Spectres: A Punch to the Heart and the Head

‘Good morning, where are you?’ snarls frontman Joe Hatt on the lead single to the first Spectres album for over three years. It is direct, intimate, and displays the band’s new sense of urgency as the vocal stands out abruptly in an uncluttered mix, backed only by a single marauding bass line. This minimalist approach is a change of pace for the band, and it’s with Joe’s haunting delivery in mind that I sit down to similarly ask the band where they have been?

Spatially at least, Spectres are separate. Joe has been living in Berlin for the past three years whilst Adrian, Andy and Dom remain in Bristol. The band have been socially distancing from each other before it was even cool to do so, and this is part of the reason why the new album, It’s Never Going to Happen and This Is Why has taken so long to surface. It has been constructed as a patchwork of re-workings and re-recordings, and only made logistically possible through the use of the internet and private messenger apps. Initially conceived as a quick follow up to Condition, life and a pandemic seem to have intervened in the momentum that Spectres had hoped for. As a result, it is evident from initial exchange of niceties that the band are therefore glad to see each other; “Are you in work?” Joe asks of Adrian, who is lain slumped in the cluttered and hectic stock room of Bristol’s Rough Trade, “looks like a shithole!”

Despite the distance, musically Spectres have never sounded so together or more succinct. Gone are the 8-minute slow burners and in their place are brash snippets of noise which loudly state their case and leave. That is not to say that the songs don’t possess the same ability to progress and evolve through rich and considered instrumentation, they just manage to do so within the confines of 3 minutes or less. I hesitate to suggest that Spectres have gone ‘pop’, as this is a discernibly distorted and destroyed record, but there are certain sensibilities which are slowly creeping into the mix. Punk would perhaps be a more fitting diagnosis for the band’s (slight) evolution, a genre never too far out of reach for those artists with something urgent to contribute.

As we begin our video call, I notice that hanging behind Joe in his flat is the new album artwork, an original piece commissioned by Matt Dickson. Looming over his shoulder are the distorted representations of the band members which the work depicts, showcased by the warm early-morning glow which illuminates the wall – it’s the prelude to a crisp Berlin day. By contrast, it is a grey and blasted morning in Bristol, where the rain is beating down with an intensity which reminds of the smudged and smeared expression from the album artwork. It’s the perfect weather to be listening to Spectres.

I understand that the recording was done in a 19thcentury Methodist church – which does conjure a quite humorous dichotomy between harsh and urgent music that you make and this very tranquil, peaceful setting. What do you think this location lended to the album? Or was the choice guided by the perverse fascination of making a lot of noise in a church?

Joe: I guess it’s a weird one because we first recorded it all in Dom’s studio, The Malthouse. We recorded both our other two albums in there as well.

Basically, we kind of recorded it just after I moved. We wrote a lot of the record, I moved, I came back, and we tried to record it quite quick because the original plan was to get it out quite fast. But I think in that time we realised that the sound just wasn’t good enough. After about six months of [Dom] trying to mix it, he was like it’s not going to work at all. We had a few mates who had been to this studio – the Nave in Leeds – and had heard really good things about it. Basically, the room they record the drums in is the main church hall, which is huge, and we thought we’ve got to at least try it. The guy who runs it, Alex, was a fan of the band and he sort of said just come up for a few days, do some demos and see how it works.

It was kind of out of necessity to try somewhere new. We were there for 10 days last year and it was super fun because we’d be recording for the day and then sleeping in the basement where they’ve got a few beds set up. So we were living in this church and there’s nothing nearby apart from a Londis. We were trapped in this religious ritual, which was quite fun.

Do you think it was important as a band to all be in that one space?

Joe: I think the time we were all there together was the first time we had all hung out as a four for more than one day in god knows how long. So that was good, that was nice, being all four of together for the last three or four days there was a real sense of group accomplishment.

There are a number of incredible and notable guest appearances on the album, including Klein, Elvin Brandhi, Ben Vince and French Margot. What do you think you have gained from the collaborative processes?

Joe: I think it was just a continuation of us, with this record, trying to be a bit more playful and be experimental. Not in a kind of, ‘let’s see how weird we can get’ way, [but] having other people be part of it and get them bring whatever they do the table.

The track with Elvin Brandhi and French Margot is the best example of that. The guys wrote it and then they sent the demo to me to try and do something over it. I couldn’t think of anything and I’d always thought [Elvin] would be really good to have on a Spectres track if we ever did anything like this. Her delivery is so unique and frantic. So I sent that to her and said if you can think of anything to do then go for it. Then she literally sent that back a couple of days later – the original take which we ended up using on the actual record. That just changed the track completely. It was interesting to get someone completely removed from our usual word to be part of it.

I think all in all, maybe because we weren’t together so much, getting those people was a way of having these skeletons of tracks and sending it to them to see what they come up with.

So do think you’ve all benefitted from creating that room for other people to come in and collaborate?

Joe: I think so. I think it would be fun to explore further down the line, but it was an experiment that I am personally super happy with.

Adrian: I think having the distance between us all changed that recording process because we’d gone from recording albums on consecutive days and in the same room. All of a sudden, it was so fragmented and we were going in at different times to do our own parts. You almost allow yourselves that ability to invite other people in and you see your songs in a different way. We are all quite protective of our songs but sometimes you realise it could benefit from something else. Having that experimental side we had developed over the last two albums really blossomed. I think we were less narrow-minded with it, we realised you can be playful and experimental by having other artists who we really respect to add something to it. I think it’s some of the strongest stuff on the album, definitely.

‘On Nepotism’ is the first example that we have heard of that collaborative process in action.  The song has a real punk swagger to it, which is a genre traditionally loaded with social and political consciousness. What is the message of this song to you guys?

Joe: I mean the vocals; I have no idea what she is saying. The way she works is she does a lot of freestyle poetry, while screaming. A lot of the record is talking about the music industry and our position with it, and I’d always had this title, ‘On Nepotism’, which I thought would be good for something at some point. So it was as simple as: ‘Here is the track and here is the title, do what you want with it.’ I’ve been trying to get her to send me the lyrics for the past year and a half.

The band are, spatially at least, very separate, with Joe living in Berlin. How did that influence the writing process and what was it like crafting an album affectively through the internet and messenger apps?

Joe: What happened was, when I knew I was moving and we had put Condition out, we’d done a massive tour in April for that record and by the end of that tour I thought I’m going to be moving pretty soon. I think with that in mind we had some really intense sessions in the studio and also Dom had just joined the band; so there was a lot of change going on at that point. We had a new bassist and I was moving. So I guess what should have been a time of writing and getting to know each other, it was these quite intense, quick evenings of recording demos on phones. I reckon we wrote half the record in that weird two-week period. Then it was a time of the others working on the songs a bit more – chopping stuff up using whatever music programmes. We were almost editing the tracks and sending ideas to each other online and looking back it was a weird way to write.

That was the situation and I guess it was kind of testament to us and the importance of the band, trying to keep everything together. That’s just the way we work now. It went from rehearsing once a week and now we’ve probably rehearsed twice in this past year. For me it was weird obviously being the one who is separated from everyone. It is kind of strange. I do definitely miss that weekly or fortnightly being in a practice room and making a lot of noise.

Adrian: I think it was tricky for the rest of us, writing was tricky because we were so used to having Joe in the room that it almost got stunted. It was all new for Dom to be in the band, so he was finding his feet within the sound, trying to keep that subjective producer outlook on it. We couldn’t really practice old songs because not having the other guitar there made it sound really strange. So having that in mind and be able to leave space for Joe to come in definitely made it really odd.

I think that’s probably why a lot of the songs became more accessible and shorter, because we didn’t have that time in a room together to play something repeatedly and really pull it apart. We had to be more succinct about what we were doing.

Joe: I guess the two tracks that were done without me were ‘Tanning The Albatross’ and ‘On Nepotism’ and I think they are two of the most direct songs we’ve got. They are two and a half minutes long and really sort of verse-chorus-verse-chorus; kind of punkier.

I hesitate to make the comparison, but there are some real pop music sensibilities which go into the songs on this album. Especially structurally with the majority of the songs clocking in at less than 3 minutes, which is a real departure from a lot of your previous songs which have been allowed to mature over the course of 8 minutes in some cases. Was this a conscious decision to make these songs more succinct?

Joe: After the Condition tour, there were certain points with certain shows where audiences got a bit, not bored, but we realised that with 7 or 8-minute songs some people might lose interest. Through no fault of our own. We thought it would be fun to compress a 7 or 8-minute song into a 2 or 3-minute track to prove it, firstly to ourselves that we could do it, and also and also to people that think we just drag things out for the sake of it. It was kind of a challenge to do that and I’d say we achieved what we wanted to with that.

The whole process of me being away and being separated added to that because, as Adrian said, we didn’t have time to be in a room and grow the songs – we were like, “Right that’s done!” Also having Dom, I mean he is a producer and an engineer, so his job is to work with bands and be like, “No you don’t need that bit.” So I think having him as part of the song writing definitely helped with that; he just knows when a song will be better because he’s a really good songwriter and producer.

For me, you can almost see your new process in action in the example of ‘Annihilation of the Self’ which begins with this marauding bass line around which the song is built from the ground up. From here at different points there is a battle for prominence between heavily distorted and destroyed sounds. There is also a constant reminder of the theme of destroying to rebuild within the title sentiment, ‘Annihilation of the Self’.  Was it important that this was the first single, as a sort of statement of intent?

Adrian: Andy, when you and Dom did the drums you just recorded that so we could send it to Joe didn’t you?

Andy: Yeah, it was meant to be like an interlude track, just a minute long to fill the album out.

Joe: We weren’t really planning to do anything with it and then we thought we might have a couple of extra hours in the studio. Originally I wanted Alistair from the band LICE to sing on it, because I thought that if I try and sing it the way I wanted to sound, I wouldn’t be able to do it. So I got Alistair on board and he was all up for it and we were about to book him a coach to go up to the studio for the day and then he was like: “Yeah I don’t wanna do it because I don’t feel 100% comfortable singing someone else’s lyrics.” He decided not to do it and I had to just do it myself.

We did it, it went okay, and I think it was the track that we all thought was quite different to anything we’d done before. It was quite spacious and really minimal and the delivery was different. Having not released any music for a year and a half, it was kind of an interesting one to come back with – almost like a curveball because it does stand out on the record. It was definitely a decision to try and surprise people and come back with something quite weird.

Adrian: It’s definitely the song where a lot of the onus is more on everything but the guitars. For the first time in any of our songs it’s more about the rhythm section and the guitar sounds are more like a mechanical plodding in the background which we wrote in half an hour. They’re all just good noises.

As you’ve mentioned, the production of the album goes back as far as 2018. Considering that we are now hearing it for the first time in 2020, and all that comes with that, do you think the album has collided with a new context which perhaps suits this urgent and loud collection of songs?

Joe: Lyrically and thematically, the songs are never really commenting on social situations or news or anything like that. In terms of the context of the lyrics and the meanings of the songs, they’re not much in parallel, and they could be of any time. Musically, with the urgency of the music, it would be really nice to be able to play these songs live and get that catharsis through short bursts of noise and the reaction of the crowd. We won’t get that chance and we’re not sure of how people are responding and listening to music at the moment; are they getting the same sort of release from listening to stuff? It’s hard to tell really. It’s hard to gauge if people would react to the songs differently because of the situation.

We’ve just got to hope that we have written a noisy album which is like a quick punch to the heart and to the head and that people get something out of that.

Words: Oscar Edmondson Photos: Rowan Allen/Keith Leaf

Spectres’ new album ‘It’s Never Going To Happen And This Is Why’ is out now on Dark Habits and can be purchased and streamed via Bandcamp.

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