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The British Expeditionary Force: Interview

With scant weeks to go before the March release of their album Chapter Two: Konstellation Neu, The British Expeditionary force are at that tricky pre-publicity point in their album campaign.

A spring release, followed by the summer festival circuit – once the record's out the band can relax a bit, safe in the assumption that there's not much can be done to sales or profile at such a late juncture. The fans either want the record or they don't.

And want it they should. Chapter Two: Konstellation Neu is as overblown and blousy as the title suggests, but glorious in equal measure. Disoriented, pleasantly confusing, washed-out, and pleasingly bonkers: the album is deft and mathematically precise in its tonal explorations and vocal harmonies. It will meet with approval.

But in the run-up to release, things are tense. Faced with the culmination of months or years of recording, then having to entrust that huge emotional investment to the bitter scrutiny of failed-musician-professional-cynics (music writers) is daunting. Which is why it's always best to suck up a bit. Core members Justin and Aid Burrows know the routine. Be fawning, flirt a little. Giggle, simper and flutter. In the music industry in 2012, publicity is oxygen – make sure you lick the hand that feeds.

Alternatively, recognize it all for the sockfull of toss that it is.

Trebuchet: Signed to a German label, and hailing from various bits of the UK, you're not one of those bands that all met up in a garage after school. How did you get together? How often do you get together? And who's got the most revolting habits?

The British Expeditionary Front [BEF]: We got together first and foremost due to our mutual love of Physics and Science in general. I believe there are no fewer than 4 postgraduate degrees (in various Scientific disciplines) in the larger family of The B.E.F, with one member training as a mission specialist for The European Space Agency at one point in his career.

Between this scientific love-in and other stuff we found that we also shared a vague passing interest in music, thus the band was formed. We rarely get together, due to our geographical differences and awesome skills of procrastination.

It's not that we don't like each other, it's more of a "shall we do a big get together? Ermm, probably not. We've got more interesting cool shit to be getting on with and I'm already two seasons behind schedule in my West Wing box set, so lets pass and pick it up another time."

I'd say Aid (Singer) has the most disgustingly revolting habit of all the members. It's his blatant use of pure logic. He's just crawling in the stuff. Ewww. It's pathetic and it makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

Justin and Jim are bigger than me, so assume they've got more of the stuff to do with decay, rot, revolt and renew

Aid Burrows: Decay and rot are a natural part of the human condition, them bacteria types work habitually. Justin and Jim are bigger than me, so assume they've got more of the stuff to do with decay, rot, revolt and renew. It's a numbers game.

Sadly I have no such scientific academic endorsement, although I would say we got here through a sort of professional curiosity, which is sort of the same thing. Although without the solid foundation of actual knowledge. Shameful really what with this being the information age and all that. It's on the to-do list – boxsets be damned.

Trebuchet: There's a lot of mention of prog and electronica surrounding the new album. Nevertheless, it opens with a track that sounds much more like Surf's Up-era Beach Boys. Who sings the high Al Jardine stuff, and who gets the bassy Carl Wilson lines? Or is the recording process completely different to that?

BEF: Those there mentions of 'Prog' and 'Electronica' surrounding the album are on the whole justified, but in some ways lack definition. I'd say we're more of a 'Electronically choral indie band with aspirations' but alas the acronym 'ECIBA'  sadly would never wash with the modern musical journalistas of the blogospherical planet earth. And it's not Dubstep enough for you pesky kids nowadays with your 'E4 +1's' and your 'Games Consoles' and 'Fax Machines' etc, etc…

The recording process for us is pretty straightforward and in no way democratic

Good call on the Beach Boys though, I reckon Aid (Singer) probably robbed that melody off a Beach Boys record, he just hasn't come clean yet.

The recording process for us is pretty straightforward and in no way democratic. We take turns in playing Autocratic totalitarian despot dictator, then at the end of the album session as a whole we step back and review who was the best Autocratic totalitarian despot dictator and whoever tots up the most baddie points wins. I won Chapter 1 (fair and square too) and I think I'm in with having a shot at keeping hold of the title on this album ,but Aid (singer) could easily still pip it at the last. He's a sneaky fucker, that Aid.

AB: I narcissistically and megalomaniacally sang the low bits, the middle bits and the high bits. However, Hayley did step in and sing the really high bits. Justin made that happen I reckon, just to clip my wings.

Trebuchet: Whatever happened to men singing? The album has a pre-indie aesthetic that brings some of the really slick pop vocals of the 80s to mind. Landfill indie seemed to kill off actual singing, unless it was of the football-terrace anthemic type. You guys seem to enjoy it though. Any of you got male voice choir backgrounds?

BEF: I'd like to give Aid all the credit for bringing real life singing back into popular beat combo music but I can't because it was entirely my idea in its entirety.

I told him every note to sing, and when he didn't sing it right I just got the computer to fill in the gaps

He might chip in and say "It was me, I've always loved how Hadley rocked the smooth velvety vocal triumph of Spandau to the Max" or "Michael McDonald moves me, like here right in my heart, fo real yo. Fo Real." But it's simply not true. I told him every note to sing, and when he didn't sing it right I just got the computer to fill in the gaps as it were. Easy peasy.

We do really enjoy the style that I created entirely on my own which I impressed upon our glorious 'Lead Singer'…

AB: Well, well, well, I aint thought about those old choir days for quite some time. Back in school we had a 'choral group' (non-gender specific admission). Irrelevant fact –  I thought it was just part of the music lessons, but I now see it must have been extra curricular, cos we went and sang at the Parr Hall (we got to hold these plush red leather backed songsheet folders – happy days!). I believe our vocal message was probably something mildly indoctrinating and explains the occasional night terror.

Trebuchet: Erased Tapes is becoming legendary for its quality control, although it's not a label that's mostly associated with songs as we know them – vocals, guitars, drums etc. What's the aspect of The British Expeditionary Force that you think makes the band fit in with all those new-classical instrumental acts?

BEF: Erased Tapes is indeed becoming quite legendary for it's quality control. But I think the best thing about that label and ethos is the fact that I know that Das Bobby Raths' (Erased Tapes Uber Boss) favourite band of all time is – Free.

Free are responsible for one of the greatest records ever made Free – Free (1969). It's here that we can disseminate where the aforementioned quality control comes from. It comes from Free.

'Number of synths = Number of awesome hit mega-songs'

You see, some labels chase down fruitless wanky indie bands based on variables such as "hair' or 'Proximity to East London' or 'Number of synths = Number of awesome hit mega-songs' but Das Bobby Raths has kept it classy by using his greatest musical love as his guiding light. The British Expeditionary Force fits into this ethos for two reasons:
Firstly, we we're there at the start so he kind of actually has to keep putting our records out. Secondly, everyone else on the label for the first reason should fit around The British Expeditionary Force.

AB: I think there's something of a loose theme surrounding the Erased Tapes crew and that's soundtracks. Everyone seems to have a cinematic slant of differing ranges. Let's not be stupid, with this many channels it's where the money is.

Trebuchet: Is it intimidating having Nils Frahm master the album? The man seems to have the proverbial dogs' ears. Any uber-pracktikal input from him on the album, or just technical stuff?

BEF:I wouldn't say it was intimidating having Nils master the record. The kid has mega ears and is my own personal favourite music making person at the moment due to his last two records being fuckinghellaamazinguberskillfulsoulfulinstantclassicalneoclassics kind of records.

Mastering was the only thing left that he could really do for the record, which, let's face it, is just turning it up and down until it sounds good

I lost the stems for the whole of this record on purpose so he (Nils) couldn't mix the record in its entirety, and thus uncovering me as the charlatan and blagger that I am when it comes to making records.  Mastering was the only thing left that he could really do for the record, which, let's face it, is just turning it up and down until it sounds good and then maybe playing with the treble and bass buttons.

But as it happens he did an ace as fuck job and made the record that extra 0.5 percent awesome. Hopefully he'll be chipping in on the next album. Have you ever heard him play a slap bass solo? He slaps the bass like a motherfucker. Different class indeed.

Trebuchet: 'Konstellation Neu' has some gorgeous harmonies and a wistful style. Funny, because in other ways it's a bit glitchy and twisted. How did that come about? It's a very different take on the usually clinical glitch approach.

BEF: 'Konstellation Neu' sounds the way it does because I can't play the piano properly. I was pissing around with the chords to put an idea down and couldn't be fucked to practice anymore so I just sewed all the  listenable chords together into a 'song' and then sent it to Aid. If you listen closely you can hear how long it takes me to resolve the chords at the end.

it just took me that long to work out what the chord was that would resolve all the other chords I'd been hammering out all afternoon

It may sound like I'm leaving such a lengthy sustain to add drama or character to the song…I'm not, it just took me that long to work out what the chord was that would resolve all the other chords I'd been hammering out all afternoon. The joys of computation eh?

Aid's vocal awesomeness rules that song with an iron fist. Damn that kid.

AB: Justin's such a sweetie. I will now cancel that hit out on him.

Trebuchet: 'Where You Go I Will Follow' is another multi-layered moody track, with what sounds like a live drum track. You have two percussionists, do you always use them, or sometimes programme the beats?

BEF: We have two drummers and I guess one of them could double as a percussionist… the other one would probably take offence to being called a percussionist as he's a proper musician drummer type dude with mad skills on the drums…. We try to use as many people as possible to be honest, as this means less work for the core members and ultimately gives us a lot more to take credit for in return. I think the equation speaks for itself here –  (X) Less actual work + (Y) Take more credit =  (Z) muchos happiness.

We do program beats too, but not in the way say, Tinie Tempah or any other of Mr Tempah's contemporaries would. I tend to use them underneath the real shit.

Trebuchet: How about building the songs? The vocals sometimes seem mixed as if they're an instrumental component to fill the picture, they don't always take precedence over the rest of the parts. Do you start with lyrics and try to build a song around them, or some other process?

BEF: The vocals in most modern music of a pop nature tend to have massively overstated emotionally barren qualities, and are thrust right up in the mix all the way up to makers nameplate. I'm not that big a fan of this technique, it's a bit 'rapey' on the ears.

Aid has a really warm tonal quality to his voice that fits really snug and comfortable wherever you put it. It's very amiable. It's equally at home just being all understated and whimsical as it is being sat on top of the instruments, lording it over them like some painfully pleasant Downton Abbey-like character, all up in your face and highbrow but with manners and a sense of decency.

I'm not that big a fan of this technique, it's a bit 'rapey' on the ears

AB: By the time I get to hear a tune Justin has already nailed a pretty decent mood with it. Coming fresh to it I get a sense of imagery straight away. That forms the basis of the lyrical content. So I get a sort of tag line or poster title that ends up being the main drive of it.

The rest of the lyrics are me elaborating on the poster title, so for example 'starring such and such, coming to cinemas soon' to carry the filmic notion a bit. As long as you walk away mostly remembering the tag line or the gist of it I consider it job done.

Trebuchet: OK, so mood and imagery are starting points. What about structure? On 'End Music', for example, the song structure is less verse/chorus/verse than build, drop, breakdown. That's more of a dance music structure, or is it more prog? The vocals are all harmonies and descants and seem to be used as a much more textural, atmospheric tool than the usual idea of verses/lyrics. Why's that?

BEF: End Music is different as it as more of a, dare I say, 'dance' like arrangement. This was not intended at all as I started out with a Neu! / Krautrock sensibility in mind for it, then I got really really really fucking bored and whacked a load of nonsensical beats and synths on there until I used all the tracks in Pro Tools, in a vein attempt to hear it 'kick off'.  It was then left to Aid to pick up the pieces and rein it in. I guess his repetitive vocal motif just seemed to be the most viable way forward with the track. On a more subliminal level I think he probably got to the same point as me with it and then went "Fuck it, that'll do."

I think it's fine to add the occasional mantra in amongst the chaos

Das Bobby Raths (Erased Tapes Uber Boss) once called me up about this song and asked where the version was that 'Kicked off' more…I think he made it up and was actually trying to trick me into revisiting it on a mix level. I said "I dont know". I actually did know, but my mate Chris said the current version is "Fucking Ace" so we kept it.

AB: Raising it back to the liminal I hope this is touched upon with my dodgy poster analogy. I think it's fine to add the occasional mantra in amongst the chaos, something to cling to while Justin plays sonic buckaroo.

Trebuchet: There's a lot of production on the album, is it possible to re-create it live?

BEF: I think it is possible. What are you an American or an American't??? Or Welsh or something??? Jeez man give us a frikkin break here already! In no way will it be difficult difficult lemon difficult.

AB: Justin, look at the state of your pupils! Sort it out! It's going to be rock hard. Massive speakers and volume will help. I think we could do with a guy on pyrotechnics just for that extra pizazz.

Trebuchet [Backing off…]: 'Strange Aftertaste' is a real epic, with a lovely contrast to the rest of the album. It's all quite sudden the way it goes from cold, electronic soundbed/warm vocals to a lavish goth operetta, all 'This Corrosion' choirs and 'Tower of Strength' guitars. It's overblown and pretty self-indulgent, but it's absolute bliss to listen to. What brought that on?

BEF: Do you remember the episode (I think it was 6 /or 7) in Season 1 of hit drama Dawsons Creek? The one where our favourite foursome were trapped in a detention, kind of like a riff on John Hughes' 1985 'classic' The Breakfast Club? Well, in that episode we got our first taste of Abby's devious ways which lead to a game of 'Truth or Dare' that forced everyone to reveal their hidden fears and desires.

It not only gave us one of many many loveable and Epic Joey & Dawson moments but it also let Joshua Jackson's Pacey character really stamp his  unique quality and depth as a personality with his hilarious Meta-reference to The Mighty Ducks series (which he starred in).

It really is classic 'Creek'. 'Strange Aftertaste' is very much like this. Vintage Van der Beek. I bet you cried at the finale didn't you?

Trebuchet: I cried when Joey married Tom Cruise.

AB: Here we have a fine example of distraction because it's all getting 'a bit real' for Justin. The truth is Justin cried. He cried a lot. He cried all the expendable juices from his person. He was a mess. But it was cathartic.

It is surprising that just as you think it's gotten as big as it will get, it steps up another level. Personally I think it could benefit from an additional tambourine.

Trebuchet: You guys are brothers, is that a help in a band? Being able to yell at each other, or point out when the other one's being an arse. Or are there more symbiotic advantages?

BEF: Luckily we get along. We're twins so we have that ever so documented sixth sense type fandango going on. It's a strange phenomenon but works like a fucking treat in a live band scenario.

If I'm thinking "fucking you know what? it would be fucking immense if we took it to the bridge right now" (when in the middle of kicking out the jams) then I know I dont have to actually stop the band and explain this feeling and take it from the beginning of the track, adding the bridge. I can just tune into my almost Vulcan-like ability to reach into my brother's brain and make it so. This shaves countless precious seconds and minutes off any rehearsal, resulting in more time to do other interesting shit.

Trebuchet: OK, speaking of other interesting shit, there is an aspect of the music that seems very visual, like it as made with certain imagery in mind. When you record music do you approach it 100% musically, or is there slippage from other parts of the imagination?

Bands are for fucking wasters and people who weren't fit enough to be athletes or footballers

BEF: There's muchos slippage. We make music video's and short films as our trade under the name handheldcineclub, so I reckon theres probably a whole lot of visual processes going on when crafting tuneage.  Plus, let's face it, films are loads cooler than bands. Bands are for fucking wasters and people who weren't fit enough to be athletes or footballers, and people who don't have the mental stamina to cut it on the Academic route.

I'd say most of the inspiration in The BEF comes from visual stimuli, whether that's some film stuff, computer games or porn. We'd also have to be proper musicians in order to approach it 100% musically, and real musicians are fucking nerdlingers with no social skills and pushy parents, who live their failed lives by punishing their kids with gruelling practice schedules, exams etc.,  ultimately resulting in a lifetime of unhappiness and social awkwardness for all involved.

real musicians are fucking nerdlingers with no social skills and pushy parents

Trebuchet: [Nods warily] Your last album wasn't recorded with all the musicians together, but came bit by bit through separate sessions and then mixed. It's efficient, but unlikely to spark band-democracy or spontaneity. This album is different. How do the two approaches compare?

BEF: Spontaneity has it's place, and thats usually what bands (from NYC) who are winging it say to describe their lack of skills and craft. Those same bands will probably wear really shit tight faded jeans, the most ironic t-shirts ever made and have hair that covers one side of their face and live in squalor out of choice to hide their upper middle class upbringing. They'll also rarely ever buy their own cigarettes, what the fuck is that about?

really shit tight faded jeans, the most ironic t-shirts ever made and have hair that covers one side of their face

Democracy in bands doesn't really work, and usually ends up in long building periods of passive aggression, before bands break up citing musical differences, leaving a cliffhanger ending to which the band could get back together later down the line for a lucrative reformation. I'd say the way we did this record was better for us, but it was a lot easier the other way, as this album required travelling and face to face communication.

Trebuchet: You're playing The Great Escape at Brighton this spring, as are a number of Erased Tapes acts. Do you all hang about together or is it a more theoretical link?

Olafur was on the Skype 4-way from fucking the land of the Elves and trolls

BEF: We're like the Biggest Happiest Family Ever. Just the other day when I was over in Berlin, Das Bobby Raths (Erased Tapes Uber Boss) called me up and was like "Yo, Justino! what are you doing man?" and I was all like "Nuttin, just kicking back, watching the game, drinking a Bud.." then Nils joined the conversation and he was all like  "Wasssssssuuuuuuuuuuppppp" which made Das Bobby Raths start being all  "Wassssssuuuuppp"  then Olafur was on the Skype 4-way from fucking the land of the Elves and trolls and shit being all like up in our faces and shit like  "Wasssssuupppppppppppppppppp" and then Winged Victory sent an email to everyone at the same time which was them in fucking Paris getting there eat on or some shit being all like "Wassssssssssuuuuuupppp."

Thats just how shit goes down at Erased Tapes. Daily. So yeah, I can imagine Brighton being like the fucking greatest Spring Break ever or some shit.

AB:  On another note I reckon that typical day would go down great as the basis of a potential light ale commercial. Enough time has passed to have allowed the idea to blossom into a retrospective, banded by the wise rings of experience.

Trebuchet. Right. Are your songs simple, would you say, or complicated, multi-layered epics? Would you be able to strum them around a campfire, or does that miss the point completely?

BEF: In a live scenario for me personally they are a piece of piss. The reason for this is that I have the foresight to not make life hard for myself down the line. So generally although the songs may sound quite complex in their structure / sonics / production etc., they're generally not in the bigger picture. The way I see it is, why the fuck would I make life hard for myself when playing in front of people?

n front of an audience you just look like a fucking chump if you cant play your own tunes

It's ok making mistakes in the studio because you just go again until its right or sample someone else and alter it so nobody knows you stole it etc, but in front of an audience you just look like a fucking chump if you cant play your own tunes. Thus I tend to write stuff that I can stand on stage and play 3 or 4 chords max, then I can make it look like I know what the fuck I'm doing when we play live. It's when you add layers and musicians that the complexity starts…all that counterpoint and musical bollocks.

Like P Diddy says… 'Mo Money, Mo Problems. He's so right isn't he?

AB: Word.

Trebuchet: How does the album work live, have you played it out much yet?

I'm hoping for at least 2 / 3 confirmed cases of shitting in pants plus a smattering of people crying

BEF: The Great Escape will be the first outing for The British Expeditionary Force as a live thingy since probably 4 years ago or something. It was pretty awesome the last time, mostly because we're louder than everyone else due to having two drummers and a bunch of musicians filling in every possible frequency available. So in that respect the album will work a treat live. If we dont have a sissy front of house person bitching about his / her PA then maybe some people will actually shit in their pants (arty pants as its an Erased Tapes night) due to us hitting those frequencies. I'm hoping for at least 2 / 3 confirmed cases of shitting in pants plus a smattering of people crying sprinkled with various dubious pissy wet patches.

Trebuchet: Any plans, comments or promo stuff you want to add?

AB: Thanks very much for listening to the album properly and giving us some genuinely perceptive questions that have allowed us to bounce around a few ideas. There's a lot we want to say, there's a lot we want to convey. We hope after a while that which is really meaningful blooms, that the essence is in the distillation. That the order from the chaos is useful and ultimately shows connectedness to one another. As the Beach Boys once said, 'we wish everyone maximum love vibes'.

Chapter Two: Konstellation Neu out soon on Erased Tapes. Pre-Order


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