Running In Sunlight : album musings

Well, it’s been two weeks since we released Running In Sunlight, our second full length album, on all streaming services and music stores. We’ve been really heartened by the positive reception it has received and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s got in touch about it!

I thought I’d write a few words about the songs – the lyrics and a little about the writing and recording process. Obviously, songs come to mean very different things for different people and these explanations are just what sparked the lyrics, not necessarily the only way they can be read. Writing lyrics can be a very stream-of-consciousness, automatic thing and often the songwriter has to work just as hard to interpret their own songs as anyone else.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here are some listening links followed by my musings about the tracks.

RS

Changes

This was a really fun song to create and record, using DADEAD, a tuning I only discovered relatively recently. The sliding chromatic riff and percussive guitar backbeat evoke for me the feel of an old caravan rolling clunkily through some desert landscape. There are all sorts of odd elements in this song – a pitched down ukulele that was recorded in at a faster tempo, Simon’s flamenco-inspired guitar, the oddly timed key changes and a loudspeaker-routed guitar solo at the end. This song was like a spool of thread that untangled itself in quite unpredictable ways. Writing it was a strange, enjoyable journey through some new harmonic possibilities.

It’s a song about inequality and how unprecedented changes in society can lead to more entrenchment of these differences. I wrote it the year before the pandemic hit but it has obviously felt a lot more relevant since. There’s a sort of grim stoicism at the song’s core- it’s not exactly uplifting but not too forlorn, either.

You Never Had Control

When I was around fourteen, my dad suggested I read a newspaper once a week so that I’d have an idea of what was going on in the world. Although I don’t think I ever managed that level of regularity and always felt like I was slightly out of the loop, I had a passing idea of what was happening in the UK and abroad. It seems strange how detached it all felt (bar some obvious exceptions), considering how interwoven ‘the news’ is to everything now. It’s not a bad thing for the most part if it encourages people to engage with the big issues and challenges we face- but I don’t doubt that it has an impact on the human psyche.

Things like Twitter, which brings the news in instantly (or even makes the news itself!), made ‘current events’ a far more compelling thing to engage with. I don’t know when it was that I flipped from feeling guilty about my ignorance of the news to feeling bad about spending too much time on my phone reading it, but I guess the increased speed of technology had something to do with it, not to mention the litany of horrors that continue to manifest around the world.

‘You Never Had Control’ is an exploration of being continually presented with world events that are totally outside of one’s ability to prevent. It’s an acceptance that the act of observation changes little, or nothing, and how powerless that can make one feel. Ultimately I guess it’s just a ‘note to self’ to limit my time online and proactively try and work towards positive change in the real world.

Thanks to our old friend Hamilton Gross for contributing his beautiful violin playing to this song.

Three Cars

Some time in 2018 I was on a stroll through a relatively leafy suburb and saw a large house with three luxury sports cars parked outside. These cars were identical models in different colours. The personalised number plates had the person’s name followed by a number. They were parked in ascending order. 

I was pretty weirded out by this display and kept thinking about it. Don’t get me wrong, there are some cool cars out there, but the idea of working in a high powered, demanding job to collect three of the same sports car, knowing full well that a human can only drive one car at a time (so far), baffled me. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

Halfway through the following year, when I was driving along a country road and in the process of a clearly indicated right turn into a driveway, someone tried to overtake me and wrote off my car and his own (and very nearly both our lives as we knew them, arguably). As he paced around on the phone to his insurance company and I looked at the crumpled sports car he’d been driving, I reflected on how something historically intended to transport people safely from A to B had become both a trophy and a trap for someone who had spent the whole day at work and was racing back to savour a few hours of freedom and rest. Fragments of the above two tenuously related anecdotes are hazily interwoven into what is admittedly a pretty stream-of-consciousness song.

‘Three Cars’ was a pretty late addition to the track list for the album- the lyrics were knocking around for about six months before the music. The melody was formulated on the guitar in pretty much the same way it’s played now. I tried to make the song drift back and forth between two different keys (D major and E minor) in an attempt to capture the restlessness of consumerism, the idea of ‘the grass being greener on the other side.’ Simon contributed some euphonium chorale accompaniment via WeTransfer (we were well into the first lockdown by the time of this recording) and the sound of my neighbours talking over their garden fences to each other is faintly audible at the end of the song. It really feels like a snapshot of a peaceful moment in all the chaos of last year, and of the town I have since moved away from.

Yongo / 四五

At some point during Trump’s reign I started referring to him, purely in my own brain, as ‘yongo’, which is a loose translation into Japanese of ’45’. It somehow made him sillier and easier to compartmentalise in a time where his politics seemed to be pervading every news broadcast and conversation. I was disturbed by the aggressive nationalism he epitomised which was surging across the world- an open cynicism and cruelty that seemed rather popular with the electorate. This obsessive jingoism often seemed to wrap itself in the language and imagery of military heroism and sacrifice, particularly relating to World War Two, while embodying many of the authoritarian, callous traits that were quelled in that conflict.

‘Yongo / 四五’ is a sort of hypothetical conversation with a politician or journalist who’s been drawn into this web of defensiveness and aggression, reframing the huge military sacrifice of 1939-45 to justify whatever their own political standpoint happens to be. I wrote it when I accidentally discovered my genteel, elderly neighbour was secretly a prolific far-right Twitter troll.

The song was kicking around for about six months with a very basic, strummed accompaniment before I landed on the driving guitar riff. Most of the vocal harmonies are just the lead vocals digitally retuned to different pitches, leading to some quite strange harmonic clashes that we might not have thought of with a more conventional approach. There’s also a cool octaver effect on the guitar, creating a glitchy bass that really brought the song to life.

Wind The Bobbin Up

This is the first song that I wrote chronologically for this album and is the first in DADEAD tuning that I wrote. In a harmonic sense it was heavily influenced by 90s bands: Liz Phair, Beck, Pavement etc. It was inspired – would that be the word? – by a hot, muggy day in a studio working on a short film soundtrack. All the computers kept overheating and I was hungry and lightheaded. I wrote this song while giving my eyes a break from the screen.

Different Seas

This song goes back a long way. It was pretty much the first song (i.e. with vocals) I ever wrote that I was happy with. It was heavily inspired by ‘Motion Pictures’ from Neil Young’s album On The Beach, which I listened to almost every night on a 30 day walk along the Camino De Santiago. The original version of the song was recorded at walking pace- I can still picture the landscape I was strolling through as I started trying to cement the melody and lyrics.

This piano arrangement of the song, combined with Simon’s more mellow vocals, creates a more resigned and less defiant tone. It probably reflects a shift in feeling about the subject matter itself. A chaotic and confusing fall-out about which you’re certain you’re in the right ends up not being quite so clear cut when you revisit it from a more distant, detached perspective.

I Wanted Us To Be

This is one of the two ‘sad songs’ that appear back to back on this album. It’s a weirdly literal song about corporate greed and how often it can triumph over cooperation and community spirit; about people and organisations who deny the evidence of climate catastrophe (‘that sees what it wants’) and then continue to harvest the planet for their own enrichment (‘and wants all it sees’). Again, this song uses the DADEAD tuning that has become such a goldmine of new riffs and chord progressions for me recently. It’s inspired by Joan Armatrading and early Joni Mitchell albums, as you can probably hear.

Rachel sings lead on this one- it naturally seemed to really suit her range and delivery. It’s just really nice to have a song for her in the Sandtimer collection. Simon added some choral euphonium parts which help the song transcend its humble acoustic origins.

Canadian Boating Song

A few years ago, my grandmother on my Mum’s side gave us a lot of her old sheet music. There was a book from the early 1900s with a collection of folk songs, hymns and dance tunes. I went through the book and found this one – a song written by Irish poet Thomas Moore in 1804. There was something about the melody and words that felt like it might suit a more contemporary adaptation and there are only a few versions of it kicking around online. I hope we captured something of the spirit of the song and brought something new to it too.

Cynical As Me

A ‘golden rule’ I try and follow is to never write a song complaining about being in a band and trying to ‘make it in the music biz’. It’s such a specific experience to complain about that probably doesn’t resonate particularly with people who aren’t trying to do these specific things. There’s also a certain amount of inherent privilege in being in a position to pursue musical endeavours that it feels a bit… well, lame to slag it off.

Anyway, the rule was broken. ‘Cynical As Me’ is a song about being in a band and trying to make it as a musician. I was warning another musician about something industry-related – low streaming royalties, a payola situation or an unscrupulous promoter – but suddenly realised how cynical it sounded from the perspective of someone who had only just started out on their musical career. I imagined myself as the reverse of the genie from Aladdin, performing some sort of upbeat musical number talking the main character through the new situation he was in, but with an almost absurd, comedic level of cynicism.

The narrator in this song- this cynical, nihilistic sage- is a constructed character, but I think any musician can probably relate to at least some of this stuff- unanswered emails, gigs with totally random lineups, the elation of a breakthrough followed by an abrupt return back down to earth. Maybe the lyrics are broad enough that non-musicians may connect with it in some way; I don’t know.

Composition-wise, this is tapping into the folkier seam that runs alongside whatever else one might call our music. Our friend Hamilton Gross also contributed some wonderful violin playing to the recording. There’s a moment right near the end of this song where the arrangement suddenly transforms into something much broader and brighter, and it’s the first time I’ve ever used sidechain bass compression in a Sandtimer recording. It might not be the last!

Empty

The previously mentioned ‘golden rule’ about not writing songs about the music industry is broken for the second time here. Surfing Twitter one day in early summer, 2019, I saw a band announce that they were calling it quits. They didn’t seem like the kind of band that would need to give up for financial reasons (though with streaming royalties what they are, you cannot necessarily assume this) and I was shocked and unsettled by their announcement.

It made me wonder about the idea of success and fulfilment in music. So much of the time, musicians will look at someone they think of as more successful than them and think, ‘if I could just get to that point, I’d be happy’. The question is, is there a rung of that ladder that anyone can reach and feel placated? I once hung out with a band who’d filled a huge hall with people who knew every word of their songs… they still seemed to feel that they’d reached the end of the road. There is obviously some sort of existential difficulty at the heart of a musical career that, in some ways, probably has a lot of parallels with life in general.

There’s a lot of self-deprecation in the lyrics of Empty: semi-humorous rationalisations and a propensity for chain-drinking tea and coffee while procrastinating. I changed most of the lyrics in an attempt to swerve away from this confessional style but Simon encouraged me to keep them in their original form. Hopefully it was worth the gamble.

Empty is a song about why people do music, why they persevere, but also why they might stop. It’s also about getting older and facing up to big decisions. I doubt you’re going to see this song in any big playlists or hear it pumping out of car stereos any time soon but it’s an acknowledgement and interrogation of the insecurities we all sometimes experience in some shape or form, and I’m glad we released it.

Elk River Blues

I think I first heard this on YouTube while looking for old time fiddle tunes with time changes in them- something I have a slightly nerdy obsession with. It’s originally by someone called Ernie Carpenter from West Virginia. He composed it as a lament for his hometown, located on the Elk River, which was flooded upon construction of a dam. We’ve been playing it live for a while, often using it as an intro for ‘Get On Your Skates’, but we have recorded it very differently here. Simon did the arrangement, adding the percussive guitar and harmonies and I recorded the melody. With it being a month or so into the first lockdown (April 2020), the whole collaboration was done via WeTransfer and Dropbox. Our recording is quite an unusual treatment of the tune and won’t necessarily appeal to folk purists, but we hope it resonates with some.