Continuing Liverpool’s fascination with emotionally bruised dream pop, and its endless ability for existing bands to coalesce into new forms, expansive rock ensemble AVIATOR move back in to the spotlight with the release of their new opus, No Friend Of Mind.
The group were founded by singer/guitarist Pete Wilkinson, whose basslines have graced two generations of Merseyside groups including Cast, Echo & The Bunnymen and much of Mick Head’s work, solo and in Shack. Drawing inspiration from The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Cure and evergreens such as Love and The Velvet Underground, and sharing a similar sonic realm with Bido Lito! favourites The Sand Band, the group’s fourth LP is a feast of expansive psychedelia founded on bedrock acoustic strums, spiralling guitar lines and cushioning pedal steel textures.
How Aviator initially came about, though, was through serendipity rather than design. “Cast had split up and I needed something to do to kill some time,” Wilkinson says on the phone from his London base. “Paul Hemmings [former La’s guitarist] from Viper Records said ‘Have you got any songs?’ I was writing quite a few but I didn’t want to do anything with them really, I wasn’t in any rush to start a new band. Paul had a studio set-up in his attic and we eventually recorded thirteen to fourteen songs, and he said ‘Why don’t I put it out on Viper?’ which he did [as 2002 debut Huxley Pig, Part 1]. And it did all right, it got really decent reviews. I wouldn’t say it was a vanity project, but it was a more cathartic pastime for me – I needed to do it.”
Given the number of albums that Wilkinson has played on since Aviator’s inception (seven in all), maintaining the focus on his own band can sometimes be a struggle. “Aviator definitely works around everything else,” Wilkinson states, with the actual album-making process itself being the reason the group was established. “It’s a project I enjoy doing. I’m not too bothered once it’s finished, I won’t listen to it. I really enjoy the moment, but once it’s done it’s done. I’m wanting to move on to the next thing.”
Now firmly established as a duo with a loose affiliation of additional players, Aviator comprise Wilkinson and Newcastle-born studio engineer Mark Neary as the nucleus of the band. Possessing a stellar CV that includes working with Baxter Dury, Adele, Van Morrison and Roddy Frame, Mark’s multi-instrumental skill is showcased throughout the LP. With Wilkinson handling “mainly guitar and vocals”, Neary takes care of the remainder and production duties. “It’s very much collaboration,” Wilkinson says of the songwriting. “I’ll bring the chords in – the skeleton of it – and Mark will flesh it out.” Sticksman Simon Finley and occasional collaborator Paul Fleming (aka Baltic Fleet) are two of the more regular members of the revolving cast, both of whom Wilkinson met through working with Echo & The Bunnymen. “As a band we have musicians coming in and out: Paul Hemmings will come in, [Cast drummer] Keith O’Neill will appear if he can. Patrick Walden, who used to be in Babyshambles, plays on one track. We’ve got a kind of rolling band of gypsies who kind of come in and out. I really like working that way, it feels like something new can happen every time with different musicians.” This set-up, meanwhile, has aided Aviator’s songwriting. “The way it worked with Simon was that we would do the track and send it to him in Liverpool, kind of give him a bit of a brief about what we’d like and leave it up to him. It was always quite exciting to get back what he’d done. Ultimately, music should be an expression of the musicians in the band; it frustrates me being told what I can and can’t do.”
Having worked in scores of groups over the years, Wilkinson’s own methods of making music must surely have taken some influence from the songwriters he’s worked with. I ask if there have been any particular artists who have inspired him, and the answer is instant. “Definitely working with Mick Head; his way of working is really good,” Wilkinson enthuses. “He’s got this way of including everybody in the band. He’d bring in the song on vocals and acoustic guitar and then let you do whatever you want on it. It’s clever, actually: if you turn round to someone and say ‘do what you want’, you’ve brought them in and it becomes inclusive. If you get someone saying, ‘Here’s the bassline, play this’, there’s already a slight friction there.”
How does co-piloting Aviator compare to working as a sideman? “It feels a lot different, it’s a lot easier,” Wilkinson states. “There’s no agenda, there’s no deadline and that’s the beauty of it.”
In a slight deviation from the norm, No Friend Of Mind is being released on the band’s newly-minted label, AV8, after three prior releases on the storied Viper Label. “I just thought, why not have a go?” Wilkinson explains of the development. “Paul [Hemmings] said, ‘I’ll put it out; this is what I’m gonna do’, and I thought ‘Well I can do that’. We’re absolutely fine about it; I think he wanted a break from Viper and I said, ‘I’ll do it’, and he said, ‘If you need any help let me know’, so it’s a mutual thing. It’s all ready to go at the end of August. What we’re trying to work out is a price. We don’t wanna take the piss; I’m not interested in making any money, I just want it to pay for itself, really. If I break even then job done as far as I’m concerned.”
Lyrically, the album’s title track suggests the direction for the disc, with No Friend Of Mind taking aim at the all-pervasive social media age. “It’s not a concept album, it’s not The Wall,” Wilkinson explains. “But my idea is everyone is how everyone is always online and connected.” Taking in the plangent psych of The Dove and the waltz-time political swipes (and album highlight) of A Promise, the LP is done and dusted in a concise thirty-two minutes. Doubling as a comment on the rapid-fire consumption of music in the present age, the album was designed as a short sprint. “Any more tunes on it and people start getting bored,” Wilkinson states. “It’s also a nod to people having no concentration, cos there’s so many distractions. I suppose it’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? We’ll have the album, which complains about people being so connected and not able to concentrate, but we’ll make it [only] thirty minutes so you don’t get too bored.”
The next step following the LP release is transferring the material to the stage. “We pick songs we think we can do live. We’ll do an interpretation of the album, otherwise we’d need about ten of us onstage!” laughs Wilkinson. “We’re trying to dress it up a little differently live than your usual guitar, drums, bass, vocals set-up. We’d like to do cool shows, not just go out there and batter it.”
“It’s about how people have lost their intuition and a natural ability to discover new things,” Wilkinson sums up, reflecting on what No Friend Of Mind means to him. “If you want something you go into Google and just find it. When I first discovered Probe Records it was like I’d just discovered Narnia; it was magical. That kind of spontaneity has disappeared. I’m not a Luddite, but I miss the sense of discovery.”
No Friend Of Mind is out now on AV8 Records.