Islet’s Illuminated People drenched us with bold post-rock grandeur when we reviewed it in December.
A stunning debut album, on which ‘Guitar figures drone in and drown out vocal lines, cymbal-heavy rhythms pile in and utterly demolish all that is in the rest of the sound-picture, discordant keyboard notes end tracks with premature foreboding and loss’, and featuring the talents of vocalist Emma Daman, various members of Cardiff-based bands (amongst them The Victorian English Gentlemen’s Club) and the brothers John and Mark Thomas.
Of the latter, drummer John took the time to answer some questions about the album, the band, social media marketing and snare hits.
Trebuchet: On Illuminated People you worked with a producer for the first time. Islet seem to be quite single-minded about maintaining a very individual aesthetic. What did you hope to achieve by bringing a producer in, and what did he bring to the record that you couldn’t have managed yourselves?
Islet: Bringing in a producer at this stage was important to us, as we really wanted the option of sounding hi-fi. I’m glad and proud of the fact that we cobbled together the first two mini albums ourselves off our own back where we worked to our recording limits of our shared knowledge and equipment. We felt it was apt time to work with someone else to expand the music sonically and broaden the palette.
I’m glad and proud of the fact that we cobbled together the first two mini albums ourselves
We wanted to make the loud bits louder and therefore making the quieter bits quieter in comparison! Having Drew Morgan at the helm was a real pleasure for us with his quality and dedication. Also working with Hugh Fielding was a treat as he’s a great engineer. It was a really exciting experience having two people external from the band helping us shape and embellish what we were trying to create.
Trebuchet: The album is, well, bold. It seems less a case of artistic swagger as a simple lack of constraints. Whilst it’s not exactly a debut (there were two mini-albums beforehand), it doesn’t have anything of the tentativeness of a first album. How long has it taken to figure out what you want to sound like, or have you even found out yet?
Islet: As individuals we all have quite different styles musically so I guess the sound is a result of us not dismissing anyone’s ideas. We are all quite confident in putting our own ideas across. We really embrace
the collaborative nature of being in a group; there is not one main songwriter, which I think comes across.
Trebuchet: One of the constants on the album is the presence of some fairly hefty percussion. That’s a constant in rock, but Islet puts a particular emphasis on drums and beats. Where do you stand on the Charlie Watts quote about jazz being a drummer following a band/rock being a band following a drummer?
Islet: Often the songs we create start with drums and percussion and build the music around that so in a way we adhere to that quote. But we also do it the other way around so it’s not really a fixed mantra of ours.
Trebuchet: The album, even the songs themselves, has so many twists that abrupt shifts in tempo, tone and song dynamics seem to be the only reliable constant. There’s obviously chunks of krautrock in the sound, and Gang Gang Dance get mentioned quite a bit when Islet is the subject of conversation. This free approach to song dynamics, is it some sort of songwriter’s indecision – a terror that there are always still more elements that could go into a song and hating to leave anything out?
What may sound like songwriter’s indecision is a decision in itself
Islet: There is an element of not wanting to leave things out because we really like a certain part or idea. What may sound like songwriter’s indecision is a decision in itself. I often enjoy listening to music that has lots of changes and thinking where did that come from? Constants and repetitions are good as well though. Yeah, we like to incorporate the ol’ crowbar technique from time to time.
Trebuchet: Whilst a freeform approach to rock music has got a precedent in Can, there’s a pretty healthy tradition of playing around with the strict verse/chorus/verse structure in UK prog rock. Coming from Cardiff, you must rub shoulders with the likes of Magenta, The Reasoning and their ilk. Any sneaky little prog influences you want to own up to?
Islet: Yeah I really like Gentle Giant amongst others.
Trebuchet:Your approach to music-making isn’t exactly typical of the debut- album rock band. It’s singular, extrememly confident and makes no compromise to the expected format of rock music. Because of that it’s immediately gripping. Without naming names or pointing fingers, what are other bands doing wrong? What are you utterly sick of hearing, or makes you put your head in your hands and think ‘NO!’
Islet: Haha, Well I think other bands can do what they want and we’ll do what we want. Yeah sure there are things that irritate me but they are not really worth mentioning here.
Trebuchet: The narrative that surrounds Islet makes much of the band’s online presence. More specifically the lack thereof. Music 2.0 proposed a utopia of bands building a following through social networks, recording on cheap plug-ins, releasing their music for free and monetizing the resulting fan interest through merchandise and gigging. Is that just a load of conscience-soothing nonsense for self-serving filesharers?
Islet: Maybe! I think musical artistic endeavor should remain to have exchangeable value though. From our point of view we like to put up our music to stream on our website and then if people like it they can buy a tangible or 010011101011 digital copy. I’m all for cheap plug-ins, our first two releases benefited/were hindered by them!
artistic endeavor should remain to have exchangeable value
Trebuchet: Quite a few music fans feel ripped off by a band who don’t constantly maintain an approachable online presence, and that the concept of aloof mystique is exclusionary and contrived. Yet it’s also something of a let-down to hear acts describing their supermarket trips and central- heating woes. Do you have a distinct separation between yourselves as normal people and yourselves as onstage performers? If so, is that helped or hindered by your approach to online promotion?
Islet: We have a website which contains This Is, which is a blog that we use. We don’t avoid a band Twitter etc to be exclusionary, we’d just rather spend our time doing other things and interact in other ways like The Isness.
Trebuchet: You’ve played some big events recently (Leeds, Reading, Bestival), so it’s not exactly the case that you’re avoiding the public eye. Considering that you’re (one of you anyway) also in control of your label, what do you have planned for 2012 – gigs, singles, etc?
Islet: My brothers Mark(who is in the group) and Lee run the label Shape so I’d have to ask them! For Islet we have just got back from an exciting adventure in Japan, which was quite unbelievable. We hope to play in Europe and Britain in Spring time. In Summer we will hopefully be playing lots of festivals.
Trebuchet: You talk elsewhere of the importance of keeping everything in balance – work, family, health etc. To what degree do such factors restrict the success of a band? Or to put it another way – is it possible that not being a full-time band is actually *better* for the music?
Islet: We need to work to pay to live. It’s a bit of balancing act with getting time off to ‘do the band’ but also keeping a job. It means in the time we do have its precious and we try to be as productive as possible. We
separately all have jobs that interact with extraordinary people from completely different walks of life and it certainly has an influence on us. If we had more freedom from time restraints then we could do more of what we wanted.
I don’t think its for the better or worse for the music, it’s just the reality of our situation and making the best of what we’ve got. In a way, as we don’t depend on our music as an income, it does almost give us more freedom to do what we want on our terms as there is no pressure to earn. Yet if we had more freedom from time restraints then we could do more of what we wanted. Hmmm.
Trebuchet: Illuminated People has been picking up some press. Music critics can get a bit flustered at times and miss stuff, so please take this as an opportunity. What have we got wrong or missed? What bits of the album, especially the ones that you were really happy with, sailed by us completely?
Islet: Bit disappointed that the snare hit at 2,33 in ‘Fillia’ didn’t get the recognition it deserved.
Sean Keenan used to write. Now he edits, and gets very annoyed about the word ‘ethereal’. Likely to bite anyone using the form ‘I’m loving….’. Don’t start him on the misuse of three-dot ellipses.
Divides his time between mid-Spain and South-West France, like one of those bucktoothed, fur-clad minor-aristocracy ogresses you see in Hello magazine, only without the naff chandeliers.