As I sit alone in The Shipping Forecast awaiting the arrival of mysterious post-punk revivalists DEATH MASKS, I prepare myself for what might be a challenging interview. Pretending to make notes, images of glum faces quickly escalate into full black suits and eyeliner as indie stereotypes and a warm beery glow start to get the better of me.
Death Masks began as a solo project for talented multi-instrumentalist Thom Tyrer, as the stress and tribulations of his former collaborative projects drove him to become a solo artist. Several raw and unpolished demos emerged from a homemade studio in his basement, demonstrating a songwriting prowess that was yet to find its voice, as Thom struggled to translate his sonic vision for the songs into actual recordings. Eight months later and this drive, accompanied by the urge to perform his songs live, lead him into recruiting two more guitarists, a drummer and a keyboard player until they became the five-piece that we see today.
Even at just three tracks, Death Masks’s first eponymous EP on EDiLS Recordings is a varied affair. Opener Times Six is a brooding, stodgy slow burner, with menacing vocals as Thom sneers “someone’s watching you” repeatedly to a wonderfully chilling effect. Final track Gather Your Thoughts is a startling contrast, as the pounding accompaniment is replaced by a light, sparse guitar line that wouldn’t have been out of place on the last Drums album. Having been together for less than two years, it is understandable that the band might still be searching for their ‘Death Masks sound’. Thom concedes that they will need to nail it down somewhat, suggesting that the new EP will have a “much harder edge than the old” as it brings elements of their “fierce live act” into the studio. Despite the fact that they have only performed a “handful of shows” together, this live sound is clearly deeply important to them; and the desire to translate it onto record is something that has driven guitar bands for decades. Before your eyes start to roll, consider the fact that, until now, all their recorded output has been written, recorded and produced by Thom alone in a homemade basement studio. To jump from a solo artist to a five-piece is a testament to the vast sound that Thom thought his recordings could achieve and he gratefully admits that his new band mates made the new EP “the easiest recording experience of his career”.
As we arrive at the subject of influences, Matt Wilcock is quick to cite Glaswegian noise pioneers Mogwai and of course My Bloody Valentine, whilst Thom reflects on the more delicate, melodic tendencies of Norwegian producer Lindstrøm and The Cure. This paints an interesting picture of how the band function in their songwriting and recording process, with the instrumentalists adding the muscle behind Thom’s carefully crafted compositions. Thom vehemently corrects me when I ask if songwriting duties are still maintained solely by him, however, suggesting that “everyone chips in”. Whilst I suspect his humility might be getting the better of him, it’s not difficult to notice a tangible element of relief that he is no longer doing this on his own. The three tracks on their new EP, a split release with fellow EDiLS label mates Tear Talk, certainly succeed in refining their sound, and are evidence of a band who are starting to recognise their strengths. Their Fleetwood Mac melodies come drenched in such a dense, unnerving context that it makes them so exciting and engaging, playing dark and light against each other so effortlessly yet deliberately, with an astonishing confidence for a band who have been together for such a short period of time.
Conversation inevitably turns to the name, as Death Masks already find themselves fighting off the misery and gloom tags that their name might suggest. It’s true that even at this early stage gloom seems to be following them around. When Thisisfakediy featured them in their Neu Bulletin last year they felt the need to apologise for “creeping their readers out”, and the photo shoot for this feature is hardly going to make you feel warm and cuddly inside. Whilst this image certainly isn’t something that the band is actively trying to perpetuate, Thom recognises that “it’s important to keep some mystery whilst maintaining some sort of image when it comes to public perception”. It is their music though more than anything that has lead to this dark, sinister persona. Thom’s menacing, almost baritone, vocals will draw inevitable Ian Curtis comparisons, but it’s contemporary bands like London’s O. Children and Indiana’s brilliant Stagnant Pools that they sit most comfortably alongside. Resisting the urge to describe it as ‘post-Interpol’, mainstream indie’s affection for a post-punk revival that saw the likes of Interpol and Editors headlining festivals a few years back certainly seems to have dwindled, something Joe is quick to dismiss: “I think there will always be room for bands trying to create new and exciting music, and I think it’s important for us to stick to what we know and love”.
You have to agree; Liverpool is becoming one of the finest hubs for new music in the North, with independent promoters dedicating an increasingly frequent set of shows to the most challenging and forward-thinking new artists about. As one of the most self-contained local scenes in the country, Liverpool does seem almost impervious to national shifts in taste and fashion. I’m not trying to suggest that Liverpool is out of touch; it’s just that, with such a brilliant infrastructure in place, with its world class venues, huge network of culture press, internationally renowned festivals and global publishers and distributors, everything is in place for Liverpool to produce and cultivate its own indigenous cultural movements without the need to rely on London. This self-sustainability allows bands like Death Masks to “stick to what they know and love”, because they will ultimately be judged and celebrated on the basis that they have produced a piece of art that justifies their stubborn integrity.
One thing that stays with me after meeting the band is their unrelenting passion for what they do. Conversation regularly turns to their past experiences in other projects: Thom talks warmly about his and Michael’s shared basement studio and Joe about his experience as a studio engineer. Even as I leave for five minutes to go to the bar, I return to find them in an animated discussion about their vinyl collections. The love they have for their craft is infectious, and as they develop and attention starts to grow it will translate into a dedication and persistence that will surely see them step up into the Liverpool elite.