Swansea’s Panic Room have long been one of Britain’s more interesting and innovative rock bands, with a hugely varied sound that makes them next to impossible to pigeonhole.
Trebuchet Magazine caught up with Panic Room’s Jon Edwards and Anne-Marie Helder on the eve of the second leg of their UK tour to talk about their new album, the band’s new lineup, and the tour.
Tim Hall : Incarnate is a bit of a change in direction, and has a quite different feel compared to the last couple of albums. Were you aiming for a different vibe?
With every new album a band creates, there will be people who want to compare it to the last, or the whole back-catalogue, and focus on the differences or similarities…. But for us, it’s simply about creating the best music we have within us, and that feels right ‘in the moment’.
You have to let the idea flow… to follow its own path, grow into its own identity.
Often the best song ideas come to you as a strong ‘force’ of some kind, and you’re really just opening the doors and letting it all come through… and trying to capture its essence in the best way you can. Whether that’s a mental or a spiritual thing I’m never sure, but I have a feeling it’s a little of both.
I often compare songs to being like children – they each have their own little life-force, are all unique, and you are there to nurture them towards becoming their best. It’s not about forcing them in any one direction.
It’s impossible to put into words… but what I’m trying to say is, writing an album of songs isn’t about any contrived decisions to try and make the band ‘sound’ a certain way – it’s about letting the music flow, from a place within.
And sometimes these songs will have a connection to each other, across different albums, because they are coming from the same creative pens of certain people; and because as five musicians in a band, we are going to probably make choices that we like, and keep on liking them for a few years!
But other times a track will sound completely different and unique, just because that’s what the song ‘needs’.
We’ve got tracks on each Panic Room album that people think are more quirky, and those which come across as ‘heavier’, ‘moodier’, more ‘poppy’, or world-music inspired. This is just something that naturally happens in our songwriting, and we feel it’s good to capture all the disparate elements of our creativity in an album, because it makes for a more interesting listen. But we certainly haven’t set out to change direction in any way.
I think that, similarly to S K I N, the new album is pretty dark in a lot of places… but this happened naturally in those two albums, for whatever reasons – personal, global, or just as a mood.
But there are lighter moments too, and a feeling of hope and love amidst all the pain.
If you actually put all of the material from all four albums together, you’d see a synergy which says a lot about the band. I think that an artist’s body of work says more about them than any one album does, because you can’t express anyone’s whole life and style in one collection of 10-12 songs.
It’s a curious thing how the music press kind of expect every next album to be a band’s ‘defining work’… whereas if they really knew how any artists’ minds worked, they’d realise that what defines them is ALL of their work.
Jon Edwards : We’re always looking to do something different with every album, to keep things fresh for ourselves and also for the audience. But from this side of the process Incarnate feels like more of a gradual development rather than a radical departure from our previous couple of albums.
Every album has it’s own character and Incarnate is no different… yes, it’s a collection of songs, but it’s also important to us that the album works as a whole as well. As the songs are written over a fairly short period of time, they do tend to reflect the things that are happening in our lives at the time and that in itself lends a certain feel to each album.
I think there is a ‘mood’ to Incarnate that is perhaps more introspective than previous albums, but it’s not something that we deliberately aimed for… it’s just the way the music comes out through us.
Tim Hall: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind some of the lyrics? I remember you describing the album as “confessional”.
Anne-Marie Helder : It was one of our early reviews which described the album as ‘confessional’ (we never did ourselves). But personally, as a songwriter and lyricist I would say that of course most songs are confessional in some way. If not literally, then through the themes chosen or the musical choices made.
into words that I haven’t experienced myself
Each of our albums has had its equal share of painfully raw and honest lyrics, and Incarnate is no different. But we also tell stories about the world, and situations we observe and are affected by, so it’s not just a case of ‘spilling’ everything about your own personal life and thoughts – I think that can be a bit too self-important and narcissistic, if you’re not careful.
Some of the most personal-seeming lyrics on the album – such as on ‘All That We Are’ – are actually inspired by the relationships and situations of people close to me, my loved ones and friends. I have always been moved deeply by everything around me (often too much, for successful living in this world!)… and when others I care about are in pain, I feel it acutely too.
Sometimes it’s cathartic, for me and for them, to put that into a song…. But I would only ever tell them in private if I have written it ‘for them’.
But I have seen that if you make the lyrics emotionally true enough, they will actually transcend any one situation and end up touching the hearts of many other people too; perhaps because if a song is true enough, we can all understand it. We’ve either ‘been there’, or we know someone who has.
The first song on the album – ‘Velocity’ – is actually perhaps the most personal for me, in terms of literally spilling my emotions over onto the page. The lyrics speak of how everything is changing, moving too fast, and the floor has fallen from beneath you, just when you foolishly thought you were safe.
That was how I was feeling at the time I wrote the lyrics, last spring… and that was partly to do with the departure of Paul (Davies) from the band.
Sometimes it takes one things to throw everything else in your life off-kilter… and that feeling of instability took a long time to settle. So every time I sing the song live, I can really feel the pain and uncertainty of those times.
The title track ‘Incarnate’ is an interesting one, because it was actually inspired by a film – and in the movie, there’s a girl who is having increasingly regular visions of something she doesn’t recognise, which are haunting her… and in the end, you realise it’s actually something more supernatural going on, that her body died in a car crash when she was a child, and another spirit jumped into her. I’m a bit of a supernatural-thriller fan!
So as I started writing later that night, I found the theme creeping into my words… but it evolved into a slightly different story, about there being an inner spirit inside which is finally coming to the surface after many years in life… But perhaps this is from a past life, perhaps it is just the freer, more adventure-seeking side of us which has always been suppressed.
I can clearly picture the song starting with us (the listener) being in an open-top car riding through the desert, leaving the grey city behind, and setting off for new and more exotic pastures, the wind in our hair….
It might also be that I just need a holiday, haha!
With ‘Dust’, it’s a different thing entirely… this song (the last on the album) was inspired by the Syrian conflict, and specifically the chemical attack on a school there.
I feel very wary of putting anything into words that I haven’t experienced myself, and I think you have to be incredibly careful when writing in a creative way about anything so brutal, devastating and real. But like so many other people around the world, I was deeply affected and sickened by what happened there –and what still continues to happen there – and I found myself just singing a melody to myself one night, quietly, in the early hours of the morning… and as I hummed it to myself, I could hear the words and the whole song unfolding in my head.
I took a risk and recorded the demo, not sure if it would be just way too dark for both the band or the audience to want to hear… but we went ahead with it, an it’s ended up being one of the most powerful and moving tracks on the album.
When we perform it live, I have to put myself back into the mindset of thinking as a child – as I did when recording the vocal – and trying to imagine that fear, confusion and innocence of trying to understand the horror that is happening around me….
And I often end up in tears by the end of the song.
But music is a powerful thing – and despite the darkness of this song, I think that if it touches people quite deeply (as it seems to have done), then it can only help to keep the subject matter in people’s minds, and that’s important. No song can change what has passed… but music has the power to inspire and to rouse, and sometimes that can travel across boundaries and inspire people to make a difference themselves.
Tim Hall : Unlike earlier albums, you didn’t play any new songs live before to going into the studio. Were there any differences in your approach towards writing this album?
Jon Edwards : There are always different approaches to writing with each song and it’s true that ‘breaking in’ new songs in the live arena often leads to songs being further developed before recording. But we’ve always had a significant number of songs on each album that haven’t been gigged… it’s just that logistically with Incarnate it wasn’t possible to play any of the material live before recording the album.
Incarnate also reflects Anne-Marie’s expanding songwriting presence in the band, with the music for this album being split fairly evenly between the two of us. We’re both prolific songwriters and we’re not precious about whose songs make it onto the album… it’s a matter of choosing the best selection of songs that will fit together to make an album, from the many that are written in the period leading up to the recording.
We rarely disagree about which songs make the final cut as the best ones usually shine through and it’s obvious to both of us which songs work best together.
Anne-Marie Helder : As Jon says, this time around it was purely a practical thing – there wasn’t the opportunity to gig our new songs Live before recording. But that’s actually the way most bands do it anyway – we’ve been unusual in the past by debuting loads of new material several months before it’s recorded!
I’m sure we’ll probably do that again in the future, it just didn’t happen that way this time.
But the proof’s in the pudding, as they say – and when we’ve played the new songs live, I’m happy to say that they all just worked! None of them was a problem live, and the arrangements etc., all just felt completely right. The thing is, we’ve gigged enough now over the years to know from experience what will work live – so we kind of write that way as part of the recording process, because we know what we can pull off live!
Tim Hall : Tell us about new recruit Adam O’Sullivan. What was it about him that made him the right lead guitarist for Panic Room?
Jon Edwards : Having a different guitarist playing on the new album has also made a big difference to the sound of the band. Adam O’Sullivan’s a very different player to Paul Davies (more Steely Dan than Satriani!) and his musical sensibilities have informed each of the new songs. After Paul left, we weren’t looking for the same sort of player and Gavin and Yatim had both played with Adam and liked his style, so we got together and played – we wanted someone who would bring something new to the band’s sound and Adam’s certainly done that.
in the new material that it’ll
stand up to comparison with
the back catalogue
He was involved with the rest of the band in arranging the songs and has brought fresh new sounds and textures to the music that’s allowed us to develop the music in different ways. Apart from playing with Panic Room, he also plays with a funk band in Swansea called Disco Panther.
Tim Hall : Much like the Luna Rossa album Sleeping Pills and Lullabies, I can see this record having crossover potential beyond your current fanbase. What sorts of audiences do you hope to be able to reach with it?
Jon Edwards : We don’t really write songs with a particular audience in mind… we write the songs for ourselves and figure that if they mean something to us and they’re written and played from the heart, then people will recognise that and connect with the emotion in what we’re doing. So the key thing is to be true to ourselves… be honest. It’s what I look for in the music I listen to: conviction and integrity… but most importantly, an emotional connection. If we can achieve that in our songs, then I’m more than happy.
We’d obviously like as many people to be into the music we’re making as possible as that makes it financially possible for us to keep on making albums, but we don’t make any conscious effort to be ‘commercial’ in order to achieve that.
Anne-Marie Helder : I’ve always known that Panic Room would draw fans from all over the world, and from every kind of background and taste in music. What we create is pretty timeless and powerful, I think, and because we just write and play from our hearts, people really feel that and get a huge buzz from it.
But it’s great to see how much the band’s profile has risen in the last couple of years, and how with ‘Incarnate’ we are already drawing a huge amount of new followers and those who are only just finding our music now. I don’t mind if people just hear us now and don’t want to hear the back-catalogue at all… as long as they’re with us for the journey into the future!
The fanbase we have are epic – they’re hugely loyal, and really into the music but also have a healthy banter with us! And that’s important, because we’re all just people at the end of the day. We make some music, but without them there’d be no-one to listen to it.
Tim Hall : For the last album you’d just signed to a record company with quite a bit of fanfare. For this album, you’ve gone back to releasing on your own label. What happened?
Jon Edwards : We’re still signed to Esoteric Antenna for our previous albums and it was the right time for us to release SKIN through a label and see how that worked out. There were definitely benefits to being on a label with the support and contacts that brings, but in financial terms, we were obviously making less money from the sale of the CDs released through the label. Having arranged independent distribution with Nova for Luna Rossa and being pleased with how that had worked out, we felt that it was the right thing financially for us to now release Incarnate independently with a similar arrangement.
We did discuss things with Mark Powell at Esoteric before finalising any plans and they understood our reasons for going independent again for this release and have been supportive of our decision. Incidentally, Satellite is being reissued by Esoteric in June as a double disc version with the 2nd disc being a DVD with the Little Satellite audio tracks and the animated ‘Satellite’ video in HD.
Tim Hall : You played a lot of the new album live on the first leg of the tour; how have the new songs gone down with audiences?
Jon Edwards : The new songs have been really well received – there are already some firm live favourites emerging like ‘All That We Are’ which always seems to get an emotional response and ‘Into Temptation’. ‘Incarnate’ seem to work particularly well live too. It’s fun for us as musicians to see how the material subtly changes and develops when you play it live too and it’s gratifying to then see how that’s been enjoyed by the audiences at the gigs.
From a personal point of view, one of the best gigs for me on this tour so far was at The Stables at Milton Keynes, where I was able to use the venue’s grand piano on stage for the electric and acoustic parts of the set – it really gave a different energy to the set and I think the audience really enjoyed it too.
Anne-Marie Helder: It’s been an amazing response – I don’t thing we could’ve asked for better! We poured almost all of the new album songs into the very first gig, which was a gamble… but we were sure it was the right thing to do, and even more elated when it actually worked out!
It just feels right to play the new material on this tour – it is called the ‘Incarnate Tour’, after all!
But it’s also because this is where we’re at, and the music we’ve been connecting to and working inside for the last 6-9 months… so it feels ‘right’ to us to share that feeling and the music with the fans too!
Anne-Marie Helder: Well, that was an awesome gig! We had an amusing delay at the start when the venue’s fire alarm kicked off, and didn’t stop for about 15 minutes! So we just had to go on and start while it was still blaring out around the arena, because the festival was on such a tight schedule!
But weirdly, it was in key with our first song….! Kismet. Or just luck.
Anyway, the show went great, and we were especially chuffed to see such a huge audience for our set – the place was rammed! And they were a very ‘cheer-y’ audience, making all the right noises in the right places… it almost felt like they knew the album already! But we couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year’s tour dates.
Jon Edwards : That worked fine… we were really fired up and enthusiastic to play the new songs and I think that came across at the gig. It seemed to be a largely new audience for us anyway, so in that sense, anything we played would have been unknown to them. You have to have the confidence in the new material that it’ll stand up to comparison with the back catalogue and we’re really happy with how the new songs have been developing on stage and our audiences have been really supportive.
Tim Hall : You don’t seem to rely on the same standards tour after tour; how do you go about choosing the setlists?
Anne-Marie Helder : No, we like to mix it up!
Jon Edwards : To be honest, it gets harder with each new release… there are so many songs we want to keep in the set, but we can’t play everything or the gigs would end up being two or three hours long! We obviously want to feature as much of the new album as we can on this tour, so room for the older songs keeps getting smaller, but we do try to mix things up as much as we can and not just play the same bunch of older songs on every string of dates.
We’ve also experimented with carrying through some of the acoustic set that we played at the album launch into the Incarnate Tour and that’s something that audiences really seem to like, so I think we’ll continue to develop that side of things as well.
Anne-Marie Helder : It definitely gets more difficult to plan the ‘perfect’ setlist when you keep releasing new albums – just when you’ve got a fantastic set in place from your previous tour, where everything works really well and just ‘flows’, you then go into the studio and record a whole load of new stuff, and then have to work out how to squeeze it all into your next live set without losing anything!
It’s a tricky, tricky job. People would think we’re mad if they saw how long it sometimes takes to pore over a setlist for one show…. Often I’ll have bits of paper with songnames scribbled on them, spread all over the floor!
But it’s just really essential to get that setlist right… there’s a knack to it. (And you definitely know when you’ve got it wrong!)
Tim Hall : With a new lineup and something of a change in direction, it feels like the start of a new chapter in the Panic Room story. Where do you see Panic Room heading next?
Anne-Marie Helder : I would say that just like ‘real life’, every day is the beginning of a new chapter really.
But of course a new album always brings with it lots of new opportunities, ideas, and plans… and we’re already out there bringing a lot of those to life, with the Incarnate UK Tour. And we’ll be playing some shows in Europe in September, which is fantastic.
Jon Edwards : It’s a bit like a magical mystery tour really… we don’t plan what music we’re going to make, it’s whatever occurs at the time. We’ll continue to plough our own furrow and explore new areas. We’ve never made a ‘Part 2’ of any of our albums, so expect the unexpected!.
Tim Hall : One last question. I frequently get asked to describe how Panic Room sound, and find it difficult to sum up the band in one sentence. How would you describe yourselves to someone who had never heard your music?
Jon Edwards : This is the question that every band hates. You don’t really want to describe your music by saying it sounds like this band or that band, but without those kind of references it’s really hard to put what your music sounds like into words in any meaningful way. I’d rather just give someone an album to listen to… or better still, a ticket to one of our gigs.
Anne-Marie Helder : OK, well there are three possible answers here – firstly there’s the Official ‘promo’ line, which says that Panic Room play ‘alt-rock with a sultry edge’, and that you can expect : ‘music of bold grandeur, spine-tingling beauty, and gutsy raw power, all infused with the unique passion which has won the band legions of fans since their first album in 2008’.
You could tell people that.
Or you could tell them the truth – that we sound like a bunch of misfit musicians playing whatever the hell we like, but doing it with heart, passion, and (hopefully) excellence! The resulting sound being like a mad hatter’s musical tea-party.
But, my favourite answer would be – Panic Room only sound like Panic Room.
Panic Room commence the second leg on their “Incarnate” tour on Friday June 6th at The Komedia in Bath, with further dates at Reading, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Preston and Derby. Full details at http://panicroom.org.uk/tours.html