Interview: Temples’ James Bagshaw
The Kettering frontman delves into the group’s psychedelic third record and a desire to make music on their own terms
As the psychedelic rock landscape continues to expand, the need for a band who do things differently, grows accordingly. Widely admired and respected for their mesmeric recordings and live performances, Kettering’s Temples have more than one good reason to celebrate what has been another astonishing year.
Ending 2019 on a high, the band released their third studio album, Hot Motion, in September to wide critical acclaim. Full of fresh ideas and energy, the album is timeless, and it’s clear that Temples have made a sonic tapestry for dark, wintery days.
First appearing on the music scene in 2012, the psychedelic quartet immediately established a fanbase around the globe, as the quality of their dream-like, poetic songs gradually settled in the minds of those craving special soundscapes and imagery.
Songwriting Magazine spoke to frontman, songwriter, guitarist and producer extraordinaire James Bagshaw to get a few insider tricks and secrets…
What is it about Temples’ music that draws people in?
“I don’t know what it is, it blows my mind. It has to do with sticking to our roots as far as the reason why we do music goes. We’ve not gone into the commercially-minded major label market. We make music that’s very true to us, I think people can see and hear that and that resonates with people that maybe don’t like the homogenised commercial world of music. We would like to be more successful commercially, but not compete with other commercial music. We want it to be on our own terms. “
To us, Hot Motion feels direct and more simple. How do you see it?
“I think so. There are still bits where we are getting to use our musical sensibility, skills that we have learnt from making records, but it’s a thing of stripping away some of the disguising of elements. When a guitar is fuzzy it’s intentional; when it’s low-fi and clean, it’s like an old 78 record.
“We were trying to make something that has modernity. On the first record, at the time we weren’t trying to make a pastiche record, but with any instruments, we didn’t stray further from its roots. On this record we have the intent of each instrument, it’s meant to be a particular, unique sound. The drums are the main thing, the kick drum on this record should sound like a modern one but with character and edge.”
Has your label situation worked out well so far?
“Smooth as silk – it’s been really good. We didn’t ever want to leave Heavenly, but it’s complicated because we weren’t signed to them in the US. We’ve always had that thing of two labels, and between them having to figure out where they wanted us to be in the world. It gets complicated, we wanted things to be less complicated. ATO are an American label, they also have a worldwide team. It’s really good working with them, Jon Salter and Marie-Louise Wolff Knudsen, she’s in the UK. They’re hands-on, but don’t get involved in the creative process. They’ve helped us out.
“They wanted to carry on and we wanted that too, but we couldn’t get the record deal to work. They have to work with what they have and vice versa, it felt like it wouldn’t work going forward in that format. Had we never got to play America, if we were just a European touring band, we’d probably still be on Heavenly.”
We’ve picked some Temples tracks for conversation. First up is Shelter Song, how did it come together?
“I was looking for a 12-string guitar, and I found this guy in London selling one on Gumtree. I went and bought his guitar for something ridiculous like £150. I went down to Liverpool Street Station, met him outside. At the time I just borrowed a friend’s mixing console, an old 70s thing. I was playing around with an E chord. But it stems from the riff and the sound of the twelve-string. I was doing some part-time work at the time because this is before Temples were this kind of band. I had been sitting there at the desk doing some boring admin work.”
Wonderful. What about Sun Structures?
“Sun Structures was paying homage to the krautrock rhythm. It has always had this thing of being repetitive and hypnotic, but with Sun Structures we wanted to take it away from that. You have sections where the drums are quintessentially krautrock, and then they are completely not. So that track came from the krautrock rhythm.”
How much did you share songwriting within the band at that point?
“I was probably writing the majority of the music at the time of Sun Structures. Thomas (Walmsley) and I wrote Keep In the Dark, but it was always collaborative. It was a thing of having a full song, then work on it together, stripping it back and that’s when it became a partnership. It was a shared thing.
“When you’re in a band with your best mates, you might think that you can do it all yourself. As a songwriter, you might feel your ideas are king, because you can’t help but be interested in the thing that you’ve been working on. It’s all about having that respect for each other. We’ve all got a different way of writing and different sensibilities, that’s what makes Temples interesting. You might hear each songwriting style on different songs and know who wrote each song. It’s what makes it a band and not a dictatorship.”
What about Mesmerise? It’s a fascinating track.
“Mesmerise came out of nowhere. We had 10 tracks on the album, but missing a few songs. Once again it started with a riff and that was written on the first vintage guitar that I ever bought, a guitar but with character. It was like parodying the idea of the riff. This thing where songs become anthems because of a riff, like Jack White’s Seven Nation Army became this huge song. The idea was to parody that, in a way. The first bit is simple, but the second part of the riff, if you were chanting along to it, you couldn’t really because it’s got too many notes. However, ironically, people do sing along to it live and manage to fit all the notes in.”
How important is knowledge and understanding of instrument brands, models, make etc. for making music?
“It’s like a carpenter. You have tools for different jobs, a chisel for something and a bandsaw for something else, with music it’s like that. You can make a record with one guitar, one bass and a drumkit. Essentially, you can treat these instruments in different ways to make the sound you want. The way that you play is very much determined by the instrument, how you hold them etc. Things like slide guitar, you can’t play on every single guitar, it has to be set up for that style of playing. You end up being a bit of a collector, I have 20 guitars now. I have a thing for Gretsch guitars, it’s because they’re not necessarily easy to play, there’s something in that. They’re a piece of art too.”
Do you take inspiration from other musicians when it comes to choosing guitars?
“Chet Atkins and people like that have always inspired me. Our guitar parts don’t sound anything like his style of playing, but there’s something with the Gretsch picks up, they have a particular overtone to them and a character. What inspires is the sound of what people make. It can become too fickle, but it’s about analysing what makes it sound good, recreating that and turning it on its head. It’s more the sound the people inspire than the actual instruments, per se.”
Moving onto Hot Motion. How did you write the title track?
“The melody was hanging around for years in a different, straighter rhythm. It took a different perspective of trying it with a shuffle drum beat. It’s one of the hardest tracks to play live with the melodic guitar parts and then singing against the rhythm. The track stems from that, the melody was always there, in a straight rhythm. It never had lyrics, we wrote some that conjured up the feeling of counting down. At the end of the track the whole rhythm of the song changes, and that plays on edge of the original idea because it was that rhythm. It was originally written on a keyboard, so the guitar had to be tuned to the chord, a guitar should be tuned to the chord of the song, and how it was recorded.
“You don’t want to give away everything a song has to offer in the first part of it, when people first hear it they might be a little bit disorientated because the vocal comes in, the drums come in but they no longer shuffle, they are straight. Playing with those things is interesting, like throwing a spanner in the works and creating a whole new story by the end of the song.”
How about You’re Either On Something, the chorus is infectious…
“The idea and lyrics came at the same time. It started off as a recording on my phone, but the melody was prevalent straight away. It was finding a tempo for the track, the first thing I went for was a hip hop tempo, maybe faster than hip hop. The sort of hip hop that I grew up listening to, which would have been some UK stuff like Jehst and Braintax, all these people and also American acts like Jurassic 5 and De La Soul.
“They’re not bands that people would relate Temples to, but there’s always been an element of groove-centric drums, on tracks like I( Want To Be Your) Mirror and even like Prisms’ B-side, that sort of loose grove to the drums. There are definitely things like Les Paul and Mary Ford in there, just because of the recording techniques on the guitar.”
How do you feel recording techniques have changed for Temples?
“It’s always changing. The drums are important. Many psychedelic bands go for the same thing, an early seventies dry studio sound where everything is closely miked, the opposite of what we do where it starts with the drums, the use of reverb and ambience. The number of live sessions that we have done where you say, ‘Can I get a reverb on the vocal?’ You might spend 15 minutes with the engineer saying that we need to take the treble off, get a pre-delay in, it needs to sound like a chamber – not a garage. The ambience, groove, the feel of the drums and the use of distortion. There’s distortion on everything, but it’ll be harmonic, old bits of crappy transistor preamps. We don’t ever want to make a super-clean record.”
Temples’ work seems instinctive. Does music theory ever guide your music?
“Not wanting to use the same chord progression on two songs on a record. You don’t wanna repeat yourself, it’s about knowing when something sounds like a melody from another song. If there are three songs in C major, you don’t have them together. There’s that perception of starting a song in one key, starting the next song in the same key, things like that we are aware of. It’s about using interesting chords creatively, not just for the sake of throwing in an augmented chord. It’s about putting it in the right place where it’s musical, not be experimental for the sake of it. It’s got to serve the song.”
Having previously referenced Joe Meek, do you have other favourite producers?
“Temples records sound like Temples records, they couldn’t be anything else. The list of producers I’ve been fans of gets bigger, it doesn’t diminish. Joe Meek’s records aren’t pleasant to listen to on a high end set of speakers, because you don’t have the fidelity, but you have the ideas and if ever you feel uninspired approaching a certain instrument you can always reference some Joe Meek techniques. By speeding something up you are changing the timbre of it, making it interesting and not sound like something that’s achievable in real-time, which is how they use slow motion and time-lapse in film, stuff you can’t do without recording it, which I think is interesting.
“Someone like Johnny Franz, who produced the Scott Walker records, became influential. Been listening to Richard Swift stuff, I wish I knew about him earlier before he passed away, that would have been someone that would have been amazing to collaborate with. It feels like his choices of sounds come from a similar inspiration to where our choices of sound come from. It’s got that sort of golden era feeling about it.”
What contemporary bands or producers you are impressed with?
“There’s a lot of good stuff. Jack White loves the old technology recording, loves analogue, you can watch a video about something like Third Man Records, and it dawns on you, it’s been digitised because you’re watching it on a computer. But I like the pure ethos. Shawn Everett made some interesting records. He’s a busy man, and he’s very much in vogue. Some bands may have the songs, but don’t have the understanding of how to make those songs work in an interesting way, he’s doing that pretty well. Honey Harper is pretty good, he toured with us in America and then Anni B Sweet’s record is good.”
Having picked tracks for you to talk about, what’s your own favourite?
“It changes all the time, but on this record, I really like Context, it’s unashamedly pop in the chorus, but it’s an unusual arrangement, it still surprises me when we play it. Then it obviously has the guitar solo in it, which is very hard to do these days and be tasteful. It’s hard to do a tasteful guitar solo without going down the blues territory… You can’t get away with doing a face-melting Guns N’ Roses solo.”
Interview: Susan Hansen
Hot Motion is out now. For all the latest news and live dates, head to templestheband.com