It would be unusual and perhaps a little dishonest for an artist to say that they started without any real ambitions or pipe-dreams, yet it is potentially also quite healthy to begin by not having any expectations and letting a project grow organically into something special. Having formed nearly six years ago, Poisonous Birds seem quite content taking the latter approach; constantly allowing themselves to evolve without any need to justify where they are heading with their ideas.
While the band’s origins leant more towards a metal-influenced sound, a move away from traditional guitar sounds in favour of electronics, samplers and mangling sounds beyond recognition is somewhere where the Bristol trio feel just as comfortable. On their most recent EP, We Can Never Not Be All Of Us, they still manage to conjure up a sound that can create powerful moments for the listener without seemingly alienating the fanbase they gained through their beginnings making ostensibly ‘heavy’ music.
If anything, the group seem more comfortable within these new sonic territories that eschew all of the genre classifications that they once were labelled with, and seem intent on drifting further towards processed and glitchy beats that wouldn’t sound out of place in a club setting. For the time being though, the group are gaining traction for music that takes the form of a tangled web of paranoia, vulnerability and catharsis, backed with cinematic soundscapes and constantly warping synths.
With Tom Ridley (vocals, synths), Finn Mclean (drums) and Jack Barrett (guitars) making up the current incarnation of the band, it’s fascinating to see how as their approaches and tastes seem to drift further apart from each other, their sound has become more focused and has grown naturally into something unique through melding their disparate influences together. Speaking to Tom and Jack, Wax Music sat down to discuss how constantly shifting their focus in new directions and embracing new elements has been allowing them to spread the good news far and wide.
First of all, what has been your reaction to how well people have received your new EP?
Tom Ridley: It’s been good, I think it’s been hard to measure because a lot of people will listen to it without us really knowing that they have, but those who have chosen to tell us they liked it have really enjoyed it. It can be difficult keeping momentum, especially when everything you’ve been doing up until this moment has been building up to this body of work, and you want to be reminding people that it’s out there too often. There’s lots of other ways to tell people the story of how it came to be and to not let it fizzle out.
Jack Barrett: Without being able to back it up with a tour or shows is an interesting dynamic in comparison to how things have always been done.
TR: Things like this give us content and something to talk about as well. Reviews have been good as well, they’ve all been eights and eight-and-a-halfs – maybe one six – but that’s all you can ask for really, and it’s quite consistent.
JB: It’s been interesting in terms of the few that I have read have kind of had the angle on it where they’re showing interest on how it’s going to sound moving forwards.
TR: I’d say with the ‘rock’ press, which definitely have covered the most because of our background, I didn’t think they were going to like it, but actually they have and they’ve said some quite interesting things.
JB: It is weird how it does still fit into that world.
Would you say that they’ve been generally embracing of the direction you’ve taken?
JB: Yeah, we did that a little bit on the Sleep Token tour where we debuted a track from that record that was so dancy in comparison to everything we were playing, but it went down so well.
TR: It did divide the room a little bit, which is why were booked on that tour – to challenge the audience a little bit. It’s funny how on the spectrum of Kerrang and primarily guitar-led music through to your Black Midi-worshipping publications through to dance music – that’s kind of the continuum that’s in my head – we’re kind of centrist with a bit more of a dance leaning, and yet we’re still getting put in Kerrang. It’s lovely that people enjoy it, but I’d love it to reach more of the other end just to see what they think, but for whatever reason we’re still not getting noticed in those areas.
Do you feel like you’re witnessing it reaching a wider audience in a more gradual sense?
TR: The people I see showing up on our social media, if that’s anything to go by, are a pretty diverse bunch. When I do have a look and see who is listening, it’s anyone’s guess as to who is hearing it. Last week I had a look at our top cities on Spotify, which were Miami and Wigan. What a contrast.
JB: Two dates – the Wigan weekender.
Could you talk us through the process of working on and completing We Can Never Not Be All Of Us?
TR: It didn’t take long at all. ‘Mood Stabiliser’, which was the single and the first track we made for it was done in the last year. I can’t quite remember when I made the first demo for it, but it would have been around then.
JB: It had been lurking around for a while though. We went around a folder of ideas that were to be worked upon.
TR: I hadn’t really finished it until the tour with Sleep Token though, and then I thought that I should get it up together. Broadly speaking, the rest was between February and June when we delivered the finished EP. At least three of the songs didn’t exist in February at all, and then they arrived from nothing which surprises me because I’m slow as hell.
Were you largely collaborating at a distance for most of it? Do you feel like this process effects the way you work together?
JB: Yeah, it was all back and forth.
TR: I guess we didn’t do any of it in person.
JB: We recorded the guitars for ‘Mood Stabiliser’ in February, in the studio, but everything else I did was at home. I find that interesting because you’ve taken those guitars and warped them completely.
TR: Jack would send entire folders of stuff and tell me to use what I want, so I’d just play around with all of it in Ableton and pick out the bits I liked. There was a lot of stuttering stuff that I did which essentially a trick I’d just learnt and really liked. I’ll probably have a new trick next year.
JB: This is why we’ve recently been getting referred to as a guitarless band.
TR: There isn’t an obvious guitar tonality to any of it, but that did quite annoy you for them to essentially say we were guitarless. Maybe it’s in my brain having grown up as a guitar person, but as soon as that goes away, it lacks a sort of human randomness, so I feel it’s definitely important to have it in there still. I really hope that in the live show and in the next record, I really want Jack to go wild and get really noisy to contrast with the gridded synths that we have.
JR: The recordings are a lot more tame than the live show normally because we’re using a lot more live instrumentation.
TR: We are thinking about running the guitar through my sampler, which means if I make the whole mix stutter, then Jack can do it too. It would create a link between my gear and his pedalboard, which could be interesting. When we were still a two piece before Jack joined, I was playing guitar and I used to do something similar, so it could be fun to recreate it in a sense. A lot is still up for grabs, I’ve loosely prepared two of the songs but we haven’t gone through all the rigor of putting it all together as a band.
JB: There’s also no pressure of time at the moment.
TR: Assuming we’ve got our tour going ahead in February, we’d love to try and have it ready by Christmas, but who knows.
JB: We’re cautiously optimistic.
One of the greatest qualities of the EP is the air of mystery it exudes, and its emotional resonance really sticks out as well. In terms of provoking personal reactions from people, what were you looking to achieve with the sound?
TR: I wanted it to be vulnerable. It is processed and it is dense – there’s a lot happening – but I do kind of want an exposed honesty in there.
JB: Slightly returning to the instrumentation, it’s been nice to be able to include some more organic elements in there to make it more raw and human, as opposed to just being pumping like dance music would be.
TR: There is something that I find emotionally captivating about the electronic ticks on tracks like ‘True Colour’ though; there’s something about the bedroom-ish claustrophobia that a small drum machine can produce. The acoustic rock kit in terms of its historic context can be viewed as quite a masculine and aggressive sound, so there’s something about what a processed machine can do that I like. Bands like Radiohead pretty much only used drum machines on The King of Limbs, and I kind of wanted to do something like that.
There’s a slight nervousness to the way in which the vocals are delivered which adds to the anxious atmosphere across the record, what made you feel that this would complement the tone of the record so well?
TR: I sing as quietly as I can but as close to the microphone as possible, and then compress the living daylights out of it. There’s a lot I have to get rid of digitally, but it is a deliberate choice to do that. Nervous is an interesting word to describe it though, I guess it is supposed to be intimate and as though the vocals are right there in the room with you. All of the songs so through so many versions. The title track on the EP took so long because there were seven different vocal versions.
JB: There was so much chopping and changing with different sounds and sections.
TR: Some of the other vocal versions felt too aggressive or too masculine, and I really wanted to avoid that. I wanted it to be totally vulnerable, because it isn’t about me.
JB: I think having grown up in bands where it is very much centred around the frontperson and where all the attention is on them, it offers something different.
TR: You can sort of tie that to why I always sing side on live too; I’ve never wanted to be too dominating on stage.
Because of having multiple versions of songs, do you often find yourselves having to cut songs down from how they are initially formed?
TR: The songs are often longer, but the songs usually go through more stylistic changes. The chorus on that track was initially way too anthemic, but then we realised that the mood of the bridge in that song was closer to what we wanted so we ran with that idea instead and let it go off into oblivion. It’s just a chorus, another chorus, and then heads off into space. I think that could be a cool set closer and draw it out as much as possible.
JB: What I think is quite interesting is despite it being one of my favourite songs on the EP, it begins with quite a traditional song structure, and then abandons it completely.
Would you say there was a blueprint for how you wanted the record to sound?
TR: I’ve never wanted to try and emulate anything musically. Between the three of us we have quite a few shared interests, mainly in leftfield electronic music like Daniel Avery and Rival Consoles. But we’ve never tried to be like anyone deliberately, and if there is another band that does exactly what we do in terms of the mix of influences, I haven’t heard of them. I guess that’s a good position to be in. There’s something about the palette of being in a band though – I’ve never wanted to be a DJ even though I am quite interested in DJ culture. There’s something quite good about the theatre of a gig, but I also like the sound of the electronics because it sounds like now. Guitar bands don’t sound like my experience of living in 2020.
JB: That’s even though a lot of guitar music today is a bit more leftfield than what it traditionally would have been.
TR: The stuff that gets attention is maybe a bit more interesting but at the other end you’ve still got bands out there who will be playing power blues, and who really cares about that?
People have begun to realise there’s a lot more out there to be discovered.
JB: I think that’s the nice thing about living in a city like Bristol – there’s a lot of weird and cool music. That also makes it really interesting when we go to play in places like Colchester, where I thought we would bomb, but people loved it. I thought because everyone was there to see a metal show they’d hate us, but the reaction was great.
TR: It’s always the way in my experience; the show that you think is going to be a load of trash is amazing, but then when we play in places like Camden nobody will turn up.
TR: I’m really picky with the lyrics, because anything vaguely clichéd makes me cringe. I have to turn songs off because of it. Songs also spend a lot of valuable words in three minutes by not saying anything. if you read the lyrics on this record as prose, there’s nothing really joining phrases together and there’s more focus on meaning. I like each line to have something to offer. In terms of their content, I try to explore a small idea in a deeper sense and try to be ambitious with it. They’re not supposed to be world changing observations, but hopefully more interesting observations of the moment. Maybe in places they could be abstract enough for people to attach their own meaning to it, and hopefully if I’ve highlighted an interesting mood that they can relate to then it doesn’t matter what my initial intention was.
Do you consider yourself a lyricist or is it something that comes secondary?
TR: I guess it’s secondary, but I guess Poisonous Birds has become a holistic expression through everything – the music, words, paintings, graphic design etc – it’s all my worldview I guess. I don’t write poems; I read a lot but will only make little notes on my phone or something if I think they’re interesting. If someone says something that has a nice ring to it I might write it down, and then if I realise I have to finish a song then I’ll look at what I’ve got. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who I love, provided the EP with its title with something he said right at the end of a podcast I was listening to. It just resonated with me and I thought it was a nice way of expressing an idea. I like that it’s a little bit clunky as well as poignant.
You speak about relishing living in a city with such a broad range of music, but where do you see yourselves fitting in with everything else that is going on in Bristol at the moment?
JB: I personally have a diverse range of music I’m interested in that’s happening here, but I really love what Giant Swan do. The more electronic side of what’s happening here with bands like them and Scalping are part of something that excites me.
TR: I think they’ve influenced the direction we’ve taken more than any other larger acts outside of Bristol. Getting to know them as friends has made us realise what their vision is, and I guess they’re doing something similar by smashing up electronics with a punk attitude.
JB: I feel like having said that though, I don’t think there are any particular scene we revolve within. Looking at the artists we’ve discussed, they’re taking from other places that we don’t focus on as much.
TR: A couple of reviews said that we were definitely for Massive Attack and Portishead fans, and until last week I’d listened to neither. I can see why people might think that, and perhaps the influence is there despite being second or third hand information by the time it has got to us. I probably sound like an idiot, but it surprises me how similar the two are. I find it odd how 25 years on from what they were doing there’s still a huge association even if nobody is trying to do the same thing anymore. I know what Bristol sounds like, but I don’t go to many places and pick up on whether they’ve got a specific sound too.
JB: I feel like sometimes things do get overshadowed by the post-punk thing that’s going on at the moment as well.
TR: I do hope though that seeing a rise in bands like we’ve just mentioned and ourselves, there’s going to be excitement here around the noisier electronic and industrial sounds that Bristol is producing.
JB: I think moving forward we’re going to be looking at live stuff and how live will go, and finding out ways to navigate things not happening.
Where do you see things heading with the next phase of the project?
TR: I know that we’re seen as a band, but I like the idea of becoming part of the late night scene and to be featured on line-ups with DJs. There’s something we’ve got booked for 2021 that I will need to work out something for because it’s more in that realm. I’m obviously more comfortable in the band environment, but there’s definitely an audience who would be interested in seeing this in a club setting. You’re suddenly the custodian of a party, but you can still instil some interesting moods in people while also giving them something to dance to.
JB: We’d love to be able to approach the songs in a different way, see if they work and see how people react to it in that context.
TR: I’m tempted to do something which is a bit more like a techno set, but I guess late-night is the only way I can express it. It would be a different expression of music in that kind of setting. I also really want to write an album. I’ve been careful to not blow the debut too soon because I think it’s a precious thing that you need to do at the right time. I did kind of hope I would have reached that point by now but it hasn’t felt right, so maybe now with the interest we’ve had from this EP it’s time we did.
Words: Reuben Cross Photos: Aidan Stojsavljevic
‘We Can Never Not Be All Of Us’ is out now – listen and purchase via Bandcamp.