A band many years in the making, born out of teen angst in the red brick abodes of the North, Treeboy & Arc have become paragons of punk independence. With a sound that inherits and improves upon the legacy of bands like Gang of Four, and a witty knack for observation that frames their endearing songwriting, the Leeds five-piece have carved out a dominating space for themselves in an all too crowded music industry.
Patiently refining their craft, learning from not only the bands around them but the buildings and institutions around them too, and cutting their teeth on the live circuit, the band gained an electrifying buzz leaving them with tangible potential. With initial support from Leeds label Come Play With Me as part of their singles club, Treeboy presented themselves as fully formed on ‘Plastic Front’. The potent drums of Isaac Turner married with the ingenious bass lines of James Kay, the whirring guitar lines from George Townsend and Ben Morgan, and the subtle yet foundational synth performances of Sammy Robinson were each brilliant in their own self-assured agility. Equally, Morgan and Kay’s vocal deliveries were perfect partners for each other and certainly for the charm-heavy words they crafted.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that what soon followed was another single with none other than the London post-punk honchos at Speedy Wunderground. Not long after the debut of ‘Plastic Front’ came the second single, ‘Concept’, a post-apocalyptic narrative of disassociation. Alongside modern-day stars Squid, Black Midi, and Sinead O’Brien, Treeboy & Arc rose to further prominence by evidencing that their initial success was no fluke. These five fellas knew what they were doing and they did it well. But, as with much of the world, 2020 arrived and the band disappeared from the limelight. An occasional playlist or live session would emerge but it would be a while before one could hear their stark sound developed.
Lucky for us, though, now as the world opens up once more, Treeboy & Arc have decided to reaffirm their presence. Announcing their debut EP Life Preserver with the release of lead single ‘Role Models’, the band brought all eyes upon them once again. The musical punch of the track and their self-help-like mantra was a bubbly signal directing people into Life Preserver. Across four tracks built in the damp basements of young living, the EP proves itself as impressively broad yet focused enough to draw in many into the world of Treeboy & Arc. Going from the droll snark of ‘Logistical Nightmare’ railing against the plague of Instagram infographics to the dark defeatism of ‘In Dreams’, the band does a lot with little. With the six-minute epic of ‘The Condor’ closing out the project in monumental fashion, Leeds’s finest post-punkers left us no choice but to dig deeper into them. Luckily the perfect opportunity for that digging came in the form of a quick chat right before they embarked on their first tour in years.
You’re just about to go on stage for your first full capacity show since the start of the pandemic to start your EP Launch tour. How are you all feeling?
Sammy Robinson: Yeah it’ll be nice to play with a decent atmosphere again, for sure.
George Townsend: I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I feel a little apprehensive but excited as well.
Speaking of your EP, it’s been a good while coming. After your two explosive singles in 2019, you went seemingly dormant. How was that time spent for Treeboy & Arc?
James Kay: We went off the grid. But no, we did an album. We were starting to think about releasing that album and then Covid happened. We were precious over it since it was our first big release so we said we’d sit on it for a bit and then during and in between lockdowns we sort of wrote an EP. We thought it would be a good thing to link the album with, that’s where it came from.
Ben Morgan: We needed to release something because it had been so long since our last release but we didn’t want to launch an album without being able to gig it so we wrote and recorded an EP instead.
Despite that time away, for many guitar bands in and around Leeds – probably the whole country, to be honest – you have become, for lack of a better term, role models. Is that something you are aware of and how has that been for you?
BM: Not really.
GT: We get used to seeing the same people at shows in Leeds.
BM: I think we’re always a little surprised how busy a lot of the shows particularly in London and Leeds are. It’s always nice to see.
Isaac Turner: It’s always nice to see familiar people but we’re always a bit apprehensive.
BM: Before the shows particularly, we always fear whether or not there will be people there.
JK: I guess in most situations you fear the worst and when it actually happens you see a lot of people and it’s like oh, nice
It’s been quite a journey getting to this point too. You were all childhood friends, correct? Talk us through how Treeboy came about and what it’s been like getting to where you are now.
JK: I mean I’ve known George since we were 13?
BM: We’ve been going with this lineup for, what, four years now?
SR: Four years with this lineup, maybe two or three before that?
BM: Like I said it has been a long time coming.
JK: We’ve also had more releases that we’ve taken down and looked back at these songs and said “we were 16, 17, and these are awful really”.
GT: Couple of false starts really…
BM: You always mature and develop your sound as a band over the years so those songs ended up pretty outdated, shall we say.
IT: Especially with the time between releases they felt a bit irrelevant to what we were doing.
Undoubtedly a large part of your prominence was your single with Speedy Wunderground. Before we move on to talking about the EP, can you talk about how that collaboration came about and what it was like recording with Dan Carey?
SR: I just found their contact online and emailed them. I sent them an old track that’s not out anymore and Dan Carey emailed back within the hour and said “this is really cool, come on down, let’s do a session”. At the time we had ‘Plastic Front’ just about to come out so we had to say “yes, but we have this other thing coming out in a few weeks”. He was like “let’s do it in two months”, and there was the very little arrangement to it other than that. He said the date and we were like “see you then”. We showed up at his studio, had a minor car crash, loaded everything in and went for it. We barely knew him five minutes when we started playing.
GT: Straight in, straight going. It felt like we were there an hour when we left.
IT: We were probably only recording for like three hours, or something like that.
GT: I think there were two or three live takes and some overdubs.
BM: We spent a lot of time making sure the room sounded good before we started recording.
SR: I don’t think we started playing until two hours in?
GT: His entire thing is trying to capture what’s happening in the room as accurately as he can. He makes it sound as good as he can to your ear in the room at the time.
IT: You can make any kind of mistake and that’s just it, that’s what it is
SR: After the third take he was like cool that’ll do, we were like oh we can do better and he said no that’ll do. Spent the rest of the day doing synth overdubs and then went for a pint at like 5 PM.
Having seen you play in person a few times now it definitely helps that you’re ridiculously tight live!
SR: We definitely practiced that song a hell of a lot before we went down.
GT: Yeah, we had like three different scrappy recordings of it before we went down so we were used to playing it like that.
Shifting focus now to your EP, it’s a gorgeous collection of four tracks. Lyrically the EP feels incredibly current and pertinent, but especially too for the Northern experience with the post-Brexit world. What space were you in while writing and recording the EP and how did the four tracks come about?
SR: Yeah we were all separated.
BM: I don’t know about James (obviously James did 50% of the lyrics and I did the rest) but ‘Role Models’ is a song that came from trying to write over lockdown and with everything else that happened over the last year without trying to write about all that’s happened over the last year. No one wants to hear about lockdown at the end of the day. The other song I did lyrics for was from everything that happened to us over the last couple of years for us personally, for me personally, everything that’s happened around the band and the world generally. I was trying to avoid talking about politics and coronavirus.
JK: The buzzwords really.
BM: Yeah the buzzwords, at least obviously.
JK: I avoid the buzzwords by trying to shroud everything in an air of mystery.
IT: Talking about frozen chips and stuff like that.
BM: I mean frozen chips have been important to me over the past year.
IT: Over the past twenty years I’d say.
BM: How about you James?
JL: Yeah I love frozen chips too… but yeah, ‘Logistical Nightmare’ was a song about social media and how annoying it is to navigate. There was a lot of that going during in-between lockdowns with all the various movements. Obviously, lots of great movements but a lot people were sharing stuff without reading them to sort of fit in. You could see through them so it was sort of a diss track to them.
BM: On the album too – a lot of the lyrics were quite serious so I tried to take quite a light-hearted view and not take it too seriously.
I was just about to say, emotionally the EP is somehow both uplifting and bubbly at times yet dark and irate at others. How did you go about getting a tracklist that is so short and cohesive yet so broad and emotive at the same time?
JK: If you’re writing a song and you’re in a good mood that day you come up with something that sounds like ‘Role Models’.
IT: It depends what we were jamming at the time too to be fair. ‘Condor’ came about when the guys were setting up their pedals and me and James were jamming a drum and bass part, then these guys joined it so we did it again.
SR: There was a bit of tweaking throughout practices and in the studio there was a bit of making sure the tones were in sync with each other. Plus I suppose with the tracklist we started a bit lighter and it progressively gets heavier and heavier throughout. I don’t think there was a lot of effort making sure that they all work as one item.
BM: I wasn’t sure that it did to be fair. There’s a quote somewhere that says it’s got our most commercially viable track and our least commercially viable track bookending it but it wasn’t conscious, just what happened.
As an aside, the last track, ‘Condor’, is one of my favourites of the year.
BM: We tried to write a very long track where it’s all about drive and feel. Not much really happens in the track to be fair but it’s still probably the most fun song to play, probably our favourite track from the EP. It’s what we’ve wanted to do all along; a six-minute song where shite all happens.
Sonically as well, the EP feels like a confident amalgamation of all things vintage post-punk while also having a young brashness to it. What influences and inspirations were you pulling from on this record sonically and lyrically?
SR: Lyrics always, always come last. The instrumentals are usually completely finished before any lyrics even touch them. Musically I suppose…
BM: It’s literally whatever we’re listening to at the time.
SR: Yeah, we’ve been listening to a lot of Dreamdecay.
GT: At that point, we were probably listening to what you’d least expect us to listen to. It was deep into lockdown and we started listening to a lot softer folky music. James drilled Lee Hazlewood for days on end. None of us were really listening to any heavy guitar music at that point.
SR: It felt out of place to be sat in your living room at home for months at end listening to heavy music when that music shines best live. I think everybody started listening to different stuff.
JK: I feel like if I did listen to a lot of post-punk over lockdown it would make me miss gigs even more so I probably avoided it sub-consciously.
Moreso than your sound, though, I think what feels personally the most refreshing about Treeboy is your fierce independence. From self-releasing your EP on tape to your live shows with close friends on support, it seems you’re firmly holding onto the steering wheel. Is that an ethos you’ve taken on intentionally?
GT: Not originally but I think as we’ve gone along we’ve made more of a conscious effort not to follow silly industry tropes or doing stuff for the sake of it.
SR: We’re not averse to working with other people but currently without naming names at the beginning of lockdown there was a handful of people approaching us to build a team around us but everyone felt a bit west, it didn’t feel like our kinda thing. The people who came along didn’t feel right so we thought we’d keep doing it ourselves until the right thing came around.
GT: We didn’t want anything we were doing to suffer because of signing any contracts.
BM: We seem to have been branded, and I’m not sure if it’s our fault or what, with this thing of being from the North and that’s become quite a lot more important to us than it maybe was previously. We’re aware of it and proud of it. It’s quite a small community too here.
SR: We kind of tried to avoid London on everything.
BM: Yeah it’s not hard to find what we need close to us.
SR: Even like the tapes were pressed in Hull and the merch was done in Leeds, the people doing press are based in Sheffield, so we’ve tried to keep it as close as we can.
If you don’t actively make that space for under-represented areas or under-represented people it’s never going to be there.
BM: Yeah, exactly. London gets a lot of press too so let’s focus on the North.
What particularly helps with that feeling of independence too is the art George makes for the band. It’s distinct, it’s eye-catching, it’s Treeboy & Arc. George, what is it like making the visuals for the band? Do the rest of the band get a lot of input?
GT: They just trust me to run with it, we don’t really discuss it much anymore. As long as the branding is consistent and everything looks nice and I’m happy with it then all is good.
SR: For the record, we have no input in it, it’s all George.
IT: All of a sudden he’ll have a fully finished piece and it’s like, yeah, that’s that then.
BM: I don’t think we’ve ever been like, nah, George that’s not it.
GT: It’s also a lot easier from the inside I find, rather than talking to other artists. Even if they’re like-minded people it can be hard to get your ideas across or to get them to represent what you want. At least from the inside the rest of the guys can tell me if they don’t like it or if it doesn’t represent what we’re doing.
And where do you pull your inspiration from? It seems so abstract yet somehow so relevant to the music
BM: That’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask!
GT: There’s not a whole lot to it to be fair. It’s mostly other band’s artwork. The style is quite current but was also relevant many years ago, it never really goes out of style. Sort of brightly coloured shapes and bold, striking images.
So where are we going from here fellas? What’s next for Treeboy & Arc?
SR: An album.
GT: There’s probably not as much as we’d like at the moment to be fair.
SR: Yeah pretty much all our attention has been on this EP so once we finish this EP launch tour it’s kind of back to focusing on the album. There’s a few tweaks we’re going to do to it and then we’ll go with that.
Are there any new sounds or ideas you’ve been messing about with that we might see soon?
JK: If you’ve seen us live you would have seen a lot of the songs. We’re probably going to re-record it so it’s sort of a matter of how fast we can do that.
BM: Because it’s such an old body of work at this point – it’s two years old. If we put out the album now it might feel like a bit of a step back. We’re definitely going to go into the studio and improve it. It doesn’t really represent where we’re at now.
SR: Basically it’ll be the same songs but we’ll rewrite them.
Will it be lyrical changes too or will you keep it as a sort of time capsule? Do you think the lyrics are still relevant two years down the line?
BM: We were just sound-checking and I don’t think any of the words make sense anymore.
JK: Without sounding like too much of an idiot, music does come from a time and a place and if you release something you wrote four years ago you probably won’t think the same as you did then. So yeah there will be lyrical tweaks. It is recorded though so maybe one day we’ll release it as a snapshot of pre-Covid times.
GT: Wait ’til Record Store Day 2061!
JK: Yeah, when we’re in our 60s.
As we wrap up now, is there anything you guys want to shout out? Any advice, anything you’ve been enjoying lately, any wise words?
BM: Let’s plug some Leeds bands.
JK: The Shakamoto Investigation are a great band!
IT: Van Houten too…
JK: Yeah, and English Teacher.
SR: Team Picture. Great band. Team Picture’s fucking album – plug that! It didn’t get the credit it deserves.
JT: Yeah I listened to that album throughout lockdown. They were supposed to play with us tonight but couldn’t make it due to Covid reasons.
SR: Basically plug Team Picture!
IT: Yeah replace our faces with theirs.
Words: Varun Govil // Photos: Sam Joyce
‘Life Preserver’ by Treeboy & Arc is out now. You can purchase and stream their releases via Bandcamp. ‘The Menace Of Mechanical Music’ by Team Picture is out now on Clue Records. Purchase the release via Bandcamp.