Tall Ships interview: "There’s nothing false about what we do."

Henry Boon spoke to bassist Matt Parker of Tall Ships about his new album, their upcoming tour and the creative song writing process.

Skiddle Staff

Date published: 6th Mar 2017

Image: Tall Ships 

Since the release of a handful of EPs that saw them as the digestible, emotional misfits amongst a scene of intricate, time-signature-straddling math-rock back in 2010, Tall Ships ’ story hasn’t always been plain sailing. After years of non-stop touring, a worn-down and broken group Tall Ships realised it was time to take stock and work on something new.

Five years since the release of their eclectic, beautiful debut Everything Touching, Tall Ships have returned rejuvenated with their most accessible, personal record to date. 

We caught up with Matt Parker (backing vocals, bass, just about everything else) to talk about their new record, Impressions and what is it about Tall Ships that make their live shows some of the most emotionally engaging, special feeling shows around. 

Hi Matt! How’re you?

Yeah not to bad thanks, I’m trying to write the world’s longest email, it’s taking me about an hour and I’m still not through it! We’ve got a million things we need to do in the next couple of weeks so I’m just trying to organise that. Boring band admin!

It’s not so easy because Ric (Phethean - vocals, lead guitar) and Jamie (Bush – drums) are up in London and me and Jamie (Field – keys, electronics) are down in Brighton, so we don’t see each other too often so just a big email once a week does it all!

You’re playing some shows soon, right?

Yeah, next week! 

When was the last tour you did?

We supported Lonely The Brave in October/November last year but the last headline tour we did was even before that, maybe March/April last year, it’s been a long old while but now we have new songs so we’re raring to get on the road again!

It’s gonna be great just playing new songs, that’s the main reason we started this band, just to play as many shows as possible so yeah, itching to get away, we love touring! 

Will you be playing a lot of stuff for the first time?

Yeah there’s a couple we’ve not played live yet, we’re gonna try and do a good 50/50 split with new album stuff and some of the older ones. A lot of it in the studio has so many different parts so we’re just trying to translate that into just the four of us, there’s maybe a hundred tracks on the session of some songs so we’re trying to work out ways we can do that!

Is that something you think about when you’re writing, how it will sound live? 

Yeah, initially we wrote songs for how they would be projected live, maybe as we’ve gotten a bit older we’ve kind of gained a better relationship with the studio and using the studio to make stuff that we might not be able to do live. But yeah, we’re getting a better balance, we think about how it’s gonna be live and how tracks work live and then also we try to make the album completely different live, we’ve got loads of orchestral stuff on there and extra vocalists and all sorts.

We’re fortunate enough to have the tech so we can loop things and programme things and essentially play two instruments at the same time. It’s fun for us trying to work out how to get all these parts together, it’s a little bit of technology and scratching of heads but usually we find a way! 

You’ve always been a band that’s relied on technology to a certain extent, is there any new stuff for this one?

Not so much, I think we’ve become less reliant on loops. This time round Jamie, who recorded our first record, joined the band so there were a lot of things where me and Ric would be playing keyboards and guitar at the same time, we’ve now been able to give all that to Jamie so he can create all the sparkles and the piano and it frees up me and Ric to do more stuff.

In terms of the new album we explored different instruments and make it a bit more grand and rich, we’re still slaves to the tech but there’s not anything new! We use music programming software and I think we’ve only scratched like 1% of what it can do for us so it’s always exciting. You can map audio to visual so that every time you play a certain note it can trigger lights and video, that’s something we really wanna go into. At some point we’ll get round to it! We’re slowly working it out.

Slowly is the key word with Tall Ships, right?

(He laughs) Yeah! Well, we’ve started writing the third record and that’s gonna be a quick turnaround, we wanna make sure that its out super-quick! We’ve got an idea of how we want it to sound and how we’re gonna write it. It should be a quicker process, we very much know what we’re gonna do. 

What was the main reason for the gap between the last album and this one?

Between releasing the first few EPs and the album, we were just constantly on tour for sort of nine months in the year. I think it just sort of came to a point where we were writing songs but we were on tour all the time, and there was a lot of emotional, financial and physical hindrance to all of us to varying degrees, so we just needed a break.

We had to go and work and pay off all those debts! Jamie had a string of physical injuries, the mental health of me and Ric needed a bit of attention, it was just time to take stock and ground ourselves and start again.

We’ve never been quick at writing, especially for Ric with his lyrics, he’s always been very open about it and very passionate that everything that he’s ever written. Lyrics-wise it’s a personal experience, there’s nothing made up or anything throwaway. Unfortunately, the four years we had off did throw up a lot of difficult and interesting real life situations which defiantly helped Ric. A combo of things really! But we’re all in a place now to start pushing again so it should be a lot quicker now.

Is that something that takes its toll on your and Ric emotionally, being on the road all the time?

Not necessarily, we’re very blessed and thankful that we do get to play lots of shows, it’s one of our favorite things to do. It was more real life stuff rather than band stuff but yeah, it takes its toll on anyone being away all the time and the band just kind of makes enough money to keep it goes but doesn’t pay any of us and between the four of us we live in two of the most expensive cities in England! 

Do you think that you’re the same band that were five years ago?

Our ethics, our morals and our drive are exactly the same but I guess we’re a bit more mature, we’re all 30 now! We a bit more conscious of what we’re doing, we’re more coherent in what we wanna do and say but we still treat every show exactly the same, every show we’ll go about it at 110% and 100 miles an hour, that’ll never change.

We try to make the shows as fun and big and loud as possible. I think maybe our writing styles have changed a lot, our earlier stuff was quite tied into that math rock and looping stuff but we’re all suckers for 4/4 and pop songs and we grew up listening to that sort of music so I guess it was a natural progression.

We’ve never put ourselves into a box we can’t get out of, ever since we started we’ve been like ‘cool, let’s do something that sounds like a hip-hop song or that sounds absolutely massive or a delicate love song’ we’ve always done whatever musically. 

As we get a bit more…mature, we’re trying to strip a lot back, we put so much on songs, we just wanna rein it in a bit and concentrate on what people like and what we personally like and developing those instead of making a big box of noises! 

Have you found that people connect more to the songs that are a bit less busy and technical, is there a sound people enjoy more?

I think it’s kind of split, I guess there are some people who religiously like the first two EPs and some people who really like the newer stuff. Whatever we write we’re very strange, we’re not very conventional and we don’t play our instruments in the traditional way, so whatever we do it’s always gonna sound like us.

We’ll always lose a few fans but we’ll always defiantly gain some more so for us it’s just trying to keep us entertained and pushing what we do. If people like it and it means something to them and they get on board with it then that’s all we can ask for really, we’re very blessed that people do.

Do you think your fan base has changed over the years?

They definitely got older! I guess it’s hard to tell, we’ll find out when we go on tour next week, I’m not completely sure. It’s gonna be interesting, we’ve always had quite a diverse crowd of younger and older people and people in between. It’s always been very varied, certain songs mean certain things to certain people.

It’s always been a funny crowd, when you stated you ended up in amongst a math-rock scene which is a really dedicated crowd but that stays quite small, would you say that you've grown out into a wider, more accessible sound?

Yeah, I guess it was the label and the loop pedals but we were doing a disservice to math-rock! There are so many great math-rock bands that use all these different time signatures and are completely bonkers but all our songs from the first one to last one we wrote are all in 4/4! If were to be math-rock we’d be the equivalent of GCSE grade D maths compared to the others.

But it was humbling to be a part of that scene, we didn’t realise we were gonna end up there and there’s a great fan base, but we wanted to write more straightforward songs. We’re suckers for hooks and all that classic pop song stuff so I guess it was inevitable we’d start pushing the envelope.

So, you recorded this album in Devon, was it quite secluded?

Yeah, Jamie has a studio there down in Bovey Tracey, we did the first record there. It is quite secluded; it’s a beautiful village and there’s a pub, a post office and a Spa shop. It’s definitely very important to us because we could all be there recording, whilst one of us was trying to get through a particular part of recording the others would be making dinner, it’s good be involved with no distractions, for us it worked really well. 

Does that DIY, intimate recording style make it a more personal record with more heart?

Yeah, I think that was a recurring theme with this record, musically and lyrically it’s very personal and at times very raw. We’re not ashamed to put our heart on our sleeves, I’m really happy with it.

That’s something that I think is one of the reasons why people love watching you guys play so much, it’s a very emotional experience.

Yeah, we all in different ways use this band – especially live – as a form of counselling, it’s a cathartic thing. For me, it’s my therapy every day. Obviously, we want people to enjoy it and have fun but it’s a nice thing to do every day, I love it for that. There’s nothing false about what we do. 

In a way, I think that makes it quite cathartic for the people watching as well because it’s accessible. Often when I’ve seen you play you’ve stopped and let the audience sort of take-over, is that something that you bear in mind when writing?

I don’t think Ric has ever sat down and written something thinking the audience will sing back, it just happened naturally, it was a surprise for all of us. It’s one of the most humbling things to spend a long time and invest a lot of effort in something and then have people singing it back to you, we’re very grateful for that, you can’t really ask for much more. We’ve come across people where certain songs have meant something to certain people, people have had ‘Ode to Ancestors’ played at their wedding!

That must be so weird…

Yeah! At ArcTanGent a couple of years ago we were playing that song and we hadn’t realised until after that somebody had proposed! It’s a bizarre thing but we’re all music fans and we have songs from bands that mean something to use, we’d have those songs played at our weddings and it’s so weird that something we created is now having that effect. It’s surreal, I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand it!

Do you still get that same feeling every time?

Yeah! Completely. I don’t think it’ll ever feel normal, we hope it continues, we hope people will embrace the new album and it’ll have an impact. It’s something we never take for granted. 

You can see Tall Ships live on Tuesday 2nd May at Birmingham's Hare and Hounds.

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