Interview: Turin Brakes
One half of their original songwriting partnership, Olly Knights discusses the band’s enduring appeal from their 2001 Mercury award-nominated debut to their upcoming seventh studio album, 15 years later
Acoustic indie-rock band Turin Brakes was created by Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian, in a South London bedroom. Their first EP, The Door was released through Anvil Records in 1999 as a limited vinyl release, which led to the band attracting the attention of larger record labels. Source Records would eventually release two more EPs, The State Of Things and Fight Or Flight, before releasing their first album, The Optimist LP, in 2001. Greeted with critical praise, the album spawned several modestly successful UK singles – Underdog (Save Me), Mind Over Money and Emergency 72 – and received a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize, before being certified Gold by the BPI later that year.
Enlisting the membership of long-term collaborators Rob Allum and Eddie Myer, the Turin Brakes sound has steadily evolved and the band’s appeal has endured through a further six studio albums. 2003’s successful Ether Song included their biggest hit to date, Painkiller, which reached the Top 5 of the UK Singles Chart and brought the group more mainstream success. The more polished Jackinabox followed two years later, then 2007’s Ethan Johns-produced Dark On Fire. In 2010, they returned to the melodic folk-inflected roots with Outbursts, followed by 2013’s We Were Here, written on the back of a continuous live touring schedule.
We caught up with Olly Knights ahead of the release of his band’s seventh studio album Lost Property. “I’m staring out of my attic window. It’s very gloomy but very beautiful,” explains Olly, at home in South West London. “In fact, the sun is setting right now and it looks pretty cool.” Sounds rather like the album cover of The Optimist LP. Talking of which…
What was your first release from The Optimist LP?
“Well, we put out a couple of EPs the year before, which had a bunch of tracks from the Optimist LP. So we recorded the record years before it came out. We had to wait. It was very frustrating, but it was necessary because we didn’t really have a fanbase. So we had to make a couple of EPs, in order to have someone who was going to go out and buy that record, when we finally put it out. Then The Door was the first single off The Optimist LP, that came out a good few months before, and then we put out Underdog (Save Me) as the second single. That was the one that got picked up by Radio One – I think it actually got playlisted at that point, which was pretty amazing. That, combined with being nominated for the Mercury Award and things like that, and suddenly from being something that only a very small amount of people knew about, we seemed to be around a lot more.”
That’s incredible compared to acts trying to get signed now, who need to have an established fanbase almost before they release anything.
“Yeah, I know, it’s very different. I always joke about it, but I think it’s kind of true that; if we turned up now, in the same sort of state of commercial ‘undevelopment’ that we were in when we signed, we wouldn’t have a hope in hell! We’d be laughed out of town, because we didn’t have a hundred-thousand YouTube hits or huge Spotify streams. It’s so much tougher now, I think.”
How did you and Gale meet and get started with Turin Brakes?
“We were brought together by geographical fate. My parents removed me from a school I was going to, which I wasn’t doing very well at, and put me into what they hoped was a much better school. It was Macaulay School in Clapham. Gale happened to have done exactly the same thing about a year before me; he’d been in my position and I was suddenly the new kid, so we just became friends. We were only about eight years old at the time, but we both got heavily into guitars and decided that electric guitars, in particular, were just the coolest things in the universe.”
What sort of music inspired your love of guitars?
“My dad was responsible really. Because me and Gale became friends, we’d hang out on the weekends and we lived very close to each other, so our parents became friends as well. My dad used to drive me and Gale around in his car and he’d always play us Chuck Berry. He was bang on because about six months later, the film Back To The Future came out and Michael J Fox did Johnny B. Goode – that sealed the deal for us. We were just: guitars, Chuck Berry, rock’n’roll… that’s for us! We must’ve signed some deal with the devil, because fast-forward 12 years and there we were doing it for a living, which is crazy when I think about it. We got to live out one of our earliest fantasies, so that’s how it all began, I guess.”
Did Turin Brakes start as a duo, or did you form a band?
“It started out very much as just me and Gale. Really it was something we’d always done, especially through our teenage years. We’d always have four-track recorders and were early adopters of that kind of home recording technology, so we’d always made music. Some of it was probably unlistenable rubbish, but we’d always jam. Especially as we got older and got into drinking, our idea of a ‘big night’ was not going clubbing or anything like that, it was going round to Gale’s place, getting out the guitars, drinking whisky and pretending to be The Rolling Stones all night. That was what we did and that was very much part of what became the sound of Turin Brakes in the end, which was kind of rootsy, acoustic elements of classic rock ‘n’ roll.”
So did you and Gale see yourselves as a Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership? How did it work between you?
“I think we have complementary skills, in that we both have slightly different roles that come together. In Turin Brakes, I guess my job is to start the ball rolling with the songs, so I’ll generally bring in the initial idea. That can be anything from a riff with little bits of lyrics and ideas, right through to a completely finished song where I’m saying to him, ‘Is this any good? Shall we develop it?’ Gale is brilliant at harmony. Not vocally so much as a harmony of ideas and accompaniment. He’ll be very good at taking what I’ve done and putting on layers of arrangement. I think he’s always done a good job of making me sound like a better songwriter than I really am!”
So it’s that chemistry that bring out the best in both of you?
“Yeah, I think our best moments are when me and Gale are just buzzing and making each other better at what we do – that’s when Turin Brakes is really magic. When we play shows, you see that happening right in front of you, and it still happens all these years later.”
How about your approach to songwriting now?
“We changed things on the last album, We Were Here, when we got our band – Rob and Ed, who play drums and bass – involved in the creative process much earlier than we’d ever done before. We’d always used them for bits and bobs, but separately and more like session musicians. But with that last record, we started to jam out embryonic ideas really early. At the time, we weren’t really sure exactly why we were doing it, but it felt good and that highlights when an idea of a song has got legs. It worked brilliantly and allowed us to live out the life of the song in a different way. Gale and I didn’t have to go off in isolation to record and then learn it with the band. Now the way we make music, before we even go into the studio, we can already play this music from start to finish and express it as a four-piece. That’s been huge for us. It influences the way it works live and it’s done in a very natural way. We’re not putting them together on laptops and working out how the hell we can do them live afterwards.”
What do you think is the secret to your longevity as a band?
“One of the absolute keys is the relationship of the people within the band. I don’t know if it’s because we tried really hard or we were just really lucky, but for some reason the relationship between us has been incredibly strong. It doesn’t mean to say that we never get upset with each other, of course we do, but we have this ability to spend incredible amounts of time with each other. Under pressure, in isolation, in the surreal world you find yourself in as a professional musician, we still come out of it getting on really well, making each other laugh and having loads of respect for each other. I know it sounds corny, but that’s literally the reason we’re still together as a band. We all feel that we’ve made some great music and our best is probably what we’ve just done.”
With each album, do you always have a ton of new material and you’ve got more to say, or do you ever feel like you’re running out of ideas?
“The funny thing for me is I just seem to have an endless well of stuff that comes out of me, musically. It doesn’t mean to say that I’m an incredibly interesting person – sometimes I’m probably the most dull, negative human in the room! But, for some reason, I can express myself musically and that part of it, luckily, doesn’t seem to have gone away. It’s like I’ll always be able to write a song. It doesn’t mean to say that they’re always amazing – I always have to work hard to make sure that I’m doing my best work all the time – but the songwriting thing has never been an issue really. I don’t think I’ve ever hit the wall with it, particularly, and every album we make is just a new era.
“In some ways, you can always tell it’s Turin Brakes. We’re a bit like Woody Allen who kind of remakes the same film over and over again and finds different angles on it. There’s nothing wrong with that; some of the greatest artists in history just refine and refine the same feeling and idea. I think you can never do enough, you can always do it better and you can always bring it into focus more and get your audience to feel what you’re trying to get across in more successful ways. The only people who’ll end it will be us, but there would have to be a big reason why we would stop.”
Some artists take a while to find their ‘sound’ and it appears that you found your’s early on.
“Yeah and we’re very lucky because we had positive affirmations when we put out our first stuff, and that always helps. It’s much harder if you feel like you’re battling all the time and that people don’t ‘get’ what you do. I can imagine that’s harder, and I can see that we’re lucky. Not everyone gets Turin Brakes, I know, but enough people get it for us to feel that it’s worth bothering.”
Thinking back to before you were signed, what material did you have that gave the label the belief in Turin Brakes?
“We had a MiniDisc full of bits, like an hour’s worth of music. It was very embryonic, but we did a ‘Best Of’ in 2009 and some of those original demos are on it. You can hear bits of The Optimist LP in those demos, but they were really early on.”
Your lyrics appear to be rather abstract. Do they start with stream of consciousness?
“To some extent, yes. There are different levels. Sometimes it’s extreme stream of consciousness stuff, like I wrote a song called Panic Attack on our second record. That was literally one verse that I ripped up and re-wrote, and re-wrote, until it became this deconstructed mess that basically conjured up the feeling of a panic attack. Then other times I might write something that feels much more specific and is like a scene from a movie. Sometimes I’m in the character’s head and then other times I’m more like the narrator, describing the scene around the character. Those are the different dynamics within the Turin Brakes stuff, but to a certain extent they’re all stream of consciousness and I always trust that. I live or die by it. Sometimes it can be misunderstood, but that’s all I’ve got!”
Do you and Gale have anything else planned outside of Turin Brakes?
“Yeah, well Turin Brakes is sort of our ‘spirit animal’ these days, so we’ll do everything to keep it on the tracks. But we also know that, to let Turin Brakes exist and breathe – we can’t suck all the oxygen out of it – so we do do things on the side. Me and Gale do a huge amount of songwriting for other people and in the last few years we’ve been approached by loads of young artists, asking us to help write songs in that vein. I’ve got a home studio that we do a lot of work with people in and, outside of the band, that keeps us supremely busy.”
Who have you been writing for recently?
“We’ve done stuff with people like Ben Leftwich, who we love; a young band called Aquilo, who are an electronic duo; a young girl called Cousin Marnie, who you won’t have heard about yet but I predict you will in about six months time… Tons of young artists, most of whom have just signed record deals and are gathering material for their debuts. That seems to be where we’re at and those are the kind of people who want Turin Brakes’ sort of help. It’s really cool because, as much as we’ve got things to teach new artists about songwriting, we often learn loads from them, which has influenced the record that we’ve just made.
“We’ve got a friend called Tom Speight who is just about to start releasing his own music this year, but he’s a great songwriter and we’ve written tons of music with him. Three of the songs we wrote with him we ended up using on the new Turin Brakes album, because we loved them so much. We’ve never done anything like that before: we’ve never allowed an outsider into the mix! Co-writing is so healthy and it’s made us realise that making music with other people is no bad thing. You can be so surprised by what a relative stranger might bring to your songwriting world, and vice versa.”
Turin Brakes’ new album Lost Property is due to be released on 29 January and the band are set to tour extensively in 2016. New singles Keep Me Around (watch the video below) and 96 are out now. For more details, go to turinbrakes.com