GENGAHR formed at school in North London four years ago, releasing debut album A Dream Outside on Transgressive Records in the summer of 2015. The follow up, Where Wildness Grows, is out in March 2018. Produced by Neil Comber (Glass Animals, M.I.A), it took two years to write and record. Cath Bore speaks singer Felix Bushe about the ups and downs of that difficult second album syndrome, as the group prepare to play The Magnet as part of Liverpool Music Week.
The day before we speak, the UK woke up to weird grey-brown-orange skies, like from a dystopian film. You are inspired by the visual in terms of song writing, aren’t you, cinema especially?
It was sepia wasn’t it? I saw the Blade Runner film last week and it was a bit like that really. Walking around under what seemed a horrendous polluted sky. When trying to come up with narratives and direction to a song, I try to think about characters that I like from films or books. It’ll often be something I’ve seen quite recently, and I use that as a starting point. And visualise what I want the song to be about really.
The first Gengahr show for a while was earlier this month in London, how did the new material go down?
We’d put out one new song [Mallory] just the week before, and it was crazy to see everyone already singing along to it. It puts you on the front foot, confident about things going forward. People have been waiting for us to get our shit together and waiting for the new stuff. So, we played more new than old, it didn’t feel like there were any lulls or people getting frustrated because of lack of familiarity. So, it was a nice way of easing ourselves into doing things again.
You’ve been playing Mallory for a while.
That was the first song that we wrote for the new album. It’s the oldest one by a long way. I had a big folder of demos at home and Mallory was number one and that was out of quite a lot, I can tell you. It felt like the first to kind of step forward towards something new. It worked immediately. It didn’t take much to get it sounding good. That’s always a good sign from the beginning, when you can just play it and it sounds right, straight off the bat. We stated playing it while we were touring the first album, and sneaked it into the set! It fitted in seamlessly. That was an eye opener on what we could do without going completely off the known track, as it were. And still feel like we were moving forward, slightly different.
In many ways, Gengahr have done things back to front. Recording the first album A Dream Outside before playing a live show was quite an unusual unorthodox approach. And risky.
We’d obviously played a lot of shows together with other [previous] bands but the music we were playing was vastly different. It was back to front in many ways, the sleepy nature of what we did [with Gengahr] was sort of counter intuitive to what we’d done before… [a few of us were] in punk bands before that so it was quite trashy and everything went about 1000 miles an hour. When you get a bit older you mellow out and you can reign it in slightly. I think the urge was always there to have a bigger and heavier sound again. We wanted greater dynamics, moments when we could go bigger without it damaging the songs, as it were. It took some getting used to, a year and a half thinking, maybe we could’ve done some things in a different way, but that’s the nature of making music. You have your bug bears at the end of it.
Recording the new album wasn’t straightforward, with the band binning three months’ worth of material and starting again. What happened?
It was quite a long-winded process. With the first album, we felt happy… but I don’t think it necessarily took us to where we felt we wanted to be. As a band we had to sit down and think – it wasn’t as simple as making the first album again. We came at it ill-prepared. There was a lot of touring, we didn’t have a lot of time to write anything new, so when the shows finished and we stopped touring, we had to start and put together something we were happy with. We really wanted to make it noticeably different, in a positive way. We tried out a few different things, but the (initial) mix sounded not at all like what we wanted.
What was wrong with it?
It’s hard to say really, maybe it’s a case sometimes of wanting it a bit too much. We were putting everything under the microscope, really focussed and maybe working overtime every day. The days were super long in the studio and most of the time by the end of it our ears were dead. There was a great deal of ambition but when it came to actually finishing it and saying ‘ok we’re done with this’, we ended up feeling a little bit polished and sterile. It didn’t feel organic or natural enough for us. Then we had to make a decision ‘we’ll cut our losses here’. We needed some time to freshen up. We spent the best part of a year working on that version of it so we took about 4 or 5 months just to gather our thoughts again wrote some new songs as well to make it feel less insane, I guess, about going back and doing it all again.
So what are the differences between versions one and two of Where Wildness Grows?
A few tracks were revisited and reimagined again, and in a different way and new format, massively for the better. They sound a lot more interesting and they benefit from having that time. Nothing feels like a waste of time. We went with Neil Comber in the end and luckily that worked out nicely. We went away to Suffolk and stayed a little farmhouse. His strength lies in being a vibes man. You can walk in the room and feel really confident and good about the songs. He was dancing in the control room when we were recording! It was all very straightforward in the end.
You’ve said that Gengahr in 2017 feel like a different band almost, from the first album. What do you mean by that?
A lot has happened since we started. Not that we see ourselves as great professionals now, but we were all doing other things. We had our heads in different spaces. Dan was still playing in another band at that point when the first album came out, John was doing other things, Hugh and I were still at university. It’s a different level of focus now and we have the benefit of touring a lot and playing with a lot of other good bands and seeing what we can hope to achieve with music. Because there was no real ambition with the first record at all, we wanted to make something for ourselves. We paid for the first demos out of our own pocket. It’s a different beast altogether now.
Another notable difference on the new material is your voice, you’ve moved away from falsetto to something not more grown up per se, but with a very obvious wider range.
I could always sing differently to how the first album was laid out but that was a stylistic choice we wanted to have on the first record. More than anything, touring falsetto all the time can take its toll – a lot! It’s quite frustrating for me at times and I didn’t want to do that again. I couldn’t imagine doing that for two hours, I’m thinking four albums ahead… I don’t think I’d be able to survive! It’s a needs must as much as anything else.
We’re looking forward to your show at Liverpool Music Week, at The Magnet. Then there are dates with Jungle in Europe and presumably you’ll be touring the new record?
There’ll be a lot of new stuff. That’s the biggest thing to get excited about really. It’s coming together now. We’re all excited about getting back on the road again and one of the most refreshing things about being in a band is getting this cycle of writing, doing lots of artwork, touring a lot, then you get to do it all over again and it keeps things exciting and it keeps you hungry for it. We’re all chomping at the bit to get back on the road again.
Gengahr play The Magnet on 3rd November as part of Liverpool Music Week.