“If something wasn’t exciting or it wasn’t making us feel uncomfortable then we’d delete it....” - Twin Atlantic talk line-up changes, unfamiliar surroundings and their new album POWER
Sometimes transitions are of a band’s own making. They reach a point in their career where things feel stale and decide that things have got to change. Do they need a new label or new management? Do they need to open themselves up to new sounds or recapture the spark of their early work? Is the dynamic working within the band? Everything suddenly feels like it’s on the table.
It certainly felt like that for Twin Atlantic. After the Scottish rockers finished their world tour in support of 2016’s GLA, they decided to make some of the aforementioned changes. They left long-time record label Red Bull Records, their home since 2011’s Free, and decided to take their time over making a new album, with no label on board.
Building a studio in their native Glasgow, they’ve slowly built up to the release of new album POWER, which arrives in hmv stores today (January 24th). Big-name producers Gil Norton and Jackknife Lee, who were at the helm for the band’s earlier records, aren’t around. Instead, the band have worked with engineer Dan Austin to build a record that moves starkly away from the heartswelling rock of their earlier work and embraces electronics and experimentalism.
It’s a new Twin Atlantic in line-up terms too. Guitarist Barry McKenna has departed to make them a trio in the studio, though McKenna will still be a part of their live set-up.
To discuss the new album, their change in record labels and sound and McKenna’s new status, we spoke to frontman Sam McTrusty...
We don’t expect you to talk us through every moment of the last four years, but can you give us a summary? Have you been writing all that time?
“We’ve worked more than we ever have before on this album. We finished touring GLA and we went straight into writing. At that point, I felt like we were filling in the gaps, writing the songs that you wish you had in your live set. Then it was making them grow arms and legs, initially, we just worked at home, then in our rehearsal space and before we knew it we were sending demos around to new record labels.”
You were working without a label for the first time in a long time…
“We’d left our deal with Red Bull, which was a very chaotic thing to do and changed a lot for the band. It was definitely the end of a chapter. We’d headlined arenas on the last tour and we’d achieved a lot of our dreams and we had to embrace the fact that we were writing in a new way.”
But you were working, it wasn’t a case of writer’s block or anything like that?
“The songs were sounding strong and the demos we were making sounded more and more like finished songs. It took us a while to embrace the idea that we were making a record on our own and with those limitations. From then it was a two-year process, some of that was messing about, plugging things in and finding a way to work. Also, life happened, some of us got married, some of us had kids. That stuff gets in the way, who knew?”
Did the fact that you were working without a label change the dynamic? You’ve not got an A&R tapping their watch to make a release date…
“Probably. When we were younger we took a lot of guidance from producers about how you make records and the label were paying for those people. They dictated the timeline. I never felt like we rushed anything, but I definitely gave up on ideas that could have been great because I knew they’d take time to work through and would need a lot more investigating.”
Has that affected the sound of this album?
“Absolutely. This is a very different sound for our band. We’re the same songwriters, but the sonics are very different. We had time to be experimental and to try things out. We wanted to make sure we moved away from the standard rock band formula.”
You’ve worked with Gil Norton and Jacknife Lee in the past, did you feel like you’d juiced everything you could from producers and that you were ready to do things on your own?
“I could still learn so much from those guys. You could only make records with those guys and you’d still be learning. But if we’d gone back to either of those guys, it would have been the safe option and we wanted to take risks. They’re so experienced and so professional and it would have been too comfortable.”
What makes you say that?
“We’d relied on a producer as an oracle figure, someone who always knew the answer and there’d be no mistakes. Sometimes a mistake can turn into a whole other song. We want to exist at the edge of failure. Things have to work or completely fall apart. And you can’t dwell on things when you’ve got a producer who’s being paid by the hour.”
Did you always have it in mind to self-produce?
“We were just making demos to send to Jacknife and it wasn’t until we started to shop them around labels that it changed. People were saying to us, ‘Guys, this sounds f***ing exciting, just go for it on your own’. Before we knew it, it was two years later and we’d made an album.”
Dan Austin helped you out, was he more an engineer?
“God, no. He’s definitely a co-producer. It’s billed like we produced this record ourselves and it wasn’t a conventional process, but Dan was so crucial and helped with so many decisions we made. He was Gil’s assistant engineer and we know him well, but he’s so much fun and he opens us right up. He really relaxes us and gives us a lot more confidence.”
“There also aren’t many producers who can ring up and ask if he would mind working on a laptop in a flat or rehearsal room. No assistants were coming in making cups of tea or sandwiches. No comforts of a nice studio. But Dan didn’t think anything of it.”
It’s a 10-track record, were you always looking to make it lean and mean?
“I have an illness where I always want to make a crazy long record, if I had my way it would have 25 tracks. I’m creatively greedy. Our bass player Ross (McNae), on the other hand, he’s said from day one that he’d like to make a 10-track record. We’ve found a way to embrace more musical textures and to make a succinct record, it’s a lot punchier and to the point. I hope Ross is f***ing happy, because this is what he wanted.”
With all that time to write, did you have a lot of songs and material to narrow down?
“This time, I really forced myself to not write outside of the studio. I was doing a lot of programming and producing songs in their infant states. We were working with loops a lot, finding little pieces of melody, which I couldn’t do at home with a guitar. Before, if I had 10 days off, I’d try and write a song a day.”
“We were more brutal this time too, a lot less precious about deleting things. If something wasn’t exciting or it wasn’t making us feel uncomfortable then we’d delete it. We didn’t want anything too pop or too safe. Maybe, all in all, we had about 25 songs, but they weren’t all finished and fleshed out. In the end, we finished 18 and cut that to 10.”
Can you talk us through the slight line-up change you’ve had? Barry is touring with you, but he isn’t in the band. How’s that working?
“Over the last two or three albums, it’s really evolved that way. A lot of bands fall victim to cliches very easily and we didn’t want something, and someone, who we care about so much to fall into that. We’ve been doing this for our whole adult lives, we’re basically brothers. So we tried to tackle it and take a modern approach. Having Barry in the live band, but not in the studio was the best thing for the band.”
“He has other work, he does soundtrack and soundscape work for bits of film and TV and he’s got time for that now. It’s so far so good and we’re pretty proud of ourselves for getting through it. We didn’t just want to sever ties with him, but this is the best thing. We’re still getting used to it. It’s been a big learning experience.”
It must change the dynamic in the band…
“Not in the studio, it’s just not how we were working. Especially with Jackknife Lee, he really wanted to focus on the songwriter and build that dynamic. It’s not a coincidence within a band that people fall into certain roles, you’ve got a key songwriter and then the others work around that.”
“Barry was really only able to contribute melodies, and, as the songwriting became a bit more sophisticated, there was a lot less space for that, especially with the calibre of producers we’ve had. They always want to let the vocal melodies breathe and we started out wanting to throw 100 ideas at every song. There’s less pretence now. We weren’t really making music in that way anyway.”
It’s a good thing to have got through it though, it would have killed a few bands…
“It’s still a tricky thing and we’re still getting our head around it. There aren’t a lot of examples to go through and work with. We’re doing our best to be honest with our fans and between the four of us. We didn’t want to issue a statement talking about parting ways, like he’d just left to go and work in another shop, life is more complicated than that.”
There are plenty of artists now, they’re billed as a band, but it’s the songwriter and then glorified session players…
“I do a lot of the songwriting and that’s where a lot of the content comes from when it comes to artwork and titles. You see a lot of artists being billed and it’s one person with others next to them to sell the music. We don’t want it to be some weird family portrait because it needs to be a band.”
“In Twin Atlantic, I’m the songwriter, Craig (Kneale, drums) brings a huge amount of knowledge of musical history and other bands and that really helps us define ourselves against all that. Ross is incredibly musically gifted and his understanding of key and melody is amazing. Without him in the band our songs wouldn’t be half as rich. They add so much and, with this album, where we’re turning our back on the rock template and figure out a new version of ourselves, we’ve needed all those qualities for this album.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? It’s billed as a happier album, but is that too simple a description?
“It’s definitely more playful and less defensive. I feel a lot more sure of myself now. You get to a point in adult life where you feel comfortable and you are less concerned if people like that version or not. You embrace yourself and that’s incredibly freeing. I can sing lines like ‘I’m living for love’ because that’s how I feel, I am cheesy.”
“It’s less angsty and more playful, but a lot more to the point. It’s more direct, I’m not making big sweeping statements about being free or opening up your heart and your soul. I also threw in a little bit of antidisestablishmentarianism in there too. It baffles me why anyone would choose to be subservient. Whenever I need something darker, I always lean on poking fun at religion and the idea of putting people on strange pedestals."
When did you decide that Power was the right word to sum everything up?
“It came as everything was finished. For a long time, the album was called RGB - Euphoria. It was the artwork, it’s just a screen and I thought that represented quite a lot, especially given the limitations of how we made the album. But it didn't have the same impact as the music and the word ‘power’ kept being used when people heard the songs. Not only that, but it’s been a process of empowerment for the band.”
“Also a lot of the lyrics are a power struggle between myself on and off stage. And you can't get away from the fact we made an album in Scotland during an epic political power struggle. We also joked that we were using a lot more electronics and we actually had to turn the studio on and off every day. That was a lot of themes to ignore. I feel like it named itself to an extent.”
You talked earlier about the new label set-up, how did you find shopping yourselves around?
“It had the reverse effect that we thought it would. We were nervous and it made us feel quite confident. We’ve never been great at describing ourselves and where we fit into rock. We’re not an emo band or a metal band or a pop band or an indie band, we’ve got our feet in a lot of areas. We always assumed that was a bad thing, but labels liked it. We went around a lot of labels and it was a good experience.”
But you didn’t get signed initially?
“We wanted help finishing the rest of the record and we’d gone into the meetings with about three or four demos. We didn’t want to risk our whole livelihood and all our gear. In hindsight, we were just being s**tbags about it. It was only once everything was on the line and we had risked everything that the songs really started coming. Then, after we finished the record, we started shopping that around and then it changed. At that point, the album had done so much for us, we’d worked out so many internal demons and the band felt very healthy. We didn’t care if no one signed us.”
Were you prepared to put it ourselves?
“We’d already started down that track. The wheels were in motion and Virgin EMI literally came in at the last minute and told us they’d put it out. We were delighted because we are ambitious. When we write songs, when we get to the chorus we can’t seem to help ourselves, everything goes up an octave and the cymbals get smashed. Those songs suit big venues and we wanted whoever would help us get into them all the time.”
Finally, you start touring in March, but it’s quite small venues. Is that the precursor to a two-year touring cycle?
“We hope so. We want to be really busy touring. That’s where we feel most comfortable. We’ve embraced the studio a lot more, but we love the thrill of live and we build our sets so people have a really good time. There’s no chin-stroking just yet, we still just love entertaining people. It’ll be a little different this time, there will be more instruments on stage and more electronics. That’s why we’re starting small and we fully intend to build our way back up.”