Ist Ist today release their debut album Architecture, five years in the making for one of Manchester's most independent and committed bands who've built a strong dedicated following at home and further afield through an uncompromising approach to their music and their art that accompanies it whilst being ignored by large sections of the new music community. Architecture is an impressive calling card that reflects exactly what Ist Ist are about - from the detail in the songs, their desire to work with a Grammy-winning mastering engineer, the novel approach to releasing each song with accompanying visuals and their choice to continue with the release whilst most of their contemporaries are delaying their albums. We caught up with bass player Andy Keating to talk about all of this and more.
Your debut album is coming out on May 1st. How does it feel after five years as a band, releasing singles and a couple of EPs, to finally have that record coming out?
I wouldn’t say it’s a relief as that would imply getting something off your back, but it’s been a long time coming, yet, at the same time, it feels like the right time. Some bands will get ten songs together, and because ten songs can fill an album, they’ll do an album. We had quite clear ideas, not even necessarily in a musical sense, about what we wanted the album to be. We wanted it to be a cover to cover experience, a listening journey where you put it on and you listen to it from start to finish. Until the middle of last year we didn’t necessarily feel that we had an album’s worth of content to take someone on that journey.
That’s a very old-school approach to it. More recently, and actually if you think about it going back to the 90s, it’s been put all the singles at the front, the “bangers” as people call them, and then if they listen to the rest then that’s all well and good.
Definitely. But you’re a music fan in the classical sense. A lot of the albums that you really love, your favourite songs are one not the singles and secondly not near the front of the album either. They’re buried in there, maybe eighth or ninth on a ten-track album and that’s where the enjoyment of listening to the album, in the truest sense of the word, really comes from. The joy comes from finding those gems.
And in those instances, that song has probably been put there in eighth or ninth for a reason as well.
We could quite easily have opened the album with Silence, one people know, followed it with You’re Mine, Black and Night’s Arm. Instead of that you’ve got a different style of album opener and Silence opening up side B. The way we looked at it was that we wanted the album from track one to ten to makes sense, but for each side to do the same in their own right, like mini-albums, and you could almost start the album on side B and then turn it over to side A and it’d still work.
With everything that’s going on with the pandemic, did you consider postponing the album like many other artists have?
Briefly, but we were only going to postpone it from a logistical point of view as opposed to an artistic or promotion one. But once we’d spoken to the online distribution to check it would be uploaded on time, which it would as that’s not really been impacted, and the fulfilment agent and got the green light from them, it was a no-brainer really.
With the postal situation there will be people who don’t get it on day one though.
Yes of course, that will be unfortunate, but then I think they’d rather have it three or four days later rather than three or four months later. I think our fan base are reasonable enough to accept that and we’ve had them sent out earlier than we would have done to try and cover this. And it will still of course be online for people to listen to.
There was an element as well that we’d taken people’s money when they preordered, and the presale numbers were good. It felt slightly disingenuous to have that money sat in a holding account while we had all the records to hand. The only thing that had been up in the air was the fulfilment and once we were told they could do it, that was it.
I think some of the bands pushed back releases because the tours to promote them couldn’t happen until September or October and they want the hype around them to be there when the album came out. We weren’t too worried about that, we wanted people to enjoy the record and then have the tour to look forward too in October and November.
People will also have had the time to listen to the record too. A lot of records people buy, I know I do, listen to it once, maybe twice and put it on the shelf. If you’ve created a record you believe people will want to listen to over and over again then the timing is less important.
There are some songs on the record that will jump out immediately – like Silence, You’re Mine and Black – because of their big choruses, but there will be others that people might warm to over time and enjoy them more than if they’d got the album, listened to it and came to see us one week later.
The tour dates were due to coincide with the release, but now can’t for obvious reasons. How disappointing was that when you knew they had to move?
It was gutting. A week or two before the lockdown we’d started our tour rehearsals, working on setlists. We’d have gigs like the big ones where we’d play an hour and a quarter or an hour and a half and some where we’d only get forty-five minutes or an hour and we’d started devising setlists and thinking about how they’d work. And that’s when it started to become real that both the album and the tour weren’t very far off. That’s really exciting because picking a setlist is like a football manager picking a team, a first eleven and a subs bench, and sometimes the strength of what you’ve got is as much about what you don’t put in as what you do. You leave something out and think if that’s not in, how good is the set going to be.
To instantly shelve all that was really difficult, but then we’d still rather get the record out and go on tour later than do neither.
There’s been a lot of bands turning their arm to acoustic sets, covers, lockdown versions of the songs. The nature of Ist Ist means you can’t really do that either. Does that feel a little bit frustrating?
We’ve never tried to do stripped down versions of our songs. Maybe when we’re at rehearsal and two of us are there early, we’d play around with them, but we’ve never done it as a full band. You kind of play to your strengths and that’s never really been one of our strengths. Some bands, if they’re missing a member or two or are doing an in-store, can flick a switch and do a very different version of a song readily. That’s not something we’ve been able to do. It’d be nice if we could do, but I’d rather not have to.
We felt the next best thing to interact would be to do an advance YouTube listening party. Anyone can join at the specific time and the album will play from start to finish. We’d rather people have that experience than say Mat and Adam going out with a keyboard and a drum machine and doing minimalist versions of the songs because I don’t think they’d have the right effect really.
Going back to the album, how and where did you record it?
We recorded it in a studio in Bury called Big City Jacks. It’s not a flash studio or a big name. It’s not like going to Abbey Road or even one of the more modern popular studios like Blueprint, but it’s a great studio, it’s got some really good live rooms and brilliant acoustics. We did it with Michael Whalley, who’s our long-time producer. We’ve done everything except our first two songs, Night’s Arm and White Swan, with him.
We’ve never really made a song and dance about it or mentioned it much, but we did a lot of it live. The bass, drums and guitars were all done live and they were tracked together. People sometimes think live recordings mean it’s a bit rough round the edges. That’s not the case because you don’t set the amps or the instruments up any differently, you’re just playing live together.
That came about from the Sessions EP. When we recorded those live, it felt there was more of an energy to them and we wanted to take that forward into the album as well instead of it maybe being a bit more sterile.
That Sessions EP (a live recording of their first two EPs Spinning Rooms and Everything Is Different Now) almost kind of rounded off that phase of Ist Ist.
It wasn’t a conscious thing to draw a line under those songs and never play them again, but it is a bit of a bookend. We didn’t want to just press them up again. It wasn’t like there was any copies of them left really. We wanted to satisfy the demand for a repress, but we wanted to do something different. That spurred us on to write the album though as it gave us a new lease of life. You look forward at the possibilities it opens up and you get quite excited by it.
You got the album mastered by Greg Calbi whose list of clients include David Bowie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Arcade Fire and The National to name just a few from a very very long list. How did that come about?
Yeah, his credit list on discogs is something like seven hundred pages long. We’d mixed it with Whalley and we always knew mastering would make a massive difference. It’s kind of a black art, you never really know how someone can be so much better at mastering a record than somebody else, you can just hear the difference in quality.
We listened to a lot of records that we liked the overall production on and we looked at who the mastering engineers were. There were names that kept cropping up, in particular a studio called Sterling Sound that’s based in New Jersey. We looked at the engineers that worked there and our favourite records and realised that it was Gregg Calbi that had worked on pretty much all of them. The last five National records are him, every single Interpol album, the last Arcade Fire album, even Bowie. The only question was could we afford it, and when the answer was yes, it was a no-brainer. Absolutely.
You’ve heard it yourself, the difference in quality between the desk mixes, the mixed versions prior to them being mastered and the final version, the difference is night and day, mind-blowing. We could never not have it done by someone like him now. We’ve set ourselves the highest benchmark for the mastering now.
It makes a massive statement about the record though. You know, you could add your name and your album to that list on Wikipedia
We’ve always said when we’ve been doing the EPs, you only make your debut album once and you have to give yourself the opportunity to make it as good as it can be. You want it to be able to reach as many people as it can. And if you don’t give yourself the best head start for that and the best opportunity, then you’ve just wasted your one go at your debut album.
But what you’ve done, very cleverly, is be able to fund that yourselves as well by building. You started off with 25 CDrs of the first two singles, built that to 50, released live bootlegs, that all paid for the first EP, which then funded the second which funded the album.
Yes, our label is our own label. It’s been self-generated, we’ve never had a cash advance off anyone for anything or investment.
Social media can be a cesspit though. I think it was around the time of the second Gorilla gig and live CD, someone had made a comment about how they couldn’t believe people would buy such a shit recording and we were just trying to make money out of our fans. We just stood back and let other people respond on our behalf. There was a demand for them CDs, people’s tastes are different, those who’d been to the shows wanted a memento from a show they’d enjoyed and it helped to fund our record. There’s songs on their too, like Ghosts, Things Will Never Be The Same Again, Seven, Rats, that don’t exist on any other format.
And you’ve spoken earlier about people who listen to albums from back to front, who may not just like the obvious singles, that’s the audience you’ve attracted and they want things like bootlegs because it’s a further insight into the band.
That’s it. And who’s anyone to say something’s shit or cheap or you can’t believe anyone listens to it. We know our fans like those CDs and even after this album comes out I imagine we’ll do something similar again.
And of course you’re a good enough live band to actually have the confidence to put something out like that.
Yeah, we’re confident in our live show and also to put things out there that we know are not of the same quality as a studio album because they’re never going to be. Of course there’s glitches, little warts-and-all bits, but that’s the essence of live music. There’s one song where Adam sings the verses the wrong way round but that makes it unique. Our live shows have got a lot tighter and more polished, but there’s always a human element, that’s what makes it exciting.
There’s two (and a bit) older songs on the album. What was the process you went through to determine which songs made it on to Architecture?
Silence, we’d almost felt we’d written it too early. We didn’t have a massive fanbase when we wrote it so the first time it was released, it never picked up the traction that we felt the song deserved. When we’d written all the other songs, it just seemed to fit with the essence of what the other songs were. So there was an element of wanting it to reach a bigger audience, but it also fitted.
It was similar with Night’s Arm, but it was also the first song we ever wrote as a band. If it had been the first song we’d written as a band and thought it was shit, we wouldn’t have put it on, but it gelled with the vibe of the record. We played it at the first gig and four and a half years in of playing live it’s still there. You know we’re quite happy to drop songs out of sets and discard them, we’re not sentimental about it because it was the first song we wrote, we still like playing it and it still works.
Love Song obviously was much more up-tempo, a different key, everything was different really bar the title and the lyrics. It came about in the writing stage, Adam just sent it across to us and said “you need to listen to this”. He’d written this downbeat, slow, gloomy piece of music first that we’d heard, but he sent it over and said “listen to the lyrics I’ve put on this” and it was the lyrics from Love Song, and yeah it worked. We didn’t change much from it then, the drum beat slightly, Mat put another keyboard line on it and I put the bass at the end. You can’t just have a one-paced album so it was nice to have that on the end of side A to drop it down a bit to finish off the first half.
You’ve got a video concept happening with the album. There are six tracks out already, each with its own video. It’s quite a novel idea and it’s revealing quite a lot of the album before it comes out.. Where did that idea come from?
Yes, it was a bit of a risk because you always want a bit of intrigue. One reason was that we’d never seen anyone do it before. It’s not being different for the sake of it, we felt it was quite innovative to do that. It helps from a promotional aspect too, because bands will sometimes do two or three singles from an album, drop the album, go on tour. If you just release two or three singles, it can be really difficult without a machine behind you to promote and keep up the momentum. This was more steady and we’ve picked people up along the way. There’s more chance for people to hear it.
From a purely artistic point of view, some songs people might not appreciate, even when they do listen to the record, so we thought we’d put songs out there that might not otherwise have got their fifteen minutes of fame.
The variety of the songs also allows to dispel some of those comparisons that still seem to linger as well.
Yes, if we’d say released Silence, You’re Mine and Black, they’re more three peas in a pod than Wolves and New Love Song and anyone who’d said “oh they just sound like Joy Division” without really listening to us might feel completely vindicated.
We felt it was a bold move to start with something that wasn’t a traditional single, but the opening track on the album instead. Wolves is absolutely not single material because of the structure of it. We had to do it in album order though as well otherwise you lose the effect.
There will be four more videos. Even people who’ve got the record, seeing a video and maybe listening to it more at that point, might get a different viewpoint on the song.
We’ve had the same people working on the videos, so when there’s all ten of them. There won’t be a culmination at the end when you watch all ten of them that they tell a story, but they’re very much representative of the feel of the album. It’s important because you could be labelled a standard rock band or whatever if it’s just us in a different setting playing along. We wanted a different concept for each one because it gets very boring after a while.
Ist Ist are on Facebook and Twitter.
Architecture is available to order from their shop on black, clear and yellow vinyl as well as CD, cassette and download.
Our review of the album can be found here.
They are currently scheduled to tour in October calling at Manchester Academy 2 (October 2), Bristol Louisiana (17), London Camden Assembly (21), Sheffield Record Junkee (22), Birmingham Dead Wax (28), Nottingham Bodega (29), Blackpool Bootleg Social (30) and Glasgow Broadcast (November 4).