thing as fate, you can make life good in your own way.  That’s kind of how my brain was working at the time, and I kind of like the way that those two work together.  With those couple of songs, the music had been around for a while, and the last song was the last thing we wrote, for which Stuart wrote the piano part.  The subject matter just seemed to fit and then the songs then pointed in that direction lyrically.

PL: If you come up with an idea for a lyric, would you tend to write it down at that time and use it possibly much later?

TWBF: I’ve literally never done that.  I’m always writing to music that has been written, pretty much.  I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and thought, “this is a really good line, I need to save that for later”… I’ll only do it with a guitar in my hand, or a piano in front of me, or with my headphones on, so I’m never sitting down silently to write words.

There have been some songs on the album where there have been alternative versions.  For example, ‘Our Lady Of Sorrows’, there were two completely different versions of that.  I recorded them both.  David & Andy were in the control room and I kind of said, “Guys, here’s two songs, which one’s better? which strikes you more?”.  Partly, that was because we had a lot more time as well, so I would find other melodies.  It begins with a melody for me rather than words.  The words tend to follow the rhythm of the original melody that comes into my head.  Sometimes I’ll try a few different things, and maybe one won’t work, or one works better.  Generally, it’s just pretty natural, I guess.  Sometimes I’ll have a couple of different melodic ideas and I’ll just come up against a brick wall on writing words for one of them, the other one will seem a bit more fertile and that sometimes directs it, but it’s always melody first.

PL: Were there any events that led to the writing of some of the songs, in particular things that have happened along the way, particularly as there’s been a ten-year duration between this album and the previous one?

TWBF: Some of it’s like looking back… we’re all at that stage where we’re mid-thirties, and naturally at this age you start to think, “I’m well and truly down the road of job and family, and how the hell has that happened?  I feel like I’m still 24!”.  I think everyone has that sort of moment around the age that we’re at, because when I was in my mid-twenties, early-thirties, I was always pushing for the next thing, or on the go.  You don’t really take stock of anything… you just try to live.  For a lot of people, the stage of life that we’re at, you become slightly more reflective and slightly more forgiving and more empathetic, so there’s an element of looking back on what we were up to ten years ago and kind of appreciating that and celebrating it a little bit, but also in that decade – and David’s exactly the same – I’ve got married, had two kids, started a mortgage and all that, and all the ephemera of life, that’s a big part of it.  Actually, I guess we’re just kind of writing about where we’re at at that point in time.  Those have been the big events for us, there’s not been any kind of mad cool stories.

PL: The opening & closing tracks of your previous album ‘The Dark, Dark Bright’ feel like two bookends with a series of songs in-between, because it begins and ends with a kind of ying and yang of a theme.  This album feels different in that it doesn’t have that.  Were you conscious about trying not to have a theme, other than the moon?  Did you set out to consciously try not to do what you’ve done previously?

TWBF: There’s been a big push for us in terms of the writing.  There are songs with more choruses on this new album than we’ve ever written before.  A lot of the structures are interesting as well, such as ‘Something Borrowed’, which doesn’t really have a structure.  We’ve tried to do things which we’ve never done before, such as little gaps to go into a chorus or into a verse, or playing around with the dynamics.

We deliberately didn’t do the “let’s start with a spoken word segment”.  Additionally, maybe because of Covid, before we got to the point where we brought the Cairn String Quartet in to add strings, we single-mindedly thought, “let’s not use anyone else on the recording”.  Previously, we would have got in Karen Fishwick, who played trumpet on the first two albums and is absolutely amazing, we’d also have a guy in playing a cello and some guys playing clarinets, all sorts of stuff, but we kind of collectively felt… “let’s shrink that world and make it just us”, until we got to the very end and we decided that strings would elevate several of the tracks.

I guess the other thing is that it would have been the easiest thing in the world for us to come up with a really atmospheric delayed guitar at the beginning and pick up some spoken-word samples to go over that, almost to give people what they expect, but we decided not to do that, because we simply wanted to go with what the music calls for.

PL: Everything about this album points to a change.  It doesn’t feel like ‘business as usual’.  Yes, you can tell it’s There Will Be Fireworks, obviously, and you can hear pointers from other There Will Be Fireworks albums, but there’s a lot of stuff which feels really considered – more than anything that’s gone before – and that’s quite a new thing.

TWBF: I think it particularly shines through in the rhythm section, because the guys had a lot more time.  Previously, we would literally write something the day before we went in to record, so if that’s what was happening, the guys wouldn’t have the time to come up with “maybe the bass part should change for this particular bit”, or “maybe the drummer should mimic that”.  The arrangements are much more considered, and I think that both David and Adam’s playing on the album is just amazing and really elevates every song.

Adam’s not like a normal drummer who started playing drums when he was 7 or 8 and learned a bunch of stock 4/4 beats.  I’ve worked with other drummers and his approach is completely different.  I think him having more time to really think about it as a kind of musical part, and to finesse it, has worked really well on this album, rather than him being reactive to what’s happening in the room at that given point in time.

I also think that Andy has put a lot more emphasis on drum & bass, and spent a lot more time really getting those elements right.  Before, we’ve always put drums and bass down first, whereas with this album, even down to hi-hat hits, or some of the cymbal hits, they’re so well recorded and sound so crisp and cut right through.  On ‘Dream Song’, I remember being in the studio with AK [Adam] and a lot of time was spent with the hi-hats, really getting the sound right and the way it resolves.

That’s something which I think we can all be really proud of on this album.  We spent a lot of time mixing it and made a lot of production choices, as we discussed earlier, but there’s no digital trickery going on… the drums that you hear are Adam playing the drums.  The actual snare drum sound is the sound of his stick hitting the snare, we’ve not patched in any digital triggers or anything like that.  We’ve kind of made some conscious choices around that sort of stuff, like we wouldn’t use digital instruments, that was a nice thing to do because it helped us focus on the performance more, which I think makes it more kind of soulful, maybe.

Finally, [sic] Magazine would once again like to thank There Will Be Fireworks for being such wonderful hosts.  Copies of the new double LP are available via the links below:

Bandcamp

Norman Records

Avalanche Records

 

Comments

comments