They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. For us the absence of OUTFIT since they packed away their lengthily-gestated debut LP Performance in early 2014 made us eager to hear its follow-up. For the band, absence has been more acute in the intervening months, and somewhat defining to the blueprint of new record Slowness.
Parted by motorways and split between oceans, Outfit’s latest album has been written through the lens of separation and distance. Periods apart from the each other, from friends and from loved ones, all feed into an album that deals in much more personal material than their previous releases, and the resulting album is certainly their most coherent and intimate work to date. Written with the band living across Liverpool, London and Brooklyn, Slowness is an album borne of late-night Skype calls, long-distance relationships and perpetual struggles with online identities. “Going into the album there was definitely a sense there were things we wanted to do differently,” vocalist Andrew Hunt tells me from his New York home. “We wanted to compose a whole album arc and have something that felt like a singular piece.”
Though writing for the album began almost immediately after touring their debut LP Performance, the album wasn’t really fleshed out until one solid session across three months, with all the band together in Liverpool. “We really thought we’d finished it after that process,” says Andrew, “but coming back to it after a few months we realised that we hadn’t really finished at all. To begin with it was this very focused process, but as time went on it became gradually more fragmented.” Even while separated, the band were determined that the album be written and recorded with them together as a group, thus avoiding the temptation to work remotely. “If we’re going to bother being in a band together, which is quite difficult at the moment, we should be in a band together. Make it worthwhile,” he explains.
This commitment to writing as a band is perhaps what allows the album to retain a satisfying continuity throughout. Slowness is propelled by pulsing synths, stuttering samples and heavily-effected guitars and though the results are at times otherworldly, the sounds and feelings are unmistakably human. The narrower sound palette for the album too definitely gives it this sense of cohesion. “We really tried to limit ourselves on the equipment we used,” says Andrew. “We had some strict ground rules when we went in. I was going to play just the piano, Nick [Hunt] was going to play guitar and Tom [Gorton] was going to play one keyboard and just the drum kit with only a couple of samples. We really just wanted to move towards this live band feel.”
The title of the album is a reference to the novel by Milan Kundera in which the ostensibly disparate narratives of people separated by time and space are interwoven to tell an overarching story. Likewise, the album threads together the snapshots of different experiences to form a larger work unified by its themes. “We wanted to get away from all our ideas being encased within a pop song and do something where we could stretch it out a bit more,” says Andrew. “We didn’t really feel like we had anything to lose, so it was something we felt we could explore.” Throughout the album, songs touch on similar themes of isolation, crossed communication and, particularly on track Genderless, sexuality in contemporary life. Though the internet was not used directly in the writing process, the experiences of living on it and maintaining relationships through it have certainly left an indelible mark on the album. “There’s a discussion around physicality and bodies, and the presence of these bodies online,” explains Andrew. “These ideas, coupled with the experience I was having of being away from my long-term partner and feeling this dissociation from my body, really made me realise how central this kind of sexual part of you is in determining a wider identity.” Many of the lyrics on the album also deal with anxiety surrounding communication. “Trying to understand someone’s tone through a few lines in an email, for example, or trying to see beyond a text or read between the lines. There’s this problem that, for all these advantages in technology, still exists.”
Strong similarities can be drawn with the complexity and ambition of Talk Talk, particularly with their latter two albums, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock. It was at this point they too moved away from the pop-song format, into much more exploratory spaces. Outfit certainly manage to tap into the same emotional threads as Mark Hollis masterfully did, with the whole album evoking a candid intimacy, tempered by an otherworldly atmosphere. Production choices on the album do much to foster these feelings. For example, the juxtaposition of the cavernous spaces the instruments exist in, against the dryness of the vocals, creates a startling effect. The intimacy of the vocals is magnified by the seemingly endless space surrounding them. The ability of these nuances to imply ideas beyond the songs is something that Outfit have been acutely aware of and are keen to exploit. “There were definitely production choices on there that were to serve the overarching emotional content of the album,” says Andrew. “It’s interesting; we talked a lot about reverb. We almost got quite philosophical about it. Reverb suggests a space, and if you’re simultaneously presenting a lot of different spaces, you’re essentially opting out of reality. The music exists in this liminal space.”
The consideration of these ideas in a conceptual form is perhaps what separates Outfit from their peers. While some may be content with an effect or idea just because it sounds good in practice, on Slowness an idea’s relevance is certainly almost as important as its audible effect. It’s the attention to detail that gives the songs a sense that they exist within the carefully constructed world of the album. Nothing feels superfluous or out of place. Like a David Lynch film, every choice, be it lyrically, instrumentally or in its production, feels deliberate and significant – even if sometimes it turns out to be a red herring. Ultimately, though, Slowness sounds like a band coming to terms with themselves as artists and people to create an album that celebrates life’s obstacles: a piece of work compelled by distance.
Slowness is out now on Memphis Industries