Fans of classic, jangly, guitar pop rejoice – Oxford band The Dreaming Spires are back with a gorgeous, brand new three-track EP, Darkest Before The Dawn, which is a taster for their second album, Searching For The Supertruth, due out next year.
Opening song Hype Bands Parts I & II is a seven minute tour-de-force – a big blast of country-soul with horns, chugging rock & roll guitars and an irresistible, sunshine melody. Its wry, amusing lyric is about on-the-road antics in the USA and pokes fun at hipster indie bands who are more concerned about wearing the right clothes than writing great songs…
Second tune, House On Elsinore, is luscious. A hypnotic, hazy heat wave of a song, it’s set in LA’s dark underbelly and is soundtracked by chiming, psychedelic, Byrds-like guitars, while the title track is a positive, spiritual hymn that was written as a message of hope to a friend of the band, Danny, who went through some tough times, but, thankfully, came out the other side. It’s moving and very uplifting.
I spoke to Robin Bennett – who, with his brother Joe – forms the nucleus of The Dreaming Spires, about Americana, hanging out in LA and how their new album has been influenced by shoegazing…
Let’s talk about your brand new EP, Darkest Before The Dawn, which is a great record. Musically, it feels like a step on from your debut album Brothers in Brooklyn. It has a richer, more expansive, widescreen sound. Musically, you’ve taken the jangle-pop feel of The Byrds, Big Star and Teenage Fanclub, but also thrown in some Americana influences and themes…
Robin Bennett: Thanks. I’m excited to get some new material out after what feels like an age. We’ve always felt part of that lineage of bands, not so much by intention, but in how things seem to end up sounding.
I often think we’ve gone on a radical departure, only to be told it still sounds like The Byrds. Maybe a different Byrds album… We’ve always been bracketed in with Americana acts in England too, which has never made much sense to me, unless you’re going to include The Kinks and The Beatles, etc. I read Ray Davies’ book Americana this year, which helped put it all in perspective for me.
I definitely share those ‘60s bands’ excitement at the exotic nature of many aspects of American culture, which is shaped by Beat books, cowboy films, rock & roll music, neon signage, cup holders, and all the other ephemera. Bands from The Byrds to Tom Petty to Big Star refracted the British beat music back again – so I see it as back and forth across the Atlantic. It’s tough on us British acts playing in that style, because it’s assumed we are trying to be American. To be British, you have to sound like Duran Duran, it seems. As a child of the ‘80s mostly, I never heard any music I liked until I discovered ‘50s rock & roll and soul via The Beatles. These songs [on our new EP] are mostly triggered by events that happened during visits to the US. In this case, mostly California – between 2003-2008.
So, what was the starting point for the new EP – musically and thematically?
RB: The song Darkest Before The Dawn was written by me and a friend, Cat Martino, in Brooklyn. We were trying to write a letter to our friend Danny in the form of a song. I’d had the tune and the chorus line for a while, since our first ever band practice before the first album, but when it was expressed as a direct message it seemed to come together. We wanted it to have a positive message while acknowledging how bad things had got. Although we were talking to Danny about his life, the theme of darkness and redemption feels applicable to all of us. We worked hard to create the contrast between light and shade in the title song, while House on Elsinore has a paranoid air from the many drones and so on…
The songs are on the new EP are all thematically linked – based on real life experiences you had with your friend Danny. He sounds like quite a character! You’ve certainly got some good tales from your antics with him – he has been referenced in several of your songs.
RB: Danny certainly is a character. In fact, it’s him I’m talking about in Singing Sin City from our first album, “smoking cigarettes like a cowboy movie character”. On our first visit to the West Coast with [previous band] Goldrush and Mark Gardener [ex-Ride], he was officially our tour manager and collected us from LAX airport. The whole experience made a big impression on me and we formed a close friendship. At the time he had his own band, The And/Ors, and was working as a screen printer for the artist Shepard Fairey. You could say the music we were listening to on cassettes in his tour van – mostly Teenage Fanclub and The Byrds – set me off on the direction that ended up with The Dreaming Spires. Given that he also introduced me to Big Star and reintroduced me to Tom Petty, you could credit Danny with our whole sound.
Aside from the bands and tours, we unexpectedly struck up a songwriting partnership. In only a few sessions in LA and also on his visits to Oxford, we contrived to write over 50 songs together at a rate of two or three a day. Until then I’d been writing mostly alone and struggling with it. He taught me how to put method in the madness and to create almost on demand, which was an amazing change for me.
We wrote songs for Goldrush for the album The Heart is the Place, and a kind of solo album called Dusty Sound System, which was written in a week and recorded in a day, as well as numerous unreleased songs. Strength of Strings and Just Can’t Keep This Feeling In eventually made it onto the Brothers in Brooklyn LP [The Dreaming Spires’ first album].
How does Danny feel about having songs written about him? He sounds like he went through a bad patch, but, thankfully, is now in a much happier place…
RB: He did indeed hit a bad patch and it was no longer possible for us to write together. It was also a turbulent and busy time in my own life, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write again on my own – and for a year or so, there wasn’t much coming out. It was seeing him at such a low point, when we visited California for a friend’s wedding, that got me writing again – with him as the subject, instead of the writing partner. I don’t know why, but the ideas just kept coming, spilling out into numerous lyrics that I wrote at great speed. Some were finished in time for the first LP, some took longer and some form part of this new EP and the new album. I kept thinking, ‘now I should write about something else’, but I kept having more ideas from the same topic and often the lyrics would go off on tangents from a similar starting point.
I read something by Jay-Z, talking about writing lyrics by going back to the same point in your past for inspiration, so perhaps that’s what was happening. We spent a year recording these new songs, but I knew if Danny wasn’t happy with them, then I wouldn’t be able to release them, so I sent them to him before anyone else. His reaction was what I hoped it would be – he understood the intention of the songs, of course. I also didn’t feel right putting these songs out until I knew he was in good shape again, which he very much is now.
I like the wry, witty lyrics on your song Hype Bands Parts I & II. Are the words aimed at any bands in particular? I also like the rocky guitar sound on the track and the big brass arrangement. It has a soulful feel…
RB: I think we’ve ended up with a contrast between the brittle sound of the intro, which is a warm parody of any number of ‘hype bands’, and the looser feel of the second half, where music helps you to let go – which is what ‘soul’ music usually does. Because we’ve been playing in bands since the late ‘90s, we’ve come across many bands that have shot to fame before disappearing, but, in a way, it’s more of a comment on how the music industry has treated bands in the last 15 years. There’s a wave of hype to get them going, before a rapid tail-off into obscurity. Of course, if you’re a writer or an artist, this bears no relation to your development. The attributes to being a good ‘hype band’ are different to being a good writer, as your window of opportunity is so short. You have to chime with the trend of the moment.
When we did have a major label push for our old band, Goldrush, we coincided with the appearance of The Strokes, who must be the ultimate hype band. We didn’t stand a chance! Shortly afterwards we left Virgin Records, who replaced us with The Thrills – who, I should add, were a good band with some excellent songs. They did a similar thing, but in a much more presentable way. We crossed paths with them a few times during our LA visits, including an incident where we found out that a friend of Danny’s was acting as their stylist. When he asked Conor, the singer, about it, he denied everything. We really did play them at pool, too. We won!
Will any of the songs from the new EP end up on your next album – Searching For The Supertruth – which is out next year?
RB: We recorded 13 tracks in all – three of which form this EP and the other 10 make up the album. We tried to make it work as a double album, but, ultimately, it worked better separating these three songs as an EP – it’s too much to process at once. All 13 tracks will be on the vinyl release across two discs.
Is the EP representative of the new album?
RB: I think the EP is a good pointer towards the album. We’ve finished the album. It’s been mastered by Tony Poole, a great musician and producer who played in the cult ‘70s band Starry Eyed & Laughing. We worked with our long time associate Rowland Prytherch to create as much detail in the sound as we can, so that further listening is rewarded. Something we’ve picked up more on since the first LP is trying to create an atmospheric undercurrent to the tracks, often using lap steel washes and string pads through numerous FX pedals. You could call it our shoegaze influence. I think it sounds positive and transcendent, overall.
So, what we can expect from the new album. Can you give us a few teasers?
RB: We’ve been playing some songs live already. The autobiographical song Dusty in Memphis is already a crowd favourite, complete with a sing-along. We’ve also played the title song, with a backwards guitar part by Tony Poole, and the ballad We Used to Have Parties, which has a backing vocal from Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne.
Is it a concept album and part of a trilogy? Where did the title – Searching For The Supertruth – come from?
RB: It definitely feels like a concept album, without being overbearing. It is the final part of the trilogy, where the narrative resolves, at least for now. The title came from a scientist friend called Rich Blundell. It’s to do with cosmic evolution and the universe becoming conscious of itself.
What music are you currently into and what are your favourite new albums of 2014?
RB: This year I have enjoyed new stuff from The War on Drugs, Sturgill Simpson, and Arcade Fire, as well some great music by friends including Common Prayer, Sugar Magnolia and Paul McClure. I’m enjoying The Flaming Lips and friends’ take on Sgt Pepper more than I expected too! I’ve also been listening to lots of soul compilations, dreaming of being in Booker T & The MG’s, plenty of Jackson Browne and new and old Tom Petty albums. Getting a car with a tape-only stereo has meant I’ve listened to cassette versions of Tunnel of Love [Bruce Springsteen] and Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner more times than I care to mention.
So, how you do feel as we head into 2015?
RB: I feel like we’ve been through some dark times and 2015 is going to be a big year
Darkest Before The Dawn – the new EP from The Dreaming Spires – is released on November 24. It’s on ClubHouse Records.