Talking Music (And Movies) With The Oxford Rockers
The four members of Oxford band A Silent Film know a disturbing amount about movies. Given their name, it would be disappointing if they weren’t cinema buffs, but as things stand, it’s a little scary. Just don’t get vocalist/pianist Robert Stevenson, guitarist Karl Bareham, bassist Ali Hussain or drummer Spencer Walker talking about Con Air. It might be fine with any of them separately, but not when they’re all in a room together, as they were when they stopped by the Iggy offices while on tour.
Apart from movies we talked some about their new self-produced album Sand and Snow, and how an epic, panoramic tour across America helped inspire it. As you read, try to imagine their interview with us as dripping with deadpan wit, and sprinkled with assorted bits of archness, self-deprecation and drollery. Most of it was very funny, and everything sounds wittier with a British accent anyway.
You were friends from an early age. Were there particular bands that you originally bonded over?
Spencer: I think that’s a very good question. I don’t know how many of them we want to name check. Some of them are pretty embarrassing. Weezer would be a good one. We just played with them the other day and that was like a dream come true. It was very exciting for us because we were pretty into Weezer when we were kids.
Karl: And he watched us play one song.
Spencer: But I didn’t see him and if I had done I probably would have just dropped my guitar and started crying.
Karl: And he didn’t leave, which is pretty cool.
So, you liked a lot of the same music, you started playing together and wrote hundreds of songs before you released anything.
Robert: We disappeared for a while into a wooden shed at the bottom of an orchard. We were renting a house in an old apple orchard and there were all these buildings. It was in Oxford, on the south side of the city. It was just a good hang. People would pitch tents in the garden. And we made this one little shed into a makeshift music studio. And we didn’t play any shows, we just hung out and wrote songs.
Where are these songs now?
Spencer: They’re in a vault, like Prince has a vault with 500 unreleased songs. They’re on my laptop and no one will ever hear them. They’re always with me to make sure no one ever hears them. I’m going to delete them tonight.
I’ve probably got more embarrassing songs. Robert’s the serial deleter.
Robert: I’m a deleter and burner.
So, a lot of this has been lost to time.
Spencer: Oh, yeah, there’s definitely a year’s worth of stuff. The first year, I don’t have any of that stuff.
Is it tragic that the songs have been lost?
Spencer: I think it’s tragic that I’ve kept them.
Robert: I don’t think it’s tragic at all. I think the point of what we were trying to do then was figure out how to make music properly.
Spencer: We had a lot of influences, so one song might be quite prog and another would be punk and neither of them would really be very convincing in either genre. And then there’d be a prog-punk song. We were very into grandiosity, pomposity in music.
Robert: I think the name of the game over that time period was to find a way to be less imitative.
Spencer: That’s a better way of putting it. Delete everything I said.
Okay, the band’s name is A Silent Film, you have an EP called The Projectionist. Would you consider yourselves film buffs?
Robert: I think I’m more a film buff than I am a music buff.
Spencer: I’m not even into music. It’s just film.
You’re just trying to break into film soundtracks?
Robert: Yeah, that’s it.
Spencer: Writing two and a half minute pop songs is a bit easier than soundtracking two hour movie epics, but we’re getting there. But, yeah, we’re all big movie fans. We’ve all got different taste in movies.
I do have some movie related questions.
Spencer: Batman! Is that the answer to the first one?
Who is the biggest movie fan?
Ali: If you’re talking Nick Cage straight to DVD, that’s me.
Spencer: He is, actually. He’s an expert in Nicholas Cage B-movies.
Robert: The divide is that you two think Con Air is a good film.
Spencer: Con Air is going to ruin this band. If anything is going to ruin this band, it’s the film Con Air.
[Unstranscribable, rapid fire, internecine disagreement about Con Air]
Robert: His accent makes me want to vomit.
Spencer: Does that answer your question?
What is your favorite fictional movie band?
Spencer: Oh, easy. Josie and the Pussycats. Or the fictional boy band from that movie, Du Jour who had the song “Back Door Lover.” Amazing. Seth Green? Pretty good cameo.
Carl: What was the name of Katrina’s band from Wayne’s World?
Spencer: Crucial Taunt. She’s actually Cassandra, as well.
Robert: That Thing You Do. That’s a nice film.
Carl: Walk the Line was really good.
Robert: Dancer in the Dark!
Ali: Some Kind of Monster.
There’s a fair amount of storytelling in your songs. If Sand & Snow was a movie, what would the movie be about?
Robert: Love, sex and death, obviously, because that’s what everything is about. Hm. It would just be two people. Sand and snow for me represents two different perspectives that should never and perhaps can never meet.
How did you end up recording in El Paso?
Spencer: It was near Phoenix. We basically wrote and recorded the album in and around Arizona and so we want to do a little more work and there’s a studio near El Paso. It’s a wonderful studio. We found out about it and really it was only a six hour drive from where we were.
Robert: We were living in this crazy house with scorpions and rattlesnakes and owls, big owls. It was really incredible, really inspiring. We brought a piano into the house and all the big gear that we’d been on tour with just ended up there as well. So, we just started recording demos that turned into the album. The finishing touches I think it would be fair to say were done in El Paso. We’d exhausted what we could do in Arizona so we chose a new place to go.
Robert: We crossed the whole of America on tour and when we reached the end we we’re ready to burst we had to make a record.
You didn’t even go back to England?
Robert: That was part of the idea, to keep this cog going that was moving for a long time.
Have any of your experiences in America influenced Sand and Snow in any way?
Robert: Totally. A lot of the album was written before we came out to America because the time between the release of our first album and that tour of American was larger and we’d already written a lot of stuff. But a lot of that stuff got canned because as soon as we saw America and felt what it was doing to us we started writing new songs.
It seems like you guys can be pretty painstaking with songwriting. How do you know when a song is done?
Robert: When you’ve run out of money and everyone hates each other. No. You definitely know when a song is done. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Spencer: In fairness to our reputation, there are some songs on the record that took a long time. There were others that came together and were finished in three hours. So, it’s probably like 70 percent painstaking.
Robert: We work really hard, but in many ways our process is just preparing for that moment when you just do it once and do it right. So, the whole song doesn’t have to be torn apart endlessly.
What is the Sycamore Tapes project?
Robert: Getting back into El Paso. We started touring the new songs and started playing them live and they were very exciting to us. We had a week off where we didn’t know what to do and we went back to the same studio in El Paso and just started filming one take versions of the songs being played as they were.
It was almost the opposite of these processes in the studios where you end up overdubbing and layering and analyzing. We took it back and stripped it back to one take. On top of that we filmed it all with one camera, one angle, with one light as well. And the whole idea was to bring it back to a very focused point of view. And we’re very proud of that. In a week we achieved something like 15 or 17 videos.