[sic] Magazine

There Will Be Fireworks – Interview (May 2023)

There Will Be Fireworks interview (May 2023)

I recently spoke with There Will Be Fireworks about the Tenth Anniversary release of their second album ‘The Dark, Dark Bright’ on vinyl, marking its first appearance on this format. Joining me are: Nicholas McManus (lead vocals/guitar), Adam Ketterer (drums), Gibran Farrah (guitar), David Madden (bass) and Stuart Dobbie (piano/keys).

PL: You guys are about to release the Tenth Anniversary edition of your second album, so for you this is a period of reflection and looking back. What I’d like to focus on are some thoughts around that album, how it came about, where your heads were in terms of what the songs were written about, and also the direction which you wanted to take with that album. Then we’ll look a little at where you’re going to go next and what sort of ideas you have for your future.

TWBF: It’s also a good option for us to ask ourselves what the songs are about, because we never talk about it! We’re interested to see what we learn.

PL: You released the second album around four years after the debut. There was also an EP between the two. Where did those songs evolve initially? Was it a case that you had a core set of, say, 3, 4 or 5 songs, and then you got together and developed ideas as a theme or unit – or was it more a case of bringing along a set of twelve songs almost in a semi-finished form and then wrapping the instrumentation around these?

TWBF: It definitely wasn’t the latter. Going back to the first album, it was recorded mostly live. We overdubbed the vocals and maybe some bits of piano, but the core instrumentation was recorded in terms of bass, drums and two (or in some cases three) guitars.

At that time, we were all based in Glasgow living in close proximity while studying at the same university. We were also practicing and writing a lot in a room together. We would record at the Old Mill Studios in Strathaven, near Glasgow, which kind of became our home. There, we’d record three songs over a weekend. That all began to change probably a year after the first album was released, because timing-wise we’d graduated, some of us had moved away and started doing different things, so we were practicing less.

We had songs such as ‘River’ and ‘South Street’ which were part of a core batch of songs which had been worked on in the practice room in our old way of working. What happened during the recording process for the second album is that we evolved and ended up with later songs such as ‘Roots’, which had never been played in a room before; instead, we built that song in the studio. So in terms of how the songs were written, there are elements of both.

‘Ash Wednesday’ really sticks out as being a complete nightmare, because it was part of that original batch, but we disliked how it sounded, so we went off it. As a result, it went through something like four or five iterations in the studio and slowly evolved into a studio song.

Studio 1

PL: And how did that evolution take place? Was it driven by a riff, a melody or something else?

TWBF: That song started life with some guitar chords which were worked into an arrangement together. The core chord progression and vocal melody was set at that point. We then slowly and brutally ripped it all apart and initially had a diversion into our attempt of ‘Kid A’ with electronic instrumentation, which was an absolute disaster.

Thankfully we had an earlier very folky version which we returned to. We were saved by the Cairn String Quartet, who helped us with an arrangement that effectively saved that song from being dropped. The song eventually ended up with all the folk instrumentation removed and replaced with strings. We then added a heavy bit on to the end… if in doubt, we add a heavy bit! Somewhere in the vaults, there’s at least one, if not two, alternative versions of that song.

More than anything, that song really was a case of us being in a studio and grabbing a shiny instrument or object, be it a banjo or clarinet, and then realising that we were doing that simply because they were lying around.

PL: Did you find yourself adding things and then later removing them?

TWBF: On that song, yes, but more generally we tend to be more additive. As a band, we’ve improved and are now much more considered about things. It worked on The Dark, Dark Bright because generally, other than a few songs such as ‘River’, we were starting with something relatively skeletal and building it up to a point where it kind of felt okay. We were generally quite good at knowing when not to add anything further, except on ‘Ash Wednesday’, where we started doubting ourselves and went into a cycle of despair.

On the first album, we’d had some projects with up to 180 tracks laid down, which at the time felt like a mark of pride, but looking back, it felt a bit overbaked.

There’s stuff on the first album which is like that, for example the released version of ‘Says Aye’ is an example of a song which just has too much stuff on it. It’s not really arranged… it’s just ‘there’.

There’s also the inverse, such as ‘So Stay Close’, which was one of the only live tracks on the second album, very much mimicking the way that we recorded the debut. For that song, we went back to a live video which we’d filmed, took that live performance, and almost at the eleventh hour, decided that that song should definitely go onto the album. We almost dropped that song, but then found ourselves all really liking this version.

PL: Do you think that the way you look at things now in terms of the writing influences the way that you write going forwards and you’re less tempted to try some of the things you’ve done in the past?

TWBF: Definitely. There are a couple of perspectives, the first of which is practicality, we just can’t get together in a room all that often, so a lot of the time, certainly post-pandemic, we write music via email, demoing songs amongst ourselves, with people filling in their parts. It’s a very different process which involves having more time to think about it, rather than having to make a snap decision in a studio. This has had a big impact on the writing of the album currently being worked on (TWBF’s unreleased third album). The other element is that we’re all much more self-assured with playing our instruments and also better song arrangers.

Studio 2

There are pros and cons to this, because my memories of making The Dark, Dark Bright are that it was such a creative experience, because we were young, it was a lot of fun, we were throwing stuff at the wall, most of it was sticking and it felt great. There’s a kind of passion which comes through in this. Now, we think a lot more, which is both good and bad.

PL: So you basically settled on twelve songs. Were there songs which didn’t make the cut? Also how did you come to arrange them into a cohesive tracklisting?

TWBF: There were definitely songs which didn’t make the cut. When we started writing the album, we probably felt like we were taking away some of the post-rock stuff and wanting to be more direct. ‘River’, for example, ended up having post-rock elements but it’s a more concise song. As part of that same batch, we had a song called ‘Shock and Awe’ which felt a little like a song called ‘Foreign Thoughts’ from our debut, which at gigs felt like a song which people responded to. It was a short, scuzzy pop song essentially, which felt like fertile ground for us at that time. At the beginning of the album, it felt like that track would be a cornerstone track, but we just ended up being unable to satisfy ourselves in how to complete it. Over the course of the few years of recording, the aesthetic of the whole thing just seemed to change and we found ourselves leaning into more natural sounds with more acoustic guitar and strings. That song didn’t make it and was a victim of that process. Another song we wrote was really pretty with a really nice piano part, but we just couldn’t find a melody for it, it was too high vocally and the thought of recording it a step down at that point was too much.

Generally, we don’t waste much. What we’ve released is probably ninety per cent or more of what we’ve ever recorded, but there are also a lot of songs which didn’t make it to the recording stage. We do write a lot, we’re a pretty good bunch of self-editors and we pretty much commit once we’re all happy that we like a song. We get a good feeling around stuff and then tend to stick with it.

At the same time, we spent lots of time in the studio and lots of ideas fall out of that studio time quite naturally. I guess the more tangible element is that we’re all conscious that we were paying for the studio time, so we’re more discerning about making the best use of our money.
We’ve known each other so long that a lot of the communication and decisions around this stuff isn’t really communicated, it just sort of happens. There are a lot of things which are unsaid but understood. For example, if one person doesn’t like a song, we can just tell. It then becomes a case of, “let’s not talk about it, it’s just dead…”. That happens all the time, there’s usually a level of anticipating what others will do within a song.

PL: Your second album, ‘The Dark, Dark Bright’, has almost high and low points in terms of dynamics. You begin the album not with all guns blazing, but with an understated first track, and then kick off more in the second track, so there are dynamics which are completely polar. Was that something which you considered by design and you really wanted to begin almost on a whisper before introducing the scream?

TWBF:I remember that we realised we needed bookends to the album, so the first and last songs were basically written in response to the rest of the album and what it felt was called for. It was a deliberate decision, which was made only once we felt we knew what the rest of the album actually was going to be. The whole quiet/loud thing has been a big thing of our sound more generally.

For the first album, we’d objectively try to cram all of the dynamics into one song – really quiet/really loud… all in the same song. In contrast to that, we approached the second album by writing songs which stay in the same feeling for longer and retain that dynamic. I feel like we spent a bit of time wondering if we did enough to retain that balance of quiet & loud. Did we have too many heavy bits… or too much sustain… stuff like that. I also feel like a lot of the quieter tracks ended up coming out of that process, because we were able to record those bits and then reflect on it after the fact.

The first song I remember just felt so right. We took the strings from ‘Ash Wednesday’ and reversed them, which was a trick which we’d learnt from the debut. We then added the spoken-words part, for which we invited our English teacher from school to record the passages. Finally, on an evening out, we took along a microphone with us, so you can hear our voices & laughter on the track. The song feels very much like a textural setting-the-scene moment when hearing our voices and various other things, as a kind of medley leading into the album.

PL: The first track actually comes across as quite philosophical. It sets the scene, not just because of the fact that it’s a quieter track, it almost tells a story, which in itself lays the groundwork for what follows after. Was it a conscious decision to have a spoken story rather than lyrics which are sung?

TWBF:It’s not like a concept album by any means, but there’s definitely some kind of thematic coherence to it, which was deliberate but… I can’t really explain what it’s about. It’s almost like a broadcast which you pick up… like there was something maybe subconscious at work there. We knew that that song was setting the scene in terms of us deliberately writing an acoustic song to open the album, but we didn’t consciously think that we needed to sit down and require that the song needed to tell a story which reflects on the album as a whole.

We quite liked the idea that that opening track shares the feeling of the last acoustic track from the debut, so we feel that there’s a nice continuity between the two albums. In fact, the studio where both of those songs were recorded has a concrete staircase, so there was definitely a deliberate choice in recording the opening song on those stairs.

PL: So you saw the albums almost as ‘Chapter One’ and ‘Chapter Two’ ?

TWBF: Yes, I think that’s how we saw it, because at the time of the recording of the first album we were all really proud of what we’d done and there was a feeling of trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice. Much of that came from the location of the studio, the guy we recorded with… all of that was so important to the feeling of it.

For us, there’s never been a gap in terms of writing. We stopped writing the first album probably the night before we stopped recording that album, but then we’d already started writing the second album. For us, it was a kind of gapless writing experience, it just happened to be four years between releases, and then ten years.

PL: Which tracks do you feel were almost impossible to bring together but came together eventually and were maybe more involved – and also, which songs started out as an idea brought to the group and then came alive and felt like magic was happening?

TWBF: ‘Ash Wednesday’ was the hardest, the one which felt like real hard work to get there.

‘Youngblood’ was up there as well, I remember that was a lot of work and a lot of production; we obviously felt it was a goer because we got a music video made for it, but it was really hard to record.

‘Here Is Where’ was a bigger undertaking because it had the Cairn String Quartet. I remember Stuart running up & down the stairs composing and conducting these strings players.

It’s now one of our most-played songs on streaming sites, but we didn’t realise that that song would take off so well with one of the most moving parts. That one felt really natural and came together really easily. That song happened completely in the studio as well, starting out as a very simple guitar part with a groove under it. I can remember writing the lyrics in the car park at Old Mill whilst Stuart was conducting the quartet. It all came alive in the recording. We felt it was missing a little something, and then we added a tremolo guitar at the end, which I think elevated it. The song sat as an idea for the longest time with just the core instrumentation and we didn’t really evolve it beyond that initially. It existed as just a loop for three years. We even called it ‘Loop’. We kind of knew that the strings were going to happen, and also Stuart had been looking at a synth part for a while. With those in place, it sounded much more like a complete song and brought everything to life.

I have a funny memory about the last track as well. Nicky had originally come in with that because it was a bookend and was really just his guitar & vocals. At the time, I’d been messing around with open string guitar tunings and just happened to realise that I could use an open tuning on it, so I randomly decided to ask Marshall (the recording engineer) to double-track them on either side of the stereo mix. That’s one of our favourite moments of the recordings… the song was written at my Mum & Dad’s house, then I’d left early one day, having put down the first guitar and the vocals, then when I showed up later there was this wild string noise and tactile strumming noise, with ebow acoustic guitar added too. It was such a shock to come back and hear that, because it was not an expected choice. That was a really awesome moment. It was a little chaotic, but there were some nice moments, even the ebow goes out of tune for a bit, but there’s a nice part to that because it resolves again. Moments like that are kind of cathartic when you listen back to them. We also spent quite a bit of time doing drums for that song – and then the best decision was just to mute the drum track and we just left it out. That was one of those moments where we kind of decided… let’s reduce this.

PL: Were there songs that were left over from the debut album or did you close that chapter and start afresh for the second album?

TWBF: ‘River’ had been written but not recorded, that’s probably the only one. Our mindsets had been changing and stuff which was a hangover from the first album didn’t really make it. The same thing has happened this time around as well – in 2014 or 2015 we had a pretty good idea of what this new album was going to be, and now it’s nothing like it. If anything, we thought we had most of an album, then we started writing new songs for it. Part of that is that it takes us so long, it’s not like we have a two-week session and we record an album during those two weeks… for us, it’s more a case of “Guys, has anyone got a free weekend in August?” and we try to fit something in. The pace at which we put things down is slow, but our reactions and changing tastes occur just as quickly as anyone else’s, such that by the time we reach the next recording session, it’s a case of… all that stuff we wrote two years ago, I hate it now. There’s definitely an element of that.

It goes back to that natural process of deciding what songs stay and go, and how we feel about them. There are some songs which sometimes get dragged back from a long time ago because somebody feels that there’s something in them or they really like a part of them.

PL: It’s the tenth anniversary. Are there any plans to perform any tenth anniversary gigs to support the release of the album on vinyl?

TWBF: There’s nothing immediate. Because our ability to get together is so restricted, we would rather focus on getting the new album completed, so we will try to play some shows, but realistically it’s more likely to be 2024 before that happens.

PL: What’s the plan with the new album? Are you part-way in terms of the writing and the recording – or is it still very embryonic at the moment?

TWBF: The recording is basically done. We had a few sessions planned to complete it, which unfortunately had to be shelved due to illness, so the current plan is to get some new dates in the diary and finish it within the next couple of months. We’ll then have to get it mixed and mastered, but it’s basically there. We’ve had a few issues with cancellations which mean that if we miss a week, it doesn’t just move us back a week, it’s potentially six months before we can coordinate, it really does put a spanner in the works.

There have been sessions where there were ghosts in the workstation and weird stuff happening which we can’t explain. There was once a power surge which affected only our unit… one unit on an entire industrial estate, and it was just so bizarre! On another occasion, we’d organised for some of the guys to come up from London, then something blew up in the first hour, meaning the whole weekend was ruined.

Then, of course, there was Covid… which basically killed us for two years, but has actually been a blessing in disguise with regards to our writing. It forced us to find new ways to do that, which has been a real positive.

We ran a little ‘Album Club’ during lockdown, where we would each join, zoom and present an album. That was kind of nice because it gave us the ability to look at production or different segments of other people’s albums. We’d chat about what we could take away from those ourselves. It’s really nice to catch up with each other, but looking at things from the perspective of when we were in the studio once or twice a week, in the heat of the moment, you’re not necessarily that reflective about why you like certain things or why you choose certain things, but I think the Album Club idea, aligned with trading song demos with each other during lockdown, allowed us to take a step back and really talk about why we like what we like and explore that together. It’s definitely impacted massively on the sound & writing process for this new album.

PL: The first album is currently CD-only. Are there any plans to release that one on vinyl also?

TWBF: We’d love to. We’re exploring whether it’s possible to release it on vinyl. One of the problems is that it was recorded on a now-defunct system. It’s basically all stored on old hard drives in a format which can’t be accessed very easily, but we’re going through a process of trying to get that remixed and remastered. Next year (2024) is its 15th anniversary, which I guess would be nice, so it’s something we’re looking into.

When we put the pre-release up for the second album, we were frankly shocked at the level of demand and also the speed of the response to it, which has just been totally unexpected. We had an idea that we might do a few shows at the time of the new album and maybe shift fifty copies at those shows, but the early response has been incredible.

We’re clear that the first album physically can be done, that the files are not ‘lost’, because the other option was to do nothing with it other than taking the existing files and press them onto vinyl, but we don’t want to do that because we think it requires a bit of work to make it translate to vinyl from a sonic perspective, so we’d rather take the opportunity to get it to sound as good as we possibly can.

PL: Just to finish off, if you had the opportunity to perform a gig with somebody else, who would that be?

TWBF: The Blue Nile, they’re one of our favourite bands in the world. Also The Twilight Sad, they’re big heroes of ours and a big reason why we formed a band. The War On Drugs, the only band who’s come up twice in our Album Club. Finally, The National and Brian Wilson.

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

Avalanche Records:

Love Music Glasgow: