I’m really happy and surprised by how we’ve very much become a live band, a live experience.
Hailing from Wales—currently residing in Los Angeles—Until the Ribbon Breaks is founding member Peter Lawrie Winfield, James Gordon and Elliot Wall. What started out as a solo project, the moniker cleverly alludes to cassettes and films that are played until…you know where we’re going with this. The trio’s style, straight out of a golden era when the mix-tape reigned supreme, embraces a love of old school hip-hop, pop and electronic beats, cleverly weaved together to create sounds, samples and lyrics that simply can’t be thrown into a single genre. The three-piece continues to carry their seriously addictive audiovisuals into realms previously unvisited.
The cinematic element to their work—a string of clips pulled from both familiar and unexpectedly obscure films—comes as no surprise from a band whose lead originally studied film and has always maintained that music and film inform each other, as well as the production process. It’s been one year now since the release of their critically acclaimed debut EP A Taste of Silver. Come January, Until the Ribbon Breaks will be hitting the stage to delight audiences with their “live experiences” on tour, supporting fellow British trip-hop trio London Grammar. Keep your eyes peeled for their long-awaited debut LP A Lesson Unlearnt, coming January 20, 2015.
So what did you guys end up doing last night?
PETER LAWRIE WINFIELD: I went to the cinema on my own, which is something I love to do. I decided not to go into Interstellar, which I had been looking forward to. I don’t really know why. I decided to take a chance on Birdman instead. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a couple years.
JAMES GORDON: Wow.
Front to back, it’s a masterpiece.
PLW: It’s a perfect film, apart from the last scene. My theory is that Hollywood made the writers or the director put that in. I reckon [Michael Keaton] would’ve just stayed by the window. This isn’t too much of a spoiler, James.
[Alejandro González Iñárritu] is so embedded in the Hollywood system now. I’m sure he has to make concessions here and there. 21 Grams was nearly perfect as well.
PLW: Did he make 21 Grams? That’s an incredible film.
You studied film.
At what point did you decide to change your focus to music?
PLW: When I went to study film at university, I realized I’m the least patient person. It really did come down to the simple fact that the rush you get from making music is quicker than what you get making films. Even with short films and stuff, I just hate it by the end of it because the process is so painstaking. With music, it might take an hour or a day to finish writing or producing something, you know? You’ll still love it by the end of the process. But now I combine both, which is how Until the Ribbon Breaks started.
I find that really appealing, the way you present music. The music heightens the borrowed film clips and vice versa. And you pull from really obscure films like Leviathan and Beyond the Black Rainbow. Are you a fan of all the movies you pull clips from?
PLW: I mean, I don’t always have to love the film to borrow clips. I suppose I would have to love the cinematography because it’s so much about the visuals. I don’t have to love the film as a whole. I actually haven’t gone near my favorite films. One of my favorite films of all time is The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick. I tried to work with the footage at the end of that film where the character’s kind of ingrained in the tribe by then. Every piece of music I tried to put onto it was never as beautiful or good as how it already is.
What other filmmakers do you like?
PLW: I’m a massive fan of the Cohen Brothers, Lynch, Cronenberg, Fincher…
All the masters.
PLW: [Laughs] Yeah. They’re good films.
Do you start working with the visuals after you’ve completed a track or does that happen fairly early in the songwriting process?
PLW: A bit of both. It’s like going through the filing cabinet and my brain trying to remember scenes and certain things that might work. There was actually a montage in Birdman where Keaton leaves the theater, goes to the shop, gets a bottle of whiskey and walks out onto the street. I was in the cinema counting the minutes because I thought it would be amazing if that scene was just one shot for one song as opposed to cutting it. In the end, it was a bit short. Then I had to stop doing work so I can just watch the film. I kept wondering, what song could I write that would conceptually match that scene? It’s just about pulling different inspirations from different places.
JG: There are no rules as well. Part of the power, attitude and ethos of the creative machine is to make things differently all the time. “What do we make now? How do we make it?”
What were some challenges you faced translating your music for live performances?
PLW: The whole thing, right?
JG: Yeah. [Laughs]
PLW: But it was fun because I didn’t have a clue. For a long time, I thought I would finish the record, put it on the Internet and that would be it. I thought it would just be this piece of work that happened and I would go do something else. Then as the process went on, I met James and Elliot. Gradually, we’ve become very much a band. During the process, it’s become much more exciting to do it live and now it’s one of my favorite aspects of it. I’m really happy and surprised by how we’ve very much become a live band, a live experience. Even when we think about the second record, it’s very much informed by seeing how people react, how we feel on stage and how we want to feel on stage. It literally started with the three of us in a room in London with a loaded gear we had just bought. They were in these boxes and we would figure out who would play what. [Laughs] We just didn’t know yet while divvying out stuff to each other.
JG: It was sort of like making it in reverse and dissecting it. A lot of the initial demos and ideas that did go onto become tracks were little samples of things, little sounds, and chords cut from old samples and stuff. A lot of the piecing together, the splicing, was the opposite of what we had to do in order to play live. Unsplicing it, taking all of those sounds and re-performing them in a new way with new equipment would allow us to work out how that could be done in a way to make it more than a record as well. So it’s not just about piecing it together in front of people and doing a micro version of us in the studio, but doing something that’s more of a show. It involves lots of toys and gear, which is my thing.
Going way back, what were your first instruments?
PLW: My granddad bought me a trumpet when I was 10. The trumpet is part of our live shows now. I mean, not that trumpet because I have a habit of breaking and losing everything.
How do you lose a trumpet?
PLW: I didn’t. We did a live show at SXSW and I got really excited. The show had gone really well and there was this big crescendo moment in our last song. I had my rock and roll moment, throwing my trumpet to the floor. That was fucking stupid. [Laughs] Needless to say, it’s not the same trumpet I had when I was 10.
JG: I picked the drums when I was 11. That was it for a long time. Quite late on, when I was maybe 15 or 16, my dad bought me some software for the PC. It meant that I could have like 16 tracks and make MIDI songs. That blew my mind. 127 sounds. It was wicked. I also had a classical upbringing and learned the piano. The school I went to was very classical-minded. I was always the one who came to school with this MiniDisc of general MIDI. It sounded like Nintendo playing Bach.
PLW: You should release that. [Laughs] You were really forward-thinking back then. Still too forward-thinking.
Did you have musical siblings or parents in the house?
JG: Pete’s family is really musical.
PLW: My dad makes parts for wind instruments and my mom is a classical oboist. My dad’s parents are both classical oboists, too. That’s actually how my parents met. My grandad was giving my mom oboe lessons and when she would come over, I guess she would see my dad there. A bit of a flirt. And instead of getting babysitters and stuff when I was a kid, we’d go sit in an empty theater and watch my mom in the orchestra rehearse the ballet or the opera. Every Saturday, I had this private viewing of the opera or ballet. I hated it at the time. I wanted to go play football or screw around, but now I think it’s amazing. Now I’m really thankful for that.
We never really appreciate what we have when we’re little.
Are you guys living in L.A. now?
PLW: Since March. We were in New York for a couple months before that.
What brought you out there? Was it for any particular reason?
PLW: It’s really hot. [Laughs] I mean, it wasn’t entirely that, but it was part of the appeal. The reason why I wanted to move to New York from the UK was because I grew up with hip-hop and film, my two biggest loves. I didn’t know a better place to be for that other than New York City. Once I’d experienced that for a bit, I wanted another amazing cultural reference. As a kid in Britain, you grow up with either the first shot of every New York film where it’s coming over the bridge into Manhattan. And every L.A. film is like Michael Mann or something—Hollywood. I just wanted to experience both worlds, which has been incredible.
Do you find that being in different locales affects your music?
PLW: Yeah, I was thinking about the next set of music and lyrics, and how L.A. might bleed into it. I just worry that I’m way too happy now. [Laughs] I think I need some tragedy or something.
JG: Stay in New York City for the winter.
PLW: What I don’t want to do is make a Jack Johnson beach record. It’s hard to have that much angst when you wake up and go to the beach. New York is gritty, dark and all you have to do is come in from the cold to write a dark, winter New York song. I don’t know how L.A. is going to translate into the music. I have to go find a log cabin somewhere that’s much worse.
PLW: [Laughs] Exactly, exactly.
When you first start working on new material, do you go in with certain themes and specific goals in mind? Do you set parameters?
PLW: It’s been really nice this time around because we’re a band now. We weren’t really sure what we were in the beginning. Our second record is the exciting bit for me. It’s like, okay, what do we wanna do? Suddenly it’s three heads put together. It’s nice to have a debate and talk about what we wanna do before doing it. I think we want to limit our palette a bit. It’s easy with electronic music nowadays to have every sound in the world available to you. Everyone’s got the same synths, plugins and software. We want to develop our own techniques.
JG: I think that’s important and we’ve been having a lot of fun talking about that at the moment. What you just touched on about limitations is really important. A lot of the most exciting music happening now is about the equipment being used or it’s because of the type of production, or maybe it isn’t even produced at all. A lot of the music that stands the test of time has limitations. I could go onto this computer and play any sound where instrument is never played. It’s fun to be like, what else should we throw in here now? But if you only have five sounds that you use for a track, it’s exciting because you have to change your thinking and writing.
Your tour with London Grammar got postponed to January. What happened?
PLW: I think it was just a scheduling thing. I mean, I’d love to tell you that our drummer disappeared and we found him in Hawaii naked. You might as well just say that. Can we definitely do that?
Yes. On the record. Social media is funny. I saw that you were postponing the tour on your Facebook page and it read cryptic. Do you like social media?
PLW: Sometimes I question the integrity of it, the importance of it. Sometimes it feels like you’re just doing it because it’s what everyone else is doing. That’s how you roll out a record now, etc. Then the other side of it is that you either kind of join the party or the party is gonna go on without you. I don’t know because I’m about to say something I might not agree with. On the one hand, it’s amazing that it removes the distance between the rock star and the listeners because it should be like that. But then I found out that people like Tom Waits have a Twitter account. I was gutted. When I was a kid, you think of these people as unattainable, mysterious and elusive weirdos. That’s what you want them to be. I want Tom Waits to be what I imagine him to be. I want him to be sitting in some dingy bar with a notepad, scribbling. But he’s not. He’s on Twitter saying he just got In & Out. It breaks my heart! But I find it funny that I know what Tom Waits had for breakfast. To answer your question, I see both sides of it. It’s a necessary evil.
What do you want to say about the upcoming A Lesson Unlearnt LP? Is it very much an extension of your earlier EPs?
PLW: Yeah, definitely. Thematically, it’s still something that I’m proud of. There’s a thread to it. We weren’t thinking, well, we need three singles and the rest will just be “meh.” Everything was certainly thought about and what tracks our people decide to put out first is beside the point. There are certain elements that are out of our control. But I do feel like we made a cohesive body of work. It’s a funny one because I think people can expect schizophrenic genre hop that were on those EPs. I think it’s more that I hope people don’t know what to expect. That’s what I think is cool about it.
When do you say, this is obviously the definitive single? Do you know fairly early on?
JG: I think that’s really hard. I think the best people to do that sometimes are the people who aren’t creatively involved. Also, over time, our relationship to the tracks change. And when we play them live, it changes again. When we make a video for something, it might change again. We invest so much into each little tiny thing we do. Obviously, when we’re making it, we don’t think about those things. Even in terms of an album, that thought is completely suffocating or restrictive in your creative flow. You just want to keep making stuff. You don’t think about it as a body of work necessarily until that moment comes.
PLW: It’s definitely an interesting one. There’s always this talk about the death of the album. It’s like everyone’s just gonna do their singles, urban subscriptions and stuff. I would do everything in our power to always make sure we made records, regardless of what everyone else is doing. What I love about what we do is making a little world and putting things into it. Whether you’re with us or you’re not. We’re gonna do what we do. It’s like forming a gang. We’re gonna do what we do and if you don’t like it, go listen to something else. [Laughs] I think it should always be like that.
JG: I think albums will always be, for most people, like the end of a chapter. It’s like a book-end and a period of time. Right now, we’ve done loads of stuff with the album and put a lot of energy into it. The creation of the album and support of the album has been a natural, chronological movement. It’s like a bookmark. Now we’re doing the next thing, which is the next album.
Do you follow what other artists are doing?
PLW: I don’t really listen to music, really. The only music I listen to outside of what we do are film scores because it’s the only music I can write lyrics to. Very often, I write lyrics when there’s no song yet. But I can’t just write music when there’s no ambiance. I wouldn’t be able to just sit here and write something. There has to be some kind of an emotion. I basically write all the lyrics to other people’s film scores. It just sort of subtly leans you a certain way, maybe without you even realizing it. Using film is powerful in what we do. Like I was saying about Birdman, I can’t help but think, how could that footage be used, if at all? It’s difficult to kind of separate it. I need to find a hobby that has nothing to do with Under the Ribbon Breaks… I have to take up golf or something. Okay, not golf. [Laughs] Scuba diving? But then that would be amazing footage to shoot! It’s just impossible to not work.
Are you able to go to the movies and get totally lost in it?
PLW: I can do it if the movie is bad, but in a good way. If it’s some kind of big, balls out action film. I would never use any footage like that for something we do, so I can sit there and enjoy the magnitude of the sound, the action, the special effects and whatever is good about those bad movies. But if it’s something that I love or if it’s visually engaging, I’m just automatically thinking, ok, I’m going to steal that. [Laughs] Terrible. I’m a thief.
Do you think it would be fun to do a proper film score as composers?
PLW: We would love to. I think it would still be as Until the Ribbon Breaks. Hopefully, that’s where we end up, like what Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor do. They make scores and they’re still Nine Inch Nails. We would love, love to do that. As soon as that opportunity comes, it would be the right thing to do. That’s what we do. We sit in front of footage and make sounds. That feels like a natural progression.
JG: It would kind of be the ultimate thing in a way. We’re creating a world to what’s happening in front of us.
PLW: And we’re not stealing footage. [Laughs]
I think that partnership with Fincher was in the stars. Did you watch Gone Girl?
What were your feelings about that particular score?
PLW: I thought that score was amazing because it’s really unnerving, but it’s because it’s not. I often found myself not realizing that it was a score. Then you tune into the score and it’s really nice. I just think it perfectly plays into that, the idea that this could be everyone’s life. And there’s this edge to it that’s really sinister.
PLW: Yeah, exactly. It’s detached emotionally. Oftentimes, film scores are like, okay, the person’s crying, get the violins out. It can really work, but this had an element of detachment to it. I thought it was amazing.
Have you stumbled on a score recently that you’re really into?
PLW: Contact. The score for that’s amazing. It’s composed by Alan Silvestri. I’ve been listening to that. When I say it out loud it sounds weird, but I’ve been writing lyrics to the score for Contact. [Laugsh] I know that sounds really weird. I have hours and hours of scores on a playlist on iTunes. I put it on when I know I’m going to fall asleep, whether that’s on a plane or in bed or wherever. I think there’s this huge element, especially with music like that, that seeps into your subconscious. They can inform your dreams, how you sleep and what you think about. I use soundtracks to subconsciously get myself into a certain mood.