NINETAILS make records you can get lost in. And fans of the now three-piece could be forgiven for thinking that, since the release of 2012’s Slept And Did Not Sleep, the Liverpool experimentalists did in fact get lost in their vast euphoric soundscapes, such has been the silence from their camp in recent months. However, this is only partially true.
Having graced the same stage as Alt-J and Errors in the year of that release, the band rode a wave of critical adulation, which generated genuine excitement about where the LIPA graduates would go next. Since then, they’ve parted ways with singer Ed Black (“he’s just come back from recording in Kingston with Ady Sulieman,” they beam proudly), recorded seven drafts of their next LP and moved in together: last year was a busy one even if their tour schedule suggested otherwise. As we meet in their new Rodney Street rabbit-warren flat it is clear from vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Balaber’s energy and enthusiasm that the threesome are anxious to make up for lost time. “We’ve already got another album written and ready to record, which will be released later in the year. But the last six months have been all about this next album” says Jordan of the superlative new LP which is due to be released in March. “The final take of Quiet Confidence is barely recognisable from the original tracks. A lot of the tracks were recorded initially as kick drums and blast beats, with black metal influences and huge climaxes, but it has ended up much more elegant with a really smooth flow. I see this more as a pop record than the stuff we have written more recently.”
Whether other listeners will consider the LP a pop record is another matter. The band obviously see this release as a kind of re-birth for Ninetails, free from the constraints of their music studies, and moving away from the pop sensibilities which Ed Black brought to the band. I suggest that the record seems to be split into two halves, with the first three tracks carrying melodies of a pop hue and the second half leaning towards the more experimental side of the Ninetails sound: “Yes, Matt Colton [who mastered the album] said the same thing,” agrees Jordan. “I didn’t realise that but I do like the thought of the first half having more structured pop songs and then it devolving into something entirely looser in the second half.” Phil (Morris, Bass) pitches in enticingly that “there are clues to the next release in the second half of Quiet Confidence definitely, so it does perhaps hint at the direction we are going in.”
Quiet Confidence builds on Ninetails’ tendency to contort influences and genres from a broad musical spectrum to produce a record which features pop melodies but hides them expertly in mesmeric soundscapes and distorted samples. The band’s math rock roots are barely recognisable while those lazy comparisons to Alt-J no longer apply, if indeed they ever did. The emphasis for Ninetails lies in the experimental, and the band talk animatedly of their love of using modern technology to manipulate natural sound. “All the samples on the record are very thought out,” declares Jordan, as if we dared think otherwise. He continues: “For example in the track An Aria I wanted the sound of a deck of cards falling on the table at the start of the guitar section, and in Quiet Confidence/Pure Utopian Moment there’s the sound of a can of beer being opened. There’s a lot of elements that we wanted to sound clean and perfect but we also wanted a raw, human element as well.”
This found sound component is especially important to percussionist Jake King, who also releases tracks under the moniker LinG. “That’s a big part of our sound. Both Jake and I walk around with our field recorders: Jake might record sounds at a skate park which can be used as a beat; I like to record conversations and take odd lines out and put them into a new context,” says Jordan. The effect is cinematic and epic while also adding to the personal feel of the music.
The chiming of the Anglican Cathedral’s bells in the title track serves as a knowing nod to the city where the album was conceived. The band may be based in Liverpool and exude a great love for Merseyside but, like the individual members (from Stoke, Durham and Washington DC), the team assembled around them spans a wider geographical range. It includes the aforementioned Matt Colton, who has worked with James Blake, L.I.E.S. and Muse, mastering the record; and Keith Aspen, who the band hold in high esteem for his management of Talk Talk during their most uncommercial period. In this team, the band seem to have the right people behind them to fulfil all the potential they showed two years ago.
Looking ahead, the band are ready to recapture the buzz and enthusiasm that had ears pricked up around the release of 2012’s Slept And Did Not Sleep EP. Looking at their plans for the next twelve months, the band seem intent on translating the new record into a live context. “We need to work on our live show before we programme any dates. This record will be very difficult to reproduce in a live setting, not least because I see listening to it as quite a solitary, personal experience, but also because it has a very dense sound with instrumentation such as trumpets and vibraphones which are new to us,” says Phil, who admits to not being happy with their live show up until this point. “In the past our gigs have almost seemed like a parody of the sound we are trying to achieve so I think to support this record we will need a backing track, not to mention a trumpeter. I don’t see a backing track as a negative thing but rather adding to a hi-fi feel of a show.”
A hi-fi, luxurious aesthetic is something the band have certainly achieved but do Ninetails want to move away from the pop melodies that have won them so many admirers to this point? “Quiet Confidence consists of big statements, bold washes of colour and epic sentimentality, whereas with the newer material I want to create more of a grey area with some emotional ambiguity so listeners can project their own feelings on to it. Having said that, it will still have a pop feel to it structurally,” says Jordan.
The trio struggle to come up with contemporary comparisons to their sound, agreeing that These New Puritans seem to be following a similarly experimental path and, like themselves, tend to move on to a new sound with each release. They also admit to a penchant for fellow local minimalists Ex-Easter Island Head and the inventiveness of Forest Swords. Some of the epic elements of Quiet Confidence seem to be drawn from quite disparate cinematic influences, from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life to the guitar stylings of Vienna-based free-formist Fennesz.
Obsession and perfection are obvious themes of Ninetails’ work and this has seeped through into the making and completion of the latest record. “It was agony to finish, so hard to let go. We were very particular about every little detail on Quiet Confidence so it took a long time to get it right. There were also lots of issues with sample clearance,” affirms Jordan. The sample in question opens first track Radiant Hex and is a motif throughout the album. Taken from a YouTube clip of 90s RnB group SWV’s Rain, the sample came with a three-figure price tag that the band just couldn’t afford. Ninetails attempted to reproduce the grainy distorted sound but were not willing to relinquish the imperfect perfection of the original cut which provided such a vital building block for the album. Happily, the record has been completed, and thanks to the band’s ability to record in their own home and utilise their LIPA contacts for the production, it cost nothing to make and will cost the same for listeners to experience. And what an experience it is. Ninetails seem to have found themselves, for which we all should be grateful.
Quiet Confidence is out now through Pond Life