Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Science of Sleep: Interview with Happy Particles

Doctor Who and candy canes; tinsel and tantrums; boozy chocolates and just straightforward booze: we had a lovely Christmas day 2011, since you asked. Yet amidst this hectic schedule of sitting around and rummaging through tins of Quality Street, something slipped our mind. See, while children across the land were nestled snug in their beds dreaming of dancing sugar-plums / Ben 10 merchandise, something special was slinking its way online. Flying insouciantly in the face of convention, Steven Kane, Graeme Ronald, Al Doherty, Gordon Farquhar, Ricky Egan and James Swinburne – collectively, Happy Particles – decided that rather than hold out indefinitely for a label to step up and put out debut Under Sleeping Waves, they’d cut to the chase and do it themselves. And what better date to unwrap such a gift than December 25?

Its beauty and mystery was lovingly received, with dreamy slowcore-influenced melodies setting hearts aquiver. The meticulous clarity of tracks like Come Home All Dead Ones and AM Sky twinkle like brilliant baubles, emotive and evocative, with lead Particle Steven’s vocals a heavenly nucleus around which other elements orbit: scintillating guitar lines, glockenspiel, strings. At a time of year when ‘best of’ lists were already long-committed to print, the pesky Particles had blundered in and forced a re-think.

Five months on, we catch up with the band for an overdue chat. After introductions, we decide to tackle the conversation’s potential elephant head-on. In April, a post on the band’s Facebook read thus: 'Our album came out in December last year. The Skinny who document Scottish culture and music haven’t touched it.  Seriously ‘The Skinny’, don’t even bother now we are nominated.' Ouch. We read the quote back to see if we can clear the air, and get about four syllables in before the penny drops and the band burst into laughter.
“Busted!” cries Ricky as Steven shifts uncomfortably. Does the fact we’re doing this interview indicate forgiveness? “No,” Steven instantly deadpans. Darn – how can we make amends? There’s a long pause; thankfully, it’s for comic rather than malicious effect. “It’s fine,” he eventually replies. “Youse are forgiven. It was just a wee joke, but then people got a bit nasty. I don’t advocate nastiness.”

Cheered by the clemency, we move on to less self-centred lines of enquiry. Like: why Christmas? Weren’t they concerned that Saint Nick would overshadow their efforts? Not really, it turns out: as the band matter-of-factly point out, “People at Christmas are on the internet now.” Why wouldn’t an interested punter take time out from overeating to add a file to their download queue? “Nobody cares about Christmas anymore, and we can buy into that,” grins Ricky. Graeme goes one better: “We single-handedly saved Christmas!”

The band talk sarcastically of market research and analytics when we ask what expectations they had for on-the-day downloads. “Basically we’re clueless,” say Steven. “We didn’t even approach that mentality. It seemed to snowball, but we had no idea it was going to do that.” So you weren’t surreptitiously checking its progress throughout lunch? “None of us had access to it!” says Ricky – only Gordon had log-in details, and he “didn’t check for days.” Not that the album was entirely absent from dinner table conversation. “I was at my dad’s house for Christmas and I was like ‘Dad, the band I’m in have released an album,’” shares Ricky. “I let him hear a song, and he was like ‘Is that a girl singing?’ And I was like, ‘He’s proud of me!’ Well, he was proud of him…” He gestures towards the owner of said seraphim tones. “He was just proud that you knew a girl,” suggests Steven.

The album was recorded over the course of a year with producer Robin Sutherland – once a month, for one day at a time. “We just had to break it down to fit whatever days we had,” says Graeme. “I mean, as a band we’re not exactly rich, so we were just recording as and when we could, and when Robin was able to make time, so it had to be that kind of slightly piecemeal approach.” “I think we were all mentally ill” muses Steven. “To just keep something going in the back of your mind for that long, you start to go a bit mental.” Graeme warns of more specific dangers. “I think when you’ve been working on something that long, it’s no longer fresh to you, so you start doubting it. You start thinking, ‘Oh, I need to change this, I need to change that,’ when actually it’s perfect.”

Others evidently agree with the ‘perfect’ tag, including members of the panel for fledgling initiative the Scottish Album of the Year Award. A hundred nominators from across Scotland’s music scene were asked to submit their five favourite albums of 2011; from this a long list of twenty was drawn. “The fact that an album that was self-released on the internet was even considered is amazing,” says Steven. “Most awards say that it’s not about a competition, and they’re kind of talking shit because it usually is. But this one doesn’t seem to be, because, well, if it was they wouldn’t give the bands distribution deals and all that stuff.”

He’s referring to the organisers’ decision to turn benefactor, and fund the pressing of a limited run of CDs (a similar arrangement was made with Muscles of Joy, whose self-titled debut was previously only available on vinyl). “It’s insane – I’ve never heard of something like that happening before,” Steven continues. “I think it was partly that Stewart [Henderson – former Delgado, current Chemikal Underground boss, and the man behind SAY] wanted bands who didn’t have physical stock to be able to get something in all the displays in HMV and stuff. Having something there means people might take a chance on our record, find out about it just by walking in… so for him, as well as us, that was a big important thing, to have it set up so we could have stock available.”

Is it purely about consumer availability, or is having a material version of the album important to them in other ways? “We wanted a physical release for the album regardless,” says Graeme. “We still ultimately want to release it on vinyl, and it basically just comes down to, personally speaking, the fact that it’s really nice to have made something that you can hold in your hands, something tangible to look at. I mean we all grew up buying CDs, and buying records and stuff, so it’s not like we’re totally used to this idea of downloading music… [Online] was a way for us to get it out there, but it’s great to be able to look at your record and say, ‘Yeah I made that.’”

Happy Particles are joined on the SAY long list by Remember Remember, with whom there’s overlapping membership (Steven, Graeme and James play in both – “It just increases the odds a bit for some of us,” smiles Graeme; “If The Quickening wins, you can take us out to dinner,” jokes Al). And that barely touches upon the matrix of affiliate acts: past and present projects include Tangles (Ricky), Neighbourhood Gout (Ricky again), Tesla Birds (Steven), Prayer Rug (Al – “doesn’t exist anymore” though), Teenage Ricky (take a guess), Stapleton (Gordon)… Does having all been around the block, so to speak, affect your expectations for Happy Particles? ”Yes, but just so that we don’t make the same mistakes that loads of wee guys make in other bands,” says Steven. “We don’t care that much about the industry to be honest; we’re just making music together. [But] we’ve all been in bands and so we know all the kind of shite that goes on, in that way it changes it.”

When you’ve got a large group of experienced musicians with different interests, how do their ideas come into fruition?  We ask Steven how far he develops songs before bringing the band in to collaborate. “It totally depends – it’s different for every song really. Some songs can be quite far down the line before they get them, and then they start morphing a wee bit, but each one’s different.” Will he vary the approach further in future – for instance, does he expect initial song ideas to originate from other band members on subsequent releases, or does he have ownership of Happy Particles’ musical direction? “Yeah, I think we’ll probably start doing that more. I don’t want to make the same thing again, so it would be good to fragment it a wee bit so other people get more involved maybe.” Graeme’s got ideas already. “Ricky and Gordon get some wicked jams going in the studio, so we definitely need to start building them into songs…” Ricky smiles. “We do, we really do.”

A few days later, SAY announce the ten albums that have made the leap from long to short list. Both Happy Particles and Remember Remember made the cut – impressive when bands of the calibre of FOUND and Muscles of Joy were left behind. We caught up with Steven again via email to offer our congratulations. “The three of us involved in both albums – me, James and Graeme – spent a whole year doing those two records, living in those two worlds at the same time [so] they’re kind of inseparable to me in a memory-related way…  Honestly, the fact that they are both there is too bizarre to dwell on without losing your perspective.”

The winners are announced later this month; we know that the competition element isn’t the award’s priority, but we ask the band whether they have a hunch as to who’ll scoop the top prize. Say, if we asked them to place a bet on our behalf. “I honestly don't care who wins,” says Steven. “Everyone has won – the publicity, the celebration of great art and music,” (though he did put in a personal vote for Aidan Moffat and Bill Well’s Everything’s Getting Older). And the wager? “I'd take the money for the bet,” he writes, “and buy some of the albums with it instead.”

written for the skinny

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