everything is on hold – two years on

As it is two years since we released our first album, everything is on hold, it feels like a good time to reflect on it- the themes of the songs and the stories of their creation.

Video stream of the whole album

The earliest songs from the album come from 2015 and prior. Soon after getting the masters back for our first two EPs, Different Seas and Mackerel, and energised by our record deal with indie label Folkstock, Simon and I were both writing and recording a lot of new demos. Some of them eventually found their way onto this album in some shape or form. 

2015 gigging (photo by Helen Meissner)

We laid down the initial guitar parts for the album versions in the summer of 2015 at a small studio and then slowly added other elements to them in what started feeling like quite a faltering and sporadic process. By the end of 2016- the year we embarked on our first Canada tour and released ‘Mackerel’ – we had something resembling a finished product. Except it just didn’t feel finished. Sometimes we’d listen through and just instinctively know it wasn’t really there.

At the start of 2017, we took the decision to leave what we’d recorded and start again. We started with Bilzerian. Using haphazardly programmed drum machines rather than click tracks, we found that our performances had a lot more spirit and feel to them. We now had an extra year or so of playing the songs live, too, meaning we were able to focus more on performing them, rather than just playing them correctly. During that time, ’Get On Your Skates’ from our second EP was playlisted by a popular YouTube channel and the resulting updraft from that spurred us on more. We wrote a lot of new songs in this time and the handful that made it onto the album are probably now my favourite tracks. Simon and I spent a lot of time jamming on the ideas and crafting the arrangements, and I think that collaborative spirit gives the album a unique energy that I’m proud of.

I think I’ll always wonder what could have happened with this record if a label or publisher had picked it up. It’s not an album that is suited to the hyperbole, evangelism and fast churning nature of online music promotion, nor to a listening format that operates primarily through playlists. But I believe that, over time, it will come to mean a large amount to a small number of people and, no matter how statistically driven the music industry is, that is preferable to me over the inverse.

Lie

The song outro for this came from an old voice note called ‘banjo freakout’, which was just the banjo bit at the end going round interminably. The rest of the song was composed on piano and, in the process of translating it onto guitar and banjo, changed hugely in character from a sort of elegant ballad to some weird grunge-bluegrass hybrid. The loud-quiet alternation between verse and chorus is very inspired by ‘No. 13 Baby’ by Pixies as is, I suppose, the ending! It was fun to record- especially the end sequence which we spent a lot of time working on, trying to balance the repetition of the banjo part against some sense of forward momentum. The song is about simultaneously feeling shut out of something but being fully aware of its artifice. At seven minutes long, it’s not a particularly commercially-minded way to start the album, but we were keen to foreground the slightly more angular aspects of what we do.

Loner

I wrote this song a long time before we recorded it, when I barely knew how to play guitar and was retuning it to find an easier way to play ‘Woodstock’ by John and Beverley Martyn. I was so energised and happy when I first came up with it- in subsequent recording attempts I found it difficult to capture the excitement of that first demo… until this version. Like all of these, there’s a bit of semi-autobiographical stuff woven into the lyrics which is too embarrassing to tell anyone about. I think I’d also been listening to a lot of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ as the phrase structures and time changes are oddly reminiscent of it.

A Slender Thread

This is a song about yearning for change- a ‘grass is greener’ idea. At the time I wrote it, I was playing at a lot of festivals on weekends, getting these little glimpses of a touring musician’s life, then back to work in the week. It was a strange, melancholy juxtaposition that we hopefully captured here. The title comes from a book by mountaineer and writer Stephen Venables that I saw in the bookcase when looking around for a name. It stuck as it somehow evokes the themes of the song and, weirdly, I’ve heard this phrase in so many contexts since then. I often try to create a sense of tonal ambiguity in my music and with this song, I tried to make it read in both D major and E minor simultaneously. The riff and the melody both came to me in a car journey home from a festival and I recorded it as soon as I got back.

209

(Over to Simon): 209 is the first time I succeeded in writing an entire song in one go, without logging sections of a song and trying to merge them together at a later date. The result is probably the most cohesive song I’ve written to date, though the subject of the song remains a point of slight embarrassment. The song is based loosely on personal experience of arranging a date, only to get cold feet about it. I wanted to describe someone in a beaten up “new driver” car who turns around mid journey and drives to the middle of nowhere instead of meeting their date. In the song I included a car called a Peugeot 209 (hence the title), which at the time I didn’t realise wasn’t a model of Peugeot – they made them all the way up to 208, after all. I kept the lyric however, and it now serves as a somewhat tenuous metaphor for what could’ve happened, but never did.

Simon’s original demo for the song

Afloat

(Rob): A friend who I did a fair amount of recording work with was going through a slump where none of his artistic efforts seemed to be landing the way he thought they would. I wrote this song as a reflection on the precariousness of these endeavours and an exploration of the compromises we sometimes make with ourselves or others in our life journeys. The song started out as a ukulele-based folk song which I had no real intention of recording but, when restringing a guitar, I found that this song worked perfectly in whatever tuning I was in at the time. This sort of got the song back on its feet and it begun taking on the bossa nova influence and the heavier ending sequence. I’d been listening to a lot of Hejira and Turbulent Indigo by Joni Mitchell around the time I recorded my guitar part for this which probably explains the way it sounds. Simon’s slide guitar at the end is a combination of single and double speed guitar… sadly Viv Stanshall was not available to announce this.

What’s On Your Mind

This started out as a piano-based idea that I played along to the bossa nova rhythm preset on my keyboard. I then used an online drum machine to create the weird illusory rhythm that begins the song. I really enjoyed messing around with pitch sliding on the guitar, creating some microtonal inflections as well as that big drop in the solo. It’s one of the last songs that was written for this album. It’s about technology and how it forces so many of us into the dual role of victim and perpetrator- simultaneously addicted to and dependent on technology while also complicit in its rise and the terrible conditions in which it is manufactured. The narrator here is a sort of self-made, egotistical lifestyle guru who preaches liberation from ‘the system’ while also depending on it for promoting themselves. There’s lots of percussion in this track – kit drums, cajon, muted piano strings and some very offbeat handclaps.

Dormant

(Simon): I came up with the basis of this song amidst the frustration associated with final year university exams. I hadn’t left the house much in weeks, I was staying up late, and every evening I’d hear the sounds of people passing through the street, simply enjoying themselves. I longed for this, and so ‘Dormant’ was initially a reflection of my own lifestyle at the time. This thought extends further however, to include the wider state of our society, how most are forced by circumstance into a life framed around the working world and its routines, yet long for something more meaningful.

Simon’s original demo

New Year Morning

(Rob): I wrote this song one rainy new year’s day, feeling fairly hungover and sorry for myself, and on the verge of a new chapter in my life. The initial spark came from a song called ‘Nonna’ by Pascal Babare- after a phase of writing some quite esoteric and dense stuff, this track reminded me of the value of just sitting with a guitar and trying to write something that got to the point. It went through so many different versions and arrangements over the course of about three years until I randomly heard ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ for the first time in a while and tried moving a lot of the harmonic and textural detail into the vocal accompaniment. It was the first track from the album that my friend Giles and I mixed together and it was released on New Year’s Day 2018.

Clouds

This song is about seeing someone struggling deeply with depression. At the time of writing the song, I was visiting my parents who were working out in New Zealand. I’d arrived only a day before, was very jet-lagged and had caught a really bad cold on the flight. My parents went out, leaving me to my own devices for the evening so that I wouldn’t pass on the cold. I think the combination of solace, disorientation and general flu-like symptoms as I sat with a guitar in a spaced-out stupor imbued this song with a directness that doesn’t always come naturally to me. In a similar way to ‘A Slender Thread’, I tried to make this song scan in two different keys simultaneously. 

Bilzerian

I remember the morning I wrote this so well. I’d gone through a semi-ironic obsession with Burt Bacharach’s ‘My Little Red Book’ and this classic. The melodic idea was percolating in my head for a while and I realised I had to try and write it or be haunted by it forever. As I loaded up Facebook that morning, I saw a sponsored post by American celebrity poker player Dan Bilzerian, showing off his extreme wealth and opulent lifestyle. Reading comments from his followers who both idolised and derided him, I tried to write a love song from his perspective- one that saw love and relationships with a purely transactional mindset. The song now had a shape, but the true comedy came from the addition of the bass, the jollity of which seemed to represent the innocent kid underneath Bilzerian’s machismo- someone who just wanted to be loved, happy etc. My clarinet happened to be by my desk so in another ‘screw it’ moment, I hacked through the solo on that. Every time I listened back I would add more and more random bits of syncopation to the drums. It was a hilarious summer morning and I recall it fondly as a less hurried time where I used to joke around and write stuff that I had no particular intention of doing anything with. Ironic, then, that this somehow ended up on the album. It’s one of my favourite songs to play live because the abrupt ending only two minutes into the song (or sometimes just 90 seconds if we’re playing it faster) almost always gets a confused laugh from the audience.

Time? Why? Explain

I woke up early on a spring morning, suddenly freaking out about the future and how it was on its way, regardless of what I did or didn’t do. That day I scribbled down the words to this song. It’s about the fear of time passing and of getting older, as well as the imperfect, idealised way we remember the past. The arrangement initially sounded like ‘A New England’ by Billy Bragg until I pilfered a ukulele part from another song I’d written. The title comes from an episode of This American Life called ‘Fermi’s Paradox’, and was a question put to poet Matt Salyer by his young daughter which felt very evocative. I emailed him to request permission to use the title and he was super relaxed about it. It is ironic that a song about the trap of nostalgia has become quite nostalgic for me to listen to.

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.