If we have to compromise what we do in order to chase something that everyone else is doing, then we're fucked.
Until the Ribbon Breaks’ A Lesson Unlearnt hints at a journey, an album to be discovered in its intuitively deliberate sequencing of tracks and the slow unraveling of the avant-R&B trio’s willingness to embrace a self-contained world of its own idiosyncratic songwriting. If there’s abstraction in UTRB’s kaleidoscopic sonic voyage, the journey is uniform in their thoughtful lyrical palette and incandescent atmospherics. At times intimate and at others anthemic, it’s a metronomic sway: a cinematic pendulum concerning love, remembrance, hope, and disrepair. The penultimate “Goldfish” is a certain standout, but each textured composition is no more than an overture to its counterparts that transport you elsewhere completely. The album’s closing track (“Until the Ribbon Breaks”) echoes the tempered and equivocal sentiment the album’s opener (“The Other Ones”) unspools, but not without “a lesson unlearnt” perhaps.
Anthem caught up with Pete, James and Elliot at Terminal 5 as they rolled through NYC to discuss life on the road, their upcoming Coachella gig, and their latest release.
A Lesson Unlearnt is now available for purchase after the jump.
How does this new tour with London Grammar compare to previous ones?
Peter Lawrie Winfield: For me, it’s the best tour we’ve done. I think it took a few tours to realize what we wanted to change. I guess that’s always going to be the case, but we’ve definitely made some fundamental changes. From the last tour to this one, it’s become more live and looser. Because of that, I definitely think—when I’m performing every night—it massively brings me out of my shell. Before, things were so close to the record that I felt trapped in trying to strive for perfection. It’s weird, actually, because—this is probably cliche—in losing trying for it to be so perfect, I actually sing better. Also, London Grammar couldn’t be nicer people.
James Gordon: Billing with them was perfect because they’ve got this mellow, beautiful section. With us, it’s very different, so it’s a perfect match. London Grammar’s crowd has been very welcoming. This tour’s had some of our best shows. The Montreal show was off the scale.
Peter: Some of the crowds have made us feel like it’s a double billing.
James: Yeah, people actually say that to me. The merch guy said it feels like a double headline.
Peter: To have that feeling from the crowd, that sense of welcome, gives you more confidence for the next day and the day after that. Before you know it, we’ll all be on our knees in spandex. [Laughs] We’ve been trying forever to get Elliot to… Because he’s the one out of us that’s…
Elliot Wall: Tan?
Peter: He’s got muscles, you know, and that’s good. We reckon that he should drum topless.
Have you ever done that, Elliot?
Elliot: I did do it once.
Peter: Did you?
Elliot: I don’t really know the reason why I did it.
Peter: What would you think if you saw a drummer come out on stage topless?
I wouldn’t think anything of it. What would be weird is if you were all topless.
Elliot: It just wouldn’t look good. I mean, I’m working on it.
James: He’s working on it. You’ll get there soon.
Peter: If I had to go on topless, then you two would also have to do something. If he doesn’t mind, I would want James to do all the talking between songs.
Elliot: Which is not that strange because Dan [of London Grammar] does all the talking, right?
James: He does a bit.
How much do your sets change from place to place, from venue to venue?
James: We struggled through this one because, with London Grammar being so mellow, we were like, “We should totally play some more mellow tracks!” But we’ve got a 30-minute set. A 30-minute set can be tough, but that’s alright. On the first show, we kind of played all the big tunes.
Peter: When something like “Revolution Indifference” was coming up on the set list on the first night, I was thinking, “Oh my god…”
James: [Laughs] The lights were going insane.
Peter: Strobes. There were rappers coming on projectors. Four-track beats and the 808. The crowd was going, “Oh, man!” It worked perfectly, so we were wrong to worry.
James: So the set on this tour has not changed yet. I don’t think it’s going to, is it?
Peter: We recorded a cover of “One Way Or Another.” We’ve been playing that during soundchecks because it needs to get its live debut.
James: We have a headline show coming up Saturday, so I’m sure it’s going to rear its head then.
Peter: And we’ve got Homeboy Sandman playing with us tonight, which is really exciting. It’s nice to just come to New York City because a lot of the rappers we like can feature with us. Homeboy himself is a musician and such an amazing person to have around.
What’s a “good” venue? What are you thinking when you’re walking into Terminal 5?
James: With Terminal 5, it has quite an industrial feeling. It used to be a car park with all the metal beams and that gives a certain feel to it. I think it probably works for a lot of heavier bands.
Elliot: Marilyn Manson is playing tomorrow.
James: Yes, exactly. For bands that have a more acoustical edge like London Grammar, I think theaters are nice. The House of Blues in Boston was just beautiful. It’s so old, but with a really good sound system. It was really nicely furnished as well. It has the feeling that there were some big, big important shows there in history, you know?
Elliot: Terminal 5 is kind of the only place now in New York because of the lack of other venues.
James: Is Webster Hall still around?
Webster Hall is definitely around. Roseland Ballroom closed last year.
Peter: I really want to play at Radio City Music Hall. I really like the Roundhouse in London. The sound is so good. Sometimes it’s about the sound, but like James said about the House of Blues, it’s about being honored to be part of the venue’s history, I suppose.
James: The Montreal show was at the venue with the really steep steps going up. When you get to the bottom and you look to the side of the stage, there’s this little area where the monitor engineers and all the techs work, and it looks like they’ve been there forever. There’s this wall that some guy stuck all these AAA’s onto and you see all these bands that have been there. It’s just that feeling of cozy familiarity, which is really, really cool.
Peter: I like Terminal 5. I saw a James Blake show here and the look of the room at night with him playing seemed perfect. The room has this coldness and his music is slightly detached and modern. Sometimes it depends on what’s playing in a venue. So, different venues for different reasons.
You’re playing both weekends at Coachella this year. That’s a good one.
Peter: We really hope there’s people in the tent with us at that time of day. It’s what people always say, but my worry with shows is how many people are going to be there.
What’s your set time?
James: I’m guessing we’ll be opening.
I saw Midnight Juggernauts play years ago. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but they blew my mind, basically. They played so, so early.
Peter: How many people were there?
I don’t think you should worry. Do you guys have any pre-show rituals to calm nerves?
Peter: I used to worry about being worried about shows. I still get worried and anxious about shows, but I don’t worry that I’m anxious about shows. I spoke to El-P recently when he was doing a show in L.A. and we went backstage. He’s someone I look up to because he’s just done whatever he wants and his career is now at, what, 25 years? We asked him a similar question and he said he still has that feeling, but it’s been a long time since he counted his nerves. Now he compares it to being an athlete in the starting blocks. If you didn’t feel any sense of anticipation, you’d go on stage without a good engine. Sometimes you can have a show where, for whatever reason, you don’t get that feeling. In those circumstances where we know it’s going to be a cool show, but we’re just chilling out, Elliot will go, “Come on!” and we make ourselves get nervous.
James: We do vocal warm-ups and put some music on.
Elliot: Warm-ups are important.
James: Sometimes when things are rushed—there’s a lot to sort out technically—you miss the opportunity to get nervous and that’s a shame.
Peter: It’s Eminem in the mirror before the final battle in 8 Mile.
What are you normally thinking about when you’re performing on stage?
James: “What’s up next?” With a good show like the Montreal one, you have a really good crowd and it feels like you’re engaging with them in the way you should be. When I go see one of my favorite acts, I feel like they’re so engaged with the audience. That’s the optimum situation. If the show feels not quite right or if it’s a bit quiet because there’s a storm outside and it stops people from coming, it can be a bit of a distraction. It can take you out of the zone a little bit.
Elliot: I also think the opposite is true. For me, a good show is when I’m not necessarily engaged with the audience, but with the music. It’s when I’m completely lost in the music.
James: Then you’re engaging with the audience because they’re watching you feeling the music.
Peter: It’s a bit of both. I often catch myself drifting off. I’m getting better at not doing that, but it’s definitely a learning curve. Now I can bring myself back into the music a lot quicker. It’s just always important to make sure you’re feeling the music.
Now that the new album’s out, what’s the reception been like? Has anything surprised you?
Peter: It’s a weird feeling because you work on a record for three years. That sounds like a long time, but this one took that long—not to make, but before it found its way out. So to have a day when it’s released, it’s not like we’re swinging from chandeliers and popping bottles. You probably do something, but it’s more about this amazing feeling, like, I’m proud of that piece of work and that piece of work is about the place we were at. And, for me, it’s always about, “What’s next?” But in terms of the reception, it’s nice to see people really listening to the words. It’s amazing when people pick out a certain line from one of our songs in the middle of a verse and apply that to an image to go with it. It’s cool that a piece of lyric can mean so much to someone.
James: I appreciate that people understand it as a piece of work. A lot of people have been tweeting about it, saying how they’re listening to it in its entirety. That’s so rare. I think the last time I listened to a full album was maybe a couple days ago, but only because I’m on tour traveling. Life doesn’t often allow for that. People have been able to absorb it as one piece and pinpoint the fact that it’s a very potent piece of work and up for interpretation. It’s this world that people are diving into where they can have their own experience of it. That was our intention.
It’s a stretch to imagine any artist who wouldn’t put much thought into the ordering of tracks on an album to create some sort of sonic narrative. It’s like watching a movie, right? We stream songs online now, which doesn’t allow for that at all.
Peter: Yeah, exactly. I was reading this thing recently where George Ergatoudis from Radio One said that in two years the album won’t exist anymore. I was thinking, “Yes, it will! If we make one.” If we have to compromise what we do in order to chase something that everyone else is doing, then we’re fucked. I think we’ll always make bodies of work. We’re not a singles band and we don’t want to be. We’re always making things that people want to listen to, hopefully, from start to finish. We’re trying to make a bigger world, a bigger concept. It’s not about three and a half minutes of the perfect chords. It’s a body of work and that’s how we intended it.