Wednesday, 25 March 2020

The Slow Readers Club - Interview


With their new album The Joy Of The Return nestled in the midweek top five album chart we caught up with The Slow Readers Club's front man Aaron Starkie on the phone to chat about the album's birth, its lyrical themes and artwork as well as the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the band's plans and why their dedicated fan base is so important to them.



When you found out that The Joy Of The Return had gone into the midweeks at number five, how did that feel?

It was a weird one, because there was an expectation from the label because we'd gone in at number 18 last time (with Build A Tower in May 2018). A few months ago when we were having conversations about the next album, people were talking about it as a potential top ten and I was thinking "this is a very strange situation" I suddenly felt a little bit of pressure (laughs). We'd built a position with Build A Tower and we'd been able to go out and play to a lot more people, a fair few more people know about us now, so the logical conclusion would be that we'd be in with a shout, but I wasn't totally convinced. I think we had a big wave of goodwill last time and it was an unknown quantity as to whether that would happen again, but it appears to have and the response has been really good to the record. We had a healthy number of preorders, but I thought when it was out in the world, if it's embraced and people are excited by it, then it'll do its own job regardless of the fact that we haven't had a great deal of radio play or Spotify playlists or things like that. It's still doing the business out there.

That's the amazing thing about it. It's got people without that radio play, you can imagine what something like a 6 Music playlisting could do in terms of opening you up to a whole new audience.

We're probably on the periphery for a lot of people, who've semi-heard of us. I'm like that as a consumer for a lot of things too, hearing something five or six times and then I'll check it out. It's natural behaviour, but we're very fortunate to have people like you and those on the fan page who are passionate about music and don't just follow us but follow other bands too, small bands, big bands whatever and who are out watching live music all the time. We're lucky to have those kinds of people behind us and it's a very privileged position to be in that we don't take for granted. It's all down to the fans really that we've got this far and we'll see where we end up on Friday.

You mentioned pressure. Did you feel that when you started to write and record the album given the success of its predecessor, particularly as you'd gone to being a full-time band?

It's a difficult one that. I didn't day to day personally. I don't think the lads did either. We certainly had more time. I'd demoed bits and bobs at home and things like that, we jammed a lot and I did stuff in the van when we were on tour. We had a lot more time available to us to kick things around and the ones that ended up on the record were the ones that we all agreed should be on there. But there's a greater volume of time to suss things out, so it's only really when you're having discussions about the release that you think about those kinds of pressures, when you're leading up the tour being announced and there's a great weight of expectation of how it'll sell and when you're choosing the first single. There's a lot of pressure on that and no one in the band could agree on that within the band to be honest so there was label, management and plugger input that informed what the first single was. The same happened with Build A Tower really, Lunatic wasn't our first choice, but in that instance they were very right.



It's mad how that took off, mad when it was up there in XS's best Manchester's song competition, a little bit crazy

The engagement of our fan base is really good, so why not, why can't a new song be up there with the likes of The Smiths or the Inspirals. I'm hoping if we can get top ten with this album it will open a few more doors for us.

It makes a statement to radio, the music press and what limited TV there is this band that's sort of come from nowhere, it'd be a second top twenty album in two years but you've not really had the exposure you'd associate with that and there's plenty of bands with far more exposure that sell nowhere near as many records....

It certainly feels that way. We must be being rude to someone somewhere (laughs). We just keep plugging away though, writing, getting better at the things we can control, doing the shows and taking every opportunity that comes along and we'll see where we get to. We've obviously got all this virus stuff to contend with now that we've got to get our heads around. I'm still hopeful for the future as things are going in the right direction.

You've said you had more time to write and in the album walk-through you did last night you mentioned you'd written parts of songs in the store room at Fred Perry, in the van, in soundchecks and whilst out walking the dog. Is that different to how it used to be?

It's probably the same. There's more soundcheck stuff, just because we'd be doing more shows and you've got time to knock about and Dave and Jim in particularly are the ones that jam most in soundchecks and then if they get something going then I'll ad-lib a melody over it and then film it. But it's different. Zero Hour I'd kicked around at home before taking it into the band, it was much slower initially. But the majority of the album was done in the rehearsal room, we'd jam it and if it worked it'd finesse itself into something more formed and then we'd share the day's ideas in a What's App group and live with them for a couple of days and then go back in and say "let's work on these" if they sounded right.

Did you just record the eleven songs or were there more - some bands talk about having a hundred songs and whittling them down to the album?

We had twelve or thirteen contenders and then it was purely a time decision to a degree. There was talk of maybe leaving one of the songs off and having it as a ten-track album, but it seemed like a good collection that pleased everybody. We've all got our favourites and everybody got what they wanted on there.

You recorded the album at Parr Street in Liverpool, which was a change from the Edwin Street studios at Bury Met where you recorded Cavalcade and Build A Tower. What was the thinking behind that?

We really enjoyed our time at Bury and working with Phil there, but we were aware we'd probably get better mics for the drums and vocals and better synths to play with if we went up to a bigger studio and we'd heard really good things about Parr Street. There's a few bands on the label that have recorded there and the likes of Blossoms have recorded there as well as bigger bands like Coldplay. It was a case of stepping up really, we'd made a bit of money off the back of Build A Tower and we wanted to improve things. There was a change in the environment and the size and space of the studio we were dealing with, and having an engineer working with us, and that focuses the mind and it made us feel like we were now full-time musicians a little bit more when you're in that kind of environment. It's not like going somewhere in the evening after you've done your day job, you're going where the big boys have recorded.



The album's lyrics. Your first two albums in particular they felt very personal, like you were singing about yourself or people close to you and situations they'd been in. The themes on this record feel like they're more about what's going on in the world and how you observe them. Was that something that was deliberate or did it just come naturally as a progression?

It feels like a natural progression. They're still personal though to me as even when I'm talking about the political things, I'm more concerned about the effect on our psychology and our mental state, or my mental state more accurately. It comes from my experience on social media and seeing how divided we all are, how polarised we are and how viciously we tore into one another during the Brexit debate among others and being concerned about that and the direction the human race is taking. It's a crazy time to be living in, even before this virus stuff, and the album was obviously written before that, but it's becoming another complicating factor. It feels like we're on a weird path at the moment as people. 

Even with the other records though, where I'd written from a more personal perspective, I was doing it to connect with people and say "I think this about the world, do you guys agree?" or "I feel like this about dealing with certain situations, do you agree?" and there's a catharsis for me in that and it makes me feel good that I'm not going round the bend and other people think the same way. 

That's one of the reasons for me why you connect so much. I remember when you toured with James, I'd never made the connection before because the songs and personalities are different, but it was dark lyrics that people can relate to combined with uplifting tunes.

There's definite parallels, even on something as big and commercial as Sit Down, it's about us going through a bad time and coming together and connecting. 

And that's what drives that support from the fan base. It's not just a nice tune, it actually means something to people and that's why people come to you and stick with you. It's important.

Hopefully. I'm not in a position to think that everybody hangs off my every word though. I think there's a lot of people who'll just come along and dance to the tunes. That's perfectly fine too. I know there's songs I don't really know the words to, big bands, that if I'm in an indie club I'll sing nonsense to because I can't tell what they're saying. 

Where does the album's title come from? It's not mentioned on the record, and Build A Tower came from a line in Lunatic and Cavalcade was obviously one of the song titles, but The Joy Of The Return doesn't appear anywhere on the album.

It had been knocking around in my head for a while and I think it was a mis-remembered quote from a book called The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera, and in the book, this is all very pretentious by the way, he's talking about Nietzsche's theory of the eternal return and that returning to positive memories can shape a positive person and to going back to tell negative memories and stories about the past, that can reinforce and change your persona. 

It's also related to my writing technique where if I'm stuck, I'll try and set my head back to a different time in my life and write from the perspective of that point in time. I think it's just a nice little collection of words and once I'd got the visual side of it for the album cover, it felt like it was all fitting together. I'm happy with the album title and it seems to have stuck in people's minds nicely which is half the battle.



So you mentioned the visual. The album artwork is quite a striking image. Cavalcade and Build A Tower were your own creations, but this one is I understand someone else's artwork that you've taken and worked with?

Yes, the sculpture that's at the centre is someone else's work. We were in an airport in Germany and we'd agreed the title and people were happy with that, so I said I'd look around to see how we could express that visually. I looked on places like Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration and I'd been following this artist called Ruth Pestell who does a lot of different sculptures out of printed paper and I came across the one that's on the album cover and it felt right because it was like an infinite shape, like a constant return. 

So I got in touch with her and asked if she'd like to be involved and she was up for it and sent me some sculptures in the post and I took them to a guy called Tim Ainsworth who photographed them for me and we used one on the album cover and a few different other ones on the single covers. I've worked some typography on top of them and put some vibrant colours in the background. That was a product of talking to the guys actually, because originally it was quite black and white so we ended up introducing some colour and it stands out as a thumbnail on iTunes and Spotify and that type of thing and it'll stand out in record shops so that was the idea.

When we got it to the shape we wanted, we talked about doing some mad 3D printed merchandise but that ended up being too expensive an idea. We ended up getting our friend Chris Croft, who's worked on most of our videos, there's a guy on his floor who does 3D mapping and they've mapped the shape in 3D and we were able to use it on the All I Hear video and it was going to be projected in the window of The Night And Day for the album launch. It's been a very good visual identity for the album.

The tour has obviously been postponed because of the Coronavirus. How big an impact has that had on you?

Financially it's very significant. As you know it's the bulk of our year's money that isn't in our bank accounts. It's in the promoters' bank account being held until we do the tour. So we're going to have to find different ways of getting through this period, whether it be loans or we're kicking around the idea of having some kind of fan club thing or paid live streams, if we're even able to do them. We'll work our way through. We're hoping we'll be able to get out touring towards the end of the year, but obviously no one really knows what the situation is at the moment. 

I guess it's derailed the rest of the year's plans too. If you toured now, you'd probably tour again in the autumn or winter and play the places you're not playing now, but that will now be all up in the air as well.

It does. It's knocked it back for so many bands that people are all fighting for the same slots when they're rescheduling shows and it's a complicated business, but at least there's a sense of community in that the whole industry is in the same boat and all the people who depend on the shows going ahead - venues, promoters, agents - the whole eco-system is affected so it's a concerning time for all of us. We're obviously waiting to see what the government are going to do for the self-employed because that'll apply to us. But as long as we're healthy and everything right now, that's the main thing. We've got to be focused on keeping everyone around us healthy and making sure we keep our heads straight when we're in the house 24/7. 

The Joy Of The Return was released on March 20 on CD, cassette, standard magenta vinyl, band-store only magenta vinyl with black splatter and a limited to 400 Dinked edition clear vinyl with magenta splatter that also contains a unique signed art print. There are also test pressings and album t-shirts available as part of bundles on the official store.

The Slow Readers Club's official website can be found here. They are also on Facebook and Twitter.
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