“Welcome to our abode,” says David Berger, drummer and producer for Wirral five-piece OUTFIT, as he beckons me into their home studio. Hastily taped together soundproofing, old analogue synths and a deer’s head draped in headphones surround me; I get the feeling that cabin fever may have settled in during the four months spent recording here.
It’s been a long road for Outfit since their debut single Two Islands landed in 2011 and, as the subsequent album never arrived and the months turned into years, an increasing sense of expectation, or doubt (probably depending on how long you’d lived here), started to force its way underneath the narrative of one of the most promising bands to emerge from the city in a decade.
In 2011 the NME named them the sixth-best new artist in the world, echoing national media by citing their elusiveness and mystery as a significant point of interest. Berger himself even admits that they played up to it for a while, but as the interview continues it becomes clear that over the two years since Two Islands they haven’t really been laying low at all. “It was never even a conscious decision to stay away. We were just very cautious,” Berger explains. “I think you can get to a stage where everyone is talking about you and it’s all happening very easily. But unless they can quickly come up with a clear way to capitalise on it then it’s best left alone. We’d built up a load of these great contacts with labels, but none of them were throwing millions at us. And there was even the EP last year [Another Night’s Dreams Reach Earth Again], which was all set up to be released via another label until that all went tits up”.
Fruitless label meetings, a failed EP release and even a tentative UK tour where “no one really turned up”: all salient features of a band trying to make themselves heard among a sea of people who just might not be listening. It’s easy to assume that when someone is keeping their cards close to their chest they’re holding a pretty strong hand. And it’s true; as they sporadically put out new best-of-year singles at the drop of a hat (Everything All The Time, Dashing In Passing), you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a band in complete control. Underneath though, there is a more simple and familiar story of a new act struggling to get a break. “I guess we thought it would be easier to make money from all this,” Berger says tiredly, echoing Mercury Prize nominees Field Music’s admission in The Guardian last year that they only make around five grand per annum.
We love to give bands a narrative though, contextualising success in a way that’s aspirational for us, yet completely unattainable. Almost every interview with Outfit has focused largely on their time spent living in The Lodge (a twenty-bedroom, almost rent-free manor just off Smithdown Road), throwing parties every week, hanging out with other musicians and having an unbelievable time in some sort of impossible utopia where no one has to work, pay tax, settle bills, or get an overdraft. Outfit’s tenuous relationship with the media seems to have been built largely on this, which has, perhaps more so than they’d like to admit, worked in their favour. “There have been times where we’ve worried if anyone even gave a shit anymore or if anyone even knew we still existed,” concedes Berger. I’m not so sure his fears are justified, though. I mean, this could have been a master-class in PR if Outfit were contrived enough to have done it all on purpose. With a full-length record soon to be available, critics, fans and casual listeners all have a chance to nail Outfit down and figure out what they mean to them. It’s easy to be iconic when you’re enigmatic and have the luxury of keeping everyone at arm’s length, so it certainly will be interesting to see how the band develop within the margins of a singular body of work.
Their debut album Performance comes out in August via Double Denim Records; their ability to shift from woozy jams to straight-up funk-fusion in the space of just a song is palpable as ever, resulting in a record that is wildly erratic, yet continually entrancing. Even when the album does shift in feel, the changes still feel organic, exemplified by one of the strongest tracks, Elephant Days, which begins as a fidgety, awkward shuffle and slowly evolves into a sprawling build and release knockout. If there were a constant seam running through the album it would be that of an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Vocals negotiate their way across gaping intervals, dissonant harmonies and demonic chord progressions, like in the uneasy Spraypaint. On the steady chant of House On Fire, an almost arpeggiated melody attempts to wriggle free from stabbing synths, revealing the band’s ability to make abrasion as musical as possible without sacrificing any tension. These songs are bolder without being unnecessarily complicated, and the nuances and the energy of early singles, which were impressive but still sonically limited, are present but just concentrated in much tighter places.
“The singles sound more straightforward because they were recorded in a very straightforward way,” explains Berger. “To me, I don’t feel like the songwriting for the album has changed, but the way we’ve recorded it certainly has”. With their home studio, Outfit have had the chance to spend time with these songs, experiment with their constraints, and really challenge them. There is even a new, beefed-up version of Two Islands, where a more distant synth arrangement makes the cry of ‘I don’t know anyone else in here’ sound less like a statement of defiance and more like a profound, very moving, cry for help.
“There’s an element of disillusionment in everything we’ve done. Life doesn’t turn out the way you plan it most of the time, and recently life has got a lot harder for most people,” Berger laments, in a statement that sounds much less general than perhaps he had hoped. It’s been a long, arduous wait for Outfit, and the release of the album clearly serves some sort of cathartic purpose for them.
However, you do get the feeling that, even if they can’t force away the darkness completely, they can at least find some solace in the shadows. Performance is a brilliant record, more complete and more substantial than anyone could have expected, and certainly one of the best to come out of Liverpool in recent years. It still seems as if they haven’t said nearly all they have to say, though. And despite the years since their arrival, this very much feels like their beginning.
Performance is out now on Double Denim Records