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'A Primal Bang & A Shout': An Interview With S.C.U.M
Nix Lowrey , December 29th, 2011 12:11

With London band S.C.U.M's new single 'Faith Unfolds' released on 2nd January, Nix Lowrey spoke to keyboard player Sam Kilcoyne about signing to Mute and the gradual process of refinement that led to their debut album Again Into Eyes

Angular, pretty and melancholic, London five-piece S.C.U.M released their debut Again Into Eyes earlier this year, with the scales of success weighted almost as much against them as for them. Calling a Shoreditch spade a bespoke implement, they were trumped to the biggest slice of darkwave hype pie by the release of The Horrors' Skying just weeks beforehand. The pre-album hype seemed to be veering towards an almost Taoist trajectory of swell, decay and finally opposition, but interest remained – after all, signing to Mute is almost akin to a Royal Seal. Compared to a flotilla of British indie forerunners including Echo & The Bunnymen and Suede, in the wake of the album's release S.C.U.M proceeded to silence any expectations of an entropic post-album fade out, putting in what were surprisingly vibrant shows on the NME Emerge tour.

Between shows, the Quietus managed to net keyboard player and sound specialist Sam Kilcoyne, son of Add N to X's Barry 7. He proved obligingly chatty where singer and lyricist Thomas Cohen is oblique, speaking about how they really got signed to Mute, growing up with Daniel Miller and what – or who - really influenced the band in making Again Into Eyes.

How did the NME shows go? It is an odd alchemy putting you next to Wolfgang – do you think it hung together? Were Wolfgang crowds gentle on you?

Sam Kilcoyne: I really enjoyed it, although it was strange. I'd like perhaps to have played with another band, I don't think we fit with Wolfgang to be honest, although I really enjoyed their sound, it's really fun. But it was a great experience for us because we've never really toured with other bands like that before – it made it of less of a burden on us.

Do you enjoy the exhibitionism of live performance or are you more of a keyboard nerd who prefers to programme his Casio CZ1000 all day?

SK: I like it when we toil away for months creating something in the studio. When we made the album, we were locked in together in the country with the producer. We spent long periods of time in the studio writing and then playing together, and always in each other's company. The best part about it is was that if we created something, you'd constantly have the ability to record it straight away.

I love touring, though. I think it's so necessary for a band to test their songs out after recording. It's easy to really underestimate how much you can feed off doing off what you do live, when you're improvising. It's exciting to see how, after ten shows, what was once a skeleton of a song is now in a place where it's ready to record.

Let's talk about ideas – starting with your songwriting process. Thomas is the lyricist, but who writes the music?

SK: I come up with a lot of the initial ideas, and I'm quite vocal in shaping the songs: I like fucking around with them, doing overdubs. I love to basically destroy songs, to wade into it and add sounds to what were initial ideas. Having said that, I think we're extremely democratic, and it's not a S.C.U.M song unless it was written by all of us. Bradley and me might spend 3 or 4 hours working on an idea to see where we can take it, as if we were making our own mix of each song. When we've got 5 people's versions, sometimes even 5 people's mixes, we come together, work out what is fantastic and pull it together into something final.

Does Thomas let anyone else have a say in the lyrics or is it very separate?

SK: The lyrics are a very separate thing - we write the music, he writes the words. We don't usually know what his lyrics are saying until we ask. And, I have to say, I've never really cared too much about it - I've always thought of the voice as an instrument. I read a great quote on the back of a Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra album once. There's a print of a question they got from a newspaper asking 'What does ‘Some Velvet Morning’ mean?' Lee says 'It doesn't mean anything, but in my head this phrase rhymes.' Words don't have to mean anything, you can decorate them with meaning yourself.

How do you feel about assertions that your music is heavily reminiscent of other people, including My Bloody Valentine and The Horrors - particularly given that each track goes through a heavily iterative development process?

SK: To be honest I think that's just some media people's interpretation of the album. In fact, a lot of the reviews I've read have damned that idea. I'd never listened to My Bloody Valentine until after the Horrors' second record [Primary Colours] came out, although Tom was a big fan. I'd never heard The Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen and the only Suede track I knew was that famous one 'The Beautiful Ones'. They're also more Tom's thing. I'm more interested in sounds than groups or where those sounds originated from. If people think we sound like bands like MBV, that's great. They're a fucking cool band.

Tom has said you constantly listened to music together while making the album.

SK: We were always into playing music together. I mean we were in the middle of nowhere in the country with fuck all else to do so it was all about the mix tapes. But in the studio I was more into playing with production techniques and ideas, making a song without a chorus, experimenting with just sound, and noise.

So when you hear your album you can't hear any influences from anyone else? Just your own ideas?

SK: When people say we sound like Suede I can kind of hear what they mean, although it is accidental. You know, there was one crucial thing that influenced us: the album gives a massive nod of the head to Brian Eno. When we were making the album we were listening to Here Come The Warm Jets on endless repeat. The album we made really evokes that spirit to me, and we were tapping heavily into that feeling and sound. Brian Eno was doing it – layering sound, creating soundscapes - way before MBV.

What's it like being on Mute – an amazing history, a great roster of artists, and for you probably more significant than for many because of your dad.

SK: You know one thing I find funny that people seem to choose to ignore is that my dad was on Mute for 10 years in Add N To X. Avant Hard is one of the best albums ever produced. When we were making Again Into Eyes I asked dad if he wanted to produce it, but he wanted me to do it by myself. He was there for a lot of it, and gave his advice when he thought something wasn't working, but essentially he wanted me to do this on my own. I think if you take away Tom's vocals and listen to the synths, we really do sound similar to my dad.

Did anyone else from Mute lend you a friendly ear, hand or effects unit?

SK: We were also lucky to have Jim Sclavunos from Grinderman working with us, he was a huge help. He worked with us in the pre-production.

What about Daniel Miller? Have you had many cups of tea or corridor chats at Mute House?

SK: I've known Daniel Miller since I was 2 years old, which is quite a funny thing to be able to say. Everyone there was such a massive help, and I absolutely love being surrounded by such good people.

Being honest, do you feel like your relationship with Daniel Miller got you signed to Mute?

SK: The massive difference between Daniel Miller and other people is that he only signs things he really believes in, things that works in his head. He'd never sign a band with the idea of doing a Fratellis for example, get a band to the top without them ever trying. Any assumption that this is what is happening to us is totally unfounded. Daniel has a lot more integrity than that, than a lot of other people.

So how did you get his attention, if it wasn't personal connections?

SK: Jim Sclavunos really gave us a kick when we were in pre-production, and took us to a point where we were ready to really work and work and work on the album. And then, Daniel finally said 'I am actually really interested in what you're doing, and I'm ready to sign this.' That was really exciting, given the amount of groups Daniel Miller passes on, and he is always right. He's got a great ear for music and a real love for sound. Mute have got the reputation they have because they know good music. I mean, they're the ones that kept Nick Cave working.

What advice did Jim from Grinderman give you that made all the difference?

SK: A long while ago we had that epiphany that we had no songs and we weren't getting anything from what we were writing. It was just building block noise, basic: we were just playing sounds, and it wasn't getting anywhere. Luckily, we also sat back from that horrible piece of shit known as the darkwave scene. I have no idea how we got involved with that, and we're lucky to have had that chance to move out of it, because other people believed in us despite the fact that we had a lot of work to do on our sound.

We had no idea about structure. We asked him how do we do this? Every song on this album was 6 minutes long, and too long and really not working. He said 'Cut the shit, make it explode and make it important. Scare them, make a racket, make it happen’. He told us to get our human instincts involved, a primal bang and a shout, and a line you can hang on to. Like Merzbow or Hateforest – they have something to hook you in, so you can intelligently build a track to be louder and louder, fuller and fuller, really building something and dropping it to nothing. He was such an inspiration, he made one of my favourite albums in Grinderman. It was great learning from someone like that.

Your main interest seems to be with working layers of sound. Do you care about the visual side? S.C.U.M's image seems very visually curated.

SK: I've never been overly vocal about our visual side. This is the first band I've ever belonged to which takes a big interest in the visual side of things and it's pretty strange. Having said that, I'm a massive film fan and some of our early projections are from a fantastic and bizarre DVD I used to have by Shuji Terayama.

So you're not so interested in developing the visual concepts, but you do like visuals?

SK: I do think lights are so important for creating an atmosphere for us onstage. I know I'm quite selfish, but I never think about the audience when I'm up there. I love the instrument I play and give that my full attention. I never think about what could possibly be going on for the audience and I don’t like to look at the crowd, to see them at all. I like to feel there's a barrier there. My favourite shows are the ones where you can't see the crowd, you're hidden on stage as an entity, as this thing.

Again Into Eyes is out now on Mute. New single 'Faith Unfolds' is released this Monday, 2nd January