It’s that time of year when we all become increasingly obsessed with predicting who will be ‘the next big thing’. As the world’s media jostle for the position of musical Nostradamus, no one spares a thought for those handing over the ‘most likely to’ baton. Four years ago Wave Machines were that band, and now they’re back with a new album to jog a few memories as to why they got everyone so hot under the collar.
Singer, wordsmith and multi-instrumentalist James Walsh gives a good old-fashioned firm handshake as he sits down, radiating that healthy mix of excitement and relief easily recognisable in any musician about to release a collection of songs on the world. “We’ve put a lot of work into it, and we’re eager to see what people think, he states”.
One of the drawbacks of a successful album is that often there’s a long time before you can think about the next. For Walsh, lead vocalist and guitarist Tim Burzon, drummer Vidar Norheim and bassist Carl Bown, it wasn’t until August 2010 that the Wave If You’re Really There tour ended, after taking in every thriving metropolis and boutique festival Europe has to offer. A particular highlight was supporting The Flaming Lips at one of the North West’s most famous and inspirational places, the Jodrell Bank Observatory. “It was amazing. We’d often discussed going to Jodrell Bank as a day out, so to get to play there was magical.”
When the time to write finally came, they were eager to avoid the pitfall of the fabled ‘difficult second album’. Enough examples that disprove this tired theory have been and gone, but every band experiencing even a modicum of success will have to answer the question. Thankfully, Walsh was more than happy to indulge Bido Lito!: “We didn’t think about it, to be honest. We’ve definitely been guilty of perfectionism in the past, but this time round we were a bit more easygoing.”
As far back as 2007 I had the honour of booking the first official Wave Machines show, held in the slightly inauspicious setting of Bar Ca Va. As I remember, there was confusion mingled with the anticipation in the crowd as they fought for elbow-room at the top of the stairs, mainly because previous incarnation Sizer Barker were still very popular locally.
However, once they took to the stage it was abundantly clear Wave Machines were an altogether stronger proposition. The bravery it took to make a decision to reinvent themselves was instantly vindicated once the shimmering electro pop of those early singles received a rapturous reception. That same bravery is at play on Pollen, as their puppy-like energy has evolved into a mature, focused sound, reminiscent of Tom Tom Club, Hot Chip’s recent output, and, at times, Depeche Mode.
Irrespective of the touring schedule, the songs that would eventually become Pollen took a while to develop: “The actual writing of the album took a couple of years, partly because of the way we work, partly because what we had wasn’t good enough,” admits Walsh. “There’s some great writing on the first album, but in terms of the sound of the songs it’s a bit of a mish-mash. Pollen comes from a more clearly defined place.” Lead single Ill Fit – a slinky slice of bubbling synths layered with creamy falsettos – was released back in the autumn as the bridge from one album to the next, although as Pollen unfolds it’s evident that it’s closer to the first than the second.
The biggest shift in thinking was opening up the creative process to a more collaborative way of thinking. “We all had a hand in the writing process this time around. I worked on most of the lyrics, but we were all encouraging each other to put in ideas. If you get lots of material together, you find something eventually begins to lead the tracks in a certain direction. It also means you’ve got lots of other ideas from which you can pick the best melodies or lyrics to fit into that direction.”
Another brave decision, with the potential for causing more arguments, but Walsh argues that in fact it’s an effective way of keeping everyone happy: “It might have taken us a bit longer, but there’s a strong feeling throughout the band that we’ve made a really good record, that we’re all happy with. Every song became an amalgamation over time, going through a number of guises. Ill Fit had a different chorus right up until a couple of weeks before the album was finished.”
Pollen was mostly recorded in East London’s Konk studios, which will now hopefully earn a better legacy than naming a rather shoddy Kooks album. This appears to be a decision based more on the availability of their chosen producer than any stated ambition to tread the well-worn path south. “We went to London because we wanted to work with Lexxxxx [who mixed Wave If You’re Really There and co-produced Pollen] and he was based down there. It was nice to get in a different headspace for a while.”
There was still a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing involved, with sessions recorded both at their own rehearsal space and at Whitewood Studios on Parliament St. When in London, Liverpool was never far from the band’s thoughts, especially those of Norheim who got married during the course of the recordings. Walsh admits to mixed feelings: “I grew up in London, but I’ve spent so much time in Liverpool now I’m torn. There’s a hectic energy about London, and if you’re not there you do start to wonder if you’re missing out on something. But I wouldn’t move back permanently. My next move is much more likely to be to the countryside!”
As with any band worth their salt, the discussions have already begun about how to translate these somewhat sedate songs into a live context. “It’s taken a lot of work because the writing was so protracted. Once we’d finally got the songs together, we then had to learn how to pick them apart. I sometimes wish it was a simpler process, but once we get out on the road we see how much the extra effort pays off.” And for their upcoming Kazimier show in February, the band are particularly keen to produce something a little special: “We love the Kazimier. We’ve played there a few times and it’s always a great feeling.”
Pollen is out now on Neapolitan Records. Visit bidolito.co.uk now to win an exclusive, signed LP copy of the album.