If you don’t get a strong sense of déjà vu the first time you listen to SEATBELTS then you can’t be too up on your Merseyside beat scene. Which isn’t to say that the quartet’s music is reductive – in fact, it’s a rather smart and inventive take on guitar pop, loosely tethered and full of wry observations. It’s just that there is something very familiar about the way they sound, which isn’t just down to the fact that Seatbelts are made up of half of Hooton Tennis Club. The guitar-and-vocals duo of Ryan Murphy and James Madden have always had something of the Lennon and McCartney in their laconic back-and-forth exchanges, and never has this been so evident – and bloody exciting – as it is on Songs For Vonnegut, Seatbelts’ first EP.
Sub-titled The Writers Void, the EP is the result of Ryan and James’ creative relationship taking on a more experimental edge, with all of the Beatlesy side avenues – that only briefly intersect with their work as Hooton Tennis Club – being opened up fully for exploration. It seems like such a natural, comfortable fit that it’s hard to believe they hadn’t done it before. The two have been making music together for years, and have two successful albums under their belt as Hooton Tennis Club with old friends Harry and Cal, but Seatbelts felt like a creative offshoot that couldn’t be ignored.
“Ryan and I had been working on songs together for Hooton Tennis Club for a year or so,” James tells us. “Then towards the latter end of 2017 we had made a set of songs that felt like they had a different vision or set of feelings. Our lyrics began to take shape from societal observations and situations. Reading Mark E Smith’s autobiography Renegade… and The Fallen by Dave Simpson got me excited about music and collaboration and that whole world again.”
“We’ve always been keen to observe and document our surroundings and create things from direct experiences,” Ryan adds, going on to explain how this led on quite naturally to the new project. “The first toe dipped for collaborating with other musicians happened when James was working with Abi Woods (Keys, Vocals) at the British Music Experience. He invited Abi to mine later that day to help us finish vocals on a track called Capitalist Confession.”
More of a side project to their ‘main’ band, Seatbelts is a purely creative endeavour that they just couldn’t ignore. There are obvious similarities with Hooton Tennis Club – what with the quartet fronted by James and Ryan singing and playing guitars – but the little, subtle differences are what makes the whole thing tick. “Seatbelts began as an outlet for myself and Ryan to keep up our collaborative work together,” James states. “It’s a different approach in that maybe that we don’t want Seatbelts to be a band in the conventional sense: I would like it to nurture our creativity as well as being a ‘band’. Abi has her own project, Galileo Girl, with her sister and has a beautiful voice. Alex Quinn (Drums) is a sound engineer and talented musician in his own right.”
Ryan agrees, adding “It’s also a project without a boundary in terms of line-up. James and I are playing a show ourselves as Seatbelts, then we had a show as a four-piece, and another as six, which included my girlfriend and her sister singing backing vocals in Spanish. It’s just fun to mix it up and try things out.”
Though they’ve only done a handful of shows so far, and are reluctant to settle on a defined line-up, Ryan is revelling in the freedom that the looseness brings. “Hey, Hey Tiger! and Song For Vonnegut are great fun to play live. Both songs require us all to swap around instruments, keeping things fresh and exciting with a measure of unpredictability. The feeling of creating something is the best. It’s always for the ‘self’, but it’s rewarding, which is influential in itself.”
“We’re mostly focused on making something we enjoy playing and would want to listen to,” James adds. “However, it’s an ever-changing target and seems to move faster the older one gets.”
Seatbelts play Sound City on Sunday 6th May at 24 Kitchen Street. Single Hey, Hey Tiger! Is out now via Rooftop Records.